Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A huge, ever-growing, pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the Ultraworld

Work and spare-time pressures continue, and will do until after next weekend. Here, while the opportunity presents itself, is a round-up of the first four episodes of the new series of Doctor Who; weekly reviewing should resume in May.

Partners in Crime
6 out of 10. A low 6, maybe 5.5. It's become standard for a season opener, particularly one that introduces (or rather, in this case, reintroduces) a companion, to slack off somewhat on the story. Whether it should or not is open to question.
But even so, hold this episode up against the first season's Rose and you can see a definite improvement. So why doesn't it score more highly?
Perhaps it's familiarity. If New Who had launched in 2005 with this, it would have been astonishing. But there's an aliens-invade-office-block furrow that New Who has ploughed, and continues to plough, and it's starting to hit bedrock. Bringing the companion's home life to the fore is one thing, and within reasonable limits it's a good thing in my view, but using a present-day office as the front for an alien invasion wears a bit thin after the first half-dozen iterations.
Here's an experiment: try watching the 1971 season (Jon Pertwee's second) in order, at a rate of one complete story a week. Oh look, it's the Master hiding behind a present-day institution. Oh look, it's the Master again, hiding behind a different present-day institution. Oh look, etc. Try, if you can, to be surprised when you get to The Daemons and spot Roger Delgado posing as a vicar. (Well, obviously you can't now that I've said that, but the point stands.) Try to imagine how you'd receive this story as a viewer in 1971. And it's a good story - fans everywhere love it and acclaim it even today, for it is Rock Solid. But you watch it after a whole season of Master stories and tell me what you think of it.
Of course, this episode isn't following four very similar stories in a row, but I'm certainly starting to feel a touch of office fatigue setting in. But there's more to it than that - it just doesn't feel satisfying somehow. It lacks something. A friend probably described this episode best by saying it was the best episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures he'd seen. Yes, that's probably it - it feels just a bit too lightweight, a bit too kiddy. The culmination of this must be Supernanny's Wile E Coyote moment just before she plummets to her doom. The "season opener syndrome" won't be helping either.
And the Adipose aren't wrong in themselves - they're fine for a fun episode, they are indeed different from the usual run of Who aliens, and they have the selling point that you can easily make your own with a bag of flour and a marker pen. Apparently. But roll it all together and you've got a slightly lacklustre, albeit jolly episode of Who.
High point is not the window-cleaning machinery sequence, despite what the production team might think, but the mimed conversation between the Doctor and Donna. The scene of Donna looking bored in her kitchen while her mother rattles on in the background speaks for much of the rest of the episode.

The Fires of Pompeii
8 out of 10. Good, if not dazzling.
On the one hand you've got unnecessary Balrogs cluttering up the place, some slightly off acting from Phil Cornwell, and a couple of terrible "Noooooooo!!" ("My beautiful machiiiiine!/Not that button!") moments. On the other you've got the fantastically cheeky reveal of the marble circuit board, the suggestion that speaking Latin to an ancient Roman through the TARDIS' translation filter makes you sound Welsh, and a reasonably good effort at showing modern kids a Roman family in action (watershed constraints permitting, of course).
But this isn't about faithfully reconstructing Roman life for the viewers, is it? No, that's what documentaries are for. This, on the other hand, is about spoofing other TV shows/films. So just as 1965 story The Romans, while giving the kids a jolly historical runaround, sent up 1963 film Cleopatra for the benefit of the adults (or if you prefer, gave them a low-budget, slightly cleaner version of 1964's Carry On Cleo), so The Fires of Pompeii sends up big-budget TV series Rome, the show that gave the world Mockney Romans ("Brutus, me ol' cock!" - in this context, Phil Cornwell's performance almost makes sense). Again, watershed constraints permitting. And as if to prove it, they even filmed it in the same place.
In the old days, you know, they'd have done this episode without aliens ("Would they, granddad? Tell me more..."). They'd have made the focus of the episode a straight ethical dilemma for the Doctor between saving the citizens of Pompeii and letting history run its course. And indeed, there was some interesting material along those lines in this episode. But New Who couldn't forgo its aliens for a week. Tying them in with Pompeii's destruction the way writer James Moran does kind of gives the Doctor a moral cop-out, but it's done in a very interesting way and I suppose it does make it all a bit more immediate. If only we hadn't had to have (hadn't had to have?!) the big fiery end-of-level computer monsters.

Planet of the Ood
8 out of 10. A higher 8 than last week's, veering towards 9 but not quite attaining it for reasons that will shortly be explained.
Shady businessmen, an exploitative corporation on an alien world, Graeme Harper directing - you know, it's too easy to draw comparisons between this episode and Harper classics The Caves of Androzani and Revelation of the Daleks. And by and large, Planet of the Ood stands up to that comparison very well.
But what really made Androzani and Revelation, what earns them top spot in fan polls, is that Harper cast quirky character actors - real characters - in parts both major and minor, thus livening the whole thing up. Tim "Captain Darling" McInnerny puts in a solid performance, but he's not really quirky enough. The PR character is first bland, then bland and loathsome, and gets zapped in a rightly perfunctory manner. The mad scientist and the security guard do what they can, but they can't carry the whole episode on their own. Basically there aren't enough identifiable characters here - it's Tim McI, the doctor and the security guard, the PR, and a host of faceless Ood and unnamed extras.
The focus is thus thrown on the Doctor and Donna, to Catherine Tate's benefit - it's this week that I find my opinion of her performance has gone from "acceptable" to "really rather good".
But the big problem I have with this episode is that it claims to make some sort of sense out of the Ood as a species. And fair enough, they were given rather short shrift in the pretentious wankfest that was The Satan Pit. So now we learn that, as you might have guessed, they didn't actually evolve as a servant race, with glowing translator balls already attached and a genetic urge to serve the strongest available personality. Instead we're told that they evolved with external brains that they have to carry around in their hands. Bit of a liability, that, you'd have thought. And as if that weren't enough, one really big bonus brain. One Brain to Rule Them All. One really big, disembodied, pulsating brain that chews people. Hmm. Still, it's an allegory, let it go.
(Surprisingly, they did seem to evolve wearing Nehru suits. I still haven't quite figured that one out.)
And not only is the handheld brain thing at least a passable allegory, it makes very poetic sense of the translator balls. Those nasty colonial humans have cut off the means by which Ood talk to each other - their telepathic mini-brains - and stitched on the means by which they can be made to talk the human way. And given that you'd expect the mini-brain to be attached by something equivalent to the spinal cord, i.e. a pretty big nerve arrangement of some sort, you can also kind of accept how those balls might be made to discharge electricity. Well, anyway.
Even the shady businessman's come-uppance, while scientifically doubtful, makes at least poetic sense. As David Tennant later remarked, it's gothic, in the Frankensteinesque literary sense of the word: a man who tries to defy nature with science is brought low by apparently supernatural means. By that token, it'd have to make bugger all apparent sense to qualify as properly gothic. And besides, I'm prepared to excuse this episode much of its weird science just because it's so much more colourful than, for example, Partners in Crime.
I'd rate this episode the best of the season so far. Admittedly it's early days yet, and we haven't yet reached the giddy heights of a 9 or a 10, but it's a good 'un.

The Sontaran Stratagem
As usual, I'm reserving final judgement until I've seen the second part, but so far I think this might be a 5 or a 6.
Competent (well... more on this in a minute) but once again ploughing that same old furrow. There's something suspicious about a new company. Could aliens be behind it? Yes, they could. Office mayhem once again ensues.
First important thing to note: Catherine Tate is wiping the floor with Freema Agyeman. She's acting her right off the screen. At this point, even Jo likes Donna. Second important thing to note: UNIT aren't very nice any more. Well, for a covert military organisation. More realistic, perhaps, but not very sympathetic. This may prove to be a good thing, but that largely depends on where the series is going with them. But when it comes to rating this episode, the really important thing to note is just how many times it provokes us into shouting at the screen.
Yes, about that. There a number of stupid character mistakes on display here, and although a charitable viewer might attribute any one of them to the character himself, together they suggest that the writer just hasn't thought things through properly:
Things we can learn from The Sontaran Stratagem
  • If you run a military outfit with four decades' experience in countering alien threats, you might want to consider sending your troops into a suspected situation in detachments of more than two.
  • You might also want to train your troops to notice when someone's been hypnotised. (Come on, the Master alone should have made this an essential part of UNIT training!)
  • You're in a detachment of two UNIT troops and you've found a suspicious-looking basement guarded by two obviously conditioned minions. Do not go in without backup.
  • When you find the strange alien machinery, do not interfere with it. Leave immediately and get backup.
  • When you notice your radios have stopped working, leave immediately and get some ****ing backup, you fools!
  • If you're reasonably sure that a piece of machinery wired into all your military outfit's vehicles is a) linked to dozens of suspicious deaths, and b) potentially alien in origin, then remove that piece of machinery immediately. If you can't, don't drive any of those vehicles. The dodgy tech may be fitted as standard in government vehicles, but it isn't in civilian vehicles - for god's sake, commandeer some cars!
  • If you've just seen with your own eyes that your family car's been booby-trapped, do not get into it, you old fool!
  • And perhaps most damning of all, because the cliffhanger into next week's episode hinges on it - if beloved British film and telly icon Bernard Cribbins is trapped in a car that's filling up with gas, break the window! If you've got a sonic device, better still - find the frequency for car window glass and shatter all of them! I believe an entire nation shouted "Break the glass!" at that point. Not the series' best ever cliffhanger.
All things considered it's a fair run-of-the-mill episode, but that's precisely the problem: it's run-of-the-mill. This episode is treading water.


Ben said...

Agree with just about everything except giving "Partners in Crime" anything starting with a positive integer.

What I really enjoyed about the Sontaran Strategem was seeing the potatoes, finally, as the mighty military race they have always claimed to be. Rather than choosing to invade a planet in clusters of not more than three, for once I got a feeling of their culture and personality. "Is that a reference to my height?" Perfect!

I'm certain that Peter Capaldi's family in Pompeii was lifted direct from "Asterix & the Laurel Wreath" ...

Strabec said...

I think I would like to make a few of not very organised points.
I like Donna and I am relieved that she hasn't turned out to be a Tegan incarnation!She is not 'in love' with the Doctor, another plus! I for one was getting throughly fed up with the previuos companions (both Rose and Martha) pining over him.
I throughly agree with you about 'Partners in Crime' and 'The Fire of pompeii'. Though in the latters case, I was expecting Lurcio to appear. After all they had the rest of the cast of 'Up Pompeii!' there. The rock monsters were pathetic. It left me thinking that it would have been infinatley better if they had borrowed genuine Balrogs! I quite liked the 'Sontaran Strategem' and as you say, it is as though the past 40 years worth of UNIT never happened.

Strabec said...

Whoops sorry John, but one more point!
Who is the Futurama fan? First New New York, and now a gaint brain? Not to mention the look of the city scape in 'Gridlock'. I am expecting Bender to make an appearance any time now.

John Toon said...

Oh good, I was worried you guys might have given up on me after four weeks of Who and no blogging.

Sarah - I'd give them the benefit of the doubt on the giant brain, I'm pretty sure that's just an attempt to tap into Who fandom's cherished memories of "Time and the Rani".

Ben - you're right, it is nice to see Sontarans in large numbers (although the deputy is a bit rubbish). But not as nice as seeing them do the team whoop before going into battle.