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

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Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I’m really enjoying reviewing a full (ish) season of Doctor Who – series 7/7b/33/3 being the first to air since I began the blog in November.  The second episode of the series’ 2013 run is written by newcomer to the series, Neil Cross, and directed by Farren Blackburn, who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (one of my least favourite ever episodes).  So I was quite curious to see how this episode would do.

The story begins with a montage of the Doctor watching Clara’s life develop, from the meeting of her parents to her progression through childhood.  Despite head writer Steven Moffat’s claims that each episode in series 7 will be like an individual ‘movie in 45 minutes’, we do seem to be seeing the plot arc of Clara continuing to play a role.  This opening sequence has been described as creepy, or of ‘crossing a line’, but I didn’t have a problem with it.  The Doctor is intrigued by Clara, a girl who he has met three times and watched die twice.  Of course he’s going to want to explore her origins, and to see whether she had a normal upbringing.

The story proceeds to one of the moons of Akhaten, where the Doctor and Clara take a look at the beautiful rings around the enormous gas giant.  They then travel to a market populated entirely by aliens.  I’m struggling to remember the last time a TV story of Doctor Who was set on a world with no connections to the human race – perhaps even not since the 80s.  Consequently, then episode strikes a tone rarely seen in the post 2005 series.  The pace is also slowed due to the introduction of various aspects of this alien culture – which are extensive, and very well written.  So in that respect alone, this was a very enjoyable episode.  The plot consists of a parasitic creature within Akhaten, or perhaps was itself Akhaten – I didn’t quite understand that – which is kept asleep by the continued chanting of the inhabitants of the Rings.  However it awakes and the Doctor and Clara must use their memories of the past, and the infinite memories of the future, to defeat it – er – somehow.  This is a really interesting concept, although quite confusing and under explained at times.

There are also, unfortunately, quite a few plot holes which leapt out at me.  Why did the Doctor wander off in the market?  Why didn’t they take the TARDIS to the temple, rather than using the ‘space moped’?  And on that matter, how were they breathing in space?  Why did the God parasite wake up in the first place?  How did the Doctor keep his memories after feeding it to Akhaten?  When the gas giant vanishes, how do the rings stay in orbit?  Shouldn’t they fall into the Sun?  I mean, none of these questions really largely detracted from my enjoyment of the episode, but I did feel the script could have been tighter at places.  There were times when the plot felt rather protracted and drawn out, and the dialogue rather wordy.  Although I can forgive the Doctor’s incredible speech (“I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman!), even if this too falls foul of being overly wordy.

I’m probably sounding too negative.  This was, essentially, a great story.  Matt Smith, as ever, is utterly fantastic as the Doctor.  One of his best performances – though I say that every week.  He brings life to the character, a soul, an ageless wisdom and ancient tiredness all at once, through every expression and mannerism.  Jenna-Louise Coleman is continuing to impress as Clara, who is so far passing the test of not being irritating as well as acting a fairly developed and realistic character.  Child actor Emilia Jones also acted the role of Merry very well, bringing sincerity to the role of a scared child with a mountain of responsibilities placed upon her.

Despite my intense dislike of The Doctor, the Window and the Wardrobe, Farren Blackburn’s direction in this episode was close to flawless.  The use of music, composed by Murray Gold was wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the choral ensemble from the various singers during many parts of the episode.  However, there were times when I felt the music was simply too bombastic and loud – a common criticism for Doctor Who – though this is a fault of editing and direction, rather than of the composers.  Though the script established it, the vibrancy of this alien world is mostly due to the skill in direction – even if most aliens do undeniably look like rubber suits, but this is unavoidable on their low budget.  The episode, on the whole, felt very expensive and polished indeed.  The cinematography at times, including the silhouettes of the Doctor facing down Akhaten, was truly inspired.

Overall, The Rings of Akhaten was a surprisingly entertaining episode.  Perhaps my enjoyment didn’t quite correlate with the quality of the episode and of the script, though this suggests something must have been done right.  I think, most importantly, this episode felt fresh and new.  Nothing like it has been seen in Doctor Who for quite some time – which, really, is all a Doctor Who episode needs to be a success.  It’s just fortunate that this success happened to be enjoyable.

Final rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who is back!  Series 7, or 3, or 33 (never ask a Doctor Who fan a question about numbers), which began with a stream of 5 episodes last Autumn and continued with a Christmas special, is now here for a final run of 8 episodes which shall lead into the 50th anniversary celebrations.  I have to make the sad confession that I’m not quite the fanboy I was in the past – I think I may have reached that stage in fandom where I temporarily lose interest for about a decade – so I haven’t done the whole fervent search for information which had become the norm for previous series’.  However, this has the advantage of allowing me to go into episodes ‘cold’, with no pre-conceived conceptions or awareness of spoilers.  So here, having only watched the The Bells of Saint John (by Steven Moffat) once, is my knee-jerk review.

First off, I love the concept of the wi-fi being used as a means of ‘harvesting’ human life, wherein their physical bodies are killed and their ‘souls’ uploaded to a database, for an as yet unknown reason (this is clearly part of an ongoing story arc, though given Moffat’s track record I won’t be holding out for a concise answer anytime soon).  Connecting to wi-fi networks, or, often, failing to connect, is something most viewers will be familiar with, so the idea of slotting in a deadly network onto the list is incredibly creepy.   It may come across as a cynical view of computers and networks in modern day life, though there are too many apt references towards them for this to have been written by someone with disdain towards modern technology.  Perhaps too much of the concept was explained in the opening sequence, but, given the limited time the episode has to develop, is understandable.  I commend Moffat for writing a truly original script, playing with modern ideas and exploring new avenues for storytelling.

The plot is well-paced, tension ramping up and down successfully where necessary.  Doctor Who can often feel unnecessarily rushed but I didn’t find that to be the case in this episode.  I’m glad Moffat has chosen to give the ‘timey-wimey’ plots a rest for the time being; these once brilliant storytelling methods were becoming rather repetitive and uninspired, being used in such quantity.  The story is a thriller, which gives a grand opening to the series – this is evident from the wonderful sequence where The Doctor’s ‘spoonhead’ rides on a motorbike across the Millennium Bridge and then up the surface of Shard.  I always enjoy the wide scope of Doctor Who episodes, which continued in this episode with the Doctor receiving a phone call from Clara whilst living as a monk in 1207 (this is where the episode loosely derives its title from; the title being only a small reference irritates me slightly but I suppose that’s just being pedantic).  It’s not quite clear why the Doctor is in 1207 – we’re to presume it’s just the kind of thing he does, which, knowing the character, sort of makes sense.

Matt Smith is, as ever, fantastic as the Doctor.  No longer sulking from the loss of the ponds, having abandoned his life as a hermit, the Doctor is as alive as ever in his quest to find Clara Oswald.  For the first time, this Doctor is independent – in that he is no longer tied to either Amy or River Song, who he has associated with from his very first appearances in 2011.  Smith revels in the opportunity to play a ‘free’ Doctor.  Jenna-Louise Coleman, reprising the role of Clara for the third time, continues to impress.  Due to the nature of Clara’s character this is, technically, the character’s third introduction, but Coleman’s performance combined with the writing allows these continued meetings to stay fresh and engaging.  The character is less irritating than I had feared; the one-liners are reduced and the cocky nature toned down.  I look forward to seeing more of this new TARDIS team.

Celia Imrie as Miss Kislet, the woman in charge of the operations, makes a great if somewhat clichéd performance as an efficient, humorous villain.  I enjoyed her character’s chilling use of technology to change her minion’s characteristics, moving a switch up and down to determine their IQ and ‘conscience’.  But where Imrie truly shines is in her final appearance – the understated scene where everyone has been freed of the Great Intelligence’s influence.  She reverts to her former state – a child.  In just three lines, Imrie perfectly captures a tragic childlike quality in her acting which is disturbing to watch – and therefore highly effective.  We see less of Richard E. Grant, who makes a shock return as the Great Intelligence, but I have no doubt he will appear again.

The episode is well directed by Colm McCarthy, making his Doctor who directing debut.  Doctor Who episodes fly by too fast to make a detailed comment on the direction, having only watched it once, but I was particularly impressed by the sequence where the Doctor and Clara prevent the plane from crashing.  Having established the technique of moving in and out of the TARDIS in one single shot in The Snowmen, it is skilfully deployed again here, to great effect.  I also enjoyed the music, as usual, by Murray Gold.

Overall, The Bells of Saint John was a great opening to the second half of this series of Doctor Who.  The trailer for next week has shown what could be the most audacious attempt at creating an alien planet yet, but I shall have to wait and see.  This is a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.

Final rating: 8/10

Doctor Who: The Snowmen Review

Contains Spoilers.

Yesterday was Christmas Day!  Which may have some connotations of presents and trees and turkey, as everyone forgets the original Christian and Druid roots, but for me the most significant connotation in the last couples of years, as I’ve grown increasingly tired of the same routine, is a new episode of my favourite television show.

Generally, Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are never anything special.  They’re usually a bit of fun, a bit silly and aimed to please children.  Which is fine – it fits with the ‘tone’ of Christmas, whatever that is once it’s done with the commercialism conveyer belt – but isn’t a style which particularly appeals to me.  I’ve also become disillusioned with the Steven Moffat, the head writer, who although has written some fantastic episodes in the past (The Empty Child, Silence in the Library and The Pandorica Opens, for example), many have been pretty poor, particularly last year’s Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.  And then some episodes which are generally good tend to be riddled with plot holes, where he seems to have simply decided he doesn’t want to let logic get in the way of telling a story.  It’s a successful attitude so I can’t criticise it, but once again doesn’t work well for me.

These factors coupled with my recent lack of interest in television and film making resulted in a lack of anticipation for this episode.  Which, in retrospect, was probably for the best.  By no means was The Snowmen a bad episode – in fact I was pleasantly surprised – but nor was it perfect.  The Christmas episode included a variety of presents for viewers: a new companion, a new TARDIS console design, and an updated theme tune and opening credits, all of which proved to work well.

Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald technically already made her first appearance in Asylum of the Daleks, and while impressing with her acting skills did not seem as developed a character as would be hoped.  My overall impression of Clara was of yet another one-liner sprouting, overconfident character who wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom; the kind of character Moffat frequently writes.  Her appearance in The Snowmen has somewhat softened that opinion, though not entirely.  She’s likeable, certainly, from both the writing and acting, and perfect companion material.  It’s refreshing to see a companion who isn’t from contemporary Earth – twice, as the case may be.  It looks like the Clara we’ll end up with will inevitably be from 21st century London, but the mystery adds a layer of intrigue nonetheless.

And what a mystery it is!  I’m afraid I don’t have confidence that Moffat will absolutely resolve it – River Song’s resolution was badly handled, and I still haven’t forgiven him for abandoning the ‘who blew up the TARDIS?’ storyline – but I’m excited to see where it’ll go.  Coleman is a welcome addition to the cast!

Acting was fantastic all round.  Dan Starkey, Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh were great as Commander Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra, respectively.  Despite the fact they’re so obviously out of place in so many ways, the team fits in well with the Victorian setting and are all likeable, bringing something unique to the episode.  Strax is hilarious as the show’s first ‘good’ Sontaran, suggesting grenades as the solution to every problem, although I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation of how he survived the events of A Good Man Goes To War: “He died helping a friend of mine, then another friend brought him back to life.”  …If you say so, Doctor.  Vastra has an interesting relationship with the Doctor, reprising an almost mentor-like role.  Jenny, as a human, is unfortunately sidelined by her odder friends, but provides a necessary antithesis to the team.

Richard E. Grant was excellent as the main villain Dr Simeon, and Ian McKellan was of course a perfectly threatening voice for the Great Intelligence (who I only twigged towards the end would go on to orchestrate the events of The Web of Fear in 1967.  If only that episode still existed…).  The idea of snowmen had never inspired much confidence within me, and indeed were underused and flimsily explained.  What was their main point?  One moment they’re fearsome killers, the next they reflect thoughts; they lacked focus and explanation.  In fact, I never really understood their plan, which proved to be a major detractor of the episode.  To inhabit the world with living ice people, having scanned the previous governess?  Okay… To colonise, to conquer, to exploit?  It’s never said.  Likewise, the resolution is equally shabby.  I vaguely understood the concept of the snow mirroring the family’s tears, but didn’t quite get howThe Snowmen did truly become scary, however, as the Great Intelligence possessed Simeon.  His face gradually frosting over was truly terrifying.

And finally, as ever, Matt Smith’s acting stole the show.  His ‘shouty-wouty’ overly enthusiastic side is starting to grate ever so slightly in the same way that David Tennant’s did, but Smith is so versatile and the character given such well thought out dialogue that it’s not a massive problem for me.  The Doctor’s isolation is an interesting concept, expanding on the Tenth Doctor’s decision to travel alone during the 2009 specials, though this is the first time he ever properly withdraws from his world-saving antics.  I find it difficult to believe that the Doctor would ever truly stand back and let the Earth perish however, which is perhaps why he slips back so easily.  Smith and Coleman, seen acting together for the first time, work well together.  My only criticism – and it’s unfortunately quite a large one – is the rushed way the Doctor gave Clara a TARDIS key.  Generally this is a significant moment of acceptance, the moment a character truly becomes a companion.  The Doctor hardly knows Clara; his explanation is: “I never know why, I only know who…” which makes no sense whatsoever.  It’s as if Moffat wanted her to have the key, for whatever reason, so shoehorned the moment in.  It felt wrong and premature.  I’ll happily take this back if it turns out there’s a hidden reason for doing so – the Doctor at this point had made the connection between Clara and ‘Soufflé Girl’ – but if this is a future plot point, it should clearly be so, rather than appearing as an irregularity.

The direction by Saul Metzstein matched that of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy earlier this year.  It was atmospheric and chilling (no pun intended).  The shot following Clara in through the TARDIS doors, the interior expanding around her, was a particular standout.  To my untrained eye, Doctor Who feels the most ‘expensive’ and ‘filmic’ I’ve ever seen it.  The direction adds credence to Moffat’s ambition to have a shortened feature film every week.  The new TARDIS is a nice design, though isn’t something I paid a lot of attention to.  It feels much more alien now and less homely, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the premise of the show is exploring worlds outside the TARDIS.  That said, I’ve always enjoyed scenes within the TARDIS during classic episodes, particularly during the 1960s, so I feel some regret that we’re unlikely to see more of these.  Both the opening titles and the updated music were improvements; the titles were a bit busy and, so I’m told, fairly amateur-looking, but give the episode a bombastic opening, and I appreciate having the episode open through the TARDIS doors.  The music sees a return to the original Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer, but still with elements of the version introduced in 2010, which suits the show better, in my opinion.

In conclusion, The Snowmen was a surprisingly good Christmas special for Doctor Who.  There were inconsistencies in plot and character, but nothing large enough to ruin the episode.

Final Score: 8/10