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The New Who

Wednesday April 7, 2010 in doctor who | television

Well I liked it. I like him. I like her. Moffat didn’t muff it. What more can I say?

Although I feel I ought to say more about Matt Smith’s debut as The Doctor in The Eleventh Hour and how Steven Moffat, writer of the now legendary Blink, fares as the top man. But after watching The Eleventh Hour last Saturday and following it with celebratory tweets and emails, and now doubtless left behind by hundreds of other blog posts I’m finding it hard to think of anything original to say.

Karen Gillan as Amy Pond in Doctor WhoWhat I liked about it? Matt Smith of course, who still managed to exceed expectations despite the anticipation lasting since Christmas 2008. He’s good, and may turn out to be very good, The Eleventh Hour being perhaps the best Doctor Who “changeover” episode in my memory. (I can only compare as far back as Robot with Tom Baker in 1974 where I recall him getting stuck in to a battle between UNIT and a giant Tin Machine, and later Peter Davison being rather wimpy and fainting a lot through his regeneration).

As long as Smith can curb the wackiness I think there is a real danger and edginess beyond the fringe. He’s followed David Tennant admirably, although maybe the 10th Doc’s soppy eyed staring into space had begun to grate and this is going to be an easier job than anticipated. That 10th incarnation did feel sorry for himself! Karen Gillan is very agreeable as Amy Pond, although she didn’t actually do a lot. Not really. But she carries a version of a WPC uniform with aplomb. And the final scene of her stepping gingerly into the Tardis was very endearing. Perhaps I am finally succumbing to a Doctor’s companion for “the Dads” (although it’s about time. I’m sorry but Rose, Martha and Donna didn’t really do it for me).

What I didn’t like? Only perhaps that Steven Moffat played a little safe. The structure of The Eleventh Hour did remind of The Girl in the Fireplace with the jumping through time premise to visit key stages in a young woman’s life. Whilst the fairytale element of the story was intriguing, introducing The Doctor as Amy’s brief childhood friend, I felt that Moffat shortchanged us somewhat as he’s covered this theme before. With River Song and the Weeping Angels both returning later in the new series, there’s the danger that he might cling to the edge a wee bit ideas wise and not take a running jump and plunge into the infinite possibilities of the Who universe. And call it first episode nerves, but Moffat also revealed the worrying tendency to dip into Russell T. Davies territory. Clips of all previous Doctors (from The Next Doctor), a companion with a gormless boyfriend (echoes of Mickey Smith), some fumbled plot (the coma victims and alien as man-with-barking-dog were very RTD) and the general overblown bombastic storyline (The Doctor arriving on the scene by fire engine) were a little too reminiscent of the over energetic exploits I hoped had been left behind after last Christmas. Moffat only really hinted at his earlier greatness in the Sapphire and Steel like premise of the hidden doorway in a spooky house theme.

And what’s to come over the next 12 weeks? Mark Gatiss pens a Dalek story set during the Blitz that could be interesting, although again this might appear a little too close to the 30s-set Daleks in Manhatten. There’s a vampire story, and Richard Curtis delivers an encounter with Vincent Van Gogh. But it’s all really too early to tell. Like the 11th Doctor shrugging himself into his new body or the Tardis renewing itself somewhat haphazardly, this series might need a little while to bed itself in.

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Time Gentlemen Please

Saturday January 2, 2010 in doctor who | television

Over the years some of the most memorable moments on television have involved the various regenerations in Doctor Who. My earliest experience of this phenomenon was when Jon Pertwee changed into Tom Baker, and I can remember feeling an immense void open up when I realised I would have to wait many months until the next series; only then could I find out what the new actor’s take on things was like. This feeling of momentous excitement never really went away, despite having to wait seven years before it happened again. And nobody can really argue that subsequent Doctors were particularly satisfying. But since 2005 viewers have been spoilt with top quality actors and nothing less than a regeneration-fest; Christopher Ecclestone being reborn as David Tennant, Tennant’s Doctor involved in a complex regeneration scene where he returned as himself, and now the lengthy business of introducing Matt Smith into the role.

David Tennant as Doctor Who

The Christmas two parter The End of the Time marked the departure of both David Tennant and Russell T. Davies. Cynics may say that the BBC overhyped the event, and even hardened Who fans might be forced to admit that they are absolutely sick of the sight of the ubiquitous Tennant. What worried me more was that Davies might sail dangerously close to the wind with this one, pulling out every available stop on his way out of the door. The opening of the first part didn’t bode well with the return of John Simm as The Master, and the resurrection scenes appeared muddled and involved the clumsy use of flashback and voiceover to explain what was happening. Simm is a good actor, but there’s something deep within me that isn’t convinced by his performance in Doctor Who. Hooded, madder and morphing into the occasional skeletal face, there was also a lost opportunity to explore the dying Master theme, something so memorable all of those years ago in The Deadly Assassin. But I shouldn’t really knock Simm. As I only have hazy memories of Roger Delgado in the role, for most of my formative years the part was played by the ridiculous Anthony Ainley, an actor only really suited to bad pantomime. So John Simm is likely to emerge as the definitive Master. I only wish that Davies had made more of him.

The Master aside, Davies had more success in exploring some of his other characters from Tennant’s tenure. Whilst Catherine Tate as Donna only made a few fleeting appearances, it was Bernard Cribbins as her grandfather Wilf who really stood out. The Doctor was allowed some quality time with Wilf, and the moment where two old men sat on an empty spaceship and looked out at the Earth in contemplation was sublime. With the luxury of an hour and a quarter running time for the second part, Davies allowed several such quiet moments. Sadly though, the outgoing writer didn’t have too much time for any new characters. Timothy Dalton showed up as kind of chief Time Lord, ultimately as equally batty as The Master but not a particularly memorable villain, and there was another missed opportunity in not attempting to flesh out any of the returning Time Lords (who included a mysterious woman played by Claire Bloom. Was this the Doctor’s mother? Fans will discuss this one until the end of time).

This being the Christmas story, there was a generous share of bombastic moments. The entire population of the human race turning into The Master. The Doctor jumping out of a speeding spececraft and hurtling through a glass roof. The sight of Gallifrey approaching the Earth like an oversized snooker ball. And of course the regeneration itself, so heated as to set the Tardis console room ablaze. Unlike the previous regenerations mentioned above, The End of Time took its time to make the switch from actor to actor. This may be Davies’ attempt to squeeze every last drop of acting brilliance out of Tennant and I’ll forgive him for this – he is certainly proved himself to be the best ever actor to play The Doctor. It was also a chance to explore what exactly regeneration means to a “dying” Doctor, and this is certainly something that hasn’t been explored before. One of the notable aspects of the 10th regeneration was that the Doctor – normally accompanied at these times by a companion – was alone. Instead we see him visiting all those dear to him, but always keeping a safe distance. The lonely Doctor, forever unreachable, mysterious and enigmatic…

The 10th Doctor’s final moments were inevitably self indulgent for Davies, but would nevertheless appeal to fans and didn’t slide too much into sentimentality. He visits Donna’s wedding to say goodbye to Wilf, eerily parking the Tardis just beyond the church graveyard. He saves both Sarah Jane’s son from a nasty accident and Martha Jones and Mickey from a Sontaran sniper (where they are and why they are together we will probably never know). The Doctor also visits a descendant from the woman who loved him in Human Nature and Captain Jack in a bizarre drinking den reminiscent of one of Han Solo’s dives in Star Wars. His only interaction with Jack is to give him the name Alonso thus initiating Jack’s friendship with a fellow traveller (a wonderful touch this as Alonso was played by Being Human’s Russell Tovey, the actor that Davies was touting as his 11th Doctor. So Jack gets his “perfect” Doctor after all – lovely). Finally, and fittingly, the 10th Doctor visits Rose. It’s January 1st 2005, so he therefore has his last meeting with her before they have met (time really is a timey wimey thing). She walks away from him about to embark on an adventure that will change her life forever.

David Tennant burst into action with the words “new teeth” in 2005. In 2009 the last thing he said was “I don’t want to go”. Matt Smith’s opening words were a whole mini narrative involving face, hair and other bodily parts as the Tardis hurtled towards the Earth. The Earth, you say? Yes, he does always appear to have some attraction to the blessed place…

And although The Doctor has changed an awful lot since 1974 I felt last night that I hadn’t changed at all. Still having to fill that huge void whilst waiting for the new series. And going only by the briefest of previews, it still looks rather spectacular. Bow-tied and pistol-touting, Smith looks particularly energetic (at one point bashing a Dalek with a hammer) and there are glimpses of the Weeping Angels and of River Song. I really can’t wait.

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The Waters of Mars

Monday November 16, 2009 in doctor who | television

Even though you might be able to bend them a tiny bit, you can never change the laws of time. Even a passing Dalek could tell you that. This chilling premise was the idea behind The Waters of Mars, the latest Doctor Who special that edges the 10th Time Lord closer to his doom. Whilst I’ve found the previous two specials, The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, depressingly unmemorable this latest story is one of the best in recent years. There are themes that continue to stick in the mind and monsters that continue to scare the very young. David Tennant gives his best performance to date.

David Tennant in The Waters of Mars

Thankfully The Waters of Mars provides a little more than just filler as a lead up to the Christmas episodes. After his lightweight guest turn in The Sarah Jane Adventures Tennant is stretched as an actor by writers Russell T.Davies and Phil Ford. Perhaps his run as Hamlet has helped, but never have we seen the Doctor veering so dangerously between the good and bad decisions we’ve so long trusted him to get right. What’s interesting about The Waters of Mars is that although the background tale of the doomed Earth colony in 2059 is pretty good by Who standards, it’s the finer details of the Doctor’s increasing loss of grip that is so compelling. On a better day, in a brighter universe, I’m sure that he’d have no trouble in sorting out this apparently low grade mess. But the laws of time have reared their dominant head, and the last of the Time Lords is looking like he’s had enough of them.

This story has been billed as the scariest ever Doctor Who, and judging by my daughter’s reaction to it I would go a long way to support that. The monsters aren’t that sophisticated; essentially humans turning into water dribbling zombies, but it’s often the simple things that disturb. And possibly this simple scare factor is there for a reason; many of the strands in The Waters of Mars are very adult. Arriving, as he tends to do, just as the nasty things are kicking off, The Doctor realises it is the day when the entire Mars colony (on the Bowie Marsbase – a nice touch) are wiped out. History tells that Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) destroyed the colony in a nuclear detonation, presumably to save the Earth from the menace of the water monsters. This is told by each of the colonist’s obituaries flasing across the screen, telling us they all died on that day in 2059. And even though The Doctor has appeared in the nick of time there is nothing he can do. Some things are just set in time.

Brooke’s plight was beautifully played by Duncan and especially by Tennant, as he explains just why he cannot intervene. There’s a reference to The Fires of Pompeii and a fantastic scene showing Brooke as a small child, uncharacteristically spared by a Dalek in a sequence belonging to The Stolen Earth from the end of Season Four. And, like the end of Season Four, The Waters of Mars leaves the very best to the closing scene. Brooke and The Doctor’s final parting was unexpected, disturbing and quite moving. Never has the Doctor angered any one so much, and with such devastating results. And what’s best is that although The Doctor’s shocking behaviour in this episode was well documented, I did think he had redeemed himself somewhat towards the end. Only to have my hopes horribly dashed.

All in all, one of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes, and the is way now expertly paved for the final two Tennant stories which begin on Christmas Day with The End of Time.


No Dead Cert

Saturday May 2, 2009 in doctor who | television

I’ve held off talking about the latest Doctor Who special for a while. In fact I wasn’t planning to mention it at all. Like a bad dream, I thought it might just fade away and be forgotten. Whilst my enthusiasm for the show is legendary, Ive never been too enamoured with the annual Christmas specials. I’ve found that they reveal the worst side of Russel T. Davies’ writing, and tend to drop the imaginative and subtle aspects of the programme in favour of something simplistic and far too overblown. I’ve never come away from a Doctor Who Christmas special without a headache.

David Tennant and Michelle Ryan from Eastenders in Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

So I was a touch disappointed when it was announced that there would be no 2009 series. In its place would be a series of specials. The dreaded word fills me with horror. It’s more scary than a basement full of Weeping Angels. 2009 would be a year without a decent story arc, no chance for The Doctor to build a rapport with his companion and, most disturbingly, no Steven Moffat episodes. Just Russel T. Davies chucking the BBC’s money around and producing not particularly sophisticated TV.

There’s a really good review of Planet of the Dead by Jack that sums up a lot of what was wrong about it. For me, the episode is just the worst example of what I’m calling special syndrome. The main premise of the story was The Doctor and Michelle Ryan (from Eastenders) on a number 200 London bus that ends up on a sort of desert planet. The number 200 was significant because it marked the 200th Who story. Hardly worth the effort and I’m sure many viewers, even those that cared, wouldn’t have been that bothered. I would have personally preferred them to have waited another 20 adventures so they could pay tribute to the 220 that I used to catch from White City to Tooting Broadway (or do it 11 earlier and salute the 189 from Earlsfield to Wimbledon). No matter.

I found Planet of the Dead doomed from the start. As uninspiring, perhaps, as a desert world. The idea of The Doctor being stranded with a group of fellow passsengers was brilliantly explored in last year’s Midnight. As well as featuring hardly any special effects at all, the episode posed the interesting question about what would happen if the Doctor’s authority was questioned in a crisis situation. If, rather than saving the day as always, he was perceived as a threat. Unfortunately Davies has closed this chapter on the Doctor’s vulnerability and Planet of the Dead had him saving the day again, with Lee Evans and Michelle Ryan (from Eastenders) helping him.

The effects were certainly impressive, but I don’t find that enough if – and this was the case – the story is lazy and David Tennant is on autopilot. I’m also finding the reintroduction of UNIT slightly uncomfortable. Maybe it gives me weird flashbacks of being a small child, where soldiers were always on the news as well as following The Doctor around. Soldiers were just everywhere in those days. The new theme, where the modern Doctor is also uncomfortable with the military presence, hasn’t been handled as well as it could. Like his 70s predecessors, when Davies wants the military to fire at some aliens he just calls in UNIT.

Probably the worst aspect of the specials is the lack of continuity that works well in Doctor Who. Ryan played the latest in a stream of one off companions, that have included Kylie Minogue, that we don’t really get to know enough to care about. And neither, I suspect, does The Doc – which leaves the drama of the series somewhat lacking.

Davies and Tennant have two (or three?) more chances to get this right before they hand over to Moffat and Smith. Planet of the Dead hinted at a revival of the your song must end soon prophecy, something that may link to the demise of the 10th Doc. Let’s just hope they make it good…

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The Next Doctor

Friday January 2, 2009 in doctor who | television

The Next Doctor was the fourth Doctor Who Christmas special to star David Tennant. It was also the most restrained, and left me feeling less over indulged than other years. Whilst previously alien ships over London, giant spider women and a space Titanic featuring Kylie Minogue had me feeling as much bloated on tv sci-fi as I was on Christmas pudding, The Next Doctor at least allowed some breathing space.

Dirvla Kirwan with Cyberman in The Next Doctor

This year’s special received so much attention that you’ve probably been lost in the void (where Daleks and Cybermen are banished, although they have a horrible habit of escaping) if you’ve missed all of the hype and build up. A preview on Children in Need in November was followed by much speculation as to David Morrissey’s role in the grand scheme of things. Was he really taking over from Tennant?

I’m not giving anything away just in case you haven’t seen The Next Doctor yet. The clue, however, is in the widely available opening scene. As the two Doctors stand poised both with sonic screwdrivers in hand, have a closer look at what the Morrissey Doctor is actually holding… Russell T.Davies also manages to weave in some Who mythology and dash the hopes of the expectant fan. There’s a nice twist on the pocket watch theme from series three, and in one scene we get to see glimpses of all ten Doctors. Whether or not Morrissey is really a Time Lord, he’s still very good – and the Tennant Doctor gets a ride in the rather magnificent other Tardis.

As usual, I receive new Doctor Who adventures with mixtures of excitement and disappointment. Russell T. Davies writes the Two Doctors story very wonderfully, although he fails to deliver in the second half of the adventure when the large and loud sci-fi takes over. And I’m not sure if Davies, like all of his predecessors, really knows what to do with the Cybermen. And the 1850s setting does little more than make it appear seasonal. Although it’s buried somewhat, there is some comment on woman’s role in Victorian society; Morrissey states loudly to his companion that she should remain solely in a Seen and not heard role, and Dirvla Kirwan makes an excellent villain with a timely agenda. The graveyard scene with her dressed in red is memorable and effective. Scarlet clad evil ladies and Cybermen stomping through the snow go together rather well.

The recent Doctor Who at the Proms easily highlighted what the modern Who does successfully. Tugs on the emotional strings with music that tells you just when to stifle that tear (Tennant’s face of a thousand expressions helps with this), and over familiar monsters to scare the kids. I’m happy to go along with this, although I still wait impatiently for Steven Moffat to step into Davies’ shoes and take the show somewhere new and original. And reports say that we really do find out the identity of the next Doctor on January 3rd…

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