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

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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

Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who, series 7 continues!  We’re on episode 4 of 2013’s run, and episode 10 of series 7.  Hide, written by Neil Cross (who also wrote The Rings of Akhaten, two weeks ago) and directed by Jamie Payne, who has made his debut into the world of Doctor Who.  I have never been a great fan of ghost stories, particularly the sort where all the action is contained within one dull haunted house – which has been done so many times before – but it soon became clear this would would be quite different.

The actual ‘haunted house’ segments at the beginning were also better than I expected them to be.  The characters of Alec and Emma were more interesting than the ‘ghostbusters weirdos’ I expected, and there were some genuine frights.  The ghost in particular… Ah, that face.  Though I found the constant lightning distracting, perhaps for obvious reasons.  Hide, like last week’s Cold War, is a historical story, set in 1974 (the year Tom Baker became the Doctor, fact-fans!), though this wasn’t a very important element of the story.  It did mean a reliance on analogue photography, which gave us that great scene where the Doctor and Alec talked over developing photos.  It also made the use of candles for lighting more realistic, as this particular house may not have been inhabited for some time and therefore not had electricity installed.

The story really went up a notch (“top notch”, as the Doctor was keen on saying) when the Doctor and Clara took the TARDIS to the same location throughout history, to snap pictures of the changing ghost.  We saw the Earth at the beginning of its history, a prehistoric jungle populated with now-extinct life, the mansion in Victorian times and then the same spot at the ending of the world.  This gave the episode a much greater scope than I expected, and while scope does not always equal quality, it saved Hide from being the rehash of ghost ideas I had been expecting.  And then, the pocket universe!  Such a good idea, and incredibly well realised.  The trees, shrouded in fog and harbouring a monster, created a very creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere.  My only reservations with the plot is the theme of love, which seemed shoe-horned in at places.  I did like the ending, where the Doctor returned to the pocket universe to rescue the ‘Romeo’ creature and to reunite it with its mate, though it was rather rushed.  I know it would have completely ruined the tone and the flow of narrative, but I’d have quite liked to see two of these hideous creatures in the TARDIS!

Speaking of the TARDIS, it behaved quite oddly in this episode.  There is the continuing arc of the TARDIS’ hostility to Clara, but this verged on sarkyness at times, bizarrely.  When she addressed the TARDIS voice visual interface and it took the image of Clara herself, making that jibe about being someone Clara esteems – what was that about?  Also, it’s been commented that having a TARDIS voice interface thing, particularly when it shows bits of personality, ruins the tragic ending to The Doctor’s Wife where it was assumed the Doctor would never again be able to speak to it.  Just niggles, but still things which stuck out.

I am really enjoying the double act of the Doctor and Clara.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman just fit into the roles of Doctor and companion – staggeringly so, when you consider this was the first episode of Coleman’s to be filmed (Asylum of the Daleks aside).  Their ‘banter’ may be a bit wearisome at times, but it is also quite endearing.  They also have quite a balanced relationship; I do like Clara continuing to question the Doctor, this time wondering how he can see people as anything other than ghosts when he has the whole of time at his disposal, on top of Emma’s warning that he has ‘ice in his heart’.  This is definitely setting up for something in the finalé.  Another thing I love about Clara is that she reacts realistically.  She has seen the end of the world, and that grief, that confusion, it stays with her throughout the episode.  This is what Rose was like at the beginning of series 1 in 2005, before the character became ruined, and its very refreshing to see.  Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine were also great as Alec and Emma, playing the awkward couple-to-be realistically and with conviction.  I look forward to seeing Raine play Verity Lambert in An Adventure in Time and Space later this year.

The direction from newcomer Payne was also, generally, pretty good.  Doctor Who increasingly looks like a very expensive and well-produced show.  I’ve already mentioned the success in making this a highly atmospheric and creepy episode, and I’d also like to add that the effects in animating the creature in the forest was, well, ‘top notch’.  Some form of stop motion animation, perhaps?  This gave it a very disjointed, staggered movement, adding to the tension.

In conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable episode, one which I liked far better than I expected to.  This 2013 run of episodes, in my opinion, has been pretty consistent in quality.  I look forward to next week’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which promises to certainly be interesting!

Final rating: 8/10

American Gods (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve somehow managed to become a fan of without having read a single book he’s written.  I first became aware of his existence upon watching the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, which despite its name turned out to be one of the best episodes I’d ever seen.  Soon afterwards I watched the film adaptation of Coraline, which also proved to be a very well-written story.  I’ve enjoy reading his insightful Tweets on his Twitter account for over a year now, and so I decided it was high time I came into direct contact with one of his books face to face.  American Gods (2001) has sat on my shelf for a while since I spontaneously bought it in a bookshop,  making it the obvious candidate to be my first foray into his work.  I had high expectations which, I suppose, were never going to be met.

The first thing I noticed was that the characters were well developed and instantly engaging.  Shadow, the protagonist, is a very likeable and unassuming character who undergoes real development throughout the novel.  Beginning as a broken, lifeless ex-convict, through the events of the story he rediscovers his soul and manages to move on to a newfound sense of life.  This progression felt convincing for the most party, although I don’t entirely understand the effect the Passion on the Tree had upon him.  It took death to discover and partly resurrect his father to metaphorically bring himself to life?  Sounds very Biblical!  I imagine it would become clearer upon a second reading.  I did enjoy the Tree sections however, even if they did lose some credibility by the fact that Shadow, seemingly inexplicably, volunteered to be tied to it for nine days.  Again, would probably require a second reading.

The other characters which particularly impressed me were the more minor ones, such as Sam Crowe, whose attitude was enjoyable to read, and the majority of the residents of Lakeside – their diversity creating a village which felt very full of life.  I also liked Laura’s character, though her unexplained state of being undead irritated me slightly (which applies to most of the business to do with coins, in fact), though it was described to gory satisfaction.  It was an interesting decision to make most of the Gods decrepit, unhealthy, corrupt old men and women, but one which perfectly makes clear the idea of these Gods being ancient and abandoned.  I think Gaiman may have overstated this point, though – I tired of the drugs, crude dialogue and general sense of “disgusting adultness” which pervaded the novel very quickly.  Wednesday was an interesting character, characterised well enough so that when he is revealed to be the villain of the novel, sacrificing the other Gods for his own gain, it’s a surprising plot twist without being an unbelievable action for the character to take.  The contrast to the ‘new’ Gods is well established: the new Gods are chic, technological and efficient, wielding a deadly charisma – precisely as you’d expect modern Gods to be.

The principle of the Gods is probably the best crafted idea in the novel.  Having physical manifestations, personified figures of these mythical beings is genius.  Gaiman’s research is clear, with each character based on a ‘real’ God.  It’s fascinating to examine the idea of immigrants to America bringing their Gods with them, effectively replicating them (as the original stays in the homeland).  The Gods feed on faith and sacrifice, becoming weak and withered when these dry up.  In this way, Gaiman has achieved the extraordinary feat of making the human condition appear desirable in comparison to Gods.  The Gods in America are particularly weakened, because, for some mystical reason, although America is a good place for humans Gods do not survive well there.  Which is a fine idea, although doesn’t ring true.  The USA is one of the most religious developed countries in the world -often fanatically so.  Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the lack of the Christian God? Or Jesus?  What about Allah?  None of the ‘Big’ Gods make a presence, which is quite a major omission, if you think about it.  This blog post discusses the omission well.

 

Another criticism I have is that the novel simply drags on for too long.  I read “The Author’s Preferred Version,” with several thousand words added in which weren’t included in the original publication.  Considering at least 50% of the novel is spent travelling around the US on a ‘road trip’, advancing the plot or very little as they do so, I would really have preferred the edited down version.  This kind of story isn’t necessarily bad – for example, The Road achieves it marvelously – but American Gods lacks the substance to make it engaging, despite how well written it is.

I really wanted to like American Gods, which is why it’s paining me to criticise it so much.  Have I been to harsh?  Not given it a chance?  Certainly, there’s much to enjoy and it did pick up towards the end, but on the whole, I was a bit disappointed.

Final rating: 6.5/10