Saturday, April 13, 2013

Doctor Who - Cold War - A Review

It pains me to say it, but there's really not much good to say about Cold War. Quite frankly, it's dull.

A big problem I have with the way that Mark Gatiss writes Doctor Who (with the exception of Victory of the Daleks) is that he writes stories which belong to the Classic Series. Don't get me wrong, I love the Classic Series, but the tone and pacing of it is far too different to that of most modern episodes. As a result, they feel lacking in energy, a bit lifeless, and out of place in general. And that, I think, was Cold War's problem. The ingredients for a good story were all there; it had the return of the Ice Warriors, a fantastic historical setting (an armed Russian submarine in the middle of the Cold War) and a great supporting cast. And yet they all felt a little wasted.

The positive: the new and updated Ice Warriors.
Mark Gatiss clearly intended for this episode to be his Dalek; after all, it reintroduced an old foe, intended to show us how lethal they are by showing how dangerous just one can be, and pushed boundaries a little by showing it outside of its armour. The main issue I had was that the Ice Warrior we met, Skaldak, never felt any more threatening than a human. His threat came from his willingness to release the submarine's nuclear missiles into the West and thus ensure Mutually Assured Destruction - however, let's not forget that this is something that anyone could have done. Indeed, that was the very reason why the Cold War was such a terrifying time for so many - because people knew that it would only take one fed-up worker one press of a button to bring on nuclear warfare. In the context of the Cold War, Skaldak's threat was nothing new, and it was hardly the way to convince new viewers of the terror of the Ice Warriors. The terror of mankind's ability to destroy itself, perhaps, but not of the Ice Warriors. However, credit must go to Nick Briggs and the FX team. Skaldak's voice was positively creepy and, visually, he looked fantastic, having retained the classic look of the Ice Warriors of old whilst having been sleeked up for a modern audience. Minus points for his out-of-armour CGI look, though. He looked far more menacing as a faint set of eyes in the dark.

One of the many negatives: the CGI Skaldak.

A welcome aspect of Cold War was its portrayal of a Russian experience of the war. All too often attention is paid to the Western view of events, so it was extremely refreshing in this respect. The supporting cast, too, was particularly strong; Liam Cunningham and David Warner were the real stars in their respective roles of Captain Zhukov and Professor Grisenko. The comedic highlight of the episode was surely Grisenko pleading with Clara to tell him about the future, desperate to know not whether there would ever be peace between the East and the West, but whether or not Ultravox would indeed stay together.

The Doctor, Clara and Captain Zhukov atop the surfaced and disarmed Russian sub.

Cold War also saw Clara continue her development as companion nicely and Jenna-Louise Coleman's performance was, yet again, strong. Her "Am I speaking Russian?" speech is a speech veteran viewers will have heard before in various forms, but was still a lovely comedic touch. Matt Smith, as usual, gave a very solid performance as the Doctor, though my one gripe is that he didn't quite hit the highs he hit with his performance last week. However, I'm aware that there was a lack of great material for him to bite his teeth into.

And that's about all I've got to say, really. The biggest problem with Cold War is that it didn't engage me. The good thing about most of the episodes I dislike is that I still feel compelled to talk about them in some way, but with this I felt - and continue to feel, an hour after watching it - absolutely nothing. If you really love your classic Troughton base-under-siege stuff, you'll love Cold War, but it really wasn't my cup of tea. It failed to be the one thing that Doctor Who should always be: fun.

Cold War fails to live up to the standards of modern day Doctor Who.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten - A Review

I can't help but feel a bit bad for The Rings of Akhaten. It's been getting a lot of flack on the internet, with many people throwing words like "dull" and "boring" around, and I think that's a little unfair. It had its faults, sure, but it was still a very enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. It was a kind of cross between The End of the World, Gridlock and The Beast Below - and since at least the first two of those three were good, that can only be a compliment.

One thing the episode should be praised for is its ambition. It gave us an alien world, dozens upon dozens of alien creatures (the Doctor Who equivalent of the Star Wars cantina scene), a soul-eating god-like sun, and a moped capable of racing through space. I admit, there were moments where it looked a little cheap; the scenes just after Clara and the Doctor step out of the TARDIS and into the marketplace, for example, looked a little like something you'd have found in the original series of Star Trek. But, of course, that's what has always been part of the charm of Doctor Who. The bubble wrap in The Ark in Space added to the charm of the story, didn't it? Well, same goes for this.

The Doctor and Clara visit the Rings of Akhaten in a visually stunning episode.

Before I launch into talking about the other features of this episode I loved, though, I feel the need to mention briefly something I didn't love. The Rings of Akhaten was, at its core, a distinctly atheist commentary on modern religion and, although I'm not religious myself, I didn't really feel comfortable with the way it was handled. This isn't the first time Doctor Who has dealt with religion - it was one of the central themes of Gridlock, to cite a recent example. However, The Rings of Akhaten didn't appear to handle it with the same kind of grace and respect that Gridlock did. The closest it came to any kind of delicacy was with the Doctor's line "Well, it's what they believe," which Matt Smith delivered with a beautiful warmth. Other than that, it reeked a little too heavily of atheist bias. This isn't my way of saying that Doctor Who shouldn't explore religion - or even that it shouldn't explore it with an atheist slant (because it's pulled that off before in episodes such as Gridlock and The Satan Pit) - I'm just saying that something that big, and something that divisive, should be handled less sloppily.

The only other real problem the episode had was a pacing issue. The plot hurtled towards its climax way too early which, overall, made the episode feel rushed and confused. I was about to suggest that it would have been better as a two-parter, but actually there wasn't enough material for that (which was perhaps the very reason why Neil Cross, who penned this episode, was so keen for the episode to peak so early - in the hope that the momentum of that peak would be able to carry the rest of the story), nor was the basic premise of the plot strong enough to warrant two episodes.

The malevolent, fake God of Akhaten. The Rings of  Akhaten reeks a bit too much of an atheist agenda.

But anyway, on to the positive things! Let's start with Clara. You might remember me saying last week that I hadn't warmed to her as much as I'd warmed to other companions. Well, thankfully this week's episode did a lot to rectify that, and that is in no small part due to the injection of some very RTD-like traits into the way she was written. Her interaction with Merry, the young, scared Queen of Years, was reminiscent of Rose's interaction with Raffalo in The End of the World in that it clearly establishes her capability to empathise with those around her. Empathy is something Amy was distinctly lacking, particularly in her first series, and so it's very pleasing to see that they haven't made the same mistake with Clara. Even putting aside the comparison to Amy, though, establishing Clara as an empathetic character was always going to make her very easy to like - and likeability is absolutely vital for the Doctor's companions. 

Another welcome feature of the episode the inclusion of a lot of Clara's backstory, which showed us how her parents met and got married, and revealed that Clara's mother died a premature death. Now, one could argue that knowing that Clara had to cope with the death of a loved one at a very young age means we're more likely to like her because we feel sorry for her, but I'd argue that whilst there is merit to that point it's perhaps too cynical an approach to take. What makes her likeable is the fact that, by virtue of knowing some of her background, we know Clara herself better; she becomes more human and as a result she becomes more relatable. It gives her a lot of depth, too, because it sheds light on why, as became apparent in The Bells of Saint John, the death of the mother of the children she had been looking after affected her so much. 

The quest to find out who Clara Oswald really is is the arc that links this half of the series together; however, whilst we don't yet know how she came to be a nanny in Victorian England or a crew member aboard the Alaska, I'm happy simply finding out about these little details of her life because they're what truly make her interesting.

Jenna-Louise Coleman gives an assured, likeable performance as Clara.

Another real highlight of this episode was Murray Gold's score, which continues to go from strength to strength. The music of The Rings of Akhaten was always going to have to be strong seeing as so much of the plot centres around the singing; indeed, a good 5-10 minutes of the episode features some kind of singing, which makes it very fortunate that Murray delivered such a corker of a song. His real forte, though, was the instrumental music. Every year Murray's music gets more and more epic and more and more cinematic, and this episode is unequivocal proof of that. The track that plays as the Doctor tells Clara "We don't walk away," was simply sublime. Carry on the good work, Mr Gold!

"We don't walk away." A beautiful scene scored by some beautiful Murray Gold music.

And, finally, we come to Matt Smith. I can put my hand on my heart and honestly say that words cannot do justice to how astonishing his performance was in this episode. One scene in particular will, I hope, come to be viewed as one of the defining moments for his Doctor, one of the iconic scenes revered for decades to come - his 'Have I that right?' moment. It's the scene where he stands alone in front of a raging god and gives this speech:

The Doctor: I hope you've got a big appetite because I've lived a long life and I've seen a few things. I walked away from the Last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me.  I've walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I've watched universes freeze and creations burn. I've seen things you wouldn't believe. I've lost things you'll never understand. And I know things. Secrets that must never be told. Knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze. So come on then! Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!

And the thing is, it isn't the speech that makes that scene what it is - it's Matt's performance. In his early days in the show, there were times where he made certain acting choices which I didn't think really worked. But in this scene it becomes evident just how much he has matured as an actor since then. That speech, on paper, is actually pretty arrogant. How easy would it have been to deliver it in an authoritative, powerful way? That's what most actors would have done. But Matt opted instead for vulnerability. He shouts it but his voice shakes. His delivery is so passionate that a tear rolls down his cheek. His performance gives life and meaning to that speech and transforms it into something transcendental. It's not only one of the finest displays of acting Doctor Who has ever seen, but one of the finest displays of acting I've ever seen. Full stop.

Matt Smith's greatest performance, and his Doctor's finest hour.

If that's the kind of scene we can get in an average episode of Doctor Who these days, I can't even begin to imagine what kind of treats we're in for in the 50th anniversary special.