Tuesday, 29 June 2010

DVD review: Dr Who - Kamelion Tales

Listen...that strange rasping noise you hear is undoubtedly the sound of 2 Entertain, purveyors of all things classic Dr Who on DVD, scraping the very barrel itself as they unleash upon an unsuspecting public surely the least essential Dr Who boxset – nay, the most inessential boxset of anything ever in the shape of two deadly-dull 1980s stories lumped together under the ‘Kamelion Tales’ umbrella Both yarns feature the only two televised appearances of a would-be TARDIS robot companion so inept and clumsy it’s hard to believe, twenty-seven years later, that anyone sane could ever have dreamed that including him in the show could ever be construed as a good idea. Neither story, in truth, cover themselves in glory and both pretty much represent Dr Who at its very nadir.

Incredibly, having learned nothing from the problems caused by K9 just a few years previously, then-producer John Nathan-Turner allowed himself to be creatively seduced by a rudimentary real-life robot pieced together by some techno types who really thought they were at the cutting edge of contemporary robotics by creating a tall, rather ugly gleaming man-machine which could – gasp – move its arms about a bit and flap its mouth. Nathan-Turner was convinced that, programmed correctly, the thing would be wandering all over the set, inter-acting with the human cast and adding an interesting new character dynamic to the show. Has anyone ever been more wrong? Introduced in this boxset’s two-parter ‘The King’s Demons’ Kamelion (fruitily voiced by Gerald Flood) Kamelion – a shape-changing robot acquired by the Master (Anthony Ainley) and used here to...er..double for King John in some rather low-key plot to sabotage the signing of the Magna Carta Kamelion just sort of...sits there. Its mouth flaps open, its hands move about – but it resolutely refuses to stand and perform properly because there was, in truth, no way it ever could. Kamelion opts to join the TARDIS crew at the end of the story and, once its shortcomings became evident, it was sidelined and/or forgotten until near the end of the following season when, just for the Hell of it, it was resurrected just to be killed off in Peter Grimwade’s dreary ‘Planet of Fire’ four-parter. In a story already over-burdened by the need to introduce Peri (In Her Bikini!), write out Turlough (the schoolboy assassin who’d been travelling with the Doctor since the previous season) and possibly the Master, set itself in Lanzarote and a volcanic planet,. Grimwade’s to be admired for having crafted a story which at least manages to put Kamelion’s shape-changing abilities at its core even if it’s got little else going for it. Kamelion is put out of its and our misery at the end of the story when the Doctor (Peter Davison) is forced to use the Master’s tissue compression device on it.

Combining these two stories not only underlines what an appalling idea Kamelion was in the first place, it also reminds us that in ‘The King’s Demons’ and ‘Planet of Fire’ we have two of the blandest and most boring Dr Who stories in the show’s five decades. And yes, I have seen ‘The Sensorites’. Curiously both stories have largely impressive production values; the location filming in ‘The King’s Demons’ creates a real sense of the 12th century even if the irritatingly-clumpy wooden flagstones of the studio castle sets rankle and ‘Planet of Fire’ impresses with its lavish location filming in the Canary Islands (even though suspension of disbelief is ruined as soon as the ‘holiday island’ is identified as Lanzarote and we’re later asked to believe that the all-too-obvious volcanic terrain of the island is really the planet Sarn). But both stories are, in themselves, just crushingly dull. There are no monsters here – no quivering rubber claws, no screeching robot killers, nothing slimy lurking in the shadows. The Big Bad of both episodes is the Master; in ‘The King’s Demons’ he adopts one of Ainley’s infamous disguises – here as Sir Gilles Estram (geddit??), the King’s Champion – and Ainley plays it with an often-incomprehensible cod French accent which would today be considered borderline racist. A clumsy, stagey swordfight between the Doctor and Sir Gilles rounds enlivens part one and it’s a real chore to keep the interest up in part two where really nothing of consequence happens. ‘Planet of Fire’ is duller still and by the time part three rolls around, complete with all its nonsense about the shrunken Master, Kamelion-as-Peri’s camp Stepdad, berobed locals led by Peter (Jason King) Wyngarde moaning about their God Logar, you’ll be willing it all to end quickly and painlessly or, in reality, you may well just switch off and never go back.
Classic Dr Who releases are winding down now – there are some gems still left (‘Day of the Daleks’, ‘Seeds of Doom,’ ‘Terror of the Zygons’) to see the light of DVD day – and I suppose stuff like this has to be released eventually. I have a fairly low opinion of much post-Tom Baker Dr Who, if I’m honest (and I am) but there are a few gems dotted about here and there. ‘Kamelion Tales’ are very definately not amongst them and, unless you’re a completist (or a masochist) you really don’t need this boxset in your life for anything other than the extras...

Speaking of which, a nice, low-key bunch here, the best of which are the features on the making of ‘Planet of Fire’ (where the cast and crew clearly had a much better time making the episodes than is evident from the tedium on screen), designer Malcolm Thornton talking about production design, Thornton and director Fiona Cumming revisiting the Lanzarote locations, a wry look at how Kamelion found his way onto the programme, a frustratingly-brief tribute to the late Anthony Ainley, and the usual bouncy commentaries. On a third disc, Fiona Cumming has re-edited ‘Planet of Fire’, much as she did with ‘Enlightenment’ on last year’s ‘Black Guardian trilogy’ boxset and this particular re-edit, new CGI and all, is final, absolute proof of what they say about silk purses and sow’s ears.

Friday, 11 June 2010

TV Review: Dr Who - Vincent and the Doctor

Ah, I’m starting to get the hang of this new Doctor Who series now. It’s taken me ten weeks, I know, but it’s all starting to sort of work now, thematically and creatively. You see, I was a huge fan of Russell T Davies’ big, brash vision for the series – the spectacle, the emotion, the humanity, the scope and scale of it. I loved all the mad stuff – the sky ripping open to spew out armies of Toclafane or Daleks, the starship Titanic plunging through the earth’s atmosphere and skimming over Buckingham Palace, the big giant Cyberking stamping all over Victorian London, The master dancing to the Scissor Sisters. Loved it, loved it all. I loved the simpler stuff too; the brooding horror of ‘Midnight’, the edgy and unsettling ‘Turn Left’, the beautifully-evocative ‘Gridlock’, the brilliantly observed ‘Love & Monsters’. Even in those rare off-form episodes – ‘Fear Her’, ‘Age of Steel’, for example – the show had a brio and swagger about it that made it irresistible. New showrunner Steven Moffatt’s version of the series has, despite its superficial similarities, turned out to be a different beast. The show’s become tighter, more intimate, telling stories across a smaller canvas than before – whether for budgetary or creative reasons we may never know. But gone, largely, are the big stomping battle scenes, the massive CGI sequences, casts of hundreds (well, dozens...) and big mad stories built around big mad ideas. The show’s human core has been harder to find this year, too, thanks largely to uneven writing of arguably the most important character in the series – the Doctor’s companion – coupled with frustratingly-variable performances by actress Karen Gillan. But I’m getting it now, I can see what Moffat’s been aiming for. This year the show is stripping away Davies’ view of the Doctor as a “lonely God”, the last survivor of the Time Lords and yet still the man who gives the monsters nightmares. The new Doctor – and yes, Matt Smith is absolutely brilliant in the role – is a more vulnerable and flawed character, the Time Lord who always tries to do the right thing and who tries to make a difference but sometimes find circumstances moving way beyond his control. Much of the season has seen the Doctor struggling. In ‘The Beast Below’ it falls to Amy to find the solution, he effectively loses in ‘Victory of the Daleks’ as the silly day-glo Daleks win the day and fly off to fight another day. In ‘Vampires of Venice’ he saves the city but he can’t save the Saturnyans from themselves, his own dark side nearly destroys him in ‘Amy’ Choice’ and in ‘Cold Blood’ his attempts to broker a lasting peace between humanity and the Silurians is brought to a dead stop by human nature, the one thing he really can’t quite control. All the stories this season have been quiet character pieces, often with a small supporting cast, all set in one or two locations with only the Silurian two-parter aping the breadth of the Davies-era stories. This, I’ve now come to realise, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It reminds of the transition from Pertwee - all Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT’s six-man army fighting Axons and Daleks and Sea Devils – to Tom Baker with his super-powered bad guys like Morbius and Sutekh with, for years, not a troop of rubber-suited aliens in sight. So whilst I miss the ‘wow, amazing’ gasp factor of the Davies years, I’m learning to love the subtleties of Moffat’s first year as it builds towards what, ironically, promises to be something of a spectacular finale.

Which brings me, at last, to ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, the most recent episode, scripted by Richard Curtis. This is ‘Doctor Who’ as its most adult in many years. Curtis’ sensitive script sees the Doctor and Amy travelling back to 19th century Provence to track down an alien lurking in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. But of course it really isn’t about that at all – the Krayafis creature is just a throwaway concession to the show’s need to have a villain, a monster – it’s all about Vincent Van Gogh and his own private monsters, the demons which haunted him, savaged his sanity and ultimately led to him taking his own life. Even the intervention of the Doctor, demonstrating to Van Gogh that there’s so much more to life than just living and that future generations will appreciate and venerate his genius, can’t change his eventual tragic fate. Again and again this year the Doctor is depicted as the powerless time traveller who does his best but who sometimes really can’t make a difference. In ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (I still think it’s a lousy title...just ‘Vincent’ would have been so much better) we are again told a small-scale, intimate story – just a handful of speaking parts, here – but it’s a tale told with sympathy and imagination with gorgeous location filming (Croatia filling in more than effectively for Provence) and a script which never undersells its drama and never writes down to its audience. Guest start Tony Curran – despite the at-odds Scottish accent (which the script makes an amusing attempt to explain) – is outstanding as the tortured Van Gogh, swinging from desperate depression to elation and whilst there’s never any serious chance of him acting the mesmerising Matt Smith off screen it’s certainly one of the stronger performances in a season which has already given us the likes of Toby Jones, Sophie Okenedo, Robert Pugh. Helen McCrory and Alex Kingston. Curran brings out the best in Karen Gillan, too, as she delivers a more measured and less-breathless turn as Amy, genuinely marvelling in and inspired by Van Gogh; the scene where she decorates the artist’s yard with sunflowers in a cheeky attempt to inspire him, is priceless. So soon after her display of grief and fury at the death of Rory in ‘Cold Blood’ Gillan again delivers the goods in the emotional final scene as she and the Doctor return to the gallery and she’s pretty much devastated to find that all they have given Van Gogh is a moment’s peace of mind. What more can be said about the extraordinary sequence, moments earlier, where the Doctor brings Van Gogh to the art gallery in the 21st century and, with an Athlete power-ballad crashing away in the background, the artist realises what the future has in store for his art. It’s a ‘Dr Who’ moment which can stand proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of the Davies era.

In its own way ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is something of a work of art. The central monster-runaround storyline is clever if generic and, ultimately, really unnecessary. How much braver if the show had told a purely historical story – the Doctor and Amy visit Van Gogh and change the way he thinks about himself – and it’s a shame the series couldn’t have taken this bold step and dispensed with its monster-of-the-week requirement for just one episode. But there’s so much good stuff here; cracking dialogue (a particular strength of this series), some decent action, stunning direction and design and a Richard Curtis script which doesn’t drown in schmaltz and cheesy emotion. That ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is the best of this particular series is pretty much a given, in many ways a perfect distillation of what the show had transformed into. ‘Doctor Who’ is now a series about a very flawed man doing his best and while it’s easy to yearn for the more bombastic fare of the series 2005 – 2009, I’m pleased to report that in the last few weeks especially the show’s new magic spell has really started to work on me and, with the big two-part finale just around the corner and several of the mysteries threaded across the series ready to be explained, ‘Doctor Who’ has successfully made the potentially-damaging leap from Davies/Tennant to Moffat/Smith with its reputation and its popularity pretty much intact. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is not only about as good as we can reasonably expect proper modern ‘Doctor Who’ to be, it reminds us, in these dark days of nonstop talent shows, just how good TV drama can still aspire to be.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

More on Torchwood...

As the exciting news about Torchwood sinks in, Russell T Davies himself is back on TV, appearing last night on the BBC News Channel to talk about the forthcoming new shows and his views on the latest incarnation of Dr Who. Here he is...

Monday, 7 June 2010

This just in...the return of Torchwood!!

Stuff emerges from its month-long hibernation (sorry, wasn't supposed to be that long!!) with some wonderful news....stay tuned for new reviews and features on Stuff soon!!


Key cast - John Barrowman (Capt. Jack), Eve Myles (Gwen) – to return for the next installment, along with new faces

Monday 7th June 2010BBC Cymru Wales, BBC Worldwide and US premium entertainment network, Starz Entertainment, have today announced a three way co-production partnership that will develop a new series of the hit BBC sci-fi drama Torchwood. BBC Worldwide will also distribute the series to broadcasters globally.
The 10-episode instalment will be written by a team led by Torchwood creator, Russell T Davies, and produced by BBC Worldwide Productions. Davies and BBC Worldwide Productions’ SVP Scripted, Julie Gardner, return as executive producers with BBC Worldwide Productions EVP Jane Tranter. The series has been commissioned by Controller BBC ONE, Jay Hunt, Controller BBC Drama, Ben Stephenson, and Starz President and CEO, Chris Albrecht.
While previous series were based on location in Cardiff, Wales, this new instalment will see storylines widen to include locations in the U.S. and around the world. John Barrowman and Eve Myles will return in their roles as Captain Jack and Gwen respectively, along with new faces.
Announcing the commission, Ben Stephenson, Controller, BBC Drama Commissioning said: "We have a long history of working with many U.S. networks but it is incredibly exciting to be working with Starz for the first time, as well as to be reunited with the best of British in Russell, Jane and Julie. Torchwood will burst back onto the screen with a shocking and moving story with global stakes and locations that will make it feel bigger and bolder than ever"
Jane Tranter, EVP, BBC Worldwide Productions, added: "Torchwood has attracted remarkable attention and loyalty in both the UK and U.S., and in this new partnership with Starz, the next chapter will not only reward our current fans, but also introduce new viewers to the most impressive instalment yet."
"We're committed to programming exceptional television that is entertaining, imaginative and provides a premium TV experience, and by any measure the new concept for Torchwood fits that mandate," Starz, LLC, President and CEO Chris Albrecht said. "I've been part of successful partnerships with Jane Tranter and the BBC previously, and I'm very much looking forward to working with them again."
Torchwood is a drama that puts extraterrestrial threats into a very real world, and asks how humanity deals with the danger - while fighting human's darkest instincts. The series was originally commissioned and produced in 2006 by BBC Cymru Wales, with the latest high octane series capturing UK audiences of more than 6 million.
BBC Worldwide has distributed previous Torchwood series around the world to territories such as Korea, Japan, Italy, Spain, Israel, Russia and across Latin America.
Related links
BBC Worldwide


In other pleasing genre news, the third series of BBC3's hit supernatural drama 'Being Human' has just started production from its new base in Cardiff, home of...well, just about anything of any real worth on British Tv at the moment! The gang are all back, it seems, and currently conducting script readthroughs prior to the commencement of actual filming later this month. Here's a shot of three of the main cast - Leonora Critchlow, Russell Tovey, Sinead Keenan (vampire boy Aiden Turner hasn't arrived in Wales yet, he's wrapping up some other filming at the moment) at the readthrough.