Monday, 27 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: IN THE FOREST OF THE NIGHT review, 25 October 2014


'The trees are not your enemy. They're a shield.' Not brilliant but not bad, Frank Cottrell-Boyce's debut script is full of charm and wonder.

The trouble with lichen. (Image: BBC)
It shows how far Doctor Who has come from the thumpingly literal titles of ‘Cold War’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’ when an episode can take its handle from William Blake’s poem ‘Tyger, Tyger’ (written in 1794 and quoted by John Kane’s Tommy in 1974’s ‘Planet of the Spiders’, fact fans).

Getting in a celebrity wrier has been a bit hit-and-miss on Doctor Who. Mr Olympics Frank Cottrell-Boyce has always been one of my favourite film writers: 24 Hour Party People (2002), about the kamikaze career of Manchester’s Factory Records, is one of the funniest and most moving films I’ve ever seen, so I had high hopes. Elsewhere, we’ve had fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) scribe Richard Curtis’s ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, both of which I liked. Stephen Fry’s contribution to the series, meanwhile, never made it out of his laptop.

A high profile author new to the world of the Time Lord always delivers something out of left field, and Cottrell-Boyce is no exception. Under the wonderfully surreal imagery and well-acted dysfunctional children, his story is a Gaia parable. The idea of the Earth being a gestalt organism which will protect itself, as the trees shield humanity here, is something very new, and welcome, to Doctor Who, and thankfully free of the arboreal schmaltz of ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. A benign intelligence, existing side by side with the human race since the dawn of time and silently watching over it, has bags of potential above and beyond this initial forty-five minutes. It’s a scenario I’d love to see developed.

Great idea, well-acted, stunning visuals, competently directed by newcomer Sheree Folkson, so it’s a bit of a shame there’s hardly any jeopardy or sense of crisis in ‘In the Forest of the Night’.  Apart from a run-in with CGI wolves and a tiger (I assume – they’re very well realised if they are), it’s a stroll to a climax that Mr Pink and Miss Oswald’s class treat like a trip to the local multiplex. The return of Annabel Arden (Eloise Barnes) to her family was slightly ‘Fear Her’-sentimental, but it made sense as the trees were granting the wish of Maebh (the quietly impressive Abigail Eames) for her sister to come home, following Maebh’s help with contacting the Doctor. This is a bit odd, because the Doctor doesn’t really do anything, the other major weakness in the plot.

These caveats aside, ‘In the Forest of the Night’ has a fairy tale sense of wonder in keeping with the children’s stories like ‘Hansel and Gretle’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ that are deep in its chlorophyll DNA, and Angela Carter’s adult fable ‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984) is another oblique influence. In fact, of all the stories this year, this story is the one to watch with your children and, I suspect, will reward after repeated viewings. The kids are authentic – loved the line ‘What’s a navigator?’ – and it was great fun seeing the Doctor coping with a school trip invading his TARDIS.

Of course, there’s a conservative, venal and, frankly, ignorant minority online who will hate ‘In the Forest of the Night’ and probably not even know who Franck Cottrell-Boyce is. I have some advice: if this isn’t what you like, scurry back to the nostalgia of your Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker DVDs. I’m sure you'll be very happy there.

As usual, the regulars are a joy to watch. Danny Pink is fast becoming The Most Reasonable Man on the Planet (no wonder Clara’s in love with him), while Clara herself is the teacher we all wish we’d had at school – smart, funny, patient and encouraging. After nearly a year of stories, Peter Capaldi has found his rhythm as the Doctor: spiky, but humane and witty with it.

And so, to the series finale. Can’t wait!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: FLATLINE review, 18 October 2014


Ladies and gentlemen, Doctor Who's new show runners - Jamie Mathieson and Douglas Mackinnon.

Genius. (Image: BBC)
Brilliant. Just brilliant. Where else would you see material as weird, imaginative and stimulating as this on Saturday night primetime television? Do I really need to answer that?

One of the many great things 'Flatline' does is remind you why Doctor Who is unique. Every so often a story comes along - like 'The Mind Robber' (1968), like 'Warrior's Gate' (1981), like 'Blink' (2008) - that pushes the series into the realm of the great surrealists like Lewis Carroll or Jean Cocteau. Jamie Mathieson's script did all that and more but kept the visual insanity within an everyday framework of Bristol accents, Banksy and community service. There was a whiff of the excellent Misfits (2009-13) in the latter, but 'Flatline' is in a different class all together.

I raved about 'Mummy of the Orient Express' last week and 'Flatline' proves that Mathieson's striking debut was no flash in the pan. He's easily the best writer for Peter Capaldi's Doctor and completely gets what the production team have been trying to do with the character. In the scenes of the Doctor trapped in the TARDIS on his own Capaldi is commanding, funny and mesmerising. The Twelfth Doctor has fully materialised.

There's so much to enjoy here, not least the disturbing idea of Clara being a surrogate Doctor. He face becomes noticeably harder as she does all the things he usually does - lying to people to give them hope, provoking someone for their own good, using the special abilities of the locals - and Jenna Coleman is more than up to the job, as she has been all year. A great pay off from last week, is that Clara was lying when she told the Doctor that Danny was OK with her continuing to travel with him. The student learns from the master.

Just like in 'Mummy...', Mathieson reveals a gift for creating a three dimensional supporting cast and strikingly original dialogue. Christopher Fairbank's Fenton is the kind of obnoxious jobsworth we've all met and in a single line of dialogue - 'I've always wanted to ram something' - defines a train driver's character. The consistently underrated Matt Bardock (Al) was rather wasted, but did bring his customary everyman nobility to a small role.
'Lying is a vital survival instinct and a terrible habit.'

You'd never know from the BBC2 police drama Line of Duty that Douglas Mackinnon could deliver a visual tour de force of bizarre imagery like this; he certainly gives The Prisoner (1967-8) a run for its money. I'm never going to forget the miniature TARDIS pulled along by the Doctor's crawling hand, the human nervous system smeared along a wall or the Doctor's face framed by the TARDIS doors. If the director and Mathieson aren't immediately snapped up by Hollywood on the strength of 'Flatline', they should seriously consider taking over Doctor Who if Steven Moffat's rumoured departure after this year's Christmas Special happens. They are singular, ground-breaking and truly original talents.

After the ‘exactly what it says on the tin’ title of Mathieson’s first script, ‘Flatline’ is wonderfully ambiguous. It could refer to how the aliens penetrate this dimension, the crippled TARDIS or the erosion of Clara’s humanity. Admit it, Jamie – you’ve been watching The Prisoner.

I imagine quite a few children - if they were allowed to stay up until nine o'clock - went to bed with the light on. I lay in bed Saturday night waiting for sleep and couldn't help wonder about the nature of the shifting shadows on my bedroom walls. 'Flatline' breaks 1970s producer Barry Letts' rule, after the killer doll and killer plastic flowers in 'Terror of the Autons' (1971), that children shouldn't feel threatened in their homes. Mackinnon, Mathieson and Moffat really threw that particular baby out with the bath water and I admire their artistic courage in doing so.

So what about that bombshell of an ending? Missy is clearly the 'woman in a shop' in 'The Bells of St. John' who gave Clara the Doctor's phone number. Where is this going? Whoever she is, she's been manipulating the time traveller for some time. This narrative curve ball, implying that Clara is being moulded into a ruthless clone of her mentor, is the sort of thing that has made me punch the air during Capaldi's first series. Doctor Who really is back.

I can't wait for next week's story. I love being able to say that.

Monday, 13 October 2014



Stylish, intelligent and literate, Capaldi's eighth story is one of his best so far.

Start the clock. (Image: BBC)

Rip-off or homage? That depends what Doctor Who stories we're talking about. For the ones everybody likes that borrow excessively from other fictional sources, such as 'Planet of Evil', 'The Brain of Morbius', 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' and 'The Unicorn and the Wasp' – it's homage; for the ones people don't like – 'The Invisible Enemy', 'The Androids of Tara', 'Fear Her', 'The Lazarus Experiment' – it's rip-off.

I've got no objection to Doctor Who – or anything else – doing this if it results in something new, interesting and entertaining. There's no denying that the starting point for 'Mummy on the Orient Express' is the old Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas-starring chiller Horror Express (1972). That featured an extra-terrestrial creature, buried in prehistory, coming back to life during a train journey and slowly wiping out the crew and passengers.

Boy, did new writer Jamie Mathieson and director Paul Wilmshurst come up with the new, interesting and entertaining goods. Despite the thumpingly literal title, this was a story full of wonderful dialogue, well-defined characters, surprising twists in the plot – the decompression of the kitchen carriage to force the Doctor to stop talking to Clara was especially effective – and gripping jeopardy. In short, this story was the complete opposite of last week's.

At its best, Doctor Who has always made its fictional worlds believably real. Classic series writer Robert Holmes used to do it with the detail and colour in the lines for his characters, and Mathieson has clearly learned from the master. A whole future Earth civilization was sketched in via conversations with Maisie, Perkins, Captain Quell and Professor Moorhouse. And it was memorable dialogue, too – a real joy to listen to. Apart from 'Midnight' (2009), I can't remember a modern Doctor Who story that's had so much for its actors to say.

What I also loved about this story was that the Doctor could only get the information to beat the mummy, 'the Foretold', through people dying as the creature attacked them. That steadily ratcheted up the tension – the killing sequences where the seconds counted to zero were a stylish, heart-in-mouth touch – and exposed the Doctor's callous side as Perkins (Frank Skinner, playing himself very well) pointed out. It was also great to see the Time Lord working out the nature of the Foretold from the clues he gathered. Last year, the Doctor would have just glanced at the sonic screwdriver, neatly undercutting the suspense, any need for ingenuity on the writer's part and shortening the episode by two minutes.

The terrific cast were all on side with the idea of 'the 1920s in space'. The production was like a 1960s or 1970s story, as character actors rather than big names (apart from Skinner, and John Sessions as the unctuous computer Gus) were cast, with versatile performers such as David Bamber, Christopher Villiers and Daisy Beaumont rising to the occasion so well, that you cared what happened to each and every one of them. No small feat in just under forty-five minutes.

People will moan about Clara's about-face to travelling with the Doctor but I think her change of heart is realistic: we've all been in relationships with the wrong person and wanted to end it, then talked ourselves into giving it another go. The scenes on the beach and in the TARDIS at the end between the two old friends were subtly and sensitively directed, emphasising just how good Capaldi and Coleman are together.

How this all pans out will depend on whether or not the Doctor's 'cover story' about rescuing everyone from the Orient Express is true or not – Clara and Perkins were both unconscious so he could just have saved them... after what happened to the Half-Face Man, nothing's certain. Clara's comment about the Doctor being addicted to time travel is especially illuminating, as I'm starting to think it isn't the Time Lord who's got a problem. Tantalisingly, there were other unanswered questions: the Foretold was another 'soldier' (tying in with one of this year's running themes) and just who got all those experts together to study it? My money's on a certain Mary Poppins lookalike.

Next to 'Deep Breath', 'Mummy on the Orient Express' is my favourite Capaldi story so far. It's positive proof that the standard of script writing on this series – though it might wobble from time to time – is still a quantum leap on in quality from last year. Mathieson is a real find and I'm really looking forward to 'Flatline' next week, which looks like a particularly psychedelic adventure in the style of Sapphire and Steel (1979-82).

And finally, having the pop singer Foxes on board the Orient Express crooning her way through Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' would, in my day, have been like having Kate Bush (ask your mum) pop up in 1979's 'City of Death' singing 'Can't Buy Me Love'.

It's good to see that Doctor Who can still get down with The Kids.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: KILL THE MOON review, 4 October 2014



The web of fear? (Image: Radio Times)

The Earth in danger, the Doctor absent, Clara forced to make a decision that will have appalling consequences whatever she decides to do... 'Kill the Moon' has all the ingredients of a classic. So why wasn't it completely convincing?

The production is up to the usual impeccable standard we've come to expect from 21st century Doctor Who. The location filming in Lanzarote yielded an authentic lunar landscape - and boy, must the actors have suffered for their art in those space suits and that heat - the FX spiders are suitably nasty, as well as a great kiddie frightener, and Hermione Norris gives her always watchable cynic-who-really-cares performance.

Forget all the surface gloss. Back in the 20th century, what Doctor Who always had that set it apart from its better funded and better technically resourced contemporaries was the writing. If its reach exceeded its grasp on the production front – as it often did, and hurrah for that – on a good day it was the scripts which fired the audience's imagination as the actors entertained with the smart, witty and literate words they were given to say.

Perhaps that's the problem with 'Kill the Moon'. There is an awful lot of exposition dialogue which doesn't function as anything more than that - there's no sparkle or subtext to it. For such a small guest cast, the only one of the astronauts who has any character is Norris's Lundvik; if I was Tony Osoba (Duke) or Phil Nice (Henry), I'd have felt rather disappointed when the script arrived from my agent. Because they were so underwritten, you got the feeling the only reason Duke and Henry were there was to be cannon fodder for the spiders. Beyond the well-directed shock value of their deaths, you just didn't care what happened to them. The incidental music score is also much more 'Hollywood epic' than has been the case elsewhere this year, a clear sign that it was compensating for something that wasn't quite working.

The big picture was indeed big: a huge creature being born inside the moon, which is really a gigantic egg (laid by one of the inhabitants of Chloris, perhaps?) That's either a fantastic science fiction concept or a bad comic strip - hard to say. Either way, I don't buy the way the Doctor behaved here. I can see what new writer Peter Harness was trying to do, going for the alien detachment to human history the time traveller's shown in the past in 'The Massacre' (1966), 'Pyramids of Mars' (1975) and 'The Fires of Pompeii' (2008), among others. But would the Doctor - even this Doctor - clear off and leave the Earth to face possible extinction when the moon breaks up, after everything he's been through with humanity? No. His comment that the Earth isn't his home so, effectively, he isn't bothered about helping just doesn't ring true. We're a long way from 'Humans are quite my favourite species' ('The Ark in Space', 1975).

In fact, you got the feeling that the whole story was a set up for the final scene between between the Doctor and Clara. There's another echo of William Hartnell's 'The Massacre' here, as a companion harangues the Time Lord for his apparent callousness and tells him they're done travelling with him. It's so good, and Capaldi and Coleman are so good, that it's almost worth having sat through the previous forty-odd minutes to get here. That's the other thing about Doctor Who, or any good drama or comedy series: if there's a week where the story doesn't quite deliver, the great characters and brilliant performers will keep you watching.

Overall, 'Kill the Moon' is inconsequential when it should have been apocalyptic, but, having said that, it's only a slight dip in the much higher standard of script writing we've had this year. In 2013, Clara took children into space for a storybook romp through 'Nightmare in Silver'; in 2014, her pupil Courtney Woods (Ellis George) is scared half to death by the way adults behave. Adventure last year, grown up drama this year.

Next week, we're off to the interstellar Orient Express to fight a mummy (which sounds a lot like the 1972 film Horror Express.)

I wonder if Clara will be on board?