Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Back to the bad old days

I'm not perfect, you know, and sometimes I change my mind about things. Mushrooms, for instance. Thought they tasted strongly of rot and mould as a boy, came to love them like an (edible) son when I grew up. Same goes for mobile phones - I always said they were utterly pointless, but nowadays I generally find my Razr quite useful.

And so it is with Planet of the Ood. When the episode finished I mentioned online that I thought it was a reasonable, if largely uninspired episode. On a second viewing though, I think that it only just clears the pole-in-the-dirt bar which is Gridlock.

It's actually a return to the bad old days of last year. Lazy, lazy plotting combined with a vague, blind man in a blindfold in a room with no windows stab at alien and the Doctor at his most annoyingly hyperactive yet curiously ineffective.

It was like the first part of the Eccleston season all over again, except without the cement of Eccleston's towering performance.

The Ood were cool, mind, which does raise the standard above such previous low-points as last year's Dalek two-parter. And Tate as Donna, even in a bad script, is better than plastic fantastic Martha, but other than that - nah, I have nothing positive to say.

However, I will say that...
  • The alien planet was basically a backlot with some snow and a couple of dodgy bits of cgi.
  • The supporting characters either existed
    1. to be pricks and then satisfyingly die (the security team and the unpleasant yuppie business types)
    2. to make it look as though the Doctor was doing something, be pricks and then die (that PR woman)
    3. to make it look as though there were thematic layers (the Friends of the Ood guy - really, what was the point of him?) and then die or
    4. to be pricks and then get turned into an Ood (Captain Darling).
  • The biology of the Ood made neither evolutionary nor intuitive sense.
    1. They've evolved hands and opposable thumbs (signs of a need to compete for available resources) but also brains on bits of string (a sign of not thinking your alien race through properly)?
    2. They live on ice planet zebra, apparently, but have also evolved a species component which is an unprotected giant brain with a mouth on top, i.e. where it's not very easy to feed?
    3. If you cut the whole brain in their hand off - 'lobotomise them' according to the dialogue - and then throw those brains in the bin four planetary systems away, it doesn't matter because as soon as you release the giant brain (by flicking a single switch in a shed) everything's OK - and, eh, they're not lobotomised any more?
Or something. Whatever. It doesn't matter - it's only Doctor Who after all.

Not that it really is Doctor Who either. For one episode only (hopefully) it's back to being someone else's show, not the Doctor's. Unlike the Eccleston season though, it's not even the companion's series - in fact, I have no idea who's supposed to he be the hero here. The Ood themselves I suppose. Certainly there was no need for the Doctor to be there. He contributes nothing to the Ood revolt and yet gets told at the end that the wind and the air and the snow and the husky shit will sing of him for ever and ever and ever, amen.

As someone wisely remarked on a mailing list I frequent, hopefully the song the various elements will sing is something along the lines of "thanks for nothing DoctorDonna: you came here, stood about, got locked up, then sodded off having nicked all the glory".

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why I watch Doctor Who - Other Views and Reviews

As promised last week, links to some other reviews of Fires of Pompeii that I enjoyed, some wisely agreeing with me that it was great, some exhibiting the effects of syphilitic infection by disagreeing.

Because I promised to do this...: "I did enjoy it, but I thought it could have been so much better"

Review: Doctor Who 4x2 - The Fires of Pompeii: "I'm feeling sort of 'myah' about The Fires of Pompeii. I liked it. It was definitely good. I'm just feeling a little underwhelmed and uninspired by it."

Fires of Pompei, the Doctor Who version, non spoilery: "I'm actually a bit stunned. this episode is probably the first that met my "up there with best Buffy/Angel episodes" standards"

Doctor Who: Fires of Pompeii: "The more I think about this episode the more I think it was actually very good indeed"

Resting On Caesar's Laurels: "Yes, of course, it's Asterix And The Laurel Wreath, by Goscinny and Uderzo"

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii: "The series still feels a more childish, unsophisticated programme than it was in 2005, and the writers’ enthusiasm for writing it seems greater than their professional restraint, but this was still good entertainment."

Doctor Who - The Fires Of Pompeii: "I'm pretty sure this was really good... wasn't it?"

Doctor Who: The Fires Of Pompeii: "did I mention HE TOTALLY LICKED THAT DUST!"
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Monday, April 14, 2008

Why I Watch Doctor Who

In my fascinating online life I get asked one question many more times than is actually warranted, in my none too humble opinion.

Not, as you might expect, "would you like a contract to turn your insightful blog into a book?" or "what do you think of the Pixar movie The Incredibles?", but rather "Why do you keep watching Doctor Who, since you seem to dislike it so much?"

And the simple answer from now on will be "Fires of Pompeii".

Like last year's The Shakespeare Code this is far more the kind of thing I have in mind when I think of Doctor Who on telly. Intelligent and layered with - for the first time in the series since Barbara and Ian - an actual adult filling the companion role, Fires of Pompeii obviously benefited from using the fabulous sets from the HBO series Rome and an excellent guest cast, but the real strength was the script.

Donna in particular was given great line after great line - "I don't know what kids you've been flying around in space with, but you don't tell me to shut up", "You fought her off with a water pistol - I bloody love you !", the Welsh language/Latin running gag.

The best joke in the whole episode though was one that I only spotted when my boy was re-watching Fires: the Fawlty Towers reference where the Doctor is talking about an oracle named Sybil and then when asked where Donna comes from says "She's from Barcelona", as does Manuel in that classic sitcom. Someone please point out to Rusty - that's how you do those kind of things.

It wasn't all jokes though. The writer, James Moran (whose Torchwood episode, Sleeper, was only just above average at best) has Donna constantly questioning and provoking a reaction from the Doctor. Unlike previous attempts at this in earlier seasons where Martha was effectively brushed off if she asked any awkward questions (and Rose generally didn't bother asking unless it directly affected her) Donna wants to know why the Doctor acts as he does and won't accept the usual hand-waving as an answer. It's not new or innovative for the series as a whole (Barbara was asking the same questions as far back as The Aztecs in 1964) but for New Who both question and answer showed greater maturity than Russell T Davies' far more common ADD chattering.

It's a reasonable question though to ask whether there was any need for the aliens in this, a historical story about a genuine big exploding mountain. I thought the Pyroviles looked very effective when they were swimming about in the lava and less so when striding about inside the mountain, like someone had set some Ents on fire. And the whole idea of them blowing up the world to provide them with a new home doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, not exactly why they need to turn various humans into stone, nor finally how come they can see the future.

Still, the idea of the aliens requiring marble circuit boards - for all it's not a new one - is a nice one and new to Doctor Who, and without the Pyroviles we wouldn't have had the excellent and touching scene in the escape capsule where Catherine Tate out-acts David Tennant as she agrees to sacrifice herself for the good of the rest of the world. And I suppose you can't really have actual, genuine seers in Who, even under Davies, given that mediums are, you know, charlatans and frauds. And you need the seers to provide a bit of the in your face fore-shadowing for the rest of the season that Davies loves so much. 'She's coming back' is not the most cryptic clue ever, though I harbour very faint hopes that the thing on Donna's back is the Great One from Metebelis 3 :)

Negatives? Well, I'm not sure what the point of the comedy market seller was - it felt like a typically clumsy Rusty inclusion and is on a whole different level to the far cleverer humour of the rest of the episode, not to mention pointlessly taking up some of the episode's seemingly already stretched running time. Other than, all I can think of are some rotten lines about the God Vulcan spoken by Peter Capaldi as he stands with his family on the hillside and watches Pompeii being destroyed - and the coda which again felt like Rusty intervening, lest there should be someone in Doctor Who who isn't exactly like a 21st century person.

All told though, this was great stuff - far more like the Doctor Who I remember and love. Roll on next week, when all this positivity will probably all explode in my face like...well, like a volcano, actually.*

* I know, that's a weak ending but I'm knackered just now, what can I say...


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Friday, April 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Novels (a review in two parts)

The Many Hands: Book the First
In which the Doctor runs around a great deal and a soldier is hit by stone chips at a surprising distance

Well I'm exactly 100 pages into Paul Dale Smith's new NSA, The Many Hands and so far it suffers from some of the issues which have affected other books in the range.

Before I go any further I should point out that I think Smith is one of the top 2 or 3 writers to come out of Doctor Who - Heritage is one of my favourite books in the BBC range, his two short stories for the Enlightenment fanzine are up with Magrs and Moffat in terms of quality, and The Albino's Dancer, his Time Hunter novella, is excellent.

As a result The Many Hands is very readable - the characterisation of the two leads rings true, and when the author takes the time there's some really lovely writing in it. But the problem is that there's not a lot of time given over to anything other than moving the story on via one action scene after another.

The story starts in the middle of one such scene, with a stagecoach careening through the Old Town of Edinburgh (or as the Doctor amusingly points out, just 'The Town' at this stage in the city's life) with the Doctor on top battling a dead man and Martha elsewhere running through the
streets to get in front of the coach and stop it, new series style, with yet another handy sonic screwdriver function. From there, the next hundred pages are a series of run/get captured/run/get captured escapades - and it's not even the cliche of a series of set pieces joined together by linking narrative, as each breathless bit of running away blends into the next with barely a space for a linking sentence or two between.

To add to this, even the Doctor/Martha's escapes are simplistic to the point of non-existence. There's rarely a clever escape plan - they simply run away in a manner reminiscent of things of the Pertwee years, or some fortuitous distraction appears to distract their capturers' attention. Again, it's all exciting stuff on one basic level and if that's the audience it's aimed at then The Many Hands works perfectly, but there's little to engage the brain or cause the reader to mentally applaud authorial/Doctoral ingenuity (in which, of course, the books are just mimicking the TV series pretty closely).

It takes all of 100 pages in fact, for something original to occur, with the appearance of the titular hands. That's more than a third of the way through the book.

Smith knows his trade though and he can invest even this kind of thing with a degree of talent lacking in real journeymen writers like Justin Richards or Trevor Baxendale when he takes the time to do so. As it stands the majority of the book would never have held my attention when I was one of the famed intelligent 12 year olds that Who fiction likes to think of as its intended audience, but there are moments when you can see that there is such a book hiding beneath the 100 mile an hour romp.

The problem is that there's no time given over to thought or introspection - nobody except (occasionally) the Doctor and Martha seem to think about anything, with the result that everyone bar the two leads comes across as fairly cardboard. When someone does think about something other than what's going on around them, the results are excellent - Martha's musing that certain characters were exhibiting 'rather more ambition than humans were comfortable with from their corpses' is a great line, as is the Doctor's subtle manner of manipulating the soldier, McAllister. It's just that there's not enough time spent on this kind of thing, as all the available word count is spent on pushing the Doctor round Edinburgh with sundry baddies on his tail.

Perhaps it's a symptom of this that there's at least on key moment in the first part of the book which appears to make no sense. The scene in question, involves a soldier, apparently beyond rifle range of Doctor, taking a potshot at him anyway. The shot only misses by 'a few feet' (making the claim that the shot was a sign of a stupid, inexperienced soldier a bit strange) - and yet another solider manages to get himself hit in the face by splinters from the rock the bullet hits, even though he's also presumably behind or in line with the initial shooter. I might be being dense here, but it seemed a curiously inexplicable incident to me, and all I can think is that the frantic pace of the prose means that little mistakes like that are more likely to slip through unnoticed.

The whole thing is, to be honest, a little odd. Smith is a very good writer and he's a very, very good Who writer. He's shown this repeatedly in the past in other books and stories and he shows it in flashes even here. And if the guidelines for an NSA are the exact same - as is reputedly the case - then why is this book lacking the layers of Heritage, the poetry of 'Blossom' or the razorsharp cleverness of the plotting of 'Recursion'? The Many Hands is an enjoyable if somewhat brainless read and I doubt if Smith is capable of writing something not worth reading, but on the basis of the first 100 pages or so it's simply not in the same class as his earlier work. My nine year old son would probably enjoy it, but my 12 year old daughter who reads Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz and the like would, I suspect, find it a bit frenetic and lacking in depth.

So why is this so? Paul Magrs Sick Building made me laugh a lot, but even I wouldn't claim it inhabited the same universe as Verdigris or even his own Young Adult novels. Wetworld is a contender along with Sick Building for my favourite NSA, but Relative Dementias is the Mark Michalowski novel I'd take to a desert island with me. Steven Cole's Sting of the Zygons is more of a romp than The Many Hands (though The Many Hands is the better written book) but even Cole's most rompy PDA/MAs contain far more considered writing than Sting of the Zygons. And people whose opinion I trust have said similar things about Simon Guerrier and other writers' NSAs in comparison to their earlier work.

And yet all of these books are supposedly written with the same audience in mind and using the same guidelines - is everybody simply turning in lesser books co-incidentally? Or did the earlier books end up skewing far older than the guidelines strictly intended?

The Many Hands: Book the Second
In which a sinister creature is born, an underground street is explored and the Monro family tree turns out more complicated than expected

And now it gets even odder.

Having described the first 100 pages of The Many Hands as one single continuous chase sequence, involving a series of featureless supporting acts following the Doctor and Martha through Edinburgh, I now find myself viewing the remaining 141 pages as anything but.

It's almost like two completely different novels: the first suffering from the usual NSA issues and the second an excellent Gothic horror/cool steampunk (sort of) sf novel.

It really is as abrupt as that - simplistic run around shenanigans with pretty flat characters for the younger kiddies until page 100, atmospheric and creepy grown up novel filled with fully rounded individuals from page 101 onwards.

Suddenly the book is peppered with believable characters acting in an intelligent manner. McAllister, rather than simply reacting to whatever the Doctor does, becomes a far more rounded individual, capable of thinking and acting for himself. The Monro men make a substantive appearance in the story for the first time and add immeasurably to the mix. Even the Doctor stops rushing about and begins to act in a more Doctoral fashion.

The jokes also get better - Martha's confusion about whether Monro's description of himself ("we are the Chair of Anatomy") is the name of his species is both a a great joke at the expense of Russell T Davies' naming conventions for alien races and a subtle and neat plot point, for instance.

The setting too is more interesting after a round century's worth of pages. Previously everything had been set in and around a generic Royal Mile, so blandly described that even I, a lifelong Edinburgh Man, was often confused as to where the TARDIS crew were supposed to be unless a street name was provided. Now the action moves into a well-described Surgeons' Hall, about a blockaded church and down into Mary King's Close, all places filled with oppressive darknesses and creepy and cobweb filled rooms and corridors in which Smith allows his descriptive powers full range. There's no doubting where anyone is at any time by this point in the book and as the actual action (as opposed to the earlier page-filling action) takes place, the book continues to open out, with an intriguing and unusual set of villains and a reasonably well thought out conclusion (the final epilogue chapter though is a real disappointment, returning to the realm of cliche for no obvious reason).

I'm no nearer after reading The Many Hands to figuring out why the NSAs are comparatively unsatisfying when compared to earlier Who ranges. Indeed, I'm more confused if anything than before. The first part of this novel almost exactly exemplifies the definition of traditional tie-in prose - frantic running about, interchangeable supporting characters and little by way of subtlety or cleverness. The second part though is reminiscent of the better type of EDA or even the old TV series - spooky and scary in equal measure with a rich cast of extras and a distinct and lovingly recreated Gothic sensibility.

Why there's such a marked disparity I have no idea, ultimately. But hopefully if Smith does another book in the NSA range (and I hope he does) then it will be more like the later half of this particular work.

Oh, and one unrelated minor thing about the book which bears mentioning. At one point the Doctor explicitly says that the Sonic Screwdriver is not a gun, which apart from anything else demonstrates what a big fibber he is. Given that the new series constantly features David Tennant using the screwdriver exactly like a gun, it does make me wonder if that line was inserted as a request from Cardiff?

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Big Man - Other Views and Reviews

Don't say I don't give you anything.

Below are links to some other recommended reviews of Partners In Crime because - as has been pointed out to me - I do tend only to link to people who agree with me and apparently I'm not always right...

Chewing the Fat: "you couldn't do a plot like this with any kind of seriousness, this was so high in fat and yet entirely weight-free, it's something of a miracle in itself."

Day 2652: DOCTOR WHO: Partners in Crime: "It does make for a good opening to the season: nothing too heavy, plenty to laugh and joke about, but also an interesting idea to make you think."

Partners in Crime: "The good moments only just about mitigate the cobbled together on a napkin at three in the morning after a booze-up plot"

Doctor Who: Partners in Crime: "Oh, oh, oh. I liked it. I liked it a lot. Mainly because of the sheer bliss of having a companion who can act."

Review: Doctor Who 4x1 - Partners in Crime: "Not a huge amount of depth to the plot, but nice."

For a Pound of Flesh: "The script rattled merrily along in a way that is increasingly familiar to fans of Russell T with its vertical chase scenes, its knowing wit, and its unadulterated joie de vivre"

Doctor Who: Partners in Crime: "I liked this. I'm not sure I have a great deal to add beyond that."

Partners in Crime Review: "A great first episode which sets the bar high for following episodes."

Doctor Who: Partners in Crime:"There was nothing great about Partners in Crime, but despite Davies’ recurring toilet obsession, it did better on the not-making-me-want- to-throw-things-at-the-telly scale than any Davies-authored story since The Christmas Invasion"

And as it turns out most people do agree with me!*

I'll probably forget to do this next week, but you never know...

* Rare enough to be worthy of comment

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Big Man

It takes a big man to admit he was wrong, but I'm not going to make Russell T Davies do that.

It's enough for me to know that the reason that Partners in Crime, the opening story in season 30 of Doctor Who, was so good was because Mr Davies finally took the time to read this blog, and then took on board the reasoned and - I hope - constructive criticism of his previous scripts for the series.

No, I'm big enough for both of us and I'm willing to forego an apology just so long as Davies continues to play to his strengths (such as they are). So... more over-reaching himself by trying to make Great Big Points about The Human Condition. That way leads otherwise sane individuals to claim that, unlike every single other episode of Doctor Who ever, the episode in question isn't meant to be taken literally but is instead a metaphor/myth/gunny sack full of fairy dust. more mad obsession with shagging, as though the only possible reaction for anyone meeting anyone else is an immediate desire to root about in his or her pants, regardless of the fact that some people don't actually fancy everybody they meet. more raking out bad fan-fiction he wrote when he was 13 about the Cybermen fighting the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles...Daleks and the Daleks totally winning and then the Howard Jones...David Tennant Doctor losing the love of his life,, Rose. more slightly offensive preference for making every disabled person a bad guy. See also fat people and the ugly. Basically, an ugly fat cripple should be the next Doctor (somebody email Heather Mills McCartney and tell her to start filling her face with deep fried Mars Bars, please. She needs the work nowadays.).

...finally, no more attempts at including proper plots. He always forgets what he's doing half way through, with the result that the finished script makes no sense at all and is useful only as a mental exercise for Simon Bucher-Jones, the world's greatest plot hole fixer*

If he does that, and continues to churn out enjoyable, if daft, scripts with plots so slight that there's no room for messing them up and no sex and romance to clutter proceedings - in short, if he continues to write things like Partners in Crime - then he need never apologise.

Cos doing exactly as you're told by a complete stranger on an obscure and moany weblog means never having to say you're sorry...

* Really, I'm not kidding - some of his solutions for RTD plot holes are just brilliant, and often more enjoyable than the actual story

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

News from Nowhere: Reviews from Doctor Who's Future

[having fallen through a wormhole in space-time or some such convenient plot device, Half a Dozen Streets presents reviews of Season 30 of Doctor Who - before it's even started!]

The Predictably Brookery and Negative Review of Doctor Who Yet to Come

I swear, this is the last series that I bother watching of the "new and improved" Doctor Who under Russell T Davies' inept hand. I've made allowances and given him chance after chance, forgiving him for a succession of crap two parters, mooning teenage companions and scripts so devoid of plot that they most closely resemble a void inside a vacuum all wrapped up in Jeffrey Archer's prison diary. I've tried so hard to put up with farting aliens and drunken Doctors, tried not to moan about the Daleks appearing in every second episode and swallowed whole the 're-imagining' of the Cybermen as walking catchphrases for future action figures.

But enough is enough. This last season (season 30, to be exact, not series 4 you tiresome idiot) has plumbed depths unconsidered even by Graham Williams.

Granted, Steven Moffat's 'Silence in the Library'/'Rivers Run' two parter was as good as his previous offerings and Gareth Roberts was as reliable as ever (and didn't the wasp look cool!) but that doesn't make up for another weary trudge through Davies' usual lack of interesting ideas, culminating in a resumption of his love affair with uber-chav Rose Tyler in the fanwank, fanfic disaster which was the season finale.

Davies gets more and more like the pervy old man version of Robert Heinlein by the day, tying everything he's every written in New Who into an abortive, tangled and blood-soaked unity which only he truly cares about. Should he do a fifth season I confidently expect the Doctor, Martha, the TARDIS, Harriet Jones, a Slitheen, Cassandra, that girl's head from 'Love and Monsters' that gives blowjobs, Sarah-Jane, the sonic screwdriver and Cap'n Jack's knob to merge into one single being which will then spend the entire season copulating frantically with itself until it explodes in a monumental deluge of seminal fluid which rips the cosmos apart and frees Rose from her other Universe prison, allowing her to take up her rightful place as Queen of Just About Fucking Everything.

God I almost miss Pip and Jane Baker...

The Astonishingly Positive and LJ-esque Review of Doctor Who Yet To Come

Well that was amazing! ZOMG!! Squee!!! Kittens!!!!

Yeah, so the naysayers and negativity bots can moan all they want to about plots and stuff, they just don't understand about allegry and myths and that. So what if the wasp is too big to survive on a wasp diet? It's a space wasp, it prolly doesn't eat honey and flowers like normal Earth wasps, it prolly eats stuff on the solar wind or something! RTD doesnt need to spell everything out you know he treats the fans like grownups and lets us fill in bits for ourselves. Thats what interactive television is!

And anyway what about 10Docs glasses? With green frames this time! How does RTD think that stuff up? Its like hes a brilliant giant story robot or something!!

And Rose is back!!!!!! And she looked totally gorgeous and you could see 10 totally wanted to get into her which was the gr8st thing since God I dont know Bianca coming back in Eastenders!!!! Not like that old slapper from Spaced he got married to (but not really) last year. Guess we all know that RTD never wrote that one, eh?!?!?

And the Daleks!!!!!! There are kind of people inside of them and their not robots after all!!!!! Russell Davies is just amazing at thinking new stuff up like that. I said to my mate Kerry that I thought I would of wet myself when that big dalek appeared but luckily for me my mum came in then and said Ryan was at the door and so I got my attention taking off the telly and when I finished telling him that I knew ALL about him and Ashley Dr Who was over anyway. Still I got to see David Tennent looking all sad and that at the end and I swear I would of been crying too if I knew what was going on then.

Best Doctor Who Series Ever.

I wonder when Robin Hoods back on, that actor that plays Robin is well fit?

Jonn's Review of Doctor Who Yet to Come [edited by site owner]*

Russell T Davies is a very canny writer. In his view, you can't have a Family of Blood every week because it would inevitably lose its impact. And so we start the season with entertaining fluff and then proceed from there [through] ...allegory... [to]...myth ...even... though... [this i]s... obviously... loads...of... great...[ steaming bollocks].

From the very first moment of Partners in Crime where it [all makes no sense unless you bend both the laws of physics and the need for intelligent narrative, it] is clear that [Rusty can't wait to get Rose back in the show and] the show is geared towards a gradual [decline in quality even compared to crap like Gridlock from last year and not at all aiming for a] ramping up in tension and drama, leavened by [Steven Moffat's scripts which frankly struggled to make up for the dross which is Rusty's attempts at] comedy and even [his even more ludicrously OTT and embarrassing stabs at] bathos, the only conclusion one can reach is that this is the gr[av]est [disaster of a] season of Doctor Who yet seen.

I [loathed] every minute of it.

* And with apologies to Mr Elledge :)

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