Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 5 – The Tsuranga Conundrum

“So it’s just us. Alone. In space. With that creature.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Well, that was actually an improvement on last week. From 50s B-movie to… 80s B-movie? The Tsuranga Conundrum is unlikely to go down as a classic like Midnight, but it was a fun, lightweight space opera romp in the style of the ones you might have rented in a video shop in the 80s. True, handsome production values put it a little above, say, a Roger Corman or Richard Band production, and the overall feel was Star Trek the Next Generation meets Alien by way of Ghoulies.

Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 5 – The Tsuranga Conundrum”

Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 4 – Arachnids in the UK

“Big spider problem in this city right now, Yaz. Glad to be home?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

After last week’s affecting historical, Doctor Who was back on more familiar territory this episode with its own take on classic giant spider B-movies like Tarantula. Arachnids in the UK (the title presumably a dreadful pun on the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK) was a pretty undemanding 50 minutes of television, with a fair few plot holes and some underdeveloped guest characters. But you can’t deny it delivered on the giant spider front. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 4 – Arachnids in the UK”

Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 3 – Rosa

“Now we know what our task is. To keep history in order.”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

Did I just watch an episode of Doctor Who or Quantum Leap? It’s not meant to be an unflattering comparison; despite the American show’s later, more saccharine notes, at its height it was capable of using a science fiction and historical background to tell immensely powerful historic dramas like this.  Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 3 – Rosa”

Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 2 – The Ghost Monument

“What, like a race? Like Paris Dakar in space? Are you two space racing each other?”

(SPOILER WARNING)

After a solid if unexceptional season opener for a thoroughly revamped Doctor Who, new showrunner Chris Chibnall has clearly made an attempt to wow the audience in his second episode, with some amazing location filming, impressive effects, and a pair of great guest stars in Shaun Dooley and Susan Lynch. The story? Well, it was certainly more interesting than last week’s Predator visits Sheffield, but if I’m honest I doubt that what was effectively Top Gear Challenge in Space is going to go down as one of the all time classics. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 2 – The Ghost Monument”

Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth

“We’re all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve, while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been, and choose who we want to be next. Now’s your chance – how about it?”

(SPOILER WARNING!)

All change! Yeah, I know, I didn’t write an all-encompassing summary of Mr Moffat’s reign like I did with Mr Davies (my life was a bit of a mess at the time), but this really is new. New showrunner (and more about that in a minute), new team, new Doctor… and most concerningly, new composer! Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 11, Episode 1 – The Woman Who Fell to Earth”

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 4–The Power of Three

“Every time we flew away with the Doctor, we became a part of his life. But he never stayed still long enough to become a part of ours. Except once. The year of the slow invasion – the time the Doctor came to stay.”

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Bit late reviewing Doctor Who this week – ironically because I was at a Doctor Who convention all weekend, without my laptop. Regenerations in Swansea (for that was its name) was a lot of fun involving far too much drink. At one point I found myself clutching a pint glass of white wine, sitting behind Sir Derek Jacobi while Sylvester McCoy sang Tainted Love.

It also meant that we all sat and watched a Doctor Who episode’s first broadcast with various ex-members of the cast. In front of me was Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates) and a couple of seats down was John Levene (Sergeant Benton), both of whom were delighted to hear that UNIT were back this week. At one point I tried to take a picture of my friend Mette sitting next to me, but the camera-hungry Levene instantly photobombed me:

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Thankfully, he wasn’t singing songs from his recently released album, which only one of my friends was insane enough to buy!

Lots of fun then, but what of the episode itself? Of all these standalone movie-type eps so far, this was the hardest to categorise in a single sentence. Part domestic comedy, part imaginative alien invasion, it had humour, surrealism, drama and some real character insight mixed in to very good effect. And it was written by Chris Chibnall! After enjoying the light romp that was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it was yet another revelation that he could write something with so much empathy and emotion, still humorous but with real pathos and drama too. I think I may have to start re-evaluating him…

The episode’s main USP was to reverse the recent trend of “Ponds hang out with the Doctor” to “the Doctor hangs out with the Ponds”. We’ve been here before of course, with 2010’s The Lodger showing the bizarre consequences of having the Doctor in an everyday domestic setting, but this had the heightened drama/humour that it was with his own companions. Imagine if Pertwee’s Doctor had had to hang around Jo Grant’s flat for a year while she did the washing up.

With the perspective of the story refreshingly told from the Ponds’ point of view, we got a glimpse at what their double life was like, working and doing the housework punctuated by occasional visits from a bizarre alien who would whisk them away at a moment’s notice. So we got to see Amy and Rory’s “real life” established – clearing out the fridge, doing the washing up, emptying the bins – until the sudden appearance of millions of mysterious cubes brought the Doctor back. And when the cubes singularly failed to do anything, he decided to stay.

Unlike Craig in The Lodger, Amy and Rory know full well who/what the Doctor is. With no need for subterfuge, he could be as mad and eccentric as always – and this certainly was a vintage week for Matt Smith, who got to show his versatility far more than in recent episodes, switching from madcap to serious to sad at the drop of a hat. The montage of him trying to ‘keep busy’ was very much in the zany/comic tone of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (capped with the inevitable “How long have I been gone?” “About an hour”). We saw the Doctor playing on the Wii, and practising his football skills (Matt Smith still seems pretty good), and watching The Apprentice while eating fish fingers and custard.

But there were also magical scenes like the one on the roof of the Tower of London, which spelled out explicitly the ongoing theme of his most unconventional relationship with his current companions. It’s been ten years now for Amy and Rory; ten years in which she has (thankfully) gone from being a fashion model to a travel writer, and he has become a respected nurse about to go full time. The Doctor knows it can’t last forever, this double life, and as he and Amy open their hearts to each other, it’s another genuinely tear-jerking scene; “I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”

Hard to believe that Chris Chibnall, previously so enamoured of dialogue that seemed cribbed from cheap porn, could write such a moving exchange. And the earlier one, with incoming UNIT chief Kate Stewart, as he realised who her father must be, was a beautiful tribute to Nick Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Jemma Redgrave as Kate was marvellous, with her brisk, scientific attitude and dry sense of humour (“I’ve got officers trained in beheading. Oh, and ravens of death.”) I really hope we get to see her again in later episodes.

UNIT and the Brigadier weren’t the only fanboy references here, as we also got a mention of the Zygons and their shapeshifting abilities during the other montage, as the Doctor whisked Amy and Rory off on a time tour for their anniversary. Lovely to see Rory reciprocating the Doctor’s kiss to him a couple of episodes ago, and for those annoyed by Amy’s ever-short skirts, there was a droolworthy shot of him in his pants.(I’m sure there’s plenty of slash fiction already).

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They’re available from Topman, should you want them – I’m heading out to buy some in a while…

The tone shifted again from comedy to pathos as they returned to the party seven weeks later (from their perspective), and the Doctor had to tell Brian what happened to all his other companions.

Yes, Brian was back, played again by the marvellous Mark Williams. After, Russell T Davies’ trend of every companion being accompanied by a large brawling family, you can see why Steven Moffat resisted dragging another family member in till now, but Mark is so good in the part that he’s irresistible. The point has been made that he’s basically similar to Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf, but that’s a recommendation in my view. And like Wilf with Donna, he actually wants Amy and Rory to travel with the Doctor – “It’s you they can’t give up, Doctor. And I don’t think they should.” – even after hearing about the fates of some of his previous fellow travellers. After the reactions of Rose’s and Martha’s mothers, that’s a refreshing change.

In previous character-driven stories like this, the ‘standard Doctor Who plot’ is usually grafted on as a McGuffin, and is pretty unimaginative as a result (think School Reunion). But here, the “slow invasion” was a genuinely intriguing and weird premise, laced with humour – I loved the cube that played the Birdie Song on an endless loop. The identical, cube-mouthed orderlies kidnapping patients from Rory’s hospital were spooky in a Sapphire and Steel mould, as was the creepy little girl droid – you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. A dimensional portal in a goods lift was a nice touch, as was the casting of the always-intimidating Steven Berkoff as the Shakri’s holographic messenger. I know at least one four-year-old in our audience got the willies scared out of him by that.

Despite taking place over the course of a year, this was another frantically-paced episode.  You can see why Moffat wanted to place the slower-paced Town Called Mercy in between this and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, just to give the audience a breather. Unfortunately the breathless pace was probably the reason for the episode’s biggest logical flaw – its resolution.

Even if the Shakri didn’t recognise the Doctor as a Time Lord, he clearly knew all about their technology, so why give him the run of the ship, allowing him to reprogramme the cubes and blow the place up? It seemed a bit of a return to the old deus ex machina endings of the RTD era, a shame for an episode that was so good in so many other regards. That frenetic pace meant a general lack of exposition; I can forgive not being told exactly what the orderlies were for, why they were kidnapping people, or why the cubes clearly displayed a worrying looking countdown in conveniently recognisable numerals. But that resolution (or lack of it) stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it’s nothing like the logical flaw in Chibnall’s 42, where the button to retrieve the escape pod was on the outside of the spaceship (however good he gets, I’m never going to forgive him for that).

Leaps of logic aside though, this was another enjoyable episode from Chibnall (I previously assumed that typing those words must be a harbinger of the apocalypse), which addressed the ongoing theme of the Ponds and the Doctor ultimately drifting apart directly for the first time. These may be standalone episodes, but there are still clear threads running through them. I wonder if we’ll see any follow up to the Shakri’s talk of “the Tally”, which the Doctor refers to as “Judgement Day, or the Reckoning”?

It’s also been pointed out that there’s a running hint involving flickering lights – in the Dalek asylum, the bulb Brian was changing, the streetlamps in Mercy – perhaps leading in to next week’s Weeping Angel story; you certainly don’t want the lights to flicker when they’re around! I’ve also wondered (on Facebook, some days ago) whether that very large statue in New York Harbor might be something to do with the Angels (even if it is made of copper, not stone). I guess at least some of these answers will be revealed next week, as we say goodbye to the Ponds for the last time…

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 2–Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

“The creatures aboard this ship are not objects to be sold or traded.”

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Doctor Who does dinosaurs? Oh dear, I thought, remembering previous excursions into this territory in which the prehistoric beasties were represented by barely mobile bendy toys badly superimposed onto live action footage, surrounded by that distinctive shimmery yellow line produced by CSO. Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) is a good story hamstrung by its appalling effects, which only works because author Malcolm Hulke keeps the dinosaurs mostly to the background of the piece.

And now we get to see them again, in a piece by Chris Chibnall. It’s fair to say that Chibnall is far from my favourite Who writer. I found his early Torchwood scripts to be witless, po-faced and gratuitously laced with the sort of humourless sexual excess that passes for ‘adult content’ if you’re a fifteen-year-old boy, while his Who debut 42 was a disjointed, badly characterised mess so lacking in internal logic as to have a control to retrieve an escape pod located on the outside of the spaceship concerned.

Still, I always try to go into his work with an open mind, and sometimes he surprises me by producing work I really enjoy. His scripts for Life on Mars were well-characterised and enthralling, and his opener for season 2 of Torchwood actually redefined the show by giving it a sense of humour and playfulness that was noticeably lacking from its first season. And his Silurian two-parter in Matt Smith’s first year of Who, while no classic like Malcolm Hulke’s original, was a serviceable enough rework of the original 1970 concept.

With Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it seems Chibnall is being groomed as Hulke’s New Who equivalent. Having done Silurians a couple of years ago, he now gets to include actual dinosaurs. And you know what? It was actually a lot of fun. Not only does Chibnall bring a sense of humour to the concept, but this time he actually plays the whole story very much in a humorous vein (despite its underlying seriousness). I rather like classic Who’s occasional veers into outright comedy, and this felt like the closest the new series has got to that since its return.

It helped that the dinosaurs were rather more convincing than their 70s equivalents. A mix of CG and real props, they were reminiscent of far bigger-budgeted work like the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs or even Jurassic Park. Of course, both of those were made some years ago, and even their pioneering CG now looks occasionally dated and unconvincing, but generally it still holds up. And the same was true here. There were one or two shots of the dinos that looked quite ropey, either as CG or props, but the success rate was far better than any bendy toy from the 70s.

Given that ridiculously hokey, Snakes on a Plane-recalling title, Chibnall seems to have turned to Jurassic Park for a lot of his inspiration. Hence, here we get a Triceratops (also one of the friendlier saurians in the Spielberg movie) playing fetch with a golf ball and licking our heroes, a T-Rex nest like the one in JP sequel The Lost World, a pterodactyl enclosure as in JP3 and an attack by several velociraptors working in threes.

Nothing wrong with that – Who’s roots have often been obvious, and nobody’s going to slag off Brain of Morbius just because it’s obviously Frankenstein. Of course, riffing on Jurassic Park does mean you fall victim to its scientific inaccuracies; it’s now generally accepted that velociraptors were probably feathered, and the species itself is actually less than half the size of the Spielberg movie beasties. But again, Who is hardly full of scientific accuracy at the best of times.

Having established a plausible level of spectacle though, the story’s true strength was in its characters, something Chibnall seems to get better at with each successive script. Matt Smith’s Doctor was at his most exuberant and childlike here with his unalloyed wonder at the prehistoric creatures, and for reasons that seemed initially unclear, had chosen to surround himself with a “gang” rather than the usual Amy/Rory combo.

This gang included characters that ranged from the broadbrush to the complex. Riann Steele gave a spirited performance as Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, the latest River Song substitute in a show that increasingly seems incomplete without at least one dominating female character with a snarky sense of humour. To be fair, her near-arrogance as a major historical figure and prominent monarch made her more distinct from River than Oswin last week though. The real Nefertiti actually did mysteriously vanish from Egyptian history in the 14th year of her husband Akhenaten’s reign, so the idea that she was whisked away to 1902 to spend her life with a Boy’s Own style big game hunter is as plausible a theory as any other (well, a bit of a stretch maybe).

Said big game hunter, the redoubtable Rupert Graves from Sherlock as John Riddell, was a bit of a caricature, part Lord John Roxton, part Allan Quatermain. But of course the visual effect of the costume, combined with his stand against the horde of velociraptors, called to mind Jurassic Park again, and Bob Peck’s cynical hunter from that movie. As the raptors approached, he almost got to mutter, “clever girl…”

And Rory’s dad got roped into the shenanigans too. Brian Williams was incarnated well by comedian-turned-national-treasure Mark Williams. Which was nice. And all-purpose rotter David Bradley (Mr Filch from Harry Potter and Walder Frey from Game of Thrones) made a believable baddie in Solomon, with his timely motivation of seeing everything only in terms of its consumerist value. With his special device that assessed the monetary value of whatever it scanned, I couldn’t help being reminded of the timeless quote about the Conservative Party – “they know the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

Which made the Doctor’s apparently callous treatment of him at the end of the story seem somewhat justified. Leaving him to the mercy of the Earth missiles might have felt a bit un-Doctorish, but the Doctor’s got form on this kind of thing. His treatment of the Family of Blood in that episode was arguably even more callous, and a fate worse than death – “we wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure that we would”. Remember, the Doctor can be pretty nasty sometimes. He never points the gun at the baddie and pulls the trigger, but he’s ensured the destruction of plenty of villains in the past by other means.

Besides, Solomon had admitted to actual genocide, shoving newly awakened Silurians off the ship in the manner of illegal slave traders about to be boarded in the 18th century. The involvement of the Silurians was a nice surprise, and made perfect sense of a situation (dinosaurs on a spaceship) that otherwise would take some justifying. I’m not sure about that postcard at the end though, with its attempt to retcon the historical inaccuracy of the name ‘Silurian’ by asserting that they come from somewhere called Siluria. Bit of a stretch, that one.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the episode was its treatment of the Ponds, and its veiled hints about where their story is going. With the party separated and the Doctor eventually held captive by Solomon, we got to see Amy and Rory stepping up as actual Doctor-substitutes. It made sense of the Doctor’s apparently random gathering of the ‘gang’ – Nefertiti, Riddell, and even Brian were there as Amy and Rory’s companions. Is the Doctor grooming them as his replacements?

Also notable were the hints about the decreasing frequency of the Doctor’s visits to them. Amy complained that it had been ten months since they’d last seen him, and significantly Rory, commenting to his dad about Christmas lists, said, “I’m 31, I don’t have one”. I’m pretty sure that when we first met Rory, he was in his early 20s at most; now he’s 31. That’s a fair bit of time under the bridge – and might account for his new look, complete with greased hipster hairstyle. If the Ponds have been hanging around with the Doctor for, from their perspective, about ten years, how old will they be next time he ‘visits’? It’s a genuinely innovative thing to do with the companion characters, and allows for more actual character development than ever before.

It was one interesting idea in an episode full of them. I’m not sure what future time period this was set in, but it was nice to see the problem of near-Earth collisions being dealt with by the Indian Space Agency, with a woman in charge no less. Then there was the wave-powered Silurian ship – not sure how that would actually work, but again a nice idea (even if it was plainly shot at the same beach location used in Time of Angels). Like Let’s Kill Hitler, if this had a problem it was that there were so many interesting ideas thrown into the mix that few got properly explored. But it’s pretty churlish of me to complain about Chris Chibnall having an excess of imagination after my previous criticisms!

Bringing humour to the fore was a surprising tactic for Chibnall, but for me at least a very successful one. Yes, the gag about “Any vegetable matter in your trousers?” “Only my balls” (complete with ‘comedy’ music from Murray Gold) was difficult to forgive. As was the “you want a man with a big weapon” shot from Riddell, followed up with a face-saving remark from Amy about gender politics that was a bit cheeky from the author who gave us the immortal line “when was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”

But generally, the comic tone was a refreshing change, and well-handled particularly by Matt Smith and Mark Williams. I liked the comedy robots with the completely undisguised voices of David Mitchell and Robert Webb – a little camp, perhaps, but so much more imaginative than a voice-synthesised Nick Briggs intoning that resistance is futile.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is unlikely to go down as a future Who classic, and it’s not free from flaws – at times Chibnall seemed to be struggling with the excess of characters and ideas, to the detriment of the script’s coherence and structure. But still, it felt like what it was – a fun, lightweight romp with just an occasional hint of darker things beneath. I gather from online reaction that opinions are very much divided, but I found it an enjoyable 45 minutes of uncomplicated fun, carried off with some gusto by all concerned.