Saturday 31 May 2008

The Moff

I’m still shaking. No really, I am. It’s about 45 mins since Silence in the Library finished and I can’t decide if I need a cup of tea or a whisky. Actually I might plump for both. I’m leaving the lights on that’s for sure. And did anyone else get a slight fear of ice cream?

Steven Moffat. What a genius. Ever since ‘Are you my mummy?’ became a national phrase meaning, ‘You are about to get brown trousers’ this genius, this extraordinary talent has been giving us an annual dose of the most clever telly ever seen. Plot lines that are tightly woven, with characters perfectly drawn and all crafted with an understanding of exactly what the most basic scares are for people aged three to 103 and beyond. This is telly that scares the whole family in equal measure. It’s amazing and terrifying and hugely enjoyable.

I remember the wide-eyed fear and not a little bit of boyish anticipation which accompanied the possibility that any character, might at any time, turn into a zombie with a gas mask fused to what was left of their head. Then there’s the chilling riposte to Madame de Pompadour, ‘We do not require your feet’. I have a friend who still freaks out if you put your hands in front of your face and tell her not to blink.

The Moff’s understanding of what scares us witless is not all though. He really gets character and dialogue. And his plots: he makes ‘What on earth is going on? How is that possible?’ into a finely crafted art form. Gotta love the way the final reel explains everything, turning the impossible into a beautiful logical gem. And all the while giving the regulars a lease of life and an extra dimension that just sings.

I wish I had discovered his series Press Gang. My wide-eyed colleauge tells me that one episode was set inside a freezer chest. That’s genius. I loved his series Coupling; better than Friends, and somehow more real. He gets people and character and his plots are perfect, see. Ooooo, and he's written the script for the upcoming Tintin film.

This is going to be a long week. But I’m going to have some fun thinking about what was going on in Silence in the Library. The concluding episode is called Forest of the Dead. It used to be called Rivers Run. What does that tell us? I don’t know. I’m gonna try and work it out, but you know what; I’m not going to be able to. Forest of the Dead will no doubt be wonderfully scary and thrilling, full of character, wit, extraordinary revelations about the Doctor and River Song and a denouement eliciting a national, ‘Oh! That’s brilliant. Just brilliant’.

He’s going to be head writer of Doctor Who after next year. That’s brilliant news. I say an enormously grateful thank you to Russell T Davies. He has created something awesome in the last few years and done what we all knew could and very blimming should be done by turning Who into the wonderful thing it is after a stupidly long time off our screens. But I’m also very excited about whatever Steven Moffat is going to do with this most special of telly formats.

PS I loved The Unicorn and the Wasp.

Friday 30 May 2008

Trailer nonsense

I am writing at the end of the week where the good Dok-tor was replaced by a bunch of over-made-up European tunebreakers. Eurovision took preference, and Who fans have had to make do with a teaser trailer again.

I also write this just after the first ever get-together of the Ood Cast writers - fine gentlemen, all - and the night before the Moff unleashes what looks to be an even more frightening story than last year's Blink. Only this time, we have to get through two episodes behind our white knuckles!

I actually quite like the break to accomodate Eurovision. And that's not just because I like the Eurovision (although, embarrassingly, perhaps, I do - even if it is mainly for Sir Terry) but it affords us a bit of a breather before we set off on the usually terrifying road to the season finale. And it gives us a chance to ruminate on what's been and get pant-wettingly excited about what's coming up.

But some take this more seriously than others. Some can't stand the week's break (really - think about how long we had to wait for the series to come back, guys - what's a week?), and others take what they're given and over analyse to a ridiculous extent.

My colleague Andrew told us about a fan website he occasionally looks at (I won't bother plugging it, and you'll see why*), and that the last time he went there, there was a huge spoiler - the title of the still secret Episode 12 - on the front page for all to see, whether they want to or not. I hate this - I really don't want to know what's going to happen until it's on a TV screen in front of me, thank you very much. And that's why I'm not overly excited by the mid-season trailer. It was much of a muchness to me - nothing very new here - we knew the Daleks would probably be involved thanks for the pre-season trailers that appeared on the BBC Youtube channel, and the trailers and other interviews with past guests seem to have revealed that we're also going to see Harriet Jones back, as well as Captain Jack and Sarah Jane Smith), although Rose holding a gun is a bit of a jarring image (not sure a certain timelord is going to approve of that...).

Oh, except of course for the glimpse of what could be Davros.

It would be fabulous if it was. But the thing that rankles is this: some fans have taken the images of the dalek-thing that could be Davros, and are analysing it. So they can try and find out if it really is Davros.

I DON'T WANT TO KNOW! I REALLY, REALLY, REALLY DON'T WANT TO KNOW! And I am not entirely sure if people who do things like that are really proper fans of the show - probably obsessives rather than fans. But why inflict this on others? If you want to spoil it for yourselves, go ahead. Otherwise, go out and meet some people in the flesh instead of online.

I just don't see the point. The beauty of the last series was enhanced for me by the fact that I steered clear of the fan debates and the speculation online. All the episodes were fresh and new to me - and I loved every second of every one of them - maybe with the exception of the bad CGI Mark-Gatiss-monster in The Lazarus Experiment... and anyone who knows how much I like the Master as a character can only imagine the kind of joy I went through in discovering the final three parts of series 3 (or 29 if you're picky). I'm more immersed in the whole "whoniverse" this time, and I like it, although some of the more critical judgements of fans make me want to stop paying attention. I'm looking forward to whatever is about to come.

*Of course, were there to be a commentary track for these blog posts, I may accidentally reveal that I didn't plug it because I forgot the name of the site... Of course, I wouldn't do such a thing on here...

Thursday 22 May 2008

I Think It Was The Giant Wasp In The Library With The...Erm, Giant Wasp Sting?

I can't stand wasps. I have never liked Agatha Christie. I was therefore probably not going to immediately warm to this episode. Gareth Roberts was either going to be onto a total winner or complete failure....

My problems with Agatha Christie are long and deep-rooted. I was kind of brought up with her work (my mum had read every single one, and there were hundreds of them in the house). I studied her work as part of a course at university - compared and contrasted every aspect of her novels with others of both the time, earlier and later. And I was bored rigid of her. Formulaic, predictable and annoyingly elitest, her mysteries were not exactly my favourite time-killer.

But there is a sort of history with Doctor Who and crime fiction. They seem to be natural companions. You see, Doctor Who is not all about saving universes from horrible beings, sometimes what is worth saving is somewhat smaller than a planet. And the Doctor has been pretty good at being the detective - stories such as the Talons of Weng Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock unfold like Sherlock Holmes tales, while fabulous murder mysteries in their own right, like The Robots of Death (which still stands up as a magnificent piece of drama, in my opinion) carve out this alternative and rich vein in the Doctor's psyche. And here he was again.

I loved every second. It was like Gosford Park with... humour... and aliens. Its a very different episode to anything else in this series - something akin to a twisted version of Cluedo...

Gareth Roberts seems to get all the fabulous subjects, last season it was Shakespeare and this time it was Christie - and both times there was something integral to the work of the writer that he picked out and made central to a supernatural mystery. Last time was more straightforward - some witches use the Globe Theatre to try and unleash evil forces. This time, the trademark structure (sorry - the only structure) of an Agatha Christie mystery serves as a template for a wasp trying to exact revenge on his mother.

Oh and there were some fantastic lines and moments - the attempted poisoning of the Doctor and his "de-tox" - completed with Donna's idea of a shock (I don't think I'd recover from that though...well done, Doctor...!). My personal favourite was the Doctor's "You always fool me. Well, several times, Well, once or twice. Well, once. But it was a good once..." Says a lot about the way I read her novels...

postscript: 29 May 2008

I just caught up with the Who Cast's review of The Unicorn and the Wasp, and I need to add to what I wrote.

I tried not to analyse the episode too much, as it was meant to be straight up enjoyable telly rather than anything serious... but I don't think I can sit back and do that now.

I think I may be able to appreciate the episode more than others because I am already a fan of the crime fiction genre. I mentioned that there were crossovers where the Doctor assumes the mantle of detective - happens more often that not, in my opinion, but not that often in such an obvious and traditional way.

That said, the criticism I've heard, including Trevor's on the Who Cast, seems to completely miss the point. That's not necessarily a criticism - if its not your bag, its not your bag and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But Gareth Roberts' script is much more subtle and manipulative of his source material than I think its been credited. There are the in jokes - for example, Donna's blatant attempts to get her name in print (although that pretty much echoed the in-jokes from The Shakespeare Code - except in that episode it was the Doctor influencing the future written works...). But that is the tip of the iceberg.

I loved the way the script used the one structure Christie ever really used and twisted it to make it fit with Doctor Who - the flashbacks, which Christie uses, particularly in the finale to explain the previously hidden narrative - were brilliant, with even the Doctor joining in. Trevor's point of being able to work out who the murderer is alongside the detective, I disagree with. I think Christie's detectives actually kept their cards close to their chest, and clues (as with a lot of crime fiction) don't often seem to lead anywhere specific.

What I think maybe confused people and put them off the scent of any murderer was the side plot of the "Unicorn" being present (and subsequently caught) - which is the one slight issue I had with the plot... I thought the Unicorn bit was unnecessary and got in the way a little. But that in itself is a device Christie used - everyone in the mystery with something to hide will always give some sub-plots which will distract from the main story and throw the reader/viewer off the scent. Possibly.

But, there are a few very accurate parodies in the script - the catching of the murderer in particular. The way the Doctor names suspects, puts forward a theory or a possible motive and then discounts them (with Donna's brilliant comedic reactions) is straight out of every Poirot story. One of the quietest characters in the story turns out to be the murderer - again a recurring theme in Christie's works. That's why its at once so hard and - with experience of the novels - so easy to work out who the murderer is - there's not much to go on in terms of evidence, and the Doctor doesn't reveal anything particularly in naming the killer insect, so if you don't know Christie, you won't know.

But after a while, you get a feel for which characters are possible suspects. And generally, the less obtrusive the character, the more probable that they've done something heinous. That's why I think Trevor's comment, about anyone who says they worked out who the killer was is either a good guesser or a complete liar, is not fair - you just had to watch a few Poirot stories and put two and two together to work that out if you wanted to.

I loved this episode - for all the marvelling I've done at the other episodes, this may well be my favourite so far - because it taps into my personal tastes, sure - just like the Shakespeare one did - but also because it was just fun and could have gone so horribly wrong.

Agatha Christie may well be a good old British Institution these days, but so are soldiers wearing red unfiorms during desert combat, the Royal Family, complaining about the weather, golf and horse racing. Not all institutions deserve all the reverence they receive.

Friday 16 May 2008

Guns + War + Genetic Experiments = Family?

There was a time - the late 80s spring to mind - that Doctor Who wasn't really viewed as, you know, "proper acting". The Doctor was arriving in places filled with Comedy double-acts trying to stretch their careers for a bit longer, the cast of Cats and actors that people had assumed were already dead...

If there was any doubt to the quality of this show by now, I point you in the direction of The Doctor's Daughter. This is, seriously, the best thing I have seen in a long time. Ok, so being daddy to a small boy, TV isn't exactly something I get to experience all that much anymore. But the point still stands. This was brilliant.

That Tennant bloke is a master of his craft. In theory, I think its perfectly possible to play the Doctor by hiding behind the huge character and equally massive back-story and still do a fairly good job of it. But he packs so much into these performances - I'm sure that this isn't the biggest acting challenge he will ever take on - but from the way he rollocks through these episodes, it looks like the most enjoyable.

Georgia Moffatt was superb - equally as subtle and deft with looks and facial expressions that echoed the Doctor. The beginning is a prickly one, and I felt a little nervous about where this would be going... But it becomes very obvious very quickly that the connection between them is real and from that moment on it was impossible not to warm to her.

In terms of characters, Donna showed a bit of intelligence here - and managed to think about puzzles in a completely dispassionate way, bypassing the confusion that the Doctor was going through. Martha was her usual bold self with firm morals. And the Doctor...? That scene where Jenny dies is the single most affecting thing I've seen this series. The pain and the emotion were real, and my goodness we felt that hole reopen inside him. A huge wow-factor.

It was hardly completely unpredictable. But I didn't - and still don't - care in the slightest. Like I said before, way back in my post about Partners In Crime I think, being a Doctor Who fan, its more about escapism than gritty reality. I don't (usually) care whether the plot is water-tight and the visual effects are accurate, spot on or even good. It doesn't matter if the cast contains more wood than a 16th century Galleon being studied by a group of hormonal 15 year olds. This isn't Eastenders - this is meant to be entertaining.

And this was magnificent. I loved the similarities with classic stories - particularly Genesis of the Daleks sprung to mind a few times - the multi-generation race war just about to come to a horrible, destructive head and the surface scenes in particular helped that image.

And you know, even though I knew the end was coming, I loved it. Even though I was sitting there, waiting for it, I still bounced off walls with joy. The Doctor isn't the only Time Lord any more. And he's not the only one of him around. I really hope Andrew's right and she returns some day...

I'm really really looking forward to next week. Not least because the writer of one of the best Series 3 episodes (The Shakespeare Code) is back with a new story, but also because its allegedly written as a more straight-up comedy episode, and that its about Agatha Christie - an author that I have disliked and been bored rigid by since I was little. I now sit here impatiently fidgeting waiting for Saturday...

Thursday 15 May 2008

42 years on

I wasn't wrong this time! Love it. There was a moment where the Doctor made wordplay with 'source' and I wondered what sort would go with my preview if I had to eat my words. As it was this was really really what I’d hoped it would be and totally unexpected too.

Doctor Who is like a packet of Revels - love them too. The variety. Some are crunchy (like The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky) some are chewy (Planet of the Ood), and some a bit surprising and not what you thought you might get (The Doctor's Daughter).

Just so many lovely, rich ideas. Humans versus fish, fighting for so many generations that they have forgotten precisely why, but each generation lasts only a few hours so the war has taken a matter of days. Brilliantly implausible! And so much more besides: a deceptively layered story with plenty for the regulars to get their teeth into, even asides on the Child Support Agency and a turkey baster. There’s no other series that could cover such a broad rang…, ha, I’ve said it enough times before haven’t I? This blog is getting hard to write. This year is so consistently superb that I am getting stuck for superlatives. I wonder if the time has come for a new word to describe such consistent excellence. The English language has already embraced Dalek as a noun, so why not Doctor Who itself?

Doctor Who
1. BBC Television series. From 1963 to present.
2. Adj, (pronounced: dok-ter hoo). Consistently brilliant; defying expectations.

Here is another reason why I like Doctor Who. Those moments and ideas that plant the seeds of 'what if' in your mind. Those extraordinary moments that leap out and grab our imagination and often scared us stupid as kids. Walking stones, Kinda's dream sequences, The Kandyman, the Marshmen. The other week a friend came up to me out of the blue and went, 'I found these in the attic and I know you like Doctor Who' and gave me copies of The Tenth Planet and The Silurians. I've never seen either so this is very exciting. So I cracked open Tenth Planet last night. I was struck by the entrance of the Cybermen and then how they just command the screen. My goodness they are creepy. Terrifying actually. The way they speak with that voice (by the geniuses who did the voices for Captain Pugwash and Zippy and George in Rainbow!) that is emotionless but still recognisably human with their mouths breathlessly opening and closing. These days the idea behind them still seems fresh no matter how much it has been used in fiction, and the shock of their first appearance is so discernable 42 years on that I am very impressed. Not just the moments of awe and creepyness though. The ideas. Compare the breadth and depth of the ideas in your average Who story with almost anything else on telly and you’ll wonder why you watch anything else ever. Two more episodes to go and then it's the first regeneration. I need another night in and fast!

What? Oh, yes; The Doctor's Daughter.

It's unfair to single anyone out, but this was David Tennant's master-class in the full gamut of acting skill. There were many moments this week in which he effortlessly showed us what the Doctor was going through but one that really stood out for me: that smile that crosses his face when Jenny asks him what the Time War was like - goodness knows how he made that look so much like a father's reaction to an innocent question from a child and be so full of anguish at the same time. He claims on the commentary that before the scene he’d accidentally bashed his leg on a table that that had helped 'the moment'. But that's just being modest if you ask me. The man is a genius. Oh, and another one: the 'I never would' scene was like the manifesto of the series and was incredibly powerful. There are all sorts of parallels to life there and it was a proper stare straight at the telly blinking regularly without looking at anyone else in the room moment.

Georgia Moffett was effortlessly brilliant. There's loads of subtlety in her performance: moments where you glimpse bits of the Doctor in her; in the smile, the quickness of her actions.

Now then, I have a certain track record with my predictions on this blog don't I (ahem). I predict that Jenny will be back - with an outrageous amount of running. Can't wait.

Monday 12 May 2008

You know, you'll only spoil it for the rest of us...

This is about Fandom. The wonders of it, and the horrible way it can really obstruct other people's enjoyment of things.

Doctor Who fans, in general (I think) are a wonderful bunch of people. They vary hugely in every way, and cover several generations. Even the younger fans seem to be able to intelligently hold their own in debates over whether the Slitheen should make a wiffy return, or if the Daleks really are the meanest baddies in the "Whoniverse".

(Incidentally, my pedantic side picked up on something that was said by a 12-year-old fan in a podcast I heard recently. He said that he'd seen "just about all the classic series, which is an achievement for a child of just twelve years of age." I agree. Especially since many episodes haven't existed on video since the late 60s/early 70s...)

But there are some who are so set in their ways, so convinced that what went before is better than it can ever be again, that with every new idea, every new theory of the doctor's past or the development of any plot line that has been used before, that they become willfully destructive and just blow up at the slightest provocation.

So we come to The Doctor's Daughter. This isn't a review, as I haven't seen it yet, but a reflection of the controversy in fandom about this.

This is what is happening, as far as I can tell:
Firstly, people are up in arms that the title is so deliberately provocotive and controversial.
Secondly, the mere idea that the Doctor can have a daughter is appalling to some.

There is something that would counter both of these, to some extent. To find it, let's quickly hop back to 23 November 1963...

The first Doctor travels with three people, to start with, at least. Two are teachers from a school. The other is his "Grandaughter". Grandaughter. There you go. That might go some way to explain why the doctor having a daugher isn't as controversial as it seems. If the Doctor had a Grandaughter, its a fairly safe assumption that there would have been a generation in between. Perhaps, say, a daughter. And as for the title being deliberately provocotive and controversial... it got you talking about it, didn't it... What else is it supposed to do?!

Let's not lose sight of the fact that Doctor Who is cool right now. And its been a long time coming - ever since the mid-80s when Michael Grade got his dirty hands in the pie and started to mess with it, Doctor Who hasn't been cool. But now, we have a wealth of excellent stuff coming our way - really well-written, produced and performed audio adventures, a TV reincarnation that is better than any of us scarcely believed could have happened, books and new releases of Classic Who coming out of our ears. We have more and more fans - many of them young - joining us, and discovering what helped us through our formative years.

I don't see the harm in playing with some of the old elements - there are new viewers to entertain these days, and its something that fans should be used to by now. This is our Doctor still, very identifiably our Doctor. But the old days are now a reference in something new and fresh and exciting. I was thrilled just to hear the name of Sir Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart being mentioned in The Poison Sky - he is a legend and I love watching old episodes with him and his UNIT colleagues. But to bring him back now would have been wrong. Even more than it was in Battlefield.

There's no doubting it, the Doctor has changed. He's had to. With TV and drama in particular the way it is now, there's no way he could have returned meandering around for 20 minutes each week, no matter how well written the stories. I know some die-hard fans don't like the 45 minute format. I'm not entirely sure I am totally with this either - but its the way things are done now. Doctor Who could not compete with US drama or what's being produced on a regular basis by the BBC, without being dynamic and bold. Being the wonderful and ageing BBC Statesman, strolling round the corridors of Television Centre, is no longer an option.

This Doctor is young and exciting. He makes kids want to be like him. Just like Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, Sylv McCoy and the rest did for us. A whole new generation of kids are pretending to battle Cybermen and Daleks in school playgrounds at break time. Isn't that more important than if the Doctor's hair is exactly the same two weeks in a row, or if they do something that contradicts a line in The War Machines?

And so what if this Doctor wears a suit with trainers? The one before wore a leather jacket. I think its a slight improvement on a question-mark-emblazoned tank-top or a coat that looks like he just mugged a passing gypsy. Don't you?

Friday 9 May 2008

Something's coming

Soooooooo: tomorrow.

This one deserves a preview to get down my preconceptions, or even misconceptions, so I can look back on them in a week or two and see how they differed from what I thought of the episode. Cos it has the potential to either be something special or something that changes the series in a very big way; or both. The Doctor’s Daughter. I’m excited about this one.

Way back in the Sixties when the series was devised they tried to come up with a title. Something not like anything else. Something that spoke of adventure and time travel. Of a central character who was a bit of a wild card, rather different, possibly an alien. They got a little stuck because they never got round to defining who or indeed what the central character was. Someone wrote down ‘Doctor …. who?’, tucked their note book in their pocket and went for lunch. Time marched on and they just couldn’t come up with anything more specific. He was a Doctor - that much they decided on. He might be alien, he might be in trouble with his own people. He might be running from something. That was about it. And so it has remained with a few modifications ever since. The question became a statement, as if we are not meant to know his secret. ‘Who’ is as much a cover as ‘The Doctor’, which we find out is not his real name. We don’t know anything about him other than he is from a privileged and powerful race who call themselves the Time Lords. He is the only one left and it would appear he was recently responsible for their demise during a great Time War. Their power is left largely undefined. We don’t know how their society was ordered, how they reproduced or if they got married. He has mentioned that he had family; even that he was a father once. In the earliest series he travelled with a young woman who called him Grandfather and that relationship was never disputed.

I’m really looking forward to next week. Not because I want answers to all of the above. Oh no. Not at all. To blow away the mystery of the Doctor would be a big mistake. He is like the Lone Ranger: he rides into town, sorts it out, and rides off again. You don’t really know any more than that. Does he sleep? Does he need to eat? Did he fancy Rose or quite simply love her in a pure and straight down the line very bestest friend kind of way? And we don’t know why he left his home planet in the first place. He has said at various times that he was an exile, he was bored with Time Lord society, and that he ran away. If you leave all those questions unanswered you leave something very unique and powerful at the heart of the series and I’d be sorry to see it go. He’s also a sort of mentor; someone who dazzles and perplexes you with his ways that are so different from our own but from whom we can learn so much. And apart from his frankly adolescent moping during The Runaway Bride that is how it’s always been.

The reason I am excited about tomorrow is that the team that makes Doctor Who has come up with some really extraordinary stories in the last few years that have been critically acclaimed for their adventure, their emotional impact and the issues that the viewer is left processing afterwards. I hope it’s another one of those. Hopefully it will tell us something new about the Doctor, but only a little bit so we won’t get all our Doctor questions answered and we can each have our personal assumptions about him and the Time Lords left intact. And as the years pass there are further challenging stories that eek out hints and glimpses of who this mysterious man really is; but hints and glimpses only. He’s a sort of myth and I want him always to be able ride off into the sunset with all that mystery intact.

Lookin forward to it and wondering whether or not I will be eating my words. Again.

Another good one

Ahhh! I was wrong. In my last post I said that one of us would be using the word ‘comeuppance’ to describe a scene featuring Rattigan in The Poison Sky. Doctor Who is not that simple. It’s a multi-facetted, thought provoking, cleverly constructed series that avoids the easy and predictable and opts to go the extra mile to answer the tricky question, ‘How can we solve this deadly threat without using force against a war-obsessed race who don’t fear death?’. Love that. 24 take note. Actually don’t. It wouldn’t be 24 then, which would be a shame, as I love that too but for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you need telly that is the viewing equivalent of way too much caffeine and a format that needs a plot to fit 24 hours exactly no matter how many times a character needs to be kidnapped to make it work. Yeh, Doctor Who can be implausible too; they’re both great because they both have their own logic but Doctor Who is better. …. there is no easy answer to the question above, and that’s good.

I can’t help thinking about morality this week. Forgive me if I get all deep and meaningful but this series is doing a lot of that. The Doctor is adamant about doing things in a moral and non-violent way, having that little twinkle in his eye when he faces evil, even giving a race of fearless warmongering aliens who are poised to destroy the Earth a choice to leave or die instead of just blowing them up. And he doesn’t just do it in a ‘be nice to each other, kids’ way but in a full on you might get hurt doing good but do it anyway way. (I remember being utterly stumped and really shocked at how the Doctor treated the Family of Blood last year. Those punishments were sick, and seemed wholly out character. But he had no choice, either they were free to pursue him in a never ending game of hide and seek at the expense of thousands of lives or he dealt with them once and for all. Why did he place them in their individual eternal prisons? Should he have killed them? The morality of Who is sometimes very challenging.)

Who’s insistence on having characters so central to its format and the Doctor encouraging them to respond to the extraordinary challenges around them and to grow in only positive ways is utterly laudable. I crave the chance to be in it myself. To have scripts so good and to rub shoulders with that team. To work on something that is made with such blooming skill and love that shines from the screen and seems to make your living room a better place.

So, The Poison Sky. Good solid stuff. Superb monsters, plenty of action, plenty of character. A big shout out for Donna tentatively saving the world on her mobile and for Martha’s scene with the clone. And there’s enough Bernard Cribbens to make everyone very happy. Just one thing though. If someone can confirm that the gas could be burned off like that then I will get on a campaign bus with a mega-phone to tell everyone how GOOD this story is. Well, you know what I mean. Oh, and isn’t it intriguing that the Sontarans use the same interstellar alarm providers as the Sanctuary Bases.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Sontar-Ha! Sontar-Huh?

Do you remember that feeling when you were little, when Christmas came round, and you got exactly what you wanted in every way... and then discovered it wasn't quite as brilliant as you thought it would be?

I don't know whether I should be disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I loved the story - and I think the Sontarans are a wonderful baddie. I am, and always have been, a UNIT fan. DT was brilliant as usual, Donna bearable, and Martha was excellent. But I feel cheated. I went on a nostalgic trip after I saw The Poison Sky, and it only made things worse, and because I particularly like the Sontarans and I want to share my pain, I'm going to go a bit geeky on this episode's ass.

After I saw this episode, I watched the first ever Sontaran story. A real cracker starring Jon Pertwee - The Time Warrior. Then I sat, and I thought back to classic adventures, including the first two or three Sontaran stories, and I feel like they've missed something big with the new one. A classic story - particularly of the 4-6 part Pertwee stories would consist of the first part being the Doctor and Liz/Jo/Sarah investigating something - just like the ATMOS device - and then calling UNIT in as they think there's something suspicious.

We didn't get that. The Doctor and Donna turned up halfway through the UNIT investigation.

We'd then be treated to a final part full of suspense-filled, thrilling denoument, topped off with a moment or two of humourous banter or slower reflection.

Out of two 45 minute episodes, we got about ten whole minutes of conclusion. One short, sharp UNIT assault, using amour-piercing bullets. One hastily-assembled atmosphere changer to fix the earth. One teleporter, and one more explosion. That's it.

Ok, factor in the surprising change of heart from Luke Rattigan, who finally made something of his genius and sacrificed himself to save the Doctor and protect the earth. And because I don't want Andrew to be wrong - maybe that was the comuppance he deserved for throwing his lot in with some squat Mr Potato Head alien types.

Despite that, I really enjoyed it. It was pacy, suspense-filled and good fun. But I do think it was badly-structured. Its the first time I've had the inclination to criticise the new series, and I feel awkward. But it was too-weighted on setting-up the end and had a storyline that didn't entirely add up.

Let me explain: The Sontarans are cloned war machines, basically. They are totally focussed on war. They do anything and everything they can to fight - and ultimately to die. The term "one-track-mind" was invented for them, I'm sure. So would they really have decided to take some time out of their war to come to a planet like earth, team up with a teenage genius to gas the world's population so they could use it as a clone-production world? Surely that's far too crafty for Sontarans?

This is the trouble with bringing back older monsters. Its like the myth about Daleks not being able to climb stairs (they can - watch Rememberance of the Daleks if you don't believe me - the cliffhanger to episode 1 is the Doctor being chased up a flight of stairs in the school basement by a dalek.), the Sontarans already have attributes and characters to fall back on. Their behaviour in the story was fine - and the two commanders were brilliantly written - and performed... Yet another blast from my comedy-watching past in Christopher Ryan making the small leap from Mike in the Young Ones to a Sontaran Commander... But it all worked well, and I absolutely loved it. Except for the mind-bogglingly layered "Stratagem"...

But I tell you what, if you either a) don't have a clue about previous Sontaran stories, and/or b) are able to watch it all and keep your geeky tendancies quiet - like I had to - then this is brilliant. My reflection on it might be a bit lukewarm after I've had time to think about it a bit, but my reaction when I saw it was complete joy - and I'll be happy to see this again (and again)!

Oh, and the icing on the cake... Martha's in the next one too! Hurrah!

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Thank you for the music

I was wandering around the Internet the other day and found that you can actually get the original music score for the Doctor Who theme. ‘From the B.B.C. Television Series “Dr. Who” by Ron Grainer' it said. Goodness. Got to have that! I’m not a great musician but I scraped a few piano and flute grades before I got too cool and my flatmate has a keyboard. So.

This music was a big hit for me. It tinged Saturday teatimes with other-worldly wonder-terror. If you could hear all the mystery of the Doctor, all the fear and excitement of his amazing adventures and the sound of the space-time vortex then this was, absolutely, what it all sounded like. These days it's more instrumental with an electric guitar, trombones, violins and percussion. If you don’t know the original then you really have to hear it, so here it is:
Then there's the equally superb updated version that I remember:

There. See? Those remarkable sound pictures, if you will, were created by an unsung hero called Delia Derbyshire. She was a pioneer - nay: genius - of electronic music and sound. This was in 1963 before there were even synthesisers let alone sound sampling software. She worked on it for weeks and weeks, creating each note as a separate entity using test tone generators (whatever that might mean), a 'wobbulator' (ditto) and by fiddling around with all sorts of things from old lampshades to piano strings. She stuck it all together using scissors and Sellotape and ended up with about eight separate lines of magnetic tape each containing a different layer. Then she lined them all up and pressed play – and must have been so proud. And, you know what, it still sounds like the future. Still produces visions of goodness knows what.

So with an air of childlike wonder I sat down at my flatmate’s keyboard and had a go. It’s not that difficult actually. After all it’s, 'Dum de dum, dum de dum, diddly dum; ooooooo eeeeeee oooooo'. First surprise is that it sounds different. You sort of expect to be able to produce something like Delia Derbyshire did but it’s a cross between Belgian Jazz (Bill Bailey’s observation and he’s right! Check out his Dr Qui) and the theme to The Archers (dum de dum de dum de dum). There are some nice chord structures here and there which sound very pleasant on the piano and would be most convivial if heard in the background of a bar in Bruges whilst drinking cherry beer. It ends not with that weird whooshing sound that has chilled kids and adults alike for decades but with a cheery glissando through four octaves, almost as if the pianist might follow with, ‘Thank you. Thank you very much - you’ve been great. Good night!’. Whether this is unique to this arrangement for piano I don’t know, but it puts a new slant on it!

Ron Grainer composed something highly original. Of that there is no doubt. There really isn’t anything else like it. Like today’s arrangement by Murray Gold the score is upbeat, a little quirky, full of promise, and hard to categorise. Perfect for Doctor Who. He knew that it would be given the electronic touch and annotated his score with ideas for this – sadly these are not included in the published version so knowing exactly what he had mind and how much Delia Derbyshire created from scratch we don't know. However when she played it to him he said, 'Did I compose that?'. It's something remarkable and it still works today: the unearth-ily rhythmic and indefinable treatment of ‘dum de dum, dum de dum, diddly dum' as if something very strange is on the way all the while building through some utterly mind boggling sounds to the unforgettable (and thank you Murray Gold for keeping it in today’s version) ‘oooooo EEEEEEE OOOO, OOOOO-oooooooo'. Brrrrrrrr. Blooming brilliant.

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