Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Time Factor

Profuse apologies for a lack of review for last week's Doctor Who episode ... basically the weekend was taken up with collecting son from Uni, and then tidying the house. Evenings this week are mental, and next weekend is also completely occupied with stuff. So the chances are that The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords won't be reviewed for a couple of weeks yet ... Sorry about that but sometimes the real world intrudes ...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Doctor Who - Utopia

I feel so torn by Utopia. On the one hand, I really enjoyed it. It's exciting and gripping and rattles along at a great pace. It hit all the fannish buttons in me: the Master returning, but also the tremendous pace and the ending. But it also has little or no plot, and, in common with many of the episodes written by Russell T Davies, seems to exist solely to acheieve an objective: in this case to introduce the Master to a new audience. But I'm not sure it even does that very well.

The opening had a very much 'been there done that' feel. Cardiff again, and the TARDIS needs to re-fuel. Again. And Captain Jack. Again. I'm not sure how he knew where the TARDIS would be though. Perhaps he has bionic hearing like Jackie and Mickey have at the start of The Christmas Invasion. He races for the ship, and in a moment which must have had evil bus drivers the world over clapping with joy, although the Doctor sees him on the monitor, he takes off anyway. Leaving poor Jack clinging to the side of the TARDIS as it headed through the Vortex. Hmmm. Not sure about that. Visually great, but not really explained and not in keeping with what we've heard about the Vortex before.

Anyway ... Jack's presence sends the TARDIS hurtling into the distant distant future. Again. But this time they arrive on the planet Malcassero - a deserted and decidedly quarry-like place. I half expected to see a bunch of extras from Blake's 7 there. Malnourished and tribal, dressed in the remnants of their costumes and managing to somehow survive ... hang on ... there they are! And they're chasing a human.

Said human is naturally rescued by the Doctor, Jack and Martha and they all race to somewhere called the Silo. There they gain entry and the ragged outsiders, with their pointy teeth clashing, are locked out. But what is young laddo doing running about out there anyway? Everyone else is in the Silo, patiently waiting to board the rocket to take them to Utopia, the promised land. It seems that the pointy toothed ones eat humans ... well they must be pretty starving then as there's not much evidence of them out there!

In the Silo is Professor Yana and his assistant, the insect Malmouth, called Chantho. The Professor is trying to get the rocket working but is failing to do so. So the Doctor helps and before you can say 'reverse the polarity' he has buzzed with his sonic screwdriver and it's all fixed. But first, five lever things have to be set in a room full of deadly radiation. I get it. This place was designed by the same committee who did Platform 5 and that spacecraft from 42. It's the only explanation as to why the radiation can't be turned off, or even why the switches are in a lethal zone anyway.

Handy Jack gets it sorted though - there are advantages to being immortal - but meanwhile Martha discovers that the Professor has a fob watch the same as the one the Doctor stored his Time Lord self in a couple of episodes earlier. This was a lovely touch. Very unexpected. Of course it points towards the Professor being a Time Lord ... perhaps even the Doctor!

But it's obvious something is up. The voice the Professor hears is evil and old ... and I cheered out loud when I heard a clip from The Daemons in there of Roger Delgado's distinctive voice ... we know what's coming.

The Professor opens the watch and becomes his Time Lord persona ... that of the Master! I liked the idea of the Professor's name relating to the Face of Boe's message 'You Are Not Alone'. Y. A. N. A. Very clever.

Now, all avid fans know who the Master is. We know the history and everything. But new viewers don't. He's just a bad guy. Another Time Lord admittedly, but that's about all we know. Put it like this, if it wasn't the Master, and was someone called Askwith, would it have made any difference. Nope. Hopefully we will get more of a sense of the Master and why he is special in the next couple of weeks. I just hope it doesn't involve him unexpectedly growing a goatee beard and chuckling a lot. Oh, and wearing black leather gloves.

While all this has been going on, the Doctor and Jack have allowed the rocket to take off, and race back to the Professor's lab. The Master has opened all the external gates allowing the great unwashed to enter, and so the final moments of the episode are a chaos of running, snarling, exciting music (some of which seemed to be pinched from the soundtrack to one of my favourite horror films, Phantasm) and shouting.

The Master electrocutes Chantho (Chan. Well, her stupid language was starting to get on my wick as well. Tho.) and she in turn shoots him. The Doctor recognises his old adversary, but the Master gets into the TARDIS and locks the door against the Doctor. He then regenerates into the form of John Simm. Very nicely done, but I wish it hadn't looked the same as the Doctor's regeneration ... I guess the production team was providing a reference point for the viewers though.

Simm seems far more like Tennant's Doctor, and is manic, energetic and rushing. He promptly leaves in the TARDIS after a last gloat at the Doctor over the speakers (and Martha recognises his voice) and we leave the episode with the Doctor TARDIS-less, and Jack and Martha trying to keep the tribe of Blake's 7 extras from getting through the door.

Breathless stuff.

On the utterly awesome front was Derek Jacobi. What a brilliant performance. Full of pathos and love as the Professor, and then cold and hard when the Master took over. I did sense the scenery being chewed a little in these scenes, but that's forgivable I feel. John Simm? Not enough to really tell. The only question of course being whether he is in a coma, dreaming, or really in the far future (sorry ... you have to have watched Life on Mars to get that).

On the 'a bit rubbish' side, the plot - there wasn't one. The whole Utopia thing and the savages - or futurekind - outside and the running about and snarling. Maybe Utopia is significant later on in the season - the Master did take the disk from the machine which was showing its location. Captain Jack was a bit of a wet fish, though I did like the Doctor's 'stop it!' every time Jack said hello to anyone (though quite how a blue insect girl would be attracted to a human is hard to fathom).

Overall then, a true example of style over substance. From the sublime and superbly plotted and acted adventure of Human Nature, The Family of Blood and Blink, we regress to a plotless runaround which is just crammed with great bits. Rather like an unthemed buffet meal consisting of everything you enjoy, but with no structure or menu to make palatable sense of it. I really enjoyed it, but feel that in time it won't stand up to repeated viewing.

Next week looks like some sort of party political broadcast as Mr Saxon takes centre stage ... Listen for those drums though.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Doctor Who - Blink

Blooming blinking brilliant! That was the verdict on this latest episode of Who. An absolutely cracking story, simple and yet really effective in all the right ways. Steven Moffat pulled out all the stops to present something scary and creepy, and the direction and acting combined to make it totally rivetting from beginning to end.

The opening is awesome. Sally Sparrow is exploring an old house called Wester Drumlins and sees a message written on the wall, behind the wallpaper, telling her to beware the weeping angel, and to duck! A rock thrown through the window narrowly misses her ... and she sees that the message is from the Doctor.

Aside from idly wondering who threw the rock! When the Angels are not creeping up on people at the speed of light, do they bung stones at people for a laugh? It's only in retrospect that this makes little sense. As does the idea of the Doctor knowing where to write his message, knowing that it will be seen by Sally at that moment ... it's all a little contrived. But it doesn't really matter as the episode is just so good.

Sally is intrigued and so gets her flatmate Kathy Nightingale to come with her back to the house. The Angels approach and Kathy abruptly finds herself transported from London 2007, to Hull 1920! What a brilliant concept: aliens who kill you simply by sending you back in time to die naturally! It's all so well handled too. Kathy's grandson delivering the letter from Kathy to Sally at the same time as Kathy vanishes. Sally goes looking for Kathy but just finds one of the stone statue Angels with a yale key in its hand, which she takes.

I loved with a passion the way the statue changed position behind her. The editing and direction of this episode is awesome, with tension ratchetting all the time, and the Angels a very sinister and creepy presence.

Sally now goes to see Kathy's brother, Larry, who works in a DVD store, and we find that the Doctor is an 'Easter Egg' extra on 17 different and apparently unrelated DVDs. He is apparently holding one side of a conversation, but the other side is unknown so it all seems a little meaningless. More clever ideas from Moffat here, and the idea of the Doctor being a hidden DVD extra is again fun and fitting.

Sally goes to the Police, and meets Billy, a young black copper who takes a shine to her and asks for her number. However the Police have a car park full of cars abandoned outside the old house ... and the TARDIS is there also. When Sally has gone, however, the Angels approach the box, and Billy is transported back to 1969 where he meets the Doctor and Martha. They get him to take a message to Sally in 2007 ... which he delivers to her on his death bed.

Sally asks Larry to bring the Doctor's message on the DVD to the old house where they play it, and Sally is able to have a conversation with the Doctor, which Larry records in a pad ... this is how the Doctor knows what to say, and what Sally is asking him ... my mind reels with all this, but it's just so neat and clever!

But then ... the Angels attack. The Doctor explains that they are quantum locked, which means that they can only move when unobserved. So you must not take your eyes off them or even blink as then they can get you. He tells Sally that she has to get the blue police box back to them, and she eventually finds it in the cellar, surrounded by the Angels. She and Larry hurry to use the key she has to get in, but the Angels make the light fail, and in the flashes of darkness, they close in.

Finalls, Sally and Larry get inside and are safe, but a hologram of the Doctor appears and asks them to place the DVD in the console to activate it. They do this, and the ship dematerialises from around them! They are surrounded by the Angels ... but are safe as the creatures are all now looking at each other and so will remain stone forever.

I loved the simplicity and cleverness of this solution. However I'm sure that someone will move the statues eventually and they will be able to escape somehow ...

Now we flash forward a year, and Sally has been unable to get over the events. She has all the information, transcript, photographs in a folder ... and suddenly she sees the Doctor and Martha outside the DVD shop which she now owns with Larry - they are just friends.

She talks to the Doctor, but in a genius stroke, the adventure has not happened to him yet. She gives him the file of information and he and Martha rush off to whatever adventure they are having ... This is lovely ... really lovely. But do you know what I would have loved. I would have adored there to have been a scene in, maybe The Lazarus Experiment, where, from Martha's point of view, we saw the Doctor talking to Sally, and not know what it was all about ...

The problem for me is that, as with Love & Monsters, we catch a glimpse of an adventure which is not 'real' in as much as we've not seen it on TV. Of course the business with arrows and reptiles might be in a future story, but I severely doubt whether we'll see the 10th Doctor and Rose battling the Hoix anytime soon ... It would just have been nice to have seen the exchange beforehand in an earlier story, and to have, at that point, been in exactly the same position as the Doctor and Martha and not know what on earth it was all about. A small missed opportunity I feel.

And then we end with a final collage of statues ... loads and loads of statues. Imlying that any and all of them could be Weeping Angels, and that they could come and get you if you so much as blink!

I'm sure several kids went to bed eyeing any statues around carefully that night. Blink was a brilliant slice of Saturday evening entertainment and did everything that Doctor Who does at its very best. Even the fact that the Doctor's not in it very much didn't seem to matter. Carey Mulligan, playing Sally, was brilliant, bringing warmth and humanity to the part. Her reactions were spot on, from the terror, to the confusion, to the loss of her friend, to the embarrasment at Billy's flirting with her. Larry was also well played, and even Kathy and Billy were excellent. Especial kudos to Louis Mahoney playing the old Billy. He's come a long way from playing a newscaster in 1973's Frontier in Space, and Ponti in 1975's Planet of Evil.

In fact the only thing that really ruined the episode for me, was the BBC squishing the end credits into a box the size of a postage stamp, and allowing Graham Norton to shout about his show on next ... very, VERY annoying indeed. All BBC channels have apparently adopted this approach for most shows, and I really feel it is something of an abomination. If you feel strongly then maybe consider making your voice heard, and phone the BBC complaints line on 08700 100 222. I did, and who knows, maybe if enough people contact them to say that they like watching the end credits, and being able to read them, and that it spoils the mood of drama programs to have this happen at the end, and that the people involved in making the shows deserve for their names to be seen and to be readable on screen ...

Anyway ... next week we have the end of the Universe (again), Derek Jacobi, Captain Jack, and some pointy-toothed individuals in what looks like it could be a remake of The Savages ... time will tell.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Doctor Who - The Family of Blood

The two part stories have, in these new series of Doctor Who, often been the most disappointing. Adventures like Aliens of London/World War III, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways have featured one brilliant episode, and one which was less than brilliant. However we have also had gems like Rise of the Cyberman/Age of Steel and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday where the production team seemed to get it right. And now with Human Nature/The Family of Blood, they get it so right that it seems impossible to ever top it.

As readers will know, I loved the first episode, Human Nature, and now with The Family of Blood, it all seemed to come together and gel into something cinematic in scope and which touched your heart and mind as you watched, making the audience think about what had happened as well as enjoying the scope and spectacle of it all.

We open as we left last week, with the Family threatening the lives of Martha and Joan unless the Doctor changes himself back into a Time Lord. Well Martha well and truly takes the upper hand, gaining control of a gun and getting everyone out of the church hall alive. I loved her off-hand comment to John Smith: 'God, you're rubbish as a human!' Very fitting given the circumstances. Everyone dashes back to the school where John Smith starts to rouse the boys and staff into a fighting force to see of the Family and their ambulatory scarecrows. Before the battle starts, however, the Headmaster and Phillips go out to talk to the attackers. These are great scenes, with the sounds of battle over Baines' foretelling of the War to come. But Phillips is disintegrated by the Family and the Head rushes back as battle commences.

Baines calls for more Soldiers and loads more Scarecrows arrive - all identical. How many do they have in the fields around this village? I counted at least 30 in shot, with more arriving all the time.

We have lots of great character interplay, all switched together here. The boys preparing for the fight with guns, June and John Smith trying to come to terms with what's happening and Martha trying to find the watch to restore the Doctor.

The Family start their attack and the initial phlanx of scarecrows are cut down with bullets as the school hymn plays. I felt this was a moment too far. For a start, why did the bullets affect the scarecrows at all, and the mood of the battle was, I felt, trying too hard to elicit a Blackadder the Fourth moment of poignancy which didn't work as the 'dead' were only scarecrows anyway. But the lead up, with the boys crying with fear, was brilliantly handled, and brought to mind similar moments in the middle Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers.

It all ends when the little girl appears and disintegrates the Headmaster. Panic ensues and everyone runs again.

The Family now know they just need to get the pocket watch, and they also have the Doctor's TARDIS brought to the school to tempt the Doctor out. However the Doctor is nowhere to be seen and John Smith starts to crack under the strain. He just wants to be John Smith. This is a bravura performance from David Tennant. Absolutely believable and brilliant. Tennant is so watchable as an actor ... pure genius.

Smith, Martha and Joan head off to the Cartwright's cottage (little Lucy Cartwright is the small girl possessed by the Family) where they finally meet up with Tim who passes the watch across. These scenes feature the most poetic description of the Doctor ... 'He is like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the Universe. And he's wonderful.'

This is said by Tim to John Smith as he agonises over whether to open the watch or not. Whether to return to being the Doctor or not. These are great scenes, perhaps a little long played, but necessarily so. John Smith must die if the Doctor is to live, and Smith does not want to die. He sees a flash forward of his human life as it might be ... of marriage and children ... happiness ... and then his death. And the make-up on Tennant for his old, dying frame is awesome. These are tear jerking, emotional moments, but also classic Doctor Who, making you care for the people and what's happening ... what decision would you ... could you ... make yourself?

And so it's endgame, and the most brilliant twist by writer Paul Cornell ... the Doctor was not hiding to protect himself and Martha, but to save the Family ... for when he returns (and of course we knew he would) he exacts his wrath on these alien beings in a way which is callous and cold - he gives them exactly what they wanted. This echoes the temptation posed by Rassilon in The Five Doctors, that those who wish immortality would be granted it ... at a price. But the Doctor's price is immense.

I loved the way the narrative suddenly shifted to Baines talking us through the fates of the Family members. Showing the Doctor as an implacable alien being, doing what he has to do. But cruel too, as if he had just waited, then the Family would have all died anyway. With his involvement they live forever in their own private hells.

After this, there's a sequence of endings to rival that of The Lord of the Rings. One at a time the plots and characters are wrapped up: Joan no longer wants the Doctor - her John Smith was the braver as he died to save everyone: the Doctor just had to change. Latimer sees the Doctor and Martha leave in the TARDIS, saves the older bully, Hutchinson, from a shell during the War the following year, and lives to an old age. The final scenes around the War memorial, the elderly Latimer holding his lucky watch and remembering, as the Doctor and Martha look on from a distance is awesome television. It's almost impossible not to be moved by it.

'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.'

From 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon