ExtremisBookmark and Share

Saturday, 20 May 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Extremis: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Daniel Nettheim
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas, and 
Michelle Gomez
First transmitted BBCOne 20th May 2017"In darkness we are revealed."

"In darkness, we are revealed."

I’ve not heard that one before, but it sounds sort of familiar? Ah, Steven. Welcome back. Lovely season of Doctor Who we’re having. Love the new girl. Loving Nardole’s work too. And the Doctor, playing a blinder too. Sorry about the unintentional terrible pun, there. Now, I know time flies when you’re having fun, but is it really that time already? There seem to be some fiendishly clever and complex mysteries unfolding, and some apocalyptic revelations, and that thing with the Vault too, and it’s only episode six. And those monsters too, they’re terrifying. Can we not persuade you to stay on a bit longer, and Peter too? Oh go on, go on.

Joking (and terrible puns) aside, Extremis indeed plays like the set-up of a season finale, all long shadows, high concepts, ominous portent and flashbacks. For his lap of honour, Steven Moffat is at his wrong-footing, twisty best, subverting everything he can lay his hands on. The only unsurprising thing is the revelation of who’s in that vault. The Doctor being summoned by the Pope to solve a mystery involving a sacred text, the White House, the Pentagon, and CERN would normally have the feel of a Bond movie. That it actually turns out to be the exact opposite is just one of the many surprises seeded throughout Extremis’s 48 minutes. 

In fact, reading between the lines, it may possibly contain a dark joke about people reading The Da Vinci Code and then committing suicide, but let’s not go too far down that path. We can however be sure that this is the only episode of Doctor Who ever to feature both mass suicides and references to Super Mario.

The leisurely pace that Extremis unfurls at is unusual for Moffat’s Doctor Who. It’s unhurried, but far from sluggish. Rather than ramping up the tension as such, the events of Extremis come out like a slow-motion car crash from the minute the Pope summons the Doctor to read the Veritas, and Director Daniel Nettheim’s use of light, shadows, and focus frame it beautifully. Watch it again, the scenes of the Doctor’s eyesight fading in and out, and his half-glimpses of the Monks before the camera settles on their frankly horrible faces are masterful. The scrolling motion of Nettheim’s shots make a lot more sense the second time round, once you know it’s a simulation.

And what a simulation. Extremis’s heavy video game influence is worn on its sleeve. The wireframe graphics of the Doctor’s sonic shades (which mercifully fulfil a plot function here), the on the nose references to holodecks, VR, and Grand Theft Auto are artfully seeded by Moffat. Even Bill’s fantastically awkward date is framed like a cut-scene from a game. With its cadaverous Monks, shadows, and dark portents, Extremis would be the most nightmarish episode of Doctor Who in a long, long time in its own right - but the revelation that it’s all a game is arguably more horrifying. The genuine terror of Nardole and Bill’s avatars as they become self-aware and disintegrate is chilling. This is Doctor Who vs. Existence. What happens when the people inside the simulation become self aware. For the Veritas isn’t a Truman Show trapdoor to reality. It’s a one-way trip to oblivion. The game of numbers at CERN also chills the blood, as the wine-supping Swiss scientists set up the most civilised mass suicide ever shown in a family TV timeslot. The try-out simulation of invasion set up by the mysterious Monks is due to pay off in presumably quite a big way over the coming weeks. Their exact motivations are unknown thus far, but they’re revolting, dessicated creatures, destined to scare the absolute Veritas out of children everywhere. Why exactly they leave the trapdoor of the Veritas is slightly unclear, but as the avatar-Doctor shows, maybe they’re not as good at computer games as they’re cracked up to be. That’s one suspiciously benevolent Catholic Church they’ve knocked up there.

It’s a diminished Doctor we see in Extremis, still blind after the events of Oxygen, and doing a rubbish job of covering it up, although Bill weirdly doesn’t seem to notice. He’s on the run and the back foot, and the guard is back up. His inability to admit his blindness to Bill is perhaps the old pride rearing its head. His face-off with the Monks, although desperate, is classic Doctor, and Capaldi continues to show us just how much he’ll be missed with another stunning performance. This more fallible, rattled Doctor suddenly feels very old.

In the midst of all this seriousness, there’s still room for warmth and jokes. Bill finding the Pope in her room. Moira’s tacit recognition of Bill’s sexuality, in an awkward, but rather lovely scene, in which both not much and everything is said. Nardole the badass, licensed to kick the Doctor's arse by River. The Doctor’s catty put-down of Harry Potter, and the Moby Dick gag. Perhaps best of all is Missy’s disgruntled retort of "I've just been executed, show a little respect!”

Ah yes, Missy’s in the vault. Absolutely no surprises there, but we do cut back and forth to her ceremonial execution. Whatever Missy’s done, it’s a biggie this time. Brilliantly, Moffat slowly seeds the flashback of Missy’s ceremonial execution by pompous men in capes, but keeps you guessing at exactly what atrocity she’s committed. You know from the start that the Doctor’s not going to agree to execute her, but honour their friendship through becoming her keeper, and Capaldi and Michelle Gomez’s dialogue poignantly signposts this, in one of Gomez’s quietest performances, as Missy actually pleads for her life. As we discover, the Doctor’s been guarding her for a long time. At the end, he’s whispering through the vault door that he’ll need his old frenemy’s help. Something’s coming. And with that, another very good episode of Doctor Who leaves us with a lingering quote.

 

"Honestly, shut up and get to the whale.” No, not really. I’ll get my coat. "In darkness we are revealed."





OxygenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 13 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Oxygen: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Des Willie))

Space, the final frontier - these are the opening words of Oxygen, spoken by the Doctor, over a stark visual of two individuals floating lifelessly in space. The monologue might be an homage to that other long-lived sci-fi show, it sums up this episode perfectly. In space, we need oxygen to survive. Welcome to a universe where oxygen is a commodity. It makes perfect sense. In space, oxygen is just about the single most precious thing there is. Welcome to Oxygen.

 

BEWARE - THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS.

 

The pre-credits sequence has to be one of the creepiest yet. We find two people working their way around the exterior of a spaceship, their oxygen running dangerously low. One sees a shadow of something that is behind them flickering across a bulkhead. She turns and sees zombies, lurching zombies in helmet-less space suits, looming towards her through the dark vacuum arms outstretched. Her companion turns to see what is happening and sees that she is also now a zombie and is clawing mercilessly towards him . And then Murray Gold's theme kicks in.

Back on Earth the Doctor is meant to be giving a lecture on crop rotation, but is actually,  quite aptly, giving a lecture on the effects of space on the human body. This is quite a handy and very timely lecture that will become a practical experience later in the story.

Oxygen: Bill (Pearl Mackie), Tasker (Justin Salinger) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))The Doctor though has very itchy feet (no surprise there) and wants to escape the university and his duties to The Vault. It doesn't take long before the Doctor, Bill and Nardole find themselves in the TARDIS, answering a distress call. The trio materialise on a spaceship (which of course is the ship that featured in the pre-credits sequence) and find that it is a mining ship, that at first seems deserted (don't they always). After further exploration they find a dead crew member in a space suit, anchored to the floor by his magnetic boots, which are forcing the corpse to stand upright, leaning slightly to one side (this is such a simple, and creepy effect). It's quite a grisly sight that upsets Bill massively, in fact, she looks truly terrified by the scene - which makes her very human and incredibly relatable. Here is where the horror starts.

In true, classic Doctor Who style there follows, of course, a lot of running down dark corridors, doors that won’t open, screaming, panic and facing up against all the odds. Oxygen is a base under siege story where the threat is already in the base. The tension really is palpable, if this story doesn't send the kids scuttling behind the sofa, asking their parents if it is safe to come back out yet, I don't know what will.

Pearl Mackie as Bill continues to excel. I absolutely adored her when she was testing the gravity on the ship, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. When the Doctor tells her that the gravity is artificial, she disappointedly points out that it doesn't feel like space. She then looks out a window in pure wonder and takes in the rest of the ship and the stars, "NOW it seems like space!" she says in pure wonderment. On the flip side of her initial of course is her terror at the threat, which is truly palpable. And yes, when her space suit starts to malfunction, she is so very good that it will leave you breathless.

Peter Capaldi puts in another performance that cements home to us all that he will be missed when his time eventually comes. At points during this story, it feels as if the Doctor is out of his depth, which is something that immediately puts the viewer on edge. Plus there are actual ramifications to his actions and heroics that seem as if they will carry on into the next episode, and possibly the rest of the series. Now THAT gives you a story with depth. Wait for his reaction to an unfortunate incident with the sonic, its classic.

The guest actors are all very good, with Mimi Ndiweni being the stand out as the straight talking Abby.Oxygen: Abby (Mimi Ndiweni), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

The show is brilliantly directed by Charles Palmer, who makes the tension and events very real. Palmer has worked on Who before with credits that include The Shakespeare Code, Family of Blood and Human Nature. Oxygen contained some of the best direction I have seen in Who, and Palmer's style was, for me,  very reminiscent of Graeme Harper. Palmer knows how to handle Who, and it shows in buckets.

Oxygen is written by Jamie Mathieson, who is, of course, an old hand now, and boy is this evident. Once the TARDIS crew materialise on the ship the action DOES NOT STOP until the epilogue. Everything is believable and well thought out. From the tech to the characterisations of the guest stars. This is sterling stuff.

However, there is a little bit of guff. I truly hate to single him out, as I think this may be Moffat's brief for the character and not his fault, but Matt Lucas's Nardole has started to grate on me. At the beginning of this story, he is brilliant. I adored how persistent he was at trying to get the Doctor back into the TARDIS and back to Earth to watch over The Vault. But as the episode went on, he just became the obligatory comic stooge. I've never been a fan of an obvious comic stooge, so this might be just me. There is also another reset button that puts right MOST of the carnage, but without re-setting, there really would have been no way back.

Negativity aside, there is a lot of continuity in this episode, for starters the nod back to the second story of classic Who (I don't need to tell you which one!), where the Doctor lies about the fluid link. There are also a number of ongoing themes, Artificial Intelligence being one of them, and racism another. As a viewer, you are not quite sure where to look when a blue alien accuses Bill of being racist. Bill is obviously mortified, but at the same time realises that her actions did cause offence finding that the boot on a very different foot. As well as continuity, there is a familiar feel to events. The space suits reminded me of those in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, especially with the flashing coloured bars that show the level of oxygen left. The gritty interior of the space ship harked back to The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. I was also reminded at points of The Robots of Death  and The Sun Makers. While on the subject of capitalism, there is an instantly classic line in Oxygen that sums up the whole of this story - "We're fighting the suits!"

I thought last weeks Knock Knock was a bit of a misstep, yes it was a good story, but it all unraveled rather quickly in the end. I always judge Who by it's re-watch value, and I can't see me revisiting Knock Knock again anytime soon. Oxygen, however, has the feel of an instant classic, the best in the season so far, and probably up there in my top three Capaldi episodes. I promise - Oxygen will leave you breathless and is sure to absolutely max you out on that adrenaline.

 





Knock KnockBookmark and Share

Saturday, 6 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Knock Knock: The Landlord (David Suchet) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring: David Suchet
Co-starring: Mariah Gale, Mandeep Dhillon, Colin Ryan 
Ben Presley, Alice Hewkin, Bart Suavek and Sam Benjamin 

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Bill Anderson
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1 on Saturday May 6th at 7:20pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a standard, non-binaural preview version of the episode. 

Speaking at the BFI/Radio Times TV Festival last month, Steven Moffat remarked that one thing he'd like to do after showrunning Doctor Who is write a play. Moffat has done his bit for trafficking between the worlds of theatre and TV talent this season, however, by securing the services of both Rona Munro and feted playwright and Doctor Foster creator Mike BartlettKing Charles III, one of Bartlett's recent and highly successful plays, is about to hit our television screens in an adapted version, whilst 2016's Wild -- a piece based loosely on the Edward Snowden case which took a radical turn into almost Who-esque territories -- has shown Bartlett's affinity with relevant material. Now, it would seem, is very much Mike Bartlett's time to clamber aboard the occasionally creaking but always smartly veneered Whoniverse.

Knock Knock is, let's face it, a rather cheesy title, gesturing at those repetitive old "Who's there?" jokes that probably still generate endless amusement among the programme's youngest fans. But by giving this reference an adult spin -- for this is a riff on the venerable haunted house subgenre -- Bartlett cleverly blurs together child and adult sensibilities right from the outset. Playing with the Doctor's relationship to Bill, and having her address him as "grandfather", is also a lovely throwback to the 1960s show; I initially responded to it in exactly this manner, as a gift to long-term fans. But cunningly, it also slots perfectly well into the theme of this episode's eventual and familial denouement, a smart tongue-and-groove piece of thematic construction (and generational confusion) that's hidden in plain sight.  

Writers new to Who have a tendency to emulate the leading tropes of their commissioning showrunner -- Matthew Graham's Fear Her often felt like RTD-lite, and Stephen Thompson's The Curse of the Black Spot replayed Moffat's favoured device of 'technology gone awry'. Here, we get an aspect of the ordinary, everyday world transformed into a fantastical threat, something which, though it has an extensive history in the programme, has also become part of the Moffat repertoire. And there's a kind of variant take on "are you my mummy?" which harks all the way back to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Having said that, Bartlett doesn't only seek to fit seamlessly into the Moffat-esque way of things, and also stamps his own mark on proceedings, notably in a comedic sequence criticising the state of students' rental accommodation in the UK, albeit imparting its critical stance with a deftly light touch.

On the minus side, I felt that Bartlett was sometimes a little cramped by the demands of a 43-minute single episode when he's evidently used to working with longer dramatic forms that have more space to unfold characterisation (something that the serialised Doctor Foster achieved quite brilliantly). Since the haunted house story calls for a number of characters who can be bumped off, Bartlett is also pretty much obligated to give Bill a decent number of housemates. This immediately causes a difficulty because each one threatens to become a student stereotype or a single-note creation. Perhaps slightly fewer students to be menaced by Wester Drumlins -- sorry, Bill's new residence -- would have helped on this front.

The tightly-coiled demands of an episode that has to set up atmospheric menace before delivering a pay-off 'reveal' also make life slightly difficult for guest star David Suchet, who is required to oscillate between ordinary-but-odd, outright creepy, and something far more essentially and basically human. It's a tough ask, and in places Suchet's performance seemed a little too mannered to me. But regardless of that, Doctor Who is fortunate to attract actors of such calibre, and I was admittedly disappointed that fan speculation regarding 'the Landlord' (that he would become a recurring character of some mysterious and Time Lordly status) fell wide of the mark. Suchet's character is very much a one-shot, belonging to this story alone. 

 

Knock Knock: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Series 10's Vault storyline continues to gather pace, and the concluding moment -- withholding a reverse shot that would have revealed who was in there -- was deliberately cheeky, and all the more effective for it. But an episode entitled Knock Knock is bound to rely, more than most Doctor Who, on its sound design and soundtrack. On the whole, this worked very well, though the level of aural threat could perhaps have been more intense (I'll be interested to see whether advance hype surrounding this as a very scary episode is reflected in the general fan and audience response, as well as how much difference the binaural version makes). I'm a horror fan, but for my money this was far stronger on atmosphere and build-up than any genuine sense of shocks, jumps or 'scares'. The monsters' mass presence was, in the end, effective without being remarkable -- we dodged a Tractator-level incident, to be sure, but all the CGI hordes still felt generically competent rather than truly memorable.

 

And packing an episode with wood-related content is, I suspect, always going to be a risk in terms of inciting reviewers' puns or provocations (you can just imagine how any journalist looking for a punchline would reach for their finest grain of 'wooden' material). Actually, focusing on this dimension -- something that has rarely featured in Doctor Who other than as a challenge for the sonic screwdriver -- gives this episode a very specific and quasi-historical flavour. Yes, it's a present-day story, but instead of brutalist concrete-morphing creatures, steel-and-chrome monstrosities, or electronic/nano-techno-villains, there is something almost pleasingly quaint, if not retro, about a good, old wood-based threat. There's a sense of sedimented history, and the dust of ages, that setlles over 'Knock Knock', making the eventual reveal of Eliza's presence (and identity) an integral part of this 'return of the repressed past'.

Knock Knock does what the best of contemporary Doctor Who has always strived for: it combines fantastical threats with social commentary and moments of touching emotion and humanity, at the same time as fusing 'child' and 'adult' levels of meaning. As the proverbial 'family television' it also uncovers a gothic, dysfunctional family -- one that needs to be fixed by the Doctor's intervention. Holding on to the past at any cost is shown to be a powerful mistake, and 'Knock Knock' is ultimately about a very different kind of fear to its earlier evocations of creaking floorboards and unseen forces, zeroing in on the fear of loss, and all the misguided actions it can provoke, rather than notching up a villainous case of megalomania or 'evil'. In this, it marks its distance from certain previous incarnations of the show, and develops an approach highlighted in The Pilot. But the question that remains, given the Doctor's chatty engagement with the Vault's occupant, is whether he too, like the Landlord, is mistakenly holding on to an aspect of the past... In a week or two, we'll start to get some answers. 





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Saturday, 29 April 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
 

Doctor Who - Series 10, Episode 3: THIN ICE

STARRING: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas

WITH: Nicholas Burns, Asiatu Koroma, Simon Ludders,
Tomi May, Guillaume Rivaud, Ellie Shenker, Peter Singh,
Badger Skelton, Austin Taylor, Kishaina Thiruselvan


Written By: Sarah Dollard
Directed By: Bill Anderson
      
Produced By: Peter Bennett

Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

First Shown on BBC 1 - 29th April 2017

NB - This review contains a plethora of spoilers (based on a Preview Edition of the Episode).

The TARDIS has suddenly decided to take Bill and The Doctor off course. Both the precise location in England and the temporal zone are different to what was hoped for. Having been to the future of mankind, the ages-old academic and his youthful student find themselves instead in Regency London. It is a time of great development and industry, but also one where the slavery trade is in full swing. Many orphaned children struggle for survival on a daily basis. The Thames has been frozen over and this has led to a large-scale market being set up on the ice.

However, warning signs have (barely visibly) been laid out, so as to remind people of the ice being less sturdy in certain regions. And this is with good reason. People have begun to disappear, and it would appear there is a connection to some un-natural green lights that can be seen through the frosty surface.

Eventually the Doctor and Bill have to investigate in-depth, and some hard truths come to bear. For the first time, their relationship faces a test. But perhaps in facing a very human, very cold, monster in the form of Lord Sutcliffe, they can continue to function as a partnership of universe-weary wisdom, and fledgling careless brilliance.


 

This story continues to see the 2017 sequence of Doctor Who in fine fettle, and assure viewers that soon-to-depart Peter Capaldi is now producing some of his best form (as opposed to phoning it in for a nice pay check and exposure via prime time scheduling). By now it is standard practice that the first two adventures proper for a companion of the Doctor, after the season opener, see a quick succession of the past and future. (The order tends to fluctuate, depending on the season in question).

With these second and third episodes, at least there is a small change-up, utilising the secondary companion (as played by a confident Matt Lucas). The framing device of Nardole scolding the Doctor for going off world - which indeed is true for the events of Smile, if not technically this third adventure - is nicely done, and also includes a hint of what the Doctor and his part-robot-part-humanoid friend are guarding back in Bristol.

Lord SutcliffeSarah Dollard came up with a wonderful debut story last series, and provided a most memorable official demise for Clara Oswald, with Face The Raven. This story is not quite up on the same level, and continuity-wise is not a game-changer. However, the many virtues of world building and characterisation are all present and correct, once again. Virtually all the on-screen players who end up as nutrition for the aquatic alien being are sketched out effectively - even if they have rather limited screen time to work with, due to the primary character development being devoted to our two regulars.

This episode often makes no attempt to hide how it takes inspiration from previous stories in Doctor Who's lore. The Doctor advising Bill how to get to the wardrobe is a reminder of (the un-transmitted but frequently adapted) Shada. After the Doctor and Bill begin their explorations proper, the TARDIS pinpoints the size of the being under the ice, and also how much danger it poses, which is a faint echo of the ending moment of 1963's very first Who serial. More recent use of past convention is found in the use of the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, with the former in particular driving the earlier parts of the story forward. 

Possibly even more so than prior episodes this year, the main heart of Thin Ice lies in the Doctor and Bill continuing to establish a working partnership together. Whilst the Twelfth Doctor noticeably ‘softened’ over the course of Series Nine, he still retained some darker edges, and these are particularly conspicuous at times. The cold manner in which he retrieves his sonic screwdriver from both the doomed Spider, and later one of Sutcliffe's thugs, leaves Bill repulsed and shocked. Noticeably she feels horror, irrespective of the actual personal qualities of the person who could not be saved from their fate.

The Doctor also deciding to be far more mysterious (certainly when compared to his Ninth and Tenth incarnations) over how he has had to make difficult choices when saving people, and also when to kill, is a very nicely-played scene by Capaldi and Mackie. True, it could easily appear in any given episode at any opportune time, and is not necessarily dependent on the story surrounding it. But it still is fine work from the writing/production team, and of course the main praise should be reserved for our two lead actors.

And in general, the Doctor is showing hints of his rather less personable qualities, which most of us have come to associate with his maiden season in 2014, rather than the somewhat breezier persona that crossed the airwaves on a weekly basis two autumns back. He is blunt to Peter Singh's 'Pie-Man' on their very first meaning, going so far as to undermine the legitimacy of the man's livelihood, back in a time of Earth history where ethics and truth did not have the same priority they do today. And whilst it is meant to be humorous for the audience (in a very knowing Roald Dahl fashion), his description of the lost children as being on the "menu", is indicative of his grim acceptance that the alien being simply is higher on the food chain than humans, regardless of whether it should belong in the Thames river in the first place.

But there are plenty of lighter/warmer sides to our title hero too, with the mention of a magic wand being a reminder that whilst Doctor Who is officially a sci-fi show, in many respects it takes sustenance from traditional fairy tales and legends. The very first actor to play the role on TV, William Hartnell, once described the main character as a combination of a Wizard and Father Christmas, and his point still stands many years down the line. Also, the quiet little scene as the Doctor tells a 'bedtime' story to some of the orphans is beautifully played and directed. Suddenly the moral dilemmas are secondary, and all that matters is a wise man with grey curls, presenting a narrative with conviction and gusto.

Come the end, as the remaining survivors find themselves fortunate to have a wonderful new property in which to live, there is a knowing look from the Doctor and Bill acknowledging that the deeds must be in the name of a male heir. Yet if the time-travelling genius could bend the law and change history to allow the charming Kitty to have the privilege of being the next in line, then he would. It is a moment that has huge impact on anyone with a semblance of heart and soul in them.


Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)Bill continues to put hardly a foot wrong, whether in terms of connecting with the audience or being acted authentically by the (comparatively inexperienced) Pearl Mackie. Along with other examples given here, there is a lovely moment where the Doctor's favourite student is overcome with wonder that she can walk on the Thames. Whilst the famous river is a great visual motif, it is also not associated with being crossed without the help of a vessel, and is heavily polluted. Later, when it is made clear what the villain's key motivation is in terms of the energy source he is obtaining, a very funny (if naughty) joke is made as Bill reacts point-blank. The full phrase would not pass the censors for a show like Doctor Who, even if movies shown even earlier on other TV channels get a free pass, but by being so coy in doing a quick edit, the effect is markedly pronounced. (And furthermore, another continuity echo is made, in terms of Rose teasing Cassandra, back in Series Two's opening story). 

The ending of the story is probably the most fully satisfying for the show in some time, with perhaps the last such occurrence being the conclusions of Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. Whilst perhaps simplistic, it is elegant and uses the decision to give just enough explanation via rapid editing, and travelling forward to the present day, with an archive newspaper article being knowingly referred by the Doctor. He often realises that sometimes an abridged account of the whole truth is for the best. That the ostensible monster of the story is not judged guilty of any wrongdoing, and is merely manipulated by Lord Sutcliffe, is welcome too. And show runner Moffat clearly has decided to steer away now from the overused 'everyone lives' trope. The good, the ambiguous, and the dastardly all firmly remain dead and buried. Thus, the Doctor's quiet admittance to Bill of the limits of his power to save people is not compromised in the final stanza.  

The episode also looks very impressive. The scenes underwater are built up to in a suitably suspenseful manner, before the efficient SFX work comes into play, accompanied by some of Murray Gold's best use of more subtle musical dressing. This ensures the core of the story is strong. Sometimes going into the murky depths of the aquatic can be a pace killer, but not here thanks to the decision by Bill Anderson to emphasise mood and uncertainty in the earlier sections of the story.

Elsewhere on ground level many extras are used, along with ‘convincing’ animals in the background, and props galore. There is a sword swallower, some play fighters, and countless other novelties. Never for a moment does it not feel like the capital city of England developing at a fast knot, back in the time of the Regency era. 

So far, the show has done fine work in establishing who Bill is, by giving her plenty of character and plot-relevant material, this latest instalment very effectively addresses her attitudes to sci-fi itself, and more significantly to her identity as a woman with a mixed ethnic background. The character material on Bill being something of a sci-fi fan herself is mostly played as light-hearted self awareness, which is so indicative of Steven Moffat’s general style – both in Doctor Who and in his many other TV (and film) projects over time. Asking the Doctor to clarify if they are on a parallel world, and just why he calls his sonic screwdriver that name are amusingly played out in dialogue.

However, the more worthy focus on attitudes of mankind concerning 'race' is made into a significant part of the story. Having the Doctor and Bill trying to integrate as best they can feels more important than in other episodes where the setting is simply pure fantasy/ sci-fi in nature. For the young lady from the 21st century England, there already is likely one too many a memory of being treated as inferior for the way she looks. To suddenly be back in her own country at a time when slavery was acceptable (be it of women, foreigners, those of 'other races', or even children) is a major jolt, and she immediately makes an effort to dress up so as to fit in, but clearly wishes this was not a requirement. And of course, eventually even that change of attire is not enough to stop a bigot from verbally abusing her.

The man in question is Lord Sutcliffe, and this main villain for the episode is not a pleasant person in many respects. He seems utterly without empathy, and has a detachment about his overall operation, even if the end result would see him become richer (and thus more powerful) still. However the denigration of his ‘inferiors’ who do not share ('enough of') the same bloodline as him remains the most deplorable aspect. Whilst the Doctor and Bill manage to set time 'right', the story very quietly yet noticeably makes a point that the evil of slavery is something mankind must realise over time is wholly wrong.

I have few real complaints with the basic narrative. It does in principle echo many episodes of yesteryear – something probably inevitable given how far the series has been in existence – but is never executed in anything less than an enthusiastic manner. Nonetheless, a general issue I have had with Series Ten again crops up here. We have at least one moment for the audience being ‘spoon-fed’, when the distinctive hat of Spider (the thieving little boy who could not be saved) is seen as rejected by the monster in the depths of the Thames, along with quick flashback of his thieving of the sonic device the Doctor so prizes. 

Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Jon Hall)

This reminded me of the repetition used concerning Heather meeting Bill on a night out, when the original image was already striking enough in how it was shot to resonate with the viewer. Perhaps though, exposition and clarification of the mystery does not quite verge on being so heavy-handed, as during the scenes in Smile where the TARDIS duo found out the whole truth behind the dilemma they were presented with.

I mentioned Sutcliffe as serving the themes of the story well, but as an actual genre villain, he is rather middling overall. Whilst certainly played competently by Nicolas Burns, in that the audience is made to firmly dislike him, he also is very much out of his depth. The screen time afforded him is neither used efficiently enough to give us truly involving motivation and back story, nor abundant enough for him to be memorable in the viewers' minds after the episode has concluded. Sutcliffe's henchmen are never made into anything too chilling or threatening, but still have enough dialogue and commitment in the performances to convince viewers that they could have come from the criminal underworld, and are making the most of an employer with more money than most others. Dollard still does fine work with the villains, in terms of presenting the more corrupt and deplorable aspects of British society at the time, where gaps between the so-called upper and lower classes were wider than any cracks in the river's ice.

However, the performances of the children are uniformly terrific, which is pleasing to see after Smile had a winning turn from Kaizer Akhtar. When the Doctor needs some exposition from the locals, it is the orphans who whole-heartedly give him the information he requires, and the story smoothly advances as a result. Furthermore this authenticity of portraying urchins who barely are able to keep themselves fed really helps the end of the episode.

As the alien creature emerges from its 'prison' and is displayed in full, top-quality CGI glory, there is a great moment as Bill admires how it looks and is able to forgive it for being a killer. But the best part of the satisfying resolution is seeing the Doctor restore the barely surviving orphans to a place of safety – one far grander than any could have dreamed of. The wink in the eyes of both the Doctor and Bill as they turn the class expectations topsy-turvy, really helps this become a ‘punch-the-air’ moment. And it would not have been nearly so effective, if the children had not been as fully breathed to life in the performances by these youngsters. 

As good as our leads are here, and I expect even better work in the ‘bigger’ episodes to come, the main praise should be reserved for the quintet of Badger Skelton, Asiatu Koroma, Austin Taylor, Kishaina Thiruselvan, and Ellie Shenker.


OVERALL ASSESSMENT:

Series Ten's third individual story stands up well, as a very enjoyable outing in the early 19th Century. It is thoroughly watchable, whether the viewing takes place on a Saturday evening (as per tradition), or via a streaming device that does not have to be fixed down in a given time and place (like the TARDIS herself). And the icing on the cake? A snappy preview that sees the definitive Poirot actor – David Suchet – making a guest appearance, to potentially lend the hyperactive Time Lord some pearls of wisdom.

 





Class Season One - Episode 1 - For Tonight, We Might DieBookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 October 2016 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Class - Series 1 (Credit: BBC/Todd Antony)

Starring: Greg Austin, Fady Elsayed, Sophie Hopkins, Vivian Oparah, Katherine Kelly, with Peter Capaldi as The Doctor.

Written By: Patrick Ness
Directed By: Edward Bazalgette

Released Online (BBC Three)  - 22nd October 2016 

This review contains spoilers

 

Coal Hill School has now become an academy, and it is some time since popular teacher Clara Oswald became missing, presumed dead. Life at the educational establishment goes on though, and a quartet of remarkable youngsters are attending the academy: Charlie, April, Ram and Tanya. One of these is an aloof and unpredictable young man, another a self-conscious but kind and loyal young lady, another a promising athlete with something of a chip on his shoulder, and the last a brilliant student who has skipped a year and who tells things exactly the way they are.

'The way things are' ..become somewhat surreal, however. A student has suddenly gone missing, and a new teacher - Miss Quill - has joined Coal Hill and acts in the most awkward and unnatural of ways. A shadow creature is beginning to stalk students, and before long a legion of otherworldly beings are stampeding the premises, despite a carefully arrange prom by April.

Could this be grounds for the return of Coal Hill's rather eccentric Caretaker??

 

 

Class (Credit: BBC)2016 will go down in Doctor Who lore as something of a 'gap year'. The first one of these was back in 2009, which featured a number of specials. Since then, other years have been rather light in terms of having new material with the Doctor on TV. Currently, fans are eagerly awaiting Series 10 to materialise onscreen in the spring of 2017. In the meantime, there will be the customary Christmas special.

There now is also this particular edition to the wider Who mythos, and somewhat appropriately it is set  in the school that was the workplace of the first two human companions of the Doctor - Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright -  before they were whisked away on the most incredible of journeys.

 

Other spin-offs have been part of early evening or prime time TV once modern Doctor Who fully got under way. Torchwood was most deliberately intertwined with the main Who universe, despite its very different target audience. Class falls between the parent show, and Torchwood, in that the 'young adult' is the intended demographic. There is some gore now and again, and sexuality and relationships are given much emphasis - unsurprising, with the show set in an academy, with teenagers on the verge of adulthood.

Many fans will have been made aware by press that the Twelfth Doctor would pop up immediately in this maiden run of the new show. However, as it turns out he is used sparingly enough to allow the main protagonists to have their crucial limelight. Having the Doctor teased as being shown in a flash back to explain Quill and Charlie being on Earth in the first place is a wise move, before the eventual crisis point where he pops up in the nick of time to quell the threat posed by the Shadow Kin. Capaldi manages to make the most of his limited screen time and continues to act in the vein of a traditionally open and friendly Doctor, as he did for much of the 2015 TV run.

Some of these new characters that viewers will follow in coming weeks are more engaging than others, owing both to the script and to the actual actor. Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly), and April (Sophie Hopkins) definitely stand out best for me, although there is a lot of potential for Charlie (Greg Austin) as well, given his back story. Tanya and Ram do have their moments but sometimes can feel stilted. Fady Elsayed has a substantial enough resume already, but can't overcome the 'jock' clichés enough for him to be particularly remarkable in this first installment. Vivian Oparah shows some of her acting inexperience at times, but still convinces more than not, and should grow into the role under the solid production team involved with the show.

 

Patrick Ness' script is reliable and confident in getting a suitably energetic adventure across, but also affording some good work into making us connect with the characters, and that includes some of the relatives of the students. Ness also wants to keep one guessing, which is always an asset of TV drama. One or two other academy students had the potential to end up as main characters, but are killed off by the Shadow Kin in resounding fashion. And the violence does mean this is not really a show for 'under-12s', with Rachel's gory death, and Ram's horrific leg injury really pushing the envelope. 11829519-low-.jpg

The direction and music - from Ed Bazalgette and Blair Mowat, are similarly assured. Some scenes flash by in heartbeat, but the overall feel of the episode is just coherent enough, that the fast pace is manageable.  This season opener has many moments of literal light and shade to explore and the production makes the most of the opportunities afforded. Obviously, the budget is not in the same stratosphere as Doctor Who, and some of the effects with the Shadow Kin or the unearthly dimensions that April or Charlie can see in their mind's eye do require a little tolerance on a given viewer, used to more seamless CGI.

Class stands up as a show with a steady foundation and a lot of good will both in front of and behind the camera. It may currently not appear to offer anything truly pioneering, given the likes of Buffy, Misfits and many late afternoon teenage dramas, that have graced TV screens. But it is still a justifiable addition to the Doctor Who canon and has plenty of room to grow into something truly distinct and memorable.

 





The Husbands Of River Song (2015 Christmas Special)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 25 December 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Husbands of River Song (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)

The Husbands Of River Song

STARRING: Peter Capaldi, Alex Kingston,
Matt Lucas and Greg Davies
WITH: Philip Rhys, Rowan Polonski, Robert Curtis,
Anthony Cozens, Chris Lew,  Kum Hoi, Nicolle Smart

Writer -Steven Moffat
Director - Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers - Brian Minchin and Steven Moffat
Producer- Nikki Wilson

Transmitted 25th December 2015, BBC 1

Please Note: Significant Plot Spoilers feature at times in this review.

 

Within moments of beginning his latest escapade, the Doctor is faced with a dose of mystery.

Why would River Song, who clearly cares so deeply for the previous regenerations she has met, now opt for bigamy - at least in some quarters - with some rather less sophisticated men? Does it connect in anyway with the Professor's latest quest involving a very rare and precious diamond?

It would appear so, given the host of grubby and rather soul-less alien 'humanoids' that eventually come running after it. But even more alarming is her complete obliviousness concerning his actually being 'her' Doctor. What can he do to convince her? 

Furthermore one of River's husbands, known as King Hydroflax, is composed of man and machine. However  the human head is not in good nick and it would appear that the artificial intelligence is taking more and more control. The consequences of this could be a little troublesome.

The Twelfth Doctor may have survived an eternity in a strange pocket dimension, but just because these appears to be low stakes, it should not mean he can take his head's continued presence on his shoulders for granted. 

 

The perennial Doctor Who Christmas special has tended to be a nice interlude between the close of one season and the start of another, and provided uncomplicated and undemanding fare. Some specials have been more hard wired and integral to the show's developing mythology than others. Certainly The End Of Time would baffle those viewers who tended just to watch the odd episode and devote time to a seasonal edition which they would hope would be self-contained

The Husbands Of River Song is decidedly counter-point in nature to David Tennant's swansong. Yes, we do get some continuity references such as the foldable wallet with all the past faces (including the War Doctor), but it does not take much effort on the viewers' part to get to the heart of the story. The main plot involving Hydroflax and the precious diamond is as easy-to-follow and carefree a tale as they come. And in terms of concentration, it requires not all that much from both children and adults watching in their living rooms.  Even the Doctor openly admits to having had a dearth of laughs and pure enjoyment of late, as he welcomes the new developments unfolding around him and River. So in spite of tangible threat, and a good number of deaths (even if most of those do not apply to truly innocent individuals) this is a well-deserved 'break' for the most weary and emotionally tested Doctor to date.

For those avid fans who watch episodes multiple times and can excel in Doctor Who as a pub quiz category, there may be an element of disappointment. At least at first  there is more than a fair amount of events that take place before River does cotton on that the Doctor has achieved another life cycle, and is in her inimitable company. He is not some generic practitioner of (space) medicine. We get a fun scene or two where our title hero really revels in 'being in the know' at River's expense; especially when he over-emphasises how most new companions actually do not react in amazement as they first experience the 'bigger in the inside' TARDIS phenomenon.

But perhaps on the other hand not having a proper catch-up on-screen with River of the many events the Doctor went through as he pondered his being a "good man" up to the events where Missy made her presence known, and then the difficult choices he faced in his ensuing adventures in Series Nine could feel like a missed opportunity. There are several possible defences to this argument. We could always have some incentive for River in a later TV appearance to demand more details. If that never ends up transpiring, writer Steven Moffat has provided an option in the final bittersweet events of this particular story whereby the decades-long final night on a decidedly different planet can allow for all sorts of conversation and romance for the two partners in crime (and time).

All the same, there is a very winning dynamic between two very fine actors in Capaldi and Kingston. Now the Doctor is the 'older partner' and has that gravitas, there is a real sense of experience and perspective that even an accomplished galaxy-hopping  wunderkind like River cannot seriously aspire to. The witticisms they share together in this outing do not feel forced or smug; something that has bothered me during a good portion of the Eleventh Doctor's era. No, these are two people with some edge to them but who ultimately bring a lot of good to the universe. They carry a lot of emotional weight, and whilst much of the episode is light-hearted knockabout pseudo-pantomime, the resonance of these two remarkable characters and their relationship is not compromised in any way.

 

The Husbands of River Song (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)The bad guys in this one do their job well enough and ought to linger in viewers' heads; especially impressionable   children watching this during their afternoon or tea-time allocation of TV diversion. The sinister creatures that can split their heads open and back again may be most attention-grabbing in their shameless 'gross-out' factor. Yet it still is Hydroflax that is the better all round creation. We have a blustery but truly vicious despot, but also a robot /cyborg suit which becomes rather more ruthless than its supposed master. According to some reports, Moffat was not intending to make Greg Davies' character that much of a threat, or to be taken seriously. Yet I find this one-off guest antagonist to be worth the time and energy expended by the production team in design and special effects terms. Davies, infamous for being a tough-as-nails teacher in The Inbetweeners, manages to show a little range in his acting, if perhaps not being quite as funny in that he clearly must use the family friendly language a show like this requires.

The staff abroad the star liner are also somewhat notably immoral, in that obsequious goodwill in greeting clients does not mean that they are particularly loyal. As it proves, the insect/humanoid hybrids are quite happy to compromise River and offer the Doctor as a token to the evil 'king'. Although Rowan Polonski's Flemming is a decidedly self-serving weasel, it still feels like he had no choice but to appease the maniacal Hydroflax robot. Somewhat shockingly, the moral standards of this story dictate that he and his colleagues must perish. As I stated when surmising The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor's judgement of crimes and people committing them can be a source of controversy. But it also makes the title hero a far cry from a two-dimensional Mr Perfect, which is important for this show to appeal to as many people of all ages as possible.  

Apart from Davies, the other publicised guest actor is a certain Matt Lucas. This rather innocuous-looking fellow was involved in many sketches with David Walliams, who himself featured in Doctor Who back in 2011.  Little Britain may not have been around for the best part of a decade, but it was notable for giving Tom Baker a whole new identity outside of his career-defining Fourth Doctor image. That all being said I find Nardole just another character lacking any real depth or backstory, even though he is suitably inoffensive for the type of adventure this is. I just wish that Lucas was given some really good comic material and made a figure of fun, rather than (swiftly) one of sympathy as to his unenviable fate. His squealing as he is bonded to the Hydroflax robot unit is not pleasant, and yet also feels really silly and careless. What could be a threat that is recounted in legend just not feel properly credible. Ramone, another husband of River, endures a capture in the ally that is a little better in terms of initial suspense. It does get spoilt by the actual presentation of Nardole pointing a huge gun at his head and indeed Ramone is fleetingly used after this sequence, which makes it end up feeling a bit pointless.

And this then leads onto one of the definite weaknesses of the special, during the section where Doctor and River are ensuring that they have managed to emerge unscathed from all the danger around them, and the Doctor even shows his philanthropy like rarely before by pointing the way to riches for a construction worker. There is no sense of regret over letting Nardole and Ramone endure a much longer life span, and one whereby normal human contact is severed. It just seems to be put there as some kind of fence-sitting acknowledgement. Scratch the surface, and both the Doctor and River look selfish and dismissive in not helping. It is not quite as galling though as what the Tenth Doctor did in 'saving' Ursula in Love And Monsters, that much I can concede.

 

When all is said and done, Husbands is a more than decent slice of televisual nourishment that should hold its own against other forms of recreation that pop up during this time of year. It does not offer any groundbreaking themes or ideas, or have a true standout guest character. However, there are some very good set designs, the plot encompasses enough different locales without misjudging pace, and the final scene is as powerful as any Who story this century.

In closing I wish a truly splendid festive season to all readers that spend their valuable time perusing reviews in this corner of the Internet. Let us hope the travels of the Doctor will continue to enthral in 2016, and a considerable way beyond as well.