April 25, 2010
Review by Martin Odoni
Hasn’t the new series been refreshing, in that we haven’t had a single scene to this point set in a run-down London Council Estate? It’s also been refreshing in not being gratuitous melodrama or lazy contrivance. This episode shows that it can really be scary and exciting, instead of just telling us that it’s scary and exciting.
Can’t avoid it, the Weeping Angels are a terrifying creation aren’t they? They and the Ood are probably the only really interesting aliens the revived series has invented so far, and let’s not pretend now; we were all quivering during that scene when Amy was trapped inside the derelict, weren’t we? There really is something far more petrifying (no pun intended) about the way the Angels only move when we can’t see them. Just a brief loss of light and suddenly they’ve changed entirely. It’s far scarier than watching a fleet of Daleks swooping around on those silly hoversled things, isn’t it? Much as it pains me to agree with something Russell T Davies has to say on the subject of Dr Who, he was right about one thing; Steven Moffat really is the master of writing scary Who.
It’s a very solid and exciting first half of the story, with plenty of plot and suspense packed into forty-odd minutes. The return of River Song raises some continuity questions – consider her references to knowing the Tenth Doctor when he must’ve been a lot older than at the time he regenerated – but with the two of them meeting each other out of sequence all the time, we have to anticipate that their history is going to alter somewhat.
Performances are generally excellent here. Karen Gillan yet again uses those absolute gems of eyes to the most spectacular effect, especially when cornered by the projection of the Angel – the terror she conveys as she creases her brows is so palpable that you really believe she’s in fear of her life. Billie Piper and Freema Agyeman could never compete with that, and don’t get me started on Catherine Tate. This scene also benefits from excellent direction work from Adam Smith, who accomplishes the tricky feat of getting an actress to talk to the camera without breaking the fourth wall. Matt Smith is back on form after a slightly shaky display in Victory Of The Daleks, keeping a high level of eccentric energy in his performance while showing the Doctor’s petulant edge throughout. The Doctor really is uneasy about River, probably because of the predeterminism factor; he feels like his future is no longer his to choose. Alex Kingston is really settled as River, timing her sarcastic jibes at the Doctor to perfection.
River herself once again comes across as a bit too smug in this to be a completely likeable character, but you can’t help enjoying the effortless way she keeps showing the Doctor up. It recalls some of the friendly competition between the Fourth Doctor and the First Romana. The contrast with Amy helps, as it subtly highlights that, although there’s a mild attraction, the Doctor and his companion are definitely not lovers this time, more like teasing siblings. That’s definitely for the best, as the sexual tensions in the TARDIS over the last five years have really got in the way of many of the stories. There’s also a good rapport between the two ladies, with Amy almost becoming an unannounced protege of River in the art of lowering the Doctor’s ego.
The idea of the Anglican Church having its own army is another clever bit of satire on the growing militancy of the Radical Right in the USA. However, before Christian groups start complaining about being picked on, it should be noted that the Bishop, even with his evident dislike and resentment of the Doctor, is quite a sympathetic leader. His snarls about the Doctor departing in his blue box while everyone he leaves behind has to inform the families of the deceased had me nodding sadly.
To the plot itself, it’s generally very good, with some marvellous tension in the scenes when the hunt is on in the Maze for the Angel. I also have to big-up those scenes for being the moment when Murray Gold finally realised that incidental music is at least as effective when it’s subtle. There’s a spell of about ten minutes when we don’t get hit over the head with a single much-too-loud chord of music, just a soft, ominous underscore that emphasises the dark, sombre setting and mood of lingering death. The sequence when Amy thinks her hand has turned to stone is very chilling, and is well performed indeed by the two leads.
“An image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel…” Ooooooooh boy. I have a suspicion that an Angel is actually going to emerge from Amy’s eyes in part two, because the Angel was reflected in them while she was staring at it! That could be very creepy to see.
And the cliffhanger is terrific! Hemmed in on all sides by the Angels, the Doctor’s decision to destroy the only thing holding them back is remarkable, and still has me puzzling over what exaclty he has in mind. His “never-put-me-in-a-trap” speech was perhaps a little over-the-top, but Matt Smith delivers it a lot more subtly than David Tennant ever would have; DT would scream every word of it at the top of his lungs.
There are some noticeable jokes lifted from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. As a couple of examples, a distress signal fossilised for an eternity and picked up by a time-travelling acquaintance eons later was in the second Hitch Hiker Radio Series, while references to two heads are a probable nod (pun intended this time) to Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Couple of things I didn’t like. “POWER!!!” was a very Tenth Doctor loud-revelation-moment that Matt Smith’s interpretation could do without. “The party’s over!” was another of those Hollywood cliche-lines that I wish would just roll over and die. And people who’ve just died talking to the Doctor sounds like another bit of unhealthy recycling, this time straight from River Song’s previous appearance in Silence In The Library.
But these are very brief and slight niggles again, and they never quite took me out of the story. The Time Of Angels is a very effective bit of horror-television that harkens back to Doctor Who‘s heyday in the mid-70’s. All of which means it’s three wins out of three from the pen of Steven Moffat, whose quality hasn’t noticeably diminished at all with all the extra workload he has now he’s Executive Producer.
8.99999999999-recurring out of 10. I am definitely looking forward to part 2.
April 18, 2010
by Martin Odoni
That title isn’t just cheesey and generic, it’s also a little meaningless, as this battle appears to have been a draw. Still, seeing the Daleks mostly get thrashed all the time, I suppose holding the Doctor to a stalemate may count as a victory of sorts.
This story is somewhat likeable, but all-in-all I thought that it was all very silly. From colour-co-ordinated Daleks, to threatening the would-be world-conquerors with a jammie dodger, to yet another of those interminable “why-don’t-they-just-shoot-him-instead-of-standing-around-for-ten-minutes-needlessly-explaining-their-dastardly-plans-to-him-in-intricate-detail-including-light-show-presentation-with-Microsoft-Powerpoint?” scenes, to the truly ridiculous (if spectacular) contrivance of Spitfires that can fly in outer space, the whole thing had a distinct smack of Mark Gatiss wanting to hold a Star Wars remake at Duxford airbase.
In its defence, the episode may have been just a silly as Evolution Of The Daleks was a couple of years ago, but this time at least it was a story that was clearly conscious of its own absurdity, and so never took itself too seriously. It also managed to progress itself fairly soundly. Just about. Sort of. Ish. That meant it was able to be fun without seeming self-indulgent or pointless. But it still has to be seen as a hangover from the RTD era, as it’s one of those all-too-frequent episodes of NuWho that can only be enjoyed by not really thinking about what you’re seeing too much. That of course is the motivation for Murray Gold’s deafening scores; they’re so loud and so overwhelming to the senses of the audience that it’s very difficult to keep your brain switched on.
The performances were generally a bit iffy. To my eyes, Ian McNeice looked more like Leo McKern than Winston Churchill, and sounded even less convincing. Matt Smith’s performance was his weakest so far. He wasn’t helped by the very strong impression from some of the lines that the script was written for Tom Baker, and there were times when he seemed to be thrashing about trying to get hold of the personality he was meant to portray. On the plus side, I thought Karen Gillan was probably at her best here, and so it’s a pity that she was a little underused; Amy’s role seemed chiefly to be “Stand-next-to-Churchill-and-sound-panicky-like-a-stereotype-companion-from-a-Barry-Letts-story-a-lot”.
Couldn’t stand some snippets of dialogue in this. Worst ones were undoubtedly, “We’re sitting ducks!” which is a cliche that belongs firmly back in 1980’s cartoons where it should have died a justly-uncelebrated death, and “Oi, Churchill!” which is one of those irritating pop-culture references that I had hoped the series would get shot of now that RTD had left. Still, at least it was a whole lot subtler than Barbara Windsor’s “GEH OU’A MA PUB!!!!” in Army Of Ghosts.
On a more positive note, the Daleks’ plan was quite clever and well worked out, and the ending in some ways was also a plus, in that it avoided yet another re-run of almost every Dalek appearance since the revival of the series. Most of the time, the Doctor triumphs and the entire Dalek race is wiped out in one fell swoop, except just one of them manages to find a trapdoor to quietly escape through on the last page of the script, and the entire race is eventually revived from there. This time, the battle is a stalemate, and all the Daleks escape loudly, proudly and openly.
There was some interesting development of the Doctor’s personality at the end too. What wasn’t openly stated was that the awful dilemma he faced was one he faced before. In the Time War, the Ninth Doctor had to choose between destroying the Daleks and saving Gallifrey. On that occasion, he chose destruction. This time, with the Earth imperilled he chose mercy. His terrible anguish in the aftermath was almost certainly born, at least in part, from the rekindled memory of the war.
So underneath all of the silliness the episode has its depths, which is something Gatiss can usually just about manage. But in the end, it’s the silliness that really prevails. It’s just another of the many recent Dalek episodes that have been badly-contrived self-parodies.
It brings me back to the point I’ve been making for a while that the Daleks really need to sit out a couple of years. As no writer at present seems able to come up with a sensible idea for including them in a story, why not just leave them out? They’ve been in every season since the revival, and the only two worthwhile episodes they’ve been in during that time are Dalek and Daleks In Manhattan (and the latter was ruined by the really daft second part). I get the feeling that the only reason the series keeps bringing them back all the time is because it thinks it has to, which is not a good reason at all. Overuse is wearing out the ideas for them, while also making them less scary; when you see them every year they become too familiar to be startling anymore.
It’s likeable enough that it scrapes a 6/10. But it’s easily the weakest episode of the season to date.
April 11, 2010
by Martin Odoni
Clever stuff again from Master Moffat. It’s certainly another good episode, if a little odd. I guess the series is meant to be odd, so it means it’s a job well done, but there were a lot of weird touches that… well they didn’t do any harm, but seemed a bit random and could have done with explaining. What was the point of the smilers’ two-sided heads? Just seemed a rather kooky excuse for having something that looks scary. Why was there a girl quoting rhymes in an apparent mock-up of the old BBC2 test-card? Why was Devon next to Surrey? Why would a whale have teeth? What exactly was ‘the thing’ the Doctor did that Liz 10 refered to? And was the Doctor perving up Amy’s nightie while she was ‘spacefloating’? (Is she a parody of Arthur Dent, or of Wendy from Peter Pan maybe?)
I do really like Matt Smith. The Doctor is an eccentric scientist again, which he is perfectly cast to portray, and no longer the absurd messianic celeb his Tenth incarnation was contrived into being. He also has an excellent chemistry with Karen Gillan – almost too good in fact, as in the early stages of the story they’re so settled in each other’s company that it seems hard-to-believe that Amy only set foot in the TARDIS for the first time an hour or so earlier. Karen Gillan’s performance is a bit hit-and-miss for me. Her acting in the scene when she sneaks into the workman’s tent seems very stagey and a little over-the-top – see the bit where she glances over her shoulder at the girl and says, “About what?”; cheese-city. But she improves as the story goes on. Once again, she uses those eyes superbly in the later scenes. Sophie Okonedo also fluctuates as Liz 10. She seems like an EastEnders drop-out when in Cockney mode, but as the more regal Queen Elizabeth X on the recording her delivery of her lines is outstanding. (The cockney accent is a a neat early clue, incidentally, that she’s been around a lot longer than she thinks. She’s been mixing with the regular population so much and for so long that her regality has eroded.)
The story seems a bit mis-paced. This is probably because of the gigantic info-dump in the big scene near the end, which leaves the audience having to take on board rather a lot of plot in a big rush after quite a lot of rather slow build-up previously.
But it’s a good story that probably just needed an extra redraft. There are some clever bits of satire on British willful political ignorance – it’s sadly true that our Government isn’t always keeping secrets from us; sometimes people just don’t want to know – and on Scottish ‘we’ll-go-anywhere-so-long-as-it’s-different-from-where-the-English-go’ dogmatism. The star-whale is another bit of weirdness but it works, and the idea of the British of the future suddenly having an action-hero monarch sounds cleverly medieval – Liz 10 a true descendant of the Plantagenets!
The script also cleverly plays on the widescale suspicion of faceless Government workers with a supposed private agenda that even the legislators know nothing of. The Queen here is almost Jim Hacker to Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey Appleby. (And Appleby was of course played by Nigel Hawthorne in Yes, Minister; another clever bit of sub-text there.) It’s a bit of a turn-up when we realise that Liz 10 is investigating a ‘conspiracy’ she herself set up and then had to forget. Her choice to forget may seem contrived, but in fact it’s very real indeed. Many politicians face the horror of no-win situations every day. (And just like the rest of us, sometimes they would rather just forget it was there…)
The close is very powerful, as the Doctor gets one of those humbling moments he needs every so often. It is Amy, the ‘mere human’, not the mighty Time Lord, who sees the obvious and realises that the star-whale is benign and will help willingly if it is just given the chance. It shows that Amy is a more insightful companion than most of her predecessors… it’s those eyes again!
Good stuff, but I could have done without that phone-call-from-Winston-Churchill tosh at the end…
It just about scrapes an 8 out of 10, would’ve been a very healthy 9 with a redraft. But either way, the series has so far been an absolutely elephantine improvement on most of the dross of the previous couple of years. I’m even starting to like the new version of the theme tune, surprisingly.
For the Matt and the Moffat, may the Time Lord make us truly thankful.
review by Martin Odoni.
That was good stuff, a very promising start for the new era. Matt Smith definitely has that something that a classic Doctor needs, which is the ability to be effortlessly weird. He’s a natural for the role. (In fact, David Tennant was too, but he kept trying too hard when he didn’t have to, and that often spoiled his performances, especially early on). The writing has also improved immensely. It still has the odd unwelcome moment of zaniness, but the dialogue is nowhere near as crude, unnatural or exposition-heavy as last year, and the characterisation is a lot less short-hand. The characters in The Eleventh Hour were not exactly deep, and a couple of them were clearly one-scene jokes still, but they were more real and a touch more serious than most of the walk-ons of the RTD era.
More important, Steven Moffat can actually carry a plot, and progress one without lazy get-outs. There are one or two moments that resembled deus ex machina technobabble in the resolution the Doctor comes up with, but in fact if you can follow what he’s saying in his (sadly rushed) explanation, it does make sense, is comprehensible, and is just about possible with technology that already exists on Earth. With Russell T Davies holding the pen there would have been a hidden button on the side of the sonic screwdriver that, when pushed, would cause the starships orbiting the Earth to implode, or some such guff. But here, the Doctor is back to what he always used to be, a cunning, calculating genius who has to think of a solution rather than pluck a previously nonexistent superpower out of his rectum.
Down points. Murray Gold’s music is still too over-the-top. He was always blaming this on RTD’s instructions previously, but he no longer has that excuse, and he really needs to tone it down a lot. Also, I was hoping we’d seen the last of that screwdriver when it burned out, and I was saddened to see another one pop into existence out of nowhere, especially as it still seems to have ridiculously overblown abilities. It used to be a convenient tool for picking locks, but has been turned into a more powerful gun than Megatron’s fusion cannon. Please get rid of it! It’s just an all-purpose plot device for exhausted writers to get themselves out of a plot corner.
Also, despite the enjoyable earlier moments of the Doctor adjusting to his new generation (fish-custard? Fabulous idea, will try it for lunch tomorrow), a lot of the dialogue he got sounded very much like it was written expressly for DT, particularly some of the “hyper-dramatic revelation” moments, one of the more annoying qualities of the Tenth Doctor.
Further, there are unhealthy signs of recycling. The Doctor saying, “I’ll be back in a minute” and then not coming back for years is a direct lift from The Girl In The Fireplace, while a young girl hearing voices from another reality was done in Silence In The Library, and arguably even Blink.
But these are minor niggles, and there were bound to be a few of them with the big change of production crew. All-in-all, the script was as fast-paced as any in NewWho, but still managed to cram in plenty of tightly-presented plot, and avoided being speed-for-speed’s-sake, and made suficient room for familiarising us with the new Doctor and companion, both of whom seem interesting and likeable. (I’m sure Amy has been designed to be what they were aiming unsuccessfully for Donna to be.) Special mention for Karen Gillan, who I think looks set to be one of the best companions in terms of facial acting. Jury’s still out on the vocals so far, but those eyes are a gift; they convey a tremendous amount of emotion and thought.
Impressive start. 8/10.