Doctor Who 50th Anniversary in Review

I apologise for how incredibly late this is (dashing to get it done before tomorrow’s Christmas special!).  I’d blame university, essays and so on but it really is, as ever, just due to my poor time management.  Working on it…

Anyhow, the landmark 50th anniversary of Doctor Who has come and gone, but did it live up to the intense hype surrounding the event?  I have to say that, up until November, I’d been very underwhelmed by efforts to commemorate the anniversary.  We had the second half of series 7 – I think* – earlier this year which, if I’m being honest, was not the best run the revived show has had.  That ended in May and since then there’s been radio silence of all things Doctor Who, apart from the passing announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast as the Twelfth Doctor.  So I was quite eager to see whether these November festivities (yes, it does count as a holiday) would be worth the wait.  Because we’ve had such a variety of audio-visual treats over the last month I’ll think I look at them separately before assessing the anniversary as a whole. (Warning: CONTAINS MULTIPLE SPOILERS)

The Night of the Doctor

This ‘minisode’ prequel certainly got the anniversary off to a dramatic start!  Who expected Paul McGann to make an appearance?  Fans have been clamouring for him to make a reappearance as the Eighth Doctor and, at last, he has returned, and we’ve finally found the answer to his regeneration.  This is a short piece, only seven minutes in length, but it covers so much in that time, racing from element to element.  It begins on a crashing spaceship where Cass (Emma Campbell-Jones) desperately calls for help.  Her computers starts havering about doctors – “Stop talking about Doctors!” she demands.  We hear a reply: “I’m a Doctor…” and, in typical Doctor Who fashion, the camera pans round for the big reveal.  “But probably not the one you expected,” says Paul McGann, in this instance speaking directly to the audience.  This brilliantly plays with the audience’s expectations and establishes so much within merely 25 seconds.

The story then follows a traditional format: the Doctor saves a young woman who wants to see the universe and is evidently perfect companion material.  However, yet again, our expectations are subverted and she ends up choosing death over trusting a Time Lord as a result of their role in the horrific Time War.  Previously in the series we’ve been introduced to countless species who lost their homes in the Time War, numerous extinctions, and even an episode partially set during it (‘The End of Time Part 2’, 2010), but I think this terror towards the Doctor is the most effectively I’ve seen the scale of suffering during the war expressed in writing.  “Who can tell the difference anymore?” she says, comparing Time Lords to Daleks.  This is absolutely chilling.

The remainder of the story takes place on Karn (last seen in ‘The Brain of Morbius’, 1976 – a nice throwback for the fans).  Somehow, it seems natural that Paul McGann’s regeneration was effectively an act of suicide, which again emphasises the severity of the war.  I think that “Physician, heal thyself…” are the greatest final words a Doctor has ever spoken.  This is a beautifully written short piece by Steven Moffat, proving once again that he writes best when handling self-contained stories rather than longer arcs.

The only real negatives I have for ‘The Night of the Doctor’ are related to its production.  Visually it’s perfect, but the general style of direction is just too restricted by its ‘minisode’ format.  This is a story which needs more time to be told; at barely under seven minutes it rushes through at breakneck speed.  It’s also choppily edited together with generic soundtrack pieces over the top, at times resembling a fan production (such as the sort of thing I’ve generally produced – ahem – ) than an official work.  I’m particularly alluding to the bombastic score playing during the final seconds as John Hurt, the ‘War Doctor’, picks up the ammunition belt.  It completely jars with the tone of the scene.

Overall, Night of the Doctor’ succeeds at everything it was intended to do but it can’t avoid coming across as such wasted potential.

8/10.

The Last Day

This is another short, eerie prequel leading up to ‘The Day of the Doctor’.  Shots taken from the perspective of a soldier, resurrected as an android to guard the city of Arcadia (referenced by the Doctor in Doomsday, 2006 – some nice continuity here!), give this a chilling tone, working effectively to bring to life just how hellish the Time War is.  Not an awful lot to say about this other than it succeeds tremendously at establishing the events surrounding the Fall of Arcadia.  Ending with a Dalek onslaught and the narrator exterminated, this leads directly into ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and promises much to come.

9/10

An Adventure in Space and Time

To me, An Adventure in Space and Time always was going to be the highlight of the anniversary festivities.  I remember watching Coronation Street do a similar origin story very successfully back in 2010, which no doubt must have helped inspire some aspects of this drama while also proving to be a hard act to follow.  Though in my opinion not the greatest writer Doctor Who has seen, I was very pleased to have Mark Gatiss writing it, this kind of thing seeming to be his area of expertise.  I went into this very excited indeed; and, generally, my expectations were met.

Although the drama’s intention to tell the story of Doctor Who‘s creation, it is at its core a character-driven piece.  On one hand we have the story of Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) trying to break into the television business despite coming against the institutionalised sexism of the BBC, developing alongside the tale of William Hartnell (David Bradley) searching for fulfilment in his acting career.  The focus passes from Lambert to Hartnell as the drama proceeds but they’re both told beautifully well.  Doctor Who proves to be the salvation for both.  In his writing, Gatiss really captures the love and dedication which went into creating the show.

The acting was generally absolutely spot-on.  That opening moment when David Bradley walked onto the TARDIS set, amazingly recreated, wearing the First Doctor’s outfit… It was like watching William Hartnell return from the dead, his mannerisms were so perfect.  As Hartnell himself, he nailed that fine line between crotchety old man and lovable grandfather – the scenes with his real-life granddaughter and later with the kids in the park, where he completely relished getting into the role, were joyful to watch.  Likewise, his forced exit from the show as a result of poor health was heartbreaking.  Although I had no pre-conceptions, Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan also managed to successfully capture how I imagined co-creator Sydney Newman and director Waris Hussein.  And although I didn’t notice it at the time, seeing original actors William Russell and Carol Ann Ford in cameo roles was a very nice touch.  Although I don’t believe there was a bad actor in the production, two actors whom I felt were miscast were Jamie Glover as William Russell** and Reece Shearesmith as Patrick Troughton.  Again, nothing against their acting – it is as superficial as them simply not looking like the people they were recreating.

The direction is definitely another stand-out feature which brought Adventure to life; Terry McDonough really took us back to 1963.  It’s such a fantastic period piece.  So many shots stick out in my memory as excellent, but I think my favourite has to be the moment when the Daleks were first unveiled.  That pan above the wobbly set was such an effective introduction.  I also loved seeing how colourful some of the sets were.  A couple of colour photos do exist from the 1960s and I’m always astonished by how bright they were.   The transitions between recreating moments from the show and moments offstage were absolutely seamless, making the drama seem even more vibrant.

If I have one criticism of the whole production, I feel much of it was rushed.  I think this is a flaw in both the writing and the editing, although not one I have a solution for – there is no easy way of representing three years in the course of 90 minutes.  Although this sometimes worked to the show’s benefit, such as the repetitive photo-shoots Hartnell had to endure with an increasingly alien cast rushing past, I think the focus did sometimes lapse as a result.  Nevertheless, the sheer amount Gatiss managed to cram into the script given such constraints is impressive.

Overall, An Adventure in Time and Space was a very laudable production indeed.  I’d even go as far to say that it’s the best anniversary celebration I’ve ever seen, oozing pure love for the show.

9/10

The Day of the Doctor

The long-awaited 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who has finally passed.  I remember back when I first became a fan of the programme, noting it as being 44 years old (so this must have been 2007, my 12-year-old self at the height of his Doctor Who fandom), and looking ahead to that far-off day when my favourite show would turn 50.  How would it be celebrated, I wondered?  I’d watched previous anniversaries: The Three Doctors (1973), The Five Doctors (1983) and Dimensions in Time (1993), all of which featured a return of past Doctors.  This did appear to be the conventional way of celebrating the show’s anniversary.  However, I recall Steven Moffat ruling out a multi-Doctor story so it’s perhaps surprising that’s what we ended up with***.  It was quite exciting to see David Tennant announced to return (Billie Piper less so).  Then the first trailers erupted across Facebook and Twitter, showing Dalek spacecraft engaged in warfare, a return to the Time War, and answers behind the enigmatic ‘War Doctor’, played by John Hurt and introduced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ earlier this year.  The publicity behind the special certainly made it unmissable viewing.

I’m going to get the negatives out of the way first, partly because it’s neater and partly because, on first viewing, I must confess that I absolutely hated ‘The Day of the Doctor’.   Structurally, the episode is divided between two plots.  On one hand you have the War Doctor (or alternatively the Ninth Doctor; perhaps even Doctor 8.5) leaving Gallifrey with The Moment, the most destructive weapon in the Universe, and on the verge of using it to wipe out the Time Lords and Daleks when the Moment’s conscience, played by Billie Piper, sends him through time to meet the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in a bid to alter his resolve.  At the same time UNIT summons the Eleventh Doctor to investigate monsters which broke out of a painting, which later turns out to be a Zygon invasion which the Tenth Doctor first investigated upon suspecting Elizabeth I had been impersonated.  I can see the reasoning for these dual plot strands, as the Zygon invasion forms the backdrop of the War Doctor’s inner turmoil as he discover’s how his momentous decision will change him in future incarnations, but I’m afraid it fell rather flat on me.  This is essentially a story about the Time War and the Doctor’s involvement in ending it.  Obviously I’m a critic and probably don’t represent the target audience, but with this expectation in mind I didn’t really want to watch a somewhat silly romp featuring the Tenth Doctor at his most annoying.  The tonal clash between these two stories just didn’t work for me.  Also, the Zygon story has to have had the least satisfying conclusion I’ve ever come across.

Furthermore, upon first viewing I wasn’t keen on where Moffat took the Time War story.  It was absolutely brilliant initially, with those scenes of absolute hell in Arcadia followed by the War Doctor’s retreat on that desert planet being some of the finest the show’s ever produced, but I really think the horrors of that moment were betrayed when the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors joined the War Doctor in pushing the button to end it all.  This is what bothers me about Steven Moffat’s writing: although he is sometimes an undeniable genius, when he gets something wrong it not only ruins his own episodes but also destroys your opinion of what’s come before.  To me, the destruction of the Time Lords was the absolute peak of the Doctor’s loneliness, despair and desperation.  To have company at this most important moment ruined it.  Then, there came that decision to trap Gallifrey inside a bubble of time?  Forgetting the multiple logical fallacies in this (surely the Daleks didn’t send every single individual Dalek on that one assault upon Gallifrey?  Surely they wouldn’t all be killed in the crossfire?  And what do you mean, ‘I suppose we’ll never know if it worked?’  If it didn’t work the whole of time would have been ripped apart by Rassilon in ‘The End of Time’ (2009)!), it again destroys most of the drama during the 2005 series focusing around the Ninth Doctor dealing with what he did.  The logic of not remembering doesn’t even work – how does the Doctor now have memories of something he didn’t even do?  And while we’re on logic, why did the War Doctor randomly regenerate at the end of the episode, other than for convenience of showing how Christopher Eccleston became the Doctor (which is now infinitely duller than we had all imagined – thanks Moffat).  I appreciate you couldn’t show anything as dark as this in what is essentially a family show, which is why I think Moffat would have been better to have just left the Time War alone.

My final niggle is with some of the characterisation.  Principally, I really don’t like how Clara has suddenly become the doctor’s BFF and now knows everything about him, making all these comments like, “I always know [when you need time alone,” and so on.  Logically, again, it makes sense – she probably has the most intimate connection a companion has ever had to him following her entry into his timestream at the end of series 7, but emotionally it falls flat.  We have never had chance to watch their relationship develop on screen – she was there as his friend simply by virtue of being ‘the impossible girl’.  This is a flaw of the writing, to be clear – Jenna Coleman does a brilliant job with what she’s given.  I also think better use could have been made of the Tenth Doctor, who was kind of relegated to the sidelines when alongside Matt Smith and John Hurt.

With these thoughts running through my head I was almost despairing at the 50th anniversary.  But then I watched it again and did manage to pick up on some more positives.  As I mentioned, the sequences involving the Time War in the first half are beautifully written and stunningly directed.  I think the assault of Arcadia is the best battle to have ever been visualised in Doctor Who, even if it was disappointingly conventional considering the grisly imagery we’ve been previously given about the Time War.  Likewise, the sequence where the War Doctor retreats to the desert planet is fantastically written (“Time Lords of Gallifrey, Daleks of Skaro… I serve notice on you all. Too long have I stayed my hand; no more, no more.  Today you leave me no choice: today, this war will end.  No more.  No more…”  Ooh, the shivers) and the cinematography is incredible.  I have few criticisms of Nick Hurran’s direction, who is establishing himself as one of Doctor Who’s very best.  Likewise, the ending scene where Tom Baker returns is well written, acted and directed by all.  This is perhaps one scene I can forgive for not totally making sense – it’s Tom Baker after all!

With the aforementioned characters notwithstanding, I think this episode also proved to be generally pretty strong on characterisation.  Particularly John Hurt who, despite my objections towards the impact it would have upon the canon, I want to have entire seasons of acting as the Doctor.  He played the role brilliantly, bringing an older and hardened portrayal to the character that is still essentially Doctorish at heart(s), and his exchanges with Matt Smith and David Tennant were a joy to watch. Easily the best thing in the episode. And although I wasn’t keen on her role in the story, Kate Stewart was played well by Jemma Redgrave, establishing a likeable recurring character.  It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the character of Rose, which is why I was so annoyed to have Billie Piper returning, but it must be stressed this isn’t due to her acting ability.  With Piper playing the Moment’s Conscience, merely in the form of Rose, I don’t have any criticisms at all of her role in the episode.  The Zygons I wasn’t keen on at all – the cynic in me would say they were there solely to make the merchandise officials happy – while the character of Elizabeth I was superfluous at best and irritating at worst (that said, I enjoyed the conclusion to this running gag of the Doctor’s relationship to the Queen, but it really didn’t warrant this much screen time).

Over all, I have very mixed feelings towards this episode.  I certainly wouldn’t say it was a failure – it succeeds wholeheartedly at providing a spectacular anniversary special which celebrates the past while also looking to the future – but it definitely was brought down by quite a few failings.  But, because it’s Christmas tomorrow, I think I’ll be generous.  I can’t help but like the episode now I’ve rewatched it several times, despite the furious complaints of my science-fiction mired brain.

Final rating: 7/10

The Five Doctors(ish) Reboot

Anyone that knows me could testify that comedies are my least favourite genre of television – I tend to find them so boring.  So it’s perhaps a surprise that this low-budget comedy production, sneaked into the anniversary celebrations under everyone’s noses, would prove to be my favourite offering of the entire month.  There’s little I want to say about it other than you should watch it right now.  Even if you’ve seen it before, go find it right now and watch it again!

Essentially, it makes light of the fact that Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy weren’t asked to be a part of ‘Day of the Doctor’.  It features their attempts to get involved and, when Steven Moffat refuses them (in some absolutely hilarious scenes), they try to sneak onto the set.  Oh, the entire thing is brilliant beyond description.  So many people have made cameos in it – I lost count of the amount of times I wanted to shout in joy, “How did they get hold of that person?!”  The amount of cameos goes to show just how much love there is for this TV show.   It’s brilliant in that is doesn’t take itself at all seriously – whether by portraying Colin Baker as an egomaniac that subjects his family to regular viewings of his 1980s episodes, or showing Steven Moffat to be a heartless monster who plays with action figures all day long, I think this is one of the most hilariously self-aware things I’ve ever watched.

Just, go watch it now – you should have stopped reading after the first paragraph.

Final rating: 10/10

Overall, Doctor Who fans have been truly treated by the sheer amount of content we’ve had to feast on during the anniversary celebrations.  Sure, not all of it was brilliant, but I think this is definitely without doubt the best overall anniversary the show has ever had.  Compare it to the droughts experienced in 1993 and 2003 and the show seems to be very strong indeed.  I look forward to 2023, 2024 and so on, and perhaps even the 100th anniversary in 2063 if I’m still alive! (I’d only be 68 – it’s possible!).  Here’s to many more years of this utterly fantastic program.

*Took me a moment to remember when it actually aired – that’s how little an impression it made on me.
**It must have been surreal for Russell to see someone on set playing himself!
***Less so when you remember Rule 1: The Moff lies!

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Peter Capaldi is the 12th Doctor!

Peter Capaldi has been announced as the Twelfth Doctor in the hit BBC series, Doctor Who!  I’ve posted my reaction and thoughts in the form of a vlog, which you can watch here.  However there’s a couple of things I’ve thought of since.  I wonder how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will change?  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman have good ‘chemistry’ together, but Capaldi in the role will completely change that.  I can imagine the Doctor taking on a more fatherly, mentor role to her – but that’s largely just an assumption based on Capaldi’s age.  Also, I’m glad to see that the reaction to his casting has been mainly positive.  A few people aren’t pleased but I would definitely say the majority share my view that he will be great in the role.  I’ve seen a couple of younger people reacting negatively, which has made me wonder whether Doctor Who’s modern youth fanbase will react to an older Doctor.  I see no reason why it should be a problem and this negativity, I expect, largely stems from the fact that an older Doctor is unusual – he’s the oldest Doctor to have been cast in the new series by about 15 years of age.

Yes, I highly look forward to Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor.  Bring on 2014!

Matt Smith to Leave Doctor Who

Leaked early by the press yesterday (as ever), it has been announced that Matt Smith is to quit his role as the Eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who.  His final episode shall be this year’s Christmas special, meaning that we’re only going to see him twice more in the part!  There’s the 50th anniversary special on November 23rd, then Christmas.  Then he’s gone!

I haven’t really had a specifically positive or negative reaction towards the news.  Well, obviously, it’s his life.  But he’s also had a long run, just surpassing the number of episodes David Tennant made.  I’m not sure there was much further the character could have gone. However, I do have a couple of regrets.  My first is that we’ll never get to see Smith written under the leadership of another head-writer after Steven Moffat.  I should probably clarify that, although I’ve criticised him a lot, I do actually have a lot of respect for Moffat’s writing – I just think his series planning leaves something to be desired.  I would have preferred Moffat to leave before Smith.  Also, if Moffat is planning to leave after another year or so, whichever characterisation he creates for the Twelfth Doctor would be inherited by his successor.  Actually, that could be quite interesting – or disastrous.  My other main regret is that we won’t see much development between the Eleventh Doctor and Clara, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, as they’ll have only shared… 11 stories together?  12, technically?  Well, I suppose that’s sort of a whole series’ worth of episodes, but it hasn’t felt like it… *cough* broken format *cough*.

Regardless of my thoughts, I wish Matt Smith the best of luck with what I’m sure will be a busy acting career in the future.  He has certainly been brilliant as the Doctor.

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Episode 13/14 for Doctor Who, series 7.  I must be honest, I am finding something slightly lacklustre about this series.  I don’t know whether its the fragmented nature – 5 episodes in 2012, Amy and Rory leaving suddenly, wait a few months, Christmas, wait another few months, and then it begins again – or whether it’s the lack of two-parter stories and cliffhangers which strongly defines the show, or whether I’m just getting older.  The overnight ratings have undeniably declined, however, to achieving consistently below an average of 5 million.  This isn’t bad for any show, but given Doctor Who’s record it’s not really that good either.  I was hoping Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver would reverse this trend.  His The Doctor’s Wife in 2011 is one of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes, and I very much enjoyed Coraline, however upon reading American Gods I was left very cold.  So, was this to be like The Doctor’s Wife or American Gods for me?  Unfortunately, the latter.

Gaiman has stated that his ambition for this episode was to “make the Cybermen scary again”; in recent times we’ve seen them blown up at in an episode’s first five minutes and defeated by the power of love, so this was a noble ambition.  I really liked that first image of the Cyberman playing chess, controlled by Warwick Davis’ character [more on that later] – it brought to mind the famous automaton, The Turk, which was a clever touch.  I also really like the new design.  Gaiman in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine said he was trying hoping to replicate the hypothesis of the ‘uncanny valley’ – a theory that when monsters look and act like human beings but with something missing, it creates irrational terror within people – which these new faces do achieve more so than previously.  Their new abilities – moving quickly, the mobile hand, being able to upgrade continuously, also help make them scarier.  The concept of installing a ‘patch’ every time they meet an obstacle makes them appear undefeatable.  The ‘cyber-mites’ were also quite scary.  However, I don’t know whether it’s a result of newcomer Stephen Woolfenden’s direction or the writing, but… The concept of Cybermen being mechanical, converted human beings is lost.  They act like robots, which loses one of the factors which make Cybermen so terrifying.

Another reason I failed to find the Cybermen a credible threat was due to the episode being so, so rushed.  The first half – which I found worked better – wasn’t so bad.  The threat was built up and slowly established, the Cyber Planner introduced, and it all worked fairly well.  Then the plot began to accelerate, to swing this way and that way, and I began to feel all focus was lost.  The pacing would be slowed down for drawn-out sequences between the Doctor and the Cyber Planner fighting over his brain – sequences I did enjoy, particularly ‘inside the Doctor’s head’, which was a nice effect, but they brought the story grinding to a halt, meaning that when it returned to cyber-action the scenes were rushed for compensation.  This became unforgiveably bad towards the end.  The resolution is terrible.  Davis’ character (Porridge?  Really?) is revealed to be the Emperor in a painfully obvious and badly-written or rushed way, and we learn that he could have solved the problem immediately be saying ‘I am the Emperor’ or whatever and getting everyone beamed up.  I expected better.  The demands of telling a story in 45 minutes leave no time for the threat to build and necessitates a rushed resolution, making the Cybermen seem oh so easily defeated.

This seems a good place to have a little rant about Davis’ Emperor subplot.  Davis did the best he could with a terrible role and writing and actually, incredibly, managed to salvage some of it, but most of it fell flat.  Ignoring my distaste towards have a global Emperor with supreme powers which everyone laughs at “I could have you all executed!” “Oh, har har har, you tyrant you!”  The character didn’t seem all that fussed about taking up the position again.  If there had been more TIME to explain why he ran away, why he was so reluctant to take up his role as the Emperor again, then it might have worked, but I found during this scene even the dialogue was being edited together in such a snappy way that it didn’t work.  “Well, he is the Emperor – come on, it’s obvious” leaves no time at all for Clara’s reaction to register.  And that marriage proposal… Yuck!  Unnecessary, cringy, and wasted 20 seconds which could have gone towards healing other areas.

Moving to other characters, I don’t think I can do my usual “they were fantastic” in one paragraph.  Firstly, the Doctor.  I still think Matt Smith is performing excellently in the role, but he has been severely criticised for ‘hamming it up’ in this episode and, watching it again, I have to agree.  Just slightly too much shouting, an over-the-top inner struggle between The Doctor and the Cyber Planner.  I also thought the Doctor was rather irresponsible for leaving the children to stay on the planet once he was aware of a Cyber-threat.

Clara.  I have commented on previous episodes that I really like the realistic reactions she has to situations.  Not meaning that she can’t be a strong character, but it makes her courage feel like real courage when contrasted with her fear.  Not here.  The Doctor places her in charge and she consequently begins barking orders to the platoon of soldiers.  Cybermen breaking into the castle aiming to kill everyone?  No problem, Clara will yell orders completely unphased.  The two children she’s supposedly caring for become possessed by Cybermen?  Meh, could be worse.  Possessed soldiers advancing?  Oh, Clara knows how to use a gun upon picking it up and will shoot them, because that’s totally in character for young woman from contemporary London who has only recently joined The Doctor!  To be clear, this is a criticism of how she is written, not performed, as Jenna-Louise Coleman does what she’s asked to do well.  I am also getting rather tired of the Clara story – another reason why this series is lacking any momentum or focus.  There are more references to her being ‘the impossible girl’, but nothing develops.  Again.  Nothing has developed since The Bells of Saint Johnsix episodes ago.  It’s getting repetitive.

The children were written atrociously.  Angie was worse than Artie (why would you name your kids such similar names?) and her ‘gobby’ attitude got on my nerves.  Again, a criticism of the writing more than the acting.  Walking into a barracks and proclaiming “I’m BORED!” … “When someone asks you to rule a thousand galaxies, you don’t say no!” as if it’s an everyday occurrence for her.  Neither of them seem particularly phased by the events.  They also serve no purpose within the story.  They come under the control of the Cybermen, but even this is resolved quickly and leads to nowhere.  They generally just stand in the background and waste valuable time.  It’s a shame, because I was quite looking forward to seeing children travel in the TARDIS.

Nightmare in Silver was a great disappointment.  Neil Gaiman + Cybermen – it should have been better.  It was entertaining at times, which prevents it from being a complete failure, but upon analysis it doesn’t stand up.  I know this is just my opinion, and a lot of other people really liked the episode, but I didn’t react well to it.  I’m quite losing heart with this season.  Next week is the season finalé, but there would be no way of telling.  I was half hoping this episode might end on a cliffhanger like Closing Time before The Wedding of River Song, to at least give some publicity and build some expectation for the final episode, but no such luck.  I don’t have high hopes.

Final rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast!  Episode 12/14, now.  I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years.  It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories.  Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm.  I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline.  I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show.  So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.

Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series.  Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’.  It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there.  It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.

I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one.  This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time.  So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times.  There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here.  For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse!  You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all.  One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance.  Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting.  It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence.  There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd.  Not wrong, but odd.  Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series.  Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.

Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends.  Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case.  The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.”  It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively.  I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn.  And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it?  Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot.  The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while.  I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh.  The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going.  But these are really tiny niggles.

The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned.  I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development.  It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues.  We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response.  This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional?  Builds excitement for the finalé…

The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining.  I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death.  Oh well.  Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles.  Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror.  I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show.  Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.

As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled.  I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view.  He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares.  And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones.  There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps.  Oh, and that flashback scene!  The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled.  Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce.  I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor.  And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.

Final rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

“Why do they only ever stay in the console room?”
“Where does Rose sleep?  That floor doesn’t look comfy.”
“I miss when they would spend episodes wandering around the TARDIS doing nothing.”
“THE CLOSET!  WE SAW THE CLOSET!”
“CORRIDORS!  WE SAW CORRIDORS”

-Thoughts of Doctor Who fans everywhere, 2005 – present.

When returning Doctor Who to television in 2005, Russell T. Davies was very clear about his vision for the purpose of the TARDIS: the adventure laid outside, the TARDIS merely acting to get the characters there.  He believed that wasting time with dialogue in dull settings, particularly within the new 45 minute format, would be dull for the viewer.  Since Steven Moffat became in charge of the show in 2010 there has been a slight change in this trend, with its ‘infinite corridors’ playing a role in Neil Gaiman’s 2011 episode, The Doctor’s Wife.  But now, for the first time, we’ve been promised out first adventure set almost entirely within the TARDIS’ doors!  It’s written by Stephen Thompson, who wrote the average The Curse of the Black Spot in 2011, as well as writing the also average The Blind Banker and the phenomenal The ReichenbacFall to BBC’s Sherlock.  So pretty mixed, as a writer.  It’s directed by newcomer Mat King.

The main criteria of whether this episode would succeed or not was always going to be in its portrayal of the TARDIS.  And, unfortunately, I think most fans are agreed that it was slightly underwhelming.  Oh, we saw depth – layers upon layers of corridors and rooms – which was certainly a refreshing throwback to episodes in the 60s and the 80s.  We saw a hint of an astronomy room, the swimming pool and a FULL SCENE within the library!  I may have mentioned it before, but in the multiple spin-offs and fan-fictions I’ve written in my time, being a mega Doctor Who nerd, the library has been included so many times.  To finally see it… Ah, there aren’t words.  We also got to finally see the Eye of Harmony, which turned out to be a star going supernova, transitioning into a black hole.  From what we know of Time Lord mechanics, particularly from the 1972-73 episode The Three Doctors, this makes a lot of sense and I appreciate having finally seen it.  The TARDIS’ “snarl trap” was also rather nice.  But… I don’t know.  Maybe we’ve been spoilt by the brilliant The Doctor’s Wife, but other than providing short-lived spectacle, there didn’t feel like there was a lot of substance behind what we saw.

Most of the episode’s problems, and where I should avoid trying to rip it to shreds utterly, is in the writing.  Principally, the plot.  What was the point of this story?  Okay, it begins well: the TARDIS is hauled in by dim scrap-hunters, and the TARDIS goes explodey-wodey.  Then Clara goes missing down one of the corridors, somehow.  The Doctor forces the crewmembers to help find her by threatening to blow up the TARDIS; dim crewmembers instead try to steal and break bits of the TARDIS off.  “What’s wrong, TARDIS?  Scared to fight me?” one of the crew members says, after seeing it has the power to manipulate matter and kill him.  Oh, the cringing… The whole ‘burned zombie’ thread makes absolutely no sense, was rushed and clearly only existed to add a threat to the meaningless story.  Why are they trying to kill themselves in the past?  It’s not only out of character, but it’s counterproductive.  Unless the timey-wimey stuff turns them into crazy zombies, or they’re trying to avoid the horrifying, painful existence they’re currently suffering.  Either explanation would suffice, but none is given.  Oh, and that ‘android’ subplot… Would anyone be that callous?  How can… Tricky, is it (?), survive having that massive rod shoved through his left arm/chest, i.e. the rough location of his heart?  They decide to “cut the metal” and next scene he’s half staggering, holding his chest half-heartedly.  There should be blood gushing!  He should be on the verge of death!  Okay, Doctor Who’s a family show – so in that case, don’t pin a character to a wall with a massive metal rod.  And then that final paradox… Having watched it twice, it still makes no sense.  Why does the Doctor remember but not Clara?  All that said, I did like the ‘echo TARDIS’ idea, and there were various other creative aspects of the script I enjoyed.

The entire structure of the story just felt pretty off, to be honest.  To completely subvert everything which has happened half way through with the Doctor saying, “it was a joke!” after their brother died – though you couldn’t tell from the amount they care – just throws the whole thing off.  The only actual trace of a plot occurs half way through, when the TARDIS core begins to overheat or something, so the Doctor puts everyone in danger by blindly going there to sort it out.  Or something.  And then it’s all resolved in rather a rush.  Hm.

One aspect of the writing I did like was the continued mystery regarding The Doctor’s name, and Clara’s identity.  Although Clara’s reaction upon seeing his name in The History of the Time War (“so that’s who…”) didn’t make a lot of sense, and makes it sound like something pretty simple like ‘Dave’, this plot arc is being developed well on the whole.  I have trepidations regarding the title of the season finale, The Name of the Doctor, considering this is a lose-lose situation for Moffat (he obviously can’t name the Doctor, but failure to do so will be breaking another promise).  The confrontation between the Doctor and Clara over her identity was also rather thrilling.

The acting from Matt Smith as the Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara was pretty good.  Nothing new there.  I’m continually impressed by the realism Coleman is bringing to the role, showing the appropriate reactions anyone would experience in Clara’s position.  It’s been commented that the three guest stars, playing the brothers – I forget their names – were poorly acted.  I don’t tend to notice this kind of thing, but there were some lines which even I could tell were a little butchered.  I think Tricksy was generally alright, but the other two’s hearts didn’t seem to be particularly into the performances.  Actually, that sums up the episode rather well as a whole.

I have also seen King’s direction criticised for making the TARDIS, particularly the corridors, appear bland or repetitive.  I didn’t pick up on that myself, thinking the episode to be rather well done overall.  He had a bit of a thing for bright, garish colours, but that is perhaps what you would expect within the deep core of the TARDIS.  There were some very scary moments, although these would sometimes be butchered by the poor tone and pacing.  That scene on the bridge with the zombies could have been terrifying if it were less rushed and actually made sense, whereas Tricky’s pierced heart is treated in far too much of a blasé manner.

Overall, it is with regret that I say that Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was a failure.  Sure, there were many enjoyable aspects to it which were worthy of praise, and it’s by no means a bad episode, it just… Isn’t as good as the hype would have suggested.  Perhaps the problem is the fundamental issue of showing the TARDIS as a hostile, dangerous place – and, in particular, not providing enough of an explanation for why that happened.  In The Doctor’s Wife it was clear and understandable that the TARDIS has been possessed by House, but here it’s like she’s just having a bad day.  I think this is an episode which would have been very difficult to do right.  I enjoyed it, but have a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t have done.

Final rating: 6/10