Saturday, May 21, 2011

Let's all go to a little place called 1966

With the conclusion of this episode, here we are with only two episodes to go before Doctor Who disappears from our televisions (and laptops) for the summer months. So far this series we’ve had an opening episode that for all its goodness was so dull I nearly stopped watching, a follow-up to that episode which was equally dull and an absolute shambles of writing, an episode that’s sort-of enjoyable at first but the more you think about it the more you realise the writing was an even bigger shambles than last week, and an episode so ludicrously hysteric it completely shattered any and all patience I had with NuWho. So much so I was very much inclined to give this episode a miss*.

Yet here we are, one week on, two weeks away from the end of DW for a little while, and I’ve watched it again. And do you know what? It was good. Properly good. Oh, it wasn’t the best episode of the New Series by any means. But this episode actually had a story. Or, rather, it actually knew how to tell a story. It was everything Doctor Who ought to be and some of the things it shouldn’t but that’s okay. It’s better than whatever was going on for the past four weeks.

If The Hungry Earth felt like it was left over from the days of David Tennant and last week’s episode was originally meant to have aired last year, you would be forgiven this is another episode they pulled out of the vault. Very, very deep in the vault.

I think, perhaps, that’s a big part of why I enjoyed this episode so much. Yes, it’s all very NuWho at first, but just that little inch past the shiny surface, there’s a real air of the days of Patrick Troughton here. With a bit of tweaking, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the cosmic hobo moving about this acid monastery in monochrome.

It’s a classic base under siege. Capital C Classic. In Ye Olden Days, the base under siege stories were like this. Consider The Moonbase: the TARDIS lands on the moon to find a moonbase, which, it turns out, monitors and controls all the weather on earth. Hurricanes? No problem. They’ll be redirected away from shore until they fizzle out into just a nasty rainstorm. But lo! There are Cybermen on the moon, picking off the moonbase crew and trying to sabotage the base itself!

In fact this episode calls to mind all of Kit Pedler, who was the god of base under siege and Cybermen, having written The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase, and Tomb of the Cybermen, as well as having worked on The Wheel in Space. Substitute fleshy clones for some sort of tool of the Cybermen and he very well could have written this.

Go ahead. Play with the settings on your TV. When the titles are about to start, mute it and play the Derbyshire theme.

But it’s not just the fact that you could be forgiven for thinking the recon team drummed this out of the mothballs. It’s not just that The Rebel Flesh knows how to tell a story. The story it tells is actually good. Oh, sure, someone’s going to piss and moan about the fact that the whole cloning blues thing has been done a million times but who gives a sod?

The acting, most certainly, is a vital point here. One of the best moments is when Ganger!Jennifer (Gangifer?) is seated in the locker room, questioning her identity. A bit of well-played, understated acting from Arthur Darvill really helps drive home that understands her plight. Oh, sure, she’s all goopy-fleshy and he was all-plasticy, but it doesn’t change that Rory the Roman was once, essentially, a Ganger.

Oh, and it helps that Rory didn’t die. I mean really. He died at least three times last year – more, I’m sure, but three spring to mind – and in essentially every episode so far this series. Hopefully it won’t happen next week (or, preferably, ever again) but at least this week it made for a refreshing change. When Rory went running off on his own I half-expected Gangifer to drop from the ceiling onto him instead of Jennifer. And yet, here we are, credits rolled, Rory very much alive.

Another refreshing change, also relating to Rory, is that he actually does something this week. Usually it’s Amy running off being all “Look at me; I am the cool companion” while Rory just kind of stands around sputtering until someone stabs him. Here Rory actually does something. I mean actually. Meanwhile Amy does stuff, but nothing of any real consequence except run into Frances Barber yet again. It makes sense, in a way, why the roles would be the way they are normally, to the modern television writer. Rory is the nurse. The kind, gentle, caring one. Amy is the emotionally scarred daft one. The reversal here is a good one.

The performances across the board are great. Some are, of course, better than others, but hey ho such is life. Some actors are better than others. Some people are better at making cheese than their neighbours. It was also quite nice to see Matt Smith reunited with Raquel Cassidy. Party Animals had a lot of problems but it was still quite a good show, and the relationship between Jo and Danny is definitely one of the highlights, largely because of the two actors rather than the writing. My brain far too eternally associates Marshall Lancaster with Chris Skelton, unfortunately.

The episode is bang full of implications as well. Any story about a host of clones, of course, carries with it the natural implication of not being able to trust our senses. We may think that Miranda is Miranda but no. She turns out to be a Ganger. But that all adds to more-or-less straightforwardness present on the skin of the episode. There are hints here of something more. Something not quite right. We also have the hour during which our heroes were unconscious. Riding underneath everything, there’s a bit of McCoy era to it as well; as though the TARDIS hasn’t just somehow accidentally wound up on this monastery cum factory.

It’s also nice to see that, excepting Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill, there’s not a Southerner to be found. That’s mostly just me though.

The episode isn’t perfect, but in light of the past four episodes it’s much easier to overlook the flaws of this week’s. The tension isn’t all quite there, but in addition to any flaws in the writing that can be pinned on the director, cinematographer, and the fact that cloning stories have been done to death. The cliffhanger, too, could be seen coming from centuries out, but what can you do?

All in all The Rebel Flesh isn’t the best episode of Doctor Who, but it’s still very much fantastic. Far and away the best episode of series six thus far. Who would have ever seen that coming?

*Well, that and it was written by the man who wrote Fear Her. I don’t hate Fear Her anywhere near as much as most of the online community, but it’s still overall a pretty poor episode.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I don't even know what to say anymore

Ah, The Doctor’s Wife. That one episode we’ve been promised for a very, very long time but never seemed quite to materialise. The one that quite a few people were starting to suggest would turn into the Stephen Fry episode*. The one that’s been hyped up to infinite ends because it was written by Neil Gaiman.

One of my many, many gripes about the New Series is the way in which the writing is done. A big part of what made Human Nature/Family of Blood so good** was the fact that it was just a question of Paul Cornell streamlining his novel for TV and obviously modifying the characterisations so Bernice was now Martha and the Seventh Doctor was now the Tenth Doctor. But, as has been admitted a fair few times on Confidential and the like, the writing on NuWho is often a case of the showrunner saying, “Right, episode ten: the one with pirates” and then someone goes and drafts a script. The worse episodes, I suspect, are the ones that are very shopping cart, like Victory of the Daleks.

This episode is a very welcome breather, in that it definitely was not a shopping list episode. Or if it was, Gaiman is talented enough to mask that fact completely. I suspect, though, that it truly was the former, and that Neil Gaiman merely wrote a script and worked with whomever the current script editor is, Moffat, and other people to keep things from spiralling out of budgetary control and within the context of the series’ overarching plot for the finale.

Ah, but for all its goodness, this episode still gets on my nerves. I don’t know. I think I’m at my wits end with NuWho. I watched the first three episodes dutifully, and while I was enjoying each of them on some level, it never really felt right. I thought perhaps I’d grown tired of Doctor Who after all these years, but no. I listened to The Massacre again the other night and watched The Edge of Destruction again earlier this evening, and I still quite like them. Actually, The Edge of Destruction is still one of my favourites, although I know a lot of fans won’t agree with me on that one.

Some of my gripes with this episode are a bit nitpicky. For example, Michael Sheen. Michael. Fucking. Sheen. One of the greatest actors alive today and this is how you use him? Oh yes, it’s a wonderful performance, as far as deep, boomy, technologically-modified voices go. But you may as well have said to Nick Briggs, “Oi mate, we’ve got another voice for you to do”. The odds of nabbing Sheen for Who again are slim, and this is how you use him?

And as is often my complaint with the new series, WHY IS THERE A FORTY FIVE MINUTE TIME LIMIT? The trouble with Doctor Who is it still insists on doing one-off stories. The reason Caprica worked so well during the first half of the season, the reason BSG worked so well, the reason DS9 was trailblazing, was because it said “Okay, forty-five minutes to an episode, but we’ll do series-wide arcs across episodes.” And yet here is Doctor Who, a show which BEGAN in serial format, suddenly saying “Once a week and we’ll toss in some vague clues in the most hamfisted manner possible that build up to the finale with varying degrees of success”. If they would make the show longer, like Moffat’s other project Sherlock, or go back to doing hour long serials like they experimented with in the 1980s, it would do Doctor Who a hell of a lot of good.

I think, really, this is my biggest complaint with The Doctor’s Wife. It’s well written, definitely. It’s nowhere near my favourite episode, and I doubt it would be even if it were given more time, but in the impossibly narrow space it has, it’s useless. I haven’t read much Gaiman, I admit, but what I’ve read is brilliant. And what we see here is trying to be brilliant. But it just isn’t. It isn’t anywhere near brilliant because the episode has no length to it, and because it has no length to it the episode has no time to establish anything – anything at all – that would lend it anything even vaguely resembling narrative weight. Ultimately, because the narrative isn’t allowed to be anything more than a series of cleverly written lines and some pretty shots, it becomes an exercise in abject futility.

I just really, seriously, am struggling to find anything good to say about this episode. Well, not anything. Like I said, there is good there. But it isn’t proper good. It isn’t something which makes me want to say, “You should go out and watch this” in the way a lot of First and Second Doctor serials do. Even episodes like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood and the Vampires of Venice, undoubtedly the three worst of last year, there is something there which makes me want to say, “Yeah, this is a proper story. It might not be the best, but go and watch it”.

As it stands we are now four episodes into Series Six, more than halfway through the spring half of the series (three episodes left to go and then no Doctor Who until September) and there has yet to be an episode I would call properly good. An episode I will sit down and want to watch again. An episode I can take someone who’s only a casual fan, or has maybe never seen the programme before, and get them to watch it. There has yet to be an episode that even feels anything like Doctor Who.

Definitely, of the four so far, if you have to watch one, watch this one. It’s certainly got good moments. Clever writing – clever writing that tries to be brilliant – and excellent direction and some wonderful acting from Sheen (as much as his role lends), Smith, and Jones (even if she does, at times, remind a bit too much of Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix). I suspect that when both halves are said and done, this will be amongst the best, if not THE best. But honestly it means nothing in the end. It’s just another hectic mess of forty-five minutes, another episode so void of that which makes narrative meaningful. It’s like watching the Transformers films. It’s shiny and fun and there’s a plot, but that doesn’t make it good.

I don't know. I want to like this episode. Not just because it's Neil Gaiman, not just because it's Doctor Who, but because the goodness is there. The goodness just feels stale. Flat. Smothered to the point well past deadness.

I really think I am just done with NuWho. Call me when we learn how to clone William Hartnell.

Next week: The guy who wrote one of the worst episodes of Who in recent memory, yet somehow created the sheer epicness of Life on Mars, gets a two-parter.

*Specifically, Stephen Fry wrote a script for the second season of the New Season, but budget constraints meant it had to be moved to the third series. Because Rose is no longer the Doctor’s companion in series three, however, it would have to have been edited to suit the new companion. Fry couldn’t find the time to edit the script accordingly, and it was never produced. I still hope he’ll write another in the future, though.

**Although not as good as the original novel. This is in part because the Seventh Doctor is my absolute favourite Doctor. This is also in part because I have yet to see a Seventh Doctor story which is entirely awful (seriously, the Seventh Doctor’s nature as a walking Xanatos Speed Chess requires at least some degree of careful storytelling). But, mostly, this is because it is a novel, and as with any adaptation things are always left out because A. there are elements of a novel which do not work on film and B. even parts that work have to be cut for runtime, whereas a novel can be however long it pleases.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's been months since I've actually watched QI

and this is still my favourite moment in the entire programme to date.

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's a good bit of filler, ultimately

I suspect that this episode is going to be The Lodger, or Victory of the Daleks (interestingly, the third episode of last series), or similar when the series is said and done. It’s a good episode, certainly. But it’s hardly to get particularly enthused about it. Ultimately the failings of the Curse of the Black Spot are by and large the fault of outside sources.

For one thing, I’m a history nerd. One of the areas of history which interests me most of all is piracy. I’ve done loads of reading and have spent four years now hunting down the most authentic copy of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates* possible. And this episode deals with the greatest pirate to ever have lived. The man who was referred to as King of the Pirates – for good reason. Henry Avery. Most of the historical discrepancies in the story I’m willing to forgive because hey, it’s entertainment. I still wish Avery had been given a straight-up old fashioned historical, but that’s a minor gripe. Where I do exceedingly take issue, however, is the prequel to thisepisode, which was posted on the Beeb’s site and has since been copied places.

The prequel sets the story in 1699, THREE YEARS after Henry Avery disappeared. Also, going by the prequel and the episode, they’re still aboard the Fancy, which had been abandoned in the Bahamas by that point, and it suggests no one of the 113-man crew is left to be caught by the English (okay, only 12 were ever found), which means the greatest feat ever pulled off by Henry Avery never happens in the Whoniverse. Specifically, when Avery reached Britain and departed from his crewmen, he told each and every one of them he was going to a different place, and never the place where he would actually be, so that if any of them were ever captured the English would never find him. To this day no one knows where Avery went.

Beyond my historical gripes with it though, I think the absolute largest problem facing this episode is that it’s essentially filler. It’s a known fact that it has been moved from the autumn half of the series to this slot, and the trouble with NuWho is it bigs up event episodes to the point that anything that isn’t or in some way doesn’t significantly tie into the event episode feels lost in the sea of events. And any episode which can be moved so freely is almost certainly not the most important thing in the scheme of things. With the Moff at the helm, you can never be sure, but it certainly feels that way. Indeed, the only trappings of the overall arc are another appearance of the woman who is currently credited as the Eyepatch Lady (I know more, but shan’t spoil), Future!Eleven’s death, and Amy’s Schrödinger’s womb, as the good people of twitter have nicknamed it.

It’s also known that airing in this slot originally was going to be Neil Gaiman’s episode. An episode which has been pumped up both for the content it contains, and because it’s Neil Gaiman writing it. Any episode wedged between Moffat’s two-part opener and any episode written by Neil Gaiman is bound to feel a bit lost. Had this been airing in the autumn, when it was originally meant to, or even just this upcoming Saturday, when The Doctor’s Wife is now airing, it would probably feel less stale.

All in all, though, The Curse of the Black Spot is a good episode of Doctor Who. Matt Smith is, as usual, excellent as the Doctor. Karen Gillan continues to do well as Amy, even if she isn’t strictly the best actress out there. Arthur Darvill still carries on making Rory my favourite NuWho companion, even if, as others have pointed out, his penchant for death and near-death is beginning to get a wee bit tiresome. The incidental guest cast, as well, does their job well, though perhaps not quite as much so. Special mention must go to Hugh Bonneville, who easily turned in the best performance of the cast, though. (Incidentally,this is Bonneville’s second appearance in Doctor Who)

Unfortunately, though, this reminds me of another problem with the Curse of the Black Spot, and one that is the fault of its own writing. For all its nice touches and little hints, ultimately there isn’t much depth to Whoniverse’s Henry Avery beyond that which Bonneville’s acting suggests. For a Navyman turned pirate with a wife and son, trapped in a calm sea and crew stalked by a siren, there’s not quite much to him.

Ultimately, as I keep repeating, this is a good episode. Like the majority of filler episodes it does its job well but probably won’t stand long in the memory. If you just sit down and enjoy it for all its trappings, there’s definitely fun to be had here. And there are certainly worse filler episodes (Boom Town, Fear Her). Unfortunately, by being filler, it leaves us waiting. Last episode ends with the Doctor deciding not to investigate the little girl, which is a frequent and somewhat annoying thing NuWho does. Annoying because, well, it makes no sense, but also annoying because, as fans, we want to find out about the girl RIGHT NOW. The Curse of the Black Spot never really offers anything towards the greater arc, nothing apparent at least (we’ll see come the end of the series), but it does still offer a nice adventure.

Next week: Neil Gaiman, Michael Sheen, Time Lords(?), oh my!

(Also, for those who paid attention to the series trailer, this episode is almost certainly going to contain the epic exchange of: "Fear me, I've killed hundreds of Time Lords." "Fear me, I've killed them all.") 

*Pick it up if you have the chance. It’s where a lot of our pirate knowledge comes from. We’ve since learned a lot of things in it have been made up, but it’s still the primary source. It’s also where the term Jolly Roger comes from (protip: the Jolly Roger isn’t the flag; it’s the symbol on the flag. The flag is called a blackjack). It’s where the myth of pirates burying treasure comes from. So on and so forth.