Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Review: FROM OUT OF THE RAIN





























Episode ten of Torchwood series two, written by Peter J Hammond, directed by Jonathan Fox Bassett, 2008

A one-off review of a single episode from Torchwood’s second series might seem random, but consider it the episode that broke the camel’s back.

I haven’t actually watched that much Torchwood – I’ve recently caught a few from the first series (which is so awful it’s quite compulsive), but only iPlayered a few from the second series at the time. I’ve mainly become desensitised to the sustained awfulness, though the recently repeated End of Days was particularly heinous: an illogical, tediously obligatory end-of-the-world scenario, with bizarre pacing and a ‘climactic’ giant demonic monster that was dispatched literally two minutes after appearing.

Admittedly, Children of Earth was a massive step up, and heartening because, at the time of From Out of the Rain’s original broadcast, I thought the only way to salvage some potential from Torchwood would be to restructure the entire show. Great minds, and all that. Children of Earth is almost a whole different beast though, so let’s put that aside for the time being. Pretty much all the previous episodes have been flaccid, but From Out of the Rain has to be the most irritating, seeing as it actually appeared to have potential. Sometimes you just have to write a review in the hope of catharsis, because something’s bugging you so much; this is one of them.

This episode feels as if it was made by people who have never seen, let alone made, a TV programme before. It’s like a student film; even the lighting is abysmal. All but the most ineffectual of programmes can at least make you suspend your disbelief, but Torchwood doesn’t succeed there on even the most basic of levels, as it never fails to feel like exactly what it is: some actors in a room, or running around with prop guns. Even the extras are noticeably shit, which is quite an achievement!

For an episode that is clearly attempting to be creepy and sinister, damningly, there’s just no atmosphere. Compare this to, say, HBO’s (Depression-set last-days-of-magic carnie-drama) Carnivàle (which, okay, is only really relevant here because of the travelling show element) – a show that is intriguing, intelligent, and, despite having supernatural elements, grounded by characters who are recognisably human beings… Torchwood, I’m afraid, is laughably small fry by comparison, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be at least aiming for the level of visual beauty and expansive reality that show occupies.

Okay, that HBO gave Carnivàle $4 million per episode to play with probably helps, but – I’m sorry, I’m not just being a bitch here – much as I hate American domination, British TV just doesn’t measure up to the more worthwhile programmes America makes. The Fox pilot that’s been commissioned for a US version of Torchwood doesn’t make me feel any better though, because the worst American shows are so bad they don’t even make it over here, and I’m pretty certain which end of the scale this will fall. (And, while we’re at it, the concept of an American version of Doctor Who would be a massive betrayal. And anyone who thinks otherwise – ie, the people who’d commission it - are morons.)

To even approach the level of individuality of something like Carnivàle, a show like Torchwood needs a cohesive guiding hand, in the sense of something like Lars von Trier’s (fantastic) hospital-set supernatural black comedy/horror The Kingdom (aka Riget), or Lynch’s Twin Peaks – both products of the imagination of a single figure. Torchwood lacks this completely, more specifically, admittedly, in its first two seasons, but its basic structure is fundamentally flawed. It’s so obviously engineered so that the team will encounter a new enemy each week – rather than taking the more difficult, but inestimably more satisfying approach of shows like Being Human or True Blood, where the characters have real lives, houses and jobs, and encounter supernatural situations in a less highly-regulated way. Programmes like that highlight how cynically Torchwood is put together; it’s meant to be an adult show, but still relies on a straightforwardly episodic format, rather than a more sophisticated layered, long-term format which carries various threads through every episode of the season, and therefore doesn't talk down to its audience.

I fail to see who actually accepts Torchwood’s crashingly straight-forward structure, and thinks it’s even vaguely worthy of their time. Which is particularly depressing as the elements in this episode specifically – a creepy travelling show comes to town – should write themselves. But, instead, it’s like an episode of The Demon Headmaster. (Even Papa Lazarou was scarier than this.) I seriously mean that – it’s no more adult than that, and doesn’t even have the excuse that it’s children’s TV. There’s not even a plot, for Christ’s sake, let alone characters (I know the previous couple of episodes tried, with Owen), and reveals the team as the dull ciphers they shouldn’t still be after a series-and-a-half.

The ‘plot,’ such as it is: supernatural baddies arrive. They kill some people. Jack does something very un-dramatic. The baddies die. The tagged on ‘sentimental’ bit was bollocks too, and shows a lack of bravery by being so formulaic (presumably an attempt to lighten the series, but it just makes it seem even more contrived – ‘we’re gritty and adult… but can still be life-affirming!’). And the ‘it’s the end... or is it!?!?’ moment at the bootsale is cringeworthily cack-handed.

I do feel bad slating this episode, because it had the most potential of the ones I’d seen so far… but that’s why it’s such a shame. Something Borrowed, for example, was crap, but far better simply because it was a stupid-but-fun bit of fluff. Subsequently, I caught PJ Hammond’s previous contribution, Small Worlds, and I have to say, that episode is what I hoped From Out of the Rain would be like. Ie, genuinely atmospheric, and with a less literal than usual sensibility, dealing with a threat that is explicitly ‘more’ than alien, and which defies science and reductive explanation.

I suppose part of the problem with Torchwood is that the ‘fantastical’ elements of the series make the week-in, week-out modern day elements seem painfully boring. The backdrop of bus-stops and streetlights doesn’t even seem like a part of the series, more a default that is made do with because they couldn’t afford anything more interesting. (Compare to, say, ITV’s Dexter import, which makes the same sort of locales look quite beautiful.)

Also – while I’m getting this stuff off my chest – Jack as a character really is awful outside of the context of companion. John Barrowman isn’t a strong enough actor to carry an entire series, and is far too light entertainment to seem genuinely butch. (Also, has he had work done?!) In Something Borrowed, his transformation into a monster is so camp that even Nerys Hughes makes a more convincing slavering alien.

PS Why is it even called ‘From Out of the Rain’? It only bastard rains once! And what’s with Tosh “detecting the sea” in the middle of Cardiff? Who even were the Night Travellers? And why do I even give a shit?

(…Sighs.)

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

"I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. I’m desperately sorry"





























Review: AN UNEARTHLY CHILD
Written by Anthony Coburn, directed by Waris Hussein, 1963


An Unearthly Child is such a strange story to watch: we know how ‘important’ it is, as the first of a thirty-season-long saga – but at the same time, it appears to have very little to do with the series at large. The pattern of pulpy thrills, alien planets and BEMs was established in The Daleks, while many of the key trappings of this story were quickly jettisoned: its brutality, its conviction and depth of characterisation. This, though, is hardly surprising – Doctor Who could never have survived being continually pitched at this exhausting level.

I don’t feel An Unearthly Child itself needs defending; unfortunately, the following three 100,000 BC episodes do. I was aware this time round how unpleasant and, in fact, difficult they are to watch – though not in the way many people seem to think (ie, ‘It’s slow and the cavemen are grating’); rather, because of its punishing tone. It’s hard to believe this was the pilot of a kids’/family show. There is an almost post-apocalyptic sense of desolation, while Barbara’s reaction to this incomprehensible turn of her life is the closest we’re ever likely to get to a truly realistic reaction to the fantasy of Doctor Who. The unreasoning terror of her freakout in the forest is quite astonishing – the anguish and incomprehension packed into the line, “What’s happening to us?!” is a far cry from Rose or Martha’s more recent, pop-culturally aware introductions to the Doctor’s world.

I have a particular respect for these pre-historic episodes. Cavemen would not be an obvious choice for any story today, let alone a season opener; just look at the pains the Russell T Davies series went to be crowd-pleasing with flashy broad strokes. While a series this long-running cannot be expected to remain static in its tone, I can’t help but feel that in putting spectacle and cheap thrills over an approach this persuasive, something has gone wrong. Because this story, which should seem so absurd (1960s schoolteachers meet primitive cavemen! That doesn’t sound like a winner, does it?), is an amazing, taut piece of drama.

The Forest of Fear is particularly tense, gruelling, and harrowing; the bickering and the Doctor’s cynicism is so much more realistic and – I would argue – compelling than the pulling-together blitz spirit of the new series. By contrast, this is a story of arbitrary violence – even including the cold-blooded murder of an old woman. The world of 100,000 BC is a cold, distrustful place. Even the off-screen animal attack on Za is unpleasant, simply through atmosphere and the actors’ reactions.

It isn’t easy viewing – whereas Rose, by comparison (the Unearthly Child of the new series), bends over backwards to be ‘accessible’. This story certainly wouldn’t go down so well with a primetime audience today, and that is a crying shame – that no-one has the conviction to do something as simple but solidly made as this.

This simplicity allows the story to function as what it was: the series’ introductory story – and it’s more than ably supported by the spare but effective music, and beautifully effective, almost stylised sets. Though clearly very much of their time – not a problem, in my eyes – details as simple as the realistically grassy, uneven ground in the forest keep it convincing.

Fandom’s seemingly ingrained sixties-bashing – or, rather, -apathy – ticks me off because the earliest stories, most completely represented by this story, are arguably so much better than practically everything else that was to follow. For forty years. That’s pretty impressive.

I’m not saying An Unearthly Child is the best-ever example of Doctor Who, but it’s certainly one of the best pieces of television to come out of the run. In fact, I would contend that almost no Doctor Who story works as well as TV (regardless of its merits as Doctor Who). Which is something of a cliché when it comes to this story (though one mainly applied to the first episode alone) – but the whole four episodes are almost incomparably better television than the vast majority of the subsequent run. (It’s easiest to back this up with exceptions to the rule: the best historicals, maybe Talons, are also great TV, Doctor Who or no – in the sense that I think Lawrence Miles has said The Deadly Assassin is great Doctor Who but crap TV, and vice versa for Revelation of the Daleks.)

This very first story managed to succeed in all the ways the majority of later Doctor Who stories – by comparison – fail, because there was no pressure to live up to what had gone before. (Although it helps that it’s rather gloriously directed; often in Doctor Who the director appears entirely AWOL. I love the surprisingly frenetic bits like the fight in the cave and the final chase through the forest.) There are no real gimmicks (besides the TARDIS, which is more of a plot device anyway, or the Doctor’s Edwardian costume, which is about as nondescript as an Edwardian costume could be), because the series didn’t need to outdo the previous five, ten, or twenty years… So there’s no need for sonic screwdrivers, UNIT, or excess continuity. (Not that I’m saying continuity is always bad – with the wealth of past that Doctor Who has, it’d be stupid to ignore it; it’s just that drawing on it does change the shape of the series.)

So, this story, above all others, managed – and continues to manage, on rewatching – to remain pure and to the point, and not pulled out of shape by the history preceding it, or a wish to outdo the past. There’s nothing campy or postmodern or self-indulgent here, and it’s all the better for that.

Everything in this story shines because of that; the Doctor is an enigma – end of. Ian and Barbara are normal, real people – not pyromaniacal teenagers or knife-wielding savages, or even investigative journalists. The TARDIS is just ‘a ship’ – no artron energy or cloisters, or even a wardrobe room. Going back to the very beginning is so refreshing: it is Doctor Who stripped back in a way that would be impossible now, even if you wanted it to be. Even a brand-new franchise which hit the reset button couldn’t avoid working in the shadow of forty years of television stories, books, continuity, and fandom. Doctor Who at its most basic, and effective, is, I think, really something to cherish.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Bret M Herholz





























I don’t very often like ‘fanart’ – it’s so frequently massively derivative and generic – so it’s great to come across something as unusual as this. It’s very Tim Burton, but I’d take that over the usual manga-lite any day. Also, extra points because it’s a Voyager picture!

Check out more work here.

Review: ALL-CONSUMING FIRE
















New Adventure novel written by Andy Lane, 1994

That I read the majority of this novel in one sitting has to be a pretty good sign. It’s not even amazingly written, by a long shot, but at the same time, it’s nowhere near as tediously inept as some of the earlier New Adventures. It certainly outdoes stories like Parasite or Theatre of War, which fail totally to even sustain their own internal logic.

One fault typical of the early NAs which All-Consuming Fire does share is that there is only the most basic description of the action or setting of any given scene; it’s all quite literal, and there’s very little emphasis on characterisation that really gets into the characters’ heads. (I did find myself comparing this book slightly uncharitably with the Faction Paradox novel Erasing Sherlock, which is a much more rounded piece of writing. Incidentally, I’d urge everyone to check out the Faction Paradox series. Except the one by Lance Parkin. That was crap.) Having said that, Andy Lane does do a nice line in local colour – both in Victorian London and colonial India.

I get the impression that this book was never intended to be anything more that pure pulp, and on that level it’s a huge success – it’s fast-paced enough to not feel like thin material is being painfully wrung out of its settings (stand up once again, Theatre of War, which I had the misfortune to read prior to this). The story is diverting, and has more twists and changes of allegiances than you could shake a stick at. The middle section borrows slightly distractingly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (initially benevolent airy white palace harbours villains – including a young native noble – with their very own underground lair), but that’s balanced out by interesting ideas like the Diogenes Club and the Library of St John the Beheaded – which nevertheless don’t outstay their welcome. (It has to be said though, the Library’s security arrangements don’t seem particularly tenable to me.) Even the concept of the manservant, Surd, with velvet-lined compartments in his head and chest cavity, is a memorably grotesque image.

One of the main pluses of this book is that its Seventh Doctor is very well written, and Lane actually manages to capture McCoy’s mix of danger and apparent imbecility. It’s actually depressing how often the earlier New Adventures got the Doctor completely wrong – I love the manipulations and sometime-unscrupulousness of the Seventh Doctor, but to my mind this shouldn’t mean he has permanently lost his morals (or at least, when he does do something that chafes against his innate heroism, this should be acknowledged within the text) – so often the NA Doctor became a humourless, unpleasant bastard. And this is coming from someone who loves the NA Doctor! So, it’s a relief to have him written in such a way that his intermittent appearances in this narrative actually make you want to see him again, rather than wishing he’d piss off for good.

What’s funny though is that, as I say, Lane’s take on the Seventh Doctor is very close to Sylvester’s performance, and this actually makes some of the more unsavoury elements of the story’s locales quite shocking (probably more so considering the level twenty-first century on-screen Doctor Who has been pitched at). There’s some pretty strong stuff here: dog fighting, the degradation in the Rookeries, and even a brothel of child-prostitutes. I’m not one to rail against the NAs’ adult approach, so I’m reserving judgement on whether that is going too far, but it does seem very strange nowadays, given that Doctor Who has effectively been reclaimed for a children’s audience. Actually, I like Doctor Who to be challenging and I think it’s big enough to be able to encompass swearing and sex and drugs (although preferably not because the author thinks he’s being ‘radical’). But, it is interesting, with the perspective of the Davies series, to appreciate what a seachange has occurred in Doctor Who these days.

That aside – from previously reading reviews of this book, I was worried that everything would fall apart when the action shifts away from earth, but, strangely, the change isn’t that jarring. And Lane even manages to balance making it interesting (walnuts with five legs and an ice sky!) without it becoming so self-involved that it vanishes up its own arse (paging Parasite). Although I agree that Holmes is sidelined in these later sections, I’m not sure it damages the novel enormously.

Oh yes – Holmes. I’ve always had a sort of soft spot for Sherlock Holmes (not, I should stress, the Guy Ritchie version), or, at least, for the idea of him, as I must shame-facedly admit I’ve never read any Conan Doyle. I found myself particularly enjoying the earlier sections of the book where he is essentially the main character (or, at least, ‘the hero’ – in a way the Doctor isn’t until he gets more involved later).

I’m not even sure why I was compelled to review All-Consuming Fire immediately after putting it down – it’s not mind-blowing, just fun and entertaining. But maybe that’s it – I’m working my way through a stack of Virgin novels I relieved my local Oxfam of, and I have to say, the majority (although, not all) of the first half of the NA run – the White Darknesses and Dimension Riders – do very little for me. They really are dry and unimaginative and lousy with mediocre writing in a way I’ve always persuaded myself the NAs aren’t. Don’t get me wrong – the best are genuinely amazing. But right now, it’s a relief to have read one that isn’t a complete waste of my time. Ah well. Onward!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Series one #1: "The Doctor’s making house calls"





























ON SERIES ONE

During this transitional period, it seems appropriate to attempt some sort of evaluation of Russell T Davies’ tenure. There’s almost too much to say about him, most of which has probably been said before, so I’m going to stick to an unbiased evaluation of his first season.

This is the first time I’ve actually watched this series objectively. I wasn’t hugely impressed at the time, but after the event things inevitably matter less, so it’s easier not to find it so frustrating. In retrospect, the flaws are put in perspective, by now simply being part of Doctor Who’s ongoing history.

The fact that this is pretty much the first season within Doctor Who to be made as an interlinking whole, rather than an arbitrary collection of stories, gives it a unique edge. These ten stories form an almost self-contained era in themselves, and, almost despite myself – given what I felt about it in 2005 – this has unexpectedly become one of my favourite seasons.

Review: ROSE
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Keith Boak, 2005


There’s barely a story here at all (especially since we effectively miss the beginning of the Doctor’s involvement), and as a big return it was underwhelming - but in retrospect… Though painted in broad (even superficial) strokes, and not entirely effective overall, Rose is interesting in offering an outsider’s view into the Doctor’s world (and feels less contrived than later Doctor-lite episodes with a similar premise).

The initial introduction of the TARDIS has to be one of the most effective scenes here, genuinely making the interior seem impressively awe-inspiring – but generally, for an introduction to the Doctor’s world, there isn’t much magic; it’s all outweighed rather than balanced by the mundane elements. (Though it is at least easier now to overlook things like the wheelie bin and ‘antiplastic,’ knowing the series is capable of greater things.)

While I quite like seeing the Doctor in a unusual milieu, the ‘real life’ stuff (football matches and compensation and late-night shopping and “work and food and sleep”) seems a bit forced. It just doesn’t ring true – it’s more like Davies has decided this would be a good approach to take.

However, the introduction of the Doctor-as-terrorist is intriguing, particularly as this is something modern TV would ordinarily be at pains to disassociate itself from. His over-confidence and zaniness can seem forced though (Eccleston does gravitas far better than ‘wacky energy’; his anguish when facing the Consciousness is very compelling). I do find it hard to relate this cocky Mancunian striding around the Powell Estate with the previous Doctors, but I also sort of like that ‘difficulty’. The introduction to the concept of the Doctor as something bigger and more alien than we’ve seem so far, through Clive, shows the TVM how to go about introducing the main character.

I’m surprised to find that a story I’ve always deemed too slight to even dislike per se literally put a smile on my face. I must be becoming forgiving in my old age. It’s very slight, of course, but enjoyable on its own terms: as an easily-digestible introduction to the series. Surprisingly though, it doesn’t feel like it has much to do with, say, series four or the most recent specials. Though this story is trying to be fresh and fast-paced, it feels a lot less flashy than the more recent stories, with a tighter focus - which is definately a good thing.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Series one #2: "Perhaps a man only enjoys travel when he has nothing else left"





























Review: THE END OF THE WORLD
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Euros Lyn, 2005


As with Rose, I have always been deeply underwhelmed by this episode, as it barely feels like a full story at all. However, viewed in the context of its initial broadcast – as an introduction to and exploration of the broad canvas that Doctor Who is capable of – its slightness doesn’t seem such a negative. It doesn’t make me feel very much at all (there are no characters to speak of, no real sense of threat or conflict), but, retrospectively, it makes sense as an initial taster to the series (the first three stories comprising contemporary, future, and past settings), and seems more forgivable on those terms.

Though I suppose it works as a showcase for the series, it doesn’t actually look that great (the hotel-like tackiness and basic CG – and especially the blue-painted actors). Nevertheless, I can see why people like it (‘big concepts, bonkers – with emotion’), even if it doesn’t quite gel as far as I’m concerned. It may be more colourful and chaotic than is perhaps typical of more sterile ‘spacey’ environments, but all the elements seem to be put together in quite a contrived way; as with much of the new series, there’s a bit too much pushing of its concepts (the emotional angle, etc). It’s also not quite as funny or clever as it thinks it is, and with too many all-too-obvious illogical moments (the fan). However, I guess harping on these elements is missing the point.

Jabe is very likeable and sympathetic, and interesting too – a simple (if ridiculous) concept, like Cassandra, but I find the bipedal tree more effective. The emotion under the Doctor’s façade of confidence also comes over very well, thanks to Eccleston’s understated reactions to Jabe’s comments. I also like the acknowledgement that Rose barely knows the Doctor yet.

The contrast of the generally bold, cartoony approach and the more emotional moments creates an uncertain tone, and feels as if this particular balance hasn’t been fully struck yet.

Series one #3: "The stiffs are getting lively again!"




























Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD
Written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Euros Lyn, 2005


Though more atmospheric and tonally consistent than the previous stories, the Victorian setting of The Unquiet Dead is very tired, especially as within Doctor Who it’s become a default not-too-far-back past era. This is particularly a shame when there are so many under-explored eras, with consequently more interesting visuals (as per plague-ridden 1666 in The Visitation, or eighteenth century France in The Girl in the Fireplace, say).

Though surprisingly full-on (yes, the pre-credits, neck-snappings, and even the darkly made-up feet of the corpses in the mortuary), it’s just not that interesting, with its traditionalism making it a little boring. Also, it strikes me as far less handsome than, say, Ghost Light; this feels like fairly mundane location work with appropriate dressing, whereas that felt, more intriguingly, like a whole world within one house. I suppose the locales here, in its Cardiff setting, aren’t particularly interesting – which is almost part of the joke.

This is a textbook ‘trad’ Doctor Who story, an idea that I hate because it’s such a meaningless concept; the aforementioned Ghost Light is a ‘traditional’ (ie, classic) story, but is totally unique. Trad equates to a melange of typical attributes, which is then by definition entirely boring – as such, there is nothing original, imaginative or unexpected here. It works, because the tropes it utilises are effective ones, but it’s almost entirely unmemorable.

If that sounds harsh, I guess it’s perfectly acceptable within the context of the new series, but unexceptional in the broader context of Doctor Who as a whole. Admittedly, it does feel like there are more actual characters than in Russell T Davies’ season openers (although admittedly this amounts to Dickens and Gwyneth), and I feel Mark Gatiss’ effort is a step up, but the story is still so straightforward that there is barely a plot at all.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Series one #4: "Would you rather silent but deadly?"





























Review: ALIENS OF LONDON/WORLD WAR THREE
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Keith Boak, 2005


This story has always represented the elements of Davies’ writing which I really dislike (lack of logic, juvenile silliness, scatological elements, deus ex machina resolutions and general laziness), but, this time round, I actually really enjoyed it. I’m not sure it’s necessarily good, but it’s enjoyable (even if there isn’t much beyond that).

I’m done with anti-Davies rants, partly because enough time has elapsed to give me a bit of perspective, and, now The End of Time has come and gone, already none of it seems to matter any more. The Davies era is history now, it’s qualifiable, and I find that comforting. Also, part the problem I’ve had with new Who stems from the insufferably endless commentary and hyperbole that surrounds each new series. Stripped of that, it’s easier to put these stories in context with the past, and to accept them on their own terms.

On that basis I enjoy this story’s overblown-ness – now that it is separate from what it portends for the future; now, it just is. While I agree Davies’ reluctance to go ‘dark’ too often can come across as deliberate fan-baiting, I also agree it’d almost be too easy to go ‘edgy.’ It’s kind of brave to go in this direction (even if it’s really more motivated by keeping a mainstream audience, and fair enough I guess) – overblown and revelling in silliness is quite unfashionable, so it’s kind of laudable that Davies managed to make that approach accepted. I find that likeable, almost despite myself.

It’s fun. That’s good. There’s also a surprising level of gravitas and tension, while the emotional elements feel less bolted on here. (And, considering I often find fans’ dismissal of ‘silly’ stories like The Chase or Underwater Menace irritatingly po-faced, at least I’m practising what I preach!) Plus, I absolutely love Harriet Jones/Penelope Wilton, and seeing Rose as a missing person is a welcome nod toward the repercussions of the companion being whisked away.

As you’d hope from a two-parter, it feels more expansive than Rose, The End of the World, or The Unquiet Dead – and, more importantly, it feels unexpected; it doesn’t fit into a neatly predefined Doctor Who subgenre in the way those first three arguably do.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Series one #5: "You would make a good Dalek"





























Review: DALEK
Written by Robert Shearman, directed by Joe Ahearne, 2005


There isn’t much to say about this episode. I think it’s the most entirely successful episode of the series so far, including as it does the best ever use and exploration of the Daleks, as well as feeling substantial enough to convince as a whole, complete story within the 45 minute runtime. It also undoubtedly benefits from an admirably tighter focus and limited setting – something which is arguably true of series one in its entirety, compared to later stories like The Fires of Pompeii or Planet of the Dead. And it was genius to hold back such a major part of the Doctor Who ‘legend,’ which makes so much more sense than the series blowing its wad with them in a season opener.

The Dalek/Doctor interaction is genuinely electrifying, and I love the unheroic spin on the Doctor, and his spittle-flecked vitriol (“Why don’t you just DIE!”). However, the story is a bit too desperate to show off by countering old prejudices about the series, and therefore overdoing the Dalek’s capabilities, and also too in love with Terminator-lite hardware. I’d prefer some of the more unhinged, dwarf-mutilating bonkers-ness of Shearman’s Jubilee audio.

Also, although the idea of the museum makes sense to be in America (it just wouldn’t work in England), the Utah setting doesn’t seem entirely convincing. (Conveniently British) Adam and the slightly clumsy love interest doesn’t work that well either. In fact, most of the incidental characters – Van Statton included – don’t really match up to the ‘hardness’ of the central conflict between the Doctor and Nick Briggs/the Dalek.

The emotional slant on the Dalek is very effective – I’ve always liked them best when portrayed as emotional (if deranged) rather than cold and logical – as is its perception and intelligence. This is the former portrayal taken to extremes, where we see one experiencing loneliness and anguish and self-doubt.

Unfortunately, all the subsequent new series Dalek stories have been downhill from this high point, with Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways immediately reducing them to a cartoon army, and mere shocktroops for their Emperor. (Although I guess that isn’t really a Dalek story; they’re just the most appropriate baddie for a big finale.)

However, does no-one else find a gravitas-boosting choral rip-off of Carmina Burana a hugely predictable choice for the Daleks’ score?

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Series one #6: "How can you walk through the world and not leave a single footprint?"





























Review: THE LONG GAME
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Brian Grant, 2005


It was this story that prompted me to re-evaluate this season, when I watched one story from each Doctor’s era consecutively, so I’ve already discussed it in more depth here.

I’d always considered this season jarring in its tone, irritatingly contrived in its forced banality, and with excessively juvenile excesses, lazy writing – etc, etc; you know the rest. From a truly critical perspective, I stand by those things. But hindsight has allowed me enough perspective to appreciate this season in spite of them.

Therefore, I find this a perfectly competent story – not hugely important, but this time round the season structure has really come home to me (especially by comparison to the old series); not so much in terms of the simplistic ‘Bad Wolf’ references, but more in its recurring settings (contemporary earth, space stations in orbit), and as such I think the season as a whole amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

A story like this isn’t truly exceptional, but is elevated by its position in a series of stories designed to be watched together. I like the classic series’ standalone-ness, but this story, say, would be nothing in that context, showing how effective the modern approach can be.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Series one #7: "The past is another country - 1987’s just the Isle of Wight"





























Review: FATHER'S DAY
Written by Paul Cornell, directed by Joe Ahearne, 2005


Father’s Day is a very good story, one of the most adult of this run, which feels like it should be a favourite – but somehow I always end up forgetting it. Paul Cornell's prose is, I find, much overrated, but he brings a welcome sophistication to the series here. Everything is a little less obvious and unflashy in this story compared to elsewhere, even down to reapers’ unusual design, which is a far cry from, say, the Slitheen. In fact, Father’s Day feels like nothing so much as a contracted New Adventure: it’s character driven, with an emphasis on the companion, and includes the Doctor’s apparent death and removal from the narrative.

Like Dalek, it also benefits from a tight focus, and its atypical, unsanitised eighties urban setting. It’s funny that this is a period Doctor Who was being filmed during, but which was only shown as a realistic contemporary environment once, in Survival. Partly because of the downplayed situation, the domestics also feel more believable here, while managing to avoid mawkishness, perhaps because there is a genuine – and universally – emotional core at the heart of the story.

This story in particular also makes me realise that one of the things I prize about series one over the rest of Davies’ oeuvre, is that the program hasn’t yet become monstrously self-involved. Much as I like that companions’ tenures have been made more fluid, with Donna returning after The Runaway Bride, or Martha appearing in The Sontaran Stratagem after leaving the TARDIS, the recurrence of certainly attendant characters like Jackie, Pete, et al, makes the Doctor Who world flabby and over-indulgent.

I would contest that the series is much stronger when given a simple basis of supporting characters; in this case, Rose, her mum, her kind-of boyfriend, and the one-off appearance of her father in this story. Complications like alt-Pete in series two are, I suppose, an unavoidable consequence of a science-fiction format, but Rose coming to be used as a totemic figure who pops up occasionally as a ratings-grabbing device does a disservice to this series’ directness.

I enjoy the self-contained feel of this season; it may have more supporting characters than at any other period outside of the UNIT era, but its straight-forward inclusiveness is a great strength.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Series one #8: "Life; nature’s way of keeping meat fresh"





























Review: THE EMPTY CHILD/THE DOCTOR DANCES
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by James Hawes, 2005


It goes without saying that this is a highpoint of series one, but it really is excellent. The Ninth Doctor particularly comes alive for me in this story. He’s charismatic and confident, and fits the somewhat bleak period, while his rapport with the homeless kids (how often can you say that?) and sympathy for the Child takes the edge off.

The homeless kids are a good example of how well Steven Moffat can make things work that might otherwise be easy to fumble. They could be obnoxiously irritating and twee, but instead come across as a pleasingly unique focus within a relatively familiar (though always potent) milieu.

The production design makes the most of this setting, resulting in a rare example of a Doctor Who that looks beautiful: all the dark wood, and the noirish, canted angles and expressionist shadows, the lighting on location shining on damped-down surfaces, and the candlelight in the kids’ hideout. It has a very hyper-real aesthetic, which I think suits the series (with its adventure/family slant), and I like the balance of a visually dark but vibrant palette, which stops short of becoming as garish as some other stories in this series. I love the CG air raid, too – it’s wildly unrealistic (yes, it’s ‘well done,’ but you couldn’t say it is any more ‘real’-looking than the old series’ modelwork), but with its composited feel, it looks quite gorgeous (and reminiscent of the thirties aesthetic of the otherwise rubbish Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). The use of the grainy, wavering, distorted gasmask viewpoint also works well in destabilising the image.

Jack is great here, pre loss of humour, though interestingly he doesn’t come across as a companion in his first story, in the way many do (say, Adric, Martha). He is more dashing, ambiguous and devious than we’re used to, and seems much younger than he does only a few years down the line. Ironically, he’s also more Doctorish than when he effectively takes up that role in Torchwood, and manages to match the Doctor’s charisma here, while being equally capable of gravitas when necessary.

Where, in some ways, Father’s Day feels like a ‘teenage’ story, with an emphasis on relationship and emotionalism, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, though one of the darkest and most adult stories of this season, still feels like a full-blooded adventure. Possibly the reason it works so well is in its balance of various archetypal Doctor Who elements; an atmospheric setting, scares, humour, adventure. That there are silly moments (the barrage balloon), sitcom-y writing (recurring phrases and gags; a slightly mannered style), but also many genuinely funny lines (“And in a pinch you could put up some shelves”) alongside its creepiness works very much in its favour. The conceit of the Child and the ‘physical injuries as plague’ is simple and economically creepy; one catchphrase and some gasmasks. The combination of these elements creates a good balance within the tone of the story, and overall it’s the closest this run comes to flawless.

However, it does loose something through rewatching in a way, say, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead doesn’t seem to, because that has a greater emotional core which remains even after you’re familiar with the mysteries within the plot. Whereas here, there seems to be less going on once you know who the Child is and are familiar with the situation at large.

I’m an unashamed fan of the complexity and relative sophistication of season twenty-six, and, though the storytelling there could sometimes be muddled, this comes across almost as a more mainstream take on that style. What appeals to me about stories like Ghost Light and Fenric, though, is their density and unconventional narratives – so, seeing this as a neater, more mainstream-friendly take on that approach, I’m not sure it is actually a good thing. In a way, Moffat’s writing is almost too proficient, whereas I enjoy a slightly more oblique or idiosyncratic approach. Nevertheless – let’s not get carried away; to my mind, this is the ultimate Ninth Doctor story.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Series one #9: "You're pleading for mercy out of a dead woman’s lips"





























Review: BOOM TOWN
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Joe Ahearne, 2005


This story is often derided for its pieced-together format: the use of convenient, contemporary location filming; the TARDIS standing set; a monster from one earlier story and concepts from another – but it actually helps to tie the run together. This really is a coherent season, rather than an arbitrary collection of stories, and I appreciate seeing budgetary limitations being used to drive creativity.

In fact, I have quite a soft spot for this story; with its moral thorniness, it plays as the more adult flipside to Aliens of London/World War Three. These moral issues may be fudged at the end, but the Doctor’s ambiguities are fascinating exactly for their irresolvability, and I like that he doesn’t come out of Margaret’s cross-examination particularly well either (“Always moving because you dare not look back”).

In an entirely different way, it’s also lovely seeing the TARDIS crew being allowed to hang out and enjoy each other’s company – something which is all too rare, with previous notable examples being as far back as The Chase or The Romans. Mickey is surprisingly welcome for once though, undercutting the admittedly smug dynamic of their “funny little happy-go-lucky life”. (His emotional outburst to Rose, later on, is unexpectedly disarming, too, given how innocuous he’s been up to now.) As for Jack, it’s remarkable how easily he fits in, considering he didn’t really feel like a companion in only the preceding story – however, it is a shame we don’t get to see him settling in more. (What’s with his awful clothes though?)

By no means a perfect story – the comedy moments jar somewhat with the ethical concerns, the traveloguey music is particularly hideous, even for Murray Gold, and the diffuse film quality which makes all light sources glow looks particularly cheap and soft porn. Bu-ut… Overall, I can’t help but feel this is a far more decent story than fan reaction would suggest, much like The Long Game.

PS I wish they’d kept the exclamation mark in the title… Or, better still, actually used ‘What Shall We Do About Margaret?’.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Series one #10: "THIS WILL BE OUR PARA-DISE"





























Review: BAD WOLF/THE PARTING OF THE WAYS
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Joe Ahearne, 2005


‘TV shows gone evil’ could have been an archetypically mad Doctor Who concept, but is fumbled by being so reverential that no satire is displayed. If anything is ripe for parody, it’s reality TV, but no – there’s no opinion about it either way here (by contrast, see Charlie Brooker’s vitriolic ‘zombie Big Brother,’ Dead Set); everything’s made too literal by using real shows, so you can’t avoid the massive cynicism of trading off these shows’ status and then being too scared to rub them the wrong way.

There are attempts at meaningful commentary (“Half the world’s too fat, half the world’s too thin, and you lot just watch telly”), but even the Doctor is distracted from this train of thought, like no-one can bear to bite the hand that feeds. If anything, I would’ve preferred seeing the Doctor in a contemporary Big Brother gone evil. Also, if they were going to do this, if only they’d filmed in the real house; this shitty knock-off belies the trouble gone into getting cross-channel permissions, while The Weakest Link questions are entirely meaningless and thus tedious.

In fact, there is a quite uncanny feel to start with, but the idea of BB et al existing in most respects unchanged 200,000 years in the future is suspension of disbelief busting even on Doctor Who’s ridiculous terms.

I wrote a massive rant when this was first screened – probably textbook ‘anti-RTD,’ in retrospect – about how vapid, contrived, ‘lazy and shallow and embarrassing’ it is, ‘spoon-feeding lumpen proles’. To an extent, I still agree with those comments, it’s just that distance has allowed me to appreciate elements beyond this.

It’s interesting seeing Bad Wolf as a direct sequel to The Long Game, showing again more direct links between the stories here than in later Davies seasons. The costumes are even more mundane though – they aren’t even archetypally iconic silhouettes, just jeans and boring short-sleeved shirts. (With hindsight through, it is nice to have a non-contemporary finale.)

In fact, it all looks a bit cheap – the Playmobil androids and the Daleks’ Quasar set is particularly heinous. I do kind of love the Emperor despite myself, given its clear fanboy button-pushing, though this is mainly down to Nick Briggs, to be fair (“THIS – IS – PER-FECTION!”). The ring-modulated religious terminology works well, too, certainly better than when it’s rehashed in The Next Doctor with the Cybermen – Daleks are more epic and mythic to start with.

The Bad Wolf ‘arc’ (such as it is) is still a letdown, and I feel it should’ve been made clearer that the ‘Bad Wolves’ seeded throughout the series derive from the Corporation here; it always felt to me like the Bad Wolf Corporation was just another incidence of these two words recurring, but Rose’s message to herself wouldn’t have any meaning if it didn’t originate here.

It doesn’t feel particularly special for a finale; it’s a bit too mundane: guns and sci-fi corridors and extras with boring clothes. This mundanity extends to the towtruck opening the TARDIS console (I assumed that was ‘clearly’ going to follow a brute-force-won’t-work route, where Rose’d realise she’d have to commune with the TARDIS to get it to respond to her. Besides which, the angle they’re pulling it at clearly wouldn’t open it). In fact, it’s possibly one of the most straightforward stories of the season, with everything contrived to build toward the moment of regeneration, which doesn’t feel that momentous anyway.

On the flipside, it’s pleasingly unflashy by comparison to later overblown finales, and I do like the highlighting of the Doctor as flawed hero, with his responsibility here for “a hundred years of hell”. Nevertheless, though I’ve become more able to accept the stories that I still particularly don’t like, I would have much preferred to see Kyoto in 1336 than this.

I just wish Davies wouldn’t try to outdo Hollywood – something he can’t possibly do, and which is especially heinous when it’s clearly the Michael Bays, Roland Emmerichs, and, yes, Steven Spielbergs that he’s trying to outdo – big, unsubtle filmmakers, all blood and thunder and saccharine emotion thrown in. Dear god. Trying to take on multimillion-dollar budgets makes it a very foregone conclusion who’s going to come off worse. Those films are soulless enough, but predicated around massive budgets and being able to blow things up on a large scale; Doctor Who can’t do this to any comparable degree, so, to my mind, should alter its game plan accordingly. Yes, the series has done relatively large-scale, globetrotting action well in the past (say, in The Seeds of Doom, etc), but Doctor Who’s forte has always, I’d argue, been smaller and more unusual.

Series one
It’s very interesting, now, with a little distance, appreciating Christopher Eccleston’s season as much a full, legitimate era as any other (eg, the Third Doctor’s, with its ‘UNIT family’), with as many recognisable and distinctive tropes (not least the Mancunian bovver boy Doctor and council estate-blonde companion).

One of the main things I found watching it this time, comfortingly, is that the series is as hokey as ever, really. I mean, to all the outsiders and critics and long-suffering girlfriends. If you don’t care about it, it’s still just stupid monsters and aliens and stuff – even when it’s attempting a serious drama like Father’s Day. That makes me love it.

Having said that, it’s a lot less gaudy and crass than it could have been. Overall, the entire collection of stories may not be entirely to my taste, but I appreciate them as a collection. Everything did get notably fluffier, generally speaking, with the departure of Eccleston, which I now see as fully tragic for the show. In retrospect, this is much more uncompromising and less trite than the later seasons can be (even appearing visually darker).

Also, for all its faults, at least the new series feels (unidealistically) human; people eat bad food, send texts, and get drunk. This can get translated into a relentlessly lower-middle-class mentality, which seems reductively out of place in a series which is capable of such infinite variety, but, say, the preceding TVM, by comparison, doesn’t feel human at all. Grace Holloway is supremely idealised by comparison to most companions: she is a cardiologist, living in a gorgeous house in San Francisco, who goes to the opera. This is pretty much all we know about her. Not that these things aren’t ‘real’; they just feel very contrived to fit the makers’ idea of the character as An Intelligent Nineties Woman. Similarly, the Fifth and Sixth Doctor’s eras under John Nathan-Turner adopted a prissy abhorrence of real life, and barely acknowledged anything as messily human as cravings or fancying someone or even feeling homesick.

I’m not a huge fan of Rose, mainly cos of the horribly hysterical fanfic thing that’s built up around her, and series two’s whinginess. But, on the basis of this series alone, she is the best new series companion. Her reactions are idiosyncratic enough to feel authentically human in a way the bland Martha, likeable though she is, doesn’t. (I can’t help but think this is because the Doctor/Rose pseudo-romance is much more ‘paternal’ and based on mutual respect than with Tennant.)

As for Eccleston’s Doctor, much as I’ve warmed to him this time round, I’m still surprised the general public did; he’s just not easy or particularly accessible (in the ways Tennant is). It’s great that still worked (though puzzling, given how much the general public are written down to elsewhere in the series), but, considering how much he has been erased by Tennant in the public consciousness, I can’t help but feel the show’s initial popularity was more in spite of than because of him.

I used to think of the Ninth Doctor as ineffectual and not even as intelligent as his predecessors. But, he’s canny, subtly driving events from the background. In fact, he reminds me of nothing so much as a combination of the First Doctor’s snappish moral authority and the Seventh’s goofy enthusiasm and energy, shielding a darker persona.

Coming back to this series – which has almost become a forgotten prefix to Tennant’s era – makes me realise that I very quickly stopped actually judging Tennant’s performance, because I take him for granted so much; he simply is the Doctor (for better or worse). While this might be seen as a good thing, my comparative ambivalence about Eccleston makes me consider his at least the more interesting casting (if not simply ‘the better choice’). Also, four years late, it’s only just sinking in what a coup casting a character actor as respected as Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor is.

Overall, series one is more coherent than those that followed (the recurring Albion Hospital and Satellite 5/Gamestation, etc) – arguably a advantage born out of its relative limitations. In series one the show wasn’t yet an all-conquering ratings behemoth and couldn’t indulge its every whim quite so readily, and consequentially it feels tighter.

Its other strength is in not going too far in any one direction. Yes, it has a certain juvenile streak – but it also includes quite serious dramatic approaches. Similarly, there is stunt casting – but also plenty of unknowns in juicy roles. The way the new series’ seasons are set up to shift from a light to a dark tone is also a canny way of ensuring its longevity, rather than settling on one tone.

There are too many slight stories for this to be a classic season, but as a statement of intent for a to all intents and purposes long-dead series, it’s as effective as could be realistically hoped for. (Although, it is interesting how now I can barely imagine how the series could have been brought back different – whereas obviously there are countless possibilities. As, hopefully, we will see under Moffat…)

Saturday, 9 January 2010

"One heart, soon to meet its twin"
















Review: THE MAN IN THE VELVET MASK
Missing Adventure novel written by Daniel O'Mahony, 1996


Given its reputation, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is Doctor Who’s equivalent of Pasolini’s Salò. But no (no-one eats poo here, for one thing) – although there is an appropriately depraved tone to this novel, given that it features the Marquis de Sade as this week’s historical personage. (No-one seems to have really picked up on the fact that this book is Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Marquis de Sade! How fabulously horrifying is that? That le 6 is one of the most likeable characters in the book gives you some idea of what to expect.)

Here we have a murder machine, clockwork automata, rapists, killers, murderous rituals, and a hideous plan to weaken the population’s self-control with the introduction of maggot carriers – not to mention the ever-present drizzle and mud. Yes, you wouldn’t want every book to be like this, but, despite its depravity, it really is excellent. “It’s just… pain and sex and death,” Dodo says at one point, and that pretty much sums this book up.

O’Mahony is one of Doctor Who’s best writers – to the extent of almost being too good for the series (like maybe Cartmel or Aaronovitch’s New Adventures). This is a literary and darkly poetic work; while it may smack slightly of student angst at times, this doesn’t seem inappropriate given its twisted French Revolution setting (the recurrence of which is intriguing and seems appropriate to the First Doctor’s era). Besides, he went on to write the staggering Telos novella The Cabinet of Light and the Faction Paradox novel Newtons Sleep (which in some ways reads like a more detailed and complete version of this novel) – both of which I couldn’t recommend more. (Falls the Shadow was shit though; too confused to be effective.)

What I like best here is that this is in no way a rehash of its given era. (Who wants to be bound by that sort of reductive attitude anyway? That’s what DVDs are for.) I love seeing familiar elements pushed beyond their screen confines – though equally I can see why this novel didn’t go down well with those expecting something ‘traditional’. Personally I feel that while past Doctor stories should fit into a given slot, continuity-wise, what’s really important is that the characters remain true to their characteristics, no matter how unprecedented a situation the author might place them in. As for authors deliberately replicating capture-escape shenanigans, or mimicking Hartnell’s TV absences – what the hell is that!? Written Doctor Who shouldn’t replicate the exact approach of the series – it’s a different medium, for god’s sake!

One of the joys of Doctor Who’s ‘expanded universe’ is authors making the effort to rehabilitate ineffective elements from the series, rather than rehashing the popular parts. No-one needs more of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Second and Jamie, because their stories worked in the first place!

Dodo exemplifies this approach. Amazingly, given her nondescript on-screen appearances, her voice feels strikingly accurate. Her thoughts are convincingly insecure too: she is variously described – often by herself – as having bad teeth, and being spotty, pudgy, and dull. Strangely, this insecurity makes her likeable, and she actually seems like a real person (fortunately without idealising her, or giving her an ‘edgy’ history of child abuse or mental illness). It is great to see that she is actually affected by the events of The Ark, Steven’s departure, and that she is aware she’ll soon be leaving the Doctor. It’s also quite appallingly twisted (but almost perversely sweet) for Dodo to willingly accept Minski’s infection, so as to remember her lover in this world.

I like Dodo here (almost to the extent of feeling bad that she’s homeless, unbalanced, and shot dead in Who Killed Kennedy!), and rereading this novel makes me wish ‘Viet Cong!’, O’Mahony’s planned follow-up, a “freewheeling black comedy new wave historical set in 1916” (!) had got to see the light of day.

The Doctor’s characterisation is sparer, but equally authentic, while his progressive frailty is a fascinating take on a usually infallible hero. He is particularly effective in opposition to the grotesque Minski, Sade’s dwarfish adoptive son – a callous, cherubic child with the voice of an adult (a memorably hideous image). The Doctor’s disgust at and refusal to rest on the female guards Minski uses as human furniture at one point, is rather wonderful.

It’s such a shame this novel was popularly dismissed (despite the largely positive reviews on sites like the Ratings Guide. A mark of its quality is that even when the relatively minor character Bressac dies, you are – unusually – made to feel the magnitude of his death, in a way most authors wouldn’t devote any time to. Things feel oxymoronically real in his novel (considering this is not only Doctor Who we’re talking about, but an anathema Alternate World!), thanks to O’Mahony’s depth and perception as an author.

Heinously, this came last in a nineties DWM poll of the Missing Adventure novels (while the equally gorgeous Transit languished at the bottom of the New Adventures list). Tsk. It’s depressing when fandom shuns things because they aren’t accessible enough – although I suppose it’s unsurprising: here we have an (unjustifiably!) unpopular Doctor, a flat-out hated companion, not to mention the novel’s generally dark tone.

I’ve never had a problem with a darker tone in Doctor Who – in fact, I love it; the depravity here highlights all the things the Doctor stands against. Despite the way the sixties are often looked down upon as being quaint, it doesn’t seem at all odd to see the First Doctor exposed to these things – after all, I would argue he is one of the most adult and convincing of all the Doctors. Seeing him struggling by himself in this horrific world, you rally for him all the more.

The Man in the Velvet Mask is bleak, unpleasant – and beautiful. I’d recommend it to anyone who isn’t so po-faced as to think Doctor Who shouldn’t be allowed to stretch its boundaries.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Reaction: THE END OF TIME, PART ONE





























Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Euros Lyn, 2009

I hesitate to call this a review, as that implies a certain amount of balance, and it always takes me a while to get to grips with how I feel about new stories, especially a contentious one. Hence, ‘reaction’. Also, I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to deal with the two parts of this story separately, as it’s one of the few times I’ve had massively different feelings for the two halves of a story.

The series finales have always give me a bit of a crisis about the series, as they’re the exact opposite of what I want from Doctor Who – overblown, flippant spectacles. The importance of this story – the end of Tennant’s and Davies’ incumbencies, a regeneration, the introduction of Matt Smith – couldn’t help but make me massively anticipatory, but also anxious (something that the Children in Need scene didn’t do much to dispel).

As the specials, and this finale in particular, have sustained a massive amount of scrutiny, in the run up to Christmas, I couldn’t help but ponder on the things I’d gleaned about the story (despite, I will say, generally trying to avoid spoilers). These were the things I knew (or thought I knew) before the story aired:

• It’s apparently set in the modern day, presumably London (where else?), at Christmas (when else?), and possibly in Camden.
• The Master, obviously, is back, and can shoot electricity. Wilf is the main companion, but Donna, Rose, Sarah Jane, Captain Jack, et al, all have appearances.
• Jessica Hynes is back, but as ‘Verity Newman,’ and so is Midshipman Frame (which is good, as Russell Tovey was the best thing in Voyage of the Damned) – but he will probably die, as he was intended to be exterminated in Journey’s End.
• June Whitfield plays a friend of the Mott-Nobles.
• The black Friar Tuck from the BBC’s Robin Hood is the author of a book about time, and he and his wife [sic] appear to be ‘the evil Obamas’.
• Someone will knock four times (on ‘the Immortality Gate’?).
• Timothy Dalton is ‘the Narrator,’ apparently a Time Lord, and Claire Bloom is, apparently, the Doctor’s mother (how I hope that’s a misunderstanding). There is at least one other Time Lord, who are obviously back in some form.
• Matt Smith will appear, but it’s unclear whether the regeneration itself will be seen.
• The TARDIS may be destroyed and/or replaced.

It’s funny, immediately after broadcast, seeing how misapprehended, or plain erroneous a lot of these things are. It just goes to show how unhelpful it is to pick up all these piecemeal details – which is especially annoying given that I hate spoilerising myself, and would much rather just watch the story with no preconceptions.

Before actually seeing the episodes, it seemed like I knew quite a lot – but that’s nothing when you consider we’re talking about two hours of TV, so all those details were disjointed and inconclusive, with no barring on the effectiveness of the plot, writing, tone, etc. Once you’ve viewed something, it’s easy to forget quite how clueless you were an hour before – all these things could have fitted together in numerous different ways, so ultimately signify nothing. Even after viewing part one, I still couldn’t see how a lot of these elements would fit in.

It’s funny, because by comparison I never know the slightest thing, plot or story arc-wise, about anything else I watch. Admittedly, I’m not a geek for anything else in vaguely the way I am for Doctor Who, but it’s not even that I go out of my way to avoid spoilers - the idea of finding plot details out just isn’t a consideration for anything else. Watching, say, True Blood, Being Human, Twin Peaks, or The Prisoner, I didn’t have the faintest clue of any plot developments, or how it will end, or what characters were returning. Admittedly, some of those are old series so the temptation to find out details isn’t quite so in your face, but considering my love for Doctor Who is in a whole different league, it’s irritating that it’s the only series I go out of my way to spoil for myself.

Part One
Though this statement will have the ring of hyperbole, I think the first episode was a lot stronger than any of the preceding specials. Obviously this story will be judged overall on its effectiveness as a regeneration story, but, if you divide the new series into popularist stories (the specials and season finales) and, you know, the good ones, this is the first popularist one I actually genuinely enjoyed.

The elements that seemed disparate beforehand – the Master, some geriatrics, conker-aliens – actually gelled surprisingly effortlessly, and while it has broad humour and appeal, there is also enough depth and gravitas to still be satisfying.

I loathed John Simm’s Master in Last of the Time Lords – but now I feel maybe that was partly because it seemed wrong for the character to be too in control (he works better as a shadier figure). Also, being actually demented worked better than the slightly lazy just being ‘a bit crazy’.

The cliffhanger should have been ridiculous, but was kind of stupid and fun enough to work, rather than being too po-faced (despite being seen before in the Being John Malkovich scene it was lifted from. Isn’t there a Chris Cunningham Aphex Twin video like that, too?). Incidentally, the tiers of Time Lords is all too clearly lifted from the Star Wars prequels’ senate… and may my bones rot for knowing that.

The Time Lords actually feel out of place in modern Doctor Who; they’re doubly outdated, in that with their plummy aristocracy they hark back to an old fashioned notion of Britishness, while the all-powerful, be-robed race of elders is a sci-fi cliché the production team have otherwise avoided. In fact, I love the Time Lords, and that they’ve been treated with such reverence, returning stringently recreated. I wasn’t sure whether the Time Lords were retuning per se (or just a group), but I thought that would seem wrong – undermining the new backstory that had been developed over five years. In retrospect, given Davies’ savviness for exploiting what the audience wants and expects, there’s no way he could have bowed out leaving this grand possibility unfulfilled.

Though there are contrivances – no less massive than usual; Saxon’s followers, Naismith – somehow here these things seemed integrated well enough into the plot not to be offensive. This episode also gained a lot from feeling more connected with the series at large than the previous specials, because of the presence of Wilf and Donna – but not to the extent of everything seeming too insular and cosy, as in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.

The build-up may be contrived, but the change does feel momentous (I suppose partly because it’s as much about the production team as the Doctor). (This being the first departure of a long-running Doctor that I’ve been around for; I don’t count the Seventh because it wasn’t part of his original run.)

Perhaps most shocking of all is that, after the tabula music from The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, which, with its ‘HOO! HAH!’ shouts had a Morricone-like eccentricity, the rattling, jangling Brick-style wasteland music in The End of Time is the second piece of Murray Gold’s music I’ve actually liked, rather than just tolerating (at best). (Although I can’t say I’m overjoyed he’s staying on for Matt Smith’s first season…)

Though I enjoyed part one, in retrospect it’s disappointing there wasn’t really any follow up to ‘the Time Lord Victorious'; only an oblique reference in the café scene. However, considering the somewhat simplistic and contrived approach that characterised a lot of the previous specials/finales, which normally irritate me immensely, this was an unexpectedly controlled episode, which left me desperately hoping part two would be brilliant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Reaction: THE END OF TIME, PART TWO





























Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Euros Lyn, 2010

The second part was a massive disappointment. In fact, I thought it was absolutely dreadful. Where the first was an hour of foreplay, the second was comprised of cop-outs (the Time Lords return… and are almost immediately banished), red herrings (the gun, ‘the woman in white’), strategic padding (the missile sequence), and the all too familiar reset button (the Master’s epic scheme being undone).

This episode frustrated me in all the ways typical of Davies’ scripts; a plotless, overwrought, self-indulgent mess, which desperately needed tightening up. The regeneration itself couldn’t have been less dramatic. Though the undercutting of the ‘knock four times’ prophecy was effective, the Doctor’s death itself coming about from a transparently contrived (and tangential) plot device, blatantly manufactured to put the character into exactly the situation the author wanted, was extremely tedious. I get Davies’ insistence on a small sacrifice, compared to the huge scale of events at large, but in practice it amounted to the Doctor falling over in a small cupboard. That’s up there with exercise bike-related injuries, surely.

The bolted-on codas were particularly unnecessary and cloying, and dragged terribly – okay, I could accept the Doctor perving over Rose one last time, but the flagrant box-ticking just smacked of a writer unfamiliar with the editing process (and what, the Doctor was dying but decided to matchmake for Captan Jack?). Of the several things I knew were still to be included in this story (ie, Frame and Jessica Hynes), I couldn’t really see how they’d fit in. Unfortunately, it was clearly too much to ask that they might actually be worked into the plot. Having said that, I was glad the role call of companions took the form of cameos, rather than a repeat of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End’s ‘extended family’.

I think what really bugged my about the coda, apart from how protracted and drama-sapping it was, is that I actually like the idea of acknowledging characters’ lives without the Doctor, but the realisation seemed very clumsy. I particularly hate the Mickey/Martha section because I loathe the very second-rate idea of the Doctor’s associates becoming gun-toting troubleshooters, partly because it only really makes sense in the context of a horribly over-literal world where there’s an equally tooled-up alien round every corner. (Think about it: by comparison, season twenty-six, say, belies this very anthropomorphic approach with a more oblique set of threats, ranging from predatory cheetah people to vampiric future humans and technological other-dimensional knights.)

Alright, I’m extrapolating from a two-minute scene, but it is representative of a general approach to this version of ‘the Whoniverse’ which is very mundane indeed. Martha and Mickey being married is equally gratingly over-literal, with Martha being unceremoniously paired off with Rose’s sloppy seconds (especially considering she was apparently happily married to a doctor of her own), and Mickey, the Doctor’s. It also smacks unpleasantly of the coloured characters being paired off together.

I don’t like the idea of a Star Wars-like melting pot of a universe, where Drahvins hang out with Tetraps and so on (though the bar here seems more restrained than the planned additional Shadow Proclamation scenes from The Stolen Earth), but Captain Jack’s part of the coda was the most fun. Though this probably has something to do with my love of Russell Tovey. That is some fanfic I could get behind, right there… Tovey’s probably quite a lot better than Torchwood, but the continued adventures of that couple could be fun.

I can’t help considering it was the story’s structure that was at fault; perhaps if it could have been restructured so the codas weren’t all shown consecutively, maybe that would’ve been less wearing. Ie, it could have started with a flash-forward to the Doctor after the dose of radiation, then have been interspersed with the encounters with his companions throughout the story proper.

Aside from that, what was perhaps strangest and most off about this episode was how desperate it was to be epic in scope, yet played out as almost a four-hander. Also, given how keen the new series has been to balance fan-pleasing with accessibility, I really wonder how intelligible this was to the general public; the Time War elements seemed particularly (over-)involved (so, back during the Time War, the past Doctor destroyed the Time Lords... but before that, they managed to find a way out, into the now, before being sent back, where, presumably, they still ended up destroyed by whatever the Doctor had already done…). Surely that is such fanwank; and people moan about Attack of the Cybermen – this is the same thing. And it all came down to superbeings zapping each other. Sigh.

Also, too much was very familiar. Of the three regenerations the new series has already shown (well, two and a half), they all occurred with the same effect, and took place on the TARDIS set. Same old, same old. Again, it was clearly too much to hope we might get something different here. (And why this time did it destroy the TARDIS? Are regenerations like orgasms? Can you have particularly powerful ones?) Gallifrey appearing in the sky was another case of the author plagiarising himself, and even the regeneration followed by a crash-landing has been done before, in the first Children in Need special, while Matt Smith’s initial dialogue was also nothing new (despite being written by Steven Moffat).

Aside from the moments which felt like we’d seen them before, I’d also have to question the quality of a story which leaves certain elements entirely unresolved. I appreciate the potential for debate that an open-ended plot point like ‘the woman in white’ invites – ie, whether she is Susan, Romana, the White Guardian or the Doctor’s mother/wife/significant other – but I have to wonder whether, especially from a non-fan PoV, is going ‘this is how things are… and we’re not going to explain’ really good enough. Isn’t that just plain bad writing? (There is at least an interesting article on io9 about the plot details left hanging, which you can read here.)

Another major aspect of the new series which came to a head here is its increased emotionalism and acknowledgment of the significance of events like regeneration. Though no doubt due to fandom (through Davies, etc) being in a position to demonstrate their affection for the character, it is a major example of the series telling rather than showing (ie, numerous moments of the Doctor expounding on how much he doesn’t want to die – no shit), and all too often rings alienatingly false, drawing attention to the artifice of already very contrived plotting. Personally, I’d much rather we could get on with things (à la, say, Androzani), with the emotion deriving from the situation, rather than being forced down our throats by the characters themselves, and being protracted over TWENTY MINUTES of masturbatory farewells.

Though it wasn’t a hateful story, mainly just tired and contrived, without being a ‘hater,’ it doesn’t make me particularly upset that Russell T Davies’ era is done with. Perversely, that The End of Time was unsatisfying ultimately just made me more excited about the future. However, in the interests of this not being an entirely one-sided whinge, I will say, one thing I’ve overlooked, partly because it’s so obvious, is how brilliant Bernard Cribbins was. Bringing back Wilf in the role of a companion was absolute genius. How strange that he’s played that role to both Peter Cushing and David Tennant! (The acknowledgement in Confidential that maybe the Doctor surrounds himself with youth almost out of denial of his age was an interesting point, too.)

Unfortunately, a lot of this just goes to show how misrepresentative knowing too much about a story becomes. I already feel like I know more about the 2010 series than I’d ideally like, so I’m going to try my utmost to have as little to do with it as possible until it actually screens… Although, saying that, I’ve already seen the preview trailer, which, upsettingly, seems to give lie to the idea that the Moffat/Smith ‘era’ will be a complete overhaul of the format – which is an unrealistic proposition anyway, but the inclusion of a new one-word catchphrase (“Geronimo!”) and an obligatory companion-Doctor kiss makes me cautious…

Further niggles and observations I can’t be bothered to work into a coherent format:

• Surely the Vinvocci just… leaving, not that it particularly ‘matters,’ is just very bad plotting?

• And ‘Verity Newman’? Quite apart from wondering how many people look exactly like their great-grandmothers, the combination of Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert’s names, though obviously done in homage, really broke the ‘fourth wall’ for me. Okay, Joan could have named her daughter Verity, but her great-granddaughter ending up with the name John Smith gave for his mother? Bit of a stretch?

• The destruction of the TARDIS interior is an annoying example of an event that makes sense as part of the end of an era tone, but which is tagged on rather than integrated into the plot proper.

• As Davies suggested of the opening scene of part two, it is pretty amazing that the Time Lords appeared on primetime BBC1 on New Year’s Day. I also enjoyed how much Gallifrey channelled Marc Platt’s concept of a combination of the Vatican and a gentleman’s club, and seemed designed with both The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time’s sets in mind, with a bit of Gormenghast thrown in, courtesy of the tattooed ‘Visionary’.

• And, finally, did it strike anyone else that a lot of the Masters would have been wearing ladies’ undies? Probably a first, that.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Review: DEAD ROMANCE
















Post-Doctor New Adventure novel written by Lawrence Miles, 1999

Dead Romance is pretty much perfect, really, isn’t it?

Okay, some context: Dead Romance was originally part of a series of on-going adventures for the New Adventures companion Bernice Summerfield, which continued after Virgin publishing lost the licence to produce further books featuring the Doctor. It was also later republished as part of the Faction Paradox range which spun off from some of author Lawrence Miles’ Eighth Doctor novel ideas.

However, this book doesn’t feature Bernice – rather, an initially unexplained through-the-looking-glass version of her called Christine, living in a seventies London where the world has ended. It takes place on a monumentally larger canvas than any of the Bernice New Adventures, and most other Doctor Who books. And is written in a far braver style, constructed round Christine Summerfield writing a journal of events, which back-tracks and excludes things and jumps about. A format Miles uses absolutely beautifully to contrast ideas, sustain tension, get us thinking one thing, then subvert it later.

I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying Lawrence Miles is my favourite Doctor Who author – that accolade (ahem) would go more to Cartmel or Aaronovitch, for the sheer joyous quality of the writing – but as soon as I read anything by him, I remember how much I love, love, love his books. It’s the imagination that does it, which puts everyone else to shame. I’m not sure why there’s a shortage, but no-one else seems capable of cramming in the sheer amount of fascinating, intriguing concepts that Miles can. His casual reinventions and subversions of established Doctor Who concepts - his books are packed with throwaway ideas other authors’d kill for – are just so exhilarating, and fire the imagination like no other.

The explicitly Doctor Who elements of Dead Romance are so much more powerful for not being tied down to constant name-dropping of Gallifrey, Rassilon, Shada, the Eye of Harmony (although all these things are mentioned) – it’s amazing in fact how much more impressive the ideas become when not linked to these over-familiar terms. I wish more people’d adopt this approach. Considering that people debate whether the man with the rosette in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street is the Master or not (!), just because he’s not explicitly named as such, it clearly does make things far more fluid and less mundanely explicit; I can think of plenty of books that could have done with some fuzziness, rather than a straightforward overload of continuity references.

Miles’ ability to make over-familiar ideas huge and grand and awe-inspiring is literally stunning; the Time Lords (‘Great Houses,’ as I was reading the Mad Norwegian version this time round) have never, ever been this massive and impressive before, and in all honestly, probably never will again. They stitch machines into their skin; alter their agents into bipedal tanks; walk through the sky into London; rip up the buildings with machines “the size of the Isle of Wight,” make their own cities out of the rubble, and turn the sky orange. All in an afternoon!

(It has to be said, a lot of Russell T Davies’ ideas regarding the Time War do seem to be lifted from Lawrence Miles – I have no idea whether this is coincidental, but not least the arrival of the Time Lords on earth in The End of Time, Part Two does come across as a bargain-basement version of what happens here. Fandom is very taken with the Time War concept (no wonder, as it amounts to the Doctor, the Master, Rassilon, and Davros bunged into a situation together), but unfortunately the idea of the Time Lords going to war – and its repercussions – has already been nailed with far more breadth and imagination in books like this and Alien Bodies. It is only in throwaway references to “the Couldhavebeen King and his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres,” “the Skaro Degradations” and “the Hordes of Travesty” that Davies alludes to a scope comparable to Miles’ ‘time war’.)

It seems to be a patented technique of Miles’ to expand on and make even the weakest of Doctor Who concepts fascinating (ie, the Krotons in Alien Bodies – who are still meant to be a bit rubbish, but nevertheless get an interesting backstory, and sense of scale), and come up with a mind-boggling array of involving concepts – but then to only suggest them: universes within bottles within bottles; machine men; clockwork/flesh machines.

I think also, unlike the vast majority of Doctor Who authors, he doesn’t render his ideas mundane by presenting them through straight sci-fi concepts: everything is couched in mythic, almost fairytale terms (enabled by Christine’s inexpert testimony); the time travellers use magic, machines are ‘stitched’ into skin, potions alter the earth’s population, the ‘sky opens up’ – rather than a space/time portal (etc) appearing. Which – as all the usual technobabble is bollocks anyway – I find far more satisfying, as well as ramping up the scale.

I’m not sure Doctor Who deserves anything this good. Certainly, very little else lives up to this book. It can only go downhill from here. Even with the Time Lords alone, Miles keeps them (very effectively) at a distance, and they truly become giants – then, in the Faction Paradox series (arguably playing with Lawrence Miles’ Lego set), Lance Parkin comes along and gives us an old man in a habit. Great, cheers.

Similarly, I haven’t read a great deal of the Benny New Adventures’ ‘Gods’ arc (though The Mary-Sue Extrusion is gorgeous!), but it almost seems absurd that they even bothered trying to follow up something this earth-shattering – both fictively, and in terms of the approach.

How can you go back from this to St Oscar’s and Justin Richards… Surely that’s all a bit mundane (not to say, superseded) now? I know Chris Cwej turns up again, but the events of Dead Romance are so huge (even just the ways in which he’s used by the Time Lords: he’s been ritually murdering young women, and is presumably on his way to becoming a bulldozer with a face, like Khiste), yet I’ve read that a Time Lord monk later turns up to help him regenerate. Wow. If that does justice to the concepts here then I’m Lauren Bacall.

Cwej seems far too expansive and interesting a character to turn up in a ‘normal’ book now. Dull Dellah and even (sorry!) dear old Bernice are going to seem a bit flat after Dead Romance came along and blew the series out of the water. (You can tell Miles must’ve pitched this out of nowhere, the way it’s presented as just another novel in the range. Maybe it’s a good thing Virgin didn’t try to jump on the bandwagon of Miles’ ideas though, seeing how spectacularly (or not) the BBC Eighth Doctor books fumbled the War in Heaven…)

I’m aware that it probably sounds like I’m blowing this novel out of all proportion, but even from a stringently critical viewpoint I really think it’s quite a stunning achievement. It’s full of surprising, shocking, and magical scenes which there’s no point in me recounting; all I can really do is urge you to track a copy down.

Unfortunately, although the twists of this narrative fit together staggeringly well, and the novel (yes, not just book) definitely holds up to repeated reading, perhaps inevitably it looses some of its grandeur when approached by someone knowing what transpires. (Although I admit I couldn’t quite remember how Christine fitted in with Cwej.) However, despite this, simply for the sublimeness of its concepts (from small details like the dragon ships, or the wormy, multi-jointed sphinxes – the New Adventure cover is gorgeous, and gets them exactly right, as far as I’m concerned – to the reimagining of the Time Lords as monumental, faceless magician-warriors), it is among the best story – in any medium – that Doctor Who has to offer.