Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Behemoth written by Marc Platt and directed by Jamie Anderson

What’s it about: Bath, 1756 – and a very dashing gentleman known only as the Doctor is newly arrived in town, accompanied by his lady friends Mrs Clarke and Mrs Ramon. He’s created a stir among the gentlefolk of Georgian high society – and a stir in the heart of merry widow Mrs Theodosia Middlemint, rumour has it. They are not the only strangers from abroad causing tongues to wag, however. The mysterious Lady Clara, come from Amsterdam in the company of the noble Captain Van Der Meer, has the whole of Bath agog. Who is she, really? What is she, really? But there’s something terrible beneath the veneer of Georgian gentility. As awful a horror as the Doctor has ever exposed, hidden inside Balsam’s Brassworks. Something that needs to be brought to light, for the sake of all humanity.

Softer Six: How wonderful that this mismatched team should be the most successful and anticipated of the Big Finish main range; a bombastic and colourful Time Lord, a stalwart and sensible WREN and a street wise cockney fresh from her wedding. There’s something extremely charming about the clash of personalities that is in play here, it’s a three-time culture clash that yields entertaining and engaging results. It’s nice to have Sixie at the top of the pecking order again after some time cruising the main range. He’s mistaken for Mrs Clarke’s footman with ideas above his station…and with a coat like a detonation in a woman’s wardrobe! He once danced a cotillion with Jane Austen, don’t you know. She was a very nifty mover. As you can see on the cover the Doctor has abandoned his hideous coat and is decked out in finery from the period. He manages to charm the local hob nobs and is quite graceful on the dance floor. A veritable parapet of invention, he performs a trick with a roast chicken that quite brings the house down. The Doctor takes hot chocolate with a lady, much like the first Doctor did with Cameca in The Aztecs. Since this is a similarly paced historical with dark undertones, it feels very apt. Life, even amongst friends can be a lonely business so he keeps busy to distract himself from that. He’s crestfallen because he can’t even enjoy one day off. Sarah being protected by the Doctor rather than owned by Balsam is a very important distinction, suddenly she is an individual seeking shelter rather than property running away. Can you imagine a Doctor more suited to damning the black slave trade? When he gets the chance to do so Colin Baker lets rip in the finest sixth Doctor defiance. I loved his shoulder shrugging reaction to Craven going overboard.

Constant Companion: Constance got married during wartime so it was in uniform with a bunch of wilting daffodils. Balsam calls her charming and thoughtful, which just about sums her up. She has enough of a modium of decorum not to want to get into a swimming bath with fully dressed people. Travel has opened her eyes. Constance’s father has land in Africa where he employs the local people, but as servants rather than slaves. She tries to convince Sarah that she is not property, that nobody belongs to anybody but themselves. She’s appalled that women are treated as property as much as the slaves. This is the second story on the trot where Constance has talked about leaving the Doctor. I hope she doesn’t too soon, they’ve touched upon something rather special here.

Flippin’ Heck: The Doctor despairs at Flip thinking that chlorine was invented. There’s a subtle gag that plays out where nobody can pronounce Flip’s foreign surname, much in keeping with the theme of the play. Flip’s affection towards Clara is palpable, underneath all those streets smarts she’s a big softy really. In reality the offer that Craven makes her to become the mistress of a plantation in Jamaica is a better life than anything Jared can offer her in her own time but she is true to herself and refuses to be seduced. Her reaction to his proposal is to kick him in the nuts and given the manner in which he has spoken to her and treated Clara, that is an understatement.

Standout Performance: Balsam is a truly loathsome character, brought to life with relish by Glyn Sweet.

Sparkling Dialogue:
‘The owner said the lady had to pay the bill’ ‘Oh, Doctor’ That really made me chuckle.
‘England should be ashamed. You belong in the same pit as all the other Fascists and Nazis of the Universe - everything I’ve fought against. And one day your filthy trade will be swept away!’
‘Human beings traded for pots and pans and weapons. Surely one of this world’s worst abominations.’

Great Ideas: The way this story tackles racism is very well done because the first episode plays out very like your typical Doctor Who meets the gentry (think Black Orchid) with the colourful and pampered upper classes taking a shine to the Doctor. The subtly dark undertones of racism are there from the beginning, a dismissal, a threat. It’s laced into what would otherwise be a genteel tale, giving it much more depth. You can trust the clergy to get to the heart of the matter; those of black stock are just treated as chattel, a possession, something to be bought and sold. I loved the gag of Lady Clara being a rhino. In a delightful moment it appears that the Doctor and Mrs Middlemint are indulging in a bit of rumpy pumpy when in fact it is revealed they are only playing cards. Mrs Middlemint’s tragedy is that she is just as trapped as Sarah, and that she accepts her fate just as easily. It’s brought home in a scene where Flip tries to point out that things can be different and she refuses to listen. I would LOVE to see the Doctor and Flip pushing a rhino inside the TARDIS. How delightful.

Audio Landscape: A horse whinnying, carriage clipping along a path, birds chirruping, a pug barking, the Doctor jumping into a pool, applause, the growl of a rhino, a clucking chicken, bells ringing, a packed tavern, seagulls crying, the chink of chains.

Musical Cues: I’m noticing a pleasing trend with the music of late that the scores are less wallpapered action soundtracks but instead more appropriate, subtle affairs. This is the rarest of things, a pure historical, and the music truly steps up to make this an occasion.

Isn’t it Odd: There’s an eleventh-hour action sequence that only served to remind me just how atypical this adventure had been in that respect. Bravo.

Standout Scene:
There’s a glorious moment where Constance and Flip discuss how they feel about the Doctor going on a date. It’s everything I could have hoped for from this pair. There’s also a beautifully written scene set in the TARDIS where the slave trade is brought home to a very personal level by Sarah and condemned by the Doctor. He admits that he is powerless to stop it and that he is even part of the system that allows it to happen, purchasing hot chocolate earlier that day.

Result: ‘The slave trade is England’s dark heart…’ Time for something completely different and what a refreshing change of pace it turns out to be. The Behemoth is the rarest of things, a pure historical and one that is happy to build an atmosphere and let the characters take some of the weight rather than simply assaulting us with plot. Like The Waters of Amsterdam, Jamie Anderson is particularly adept at bringing these character driven tales to life and he does a masterful job here. The story felt unhurried but never slovenly, appropriately dramatic in parts and with plenty of scenes where the actors can prove their worth. Marc Platt throws a harsh light on the ugly truth of the slave trade, taking it as far as you can go in a Doctor Who story. I was impressed with how he handled the theme, the story kicking off light and breezy and get steadily more uncomfortable as we get closer to the characters who have been torn from their homes and treated as wretched property. I love the idea of a Doctor Who story that places it’s drama on the wellbeing of a rhinoceros and the tragedy of lovers torn apart by Western greed. On a purely superficial level it is very invigorating to hear some more exotic accents in a Doctor Who audio. I’m a big fan of Marc Platt’s work stretching right back to Ghost Light, through the original novels and finally celebrating his prolific audio stories. He’s a writer that has the occasional off day but when he is on form it is a synthesis of beautiful dialogue, strong characterisation and fantastic ideas. This is a step away from what I have come to expect from him, creative science fiction, and instead he has chosen to build a setting, a small group of characters and tackle a tricky but very worthy theme. Colour me impressed, it’s a combination that suits him very well. What’s more it’s a great showing for the Doctor, Flip and Constance. Anybody who was impressed with their merging in Quicksilver most certainly will not feel short changed. I can’t think of the last time I let a Big Finish tale play out quite so effortlessly: 9/10

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Maker of Demons by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Decades ago, the mysterious time-travelling Doctor and his cheerful companion Mel became the toast of the planet Prosper, when they brokered a peace between the native Mogera and humans from the colony ship The Duke of Milan. But when the TARDIS at last returns to Prosper, the Doctor, Mel and their associate Ace find only a warzone. The burrowing Mogera have become brutal monsters, dominated by their terrifying leader Caliban – and it's all the Doctor's fault!

The Real McCoy: This is the kind of story that should fit the seventh Doctor like a glove. He’s the Doctor that is willing to make genocidal moves in order to tidy up the universe and he’s exactly the guy that needs a wakeup call every now and again. Instead of using this as a chance to examine the most dangerous of Doctors, Elliot turns this into a revenge story where the Doctor is treated as the enemy without ever digging deep as to why. As far as he is concerned he did a good turn, until he realises the true consequences of his actions. Instead of dealing with that, what is his best solution? To go back in time and punch himself on the nose! Whilst I’m sure he meant that facetiously, he needs to deal with his problems instead of wiping them away. Mel is the voice of good reason when the Doctor wants to go back and rewrite an entire century of history on this planet just because things didn’t go how he wanted. That’s playing God. The argument that the Doctor is only interested in saving the day rather than ensuring that a planet is left in capable hands and its future is secure is nonsensical because it goes against everything that we know the Doctor is about. If the villain of piece had constructed an argument around a portrayal of the Doctor we could buy into (or one he could himself) then this might have been a hard-hitting examination. Instead it feels like a slack motivation of the villain and a waste of the Doctor.

Oh Wicked:
Ace doesn’t enjoy stories when people don’t die and nothing explodes. I can’t see the point of Ace in these stories and certainly in this story where she is shunted off into her own pointless subplot that serves no purpose but to add to the running time. If it meant the pain of listening would be over sooner, I would have happily excised her completely. Seriously, this could have been set in season 24, which is probably where it belongs. She’s has enough of snorting with the Porcians.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel loves to stay around a celebrate and is willing to accept what she thinks he and the Doctor deserve, even if he would rather leave. It’s Mel who manages to unpuzzle this adventure, she’s the one who is taking note of the details and unmasks the villain. However, she has the right idea but the wrong person.

Standout Performance: Everybody is struggling with the dialogue in this adventure, especially Sylvester McCoy who is saddles with gems like ‘I’m being impatient being a patient!’

Terrible Dialogue:
‘And it seems I created those devils!’
‘You made them into monsters!’ ‘After you made us into monsters!’
‘There are seams in our territory but mining them are suicidally dangerous and we have a subterranean enemy…’ – every other line is of this ilk, exposition central.

Musical Cues: Nigel Fairs is a decent musician, I remember he scored some of the early companion chronicles and did a wonderful job. I even liked his lunge into melodrama recently when he provided the overdone (but appropriately sixties) music for Last of the Cybermen. This time, however, he is all over the place. At times I felt the Daleks were approaching as the music went all chorus of doom (but I guess we have Murray Gold to thank for that) and at other interludes something akin to a digeridoo was farting away in the background. Maybe Fairs was attempting to blind us to the stories faults.

Isn’t it Odd: When the opening speech contains the phrase ‘this day of days…’ I should have known I was in trouble. In fact just listen to the opening speech as a whole for a perfect lesson in how not to write science fiction, characters talking like cod Shakespearean characters and over emphasising every line. Even the comedy punchline before the credits fails. Gratuitous continuity references abound. So much so I thought Gary Russell might be using Matthew J. Elliot as a nickname; the plot of Underworld, Vardans, Dido, Polly, Tegan, Sharon, Dodo…is Elliot trying to remind us of the worst of Doctor Who? There’s an irritating tendency in these Mel and Ace stories to portray one as a complete goody two-shoes and the other as a teen space bitch and contrast the two. It lacks any subtlety. Mel is enthusing about how she wanted to cuddle an alien race to bits whilst Ace bangs on about explosions. I’d rather focus on the crueller side of Mel and the gentler side of Ace, that would be much more interesting. ‘It’s like some kind of armour plated ogre!’ – has Elliot ever written for audio before? I mean, I know he has but this is remarkably clumsy. And I fail to understand how Big Finish, who have been at this malarkey for 15 years now could let such blatantly awkward descriptive dialogue reach the final script. Russell T Davies said that he didn’t want to go down the route of having stories set on an alien world because it would be hard to connect with the events on a human level…he was probably referring to scenes like Ace and the mutant scrabbling around on the surface. It’s mind numbingly dull, overwritten and hackneyed (‘Humans all have funny names! I’m not even interested in whether or not you have a name!). I feel so sorry for Ewan Goddard, who has to try and convince as a mutation but winds up sounding like a dog chewing a caramel toffee. Seriously, go listen again. Slurp. Slurp. Plus, the voice of the actor and the (ahem) realisation of the creature on the cover don’t really marry up. Powered by Doctorium? A power source that has been named after the Doctor after his meddling in the first adventure. I bet Chris Boucher would listen to this and weep. Alonso being revealed as the villain of the piece is about as surprising as it would be if I wrote a Missing Adventure, squeezed it into season eight and made the Master the baddie behind it all.

Standout Scene: Go and listen to the end of episode two. Like right now. There have been some inept murder scenes in Doctor Who before (who could forget the Co-Pilot and his split trousers?) but this one must rank. ‘Oh hello, what are you doing back here? I’m afraid the kitchen’s closed…no wait…Mel get out of here…nooooooooo!’ Unbelievable.

Result: ‘Back off super furry animals!’ I think if I took off all my clothes and went to eat in a top-class restaurant I would feel less awkward than listening to this audio. A series of hideous SF clichés, served up with characters that talk in pure exposition, a plot that is explained rather than experienced, a noisy soundscape full of people shouting, continuity vomiting everywhere…it’s the sort of thing you would imagine a company producing if they were new to this medium. The idea of the Doctor revisiting a society that he has had an adventure in before and the consequences of said adventure and his involvement coming back to haunt him is a good one. It was a fresh approach when The Ark and Face of Evil played about with the notion. They took different approaches but they were both intelligent stories that used the idea to paint a picture of a society that has adapted to the Doctor’s interference. Evil in particular built an entire world around him. Demons adopts the approach without any of the intelligence. It’s so clumsily handled, it isn’t a story that staggers the revelations so we are engaged with the idea, it just dumps you in the middle of the scenario within 15 minutes and then becomes a run-around for remainder of the running time. The story is heavily influenced by The Tempest, but any serious comparison between the stories is like comparing the cuisine of the finest Michelin star restaurant and a Little Chef. If you’re going to ape Shakespeare, you need something a little more compelling than a bunch of slavering, slurping monsters and a Scooby Doo villain searching for a motive. Most Doctor Who stories you can find something nice to say. The music was pretty, or there was a decent idea thrown in the mix, or the soundscape brings the story alive. Maker of Demons is so lacking in positives I feel like I’m pointing a gun at a sick dog. Avoid this nonsense like the plague. I’m hoping for better in the second Seven/Ace/Mel trilogy: 2/10

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Fiesta of the Damned written by Guy Adams and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In search of "a taste of the real Spain", the TARDIS transports the Doctor, Ace and rejoined crewmember Mel not to sizzling Fuerteventura, or the golden sands of the Costa Brava – but to 1938, amid the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Having fallen in with a rag-tag column of Republican soldiers, the time and space travellers seek shelter from Franco's bombers in the walled town of Farissa – only to discover themselves besieged by dead men returned to life...

The Real McCoy: Surely the Doctor (especially this Doctor) isn’t so stupid that he can mistake the hum of an approaching bomber for somebody mowing their lawn? I suppose he does always try and be the optimist.

Oh Wicked: I never thought we’d hear Ace say ‘boom!’ again, given the reaction to her infamous scene in Battlefield. A self confessed adrenaline junkie, that's about as deep as this story wants to delve into its characters during all the running around.

Aieeeeeeee: Mel is diplomatic enough to swallow down the casual sexism of the period, but Ace isn’t so easily subdued. It’s a pleasing disparity between them, in Mel’s favour I would say because she comes across as the seasoned traveller. She remembers how it used to be with the Doctor, that history hurts. Ace attempts to mock Mel’s do-goodedness is to suggest that she orders a smoothie made out of spinach and tears.

Standout Performance: I particularly liked McCoy’s quiet contemplation on war. The first two episodes capture the strongest elements of his Doctor, a conflict-weary Time Lord who has learnt to play tough and whose actions weigh heavily on his mind. Who would have guessed that quiet brooding would have been McCoy’s (a man who is famous for his comedy) forte? Sophie Aldred doesn’t scream her head off throughout, because I thought a story set during wartime meant we were in for aural torture.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So the Republicans are the good guys?’ ‘In war there’s no such thing. They’ve both committed their share of atrocities.’
‘The rest of us just haven’t had the common sense to lie down and die yet.’

Great Ideas: The Club Type 40 holiday packages are…See the Universe and Run for your Life! I’m one of those people that chooses not to educate himself on history unless a show I am enjoying chooses to focus on a particular period. Once my interest is piqued, I then go the distance and learn everything I can. Doctor Who has been extremely useful to me in that respect. I went into this knowing next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War. The Doctor gives a handy potted history of the war in the first episode to anybody who is green (like me) and reveals that the Republicans are already wounded beyond repair and terrible losses are due until their surrender. It sounds like the perfect setting for a Hartnell historical, so it’s rather refreshing to step from the McCoy era. Apparently when it comes to history even the footnotes like Juan Romero are inspiring.

Audio Landscape: You have to wonder how an actor faces an audio challenge when the script says he has been ‘zombified’ without giving the character any dialogue. Low moaning, apparently. Mumbling voices, insects humming in the distance, bombs falling, masonry loose, someone screaming into a hole, flames crackling, walking on stones, a bell tolling, a squeaking door, Lynx’s screaming and scattering.

Isn’t it Odd: I think this series of adventures is serving more as a ‘what if Mel had stayed at the end of Dragonfire?’ than taking place years afterwards in the post Hex period of Big Finish. There’s simply no indication that Ace has changed at all in the intervening period and the stories feel like they belong on season 25. So, I guess in order to find some enjoyment in them I’m going to have to ignore what my ears are telling me and make up my own continuity (I can do that, it’s my show too). Otherwise this is another cynical marketing ploy on Big Finish’s part where they wanted to work with Slyv, Sophie and Bonnie just BECAUSE without any decent reason to do so. It’s certainly not to explore the characters, which I would have thought a given in the circumstances. So, let’s chalk this down to ‘what if…?’ It’s lucky there was an English reporter like Newman involved, who can explain the details of the conflict to Mel and Ace and thus, to us. I’m guessing the idea of The Walking Dead charging in on a Doctor Who historical set during the Spanish Civil War might have sounded like a good idea in theory (Horror on top of conflict) but the lengths the story goes to justify that these are zombies in science fiction terms renders them as scary as a church mouse. The story becomes mired in hideous fructuous, SF dialogue, a far cry from the sensitive portrayal of war in the first episode.

Standout Scene: The bombing in the first episode is spectacularly realistic. Massive credit to director Ken Bentley for making wonder if I should run for cover and hide.

Result: I thought the first episode was really rather good; dramatic, evocative and educational but that was ruined by the first cliff-hanger where the science fiction elements of the story collide with the historical ones and the recently smooth narrative veers off the rails. Even the dialogue, which has been informative and emotive suddenly lurches into awkwardness. Whether it’s Big Finish or the television series or the comic strip, nobody seems to trust to tell a pure historical when that would be the freshest approach any of those mediums could take. Instead aliens always barge in on the action and things become far less interesting. It’s a shame because the location is conjured up with real care and there were parts of Fiesta of the Damned where I could close my eyes and find myself back in Spain and truly see the action as it was unfolding. The music was a treat too, but I’ve come to expect nothing less from Jamie Robertson. The regulars, particularly Bonnie Langford, are given material that plays to their strengths too, which further compounds the unfortunate lacklustre nature of the narrative. There’s a distinct lack of character conflict that might have brought the story alive, this is one of those rare Doctor Who stories where everybody seems to get along…and it’s set during wartime! So, what you’re left with is a period of history that is potentially devastating to explore but with a story that fails to do so in favour of another bog-standard alien race. We’ll only visit the Spanish Civil War a few times in the lifetime of Doctor Who whereas we’ll be inundated with aliens until it expires. In this case, the wrong call was made. I guess the old adage is true; Doctor Who can survive anything except being boring. The fact that the production is so stellar (I can’t even fault Sophie Aldred) merely rubs salt in the wound. Trust that human history is riveting enough: 5/10

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Doctor Falls written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell:
Battered and bruised from his latest adventure, the 12th Doctor’s regeneration has begun…

Indefinable: Magnificent. Masterful. Unforgettable. Just three words you could point at Peter Capaldi’s performance in The Doctor Falls. Whilst Heaven Sent will always be his magnum opus in Doctor Who (after all how can you top the performance you give in an episode that is devoted entirely to you?), this will come an astonishing second place and pleasingly it is just before his departure. I thought this was going to be another action packed Cyberman blockbuster (understandably given the trailer) but instead it is a vehicle for the actors involved to really show what they are made of. When you are talking about actors of Capaldi’s stature, you’re in for some riveting television. What is especially eye-opening is the new shades to this incarnation that we see in the finale, proving that there is still a great deal of Capaldi to explore. I particularly loved his angry resignation towards the two Masters when he tries to convince them to stand at his side and fight a lost cause. Or the lovely moment when he doesn’t shout at the little girl for giving Bill a mirror that reflects the real horror of her situation, instead choosing to be kind and grandfatherly in that moment. The anger he displays at the climax where he is trying to hold back the regeneration is very different from a similar sort of scene that David Tennant faced in The End of Time. Tennant played his anger at having to regenerate like an arrogant, spoilt teenager who had bought in to his own myth. Capaldi’s Doctor refuses to regenerate (and it is really painfully put across) not because he thinks this guise is anything special but because he’s tired of all this constant change and wants a little consistency in his life. This is the first time it has been suggested that the Doctor is bored of regenerating and going through the whole cycle of change and adaptation. So, when Capaldi punches the ground and refuses the transition, you really feel the centuries weighing down on him. Perhaps he should lead a less stimulating life then. I like how the Doctor is battered in stages throughout the episode; beaten by the Masters, electrocuted by a Cyberman, shot twice and caught in an almighty explosion. It would be enough to bring a much younger Time Lord to his knees and force a new face upon them, let alone this weathered old bird. His impending regeneration in the face of such a hammering is quite understandable. 

Funky Chick: In plot terms, I think they dropped the ball on Bill slightly. But more on that later in the review. In emotional terms, she’s beautifully handled and Pearl Mackie gives her strongest performance in a season of already very strong performances. When she and Capaldi are together in this episode, it sings with quality acting, just like it has at the high points of series 10. Given they never showed the transition between Bill and the Cybermen in the last episode, I wondered if that would be skipped over in favour of focusing on the elements that were piling up in the plot. Colour me impressed then when some of the most affecting moments in The Doctor Falls feature Bill coming to terms with the fact that she has been filleted and squeezed into a ghoulish Cybersuit. Does the fact that Bill can hold on to her mind in the wake of conversion make any sense? Not really, but it would deny us the quietly haunting moments between her and the Doctor here and I did appreciate the mention that the conditioning would begin to seize her mind and take her over fully. This is her chance to emote, because her mind is slipping away. The Doctor tries to be extremely gentle with her whilst still being honest about her horrific situation and Bill responds as anybody would, angrily and wanting answers. The Doctor was in an impossible situation given the ship was in a black hole induced time distortion effect, he couldn’t reach her for ten years. Her fury feels real and justified, she feels as though she was abandoned to a terrible fate. How director Rachel Talalay intercuts Bill and the Cyberman she has become into the scene must have taken a lot of time to organise but the effect is startling. It means we get the chance to see Pearl Mackie emoting beautifully AND believe she has the visage of a ghostly Cyberman to boot. Whilst I think the Cybermen are reduced to stormtroopers elsewhere in this episode, in its treatment of Bill and how she handles the idea of conversion, connecting the idea emotionally and viscerally with the audience, I still think this is the most effective Cyberman story. Spare Parts dealt with a similar notion, getting the audience close to a family and stripping them of one and returning her as a Cyberman. However, I wasn’t half as invested in Yvonne as I was with Bill, naturally given we have had an entire season with this character and have gotten to know her and enjoy her company. 

Faithful Sidekick: I have a confession to make. I have rather fallen in love with Nardole in series 10. For me he has been a definite highlight. Was it because I had low expectations of this character and so how he has been expertly weaved into the series has surprised me? Not entirely, I think it has been down to Matt Lucas’s ability to play a consistent character (cute, blasé, useful) in all kinds of situations. Nardole hasn’t been explored like Bill has, I don’t think we have touched on his motives, his emotional wellbeing or what he would like to do beyond travelling with the Doctor. What he has been is a rock for the Doctor; somebody he can trust implicitly, someone whose knowledge and ability is far ranging and somebody who is committed to their mission to guard Missy. He’s been used for comic relief but it has mostly been underplayed and genuinely very funny. I don’t think Nardole can disappoint like Bill did in the Monks invasion two parter because expectations for him aren’t especially high. He’s in the rather fortunate position of being able to delight because I never expected anything particularly great from him. Moffat shows precisely how you can allow a character to exit with great dignity and strength without going to any crazy lengths like forcing him back into the 50s by the Weeping Angels or killing him and having him taken from his timestream at the point he died by the Time Lords. Nardole is given something precious to protect, just as he has done all season. He objects to the task but ultimately he has a big heart and he knows this community will suffer if he doesn’t look after. With compliant resignation he accepts his task, upset that he would be able to watch the Doctor’s back anymore. Who would have thought in Husbands that we would be treated to a scene as touching as the one here where the Doctor says goodbye to his loyal friend and Nardole has no words adequate enough to say back. It’s beautifully understated and moving because of it. That’s not before Nardole catches the eye of Hazran in what has to be one of the most moving mini romances I’ve seen on the show. The whole thing is played out with looks, gestures and only the slightest of advances. I really love how Nardole resists throughout and that never stop her making a bee line for him. The act of moving her cup to touch his I find really rather elegant, a very subtle way of showing that you’re interested. I hope they have a happy future together. 

The Two Masters: It’s wanky but like the Daleks and the Cybermen coming together in an epic battle, it’s also a great deal of fun. I can understand the criticism that neither of the Master’s get a great deal to do when it comes to the plot…but let’s be honest the plot never had a chance when these two shameless scene stealers were in the room together. Simm’s Master is looking very Delgado (black suit, beard), which is a look that I have heard Phil Collinson deride for its lack of subtlety but actually he looks far more the part here than he did during Tennant’s reign. He’s also sucked in the maniacal laughter and naughty schoolboy antics and as a result he is a much more menacing character. I’m not going criticise what Simm or Davies did with the character because I was rather fond of the juvenile schoolboy Master, railing against the universe and doing terrible things just to hurt people. He was a really nasty, giggly piece of work. But this is a brand-new approach with the character and it’s almost a shame we won’t get to see more of him because he’s a lot less pantomime. However, as good as Simm is in resurrecting the role and playing against Capaldi, the plaudits have to go Michelle Gomez who is something of a revelation in this story. I said in previous reviews that should Missy simply revert to form and turn back to villainy then the arc this season would be null and void, a bit like the hybrid last year. But Moffat doesn’t go down that route and it makes things much, much more interesting, Oh Missy gets to beat up the Doctor, to walk away from him when he begs for help, she’s witty and silly and irreverent and everything we have come to expect from her. However, the look of regret on her face when she follows the old Master and leaves the Doctor to his fate says everything you need to know about what is coming. The Doctor has made an impression on her, her time in confinement has forced her to come to terms with her horrific misdeeds and it is finally time for her to stop battling with her old friend and to stand with him. It’s been playing out over a whole season so it doesn’t feel like a rash decision or a betrayal of the character, but a natural progression. The fact that Moffat pays this arc of so stunningly and yet so subtly through a character choice makes it one of the most triumphant things he has achieved as showrunner. The fact that Missy doesn’t get to fulfil her character arc and help the Doctor (leading to his regeneration) is bitterly tragic and unfair. I cannot think of a more appropriate ending for the Master than the two of them stabbing each other in the back. Who else would be worthy of killing the Master than him/herself? It’s the highlight of the episode, exceptionally well played and refusing to devolve into anything mawkish or melodramatic. They murder each other and laugh at the irony and how perfect that end is for both of them. Missy has always been a highlight of the stories she has appeared in and Michelle Gomez has delivered a stunningly fresh take on the character. At the end of her time I think that she is the greatest innovation of the Capaldi era and I can certainly see myself revisiting his era just to watch her stories again. It goes without saying that the two Masters share incredible chemistry. I would have loved to have seen more of them together…always leave your audience wanting more. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I suppose what we’re really asking, my dear, is…’ ‘…any requests?’
‘People are always going to be afraid of me, aren’t they?’
‘It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. Just that. Just kind.’

The Good:
· There was something of a touch of Human Nature/The Family of Blood about The Doctor Falls with several scenes feeling as though they had jumped directly from one to the other. The sackcloth partially converted Cybermen tied to the stake like scarecrows and attacking the barn are extremely reminiscent. And the scenes of everybody in the barn preparing to defend against the Cybermen in screaming silence share a similar intensity to the attack on the school in the series three masterpiece. Talalay is simply too talented to copy somebody else’s work and gives these moments her own distinctive style and for once I don’t see the problem in one very good episode mirroring another very good episode. It doesn’t detract from this story (because these scenes work in context) and it reminds us of glories of Doctor Who’s past. Top marks for letting the rousing music bleed away when we are afforded the close up on the chillingly converted Cyberman.
· Moffat just loves opening with something spectacular (this time it is Bill as a Cyberman emerging from the crash shuttlecraft holding the bleeding Doctor) and then skipping back and revealing how we reached that point, doesn’t he? It’s a narrative hook he has done to death. It works here very well, and it’s his last ‘normal’ episode so it feels very fitting too. Another great musical sting too, that ghostly female scream as the Cyberman steps out of the mist. Very effective.
· Does anybody remember the series Bugs? A high octane, well budgeted 90s techno thriller series that veered from science fiction to drama alarmingly. At the beginning of series four they had to explain away the cliff-hanger to the previous year and in flashback the director chose an arresting, black and white noirish, which was extremely effective (and unusually stylised for that show). Talalay does the same thing here and it is just as powerful. I particularly like the cut to Nardole, looking back in horror at the mistreatment the Doctor is suffering at the hands of the Masters. We’ve never seen material quite like this in Doctor Who before, which makes it worth talking about. Cut to the nightmarish sweep over the hospital in an apocalyptic setting with wartime music warbling out of a gramophone and I was certain I was in for a good time with this episode, particularly in the hands of such a unique director.
· Hooray for the shuttlecraft that appears in a triumphant moment, looks just like it has stepped out of Star Trek and inside it features the best gag of the episode (‘The Doctor’s dead and he said he never liked you’).
· Bill looking in the mirror and seeing a Cyberman staring back is like the nasty alternative to the Doctor staring into the mirror in the first episode of Power of the Daleks. It’s filmed in a very similar way and is just as powerful.
· The Master touching up his eyeliner. Genius.
· In the face of the Doctor spitting out continuity references like an encyclopaedia of the shows greatest moments, he sends the Cybermen up in a bloody great explosion that almost finishes him off. The subsequent scenes of him lying in a scorched battlefield with a Bill falling to her knees in agony at the thought that he might be dead look and feel unlike anything we have ever seen in the series before. It should be frightfully melodramatic but it’s pitched perfectly, it’s an ugly wilderness, a beautiful score and Pearl Mackie delivers the sort of pain on her face that broke my heart. It’s another standout moment from the whole team executing this episode.
· The last scene was unexpected, despite possible rumours. I don’t think anybody thought they would have the chutzpah to pull it off. But no, here’s David Bradley, magnificent as ever, playing the first Doctor. The Christmas special promises to be a memorable one.

The Bad:
· Wank. Wank. Wank. Wank. This whole episode is basically a load of old wank. Albeit expertly written and directed. If you are going to forgo pioneering storytelling in favour of a story that features two Masters and the Cybermen then you better be damn well sure of what you are doing because just writing that sentence makes me shudder a bit. In an era that has spent a great deal of time exploring the past, this is the ultimate expression of that approach. The Doctor mis-quotes himself on more than one occasion. There are references back to The End of Time. Discussions of how the Doctor has regenerated. Two Masters at play. The Doctor blowing up Cybermen and throwing down continuity references to previous Cybermen stories like they are going out fashion. A potential regeneration on two occasions. And then the final appearance of you-know-who at the climax. This is ridiculously indulgent on the part of a fan boy who wants to fulfil all of his dreams whilst he is still in charge of this storytelling behemoth. I don’t think any of these elements are badly handled, I am a massive fan of Doctor Who and so I was smiling my way through most of them. I don’t even think a show with a history like Doctor Who needs to apologise should it occasionally choose to indulge in some self-love. However, I do think this is indicative of an era that has failed to add anything significantly ground-breaking to the Doctor Who ethos. It hasn’t forged its own way or developed its own identity. It has been so mired in the past that it has failed to push the show forwards. That could be why it has failed to capture the kind of audiences that the show used to. It could be why the show isn’t water cooler conversation anymore. It has spent too many seasons provoking the interest of fans that it has rather left the casual audience in the dark at how to have a relationship with Doctor Who. Looking back to series 5, 6 and 7, whilst I was less enamoured with the fairy-tale approach, there was far more novelty and invention in any one of those seasons (be it series five with it’s radical new take on the Doctor, series six which was practically serialised or series seven that introduced a companion as a mystery and changed the lineage of the Doctor’s in a pretty permanent kind of way). Aside from the odd episode (Listen, Dark Water, Heaven Sent and Extremis are the only four examples I can think of off the top of my head), the Capaldi era has played it safe and relied on the shows history to pull in the punters. The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are superb episodes, brilliantly delivered pieces of drama. But they are fanwank of the highest order and there is no getting around that. The show NEEDS to push away from this self-obsession now, in order to survive.
· The Master’s plan is revealed at the end The World Enough and Time and the Doctor defeats him eight minutes into The Doctor Falls. Thank goodness there are two Masters in this story otherwise he would be pretty redundant from this point.
· How the episode skips over the whole ‘genesis of the Cybermen’ that was promised in the previous instalment is masterful (hoho)…by basically just ignoring it. In fact how this episode refuses to fit this story into established continuity with The Tenth Planet and Spare Parts, refuses to even elucidate on the how the Mondasians came to be on an exodus ship or give the scenario any kind of closure should be very irritating. There is something to be said about having interesting characters after all, they can distract from the weaknesses in the plot elsewhere.
· I had a disagreement with my other over whether the appearance of Heather at the climax to save Bill and the Doctor was a deus ex machina or not. I thought not, given she had been established in the season, and he thought so. We both agreed it was a complete cop out and another example of Moffat refusing to follow through on a promise to polish of a companion. Actually, he’s rather written himself into an impossible situation here – did anybody hate Bill enough to want to see her remain as a Cyberman for the rest of her days or possibly sacrifice herself by the end of this story to bring her pain to an end? Of course not. But that would have been the fitting conclusion given the direction previous episode undertook. On the other hand did anybody want a fairy-tale ending where a magical water sprite popped up out of nowhere, cured Bill of her woes and took her on a romantic exploration of the universe? It’s a trite and easy and frankly threatens to take away all the bravery of having her converted in the first place. I think my question is this…do you prefer Doctor Who to be a programme that takes risks by killing off its characters and suggests there is a human cost to these adventures or do you prefer it to be a series where no matter what horrors are suggested that there will always be a happy ending for the characters? You tell me.
· In a random moment, Bill mentions one more time that she’s gay. Just in case the series hasn’t established it enough yet. I would have loved to have heard those words spoken by a Cyberman.

The Shallow Bit: Given this is a Moffat script and that the Master is both male and female I think it was inevitable that they would wind up flirting with each other. Is the universe ready for that kind of self-gratification? Probably not, and at least it will give the shippers something to write about for the next couple of years. I’m glad we never actually saw them kissing, it would have given Blinovitch a raging erection before he blew a hole in this corner of the universe. It’s just on the right side of gross, and I’m pleased that it was the Simm Master who fancied a bit of me-time and that Gomez metaphorically slapped him down.

Result: ‘Without hope, without witness, without reward…’ Not at all what I was expecting and all the better for it. Moffat has previous form in promising a great deal and delivering a less than satisfying finale so how is it at the last hurdle he has produced such a surprising hit? Actually, let’s get the few reservations out of the way first because this episode deserves a great deal of praise heaped upon it. One thing I was expecting was for Bill’s condition to be reversed and it was, in the most agonisingly fairy-tale manner imaginable and a repetition of Clara’s departure just one series previously. As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time around. Also, I was a little unsatisfied with how irresolute everything was left, with Nardole being abandoned with no knowledge of how the Doctor and Bill wound up, Bill leaving the Doctor to his fate and the Doctor with no clue that Bill isn’t a Cyberman anymore. Life doesn’t always tidy things up, but in fiction it is much more satisfying if toys are put away in the box neatly. Built out of continuity this episode might be but Moffat finds some chilling things to say about both the Cybermen (particularly Bill’s nightmare at being turned into one) and the Masters (who depart the series in an unforgettable scene of celebratory slaughter). More importantly he has gotten the tone and the emotional content of this episode spot on, tightly focussing on the characters and giving the plot a rest. Series 10 has, on the whole, done a great job of delivering an engaging group of regulars (and I would include Missy in that line up) and so splitting the Doctor, Bill and Nardole up comes with real poignancy. Capaldi gets the chance to shine in a series of brilliant scenes (his quiet moments with Bill in the barn, begging the Masters to stay with him and help, his wonderful farewell to Nardole and his anger at the climax at the approach of another regeneration), Pearl Mackie acts her socks off and reminds us once again why she has made such an impact this year and Matt Lucas gets to the chance to be casually cool in the face of romance, a Cyberman attack and a daunting responsibility. They are the most unlikely trio, but they’ve emerged as the strongest set of regulars in the Moffat era thanks to some highly engaging performances. The trailer promised a lot of bangs and flashes and when they come it feels like they have been earned. In a smart move Moffat holds back the action to the last possible moment, recognising that the promise of action and the characters reaction to it is far more enthralling. I would have loved to have seen more of this in the previous six series, far less plot complexity, more riveting character work. Responsible for the execution of this episode is the one of the most accomplished directors Doctor Who has been lucky to secure and so much of what makes The Doctor Falls impact as much as it does is Rachel Talalay. As a pair, The World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls are her greatest achievement; chilling, exciting, revelatory, poignant and tragic. Visually she brings something quite memorable to the show, it feels like every scene has been carefully considered to make a filmic impact. I cannot praise her highly enough. I recognise this is fanwank of the highest order but the look of the episode, the characters and how they interact, the impetus of great moments and genuine sentiment that rises to a powerful pitch make this a terrific finale. A huge round of applause for Steven Moffat at the eleventh hour: 9/10

Thursday, 29 June 2017

A Life of Crime written by Matt Fitton and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Come to Ricosta! Tropical climate, untouched beaches, fabulous cuisine... and no extradition treaties. The perfect retirement planet for a certain type of 'business person' – such as Ms Melanie Bush, formerly the co-owner of the Iceworld emporium, now on the run from her former criminal associate's criminal associates... Some other former associates of Ms Bush are abroad in this space Costa del Crime, however. Not long ago, the time and space traveller known as the Doctor arrived here, alongside his sometimes-criminal associate, the reformed juvenile offender Ace. But now the Doctor's gone missing – and Melanie Bush is about to learn that on the planet Ricosta, the wages of sin... are death.

The Real McCoy: Nice try in attempting to convince that the Doctor has regenerated into Gloria but it would need to be executed with much more panache, both in terms of writing and direction, to be even halfway convincing. It’s a twist not worthy of a cliff-hanger, which Fitton denies it. Did they release part one for free with the hook of the possible regeneration to lure people in? Ginny Holder lacks any kind of personality, which would have made her the most subdued Doctor of all time. The Doctor thought that Mel wanted to travel with Glitz to see the wonders of the universe? Yeah, even McCoy can’t make that sound convincing. What could expose you to more wonders than the TARDIS? He also suggests that he thought that Mel might be a good influence on Glitz, rather than the other way around. Mel questions whether the Doctor is the imposter after all because he genuinely questioned whether she was doing the right thing or not.

Oh Wicked: The story felt quite fun until Ace showed up fifteen minutes in, all mouth and smugness. Am I wrong in suggesting that this story might have played out quite unusually (in a good way) without her? Sophie Aldred is shouting her head almost as soon as she ducks out the TARDIS. Subtlety has left the building. She’s accusatory to those in power (‘how much do the gangsters bung you to turn a blind eye?’), dismissive, insulting and wails like an insane banshee on heat. I’ve long given up on expecting new facets to her character (she’s appeared in more stories now across every media – TV, print, audio, comic – than any other companion) but to revert to this dreadfully childish and nauseating immaturity really grates on the nerves. We need the Doctor for the scenes where he reunites with Mel (that’s the point of the story, after all) but he could have easily have gone solo here and dispensed Ace infecting the story with its weakest moments. There’s talk of muzzling Ace in episode two, which would have been nice. Anything to shut her up. The story bothers to make the audience ten steps ahead of Ace when it comes to the fake regeneration, and she comes as being shockingly naive for it.

Aieeeeeeee: In contrast to Aldred, Bonnie Langford sounds as though she left the series last week but I guess that is the advantage of being slightly older when she played the role on television. I fail to comprehend whether this is supposed to be a seasoned Melanie who has picked up a few tricks from Glitz along the way or the wide-eyed screamer that we (ahem) enjoyed in season 24. So Bonnie plays the role somewhere in between and commits to neither. Mel was always in rather a lot of trouble when she travelled with the Doctor, so she should be accustomed to it. The Nosferatu has been impounded because they couldn’t pay the tax when they arrived at Ricosta. The idea of Mel wanting to leave with Glitz in the first place was suspect (it felt like a writer trying to ditch a character with no clue of how to do so) – she’s such a squeaky-clean Miss it felt completely out of character for her to go on the run with a bit of rough crook like Glitz. I thought maybe this trilogy would delve into her motive a little but that was asking a little much. The big twist in A Life of Crime is that Mel is still every bit the upstanding do gooder she ever was and that she has been cleaning up Glitz’s exploits as best she can. Really? Four episodes to learn that Mel has not developed one iota in her travels with an ardent conman? Mel literally states that things are black and white, right and wrong and that is how she sees things. That’s precisely how she was characterised on television and why she was so unsatisfying to watch. It isn’t, however, how she has been characterised on audio and with some of her better stories she has been afforded much more complex set of ideals. I do hope we’re not reverting to the ‘how utterly evil’ Melanie Bush of old. That would leave all the excellent work that Big Finish have done with her character since The Fires of Pompeii in the dust.

Great Ideas: A race that devoured the quantum possibilities of the soul, that’s an idea worth exploring beyond slavering aliens that simply want to eat people. It has a lot of potential to be explored in a dramatic way. These monsters just want to gobble up the Doctor because he has the most fascinating amount of latent futures.

Musical Cues: I appreciate that there are only a few ways on audio to make this have the same feel of a glitzy (no pun intended) heist movie and music is one of them but the moments when the hipster beat kicked in as criminal plans were made I wanted to blush to my toenails. Doctor Who is rarely this cheesy.

Isn’t it Odd: I can’t have been the only person to groan when I heard what the line-up for this trilogy was going to be, can I? Big Finish seems determined to play out every possibility, to fill in every gap of continuity and to return to what might have beens (such as here) with careless abandon to fill up their schedules. Dragonfire is hardly the dramatic zenith of Doctor Who and the Mel and Ace combination, while cute, hardly expressed enough chemistry to order up two trilogies worth of adventures with them. There has been so much material with Ace now I’ve given up all hope of trying to fit in where stories belong and the idea that Sophie Aldred still sounds like a teenager from the 80s is just absurd. When they grew the character up during the Hex years it was a sound move, but recently there seems to have been a resurgence in ‘The Rapture’ style Ace, a middle-aged woman going ‘oh Ace!’ and shouting a lot to pretend that she is an angst-ridden teenager. It’s more than a little embarrassing, frankly. That’s clearly what we’re going for here, capturing the feel of a fresh new Ace and an experienced Mel (although Dragonfire seemed to portray them the other way around) and I think Alan Barnes is hoping this sounds as though they stepped into the TARDIS together when they left Svartos. It’s a neat idea for a one off story, but to suggest there were a whole series of adventure with this trio when the series went out of its way to avoid that seems a little…wanky. But hey, it’s not down to me to suggest what Big Finish experiment with. I might disagree with the idea of something like the locum Doctors where it feels like a random generator has selected a Doctor and companion from different eras just to tell a story…but you can bet your last dollar that there will fans out there desperate for ANY new demand. And whilst there is a calling for new material, who cares about creative dignity? Besides, haven’t we done this already with Older Nyssa? And older Peri? As unconvincing as it is, surely the revelation that Gloria is the Doctor should have been the cliff-hanger rather than another unconvincing moment of jeopardy featuring McCoy gurning? Where is Glitz? Was Tony Selby not interested? The story always feels as if it is building up to a surprise appearance by everybody’s favourite crook that never happens. It leaves an unfinished taste in the mouth. The cliffhanger to episode two is the Doctor revealing that he is still in his old skin to his companions? That’s something we have been privy to throughout the episode! If you’re going to blow a kiss in the direction of another episode (in this case Turn Left) then make sure that the quality of your story is comparable, otherwise you run the risk of having egg on your face when you deal with the same ideas less effectively. There’s a dismal moment in the third episode where Mel and Ace are literally describing (for an audience that cannot see). ‘Look at all those ships! They’re huge! They’re blotting out the sky!’ ‘Tentacles! Covered in mouths! And they’re everywhere!’ ‘Those tentacles have wrecked the place and now they’re just hanging there…waiting!’ When the story boils down to Ace screaming ‘jump on this, barnacle features!’ whilst battling with giant tentacles, you know you’ve been taken for a ride. This far into Big Finish’s run I expect audio stories that present genuinely gripping scenarios like The Peterloo Massacre, not hideous audio action punctuated by cringeworthy acting and dialogue.

Standout Scene: The Speravores eat criminals, absorb their alternative realities at the quantum level. Every decision, the bigger the repercussions, the tastier the nectar. Some species have a collective consciousness, they have a collective digestive system. The sustenance that a multiverse of possibilities brings. Every wrong turn, every robbery, every crime, every moment of death, ever decisions good or bad. And it is delicious. And the scene where we experience this first hand is the best executed of the story.

Result: I went in with low expectations, and still managed to come out disappointed. Remember Grand Theft Cosmos, the witty, pacy heist story nestled in the third season of Eighth Doctor and Lucy adventures? That was how to tell this kind of sleight of hand, Ocean’s Eleven style romp, in an hour with plenty of twists and turns to fill it with surprises. A Life of Crime has similar pretentions but is twice as long as so it has to pad out the story with endless dialogue that forces the proceedings to a plod. It takes more than a (humiliatingly) hip musical score to convince this is an intergalactic caper. What this story really needs to sell that angle is energy and plenty of it. I felt as if I was being pulled in too many directions at times and that there was a lack of focus throughout; is this a story about the Doctor meeting up with an old friend, a regeneration tale, an alien attack action piece or a criminal operation in space? It’s all four and it doesn’t do any of them justice. The guest characters lacked sparkle, which is as much down to the performances as it is the writing with the star role of Gloria being a let-down, given the possibility of who she might be. I wish this had been a one-off story featuring just Mel following her exploits, they could have roped in Tony Selby as Glitz and gone to town on a giddy heist adventure. Most of episode one plays out just fine without the Doctor and Ace and I feel it could have continued very nicely in that vein. Saying that, I’m not certain if the universe is ready for The Melanie Bush Adventures. Episode three was my favourite because it spent a few moments to consider the reunion between the Doctor and Mel and we got to experience the digestion of a criminal by one of the Speravores, but ultimately that episode devolves into a horrible noisy mess. Top heavy with unconvincing elements and lacking pizazz, this is a criminal caper where the vault is empty: 4/10

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The World Enough and Time written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

This story in a nutshell: The Genesis of the Cybermen? 

Indefinable: When David Bradley as William Hartnell said in An Adventure in Time and Space that he could do it all with a look I thought he sounded insane. Until I saw the look in Peter Capaldi’s eyes when Bill was shot, suddenly and unexpectedly, in this episode. It’s one of sheer disbelief and horror. It chilled me to the core. The Doctor has high hopes that Missy can be helped, even if every fibre of his being tells him that she is incorrigible. I felt the weight of their history here, the fact that they have been friends a long time and that the Doctor is trying to forge a path to the relationship they once had. The Doctor and the Master had a pact once that they would go and see every star in the universe. The Doctor has lived up to that where the Master has just been trying to destroy them. 

Funky Chick: Oh Bill. Poor, poor Bill. Had Amy Pond or Clara Oswald been put through these terrors I probably would have applauded, but thanks to the warm performance of Pearl Mackie I have really warmed to Bill and that makes this episode quite a disturbing one.

You’re So Fine: I’ve always liked Missy and this is a great new angle on her character. We’ve seen her embrace villainy and madness but given this is the episode with the return of Simm it’s intriguing to note that she has never actually been written as opposing the Doctor or attempting to kill him, especially in comparison. Simm’s Master was all about humiliating the Doctor, making him see that his way is better. Missy caused a terrible Cyberman catastrophe in the series finale but it was in aid of handing the Doctor an army to command. She might have mistreated Clara terribly in the series nine Dalek spectacular but she was there as the Doctor’s friend, to help him. She has always stressed the relationship between them being a special one. He might not trust her, but she has never actively opposed him. So, this is her chance to step from the TARDIS and be him for an adventure. And what a jolly time of she has too, until people start getting killed. Can I believe that her time in the vault has had a serious effect on her and that she is genuinely on the road to redemption? Do you know I rather hope so. Because that would make this unusual arc (in the sense that it is not building up to some kind of calamity but the recovery of an old friend) something that was worth following and concluding. I would genuinely like to see Missy stand at the Doctors side, madness and all, and embrace the universe. In the meantime we get to enjoy her wit in insulting the Doctor’s companions and her shock as she comes face to face with her predecessor. It’s a good episode for her for sure, but as an indication of how strong this story is her story isn’t even the focus.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Look at them. They’re screaming in pain every second they’re alive!’

The Good:
· Talk about getting your attention in the pre-credits. It has nothing to do with this episode but it’s a teaser for how much this story will affect the Doctor’s regeneration. We’ve heard that Moffat and Chibnall have collaborated on the regeneration and that it is going to be a bit different than before. Teasing it in this way before the event itself is quite unusual regardless. That sure looks like the Antarctic, the setting for the first Doctor’s first traumatic change of identity. Will this tie up with that story somehow? The fact that I am speculating like this show that it has gotten it’s claws into me.
· Effects have come a long way since the show was brought back in 2005. Over the previous ten seasons Doctor Who has been a showcase for some gorgeous CGI and physical effects work. Some people have criticised the show since the Mill hang up their boots but I don’t think anybody can deny that the luxuriously long and detailed shot along the hull of the colony ship is one of the most impressive piece of effects work the show has ever put out. It reminded me of the opening Trial sequence, heralding something important and foreboding. Zooming through the windows into cityscapes and beautiful vistas is the sort of visual imagination that I associate with Doctor Who at its finest. After four weeks of plodding, it felt with one expensive sequence that the show was back at the top of its game again.
· He’s gone and done it. Or at least I hope he’s gone and done it. He’s killed a companion in a shock moment without a speech or fanfare (Clara’s death seemed to go on forever). My jaw hung as the camera panned down to the gaping hole that the shot had left in Bill. Cutting to scenes of the Doctor and Bill enjoying each other’s company in the most mundane of ways – had it been the two of them off exploring the universe it would have been trite somehow – really drives home the injustice of her death and how close they have become because he can confide his secrets to her. How the scenes intercut is beautifully handled by Talalay, I’ve seen a similar shock cut back to a mortal wound in an episode of Buffy (Selfless) but I think it was handled even better here. I was shocked by the gun going off because it was sudden and unexpected but the abrupt cut back to Bill, the life draining out of her, was just as wrenching.
· He comes in for some stick. Re-using old music. Drowning out important scenes. Overstating the drama with the chorus of doom. Etc, etc. However, Murray Gold has been a mainstay on the series for ten series now and has provided some beautiful, shocking, creepy, memorable music. Series 10 has seen something of a renaissance, the music has been one of the strongest elements and The World Enough and Time is possibly the zenith of the series. He’s perfectly in tune with the episode, suggesting the wonder of the colony ship, the joy of Missy’s misadventures, the horror of conversion and the importance of the closing moments. I particularly like how he plays disturbingly with a violin during the moments of medical horror, the sack clothed zombies truly disturbing in the wake of his discordant theme.
· Wait for me. A subconscious message left by the Doctor to Bill. I thought the direction of the moments where the Doctor haunted Bill in the hospital were exceptional, more than justifying the concept. However, the pay off at the climax, to what I thought was a moment of touching character conceit, lead to four words that will burn in my mind. I waited for you. It’s Moffat’s writing at its most shockingly cruel, and its finest.
· I said to my friend Jack last night that it feels like Moffat is finishing his era as he began right back in series one. There is definitely an Empty Child feeling to The World Enough and Time. Some chilling ideas, a slow-paced build up, time for some atmosphere and the director to flex their muscles and a riveting climax. Between The Empty Child and The World Enough and Time Moffat has verged between delivering genius and absolute drivel, depending on your tastes but it’s interesting to see him ditching all that noise, spectacle, clever cleverness, timey wimeyness and sex and just concentrate on a slow momentum, character and atmosphere. Where he began. He never should have stopped.
· Bill explores the hospital in some of the most frightening scenes we have seen in Doctor Who for a while. Partly that is down to the stunning direction and the lighting, and partly it is thanks to the concept of being able to turn down the volume of agonised patients screaming in pain and begging to be killed. These scenes are slow and suspenseful, quite the opposite of the deafening spectacle we are used to.
· I pegged that John Simm was playing Razor about ten minutes after his introduction, but the fact that it took that long is a testament to what he achieves here. Razor is a memorably bizarre character, reminding me of somebody that might show up in The Doctor’s Wife. Just on the right side of lunacy to be an ally, but not entirely to be trusted. He’s funny and approachable, until it is time for him to reveal his true colours. When you realise that the Master has been grooming Bill for the entire episode for a very important role, these scenes take on a whole new dimension.
· I love the visual gag of the Doctor and co freezing every time we cut from them to Bill in the hospital, to show how time is moving at two different rates. More importantly it stresses how long Bill has been in the hospital (years) waiting for the Doctor to rescue her.
· Those smoky, grimy, desolate, apocalyptic vistas are exactly how I always imagined Mondas to be. A planet drained of life. This is just a teardrop of the suffering that is being experienced by the planet.
· Will that go down as one of the most effective cliff-hangers in all of Doctor Who? If they follow through on its implications, definitely. As much as he has tried (and he really has), Moffat has fallen a little short of providing historical moments of Doctor Who but with this – the coming together of two Masters and the Doctor’s companion bringing forth the genesis of the Cybermen – surely qualifies. It’s a moment we may be talking about in years to come. As a scene, it’s outstandingly realised. I especially love the creepy as fuck original Mondasian Cyberman walking out of the darkness and the growing horror on the Doctor’s face when he realises who it is. So little of Moffat has left me desperate to see what happens next. This is almost redresses the balance. I’m chomping at the bit.

The Bad: It’s always nice to have Missy take the piss but if I never have to hear the words Doctor Who within an episode again it would be too soon. There’s making a point and labouring one. And it would be very remiss of me as a reviewer not to point out, despite how well I thought those elements were handled here (and they were handled extremely well) that this story is part of the Moffat obsession with looking back at the shows past rather than embracing what it could be without heavy elements of continuity. I think a whole season without a single reference to the past might be in order next year.

Result: ‘I waited for you…’ A ghoulish nightmare of an episode, an important moment in Doctor Who history, exceptional build up to the finale and a masterclass in pacing, atmosphere and delivering shocks, The World Enough and Time is the classic that a lot of people have been waiting for in series 10. It’s been heralded by many as the best episode ever and I can see why, it’s chillingly well done and about as close to on the nose horror that Doctor Who can explore in its teatime slot. Has a companion ever had to suffer the sort of indignity that Bill does here? Moffat is a clever bastard in that for one year he has focussed all of his energy on getting the companion good and likable, making the audience fall in love with Bill a little bit. Then he waited his season as we got to know her and then inflicted terrors most foul on her in the lead up to the finale. Whilst many of the big revelations of this episode were spoilt in advance – and I’ll chorus with everybody else that that is such a shame because it would have made this episode scream with surprises – the fate of Bill slipped completely under the radar and as such the moment she was shot, or worse, the cliff-hanger where she is revealed as the first Cyberman in existence are agonising viewing. I was genuinely short of breath watching. I’m scared that the time distortion effect on the ship is Moffat’s get-out clause for this incredibly brave act but for once I’m hoping that I’m wrong and this is her fate because it would be a far more memorable way to go than anything the finale could conjure up. It’s ghastly. Rachel Talalay has proven herself three penultimate episodes on the trot now (Dark Water was insidiously creepy and Heaven Sent features possibly the best direction of any Doctor Who story) and her work on The World Enough and Time more than matches up. I have long been a campaigner for the conversion of the Cybermen to be explored more vividly, to use them use as cut-price storm troopers and really focus in on the act of losing your humanity and being turned into a machine. I can’t imagine the series topping this for sheer creepiness. Some scenes left fingers running up my spine (‘Pain…pain…pain…’). I pegged a particular actor halfway through the episode in another guise but that didn’t detract from the performance or the surprise reveal at the climax. Those last five minutes truly got my heart racing in a way that Doctor Who hasn’t for such a long time. That last scene will go down in history: 10/10

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Star Men written by Andrew Smith and directed by Barnaby Edwards

What’s it about: Astronomical navigation is a tricky business. To help Adric with his studies, the Doctor sets course for Gallius Ultima – a planet on the edge of the Milky Way, housing one of the most impressive observatories ever constructed. But the TARDIS arrives to find Gallius U in a state of emergency, tracking the return of the Explorer-class ship Johannes Kepler from its mission into the heart of the mysterious Large Magellanic Cloud. A mission that met with disaster… To find out what overtook the crew of the Johannes Kepler, the Doctor and his companions must journey into the heart of the Cloud… and beyond, into the darkness of another reality altogether. The universe of the Star Men.

An English Gentleman: It feels very season 19 to have a token scene in the TARDIS stressing the domesticity of the crew before jumping straight into the plot as soon as they materialise. He hopes that one of these days that his three wayward companions will listen to him. The Doctor is so much more commanding now that Peter Davison is an older man, he has a natural gravity about him that was lacking in that squeaky voiced young man that piloted the TARDIS in the eighties. And I mean that as a real compliment.

Maths Nerd: Adric is attempting to learn how to fly the TARDIS but as it stands he has killed all aboard in every simulation to date. His mathematical excellence is really being utilised in a dramatic way, exactly the same sort of way he failed to engage in his TV stories. That is one of the joys of Big Finish, taking hold of these characters and using them in a more effective way than they were on screen. I guess that is the power of hindsight for you. Also, Smith is Adric’s creator so he has some authority on the subject. Waterhouse is a lot more comfortable reprising the role too, less of that floaty sing-song voice now and using more of his natural voice. He’s not so much pretending to be young but bringing to life an essence of the character. He’s had some heavy exposure to voice work with Big Finish of late, what with his involvement in Dark Shadows and has had a chance to hone his voice skills. He doesn’t want safe, he wants excitement. Adric gets something of a romance with Autumn but he awkwardly doesn’t seem to know what to do with her, except try and be brave around her. He proves himself to be quite the mental challenge, where other Doctor Who companions might have been taken over by the Star Men, Adric recites prime numbers to concentrate his mind and make a barrier. He knows the discipline of numbers and their power. At the climax, Adric is distracted by his feelings for Autumn, proving that he has a heart beating underneath all that cold maths after all.

Mouth on Legs: Tegan tries to have her customary whinge that she hasn’t made it to Heathrow yet but the Doctor quickly stops her in her tracks and informs her he is trying to broaden the horizons of her knowledge. About damn time.

Alien Orphan: Nyssa is very complimentary of Adric throughout this story, but there is no sense that she is attracted to him in any way. I’m pleased they didn’t go down that route because there wasn’t even a hint of romance between them on screen.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This is a planet at the edge of the galaxy. It draws all sorts; the scientific, the spiritual, the adventurous and the curious.’

Great Ideas: A research station housing one of the most impressive astronomical observatories ever built is situated on Gallius Ultima. This is the point where humanity is contained within one system but before long they will start to spread. One month ago, the explorer class ship Johanas-Keplar left Gallius U to the large Magallenic Cloud charged with an important mission, which confirms this is a crucial time for humanities development. Now returned, it is clear that the ship has come under attack. Isn’t it marvellous how Andrew Smith drops you along with the TARDIS crew straight into an intriguing science fiction mystery with such economy. He skips over the launch of the ship and its overdue return and leaps straight to the moment it is first sighted, damaged, building a level of foreboding. Especially since the Doctor has already stated how crucial this time is to the future of the human race. The Keplar is deserted, lifeless and it’s heading towards the outpost at the speed of light. Something is interfering with the established timeline, according to the Doctor history records the first flight as a complete success. The end of episode one is very nicely achieved, not a moment of false jeopardy (as season 19 was infamous for) but the Doctor and Tegan heading off into the promise of possible danger. The bodies of Keplar crew have been taken over. The Tarantula Nebula is full of new stars, intense radiation and stellar winds, which is where the Star Men come from. They use the red cloud to envelop ships, to penetrate and smother the crew. The Star Men are new to this universe, altering human history as they are about to expand across the cosmos. They are not aggressors by choice, but the last of their energy in their universe is being depleted and they need a new source from this universe. Several new-born stars in the Tarantula Nebula helped to rip a hole between the Star Men’s universe and this one.

Audio Landscape: Walking on the surface of the gravelly surface of the planet, boots, sticking the floor of the Keplar, a medical laser, splitting coral, the coral spreading,

Isn’t it Odd: Beings from another universe (handled better in Cortex Fire later in the year). Another universe where the energy is depleting. Going from one reality to another to plunder. An enslaved species mining riches for their masters. Ships going missing. This story is literally built out of science fiction clichés.

Result: The Star Men gets off to a flying start with a riveting first episode, one that gets to the heart of a gripping mystery with real economy. Classic Who was always good at grabbing your interest in its opening episode but this is a particularly first-class example of how it should be done. I’m trying to put my finger on what it is that makes Barnaby Edwards direction a cut above everybody else. When I listen to a story he has directed I am almost always bound to enjoy it, even if the script is lacking because he weaves some kind of audio magic around it that makes it so engaging. He reminds me of Graeme Harper from the new series; he drives the best performances out of people, strong, energetic ones and there is always a feeling that the whole piece has been crafted by a master, each element (music, soundscape) painstakingly considered to create an overall effect. He directed The Chimes of Midnight and Dr Who and the Pirates, The Eleventh Tiger and Son of the Dragon, The Eternal Summer and Death in Blackpool. He’s quite my favourite Big Finish director and his work on the first episode cannot be understated, the pace of it means the performances have to be bang on and he has cast the story expertly. I’ve come to expect clinical science fiction from Andrew Smith these days and he doesn’t disappoint with The Star Men. It’s not the most innovative of stories but it does present some old ideas in a direct way. Like evolution in Full Circle and cloning in The First Sontarans, these concepts have been explored before but Smith has a way of bringing science to life. He’s certainly better at it than Bidmead, especially on audio. Episodes two-four aren’t are nowhere near as strong, they feel much more humdrum than the opening instalment but my interest was maintained by the execution. Other highlights were Peter Davison’s performance, which is typically strong and the characterisation of Adric, and I never thought that would be the main strength of a story. After episode one it feels as though The Star Men should have been a better story than it turns out to be, but it is still above average and entertaining: 6/10