Sunday, 29 November 2015

Heaven Sent - Review

Naturally, all the press reviews are talking about Peter Capaldi's performance in Heaven Sent. Superlatives aplenty. So I don't need to go there. Take it as read that I agree with all of them.
For a 52 year old programme, that is now in its 9th season since coming back, there is no end to the possibilities offered by the format of Doctor Who.
I just gave up watching ITV's Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, because it is degenerating into a "monster of the week" series. Primeval was just the same, Merlin sometimes so.
The problem these series always face is that they are stuck in the same setting, with a large central cast. There will be a story arc, but most weeks it is just the same old thing. Some monster or villain that is going to get beat round about the 40 minute mark.
"But surely that's exactly what Doctor Who delivers?", I hear the not-we cry.
True, there is a monster every week, and there is a story arc, but Doctor Who never ever feels like it is the same show week in, week out.
It can do really new things every single episode. It can go anywhere in Time and Space.
This current season has shown a definite desire to experiment with the format - sometimes in little ways, and sometimes like Heaven Sent.
So far in Series 9 we have had a lot more two-part stories, or single episodes that closely inter-link. We've had the Doctor address the audience directly, and even play the theme music (twice). Sleep No More skipped the opening titles altogether, and also gave us the found footage style of presenting an adventure. Face The Raven had a post-end credits scene that wasn't a "Next Time" piece, as well as seeing the companion departure before the series finale (maybe). That last point is not new to the series as a whole, but unusual for Nu-Who.
This time, we have 50-odd minutes of just the Doctor on his own. There's a memory of Clara in his head to talk to, and bounce ideas off. He can talk to the monster - the Veil. He can also challenge whoever it is that has sent him to this weird clockwork castle, whom he presumes is watching and listening. The only real person he talks to in the whole 55 minutes is a little boy on his homeworld of Gallifrey in the closing moments.
Yes, Gallifrey. I predicted Time Lords last week (easy if you looked for the clues). I was a bit upset that the new Radio Times was published on Saturday morning - with a big picture of Donald Sumpter as the Time Lord President - before Heaven Sent aired.
Thanks to these BBC authored spoilers, the big reveal at the end was, well, spoiled a little for me.
I did not expect the Doctor to reveal that he is the Hybrid that has been mentioned throughout the series. (Is this going to address the half-human controversy from The Movie? Humans would be the universe's most ruthless warriors if it ain't the Daleks).
Nor did I guess what the heck was going on with that castle. The idea that the Doctor had been there thousands of times before we first saw him - so all those skulls were his - was a shocker.
I suppose Heaven Sent now bags the record for the story with the longest time span by billions of years.
No doubt you will have already seen the photos for next week's episode, which runs to 65 minutes? No? Well Blogtor Who has them. Avoid if you hate spoilers. (I looked but thought that they would have been published by everyone else). There is also the trailer, which looks far cooler than the "Next Time" tease.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Story 143a - Trial of a Time Lord (Parts 1 - 4)

The Mysterious Planet.
In which the Doctor suddenly finds himself on a vast space-station, with no sign of Peri. The TARDIS has been drawn into the station, and the Doctor's memory has been scrambled. This is due to the combined willpower of an assembly of Time Lords, who have gathered here to conduct an inquiry into his recent actions. An Inquisitor will examine his behaviour. He will be invited to give his version of events and justify his actions, whilst the Valeyard will present evidence against him. The Doctor elects to conduct his own defence. He learns that he is no longer President of the High Council of Time Lords - having been deposed in absentia. It has been felt that the previous trial he underwent at the end of his second incarnation was unduly lenient.
The Valeyard presents his first piece of evidence - taken from the Matrix. This involves the Doctor's visit to a planet named Ravolox.
He and Peri arrive on this world which presents a puzzle. It is of the exact same mass, angle of tilt and period of rotation as the Earth, and yet is light years away from the Solar System. It appears to be lifeless at first, but they are being watched by a pair of intergalactic criminals - Sabalom Glitz and his partner Dibber. Entering a cave, the Doctor and Peri discover that it leads to the ruins of an underground railway station - London's Marble Arch to be precise. Ravolox is Earth.

The station has a tunnel that leads into a high-tech labyrinth where there are survivors living - people who survived whatever it was that destroyed the life on the surface. The Doctor is attacked by them when he takes a sip of water from a jar. Everything is rationed in this underground realm. He is saved by a man named Merdeen - captain of the Train Guards. He meets the keeper of the sacred books, Balazar. It is clear that these people have lost their knowledge of how life in London once was, and have a corrupted view of history. The domain is controlled by someone called Drathro, who lives in a castle at its heart. This proves to be a huge robot - the L3. Marb Station, as it is known, was created as a shelter to protect some humans from the catastrophe which befell the planet - a great firestorm. Drathro runs things like an experiment. Everything is controlled, including occupant numbers. Regular culls take place when numbers are exceeded. Drathro believes that surplus people are killed, but Merdeen has been secretly allowing them to escape onto the surface. These people have formed a community known as the Tribe of the Free, led by Queen Katryca.
Peri, Glitz and Dibber are captured by the Tribe. Glitz is interested in a tall black column, which the Tribe revere as a totem. He claims that it was this that brought down the firestorm, but Katryca does not believe him. Other travelers from the stars have tried to take their totem - always giving different explanations as to what it is. When the Doctor escapes from Marb Station he is also captured by the Tribe, and Drathro sends a servo-robot - the L1 - to bring him back.
The Tribe decide to attack the station - to free the humans that are still held there.

It transpires that Drathro originates from Andromeda. It has valuable information stored which Glitz has been employed to obtain. The Tribe's totem pole is its Black Light energy converter, and it will perish if it is destroyed. Agents from Andromeda were sent to get this information a long time ago - but the Earth was moved out of its position by some process that also destroyed life on the surface. The Andromedan agents - known as Sleepers - therefore never arrived. In the court room, the Doctor is furious to find that the full explanation about the information Drathro holds has been censored by the Inquiry. The Tribe launch their attack, but Katryca is killed by Drathro. It decides that the experiment is at an end and Marb Station and all its occupants should be destroyed. Dibber blows up the Black Light Converter. Glitz pretends that he has a similar device on his ship and so tempts Drathro into accompanying him out of the station. Drathro has copies of the information it is protecting on computer tapes. Denied its power source, Drathro collapses and is destroyed - taking the tapes with it. The Doctor manages to prevent the destruction of the station. The underground dwellers and the Tribe will live together free on the surface. Glitz and Dibber leave without the information they were after, but the pieces of the Converter are made of a valuable substance so they will be able to make some money out of this affair.
The Doctor is left with nothing but questions - who moved the Earth and renamed it, and why? And what were the secrets which Drathro held that Glitz was paid to obtain? Why wouldn't the Time Lords let him know the answer to this?
No answers are forthcoming, and the Valeyard is only just getting started. And where is Peri?

This four part introduction to the season-long Trial of a Time Lord was written by Robert Holmes, and was broadcast between the 6th and 27th of September, 1986.
It marks the opening of the delayed 23rd Season, and was the last full story that Robert Holmes contributed to the series. At 14 episodes, this is the longest Doctor Who story ever, but it is split into 3 x 4 part segments and a 2 part conclusion, and many fans often look at it as four separate stories with a linking arc. The on-screen evidence is that it is one single story however, which is how I intend to cover it here. This first segment is generally given the title The Mysterious Planet.
As mentioned previously, a number of stories had been lined up for Season 23 before the show was put on a temporary hiatus for 18 months. All of these were dropped and a new structure - with new sub-stories - was developed instead. As the programme was on trial, the idea of a courtroom concept was agreed upon by producer John Nathan-Turner and Script Editor Eric Saward. More writers were approached, but all of the new ones fell by the wayside. The BBC decided that the season would only run to 14 x 25 minute episodes - its shortest run ever. Holmes would write the opener and the conclusion. Philip Martin would write a story bringing back Sil from the previous season, and Pip & Jane Baker would provide the third segment.
Sadly, for his last full story, this is not one of Holmes' best. He has a duo of comedic pairings - one of his trademarks. Glitz and Dibber work very well, but the bickering Humker and Tandrell, who work alongside Drathro are neither funny nor relevant to the plot. Bizarrely, it was Glitz and Dibber that the BBC big-wigs thought pointless.

We have a wonderful effects shot at the start - suggesting that the series is back bigger and better than ever. A lot of time and money was spent on the tracking shot of the space station. Impressive, but what follows is just same old. There is an impressive cast, but some of it doesn't quite work. Carry On doyenne Joan Sims just doesn't convince as a futuristic Boadicea, whereas Tony Selby as a galactic wheeler-dealer conman does.
The Marb Station sets are dreadfully over-lit, and the underground dwellers have preposterous costumes to contend with. Adam Blackwood (Balazar) describes himself looking like a condom. It is a nice touch that one of the few books his character keeps he thinks is written by a person named H. M. Stationery Office.
Filming at a real Iron Age settlement recreation lends the home of the Tribe some verisimilitude.
Other Ravolox segment characters worth mentioning are Glen (London's Burning) Murphy as Dibber - a really nice performance. Merdeen is an underused Tom Chadbon (last seen as Duggan in City of Death).
Principal guest stars for the whole season are introduced in the court scenes - the mighty Michael Jayston as the Valeyard, and the late Lynda Bellingham as the Inquisitor.
Episode endings are: fairly rubbish throughout all of the season - mostly comprising a zoom into Colin Baker's face showing a wide range of emotion. I am being charitable here...
  1. The Valeyard tells the court that this should no longer be a mere inquiry, and that the Doctor should be put on trial. Doctor looks gobsmacked.
  2. The Doctor and his friends are trapped between the Tribe warriors and the advancing L1 robot. The Doctor claims he is helpless as to what they should do. Doctor looks uncertain.
  3. Merdeen points his crossbow at the Doctor and fires... Doctor-free expression this one.
  4. The Doctor points out that nothing he did on Ravolox was against Time Lord laws. In fact he saved people. The Valeyard says that by the time the inquiry is over, the court will be demanding his life. Doctor looks smug.

Overall, an okay opener. Nothing much better to say than that. The robot costumes are very good. There's that impressive model sequence. We like Glitz. The court scenes are too frequent and often pointless in these opening episodes - with some dire attempts at humour. The Doctor's variations on "Something-yard" are tiresome. The new title music is rubbish.
Things you might like to know:
  • There is an obvious irony in the fact that before he got into acting, Colin Baker had studied to become a barrister. When charged with speeding a few years ago, he elected to act as his own defence. He lost and was banned.
  • The Inquisitor is never named on screen, but fan fiction (books and audio) has her called Darkel.
  • It was claimed that "Valeyard" meant a Doctor of Law (hinting at who this character might turn out to be). A bit like Vader being Father in Dutch. Google "Valeyard" and you will get nothing but Doctor Who references - or the query "Did you mean Vineyard?".
  • An obvious inspiration for this story was the second Planet of the Apes movie - which features the subway station beneath New York's Grand Central Station as the entrance to a high tech base. The humans who live there also look a bit condom-like.
  • The train guards' helmets are a not-quite last hurrah for those that we first saw back in Earthshock. They have one more appearance to make in the series.
  • A TARDIS exterior scene was filmed but never used. You can see it on the DVD. As broadcast, the Doctor and Peri are already wandering through the forest when we first see them.
  • The relationship between the Doctor and Peri has improved a great deal. This had been a criticism of the 22nd Season.
  • Drathro is voiced by actor Roger Brierley. He was originally supposed to have been inside the robot costume as well, but got an attack of claustrophobia. A member of the VFX team, Paul McGuiness, who had been the model for the building of the costume, stepped in to replace him. Again, look to the DVD for a Blue Peter piece on the operation of both robots seen in this story.
  • One of the working titles for this segment was "Robots of Ravolox".
  • As well as the trial format, the season was also based on A Christmas Carol - with stories that were to represent the Doctor's past, present and future.
  • That opening model shot cost around £8K, and took about 6 weeks to film. It is motion-controlled camera stuff. It was originally intended that we would see a mass of wrecked spaceships, then the big Time Lord craft would be seen in the middle of them. It was described as being like a Gothic cathedral, which is where incidental music composer Dominic Glynn got his inspiration from.
  • Glynn recently released dancified versions of his Who soundtracks. Personally, I find Season 23's version of the theme rather weak and watery.
  • Tony Selby had been on a diet, but agreed to give it up for this appearance. On location, he, Baker and Joan Sims indulged in pudding-eating competitions. Ironic, as Sims, in her autobiography, describes herself as "Queen of the Puddings" at this time - suffering as she was from depression and alcoholism and so "comfort-eating". She passed away in 2001.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Face The Raven - Review

Let's set aside the final 5 minutes or so for now, and look at the rest of this week's episode. because if it hadn't been for that shocking conclusion how would this story have stood up?
A interesting premise was the idea of the Trap Streets. It is one of those things that are hard to retro-fit into the series, however. We now that this particular street has been in existence for at least a century - so does that mean UNIT and Torchwood knew about it? How many more are there on Earth? Did the Third Doctor visit any whilst he was exiled on Earth, or are they something he has only recently discovered?
The mix of aliens was a bit arbitrary - it felt like they simply used whatever costumes came to hand. Can't really see either Cybermen or Sontarans in a refugee camp.
The basic plot, up until we learned that Ashildr was up to something, was a murder mystery. Obviously Rigsy isn't the sort of person who would kill a defenseless woman - alien or otherwise - so it looked as if the Doctor was going to have to find out who really did it. Except we didn't have that many obvious culprits, and I could see by the clock that they were rapidly running out of time to develop this as a credible plot.
I had also guessed that this was where Clara was going to cop it. Which brings us to what this episode is always going to be remembered for.
We've had companion deaths before - two in the same Hartnell story and one in Davison's tenure. The death of Rory in the Silurian two-parter was spoiled by the release of a photo from the series finale in which he appeared - and Moffat went on to totally destroy Death as a threat throughout the Matt Smith period.
Now, we know that we haven't seen the last of Jenna Coleman in the series - one look at the cover of the current DWM will testify to that. I would be very upset if Clara's death was undermined by some cop-out explanation that she is alive and well somewhere. Her departure has already been set up then compromised twice before.
No offence, but I hope she really is deaded this time.

With those three previous deaths in the series, the Doctor never got a proper chance to say any kind of good-bye. This time, Clara was able to say what needed to be said to the Doctor - look after yourself and don't take revenge, basically.
I think the thing that shocked me most about her death - not being surprised that it was actually going to happen as I have said - was the fact that it hurt. Clara is clearly in pain after the Raven flies into her, and for a prolonged period thanks to the slo-mo. This wasn't some sanitised Sci-Fi death at all. All of Missy's victims get obliterated in a fraction of a second for instance.
It wasn't a quick death, and she had very little time to prepare for it. I am not surprised that it has upset a lot of younger viewers.
The episode ended on a cliffhanger, with the Doctor teleported off to who knows where. We know that it is going to be some big mechanical castle, with a creature called the Veil, but who is behind this and why? Who was Ashildr working for?
The obvious culprits are Davros and the Daleks. The former did want to get his hand on the Doctor's Confession Dial after all. The whole Dalek / Time Lord hybrid thing is still to be resolved.
Then there are the Time Lords themselves. Look closely at that photo of Ohila in the latest DWM and you'll see she is in the presence of Time Lords. If the Doctor is somehow responsible for bringing the Hybrid about, could his own people be out to stop him? Sounds like the sort of thing Rassilon might do. Anyone know if Timothy Dalton has been in Cardiff earlier this year?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

tardismusings - on hiatus

Nothing to do with Michael Grade, and no, there won't be any charity single coming out in the next week you'll be very pleased to hear. The Sun newspaper won't be able to claim that it was all due to them that this blog will be bouncing back on Wednesday 25th November.
Am taking a little break to visit the old country - assuming it hasn't been blown away by the gales or submerged by the rain.
This does mean that I shan't be posting my review for what promises to be a pivotal episode on Saturday night until I come back. I think we can all see what is coming in Face The Raven, can't we?
Also coming next week will be the TARDIS Travels for the first half of the current series, and we finally get to take a look at the first part of Trial of a Time Lord.
See you next week.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Season 23 - Not! Part Deux.

One last thing to look at before we get to Season 23 proper - The Trial of a Time Lord.
Last time, we looked at what we didn't get, with the abandoned story-lines. What the "Hiatus" did deliver was a solitary radio story - "Slipback" - and a rather embarrassing charidee single.
"Slipback" was written by script editor Eric Saward, and was broadcast in small chunks on BBC Radio 4 during a children's programme slot called Pirate Radio 4.
6 x 10 minute episodes were broadcast between 25th July and 8th August, 1985.
The plot, in a nutshell, sees the Doctor and Peri arrive on a spaceship called the Vipod Mor. There is a mad computer, and a captain who likes to spread the many diseases he suffers from. The story then has the ship going back in time to create the Big Bang - flatly contradicting the events of Terminus, which the writer had script edited only a couple of years before.
The captain - Slarn - was played by Valentine Dyall (the Black Guardian). Dyall sadly passed away two weeks after recording.
As the only new Who for a while, the story got a DWM cover (probably the most boring in its history).

It is an inconsequential little piece, with some rather juvenile humour. Saward novelised it, and it has subsequently been released on audio tape and CD. A few years ago, it was given away as a freebie by The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

The mid-eighties were the time of the charity single - inspired by Live Aid. Miscellaneous musoes would get together and sing a catchy number for a particular charity or to raise awareness for some issue. The Who effort was the brainchild of fan-adviser Ian Levine. Musically, his big thing was Northern Soul, which he still promotes, but he was also closely involved in the club scene (e.g. London's Heaven).
The single - Doctor-In-Distress - brought together a whole load of music people you didn't know then, and certainly don't know now, plus actors associated with the show - Baker and Bryant obviously, plus Courtney, Ainley and Faith Brown (who had appeared in Season 22).
You can hear - and see - it in all its horrific glory on the Trial DVD box set.
Some choice lyrical snippets:

"Eighteen months is too long to wait,
Bring back the Doctor don't hesitate..."

"There were evil metal creatures
who tried to exterminate,
Inside each of their casings
a bubbling lump of hate"

And best (worst) of all:

"There was a Brigadier and a Master
and a canine computer.
Each screaming girl just hoped
that a Yeti wouldn't shoot her..."

Cole Porter would have killed for lyrics like those. I think not...

Monday, 16 November 2015

55 Minutes of Heaven

Just read that the penultimate episode of Series 9 - Heaven Sent - is going to be a whole 55 minutes long. The villain / monster of this piece - which is a solo outing for Peter Capaldi's Doctor - is The Veil. It will be played by Jami Reid-Quarrell, who we previously saw as Colony Sarff.
Trying to work out what this year's finale might be about has been a bit of a nightmare. Images from the last episode feature a 1950's style diner. The keyword for the season has been "hybrid".
We know Clara is going, and there is still that Confession Dial to be addressed. I'll be very surprised if we don't get another appearance from Missy. This week's episode might shed light on Ashildr's fate. We know that River is back for the Christmas Special - so maybe a cameo in the same way that Nick Frost appeared last year?
There was an interesting thing in last month's DWM, where the interviewer of costume designer Ray Holman was shown a sketch of a costume from this episode. He mentions a gaunt male figure and asks "But isn't that...?". Obviously implies that someone we have seen before is coming back...

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sleep No More - Review

Had to watch last night's episode a second time this evening before posting about it. Wasn't entirely sure about it on the first viewing. At heart, it is very much a classic base-under-siege tale - much favoured in the Troughton era. The Doctor even had the "When I say run..." line, which I'm sure was deliberate.
What was different was the way in which the story was presented - entirely assembled from found footage. These were mostly the rescue troopers' helmet cameras - which just happened to film everything exactly like a HD camera would, which was convenient. Then there were the space station's CCTV cameras - until we found out that it didn't have any...
Generally, I run a mile from found-footage movies. They are usually cheap horror films. Two big problems I have are (a) the footage is usually very shaky and you can't tell what the heck is going on - and it gives me a headache, and (b) people film things that they simply never would. Take what wasn't a cheap horror movie - the big (and brainless) Sci-Fi blockbuster Cloverfield. It loses all credibility when you find someone filming when a real person never would. (The chase through the subway tunnel is a prime example). And of course added to this is the fact that no camcorder known to Humankind has batteries that last that long.
Fortunately my two gripes were not present. Not much shaky-cam and what we saw made sense in the context of the story. I must admit that I took Rassmussen's advice and did watch closely - so picked up on the fact that we were seeing some images from the camera-less Clara's point of view straight away.

The monsters - Sandmen - were well enough realised but a bit generic lumpy aliens. The idea that they are made from sleep-gunge is certainly novel. Rassmussen's plan at first seemed to have a touch of the Vervoids about it - highly infectious spores needing to be stopped from reaching a populated planet. Then everything changed in the closing moments and we were led to believe that we couldn't trust what we had just witnessed - and it was all about the footage itself that contained the danger.
As huge fans of the portmanteau horror movies, Gatiss and Shearsmith love things with a twist in the tail. Just watch any episode of Shearsmith & Pemberton's excellent No.9. (I cried my eyes out at the end of the Sheridan Smith / Tom Riley episode in season 2).
How significant was it that the Doctor's last line was "Nothing about this makes any sense..."?

At the Festival on Friday, Mark Gatiss mentioned how great Doctor Who was for being able to cover topical issues without the need of a sledgehammer. This story had things to say about privatisation and hence capitalism - with the whole Morpheus thing being about getting more work out of people by reducing their need for a good 8 hours kip. (Shades of The Sunmakers?) There have been stories for years about workers in the financial industry being pressured to work every hour god sends - which has driven some to suicide and breakdown. The topicality of the Zygon episodes was also mentioned. Who would have known that the dreadful scenes from Paris would be broadcast worldwide just a few hours later... Like I said back in that first Zygon episode review, if you'll pardon the digression, "terrorist" and "asylum-seeker" are not interchangeable phrases. Sadly, I suspect a lot of people won't grasp that over the coming days and weeks. Je suis Paris.

Reece Shearsmith nicely underplayed the mad scientist. No Prof Zaroff histrionics here. Poor Bethany Black was saddled with a bit of a thankless role as the clone-grunt 474. Neet Mohan's Chopra was pretty.

For the first time in the show's history there were no opening titles. The continuity announcer on BBC1 mentioned that the story had been written by Mark Gatiss. Writers don't usually get an on screen mention before the programme starts, so this was obviously designed to take the lack of titles into account.
Where they would have been we had a screen full of letters and numbers. Clara Oswald's name jumped out. It was only when I froze this that I noticed "Doctor Who" written down the middle of the screen like an acrostic, in slightly brighter lettering.
The story title and writer credit were put in during the end credits.
I loved the reference to the naming of the Silurians - an old fan bugbear. Perhaps the Doctor's "Dustmen" might catch on. There may be a sequel where we see they have spaceships shaped like bin lorries. (For the benefit of non-UK readers, dustmen are garbage collectors).
Also liked them addressing the thing about sticking the word "Space" in front of things to make them sound more futuristic. Fortunately Doctor Who hasn't been too guilty of this over the years, but I do recall a reference once to "Space Medicine". Certainly there have never been any "Space Hats".
I came away from the second viewing much happier - it is one of those stories that demands more than one watching. If only to see Chopra again. Chopra pretty.

Chopra. Pretty - until he got dusted.