OxygenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 13 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Oxygen: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Des Willie))

Space, the final frontier - these are the opening words of Oxygen, spoken by the Doctor, over a stark visual of two individuals floating lifelessly in space. The monologue might be an homage to that other long-lived sci-fi show, it sums up this episode perfectly. In space, we need oxygen to survive. Welcome to a universe where oxygen is a commodity. It makes perfect sense. In space, oxygen is just about the single most precious thing there is. Welcome to Oxygen.

 

BEWARE - THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS.

 

The pre-credits sequence has to be one of the creepiest yet. We find two people working their way around the exterior of a spaceship, their oxygen running dangerously low. One sees a shadow of something that is behind them flickering across a bulkhead. She turns and sees zombies, lurching zombies in helmet-less space suits, looming towards her through the dark vacuum arms outstretched. Her companion turns to see what is happening and sees that she is also now a zombie and is clawing mercilessly towards him . And then Murray Gold's theme kicks in.

Back on Earth the Doctor is meant to be giving a lecture on crop rotation, but is actually,  quite aptly, giving a lecture on the effects of space on the human body. This is quite a handy and very timely lecture that will become a practical experience later in the story.

Oxygen: Bill (Pearl Mackie), Tasker (Justin Salinger) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))The Doctor though has very itchy feet (no surprise there) and wants to escape the university and his duties to The Vault. It doesn't take long before the Doctor, Bill and Nardole find themselves in the TARDIS, answering a distress call. The trio materialise on a spaceship (which of course is the ship that featured in the pre-credits sequence) and find that it is a mining ship, that at first seems deserted (don't they always). After further exploration they find a dead crew member in a space suit, anchored to the floor by his magnetic boots, which are forcing the corpse to stand upright, leaning slightly to one side (this is such a simple, and creepy effect). It's quite a grisly sight that upsets Bill massively, in fact, she looks truly terrified by the scene - which makes her very human and incredibly relatable. Here is where the horror starts.

In true, classic Doctor Who style there follows, of course, a lot of running down dark corridors, doors that won’t open, screaming, panic and facing up against all the odds. Oxygen is a base under siege story where the threat is already in the base. The tension really is palpable, if this story doesn't send the kids scuttling behind the sofa, asking their parents if it is safe to come back out yet, I don't know what will.

Pearl Mackie as Bill continues to excel. I absolutely adored her when she was testing the gravity on the ship, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. When the Doctor tells her that the gravity is artificial, she disappointedly points out that it doesn't feel like space. She then looks out a window in pure wonder and takes in the rest of the ship and the stars, "NOW it seems like space!" she says in pure wonderment. On the flip side of her initial of course is her terror at the threat, which is truly palpable. And yes, when her space suit starts to malfunction, she is so very good that it will leave you breathless.

Peter Capaldi puts in another performance that cements home to us all that he will be missed when his time eventually comes. At points during this story, it feels as if the Doctor is out of his depth, which is something that immediately puts the viewer on edge. Plus there are actual ramifications to his actions and heroics that seem as if they will carry on into the next episode, and possibly the rest of the series. Now THAT gives you a story with depth. Wait for his reaction to an unfortunate incident with the sonic, its classic.

The guest actors are all very good, with Mimi Ndiweni being the stand out as the straight talking Abby.Oxygen: Abby (Mimi Ndiweni), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

The show is brilliantly directed by Charles Palmer, who makes the tension and events very real. Palmer has worked on Who before with credits that include The Shakespeare Code, Family of Blood and Human Nature. Oxygen contained some of the best direction I have seen in Who, and Palmer's style was, for me,  very reminiscent of Graeme Harper. Palmer knows how to handle Who, and it shows in buckets.

Oxygen is written by Jamie Mathieson, who is, of course, an old hand now, and boy is this evident. Once the TARDIS crew materialise on the ship the action DOES NOT STOP until the epilogue. Everything is believable and well thought out. From the tech to the characterisations of the guest stars. This is sterling stuff.

However, there is a little bit of guff. I truly hate to single him out, as I think this may be Moffat's brief for the character and not his fault, but Matt Lucas's Nardole has started to grate on me. At the beginning of this story, he is brilliant. I adored how persistent he was at trying to get the Doctor back into the TARDIS and back to Earth to watch over The Vault. But as the episode went on, he just became the obligatory comic stooge. I've never been a fan of an obvious comic stooge, so this might be just me. There is also another reset button that puts right MOST of the carnage, but without re-setting, there really would have been no way back.

Negativity aside, there is a lot of continuity in this episode, for starters the nod back to the second story of classic Who (I don't need to tell you which one!), where the Doctor lies about the fluid link. There are also a number of ongoing themes, Artificial Intelligence being one of them, and racism another. As a viewer, you are not quite sure where to look when a blue alien accuses Bill of being racist. Bill is obviously mortified, but at the same time realises that her actions did cause offence finding that the boot on a very different foot. As well as continuity, there is a familiar feel to events. The space suits reminded me of those in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, especially with the flashing coloured bars that show the level of oxygen left. The gritty interior of the space ship harked back to The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. I was also reminded at points of The Robots of Death  and The Sun Makers. While on the subject of capitalism, there is an instantly classic line in Oxygen that sums up the whole of this story - "We're fighting the suits!"

I thought last weeks Knock Knock was a bit of a misstep, yes it was a good story, but it all unraveled rather quickly in the end. I always judge Who by it's re-watch value, and I can't see me revisiting Knock Knock again anytime soon. Oxygen, however, has the feel of an instant classic, the best in the season so far, and probably up there in my top three Capaldi episodes. I promise - Oxygen will leave you breathless and is sure to absolutely max you out on that adrenaline.

 





Knock KnockBookmark and Share

Saturday, 6 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Knock Knock: The Landlord (David Suchet) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring: David Suchet
Co-starring: Mariah Gale, Mandeep Dhillon, Colin Ryan 
Ben Presley, Alice Hewkin, Bart Suavek and Sam Benjamin 

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Bill Anderson
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1 on Saturday May 6th at 7:20pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a standard, non-binaural preview version of the episode. 

Speaking at the BFI/Radio Times TV Festival last month, Steven Moffat remarked that one thing he'd like to do after showrunning Doctor Who is write a play. Moffat has done his bit for trafficking between the worlds of theatre and TV talent this season, however, by securing the services of both Rona Munro and feted playwright and Doctor Foster creator Mike BartlettKing Charles III, one of Bartlett's recent and highly successful plays, is about to hit our television screens in an adapted version, whilst 2016's Wild -- a piece based loosely on the Edward Snowden case which took a radical turn into almost Who-esque territories -- has shown Bartlett's affinity with relevant material. Now, it would seem, is very much Mike Bartlett's time to clamber aboard the occasionally creaking but always smartly veneered Whoniverse.

Knock Knock is, let's face it, a rather cheesy title, gesturing at those repetitive old "Who's there?" jokes that probably still generate endless amusement among the programme's youngest fans. But by giving this reference an adult spin -- for this is a riff on the venerable haunted house subgenre -- Bartlett cleverly blurs together child and adult sensibilities right from the outset. Playing with the Doctor's relationship to Bill, and having her address him as "grandfather", is also a lovely throwback to the 1960s show; I initially responded to it in exactly this manner, as a gift to long-term fans. But cunningly, it also slots perfectly well into the theme of this episode's eventual and familial denouement, a smart tongue-and-groove piece of thematic construction (and generational confusion) that's hidden in plain sight.  

Writers new to Who have a tendency to emulate the leading tropes of their commissioning showrunner -- Matthew Graham's Fear Her often felt like RTD-lite, and Stephen Thompson's The Curse of the Black Spot replayed Moffat's favoured device of 'technology gone awry'. Here, we get an aspect of the ordinary, everyday world transformed into a fantastical threat, something which, though it has an extensive history in the programme, has also become part of the Moffat repertoire. And there's a kind of variant take on "are you my mummy?" which harks all the way back to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Having said that, Bartlett doesn't only seek to fit seamlessly into the Moffat-esque way of things, and also stamps his own mark on proceedings, notably in a comedic sequence criticising the state of students' rental accommodation in the UK, albeit imparting its critical stance with a deftly light touch.

On the minus side, I felt that Bartlett was sometimes a little cramped by the demands of a 43-minute single episode when he's evidently used to working with longer dramatic forms that have more space to unfold characterisation (something that the serialised Doctor Foster achieved quite brilliantly). Since the haunted house story calls for a number of characters who can be bumped off, Bartlett is also pretty much obligated to give Bill a decent number of housemates. This immediately causes a difficulty because each one threatens to become a student stereotype or a single-note creation. Perhaps slightly fewer students to be menaced by Wester Drumlins -- sorry, Bill's new residence -- would have helped on this front.

The tightly-coiled demands of an episode that has to set up atmospheric menace before delivering a pay-off 'reveal' also make life slightly difficult for guest star David Suchet, who is required to oscillate between ordinary-but-odd, outright creepy, and something far more essentially and basically human. It's a tough ask, and in places Suchet's performance seemed a little too mannered to me. But regardless of that, Doctor Who is fortunate to attract actors of such calibre, and I was admittedly disappointed that fan speculation regarding 'the Landlord' (that he would become a recurring character of some mysterious and Time Lordly status) fell wide of the mark. Suchet's character is very much a one-shot, belonging to this story alone. 

 

Knock Knock: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Series 10's Vault storyline continues to gather pace, and the concluding moment -- withholding a reverse shot that would have revealed who was in there -- was deliberately cheeky, and all the more effective for it. But an episode entitled Knock Knock is bound to rely, more than most Doctor Who, on its sound design and soundtrack. On the whole, this worked very well, though the level of aural threat could perhaps have been more intense (I'll be interested to see whether advance hype surrounding this as a very scary episode is reflected in the general fan and audience response, as well as how much difference the binaural version makes). I'm a horror fan, but for my money this was far stronger on atmosphere and build-up than any genuine sense of shocks, jumps or 'scares'. The monsters' mass presence was, in the end, effective without being remarkable -- we dodged a Tractator-level incident, to be sure, but all the CGI hordes still felt generically competent rather than truly memorable.

 

And packing an episode with wood-related content is, I suspect, always going to be a risk in terms of inciting reviewers' puns or provocations (you can just imagine how any journalist looking for a punchline would reach for their finest grain of 'wooden' material). Actually, focusing on this dimension -- something that has rarely featured in Doctor Who other than as a challenge for the sonic screwdriver -- gives this episode a very specific and quasi-historical flavour. Yes, it's a present-day story, but instead of brutalist concrete-morphing creatures, steel-and-chrome monstrosities, or electronic/nano-techno-villains, there is something almost pleasingly quaint, if not retro, about a good, old wood-based threat. There's a sense of sedimented history, and the dust of ages, that setlles over 'Knock Knock', making the eventual reveal of Eliza's presence (and identity) an integral part of this 'return of the repressed past'.

Knock Knock does what the best of contemporary Doctor Who has always strived for: it combines fantastical threats with social commentary and moments of touching emotion and humanity, at the same time as fusing 'child' and 'adult' levels of meaning. As the proverbial 'family television' it also uncovers a gothic, dysfunctional family -- one that needs to be fixed by the Doctor's intervention. Holding on to the past at any cost is shown to be a powerful mistake, and 'Knock Knock' is ultimately about a very different kind of fear to its earlier evocations of creaking floorboards and unseen forces, zeroing in on the fear of loss, and all the misguided actions it can provoke, rather than notching up a villainous case of megalomania or 'evil'. In this, it marks its distance from certain previous incarnations of the show, and develops an approach highlighted in The Pilot. But the question that remains, given the Doctor's chatty engagement with the Vault's occupant, is whether he too, like the Landlord, is mistakenly holding on to an aspect of the past... In a week or two, we'll start to get some answers. 





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.





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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!  





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Monday, 11 December 2006 - Reviewed by Finn Clark

The Three Doctors is a load of old tat, according to conventional wisdom. However some people say the same about The Five Doctors and the entire Pertwee era. Personally I think it's a genuinely strong story. It has great characters and some of Doctor Who's best comedy... in all seriousness, I laughed more at The Three Doctors than I did at City of Death. Gellguards aside, what's not to like? Admittedly it looks silly, but we're Doctor Who fans. We should be able to see past that.

The reason to watch episodes 1-3 is the comedy between the regulars, who are fantastic. Dr Tyler and Sam Whatsit don't add much (although I loved Sam's last line at the end of episode four), but they don't matter. The Three Doctors knows who its stars are and cuts back everything else to maximise their screen time.

Troughton doesn't exactly underplay his role, but that wasn't his specialty in the 1960s either. The always-impressive Nicholas Courtney makes good lines look fantastic... this is famously the Brigadier's "I'm pretty sure that's Cromer" story, but somehow he actually avoids looking like an idiot. He's wrong, but for character-based reasons rather than plain stupidity. Nick Courtney gives us a man who's always found the Doctor trying but is now discovering that Troughton could give even Pertwee lessons in stretching your patience. The Doctors work together wonderfully, of course. Troughton and Pertwee were both masters of comic acting, while there's a freshness to their scenes since their Doctors had never previously had to operate in anything like this kind of relationship.

William Hartnell is okay. Sadly the poor man's condition meant that he had to read his lines off a cue card and only appear on a monitor, which simplified the plot but means that his Doctor has none of the force and power of which Hartnell was perfectly capable. He also looks strange on the TARDIS scanner. He's orange. He gets a good line or two, but as a performance it's pretty sad compared to his usual standards.

Benton makes a good companion, incidentally. Like Jo Grant, the character has an endearing "I may not be very bright but I'm doing my best" earnestness about him. I'm also glad that Richard Franklin took time off to direct a play, because Captain Yates was the one UNIT regular who hadn't met Troughton and he might have diluted the byplay.

The story's other big plus is Omega, who's a wonderful creation. I'm tempted to call him Doctor Who's finest villain, a Shakespearian figure of tragedy and complexity. The Master and often even Davros are simply evil. They appear in better stories than poor Omega, but they're rent-a-baddies who can be inserted into a random script and left to get on with their latest Plan For World Domination. However I wasn't kidding when I called Omega Shakespearian. He's like Prospero's deranged twin, if he'd been stranded on his island for ten million years. We feel his tragedy. He earns our sympathy even when we realise that he's become a ranting monster intent on destroying everything.

Omega's story is the most iconic in Doctor Who's mythology, but he's not just an eye-catching high concept. The character has depth and complexity too. Stephen Thorne manages to fit a surprising amount of naturalism into a performance that's necessarily full of declamation, theatricality and over-the-top ranting. Compare with Season Sixteen's godawful Pirate Captain for instance. You never doubt the power, grandeur and insanity of the man, but at the same time he feels real. His childishness extends beyond those temper tantrums. When he's thwarted, he almost cries! I love the way Stephen Thorne puts a crack in his voice at that point. I now want to rewatch Arc of Infinity, especially Davison's performance as Omega in its final episode, and those aren't words you'll hear too often. He even has a personification of the dark side of his mind! On top of that part four's revelation is a great SF twist, giving Omega yet another black irony.

The obvious comparison with The Three Doctors is The Wizard of Oz (but this time there really isn't a man behind the curtain, ho ho), but I'm going to suggest The Tempest. Both stories are about an exiled king-in-waiting who becomes a wizard and creates a magical storm to summon his usurpers to his island. Both are full of magic, or at least the Doctor Who technobabble equivalent. Both are more interested in character and theatricality than plot.

The Gallifrey scenes are okay. In episode one they're ghastly, pissing away any grandeur the story might have had with horrible technobabbly dialogue and po-faced uncomprehending delivery, but things improve in later episodes when we can see how much trouble they're in. Incidentally two of the three actors credited here as Time Lords had also played such parts previously. Clyde Pollitt was in The War Games and Graham Leaman was in Colony in Space. The better-known example of The Deadly Assassin's Chancellor Goth also being in The War Games was just a coincidence, Bernard Horsfall being one of David Maloney's favourite actors. All four of his Doctor Who roles were in Maloney-directed stories! However it seems clear that here Lennie Mayne was deliberately casting former Time Lords.

We see some minor traditions of multi-Doctor stories.

1 - Bessie will get teleported along with the 3rd Doctor.

2 - One of the Doctors will get trapped on a TV screen, thus freeing up story space for the others.

3 - It's always the latest incarnation who does the actual investigation. He's still the hero. His predecessors are just colourful guest stars.

I adore the Gellguards. The weird multicoloured blob is freaky enough to look effective, but the Gellguards are hilarious. You'd think you were watching a Graham Williams story. For a man who so obviously loves theatricality and impressive costumes, Omega has a mysterious tendency to make goofy monsters. Scarily the Ergon was an improvement! Admittedly the Gellguards look pretty in close-up, with the colours on that bubbly oil slick surface, but in motion... oh my. It's the way they bounce as they wobble forwards.

However on the plus side, the singularity technobabble makes sense! The laws of physics really do go peculiar at the heart of a black hole, so it's not unreasonable for Omega to be exploiting those peculiar properties... especially since those are the exact forces he'd harnessed aeons ago to create the Time Lords.

I also love part one's cliffhanger. The Doctors know what they have to do as soon as Hartnell tells them about the bridge, but they mess around with comedy coin-tossing and we think it's just a bit of fun... until Pertwee walks outside and LETS THE MONSTER EAT HIM.

The Doctor's exile being rescinded is a nice touch, but it would have been more meaningful if by then he hadn't had full control over the TARDIS anyway. Season Seven's production team played fair with the Doctor's exile, but by the time of The Time Monster the TARDIS was seemingly as free as a bird. Had they still been taking that seriously, the production team might have realised that they missed an opportunity in this story. Troughton presumably didn't have Pertwee's memory blocks. They could have had comedy with one Doctor being reliant on the other to fly his own TARDIS, or possibly even stealing back his knowledge of temporal physics through telepathic contact with his previous self.

Like The Five Doctors, this story is underrated. It looks and feels like glittery nonsense, but it has Omega, a great cast and some of Doctor Who's best comedy. Admittedly the story doesn't move quickly, but that was the format under Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. Even the good Pertwee-era stories can be tortoise-like. Seriously, I was impressed.