Empress of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 10 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Empress of Mars: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Godsacre (Anthony Calf), Friday (Richard Ashton) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Yip

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley,
Richard Ashton, Adele Lynch, Glenn Speers,
Ian Beattie, Bayo Gbadamosi, Ian Hughes,
Lesley Ewen,
and the voice of Ysanne Churchman

Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 7.15pm, 10 June 2017​This review contains spoilers.

This review contains spoilers.

 

Earlier in the week, a friend circulated one of the pictures released by the BBC to promote Empress of Mars. It depicted an Ice Warrior serving tea to the Doctor, Bill and the British officers around a cloth-covered table, with hints of reddish cave walls. He declared that we had reached ‘peak Gatiss’. Empress of Mars repeats many of the techniques used in The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’s previous excursion into Victoriana for Doctor Who, but perhaps with more restraint and to more broadly entertaining effect.

There’s a great amount of detail in Empress of Mars which enhances its worldbuilding. Careful attention is paid to the Martian atmosphere. The introduction of Friday the Ice Warrior is a canny reinforcement of the idea that a menacing Ice Warrior bearing down on you is not necessarily hostile, a concentrated homage to The Curse of Peladon. From the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors, blending or suggesting details established in Brian Hayles stories with Doctor Who Monster Book lore, the accretions of fandom and the innovations Gatiss introduced in Cold War, we move to learn about Ice Warrior hives and tombs that are not really tombs. The imagery owes something to The Tomb of the Cybermen via Dragonfire, but more widely to every film or television production featuring people or creatures preserved in ice. This is a fortress of solitude for superbeings more than it is a memorial to the dead.

Influences are mixed and matched. The rhetoric surrounding the discovery of Iraxxa draws from late-nineteenth century imperialist fiction; I can spot H. Rider Haggard’s She but Gatiss doubtless knows his way around many more. However, the presentation of her tomb owes more to the European Middle Ages than Haggard’s sub-ancient Egyptian fantasies. Bill’s fourth-wall breaking recognition that the Ice Warriors are modelled on Vikings is in some way honoured, though Iraxxa on her bier looks more like a mediaeval knight, gilded like the armour of the Black Prince. Her awakening helps justify the awkward idea that reptilian Ice Warriors have hives like bees, the gold leaf fragmenting and disappearing like the pupal skins of some social insects. Dialogue throughout presents the Ice Warriors as guardians of military honour, but their military honour proves a concept over which there can be debate without integrity being compromised, in contrast with the non-negotiable values of devotion to Queen and Country and of bravery and cowardice proclaimed by the British soldiers.

As this last point indicates, worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of sketching in Ice Warrior culture. One of this story’s observations is that the imperial culture of the Victorians is alien to their modern British descendants. By locating the soldiers as veterans of the Anglo-Zulu War – the battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879, is mentioned as the site of Colonel Godsacre’s desertion – the soldiers are associated both with both imperial conquest and with one of the British Empire’s most substantial defeats in southern Africa, where a European army equipped with technologically-superior weaponry was no match for a force armed with assegais which they held in contempt. There’s more than an echo of this in Captain Catchlove’s dismissal of the Ice Warriors as ‘upright crocodiles’; and the demonstration of the ‘thin red line’ formation in the episode only shows, as it did at Isandlwana, how soldiers could easily be picked off. Just as there are parallels between Iraxxa and Ayesha of She, then Catchlove has something of H. Rider Haggard’s imperialism about him. He’s far more the ideologue of empire than Godsacre is, and that he is also a practitioner of blackmail and unapologetically avaricious is not just a good character sketch for a forty-five minute drama, but a sharply unsubtle commentary on the reality of the supposedly civilizing mission inspiring British rule as presented by Haggard and others in the late nineteenth century.

The most sympathetic of the soldiers is Vincey, the one who has a girl back home, and with deliberate irony this black character he’s given a name which is, in She, the family name of the British descendants of the forgotten white rulers of Kôr in central Africa. Gatiss enjoys the irony of depicting the reality that Victorian Britain was not monolithically white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with a character name borrowed from a figure intended to represent white superiority. Likewise, his inclusion of Catchpole’s evident attraction at their first encounter towards Bill, whom Haggardian imperialism would regard as inferior to a white person. Bill’s stunned, appalled face at the casual way in which the British officers have named their Ice Warrior ally Friday, and by extension why they think he should to wait on them, helps pay off her earlier string of cultural references. It’s juxtaposed with the way the script is already establishing Friday as a courteous warrior, a mind rather than a shell. Arguably it also points towards Godsacre’s journey from servant of colonialism, whose demeanour is that of a dead man walking (as his grave name suggests) to a more self-aware person serving the colonized, much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, rescuer-captor of the original Friday, passes through several states of consciousness of his own actions during Robinson Crusoe the novel.  

The regulars have quirks here which might not be found welcoming. Neither Bill’s tendency to spout film anecdotes nor the Doctor’s apparent ignorance of so much pop culture (which surely his tenth self knew about) rang as true as the production hoped or expected. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi’s fiercely deliberate portrayal of the Doctor’s observation of Martian ritual helps bring home how crucial for all those on Mars negotiation is, and though I found Bill’s characterization early in the episode to be at odds with how she has been portrayed earlier in the series, Pearl Mackie restores her to alert and intelligent Everywoman by the second half of the story.

Empress of Mars feels much more cohesively whole somehow than several other episodes have this series. It also feels more welcoming. Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads. Faced with a warm colourscheme it’s up to Murray Gold’s music to suggest cold and the thin atmosphere ‘topside’, and his thin, reedy notes manage just that.

She featured a mysterious African queen who beguiled white men to do her will. Iraxxa, here, does not perform that part of Ayesha's role. Instead, it’s another queen behind a veil who is acting as seductress. It’s never explained why the TARDIS returned itself to the Doctor’s study at St Luke’s with only Nardole on board, but we are invited to guess who is its secret remote operator. The final scene of Missy as contrite woman-child facing the Doctor, backlit, as Murray Gold’s score slithers across the speakers, sets up how compromised the Doctor might just be by Missy, and also how the end of this Doctor’s era, now so close, might be brought about by his belief in an old friend's better nature.

On a lighter note, perhaps… Who else of a certain vintage grinned or even punched the air when that high-pitched voice turned out to belong to a certain hermaphrodite hexapod? Who else exclaimed ‘It was Ysanne Churchman’? As the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe and give up isolation, those who regretted that this episode wouldn’t be set on Peladon learned that one doesn’t have to go there to use the Ice Warriors to make comments about Britain and its relationship with its neighbours in Europe. By invoking one of Doctor Who's own imperial phases, that of velvet jackets, Venusian aikido and broad political allegory, to warn about British imperial nostalgia (the brief visit to NASA is a concession to contemporary expectations, but feels like a stand-in for a Pertwee-era British Space Control), Empress of Mars recalls strong storytelling values whose appeal rightly stretches beyond the fan audience these references court, and help Doctor Who feel more anchored on Saturday nights than it has sometimes felt this year.





The Lie of the LandBookmark and Share

Saturday, 3 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Lie Of The Land: Nardole (Matt Lucas), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest-starring Michelle Gomez
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Wayne Yip
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 3rd at 7:35pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a 'Work in Progress' BBC preview 

 

So let's get the obvious thing out of the way first, the thing that has generated plenty of speculation and some promotional energy: how does the Doctor's surprise (or not) regeneration (or not) fit into proceedings? Given the lengthy time scale within which Doctor Who's lead actors now have to announce any departure, it's perhaps inevitable that a kind of 'regeneration game' will be played with fans and audiences, full of fakeouts, bluffs, and teasers. Russell T Davies couldn't resist The Next Doctor, after all, and The Lie of the Land falls squarely into this newly implanted tradition. Oddly, the 'WIP' preview copy of this episode didn't actually include any regeneration special effects, suggesting that these must have been added to the brief extracts used in trailers and publicity far ahead of finished SFX being done for the broadcast version (I assume the Doctor's golden, glowing regen energy will be present and correct in the televised episode). But given the genre that Toby Whithouse is working in here -- political-thriller-slash-science-fiction-dystopia -- it always seemed likely that the Doctor's collaboration, and regeneration, would prove to be part of a twisty-turny 'is he, isn't he?' series of mind games and loyalty tests. As such, the resolution to all of this is eminently guessable. Yes, Doctor Who's format is put under stress as a result of the Doctor's apparent turn to the dark side, and the Monks' successful occupation of the world, but at the same time Lie of the Land still needs to safely revert to form, which it duly does.

There are more than enough hints and reminders of Last of the Time Lords (the title even turns up in dialogue), whilst a collaborationist Doctor is also strongly reminiscent of The Invasion of Time. What this story represents is not startlingly original for the series -- or at least, it's not quite as innovative as it wants to be -- but the episode's many strengths nonetheless lie in its execution, and in precisely how things play out.

The Lie Of The Land: Missy (Michelle Gomez), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Lacking any additional major guest stars beyond Missy's appearance, this is very much a story belonging to our regulars and semi-regulars. And it provides moments for all to shine, with Whithouse's dialogue constantly firing on all cylinders. The Doctor's justification of his support for the Monks is chilling and superbly played (as ever) by Capaldi, whilst Pearl Mackie's seemingly effortless naturalism continues to shine through, both in her opposition to the Doctor, and in her own sacrificial plan. The Lie of the Land is crammed with set pieces and grand-standing explorations of character, with even the Doctor-Missy coda putting a fresh spin on things. There's a lean muscularity to the script throughout, aided by the unusual and noirish dominance of voiceover that races the viewer from plot point to plot point. Rather brilliantly, these voiceovers are also integrated firmly into the key premises of the story: the Doctor's opening defence of the Monks is surely one of the show's most stunning pre-credits sequences, whilst Bill's reports to her Mum help to set up the eventual denouement, as well as stopping this from feeling overly sentimental and/or unearnt in story terms.

If Whithouse's writing deserves high praise then so too, for my money, does Wayne Yip's direction. We're treated to glorious moments such as Missy's watchful eyes superimposed over a grey sky, and the mission to penetrate the Monks' pyramid transmitter is also skillfully handled via incursions of stylish slow-motion. Even the 'glitching' image/edit effect that's added to suggest disorientation and dystopian surveillance adds neatly to the story's overall mood, although I did wonder whether there had been a plan to include some relevant (or even wildly incongruous) pop music via the team's headphones during the storming of the Monks' base. As this sequence stands in the BBC preview, the headphones aren't greatly focused on via sound design or music, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. However, the production team have clearly revelled in creating a "true history" of the Monks' presence, with Einstein and Churchill appearing along with Gary Lineker and Trevor Brooking as photoshopped hosts for the Monks (who, in story terms, evidently appreciate the importance of sport as much as science and politics). And fittingly for a story focused on the blurring of reality and fiction, or reportage and 'fake news', both the real-world and Whoniverse/Ian McNeice versions of Winston Churchill crop up at different moments.  

I suspect that the defeat of the Monks' occupation may meet with some fan criticism: at first glance it falls immediately into the 'love conquers all' template of contemporary Who's defining emotionality (although in this case it's the more obscure storge ex machina rather than deus ex machina). But I found Bill's resistance to be smartly grounded in the episode's themes. Right from the very beginning, Bill's Mum is established as a positive product of her imagination. We see them chatting, but this mother figure is ultimately no more real than the Monks' history or the hallucinatory figures created to multiply their occupying forces. The difference, of course, is that Bill has freely imagined her mother, whereas the Monks have imposed altered perceptions on the populace. More than merely being a case of sentimentalism, then, Bill's simple use of two gloriously ordinary words -- "hello Mum" -- represents a familial inversion of the Monks' methods. Rather than just free will versus suppression, Whithouse shows us how the creative and consoling imagination can triumph over a signal-boosted imaginary world.  

The Lie Of The Land: Monk (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))I expected Missy to receive more screen time than she actually gets, but given her ongoing imprisonment in the Vault, this is perfectly understandable. Michelle Gomez excels yet again, making the most of every morsel of dialogue whilst her character mirrors the question that was first posed by the twelfth Doctor in series eight: can she be a "good" figure? Presumably this quest for redemption is eventually going to relate to the Doctor's regeneration-proper, and as a low-key story arc, or a kind of "arc lite", it's an intriguing development.

The Lie of the Land sits perfectly well among what has been a very strong series thus far. As the capstone to a trilogy of sorts it evidently has a lot of work to do, and although the Monks' departure feels a touch too rapid, as well as the Monks themselves sometimes seeming more like a visual gimmick rather than a well-realised culture, overall the episode delivers. Yes, "the band are back together", and all the series' leads are on top form. Matt Lucas continues to impress as Nardole, or 'Nardy' as he styles himself in this case, bringing an unobtrusive but much-needed thread of light comedy to what would otherwise be a very dark tone.

There is a blended success of script, direction, production design and acting all seamlessly on show here. And with Cardiff streets doubling for London, folk being marched from their houses, and cutaways of various world locations, at times this feels highly reminscent of the Russell T. Davies era. John Simm's return can't be far away now either, and it'll be fascinating to see how his version of the Master is integrated into Steven Moffat's take on the show.

It seems as if series ten only began a few weeks ago, yet we're already two-thirds of the way through. My excitement, as a fan, is somehow shifting my perceptions of time... At least, I think that's what must be true...





The Third Doctor - #5 - The Heralds Of Destruction Part FiveBookmark and Share

Thursday, 1 June 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The_Third_Doctor_05_Cover_A (Credit: Titan)


ISSUE 5
(On Sale: February 22nd 2017)
 
Writer: Paul Cornell
Art: Christopher Jones
Colorist: Hi-Fi

AVAILABLE
as either a digital download,
or from comic stores/ online shops

TITAN COMICS

The final stanza of this miniseries sees an (overly rare) foray into the past for the grey/silver-haired Doctor that helped UNIT overcome all manner of enemy from both home and far, far away.

I will openly state in this review that the main opposition comes in the form of the despicable would-be world dictator Ramon Salamander.

This evil 'double' of the charming Second Doctor had been masquerading as his lookalike, having established himself at a scientific research institute and begun work on exploring dimensions outside of the commonly recognised Height, Width and Depth. 

Now both Salamander and the combined group of principal UNIT members, the Doctor, Jo Grant, and the constantly-fickle Master have arrived in Parliament back at the tail-end of the 19th Century..

The Mexican despot is attempting to use his powers of persuasion, as have worked both in the future time of his origin, as well as the Mid-Twentieth Century. But stout-hearted men of Britain, who are pioneers in the sphere of democracy, are not the easiest to manipulate.

The Doctor makes his entrance in the Commons and is perhaps more effective. But ultimately, it will take something a little special from the shakily assembled alliance of Time Lords, and the more modern Earthlings, to see off the monster of Merida.

****

This miniseries has been a real treat, and this climax to the storyline does everything one could hope for. There is no dawdling, or self-indulgence in terms of pleasing ever-loyal fans with in-jokes. A focused and urgent pace is maintained throughout, and some pleasing moments of incident and drama - couple with some political satire - makes this a very effortless read.

The art continues to be a highlight, and shows how the team that helped Doctor Who become a colour Saturday night phenomenon would have coped with the challenge of showing the London of yester-century.

The whole mini-series really needs to be read issue by issue to work most effectively, which is a difference from perhaps some of the other ones Titan have presented to readers in the last couple of years. But the effort is more than rewarded, by an artistic team who clearly love both Doctor Who, and the wonderful personality that was the Third Doctor.

I know I am not alone in wishing that this is the start of a new era for a re-exploration of one of the more traditionally 'human' Doctors in the saga. Whilst the much-respected Paul Cornell has stated at the Gallifrey One convention that he will not return to Doctor Who (or any other licensed work), one can only hope this is not indefinite.

Regardless, the platform is now there for future adventures through Space and Time, that have something both nostalgic, but also something pertinent to the world we live in today.