Wednesday 27 November 2013

Doctor by Doctor (Sidestep 4)

The Missing Link

John Hurt, 2013

The forgotten Doctor. The War Doctor. The Hurt Doctor. The Renegade. The Warrior. Call him what you will, John Hurt is the Doctor. In a bold move, Steven Moffat has inserted a previously unknown incarnation into the Doctor's timeline. It's strangely appropriate that he is, in fact, the ninth incarnation of the Doctor. There have been so many ninth Doctors now that it's getting tough keeping track, and it's ironic that the official ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston, turns out to actually be the tenth. However, to avoid having to renumber the last three Doctors, Hurt's version is destined to be known as the War Doctor, the only one without a number.

It's impossible to overstate how major a coup the casting of John Hurt is. Hurt is probably the most distinguished and respected actor to ever play the Doctor, even when compared to the likes of Eccleston, Cushing and Troughton. There's a hilariously off-the-mark review of The Day of the Doctor on Amazon that suggests he is “best known as the voice of the dragon on Merlin.” a fabulously ignorant comment that overlooks acclaimed roles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Elephant Man, Alien, The Naked Civil Servant and I, Claudius. He holds four BAFTAs and two Oscars. Hurt is a big deal, his husky tones instantly recognisable, bringing an immediate air of authority and gravitas to the role of the Doctor. In story terms, he stands in for the elder Doctors of the series' earliest days; a reminder of when the old man looked like an old man.

Maddeningly, there are some fans who actually see this as a waste. Some are angry that Moffat has created a new incarnation of the Doctor, seeing it as shortening the Doctor's lifespan by using up one of his regenerations. Never mind that he will surely come up with a get-out clause or some kind of plot development to give the Doctor more lives – these fans are opposed to that too. Yes, there really are fans of Doctor Who who would rather the series end than go against a decades old continuity point. Others see it as wasting John Hurt, by using him for a single special rather than casting him as the Doctor full time. Quite how they expect this to happen is unclear – a seventy-three-year-old man is not going to sign up for thirteen episodes of action drama made to a punishing schedule, let alone one as in demand and as expensive as John Hurt. Getting him in to play a one-off incarnation is a gift, and we should make the most of it.

The Doctor's ninth incarnation came into existence at the decision of the eighth. At the insistence of the Sisterhood of Karn, long-standing rivals of the Time Lords, the Doctor, after who-knows-how-long watching from the sidelines, to become involved in the Time War that was ravaging the universe. The Doctor demands to made into a warrior, his regeneration specifically tailored to make him into a soldier. The regeneration leaves him young, fresh-faced, tousle-haired – not unlike the younger eighth Doctor. A clever use of footage from Hurt's early career – I am reliably informed it is from The Ghoul, which saw him co-star with Peter Cushing – gives us this incarnation's very beginnings in The Night of the Doctor. “Doctor no more,” mutters this new man, gazing at his new face.

When we catch up with him, centuries have passed. We can surmise that the eighth Doctor lasted for a long while, but that's nothing compared to the Warrior. He appears a good forty years older than in his first moments, which for a Time Lord, must have taken hundreds upon hundreds of years. The War Doctor says he's about four hundred years younger than the eleventh Doctor, aged around 1200. This suggests the War Doctor ends his life at around eight hundred years old, which also, unexpectedly, suggests the ninth Doctor spent a whole century travelling before encountering Rose Tyler. We can't surmise the War Doctor's longevity, however, since the ages given in the new series do not correlate at all with those given in the original run. One possibility is that the Doctor started counting his age over from the beginning of his Warrior incarnation, but this is supposition.

His physical appearance reveals his long life; he is silver-haired, grizzled and, unlike most incarnations, proudly sports a beard. He dresses in a fashion that is mostly practical, as one might expect from a man who spends much of his time in a war zone, but there is still a Doctorish flair to his look. He wears a waistcoat and scarf that bring to mind the clothes of his previous self, but topped with a distressed leather jacket. In fact, it appears to be the same jacket as worn by Eccleston, although even more battered. Eccleston's Doctor swapped his for a less fatigued copy as the series progressed, so perhaps he's bought a few in the same style? Or maybe the jacket regenerated with him! The oldest item he wears is a bandolier, which he took from the body of gunship pilot Cass in the first seconds after his regeneration. It's a clear statement: he's a soldier now.

The new Doctor rejects his title from the off, distancing himself from his other incarnations. Really, though, he's lying to himself. The various incarnations of the Doctor are all versions of the same man. “Same software, different casing.” It was the eighth Doctor who decided to become a warrior, and notably, the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors all accept responsibility for their actions in the War. The Doctor doesn't claim not to have fought, or not to have destroyed Gallifrey. Yet he buries the version of himself that actually did the deed, refusing to acknowledge him or even refer to him as the Doctor. It's a twisted sort of rationalisation that lets the Doctor absolve himself of some of the guilt – a sort of “It was me, but it wasn't me,” splitting of hairs.

Perhaps the jettisoning of the name “Doctor” allows the War Doctor to act in ways that he wouldn't normally countenance. He can perform terrible acts in battle, half-justifying them to himself by not being the Doctor while he does it. It isn't clear what title he goes by during the War years, although the majority of others involved seem to continue referring to him as Doctor. He gets quite angry when the interface of the Moment refers to him as such, but as she says, that's the name in his head. The Daleks certainly refer to him as such, but then, “Doctor” has always been a dirty word to them. (It's a mystery why the Dalek info-stamp seen in The Next Doctor doesn't include this incarnation. OK the Doctor never refers to him in his own rundowns, but the Daleks would surely recognise this version more than any other.)

We've seen more of the Time War now than we ever expected to see, but the vast majority of it remains lost, time-locked away. We have only snatches of what happened to the Doctor during those long years of war. References to the Nightmare Child, the Fall of the Cruciform, the Meanwhiles and Never-Weres and the Skaro Degradations all sound ominous, but they tell us little. We've only seen the Doctor fight on the very last day of the War, taking down a squadron of Daleks using his TARDIS like a battering ram, before making off into the wilderness with the Moment, ready to doom Gallifrey. On the surface of it, the Doctor's hatred of this incarnation – of himself – is due to his decision to destroy his own people, but there must surely have been other atrocities during the War. This Doctor already has blood on his hands.

It isn't clear how involved the Doctor was with the House Military. He can demand a gun from an overwhelmed soldier at the Battle of Arcadia, but the General of the War Council refers to him as a lunatic and seems to want nothing to do with him. Knowing the Doctor, he wouldn't have taken to following orders with ease. Whatever he has done, by the last day of the War the guilt is clearly bearing down on him. He is tired, angry and even suicidal, admitting that he has “no desire to survive” his actions with the Moment.

Yet, for all his battle-hardened weariness, he is still the Doctor, and still displays many of the Doctor's perennial traits. He is witty, sarcastic, and compassionate. Encountering his future selves brings out his waspish side, but also reignites a spark of hope and joy. As he observes, his future incarnations seem frightened of being grown up, using childish turns of phrase. Following the War incarnation, the Doctor's regenerations make him progressively younger. It's a further distancing of himself from his wartime past. When he made the final, fateful decision to destroy Gallifrey, he was an old man; by becoming younger and younger physically he is trying to prove he is a different man.

Ultimately, the Doctor comes to realise he cannot win the War. Sick of the carnage, of time and space burning, people dying and being resurrected only to die again, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey on the day of its fall. Gallifrey couldn't hope to repel the Daleks. The War Council was hopelessly lost, the High Council turning to more and more terrifying schemes to ensure their own survival. Ultimately, with the Daleks poised to take Gallifrey and Rassilon ready to destroy all of creation to secure his own life, the Doctor took the Moment, Gallifrey's greatest weapon, and withdrew to the wastes of Outer Gallifrey to activate it. The Doctor activated the Moment, destroying the Time Lords and the Daleks and dooming himself to an eternity of regret.

Except, that isn't how it happened. Not any more. The cornerstone of the new series' backstory has been overturned. The Day of the Doctor saw the Moment, its psychic interface taking the form of the Doctor's own saviour, Rose Tyler, save him from having to make this most appalling decision. A vision of his own future gives him strength and hope, and between three of his personae, he comes up with another option. Perhaps having three Doctors present sparked bigger ideas in their head. Perhaps the eleventh Doctor has had centuries to wonder what he could have done differently. Perhaps all the War Doctor needed was some hope. All thirteen extant incarnations of the Doctor cross their own timelines to assist in shunting Gallifrey into a pocket dimension, at the very moment the Dalek fleet launches its final attack. Gallifrey is hidden, somewhere in space and time, kept in stasis, but safe. The Dalek fleet annihilates itself in its own grotesque attack. Gallifrey is saved, and so is the Doctor.

Sadly, due to the effects of crossing his own timestream (and to maintain the narrative of the last eight years of Doctor Who on television), the War Doctor is unable to retain his memory of the new timeline. For the outside universe, it will look as though Gallifrey was destroyed, and it's the same for the Doctor. All he will remember is taking the Moment with the intention of detonating it, and waking up afterwards in the TARDIS, with Gallifrey gone. Yet the guilt he carries with him through his next three incarnations will make him tougher, stronger, and more compassionate. The loss of Gallifrey inspires the Doctor to fight even harder to do the right thing, across the universe. And from the eleventh Doctor's present, with his memory of the intervention intact, he is vindicated. The War Doctor is, truly, the Doctor – just as he always was.

Entering his TARDIS, the War Doctor immediately begins to regenerate. It's not quite clear why this happens. All we get is a self-referential suggestion that he is “wearing a bit thin.” Certainly, he is an old man, but he has seemed in good health so far. Perhaps the cumulative damage of the War was more extensive than it appeared. Or perhaps it's simply time. In the original timeline, the Doctor activated the Moment, and while he was sentenced to live, we can presume the effect was enough to trigger his regeneration. To maintain the Doctor's personal history, he had to regenerate then, as soon as he stepped back into his own timestream. And, gleefully, he does so, ready to leave his life as a warrior behind, and become a new man again. He burns with energy and regenerates into his tenth incarnation – the so-called ninth Doctor. There's even a glimpse of Eccleston amongst the flames. Appropriately, this undreamed of incarnation has granted the Doctor a new past, and prepared him for a new future.

Monday 25 November 2013

WHO REVIEW: 50th Anniversary Special: The Day of the Doctor

Stephen Moffat has managed the impossible: a fiftieth anniversary special that lives up to the hype.

This episode had a huge weight of expectation upon it. This was the main event in a week full of celebrations. The fans, the press, the normal folk – everyone was expecting something amazing. Even people who normally wouldn't watch Doctor Who were tuning in. It had to be fantastic, and it was.

Creating a special that lives up to such hype, and to fifty years of backstory, is no small ask. In fact, it's nigh on impossible. Already, fans were complaining because only the modern series was being represented, with only the tenth Doctor returning for the big event. They were absolutely wrong, though. For a start, it would be impossible to have every Doctor involved directly, running around and getting in on the adventure. Three of them are dead, most of the rest are significantly older than they were when they played the part, and Christopher Eccleston said no. Yet, Moffat manages to create a story that more-or-less holds together, wraps up the last eight years of the series, and celebrates the series right back to its beginnings in 1963. From the opening moments, paying homage to the opening of An Unearthly Child, The Day of the Doctor recognises the debt it owes to that early production team and their remarkable creation.

However, there will be many millions of kids watching across the globe (Across the globe! Simultaneously broadcast in ninety-four countries!) who know the series in its new form. Naturally, then, the special focusses on the last eight years of developments, and there's only one place that can go: the Time War. I never imagined we'd see as much of the Time War as we have now, and while it would be beyond the scope of the BBC to show all of time and space burning, what we do get is a terrifying look at Gallifrey invaded by the Daleks. Appropriately for an episode that is also being shown in cinemas across the world, the flashbacks to the last day of the War are truly cinematic. What's more, we see Gallifreyans – not Time Lords, but ordinary Gallifreyan people. It's not often we think of Time Lords as having children, but that's what we see here, and what the Doctor has spent centuries dwelling on.

It's a shame that Eccleston declined to be involved, though not a surprise. However, had he said yes, we wouldn't have got his newly revealed predecessor. John Hurt is playing the Doctor. There is no bad here. A genuinely legendary actor, a man of astonishing talent, guest starring in our little show. And my word, he is fantastic. As Moffat said in interviews, the ideal event would be to have William Hartnell to come back and meet his young replacements, but since this is impossible, we get something perhaps even better. A brand new incarnation of the Doctor, representing not only the Time War, but the old guard. Hurt stands in for all the old men who once led this series, passing judgment on his sprightly successors. While we expected a dour, dangerous warrior incarnation – and we do get that, especially in that awesome moment when he batters a squad of Daleks with his own TARDIS – Hurt's Doctor is far more than that. Still recognisably the Doctor, he has a charm and a twinkle that makes him incredibly likeable. It takes the edge off his impressive gravitas.

David Tennant is as good as ever. He's still got the cheeky charm and the energy, but being slightly older, he can handle the darker scenes better than ever. He and Matt Smith are brilliantly matched. It's like two brothers, a little jealous of each other, driven by competition, but full of love for one another. They're fantastic together. Tennant's Doctor gets the piss ripped out of him, which is gratifying, the smug sod - “You can talk, Dick van Dyke!” but Smith doesn't go unscathed. The tower scene is perhaps the most effective in the episode; a modern Three Doctors, with the elder statesman playing dad to his squabbling successors. However, this plays up the wonderfully peculiar idea of having younger men playing older versions of the elderly character. Add in a little “timey-wimey” cleverness and some genuinely funny dialogue, and this a scene to cherish.

Only slightly less inevitable than Tennant returning is Billie Piper. We always expecting to see her again (and again, and again), but to his credit, Moffat avoids the obvious and doesn't bring her back as Rose. In fact, she doesn't interact with Tennant on screen once, which is a strange decision, but not once is this missed. Having Piper play the Moment (as Rose, as the Bad Wolf) is a lovely touch. Sadly, she's not terribly good, and lacks chemistry with Hurt. Piper's a surprising weak link in some otherwise excellent scenes. However, there are plenty of astonishingly good performances on offer here, so many that it would be difficult to go into them all. Perhaps best is a very dignified performance by Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, but also worth praise are Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, Ken Bones as the Gallifreyan General, Peter de Jersey as Lord Androgar, and Joanna Page as Queen Elizabeth I.

However, fezzes off please, everyone, for Matt Smith. What a beautiful performance he gives in this episode, just the right balance of humour and sadness, holding his own against two other Doctors played by well-loved actors. The last run of episodes gave him too few opportunities to show what he is really capable of. It's hard to escape the feeling that this is an actor who has yet to show us his best. He's going to go far, this one.

There are a couple of elements that let the episode down. The Zygons are brilliantly realised, but their plot is left dangling, with the, admittedly very clever, negotiation between them and UNIT left unresolved. Perhaps we'll find out the resolution in a future episode; after all, it's unlikely we've seen the last of those costumes. (As an aside, it's great that David Tennant got to face the Zygons – they are, after all, his favourite monsters.) Jenna Coleman is excellent as Clara, sharing some real chemistry with Smith and putting in a sparkling performance, but the character never really comes into her own, a consequence, perhaps, of having three Doctors and a whole host of supporting characters to deal with. And, while it's not really the fault of this episode, there is no explanation of how she and the Doctor escaped the Doctor's time stream in the previous episode, which irritates. The events are referenced, but a line to satisfy our curiosity would have been appreciated.

Still, these are quibbles. The frenetic plot culminates in the most joyful climax, the final fifteen minutes of the episode given over to the Doctor's triumph. It's a ballsy move, totally rewriting the backstory of the series since its revival. The Doctor rewrites his own history, saving Gallifrey from destruction and hiding it away somewhere in space and time. And with such style! This is where it all comes together, with all the Doctors storming to the rescue. With footage of all eight classic Doctors, and a specially highlighted clip of Eccleston (taken from The Parting of the Ways), all fifty years of the series are celebrated together in this triumphant moment. “All twelve of him!” snarls the General, and then, oh yes, that brief thrilling cameo. “No sir, all thirteen!” Just a glimpse of Peter Capaldi's eyes, full of fire, and we have the complete baker's dozen in one wonderful scene. What a gift.

Finally, once Tennant and Hurt have said their goodbyes, and all (well, most) of the plot has been resolved, we get an extra, unexpected treat. Tom Baker, the elder statesman, the earliest surviving Doctor, returns for a few beautiful minutes. As mad and as magnetic as ever, he shares a touching scene with Matt Smith, bridging the generations. Just wonderful.

And thus onto that final, symbolic scene, Smith's Doctor standing proud with his eleven predecessors, looking out over the universe, the Rendered perfectly, it's a wonderful image to end on. Gallifrey is saved, and so is the Doctor's soul. Now, he has a new mission. In a complete reversal of the original set-up of the series, which had him on the run from his own people, the Doctor is now on a quest to find them. But first, Trenzalore awaits...

Perfect? No, but damned close. The Day of the Doctor is one hell of a celebration. Triumphant.

Doctor Data:

The eleventh Doctor: He's still claiming to be 1200 year old, but also says that he's so old that he can't remember if he's lying about his age. While we're still calling him the eleventh Doctor, we now know that he is, in fact, the twelfth incarnation. He's begun to move on from the events of the War, and is now more concerned about his fate at Trenzalore.

The tenth Doctor: Says he's 904, and is travelling alone, which I think puts this after he loses Donna at the end of series four. He referred to his affair with Elizabeth I in The End of Time, in which he is 906, suggesting it took place after his call to the Ood-Sphere in The Waters of Mars. It's likely, then, that this happens shortly into his side-trip. He still thinks he has amazing hair. He makes a twat of himself by threatening a rabbit.

The War Doctor: As we saw in The Night of the Doctor, John Hurt's Doctor is in fact the ninth incarnation, and regenerates into Eccleston's “ninth Doctor.” He is four hundred years younger than the eleventh Doctor, so is about 800 (and no, none of this fits with the Doctor's age in the original series).

The first Doctor: Surprisingly gets some lines we've never heard before, addressing the War Council of Gallifrey. These are apparently the work of John Guilor, who is credited simply as “voice-over artist.”

The Curator: It's not 100% clear, but Tom Baker's character is heavily implied to be a future incarnation of the Doctor, reusing a favourite face and now retired to become Curator of the gallery, as appointed by Elizabeth I. So the Doctor should be OK for a few more regenerations yet.

Monster, Monster, Monster: The Zygons are back, making their first appearance since their debut thirty-eight years ago. They always seemed like a monster that should have returned, and have done numerous times in the expanded universe material, but this is their first time back on TV. They are a brilliantly recreated here, faithful to their original design but improved with modern techniques. The transformation from the fake Kate Stewart to the true Zygon form is wonderfully revolting.

Links and references: Too many to list them all, and no doubt plenty I haven't spotted, but here goes:
The opening with the policeman and the sign for I.M. Foreman's yard is a homage to the opening of An Unearthly Child.
Clara is now teaching at Coal Hill School, seen in An Unearthly Child and Remembrance of the Daleks. Ian Chesterton is now governor, and the headmaster is a T. Coburn – a reference to Anthony Coburn, writer of AUC.
The Daleks come out with their classic line from The Chase: “Seek Locate Destroy!”
On Gallifrey the High Council are in an emergency session – leading to Rassilon's plot as seen in The End of Time. Androgar states that they've failed – presumably due to the tenth Doctor's actions I that story.
In another reference to his final story, the tenth Doctor says “I don't want to go.” (In the words of my friend Candi – oh, the feels!)
Fake Kate requests info on a file codenamed “Cromer,” detailing the events of The Three Doctors. (“I'm fairly sure that's Cromer.”) Cheekily, it's said to be under either the seventies or eighties depending on the “dating policy.”
Dialogue references to The Three Doctors include "you've redecorated - I don't like it," and "I didn't know when I was well off."
The Black Archive was first featured in The Enemy of the Bane on The Sarah Jane Adventures. It has photos of everyone who has travelled with the Doctor on TV. Interestingly, it appears to show Sara Kingdom standing with Mike Yates.
It also contains Captain Jack's vortex manipulator. The activation code is 1716231163, the exact time and date of the initial transmission of An Unearthly Child.
The time rifts that allow the Doctors to interact look rather like the “ice cream cone” version of the time scoop that was used in the remastered version of The Five Doctors.
Kate refers to Malcolm, presumably the scientific advisor played by Lee Evans in the 2009 episode Planet of the Dead.
Miss Osgood's name might be a reference to Sgt Osgood, a UNIT soldier who appeared in The Daemons.

Hanky Panky in the TARDIS: What Doc Oho refers to as “the shallow bit.”
David Tennant is still terribly handsome, and he's hardly showing the extra three years (which is more than can be said for Billie Piper, who seems to be showing about ten). The tenth Doctor marries Elizabeth I, which he says means he is “going to be king.” But he won't be, he'll be Prince Consort.
Jemma Redgrave is my current older woman crush. Jenna Coleman remains stunning. And anyone who thinks that Ingrid Oliver (Osgood) isn't pretty needs their eyes checked.

Extra features:

Once, you had to buy the DVD to get extras. Not anymore. While I didn't see this in the cinema (this being an almost religious experience for me, I chose to do it at home, with drinks), I am reliably informed by my co-conspirators that it is suitably impressive in 3D, and that there were two extra intro scenes regarding cinema etiquette and the use of 3D glasses, from Strax and the Doctors respectively.
A making of documentary was also screened, along with a live afterparty show, plus numerous extras throughout the day, including a Blue Peter special. The best elements are to be found online though. There are two prequel mini-episodes. The Night of the Doctor, a wonderful gift to the fans, bridging the gap between the old series and the new, bringing back Paul McGann for one day and regenerating him into John Hurt. Then there's The Last Day, not as exciting but still well done, showing us the first moments of the Fall of Arcadia (no revealed to be Gallifrey's second city). It's suitably grim, although considering the Time Lords are using plain sight techniques to spot Dalek incursions, it's no wonder they were losing.
Finally, and most enjoyably, is Peter Davison's half-hour extra-special anniversary production, The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, which simply has to be seen. Good sports everyone who took part; it's a real treat.

Best lines:

Ten: “That's not the Queen of England, that's an alien duplicate!”
Eleven: “And you can take it from him, because he's really checked.”

Elizabeth: “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon.”

Ten: “Never cruel, never cowardly.”
War Doctor: “Never give up, never give in.”

Saturday 23 November 2013

What Doctor Who Means to Me

Happy Who Day everyone!

Yes, it's finally here, the fiftieth anniversary of our favourite series. As part of the celebrations, my friend and fellow Who-ligan Joe Ford - aka Doc Oho - has brought together a number of fans to tell us just what it is that makes Doctor Who so special. There's a contribution from me in there, and a number of names that Who fans might recognise.

What Doctor Who Means to Me

Friday 22 November 2013

Who Book-Quest #10: Beautiful Chaos by Gary Russell

Donna Noble proved to be one of Doctor Who's most popular companions, but she got pretty short shrift in the novel line. While Rose spanned the ninth and tenth Doctor's eras, and Martha enjoyed an extended run of adventures with the tenth, Donna's time was cut short. 2008's earlier batch of three BBC hardbacks featured Donna, but the latter set, released on Boxing Day, comprised The Story of Martha, a flashback to series three, The Eyeless, a solo adventure for the tenth Doctor, and this, Donna's final adventure on the printed page.

Series four had left viewers reeling from Donna's painful forced departure, and left the Doctor adrift, alone save for occasional, one-off companions. So it's not surprising that this story takes a retrospective, mournful look at Donna's time with the Doctor. The prologue and epilogue are, in fact, set after the events of Journey's End, framing the adventure and putting it in perspective. This was how good Donna could be, with the Doctor to bring out the best in her, but now those days are over.

Gary Russell is a tried and trusted author, having written numerous novels for both Virgin and the BBC, as well as having edited Doctor Who Magazine in the nineties and run Big Finish for its first seven years. Following the publication of Beautiful Chaos, he script-edited David Tennant's final three episodes. This man knows his stuff. While Russell's novels are rarely considered the best of their ranges, he consistently writes solid, readable adventures. Beautiful Chaos is one of his best efforts.

The BBC novel range had settled unto its stride by 2008, and while the best was still to come, the output was generally high quality children's fiction. Maybe not His Dark Materials, but certainly on a par with the best of the Targets and better than the bulk of media tie-in prose. The best novels took what was set up in the TV series and built upon it, as Russell does here. Beautiful Chaos features the Doctor returning Donna to her home in Chiswick on the anniversary of her father's death. A sense of mortality hangs over the story, reminding us that our time on this world is brief and that we should make the most of it while we can. This is emphasised not only by the significant death toll of the novel, but also developments concerning Donna's family.

Sylvia, Donna's frequently disagreeable mother, is presented as barely holding on through her grief following the death of her husband. Her daughter's sudden, poorly explained absences don't make things any better. Sylvia, although still sniping and angry, is a far more sympathetic character than she got much chance to be on TV. More central to the plot is Wilfred Mott, grandfather of the Noble household. The time spent up on his allotment with his telescope has not gone unrewarded; he's discovered a new star, and got it named after him him to boot. What's more, he has a new lady friend: the delightful Netty, a confident, no nonsense woman who's come through everything life can throw at her. Only now, life is taking its toll, and Netty has developed Alzheimer's. The passages in which Wilf relates the difficulties in caring for Netty, and the knowledge that he will one day lose her, are heartbreaking. To his credit, Russell doesn't succumb to the temptation to grant Netty some miraculous sci-fi cure. Alzheimer's is presented as it really is: progressive, unstoppable, and devastating.

While the relationships between the characters are at the heart of the novel, they are explored through an engaging sci-fi plot. Gary Russell has never been one to shy away from continuity matters, and while he's no Craig Hinton, Beautiful Chaos revels in its status as part of the Doctor Who universe. For starters, it's an unabashed sequel to The Masque of Mandragora, featuring an updated version of the Mandragora Helix menacing the Doctor once more. Russell then proceeds to acknowledge all the other sequels to that serial, just to make certain that we understand they still happened, but that this is the big one. There are a handful of other cheeky asides, and it works both ways: Netty gets a namecheck in Tennant's swansong The End of Time.

For once, the Doctor doesn't come off especially well. While Donna and Wilf are quick to defend and praise him, we can see why Sylvia hates him so much. His attitude to family life is skewed, from a human perspective, he's quite capable of manipulating his friends in the pursuance of his goals, and he admits that it was he who accidentally brought the Helix to Earth in the first place.

Beautiful Chaos is a pacy adventure that still finds time to include quieter moments of introspection, matching the tone and verve of the later Tennant episodes but remaining thoughtful throughout. One of Gary Russell's better novels, and one of the strongest of the tenth Doctor adventures.

REVIEW: An Adventure in Space and Time

My best friend has three children, and our continual talking about Doctor Who has rubbed off on them. They have Dalek and Cyberman bubble bath and flannels, and are aware that it's a special TV show that they're not quite old enough to watch yet – except for the special clips on Children in Need and Comic Relief telethons. We explained to the eldest, Holly, just why we were so excited about Doctor Who this week; that it was the series' birthday, and that it had first started fifty years ago. She was astonished. To a five-year-old, fifty years is an unimaginable span of time.

Being only twenty-nine myself, fifty years is still an impressive span of time. By anyone's standards, it's a long time for a TV series to run. Yet, fifty years really isn't so long. Many of the people who were there at the very beginnings of Doctor Who are still with us, still acting and writing and directing now. It lies in that halfway region of time; so long ago that life was very different, suitable for a historical docudrama, yet so close that memories of it are still fresh in the minds of those who were there.

Years after first pitching the idea, Mark Gatiss finally has the industry clout to get these early years brought to life again on screen. Fittingly the very last material recorded at BBC Television Centre, An Adventure in Space and Time is a captivating, moving and intricate look at the beginnings of the now legendary series. From the opening announcement, in classic BBC received pronunciation, reminding us that “you can't change history, not one line,” we are reassured that this production will be a faithful recreation of the events of Doctor Who's earliest days. Nonetheless, there is the necessary dramatic licence. As Verity says in the drama itself, “So many people were at the birth of this thing we'd be here all day.” The play focusses on William Hartnell, with Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, Sydney Newman and Hartnell's wife Heather being the major characters. There are appearances from a vast array of people who were there at the beginning. Some have a fair share of screentime – Jeff Rawle's likeable turn as Mervyn Pinfield, for a good example – while others are very briefly acknowledged – blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances by later companions Steven, Dodo, Polly and Ben.

So yes, this isn't a truly faithful account, but how could it be? It's a dramatisation, and such a production requires a few omissions and alterations. There's no room for Anthony Coburn or Bunny Webber. Events are streamlined for ease of telling and effect. An appearance by a caveman at the filming of the pilot episode raises a smile and adds to the sense of chaos at the production. In reality, the Stone Age episodes were filmed later, but the way it is presented here works. And by all accounts, with the exception of the notoriously belligerent Stef Coburn, all those represented in this production are happy with the results. It's beautifully written, and some of the most memorable lines are direct quotes from the real people, such as Newman's famous description of Verity Lambert as having “piss and vinegar” in her veins. There are some wonderful flourishes by director Terry McDonough, particularly a sequence in which the development of the Daleks is laid over the shooting of President Kennedy – what we imagined to be a Dalek's raygun pulling back to reveal a mundane, deadly firearm.

Of course, the true success of An Adventure lies with its cast. David Bradley is absolutely perfect as Hartnell. He strikes a balance between the actor's softer and abrasive sides. We get the sense that this was a man who, while not always likeable or easy to deal with, had a good heart and cared deeply about his work. Hartnell is portrayed as a deeply proud, yet very insecure man. We see his increasing difficulty with the lines and the punishing production schedule, feeling for both him and his colleagues as work on the series gets more and more difficult for them all. When in full Doctor costume, Bradley is the absolute spit of Hartnell. I got a shiver down my spine when he performed the classic speech from the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth – the original, much repeated scene being included at the end of the play.

Jessica Raine steals her scenes as the steely yet vulnerable Verity Lambert, embodying a particularly sixties type of class and poise, while Sacha Dhawan is immensely sympathetic as Waris Hussein. The incredible hostility the series' first producer and director must have experienced at the BBC, as a young woman and a gay Indian, must have been immense, and the play gives some flavour of this in the “sea of tweed” BBC bar. The sexism and racism of the BBC in the sixties is not glossed over, nor is it played up. It's present, but not a major part of the story, while Hartnell's own prejudices are lightly touched upon.

The most colourful aspect of the production is the great Brian Cox as Head of Drama Sydney Newman. The flamboyant Canadian masterminded such shows as Armchair Theatre and created The Avengers, before coming along and creating Doctor Who. What a talent, and Cox takes his own impressions of the man – having met him very early in his career – to reproduce his larger than life character. One wonders if a little of Newman's character made it into that of the Doctor. There's an inescapable sensation that those days are encroaching on our own. Aside from the very strange experience Sacha Dhawan must have had playing Waris Hussein with the man himself present, William Russell and Carole Ann Ford have roles in the production, while Jamie Glover and Claudia Grant reenact their earlier careers.

Fanboy at heart, Gatiss peppers the script with cheeky nods to the series. There are brief cameos by Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh. The years are counted down by the TARDIS year-o-meter. There's an undeniable thrill for fans in seeing the original Dalek, Cyberman and Menoptra costumes reproduced on screen, accompanied by the surreal and amusing site of one Cyberman sitting down for a fag break. When we come to the final scenes, the play becomes both poignant and uplifting. The meeting between Newman and a now very ill Hartnell is painful to watch, but nothing compared to Hartnell's outpouring of emotion, at home with his wife. “I don't want to go,” might be an embellishment, even a sly reference, but the scene is absolutely heartbreaking. The overwhelming message is that this was a man who was reinvigorated by the role he was born for, only to have it snatched away due to his declining health. The pain he must have felt upon being replaced is tangible, and it's all in Bradley's subtle yet powerful performance.

Hartnell's final moments in the TARDIS, while marred slightly by a miscast Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton, are all the more affecting for Bradley's dignified composure – you can still sense the turmoil beneath the professional facade. And then, that wonderful, unexpected cameo from Matt Smith – a lovely touch, with past and future making contact once more. It's a beautiful moment in a beautiful play. The only thing that could have improved would have been more time to explore these groundbreaking days and incredibly talented people.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Flight of the Microraptor

A very interesting study performed by a team from the University of Southampton, involving a full-scale mock-up of a Microraptor gui, using real feathers, in order to find out how it would have flown. The conclusion seems to be: not terribly well.

Also, the Microraptor is called Maurice.

The full write-up is over at Tetrapod Zoology, on the Scientific American site, or you can skip directly to the paper itself.

Monday 18 November 2013

Doctor Who takes over BBC 4-Extra

As reported on Doctor Who NewsBBC 4-Extra is becoming the Doctor Who channel for the anniversary week. Sunday saw the broadcast of the reading of the very first Doctor Who novel, Doctor Who and the Daleks (aka Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks) in its entirety. (You can read my review of this adaptation here.)

Following this, last night BBC 4-X gave us the seventh Doctor Big Finish play Protect and Survive, a tale of the Cold War turned hot, while tonight they present us with the first of the '1963' series, the fifth Doctor story Fanfare for the Common Men. This one really is a cracker, and I'll be reviewing it, along with the remaining two parts of the series, soon. The rest of the week will feature Big Finish adventures for the seventh and eighth Doctors, another Dalek novelisation reading, and a special documentary.

If you don't fancy listening to hours of Doctor Who in one go, don't worry. Each programme remains available for listening for one week following broadcast.

Saturday 16 November 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Tenth Planet

The Tenth Planet is a serial that, more than any other, is now impossible to view from a non-fan's perspective. It's a big one: William Hartnell's last story, the first regeneration story (after a fashion), and the first Cyberman story. We just can't view it as the audience would have done back in 1966. The weight of the future bears down upon it, distorting its shape. Which is perhaps just as well, because it really isn't especially good.

That's not to say that it's bad, but The Tenth Planet is a story that suffers from being in a transitional period in the series' development. It's not quite sure what it's supposed to be at this stage. The sheer unpredictability of the series first couple of years had begun to dry up by 1966, and it had begun to settle into a groove. The historical stories were soon to be phased out, in favour of more sci-fi milieu. The Tenth Planet is a case in point. It is, as well as its other firsts, the first story that can be described as “base-under-siege,” a dry run for the story type that would become, by the following year, the mainstay of the series.

As a base story, it's a bit of a mess. It's possible that Hartnell's Doctor just isn't suited to this style of story, but it's more likely that this is an example that hasn't been very well produced. The regular features are there: the arrogant commander, the alien threat breaking through, the hostile environs. It just doesn't gel, in spite of some very effective individual elements. Frankly, much of this is appallingly directed. When confronted with the pig-headed chief, Robert Beatty's General Cutler, the Doctor is reduced to shouting for much of the proceedings. It's a pity, for there are some good moments between them. “I don't like your face – nor your hair!” jokes Cutler, the sort of petulant jibe the second Doctor would shrug off, but is guaranteed to aggravate Hartnell's original. The overall scenes are chaotic, though, with characters stepping on each other's lines, major characters – and monsters – turning up in the background and suddenly being included in proceedings when required. It's a mess.

Yet there's so much to love here. That's what makes it so frustrating. Ben and Polly really work in this story. Once Jamie was introduced, Michael Craze's character became surplus to requirements, but here, in spite of some dreadful cod-Cockney dialogue, Ben makes a great focus for the story, particularly in the third episode, in which he takes on much of the Doctor's role. Polly is reduced to making the coffee for much of the running, and is later relegated to Cyber-abductee, but when given the chance, Anneke Wills is a fine heroine. In spite of the difficult working relationship the Wills and Craze had with Hartnell, Ben, Polly and the first Doctor make a fine team, and it's a pity we never got more than a handful of episodes with them.

One element that works particularly well is the near-future setting. Broadcast in 1966 but set in 1986 – a glimpse of a possible future for the audience of the time. This was the first time the series had really done this, with all previous futuristic stories occurring centuries hence. This was the first story that depicted a future the audience would actually get to see. Indeed, this caused some minor problems later on, when Doctor Who, surviving for longer than expected, reached this point in real time. The result was Attack of the Cybermen, which made rather a sorrow show of clearing up the continuity. Watching it now, and considering the developments the show would bring in the next few years, you've got to wonder what UNIT was doing while the Cybermen invaded Earth. This is all silly, after-the-fact stuff, of course. For the kids watching in 1966, this must have been thrilling. Seven-year-olds sat watching a base in the Antarctic, crewed by young men who could easily be them some day. Of course, the novelisation appeared so late that a 1986 setting was out of the question, and it was revised to 2000 – now a full thirteen years in the past itself. The future ages quickly.

An admirable aspect of the production is the attempt to make this future seem truly multi-national. The base crew, while strictly male in its make-up, is populated by citizens of Australia, Italy, Britain, and whatever part of North America Cutler is supposed to be from (Beatty was Canadian, but what's going on with his accent in this story is anyone's guess). Some of it's hokey, yes, especially young Tito - “Mama Mia, Beleeeeeseeemmaaaa!” - but at least they were trying. We even get a glimpse of the International Space Control, a UN organisation complete with various nationalities. When the Cybermen arrive here, breaking the rules by stepping into an entirely separate story space, the threat feels genuinely worldwide. The casting of Earl Cameron as astronaut Williams is a further nice touch, preventing the mission from being a wholly caucasian affair, although the documentary 'Frozen Out,' included with the DVD release, makes clear how difficult Hartnell found working with a black actor.

So, the Cybermen. One of the two really big firsts of the serial. The monsters who would go on to plague the Doctor throughout the Troughton era and become second only to the Daleks in longevity and popularity. Except, they aren't really the Cybermen who will appear in following stories. These are Cybermen true to the concept: horrific parodies of humanity, altered beyond recognition by surgery and organ replacement. They're certainly Kit Pedler's greatest addition to the series. Quite what co-writer Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd expected to get from their new scientific advisor isn't clear. He was brought in to provide some real science, and what he came up with was a story in which a planet that looks exactly like Earth appears out of nowhere, proceeds to drain the Earth of its energy, and then explodes. Oh, and there's a nuclear bomb that can turn a planet into a supernova. Not quite hard science...

Oh, but the Cybermen are a triumph. For me, these Mondas Cybermen knock the spots off their robot-like successors. Those blank cloth faces, hollow-eyed, staring out from under a huge mass of mechanical equipment balanced on their heads. Mouths that open abruptly, words tumbling out in a disquieting, synthesised, sing-song stream. The conspicuously human hands, only visible because they forgot to get the gloves ready on time, but reminding us that once these were people like you and me. And the sheer, logical, inarguable truth they come out with when Polly accuses them of not caring about the deaths they are going to cause: “There are people dying all over your planet, but you do not care.” Monsters who were once men, fighting for their survival and the need to make the rest of us better, just like them. The Troughton Cybermen, the Cybus-men of the new series, the Borg – they're just snazzy remakes of these terrifying creations.

The problems suffered by this production behind the scenes are well known, and almost scuppered the whole thing, but in an odd way, they provide some of its strengths. Hartnell had already been written out – indeed, this was the first production of a new recording block, and he was a guest actor, rather than the lead. That his illness forced him to remain absent from the third episode caused all sorts of problems and last minute rewrites, but it actually works, giving some build up to the Doctor's eventual demise. He collapses once, sits out an entire episode, and then, finally, in the chaotic mess that is the final instalment, rallies. The Doctor is back and, suddenly, he's more commanding than ever. It's such a shame that this, Hartnell's final performance, is lost, but in a way, it's fitting, since the last episode is very weak. Hartnell saves it.

The old VHS release came with a decent attempt at a reconstruction of the last episode, while the new DVD includes both this as an extra, and an animated version as the main replacement. The animation is a mixed bag. The challenge of making the characters move fluidly while also looking like the actors proves too much on some occasions. The Cybermen work brilliantly, though, their translation to cartoon form given an almost anime look. While it's great to have a completed version of the story to watch, you'll want to go to the extras to see the final scene. Thankfully, the clip of the regeneration survives.

Of course, it's not a regeneration – not yet. It'll be retconned into being the same process that leads the fifth Doctor to survive spectrox poisoning, and the eighth Doctor become a soldier, but this is a different process altogether. This was the Doctor, the Doctor, suddenly transforming into a new man. This was unprecedented. The main plot with the Cybermen having burnt itself out along with Mondas, the Doctor suddenly panics and flees back to the TARDIS. Ben and Polly barely catch up with him. Again, he collapses, and in a straightforward but absolutely perfect effect, he glows and transforms. He is renewed, and there's someone new in his place.

Hartnell's body may have been wearing a bit thin, but the series was about to gain a new lease of life. One thing that fans have overlooked for decades is why the Doctor changes. He's not just getting too old, although it's implied this is making it worse for him. No, it's Mondas' draining of energy, something that effects the Earth, the astronauts in orbit, and finally the Doctor. It's an alien influence, and under it, the Doctor is first weakened, then altered. How bizarre, and how frightening, that must have seemed to young viewers at the time. Of course, it would pave the way for years and years of new Doctors to come, and that is The Tenth Planet's legacy. It's impossible to view it now without seeing it through that prism, but that's fine. This serial isn't the greatest, but it represents the undying spirit of Doctor Who as a whole.

It's therefore fitting to have this DVD release so close to the series' fiftieth anniversary. As well as the animation, documentary, and the usual features, this release includes a never-before-seen interview with William Hartnell, conducted shortly after his leaving the series. Sadly, Hartnell does not come off very well here. He's arrogant, and quite unpleasant to his interviewer. Combined with the difficulties Anneke Wills describes in the accompanying features, the problems of Hartnell's bigoted attitude to fellow actors, and his increasingly uncompromising stance during production, this release does not provide a very flattering portrayal of the man. And yet, in the documentary, we here of an unexpected moment when, just showing off, the ailing Hartnell tap-danced off the set. It's a little moment of magic that reminds us that it's wrong to focus purely on his less likeable traits. There was something of the Doctor to Hartnell, and without him, this series would not be here today.

Thursday 14 November 2013

The Night of the Doctor

So, this is the actual review:

While mini-episodes have become a recognised part of the modern Doctor Who series, expanding the main run in all manner of directions, they have been, for the most part, flimsy, throwaway affairs. The Night of the Doctor is the first to change that. Originally intended to go out on the day of the fifteth anniversary, it had to be released early after the details were leaked. No matter; this is a prequel, and as such, belongs before the big day, an entre to whet the appetites of the fans.

And it really is for the fans. While this seven-minute adventure is strong enough and simple enough to enjoy on its own merits, its real purpose is to tie up loose ends and plug a gap, giving the series' devoted followers the thing they've waited eight years for. An actual, definitive ending to Paul McGann's eighth Doctor.

From the moment we see his face - or in my case, due to a sudden iPlayer glitch, heard his voice - The Night of the Doctor is a tremendously exciting burst of Doctor Who mythos. Seriously, I had to have a bit of a run round the flat, followed by a sit down and a cup of tea to get over it. In 2005, Doctor Who came back, with a new Doctor and a deliberate break with the past in the shape of the Time War. This finally gives us, in buildup to the revelations of The Day of the Doctor, a real glimpse of that War. In the process, it links the last pre-BBC Wales era of the show to the new, ongoing mythology of the Doctor's fight in the War and his recovery from it. Of course, it then has its cake, showing McGann regenerating not into Christopher Eccleston, but John Hurt, retroactively inserting another, unknown era between the two.

With the Doctor landing on Karn, making this a loose sequel to 1976's The Brain of Morbius, and with the Doctor eventually ringing off his companions from the Big Finish audio plays (now, inarguably, canonical), The Night of the Doctor is an exercise in fan service. Yet it works as a story in itself, giving the Doctor a plausible character development as he finally decides to become part of the War, bolstered by excellent performances from its small cast. Clare Higgins gives a strong, noble performance as Ohila of the Sisterhood of Karn, while Emma Campbell-Jones makes a powerful impression in her short role as the doomed gunner Cass.

It belongs to Paul McGann though, showing in a few minutes how excellent a Doctor he can be. In spite of their wide radio distribution, the Big Finish audios are never going to have the impact or penetration of live action episodes. This mini-episode gives the wider Doctor Who audience a chance to see what they've been missing from this almost-forgotten Doctor. While Steven Moffat doesn't write this Doctor any differently to the main incarnations of the new series - it's easy to imagine Tennant or Smith deliver these lines - McGann makes them his own. He embodies both the flippancy expected from the first of the modern Doctors with his more recent status as one of the 'classic' incarnations. Older, more weathered, in a cleverly redesigned costume, he is more the Doctor than ever.

The Night of the Doctor is an anniversary gift for the faithful, and it has been gratefully received.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

The view from Saturn

This amazing image was taken by NASA's Cassini space probe, and has been labelled with each of the notable features in view. Not only can we see Saturn and a host of its moons (Enceladus, Epimetheus, Prometheus,Tethys, Janus, Mimas and Pandora), we can also see three of the inner planets: Mars, Venus and our own Earth, under the ring on the lower right.

If you can't make this image out well, I pinched it from io9 which goes into more detail about the process of the image capture, and has a higher-res copy. For the very best experience, though, visit CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory, and open up the full-res file. Astonishing.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Theropoda News

November has already brought us two fascinating discoveries in the world of theropod palaeontology, one concerning a new genus and the other a well-established but little understood one.

Deinocheirus arms at the NHM in London.
Deinocheirus mirificus, the 'weird-looking terrible hand,' has been a bit of a mystery since it was first discovered in Mongolia back in 1965. All that was discovered, save a couple of scraps, was a pair of gigantic arms ending in hugely clawed hands. These mighty forelimbs baffled palaeontologists for years. They were clearly theropodan, but all known large theropods had small forelimbs (the tiny arms of Tyrannosaurus rex being the most obvious and pronounced example). Eventually, it was pointed out that the arms of Deinocheirus bore a significant resemblance to those of the ornithomimosaurs, aka the 'ostrich dinosaurs' - generally large, but not gigantic, fleet-footed theropods.

Since then, there has been a huge wealth of discovery and rethinking regarding theropod diversity, including descriptions of the therizinosaurs, the 'scythe lizards,' similarly large theropods with huge claws on their hands. Unlike the traditional view of theropods being solely carnivorous animals, the therizinosaurs seem to have been adapted for herbivory. Examination of the ornithomimosaurs suggests they too were omnivorous or herbivorous.

That first find was incomplete because the poor old Deinocheirus had been eaten by a Tarbosaurus (aka Tyrannosaurus bataar, the 'Asian T. rex), as evidenced by distinctive teeth marks on scraps of rib bones found. However, Korean palaeontologists have now made a second, much more complete find, which finally gives some clue as to the overall body plan of the beast. And, while the find confirms that Deinocheirus was indeed a gigantic ornithomimosaur, it turns up some unexpected new information. For a start, this animal was definitely largely or solely herbivorous, as evidenced by the presence of gastroliths, stones swallowed to aid the digestion of plant matter. These are common in herbivorous dinosaurs with weak or entirely absent teeth. Not so surprising, that, but a contentious point until now.

The most amazing find is the animal's backbone. The middle verterbrae of Deinocheirus were elongated upwards, creating tall spines, not unlike those of the sail-backed Spinosaurus or the ornithopod Ouranosaurus. This is totally unexpected - no spine-backed coelurosaurs have ever been discovered before. The jury is open as to whether Deinocheirus had a fleshy sail or a hump, although a hump would have been useful for a large animal in an arid environment. It seems that Deinocheirus was not entirely unlike the therizinosaurs: large, heavy-bodied theropods adapted to a slower-paced, herbivorous lifestyle.

Aggravatingly, bone thieves made off with the head and feet of the skeleton, meaning that there is still a great deal unknown about Deinocheirus. Still, this is a huge discovery that illuminates much on this mysterious creature. National Geographic has a decent article on the find, albeit with an outdated reconstruction illustration, while the Paleoexhibit blog goes into more technical detail and has an captivating reconstruction of a feathery, hump-backed Deino.

Saturday 9 November 2013

MARVELous developments

It's going pretty well for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which may soon need to be renamed the Marvel Cinematic and Televisual Universe. Thor: The Dark World was excellent, a good fun film, and much needed after the more introspective Iron Man 3. Agents of SHIELD is definitely improving. It's not quite must-see TV yet, and the dialogue is still surprisingly clunky for a Mutant Enemy project, but there's definite potential there. Following the latest episode, it looks like we might finally be getting somewhere with some genuine character development for the team. Now we just need to find out what's actually up with Coulson, and spend less time listening to him reminding people that he died.

In the cinema, we have Captain America: The Winter Soldier to look forward to next year, followed by Guardians of the Galaxy, which is sounding very interesting. Well, weird. But that's good, we like weird. Then it can't be too long before Avengers: Age of Ultron, with the very interesting casting of James Spader as the eponymous android villain. That'll be Marvel Phase Two done; Phase Three is set to kick off with Ant-Man, with further adventures likely to include Doctor Strange and further sequels for Cap and Thor. There's also talk of a Peggy Carter series.

Perhaps most intriguing is this week's announcement that Marvel are to produce no fewer than five projects for Amazon Netflix. This is rather exciting, considering that Netflix's original projects have so far shown more bravery in their subject matter than most US network shows (I'm discounting HBO here, obviously). We're set to see thirteen episode series (possibly more eps, if they do well, I guess) featuring Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Daredevil, followed by a Defenders miniseries. These are some interesting choices, and should see some exploration of the murkier side of the Marvel universe.

I was actually quite pleased with the 2003 Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck (the less said about the Elektra spin-off, the better). A series seems like a much better fit, however, allowing storylines to play out over a longer period and permitting more exploration of Matt Murdock's career as a lawyer. I could really see it working.

I know less about Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, but they are all linked characters: Cage and Jones become romantically involved, and Cage forms Heroes for Hire with Iron Fist. The choice of all three characters to head their own series is intriguing, but it's likely - virtually certain, really - we'll see some crossover between them.

The Defenders are the cut-price Avengers, to be fair, but this makes perfect sense as a project for TV. A lower budget version of the sort of superhero team shenanigans we saw in The Avengers could work very well, so long as it's not too low-budget. The Defenders were even less united than the Avengers, though, and tended to battle supernatural, rather than science-fictional, threats. There have been numerous versions of the Defenders team; in fact, pretty much every hero in the Marvel universe has been part of the Avengers, the Defenders or both at some stage. Still, the core group consisted of the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner.

Whether we'll see these characters in the Defenders miniseries remains to be seen; I'd be surprised if at least some of the new Netflix series characters don't make the cut. However, the Hulk seems like a plausible choice. So long as they use Mark Ruffalo, this is something I can get behind (and would make up, somewhat, for the stalling of Guillermo del Toro's Hulk-centred TV series). Doctor Strange could potentially be introduced in the miniseries then graduate to cinema. There are a lot of possibilities.

We'll have to wait till at least 2015 to find out though.

Day of the Doctor Trailer

What with the Latin American version of the trailer having made its way onto the Internet last night, the BBC have elected to release the first 'proper' trailer a day early. From the descriptions we had before, this seems to be the trailer that was shown at ComicCon this summer, or at least, a version of it.

The BBC have promised two trailers this weekend, one tonight, at 8.00 pm GMT, and another sometime tomorrow. It's sounding as though tonight's one will be different, possibly a UK exclusive.

Only a fortnight to go till the day itself! (And only twelve days till An Adventure in Space and Time.)

SPOILERS, obviously.

All I can say is: TIME WAR.

Friday 8 November 2013

The six-tailed cometsteroid!

OK, I made that word up. Still, this is a pretty cool discovery, and it belongs to a class of object which could do with a distinctive name.

There are certain bodies in the solar system that display characteristics of both comets and asteroids, and are thus classified as both. The centaurs, a family of objects that mostly orbit between Saturn and Uranus, are an example. Another example are the main belt comets, aka active asteroids. They have two names because they are both comets and asteroids, but not ordinary examples of either. They lie within the main asteroid belt, between 2.0 and 3.2 AU from the sun, but emit cometary tails due to solar heating of their volatiles. I think they could do with a new name. Perhaps cometoid? Asteret?

Whatever we're calling them, the newly discovered P/2013 P5 is unique. Continuing activity in the object's nucleus has led to multiple ejections of material over a five month period, resulting in a comet with six distinct visible tails. It's a fascinating object, seemingly rotating haphazardly and gradually disintegrating as it ejects mass.

io9 has a brief article on the find, linking to original study at the bottom.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

REVIEW: Thor: The Dark World

Thor is not the most popular of the Marvel movies. Were it not for the fairly mediocre The Incredible Hulk, it would probably be the least popular. This is wrong. Thor is a triumph of science fantasy, hitting just the right balance of comic book geekery, superheroics, sci-fi technobabble, magic, mythology and handsome men with big arms. Thor: The Dark World is pretty much just as good, and while it inevitably lacks the spark of the first Thor film as a new and exciting variant of the superhero blockbuster, it really is a damned fine popcorn movie.

The Dark World ties in just enough to the overall franchise, acknowledging the events of the Avengers movie and otherwise restricting itself to the Thor mythology. Well, with the exception of the mid-credits scene and an unexpected cameo by Captain America (not unexpected for being there, but for the manner in which it occurs). Following the rebuilding of the Bifrost, Thor has spent the last two years battling to restore peace throughout the Nine Realms. We get to see a great deal more of Thor's universe in this film, particularly Asgard, which takes on a more physical, but no less spectacular look this time round.

In a nice touch, The Dark World relocated events from America to England, with events taking place throughout Greater London. As well as obviously being a nice touch for a Brit like me, it gives the film a different flavour to its predecessors, and finally makes the Marvel movie events seem a little more global. There are a lot of unexpected elements thrown in that set this film apart from the previous instalment. It's bizarre, but very effective, to see Chris O'Dowd in a movie like this, adding a little everyman charm to a world filled with gods and monsters. His Hollywood career might be taking off big time right now, but he's still Roy from The IT Crowd to me. (I like to think this huge movie star career is just one of Roy's schemes that's got out of hand.) Little moments, like Thor taking the Tube in the middle of the battle for the fate of the universe, really make this film. Even amongst all the huge, climactic events, it never loses its light-handed humour.

The plot is pretty straightforward, resting on the kind of enormously unlikely coincidence films like this thrive on. Sure, it makes perfect sense that Jane Foster is searching for spatial anomalies as part of her research following the events of Thor, and sure, she ends up stumbling through one, briefly arriving on another world. It takes a bit more to swallow the fact that she immediately happens upon the central macguffin of this quest, becoming infused with it, and setting off the entire sequence of events that drive the film. It works though, like the best of these movies, by keeping the pace up and never letting the viewer dwell on how silly it all is.

The macguffin in question, the Aether, is another of the primordial power sources that litter the Marvel Universe. Unlike the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube, the Aether is a twirling blob of fluid/gas/energy/something-or-other that can be absorbed, granting enormous power to the user. Having accidentally swallowed it, Jane is imbued with enormous power, but thankfully the movie doesn't go down a super-powered Dr Foster route. Instead, the Aether, Bad Wolf-like, threatens to burn her out. When Heimdall informs Thor that he has lost sight of Jane, something which should be impossible, Thor abandons his duties and rushes to Earth – handily, just after Jane reappears.

Both Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman are excellent as the two leads. Hemsworth does slip into Aussie on a couple of occasions, but he still handles well dialogue that could be cringeworthy under a weaker actor. There seems to be a little more chemistry between them this time, making the love story a little more believable than the first time round. Taking Jane to Asgard is a nice touch, reversing the set-up of the first film, although the opportunity to have Jane in the fish-out-of-water role is missed. She handles herself brilliantly though, identifying various cod-mythical Asgardian devices by their scientific principles. It's a nice touch in a film that continually walks the blurry line between fantasy and science fiction.

The villain of the piece is a perfect example of this. Malekith the Accursed, Lord of the Dark Elves, wakes from stasis when the Nine Realms come into alignment. This event not only breaks down the borders between worlds but will also allow whomever wields the Aether to destroy the universe and remake it in his image, or something. Frankly, Malekith is a very generic baddie, and Christopher Eccleston is wasted in the role. However, he oozes gravitas and makes Malekith into a more memorable villain than he has any right to be. He and his elvish cohorts are well designed, but nothing compared to their spacecraft, huge vessels seemingly hewn from rock that scythe through the sky. The film's most climactic scenes involve what can only be described as alien invasions, first of Asgard, then of Earth, with mighty starships full of elves descending on the world.

Malekith's general, Algrim, gets to do most of the fisticuffs. He's a powerful presence, portrayed by Lost's Adawale Akkinnuoye-Agbaje, but soon becomes the less interesting, if suitably scary, being known as Kurse. The rest of the Asgardians all get a moment in the starlight, with Anthony Hopkins appearing far more engaged than we've seen him in years in his role as Odin. Rene Russo finally gets some decent material as his queen, Frigga, and absolutely owns any scene she's in. Jaimie Alexander and Idris Elba are impressive as Sif and Heimdall repsectively, although they both deserve more material. Of the Warriors Three, new Fandral replacement Zachary Levi gets the best material.

Of course, the real star of the Thor movies is Tom Hiddleston, and he doesn't disappoint.
Imprisoned for his crimes, Loki is just as capricious and manipulative as ever. It's a perfect performance by Hiddleston, slipping between cockiness, fear and a glimmer of madness with ease. You never know quite what's going on with him, whose side he's on at any given moment. With Thor taking the battle to Malekith against his father's wishes, he recruits Loki to show him the hidden ways out of Asgard. You're waiting for the inevitable betrayal throughout, and the filmmakers are canny enough to keep you on the wrong foot throughout. Prime trickster material.

Stellan Starsgard gets some of the funniest scenes as the troubled Erik Selvig, although Darcy and her “intern's intern” Ian come close. Jonathan Howard has been somewhat overlooked as the latter, but he gets to snog Kat Dennings, so I don't feel too sorry for him. Brief appearances by Alice Krige, Tallulah Riley and Clive Russell add to the star-studded cast, and yes, Stan Lee gets a cameo, which is like a law, or an old charter, or something.

The film hops between comedy, melodrama, action and high fantasy. There's so much thrown into the mix here, it should really be too much, but it works. There's a shocking death, leading to funeral sequence which feels both moving and genuinely mythic. The final climactic battle between Thor and Malekith is utterly, madly over the top, playing out across numerous worlds, levelling much of Greenwich in the process. (Meanwhile, I was wondering when UNIT were going to turn up. Surely they're affiliated with SHIELD?)

There's plenty that needs to be built on if we get a third film, the love triangle between Thor, Jane and the Lady Sif in particular. However, The Dark World leaves us with a Thor who has proven himself wiser than his father, if still liable to be tricked by his little brother. And the Marvel Universe gets bigger by the moment. Tremendous fun, never boring for a moment, and just a joy to sit through. Stay right to the end.

Sunday 3 November 2013

The Other Doctors, Part Two - on Audio

David Troughton
The second Doctor
Serpent Crest: The Hexford Invasion
and Survivors in Space, 2011

The third series of BBC Doctor Who audios from the pen of Paul Magrs, Serpent Crest featured Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor. However, the Doctor was unexpectedly joined by his second incarnation in the final two instalments. David Troughton had appeared in Doctor Who several times, from the 1969's The War Games to 2008's Midnight, and in numerous audios from Big Finish. Fans frequently suggested he could play the Doctor, either recreating his father's role as the second Doctor or as a new incarnation. In the event, Serpent Crest's more acerbic version of the second Doctor was revealed to be a faulty clone, created from the fourth Doctor's genetic material.

William Russell
The first Doctor
The Light at the End, 2013

William Russell is of course best known to Doctor Who fans as the original male series lead, companion Ian Chesterton. Since 2008, he has performed for Big Finish in the Companion Chronicles and Lost Stories ranges, both reprising his original role and narrating events. As part of this, he had to read lines as the Doctor, and his spirited performance as the original TARDIS traveller led to his casting in the 50th anniversary special The Light at the End. The first three Doctors, now long dead, each made an appearance played by new actors as a tribute.

Frazer Hines
The second Doctor
The Light at the End, 2013

It's much the same story for Frazer Hines, who actually wrote into Doctor Who Magazine when he was missed off their list of Doctors this year. As well as playing Jamie Macrimmon, Hines has spent the last few years providing such a convincing recreation of Patrick Troughton's performance that listeners could be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled across some lost recordings from the 1960s. Hines portrayed the second Doctor in his readings for the Companion Chronicles and Lost Stories, before becoming the second Doctor for The Light at the End. Plus, he cosplays as the second Doctor. Amazing.

Tim Treloar
The third Doctor
The Light at the End, 2013

Tim Treloar might not be a name that rings many bells, but he's a face you'll recognise from numerous appearances on British TV. After several roles for Big Finish, Treloar portrayed the third Doctor in The Light at the End.

Geoffrey Bayldon
Unbound first Doctor
Doctor Who Unbound: Auld Mortality, 2003
Doctor Who Unbound: A Storm of Angels, 2005
In 2003, Big Finish celebrated Doctor Who's fortieth anniversary with, amongst other things, a special series of 'Elseworlds'-style stories titled Doctor Who Unbound. Each of these releases created a 'What if?' type scenario, and cast a new actor in the role of the Doctor (with the exception of the fourth release, He Jests at Scars, which cast Michael Jayston and asked “What if the Valeyard had won?”) The first release, Auld Mortality, featured Geoffrey Bayldon finally in the role of the Doctor. This was a Doctor who had never left Gallifrey, until his granddaughter, Susan, the President of the Time Lords, came to find him. A sequel, A Storm of Angels, saw the Doctor and Susan wreak havoc through history once they finally left Gallifrey to go travelling.

David Warner
Unbound third Doctor
Doctor Who Unbound: Sympathy for the Devil, 2003
Doctor Who Unbound: Masters of War, 2008

The second release in the Unbound range featured David Warner as an alternative third Doctor, arriving on Earth for his exile years too late. Materialising in Hong Kong 1997, on the eve of the handover, the Doctor discovered how the world had coped without him for all those years. Warner played the Doctor totally straight, in a note perfect performance brimming with quiet authority. Pairing him with Nicholas Courtney as a disillusioned ex-Brigadier was a brilliant touch. At the end of Sympathy for the Devil, the Doctor and Alistair escaped in the TARDIS, only to face Davros on Skaro in the final Unbound release, Masters of War.

David Collings
Unbound Doctor
Doctor Who Unbound: Full Fathom Five, 2003

David Collings had previously appeared in the series as Mawdryn, as mutant who posed as a post-regenerative Doctor, in Mawdryn Undead. He finally played the Doctor for real in Full Fathom Five, which posed the question “What if the Doctor was an utter bastard?” Well, it was a little more sophisticated than that, but the Collings Doctor, trapped on Earth for decades, really was a piece of work. Unsurprisingly, many fans took exception to a Doctor who swore and packed a gun, but Collings was incredible as an uncompromising version of the Doctor convinced that the end justified the means. As for which incarnation he was, we just don't know. All we know is that he wasn't the last, but had used up most of his lives. Was this an alternative version of the Doctor, or just one who had yet to come to pass?

Sir Derek Jacobi
Unbound Doctor/Martin Bannister
Doctor Who Unbound: Deadline, 2003

Originally intended as the last release in the range, Deadline got bumped up to fifth. Rather than a Doctor Who story, this was a story about Doctor Who, in which a fictionalised account of the series' conception was recounted by Martin Bannister, a has been scriptwriter. In a world where Doctor Who was cancelled before it had even begun, geeks read Juliet Bravo Magazine, and Bannister stews in retirement home, thinking what might have been. It should come as no surprise that Jacobi was astonishingly good as the bitter Martin Bannister. It's later, as the lines between reality and fantasy blur, that Bannister begins to believe that he is Doctor Who, and escapes from his miserable life. It's maybe no coincidence that Jacobi eventually appeared as the very Hartnellesque Professor Yana in the series proper, before becoming one of the very few actors to have played both the Doctor and the Master.

Arabella Weir
Unbound third Doctor
Doctor Who Unbound: Exile, 2003

The sixth and final release of the original Unbound series, Exile was a comedy alternative to Sympathy for the Devil, in which the Doctor escapes his exile at the hands of the Time Lords, he then hides out on Earth, committing suicide in order to undergo a sex-change regeneration to facilitate his disguise. The new, female Doctor then gets a job at Sainsbury's and spends her Friday nights boozing and being sick. It's all most odd and not very funny, with no exploration of what a female Doctor might be like – with the exception of one scene, in which the Doctor is hit on by a handsome bearded man whom she mistakes for the Master.

Nicholas Briggs
Various incarnations

Minuet in Hell, 2001
Doctor Who Unbound: Exile, 2003
The Stage Plays: Seven Keys to Doomsday, 2008

Nick Briggs, Big Finish supremo and voice of the monsters in the new TV series, has been playing the Doctor in one form or another for decades now. He started out writing and starring in a highly regarded fan audio series called the Audio Visuals. Following this came more professional work for BBV Productions, including as the mysterious Wanderer known only as Fred (who wasn't the Doctor at all, honest). Part of Big Finish since its beginnings in 1999, Briggs has had numerous roles, including various iterations of the Doctor. He was the insane Gideon Crane in Minuet in Hell, who had absorbed the Doctor's memories and believed himself to be the Time Lord. He was an alternative second Doctor in Exile, regenerating into Arabella Weir. He regenerated into Trevor Martin in the audio remake of Seven Keys to Doomsday. He's made some visual apperances as the Doctor too – not only was Nick Scovell's successor in the stageplay version of The Dalek Masterplan, the Audio Visuals Doctor turned up in the DWM comic strip twice. In 'Party Animals' he met the seventh Doctor, and later portrayed an ersatz ninth Doctor in 'Wormwood.' Surely the most prolific 'extra' Doctor of all.

Alexander McQueen
The 'other' Doctor
UNIT: Dominion, 2012

Another follically challenged Doctor appeared in this special Big Finish box set, encountering Sylvester McCoy's seventh Doctor and ingratiating himself with UNIT. This flamboyant, camp and overly tactile incarnation was from so far in the future that he could barely even remember his seventh life, and it seemed as though he had lost some of his morals along the way. In the end, of course, it turned out he wasn't the Doctor after all... which was a bit of a shame, because he was rather wonderful in the part.