Sunday, 28 April 2013

DOCTOR WHO 7.10 - Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS

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Doctor Who is a show featuring many mysteries - big gulfs and voids in the series' mythology that perpetually tantalize fans. And in these gaps there are many questions - questions that should be frequently posed, as is the way of these things but never fully answered, for they are not plot points in a 50 year narrative to be revealed, but the elements of mystique that has fired the imagination of viewers for decades. 

One such mystery is the nature of the TARDIS itself. We've had many little details over the years, from chameleon circuits to HADS, but despite knowing there is much inside the old battered police box exterior we've seen little other than the console room over the years. And while it could be said with a certain amount of truth that this was a wily move on various producers' part to save on building extra regular sets, leaving the most famous time machine of them all unmapped, without a handy Eagle Comic style cutaway diagram, has been a stroke of genius. Anything could be there and what's more, as the Doctor frequently reconfigures the TARDIS, as seen in the various remodellings of the console room, anything we have been shown over the years, might not still be there now. The heart of the TARDIS in it's purest sense is essentially a great white space on a blank map. 

So then when it was announced that we'd be seeing a story entitled Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS, some were concerned that an important part of the show's mystique would be punctured. Others, like myself, however weren't too worried - and it wasn't just a case of knowing that those in charge of the show know too well what not to mess with, but more a case of you couldn't possibly reveal all the TARDIS's mysteries, pin down the geography of an ever changing ship of possibly infinite size, in forty-five minutes in the first place.  

But that said, I would be lying if I didn't admit to having some concerns. Firstly I was worried that what was presented of the labyrinth outside the console room would look rubbish. For we have taken such a trip before in the Fourth Doctor story The Invasion of Time, indeed it was in this adventure we first saw the fabled TARDIS swimming pool. However with the best will in the world, it had to said that discovering the TARDIS interior largely appeared to consist of corridors that looked suspiciously similar those of  a contemporary hospital (St Anne's Hospital, Surrey to be precise) was somewhat disappointing. So while the central mysteries of the TARDIS' interior are pretty much impregnable, the essential mystique of its contents on the other hand can be somewhat deflated by poor set design! 

Thankfully however, as it turned out, the TARDIS interiors we did get to see were fine. Yes, there was a certain about of identikit corridors but there was also visits to new areas and rooms to balance that out. And while some fans might be moaning that we didn't see the wardrobe room, the butterfly room or even the bins that have all been mentioned in past stories, surely seeing the TARDIS library and the Eye Harmony chamber made up for it. 

On the other hand, I was a teeny bit disappointed that we need didn't see much that resembled the classic series TARDIS. A seeming missed opportunity for, as some folks online have observed, they have built a replica set of the first console room from the docu-drama on the creation of the show coming later this year. However on reflection there are good reasons for this - the recreated original TARDIS set will have been made as a part of a larger set recreating the entire studio and as such would take a lot of work to make it look like a 'real' console room, plus there'd be additional expenses in creating corridors with designs to match etc. 

However my other and more pressing concern was that this episode was to be written by Steve Thompson, who previously brought us The Curse of the Black Spot - which in fairness, was not an episode I hated but one I felt could have been better. Weighting up the two, pound for pound I'd say Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is easily the stronger of the two, but there was the same kind of niggles in the script. 

My main beef with this episode is the three space salvage brothers. Now some have said they could have been done away with completely and I think there is some truth in that. However as the Doctor and Clara were separated for much of the action, we did possibly need some one for Matt Smith to bounce ideas off. But that said, I could see this working better as a two-hander potentially with the TARDIS just being obtuse and not letting the Doctor find Clara. 

However fascinating alternative plots aside,  three brother is what we got. Now the concept of having one brother effectively tricked out his inheritance and duped into thinking he was an android is a fantastic concept for a subplot, indeed given all the folk tales and fairy stories about sets of three brothers to play with, it could have have been enough for an adventure in itself. But as a subplot, but it all felt rushed and tangential here. I think they should have gone either with the stealing a circuit and annoying the TARDIS plot strand or the android hoax - either on its own would have tightening the story up, but doing both made it feel somewhat cluttered. 

I guess also that some will have been annoyed by having a big reset button end, but in fairness calling it out in the story itself as a big reset button in a cheeky fashion does somewhat off-set it for me. Furthermore the business with a crack in time, the TARDIS exploding, and all the hints about Clara may mean there is more to this story than first meets the eye.  There may well be a big price tag on that bit of time-wimey trickery. Certainly I don't belief for a second that Clara has entirely forgotten the Doctor's the name...

However, despite all the carping above, I must say I did rather enjoy this episode. The trip into the TARDIS was fun, I loved hearing audio samples from the show's past leaking out the damaged console, and adored the Gallifreyan enclopedia being in liquid form. The time zombies were nicely creepy - like last week making a monster very effective by showing us it partially most of the time -  and the reveal of what they actually were was quite ingenious. However ultimately, like his pirate adventure, I do feel this one wasn't quite all it could have been. But while Curse of the Black Spot was fun but forgettable, Journey of the Centre of the TARDIS is more a good episode that with a bit more polishing might have been a classic. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

HYPNOBOBS 114 - Master of the Universes Part III

In the third and final part of our explorations of the many universes of Mr Kim Newman, we journey to the alternate world of Anno Dracula, trace the exploits of the Diogenes Club down the decades and and visit many other parallel Earths in the the Newmanverse.

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Saturday, 20 April 2013

DOCTOR WHO 7.09 - Hide

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So then here we have the second episode this season penned by Neil Cross, and this time folks, this was a lot more like what I'd expect from the creator of Luther. Apparently this was the first of the two adventures he penned, which Moffat and co. liked so much they offered him The Rings of Akhaten. And whatever you thought of that particular episode, I think it's fair to say that Hide is the stronger of the two. For in this story, Cross takes Doctor Who back to being scary, stating his intention as to write the kind of frightening story he remembered as a child. And by Rassilon, I think it's fair to say he succeeded, crafting a memorably spooky  tale that was scary, and proper creeping out the grown-ups as well as the kids too! 

Cross has also said he was very much inspired by the works of British telly legend Nigel Kneale too; indeed apparently he wanted to write a tale in which the Doctor met Kneale's most famous creation Professor Bernard Quatermass. But although Doctor Who has referenced the good professor at least twice in its history before (Remembrance of the Daleks and The Christmas Invasion), this epic meeting of boffins was thwarted by our old enemy copyright reasons. However such legal wrangles didn't stop him drawing inspiration from Kneale; for much like The Road and The Stone Tape in particular, Hide features a traditional ghost story but with a science fiction twist. 

Now then, over the years many ghost stories have played with the idea of time travel - that hauntings are the result of overlapping time slips and distortions. However the danger is that in explaining your ghosts they tend to become more mind boggling and cease to be scary. But Mr Cross isn't just delivering a ghost here, for as well as a temporally displaced soul we also have a monster, so when the nature of the Witch from the Well  becomes apparent, and less spooky, Mr Cross takes us to an eerie nether dimension where something monstrous lurks. And my word the Crooked Man, as it is nicknamed in the credits, is a truly disturbing creation which thanks to some wise directing from Jamie Payne, even by the end we never quite fully see.

Inevitably I suspect some are going to be mark this episode down for the final twist in the tale that reveals that the Crooked Man was just seeking his Crooked Woman. But I fell that after scaring younger viewers witless earlier, it was right and proper that it was reveal that the monsters weren't an evil threat. Grown-ups may carp about it but it was a nice touch... Although, I also rather suspect it might be too little too late and there'll be a few nightmares tonight... Heh heh heh!  

...I do apologise, I don't mean to sound callous, but a good scare is the essential of classic Doctor Who. And I think the end of this story manages to have it's cake and eat it - delivering a proper old school behind the couch experience but making it all alright at the end again.

There's also a pleasing symmetry to this story too. Obviously there's a nice parallel in the ending with the Crooked Folk and Dougray Scott's Professor hitching up with Jessica Raine's Emma, but also these two characters - whom I would love to see more of - neatly mirrored the Doctor and Clara to an extent. And echoing the developing relationship with Clara and the TARDIS. Very fitting a story about repetitions through time and an 'echo universe'. 

This was a grand episode, which I fully admit did managed to spook me at points, and left me with a huge grin on my face at the end. And much like Cold War, Hide managed to fuse the best bits of classic and rebooted Who to great success, marrying the old fashioned plotting with the heart and weight of the new. And much like Mark Gatiss's adventure was a homage to the Second Doctor with even a mention of the H.A.D.s last week, Hide was very much a lovely nod back to the Third Doctor, complete with psychic experiments using a crystal from Metebellis 3*. 

Furthermore, to don my trainspotter's hat for a moment, we should note that the Third Doctor also investigated hauntings that turned out to be time travellers twice too - with ghosts from the future in Day of the Daleks and a spectre from the past that turned out to be our first meeting with a Sontaran in The Time Warrior. Now while I mentioned the numerous parallel elements from the new series that turned up in The Rings of Akhaten, Cross's drawing on the show's history felt far more assured here, delivering an adventure that felt like pure Doctor Who through and through, a tale that fits beautifully with the past but without feeling like it was recycling it.

Now one of the highlights of The Rings of Akhaten was the Doctor's speech, and here we get another one - but this time from Clara. It's a seemingly small moment but Clara's thinking aloud that leads her to the conclusion that  we are all ghosts to the Doctor was quietly magnificent. And there appears to be a lot of hints and foreshadowing in this story too, for amid all the ghost and monster fun was the on-going story arc of the Doctor investigating the mystery of Clara. What is going on with her and the TARDIS? I heavily suspect we may learn more in next week's tale...

* Old guard fans have been scratching their heads over Smith's pronunciation of this planet's name which seem to slightly differ from how Pertwee used to say it. Of course the question is is this just a goof or a hint that the Doctor's memory is getting dodgy? I'd suspect it's just a mispronunciation - and in which case, in story terms, we can chalk it up to an effect of the Time War or the Crack altering history. But then again, it's hard to believe no one on the production time wouldn't have flagged up the error... Damn it, another mystery!

Monday, 15 April 2013

DOCTOR WHO 7.8 - Cold War

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So then, after a low key opening episode and a highly divisive one, the third installment of Series 7B sees the return of two old friends to the show. Firstly this episode was penned by Who regular Mark Gatiss, but more significantly for old time fans, Cold War sees the return of one of the legendary Doctor Who monsters, the Ice Warriors!

Now in the pantheon of famous monsters, the Ice Warriors rate very highly, often jostling with the Sontarans for third place after the Daleks and the Cybermen. And that's very appropriate as those two biggest of bads had a direct influence upon the creation of the Ice Warriors. Briefly then, in the late '60s, it was decided to give the Daleks a rest from the show, largely because the homicidal pepperpots' creator Terry Nation had other plans for them. So then after the Second Doctor adventure The Evil of the Daleks, they were to disappear for many years, and hence the Cybermen became a recurring villain for Patrick Troughton. However the production team were keen to have another recurring race of evil aliens and hence script writer Brian Hayles came up with the Ice Warriors to ease the burden of villainy on Mondas' finest.

Hitting the the screen in late 1967, their eponymous debut adventure The Ice Warriors was a huge hit, and so returned to menace the Earth (and the Second Doctor) in 1969 in The Seeds of Death. However, and here's where it get's interesting, in their next proper outing (they had made cameo appearances in The War Games and The Mind of Evil)  in the Third Doctor story The Curse of Peladon, wily Mr Hayles had a trick up his sleeve. For in this tale, set in the far future, the twist was that by this point in their history the Ice Warriors had were not longer hostile war-mongers and weren't the villains of the piece! 

However in their fourth and final story in the classic series, The Monster of Peladon,  they were back up to their old war-mongering tricks, albeit in the shape of a rogue faction wanting to return their civilization back to the old martial ways. They were scheduled to reappear twice more in the classic series in stories that never got made due to internal troubles - in a Sixth Doctor adventure Mission to Magnus (which later appeared as a Target Missing Episodes novel) and tangle with the Seventh Doctor in Ice Time (but later surfaced as an audio play Thin Ice).

But despite last being seen in the Jon Pertwee days, the Ice Warriors have remained firm fan favourites. And I believe this is largely because Hayles chose to sketch in a history for them in which their society and attitudes changed over the centuries, making them a more fascinating race than the usual just thoroughly evil species such as the Daleks. Indeed they have returned many times in novels, comics and audio plays - indeed many more times than they appeared on TV - with other writers exploring them in different eras, where sometimes they are foes and sometimes friendly.  

So then, when it was announced the Ice Warriors were to return, there were a lot more questions other than the usual intrigue on how the new series would interpret the design and look of a classic era creature. What era Ice Warriors would we see? Would they be invaders or diplomats? Would there be references to the long history established in their numerous off screen appearances?

Of course, after the last two episodes which for the sake of brevity we shall file under 'mixed reaction', would Cold War deliver the Who goods some felt lacking in the show of late and unite fan opinion? Well, no, of course not! But largely that's completely irrespective of the quality of the episode, and more to do with the fact that Doctor Who is a highly successful show. For as such the show's stature and high profile ensures that any given episode now will find half the commentators, whether professional, amateur or causal viewer, proclaiming it a 'the best so far', while the other half shrieks 'worst thing ever'.

Now in the case of Cold War, we have the added dividing factor of a Mark Gatiss script. Now personally, I've enjoyed all the episodes he's penned for the returned show, and while I'll happily admit that Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot's Lantern aren't the strongest stories in the show's history or the best he's written, I am somewhat confused by the howling ire from some quarters they seem to generate. So naturally Cold War has generated much eye rolling among the ululating fraternity alluded to above, and if you're among their ranks you'll probably hate this as well.

Another thing I've noticed in the online reaction to this story apart from the usual flow of Gatred, is a lot of dissection, and indeed dismissal, by reference i.e. 'it's just Alien on a submarine' or 'The Hunt For Red October meets Alien'. Now it is true that these days, you can probably sum up any new stories with the 'it's x + y with a dash of z' formula. But, and this is a big but here folks, it really does help if you know what in the name of Rassilon you're talking about!

Yes, both Cold War and The Hunt For Red October feature a submarine and a maniac threatening the world, but so does 20000 Leagues Under The Sea - and I think that nicely illustrates nicely how ridiculous it is to base charges of rip-off on two shared elements. And no, it does not make a difference that the first two also have Russians in common either - the point here is that the shape and dynamics of the stories are very different, and two or even three shared elements do not make them the same!

If comparisons to Sean Connery's exercise in being making Russians sound Scottish are lazy, the parallels thrown around to Alien are just shockingly ill-informed. To begin with, if you know anything about Alien or SF movie history in general for that matter, you should know that Ridley Scott's tale of an unwelcome interstellar hitch-hiker is hardly an original work. Beautifully and brilliantly executed yes, but original, hell no! As discussed in this episode of Hypnobobs, Alien draws heavily from Dark Star and Planet of the Vampires and as a whole is pretty much a remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space. 

Furthermore, Alien also owes more than a little to a Fourth Doctor story The Ark In Space. And it should be noted that over the years the monster-on-the-loose in a closed environment trope has been done very often in Doctor Who, so much so fans have dubbed the 'base-under-siege' subgenre. Indeed the eponymous Ice Warriors adventure in 1967 is a classic example of the base under siege story.

Of course in classic SF, the classic base-under-siege story is The Thing From Another World, and as it also features an alien being thawed out of ice and was an influence on Alien too, you could argue that that Cold War is ripping off this 1951 movie. However again, monsters being defrosted from blocks of ice isn't original to The Thing From Another World - HP Lovecraft did it well before even the John W. Campbell novella The Thing is based on in At The Mountains of Madness and The Horror in the Museum, and even then the trope didn't originate with him.

More importantly however, to reference either Alien or The Thing From Another World in relation to Cold War is somewhat wonky as both these SF classics, while fitting comfortably in the base-under-siege subgenre, are actually a different species of story to the Doctor Who take on the trope. Howard Hawks and Ridley Scott's movies are bughunts - a  mindless beast stalks the humans and picks them off one by one, whereas in Doctor Who, in both the classic and new series, the alien threat tends to be an intelligent invader with a plan for domination that extends far beyond just snacking on the locals Ten Little Indians style.

And this is why, provide you not got a Gatiss axe to grind or wrong-head popular references in your eyes, most folks will find much to enjoy in Cold War. For it is an adventure in the classic mode, a piece of solid storytelling with the Doctor caught up in a fraught situation and an intelligent foe to verbally joust with. There's action, a historical setting, and the right blend of horror and humour. As I've remarked before often the essence of a great Who story is a sturdy moral dilemma at the heart of the adventure and Cold War is a great example of this. Gatiss uses the different sides of the Ice Warriors' nature to excellent effect in our defrosted menace Skaldak, allowing the monster become a character rather than another threat-of-the-week.

It's often thought there there is a gulf between the old and new series with the higher emphasis on emotion and character being at odds with traditional adventure serial storytelling. But if you look at the past stories that are considered classics of the old series, such as The Sea Devils or Genesis of the Daleks to name but two, you find that it's the ethical arguments between the characters that give them their emotional wallop rather than the thrills and spills of the adventure. And Cold War shows that the new show, with its greater character focus, can unite the two rather well in the right shape story. This is an old school adventure with a new series gloss - and in fact, many I suspect would say exactly the kind of story the show should be more of.

But that's not say this story might not ruffle the feathers of the old guard. For perhaps where this episode is most controversial for old school fans is the depiction of the Ice Warriors. Now design-wise they stick closely to the previous versions, and the backstory is consistent enough with what has previously been established.  But the business of them being able to pop out of their suits might seem to some like an uncomfortable bit of stealth reimagining.

However this seemingly new aspect of the Ice Warriors is actually canon - Brian Hayles conceived them as a reptilian race with cybernetic systems and while this has not been explicitly referenced in the classic series quartet of stories, it has surfaced in their appearances in spin-off media. Indeed we have seen a de-armoured   Ice Warrior already before in comic strips such as Ascendence and as you can see here -

So all this apparently new details of Ice Warrior biology is actually reasonably canonical. If I were a nit picker (possible irony alert considering the ranty section above about getting your references right), I might wonder how those long fingers fit with the human style gloves the armour has, but as we are not given any indication how large the natural Martian inside the suit is, it might be a Aliens power load kind of setup with the armour being more vehicle than clothes.

But all of that is largely a cosmetic concern, as in terms of the episode it made for a good twist and, perhaps more importantly they didn't show us the full creature. Indeed when you have a monster on the loose, they're are always scary when you only see them partially. More longer term, on reflection I think it's quite fun not to know what the Ice Warrior inside looks like.

It's probably too early to say whether Cold War is a bona fide classic or not, but certainly it was a delight to watch. For a start, we had an excellent guest turn from David Warner who, let's face it, is always excellent in anything he appears in. Equally good was Liam Cunningham, now perhaps best known as Davos in Game of Thrones, as Captain Zhuhov, and the pair provide two strong characters to underpin the main cast. Matt Smith was excellent as always, but it was nice to see a quieter, more serious side to his Time Lord. Also quieter and better for it was Jessica-Louise Coleman; Moffat has referred to these opening three stories as a sort of getting to know Clara trilogy and I think we have seen her character rounded out rather nicely.

All in all then, a very solid episode that I think should sit well with most fans, both old and new. Looking forward to see what next week's haunted house antics will bring us!

Sunday, 7 April 2013

HYPNOBOBS 113 - The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

In a prelude to the third part of our exploration of the fiction of Mr Kim Newman, Mr Jim Moon takes us on a journey back to Victorian London for an adventure with the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes. In this peculiar case, we encounter Holmes's elder brother Mycroft and the most mysterious Diogenes Club...

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Saturday, 6 April 2013

DOCTOR WHO 7.7 - The Rings of Akhaten

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The Rings of Akhaten was a big, colourful, emotional episode and, well, not the kind of episode I was expecting from the creator of the bleak, gritty and dark cop show Luther! However it's fair to say that first time Who scribe Neil Cross has created an adventure that going to keep folks talking for some time, and that's because it's one of those episodes that either knock your socks off or leaves you yawning... But I'm getting ahead of myself! 

Let's have a look at the basics first. Well, we got a nicely realised visit to alien climes, complete with a whole  Cantina bar's worth of different and new races. Obviously Matt Smith was on good form as usual, however special mention and praise for That Speech. Also as I'd hoped we got to see a different side to Jenna-Louise Coleman - yes, folks there was plenty of nice character moments here and generally showing her to be a lot more than a collection of witty one liners and a sassy attitude. 

Now then, on the other hand this episode did have 'first time writer to Who' written all over it - and the reason I say that is I have noticed over the years that new hands do have a tendency to look to the show's past and assemble a script magpie-style. And in The Rings of Akhaten you could certainly identify elements lifted from the program's recent history. 

To begin with, the whole first outing for a new companion being an impressive event chosen by the Doctor was very reminiscent of Rose's maiden voyage in the TARDIS in The End of the World. Furthermore the rousing third act with the uplifting crowd singing echoed Gridlockand the Doctor delivering a stirring monologue in the face of an awakening ancient monster god will remind more than a few viewers of a similar scene in The Satan Pit

However in fairness, in a show with a fifty year history, it's rather hard to write something that a knowledgeable can't find a parallel for in the past. And the real question isn't whether Mr Cross has been *ahem* heavily inspired by previous adventures but whether this new story works or not. And that's where this episode gets a bit tricky.

Firstly to drawn another parallel from the recent past, this is very much a story in the mould of The Beast Below - the important feature here is not the story. The plot line is merely a McGuffin to establish the Doctor and new companions relationship,; it's where they learn how the Doctor operates and he discover whether they have the heart to adventure with him.

But more importantly The Rings of Akhaten is one of those big colourful stories, it's all about big spectacle, grand speeches and a torrent of emotion. And those aims are paired nicely with the plot line which is about feeling and music and the archetypal power of stories and sentiment. It's not about plot detail, it's not even about thrills, it's about the emotions. It's an episode that is working on an  impressionistic level rather than centering on narrative intricacies, it's aiming for the heart rather than the head.  

Now if you go along with the story's tide, you may well be swept away by the end. And as such, if it works for you, you rate it higher than probably any of the other stories I've reference in this piece. However if, for example, you've come here expecting a slice of SF or a romping adventure, then all the operatics of The Rings of Akhaten will, well, ring hollow. 

And which side of the fence does your humble reviewer fall? Well, I can understand why some will be unimpressed and even why some will hate it, for this kind of story's conclusion hinges upon an emotional moment rather any strictly logical twist. However that's an artistic trade-off I can live with, and indeed from how the story it unfolded, it was the kind of end-game I expected. 

Now I did enjoy it and I did like it, but I wasn't completely bowled over with it. However in all honesty, I'm not sure whether that was the episode itself not quite succeeding in provoking the desired in effect or whether  that was down to me being distracted by my internal reviewer making notes - for certainly in the big finale I was half thinking of the howls of 'this doesn't make sense!' and 'Pah! Sentimental guff!' that would be emanating from some corners of fandom. And also trying to decide if there was a lift from Blade Runner in the Doctor's big speech. Such distracting backchat from the back of your own bonce is one of the perils of reviewing... 

I guess this is one of those Marmite episodes - as so often the big emotional ones are. But hey, whether you loved it or hated, next week we have a monsters on a submarine tale that looks set to deliver the kind of  old school thrill and chills that we all love. 

Friday, 5 April 2013

DOCTOR WHO 7.6 The Bells of St. John

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Well, first things first we have new titles and a new mix of the theme tune. Well, I say new, they actually debuted with the Christmas special The Snowmen but as I didn't review that they deserve a mention here. Firstly my reaction to the latest incarnation of the iconic theme is pretty much the same as my reaction to every theme since 1980 and that is to shout at the telly "Bring the bloody Delia Derbyshire version back, this new version is bobbins!" 

Yes, I know, I'm a hard-liner! But the Derbyshire version STILL sounds like it dropped out of a wormhole from another, more frightening and futuristic dimension. You're not going to better it any time soon, so admit defeat and bring it back! End of. 

As for the new titles - well, I approve of the homage to the classic series, a nice touch for the 50th anniversary year. They are a case of I can see what they are trying to do, but again I have to say - and yes, I know I will sound hopeless trapped in the past - but again, since 1980 they've been doing different titles sequences and all have looked inferior to the classic 'time tunnel' that debuted in Pertwee's last season and remained until Tom Baker's last. Like the Derbyshire theme, it was so ahead of its time, it still looks good now and really you're on a hiding to nothing doing something different really.

Not that they should use the old titles footage, but I feel that concept should be the blueprint on which modern titles sequences should be built. All the new series title sequences have flirted with the old time tunnel but then pranced about trying to be modern and do their own thing and it's not quite worked. It's time to stop being coy and use rebuilt on a blueprint drawn from the old sequence...

However it's not really a big deal - the new show changes the titles and theme mix on a regular basis. And so while I'm not particularly enamored with either of the latest version, I'm fairly sure they'll change again in the not to distant future.

We also have a new look console room. Now this latest TARDIS desktop theme I'm a bit unsure of as I really liked the last one. This one feels a bit too metallic and cold, but it may well grow on me and again, the new series has a habit of changing these things regularly anyway. I daresay I won't be giving it a second thought in two or three episodes' time.

So then, with all the new visuals remarked upon, what of the episode itself?

Well, it was good fun all in all. Not the greatest Who ever screened but then I wasn't really expecting that. For bearing out my Series-7- is-two-mini-seasons idea (see Doctor Who Series 7 - The Story So Far), The Bells of St. John felt like a series opener, and one with the job of embedding a new companion. Now yes, I know that we've already met Jenna-Lousie Coleman twice before, but they were different versions of that character, and the current one we meet here doesn't remember and/or know about those previous encounters with the Doctor. And hence this Clara needs to meet our favourite Time Lord and decide to travel with him.

Now as these sort of episodes go, it was rather nicely handled. Of course, as the purpose of the episode is to get the Doctor and his new companion together the story was, as I expected it would be, rather slight. However I would say that as thin as the actual plot was, it was a solid little mystery for the Doctor and Clara to unravel together and one that fitted the running time of the episode nicely, without feeling galloped through or suffering from an over-stuffed last ten minutes (two common stumbles in the modern show).

Needless to say Matt Smith was on good form as ever, however what of the new girl. Well, yes, she's very pretty and the whole mystery around her is intriguing. However we did really see much more of her character than we've already seen before. And I have to say, I am slightly worried that her fast-talking traits may well get a little irritating if the writers are just going to push the buttons marked 'snappy line' and 'sassy'. Time will tell.

However as we have met Clara, or rather other versions of her before, I did feel we needed to see a little more of personality than we actually got in this episode. The trouble is it that this was effectively the third introduction to the same girl. Of course, I appreciate that as the first episode of a fresh run of Who, it's seen as a jumping on point and therefore we need (allegedly) to have the character freshly established, and this episode did it nicely, however I did have a nagging feeling that perhaps a little less meet-and-greet and more heads down adventure would have been nice.

Unusually for Mr Moffat, the episode was all fairly straight forward stuff plot-wise. Now some have said that we got no real explanation of what the spoonheads and their master were really up to, or indeed why. But come on folks, this is a first episode and aside from firmly establishing the mystery over what is going on with Clara, Moffat is also seeding his story arc here. For example, I'll be very surprised if this is the last we've seen of U.N.I.T. this series - being an important part of the show's history, I fully expect that these Earthbound allies of the Doctor will play an important role in later stories, and we'll be seeing the Brigadier's daughter again.

But the big point here - and last chance to jump ship spoiler dodgers! - was the reveal that the Great Intelligence was behind it all. Now many felt, that Richard E Grant was under-used in The Snowmen, an opinion with which I concur. However, that seeming under-use started to make sense when The Great Intelligence appeared at this episode's close - the GI's appearance wasn't just a nod to old fans, it was the (re)introduction of a major foe. Clearly this old enemy from the Doctor's past is going to be a recurring problem in this series, if not the Big Bad itself! And I'm quite sure we'll learn what object of its schemes in this episode were in the coming weeks. Giving that the Doctor's second encounter with the Great Intelligence, the Web of Fearintroduced us to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and led to the formation of U.N.I.T., I imagine he/it may well be looking to settle an old score there too.

So then, while not an outstanding story, I think The Bells of St. John sowed some very interesting seeds for the coming series...

DOCTOR WHO Series 7 - The Story So Far...

Scanners indicate a high level of spoilers

So then, at long last Doctor Who has returned to our screen and the 50th anniversary is well under way. However before we have a look at the opening episode of the second half of Series 7, let's take a spoilery look back at what has come before...

First up, while some fans have up in arms about the new split season format, I'd have to say that personally I've liked the scheduling of Series 7. To begin with we got Who back on the screen in the darker autumn nights - Doctor Who is best enjoyed I think when it's not blazing sunshine outside - and then it was a fairly short wait for our next fix with the feature length Christmas special. Of course, then it was only a short hop in the calendar until The Bells of St John. All in all, a rather more preferable arrangement to getting a thirteen week dollop of the show and then the best part of a year before the TARDIS opens its doors for business again. 

But of course all of this does mean that the rest of this year is going to be somewhat Who lite, albeit with the big anniversary special slated  for the autumn. However I'll be happy enough if Series 8 repeats the split season pattern of two halves in spring and autumn, giving regular fixes through out the year. 

And what did the opening half of Series 7 actually deliver? Well, it promised a blockbuster every week and indeed it largely made good on that promise, serving up a fun set of pretty much stand-alone adventures. Admittedly there was some connective tissue between the stories focusing on Amy and Rory's relationship and setting up their departure, but it was more a running theme than a true story arc. Some said it was all too light weight and bitty, but then again folks had said that Series 6 was too dark and too much of an integrated story arc, so you pays yer money and takes yer choice. 

The show's great strength is its flexible format and obviously not everything they do is going to please everyone. But the important thing is, while the internet foams at its collective mouth and endless bickers over the fine details, it's a good thing the show is evolving and changing. And despite the often bitter arguments boiling away in fandom, viewing figures and audience appreciation scores remain solid, which sharply high-lights the difference in the way fans and ordinary viewers watch the show I feel... And I plan to examine this in more detail with a State Of The Show Address at some point nearer the anniversary. 

So then, let's have a quick run through the episodes, throwing in some spoilery remarks absent from my original reviews and a reassessment with the benefit of hindsight. First mentions of the title will have links to said original reviews. All set? Good, let's go then...

The series opened with a bang with Asylum of the Daleks. Now generally you can't do wrong with the Daleks... yes, even when they are in Manhattan! Basically even if the story is bobbins, there's just a rock solid level of fun from seeing the genocidal pepperpots misbehaving! Now this particular offering wasn't the great outing for Skaro's finest but it did give us an interesting look into their organisation and the concept of there being Daleks who are too far gone even for the Daleks is a fascinating one. 

However like many old time fans, I was a little disappointed with the episode - chiefly because it was trumpeted that it would feature every model of Dalek ever seen. And indeed, it did alongside some nice references to their past appearances. However the trouble was, it was a case of blink and you'll miss them. Now I appreciate that this would be largely because the old models wheeled out of storage, museums and private collections would look horribly tatty in HD and hence their screen time was kept to a bare minimum  But it still felt like a bit of swizz!

But that disappointment was more than balanced out by the coup pulled off by the Doctor Who team - namely managing to keep quiet the fact that this episode gave us our first appearance of new companion to be Jenna-Louise Coleman. I don't know how they stopped the news leaking in this day and age of internet  chatter, but it was a delightful miracle! And what's more, it left us with many questions as to how Oswin who had been converted into a Dalek was going to join the Doctor on future travels. Intriguing stuff indeed! 

There was also another revelation at the end of the episode too - that now thanks to Oswin's hacking of their collective databases, the hordes of Skaro had now completely forgotten who the Doctor was. Obviously this  is a huge change to the mythos, and one some fans may well feel is vandalism. And in truth, I had mixed feelings about it - the Daleks not knowing their arch enemy any more? Surely a terrible idea! 

But one reflection, two things occurred to me. Firstly, as we have observed, Doctor Who is always a-changing and I seriously doubt that the Daleks won't very quickly identify the Doctor as a major threat once more. More importantly though, it winds down the Doctor again from the Lonely God Everyone-knows-me-and-I-can-anything figure the Davies years had built him up too. And that in my book is a good thing, scaling our favorite Time Lord back down to the anonymous eccentric who turned up at various points in space and time and quietly sorted things out. 

And it's a good thing for the Daleks too. The new series stories featuring the deadly dustbins have revolved around the Time War and Getting The Doctor very heavily. While the Time War served well to re-establish the history of the Doctor and the Daleks, it is now time to move on and I for one welcome the opportunity to go back to more old school stories where the Doctor turns up and throws spanners in the works of their latest campaign for dominating the universe. 

Moving on to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, well, it does what is says on the tin! Still great fun to watch - star studded cast, right amount and right type of humour (reminiscent of Douglas Adams), just solidly entertaining.  It might be fluff but who cares, it's great fluff! Plus bonus points awarded for a nice touch of making the titular spaceship and dinos part of a Silurian ark in space - another nice nod to both old Who and Adams there. Furthermore, and racking up more bonus points, this episode introduced us to the amazing Brian Pond, Rory's dotty dad, played with aplomb by comedy veteran Mark Williams. All highly entertaining and for my money the best rendition of the blockbuster every week concept this half series delivers. 

I don't have too much more to add to my initial thoughts on A Town Called Mercy except that it remains a solid little episode with a good moral dilemma at its heart. Although I will say it'd be nice to see the Doctor and co. visit Earth's past a little more often. So then, moving swiftly on to The Power of Three... 

...Well, actually again, not masses to add to the original review. But what I can mention now with the spoiler embargo lifted is that  it was lovely meet another new character Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) who turned out to be the daughter of the Doctor's old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who has followed in her father's footsteps and become the head of U.N.I.T. It was also pleasing to hear the Zygons name-checked, and more so now we know that this wasn't just a reference of the old fans but foreshadowing their return later this year. 

However The Power of Three, although filled with some nice little moments and more Brian Pond magic, is still the slightest of the five episodes. But also it's the episode that now feels weaker on rewatching, mainly because of what transpires in The Angels Take Manhattan, and it's this final episode I have the most problems with. 

Now the half-series finale isn't a bad episode per se - it's nicely creepy, with some fun time twisting and a dramatic finale which sees the Ponds stranded in the past. And while it was a good resolution of their sometime strained relationship, with Amy (rightly) chooses to be with Rory in the New York of yesteryear, after some reflection it has started to trouble me. 

Now I'm not talking about nit-picking the mechanics of why the Doctor can't just pop back to a slightly later or earlier year and pick them up (although I would say that that was a logical loop hole that a single line could have fixed - namely that the Doctor can't cross Amy and Rory's time lines again with unraveling history). Nor am I carping about the feasibility of the Statue of Liberty going walkabout - , it was a visual gag, nothing more, let it go! 

No, my problem is that although it played out nicely, the end of the Ponds' story just wasn't the right one in my humble opinion. After The Power of Three, I think it would have been more satisfying for the Ponds to decide to give up travelling with the Doctor rather than being forcibly separated. The episode could have played out the same right until the very end where I feel it would have better a more fitting conclusion that Amy and Rory after a very close shave decide the risks of carrying on travelling in the TARDIS were too great and as we saw in The Power of Three, they would be happier with a quiet life. 

And what's the Doctor going to say to poor Brian eh? 

The more I think about it, the more I feel the trapped in time twist at the end was an unnecessary bit of tragedy. Now I know there was a foreshadowing of something bad happening to the Ponds through these five episodes but it would have been more satisfying if that had turned out to be them deciding to leave the Doctor. And he could have still gone off to mope in Victorian London... 

Which brings us neatly to the Christmas special, The Snowmen which I didn't get around to writing a review of. Now partly that was due to having something of a bumpy festive season, the details of which I shall spare you, but also it was because I felt in danger of turning out a very similar review to the previous ones I have done for preceding Christmas specials. 

You see the thing about the annual Christmas Day episodes of Doctor Who is that they are designed to be seen through a haze of sugar, booze and seasonal cheer. And being so, they tend only to make sense when watched in that festive fugue on Christmas Day night - an enjoyable romp full of daftness, sentiment and Yuletide tropes. Generally I'd say they provide good Christmas night viewing but aren't usually very good Doctor Who in the strictest sense. And The Snowmen fits this pattern to a tee - it's a lot of fun but will come across as loosely plotted and too full of silliness if you are watching at any time other than Christmas night. 

But that said, this year's Christmas special did seem to be closer to 'proper' Doctor Who than previous Yuletide outings, as apart from the general Dickensian atmosphere, it wasn't playing around with Christmas themed stories has previous years had. And there were other factors in play too - firstly it turned out the intelligent snow was actually an old enemy from the Second Doctor's time, The Great Intelligence, making this story effectively a prequel to The Abominable Snowmen and The Web Of Fear. Secondly, we had some more recent familiar faces appear with Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax filling out the supporting cast. 

Finally and most importantly, we had the return of Jenna-Louise Coleman, this time as a seemingly different character, the governess Clara. Or rather she's the same character but in a different point of space and time... most mysterious! And that mystery is undoubted going to form the story spine for the rest of the series. Hence rather than being just an interlude between seasons - as the Christmas special usually is - The Snowmen was effectively the beginning of what I'm thinking of as Series 7B.

For I think it's fair to say that this series is really probably going to pan out as two mini series, with Series 7A being the last of the Ponds, and from The Snowmen until the thirteenth episode, or even possibly even up to the 50th anniversary special, forming Series 7B. Of course, I am  now playing that most dangerous game of second guessing Moffat - and coming episodes may well draw on or call back the first five episodes and unite the halves... But we'll worry about that later!

However having seen The Bells of St. John, the Christmas special looks now even more less stand alone... But more about that very very soon!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

ZOMBIE DAWN - An Interview With Dominic Brunt

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing new Brit zombie flick Before Dawn (see my review here), but in a surprise turn of events I got a chance to talk to director and star Dominic Brunt about the movie, the perils of low budget film making, and of course zombies!