Thursday, February 24, 2011

"A Christmas Carol"

You know how in the five previous Christmas specials I've tended to make the point, at least as far as I recall, that they seem to have been written in the probably justified hope that the majority of the audience would be overfed, drunk, sleepy people and tuckered-out kiddies on Christmas night who wouldn't pay enough attention to notice how absolutely god awful they were? And that it proved in my mind that Doctor Who just isn't the kind of show which should have Christmas Specials? Well this is kind of the opposite. The first time I watched this I was rather merry after consuming a good deal of Christmas cheer of the 'made from hops and served in a short green bottle' variety very late on a Boxing Day night/very early morning of December 27th following a long Boxing Day of Christmas Round 2 with friends which followed Round 1 of Christmas on Christmas Day itself which was spent with family. In that condition, I couldn't help feel a bit dissatisfied. I was slightly bored, I was bothered and I was confused. What was going on here? Then a few days later I watched it in the middle of the day under normal conditions and I really liked it, and since then I've rewatched it a number of times and I still really like it. Why this disparity? Well, it was simply too complex, too detailed and too subtle for my Christmas-addled brain to appreciate. What's the point I'm trying to make here? Basically what I'm saying is that this episode stands up in a post-Christmas mindset, and is actually better, whereas the previous Christmas Specials upon fully awake sobre rewatch leave you wanting to shoot the television. What "A Christmas Carol" shows is that Doctor Who actually can do a Christmas episode well, but it also continues to prove that the actual demands of Christmas television aren't right for Doctor Who because, basically, this episode is too good for those low standards of quality. It's by no means a perfect episode, because what is besides some kind of edited-together version of "The Pyramids of Mars", but it still stands up.
I suppose the big whammy for this episode is that it stars none other than Michael Gambon as antagonist-to-assistant Kazran Sardick. I think this is a pretty big deal, and for a show which deals with changing actors it seems fitting to have post-regeneration Dumbledore filling a role. His performance as Kazran is superb - both cold-hearted and extremely defensive yet also curious and clearly pained. At the same time he gets to ham it up as his father, Elliot Sardick, who fulfils the nasty old miser archetype exactly. Indeed Gambon gets some of the best lines in the episode, such as "You know what I call it? Expecting something for nothing!" in regards to Christmas and "Tell him from me, people can't," in regards to time being rewritten. We can believe his emotional journey, and not so much through his new memories but his witnessing of those new memories, and his redemption is a satisfying one. He realises that in not letting Abigail go he is hurting himself.
Now the role of Kazran is also played by two other actors as both child and young man Kazran by Laurence Belcher and Danny Horn respectively and they both do an extremely good job as the nervous child who befriends the Doctor and the awkward yet troubled young man who he becomes the more time he spends with Abigail. Abigail herself is serviceable enough, I suppose, although I think she is mostly there to sing well and look pretty; then again it was Katherine Jenkins' first ever acting role as far as the hype claimed and if that's the case I think she does a pretty decent job. It's just that we're more concerned about Kazran's relationship with Abigail than with Abigail herself.
I feel like the monsters are again a tad needless but I suppose in the long run they're not really monsters, and as weird as I find the concept of fish who swim in air and are soothed by stirring opera it's at least a bit different. I suppose the gigantic relief for this episode is that it's on a different planet, it's in the future, and while they're still humans and the civilisation obviously has a sort of middle-Victorian aesthetic evocative of the era of the Dickens novel this homages it's another fairly refreshing aspect. The extremely futuristic spaceship is nice as a throwaway set for the opening and while there's a lot of cheesy dialogue at the beginning like "Christmas is cancelled," and Amy saying the Doctor's arrival means "It's Christmas" it's good that Moffat subverts this kind of hyper-futuristic glossy science fiction with all the down and dirty stuff we get on the planet below. That being said the effects for the ship and the fish, especially when they're swimming in formation in the clouds, are all very nice, and the wide shots of the city focusing on Sardick's mansion are very atmospheric. It's worth noting that so much of this episode is shot in semi-darkness, with much of it coloured by greys and deep blues, and it sets a suitably sombre tone for the episode. The music similarly lacks the silliness of previous Christmas specials and all in all the atmosphere is a good deal more mature, as I suppose befits the storyline. It is, after all, full of pain and bitterness and the Doctor interfering in people's lives.
The time travel stuff is again very clever even though it's going on right after the same thing happening in "The Big Bang" but because it's set throughout the life of one man it provides a good twist. There's some weird stuff which took me a few viewings to fathom, such as Abigail's family being old in the first scene and young in the Christmas dinner scene later on, and that the little boy in that dinner scene is meant to be the middle-aged man at the start, perhaps because Abigail's sister doesn't look particularly old in the opening and she's meant to be older than Kazran himself. It's weird that we had this rather deterministic view of time travel in the previous story where the Doctor has to fulfil what's already been observed to happen whereas in this one he goes back and changes things, granting Kazran new memories and an alternative past. The fact that the 'Christmas future' bit is actually young Kazran seeing his aged self is clever and effective, and the concept of Isomorphic controls is a nice nod to the Classic series. The fact that this changed Kazran still exists in the same scenario in spite of the Doctor's meddling in his past seems a bit odd, however. It's a very... illogical view of time travel with causality essentially thrown out the window, but it's interesting and the mood and pacing are so good I don't give a damn. I'm equally glad that we don't get some melodramatic death scene for Abigail at the end because it's not really the point as the Doctor elaborates before leaving - it's about accepting things and making choice, and their last day together, and the fact that they're together, not apart.
I mean there's some weird stuff as well, like why the Doctor bothers to show up every Christmas Eve. What's the point? And while it's instantaneous for him and Abigail wouldn't it screw Kazran up a bit to have to wait every year to see his beloved? I suppose the Doctor didn't know she was dying, but he never attempts to let her out or help her or any of the other 'surplus population' escape either. I suppose he needed to keep things manageable so that Kazran wouldn't change too much to make the situation untenable, which is ultimately what happens when the isomorphic controls stop working. There are some nice references in there though, like the fez and the Fourth Doctor scarves, but it seems weird that the Doctor would take them to all these strange places like Sydney and the Pyramids and a Frank Sinatra party. I suppose it just seems a little incongruous and it can feel like a bit of a drag in the middle. As I say, I think the episode is so complicated it demands multiple rewatches to try and fit all the pieces together; that's not necessarily a bad thing, it just means it's a bit confusing. The song is also quite good in my opinion, and while the whole 'two halves of the sonic screwdriver' thing all seems very convenient I suppose it's fair enough.
Amy and Rory barely appear in this one, although Arthur Darvill gets his name in the titles at last, so there's not too much to say about them really. I feel like we get a bit distracted from Gambon's Kazran in the middle as well, but overall it's a strong storyline and it's so bursting at the seams with plot that it feels like a proper story, not some piece of pap thrown out for Christmas. You can tell Moffat is actually trying with this one, rather than just taking an 'anything goes' attitude towards the demands of a Christmas Special. There's some silliness like the Doctor coming down the chimney or the bit where the shark pulls the carriage but there's also a lot of good humour, like "What colour is it?" "Big... big colour." It's way too intelligent and involved for a Christmas Special but that's a really good thing; it's a good continuance for the era and the performances from Michael Gambon and Matt Smith in particular are stellar. In fact I'd say it's up there with the best episodes of Series 5, and that's certainly saying something as far as a Christmas Special is concerned. It certainly proves beyond doubt the superiority of this era in the current history of the New Series.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Big Bang"

I'm going to square with you here; I love this episode. Even though I've seen it a million times and even though some of the major details of the plot require at best a leap of logic and at worst a leap of faith it nonetheless is carried by the sheer completeness of it. It's on a huge scale conceptually yet intimate and personal, it's emotionally satisfying without being sentimental or melodramatic at any point, it's subtle and the performances are completely astounding. Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston and, of course, the unsurpassable Matt Smith all put in their incredible best and every character gets their chance to shine. Moffat made an extremely wise decision in this, I think. We have an enormous calamity occurring, as per New Series finale usual, but instead of once again having some mastermind to defeat or enormous army to destroy we simply have the Doctor, his companions, and a puzzle to be solved, with the only other characters of any immediate importance being a single semi-functional Dalek and young Amelia. No giant battles, no throwaway deaths, no pointless cameos or character insertions and an ending which, while arguably a routine 'big finale' cop-out, doesn't pretend to be anything otherwise and doesn't rely on misinformation or abuse of language.
Of course it turns out that the very thing which the 'Silence' is attempting to cause, which is to say the destruction of the TARDIS, is the very thing which permits the Doctor to not only reboot the universe but also time travel with great accuracy and that's kind of clever but then it causes the sort of weirdness that the destruction of the TARDIS stops the TARDIS from being destroyed and things like that. Nonetheless the time paradox stuff is extremely clever, and the shock value of seeing the Doctor appear in the fez to Rory or, biggest of all, adult Amy being in the Pandorica rather than the Doctor, maintains its wow factor even on multiple viewings. I also find it clever that there are a number of paradoxes - the Doctor gets out of the Pandorica only because he got out, for instance, and closed time loops which leave you confused but marvelling that they've done so little of this kind of thing before. Again we have that issue that a Vortex Manipulator seems to be more accurate than the TARDIS but at least the conditions for this happenstance are explained - the universe is now very small. There's a lot of strange stuff regarding changes to history but if the Sun never existed, only the exploding TARDIS, how was the Earth ever formed? The after-images of the aliens are creepy and all but as I say it requires a bit of a leap of logic and the deadly 'eye of the storm' phrase rears its ugly head, but in this instance it is also justified: the Eye of the Storm doesn't grant immunity from the effects of time manipulation, it only means that there is a delay in the destruction, and now things have to work to a pretty tight schedule as is made evident when young Amelia vanishes. Caitlin Blackwood does as good a job as she did in "The Eleventh Hour" and I think we were all expecting her to return but unfortunately she doesn't get quite as much screen time in this one. There's also the whole issue of the Pandorica restoring the Universe like a human body being cloned from a single cell. But isn't it true to say that a clone will not have the memories or experiences of the body from which it was cloned? The universe doesn't even function in that kind of genetic manner - it's not like a few billion atoms somehow contain the 'genetic code' of the universe, and even if it did it would only be able to replicate the physical structure of the universe in its most primordial state, not its history. I guess the Doctor simply anticipates history fulfilling itself in the same way and is relying on Amy's memory of him to bring him back and slot everything into place. How this stops the TARDIS being destroyed all over again is not very clear but I suppose we have to take a few of these things for granted. The plot doesn't entirely make sense and the idea that Amy's memories are special and restorative due to the crack in her wall seems like a bit of hand-waving by Moffat to stop people going "But that isn't how memories work at all," but I guess at least it's something and it is played up to a certain extent. I especially like the bit where the Doctor is wiring himself into the Pandorica and he tells amy "You'll have your mum and dad back. You won't need your imaginary friend anymore," and he echoes this sentiment later to the sleeping Amelia, and his creeping realisation of his own loss as well as the iota of hope he carries is marvellously played by Matt Smith and the weariness and solemness of it all reinforce the character of the Doctor in a totally rounded fashion. We have the hero, the friend, the scientist and the old man all rolled into one. It's kind of surprising to think that the term 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' hasn't been used to describe the TARDIS before and the wedding scene, especially with the Doctor's dancing, further cement Matt Smith's mastery of the role.
Then we have Rory of course as another character who undergoes a pretty rigorous series of developments, realising he's an Auton, accidentally killing his girlfriend, guarding her for two thousand years and fortunately being restored to human form. The Doctor's trick to make him realise his humanity, as well as his own determination on that score, reinforce undercurrents about humanity weaved as early as "Victory of the Daleks" and Arthur Darvill is as usual an absolute top man in this one. He certainly has a different rappor with Amy than the Doctor does, as I mentioned while reviewing "The Vampires of Venice", but you cannot doubt his devotion, loyalty or courage. It certainly seems appropriate that he finally gets to marry Amy in the end.
Amy occurs in two forms in this episode, and I've already discussed young Amelia's brief but nonetheless quality appearance, so it's time to look at adult form. She's a bit angry in this one I must say, telling both Rory and her dad to shut up and having a flirt with the Doctor even after she's married but even though I find this a little grating I'm willing to attribute it to feistiness and as much as some people found her suggestion to the Doctor about a 'snog in the bushes' somewhat unpleasant I don't think she was serious, just trying to rile her husband. She doesn't really get as much to do as the Doctor or Rory in this episode but her remembrance of the Doctor is well-played. I still think Moffat should have written her reunion with her parents as not being surprising to her, however, because it should have been the Doctor's absence which was jarring if the Universe had been rearranged, and her parents' presence should have been normal. Her conversation with Rory on the phone is cracking, however: "Are you just saying yes because you're scared of me?" "Yes."
Also, how good is it when the Doctor gets out of the TARDIS in the full tuxedo? I always thought that when Amy was seeing the various items which reminded her of the Doctor, the young man in the bow tie and the old guy with the suspenders, she should have inexplicably seen one of the wedding guests wearing a fez, but maybe that would have been too much. Speaking of the fez, though, there are a lot of very funny moments in this episode as well from the fez and the Doctor's wish to buy one to his time-jumping conversation with Rory, his comments to young Amelia and his explanation as to what can be done in twelve minutes, yet it's never jarring or interrupts the flow of the action and it proves that Moffat does comedy a lot better than many previous writers for the show... The writing's funny, it's clever when for instance the Doctor returns to events witnessed in "Flesh and Stone" and reveals that they were part of this episode all along, and it's poignant such as when he tells the sleeping Amelia about his theft of the TARDIS. Nonetheless it is all understated and performed with such subtlety it all meshes together into a cohesive whole.
I guess the last person I have to talk about is River. She definitely gets the least attention, mostly just blowing up a Dalek and walking past the wedding with a mysterious look on her face, and I'm glad that while we got to see she's a bit ruthless compared to most companions her presence didn't need to overwhelm the important details of the plot. Unfortunately to her falls the age-old Susan/Romana/Nyssa/Captain Jack role of explaining the technical details of what's going on to the other characters while the Doctor's busy. All we get besides that really is some enigmatic conversation with the Doctor and that's about it. I suppose she's a little arbitrary but she's not even in it that much. The thing is though, where did she go when she left? We know this stuff was set before "The Time of Angels" for her and she was on parole then and in prison in "The Pandorica Opens", so what did she do? Time travel back to her cell? They let her on parole after escaping like that? Maybe we'll receive some marvellous explanation next series.
Anything else left to mention? Oh yes, the Stone Dalek. I guess it's just a nuisance for the sake of some action so I don't begrudge it being in the story too much although I wish they could have done without it. It was only one Dalek though and it wasn't integral to the plot so it completely avoids things being too repetitive.
Overally it's a great episode in my opinion, and easily the best finale of the New Series to this point without any question. It's the first finale in the New Series to not involve the Doctor or a companion shooting a machine, pulling a big lever, developing godlike powers or some combination of the above and causing a big invading force to blow up or be sucked back to wherever they came from. Yes, it involved a deus-ex-machina but it never pretended that it didn't and it doesn't whip it out at the last minute; the Doctor's working on it all through the episode, and in some ways all through the entire series, which would have saved the plot of "The Parting of the Ways" had the Doctor actually used the Delta wave. It also doesn't pretend that one of the characters is dying without them actually dying or anything like that; a couple of characters nearly die, both Amy and the Doctor himself, but their recoveries are weaved into the plot. At no point is silly narration or fake prophecy used to drum up hype; the excitement is purely contained in the plot itself, and the emotional journeys of the characters are believable. It's hardly scientific in a realistic sense but it is time travel after all, and while the concept of memories restoring things is complete rubbish and virtually unexplained I don't care because I'll take a blatant and unashamedly happy ending over some ridiculous melodramatic cop-out which doesn't actually deliver its own implied tragedy any day of the week; at least the happy ending is a complete package and honest about itself. The reliance on a small cast is effective, the time travel elements of the plot are very clever, the effects are nice, the starless sky in particular, the actors are all amazing and the conclusion is gratifying. It's good to see the Doctor, Amy and Rory reunited as a team for further adventures, and while there's something a little silly about the Doctor as this kind of intergalatic troubleshooter for the British Empire you don't care because it leaves you with a big smile on your face thinking "Damn, that was cool." We're also left with a dangling plot thread about who the Silence are and what they want, and kudos to Moffat for establishing a multi-series narrative which is genuinely interesting.
What's left is to comment on the series as a whole. It's by no means a stretch for me to say that this series completely tops the previous era and thus to this point the rest of the New Series by a phenomenal margin. It's not the show as it was back in the day but it's certainly something infinitely better crafted and more watchable than its unlamented predecessor. A lot of this is down to Matt Smith, who has embraced the role of the Doctor with absolute aplomb and is without a doubt the best Doctor since Paul McGann and can hold a place of honour in my estimation with the Doctors of the classic series. Sure, he's been modernised a bit, but he holds up and so do all the characters. Amy and Rory equally surpass their New Series equivalents by miles and the believability and realism of their characters is so well-constructed and compelling that you can understand for once in a long time why companions exist. There are some good science fiction concepts in here, as well as some creative storylines, and while I'm a little cautious about Moffat's regard for the show as a kind of 'dark fairy tale' I'd rather have it as such a work of  imagination with plausible characters and intriguing narratives than a melodramatic character drama with some aliens and a time machine thrown in so that it can pretend to be a beloved show from the 60s, 70s and 80s. This, however, is the natural progression of that show, reconciled with the demands of modern television, and I suppose plaudits must go to Moffat for revolutionising the New Series in such an impressive manner. It's pretty damn close to what Doctor Who should be and while it's not perfect it's still excellent. The only note I will add is my fervent hope that the rest of this era continues to uphold, or better yet even improve, this level of quality.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"The Pandorica Opens"

As far as the first parts of New Series finales go, this one is obviously the best to this point, and not just because it has the Eleventh Doctor in it. Although we have a lot of backward glances to earlier in the series they are weaved together for the sake of plot and are contained entirely within the pre-titles sequence rather than burdening the storyline later on with unnecessary characters and events. So we get brief glimpses of events surrounding "Vincent and the Doctor", "Victory of the Daleks", "The Time of Angels" and "The Beast Below" as well as some later reference to the setting of "The Eleventh Hour" and it's all weaved together quite neatly. It also perhaps provides some of the explanation for Vincent's later deterioration after the Doctor's departure - it was rather countermanded by the psychic visions he was receiving from Stonehenge. Anyway we have another refreshing change of pace in that this episode is almost entirely set in 102 AD around Stonehenge, not London in the present day, which is a massive relief because it also means there are no scenes of spaceships flying around suburban streets or people swearing at Daleks. Even the villains of the story turn out to not really be villains since The Alliance is not responsible for destroying the TARDIS. I think it was difficult not to have predicted that either the Doctor would be inside the Pandorica or that the Pandorica was a trap for the Doctor because it would be difficult to big up an enemy so much without them seeming rehashed from previous finales, but nonetheless I think all of this was fairly elegant on the part of Moffat. It completely subverts the typical 'balls-to-the-wall' scenario we've come to expect from New Series finales: the disaster is caused not by some enemy or naive organisation but inadvertently the Doctor, the typical alien enemies are all present as if there is going to be a huge battle but actually turn out to be self-defeating and inconsequential, and instead of melodramatically prophesying the departure of a companion we have one restored with a twist.
Of course what this means is the return of Rory, and because Rory is essentially the business it is awesome to see him reappear as a Roman centurion. Even though this was extremely predictable it's good to see him return and that when he's about to descend into melodrama the Doctor tells him to shut up and go get Amy. It's nice to see the Doctor attribute his reappearance to a miracle even though he doesn't fully believe it's the case. There are some issues though: if Rory was erased from history, how did the photograph of him and Amy at the costume party still exist in Amy's time to be found and replicated by the Alliance? Also, how does he have the real, original, erased Rory's memories? I like the idea of the Roman scenario being devised from Amy's past but what if it hadn't been something plausible like her love of Roman history and the Pandora's Box myth? It seems like the Alliance's plan only worked by coincidence. Also, how did they figure out what the Doctor was going to do? Unfortunately the science is a lot of hand-wavey stuff and again it's annoying to see the New Cybermen appear, although I'm led to believe that Moffat wanted the Mondasians and simply couldn't afford to have new costumes made. I hope that's the case and it seems to be reinforced by the whole head inside the helmet.
The music's apparently deliberately evocative of Indiana Jones and it works, and in spite of the fact that this episode's rewatch value is diminished a little by the fact that knowing what was going to happen eliminates a lot of the suspense it's still exciting and visually powerful. The Roman commander's lines about the impatience of his masters, as well as the tableau at the conclusion of River trapped, Amy apparently dead, Rory out of control and the Doctor being dragged off for eternal imprisonment continue to be stirring. The Doctor's speech to the various aliens is effective too: what seems like a self-aggrandising threat typical of, say, the Tenth Doctor turns out to purely be a trick to make the enemies squabble amongst each other. While I'm a little dubious that the Romans are a better military force than the Daleks I think they are also well presented even if they are in fact Autons, and the misinformation, such as believing Cleopatra to be alive even though she would have been dead for nearly one hundred and twenty years by that point, as well as their general grittiness, is a significant improvement and a better attempt at historical accuracy than was presented to us last time we saw Romans in Doctor Who.
All in all it's a very mysterious episode and I think that it works in its favour. Even though this huge grab-bag of enemies is unleashed it never seems entirely arbitrary and while the total destruction of the Universe is becoming a bit old hat by this point in the New Series at least this time it actually happens. Nonetheless I'd like to know why an exploding TARDIS is so destructive. When the Time Lords were around there were loads of them, and this never happened. What about when the Master's Melkur TARDIS was destroyed? I could go on endlessly but narratively it's more about setting up the suspense and putting everyone in an impossible situation but the fact that it's grouped very tightly around the characters of the Doctor, Amy, River and Rory it works here and they form a good team. Speaking of River, she's a welcome return here because she works very well alongside the Doctor and co and her presence doesn't seem as frustrating or smug as she occasionally did in her previous appearances. It's sort of like Captain Jack without the incessant innuendos and flirting. Matt Smith is of course absolutely top dollar as usual and while his efforts to find out what's inside the Pandorica seem a bit like time-wasting it's realistically because he couldn't get the TARDIS there and the unknown Silence Will Fall force is manipulating everything. Amy once again feels a little sidelined because she's mostly there to facilitate Rory's emotional journey but her recovery of her memory is satisfying and it's nice to see that she embraces Rory regardless of him being an Auton. Arthur Darvill returns on supreme form as Rory putting all the awkward, humorous and passionate bits together in a very good cohesive whole.
As far as set-up's go it's a bit predictable but it's the good dialogue, character development and performances, as well as the tightness of the narrative, which make it feel very unique and enjoyable in spite of the inevitably ceiling-high stakes. I just hope that Moffat keeps to these kinds of build-ups and cliffhangers or perhaps even makes them more restrained to avoid the traps which plagued the previous era's finales. The final moment, of silence cutting in over the music as the universe is destroyed, certainly leaves us with a feeling of genuine horror without being told or any use of silly language. This is big, and you feel it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"The Lodger"

This episode is another curvy one. Partially it's a very watchable, fun, entertaining story which manages to be both mysterious and silly without either aspect coming across as ridiculous and provides a few interesting insights into the Doctor. Yet at the same time a lot of it is predictable, soppy, pointless and rather unoriginal. I suppose you could say that it almost bases itself around the two flatmates. On the one hand we have the Doctor, who is responsible for all the best bits, and on the other we have Craig, who is more or less landed with the ordinary bits. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with Craig; I know James Corden gets a bit of stick from some people for one reason or another but the only thing I've ever seen him in besides this was the mildly amusing Lesbian Vampire Killers which co-starred the unsurpassable Paul "The Man" McGann as the Vicar and in this I can't find anything too annoying about him. I kind of feel like Sophie, played reliably as ever by Daisy Haggard, could probably do a bit better than this slightly dull fat bloke from Colchester but I suppose she's not exactly an astoundingly interesting person herself, and part of me can't exactly begrudge these two characters who seem to prioritise the comfort of their familiar surroundings and each other's company. I mean, it's not exactly the most disagreeable scenario and I think it makes it fairly easy to empathise with these two characters. You can understand their motivation for doing what they do, and I think anyone who watches Doctor Who will know the reassuring appeal of 'pizza, booze, telly'.
I suppose then that leads us to the character of the Doctor. Now as I've already elaborated upon in several of these reviews, Matt Smith is basically the business. We certainly have an alien Doctor here, and I do like to think that the traumatic downfall of his all-too-human previous persona has encouraged him to re-embrace his differences. Nonetheless he's still a kindly soul, furnishing Craig with a huge amount of rent money, cooking his breakfast for him, saving his life from the rot in the ceiling, filling in at his job for him and making sure he gets the credit, and so on. Now it's all well and good to say that the Doctor never normally acts as weirdly as he does in this one during other episodes with contemporary humanity but he hasn't been in the situation of having to co-habit with humans really since the Third Doctor's tenure, and living in a flat and trying to simulate a normal life with humans is an altogether different matter to showing up during a crisis and saving the world. This is why I appreciate the performance here, and it reinforces more than ever that the Doctor has truly moved into new and different territory of character. His lines like "People call me the Doctor. Don't know why. I call me the Doctor too. Still don't know why." and "They never really stop," in regards to being described as a 'bit weird' by Craig all sum up important elements of his character that might have seemed somewhat lost in previous incarnations. I think it's symbolized in the bow tie: other people may find it, and him, incongruous, but he's comfortable and happy with his own identity and he doesn't care, and that's what Doctor Who should be doing - reinforcing the notions of self-determination, standing out from the crowd, following your own desires and achieving the potential you believe of yourself rather than following a herd mentality, and I suppose that's also reinforced by the Craig/Sophie plot and their discovery and admittance of what they really want, begun during the conversation about orangutans they have with the Doctor where he gives Sophie some advice and summated in the scene in the Time Ship at the conclusion.
There's a fair bit of silliness, like the football match for instance, but I don't really mind even though it's a little grating when the Doctor does his 'oncoming storm' thing with Sean. The 'science' is all hokey nonsense but Time Travel is an impossibility and the notion of the ship requiring a desire to leave is pretty ridiculous. If it had an auto-repair hologram why wouldn't it have an autopilot? Equally, it suggests that humans are too weak but the Doctor would be too strong. Why would his involvement destroy the Solar System? It's never really explained. There's the headbutt version of the Vulcan Mind-Meld as well which is kind of stupid and makes you wonder why they didn't try to weave Craig's realisation of who the Doctor was through the course of the plot rather than using a magic button at the end but I do like the Time Ship and I hope we get to see some exploration later on of its origin. The circular buttons make me think it could be of Dalek design but hopefully some slightly fresher alien is involved. I feel like the perception filter thing is becoming rather overused by this point, occurring in "The Eleventh Hour", "The Time of Angels", "The Vampires of Venice" and, for all intents and purposes, "Vincent and the Doctor", but the concept of there being no upper floor is suitably creepy and the mystery of what lies behind the door is played upon well.
Apparently this was based on a comic strip featuring the Tenth Doctor having to shack up with Mickey and thank Christ that we had this as an adaptation instead because the Eleventh Doctor is infinitely more suitable for emphasising the incongruity of an alien lodger as well as simply being better and more watchable. While I think in the original strip it must be a small mercy to have Rose safely trapped in the TARDIS in this story unfortunately Amy has to take the fall and while the story is a little overburdened already I think if some of the silly bits had been cut out it could have worked to have had Amy with the Doctor in the episode as well and the confusions which would eventuate from that scenario. I can't see how there could have been any kind of scheduling conflict since Amy already barely appeared in "The Hungry Earth" but I suppose this was just how it eventuated. All in all it's a decent episode, and a relatively fun piece of filler without coming across as particularly important, but it's entertaining to see the Doctor trying to operate in this scenario and it fits well into the overall scheme of the series.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Vincent and the Doctor"

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this episode. On the one hand it's narratively a little flimsy, plodding in places, relies too heavily on the tropes of the already extremely tired 'celebrity historical' concept, burdened with a virtually unnecessary monster and some weird time travel-related issues and perhaps to some a trifle condescending, yet on the other it's extremely well-performed, startlingly original for the New Series, thematically fresh and interesting, generally blessed with strong dialogue and ultimately quite a memorable one.
I have to praise the episode for its examination of issues relating to depression, mental illness and suicide, which are dealt with in a reasonably mature fashion without being preachy or overly sentimental. It's certainly surprising, and it's the kind of thing the previous era would never have even contemplated addressing let alone touched with a ten foot magic sonic screwdriver. Alternately I can see why people may take issue with it; there's the fact that Vincent has a moment of extreme negativity which is rapidly resolved, and yet I realise that rapid and extreme moods can be symptomatic of these conditions. I think the Doctor's argument that the bad parts of life don't necessarily spoil the good ones or make them unimportant is an extremely neat comment on the situation, yet I simultaneously feel that the Krafayis, known among the educated as the Giant Space Turkey, is a rather heavy-handed allegory. The idea that only Vincent can see it and therefore must defeat it, yet it also has its own problems of blindness and abandonment and being misunderstood, seems a rather obvious metaphor for the dilemma faced by those who are suffering - others are incapable of appreciating their situation. There's also the fact, of course, that Van Gogh's illness is not exactly categorical and he seems to be endowed with a number of almost 'psychic' abilities. It's a bit touch and go, but the way I am forced to see it is this: at least they tried. The New Series before this would never have even attempted to look at this kind of issue, and while I realise I view the Classic Series with rose-tinted spectacles at least they tried as well, although with other issues. Science fiction is about exploring issues, and at last they're going back to that.
Another factor which  is important to note here is the sparcity of characters. Apart from Doctor Black, played with his usual supreme class by Bill Nighy in the opening and closing moments of the episode, the only three characters of significance are the Doctor, Amy and Van Gogh. Again this is paradoxical for me, because sometimes the town feels inordinately sparse, isolated and quiet, and this seems to diminish the realism somewhat, but at the same time it reinforces the impressionist nature of Van Gogh's work and the isolation and alienation of the depressed and mentally unusual. Again, it feels as if issues are being examined here, and this is precisely what Doctor Who is meant to do. If an allegory has to be forced down our throats for the benefit of children and thickies then so be it. Nonetheless I do think we could have done without the Karafyis and somehow purely been character-driven. I suppose what this achieves however is that it allows the episode to be both concept and character-driven, although not very plot-driven. The best stories of the Classic Series always did all three of these and it's something which I feel "The Eleventh Hour" and "Amy's Choice" for instance managed particularly well, but the monster-of-the-week nature of this story hampers it a bit. The Krafayis just feels so arbitrary.
It's not helped by the fact that the scenes in the church really drag and the bit where the Doctor and Amy are hiding in the confessional booth always feels like it goes for hours. It is good that when the Doctor starts to have a big old perspective dump about depression while Vincent starts painting he gets shooshed so as to avoid a 'tell don't show' policy, although when he goes in while Vincent is really upset and just starts slapping him on the back and urging him to get up seems a bit tactless. Wouldn't the Doctor know that telling depressed people to cheer up is one of the worst things to say? Regardless Matt Smith does an extremely good job as the Doctor in this one, being personable and yet at the same time alien, both serious and funny, and achieving the absolute synthesis of character traits which was always the great power of the Classic Series Doctors. One thing I can say about this series is that it truly does feel like a return to form.
Amy seems a bit sidelined in this episode, mostly existing to serve the implications of Rory's erasure and to give Vincent someone to have a bit of a flirt with but she is as always very affecting and plays her part well. Again, the tumultous bundle of fieriness, compassion, doubt and confidence all coalesce extremely well, especially when she hopes for Vincent to have lived a long life and her disappointment that there are no new paintings in the museum. This raises another issue for me; is it possible that this evidence of his success could have contributed to Van Gogh's illness and exacerbated his problems, or did it permit him to stave off the darkness of his moods for a little while longer? Unfortunately it's rather unclear and it seems a bit iffy of the Doctor to show him his own future so blatantly, especially when with Bill Nighy's lectures and the information everywhere he could easily have become aware of the nature of his own demise. It all just comes across as rather dubious but is simply ignored by the episode apart from the disappearing Krafayis Face and the dedication to Amy on the sunflower painting. Again, it is to an extent made up for by the Doctor's sagacious words about good days at the conclusion but it still irks me a little.
There's also the pop song which plays over the ending, and at this point I'm reminded of the fact that this episode was written by comedy writer Richard Curtis, who once upon a time co-wrote top-notch comedy such as Blackadder and now mostly creates rather cutesy-poo romantic comedies mostly featuring Hugh Grant in some role which girls like to watch. They almost exclusively also depict the English as charmingly awkward on a universal scale and rely on sentimentality and pop songs to pluck at the heartstrings and rake in absolutely loads of dosh. Nonetheless I don't find the conclusion too sappy or cheesy and while the song is rather unusual for Doctor Who it certainly fitted better than the random and rather obvious insertions of the previous era. I'm willing to ascribe it as simply a hallmark of Richard Curtis' touch.
I suppose the one other thing I ought to discuss is Tony Curran as Van Gogh, whose name apparently should be pronounced Van Hhhoghhh with lots of phlegm but who is unanimously called 'Van Goff' apart from a rather strained attempt by Bill Nighy at the beginning. He really is a good likeness when held up to the painting, and while his Scottish accent makes no sense his conveyance of the demons plaguing the artist is pretty good stuff and as he's effectively companion number two for this episode as well as the story's main focus his interactions with the Doctor and Amy don't feel nearly as forced as with characters such as Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, and you can accept his loneliness as a good motivator for accepting these two complete strangers rather briefly into his life. The idea which Bill Nighy offers that Van Gogh was one of the greatest men who ever lived, however, I find a bit of a stretch. I like his description of his artistic genius in transforming his pain into beauty but all this 'greatest man' stuff, fully equipped with crying, reminds me a bit too much of old men and complete strangers telling the Tenth Doctor what a wonderful man he was while he was busy massacring people and complaining that the humans he's constantly telling are short-lived and can't stay with him always leave. Clearly Van Gogh is an excellent artist, but that doesn't make him a great man.
Thus it's a bit of a wild card episode. I have to give it credit because any examination of issues is a relief these days, yet at the same time the monster is really, really arbitrary and the plot's not very interesting. I'm sick of celebrity historicals. All the silly jokes become incredibly predictable and when we know how history will play out it will either make the entire story seem pointless or, as in this case, make it confusing as to what the real consequences of the Doctor's actions were. Nonetheless it's very well acted and it does make you think about what you're feeling, which is always a good thing.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"Cold Blood"

I suppose it's easy to say that the resolution of a New Series two-parter is generally better than the opening episode but I think you'd struggle not to say that of this Silurian revival. The Silurian city is very nice, the plot is certainly more interesting and while there is some rather predictable character development there are also a few engaging twists along the way.
It's a shame that the CGI city wasn't used more, but I think that same hall we've seen in several other episodes is used quite effectively as the conference chamber/courtroom of the Silurians. Nonetheless I have to take issue with the Doctor sitting Amy and Nasreen down to chat with Eldane. I'm not sure what he hoped to achieve - neither of them have any authority to speak for humanity, as opposed to Eldane who is obviously a leader of his civilisation. It doesn't exactly make much sense. There's also the whole issue of the humans being seen as similarly flawed in comparison to the Silurians with Ambrose's semi-accidental killing of Alaya but you could see it coming from a mile off even if it does make Ambrose seem crazy and annoying. Rory is top quality as ever but he could be given more to do and while it's nice to see how much his relationship with the Doctor has improved there's too much time spent with him just sitting around babysitting the stereotypes up on the surface, and similarly too much time spent with Amy wandering around the Silurian tunnels with Mo not really doing anything.
The character of Restac tends to grate as the arbitrary hammy villain du jour once Alaya has been killed off and I find the characterisation of Malokeh to be curious. Sure, he cuts off the Doctor's decontamination when he realises he's not human and he keeps Elliot in suspended animation but this is still the guy who's been dissecting people while they're conscious and strapping humans down to chairs. The Doctor still says he "rather loves him". Is he meant to be a paragon of scientific ethics or a mad doctor who cuts people open and makes them watch? As I stated previously, it's not helped by the incredibly creepy old-timey surgical garb he wears everywhere which makes me feel like he should be running around spattered with blood, waving a bone saw and cackling "It's alive!"
Eldane himself feels a bit like the predictable Star Trek style diplomat who has to deal with unruly subordinates yet at the same time I appreciate this character divergence from the New Series' typical tendency to just have the Doctor and co running around avoiding people hell-bent on their deaths for ages without any kind of reprieve. I suppose it does exacerbate the hammy villainousness of Restac, however, which isn't helped by the facelessness of the other Silurian soldiers, which definitely broadcasts a confused message as to whether these are meant to be sympathetic characters or not. I suppose the whole episode is about things being at stake and what people have to lose and how anyone can make the wrong decision given the right pressure and that everyone is capable of both good and evil and all that sort of stuff but when the Silurians have a genocidal psychopathic warrior caste at odds with these apparently incredibly peaceful civil and scientific authorities it all becomes rather confusing.
I realise this episode is trying to make a point but it all feels rather rushed and it's not helped by the ending, which I'll get to. A lot of it is improved by what I must say is the almost unbelievable watchability of Matt Smith as the Doctor, and regardless of anything else his performance in this episode is incredibly good. You cannot shake the feeling that this is the Time Lord, and he has so much good-natured humour, and authority, and compassion that it's hard to even compare the previous few incarnations. His inspiration of Nasreen as well as his advice and disappointment towards Ambrose are all incredibly effective.
Speaking of top notch acting, let's look at Rory's death. I think it was rather predictable that Rory would be killed especially as we knew he was only going to feature in a few episodes this series but I'm extremely glad that Chris Chibnall and Moffat had the balls to actually kill him rather than write him out in some cop-out fashion like having him want to stay and live with the Silurians or something ridiculous like that which was done to an extent with Mickey just to get rid of him. I realise even at this stage it was incredibly obvious that his death won't be permanent but that, combined with the time erasure, is still pretty gutsy. Rory dies saving the Doctor, which is always good, and the confusion and horror in Arthur Darvill's performance as he realises that he's dying and will be permanently separated from Amy is astoundingly performed. I hate to see him go, but I know it's far from over for Rory.
To go even further on this thing about the acting, watch the scene with the Doctor and Amy after Rory's death as the Doctor implores her to remember and she essentially loses it, desperate to have him back. Now for reasons I cannot fathom Karen Gillan occasionally gets stick from some fans, I think normally of the Tenth Doctor/Rose/Donna variety but how can you possibly watch this and not feel for Amy? Where has there ever been a more believable source of grief in the show since it returned, and how can you not consider Karen Gillan's performance here to be incredible? The shot of the Doctor dragging Amy into the TARDIS is very powerful and while I think this time-crack/death sequence distracts from a lot of the rest of "Cold Blood", I ultimately don't care because of how absolutely blown away I am by the performances from Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill all three in this sequence. They make me care about their characters and the development is actually believable. Well anyway I realise this might all seem a bit over-enthusiastic but trust me, it's really good. The shot of the Doctor holding up the piece of TARDIS over the actual TARDIS certainly intrigued me at the time and I believe persists as a powerful image even if it's started to become a bit predictable that the Time Crack will show up in the endings of episodes and even moreso that it will play a role in the plot of these two-parters.
I wouldn't mind seeing them following up on the narration and the thousand-years-later premise of humans and Silurians sharing the Earth, and while I think this episode does rush somewhat it's not without merit. At times however it can feel a little character heavy and the scenes on the surface are still pretty dull. It feels like it could have been tightened up a bit, but that being said I think it suffers in trying to imitate the long and complex early Pertwee stories on which it is based within such a brief duration. Nevertheless it's worth watching if only for the ending and an at least slightly innovative examination of this kind of discovery scenario.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Hungry Earth"

Appropriately enough we're firmly grounded back on (and below) Earth for this rather obvious Third Doctor-era homage. With a plot which is kind of a hybrid of "The Silurians" and "Inferno" with a lot of the complexities surgically removed, I have to say that "The Hungry Earth" isn't exactly a high point of the series. The acting is all pretty top-notch as usual, and it's good to see the Doctor and Rory having to work as a team when Amy is captured, but it's all a bit slow and ponderous and unfortunately the storyline does feel rather derivative. Essentially, people are disappearing into the Earth and the cause is revealed to be a prehistoric civilisation of anthropomorphic reptiles whose relatives we encountered in "The Silurians", "The Sea Devils" and, infamously, "Warriors of the Deep". On one hand it's good to have a plot like this which is so evocative of the Classic Series, yet at the same time it seems like they simply can't get into the same kind of detail when they have to do all this setup. We also have the classic 'lots of annoying Welsh people' situation. Now I don't wish to seem prejudicial but there's just something about a Welsh accent which is incredibly difficult to take seriously or imbue with dramatic realism. This includes a small annoying Welsh kid called Elliot with dyslexia who is basically pointless. It's nice to see the rappor the Eleventh Doctor has with kids, because he's a bit like a big kid himself in some ways, but you've got to wonder why they included this child besides to make the mother fret. I suppose if your father was poisoned and your only child was kidnapped by lizardmen you'd be upset too. Her husband is another pointless character.
One thing I don't get is why the Silurians are still in hibernation. We get the explanation for why they went underground in the first place in the following episode but if they have sufficiently advanced technology to ride thermal currents and project forcefields which block out the sun and stuff how come they couldn't tell that the moon wasn't going to crash into the planet and how come their sensors never woke them up until now? Speaking of which, the blue grass and small number of rare trace minerals in the soil seem like a rather mediocre reason for putting up an enormous drill and burrowing into the Earth deeper than anyone has ever gone. Isn't that overkill? I don't mind Nasreen because it's rather nice to see someone so directly inspired by the Doctor but her romance with Tony is a little hard to believe and he's rather underdeveloped as well.
The Silurians are a little disappointingly distant from the classic designs. They're basically people with scales and Alaya the one they capture is ham and cheese with all her dialogue about war and killing. How can the others understand her anyway? Do they have access to the TARDIS/Time Lord universal translator thing? Regardless, I think either their masks could have been their faces or they should have received a design substantially closer to the classic Silurian appearance because as they are I think they look a little ridiculous.
Rory's pretty good and his consternation about losing Amy is well played but even he feels somewhat superfluous and while the Doctor's obviously very busy seeking out a diplomatic solution you have to wonder if he's being a little optimistic. Besides, if the drill head set off the alarms for the Silurian city, why would the warrior caste be activated? Wasn't it the impact warning system built as a precaution against the moon? Wouldn't you want the builders and scientists and stuff activated, not the soldiers? I think it would have been interesting in an exploratory expedition had emerged from the earth rather than a bunch of typical Who baddies. It is clever how the Doctor and Rory trap Alaya in the meals-on-wheels van but the thing about them stealing dead bodies is unexplained, as is why they've been taking people. Are they using the graves as access points or something? Why are they stealing the bodies if they're prepared to dissect people alive anyway, as happened to Mo? How does that even work? And why does the Silurian doctor wear old-timey medical garb like he's a mad scientist from a Hammer film?
It's not that this episode is bad per se, and some particularly good work from The Smith, particularly in regards to his consternation at Amy's capture, is extremely important in carrying this episode, but a lot of the plot feels very safe and unambitious and I think they could have done a whole lot more. It's not very clear why the holes are appearing in the ground or what the 'bio-programming' is which is sucking people into the Earth. It feels evocative of the classic series in some ways but that same old 'base under siege' motif is become incredibly tired by this stage and I think it's time to give it a rest.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Amy's Choice"

Why has Doctor Who not done this kind of thing before? Certainly not in the New Series, and not a great deal in the Classic Series, with the nightmare world of the Matrix in "The Deadly Assassin" and "The Ultimate Foe" being two possible exceptions. The notion that both worlds are dreams is a clever way of avoiding the "it was all just a dream" conclusion and it's reassuring to see the return of the dark side of the Doctor - I don't think anyone who's anyone failed to notice the evocation of the Valeyard in the concept of the Dream Lord.
A lot of the Leadworth stuff was obviously done on the cheap but it's appropriate and I think if you've ever been to one of those tiny English villages there is something depressingly small and quiet about them; it's excellent for reinforcing the uneasy sense of this dream state. On the flipside, I'm glad that the Doctor ended up judging the other world as being a dream based at least partially on the cold star because that's nonsense and he knew it. It's nice to see a bit of ridiculous pseudoscience being debunked rather than confirmed in an episode.
Of course it's most important for the relationship between Amy and Rory. Surely we never thought that Amy would choose the Doctor over Rory, right? Not only was that the choice Rose made, which I always felt came across as a kind of delusional one, obviously the relationship between Amy and her fiancee is completely different to the one she has with her 'imaginary friend' as it were. The Doctor is a time-travelling alien scientist, and while his lifestyle may seem intriguing and glamorous he's not exactly relationship material. The fact that it takes Rory's death to make Amy realise that she loves him is clearly a rather significant piece of development for her. But of course choosing Rory doesn't mean a life of stultifying tedium in Leadworth in reality, and this is where the Dream Lord comes in.
I think it's a lot more effective to have the Doctor's darkest thoughts manifest as an entity rather than have him angsting and tearing up all the time. We have to understand that the Doctor's jealousy, his disbelief, his disdain and his self-loathing at the way he treats his companions are not dominant aspects of his personality but at the same time after nine hundred years of time and space they've kind of accrued to a significant degree and he has a lot to draw from. It's important to know that the Doctor is troubled by these aspects of himself and that they're possibly even dangerous yet at the same time he can overcome them and they can be dispelled.
There are a lot of good metafictional nods to the concepts of the show beyond the Fifth Doctor's cricket ball being under the TARDIS. The whole plot with the alien Eknodine hiding inside old people is a very effective pastiche of these sorts of 'sleepy town invasion' type stories and the way the Doctor is inclined to believe them to be real because of it is a telling reminder of the nature of his adventures and how they often seem to repeat themselves. Nonetheless the sight of shambling old people works as a bit of Father Ted-style humour whilst actually being a rather intimidating image.
Arthur Darvill's performance as Rory is top notch in the bits where he obviously yearns for the Leadworth dream and Amy's question to the Doctor after Rory is disintegrator and he's helpless "Then what is the point of you?" ought to silence those nay-sayers who have problems with Karen Gillan. Amy may be funny and fiesty but her serious side is good too, and her conviction to crash the van after losing Rory is quite a powerful one. Nonetheless there are plenty of funny lines, in regards to the Doctor's "I'm getting on a bit, don't let the cool gear fool you," and the ponchos, although a lot of the best, and particularly menacing, jokes go to the Dream Lord. We're left with the mystery as to who the Dream Lord is, and when the Doctor says that it was him at the end we couldn't face a better resolution.
The whole episode is a great way of exploring the Doctor's character, as well as Amy's and the whole Doctor/Amy/Rory dynamic. It reinforces how much the series has changed and I think while there are obvious similarities there are some astounding differences from the previous series. A lot of people see the younger cast and the lack of angsty in-your-face emotion as more child-friendly but actually I consider this a much more mature series than what has come previously. There's more exploration of issues, more variety and stronger characterisation. There's more ambiguity and it's certainly more imaginative. This is probably one of the strongest episodes of the entire New Series along with "The Eleventh Hour" and it's a relief to see these kinds of stories being made.

"The Vampires of Venice"

I would have to say that this is probably the weakest of this series. It's not a problem with the performances, which as usual are top notch, or the themes, but the plot is incredibly tired and not especially engaging. I've remarked before on how there's this constant 'aliens disguised as horror creatures living in the past and trying to take over the world to restore their race'. We had ghosts, we had werewolves, we had witches, we had giant molten rock men (okay I guess they're not that common) and now it's vampires. It's also the case in which, for obvious budgetary reasons, only a handful of the aliens are actually present and the rest are 'absent but waiting' so that they pose a threat for the future but can't actually interfere in present events. In this case it's Rosanna and Francesco Calvieri, who pose as humans on the surface while the rest of the Saturnynians hide in the water, only ever being involved to eat a couple of people. In addition, the plot gets basically no explanation. I mean yes, we're provided with reasonably effective explanations about how they can be mistaken for vampires, but how on earth does replacing people's fluids with their own turn them into their own kind? Wouldn't that just make these girls very sick and probably die? How are they vulnerable to sunlight? Amy makes some remark about how it's explained by them being fish but I don't see how. And even if it was true, how would it cause Francesco to spontaneously combust and burn to cinders within seconds when Amy shines some reflected light from her makeup mirror at him? It would have been nice to have had the makeup mirror seeded in the plot earlier, possibly with her unable to see the Vampires in it, and it's a wonder that she manages to hit a sunbeam with the weather becoming so overcast when Rosanna activates her flood machine. That's another thing - how does this flood machine thing work? And why is there a rope which conveniently allows the Doctor to climb to the roof? It's all very convenient and hand-wavey and unfortunately it doesn't exactly work in the episode's favour.
There is a very important aspect of this episode, though: Rory's now a companion! Now as I stated in my review for "The Eleventh Hour" I'm liable to go on about Rory a bit because I like him and I think he forms a more complete team with the Doctor and Amy. It's good to have a male companion actually invited to join the TARDIS crew; last time we had Mickey joining but Rose being all jealous, and Captain Jack having to be rescued. I think the New Series has a bit of a thing about how the Doctor's companion was 'always' a young woman back in the day but if you think about it that's really only true of a few Doctors. The First and Second Doctors always had both male and female companions with them, the Fitfth Doctor almost always did and while the Third Doctor's conventional companions where women he certainly was accompanied by the Brigadier and Benton a lot of the time and by Yates occasionally and personally I consider the Brigadier at the very least to definitely be a companion. Even the Fourth Doctor travelled with Harry and later Adric, so really it's only the Sixth and Seventh Doctors who travelled exclusively with female companions, and even that's a bit murky if you consider Sabalom Glitz. I think two companions is more or less the ideal size for the Doctor's team, to be honest.
Anyway, Rory's appearance harkens back to the days of yore and it's good that the Doctor's trying to sort Amy and Rory's relationship out rather than stealing the girl away from her boyfriend right in front of him like the Ninth Doctor did. It shows a more compassionate side to the Doctor and he's clearly not interested in interfering in people's relationships or belittling them; he just wants friends. That's why I'm glad that he was perfectly happy to keep Rory along at the conclusion. It reinforces his unique situation and regard for these people; he understands that you need to stay grounded even while adventuring. The scene where he bursts out of the cake at Rory's stag night is extremely funny and reinforces the awkwardness and lack of social graces of this Doctor, highlighting his alien nature, and at the same time Rory's befuddlement at the Doctor and his obvious submissiveness to Amy is complemented well by his immediately correct guess as to how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside. Rory has his own kind of awkwardness, and is less facetious than the other two, so to an extent he fills out a 'Power Trio' with Amy as the Id, the Doctor as the Ego and Rory as the Superego in reasonably broad terms. I know that's a fairly pretentious thing to suggest but it's true and it works. All three of them have a good dynamic. The rappor between Arthur Darvill and Matt Smith is equally good as the Amy/Doctor onscreen chemistry while being completely different at the same time. Rory's claims about the Doctor making people want to impress him our powerfully acted and Rory works as being the more serious side of this team, while his incredulity, such as when he says of the fact that it's good news that the vampires are aliens "That's good news? What is wrong with you people?" present a different kind of attitude to this adventurous lifestyle. His fight with Francesca is well played and his reconciliation with Amy very effective; there is a depth to their interaction which contrasts the rather excitable dynamic Amy and the Doctor have. It's all linked, you see?
As for the Vampires, Francesco is hammy and kind of dull but Rosanna is rather menacing and the scenes between her and the Doctor show that in spite of his youthful appearance the Eleventh Doctor has a presence and an authority which other Doctors have lacked in his calm and the almost chilling manner in which he confronts her speaks far more about his convictions than shouting. His reasoning that he will bring down Rosanna for not knowing Isabella's name is equally evocative of this. There's some back-and-forth about survival and genocide, and the Doctor makes a good point about the need to mourn, live and move on, not to make others suffer for the sake of your own happiness, but while there were a couple of good scenes about this I believe it could have been played up a bit more.
Ultimately this episode's great for the Doctor/Amy/Rory dynamic and as far as character interaction goes it's quite funny and enjoyable to watch, but the themes are underdeveloped and the storyline is largely meaningless. I feel like the show needs to avoid doing the same thing for these horror episodes over and over again; there needs to be a different plot. Perhaps there could be a return occasionally to the pure historicals of the First Doctor's era? Otherwise it needs to do something a bit different with the aliens/science-in-the-past thing and come up with some original narratives, although we may find that such an episode is not too far away.

"Flesh and Stone"

It's an interesting resolution to this two-parter, and much like the previous episode it's more serious and somewhat dryer than the earlier stories. The cliffhanger resolution is, of course, quite good, although the way the gravity wave works is a little unclear. Besides, wouldn't the fall 'up' onto the hull of the Byzantium be quite painful? And if the gravity orientates to the floor inside the ship, how come it orientates to the hull on the outside? Why would the aritificial gravity extend outside the ship at all? Also, how do the Angels get up there? Presumably they can fly or something but it's not entirely clear; obviously the Angels have further powers of which we are unaware. That's something which I find a little disappointing with this episode; there are moments when the Angels are seen to move and it diminishes the mystery somewhat. I always enjoyed the notion that the Weeping Angels' quantum lock extended to the audience for all intents and purposes and that they would be stone when we saw them too - that it was physically impossible to observe them in motion. There's also the idea that the quantum lock is instinct rather than some kind of physical law; it was my impression that the Weeping Angels turned to stone under observation because they had no choice. Thus it makes it difficult to rationalise the Doctor's advice to Amy that she bear herself along as if she can see. The movement of the Angels is a little odd too, the grinding noises and the slow, stony limbering-up. I always assumed that the Angels actually looked absolutely nothing like their stone statue forms when they were unobserved, that their true appearance was perhaps indescribable and unknowable in real terms. That would reinforce their nature as conceptual creatures. The Doctor also says that they are incredibly fast, but they don't appear to be. So why do they move? It seems to diminish the mystery somewhat.
The choice to set much of the episode inside the 'oxygen factory' forest aboard the Byzantium is an inspired one however, because instead of confining us to spaceship corridors, as good as they are, we get another semi-natural environment which complements the Maze of the Dead from the previous episode.
The crack in time reappears from "The Eleventh Hour" as well and it's all very convenient for the Doctor to stop the Angels. I think it's good of Steven Moffat to incorporate the over-arching elements into the episodes themselves rather than just dropping meaningless arc words which were purely clues with no story role the way RTD did, but it seems very convenient that the crack appeared then. What was the Doctor going to do if it hadn't? Presumably something involving blowing up the Byzantium; I think it would have been good if it had something to do with them closing their eyes, thus exposing themselves to danger but forcing the Angels into non-indestructible form. The bit where the Doctor turns off the gravity and causes the Angels to fall into the Time Field is quite clever all things considered but I must say it seems like a bit of a cop-out. What is 'time energy', anyway? It sounds cool but time, like the Angels, is in many ways more conceptual than physical and doesn't have a specific energy associated with it. Again, I'd like a little bit more of a scientific explanation and unfortunately what drags this episode a bit is that it doesn't have much to say.
There are some good moments, however, such as the image of the Angel in Amy's mind and the fact that she does have to close her eyes to be safe; as I say I think this could have been used more. I also enjoy the laughter of the Angels, and the way they make Amy count down, scaring her 'for fun'. It's unclear what the relation between 'Angel Bob', the resurrected consciousness, and the Angel from the Byzantium is, though, and we see the Angel holding Bob's communicator but while it's in stone form. So how does it speak? Is the Bob consciousness able to speak even when the Angel is inactive? It was previously implied that the Angels quite simply don't exist under observation and that the statues don't actually contain the Angels and they're not aware while observed, but it's not very clear. Also, I thought Angels couldn't look at each other, but they seem to crowd around a lot here. Unfortunately there's a good deal of inconsistency with the behaviour and 'rules' of the Angels, but I suppose if they're meant to be so conceptual then they can bend the rules a bit. Nonetheless I have to say it's not as spooky or clever as the previous episode, and the presence of the crack causes a bit of a distraction from the Angels themselves.
The disappearance of the Clerics into the Time Field is rather effective, however, with the dialogue as they forget each other reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Remember Me" or, again closer to home, the Red Dwarf episode "The Inquisitor". The explanation for why Amy remembers - because she's a time traveller - is I suppose plausible enough but I think something about parallel realities might have been nice. I think that's another problem; the story is already so busy dealing with the Angels it's hard for it to make all the 'timey-wimey' stuff fit as well. Also, once again there are parts where the music is too loud. Father Octavian's death is quite moving, however, and his line "I think, sir, that you've known me at my best," is a cracking piece of dialogue. River's cheeky comment about the handcuffs is, of course, tinged with a dark irony because she handcuffed the Doctor to a pole in the library when he saw her die in Series 4. Moffat's not too shabby at weaving this stuff together. It's not bad as a resolution to the Angels story but I feel like it could have done more. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston are of course all on top form as usual, the Doctor's occasional rage again working as an effective contrast to his usual calm, and Iain Glen's performance as Father Octavian is once again great to watch. It's just that the story is a bit lacking.
Finally we get this last scene where Amy cracks onto the Doctor. I'm a little disappointed that they had to have the whole 'Doctor and Companion snog' thing again but Moffat's explanation in Confidential was quite right; if a mysterious stranger swept into these young women's lives, wouldn't at least some of them want to have a go? It's weird to notice that this 'great love' between the Tenth Doctor and Rose, for instance, never manifested in any physical way particularly, so it's a good inversion here of the more likely circumstance: Amy wants something physical with the Doctor, and that's it. Of course the Eleventh Doctor's awkwardness and obliviousness in this situation is perfect and played excellently, and it makes sense that Amy might want some 'comforting' in the aftermath of such a horrid experience with the Angels. Then again, though, not very fair on Rory, is it? The Doctor's refusal, and his explanation are also effective. You can't doubt that he's moved on from the emotional vulnerability of his previous incarnation, but it's also made him sensible and cautious. This is who the Doctor should be, and it's exactly what the Doctor would do. His response to Amy that "You're human!" in particular makes a lot of sense. Was this scene supposed to be the 'flesh' part of the title? Yes, I am waggling my eyebrows.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"The Time of Angels"

I think this episode's supposed to be incredibly scary but I'm one of those weird people who enjoys horror but isn't scared by it. That being said I don't have a problem with this episode but I think without the thrills of the scares from the Angels this episode can at times seem a little bit dry. It was also the first episode filmed and there's significantly less humour, which is appropriate, and it's the first part of a two-parter, so it's a different sort of experience to the previous few episodes. It does start off with a bit of classic Moffat time travel cleverness, and it's a wonder that this sort of thing has appeared in the show so rarely before; River can get an instantaneous rescue by marking an object which has to wait twelve thousand years due to time travel and it makes the mind have to come to grips with these concepts. One thing I will say is that they could have done something to make the Delerium Archive which Amy and the Doctor are visiting more visually futuristic or alien because it does look a lot like they're wandering through an exhibit in a cathedral in the present day.
Of course the ship is called the Byzantium and so we're reintroduced to River Song, the mysterious archaeologist who encountered the Tenth Doctor back in the library two-parter: his first meeting with her, but her last with him. She referenced this adventure, and now it's happening. The Eleventh Doctor is incredibly mysterious himself about her, obviously not wanting to know his own future, and so is River, and you can tell Moffat is wanting to stir up the fan speculation even more. I think the solution will be surprising. I think making her the Doctor's wife is too obvious, and also rather implausible considering the muddled-up way they encounter each other.
We're also reintroduced to the Weeping Angels, a Moffat creation from "Blink", probably the one genuinely special Tenth Doctor story. It's good to see a decent New Series villain being utilised and it's good to have them with River because both concepts aren't so heavy that one outweighs the other. In support we have Father Octavian and his Clerics, who in terms purely of their 'military-religious' nature remind me of Warhammer 40,000 Space Marines. One thing that's good about this episode is that it has these religious figures but it doesn't ram the "religion is bad" message down our throats the way the previous era did. It's clearly ambiguous; the Doctor doesn't seem to especially approve, but Father Octavian doesn't entirely approve of him either and their uneasy relationship forms more of a display of tension between science and religion rather than one being promoted and the other being ridiculed. Again, I'm in no way religious and I don't support religion at all, but it's very relieving to have episodes of Doctor Who with some discourse present in the story rather than hammer-blow pronouncements.
There are also some chilling developments in the plot. The notion "that which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel" is quite menacing but could have done with a scientific explanation. I like the line from the book about how "What if we had ideas that could think for themselves? What if our dreams no longer needed us?" and I think this aspect of the Angels could have been played up more; that their power lies in the minds of others and in the world of concepts, ideas, imaginings, thoughts and fears. They clearly have unexplained telekinetic powers, for instance, in locking Amy into the dropship, but I would have liked some attempt by the Doctor to rationalise these goings-on. I suppose it's all part of the science versus faith debate which is intrinsic to these episodes; what if there were creatures who could cause things to happen simply because they could, or because we believed that they could? We do get some of that with Amy believing there is stone in her eye or that her hand has turned to stone, but we could have done with a bit more. The language from the book is also believable and rather poetic, not overblown and purple as was all too common with that sort of thing previously. It's also excellent when Bob comments over the radio as to how he escaped "I didn't, sir. The Angels killed me too." It's chilling and the notion of the Doctor letting someone down is a powerful one. The cliffhanger is quite intense as well.
One thing I will mention is that we're on an alien planet but again the aliens are entirely absent, apart from the Weeping Angels of course. It would have been nice to have seen the Aplans, even if the 'two heads' thing seems silly. Also, Father Octavian mentions that human colonists have settled the planet and the human population is now at six billion, but we don't really get a very good impression of that so it's hard to think that there are future lives at stake. I also think the contemporary-looking guns and camouflage military uniforms are a little unimaginative. Nonetheless the blend of location footage and CGI at the crash site is very effective for establishing the scene and the caves are all suitably atmospheric. It's unfortunate that the Angels never use the 'sending-back-in-time' method of "Blink" because I think some more clever time-based stuff could have been implemented that way, possibly with the Doctor encountering the aged remains of some of the Clerics or something, but it's good that they at least explain. Sometimes the sound effects and music are so loud though that important pieces of dialogue are hard to distinguish and in episodes like this where pretty much every line might count for something it can be frustrating. The Smith is as reliable as ever, although as this was the first episode they filmed you can tell he's still easing into the role. Karen Gillan and Alex Kingston both give strong performances and they both have excellent rappor with the Doctor; River Song certainly has much more chemistry with the Eleventh Doctor than she had with the Tenth, and while her smugness can grate a little at times when she's serious she does it very well. Another worthy mention is Iain Glen, who puts in a great performance as Father Octavian: very stern and proper, but also fatherly - the perfect blend of military man and man of God.
As I say, it's a change of pace from the previous episodes and at times I must admit it can feel a little dry, but I think it's got some genuine brilliance in it and if you find horror scary rather than just cool you'll probably get even more from it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Victory of the Daleks"

This episode is a bit like the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull of Doctor Who Dalek stories: it's a bit new and different, it both refreshes the new series while still tying back to the old, and loads of people hate it for absolutely no legitimate reason. But the thing is "Victory of the Daleks" is a great episode (much like the aforementioned Indy film) and if you don't like it you're a damn bally fool. Mark Gatiss finally got to do something good with this episode and it shows. One of the best ideas which Gatiss and Moffat developed was to have Churchill and the Doctor as already friends, as they are in spin-off material, rather than trying to introduce them to each other, and it's a massive relief compared to the usual gushy introduction to a famous person which has dominated the 'celebrity historicals' over the past few series.
Then there's the mystery of the 'Ironsides'. We know they're Daleks, the Doctor knows they're Daleks, but Churchill and Bracewell think they're good guys and Amy doesn't recognise them at all. It's satisfying to see Daleks being duplicitous and sneaky again and we know there's a greater mystery at work when Amy doesn't know about the Daleks. There's some good Dalek work and you can almost believe that they've mended their ways, especially when they offer Bracewell some tea, but the Doctor refuses to let his guard down. As we've seen, Daleks don't change and it's good that the Eleventh Doctor continues to acknowledge this. It's a bit weird when he flips out and starts attacking one of the Daleks with a spanner and the rantiness of it is a little unpleasantly reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor but you can tell he's annoyed at the very least; again, the Eleventh Doctor's normally calm demeanour makes these moments of fury more effective. It's also very clever that the Daleks need the Doctor's testimony to reactivate their device, even if their plan to get him to turn up is rather convoluted.
Another way in which this episode works is that the presence of the Daleks doesn't overshadow the historical setting nearly as much as happened as when they were in Depression New York or the Cybermen were in Victorian London. They manage to merge these two elements through the use of things like the enhanced spitfires and, of course, the British disguises the Dalek "Ironsides" are wearing. The Dalek space ship looks reasonably nifty even if it is only one set and the Doctor's bluff with the jammie dodger is classic. Then, of course, we're introduced to the New Dalek Paradigm.
This is usually where most of the haters start jumping up and down and grinding their axes, but honestly I don't see what the fuss is about. The Cybermen were redesigned in a lot of needless ways as well and no one complains about that. The TARDIS looks different too; what's the big deal? It's not like the Daleks have always looked identical: they've gone through a number of small but important design changes and colours over the years. I always found the previous era's gold Daleks to be disagreeable because they were too machined and metallic. With the rivets and the golden bodies they didn't look hyper-advanced and alien, which was something the simpler Classic Series design always had and that was only due to the limitations of the time. The New Paradigm Daleks are bigger, sleeker and much more advanced-looking than their predecessors. They're satisfyingly chunky. They sort of look like they're the tanks to the gold Daleks' armoured cars as it were, and you can tell that they mean business. Regardless, the fact that they disintegrate the previous Daleks shows who's more powerful here. The thing is, unlike the Parallel Cybermen they're still the same creatures. Maybe they're in too many colours. It might have been better had the Supreme been in one colour and all the other Daleks in a uniform colour like grey, because I feel like red is a little too ostentatious for the basic soldiers, but in all honesty I don't particuarly care.
It's nice that the Daleks get their Victory as well without it being a cop-out, although if the Doctor knew the Daleks were going to activate the Bracewell bomb anyway I don't see why he didn't get Danny Boy to blow up the Dalek ship regardless. Maybe it would have caused the Oblivion Continuum to explode automatically. The section where the Doctor and Amy deactivate the bomb by making Bracewell feel emotions is interesting; I find it reminiscent of the situation with characters like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or perhaps closer to home Kryten in Red Dwarf. It's also good that while the Doctor focuses on grief, Amy focuses on heartache, and it reinforces the idea that the Doctor is an alien who has different conceptions of what's important psychologically whereas his companion provides that human touch. Nonetheless it maybe could have done with some more explanation as to why making Bracewell feel would stop the bomb; presumably it had something to do with 'breaking his programming' and I bet the Daleks were feeling a bit stupid for building such an advanced android but at least it's a more elegant solution that the Doctor waving the sonic screwdriver around or, as Amy suggests, some kind of blue wire red wire moment. Sort of like the previous episode it seems that maybe a bit more exposition could have been useful. For instance, had those Spitfires already been fitted with Bracewell's experimental gravity bubble generators and laser cannons? Otherwise it seems like they managed to build and implement them implausibly quickly. Also, was Bracewell a replicant of a real person or were his memories stolen from someone who was not actually like him? That'd make it a bit difficult for him to return home and meet Dorabella and stuff if there never had been an 'Edwin Bracewell'. Nonetheless I'm willing to let these elements slide because the performances are all so good, the special effects for the Dalek saucer and the Spitfire are very snazzy and it's quite a well-rounded piece.
Overall I think "Victory of the Daleks" is a deeply underrated episode. It's fun, it's atmospheric, it makes a nice point about the Doctor's priorities and the need for strength in the face of adversity with the ongoing parallelism of the Daleks and the Nazis, and it takes a look at that classic sci-fi conundrum of the concept of androids and their humanity and whether being human is something biological or psychological. The Doctor clearly thinks that an android can be a human being, and much like his philosophical convictions in the previous episode it's good to see these issues raised. It's very much what science fiction should be doing, and it's easily the best Mark Gatiss episode so far. KBO!

"The Beast Below"

The first thing I'll say about this episode is that I think you need to rewatch it a few times to really get to grips with it. There are a lot of little hints and bits of explanation in the dialogue which are easy to miss if you're too focused on the humour and mystery and it can make some of the plot and setting not make too much sense. I also think Moffat possibly squeezed a little too much into this and there wasn't time to explain it all.
One thing I actually enjoy is the Doctor's decisiveness about lobotomising the Star Whale. It's always nice when philosophical conundra are presented to us in Doctor Who and I find it extremely refreshing to see that he's clearly reached his own conclusions about this kind of issue and that he's just trying to make a decision when no one else will. It's an ugly decision to make but one he feels he has to make, and this isn't the √úbermensch Doctor we've seen previously, this is a Doctor who's willing to take responsibility when no one else has the courage. I also find it satisfying that Amy realises what's going on, because surely the Doctor would lack the perspective to see things the way she does. She realises the Star Whale's motivations from observing the Doctor; it's not like he can observe himself. He just thinks he has to make the best of a bad situation.
That being said it's very nice to see the way the Doctor analyses their environment upon arrival all from the sight of Mandy crying silently. Nonetheless there's a lot of creepiness in this story which goes unexplained. For instance, why do the Smilers exist at all? What are they for? How come Hawthorne's henchmen are half-Smiler and half-human? What does it matter, and what difference does it make? Why does the little girl in the elevator recite that poem? Why does the voting booth have a record button - wouldn't that let you do exactly what Amy does and warn yourself post-forgetting, rather contradicting the purpose of the memory erasure? If they're given the choice to vote, why are protesters fed to the Star Whale? Why not just not give them the choice? I guess it's a trick in case people refuse to press 'Forget', and it is a police state after all. Also, what's with the disposed-of children? Are they mind-controlled or something?
It's nice to see them actually rationalise the low technological level of Starship UK so that it's easier to suspend disbelief about the brick buildings and the wind-up lights and so on. The Doctor's glass-of-water method of determining that there are no engines is clever and there isn't really too much technobabble in the episode at all. That being said, if Hawthorne and his men are meant to be protecting the secrets of Starship UK, why do they inform Liz Ten about the Doctor's presence? Why not just hide it from her, if she keeps investigating where they don't want her to? It feels as if there are layers of duplicity and conspiracy which go more or less unexplained, and that is to a significant extent the problem with this story. It feels like it either needed to have some stuff cut out or be expanded into a two-parter. That being said any issues are more or less carried by Matt Smith's cracking performance as the Doctor and Karen Gillan doing a marvellous job as Amy Pond. They're both very characterful and very funny and it's even good to see the Doctor crack and start shouting at Amy and Liz Ten. He's been so calm up until now that it's so much more effective than constant ranting. The discussion of the merits and pitfalls of democracy are also reassuring because they're actually a bit of a statement and as I said at the beginning the Doctor's decision is a nice bit of philosophy in action. That being said if I was the Star Whale and had been tortured for hundreds of years until Amy Pond finally released me I think I'd feel as if these people didn't exactly deserve my help and would run away but I guess it still wants to look after the children. Regardless, it's a good episode if a little overstuffed and works best with a few repeat viewings.