Saturday 29 September 2012

The Angels Take Manhattan. Review. Warning - Spoilers!

As Rory and Amy pray, the Doctor covers his face with his hands in Dr Who, Angels Take Manhattan publicity pic

If there's one thing we've ever learned from Doctor Who over the years, it's that there must come a time when every assistant must depart.

Sometimes they get to blow up in spaceships.

Sometimes they decide to marry someone they've only just met.

And, for a very unlucky few, sometimes they simply vanish from the show with no acknowledgement they were ever in it.

Such an indignity was never likely to befall Amy and Rory Williams. Not when there was the chance of a good old-fashioned sob-fest to be had.

The Doctor and his two cohorts are in modern day New York when Rory finds himself transported back to the 1930s, to which it turns out he's been sent by the stone angels so they can keep sending him back in time in order to feed on the temporal energy thus created.

But he's not the only one there, as River Song's turned up in the guise of a female sleuth.

Now it seems Rory's doomed to spend the rest of his life trapped in a small room, cut off from those he loves, until the day he dies.

Rory and Amy think they've managed to free him from such a fate - their twin suicides creating a time paradox that'll poison the angels - but they fail and we end with Amy and Rory sent back in time, never to be seen by us, or the Doctor, again.

It'd be nice to say it's a heart-rending send-off but the truth is we've seen Rory and Amy either die or disappear so many times it's a relief to finally see the back of them (assuming they really are gone for good this time).

That's no slight on either Arthur Darvill or Karen Gillan who over the last couple of years have done their best with what they've been given but the truth is their constant comings, goings and complications have seriously undermined their chances of ever feeling like they really belong in the show.

There's also the problem of the manner of their departure. Somehow, just vanishing to spend the rest of their lives in another era robs us of a fulfilling sense of closure.

Compare their exit with Rose Tyler's first departure. Hers was more moving because we saw the aftermath of her banishment to another world, her face pressed against a wall, trying to sense the Doctor through it, the Doctor burning up a sun to pay her one last visit.

There was none of that human drama here, just two characters vanishing, never to be seen again, as everyone blubbed. This is the difference between Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat - Davies knowing how to wring emotion from a scenario, and Moffat lacking that same instinct.

But it's not just the fate of the Williamses that's strangely unmoving about The Angels Take Manhattan because the whole episode's more distracting than involving. A small cast - the two new characters left fatally undeveloped - and overly-familiar menace make it hard to maintain interest.

On top of that is a strange lack of style to it all. River Song becoming a cleavage-flaunting sleuth would normally inject some oomph into proceedings but, in light of the show's need to set a more serious tone than normal, it doesn't.

There was also the matter of the Statue of Liberty.

Having it revealed to be a giant stone angel's a fun idea but then nothing's done with it. Having shown up, the thing just stands around motionless even when no one - including us - is looking at it. It's also hard to believe a thing that size could stomp around New York without anyone ever noticing.

Still, whatever the episode's failings, it does mean at last we're free from the entanglements of the Williamses and, with the Christmas special set to introduce us to the new (lone) companion, hopefully the show can get back to a more straightforward structure that'll allow it to tell stories in a less cluttered manner than it's been able to in recent seasons.

I do wonder though why the tale was set in New York.

Surely it would have made more sense to use Los Angeles - the City of Angels?

Saturday 22 September 2012

The Power of Three. Review.

Dr Who, the Power of Three, publicity pic

As a hip-swivelling king of Rock and Roll, I know there's nothing ruins a party more than a bunch of squares.

But what about a bunch of cubes?

That's what the Doctor has to work out as the world wakes one morning to find a zillion and one of the things lying around in the streets.

At first, those objects do nothing. But, after many months, it transpires they're here on a mission of pest control for a race called the Shakri; their mission, to study us and  find out the best way to kill us.

Now, with a third of the world's population already dead from cube-inflicted heart failure, the Doctor has to stop the Shakri before they wipe out the rest of the human race.

It's pretty obvious right from the start that this is an attempt to do another, "At home with the Doctor,"  story along the lines of The Lodger but, whereas that worked beautifully, this one fails miserably.

Mostly it does so because it's simply so dull, centring as it does around the Ponds, who some of us feel have long since outstayed both their welcome and their dramatic use. Thanks to the concept-imposed doldrums that grip the first half of the tale, the whole thing seems to drag on and on and, even when The Power of Three's Business End arrives, it's still hard to avoid the feeling you're watching something that's lasting twice as long as it actually is.

On the guest star front, Steven Berkoff's fine as the spokesman of the Shakri but Jemma Redgrave as the scientist daughter of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart really doesn't have it, helping to cement the uninvolving nature of it all.

Things are further undermined by the Doctor doing the now clichéd Star Trek style defence of the human race's worth, and the push-button resurrection of a third of that human race. Just how long have all those people been dead before the Doctor gives their hearts their remote-control jolt?

It's also not clear to me just why the Shakri are abducting people from Rory's hospital. It seems like it's only being done in order to require a space portal through which the Doctor and Amy can travel in order to foil the scheme.

Perhaps in the end, the most interesting thing the tale throws up is the surprising revelation that UNIT's underground base has windows. The Shakri might have thought they were masters of forward-planning but they clearly had nothing on UNIT.

Saturday 15 September 2012

A Town Called Mercy. Review.

Dr Who, A Town Called Mercy, Stetsons are cool and Rory holds a dead animal

Speaking as someone who's only ever seen four Westerns all the way through, and one of them was Carry on Cowboy, I was always going to approach a Wild West themed episode of Doctor Who with the wariness of an ageing rattlesnake.

But, with the open-mindedness that's made me as big a legend on the plains as Calamity Jane, that didn't stop me sitting down to watch it.

A Town Called Mercy finds our heroes confronting a problem.

That problem's a cyborg gunslinger who wants the locals to hand over an alien who's living amongst them.

 Or else.

That alien is Kahler Jex who, since his arrival, has provided the town with a power supply and saved everyone from cholera, making him a valuable asset to the locals - especially to Ben Browder's Sheriff Isaac, a man determined to keep him alive and to maintain civic unity in the face of danger.

The moral choice seems simple until the Doctor discovers Jex is the war criminal responsible for creating the cyborg in the first place. Now the Doctor has to make a decision. Is it better to hand the man over to meet his death, or to let him live and escape the consequences of his actions?

It's not the first time the show's handled the dilemma in question. Christopher Eccleston was faced with exactly the same one way back in Boom Town. As in that episode, it provides the opportunity for soul-searching on the part of the Doctor, as well as plenty of talky bits. As in that one, the Doctor ultimately doesn't have to face up to the responsibility of making the decision.

This can only be viewed as a cop-out by writer Toby Whithouse but, given that Doctor Who's primarily designed to be family fare, the truth is it's difficult to see how it could ever respond to such a challenge without being forced to cop-out in some way.

Despite my fears before watching it, this is by far the best episode of this season so far, reminding us again that Doctor Who isn't Star Wars and nor is it a sit-com. Instead, it's at its best when it drops the silliness and loses all pretensions of epicness, in order to simply concentrate on telling a story about people.

I really don't have that much to say about A Town Called Mercy because there's really not much to criticise. Maybe Isaac's death failed to carry the emotional impact it was meant to, I could have done without the cyborg talking to itself as it stalked the town, and Karen Gillan didn't act as good as she looked but these are minor failings that did little to undermine the success of the outing.

Whithouse even solved the too-many-companions problem, by sidelining Rory to such a degree it was a genuine shock to me when he suddenly reappeared in a scene and reminded me he was actually in this week's episode.

It'd be nice to think every episode from now on could be as successful as this one but we all know we don't live in a perfect world and, like a drunken cowpoke, the show will as always lurch around from good to bad. Still, it can at least for this week ride off into the sunset, with its head high and its stetson proud, as we wait to see what awaits it over the next horizon.

Friday 14 September 2012

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Review.

Dr Who, dinosaurs on a spaceship, Amy Pond and Queen Nefertiti of Egypt look perplexed

Our weekly fix of Primeval may have been taken from us but can the show whose success inspired its creation fill the gap? The blog that laughs in the face of velociraptors finds out.

In the far future, a spaceship’s about to crash into the Earth, so the Doctor gathers together all the people he’s going to need to make this week’s episode work – including Queen Nefertiti, a big-game hunter and Rory’s dad  - and sets off to the spaceship.

There, they discover the vessel’s an ark launched millions of years ago by the Silurians in order to preserve the dinosaurs.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is a crook called Solomon’s had his robots throw the entire crew out of an airlock and is now out to sell off the dinosaurs and anything else of worth he finds on board. Possibly good news for Rory’s dad but not such good news for Queen Nefertiti.

I can’t deny I came to this with low expectations, having hated all of Chris Chibnall’s previous scripts for both Torchwood and Dr Who, and it has to be said that early on in the episode it looks like my fears are to be justified, as it seems we’re going to have to endure the horrors of a comedy episode, complete with crass and inappropriate jokes. On top of that, lowering himself to the level of his script, Matt Smith is quickly reduced to gurning mode.

But, magically, all is transformed when Solomon makes his appearance.

Solomon’s a truly nasty villain, played beautifully by David Bradley, his appearance suddenly giving the episode a welcome edge and pushing it back into the direction of being actual drama. There’re still lapses after that - the escape by triceratops being particularly silly and nonsensical. Yes, if you want to flee death rays, climb on board a slow lumbering animal. It also has to be said that Mitchell and Webb’s voicing of Solomon’s robots seriously undermines  the triceratops escape scene, totally robbing it of any tension.

We also get Chibnall’s habit of recycling old Who ideas into pastiche, while his traditional inability to get into the heads of his characters gives us a Doctor who’s good friends with a big game hunter. Surely the current Doctor would despise such a character?

And exactly why does the Silurian spaceship need two genetically related pilots? It’s a contrivance clearly put there purely to justify the presence of Rory’s dad.

On the positive side, Chibnall does give us an assertive Amy, taking the lead of her group, and Karen Gillan’s excellent at it, reminding us again that she’d have made a much better Doctor than companion.

It’s also impossible not to like the scene where Rory’s dad sits in the TARDIS doorway, drinking his tea while watching the Earth spin below him.

So, although it’s not any kind of masterpiece, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship  is, in the end, a perfectly viable episode and at least defies my worst fears.

Upon which admission, I have to declare that the trailer for the next episode - A Town Called Mercy - leaves me cold.

But it’s only just over twenty four hours before I discover whether my fears for that one are as misplaced as they were this time.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Asylum of the Daleks - Review.

Dr Who - Asylum of the Daleks, the Doctor carries an unconscious Amy Pond past a load of daleks

Responsibility, it’s a terrible thing. There I was, determined not to bother reviewing this series of Dr Who - on the grounds that reviewing old comic books and old editions of Top of the Pops is more than enough work for one lifetime  -  when a seething public demand has forced me to return from the grave.

Well, that’s all well and good but, given my mixed feelings about last year’s series, will I  be impressed by what I find?

In Asylum of the Daleks,  the Doctor and the Ponds are quickly captured by the daleks who, instead of doing the obvious and killing them, send them  to a prison planet where they keep all the maddest and baddest of daleks.

This is because a spaceship’s crash-landed there and the normal daleks are scared the mad bad daleks will use it to escape and cause no end of mischief. As far as anyone knows, there’s just one member of the crashed ship’s crew still alive. That’s a woman called Oswin who’s in radio contact with the daleks and keeps going on about soufflés.

Eventually, after blundering through more corridors than Beyoncé has stage outfits, the Doctor finally finds Oswin… …only to discover she’s been turned into a dalek.

I have to admit I was bored senseless watching this. There was nothing actively bad about it but I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen it all before. There was endless blundering around in corridors. There were nanobots transforming humans into non-humans. There was a dalek with human emotions and there were great hordes of daleks shouting a lot.

There was also the let-down that the maddest and baddest of daleks didn’t seem noticeably different from the normal daleks. I’d had visions of them being like the good daleks in Evil of the Daleks and of them having fun with beach balls.

But, on reflection, one of the biggest problems was the presence of the Ponds.

There’s always been a problem with the Ponds – and that’s the fact there’s two of them. Whilst I’ve nothing against Rory - and Arthur Darvill does a good job of playing him as both man-of-action and clueless husband - Rory’s presence is the main reason Amy’s never worked as a character. The fact he was brought in as a companion so soon after Amy means there’s never been any chance for a one-on-one chemistry to develop between her and the Doctor. Even now, she and the Doctor feel still like acquaintances rather than friends.

The problem’s exacerbated in this episode, as the Ponds could be cut out of the story completely and it wouldn’t make any difference at all to its outcome, making you wonder just what they’re there for. The truth is, given his abilities,  it’s always been hard to make out a case for the Doctor even having an assistant. It’s all but impossible to make out a case for him having two.

My other big problem was Oswin.

Dr Who, Asylum of the Daleks, Jenna-Louise Coleman in a Star Trek style red dress, Oswin
There’s no denying that Jenna-Louise Coleman who plays her is what we in the Middle Ages used to know as a comely wench, and she gives an excellent performance but, knowing Moffat, there has to be a serious worry that the smug, wise-cracking persona she’s given here is the one she’ll be lumbered with when she returns as the Doctor’s permanent companion later in the season. If so, her constant barrage of River Song style witticisms and innuendo are going to get tiresome very quickly.

The truth is that if I’d never seen Dr Who before I’d probably have enjoyed this episode greatly but the presence of so many familiar elements, and pre-knowledge of Moffat’s weaknesses, made it a strangely non-compelling tale that stirs up an ominous dread in me about just how the rest of this season’s going to go.

The next episode up is Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – one I wasn’t looking forward to at all, bearing in mind it’s written by the dreaded Chris (Torchwood) Chibnall, surely as poor a writer as has ever been inflicted on the show. Will the man they call Chibbers somehow manage to confound me and entertain me despite myself?

Only time and my next review will tell.
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