Sunday, 25 April 2010
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith, 2010
Although not up there with Steven Moffat’s best stories, the bravura pre-titles sequence alone puts Victory of the Daleks' stringent traditionalism in the shade. A country park, spaceship, and River Song contacting the Doctor across 12,000 years and blowing herself out of an airlock… That’s a brilliant couple of minutes of Doctor Who. (Though it would have been fun to see Churchill hurtling through space into the Doctor's arms...)
I didn’t really have any expectations of this story, with its returning elements making me forget to wonder what it'd actually be about. In a way, I was slightly apprehensive about the return of the Weeping Angels, as they’re such an integral part of Blink I wasn’t sure they’d work outside of that context. However, it's nice to see them not only in an entirely different situation, but being expanded upon and not used in exactly the same ways.
As for River - well, you've got to love a woman with a gun small enough to fit in her handbag. Her hallucinogenic lipstick and female Indianna Jones shtick is fab, too. Also, her Marilyn hair and glam outfit suggest a Romana-like potential for varied costumes, which is welcome, given how little eccentricity the series' recurring characters have displayed since 2005. The idea of her carrying photos of all the Doctors' faces is a pleasingly mundane way to deal with their timey-wimey relationship, and means I can't help imagine her turning up, Iris Wildthyme-like, throughout the classic Doctors' lives. Although, with those prior to the sexually-awakened Eighth, she'd probably be slightly disappointed.
The archness of River’s teasing about her future role in the Doctor’s life becomes almost too contrived here to be truly intriguing. She also seems rather smugger than in Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead - but then there's still next week's episode, where perhaps she'll display more of that story's sensitive side. Her lasciviousness is still fun though, if slightly overplayed.
In a way, the setting for this story is a little underwhelming, though at least the caves have been filmed on location - if all the Doctor Who stories set in caves had actually been filmed in caves, I can't help but feel its reputation for shoddiness would be much diminished. The maze of the dead reminds me quite strongly of the labyrinth in Barbarella (which also features an angel… I’m on to you, Moffat), with its living inhabitants becoming calcified into the walls. For all the inevitable chatter about how scary this episode is, in Vadim's film it's a lot more uncanny and freakish. However, where the story excels is with little twists like the Iraq war-style soldiers in fact being clerics (“Bishop! Lock and load”), or the TARDIS not being supposed to make its 'wheezing, groaning noise' (the sort of thing the vast majority of authors'd take for granted). These details do enliven the story somewhat, and are one of the joys of Moffat’s scripts.
A lot of people have commented on the recurrence in this series of tropes from Moffat's previous stories (the ward of 'possessed' patients, etc), and here we're again treated to typical tricks like repeated phrases ("Come and see this"), trickery with radios/voices from beyond the grave, and even mundane names being used to humanise a future setting. I’m not really sure whether those elements are reassuring or verging on becoming tired. The Angels using Sacred Bob's apologetic voice and speech patterns though (another of Doctor Who’s pretty, doomed soldiers), is extremely effective, while also undermining any expectations of what they might sound like should they talk.
Amy and the Doctor continue to be great here, but I still feel like they're being taken for granted. Much as I liked them both immediately, as I’ve said in previous reviews, I’m still not convinced they've really had the chance to come into their own. Amy, particularly, is acting like an old hand, when we haven’t really seen much evidence of her coming to grips with her new lifestyle. Having said that, it’s good to see a more pained side to Smith’s performance, in his reaction to River’s demanding presence (in fairness, you’d be pretty sore about being bossed around by a wife (?!) you hadn’t really met yet). On balance though, the teasing, sibling-like relationship between the two leads is shaping up nicely.
Strangely, I also find myself missing the anchoring effect that returning to the Powell Estate or phoning Martha or Donna’s mothers had between 2005-09; at the time, I always felt that inability for the series to entirely detach itself from the companions’ home lives damaged the magic of being whisked off in time and space, but I feel - albeit over only four episodes - this season would benefit from the context a 'home' situation would provide. (Having said that, I realise we must be returning to Leadworth at some point, though not until after Vampires in Venice.)
Overall, I'm not quite sure what to make of this episode. I liked it…it’s good – but I will reserve judgement till the second part has aired. Maybe it’s the pressure of being a twofold ‘event’ story, with greater expectations to live up to, but it doesn’t seem to have quite the complexity of Moffat’s past two parters (or even the - albeit overrated - Blink), and the cliffhanger is a little weak. Surely it was also really obvious that all the statues were Angels, even from the pre-series teasers?
No doubt lots of people'll praise it as a return to the 'scary' Moffat of The Empty Child and Silence in the Library, but, although that's by no means unwelcome, I enjoyed the opening up of his writing to encompass lighter openers. I’m even almost looking forward to his take on the season finale - a definite first.
Mike Skinner though…? Also, on a music-related note, I just saw in an interview with Matt Smith that aside from the xx and Grizzly Bear he also likes gay Canadian videogame-nerd violinist/singer Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy. That’s it, favourite Doctor ever…
Sunday, 18 April 2010
Written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Andrew Gunn, 2010
A slightly different version of this article can be read here, on Kasterborous.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Yes, Victory of the Daleks features an entirely successful redesign of the Daleks. Unfortunately, it’s the British Army versions, which are as striking as the iconoclastic gold-and-white of Revelation and Remembrance. Who ever thought green Daleks would work?! The Union Flag is a neat little touch too.
As for the new new Daleks, I must admit my heart fell at not only the idea of redesigned Daleks, but also the initial pictures, when I stumbled across them on the Radio Times’ site. (Who had clearly decided to continue their sterling tradition of spoilerising up-coming stories.)
These gay pride Daleks will undoubtedly have some fans squeeing in their Tom Baker Y-fronts - but equally, Marmite-like, they’re not going to appeal to everyone. The colours particularly may well prove contentious. However, it goes without saying an overhaul of such a classic design is a brave move (certainly compared to previous cosmetic changes), and shows Steven Moffat’s willingness to put his own stamp on every aspect of the series.
Where the previous twenty-first century incarnation was injected with a bulk and realism, making them credible bits of hardware, there’s certainly something very sixties about these versions, perhaps a nod to their TV Comic antecedents. At least the production team isn’t trying to make them look cool, which is death to Doctor Who.
Moffat has talked about the magic of the show being its ability to appeal to our inner eight-year-old, and these Daleks seem unabashedly targeted at that mentality. It’s appropriate, then, that their clearest antecedent within the program is not one of the TV series’ designs proper, but rather the Aaru movie version hijacked for a role as the Supreme in Planet of the Daleks…
The wisdom of having the balls – or hubris? – to tamper with something as iconic as the Daleks is quite staggering, but we’ll wait and see whether it comes off. There’s a sort of bulbous purity of form which, interestingly – and not unpleasingly - sweeps away all the detail added to the bare bones of the design in 2005.
Actually, despite my initial distaste, it took me about, ooh, half an hour to kind of fall in love with this new design (...if not the colours). I’m a bit of a sucker for variants on the familiar; I like them exactly because they genuinely have a totally new look, and there’s something to be said for how scandalous that should seem. (The organic eyes are a nice touch, too.)
Used - as under Russell T Davies - to illustrate the show’s potential and variety, Victory of the Daleks’ unassuming slot makes for a surprisingly early excursion for the Daleks in this run. As the creation of the dodgem-Daleks is its entire raison d’être, amounting to an expository set-up for further encounters, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this feels like a slightly hollow Victory – and perhaps it’s for the best that this was got out of the way early. It may be too slight to be an entirely satisfying story in its own right – and manages to feel rather rushed, despite not a great deal actually happening - but let’s reserve judgement for when these Daleks really come into their own.
The traditionalism of Mark Gatiss’ script also feels a little inadequate after Moffat got stuck into the format in the last two stories; by comparison this is very insubstantial – do robots and averted countdowns cut it any more? Having said that, it is the riffs on Power of the Daleks, recasting the creatures as something insidious, with only the Doctor knowing the truth, which are arguably the most effective elements of this story. It’s a shame this, and their unlikely dialogue (“WOULD YOU CARE FOR SOME TEEEA?”) couldn’t have been taken further.
Trying to cram an epic resurrection and Star Wars dogfights into the runtime is perhaps less effective. Although, spitfires in space – along with holding the Daleks at bay with a jammy dodger (“Don’t mess with me, sweetheart”) are memorably daft Doctor Who concepts… Although I can’t shake a cynical feeling that they are a bit too manufactured.
Where The Eleventh Hour felt like every element had been lovingly oiled and put together meticulously, Victory’s combination of trad and new series styles is more uneasy. Also, notably, as the first non-Moffat-penned Eleventh Doctor adventure, it lacks the much-vaunted ‘fairytale’ feel of the two series openers. However, it isn’t unsuccessful as a rollicking wartime adventure.
Where those previous two stories were hung around Amy getting to grips with the Doctor, this could almost be slotted anywhere in the run. Consequentially – and slightly disappointingly – Ms Pond feels far less uniquely ‘Wendy Darling’ here. And, once again, despite her instrumental part in saving the day, Amy feels marginalised; we need a story which has space to breathe (perhaps a return to Leadworth?), where she – and we – can take stock of her still-new situation.
The Blitz is a surprisingly specific period to return to relatively soon after The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, especially given how effectively it was used there. Nevertheless, it completes the set of contemporary, future, and past settings, and it is welcome to effectively get to see behind the scenes of the earlier story’s milieu. Some less tokenistic characters besides Churchill and Bracewell would have been welcome, but that just goes to show that the series can still struggle with the 45 minute format.
Obviously, the Doctor’s ticket into the war rooms is the concept of his having had previous adventures with Churchill – to the extent that the PM is blasé about the Doctor’s change of face. This is not only a brilliant twist on the Doctor’s inveterate namedropping (the Doctor and Baroness Thatcher versus the Vervoids in series six, anyone…?), but, only three stories in, also continues a trait for characters already knowing the Doctor. (Liz Ten and the inhabitants of Leadworth knew him by reputation, while perhaps the ultimate example of this, River Song, returns next week.)
As Gatiss rightly pointed out on Confidential, Churchill is a controversial, ambiguous figure, but, while I'm slightly uncomfortable with his being turned into a jolly caricature, it’s appropriate that these issues aren’t raised here, and that we are instead presented with a canny distillation of ‘the Churchill of legend’. Miraculous too that the series was allowed to show him smoking. (How many years has it been since someone last lit up in Doctor Who?! Resurrection? Answers on a postcard.)
(Picky point, but, I found it quite distracting that Ian McNeice is the wrong sort of fat for Churchill. Which, I suppose, is the disadvantage of celebrity historicals for whom the characters’ real appearances are a matter of record, but I’ll let it go.)
Anyway, I don’t think it’d be fair to damn this as series fnarg’s first stinker; it’s a step down – or maybe back – but as we’re returning to Moffatland next week, I’m not going to despair just yet. Also, I feel inclined to let this story off because I like Mark Gatiss’ three-piece suits.
One thing I did find interesting, in addition to the newfound prevalence of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, is that the Moffat administration have reacted to the ubiquity of large-scale alien activity over the last few years by seemingly resetting this knowledge to zero. As with the new Daleks’ destruction of their predecessors, the willingness to take a sledgehammer to the past five years if necessary is startlingly apparent. If only a qualified success in other areas, in this at least, Victory is victorious.
Sunday, 11 April 2010
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Andrew Gunn, 2010
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid comparison to The Long Game with this story… But, quite helpfully, that just demonstrates how much richer and more complex this series seems to be shaping up to be, even so early in its run. A community in space, check; disappearances, check; a beast in the bowels (well, or the top floor); check… Yet, while familiar, this also feels like a quite different kettle of fish.
Though not a perfect story, I already love The Beast Below - perhaps not as much as The Eleventh Hour, though it cruises the same funny/creepy sensibility. It certainly has its flaws – notably not hanging together as impeccably as some of Moffat’s other stories, and also feels slightly rushed due to the sheer amount of elements (the Smilers, for example, seem quite superfluous). Nevertheless, for its production design alone, which is wonderful, this story feels worthy of being cherished. The presentation particularly of the London market is very reminiscent of the rundown off-kilter melanges of the absurdist dystopia of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, London Below in the BBC’s Neverwhere, and especially the Meanwhile City of last year’s Franklyn.
Though the ‘contemporary clothes in space’ approach is one of the elements broadly comparable to The Long Game, it works far better here, due to this story’s unifying theme, and because it’s dealing in archetypes – the market especially comes across as a sort of Anglophile Blade Runner, with its bunting and bicycles (I like the touch of the rain-slicked ‘streets,’ even inside). In fact, I wish more had been made of the bowler hats and lollipop ladies, Bakelite TVs and Tube-style ‘Vator’ lifts.
There’s a tactility and realism to objects like red phone boxes and ring-dial phones (understandably) which enlivens futuristic environments that could otherwise be soulless and unconvincing (see Planet of Evil, off the top of my head). Couching as many elements as possible in familiar visuals is a very welcome approach – for example, there’s no real reason the information video in the voting booth should be delivered as if by a newsreader, but at the same time, it helps audience acceptance.
In fact, I loved the Starship UK so much I can forgive what felt like an underuse of both the Doctor and Amy, and of the wonderful Sophie Okonado. (Incidentally, I wonder how many Oscar nominees/winners have appeared in Doctor Who? Not that I’m trying to suggest Academy Awards mean anything – the very idea!) Liz 10 is clearly cut from the same cloth as the soon-to-reappear River Song, but that’s not unwelcome. Actually, the concept of a gun-toting black cockney queen is totally brilliant! The Memento-like revelation that she has willingly and repeatedly erased her own memory is neat, but the overall situation doesn’t seem quite diabolical enough to prompt, say, Amy’s reaction. Maybe it’d have rung more true if they’d been willingly sacrificing the children… (Or something.)
(Incidentally, perhaps The Guardian have the right idea: "Maybe Liz 10 should come back in some sort of annual recurring capacity, bitching off against River Song?")
Two stories in, and I’m already in love with this version of the series; in some ways it isn’t a great deal removed from the Davies version, down to similar scenes and ideas (ie, the inevitable – if understandable – ‘last of my kind’ scene, and down to the Doctor’s so-wrong-it’s-right devirginization of Elizabeth I being brought up). It is still broad and humorous, but there’s a complexity alongside the accessibility, and I much prefer the tonal sensibility that these two stories seem to portend. The idea of ‘Starship UK’ could be a total joke, but comes to be treated far more interestingly than it would seem to have any right to.
In terms of the direction, Andrew Gunn has created lots of moments of visual loveliness, even making a soft-edged wipe work outside of Kurosawa! The initial shot of Liz in her suitably magisterial rooms with the glasses spread out in front of her is a particularly beautiful and fabulously uncanny visual. And - maybe looking forward to ‘the Moffat era’ has made me hopelessly biased about this series - even Murray Gold’s music seems improved; I almost found myself liking the crunching electronica and choral elements. Unprecedented!
My main reservation would be that I already feel I’d like to see the regulars have some space and time to spread their wings. For example, it seemed quite glaring that Amy didn’t really have any time to consider the implications of gadding about the universe with her erstwhile imaginary friend - but I’m sure all this will come.
In fact, I realise I didn’t mention the new Doctor (and it’s hard to believe he actually is still new!) and Amy last week, mainly because they were both so obviously well-suited to their roles. Matt Smith is effortlessly Doctorish, but without feeling predictable, and brings an idiosyncratic physicality to the role – all hunched and bony (I definitely concur with the ‘drunk baby giraffe’ comparison), and his halting, weirdly-enunciated delivery. His righteous anger doesn’t quite come off, but, equally, it’s nice to see the Doctor underplayed.
Finally, the sixties-style lead-through to Victory of the Daleks is wonderful, with the idea of a historical figure ringing the Doctor up for assistance treading a fine line between Batman-style campness and making perfect sense (of course Winston Churchill would know the Doctor!). The best thing about it though is the Doctor addressing Churchill as “dear”.
Sunday, 4 April 2010
Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith, 2010
Over the past five years, it’s been very infrequent that I’ve felt immediately compelled to gush about a story. What I mean is, I don’t get impressed by every shiny new story that comes along. But… I may have to gush now.
Aside from the fact that this is a whole new era, no season opener is allowed to be this good, is it?!
After a pre-titles series which almost outdoes Russell T Davies on what Steven Moffat has called the Superman end of the Doctor Who spectrum, the story is otherwise much more firmly ensconced in the latter’s self-confessed Tim Burton end of the scale. Actually, that comparison annoys me because Tim Burton’s ‘gothic whimsy’ has become so tired and soullessly by-numbers. This is better than that. Let’s just call it dark fairytale, and say it completely comes off.
I love the creepy kids’ story atmosphere that the beginning especially drips with, while the concept of the Doctor first meeting a companion as a child is quite beautiful (albeit with obvious shades of The Girl in the Fireplace), and reinforces Moffat’s talent for tapping into a childlike perspective. Oblique approaches are often the most satisfying, and that is certainly the case in introducing the new Doctor through the eyes of a little girl who will become a companion.
I don’t want to be as gauche as to suggest this is simply ‘better than Davies’ (…or do I?), but this is so much closer to where I personally want Doctor Who to be at. As part of that, it’s inexpressibly lovely to see a bucolic, pastoral sensibility brought to the series, in the form of Leadworth’s archetypal sleepy English village. It makes me realise how starved for greenery we’ve been for the past few years, given Davies’ predisposition toward the urban. Bloody yuppie.
In fact, everything here seems so much more effortless than under Davies – for example, the introduction of (presumably recurring?) characters like Rory, Jeff, and (the wonderful) Annette Crosby’s old dear. Interesting too that they all already know ‘the Raggedy Doctor’ by reputation. Everything feels much more natural and flowing than the jumpy contrivances, authorial whims, and often fatuous tone of the previous era. It’s not so much ‘darker,’ but more… textural? More fleshed out, richer. Alright, Rory may basically be Mickey, but I can forgive that because… he’s not Mickey. (Also – no more companions’ parents!)
I’ve been looking forward to this series, era, reboot – whatever you want – more than I’d probably care to admit. And I knew it’d be great, I really did – but I still had my qualified reservations. Maybe it’ll all fall apart after this… but I really don’t think so.
I don’t even remember the last time I’ve been this excited about Doctor Who after watching a story. I’ve had big problems with the underlying ethos of the show since 2005, and there’s always been some element that soured all but the very best of the stories for me… But this – this is the most vital it has felt for the past five years. It’s enormously pleasing to welcome a whole new eye on the series; Rose, Martha and Donna might have seemed different at the time, but a little distance shows how superficial those differences were, and that the series was still very much anchored by one outlook for that entire period. By contrast, even just visually, the use of glitchy flashback, the Jeunet-like stop-motion Doctor’s-eye-view sequence, and subtle lensflare during the apple scene, are welcome novelties. Suddenly I feel on the side of the production team, and I can’t wait to see where this reinvigoration takes us.
That The Eleventh Hour manages – and it really does manage – to usher in a new era, new Doctor, new companion, new location, and still tell a satisfying, involving story, with lots of atmosphere and ideas, continuity references to not only the new series (the Shadow Proclamation; the finger-click; the glowing key; ‘the earth is protected,’ etc) but also to the old (the TARDIS’ library and swimming pool; stealing clothes from a hospital), whilst balancing a modern yet also traditional feel, sustain a frantic pace (without it merely masking a paucity of story), and still find time for humour and outrageous daftness… (And yes, I know that was a long sentence.) Well, I can’t even really be bothered to justify how immensely impressed I am by this story.
In the interest of slightly spurious balance, I will say that the rearranged theme music is... unfortunate, and the titles (like the logo) are poor; arching electricity is so passé. But, really… Steven Moffat, where have you been all my life?!