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.





Last ChristmasBookmark and Share

Thursday, 25 December 2014 -  
 

Last Christmas
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Paul Wilmshurst
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Nick Frost, Dan Starkey, Nathan McMullen, Natalie Gumede
Premiere 25 December, 2014 - BBC One

This review contains plot spoilers.

Ever since the first Christmas special back in 2005, Doctor Who has been a festive fixture, as much a part of the schedule as Morecambe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses once were, and the inevitable Strictly Come Dancing special is now. With all the festive trappings of the last few years, it was surely only a matter of time before Santa Claus himself showed up amidst the snow - but is he real?

In contrast to Robot of Sherwood, which presented a real-life Robin Hood as fact, Steven Moffat wisely leaves it open here. Nick Frost's Santa of course helps save the day, but he's a dream construct....or is he? That tangerine at the end leaves it open. We don't know. Arguably, we should never really know.

Last Christmas could end up going down in history as being one of the oddest things ever to go out on TV on Christmas Day. The tone moves from comedy to full out scares, via off-kilter dream-like moments and a happy ending for nearly everyone. The first ten minutes alone are quite, quite mad - but Moffat knows this, runs with it, and it all pays off over an unusually structured, yet satisfying hour. There are nods to Alien, and The Thing, and even a surprise quote from Die Hard.

Another thing worth pointing out - Doctor Who is now most definitely not for part-timers. Last Christmas acts as a sort of coda to Series Eight, if you've not been paying attention, this isn't for you. While nowhere near as merciless as The Time of the Doctor, context is all, and the fallout from the events of Death in Heaven is dealt with here. Danny's sacrifice and Clara's sense of loss, the Doctor and Clara's lies to each other about Gallifrey and Danny, and the way forward for everyone (except Danny, naturally). Christmas is often a time of change and renewal, and, sometimes, moving on - this is neatly used by Moffat as a metaphor for the Doctor and Clara's relationship.

We open with Clara meeting Santa and his comedy elves on her snow-capped rooftop, before the Doctor sweeps in to whisk her to a polar scientific outpost with a crab problem. The inhabitants of the base are struggling against the Kantrofarri, or, the Dream Crabs. It's Christmas, and the pudding brains are for pudding. The Facehugger-like Dream Crabs, a creation straight out of Alien (Michael Troughton's Professor Albert even explicitly says so, prompting a priceless response from the Doctor) are slowly killing them by inducing a dream state whilst eating their brains. The Crabs are pretty revolting, and their central conceit is grisly. The lumbering 'sleepers' they are attached to are also suitably sinister. Jenna Coleman gets her first true old school scream of terror as a Dream Crab lunges for her. It gets her, but she's unwilling to leave her dream of a perfect Christmas with Danny, with Samuel Anderson giving a strong, sad performance as Dream-Danny, who encourages her to leave him, and by association, to move on.

Moffat's script dines out on the concept of dreams within dreams and nails the skewed logic of a dream state - we're in Inception territory here. Things are ever so slightly off throughout, only the Doctor notices the clues, and even he is up the creek without a paddle until Santa helps everyone wake up, and return to real life, all except the unfortunate Albert, who doesn't make it out.

And what of Santa? Frost is used sparingly, and mostly for comic relief, he has some great moments sparring with Capaldi though. Does he convince as Santa? The hair is white, he looks the part, but there's no getting round the fact that a much younger man is in there. Frost's charisma helps sell it though. Nathan McMullen and Dan Starkey's comedy elves are somewhat less successful, and they don't get much screen time, as if subject to a last minute rewrite when someone upstairs decided they were a bad idea.

Capaldi and Coleman are excellent as always, with Coleman a slightly less dominant presence than in Series Eight, and Capaldi giving perhaps his most Doctorish performance to date, now free of all that ‘Am I a good man’ baggage. Michael Troughton as the unfortunate Professor Albert is good, but doesn’t get a lot to do, but Natalie Gumede as Ashley and in particular Faye Marsay as Shona both shine – Marsay is almost companion material.

Paul Wilmshurst’s direction is superb. He has some slightly dubious CGI to deal with where flying reindeer are involved, but otherwise shines at bringing to life a studio-bound episode that is essentially a dream within a dream within a dream in places. More from him please.

We close with the Doctor and Clara moving past the baggage of the last series, and joyfully running into the TARDIS in search of new adventures. Whether it’ll all end in tears or not, and if this really is the last we see of Danny Pink is up for grabs, but the future looks bright. Roll on 2015, and a very happy Christmas to all of you at home.





The Time of The DoctorBookmark and Share

Saturday, 28 December 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - The Time of The Doctor
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Jamie Payne
Broadcast on BBC One - 25 December 2013
The Time of the Doctor made an already difficult task more complicated than it needed to have been. Doctor Who has been shifting formats recently, with two years of short runs which stood unsteadily between major series and boutique television, culminating in red button short and an anniversary special which was at home in the cinema as it was on the small screen. It would have seemed to make sense to deliver another blockbuster, to follow The Day of the Doctor with something reminiscent of Voyage of the Damned in terms of spectacle, sending Matt Smith out in a towering inferno of action-adventure television. Instead we received something altogether quieter and more reflective, though still ambitious and until the very end rarely taking quite the time it needed to cover all the ground required. Switching athletic metaphors, the episode eschewed the high jump for the long jump, but only broke its record by leaving out some of the inconvenient units of measurement.

Doctor Who tells its stories through image and sound as much as actors playing scripts. Incidental music reminded long-term viewers of the cause of the tenth Doctor’s regeneration, of Clara's history as 'impossible girl', of the Doctor's responsibility towards Amy Pond. The underpinning of The Time of the Doctor seemed to be repeated images deliberately referencing the past, particularly of children’s drawings, and the musical cues connecting to specific moments in previous stories. More than any of his predecessors, the eleventh Doctor has been explicitly coded as a children’s hero within the narrative. It’s a role he has had ever since bonding with Amelia in The Eleventh Hour and then a series of Amelia-substitutes, from Mandy in The Beast Below onwards through young Kazran in A Christmas Carol to the children in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and beyond. Here, while the Doctor protects successive generations of Trenzaloreans, he cherishes the pictures of him they have drawn as children, spreading across the walls and pillars of his tower home, much as Amy Pond grew up recounting and embellishing the legend of the man who one night had eaten fish fingers and custard at her kitchen table and then disappeared. On Trenzalore, the Doctor becomes both story and storyteller, building a culture around himself complete with Punch and Judy version of The Ark.

This wasn’t the only recycling of old visual cues. The placing of the Oswald family in a tower block acted not only as a mirror of the Doctor’s home on Trenzalore, but of Rose’s flat back in the 2005 and 2006 series. The location – Lydstep Flats, Cardiff – was the same used for the ‘back’ of the Powell Estate in Rose, encouraging a sense that Doctor Who is going back to one of its beginnings, though there’s an awkwardness about the Oswald family which is distinct from the awkwardness I felt from the Rose, Mickey and Jackie background. There, the discomfort came from the broad playing of acute if subjective social observation, alleviated a little when one realised how far the series was written and interpreted through Rose’s eyes. Here, the cumbersome nakedness-hologram gag is used as a blanket to cover the sense that we really don’t know much about Clara’s background; it’s difficult to place the flat setting alongside her work for the Maitlands and the glimpses of her parental home(s) we saw in The Rings of Akhaten. Perhaps this just means that the Doctor Who of 2013 views society as more fluid and less rigidly stratified than that of 2005; but if so, Lydstep Flats are a curious borrowing in an episode which expected and demanded that viewers remember much more detail from past episodes than has been usual.

In its revival of the crack in the universe which propelled the 2010 series, the episode’s explanation seems muffled and misdirected. The Doctor’s reminiscence of rebooting the universe following its destruction on 26 June 2010 tended to assume knowledge rather than provide it. The conversation in Tasha Lem’s chapel explaining about the Kovarian faction’s breakaway from the main body of the Church of the Silence was almost apologetically undramatic. The return of the device of a victim of Dalek re-engineering forgetting that they had died before sprouting eyestalk and gun-stick was thrifty in terms of the reuse of an effect, but the manner of the reintroduction had something hollow about it. This was redeemed somewhat by the Doctor’s successful resurrection of Tasha’s identity and his reminder of what the Daleks represent: they embody the potential for dissociated self-obsession and the destructive force isolation and lack of empathy can unleash. If Tasha has already battled this within herself for centuries, she can and does defeat the Dalek within. A pity the Doctor’s line about the inner psychopath seemed somewhat thrown away.

The rapid introduction and disposal of good ideas was almost a signature of the episode. The Doctor ate up brilliantly-sketched but underdeveloped personas, especially his James Stewart-like sheriff. (I remembered the supposed influence of James Stewart’s Destry [which I have seen] on Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, but it took Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail to point out the links with another Stewart western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance [which I have not].) Not out of step with the episode’s obsession with clergy is the parallel presentation of the Doctor as an old priest, teleporting out from the confessional, and making better use of confidences than the memory-erasing Silence or the faith-switching Tasha Lem. All are manipulators, but the Doctor at least is conscious of the burden of guilt. A pity, again, that the audience was not presented more directly the comparison between the Doctor and Tasha, and for Tasha to be more noticeably self-aware. Driving the TARDIS is easier than driving the Doctor, but one wasn’t sure that the script had a good idea of what that meant, a pity for an episode where tone and some of the content suggested that it was to be taken as a contemplation of Doctor Who’s values and who the Doctor was.

There was little sense, too, of the Doctor’s enemies as being more than archetypal threats. The effectiveness of the Cybermen has been in decline since The Tenth Planet and variations on their physical form are perhaps the best entertainment they provide. Perhaps a chocolate Cyberman, based on the wooden model could be licensed in time for Easter... The Sontarans now seem to be following the comedic model into which Strax has fallen (nevertheless entertainingly). These three, like the Angels, were there to do their turns, the Angels seemingly being trapped in much the same way they were in Blink (though this wasn’t well articulated).

The Daleks, naturally, had the best spot on the bill and the most to do, successfully overcoming the Church of the Silence half-way through the Doctor’s sojourn on Trenzalore, though seemingly for continuity reasons as this enabled them to recover (some of) the knowledge of the Doctor removed from their data banks in Asylum of the Daleks. They were the spokesbeings too for the besiegers at the climax and had the privilege of being the first to be annihilated (presumably) by regenerative energy. The shot was spectacular, but one wonders if turning these latterday bursts of golden transmogrifative flame into destructive weapons is necessarily a good thing in story terms. Given, though, that the town of Christmas and the world of Trenzalore are largely symbols of what the Doctor chooses or is forced by circumstance to stand for, then his monstrous foes are here his inner demons and the support of friends – the Time Lords and Clara – give him the strength to overcome them. The journey into the mountain to find the new man is made again.

If town and planet are to be largely understood as figurative, then seasoned television-watchers were deliberately misled by their introduction. Tessa Peake-Jones and Rob Jarvis are both actors whom one might expect to remain in a programme for more than one scene. Their briefing about the truth field seemed to have sinister possibilities, but as it turned out they were unwitting observers of the darkening clouds around the Doctor, not the manipulators we were encouraged to believe. Once the Doctor was trapped on Trenzalore then viewers were reversed out of a narrative too drawn out to be entertaining, and shown only the more dramatic moments. It’s not surprising, though, that this could feel like a betrayal to part of the audience. To some extent this was acknowledged by Clara’s dismissal by the Doctor, a bravely undisguised borrowing from The Parting of the Ways. In clinging to the TARDIS she is battling to remain part of the story; her survival where Captain Jack expired is another mark of her uniqueness. The presentation of Clara reminded audiences of her particular status as the impossible girl while drawing more widely from the generic heritage of the post-2005 companion. It remains to be seen whether this compromises any further development of her background in the long term.

Clara wasn’t the only companion to appear in this story. Handles the Cyber-head was a metallic realisation of Tom Baker’s talking cabbage, and a reminder of the Doctor’s need for someone to talk to. The withdrawal of the Doctor from continuous human contact has been a feature of the latter part of the eleventh Doctor’s period; the Ponds became people he visited and took on trips rather than travelled with, and emphasis has been placed on Clara’s home life and latterly career to which she returns. Given that Clara provides the resolution to the problem by telling the Time Lords that the Doctor is the only name he will ever need, the Moffatian paradox at the heart of this story is one based around the Doctor’s judgement – had he not sought to protect and had trusted his human best friend more, he might not have needed to put himself and Trenzalore through this standoff and not have needed to regenerate – though may not have gained the new regeneration cycle too. At the end, of course, it’s Amelia Pond whom the Doctor hallucinates, whose face lends definition to the Doctor’s own; we are asked to wonder whether consuming fish fingers and custard delayed the Doctor’s full physical transformation long enough for him to say goodbye to Clara.

The Time of the Doctor deserves plaudits for its ambition; the Doctor choosing to let himself be trapped in one place for centuries to protect a people and a cosmos from destruction, and gradually ageing at and as the heart of the place, is a powerful idea. The execution was perhaps compromised by expectations and by wilfully leading those expectations on. The protracted nudity joke didn’t help many, including me, but perhaps other parts of the audience, particularly the younger ones, were more committed to it. The plight of Christmas Town and the Doctor’s relationship to it – how far could the townsfolk have blamed him for their situation? – could have been expanded upon. Patrick Mulkern at Radio Times online has rightly pointed out the debt the set owes to the Christmas Radio Times of 1977, but more than this visual allusion to an item from parental childhoods was needed to give some sense of the people of Christmas Town and their community. Again, perhaps, the children’s love for the Doctor and its resonance with the crucial younger section of the audience was crucial.

Arguably, though, the bulk of the episode was mood-setting for the final few minutes, which was the most tightly conceived and performed. The false dawn of the eleventh Doctor’s restored youth and Jenna Coleman’s portrayal of an apprehensive, relieved and then frightened and bereaved Clara were surprisingly moving after an episode which largely failed to emotionally involve. In promising never to forget ‘one line’ of his existence in Matt Smith’s form, the Doctor recognises that he is at least the subject of a history or chronicle, if not an outright fiction. Clara’s desperation to hold on to the Doctor was met with silent, shuffled retreat, denying Clara the consolation of touch as if the eleventh Doctor was already a Shakespearean ghost or even Christ between resurrection and ascension. A pity, then, that the sudden manifestation of the twelfth Doctor took the form of a ritual which understood the formula, but not the heart, of something which should never have been treated as liturgical – the remark about a transformed body part, the TARDIS crashing – with the only variation being the new Doctor’s specific amnesia over TARDIS steering.

The Time of the Doctor didn’t answer every question remaining from the eleventh Doctor’s era. We don’t know who the woman was who gave Clara the Doctor’s telephone number, for example; but that belongs to Clara’s storyline more than it did the eleventh Doctor’s. The revelation that the eleventh Doctor was really the thirteenth physical form of this Time Lord was clearly a late decision, sitting unhappily if not entirely contradicting some earlier episodes (not that this is new in Doctor Who). The grant of a new regeneration cycle by the Time Lords was a surprisingly easy solution to an anticipated problem. I’d been imagining something complex involving cracks in the fabric of the universe, the Eye of Harmony and covetous alien species.

This has been a fragmentary review of an episode which I enjoyed more than many but which nevertheless didn’t quite satisfy in the way that I had hoped. It didn’t feel as considered as The Day of the Doctor or even the first part of this trilogy, The Name of the Doctor. One wonders if there will be any consequences for the Doctor’s erasure of his tomb on Trenzalore; the discontinuity reconciler in me speculates that perhaps at some point someone – River? – established a false graveyard and a false TARDIS-tomb. It was, however, bold in conception even if the demands of the execution didn’t quite work, like a Christmas comedy show by almost anyone other than Morecambe and Wise. There was so much which could have been helped by a few additional lines of dialogue, or different intensity of performance. The central theme was just enough to carry the episode through to the regeneration itself, and all the performers made the very most of what they were given, but one hopes for a more assured set of Doctor Who episodes in the autumn.




The Doctor, The Widow and the WardrobeBookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 December 2011 - Written by Matt Hills
Written by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Broadcast on BBC One - 25 December 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Steven Moffat's second Christmas Special returns to his first love as a Doctor Who writer: the theme of motherhood. Rather than that eerie question “are you my mummy?” instead we get young Cyril Arwell's stubborn assertion that “mummy always comes” to the rescue. And in a spot of gender amending, the Doctor further sums up events in two words: “Mother Christmas!”. But before we get to the maternal love-in – with the “basecode of nature” used as justification for assorted meanings of plucky, fierce mother's love – this episode has plenty of (forested) ground to cover. For one thing, its title is misleading three times over: the wardrobe isn't actually a wardrobe, the widow isn't ultimately a widow, and the Doctor isn't quite himself either – he's the caretaker, hiding from his own legend, and keeping away from old friends.

This big festive episode also seems rather like the Who equivalent of a Christmas tree groaning under the weight of years' worth of different decorations – lots of shiny things are there on display, some of which you don't like, and some of which don't match. But if you look carefully, you'll always find something to delight. An impact suit that repairs its occupant; naturally-occurring Christmas trees; dancing chairs; a wintry forest wrapped in a TARDIS-blue gift box; wooden monsters who aren't really monsters. Androzani Major. Bill Bailey in a spaced-out hazard suit. Come on, admit it, that golden crown of fandom is starting to tingle and glow with life force. This is traditional rather than transitional Christmas Who fare, despite the fact that Piers Wenger hands over here to new queen bee exec-producer Caroline Skinner.

My favourite shiny bauble is the fact that at about 44 minutes in, and after a quiet moment where the geodesic sphere spaceship lifts off, we suddenly cut to what appears to be a 'clean' version of the end credits' time vortex (at least, we do in the “rough cut” that I'm reviewing, so fingers crossed that this makes it into the Christmas Day broadcast). Rather than the production team's names whizzing by in the smallest font in the universe, though, we pull back to see the Doctor watching through a triangular window. It's not the end credits at all, crashing in at the wrong moment, it's the time vortex that Madge is selflessly piloting them through. But just for the merest split second you can't help but imagine you're seeing the eleventh Doctor gazing out at the end of a Doctor Who episode. It's a great visual, as Arabella Weir's Billis might say.

Sadly, there is at least one major missed opportunity. It's a shame that after series six has focused on an under-developed and under-explored mother-daughter relationship, the values of being a mum can seemingly only be explored while Amy Pond is off the stage. Of course, all are well in the Arwell clan by episode's end, but I'd argue that Madge (wonderfully played by Claire Skinner) nevertheless gets more character development, and more plot beats surrounding her motherhood, than poor Amy Pond received in an arc's worth of material. It's as if Moffat can only really focus on developing wholly believable characters, and properly writing the mum thing, when he's not preoccupied with series arc plot-twists, or with which episode goes where in the run. Having said that, even the Doctor's emotional journey in this episode occasionally doesn't quite ring true: at certain moments he's clueless with feelings, but at other times he can effortlessly find just the right thing to say to Madge (“they are going to be sad later”). Part-time emotional intelligence guru, and part-time bumbler, perhaps this is a portrayal aiming for the “wise fool”, or the genius-child who can't understand his own feelings, but even so it still sometimes feels jarringly uneven.

If motherhood is a key presence here then so too, oddly enough, is water. This is a very wet Christmas Special. Following on from River and the Ponds, this time out we get “frightful” acid rain, a lemonade tap, a water pistol used as a carol-singing deterrent, and “humany wumany” happy crying in the Doctor's Christmas homecoming. Across the hour we move from a bombastic Star Wars-meets-James Bond pre-credits sequence (surely designed to make the audience sit up and pay attention) to a domestic Doctor-greets-the-Ponds ending. The latter could hardly be any less special effects' intensive, and you definitely have to pay careful attention to get it, as finally a glistening smear of “happy crying” appears below Matt Smith's left eye. People can't resist a door, and neither can the Time Lord as he crosses the threshold into Amy and Rory's home. For the eleventh Doctor, an ordinary front door can be just as much of a dimensional portal as his present to the Arwells – this time, it's a door which transports him into a new world of emotional wonder, and a newfound humanity.

The gimmicky wimmicky of “sciency wiency” workbenches or “humany wumany” crying might be wearing just a tiny bit thin by this point, I suspect, but no doubt it'll see us through to the forthcoming anniversary-wersary. Hold on to your hats, then, because the eleventh Doctor is growing up before our very eyes. He's very much linked to the children Lily and Cyril via his repeated “I know!” early on in this story, and he fails to be a proper (adult) caretaker, unlike Madge who he thanks for “taking care” of him. He even gets told off for not giving Amy and Rory a status update on his vital signs, with Matt Smith playing the “yes, Mum” scene to chastened perfection. But by the time the end-credits fly past, this Doctor is a little bit more of a time-travelling adult, and just a fraction closer to being a Time Lord grown-up. And the possibility of a return visit to Madge Arwell's life has also been deftly sketched in.

This Christmas Special isn't really about Narnia, or portals, or wooden aliens. All these things are, after all, just the decorations on the tree. Underneath the glitter of Farren Blackburn's direction (solid on The Fades and solid here), and underneath the glitz of Stephan Pehrsson's ongoing great work as DoP, this episode's roots and branches are infused with the magic of maternal care. Even the Doctor is “weak” in comparison, it would seem. Yet the TV “mothership” – Doctor Who itself – continues to be strong, even towards the end of a year where its spin-offs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures were either put on hold or came to an end, and where Doctor Who Confidential was abruptly consigned to television history. So many unhappy realities getting in the way of the fiction. Nobody should be alone at Christmas, but this year BBC Wales' Doctor Who is notably more alone in the schedules without all of its spin-off family, and if I were to shed a metaphorical tear for that fact then it'd be sad crying, not happy crying, which would glisten damply at the end of Who's 2011.




The Christmas InvasionBookmark and Share

Monday, 27 August 2007 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

After watching the first season of the new Doctor Who, I have to admit to often being disappointed in it. Granted, the show is quite often creative, well acted and has good production values. All well and good, but subjects have been added that have no place in a family program. I’m disappointed in the gutter morality being displayed, particularly in the off-color jokes that turn up in almost every episode. For a family show to discuss and joke about sexuality of all kinds is beyond the pale, particularly since that’s a topic best left to parents. I don’t care to hear the Doctor swear. That’s a very human habit, and the Doctor’s always been above that in the past. The constant intrusion of the author’s political views also grates, as does the moral equivalence that’s been drawn between the Doctor and his enemies on at least three occasions. All of this can be laid square at the feet of Russell T. Davies, executive producer and head writer.

All of which leads me to my point, that I now go into an RTD scripted episode expecting the worst and have to be won over. One may wonder just why I bother watching the show, and it may be that like my experience with the EDAs that culminated in the utter trash that was “Adventuress of Henrietta Street”, that there may come a point when I’ve had enough and drop the new series as well, as much as I’d rather not. However, to my relief, Mr. Davies has written a pretty good script when it comes to “The Christmas Invasion”. It has some of the same flaws as his other work, but on the whole it works rather well. Unfortunately, rather than being something entirely new, it is “Aliens of London/World War 3” told with more restraint. As such, if it wasn’t for the new Doctor it would feel very much like the retread that it is. The fact that I can actually take the Sycorax more seriously as a threat (“Sycorax rock” aside... ugh) than I could the Slitheen, and the fact that I’m interested in seeing how the Doctor is ultimately characterized keep me from feeling as if I’ve seen this all before.

“You’re drawing attention to yourself.” After umpteen-million invasions of Earth in the late 20th century, an alien invasion finally occurs that can’t be covered up. I find it difficult to believe that everything from Mondas itself approaching Earth to the Slitheen crashing through Big Ben have been covered up and explained away, but that was something that much of the old series didn’t handle any better than the new one, so I’ll let it go. The idea of an invasion that affects 1/3 of the Earth’s population and thus makes aliens an everyday fact of life for our planet is interesting to say the least, as is the long overdue fact that the Earth has salvaged alien technology that enables it to defend itself. As always with Doctor Who it’s a cut-rate invasion with just one ship, although thanks to CGI we have more than ten aliens. There is an armada mentioned but not seen. The ship itself is large and impressive, casting a foreboding shadow over London. The Sycorax themselves are very much like Klingons, aren’t they? They speak a harsh guttural language, are aggressive, bound by rules of combat, and fond of melee weapons. However their apparent belief in mysticism and ‘spell-casting’ set them apart from most aliens, and their stone spaceship that looks like a flying mountain is very distinctive, particularly when it’s casting a dark shadow over London. The blood control gambit to essentially hold the world hostage is another clever idea, and a reasonable way for a single spaceship to be an effective threat.

“Harriet Jones, Prime Minister”. Yes, we know who you are. This particular character was the best part of AOL/WW3 (possibly the only good part), and it’s very nice to see her again. She has a good rapport with her ‘right hand man’, and generally projects an air of confidence and strong leadership. Except of course when she gets on national TV and begs for help from the Doctor. I’m sorry, but no national leader with any pride is going to go on television and make themselves look weak. Jones’ decision to fire on the retreating Sycorax spacecraft is absolutely correct, and it’s disappointing to see the Doctor acting vindictive and childish. One hopes that she survives the no-confidence vote.

“He left me mom. He left me!” I’m of two minds about Rose. On the one hand, I have no patience with this Doctor/Rose unspoken romance nonsense, which leads me to roll my eyes when Rose pulls a jealous fit or gushes or cries over the Doctor. On the other hand, watching the Doctor regenerate must be very much like losing a close friend, and Rose’s grief at the loss is understandable. Rose herself helps to carry much of the episode while the Doctor is unconscious, and her attempt to ‘play the Doctor’ and bluff the Sycorax is highly amusing, as well as being admirable.

“Now I know what kind of man I am.” The Eccleston to Tennant change reminds me somewhat of the changeover from Pertwee to Baker, in that we’re going from an essentially straight and earnest portrayal of the Doctor to a more eccentric and humorous one. Tennant certainly seems to exude the Doctor’s characteristic eccentricity more easily than Eccleston did. On the other hand, he often seems to be walking a very thin line between playing the character seriously and trying to be Tom Baker at his most energetic, which simply isn’t going to work for anyone other than Tom Baker. An example of a good scene played well is the Doctor’s dispatch of the killer tree. Tennant is suitably sombre when wondering about the aliens who sent the tree, and then again when threatening them from the balcony. However once he steps out of the TARDIS on board the Sycorax ship, he veers perilously close to camp. In the face of numerous threatening armed aliens he takes time to walk around and greet Rose and Harriet Jones, worried more about his hair color than the threat. Of course, it’s just as absurd that the Sycorax allow him to get away with it. The sword fight is reasonable, and is in character for the Doctor. The severing of the Doctor’s hand is remarkably blood and pain free (and thus rather unconvincing), as well as instantly bringing to mind the severing of Luke Skywalker’s hand in The Empire Strikes Back. However, the ability of the Doctor to regrow his hand due to the lingering effects of his regeneration is pretty creative. The button on the side of the ship that collapses just the right wing section to allow the Sycorax champion to fall to his death is too incredibly convenient to be believable. Please, think these things through before they are commit ed to film!

The humor in this episode is sometimes crass, as seems to be RTD’s wont. There are a couple of instances that work very well however. The repeated use of “Harriet Jones, Prime Minister” joke pays off when even the Sycorax leader says “Yes, we know who you are.” The killer Christmas tree ought to be too stupid for words, but when it starts chopping through walls and furniture, accompanied by a sort of hyper-Jingle Bells musical score while Jackie screams “I’m going to be killed by a Christmas Treeeeeee” I just have to laugh. The Doctor’s sword fight in his pajamas is genuinely amusing and the revival of the Doctor with tea just feels exactly right.

Happy smiles and celebrations all around are cut short when Harriet Jones gives the order to destroy the retreating Sycorax ship. Her position is entirely reasonable given what the Sycorax have just done to Earth, and her argument that the Earth has to defend itself when the Doctor isn’t around is quite sound. Frankly the Doctor looks very petty and somewhat self-important when he takes his revenge and sets in motion events which hurt Jones’ status as Prime Minister. I suppose it’s okay for the Doctor to kill aliens who threaten Earth, but not for humans to defend themselves. It does make him look very hypocritical.

I enjoyed the sequence in the wardrobe where the Doctor chooses his new clothes. It’s nice to see more of the TARDIS than just the console room. It’s great to see the fourth Doctor’s burgundy scarf as a nod to the past. Tennant looks more Doctorish with his collar and tie and long coat than Eccleston did with his t-shirt and leather jacket, and I wonder if the pin-stripe suit is again, a bit of a tribute to Tom Baker, who seemed to wear such suits for a while back in the 90s. The Christmas dinner shows us a different side to this Doctor, who would not have sat around the table with the Tylers and Mickey before. The final scenes put a damper on the festive ending however, with ash instead of snow as the Sycorax ship burns up in the atmosphere.

Overall, a promising beginning for David Tennant. He needs to settle down and take things a bit more seriously, but he already fits the part better than Christopher Eccleston, despite the fine job Eccleston did. The story is yet another tiresome alien invasion of contemporary Earth, but at least it’s big and public and shakes up the status quo so that something new is brought into the mix. One of Russel Davies better attempts. Worth watching.





The Runaway BrideBookmark and Share

Monday, 25 December 2006 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

To start on a positive note, I’m glad to say that finally Tennant seems to be coming into his stride in the role of the Doctor – apart from one or two inappropriate bursts of manic energy, overall he gave a far more restrained performance than in many previous episodes, and I’m glad to see his hairstyle was more restrained too (combed flatly forward rather than gelled up into a spiky quiff as in the previous series).

This episode’s good points first (seeing as it’s the season of goodwill). The plot, though ludicrous, seemed fairly tight and to fit together adequately, with some attempt at explanations towards the end. The Queen of the Racnoss was well realised – if one overlooked the blatant black lipstick up close – bearing a passing resemblance to Tim Curry’s Devil in the Eighties film Willow. It would have been nice to have seen her scuttling about, but you can’t have everything. The Racnoss spaceship was well-designed too, and it was a nice festive juxtaposition to have it shimmering in the Cardiff night sky like a star. The Santas are always effective, even if rehashed from last year’s Christmas Invasion (they’re obviously freelancers too). There were occasionally strong and successfully witty exchanges of dialogue between the Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna, who didn’t turn out to be as irritating as she could have done. It was also nice to hear a mention of Gallifrey towards the end. The scenes with the Doctor showing Donna the creation of the universe was extremely well done, not rushed, quite slow-paced and very convincing – reminding me of the Fourth Doctor showing Sarah-Jane the devastation of Earth by Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars (though as opposed to Tom Baker’s gloomy gravitas in said scene, this time we get a slightly annoyingly enthusiastic and awestruck take from the current TARDIS incumbent. However, Tennant’s line about the human race’s way of making sense of the chaos with ‘Christmas trees and calendars’ was actually quite touching and accidentally poetic). And, even though I’m not really bothered about action scenes in Who, the TARDIS was put to very good – and pivotal – use, especially in the well realised taxi chase scene. In short, this episode, though ultimately superficial and camp (see below), is still an improvement on last year’s far more pedestrian and Star Trek-esque Christmas Invasion. This time, not a simple alien invasion, but something more intrinsic and complex – though why wasn’t the Queen flushed down the plughole, which would have been a nice touch, rather than blown up in her spaceship by a tank (cue the old UNIT denouement cop outs)?

On the downside – and with all RTD stories, there’s always one of these (bar perhaps Tooth and Claw) – the script, though fairly breezy and amusing in places, is still littered inevitably with legion popular culture references and maddening bursts of the very kind of mundanity one watches Dr Who to try to escape from. Yes, Lance’s mocking of Donna’s spoon-fed philistinism – so endemic a part of our modern culture – was admittedly quite funny, and yet RTD is not a writer who actually offers any really viably challenging alternative to such mediocre TV fodder, in spite of his holding free reign on one of the few series’ with potentiality to do this. This was exemplified by the complete crassness of the Big Brother scenario in the first series’ season finale – surely even Channel Four’s ratings for said ‘programme’ couldn’t ensure a four billion year run? (No doubt only the equally interminable Coronation Street could manage that). In short, RTD just can’t do polemic – or possibly can, but just can’t be bothered. Ironic then that a writer who consistently brings in banal pop culture references into his stories, and who opportunistically cashes in on the popular consciousness in terms of scenarios whenever he can (ie, Big Brother, Weakest Link and Trinny and Suzannah) – to save money on sets and time on the hard work of mapping out decent polemic – should in turn mock the very sources of his plagiarisms whenever the whim takes him. This is clearly a writer who doesn’t really take anything that seriously – including, unfortunately for us, Doctor Who. If he’s not pointlessly dragging in the most infuriating aspects of modern culture into the series (the Tylers, Kylie references and so on), he’s then sending them up and laughing at his own mock-creations (Jackie, Micky, Donna and so on). If the Graham Williams’ Whoniverse was like the Home Counties, then RTD’s is firmly entrenched in the peroxide blandness of Essex. Well, not all British people are from Essex – or Cardiff for that matter. Self-indulgence then is RTD’s greatest flaw. It sometimes seems as if he is making the series just to play to his mates over some beers.

Apart from one particular flourish of Gershwin-esque music at the Thames Embankment scene, which was fairly ok (though utterly ill-suited), Murray Gold has continued to excel himself with another truly atrocious and inappropriate score, dominating practically every scene so you sometimes have to strain to hear the dialogue (yes, I know Dominic Glyn and Mark Ayres used to do this too, but at least their scores were evocative and imaginative). I think Murray Gold is the lovechild of Keff McCulloch and whatever troglodyte bangs out the excruciating scores for Harry Potter. This is Doctor Who – not a Hollywood blockbuster! Some atmospheric music please – and less intrusively at that! Murray Gold should simply not be allowed to write another score again. He gets worse and worse and clearly has absolutely no feel for Doctor Who at all. His music is generic, tinny and dramatically dampening; it shows little originality or sign of true engagement with what he is scoring. It’s just bad music. Get rid of it.

The real solecism of this episode is of course the continuing re-emergence every now and then of the Doctor-Rose ‘romance’. This is just getting beyond the joke now. She’s gone for God’s sake. Just drop that thread – it was tedious and irrelevant anyway. The Doctor’s tearful look at the end of the episode when mentioning her name again could only be the expression of someone mourning a lost love affair – there’s no other way to interpret it, and apparently all concerned with the production of the programme today have absolutely no problem with this needless and undermining intrusion into the traditionally Sherlockian Doctor. Well, it’s a great pity it ever happened in the first place, and I just hope to God the same cheap plot device doesn’t resurface with the new companion in 2007. The writers just have to rise above such easy slush, and get on with decent story telling and more intelligent focus on the Doctor’s true character and nature.

What with heartache, a Doctor drooping like a lovelorn dog, stray brides and romantic flashbacks in discos… I don’t know. What’s going to be next? Four Daleks and a Funeral (well, he’s got those glasses)? Who, Actually? Well, we’ve already had Doctor in Love.

Overall then an inevitably break-neck and frivolous episode but admittedly fairly successful as pure children’s entertainment. And thankfully, apart from the slightly lewd comment from the Doctor whilst Tate’s cleavage bulged into view, ‘they’re bigger on the inside’, no other inappropriate sexual innuendoes were evident this run. Hopefully we’ve seen the end of the Kenneth Williams’ Doctor, and are going to see more of David Tennant’s from now on.