Saturday, 29 September 2012

Series 7a Review: The Power of Three

Disclaimer: I wrote this before I watched 'The Angels Take Manhatten'.  

After the previous episode's slower, more measured approach to storytelling, 'The Power of Three' is a return to the more frenetic pace that we've become used to.  It's also a return, of sorts, to the Russell T Davies era of the series or at least it feel like it.

Whether intentional or not this feels like an homage to several episodes from RTD's tenure.  We have yet another invasion of contemporary Earth (see 'Aliens of London/World War Three' 'The Christmas Invasion' and many others); celebrity cameos (see every series finale from Series 2 to 4); a large number of the Earth's population being affected by an alien gizmo ('The Christmas Invasion' again) and the presence of UNIT in the Tower of London (oh look - 'The Christmas Invasion' yet again).

Brian Cox and a box

Yet, for all this familiarity, this still feels surprisingly fresh.  Present day alien invasions are actually quite rare in the Steven Moffatt era and, when they do occur, they are usually low-key affairs, such as in last year's 'Closing Time'.  So it's interesting to see Matt Smith's Doctor dealing with a full-on global disaster.   It's also interesting to see how this Doctor deals with UNIT.  Compared to his predecessor (who seemed somewhat uncomfortable working with them), the Eleventh Doctor seems far happier in his dealings with the military.   That said, of course, UNIT is now less of a military organisation and more a scientific investigation group, ably led by one Kate Stewart.

Before this episode aired, there were a number of people on the forums who felt that introducing the daughter of the late Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart into the series would be an insult to the memory of not just the character but the actor who played him.  Happily, after the episode, most of those naysayers had reversed their opinions.  Kate is very much her father's daughter: warm and likable yet always remaining professional and having a steely resolve to see things through to the bitter end.  Her presence is a fitting tribute to the Brigadier and I very much hope that we've not seen the last of her.

Like father, like daughter

This episode also marks the return of Rory's dad, Brian.  for one assumes the final time.  He's still a lot of fun but this time round that's tempered by the fact that Brian is concerned for his son and daughter in law.  Like Jackie Tyler before him, he wants to know that they'll be safe with the Doctor.  When he asks the Doctor what happens to the people who travel with him, the Doctor's response is refreshingly honest.  Yet, in the end and knowing what he does, it is Brian who persuades Rory and Amy to go off with the Doctor.  I hope that he doesn't regret it.

The heart of the story is all about the 'Three' of the title - the Doctor, Amy and Rory - and how they need to be together.  Amy and Rory aren't able to give up their 'Doctor life' and the Doctor just plain misses being with his friends, particularly Amy, the first person the Eleventh Doctor sees.  Of course, by the end of the episode the three of them are reunited which we all know means that they are being set up for a big fall.  Like most characters in soap operas or anything written by Joss Wheadon, now that they've found happiness these three are destined to have things go horribly wrong for them.

As for the 'Slow Invasion' itself well perhaps it went just a little bit too slowly as they didn't seem to have enough time in the episode for a proper ending.  Still, as Stewie from Family Guy once said, at least it didn't end like The Sopranos where they faded to black in the middle of a sent...  

Monday, 24 September 2012

Series 7a Review: A Town Called Mercy

I have to admit that I didn't enjoy as much as I thought I would.  The trailers and clips that I'd seen had initially seemed to suggest that we'd be in for a bit of a rootin' tootin' romp though the Old West with cyborg cowboys.  Then I saw the 'Next Episode' trailer at the end of 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' and realised that we'd be in for something a little more serious.

This episode is a definite change of pace from the two that precede it.  It's slower, more measured and perhaps a bit darker in tone - ironic really considering how much of the episode takes place in brilliant sunshine. I think that this sudden shift in tone is probably why I didn't enjoy the episode as much as I expected to.  Having something like this follow 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' comes as a bit of a shock.

Of course there is humour here, because even the darkest of Doctor Who episodes has had some humour in it, but in amongst the jokes about 'speaking horse' and Amy messing around with a pistol, we see the Doctor go to a very dark place indeed.  It's always a shock to see the Doctor holding a gun, not least because it's such a rare occurrence.  It's even rarer to see him actually pull the trigger but this was one occasion where I could honestly believe that he might actually go ahead and do it.  Of course he was never going to but such was Matt Smith's acting in the scene where he almost gives Khaler-Jex to the Gunslinger that I did have my doubts as to whether he would be able to hold back from squeezing the trigger.

He's saved from going over to the Dark Side by his companions, Amy and Rory who, other than being his moral compass, have frankly bugger all to do in this episode.  But their mere presence in this episode reinforces something that has been said over and over for the past few series: that the Doctor cannot travel without someone with him to keep him in check.  Yes, it seems like we're raking over old ground here but in light of what is to come in two episodes time, it seems appropriate to bring this up again.  I have no idea what will happen to Amy and Rory when they leave the series but I do wonder if the Doctor's actions in this episode as well as what he did to Solomon in 'Dinosaurs...' are just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course the Doctor's moral crisis isn't the only one here, there's also fellow Doctor Khaler-Jex.  Like Solomon he seems to be someone who, initially, has no real understanding or regard for the damage and suffering he has caused.  He's also very much a coward.  However, over the course of just a few short hours,  he seems to change his outlook completely and is prepared to end his like as punishment for his crimes.  His sudden decision to blow himself up is just a little too quick and convenient for my liking.

Overall I did quite enjoy this episode, just not as much as the previous two.  It was a little too slow in places and certain character weren't as well used as they could have been (the aforementioned Amy and Rory as well as Ben Browder's Marshal) but it looked stunning and certainly had a proper Western feel.  But, once again, for all that Steven Moffatt said that this series' episodes would be 'blockbuster movies' we have another story where the characters take precedence over the spectacle.  Like the Daleks and the Dinosaurs, the eye-catching Western setting is just a backdrop to the real drama.  

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Series 7a Review: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Somewhat later than I intended but what the heck, here's my review:

For only the second time in its long history Doctor Who has a proper go at doing dinosaurs.  Although given how they turned out last time it's perhaps not surprising that it's taken them so long to try again:

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (from which the above picture is taken) share little in common besides the inclusion of dinosaurs.  'Invasion...' is a more serious and, some might say, grittier story than it's spaceship-based successor - or at least as serious and gritty as a story featuring dinosaurs in the London Underground can be.  'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship' on the other hand is, by its author's own admission, a 'fun romp'.  That's what Steven Moffatt asked Chris Chibnall to write and, without a doubt, that's what he wrote.

I thought that I wouldn't enjoy it.  I'm not overly excited by dinosaurs, the trailers I'd seen didn't really enthuse me and, I'll be honest, I didn't really enjoy Chris Chibnall's last two episodes - the Silurian 2-parter from 2010.  So I went into this with some trepidation.  But, you know what, I really enjoyed it.

The whole thing gets off to a flying start with the Doctor picking up his 'gang' from various points in time to investigate a dinosaur infested spaceship.  I have to sat that, at times certain members of the group seemed to be superfluous to requirements.  Certainly Nefertiti and Riddell the big game hunter had little to do in the first half of the episode other than to flirt and be Amy's 'companions' while the Doctor and Rory were elsewhere.  Fortunately, like in all good 'gang' movies (I'm thinking 'Ocean's 11') everyone has a reason to be there and everyone gets their chance to shine.

The same criticism can be said of Brian, Rory's dad.  However, his character is so much fun that's it's easy to forget that he serves little purpose in being there - at least until he gets his balls out.  I'm definitely looking forward to his return in 'The Power of Three' later in the series, although it's a shame that we'll (probably) not see him again once Amy and Rory leave.

Of course amongst all the fun and romping and jokes about balls there is a darker story being told.  Solomon the trader with a dark heart (but an appreciation for 21st Century comedy duos if his robot's voices are anything to go by) is a small-scale villain by the Doctor's standards but he also seems to be one of the most irredeemable.   Even the Master turned out not to be such a bad guy in the end.  Solomon is a mass-murderer who deals in endangered animals (amongst other things) and makes some very unsavoury threats towards Nefertiti.  And he's completely unrepentant about any of it.  He can't even use the excuse of being mad as he appears to be fully aware of everything that he does and even seems to enjoy it.

The fact that the Doctor effectively kills Solomon by leaving him to get blown up is shocking (and something that will be addressed in the next episode) but it's sort of understandable.  Earlier in the episode the Doctor gives Solomon the opportunity to leave and he chooses not to, preferring instead  to attack the Doctor's gang and kidnap one of them.  What alternative is there, then, when dealing with someone like Solomon who doesn't want the chance at redemption that's given to him?  Controversial though it was, I think the Doctor did the only thing that he could on this occasion.

 All of this and I've barely the mentioned the dinosaurs.  The fact is that, much like the dinos in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' - and indeed the Daleks in the last episode -  the dinosaurs here are not really that important to the overall story.  They bring the characters together on the spaceship but really the story's focus is on the humans and that's no bad thing in my book.

Overall then this is was a very positive episode for me.  I'm not sure that it quite got the balance right between the comedy and the more serious stuff but it came very close to it.  I'm now looking forward to Chris Chibnall's next episode, 'The Power of Three' much more than I was. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Series 7a Review: Asylum of the Daleks

I know I'm a little late to the party (all the other reviews I've seen were posted within hours) but I wanted to share a few thoughts on Asylum of the Daleks. 

Overall I have to say that I really enjoyed it.  It seemed to fulfil all the criteria needed of a standard season opener.  It re-introduced us to the regular characters and allowed us to catch up with what had happened to them since we last saw them.  It told a relatively straightforward, yet engaging, story and, as a bonus, brought back the series' most iconic monsters.  Oh, and there was the big surprise guest star as well. 

Before the episode was shown, there were a number of complaints on the message boards from people who were bemoaning the fact that the Daleks were being brought back yet again.  The main complaint seemed to be that all Dalek stories were the same: the Daleks do something evil like invade Earth, the Doctor arrives and defeats them.  Again.

Fortunately Asylum of the Daleks bucks this trend somewhat.  In fact, the Daleks come out of it rather well overall.  They score a major coup in the early going by capturing, the Doctor his companions and the TARDIS in a manner so absurdly easy that one wonders why they haven't tried it before.  It's as if the Daleks realised they only had 45 minutes for the story so had to go for the simplest plan they could think of.

Once they've captured the TARDIS crew the new Dalek Parliament then manage to get the Doctor to do their dirty work for them and go down to the Asylum.  Incidentally, I'd love to know more about how the Parliament is set up.  Are there different political parties?  What are their policies?  And how do Daleks hold the little pencil when they're in the voting booth?

The Parliament of the Daleks looks very impressive, with literally thousands of Daleks surrounding the Doctor and his friends.  Coupled with the impressive opening shots of the the planet Skaro, you can see that money has been spent.  Sadly it looks as if a lot of the money ran out when it came time to film inside the Asylum itself.  The entire complex seemed to consist of a couple of rooms and a corridor as well as a dozen, mostly inert Daleks.  It all seemed a bit low-key after all the previous spectacle.

Another thing that was doing the rounds on the message boards after the episode aired, was the surprising lack of old-school Daleks.  Most of them are shrouded in darkness and/or cobwebs and any real action is performed by the more recent bronze Daleks of the Russell T Davies era.  I admit that I was a little disappointed myself at the time however, on reflection, I can see why the older Daleks were kept in the background.  The youngest of the classic era Dalek props that did appear was close to 25 years old with the oldest pushing 50.  It's a fair bet that most of those props were in no fit state to be operated and so, by necessity, had to be relagated to sitting in the background of various shots.  It's a shame but understandable.

Anyway, despite all the evidence, this episode isn't really about the Daleks.  It about the relationship between Amy and Rory and the relationship between the Doctor and Oswin Oswald (who may or may not be the new companion).  Amy and Rory's impending divorce seems to come out of the blue; even the 'Pond Life' mini story on the BBC Doctor Who website doesn't really hint at any serious relationship troubles until the final minute or two.  Their reunion, although touching, seems somewhat 'convenient' and I can't imagine that their problems are over as easily as that.  It'll be interesting to see how things develop for them over the next few weeks. 

The Doctor and Oswin's relationship is far more interesting as it feels as though we're getting a trial run of how things will be once Jenna Louise Coleman appears full-time.  Despite the fact that they don't get to act face to face (and considering that Oswin's scenes were probably filmed months after the rest of the episode was shot) there is a real spark between the two characters.  For what it's worth I was genuinely surprised when Jenna Louise Coleman appeared 4 months earlier than expected.  Even then I still didn't expect her to have such a prominent role.  And by the end of the episode I was left wondering how her appearance in this episode ties into the Christmas episode.  Is she going to be playing the same character?  And, if so, how does she end up as a Dalek (if indeed she does -  I have my own theories on that.)?

One of the things that I was concerned about when this series of 'stand-alone stories' was first announced was that ongoing storylines and story arcs would take a bit of a back seat this year.  But that's definitely not been the case.  We have the ongoing Amy and Rory saga, the mystery of the new companion and now the Daleks have no memory of the Doctor.  Their repeated chanting of "Doctor Who? Doctor Who?" brings us back to the very end of the last series and "the question that must never be answered."  There's no doubt that this is all building up to the 50th Anniversary next year where maybe, just maybe, that question will be answered.

So, all in all, a good opening episode.  Roll on 'Dinosaurs on a Spaceship'.