Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Curse of Fenric (Special Edition)

The Curse of FenricSpecial Edition is something which I have always found to be a bit of a troublesome prospect.  For some reason – probably the purist in me – I generally prefer the original version of things.  Directors’ cuts and the like have never overly appealed to me, usually because I find them too self-congratulatory – Avatar, for example, or the god-awful new versions of the original Star Wars movies.  Often, they are simply money-spinners – Lucas’ epics, for instance, are now incredibly rare in their former glory, instead only being made available in the newer reboots, with new-fangled FX and sound.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se.  Only that I personally feel it is robbing future generations of the magic of the original movies. 

Thankfully, The Curse of Fenric – Special Edition doesn’t do the same.  For one thing, the original is still readily available on the DVD release, sitting in the foreground on Disk 1, where it belongs, much like the SE versions of Enlightenment and Planet of Fire.  Secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, this new version is brilliant.  Absolutely fantastic, in fact.  Rather than working to the detriment of the original, it builds upon what was already a firm base – probably Sylvester McCoy’s greatest work as the Doctor, in fact – and enriches the story.  Many of the additional shots are barely noticeable; a lingering shot on Parsons’ priest here, an extra shot of the Haemovores there.  Rather than distracting from the action, they genuinely do build on the tension.  The third thing about SEs in general is that they take what originally happened in an episodic format, and transfer it into what is essentially a movie.  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  In Planet of Fire, for example, I didn’t feel that it worked.  Here, however, it genuinely does feel epic enough to be pulled off.  There is enough gothic horror, tense military sequences, multi-lingual exposition and, most importantly, terrific performances to create an outstanding piece of Doctor Who history.

Enough of that though.  When I bought the DVD upon its release, I watched the episodic format, for the first time in years.  Since then, I have rewatched this version of the serial 3 or 4 times, but never brought myself to slip the second disk in.  And what a fool I was.  When I was younger, this serial terrified me.  And it still has that same effect now.  The Haemovores emerging from the sea made me nauseous, as the pure virgins gently beckon the soldier to his early grave.  The floating corpse by the longboat, suddenly opening his eyes.  Judson stepping up from his wheelchair, eyes glowing.  Each of these are outstanding moments of horror, which thrilled and horrified me. 

From the outset of the episode, and the arrival of the Doctor and Ace, it is evident that something is amiss.  The Doctor is still more aloof than usual, as he considers everything – as far as the Cartmel master plan is concerned, this is the perfect serial to watch to see how this idea came to the foreground.  The moment in which he takes complete control of the soldiers who surround them, and then completing the necessary paperwork in front of Judson and Nurse Crane, is brilliant, and always makes me laugh.  However, despite the obvious design being to push the Doctor into darker waters, as a more manipulative and secretive character, this story is predominantly one about Ace.  Now, the Seventh Doctor has never been my favourite.  Entertaining, yes – but I never felt that McCoy had the gravitas to pull off some of the more heavyweight stories, and yet the scripts for his more comedic serials didn’t give him the chance to thrive either.  Likewise, I had always found Ace to be a one-dimensional caricature of the hip, street-wise 80s child that she represented.  Sophie Aldred was good, but again much of the material didn’t help her to thrive.  Here, though, she shines.  The inner aggression, darkened eyes, sultry, sexually-aware teenager has the chance to make a difference, and to truly interact with the plot.  It was during Season 26 that both Aldred and McCoy really started to get into their stride, with better scripts allowing stronger performances from each of them.  

The basic premise is that an evil entity, Fenric, lost a game of chess to the Doctor, leading to his permanent exile from the real world and imprisonment within an ancient flask.  The Doctor is entirely aware that they will have to rematch, and decides that the 1940s is exactly the time to do so – with Ace in tow as one of the many Wolves of Fenric, descendants of the Vikings and puppets to his will.  Other Wolves include Captain Soren, Dr. Judson, Reverend Wainwright and Commander Millington.  Each of these characters plays some role in the protection and release of Fenric, some knowingly, others unknowingly. 

What is most interesting is that each of these characters is so well-rounded.  In most serials of Doctor Who, you have a lead character that is given emphasis – Mavic Chen, Tobias Vaughn, Professor Travers, Count Scaroth, Sharaz Jek and the like – in addition to the Doctor and his companions, but often most other characters are broadly drawn.  In The Curse of Fenric, though, every character is given these extra dimensions, this subtlety to their character, yet not weakening the plot or the pace at which it is told.  Indeed, it is testament to McCoy and Aldred that in such a strong supporting cast, they are not overshadowed; rather, they thrive on the cast working with them.  
Dinsdale Landen’s portrayal of Judson is spot on.  The disillusionment he suffers as a result of his accident is excellent, as is his loathing of his reliance upon Nurse Crane.  The scenes between him and Alfred Lynch’s Millington are equally superb, with an underlying homoerotic tension between the two which is palpable, as is the references to Millington’s responsibility in the accident which led to Judson being bound by his own “chains”.  Whilst Lynch can, at times, seem a little camp and overtly ‘nasty’, this drive works in the favour of the character – he is a man so driven by purely selfish means that he doesn’t care who he has to shove out of his way to get them.  That Fenric possesses Judson, rather than Millington, is an excellent touch, as we see that all of his drive was for nothing, as Fenric could not care less about Millington.  Indeed, the only weaknesses within the cast are Jean and Phyllis, whose 1940s lingo is painful – one more ‘baby doll’ and I may well have thrown the remote through the screen. 

These conversations are equally the main weakness within Briggs’ writing.  Another weakness is the rather old-fashioned discussion about good and evil, and how Fenric is, in fact, “an evil from the dawn of time”.  Through this, it reinforces the idea of the Doctor as Time’s Champion, but it simply doesn’t ring true with the mythos of the show up to that point, and indeed since then.  The other scripting weakness is the scene in which Ace flirts with the soldier on guard.  Her lack of lyrical fluidity had been reinforced since her introduction in Dragonfire.  She is rarely capable of stringing together anything of beauty, rather using words like “ace!” and “brilliant” to show her appreciation of the amazing, dreadful and wonderful things she sees.  So to hear her whispering things about “undercurrents” and the like felt rather out of place with her characterisation up to this point.  This may be as a result that, despite being one of the most terrifying episodes of the serial, it is, after all, a children’s TV show, and so Ace talks with a childlike poetry which does not do justice to the character.

Of course, that is all simply nit-picking for faults.  Overall, Briggs’ script rings true in almost every way.  Hardakre’s disgust at the wanton nymphs living with her, the priest’s difficulty to with his own faith, Ace’s “tell me!” speech, are all incredibly realistic and effective, adding a sense of urgency to proceedings, as we are desperate to discover how this game will play out.  The most powerful moment in the piece, however, must be the sequence between Fenric and the Doctor, where he must destroy Ace’s faith in him to win.  The cold, cruel uttering of “kill her” is breathtaking, even when you know his reasons for doing so, and the gradual destruction of Ace’s faith, through the reference to her being an “emotional cripple” and a “social misfit”.  It’s a heart-breaking moment, and one delivered perfectly.

Faith is the predominant idea to be criticised by this piece, and the faults that lie therein.  That a priest can lose his faith during the time of war so readily, and that it takes such harsh words to push Ace away from the Doctor, highlights that faith, no matter how strong, can readily be destroyed by any person wishing to push hard enough.  Nicholas Parsons is something of a revelation, despite evidently being cast purely to cater to J N-T’s fixation with celebrity cameos.  He delivers his lines, and performs, like a man wracked with guilt and haunted by the acts of evil which surround him – the central theme of the piece. 

The other theme is that of maturity – the events which lead to a person’s maturation.  Ace has grown hugely since her introduction in Dragonfire, with events affecting her in a number of ways.  The throwaway reference to Ghost Light, and the hatred she feels for her mother, are pushed to show how she is able to mature into the young woman who refers to herself as no longer “a little girl”, able to use her womanly wiles to get what she needs.  The evacuated ‘children’, Jean and Phyllis, similarly, are shown to mature, as a direct result of going against Hardakre’s advice to avoid losing their innocence.  By entering the water, they lose all sense of innocence and are consumed by desire.

All told, this serial simply further emphasises the tragedy that the scrapping of Doctor Who happened at all.  Whilst the series had waned somewhat in the years up to Season 26, due for the most part to weaker scripting and stunt casting, McCoy’s Doctor, and Aldred’s Ace, had really begun to come into their own with the parts, and the show was beginning to find its feet.  Had we not been given the poorer additions to the series, like Delta and the Bannermen and Paradise Towers, then who knows where the series would have gone?  If this is any signpost to the future which never happened, then it surely would have been fantastic.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Girl Who Waited

After a decidedly average first episode in the form of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, and the potentially brilliant but unfortunately rushed second episode “Night Terrors”, I was honestly dreading “The Girl Who Waited”.  I’ve never made any secret of my dislike of Amy Pond, and frequently complain that Doctor Who has turned into The Amy Pond Show, with the Doctor occasionally guest starring, often relegated to a minor supporting character.  Last week, he stepped back to the foreground and dominated the storyline, but that storyline barely did the character justice, rushing through most of the interesting moments due to the running time.  The ‘Next Time’ trailer made me deeply unhappy, as the Doctor barely even appeared.

How pleased I was, then, when “The Girl Who Waited” ended.  And not because once it was over, I’d never have to see it again, as I’d expected.  No, “The Girl Who Waited” was the probably the second best episode since Moffatt took over as show-runner, second only to “The Doctor’s Wife”.  Whilst there were a few issues within the episode, I was totally blown away by it – it was brave and riveting, exciting and tragic.  I’m not ashamed to confess that I even shed a few tears.

Karen Gillan was excellent.  Again, I never thought I’d say that.  Her performance as the older and embittered Amy Pond, left abandoned for 36 years by the ‘raggedy Doctor’, was so far removed from her usual portrayal of the character, from vocal tone to stance, that it was unbelievable that this was the same woman.   Whilst the make-up wasn’t the most realistic we’ve ever seen in Doctor Who – Rory’s aged make-up in “The Doctor’s Wife” takes that medal – it was reinforced by her outstanding performance, allowing me to easily look past this in favour of the plot.  And what a plot...

In essence, this was the Doctor-Lite episode – Relegated to the TARDIS for the majority of the story, with Amy stuck in one time-stream, and Rory desperately searching for her in a second, later, time-stream.  Unlike the atrocious “Love and Monsters”, or the superb “Blink”, however, the absence of the Doctor was barely noticeable, mainly because he was ever present through the glasses worn by Rory.  His voice penetrated every scene, and there were frequent cuts back to the TARDIS interior, reminding us that he was still a physical being, not simply a disembodied voice.  This made a refreshing change, and one which I hadn’t really expected – usually, Doctor-Lite episodes embrace the absence of the Doctor, whether for better or worse.  As the companions wondered around the facility – with stunning sets worthy of a Tim Burton film – looking for each other, the story trotted along at a decent pace, slower than usual but none the lesser for it.

The Doctor is stuck inside the TARDIS as the facility houses a plague which is a danger to any organism with two hearts, including the Apalapalachians whose home planet the TARDIS lands on, and Time Lords.  As such, the Doctor would die of the one-day plague if he entered the facility proper, so must send Rory in after Amy instead.  Amy, meanwhile, is wondering around in the hospice, taking in the stunning surroundings, such as the garden with moulded topiary that would make Edward Scissorhands hang his head in shame.  Chasing after her are the Hand-bots, whose sole purpose is to ensure the avoidance of the plague spreading.  Much like the antibodies in the Teselecta in “Let’s Kill Hitler”, they had some great lines, assuring their victims that what they were doing was for the greater good, and out of nothing more than kindness – before firing huge, deadly metal needles from their faces.  The fight sequence in which Older Amy replicated the swishing gun battle of River Song from “Day of the Moon” was wonderfully choreographed, and proved that Gillan has it in her to be a little more physical than she usually is.

The best thing about this serial, though, was Arthur Darvill.  By far the most interesting of the companions since the regeneration of the series in 2005, as I’ve said before, Rory frequently is getting the best lines – and this episode was no different.  In addition to the comedy, though, were some of the most heartbreaking moments we’ve seen, including the reprise of David Tennant’s Doctor’s line “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry” as he took his hand away from the lock.  The decision he was forced to make, by the Doctor, being an absolute bastard, was heart-wrenching and painful to watch.  Having to decide between the love of his life, and the same girl but with 36 years of pent-up bitterness was awful – and then Older Amy persuaded him to leave her.  “If you love me, don’t let me in” she said – and the tears poured.  I genuinely felt nauseous with emotion.  It was dreadful – and perfectly performed by both Darvill and Gillan.

Of course, there were also the bad points.  Every serial has them, even the great classics like “The Caves of Androzani” and “Genesis of the Daleks”.  And it would be lazy of me, as a reviewer, not to touch upon them.  The biggest flaw, as I could see it, was with Older Amy – specifically, her knowledge.  Whilst she had been abandoned, becoming the embittered middle aged lady Rory meets during a fight with the hand-bots, she whips out her sonic probe – “I call it what it is” – and talks about the “nexus of time” and so forth.  But surely, as she was completely alone, she would never have been able to get to grips with this technology?  Who taught her?  The interface, as wonderfully voiced by Imelda Staunton?  It’s unlikely... 

My other issue, although again this is nit-picking, was the decided lack of a real monster.  Again.  Let’s Kill Hitler had the Teselecta, but they weren’t the bad guy.  Night Terrors had those awful dolls, but they didn’t kill anyone, and they were defeated by a brave little boy.  This week had the Hand-bots, simply robotic nurses desperately trying to help, but without the humanity to understand that they aren’t always helpful.  I’m really missing monsters now – not even the recurring ones, like the Daleks (I don’t miss the Daleks at all) or the Cybermen, or even the Weeping Angels – just some proper monsters to scare us.  Next week has a Minotaur in a hotel room, and some horrible looking ventriloquists dummies, as well as David Walliams.  The following week will feature the Cybermen.  And James Corden.  So that’s something to look forward to...  Maybe.

All in all, then, it was a terrific episode.  It proved that hard Sci-Fi still has a place on British TV, and that Doctor Who can still achieve within the genre when it pulls all the stops out – and writer Tom McCrae absolutely nailed it this week.  His previous experience on the show was a bit too hit-and-miss,  but this week’s episode was a smashing, emotive piece.  It was a team from heaven, with new-to-Who director Nick Hurran creating a beautifully cinematic experience.

In a series which has focused so heavily on story arcs, it is telling that the best episodes so far have been the two stand-alone episodes.  I only hope that the Grand Moff pays heed and that, as he has promised, the story arcs are done away with and we return to the older days of interesting individual episodes – even if they lead into a final plot point, it’s better than every story line serving one overall goal.  Nick Hurran returns next week to direct what looks like a frankly outstanding episode.  I only pray that it doesn’t let itself down, with Walliams cast as a fearful mole creature bred to be afraid – I only hope that it doesn’t go down the JNT route of casting celebrities to grab viewing figures.  It looks set to be a dark and scary piece.  Fingers crossed...

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Torchwood – Episode 9 – The Gathering

This was a somewhat appropriate, yet wholly inappropriate title, given the plot, which featured the Torchwood team finally all being under one roof, albeit very briefly, before scattering all over the globe again.  What was nice was that much of this episode did occur in Wales again – finally returning the show to its roots.

As has been the major flaw in this latest series of Torchwood, much of the episode was filler.  I’ve said before that this series has a great and interesting premise, with any number of possible avenues for exploration, all of which would make great series’ in their own right.  Sadly, RTD and the team haven’t gone down any of these avenues – they instead have turned into a cramped cul-de-sac, and spent nine weeks trying to perform a U-Turn. 

From the cliff-hanger last week, I was expecting one hell of an opening.  Jack shot, dying in the backseat of a car driven by dunderhead Esther.  Gwen deported with no way of controlling the events as they spiralled out of control around her.  Rex stuck with Shapiro, trying to explain how Esther and Jack escaped.  Oswald Danes trying to evade the police, and the vengeful wrath of Jilly.  Jilly being taken by The Families.  The Morphic field under Angelo’s bed was created using alien technology from the Torchwood hub.  So how did it start?

“Two Months Later”.

Seriously?!  There is little more annoying than a cliff-hanger that doesn’t deliver.  And this one really didn’t deliver.  Whilst we were filled in, via TV and radio news feeds, about ‘institutionalised murder’ and the like, it still felt like I’d been cheated.  I’d hoped for so much, and Torchwood delivered nothing.  Just more exposition.

The loose end involving Gwen’s father was finally tied up – he’s been kept in the basement.  In agony.  For months.  Maybe I’m heartless, but in a world where death has stopped and the only option is cremation, or incineration rather, surely that’s a better option?  If, because of the heart attack they suffered, they should rightly be dead, then that must be better than writhing around in pain, being pinned down by your nearest and dearest as a shifty rat from the council snoops around?  But all this is besides the point – it didn’t matter about Gwen’s father. It never mattered about Oswald Danes, as he has nothing to do with the Miracle or the Blessing either.  In fact, it has nothing to do with any of the earlier plot points and twists and turns that finally got us to this episode.  With only another hour of screen time, it’s surprising that about half of the episode was wasted on this minor occurrence.

In a world which has reached major economic depression – yet Gwen’s family still get their shopping delivered – and health crisis, it’s a small wonder Gwen manages most of what she does.  Whilst being watched by surely the most incompetent surveillance man ever, she manages to sneak off and do a bit of smash-and-grab akin to the London riots, to steal two pizza boxes worth of painkillers, sanitary towels and diomorphine.  What made the entire sequence even more laughable is that whilst raiding this chemist – which surely should have some better security in this age of unlimited life – she took her balaclava off.  Whilst a man was walking past outside!  Having ram-raided the shop and shot out the camera, why would she not just leave the mask on?  Of course, we as an audience needed to know it was Gwen...  but really, we could’ve just had her crying or muttering “bollocks!” (her latest slogan – I can see it catching on with the kids at school) and we’d have known it was her.  Meanwhile, the man paid to spy on her radios in that it’s fine – she just went to get pizza.  Did he not think to follow her?  What if she’d done a runner, and emigrated?  He’d have had egg all over his face then!

We then cut to Jack and Esther, who for some inexplicable reason are hiding in Scotland, muttering about a man who asks too many questions, and Esther’s solution that they’ll keep heading north.  Why?  What is the bloody point?  They’ve had two further months in which to work out the miracle, and yet they have achieved absolutely nothing.  Not one of them has achieved anything.  None of the team has come up with anything of any value.  At all.  It’s ridiculous.  They must be the most inept crime-fighting team since Inspector Gadget.  But at least Inspector Gadget had a neice who managed to help him save the day.  All this lot have is Rex.

Rex has somehow managed to climb back up the echelons of the CIA again, despite his evident involvement in the escape of the prisoners the week before.  With the mole still beating them at every turn, Rex hasn’t achieved anything either, per se – but at least he’s trying.  I never thought I’d say this, but Rex was actually the best thing about this episode.  By a mile.  He’s proactive, resourceful, and most of all, he’s thinking outside the box.  Basically, he’s become Torchwood, whilst the original Torchwood team sit around doing bugger all.  The only thing which I found annoying about Rex this week was simply that he didn’t realise that Charlotte was the mole.  She couldn’t look more guilty if she tried.

Oswald Danes, everybody’s favourite paedophile, has somehow now joined the Torchwood team too, through the most convoluted reasoning imaginable.  Despite his heinous crimes, and being the most wanted man in the world, he somehow managed to ‘sneak in’ to Britain.  Most specifically, Wales.  Just like Jack.  Again, a bit of a cop-out, but I’ll look past that.  What frustrated me was the ease with which Danes entered Gwen’s house, and, following a severe beating, the confidence with which he spoke.  If a paedophile touched my child, I sure as hell would have given him more than a few soft punches and a whack with a pan.  It turned out Danes had arrived with information that he would only impart to Jack – information which turned out to be a link between Jilly Kitzinger and the Families, via a name – ‘Harry Boscow’. 

Bill Pullman’s portrayal of Oswald Danes has grown more and more pantomime as the series has progressed, peaking with his dreadful dancing last week.  This week seemed marginally more restrained, as he gurned his way through exposition on the floor of Gwen’s family home.  The Harry Boscow lead turns out to be a spin doctor term, rather than the man it at first suggested.  Whilst the team discuss this, watching ‘Boscowed’ footage, Rhys finally makes himself useful – all series, he has been nothing but a hindrance, a big Welsh lump with little or nothing to do.  In this episode, he spots the connection between Shanghai and Buenos Aires – despite the geographical implausibility, he spots that they are exactly opposite each other.  Frankly, it was incredibly useful that he had been playing with a globe, or the team never would have gotten anywhere.  My issue with Danes is that what we saw on screen was his the making of this pariah – and his fall from such a height has been entirely off-screen during these unaired two months.  There’s only one possible reason for having included him in the series at all – which I’ll mention in a moment.

And so, it is this discovery that sees our merry band of fools split up and traverse the globe – Rex met up with Esther in Buenos Aires, whilst Jack and Gwen begrudgingly team up with Danes in Shanghai.  Also in Shanghai is Jilly – Jilly Kitzinger’s storyline has now almost come full circle – after two months of working mistranslating data, she finally gets the promotion she had been expecting, and is shuttled off to Shanghai, despite the closed borders, to see The Blessing.  Lauren Ambrose has been the most involved character from outside of the original Torchwood clique, as well as the most interesting, and her scene in which she approached the Blessing was brilliant, as she smiled to herself and muttered that it told her she was “right...!”

And yes, we finally got to see the Blessing.  Which is good.  And it looked like a gigantic vagina.  Which is bad.

This week’s episode was good, though.  I think.  I still can’t quite make my mind up – there are so many holes in the plot that it’s difficult to look beyond them, but underneath the tarnished veneer there is definitely some shining beacon.  The most depressing thing is that this episode was penned by John Fay – the man responsible for two episodes of Children of Earth – one cannot help but wonder where it all went wrong.  This series of Torchwood had ten episodes – which could have been cut to half that – in which to keep the action tumbling along.  However, with so much filler, and no killer, it has felt stilted at all times, with important plot points rushed through, and time wasted on MacGuffins left, right and centre.

All in all, it entertained, but there is still so much left undone, and unsaid.  Jack’s blood is drawn towards the Blessing, despite his protestations that it has nothing to do with it.  Danes is with them in Shanghai, so my guess is that he’ll ‘redeem’ himself by stepping into the Blessing, with Jack’s blood held in his hands, to bring it to an end.  And what exactly will happen when the Blessing ends?  Will the dead just drop in the streets where they stand?  Will Rex die?  What about Geraint Cooper, Gwen’s father? (Not that I really care about him either way)  Will the Soulless reappear?  Will there be another Miracle rally?  Will the Dead is Dead squad do anything exciting?  These last three points are several of the interesting ideas mentioned early on and unused since.  There are so many loose ends that it’s difficult to figure out whether the final episode can provide an adequate conclusion to them all – it’s only an hour, after all.  Added to this the fact that RTD penned the episode himself, with Jane Espenson, and it is likely to be quite the explosive finale to this tumultuous series which has sadly had more troughs than peaks.