Shada (DVD/Blu-Ray/Steelbook)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 11 February 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Shada (Credit: BBC Worldwide)
Shada
Written by: Douglas Adams
Directed by: Pennant Roberts, Charles Norton
Produced by: Graham Williams
Cast
Tom Baker (The Doctor), Lalla Ward (Romana), David Brierly (K9), Christopher Neame (Skagra), Daniel Hill (Chris Parsons), Denis Carey (Professor Chronotis), Victoria Burgoyne (Clare Knightley), Gerald Campion (Wilkin), Shirley Dixon (Ship), Derek Pollitt (Caldera), James Coombes (voice of the Kraags), John Hallet (Police Constable), David Strong (Man in Car)
Cover Art: Lee Binding (DVD, Blu-Ray), Adrian Salmon (Steelbook)
Originally Released: November 2017

Shada Reborn

Quite possibly a record-breaking candidate for the longest filming period for a single script, Shada bridges two millennia – from 1979 to 2017 – and represents a heroic effort to finally plug one of the most egregious gaps in the Doctor Who canon.

In a way, Shada mirrors the antagonist of that other great Douglas Adams story, City of Death. Just as Scaraoth is shattered into dozens of versions of himself across the centuries, the industrial action that stymied the original production of the serial saw it fractured into a number of variants and doppelgangers. Most famously, Adams decided the root concepts and ideas behind his final Doctor Who script were too good to waste and they found their way into his Doctorless novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. In 1992, a rough edit of the surviving footage was patched together with exposition from Tom Baker and some unsympathetic synthesizer music. Later again, an animated incarnation saw Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor reunite with Romana and K9 and a new supporting cast to cure a nagging feeling of something undone in Cambridge 1979.

But this Shada is very much the real deal. The entire surviving cast have been reunited to record the missing dialogue, the missing sequences have been animated where appropriate, though brand new models and have constructed and filmed by the Model Unit to act as inserts in the live action scenes, and a brand new score by Mark Ayers is constructed like an act of musical archaeology to recreate the instruments, methods and style of 1970s legend Dudley Simpson. It can never by Shada as it would have been, but it by far lays the strongest claim to being the definitive article.

As with any such project, the team had to make creative decisions and not everyone will agree with all of them. For instance, with Denis Carey (Professor Chronotis) and David Brierly (K9) having died since their original contribution a couple of minor scenes requiring them are left unanimated, while others have their presence reduced to lines which could be reproduced from other recordings of the actors. While some no doubt may have preferred soundalikes to be used to make as complete a version as possible, it’s a sensitive decision and highlights that, in fact, the missing moments were largely padding anyway. Similarly, but much more controversially, is the decision to assemble Shada as a 138 minute film rather than as six episodes. (It even has - steady yourself - a pre-titles sequence). This will go against every instinct of many long term fans, still sore from VHS cassettes of hacked down stories and the fight to get episodic releases. But in this case it seems to work. Watched in one sitting it makes for a breezy, fun, adventure – yet the way the story is paced would have seen the episodic version with a curiously uneventful Part One and a number of extremely undramatic cliffhangers (only the midway point would have given us something as genuinely brilliant as “Dead men require no oxygen”). For me, the only genuinely poor decision is to seize on the existence of the original K9 prop, some original wall panels from the 1979 set, and the surviving (bottom) half of an original Kraag monster costume to recreate a few shots of K9 fighting a Kraag. I appreciate the sentiment behind it, but the fact the surviving bit of set to squeeze them into is so small, and the Kraag only visible from the waist down, makes for a weirdly, and unintentionally silly, looking moment that takes you out of the flow of the story more than the switches to animation do.

Few would argue, though against the decision to bring in Martin Gergharty and Adrian Salmon to do design work for the animation. Not only are they brilliant in their own right, creating clear lined, loyal yet character-filled, interpretations of the cast in warm, friendly colours, it also helps smooth over the slightly stilted, flash style – the characters may not feel like they have a full range of human movement, but the presence of Gergharty’s art, so familiar to the readership of Doctor Who Magazine, makes it feel almost like panels from the beloved DWM comic strip brought to life.

 

Shada Reviewed

But has all this effort simply been an ultimate exercise in obsessive, fannish, completeness? Are we seeing the resurrection of a poor story just because it’s there to be done, or the completion of a classic in its own right?  In short – is Shada actually any good?

As it happens, Shada is brilliant jewel to add to Doctor Who’s crown if one, like all the most spectacular diamonds, not without its flaws. One the wittiest of Who scripts, and certainly with one of the most fascinating premises, at six parts it’s basically City of Death with extra portions. Famously, one of the script’s biggest critics is its own author – written, as it was, at a point when Douglas Adams was juggling several different projects and deadlines and pouring his greatest effort into his own personal work rather than Doctor Who. Considering that a billion years from now, stuck in the glovebox of an interplanetary roadster, the fruits of that rival project may be the last sign of the human race’s existence, it would be churlish to complain about that but still, Adams is being ungenerous about the serial.

In almost every way, this is the fullest encapsulation of the latter half Tom Baker years. Tom himself exudes the same sort of relaxed charm, peppered with moments of total nonsense that marked City of Death while Lalla Ward has never seemed more possessed of an unearthly beauty. All of their scenes together are a joy and something as simple as them going boating, or visiting an old friend in his rooms for tea is all stuff I could watch hours of, even without any alien menaces showing up. And the alien menace that does show up is stupendous – possibly the most unbelievable thing about the whole story is the revelation on the commentary track that the people in the background of Cambridge genuinely ignored Christopher Neame in his outrageous hat and slowing silver cape as if he was an everyday sight. But the massively fun campness of Neame’s character Skagra is balanced by the imaginative and typically Adamsian plot the villain has hatched. Skagra is unusually preoccupied with the heat death of the universe in several billion years’ time and obsessed with stopping it. Like solving the central question of  Life, the Universe, and Everything the main stumbling block to finding the answer is processing power – so he’s going to absorb every mind in the universe into one great gestalt entity, so that every being in creation is simply a conduit for finding a way to save it without the petty distractions of life. In a way, it’s Douglas Adams inventing cloud computing thirty years early and typical of the scientific verve and imagination he brought to everything he wrote. (Tellingly, a year later his replacement would also craft a story about forestalling the heat death of the universe but, while propounding the superiority of ‘hard science’, would solve it by inventing some space wizards who use magic words to make it go away).There are undoubtedly flaws, mostly as we race towards the end with the mounting sense of a script with the ink still wet and no time for afterthought or final drafts. Chris Parsons is probably the best of the solid young everymen Doctor Who has ever featured, and pitched perfectly by Daniel Hall, yet despite early episodes spending more time of introducing and building on his character, he gets lost in the shuffle of the climax. There’s even a dramatic scene of Chris making a vital deduction and racing out to save the day, only for Adams to be plainly unable to think of anything to give him to do once he gets there (a problem Gareth Roberts ingeniously solved in his 2012 novelization but which, presumably for purity’s sake, the producers here don’t take the opportunity to steal). Meanwhile, the Kraag outfits are really quite poor, even for the era that gave us the Nimon and the Mandrel, and a lot of the location film work in Cambridge feels rather loose and in need of a tighter edit.Yet, there’s an inescapable magic to Shada that goes well beyond its status as a mythical ‘lost’ story, and had it been completed in 1979 it would still have been regarded as one of the highpoints of Season Seventeen.

 

Extras

This release comes with a full set of extras the complement the story perfectly. A commentary orchestrated by the unsinkable Toby Hadoke on less funding than the bus fare into town sees him interview Neame and Hall about their experiences during filming, and Gergharty and animator Ann Marie Walsh about the pressures and effort involved in creating the project against incredibly tight deadlines. Taken Out of Time interviews many of the those involved in front of and behind the cameras on the original production to build a picture of exactly how it came to abandoned in the first place. Strike! Strike! Strike! uses contributions from those involved in industrial relations at the time to help explain exactly how the unions of 1970s television came to be so powerful, and give a potted history of their rise and fall through the lens of how industrial action had impacted Doctor Who over the decades both negatively (when it was at the BBC) and positively (when it was arch rival ITV left showing blank screens opposite the Doctor’s adventures).  Both of these are proper, half hour documentaries that tell a story of their own almost as compelling as Shada itself.

There’s also fascinating Studio Sesssions - 1979, showing the working methods of the cast and crew in-studio as the cameras roll between takes. Most fun of all is are the Dialogue Sessions – in which we get to see Tom Baker and Daniel Hall record their contributions for the animation, with all Tom’s uproarious ad libs and suggestions for improvements to the script intact. The extras are rounded out with the video of the Model Unit filming of Skagra’s space station and ship, as well as the TARDIS model, new footage taken of Daniel Hall and Tom Baker’s stand-in as reference for animation, photo galleries, as well as the obligatory Now and Then tour of what the Cambridge locatoins look like three decades on. ROM content even includes a full set of scripts, storyboards, and the 1979 Doctor Who Annual (if, rather bizarrely, packed as 56 separate image files).The Steelbook release goes even further to try and lay claim to the definitive Shada package – with a third disc containing the 1992 reconstruction and the 2003 Paul McGann web animation adaptation (remastered for viewing on TV screens rather than computer monitors). About the only thing not included is the novelization.

 

Presentation and Packaging

The DVD version has a slightly astonishing error where the coding that tells a television to display it as 16:9 or 4:3 is messed up – meaning that if watched on a 4:3 television the image will appear in the centre of the screen, with black bars on all sides – top, bottom, left and right. On a modern 16:9 television it displays the picture correctly (with bars on left and right as this is archive television intended as 4:3) but even then some resolution is lost as the image is basically being blown up to fit. That said, you’d be hard pressed to actually notice the lower resolution on viewing the DVD and it probably still looks better than it would have done on the average 1970s domestic television. All the same it’s disappointing to see such hard work by so many involved obviously handed off to someone much less fastidious at the eleventh hour for authoring the DVDs. It should be stressed, however, that the Blu-Ray and Steelbook don’t share this flaw so, if it’s going to bother you, those are the routes to take.

The cover art, some may remember, was the cause of a bit of a social media flap last year when Clayton Hickman’s distinctive and unusual scarf patterned cover was ditched at the comparative last minute. In the final result, Lee Binding’s replacement is… fine, if a little bland and stilted seeming, probably as a result of the tight deadlines under which it was done. Strangely, a vestige of Hickman’s original design lingers on in the insert booklet.  “Bland” is not something anyone could accuse the Steelbook art of. Undoubtedly DWM’s most marmite love-him-or-hate-him artists, Adrian Salmon provides a cover piece in his distinctive, angular, impressionistic style. Personally, I love him.

A thread long dangling frustratingly at the corner of Doctor Who history, Shada is reborn by a massive and dedicated effort by a hugely talented team to reveal it as an all time classic mix of Douglas Adams’ trademark whimsy and intelligence. Handsomely accompanied by a great set of extras and marred only by some inexplicable technical sloppiness, this is a must for any collection. But one, perhaps, to get on Blu-Ray if possible.

 





Delta and the Bannermen AudiobookBookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 January 2018 - Reviewed by Dustin Pinney
Delta and the Bannermen (Credit: BBC Audio)
Delta and the Bannermen
Written by Malcolm Kohll
Read by Bonnie Langford

Relased by BBC Audio June 2017

As a televised serial, Delta and the Bannermen could have been a hilarious, delightful, Douglas Adams-esque romp with a dark side. Many of the elements are there. Completely alien beings transforming themselves into humanoids in order to visit Disneyland in the 1950s as part of a “Nostalgia Tour”, everyday people trying their best to work according to procedure in the face of utter strangeness, and intergalactic war taking place at a holiday camp in Wales. Unfortunately, it’s an uneven, overly violent, tonal mess, with delusions of depth.

As a novel, Delta and the Bannermen could have been an edgy sci-fi epic with fleshed out characters, deeply detailed mythology, real character motivations, high stakes, and humor. Where else but a novel would it be possible to explore Chimeron culture,  craft a romance between Delta and Billy that feels genuine, or uncover the psychology of why an assassin on vacation just can’t help but make a kill (there has to be more than his enjoyment of it)? Instead the novel adds very little to what was already an unbalanced story.

As an audiobook, Delta and the Bannermen has fun music, an effective soundtrack, and Bonnie Langford’s narration can be a delight when she’s really giving it her all and having a blast. However the weak story holds the entire production back. It is simply too difficult to separate the story from the audiobook to enjoy all the work that went into recording this otherwise pretty impressive audiobook.   

The setting of Delta and the Bannermen requires a soundtrack rich with popular music of the time. Characters openly reference songs like “Rock Around The Clock” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love.” It would be hard to imagine the story without a few needle drops of those vintage hits. Somehow the producers were able to concoct generic, certainly royalty free, Rock & Roll tracks sufficient enough to capture that particular musical shade of the correct pop cultural tapestry.    

Not to say the music is all perfect. Perhaps the most entertaining piece of the score is what appears to be the main theme. A sweeping, swashbuckling suite that may have been more at home in a pirate story, but is equally thrilling here.

Telling a story about about genocide across the stars, especially when the antagonist is as murder-happy as Gavrok, gunfire and explosions are crucial. At no point does the artillery become a wall of pounding sound overpowering the music or narration. Every auditory element is layered to compliment each other, resulting in a sense of immersion.  

Of course the natural standout is Bonnie Langford as the storyteller. She is tasked with performing a variety of accents for more characters than necessary, and she does so superbly. While Mel may not be everyone’s favorite companion, Bonnie Langford is a first class talent, and she shines throughout the entirety of this book.  

Delta and the Bannermen, regardless of the form it takes, is a story with a lot of promise that never reaches its full potential. At least this version has a narrator who seems to be enjoying themself.

 




Tenth Doctor Novels (BBC Audio)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 7 January 2018 - Reviewed by Ken Scheck
Tenth Doctor Novels (Credit: BBC Audio)

Sting of the Zygons
Written By Stephen Cole,
Read By Reggie Yates

The Last Dodo
Written By Jacqueline Rayner, Read By Freema Agyeman

Wooden Heart
Written By Martin Day,
Read By Adjoah Andoh

Forever Autumn
Written By Mark Morris, Read By Will Thorp

Wetworld
Written By Mark Michalowski, Read By Freema Agyeman

Sick Building
Written By Paul Magrs, Read By Will Thorp

The Pirate Loop
By Simon Guerrier,
​Read By Freema Agyeman

Peacemaker
Written By James Swallow, Read By Will Thorp



Released by BBC Worldwide Auguest 2017
Available from Amazon UK

BBC Worldwide have released this collection of Eight Abridged Audiobooks from the Tenth Doctor's line of Novels, all of which feature Martha Jones as the Companion. The stories themselves range from mediocre to just plain decent.  Nothing in the collection really jumped out at me.  The readings all all decent, particularly those read by Freema Agyeman and Will Thorp.  Adjoah Andoh did a decent job as well, but Reggie Yates lacked something in his reading...while others found a way to capture the Tenth Doctor's voice in some way (Agyeman being the best in my opinion), Yates just never found a tone that worked for me.  His approach seemed to just be talk faster, but he missed key elements of this Doctor's delivery that took me out of the story, and just thinking "oh but the Doctor would've said it like THAT," which made it much harder to get into the story. 

It didn't help Yates that he was saddled with one of the least interesting stories of the bunch. In Sting of the Zygons, The Doctor and Martha battle Zygons in the early 20th Century...imagine Zygons on Downton Abbey, only somehow that isn't fun.  The second story of the bunch is The Last Dodo, read by Agyeman, which was a definite improvement in terms of story and reading.  The Wooden Heart is another decent story, but again nothing too stellar is found within this collection.  I did enjoy the Halloween themes and monster in Forever Autmn as well as the adventure with the sentient otters that is WetworldSick Building had some decent ideas, but the story is decidedly average. Peacemaker is another average adventure, this time with the backdrop of the old west, though I do think it got better as it went along.  This particular audiobook does show off some of the vocal range of Will Thorp, who does a lot of different Amercian accents. 

The one story that really jumped out at me was The Pirate Loop. Read by Agyeman, it has neat time travel mechanics, intriguing mysteries, unique storytelling devices, and Space Pirates who look like humanoid badgers.  What's not to love in all that?  Of all the stories, it seems the most memorable,  the only one I will probably continue to think of from time to time. 

Ultimately, this wasn't that impressive a set of stories.  There was nothing that was too bad, but everything was just middle of the road. A little bland. As someone who had not read any of the BBC original novels, these abridged audiobooks were sort of like a sampling of them...and it left me uninterested in reading more.  Because of the ongoing series, there is (or at the very least was) probably a lot of rules for what they could and couldn't do in the novels.  As such I think you end up with a fairly bland output of stories, things that certainly work as Doctor Who, but because of restrictions from the show itself take some of the edge out.  It could be that sme of the spark gets lost in the abridged nature of the audiobooks, or it could be the readings themselves weren't to my liking. For the most part, anything read by Thorp and (especially) Agyeman were more entertaining to listen to, but I can't say this was the most entertaining set of audiobooks. For collectors only, I would suggest just checking out either the audiobook of the prose version of The Pirate Loop, instead of going for the whole boxset.





World Enough and TimeBookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
World Enough and Time: Mondasian Cyberman, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring Michelle Gomez and John Simm
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 24th, 6:45pm
 

This review is based on a BBC preview and discusses major spoilers from the very beginning

 

From its specially-shot 'A Time for Heroes' promo trailer onwards, Series Ten has raised the question of Bill's fate. And although Steven Moffat's writing is famed for reversing and undoing the loss of key characters, this episode has the feel of something truly irreversible. It's the bleakest and darkest that Doctor Who has been for quite some time, and hopefully it won't provoke audience complaints. But the Mondasian Cybermen are incredibly spooky and unsettling, thanks both to their authentic, old-school voices and the very visible remnants of their humanity. Moments such as a pre-Cyberman intoning "pain" over and over again seem a world away from stereotypical 'children's TV' (either that, or I need to adjust my sense of the stereotype). Bill's predicament is treated in a full-on stylized fantasy mode, though, as if to render it less shockingly 'realistic'. Of course, there was never going to be blood - Doctor Who has to make sure that it doesn't transgress BBC guidelines - but the impressively striking visual of Bill (and us, and the Doctor, and the camera) realising that there was gaping, empty space where flesh and blood should have been was a truly startling sequence. And this in an episode packed with reveals and surprises, right from the pre-titles.

Seeing the Doctor fighting his regeneration suggests that this must be the beginning of a three-parter that will only properly conclude at Christmas. Yet featuring a flash-forward (if that's what it is) to the Doctor's moment of regeneration doesn't quite seem to fit with recent publicity discussions of the regen's "complication" this time round. There must be more to it, I would have thought. And the opening's impact also felt a touch reduced thanks to the game-playing of Lie of the Land earlier this series: is this just another tease and fakeout, or is it the real deal? Hopefully the latter, but in a provisional world of stories and simulations, doubts can linger.

However, there's enough 'meta' and self-referential commentary on show to stock a supermarket shelf's worth of easter eggs; the Master seems passingly familiar with conventions of Doctor Who episode titling, for instance. He prefers 'Genesis of the Cybermen' to World Enough and Time, though is less familiar with the Big Finish story Spare Parts that this appears to supersede in canon. And Missy enjoys teasing her "disposables" (and the fan audience) with tales of the Doctor's "real name", resulting in the fourth wall at times appearing to have a ragged SFX hole punched right through it. Putting Missy and the Master together risks overloading the density of camp quippery, but sadly they share relatively little screen time during this outing.

World Enough and Time: Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Jon Hall))For an episode marked by the science of time dilation, there's an odd kind of temporal distortion going on throughout. In effect, 'time' has already passed much quicker in Doctor Who's hype and marketing than it does within the story: we already know that the Cybermen will show up, and that the Master is somehow behind proceedings. Consequently, World Enough and Time frequently feels like an episode striving to catch up with itself, yet remaining focused on almost pure delay (the emphasis on arriving elevators captures this perfectly well, along with the near freeze frames of Mr Razor's TV). This must surely count as one of Who's great set-up episodes. Even the Doctor gets in on the act, settling down to watch with a packet of crisps.  

Despite much grumbling about the recent (final?) series of Sherlock, one thing I thought it did extremely well was to mislead the audience into believing that a particular actor was actually a number of different characters. Prosthetics skill aside, the device is far less successful here. Depending on your facial recognition capabiities and knowledge of past Doctor Who, it may seem fairy obvious what trick is being pulled for the sake of a Masterful cliffhanger, and this aspect struck me as the least well achieved element of the episode. But given how hard-hitting the reveal of Cyber-Bill was, the Master's ornate scheming was always going to be left slightly in the shade, and it could be argued that its "dah-dah, it's me!" daffiness offered a lighter counterpoint to the terrifying narrative of Bill's situation. (As an aside, presumably part of the BBC's strategy behind live-streaming a Pearl Mackie Q&A right after this episode must be to reassure younger audiences that Pearl is fine in real life). And as a lead-in to episode 12, this multi-cliffhanger does its job perfectly.

'New' Doctor Who (though of course, it's not-so-new now) tends to be at its strongest when it intricately melds intimate moments of characterisation and emotion with epic science-fictional conceits. World Enough and Time displays this quality of 'intimate epic' by combining the vast Colony Ship with moments such as the Doctor and Bill discussing his history with Missy. This suffers slightly from the old 'show don't tell' maxim; a lot of the emotional weight behind the Doctor's fateful decision to test Missy's redemption/'goodness' relies on what we are told rather than what we're shown, and on how invested audiences are in the Doctor-Master/Missy backstory. Yes, the Doctor's hope was sharply delineated at the very end of last week's episode, but it still feels as if more emotional scene-setting would have been valuable for the Doctor-Missy storyline. As ever, though, Missy is a joy to behold, and her introductory sequence as she steps out of the TARDIS and shares her newly adopted name is simply brilliant. Michelle Gomez makes the absolute most of Moffat's zinging dialogue, whilst Missy's companions/pets look on, suitably aggravated.  

If the Master-Third Doctor era was marked by the 'UNIT family', then this moment in the show's history also carries a strong familial sense, and not just because Missy's continued presence echoes that of the Delgado Master. Bringing Rachel Talalay back behind the camera for another finale means reassembling a crack team, whilst Bill and Nardole have gelled extremely well across this series, with Capaldi's Doctor undoubtedly benefitting from Doctor-companion relationships designed to World Enough and Time: Missy (Michelle Gomez), The Master (John Simm), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway/Ray Burmiston))suit his characterisation. 

Talalay's direction makes the Mondasian Cybermen genuinely scary; the decision not to directly show Bill's partial conversion is also a sound one, as it ramps up the tension when we realise that a cyber chest-unit must have been installed, whilst the eventual 'full' Cyberman emerging from shadows is a memorably familiar sequence. Although the body horror that could have been pursued is dialled down somewhat, the partial conversions' monotone cries of anguish remain bleakly forceful. Who has rarely been this disturbing or this existentially raw. Thankfully, Talalay also has some fun with the time dilation (assuming this wasn't purely an editor's choice), as various sequences cut stylishly in and out of freeze frame. It is only the treatment of Mr. Razor that feels a little curious; he is featured so directly, even in relative close-up, that it's difficult not to discern the stunt being entertained, even though this kind of disguise has a well-established history in the programme. Presumably it was decided, directorially, that it didn't really matter when the penny dropped for audiences as they'd be waiting for the cliffhanger pay-off in any case.     

Given that the 'iconic poster image' for this episode so strongly echoes that from Day of the Doctor, next week's title seems equally likely to refer back to the "Gallifrey Falls" strand of Steven Moffat's overarching plot. Will we see more of the Doctor's regeneration... perhaps even a number of different possible new faces starting to coalesce as the twelfth Doctor progresses towards the thirteenth? This transition has been more of a tease than ever before, and no doubt the showrunner hasn't run out of tricks yet. 

Bring it, as the Doctor would say.





The Eaters Of LightBookmark and Share

Sunday, 18 June 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Eaters of Light: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Charles Palmer

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas

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

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE

First broadcast 17 June 2017​

This review contains spoilers

CAUTION - Some Spoilers Apply

 

The trio of Nardole, Bill and the ever-developing (and 'reborn') 12th Doctor find themselves in the time of the Roman Empire - a period which previous selves such as the '11th' and '1st' had been in. The location is Scotland, which is long before the times of referendums and Brexit controversy. This also happens to be a land where the current incarnation of the Doctor can speak, and sound like a native).

The story follows a standard modern Doctor Who pattern in having a simple enough foe to face, but mainly showing the characters (both regular and one off), who go through a journey of personal discovery.

There are some similarities to Thin Ice, in terms of exploring the impact of invasion and subjugation of a weaker settlement. The Roman Empire left many a positive aspect over the course of time, but the means to the end were brutal and borderline-animalistic. Bill Potts does good work in pointing out the problems with the system to Kar (one of the valiant Picts).

The exploration of language translation is also pleasing, as this was often glossed over for much of the show’s history (and especially so with the 'psychic paper' device). Bill’s ability to recognise the issue without the Doctor telling her is yet another big step forward in proving how the Doctor needs his companions, just as much as they need him.

Returning female scribe Rona Munro knows how to pace her stories and bring something a little different so that they are a cut above the average in terms of being memorable. Ever since creating the final transmitted Sylvester McCoy story, she has forged a fine career as a playwright.

But something is missing in this episode. I deplored the cheesiness of ‘girl/Vikings in Series 9, and felt it was more akin to a CBBC show (in other words for mainly children under the age of 12). This episode does some good work – especially for the Doctor – but it never comes together with the gravitas of the most successful modern Who tales.

Munro’s premise is fine, but perhaps her partnering the writing team of today sees an awkward clash of storytelling styles. Doctor Who – despite being set anywhere in Space and Time – should always be forward-looking, and this entry is somewhat of a nod back to glories of long ago.

But the season arc continues to gather steam, with Missy's witty remarks being the very best sections. Michelle Gomez simply cannot do no wrong, and displays even more facets to this villainous character. Facets which were never for a moment contemplated by previous writers, when he was in ‘his normal’ form. Now we are getting to the finale and the long-awaited appearance of the (perhaps divisive) John Simm Master. I for one simply cannot wait.

Back to this episode. The production values are decent enough, with the alien being that consumes its victims being especially scary, in concept and visual execution. The guest cast never really present more than the minimum necessary for the stakes to feel relevantly high. I also found both Lucas and Mackie a little flat at times. After such good work from Oxygen onward, this seemed to be a relative come down in their ability to either be funny or conveying ‘normal reactions’ to unusual events. But Capaldi never misses a trick in his ability to translate the words on page he is given. I expect great things from this record breaker (in terms of seniority in the main role), in the ensuing conclusion to a great run of episodes.

Doctor Who is really on song once again, and makes the most of its spotlight during the Spring/Summer seasons.





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...