Cold WarBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Cold War
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Broadcast on BBC One - 13 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

In the promotional build-up to this episode it seemingly became compulsory to make jokessssssss about the Ice Warrior’s sibilant speech patternssssssssss. So, now that’s out of the way, how successfully did this week's Who reimagine the Martian race? Mark Gatiss’s script was determined to depict them as a terrifying and plausible threat. As Clara says at one point, “it’s all got very... real”, and that could almost have been the mission statement of 'Cold War', where monstrous realism was the order of the day.

Instead of clunky design, the Ice Warrior’s “shellsuit” is shown to be body armour with an extremely useful line in sonic remote control. And we get the same Alien-style trick used all the way back in 'Resurrection of the Daleks' – the not-quite-seen entity out of its housing and busy stalking its prey. It’s unsurprising that ‘Dalek’ has instantly become a reference point for this adventure – the lone, reimagined creature in a lock-down situation makes comparisons too tempting to resist. But however many similarities can be drawn between ‘Dalek’ and this ‘sub-under-siege’ scenario, there is one vital difference: Rob Shearman’s much-redrafted magnum opus never punctures its sense of reality.

By contrast, ‘Cold War’ unwittingly stresses its artificiality right from the outset. The decision to depict a Russian submarine’s crew speaking English from the word go emphasizes a profound tension between narrative reality and production anxiety – clearly it was felt that Russian voices and subtitles would frighten off the early Saturday evening audience. We get a production decision which assumes the worst of its audience, rather than crediting them with curiosity and intelligence, because the English-speaking opening sadly can’t be rationalized through any TARDIS intervention. It’s a production choice, pure and simple, indicative of how weirdly mixed-up and inconsistent this episode becomes. Text is given in Russian-style lettering in the submarine, as if to remind audiences of the setting (in case they’d forgotten), yet this doesn’t clearly correspond with previously established TARDIS continuity either. It’s all a bit of a linguistic tangle, where playing-it-safe production decisions are constantly screamed out, puncturing the sense of immersive reality that a base-under-siege story absolutely calls for. Given how brilliantly TARDIS translation was handled in, say, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, where a sudden shift into English corresponds with a punch-the-air moment and a vital plot point, this episode sadly missed its chance to show us the TARDIS translation matrix kicking in, in what could have been a truly startling, stunning instance of the Doctor’s Time Lord powers. Imagine if suddenly, just as the order to launch a nuclear missile was given, we’d shifted from subtitles into spoken English. What could have been a stone-cold classic Who moment, transforming Russian characters from exotic, stereotyped others into our trustworthy protagonists, remains something that can only be imagined on Saturday night telly.

For me, the 1980’s music references were also clumsier than a 1960’s Ice Warrior costume. Despite David Warner’s strong performance, and he even made the query about Ultravox’s break-up work brilliantly, his character was lumbered with a habit designed to reinforce the eighties’ setting. I think this patronized the audience yet again – can’t we recall that it’s the eighties from an on-screen caption, talk of nukes, M.A.D. and mention of shoulder pads? Do we really need ‘relatable’ pop references to ram the time-frame home? Professor Grisenko was certainly an eccentric, but he felt too much like a designed creation rather than a flesh-and-blood character: blatantly there so that the “song” theme could get its pay-off via Clara’s Duran Duran rendition. Pop music was crow-barred into Chris Chibnall’s ‘42’ (hardly a fan favourite), but its inclusion here is no more convincing, I’d wager. Again, the reality effect worked so strongly around Skaldak is undermined by some of these surrounding decisions.

And if the Ice Warrior out of its shell is a scarifying highlight of the story, helping to ramp up the tension by playing to Gatiss’s formidable strengths as a writer, whilst also benefiting from sympathetic direction and lighting, then the choice to reveal Skaldak’s face feels a little misguided. It slavishly emulates a horror genre template: the big reveal of the bravura monster effect, after a lot of tantalizing and audience anticipation. But in this case, the effect wasn’t spectacular enough to warrant the reveal, and I think the mystique of the Ice Warriors, as well as Skaldak’s presence, would have been better served by refusing to give the audience this visual FX reverse shot. If we’d only seen the Doctor through the Martian’s eyes, without ever glimpsing what turned out to be Skaldak’s rather generic appearance, then that very absence would have been infinitely more thrilling and unsettling. By following the established plot beats of a literal face-off (even seeming to playfully reference Moffat’s “don’t blink” via a contest of wills) Skaldak and the Ice Warriors were diminished a little, when previous events had industriously set out to achieve the exact opposite.

There’s much fan-friendly stuff to welcome here: impeccable model FX work on the sub; HADS gets a mention (though wouldn’t that have been better explained earlier in the story rather than at the very end?); and (this) Clara treats her first historical outing as a test of her own performance, in a rather touching and well-played device where she constantly seeks reassurance. ‘Cold War’ has atmosphere in abundance, and is consistently well acted by all of its cast, with Liam Cunningham deserving just as many plaudits as David Warner. It also has a cleverly integrated bit of business about Skaldak’s singing – paralleled with Ice Warrior sonic technology – and his own family relationships. He has a daughter, so in the sentimental codings of family entertainment, we know right away he can’t be an irredeemable monster. And given that Skaldak doesn’t definitively leave until immediately after Clara’s singing, I interpreted her effort as reminding him of his daughter’s songs (indeed, Clara had already emphasized the link to “daughters” in dialogue). The new romantics save “Planet Earth” (why couldn’t that have been Grisenko’s favourite? “looking at planet earth… this is planet earth”). Clara’s emotional intelligence and resourcefulness are neatly reinforced here.

But the Doctor appears to rather strangely teach Skaldak, and by implication us, that nuclear deterrence is basically A Good Thing, and that mutually assured destruction handily works to keep the peace. I can’t help but feel that these aren’t unquestionably Doctorish ideologies, and I wonder if this section of the script underwent many revisions or generated much in the way of contention across the production process. It wouldn’t have been like this in the days of the Virgin New Adventures, I suspect. Further back in time, in 1984, Doctor Who mounted a version of this story as science fiction allegory (‘Warriors of the Deep’). The intervening years mean that ‘classic’ allegory can now be safely tackled as ‘new’ popular memory, swapping one kind of distancing shell for another.

‘Cold War’ is an incessant conflict between two power blocs where neither can entirely triumph. Intended realism fights against (unintended) displays of production artifice, and what is very nearly a chilling classic finds itself marred, though not sunk, by specific production decisions. The Ice Warriors are now a more complex and convincing on-screen race than ever before, but this particular Ice Warrior hero finds himself encased by narrative techniques (especially the language issue and the pop song gimmick) that threaten to jolt audiences out of Gatiss’s finest sub-under-siege storytelling, despite all its dripping, dripping water and its damp, desperate physicality.

Summer FallsBookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Summer Falls
Written by Amelia Williams
BBC Books
UK release: 4 April 2013
This review is based on the BBC Books' ebook and contains some spoilers  

Summer Falls is a curious novella, more ‘Doctor fic’ than ‘Doctor lite’, since it’s supposedly written by Amelia Williams (formerly Pond) and involves a lightly fictionalized version of her Doctor. The ‘Curator’ has a mysterious “shed” in place of a Police Box, says very Doctorish things like “magic is cool” and “I love a little shoppe”, and is highly knowledgeable about all sorts of unusual entities and events. Oh, and the Curator also has a sort-of companion: one of the most brilliant, amusing companions that we’ll never get to see on-screen. No, it's not a shape-shifting talking penguin, but rather a grey talking cat, which enables real-world writer James Goss to explore all manner of great cat jokes. Essentially, what we learn is that cats do not fit at all well into the template of a Doctor Who companion, particularly given their tendency to get comfy and warm and have a doze mid-adventure, or their need to start cleaning rather than answering a question.

Returning to thoughts of Amy Pond strikes me as a faintly curious thing to do just as a new companion and a new mystery are launched in the TV series. Having Clara Oswald refer to an Amelia Williams’ story could be read as a passing of the baton; a way to honour and remember what’s come before as the franchise moves remorselessly on (and where everyone’s replaceable – not just companions, but even executive producers and showrunners). Perhaps this particular tie-in offers a kind of reassurance to fans of the Ponds. Amy hasn’t been erased from Who, after all, and the show is allowed to remember her in its passing details. Either that, or there’s method to the reminiscence, and Steven Moffat doesn’t want audiences to forget Amelia for a specific, yet-to-be-revealed reason. Given that ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ was so insistently book-ended, circling back to ‘The Eleventh Hour', for this story/character thread to be picked up again so soon feels strange at the very least.

For my money, James Goss has consistently been one of the best recent writers of original, off-screen Doctor Who and Torchwood, and there's a tendency towards playful pastiche evident across his work. He’s a strong choice for this sort of material, given that Summer Falls was supposedly first published in 1954, and so is tailored to resemble a quaint, mildly jolly-hockey-sticks children’s fantasy adventure. Not only does it not feature the Doctor (by name), it’s also strongly fantastical rather than science-fictional, a genre shift which Who itself occasionally indulges in, but which seems to have dismayed some audiences of late with regards to ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. Although Summer Falls has the Doctor-type character muttering about “psycho-temporal” factors, it doesn’t really make very much effort to pin matters down into a science fiction template, instead preferring the broader poetic license of talking cats, frozen seas, and strange, powerful objects which have to be collected.

Goss repeatedly toys with readerly expectations. Summer Falls features the Lord of Winter, which in a novella released shortly before ‘Cold War’, and not long after ‘The Snowmen’, one might guess would implicate either the Ice Warriors or the chilly Great Intelligence. What we get remains tantalizingly vague, and I’m not at all convinced that this tale ties into ongoing series 7 events in any unexpected way. Of course, the big gimmick is that Summer Falls appeared on screen in ‘The Bells of Saint John’, meaning that we’ve already seen its heroine Kate depicted as a Spoonhead, as well as knowing that Chapter 11 is a tear-jerker (something it strives to live up to). This creates a complex layering of fiction-upon-fiction: the real book that you can buy and enjoy is itself part of the Doctor Who universe, as well as featuring a fictionalized version of the Doctor. When will Clara ask the Time Lord if he’s really the Curator? Will this fiction-within-a-fiction be played with in the TV show itself, I wonder, even perhaps in its anniversary special? I’d hazard not, however: the reference-spotting of Summer Falls suits fandom all too well – it’s a sort of roman à clef revolving around a key which has to be found, while readers can use the master key of Doctor Who to interpret what’s going on. But I’m not convinced that such "meta" would necessarily translate well to the broader mass audience of Christmas and Anniverary Specials, so perhaps ‘Doctor fic’ will remain a little-known tie-in subgenre for now.

Having said that, I’d like to see a series of Amelia Williams’ tales, perhaps written at different times across her life, each giving a different refraction and revision of her adventures. Re-fictionalized alt-Daleks or Screaming Cherubs could get an outing. Pursued as a series of reimagined slants on the Moffat era, this sort of playful Who manqué could start to build up into far more than the sum of its parts. But as things stand, and as a one-shot, Summer Falls is a clever, cool experiment in meta that doesn’t always feel like it really matters to ongoing arcs and questions.

The Rings of AkhatenBookmark and Share

Sunday, 7 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Broadcast on BBC One - 6 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

Doctor Who isn’t specially made for those of us who go online and watch multiple trailers multiple times or devour previews, but it is concerned with those who catch trailers between other programmes or might occasionally view online previews. The audience for The Rings of Akhaten was carefully primed to expect a story set in space with multiple alien species and a child-threatening monster. This is of course what they received, but to get there they took the public footpath rather than the motorway. There the themes of the season were restated and the moral of the episode prepared for, and the background of our new heroine explored further.

The Rings of Akhaten unexpectedly proved to be the first of this series’ visits to the recent past, with the central narrative being framed by the Doctor’s research expedition to establish Clara’s personal history. That history so far appears unencumbered by otherworldly or extradimensional intervention beyond the Doctor’s periodic sampling of her life, but the episode does raise the puzzle of the TARDIS’s unwillingness to open its doors to her, and provoke expectations surrounding the early death of Clara’s mother. On the one hand the loss of Ellie and the refusal of the TARDIS doors to open are both perfectly regular occurrences. People die, sometimes early; and Clara does not have the TARDIS key. Still, the idea that the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara is expressed in the shadow of the personalisation of the ship in The Doctor’s Wife and the affinity it displays with Melody/River in Let’s Kill Hitler. We are given many reasons to admire Clara in this episode, but there are unsettling notes in the background.

Those unsettling notes are not provided by Murray Gold, whose music moves back into being part of the narrative rather than a commentary upon it. His soundtrack to this story recalls his earlier choral works, especially those in Journey’s End and The End of Time, both in implying doomsday and in offering salvation from it. There were moments where one felt one was listening to a bland contribution to a fashionable modern hymnal, but there had to be contrast with the ritual hymn and subtlety of mood is difficult when a composer has so few minutes to work within, and so many other elements within the episode to underwrite. Overall, Gold continues to recognise and project the tone of the series: peril is interpreted in a less self-indulgently sinister manner than Dudley Simpson might have managed in the mid-1970s, but Gold’s scoring is intelligent and poignant, working with the emotions of the characters rather than trying to impose a mood on the viewer.

Doctor Who makes selective use of popular music, but a willingness to use it at all was one of the refreshing points of the revived series in 2005. ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials is used to signify 1981, juxtaposed with the Doctor reading The Beano Summer Special of that year, but the use of the song has further implications. It plays over the first meeting of Ellie and Dave, Clara’s parents; does this somehow prefigure apocalypse? More specifically for the episode’s plot, ‘Ghost Town’ concerns collective memory and experience. In terms of The Rings of Akhaten this is the history taught in song to Merry so she can feed her people’s god, and also Clara’s remembrance of her dead mother and the stories she passed on to her. ‘Ghost Town’ also echoes the Doctor’s long life and the memories which he rarely discusses but which he is willing to offer to the god to be devoured. If these ghosts are reflections of the past they can be confronted and digested. It’s the reflections on what might have been which can’t be faced, because they were never realised in the first place. As such, their form is unfixed and insubstantial and it’s appropriate that they give the Old God of Akhaten indigestion.

The Rings of Akhaten has been promoted as another instalment of cinematic Doctor Who, but it seems more at home within the confines of the small screen than many of its predecessors. The bazaar set is crowded and claustrophobic, and while this was set up in Roath Lock, one can imagine something similar being realised in Television Centre or with ingenuity and still narrower camera angles in Lime Grove or Riverside. The CGI is limited and relatively static compared with recent episodes and there is one space exterior very visibly realised using that age-old standby, the black cloth with lights shining through it. The great exception is the sense of distance suggested by the cuts between the Mummy’s temple and the open theatre where Merry sings her lullaby before her audience. Nevertheless, the concentration on a series of undynamic images mostly works to the episode’s advantage. The episode is substantially the story of Clara and Merry and the sets and effects function largely as background to a series of portrait shots rather than as features in their own right. They do register as a series of references to a cinematic heritage. The Rings of Akhaten suggests Ancient Egypt in its title (though misleading some fans, and journalists, to expect a connection to the natives of Phaester Osiris and Pyramids of Mars). The design of the sets is placed in the broad western tradition of Orientalism (and ‘Ghost Town’ too contains musical references to middle-eastern music or at least a twentieth-century Euramerican theatrical idea of what middle-eastern music was). Set designs which recall depictions of Egypt, Arabia or India in film are joined with a script inspired by Chinese or Japanese orthography. The plot, too, has echoes of various generations of The Mummy, and the Indiana Jones series. The episode could be construed as cinematic in its referencing rather than in its execution; though it’s also been seen as a literary episode, one more familiar with literary SF than me having noted links with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books. It’s the influence of cinema, and the depiction of Islamic, south and east Asian societies in adventure films, which lingers the most; perhaps it is appropriate then that the Old God is depicted both as Ancient Egyptian sun god and American Halloween pumpkin.

In performance, the episode demands most of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, with special mentions for Michael Dixon and Nicola Sian as Clara’s parents, who had to carry much of the pre-credits sequence, and for Emilia Jones as Merry. The latter’s role at first seems to have clear analogies with a schoolchild wanting to avoid embarrassment before peers and parents when faced with a solo song or reading. Emilia Jones conveys Merry’s predicament as the Queen of Years as if it is nothing extraordinary, the better for Jenna-Louise Coleman to reinforce Clara’s affinity with children, and later displays a fierce determination to fulfil her destiny. In contrast to the Clara of The Snowmen, this Clara seems more like the folk image of a Blue Peter presenter than Mary Poppins; she is compassionate, brave, willing to take risks as extreme as driving a space vehicle she’s only known briefly as a passenger, and able to think laterally at times of crisis. Matt Smith’s Doctor continues to evolve, becoming yet more attached to Amy’s glasses (does looking through them, perhaps, remind him of the human perspective?) and in doing so coming more to resemble Harold Lloyd than Norman Wisdom or Michael Crawford-as-Frank Spencer; this comparison seems also fitting for his Doctor’s greater physical self-control and proactivity.

The Rings of Akhaten furthers Doctor Who’s attitude to religion. The Doctor won’t disassociate himself from the beliefs of the inhabitants of the Akhaten system completely. His description of their faith as a ‘story’ is not a dismissal in a series so self-aware of its own storytelling. He gives a rationalist, empirical, cosmologist’s account of the making of the universe and what individuals are made of in order to convince Merry of her worth in her own right, not as the Queen of Years. Souls, the Doctor says, are stories; the roots and merits of this idea in the context of various religions should be left to those with more skill in comparative theology, but it’s an appropriate foundation for a belief system in Doctor Who. More frivolously, red is still the colour for religious orders in Doctor Who, five years from The Fires of Pompeii, but just over three from The End of Time.

Though the Old God is defeated and extinguished at the end of the episode, the return of the ring which Clara gave to Dor’een indicates that the best of the faith, a respect for lived experience and giving of oneself, survives. The Doctor gives that ring to Clara in a gesture which recalls the way in which he gave her Victorian counterpart the TARDIS key. For Clara this restores what she surrendered to the Old God with the leaf from 101 Places to See and confirms her integrity, which the Doctor’s mention of “someone who died” then seems to undermine. A viewer remembering The Snowmen might see the ring as a provisional commitment, short of the TARDIS key which marks the Doctor’s whole trust and performs a quasi-sacramental role within what The Myth Makers would remind us is the Doctor’s own ‘temple’. The Doctor is still no closer to finding out who or what Clara is at the end of the story; together with his mistaken identification of the Mummy as the Old God, this episode places unusual emphasis on his fallibility.

The Rings of Akhaten is a change in setting and tone from the expansive ebullience of The Bells of Saint John. The jumps in character progression which enable the telling of this story in forty-four minutes place a little strain on credibility but they are sustained by convincing performance and assertive editing. It’s an intimate story which could do with a little more breathing space in order to develop its themes of learning to explore and appreciate lives lived as a basis for future actions and discoveries. The fact that Clara has lived the life which enables her to understand and deploy her own story and the stories of others which influenced her against the Old God becomes not just a character strength and crisis resolution, but for Doctor and viewer, a frustrating and engaging narrative problem.

The Bells of Saint JohnBookmark and Share

Sunday, 31 March 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - The Bells of Saint John
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Colm McCarthy
Broadcast on BBC One - 30 March 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

‘A new series and a new companion,’ announced BBC One shortly before its stream of consciousness was interrupted by something outside the accepted norms of out-of-vision continuity. Doctor Who has on and off promoted itself as an interruption, an Adventure in Space and Time outside a schedule it implicitly paints as mundane and workaday. Forty-odd years ago, when it was ‘the children’s own programme which adults adore’, tucked away early on a Saturday evening amidst sport, light entertainment and imported series or TV movies, it was perhaps easier to indulge Doctor’s adventures. In the Doctor’s fiftieth year, television programmes compete in a much wider field and Doctor Who has to interrupt the evening of a much wider cross-section of the audience than its ancient niche to justify its continued appearance on our screens. Happily The Bells of Saint John did so with the sort of precision engineering which qualified the Doctor’s bike for the anti-grav Olympics, and which will hopefully have a similar effect in the television ratings.

The Bells of Saint John worked hard. While there was much for the seasoned viewer to recognise and enjoy because their foreknowledge was anticipated, the episode functioned more than perfectly well as an embarkation point for new viewers. Travel in time and space was presented in a series of short settings ranging from the domestic to different blends of action-adventure, with more than a twist of the surreal. The ordinary was turned inside out to become unsettling and events and characters depicted with a lightness which was deceptive. The paranoia of the individual in a connected world was ruthlessly exploited. It’s never been fashionable to embrace the Doctor as fundamentally an Everyman, as Christopher H Bidmead once argued he was, but the Doctor’s experience in the rooftop café by St Paul’s must have disturbed everyone who even for a few seconds has imagined that a roomful of strangers is talking to them. Like much of the best Doctor Who of recent years, such as Blink or Midnight, it develops a threat from memories of the nastier examples of childhood interaction. Even the broad strokes with which the villainy of Miss Kizlet is defined ultimately suggest a childhood interaction which went badly wrong, though this is an area in which her client has previous and (within the ongoing narrative of the programme) recent experience.

Each time Doctor Who has returned to television, the worldwide promotion of the series launch has increased. More than any episode since the 2005 series, The Bells of Saint John seemed self-consciously to advertise Doctor Who’s status as a standard bearer for a particular export variety of Britain. As in Rose eight years ago, London was presented as a series of familiar landmarks juxtaposed with a threat associated with a new addition to the skyline, in this case the Shard. Repetition worked, not just because Doctor Who’s worldwide audience has expanded since 2005, but because it reassures those familiar with the use of major new London buildings as headquarters of sinister forces in the series (a history stretching back to 1966 and The War Machines) while at the same time amplifying their anticipation of developments within the story. The programme’s identity is confirmed to those who know it. London is presented to newcomers as somewhere continually remade: exotic, dangerous, but ultimately made safe for time and space travellers, and inhabited by friendly (if occasionally possessed) folk liable to interpret the arrival of a time and space machine as a remarkable piece of busking.

In contrast, northern England (and by extension all parts of the United Kingdom which are not London) is remote and best experienced as a representation of the past, though the all-male monastic retreat where anachronistic ideas like telephones and communicative women are greeted with alarm is a dysfunctional extreme. For the Doctor, withdrawal into such a place is of limited use. His choice and his natural abode is the new. Both he and Clara are voices on the other end of a phone helpline: Clara has called for help but the Doctor is also seeking answers from her. Both collapse time zones as much as BBC Worldwide’s sales force seek to do with increasing success. For the first time a BBC One broadcast of a new Doctor Who episode ended with the BBC Worldwide animation familiar from DVD releases, confirming the placing of the programme as global BBC brand suggested by the narrative’s flirtation with tourist-video quirkiness.

The use of imagery is not alone in recalling Rose. Some of Clara’s exchanges with the Doctor echoed Rose’s initial questions word-for-word, though she has been more successful than Rose at putting an opinionated parent at a distance. There are several retroactive references which are rendered unobtrusive by having other functions in the plot, but which court speculation. Is it accidental that Clara has a book written by Amy? Recent precedent suggests not. Who was the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number? Given the casting announcement for the fiftieth anniversary episode made (by accident) earlier in the day, the comparisons possible between Miss Kizlet in The Bells of Saint John and Miss Foster in Partners in Crime must have led several fan viewers to expect another parallel between the two.

The Clara of The Bells of Saint John is a less preternaturally self-possessed character than either Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks or Clara in The Snowmen. Given that this Clara doesn’t have any computer expertise until she is uploaded to and then downloaded from the Cloud, it’s possible that this is the first Clara, from which the others are in some way spun off; this may be grasping at a straw. Her dialogue may echo Rose but her rapid-fire delivery and some turns of phrase recall the early David Tennant Doctor (‘That’s weird’): but this is another straw, over which half-formed red herrings leap in the fan mind.

The Bells of Saint John furthers the mission statement of series seven to provide a cinematic experience. Several scenes seemed made with HD and a large screen in mind, from the defiantly comedic but enthralling motorbike ride up the Shard, to the detail in the maps, the threading of this particular web of fear across the computer-simulated globe, and the patterns of light which danced and fluttered within the Spoonheads. Cinematic Doctor Who is less afraid of contrast on screen and where a few years ago townscapes were narrowly shot and underlit, the London of The Bells of Saint John rejoices both in the pinhead lights shining from the distant city at night, and the sunshine of early morning. It’s still a series which won’t linger on most effects shots. Doctor Who was never about effects shots, but in an entertainment world where CG is regarded by many as a performer in its own right it is probably the done thing to look bothered about them for a fraction of a second at a time before the episode is furiously driven onwards.

Matt Smith remains in great command of the Doctor, and increasingly so, his physicality seeming less intrusive this year than previously. The Doctor’s enjoyment of his anonymity, overstressed in the first segment of this season, seems to be reined in here, perhaps because of the less exuberant Doctor seen since the loss of the Ponds but also because the point for long-term viewers has been made. As a character, the Doctor is still too complacent about the question ‘Doctor Who?’ UNIT will not have forgotten, and the Great Intelligence certainly has not. If the Doctor is again the principal viewpoint character of Doctor Who, then the programme’s apparently implausible insistence on the effectiveness of the erasure of the Doctor from history might be an expression of the Doctor’s own insouciance. This situation will not last for ever.

The confusion of computer skills with knowledge of internet culture, and of the information transmitted through wi-fi with the technology itself, will have annoyed many fans of a technical bent, and were Sydney Newman here he would probably agree. The idea that human identity and personality can be rendered as easily digitised signals will raise eyebrows among psychologists, physiologists and philosophers to name but three, but it recognises that in the age of Facebook and Twitter more people are representing themselves more frequently and more widely as abbreviated biographical data than was ever possible before. The images of human faces on screens, asking for help, no longer sure of their location, were major narrative devices in The Idiot’s Lantern seven years ago, but they seem more effective in the age of Skype and personal mobile webcams than in the days of Alexandra Palace and 405-line broadcasting. The Bells of Saint John might appear as frothy as the top of Clara’s breakfast smoothie, but it’s a deft blend of bright colours and pan-generational anxieties which proved a seductively sinister reintroduction to Doctor Who.

The SnowmenBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 26 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Snowmen
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 25 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

There’s nothing abominable about this year’s Christmas Special; it’s full of invention and makes light work of relaunching a post-Ponds Doctor Who. And after an assortment of prequels – let’s pretend that a “foreshadowing” of prequels is the collective noun for CiN, online, and ebook iterations – it comes as something of a surprise to find that the main event is itself another prequel… to several stories from 1960’s Who. This is a big, energetic, sentimental crowd-pleaser which looks all set to play on wintry iconography, and then plays on Doctor Who’s history at the same time. Not just a wonderful Christmas gift, it’s also a prequel of a different kind – to the 50th anniversary. Throw in a title sequence paying homage to various eras, a TARDIS which neatly echoes older designs, Matt Smith’s face in the titles a la Troughton-to-McCoy, not to mention Clara Oswin Oswald’s birthday of November 23rd… and you’ve got a bundle of knowing treats for fandom, all pretty much screaming “this is part of television history”.

But that's about TV time on a fairly macro scale; what about the micro? Every few moments of The Snowmen there’s another burst of colourful, often comedic entertainment, almost as if Steven Moffat composed the script in bite-size chunks aimed at amusing an audience with virtually no short-term memory. Strax is a major delight throughout, particularly thanks to his memory worm exploits and his Sontaran stratagems. Vastra’s rendering as ‘The Great Detective’ is also neatly developed, along with any Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover being addressed by the Doctor’s impersonation of Holmes (complete with Murray Gold pastiching some rather familiar music). Rarely has the shadow of another popular TV series flitted as visibly across BBC Wales’ Who as Sherlock does here, seemingly all in the service of reminding us – as if we might not remember – that we’re watching a Steven Moffat script.

There are other showy, writerly sequences too, most notably the “one word test” where poor Clara has but a single word to appeal to the Doctor. This succeeds in making what could have been a fairly humdrum, seen-it-all-before scene – Clara soliciting the Doctor’s help – into both a challenge for the new companion figure, and a testament to the Doctor’s withdrawal from humanity. It works very well, and has a great pay-off as the Doctor reacts to a rather unexpected four letter word. And the reveal of the Ship’s interior also 'makes it new' via Saul Metzstein’s direction, with a single camera shot appearing to cross the police box threshold while Moffat craftily throws in “smaller on the outside” as a revamped “bigger on the inside”. It’s a refreshingly simple inversion, and one which manages to put a smart twist on a well-worn concept. As if to prove he’s been pondering how to rework TARDIS lore, Moffat even includes a bonus riff in the form of an exterior staircase that’s “taller on the inside”.

One problem with The Snowmen is that at times it feels more like a series of set-pieces rather than a coherent and logically developed storyline. If the snow isn’t really snow, but a crystal drawing on peoples’ thoughts, then shouldn’t it have been able to adopt other shapes rather than being locked into the thematic, wintry mode of ice statues and snowmen? And its “low-level telepathic field” seems to kick in only at points where Moffat wants to achieve a shock effect, a new threat, or a tidy resolution, otherwise being conveniently set to one side. All the individually Moffaty segments are great fun, but as a narrative The Snowmen drifts ever so slightly. We get little sense of an escalating attack, and the incremental pulse of danger which so pervaded The Christmas Invasion, say, seems less present in this year’s giant snowglobe invasion. The funny business of the memory worm does have a gear-shifting, serious pay off, mind you, and the transformation of snow and ice into salt water feels poetically appropriate, even if the rules of a low-level telepathic field aren’t ever properly put into place for viewers, enabling us to guess at the outcome, or genuinely appreciate its fittingness.

Clara’s life has been dubbed a “soft mystery” in official terms. In old money, this would probably be a story arc, but after negative publicity surrounding “complex” storylines the PR computer says “no” to story arcs this year. I don’t know whether Clara’s origins make The Question (Doctor Who?) a “hard mystery” by comparison, but there’s no denying that Clara Oswin Oswald is an intriguing addition to the spaces and times of Doctor Who. However, the “soft reboot” (of new title sequence, theme arrangement, TARDIS and companion) leaves less room than usual for a villain, with Richard E. Grant not being greatly called upon. There are some potshots taken at “Victorian values”, but ultimately Dr. Simeon is little more than a puppet whose strings are pulled by script requirements and pressures of screen time. Like the Autons in Rose, monstrosity is really a convention rather than a focal point, given what the script has to achieve.

Our attention is elsewhere. To wit, Jenna-Louise Coleman never puts a foot wrong as The Girl Who Died. Whether as cut-glass governess or blimey-guv barmaid, she has great screen presence and chemistry with Matt Smith, and her character’s double life resonates with the episode’s theme of imitation, whether it’s the Great Intelligence repeating young Simeon’s words back to him in Ian McKellen’s resonant tones, the Doctor playing at Sherlock, or snarling snowflakes approximating themselves to earthly weather.

Much here is derivative, based on something previously thought or said, on behaviour performed to suit. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by this: for his third Christmas Special, Moffat must have been aware of not wanting to repeat himself excessively, and not wanting to follow a template too slavishly after the Dickensian Christmas Carol and Narnia-esque The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. How to make something original out of standard Christmas elements? 2012’s elegant answer is to incorporate imitation as the story’s motor.

When all’s said and done, reviews are words, words, words. So perhaps the one word test should be applied, cutting through blizzards of commentary and opinion. How might The Snowmen best be summed up in a single word? It reminds me of many title sequences, of Patrick Troughton stories, of much-loved TARDIS interiors, companions and introductions, of better and worse Christmas Specials, of a gravestone in the previous story, of Asylum of the Daleks of course, of Murray Gold’s motifs, of November 23rd anniversaries long ago and yet to come, of Cardiff University’s Main Building, of pastiche and parody, and always of the BBC’s period drama brilliance. Or, in one not necessarily Christmassy word:


Devil in the SmokeBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Devil in the Smoke
Written by Justin Richards
BBC Books
UK release: 18 December 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK edition of the ebook.

Certain quarters of fandom have been clamouring for a Madame Vastra and Jenny spin-off for a while, and this ebook pretty much fulfills the brief – albeit as a “media tie-in” (in old money) rather than a fully-fledged series all of its own. Following the release of The Angel’s Kiss (which itself linked into The Angels Take Manhattan), I wonder whether every ‘event’ episode – or even just every episode, full-stop – will now arrive complete with its own commercially-available ebook. Personally, though I’m more than happy to buy DVD releases containing the TV series plus additional material, it feels a little odd to pay (seemingly on a per-episode basis) for prequel novellas to what’s still a public service TV series. But muttering about Doctor Who’s ongoing commercialization is a futile act – akin to trying to catch smoke in your hands – especially on the verge of an anniversary year and what will no doubt be a vast new plume of merchandise. Instead, fans and reviewers may as well just let it all swirl around them; like the weather, there’s seemingly nothing that can be done about Who’s corpulent growth as a mega-brand. And here’s something else for completists to enjoy (though Dan Starkey’s audiobook reading may well prove to be the more entertaining version, given the skill and verve with which he tackles character voicing).

Scrooge-like grumblings aside, there are some lovely moments in this tale, such as an observation of snow settling on the cold-blooded Vastra, as well as a mysterious death which sets everything in motion and features rather more “viscous carmine” blood than I’d expect to see in televised Doctor Who (particularly at 5:15pm on Christmas Day). There’s also some clever use of settings. Justin Richards plays with the reader’s expectation of a showdown set amid generic, grimy industrialism – all smoke, soot and merchants of menace – instead opting for a glassy, atmospheric location that greatly boosts his finale. However, the sense of place and time on show throughout is largely sketched in chocolate-box mode, relying on too many stock characters and shorthand sentiments. There are workhouses, and thugs, and baddies with names like Able Hecklington. Given that Justin Richards has to set out his stall pretty sharpish, and then wrap everything up just as quickly, it feels as if there’s little room for character development here, or indeed for very much which transcends the imitation of pastiche. Mocktoriana is drawn from how we remember collections of assorted cliché: the popular image of Dickens adaptations; jumbled TV Christmas Specials from over the years; big-budget advertising and its jacketing of history into seasonal prettiness. Furthermore, Vastra and Jenny are not really developed in any major way, and intimations of their relationship remain largely off-screen, or off the page. Devil in the Smoke, with its workhouse boys providing a point of identification, is self-consciously suitable for readers of most ages.

It may sound as though I’m being overly negative about this release – bah humbug! – but it has one feature that leaps off the screen and brings vitality to a sometimes insubstantial runaround. For me, the true saving grace here is none other than Strax. Justin Richards writes comedy just as fluently as he does action set-pieces, and his Strax one-liners are consistently laugh-out-loud superb. As a result, Strax pretty much gets all the best dialogue and effortlessly steals the show, for example with his Paternoster Row battle cry, not to mention his emphasis on “regrouping”. Richards clearly relishes the opportunity to subvert Sontaran militarism, but Strax’s forward planning is also valued, and he’s shown to be far more than just a comedic figure, but also one who is an important and respected part of the team.

The Snowmen has already provoked multiple prequels, whether for Children in Need, online, or in this guise. Like snowflakes, perhaps no two prequels are identical – some feature the Doctor, some (like this one) don’t really, some focus on Madame Vastra as ‘The Great Detective’, and others (like this one) amount to a colourful, undemanding romp compressed into less than a hundred pages. Can there ever be too much of a good prequel thing? In its favour, Devil in the Smoke ties into the imminent Christmas extravaganza in more ways than one. Not only does it draw on characters who have already become fan favourites, it also deploys its snowy backdrop for ambience, mood, and for the substance of plotting. Richards intelligently offers a different take on snowscapes (and a snowman) to the one we’re about to receive, and his closing line deliciously resonates with all the trailers and promotion for The Snowmen, setting the pulses racing of those of us “impatient for Christmas”.

I hope this ebook trend doesn’t expand to take in every episode next year, but instead remains an occasional and special treat, like all the trimmings that accompany Christmas dinner. With Devil in the Smoke, Justin Richards has served up something combining traditional, seasonal Who flavours with glorious notes of (potato-headed) piquancy.