Monday, June 6, 2011

"Attack of the Cybermen"

What could be more appropriate for this blog than to start a foray into reviews of the Classic Series by looking at none other than the second ever Sixth Doctor serial? For some reason over the ages the Sixth Doctor has received an absurd amount of stick from some people for one reason or another and I cannot fathom why. I am certainly a Colin Baker fan. He's definitely the best of the Eighties Doctors, and while some would argue that's not saying much I'd have him up with the first four, P McG and the Smith in terms of Doctors who are more or less unimpeachable in my mind. People will have a big whinge about how his personality's too bombastic or his outfit is too ridiculous but you know what? His personality's that of the Doctor. So's his dress ensemble. Honestly he doesn't go wrong, and his performance in this serial is absolutely spot-on. He captures the sense of magnanimity, which is to say 'justified pride' as it were, perfectly, for which his appearance and expressions are completely perfect, yet he's also deeply compassionate and deviously clever. I'll get to all that.
Anyway, the Doctor and Peri show up on Earth and devious deeds are afoot. There's a lot of stuff about trying to find some kind of alien signal which might be a distress call and might not and isn't coming from where they think it is and it's being relayed and someone's watching to see who shows up and so on and it's not very well explained but it's covered up by lots of excellent banter between Peri and the Doctor as they stride about looking around which is rather funny and touching and does a good job of making you feel like something important's probably happening. I think it's meant to be that Lytton had been stealing stuff to build a transmitter for... some... reason...? It has something to do with sending a distress call to the Cryons for whom he was working but I'm not sure why he was doing it since they lacked the means to rescue him anyway. I'm not going to lie, the plot's pretty messy. There are these guys who want to steal the time ship the Cybermen have captured but it hasn't actually turned up yet, there's stuff about Cybermen wanting to blow up Telos as part of a science experiment and there's a rather awkward continuity tie-in where the Cyber-Controller is trying to prevent the events of "The Tenth Planet" from happening and while it's implied at one point that doing so would cause a paradox no one seems terribly bothered about the whole issue and that really it's a matter of the Cybermen being up to no good and the Doctor having to save the day. These elements have their place though. The plot with the Cryons raises the stakes regarding Telos. Similarly the two prison escapees, Stratton and Bates, as unrelated and pointless as their plot seems to be especially since they never encounter the Doctor and get shot and killed without ever impacting the main plot in a serious way despite quite a significant amount of screen time, do permit a nice exploration of life under the rule of the Cybermen, where failed Cyber-conversions are forced to perform mine-laying work in quarries which, as the Classic Series always does, somehow manage to convey an inexplicable sense of extraterrestrial alien wasteland.
There are some pretty brutal moments in this serial, and I'm not surprised that it had people whinging back in the Eighties when people thought it was just a kid's show. The diseased, mad Cybermen who are covered in sickly green mold and stumble around attacking even their own kind are pretty horrific to watch and the scene where Lytton's hands are crushed by the Cybermen so that blood runs down his fingers and he collapses in pain is fairly intense. It's all very satisfying, actually. There's a pretty high body count and as usual any bit where a Cyberman gets killed is rather shocking. The effects of the green fluid squirting fountain-like from their bodies, the small explosions which break out everywhere along their limbs and torso and they way they moan, spasm and stagger about can be extremely grotesque and it all rather effectively conveys how much the Cybermen have made themselves into monsters. The bit at the end where the Doctor runs into Cyber Control and mows down about four Cybermen, including the Controller and Leader, on his own are pretty visceral and intense and it's disturbing to see a real situation where the Doctor's completely run out of options and it's kill or be killed.
The Cybermen are pretty well performed in this one, and with the addition of the black-coloured Cybermen along with the guards at the dig site, the operators on Earth, the corrupted ones in the Tombs and the ones in Cyber Control you get a feeling like this is a serious operation going on without needing to see masses of them all at once. The Cyber Controller and the Leader have plenty of good opportunities to say "Excellent!" and rub their wicket-keeper hands together with logical glee and the Cyber conversion process is made to look as unpleasant, undignified and degrading as ever. The bit where the Cyber Controller walks in at the end seemingly victorious and declaims without preamble that "Emotion is a weakness" to the Doctor is classic Cyberman behaviour and right on the money as far as the tone of the episode is concerned. Indeed I would have even liked more exploration of the issues surrounding Cyber-conversion but as such larger-than-life, self-assured villains they are perfect foils for the Sixth Doctor. It also only makes it funnier when, for instance, the Cyber Leader takes Peri away from the others for the express purpose of letting her get warmer clothing to wear on Telos or when, after discovering that the Vastial supplies are about to explode right at the end, one Cyberman makes the universally-recognised hand gesture to "leg it" to his buddy and they both plod out as fast as they can before an enormous explosion destroys Cyber Control. One thing which I found a bit confusing in the second episode is it's never entirely clear where the Tombs are in relation to Cyber Control. Are they directly underneath or connected by caves and tunnels over a certain distance? It all seems to depend on how quickly they want someone to get from one location to another.
Regardless the set-pieces are all done well, particularly the Doctor's frustration at the Time Lords for manipulating him into arriving and the scene where the Doctor and Peri take out the Cyber-converted Policemen, which is both funny and exciting. There was even a part when Lytton was grabbed by the Cybermen which genuinely made me jump. One thing I'll say about Lytton, though, is that while it's nice to have an alien on board and to have the Doctor thinking he's misjudged someone I'm not entirely sure how honourable Lytton's commitment to the Cryons was. I mean yes he was helping the underdog and not allying himself with the Cybermen the way he did with the Daleks but it's still implied that he was doing it for an absolute truckload of diamonds or access to the time ship, not just out of the goodness of his heart. I guess the point is that he stuck to his guns and was willing to help a noble cause for a price? Nonetheless it seems like helping the Cryons is a rather peripheral side-benefit to the fact that he's going to nab himself a time machine. Either way it was a very effective way of making the Doctor question himself and his normal behaviour. Lytton himself is well performed and manages to stop the fake heist scenes at the beginning from being too boring or annoying and he's a good addition to the episode.
As for other characters, I'm not sure how charitable I can be to the Cryons. I like their design, even if the costumes are a bit cheap-looking, and while I can imagine that people who lived in cold might move and speak rather slowly, at times they come across as kind of weird and inscrutable for no reason and it's not really clear what their motivations are. At times they seem kind of suicidal and like they've accepted the loss of their planet and the fact that it'll be blown up and at other times they want it back from the Cybermen. It's not really helped by the sheer complexity of the plot and the fact that it just doesn't get enough explanation. In spite of this you still have a reasonable sense of what's going on, and it does make me feel that the two forty-five minute parts is a good length for a story. That, however, is especially due to the complete change of setting from London in the first episode to Telos in the second which makes the scenario seem expansive and prevents the locations, especially the inevitably dull back streets and sewers, from becoming stale.
There's also Peri to be mentioned, and I really feel like there couldn't be a much more suitable companion for the Sixth Doctor. Although she fulfils the classic companion role of asking a lot of questions so that the Doctor can provide us with exposition her curiosity is well-lampshaded by the Doctor's occasionally exasperated responses and her conversations with the Doctor are, as I stated, very enjoyable to watch. She doesn't really have much of a role plot-wise besides as an observer but she does go above and beyond the call of duty by very generously being incredibly easy on the eye and working with the Doctor rather than complaining or second-guessing him too much. As I implied at the beginning, however, it's Colin Baker's performance as the Doctor which is the real stand-out and is what makes this episode so good to watch. The plot may not make too much sense but at least it's there and it's very watchable, and while the "The Tenth Planet" stuff is too much continuity the jokes with the Chameleon Circuit are nice nods to early concepts which were integral the show and grounded the Sixth Doctor well for his second adventure. I think that, rather than the obvious choices, and story issues aside, you probably couldn't go too far wrong with "Attack of the Cybermen" as a quintessential piece of Doctor Who and that it's a pretty strong indicator of how much more Colin Baker deserved in the lead role.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"A Good Man Goes To War"

That's a nice, neutral adjective with which to accurately describe "A Good Man Goes To War", and it certainly does feel big, this episode. It's not really big in the season finale sense of the entire universe being at stake, and indeed I'm not entirely sure what was at stake in this episode, but it did indeed feel big. You feel like there's a lot in it. That doesn't mean that there's a lot of story or a lot of content but just that it's crammed with... stuff. Now I for one have never been a particularly strong proponent of the artistic merits of spectacle even when it's done properly and I've got to say that it's not exactly happening in a great way here. Sure, there's a lot of action and we're fed a lot of new characters and concepts but it comes across as purposeless and rather self-involved. It's an episode which is big for its own sake and while it's not without good elements it's fairly disappointing in my opinion to see Doctor Who wasting its time on these kind of stories. I think my problem is that I love the current characters and their actors but I simply don't appreciate the way modern television writing operates and I think my ongoing dilemma with this series has been that I want to see the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory getting to do their thing in Classic Series-esque serials which give them room to breathe and aren't all about arcs and recurring elements so that we can just appreciate the show's strongest aspects together. Maybe last series felt more like that story-wise, and maybe that's why I haven't enjoyed this series as much.
Sadly however I can merely dream of greatness as far as Doctor Who is concerned and must instead content myself with that with which Moffat chooses to feed us each week. What does this episode do well? Firstly the acting's great of course, it answers a few questions and it has a few cool moments. What does this episode do badly? The story's not exactly very, well, good, it doesn't answer enough questions and it doesn't make its points strongly enough.
The problem is that we're meant to spend our whole time going "Damn, that was cool!" every time something happens and while there are some nice set pieces it all feels kind of insubstantial and like nothing is actually happening. We know the Clerics have kidnapped Amy so that they can raise this child with a time head and use it as a weapon against the Doctor but it doesn't feel relevant. It feels like it's just about the Doctor defeating this army for essentially no reason. Yes, it was a dick move to kidnap Amy and it's all very dashing that the Doctor didn't cause any casualties to rescue her and so on but it doesn't really have that much to it. Amy's been kidnapped, the Doctor and Rory go rescue her. That's basically the entire story of a whole forty five minute mid-series finale and I just found it a little hollow. There's a lot of faffing around gathering allies and tricking armies and so on and while it is in some respect impressive there's only really so far that the rule of cool should be applying. Maybe it's too much of me to expect speculative fiction like this to actually deal with issues or strive for some kind of artistic meaning every week but I just feel like Doctor Who's premise and characters are wasted on these kinds of epic episodes, because there's no place for a statement amid the bombast and frantically-arranged set-pieces.
The allies, too, are a little unimpressive. Having a Victorian-era Silurian sleuth, a Sontaran nurse and that fat blue guy from "The Pandorica Opens" just seem like they're meant to be weirdly incongruous and mismatched for the sake of it, possibly so that an action figure set of "The Doctor's Army" could be released with the Doctor, Rory in the Roman garb he wore again for rather weak reasons this episode, the Silurian detective and her maid, the Sontaran, fat blue man and maybe like the Pirate captain who has a totally arbitrary cameo and one line. His presence would have been way cooler if the episode he'd been in hadn't been so crap. Speaking of which, how did the eye patch lady, Madame Kovarian, escape with the real baby if Captain Avery and his annoying son had the ship? Maybe it'll all get explained in the next half of the series as that the Silence did it and made everyone forget or something. Then we'll see a Silent walking away from an explosion in slow motion adjusting his tie while the James Bond theme plays.
In this way even more questions were raised. So what is in Melody Pond's future? Yes, we now know River is Amy and Rory's daughter and that she is indeed in possession of an apparently rather curly-haired time head, but we still don't know what the dealio is with the Doctor's death or the astronaut or whatever. I know Moffat wants people to keep watching but shouldn't he be doing that by making people go "Wow, this show is really good, I want to see more" rather than "I wonder what happens next time"? I realise cliffhangers and unanswered questions are a big part of maintaing interest but doesn't it seem like the easy option rather than the best one? I suppose it's not really Moffat's fault. If it's what he wants, and what the BBC wants, and what the public wants, and with the combination of those three things means that the show will keep going then it makes sense. He's not been taking the outright piss by having the Doctor in love with his companion or writing his lead like a complete buffoon or having the Daleks responsible for every damn thing that happens but it's still a shame that it can't do something more experimental. I suppose in a sense this wasn't like your average episode of Doctor Who, but at the same time it wasn't what it could have been. Again, however, it's pointless to speculate. This is what we've got, and while we've got three cracking lead actors and at least a bit of restraint it has its place. I guess I just have unrealistic expectations.
Anyway. River's Amy and Rory's daughter. Big whoop, I'm afraid. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but I guess we have to say fair dos to Moffat for actually giving us an answer even if it was a bit of an anticlimax rather than spinning it out even further into realms of speculation and mystery. We're not watching "Lost" yet. They also suggest that her regeneration powers, as presumably witnessed from the same girl in "Day of the Moon", are a result of being conceived in the TARDIS, which is another reasonable bit of explanation. I find it odd that they beat about the bush so much regarding the term conception but are willing to have a cross-species lesbian cunnilingus joke featuring the Silurian and her maid and two guys called the Thin Fat Gay Married Anglican Marines or something which, apart from beating us over the head with the whole "homosexuality will be accepted in the future and our contemporary heteronormative society is so horrible" thing which I think Moffat pushes not out of concern for the issue in question but rather because he wants to annoy people and get cheap laughs, suggests a bit of a mixed message about sexual liberation in this series. It's okay to crack gay jokes but we can't be open about the scientific nature of the process of human reproduction? Bit odd in my opinion.
Anyway what else is crap in this episode? The Headless Monks are pretty stupid. I would have liked an explanation of how they work and it was extremely predictable that the Doctor would disguise himself as one of them. There's also something kind of dull about having the Clerics as the army stealing the child. I know it represents the fact that humanity in the future has turned against him but there's just something incredibly incompetent and naff about the Clerics which I find unappealing. Maybe that's the point - even the weak fear him. The Headless Monks' power swords are ripped straight from Warhammer 40,000 in case anyone was interested. There's a lot of guff about the Doctor not giving a straight answer about whether he's ever had kids even though he obviously has, his very first companion was his granddaughter for heaven's sake, and he scarpers at the end alone without much reason. I guess answers will be forthcoming. Oh, and one other thing - that warehouse where they seem to film every vaguely military-industrial human setting of the present or relatively near future these days? It's overused and boring. I honestly do not believe that a futuristic asteroid base would look like that inside. Then again, why do the Clerics dress like modern day soldiers? I doubt that current military fashion will survive the next two thousand years. That's quite a long time. Maybe, assuming it's the 51st Century when every damn future story takes place and where the Clerics from "The Time of Angels" originated, and at that battle with the Sontaran at the beginning it's the 41st Century and they're wearing 17th Century garb somehow fashion runs in cycles? Who knows. Also, "The Battle of Zarathustra"? Really? Sounds like something from Warhammer as well. One last thing - where does this whole army of Silurians come from which the Doctor uses later? Was the detective woman keeping them in her airing cupboard or something? The Judoon show up for literally about a second too and then waltz off. It's weird.
Anyway what does this episode do well? I'll tell you what it does well. The freaking Cybermen. That bit where the Cybermen are stomping around in their spaceship is just cool and I know I like to hate on the cool stuff but it of all things did convey an accurate sense of scale. Lots of narrow corridors and windows onto space and light tables with no actual visible buttons or anything? That's the kind of Doctor Who future technology I like to see, simple and understated, although they could do without the big vats in the background which make it look like they're just standing around in a factory rather than on the bridge of an advanced Cyber ship. It is however helped by the fact that in spite of retaining the Cybus design their lack of logo and large fleet, coupled with their Classic series style round control desk suggests that these are my buddies the real Mondasian Cybermen, which hopefully is made clear at some point. The bit where the ship is wobbling and the Cybermen somehow manage to look bothered in a constipated kind of way brings a warm feeling to my heart as well. I'm not going to lie, I just love the Cybermen. Plus this brief cameo lets us have an awesome scene with Rory being bad ass. It's very nice to see how much his character has developed. Rory and the Cybermen? I'm not sure there could be anything better.
I would have really liked to have seen some scenes of the Doctor and Rory together in the TARDIS figuring out their plan because I really don't think they get to engage with each other enough as characters. In many ways I think it would have been better if the Doctor and Rory had managed to use their shared centuries of knowledge and experience to attack Demons Run on their own without these newly-invented allies but it was nice to see Amy bigging up Rory to her baby, and it was a very clever subversion of the traditional New Who melodramatic waffle about the brilliance and amazingness of the Doctor, which we unfortunately did receive later from the rather unsatisfyingly predictable Lorna Bucket. Wouldn't it be more interesting and supported Moffat's argument better to have someone who had met the Doctor briefly and rather than being fascinated by him and affectionate for him was deeply afraid of or antagonistic towards him and the Doctor had to deal with that? Rather than just have River tell us that armies turn at his name and so on, why not have weak and vulnerable individuals characterised for us reacting to the Doctor with fear or antipathy and see how distressing that could be? Imagine if instead of desperately wanting to meet the Doctor again, he'd run into Lorna and she'd freaked out and begged him not to kill her or something. I'm just speculating here but that could have put the message across better. While I like that Moffat's now playing up the Doctor as an object of fear and terrifying rumour rather than the baseless, undeserved and nauseatingly sycophantic adoration and worship which was used for the Tenth Doctor, I just feel like it could be played up more effectively. Did the Clerics really leave purely for fear of the Doctor? Not really, more because they were disarmed and had just been massively ambushed by a huge army of Silurians. There was just something more to be done here. I'm probably going to be saying that forever, though.
Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are all as good as ever, especially in the scenes where they're all together with the baby, and the performances generally are good. The Doctor's desire to rename Colonel Manton as Colonel Runaway is portrayed with vicious intensity, Rory's strength and determination are believable developments and we see Amy as a natural mother. There are laughs and memorable moments. I won't deny that there's still something missing, however. It's just not as cohesive and expressive as it could be. Again, character drama can't be everything in a good show. What's more, next episode is called "Let's Kill Hitler" of all things. That sounds like dubious ground for me, but I suppose the Doctor's no murderer and there'll be more to it than meets the eye. I just want something which works without the wait.