Sunday, 14 April 2013
I've long been a fan of Mark Gatiss. From his terrific novel Nightshade, to his excellent performance in the only good BBC3 programme ever made, Nighty Night, the guy's dark sense of humour and fondness for nostalgia has bought me many moments of joy over the years. It is a shame then, that he hasn't had the best track record when it comes to writing for the revived Doctor Who series. His work has been mediocre and forgettable at best (The Unquiet Dead, Night Terrors), and almost unwatchable at worst (Victory of the Daleks), so it is with great pleasure that I can declare Cold War my favourite Series 7 episode so far.
We start with a Russian submarine acting all sinister and Russian. As somebody who has had a lifelong obsession with the Cold War, this tickles my history boner in the right places. A fascinating period of historic tension, that the episode makes solid use of, unlike the utterly perfunctory World War II setting of Victory of the Daleks. Still, it isn't entirely historically accurate by any means, the submarine's corridors are way too fucking big compared to the beyond cramped conditions of a true USSR submarine. Still, artistic licence is to be expected and it's a more exciting setting than modern day London so I allow it. We are shown that the Russians have captured what they believe to be a frozen mammoth. However, one of the crew is uh... RIDICULOUSLY excited to be able to touch it. Seriously, what is WITH this guy? He declares that he's unable to wait until they get to Moscow, and that he's cracking open the mammoth right now. It's a kinda awkward excuse for the Ice Warrior to be freed from his ice prison and just raises questions as to why the hell this guy is so creepily desperate.
Above: Mammoth fucker.
Commanding the submarine is Davos Seaworth from TV's Game of Thrones.
The presence of somebody from that programme briefly startles my sense of storytelling expectation and perspective. I jokingly turn to my friend and say that I now expect completely unnecessary and distracting female objectification to follow him across shows.
Moments later, a soaking wet Jenna Louise Coleman arrives from thin air.
The episode has now earned a great deal of good will from me in an incredibly short space of time. Not least due to the presence of one of my favourite actors, David Warner, who also once played The Doctor in the Doctor Who Unbound audios. Further niceness comes from the reveal that the Ice Warrior's design hasn't been tinkered with for the worst like the revived show has done with the Cybermen, Sontarans and Silurians. The Ice Warrior design is a classic and the new design is suitably faithful and intimidating. In fact, the revived show hasn't bought back a classic enemy this well since 2005's Dalek, with most attempts severely lacking in both writing and design elements. Here, we are given both the sinister villain of the initial Troughton Ice Warrior stories (To which this story is certainly superior!), as well as hints of the more decent side to them found in Curse of Peladon, which I admit remains my favourite Ice Warriors story.
The Doctor's first encounter with the Ice Warrior is suitably dramatic but then some knobend goes a bit taser-happy and suddenly an intergalactic incident could be on the cards. The situation must be diffused before everybody in the submarine is slaughtered, before nuclear annihilation occurs...
Above: ...and before Clara gets dryer.
Matters aren't helped by the fact that our frozen friend appears to be missing...
Not above: An Ice Warrior.
At this point I got worried. I'd heard a rumour from generally reliable nerd sources that the Ice Warriors in this episode would be revealed to be comedic midget aliens inside suits. This sounded a bit well.... Russell T. Davies to me, so I started to worry that I was about to hate on an episode I'd been loving up until this point. My fears proved to be unfounded though, as I was soon made aware that an Ice Warrior without its suit is incredibly dangerous and the episode proceeds to become a tense horror thriller that brings to mind both Alien and the Patrick Troughton era, particularly the base-under-siege stories that characterised Season 5 of the classic Doctor Who series. There had been a piss-irritating tendency in most New Who stories to not take the threat level at all seriously so this episode was of HUGE relief, managing to build a solid atmosphere of dread and danger in a way very, very few episodes have since 2005. When we finally do see the Ice Warrior unmasked the CGI is somewhat of a disappointment, but the design itself is true to the original and suitably menacing.
Above: Not shit.
Matt Smith continues to prove himself as the best Doctor since Sylvester McCoy, and Clara is given the most character development she has had since appearing, in a much less on-the-nose and more subtle way than last week. Her reactions to the slaughter and danger help us get to know the character in a way we haven't in the whizz-bang of the 2 previous episodes. Series 7 has been very epic, loud and blockbustery so it was nice to have a more confined, claustrophobic episode to give us a much, much needed change of pace. While I do feel the previous episode was underrated by fandom and a lot more ambitious in scope, concept and ideas than this, Cold War was significantly better in its execution and ultimately that's what counts. I can't stress how refreshing it was to have an episode which took Doctor Who seriously again. More please.
Sunday, 7 April 2013
If I had to sum up The Rings of Akhenaten with a few words, I'd call it an interesting failure. Its ideas are underdeveloped, its pacing is off-kilter, its narrative is vague and it ends with truly appalling footage of a man loudly boasting to a giant pumpkin about how ace he thinks he is. However, this is one of those times when an interesting failure can be preferable to an unambitious, limited in scope, successful story. A story like Tooth and Claw, School Reunion or Dinosaurs on a Spaceship has less out and out "What the FUCK!?" moments to be sure, but they also aim a lot lower and safely coast along the usual formula. It's a lot easier to not be corny when you've got no big ideas, settings or concepts to deal with, and limit your setting to Earth. Here we are given a fairly well realised alien world and landscape for one of the few times in the revived series, and I found it to be much appreciated.
We begin our story with a leaf attacking a man and nearly killing him. I got all excited, thinking this the Krynoids from The Seeds of Doom attempting to assassinate an innocent bystander, but it's actually just an excuse for schmaltz when Clara's mum and dad hook up. We then cut back to the present day where The Doctor asks Clara what she wants to see and she replies with...
So The Doctor takes her to...
..where there are lots of fucking aliens...
Oh, how things have improved. In 2005 (The year which saw The Doctor never once leave Earth's orbit!) we had The Long Game. An episode where everybody on the space station was human and dressed like they'd just walked out of fucking Primark or something. We have seen a very definite shift over the past few years towards a more alien orientated and exploration based Doctor Who, this can only be seen as a good thing. If you may recall dear reader, in 2006 we had New Earth, where The Doctor briefly took Rose to a green screen CGI cityscape before they plodded off to a bland white hospital with terrible lighting. Here we get a fairly evocative environment filled with lots of aliens, and exterior shots that bring to mind the superb videogame Super Mario Galaxy. If the budget has been cut since 2005, then it certainly isn't showing. As far as New Who alien worlds go, this one ranks among the best and they didnt even have to go to a human rights hellhole like Dubai to film it like they did with Planet of the Dead.
The Doctor and Clara piss about nibbling on some alien fruit before getting split up. Clara bumps in to a kid that has run away after being selected to be a human sacrifice in some nutty religious ritual. Clara offers to hide her in the TARDIS but the TARDIS will not let them enter. Either because it dislikes Clara's status as a time paradox like it did Captain Jack in Utopia, or because it finds the idea of an innocent child being devoured by a giant alien creature to be genuinely hilarious and not worthy of preventing. Either way Clara, oblivious to the true extent of the ritual, sends the kid on her way and rejoins The Doctor before they go to watch the ceremony. It all goes horribly wrong and the little girl is snatched away to some secret temple where a creepy mummy monster is about to awaken. The Doctor and Clara rush over there in a bid to save her. The situation is dire and would be quite suspenseful and creepy if not for Murray Gold's absolutely atmosphere-destroying soundtrack. How has he been the only one to keep his job since the show returned in 2005 exactly? There isn't a more criticised composer on television, the guy's music is absolutely at odds with the images presented on-screen for a solid chunk of damn near every episode. Soon enough the mummy monster awakens...
Above: ....possibly because of how obnoxiously loud the incidental music is ..
At this point, the episode just loses its fucking mind. The mummy drops dead and we're told the gas giant itself is the ancient sleeping God about to awaken. Everybody starts singing at the monster to stop it...
...it doesn't work.
The Doctor starts preaching to it about how fucking brilliant he is to stop it...
.... it doesn't work.
Clara pulls out a leaf to stop it...
.....it doesn't w- oh, wait... it works and the monster just drops dead instantly.
None of this is particularly well explained or executed and we end up with one of the most confusing, baffling, agonisingly long final acts in recent Doctor Who. I liked what this episode was attempting and it was nice to have an episode that focused more on mystery and imagination rather than running and action, but the plot just did not hang together or develop much at all. With certain script embellishments regarding the nature of the threat, this could have been an excellent episode. What we have left is a fairly limp story that fails to live up to its high concepts. I like it a lot as a change of pace for New Who and for its atmosphere, but it's very clear this script needed a LOT of work to turn out as well as it should. I'd place it along with stories like Paradise Towers which I enjoy, but more for what they're trying to do rather than their actual successes. I admire this episode's spirit a lot, even if it doesn't really work as a whole. A nicely eccentric mess.
Monday, 1 April 2013
Ah, finally the new companion arrives! In many ways, Series 7 has been a series of false starts. I'm referring to the two previous Clara deaths and switcheroos, combined with Amy and Rory's agonisingly elongated exit which spanned 5 tiresome episodes of joining and leaving the TARDIS over and over until something arbitrarily tragic happened to break the chain. With this episode, for the first time in a while the show finally feels like it is moving forward. To herald in this bold new direction, Moffat has given us..... a modern day London episode.
For fuck's sake.
I'm a social recluse that lives in a rural village. I hate modern day London. Not just as a tiresomely overused setting for a Doctor Who story, but just in general. It's a loud, crass, obnoxious, media hub that is almost as self-important, bafflingly proud and pretentious a city as Manchester. When Moffat took charge during Series 5, he moved the home of the companion to Leadworth. A far more humble and eccentric location which lent itself much better to Doctor Who's sensibilities. Instead of Russell T. Davies lazily hovering an Independence Day spaceship over a famous landmark to thrill the Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway crowd, Leadwoth gave way to more unusual stories like The Eleventh Hour and Amy's Choice. I can't help but feel that making the companion be from modern day London is a big backwards step for the series, but I covered that in my previous post and there's no point opening up old wounds.
So, from watching all the previews I dreaded this ep. I thought it would be another Partners in Crime, a modern day London companion introduction story which cynically tried to turn Doctor Who in to a lowbrow celebrity variety show for dummies. I was thrilled then, that instead of a loud runaround that sucked off celebrity culture and the concept of fame, we instead got a cyberpunk story. I loved it! A techno-thriller that bought to mind a frothier Ghost in the Shell or William Gibson novel. In terms of Doctor Who, it reminded me most of Ben Aaronovitch's Seventh Doctor novel Transit, a novel about aliens living in computer infrastructures that I would highly recommend to fans of complex and ideas driven Doctor Who. The Bells of St. John is one of the few science-fiction orientated New Who eps and I commend Moffat for making the show start to contain less wizardry.
I've seen complaints online that the story was too complicated and left too many mysteries for future episodes. Um.... GOOD!? Doctor Who should be fucking complicated. It's a show about a time travelling alien with almost 50 years of complex continuity behind it. If you're not prepared to pay attention, then go watch Mrs Brown's Boys or something. My favourite Doctor Who stories include Ghost Light, Warrior's Gate and Curse of Fenric. They are far more complicated than this episode, as likably ambitious as it was. I really liked the questions this episode raised about Clara. And not just the question of how many limbs I'd be willing to sacrifice to shag her.
Above: Oh God, TWELVE! Definitely twelve!
I don't have any theories at the moment regarding her identity and why The Doctor keeps seeing her die over and over ala Kim Novak in Vertigo, beyond a basic assumption she's being used by the Great Intelligence to trap The Doctor. Y'know, similar to how Fenric used Ace as one of his Wolves in Curse of Fenric. Speaking of the Great Intelligence, why does he look like Richard E Grant now? He never had a personal avatar during The Abominable Snowmen, The Web of Fear or Downtime (Which this episode was VERY similar to!) which are the Great Intelligence stories set between The Snowmen and this one. I assume it's something to clue the casual audience that it is the same villain as the one in the Christmas special so I'll allow it, but it is kinda goofy and the Great Intelligence was scarier as a faceless presence.
Above: Richard E. Grant as Zordon from Power Rangers.
I'm still in awe that we're getting a Great Intelligence story arc in modern Doctor Who. It's enough to make a fan of the Patrick Troughton era explode from excitement. Still, I'm not QUITE sure it fits in with the important lore established in uh, two stories people haven't seen since the 60s. All will be forgiven if we get the Yeti again though. They remain one of the most enduring images from the classic series and it feels odd to have the Great Intelligence without them. It is like Davros without the Daleks. The Spoonheads were great new minions though and their reveal would have been a very creepy moment if Murray Gold was somewhat competent at composing suspenseful music.
As far as the two main stars go, this episode cemented Matt Smith as my favourite Doctor since Sylvester McCoy. Eccleston and Tennant were more accessible, normal and consciously "cool" whereas Matt gives a very unusual and alien performance as an actual alien scientist instead of messiah. Moments such as him taking a bite out of the leaf evoked Tom Baker at his most unusual. Other than being the hottest companion actress ever, Jenna-Louise Coleman is terrific as Clara. Still, the flirtatious dialogue and lines like "Snog box!" are VERY old hat now and while her flirting wasn't s tedious as River's, I do hope it's toned down for the rest of the series. Overall though, she looks to be an excellent companion and the mystery surrounding her is a much better series hook than the shitty "IS THE DOCTOR DEAD? Oh no, it was a robot." dead-end story arc of Series 6.
I wanna wrap this up now as I have chocolate eggs to eat in honour of some zombie Palestinian, but I'd rank this episode as the best companion intro story of the revived series and the best modern day London episode too. A genuinely intelligent and exciting episode that finally moves Series 7 forward after an awkward transition period, it fulfils the massive promise shown in Asylum of the Daleks. While fun, last year's episodes (Such as Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Power of Three!) were too simplistic and blockbustery as an apology for the poorly received story arc of Series 6, whereas this feels like a return to complex storytelling. Here's hoping for many more great episodes to follow in the series to come and for the Clara mystery to be as engaging throughout.
Monday, 28 January 2013
Uh... yeah... what's that ice bitch doing?
No? She's not gonna...
She's gonna come back to life right? This is just some fake-out death like they did with Rose or Donna. Petty audience manipulation to try and get me to cry. Haha, listen! Murray Gold's even doing some wonderfully self-aware parody of his usual mawkish crap. Brilliant. He's in on the joke!
Wait. Don't tell me we're not actually getting a Victorian companion at all? Don't tell me we're once more stuck with -
FUCK THIS. FUCK THE REST OF SERIES 7. FUCK MOFFAT. FUCK MATT SMITH. FUCK THE HACKS THAT COMMISSIONED THIS. I HATE THEM ALL AND LITERALLY WANT TO SEE THEM ALL DIE.
Well OK, maybe not but .... are they even trying to be interesting? Another modern day companion? I bet she's from fucking London too right? Because that's the most famous place in Britain so clearly the only place anybody important will be from or where anything important will happen. What wonderful metropolitan elitist media bullshit we're once more being fed with.
So, with that in mind I still find The Snowmen.... to actually be a pretty damn good Christmas special. It's easily the best one we've gotten in the revived series. It's a wonderful escapist piece of tele-fantasy that while not quite hanging together at least makes more sense than the random monkey jibberish thrown at the screen that was End of Time Part One.
The titular snowmen themselves are great little creatures that should have featured more. Strax and Vastra are excellent , progressive elements of Doctor Who that show there is more to the Sontaran or Silurian species than just re-telling the same kind of story over and over. It's great world-building having these around and a wonderful tribute to Doctor Who's past, even if the New Who Silurians do look like the Jem'Hadar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Bringing back the Great Intelligence as the main villain was a fun element and a nice bit of catering to geekazoid fanboy losers like myself who have not only seen every surviving serial of the classic series but have bothered to check out reconstructions of missing episodes. The Great Intelligence appeared in the 1960s Patrick Troughton serials The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. It's interests included possessing people, desperately seeking corporeal form and leading an army of robot Yeti.
Above: The Mark II Robot Yeti in the 1968 Doctor Who serial The Web of Fear.
As the two 60s Great Intelligence stories are missing, with only one episode from each 6-parter surviving, I've only been able to experience the story by listening to the complete surviving audio track while looking at a series of telesnaps. It's unlikely most in the audience will have the same dedication to obscure 60s cult teleivision so they won't really get that the villain is a returnee. Which is a cool sly wink to the fans who have dedicated themselves to achieving expert status in Who mythology. We matter! Wooooo.
It is however, slightly clear that Moffat didn't quite recall the original Great Intelligence stories as well as he thought he did. He got the broad strokes right (Only instead of abominable snowmen the Great Intelligence controls actual snowmen, neat!) but failed pretty badly in the details. In 1967's The Abominable Snowmen, the Great Intelligence was shown to have possessed Tibetan monk Padmasambhava (Took me a few tries to get that right from memory!) for the past three centuries. It is perhaps strange then that in his latest special, Moffat has given us an origin story for the Great Intelligence set hundreds of years after it's established to have been kicking around. Oops. Still, there is something charmingly fairytale about the great Doctor Who villain being created by the connection between a lonely little boy and his snowman.
Above: Similarly, I theorise that Sutekh was created by a psychic connection between a little girl and her Barbie.
So, despite my slight disappointment about this Victorian companion business being a cop-out, I otherwise enjoyed this special a lot. I've watched it a few more times since and found it improved on each viewing, which is the opposite of my experiences with the other New Who Christmas specials. It's genuinely memorable in a way the other Christmas specials aren't and that ice bitch was actually kinda creepy. Sure, I have usual complaints about the out of character Doctor angst (Your friends aren't dead... they've just moved. Bloody get over it!). Oh, and the soppy power-of-love ending! We had enough of that in the previous series. But as a solid hour of adventure escapism it succeeded. It's just a shame my favourite New Who companion is now fucking dead.
Bring on the anniversary year.
Bring on the anniversary year.
Monday, 10 September 2012
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a dinosaur....
For most people my age, the fascination with dinosaurs began with Jurassic Park, but for me, it began with the videogame Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64. Most people seem to prefer the Mario Kart series, but that series is total ball-crease in comparison to Rare's magnum opus of the cartoon mascot racing genre. This one was particularly notable for it's long, epic single player story campaign, which was great for me, as I was a friendless nerd with nobody to play with. While the cool kids were fingering girls between multi-player Mario Kart 64 races, I was stuck inside on my own all summer holidays racing to liberate Timber Island from the evil Wizpig. Time Trials could only entertain me for so long and to this day, I'm told Diddy Kong Racing remains the number one cartoon racing game of choice for hermit recluses.
The first world of Diddy Kong Racing was called Dino Domain and was this wonderfully atmospheric Lost World-esque prehistoric, tropical area. Dinosaurs would stomp on to the track, obstructing your way in the Ancient Lake level and you even got to race this big fucking Triceratops at the end called Tricky. Tricky would go on to be the secondary character in the criminally overlooked GameCube title Star Fox Adventures, which was set on the appropriately named Dinosaur Planet. A lush, believable, dinosaur-ruled domain for me to play in. Wonderful. The game is worth checking out if you can find it for cheap and is of particular note for it's phenomenally beautiful graphics and delightfully atmospheric music from genius composer David Wise.
Other dinosaur themed videogames such as Super Mario World and the classic Turok: Dinosaur Hunter series furthered my interest in the beasties. I was obsessed with dinos throughout my school years along with one other historical topic, Ancient Egypt. So you can imagine my delight that this story would contain not only dinosaurs in space, but also Queen Nefertiti.
Above: I'd Sarc her Ophagus.
It is a shame then, that she is written as yet another stock flirty, feisty character who's dialogue is entirely interchangeable with Amy, River, or Oswin's from last week. Still, this is from the writer who considered adult drama in Torchwood to be James Marsters saying he wanted to fuck a poodle so it's hardly surprising.
There has been a big buzz around Twitter and message boards regarding these past 2 episodes having a supposed misogynistic angle but I don't really see it. Compared to the Jon Pertwee era, the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who is borderline evangelical feminism. Classic Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks clearly saw women as the lesser sex (Who were constantly under the leery threat of rape in his novels!), whereas Moffat and his team seem to be empowering them to absurd levels. It isn't sexist, so much as an extreme desire not to be perceived as sexist. Instead of being told to quiet down and make the tea like they were in the post-Season 7 Jon Pertwee era, women in Moffat's Doctor Who are universally sexually dominative.
The case could be made that Steven Moffat is placing his own sexually ideal women on to the screen but I don't think that is at heart misogynist. There was a minor shit storm when Jenna-Louise Coleman was cast in the role of companion as Moffat was casting yet another good looking woman in the companion role. This is of course, bollocks. The desire of artists to photograph beautiful women is something universally accepted and what is the role of a visual medium such as TV and film, if not to capture the author's perception of beauty?
It isn't sexist for an artist to capture subjects they find beautiful or enticing on to their canvas. It's about as harmful to society as me posting gratuitous pictures of Community's Allison Brie in an otherwise entirely unrelated review.
Still, as I said last week, the stock flirty, feisty and sexually dominative Doctor Who female is getting very old and it is a problem that should be fixed. It's getting a bit dull. Especially as this time it rendered Queen Nefertiti unrecognizable as somebody from her time period. This has been a problem for New Who in general such as portraying Shakespeare as a cheeky modern geeza in The Shakespeare Code. Or, in Fires of Pompei, portraying an ancient Pompei family as a bland, politically correct BBC bunch of dullards. straight out of a tea-time sitcom. What ensures that the William Hartnell era lives on as one of the finest in Doctor Who, is that it found history fascinating. We'd get entire stories set in historical setting with not a single monster or laser gun in sight. The revived series seems to view history as something to be brushed away or modernised so it doesn't resemble history at all. Which is a fucking disgrace, to be frank.
Still, the cinematography is as stunning as it has been over the past year and The Mill's CGI work on the titular dinos is their best stuff yet. It's amazing to think that Doctor Who used to be the butt of dull journalist's jokes everywhere in regard to it looking cheap. It is currently the best looking show on British television. This will be Steven Moffat's enduring legacy and I thank him for it.
Overall, this is the epitomy of an average New Who episode. No surprises, no new ideas, just a series of story beats we're all well aware the show can do an alright job of. It must be said that I do have concerns about this series' "Hollywood blockbuster" approach. These runarounds can be fun but this isn't the sort of episode I'd like the show to do particularly often. I like more complicated stories of substance like Ghost Light, Warrior's Gate or The Girl Who Waited. However, taken as a Spielberg-ian Indiana Jones-esque thrill ride this episode delivered well enough I guess. Hell, it was way better than the ACTUAL last Indiana Jones movie we got and is easily the greatest episode Chris Chibnall has written. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a runaround episode (ala Tooth and Claw or The Lazarus Pit). The running around is lots of fun but a bit more meat would've been nice, albeit some is provided in the guise of emotional truth. The image of Rory's dad plonked on the edge of the TARDIS with his flask and sandwich, looking down on the Earth, will stay with me long after the memory of the dinosaur chases fades away. Still, we've seen this exact thing done before with Wilf in previous series so it's all a bit old hat. This is a borderline alright episode. Nothing particularly bad in it, but nothing particularly good either.
It took a while, but I've finally grown to to love and accept Steven Moffat's vision of Doctor Who over the past 12 months. This off-screen change in my character, may seem more jarring than that time Martha Jones left the show as a qualified medical professional, and came back as a gun-toting, knuckle-dragging mercenary married to that other black character who was treated as second best by The Doctor. However, I promise I'm sincere, and that unlike a Russell T. Davies character, my motivations in life aren't determined solely by what would make a cool looking action set-piece. Don't worry, I'm not a sell-out trying to vanilla this place up. I still stand by all of my reviews posted in this blog. Eleventh Hour is very good, if rather cosey and unambitious, The Beast Below is an incomprehensible mess of monkey jibberish, and Victory of the Daleks is a toy advert with a 10 minute remake of Power of the Daleks misleadingly slapped at the beginning.
But things got better. I did a DVD marathon of the revived Doctor Who a few months back and really enjoyed Series 5. In fact I'd say it's the best of the revived series. I'd class Amy's Choice, Vincent and The Doctor and The Lodger as being up there with the best of the show's output. The only real disaster of the series after that off-key opening batch of episodes would be Chris Chibnall's Silurian remake 2-parter. The original 1970s story was entirely about embracing the alien and those that look different to us. So, giving the new Silurians human faces and tits to make them more relateable to the audience not only missed the point of the original story, but gave off an unintentionally xenophobic subtext. If that story is anything to go by, then people should only be invested in what happens to people that look like them. Oops! Hell, I'd be able to forgive the fascism if the episode was especially well made. I can watch Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will or D.W. Griffiths' seminal film Birth of a Nation and admire the technique on display no matter how objectionable the content of those films were.
Above: Worse than Hitler.
I think Doctor Who is a show where technique and form are arguably more important than content. Paradise Towers is one of the best Doctor Who scripts of the 1980s but is let down by a dodgy production that betrays a clear lack of care on behalf of the production team, in every scene. Caves of Androzani is fairly standard action/adventure hokum on paper but Graeme Harper's magnificent direction give it a stamp of unique style and quality. A recurring leitmotif in the reviews of fans or critics that I read is the tendency to concentrate on content while utterly disregarding technique. I've even been guilty of it myself on numerous occasions and it's something I'm really striving to overcome. In a show like Doctor Who which is primarily an action/adventure show, technique and form is everything. Television is a visual medium first and foremost so reviewing every episode as if it was literature is always going to be a mistake. It would be like giving a beautiful painting of a mountain sunrise a terrible review because you don't like hills very much. The subject within a piece of art shouldn't overshadow the finesse, nuance, skill and intelligence it took to create the piece. A lot of critics when reviewing an episode seem to focus entirely on the script and nothing else. Only the words seem to be reviewed, which is odd as television is a mixture of image and sounds? A lot of people work on an episode of TV or a film. If you're just reviewing the script then absolutely anything that happens on the project after that script has been handed in is meaningless. The critic's review of the final product will be exactly the same no matter what happens in the weeks or months of actual work in front of and behind the camera. Reviewing only the writer's work, would be like only mentioning the work of the costume department in a review of the film Gigli.
Above: "I'd give this movie 2 thumbs up. The vest in it was superb!
The absolute best thing, bar none, that Steven Moffat has bought to the show is his faith in the power of the image. Russell T. Davies didn't give a shit about improving the quality of camerawork or cinematography in his show. Series 4 and the specials are a mess of garish colours and uneven tone shifts. Stuff like The Sontaran 2-parter is physically painful to watch. Davies didn't put his faith in the image at all. Directors would just point the camera at Tennant and his Shakespearean speeches would be expected to be enough for the show to get by on alone. For too long, Doctor Who had been dominated by writers and treated like radio theatre. Moffat realised it was time for the show to grow up and realise it's potential. Camera angles, cinematography and are hugely important in building atmosphere, story and communicating information. Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors and almost none of his movies have scripts of substance. North by Northwest doesn't have anything to really say about the world. It is elevated to art purely by Hitchcock's use of the mise-en-scene to communicate thoughts and emotions to the viewer.
If Orson Welles was given the script to Time and the Rani, he'd have delivered something good out of it. TV is finally starting to catch up with cinema. If somebody was saying what they liked about a Kubrick movie, they probably won't even mention the writer while discussing what worked in the movie. Yet writers are all Doctor Who fans ever talk about. That isn't to say screenwriters should be ignored (They're consistently undervalued in TV and film!), but people should stop viewing television entirely for the words. A picture is worth a thousand of them. Style is substance. So with that in mind, on the merit of Asylum of the Daleks, I'd like to put forward Nick Hurran as Doctor Who's first ever auteur director.
Above: Where I'd like to be placed too.
That's not to forget about the script shouldn't be mentioned. It's great, and Moffat's finest contribution since Series 6's opener. To say that last year's finale, Wedding of River Song was a disappointment would be a severe fucking understatement. After being told River Song was ultra-important for 3 years we found out that she's some woman who one day shoots a robot that looks like The Doctor. Which makes her about as significant in the grand scheme of the Whoniverse as Harrison Chase's butler.
Here, Moffat forgoes the arc for a self-contained story that retains the ambition and relative complexity of his other Who work. We open with some initially eye-roll worthy narration about how mysterious and deity-ish The Doctor is and for a moment I begin to dread that we're back to obsessing over his fame again. This is gleefully subverted at the end of the episode, when all the Daleks forget who The Doctor is. "Doctor who?, Doctor who?" It's a wonderfully progressive moment in Moffat's writing and a great sign of things to come for the series. The fame-obsessed angle to the show finally appears to be on the decline.
Apart from with Amy Pond who we now see as a supermodel. In the process of getting a divorce! This appears to come from nowhere and points to Moffat's usual key weakness in introducting abrupt elements that should have been seeded earlier, the most notable instance being Mels in Let's Kill Hitler. The divorce angle lends itself to some great drama though as it compliments the sci-fi when we get the key reconciliation moment with Rory declaring the Dalek nanobots will take longer to convert him as he's more in love with her, than she is with him. It's a very good moment where the ideas and the emotion come together to deliver a touchy-feely, nicely schmaltzy sequence that is as good as anything penned by Davies. Amy has come a long way since her sketchy earlier characterization and I'm going to miss her.
Although maybe I won't as new girl Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her debut this episode and nearly steals it. She is a warm, witty sexpot that brings to mind Zoe from the classic series if she had any real sex drive. I do think that Moffat has a habit of writing his female characters in a certain way as these feisty, flirty types obsessed with sex but then Alfred Hitchcock had his trademark icy blonde women too. I don't believe there is any inherent misogyny to Coleman's character or any of the female characters Moffat gives us. However, it can be very repetitive having all the women talk in a certain way and I hope Coleman is given more dimensions, when she makes her true debut at Christmas as something over than the super special Dalek of the week.
And what of the other Daleks? Well, remember that new master race of super-Daleks that Moffat introduced in Series 5, before they quickly ran off, promising to return and show their full potential? Well in this one they uh, stand in the background doing nothing.
Above: They're literally the red-headed stepchildren.
Yup. They were a design disaster and Moffat knows it. In a complete change in gears, the older Daleks from the previous era take centre stage and we're given, not only the first satisfying Dalek story since Parting of the Ways, but also the best outing of theirs since the superlative classic Remembrance of the Daleks, a story from back from before your faithful blogger was even born.
But as I said, the one thing that truly makes this a superb piece of Doctor Who is the production. I feel the success of this episode is highlighted in Amy's Lynch-ian hallucinatory vision of the Daleks as people. It is a wonderful piece of purely visual storytelling in the best tradition of director Nick Hurran's previous efforts. Psychological anxiety or feeling pervades his previous episode The God Complex. It comes as no surprise to me that my absolute favourite modern Doctor Who episode, The Girl Who Waited, is directed by him. Hurran has proven himself a master of montage in a way few Doctor Who directors are. Both this sequence in Asylum and numerous sequences in the hotel-bound The God Complex, show a clear influence of Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining. The fact that Doctor Who now has directors with their own noticeable stylistic touches is a landmark moment for the show.
Bringing his strong faith in the power of visual storytelling as an art-form, Moffat and directors like Hurran have developed a ground-breaking, inventive and exciting new era for Doctor Who that just might eclipse his predecessor's in terms of pushing Doctor Who forward. Poetry isn't just in words, it can be in the juxtaposition of images through montage to create powerful meanings in the mind of the viewer. Outstanding, visionary episodes like Asylum of the Daleks are milestones and bring Doctor Who one step closer to reaching it's artistic potential.
Sunday, 24 April 2011
If you’re confused as to why I’m reviewing the Series 6 premiere before I conclude my Series 5 reviews then I’m hoping you see this sequence breaking as some sort of ironic jab at Moffat’s frequently contrived timey-wimey, non-sequential plots. Really though I just want to put off rewatching Cold Blood for as long as possible. I was disappointed last series as I felt Moffat didn't live up to his reputation at all. I had this confused, mixed feeling of excitement and trepidation. Presumably this is exactly the moral conundrum a doctor feels when examining a beautiful woman’s cancerous breast.
Then the mass press wankathon started and my interest peaked even further. In probably the only interview in existence where Steven Moffat doesn’t fucking mention his kids, he actually shows a knowing awareness of where and how I thought Series 5 failed. That it was deliberately playing it safe last year and that this time shit would really hit the fan, get sliced by said fan, and leave the room smelling of low-temperature shit.
It is perhaps a bit odd then that The Impossible Astronaut is another Moffat’s Greatest Hits package. In fact that would be a disservice to Greatest Hits packages, some of which are quite lovely. In fact Kate Bush’s new vocals for Wuthering Heights in her Best Of album were an improvement on the original. This is more like a Greatest Hits package of his previous TWO Greatest Hits stories.
With no bonus tracks.
We have the spooky space suits, River Song timey-wimey romance, scary child, “Hello sweetie!”, fezzes, monsters that utilise absence of sight and all that other shit that’s tired as hell by now. Moffat is the 21st century Terry Nation and he’s gonna keep repeating the same story over and over. He isn’t Russell T. Davies who would give us Partners in Crime, Midnight and Turn Left all in a same series. Then again, he's likely not to deliver anything as shit as Planet of the Dead or End of Time either.
All the surface stuff in The Impossible Astronaut is stuff you’ve seen before done about 5 times previously so it’s probably the least intriguing Doctor Who plot since Vampires of Venice. However, this quite easily stands character-wise as a step in the right direction. Scenes have subtext now. Oh, and the characters are back!
Yup. Amy Pond spent the entirety of 2010 being a mixture of some obnoxious sci-fi fuckwits’ wank fantasy and a Nuts joke book but now she’s an actual person. She reacts to stuff! A lot. And it’s highly refreshing. Her one-liners are toned down significantly and she emotes. Karen seizes this with much relish and gusto, removing any doubts I have about her capabilities as a performer given the right direction. I eagerly anticipate the dilemma that her pregnancy onboard the TARDIS shall bring her and I think it is a very exciting direction to take the series' companion in.
This is sadly countered by Rory doing nothing but stand there looking gormless all the damn time. Is that his entire purpose on this show? Hell, the only thing of note he’s done during his entire tenure on the programme is stand there looking gormless next to a box for 1000 years. He should list it under Special Skills on his CV. It is a little known fact that Arthur Darvill gave a better performance than either Karen Gillan or Matt Smith in Series 5 as he managed to inject so much personality in to a character that had none with a startlingly understated performance. Please Moffat! Don’t make him the new Ianto Jones. I fucking hated Ianto.
Oh, and the Eleventh Doctor. On first viewing I missed it because my mum came in with my tea (Could I sound like any less of a manchild? Is this even acceptable at 22?) but there’s this astonishing bit when The Doctor says to his 3 companions “"Don't play games with me. Don't ever, ever think you're capable of that...".
Holy shit. He’s threatening his companions! He’s going all early Hartnell on them. No, he’s going Colin mother fucking Baker on them! And it’s amazing. Matt’s Doctor is FINALLY given some damn texture and spark beyond all the one-note fruity wooty wacky antics. One of the finest bits of dialogue of the revived 2005 series and Moffat should be rightly proud.
Shame then that for the rest of the episode 11 is such a despicable “Look at me I’m wacky!” tosser then. “12 jammy dodgers and a fez!” is particularly hideous and my senses are constantly bombarded by scene-after-scene of Matt Smith’s “crrraaaazy” arm movements, voices and wacky scenarios then it just becomes too fucking much.
A little less action, a little more reflection and dynamic characterization. Still I’ve gotta hand it to Moffat that progress is being made.
Which also seems to be the case for River Song as we see her refer to The Doctor as her friend and reveal how fondly she feels of him and how shattered she‘ll be when their friendship runs out. It’s a pleasant break from the usual “Hello Sweetie!Spoilers!Smut!” stuff we get and our first real River moment since her original 2-parter. In a similar way to how The Silents’ powers work, I always forget how unattractive Alex Kingston is when she’s not on-screen. The Colin Baker Season 23 look doesn’t do much for her.
The main guest character of the week and real star for me is Mark Shepard as ex-FBI Agent Canton Everett Delaware III who’s called back in to the line of duty for a special assignment in a scenario taken from every 90s action film starring Harrison Ford. Shepard’s half-Humphrey Bogart and half-Duke Nukem hero makes for a very fun companion , mostly due to Shepard’s knowingly clichéd performance. Every 5 seconds I expect him to pull out a cigar and declare that he’s “too old for this shit!” which is just adorable. He reveals that he quit the FBI so he could marry which means he’s either a homosexual or a communist.
Or possibly a gay, communist, Russian double-agent.
Hell, that’s the backstory I’m giving this character and fuck Moffat if he takes him in another direction next week! Imagine if at the end of the concluding part we have our 3 heroes being congratulated by Nixon when Canton just shoots the president straight between the eyes before being lifted via rope through the ceiling to a helicopter, belting out the USSR Anthem at the top of his lungs. The credits roll over him flying off towards the sunset with the traditional Doctor Who theme replaced by his heartfelt musical tribute to the mother country.
Oh, and this is all intercut with The Doctor using his sonic screwdriver to perform an abortion on Amy. Now give me my BAFTA. Please?