8.11 & 8.12 – “Dark Water”/”Death In Heaven”

Posted in New Who, Series 8 with tags , , , , , , on January 7, 2016 by Review The Who

DW Series 8 - Dark Water & Death In Heaven

Danny Pink is dead, killed whilst crossing the street. Such a pointless death is more than Clara can bare and she goes to drastic lengths to get The Doctor involved. But what they discover in their search for an afterlife is an insidious plan to turn the world’s dead into an unstoppable army…and there’s only one nemesis of The Doctor crazy enough to dream up such a scheme.

Peter Capaldi’s first series in the TARDIS driving seat has been a mixed bag of sorts; there have been wonderful high points (“Listen”, “Flatline”) and dismal low points (“The Caretaker”, “Mummy On The Orient Express”) but what makes “Dark Water” and “Death In Heaven” something of a chore is the fact that this two-part series finale remains firmly in the middle at all times, never getting dull or annoying but never rising to greatness either. And that’s not to say that there aren’t great moments, as there most certainly are, but they are too few and far between.

Danny’s untimely demise sends Clara into a bit of a state (understandably) and she tries to get The Doctor to go back and change history, in a scene where she threatens him by taking them both to a volcano and throwing the spare TARDIS keys into the lava, one by one. It’s a compelling sequence, sure, but the whole time I was thinking “Can’t The Doctor just snap his fingers and the TARDIS doors will open anyway?” The whole thing turns out to be a deceit; The Doctor slapped a dreaming patch on Clara’s neck beforehand and let her play out the scenario in her mind because he was curious to see how far she would go. Now that he knows, he says that he will help her anyway, leaving Clara flummoxed; she’s just betrayed him, in thought if not in actual deed, so why would The Doctor forgive her? His answer to that is a rather touching display of rare emotion from Ole’ Twelve and adds another little flourish to Capaldi’s evolving portrayal.

And so we’re off! Off to find the afterlife, off to rescue Danny, The Doctor and Clara facing their greatest personal challenge! Only thing is, the whole enterprise is about to get sidetracked by a mystery plot that involves the return of that most un-stay-deadable of villains, The Master. Clara and The Doctor uncover a company named 3W who are storing bodies in water tanks, where recurring mystery character Missy shows up and plays host. She’s clearly not what she seems but The Doctor is struggling to figure out what’s really happening with all of these corpses. Meanwhile Danny wakes up in the Nethersphere – a supposed afterlife where he learns that he can purge all of his emotions and let go of his guilt over having killed a child when he was a soldier (yawn to this development at this late stage in the game). But, in fact, the Nethersphere is a piece of Gallifreyan technology that houses the consciences of thousands of dead people, all of whom are about to get an upgrade when they’re downloaded back into their bodies. Yes, the Cybermen seen all over the trailers and promotional images for this finale are the newly revived dead members of the human race, brought back as an army to outnumber the living in a plan conceived by The Master…who is a now a woman.

The amount of online fury and verbal diarrhoea that greeted the reveal of Michelle Gomez’s Missy as actually being The Master was truly shocking. I mean, come the fuck on; in “The TV Movie”, The Master was a gelatinous CGI ghost snake who deep-throated Eric Roberts. THAT HAPPENED! THAT IS CANON! But making The Master a woman?! Holy fucknuggets, now you’ve really crossed the line! Leaving aside the bigoted bullshit of a portion of the Whovian fanbase, who don’t deserve to call themselves fans, is Michelle Gomez actually any good in the role? Personally, I would say yes, she’s great…but I hope to see her return and do more with the character. Her unhinged, maniacal Missy is a treat but occasionally she slips too close to John Simm style histrionics and certainly I prefer the moments where Gomez instead shows flashes of vicious cruelty instead of over-the-top flirting.

So after all of the build up and with the pieces all in place, what follows is little more than watchable. Missy reveals that she’s created the Cyberman army as a gift for The Doctor, which he of course rejects, leading to CyberDanny making “the ultimate sacrifice” and using himself and the other Cybermen to destroy the scary rain and remove the threat. Then we get the laughable introduction of The Brigadier, resurrected as a Cyberman, supposedly killing Missy and then blasting off to have further adventures that nobody in their right mind wants to see. It’s a massive let down in story terms because this could have been an incredible finale, with The Doctor facing off against Missy and her army, having to do something drastic to put things right, but instead it’s all settled after one conversation in a grave yard. And I won’t even bother getting into the whole thing with Danny sending the dead boy back to the land of the living instead of coming back himself…

On the plus side, Peter Capaldi gives everything he’s got in this last story of series 8. There are moments of quality sarcasm (dealing with the “boy scout” on the plane), heroic grandstanding (“I…am…an idiot! With a box and a screwdriver, passing through, helping out, learning.”), heartbreaking fury (smashing the TARDIS console) and deep sadness (“Never trust a hug…”), all of which are delivered perfectly. With all the issues I may have taken with various episodes this series, Capaldi’s performance has never been one of them; he is a fantastic Doctor and I can’t wait to see him grow in the role and bring even more facets to his portrayal. Long may he reign…but hopefully with some better quality stories behind him, eh?

As series finales go, this two-parter does a decent job of raising the stakes, returning a classic villain in a new iteration and throwing a bit of fan service in for good measure. But it doesn’t quite pack enough punch to elevate it beyond watchable. Fine performances all around from the main cast and the supporting cast will hold your interest, whilst the story itself will slip in and out of your attention. It’s not bad, but it ain’t great, leading to a final score of 6/10.

Written and edited by Richey Hackett

7.10 – “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS”

Posted in New Who, Series 7 with tags , , , , on January 7, 2016 by Review The Who

DW Series 7 - Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS

The Doctor tries to let Clara have a go at driving the TARDIS (to foster better relations between the two) so he lets down the shields, only to have a roaming salvage crew capture the TARDIS and manage to seriously break it. Clara manages to get lost inside and The Doctor and the three squabbling salvage crew members set off to find her

An episode spent running around the TARDIS interior was always going to be prone to being just a load of running around corridors. Back in the Classic era, there were occasional episodes where most of the action took place inside the TARDIS, but these were just 25 minutes of a larger story. “Edge Of Destruction” is the only purely TARDIS-set story but its two episodes are really a character piece with very little running around. “Logopolis” and “Castrovalva” have a fair bit of TARDIS set action and do quite well, but it’s just a place where interesting things happen and there’s a lot more story going on. The nadir of the TARDIS interior has to be “The Invasion Of Time”, with both the setting and the story itself reminding me of a vast public toilet.

So when this story quite proudly declares its purpose in the title, you’d be forgiven for expecting a lot more. No mucking about here – we’re exploring the TARDIS, that is the point.

What we get is a monstrous contrivance to get us to a place where The Doctor and Clara have to run around inside the infinite interior of our favourite time-space machine. The Doctor sets the TARDIS to “basic” mode so Clara can have a go at flying her. And this, we are led to believe, allows a bunch of numpty salvagers to grab the most powerful machine in time and space and make it crash onto their ship. Oh please…

The salvage crew come from the same future industrial design as nearly every other future human spacefarers we’ve met since the show returned in 2005. They are, despite their clichés, reasonably well presented and performed – Ashley Walters as Gregor, the more ruthless and aggressive brother, Mark Oliver as the slower-witted one and Jahvel Hall as Tricky work well together. Tricky’s story, a neat reversal of the android who thinks he’s human, is probably the highlight of the episode. It is one seriously deranged “joke” to play and shows Gregor up as someone who really is devoid of morals. He reminds me of Solomon back in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship” – no universe-conquering megalomaniac, just a bastard making his way in the galaxy.

By this point, Matt Smith is always good and The Doctor gets to be very clever in the way he gets the brothers to help find Clara. His super-powerful ship may have a seriously unbelievable wobble but the good Doctor is not getting outwitted by this bunch. Jenna Coleman gets a few good scenes – she carries off the mystery of The Doctor’s name wonderfully, at least for the short time that she’s allowed to know it. When The Doctor demands to know who Clara is and how come she’s died and so on, it’s a great scene for both of them.

The burnt up monstrous things chasing them around the corridors are nothing special, they’re just something to chase the characters. The explanation of what they are – that they’re future echoes of what could happen to everyone and…oh, I don’t know, something like that – is all very timey-wimey but I suppose we should expect such things in the centre of a TARDIS leaking time-energy all over the place. But to have The Doctor sorting it all out by literally reaching through a crack in time to literally hand over a reset button brings the episode grinding to a halt, with nothing really having happened at all. It really is just a load of running around corridors. It’s almost important – we almost get a serious jump in the Impossible Girl’s storyline but no, the reset button is hit and the resolution of the story is only slightly better than it all turning out to be a dream.

If you’re going to call a story “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” then I’d like that story to be giving us something awesome about the TARDIS. “The Doctor’s Wife” is arguably the best TARDIS story of them all and actually uses the labyrinth interior to terrifying effect, but this episode just spirals to nowhere. The TARDIS should be made up of an infinite array of wonders, all adding up to an even more astounding whole. This story betrays that notion. There are some neat little bits but the whole is seriously lacking. Hmm, you can have a

Written and edited by Richard Barnes

2.10 – “Love & Monsters”

Posted in New Who, Series 2 with tags , , , , , on January 7, 2016 by Review The Who

DW Series 2 - Love & Monsters

In this largely Doctor-less episode, we meet Elton Pope, a man obsessed with The Doctor and his “blue box,” having encountered him as a child and again in later life. He’s part of a group of fellow enthusiasts who regularly meet to share stories and experiences. One day, a mysterious new member joins their group and things become sinister, as he is revealed to be an “Abzorbaloff,” absorbing the bodies of humans into his own.

Can I just leave the sentence “I pretend this episode doesn’t exist” here and get on with my evening? No? Fine. Then you’re about to see a woman rant in an almost uncontrollable fashion.

Where to start…Okay, the premise. The premise for this episode, that there’s a person who encountered The Doctor as a small child (when The Doctor failed to save the life of his mother), who spends his life searching for this mysterious man and sharing experiences with others who’ve met him, is a bloody good one. We see so much action in Doctor Who that we don’t often pause to think about the lives of the people he briefly encounters and how those lives could be changed by meeting him. He’s a freaking Time Lord; of course they’re going to be fascinated and it’s perfectly believable that there might be a secret group for people who’ve met The Doctor and are desperate to talk about their experiences (and to meet him again). That, as a premise for an episode of the show, is great. The trouble is that “Love & Monsters” takes that premise, chews it up a bit and then spits out something that nobody wants to look at.

Marc Warren as Elton Pope does the best he can with what he’s given. But he’s been given a turd and no amount of polishing it is going to make that baby shine. His video diary entries, which are supposed to frame the story and make us care, come across as perhaps a little too amateurish and overexcited. It’s a shame, because one quote from those video diaries stands out as a rather lovely – if slightly corny – soundbite:

“When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all ‘grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid’ and that’s it. But the truth is; the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”

I love that quote (and that’s the nicest thing I’m probably going to say about this episode), but it’s like having a diamond, glistening in the sunlight, as it sits on top a dollop of steaming horse manure. At the end of the day, you’re still looking at a pile of shit.

The trouble is, the premise needed to be underplayed. It needed to be subtle. The story of this man, driven slightly crazy over the years, because he knows this “Doctor” exists and he needs to meet him again to prove it to himself and to finally gain answers to the questions that have plagued him for so long, has so much potential. But “Love & Monsters” is about as subtle as throwing a brick in someone’s face.

Or a paving slab.

Instead of going down the subtle route, the episode plays for laughs. I have no problem with Doctor Who trying to be funny; I mentioned a couple of comic moments in my last review. The thing with comedy is that you have to actually write stuff that makes people laugh and not stuff that makes people want to find their own “funny bone” and forcibly remove it.

Carrying on with the plot, Elton meets a woman called Ursula online, who he falls madly in love with, because this is now a Richard Curtis rom-com. The two of them set up the most irritatingly-named secret group, ever: “London Investigation ‘N’ Detective Agency (or “LINDA”).” See? Hilarious. There are a few other members of “LINDA,” but they get so little screen time, I can’t even be arsed typing their names. Basically, they’re there to get killed. One day, Peter Kay joins “LINDA,” because of course he does. Now, I’m actually not a member of the anti-Kay brigade, in general. In fact, I rather like him in other things, so I’m not going to slate him just for being Peter Kay, as I’ve seen other reviewers do. Much like Marc Warren, Kay does what he can with what he’s given. He introduces himself as Victor and begs the group members not to touch him, as he has a rare skin disease. But he’s actually hiding something sinister…

Now, I’m going to be extra careful not to massively slag off the alien in the episode, because the “Abzorbaloff” was created by a school child in a competition, so, you know…there are limits to my bitchiness. And again, the premise of an alien who absorbs humans into his own body, leaving their screaming faces on show actually has the potential to be scary and interesting to watch. So, well done school child, you did a good job! If only Russell T Davies had shown your idea some respect, instead of binge-watching Notting Hill and Love Actually and getting shit-faced before he wrote this episode.

Mysterious Victor (so subtly mysterious, he may as well have a twirly moustache) encourages the “LINDA” gang to step up their efforts to find The Doctor. We have a moment of potential comedy, when Elton tries to get info on his whereabouts via Jackie Tyler and is subjected to an attempt at seduction, but even that falls relatively flat. This being a Richard Curtis rom-com, the mood then changes, as Jackie talks to Elton about how much she misses Rose. In another episode (i.e. one surrounded by less crap), these scenes would be quite moving but here it feels like the tone just took a hairpin turn. Meanwhile, members of “LINDA” are going missing. With this being an episode that barely features The Doctor or Rose, it’s up to the rest of the gang to try to solve the mystery. Think Scooby Doo, but with higher levels of persistent irritation.

Eventually, the Abzorbaloff is revealed in his, um, absorb-y entirety, complete with faces of those who’ve disappeared during the show protruding from various places around his body. One minor character from earlier in the episode, Bliss, is on his bum. Because this episode is bloody hilarious, damnit. LAUGH! LAUGH, YOU UNGRATEFUL FOOLS!!

Ursula is absorbed (at which point I cheered because, sorry Shirley Henderson, your voice was doing my nut in) and Elton is all “SAD FACE” because did I mention he LOVES her?! He runs away and avoids a good old absorbing, by pretty much bumping straight into the TARDIS. As the Abzorbaloff tries to add The Doctor to his collection of living body-art, the faces of those he’s already absorbed begin pulling away, preventing him from doing so. If you’ve not seen this episode, that moment is as perfectly ridiculous as you’re imagining it to be. Anyway, the Abzorbaloff carries a cane (presumably in case he wants to break into a quick tap routine), which falls during this process. Ursula – yes, from inside the Abzorbaloff – yells at Elton to break it and he does so. This causes the destruction of a field generator that has allowed the alien to stay in control of his body and so he melts into the pavement. What a world, what a world…

The episode ends with Elton finishing off his video diary. We hear Ursula’s voice and we discover that The Doctor managed to save her essence and she is now, put simply, a face in a paving slab. This being a Richard Curtis rom-com, Elton doesn’t care that she’s A FACE IN A PAVING SLAB and gleefully tells the viewer that they’re in a relationship and that they even have a love life. Tell me you’re not picturing that and I will call you a liar. No amount of brain bleach will ever save me. Ever.

Think of the power of some of the Doctor-less episodes we’ve seen. “Blink” was incredible and scary. “Turn Left” was moving and insightful. “Love & Monsters” features over-the-top acting from pretty much everyone in it, a premise that was handled with about as much grace as a pro-wrestler attempting Swan Lake and it ends with the mental image of a man having sex with concrete. It could have been so good. It had great ideas, focusing on people whose lives have been touched by The Doctor, supporting one another and looking for answers, which makes it depressing that it was handled so badly and turned into the kind of “comedy” that even Keith Lemon wouldn’t touch. There are a couple of sweet moments, a few good references for continuity purposes but the episode as a whole is just clunky and overplayed. And that’s my polite opinion (the non-polite version involves way too much swearing).

We end this story with so many unanswered questions. I mean, where is the explanation of why the Abzorbaloff is absorbing all these people? What’s his motivation? Why doesn’t Jackie Tyler show any interest when Elton admits he’s looking for The Doctor, considering she’s missing her daughter who’s away travelling with him? And the most important question by far: WHY MUST WE PICTURE A DUDE BONKING A PAVING SLAB?!!

I really do mean it when I say I pretend this episode doesn’t exist. When it comes to scoring it out of ten, I can only give it a point for the potential it had and a point for the scenes in which the group first come together and bond, because they’re quite sweet. Other than that? In the words of the Tenth Doctor; “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” 2/10

Written and edited by Emma Tofi

7.9 – “Hide”

Posted in New Who, Series 7 with tags , , , , on January 7, 2016 by Review The Who

DW Series 7 - Hide

The Doctor goes to Caliburn House in 1974 to get a psychic, Emma Grayling, to check Clara out. To his delight, Emma and Professor Palmer are trying to unravel the mystery of the ghost that haunts the place so, understandably, The Doctor and Clara decide to join in the spooky fun.

“Hide” was Neil Cross’ first Doctor Who script and it apparently impressed the production team enough to get him to write “The Rings Of Ahkaten.” Some of the themes here were explored more overtly in that episode but there’s still some meaty stuff going on. Again we get the old science vs the supernatural scenario. The Doctor, of course, doesn’t hold with the ghost being an unquiet spirit and, rather cleverly, sets out to prove it. There are some genuinely spooky scenes on the way though and the constant image of the distorted scream of the white spirit-like figure is very effective.

The Doctor’s use of the TARDIS, flipping back and forth through time to encounter the “ghost”, is a great idea and it’s good to see the Doctor using his smarts and his time machine to solve a mystery. It also provides a great “walking in eternity” moment. The Doctor fails to notice that Clara finds seeing the last days of the Earth as something painful – she notes that everyone must seem like ghosts to him. It’s a strong scene, without some of the OTT weight that the darker side of The Doctor usually evokes, less melodramatic and more effective because of it.

The explanation for the ghost, that it’s a time traveller trapped in a pocket universe, and the use of a Metebillis 3 crystal and Emma’s psychic gifts to sort it all out is carried off very well. The Doctor’s running around in an ever misty forest is evocative and the creature stalking him is well crafted. This basic plot, with scary stuff, science stuff, running around and a decent monster is all good material and there’s been plenty of Doctor Who that has gotten by on just these elements.

Where “Hide” rises above is in the extra layers. Emma and Alec Palmer’s unspoken love is gently handled, both are well written characters and very well portrayed by Jessica Raine and Dougray Scott (adding a sparkle of star power). Emma’s psychic gifts make her a troubled soul and she can find a bond with Alec, who is tortured by the memories of those he feels he caused to be killed in World War 2. Hence Alec’s determination to study the ghost – he wants to see if he can make contact with the “other side”, to atone, to explain and to apologise to those that died. He can’t get his wish, because science unravels the truth and there’s no comfort to be found in the supernatural.

But he does find love instead; declaring his feelings for Emma gives her the strength to save The Doctor and both troubled souls find peace. The Power of Love gets overused in New Who, but here, love does what it’s supposed to do – inspire, encourage and empower.

This episode is a gem. There’s no exciting old monster returning, no great big secret being revealed, no huge series spanning story-arc being resolved. It’s just a simple tale of a time traveller trapped in a pocket universe and being chased by an unfortunate monster that’s been separated from its mate, that gives rise to a terrifying apparition in a stately home that’s being investigated by a psychic woman and a traumatised ex-spy whose personal problems prevent them from being in love. Okay, so that doesn’t come off as being that simple, but therein lies “Hide’s” beauty – somehow, it makes all of that seem simple. Thanks to The Doctor, people fall in love, find the way home and are healed. A spooky, scary but not really spooky or scary 8/10.

Written and edited by Richard Barnes

7.8 – “Cold War”

Posted in New Who, Series 7 with tags , , , , on January 7, 2016 by Review The Who

DW Series 7 - Cold War

It’s 1983, the Cold War is in full swing and the crew of a Soviet Submarine have found something 5,000 years old in the ice. Some numpty decides to defrost it and suddenly there’s an Ice Warrior rampaging through the sub. 
The Doctor and Clara arrive and attempt to defuse the situation.

There’s nothing wrong with this episode. In fact, there’s lots right with this episode. BUT (and you knew that was coming) it is decidedly nothing special.

We’ll start with the Ice Warrior, the latest big old villain to be resurrected (or defrosted to be more accurate). I’d compare the Ice Warriors with the Sontarans – looking back to Classic Who, their reputation is more impressive than the 4 stories they actually appeared in. “The Ice Warriors” is, frankly, a dull, slow-paced plod. “The Seeds Of Death” is more fun, a fair bit more running around and lots of menacing foam. “The Curse Of Peladon” is entertaining enough, but has to be one of the most overrated Pertwee stories and few people have anything good to say about “The Monster Of Peladon”.

However, the Martians themselves do come out of all of these stories with dignity. They’re a tough bunch of ruthless, military aliens but they’re not just out to conquer the galaxy/universe etc. (apart from “The Seeds Of Death”, where they are just invading Earth, but no-one ever accused Classic Who of too much consistency). Skaldack, or to be precise, Grand Marshall Skaldack, is a solid Ice Warrior who is brutal and dangerous but with, at least to his code of conduct, good reason.

The design is a great update, all the chunky toughness of the original but with more sculpted edges. Lego hands are gone and new weapons and cybernetic enhancements are sleekly integrated into the armour. The big jump, conceptually, for us old fans is finally getting to see an Ice Warrior out of his armour. It’s deftly handled and we don’t actually get to see the whole body, just a notion of a fast and agile body with very long fingers. We do get to see his head out of helmet and it’s suitably reptilian. In fact, I’d argue there’s surely some evolutionary relation to the Silurians.

The rest of the supporting cast are strong – Liam Cunningham, fresh from A Game Of Thrones, does a great turn as the pragmatic but not ideology-driven Russian Sub Captain. Tobias Menzies is the more weasly and more ideologically Communist Lieutenant Stepashin. David Warner finally makes his onscreen debut in Doctor Who as Professor Grisenko but he’s not used anywhere near enough. I’m not a fan of re-using elements over and over again, but I’d gladly see Grisenko team up with the Doctor in more substantial circumstances in the future. Clara has a good outing, showing her bravery and getting stuck in and Matt Smith is his usual solid self.

The setting is claustrophobic, there’s water rushing in and the Ice Warrior is even more impressive in such enclosed spaces. All good fun.

And here’s the BUT – first, the TARDIS has to be taken out of the way (or they could all just escape) and it’s a pathetic reason for its vanishing that basically translates to “The Doctor was just fiddling about and broke it”. Then Skaldack threatens to kick off World War 3, because an attack on one Ice Warrior is an attack on all Ice Warriors so he’s fighting back against all humanity AND he’s called the rest of his species to come down with furious vengeance. BUT, well, the Doctor fails to appeal to Skaldack’s better nature and just as Skaldack is about to launch the nukes, an Ice Warrior ship turns up and tractor-beams the sub up from the depths and everything turns out fine. And there we are.

There’s some excellent, tight corridor work. We’ve got a good, tough, ruthless and powerful alien enemy. And we’ve got some menacing, some murder and almost a nuclear war BUT…it all turns out OK after all. I’ll apologise for this but, since we’re on a submarine, on the top it all looks pretty good, while there’s nothing more going on beneath the surface. A pedestrian 6/10.

Written and edited by Richard Barnes

9.1 & 9.2 – “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witch’s Familiar”

Posted in New Who, Series 9 with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2015 by Review The Who

DW Series 9 - The Magician's Apprentice

On his way to a bookshop, The Doctor accidentally finds himself in the middle of an alien battlefield where a young boy’s life is in jeopardy. In a bid to help him, The Doctor encourages the boy to be brave and seize upon the chance to survive, but when he asks for the boy’s name the answer is terrible enough to make The Doctor abandon him…

You’ve got to wonder why the New Who team hadn’t thought of this before; starting a brand new series with a two-part story that feels like the epic finale as opposed to the beginning of a new run of stories? It’s so simple, so obvious and yet this is a genuine first for the show. And what a way to kick off a series!

Before the opening credits have even begun, we are thrown head first into a war that is being fought in very unconventional ways, introduced to the peril and creepy visual of “hand mines”, introduced to a child victim of this conflict and his potential saviour in the form of The Doctor, only to then be as horrified as our lead character to learn that this little kid is actually the creator of the Daleks, dark lord of Skaro, Davros. As openings go, it’s a belter.

After the credits, the first half of “The Magician’s Apprentice” is basically a hunt for The Doctor, both by his friends and his enemies. He’s busy running away from something that he knows he has to do, a fairly familiar theme in The Doctor’s life, and he’s intent on enjoying every minute of not doing what he’s supposed to. When Missy and Clara track him down to twelfth century Essex and he makes his grand entrance playing electric guitar on the back of a tank, it’s hilarious and exactly the kind of fun and antics I love to see in the show. Capaldi himself is on great form throughout the episode, showing off his range and leaping between silliness, rumination and desperation with ease.

Michelle Gomez is great as Missy. Her version of The Master is still high as a kite, batshit crazy but there’s a menace added to the mix that was seriously lacking in her last outing. Here she manages to really make you believe that she’s capable of anything and that you can’t trust her for a minute. Even in the final minutes of the episode, where The Doctor is pleading with Davros and Clara is about to seemingly be killed, Missy is still trying to switch sides to her own benefit. Of course, both she and Clara are exterminated (or are they?) and the TARDIS itself is destoryed, leaving The Doctor in the clutches of the creatures who hate him most in the galaxy. One hell of a cliffhanger, eh?!

And then…it all falls apart in “The Witch’s Familiar”.

You see, the problem with Steven Moffat as a writer is that he won’t tell a good story if he’s too busy explaining how and why things happen. And this only happens because he sets up so many ideas and scenarios that he must then later pay off that he can’t really ignore them. Less is more and that’s a lesson which Moffat still hasn’t learned based on this two-parter. Instead of throwing in as many ideas as he possibly can, why doesn’t he focus on one cool idea and explore it to its full potential? Because he’s already proven with past stories like “Blink” that he can deliver gold when he takes this very approach! It’s frustrating as a fan of both the show and the man’s writing that I have to find myself in a position where I can’t really defend the work; “The Witch’s Familiar” is a mess, with too many ideas thrown in that can’t then be explored fully and so are reduced to a checklist of plot points that need to be explained so they can all be ticked off before the end credits roll.

Kudos though to both Peter Capaldi and the returning Julian Bleach as Davros for delivering incredible performances throughout the two parts. Honestly, I would’ve settled for “The Witch’s Familiar” basically being just one long conversation between The Doctor and his old enemy, cutting out the whole Dalek Clara stuff entirely. True, the scenes where she and Missy are in the Dalek “sewers” do perfectly set up the twist for the end of the story but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, that twist doesn’t get used to its full potential anyway. So yes, the real meat and potatoes of this episode is the dialogue between Davros and The Doctor, where they reminisce and argue and insult one another, basically playing out their entire relationship in one conversation whilst still leaving enough room for some pathos and even a spot of humour.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with “The Witch’s Familiar”; the resolution. It’s not really a surprise that Davros was playing The Doctor all along in order to use him, but the drama of that is ruined by the all too convenient twist that The Doctor knew all along what was going on. How much more dramatically satisfying would it have been for The Doctor NOT to have known, for Davros to be foiled by his own arrogance instead? He’s given no thought to the mass of evil dwelling beneath his city and hasn’t even considered the possibility that his plan to use The Doctor’s regenerative energy to revive both himself and the Daleks will backfire and empower the lurking Dalek Goo, which will then turn against him and his creations. But no, we have to make The Doctor look awesome so of course he was in on it the whole time, leading to an incredibly boring wrap up to the story.

This, more than anything else about the story, represents a massively missed opportunity and pretty much undoes all of the great character moments between the two old enemies that make up the backbone of the second half of the story. This could’ve been classic but instead it stumbles at the finishing line as Moffat races to wrap up all of the ideas he’s introduced, to the detriment of the overall story.

Still, the line about where The Doctor got the cup of tea from was pretty funny.

“The Magician’s Apprentice” represents a fun and interesting build-up to an exciting cliffhanger. A shame then that “The Witch’s Familiar” represents constant explaining of plot points and little in the way of story and atmosphere. All the exceptional character work being performed by Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi is quickly undone with a last minute “I knew all along” twist and anything that might have gotten the audience invested is suddenly jettisoned in favour of an easy wrap-up. Enjoyable? Sure, but this is one two-parter that will always feel like a missed opportunity for me. Part one alone scores highly but part two drags the overall score down to a 6/10 when this could have easily been a 10. Disappointing.

Written and edited by Richey Hackett

7.7 – “The Rings Of Akhaten”

Posted in New Who, Series 7 with tags , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Review The Who

DW Series 7 - The Rings Of Akhaten

The Doctor takes Clara to see something awesome; a bunch of sort-of asteroid type worlds and a whole load of rocks swirling round a big orange planet, the fabled Rings of Ahkaten. Clara meets a little girl who has to sing a song to keep the Old God asleep, but the Old God wakes up and is about to devour everybody’s souls unless our heroes can find something emotional enough to give it serious indigestion. And the viewers are treated to a journey of faith, discovery and the true nature of the soul.

I’ve been to Anfield, the homeground and heart & soul of Liverpool Football Club, just the once. The Mighty Reds are my Team, I’m not a rabid fan, however, when that crowd roared out “You’ll never walk alone” before kick-off, it was something mighty powerful. I couldn’t help but think of this as Merry, the Queen of Years, and the rest of the crowd sang their song to support The Doctor as he was pouring his heart out to make the Old God burst from too much soul. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, not for the Old God. Liverpool won 2-0 that day at Anfield though…

The reason for the singing is that the people of Ahkaten apparently believe that all life in the Universe began in their neck of the woods so a strong religious cult has built up around the place – a bit like Anfield. Unlike Anfield, where the singing is meant to wake the Gods (or Team), the singing at Ahkaten is meant to keep the Old God (or Grandfather as it’s sometimes known) asleep, otherwise it will wake and consume the Universe. Doctor Who frequently deals with the spiritual/magical vs. science issue, and almost always comes down on the side of science. All those Hinchcliffian supernatural horrors were products of explainable (if occasionally unbelievable) science. However, the magic vs. science issue was really just part of the mystery to be uncovered (there’s no “Curse Of Peladon”, just an old monster in a cave; that’s not a Mummy lurching around, it’s the robot servant of a super-powerful alien). In the Rings of Akhaten, the conflict is more prominent and dealt with in more powerful ways.

At first, there’s something sweet and fascinating about the traditions of Ahkaten, how they don’t trade with money but with items of sentimental value. Clara asks if it’s true that all life started in Ahkaten and The Doctor is happy to reflect that it’s what the people there believe. Nothing wrong with a bit of faith – nobody’s getting hurt. And The Doctor explains that it’s psychic resonance that’s being picked up in the traded items and of course, we just want that little girl to have her big moment, she’s not really singing a song to a God. But something goes wrong and The Doctor has to spring into action as that God thing actually does wake up, which provokes a wee bit of running around, and a few more bits of bigger themes.

This episode has a similar function (on the surface anyway) as Series 5’s “The Beast Below” – it is the story which proves that Clara has what it takes to be A Companion. Clara comes up trumps, straight away (a bit like Amy) finding a child in trouble and befriending them. Then, when the shit hits the fan, there’s not a bit of her that wants to run away. There’s a waking God to confront and the way The Doctor and Clara deal with it is what makes this episode special. The religious followers of The Old God (being the bleeding great orange planet thing) believe it wants their souls, but The Doctor knows it feeds on experience, what the religious folk would interpret as their “souls”. And as we know that psychic resonance is “real” science in the Whoniverse (psychic paper is not magic), then The Doctor’s explanation anchors the whole thing in, at least, the fictional scientific and rational universe.

The Doctor’s finite stream of experience, no matter how vast it is, is still not enough to engorge the Old God. But the infinite possibilities of experience, streaming out of Clara’s leaf, and all that it stands for is, obviously, infinitely larger and is just the thing to sort the Old God out.

There are two passages in the episode which elevate it from being just another “power of love sorting it all out” story. After Merry has telekinetically pinned Clara to the Mummy-thing’s case, The Doctor has to persuade the little girl, who has led her whole life believing it was her destiny to be chosen for sacrifice, to let go. His explanation is beautiful – Merry is unique and to be sacrificed would be a waste, not because she was born to fulfil the artificial “destiny” of her faith, but because the real, rational, physical effects of the universe have made her so. It is the ongoing clashes of particles since the beginning of time that have led to Merry being right there, right then. There is wonder and awe and joy in this explanation that has no need for a God to explain it.

Similarly with Clara’s leaf; the first time I saw the episode, it was the absurd embodiment of that whole power of love nonsense that seemed to be replacing my preferred scientific resolving of problems. But it’s not. Its “power”, for want of a better term, stems from the same rational, science based explanation of why Merry is unique and valuable and, indeed, why all of us are.

What is the soul? Is it some supernatural, immutable essence of who we are, created by God, sent into the world by God and then eventually taken back again, by God – for whatever capricious motives He might have? I say no – and I’d say that “The Rings of Ahkaten” agrees with me. Our souls are the sum of our experience, which is informed by the experiences and personalities of those around us and who have come before us, and that which we pass on and share to all that are around us and will come after us. Some worry that it’s a bit prosaic that our minds and memories are made up of electrical impulses fizzing between molecules. But those molecules are made of elements born in the fires of exploding stars. And that universe spanning, all-time reaching process of stellar birth and re-birth has led to a species that can recognise those very processes that allow us to recognise them.

Surely there’s a beauty there that’s more profound and wonderful than any crude myth written up to, at best, make us feel a bit warm and fuzzy or, at worst, keep us under control?

The big orange planet thing as Universe devouring…thing is, frankly, a bit daft. However, this story has the bravery to stand up and proudly declare that the ramblings of myth and religion cannot compare to the incomparable beauty of truth. An enlightening 9/10.

Written and edited by Richard Barnes

12.4 – “Genesis Of The Daleks”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 12 with tags , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Review The Who

CW Series 12 - Genesis Of The Daleks

If you’re watching this one after the decades of mythology built upon its foundation, this is the one where SHIT GETS REAL, GUYZ! THE FIRST SHOT OF THE TIME WAR IS FIRED! But whenever you’re watching it, this is The Secret Origin of The Daleks, with The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry plonked in the middle of the last days of the Thal/Kaled war, sent on a mission to end the Daleks before they’re even started.

Christ, imagine having to not only find something new to write about “Genesis Of The Daleks” that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before, but to do so in the looming shadow of “The Magician’s Apprentice” – a season opener that certain corners of the internet (i.e. the nerdy ones that you’re just as guilty of reading as I am) are fairly convinced is going to be a direct sequel. The whole context could’ve change by the time this is published!

So let’s skip quickly through the obvious flaws: 6 episodes is too long for any story, the giant clam is terrible, Terry Nation can’t help but slip into adventure serial mode even with a script editor clearly kicking him up the arse for once, there’s been a millennia of war and yet – despite being aware of it – no-one has thought to use the secret tunnel that leads STRAIGHT INTO THE THAL CITY, Thal city security is frankly terrible, it’s kind of hard if you’re of a certain age to take Guy Siner as a Nazi seriously (no matter how good an actor he is), I have friends who make a fairly convincing argument that yes, you do have the right, actually…and yet, and yet…

It’s a fucking stone cold classic, isn’t it? I mean, come on. It’s BRILLIANT. Despite being peppered with a couple of plot holes so big you could pilot a planet through ‘em. I mean, in one respect it’s like Doctor Who in microcosm. There are odd ropey bits, but those ropey bits don’t stop the whole being basically AMAZING, do they? NO THEY DO NOT. “Genesis Of The Daleks” features – in the shape of Davros – an instantly classic, utterly superb villain. Michael Wisher totally nails his performance, switching from icy megalomania to histrionic frustration, often within a single line of dialogue. It’s dirty, grimy, gritty and dark, yet doesn’t make me pull the sort of faces I normally pull at those adjectives. This is a millennia-long war that – on a 70s BBC budget – manages to feel like a millennia-long war, with all the grotty violence that suggests. The script is highly quotable and features a bunch of ideas and set-ups that define the series. The world-building is the best we’ve seen in aaaaages, there are moral dilemmas and Stuff To Think About, and – oh yes – visual references to The Seventh Seal?

Bring. That. Shit. On.

Sometimes there is no new angle, and sometimes you don’t need one. Sometimes it’s enough to just sit there going “Wheeeeeee!!”, pausing only to idly wonder how the hell Terry Nation, coming off the back of “Planet Of The Daleks” and “Death To The Daleks”, managed to write something this enjoyable. And then you thank the deity of your choice for whoever let Robert Holmes loose on Doctor Who and watch the rest of the story with a great big idiot grin on your face. And all is good with the world.

Do I really need to say any more? 8/10.

Written and edited by Steve Horry

7.6 – “The Bells Of Saint John”

Posted in New Who, Series 7 with tags , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Review The Who

DW Series 7 - The Bells Of Saint John

I don’t know where I am!” say lots of people who have been trapped in the wi-fi. The Doctor, however, is pretending to be a monk in 1207 Cumbria, but gets a call on the TARDIS phone from a terribly familiar young lady who needs helpdesk support. The Doctor arrives in the present day, rescues his impossible girl Clara and, together, they set out to find out what’s going on and put a stop to it.

At last! The proper roll-out of the impossibly pretty and perky Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald, the OFFICIAL new companion. All quite exciting really. We’ve already been teased with her in two superb episodes – as saucy, brilliant yet tragic Oswin in “Asylum Of The Daleks” and as cute, dynamic yet tragic Clara in “The Snowmen”. What a pity then that “The Bells Of Saint John” doesn’t really come close in quality to those two corkers.

It doesn’t help that it’s got a ticklist of Moffatisms that always get my goat. Anachronistic overly calm child being spooky; faceless, voiceless sinister “monster” that walks slowly; innocuous words as ominous repeated catchphrase – “I don’t know where I am”. Well I know where I am, Steve – stuck with a bunch of clichés that I’ve seen too many times before.

The story, or at least the situation that our heroes must deal with, is not so strong either. Again, people being spirited away to a virtual place is hardly original in the New Who era. Celia Imrie is great as our lead villain, but Miss Kizlet joins a growing list of strong, posh women in dark suits. And it’s never really clear what the point of the exercise is – why are people being uploaded to the “wifi”? I’m sure the Great Intelligence has a great plan behind it all, but who knows what it is – we’re never told. It’s quite cool how Miss Kizlet hacks her staff’s minds to get them to act just how she wants but so much else makes no sense.

The spoonheads are just plain daft. So they’re actually portable servers who disguise themselves as people that their targets know, except their heads twist around so that the downloading “beam” can be used? WHY?! Since Miss Kizlet seems to have no trouble controlling a whole café full of people from afar, why does she need to have the spoonheads wandering around? After all, aren’t people being uploaded to the wifi?!

All that stuff isn’t so important though – this story is really about Clara and turning her into THE companion. However, the Clara here is nowhere near as good as the Clara in “Asylum…” and “The Snowmen”. In her previous stories, Clara was smart and dynamic and very much driving events along. Here, Clara is really just someone that stuff happens to. I suppose that’s the point; she is The Impossible Girl of mystery and it’s up to The Doctor to pull her into his adventures. I’ve got no issues with Coleman as an actress as she more than proved her worth in her first couple of outings. When there’s a chance to show it, she’s strong here, showing how a raised eyebrow and subtle smile can go a long, long way. It’s just unfortunate that she doesn’t have the character I was hoping for to put all of that talent into.

Matt Smith, once again, elevates the mediocre to something better; he twirls and twitches his way through things with ease. The Eleventh Doctor, no longer weighed down by the Ponds, is back to having fun again. He has great chemistry with Coleman; The Doctor and Clara spark nicely over their breakfast, cheerfully rescue planes together and don’t quite flirt, but almost do. The anti-gravity bike up the side of the Shard is good fun, The Doctor’s trick of reprogramming the spoonhead to fool Miss Kizlet and upload her was pretty clever and the Great Intelligence reducing Miss Kizlet back to a scared little girl – that was just plain nasty. The whole thing may not quite hang together, but the episode certainly has its moments.

Episodes like this are frustrating. We know Moffat is a seriously good writer when he turns it on, but sometimes he seems to be just ticking off the boxes. There’s enough sparky stuff to entertain but, after two awesome preludes to this, Clara’s actual proper debut is a little bit of a letdown. Smith, Coleman and Imrie provide enough talent to give this 7/10.

Written and edited by Richard Barnes

20.1 – “Arc Of Infinity”

Posted in Classic Who, Season 20 with tags , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Review The Who

CW Series 20 - Arc Of Infinity

Ten years on and Omega’s back, hatching a plan to steal The Doctor’s “bio-data” and cross over from the anti-matter universe – which will have the inconvenient side effect of fatally blowing the matter universe up. On Gallifrey, a traitor must be unmasked before the High Council can carry out The Doctor’s termination and in Amsterdam, some teenage backpackers are being hypnotized in a spooky basement by a giant rubber chicken monster. Well, they do say the drugs are pretty good out there.

Doctor Who, just like nature, abhors a vacuum. That’s not to say that there aren’t frequent pockets of airlessness in the series; back in the days when stories had to run to 5, 6, 7 episodes or even longer to make their seasons work, you might have an entire episode of tedious corridor-running, or capture-escape-recapture shenanigans, that leave us no further on at the end of the 20 minutes than we were at the start. But in general the show manages to avoid too much “business as usual”. I’m almost certainly biased but I feel like I’ve seen lots of Star Trek episodes which are just that, and no more than that: some conventional Star-Trek-type things happen in them, no new ground is broken, no expectations are defied, and everyone seems perfectly happy with that state of affairs.

But Doctor Who when it’s working, which is to say most of the time, tends to give a little bit extra. It might be something as simple as the regulars clowning around, or some mad curveball of British eccentricity in the script taking us places that the Enterprise crew would never be bold enough to go. But there’s usually something there to love, even during supposed all-time nadirs like Season 17 or Season 24.

I’ve watched “Arc Of Infinity” around four times now in recent months and, having said all of the above, my brain can find almost zero little crumbs of Whovian comfort to cling onto for support. For a serial that’s meant to be ushering in a triumphant 20th anniversary season, it manages to demonstrate a truly breathtaking inability to understand what needs to go into a Doctor Who script to make it successful, or even remotely watchable. In my reviews of Season 19 I banged on enough about my problems with certain incoming personnel of the mid-1980’s regime but, honestly, “Arc Of Infinity” is where it becomes obvious that the pantsness of “Time-Flight” was no mere blip. The show’s format has curdled into something really quite off-putting, and pretty soon only weird anorak-sporting saddos are going to want to drink it.

But enough preamble, what’s “Arc Of Infinity” all about? Two different plots, interleaved: the first, a Gallifrey-set whodunnit in which his friends must race against time to find the traitor in the High Council and provide a stay of The Doctor’s execution; the second, some teen backpackers confronting monsters in a crypt in Amsterdam. If you’re scratching your head right now trying to work out how these two plotlines could possibly join up, don’t worry, I can practically guarantee by this point that I’ve watched “Arc Of Infinity” more times than you and I still can’t make much sense of it. Essentially Who’s fortunes had reached the stage where they could afford to film one production per season abroad (for some small values of abroad), JN-T presumably liked the idea of a weekend in Amsterdam, and they shoehorned it in.

Let’s deal with the plots one at a time. Plot A at least sounds promising, doesn’t it? A sequel to the much-loved “The Deadly Assassin”? In fact it turns out to be one of the final few nails in the coffin of the idea of setting stories on Gallifrey. What should be a planet of infinite, breathtaking wonders is once again a few beige antechambers populated by a small gaggle of crusty high-court-judge types. Apart from Borusa (who is never recognisable as a long-running character anyway, due to his twenty-a-day regeneration habit), all of the mystery suspects (including a couple of “old friends” of The Doctor) have to be introduced from scratch. Is there any reason we should care about the solution to this mystery when the characters are barely distinguishable and there’s no time to distribute clues, due to half the running time being wasted on an acned teen kicking around Amsterdam? The big twist (sorry if this is a spoiler but I really fail to see how anyone could spoil “Arc Of Infinity”) is that the suspect who seems nicest is – gasp! – the traitor and the one who seems most horrible is – no way! – loyal. Agatha Christie this ain’t. “The Unicorn and The friggin’ Wasp” this ain’t!

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands…

One thing I do grudgingly like about this serial is how it trolls its audience for the first couple of episodes. Adric has left, Tegan has left. People are always going on about how Nyssa is the best companion of that particular line-up but, Jesus, watch the two-handers between her and The Doctor in this episode and tell me that, without the mouth on legs and the pyjama-wrapped brat to liven things up, things haven’t reached “watching paint dry” levels of tedium. Anyway, the point is that we’re definitely in line for a new companion. Enter Robin Stuart and Colin Frazer, the obvious candidates, especially Robin, as Colin gets nobbled by some kind of alien turkey pretty early on. And, OMG! No one liked Adric, but they’ve achieved the impossible here and found someone even worse. Awkward, goggle-eyed, terrible dress sense, stupid (not only has he managed to lose his passport, he seriously thinks the Dutch police will throw him into jail for this), unbelievably rude to the poor youth hostel receptionist who is trying to help him, ill at ease with girls…did the production team of the time not understand that their substantial spotty teen boy demographic might want some escapism out of Doctor Who, rather than a mirror held up to all their flaws?

But of course it’s all a trick, showing us this vista of unimaginable horror so that we do what we never imagined we would and breathe a sigh of relief when it’s revealed that Janet Fielding has in fact signed up for another season. Although, one of the most interesting things in “Arc Of Infinity” is right at the end, as The Doctor’s face falls when he realizes he really is “stuck with” Tegan again. Full credit to the 1980’s production team for their exploration of the idea of companions being more of a problem for The Doctor than an asset, though it’s not until the arrival of Ace that why The Doctor tolerates having companions will be anything other than a baffling conundrum.

But yeah, Robin Stuart is terrible, the pointless choice to film some scenes in Amsterdam is terrible, Gallifrey is terrible, the whodunnit is terrible, the Matrix being a few wobbly criss-cross lines generated by a BBC Micro is terrible and an insult to “The Deadly Assassin”. Bringing back Omega with an uglier costume, no discernible personality and a giant rubber chicken for a butler is terrible and an insult to “The Three Doctors”. The technobabble (all those “pulse loops” and “fusion boosters”) and the slavishness to continuity (namedropping Leela, wasting time on a discussion about the temporal grace goof from “Earthshock”) in the place of any kind of heart is terrible. The continuing decision to have The Doctor and companion attempt to solve almost every problem with guns is really terrible. Colin Baker in the role of Maxil is not completely terrible, if your idea of “not terrible” is “able to portray a dead-eyed Nazi thug with real conviction”, but of course the idea to take this performance and make a Doctor out of it may well be the most terrible ever. I think everyone agrees that as celebrations of two decades of the show go, this is a massive misfire.

But is there anything good to say about “Arc Of Infinity”? Well…I’ll offer up two things. Firstly, and okay, this is clutching at straws a bit, the name of the episode is really beautiful and evocative. It’s hard to understand how such a poetic story title could be attached to such a lumpen and prosaic story. Secondly, there is one scene in “Arc Of Infinity” that I really like, sadly in Episode 4, so much too late to stop anyone switching off, but still. Yet another terrible decision has been made to have Omega turn into Peter Davison in an ugly boiler suit and facial eruptions legging it around the streets of Amsterdam. Briefly, though, he stops to listen to a steam organ and, these being carefree pre-Yewtree days, exchanges some coquettish smiles with a tiny winsome blond Dutch boy. The tragedy of Omega is that all he wants to do is live; listen to music, feel the sun on his face, maybe skip through a field of tulips holding hands with a tiny child, I don’t know. But of course thanks to his exile to the anti-matter universe all of these joys are lost to him forever. The rest of the adventure squanders him entirely with boilerplate villainous posturing and bluster, but this scene economically describes his predicament, as moments later his face begins to revert to anti-matter and bystanders start screaming. It’s worth all the rest of “Arc Of Infinity” put together, as far as I’m concerned.

Even the aforementioned glimmers of something good and interesting about this serial aren’t enough to amount to an extra point out of ten. “Arc Of Infinity” is an empty void of a show, a display case for continuity porn instead of imagination, technobabble instead of plot, guns instead of humour, shoddy production value, contractual obligation rubber monsters and unimaginative direction instead of any discernible love anywhere. If Doctor Who is about joylessly reprising things from the shows past then this might qualify as some kind of success, but if it’s about anything else at all then I can only award it the ultimate bad story accolade of 1/10.

Written and edited by Matthew Marcus