Monday, 30 August 2010

"Better, richer, wiser"

Written by Paul Cornell, directed by Charles Palmer, 2007


NB: Posts should be rather more regular from now on than they have been lately...

Human Nature/The Family of Blood is the story I’ve been waiting for since 2005, being as close to perfection as televised Doctor Who is likely to get any time soon. Even the arguable classics of the new series – Dalek, The Girl in the Fireplace – haven’t come anywhere close to this. (Even The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances doesn’t have the same level of structural and emotional complexity.)

It seems such a shame that one of the few examples of real brilliance from ‘the Davies years’ is taken wholesale from the New Adventures. Aside from this story the new series simply hasn’t aimed at creating anything comparable to the maturity, originality and emotion of the best of those novels. Everything’s straightforward and easy to grasp on one viewing; it’s all dumbed-down and very ‘Saturday night viewing’ – which, okay, is fine, but arguably I don’t think that’s what the best of the original run was.

So, on the one hand I feel vindicated that the best story of the new run derives from those books – but, it’s depressing that no brand new story has been as fully-formed or multilayered as this adaptation (perhaps with the exception of Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead).

Unfortunately, the season just gone didn’t offer any real competition, as, despite being an unashamed Moffat man, I can’t deny that the one area where his run has so far has fallen down – by comparison to his predecessor’s – is in its failure to provide a story that lives up to this precedent. Indeed, where the slot of the second two-parter has previously all but guaranteed an increase in scope and complexity, with The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood series fnarg delivered one of it’s most hackneyed and clumsily characterised outings. So, for now – to me – Human Nature remains unrivalled in new Who. (But – there’s always 2011, eh?)

Its structure alone is unusually ambitious, with a narrative straying beyond the given setting, to Tim’s glimpses of the future; the war; the memorial service; the flashbacks of past stories (which are effectively and economically used, for once); John Smith and Joan’s possible life; down to the voiceover handling of the ending. Even the three-month time span is a welcome exception to the adventures more usually taking place over only a day or so. Sadly, I doubt any of these techniques would have been employed had the script not derived from a broader medium than television – no other story of the new series has been quite this audacious or wide-ranging. In this way, the story felt like a ‘novel on film,’ rather than a simply televisual creation.

It really seems as if the stakes were raised for this production, as if, because of its origins as a novel, people realised there was more behind it than the majority of stories. I’ve never been an admirer of Paul Cornell – it’s always seemed to me that though he has the ideas, they’re let down by pedestrian prose. Here, freed from those constraints, it is wonderful to see the plot refined, and imbued with a loving attention to detail.

The continuity references, for example, are rather joyous, but not overplayed – the music accompanying the sinister schoolgirl from Remembrance of the Daleks momentarily echoed for the Family’s Daughter of Mine; the reference to the village’s dust being ‘fused into glass,’ alluding to the sequence from the novel in which the school itself is turned to glass; and, most charmingly of all, the sketches of the previous Doctors in the journal of impossible things. It’s wonderful that such a tiny thing, which’d be overlooked by the vast majority of the audience, is so heartening; it’s particularly great to see McGann’s portrayal vindicated by the new series, even if only so briefly.

It was also gratifying to see a story achieved so effectively with minimal use of CGI (which everyone seems to forget is going to date as badly as any crap blue-screen in about, ooh, two years). The use of green lighting for the Family’s communication demonstrates how effective simple, in-camera effects can be, while the rendering of the bombardment of the village is impressive for being so low-key.

On its initial broadcast though, the Doctor’s elaborate punishments for the Family came close to ruining things for me. Given that this sequence was narrated by Son of Mine, I immediately assumed that it was intended to appear unreliable: the Doctor doesn’t do this sort of thing! Which, given Cornell’s obvious understanding of Doctor Who and what it stands for, seems even more bizarre. What happened to ‘never cruel, never unkind’? Now, I’ve actually quite warmed to the Family’s ‘mythic’ fates; it feels pleasingly huge and magical, compared to the majority of the series at large, and, in a perverse way, it’s quite exciting to see an atypically vengeful edge to the Doctor.

This story really shows the difference it makes when a story is written by someone with an abiding love and understanding of not only the series, but Doctor Who in a broader sense. As opposed to the jobbing writer approach of, say – ooh, I don’t know – Chris Chibnall’s stories.

A strong script, complemented by great character moments, the backdrop of the oncoming war, and some surprisingly non-‘mainstream’ directorial touches (the slow-motion shooting of the scarecrows scored by children’s singing, etc) add up to the strongest story yet of the resurrected series (again, only contested by Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead). Among the elements that particular impress me is the emotion of Smith’s breakdown (“What exactly do you do for him?”) and the entirely appropriate excision of Smith’s sacrifice and his change back into the Doctor. Also, I always want Doctor Who to be beautiful, but it’s ordinarily too busy being flashy – for once though, with Charles Palmer’s shallow depth of field and visual darkness, it really is.

This story is sad and complex and serious and wonderful. (A shame then that Journey’s End is a bit of a betrayal of Human Nature’s affecting human Doctor – as is Utopia’s demeaning reuse of the chameleon arch fob watch.) It’s just regrettable that, despite demonstrating the highs the new series can evidently reach, stories this strong have definitely been in the minority.

Sunday, 29 August 2010


And a pretty but entirely random picture.

This will no doubt be a work in progress for a while (eg, I can't get rid of the bastard shadows on the images...), but I now actually have permanent access to the internet, so expect updates soon. Hurrah!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

"Such things happen only in the theatre!"

Written by Kevin Clarke, directed by Chris Clough, 1988

NB: Well, this review has been a long time coming - my recent move of house seems to have taken forever... Posts should be a bit more regular from now on.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen Silver Nemesis, and I’m left unexpectedly torn by it. a) It’s crap – contrived and confused – but, b), I also found it fairly entertaining. That isn’t the best you could ask of a Doctor Who story, but it’s not the worst either.

Everything is immediately a bit shonky: the convenient countdown displayed in a massive font on the computer screen, and a pensioner shooting parrots with a bow and arrow (what?!). But, the (brief) South American-based scene is pleasingly unusual for Doctor Who – though I can’t decide whether the cut from there to the seventeenth century is intriguing or alienatingly unexpected? Followed by another seachange shift to Courtney Pine playing outside a pub. What? (Also, how is this bloody November?) The eighties contemporary setting feels very cheap and uninteresting - personally, I’d’ve preferred to see more of the seventeenth century - but these opening moments are unfortunately indicative of how choppy the story remains throughout (the random returns to Peinforte’s house = very bad plot structuring!).

Basing a story around multiple parties could be interesting – but unfortunately the Nazis are totally bland. (Although, what’s with de Flores’ numerous costume changes in part one? What a fashion-conscious fascist! He acts like a proper tourist too, talking about the estate of “the infamous Lady Peinforte” – though not in reference to the seventeenth century women he’d seen earlier, because he scorns the connection!)

The Cybermen don’t fair much better (though they look quite good; it’s just a shame they’re so turgidly shot). They receive only the most cursory backstory, too. Surely at this point, while not wanting to overdo the fan-oriented back-references, not giving them any explanation would have been a deadly move? There may not be distracting continuity references like in Attack, but there’s barely any acknowledgement that any new viewers/non-fans could be watching, either. It wouldn’t take much – surely Ace’d be curious about them?

I hate the Cyberleader’s hammy, melodramatic pauses and delivery… Seriously, why is ‘emotionless’ so difficult!? The Cybermen’s use of a gold detector (and subsequently wet reaction) undermines the erstwhile silver giants even further. Their bumbling anorak-wearing stooges are very, very unthreatening, too.

There’s lots of slightly baffling slips in the production: the initial modelwork shot of the Nemesis comet is strangely excellent – but that just emphasises how crap it looks after that. Then there’s the Doctor and Ace’s simultaneous fall into the river, which seems inexplicable because it’s been choreographed into meaninglessness; one of those stunts that’s lost any sense of what it was meant to convey.

The whole story feels very slapdash, especially compared to the assured production of Remembrance of the Daleks, or the stylistically unprecedented (but consistent!) Happiness Patrol. It also suffers from the typical eighties tendency to intercut various scenes by chopping them into tiny little segments, when they’d be more effective if given some breathing-space – which is especially regrettable here, as we’re already juggling multiple characters and locations.

Tonally, it feels very ‘kiddie’ too (more like season twenty-four), with stupid ideas like being able to step away from a guided tour and bump into the (unaccompanied!) Queen. Or even the idea that the Doctor thinks she’d be the very woman to help him out – since when has he needed royalty on his side? (Well, okay, except Liz Ten. And Liz Two waving her hankie in Voyage of the Damned. And the Tenth Doctor shagging Liz One. Obviously this is a new series thing.) I like the idea of the Doctor raiding the Queen’s basement – I’m less keen on an unconvincing impersonator turning up. Also, why does the Doctor inexplicably tell the security guard at the palace that he arrived “by travelling through time and space” when they got to the royal apartments from the tourist routes?

There are lots of bizarre reactions and unfortunate dialogue like this – though bad editing plays its part (the Doctor saying, “Where did that come from?” of an arrow that shot a Cyberman several seconds before; Peinforte randomly noticing the Doctor after a long battle). One of my favourite dialogue clunkers is the line explaining Ace’s new ghetto blaster (itself a slightly meaningless piece of hardware which is presented as strangely meaningful): “Yes, I know I built it for you, to replace the one destroyed by the Daleks.”

Essentially, Silver Nemesis squanders the intelligence of the Remembrance reboot. It’s all a bit vague and pointless – there’s a time-travelling sorceress, a Courtney Pine cameo, a duck, Windsor, tourists, the Queen… None of it adds up. At best, it’s very, very unfocused, and desperately needs some decisive editing and tightening up.

Unexpectedly though, Peinforte and Richard are the best thing in it; they’re assured and fun, and on just the right side of ham. Though she isn’t a well-remembered adversary, Peinforte is really funny in her gung-ho-ness (eg, abruptly smashing the cafĂ© window, rather than using the door). (Incidentally, the idea of having the setting change around them during their time travel is one of the story's few arresting ideas - although it still begs the question, why does no-one react? Does this happen a lot in Windsor? Ditto the tourists at the castle when the TARDIS arrives.)

Fiona Walker’s performance is effective because of her self-awareness of its hamminess (“I shall lead! And you, follow!”; calmly taking over the hitchhiking duties; and leaning over and conspiratorially telling Mrs Remington, “All things shall soon be mine”). Her final enraged scream is very funny, too, especially because you get the impression the actress is having a ball doing it.

It does make me wonder when the Doctor last encountered Peinforte though? (It’s jarring that he talks about her as if we should know about her – which could work. But doesn’t.) The trouble with a new take on the Doctor – his increased manipulation of events – is that it then gets retrospectively applied to his past, which doesn’t really fit. I mean, when did he set all this up? If it was just a couple of weeks back in his seventh life that isn’t very ‘mythic,’ but that sort of behaviour isn’t really true of any of the earlier Doctors (not that we’ve seen, anyway).

Similarly, it’s quite funny that, because of the story’s poor reputation, the validium - which would otherwise be a big deal within Doctor Who ‘mythology’ - has never been referenced in books, etc, to the extent of, say, the Hand of Omega. Also, the suggestion that the Nemesis caused various twentieth century atrocities seems a bit tasteless (while comparing Kennedy’s assassination with World War I stretches things a tad, surely?). (On the plus side, at least visually, the glowing paint used for the statue and the bow is surprisingly effective.)

That the statue told Peinforte ‘who the Doctor is’ is quite fascinating, and I like that nothing is actually given away… But, at the same time, it begs the question whether the production team actually had any concrete revelations in mind at this point? I suppose all the talk of the Doctor’s secrets is rubbish, really, because it’s so contrived, especially as it compares so badly to Remembrance’s gradual mystery (which actually hints at something particular, as well as expanding on part of the character’s past which we’ve actually seen a glimpse of, in An Unearthly Child).

The shadow of Remembrance hangs all too heavily over this story, which is a shame because, especially in its conclusion, this feels like a homemade, knocked-off version of the season opener (there’s a “miscalculation” line, and another “give me some of that Nitro 9 you’re not carrying!” line; the shots of the Nemesis travelling toward earth; even the music’s pretty much the same, though it seems even more intrusive here). Yet all the good things about Ben Aaronovitch’s story - its cohesive, mythologised approach - are entirely absent here.

Instead we get a production that feels cobbled together from disparate elements, with no flow or internal logic. The excessive time travel and flitting between locations and times would be okay if the whole story was predicated around that (as in The Chase), or if something clever came of the multiple time zones (as in Mawdryn Undead), but… no. Neither happens here.

Which is all the more annoying because there’s a sense of missed opportunity here, because an expansive, varied story like this could be unusual and interesting (and even do the anniversary slot justice) – unfortunately, it’s all too rushed; the concepts/scripts aren’t quite good or developed enough, and it all comes across as disjointed. In a way, it’s ambitious (at least in terms of concepts) – but not ambitious enough, because some of these concepts could really do with pushing further. Instead, it just gets absurd when all the various parties roll up at the end, and then stand around, waiting for a chance to speak.

My main problem with Silver Nemesis though is that none of it ever feels like it matters, or has any sense of gravitas, because there are no normal, everyday points of reference: instead we have Nazis, Cybermen, seventeenth century time-travellers, the Queen, a rich American tourist, skinheads… It’s like Kevin Clarke dared himself to not include any ‘everyman’ figures. Real people are almost entirely absent from this story.

I’m torn about making the (inevitable) comparison to the modern series - which, whatever else you might say about it, has no problem presenting realistic, everyday characters - mainly because it’s just a bit too easy, isn’t it. In the scheme of things, certainly when considering how long the series has run, 1988 doesn’t seem that long ago - but Doctor Who, like television itself, was a different beast at that time. It feels churlish to complain that it’s not like it is now.

It may be unpolished, but I will concede that this story isn’t lacking in imagination, and at least that makes me better disposed to it than if it were unfocused and lacking interesting ideas.