Saturday, 26 December 2015

Review - "Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song"

The annual Doctor Who Christmas special changes its tone with incredible rapidity, more often than not settling somewhere on either extreme of the tonal spectrum. On one end, the Christmas episode can be frivolous, light, and fun (see The Runaway Bride, A Christmas Carol, and The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe), and on the other it can be dark, serious, and with more at stake (see Voyage of the Damned, The Snowmen, and Last Christmas). This year’s Christmas special, The Husbands of River Song certainly falls into that former camp as it is a light-hearted, comedic romp across space.

As I have remarked elsewhere, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor seems far less comfortable in a lighter, frothier storyline which led me to believe that last year’s comedic effort, The Caretaker, fell a bit flat. However, this special which positively percolates with one-liners from the Doctor seemed to work a lot better. I chalk this up to Capaldi’s comfort in the role and with a firmer grasp on the character we see what is perhaps Capaldi’s most relaxed performance as the Time Lord. But something also has be said for Steven Moffat’s script. Showrunner Moffat’s story never denies its lighthearted tone and runs with it from start to finish playing up the farcical nonsense for all it’s worth.

It cannot be denied that Moffat has an uncanny ability for writing fun dialogue between characters and much of The Husbands of River Song is built upon these dialogue exchanges. In fact, the special was at its best when it afforded Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston the ability to talk to each other. However, when it came time to introduce a plot into the special and then resolve that plot, the story felt a little less interesting. There was nothing wrong with the central idea – River’s attempt to steal a diamond and sell it – in fact, I quite liked the very simple concept at the special’s heart. But, because the plot didn’t truly factor into the story until it was nearly over, the problem and solution was too rushed and felt unsatisfactory. Perhaps the biggest crime which the special could commit is how it evolves into a retread of the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned which found the Doctor aboard a doomed, luxury spaceship which runs afoul of some asteroids. It cannot be possible that Doctor Who has run out of ideas, so it is sad to think that the show has somehow become a pastiche of itself.

River Song (Alex Kingston) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi)
But, it shouldn’t sound like The Husbands of River Song was a bad episode. As noted, when the story was at its most frivolous and light, it was a lot of fun and, to be honest, it was something of a welcome change following the solemn, character-driven finale which ended Series 9 a few weeks ago. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor was a lot of fun in this story and he (rather surprisingly) had excellent on-screen chemistry with Alex Kingston’s River Song. As to River herself, I believe that she has rather overstayed her welcome continually popping up when it’s obvious that her storyline has run its course, but it cannot be denied that Kingston did a fantastic job in the role and, I think that this special is the perfect way to wrap up River’s convoluted existence.

The Husbands of River Song was a fun diversion for an hour or so, but it cannot really be much more than that. While there is nothing wrong with an hour of frivolity, I personally find more to enjoy in a Christmas episode which has a little bit more to offer. Chalking that up to personal taste, I cannot deny, however, the clever writing and fun performances from both Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston. This is an episode which is not meant to be taken entirely seriously – when the planets in the episode’s intro sequence are replaced by Christmas ornaments you know at once you’re in for a tongue-in-cheek experience. Therefore, I give The Husbands of River Song 3.5 out of 5 stars.

On a tangentially related note, the finest Doctor Who-related Christmas offering in existence is Big Finish Production’s audio drama, The Chimes of Midnight which finds Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor and his companion Charley (India Fisher) arriving in the basement of an Edwardian mansion on Christmas Eve. It soon becomes apparent that someone’s picking off the household staff one-by-one and it’s up to the Doctor to solve the case. Simply put, The Chimes of Midnight is a brilliant offering and for any Big Finish novice it’s a great gateway into the audio adventures.  

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Review(s) - "Doctor Who: Season 9"

It had been my hope to review each of the stories in Season 9 of Doctor Who individually. However, life got in the way (as it so often does), and I found it almost impossible to get a review in time. So, here I am playing catch-up as I react to each of the stories which made up the rest of Season 9. I shall pick up where I left off following on from the series opener, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood – Ostensibly a “base-under-siege” story (a standard in Doctor Who which finds the TARDIS arriving on some research/naval base only to be confronted by monsters), Toby Whithouse’s two-parter features an interesting twist on the concept. While the first half of the story follows the traditional elements of the base-under-siege story, the cliffhanger ending and subsequent second episode introduce a timey-wimey twist which separates it from the myriad of other Doctor Who stories written in this style.

The best thing which can be said for this story though is the atmosphere. The idea of ghosts on an underwater research base is a fascinatingly unusual concept, and director Daniel O’Hara stages the ghosts scenes for all that they are worth making this two-parter one of the most atmospheric in all of Doctor Who. Stand-out moments include the scene in which the deaf captain, Cass, is pursued by an ax-wielding ghost, and the Doctor’s explanation of a Bootstrap Paradox which he does by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Under the Lake/Before the Flood may be the most memorable episodes from the series in my opinion and both receive 4 stars.

The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived – Arguably the most highly publicized episodes of the season, this two-parter was written by two different writers and, though telling one story, is spread across a number of centuries. The first half, The Girl Who Died finds the Doctor and Clara embroiled in the activities of Vikings and alien warriors as they meet a young Viking girl, Ashildr (Maisie Williams) who shall figure quite prominently in stories to come. Penned by showrunner Steven Moffat and Jamie Mathieson (who made a very positive impression on me and other Who fans with last season’s Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline), The Girl Who Died can really only be described as underwhelming. Buoyed by comic relief which falls flat and a warrior race of aliens who never really do anything, the script just feels under-baked. Moffat and Mathieson’s efforts are not totally for naught; scenes of the Doctor continually referring to a Viking as ZZ Top are funny indeed, but this episode didn’t really deserve the media attention that it got. It’s the definition of a mediocre episode and I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

The Woman Who Lived, by comparison, does do better. Set in the 1600s, the Doctor runs across the now immortal Ashildr (again called by Maisie Williams) who has tuned to a life of crime as the mysterious highwayman, “The Knightmare.” Part slapstick comedy, part morality play, this episode was penned by newcomer Catherine Tregenna (though Tregenna is no stranger to the science fiction world having written four scripts for Torchwood). Maisie Williams (star of Game of Thrones) is given more to do here, and she does shine as the hardened Ashildr. Her repartee with Peter Capaldi are, without doubt, the highlights of the episode. When the episode is playing it serious, it’s a standout, but its moments of lighthearted comedy don’t mix well, especially for an episode which touches on such dark themes. The Woman Who Lived is a missed opportunity to present a straight historical episode as the aliens who figure into this plot are also underwhelming and feel tacked on in the extreme. While not a disappointment, the episode felt off to me, but I am still willing to give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion – Season 9 of Doctor Who has arguably been the most experimental season of the show (more on that to come) as the show explored new subgenres adding its customary sci-fi twist. This two-parter saw Doctor Who take on the political thriller genre in a follow-up to the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor. That special’s subplot involving the alien race, the Zygons, felt like it fizzled out and had no satisfactory ending. These two episodes rectified that problem in, what tuned out to be two of the series’ most memorable stories. Writer Peter Harness (who wrote last year’s controversial Kill the Moon) likened the scripts to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the comparison is certainly justified. The two stories are creepy, and dark, and the political machinations (which coincidentally mirrored real-life incidents as the episodes aired) add an extra layer of gravitas to the story. There’s also someone of an epic feeling to the two-parter as the plot spans from the United States, to England, to Azerbaijan!

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman really upped their games with these stories. Coleman, a gifted actress, had the added challenge of playing two characters in these stories and her maleficent portrayal of Bonnie, Clara’s Zygon double, was intense. Capaldi certainly walked away with top honors, his speech in The Zygon Inversion being one of the season’s high points. The other character worthy of note is Ingrid Oliver as Osgood who (though killed in Death in Heaven) makes an appearance as the Doctor’s fill-in companion. The explanation for Osgood’s presence is never labored and, though I usually have a problem with letting characters return from the dead (more to come), it was well-handled in these two stories. It certainly helps that Oliver has good chemistry with Capaldi. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion were two well-done, unique episodes of the show fully deserving of 4 stars each.

Sleep No More – The only true standalone episode of the season, Mark Gatiss’ outer space horror story has received almost unanimous negative reception from fans – some even going so far as to call it the worst episode in Doctor Who’s history. Another experimental turn, this one saw the show taking on the found footage sub-genre – a sub-genre for which I have little more than contempt. However, Sleep No More actually managed to pull it off pretty well. An explanation was given to the episode’s found footage format and actually managed to work his into an interesting twist ending.

There is, unfortunately not much to say about the episode. It was nicely acted (especially by guest star Reece Shearsmith), and the editing was excellently done in keeping with the found footage format. The twist ending was also wonderfully executed and nicely hinted at throughout the episode. Sleep No More is the definition of an episode which requires more than one viewing to appreciate, though it’s unfortunate to think that a majority of fans will not give it that second chance. The episode was, on a whole, a successful experiment and is left open for a sequel or follow-up (which Gatiss has alluded to in recent interviews). In my own humble opinion, Mark Gatiss is a writer who receives far too much criticism. Gatiss’ episodes are all entertaining fare which is exactly what I’m looking for in a show like Doctor Who. I give Sleep No More 4 out of 5 stars.

Face the Raven – The beginning of the end for Clara Oswald, Face the Raven was written by another newcomer to the series, Sarah Dollard. At its heart, Face the Raven explored some interesting concepts; the trapped streets plotline was an especially original and unique angle for a story. The promise of a murder mystery-esque plot also whetted the appetite of a voracious whodunit fan like myself, but these elements were trapped half way through the episode. Though an important moment in the show, Clara’s departure was hastily done and really low key. I cannot help but feel that the premise of this episode would have worked better if they were separated from the overarching plotline regarding Clara’s death and given room for expand and breathe.

In spite of all of this, Face the Raven did present Clara’s death well. It’s not often that companions die and it was nice to see that the series had enough guts to kill off a character (well, at least for the moment). The acting was well done – Jenna Coleman continued to impress and Capaldi’s threatening words to the returning Ashildr were spine-chilling in their intensity. Production design was also brilliantly done and the trapped street was one of the most striking and coolest-looking sets in the show’s recent history. But, Face the Raven is really just a prelude to bigger things and, sadly, the episode really does reflect this. It’s not bad but, aside from Clara’s departure, much of it is quite forgettable. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Heaven Sent – Another experimental one, Heaven Sent is a tour de force of writing and acting for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi. All alone, the Doctor is being pursued through a mysterious castle by an equally mysterious monster. A study of existential angst, Heaven Sent is a powerful and moving episode, surely one of the best in the season and the series’ revival.

What really makes the episode is Peter Capaldi. Though the Twelfth Doctor may not be my favorite incarnation of the rebel Time Lord, Capaldi is probably the best actor to play the role. Thinking back over the other actors who have played the role, I’m not sure if any of the others could have handled an episode quite like Heaven Sent. All on his own, the Doctor realizes his own weaknesses and must struggle in order to overcome the challenge which he is faced with, but also overcome his own demons. Like Face the Raven, Heaven Sent is a prelude (a means to an end), but it never plays out like one. It’s gripping and exciting, but also manages to be analytical and thought-provoking. Steven Moffat’s script is filled with exciting moments: the highlight for me was the scene which found the Doctor jumping out of a castle window and thinking through his means of escape. The sequence was almost a duplicate of a similar scene in Sherlock: His Last Vow, but it was engaging viewing nonetheless. A truly unique episode, Heaven Sent receives a 4.5 out of 5.

Hell Bent – The task of following up Heaven Sent was a difficult one. With the Doctor (finally) back on his home planet of Gallifrey, the questions about what the rebel Time Lord would do had to be answered. To put it simply, some of those questions were answered, and others were not. The season-long arc regarding the mysterious Hybrid which was prophesized to destroy Gallifrey was dealt with almost with a seeming wave of the hand as was the return of the planet itself. It’s almost as if the moment which so many Who fans have been waiting for was just another means to an end. There was another plotline which had to be addressed instead.

That is without doubt the biggest fault of Hell Bent as it chose to ignore the return of Gallifrey completely and instead focus on the Doctor’s quest to save Clara. Though she had been killed off, once more it seems that there cannot be any definite endings for characters in Doctor Who. While I should have been infuriated by this, the episode threw me for a loop. Yes, Clara may have survived her death, but in an extra bid to save her, the Doctor has his memory of her wiped completely. He knows that she once existed, but he cannot remember who she was or what she did. And this was simply brilliant. Not only was Peter Capaldi given yet another chance to shine as the morose, bluegrass playing Doctor, but it helped alleviate some of the problems I had regarding Clara’s character. I had always been of the opinion that she became too important a person in the Doctor’s life (saving him throughout his timeline as we learned in Season 7 and then instilling in him the desire to face his fears in Season 8), but now her accomplishments have been erased the Doctor’s mind altogether. It’s a very sad path to go, but it worked really well here.

Hell Bent also proved to be the most low-key and character-driven finale in Doctor Who’s recent history. References to the universe ending notwithstanding, the finale is really about the Doctor and Clara. It was an interesting reversal of standards as most season finales wish to present the biggest and most bombastic story possible. Hell Bent succeeded in presenting this character-driven drama convincingly and I am willing to give it – despite its faults – 4 out of 5 stars.

In all, Season 9 of Doctor Who has been a very positive one. There were mediocre episodes, but these few rotten apples did not spoil the whole bunch. Season 9 proved to be twelve weeks of exciting, entertaining episodes boosted by fine performances. It would not be wrong to place Season 9 near the top of Doctor Who’s seasons. Also, for those who may be curious I have ranked the stories of Season 9 below as they currently stand in my mind.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood
Heaven Sent
The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
Hell Bent
Sleep No More
The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
The Woman Who Lived
Face the Raven
The Girl Who Died