Tag Archives: sci-fi

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

Epic finales have capped the past four and a bit seasons, so it was no surprise that season 5 went all out. In a scene reminiscent of what Russell T Davies probably intended in The Stolen Earth, every single available alien, robot and creature from the past five years gathers together at Stonehenge 102 AD (including, bizarrely, the Silurians, who shouldn’t even be awake at this point) to trap the Doctor in a giant box, thus stopping him from destroying the Universe when his Tardis explodes in the future.

The Universe's largest recorded INTERVENTION meeting.

The Universe’s largest recorded INTERVENTION meeting.

It’s a good twist, because you spend most of the first episode thinking there’s a monster inside the Pandorica, but in fact the monster is the Doctor and all the bad guys are there to save the Universe for a change. It must have taken an incredible amount of planning on their part, though. They had to read a psychic imprint of Amy’s mind to create the trap, ensure the coordinates were written on a painting that would get passed down to River Song, who would find a way to escape prison and bring the Doctor to the right place. Convoluted isn’t the word! You also have to wonder, if keeping the Doctor sealed away for eternity is so important, why make the Pandorica so easy to open again from the outside?

Auton-duplicate Roman Rory, now with sonic screwdriver action.

Auton-duplicate Roman Rory, now with sonic screwdriver action.

The Doctor tells the alien spaceships over Stonehenge to bugger off for a while.

The Doctor tells the alien spaceships over Stonehenge to bugger off for a while.

Okay kid, this is where it gets complicated. With the first episode ending on the most extreme of cliffhangers, the Tardis exploding, the Doctor trapped forever, and the lights in the Universe blinking out of existence, it takes a hell of a job to undo it, but this is one of those occasions where it mostly works satisfyingly, thanks to Steven Moffat’s knack for planning out long-winded and complex plots and believing in the audience enough to keep up with it. Through a series of time jumps, the Doctor sets into motion an elaborate plan to rescue himself and works out how to undo the erasure of the Universe. These sequences are both amusing and clever, not to mention logically consistent (a rarity in a show that supposedly deals with time travel), so it’s a shame that a large part of the climax revolves around, basically, magic.

I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.

I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.

This annoys me, because the story could rely on its use of hard temporal mechanics to sort itself out, but instead descends into wishy-washy metaphor. Erased from existence, the Doctor is brought back into the Universe by the power of memories or love or some such nonsense. How does that make any sense? The mind is not some magical thing that can overcome the laws of physics – either somebody exists in spacetime or they don’t. So now we have a situation where the Tardis was actually blown up, but now it wasn’t because it was undone, except that it still did happen because they remember it and still need to work out who was responsible for it, even though it quite obviously didn’t happen because the Tardis still exists. The Doctor was at the heart of the Big Bang version 2, except he clearly wasn’t because he still exists, and he only exists because Amy and Rory remember him… and so on, and so forth.

It's not quite as bad as "the whole world prays for the Doctor" but it's the same sort of thing.

It’s not quite as bad as “the whole world prays for the Doctor” but it’s the same sort of thing.

Well, whatever issues there are with the plot, I can’t deny that it’s bloody ambitious. I also love how the previous episodes from the season are incorporated into it, with Vincent’s painting passed down through history, and then later with the Doctor revisiting Amy in their previous adventures and finally explaining that weird scene from Flesh and Stone. Amy’s story arc also reaches a conclusion, with the mystery of her vanishing parents solved, the crack in her room being sealed, and Rory coming back into existence in time for their wedding day.

It's hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as the Tardis materialises during the reception, to the words "something old, something new, something borrowed... something blue". Yes, very clever, Steven. How long had you been waiting to write that?

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotion as the Tardis materialises during the reception, to the words “something old, something new, something borrowed… something blue”. Yes, very clever, Steven. How long had you been waiting to write that?

I suppose what I liked most about this finale is that all the overblown threat is contained with a minimum of bluster within part 1. After the big incident, the second part is relatively low-key. There’s this wonderful mix of the utterly bleak (all the stars have gone out, the Tardis is burning in the sky for two millennia, and the Earth will soon disappear), the heartwarmingly lovely (Auton-duplicate Rory standing guard over Amy for 2000 years) and the bloody funny (the stuff with the mop and the fez). There was never any doubt that everything would turn out fine in the end, but getting there is a fascinating journey. For that reason, it’s the best season finale of the new series, despite the problems I had with it.

The exploding Tardis painting makes for a lovely piece of wall art.

The exploding Tardis painting makes for a lovely piece of wall art.

I was hoping to have revisited Matt Smith’s entire run before season 8 begins, but as I type this, Peter Capaldi’s debut is just days away, so I’m going to take this opportunity to take a ‘deep breath’, enjoy the new series and come back to this in a little while.

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

When I first watched this two-parter in 2010, I was aware that the Silurians had previously featured in Doctor Who, but that was about it. They are not your typical overused villains; in fact, this is only their third appearance, or their fourth if you count their aquatic cousins, the Sea Devils. Mind you, given the physiological differences, these Silurians are pretty much distant cousins too… unless we’re to believe that those old rubber suits were supposed to be masks also.

The Doctor removes Alaya's mask.

The Doctor removes Alaya’s mask.

As the intent here is to sympathetically paint the Silurians as people rather than monsters, they have humanoid faces under those masks, but the de-monsterfying goes further than that. There is discord between the civilian government and the military, who are considered old-fashioned warmongers who need to change their ways. Cold Blood focuses on the attempt to build a peaceful relationship between the Silurians and the human race, amid tension surrounding the death of one of their soldiers, with the Doctor struggling to prove that humans aren’t a threat to them. It’s not dissimilar to his attempts at peaceful negotiation in the first Silurian story, which had a rather unfortunate end for the ‘monsters’. The resolution here is more optimistic, and perhaps another story will revisit the Earth in the year 3010.

The humans and Silurians attempt to arrange peaceful coexistence.

The humans and Silurians attempt to arrange peaceful coexistence.

The Doctor has come a long way since then. His grumpy third persona was dragged into these facilities by UNIT, but Eleven is positively giddy with excitement upon laying eyes on the big drilling thing and wants to get himself involved right away. While Three thought badly of humanity and was proved right, Eleven loves humans and what they can be, but is let down. Additionally, you probably wouldn’t see the third Doctor making jokes in the face of danger or running around using a sonic screwdriver like it’s a gun, which unfortunately happens here, but frankly, I’ll take that over agonisingly drawn-out seven-part serials.

Look, it lights up. Bang, bang!!

Look, it lights up. Bang, bang!!

That said, however, The Hungry Earth is a little drawn out itself, teasing the reveal of the creatures below the Earth. It’s the schlocky monster movie to Cold Blood’s political drama, and does less to set up the human characters than the second part manages under a tighter time limit. I didn’t really care about any of them in part 1, but by the end of part 2, I found them quite likable and believable. As an ensemble piece, it’s well-balanced and everyone has something to do. Rory is particularly good again.

Amy is pulled into the ground by forces unseen.

Amy is pulled into the ground by forces unseen.

Unfortunately, poor Rory gets a raw deal. It’s not good enough that he gets killed shortly before the story is over, he has to be erased from history and forgotten too. The last few stories have shown that the two companion dynamic works brilliantly, so to see him written out like this is disappointing. He will come back later but, appropriately enough, I’ve forgotten how (sorry, Rory)! The sudden appearance of the crack and the piece of Tardis shrapnel is forcibly squeezed into the closing minutes, killing the pace with a pointless mystery. It’s not the subtlest of season arcs, this crack thing, is it?

Riddle me this. Why couldn't the Doctor throw Restac's gun into the crack, thereby erasing it, and Rory's death, from history?

Riddle me this: Why couldn’t the Doctor throw Restac’s gun into the crack, thereby erasing it, and Rory’s death, from history?

Amy’s Choice

Five years have passed since Amy and Rory travelled with the Doctor, and now they’ve settled down in the sleepy village of Leadworth. Amy is heavily pregnant, Rory has a ridiculous mullet, and life is good for them. But when the Doctor drops in on them again, they keep having dreams that they’re back there with him in the Tardis.

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Amy and Rory have recently joined the Doctor and are travelling with him in the Tardis. But when the power fails and the temperature starts dropping, they all start having dreams that they’re five years in the future, settling down to start a family in the sleepy village of Leadworth.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

Naturally, they can’t both be true, and from the audience’s perspective, it seems obvious that the former is a dream. Perhaps if this was a later season (say, the seventh) and the supporting cast were being phased out, the village setting would be equally believable. We’d be as genuinely confused as the characters as to which is reality, but even the first time I watched it, it was obvious that five years weren’t going to pass between episodes in the middle of the first season with a brand new companion. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to watch the mystery unravel.

The Tardis falls into an impossible "cold star". Or does it?

The Tardis falls into an impossible “cold star”. Or does it?

Amy’s choice is between her fiancé Rory and the Doctor, but she doesn’t really end up making such a choice. Since Rory is killed in the village, she is forced to pick the only reality where he’s still alive, which is so easy a choice that it might as well not exist. The fact that the story then pulls a “it was ALL a dream” ending out of the bag could be seen as a massive waste of time anyway, but actually, I rather like it when an episode breaks out of the standard mould. It also reminded me a little of the very first “in the Tardis” type story, The Edge of Destruction. Weirdness all round.

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

That the Dream Lord is not some malicious fiend makes a refreshing change. It would have been too easy to bring back one of the many entities encountered over the course of the Doctor’s adventures. It’s more sinister to realise that he’s part of the Doctor’s mind, the darker part of his subconscious. The Dream Lord’s apparent power to put them to sleep is frightening enough that you could do away with the alien-possessed elderly villagers plot, but I like how it almost turns into Hot Fuzz in the second half. Clearly, this was a budget-saving episode but, as I repeatedly like to point out, these are often the best.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

It’s low-key, it’s creepy, it’s different. It puts the characters into an interesting dilemma and it accurately captures the convincing illusion of dreams. The actual choice may not have been the defining moment I would have liked, but the episode’s unique qualities make it a highlight of this season. And I never expected to see Rory whack an old lady with a piece of wood, so that’s something.

The Vampires of Venice

The Vampires of the Venice is one of those forgettable mid-season episodes that I often get confused with earlier episodes that are distinctly similar. Historical setting, aliens disguised as humans (fishy vampires, in this case) and, goodness, it even ends with the Doctor climbing up a tower in a storm to disable some sort of equipment at the last possible moment, which he’s done at least twice since the revival.

I don't know whether to be aroused or terrified.

I don’t know whether to be aroused or terrified.

It has a certain old-school feel, like the classic serials, in places. The Venice setting looks a bit small and stage-like (though that’s probably unintentional), and the Tardis Team works together as an ensemble, cooking up a plan together, with Amy getting herself captured on purpose and Rory getting into a swordfight (with a broomstick). But it’s fairly breezy and handles dark themes with humour. Rory is an excellent addition to the cast, as Amy already takes this dangerous life for granted. Plus, his delivery is just perfect. I’m glad he’s sticking around for a bit longer.

Amy and Rory try to enjoy their romantic getaway to 1580 Venice, before the inevitable danger arises. Seriously, what are the odds?

Amy and Rory try to enjoy their romantic getaway to 1580 Venice, before the inevitable danger arises. Seriously, what are the odds?

As Doctor Who likes to do, the mythical creatures are explained as being aliens, and all their quirks (lack of reflection, drinking blood) are explained away with “science”. There are no surprises or twists and I was honestly getting bored by the final act, as tidal waves threaten to sink Venice and the special effects struggle to keep up. There is a cryptic reference made to the the Silence at the end, but it’s meaningless at this point.

With their perception filter switched off, the Saturnynians revert to their true form.

With their perception filter switched off, the Saturnynians revert to their true form.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the episode is the brief injection of dramatic conflict as Rory confronts the Doctor about putting people in danger, or rather, making people want to impress him by putting themselves in danger. I like it when the Doctor’s motives and actions are examined by others, as it helps us to learn what drives him. There’s actually a much better exchange in Meanwhile in the Tardis Part 2 (set immediately prior to the events of this episode) where the Doctor explains why he needs fresh eyes with him to see the Universe with wonder again. There’s nothing quite that good in Vampires of Venice; it’s rather… ordinary. Not bad, certainly funny in parts, but run-of-the-mill.

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

It was only a matter of time before Steven Moffat started filling his new series with his own characters and villains. This two-part story brings back both River Song and the Weeping Angels, each for their second appearance, and starts introducing facets of his ongoing story arc – headless monks, military clerics, the dimensional ‘crack’, a prophecy of an explosion that will cause it (coinciding with the original air date of the finale) and hints about River possibly killing the Doctor in the future. All very intriguing and, I dare say, rather baffling right now. Thankfully, the episodes have the good sense not to dwell on this, instead focusing on the threat of the Angels.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy's missing memories, but we still don't learn why it's specifically following her.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy’s missing memories, but we still don’t learn why it’s specifically following her.

This is only their second appearance, but already these perfect adversaries have been practically ruined. The bit I’m referring to is in Flesh and Stone, where we actually see the Angels moving. Yes, seeing them turn their heads like that is creepy, but the whole point of the Weeping Angels is that you can NEVER see them move. If you theoretically could, they wouldn’t look like statues, because they only exist as statues when they are observed. Moreover, the idea that they would have to be consciously aware of somebody watching them is rather less satisfying a concept than observation itself determining their quantum state. It’s as if “don’t blink” wasn’t scary enough, so now “don’t look” had to be awkwardly added in. The scene is ultimately unnecessary to the plot, and if we absolutely had to see them move, they could have done so in between flashes of light like before rather than in full view.

"Agh, not the coat, not the coat!"

“Agh, not the coat, not the coat!”

The other modification to the Angels is that their captured image holds their essence, which can come to life. This is a somewhat implausible concept, because what constitutes an “image”? Would a pencil sketch of an angel come to life? What about a painting? Or a polaroid? Would it contain the soul of the Angel that was copied? And, if so, what if you drew or painted a generic one rather than a specific one? However, the scene where Amy is watching the looped Angel video gradually change every time she looks away is, hands down, one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. It’s magnificent. There’s something about these Weeping Angels that instills such a genuine fear and horror, even when they are humanised somewhat. In this two-parter, their powers are broader. They can absorb energy, get inside your head, regrow their bodies… they are unpredictable, thereby raising the tension.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

Both episodes are have a cracking pace to them. It’s more action-packed than Blink, but it’s interspersed with quiet, tension-building moments. The direction is wonderful, making use of light and dark in innovative ways. The ‘Aliens’ inspiration is obvious. The sets and visuals are impressive, although the clerics’ military garb is decidedly modern-day for what is supposed to be the far future. The plot has enough shocking twists to stay interesting and frightening all the way through. Grievances aside, it’s a terrific double-bill.

The sudden realisation that they're surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

The sudden realisation that they’re surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

River has changed, though. Perhaps that’s to be expected, as she is younger and more impulsive, but this is where her irritating phase begins. From the opening scene, it’s clear she’s been turned into a sort of sexy secret agent type, with quips and one-liners and an abundance of confidence. “Hello, sweetie” was a nod back to her first appearance, but it’s starting to grate already. River and the Doctor act like an old married couple, which Amy finds very amusing. Both of them like to talk, and talk very fast. More annoying, however, is the Doctor’s “you shouldn’t mess with me” posturing, while Murray Gold blasts out his bombastic Eleventh Doctor theme, which I find very tiresome. No offence to Matt Smith, who I think is fantastic, but I am looking forward to a more subdued Doctor taking over. Someone without verbal diarrhoea, preferably.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor has been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor hs been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

There’s a curious scene in part 2 where the Doctor leaves Amy (with her eyes closed) and then appears to return to tell her something important. I can’t remember at the time whether I twigged the relevance of this scene, but you can see he’s wearing the jacket that he supposedly dropped earlier, and it turns out to be rather important and clever. Amidst all the other cleverness with the magic crack and vanishing clerics, it’s easy to miss. Most likely, it just washed over me as another jarring tone shift that Doctor Who likes to throw in from time to time. Like, for instance, Amy kissing the Doctor on the night before her wedding. Yeah… awkward!

The eleventh Doctor's response of "eurgh, but you're human" shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

The eleventh Doctor’s response of “eurgh, but you’re human” shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

The Beast Below

The Doctor takes Amy into space, the 29th century, where solar flares have forced humanity to vacate the Earth and travel the stars in massive ark ships the size of cities. It’s a quaint little setup in which the whole of the UK (minus Scotland, guffaw!) gets its own ship, its many decks separated into counties and the tenth Queen Elizabeth ruling over it all. But, naturally, bad stuff is happening and the Doctor has to fix it.

Starship UK. Caution: may contain Surrey.

Starship UK. Caution: may contain Surrey.

I had, perhaps naively, expected all of Steven Moffat’s scripts to be as good as his efforts in past seasons, but that was never going to happen. The Beast Below is no classic, but it’s got Moffat’s signature traits, including bags of imagination, creepy mechanical men and characters receiving forgotten messages from themselves. Despite the story taking place in an out-of-this-world setting, it feels close to home, familiar and relatable (children going to school and London Underground signs around the deck lifts). In terms of writing, it’s pretty sharp, and the two new leads slot effortlessly into their roles, but some of the friction when they disagree comes across a little forced at this early a stage. Then there’s the odd cringeworthy moment, like when Liz 10 says that she “rules”. Groan.

"I'm the bloody queen, mate!"

“I’m the bloody queen, mate!”

On a broader note, why is it so unbelievable that a ship could float by itself through space without an engine? I’m no physicist, but without anything to cause drag, couldn’t any mass continue through space on just inertia? The trick with the glasses of water is clever in itself, but it often feels like the Doctor leaps to conclusions (and knows everything about everything) and happens upon the answers straight away just to show off how clever he is. Everyone also makes huge assumptions about what would happen if the Star Whale were set free, even the Doctor, to the point of killing it! Nobody considers that it might not actually doom the UK population, except for Amy because, again, it needs to show how clever she is. I get that it’s supposed to show the Doctor can make mistakes and needs somebody with him, but it’s contrived.

Trapped inside the Star Whale's mouth, the Doctor instigates a gag reflex.

Trapped inside the Star Whale’s mouth, the Doctor instigates a gag reflex.

The Beast Below has all the right ingredients but doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Once revealed that the oppressed nation is a self-imposed necessary evil, the creepy mannequins don’t make much sense anymore (and half-human robot mannequins make even less sense; why throw that in?). The central theme of exploitation and the “greater good” is perfectly fine but leaves too many questions. The strengths of the episode are in its individual ideas and the drama that emerges as a result. It’s a solid effort nevertheless.

Was anybody else bothered by the way the clearly two-faced 'Smilers' actually had about four faces?

Was anybody else bothered by the way the clearly two-faced ‘Smilers’ actually had about four faces?

Meanwhile, that mysterious crack is following Amy, and the Doctor gets a call from Winston Churchill…

The Eleventh Hour

A new showrunner, a new Doctor, a new companion, a new Tardis, new logo, new titles and a whole new story arc, The Eleventh Hour wipes the slate clean and says “time for something new”. It’s one of the freshest and most confident season openers since Spearhead from Space saw Jon Pertwee tumbling out of the Tardis in colour.

"I was in the swimming pool." "You said you were in the library." "So was the swimming pool."

“I was in the swimming pool.” “You said you were in the library.” “So was the swimming pool.”

I’ve moaned about introductory episodes being set on Earth during some sort of invasion, and while The Eleventh Hour is no exception, this is an example of when it can work really well. As the title suggests, the Doctor is up against the clock and has to stop the Atraxi ships from incinerating the Earth while stuck in a small English village (with a closed post office), without his Tardis or sonic screwdriver, and he only has twenty minutes. Not the sort of thing you want to have to do on your first day.

The Doctor tells the Atraxi to bugger off.

The Doctor tells the Atraxi to bugger off.

There’s so much new stuff to cram into this episode, it’s a testament to Steven Moffat’s efficient plotting that it all fits and makes sense. New girl Amy Pond has to be introduced twice, once as a little girl and again twelve years later (her character somewhat mirroring the other ‘girl who waited’ from The Girl in the Fireplace), introduce Rory, the boyfriend competing with Amy’s obsession over her ‘imaginary’ friend, the Doctor has to find his feet, eat fishfingers and custard, investigate the mysterious crack in the Universe that has manifested itself as a crack Amelia’s bedroom wall, explain dimensional barriers, perception filters, Prisoner Zero escaping and then convince a scientific consortium to help him reprogram every clock in the world using a mobile phone. It’s just insane.

This crack will follow the Doctor through time and space for a while.

This crack will follow the Doctor through time and space for a while.

The script is full of wonderful one-liners and witty banter, the plot has some great misdirection (who Amy is, what ‘the human residence’ means) and clever ideas like the man barking like his dog because he didn’t know which voice was which. There’s a good mix of creepy and whimsical; I loved all the creepy stuff with the extra room in the house and the door in the corner of your eye, but it’s just one of many ideas that whoosh by too fast.

Amy comes face-to-face with Prisoner Zero's true form.

Amy comes face-to-face with Prisoner Zero’s true form.

Matt Smith makes a terrific first impression. Inevitably, the manic style of the Tenth Doctor has taken grip now, so there’s no change there, but the mannerisms are more alien and weird. The eleventh Doctor doesn’t quite understand human customs or good manners. He’s more of a fairy tale character here. His weirdness is amplified due to being newly regenerated, but to be honest, he doesn’t change much going forward.

"You're Scottish, fry something." The Doctor finally discovers his craving for fishfingers and custard.

“You’re Scottish, fry something.” The Doctor finally discovers his craving for fishfingers and custard.

While I think this is an incredibly strong opening, there are some less favourable elements creeping in. Murray Gold’s music is bombastic and overbearing, and “that theme” that he keeps reusing starts here. This is also the start of the Doctor’s “don’t mess with me, look what I did to all my other enemies” phase, when he becomes increasingly arrogant. No, perhaps it started earlier with David Tennant, but it’s blossomed into its own thing now and will continue to get worse. Finally, while I enjoy mysteries and story arcs, I seem to recall the Crack™ doesn’t get a satisfactory resolution. In fact, its appearance in this story (as a gateway to a prison dimension?) doesn’t correlate with what we later learn about it. Much of the story arc is incredibly convoluted as far as I can recall, but I’ll re-appraise that properly at a later date.