Sunday 29 May 2011

The Almost People. Review.

Dr Who, The Almost People, the ganger Doctor
Just as last night's Champions' League final was a game of two halves - with a lot more of interest happening in the Manchester United half than the Barcelona one - so, after a first part that left the story with seemingly nowhere to go and threatened to give us forty five minutes of barely more than people shouting, The Almost People somehow manages to be an improvement on The Rebel Flesh.

Despite a paper thin plot - the original staff are in one room and decide to move to another - it throws in enough twists, turns, details and deaths to keep us going, as the Doctor teams up with his duplicate to try and get as many people out of the acid factory alive as possible.

Dr Who, The Almost People, the ganger Jennifer
The ganger Jennifer. Sometimes adrip but
rarely a drip.
Granted, none of the twists are actually surprising, and the revelation that the Doctor and "John Smith" have swapped places is about as unexpected as the "shock" revelation at the end of Part One but it all keeps the story moving. Plus, Matt Smith's clearly having fun playing two parts at once. The right people get killed along the way; the original Jennifer really was a drip, the world didn't need two Jimmys going on endlessly about their son, and the charmless Buzzer was always asking to be eaten.

The exception to the right people getting killed was the ultimate survival of the original Cleaves who'd been a thoroughly unpleasant and block-headed individual all the way through. I suppose we have to put her unpleasantness down to the blood clot in her brain, and her later personality change down to its removal. But why do I get a feeling the duplicate Cleaves and Doctor will be back before the end of the series?

If it was mostly an entertaining episode, and the factory staff turned out to be more interesting than in The Rebel Flesh, the main downsides involved the assistants. Rory really is spectacularly stupid in this half, trusting "Jennifer" to a ridiculous degree, even when she's acting in a manner that should set alarm bells ringing in the emptiest of heads. Happily operating machinery, without the slightest clue what it's supposed to do, really doesn't reflect well on a man. As for, "This wheel's way too hard for a girl to turn," Argh!.

Amy, meanwhile, is consistently stupid and unpleasant, tactlessly insulting the duplicate Doctor who's trying to save her, and, for no good reason, blurting out that she's seen him die. I suppose we could put it down to her being a  duplicate and not the real deal but sadly her stupidity and ignorance here aren't out of character for the original Amy.

Dr Who, The Almost People, the ganger Amy
And that brings us the climax that threatens to overshadow the whole episode, as we get the reveal that the Amy we've been following for the last few weeks isn't Amy at all but a ganger, while the real Amy lies in a room somewhere, about to give birth, as Frances Barber shows off her taste in lipstick.

Compelling a revelation as it is, the ginger ganger is the episode's real problem. After two episodes of the Doctor telling us that gangers are real people too and should be allowed to live, he then, at the tale's climax, whips out his sonic screwdriver (where did he get that from? He's already given it to his lookalike) and ruthlessly destroys the fake Amy for no reason at all. I assume this section was written by Steven Moffat rather than Matthew Graham and it seems that either Moffat hadn't at that point read Graham's script or simply didn't care about it, as the Doctor's action here takes the philosophical point Graham's just spent two episodes making, screws it up and throws it in the bin.

So, Amy's about to give birth. But to what? Will it be the space suit girl? Will it be River Song? Will it be to a football team that can actually take on Barcelona? Only next week will tell us. Will we be there? Of course we will. Will we have a clue what's going on? Don't bet your bow-tie on it.

Saturday 21 May 2011

The Rebel Flesh. Review.

Dr Who, the Rebel Flesh
The Rapture having bypassed my house completely, it's time instead for the TARDIS to take us where angels fear to flap, as we plunge into the depths of space and go further than we've ever gone before.

Up North.

It might not've been the end of the world on planet Earth but in the TARDIS it's feeling a little Apocalyptical as, blasted by a solar storm, the Doctor and his mates are forced to emergency land on an island-based factory employed in the creation of a wildly corrosive acid. In order to reduce the risk of them being dissolved in their own produce, the staff - who all seem to be from north of Watford - create mindless copies of themselves, called Gangers, that they control mentally in order to get them do the dangerous work.

Unfortunately, during the next burst of solar activity, the Gangers gain wills of their own, and the original staff and their duplicates soon find themselves at war with each other, as the Doctor deals with lookalike problems of his own.

Dr Who, the Rebel Flesh
After last week's determinedly offbeat offering, we're back with that old Who standby the base under siege. The twist being that the base this time is under siege from itself. The Rebel Flesh is an episode that keeps hovering on the brink of developing into something genuinely interesting but never seems to have the will to do so. The opening - with its depiction of Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes' Marshall Lancaster being dissolved in acid but not being that bothered - holds out a promise that we're going to be given a dark comedy.

But then we aren't.

Later, with it not being clear just who's an original and who's a copy, the show threatens to become a The Thing style venture into paranoia.

But then it doesn't.

Next it threatens to become an exploration of the ethics of creating lifeforms purely to do the dying for us.

But then it doesn't.

Next it threatens to become an exploration of what it is to be human.

But then it doesn't.

Finally it threatens to become an exploration of the nature of identity.

But then it doesn't.

The fact that none of these potentially interesting directions are more than passingly explored, as the tale settles for just being about some dull people versus some other dull people, means that while it's not an actively terrible episode, it's also not very gripping. In fact, the most interesting thing to me is that Rory finally acknowledges his own personal elephant in the room by joking about his alarming tendency to die on a regular basis.

Amy, meanwhile, has her own elephant to deal with as she yet again runs into the eye-patch hatch woman. If only the Doctor would tell Amy about the phantom pregnancy. If only Amy would tell the Doctor about the eye-patch hatch woman.

Among everything that's going on, there's a member of staff who keeps sneezing. My in-depth knowledge of sci-fi cliché tells me this may prove to be the story's pivotal point. Do the lookalikes lack an immunity to the common cold that'll see them off? And is there significance to the fact that the workforce haven't heard from the mainland for a while?

With its refusal to focus on more interesting themes and its similarity to previous Nu-Who stories like Waters of Mars, The Impossible Planet and even last year's Silurian two-parter, The Rebel Flesh seems a little too familiar to fully intrigue, and at times comes dangerously close to feeling like it was written by the ten deadly fingers of Chris Chibnall. Moreover, with its extremely limiting setting and it's not overly compelling threat, it's hard to see where the tale can go in the second half. It's therefore worrying that the trailer for next week seems to consist not of plot developments, twists, turns and intrigue but almost entirely of people shouting. We can only hope the BBC're simply keeping the best bits from us.

Sunday 15 May 2011

The Doctor's Wife. Review.

Dr Who, Idris, Auntie and Uncle, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
Hiring Neil Gaiman to write a Dr Who episode was always going to be a risk. Despite the acclaim that's been heaped on him over the years, the truth is Gaiman's never totally mastered many of the basic skills of story-telling, such as plot, character and endings. He also has a tendency to go for style over substance to a degree that can leave his work teetering on the cliff edge of total pointlessness. In a comic book these weaknesses can be overlooked and even become a strength. Comics are a visual medium - and an abstract one to boot - in which a writer can get away with plenty as long as his scripts give an artist the ability to weave a certain kind of magic. No one ever accused Stan Lee, for instance, of being the world's greatest writer but that didn't stop his comics being classics.

Television, on the other hand is a more demanding mistress. There's no artist to fill the chinks in a writer's armour, and the use of real people and sets, rather than stylised drawings, gives it a literalism that demands a whole other mindset.

Dr Who, Suranne Jones and Matt Smith, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
Receiving what appears to be a message from another Time Lord, the Doctor leaves the universe and lands on a living planet called House - but not before House steals the TARDIS' matrix - its "soul" - and put it into the body of a woman called Idris. After the Doctor's had the chance to meet the annoying locals, House's life-force leaves the Doctor and Idris behind, takes control of the TARDIS' physical shell and sets off to wreak havoc in our Universe. Can our hero catch up with him and restore the TARDIS' soul to its body before it's too late?

Of course he can - it'd be the end of the show if he didn't - but not before he gets to spend time with the woman the TARDIS has now become.

Dr Who, ood, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman

It's hard to know what to make of it. On first viewing, the thing's so inept in its story-telling that it feels like we've been TARDISed back to the grim days of Sylvester McCoy, while the actors playing Auntie and Uncle produce some of the worst acting you'll ever see on a TV screen. In fairness, as they're acting just like you expect Neil Gaiman characters to act, I suppose you have to absolve them of blame and assume they're simply doing what they've been told to.

If in the episode's first half, Gaiman at least pays lip service to trying to tell something that resembles a story, in its second he gives up altogether as we're given the Doctor trying to build a TARDIS from scratch while Rory and Amy run around corridors for what feels like an eternity. For fans of fake deaths, we also get the sight of Rory seeming to die and then being alive again. There's a novelty.

It doesn't help that, as House, Michael Sheen delivers all his lines with the vigour of an "I Speak Your Weight" machine, guaranteeing that Gaiman's inevitably weak - and hard to follow - ending is even less involving than it needs to be.

Dr Who, Idris, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
On second viewing, the first half does feature some neat foreshadowing that relates to events in the second half, and the episode's real saving grace, Suranne Jones' performance as Idris, shines through, meaning it's not the complete disaster it initially seemed but, after the poor Neverwhere and now this, should Gaiman be allowed to write for TV again?

Probably not. His weaknesses are simply fatal in such an on-the-nail medium and his strengths have no way to express themselves amid such literalism.

But that's for Gaiman to worry about. For the viewer, the main concern has to be that, after a hugely promising debut, each episode of this current series has been weaker than the one before, and the trailer for next week's really doesn't look promising at all. Steven Moffat's proven he can write Dr Who but the worry is that, as show runner, he's threatening to be the man who steered the ship straight at the iceberg. The Doctor found his way back to our universe but can the show find its way back to where it needs to be? Or was my feeling that I'd been transported back to the late 1980s disturbingly apt? Will subsequent episodes bring a stirring turnaround or merely the beginning of the end?

Saturday 14 May 2011

Steve McDonald's The Doctor's Wife. Vital news!

Suranne Jones, Dr Who, Neil Gaiman's The Doctor's Wife
Hello. Just popping in to make a quick announcement for anyone who might be on tenterhooks awaiting my pronouncements on Neil Gaiman's The Doctor's Wife. Thanks to it being a matter of life or death that I watch tonight's Eurovision Song Contest (come on, Jedward!), my review of said episode won't be posted until tomorrow (Sunday).

In the meantime, I have no doubt at all that Jedward will bring the bacon home for Blighty.

They are representing Blighty, aren't they?

Saturday 7 May 2011

The Curse of the Black Spot. Review.

Dr Who, the Curse of the Black Spot, Lily Cole, promo pic
Avast behind, webmates, Barnacle Steve here with another reaverous review fresh from the fathomy depths of Davy Jones' Blogger.

Actually, despite that completely convincing pirate impression, The Curse of the Black Spot was always going to have to work hard to win me over, as I've never been that into pirate romps, especially ones where the pirates never leave their ship, never romp and never do any actual pirating.

Not that the Doctor, Amy and Rory need worry about that, as they arrive on a pirate ship only to discover a Siren's killing any crew member who has an injury or illness.

Dr Who, the Curse of the Black Spot, Amy Pond, Rory and the Doctor
Of course, plunged into such a set-up, it's only a matter of minutes before the hapless Rory gets injured, and our heroes have to try and find a way to save him while simultaneously redeeming the ship's captain with the aid of a conveniently placed child. I get a feeling I was supposed to feel heart-warmed by this tale of a man rediscovering his values but the truth is the feelings I had most while watching it were boredom, disengagement and annoyance.

The dialogue especially irritated me. Too much of it could've and should've been cut out. It's an episode where the Doctor just never seems to shut up, forcing Matt Smith to give easily his worst performance since he took over the role, degenerating into endless mannerisms, quirks, jumping around and shouting. Sadly, he wasn't alone. Amy's also in full-on irritating mode.

Dr Who, the Curse of the Black Spot, Amy Pond and her cutlass
There're flaws too in Jeremy Webb's direction. It feels off all the way through, either being too frenetic, too long-winded or too static, depending on the scene. The problem's most obvious during Amy's swashbuckling sequence which feels clumsily staged and over-long, as does the Doctor's walking the plank segment. For all its manic energy, the sequence with the Doctor and the pirate captain Avery in the TARDIS feels like it lasts a life-time.

In fairness to Webb, it can't have been easy. The fact that almost the entire tale takes place on one not very big ship means there's a lack of visual change from scene to scene that quickly robs the episode of its visual interest.

Sadly, once the episode leaves the pirate ship and enters an alien spacecraft, things actually become less, and not more, interesting; the resolution far too reminiscent of other things. The revelation of a spaceship linked to an earthbound setting, its  crew dead, while part of its technology battles to fulfil its programming's too reminiscent of The Girl in the Fireplace, the holographic doctor too reminiscent of Star Trek: Voyager, and Lily Cole's attempts at inanely singing people back to health dredges up dread memories of Katherine Jenkins' warbling at that bloody CGI shark.

But, amongst it all, the episode's greatest over-familiarity, the killer, has to be that yet again we're confronted with Rory dying. This makes it three episodes in a row now where Rory's appeared to have kicked the bucket, and - combined with his multiple deaths in last year's series - it's starting to get ludicrous to the point of incompetence.

I think the less said about the scene of the totally untrained Captain Avery smoothly piloting a spaceship, as his crew saunter in, the better. I also have to say a major weakness is Hugh Bonneville's casting as Avery. He's an engaging and appealing presence but he's not meant to be. There's nothing in his performance that properly captures the ruthless greedy killer the script says he is. His redemption has no clout because, regardless of his actions, he never has the feel of a man in need of redemption.

I'm also not sure we needed the reminder of the Doctor's impending death or of Amy's on/off pregnancy, something the Doctor seems to have little interest in actually getting to the heart of despite him clearly mithering about it. The truth is that, like too much that happens in this episode, it feels like padding and you do wonder if the script ran seriously short and had to have extra bits added to fill it out.

So, overall, it's an episode I'd have to make walk the plank, rather than reward with extra rations. Still, I'm not an untraveled man - I've been on the Isle of Man ferry - and, as I know from my own adventures on the high seas, every voyage unearths the odd wooden doubloon and, with an unfeasibly posh Suranne Jones, next week's outing at least looks more likely to yield the buried treasure we all came here for.
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