Doctor Who Series 10 - Episode 2 - SmileBookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who: Smile (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)
Doctor Who Series 10 Episode 2: Smile

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
With Kiran L. Dadlani, Mina Anwar, Ralf Little,
Kiran Shah, Craig Garner,
Kaizer Akhtar, Kalungi Ssebndeke

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Lawrence Gough
Produced by Peter Bennett
Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

This review contains spoilers.

 

The tenth twenty-first century series of Doctor Who has been keenly promoted as a new start, but it’s enthusiastic about showing it’s taken old lessons to heart. Smile follows the precedent of The End of the World by taking Bill to the far future, to have (recalling one of the promotional lines of 2005) an adventure in the human race. However, where The End of the World was a celebration of diversity within and beyond humanity, giving the Doctor and Rose a range of different beings to interact with in separate story branches, and a villain who did not appreciate the parable within her own narrative, Smile concentrates much more on how the Doctor and Bill react to each other in an environment where humanity is absent, memorialized by an environment intended to cater to human needs, the murderous machines built to help the last humans, and by the fertilizer made from the skeletons of the slaughtered.

Bill’s hope when setting off is to find that the future is a happy one. This is a change from her present, where study with the Doctor provides hope in a background of low aspiration and petty betrayals. The Doctor takes her somewhere which has supposedly discovered the secret of human happiness – and there’s an irony in that the colony building screams its optimism to the Doctor when there are no living (or at least awake) humans present. Bill doesn’t seem to be addicted to crisis and peril in the way that some of her predecessors have been, and Pearl Mackie conveys well her evolving assessments of the situation. Where Rose in The End of the World could phone her Mum when she needed reassurance that her world was still there, it’s the smell of rosemary in the nursery which reminds Bill of home, and that home is the student union rather than her foster mother’s. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who heroines tend to be detached from family much more than Russell T Davies’s earthly lead characters, and have a corresponding need to build alternative networks.

Bill’s search for belonging is not buried so far down as it was for Amy or Clara. Her distress at realizing that the colonists might be the last remnants of humanity bubbles up from Pearl Mackie like an unexpected hot spring on downland. Doctor Who has form for seeing companions bond with abandoned children, which arguably include since Listen the Doctor himself. Here it’s Praiseworthy whose awakening, soon after Bill’s discovery of (I presume) his dead grandmother, gives Bill someone to hope for, and whose protection is the catalyst for the story’s resolution. In the final TARDIS scene Bill has moved on from the abstract ideal of happiness to the more practical question ‘Is it going to work?’ before going on to tentatively accept responsibility with the Doctor for the ‘jump-start(ing of) a civilization’. Given that the Doctor knew the colony by its positive reputation. perhaps she already had her answer, but Bill is still the student working out these questions for herself, perhaps like the young audience at home. The episode sees another accessible, believable performance from Pearl Mackie, immediately well-established in Doctor Who’s soil without obvious need of ground skeletons.

Bill’s idealism is balanced by suspicion of deep-rooted prejudice. Her reaction to seeing that the Doctor has been served two algae cubes to her one is to ask whether this is ‘a bloke’s utopia’. However, her sense of the epic survives; even after the cryogenic units have been revealed and the Doctor has acknowledged that he was mistakenly going to blow up the human colonists, he calls the ‘shepherds’ who awoke first ‘those with (relevant) skills’. For Bill they are ‘the brave… the best’. Epic is important, with many of the colonists having names whose meanings are obvious to the listener. Like the warrior classes (at least) of early European cultures, their name patterns claim ownership of their own story. It’s a neat irony, and one which offsets any romanticization of colonization, that to survive the colonists end up having to pay rent to their servant caste. Back in 2003, Russell T Davies’s ‘pitch document’ for Doctor Who emphasized that it should be ‘pioneers’ who take viewers into space in the series, rather than alien creatures. It might be a leap too far to emphasise here the associations of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Steven Moffat with Liverpool and Glasgow, two of Britain’s biggest slave-trading ports, but the case is there for making that connection when considering the story’s shaping of the colonist narrative. Such stories inevitably express debts towards tales of settlement in the American West or in this case, with its intensive agriculture, the American South or European colonies in the Caribbean.  Admittedly, as transposed into Doctor Who, these tropes are rarely left uncriticized. Here the enslaved evolve into an indigenous people before the colonists can properly revive, leaving the claims of the colonizing culture hollow. The Vardy robot murders, however, fit less comfortably into a ‘slave revolt’ parallel, but instead suggest the futility of trying to second guess and avoid unhappiness. Perhaps everyone is on better terms with human folly by the end of the story.

So much of the episode is a two-hander between Bill and the Doctor, who gradually reveals more of his personality to her. Peter Capaldi continues in a much more relaxed portrayal of the Doctor which is much easier to watch than his disgruntled, tortured Time Lord of series eight or the most midlife crisis-ridden moments of series nine. He’s someone who enjoys his travels again, which have been cast in a new context now he is sworn to stay on Earth to protect the Vault. Capaldi enjoys or makes us enjoy the multiple levels of denial: the evasiveness, the childlike naughtiness – referring to Nardole as ‘Mum’ – and his insistence that he doesn’t set out to save the day, but just passes by and mucks in, delivered in a tone which suggests the Doctor barely convinces himself more than he fails to convince Bill. As Bill says, he’s a great tutor, but the Doctor’s lessons are often in what he does (or does not) rather than what he says. He’s careful not to betray his suspicions about the absence of people in the colony to Bill, who is too curious and too excited to look at the Doctor’s mood badge and see that he is considerably less happy than she is. At the same time, the Doctor wants to protect her from the horror of the situation, leading to a powerful variant of the ‘Let’s get back in the TARDIS and go’ trope. Here the Doctor pretends to himself that Bill will be happy watching movies in the TARDIS while he dodges the robots again to blow up the city, but at the same time he’s not disappointed that she rebels and comes with him. A tidy parallel is drawn between the mood badges and the sign on the TARDIS door. The Doctor denies that he travels the universe putting it to rights, but the TARDIS seeks out ‘urgent calls’ anyway where the Doctor can usefully provide advice and assistance. Smile provides a restatement of the Doctor-companion relationship – Bill’s sigh as she leaves the TARDIS reminds me of Sarah Jane Smith’s resigned plodding after the fourth Doctor as he sets off towards problems, or Turlough’s transfer of the Doctor to Peri’s care in Planet of Fire – ‘Look after him. He gets into the most terrible trouble’ – but nowadays the Doctor’s methods and assumptions are questioned much more, and rightly so.

I didn’t find the emojibots as ‘cute’ as I felt it was hoped the audience would. There was an innocence about them – they (and the Vardy robots they represented) wanted to smile, they were unhappy without people but unhappiest when people were incomprehensibly sad. They were more compelling when being sinister, staring out of windows balefully like figures in the 1980s Miss Marple television title sequence. Given that the entire city was made of Vardy robots I expected to feel it brooding a little more, but the light and architecture didn’t lend itself in that direction. Instead much matter-of-fact internal photography was broken into by slightly jarring shots, such as the view of the sun through the latticework of the glass roof, as if we’re looking up through a skeleton’s rib cage. The use of the City of Arts and Sciences in Smile plays with both architectural intention and alternative meanings derived from other angles. The Hemisfèric, according to its website, is intended to suggest a huge human eye but we never see it from an angle which would encourage that interpretation. Instead, it sometimes appears like a sunken, skeletized beast. Soaring optimism lives alongside inevitable decline; that the Wheel Turns (to recall Kinda) is a recurring part of Doctor Who. The robots’ loss of innocence, as they reveal they understand the concept of rent (and the pound sign has survived to Doctor Who’s far future) is the basis for a better society than one based on robot servitude.

There’s a contrast in the portrayal of the colonists themselves which could have been better managed. The introductory scenes featuring Kezzia and the Vardys outside in their pastoral idyll, celebrating the pollination of crops in a golden field under a blue sky, impress: one warms immediately to Kiran L. Dadlani, and once inside the city, Mina Anwar is a familiar and reliable television face who does not disappoint here. The costumes, with their suggestions of wings and gauze, suggest holiness but are only introduced when we know everything is going wrong: a tragedy in heaven. One could comfortably spend forty-five minutes with Kezzia and Goodthing, and the ease of their introduction and sudden dispatching is a greatly effective piece of misdirection. However, Ralf Little’s Steadfast and his fellow gun-toting revivees could come from an entirely different society. Their outfits aren’t co-ordinated and one doesn’t have the sense the production has the same grip on these characters than it did on the two Shepherds met and lost before the credits.

As with The Pilot, the script is dotted with odd nods back to earlier Doctor Who stories, particularly twenty-first century ones. These deliberate references seem to suggest that a phase of the series including both Russell T Davies’s era and that of Steven Moffat is coming to an end. The Doctor’s mention that an algae emperor ‘fancied me’ recalls the tenth Doctor’s memory of Martha in Partners in Crime, and we learn that yes, lots of planets have Scottish people claiming independence from everywhere they land. These are ironic takes but they suggest that the Doctor’s life and the programme’s is a little more complicated now than it once was: glibness has consequences. The Doctor’s method of winning at chess – knocking over the board – is dishearteningly similar to the gameplay of a neoliberal financier of which I’ve read, though The Curse of Fenric’s change of the rules so that the pawns join forces would have seemed as contrived as it did then and even more out of place. The references to The Ark in Space, indirectly through the Doctor’s expository dialogue, and directly through Steadfast’s self-identification as ‘Medtech One’, are nice in a vague sense of suggesting Doctor Who has a long-term scheme for human future history (though one would be hard-pressed to get anyone to agree on what it is) but it must jar for several long-term fans in that although there is an element of specialization depicted, Smile doesn’t quite portray the same kind of stratified society as that depicted on Space Station Nerva.

The most disconcerting features, though, were a couple of lines of dialogue. I’m not sure that the Doctor should be rubbishing a society which communicates through emojis as one for ‘vacuous teens’ – he’s more open-minded than that, surely? Towards the end, as the Vardy robots prepare to strike down the survivors of humanity, Bill has a redundant ‘What’s happening, Doctor?’ which doesn’t serve her previous character development well. This review is based on an advance viewing copy, watermarked as a work in progress, and I wouldn’t mourn those lines if it turned out they had not made it to the broadcast cut.

A more pleasing recall was the device of linking the second and third episodes together with a cliffhanger, as the TARDIS fails to return to the Doctor’s study and Nardole’s kettle but lands on the frozen Thames in Regency London and the Doctor and Bill are approached by a curious but not that threatening elephant through the presumably freezing fog. We go from a clinical and almost sterile environment to a cluttered one which pre-dates modern hygiene and where exotic animals replace robots. The Doctor’s magic haddock of fable (and the final, ‘face on’ view of the city as giant fish) is about to be realized as a more intentionally threatening undersea beast – or is the season catchphrase of ‘not evil, just different’ to be repeated?

Overall, Smile is a welcome addition to the series. It’s by no means as slow as I feared after reading the Radio Times preview, it uses its locations well, and cements the partnership between the Doctor and Bill, both adventurers in contrast with the cautious, rule-keeping Nardole, and where Bill’s wide-eyed enthusiasm reignites the Doctor’s interventionist wanderlust. It doesn’t always quite come together, but there are strong performances and ideas and design ideas which should keep an audience intrigued and entertained until the end of the episode, together with a not-heavily carried sense of myth, as might be expected from Frank Cottrell Boyce on the strength of In the Forest of the Night. The horror is depicted in a pre-watershed friendly way with enough grim humour to amuse enough of the audience while the youngest have the joke ‘skeleton crew’ explained to them. Perhaps it could all have been a little more buoyant, but on the whole Smile is dramatically convincing and sets the audience up well for next week.





The Return of Doctor Mysterio - Additional ReviewBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 December 2016 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Nardole (MATT LUCAS), Grant (JUSTIN CHATWIN) (Credit: BBC)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas, Justin Chatwin,Charity Wakefield, Tomiwa Edun and Aleksandar Jovanovic
Written by Steven Moffat
Executive produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Produced by Peter Bennett, Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Broadcast on BBC1, December 25th 2016
Again, Happy Christmas!!

The Doctor was back, briefly – and he was tripping across genre again and enjoying the dance. The decision to bring an American superhero into Doctor Who enabled the programme to reconnect with the contemporary and demonstrate that it still has that sense of humorous self-mockery British Book News remarked upon at the end of the 1970s, to the joy of Target Books and their blurb-writer. Much of the wit was extracted from the tension between the conventions of superherodom as presented by the story and the conventions which the Doctor seemed to think Doctor Who follows, while remaining aware that the two are not so different. It also – and far more successfully than The Husbands of River Song – extracted the twelfth Doctor from the shadow of the fiftieth anniversary year and from the intense presence (however appealing character or performer) of Clara. While the references to River Song and to UNIT and Osgood might have been designed to reassure committed viewers that the recent history of Doctor Who the programme was not being set aside after the Doctor’s twenty-four year night with River (neatly paralleled with his twelve month absence from television screens), they just kept to the right side of confusing entanglement for the Christmas Day viewer while looking to the wider television environment of streaming services and cyclical repeats where The Return of Doctor Mysterio will be watched minutes after The Husbands of River Song rather than a whole year.

I’d been cautious about the success of Doctor Who creating a televisual New York in Cardiff and Bulgaria, and the trailers and advance clips had somehow suggested a colder, grainier environment than I was used to from the gleaming adventure series, bright lights and sharp tonal contrast in so many American series. In the context of the whole, though, The Return of Doctor Mysterio did mount a credible New York, with its oddly warm green-white nighttime apartment set which could have been inhabited by characters from a realism-seeking police procedural, and most impressively of all the cityscape through which young Grant flew, the Doctor clinging to his heels, in the opening sequence. The Bulgaria-based New York streets compared favourably with locations in the superhero series with which The Return of Doctor Mysterio invited comparison, but Doctor Who’s sense of reality, at least here, was less dependent on the suggestion of a crowded Manhattan of people, businesses and criminals than on central pillars of emotional credibility.

Justin Chatwin’s Grant was a familiar Steven Moffat hero, a heterosexual man but uncertain in his relationships with the opposite sex and hiding behind masks literal and metaphorical in order to police desires he doesn’t know how to translate into reality. Moffat views the Doctor as part of this tribe, and his warnings that Grant shouldn’t repeat his mistakes recalled the Doctor’s advice to Young Kazran Sardick back in A Christmas Carol not to retreat to his bedroom and invent a new kind of screwdriver. Grant’s dogged professionalism in addressing Lucy by her married style when working as her nanny might seem odd given that he has known her since elementary school, but it’s another act of distancing and concealment. Charity Wakefield’s performance as Lucy complemented the worldview of Grant and the Doctor, combining a set of female attributes from male-viewpoint adventure stories – the reporter, motherhood, physical attractiveness, precise attention to dress sense, uncounterable authority – while still suggesting a believable person who could be represented differently by another narrative voice. Her deployment of torture by stress relief toy was played deadpan, admirably, and somehow represented Doctor Who's appeal across generations, So integrated was Wakefield's performance in the fiction that one of my family didn’t recognise her from Wolf Hall and assumed that she was an American guest star. Lucy was also a mask-wearer, of course, as Grant both recognised and did not recognise. Her shapeless grey dress, her date night red dress, as well as Grant's self-deprecating and self-deflecting casualwear and the Ghost's businesslike sculpted black costume made a starkly effective debut for new series costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

The Doctor was reintroduced as a man of action and legendary figure, both aspects in distress. Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is perhaps the most difficult to pin down because his range is so broad; here he was at his warmest and most magical, someone whom a child would trust, lightly delivering brutal put-downs, at ease with the contradictions of being both someone passing through with no ties and a self-acknowledged saviour of humanity with contacts in a planetary defence agency. Depicting the Doctor as a swinging pendulum in a window was a great sight gag, pun on Time Lord, and witty introduction to a child’s worldview. Moffat has compared the Doctor to Father Christmas before, in The Curse of Fatal Death and The Doctor Dances, but here it was both a way of emphasising young Grant’s naivety and literalness and setting up the way the episode performs a series of commentaries. I enjoyed the irony of the Doctor offering sardonic comments on superhero lore when his own contains its fair share of pretend science and unlikely transformations. It’s possible to read the Doctor’s insistence that the moment the superhero’s love interest – Lois in Superman, Lucy here – discovers the superhero’s secret identity, the story is over, as a criticism of the ensemble superhero television series of the present day. There, the superhero’s activities depend on the presence of a substantial back-up team fully aware of who he or she is. The Doctor might agree with this, but Nardole’s presence and explanation of the Doctor’s recent backstory to Grant and Lucy indicate that the episode itself does not. The probability is that Grant will continue his adventuring in a new context, backed up by Lucy and baby Jennifer. I've largely avoided reading other reviews while writing this one, but know I wasn't the only person imagining what shape a Ghost spin-off might take. However, more immediately this rejection of the idea of the hero - whether the Doctor or the Ghost - as lone saviour indicates that the Doctor, having lost Clara and River, needs to assemble his own new family. Nardole has been reattached sensitively and gently by Matt Lucas, and (as the first pre-credits ‘Coming Soon’ for a new season for some years stressed) we are soon to meet Bill.

Although unheralded as such, The Return of Doctor Mysterio might be seen in future years as bearing a similar relationship to The Husbands of River Song as The Woman Who Lived does to The Girl Who Died given comparable links of theme and characters. The head-opening secret society of Husbands now become the brain-removing Harmony Shoal, and receive development, becoming scheming villains rather than containers. The Doctor is working through, and out, loss both times, and preaches the embrace of change. This is more foreshadowing, both of the new companion for the new series and the new directions beyond as Steven Moffat yields the showrunner’s chair to Chris Chibnall. These are simple points made clearly for the Christmas Day audience who might have just finished dinner; it will be intriguing to see how a full series builds on them.





The Return of Doctor MysterioBookmark and Share

Sunday, 25 December 2016 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Doctor Who (PETER CAPALDI) (Credit: BBC)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Matt Lucas. Justin Chatwin
Charity Wakefield, Tomiwa Edun and Aleksandar Jovanovic
Written by Steven Moffat
Executive produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Produced by Peter Bennett, Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Broadcast on BBC1, December 25th 2016... Happy Christmas!

This review contains spoilers

 

I'll admit that I went into this year's Christmas Special with somewhat lowered expectations. The Children in Need clip had seemed a touch too stylised when viewed out of context, and then there'd been a surprisingly low-key trailer. Fan expectation can be a tricky superpower to handle, capable of spoiling things that would otherwise be appreciated when it blasts too high, and equally capable of casting a rosy glow over new episodes when set far lower. In this case, by not expecting too much I found myself savouring a wonderful Christmas present of Who, and a gift of a return from Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas.

For once, this Christmas Special isn't excessively garnished with festive trimmings, and it's all the better for it. Once an obligatory (and amusing) Santa reference is out of the way, we settle down to a loving homage to Superman, Superman: The Movie, and superheroes more generally, replete with lovely moments like a Shuster and Siegel name-check. And although the Doctor may not initially get how superheroes work, Steven Moffat's script is perfectly at home in this world of romantic comedy and wish fulfillment, even if he can't resist an assortment of X-ray vision jokes. "Light to moderate" excremental humour -- always a winner with the Christmas Day family audience, I suspect -- also slips by several times, with the "passing" of Grant's condition being a somewhat incongruous moment, especially as it places our favourite Time Lord in the role of an anxious parent awaiting... well, you know, that.

The flying effects and the Ghost's appearance appeared vaguely questionable in advance publicity but viewed in situ they are part of a beautifully-produced confection. 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' looks consistently impressive, and there can be little doubt that its budget is all right there on the screen; Peter Bennett deserves our Christmas cheers for his production work on this, as does Brian Minchin for his sterling exec-production. New York has rarely looked so New York-y, particularly given that it's all a matter of media trickery here; iconography that's been replayed so many times in movies, reduced to its visual essence, that the unreality has become convincingly TV-real. Additionally, we get an array of directorial and design flourishes to remind us that this is a comic book-inspired version of Doctor Who. Entering events via a comics page is apposite, especially as one panel appears to prefigure the Doctor clinging to Grant's window sill, suggesting that this entire story is an imagined version of a graphic novel. And we are treated to some comic book-effect split-screen roughly halfway through, another nice touch from director Ed Bazalgette. Then there are the coloured rectangular window panels that linger in the background of Harmony Shoal's office, representing yet more bright evocations of the comic book form. 

This isn't all comics callbacks and romcom sparkle, however. There are echoes of Christmas Specials past: the plummeting spacecraft (and this episode's overall tone) put me in mind of the brash and movie-referencing 'Voyage of the Damned'. At times, this story could almost be channelling Russell T. Davies at his most crowd-pleasing (shots of crowds looking up into the sky: check) and it knows exacty what it's doing. We also get small moments of real human feeling, crackling like popping candy in a Christmassy Heston Blumenthal creation. The "24 years" sequence is especially outstanding, and Peter Capaldi's delivery of "Everything ends. And it's always sad" shows that he doesn't need a big old monologue to dazzle. Slightly akin to Rogue One making you think differently about Star Wars: A New Hope, this speech (plus the return of Harmony Shoal/The Shoal of the Winter Harmony and Nardole) made me see 'The Husbands of River Song' in a different light. What had seemed rather forced last Christmas, for me anyway, took on a much greater depth when reassembled through the lenses of 'Doctor Mysterio'. Even Nardole, who I had found a little frustrating last time round, was a far more welcome presence as the Doctor's glued together companion. Matt Lucas's performance is uniformly excellent here, and bodes well for next season, I would say. Hiding a key plot point within Doctor-Nardole banter was cleverly done, as was the rapidly sketched-in sense that Nardole sees his role as one of caring for the Doctor. The character still needs further thickening and deepening, but I've no doubt that future scripts and performances will be well up to delivering on that. 

The Return of Doctor Mysterio  - Lucy Fletcher (CHARITY WAKEFIELD) (Credit: BBC)

In fact, all the guest stars work really well in this outing: Justin Chatwin is effectively cast in the "mild-mannered" Clark Kent/Superman role, and Charity Wakefield makes the most of portraying Lucy Fletcher, who at times displays a sharp sideline is sub-Sherlockian deduction. Chatwin's switching between a "superhero" gravelly voice and "civilian" voice helps to sell his character's secret identity, even if, as the Doctor acidly notes, some situations "are too stupid to be allowed to continue". And Steven Moffat revels in the twists and turns of misunderstanding that a superhero narrative can afford (when is the Marvel Cinematic Universe hiring him?). The ultimate reveal of the Ghost-as-Grant is cleverly integrated into the Doctor's plan to save the world, with these plots dovetailing neatly in a masterclass moment of scripting.

Are there any pitfalls to this Christmas offering? Harmony Shoal are resolutely B-movie-style opponents, albeit good fun, but perhaps Lucy's deployment of Mr. Huffle as an interrogation device is a step too far. It's different, for sure, but would the Doctor really respond to this kind of thing? Presumably, he's indulging Lucy as he recognises her cleverness, but Mr. Huffle still gets to be quite annoying quite quickly. Even as a plot device this is remarkably twee stuff. But if, as a reviewer, I'm reduced to complaining about such minor things then I'll happily take that.

With mentions for Osgood and UNIT, and retoolings of favoured Moffatisms (especially the "in one bound they startlingly move from mediated presence to live presence" shtick) this will no doubt repay plenty of repeat viewings. It's an episode that suggests Moffat has endings on his mind, as well as the fact that endings can simultaneously be new beginnings (unsurprising for a showrunner entering his last season in the role). Nowhere is this fixation more apparent than in the outstanding "Coming Soon" trailer affixed to the end of this broadcast which really deserves its own screen capped review. "Can I use the toilet?" may well be one of the most refreshing lines of dialogue I've ever heard in Doctor Who, bringing an unexpected strata of basic reality to the Whoniverse. Just when fans might be expecting Moffat to wind things up towards a grand finale, Bill's introduction feels like a breath of fresh air, as if we've suddenly been thrown into series one of a brand new show called Professor Who. "See the universe anew": there can't be many better Christmas gifts than that.

To my mind, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is one of the stronger Christmas Specials, successfully paying tribute to a genre that's long been an "anomaly" for the programme. Welcome back, Doctor, your unique superpowers have been missed.    





The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield Volume 3: The Unbound Universe (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 9 September 2016 - Reviewed by Richard Brinck-Johnsen
Bernice Summerfield: Volume Three - The Unbound Universe (Credit: Big Finish)Written by James Goss, Guy Adams, Una McCormack, Emma Reeves
Directed by Scott Handcock

Cast: Lisa Bowerman (Professor Bernice Summerfield), David Warner (The Doctor), Zeb Soanes (The Librarian), Guy Adams (The Sage of Sardner), Tom Webster (Acolyte Farnsworth), Rowena Cooper (Mother Superior), Alex Jordan (Mandeville/Kareem Chief/Acolyte), Sophie Wu (Millie), Julie Graham (Prime Minister 470), Damian Lynch (Ego), Kerry Gooderson (Megatz), Deirdre Mullins (Fleet Admiral Effenish), George Blagden (Colonel Neave), Richard Earl (Gallario), Aaron Neil (Aramatz), Laura Doddington (Idratz), Lizzie Hopley (Sister Christie), Shvorne Marls (Ampz), Gus Brown (Forz), Scott Handcock (Elevator) and Sam Kisgart as the Master

Big Finish Productions – Released August 2016 

The concept of teaming up Big Finish’s longest serving lead character Bernice Summerfield withDavid Warner’s alternative Third Doctor (first introduced the 2003 Unbound story Sympathy for the Devil and last heard in the 2008 sequel MastersofWar) sounds like the sort of idea that the Big Finish execs might have come up with out of desperation to think of something “new” to do with Benny. However, with the news that Warner’s Doctor would be coming out of retirement alongside the infamous ‘Sam Kisgart’* reprising his rather unique take on The Master, this box set has become one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year, even with the ongoing excitement of Big Finish’s new series tie-ins. This reviewer is therefore pleased to say that for the most part, this box set does not disappoint. Teaming upLisa Bowerman’s universe-weary Bernice with David Warner's Doctor and a different universe where she’s completely cut off from everything familiar proves to be just the innovation this range needed and definitely an improvement over the previous two volumes of “New Adventures”.

 

The box set opens with Bernice being totally unsurprised by the TARDIS’ appearance and commenting that the Doctor’s frequent reappearances in her life are like a “lazy Suzy” before realising that she’s facing an unfamiliar Doctor who has used her as part of a failed attempt to escape from his own dying universe. There is an instant chemistry between the two leads with Warner's Doctor showing a twinkle in his grumpiness that occasionally reminds of CapaldiJames Goss’ opening story The Library In The Body takes a concept from the early 1970s and puts a wholly unique twist on it, although the constantly singing nuns are a bit irritating. There are however nice turns from Radio 4 announcer Zeb Soanes as the Librarian and Rowena Cooper as the Mother Superior.

Planet X by Guy Adams sees the Doctor and Bernice arrive on a planet supposedly so boring that no one could be bothered to name it properly. What they instead discover is a totalitarian society ruled over by none other than Julie Graham in wonderfully sinister form as Prime Minister 470. As the Doctor takes it upon himself to bring the Prime Minister’s regime to an end, Bernice is teamed up with ‘Millie’, an ordinary citizen who learns to experience genuine emotions for the first time, very believably played by Sophie Wu.

Una McCormack’s The Very Dark Thing picks up the story sometime later with the Doctor apparently sat by a river doing nothing on the idyllic world of Tramatz which is apparently being terrorised by unicorns. At the heart of this story is the revelation that the unbound universe is suffering from the aftermath of a cataclysmic event not entirely dissimilar to the Time War, except this time there are no Daleks involved.

This box set concludes with Emma ReevesThe Emporium At The End, in which Bernice and the Doctor find themselves apparently facing the very end of existence as everyone attempts to escape with the apparent help of a sinister individual known only as “the manager”. Rather frustratingly, the Doctor never quite manages to fully recognise his old enemy and as Bernice has never encountered the Master before she is unable to provide enlightenment. However, it is to be hoped that we’ve not heard the last of Sam Kisgart’s memorable incarnation. Bernice shares some great scenes with the manager and the Mother Superior returning from the first story in this set.

This is a very enjoyable box set with excellent music composed by Jamie Robertson. Particular kudos should also go to Blair Mowat for his unique arrangement of the Doctor Who theme tune which genuinely sounds as if it might have been composed in an alternative version of the 1970s. Lisa Bowerman and David Warner make a fun team and it is rather pleasing that the door has been left open for them to have more adventures in the unbound universe before Bernice returns home. Yet another reason to look forward with eager anticipation to Big Finish’s output for 2017.

 

*The behind the scenes disc includes a lengthy discussion on Kisgart's career, for listeners who haven't tired of the joke by this stage an extended version of the interview with Kisgart was featured in a recent Big Finish podcast. 





Doctor Who: Night Terrors (review 2)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 3 September 2011 - Written by Emma Hyam
Written by Emma Hyam

Doctor Who: Series Six - Night Terrors
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Richard Clark
Broadcast on BBC1 - 3rd September 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Since its return Doctor Who has gone to great pains to show us the money. Huge, sweeping alien vistas, strange new races and intergalactic space stations, but every so often we're reminded about the ordinary scariness of the everyday.

With Night Terrors Mark Gatiss takes the story of a seemingly ordinary little boy who is afraid of the monsters in his wardrobe and brings his characteristic flair for the macabre to the proceedings. The episode is wonderfully atmospheric, with lingering shots of cracks in doors and long, empty hallways ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The decision to set the episode in what Amy wonderfully calls "Planet Eastenders" was a brilliant one, an air of urban menace pervades the show, the people on the estate live in their own little boxes, deep down as terrified of their own surroundings and the "monsters" as little George is.

As well as the atmospherics of the show, the other stand out must be the guest performance from Daniel Mays, most recently the best thing in the otherwise forgettable "Outcasts" he turns in another excellent showing as a Dad at the end of his tether with his son. He provides an excellent counterpoint to a typically mile-a-minute Doctor who was also on great form. In another nod to Who tradition Amy and Rory are largely separated from the main action, with an nice little acknowledgement to the audience as Rory wonders if hes dead yet again!

This is a very simple tale, I feel a more than a few will find it too simple for them, the story itself is very reminiscent of Who episodes like Blink and Fear Her with the dolls immediately bringing to my mind the Clockwork Droids of The Girl In The Fireplace. The old standard explanation of "the perception filter" is wheeled out for another airing, the formerly clever idea is now getting slightly worn out with over use. While it was nice to get away from the River Song story line for an episode, I found it a little irritating that they felt the need to shoe horn in a shot of the Doctor's death date, as if it would have slipped the viewers mind in the intervening week. That being said I feel that conversely some fans will find the lack of River Song action just as irritating.

Overall I personally found the change of pace refreshing, the direction of the episode really allowed the ideas to breathe and allowed the viewer to reflect on what was happening on screen. After the frenetic pace of Lets Kill Hitler a return to a good old slow burn horror story shows off the versatility and range of Doctor Who. At the end of the day The Doctor came to town, saved a family and was magnificent in doing so and rather brilliantly I think theres going to be more than a few kids refusing to go to bed on Saturday night.

As it should be.








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