Series 5, Episode 10: Vincent and the Doctor

Art can wait, this is a matter of life and death!”

I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. Since Doctor Who came back in 2005, there’s been a trend for episodes that focus specifically on one historical figure, most often an artist of some kind. We had Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Code, and Agatha Christie in The Unicorn and the Wasp. You could almost add Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, but he was sadly sidelined in favour of the new Day Glo Daleks.

And now, in Richard Curtis’ much vaunted debut for the series, we get Vincent Van Gogh. I really don’t know much about art, but Vincent is one of those artists that even a philistine like me is aware of. Curtis is obviously a fan, which is a good thing – imagine if we’d been treated to a story on the life of Vermeer, or Mondriaan. A lot fewer people would have got the references there, I suspect.

Vincent and the Doctor (the title presumably deliberately riffing on the film Vincent and Theo) was an enjoyable episode, but as with Simon Nye’s Amy’s Choice, it somehow didn’t quite feel like Doctor Who. Curtis is undoubtedly a talented writer, though since Blackadder your enjoyment of his work is dependent on your tolerance for sickly sweet romantic comedies, almost always starring Hugh Grant. But like Nye, he’s not a fan of Who particularly, and clearly has an outsider’s idea of how the show works.

In this case, it leads to an interesting episode. The focus on Vincent pretty much excludes any other character, and even the Doctor and Amy take second place to everyone’s favourite tortured artist. On the positive side, Tony Curran’s portrayal of Van Gogh was stunning, a brave performance the likes of which you rarely see in Doctor Who. As promised, Curtis didn’t shy away from the issue of the artist’s depression and mental illness, and this must be the first time a Who episode has been followed by one of those “If you’ve been affected by the issues in this programme” helpline ads.

But the depression, realistically shown by a hostile, hallucinating Vincent attacking the Doctor and Amy, wasn’t made the central point of Vincent’s character. He was shown as a talented but self-effacing man, who kept referring to his work as rubbish and trying to barter famous works of art for another drink.  His flirtatious byplay with Amy was a delight, particularly the “Are you Dutch too?” line, which referenced his undisguised Scottish accent. And it was perfectly believable that the now single Amy would fall for him a little bit too, although she didn’t much care for the beard. Presumably the repeated exhortations to shave it off caused a razor accident involving his ear…

Thankfully, despite Curtis’ obvious veneration of Van Gogh and his own previous history, this was not a romantic comedy. Indeed, compared with Simon Nye’s delightfully barbed dialogue in Amy’s Choice, it was barely a comedy at all. The obligatory marauding alien was present and correct, though as with previous ‘great historical figures’ episodes, it seemed almost like a perfunctory afterthought. Still, some effort was made to give the Krafayis creature interesting characteristics; I liked that it could only be seen in mirrors, or by Vincent himself, who somehow “sees differently”. And it was interesting, though a little obvious, to make the particular example here a deliberate parallel to Vincent himself, abandoned because it couldn’t see and an outcast from its race.

However, the episode wasn’t really about the alien, and he was conveniently despatched about two thirds into it. And that’s where Curtis’ usual style really showed itself, as the self-doubting Vincent was taken to the Musee D’Orsay in 2010 to see an exhibition of his own work and be worshipped (albeit unknowingly) by the ever-excellent Bill Nighy. The dialogue here was actually rather cringeworthy as the art expert declared that, in his view, Van Gogh was “the greatest painter who ever lived”, but the performances sold it in an amazing way. Nighy’s dry delivery and Curran’s gradual descent into tears brought an undoubted lump to my throat regardless of how cheesy the dialogue was, and it ended up being a rather magical little scene that was well worth getting the alien out of the way to leave time for.

When you’re directing an episode about one of the greatest artists who ever lived, it must be a challenge. Jonny Campbell rose to the challenge admirably, producing a visually stunning piece of television that deliberately referenced many of Van Gogh’s most famous works. The literal translation of Cafe Terrace at Night that enabled the Doctor to track Vincent down was nicely done, as was the scary sequence of The Church at Auvers that started the whole story, but the real magic was reserved for the scene in which the night sky transforms into Vincent’s well-known work The Starry Night. The Doctor’s worshipful eulogy of how Vincent sees the world was a little much to take, but the visuals more than made up for it.

Vincent aside, there was a palpable tension in the Doctor’s relationship with Amy this week. Obviously uncomfortable at her loss of even the memory of Rory, the Doctor’s been doing nice things for her, and she’s wondering why. This wasn’t gone into with any depth – indeed, may well have been a post-hoc contribution from Steve Moffat himself – but was nicely played by Smith and Gillan as a prelude to something more. No sign of Amy’s Crack this week, mind…

Still, Amy did try to cheer Vincent up so that he wouldn’t kill himself, and learned the same lesson about changing time that Barbara did way back in 1964’s The Aztecs. But her attempt to brighten up his garden with hordes of sunflowers “you might want to, you know, paint them…” did turn out to have inspired him to create probably his most famous work, Vase with 12 Sunflowers.  Although something tells me the real one doesn’t have ‘For Amy’ written on it. Again, it was a heartstring tugging moment, though slightly less successful than the one with Vincent in the museum himself. And as a ‘subtly altering time’ plot point, it reminded me of nothing more than that really silly episode of Quantum Leap where Sam has failed to prevent Kennedy’s assassination – “in the original history, Jackie died too…”. Yeah, right.

Still, cynical though I might be, this was an out of format episode that worked quite well. Richard Curtis still can’t resist the pull of pure sentimentality, but overall it was a heartfelt piece lifted by an amazing performance from Tony Curran as Vincent, and some great direction from Jonny Cambell. We’re obviously just treading water before the big climax at this point, but if all treading water episodes were this entertaining I’d say it was worth ditching story arcs altogether.

Series 5, Episode 9: Cold Blood

There are fixed points in time, but this isn’t one of them. This is a tipping point.”

After last week’s prolonged set up, this week we got action aplenty – almost too much to cram into one episode, but a satisfying conclusion to the thorny problems established in part one. Humanity vs Homo Reptilia – both had a legitimate claim to the Earth and neither were monsters. Both were right, and wrong. It’s the kind of tricky moral problem that gives each new Doctor a chance to show us his own moral strength by attempting to resolve the dilemma; like Tom Baker in Genesis of the Daleks, or most notably Jon Pertwee in the original Doctor Who and the Silurians.

Chris Chibnall has said in interviews that the first thing he did to prepare for writing this story was to read Malcolm Hulke’s novelisation of that original story, published as Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters (the very first Who book ever bought by a very young me, fact fans). You can tell; what he’s done with the Silurians here is create the exact same set of character dynamics. Just as in Hulke’s original, we have the wise, moderate elderly leader, the young, hotheaded warmonger and the dispassionate scientist. The scientist this time turned out to be sympathetic to humanity, taking care of their young, which was a nice touch. Mind you, it was difficult to square this with Mo’s assertion at the end of the last episode that he had been dissected while conscious. I would have preferred it if Malohkeh had started off unconcerned with these mere animals but gradually persuaded that they were intelligent creatures with as much right to dignity as he did, rather like Zira in Planet of the Apes. But there was so much story to pack in that the niceties of such subtle development would have had little room to grow.

Stephen Moore played wise old Eldane with the perfect degree of sympathy, though he was perhaps a little too sympathetic to the humans from the outset, given the scenario. His voiceover at the opening of the episode (a very Russell T touch) undercut a lot of the tension immediately by demonstrating that the Silurians, and he himself, would survive the proceedings. I’ve never cared for this kind of portentous voiceover, even with the deliberate attempt to mislead the audience. But Moore’s mellifluous tones did at least lend the story a real gravitas from the outset – even to those of us for whom he is, inescapably, the voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Neve McIntosh built on her fearsome performance last week to give us not one but two aggressive warmongers. Alaya got the martyr’s death she so obviously longed for, but her role as chief antagonist was supplanted this week by Restac, an even bolder performance as the scar faced warrior chief. Chris Chibnall seemed to be working towards the same ‘caste’ system shown in Warriors of the Deep, when Silurians were the leaders and thinkers and Sea Devils were the warriors. It was actually better developed here (though it could hardly have been worse than Warriors of the Deep), and we got a glimpse at a society that had some real depth – politics, a caste system, a scientific and aesthetic culture. It’s just a shame that such depth had to be represented by only three characters, although to be fair Chibnall managed to show more of the Silurian society than Malcolm Hulke did with the similar limitation of three representatives.  The Sea Devils got even shorter shrift in their debut story – only one of them had a speaking role!

Restac was most obviously reminiscent of Star Trek’s Klingons in her impassioned warmongering, and the other end of the scale was nicely represented by Eldane and Richard Hope’s almost cuddly Malohkeh. Still, it was hard to see how a balance of power was maintained with masses of warriors and no other scientists or politicians in sight. The big reveal of the city at the end of part one had led you to think that here was a very well-populated settlement of Homo Reptilia, but we then discovered that comparatively few had awoken from hibernation, and all the hibernating reptiles were warriors. The script didn’t extrapolate, but I for one would like to know why they had such a huge army millions of years before humanity was any kind of threat. Perhaps they weren’t quite the noble civilisation the Doctor like to portray them as.

And neither was humanity. The debates were handled well, with the Doctor, as before in the original story, trying his best to act as intermediary. But as with the original story, we got the sense that the Doctor was being a little too idealistic in his bigging up of humanity. So it proved, with Alaya being killed to almost provoke the war she was so keen on by Ambrose, whose well-meaning attempts to protect her family almost doomed the planet. It was a nice portrayal of the road to hell being built on good intentions, and Ambrose’s obvious remorse did show humanity to have more of a conscience than the reptile warriors, but it was obviously all going to go as badly as it did in 1970. At least there was no Brigadier on hand to blow them to smithereens this time.

The resolution was satisfying without being as dramatic as I’d hoped. Once again, the Doctor, this time with the Silurian leader’s agreement, decided that neither species were ready to live together in peace. After halting Restac’s CG-driven palace revolution with a handy gas decontamination procedure (another nod to Warriors of the Deep? Surely not), Eldane put his people back into hibernation with the alarm set for a thousand years time. The voiceover at least implied that this would be successful, presumably with the aid of young Elliot in spreading awareness of their existence – although UNIT have known about them for a long time and don’t seem to have bothered telling anyone. It’s rather a heavy burden for one little boy to prepare the planet for peaceful co-existence.

All the character arcs were at least nicely resolved. Tony Mack would stay with the Silurians to be cured of his venom infection, and Nasreen would stay with him, building on the hints of romance between them in the first part. Robert Pugh and Meera Syal played both parts well, particularly Syal who managed to balance her usual comic persona with some real drama. Nonetheless, I had to wonder whether they knew what they were letting themselves in for. Perhaps a sequel story could show the far more epic emergence of Homo Reptilia in the future, with the baffled Tony and Nasreen acting as ambassadors? Nice thought, but probably unlikely to happen.

The conclusion to the story proper was somewhat undermined, however, by the appearance, yet again, of Amy’s crack (chortle). Not that this wasn’t, in itself, a very dramatic sequence, it’s just that when the pace is at its highest, this sequence seemed to rather unbalance the dynamic of the story. It’s unlikely to be any fault of Chris Chibnall’s though, and this scene did at least neatly tie in to the actual story with Rory sacrificing his own life to save the Doctor from the dying Restac.

Even though it didn’t arise from the story proper, the ultimate fate of Rory is, I suspect, going to the most memorable sequence in the two-parter. Surely even those who initially disliked him must have warmed to the character by now, and his sudden death was totally unexpected. And not just his death; with the time energy leaking out of the Crack, he’s been erased from ever having existed. The sequence of the Doctor desperately trying to keep his memory in Amy’s mind was a real lump in the throat moment, as was the moment on the hillside when she clearly had forgotten Rory was ever there. But that engagement ring’s still in the TARDIS, and we’ve still to resolve the issue of the Crack. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility to imagine that Rory will be back, and it’s a measure of how much I liked the character that I really hope he is.

So, Crack aside, what we got was a workmanlike and occasionally inspired remake of Doctor Who and the Silurians. And there’s nothing really wrong with that; an actual sequel would, like Warriors of the Deep, have had the additional problem of explaining the concept to a new audience. Effectively revamping their origin story was a far easier approach, and I liked that Chibnall kept the ‘approaching Moon’ plot point as the reason Homo Reptilia went into hibernation. I also liked that the script, at least in this episode, always referred to them as Homo Reptilia; while I’ve read that it may not be entirely taxonomically correct, it’s a sight more valid than ‘Silurians’ or ‘Eocenes’. And it was apparently Chibnall that specified that their guns should look like the ones from The Sea Devils. I like that attention to detail.

Better than last week, though the two-parter as a whole was rather badly structured, Cold Blood was an enjoyable episode, and one of Chris Chibnall’s best scripts, though somehow I was expecting a more epic conclusion than the traditional Pertwee-style explosion. But it was thoughtful, well-acted and left the viewer with a lot to chew on, and that’s the mark of a good story. Not a classic, at least in my opinion, but certainly good. And with the big reveal that the Crack contains bits of the disintegrated TARDIS, some ominous foreshadowings of things to come…

Series 5, Episode 8: The Hungry Earth

“While you’ve been drilling down, something else has been drilling up.”

The Silurians are one of the most interesting concepts 70s Doctor Who ever came up with. As the original intelligent species inhabiting the planet, they went into hibernation to avoid the mass extinction which destroyed the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, their hibernation systems malfunctioned, leaving them asleep as the Earth came to be dominated by that upstart ape descendant, humanity. Given that Homo Reptilia (as the Doctor more accurately referred to them) are a civilised, cultured race with as much claim to this planet as we do, they’re an obvious allegory for the displaced indigenous peoples of nations like America and Australia. The interesting variance here is that unlike Native Americans or Aborigines, the Silurians are in some ways more technologically advanced than Homo Sapiens, and are perfectly capable of taking their planet back – by force, if necessary.

So, a well-thought out cultural allegory as originally conceived by writer Malcolm Hulke; the moral ramifications of which were well-explored in their debut story, 1970’s Doctor Who and the Silurians, slightly less well-explored on their return in 1972’s The Sea Devils, and barely glanced at in 1984’s Warriors of the Deep. A thoughtful new Who story could restore some of the original thoughtfulness and depth to the concept, surely? Well, perhaps. But probably not in the hands of Chris Chibnall.

In the interests of fairness, I should point out that, regardless of my previous opinions of Chris’ work, I do try and go into each new script with an open mind. Occasionally, this has left me pleasantly surprised; his opening story for Torchwood’s second season, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was an excellent script, lacking in some internal logic but well-written and put together with panache. By contrast, his previous effort for Doctor Who itself, 42, was a bit of a mess of wasted potential, with some badly drawn characterisation and the ridiculous lack of logic that led to the ‘recall escape pod’ button being placed on the outside of the spaceship! After three years, I still can’t forgive the staggering contrivance of that concept, apparently put there solely to justify the set piece of the Doctor spacewalking.

As a script, I think The Hungry Earth falls somewhere between those two extremes; not a classic by any means, but a workmanlike setup for what looks like a more interesting second half. It’s basically, as my friend Kim put it, “45 minutes of exposition”. It does have the feel of an early 70s Jon Pertwee story; the setting of a remote village, enshrouded by a dome-shaped barrier (The Daemons), in which a pioneering scientific project is menaced by a mysterious alien force (any number of stories, but most notably Inferno). The village is curiously underpopulated though; when the barrier enshrouds the area, there are basically only five people inside it. It’s understandable that the story doesn’t really need any other major characters (except the Silurians themselves), but a few disposable extras like in last week’s episode might have added to the feel of the setting. Even with the excuse that most of the project’s workers commuted to work, it seemed a little odd that a village with a sizeable church and graveyard didn’t have at least a few more inhabitants.

Unlike in Inferno, it’s not clear what Nasreen Chaudhry’s drilling project is actually for; presently it seems that they’re trying to drill deeper than ever before just to show they can. It also seems curiously under-funded, with the control centre being represented by some computer terminals in what looks suspiciously like a warehouse. Still, budgetary constraints haven’t really harmed the episode’s CG effects – the domed barrier over the village was nicely realised, especially when it turned black to shroud the village in convenient darkness.

The build up to anything actually happening had some nice concepts, but seemed dragged out to excess. The idea of graves being robbed from below is nicely creepy, and the predatory holes in the ground were a good touch, noticeably reminiscent of similar sequences in 1984’s Frontios (in which a character comments, “the earth is hungry”). It was a good idea to split the regular team up early, with Rory being mistaken for a police investigator while Amy was kidnapped below ground, but it seemed to take far too long before there was even a hint of the Silurians appearing.

When they did, it was in the form of Alaya, a well-written character who got many of the episode’s best lines. As one of the ‘warrior class’ from a previously unseen sub-species of the Silurians, it was a good idea that the make-up left most of her face visible, allowing for a good performance as a proud, even arrogant, representative of a genuinely wronged species. Her assertion that one of the humans the Doctor was so proud of would kill her, thus starting what she sees as an inevitable war, was a particularly chilling pronouncement. It’s a genuine suspense builder that we can’t guess which – Rory, with his girlfriend kidnapped, Ambrose, with her son stolen, or Tony, infected with the creeping poison from this version of the Silurians’ sting.

The new versions of the Silurians have some imaginative touches. As well as the aforementioned sting, they’re equipped with Predator-style masks that give thermal vision, nicely parodied by the Doctor with his nightvision shades. This also led to the interesting revelation that Silurians are cold-blooded; an idea still somewhat hotly debated (forgive the pun) with relation to the dinosaurs themselves. It was also interesting that the Doctor referred to Alaya as being “300 million years out of her comfort zone”, a timescale which would put the Silurian civilisation rather early in reptilian development, somewhere around the Carboniferous period if memory serves. Still, given that Malcolm Hulke made a fairly significant historical error in naming them ‘Silurians’ in the first place, it’s hard to take the science too much to task.

Working with fairly broadly drawn characters, the guest cast aren’t bad at all, and it’s nice to hear some Welsh accents in the show, given where it’s produced. The characters seem primarily to be there for the Doctor to explain the plot to, so it’s a relief that the likes of Robert Pugh and Meera Syal can take what little they’re given and produce likeable performances. The only slight deviance from the ‘standard family’ of Mo and Ambrose is the idea that young Elliot is dyslexic – I wonder if that might prove a plot point later?

With the lion’s share of the dialogue taken up by the Doctor’s explanations this week, even the regular cast got fairly short shrift. Arthur Darvill has perfected an enquiring look as he listens to Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan got to be kidnapped and locked in a pod – very traditional – while looking rather worried. Matt Smith, given the only notable character interaction in his ‘interrogation’ of Alaya, was as good as usual, but hopefully some of the other characters will get a look in next week.

After the overlong set piece of the Silurian hunt under the blackened dome, the episode just seemed to amble towards what could charitably be called a climax, though it did seem more like just a convenient chapter break. Tony has a creeping green infection under his skin, Amy is about to be dissected while conscious in a scene reminiscent of Planet of the Apes, and the Doctor has headed underground with Nasreen to look for the Silurians. The revelation that there’s a huge city full of them led to a reasonably well-realised CG vista, but as a climax it was a little too predictable.

It’s not really fair to assess the quality of a first part without having seen the second, but on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, I think it’s going to be a rather rushed conclusion to an overlong setup. But the promise of a larger cast and some actual advancement of the plot next week looks interesting, and as an overall story I’ll reserve judgment till then. It’s notable, however, that the first part of the recent Weeping Angels two-parter was packed full of incident as well as exposition, and was an exciting episode in its own right; at this stage, the best I can say for The Hungry Earth is that it’s far from the worst thing Chris Chibnall’s ever written…

Series 5, Episode 7: Amy’s Choice

But this feels real!”

Doctor Who does Nightmare on Elm St. Via the acerbically witty pen of Simon Nye, most recently responsible for a similarly caustic style in the remake of Reggie Perrin.

Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to make of that. It was certainly an entertaining and thrilling piece of drama, it’s just that it didn’t – quite – feel like Doctor Who. It’s great that Steve Moffat has managed to attract big name writers like Nye and Richard Curtis to the show; but from this at least, I got the impression that Nye was a latecomer to the series, unfamiliar with the 47 years of backstory that can be both a blessing and a burden to fan writers. While it was enjoyable, Amy’s Choice had the feel of a newcomer’s impression of what the show should be like.

Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Episodes like Love and Monsters that challenge the accepted format are a lot of fun and help to keep the show fresh. My boyfriend commented that it felt more like a Sarah Jane Adventures story, and one of my friends thought it highly reminiscent of surreal 60s experiments in Who, like The Celestial Toymaker or The Mind Robber. For me, what it felt like was a good Doctor Who Magazine comic strip – a sideways glance at a universe that was almost, but not quite, like the show on the telly.

All that aside, though, it still had the emotional heart of all the recent character-driven episodes. There was a lot going on here, from the seemingly deliberate pastiches of typical Who plots, to the differing levels of reality, and the self-conscious gentle mockery of the conventions of the show. Ultimately though, this was a story about the complicated emotional relationship between the three main characters.

There’s apparently a school of thought that Rory is too similar to the early, comedy version of Mickey Smith, and that his addition to the TARDIS crew is an echo of the Doctor/Rose/Mickey love triangle of the first two series. There’s some truth in the latter of those two assumptions, though it’s a tribute to Steve Moffat’s clever writing that it’s being played out far more subtly.

But Rory certainly has more substance than the comic bumbler Mickey initially was. As I said last week, I think in some ways he’s the most realistic character in the show; most of us would, in such a situation, be as out of our depth as he is. And this week, with a glimpse into his (fictional) future, we saw a genuinely affecting portrayal of an ordinary bloke trying to do the best he could, and always feeling that it wasn’t enough. I love Arthur Darvill in the part, and it helps that he really looks ordinary – not that I want to be unflattering! It’s just that, let’s face it, Noel Clarke was a bit of a looker, wasn’t he?

Of course, the other two characters were just as good. As the title bore her name (and was it meant to be so reminiscent of the title of Holocaust angst-fest Sophie’s Choice?), Amy was the key to the whole story. Karen Gillan really rose to the challenge, giving us a performance that was by turns comic (her pregnancy cravings), brave (facing down the Dream Lord), and heartbreaking (her tears when dream-Rory died).

As to the Doctor, it’s telling that I’ve started to take Matt smith’s affectedly eccentric performance so much for granted that I almost don’t notice how good he is! The excellent dialogue helped; I love that he’s back to having that alien, not-quite-getting-human emotions quality. Peering intently at Mrs Poggett, he had the terrific – and ultimately significant – line, “you’re very old, aren’t you?”, and he seemingly didn’t initially grasp the idea that Amy was pregnant – “you’ve swallowed a planet!” He also got the best lines when deconstructing the almost post-modern parodies of traditional Who plots. As the aliens possessing the OAPs of Upper Leadworth explained who they were and what they were up to, he finished all their sentences with a hilariously weary, seen-it-all-before air.

The main deconstruction of the show was done by the episode’s only other major character – the enigmatic Dream Lord. Toby Jones was fantastic in the part, all his lines delivered with the same acid wit he brought to his performance as Truman Capote. Early on, we got a few clever clues as to who the Dream Lord actually was. The fact that he first appeared wearing what was basically the Doctor’s costume should have given it away, but there were some nicely placed red herrings, such as the Doctor’s comment, “only one person in the universe hates me that much”. He seemed too sane to be the Master (the recent one, anyway), so I immediately thought of the aforementioned Celestial Toymaker. In the event, though, he actually turned out to be a version of the Valeyard! Like that character, he was an amalgam of the dark aspects of the Doctor himself, and also like that character he managed to get off the most barbed insults to the Doctor, steeped in self-knowledge – “you’ve got so many tawdry quirks, you could open a tawdry quirk shop”.

Matt Smith reacted to the revelation well, showing us a Doctor who, despite his age and heroics, has plenty of self-doubt and self-hatred. It was the sort of critical look at the Doctor’s failings that we’ve rarely seen since the Sylvester McCoy era.

So, while parodying trad Who plots, this was far from a trad Who episode. It was heartfelt, funny and thrilling, but still felt like an intruder from a sort of sideways Who universe. But it was highly entertaining, and did well to advance – but not resolve – the ongoing Doctor/Amy/Rory thread. I certainly enjoyed it, and have a feeling that its’ one of those episodes that would benefit from a couple of repeat viewings to take it all in. And as to the dark side of the Doctor – what with that reappearance of the Dream Lord reflected in the console, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of that…

Series 5, Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice

You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”

You want vampires? Toby Whithouse can give you vampires. After his excellent Doctor Who debut, series 2’s School Reunion. Toby famously went on to create BBC3’s excellent Being Human, in which a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house in Bristol. The Vampires of Venice has nothing like the depth of that series, but nonetheless Toby’s thoughtful writing style raised this a little above the fun romp that it basically was.

The actual concept of vampires in Venice is not new; there was a spurious sequel to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu called Vampire in Venice way back in 1987, and apparently there are actual historic myths about vampires in the Italian city state. But this had the inventive idea that the villains weren’t actually vampires at all – they were alien ‘fish people’, bad enough that they actually preferred to be thought of as vampires! It’s an inventive idea that also neatly sidesteps the need to tie these in with the other ‘vampires’ already in Doctor Who continuity, the Great Vampires seen in State of Decay and the Haemovores from The Curse of Fenric. These ‘vampires’ were creepily played and well-directed, especially the Calvieri girls who were, presumably intentionally, strongly reminiscent of every portrayal of Dracula’s ‘brides’. Joining in with the theme was Murray Gold, whose score was, in its low, mournful strings, inescapably reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It’s a mark of the writing quality that the script wrongfoots you into thinking the villains are entirely without redeeming features. Certainly the sublimely creepy Francesco Calvieri comes across as a straightforward villain, but just as we think the same of his mother, she gives us an impassioned speech about trying to save her race from extinction. Certainly the end never justifies the means, but in the terms Signora Calvieri expresses – one city of 200,000 in exchange for an entire race – you can certainly see the temptation to think along those lines. The Calvieris were an engaging pair of opponents, and strikingly played by Helen McCrory and Alex Price – the latter being especially unnerving, like a young man who was heading towards being good looking and took a wrong turn towards ‘sinister’ at the last moment.

It was actually something of a relief that the ‘vampires’ of the title proved to be nothing of the sort, as the screens are becoming irritatingly crowded with bloodsuckers. As well as the aforementioned Being Human, there’s True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and teenage girl swoonfest the Twilight series to contend with. Vampires, in short, a re getting a little routine. So the fish people of Saturnine were overall a more inventive monster, used well in an appropriate and sumptuous historical setting.

Standing in for Venice, the Croatian town of Trogir was well used, particularly in street shots when we didn’t have to see a wide vista; the real Venice would presumably have been infinitely busier and too modern to portray its 16th century self. Less successful were the long shots of the city as a panorama, in which it was clear that the watery setting and attendant gondolas had been added by the Mill.

But the realisation of Venice in 1580 was there in the writing too. The Doctor’s wariness of the presence of Casanova, the use of the canals to infiltrate the Calvieri Academy, Rory’s pretence to be ‘”a gondola… driver” meant that it was more than just a gratuitous historical setting and actually instrumental to the story. As did the ultimate plans of Rosanna Calvieri; any city can be flooded, but only Venice can be sunk.

These short romps tend to have little time to develop supporting characters, so it was pleasing to see the depth given to even the minor players like Carlo the Steward. It was a nice little touch to show him fleeing the Academy with the silver as the catastrophe struck. But the main supporting characters were Isabella and Guido, and not only were they well developed, but another example of Toby Whithouse’s writing taking you by surprise. Given that the initial purpose behind investigating the Academy was to ‘rescue’ Isabella, it was a heck of a surprise that when they failed she was immediately fed to the fishes. It also perfectly set up both Guido’s explosive sacrifice and the Doctor’s moment of righteous anger for the week.

And I did like that moment of righteous anger. Matt Smith does fine when he’s shouting passionately as last week, but I much preferred the underplaying of his conversation with Rosanna Calvieri, as he condemned her for killing Isabella without even knowing her name. It was an affecting bit of writing, very well acted, that certainly beat the pants off Tennant’s “Nothing can stop me now” bit in The Idiot’s Lantern. Matt Smith, in fact was on very fine form this week, neatly mixing that kind of gravitas with a superb sense of comic timing. You’d have expected the pre-credits teaser to end with Francesco baring his vampire teeth; instead, we cut to the Doctor leaping out of a ‘stripper cake’ at Rory’s stag do. The Doctor’s baffled attempt to explain Amy’s attempt to jump his bones was a great comic moment, and well-served by the excellent dialogue given to all three leads this episode.

Yes, all three leads. Rory’s now officially part of the TARDIS crew, “my boys” as Amy affectionately calls them. And I thought Arthur Darvill was great as a well-written character. I did think there was a little too much use of him as, basically, the comic relief, such as the interview with the Calvieris and his attempt to fight off Francesco with a not very sturdy broom, but really, wasn’t that the most realistic portrayal of how any of us might act under the circumstances. I know we’d all like to think we’d be great heroes if the Doctor whisked us off into time and space, but I suspect I’d be far more like Rory: blundering, scared and completely out of my depth.

Which is not to say he was played as stupid, far from it. Aside from his buddy buddy byplay with the Doctor “Yours is bigger.” “Let’s not even go there…”, he got some of the more penetrating lines in the script, including the one quoted at the top of this review. I’m glad to have him around, and hope he carries on in the same way as he did in this episode.

And it’s clear now that Amy’s the one who wears the pants not only in that relationship but the one with the Doctor too. Karen Gillan was entertaining as she led the two ‘boys’ into the TARDIS, and throughout the episode. It was a typical but well-played bit of companion heroism for her to be the ‘mole’ inside the Academy, and thankfully this week she didn’t solve the crisis when the Doctor couldn’t: she still needed rescuing, and the Doctor and Rory were on hand to do it, bickering all the way.

And the script had one last ace to play that raised it above the level of a mere romp. The final scene between the Doctor and Rosanna, as she threw herself to her doom at the teeth of the last of her species, was an unexpectedly moving moment, and very well acted by both. There were more hints here than previously of what we know the Doctor’s been guilty of in the past, and Matt Smith’s face was a perfect picture of despair when Rosanna asked him if his conscience could bear the weight of one more dead race.

Ultimately, The Vampires of Venice is a romp, a filler episode, and should be compared to the likes of The Idiot’s Lantern, The Lazarus Experiment. But some great performances, sparkling dialogue and a bit of unexpected depth lift it above your average filler. It’s still not Genesis of the Daleks, but hey, what is? And the story arc was given little time this week, but what time it did get added another level of creepiness to the ‘crack in time’ concept. Now, it’s not only ‘the end of all things’, but ‘the Silence’. The same Silence that the TARDIS crew heard beginning to seep into 15th century Venice. And somehow, I find that even more chilling than the end of all things…

Downing Street… The Final Frontier…

So, on Thursday evening I and a group of friends bravely gathered to boldly go where several men have gone before: to stay up all night watching the election, with only the aid of enormous quantities of alcohol.

Election coverage is always fun, as attested to by the numerous parodies of it produced over the years. We watched some of these to get us in the mood. Monty Python’s Election Night Special was followed by Blackadder the Third’s opening ‘Pitt the Younger’ episode, and then some vintage Party Political Broadcasts. Notable was the Green Party one which seemed to consist solely of children being humiliated by having chemical waste dropped on them, the Conservative one which didn’t need words, just a montage of Maggie Thatcher being great to stirring music, and the Conservative ‘car metaphor’ one, in which every party was represented by a car. Labour were of course an old fashioned VdP Princess, the SDP/Liberal Alliance were (of course) a bubble car with two steering wheels, and the Tories somehow thought it would look good if they were an Austin Montego. Plainly they’d never driven one.

Then on to the real thing! It had the potential to be one of the most interesting elections in years, with the televised debates creating a swell of support for the Lib Dems and the other major parties heavily tainted by the expenses scandals, not to mention 13 years of discreditation preceded by 18 years of discreditation. I and most of my friends were voting Lib Dem, and while not expecting them to actually win were hoping for a big increase in their share of the popular vote, and perhaps their number of seats. My young boyfriend had even been out canvassing for them and manning the local polling station.

9pm: we switched to Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night, which promised a ‘night of comedy’ relating to all things electoral. Unfortunately it was primarily presented by the annoying Jimmy Carr, a man who by dint of his very personality can make a good joke unfunny. On the bright side, he was accompanied by the ever-witty David Mitchell, and for some reason Lauren Laverne was there, perhaps as eye candy. A few varyingly funny routines were followed by a politically themed Come Dine With Me, a show that I actually can’t stand in the first place. It was amusing to see Derek Hatton squaring up to Edwina Currie yet again whatever the context though, and Rod Liddle, doing his usual impression of a supremely pissed off bloodhound, was entertainingly rude. Only Brian Paddick, the appropriate Lib Dem  voice of reason, failed to make much of an impression.

But it was 9.55 pm now, and time for the real thing. Over to BBC One we went, expecting it to be the best of the channels covering events. Immediately David Dimbleby popped up, as reassuring as a comfortable old armchair, and a sense of security was generated. Dimbleby would never steer us wrong, and surely in his capable hands the election coverage would be masterful and insightful.

Ever since Bob McKenzie introduced the Swingometer, election pundits have been trying to top this fairly basic way of patronisingly explaining events to the clueless viewer, and the advent of CG has allowed for an increasingly barmy selection of ways to realise the political situation as a largely inappropriate visual metaphor. This has tended to give election coverage an increasingly sci fi feel as years went on, and 2010 didn’t disappoint here. As soon as we saw that Dimbleby and co seemed to be wandering around the Operations Centre of Deep Space Nine, it was clear that this was going to be Star Trek: The Political Coverage.

And so it proved. For the first few minutes, sub-Next Generation music played continuously as Dimbleby introduced us to the crew. We met the Away Teams, who would be dedicatedly stalking the party leaders all night. Andrew Marr was assigned to David Cameron, while John Simpson had beamed to a location near Gordon Brown, and Kirsty Wark was to be genetically handcuffed to Nick Clegg. In the Holodeck was Jeremy Vine, ready to generate computer images to explain everything. Standing ready to scientifically analyse the incoming results was Lt Cmdr Emily Maitlis, who had been equipped with a giant touch screen iPad to illustrate her points. This device, which made intrusive noises reminiscent of a Tivo whenever touched, was quickly dubbed the ‘iPlinth’ in our house, though variants such as ‘iBelisk’ cropped up on occasion.

In a ‘historic first’ Dimbleby then projected several giant phalluses onto the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. These were to represent how near to the ‘majority line’ each party got as the night progressed. We settled in, beer and nibbles easily to hand, as it all began.

At 10pm on the dot, exit poll results popped up on screen. All looked immediately grim (including us). A Hung Parliament? With the Tories in the lead, and the Lib Dems actually losing seats? Surely not. Notes of caution were immediately struck. “The real poll has yet to be revealed”. Sadly, the exit poll would turn out to be all too accurate.

Meanwhile, we cut to Andrew Neil, who, in a break from the Star Trek theme, was inexplicably hosting a showbiz party on a boat in the Thames, rather like the Sex Pistols famously did. Unfortunately for us, no police stormtroopers were on hand to break this party up, and we had to endure Neil soliciting the expert political opinions of the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. All the celebs seemed somewhat baffled as to what they were actually doing there, and Brucie even went into his “nice to see you, to see you… nice” routine as a kind of default fallback. Copious amounts of alcohol seemed to be on hand, so that by the time Neil sought the astute political analysis of Bill Wyman, the erstwhile Rolling Stone seemed incapable of speech.

We’d cut back to Neil at various times throughout the night, but back at Deep Space Nine, the real analysis was happening as results started to come in. Houghton and Sunderland East, eager to retain their record as first to declare, had enlisted teams of toned teenage athletes to pass the ballot boxes in a relay, which went down well in our house. The first few results were unsurprising; Labour, Labour, Labour. Safe Labour seats always get results in quickly because of their urban nature, and we had to explain to our election newbie that this wasn’t the encouraging sign for Labour it might have seemed.

In the mezzanine, Chief of Security Jeremy Paxman was already on the attack. First to be grilled was the ever slimy Peter Mandelson. Paxman tried bravely, but trying to pin Mandelson down was like trying to get a chokehold on liquid shapeshifter Odo. He had better luck with Lib Dem Ed Davey, who was asked the supremely awkward question, “would you be prepared to get into bed with Peter Mandelson?”

In the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was striding over a giant map of Britain while summoning a huge vertical chart of each party’s ‘target constituencies’, complete with floating percentage indicators. It was already like being in a low rent version of Avatar, but Vine would get more bizarre as the night wore on.

Back in Operations, the ever reliable Nick Robinson was on hand for any required punditry. Given the already evident Star Trek motif, Nick was inescapably reminiscent of the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager: “Please state the nature of the political emergency.” There were signs early on that Nick’s excitement was interfering with his appropriateness gauges, as he began to talk of ‘”hot deals with the Ulster Unionists”.

We also saw signs of the other big story of the night beginning to emerge. It looked as though many potential voters hadn’t actually been able to get into polling stations. Some, particularly students, seemed to have been specifically excluded. Footage was shown of a bedraggled trail of voters trying in vain to vote in Nick Clegg’s constituency. “That’s the queue for a nightclub, surely?” exclaimed young James in our living room.

Back on Andrew Neil’s party boat, the political insight of Mariella Frostrup was being tapped. Mariella was worried; her concern was that “thoughts could be put into Gordon Brown’s hands”. Fortunately, a stunned looking Ian Hislop was also on hand, to ask an actually pertinent question: why, he wondered, were there no percentage breakdowns for the exit polls. Neil, apparently unprepared for a genuinely relevant question, was nonplussed. “Percentages won’t help you”, he snapped, and immediately buggered off, taking the camera with him.

The politicians fall like dominos! Back in the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was explaining the effect of the expenses scandal with the metaphor of a giant CG domino chain in which every domino bore the face of a naughty politician. A tap of his finger and the virtual naughties fell in a nice pattern, littering the floor of Jeremy’s clean white void.

A quick glance at Twitter revealed that, apparently, no one was watching the ITV coverage. “Alastair Stewart could have just gone to bed” opined one Tweeter. Given the results we were now seeing, he actually would have been better off going to the pub.

It was indeed looking bad; looking, in fact, exactly as the exit polls had indicated. But there was still time for more pontificating. “George Osborne puts the ‘Shadow’ into ‘Shadow Chancellor’” commented one of us as the hapless Tory gloated all over the screen. Meanwhile, election expert Prof Peter Hennessy had been dragged out from a handy cupboard to explain hung Parliaments: “The Queen is only activated under certain circumstances”. This produced the immediate image of the monarch as Terminator like cyborg, waiting patiently in a lab until the ‘hung parliament’ switch was pressed.

Exciting results were coming in. Gordon Brown, predictably enough, won his Kirkcaldy seat, but all were more focussed on the weirdo candidate immediately behind him. Representing ‘Land is Power’, whatever that was, his bald, pallid, sunglass clad visage was inescapably reminiscent of one of the Agents from The Matrix, and his arm was fixed in an inexplicable Black Power salute as the results were read out. Meanwhile, David Cameron was opposed by no less a personage than Jesus Christ, at least according to his outfit and beard. It was a sad indicator of how the night would go that not even the Son of Man could defeat Cameron. Book of Revelations, anyone?

We all flagged as this wore on, hour after hour, and the exit polls more clearly became unpalatable reality. After a couple of hours doze at about 6am, it became clear that a Hung Parliament was indeed the result, and the TV coverage would run for at least another day. Dimbleby took a couple of hours off, but Paxman and Robinson continued unstoppably. Even Andrew Neil was continuing to irritate, having abandoned his drunken celebrity filled party boat for a scenic pagoda on Parliament Square.

Not even we could continue watching election coverage indefinitely, and at about 3pm we gave up and went to the pub. But not before all the party leaders  had shown up to make hotly anticipated statements. Predictably, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were seeking the support of the Lib Dems to make a workable government. Nick Clegg, to the irritation of many Lib Dem voters (myself included) stuck to his pre election guns of offering to cooperate with whoever had the most seats. It’s fair to say that a large proportion of Lib Dem voters find the Tory party and its policies hugely unpalatable, and despite his integrity I think Clegg risks losing a lot of his core support if he helps David Cameron out in any way at all. Sure it’s a compromise that might help some of their policies into reality, but  in my view, the price of also realising Tory policies is too high to pay.

But to return to the coverage, and we did from time to time, the result had rather tainted the TV experience (the most important aspect, surely?). An election without a clear result is like a sex act without a climax; it all seems to be building to something great that never happens. So we’re stuck with Dimbleby and co for days yet, probably, and an uncertain governmental future. In some ways, it’s interesting times politically, with no clear resolution in sight and little constitutional precedent. It’s also clear that some form of electoral reform is vital to avoid this result in future. The only question is, will we get reform before we get another General Election?

Series 5, Episode 5: Flesh and Stone

What if time could run out?”

The satisfying conclusion to the return of the Weeping Angels saw the titular villains collide head on with the real villain of this year’s story arc – the mysterious Crack in Time. It was another ‘cracking’ script from Steve Moffat, proving yet again that, unlike many Star Trek writers, he’s capable of writing a two parter where the second part lives up to the promise of the first.

Very much like its inspiration Aliens, the big reveal that the monsters were everywhere around our heroes was followed by a frantic, tense chase, in this case through the innards of the crashed Byzantium. More superb direction from the impressive Adam Smith ensured that this was a heart in mouth, action packed episode that, unlike many a Hollywood actioner, never lost the depth and emotional involvement developed in the first part.

Like a Hollywood actioner, it had some brilliant set pieces, and unlike the shoehorned in ‘Spitfires in space’ bit from Victory of the Daleks, these integrated with, and arose naturally from, the story – the hallmark of how a good set piece should work. We were into one from the very beginning, as the Angels gradually encroached on our heroes in the flickering light of the Byzantium’s entrance corridor, while the Doctor worked frantically to open the inner hatch. “Nobody panic… only me then.”

Undoubtedly the best set piece though, and the one destined to be remembered by loads of kids when they grow up, was the bit where Amy had to walk, eyes closed, through the Angel-infested forest, as the creatures slowly, creepily, came to life around her. Steve Moffat has, as the later Confidential showed, an incredible gift for portraying the archetypal nightmares of childhood, and this is one that would certainly have had the younger me waking up in the night thinking about it. I guess it’s the influence of his two young sons – and it’s Louis Moffat who we, reportedly, have to thank for this episode’s perfect, creepy title.

Action and suspense still mixed perfectly with character involvement, as we saw in the moment when Bishop Octavian was revealed with his throat in a near death grip from a frozen Angel. It was a perfect bit of misdirection in the script; just as the danger of the Crack had been revealed – “There’s worse than Angels out there!” – the Doctor turned to see the jump out of your seat image of Octavian with a ghastly Angel’s arm around his throat. “I beg to differ, sir”. The horror was mixed with real pathos, perfectly underplayed by both Matt Smith and Iain Glen. The tears in the Doctor’s eyes said it all as he turned away, leaving the Bishop to certain death. One thought occurs – did the whole ‘Church military’ idea stem from a character called ‘Bishop’ in Aliens? I wonder…

The forest was a good setting for the episode. Like last week’s caves, it’s a traditional scary Doctor Who archetype. Think of Planet of Evil, Kinda, The Mutants… well, maybe not the last one. But it was a splendid, and logical, touch to have it contained within the crashed ship, like the biodomes in Silent Running or the ‘ship’s garden’ in The Black Hole. The ‘tree-borgs’ were a nice science fiction idea in a story that, as usual for Moffat, was so brimming over with interesting concepts he could afford to chuck them out randomly without even paying much attention to them.

Amy’s ‘countdown’ was another chilling sequence where the viewer was allowed to see what was happening before the characters onscreen – although I suspect the Doctor picked up on it rather earlier than he revealed. Apart from the inherent scariness of the very idea – an Angel in Amy’s mind, rising from her visual cortex – it was yet another example of how chillingly malevolent these monsters are, as ‘Angel Bob’ revealed that they were using the countdown to scare her, “for fun, sir.” Brrrr.

With Amy so central to the peril of this episode, River Song seemed rather more sidelined than last week. But while not so integral to the action, she still got plenty of great character moments, even offering, against all logic, to sacrifice herself to seal the Crack. We know that she can’t, because her death later in her own time stream has already been shown, but she doesn’t. And we also got more hints as to her background, but, satisfyingly, no real answers. The hints add to the puzzle of who she’ll turn out to be, and Moffat has promised that she’ll return and they’ll pay off. But, increasingly, it’s looking like nothing so simple as her being the Doctor’s future wife. We now know that Octavian got her out of prison for the mission, and that she was there for killing “the best man I’ve ever known”, the obvious implication being that her younger self killed an older version of the Doctor. As much as anything, though, a hallmark of Moffat’s writing is misdirection, and such an obvious hint is unlikely to be the real answer. I look forward to her return – assuming the excellent Alex Kingston is available when necessary – and wonder whether, perhaps, it will be later this season…

And so to the real villain of the piece – the Crack in Time. So scary even the Angels run from it, it’s arguably undercutting the monsters’ menace to have them sidelined for a more nebulous threat. But again, it integrates perfectly with the story, and fits into the structure perfectly to provide its ultimate resolution. For the first time, the Doctor and Amy have become aware that it’s following them through time and space, and it’s become clear to them, as well as us, that it’s all about Amy. Somehow.

And is it scary? Well, it was deeply unsettling as cleric after cleric went off for a closer look and never returned, and we realised that those left had no memory of them ever having existed. Obviously, any sci fi fan had an instant grasp of what was happening – the crack erases its victims from history altogether. And that’s a damn scary idea, in my opinion. “I told them it was the end of the universe.” “And what is it?” “The end of the universe.” The Crack is obviously the key to why Amy doesn’t remember the Daleks, and it’s a better explanation than Donna Noble always having a hangover when aliens invade. But how far back is the new series erasing Doctor Who continuity? Obviously Russell’s increasingly spectacular alien invasions had left Who Earth increasingly divorced from the real one, and it’s a good idea to have the clock reset. But I’d hate to lose everything Russell established, and if the Crack erases back far enough, then maybe none of the show will ever have happened. Still, I have a complete trust in Steve Moffat to resolve the conundrum well, and I look forward to it. Though I do sort of hope it’s not all a big plot of the new Rainbow Daleks.

The Crack is also the key to the story’s resolution, and a neat one it is too; with the Angels having drained all the ship’s power, the gravity fails and they fall back into it, effectively sealing it. For now. But if that means these Angels never existed, surely there would have been no reason for the troops to be after that first one. Or for the Byzantium to have crashed on the planet in the first place. I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! But that’s time paradoxes for you, and Steve Moffat’s one of the only writers who successfully explores the potential of this aspect of the show. I did notice one odd thing, and it might have been a continuity error, or it might not; when the Doctor returns, improbably quickly, after leaving Amy in the Forest to give her a couple of words of comfort, he’s wearing his jacket. The one the Angels took from him earlier, which he isn’t seen wearing at any other subsequent time in the story. It’s something you can only just make out, as the shot’s in extreme close up on the Doctor’s face, but it’s there. A continuity error? Or is it another Doctor, perhaps from a later time stream? If it were anyone other than Steve Moffat overseeing the show, I’d put it down to a mistake and forget it. But it’s a hallmark of his attention to detail that it’s made me wonder. And that also makes me wonder about the other apparent ‘error’ we’ve seen – the commencement date on Rory’s NHS ID badge being 1990, when presumably he would have been about five. Another error? We saw it in extreme close up, so I have to wonder. And with the Crack playing havoc with time…

Matt Smith was the best he’s ever been in this story, complemented perfectly by Karen Gillan. The interplay when Amy was near death was excellent, with the Doctor pragmatically refusing to lie to her about her condition. He must have learnt his bedside manner form Gregory House! It’s yet another example of how this Doctor is perhaps slightly more alien than his predecessor, and when Amy finally decides she wants to jump his bones in the final scene, he takes an age to catch on and then fights her off, with a near comic outrage. Refreshing that he does that, and even more refreshing that Amy’s looking for nothing as long-term as a relationship. But he’s let off the hook – and instantly back to his in control self – when he realises that Amy’s wedding is the date from which the Crack originated. It certainly removes any doubt as to the time period of that first story – Amy’s wedding is due on the 26th of June 2010. And if eagle eyed viewers haven’t noticed, that’s also the very date on which the last episode will be transmitted! Oooh…