Tag Archives: twelth doctor

Warnings, threats and Sleep No More (2015)

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Apologies in advance, but this is all going to end in smut.

*****

It’s a bold story which thinks it can do without both the Doctor Who title sequence and its opening signature tune. But then, this is undeniably a bold story. And its central conceit – that we’re watching a visual history of events cobbled together from various sources- would be hard to sustain once the opening credits crashed in. So fair enough. This is not business as usual.

Instead it starts with a threat: “You must not watch this. I’m warning you. You cannot unsee it.” Dangerous words to start any TV program with, methinks. Don’t tempt your audience.

This is Doctor Who‘s ‘found footage’ episode. There’s a danger, I think, in that label, or in any label that favours the form an episode takes over its content. The risk is that the episode’s distinctive style overshadows its story. Will it be remembered as the tale of the Sandmen terrorising a desperate rescue team? Or will if forever be remembered as the show’s attempt to do The Blair Witch Project?

*****

Back in 1999, I snuck off to the cinema to catch The Blair Witch Project, the film which pioneered the use of ‘found footage’. It was an unsettling experience, and due to the shakiness of the handheld footage, a nauseating one. The ‘found footage’ style is inherently deceptive. It strives to tell a fictional story, through an ultra realist medium. It mimics real life experiences to make us forget we’re watching something made up.

Blair Witch worked because it tapped into a few primal fears; being lost, being hunted. But the use of its relatively young cast to shoot the footage themselves also plays on the narcissism of youth in constantly documenting their activities (considering how prevalent this is now in the age of social media, the film seems prescient in this regard). Then there’s also the unnerving sense of home movies going terribly wrong, and capturing events you didn’t mean to capture.

So Blair Witch has a number of thematic elements which it combines to make a harrowing whole. Sleep No More is an interesting piece of work, but its use of found footage as storytelling feels more gimmicky than compelling, and less thematically clear.

Perhaps its biggest issue is that this is a sci-fi story and found footage is a medium which rejoices in realism. Kids lost in a forest could be happening right here and now. Space troopers (oh yeah, I’ll put ‘space’ in front of another word) landing on a research station orbiting Neptune, is fantasy. Perhaps there’s a fundamental mismatch between the story and the way in which it’s told. Even the inclusion of our mates the Doctor (P-Cap, intense face) and Clara (Jenna Coleman, pretty face) jerks us out of the reality of the situation and reminds us that even without the title sequence, we’re watching our old familiar show. That ability of familiar starry faces to wrench us out of the fictional world is why the Blair Witch producers cast unknowns.

Then there’s the type of footage which is found. Blair Witch used handycams to say something about fundamental human fears. Sleep No More uses security camera footage and GoPro style helmet cams, and could have said something about our fear of being under surveillance. But it doesn’t really.

In fact it actively undermines this idea about halfway through, when the Doctor reveals that in fact, there are no cameras on the station. The footage itself was collected by accumulated sleep dust in the air, or something. It’s an unnecessary complication. It leaves the viewer thinking not “ooh, that’s clever”, but instead “um, how does that work?”

But Sleep No More is not designed to offer easy answers. Quite the opposite; it’s narrative structure sets out to obfuscate, not clarify. It’s certainly not the traditional Doctor Who template. Planets aren’t saved. Evils aren’t defeated. In a way, it’s reminiscent of The Caves of Androzani, in that the Doctor and his companion are flat out just escaping from a world gone to hell.

Still, it’s hard not to agree with the Doctor when he cries in frustration at story’s end, “none of this makes any sense!” Between that own goal, and “don’t watch this”, Doctor Who really should stop telling its viewers what to do. They might start listening.

*****

The story ends with Magnussen (Reece Shearsmith) turning out to be part of sleep dust monster itself, but this doesn’t feel like the end of the story. Questions remain unanswered – for instance, did head soldier Nagata (Elaine Tan) escape in the TARDIS with our friends or not? Did the Doctor ever make any sense of what was going on? To leave a story half explained is brave storytelling indeed.

But we know that Mark Gatiss was asked to write a sequel for Series 10 (Sleep No More Some More?) Perhaps it’s not so much a sequel, but the second part of this story. Maybe then some of these questions will get answered. A two-parter told in different seasons! This bold story might yet get bolder still.

SURPRISINGLY DIRTY PHRASES FROM DWM’s REVIEW OF Sleep No Mode:  finger-strokes, lusty prospects, an audible shift in buttocks, the high priest’s lipstick smear, the allure of the upcoming one-hander.

LINK TO: The Abominable Snowmen. Reece Shearsmith played Patrick Troughton in An Adventure in Space and Time.

NEXT TIME: To be complete, the syllogism only requires its grim conclusion… In my book, that’s Terror of the Vervoids.

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Legend, fiction and Robot of Sherwood (2013)

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Clara Oswald was born, we’re led to believe, on 23 November 1986 (making her birth story The Ultimate Foe, fact fans). And a story she’s always loved, ever since she was little is Robin Hood (I think you mean since she was young, she’s always been little, I can hear Beverly Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory saying).

But which version of the story, did she love I wonder? We know she’s a bookworm, so she may well have had the Big Book of Robin Hood, or whatever it was. But I think, like most children of the 80s, she would have been watching those merry men on TV or at the cinema.

She’s just that little bit too young to have seen ITV’s hit series Robin of Sherwood, though perhaps she rented it from the video store when she was older. We didn’t get it out in Australia (as far as I know), but from all accounts, it was the goods: thrilling, enchanting and romantic. All this plus Jondar too. It ran for three seasons and has garnered its own devoted following, and is obviously fondly enough remembered to have an episode of Doctor Who named after it. All in all, it’s a pity Clara wouldn’t have seen it.

But perhaps as a precocious young five year old, she was able to enjoy the bumper Robin Hood year which was 1991. Two major Hoody feature films! One – Robin Hood – was the brooding, serious type with Patrick Bergin. That was the one no-one saw.

The one everyone saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It was inescapable, not least of all because it had a saccharine ballad by Bryan Adams on its soundtrack which was played on ultra high rotation on commercial radio. It conquered the box office and, it has been claimed, was influenced by Robin of Sherwood (and Who stuntman Terry Walsh worked on both apparently). But it’s surely the Costner swashbuckler that Clara’s parents took her to the cinema to see. Then, I imagine, she watched it multiple times on VHS until the tape snapped and she wailed until her parents bought her a new copy. And she sang (Everything I do) I do it for you at her school concert. I can see it now.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is exactly the sought of rollicking popcorn flick that Robot of Sherwood is striving to be. Lots of action, lots of romance and with plenty of arch self awareness. I mean when you have a band of merry men consisting of Costner, Christian Slater and Morgan Freemen, it’s clearly not shooting for verisimilitude. Enter Alan Rickman’s sneering, petulant Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns it up to 11. “Cancel Christmas!”, he demands at one point, a gag which has lasted so long it made it into A Christmas Carol. All this plus King Yrcanos and Gilbert M too. It is, to invoke that much used Who-ish term, a romp. Just like Robot of Sherwood.

So the lineage goes Robin of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robot of Sherwood. (I think we can also assume that Clara got to see Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights as well, but the less said about that unfunny mess, the better.)

By the time she’s 19, I imagine Clara’s spending her Saturday nights out socialising, so perhaps she set the tape for Robin Hood, the Tiger Aspect TV series which ran on BBC. It also fits the established template; action, romance and a dash of post-modern humour. Jonas Armstrong was a particularly hipster kind of Robin, it was generally good, clean, occasionally anachronistic fun. All this plus Son of Mine too.

Robin Hood kicked off in 2006, and was, at least in part, a reaction to the successful revamp of Doctor Who. Clearly there was a big enough market for Saturday evening adventures for family viewing to accommodate both. It’s also a reason why new Who has taken so long to get around to a Robin Hood episode (though to be fair, not as long as the original series, which never got there at all). It would have been odd to have two versions of the story on air at once. But it would have been the perfect excuse for a cross over episode. I wonder if it was ever mooted? A Christmas special perhaps?

Why is all this significant? (Well, it’s not really, these are random thoughts after all) But there’s a famous moment in Robot of Sherwood which reminds us that Robin is as much a filmic/televisual hero as a mythic one. It’s that moment where a computer screen is flashing up a variety of representations of Robin from literature and folk law. Among it is a photo from the BBC’s original TV adaptation of the story, Robin Hood, from 1953.

It’s telling that the Robin chosen for that shot is not Jason Connery or Jonas Armstrong or even Kevin Costner. Of course, it’s second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and that cleverly feeds into a key theme of the story, that the Doctor and Robin are similar creatures. That photo of Troughton positions Robin as an echo of the Doctor himself. Later on, there’s some pleasing post-modern chicanery when the Doctor, a fictional character, disputes Robin’s very existence. “I’m as real as you are,” Robin tells the Doctor at the story’s end, which is to acknowledge that both of them are unreal. Both are works of fiction and the stuff of legend.

And from whom did the Doctor (bony rascal Peter Capaldi) learn to sword fight? Richard the Lionheart! (a real person, much mythologised) Cyrano de Bergerac! (a real person, fictionalised for the stage) Errol Flynn! (An actor, famous for playing Robin Hood). So a confusion of historical figures immortalised by legend, historical figures enmeshed in fiction and an actor who pretends to be other people. It’s all very fitting for a sword fight between two fictional characters arguing about who’s real.

But there might have been a more amusing version. Who taught you to fence, Doctor? Terry Walsh! Patrick Troughton! That fox from the Disney film!

LINK to Warriors of the Deep. Soggy Doctors.

NEXT TIME… Enlightenment brings whatever one desires. So that’s good news.

Violence, sex and Dark Water/Death in Heaven (2014)

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She has two hearts, right? The Doctor abandoned her, right? (Er, sort of) And Missy is short for Mistress, just like K9 used to call her. So I was well prepared. I had it all worked out. When Michelle Gomez purred in our hero’s ear “Well, I couldn’t really go on calling myself…” I was utterly convinced the next word would be… Romana.

Of course I was wrong. I always am when it comes to predicting Doctor Who twists. Other films and TV shows I’m quite good at. He’s a ghost. The murderer’s that guy no one suspects. She’s been there the whole time, and so on. But Doctor Who, the series I know better than anything else, stumps me every time.

I love it, of course. It’s part of the fun. But lots of other, more sensible people weren’t fooled. They’d guessed that Missy was a newly feminised Master long before the reveal. Many at the moment she introduced herself as “Missy”. I, on the other hand, had ruled out the possibility. Because, I thought, why would you recast the Master, when John Simm was so good in the role?

Any number of reasons, I suppose. Perhaps he wasn’t available to reprise his role. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was simply time for a new person in the role. But if you miss Simm as I do, it helps that Gomez is so perfect in the role. She gives us a truly different version of the Master, (a character whose previous incarnations have tended to not vary so far from each other as the Doctor’s have) and not just because she’s a woman. We’ve never had a Master quite so batty. Or as she puts it, “Look at me. I’m bananas.”

(And despite myself, I feel I have to comment on the Master’s gender swap so here it is: big deal. if humans can change gender, I’ve always assumed that Time Lords could manage it with much less fuss and bother.)

There’s one Masterly aspect where Gomez’s Missy gets dead right and it’s the character’s habit of sudden, lethal violence. She never lets us forget that behind that Mary Poppins exterior (more filmic references), lies a psychopath to whom killing is an everyday habit. The cruellest moment is when she torments fangirl Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) before icing her – “I’m going to kill you in a minute” is one of Steven Moffat’s most chilling lines – but the most shocking is when she flings Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) out of an aeroplane. With typical nonchalance, she moves quickly on to more killing. “Boys, blow up this plane and, I don’t know, Belgium, yeah?”

It’s that casual violence that makes the Master a compelling villain. For me, it’s a vital part of his/her character. Now this bit is where I commit Who heresy (Whoresy?), but this is why original Master Roger Delgado’s my least favourite. He rarely has those moments of utter ruthlessness that mark him as a truly bad guy. A rare example is when he throws a poor unfortunate scientist off the radio tower in Terror of the Autons, but Delgado is generally a safer, more avuncular Master than the rest. He might chop at a few necks and set a few elaborate traps, but he rarely resorts to immediate murder.

Anthony Ainley’s Master may have been a more theatrical Master than Delgado, but at least he had a few moments which showed off his shocking viciousness. Think of the moment in Survival when he sticks his young sidekick with a sharpened tusk. And there’s a great moment in the much underrated Planet of Fire when he’s threatening to incinerate some locals to force the Doctor to reveal the location of a vital TARDIS component. The Doctor pleads and says he doesn’t have the part. “I believe you,” says the Master, before he continues the burning anyway.

Eric Roberts’ gangster style Master in the TV movie got a similarly gruesome moment when he snapped Chang Lee’s neck without hesitation, not to mention when he strangled his host body’s wife in bed (thankfully off screen). Derek Jacobi was only seconds into his brief tenure when he electrocuted Chantho with one sparking cable. John Simm’s Master gassed a room full of politicians and ate two homeless men. Sudden, unexpected violence is the Master’s true calling card, far more than turning people into action figures.

What Simm brought to the role, and what Gomez has picked up on, is a kind of dangerous wackiness. Their Masters are clearly loopy, and in Simm’s case, driven insane by that infernal drumming. It’s as if modern day Who needs to rationalise the Master’s villainy as a byproduct of mental instability. It’s not enough for him/her to be evil. He/she’s unhinged, and that explains why he’s/she’s evil.

The other thing Gomez continues with is the Master’s close association with sex. One of the first things she does when meeting Peter Capaldi’s fierce and feisty Doctor is to snog him.

In Old Who, the Master has always been sexualised in a way the Doctor was not. And in New Who there’s a real difference apparent in presenting them both as sexual creatures. It can be summarised like this: the Doctor gets romanced, the Master gets laid. John Simm’s Master was clearly a sexual being. He married an Earth woman, and they canoodled like teenagers. In The Last of the Time Lords he emerges presumably from bed, hair disheveled and in a satin night gown, like he’s been interrupted. He even suggests a threesome at one stage, and Lucy Saxon’s battered and dazed appearance casts the dark shadow of violence over their relationship.

But even in Old Who, the Master was about sex and violence, both activities which set him apart from his own race, the passive and passionless Time Lords. Delgado, as we saw in The Time Monster seduced a married woman. Eric Roberts’ Master was born in a marital bed. Even the staid Ainley version chose to assume the body of a man in love with his new bride. It seems that between the Doctor and the Master, it’s the latter who ‘owns’ sex, and as a result, the series positions sex with corruption and crime.

But let’s get to the big question: now that she’s a woman, will the Doctor and the Master get it on? Well, let’s not be heteronormative about this, it was always a possibility (although let’s stick with a Tennant/Simm pairing rather than think about any of the other possible Doctor/Master hook ups. Ooops, too late, you have haven’t you?) But now, they could actually have kids!

My bet’s on a girl first time round. They’ll call her Romana.  (Or maybe Maisie?) That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it! Because having got my Who twists wrong so many times, my luck’s got to change eventually.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Gallifrey is spelt Galyfrey at one stage, which is quite fetching actually. Perhaps if they have a boy.

LINK TO: The Gunfighters. Get this: they both feature Tombstones. That made me smile.

NEXT TIME: We’re off to infiltrate The Moonbase. Clever, clever, clever.