Sunday, May 18, 2008

Doctor Who - The Unicorn and the Wasp

After last week's promising episode which turned out to be somewhat light on plot, this week we get something that is so full of plot it's positively groaning at the seams.

Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed 'The Unicorn and the Wasp'. Yes, it's lighthearted, yes it has too many characters, yes it reads more like a story from a Doctor Who Annual, yes it should probably have had two parts ... but the breadth and scope work well, and the plot unfolds neatly, with pretty much all the loose ends tied up, albeit at a tearing pace.

The TARDIS arrives at a country house in the year 1926. Professor Peach arrives and heads for the library where he discovers something in some papers and is promptly killed by a giant wasp with a lead pipe ...

This sets the scene for the tale which unfolds. Full of allusions to Agatha Christie's own writing, the titles of which litter the dialogue. This opening is from the game Cluedo (called Clue in the USA) of course, but the sheer fun of having a professor killed in a library with lead piping by a giant wasp (how *did* it hold the piping anyway?) just seems right in context.

Our suspects arrive: There's Lady Eddison, a woman with a hidden secret; Colonel Hugh Curbishly, her husband; Roger Curbishly, her son; society beauty Robina Redmond; and the Reverend Arnold Golightly. Then there's the staff: Miss Chandrakala is Lady Eddison's constant companion and maid; Davenport is a servant boy who is enjoying a secret relationship with Roger; there's Greeves the butler ... even Mrs Hart the cook might be a suspect ... and of course Agatha Christie herself, on the very day of her disappearance for 10 days in 1926. This would place the date as being 10 December 1926, however the weather is anything but! According to internet sources, the maximum temperature in Oxford in December 1926 was 6.9 degrees C - hardly the weather we saw.

I'm not going to go through the plot here for once, as it is so complex and convoluted that I would end up just retelling it with little space for comment. All of the characters have secrets, and as the story unfolds they are each revealed. I liked the way that the flashbacks were handled, with the on-screen image showing the 'truth' as the person narrated their version of events. For once, the music was excellently handled. Not intrusive or wrong, but subtle and perfectly in tune with the period and the action.

I was very puzzled as to why 'The Unicorn' was called that ... there seemed to be nothing about the thief that suggested this moniker. But this is about the only thing that didn't make sense. All the secrets meshed together and the revelations were spoilt only by Catherine Tate's Donna being just obnoxious with interjections and statements which were meant to be funny (I assume) but which just came over as crass. There was a repeat of the Doctor telling Donna not to talk in the posh voice (as the Doctor told Rose not to try speaking in a Scots accent in 'Tooth & Claw') more of the Doctor and Donna denying being partners, more Doctor and companion snogging action - and there is no way that Donna would kiss him, even to shock him ... this whole poisoning scene was just a step too far into silly, with Donna clowning and talking rubbish while the Doctor was to all intents and purposes dying in front of her. There was a level of gravitas missing here I felt, and I was reminded more of an Abrahams/Zucker film (aka Airplane or The Naked Gun) than of something which was meant to be a little scary.

The villain of the piece is revealed as ... well maybe I should leave some secrets. But it's an alien vespiform from hives in the silfrax galaxy and looks like a giant wasp. The CGI is quite impressive and the creature looks real and effective on screen, even if it's not possible to just shine sunlight through a magnifying glass to burn something - you have to focus it, and it needs to be fairly close to the lens to work.

Even the revelation that a human/vespiform relationship can result in a baby which turns into a wasp when it gets angry sort of works ... I think you really have to leave your disbelief at the door with this one. Strange and daft though it all sounds, the show rattles through at such a rate that you tend not to notice the somewhat ludicrous elements.

Amongst all the fun and games, there are a surprising number of Christie's own book titles scattered throughout. It's a shame in a way that Doctor Who Confidential gave a large number of them away, but I managed to find three which they didn't list. If I remember, when the season is ended, I'll pop them all in another post so as not to spoil the fun for anyone trying to spot them. There's a handy checklist list of titles online at, a URL which amused me as well!

Next week we're at the biggest library ever (hopefully with no lead piping) with a spooky kid, spacemen, infected darkness and a warning to stay out of the shadows ... Steven Moffat's back ... and it's hopefully going to be terrifying.

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter

This was an episode that I really don't know what to make of. Doctor Who can sometimes fall between two stools, and it can run the danger of being caught between a rock and a hard place as far as what it is trying to achieve and how people want or expect it to play out.

On the one hand, the episode was enjoyable and rattled along nicely. I liked what Georgia Moffett did with the part, and she was perky and prancy and fun. The monsters were cool and I even liked how they gurgled instead of speaking.

On the other hand, it had no discernable plot, Martha was wasted in it, the characters were all from central casting, and it had more than a few elements which niggled and grated.

We open with the TARDIS out of control. Now this was a great cliffhanger from last week, and I am a massive fan of this sort of lead in from one story to the next, but it has to be carried through ... and this wasn't. We do eventually learn why the TARDIS was out of control, but the explanation makes no sense ... more of this later.

So the Doctor, Donna and Martha arrive in a tunnel and Donna utters something about swallowing a hamster! I had to stop the recording and watch this a few times. Did I hear it right? She's swallowing a hamster ... and yes indeed that is what she says. So maybe Donna has been replaced by one of those reptile aliens from V, and has been snacking just before she leaves the ship ... not sure ...

Before we can worry about this too much though, the Doctor's party is set upon by some soldier types, and the Doctor's hand is shoved into a tissue sampling mcguffin machine and before you can shout 'Clone!', there's a mega-cute blonde babe emerging from a smokey doorway, dressed in leather trousers and a tight fitting vest. She smiles perkily (and 'perky' is about the only description which fits this character) and says 'Hello Dad!' to the Doctor.

Okay. So this is a story predicated on a title. It's a great title. 'The Doctor's Daughter'. Gets the imagination firing and anticipation high. So what do they do? Fumble it in the first minute and reveal that this girl is not the Doctor's daughter at all but a clone grown from his cells ... conveniently dressed and with hair and make-up all perfect. What a let down. Rather than a story about the possibilities of the Doctor having a daughter, we now know from the outset that he doesn't. Except of course that all the characters, including the Doctor himself who should know better, think that she is actually his daughter ... crazy.

The other problem, which I will discuss at this point, is that the Doctor is the last Time Lord ... well, maybe not the last, as the Master was around as well ... and perhaps others as well ... but he has spent some time telling this to everyone he meets, agonising over being alone. Now here is a machine which can make Time Lords, and the Doctor even has a spare hand in the TARDIS. He could single handedly (excuse the pun) recreate his own race! But this possibility is not even mentioned.

One of the tenets of an ongoing series is that it should have some sort of internal consistency, and when a story like this comes along, which contains elements which actively impinge upon that internal consistency, then the writers and producers cannot just ignore any potential that might exist. The Time War and its effect and impact have informed the Doctor since the series returned, and yet here he ignores a technology which could make such a difference.

Back to the plot. On this planet there are two races, humans and the dolphin-like Hath. They have been at war for generations, and are looking for 'the source' which the believe will give them supremacy in the battle. In charge of the humans is General Cobb, who speaks like he's from the Westcountry, and is an embittered man, seeking to win the war with whatever means he can.

Martha ends up trapped with the Hath, and strangely she seems to understand their gurgling although we the audience are not privvy to the translation. This is not commented on, even though in 'Fires of Pompeii' we got the TARDIS' translation function rammed down our throats. Kids have good memories and I'm sure several were questioning why we didn't have the Hath's speech translated for us.

Fixing a wounded Hath's shoulder - lucky they have a bone structure which is similar to humans - Martha befriends them and, when the Doctor uses his handy all-purpose Sonic Screwdriver to reveal the location of the Source on an electronic map, she and the Hath see it too. So they all trot off to find it.

In a puzzling and confusing series of events, everyone seems to leave at different times and yet all arrive at the same time at the end. The Doctor, Donna and Jenny (as Donna names the perky clone) are locked in a cell but escape when Jenny snogs the guard. The Hath set off immediately, while Martha and another Hath (they all look the same and are not named on screen so I have no idea which one this is - the credits reveal Hath Peck and Hath Gable as two of them - named after Hollywood stars then!) make their way over the blasted surface of the planet as it's apparently quicker ... while General Cobb decides to wait until the next day before he and his troops leave - strange sense of urgency there.

Along the way, Donna gets intrigued by numbers stamped onto the walls. Given that she's not been too interested in anything like this before, this is more of a plot convenience than anything else. Jenny meanwhile skips along like a puppy, smiling and grinning and perkily loving the running down corridors. We learn that Jenny has two hearts, and is a soldier adept at killing and doing backflips through lasers.

The Hath with Martha drowns in a pool while rescuing her (how can a dolphin drown? No idea. But we don't see this Hath again ... or maybe we do ... they all look alike!) and eventually, after much running up and down corridors, everyone seems to arrive at 'the temple' at pretty much the same time. Except it's not a temple, it's a spaceship, and it's all still working and powered up.

Now comes the infodump - robot drones from the ship built the city (so where are they now?) but the commander died and the crew split and turned on each other. Quite why this happened is not clear, but there are definite shades of the earlier Doctor Who story 'The Face of Evil' here, as well as bits of 'The Ark' with the humans and Monoids turning on each other. But ... the shocker is that the city was built over the last 7 days. The war is only 7 days old. Apparently the humans and Hath create 20 generations a day and as each has been wiped out, the truth has passed into legend.

What? This makes no sense whatsoever. 20 generations a day? That's about one an hour? So how do Cobb and co manage to make it to the end of the day? Why aren't they all wiped out and the army which arrives at the end of the story be a totally different one to that which set off? Why do they power down the machines overnight? Surely they'd be churning out clones 24 x 7? Why does Cobb wait overnight before setting off? That's something like 7 generations he's waited?

All this is inexcusable really. It doesn't make sense however you try and read it, and is sloppy writing and plotting. It's a nice idea, but if the idea doesn't work in the final teleplay, then maybe it's not the right idea.

So we get to the end and we know that Jenny is not going to make it as the Doctor told her that she could come with them (cue bright-eyed perkiness). Cobb decides to shoot the Doctor after he explains the plot - probably in exasperation as he can't make any sense of it either - but Jenny takes the bullet and dies. Why Cobb has a old fashioned revolver when everyone else has gas machine guns is anyone's guess. Cue tears and the Doctor pontificating.

Meanwhile the 'Source' is revealed as a planetary terraforming device which the Doctor activates by smashing it on the floor. Now I'm sure that's the best way to make it work properly. The planet is then converted into somewhere that is habitable (whether by humans or Hath or both is also unclear).

The soldiers all lay down their arms, moved by the Doctor's appeal to make theirs a society based on someone who never would, or perhaps they wanted to put their fingers in their ears ... and the Doctor, Donna and Martha return to the TARDIS to be on their way again ... seems that they arrived because the Doctor's spare hand was drawn to Jenny, except that the TARDIS arrived before she was created, thus bringing her into being in the first place ... a classic paradox. But actually just more rubbish plotting. An excuse to try and explain something which was poorly conceived in the first place. We actually didn't need this at all, the TARDIS could have arrived, as usual, by accident, the Doctor then setting off the chain of events.

So why doesn't the Doctor stay for Jenny's funeral? He has done for several other characters over the series' history, but not for his own daughter (even though she wasn't, but we covered that above). Of course the real reason is more plotting of convenience as perky Jenny isn't dead at all! She returns to life, full of vim, nicks a spacecraft and heads off for her own series of adventures on CBBC (or novels, magazines, audio, DVD ... take your pick).

I've watched the episode a couple of times now, and aside from generally strong performances from the cast, it has little to get your teeth into. Georgia Moffett is good as Jenny, but it's a very generic part and her tight leather trousers could equally have been filled by any rent-a-babe actress from Hollyoaks or Emmerdale. Moffett, I am convinced, got the part because she is fifth Doctor actor Peter Davison's daughter ... and that this appealed to the sense of fun of the production team and also provided far more publicity and PR than any other actress would perhaps have been able to bring. That she is also a pretty decent actress was a distinct benefit, but I would love to see the list of who else was actually auditioned for the part.

Overall then, disappointment on several levels. If only the script had been better, and the plot more cohesive then this could have been the episode which defined Tennant's Doctor, which provided dramatic interplay between characters who may or may not be related ... the end result to have been a thought provoking commentary on genetic research and cloning, providing insights into the pros and cons and ethical arguments which surround it. Instead we got a dog's dinner of a plot, lots of running around, actors struggling gainfully with two dimensional characters, and Georgia Moffett shining as Jenny, not necessarily because she was that good, but that she was the best thing on offer this week.

Next week ... Agatha Christie? A giant wasp? demons? Thunder and lightning ... and some sort of murder mystery.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Doctor Who - The Poison Sky

According to the ratings, the Sontaran two-parter has really not done as well as other episodes. The first part came in with 6.4 million viewers and was beaten by ITV's Britain's Got Talent which had 9.4 million, and the second part fared even worse with 5.9 million and was again beaten by ITV which had 8.5 million. One way of reading this sort of trend is that people aren't that excited by Doctor Who any more and would rather watch brainless people be insulted by so-called 'celebrities' ... and also that the first part of the story was not gripping enough for people to want to watch the second part ...

This broadly matches my own feelings about it. I talked last time about the sense of having seen it all before, the familiarity and the ennui which set in on watching the episode ... well the second part really failed to do much to change my mind. What it did do was to jettison the elements which were interesting in the first part (the clone plot mainly), and replace them with lots of soldiers running around, shooting guns and getting killed ... which doesn't really cut it these days.

So we're back in the fray and Wilf has collapsed in a car. I think we are really struggling when the cliff hanger revolves around someone we have met only a couple of times in the series being trapped in a car! Luckily Donna's mum has the brains and also a handy axe (something that every home in leafy Croydon owns) and she smashes the front window to get Wilf out.

Meanwhile clone Martha (C-Martha from now on) downloads UNIT's security protocols to a PDA and is able to control the launching of a nuclear strike from there ... just nod and smile and ignore the ludicrousness of this as a concept and go with it, okay?

Oh no ... now we have the almost obligatory fake news broadcasts with 'real' newsreader Kirsty Wark in a head to head battle with 'fake' US correspondent Lachele Carl as to who can sound the most ominous in close up.

The news out of the way and in Helen Raynor's Big Book of Scriptwriting it says that we now need to split everyone up, so Donna goes back to the TARDIS for no reason and is promptly transported to the Sontaran ship in space. The Doctor meanwhile is suspicous of C-Martha and wants to talk to the Sontarans, so he opens a channel to them. Donna can also see this exchange on the TARDIS screen (but misses Rose shouting the Doctor's name for a second before the Sontarans appear - a nice moment and for once fairly subtle).

Questions here ... how did the Doctor know that C-Martha would get the TARDIS transported, that Donna would watch the screen or that the TARDIS would even be able to pick up the signal? Never mind.

So the Doctor tells Donna to use the phone ... but she's mystified, not knowing who to call. So she calls her mum and has a cry at her down the line. Doesn't ask Sylvia or Wilf to contact UNIT, doesn't try ringing anyone else who might be able to help ... fairly useless really.

But we're losing track of all our characters ... and the Big Book says we need to keep flicking between them now. So back to Luke Rattigan and his followers. I was wondering why they were following him? He's an annoying brat-like clever dick. Why would anyone follow him? Rattigan unveils his real plan, to go to another planet and start the human race anew with his faithful few. Yup, he's barking. So they all leave him. This is also shades of 'Operation Golden Age' from 'The Invasion of the Dinosaurs' back in 1973, only it was better realised and integrated into the plot back then.

UNIT prepare to blast the Sontarans out of the skies using missiles fired from all around the world at the same moment. But they wouldn't all arrive at the same time, and some are on the other side of the Earth from the Sontaran ship. There's some very dodgy planning going on here.

Suddenly there are hundreds of Sontarans in the ATMOS building - I assume they did teleport there after all, so why were their little space balls flying around in the previous episode? What need would they have to do that?

Of course, when the Sontarans attack, the troops' guns don't work ... so the troops get slaughtered. Why would a warlike race with an ethos built on honour think it was good form to disarm your opponent and then to kill them - now that is cowardly.

Hang on ... we've missed something! Ah, where is the Brigadier in all this? Don't worry, the Big Book says that all references to Doctor Who's long history can be dropped in as throwaway lines, and so we learn that the Brig is 'stranded' in Peru. Well that's okay then.

Luke realises that the Sontarans have betrayed him, but, actually, we don't really care as the subplot about going to another planet was so badly nailed to the rest that even the people involved hadn't been told about it until too late. So what does Luke do? Return to his Acadamy and cry. Poor baby.

The Doctor phones Donna on a phone borrowed from one of the UNIT folk, and yet she answers it knowing it is him. How? That's some impressive caller display. The Doctor gets her to leave the safety of the TARDIS and reactivate the teleports (having assumed in another leap of deduction that the Sontarans had disabled it). Along the way, Catherine Tate forgets she is supposed to be acting and lapses into pseudo Lauren-mode with a pithy 'Shut up' to the Doctor. I wince when these lapses happen. We had a 'Why did you call me miss? Do I look like a miss?' in the Ood episode, and various other pronouncements which are just so bad. I find it hard to believe we've not had an 'Am I bovvered?' yet, but I just feel in my bones that we will get it one week.

What else is happening? Ah yes, UNIT don gasmasks and the Doctor quips 'Are you my mummy?' to hilarious applause from the continuity brigade, and then the Valiant (more applause) descends from the skies and in true Thunderbirds style, uses its engines to blow the poison gas away from the area. Then the Valiant fires on the factory.

Hang on. While we're doing continuity, in 'The Christmas Invasion' didn't UNIT use a powerful ray weapon to blow the retreating Sycorax ship to smithereens. Why not use that now against the Sontaran ship?

With new guns that work, the troops renew their assault on the Sontarans and gain ground. Interesting that the Sontaran's body armour is not bulletproof. Something of an oversight methinks.

The Doctor and C-Martha (still using her PDA to stop UNIT from launching the missiles) head to the still-deserted basement, and find the clone tank. The Doctor knew C-Martha wasn't real all along as her iris response was wrong, she had thinning hair on her left temple, and she smelt of clone! So he frees the real Martha from the machine and C-Martha collapses.

While the Doctor rewires the Teleport while on the phone to Donna like some sort of mad Teleport help line, Martha talks with C-Martha who takes an age to die. And the music is rubbish here as well - I really don't like the music in this story, it's all wrong, being intrusive and just naff for most of the time.

C-Martha reveals that the gas is clone feed and the Doctor realises that this has been the Sontarans' plan all along, to convert Earth into a clone world. But he knows how to stop it.

The Doctor rescues Donna, gets the TARDIS sent back to Earth and teleports to the Rattigan Acadamy where he uses the lab to build an atmosphere converter which Rattigan had the parts for as he was planning to do the same to the new world once he and his acolytes arrived there.

As Staal orders the ATMOS systems in the cars to full power (why weren't they on full power anyway?) the Doctor, to music which sounds like very light hearted Tim Burton, launches a flare into the sky from the atmosphere converter and sets the atmosphere on fire! The flames engulf the Earth ... but strangely not a single person is apparently harmed as the gas and atmosphere burns explosively. Then it's all over and the flames clear to reveal a perfect human atmosphere again. So who turned the ATMOS system off in all the cars? Why didn't they just continue belching out the clone feed? Finally, we get stupid 'triumphant' music as the Earth rejoices that it is saved.

So now the Doctor teleports back to the Sontaran ship with the atmosphere converter to burn it away unless the General leaves. So the air on the Sontaran ship is different from on Earth? How did Donna and Luke breath when on board?

Staal prepares to blast the Earth and kill everyone on the planet. Why he didn't do that first and avoid all the problems with Rattigan and complex plots involving ATMOS and factories and whatnot is beyond me. With a deserted planet they could have converted the atmosphere in their own time with no resistance.

Unfortunately for the Doctor, rather than offering any defence, the Sontarans launch into another victory Haka until Luke manages to swap places with the Doctor and detonate the converter himself, blowing the Sontarans and their ship to smithereens.

So peace is returned to the Earth and people apparently can now deactivate and remove the ATMOS devices from their cars - if it was that simple ...?

The Doctor, Martha and Donna return to the TARDIS, with Donna being told to go off by Wilf, who is, I think, head and shoulders the best new character this season. Cribbins manages not to play him for laughs, and has built a believable character who you can really empathise with. I wish we could ditch the annoying Sylvia and just have Wilf as Donna's link with Earth.

At the very end ... possibly the best part of the episode. Another cliffhanger. Boy I missed these and I loved this one. Very much shades of the first Doctor and how his stories ran one into the next. Martha is all set to leave but the doors to the ship slam closed and the TARDIS is off again, but apparently of its own volition. What a great ending.

And next week? Seems to be monsters, a cute blonde, backflips, snogging and ... what? She's the Doctor's daughter!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Doctor Who - The Sontaran Stratagem

My overwhelming feeling after watching this episode was one of familiarity. I had seen it all before. This is not good for a television series as soon people will stop watching and turn over as the drama didn't deliver what was expected.

New Doctor Who seems to have fallen into a very predictable pattern ... and this is after only four series. It makes you appreciate even more the first 26 years of episodes where, good, bad or indifferent, it always felt different.

For Series Four we have a light hearted opening episode, a historical, something set on an alien planet which is a little off the wall, a two parter re-introducing an old monster ... and later on we apparently have something scary from Stephen Moffat, a Doctor-lite episode ... and a conclusion which brings lots of old faces back onto the screen. This pattern has been repeated for the last three years, so little wonder that it's not feeling new any more.

But back to 'The Sontaran Stratagem'. The modern technology being used by evil aliens is ATMOS, a device connected to cars which gives them zero carbon emissions. Oh, and it also runs the sat nav as well. It cannot be disabled, and can also literally take control of the vehicle! Did no-one notice the extensive modifications which would be needed to all vehicles to make this able to happen? No-one questioned it? This is just too hard to believe and so totally fails as a dramatic device on this occasion. There is a principle of technology that the user must always feel that they are in control, so it can always be turned off. To have something which quite blatantly tells you it cannot be disabled is something I'm sure that most people would not buy into.

But a nosy reporter, Jo Nakashima, is killed in the pre-credit sequence and we know that something is up at the Rattigan Acadamy and that young Luke Rattigan is in league with the returning baddies (who we already know all about thanks to the Radio Times).

Meanwhile the Doctor is giving Donna driving lessons in the TARDIS and the music is stupid and annoying. Cue the Doctor's mobile phone - it's Martha and she wants him to come back to Earth. As soon as we see Martha, her dreary theme music kicks in ... it's really rubbish that they feel the need to underpin every character with a theme and then to ram this down our throats every time they appear. It's really not necessary and some subtlty is needed once in a while. I dread to think - really dread - what the final episodes will be like if we end up with all the rumoured characters appearing. Snatches of their themes here and there, a veritable collision of sound and character. We shall see.

So the Doctor and Donna arrive and Martha orders Operation Blue Sky to start, this being the invasion of the ATMOS factory by UNIT troops. I smiled when they announced 'This is a UNIT Operation' to the workers as though they'd know what it meant. But then I realised that UNIT must be a well known organisation as even the journalist's sat nav at the start knew where to take her when she asked it for UNIT HQ.

The Doctor meets Colonel Mace and learns that ATMOS is believed to be behind the deaths of 52 people worldwide, all at exactly the same time. While the Doctor is looking into this, a couple of UNIT troops exploring the basement (on their own?) stumble across a secret lab and find a casket-like object inside containing a partially-formed humanoid creature before being disabled and 'processed' by General Staal the Sontaran. This sequence was very nicely handled. Lots of tension and wonder, and the half-formed clone was excellent. A really spooky design and I loved the partially closed mouth on it as well.

Now we get to see the Sontarans, and I loved how small they were. That was a great concept and was pulled off well by all concerned. They did look rather like toys and this gave totally the wrong impression to those they faced. The costume design worked well, and the helmet of course retained the 'classic' look - a nice piece of reinventing and updating by the design team. My only complaint was that, good though Chris Ryan was, he sounded as though he was speaking lines of dialogue rather than it being natural. He also sounded too human wheras Kevin Lindsay (who played the Sontaran in their first two appearances) managed to make the creature sound alien. Makes you appreciate Lindsay's performance all the more that no-one since him has matched the power and effectiveness of his performance.

Back to the plot, and the Doctor heads off with a UNIT soldier called Ross Jenkins to see Rattigan at his Academy while Donna goes to see her mum and grandfather. Martha meanwhile carries out medical checks on the staff at ATMOS, apparently not noticing that they don't blink, and speak in a hypnotised monotone. Some doctor she is! But she's soon marched off by the processed UNIT men to the underground lab. The scenes here are very well directed, and her scream echoing as all the lights go off was very effective.

The Doctor soon realises that Rattigan has access to some hi-tech kit, including a teleporter, and he pops up to the Sontaran ship only to come racing back again with General Staal in hot pursuit. Now we see the face of the Sontaran (well, assuming you'd not got the Radio Times) and it's well done indeed. Very alien and effective. I liked the Doctor using the ball and racquet to hit the ball to bounce off the creature's probic vent - very imaginative ... and of course nothing like using a satsuma to disarm a Sycorax.

So Rattigan and Staal head for the Sontaran ship where we discover that Rattigan thinks Sontarans all look the same when it's obvious that they don't - Commander Skorr (why, oh why wasn't he a General!) has a Madonna-like gap in his teeth for a start. Meanwhile poor Martha is strapped to a table and her memories used to finalise a clone of her to be used to create havok amongst UNIT. When Skorr arrives and oversees the last part of this, his line about the female having a weak thorax ... oh please! Apart from the fact that the dialogue makes no sense in context, this joke of writer Terrance Dicks, whereby every Sontaran is contractually bound to make a reference to females of the human species having different larynx structures from the males, was old ten years ago!

So we're into the endgame now ... and the Doctor and Ross arrive back with Donna as Staal puts his plan into action, sending Sontarans down to Earth in space pods (Why? They have teleports!) and activating the true function of ATMOS - to emit a gas from the car exhausts. But first the Doctor has to endure some RTD baggage in the form of Wilf and then Donna's mum, Sylvia, recognising him. So Wilf ends up locked in a car as the gas floods out and the Doctor can't open the door - what about breaking a window then?

As if this wasn't all exciting enough, the Sontarans, for no discernable reason other than to provide something to put on T-shirts, launch into a Maori-like Haka of 'Sontar-Ha!' while smacking their fists into their hands. I shook my head in disbelief here ... it's obviously rubbish, but they take it all so seriously.

So the Doctor looks into the distance as the air is filled with gas, and Wilf collapses in the car ... and we crash into the end credits.

As I said at the start, it all seemed so familiar and rumbled by without really registering on the excitementometer at all. The shock of the Sontaran appearance was diminished by good old Radio Times in shades of the CyberController and the Dalek Sec Hybrid, and the themes of modern technology gone bad was done before in 'The Age of Steel'/'The Rise of the Cybermen' as well as 'The Idiot's Lantern' and 'The Lazarus Experiment'.

UNIT seemed to have turned into a generic army unit - even their name has been changed from the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to the UNified Intelligence Taskforce. But why? Sounds like a dollop too much of political correctness to me. I notice that Robert Holmes was credited for the Sontarans at least.

So will Wilf live? Will the chanting, dancing midget Sontarans take over the world? Will evil clone Martha turn out to have a goatee beard? Tune in next week for the answers ...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Doctor Who - Planet of the Ood

One of the nice things about Doctor Who has been that it's not afraid to plunder its past when this seems appropriate. Ever since the very beginning, certain characters and monsters have reappeared, starting with the Daleks, and although it really took four years or so for the trend to really kick in, it's one of the elements which had made the show such a survivor. The only repeating elements in the William Hartnell days (aside from the Doctor and his companions of course) were the Daleks, and a rogue member of the Doctor's own race - then unnamed - called the Monk. It wasn't until Patrick Troughton took over that we had repeat appearances from the Cybermen, Daleks, Ice Warriors and Great Intelligence/Yeti. In the Jon Pertwee era there were the Nestenes/Autons, more Daleks, and more Ice Warriors, with the Silurians/Sea Devils adding a nice twist to the concept, and of course the one-eyed hermaphrodite hexapod Alpha Centauri (and Aggedor too). Not forgetting another renegade Time Lord called The Master ...

During Tom Baker's long tenure we saw the Sontarans as a new 'returner', with the Cybermen and Daleks (with new and improved added Davros) keeping the flag flying. The Master also came back a few times to torment the Doctor, changing his face along the way. In Peter Davison's era we enjoyed the now traditional Daleks, Cybermen, and Master with new baddies the Mara coming back for more. Omega (from Pertwee) reappeared, and the Guardians (from Tom Baker), and the Silurians and Sea Devils (from Pertwee) also returned. Colin Baker enjoyed two appearances from the slug-like Mentor Sil (as well as Daleks and Cybermen), and Sylvester McCoy battled Daleks and Cybermen, as well as a return from the Master and the Rani (another renegade Time Lord) with no returning baddies from his own era to contend with.

I may have missed a couple in that quick resume (and I didn't include 'The Five Doctors' at all!) but you can see that returning foes is certainly one of the building blocks of the show.

New Who has done the same, with returns (so far) from the usual suspects (Daleks, Cybermen, Master) as well as the less likely (Macra, Nestenes/Autons) and the new (Slitheen, Novice Hame, Face of Boe).

All of which brings me to 'Planet of the Ood' and perhaps the most blatant return of a new series creature. My overall feeling here is that if you are going to bring someone/thing back, then you need to have something new to say about it, some reason for doing that - whether a sequel to the original story, or some other original ideas to bring to the table. What 'Planet of the Ood' managed to do was to combine both, and to have a returning creature which seemed to do exactly the same as in their first appearance (eyes glow red, killing people with the translation balls) while also adding in some fairly unlikely backstory as to what was happening with the creatures and what their history was.

It's unfortunate therefore that the story as a whole comes over as fairly generic and bland, with the main cast, the Doctor and Donna, given very little to do. It was pointed out to me that the events would have unfolded in exactly the same way if the Doctor and Donna had never arrived - all the main threads had nothing to do with them, and were in progress long before (Ood Sigma turning Halpen into an Ood, Ryden being a member of 'Friends of the Ood' and so on). This renders our heroes ineffectual, and their involvement becomes more of an inconvenience than helping to drive the plot. I'm sure there are other Doctor Who stories where the Doctor changes nothing whatsoever by his involvement but I can't think of any just now.

The TARDIS randomly arrives on the Ood Sphere, a cold and wintry planet which unfortunately manages to still look like a quarry covered with snow. I liked the reference to the Sense Sphere though, a touch to the show's history (look up 'The Sensorites' on page 46 of The Television Companion if you're still puzzled).

We rapidly meet the prime movers: Halpen, director or boss or something of the Ood supply chain, Solana the head of Marketing, and Ryden, a doctor tending to them (we know this as he wears a white coat). Halpen has his own Ood slave, called Sigma Ood for no apparent reason, and there's a group of buyers there looking to invest in Ood, as well as a group of bloodthirsty, triggerhappy soldiers led by Commander Kess.

The Doctor hears singing but Donna cannot. It is the song of the Ood, and I'm not sure that viewers heard it as well - surely that dreadful opera stuff wasn't the song? No wonder Donna couldn't bear to hear it when the Doctor opened her mind to it. Our heroes explore and join the party of Ood buyers. Meanwhile Ood are going rabid, slavering and red-eyed, and rampaging about the compound.

There's a lot of cross-scene editing in the episode, showing parallel events as Doctor and Donna are faced with different threats, like the utterly pointless CGI attack on the Doctor by Kess operating a grab-crane. Probably winner of the 'most pointless use of CGI' award. There's also something nasty lurking in hangar 15 ...

The Doctor and Donna find some unprocessed Ood in basement cells, and we discover that they carry a second brain in their hands. Said brain being cut off and replaced with a translator ball when they are processed. The processed Ood all go mad and red-eyed and start attacking everyone. For some reason soldiers armed with machine guns are killed as the Ood rampage (very, very slowly) through the base.

Solana is killed (well she was cute, but very misguided and thus doomed), then Kess is killed by his own gas. The Doctor and Donna manage to miraculously escape from handcuffs when the red-eyed Ood don't kill them (saved by the unprocessed Ood down below stopping the red-eye or something like that anyway) ... and so it's on to hangar 15 for the endgame.

Therein is a massive brain, held within an electrical field. What? Suddenly this is like 'Time and the Rani' all over again. How can a giant brain survive under the planet's surface anyway? Why does it seem to absorb Ryden when he is thrown to his death by Halpen? How can the Ood who have been processed (and have had their hind brain removed) communicate effectively together? It all makes little sense.

Then, to top it all, it is revealed that Ood Sigma, although mentally castrated, has maintained enough nouse to feed Halpen Ood grafts suspended in organic solution ... which conveniently turns him into an Ood at exactly the right dramatic moment. So ingesting genetic material from another species turns you into that other species does it? Some day humans are going to start to turn into cows, sheep and chickens then, or even carrots and broccoli. This is of course patent rubbish, and stretches believability to the limit.

But never mind. The electricity is turned off and all the Ood can be happy again now they can communicate and sing with each other once more.

There's a note of 'arc' at the end when Ood Sigma comments to the Doctor that his song must end soon - we hear notes from the Rose 'Doomsday' theme on the soundtrack - but then the Doctor and Donna are off again in the TARDIS.

Overall I didn't really find this episode terribly satisfying. There's an awful lot of death with no consequence, and a great many unanswered questions. I guess that the whole Ood production line now stops. The story is set in 4126, so I presume that the Ood's last appearance on the Sanctuary Base (in 'The Impossible Planet'/'The Satan Pit') was therefore set before this.

The characters were all very one-dimensional, 'evil boss', 'good doctor', 'misguided marketing manager', and the Ood themselves did little more than stand around, or, when they exhibited red-eye, either quote in unison or kill people. Pretty much as they did in their earlier appearance. Something of a disappointment I felt.

I was also disconcerted by the need to have a 'catchphrase' for the monster. After 'Exterminate', 'Delete', 'Are you my Mummy?', 'You will be catalogued' and 'The Beast will arise' we can add 'The circle must be broken'. I hope that these things aren't added in just to provide T-shirt opportunities ... but I start to wonder.

Next week we have Martha back ... UNIT, Sontarans, Earth Invasion ... why does it all seem so familiar?