Sunday, April 24, 2011

Oi Spaceman!

Whenever I come to write my thoughts on Nu Who, I'm always aware that I might be in the minority. Brief statii posted on Facebook bring a cavalcade of comments as to how I am wrong, how I didn't 'get' it and so on, but generally when I post my thoughts here, I get nice comments and people saying that they're glad I said what I did as they thought the same and felt somewhat bludgeoned by the rest of fandom for not thinking as per the collective ... So I'll do as usual here, and pass on my thoughts and feelings about the opener for Season 6 (or Season 32, or Season 11.2 depending on how you're counting). This year I managed to stay pretty much completely spoiler free - so I had (and have) little clue as to what to expect. So 'The Impossible Astronaut' kicked off with no expectations at all. First of all, the title. It's rubbish. From what we saw, 'Silence Falls' would have been better, or maybe 'Space 1969' ... 'The Impossible Astronaut' sounds more like a novel or comic story ... but then that's what we were presented with, a story which seemed to be more at home in any media other than television. We kick off with the Doctor at various points in the past: being painted naked; in some wartime tunnels; and dancing on film with Laurel and Hardy. All very nice, but what was the point? To attract Amy and Rory's attention? Why not just call on them ... it's not very Doctory. And another thing, for all this episode's bleating on about not being able to change the past, that's all the Doctor seems to do - inserting himself in people's past and changing how the future will pan out. Anyway, he sends Amy and Rory and River Song (who seems to be in a jail or something but is allowed to leave by her captors?) invitations to America to meet with him by a lake ... and the first clue is that he says he is 1103 years old, but last time Amy saw him he was 908 ... so some 200 years have passed for the Doctor. But then a car arrives bringing an old man bearing a can of petrol .. and the Doctor talks with an Apollo astronaut down by the lake who then seems to kill him ... and then while he is regenerating kills him completely. But we're used to all this by now ... regenerations that are not, events which are not what they seem ... even in the Pandorica episode the Doctor was apparently killed ... but wasn't. I wonder if the production team know the story of the Boy who Cried Wolf (or should that be Bad Wolf?). So all this outpouring of emotion from Amy left me cold ... seen this before. Got the t-shirt. And as usual the music was awful. Murray Gold seems to have a sledgehammer approach at times, and the choral stuff here really annoyed me. And the plot now starts to twist and turn. The Doctor's body is burned (so he does seem to be really really dead), and the old man - Canton Everett Delaware III - has another of the invitations, numbered 1 to 4 ... so who had number 1? Surprise! It is the Doctor ... this time aged 909 - so just a year after last meeting Amy and Rory ... but he doesn't seem to know who River Song is yet ... Spoilers! So they head to 1969 to where the TARDIS seems to want to go - to the 8th April to be precise, and the Oval Office, where President Nixon is troubled by a strange child who keeps phoning him for help. He has called in ex-FBI man Canton Delaware (which number we're not sure of) to assist him and before long the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River are all embroiled in the mystery. Amy meanwhile is seeing alien creatures which she then forgets about, and, feeling sick, heads for the toilets where she encounters it again. She works out that once you can't see it any more you forget about it and so takes a photo on her phone. The creature tells her that she must tell the Doctor what he must know ... but what that is, is somewhat obtuse ... that he died? The creature is quite spooky but is overused - scary is half seen in the shadows and background, not in plain view in a toilet. And is it only me who thinks it looks a bit like the Headmaster from the Pink Floyd video for 'Another Brick in the Wall'? It kills a woman in the toilet for no apparent reason other than to establish that it is a threat, and then Amy rushes out - immediately forgetting it. So how did the creature expect her to tell the Doctor anything? Come to that, why doesn't it tell him itself? All this creeping around ... what's the point? No-one could ever reveal its presence as everyone forgets it the moment they can't see it ... The Doctor figures out that the calls from the child are coming from a warehouse about 5 miles from Cape Kennedy ... because the kid mentioned three names when asked where they were and who they were ... this borders on the mcguffin for me. A convenient hook to bring the Doctor to a place where there are all manner of alien gadgets and tech just lying around. River investigates some underground tunnels, and, apart from lots of the forgettable monsters, she finds a locked room with some sort of control console in it. This looked to me like the alien craft from last year's 'The Lodger' to me, but it's function is unknown as the alien creatures move in on Rory and River. Meanwhile upstairs, Amy admits to the Doctor that she is pregnant. What a time to pick ... and immediately one is asking, so is the Astronaut her child? Is River Song her child? Is the Doctor her child? But then River is complaining of feeling sick as well, so is she pregnant too? Is her child the Doctor? Or even Amy? It's all timey wimey wibbly wobbly stuff. So the Astronaut appears again and the suit is revealed to have a child in it (and it would be impossible for a kid to fill and operate such a suit, but never mind) and Amy shoots it with Canton's gun ... And we crash into the closing credits. There's some lovely dialogue in the episode. I liked all of River Song's musings on her life with the Doctor, running in different directions (in case you had forgotten this) but it just served to confuse things more really. You have to keep remembering that River cannot remember any of her past (as far as we are concerned) adventures, and the things she goes on about haven't happened yet as far as we are concerned. It's all a little cerebral for a kid's teatime show really. And that's another of the problems I have. Personally I *like* Doctor Who to be thought provoking and exciting and horrifying. 'The children's own show which adults adore'. And yet ... and yet we have a magazine aimed at 5 year olds (Doctor Who Adventures), lego sets, activity books and novels aimed at the 8-10 age group (or younger) ... there's no merchandise except perhaps Doctor Who Magazine which is aimed at the older age group. So the show is actively courting and cultivating fans who are young kids, and then presenting material on the show itself which they could never follow or understand! Heck the merchandise is aimed at people who were not even born when Christopher Eccleston saved Rose from the Autons! It's food for thought. And so while I'm looking forward to see how this story pans out - and kudos to Steven Moffat, I have no idea at all what might be going on - I am strangely ambivalent about it all. I like my Doctor Who to have a plot, to excite and engage on a level more than just wondering how the characters would react and so on. There are too many shows out there which are unwatchable for a single episode because they are all about the backstory and not about the viewers and presenting an entertaining hour of plot and excitement. Many shows start life as a series of great stand alone stories but then, as they beome popular, alienate all but those who have watched every episode, by making the mistake of thinking that the characters and backstory is more interesting than the plots - The X-Files, Buffy, Supernatural all made this mistake, and recently I've tried to watch episodes of Warehouse 13 and Witchblade and come out the other end having no idea whatsoever about what the show was about - it was all about backstory I didn't know and characters I didn't care about. I really, really don't want Doctor Who to go down that route.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Goodbye Sarah Jane

I can't remember the first time I met Elisabeth Sladen. I mean, over the years I've met many, many people from the worlds of Doctor Who, both the actors and behind the scenes technicians, and it's hard to pin down when you first meet someone. The first Doctor Who convention was in 1977, and at that time the companion was the lovely Louise Jameson, and she and Tom Baker came to that inaugural gathering in a Battersea church hall and enthralled those who were there. But Lis ... I'm wracking my brain but I can't remember her attending a UK con at all in the seventies or eighties - at least I have no photographs of her attending any of them. So I couldn't have met her then. When Keith Barnfather and Reeltime Pictures made the independent drama Downtime, although I was involved (I played one of the Yeti!) the days I was on set were not the ones that Lis was on set so I didn't meet her then ... The reason that this is so puzzling to me is that despite the fact I can't remember when I met her, she knew who I was. I know we met at one of the Gallifrey conventions in LA a few years back, when it was at Van Nuys and rained all the time. She was lovely and charming, perhaps a little put out by all the people there, and the rain ... always the rain ... but surely that can't have been the first time I met her? I know she was gracious enough to speak to me for the book I wrote for Virgin on the Companions - I probably still have the tape of that somewhere in a cupboard - but that was a phone interview as I recall ... And yet ... I was at one of those Memorabilia fairs in Birmingham a few years ago. A friend wanted to get some signatures and so we decided to drive up there and see what it was all about. It was packed and busy with people and costumes ... mental. While wandering around I saw that Lis was signing in one of the booths - I think she was being sponsored to be there by a retailer - and in one lull in her never-ending queue, I approached and said Hi. She looked up at me and the most beautiful smile cracked her face. 'David!' she said. 'How lovely to see you again!' and we chatted about how she was doing and so on for a minute or two before the people behind me started to mutter. So I bade my farewells and wandered away. I think my memory must be breaking away like icebergs these days. Great chunks of my life drifting away ... I must have met her before ... But then I think Elisabeth Sladen was one of those rare people ... someone who makes you *feel* that you know her through her warmth and friendliness. She obviously knew me and remembered me from whatever passing nod we had enjoyed in the past, and yet she greeted me as an old friend, a familiar face. And that meant so much! As I mentioned, I've met so many people. Some have become close friends, some I know well enough to call up and chat, some I see at the occasional convention and we have a nice natter about stuff, catching up. But many have met so many people over the years, and it all starts to blur. When I was a kid, growing up with Doctor Who, my main eras were the Troughton and Pertwee years. I still love Troughton's era with a passion and have listened to the soundtracks and watched the videos so often ... but then, with 1971 I turned 10, and it was the Pertwee era that I remember watching. I remember missing episodes too due to holidays. This was when I started to collect the books ... the magazines ... the ephemera ... this was my formation as a fan and collector. I recall getting the Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special and seeing for the first time, the preview of the next season - the show's 11th. With a new companion who looked modern and funky. New monsters - a spacesuited Sontaran (whatever that was), dinosaurs and spiders (I hate spiders and so this show held a special fascination for me). Within moments of appearing on screen Lis made the part of Sarah Jane Smith her own. She was real and natural, a proper woman - not all girly like Jo could be - but someone capable who could manage quite fine on her own thank you very much. She was great! The greatness continued into Tom Baker's era, with shows like 'The Ark in Space', 'The Sontaran Experiment' and 'Pyramids of Mars' cementing her brilliance in my mind. I never fancied her ... I think I was a little too young ... but she was like an older sister, someone you could depend on, and she loved the Doctor with a passion that was plain to see. When she left at the end of 'The Hand of Fear' it was a sad time ... the Doctor called to Gallifrey and he couldn't/wouldn't take her with him - how times have changed - and so Sarah was consigned to a roadway anywhere but where she should have been ... And an era passed. Then, thanks to the tenacity of Russell T Davies, she was back ... an episode with David Tennant and it was as though she had never been away ... and then her own series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, with more monsters to fight and wrongs to right. Here she had her own companions, a likable bunch of kids who looked up to her in the same way as I had looked up to Sarah when she was kicking the ass of anti-matter monsters and Kraals. But the great wheel turns, and times change. The past we love stays as a memory, and the people we know and love, whether we have met them in person or not, move on and up and away. I was privileged to have met Lis. She was happy and friendly and had time for everyone, and she remembered my name. You can't ask more from your childhood heroes.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Shark Whisperer

Christmas day is never the best time to enjoy a Doctor Who story. You're full of turkey and trimmings, replete with wine and port. Concentrating on some timey-wimey action is out of the question really, and in previous years, the Doctor Who story presented on Christmas Day has tended to be packed with action and adventure and never-mind-the-logic to keep the kids happy and looking forward to when they might be able to buy some toys related to what they have just seen (usually months and months later when they have forgotten all about what was on anyway, having been distracted by more presents from the late-arriving Aunt Ada or something). Anyway ... in the lead up to more 11th Doctor adventures, I realised it was high time I cracked open the Sky Planner and re-watched the Christmas Day adventure from just 4 months ago - but it seems like forever! So I settled down with a glass of wine in one hand and a notepad in the other ... as 'A Christmas Carol' unfolded before me again. The first thing to say about Nu Who is that textually and narratively it's very rich. When I was making notes on a Russell T Davies story, I might fill 3 or 4 pages of my notepad. For 'A Christmas Carol' I filled 8 pages. Every line brings some new information, something to be noted, cross referenced, stamped and filed. Steven Moffat loves to fill his scripts with character and interest and this offering did not disappoint on that level at all. From the outset we're plunged into danger as a very Star Trek spacecraft is plunging to its doom on an unknown planet. There is the squeaky voiced captain from Voyager there, complete with tight fitting white uniform; the multi-racial crew to appease the PC brigade; the navigator who seems to be blind ... all the stereotypes are here. But then there's Amy dressed as a policewoman and Rory dressed as a Roman Soldier fresh from the honeymoon suite ... hmmm ... something for the dads to ponder on I suspect, while the kids realise that more action figures are on the horizon. The spaceship us crashing because there's a machine on the planet which is affecting the sky ... and the Doctor needs to turn it off, but he can't because the controls are isomorphic (cue a nice little bit of tete a tete referencing 'Pyramids of Mars' and the whole Doctor Who isomorphic thing), so instead he needs to change the mind of the grumpy curmudgeon who seems to run the planet Kazran Sardick, who sounds like his name is spelt backwards. For some reason Kazran has people kept on ice in his basement while he lends people money. How he sees any return on this is unknown as he never appears to get repaid ... but a family member is kept as security for the loan. A very strange arrangement. The Doctor arrives down the chimney for no good reason other than it looks cool, and talks everyone to death for a couple of minutes before the family trying to get to see their family member is thrown out. The Doctor realises that Kazran cannot hit the child, and this shows him that Kazran is not beyond redemption. There's a nice verbal reference to 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' here with Kazran's 'Bored now!' utterance, before the Doctor leaves to try and figure out why there are fish flying in the fog. This is a lovely touch, and is quite magical - you really can accept that the little fish fly around in the fog, suspended on the ice particles therein. Beautiful idea and very well realised. But Amy and Rory and their crashing Star Trek ship have less than an hour! Good job the Doctor can travel in time then ... failing to convince Kazran by any normal means, the Doctor leaves the old man watching a video projection of his younger self, and the Doctor arrives in the video to meet the boy Kazran. This is a very well thought through conceit, that Kazran Sr can watch Kazran Jr meet the Doctor and feel his memories changing as the Doctor changes the course of his life for good. So the Doctor charms Kazran Jr and agrees to attract a fish to his bedroom using the Sonic Screwdriver ... except that it's a massive shark which comes hunting and ends up with half the screwdriver in its belly. There's lots to enjoy here as the Doctor plays leapfrog with time, allowing houseworkers to win non-existent lotteries and popping back to see Kazran Sr to get the code number for the ice vault in the basement (it's 7258 if you ever need it). The shark is dying and the Doctor intends to take it back into the sky but needs an icebox, so they choose the one which was seen at the beginning of the show, occupied by a beautiful young woman called Abigail Pettigrew. Luckily Abigail can sing beautifully and sings to the shark to calm it down. This is now starting to get a little daft and convenient. Plot going out the window as opportunity comes in its place. Why is this woman of all those in the vault the one they choose? Why is she the only one who can sing to calm the shark? And why does her casket have 000 008 on the front counter? Somehow Kazran Sr is still watching all this, but there's no evidence of the Doctor using a camera or anything, so it's all a little strange. Then, for no apparent reason (though I suspect it's to try and make Kazran Sr a nicer man) the Doctor and Kazran Jr spend the next 7 Christmas Eves waking Abigail up and heading off on many adventures together. Kazran Sr has many many photographs of everywhere they went (and it seems to be more than just 7 days). But Kazran Jr slowly grows up ... and he falls in love with Abigail. He also seems a lot older than the 18 or 20 he must be by the end (assuming he's 10 or 12 years old at the start). Kazran is told a secret by Abigail and he puts her back in the box for the last time (the number on the front is 000 001) and tells the Doctor he doesn't want to see him for any more Christmas Eves. Meanwhile (remember the Plot) Kazran's father completes his machine to control the fish (I'm not sure why he wanted to, something to do with people paying to see them, so maybe he was paid to bring sharks and the like down onto the planet for some reason ... all a little vague) but Kazran Sr still won't help the Doctor to save the crashing spaceship (and given that they had an hour to go, it feels like days have passed ... but never mind!). The Doctor tries showing him holograms of the passengers of the ship singing (no idea how he did this) and then somehow transports a hologram of Kazran to the ship so he can see it (again, no clue how this worked). It transpires that Abigail was ill when she was frozen and only had 8 days to live ... which is why the counter was counting down. But how did Kazran know that when he froze her in the first place? Why take as security for a loan someone who's going to die anyway ... he was such a hard-nosed character, that doesn't make sense at all! He would require someone that the family would want back, not someone who was about to die. And what number did all the other caskets have on them? And why a count down? If the idea was that Kazran maybe charged interest on the number of times the families had their loved ones back, then it would count up surely, so at the final reckoning, Kazran could see how much they had to repay him? As I say, this aspect really makes no sense at all. The final straw is when the Doctor allows Kazran Jr to see what he becomes, and Kazran Sr goes to hit his younger self but cannot. I wondered here what happened to that good old Doctor Who trope the Blinivitch Limitation Effect, as admirably demonstrated in that paragon of Doctor Who continuity 'Mawdryn Undead'. If the same person from two different points in their timeline meet and touch, then there is a massive explosion of energy. Except that here there isn't, and Kazran can hug his younger self with no problem whatsoever. The ship is still crashing ... remember the ship? ... but the Doctor discovers that Kazran's machine now won't respond to Kazran either as the Doctor has changed him too much! So the Doctor decides to use his broken Sonic Screwdriver to set up a resonance with the part still in the shark (which apparently has lived all this time - maybe 60 years? According to Google this might be possible though) but they need to transmit something that they know will work - Abigail's singing. So they have to break her out of cold storage again - and thus make her live her last day - singing to save the spaceship. Now the practical side of me says that the Doctor actually had a recording of Abigail singing - Kazran was watching it - so why couldn't they have played that on a loop through the Sonic to sort it all out? The Doctor didn't seem to think very laterally here, and just morosely accepted that Abigail would have to die to save everyone on the ship ... would he have done that if Amy and Rory had not been on it I wonder? So the Doctor returns Kazran Jr to his timestream, and then leaves with a rescued Amy and Rory, and Kazran Sr spends his last day with Abigail flying around in a carriage being pulled by the shark. The End. Whoah! What happened there? Why didn't the Doctor at least try and save Abigail? That's not very Doctory ... He doesn't leave people to die and not even try? We don't even know what was wrong with her, or why they knew it was exactly 8 days she had to live ... she certainly didn't seem very ill or sick in any way. I didn't like this aspect of it as it cast the Doctor in a very poor light. Rather than battling valiantly to save her, and perhaps failing, he was never seen to even try. Even Amy and Rory seemed pretty unconcerned by it all ... such a difference from 'The Fires of Pompeii' where the Doctor is forced by Donna to save just one family from the devastation ... you'd have think he'd learned something. So overall it was a rollicking ride, with some great imagery and surreal scenes of sharks and fish and crashing spacecraft. The performances were brilliant - Michael Gambon as Kazran was superb, being pig-headed and evil one moment and oozing with pathos the next; Katherine Jenkins was cast as Abigail because she can sing, and she was pretty good at all aspects of the role; Laurence Belcher was excellent as the young Kazran; and the award for the best ever actress name on television goes to Pooky Quesnel as the spaceship Captain. The regulars of Amy and Rory barely got a look in however, and one suspects that for the most part the actors were not available at the same time as the Doctor and others, necessitating a split in location which meant they never really met. 'A Christmas Carol' is perhaps the best of the Christmas Specials presented by the new series. A great piece of television, with only a few elements which fail to hold together in the cold light of Boxing Day morning. I can't wait for the next series!