Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Idiot’s Lantern

It’s another Mark Gatiss script and that means we’re back in a period setting, uncovering a mysterious alien influence posing as something else. It’s 1953, it’s the Queen’s coronation, and suspiciously cheap television sets are appearing all over London. I suppose it’s become a huge cliché by now, but the Doctor and Rose drop in at precisely the right moment to save the viewers of London from having their faces/minds eaten by a banished energy creature calling itself the Wire. How convenient!

Poor Mr. Magpie gets his face sucked off. I'm not going to rephrase that.

Poor Mr. Magpie gets his face sucked off. I’m not going to rephrase that.

The period setting is well-realised with lots of attention to detail in the sets, costumes, props and stock footage used on the old television sets, combining to create a believable sense of place. The direction is interesting in that it’s almost entirely ‘jaunty’ – almost every shot is at an angle. It looks good. It’s a shame the music is the usual Murray Gold bombast, as they could have had some fun with that too. The main characters certainly have some fun within the period setting, although they are overly cocky, even before they know what’s going on.

Detective Inspector Bishop doesn't do much detecting, taking the faceless people away without stopping to investigate. It's all a bit suspicious.

Detective Inspector Bishop doesn’t do much detecting, taking the faceless people away without stopping to investigate. It’s all a bit suspicious.

Before the ‘face’ reveal, I liked the bits with the gran in the upstairs room banging on the floor and everyone trying to ignore her. I thought that was really freaky. But this is as much a story about people’s faces mysteriously disappearing as it is about a prideful father trying to uphold his family’s dignity in an era when making a fuss was seen as a sign of weakness. These characters are somewhat two-dimensional, however, almost to the point of parody.

The blustering father is the character you love to hate. "I AM TALKING!"

The blustering father is the character you love to hate. “I AM TALKING!”

The Wire is an entity of consciousness or energy not unlike the Great Intelligence. Unfortunately, we don’t learn very much about her (it?) before the Doctor reverses the polarity (ho-ho!) and traps her in a betamax cassette, magically restoring everybody’s minds and faces somehow. The Idiot’s Lantern is more concerned with selling the believability of the era and in creating some scary scenarios (which it does) and less concerned with explaining the hows and whys of the plot. It’s not muddled, just underdeveloped. There’s also too much sonic screwdrivering, but this is becoming an issue in general.

Maureen Lipman plays The Wire, an evil entity with a calm and soothing BBC television voice - aside from the "HUNGRY, FEED ME" stuff.

Maureen Lipman plays The Wire, an evil entity with a calm and soothing BBC television voice – aside from the “HUNGRY, FEED ME” stuff.

But I actually quite enjoyed this on the whole. I can forgive some underdeveloped elements for a good sense of style and effective scares. The Doctor stuck in the cage full of faceless people is brilliant. It’s also good to see Rose leading the investigation for a bit, seeing things the Doctor missed, but unfortunately she gets damseled and the Doctor does his “now it’s personal” routine where he talks through his teeth and scrunches up his little face. I could take this more seriously if he didn’t have his Elvis hair throughout, but there you go.

"There is no power on this Earth that can stop me!" Grrr... Elvis SMASH!

“There is no power on this Earth that can stop me!” Grrr… Elvis SMASH!

Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel

For much of the first episode, the Cybermen are obscured by lights or focus pulls, as if to mystify the viewer as to what they are. Given the episode is called “Rise of the Cybermen”, this seems rather redundant, much like it was for the Dalek episode in the previous season. Still, unlike the Daleks, the return of the Cybermen can only be an improvement over the generic foil-suited evil villains they became towards the end.

The Cybermen approach.

The Cybermen approach.

Effectively, this is a Cybermen “reboot”, with none of the continuity baggage attached. The Tardis finds itself in a parallel dimension, something that is now supposed to be “impossible” since the Time Lords all died, although to my recollection, it only happened once before, in Inferno. Regardless, it’s a Big Deal and it means the Cybermen story can start with a fresh new twist. We never saw the Mondas Cybermen actually change. The angle here is that the metal bodies are the ultimate upgrade, in a society obsessed with upgrading and having the latest gadgets (“earpods” is about as blunt a satire as you can get, but the point is made).

We know it's a parallel dimension because it has zeppelins. Seriously, is that a "thing"? Fringe did it too.

We know it’s a parallel dimension because it has zeppelins. Seriously, is that a “thing”? Fringe did it too.

The creator of the Cybermen, at least in this universe, is John Lumic, played by the late Roger Lloyd Pack. The character is very similar to Davros, tragic, disabled, trying to fix his broken body with technology in a world that isn’t ready for his genius. The story is, of course, overblown and ridiculous, with thousands of people killed or turned into machines around the country due to almost total coverage of Cybus Industries’ mind-controlling earpods (that passed safety inspections to get onto the market… how, exactly?). As it’s all happening in parallel Earth, I can sort of forgive it. At least it has no lasting repercussions for our Earth (… or does it?).

John Lumic, head of Cybus Industries, and creator of the Cybermen.

John Lumic, head of Cybus Industries, and creator of the Cybermen.

It’s clear that this is a Russell T. Davies era Cybermen story because it focuses so much more on the personal dramas of Rose and Mickey. This is not the 1980s anymore. This was a clever way to bring Rose’s dad back into the series, although the coincidences surrounding his involvement are a little contrived, but compared to the general contrivance of the Doctor always landing somewhere just as something bad is happening, it’s no big deal.

The gang plans its attack on the cyber base at Battersea power station.

The gang plans its attack on the cyber base at Battersea power station.

Mickey’s character is also put to good use for a change, by commenting on how little they need him. He’s treated very poorly throughout this series – the Doctor is far too focused on Rose. Mickey finds his true calling (and his gran) and stays behind with the scooby gang resistance group – well, the last surviving member, anyway – in lieu of his doppelganger copping it in part 2. The goodbyes are genuine and sweet, before the tone changes to a weirdly jovial one as they ride off to Paris in a van.

"Control, Alt, Delete!!" The Cybermen kill the president of alt-Britain for resisting.

“Control, Alt, Delete!!” The Cybermen kill the president of alt-Britain for resisting.

The cliffhanger ending is classic Doctor Who stuff. Sensibly, there is no “next week” preview to ruin the tension, but unfortunately the resolution is pure magic macguffin territory and deeply unsatisfying for it. Still, for the most part, the Cybermen are threatening villains, evoking Nazi-esque conformity or extermination of those unworthy. These aren’t the tottering silver simpletons of the previous eras; they’re battle-ready armoured death machines, clanking with every synchronised march of their feet. It isn’t superior firepower that beats them, but allowing them to experience the emotional trauma of what they’ve become. Basically, the power of love wins. How very modern.

The cyber transformations evoke the horror of mutilation without actually showing it. It's surprisingly effective.

The cyber transformations evoke the horror of mutilation without actually showing it. It’s surprisingly effective.

There was a kind of tragedy to the original Cybermen, that they’d willingly turned themselves into this, whittling away their emotions in pursuit of perfection. These versions don’t have that – they are tricked, controlled, forced to act against their human wishes, guided by a leader rather than a unified ideology. It doesn’t quite work so well, and gives them a weakness that the originals never had. Still, it’s strange to think how similar the two parallel Cyber-races are, given they popped into existence by totally different means and at different times with different technology, to the extent that the Doctor specifically “knows” them as Cybermen, rather than “generic robotic people”. Maybe that’s just how fate works or something.

The Girl in the Fireplace

It’s the 51st century and, for some reason, a seemingly abandoned spaceship is drilling holes through the fabric of time and its robotic occupants are observing the life of Madame de Pompadour in 18th century France. Also Mickey has come with them finally. Yay, Mickey!

The ship design may have been based on one of those annoying football clackers.

The ship design may have been based on one of those annoying football clackers.

Steven Moffat’s second Doctor Who story has a lot in common with his first. Certain themes and ideas are carried over, like the AI / robots that serve a purpose without fully understanding it (just like the nanogenes), spooky ‘creatures’ that are masked by something earthly but uncommon (clown masks / gas masks), and another instance of the Doctor ominously pointing out a noise that you didn’t realise you were hearing (the ticking clock, like the typewriter). It also has an intriguing mystery that unravels over the course of the story, some very clever writing, and a touching conclusion.

Visited by the Doctor as a girl, awaiting his return as an adult, Reinette is a prototype Amy Pond.

Visited by the Doctor as a girl, awaiting his return as an adult, Reinette is a prototype Amy Pond.

Looking ahead, some of Moffat’s other themes begin here. He has a tendency to write female characters as “special things” first, personalities second – magic artefacts dressed as humans, if you like. Whether that be the “impossible girl”, the “girl who waited” or, here, the girl on the other side of the fireplace (who can read minds). Reinette is the mystery, the Doctor’s “project”, the thing he must protect until it can be solved, and this makes the love story angle a little difficult to swallow. This is a very unconventional love story anyway, but there isn’t enough time to earn those emotions. It may be thirty years of Reinette’s life, but she meets the Doctor only a handful of times for barely a few minutes. I guess that’s why the mind-reading thing was written in, as a way to enforce that connection between them as quickly as possible, something that Doctor hasn’t shown to be able to do before.

The Doctor does a Vulcan mind-meld... no, hang on, wrong show.

The Doctor does a Vulcan mind-meld… no, hang on, wrong show.

There’s also the first reference to the Doctor’s name being some terrible secret that no-one must know, which crops up again and again towards the end of the most recent series, and has yet to resolve itself. I could do without all of this “the Doctor is an angel / nightmare” stuff – it gets ridiculously overdone – but it’s a suitable theme for this particular story. You wouldn’t want every Doctor Who episode to be like this, but that’s what makes it special.

Eerie clockwork clowns proving, yet again, that faceless enemies are the best enemies. "Tick-tock" is the new "mummy". I could have done without them speaking at all, but exposition demanded it this time.

Eerie clockwork clowns proving, yet again, that faceless enemies are the best enemies. “Tick-tock” is the new “mummy”. I could have done without them speaking at all, but exposition demanded it this time.

The script is filled with brilliant comic moments just as much as it is with heartstring-tugging emotion, and more quotes than I can even recall now. “I didn’t want to call it a Magic Door”, a couple involving Mickey and the horse, which were pretty funny, “always take a banana to a party”, and the Doctor pretending to be drunk, which turned out to be a ruse. This humour and maverick bravado are contrasted against a story with dark and disturbing concepts – the spaceship that has been repaired with human body parts (ick!), the clockwork robots hiding under the little girl’s bed. Some of it doesn’t make much sense if you analyse it too closely (how would a heart function in machinery? Why are robots from the 51st century made with clockwork?), but it’s a story that wins you over with love and ingenuity, and it reminds me how good Doctor Who can be when it’s trying really hard.

School Reunion

There’s a reason I’ve been taking note of the arrival and departure conditions of every companion over the course of my marathon. Ever since I first saw School Reunion in 2006, I’ve been fascinated by the history of the Doctor and all of his travelling companions. I had wondered, did he just leave them behind? Did any of them actually die? Did they leave by choice? Were they happy? The return of Sarah Jane Smith, although I was unfamiliar with the character at the time, raised all of these questions. So, before we get into the details of this particular episode, I’m going to remind myself of the situation in which she left.

A proper goodbye this time.

A proper goodbye this time.

Sarah Jane Smith stowed aboard the Third Doctor’s Tardis in The Time Warrior, went on many adventures with him, through a new regeneration into the Fourth Doctor, and finally left at the end of The Hand of Fear. She had to leave because the Doctor needed to return to Gallifrey alone. Since both the Doctor and Sarah were so stubborn, they never really said goodbye in a sincere way. Sarah left in a bit of a huff, pretending she didn’t care one way or the other. It’s only really in the un-picked-up pilot spin-off episode of ‘K-9 and Company’ that her feelings about being left behind are explored, and where K-9 Mk.III is entrusted to her care.

Scrappy-Doo saves the Scooby Gang with his Convenient Laser™.

Scrappy-Doo saves the Scooby Gang with his Convenient Laser™.

So they meet again thirty years later, which is apparently unusual, and we learn a little bit about how the Doctor feels about his mortal human companions. There’s a lovely (although slightly sickly) line where he says that Rose can be with him for the rest of her life, but he can never be with her for the rest of his. He must wander alone, latching on to each new person for just a short time only. Of course, the real reason is that actors come and go and new characters have to replace them, but this attempts to put a reason onto it in those cases where the companion doesn’t leave entirely by choice. It’s worth noting, however, that during the course of the Doctor’s travels, plenty of the companions have left by choice, perfectly willingly and without regret.

A secret stash of Krillitane oil is being put into the food.

A secret stash of Krillitane oil is being put into the food.

Rose, of course, sees her “future” in Sarah Jane, and wonders if she too is just the latest in a line of disposable assistants who will be discarded for a younger model. She and Sarah also argue about who has been on the best adventures before laughing and joking about the Doctor’s habits. It’s a nice moment in an episode filled with nostalgia.

Mickey doesn’t want to be the new Tin Dog.

Mickey doesn’t want to be the new Tin Dog.

And K-9 is back! Slightly rusty and malfunctioning, but it’s the same old K-9 (with the same old voice!) as before, and it’s great fun to see him back again, making obvious comments, firing his little laser and spinning around to save the day. But, why did Sarah have him in the back of her car? She didn’t know she’d run into the Doctor and she says K-9 doesn’t work anymore, so why keep him there as opposed to somewhere more secure? I suppose you could assume she’s living out of her car now, but that’s a bit sad.

Replacement physics teacher Mr. Smith suspects something strange is happening.

Replacement physics teacher Mr. Smith suspects something strange is happening.

The old crew team up to investigate strange happenings at the local school. Tony Head is fantastic, as he always is, but is underused. He just needed some more delicious dialogue to chew on. The Krillitanes are generic-looking CGI bats, and some of the effects are unfortunately a bit ropey. Perhaps this was an intentional throwback to the iffy effects of the 1970s, but I doubt it. The plot with the school kids cracking codes is a perfectly serviceable little mystery, and the Doctor and Rose are immediately settled into their undercover operation without having to waste time on a build-up.

Less screeching and more menace would have been nice.

Less screeching and more menace would have been nice.

The Doctor repeats his “you only get one warning” from The Christmas Invasion to Mr Finch. That’s sort of his “thing” now; friendly and jokey on the surface but he will put a stop to you if you cross the line (ooh, scary!). But really, the school mystery and the aliens are underplayed in favour of exploring the drama of the reunion, which is absolutely the right choice. The scenes with the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Rose are really touching and explore the Doctor’s character in a way that only a long-running programme like this can do, and the Doctor and Sarah finally get the proper goodbye that they should have had thirty years earlier.

Tooth and Claw

If the theme for this season is “Torchwood”, it’s not very subtle about it. By the end of the episode, Queen Victoria quite explicitly explains how she will set up the Torchwood Institute to protect Britain from its unholy enemies, and we know how that’s going to turn out. Given what she goes through in this story, I can’t blame her!

The wolf is fairly well realised but the CGI is showing its age.

The wolf is fairly well realised but the CGI is showing its age.

The werewolf, of course, is not really a werewolf – it’s an alien entity that has survived within human bodies and been passed down through different hosts for hundreds of years, turning them into werewolves. Okay, so it is really a werewolf.

Doctor Who's fight scenes have come a long way since the old days, when the credits would include a "fight arranger" as if they were hired to stir up an argument outside a pub.

Doctor Who’s fight scenes have come a long way since the old days, when the credits would include a “fight arranger” as if they were hired to stir up an argument outside a pub.

The Doctor, being the Doctor, thinks it’s “beautiful”, but he has to protect the humans too, so cue lots of running around the old Torchwood mansion, with various men bravely electing to stay behind and buy them time to escape (and then getting ripped to shreds). Bullets cannot stop the monster, so it’s books that save the day – knowledge is power, kids! The Doctor puts the pieces together and uncovers the secret of the old house and the power of the moon. Or something.

The Doctor puts on his glasses. It's time for some serious thinking. Alternatively, he wants a job as a teacher.

The Doctor puts on his glasses. It’s time for some serious thinking. Alternatively, he wants a job as a teacher.

It’s a pretty good episode on the whole. It’s not overly scary, but it has a scary tone and some good action. The wolf is not entirely convincing, but it’s kept hidden a lot of the time, to good effect. The characters are really well played, particularly Queen Vic herself and Sir Robert. It’s also nice to hear David Tennant using his native accent for a while. The writing is sharp, with some good humour amongst the terror. The pacing is good, it’s never dull, and the Tenth Doctor and Rose seem to work well together.

The Doctor gives his name as James McCrimmon, a reference to his former travelling companion, Jamie.

The Doctor gives his name as James McCrimmon, a reference to his former travelling companion, Jamie.

If you’re going to do a “Doctor Who Meets Famous Person From History” story, then make it stylish, interesting, fun, scary and… well, Doctor Who-ish. This one hits the spot.

New Earth

New series, new Doctor, new adventure, New New York on New Earth. The theme is “new”, but this is a familiar follow-up to season 1’s first out-of-this-world adventure, and sees the return of some old faces (literally). The Face of Boe, nearing the end of his life, is being treated in the hospital, where a previously splattered Cassandra, the last “pure” human, has been hiding out in secret when, surprise surprise, the Doctor and Rose turn up. It’s a mini-reunion!

New New York hospital on New Earth.

New New York hospital on New Earth.

There are two-and-a-half plotlines to follow here. Firstly, The Face of Boe having an important message for the Doctor, which ends up with a teasing “I’ll tell you next time” non-ending. Secondly, the hospital itself is suspiciously good at curing diseases because they’ve been secretly breeding vats of human test subjects and infecting them with every known disease, culminating in a sort of zombie horde roaming the hospital trying to hug everyone to death. Finally, we have brain-swapping shenanigans as Cassandra takes over Rose’s body, then the Doctor’s, and finally her assistant clone Chip. This is a bit silly but it means Billie Piper gets to stretch her acting muscle a bit and she’s actually quite good. David Tennant briefly acting like a woman in a man’s body is also pretty funny, and finally the closing scene where Cassandra in Chip’s body meets her past human self before (s)he dies is rather sweet and well handled.

The Face of Boe was going to tell the Doctor that he is "not alone", but this was moved back to a later episode.

The Face of Boe was going to tell the Doctor that he is “not alone”, but this was moved back to a later episode.

The human test subjects are the main attraction, though, and a chance for the Doctor to get on his high horse and chastise the nurses for their cruelty, even if it meant curing millions more. The episode takes a very simplistic approach to medicine, never really explaining the benefit of giving thousands of humans every disease at once, nor how this would actually help with finding cures, which incidentally are all nice colourful concoctions that can be either be injected or tipped over your head or just rubbed on you. No future disease needs any other type of treatment. Colourful liquid is the full extent of it, apparently. And despite being artificially-grown and living in capsules all their lives, these new humans seem absolutely fine and perfectly functional.

NuWho has a tendency to depict aliens as humoid animals. The Sisterhood of Plenitude are cats, because... why not?

NuWho has a tendency to depict aliens as humoid animals. The Sisterhood of Plenitude are cats, because… why not?

I could criticise much of the plot, but actually I still rather enjoyed New Earth. It’s a nice enough self-contained adventure set on a far-off alien planet and has a good amount of humour and a sweet ending. David Tennant has taken immediately to the role, but already he’s got that cocky style that will begin to grate over time, and he already does his “I’m sorry” routine twice in this episode!

The Christmas Invasion

Following on from his recent regeneration, the Tardis lands back on Earth on Christmas eve, but the Doctor’s residual regeneration energy has attracted some unwanted attention, and he’s in no fit state to fend it off.

Residual timey wimey energy escapes into outer space while the Doctor recovers.

Residual timey wimey energy escapes into outer space while the Doctor recovers.

When I first watched The Christmas Invasion, I didn’t like it at all. I found it far too simplistic and boring. I had hoped the invasion would be a clever cover for something else, hoped the Sycorax would be more interesting than just a bunch of space warriors, wished the resolution would have involved more than just a one-on-one fight to the death, and generally found the “big global threat” angle to be tiresome.

The Sycorax leader uses his "blood control" party trick.

The Sycorax leader uses his “blood control” party trick.

In retrospect, I found more to enjoy this time. What we have here is an episode where the Doctor isn’t around and we see how the people of Earth deal with that. We see how threatening a race of aliens can be when the Doctor isn’t there to call their bluff. And we see just what a cocky and confident man the Doctor actually is. He ridicules the Sycorax, he shows up their technology for what it really is, and he wins a fight in his pyjamas using a satsuma. Brilliant!

The Doctor's severed hand falls to Earth before a new one regenerates in its place. Someone ought to find that, it might be important.

The Doctor’s severed hand falls to Earth before a new one regenerates in its place. Someone ought to find that, it might be important.

But not to be fooled by his jovial Arthur Dentian ways, his darker side comes through as well. His “no second chances” to the fallen Sycorax leader is particularly harsh, and his reaction to what Harriet Jones does at the end suggests his positive opinions of humanity can change. Earth is beginning to step out into the Universe. This is the first time Torchwood has had some (off-screen) involvement in events, and the Doctor is not very happy about it. Don’t worry, Doc, nobody else likes Torchwood either.

Torchwood fires its destructo-beam at the Sycorax ship. The Doctor is not impressed.

Torchwood fires its destructo-beam at the Sycorax ship. The Doctor is not impressed.

For a Christmas episode, it’s not overly Christmassy. I suppose that’s to its advantage in some ways, as future Christmas specials have all tried to “capture the magic of Christmas” at any cost, often to their detriment. The Christmas Invasion tries to be a big “event” type story, and goes too far with it. A third of the population being mind-controlled should have had far more devastating effects on the world than what we saw. Wouldn’t cars crash into each other? Wouldn’t some aeroplanes start falling out of the sky? Doctor Who needs to stop doing global disasters and then shrugging them off as if it’s nothing. Oh, and Mickey hacking into the government network on his modem and laptop again? Come off it!

This is about as Christmassy as it gets. A remote controlled Christmas tree attacks Rose, Jackie and Mickey. Oh dear.

This is about as Christmassy as it gets. A remote controlled Christmas tree attacks Rose, Jackie and Mickey. Oh dear.

One part disaster, one part comedy, The Christmas Invasion is the sort of surreal concoction that only Doctor Who can pull off. I can’t say I totally enjoyed it, but it was okay, and funnier than I remember.