Sunday, May 22, 2005

Doctor Who - The Empty Child

After the intense emotional wrangling of Father's Day, The Empty Child had a lot riding on it. As each episode of this new Doctor Who series seems to top the earlier ones, so the pressure is mounting for the series to deliver, and with this week's episode, the terror factor was turned up to the fore. If earlier, the series seemed to be playing to a childish denominator with farting aliens, burping wheelie bins and jokes about Michael Jackson, this now seems to be well behind us as the show ventures into a story which touches on a number of common horror elements. There's the horror of War of course, in this case the Second World War as we are in 1941, in the middle of the blitzing of London by the Germans. Then we have a spooky child who seems to be everywhere, watching through his gas mask and plaintively calling for his mummy ... finally there's the terror of infection and the body-horror of losing ones own individuality through a virus which, well, according to the Doctor is rewriting human DNA and turning them into gasmasked zombies ... literally. As to why - well this is the first part of the story and so I suspect we have to wait for the answers. The story so far follows two main threads. First the Doctor meets up with a girl called Nancy who is using the air raids as a means of feeding the homeless children. When a family hurries to their rather ramshackle and flimsy air raid shelter (although these were usually underground in the back garden, as far from the house as possible and not a tin shed), so Nancy and the kids enter the house to feast on their uneaten meals. The Doctor joins them and starts to get a sense of what is happening. However the gas-masked child comes a-calling and Nancy warns the Doctor away, not to let the child touch him, and also reveals that it can make phones ring. When the Doctor answers all that is heard is the child calling for his mummy. This is all very eerie and unsettling stuff, especially as there are no answers forthcoming at this time. Nancy tells the Doctor about the capsule that fell a month earlier and its location - they go there to investigate and the Doctor breaks into Albion Hospital and meets the sick and aged Doctor Constantine who is able to add some more clues into the mix - that all the 'patients' are not dead, and that they all have the same injuries and gas masks fused to their faces - this is physical injury as plague ... The cameo by Richard Wilson as Constantine is brilliant and although he's not on screen for long, adds a lot of presence to the character. The other plot thread is Rose's. She is distracted in the opening moments by seeing a gas-masked child calling for his mummy and leaves the Doctor to investigate herself. Before long she is hanging from a rope under a barrage balloon in the middle of a German attack. These scenes are very impressive, with Rose swinging there over London as planes fly past, searchlights roam and explosions go off all over. However this is so totally at odds with the truth that it's dramatic license taken to the extreme. Barrage balloons were tethered with steel hawsers to the ground so that planes could not fly below them. This forced any attacking aircraft too high to be able to accurately target their bombs. The balloons themselves also acted as a distraction and a physical barrier to seeing what was below them - and as there was a blackout as well, this meant that the pilots were taking pot shots rather than anything properly targetted. However here we have rope tethers and formations of planes flying under the balloons ... Rose is rescued by hi-tek Captain Jack Harkness (through total coincidence) whom she instantly takes a shine to (although to be honest he is far more likable and fun than Mickey or Adam) He seems to think she's a time agent and he has a deal on the table to sell her a Tula Warship he has hidden on Earth at this time. But after enjoying some Champagne and flirting on top of his space craft (which is invisible and tethered to the Big Ben clock tower), they go off searching for the Doctor as Rose claims he needs to give is okay to the deal. Bizarrely Rose seems to have developed something of an obsession with 'Spock' here, and mentions him on several occasions, as well as telling Jack that this is the Doctor's name - Mr Spock - I have no idea what that is all about or whether has been secretly watching old Star Trek episodes on board the TARDIS. Rose and Jack eventually meet up with the Doctor at Albion Hospital where, unnervingly, Constantine has just morphed into a gas-masked zombie (I would have loved to have seen the extended version of this, complete with cracking bone sounds which the BBC felt too graphic for the timeslot ... roll on the DVD extras) as he finally succombed to the same infection. Because this is now nearly the end of the episode (there seems to be no other reason for it to happen), all the zombies come alive and start shambling towards the Doctor, Rose and Jack calling for their mummy ... At the same time, Nancy is trapped in the house by the gas-masked boy who approaches her ... And the credits run ... and there is no 'Next Episode' preview. At least not crashing in and ruining the effectiveness of the cliffhanger. I have no idea whether this was changed due to the adverse reaction the 'Next Week' trailer had after the end of Aliens of London, but I'd like to think that in some way the Doctor Who Production Office had listened to the concerns expressed and took appropriate action. Bravo whichever way it was because this way we get the great cliff hanger, there is also a preview of next week, but before it an announcer warning to look away ... best of all worlds. The Empty Child was a brilliant episode. A terrifying slice of Doctor Who which touched on many fears, and which was in places genuinely unnerving and spooky. Captain Jack Harkness seems an interesting new character and the interplay between him and Rose was well done. Likewise the relationship between the Doctor and Nancy was nicely drawn, and the understanding/realisation that the child is/was her young brother added much to understanding her actions. On the negative side, there do seem to be a lot of plot coincidences - getting Rose flying from a barrage balloon being one, Jack seeing and rescuing her, Nancy finding the Doctor early on (and vanishing afterwards), and the Doctor being able to follow her anywhere ... also some of the wartime trappings - there would have been a lights out ban, so Jack would not have been at a lit window to see Rose in the first place, the clock tower's time did not change while Jack and Rose were talking (and they seemed to be there for some time) but the clock was not turned off during the War, only the lights were extinguished ... lots of small things, none of which detract from the overall impressive nature of the piece, but which in part niggle slightly. Maybe some of these will be covered off next week ... The Empty Child scores very high again for me both as a good and engaging piece of drama and of course as an episode of this incredible smorgasboard of treats which the 2005 series of Doctor Who is turning out to be. And of course, as luck would have it, I'm going to miss next week's episode as I'm away on a much needed break!! So I won't get to see it until mid-week after - you'll have to wait until then before I can share my thoughts on the episode.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Doctor Who - Father's Day

Well I wasn't expecting that ... One of the things that Doctor Who has always done is to subvert expectations. Just as you think you might have the show worked out, along comes a story like The Celestial Toymaker or The Mind Robber ... Warriors' Gate or even Battlefield ... and you're plunged into a different world and a different take on events. Father's Day, for me at least, fell into this category. Thinking about it afterwards, it is very surprising that Doctor Who has never done a story like this before, where the implications of changing past events become very apparent to those involved. Previously we have heard a lot of talk about the fact that you can't change history (The Aztecs, Earthshock/Time-Flight) and a couple of tentative attempts to explore it (in particular Mawdryn Undead) but nothing of the richness or complexity of Father's Day. But the whole changing time thing does bother me a little. Rose says at one point in the episode that it's OK for the Doctor to wade in and change things but not for her, and the Doctor replies by saying that he knows what he's doing ... but there are complex issues here which aren't really explored by Paul Cornell's accomplished teleplay. If Rose's changing history by saving the life of her dad causes a 'wound in time', then why hasn't this ever happened before when the Doctor or any of his companions did something to change history - which is pretty much in every story ever transmitted, right from giving the cavemen the secret of fire up to defeating the Jagrafess the previous week. From the Doctor's comment, it implies that perhaps history is fixed, it is immutable and cannot be changed, and so when the Doctor arrives somewhere, all his actions (and by association, the actions of his companions) already form a part of history ... in other words, they are destined to do whatever they do so that history can remain on track ... and yet in stories like Day of the Daleks, the Doctor actually does change history, likewise in Pyramids of Mars we see the results if he doesn't get involved ... ... and what about the other time travelling races like the Daleks? How does time work then? I can hardly see the Daleks taking care over making sure they know when and how to interfere. Cornell handles all this by, for the most part, ignoring it. Which is perhaps for the best, because otherwise the episode would have degenerated into incomprehensibility. What we get instead, is a love story about Rose finding her dad, realising that he is not the hero she wanted him to be, but who ends up saving the world anyway. There are so many great moments in Father's Day, but all the plaudits and praise from me go to Billie Piper. Her performance here us awesome. Emotionally rich and demanding, totally believable (with one scripted slip up) and bringing the audience along with her. The one scene which didn't work for me was where her dad, Pete, said she was pretty and she launches off into a rambling tirade about 'not going there' ending with her offering him her arm as she leaves the flat ... Pete even comments that this is a 'mixed message' and it so totally is ... Apart from this, Piper makes Rose come alive in a way that I don't think I have ever seen on TV before. Her performance was so well judged that it made the tears flow freely, and the overall emotional impact of this episode was unlike any other I can recall. The only time I can remember crying at Doctor Who before was at the end of Earthshock, but this surpassed that earlier milestone. The rest of the cast were pretty good, perhaps with the exception of Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler, who a) didn't look young enough and b) was too lippy and demeaning of Pete - they would never have got together I feel, and their bickering was both realistic (plaudits to the writer) but also embarrassing to watch. I liked Shaun Dingwell's Pete Tyler immensely - a man well aware of his own shortcomings and who knows that Rose is lying to him about his future as he cannot recognise himself in the person she describes. Even the minor parts of Stuart (Christopher Llewellyn) and Sarah (Natalie Jones) were well realised, and the scene with them and the Doctor is beautifully played - showing that the Doctor's values on human life are somewhat different to ours, and that every life is special, even those which seem simple and happy rather than complex and significant. The incidental music is brilliant. It complements every scene, and I loved the wavering notes as the time distortions started to happen. There's a couple of snatches of other music as well - with 'Never Can Say Goodbye' by The Communards playing at the start as Rose and the Doctor first arrive in 1987, and then, I think it was 'Don't Mug Yourself' by The Streets (aka Mike Skinner) on the car radio as time starts to go awry (of course this is a track from a 2002 album). On the Doctor Who Confidential show afterwards, they talked about the design of the Reapers and how they didn't want to go for something like a more traditional spectral figure ... I have to say I think this was a mistake. The Reapers were passable ... but more and more I'm wanting to see real monsters and not CGI ones. In common with many CGI created monsters, they moved too fast to really see them in detail and work out what you were seeing in the first place, and the combination of flying mantis/eagle/dragon didn't work for me and looked too derivative of other things. I would have liked to have seen something original and alien ... or just hellishly scary. I feel that silent, slow, hooded figures approaching people and then snatching them away in the folds of their cloaks would have been far more terrifying than giant monster birds ... but that's just my opinion. Overall this episode was simply awesome. It hit all the right emotions and made me cry like a baby at the end. The script was accomplished and clever, with only a few avenues of slight confusion along the way (like the TARDIS interior vanishing, why the car which was meant to hit Pete was still circling in a time loop and so on). It's hard to say whether this is my favourite episode to date, as they have all been so good in different ways. However I think that along with The Unquiet Dead and Dalek, this episode sets the bar for the future of the show. ... and from the trailer, next week's episode looks like something which might just raise the bar still further.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Doctor Who - The Long Game

The TARDIS arrives in the year 200,000 on a space station orbiting Earth. This is Satellite 5 (which implies at least 4 others, or perhaps that this is the 5th and the earlier ones have been decommissioned) and its purpose appears to be to monitor transmissions from everywhere and to add them to some vast database of information. The folks on the Satellite are journalists and have chips in their heads to aid them in their task. Among them are Cathica and Suki. Cathica is some sort of information node (she has what is described as an info-spike chip which allows her access to all the information, wheras the others just have a small chip in the back of their heads which lets them use the computers) and the journalists pump their information through her brain into the main computers. The first question I had here was that assuming the journalists never leave their own alotted floor of the Satellite (we are on floor 139 of 500) then what are they providing news and information on exactly? Cronk burger riots perhaps? The state of the air conditioning? There are screens telling them what is being reported elsewhere (including a network intriguingly called 'Bad Wolf TV' which reports that the Face of Boe - who we met in The End of the World - is pregnant with Baby Boemina) so are they then some sort of critic on the news ... reporting on the reporting perhaps? It's very unclear what the purpose of all this is. And then there's the Editor, a human representative of the financial banks who are running the operation on the Satellite ... he seems to live alone, on the 500th floor, which is freezing cold, and talks to himself a lot. He 'edits' the information, but with 499 floors and goodness knows how many people living on them, how does one man, and a group of immobile zombies, manage to keep track of it all? Does he sleep or rest? And what happens when he does? Does the news gathering/transmission stop? And how can apparently dead zombie-like humans continue to process information after their death? The Doctor says their chips keep working, but their brains would atrophy, surely ... Anyway, back to the plot, and the Doctor, Rose and Adam (who, after a promising introduction in Dalek is totally useless here - worse than Mickey, and that's saying something) faff about a little and get the jist of what is going on before the Doctor decides to find out what is really happening and hacks into the computer in order to check out the air conditioning systems (it is hot on the 139th floor despite the total lack of any visible evidence of this fact - no-one sweats or wears less clothing as a result, but maybe they're all used to it) and finds that all the hot air is being vented down from above. He and Rose then get the access codes for a lift to take them to the 500th floor. Meanwhile Suki has been identified by the Editor as a terrorist named Eva san Julienne and 'promoted' up, only to meet the Editor's boss - which attacks and zombifies her. The 500th floor is freezing cold and it's snowing there too (interesting as the rooms don't seem large enough to have their own climates which you'd need to generate snow). Again, despite any steaming breath or such like, Rose and the Doctor (and indeed the Editor) don't seem to mind the cold, and we finally get to meet the Boss ourselves - it's a huge monster thing which seems to be living in the roof, and which goes by the unlikely (and unpronouncable) name of The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe (or 'Max' as the Editor says he calls him). Once again the creature is achieved through CGI but this time it looks awful and even more rubbery than if it had been made of rubber. I would have far preferred to have seen a real creature for this effect, and the CGI made it all seem so unreal somehow on this occasion, and a far removed threat. Maybe if its saliva had been spattering the Editor all the time it might have seemed more 'real'. Cathica, having seen the Doctor and Rose questionning just about everything (something which she and her fellow workers don't do, which is odd for journalists) and taking the lift up, decides to do the same and follows them. She finds out the truth: that the Jagrafess has been manipulating and holding back humanity for 90 years and decides to reveal this information to everyone else ... and/or to disrupt the air conditioning systems to heat up the 500th floor. The heat causes the Jagrafess to explode with a messy pop and humanity is back on track again. What is it with this series of Who and exploding monsters anyway? The Nestene Consciousness was a sort of already-exploded gloopy alien thing in Rose, then Cassandra exploded in The End of the World, and a Slitheen exploded in World War III ... I almost wonder why the Dalek creature didn't explode in Dalek ... The denoument all seems so simplistic ... the Doctor leaves without a thought as to how the inhabitants of Satellite 5 will manage. What about the Editor ... was he killed? And how did the dead Suki hold on to him to prevent his escape? What happens to the news feeds to Earth now? The whole plot with Adam feels tacked on, and while Tamsin Greig is great as the nurse, none of her scenes add anything to the overall story, and she ends up in the same 'familar face in cameo' position as Ken Dodd was in Delta and the Bannermen. In fact all the cast are brilliant, especially Christine Adams as Cathica and Anna Maxwell-Martin as Suki. Overall, while I enjoyed this episode a lot, it left far too many unanswered questions in my mind, and really felt rushed. Adam was a waste of time and Rose did nothing (again). The incidental music was a mixture of the brilliant (where Suki explores the 500th floor for the first time) and the dire (when the Cronk-burger man is selling his wares). The CGI effects were a similar mix of the inspired and the pedestrian (brilliant for the forhead opening info-spike and the shots of Satellite 5 in space, and awful for the Jagrafess monster at the end). For me this was the weakest episode so far, and I wonder if this is why it's hidden away in the middle of the run. However it's still miles ahead of anything else on television at the moment, and with such high standards set already, it's almost inevitable that some episodes will fare better than others. But why is it called The Long Game? I suppose we have to wait and see, and maybe this refers to the succession of clues we're being given along the way as to some deeper mystery ... The trailer for next week looks intriguing. A sort of 'what happens if you change time' idea ...

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The pweor of the mnid

I fnoud tihs at wrok the ohetr day ... fisanntaicg ... The phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid: I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. Aoccdrnig to a rscheearcr at Cmagbride Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers of a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Doctor Who - Dalek

So we come to the episode that the press have been waiting for. With their obsessions with the Daleks, sofa, stairs and 'Exterminate', it was perhaps up to this single episode to redeem Doctor Who in their eyes ... so did it succeed? From my point of view it most definitely did. Robert Shearman delivered a script that was intelligent, tense, exciting and very watchable, and which also fitted the 45 minute duration perfectly. The cast were all suberb, and the main characters gelled together excellently, providing an episode which held my household at least glued to the television for the duration. The TARDIS arrives in an underground museum - rows of cases hold alien artefacts of all sorts. I think I saw one of the Alien eggs from the film Alien in the background, and there's also a Slitheen arm, and a Cyberman head (though the head is of the style from Revenge of the Cybermen, and as far as we know this particular variant never visited the Earth, so there's either a slight continuity glitch there, or an implication that these Cybermen did visit Earth somehow). The Doctor and Rose are promptly arrested and taken to meet Henry van Statten, owner of the museum (and also, apparently, 'owner' of the Internet) who wants to know how they got into his complex which is buried under the sands in Utah. Shortly, van Statten takes the Doctor to see his only living specimen ... which turns out to be the Dalek of the title, battered and chained. This triggers some sort of death-wish in the Doctor and he starts raving about Time Wars and how all the Daleks were wiped out along with his race - this is the final Dalek to still be alive, just as he is the final Time Lord. Quite how the Doctor leaps to this conclusion is unclear ... he says later on that the Dalek must have come back through time, and so presumably at this point there could well be lots of other Daleks around. However the Dalek can find no mention of them on the Internet. Obviously it wasn't using the right search engine! The Dalek itself is a masterpiece of retro-redesign. It looks battered and war-weary, but is also strong and effective looking. Despite its chains, it is still dangerous - the last man to touch it burst into flames apparently - and the Doctor snaps and tries to kill it with electricity, but to no avail. Meanwhile Rose is chatting with Englishman Adam, van Statten's procurer of Alien Artefacts, and here we get a sense that he and Rose like each other. In fact, it's more than a sense as the music over this scene is intrusive and schmaltsy and hammers home the romantic interest - incidental music should not be noticed if it is working, but this stands out like a sore thumb and is perhaps the weakest aspect of this episode. Realising that the Doctor is also the last of his race, van Statten tortures him with some sort of laser beam x-ray device thingy and finds that he has two hearts. But before he can start cutting the Doctor up, Rose and Adam go to find the Dalek as Rose sees it on a monitor being drilled by one of van Statten's henchmen and crying out in pain. Rose talks to and then touches the Dalek as she feels sorry for it, and it immediately draws some of her DNA and uses it to regenerate itself. It quickly breaks its bonds, escapes from the cell and draws more power from America generally (as well as absorbing the entire content of 'the internet' into itself). This makes it gleam and shine, becoming a new soldier Dalek rather than the battle-scarred relic, and it goes off on a rampage. These are easily the best scenes of Dalek mayhem we have ever seen. The Dalek's movements are slow and precise, with not a jerk to be seen. Its gun fries victims to a crisp, revealing their contorting skeletons in the process, and it can even turn its middle section around to fire behind it, as well as ... wait for it ... being able to elevate up a flight of stairs. I bet the newspaper people were wetting themselves with excitement at this point. The scenes are superb, and the Dalek manages to wipe out all the opposing forces easily, with cunning and intelligence before the Doctor and van Statten, watching from the top level, decide to shut the bulkhead doors and trap it ... but of course Rose cannot run fast enough and is trapped with the creature. I do wonder why van Statten has so many armed troops at his disposal though, and, it seems, only a handful of scientists and other workers. Given that his facility is just for the storage of these artifacts which he is buying from around the world, why would he feel the need for his own private army ... but then maybe this is just his nature - he is certainly a man who likes to get his own way. Despite the Dalek crying 'Exterminate' (more new trousers for the newspaper people please who would be wetting themselves by this point) and us hearing its gun fire, the creature does not kill Rose, preferring instead to have a chat about fear as it seems to have absorbed more than just DNA from Rose. This is really the aspect which wins the Pip and Jane Award for meaningless gobbledegook. Apparently Rose's DNA was different because she had been travelling in time ... quite how or why this is, is not explained ... perhaps the TARDIS does more than just attune itself to your brain. I wonder why she didn't burst into flames as well, or why the Dalek couldn't use plain old human DNA to regenerate itself. The Doctor is forced to allow the Dalek to escape again, but while he's waiting for it to arrive, he decides to get tooled up with the biggest gun he can find in Adam's storeroom. Rose, meanwhile stops the Dalek from killing van Statten, and instead discovers that all the metal meanie wants is 'freedom'. So the Dalek and Rose take a walk to another area, where the Dalek shoots a hole in the ceiling to allow the sunlight to flood in. It then wants to know what it feels like and so opens its casing to reveal the mutant within, so that it can indulge in a spot of sunbathing. The effects here are simply awesome. The Dalek casing opening is impressive enough, but the mutant creature is both horrifying and sympathy inducing at the same time. The little tentacled creature seeming hardly dangerous enough to warrant the Doctor arriving with his big gun, wanting to blast it to pieces himself. Rose won't let him, though, and the Doctor, it seems, realises at last that he was becoming as bad as the Daleks. As Rose says, the Dalek wasn't the one pointing a gun at her. The Dalek finally asks Rose to order him to die, and this she does. The Dalek releases its balls and they form a ring around it and it vanishes ... presumably in a puff of its own logic. There seems to be no other reason for this final effect than to show off the CGI work, but it's impressive enough. The audience breathes freely once more as the Dalek is destroyed, but along the way, Shearman's story has offered hints of all manner of themes and ideas, some which might go against what we think we know about the series, others which explore the nature of survival, and the idea that a soldier without a war and without orders to follow might as well not exist. It's all powerful stuff, and Shearman's script manages to get it right pretty much all of the time. I can't let this review finish without giving special mention to perhaps the most important and siginiciant contributor to this story ... Nick Briggs. I have known and been friends with Nick for many years and his vocal talents lend this Dalek the most alien and yet human qualities I have yet seen in Doctor Who. He manages to catch the inflections just right, and adds pathos and believability to a role which could have descended into the rantings of a madman (Ok, mad Dalek). It's an extraordinary achievement, making this Dalek seem alive and dangerous and yet still make it sympathetic and Briggs manages all this with just his voice. When you add up everything that this episode has going for it: the cast, some superb direction, innovative ideas, a great script, a brilliant Dalek prop, some superb set pieces, and state of the art effects both mechanical and CGI, then it's not surprising that a simple story about a lone Dalek survivor has turned out to be the highlight of the series to date. I'd give this 10/10 if it wasn't for the slightly overbearing and in places just plain wrong music. But it's a delight from beginning to end, and I hope that the series can continue in this darker vein and start to really plumb the depths of our emotions in weeks to come.