Sunday, 30 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.8/5.9 - The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Spoilers ahoy

The Silurians have a long and illustrious history in Doctor Who; they are one of the iconic monsters of the classic series, who have returned many times to bother the Doctor. They first appeared in 1970 in the Third Doctor’s first season, and in their seven parter debut those pesky humans roused them from their slumbers by inconsiderately building an experimental nuclear reactor in the Wenely Moor caverns. Having gone into hibernation to survive a global catastrophe and overslept due to hurriedly implemented technology, this colony of homo reptilia were none to pleased to discover their planet was now over run with apes. But despite attempts by the Doctor to broker a peace treaty with the more moderate factions of the Silurian colony, they sought to rid the Earth of its primate infestation and consequently were blown up by UNIT.

However a few years later, they were back albeit in a different form. 1972’s The Sea Devils saw the introduction of an aquatic species of Silurian. This time the ancient beasts were deliberately roused from their slumber by the Doctor's arch enemy the Master, who intended to use them as an army to conquer the earth. Once again the good Doctor attempted to persuade the awakened former masters of the Earth to make peace with the apes. But human retaliation for their boat scuttling and the Master's counter arguments saw the Sea Devils deciding that making war was the only way. Hence the Doctor was forced to destroy them before they could reactivate the other colonies of their sleeping brethren.

1984 saw the TARDIS fetching up on Seabase 4 in the year 2084. Warriors of the Deep saw the Silurians and the Sea Devils appearing together at last - something many a fan of the Pertwee era had dreamed of. This time around the Earth reptiles Were seeking to exploit a power struggle between two super powers in order to get rid of the human race. Once again the Doctor cannot negotiate a peace between homo reptilian and homo sapiens, and once again it all ends in tears … well genocide by hexachromite gas at least. As the Davison Doctor ruefully says at this story's close - "there should have been another way..."

And in this story, both species had had a make over. While retaining the same basic design there were several tweaks: the Silurians now had organic body armour and it was now clearer that the round orifices on their faces were mouths not snouts - as a child looking at still in various Who reference tomes I honestly thought they were noses! The Sea Devils also looked different; aside from ditching their string vests and were romping around in battle dress complete with nifty samurai style hats, they were a silvery grey rather than green and brown. Plus they looked, well, a bit desiccated; withered and somewhat worse for wear from kipping in dodgy freezers perhaps?

However you can’t keep a good monster down and the Silurians have made several other appearances in other Doctor Who media. They have appeared in two Big Finish audio adventures; in Bloodtide crossing paths with the Sixth Doctor and Charles Darwin, before tangling with the Brigadier and UNIT in UNIT: The Coup (which is available as a free download here).

The Virgin range of novels which kept the show’s torch burning in the years between the classic and new series also revived the ancient reptilians twice. Firstly in 1993, Blood Heat by Jim Mortimore saw the Seventh Doctor landing in a parallel universe where the Wenley Moor Silurians were not defeated and now rule the planet along with their pet dinosaurs.

And in 1996, Virgin released a Missing Adventures novel The Scales of Injustice by Gary Russell (which you can read online here) in which the Third Doctor and Liz Shaw discover another colony of Silurians. This novel bridges the gap between the Pertwee stories and Warriors of the Deep whose script suggested an unseen on television encounter. Additionally it also explains the design differences in the creatures' past appearances. Basically it's down to different sub species and this tale features a new sub species that were a hybrid of Silurian and Sea Devil.

The Earth Reptiles also made several appearances in several other novels and comics (visit here for a more in-depth history) and no doubt you’ll be pleased to hear that by the 30th century human and Silurian were living in peace at long last – at least according to these stories. And although their “canonicity in relation to the ongoing television series is open to interpretation” as Wikipedia would put it, this latest outing pleasingly does nothing to contradict them. However long before those happy future days where the Myrka will lie down with the lamb, comes The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Now writer Chris Chibnall also has a long history with Doctor Who. Rather infamously he appeared on the BBC discussion show Open Air in 1986 as a representative of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society and gave The Trial of A Time Lord a bit of a pasting. And this incident from his youth came back to haunt him when he penned 42 for series 3 of new Who and many episodes for Torchwood - some fans with long memories muttering about the relative blackness of pots and kettles.

However I am not one of them. Actually I have a bit of a soft spot 42, a decent story that suffered from appearing at the same time of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (which featured a not dissimilar set-up) and the miscasting of Michelle Collins in the lead role. And while it is true some of his episodes for the first series of Torchwood were a little ropey, that was true of all of that series which was hurriedly made in a hasty nine months. Plus the second season of Torchwood was a marked improvement on the first with the Chibster turning in some decent stories, and more tellingly perhaps, serving as head writer and co-producer. So I have no real problems when I saw his name on the writers' roster.

But before we see how well his latest scripts have panned out, let’s address the dinosaur in the room – the Silurians’ new look. As we've already seen, this race’s design has been altered in every television appearance, and so a change is not entirely unexpected and can be easily rationalised as a new sub species. However homo reptilia's new look is a radical make-over and takes some getting used too. On one hand, I can’t help feeling that the new look makes them too humanized. I can understand the decision to go for a drastic revamp in order to make the characters capable of more expression but they have lost the prehistoric otherness of the original designs. To sum it up in a sexist nutshell, I’m sure you shouldn't be able to look at a Silurian and think ‘nice legs!’

The change is so different that I felt that the script needed to explain it a little more other than alluding to them being a different tribe to those previously encountered. While I don’t require massive exposition bombs hurling continuity shrapnel everywhere and confusing the majority of viewers who aren’t Who obsessives, some little touches such as having them refer to themselves as the ‘high Silurians’ or some similar or showing a few old school reptiles in storage would have been enough for me.

However despite these niggles, I did warm to the new look quite quickly. And when you look a little closer at the reimagined designs, you see clear links to the classic series versions. Seemingly the designers have took a leaf from The Scales of Injustice as the new look is an amalgam of classic Silurian and Sea Devil features. Furthermore the costumes meld the vintage Sea Devil netting with the later Japanese armour stylings and even their weapons are look like they are the products of the same civilization; for example compare the new Silurian rifles with the iconic circular guns of the first Sea Devils. But most importantly, the new make up looks fantastic and really does allow the actors to emote properly and convey distinct and different personalities – something crucial for this tale’s success.

But was this two parter a success? Though there were a few missteps, on the whole this was a highly entertaining outing and another two parter that delivered the goods instead of floundering in the second half. But before dishing out the brownie points, let’s address the weak spots first.

Firstly the voice-overs at the beginning and the end were a bit superfluous. Although the opening narration verged on becoming an integrated spoiler, they weren’t that terrible, but equally they really didn’t need to be there. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who got a sinking feeling as Cold Blood started; the last time they used an opening narration we got the messily scripted The End of Time and as soon as Stephen Moore started speaking the bad memories came flooding back... But in fairness, that’s RTD’s fault not Chris Chibnall’s.

Secondly, I did feel that Amy was somewhat underwritten for most of the time. Her scenes and the beginning and at the close of the adventure were spot on, but while she was gallivanting about at the centre of the earth, her dialogue did descend into a series of quips. And while there were some amusing retorts and remarks, there were a few too many.

Finally some of the CGI was a bit ropey. The tongue attack in The Hungry Earth didn’t quite cut it for me. It looked far too blatantly digital and way too long to be plausible. I couldn’t help feeling that a practical effect would have worked better. However the similar attack in Cold Blood came off pretty well. And there was another rough spot in the effects work in the first part too – when the Silurian shield blocked out the light. Here though, it was more the way it was presented; like in Vampires in Venice the lighting in the preceding scenes and the effects shots we were shown quite didn’t match up smoothly. Rather than having expanding black spots sprouting over the force field, we should have just had the dome slowly and evenly darkening.

I know that a certain amount of dodgy effects are inevitable in television sci-fi, particularly in Doctor Who which needs to do a lot more than the average telefantasy series requiring fresh sets, costumes, monsters and effects nearly every episode. But on balance, so far this series has done far better in not overextending its reach than it did in the RTD days, and this story is a good a example of that – yes, there may be the odd moments where you can see the money and time running out but they are minor niggles rather major annoyances.

All in all though, all of the above are small criticisms and the story had more than enough highlights to make up for them. To start with, although this adventure is set in 2020, there was a delightful dollop of 1970 in the proceedings as Chibnall has included numerous nods to the Pertwee era. Obviously we have the return of the Silurians, but also we have drilling to the earth’s core (Inferno), a Welsh village (The Green Death), a force field preventing escape (The Daemons) and even a creeping bodily infection (The Silurians and The Green Death) – all that was missing was an appearance by UNIT.

And Chibnall nicely captures the feels of those Third Doctor days too, in both atmosphere and by having the plot hinge on properly explored moral dilemmas. In fact the story was so redolent of the 1970s, I was concerned that the second part would see a straight retread of the original Silurians story. As it turned out though, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood worked beautifully as a sequel to their previous outings yet was still stand alone enough for the causal viewer. While some viewers may have felt a little let down there wasn’t a massive kick off in the second part, I personally applaud the decision to keep the story focused the individuals, with fears for family and paranoia mirrored in the two races. The Silurians have never been just another race of homicidal maniacs and it was great to see a conflict with humanity filled with shades of grey.

And speaking of which, Chibnall’s epic continues to build the Eleventh Doctor’s character – rather than the Lonely God know it all, this series is showing us a Doctor who is more fallible, who does make mistakes and isn’t nearly as sure of himself as the Tenth, which is all for the better. Similarly it was good to see humanity messing up for a change and the Doctor being disappointed rather glowing with pride. As well as delivering all kinds of sci-fi eye candy and action, this story had great emotional weight too, with satisfying consequences and pay offs for all the characters. And while I would have liked to have seen more exploration in some areas, but there is a limit on the running time after all and I’ll happily trade off a little depth for the well rounded story arcs we got for all the cast.

To pick up on some concerns from previous stories, I did actually finally buy the Rory/Amy relationship in this story. Although they only had a few short scenes together, the relationship did click with me this time round and it was also good see Rory proving himself to capable adventurer rather than just a the bumbling comic relief. All of which made Rory’s death all the more poignant. Now I never expected him to stick around; previous form (Adam, Captain Jack, Mickey) suggested he’d have a couple of travels then leave the TARDIS but I didn’t expect them to kill off, never mind erase him from time completely!

And while it seemed a little too in keeping with the RTD period to have a third person onboard just for a couple of stories, it was so much better handled here. Plus it is actually integrated into the series’ story arc; indeed the whole relationship triangle plot line actually means something in the ongoing narrative of this series rather than just having been thrown in to provide the odd bit of emotional content. What I am really enjoying about this Moffat season, is that there is a strong continuity between the stories; there are proper consequences to whatever happens in any particular episode, and previous events are built on in subsequent instalments.

And I particularly like that even when a story concludes, we are often still getting a cliff-hanger – and by the Hand of Omega Cold Blood has a classic! The whole Cracks business is building up nicely to a highly intriguing series finale. Given this series’ proclivity to do the unexpected, I really wouldn’t be bet on Rory being resurrected at the series end either.

And don’t think Moffat and co. won’t trash the TARDIS either. It’s been done before - the Time Lords effectively broke it when they exiled the Third Doctor to earth, and in the BBC range of Eighth Doctor novels, the TARDIS got such a pasting it took a century to repair itself. We could be getting a stranded Doctor story arc for Matt Smith’s second season, although I’d put my money on Moffat doing something far more mental than just dusting off the old exile routine…

But getting back to the latest Silurian outing, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was a great slice of Doctor Who; Chris Chibnall neatly blended the flavours and themes of classic series with the stylistic and dramatic sensibilities of new Who which resulted in an adventure that was packed with intelligence and fun in equal measure. And while it may not be the strongest story of the season, there was something for everyone to enjoy in this one.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

THE REGENERATION GAME (Round 2) - Of Clowns & Dandies

Right folks, it’s the start of another two parter this week, and as I’m sticking with my policy of not reviewing multi episode stories until they are complete, that can only mean one thing… Yes, it’s time for… THE REGENERATION GAME – Round Two

Now then, where were we? Ah, yes – in our attempt to catalogue the many faces of the Doctor, last time we had ascertained that the First Doctor’s era yields up three actors in the role and confusingly two incarnations (see Round One for details on that apparent paradox). So then, let's travel back to the dying moments of The Tenth Planet, and just imagine the the original viewers' shock and surprise when dear old William Hartnell’s features began to shift and blur, transforming into…


Played by Patrick Troughton, the second incarnation of our favourite Time Lord was a younger man, though still no spring chicken. Now this Doctor is far more like his later versions – the slightly dotty sometimes grumpy grandfather figure has been replaced with an impish fellow whose clowning masks a ferocious intellect and a crusading morality.

The First Doctor was a very traditional sort of hero; a wise old man figure who wouldn’t be out of place next to Victorian heroes like Professor Challenger. But the Second Doctor, whether through accident or design, turned out to be cut from more contemporary cloth. With his Beatles moptop hair and scruffy clothes, Troughton’s Doctor would have blended in well with the beatniks and proto-hippies of 1966. And his delight in causing chaos for authority figures, his constant ribbing of the pompous and powerful, and his love of freedom show that this Doctor was reflecting the social revolutions that were in the air at the time as well as the clouds of pot smoke and incense.

And in the production office, change was also afoot; the Second Doctor’s era sees the show refine its core elements, bringing the format closer to the show as we now know it. The team dynamic the series started with has now receded, and the stories are firmly focused on the Doctor as the hero proper. The subgenre of historical stories comes to an end in Troughton’s early adventures with The Highlanders and monsters become the order of the day. Indeed it is in the three Troughton series, with their moody shadows and the establishment of the ‘base under siege’ trope, that Doctor Who first gained its reputation as a terrifyier of children; earning the repuation of being the show you watched from behind the sofa. And finally, it is during Troughton’s reign that the sonic screwdriver first makes an appearance.

And Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor has been equally influential; new boy Matt Smith cites the Second Doctor as a big influence on his conception of the role, and he's not the first. Indeed, Troughton would appear to be the actors’ favourite Doctor and it is easy to see why. His version of the Doctor masterfully blends together all the elements we have come to expect from our Time Lord hero – the eccentric humour, the warm heart, the scientific genius and the passionate righting of wrongs. It’s just a shame that many of his performances we can only hear now.

For those of you who don’t know, unfortunately many episodes of the First and Doctor’s stories are now missing, and probably lost forever. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many programs in the BBC archives were wiped so the tapes could be reused, and to cut storage costs. Much was lost, and infamously among the culls were many episodes from early Doctor Who. In some cases, whole stories vanished and others were left missing a several parts.

Needless to say that many have seen this as terrible short-sightedness on the part of the BBC, but in fairness you have to remember that at the time, it was quite rare to programs to be repeated. I know that sounds astonishing now, but it is only in the early ’80s that repeating shows became common practice as a cheap means of filling airtime - previously programs were only usually repeated if they were remarkably popular. And it was only into the latter half of the ‘80s that the closely entwined trends of nostalgia and cult emerged as cultural forces.

Plus, back when they were wiping the tapes, no one had foreseen the rise of the home video recorder, let alone the future market of people buying their own copies of television shows and films. So as maddening as it is, we shouldn’t judge the BBC too harshly – yes, it was a horrendous mistake but at the time when the decisions were made they were not simply being stupid.

However, the BBC did retain complete recordings of all the audio track of all the episodes and numerous telesnaps - photos printed from the video. So at least we can listen to the missing adventures, which the BBC has released on CD with added narration, usually supplied by one of the cast, to fill in details the audio is missing. Also using the telesnaps and various publicity stills, fans have reconstructed missing episodes on video. For the DVD releases, the BBC has released a three disc set Lost in Time which collects together all remaining episodes of the missing stories plus any other surviving clips. And for the release of Cybermen classic The Invasion, the BBC hired Cosgrove Hall to create animated versions of that story’s missing two installments. It was an experiment which actually worked out very well but sadly doesn’t look likely to be repeated due to the expense *sigh*.

But enough of this lamenting Video Tapes Past and back to the Second Doctor. Interestingly, the term ‘regeneration’ is not used at any point in the switch over between Hartnell and Troughton. The new Doctor also doesn’t state that this is an ability of his people, he simply says it’s a process related to the TARDIS leaving us still rather in the dark. Remember at this stage, we don’t know he is a Time Lord and the script doesn’t deliver any rationale other than the change is somehow related to the Doctor being an alien. It’s only much later in the show’s history that the words ‘regeneration’ and ‘incarnation’ enter the lore.

On screen, the transforming process is dubbed ‘a renewal’, and this omission of the usual ‘r’ word has led to an interesting theory - as this isn’t called regeneration formally, perhaps this is not actually a new incarnation of the Doctor but a younger version of Hartnell. Yes, I know there are significant physical differences between the two men, but as the new Doctor is markedly more youthful, the audience of the day could well have interpreted the change as a rejuvenation rather than a metamorphosis. Remember that back then they wouldn’t necessarily expect two actors playing the same role at different ages to closely resemble each other as much has we do, mainly due to the huge advances in make-up between now and then.

Now it’s an intriguing notion that what we consider to be the Second Doctor is actually a younger version of the original, First Doctor 1.2 (or 1.3 counting Cushing)as it were. But in the light of what we now know, and more tellingly the interaction between the First and Second Doctors in the team-up stories of The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors it seems clear that this is not the case, despite what it may have looked like at the time.

As for the Doctor’s secrecy on the process, we can easily rationalise in the context of the character’s history. When we get to The War Games, Troughton’s finale, we finally learn something of his background. We discover he is a Time Lord, and more to the point he’s been on the run from them after ‘borrowing’ his TARDIS. Furthermore we discover that he began his travels to escape the boredom of Time Lord society and consequently when he feels he must contact them to sort out the temporal mess caused by the War Lords, he is put on trial for breaking their cardinal laws of not inferring in history or the affairs of other races.

Hence throughout his First and Second incarnations, he never even dares mention them because he is well aware of he is breaking these laws. Being almost omnipotent beings whose society revolves around observing and recording all time, you can see that it would be a big threat to the Doctor’s continued freedom if people throughout time and space were chattering about that funny Time Lord and his blue box who turned up and sorted everything out.

So naturally he wouldn’t explain his ability to regenerate for the same reasons. And also we can rationalise the fact that he gives his companions Ben and Polly no hint that he is going to regenerate as he isn’t sure himself he can while away from his home world. Hence his remark about the TARDIS being part of the process – and apparently it does play a significant part in the regeneration, as most Doctor’s on their last legs try to make it back to the console room, but more on this later.

Quick Theory Time - the First Doctor sported a blue stoned ring, which he valued highly and seemed to possess some mysterious powers. However the Second Doctor quickly ditches it without a second thought. So possibly, was the ring a reservoir of some kind of Time Lord power – either the artron energy that drives the TARDIS or the bio-energy released in the regeneration process? And so after the regeneration, the ring's reserves were completely depleted and therefore now worthless?

However the closing episodes of The War Games does clear up another element of the lore. They definitively reveal the origin of the TARIDS; contrary to the hints we recieved in the preceding six series, it turns out that he is not the inventor of the TARDIS, and in fact he *ahem* borrowed it. And so extending our line of logic a little further, it makes sense that in the past he has allowed his companions to believe he was its creator; no doubt partly so they don’t think they are travelling with a thief but mainly to avoid awkward questions about his background. (And to look behind the curtain for a moment, we should note that this story originally aired in 1969, a good three years after the last AARU big screen adaption hence in the films the Cushing Doctor is the inventor of his TARDIS.)

And all this caution and secrecy over his origins is more than justified when we consider the punishment for meddling in history the Time Lords mete out – he's stripped of his knowledge of time travel, exiled to Earth, and most seriously, forced to regenerate. Now when you remember that later stories introduced the rule that Time Lords can only regenerate twelve times, being forced to give up an incarnation prematurely is a very severe sentence.

However there is a certain fuzziness over the transformation from Troughton to Pertwee. Like The Tenth Planet, The War Games doesn’t refer to the process as regeneration. What actually happens is that when the Doctor protests being exiled to Earth, seemingly spouting the first objection that come to mind he complains that they can’t maroon him there as ‘people known me there’ and hence the Timelords rule that his appearance will be changed and there is actualy no mention of the 'r' word again.

Now from a production point of view, the Time Lords' sentence was a great device to allow the lead actor to be changed once more. But it is interesting to note that even at this stage the show’s mythology still hadn’t developed the concept of regeneration as we know it; while The Tenth Planet establishes that the Doctor can regenerate but there’s no hint that he can do this more than once. It is surprising though that when Troughton announced he wanted to leave the role, the production team didn’t leap to the logic assumption and just having him mortally injured and regenerate a second time.

Now while we could assume that the script writers simply didn't want to pull the same trick twice, we must also consider why The War Games introduces us to the Time Lords in the first place. At this handover of the sonic screwdriver, they weren’t just replacing the Doctor but essentially doing a soft reboot of the series as a whole. And the Time Lords’ sentence is the plot mechanism not just to recast the lead role but to explain the coming changes in the format…


While the move into the Troughton era saw Doctor Who gradually developing the show’s templates, going into the Pertwee years saw the show practically regenerating like the Doctor himself. Firstly when Who returned in 1970 it was now in colour but there were further changes were in the format and style of the show. The Doctor was now earthbound, and bar the occasional off world adventure (usually a mission from the Time Lords or the Doctor briefly getting his TARDIS to work), was fending off various sci-fi threats to the world. Now working for UNIT as their scientific advisor, the show absorbed many of the tropes of the late 60s/early ‘70s spy boom, and consequently the Pertwee era closely resemebles the ITC action serials of the day.

The Doctor gains a new arch enemy, one that is a criminal mastermind rather an another aggressive alien race, the Master and it is here that the sonic screwdriver really comes into its own. During the Troughton years, it was becoming an iconic prop associated with the character like Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass, but in the Pertwee era it became the all singing, all dancing gadget du jour, acquiring a extra functions as and when the script required (though without ever turning into the magic wand of RTD new Who).

While still very much the same eccentric scientist, the Third Doctor also boasted a raft of new skills for the changing times and milieu. The Doctor has become a dashing man of action; the closest the character as ever got to being a two-fisted tough guy. This Doctor is handy in fight, karate chopping bad guys left, right and centre thanks to his Venusian Aikido and rather being chased down corridors he’s far more likely to be jumping onto the nearest vehicle and doing some hot pursuit of his own. Hence in this period, the show acquired its own dedicated stunt team – ‘Action by HAVOC’ as the credits proudly proclaimed.

The Third Doctor’s outfits see him more in sync with the heroes of the day too; he’s as sharp as dresser as Steed from The Avengers, Number 6 from The Prisoner and Jason King from Department S. But also his wardrobe reflects the groovy threads of the times, the frock coats and capes mirroring the Victorian and Edwardian fashions popularised by Swinging London emporiums like Granny Takes a Trip. Indeed The Third Doctor is one of the only two men on the planet who can look good in a ruffle fronted shirt – and the other is Jimi Hendrix.

Weirdly though, the Third Doctor’s hip dress sense was entirely accidental. When Jon Pertwee landed the role, some publicity shoots for the Radio Times were organised. At the first Pertwee was wearing an ordinary suit (click here to see a pic from this shoot) and had him arsing about with a Yeti, but for the second he raided the family dressing box (the Pertwees had had show biz in the blood for several generations) and assembled the now familiar frock coat, frilly shirt and cape ensemble. Now, Pertwee himself expected a slapped wrist from the production office for posing for the press in such ridiculous garb, but they actually loved it and it helped the writers shape the new incarnation’s character as a gentlemen adventurer.

This Doctor was also more forthright in character as well as action. For example, now he has no qualms about revealing his alien nature, indeed where once he never dared to breathe a word about the Time Lords now he rarely shuts up about them. Presumably now the Time Lords know where he is there is no need for the tight lipped approach of his previous incarnations. Admittedly when he speaks of them now, it’s usually to complain about them taking away his powers to travel time and space but there is also a shift in his attitudes; now he openly declares himself to belong to that race of ‘galactic ticket inspectors’ and is very quick to flaunt his advanced alien nature to the earthlings. Whereas the Second Doctor was happy to play the clown in order to disguise the fact that he was the smartest guy in the room, the Third will leave you in doubt about his vast intellect and superior knowledge.

And the Doctor is now more biologically alien too – it is in his first outing (Spearhead From Space) that we first learn that Time Lords possess two hearts. And this little titbit of lore does cause a bit of a continuity problem as previously the First was subject to medical examinations that didn’t turn up an unexpected second heart. Fan speculation has suggested that Time Lords gain a second heart during their first regeneration, but as the Second was also been subject to doctor’s tests which also didn’t reveal anything non-human in his physiognomy, this cannot be the case.

Now the best explanation for this anomaly I’ve found comes from the excellent About Time series of episode guides by Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles – which I heartily endorse tracking down if you are enjoying these rambles on the show. In Volume 2, which covers the Second Doctor’s era, there is an essay which explores this conundrum and the learned gentlemen conclude that logically the Doctor gets his second heart in the post-trial forced regeneration. Furthermore they theorise from what is said in later stories that all Time Lords are in fact born with two hearts and the Doctor’s atrophied and/or stopped working when he fled Gallifrey. The basis for this coming from material in the novel ranges that suggest that a Time Lord’s second heart serves as a link to their home world, and so the second heart stopped functioning when he fled Gallifrey in the same way that his telepathic link with the Time Lords was severed (as mentioned in the Tom Baker story The Invisible Enemy). Hence it is only after he is reunited with his people and the second heart has been renewed that we get to hear about it.

Now while still on the continuity tip, the Third Doctor’s run introduces some other key elements. Although we had met the Time Lords in The War Games and heard much about them from the Third Doctor, it is not until his last series, in The Time Warrior, that we actually learn their planet is called Gallifrey - which is somewhat unusual as we’d had a return trip to the Time Lord’s home world in the previous season’s The Three Doctors.

However the really major additions to the lore come in Pertwee’s swansong Planet of the Spiders. For it is here that we finally get a change of Doctors that is clearly and explicitly labelled regeneration – thank Rassilion! It’s incredible really that it took the show a whopping ELEVEN series to get here. However even here, although the script tels us that regeneration is one of the extraordinary abilities of the Time Lords, it isn't clear whether this is a natural ability or a proces they have created as the dying Third Doctor needs the psychic help of his fellow Time Lord (and former mentor) Kanpo to get the cooking started.

So then regarding the questions we started this series of articles with - the number of Doctors who have appeared on screen and how many actors have played him – these next two television Doctors are fairly clear cut compared the multiple bodied First. Arguably you could claim that there is another actor in the Pertwee role, as being the man of action he often was being played by a stunt double, usually Terry Walsh of Havoc. However stunt doubles don’t really count in my book.

So let’s have a look at the scores on the doors…

So far we have 4 versions of the Doctor, comprising of 3 incarnations and one alternate universe Doc, and are now up to a whopping 5 actors in the role.

Next time on THE REGENERATION GAME - What do you mean? Hartnell wasn't the first?!?

Didn't he do well!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


Cinema and television have developed a curious relationship which over the years has blossomed into a strange form of sibling rivalry. The pair are repeatedly waging war for the hearts and minds of viewers; whenever annoying little brother TV starts acting up and getting all the attention, Cinema is quick to cry “it’s not fair!” and then hits him over the head with a pair of 3d specs when Mother’s not looking. However like the best squabbling brothers, should Cousin Radio or Uncle Theatre proclaim them both to be vapid idiots, they will rapidly form a united front. And when it comes to the new arrival in the Media Family, little Baby Internet, the pair stick together so tightly you couldn’t squeeze a post card between ‘em…

But in recent years, the dynamics of their relationship has started to alter significantly. After their initial bickering in the ‘50s when the cathode ray tube started making eyes at the silver screen’s audience, there was a long period of almost détente. In the following decades, where everyone knew whose toys were whose: TV could show movies after a set period of years had elapsed and this arrangement worked well – the movie studios got cash for old flicks and the networks go audience grabbing movie premieres. But then in 1980’s TV got pally with a snotty little kid from next door called Video…

Now at first, Hollywood saw this new comer as just another dirty trick in the audience wars from television. But after a time, it became clear that the new kid was just a big thorn in the side to television networks as it was to cinema. For while the theatre chains may have start bringing in more screens, lower prices and suffer all the technical palaver of a 3D revival, the studios were coining it in from video rentals and too a lesser extent sales. Whereas the television premiere of a movie was no longer quite the big event it used to be, and reruns of old films were not longer picking up the audiences as they used now Hollywood’s back catalogue was increasingly being released on video. However the limitations of the video format meant that movies on TV still had an audience as television could deliver far superior picture quality and sound than your average rental cassette. Plus the advent of cable and satellite channels ensured movies would get to the old goggle-box just as quickly as they hit the rental stores.

However little did anyone realise that the snot-nosed brat would grow up and spawn DVD and home cinema – a new generation that has well and truly put the wind up both Cinema and TV. Renting videos was a popular past-time – a trip to ye olde video shop was a staple of the weekend entertainment for everyone growing up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – however sales of movies on video was always more modest. However with the advent of films on shiny CD sized discs, suddenly we all went mental for building our own film libraries – alleged in just their first few years in the shops, DVD sales topped the amount of pre-recorded videos bought ever.

And while the film studios and theatre are rushing back to 3D to save box office takings and hastily looking to upgrade older venues, at the end of the day, despite all the carping the cinema will survive and continue to do what it always has done with very little actual change. Even in the face of the coming brave new digital world, which the internet is merely the embryonic stage of, the movies will continue thanks to their ace in the hole – bloody gigantic screens. And until we all live in a decadent society where we all dwell in mansions, the appeal of seeing something yards high will always get bums on seats.

But for TV, it’s a different story; these days television is largely turning away from movie screenings to win big audiences. They will still bother to acquire blockbuster titles to wheel out for the holidays, but increasingly for peak viewing times such as Christmas they are looking to reap the really big ratings with a reality TV final or a special episode of a flagship series. Increasingly move showing are just filler rather than the rating magnet in a schedule. After all, in world where you can pick up just about any movie reasonably cheaply on disc, and soon with a mere click of a mouse, there’s no need for television to be screening movies anymore.

The upside of all of this is that the quality of TV shows is undoubtedly rising; no more do television series look like the poor country cousins of cinema outings. But aside from smarting up their act in the production values department, we are seeing something of a renaissance in television drama with hosts of interesting new shows flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is a serious downside to all of this. These days we take for granted the on demand access we enjoy to cinema’s past. However before the VCR appeared, it was a very different story. If you didn’t see a movie at the theatre that was it; it was gone and unless there was a re-release to theatres or it appeared at a film festival, the only chance you had of seeing it again was a television screening.

All of which I know it sounds like utter insanity now, in a world where you can buy Avatar on disc even though it’s still showing in some theatres. And make no mistake, I’m far happier living a world where I can revisit obscure classics like Carnival of Souls or Here We Go Around The Mulberry Bush anytime I like, rather having to sacrifice black cats to the dark gods of TV scheduling in the vain hope of a rare screening in the dead of night.

But, it has to be said there was a kind of magic to those pre-video days. Every week you’d scan the TV listings, paying meticulous attention into the afternoons and late night slots where many an old gem was tucked away, looking out for particular titles to appear in the schedules. And then having swept the lists for showing of those movies you were dying to see, you’d cross reference any film showing on the idiot lantern that week with your reference books, making sure you weren’t going to miss some previously unheard of treat. Then finally often you’d end up watching any movie that was on, as it was our only chance of seeing at all.

Bah, you kids have it easy these days! And get off my lawn!

But possibly pointless nostalgia for those long ago times when it was a lot harder to be a film fan aside, I do have a serious concern about living in the Magic Land of On Demand. And that is, with the option to watch anything you fancy, at any time, budding film buffs are far less likely to stumble across old classics and obscure curios, the way us old gits did.

Here in the UK the venerable BBC, and to lesser extent Channel 4, used to do a sterling job in putting together whole seasons of themed movies. Now around the turn of millennium, note just before the DVD effect really hit the film/TV relationship, Channel 4 decided to flush intelligent programming down the pan and set about devolving into a station devoted to bloody Big Brother and endless repeats of soddin’ Friends. But also, sadly the showings of vintage films began to disappear from the Beeb throughout the Noughties too. And in this case, the decline in film season on the BBC seemed to operate in tandem with us all building film archives in our own living rooms. And now none of the major networks are doing much at all to introduce viewers to cinema history anymore.

And judging from my experiences channel surfing while on trips to the USA, over the pond the situation is no better either. Even with the hundreds of channels available to viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, you’re hard pressed to find much movie-wise that wasn’t made in the last ten years.

All of which is a bit of shame, particularly as the BBC is one of the few networks that doesn’t screen adverts during its programs – an ideal arrangement for film buffs who don’t want to see a director’s vision buggered up with vapid tosh about margarine. And while I don’t miss the days when you had to stay up half the night just to catch a rerun of an old AIP flick before it was cast back into viewing oblivion, the on demand world is robbing us of the delights of stumbling across an old gem you’ve never heard of by chance. While I grant that you may discover some vintage flick occasionally in the morass of cable or satellite, such token and random showings just don’t really compare with a properly scheduled season of movies on one of the major channels i.e. where a wide general audience will discover them.

Now I cut my film buff teeth on the seasons of late night horror films the BBC used to run on Saturday nights throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s - I have written before of the influence of these double features. And it is quite telling that when I started this reviewing lark, my first point of call was the old Universal horrors I’d enjoyed so much as a child, and indeed my very first review mentioned these BBC2 horror seasons.

I came to these films purely for the monsters and scares, which indeed they did deliver. But I came away with far more – encountering classic directors diverse as Robert Wise and George Romero, intelligent producers like Val Lewton, effects wizards like Roy Ashton and Phil Leakey, and a host of wonderful performers from yesteryear too numerous to mention. Moreover I learned that film had a history to study, that who was directing and what studio produce the movie was a better indicator of quality than who starred in it, and how to appreciate movies made with an entirely different visual grammar to that I was used to.

As I’ve said before horror is a broad church and when you get into the full historical spread of the genre it leads you out of the ghetto of B movies into green and pleasant lands of cinema as an art form. In this sense, horror is a gateway drug to art house, foreign film, and silent cinema, not to mention opening doors to literature too. Although traditionally derided by mainstream critics, increasingly there are many in the business of cinema, both film makers and reviewers, who got the movie bug via classic shockers and monster flicks.

Hence I can’t help feeling that the BBC is letting down budding film fans. Horror often has a big appeal to the young and so re-airing some of the old masters would be an ideal way to get people interested in films on TV again. And while I fully appreciate that a season of obscure French nouvelle vague flicks would most likely be ratings death, I’m sure that a season of classic horrors could find a reasonable audience and fire the imaginations of a new generation.

And I am not alone as there is a campaign to persuade the BBC to revive the tradition of the late night double features…

The details are here at the campaign’s blog.

Plus there is a Facebook page here.

Also you can post remarks onto this thread at the Beeb’s Points of View website.

And finally, and most importantly, the petition is here for you all to sign.

And please, please, please do sign. As there is a wider issue here than just bringing the likes of Lugosi and Lee, Universal and Amicus and sundry other creatures of the night back into the public consciousness, because if this campaign is a success it’s just the first step in getting classic cinema back into the schedules properly.

For too long, TV has been stuck in a rut, rerunning the recent blockbusters we’ve all seen already either in theatres or on disc. And frankly as the reach of the on demand world grows larger there is increasingly little future in this approach. But since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a boom in festival events and conventions – contrary to the predictions that the digital age would turn us all into web potatoes, it seems like the internet has prompted more people tha never before to meet up and host events for like minded individuals.

And so I believe there is a market and an audience just waiting to be discovered if channels like the BBC, who wish to uphold such Reithian values of informing and entertaining, were to start and presenting seasons of vintage movies as film festivals for your living room. Indeed rather than the endless screening of the box office big guns we already have in our DVD collections anyway, such virtual cinema festivals could well be the real future for film on television.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.7 - Amy's Choice

The little birds told me, there'll be spoilers!

When a new season of Doctor Who is announced, my first stop isn’t to check out which old enemies are returning, nor what guest stars will be studding the new episodes’ firmament. No, I instead I head directly to that quieter spot in the media fanfare and see who’s on the writers roster.

Now while the first series of new Who drew extensively from the pool of writers who had previous form in writing for the show while it was off the air. So we had Mark Gatiss and Paul Cornell who both had made several contributions to the Virgin and the BBC ranges of novels, Rob Shearman author of numerous audio dramas, first for BBV and later Big Finish, and of course, Steven Moffat who had penned the Comic Relief spoof/homage Curse of the Fatal Death.

However Series 2 heralded a change of policy, although all of the Who alumni bar Shearman would return for an episode or two, only Moffat secured a slot in each following series. And from the second series onwards, it seemed like Russell T Davies was keener to let his chums from the young and hip British mainstream drama have a crack at tackling the Doctor. And sometimes this worked reasonably well (as in Toby Whithouse's School Reunion) and at other times not so good (Matthew Graham's Fear Her). However the Moffat episode aside, very tellingly the best story that season was the satanic two parter (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit) by Matt Jones, who although best known for working on big name dramas like Children's Ward, Coronation Street, Clocking off and Shameless first got started in the writing game with a Who novel Bad Therapy for the Virgin range... And similarly when Series Three drew to a close, the stand-out episodes were Blink from the Moff naturally and the two parter from Paul Cornell (Family of Blood/Human Nature). Can you spot the pattern here, children?

So then, while I applaud RTD for not letting the show become strangled by an old boys network of Whovians, throwing the doors open to new talent and trying to get other respected drama writers on board, I'm not so sure this approach has really paid off that well. In terms of the show as a media entity, inviting in talent from the world of mainstream drama rather than scifi fandom has definitely helped to shake off the perception that Doctor Who is a closed shop for nerds only. However in terms of the strength of the episodes, the results have been somewhat variable. And in making very public overtures to the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and JK Rowling, you can't help feeling there is a certain amount of stunt casting going on. Now don't get me wrong, a slice of Who penned by either of these three has a definite appeal, but you have to wonder whether there is also an element of getting the biggest author names possible on the script roster and reaping corresponding large media coverage as a result.

Hence I had somewhat mixed feelings when I noticed that we were to get an episode this series from Simon Nye, the man behind hit '90s comedy Men Behaving Badly. Now as much as I enjoyed that show, I wasn't entirely sure Nye was a good fit for Who and wondered whether this was Moffat indulging in a spot of stunt casting himself. But on the other hand, for all its crudity and new laddish swagger, Men Behaving Badly was very sharply written, and beneath the nob gags, there was a harder edged and more sophisticated humour rooted in sharply observed truths. And to do comedy well, you do need perfect timing and pacing – which is why so many comedians turn out to be astonishingly good straight actors as well. So then while I had some doubts about a man most famous for a sitcom revolving around lager and breasts turning in a script, I was also hoping that Mr Nye was going to bring some of that sharp insight into the human condition and the comedy writer's meticulous construction skills to the episode.

And as it turned out my cautious optimism was justified; Nye indeed did bring both elements mentioned above but he also brought a whole lot more. Amy's Choice was fresh, different and original; blending a sense of fun with real threat and at the same time delivering a fascinating character based episode. Yet it also harked back to classic Who too; its deadly dreams and reality bending echoing vintage stories such as The Deadly Assassin (1973), The Mind Robber (1968) and The Celestial Toymaker (1966).

And in the Dream Lord we have a villain destined to join the ranks of classic adversaries. Written razor sharp by Nye, and brilliantly brought to life by Toby Jones. While some may be complaining that he is just a Q rip off, it should be noted that Who was there far earlier than Star Trek: TNG with the Master of the Land of Fiction in Troughton’s run (The Mind Robber) and the afore mentioned Toymaker who was gaming with the Doctor’s life a full year before even Q’s ancestor the Squire of Gothos (1968) put in an appearance.

But equally Doctor Who didn’t invent the concept of the omnipotent trickster who plays games with the fates of men – now that’s a very old archetype, centuries older than any of our media and stretching way back into the mists of legend and fable. And one of the reasons why the Trickster has been popping up in our stories since when the time of myth is that he reveals the true inner nature of our heroes by making their usual contexts plastic and treacherous.

In terms of Doctor Who, the Dream Lord presents a challenge that cannot be solved with the usual heroics – unlike so many of new Who stories, the threat posed by this version of the trickster archetype cannot be resolved with the old standbys of running down some corridors and waving the sonic screwdriver. Instead it is self knowledge and logical thinking that save the day and vanquish the Dream Lord.

And as well as staying true to the mythological dynamics that give Trickster figures their narrative powers, Amy’s Choice is also a direct descendant of many classic era Who stories. From The Aztecs to Genesis of the Daleks, time and time again the classic series we are present with scenarios that require the resolution of a thorny personal dilemma rather than the usual sci-fi MacGuffins.

However at the same time, Nye has spun an excellent tale that unites these two Who motifs as this episode also fits perfectly with the more emotional, touchy feely character fireworks of new Who. And furthermore, he’s brought us one of the better explorations of the interior lives of the characters. Quite often in the past, when the show has ventured into these waters, too often the real world emotional content seem like soap elements bolted on to the usual space monster shenanigans. For example, you need only compare this episode with last week’s Vampires in Venice.

Now after penning the review of that episode, I did wonder whether I was giving poor old Toby Whithouse a bit of grilling. However after seeing Amy’s Choice, I felt somewhat vindicated in giving him a rough ride as Nye’s script deals with the Doctor-Amy-Rory triangle so much more deftly and convincingly. I’ve not watched both episodes back to back yet, but I suspect they aren’t going to match up as smoothly as perhaps they should. Really these two stories should be reinforcing each other; making up an unofficial two parter in a way, but as it stands it’s going to feel more like a game of two halves.

However, in fairness to Mr Whithouse, Amy’s Choice has also highlighted a weakness in Vampires of Venice that was beyond his control as it’s a weakness that Nye’s episode share too. And that is the lack of chemistry between Amy and Rory. Now as far as I can tell there’s nothing in the performances of either Karen Gillan or Arthur Darvill to flag up as the problem, and as Nye had more dramatic depth in his script, the absence of sparks between the two isn’t a script issue either.

And I’m honestly a bit perplexed on this one. I don’t know why but I just don’t buy that this pair would have the relationship they do. I could believe that Rory was Amy’s cherished childhood friend, or that she didn’t requite his feelings for her, but I just don’t see the whole really deeply in love actually thing. At least not yet – I’m hoping that maybe this will start to shine through in the next episode when surely this triangle business is out of the way. And if not, well we’ll just have to chalk it up as one of those odd relationships that do occur in real life, where as soon as the pair leave a room everyone else is asking ‘what do they see in each other?’ and ‘why the hell are they together?’

Now from scanning various reviews here and there, it would appear I’m not alone in just not seeing the emotional bond between Amy and Rory. However I do wonder whether perhaps the real reason I don’t see it is that there is a hidden Lust Lord lurking in my subconscious, whispering “A bird like her, with a twonk like him? ‘Es punching well above ‘is weight sunshine…”. But dubious claims about infections contracted from psychic pollen from the planet Loaded aside, this is a weak spot in an otherwise excellent episode, and in the series as a whole.

But other than the Rory/Amy business, I didn’t really have any other real problems with this episode. The concept of turning OAPS into monsters could well have back-fired in less capable hands and come off like a rewrite of the Father Ted episode Night of the Nearly Dead. However in the context of story where we are being asked to decide which reality is real, the Ecnodeen were perfect monsters; absurd and threatening at the same time.

Yes, the CGI eyestalks were blatantly fake looking, but this was a design issue rather than the actual rendering I think. Furthermore, I suspect it was a deliberate choice on the part of the production team – I reckon they went for a slightly cartoon look as going fully realistic would have been just too horrific for the time slot and the younger viewers. And again, considering the narrative context, it does make sense they weren’t portrayed in all-out realism.

(Quick aside – I’m also willing to bet that knowing Nye’s brand of comedy, the original script had Rory belting the old dear across the head with that plank but the mandarins in the upper echelons of the Beeb had it scaled down to a lesser shocking body shot.)

All in all, Amy’s Choice was a cracking episode. An intriguing set up, a mesmerizing new villain and a neat twist end that I must confess did take me by surprise. Although I suspected both realities might be false, I totally didn’t twig that the Dream Lord was an aspect of the Doctor. The line “there’s only one person in the universe that hates me so much” totally had me haring off down false paths, thinking, is this the Toymaker? The Black Guardian? Fenric or one of the other Old Ones?

That said though, I’m still not entirely sure I actually believe the Doctor’s explanation. Certainly I think we’ll be seeing the Dream Lord again sooner or later on way or another…

And I certainly hope it’s not the last we see of Simon Nye, who has turned in an episode destined to be remembered as a highlight of this series. And that’s no mean feat in the strongest batch of Who we’ve had in quite a while. His background in comedy writing ensured that he structured his story beautifully and built it put to a satisfying pay off. However story construction aside, he has succeeded where other writers new to Who have floundered because he really seems to understand what makes the show tick. He’s grasped the key dynamics of both its new and classic flavours and balanced both wonderfully while still hitting the right blend of wit and scares.

Considering that this episode was intended as a modest affair, a story not requiring the biggest of budgets Nye has transformed what could have easily been merely filler into a minor classic. Let’s hope when he returns, Moffat and co let him loose with a two parter!

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.6 - Vampires In Venice

Our regrets señor, there will be spoilers... if you are lucky

Right than, to take the bull by the horns – or rather the fish by the gills - Vampires of Venice unfortunately failed to scale the heights of the last two episodes. No real surprise there of course; after all the Weeping Angels epic was always going to be a tough act to follow, if not night impossible to top. However it does make this episode a little hard to judge as after such an accomplished story, you can’t help feeling, and admittedly probably unfairly, that there’s a drop in the quality of the show.

Now that’s not to say Vampires in Venice was bad per se; this wasn’t a horrible episode by any means. However I’m not sure exactly how good it actually was, and I am aware my judgement may be a little harsher than many of you, as I was coming to this outing a mere 48 hours after watching the preceding two storming episodes in a single sitting.

So then what were the highlights? Well from a cosmetic point of view, the episode looked fantastic and great credit must be given to the production team who did an amazing job in recreating Venice. While I was watching I was stunned to see what appeared to be lots of location work shot in the City of Masks itself – but the following edition of Doctor Who Confidential revealed that only a handful of wide shots were actually filmed there, with the bulk of the shoot taking place in Trogir in Croatia, an architectural stunt double founded by Venetians.

In addition to expertly handling a fiddly location shoot, new to Who director Jonny Campbell kept everything galloping along at a rip-roaring pace. And in general, Toby Whithouse hit all the right marks story-wise, delivering a tale that paid homage classic Hammer vampire flicks – the girls’ school being a favourite trope in the later, saucier outings from that legendary studios vampire oeuvre – and at the same time giving the monsters a typically Doctor Who sci-fi twist. And although I do have some niggles with his scripting but let’s stay focused on the positive for the moment…

Now it’s widely assumed that the introduction of a bit of romance in the TARDIS was a big part of the resurrected Who finding a new audience. However by Series 2 for some, and definitely by Series 3 for most, it was clear that they didn’t really need all that doe eyed mushiness to keep the viewers hooked. When Big Russell had initially rebooted Doctor Who, the whole romance between the Doctor and Rose was daring and different, but as the seasons progressed and new Who had won itself a healthy viewership and created a new generation of fans, it was rapidly became an albatross around the show’s neck.

Hence when Donna Noble returned for full-time companion duties in Series 4, it was good to find the whole companion fancying the Doctor business had been left in the drawer for a change, and the show was moving on. Donna felt like a return to the companion relationships of old but you never got the feeling she was the Tenth Doctor’s best friend in the same way you did in the relationships between Jamie and the Second Doctor or the Fourth and Sarah Jane.

However Amy Pond, with all the intriguing implications of her first meeting the Doctor in childhood, has been looking to hit that ‘best friend’ mark dead on. And there even a touch of the Seventh Doctor and Ace in the way that Matt Smith is sort of mentoring her in the do’s and don’ts of adventuring through space and time – a good example is the way he occasionally addresses her as ‘Pond’ in a playful mock teacher fashion.

So then at the end of Flesh and Stone, although I approved of the much more forthright approach Amy took to dealing with her feelings for the Doctor – the polar opposite to the Mills & Boon mooning of Rose and Martha in fact – a distant Cloister Bell began to ring in the depths of my addled brain. And when I saw the teaser for this week’s episode with Rory making a return appearance, I was immediately reminded of Rose bringing Mickey on board the TARDIS in Series 2 and that whole awkward implied love triangle malarkey. And so, the thought ‘Oh no, not again...’ plummeted through what I laughingly call a mind like a bowl of gravitationally challenged petunias.

But as it turned out, and seemingly continuing the mess-about-with-audience-expectations theme we talked about last time, in Vampires in Venice Rory and Amy’s relationship was put firmly back on track. Indeed, judging from the trail for next week’s adventure Amy’s Choice, it would seem that the companion/Doctor romance angle has well and truly been put to bed. Big relief all round … in Moff we trust, eh?

Equally, aside from not re-treading tired, old ground, on a character level I was pleased to see Amy and Rory click again. Basically because, although I enjoyed watching Rose as a companion I ended up not actually liking her that much as a person; I could never quite shake the feeling that the way she treated poor old Mickey, her Mum and even the Doctor showed her up as a bit of a selfish little cow to be frank. And I’d didn’t want to end up with the same mixed feelings about Amy, who so far has proved herself to be a smarter and more interestingly complicated character than Rose ever was.

However, in truth I probably could have lived with them going down the romancing the Doctor route as basically the writing and tone of this revamped series is far tighter, with better dynamics and well crafted plotting replacing empty bombast and cheap melodramatics. But the echoes of Rose and Mickey also bring me to my major niggle with Whithouse’s script – basically it’s run-of-the-mill to the point of unoriginality.

As we’ve already discussed, we’ve been over the emotional territory of the episode before, but unfortunately we’ve seen ever everything else before too. For example, the whole deal with what the Fish From Space were actually up in. Now the Saturnynians’ plot to re-colonise the Earth is a very old trope in Doctor Who - indeed it’s one of the top three reasons for aliens invading in the series – and I’m not knocking the episode for using it. But where I do have a problem in the way it was presented – for me them getting to Earth through the Cracks was far too close to the Gelth getting trapped on earth by the Time War in The Unquiet Dead.

And their plot to readjust the local environment to suit their species’ needs by pumping tons of cloudy crap into the atmosphere was far too obviously a crib from Series 4’s Sontaran double bill. Also while I enjoyed the fun and games of them appearing as vampires, allowing some neat explanations of classic undead traits like not appearing in mirrors, the use of perception filters felt a little too much like Whithouse trying to make his story fit into the Moffat style by merely robbing some technobabble instead of picking up on the tonal and structural changes the new production has ushered in.

Furthermore even the reveal of the true nature of the vampires is a steal too! Now, I know what you’re thinking – “He’s lost it! There is no way on God’s green earth that anyone else has shown the ultimate reality behind the vampire as a giant sodding fish monster!”

However readers familiar with the work of the Wizard of Northampton will know exactly what I’m talking about...

Way back in the mid 1980’s, DC had scooped up a promising British comics writer from 2000 AD and turned him loose on one of their struggling titles. That comic was The Saga of the Swamp Thing, the writer, bearded guru Alan Moore, and his run on that book pretty much invented Vertigo, ‘Suggested for mature readers’ titles, and dragged comics out of the fields of kiddie-fodder.

Now being a writer who enjoys reinterpreting myths and putting fresh spins on old characters, it was only a matter of time before Moore had the Swamp Thing encounter vampires. Earlier in the comic’s run, Swampie had met the undead before, in Marty Pasko’s “A Town Has Turned To Blood” (see Issue #3, oh fervid one!). That tale ended with our muck-encrusted hero destroying a nearby dam and flooding the vampire-infested town of Rosewater with deadly running water.

Now Moore’s two part story was a sequel to this earlier tale. In “Still Waters” and “Fish Story”(Saga of the Swamp Thing #38 and #39, fact fans), Moore posited that some of the vampires had survived and remerged when the water ceased to flow. These bloodsuckers further discovered that not only they could live underwater – the undead don’t need air – but also could breed and produce a purer vampire which just happened to look like this… (click to enlarge)

And if the similarity between Moore’s new, improved vampires and the Saturnynians are just a coincidence; I’ll eat my copy of Van Helsing's Compendium of Vampires & Other Perilous Creatures!

Now in all fairness, Vampires in Venice only robs a new look for its monsters, and you could theorise that this slice of Who provides an explanation why Moore’s vampires reveal their pure-bred form to be scaly aquatic horrors…

But it does reinforce my feelings that this is episode is trading far too heavily in borrowed elements for its own good. Now in his other outing to the world of the monstrous, his BBC 3 series Being Human, Toby Whithouse has shown he can bring a good deal of original thinking and fresh concepts to the vampire mythos. And although the two shows are written for vastly different audiences, I hope think he could have brought some of that series’ narrative flair to this episode. And harder edged story telling he demonstrates he is capable of with Being Human wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

Again I’ll stress that overall what he did deliver was fast and fun, but at the same time I can’t help feeling he could have produced something better. All this recycling of ideas that have been used recently before in Who smacks of writer unsure of himself and playing it too safe. And this scriptwrting by seemingly re-arranging a shopping list of familiar elements feels far more in keeping with the Russell T Davies era than the Moffat new broom. Indeed the episode did feel like it would be more at home in the RTD days than any other story this season so far.

Similarly it also suffered from a slight return to the vices of seasons past. For the first time this series, I felt that Murray Gold’s score was getting a shade out of hand and blaring over the dialogue at a couple of points. Secondly, the pace of the story veered close to the run and gabble routine of days gone by; with the episode feeling like it had too much to cram in for its own good. And finally, I felt the show slightly over reached in the special effects department – despite some seamless CGI in blending wide shots of Venice with the foreground of Trogir, some one went berserk at the episode’s finale with an overly busy and consequently very fake looking stormy sky.

Now you may say that latter point is a matter of taste and you’d be right – some will be a lot more forgiving of the patently added in post skies. But the real trouble is not how tolerant you are of obvious CGI but that the mad roiling thunderheads didn’t match up with the lighting of some of the street scenes and consequently made something of a nonsense of Amy reflecting sunlight to slay the Mummy’s Boy vampire shrimp.

Now all these things are just small points I know, but lapses like this made the episode feel far looser than what we have been used in this season so far. And I will concede that perhaps I’m being too picky. However I can’t seem to shake the feeling that this episode was too much of a romp. Now there’s nothing wrong with fast’n’fun run-around ever now and then, however considering the subject matter, the atmospheric location and the emotional meat of the story, I do think that Whithouse sold all of the above short with a cookie cutter adventure. Instead of taking his cues from the frothy old tat of RTD’s house style, he really needed to think his way deeper into the story and bring some of the darkness and emotional weight of Being Human to Vampires in Venice.

There are touches of it, such as when Rory confronts the Doctor and tell him that he is dangerous because he inspires his companions to impress him, but not nearly enough of it to give the story some real dramatic impact. Generally though I get the impression that Whithouse is so worried about getting the Doctor Who style wrong, he’s not got took many creative risks with his script. And I’m not having pop at him because I think he’s weak writer, in fact the opposite is true, I think he’s actually a very capable writer who with a more confidence; when he feels more at home in the Who universe could deliver some real classics.

Again I will reiterate, I didn’t hate this episode by any means; it was pretty and it was fun. And maybe I am being overly critical, but I suspect anyone is into Being Human will have similar concerns. From watching that series, we know Toby Whithouse could delivered deeper and darker than just knockabout fun. And if he had, we would have had an episode that could have given Moffat’s two-parter a run for its money…

Sunday, 9 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO 5.4 & 5.5 - The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone

Angel Bob here … Terribly sorry sir, but there will be spoilers…

So was it worth the wait?

For those of you who have missed the previous instalments of these reviews, when these two episodes first aired, I was off gallivanting around Florid far from the reach of either the BBC or its iPlayer. And rather than *ahem* acquire them and watch the return of the Weeping Angels on a tiny netbook screen, I opted to wait until I had returned to Blighty.

Now the obvious upside of this plan, was that essentially I had a feature length dose of Doctor Who to come home to. But an unexpected bonus was that I got view a ‘clean’ version of The Time of Angels - that is a version without the climatic speech at the close of the episode destroyed by the appearance of a cartoon dancing berk…

Now I shall refrain from ranting further on ‘Nortongate’ except to say that it was obviously a travesty of broadcasting. But it was also very heartening to see the flood of complaints from viewers which hopefully will stem the tide of the IIPs (in-program pointers) on British TV. And make no mistake, this kind of trailing and pimping over a program is a cancer - from my recent jaunt to the US, I noticed that since my last visit a couple of years ago, some channels have now become virtually unwatchable with an IIP appearing every five minutes. Finally on this subject, I would direct you to this article over at Den of Geek in which an industry insider comments on the whole affair.

Right, so having interrupted my own review with a Norton intrusion – that’s what we call real irony, class. Are you listening at the back? Yes, Morrisette, I do mean you girl! – let’s get back to the action…

And the downside of this plan? Well, two parters in new Who have had a tendency to deliver a strong first half and then crumble in the second. However the notable exceptions however were The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead which sprang from the pen of one Steven Moffat…

So again, was it worth the wait?

The short answer is a resounding ‘yes’! Moffat said that rather than just rehash the creepiness of Blink, he wanted to do something different with the Lonely Assassins and cited the tonal shift from Alien to Aliens as his template. And by Rassilion, he succeeded, and in fact I’d go as far to say he did a beeter job than James Cameron in moving a scary monster into an action realm. Don’t get me wrong, I love Aliens as much as the next man, but he did turn the xenomorphs into standard goons for the most part, with only the Queen retaining a level of menace equal to the lone creature in Ridley Scott’s film. Whereas Moffat’s returning Angels retain their creep factor and if anything are all the more horrifying with their new decayed features.

Frankly, this story was so good, it’s almost redundant to review it. It’s already been lauded to the high heavens and it would appear that the majority of people are hailing it as the best episodes new Doctor Who has produced thus far, and some even going as far as best story ever.

And while I’m not sure I’d go as far as to be dishing up the bestest ever awards just yet – I’m very wary of making such definitively grandiose claims so soon after the event, as time and perspective tends to make fools of those who do, the sheer quality of these two episodes are severely tempting me to transgress my own critical rules. So warily baring my neck to the wrath of Chronos and Terminus, I’d have to say that The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone wins hands down the Best Two Parter Ever medal from the judges at Hypnogoria.

That said though, and taking as read the heaps of praise for the script, performances and direction, I did have a few very little niggles. First up, are the ‘rules’ governing the angels themselves – I wasn’t entirely clear on how they were avoiding quantum locking each other – we have large numbers of angels in sight of each other here and in their first appearance Blink this was their undoing. Similarly, I wasn’t sure that the business with them not being sure if Amy could see them or not strictly made gelled with the lore either. However both of these quibbles can be easily swept away with the claim that these were ‘restoring’ angels – one could say that as they were not at full strength the rules of the quantum locking are not in full effect.

At the end of the day, they are Moffat’s own creation and hence the rules of their powers are entirely up to him. However I did feel that the addition of a line or two could have negated these niggles. But that said, those lines might still be in the post - the Moff has hinted that scenes in earlier episodes may be revisited later in a time-wimey fashion and in Flesh and Stone there is an instance that suggests this - ff you go back to the scenes when the Doctor is leaving Amy alone, you’ll notice that his jacket reappears and his sleeves are rolled up. Obviously this could just be a glaring continuity error but considering the “remember what I told you when you were seven” dialogue and the rumours that Amelia Pond – the child Amy – is going to make another appearance suggests that this is on of the points we are going to revisit in a future story.

And speaking of future stories, I was very pleased by the elaboration of the River Song saga. When we first were introduced to this enigmatic character in Silence In the Library/Forest of the Dead, although I enjoyed the mystery of her future relationship with the Doctor, I did worry that Moffat had set up a loose thread that would flap about in the continuity for all time. However when it was confirmed that he would be taking over the reins from Russell T Davies, pencilling in an area of the Doctor’s future didn’t look like such a continuity hazard all of a sudden. And after the revelations this two parter brought, I now have no doubts that Steven Moffat has thought out the cross-temporal relationship between the Doctor and River Song very, very carefully.

Which neatly brings me to my final point for this review – the quality of the plotting of the series as a whole. When the crack reappeared on the TARDIS screen at the close of The Eleventh Hour and again on the hull of the Starship UK in the Beast Below, a few were groaning that this was yet another reiteration of the pseudo-story arc tactics of RTD i.e. insert a particular reference into every episodes and pass it off as a season wide story thread. And to be honest, I was off the same mind, thinking ‘here we go again’.

So then it was a fantastic surprise to find the cracks fleshed out and elaborated on in episode 5. Coupled with the time-wimey stuff mention above, and other hints that have been surfacing along with the cracks in each episode, it would appear that contrary to all expectations, we actually got a proper story arc being developed, one that is integrated into the plots of the individual episodes at a far deeper level than merely throwing in an signifying catchphrase now and then.

It’s still a bit early to say, but I also suspect that the stories themselves are going to mesh together thematically far more than we have seen previously in new Who. Certainly outside the ins and outs of the narrative concerns, there is a running theme of subverting expectations in this new series, of setting things up in a familiar manner and then turning them on their head. So we aren’t expecting the revelations about the cracks and the silence, and more than we were expecting the Daleks to survive and win, or The Beast Below to turn out to be more about Amy than the Smilers.

Overall this series of Doctor Who is certainly delivering the goods, and continuing to flex its muscles further week by week. And the only real problem with The Time of Angel/Flesh and Stone is that next week’s Vampires in Venice has one hell of a steep hill to climb…

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


It never ceases to amaze me the way Hollywood movies appear in clusters. I mean, they are like buses - you wait ages for an old school action flick and then three turn up at once. Spooky isn‘t it - it’s almost as though the studios are packed full of uninspired dullards who are desperately leaping on any bandwagon and stealing ideas of each other left, right and centre!

Seriously though, this year’s blockbuster season seems to jam-packed with maverick tough guys on dangerous missions - we have the A Team bringing their plans together again, and the Expendables which seems to be the hard man equivalent of a Universal monster rally, raining testosterone on theatres over the next few months.

But before either of these pair flex their pecs, we have The Losers. Being neither an incarnation of a beloved ‘80s show, nor sporting an all shootin’. all fightin’ roster of tough tits icons, The Losers is very much the underdog. Yes, it is based on a well regarded comic book, by Andy Diggle and Jock, but like Kick-Ass it’s a title that is pretty much unknown outside the comics reading world. So there’s every chance, this movie’s title is going to be a prediction of its box office fate. And naturally if you call your film The Losers you are just begging assorted wags and smart arses to make the crack; “hey dude, the review is, like, the title.”

Now right off the bat, let me say I had a ton of fun with The Losers and while I can see it finishing in third place in the box office stakes, I will predict that it's going to win a handsome cult following and quite possible will be remembered long after The A Team and the Expendables are forgotten. Stallone and Neeson may be the big guns, and are sure to soak up an arsehole amount of ticket sales, but equally, there’s every chance that both movies will be typically blockbuster fare i.e. flawed and instantly forgettable.

The plot is the usual action flick nonsense. Jeffery Dean Morgan is Colonel Clay, leader of a specialist unit of kick-ass merchants. We have the brooding Roque (Idris Elba or Stringer Bell to Wire heads), the typically silent but utterly deadly expert sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), vehicle expert Pooch (Columbus Short), and finally Jensen (Chris Evans), the wise cracking tech guy. After a raid on a drug baron goes tragically wrong, the guys are believed dead and blamed for the carnage. Cue Zoe Saldana, a mysterious lady who offers to bankroll the guys' revenge on the man who framed them, rogue CIA boss Max (Jason Patric).

Now the ins and outs of the story need not detain us too much here. It makes as much sense as it needs to and moves along at a breakneck pace. There’s all the expected twists and turns, threaded around plenty of action and liberally laced with quips. The Losers is well aware of the ridiculousness of its storyline and revels in it. It plays up the comedy just enough to stay the right side of self parody and at the same time treats the action seriously enough to make the set pieces thrilling.

And there are some excellent set pieces on display here too; they may tend towards the absurd and are utterly unbelievable, but they are massive amounts of fun. I won’t spoil any of them but they are the kind of capers that have you simultaneously gasping and chuckling.

Any time it looks like the pace is going to flag, or the audience is in danger of having time to reflect on the implausibility of the plot or the many macho clichés in the script, either something explodes or we get long lingering shots of Zoë Saldana. Yep, this is a guy’s film through and through, and the film makers know it.

Now the plot may be the usual action drivel, but it tries hard to make up for this by being energetic and inventive in the carnage it throws at the screen.However the magic ingredient that really makes The Losers work is the cast. They are well defined and likeable, each with their own distinct personalities and have excellent chemistry with each other. In short, they really sell you on the story as daft as it is.

All perform well, even Jaenada as the stereotypically taciturn sniper manages to imbue his character with considerable charisma. Colombus Short is very likeable as Pooch, the human heart of the team and Idris Elba makes for a great argumentative second in command, bouncing well off Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Clay.

Zoë Saldana fares the worst, as the movie doesn’t give her much room to show off her acting chops. Her character is somewhat underwritten as the script seems more concerned with portraying her shapely legs as the road to Heaven. However what she does get, she performs well handling the drama and the fight scenes with equal aplomb. And even though the camera spends a good deal of time ogling her, she manages to look iconic in a way that pout-merchants like Megan Fox never can.

However it’s Chris Evans who really steals the show. His Jensen is equally at home with comic timing as he is with the tough guy dynamics. His performance really shines out, despite some very stiff competition and the sheer charisma of his turn in The Losers bodes well for his forthcoming turn as Captain America.

But despite some creative set pieces and an accomplished cast, The Losers is not without its problems. Its sheer energy is enough to propel a causal viewer over the cracks but the flaws are still there. And undoubtedly for viewers, they may well be deal-breakers.

The first is a bit more of a niggle rather than an outright botch. And to be honest, depending on your taste, it could be a strength rather than a weakness. I’m talking about lead villain Max - and the thing here is that Jason Patric plays him in very broad comedy strokes. Don’t get me wrong, he’s highly amusing and it makes a change to see an arch villain doing about his business in a breezy have-fun manner rather than the more usual scowling I’m-dead-evil-me theatrics. However he is having such a ball delivering the quippage, his scenes felt a little out of place; they work but tonally I thought they just didn't quite match the rest of the movie.

But as I said depending on your taste, it could go either way. I’ve no doubt that Patric’s performance is going to run the full gamut of reactions; some will see him as a highlight, some will feel he sinks the movie single-handed, while others, like myself, will tend to think that director Sylvain White should have told him to dial the performance down a couple of notches.

However, I suspect it was old Sylv who was telling Patric to keep on ramping it up in the first place. Because the major flaws in The Losers clearly emanate from the director’s chair. Basically what lets the movie down is the editing and the choice of music. Clearly White is aiming to deliver the same high octane over-the-top thrills of the likes of the Crank films and Shoot ‘Em Up with the cool kinetics of Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino.

However in his haste to be the hippest, most dynamic, young director in the block, he has made the mistake of throwing so much at the wall to see what sticks, at times you just can’t see the wall anymore. All too frequently, the quick edits and sundry other visual flourishes end up neutering rather than enhancing the action. Now in fairness, he’s a good enough director not to fall into the trap of editing the action sequences into total incomprehensible montages, but in his attempt to be cool, his visual stylistics get in the way of the actual thrills, and you end up feeling he’s ended up inadvertently pulling the punches of some scenes with his hipper-than-thou posturing.

Similarly the soundtrack doesn’t help either. Again, you can tell he’s going for the same eclectic assemblage of kick-ass tunes that Wright and Tarantino excel at creating for their movies. However he clearly doesn’t have the record collection of the afore mention pair, and although his choice of tunes is serviceable you can’t help thinking there were cooler tracks to pick.

However the quality of tunes aside, the real problem with the music is that like the cinematography, it’s all far too choppy. His use of music reminded me of the worst kind of noisy neighbours. Yes, that is a somewhat oblique analogy, but for those of you unfamiliar with the pleasures of living in less than salubrious neighbourhoods, let me explain…

Now the most common form of neighbour noise annoyance is the loud music pumping out at unsociable hours. And your better class of irritants next door will normally manage to decide to start cranking up the volume to ear splitting levels at 2 AM on the day when you absolutely, positively have to have an early start. However, the true grandmasters of the aural pollution have an extra added trick up their sleeves - they don’t just play their tunes too loud, they can’t exactly decide what they want to listen to. So you get snatches of hundreds of tracks without a single one ever making it all the way to the end, and most of them being started somewhere in the middle. It's like living next door to the annual Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity Social Mixer.

And it’s exactly this kind of irritating jump-cut musical jarring that the soundtrack to The Losers frequently lapses into. Some of his choices may well be top flight tunes, but we only hear twenty seconds, before he’s snatched it off the turntable and dumped us into the middle ten seconds something entirely different.

Both visually and musically, White is trying so hard to impress, to be cool, he ends up looking dorky. He’s simply trying too hard, and trying to look hip is a sure-fire way of missing the mark. In fact, he is so keen to be appear to be so cool he can’t see over his pelvis, I’m beging to suspect Sylvain White isn’t his real name at all and that his actually moniker is something like Fred Boggins.

However the upside of Sylv’s do-everything-all-at-once approach is that a decent amount actually does work. Hence as I said earlier, the movie has enough energy to skate over the rough patches. But as it stands, I can’t help feeling that had they dialled down the frenetics a little, or taken a less scattergun approach to the stylistics we would have had a far better movie.

At the end of the day, there is far more to enjoy here than to hate; and The Losers does hit the mark it is quite spectacular. And as the film has no aspirations other than to deliver big dumb action fun, it can get away with being a little too hyper. What’s really annoying though is that the problems with the editing and the soundtrack are both easily fixable - an experienced editor and a good musical director could easily raise the movie‘s quality very quickly. As it stands, we have a perfectly entertaining flick, but one destined more the cult and guilty pleasure categories. And with such a polish it could have been a great action picture rather than merely good fun.