TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Matt Smith Day of the Moon Still

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

The Low-Down: An episode that asks more questions than it answers, Day of the Moon is weird, inventive and packed full of highlights – but is Steven Moffat in danger of making Doctor Who a show that’s too clever and complex for its own good?

What’s it About?: Three months after the events of The Impossible Astronaut, the Doctor is imprisoned and Amy, Rory and River Song are on the run, trying to find out about an enemy they can’t even remember. The truth may lie in an abandoned orphanage – but is Amy pregnant or not? And what has Neil Armstrong’s foot got to do with this all?

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

Two words of warning for Steven Moffat: Ghost Light. For those out there without an encyclopaedic knowledge of Classic Who, Ghost Light was one of the last broadcast stories of the original series run, back in 1989 – a fascinatingly ambitious and dark story that layered on the complications as if they were going out of style, but seemingly forgot to tell the audience exactly what was happening. Result? A Doctor Who adventure that was easier to admire than like, which ended up as rather more baffling than genuinely creepy – and while the Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two-parter is streets ahead of Ghost Light in terms of ambition and execution, there’s still the sense that the show is aiming a bit too far ahead of its audience, and so busy being ferociously clever and dark and scary that it’s in danger of forgetting to actually entertain.

It’s mildly bizarre to find myself criticising Doctor Who for being too intensively complex and clever – after all, one of the main criticisms of the RTD era was that there was too much bombast and emotiveness, and not quite enough of the kind of dark smartness that Moffat regularly delivered in his stories. Trouble is, I think we’re getting shown what happens when the needle swings too far in the opposite direction, added to which Moffat has now loaded the series with enough ongoing mysteries to fill an entire season of Lost, and I’m not sure if doing that to a show like Who is a good idea, when there’s the very good chance of annoying the hell out of your audience.

All this makes it sound like I didn’t like Day of the Moon, when I did – it’s a stylish, gripping episode with some fantastic sequences, and I have the feeling that when we know exactly where all the events within the episode fit in with the overall arc, it’ll be even better. Trouble is, right now it’s not a completely satisfying story – the actual tale of the Doctor finding a way of overturning the presence of the Silents is really good, and the final twist of using the ‘One Small Step’ transmission combined with the Silents’ own words is a genuinely brilliant one, but at the end we’re still perplexed, and I never watched Doctor Who to be perplexed. I take my hat off to Moffat for trying something seriously ambitious, but it’s also kind of weird to find myself looking forward to next week’s episode simply because it looks like it’s going to be a nicely self-contained tale of Pirates on the high seas that’ll be fairly light on the arc (even if it’s also written by the man who wrote the not-especially-good middle episode of last year’s Sherlock).

There are decisions in Day of the Moon that are daring – most especially shifting forward three months without any warning, and never really giving us a clear resolution of the final cliffhanger (we get a couple of flashbacks, but that’s it) – but there’s also a lot in Day of the Moon that we have to take on trust, and stuff that simply doesn’t seem to make sense (like the way that the Doctor goes from an imprisoned fugitive to working with President Nixon again without any kind of join). Now, this isn’t the first time Who has had a light attitude to plots making sense – RTD would pull this kind of thing all the time, but it’s less of a problem when you’re telling big bold and brassy blockbusters. Complex plots that make the audience pay attention have to make sense, and the end result is a story that’s compulsive but doesn’t quite earn what it’s reaching for.

The Lost comparison is, unfortunately, a fairly strong one – I didn’t have anywhere near the problems everybody else had with the finale (although I do feel the entire sixth season is massively flawed, and that the finale is a piece of television that regularly switches between massively misconceived and strangely brilliant, frequently within a few minutes of each other), but the feeling I got from this two-parter is very similar to the sense I got from the less satisfying sections of Lost, where it was more about heightening the mystery than advancing the story, and where the component parts of the drama didn’t all feel like they fitted together. Because in Day of the Moon we have some great components – a spooky villain, some fantastic setpieces (especially the gun battle in the Silent control room), another great turn from Matt Smith, some well-played shocks (especially the opening teaser sequence, and the brilliant end scene), and a couple of nicely played emotional sequences (most notably the material between Rory and Amy, as well as the brief scene between Rory and the Doctor).

But by the end, we still don’t know exactly how all these components fit together. Yes, we know that the Silents are the Silence that was referred to throughout S5, but we don’t know why – neither do we know how the Silents’ plans fitted in with the fact that the Doctor is due to be killed in 200 years (and that one of them seemed to be still alive in 2011), or with the crashed spaceship in The Lodger, or with the fact that they apparently blew the TARDIS up in order to destroy the Universe in The Pandorica Opens… Well, there’s a massive list of things that we don’t know, and I honestly don’t feel that piling a whole selection of ongoing mysteries on top of the ongoing mysteries we already had (Who is River Song? Why was the TARDIS blown up? Who exactly are the Silents?) is a great idea. It’s as if the episodes had to be edited down too much and a little too much connective tissue was lost in the process, and I can’t help crossing my fingers that a whole selection of these mysteries are going to be at least reasonably wrapped up by the mid-season finale, otherwise Who is going to be in real danger of becoming a show that’s more clever than it is fun. Which would be a crying shame…

(Okay – brief theory time. The Silents appear to be utilising TARDIS-like technology, and now they seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on Earth getting Humanity to the point where space-suit technology was possible (was that *really* the only thing they were aiming for?). Plus, they’ve now been in charge of either transforming or supervising a child who we now know is at least part Gallifreyan – is this Amy and Rory’s baby? (The obvious concept is “It’s the Doctor’s baby!” but I really can’t see Moffat going down that road) The question is – is someone attempting to reboot Gallifreyan civillisation, possibly using the Earth in order to carry this out? Is that why the TARDIS explosion happened – did they know that the Doctor would find a way of ‘rebooting’ the Universe, and use that to their advantage, working something into the fabric of the newly ‘booted’ Universe at the same time? Are the Silents merely pawns in a bigger game? A game that’s possibly being played by whoever said ‘Silence will Fall’ back in The Pandorica Opens?)

Moffat is a writer who thrives on complications – this often makes for brilliant, immensely satisfying television, but sometimes he needs reining in, because otherwise you start getting complications for complications’ sake. One of the reasons I loved The Eleventh Hour so much, back at the beginning of S5, was that it was surprisingly simple, giving the Doctor a relatively clear objective and allowing the audience along for the ride (which is vital – and one of the reasons why, despite their spookiness, the Silents aren’t as scary as the Weeping Angels – as the audience, we don’t actually know what their intention is). The Eleventh Hour was also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, and I’m a little concerned that I’ve yet to spot an upcoming episode that looks clearly like that kind of all-out colourful romp. Doctor Who needs that sort of episode – 13 weeks of dark, weird and scary might start getting a little repetitive, especially if the major arc keeps piling on the mystery and tying the timeline in ever-more complicated knots.

I don’t want Who to trip over its own feet. I don’t want it to get too complicated, and start alienating the audience that rediscovered it back in 2005. I hope these are just initial teething troubles for S6, and it’s very possible that when I next revisit Day of the Moon, my mind will have seriously changed, and I’ll be able to enjoy the episode on its own terms, rather than getting slightly vexxed by the mass of flapping plot-threads. But right now, I’m a bit worried about the show’s future – and that’s something I never expected to be feeling after a Steven Moffat two-parter…

The Verdict: An episode that feels like it should come with its own flow-chart diagram, Day of the Moon is daring and almost brilliant – but gets held back by its own elliptical nature, and the sheer number of ongoing enigmas. Here’s hoping that the show can bounce back, and that the quest to out-do Lost in the head-scratching mysteries stakes only lasts so long…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston, Mark Sheppard ~ Writer: Steven Moffat ~ Director: Toby Haynes ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Series 6 Matt Smith Utah Filming The Impossible Astronaut

[xrr rating=4/5]

The Low-Down: Bold, bewildering and more than a little barmy, the opener to Season 6 of Doctor Who‘s new incarnation is an attention-grabbing adventure that may be a little too complicated at times, but certainly sets up one hell of an ongoing story arc…

What’s it About?: Mysteriously summoned to the Utah desert, the Doctor, Amy, Rory and Professor River Song are soon involved in a bizarre quest back to 1969, where dark events are occurring in the White House, and a sinister alien force lurks behind the scenes…

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

The RTD era is over. I mean, yes, it’s been over since The Eleventh Hour hopped onto our screens a year ago, but if there’s one thing that this opener to S6 brings home, it’s that this is very much a different show now. The Impossible Astronaut plays more like a season finale (which is a deliberate choice), and it’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the light, fluffy runaround nonsense of RTD opening episodes like Partners in Crime and Smith and Jones. In fact, it’s rather as if we’ve already leapt to Moffat’s equivalent of S4 continuity-fest The Stolen Earth with the sheer level of interconnections and fan service going on, and there’s a part of me that’s a tad concerned at this (especially as it’s always been the mix of daft showstoppers and brainier episodes that have kept the show’s popularity up) – but, admittedly, the rest of me is well and truly along for the ride.

And it’s certainly an eye-catching ride, managing to pull-off an epic, American adventure far better than the distinctly lacklustre Daleks in Manhattan two-parter in S3. There’s spectacle, there’s some great visuals- but on top of the gorgeous US location footage (which is sparing, but about as much as I figured we’d be getting, to be honest), there’s the major twist in the first ten minutes of the episode. Now, I already knew that one of the regulars ‘was going to die’ thanks to spoilers on the front of Doctor Who Magazine, and my money was on the Doctor, but not in the way it happened – a stark, bizarre and powerful scene that managed to have vague (probably deliberate) echoes of 1981 adventure Logopolis, where the soon-to-regenerate Doctor talks to the mysterious Watcher (who’s actually a projection of the Doctor’s future self). It’s really nice, very well acted, and is best because from then onwards it places all the characters in a really interesting emotional situation – the story does seem to be building up that everyone’s going to be keeping secrets from everyone else, and Moffat is also finding new wrinkles to the idea of having a married couple as TARDIS companions (especially if the ‘I’m Pregnant’ line is anything to go by).

Of course, there’s a get-out clause – and the Doctor being secretly enlisted by his own future self to possibly prevent his own death is a great set-up for a story, leading us in an admirably nutty direction while also giving Matt Smith plenty of chances to shine, showcasing the Eleventh Doctor’s comedy and his darker edges (along with his new status as Biggest Flirt in the Universe(TM)). The Impossible Astronaut is a fun, enjoyable and intriguing episode with plenty of standout moments and a great support performance from SF TV veteran Mark Sheppard, but in spite of the incredibly fast dialogue and the multitude of well-timed gags, it is a slow-burner – we’re more in character-building territory than all-out adventure, while the various enigmatic plot-threads have yet to connect up, meaning the final cliffhanger is more bemusing than thrilling simply because we don’t know yet what the hell is going on, leaving us with far more questions than answers (Why exactly is the Astronaut also a little girl? Why is Amy telling the Doctor right then that she’s pregnant? Is it because of what the Silent said? Why was the Future Doctor on the run for 200 years? Why are both Amy and River feeling ill after witnessing the Silents?).

I suspect that this’ll play much better once we’ve seen episode 2, and that maybe this story should have been shown as one big, attention-grabbing 90 minute special rather than a two-parter. With a new and intimidating enemy in the Silents (whose sequence in the White House bathroom is brilliantly spooky, even by Who standards) and a massive mystery (which is connected to the TARDIS-like craft from S5’s episode The Lodger, and may feed into the supposedly game-changing mid-season finale that’s coming in six weeks time), this is a different kind of Who opener that’s dark and demanding, but possibly a little too complicated at times. There’s also the feeling that Moffatt needs to be careful with the trans-temporal shenanigans from now on, as there’s the distinct danger of repeating himself and losing any freshness the concept had in the first place. A gripping opener, The Impossible Astronaut may not have won me over 100% in the way that The Eleventh Hour did, and much is going to depend on how Day of the Moon pans out (from the end-of-episode teaser, it certainly looks demented) – but Doctor Who is still a wildly inventive adventure, and one of the most unabashedly fun SF shows around.

The Verdict: Season 6 is go – and we’re already off to a head-spinning, complex start. Despite a few reservations, this is a strong opener, and if Moffatt can keep focus and not let things get too over-complicated, this could be a seriously impressive Who adventure. Now all we need is episode 2…

TV News: Farewell, Sarah Jane – A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen (1948-2011)

Elisabeth Sladen Sarah Jane Smith Doctor Who Companion

I don’t like doing R.I.P./Memorial posts – because very often, even if famous/well-loved performers or actors have died, I don’t have much to say other than “Oh dear, that’s sad.” But news hit last night, on the 19th of April 2011, and frankly I’ve got to say something about this one, because this one feels terribly personal. It was bad enough when we recently lost Nicholas Courtney (the actor who portrayed Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), but now Elisabeth Sladen has died, aged only 63. She was the actress who played the tremendously popular assistant Sarah Jane Smith from 1973-1976 in the classic series of Doctor Who, and who ended up returning to the role more times than anyone (especially her) expected, going on to appear several times in the relaunched version of Who,  and getting her own children’s TV spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Of course, the question is – why? Why was Sarah Jane quite so popular and remembered as a Who companion? My Twitter feed over the last twelve hours has been a genuinely touching outpouring of disbelief, sadness, and a genuine affection for a performer who brought a serious amount of warmth and happiness into people’s lives – it’s a testament to how much impact Doctor Who has had, and it’s also a testament to exactly how bloody good Sladen was in the role.

Because, let’s be honest, when you’re looking at the classic series of Who, the companion is pretty often a fairly thankless role – they’re there to ask questions, get into danger, be kidnapped, undergo hypnosis, almost be sacrificed, and generally be an audience identification figure. There’s not much depth, and it’s up to the performer in question to actually make this slightly thin collection of ticks and story devices into a character the audience cares about.

There were few actresses in Classic Who who were as good at this as Elisabeth Sladen – Sarah Jane starts out in her first year (Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Third Doctor) as a deliberate ‘Women’s Lib’ character, a bolshy journalist who pokes her nose in places and willingly gets into trouble, but she soon settles down into a far less deliberately spiky character, and it’s in her first season with Tom Baker that she truly starts to shine. It’s partly because Sarah Jane is the prototype for what the companion would eventually become – she’s the point where the Doctor/companion relationship goes from one that had been largely parental in nature (especially with characters like Victoria and Jo Grant), to one that’s on a rather more equal footing, with the Doctor and companion as genuine friends. There are companions who followed who were even more capable, violent or intelligent than Sarah Jane, and one (Ace) who got a far more detailed emotional life than she ever did – but there’s something effortlessly likeable about Sladen in the role, coupled with the very obvious onscreen chemistry between her and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. Sladen and Baker got on really well, and it truly shows in their stories – the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane are a pairing who are such fun to watch, it’s hard not to be charmed silly by their adventures (a fact that’s helped by Sladen’s run on the show being largely in the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, a hugely acclaimed run of stories which features few (if any) actual duds, and several stone-cold classics).

It was lovely seeing her return to the show in 2006’s ‘School Reunion’ (I’m not a huge fan of the episode, but Sladen’s work is sensational), and everything I’ve heard and seen of Sladen’s offscreen persona suggests that she was an impossibly lovely person to work with. It’s tremendously sad that she’s gone, and a piece of my childhood is gone tonight – but her work, and Sarah Jane, will live on as a part of Who’s imaginative and thoroughly British history.

R.I.P. Elisabeth Sladen. You really will be missed.

The Friday Linkfest (1/4/2011): Links on my Mind

Justice League of America adaptation film for 2013 news Batman Superman Wonder Woman

Warner Bros are aiming for a Justice League of America movie by 2013. The question has to be asked – what the hell is going on with the Warners and DC-related superhero films? They’ve previously said that ‘we’re not doing crossovers’ – that the Nolan Batman films wouldn’t cross over with any other motion pictures, and that neither would Snyder’s Superman – each series would tackle them as the only superhero in their world. Now, this is a step away from the Marvel ‘grand plan’ to culminate in The Avengers (which hasn’t always worked – Iron Man 2 being a case in point), but did seem to make sense at the time (especially with how aggressively realistic the Nolan films have been). Now, however, they’re saying they’re aiming for a JLA film in 2013 (which is absurdly quick), and that the JLA will feature Batman and Superman, but not Henry Cavill as Superman, and not whoever inherits the Bat-cowl when the franchise is rebooted following The Dark Knight Rises (which I’m willing to bet will embrace a slightly more comic-booky direction once Nolan departs).

Now, if they weren’t going to use Batman and Superman, I could understand it – while they’re the two big heavy-hitters, it would be possible to cope without them (in a similar way to how Marvel Studios films have to cope without crossovers with Spider-Man, the X-Men or The Fantastic Four, because they sold the rights). It’s also not impossible to have two different live-action versions of the same character around – Superman Returns was made while Smallville was on the air, and if the Wonder Woman TV series is a success, there could be both a TV and a film version of Wonder Woman, as one concept is for the JLA film to launch characters that could then go on into standalone movies. But this has never happened in movies before – two different versions of the same character, possibly appearing within months of each other? Warners experimented with this in 2008, when a JLA film came very close to being made (and which would have mostly starred unknowns, including The Social Network’s Armie Hammer as Batman) – it was a weird idea then, and it’s a weird idea now. Presumably, any spin-offs from JLA would be taking place in the same universe – so some DC films will cross over, but others won’t? Are they seriously trying to create an onscreen version of the DC multiverse? Are they out of their minds? Well, 2013 is a very optimistic date for a film that big (It’ll be interesting to see how well Green Lantern does on release – that could have a major effect on how the DC Universe films progress, especially if it doesn’t end up doing well…), and I suspect minds could be seriously changed if The Avengers turns out to be a giant-sized monster hit…

Green Lantern’s publicity is being delayed by the extensive effects work. Some recent superhero films have been quieter in the pre-publicity stakes than others – Captain America only just unveiled its first full trailer, while Thor has been giving us all kinds of images and trailers since late last year. Green Lantern hasn’t exactly been doing brilliantly – the first trailer has its moments but didn’t exactly blow me away, and given that this is a long, long way from the relatively earthbound action of Iron Man or The Dark Knight, you’d think they’d be doing more to sell the film. Well, they would be, only the combined problems of major sequences taking place on fully CG alien planets, plus the added problem of doing all this in 3-D, means that the whole process has been delayed, and the next trailer for Green Lantern won’t be ready until the release of Thor on May 6th – and that’s only about six weeks before the movie itself is out on June 17th. They’re even still casting voice roles (with Michael Clarke Duncan strongly tipped for the slightly-awkwardly-named Killowog), and given that the summer is already stuffed to bursting with blockbusters, it does at least put a big question mark over whether Green Lantern is going to sink or swim.

The Wonder Woman costume for the TV pilot has been modified – the version spotted in a location shoot doesn’t have funky PVC trousers, and the boots are red now, instead of blue. Now, this may be as a result of the ludicrous level of fan complaints when the costume was unveiled, but it of course hasn’t done anything to quell the somewhat hilarious tide of people bitching online that “it still looks like a Halloween costume” (because of course, the Lynda Carter 70s TV costume in no way looked ridiculous) and generally moaning about how of course the show’s guaranteed to be completely terrible anyway. There are times when I love fandom, and there are times when I don’t.

Amy Adams has been cast as Lois Lane in the upcoming Zack Snyder version of Superman. Now, this is both really good news – Adams is a great actress, and a surprisingly good choice for Lois Lane – and really annoying, as I’d much rather she was appearing in a Superman film not directed by Zack Snyder. At the least, it’s a surprise to have a Lois who’s actually eight years older than the guy playing Superman (Adams is 36, Henry Cavill is 28), plus it’s really nice that Adams will actually look old enough to be an experienced reporter (as opposed to poor old miscast Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns, whose version of Lois looked about twelve years old).

And, to coincide with this in a rather sadder way, Deadline posted a letter from Joanne Siegel – widow of Superman creator Jerry Siegel, and original model for Lois Lane – written two months before her death, asking the head of Time Warner to actually pay the money the company legally owes the Siegel family (and to stop the crappy legal delaying tactics they’ve been using). Yes, we all know that most corporations are going to act in crappy underhand ways – but the Superman legal saga is an epically complicated one, and it’s just a pity it couldn’t have been resolved before Siegel passed away.

Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode is called – shock, horror – ‘The Doctor’s Wife‘!  Now, I’m pretty sure, if I’m remembering correctly, that this is a bit of a meta-in-joke as well, as the production team did at one point (in the classic era) try to identify a leak to the fan press by falsely putting out the completely bogus title ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ just to see what happened. It’s certainly not what I expected – the initial thought is that obviously, it’s going to be another ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ where it turns out that the Doctor hasn’t actually had a secret daughter stashed away all these years, and it’s unlikely to be a River Song-centric story considering Moffat’s bound to be handling that side of things. Actress Suranne Jones is playing the character ‘Idris’, so I’m mildly perplexed – especially considering that Gaiman has actually said that his story brings back someone (or something) we haven’t seen since the Sixties (or, to be more precise, the 1969 story The War Games). Of course, the Doctor has actually already been married onscreen – he accidentally acquired an Aztec wife in the sixties historical story ‘The Aztecs’, but I can’t imagine Gaiman is constructing a whole story around that. I guess we’ll wait and see…

Also Gaiman related – his novel American Gods has been optioned, apparently by a director with ‘many, many Oscars’. Who knows what this means, but it’s a challenging idea – American Gods is a fascinating, occasionally tricky book (one I struggled with on my first reading, but eventually came to really love), but it doesn’t strike me as especially filmable. But then, neither did Stardust, and look what happened there…

Continuing the recent theme of Hollywood adaptations that completely miss the fecking point of what they’re supposed to be adapting, Hollywood are plotting a modernised version of Miss Marple – and have cast Jennifer Garner. Yes, the star of spy action series Alias. My mind is reeling at exactly how much of the original material just got thrown out of the window. Alright, Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost may be involved, but will someone please find the other people who are involved in this and then punch them? (And then sit them down in front of the BBC Joan Hickson Marple adaptations and go “LOOK!”?)

And as if that wasn’t depressing enough, the Terry Gilliam film Time Bandits may be remade as an ‘action franchise for kids’. No. No. NO. I’m sorry, but that’s entering territory where I may have to hunt down and kill anyone who’s responsible for bastardising the wonderful, quirky and barmy world of one of my favourite films. And again: NO.

HBO drama series The Wire, re-imagined (rather well) as a Victorian-era novel.

The BBC4 pilot episode adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books has been comissioned for a series of 3 1-hour episodes. As you’ll see from my review of the pilot, I’m not exactly delighted by this. I guess it’s possible that writer Howard Overman might iron out the issues with the first episode given more time, but I doubt it. Whether I have the patience for another three hours of vaguely tiresome comic shenanigans that bear a vague passing resemblance to books I really, really like remains to be seen…

And finally, news of a slightly more promising movie remake – director David Gordon Green is helming a US version of utterly barmy Italian Horror movie Suspiria. Now, this would normally strike me as a bad idea, especially since Suspiria is a genuinely demented, eye-searingly colourful and hyper-violent movie, one of the few horror movies I’ve seen that genuinely qualify as nightmarish, but David Gordon Green strikes me as a director capable of bringing something interesting to the table (especially in the way he’s bounced from lyrical arthouse dramas to stoner action comedies like Pineapple Express). He’ll have to go some to match the sheer lunacy of Suspiria, but at least he is planning to use significant amounts of the original progrock-tastick Suspiria score by Goblin, a major element of the original’s unique atmosphere, as you can hear from the attention-grabbing, barmy and deeply unsettling main theme:

The Thursday Trailer: Doctor Who, S6 (2011)

Okay, I know it isn’t a movie trailer, but I’m allowed to stretch the rules when I feel like it, dammit, so here’s the full trailer for Season 6 of Doctor Who:

As usual, crammed full of stuff that makes me go “Oooh!” (including what looks, bizarrely, like a split-second glimpse of the previous control room – or is this possible another TARDIS, or an off-shoot of the mysterious semi-TARDIS spacecraft seen in S5’s ‘The Lodger’?), although I’m not completely certain about all the dialogue clips – it reminds me of the way certain chunks of the ads for S5 actually worked much better in context than they did in the trailer. Anyhow, I am most definitely looking forward to the upcoming season – and just for anyone who missed it, here’s the brief but atmospheric ‘prequel’ to episode 1, The Impossible Astronaut:

Dishonourable Mention:

If I was going to ask for a remake of The Three Musketeers, I wouldn’t want it in 3-D. And I definitely wouldn’t want it directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, one of the slickest yet dullest directors around, the man who managed to take turn what should have been a surefire success – Aliens Vs Predator – and actually turned it into a deeply boring movie. Nevertheless, the first trailer debuted this week, and from the nonsensical deathtraps to Orlando Bloom’s terrifying hair, this looks like nicely shot, well-designed and absolutely missable:

TV Review – Doctor Who : The Curse of Fenric

Cast: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred, Dinsdale Landen, Tomek Bork, Alfred Lynch ~ Writer: Ian Briggs ~ Director: Nicholas Mallett ~ Year: 1989

Doctor Who - Curse of Fenric cover

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

The Low-Down: From one of the very underrated eras of ‘Classic’ Doctor Who, this is a story from the final year of the show’s original 26 year run that laid down a lot of the ground-work for what Who would eventually evolve into sixteen years later… but which also has its own particular flaws and problems. It’s an enjoyable and daring story in many ways – but time hasn’t been completely kind, and it doesn’t quite deserve the classic status fandom has bestowed upon it…

What’s it about?: The TARDIS lands at an Army base in Northern England during World War II, and the Doctor and Ace are soon investigating a mystery that connects the code-breaking ULTIMA machine, secret chemical weapons, and an ancient viking curse. But Russian commandos are patrolling the area on a secret mission, and something monstrous is stirring under the waters of Maiden’s Point…

The Story: Confession time – for someone who spent a lot of between 2005 and 2008 professing frustration and issues with ‘New Who’ and happily leaping onto the “I prefer Classic Who” horse for a canter around the meadow, I have to admit that it’s only in the time since Doctor Who came back on TV that I’ve realised I didn’t consistently like the latter years of the show that much. Memory and distance cheats easily –  even back in the days of Peter Davison, I can remember not being completely enthused by seasons, and the last time I thoroughly enjoyed an entire season of Doctor Who was probably Davison’s first back in 1982 (when I was 8, for heaven’s sake). For those who complain about modern-day Doctor Who being inconsistent, one of the replies I give is that Doctor Who has always been inconsistent, and there’s almost always been the sense that you have to take the rough with the smooth.

I stuck with the show because, well, it’s what you did in the mid-to-late Eighties when you were an awkward teenager who was into SF and there was very little else on TV, especially when you’d watched the show like clockwork since as long as you could remember. In many ways, my love of Doctor Who had much more to do with the stuff around the show than the show itself – the Target novelisations, and particularly the Marvel comic strip (which was frequently wilder, weirder and just plan better than the TV show itself) – and, living through the Colin Baker years and the start of Sylvester McCoy, I had gotten to a point where it was getting hard to care about the show anymore.

As a result, it was a shock when the 1988 season of Who (the 25th, fact fans) was good enough to rekindle my love of the program, and showed how good Who could be when they eased back on the camp humour and concentrated on being inventive, imaginative and weird. Even the frankly rather dreadful Silver Nemesis seemed exciting first time around, and when the season finished with the brilliant, atmospheric and utterly kooky The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, it actually felt like the show was behaving with confidence, pulling in fairly healthy ratings while also  looking likely to stick around for a while.

And then, we come to Season 26, the last televised Who until the memorably creaky 1996 TV movie, and the last TV season until 2005… and my love of Who found itself hitting another speed bump. I wanted to love Season 26, I wanted it to be as thrilling and involving as Season 25 had been (where even a deliberately theatrical and oddball story like The Happiness Patrol was good enough to ignore its multitude of flaws)… and yet it wasn’t quite what I expected. Heady from the success of Season 25, the production team went further in directions that they’d only flirted with before, leading to 14 episodes that are many things, but not quite what you’d describe as ‘going out with a bang.’

I’m certainly glad that fate has intervened, and that Season 26 is now simply a pause rather than the full stop at the end of a sentence. But, since I hadn’t actually watched any late eighties Who since the show’s return and improbable rise to Bestest TV Show in Britain (TM), when I had the opportunity to revisit the Season 26 adventure The Curse of Fenric, I simply had to go for it and see what happenned.

A little background, for those of you unfamiliar with the Classic show’s latter years – after an initial season of daffy comedy, Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor turned a shade darker during Season 25, with lots of vague and enigmatic hints that he may be ‘more than just a Timelord’, and a welcome dose of mystery back into the show, even if much of it was enigma for enigma’s sake. Along with this, there was Sophie Aldred as Ace, a companion who was a gigantic change from the more recent assistants, and a character who the writing teams made a genuine attempt to give some depth. Admittedly, in many ways Ace was a two-dimensional cartoon of an Eighties teenager up until Season 26, with a habit of letting out exclamations of “Wicked!”, and a liking for explosives that, shall we say, had little to do with reality. Nevertheless, it was all new, and different enough that it made Doctor Who much realer and more relatable than it ever had been before.

Little did we know that Season 25 was the calm before the storm. Out of Season 26’s 14 episodes, 10 of them turned out to be stories that heavily revolved around Ace’s character, lavishing an occasionally worrying amount of detail on the girl, while the Seventh Doctor got even darker, weirder and more manipulative. The Curse of Fenric was the penultimate story in the season – by this point, we were getting two four parters, and two three parters – the structure tended to be two ‘traditional’ four parters, featuring old-school Who storytelling with a modern twist, alongside a pair of more experimental and ‘oddball’ three-parters. The story we’d had before Fenric certainly fell into the oddball category, being the head-scratching Victorian mix of sci-fi, allegory and haunted house shennanigans Ghost Light, a story dripping in style and yet so bizarrely constructed that I couldn’t even begin to tell you exactly what happenned during it or what exactly it was all about. So, from the publicity for the upcoming story, I was more than ready for a WWII-set tale of vampires and ancient curses, and what I guessed would be four episodes of standard base-under-siege mayhem.


Curse of Fenric stillWell, you can’t complain about The Curse of Fenric being predictable. We do indeed get some of the expected bits of base-under-siege action, and a fairly traditional opening two episodes, but in a similar way to Ghost Light (which has an excellent and largely comprehensible opening episode before going barmy), Fenric goes off the storytelling rails in episode 3 and just keeps on going. It’s not exactly a quiet, tidy, unambitious story either – we get a secret Naval base, a code-breaking ULTIMA machine, Russian Commandos, and a nefarious plan by the British Government to wipe out Soviet High Command using poison gas. There’s legends of vampires prowling the coast, and soon shambling bloodsuckers are emerging from the ocean depths, as an ancient evil starts to stir. On top of this, there’s a pair of doomed teenage girls, a vicar undergoing a crisis of faith (played by Nicholas Parsons, no less, who does a surprisingly good job), and a hassled WREN officer who’s got a baby which – by no coincidence whatsoever – has the same name as Ace’s much-hated mother. All this is crammed into the first two episodes alone, and we’re not even covering the fact that you can fight off vampires with a communist star as long as you believe it enough, the eccentric weather, the multiple explosions, the random love story, the chemical gas attacks, or the unprecedented leap into Arabian Nights-style mythology and the fact that the entire climax revolves around winning a chess game by using an illegal move (I mean– it might be a great metaphor, but how exactly are the white and black pawns supposed to join forces?)

The Curse of Fenric hasn’t aged well. An odd fact, for what’s ostensibly a period drama, but a true one – there are some great moments and brilliant scenes in Fenric, but watching it does require a great deal of forgiveness, and a major pinch of salt. All of Classic Who has obviously aged, of course, but in many ways it’s Fenric’s modern pace, sharp editing and the way it showcases a genuinely proto-New-Who outlook in its execution that makes the flaws all the more difficult to ignore. In fact, it’s the pace that’s aged the least – the story may be flawed, but it barely stays still for a second, and while there’s not quite as much running around as in New Who, the actual pace is pretty close, to an extent that’s almost a little distracting at times, especially when the first episode features the Doctor and Ace zooming around between locations for very little reason other than keeping the story moving.

Most of McCoy’s era is, in fact, very similar in many ways to New Who – it’s an era that gets lambasted on a regular basis, and yet if you look at stories like Paradise Towers, Delta and the Bannermen and Survival, you can see ideas, style and concepts that were very much precursors of New Who. The difference is that, for all the issues I’ve had with him over his years in control of Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies actually had an idea of what would dramatically work onscreen and be accessible for a wider audience. On the other hand, many of the decisions taken in McCoy’s era can be taken as the show virtually sending up the white flag and paying little attention to the wider audience, instead aiming firmly at the fans who were going to analyse the minutiae. Turning your main character into a sinister, manipulative schemer who’s fully willing to play mindgames with his friends is certainly brave, but it’s hardly the move that’s going to deal a firm blow to Coronation Street (the ratings behemoth that Who spent its last three years in the Eighties scheduled against).

Curse of Fenric 4There are ways in which you could see Fenric working perfectly as a New Who story – you can almost see the tabloid-style VAMPIRES! and WORLD WAR TWO! concept bullet-points – but after two episodes of build-up, things then get incredibly strange, the story starts falling apart, and we encounter one of the odder offshoots of Script Editor Andrew Cartmel’s approach to the series. Many of the later McCoy stories have a habit of falling into completely barmy plot twists during their final episodes (let’s not mention the head-on motorcycle collision in Survival that the Doctor survives with absolutely no explanation whatsoever) – even my favourite McCoy story Greatest Show in the Galaxy isn’t free from this, but when I look at the climax of The Curse of Fenric, where a whole load of disparate plot thread are yanked together by some vague mumbling about curses and evil from beyond the dawn of time manipulating things behind the scenes, I do have to wonder exactly what substances they were imbibing in the production office. Yes, we get a certain amount of pay-off, but there’s a vagueness to the storytelling that’s nothing short of frustrating, especially when the story’s aiming to tell an emotional story as well as being a rip-roaring adventure – but then, the emotional through-line of Fenric has its own special set of problems.

Curse of Fenric 5Essentialy, it’s all about Ace coming to terms with her feelings about her mother by ending up protecting her as a baby without realising who she was, and then being confronted with the truth and having to deal with it. Being Who, this is all crammed into a very short amount of time between incidents, and it’s also fighting alongside the fact that Ace suddenly (and rather unbelievably) starts having Brief Encounter-style romantic stares with a heroic Russian commando (Polish actor Tomek Bork, who’s very good and one of the best things in the show). This isn’t even hinted at until episode 3, at which point things have to happen ridiculously quickly, and then we also get the “I’m not a little girl anymore” scene, one of the most gob-smackingly barmy sequences in all of Who. Here, Ace woos a randy soldier away from his post with promises of (ahem) rumpy-pumpy, and they proceed to recite some of the least seductive and weirdest dialogue I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s halfway between weird sixth-form poetry and heinous bollocks, and exceptionally difficult to take seriously, especially when – and it feels slightly heretical to say this, considering how integral the Seventh Doctor and Ace were to Who fandom from 1988 through to about 1995 – Sophie Aldred really isn’t a good enough actress to pull this off. She is good in the rolel, but she’s definitely better at certain things than others, and Season 26’s Ace-centric storytelling does unfortunately expose her slightly limited range as an actress, as well as devoting so much attention to the character that it was easy to be slightly sick of her by the end of the season.

Curse of Fenric 6Acting also brings us to McCoy – and again, it’s hard not to be critical, especially considering the kind of work both David Tennant and Matt Smith (and, to a certain extent, Christopher Eccleston) have managed with the role in the last few years. McCoy is one of those actors who’s brilliant when he’s being quiet and reflective, and simply shouldn’t be allowed to shout – there’s a truly painful sequence in the Season 26 Arthurian turkey ‘Battlefield’ where he has to stop a fight, and does it by waving his umbrella and bellowing “THERE!!! WILL!!! BE!!!! NO!!!! BATTLE!!! HERE!!!!” that has to be seen to be believed. Fenric sees him on better form, and yet there is a deliberately over-eccentric tone to his performance that does grate, and you do end up looking at the Seventh Doctor and wondering exactly what the production team were thinking.

It’s the trouble with heightening the emotions – it also emphasises the shortcomings in the writng and the acting more than if we were in traditional Who runaround territory. For example, we have the two teenage evacuees Jean and Phyllis, and the obvious suggestion that their burgeoning sexuality is what’s going to doom them to turn into vampires with a great line in goth make-up (as if the location of the vampire’s underwater lair – Maiden’s Point – wasn’t enough of a giveaway), but they don’t really get anything resembling a character until after they’ve been vamped, other than lots of giggling and the deeply horrible line “Oh, don’t be such a baby doll!” Weirdly enough, they’re much better once they’ve joined the ranks of the undead, and the other performances are wildly varying and unpredictable – Dinsdale Landen (as a wheelchair bound academic) is brilliantly weird, while Alfred Lynch (as the myth-obsessed commander) can’t seem to decide whether he’s evil, confused or stoned. Almost all the sequences involving the Russian commandos are excellent, and as mentioned, Nicolas Parsons does a good job as a vicar struggling with his faith who eventually – in a plot twist that’d be unlikely to happen in New Who – loses and gets slaughtered by the vampires.

Curse of Fenric 2The vampires themselves are a mix of the already mentioned big-haired, claw-fingered goth chicks, and a series of well-designed but unfortunately rather rubbery masks that don’t take well to the action sequences – and if there’s one fact that makes the difference between New and Old Who apparent, it’s that anyone sensible would look at the Haemovore masks and say “Let’s shoot them at night – they’ll look much better that way.” Of course, since 1989 era Who was functioning on a very slim budget, night shoots were utterly out of the question, so you have rubbery-headed vampires wandering around in broad daylight, a fact that doesn’t really help the atmosphere, even though there were some solutions to this (For one, take a look at the brilliant Eighties kids serial Moondial, which used a ‘day for night’ process involving filters and shooting in near-black and white that was actually incredibly effective). It’s one of those little culture shock realisations that make you realise that while Eighties Who and New Who have much in common, there’s also plenty of major differences, and that they really were trying to assemble ridiculously ambitious stories on a wing and a prayer, and without the considerable backup of today’s prosthetic and CGI effects.

However, the direction (from the late Nicholas Mallet) does manage to pull off a great deal of atmosphere, even with the flaws and the limited resources, and if there’s one scene in the entire story that stands out, it’s the climax – where the villain is triumphant, threatening Ace’s life while she’s holding back a vampire with the force of her faith in the Doctor. Here, the villain is doing the traditional “Kneel before me if you want the girl to live!” speech, while Ace is saying “I believe in you”. We all know how this sort of thing ends – the Doctor will find a non-violent way of defying the villain and saving the day. And, well, he does, but it’s not what you expect.

He tells the villain to kill her.

Admittedly, it’s all a gamble to stop Ace from preventing the vampire from actually defeating the main villain (thanks to a setup in a previous scene), but it’s delivered with such devastating calm by McCoy (in one of his best, and quietest moments), that it’s simply stunning. It’s one of those electrifying “I can’t believe they’re actually doing that” moments, and it doesn’t really matter that the dialogue referencing previous stories like Silver Nemesis and Dragonfire doesn’t make complete sense – it’s the Doctor doing what the Doctor isn’t supposed to do, turning to his best friend and telling her that she’s an emotional cripple and a social misfit who he wouldn’t have had anything to do with unless it was to use her. Even Aldred is fantastic in this scene, and it’s a genuinely seismic moment – unfortunatly, it also proved to be the moment that a good 70% of all Who spin-off fiction from then until 1996 would be based around.

The dark, manipulative Doctor became the standard, without everybody realising that it only really worked in Fenric because it was a surprise. You can break the mold once, but then you’re just repeating yourself – it’s a very late Eighties device, obviously showing off Cartmel’s love of comic books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, and yet it did end up as revisionism and deconstruction simply for shock value. There was plenty of post-Fenric Who fiction that clung to darkness as an honour badge, a sign that yes, Doctor Who could be as adult and grown-up as we wanted it to be – and yet at the time, I always had the feeling that it was never meant to be like that, and that Who was always meant to be a family show, and that dark, unforgiving Who stories are just missing the point. Again, while I didn’t love all of RTD’s methods, that’s yet another thing that he was sensible enough to realise – that Who can be dark, can be unpredictable, but at heart it’s a melodramatic adventure that should be enjoyable for the whole family.

And here we come to the crux, the point where my big problem with Season 26 comes into play. It took me a long time to realise it – I’d have lengthy arguments with my friend Paul (with whom I’ve turned arguing about Who into an Olympic sport) where he’d be saying Season 26 was brilliant, and I’d say that I didn’t agree, but I could never exactly work out why until finally, after a few years, it hit me, and rewatching The Curse of Fenric proves that I wasn’t wrong. Essentially – Season 26 was (for the most part) trying so hard to be big, ambitious and significant that it stopped being fun. The Curse of Fenric is an especially good example of this – it’s so amazingly serious in intent and rarely even cracks a smile, especially in the last two episodes, that it eventually gets difficult to take. This serious attitude was everywhere in Season 26 (except for Battlefield, which was – unfortunately – dreadful beyond words), and it does mean that stories like Fenric, Survival and Ghost Light aren’t the easiest stories to enjoy – Who is, after all, meant to be entertaining SF melodrama (with an occasionally educational spin), and Season 26 is so determined to go for the drama that it misses out on the lively joy and imagination that marks the best Who stories.

So, when we get to the end of Fenric, and Ace going on a terribly metaphorical swim that apparently leaves her feeling much better about her past, along with a contender for the ‘Worst Episode Ending Featuring The Lead Characters Laughing” award (I mean, what does “Not any more, Niet!” actually mean? Anyone?), and what was enshrined as an all-time classic by Who fandom in 1989 doesn’t look quite so strong anymore. However, it does show what I love about Doctor Who as much in what it gets wrong as right, and it also shows that while Who was still stuck in gear and not quite changing enough, it was also attempting new things (even if some of them were unwise), and setting in motion storytelling developments which would eventually lead to New Who (large chunks of ‘Survival’, the final story of Season 26, are terribly New Who in style, if not in execution).

I can salute it for its ambition and its determination to aim high, even if the years haven’t been kind and I’m left suspecting that at least some of the traditional bashing of the McCoy era isn’t completely unwarranted. But, above all, I’m left in awe of the fact of how much I’ve learned about storytelling from Doctor Who, how much about what I like and what I don’t like, how much about what works and what doesn’t – it’s still one of the most significant storytelling experiences in my life. It’s hard-wired into my brain on an almost primal level. And no matter what happens, I suspect it’s going to stay there…

The Verdict: The Curse of Fenric is a tricky bit of Classic Who storytelling – it does carry off some great sequences, and there are moments of true brilliance… but its lofty ambitions do trip it up on more than one occasion, and the lack of genuine fun does cause it some serious problems. Ultimately, it’s a fascinating example of the show still trying new things, even in the last year of its first ‘incarnation’, but it is very rough around the edges at times, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a good jumping on point for anyone who’s only been watching the modern-day series…

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TV News: How Do You Solve a Problem like Wonder Woman? (Pilot Episode Details…)

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson

Wonder Woman Lynda CarterAh, Wonder Woman – the Amazon princess of Themyscira who’s sent to Man’s world as an emissary of Peace, a job that seems to involve a remarkable amount of beating people up, battling evil and repelling bullets with her magical arm gauntlets. She’s massively recognisable. She’s one of the most long-running superheroes around. She’s a female icon, a wish-fulfilment figure and a role model… and yet she hasn’t managed a non-animated onscreen appearance since the fabulously campy Seventies TV series starring Lynda Carter. It’s not for want of trying – there’s been a whole series of attempts to bring Wonder Woman back to the screen (most notably in 2005, when Buffy creator Joss Whedon was hired to do a reboot) but all of them have either failed or stalled.

Now, however, Wonder Woman may be on her way back to TV screens, thanks to a rather unlikely benefactor. If you were going to make a list of potential producers for a TV version of Wonder Woman, it’s very unlikely that David E. Kelly – the king of kooky courtroom drama and creator of shows like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal – would have made the cut. However, proving that you can never predict exactly how weird Hollywood can get, a Wonder Woman TV project is looking very likely, a pilot episode is being put together at US network NBC, and David E. Kelly is the man in charge. Details of the pilot script have filtered out via film/tv/comics site Bleeding Cool, and it’s certainly sounding a very David E. Kelly show – by the sounds of it, it’ll be a frothy relationship-driven superhero comedy drama with a fair selection of continuity from the original comics, but aiming more at the mainstream network audience, and certainly in no way trying to do the straight, mythic and serious take that plenty of fans seem to want.

(A quick summary of most of the details we’ve got – essentially, the setup is that Wonder Woman is Diana Themyscira, head of the Themyscira Corporation, and publicly moonlights as a superhero (think Tony Stark and Iron Man), but also uses the mild-mannered alter ego of Diana Prince from time to time. The general mood seems to be goofy female-oriented superhero drama, with a slightly worrying number of pop songs listed in the script (there’s apparently going to be a fight scene scored by ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyonce, which doesn’t exactly fill me with hope), and from most of what I’ve read in the Bleeding Cool article, it does feel like the closest reference point is going to be that fabulously Nineties TV take on Superman, Lois and Clark (also known over here as The New Adventures of Superman) – or, at least, the earlier episodes of Lois and Clark where the relationship-driven comedy worked, and the whole concept hadn’t been run into the ground yet).

Wonder Woman Brian BollandAt this stage, I’m neither loving nor hating what I’m hearing. A lot will depend on execution, and Wonder Woman isn’t a character I’m especially invested in – it does read like the kind of thing that’s more likely to fail than succeed, but pilot episodes can be notoriously clunky anyway, and I’m willing to at least give it a little benefit of the doubt (until I’ve actually seen the episode in question) as this could go either way. Kelly’s take might be a smash success or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it failure (like the TV adaptation of female-centric Batman universe comic Birds of Prey, which was cancelled so quickly, hardly anyone even noticed that it existed), but it’s interesting in that it shows exactly how much uncertainty there is over how to do Wonder Woman onscreen, a lot more than there ever was with a character like Batman and Superman.

A little of it is simply to do with the fact that superhero tales tend to be pretty big budget (especially if we’re talking movies), and female-driven superhero movies don’t exactly have a fantastic strike rate of success (evidence for the prosecution: Supergirl, Elektra, and the stunningly awful Catwoman). Much of this is down to bad luck and rotten creative decisions, but there’s also the problem that big budget superhero films need to be pitched as wide as possible, and I don’t think anyone has yet to crack how to sell the kind of major-league, female-oriented superhero blockbuster that they’d need if they were going to give Wonder Woman the cinematic outing her following and history deserves.

Wonder WomanOn top of that, Wonder Woman is a tricky character whose origin story has been tweaked, rebooted and remixed a surprising number of times over the years. For example, while there have been wildly different interpretations of Batman, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever suggesting “Hey, you know what? What if Bruce Wayne gave up all the dressing up as a bat, and instead we had him travelling the world as a daring spy who poses as an international playboy? Maybe his codename could still be ‘The Bat’!” And yet, that’s exactly what happened to Wonder Woman for several years, from the late sixties to the mid seventies, when she was de-powered and transformed into a fab and groovy secret agent. There have been other massive changes over the years, and Wonder Woman’s origin isn’t the kind of clear-cut tale that you can sum up as easily and succinctly as Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely managed in the first page of their magnum opus, All-Star Superman:


Even now, DC are struggling with the character – she’s in the middle of an ‘alternate history’ revamp, a ‘bold new direction’ that was thought up by writer J. Michael Straczynski before he jumped ship from writing monthly comics, and which seems to have turned her into a cross between Xena: Warrior Princess and the DC Comics beserker warrior equivalent of Wolverine. It’s not as much of a car-crash as Straczynski’s god-awful “Superman walks across America” tale Grounded, but after about six issues, it really doesn’t feel like it’s working (even with a mild upswing in quality thanks to Chris Roberson taking over scripting duties). They’ve also, as part of the remix, given her a much-heralded new costume:

wonder woman new costume jim lee

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t actually have a problem with this, and as superhero costumes go, it’s pretty good. The jacket is still ridiculously Nineties, but the ensemble works, and it doesn’t say “armoured swimming costume” in the same way that the classic WW costume does. Yes, it does take away a certain degree of Wonder Woman’s mythic nature but it also, frankly, is a more practical costume that would very probably be much easier to realise onscreen without drifting into the kind of campness that Xena or, to be honest, the Seventies TV show survived on.

wonder woman alex rossAnother problem with Wonder Woman is her mythic nature. She was created in the Nineteen Forties as a female adventurer to battle the Nazis, a long time before the Sixties Marvel revolution made street-level, ordinary-joe superheroes the done thing. As a result, she’s a character of pure myth (plenty of versions of the origin have her actually sculpted from clay by the Gods), and there’s a sense of distance from all the DC ‘Big Three’ – the feeling that they’re Olympian ideals to aspire to. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, especially in the post-Eighties/Nineties era when superhero comics are at least attempting a bit more psychological depth (even if they don’t always manage it), and I really don’t feel like anyone’s ever entirely cracked how to handle this.

There’s also the lack of a single definitive Wonder Woman story. As I’ve said, I haven’t read a heap of Wonder Woman comics, so I’m coming at this as an outsider, but especially in the last twenty five years, in the post Dark Knight and Watchmen comics landscape, there hasn’t been a comic that has truly defined Wonder Woman as a character in the same way that, say, The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke have for Batman. I’m sure there have been some great runs of stories and some impressive creators have worked on the title (including writers like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone), but it feels like what’s needed is someone to take Wonder Woman and do something attention-grabbing and truly different with her (which I suspect was what Straczynski was trying to do with his rather ill-fated concept, unfortunately).

Wonder Woman Lasso of TruthOn top of all that, there’s the question of how close a screen version should stick to the comic, especially when there are aspects of the comic which (to put it mildly) might be tricky to transfer? The 2009 animated Wonder Woman direct-to-DVD film is a good example of this – it’s fine when it’s sticking to pure myth (featuring a 300-style flashback opening sequence), but comes unstuck when it has to do tackle some of the trickier aspects – and yes, we’re talking about the Lasso of Truth. Back in the Forties, there was a deliberate layer of kink to many Wonder Woman stories (with the mighty Amazon coming up against a wide variety of villains who seemed very fond of tying her up time after time), and the Lasso of Truth – the magical rope which, when tied around someone’s neck, compels them to tell the truth – is a direct descendant of this kind of storytelling.

It’s the kind of thing that’s much easier to play in a comic book than in reality, and that’s the main problem with Wonder Woman – you’ve got a character who’s a mass of challenging aspects, many of which could be breathtakingly silly if done wrong, and which doesn’t even have a clear, definitive set of stories which you can look to as an obvious blueprint for a screen adaptation. If anyone wants to set me straight and say “Well, of course there’s issues XXX to XXX”, then I’ll be extremely grateful, but considering these inherent problems, I’m really not surprised that nobody’s been able to get a full-on live action version of Wonder Woman out of development. In pop culture terms, she’s kind of where Batman was before the Tim Burton-directed 1989 blockbuster – the Seventies Lynda Carter show is still, despite its nuclear levels of camp, the main touchstone for what people (at least of a certain age) think when they think ‘Wonder Woman’. What she really needs is someone like Burton to come along and do something incredibly distinctive with her – knock the origin into a coherent shape, choose what they want and leave the rest on the comic page, and craft something which will be distinctive and attention-grabbing.

Now, for the record – I don’t think from what I’ve heard that Kelly’s TV adaptation is going to be that. It’s definitely going to earn a lot of fan hatred even before a second of it has been broadcast, and I don’t know that if my favourite comic book character was going to be changed that radically, I’d be particularly happy. But, I suspect that if Wonder Woman is ever going to succeed onscreen, she’s going to have to be changed – she’s going to have to be a specific interpretation. Until then, she’s going to remain an icon that everybody knows, but which remains frustratingly difficult to adapt…

TV Review – Misfits: Season 2

CAST: Robert Sheehan, Iwan Rheon, Lauren Socha, Anotonia Thomas, Nathan Stewart-Jarret ~ WRITER: Howard Overman ~ DIRECTOR: Tom Green ~ YEAR: 2010

The Backstory: Five young offenders, brought together thanks to their enforced Community Service, are caught in a bizarre electrical storm and end up with superpowers – but the last thing they’re likely to do is use them responsibly…

What’s it about?: Their community ser2vice is approaching its end, and Nathan has just risen from the dead thanks to the discovery he’s immortal. However, there are even more powers-enhanced people affected by the storm – many of them dangerous – and there’s also the mysterious hooded figure who’s watching their every move…

The Show: Season 2 of this ‘superheroes with ASBOs’ comedy drama doesn’t mess around – it knows what everybody liked last time, and delivers plenty more of the gory, sweary and sex-heavy formula laid down in Season 1. Low-budget but surprisingly stylish, Misfits knows what its audience wants and isn’t afraid to go in some ludicrously over-the-top directions in order to deliver it. It’s an energetic and fun show that works well as a purely enjoyable (and occasionally nasty) fantasy comedy/drama, but is also capable of being a hell of a lot more than the sweary teen drama it advertises itself as, frequently tackling ffective drama and strong character twists. In fact, Misfits’ biggest strength is the way it uses the normally black-and-white morality of superhero stories to explore some very grey areas, combined with the way it lets its characters behave in unsympathetic ways and go in directions that aren’t simple good vs evil (although they’ve finally found the right balance with Nathan (Robert Sheehan), who spent most of S1 being a little too annoying).

As a result, there’s also no shortage of conflict and weirdness (especially in the excellent shape-shifter episode that opens the season), and while the series cranks up the bodycount in these episodes (making the main location probably the most lethal Community Centre in Britain), it mostly keeps a good balance between outrageous fantasy and gritty reality, and does it a hell of a lot more effectively than overblown BBC emo-fest Being Human (a show that has, on occasion, managed to out-emo some Anime shows, which takes some doing…). In fact, despite the ‘superhero comedy drama’ tag, Misfits is often most effective when it’s pastiching horror, frequently coming over as a super-profane and gory remix of early Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes – and like Buffy, it understands the importance of superpower as metaphor.

Misfits TV - publicity photoFor the most part, Season 2 is a much stronger and more focussed setup, giving us some very effectively played character drama (especially in the evolution of Simon (Iwon Rheon) and Alisha (Antonia Thomas)), and it’s largely a rollicking, entertaining and gripping ride – but there are still problems, and the quality of the storytelling remains rather variable. The main arc of the season – the identity of the mysterious ‘Super Hoodie’ who seems to know everything about the main characters – starts off massively intriguing and does pay off in a very surprising way, but feels oddly truncated and doesn’t impact on the series anywhere near as much as it should. Certain plot-twists and episodes veer towards the predictable, and the overall structure of the series is a bit murky, as it once again abruptly reboots towards the end of the season (particularly the Christmas Special, which feels more like a repurposed first episode to season 3), while you can also see scriptwriter Howard Overman starting to struggle with maintaining the ’emotional metaphor’ side of the superpowers. This happens a lot with the now-frequently-appearing villains, many of whom don’t quite have the emotional focus that the ‘powers of the week’ had in Season 1 (for example, the man who has a Grand Theft Auto-style game playing in his head – what exactly is his power supposed to be?). It’s also the case that, as with Heroes, Misfits is the kind of show that should steer clear of full-on action that it doesn’t have the budget for – the only two examples sadly come across as a little embarrassing, trying to spoof superhero conventions (especially the fight with the Tatoo artist) but instead playing as weak and badly conceived.

Of course, these scenes only stand out because so much of the surrounding series is extremely good. In fact, about 70% of Misfits S2 is genuinely brilliant and entertaining stuff, but it’s let down by the other 30%, and not helped by the storytelling this year being rather skewed in favour of Nathan, Simon and Alisha. Both Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and Kelly (Lauren Socha) get distinctly short-changed in terms of storylines, with Kelly’s one character-centric subplot leading to possibly the worst and most clumsily executed moment in the whole show (The lesson? Don’t attempt to make a tear-jerking scene out of the revelation that a character has – for slightly confusing reasons – turned into a gorilla (and especially don’t try to score it with Samuel Barber’s classical piece ‘Adagio for Strings – the results will be BAD)) while Curtis’s emotional time-rewind power essentially leaves him stuck as an emergency ‘Reboot Plot’ button or shouting “My power doesn’t work like that!” for most of the season.

The show’s being enthusiastically embraced by its fans partly because it’s a superhero tale that breaks taboos with such enthusiastic glee – a glee that occasionally gets a bit self-congratulatory (especially when they dress the characters up as superheroes in episode 4 for no other reason than ‘It’ll look great in the final shot!”) –  but while it’s still tetering on the edge of being brilliant and can be inconsistent, Season 2 does tip the balance further in a positive direction. The kind of crude, lewd show that’s oddly charming despite frequently trying way too hard to shock or repulse (most notably in the overplayed birth sequence in the Christmas Special), Misfits is nevertheless building in strength and quality – and it’ll be interesting to see whether the drastic format changes coming up in Season 3 will revitalise the series further, or send it into a Heroes-style downturn…

Verdict: An entertainingly filthy take on the world of the superhero, this isn’t quite the classic that much of the geek press is proclaiming it to be, but Misfits is definitely improving, and is one of the most enjoyable adult-skewed UK genre shows we’ve seen in a long time.

[xrr rating=4/5]

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TV Review – Dirk Gently

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

Dirk Gently

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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.

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