Sunday, 29 November 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-11: Heaven Sent

After an exceedingly hectic week, one in which I didn't even find time to review Face the Raven, but did find time to watch The Day of the Doctor, Remembrance of the Daleks and An Unearthly Child in a pub's basement bar, Saturday was pleasantly relaxed. Although not for the Doctor. He had an absolute shitter of a Saturday, and it lasted several billion years.

Essentially a single-hander for Peter Capaldi (barring a couple of cameo moments), it's very hard to see how this episode would have worked as well under any of the previous Doctors. John Hurt could've pulled it off, because he's John Hurt, but Smith, Tennant and even Eccleston would have struggled to maintain sufficient gravitas, vulnerability and believability throughout the fifty-five minutes of the episode. Doctor Who has experimented with new approaches and storytelling devices quite frequently over the last few years, from the dream logic of Last Christmas to the flawed found footage style of the recent Sleep No More. It's with Heaven Sent, though, that it really manages to create a unique episode of the series, one which feels genuinely different to anything that has come before it.

Which is quite an achievement, considering that so much of Heaven Sent is Moffat taking his now overused tropes and stretching them to their endpoint. Though it's not a “timey-wimey” story as such, the cyclical storytelling brings those stories to mind. Creepy imagery and scares aren't new for the series, although they've rarely been as effective as the veiled ghost, dredged from the Doctor's nightmares and sent to slowly track him down. The Doctor's hypertime mental state is exactly the same as Sherlock's mind palace, down to the sleuth's ingenious last second before the bullet hits in His Last Vow. The time-stretched nature of the story is really a better realised version of the Doctor's long last stand in The Time of the Doctor. The shifting castle brings to mind Harry Potter, Dark City, The Cube... it's not original. Nothing is really new here. It's the way it's being deployed that's makes it so brilliantly effective.

It's an episode which relies on the skill of its central player and his support. Without wanting to overlook the many people who work on a production like this, whose skills go into making every episode, the success of Heaven Sent is down to Capaldi, Moffat and director Rachel Talalay, the latter in particular really making this something of a masterpiece, maximising the tension and managing to create a feeling of aeons passing as the story progresses. Also worth mentioning is Murray Gold, whose excellent music is sometimes overlooked when discussing the success of an episode. That said, it's still too high in the mix. If we're going to have emotive scenes of Peter Capaldi talking to himself, I'd like to be able to hear what he's saying.

Although this is a pure character piece for the most part, it manages to also be an intriguing example of science fiction. Sci-fi rarely takes the idea of how a teleporter actually would have to work and runs with it (there are some excellent stories that do, the best on screen being the adaptation of Christopher Priest's The Prestige). The dawning realisation of the Doctor's situation, the movement of the stars tipping him off that a vast amount of time has passed, and his sheer, bloody-minded refusal to lose to whatever has him trapped, makes for an incredible combination of high-concept and emotive storytelling. Again, it's Capaldi that makes it work, expressing the Doctor's fear, rage, and finally triumph against this haunting trap. It would be the best regeneration story ever, if he changed his form instead of iterating as an endless run of Capaldis.

That's not to say it's flawless. I'm finding it hard to invest in Clara's death, since I don't believe for a second she's not coming back. Even if we didn't already know she was set to appear in the finale in some fashion, nobody ever stays dead in this show (q.v. River returning once again for Christmas). There's also the question of whether any of this actually happened at all. If the castle really did exist inside the confession dial, it was surely some virtual environment, presumably in some region of the Gallifreyan Matrix (as with the Nethersphere in last year's similarly Hell-themed finale). The Doctor would still have suffered in his own personal Hell, but it still reduces the impact. On the subject of impact, his arrival on Gallifrey would have ahd more clout if it hadn't been revealed in the press release weeks ago, although I guess it was no big surprise anyway. However, the main problem with Heaven Sent is precisely what's so wonderful about it. The production team have had the guts to do an experimental, intense one man show, that repeatedly shows the Doctor blackened, burnt and on the edge of death, but how many children could have sat through this? This is genuinely adult Doctor Who, but it's worth remembering the series' target audience is meant to include the whole family.

Still. It was bloody good.

Continuity Corner: The Doctor has generally suggested that he left Gallifrey because he was bored and wanted to see the universe, although there have been suggestions there was more to it. He, he confirms that he fled because he was scared.

So, is he really the Hybrid, or is he just really cross and spitting blood? This could be a resurrection of the idea that the Doctor is half-human from the TV movie, something that most fans prefer to ignore. Personally, I assume it only applied to the eighth Doctor (due to an anomaly in his regeneration), and that he was put back to pure Gallifreyan biology when he regenerated into the War Doctor.

Alternatively, what the Doctor actually says is, “the Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.” Maybe he actually means Me, aka Ashildr. She is in the next episode, after all.

Maketh the Man: As I didn't review last week's episode, I missed the chance to comment on the Doctor's new Pertwee-esque look, with a frankly gorgeous burgundy velvet jacket.

Questions: I may have missed an explanation for this, so forgive me, but why didn't the wall of diamond-like material reset like the rest of the castle?

Also, the Doctor, after diving into the sea, swaps his sopping wet clothes for his previous iteration's nice dry ones, leaving his wet ones to dry out for the next one. Does this mean the first iteration of the Doctor spent most of his time in the castle naked?

And Another Thing:

Neil Perryman of Adventures with the Wife in Space points out that “Heaven sent and Hell bent” are lyrics from “Sweet Bird of Truth” by The The. This might be a clever reference, or it might be Neil getting carried away.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

WHO REVIEW: 9-9: Sleep No More

It's not fashionable to like Mark Gatiss's Who scripts, but I'm keen on most of his episodes, the exception being series six's Night Terrors. Like that episode, though, Sleep No More is a case of style over substance, blessed with strong visuals but without the heft of a decent story to back them up. There are some excellent ideas here, but very little exploration of any of them. The compression and elimination of sleep, the distressing notion of genetically engineered "grunts" for combat, the potential of a video to infect its viewers with a malevolent force; all of these could form the basis of an intriguing, potent science fiction story, but none of them are used to any real effect here. There are hints at an interesting future world, where there's idealogical conflict between "Wideawakes" and "Rip van Winkles"," and where civilians are conscripted into the military to serve alongside both career soldiers and indentured servants. So little of this explored at all. Who holds the power here? Who is this army fighting? Why do people willingly give up their sleep to get ahead, and who are they working for? Nothing is elaborated upon beyond soundbites.

I'm not generally a huge fan of the found footage school of film. I struggle to see past the artificiality of it all. One of the more effective elements of the script is that it embraces this artificiality, not simply using the cobbled together footage as a visual conceit, but as a storytelling one. The drawbacks of the approach, however, are the same as they ever have been, from Blair Witch to Cloverfield. The storytelling lacks coherence. We need to be told what has happened to characters who die offscreen, and have incidences explained to us because we can't fully make them out. It's goes to far into a "tell, not show" method of storytelling.

The characters fall foul of the sketched-in nature of the story. Capaldi is as watchable as ever as the Doctor, even he seems to be lacking interest in proceedings. Jenna Coleman might as well not be present, so minimal is Clara's contribution to the story. This episode has received some coverage for its casting of Bethany Black, the first openly transgender actor in the series, and this is rightly praised. However, her character, the aforementioned grunt designated 474, gives her virtually nothing to work with. Is she a good actress? I honestly couldn't say, based on what she has to do here. None of the other guest actors, bar Reece Shearsmith, gets much better. I can only praise the episode for continuing this series' trend for diverse casting, but only the white cis guy actually get anything decent to work with. Although presumably that's more because he's old mates with the author.

In fairness, though, Shearsmith is great here, doing what he does best: a shifty, slightly unsettling character. Rasmussen's villainy is blatant from the start, and it's not intended otherwise. He stands by in his Dastari specs and a monochrome suit straight out of a Pertwee serial, every inch the Doctor Who villain. The monstrous Sandmen are also very effective, a revolting concept well rendered, their ill-defined formes well suited to the found footage format. However, they make no sense at all, either scientifically (we're used to that, of course), or narratively. There's so much that could be done with the concept of removing sleep from human life, but all we get is eye-gunk monsters with dubious and poorly explained origins. The final scene, with Rasmussen (or is it a copy of Rasmussen? I was left confused), crumbling away as he speaks to the audience is creepy as hell, but it's lost in a script that has no real impact overall. When the story makes absolutely no sense, it's probably not a good idea to have the Doctor point it out.

Sleep No More boasts arresting visuals and a potentially interesting central idea, and has the guts to leave things open-ended, with the Doctor escaping but crucially not stopping the villain's plans. However, this is lost in the general confusion of the finished product. An interesting experiment, but one that was scuppered by poor handling.

Continuity Corner: 

This episode is set in the 38th century, during which time the Indo-Japanese nation is a major force in the Solar System. According to the Doctor, a tectonic realignment occurred merging India and Japan, which was part of the Great Catastrophe. He says to Clara that she has this to look forward to, which suggests it might be something in her personal future, although he could just be speaking figuratively. If he does mean it's shortly to come, it's tempting to suggest that the Great Catastrophe is the same as the Great Cataclysm, an event that saw a huge rise in sea levels and major environmental change, and formed the backstory of the Australian K-9 TV series, which was set around 2050. However, it's quite likely it's an event further into the future and closer to the time of the episode. Interview's with Mark Gatiss in the latest DWM have him make the link with the event that led to the evacuation of the Earth mentioned in the serial Frontios, something normally cited as being much, much further in the future, while Bethany Black thinks it might be linked to The Sun Makers, in which humanity relocates to Pluto, and is apparently also set in the 38th century (but I've no idea where she got that date from). So make up your own head canon on that one, I guess.

We've not seen the 38th century before (barring possibly Sun Makers), but the Peladon/Galactic Federation serials featuring the third Doctor are generally accepted to take place in the 39th century, although there's absolutely nothing in the episodes themselves to suggest that. According to The Daleks' Masterplan, in the year 4000, Uranus is a planet of some importance in the Solar System, but Neptune is hardly mentioned. Here, though, it's a hub for the Indo-Japanese culture, with a major population living on its satellite, Triton.

The Doctor says people don't put "space" in front of things, like "space restaurant." I'd suggest the takes a look back at some of his old serials.

"When I say run, run!" is, of course, a bit of a second Doctor catchphrase.

Most pertinent line: "It doesn't make sense! None of this makes any sense!"

Friday, 13 November 2015

REVIEW: The Flash 2.6 - Enter Zoom

A one-episode review for once, because said episode was just too exciting to hold onto. It's an odd episode, in fact, with a switch thrown halfway through that turns it from utter silliness to the most intense Flash story yet. That said, the two elements bleed through to their opposing halves.The bulk of the early part of the episode deals with Barry constructing a ludicrous plan to capture Zoom by convincing him that Linda is Dr. Light, complete with an absurd training session in which everyone is clearly having a ball. But in the middle of this is Harrison Wells. "Harry remains an electrifying, untrustworthy figure, genuinely alarming in his nervous attack on Cisco, but is tremendously sympathetic due to the fact Zoom is trying to coerce him by holding his daughter captive. Oh, and his daughter is none other than Jesse Quick, so we've not seen the last of her. On the other side, the climactic battle between Zoom and the Flash is as heart-stopping as this show has ever got, and Zoom is actually pretty terrifying, in a way the Reverse-Flash never was. Yet even this has the villain catch a lightning bolt in his hand and throw it back, at once the comicbook-y moment the show has yet offered.

After a pretty poor show with the villainous Dr. Light - still out there, by the way - Malese Jow gets to show she's actually a pretty decent actress, making Linda, Light and Linda-as-Light all recognisably different. Good to see she's in on the team now, so she might finally get some better material to deal with. Patty, however, has replaced Iris as the female character who everyone continually lies to, and I'm starting to hope she just tells both Barry and Joe to go stuff it and heads up her own metahuman taskforce.

The monstrous Zoom has shown up earlier than I expected, and from the look of him, he's not the Earth-2 Barry Allen, so I'll scrap that idea. There's someone reasonably beefy under that monster suit. However, his vendetta against Barry seems more personal than just a desperate need to be the Fastest Man Alive. There's some link there. Is it too daft to suggest that Zoom might be the Earth-2 version of Henry Allen? It would be fascinating to have the roles of the first season reversed for the second.

Coming soon - more Grodd!

Monday, 9 November 2015

November Comics Round-Up (1)

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Marvel)

"Only our second Issue One of the year!" proclaims the cover, happily setting the tone for the rest of the book. There's little else to say on Squirrel Girl - this carries on exactly as it would have done had none of that Secret Wars pap ever happened. Except Doreen is now a New Avenger and has access to their canteen. Ryan North brilliantly takes the piss out of the Marvel-Fox shenanigans by having it declared that Squirrel Girl is in fact not a mutant, but something slightly different and that is irrevocable and legally binding. Hilariously, at least one commentator is genuinely upset about this.

New Avengers #2 (Marvel)

Two comics featuring Squirrel Girl in one week, which is obviously marvellous. Other than that, this ticks along nicely. Evil Reed Richards and his bizarre experiments with the fabric of reality make for a peculiar and interesting threat. I like that he seems to be the only individual who is actually aware that the universe has been rebooted, having gained this knowledge from empirical observation.

Bombshells #15 (DC)

Dropped back into this after missing most of it. Soviet Supergirl protecting her family and homeland, with her sister Star Girl, is basically impossible to get wrong, although this doesn't really do anything spectacular with the idea.

Doctor Who - The Eighth Doctor #1 (Titan)

The very fine George Mann's new Doctor Who comic steps back an incarnation or two to give us new adventures for the eighth Doctor, perhaps the version of the Doctor most suited to the comic format. This is a late-in-the-day Eight, but he's in a good mood, channelling the exuberance of his earlier stories. This actually feels very like the heyday of the Doctor Who Magazine strips, but with fun new ideas. Emma Vieceli's art is charming, and new companion Josie is very likeable (and gorgeous).

Doctor Who - Eleventh Doctor Year Two, #1-2 (Titan)

This, perhaps, is even better. Si Spurriers and Rob Williams create an intriguing tale that builds on the questions of what the Doctor did during the Time War, but at the same time, they have a spot-on grasp of the eleventh Doctor. It's a look at actions and consequences, that makes us wonder if even the Doctor knows quite what he did during the War. The Squire, seemingly his companion during some great battle, is a wonderful addition to the team; clearly damaged, not quite sane, but very loveable. Plus, Abslom Daak is in it, working better than he ever did in DWM because Spurriers and Williams absolutely refuse to take him seriously. The threat in this story - a timeless void that was once a person - is abstract but very effective, threatening to pull the Doctor's timeline apart from his first incarnation to his last.

The Vision #1 (Marvel)

Not what you'd expect from a Vision comic, this sees the cosmically-powered, nigh-indestructable android settle down to raise a family. The robot family is an old, careworn science fiction idea, but it has mileage, and never tires as a way to explore what it means to be human. Lyrically written by Tom King, with great art and colours by Gabriel Walta and Jordie Bellaire.

Howard the Duck #1 (Marvel)

Finally, another series that has had two Issue Ones this year, one that is almost (but not quite) as silly as Squirrel Girl. Who does appear in it, albeit briefly. Howard works better as a supporting character in my opinion, but I like this, fronting a detective agency with Aunt May as his Mrs. Hudson. I also realy like his sidekick, the shapeshifter called Tara (look, I know these girls are cartoons, they're just kind of my type, OK?) Plus, an extra story, featuring, for some reason, "Gwenpool." Because, something.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Return of The Doctor Who Project

It's back! After a short hiatus (that's a very Doctor Who-y word) The Doctor Who Project has announced a return, and are now looking for writers for new adventures featuring their alternative tenth Doctor and his companion Hannah Redfoot.

Full details of submission rules and where to send them can be found here. Submission deadline is December 5th.