Thursday, 26 March 2015

My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: Blink

Clearly March is the month of telly birthdays. The other week I celebrated the eighteenth birthday of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now, on 26th March, 21st century Doctor Who reaches double figures. To celebrate - with this, my 100th Doctor Who post on this blog - I'm looking back at one of my favourite stories of the modern Who era. But first, I have a confession to make.
In Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary year, I wrote a post entitled 'My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: The Doctor's Wife' and then promised to write the next two soon after. Well, finally, I'm making good on that promise and am finally giving you Part Two of my top three Doctor Who episodes. Expect Part Three in the summer of 2017...

'People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more of a big ball of  wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey... stuff.'

What more can be said about 'Blink' that hasn't been said before? Casual viewers and hardcore fans alike seem to hail this one above all other Whos. Myself, although I don't think its quality is quite as above the rest of the show as some do (every episode of Doctor Who is brilliant in its own way), it is one of my all-time favourites. But just why is 'Blink' so popular?

The big reason why I think it stands as such an impressive piece of work - even after multiple, multiple viewings - is because of how everything feels necessary and perfectly pitched. Usually when you endlessly rewatch old favourites, you start to notice things that could be done better or bits that don't make sense. 'Blink', however, manages to withstand such weary eyes and survive intact. One thing, even if it is not a fault, that does leap out now though is all the intrigue surrounding DVD easter eggs. It might have occurred to some already but you can imagine watching this in a few years time and thinking 'aw bless, I remember 'easter eggs.'' Hopefully, due to the precision of everything else this won't date the episode too much. 

Understandably, as they are perhaps the TV series' scariest monster (though for my personal creepiest creature in Who I point you to Steven Moffat's Floofs from his short story 'The Corner of the Eye') the Weeping Angels are generally the most praised aspect of the story. For me, however, Carey Mulligan's Sally Sparrow is just as integral to its success - as in her capable hands we remarkably never miss the Doctor, who is reduced to a fleeting guiding presence here. Without any offence to Amy and Clara, it is a shame neither of Moffat's companions share the maturity and strong-headedness of Sally.

After their breakout success, it was a no-brainer that the aforementioned Angels would return (and, for what it's worth, I really like their next two appearances, though popular opinion says they are far inferior) but I wish other elements of this episode had been repeated as well. Because of how well it works here, 'Blink' makes me wish there were more of these Doctor/companion-less adventures. Not only do they free up the main actors' schedules they also make the Whoniverse feel more expansive and it reminds you that the Doctor can't solve all of the alien shenanigans going on in the universe. Personally, I'd love one of these self-contained mini-movies every year!

Like, say, 'Genesis of the Daleks' before it, 'Blink' has proven itself to be one of Doctor Who's most fiercely acclaimed stories. Thanks to the Weeping Angels, Steven Moffat's tightest script and a glittering lead, 'Blink' certainly isn't a disposable episode that disappears when you stop watching it - rather it's a veritable stone-cold classic. The perfect reminder for fans, or the perfect convincer for a newcomer, of why modern Doctor Who is so blinking brilliant.*

Stone circle - The Angels are trapped staring at each other at the end of Blink. But I've always wondered what will happen when the light bulb goes off?

Fancy a Doctor Who marathon on this special day but don't know which ones to watch? Then read my list of the 30 Greatest Doctor Who Episodes of the Revived Series over on Whatculture!

*Even I think I might have overstepped my pun quota in that last paragraph.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Best of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I was something of a latecomer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, having only started watching it a few years ago, but I learnt to love it just as many longer-running fans have done. Buffy has the features of all the great shows - wit, heart and loveable characters - but I admire it most of all for being the mother of largely every genre show made since. Torchwood, Being Human, Merlin, 21st century Doctor Who and more all owe Buffy a huge debt. Russell T Davies has gone on record saying how Buffy 'raised the bar' of television in general. From the way it mixes all the elements so well, it's hard to disagree. 
This week Buffy turned 18 years old so, in celebration, I'm going to talk you through my favourite episodes of the show. And I'll begin right about... now. 

'Hush', (Season 4, Episode 10)

The 'Blink' of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Inspired by how critics only seemed to praise the show's dialogue, creator Joss Whedon crafted this episode to be almost entirely silent - as the residents of Sunnydale have their voices stolen. The thieves are the grinning, murderous Gentlemen who I'd wager are the scariest band of TV monsters outside of Doctor Who. 'Hush' is so wonderfully creepy it makes you wish Buffy had thought to be properly scary more often but then this episode is so successful that there was probably no point in attempting to top it.

'Restless', (Season 4, Episode 22)

Dreams are an oft-used device on TV and film but rarely, if ever, are they portrayed as realistically as here. Unlike, say, Inception which simply uses dreams to play with the laws of physics, 'Restless' embraces the random-yet-possibly-meaningful nature of dreams to take a glimpse at the psyche of the four main characters. What's more, it's a novel approach to the series finale, acting as more of a coda than a climax. Quite possibly one of the surrealist - and bravest - episodes of mainstream telly ever.

'The Body', (Season 5, Episode 16)

A little like 'Restless' embraces everything about dreams, 'The Body' portrays the grief process with stark reality, particularly that on the very day that one loses a loved one. Inspired by the loss of Whedon's own mother, this episode looks at how Buffy, her sister Dawn and their freinds react to the sudden death of Joyce. Not from a vampire attack, but an aneurysm. It is the perfect example of how Buffy transcended the expectation of what genre shows could do. This is something that other series have continued since yet none of them have delivered an episode as truly devastating as 'The Body.'

'Once More With Feeling', (Season 6, Episode 7)

But on the other hand, Buffy can be, and usually is, lots of fun. And this musical episode is surely the most gloriously enjoyable Buffy of them all. I'm not a particularly massive fan of musicals, but the way in which the character drama and plot development of a normal Buffy episode is done through song is sublime... and also they're just really good tunes. This episode teaches a lesson a lot of TV shows could learn from Buffy as a whole - with just a bit more dedication and care, you can turn average television into something really special.

Fancy some more of my favourite Buffy episodes? Then you can read my, more sweeping, look at the show's finest hours over on Whatculture here.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Doctor Who: Other Dimensions - Engines of War

Last month we looked at the birth of the Cybermen in Spare Parts but now we turn to another great chapter in Doctor Who history that wasn't shown on TV - the Last Great Time War...

'No more.'

Ever since it was first mentioned in 2005, Doctor Who fans have been clamouring for a glimpse of the fabled Last Great Time War. We got something in 2010's 'The End of Time' and even more in 'The Day of the Doctor' when we met the War Doctor, a whole new incarnation of our hero. It was thought that was it for that massive period of the Doctor's life but then, to the surprise and excitement of many, George Mann's Engines of War came out - another adventure with the War Doctor! It had better be good...

Thankfully, Engines is a truly commendable achievement. I think every Doctor Who fan would simultaneously jump at and reel away from the chance to properly document such an oft-discussed but hardly seen piece of Who lore. In light of that, Mann does a remarkable job of weaving together most of the strands that we've heard about it alongside every fan's own idea of what it was like to create a very convincing realisation of the Time War. It may leave out some of the tantalising hints we've been told over the years - The Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles, anyone? - but we see enough of the horror and the scale to totally believe in it. 

Yet there's much more to the novel than merely filling in a gap. It really is a unique piece with a feel very different from any other Who story. It certainly has a much bleaker outlook than most - the notion that everything and everyone is corruptible is a quite a prevalent idea here - yet hope still exists in the form of the leads. The War Doctor and Cinder make for a great partnership - both are jaded, battle-weary soldiers but they still believe there's something better out there than just the War. 

The War Doctor as a character is much like we saw on screen - a broken man but still with the Doctor's eccentricities and bravado peeking through - and it's easy to see and hear John Hurt while reading. His companion Cinder - who gets her name from her auburn hair as well as the fact that she was found in the ashes of her family home as a girl - is surely the most memorable one-off companion introduced in a novel. Actually, scratch that, she's probably one of the most memorable of any one-off companions. Thankfully, despite being very much involved in the conflict, she never feels like simply a boring hard-nosed soldier type but a believable person who has had a terrible life but still has a sense of humour and a strong heart - like all the best companions, really. 

Completely engaging and satisfying, if a story of the Time War needed to be told I am glad it was this one. Due to its unique angle and fascinating setting, it could even be the best Doctor Who novel out there. It is certainly the most significant. We can but hope that there is more of the War Doctor still to come but if his catchphrase turns out to prescribe his number of appearances at least there is Engines of War.

Before the Moment - Engines of War sees the War Doctor at an earlier point in his life.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: A Doctor Who Fan on Star Trek (2009)

To boldly go where no Whovian (well, not this Whovian) has gone before...

Recently, hundreds of people across the world fell into mourning over the sad death of Leonard Nimoy, the perhaps most beloved actor from the long-lasting Star Trek. Myself, I felt the loss of such a bastion figure of popular culture and thought, in his honour, this would be a good time to rectify something: I'd never really seen any Star Trek.

Well, not properly. I'd vaguely watched Star Trek Into Darkness for Benedict Cumberbatch but most of it flew above my head so I don't think I can really count it. Initially, it might seem odd that I had never given that other great sci-fi show a go but Trek's sterile-looking, emphasis-on-big-ideas take was so far from the (generally) cheerful, ramshackle feel of Doctor Who that they might as well have been different genres. I didn't dislike the idea of Star Trek I just hadn't given it a go. Having committed to it now, though, I decided a good starting point was the film I probably should have watched first: the 2009 reboot.

Firstly, I certainly enjoyed it more than Into Darkness. That film (apart from being, I gather, a strange semi-remake of 'the' classic Trek film) left me feeling like I should be caring for the characters but I didn't know them well enough to. Here, however, I did and the film does a really good job of introducing the characters to fresh eyes, particularly Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine strikes me as something of a generic Hollywood leading man but he does fine as a young hot-headed Kirk while Zachary Quinto impresses as the apparently emotionless Spock. Much like Bond in Casino Royale, it doesn't feel like a cheap prequel but an interesting exploration of how these characters developed into their more familiar selves.  

While watching the film I wondered what the Who equivalent would be. While Doctor Who has had film versions separate from the series (two movies were produced in the 60s starring Peter Cushing as 'Doctor Who'), in terms of awe factor it's more similar to 'The Day of the Doctor.' They both use time travel to give the franchise a new lease of life (rebooting the universe/saving the Time Lords), different incarnations of characters (Three Doctors/two Spocks) and lots of kisses to the past (even I got references like 'I have been, and always shall be, your friend'). Much like I imagine a new Who viewer watching 'Day', I felt like I was missing out on something - being new to the party - but was still sufficiently swept along.

Overall, I'm impressed that the film manages to both keep the original in tact while rebooting it (I've always found straight reboots to be a boring way of ditching continuity - Who and James Bond know that all you have to do is ignore all the stuff you don't want and let the fans work it out) although the plot was a little convoluted. That said, I enjoyed it enough to be willing to watch more Trek in the future. So thank you, Mr Nimoy, for your integral role in Doctor Who's rival from across the pond. This Whovian (Vulcan) salutes you.

'Pleasure to meet you, Mr Spock' - Perhaps the two aren't quite so different, after all...

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