Thin IceBookmark and Share

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

Doctor Who - Series 10, Episode 3: THIN ICE

STARRING: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas

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


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

Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

First Shown on BBC 1 - 29th April 2017

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Jon Hall)

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

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

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

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

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


OVERALL ASSESSMENT:

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

 





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 Pirate Planet - Novelisation/ AudioBookBookmark and Share

Thursday, 5 January 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Pirate Planet (novel) (Credit: BBC Books)
Written By: James Goss
Based On The TV Serial By: Douglas Adams
Released By BBC Books: 5th January 2017

Audiobook Read By: Jon Culshaw
10 CDS/ Audio Download
Running Time: 11 Hours, 22 Minutes

Once in a blue moon, the hardworking, devout people of Zanak experience a 'new golden age of prosperity'. The stars in the night sky suddenly change position, and the economy skyrockets. The natives are assured by their mysterious leader - The Captain - that all this is part of a grand design.

But there is an outlier group of which the are wary, contemptuous, even scared. The Mourners. Looking decidedly pale and skinny, they always wander together, and can bring only trouble. Luckily, the Captain's many armed guards are there to ensure that there is no breach of the peace.

Now enter three odd individuals, in Zanak's main city, with no warning or announcement. The seeming leader is a toothy, excitable extrovert, with a long scarf and curly hair. With him is a somewhat younger-looking woman, much more smartly dressed, with beautiful looks, and a keen intelligence. And lastly, is a diminutive metallic creature, that has a red visor instead of eyes, a little tail that sways side-to-side, and a rather more impressive nose-laser.

The Doctor, Romana, and K9 - as they call themselves - soon make an alliance with a young couple. The male is Kimus: earnest, dedicated and open-minded. The female is Mula: thoughtful, pragmatic and diligent. This in turn leads to the Mourners becoming more engaged in the future of their world, knowing that suddenly a missing piece of information may be missing no more.

Soon enough, the mystique over the Captain evaporates. He is far more machine than man, and with a decidedly twisted sense of humour. But he has a plan or three in motion, and many cards in his deck to play. Zanak, and the wider universe, may both end up facing a change of cataclysmic proportions..


This joint release of both book and audio release sees the completion of the Fourth Doctor era into novel form. For many years, three stories were outstanding, and the common denominator was that Douglas Adams wrote the scripts. In the case of The Pirate Planet, Adams was still an unknown quantity in the wider world when first pitching his first contribution to Doctor Who. By the time this second story of Season 16 - or 'The Key To Time' arc - was transmitted, Adams' other work for the BBC - The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - steadily became a sensation, and eventually a global phenomenon.

Anthony Read was responsible for editing Adams' scripts into a makeable BBC production. He also made it build on The Ribos Operation, in developing new companion Romana. She was only the second Gallifreyan to assist the Doctor, after his own granddaughter Susan. The story also had to present a different kind of mystery over which item was the segment of The Key to Time.

Later on, Adams would take over from Read, and oversee Season 17 (which suffered especially from industrial strikes). Eventually, he realised he could not focus on both primetime TV, and further contributions to his 'baby boomer' Hitchhikers. Such was Adams' disconnect from Doctor Who, that none of his three major stories were adapted until very recently. (However he did introduce close friend, and second Romana, Lalla Ward to her eventual husband Richard Dawkins). Shada was the last of those three, but hit bookshelves first, with the aid of Gareth Roberts. More recently in 2015, the much-loved City Of Death was also converted into a richly detailed novel.

This new effort has the same author as City, in the form of experienced writer James Goss. Although The Pirate Planet was four episodes long, this book comes in at 400 pages plus - which is considerably more. Goss has clearly taken inspiration from Adams over the years, in becoming himself a successful author, and he decides to put as much of the original script (and related notes) as can fit. This means that this is one of the longest works of Who fiction, and it lacks the pace of action-adventure that is found in both the majority of the classic, as well as the modern, TV format.

Yet, most who are familiar with the TV original must concede that whilst great fun, it is not the strongest production, and really could have done with an American TV budget. Pennant Roberts has done great work for other TV shows, but few would call any of his Who work first-rate. The cast were not all stellar in their readings, with Kimus, Mula and the Mentiads being decidedly bland. This production and acting hurdle is removed entirely here.

The book does some excellent work in making the villains even more interesting. It gives them backstory, and motivation, that is rare to find in most Doctor Who books; and I include some of the best original novels in making that statement. The Captain is portrayed as a lot more intimidating, and macabre in design, as well as having a longevity which is mind-boggling. This also makes the subplot involving his subservience to Xanxia that much more emotive and engaging. The Polyphase Avitron becomes a much more intriguing monster, in contrast to the cod pirate parrot of TV. Goss evokes real sense of dread over the Captain's pet, and makes its lethal potential more credible and unpleasant in nature.

Xanxia - otherwise simply known as 'The Nurse' - is expertly introduced into the narrative. She appears to be someone that could help the Doctor and Romana. How wrong their impressions of her turn out to be! When the facade has fully receded, there is one of Kimus' better moments, in terms of showing some steely resolve. Also good, is the use of novel 'budget' (and reader imagination), as the Nurse suddenly is adorned in royal robes, thanks to the unique nature of her existence.

Mr Fibuli is a touch more likable than in the TV original, and there is little evidence of moustache-twirling cruelty, compared to his sneer and chuckle at the end of Episode Three. He has some inner thoughts that are very 'Everyman', and his brilliant engineering skills feel more layman too. Fibuli's constant awareness that he is replaceable - like any of the Captain's underlings - mean readers care for what fate befalls him. As it turns out, there is a heavy does of irony concerning this end-point, in conjunction with the final chapters' foreboding and tense action.

Although my synopsis suggested the guards were respected, even admired, by the (mostly faceless) Zanak citizens, both this novelisation and the TV story frequently take pokes at them for being witless and predictable. All the same, they are not to be taken as completely benign, and do sometimes make a successful capture, or take out a do-gooder with a well-aimed shot.

Of course, Goss seizes the opportunity to do some nice work with getting inside the heads of heroes as well, and that very much includes K9. The Fourth Doctor is relatively easy to write for, but few can really make him truly surprising and electric on page in a manner that the legendary Tom Baker could on-screen. Luckily, Goss is very much in that select group. The much-celebrated clash of "It is not a toy!" / "Then what is it for?!" is lovingly expanded on, and probably is the highlight of the entire book.

The Pirate Planet (audiobook) (Credit: BBC Audio)There is plenty of good material for Romana too, as she shows promise that would make her a long-staying companion, and eventually do great things for both E-Space, and Gallifrey itself. She is quick to learn, proactive, and consistently helpful to the Doctor. This sometimes makes the much older time traveller rather defensive. At one point he convinces her to complete a massive timetable, but barely achieves the delay effect he wanted it to. Nonetheless, she still is made to appreciate the Doctor's genius and quick wits, when he is forced to think of a solution to both the threat facing the universe, as well as the key objective of locating the Segment.  

K9 is of course secondary to the interpersonal drama, but still a personality; one that has emotions concerning tasks, and opinions regarding those he encounters. His one word summations on his 'owners' would be "odd" and "logical" respectively. The metal mutt's inner thoughts are generally the more light-hearted moments of the book/audio-reading.  

And now, time to recognise just how good an audio release this is, for both casual fans, and die-hards alike. Jon Culshaw has never done anything routine, forced, or ordinary to the best of my knowledge, (perhaps with the exception of singing on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy). Even with the weight of ten CDs, or eleven-and-a-half hours of running time, he puts in a wonderful solo performance. There is especially good use of third-person/first-person blending, which means that listeners can be caught out, thinking Culshaw will be talk in his own steady and affable manner, when reading Goss' prose. Much of the music gives this long story clout too. There are subtle strands, and a much more bombastic sense of 'What's Next?' upon the close of another chapter. 
 
I however need to come back to my point on the page count/ running time. This is possibly a case of Goss just slightly getting the balance between quality and detail wrong. The first half of the book, whilst not totally ponderous, does feel slow on several occasions. There are some digressions that display Adams' wit, and thoughtful wonderment at a vast interconnected cosmos, but they do not all feel as organic as in the Hitchhiker's novels (which admittedly used a guide book as the framing device). Thus some passages/moments outstay their welcome. Most odd is the sense of a Season 22 story opening, in that the TARDIS crew take an age to land on Zanak, and get involved.

Nonetheless, the final half of this novelisation  - especially the final third - is so much more urgent and gripping. It particularly delights in improving on the somewhat absurd Episode Three cliffhanger, by having a homage to the modern-day use of TARDIS in-flight to save a falling victim. Also, there is a very funny moment where the Doctor, in deep, deep trouble, thinks how clever it would be to rig a hologram. Thus when he actually does it, it banishes all feelings of indifference over the implausible onscreen execution.

One change I have more mixed feelings over, is the use of the 'Mourners' title, rather than 'Mentiads', which both sounded mysterious and ominous, yet also very funny depending on the particular dialogue context. At least there is much more back-story, and insight into their transformation, and also their "vengeance for the crimes of Zanak". Especially worthwhile is the detail on how Pralix's father was shot down, not long after he transitioned into being one of the select group. This means that the rather dour supporting character is now an angel of retribution, for both the planets and his own lost parent. There also is a change-up in making the Mourners mixed-gender, with at least one of them being female. This elder Mourner is given a few evocative moments in the narrative, helping reinforce how much more progressive Doctor Who was for women in the Graham Williams era, than it had ever been hitherto.


In sum, this is a very important book for anyone trying to get more insight into the Tom Baker period of the show - one which has been analysed and critiqued for many years now. It has a sense of something old, but also something new, and deserves at least being explored in either print or audio reading, if not both. A compression of gems, that is indeed most rich.



Associated Products

Books
Released 13 Sep 2016
36% off
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (TV Soundtrack)
Books
Released 14 Mar 2017
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet
$13.06



City of Death (Novelisation/AudioBook)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 22 June 2015 -  
 
City of Death (Credit: BBC Books)
Written by James Goss
Based on the script by Douglas Adams
Based on a story by David Fisher
Released by BBC Books, 21 May 2015

City of Death (audio book) (Credit: BBC Audio)
Read by Lalla Ward
Released by BBC Audio, 21 May 2015
Paris, 1979.

For many Doctor Who fans there is only one thing that sentence can possibly mean. For that place and that time are (mostly) the setting for a story from Tom Baker’s penultimate season – and it happens to be a story which is often considered to be one of the all-time greats in the history of the show. Fast-forward (or fast return, it all depends on your point of view) to 2015 and an all-new novelisation of the serial has arrived on bookshelves under the authorship of James Goss. But to see exactly how this came about, we need to step back a little.

2012 saw the release of a novelisation of another Season 17 story, Shada. But there was one big difference: Shada was never finished and thus never transmitted. So that novel, written by Gareth Roberts, actually provides one of our only means of experiencing the story as a complete entity. It was considered a great success, and paved the way for a further book adaptation of another Douglas Adams script which, likewise, had never been novelised.

Enter City of Death.

While these books share a common heritage, then, this latest one has an issue all of its own to contend with. Unlike Shada, City of Death exists in its entirety as a TV serial produced three-and-a-half decades ago. Which raises the question: how far does the book stray from the established path that so many people know and love? Well, the finished novel achieves a brilliant balance.

Perhaps the most important thing to be aware of is that although a considerable amount of the dialogue is recognisable from the story as we know it, Goss has used the original rehearsal scripts as the basis for his novel. This means that while the story is fundamentally unchanged, much of the dialogue and action is either new (deleted from the finished TV show) or different to some extent from how it turned out on screen. The result is quite fascinating. In addition, of course, Goss has embellished and added even further to the story, and this is in evidence almost immediately. To cite an early example, the Doctor and Romana’s first visit to the Louvre is entirely familiar and yet radically different.

The book’s first chapter contains some of its most notable deviations from the televised original (and in this sense you could argue that the first chapter is the book’s most atypical), but this turns out to be a masterstroke. Before we see the Doctor and Romana in Paris (and no, this is no longer their first appearance in the novel) the book does what only a book can: it elaborates substantially on the backstory of almost any character you could care to mention, not just through dialogue but also by transporting the reader into the minds of the characters themselves. For readers familiar with the original material, this makes for a hugely eye-opening introduction to this new interpretation of the story. It has to be said that for those who aren’t as overly acquainted with City of Death, the first chapter could perhaps be a little less effective – not quite so much of a ‘hook’ into the novel, but taking on much more meaning by the time of its conclusion.

As the book progresses and catches up with the narrative of the original TV episodes, that’s where the benefits of the written medium become very clear. Goss’ writing is rich, witty and compelling, not only a superb homage to the late Douglas Adams (indeed, a number of phrases in the book originate from stage directions in the scripts themselves, but except for the examples given in the notes at the back of the book you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the Adams from the Goss – the language is incredibly consistent and harmonious throughout) but also a match made in heaven with the story itself. If there’s any TV serial which particularly suits being made into a novel, it must be this one; one of the most evocative Doctor Who stories becomes one of the most evocative Doctor Who books. It isn’t entirely hyperbolic to say that for a short while, when the pages of this book are open, it’s not too difficult to imagine that you might be in Paris (especially if you have the fortune to actually be in Paris).

Also available is an unabridged audiobook release of City of Death. Read by Lalla Ward (Romana) and running to around nine hours and forty-five minutes, the audiobook is an enjoyable way to experience the story and has a character all of its own. Ward’s reading is sharp, clear and well-performed, and the release also takes the opportunity to spruce up the soundscape via the careful use of sound effects. This definitely improves the overall listening experience while remaining restrained and respectful to the underlying material. But because the audiobook obviously runs at a pre-determined pace, there are a few moments which seem to pass by slightly too quickly – not major plot elements, but some of the subtleties of the writing which don’t have the chance to sink in as well, compared to reading the book at your own pace. Ultimately this comes down to personal preference, but having experienced both the hardback and the audiobook, the former did seem more satisfying overall, even though the audio release is still great fun in its own right.

For more than three decades, City of Death has been (no pun intended) a closed book. Four episodes of a television show which has been on our screens – on and off – for over fifty years. But serendipitously, the fact that the story is among those never to have been originally novelised has opened the door for this tremendous new book; at once a fresh reworking and a faithful retelling of a classic adventure. If there’s one reason to buy it, it’s that once you’ve read the book the story will never be the same again. Frankly, after finishing the book it feels like the TV episodes have lots of bits missing. Bits which, just for a moment, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d actually seen performed by the actors in 1979. Events in the original (some of which don’t really make a great deal of sense, with hindsight) are justified and explored, often without even being changed to any significant extent. City of Death is now an even richer and more satisfying story than ever before, and it’s a sheer delight that Season 16’s The Pirate Planet is set to receive the book treatment (once again from Goss) next year. Who says you can’t improve on perfection?
 




The Three DoctorsBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 January 2014 - Reviewed by Remy Hagedorn

Last November, Doctor Who aired with its 50th of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, starring alongside his successor Matt Smith, and a previously unheard version of the doctor, played by John Hurt. However, this anniversary special was not the first time multiple versions of the doctor were seen together. 

The year was 1973, and to celebrate the 10th William Hartnell (The First Doctor) and Patrick Troughton (The Second Doctor) joined forces with the Third Doctor, and helped defeat a foe known only as “Omega” (Insert picture of the 3 Doctor’s around this point in the review)The special was a smashing success, and considering the budget that the show had to work with back in the day, nobody could have made a better way to celebrate 10 fabulous years of Doctor Who!

When you watch the special, the way the Second Doctor and the Third Doctor clash is incredible! The two characters have very different personalities, and the way they argue with each other is amazing! In one instance, instead of teaming up to save the universe, the second and third doctor keep on arguing with each other inside the  TARDIS about the importance of finding the Second Doctor’s recorder. The Third  Doctor wants to save the universe, but the Second Doctor refuses to co-operate  until his recorder has been found. The two characters are complete opposites, and  Terrance Dicks couldn’t have made a better script to depict the hatred they feel  towards each other! 

On the other hand though, The Three Doctor’s could have been a lot better if it actually HAD three doctors in it. William Hartnell was very ill at the time, and his  role was reduced considerably down to just a few short cameo appearances. His  absence is definitely noticeable during the duration of the special, and it is a shame we did not get to see more of him. 

On another note, Omega, the main antagonist, was a great villain. Stephen Thorn's performance  was remarkable! So remarkable, that the writers of Doctor Who brought back the  character in the 1980’s story “Ark of Infinity”. The character has a terrible temper,  and wants revenge on the Timelords. His anger is what motivates him, and is what  causes him his near death at the end of the special. 

However, there were definitely some dull moments in the story, and the special  effects were terrible. For example, the anti-matter organism that Omega uses as a  bridge between the two universes, just looks like a giant blob made up of different  colours. It looks like they made this effect by taking the storyboard frames one by  one, and spilling some tropical juice over them.

But despite the minor flaws this story may have, it is definitely worth seeing. For  those fans that have never watched the original series, but want to try, this is for  sure a story you want to start with. Unlike “The Trial of a Timelord” which has 14  parts to it, this is a nice small serial that is made up of only 4. Not too long, not too  short, and is something that the whole family can enjoy, no matter what your age may be!  





Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways at the BFIBookmark and Share

Monday, 26 August 2013 - Reviewed by Anthony Weight
When the British Film Institute announced their series of monthly screenings throughout 2013 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, I thought that they sounded like a nice idea, but I wasn’t particularly fussed about attending any of them myself. I hadn’t been to any Doctor Who events for a very long time, and thought that they weren’t necessarily my sort of thing.

However, last month I had the opportunity to attend the Remembrance of the Daleks event, and I absolutely loved it. The chance to watch a great Doctor Who story on the big screen, with a large and enthusiastic audience who love the series just as much as you do, and to hear more from some of the people who made it happen with the interview panel afterwards… I was hooked, and despite having come to these BFI events rather late in the series, was determined to try and get to more of them before the end of the year.

I was very fortunate, then, to be able to pick up a couple of returns on the BFI website in the week leading up to the Ninth Doctor event, and went along with a good friend of mine on Saturday to enjoy that Doctor's grand finale, the two-parter Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. The observant among you will have spotted that this is the Ninth Doctor, but in the eighth month. Presumably due to the availability of guests for the screenings, they’ve got a little out of order now, with the David Tennant event following next month, and Paul McGann finally getting his moment at the beginning of October. At the beginning of this month’s event, compère Justin Johnson announced that both Tennant and McGann will be attending their respective screenings.

Probably to nobody’s great surprise, there was no appearance from Christopher Eccleston at this month’s showing, although he did send along a note for Johnson to read out before Bad Wolf. It was short, but definitely sweet, and although Eccleston doesn’t often make any statements or appearances related to his period with Doctor Who, you do sense that he remains proud of his time on the series and the work that he did to help establish its successful return. In his note, Eccleston joked that if Joe Ahearne – who directed the two episodes being screened – were to return for the 100th anniversary special in 2063, he’d take part and bring his stair-lift, providing the Daleks do not bring theirs!

You do sense that there was a great bond formed between Ahearne and Eccleston during the five episodes of Doctor Who which they made together. Ahearne, remember, wrote to The Guardian to rebuke those who’d criticised Eccleston for his departure from the show after only one year, and he and Eccleston collaborated on the ITV drama Perfect Parents soon after their work on Doctor Who. Ahearne has rightly won many plaudits from fans down the years for his work on the 2005 series, but has oddly never returned to the show. It does make you wonder whether the fact that Eccleston left has anything to do with his not wanting to come back and do more, but sadly during the question-and-answer session which followed the interview panel, nobody put that one to him – and I wasn’t brave enough to ask him myself!

Nonetheless, Ahearne did give many interesting insights, such as his observation that Doctor Who was a pleasure to work on because it was one of the few British television dramas of the time where the camera could help to tell the story, rather than just being pointed at people having conversations in kitchens. And he did dispel the long-standing fan myth about his having been born on November 23rd 1963 – not true, evidently!

Representing the actors of the Ninth Doctor’s era was Bruno Langley, who played short-term companion Adam Mitchell in Dalek and The Long Game. I felt a little sorry for Langley, as there wasn’t a great deal for him to say, given the fact that he wasn’t actually in the two episodes being screened. Nonetheless, he came across as likeable enough, and another person proud to have been associated with Doctor Who.

Also present as a guest was visual effects supremo Dave Houghton, who was interviewed between the two episodes, and it’s odd to hear someone from that side of things talk about how much more can be done these days – we’re used to hearing those who worked on the classic series day that, but these 2005 episodes themselves are now starting to seem old!

There is no question, however, that both the interview panel and the question-and-answer session were dominated by day’s other guest – Phil Collinson, who was the producer of Doctor Who when it returned in 2005. Collinson is, of course, an old-school, dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Who fan, but he was also the sure head and steady hand who made sure that the whole thing didn’t fall to pieces in those early days when nobody had made a series like this in the UK for so very long, schedules were falling behind and elements both inside and outside of the BBC were predicting an embarrassment. It was anything but, of course, as Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways go to show.

Collinson was a witty, informative and hugely enthusiastic guest, proud not just of these two episodes, not even just of his era, but of all of Doctor Who. Even after everything that’s been said and written about the show and how it is made, he still had some fascinating new insights, too – such as the fact that the first cut of Rose, the first episode of the new series, came in at a mere 28 minutes, necessitating some frantic additions and reworking!

On a technical level, while it was very impressive to see the episodes on a film-sized screen, oddly I thought that they didn’t stand up to it quite as well as Remembrance of the Daleks last month. I don’t know if it’s because I was sitting nearer the front this time, or whether it’s an artefact of the field-pairing process used to ‘filmise’ the video, or simply my imagination, but I thought that the jagged edges you’d expect when 625-line video is blown-up to cinema-screen size were more apparent.

Perhaps it was simply the contrast with some of the high definition Matt Smith-era material we’d seen only a few moments before, when we were treated to a sneak preview of a montage from BBC One’s Doctor Who Prom broadcast. On the basis of that, I’d expect An Adventure in Space and Time and whatever 11th Doctor story is chosen to look fabulously lush on their showings here at the BFI.

Such quibbles aside, I can only thank the BFI once again for putting on this series of celebrations for Doctor Who’s anniversary, and repeat my recommendation from my Remembrance of the Daleks review that if you have the chance to attend one of these events, you should grab it with both hands.
Paul Hayes







DOCTOR WHO NEWS - REVIEW IS COPYRIGHT © 2017 NEWS IN TIME AND SPACE LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
DOCTOR WHO IS COPYRIGHT © BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION (BBC) 1963, 2017.
NO INFRINGEMENT OF THIS COPYRIGHT IS EITHER IMPLIED OR INTENDED.