Sunday, 31 August 2014

DOCTOR WHO: INTO THE DALEK review, 30 August 2014


Two stories in, Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who offers a very different kind of Dalek story.

The Doctor's heart of darkness. (Image: BBC)

If you're trying to make a sell of a new Doctor who's radically different to the previous two, the second episode of your new series should logically feature the monster that people will tune in for regardless of who's in the title role. To remind the audience that they're now watching a series with no easy answers - i.e. a grown up drama - what you then do is deliver a Dalek story unlike any other before it.

The advance publicity stressed the Fantastic Voyage spectacle of putting the Doctor and co. in one of those wonderful cutaway illustrations from 1964's The Dalek Book or 1976's Doctor Who and the Daleks Omnibus, but the real story here is about the psychology of being a soldier. From Samuel Anderson's engagingly gauche Danny Pink, acting tough with his Coal Hill Cadets but a social disaster area when it comes to asking Clara out - typically and amusingly, she talks him into it - to the damaged Dalek that has acquired 'morality as [a] malfunction', different perspectives were offered on what being a warrior does to the individual who takes on, or is born with, that calling.

In a year of colonial expansion by Russia in the Ukraine, the continued war of attrition between Palestine and Israel and internecine warfare in Iraq, played out most evenings on the television news, 'Into the Dalek' is a timely and thought-provoking morality tale. The central, downbeat point is that all Daleks can ever do is kill - be it every creature that isn't a Dalek or, as the Doctor depressingly discovers here, other Daleks - but around it every other character who's a fighter, including the Doctor, learns something new about war.

Journey Blue (the excellent Zawe Ashton) realises there's a better, if more complicated, life outside obeying orders, while her uncle (the equally excellent Michael Smiley) goes from the blunt pragmatism of wanting to execute the Doctor to protect the location of the rebel base, to discovering heroism by standing against the Daleks to the last trooper. The Doctor himself, struggling from the start with his own sense of morality, in the end is comfortable with his 'carer' Clara's assessment of his attempts to be a good man: 'I think you try to be, and that's probably the point.' After two episodes of Matt Smith, you felt you knew his Doctor. With Capaldi, there's the feeling that you might never really know and be comfortable with the 12th Doctor. Great stuff!

It's an incredibly stylish episode, again benefiting from Ben Wheatley's trippy, nightmarish and cinematic direction; the moment where the Doctor pierces the membrane of the Dalek's eye is one of the most psychedelic scenes in Doctor Who's history. Peter Capaldi continues to push the envelope with the Doctor's character, by turns funny, introspective and callous - 'top layer [of human pulp] if you want to say a few words' - ocassionally hammy and defiantly not-fancying-his-assistant: 'Your hips are fine. You're built like a man.'

Watching 'Into the Dalek', you can't fail to want to see what happens next in this series. The sweet relationship between Clara and Danny is very promising, and the 'WTF?' moment where the marvellous Michelle Gomez's Missy - short for Mistress, perhaps? - interrupts the action, reminds you that Doctor Who remains the most unpredictable show on British television.

And the reprogrammed Dalek heading off to sabotage the ranks of its pure brethren warrants a series of its own. Terry Nation would have been delighted.

Finally: what are the odds on Journey being the next companion? With a name like that, it'd be a shame if she wasn't.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

DOCTOR WHO: DEEP BREATH review, 23 August 2014


Peter Capaldi is Dr. Who. Things will never be quite the same again.
The 12th Doctor shows where he fits in. (Image: Radio Times)


'Deep Breath' is Breaking Bad good. Is Ian Holm in Dennis Potter's Moonlight on the Highway good. Is Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man good. Is 'The Deadly Assassin', 'The Robots of Death', 'The Invasion of Time', 'The Caves of Androzani' and 'Blink' good. It's also the first time I've ever applauded the title sequence of a TV series in a pub.

It's hard to believe that 'Deep Breath' has been made by, essentially, the same production team that in 2013 gave us such lazy fare as 'The Rings of Acton', 'Cold War' and 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS'. With the benefit of hindsight, the way forward can be seen in the last three stories of the 50th anniversary year - 'The Crimson Horror', 'Nightmare in Silver' and, most importantly, 'The Name of the Doctor'. Peter Capaldi is playing it down in interviews, but the change in style, pace and, frankly, the standard of writing is SO great from last year that, as a writer and director himself, I think he must have had considerably more input into the series than simply taking over as the leading man. Significantly, 'Deep Breath' has the latest transmission of any Doctor Who story, concluding after the 9 o'clock watershed.

The new adult tone is a deep breath by the production team (which no doubt partly inspired the title). Right from the start, the cuddly Matt Smith gloves are off. The story continues the mature consideration of the Doctor's motivations and the development of his character that began in 'The Name of the Doctor' and carried on through 'The Night...', 'The Day...' and 'The Time of the Doctor'. In many ways, 'Deep Breath' is the fifth and final story in this saga, as the trauma of the Time War, the Doctor's guilt over surviving it, ruining Amy and Rory's life, together with his exile to Trenzalore, have moulded a startlingly dark, unpredictable and compellingly watchable new man.

This new Doctor's character is forged in the stinking gutters of Victorian London, so perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that the 12th man in is very different from the Doctors we've seen so far in the 21st century (the closest equivalent being Christopher Eccleston's moody, haunted ninth regeneration). Starting off with some Matt Smith-style arm waving and the eleventh Doctor's ability to communicate with animals, Peter Capaldi's Doctor quickly matures into a mercurial, year zero mix of sardonic wit, intensity and righteous anger. Quite literally, he's a man who doesn't take prisoners; you could hear the gasps at the scene where it's heavily implied that the Doctor had thrown the 'Half Face Man' to his death.

Surprisingly, 'Deep Breath' is only the fourth regeneration story not set on contemporary Earth. The Victorian setting tells the audience exactly what the touchstones of the new approach are going to be - gothic novels like Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Jewel of the Seven Stars, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, Ripper Street and - most identifiably for long term viewers - Doctor Who circa 1975 and 1977, the highly revered 'gothic' era of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his script editor Robert Holmes. If the latter was still alive today, I'm convinced he would have absolutely loved 'Deep Breath'. A hot air balloon made out of human skin? That'll do nicely.

Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, the deux ex machina of pressing a button on the Sonic Screwdriver so the end titles could roll has been so overdone that comedians on 8 Out of 10 Cats make jokes about it. This failure of imagination reached its absolute nadir during Matt Smith's tenure, but was happily recalibrated from 'The Day of the Doctor' onwards. In 'Deep Breath', the Screwdriver is used just twice: to open locks. Like everything else in Doctor Who now, it's back in it's proper place.

Some people have complained that Deep Breath's story is thin. It might be simple, but like 'The Face of Evil' all those years ago, it's beautifully metaphorical; almost poetic. The Doctor, an alien who looks like a man, and the Faceless Man, a machine who looks like a human, are both caught up in the process of renewal. The point is that the Marie Antoinette robots have been rewriting themselves for so long that they no longer know why they're doing it, while the 12th Doctor struggles to make sense of his new identity with the most important things in life - the love of friends and family. The Doctor's wonderful speech about pieces of a brush being repalced so often that it's no longer the original brush, is already one of the most quotable pieces of dialogue the series has ever offered.     

Jenna Coleman finally proves her worth, partly because Clara is now a real person, not a concept. The scene where she's threatened by the Half Face Man with a flame-thrower - a flame-thrower! On Doctor Who!!! - is completely sold by her portrayal of a woman who's brave and frightened at the same time. Peter Ferdaninado, who I've never seen before, is terrifying; underplaying every line, he shows how to make a Doctor Who villain menacing and memorable. And as for dear Matt... it's his best performance.

A word about Catrin Stewart, who plays cockney sparra Jenny Flint - in a playfully sapphic relationship with the Silurian warrior Madam Vastra - with a lightness of touch and a big heart. Sometimes overlooked in favour of the commanding Vastra (the excellent Neve McIntosh) and the always quotable Strax (Dan Starkey having the time of his life), Stewart has the same allure as a young Diana Rigg; all she has to do is walk across a room and grown men swoon behind her. If this trio of Victorain Avengers ever get their own series - and they're far more deserving of a spin-off than Captain Jack ever was - I'd love to see how Jenny and Vastra's relationship began.

Symbolic of the big changes is witnessing everyone's favourite comedy Sontaran Strax so terrified he's willing to blow his brains out, rather than be eviscerated alive by a pack of zombie androids. That scene tells you all you need to know about how much Doctor Who has changed with the arrival of Peter Capaldi The best show on British television is now edgy, dangerous and controversial. Just like old times, really.

Elsewhere on the production, Ben Wheatley, a highly regarded and innovative feature film director - never seen Kill List (2011)? You must - has made a feature length Doctor Who story, which today was shown in cinemas worldwide. Just think about that for a moment... Also coming up this year, we've got long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Frank Cottrell-Boyce writing a story and, so Steven Moffat says, Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson directing an episode next year. I sometimes feel like weeping with joy at how the tatty little TV series I’ve loved since I was a child has become a world conquering multi-media sensation. Quite right, too.

"James Bond? Really?" The Doctor, 'The Lazarus Experiment', 2007

The ambiguous moral ground the new Doctor walks places him in the same territory as Walter White, Ray Donovan and Idris Elba's Luther on television and Daniel Craig's James Bond in the cinema. The movie OO7 began life in the 1960s - just like Doctor Who - and in the last ten years has gone back to the conflicted character Ian Fleming wrote in his books. Just like the stereotypical view of the Doctor as a nutty professor, Bond's portrayal as a 'weaponised lounge lizard' (copyright Nick Setchfield, 2012) is long gone.

Clothes are imporatnt to the Doctor and OO7. Key moments for both characters are the moment when a regenerated Doctor appears in his complete costume for the first time, or when a new James Bond actor initially dons the three-piece or the tux. Think about the scene in 'The Eleventh Hour' where the Doctor steps through the Atraxi projection, complete with bow tie and braces. From then on, we know our favourite Time Lord is complete. The scene at the end of Casino Royale (2006) where Daniel Craig walks slowly past a wounded Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and turns to face him, suave in a serge three-piece with a f**k off assault rifle, is telling the audience the same thing in the same way. In 'Deep Breath', when the Doctor meets Clara in his sharp, severe new threads, despite all the sea changes we've seen in him, from that moment on the audience knows Capaldi is the new captain of his ship.

You know, you could make Chris Cornell's 'You Know My Name', the theme to Craig's Casino Royale, the new Doctor Who theme and you wouldn't have to change one word of the lyrics:

"Arm yourself because no one else here will save you.
The odds will betray you and I will replace you.
You can't deny the prize it may never fulfill you,
It longs to kill you, are you willing to die?
The coldest blood runs through my veins -
You know my name."

I'll be watching the Doctor battle the Daleks again next week with, I very much suspect, the majority of the viewing nation.

There's no going back. Exciting, isn't it?

Yesterday, I put the free poster of Peter Capaldi given away with the latest Doctor Who magazine on my bedroom wall. I don't think I've put up a poster since I was 26.

"Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven."

Thank you, Doctor. I feel young again.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

DOCTOR WHO: DEEP BREATH Panel Discussion and Q&A, BFI


On Thursday 7 August at the BFI Southbank, Doctor Who went back to first principles. To my surprise and delight, possibly the most exciting and unpredictable era of my favourite TV show is about to begin.

See those eyes: Sir Peter Capaldi IS the Doctor. (Image: BBC)

Without a doubt, the BFI launch of Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who was one of the best days of my life. As I was coming out of a rough patch in my professional and personal life, I was determined not to miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of seeing the first story of a new Doctor on the big screen, with the man himself then invited onstage, together with Jenna Coleman (companion Clara Oswald) and Steven Moffat (executive producer), to be interviewed by the critic and columnist Boyd Hilton. After (several) drinks in the West End with friends on Wednesday night, I walked across Waterloo bridge to bed down outside the entrance to the British Film Institute on the Thames' Southbank (or, as I put it on Facebook, 'off to pass out outside the BFI.') I was first in the queue for return tickets, which in itself was a bit of a first for me

The queue, with me at the front wearing
Matt Smith's stetson. (Image: Louise Traxon)
More people arrived at 4.00. Sara (22), Roberto (21) and Chiara (22) had come all the way from Italy. They were excited but slightly bewildered, and I automatically became a bit of a mother hen, asking them if they had enough bottled water to drink - it was pretty warm, even at that time of the morning - and telling them they could buy a whole magazine about Doctor Who if they nipped over to Waterloo Station and went in WH Smiths.

As is usually case with every Doctor Who event I've been to, as more and more people arrived, they fell naturally into chatting - 'How far have you come to be here? Do you like Classic, New, or both?' - and so on. Louise Traxon (27) had caught the 6.22 from Hemel Hempstead and had fallen in love with the show watching the Jon Pertwee repeats in the 1990s; Henry Mendoza (great name, 18) had caught the tube up from Tooting and hadn't seen any of Peter Capaldi's other performances; Paul Ducker (35), a support worker in the Community Cardiac Service for the NHS, had booked the day off work specially and had grown up with Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. Beatrice Paroni (23) from America was currently studying for a Masters Degree in Time Travel and Philosophy  honestly and preferred her Doctors 'older and wiser.' Simeon Couter (19, up from Surrey) loved both the BFI and Capaldi, considering him 'a legend'. 

John Mouzo (52) was a delight to talk to, mainly because he was so dryly funny - 'I've been hearing about this Doctor Who thing and thought I'd give it a try' - when he had, in fact, been giving Doctor Who a try since the 1980s when he helped organise the big US conventions there. Significantly, John had liked Capaldi ever since he had featured in Local Hero (1983), also bringing along the US DVD sleeve of the actor's Oscar-winning short film Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life (1995, right) for him to sign. After several hours of bonding as the London sky slowly brightened, it was heart warming that we all got to sit near other for the screening.     
As for 'Deep Breath' itself - no spoilers. What I can say is that the Doctor - that is, my Doctor, the moody, wise, funny, arrogant, occasionally frightening, occasionally violent Doctor I grew up with, who quoted Gertrude Stein and misquoted Karl Marx - is back. Like one of my favourite stories 'The Face of Evil', Steven Moffat's literate, funny and terrifying script has a mature philosophical theme, as it tackles the positive and negative consequences of renewal.

Not everyone will like the change of creative direction, primarily, I suspect, the audience that first came to Doctor Who when it was relaunched in 2005. At times during 'Deep Breath', you'll get the feeling that the production team is deliberately trying to alienate the audience that the BBC have spent the last ten years cultivating; all over the NFT1 auditorium, you could almost hear jaws hitting the floor at key game-changing moments. As a regeneration story, for me 'Deep Breath' is up there with 'The Power of the Daleks', 'Spearhead from Space' and 'The Eleventh Hour' and, beyond that, is already one of my favourite stories ever.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi on stage. (Image: Getty)

During the twenty minutes when questions were invited from the audience for Steven, Jenna and Peter, I asked him if, as a writer and director, he would like to get involved in that side of Doctor Who. When the audience had stopped laughing at Peter's softly spoken but emphatic 'No', he went on to explain that the series was already demanding enough without the added pressure on him of directing and writing. Rather humbly, Peter felt he was 'a dabbler' when it came to film making. With perfect comic timing, Steven Moffat followed up his leading man's comment with, 'says the man with an Oscar at home'.

Endearingly, Peter would like to see 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' remade, which, predictably, drew an endorsing round of applause. Personally, I'm looking forward to his next spoof documentary, Cricklewood Rocks, which looks at 'rubbish British rock bands' in a sequel to Crickelwood Greats, Peter's affectionate parody of Ealing Studios and Britsh film in general.

The man was tireless, abandoning wine-guzzling BBC liggers in the green room to spend time with the fans queued up outside the BFI waiting for autographs and photos. I never normally do this sort of thing, but I was so excited by 'Deep Breath' that I couldn't stop myself, getting him to sign the latest copy of Doctor Who Magazine. I had a very amiable chat with Mr Capaldi - 'please, call me Peter' - and two of the highlights were:

ME: 'It's good to see you're now making Doctor Who for 50+ Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes fans.'

PETER: 'Ah, well, we have had it in mind for years.'


ME: 'The great thing is, the Daily Mail will hate Doctor Who now more than ever.'

PETER: 'I do hope so.'

On Friday morning, I did something I hadn't done since the 1970s; I bought a cross-section of that morning's newspapers to check out the reviews. Nicola Methven, the Daily Mirror critic, said that Clara eventually came to like the new Doctor, 'but, the question is... will you?' and in The Independent, Ellen E. Jones hit the mythical nail on the head by suggesting that 'Capaldi's Doctor Who might just be the best yet.'

I realised one thing on Thursday. Everyone who's ever taken the piss out of the fans for liking - no, loving - Doctor Who is completely and utterly wrong. Talk about feeling vindicated.

Going by 'Deep Breath', it seems that the best times for the series are yet to come. Prepare yourselves. 

Carpet diem. (Image: Mr Ducker)