Sunday, June 29, 2008

Doctor Who - The Stolen Earth

I'm really not sure what to make of this one. I know we were expecting something big, but the sheer scope of this story beggars belief. I can't think of much else on television which would try and get anywhere close to the cinematic and epic quality that this episode presented.

I think my main concern is how understandable it might be to those who have not been diligently watching each and every episode (and Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures). When Doctor Who came back with a blaze of glory in 2005, a lot of effort was put in to try and make sure that everything was explained, even in a sketchy form, so that the Doctor, the two hearts, the TARDIS, the Time Lord ... all the key concepts were reintroduced in a way that viewers could understand and follow. I get the impression that all this is out the window now, and pretty much anything goes.

I think my worries were amplified through the opening scenes, which should have been quick and effective introductions to all the characters. Instead they expected you to just know what was going on.

Following on from last week, the Doctor arrives on Earth but all seems fine. No Bad Wolf anywhere. Even the TARDIS was back to normal. So what was all that about then? Just a dramatic episode ending for no reason, apparently. But then the Earth vanishes, leaving the TARDIS behind. Just the TARDIS. Everything else on Earth, right down to a milkman, his float and bottles of milk, were transported across the galaxy with the planet. So why wasn't the TARDIS?

Meanwhile ... on Earth ... a group of soldiers and a woman recover from the move. We don't really know who they are or what they have to do with anything. There's little in the way of dialogue to try and establish what's happening here. We are expected to know that this is UNIT and ex-companion Martha Jones (who was so out of water all the way through the episode. Not a good performance at all from Freema Ageyman).

In Cardiff, there's some sort of scientific base. Probably Torchwood as that's written on the walls, and some people. We might recognise Captain Jack, but who are the other two? What is Torchwood anyway? Last time we saw them they were running Canary Wharf ... Again, there's no attempt to provide explanations.

In Ealing, a woman and her son inexplicably have a giant supercomputer in their house. Erm. This is Sarah Jane Smith who we might recognise from the School Dinners episode a couple of years ago ...

In Chiswick, Donna's family, Wilf and Sylvia are amazed at the sky. And then that blonde woman from the last episode arrives with a big gun. And we see that there are lots of planets overhead. We're not in Kansas any more ...

So the seeds are sown for a big finale. The Doctor and Donna are puzzled as to where the Earth has gone, so the Doctor heads for the HQ of the Shadow Proclamation - this organisation which every race seems so scared of - and it turns out to be on an impressive asteroid-like space station, populated by female albinos and Judoon! There he figures out that the Earth was moved using something on the same frequency as that used by bees (or something - honestly, if you try to explain this stuff to people they look at you as though you're mad) and he's off with Donna in the TARDIS again to find it. Donna meanwhile seems to hear a heartbeat noise, and one of the albinos comments on there having been something on her back, and how sorry she is for her loss to come ... how do these people know what's going to happen? And if they do, why don't they tell the Doctor or at least warn him! Instead they seem to want him to lead them into war. Of course the Doctor does what any self-respecting Time Lord would. He runs away.

Meanwhile, on Earth, the phones still seem to work which would be impossible unless all the satellites were moved along with the planet, and there are loads of spaceships arriving. It's the Daleks again, up to no good, and they start slaughtering and then rounding up the humans for some reason. We seem to be in a bit of a remake of The Dalek Invasion of Earth here, and there's even a cool red Dalek with a Dalek Emperor-like voice bossing them around. But along with the Daleks (which are totally brilliant ... as are the effects of the battles and the Dalek ship and pretty much everything to do with them), there's mention of the Crucible, harvesting humans and lots more.

Lurking in the background is another figure who seems to be in league with the Daleks but who superbly remains in shadow. And Dalek Caan, the last surviving Dalek, is also present, though broken open and babbling insanely.

On Earth, the problem is that no-one knows where the Doctor is and so as the Daleks attack, so everyone tries to do what they can. Martha makes use of a prototype transporter based on Sontaran technology to escape. The Daleks slaughter anyone who resists, and even Wilf's paintball gun cannot impair their vision (a great fanboy line that). Rose arrives and blasts the Dalek away.

Anyway, more surprises come as ex-Prime Minister Harriet Jones contacts everyone using a sub wave network she built using facilities from the Copper Foundation. This sentient software cleverly seeks out everyone who might be able to contact the Doctor. Though how it does that is anyone's guess. Everyone except Rose, it seems, who gets a bit sulky and feels left out. Mighty convenient that everyone has Web Cams as well (except Rose). The plan is to use everyone's combined resources to send the Doctor's phone number (07700 900 461) into space so he gets the message! What! This is utter tosh. It's also the same plot as last year where, if everyone prayed for the Doctor at the same time, then he'd come back to them. So everyone does this, and the Doctor gets the message and realises that the Medusa Cascade (which is where the bee trail led him) has been timeslipped by one second, hiding all the planets there. So he gets the TARDIS synchronised in time via the weakest CGI in the episode, and joins the Friends of the Doctor conference call.

But the call is hacked by the mysterious individual with the Daleks - it's Davros, lord and creator of the Dalek race ... and that's all the explanation you get! His reveal was badly handled and disappointing. After all the build up, I was expected and wanted either a slow move of his visage from shadow into light. Or some crash close up/zoom affair. Instead we get a sudden full view from a funny angle. Peculiar. The Doctor knows him as he was unable to save him when he was destroyed in the first year of the time war at the gates of Elyssium when he flew into the jaws of the Nightmare Child. All this flows at speed from the Doctor's mouth ... and leaves you reeling. So much information, too much input!!!

Okay, so this Davros character has some connection with the Daleks - he is sitting in a Dalek bottom half after all - and he's cackling and quietly, understated evil and is wonderfully, wonderfully played by Julian Bleach, putting all the other Davroses after the first (played by the late, great Michael Wisher) into the shade.

Their little online conference abandoned, everyone decides to find the Doctor. Sarah Jane rushes off in her car. To where I have no idea. How would she know where to go? Anyway, she encounters a couple of Daleks and instead of running them down, she stops and bursts into tears. This is not the Sarah Jane we know and love (even if you knew who she was in the first place).

Jack repairs his wrist transporter with coordinates obtained from Martha and heads off, leaving Gwen and Ianto to certain death at the suckers of the Daleks. Again, this assumes we know how all these different characters can do these things ...

The Doctor finally arrives on Earth, and sees Rose for the first time since their separation. Cue totally daft and somewhat overlong scene of them running the full length of a road towards each other's arms. But then we knew something would happen ... and a Dalek appears and exterminates the Doctor!!! Jack appears just too late and destroys the Dalek, but the Doctor is dying. So they get him into the TARDIS where Jack knows (not sure how) he can regenerate. Only Rose has actually seen this happen before, but she is being pretty useless and telling him he can't (why?).

And so the Doctor starts to regenerate ... and the credits crash in.

Well wow. Really. Wow. That was one twist I wasn't expecting. But I can't shake the feeling that it's not what it seems. That the Doctor is not going to regenerate. Maybe he will for part of next week, maybe not. Maybe we'll see James MacAvoy or James Nesbit as the Doctor for part of the time? I think there's more to this. There's a lot going on with Donna and the time beetle ... I wondered at one point if she STILL had a beetle on her back and that what we were seeing was just more alternate-universe gubbins. Dalek Caan said 'everlasting death for the most faithful companion', so who is that? Rose? Donna? The TARDIS? Jack? Sarah Jane? Take your pick really.

Or maybe the Doctor really is regenerating and the production team have pulled the perfect blinder on everyone. Fans, press ... everyone.

I can't help shake the feeling that there's a great big red reset switch lurking somewhere. Rose will become Bad Wolf again and turn back time to defeat the Daleks (again) or the Time War will restart and time will be reset as part of that ... or this strange key thing that Martha has will do something to reset everything (using ... I don't know ... Krillitane computations). But it's like last year - way too much has happened that it can really all be left in place at the end ... The Earth is in the wrong place in the Universe for goodness sake!

Reading back through my comments from this week (and indeed last week), it sounds as though I'm not enjoying the show. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I love it to pieces. Watching this episode back was even better. It is epic on a scale undreamed of. The effects are awesome, and the Daleks and Davros are just the best they have been for many many years. I am concerned that the general public won't 'get' this intense level of continuity fest fun which pushes all the right fannish buttons. I lost count of the number of back references in this episode, everything from Crucibles to Medusa Cascades, to bees vanishing ... to the biggies like Judoon, Daleks, Davros, Shadow Proclamation, Rose, Harriet Jones, Dalek Caan ...

And above all, I hope that the next episode doesn't drop the ball. That we don't have a rushed and unsatisfying ending to all this.

As the rubbish and crassly done caption at the end of the episode said: TO BE CONTINUED ...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Doctor Who - Turn Left

In my musings on the previous episode, Midnight, I said: 'Doctor Who, to its credit, has never gone down the route of doing the "flashback episode" with the bulk of the content being scenes from earlier shows.' Now I swear that I had no idea what the content of Turn Left was when I wrote that, and yet with this episode we have now had the closest to a flashback episode yet.

What I am impressed with most, is that aside from a couple of short clips (mainly from The Runaway Bride as far as I could spot) there was very little reused footage, and so much of the apparent material from the earlier episodes was new, or was so well integrated into the narrative that it was hard to tell that it was reused in the first place.

But never the less, Turn Left is a flashback episode, going back over Donna's life and showing what it might have been like if she never met the Doctor, all revolving around a pivotal decision for her to turn left to a job with H C Clements rather than turning right for a job with Jival Chowdry.

The initial set-up is interesting but perhaps flawed. Visiting an alien market, Donna is tempted into a fortune teller's booth while the Doctor is distracted. The Teller - who seemed to have the same annoying voice as Chantho, the character played by the same actress from Utopia ... I kept expecting her to add 'Chan' to the start and 'tho' to the end of her sentences again! Which is odd as the actress' natural voice sounds nothing like that - seems to have an unreasonable desire to change Donna's history and so while she gets Donna to pin down the point of decision, so a thing approaches Donna from behind and attaches itself to her back. I wasn't sure if they were targetting Donna, or if the fact it was Donna was accidental?

Donna is then thrown back to that point of her decision, and she turns right. Thus never getting caught up in the schemes of the Racnoss, and never meeting the Doctor. Because of this, the Doctor dies when the river Thames floods the Racnoss' lair, and so there is no Doctor in the world to help prevent the subsequent invasions and cataclysms.

So we step through the various outcomes: the Doctor dies battling the Racnoss; when the Royal Hope hospital is taken to the moon by the Judoon, only Morganstern survives. Martha, Sarah Jane Smith, Luke, Maria and Clyde (from the Sarah Jane Adventures show) all die (I'm not quite sure why Sarah and the others were even there though).

By this point I was just getting annoyed. Annoyed by Catherine Tate's lack of any descernable acting talent as she ranged from shouty to teary with not very much in between. Annoyed by the incidental music which punched bars from character's 'themes' every time they were mentioned. And annoyed that this was all a bit silly.

At each juncture Donna bumps into a mysterious blonde woman who we know to be Rose. Unfortunately she looks nothing like the Rose we knew, apparently having had some sort of strange hairstyle foisted on her as well as comprehensive dental work which made it impossible for her to talk without lisping or being able to actually open her mouth when speaking. All very strange indeed.

Rose tells Donna to take a holiday next Christmas ... she obviously knows something is going to happen. And it does - a replica of the Titanic crashes on Buckingham Palace and a nuclear explosion wipes out southern England. So everyone is evacuated to the north of England, but help from America does not materialise as they have been devastated by everyone dying when their fat metamorphoses into Adipose, and then the Atmos systems in the cars activate, killing everyone in Europe ... and in the resolution to this, Gwen and Ianto from Torchwood die, and Jack Harkness is transported to the Sontaran homeworld! This episode is a veritable bloodbath!

The best performances by far come from Bernard Cribbins as Wilf (who I have praised in the past) and Joseph Long as Rocco Calasanto. These actors show everyone else how to do it, and their scenes are fun and poignant and carry weight as a result. Unfortunately just about in every scene of importance, Tate is awful.

Eventually, Donna sees the stars going out while watching them with Wilf, an event that the blonde girl predicted, and so Donna finally goes with Rose as she is apparently the last hope for mankind.

They end up at some warehouse place where the TARDIS is under investigation. Donna sees the thing on her back and it's a rubbish-looking giant stag beetle. This was something of a crushing disappointment, and my admiration for Graeme Harper grew as I realised that he had successfully masked what the creature looked like until that point. In the Confidential documentary, FX guru Neill Gorton explained that it really was meant to look like a giant insect as that was what the script said. Personally I would have made it look a bit alien, but then what do I know.

So Donna agrees to go back in time to get her other self to turn left and not right, ensuring that she meets the Doctor and reality is set back on track again. But then Rose says she's never used the time travel device before ... but how was she moving about through time then? Really didn't understand that aspect.

But Donna ends up too far from herself in the car, and realises that she has to die to save the worlds and so throws herself under a truck, causing a traffic jam, and making Donna in the car turn in the correct direction. Before she dies on the road though, Rose gives Donna two words to say to the Doctor. What again? We had the Face of Boe with his mystery message ... River Song with her mystery words ... and now Rose. What is this all coming down to, some massive game of Chinese Whispers!

Donna is flung back to the Fortune Teller's tent, where the Teller makes a hasty exit as the Doctor arrives. The Doctor examines the beetle and proclaims it to be one of the Trickster's brigade ... the who? Oh, sorry, you had to have watched Sarah Jane Adventures for that one ... the Trickster being a creature which can change minor aspects of a timeline and feed off the temporal disruption caused. And then Donna remembers the words said to her by Rose. 'Bad Wolf'. Not again! Didn't we do all that three years ago?

But no, racing from the tent, the Doctor sees the words 'Bad Wolf' written everywhere. All over the banners, the posters, the flags in the market. Even the TARDIS has 'Bad Wolf' in place of the words above and on the door. Inside the ship, the cloister bell is solemnly ringing. It's the end of the universe!

Well. That was certainly an exciting ending, I'll give it that. And the reappearance of the Doctor was a breath of fresh air after all the Donna-centric soap opera that had gone before. For me, it just showed how powerful a presence David Tennant is that without him, the show flattened and floundered. But then the show isn't called Doctor Who for nothing you know.

The other problem with the episode of course, is that it postulates what would have happened if Donna had never met the Doctor. Well for a start the whole of human history would be different as Pompeii would not have been destroyed by Vesuvius erupting, and the Pyroviles would have taken over ... but I guess we have to gloss over that one. Never mind what havoc a vespiform would have wrought on middle England.

In summary, it's another of those episodes which falls between the cracks of brilliant and dire. On the one hand, as usual, it's superbly made and presents a grim view of an England from which the Doctor is absent (much like real life then). Slightly reminiscent of the apocalyptic drama series Threads in its approach perhaps, but throwing in characters of such characature that it's hard to really care for them. On the other hand, a little like Utopia last year, it's a story which goes nowhere. Setting things up for the following season finale and so it feels a little like it's treading water.

The main element of press interest is Billie Piper's Rose, returned somehow from the parallel universe in which she was irrevocably trapped, and for some reason traipsing around after Donna in another parallel universe that she has created for herself when she changed her timeline by turning the other direction in her car. Piper looked and acted uncomfortable in the part. As mentioned her speech was weird and strange, lispy and distorted, and although she does smug and in control very well (I liked the weary comments from the unlikely named Arisa Magambo that she always talks like that) it didn't come over as believable.

I guess we need to wait until next week to find out where this is all going. And as for next week ... well the trailer was a veritable who's who: Rose with a big gun, the Doctor, Donna, her mum, Wilf, Martha (again), Captain Jack (again), Gwen and Ianto off of Torchwood, Sarah Jane (again) and Luke off of Sarah Jane Adventures, Penelope Wilton (again), the Judoon (again), some woman with white hair, a red Dalek (again), and a massive Dalek battle fleet (again) ... sheesh! Wonder where the kitchen sink was?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Fiction in Print

I don't often manage to write much fiction, and even less often have the enjoyment of seeing it in print. So I am doubly pleased to announce that one of my short horror stories, The Third Time, has been picked up by Murky Depths for publication in issue number 6, published December 2008.

I first saw the magazine at last year's FantasyCon, and it was a startling debut. I recently saw issue 4, and it's even more impressive. In comic book format with glorious colour printing, short horror fiction, and some superb art and poetry, it's really well worth a look.

Their homepage is at Take a look. And if you decide to get hold of an issue, tell them I sent you :)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Doctor Who - Midnight

Each series of Doctor Who has included an episode which seems designed to split the viewers. We had 'Boom Town', 'Love & Monsters', 'Gridlock' and now 'Midnight'. It's really excellent that the show can include this sort of more experimental drama in the mix, as it all helps to show that Doctor Who can be inventive and unexpected as well as presenting the usual same old same old battles with Daleks and Cybermen.

My feelings about 'Midnight' are a little mixed. As usual I've watched it twice so far, once on transmission and then again to take notes for this review, and I'm really not sure what to make of it.

On the surface it's a standard mid-season money saver. Limited CGI effects, no prosthetics, no monster, limited cast, and only a couple of sets (the area where Donna was, where the Doctor phoned from, and the shuttle). Many series do an episode like this at some point in their run to save a little cash, and Doctor Who, to its credit, has never gone down the route of doing the 'flashback episode' with the bulk of the content being scenes from earlier shows.

If this is the case, then all kudos to Russell T Davies for taking what could be a limitation and turning it into something more experimental. The drama is all about the interrelationships with people, how they react when put under pressure in an enclosed space. It's informed by shows like Big Brother of course where normally rational people behave totally irrationally, and where tempers get frayed very quickly.

We open with the Doctor and Donna enjoying a holiday on the planet Midnight. The Doctor wants to dash off and enjoy a four hour excursion to see a sapphire waterfall, but Donna just wants to sunbathe. So the Doctor heads off alone. On the shuttle we meet Professor Winfold Hobbes (expert on the planet), Dee Dee Blasco (one of his students), the Cane family: mother Val is an opinionated loudmouth, father Biff is somewhat put upon, and son Jethro is your usual rebelling teenager. Then there's Sky Sylvestri, another singleton. There's also a Hostess, the Driver and an Engineer (who might as well have been wearing Star Trek red shirts!). Off this happy party goes, following a new route to the waterfall.

The Doctor disables all the annoyingly blaring entertainment in a nice touch, but who would put them all on together anyway! This bit just didn't ring true, and the Hostess also seemed a little wooden and stiff. A shame as all the other performances were very good indeed.

All is going well until the shuttle breaks down and stops, apparently for no reason. The driver calls for help, and the Doctor determines that there is nothing apparently wrong. He calms the other passengers down, but then knocking is heard coming from all around the shuttle. Sky goes off her rocker and screams that it's coming for her in the least effective moment of the show. The shuttle shakes, sparks fly, and the door is dented by something from outside ...

It transpires that the control cabin has been ripped off and Driver and Engineer are missing presumed dead (as the planet is believed uninabitable due to Xtronic sunlight). It also seems that Sky has been possessed as she repeats everything that everyone says. This is a lovely conceit, and certainly in the Confidential episode, Russell T Davies and Phil Collinson hit the nail on the head when they commented that this is a very annoying thing to do. It was handled well, and Lesley Sharp made a good job of appearing snake-like and alien in her movements during the sequence.

The basic concept here is well thought through. First the alien possesses one of the humans, starts to repeat everything it hears (learning or absorbing as the Doctor postulates). Then it speaks at the identical time as the others, before homing in on the Doctor as the cleverest there, and then speaking before he does, placing him in a paralysed stasis as the creature continues to drain him. While all this is going on, the other passengers squabble and shout and try and work out what to do, initially agreeing between themselves to throw Sky from the shuttle despite the Doctor's protestations, and then to do the same to the Doctor when it appears that the alien 'infection' has passed to him.

I liked the Doctor trying to outsmart the possessed Sky with companion names and TARDIS, and his 'Shamble bobble dimble dooble' also made me smile. How long before the t-shirts and badges with that written on start to appear?

It's only the entity now pretending to be Sky using words previously used by the Doctor that alerts the Hostess and Dee Dee to the fact that this is not, in fact, Sky at all, and the Hostess takes matters into her own hands and pulls Sky to a door, opening it, and being ejected out onto the planet surface with her.

The Doctor returns to normal, and the rescue shuttle arrives to take them back to base.

I wondered why the earlier captions refered to 'kliks' as some unit of time (or maybe distance) when everyone talked about 'hours', and the final caption referenced 'minutes'. This sort of thing just annoys me anyway ... I think a 'klik' was a unit of distance in the Virgin New Adventures novels ... I really have no idea why writers like to invent and use new measures like this.

I think on balance that the story worked. I'm a little worried at not showing the monster at any point (or even naming it - what plastic action figures might appear from this episode are very much in doubt), and also what younger viewers might have made of it all. However my young nephew was today slyly repeating everything everyone else said ... so maybe there is an inherent humour here which can get lost in too much pontificating and analysis. Just as Steven Moffat likes to try and tap into primal fears, so Russell T Davies has his finger on what kids can do to annoy everyone around them.

The episode reminded me a little of older science fiction fare like episodes of Out of the Unknown (I'm sure there is one there where a small group become trapped in a space shuttle or something), or even The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Sometimes we need the simplicity I feel to make us appreciate the more complex adventures, and so something a little different and left field from time to time is no bad thing.

Next week: Rose is back, the Doctor's dead, the stars are going out, and everyone's going to die. Cheerful.

Monday, June 09, 2008

British Fantasy Award Recommendation

Just heard that the final TIME HUNTER Book, CHILD OF TIME, written by my good self with George Mann, has been recommended on the Long List for the British Fantasy Awards for last year.

Anyone reading this who is a member of the BFS can vote, so please consider the title (and of course Telos Publishing's other works in the Long List :) ) when making your decision.

Congratulations to everyone who made the long list, and I'm now waiting with bated breath until the results are announced in September at the annual FantasyCon convention in Nottingham.

Details of the BFS are here:
Awards Longlist is here:
FantasyCon information is here:

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Doctor Who: Forest of the Dead

So often with Doctor Who these days, when we have a two-parter, the second part seems to not live up to the expectation of the opening instalment. This seems to especially afflict the 'big monster' stories which is a great shame as Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans deserve better. The season-enders especially seem to have suffered, with the final episode in each case having to do a lot of work to try and wrap everything up neatly and failing somewhere in the attempt.

Luckily, the more low-key two-parters on the whole have succeeded admirably. 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' is a great example, as is 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood'. 'The Impossible Planet'/'The Satan Pit' however dropped the ball.

Now we have another to add to the roster of successes, with 'Silence in the Library'/'Forest of the Dead' managing to feel like a wholly rounded story, something that Doctor Who used to do time and time again, and yet which seems to be missing from this new, fast-paced, CGI crammed, 45 minute episode format. We either get something whimsical and knockabout (eg 'Partners in Crime', 'New Earth') or something which is a glorified runaround (eg 'The Doctor's Daughter', 'The Lazarus Experiment', '42'). It's rare to come across an episode which feels like and works as a complete adventure in 45 minutes, though thankfully it has happened ('Dalek', 'Father's Day', 'The Girl in the Fireplace', 'The Idiot's Lantern', 'Blink'). What's interesting to note is that every one of these episodes which feel like 'proper' stories has not been written by Russell T Davies ...

But back to 'Forest of the Dead', an episode concluding an adventure begun with 'Silence in the Library', in itself one of the best, most exciting and chilling episodes of Doctor Who we have seen to date. It had a lot to live up to.

If you remember, last week we left our heroes trapped in the darkened Library, with a shambling, reanimated corpse heading towards them, Donna apparently dead, and no way out ...

Of course there's a way out! River Song has her squareness gun, and so the team escape by making their own way through the bookcases. This is a little bit of a cop out I suppose, but in keeping with the nature of cliffhangers.

More important were some of the revelations in the episode. Last week we had no idea who the strange little girl with her father was, who the mysterious Doctor Moon was, and what River Song's relationship with the Doctor was. Personally I wanted answers to all but the last one. I really found I could care less about River Song and this whole future relationship guff. It was interesting, and well played by the actors, but as some sort of big arc-like revalation? No, just not interested. So I was very pleased indeed that we discovered who the little girl and Doctor Moon were, but were left with no real clue as to the Doctor and River's relationship.

The episode managed to fill in the blanks, with a nice televisual conceit of showing Donna apparently arriving at a hospital/home, getting better, meeting a nice man, getting married, having two kids and living happily ever after ... but all in the space of about two minutes. The idea of the cutting between scenes and locations happening in the way we see on television and on film all the time, but having Donna experience it in 'real time' so to speak was inspired, and made for fascinating watching. I did wonder what younger children watching might make of this, or how their parents might explain what was happening to them if asked.

So as Donna starts to realise that all is not as well as it seems in her idyllic world via a visitation from a strange cowled figure, so the Doctor and the team of archaeologists back at the Library try and find out what's happening. Most of these scenes are enlivened by the performances of David Tennant and Alex Kingston, as the Doctor and River try to come to terms with each other. River whispering an unheard word to the Doctor to force him to realise that he can trust her was a nice touch - I hoped we would not find out what that word was ... and we didn't (it was the Doctor's real name which is a little cliched I suppose, but miles better than: 'Doctor ... I am your mother').

There's lots more running around. First Other Dave is eaten by the shadows, and the Doctor falls through a super-convenient trapdoor and ends up monkey-swinging under one of the Library building spurs. This was rather naff and I didn't really get the point aside from a chance to use some more CGI. Finally Anita gets shadowed as the Doctor races to try and get everything sorted out.

The idea that the little girl was the computer core (CAL being her initials: Charlotte Abigail Lux) and Dr Moon was a virus checker, protecting and supporting the core, was well handled if a little predictable, and the performances from Eve Newton (CAL) and Colin Salmon (Moon) were exemplary. What was less believable was that the girl would throw a hissy fit and activate the destruction of the Library in 20 minutes! But then I suppose the episode needed some artificially engineered tension to give it all something to work towards.

Donna meets with the cowled figure, and it's Miss Evangelista from the first part - assumed dead, but now a hyper-intelligent computer recreation, with a twisted face as a result of some data corruption as she was 'saved' by the computer from her Data Ghost. The resultant breakdown of Donna's world was nicely handled, and her reaction when her two children vanished was superb. This is the very best we have seen Catherine Tate so far - not playing some caricature of her comedy persona or overegging the pudding.

I liked very much the idea that the Vashta Nerada came to the Library in the books, as the books were made from the forests in which they lived. It explains why all the books in the Library had to be newly-made reprints at least (I did wonder about this last week - surely a library would generally have actual editions of the books rather than going to the expense of printing new ones, and if you were going to print new ones, then why not just keep them all digitally and only print a copy when requested by one of the library users?)

It's only right at the end that the questions start to come. When rescuing all the people who had been saved (as in literally saved, to the computer hard drive), why didn't the core have enough storage meaning that the Doctor had to try and use his brainspace as well? And they said that River's brainspace was not big enough and would kill her (which it did) so how did all the people get retrieved then? And in retrieving the people, where did their flesh and blood bodies come from? What material was used to make them? I can accept that their personalities and minds were stored on the computer, but I can't see how their bodies could be physically stored as well? Maybe I missed something.

The final scenes between the Doctor and River were awesome. Pitch perfect performances from both actors, well balanced and giving nothing away. I found myself wondering how much better '42' could have been with someone decent in the lead role rather than the woefully mis-cast Michelle Collins. Alex Kingston was totally believable as River Song, taking charge, enjoying the challenges ... a true Doctor-like figure which was, I suspect, the whole point, as in her the Doctor had found himself. Of course Lux's line that they were arguing away like an old married couple was a deliberate plant to make the fans think she therefore was his wife ... personally I suspect not. That would be too obvious.

So the story concludes, and there are some wonderful, soul achingly beautiful lines of dialogue. I adored Donna asking the Doctor whether 'all right' was a special Time Lord code for 'not all right at all', before admitting that she too was 'all right'. I loved the 'some days nobody dies at all' line, which is of course what happens here - everyone is saved, either literally, or on the computer hard drive. I even liked the concept that the Doctor that we see now, today, is not a patch on the Doctor from the future, the one from whom whole armies will run, and the one who can open his TARDIS doors by clicking his fingers. In the accompanying Confidential episode, this was explained as a take on a trait of fandom where fans always look back to the golden days and moan that '... it's not as good as it was in my day.' Here we have the show saying that it's only going to get better, which is no bad thing. However they have a lot to live up to.

With the author of this story, Steven Moffat, now announced as the new showrunner for Doctor Who, taking over from Russell T Davies for the 2010 series, I feel that the show is in safe hands. Moffat seems to have an instinctive grasp of what makes Doctor Who good, and certainly his writing for the show has given us the best episodes of its run to date. Personally I hope he can keep up the quality, and the darkness. Remembering that Doctor Who is, at its heart, NOT a science fiction show, but a horror show, plundering the depths to bring us thrills and scares in equal measure. If he can manage that, then I'll even forgive him 'The Curse of Fatal Death'!

Next week: goodness knows! Something on a space tour across a diamond planet called Midnight ... death ... horror ... screaming ...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Doctor Who: Silence in the Library

That's more like it! Steven Moffat to the rescue with another of his complex tales of horror and relationships. It's interesting is that almost every commentator is saying the same thing: that Moffat's stories are the best, and it's not hard to see why. With 'The Empty Child'/'The Doctor Dances' (WW2 horrors, gasmasked children and zombies, and, of course, 'Are you my mummy?'), 'The Girl in the Fireplace' (creepy clockwork men from a spaceship in the future stalking 18th Century France, and white horses jumping out of mirrors) and 'Blink' (statues that will come and get you if you look away or so much as blink) Moffat has made the art of great television his own, drawing on various primal fears and delivering scripts which make you think as well as adding a laugh or two alongside some well judged shocks and scares. What is strange is that although almost everyone who offers an opinion would claim that Doctor Who is at its best when it's being scary, Russell T Davies seems to believe the opposite and likes to present more lighthearted runarounds.

I suppose on the plus side, this lighter, fluffier fare shows just how brilliant the darker tales are - consider whether 'The Girl in the Fireplace' would have stood out quite so much had it been bracketed between 'Human Nature'/'The Family of Blood' and 'Blink' rather than between 'School Reunion' and 'Rise of the Cybermen', but it does seem that this preference towards comedic runarounds is at odds with what everyone, critics and viewers alike, actually want. And when your entire audience is waiting for Steven Moffat's story, and that everything before it is just some sort of prelude, well the balance can't be right can it?

Just as with his earlier tales, there was little really known in advance about 'Silence in the Library', except maybe that it featured a library ... so when we open with a little girl seeing said library in her imagination, floating about within it like Christopher Walken in a hotel lobby, we are immediately on guard ... what has this to do with anything? In fact, this feeling persisis throughout the episode as the little girl, her father and the mysterious Dr Moon discuss the girl's imaginary library, though this is where the Doctor and Donna arrive, and where the girl seems to communicate through a security camera. There are no answers forthcoming, except that Moon seems to be more deeply involved in whatever it is than initially suspected.

The structure of the opening is interesting as well ... starting pre-credits with everything from the Girl's point of view and then, post-credits, backtracking a little in time to show the Doctor and Donna's arrival. I wasn't sure this worked at first, but on re-watching, it seems to be a good shorthand to get everyone in place.

The Library, it seems, is the biggest in the universe ... it occupies an entire planet. The core hollowed out to house the index computer, and newly printed copies of every book ever in shelves and buildings on the surface. My first niggle came when the Doctor and Donna wondered why the place was deserted. According to the computer, there were just two humanoids on the planet (being the Doctor and Donna) but when the Doctor looking for any lifeforms, there were over 1,000,000,000,000 reported. This seemed to puzzle the Doctor but, I wondered, why? If you take microbes and bacteria as being life forms (and they are) then you would get the same reading on Earth - and you can't hear or see microbes and bacteria. I found this so obvious myself, that I didn't understand why the Doctor made a big thing of it.

We're introduced to the Nodes (which become important later). These are information points dotted around the Library with human faces. Shades of the Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean film Mirrormask I thought. The first one had an annoying nasal voice but I like the straight reporting of the log entry, complete with 'Argh!' This leavening with humour is important as it helps to maintain some sense of light when things get dark. They are also given a warning: stay out of the shadows ...

There is some lovely lighting in this story. Sometimes on television, all the director seems to want to do is to light their sets blanket-style. Blasting every nook and cranny with light ... but here the lighting is important as the play of light and shadow is integral to the plot, so great care has been taken and it shows. I loved the interiors, dark and light and musty and filled with menace. Very nicely done indeed.

The plot kicks up a gear when the Library is invaded by a group of space suited archaeologists. There is River Song (the leader), Strackman Lux (the financier), Proper Dave (the pilot), Other Dave and Anita (roles uncertain) and Miss Evangelista (Lux's PA). These people have come to investigate the Library and to find out why it closed 100 years earlier and where all the people there at the time had gone. Lux is set on keeping the secrets there intact (like, for example, who or what CAL is - referenced on the computer systems), his PA is nice but dim, and the others are all nicely characterised with what little screen time they each get.

It all gets a little confused now as there's so many people all of a sudden, but the Doctor has realised that they are under attack from something called Vashta Nerada, literally, 'the shadows that melt the flesh'. These are minute voracious flesh eaters which swarm and attack and target other creatures, and which can strip them to the bone in a microsecond.

Moffat has really latched onto it this time ... fear of the dark and shadows, and why we should really be afraid of these things ... and it's brilliant stuff. As the teleplay unfolds, Miss Evangelista is the first to be killed, and the aftermath of her death is poignant indeed. The idea of her data ghost persisting in the neural communicator is brilliant and horrific and very, very well handled by all involved. Her final, looping, words of 'Ice Cream' being horrifically memorable.

Next to go is Proper Dave who inherits a second shadow before he too is consumed in a microsecond, leaving behind a space-suit inhabited by his grinning skeleton, and then motivated by the Vashta Nerada to chase after everyone else.

Meanwhile the Doctor has determined that the only defence against the creatures is to run and so he whizzes Donna off to the TARDIS via a handy teleport, but the process seems to fail. 'Donna has been saved' intones the little girl ominously. Lo and behold Donna's face turns up on one of the information nodes when the Doctor tries to find her location having realised that she did not make it to the TARDIS. But this surely means she is dead?

River Song (what a daft name) is something of an enigma. She knows the Doctor well (very well) in the future but he hasn't met her yet. So who is she? Is she his wife? A future companion? Professor Bernice Summerfield - also an archaeologist - masquerading under a different name? Hopefully some answers will be forthcoming next week. The implication is that she is something like this anyway.

So we leave the episode with everyone in the Library. The lights are going out, Donna is apparently dead, and there's an ambulatory skeleton made of flesh-eating microbes in a space suit asking who turned the lights out ... what a brilliant climax!

I loved this episode. It all felt right. It was well paced, not too much running about and light on flippant humour (though Donna got on my nerves a little as she is want to do most episodes). The horror was well handled, and the ideas simply burst from the script in great waves of brilliance.

I cannot wait until next week to see how it all, hopefully, resolves. According to the 'Next Time' trailer, we have the planet cracking open like an egg, trying to save CAL (whatever that might be) and spoilers!