Sunday, April 20, 2008

Doctor Who - Fires of Pompeii

This is more like it ... a 'proper' Doctor Who romp in time with some neat, original monsters, some great ideas, and a backdrop about as big as you can make it!

It's surprising in a way that Doctor Who hasn't 'done' Pompeii and Vesuvius before. It would seem to be a fairly obvious period in history to visit. (And before you all start adding comments pointing out the audio play ... I'm talking about Doctor Who on telly). Perhaps it is because the whole concept is just so big that a meagre television budget has not up to now been able to cope.

The Doctor and Donna arrive in what they think is Rome, but what they soon realise is actually Pompeii. I'm not sure how the Doctor knows what the date is though, and therefore how he knows that the following day will be 'Volcano day'.

I like how the threads follow through in this episode. A member of the spooky sisterhood of Sybilline is following them as she has seen the TARDIS and knows that their legends speak of its arrival. Realising that they have to get out of there, the Doctor is purturbed to find the TARDIS missing, sold by a cheeky cockney market trader. I liked this character, and liked the use of Phil Cornwall to play him - the sort of small guest star role which really works in the series. So the Doctor and Donna head off to the house of Caecilius and his family as they have bought it as 'modern art', perhaps reflecting an in-joke on John Cleese and Eleanor Bron's similar summation in City of Death.

Of course I never studied anything as exotic as Latin at school so the whole 'joke' about Caecilius and his wife Metella, their son Quintus and their daughter Evelina and them being in the Latin text books passed me by. My son picked it though ... and pointed out that there was actually no daughter, and actually he was a Banker of some sort and not a marble merchant.

But none of this matters because they are actually great characters and work well in the narrative to ground it and provide a base of sorts for the Doctor. That is, assuming he stays as he just wants to get out of there. But there is something creepy living under the house in the heating system ... and then Lucius arrives. Lucius is official prophet for the rulers and has commissioned Caecilius to make him a marble slab with what looks for all the world like a printed circuit on it. Of course the Doctor is intrigued and so decides to hang around a little longer.

But now Lucius and Evelina (who is a seer-in-training) seem to know who the Doctor is and from where he comes. There is a prediction for the Doctor: She is returning ... and for Donna: something is on your back ... but what does all this mean? Is 'she' Rose? Is there a giant Metebelis spider on Donna's back? We shall have to wait to find out. This is a great sequence, brilliantly acted and with complementary music ... very effective indeed.

The plot thickens as we discover that Evelina's arm is turning to stone and the Doctor realises that they are breathing in rock from the volcano through the heating systems ... so he and Quintus break into Lucius' house that night and find more of the circuit stones - seems to be an energy convertor ... and Lucius' arm is made of stone!! Wow. This is getting better and better as the Doctor and Quintus are chased by something under the ground which then bursts out in Caecilius's house revealing itself as some sort of lava powered rock monster straight out of Transformers or Bionicles.

What a great creature! Roary and frightening, it is defeated with a couple of buckets of water which cool it and make it shatter to pieces. Brilliantly done.

Meantime though Donna has been kidnapped by the Sybilline for daring to have an alternate prophecy, strapped to a slab and is about to be executed before the Doctor wanders in. I wondered how he knew where she was or how to get there ... but soon he is facing off against the High Priestess who is almost completely made of stone, and who reveals that the creatures inhabiting her body are Pyrovile ...

I loved the Sybilline here. Although reminiscent of the Sisterhood of Karn in The Brain of Morbius, they were handled differently. I thought the make up and costumes were startling, and the idea of the eye on the backs of their hands was inspired, giving an eerie insect-like appearance to them as they summoned their powers.

So the Doctor and Donna hold them off with a water pistol (nice touch) and head down into the mountain to confront the aliens in their underground lair. It's now that the Doctor explains to Donna that to him, some history is fixed, while some is in flux, and only he can tell the difference. Convenient I thought, but at least we had an explanation as I was getting a little tired with the 'cannot change history' line when all it ever seemed to apply to was past Earth history ... what about the history of everywhere he ever goes - whether it's in the past or not is relative to where you observe it from ... the present will always be someone's past ...

The Doctor and Donna dodge lumbering Pyroviles and make for a pod thing in the middle of a cavern. Once inside, the Doctor realises that the volcano won't erupt as the Pyroviles are using the power to take over the world! He can stop them, but then Pompeii will be destroyed. But does he have the right ... Ok, he didn't say that ... but I can't have been the only person to have thought that he would ... It's all timey wimey stuff with rifts in time and goodness knows what else.

So the Doctor and Donna together push the lever which will signal the eruption of Vesuvius. And so it does, and the escape pod is thrown out of the mountain and crashes outside. Some questions around this ... given that the Pyroviles were about 20 feet tall if not more, why did they have a human-sized escape pod in the first place? And why only one? And so convenient that the controls to stop them were all inside ...

The Doctor and Donna hurry back through Pompeii to try and get back to the TARDIS as all hell erupts around them. These sequences are all the more impressive for knowing that the crew only had 2 days to record them all! They really are effective at showing the chaos and panic in the ancient city ...

But then the Doctor won't save Caecilius's family ... and heads straight off, leaving Donna to plead with him to save at least one person ... This all really didn't ring true. I think it's the show trying to emphasise that the Doctor is still scarred from the unseen Time War, and the implication is that if he shows 'weakness' and saves people, then it behooves him to answer as to why he didn't save people before when his own planet was destroyed. Unfortunately this disregard for life just makes him look callous ... and this isn't good. Especially when, after saving the family, there are no recriminations as a result.

And so we leave the family looking down on Pompeii as it is slowly buried in ash. I could have done without the epilogue ending. The Doctor and Donna become Household Gods? I don't think so. This could probably have been cut and a couple more elements of explanation about the Pyroviles added in earlier ...

Overall I loved this episode. It's grand and epic in many ways, and the whole team pulled out all the stops to make it work. It's a shame that the Pyrovile don't have a 'voice' or a lead character to develop them though. We hear them talking through the hapless stone High Priestess, and that's pretty eerie, but the creatures we see are lumbering, roaring, mindless monsters ... alien races always work best when they are characterised and are not just insane maurauding creatures. It would have been nice for the beings to have spoken and to have been intelligent, just maybe looking for a home. But this was skipped over.

The costumes and sets, the acting, even the music worked well. It was a wonderful rollercoaster ride from start to end, which mostly made sense.

Next week ... we're back in Ood-ville for more tentacled treats.

Doctor Who - Partners in Crime

There's always a palpable buzz of excitement these days when a new series of Doctor Who gets underway. That's lovely ... it takes me back to the days of yore when I knew next to nothing about the show ... I remember the voice-over after The Ark In Space telling us that the Sontarans were back next week and me having no idea what they were ... also I remember the voice over at the end of Genesis of the Daleks saying that the next story was called Revenge of the Cybermen ... oooh ... Cybermen.

How times change.

But I digress. This year, for the first time in many, many years, I was not at home for the debut episode. I usually make a point of being in to the extent of not attending the now-traditional first night party. But this year I had already committed to a Doctor Who event up in Darwen that day and so I was going to be watching it for the first time in the company of a load of other fans. The last time I remember doing this was for episode one of Remembrance of the Daleks (I had some Who friends over), and before that is was the first episode of The Trial of a Time Lord (which was at a big convention).

So I watched the episode for the first time with a large group ... and it was great. The show hit the ground running ... but then watching it back, and thinking about it a little and it somehow seems less great.

Of all of the season openers so far, I think Smith and Jones is perhaps the best. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but in that case the humour didn't overstay its welcome, which is a little more than Partners in Crime managed.

We open with Adipose Industries, one of the Bad Companies which seem to grow up on Earth overnight. Both the Doctor and Donna are independently investigating it, and I found the opening to be very reminiscent of Rose and Smith and Jones, introducing the new companion first and then filling in the gaps later on. It was fairly amusing how the Doctor and Donna kept just missing each other, but after a while the joke wore a little thin.

Of course in charge of Adipose is the Evil Miss Foster - well she has to be evil doesn't she. But she seemed to be the only person in charge ... and why on earth did she have two gun-happy thugs to order about? Didn't they think what was going on was in the least bit strange? Anyway, Donna and the Doctor both get hold of a list of all the clients - apparently 1 million customers in the Greater London area alone! And all this fitted on something like 3 or 4 sheets of A4 paper ... wow.

So our partners in crime visit some of the people taking the Adipose pills ... and we start to see what's going on - they're changing into cute little fat-creatures who mew and wave a lot. Strangely Stacey Campbell (as Donna calls her) is credited as Stacey Harris in the end credits. But now that the questions have started ... what was all that about the pendant? Something to do with the humans touching it and it being linked to them and then if they opened it then it started them converting completely into Adipose? No idea what all that was about ...

But then Miss Foster sends operatives to collect the Adipose - in a van with a siren blaring on the top! Very secretive. But now we meet the rest of Donna's family, a nagging mum and a grandpa who used to narrate the Wombles on telly. Brilliant! In fact Bernard Cribbins as old Wilfred Mott was brilliant. Far better than the mum who seemed a little one dimensional here.

But now we get a pile of 'how Donna has changed' guff, and the music soars and the whole thing starts to become a soap opera all over again. I'm sorry, but Donna hasn't really changed. She's still annoying for all the damping down and major surgery they have done on her character to make her even remotely likable. She's watchable in this story, less so in others ... maybe I need to give her more time.

Back to the plot, the Doctor and Donna head back to Adipose and finally get to meet each other again. I was taken by the silent theatrics here ... but the whole plot and expository information which Miss Foster was imparting to the journalist girl is faded out ... and we can see what is most important here is the Doctor and Donna. Yes it made me smile at the time, but it is a bit annoying none the less. Miss Foster's reaction is great though ...

But now we're into the episode's 'big chase' and this time it's up and down a building in a window washer's lift and the stairs ... all very nice to look at and to give those nice people at The Mill something to get their CGI teeth into, but it added nothing to the plot. Miss Foster is given a sonic pen so that Character Options have something new to sell as a toy later on in the year, and the whole thing ends predictably with a face off wherein we learn that Miss Foster is actually Matron Kafelia of the five straight and classen bindi nursery fleet - intergalactic class (I have invented the spelling there as I have no idea!), and she's nanny to all these little fat-created Adiposian children.

So we're into endgame now, and the Doctor uses his own sonic device, plus the gold lockets (maybe this is what they were for ...) to stop the Matron from activating parthenogenesis and killing a million Londoners dead. Instead only about 10 thousand Adipose are 'born' and take to the streets ...

Interestingly, the Adiposian message the Doctor picks up is not in English ... obviously the TARDIS' translation circuits are temporarily on the blink ... and then we're into ET territory with a very impressive spaceship appearing in the skies and the little Adipose being transported up to it, all waving cutely. They really are insufferably cute!

So Matron thinks she is going to but instead falls to her death ... wave bye bye to Supernanny everyone.

So it's all over bar the Doctor getting Donna to hop aboard the TARDIS as his new companion - the earlier scene of him talking to himself and then stopping as he realised that there was no-one there to listen was very nice indeed. So Donna gets all Catherine Tate on him when he says, quite clearly, that he needs 'a mate' and thinks he said 'to mate' ... sheesh ... I thought this sort of humour went out with Russ Abbot (look it up). So she dashes off to leave her car keys for her mum in a bin, and asks a random blonde woman to tell her mum which bin to look in before she skips off to the Doctor. The blonde woman turns round




Bloomin heck. The room went silent but for an audible gasp from the audience. That haunting closure music from Doomsday played ... and Rose turned and walked away, vanishing into the ether with a ripple.

Wow. Singularly the best moment I can remember from Who in a long, long time ... and so totally unexpected. It is just such a shame, that four years on, the show is still running under the spectre of Billie Piper's Rose ...

So Donna joins the Doctor and they wave goodbye to old Wilf on his hilltop ... a lovely scene and very reminiscent of the scene in the original Dalek film where Cribbins played a policeman called Tom, and at the end the TARDIS crew wave farewell to him while standing in the TARDIS doorway ... it would be nice to think that this was a deliberate homage, except that Cribbins was a late replacement for the original actor playing Donna's father (Howard Attfield) ... so maybe this scene was always meant to be there and just added an unintentional layer once Cribbins was cast, or maybe it was added in after Cribbins was cast ...

Overall ... a bit too light hearted. A bit too silly in the opening. The monsters were just daft and engineered to be merchandised ... the characters all a little too over the top ... and the whole thing felt like a remake of Invasion of the Bane from The Sarah Jane Adventures ... same sort of set up, same sort of evil mastermind in charge. It all felt so familiar and I think it drew too much on common archetypes and tropes, not doing enough that was new.

Catherine Tate did well as Donna, but she didn't really grow on me, and David Tennant's Doctor seems to be swinging between manic and intense at an alarming rate ... I hope it all calms down a little as we progress.

Next week ... volcanos, strange Sisterhood-like women, monsters made of fire and rock and the destruction of Pompeii. Never let it be said that Doctor Who doesn't set itself with a challenge ...

Torcheval and Primewood

Before I launch into the regular Doctor Who reviews, I wanted to post a few thoughts on the recent series of Primeval and Torchwood. I have to say that they do seem pretty interchangable to me ... both featuring a small team of people who deal with the results of rifts in time through which things can come ... on this basis though, Primeval has the edge, as in that show you can also go through their 'anomalies' to other places, wheras Torchwood has not explored that element as yet.

But the two series had other things in common as well. Both, it seemed to me, had not learned from their first series.

In Primeval, the first series was good, but the best bit was the last 10 minutes when the possibilities of all this time/space travel became apparant. But then the second series ended up doing pretty much the same thing - with multiple cloned (?) heavies at the end.

But then again in Primeval, all the dinosaurs are a little boring ... shame the anomalies never open up in more modern times so that we got people or other anachonistic elements coming through (I suppose Dodos are fairly modern). But then again, Torchwood has the possibility for more esoteric monsters ... and so we get a briefly glimpsed blowfish man ... but then just Weevils again. There was the big fat monster thing, and the rather neat shapeshifter creature, and a giant mayfly ... but nothing really impinged on the conciousness. The best part for me was the Victorian Torchwood operation run by a couple of women ... brilliant idea!

Torchwood seemed to have the bolder edge in the way it treated the regulars, with two of the main characters killed off ... or are they? ... never can tell really. But Primeval dropped the main point of interest (Abby's pants) and managed to make the on-off romance of the junior leads something of an event ... fairly trite I thought even if Hannah Spearritt does look hot dressed in combats and soaking wet!

Overall both series were pretty good though. Certainly entertaining and fun, with the darker streak of Torchwood playing well. I could have done without the constant 'gay' references in Torchwood though. Barrowman was playing Jack as some sort of characature of himself sometimes, complete with knowing winks and nudges. In an adventure series this is really just a distraction from the main matter at hand ... though I suspect that the makers feel that the show is really all about characters and relationships and not about guns and monsters and time travel ...

At the moment we've been pretty spoiled in the UK. With Primeval and Torchwood showing, and other fare such as the superb Supernatural, the impressive Reaper, as well as Ashes to Ashes for those who hanker for 80s nostaligia, and even more generic fare such as The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Blade The Series and The Bionic Woman, episodes of which are, as far as I can see, interchangable. We even managed to watch an episode of Blade to see what it was like, only to find that Blade didn't actually appear in it in any significant way ...

But now the godfather is back on telly ... and I have to go and pen some words about that ....