Sunday, 21 September 2014

EP.5: TIME HEIST REVIEW


Flashback to 2006: Tooth and Claw was promoted as having a modern Tarantino-esque feel, with exciting bullet-time monks. The reality was a great episode, with the bullet-time monks limited to the first few minutes. I was reminded of this with Time Heist, heavily promoted as taking inspiration from Ocean's Eleven and other modern heist movies; it certainly managed this for the first twenty minutes, with some very clever pacing and scene transitions, but, like Tooth and Claw before it, it quickly turned into a standard run-around. The direction in the first half was certainly a highlight of the season so far, but unfortunately fell short by giving up midway through.
The story was enjoyable and rattled along at a great pace. Everything hung together well, without feeling like it needed slowing down for any missed examination of the characters or plot, neither did it leave too many moments to breathe - much of modern Who has struggled to get the balance here just right, but Time Heist did well in this regard. The twists were, on the one hand a surprise (the clones), and on the other entirely predictable (cloaked figure with masked voice, who appeared alongside a memory wipe, turns out to be one of the main characters, and the 'exit strategy' being exactly what it says on the tin), but each was handled in such a fun way that this really didn't matter much.
The focus on characterisation is still clearly heavily on the new Doctor, and to an extent Clara, with supporting characters suffering as a result. The two allies were very forgettable (pun very much intended) and while the actors did well the script didn't serve to make them much more than two dimensional.
With Moffat's well-known (pre-2010, at least) clever-yet-coherent script in action, Capaldi relishing every new dimension his Doctor gets given, some beautiful visuals and some exciting direction (for twenty minutes), Time Heist could be an absolute classic. A few shortfalls here and there let it down from this, but it's certainly continuing the consistently high standard set for this season so far.
Matt Dale

Thursday, 11 September 2014

NEW DOCTOR, NEW ERA? 'DEEP BREATH'


It is always with a sense of trepidation that I await the arrival of a new series of Doctor Who. I cannot say I’m the biggest supporter of Steven Moffat’s vision of Who, and I tire of his apparent lack of direction as producer. But this time I was feeling a little more hopeful since a new Doctor was on the horizon, a Doctor played by an older gentleman once more. Not to say anything against either David Tennant or Matt Smith, since I have liked both of them in various different ways, but after last year’s output and eight years of young men in the role, it’s about time we had someone older play the part to shift the dynamics of the show and broaden the canvas once more.

Peter Capaldi does this in spades. There is much to like in Deep Breath, and there is a much to dislike. Unfortunately, for me, the dislike outweighs the like. Peter Capaldi is in the former category – he is like a (deep) breath of fresh air. From the moment he steps out of the TARDIS his presence dominates every scene, be it talking to a tramp or talking to a dinosaur, Capaldi excels. He brings a darker edge to the character, an anger that is mixed with a unique brand of charm. I can see him fast becoming one of my favourite Doctors.

Alas, that’s pretty much the best I can say about Deep Breath. The story itself was obvious, hampered by an over reliance on familiar elements in a misguided attempt to put viewers who came to the show since 2005 at ease. Capaldi, like Smith and Tennant, deserved an introductory story that was not bogged down in continuity, but one that simply relied on wiping the slate clean and setting up the new Doctor. Moffat proved he could do that with The Eleventh Hour, so why he decided to play it so safe with Capaldi is beyond me. Let the audience be unsure for a while, let them have their doubts, and let Capaldi win them over on his own merits. There was also too much attention drawn on the Doctor now looking old, even though Capaldi is no older than William Hartnell when he originated the role in 1963. It’s almost insulting the amount of references made to the Doctor’s (and by extension Capaldi) physical age. Certainly fifty-one years ago it may have seemed old, but this is 2014 and fifty-six is not that old at all. Beyond the age, there are the usual examples of Moffat contradicting previous episodes, something he’s done for the previous three episodes (all of which were written by Moffat himself), not least in the characterisation of Clara, a companion who seems to have no consistency in the way she is written. We are also once more treated to another appearance by the Paternoster Gang, who were fun as a one-off, but with each appearance their credibility is being stretched. Are we honestly supposed to accept that both Strax and Vastra are merely regarded as people with disfigurations in the 19th Century? Even in contemporary times that would be a stretch, since they are quite obviously not human, but over a hundred years ago? Fortunately, Strax continues to be a brilliantly comic character and lifts every scene he is in, it’s just such a shame that they continue to make a joke of the inter-species relationship between Jenny and Vastra (the latter of whom eats people!).

One other thing I did love, and that’s the new title sequence and theme tune. I love the departure from the time tunnel effect in the title sequence, love the clock motif, and the new arrangement of the theme perfectly fits it. Top marks there.

Having watched this episode in the cinema, I at least have a positive experience to remember. It’s always fun to watch Doctor Who with over a hundred other fans (not that I do so regularly, of course), as there is a lot of laughs to be had by all the in-jokes within the script. And there were plenty of those in Deep Breath. Alas, jokes and spectacle are not enough to hide what is at best a very mediocre script full of the most absurd instances of ‘suspension of belief’ ever witnessed in Who.

Still. Peter Capaldi is pretty damn good, and will become an amazing Doctor once he finds his hook.

Andy Frankham-Allen


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

REVIEW: THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR (THE 3D CINEMA EXPERIENCE)

 
I have to admit, I wasn't really that bothered about going to see the 50th anniversary episode at the cinema. I hadn't followed the past few series, so it didn't make much sense for me to rush out and get a ticket to see the latest episode. I could have just watched it on TV. But there's something about the shared experience of viewing something at the cinema, especially for a show which we normally only get to see at home. So I decided to go and watch it on the 'big screen'. In 3D.

Even though I was a bit wary about the whole thing to begin with, I soon found myself immersed in what was going on. Sure, the storyline was upside down and inside out in places, but if you switched off your brain and didn't look for plot holes, then you could just enjoy it for the entertainment factor alone. It had several 'Doctors' in it, for a start. I think many people were thrilled to see David Tennant back, as he seems to be a favourite among many fans. Myself included.

But for me, it was John Hurt that really made the episode. A fine actor, who made the role of the War Doctor convincing and believable. A much different character than the other Doctor's incarnations, but all three personalities worked well together in the context of the story.

I thought it was interesting how they chose to bring in Rose Tyler, albeit as the interface to the Moment weapon. The brief appearance of Tom Baker at the end is sure to have pleased a lot of fans too. There was certainly some cheering in the audience, anyway.

 So, was this a perfect, outstanding, unmissable episode? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes! I definitely think that watching it at the cinema is the reason though, purely for the atmosphere and shared laughs and cheers with all the fans there. You just don't get that at home. So, to me, it was worth the price of a cinema ticket just as a one-off event.
 
Steve Upham - Editor of Screaming Dreams Publishing

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

REVIEW: THE NIGHT OF THE DOCTOR

The-Night-of-the-Doctor-regeneration
 
No one really expect this. Since 2005, when Christopher Eccleston appeared in Rose,  it was the one question every Doctor Who fan wanted answer. When and why did the Eighth Doctor regenerate? The obvious conclusion, based on visual evidence in that first story, was shortly before the Nu Series, at the end of the Time War. But then earlier this year we saw the end of series seven and discovered a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor, the one who fought in the Time War, and it was John Hurt! This threw us all into a tiz, trying to work out how he fitted in the grand scheme of things; was he the older version of the Eighth Doctor, was he the Ninth Doctor (thus making Eccleston the Tenth, and Tennant the Eleventh and so on)? We were all hoping that the anniversary special would answer this, and despite McGann’s insistence to the contrary, I for one was certain he’d appear somehow. But not like this!
 
I, like so many, clicked that YouTube link to see this minisode (as they’re now called) and watched as the TARDIS rushed through space to help a ship about to crash. And like all the others, my mouth at first fell open, and then broke into a wide smile when a voice said ‘I’m a Doctor, just probably not the one you expected’ and the shot cut to Paul McGann standing there with a cheeky grin on his stubbly face.
For the first time Steven Moffat (whose reign as producer has not always inspired me with confidence) was God. He delivered, in seven minutes, the best piece of Doctor Who he had ever written and produced. Finally all our questions were answered. This was the Eighth Doctor who had lived a long time past the TV Movie of 1996, who had endured much pain and loss, who had lived through the Big Finish audios (yes, for the first time since Nu Who began, the Big Finish Eighth Doctor adventures were given their place in TV canon when the Doctor names all his Big Finish companions – a lovely touch, and a most unexpected one [and one that creates more work for me, when I come to to revising my Companions book]), and was now battered and bruised by the Time War, which he refused to become a part of.  At last we knew, it was not the Eighth Doctor who fought in the Time War, and it was not he who regenerated into the Eccleston Doctor shortly before Rose. 
 
After years of playing the Doctor on audio, McGann stepped effortlessly back into the role, in an outfit that was the perfect evolution from that which he wore in the TV Movie. I had always liked the ‘dark eyes’ look Big Finish took to using, leather jacket and satchel included, and it always seemed a nice link between the old and new, but the outfit McGann sported in The Night of the Doctor changed that view for me. And his scenes on Karn were superb. Oh yes, Karn. Another surprising touch. A return to the location of the 1976 story The Brain of Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn, a race of immortal beings who elevate Time Lord science. For four minutes the Doctor was actually dead, unless he chose to take the offer given him by the Sisterhood, regeneration or final death. It was a sad but noble performance as the Eighth Doctor chose to end his life and become the warrior needed to fight the Time War.
 
There is really so much in these seven minutes to love. None of it was expected, but all of it so gratefully appreciated. It finally gave us that link between the ‘original’ series and the ‘new’, proving once and for all that they are but one series. And it was the moment I fell back in love with Doctor Who. Suddenly my fears of the anniversary special faded, somehow I just knew that Moffat was going to do a damn good job, and I held to my belief that we would see all the old Doctors in one form or another, and we’d see Peter Capaldi turn up (it was too much of an opportunity to pass up, in my view, a fact I told many people over and over again).
 
Andy Frankham-Allen is the author of Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants

Monday, 2 December 2013

REVIEW: AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME


Image Copyright BBC 2013

As a man who has never really dabbled much in Doctor Who, I was somewhat unsure about how to feel about the madness surrounding the 50th anniversary episode. Was it to be something exclusively for the fans, or a possible invitation for newcomers such as myself to join the party? Or maybe even both? Either way, my knowledge of the programme was insufficient. I needed a way to feel educated about the universe of Doctor Who without necessarily watching through the hundreds of available episodes. Thankfully, An Adventure in Space and Time serves this purpose nicely.

The story chronicles the birth of the show and its various production troubles, from William Hartnell’s (David Bradley) ailing health and struggles as a typecast actor, to Verity Lambert’s (Jessica Raine) own trouble as one of the early female figures in British television. It becomes clear from the very first scene that this is not necessarily the smooth and obstacle-free ride that one might initially think.

With a keen sense of nostalgia, particular effort has been put into replicating both the context of 1960s Britain in all its gloomy-weather glory, and the harsh realities that come with working from within the BBC – a place not often associated with second chances. As a result, I was immediately drawn towards Hartnell, played with excellent cynicism and humanity by David Bradley. As an actor with very little direction in his career, Hartnell’s only desire was to steer clear of the authority figures he became so often associated with. Yet with the show’s aim to inform and educate as well as to thrill and terrify, the role was understandably irresistible.

What follows is an intense, but often fun series of events that follow Hartnell and Lambert as they both fight desperately to keep Doctor Who alive, regardless of whether it came from artistic integrity or something to pay the bills. Yet in a bizarre twist, I found the story’s finest moments were the ones that distanced themselves from Doctor Who. Such moments include Hartnell’s often adorable interaction with his granddaughter and wife, reminding us that he was still a human being, with familial concerns and constant reminders of his growing age in an industry that was constantly seeking to modernise itself.

Naturally, the references to the series itself are littered throughout the script. Some are impossible to miss, while others will no doubt be detected by only the most hardened of fans. But as the story reached its conclusion, I couldn’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount that was being thrown at me. Of course, there exists five whole decades of history behind Doctor Who, and it would be a missed opportunity not to acknowledge it through various nods and winks, but at times, it felt just a little too much.
Regardless, this was easily outweighed by the positives. Every actor gave an outstanding performance, in particular Brian Cox’s dominating presence as the iconic Sydney Newman – a role he clearly had incredible fun playing. But at its very core, An Adventure in Space and Time was a very human story about a very otherworldly concept. It provided an informative but touching look at both a man desperately looking to push past his own ‘grumpy old man’ persona, as well as the now cemented position Doctor Who holds as a key part to our history and culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Bryn Lloyd

Sunday, 1 December 2013

REVIEW: THE LIGHT AT THE END

light
 
The first step of the anniversary for me began when Big Finish released their multi-Doctor anniversary adventure, The Light at the End. Now I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of Big Finish’s main range of Doctor Who adventures – I stopped listening to them when the TV series returned. Might seem a little unfair of me, but I easily tire of the over-reliance on returning monsters and companions that started to litter the releases from that point. Truly original pieces of drama seemed to diminish bit by bit, which is fine since, in my view, Big Finish needed to cater for the core group of fans – those who wanted Doctor Who as it used to be. I like my Doctor Who to continue to grow with the audience, with the social development of our culture. For me during the Wilderness Years (when there was no TV Who) Virgin Books, BBC Books  and Big Finish provided us with a Doctor Who that continued to grow, to echo the decade in which it existed, as it always did on TV. Then, in 2005, Doctor Who returned home to BBC One and the books and audio adventures seemed to lose a lot of their ambition, their originality. Which is a shame. There were some true classics produced between 1991 and 2005 – not to say that Big Finish haven’t produced some sterling stuff since, but usually it’s in their spin-off series’, like the Gallifrey series, or the I, Davros plays and, primarily, through the ongoing series of adventures for the Eighth Doctor that were being produced for transmission on BBC Radio. So, The Light at the End would be my first, for fun, look at a Big Finish play in a long while. (Bearing in mind I had to scour all of the Big Finish releases when researching my anniversary book, so it’s not like I haven’t heard the majority of them.) At the time it seemed that the official anniversary story, Day of the Doctor, was not celebrating the classic series but rather focussing on the mythos and characters introduced since 2005. The BBC insisted that no old Doctors would be appearing! To me, and so many other fans, this seemed to be a slap in the face. It was the anniversary of  fifty years of Doctor Who, not just Nu Who (as the series from 2005 to present is affectionately called), and so the cast list of The Light at the End decided me on getting that story. This seemed to me to be a true celebration with countless characters from the old series returning. For the old fans an anniversary story was an excuse to bring back as many old faces as possible – the strength of the story was secondary. We wanted something like The Five Doctors, which is not a terribly interesting story – it’s not known for its complexity, but it is known for the pure fun and nostalgia of seeing so many old friends return. And so The Light at the End
 
Hmm. How quickly one’s view can change.
 
It took me a while to work out why I left The Light at the End feeling so blah. The story was straight forward enough, although possibly not the most well-structured. It certainly brought back a whole host of old friends, every Doctor from the first to eighth made an appearance, countless companions. Essentially all one could want from an anniversary story. At least that’s what I had always thought. but upon reflection I came to realise the problem – for me, at least. Ever since Virgin got the licence to publish original Doctor Who fiction the guest appearance of old Doctors and companions had become something of a regular occurrence. Indeed, the very first novel, Timewyrm: Genesys, featured guest appearances by the Third and Fourth Doctors. Later stories saw the return of all kinds of companions from Peri to Liz to Susan, and featured all sorts of multi-Doctor stories (although none topped Lance Parkin’s Cold Fusion which featured a bona-fide reason for two Doctors being in the right place, and a wonderful spin on how the Seventh Doctor did not recall the events already, since his fifth self was also involved – the answer was simple, he did remember!). Big Finish have also featured various versions on the multi-Doctor story over the years, everything from The Sirens of Time (their very first release! Much like Virgin and BBC Books did before them), to The Four DoctorsProject: Lazurus and The Wormery. Even companions got their own stories with releases like The Five Companions. And so the problem as I see it; The Five Doctors was a success because of the nostalgia. Characters we had not seen in years returned, Doctors joined forces for the first time in ten years (well, eleven really when you consider The Three Doctors was transmitted in 1972, almost a year before the tenth anniversary). In The Light of the End it’s essentially just more of the same. We hear all these actors so often throughout the year, hear these characters interact, heard the various Doctors team-up countless times. There’s no sense of anniversary or nostalgia. Linking it to 1963 didn’t do anything except offer a failed attempt to enforce a feeling of nostalgia. We can’t orchestrate such a thing; it comes from within, from the memories. Don’t get me wrong, hearing Tom Baker and Paul McGann together is fun (although the BBC were soon about to officially do something even better with these two!), but having actors come in to impersonate the first three Doctors is not. I can see what was being attempted, but it felt like an insult. It didn’t help that none of the three actors sounded anything like the characters they were supposed to be (something in common with the Patrick Troughton impersonator on the upcoming An Adventure in Space and Time). I left the story with a feeling of blah, of ‘yeah, seen it all before’, and I realised that it was no longer just enough to have loads of old actors return to Doctor Who. An anniversary, to me, needed to be something different. A good story, a development of the mythos of the show, and a sense of nostalgia.
 
Andy Frankham-Allen is the author of Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants

Saturday, 2 November 2013

COMPANIONS: FIFTY YEARS OF DOCTOR WHO ASSISTANTS



Cover art by Terry Cooper, Copyright Candy Jar Publishing
Curiosity Piqued: 
A Non-fan's Review

Not being a fan of Doctor Who¸ I was not keen when asked to read and review Andy Frankham-Allen’s Companions: Fifty years of Doctor Who Assistants. However, having an interest in trying new things and having read Andy’s novel, Seeker, I agreed to give it a go. 

Companions is an unofficial detailed guide about every Doctor Who companion’s adventures throughout the first twenty six years on TV, running from 1963 – 1989, the 1996 television movie and the seven series of Doctor Who from 2005 to present day, as well as including the  journeys of these companions in novels, comics and radio (otherwise known as the Expanded Universe). Andy has structured Companions in a way that makes it easy for the reader to distinguish between each companion and not get lost and confused between which companion travelled with which Doctor, having two chapters per Doctor, one for the TV show and the other looking at their Expanded Universe adventures.

He immediately grabs your attention when discussing Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter and very first companion. From Susan to Ben & Polly, the last of the first Doctor’s companions, I was already curious about the TV show and even tempted to watch an episode. Andy gives a very detailed account of each of these companion’s journeys and relationships with the Doctor, allowing me to understand what sort of characters they were and how they reacted in tough situations and adjusted to life travelling with a Time Lord.

I feel that Andy really comes into his element when he reaches the companions of the Third Doctor, particularly when looking at Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant/Jones, their sections taking up multiple pages where Andy goes into tremendous detail and insight about their adventures and close friendships with the Doctor.  This continues through to the seventh Doctor, increasing my interest in the show and the feeling that I need to try watching it, as his descriptions of the characters help me picture and understand what they go through. Andy does not, however, reveal everything that happens with these companions, leaving any reader curious and wanting to find out what particularly happened in certain adventures and how they responded to the Doctor’s reactions. Andy gives enough information to help a reader develop an interest for the many companions, and leaves enough room for them to create opinions for themselves, especially about the more interesting companions (my favourites being Leela, Romana, Nyssa, Tegan, Peri and Ace).

Up to the end of the Seventh Doctor, the end of the original twenty-six-year run, the Expanded Universe entries have not been as gripping as the chapters on the TV show, until he gets to Ace. Andy explains how Ace is one of the most storied companions ever, living at least three different lives and he goes into great detail about each of these stories. He looks at Ace’s journeys in The New Adventures, Big Finish, and the story Ground Zero. It is Andy’s description in these particular stories that first made me consider looking at the Expanded Universe as well as the TV show, curious to see how other writers perceive and adapt the many companions of Doctor Who. My curiosity for the Expanded Universe grew further when Andy came to talk about the adventures of the Eighth Doctor, who, apart from the 1996 TV movie, was only featured in the Expanded Universe, which helped to keep the story alive from 1997 – 2005 before it’s return on TV. Andy divides this chapter into three key sections, In Prose, On Audio, and In Comics. In this chapter we meet new companions that never appear on screen and, considering this, I am thinking of looking for the stories that feature these companions after watching the TV show, just to fully understand those that helped the story of Doctor Who stay alive in the eight years off air.

This brings us to 2005 and the Nu Who. I remember watching the first episode as it aired on TV and thinking that this show was an interesting idea. However, as the episodes continued I slowly lost interest, only watching an episode every now and then, before stopping completely when David Tennant became the Tenth Doctor. Andy’s entries on the companions of the three Doctors of Nu Who have filled me in on what I missed and I must say I am sorry that I did. His entry of Rose with the Ninth Doctor reminded me of the episodes I had watched and revealed the ones I missed, sparking my interest in Doctor Who all over again. 

The chapter for the Tenth Doctor is the longest in the book looking at five different companions in huge detail, revealing more about the families of the companions than those of the first eight Doctors. The show seems to have become more about the companions and their lives rather than the Doctor’s, giving Andy much more to write about and he engages the readers through his simple structure following the companions in the order they appear in the show, some companions, such as Donna and Captain Jack have more than one entry having left the show and returning later. By the time I reached the chapters on the Eleventh Doctor, I have to say I felt sad that I was coming to the end of Andy’s guide having been fully caught up in Doctor Who. As Gary Russell says in the Foreword the viewers identify with the companions of the show and aspire to be them so they can help the Doctor, I feel that Andy brings this across and any reader can easily relate to the companions he talks about. He leaves the Expanded Universe of the last three Doctor’s till the last chapter, merging all three, and even writes an extract about the Brigadier who helps the Doctor in some of his adventures working for UNIT. Any reader can tell that Andy has thoroughly researched Doctor Who, watching every episode and exploring the Expanded Universe so he can write a truthful, detailed guide to every companion. He even writes about spin-off shows that focus on particular companions, such as The Sarah Jane Adventures, K9 & Company and Torchwood (the last looks at the story of Captain Jack). 
Waterstone's Signing - Image Copyright Steve Upham

Andy has worked extremely hard and I can say it has been a success, because he has made at least one reader want to watch Doctor Who and look at the Expanded Universe characters as well, so well done Andy.

I would recommend the book to anyone, be they fans or, like me, willing to be convinced. It is worth it.


Companions: Fifty Years of Doctor Who Assistants is available from all good book stockists or directly from Candy Jar Publishing for only £8.99 + p&p.


  

Sunday, 19 May 2013

THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR REVIEW - SPOILERS AHEAD!

Image Copyright BBC 2013

Well... That was rather brilliant, wasn't it? As the title of this entry suggests, there will be spoilers in this review. As a series finale, and such an important story, it'd be almost impossible to review it without mentioning things that will spoil the episode for those who've yet to see it. If you're one of those, I suggest you turn away now - go to iPlayer and WATCH the episode. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.

Okay, so let's start at the beginning. What a pre-title sequence that was! A fans' dream come true. Although, I think, it was a bit overkill to show it all again near the end of the episode, but I'm not complaining too much. Seeing Clara almost meeting the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors was rather special, and was done in a rather clever way. Either by putting Jenna-Louise Coleman into footage of previous stories, or watching body doubles walk by her slightly out of focus. Of course, from a purely fan point of view, I must wonder what adventures she was interacting with. The corridor from which she views the Seventh Doctor never appeared in Dragonfire (the story from which the McCoy footage was lifted), and she appears to be looking through a window at the Fifth Doctor, even though he's in the Matrix ala Arc of Infinity. Minor quibble, but odd nonetheless. The most interesting part of this pre-title sequence, however, is Clara meeting the First Doctor on Gallifrey 'a very long time ago', as he ushers Susan into a TARDIS - the moment upon which every single episode of Doctor Who is based. It's amazingly well done, and confirms, for the first time on television, that the Doctor and Susan did leave Gallifrey together! (But there's a better twist to this scene coming up near the end of the episode - so we'll get there later.)

Despite these appearances of past Doctors, it takes a good ten minutes for the Doctor to actually get involved in the story-proper, since we have more screen time devoted to Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. This, in itself, is no bad thing. I for one would love to see a spin-off series with these characters - a nice Victorian Gothic-comedy-detective series. Vastra learns that someone has discovered the Doctor's secret on Trenzalore, and so initiates a psychic conference call with both Clara and River Song. It's brilliant to see River back, and this time the River we last saw in 2008's Silence in the Library - yes, the one who died to save the Doctor! It works perfectly well, she is an echo of River's mind that was uploaded to the moon-sized hard drive orbiting the Library. It's another amazing performance by Alex Kingston, possibly her best yet, and it is nice to see her playing the more mature, and sad, River who we first met. There's some wonderful interaction between River and Clara, who is surprised to learn that River knows the Doctor's name, although River refuses to explain how she made him tell her.

Enter the Doctor. Another assured and reserved performance by Matt Smith - easily his best yet. He taps into the Doctor's soul-destroying sadness, but still carries the iron resolve one expects from the Doctor, when he determines to go to Trenzalore and face his own future. For it is on Trenzalore that the Doctor is buried. Or is he? It's a little complicated when he gets there, and we're shown the impressive monument in which the Doctor's future resides. The TARDIS! 

What a sight it is! The dimensional dams have broken down, and as a result the Police Box shell is now bigger on the outside, towering over the graveyard of Trenzalore. We follow the Doctor and Clara through this future TARDIS interior, with scenes that are by far more interesting than those shown a few weeks back in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, and Clara begins to remember what she forgot in that episode, including the conversation she had with the Doctor in which she discovered that he keeps on meeting her. The reason for this is finally revealed when they reach the console room of this future TARDIS - which is the current console room, only overgrown with foliage. This is a bit of a puzzle. If this is far in the Doctor's personal future, why is the console room still his current one? The Doctor goes through console rooms like most people go through socks, you'd expect this future console room to be something entirely new and previously unseen.

In this console room we see that, instead of his body ('bodies are boring...I've had loads of them'), the TARDIS tomb holds the Doctor's time stream, the 'scar tissue of my journey through space and time'. There the Great Intelligence (played with sinister panache by Richard E Grant) casts himself into the Doctor's timeline, to corrupt and destroy it - turning every victory of the Doctor into defeat. And it is here that we learn the truth about Clara. She comes to realise the reason for the echoes of her is because of this moment - that she has to cast herself into the Doctor's timeline and save him. It is at this point that we come to understand why she exists throughout time, always encountering the Doctor, and why she tells the Doctor to 'run, you clever boy. And remember me'. I do, however, have a little quibble here. Up until this point none of the Claras have known the Doctor when they met him - although they have all been compelled to help him. But when she's scattered and interacts with the past Doctors, she appears to know who he is, even to the point of telling the First Doctor that he should steal the TARDIS she's standing by, and not the one he just pushed Susan into. It may have a faulty directional unit, but it will be much more fun! Basically, it's Clara who sets the Doctor on his journey through time in his 'rackety old TARDIS'. This point does contradict what we learned in 2011's The Doctor's Wife, when the TARDIS tells the Doctor that she stole him, and not the other way around. A minor point, but still... It doesn't take away from the greatness of the moment, though, seeing the First Doctor on Gallifrey prior to the very first episode of Doctor Who fifty years ago.

The First Doctor steals the TARDIS from Gallifrey
(image copyright BBC 2013)
This sets the scene for the final moments of what, we discover, is actually the first of a two-part anniversary story. Set within the Doctor's time stream, Clara sees echoes of various Doctors, and every single Doctor is seen in some way or another, except the Eighth Doctor. Why this omission? The Doctor follows Clara into his own time stream, his 'every good day, every bad day'. Here Clara explains that she's seen ALL the Doctors, all eleven of him, so who is that man standing with his back to them? 

The surprise reveal is John Hurt - playing 'not the Doctor', despite the on screen credit. The Doctor makes a point of saying that this man is not the Doctor, but rather his secret, the one who broke the promise. Did everything that isn't the Doctor. It's a little vague, but enough to suggest that John Hurt's character is the truth behind the Doctor, the man he really is, the man he was, the identity hidden beneath the fa├žade of 'the Doctor'...

So, my verdict? I have to confess I rather loved it. For the first time since Steven Moffat took over as executive producer, I've seen an episode I actually loved. I'm not saying it's perfect (name one episode of Who that is), but it's certainly something I can watch a few times without getting bored. The interaction with past Doctors was wonderfully handled, even to the point of adding grain to the screen to give it an old video-tape look, and we got to see River say her final goodbye to the Doctor. Plus the ever-entertaining Strax! But, here's my one big gripe: what secret was revealed? Other than John Hurt, we never got the Doctor's greatest secret revealed to us. No name was uttered (except by River out of earshot), no further clues as to Who the Doctor is. Just that we know he dies in battle on Trenzalore, and deep within his timeline exists the man behind the myth - the dark secret. We did, however, get a mention of the Valeyard ('every evil impulse of the Doctor' who appeared in 1986's The Trial of a Time Lord), which may be an important connection to this John Hurt not-Doctor.

Perhaps the second part of this story, in November, will be more enlightening?

Also, one last time, why no Eighth Doctor? I wonder...

Image Copyright BBC 2013


Andy Frankham-Allen

Sunday, 12 May 2013

NIGHTMARE IN SILVER REVIEW - TREK WHO?

Copyright BBC 2013



The Cybermen have always been, to me at least, better as a concept than reality. And their best and most chilling iteration so far has been, sad to say, not in Doctor Who - but, rather the Borg (don't scream). Their back story, continuity and modus operandi is a complete mess (are they the result of transplant tech gone mad, mere "upgrades" to the human form, with a totally robotic body? Both, it seems). So here's Neil Gaiman with yet another twist in the Cybertale - but does it work?

Yes and no, but mostly no. Most of the tweaks are laughable - and that is a shame as the last thing you want is to make the Cybermen funny. Chortle as you watch them run faster than Billy Whizz on crack! (But they only do this once, and spend the rest of the time stomping about as per, so what's the point? Raston Warrior Robots also spring to mind.) Titter as a Cyberman unhands itself and goes all Hand of Fear! Gasp with utter disbelief as a Cyberman TAKES ITS HEAD OFF, props it on a wall and uses it as bait as it creeps up on someone! This, if you think about it for half a second, is utterly pointless. Wouldn't the victim hear the Cyberman's clompy boots? And Cybermen are (meant to be) so powerful that they would not need to engage in such playground tactics. They'd just stomp up to you and rip your head off. Now that would have been cool. I'm not saying Doctor Who should indulge in gratuitous violence, but if the remit was to make the Cybermen scary again, they should have been shown doing something REALLY nasty, not fart-arsing around with bits of their bodies. The bleeding hands of Lytton spring immediately to mind.

It's not all bad, though - their new look is great, as are their deep voices. Sinister. And their ability to upgrade in the face of any new threat is cool, though it does make one immediately think of the Borg. As does the Cyber hive mind, or whatever its called, make one think of the Borg Collective. Also, the shots of millions of Cybermen on the march are very impressive. Best of all are the Cybermites, a genuinely great idea which makes logical sense and seems to fit well with Cyber mythology.

As for the story - er, what story? "ONOZ! It's the Cybermen! They've upgraded! Now there's three million of them! BOOM! Phew!" What was the point of bringing them back if only to get rid of them again?

Of course, there's more to it than that, and that is where the central flaw of the story lies. The Doctor and Mr Clever. This could have been his Locutus of Borg moment, but instead we just get a hyper-camp performance from Matt Smith which never, not once, feels like the Doctor is in any danger. Matt Smith is a great actor, and a great Doctor, but I think he missed a trick here, taking his performance the wrong way. Imagine what Tom Baker would have done with this. Or Christopher Eccleston. They'd have us terrified that the Doctor was going to lose. Idle speculation, certainly, but I think Smith's performance ruined what could have been a tense and frightening story.

Clara is weird here, taking command of a rag-tag bunch of troops and not even batting an eyelid. She gets a lovely scene with Warwick Davis' character at the end. In fact, Davis gives the best performance and is the most interesting, layered character in the story. The others? Jason Watkins is totally wasted, Tamzin Outwhaite and her crew of misfits are totally forgettable, and the kids - whilst not completely nauseating - represent a missed opportunity. One of them should have been converted or killed - imagine the powerful scenes between the Doctor and Clara after - but no, once again this story decides to play it safe.

The setting – an abandoned amusement park in space – is typical Gaiman but never convinces as a real location, and SCREAMS – SCREAMS!!! – McCoy era Doctor Who. Within which there was another silly story about Cybermen with Silver in the title, and if I’m being honest, I have to say I prefer that to this.

Nick Walters is the author of several Doctor Who novels including The Fall of Yquatine and Dry Pilgrimage.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

THE CRIMSON HORROR REVIEW: TROUBLE AT MILL?


On first seeing the trailer for this week’s episode, The Crimson Horror, Penny from The Big Bang Theory popped into my head with that line about Doctor Who always ending up in Victorian Britain despite having a time machine that can go anywhere. I had that same ‘Here we go again’ feeling, further compounded by the thought that this was going to be one of those seemingly throw-away genre episodes like The Curse of the Black Spot. When I found out it was Mark Gatiss at the motherboard I had mixed feelings; love his dark comedy writings but then there’s The Idiot’s Lantern, one of my least favourite episodes. My disappointment lay in the knowledge that here’s a man who knows how to write ‘dark’ extremely well and yet seemed to be a holding back. I know you can’t dish the kids up a helping of The League of Gentlemen in a Blue Box - not unless you can also afford their counselling sessions – but still, it felt like a swig of diluted Mark Gatiss.

Not so The Crimson Horror, which was like Mark Gatiss concentrate. Now here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to enthuse for a bit, sometimes gushingly so, and then I’m not. Just so you know. Anyway, The Crimson Horror was pure Gatiss, combining his love for Doctor Who with that of Hammer films and Sherlock Holmes – the title itself is not only reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation but it also brings to mind the Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls.’ His fascination with Victorian England is one that lingers on the grotesque, very much like David Lynch’s in The Elephant Man. The scene where Ada’s scars are revealed to a gasping audience is, it appears, a direct nod to the film.

Setting the episode in the Victorian north rather than the usual London locations proved to be an inspired touch as not only did we get Matt Smith’s Doctor busting out his northern accent but the obsession with moral perfection, so prevalent in the Industrial Revolution’s northern factory communities, contrasted beautifully with the grotesque. The hypocrisy of those demanding such moral perfection was, thankfully, subtly explored through the relationship between Ada and her breathtakingly insane mother, Winifred Gillyflower, played by off-screen mother and daughter, Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling.

On hearing that this episode had been tailored to allow mother and daughter to appear on screen together for the first time I had my misgivings (I get a lot of those. Does it show? Let’s call it Moffatitus), as that being the motivating force behind a story can result in the whole venture feeling a little too forced. It transpires, however, that they were slotted into an already existing story, and a ripping good yarn it was.

Beginning the episode with the Doctor in need of rescuing felt like a fresh approach and added to the growing sense that the Doctor is vulnerable; an invincible, undefeatable Doctor doesn’t really work for me, it’s the Superman syndrome, the character becomes a bit boring. Having the Doctor be the Hammer Horror ‘beast in the cellar’ hooked me; a masterful bit of storytelling. It wasn’t only the writing that won through here though; the flashback scene really intrigued me for the reason that it was so risky. For a moment it jolted me out of the story, the sepia look and the damaged-celluloid effects felt too affected, but then the pace and editing had me hooked again and I ended up wishing that the show would take more risks. I believe a shout out is due to Director, Saul Metzstein, and Film Editor, Matthew Cannings, for this.

Overall The Crimson Horror proved to be hugely entertaining. It was fun. It was also genuinely funny. The scene with Strax talking to the horse and the Doctor’s Pythonesque‘trouble at mill’ northern facade were very funny, as was the Doctor’s reference to Tegan as a ‘gobby Australian’ – following this up with the Doctor calling Clara ‘Brave heart Clara’, another Tegan nod, left me wondering if we now know who Mark Gatiss’ favourite companion is. Mr. Sweet was both hysterical and repulsive; calling him Mr. Sweet was genius and resulted in some wonderfully absurd dialogue. The whole Hammer Horror feel took me back to when I were a nipper – sorry, couldn’t resist – and BBC2 used to show a late-night Saturday horror movie double bill. Diana Rigg delivered a spectacularly mad and unrepentant villainess, and the inclusion of Strax, Vastra and Jenny from The Snowmen worked well, thankfully avoiding the saccharine commraderie-cliches that usually accompany such team-ups.

But then it all went horribly wrong, or least threatened to. Clara returns home to find that the children she is looking after have discovered she’s a time traveller through the eye-rollingly coincidental discovery of conveniently posed photos from all her adventures. No, really, it’s OK, I can make this square peg fit into this round hole, don’t worry. All I need is a hammer and a chainsaw. Look! It fits! The whole thing felt forced and I could feel my Moffatitus playing up again. A couple of wise-cracking kids in the TARDIS? Please, no. I sense that there may indeed be ‘trouble at mill.’

Richard Kelly

Sunday, 28 April 2013

JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE TARDIS REVIEW


When the title of this week’s episode of Doctor Who was realised, fandom rejoiced. At last us viewers would be leaving the central control room to see more of the wondrous time machine. We all knew that the interior of the TARDIS was huge, but since the series return, other than a few corridors we have not seen much else. In the original series run there were several tours into the depths of the TARDIS, most notably in The Invasion of Time, where we found that much of the insides looked like a twentieth century power station and that the Doctor had a massive boot cupboard. This time, what would we see?

So, did Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS live up to our expectations? Well, for me the answer is both yes and no. It is true that we got to see more of the TARDIS than we have in a very long time, and some of the places we are shown are superb. We get a fleeting glimpse of the often mentioned swimming pool and a beautiful Gallifreyan telescope (so the TARDIS has its own observatory), and we finally get to see the eye of harmony in all its glory. However, much of the action takes place yet again in corridors. Personally, I would have loved to have seen something from the old series. How great it would have been if Clara had stumbled across Nyssa and Tegan’s bedrooms, or even just a room decorated with the old white roundels. This aside, what we did see was impressive. The supporting cast, however were pretty one-dimensional and unlikeable, so I found myself not caring when one of them dies. But this is not really their story; it is of the TARDIS and of secrets.

The episode begins with the Doctor taking down the TARDIS’s shields to allow Clara to pilot the ship. Bad idea. A salvage crew, the Van Baalen brothers and their android companion Tricky, mistake the TARDIS as space junk. Once they use a magno-grab get their claws into the TARDIS, they bring about a meltdown of the engines. The Doctor is catapulted out of the TARDIS into the salvage space craft, but Clara is left inside as the TARDIS spews poisonous gas. On the pretext of the salvage of a lifetime, the Doctor enlists the aid of the Van Baalen brothers to journey inside the stricken ship to rescue Clara. It is never mentioned in the episode, but it is certain that the Doctor would have gone back on the deal. Imagine the disruption to the timeline if Gallifreyan technology got into the hands of these people. He already knew that the Van Baalen brothers would not live up to their responsibilities, seeing that they were using tech that was banned and willing to lie to the authorities about casualties when they thought the Doctor was dead. Instead he tells them what they want to hear. Remember, the Doctor lies. It’s good to see the Doctor’s dark manipulative nature rear its head again, as once they all inside he locks the doors and pretends to have set the TARDIS’s self-destruct to force them into helping him. ‘Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?’ he quips. He’s obviously enjoying his deceit.

The poison gas threat is a little too quickly dispensed of, as the Doctor turns on the air-conditioning, but there is a greater threat. Burnt zombies are stalking them. And if that isn’t enough, the salvage crew try to to steal parts of the TARDIS, resulting in the TARDIS ‘getting huffy’ by reconfiguring the layout so they cannot get out. The Doctor did warn them that a TARDIS tantrum was coming on.

On our journey through the ship, even though there were no white roundels there were some nice nods to the past. Clara discovers Amy’s toy TARDIS, and the magnify glass that Donna used in The Unicorn and the Wasp. We even got to see the Doctor’s cot again. However, it was the whispered voices of past companions and Doctors that excited me.

One of the TARDIS’s rooms that also impressed was the library. It looked as if Clara had stumbled into Hogwarts by accident, with a massive room full of books including a shelf containing the Encyclopaedia Gallifrey in potion form. But it is the book The History of the Time War that every fan would give his right arm to read. Clara takes a peek, and recognises that the Doctor is mentioned in the text. She doesn’t seem upset or disturbed by what she reads, only saying ‘So that’s who’. What she discovered is sure to rear its head by the end of the season.

Throughout this episode there were secrets. The android Tricky was really human, and in reality one of the Van Baalen brothers, and the Doctor was unwilling to let Clara know that the zombies were a glimpse of themselves in the future due to fracture in time. They are destined to die. The Doctor also has his showdown with Clara, demanding that she tell him who she is, convinced for that moment that she was hiding something from him, and naturally she has no idea what he is talking about.

But time is rewritten in the end, so the engines never exploded and nothing bad happened. Fortunately for the Doctor, Clara won’t even remember the events so his secret is safe for now…. or is it… as one of the Van Baalen brothers remembers his lesson to have some common decency. Will Clara also remember?

Benjamin Burfurd-Jones

Sunday, 21 April 2013

HIDE REVIEW: PUTTING THE BOO BACK INTO DOCTOR WHO


Padding down the hallway, spilling coffee, I heard the announcer announce, as announcers do, that Doctor Who would be on in a moment and it was time to hide behind the sofa. Do kids actually do that anymore? This is something I’ve been wondering lately. My cynical self’s been wondering of late if the brand and all those tacky plastic free-gift Daleks on the front of Doctor Who mags are detracting from one of the show’s most important jobs; to scare the crap out of kids. It’s part of the thrill.It's part of the legacy. As the the announcer proved, it's a shared cultural memory.

Watching the trailer for this week’s episode, Hide, I’d thought, OK, it’ll be The Haunting of Hill House minus the scares. The ghost’ll turn out to be nice and it’ll collapse under the weight of its own banality, crumbling into a schmaltz-fest that’ll result in me turning into the kind of bitter individual who ends up writing jaded things like this.

But no. Well, yes in a way too because there was a distinct nod to The Haunting of Hill House with the ghostly crashes and bangs, and yes the ghost was nice, so I can  and will   look a little smug but the episode was an excellent surprise. It was actually scary and didn’t rely on tired cinematic devices to achieve this. Instead, with its small cast, claustrophobic interiors and dark look it successfully created an atmosphere of foreboding, much more so than last week’s Cold War episode which, despite taking place on a submarine, really didn’t capture that sense of isolation.

Earlier in the day I’d popped in to see friends. On hearing that I was to be writing this their nine-year-old daughter vanished upstairs and returned with her arms full of Doctor Who collectables and toys. I asked whether the Cold War episode had scared her and she simply shrugged, wrinkled her nose and thoughtfully shook her head. I wonder what she made of this week’s episode?

It’s the first episode I’ve seen in some time that had support characters which were genuinely engaging. Emma Grayling, as played by Jessica Raine, and Dougray Scott as Professor  Alec Palmer, were shrouded in such a palpable aura of sadness. Isolation, doubt, guilt and fear were the real 'monsters' in this episode. The themes of love, seperation and aloneness were executed with an assured subtleness that proved such a welcome change from spending an hour being repeatedly beaten around the head with a ‘message,’ quite often to the point where I sit, concussed, watching the final credits roll and wondering if I should go along to A&E and get checked for head trauma.

Something’s changed about Matt Smith’s Doctor too. I’m going to step forward and say that I believe he’s a great Doctor, which has only fueled my frustration with the show because it’s all felt like a massive missed opportunity. Last night, and the first two thirds of The Rings of Akhaten (or up until the cosmic sing-along bit) – both by writer, Neil Cross, have provided a glimpse of how good the show really could be. Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara is really shaping up to be a memorable companion and not just a fresh-off-the-production-line two-dimensional ‘feisty woman.’ As Emma Grayling points out, Clara is more scared than she lets on. So it seems is the Doctor, and perhaps this is what feels different about him; at times he appears full of doubt and painfully vulnerable. In Hide his quirkiness came across as a mask, a performance for those around him. When alone in the pocket universe that mask momentarily slips revealing a completely different Doctor. Perhaps the most chilling moment for me came when Emma Grayling tells Clara not to trust the Doctor; that he has a sliver of ice in his heart. That alone has got me tuning in next week.

Good to see a few 'whovian pleasers' in there as well. There were references to The Eye of Harmony and the blue crystal of Metebelis, stolen by the Doctor in The Green Death and later returned in The Planet of the Spiders – which, incidentally, were two of the first Doctor Who episodes I can clearly remember seeing as a kid, both of which scared me, as they should! The orange spacesuit from The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit got an outing too, albeit a brief one. Actually it looked in need of a good boil wash.

After Hide I went online for a little research and came across an interview with Neil Cross conducted recently by SFX magazine, and what do I find? Refering to Hide he speaks about his desire to make a really scary episode, one that produces in the audience, and especially in children within the nine to twelve years old bracket, the same response to the show that he experienced as a child of around the same age; terror. He adds that one of his influences for Hide was the cult British show Quatermass, which, he goes on to say, Doctor Who owes a lot to Quatermass was another show that terrified me as a kid, although, being so young I remember the 1970s Thames Television outing starring John Mills rather than the original. No comments please. The show, like Hide, had a very grainy, almost colourless look and used atmosphere to build tension, rather than in-your-face shocks.

Towards the end of last night's episode I could feel myself begin to tense up as I waited for the feel-good, schmaltz ridden ending, and yes it did lean towards that a little but in a very understated way that felt unforced and consistent with the rest of the episode. All in all the best, and most suprising, episode I've seen in a while. Let Neil Cross do more, I say. He's putting the much needed 'Boo!' back in Doctor Who.
 
Richard Kelly

Saturday, 13 April 2013

COLD WAR REVIEW

 
This is, on one level, a typical base under siege type of Doctor Who episode, of the kind done many times over the past fifty years – and not only in Doctor Who. And having it set on a Russian submarine during the Cold War just added a little extra depth: Yes, the interior of the sub was not accurate – too flat a floor, wider space, and the incorrectly named ‘bridge’ – but this is Who and you have to allow for certain dramatic liberties. Thing is, the minor errors that popped up throughout the episode are largely irrelevant, because that’s not the pull of this story.

This is the first Doctor Who episode to feature the Ice Warriors since 1974’s The Monster of Peladon, some thirty-nine years ago. They almost came back in 1985, but the original season twenty-three was cancelled and away with it went Mission to Magnus and the Doctor’s rematch with the Ice Warriors. During the long years in which Doctor Who was off our screen, from 1990 to 2004, the authors of the novels and audio dramas created a very rich mythology around the Martian culture of the Ice Warriors, and they featured in arguably some of the best pieces of Doctor Who fiction ever written.

So, to hear that they were set to return in this anniversary year came as no surprise. That they’d return to the 21stCentury Doctor Who was pretty much a given. Despite only appearing in four stories during the series’ original run, they’ve always been regarded as one of the top five monsters (alongside the Daleks, the Cybermen , the Sontarans and the Silurians). What wasn’t certain, however, is how well they’d be brought back. After recent design disasters –first the Dalek paradigm in Victory of the Daleks and then the radically altered appearance of the Silurians in The Hungry Earth – it’s understandable that many had reservations about the Ice Warriors return. Such concerns were pushed aside when the design was revealed, so that was one good point in favour of the upcoming Cold War. The question remained; would they be depicted with the respect they deserved?

It’s a valid question, after all Mark Gatiss was the writer behind Victory of the Daleks (although, in fairness, his other stories since 2005 have been generally regarded as, at least, good). Well, the answer, for this reviewer, is a resounding YES!

Gatiss played it well. A very straightforward story – very little subplot, just the crew of the submarine vs the Ice Warrior, with the Doctor and Clara’s help, of course. He knew that it’s all about selling the Ice Warriors, making them powerful and menacing, a worthy addition to the updated Whomythos. The script is one aspect that makes it work – Gatiss draws on a lot of the mythology established in the novels, and builds on it – but the slight re-design of the costume brings it to a whole new level. Finally we get to see what’s inside the armour (for yes, it is indeed armour – which we all kind of knew anyway), and learn that the armour was built as a survival suit to combat the freezing temperatures of Mars. We don’t get to see all of the Martian –just its arms and elements of its body in shadow. Better too little than too much.

What about the rest of the cast? Well, Matt Smith continues the assured performance he’s had since The Snowmen, commanding the respect of all those he meets. And Jenna Louise-Coleman is proving to be quite a find as Clara. She has some wonderful moments – questioning the Ice Warrior, the moment with David Warner after Clara has seen the dismembered bodies. Ah yes, David Warner. As awesome as ever. He doesn’t have a huge role, but he imbues it with charm and wit. Liam Cunningham is great, too, with some brilliant chemistry between him and Smith.

In short, it’s another really fun episode. Nothing complicated, just an easy story, a vehicle for the reintroduction of a classic monster. And it does exactly what it needs to do. With panache!

Andy Frankham-Allen

Monday, 8 April 2013

THE RINGS OF AKHATEN REVIEW


Well, episode number 2 of this second half of the season just aired. 'The Rings Of Akhaten' initially seemed to be an Egyptian or Arabic themed story, judging by it's promotional images, but I found it had more in common with earlier RTD-era stories, notably, the Ninth Doctor story, 'The End Of The World' and to a lesser extent, the Tenth Doctor story, 'Gridlock'.

It's probably too soon to say, but with a new look for the titles/opening theme, TARDIS and a new companion, I sensed a sort of repeat of a formulaic approach. Last week's showy, fast-paced, London-centric episode reminded me of the very first 2005 episode, 'Rose', while this one was like 'The End Of The World' in a few ways - it seemed to be cheaper, studio-based (save for a few opeing location shots), and a little less substantial, story wise. Almost as if they needed a smaller 'aside' to pad out the series before the heavy hitters come in (Ice Warriors next week, folks!).

Instant reactions to the episode from comments I've read on Facebook and Twitter suggest that it wasn't well liked at all. Some compared it to 'The Beast Below' as there were small similarities.

Simply put, the Doctor is first seen at key moments in Clara Oswald's life: as he seems to be intrigued by her recent appearances in his, he is shown observing Clara's parents on the day they meet and (rather creepily) as they take their child out to the park. Then later at the funeral of Clara's mother.

The Doctor comes back to present-day, where he picks Clara up and asks her to pick a destination. She just says, "somewhere awesome!" and they step out on The Rings Of Akhaten - literally a billion bits of rock circling a giant planet. Clara sees a shining pyramid in the distance and asks to visit it.

Soon they are wandering round an alien-filled town and Clara is enjoying all the sights and sounds, when, for no adequately explained reason, the Doctor nips off for a second, leaving Clara alone. She sees a frightened child named Mary who seems to be running from someone.

It turns out that she is part of an ages-old ritual where the aliens sing a never-ending lullaby to keep some kind of powerful, soul-eating 'deity' asleep. Clara persuades Mary to be confident and perform her duties, and soon The Doctor and Clara are watching the ceremony, when it seems to go awry. Mary is dragged off her feet and away into the air.

The Doctor and Clara jump onto a 'Flash Gordon styled flying bike and set out to rescue her. Nothing major happens, apart from door/sonic srewdriver shenanigans, quickly-despatched threats and the whole story is rounded off with the Doctor offering his 1000 years of memories as a kind of supersized meal to the fiery CGI monster planet, while Clara offers a leaf of great sentimental value. All's well that ends well then.

While not terrible, it's not terribly exciting either. I'm not sure what the budget was on FX, CGI or costumes (a lot of alien suits here), it felt like one of the cheaper, thrown-together episodes.

Acting performances were good but not as sizzling as last week's episode. I'm sure the demographic audience of children liked it enough, but it seemed to lack a certain 'oomph' - no real threats, no deep drama, and the 'love conquers all' schmaltzy ending has been done much better before, elsewhere in WHO (The Empty Child for example?)

I gave it a 4 out of 10

Terry Cooper

Sunday, 31 March 2013

THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN REVIEW

 
Ringing in the new season...

Despite being a split ‘season’ on paper, this was without doubt a series opener. It had all the spectacle one expects from the opening instalment, introducing all the key plot points that will carry on through the next seven episodes (Clara’s mysterious origins, the villain behind this story [spoiler alert – do not read the final paragraph if you haven’t seen this episode yet]), and yet somehow managed to tell a nice little story, feeding into people's fear of technology and concern over the way the Internet has made the world so small.

In tone, this episode felt more like a RTD adventure than a Moffat one, which for me was a nice change of pace – being more of a fan of RTD’s era than Moffat’s. Nonetheless, the usual Moffat flourishes are here – a new companion with a convoluted back-story (although, even after only three appearances, the mystery surrounding Clara [not‘Oswin’ – a name she hasn’t even heard of when the Doctor first appears at her front door, but one she does come up with later after scoring a win – an oswin] is much more intriguing than anything done with Amy Pond), movie-inspired moments that are there more for spectacle than plot (the plane crashing towards Clara’s house, and the Doctor subsequently flying it away, and the Doctor riding his anti-grav bike up the Shard), and some clever continuity references (most notably the book ‘Summer Falls’ written by Amelia Williams [Clara’s favourite chapter being eleven], and the appearance of UNIT, an ‘old friend’ of the Big Bad), not to mention some nice nods to real-world events such as the London Riots of 2011 and the Police Box in Earl’s Court.

It’s a good idea – using the ubiquitous Wifi as a way of alien invasion, and it’s the kind of idea Doctor Who does well, subverting something everyday into something malevolent. This is not a new trope of Doctor Who – indeed, it’s been a staple of the best kind of episodes since the ‘60s (and became an almost weekly occurrence during Barry Letts era of 1970-75). Granted, this does lead to the oh-so-exciting visual of two hackers going neck to neck via typing extremely fast on a keyboard. Fortunately it’s not a major piece of the episode, so it’s not overdone, but it was predictable and proves, once more, than it’s not much of a dramatic visual.

No review would be complete without a word or two about our lead man. This is now Matt Smith’s fourth year in the role, and it’s most certainly going to prove to be his most important year, since Doctor Who celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in November – and for the most part Matt Smith will be carrying the series through this milestone of television history. No pressure there. As the recent announcement of David Tennant’s return suggests, Smith will not be the only actor portraying the Doctor this anniversary year, so at least he’ll have some support, but, in some respects, he’s going to have an awful lot to live up to. If this episode proves anything, he’ll carry us through the year magnificently. Without doubt, Smith is so comfortable in the role now – the excesses of previous years have been toned down – he dominates the screen from the moment he pulls down his monk’s hood right up to the final moment of him running around the TARDIS console. And the chemistry between him and Jenna-Louise Coleman is superb – it sparkles! There is much that can be said of his on-screen chemistry with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill in the previous three years, but it pales in comparison to the way he and Coleman connects. We saw much of the same in last year’s The Snowmen, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Whatever the mystery is surrounding Clara, I’m looking forward to the journey. Watching these two is a pure joy.

SPOILER ALERT!

It’s impossible not to mention the reveal of the intelligence behind the invasion of the Wifi. We saw the creation of it on Christmas Day – and no, it isn’t the Saviour of Man. It is, in fact, the Great Intelligence, previously seen in two Patrick Troughton stories (in 1967’s The Abominable Snowmen and 1968’s The Web of Fear). It calls UNIT an old friend, a nice link to The Web of Fear, since it was that story which lead to the formation of UNIT, but the best thing about the return of the Great Intelligence in the anniversary year is having Richard E Grant continue to voice it (as per The Snowmen). For a short period, in 2003, Grant was the Doctor, in the webcast, Scream of the Shalka, but his position as official Ninth Doctor was overwritten by the series return in 2005 and the casting of Christopher Eccleston. So it’s a nice touch that Grant makes such an important contribution this year – and yes, as indicated by the end of this episode, we’ve clearly not seen the last of the Great Intelligence.

Bottom Line:This is quite possibly the most assured episode of Doctor Who since Matt Smith took over the reins.

Andy Frankham-Allen