Sunday, 26 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - In the Forest of the Night

Once upon a time a forest grew across the world overnight.. But does this story have a happy ending?

'This is my world too. I walk your earth. I breathe your air.' 

Doctor Who has fashioned a new tradition for itself under Steven Moffat's reign; that of the 'celebrity guest writer.' Though perhaps not as much a household name as other such writers as Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis, this week's episode was penned by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the Carnegie Award-winning novelist and writer of the famous opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Clearly, this guy has big writing chops (never understood that phrase. Doesn't chops mean mouth? And if so, why does the size of your mouth denote how talented you are at your chosen field?). So did he pull it off with his déb-Who?  

'In the Forest of the Night' opens with a wonderful pre-titles sequence featuring the Doctor befriending the sweet yet troubled Maebh (Abigail Earnes being by far the best of this week's younger guest stars). It's a charming scene that really feels like a new writer putting a fresh stamp on the show (the explanation of the TARDIS as like sugar in coke is inspired) and its topped off with the reveal of London landmarks surrounded by trees, a truly enchanting image that sets up the whimsical tone of the episode.

Unfortunately, this assuredness does not hold out for the whole forty five minutes. The symbolism of forests in our collective consciousness, how they are always places of danger in folk tales and myths, is very strong. Hidden amongst other plot points there was even a reason why woods are humanity's primal fear. It is a shame then that this fascinating notion was passed aside for none-too-subtle ecological messages ('if they're good then why are we chopping them down?' one child even says) which feel somewhat recycled from the other year's 'The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe' (which also featured living trees with tinkly lights, now I think about it).

Still, Samuel Anderson is served a considerable role this week as Danny gets to be in his comfort zone, leading his young troops through danger, and Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are as good as ever with particular praise going to the Doctor's touching nod back to 'Kill the Moon.' Also, not enough mention has been made this year to Murray Gold, who has delivered endless memorable music for the show for almost ten years now. In this episode he seemed to have a ball, playing off the fairy tale qualities of the story in his score (there was a fabulous, rousing piece of music accompanying the shot of Nelson's Column surrounded by the forest). It's amazing that man's talent hasn't run dry after all this time.

Full of literary allusions, this ecological fairy tale of an episode was certainly an original treat. It had its flaws - a promising premise that never quite lived up to its potential (with an unfortunately risible final scene that was predictable from the off) - but Cottrell-Boyce bravely fashions a sort of all-ages modern fantasy out of the stuff of Doctor Who and experimentation must be encouraged. Otherwise nothing would ever grow.

'You need an appointment to see the Doctor' - The TARDIS turns classroom this week...

Next week: Old friends and foes alike return for the first part of this year's finale. Terrible sacrifices must be made when things get murky in 'Dark Water.' BBC One, next Saturday.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Flatline

The TARDIS really was bigger on the inside this week but did the episode itself exceed its dimensions or did it just 'Flatline'?

'I'm the Doctor. But you can call me Clara.' 

Some Doctor Who titles say it all. No one sat down to watch last week's 'Mummy on the Orient Express' saying 'I wonder what this will be about?' This week's episode, however, sported much more nondescript nomenclature. With so little able to be gathered about the episode, it could have gone anywhere. In the end, it was one of the strongest episodes of this series, featuring a fantastic new enemy and a great use of its leading characters. 

This series is already full of fabulous monsters - The Teller, the Foretold, Skovox Blitzer (only joking) - but this week's lot (no idea what to call them - living graffiti? The muralons?) might just be the best so far. This show's already made us take notice of statues, or flickers in the corner of the eye but now we also have to watch our backs when we pass a piece of street art. Two-dimensional aliens could have felt like a hodge-podge of other monsters - a bit of Vashta Nerada, a sprinkle of Chloe Webber and her penchant for literally capturing people on paper - but it never does and the aliens come out as true original creations. Kudos to Jamie Mathieson, who has proved himself these last two weeks to be a talented Doctor Who writer. A veteran of other quirky genre shows Being Human and Dirk Gently, he clearly understands how to spin a proper Doctor Who yarn. In my books, he is welcome back any time. 

It is indicative of the extent of Clara's growth this year that an episode led by the character last series might have been a worrying concept - would she be strong enough to carry it? - but here it feels perfectly natural, and, just as the Doctor says, she made a 'mighty fine Doctor.' Speaking of the Time Lord, compared to other so-called 'Doctor-lite' episodes, he really was in it a fair amount. In reality, the episode was more of a role reversal for the two - even down to the fact that the Doctor gets to chastise Clara for her lack of 'goodness.' Is this the start of a slippery slope for Clara? Will she be able to climb back up? With the finale only weeks away, we may find out soon enough...

This has been one of those reviews that has turned into a string of praise but there were simply so many moments to relish this week. The Doctor acting like Thing from The Addams Family when pulling the tiny TARDIS away from the train tracks. The rather Looney Tunes method of fooling the aliens (remember Wile E Coyote drawing a fake door in a mountain to trick Road Runner?). Even the 'phoning home' segments of this episode had much more of a purpose than last week, embellishing the idea of Clara's 'cheating' on Danny. The bottom line is, though it was at first as hazy as the nature of this week's ambiguous aliens, 'Flatline' turned out to be anything but flat.

You know when people say paintings follow you around the room? Apparently it's the same with graffiti...

Next Week: 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night...' William Blake's famous poem comes true when trees sprout up overnight in next Saturday's episode of Doctor Who. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Mummy on the Orient Express

Mummy! The Doctor's holiday turns into a horror when something goes a-murdering on the Orient Express...

'I'm the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening. Are you my mummy?'

Doctor Who has cultivated a new type of story for itself in recent years. Rather than just historical stories, contemporary adventures and proper sci-fi dramas set in the future, there is now the historical-in-space. In the past we've had the Titanic ... in space! Dickensian London... in space! This week, the show gave us, you've guessed it, the Orient Express ... in space! And, something else you already guessed, on board is a rather ancient and unwanted passenger...

As this was an episode premise I was very much looking forward to I'm glad to say it was a very enjoyable adventure. We have a gaggle of guest characters with their own secrets but other than that, 'Mummy on the Orient Express' wisely does not lay on the Agatha Christie allusions (something already done brilliantly in 'The Unicorn and the Wasp') and largely plays its absurd plot straight, meaning that we just accept the bonkers juxtaposition of a classic horror creature and the period glitz and glamour. In fact, a word (or a few words. Oh, what the heck, a whole sentence) must be given to the set and costume designs here as the famous train looked wonderful in its 1920s décor and the Mummy, along with its chilling conceit, really was quite a visceral creation for Doctor Who. It is sure to give children tears before bedtime (that is if they're even still awake - for British viewers, the show is being shown increasingly late in the evening, something I'm not too sure of). 

Due to the lack of the Doctor's companion in promotional material, I assumed the Orient Express was going to be a Clara-lite ride but in the end Jenna Coleman (looking glorious in full flapper garb) had an important decision to make this episode and it was lovely to see the Doctor's kinder side leaking out again as he tries not to annoy his friend. Frank Skinner is also likeable as engineer Perkins but with the amount of screen time he shares with the Doctor the role does smack a little of  'celebrity guest star of the week.' So much was made of him, in fact, that I was a convinced that he would either turn out to be the culprit or an agent of Missy. Well, it still could happen.

Overall, featuring an entertaining script from newcomer Jamie Mathieson and great visuals (the clock counting down in the corner of the screen is a nifty, almost Sherlockian, device), the episode's lighter touch is a welcome change from 'Kill the Moon' although particular moments of happiness here do somewhat undercut the drama of that episode. Still, it seems a trifle unfair to complain about such things as, on an insular level (there was no appearance of the Promised Land this week), this episode invited us on board and took us on surely the most solid, classic and classy adventure this series. If you have a counter-argument, I'd like to hear it. You've got 66 seconds...

Is there a Doctor on board? - The Time Lord has to solve the mystery of the mummy murders...

Next week: Separated from the Doctor, Clara must face an alien menace from another dimension in 'Flatline' on BBC One at 8.30pm.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Kill the Moon

Stepping on the Moon might be one small step for a man, but it's also one massive decision for all of mankind in 'Kill the Moon'...

 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike.'

Over its long history, Doctor Who has posited quite a few difficult moral decisions - should humanity share the world with the Silurians? Should the Doctor save Pompeii? Is it right to destroy Gallifrey for the sake of the Universe? Well, the latest episode of Series Eight offered us a new, more avant-garde, one. Would you kill the Moon?

Without saying too much (I know, if you're reading this you've probably already seen the episode, but you just might be here to get some sort of spoiler fix, and I don't want to indulge that - see a Doctor), this episodes sports a terrific premise and one that's pure Doctor Who; an ingenious twist on a familiar (if outer space) object. Much like 'Listen' elsewhere this series, the episode also earns marks for audacity for switching styles half-way through, beginning as a sci-fi horror story (with that wonderfully eerie image of cobwebs on the Moon) and then developing into a moral debate which shakes the solidarity of our heroes' friendship...

On the other hand, 'Kill the Moon' isn't perfect. First-time writer Peter Harness is, in my opinion, still learning the Who ropes and much of this episode lacks the witty repartee that distinguishes most stories. Furthermore, there was some dissonance between the matter of the episode and how it had been promoted - the shocking action that the Doctor was said to make here was not quite so Earth-shattering (or rather Moon-shattering) as it had been made out to be. This could be seen as a plus, though, as rather than breaking the character in the end it just pushed the Doctor towards measures he doesn't usually take but kept the morals of our hero intact. 

It hardly needs saying any more, but Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman once again did their best with the dramatic possibilities of what they were given. Clara's tearing the Doctor apart is particularly impressive, even though I generally find it more enjoyable to watch a Doctor and a companion getting on rather than arguing (yes, I'm looking at you, Sixth Doctor and Peri). Likewise, Ellis George did a commendable job this week as guest traveller Courtney. The school girl was not a crucial element to the episode but at least was not as superfluous as the Matiland children from 'Nightmare in Silver.' Still, after last week's sparks between the Doctor and Danny I'd have much rather seen Mr Pink join the TARDIS crew in place of his student. As a soldier, he might have been on the 'Kill the Moon' side of the argument - which would have given it a more interesting voice than Hermione Norris' sadly undeveloped character, Lundvik

For all my grumblings, however, 'Kill the Moon' was a worthy addition to the series, moving this run of episodes up a gear as it heads into murkier territories. It might not have been out of this world, but, with a thoughtful subject matter, an unpredictable Doctor and a lack of easy answers, it certainly had gravity.

Dark Side of the Moon - a difficult decision has to be made... but what will the Doctor do?

Next week: The Doctor has a ticket to board the Orient Express... in space! With a Mummy! I bet you'll never guess the title...
'Mummy on the Orient Express' is next Saturday at 8.30pm on BBC One. 
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