TV Review: Doctor Who S4 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Suranne Jones, Elisabeth Berrington, Michael Sheen ~ Writer: Neil Gaiman ~ Director: Richard Clark ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who The Doctor's Wife Season 6 Matt Smith Suranne Jones Neil Gaiman

[xrr rating=4.5/5]

The Low-Down: It’s ‘The One Written By That Bloke Who Wrote The Sandman’. It’s the episode with one of the most fan-baiting titles of recent years. And it’s also about the most inventive, fun and consistently excellent single episode of Doctor Who since S5’s The Eleventh Hour.

What’s it About?: An impossible message sends the Doctor to a junkyard asteroid outside the universe, where he encounters eccentric patchwork people and the parasitic House. But there’s also someone else – a woman named Idiris, who’s actually someone the Doctor knows extremely well…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

I’ll be honest – I was a little worried about The Doctor’s Wife. Neil Gaiman writing Doctor Who did sound like a match made in heaven, but I’ve learned never to trust sure things where Doctor Who was concerned. Plus, there was that title – a fan-baiting proposition if there ever was one, especially in the wake of S4’s The Doctor’s Daughter (and its anti-climactic resolution in the story in question) along with the general speculation about exactly who River Song was going to turn out to be. Also, there was Suranne Jones – an actress whose first Who-related appearence was as a brassy, gun-slinging Northern version of the Mona Lisa in a not-exactly-astounding edition of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On top of this, the opening of S6 had been… well, not exactly shaky, but a little too arc-heavy, a long way from the confident energy of last year’s The Eleventh Hour, and backed up with an episode (The Curse of the Black Spot) that can only safely be described as ‘lacklustre’.

I needn’t have worried. Not only does The Doctor’s Wife bring a serious level of inventive fun and energy back to the show, but it’s also a stone-cold classic that features a tremendous amount of continuity that’ll enchant long-term fans without talking over the head of new viewers. One of the advantages of Doctor Who having such a long history is that certain writers can play off this history in imaginative ways, and Gaiman does this in such a wonderful manner, giving a new slant on a relationship that’s been there since the show’s beginning and yet has never quite been expressed like this.

The identity of Idris – that she’s the Doctor’s TARDIS in human form – is a brilliant twist (one that I didn’t predict in the slightest), and not only does it set up a pulpy, ferociously enjoyable episode, but it also gives us a wonderfully oddball relationship of the kind you could only ever pull off in Doctor Who – someone the Doctor has known for 700 years, and yet never properly met. The interplay between the Doctor and Idris is energetic, fast-paced and brilliantly done (from her initial outbursts of “My Thief!” to his complaints about the TARDIS’s reliability, to the final, heartbreaking “Hello” line), and what could have been over-kooky or twee is pitched at exactly the right level, aided by simply brilliant performances from Matt Smith and Suranne Jones (whom I’d never have recognised from her Sarah Jane Adventures appearence).

It’s an episode that’s utterly Gaimanesque, with plenty of gothic flourishes (especially with Idris herself, who heavily echoes Delirium from Gaiman’s The Sandman), but which also is steeped in Who mythology, utilising the background of the show in a number of imaginative ways and even giving us a long-awaited look at the TARDIS interior beyond the control room (with the dim, slightly creepy hexagonal corridors giving the dingy, atmospheric feel that the story needed).

What’s most surprising about the story, however, is that while there’s a brilliant pace and a cerebral edge to it, it also doesn’t feel like it would have been completely out of place in the Russell T Davies era – there’s an expansive big-heartedness to much of the episode that’s tremendous fun, and it also doesn’t fall into the trap of overdone sentiment that Vincent and the Doctor arguably did at its climax. Overall, this is Gaiman getting the chance to play with as many elements from the Doctor Who toybox as he can get his hands on – and while there are areas where budget has obviously come into play (the TARDIS-set sequences are never able to cut loose with the kind of mayhem that House would have been technically able to unleash), this is still a tremendously inventive and creative episode, giving us a style that feels modern while still capturing the pulp weirdness of Doctor Who at its best.

Slickly directed and well-played by everyone involved, it’s the kind of story where the tiny flaws only really stand out because there are so few of them. The TARDIS-pursuit sections never quite feel as if they fully live up to their potential, and it is unfortunate we ended up with yet another ‘fake death’ for Rory (although the proximity with ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ wasn’t planned, as that was originally to be episode 9 of this season, and the sequence in question was genuinely unsettling, with the disturbing graffiti giving it a seriously dark edge for Who). Yes, there are certain moments when the pace is a tad too fast, or we’re getting important information shouted at us over some slightly deafening sound design, but they’re over so quickly that they barely seem to matter.

What’s more important is the sheer quality of the writing, and how much of a difference it makes after last week’s somewhat unimpressive effort – while Moffat’s era of Who is still somewhat uneven, at least the highs are still turning out to be magnificent ones. As always, Who lives or dies on the quality of its writing, and Gaiman has set a new benchmark, giving us another episode that leaves you thinking “My God, why can’t it be that good every week?” He’s also given us the most genuinely satisfying episode of S6 so far, and yet more proof that despite its inconsistency, Who is still capable of being one of the finest SF shows on TV when it really hits the mark.

The Verdict: An engaging, funny and magical episode, The Doctor’s Wife will make it impossible to look at the Doctor/TARDIS relationship in quite the same way again. A seriously classy act, it’s not going to be an easy one to follow – and now’s not the time to mention that next week’s episode (the first of a two-parter) is from Matthew Graham, the same writer who gave us the abysmal S2 episode Fear Her, is it?

Comic Review – Batman : The Return of Bruce Wayne (Deluxe Edition)

Writer: Grant Morrison ~ Artists: Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, Yannette Paquette, Georges Jeanty, Ryan Sook, Lee Garbett ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2011

Return of Bruce Wayne Deluxe - cover[xrr rating=3.5/5]

The Low-Down: The return through time of the original Batman is as mindbending as you’d expect from the pen of controversial comics creator Grant Morrison. A wild, colourful and inventive journey through pulp storytelling, The Return of Bruce Wayne has some serious consistency problems and is in no way a ‘jumping on’ point, but the combination of adventure, mythmaking and experimental storytelling makes for a heady and entertaining brew.

The Backstory: He witnessed his parents’ murder when only eleven years old. Up until recently, multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne secretly used his resources, training and cunning to fight crime on the streets of Gotham under the costumed identity of the Batman – but after an apocalyptic confrontation with the god-like Darkseid, Wayne was apparently killed, and ex-sidekick Dick Grayson took over the mantle of the Caped Crusader.

What’s it About?: Bruce Wayne is far from dead. Displaced in time by the ‘Omega Effect’, he’s now lost in history, his memory in tatters, facing untold dangers in timezone after timezone, fighting to find his way back to the present day. Along the way, he’s also discovering dark secrets of the Wayne family, as well as clues to the identity of Dr. Hurt, the arch-criminal behind the organisation known as the Black Glove. Nothing is going to stop him from reaching his destination – but Darkseid already planned for this, and if Bruce Wayme arrives in the twenty-first century, it could mean destruction for everyone…

Return of Bruce Wayne #1 - Page 30The Story: There are some superhero stories where you can easily leap into the fray… and there are some where it’s a really bad idea. Grant Morrison’s comics have always been demanding and heavily interlinked, but his epic run on Batman has taken things to another level. Since 2006, he’s been telling a sprawling, ambitious novel-like story (which has also stretched into series like Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory), and just to make matters even more complicated, much of The Return of Bruce Wayne fits closely together with stories in his acclaimed run on Batman and Robin (especially ‘Batman vs Robin’ and ‘Batman and Robin Must Die!’ in volumes 2 and 3). So, if you’re looking for traditional, easily accessible superhero action – move along, there nothing for you here.

That’s not to say that The Return of Bruce Wayne doesn’t have plenty to offer, just that like ‘Batman R.I.P’, this is a smaller portion of a much larger work. Throughout his run on Batman, Morrison has been deliberately embracing the crazier elements of Batman’s lengthy history (most notably, working many of the overly camp 1950s-published sci-fi Batman stories into the fantastically twisted and disturbing ‘Batman R.I.P.’), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is the most extreme he’s gone yet. At first glimpse, there shouldn’t be anything further away from a traditional Batman tale than a crazy time-warp adventure that includes such memorable sights as Caveman Batman, Pilgrim Batman and Pirate Batman (although it has to be said, the story’s brief pirate persona for Bruce Wayne isn’t anywhere near as fun as Andy Kubert’s ludicrously brilliant cover illustration).

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne #3 - thebatrangerAnd yet, what Morrison has done is strip Batman down to barest essentials and rebuild him, while also putting Bruce Wayne in his proper context as a pulp hero. Each chapter of the story gives a new twist, exploring a different aspect of the character, pitching him against the ultimate enemy – History itself – and the end result is a deliriously barmy adventure that stretches a mystery across time, and raises the Batman to a truly mythic level.It also links back in surprising ways with ‘Batman: R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’, layering in a massive amount of detail and pulling off some truly mind-expanding moments, especially in the Jack Kirby-esque science fictional final chapter.

It’s also true, though, that Morrison does throw a few too many ideas into the mix at times, and the book overall doesn’t always hit the fantastic highs of the brilliant Stone-Age-set opening chapter. There’s also the fact that we don’t really get the complete finale of Wayne’s time-travel adventures and Morrison’s uber-storyline here – the rest appears in the stories to be published in the upcoming Batman and Robin volume 3 – while DC’s decision not to reprint the key Batman issues 701 and 702 here (the atmospheric story ‘R.I.P.- The Missing Chapter’, which perfectly bridges the gap between ‘R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’) means that it’s even harder to play catch-up than before. However, for those willing to try and keep up, what this collection lacks in consistency, it makes up for in adventurousness, creativity and sheer pulp pleasure.

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne Frazer IrvingThe Art: The plan was for each issue of this six-issue miniseries to be handled by a single artist, most of whom had worked with Morrison before (except for Chris Sprouse) – unfortunately, delays and production problems threw a spanner in the works, which means that the first half of The Return of Bruce Wayne is a very different visual proposition from the second. In the first three issues, we have Chris Sprouse’s clean and classical pulp stylings in the Caveman issue, the moody and lush digitally painted work of Frazer Irving on the Pilgrim issue, and the atmospheric pencils of Yannick Paquette on the Pirate story.

Sadly, Cameron Stewart dropped out of doing issue 4, the Western chapter, and while Georges Jeanty (best known for his work on the comic book ‘Season 8’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pulls off some strong moments, his storytelling gets murky at times. The remaining two issues also see a major amount of work from fill-in artists, which is especially frustrating in the massively ambitious chapter 6. It often feels like Morrison is cursed to always see his most adventurous scripts plagued with production issues (similar problems affected the final volume of his Vertigo series The Invisibles), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is left halfway between being a major artistic showcase and a slightly rushed patch-up job. This Deluxe Format edition means the art looks as good as possible on over-size pages, and at its best, its an artistic jam to match the eclectic styles on show in Seven Soldiers of Victory – but there’s still a slight sense that not all the issues got the consistently great art that they deserved.

The Verdict: It’s not quite the rousing success it should have been – but even Morrison’s near-misses are fascinating, adventurous stuff, and The Return of Bruce Wayne is best read as simply one chapter of Morrison’s sweeping, genre-defying, experimental Bat-epic.

[amtap book:isbn=0857682148]

TV Review – Dirk Gently

Cast: Stephen Mangan, Helen Baxendale, Darren Boyd ~ Writer: Howard Overman
Director: Damon Thomas ~ Year: 2010

Dirk Gently

[xrr rating=2.5/5 imageset=red_star label=”Rating:”]

The Low-Down: Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams’s other bizarre creation is brought to the screen here in a brave but ultimately deeply flawed one-off drama, a pilot episode for a potential series of bizarre and whimsical sci-fi investigations.

What’s it about?: Eccentric detective Dirk Gently believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. He also believes in attempting to politely swindle old ladies out of money in order to track down their missing cats… but how is his latest runaway feline also connected with his old University friend Richard Macduff, a missing multi-millionaire, a time machine, and an exploding warehouse?

The Show: Douglas Adams is very much one of those ‘tricky to adapt’ authors. You only have to look at the movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to see how things can go wrong, and while I can salute anyone with the bravery to take on the task of adapting the fantastically bizarre Dirk Gently’s Hollistic Detective Agency to the screen, at the end of this BBC4 drama (a pilot for a prospective series) Adams remains resolutely un-adaptable.

It’s partly his unique narrative voice. It’s partly the fact that his plots were almost always mad improvisation that could go off on abrupt tangents at a moments notice (and thus don’t fit into traditional narrative structure very well). And it’s partly the fact that Adams’ universe is (despite his wonderful, spritely and creative humour) a seriously dark place, where horrible things can happen out of nowhere, and fate regularly has the last laugh. Not the kind of world-view that’s easily plugged into a quirky detective saga, which probably explains why it’s almost completely absent from this 1-hour pilot episode.

Misfits writer Howard Overman is sensible in not attempting to do a straight adaptation of the original Dirk Gently novel (especially since the plot goes in some fantastically complex directions), and one of the most surprising things about this TV outing is how much of the original novel is present and correct. He’s retooled Dirk (Stephen Mangan) as a kind of free-wheeling, quantum mechanics-inclined version of Sherlock Holmes (with a remixed and far less capable version of novel character Richard MacDuff (Darren Boyd) as his dim-witted Watson), and it’s easy to see this as a project that got comissioned in the wake of the success of this year’s modern-day reboot of Sherlock.

Overman pulls off some good lines, and there are a couple of very Adams-style bits of invention (especially the final fate of the cat Dirk is searching for), and he’s also oddly restrained in certain areas – Seargeant Gilks, a fantastically angry policeman and nemesis of Dirk, is so underplayed here as to be barely present. He also does his best to reformulate Adams’ twisty plot into an easier-to-follow story of second chances, while trying to set up Richard Macduff as a slightly dazed straight-man to Dirk’s off-the-wall insanity.

Dirk Gently 2Trouble is, if you take the darkness out of Adams, what you’re left with is a little too much of a sitcom (particularly with the scenes featuring Dirk’s elderly client), a wacky Holmes-style romp that features plenty of running around and comedy shouting, but is mainly built around a relationship – Richard and Susan (Helen Baxendale) – that we don’t care about, and don’t really believe for a second. Combine this with the fact that the ‘fundamental interconnectedness of all things’ turns out to be a shorthand for ‘hard-to-swallow coincidences’, and the plot ends up a fitfully entertaining but not exactly succesful comedy mystery that occasionally lurches into life, but too often comes to a juddering halt.

Pilot episodes are notoriously tricky, of course, and this wouldn’t be the first one to feature creaky storytelling. What sinks Dirk Gently – at least, as an adaptation of Adams’ work – is Dirk himself. Again, it’s no surprise, as Dirk is an emphatically odd character, a mass of contradictions who isn’t even the main protagonist of either of his novels, but the changes Overman makes give us a version of Dirk that’s oddly shaded and doesn’t really work. Dirk is portrayed here as a smarmy, over-confidant but occasionally brilliant trickster, and Mangan isn’t always capable of pulling off the weird cadances of Adams’ dialogue (he’s mostly better with lines that aren’t directly from the book).

Admittedly, the original character is quite definitely a con-artist – but he’s also a notoriously bad one. Most of his attempts backfire in bizarre ways (like the college exam papers he faked as a clairvoyancy scam at University that turned out to be, word-for-word, exactly the same as the papers that were set), as if the universe is constantly preventing him from getting away with it – and it’s also strongly insinuated that he’s rarely been capable of getting any of his clients to actually pay any of his outrageous bills.

Overman skips most of this, making the confidence trickster side more overt, but Dirk stops being quite so interesting, and becomes a lot harder to sympathise with. He isn’t the mercurial figure in the books – he’s just a fast-talking con artist who occasionally gets lucky. It doesn’t help that Mangan isn’t the most likeable of leads, and ending the pilot episode with Dirk using hypnotism to swindle Richard of 20,000 quid for a holiday in the Bahamas doesn’t do anything to change that.

Add in some awkwardshifts in tone, intermittent physical comedy and a general sense of inconsequentiality, and the end result is one of those loose adaptations that has its fun moments, but on the whole doesn’t get anywhere near the odd energy of the original work. It’s always possible that there may be a series – and that Overman may be able to develop this world in some interesting and stronger directions – but going by this opening outing, I’d be very surprised…

Verdict: It’s a step up from the truly dreadful Radio 4 adaptation (which starred Harry Enfield as Dirk), but a few funny lines and a smattering of inventively off-beat sci-fi strangeness does not a series make. Combine that with a miscast lead actor and this oddball confection never gets its act together for long enough to live up to its intimdating (and far superior) source material.

[amtap book:isbn=0330301624]