Monday, 26 April 2010

Dr Who: The Time of Angels - TV Review

"I promised you the equivalent of an army...this is the Doctor."

And...relax. After the unfortunate misstep of last week's Dalek episode (let us speak of it no more) Dr Who is right back on track - and more - this week with the first sizzling episode in a two-part Steven Moffat story which has all the hallmarks of becoming the very first absolute classic adventure of the new Smith/Moffat era. Moffat's previous two scripts for this fifth season have been sturdy, workmanlike affairs but this double-length story gives the writer the opportunity to really spread his wings and enthral the show's audience with more richly-drawn characters, a more languorous storytelling pace and, best of all, the return of two of his (and the show's) finest creations in the modern era. Not only are the terrifying Weeping Angels back from 2007's 'Blink' but we also get a more than welcome reprise for River Song (Alex Kingston) from 2008's 'Silence in the Library' two-parter, probably the most charismatic and dynamic single character the show has given us since the relaunch (sorry, Captain Jack). Together with a stunningly-realised alien planet backdrop, a supporting cast of who's-for-the-chop-next redshirts and a cliffhangar to die for (or not) and endlessly-quotable smart ass dialogue, the ingredients are in place for something very special indeed. And 'Time of the Angels' doesn't disappoint. With Matt Smith now fully imbedded in the lead role (he's no longer 'the new Doctor', he's just the Doctor ) there's the very real sense here that the gloves are off now, a few teething troubles are out of the way and the show can fly again.

The episode kicks off with a cocky, audacious extended pre-titles sequence which expertly sets the tone for what's to come. The extravagant, exotic figure of River Song (for it is she) is fashioning an unlikely distress signal which her close future friend the Doctor will interpret 12,000 years later in a museum on an asteroid. After a breath-taking escape from the Byzantium spaceship River's aboard the TARDIS and the ship sets off in hot pursuit. Landing on the planet AlphAlpha Metraxis the Doctor, Amy and River are soon joined by River's comrades - a bunch of futuristic clerics in combat gear. River tells the Doctor that something very nasty was lurking in the vaults of the Byzantium, which has spectacularly crashed into an abandoned temple set high into the cliffs above them. It's a Weeping Angel...and with the ship crashed, it's on the loose.

Moffat has been selling 'Time of the Angels' (and its second episode, 'Flesh and Stone') as 'Aliens' in the way the first appearance by the Angels in 2007 ('Blink') was 'Alien'. In the earlier story the threat was more localised, a handful of scavenger Angels on Earth. Here the threat is much broader and wider (albeit a bit more distanced by taking place on an alien planet centuries in the future) with, it appears from this episode's stunning cliffhanger, thousands of the weeping Angels taking many inert forms all over the 'catacombs'. The similarities, structurally at least, between 'The Time of Angels' and 'Aliens' are undeniable; a small group of human troopers trapped in an abandoned settlement whilst all around them the deadly evemy is closing in for the kill. Certainly the story evokes many, many classic Dr Who stories dating way back to the era of the first Doctor where something nasty is picking the cast off one by one - the so-called 'base udner seige' stories so popular particularly in the Troughton era. For these reasons alone there's something very comforting and warmly familiar about the structure and setting of 'The Time of the Angels' but Moffat, to his credit, has taken the familiar and added his own dashes of wit and innovation into the mix. Clearly relishing the prospect of writing for his two greatest Dr Who creations again, he allows himself to indulge in some dazzling wordplay between the Doctor and River Song. River is cool, calm and collected where the Doctor is edgy and uncomfortable in her presence because she knows too much about him and his future. Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are on fire together, trading banter and black looks - Smith looks suitably deflated and crestfallen time and again in his one-sided exchanges with River where she's almost always one step ahead of him. Their exact relationship, still undefined but open to much conjecture, really is that of the bickering old married couple who know each other and their place in their relationship only too well. Amy can only look on, amused, as her new best friend seems to have found his match in this powerful, commanding, glamourous woman.

So to the Weeping Angels, appearing only sparingly in this first episode. Moffat has brought them back purely because he's thought of new things to do with them and he's opened up their mythology brilliantly here with the idea that "that which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel" which leads more or less directly to the hair-raising sequence, channelled from 'The Ring' movies, of an Angel creeping up on Amy inside the dropship and 'emerging' from the TV. Don't blink Pond! Moffat's also half-inched a cocnept or two from 'Silence in the Library' too, with the Angels killing troopers and then using their bodies to communciate with the Doctor. It's a cheeky steal but a sensible one; the Angels are scary enough as is it, how much scarier when they're speaking using the voices of dead men?

But good as Moffat's script is, and as accomplished as the acting is, the episode's greatest strength in behind the camera. New name director Adam Smith (who so memorably powred 'The Eleventh Hour' a few weeks back) gives 'The Time of Angels' a real cinematic quality, with wonderful ,long shots displaying the superb CGI work of the crashed Byzantium, the dropship and its troopers and the statue-strewn catacombs. This is the first episode of the season which doesn't show signs of the BBC's enforced 10% budget cut as Smith really puts the money on the screen and makes maximum use of the gloomy, claustrophic cave settings.

Faults? Well, churlish to go looking for any in what is essentially half a story but I remain a bit frustrated by Amy who still isn't really stepping out from the Doctor's shadow. Despite Karen Gillan's lviely performances, Amy remains the most generic companion figure of the 21st century era of Dr Who although it looks as if we're going to find out more about her as the seaason progresses. One missed opportunity here, though; after making much fuss of Amy's excitement at stepping out onto an alien world, the episode doesn't really follow it through as the next we see of her is a long shot as she stands outside with the Doctor, listening to the exquisite bickering between the Doctor and Amy.

'The Time of Angels' is easily the most rewatchable Dr Who since 'The Eleventh Hour' and with what promsies to be a run of strong episodes ahead, the show's back on firmer ground again, viewing figures are as strong as ever and it looks as if the series has made a successful transition from the David Tennant era. The second part of this yarn, 'Flesh and Stone' sees the series move its crack-in-the-wall plotline move towards the centre-stage again,earlier than I'd anticipated, and I'm confident that Moffat, now relaxing into his characters,, will deliver a satisfying and thrilling climax to this dense and edgy story. And remember, the Pandorica is about to open...

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Book Review: The Double Comfort Safari Club

I'm firmly of the opinion that, if the British medical profession could just get their heads together and make Alexander McCall Smith's beautiful No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels available on prescription, we'd see the nation's blood pressure levels plunging within days. It's impossible to read one of McCall's novels - the eleventh has just been published in hardback - and not feel the stresses and strains of your everyday life just drain away as you become embroiled in the wonderful, trivial world of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's foremost (and only) lady detective and her coterie of colourful friends and colleaguies.

You may be familiar with the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency courtesy of the short-lived BBC1 TV series broadcast last year. It was a brave effort, well cast and beautifully filmed - but fans of the book series know that it's really impossible to capture the feel of the book series because it's impossible to recapture the flavour and pace of McCall's Smith's writing. The TV series made too many changes to the stories, introducing far too much action and incident and, as a consequence, losing the very thing which makes the books so special, because really, nothing happens in No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. Of course that's not quite right; things do happen but they're really most very sweet, innocent things. There's never any jeopardy, there's never any danger; the books are the stories of a couple of gusty African women investigating very mundane things and, at the end of it all, sitting down to a nice pot of redbush tea and watching the sun setting over the Botswana horizon.

Book eleven is 'The Double Comfort Safari Club' and for fans it's more of the same. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the books detail the comings and goings of the traditionally-built (ie fat) Precious Ramtoswe who sets up a detective agency - the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency - which currently operates out of an adjoining side room at the Tlok Weng Road Speedy Motors car repair garage in Gabarone in Botswana, owned by Precious' second husband Mr J.L.B Matekoni (he is always referred to by his full name, even by his wife). Precious, wise and calm, is aided and abetted by the nervy, excitable Grace Matekusi (who reminds everyone that she scored a record 97% in her final exams at the Bostwana Secretarial College) who sees herself as an 'assistant detective' whereas she's really just an efficient secretary. But together Precious and Grace investigate very low-key, understated little mysteries - marital infidelity, missing family members, helping customers find suitable husbands - and it's done with supreme good taste and a marked lack of excitement. The real beauty of the books lies in McCall Smith's wonderfully evocative descriptions of modern Botswana and its peaceful, unhurried, polite way of life. Without fuss or artifice the author beautifully creates images - pictures with words (and usually just a few well-chosen words) - that bring the parched and yet busy landscape of Botswana to life more vividly than any TV travelogue. And the stories reeally aren't about the mysteries, the investigations - they're about Precious and Grace, how they jog along together, how they react and interact with their friends and their families and how they bring their very unique perspective to bear on the little tribulations life throws at them. In 'The Double Comfort Safari Club' the first task at hand is deciding which teapot to use in the office and later there's much excitement when the two women buy sturdy new shoes for their excursion out of their normal stamping grounds as they seek out the lucky recipient of an inheritance. Elsewhere they try to evict the flighty girlfriend of a client who has been ousted from his own home and Grace has to cope with near-tragedy as her beloved fiance Phitu Radiphuti (owner of the 'Double Comfort' Furniture Store) suffers an injury at work. None of this really matters, none of life's little hardships really phase the two women abnd there's usually a little homily about life, love and friendship at the end of it all as life goes on as normal at the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

I suppose I'd call these warm, lovely little books guilty pleasures if I felt remotely guilty about reading them. They're obviously not the normal Stuff of this blog but I make no excuses for recommending them here. Without exception they're warm-hearted, comforting little books, often achingly hilarious and occasionally heart-breaking. Forget the well-intentioned Tv series and do yourselves a favour by tracking down these delightful, life affirming books. McCall Smith writes a new adventure every year and they can't come soon enough for this reader. Time spent in the company of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is time well-spent.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dr Who : Victory of the Daleks - TV Review

"Don't mess with me, sweetheart!"

Well, I suppose it had to happen. Five years in and the new 'Dr Who' has finally turned up its first bona fide clunker of an episode. One or two have come close before, of course - 'The Age of Steel' and 'Fear her' from season two were a bit iffy and only the die-hardest of die-hards would say that David Tennant's 'End of Time' two-parter finale was a triumph from beginning to end. But 'Victory of the Daleks', well, that's another thing altogether. This is a stinker of epic proportions, a story which, on paper, had so much going for it but, on screen, has almost nothing at all to give. No, that's not fair, of course; it does have the glorious Matt Smith, loving and living every moment here as the Doctor, giving Mark Gatiss's unusually sloppy script a bit of the life and energy it so sorely lacks. Smith plays it like he knows he's got the best job in the world even if this is one of its off-days.

So what's wrong with this picture? Where to begin, really. The first disappointment, of course, is that this is the work of uber-fan-turned-scriptwriter Mark Gatiss who's turned in two episodes for the show since its comeback - the atmospheric 'The Unquiet Dead' from 2005 and the quirky if unessential 'Idiot's Lantern' from 2006. He also played Professor Lazarus in 'The Lazarus Experiment' in 2007. He really knows the show from top to tail and he really should know better than to turn in something as half-baked as 'Victory of the Daleks'. For half-baked is what it surely is. There's real promise in what's going on here. The Daleks! World War 2! Winston Churchill! Spitfires fighting a Dalek saucer in space! How can it go wrong? Part of the problem lies in the fact that, as shopping lists go, that's a pretty hefty one for a short 42 minute episode - and as a consequence none of these concepts and ideas are given room to breathe. None of them really develop, everything's half-done. One of Gatiss's selling points for the episode was the idea of the Daleks being depicted as cunning strategists, manipulating, biding their time instead of just rattling around hysterically squawking 'exterminate' every thirty seconds. Gatiss promised something which evoked the 1966 story 'Power of the Daleks' (sadly missing from the archives) where the Daleks appeared completely out of character, subservient to their human masters whilst secretly plotting domination behind everyone's back. Fine. We got this for all of ten minutes in 'Victory of the Daleks' in its finest moments; the khaki-coloured, union-jack blazooned military Daleks gliding around the underground war bunker offering to make tea and carrying file boxes around. The very best moment is the scene where the Doctor is desperately trying to persuade Churchill that the Daleks are ruthless alien killing machines as one of the creatures glides by in the background, swivels its eye-stalk to gaze at the Doctor, before moving on. But after about ten minutes the Daleks have revealed their true colours, they're evil again and being teleported back to their waiting spaceship where they're about to undergo the greatest ignominy of all. The Makeover of the Daleks.

The so-called 'celebrity' historical has become sommething of a tradition of modern-day Dr Who and these episodes, playing to the BBC's typcial production strengths have, on the whole, tended to be quiet triumphs. But the reason for their success is that they did more than just say to the viewer "Look, it's a woman in a crown and a big dress...that's Queen Victoria! Run!" or "Look at that beardy man, he's Shakespeare he is!" 'The Unquiet Dead', 'Tooth and Claw' and 'The Shakespeare Code' ('Unicorn and the Wasp' from season four, too) had something to say about the historical celebrity of the week. 'The Unquiet Dead' gave us a tired,weary Charles Dickens, jaded and disillusioned and convinced his body of work would, in the scheme of things, count for nothing. His encounter with the Doctor and Rose gave him a renewed strength and vigour, a belief in himself and his achievements. The audience felt they knew the man as the TARDIS sets off again and Dickens strides off into the snow, a new spring in his step. In 'Tooth and Claw' we meet Queen Victoria when she is still deep in mourning for her beloved husband. The Doctor recognises this, sympathises with it and at the story's end Victoria herself has a new mission - to protect the shores of her country from unwelcome visitors. 'The Shakespeare Code' offers a new slant on the Bard - here he's a high-kicking arrogant Liam Gallagher-style rock star, albeit one who is suffering from writer's block. These were all ballsy, confident depictions of well-loved historical figures. What does 'Victory of the Daleks' give us in its realisation of Churchill? A (too) fat man in a cheap suit with a cigar in his mouth at every opportunity - just to remind us he is in fact Churchill. There's no sense of history here, no sense of occasion as Amy meets her first famous historical face(and a missed opportunity as Amy seems a bit ambivalent about the Daleks too - although that may yet tie in to the fact she doesn't already know them from their recent attack on Earth at the end of season four). Such is the paucity of the script's struggle for verisimilitude we see Churchill wandering freely around the War Rooms - where are his advisers? Civil servants? Pen-pushers? His own security guards? Did Churchill really amble freely about the place chatting amiably to the hoi polloi? No, I don't think he did. What we have here is a broad caricature of Churchill because, to be fair, that's all we have time for. A story as (potentially) epic as this one needed far more time to breathe if it was ever to convince or even entertain. Even though much modern Dr Who is, by definition, breathless, this one just doesn't stop for a second, cascading ludicrous idea after ludicrous idea into a story which just doesn't have the narrative structure in place to support them all.

In a series which has seen a lot of cosmetic changes - the TARDIS inside and out, the sonic, the theme music and titles - I suppose we shouldn't have been too surprised to see the Daleks redesigned. It's hard not to see the influence of the series' merchandisers at play here. They've probably sold all the old TARDIS playkits and gold Dalek figures they were likely to. Time for something new for the kids (and their parents) to dig deep for! But how far can the show go? Do you really dare to tamper with the most iconic image in Dr Who history? Do you dare to have a go at redoing the Daleks? It appears you do - and you demean them just a little bit by making them bigger, bulkier...and coloured like the Teletubbies. I've no real problem with the new 'look'; they're a bit more threatening on screen, more bulbous and that middle section is a bit of a worry. But they're still undeniably Daleks. But we're talking vicious, single-minded killing machines here, a race with no taste for aesthetics, a race who have programmed out light, shade and beauty. So in their resurrection, their rebirth...they come out orange. And blue. And yellow.They also appear to have what looks suspiciously like a scart socket jammed in their backs. They also have new ranks now...'Drone', 'Scientist', 'Supreme', 'Eternal.' Steven Moffat has admitted that he and Mark Gatiss just made up these titles which sort of begs the question - why bother? I suppose 'Dalek Eternal' will look nice on a Character Options box...

So if the back-of-a-fag-packet characterisation of Churchill and dayglo Daleks weren't dodgy enough,we're left with the rest of this rather sorry mess. The plot seems to involve the Daleks building an android (Bill Patterson - in Dr Who at last!! Playing a flaming android!!) and ingratiating themselves into the British war effort so that Churchill (who they somehow know is an old friend of the Doctor's) can lure their arch enemy to earth so he their name,a recording of which they can then trasmit back to a gizmo on their spaceship which has failed to recognise their racial impurity and refused to spew out the dayglo Daleks. But the machine recognises the Doctor's voice and the sound of him identifying the Daleks is enough to set the wheels of resurrection in motion. Yes, quite... Up on the spaceship the Doctor, channeling Tom Baker and his jelly babies, holds the Daleks to ransom with a jammie dodger whilst, with a bit of luck, Churchill is, with the help of his tame android scientist, within minutes able to jury-rig a few spitfires so they can travel into space and indulge in a bit of World War 2 aerial dogfighting with the Dalek saucer. In a jam-packed episode like this there's still not enough real plot to go around and we're left with a rather tedious race-against-time as the Doctor tries to stop the android who, in a real bit of 'Oh that'll do..' scriptwriting, is secretly a bomb which will destroy the Earth! Honestly, old William Hartnell TV Comuic strips had less inane storylines. This is actually the sequence where the show really displays how much it's missing Russell T Davies at times. The Doctor's not getting anywhere reasoning with the android not to destroy itself so it falls to Amy to try the human angle. "Have you ever fancied anyone you know you shouldn't have?" she says, slyly half-looking at the Doctor. What?? It's too early in the fifth season's run to suggest that Amy fancies the Doctor and in any case not only has there been no evidence of this so far, the production team and the cast have gone out of their way to assure us there isn't any romantic attachment between the two. This is clearly Gatiss trying to shoe-horn in a bit of Davies-style emotional character stuff but failing miserably because it makes no sense and directly contradicts what little we already know of the Doctor-Amy dynamic.

The Daleks have rushed off into space to regroup and the Doctor and Amy slope away. In case we'd missed the series' running theme there's a glowing crack in the wall behind the TARDIS and the much more interesting mystery of why Amy's history seems to have been rewritten and she's never heard of the Daleks.

In all honesty 'Victory of the Daleks' is robustly entertaining but it sure ain't Dr Who at anywhere near its best. Despite the CGI space battle and some effective cityscapes of wartime London, the show's budget cuts are still glaringly obvious. The cast is tiny (the scientist Bracewell seems to have no assistants) and it'll take more than a few sandbangs dumped on a rooftop in Cardiff to convince me we're in 1940's London, thanks all the same. Compare the visual look of this with 'The Empty Child' from 2005 which just dripped period atmosphere with its barrage balloons (and Rose's dramatic flight hanging from one), damp gloomy streets, bombs exploding in the distance, undeground jazz clubs, wartime hospitals and so much more... 'Victory of the Daleks' tells a more constrained story, it's true, but that doesn't mean it has to look any less convincing.

A lowpoint of the 21st century Dr Who then and, it seems the only way is up. The Daleks, inevitably, are on their way back again (they really need to be rested for a bit now but with a handful of glossy new props paid for it looks like they'll be around for a while yet) and I really can't say I'm looking forward to their return. Onwards then, into the first 'meat' of the season and with a broad,action-packed two-parter which really sounds as if it could be - and it really needs to be - the first classic story of the Smith/Moffat era. Stay tuned...and don't blink.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

DVD Preview: S.N.U.B!

From the cupboard marked 'distinctly low budget British horror movies' comes S.N.U.B!, an...interesting little effort made on a shoestring but with bags of enthusiasm and displaying some genuine potential. A S.N.U.B, in case you didn't know (and there's no reason why you should) is a Secret Nuclear Underground Bunker and in this cheap'n'cheerful effort starring no-one you'll ever have heard of (apart from Gary Mavers of 'Peak Practice' and Tom Cotcher, once a crime-fighting denizen of Sun Hill in 'The Bill') a disparate group of refugees hide in a recommissioned SNUB after a terrorist attack on London sees the city devastated by a dirty nuclear bomb (nearly deactivated by Joseph Milson from 'The Sarah Jane Adventures') and a radioactive firestorm raging across the countryside. Unbeknownst to the hapless survivors in the SNUB, the inmates of a nearby high security prison have escaped and, horribly scarred, are trying to break into the SNUB. Perhaps not surprisingly, that's exactly what they do and bloodshed ensues.

That's yer lot really. S.N.U.B! is an odd one; it's desperately derivative, the acting's dodgy at best, some of the action sequences are extremely laboured and yet it's hard to dislike a film which is a) so short (70 minutes top to bottom) and b) clearly made with so much love for this sort of guerilla film-making. Sold as an homage to 1950s B-movies it really comes across like an underfunded episode of 'Spooks' but with added zombies. Visual effects are basic but endearing - the explosion of the bomb and its immediate consequences are surprisingly well done - and the gore quota's pretty low considering the number of rather faceless teens and girls who get offed in the last reel. No marks for believability though as, prEsumably out of narrative desperation, the survivors of the survivors flee the SNUB in the middle of the firestorm, ignoring the risk of radiation poisoning, and fly away in a convenient helicopter as a handful of zombie inmates chow down on the unfortunate policitian who got them all into this sorry mess in the first place.

Zombie films are ten a dozen these days - just pop down to the movie racks of your local Asda and you'll find loads of cheap straight-to-DVD titles cluttering up the racks. S.N.U.B! is no better than most of them and probably, technically, quite a bit worse. But if you're a fan of zombie movies, vaguely post-apocalyptic stuff or even just watching films which...well, aren't really very might want to spend a few quid on S.N.U.B! and just leave your brain at the door.

S.N.U.B! is released on DVD in the UK on 26th April 2010

Monday, 19 April 2010

Sarah Jane news...look who's back!!!

Work is underway on the forthcoming fourth series of the Dr Who children's spin-off (watched, Stuff suspects, by significantly more adults than kids!) 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' for screening this autumn. News is fairly scant at the moment apart from one rather stunning announcement today regarding one two-part story, written by Russell T Davies him self,creator of the show and former showrunner of Dr Who. The story will not only feature a guest appearance by new Doctor Matt Smith but also a return to the Who fold, after an absence of 38 years, of none other than Katy Manning, reprising her role as third Doctor companion Jo Grant. Blimey. The story sees the Doctor, Sarah, Jo and Sarah's gang travelling to Snowdon - and then out into space - to battle the Shansheeth, vulture aliens (voiced by David Bradley) who are operating out of a big old underground base. Colour me rather excited!!!

Coming soon : review of this week's Dr Who yarn 'Victory of the Daleks'.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Dr Who: The Beast Below - TV Review

"I'm the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule..."
Out into Space (and, indeed, Time) for the new Doctor and Amy in this atmospheric, quirky second story of the new era and here we can see the much-heralded new 'fairyale' ethos of the show under showrunner/writer Steven Moffat coming to the fore as well as, pleasingly, a continuation of some of then themes so well established since 2005 depicting the Doctor as a lonely, fractured man, the last of his own kind who can never really escape the consequences of his past, no matter how much his lvioely and energetic new appearance might suggest otherwise. The new series ties its mast even more closely to the recent series' banner to with any number of warm references to episodes not-so-long gone: a shop hoarding in the name of 'Magpie Electrical' (The Idiot's Lantern), the fiery Liz 10 remindind the Doctor of past encounters with British Royalty - "knighted and exiled in one day" (Tooth and Claw) and, subtlest of all, the Doctor's faraway reaction when Amy asks him if he's had any children - you just know he's thinking, for just a second, of Jenny (The Doctor's Daughter).

So to the meat of the episode and we find the Doctor and Amy, after a magical piece of floating-in-space horseplay, investigating Starship UK, a giant floating community hundreds of years in the future, a whole Nation fleeing from the ravages of solar flares devastating the Earth and looking for a new home out amongst the stars. But what can be powering the city? What's the terrifying secret down below? Liz 10 - what's she all about? Who are the sinister Smilers? All these questions - and more - are breathlessly answered in a story which encapsulates the shock of the new whilst simultaneously evoking memories of Doctors gone-by. The whole set-up, with humanity seeking its future in the stars, can't help but recall Tom Baker's classic second story 'The Ark In Space' and there are echoes of the Eccleston era's underrated 'The Long Game', with humanity's thoughts and ideas controlled by an outside force. Moffat again reaches for the box marked "things that scare kids" and, for the hell of it, brings out the Smilers,creepy swivel-headed creatures in fun-fair-like glass booths whose faces change expression depending on how compliant the person addressing them happens to be. The Smilers are an interesting visual concept but they don't really go anywhere and they don't add a lot to a rather random plot which throws in a handful of intriguing ideas but doesn't develop them as much as they deserve due to the constraints imposed upon them by a 45 minute episode running time. The story itself is actually rather powerful, touching upon a number of high profile contemporary concerns, not least of which being the examination of power and corruption and deceit and deception at the very core of the seat of power (and how well-timed was the scheduling of this episode in the same week as a General Election is called in the UK?). Here the British public - every five years - are told the unpalatable truth about their society and then given the option to either 'protest' (bringing about the downfall of the Government) or 'forget', maintaining the status quo. "Democracy in action!" as the Doctor declares. It's an amusing and quite a useful metaphor but Moffat's script doesn't seem confident enough to run with it because it has to tick all the usual Dr Who boxes, which tend to have to include various scary monsters and super creeps along with another Mofffat trademark - sharp, sassy dialogue which sizzles by so quickly you need to watch the episode two or three times to catch every nuance. The result is an episode that's a bit schizophrenic; it has certain points to make about a bland society turning a blind eye to terrible injustices (where, incidentally, it's the continual torture of the giant star whale upon whose back Starship UK is perched and...stay with me...which is carrying the ship across Space. Could happen...) as well as incidental points about the Monarchy and the education system , but they're a bit lost amidst all the slopping about amongst the whale's innards and big red herring about the Smilers who are pretty much incidental to the whole plot.

But 'The Beast Below' isn't a bad episode, it's just one which has too big an agenda. It also has to broaden the relationship between the Doctor and Amy. New boy Smith continues to impress, lively and energised, he fizzes across the screen, all waving fingers and gangly-legged, channeling Patrick Troughton by way of...ulp...Sylvester McCoy. He's superb here too where he expresses the Doctor's rage at injustice - "Nobody human speaks to me today!" - and his rather cold dismissal of Amy when she makes a decision for him and he mutters, under his breath, that when this is over she's going straight back home. It's as if he's lost confidence not only in Amy but in his ability to pick the right person to travel with him; he feels both betrayed and disappoinetd with himself. Karen Gillan's Amy has more to do here than she did in 'The Eleventh Hour'. In best Dr Who tradition she wanders off on her own and gets into trouble but the fact that she provides the resolution to the Doctor's terrible moral dilemma is a sharp volte face from the traditions of the rather more typical "What is it? Where are we? What's happening, Doctor?" girl some fans or critics may have been expecting after a run of strong-willed, powerful companion figures throughout the Russell T Davies era. Gillan has a strange leggy charm, her voice veering oddly from vaguely Scottish to distinctly Werst Country. But she and Smith have already established themselves as a daringly different TARDIS duo and it's clear after just two weeks that the show's in safe hands with these two front-of-camera.

Visually the show's as strong as ever even though it's difficult to truly convince the audience that we're on a spaceship housing the population of an entire country on just one busy 'street' set and a few sparse corridors and a dungeon and, despite some decent FX and physical effects, the spectre of the show's rumoured budget cuts hovers above the episode. Sophie Okenedo gets the guest star kudos this week as the cheeky Liz 10; she gets all the best lines too and she gets to indulge in a bit of slick gunplay.

'The Beast Below' is a sturdy, decent little episode but with such delights still ahead of us in the new series - Daleks, Weeping Angels en masse, Silurians, vampires, the Doctor playing football and the still under wraps big finale - it seems likely that it's an episode which will get lost in the rush and remembered fondly, if never passionately. But what a cliffhanger, with the Doctor receiving a telephone call (?) from Winston Churchill, and a mysterious familiar shadow on the wall on Winnie's war room. The Ironsides are coming!

Dr Who and the TV Ratings: Much excitement when the overnight ratings for the first episode, 'The Eleventh Hour', logged in at around 8 million. Much astonishment this week when the final BARB ratings, published on Monday, revealed that the final figure - including 'timeshift', ie viewers who recorded the show to be watched during the following seven days - was an astonishing 9.59 million! This is the highest figure for a series debut since 'Rose' back in 2005 and a more than encouraging start for the Smith/Moffat era. The HD audience for the simultaneous broadcast adds another 500,000 to the figure and early iplayer figures suggests another million views in the week after transmission as well as 600,000 for the BBC3 Sunday evening repreat. Hard to estimate the final figure for the first episode but it certainly seems as if 12 million 'unique' viewers were on board for the start of the new series. The sound you hear is the popping of champagne corks at BBC TV centre...

In other TV news... Very disappointed - if not horribly surprised - to read this week that the BBC have confirmed that they have decided not to commission to third series of the revived, reinvented Terry Nation post-plague drama 'Survivors'. The series really found its creative feet in its second run - episode four being one of the bleakest and most harrowing pieces of TV I've seen in years. But the cold truth is that the show's audience had tumbled from the first run in 2008. When the show started in November 2008 it kicked off with nearly 8 million viewers, settling to around 5.5 million as the run wore on. However, I'm of the view that the BBC themselves have been the architect of the show's misfortune. The important last episode of the first series was screened a couple of days before Christmas and managed to lose over a million of its regular audience. Series two debuted in January 2010 - over a year later, an age for a show which only had six episodes the first time around - to a decent audience of over 5 million. The BBC, in its wisdom, took the show off the following week - after one episode! - to screen a football match. Virtually the dictionary definition of pulling the rug out from under a TV show. As a result either the audience didn't realise the show was back the week after over just couldn't be bothered to follow a series which they might only have vaguely remembered from over a year ago. Witless BBC scheduling is a personal bugbear at the moment - probably for another blog entry - but the BBC really should be asking themselves a few questions about the way they place shows in inappopriate slots (see this years 'Ashes To Ashes', audiences 2 million down this year as, for some reason, it's been given a Friday night slot) because a lot of series aren't getting the audiences they deserve because not enough thought is being given to where they're placed in the schedule. Meanwhile, Adrian Hodges' plan for a five-year run of 'Survivors' lie in ruins and we're left with a series which could have done so much more if only it had the proper support of the people who commissioned it......Meanwhile over in America there's a new six-part zombie apocalypse mini series 'The Waking Dead' due to enter production shortly, with the intention that, if successful, it'll become a longer-running weekly series. Star casting has just been announced and in the lead role we have the UK's very own Andrew Lincoln. The affable star of 'This Life' (the seminal, defining 1990s contemporary drama),Channel 4's 'Teachers' and ITV's 'Afterlife' plays the leader of a group of survivors (sob) of a zombie apocalypse in the US. Little else is known about the project at the moment but Lincoln's a great actor, so this is a show which has got my attention from the off.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Dr Who: The Eleventh Hour - TV Review

"Carrots?? Are you insane??"

It's been a long time coming. Fifteen months since the announcement of Matt Smith's casting as the eleventh Doctor, three months since David Tennant's weepy send-off as the tenth, two weeks of almost non-stop TV trailers and exhaustive Press coverage, one week of Matt Smith on every TV show except 'Dickinson's Real Deal'. You'd be forgiven if you were suffering from 'Dr Who' burn-out as, at last, 'The Eleventh Hour' burst onto the nation's TV screens this Saturday. Yes, it's been a long time coming and, thankfully, yes, it's been worth the wait.

He's here. Matt Smith has arrived as the eleventh incarnation of the most famous time traveller of them all and, after a breathless sixty-five minute opening romp of an episode which borrowed heavily not only from writer/new showrunner Steven Moffat's own oeuvre in the regenerated show but also from one or two of former boss Russell T Davies's scripts, the new Doctor and his latest flame Amy Pond set off with confidence and brio on a whole new run of adventures in a series which, despite the changes Moffatt has wrought to the show - beyond the obvious casting differences - looks as if it's going to plough a furrow not hugely dissimilar to the one which has brought the series such huge acclaim since 2005. Hard to imagine anyone really thought anything else was likely. 'Dr Who' wasn't broken, Steven Moffat hasn't come along to fix it. But we can see one or two stylistic changes. The move to shooting in HD gives proceedings an extra gloss and the tone of the show is shot through with a slightly edgier, more skewed style - I've seen the new show described as "The Avengers crossed with Hans Christian Anderson" and I'd say that's about right - with maybe a dollop of Tim Burton thrown in for good measure.

So where were we? Ah, yes - the Doctor's regenerated and the TARDIS is spiralling, on fire, towards Earth. Narrowly avoiding a collision with the Big Ben clock tower the TARDIS pitches up on its side in a rural garden at night. As an open-mouthed young girl called Amelia watches in disbelief, the raggedy Doctor stumbles out, barely coherent, and eventually sets off in his time machine promising to return in five minutes. Amelia's keen to join him in his travels so she packs up a little suitcase and sits patiently waiting in the garden for his return. He doesn't come back...well, not until twelve years later. Amelia has blossomed into Amy the kissogram, the crack in her childhood bedroom wall has spewed out an ugly snake-like alien and above the earth eyes-in-the-sky are threatening to incinerate the planet unless they get their prisoner back. The new Doctor has only twenty minutes to save the earth - and then his sonic screwdriver blows up.

Opening episodes of new series of 'Dr Who' are always a tough one to pull off; they need to re-establish the show and its format and they need to tell a good story too. Opening episodes for new Doctors have got all this to do and more; they need to reassure the audience that this is the same show and that this is the same man, even if he looks different to the one they've enjoyed watching for the past few years. For both Moffat and Smith this particular hill was a very steep one to climb indeed. Departing Doctor David Tennant has, over the course of three full series and a handful of specials, established himself as surely the most popular actor ever to play the part, taking the series to new heights of popularity even the much-adored Tom Baker couldn't reach. Tennant made 'Dr Who' achingly cool, he made it trendy, he made it sexy; he made it everything it is. It wouldn't take much of a misstep to foul it up and send the show spinning back towards the dumper of cultdom. Fortunately Moffat and Smith have more than risen to the challenge and, in one sixty-minute plus episode, created a vibrant and manic new Doctor who looks set to captivate the audience just as much as his predecessor.

The really exciting thing about 'The Eleventh Hour' is realising that the show will get so much better. Here we have an episode that has it all to do, effectively rebooting the series in much the same way Russell T Davies did in 2005, albeit with the advantage of knowing there's an audience out there who are familiar with the series motifs and icons. Even so Moffat has a lot to do; new Doctor, new girl, new TARDIS - and a proper story to tell underneath it all. That he does so revisitng former glories isn't particularly worrying but many of the images and ideas presented here seem to be ones which fascinate Moffat as a writer, concerning the circular nature of Time itself (wibbly wobbly, timey wimey as he might say - and oh how I wish Moffat had resisted the urge to thrown in that particular fanboy favourite quote) and those things which fundamentally terrify children (things under the bed in 'The Girl in The Fireplace' and, here, the crack in the bedroom wall behind which something nasty might just lurk). Moffat pilfers happily from Davies too; in truth the plot of 'The Eleventh Hour' is third season opener 'Snith and Jones' but with the space rhinos taken out. Moffat is on record as citing the 'Smith and Jones' script as pretty much pitch perfect so it's hardly surprising he's followed its lead here. Instead of an alien prisoner on the loose on the Moon we have an alien prisoner loose in Leadworth (anagram of 'Dr Who tale', fact fans); here we have the Atraxi, eyeballs in snowflake spaceships instead of rhinos (the Judoon) in big rockets. Once again the Doctor has to race against Time - not to save humans suffocating but to save the whole planet from incineration - to expose the alien (again hiding in human form) and return it to its interplanetary guards. Despite the high stakes, despite the breakneck pace running around, the computer virus gobbledegook, this is Moffat's simplest script yet - because it really had to be - and I'm sure we can indulge him a little cheeky self-plagiarism because it looks as if it's scarcely the shape of what's in store the next three months.

'The Eleventh Hour' really isn't about its story. It's not about its aliens, its spaceships, its bang and bluster. It's about one man. It's about the Doctor. It's about Matt Smith as the Doctor. And any lingering "he's too young" doubts were blown away in minutes as the new boy grabbed the character of the Doctor, understood it absolutely and instantly, and made it his own. I'm not so churlish as to say "David who?" but it's more than fair to say that by the end of the episode we're no longer feeling the loss of David Tennant but we're looking forward to the thrilling things Matt Smith can and most likely will do with the part. Smith's new Doctor is, at first, manic and unpredictable - it's the way of the man after a regeneration as he tries to find himself again. In 'The Christmas Invasion' Davies, boldly in retrospect, shuffled the Doctor off to the sidelines, buidling up the audience's expectation until he exploded onto the scene in the last act and took control of the situation. Moffat prefers to focus the episode's energies almost exclusively on Matt Smith and that's how it should be this time around because anything less is going to make pining Tennant fans miss their hero even more. But Smith nails the man from the off, whether he's dangling from the TARDIS as it careers over London or hauling himself out of the steaming crashed Police Box and indulging in superfast wordplay with the befuddled young Amelia Pond. The first five or ten minutes are almost surreal; as the Doctor's addled body struggles to right itself and there's maybe a touch too much slapstick in the Doctor's efforts to satisfy his culinary curiosity; spitting apples, beans and bacon all over the room pitches the show towards a CBBC level but Smith quickly brings it round when, after rushing back to the TARDIS he returns five minutes find it's actually twelve years later and Amelia has grown up into the leggy Amy, a flame-haired temptress in an unfeasibly short Police uniform. Smith is starting to fly now and we can see how he's latched onto the concept of the Doctor as old-man/young-man. He has the energy and vibrancy of youth and yet exudes the cool wisdom of the near-immortal ageless Time Lord. It's there in everything he does; the way he says his lines, the words he uses, his body language. Not for one moment did I feel that we have a bright young actor out of his depth playing a revered TV legend. Matt Smith just is the Doctor. And in the end it's all there in the final rooftop confrontation with the Atraxi. Busily assembling his new costume from clothes pilfered from the hospital, Smith reminds the Atraxi (and those of us at home) of the character's rich heritage (flashback frenzy for fans!) and, symbolically - and with enormous swagger and confidence - strides through the fading image of David Tennant to announce, to the Atraxi and to us out there in TV land, that "I am the Doctor." His final command to the Atraxi has all the arrogance of Tennant at his best as he warns them off. "" And they run. Fast. It's fabulously exciting to watch Smith's Doctor grow and grow in confidence as the episode progresses and there are a handful of other joyous punch-the-air moments such as the Doctor crashing a fire engine ladder into the window of the room where Amy and her quivering boyfriend Rory are facing off against the multiform alien in human form and running up said ladder to join them.

Of course 'The Eleventh Hour' also has to introduce us to the new girl in the Doctor's life - and here the episode is less successful. Previous debut episodes have focussed on the new girl, whether it's Rose, Martha, Donna - and told the story from their point of view as they meet (or, in Donna's case, re-meet) the Doctor and stumble into his world. This time we're with the Doctor all the way and Amy is running alongside struggling to keep up and struggling to understand it all. Karen Gillan looks striking and there are some wonderfully nuanced moments in her performance but Amy just looks flummoxed throughout the episode and its the end we don't really know much about her save that she had an imaginery friend when she was eight who let her down, she's been in therapy and she's about to get married. She has none of the family dynamic so vital to Davies's girls; no slap-happy Mother figure hovering anxiously in the background although there's Rory, Amy's slightly feeble boyfriend who we've not seen the last of. So where the Doctor ends the episode pretty much fully-formed, Amy's clearly a work-in-progress and it'll be interesting to see the dynamic between her and the new Doctor develop as her character grows stronger during the series.

So 'The Eleventh Hour', as a story, is pretty much a functional thing. Anything more complex would have detracted from the need to establish the new Doctor. But, happily, there's more to the tale than meets the eye and, in true Davies style, Moffat is already seeding the storyline of greater things to come. What is The Pandorica of which the multiform spoke? Why will silence fall? And who was Amy supposed to be marrying? Once again the show is working on several levels, satisfing those who just want to watch a fun romp every week and those who want to be rewarded at the end of it all with an even bigger picture.

Quibbles? Well, they're really rather minor. The episode could probably have lost ten minutes somewhere along the line - it didn't really need to be sixty-five minutes long and could have been tightened up here and there. Whilst it's wonderful to see Murray Gold back on board on composing duties - some of his incidental stuff here was quite brilliant - his reworking of the theme tune leaves a bit to be desired although it could be a grower. The show also maintains its tradition of wasting big name guest stars in little more than cameo roles - surely Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia deserved more than the cough and spit turns they got here? The TARDIS has, of course,had a makeover too, with the exterior now closely resembling the Box used in the two (non-canoncial) Peter Cushing movies back in the 1960s - it's big, blocky, sturdy and it looks great. Ihe interior I'm not so sure about. It's huge, cavernous, a masterpiece of extravagant design...but I'm not sure I really see the point in building soemthing so huge when, traditionally, so little time is spent in it. Still, I suspect the nation's eight year-olds will have a rare old time assembling the inevitable new playkit (the last one confounded me and it sits alone and unloved, in my garage and in bits).

So a big thumbs up to Matt Smith as the new Doctor, welcome onboard to Karen Gillan as Amy - we look forward to getting to know you a bit better - and we also look forward to a series which, if the long end-of-episode things-to-come trailer is any judge, is going to be spending less time in contemproary London and more time dancing back and forth into the past and into the future. The journey's beginning. Where do you want to start? The Starship UK seems as good a place as any...

Reviews coming soon: 2012 on DVD, Clash of the Titans, Kick Ass, The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The (new) Prisoner, Vampires, vampires everywhere...