Thursday, 26 March 2015

My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: Blink

Clearly March is the month of telly birthdays. The other week I celebrated the eighteenth birthday of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now, on 26th March, 21st century Doctor Who reaches double figures. To celebrate - with this, my 100th Doctor Who post on this blog - I'm looking back at one of my favourite stories of the modern Who era. But first, I have a confession to make.
In Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary year, I wrote a post entitled 'My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: The Doctor's Wife' and then promised to write the next two soon after. Well, finally, I'm making good on that promise and am finally giving you Part Two of my top three Doctor Who episodes. Expect Part Three in the summer of 2017...

'People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more of a big ball of  wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey... stuff.'

What more can be said about 'Blink' that hasn't been said before? Casual viewers and hardcore fans alike seem to hail this one above all other Whos. Myself, although I don't think it's quality is quite as above the rest of the show as some do (every episode of Doctor Who is brilliant in its own way), it is one of my all-time favourites. But just why is 'Blink' so popular?

The big reason why I think it stands as such an impressive piece of work - even after multiple, multiple viewings - is because of how everything feels necessary and perfectly pitched. Usually when you endlessly rewatch old favourites, you start to notice things that could be done better or bits that don't make sense. 'Blink', however, manages to withstand such weary eyes and survive intact. One thing, even if it is not a fault, that does leap out now though is all the intrigue surrounding DVD easter eggs. It might have occurred to some already but you can imagine watching this in a few years time and thinking 'aw bless, I remember 'easter eggs.'' Hopefully, due to the precision of everything else this won't date the episode too much. 

Understandably, as they are perhaps the TV series' scariest monster (though for my personal creepiest creature in Who I point you to Steven Moffat's Floofs from his short story 'The Corner of the Eye') the Weeping Angels are generally the most praised aspect of the story. For me, however, Carey Mulligan's Sally Sparrow is just as integral to its success - as in her capable hands we remarkably never miss the Doctor, who is reduced to a fleeting guiding presence here. Without any offence to Amy and Clara, it is a shame neither of Moffat's companions share the maturity and strong-headedness of Sally.

After their breakout success, it was a no-brainer that the aforementioned Angels would return (and, for what it's worth, I really like their next two appearances, though popular opinion says they are far inferior) but I wish other elements of this episode had been repeated as well. Because of how well it works here, 'Blink' makes me wish there were more of these Doctor/companion-less adventures. Not only do they free up the main actors' schedules they also make the Whoniverse feel more expansive and it reminds you that the Doctor can't solve all of the alien shenanigans going on in the universe. Personally, I'd love one of these self-contained mini-movies every year!

Like, say, 'Genesis of the Daleks' before it, 'Blink' has proven itself to be one of Doctor Who's most fiercely acclaimed stories. Thanks to the Weeping Angels, Steven Moffat's tightest script and a glittering lead, 'Blink' certainly isn't a disposable episode that disappears when you stop watching it - rather it's a veritable stone-cold classic. The perfect reminder for fans, or the perfect convincer for a newcomer, of why modern Doctor Who is so blinking brilliant.*

Stone circle - The Angels are trapped staring at each other at the end of Blink. But I've always wondered what will happen when the light bulb goes off?

Fancy a Doctor Who marathon on this special day but don't know which ones to watch? Then read my list of the 30 Greatest Doctor Who Episodes of the Revived Series over on Whatculture!

*Even I think I might have overstepped my pun quota in that last paragraph.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Best of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I was something of a late-comer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only starting watching it a few years ago, but I learnt to love it just as many longer-running fans have done. Buffy has the features of all the great shows - wit, heart and loveable characters - but I admire it most of all for being the mother of largely every genre show made since. Torchwood, Being Human, Merlin, 21st century Doctor Who and more all owe Buffy a huge debt. Russell T Davies has gone on record saying how Buffy 'raised the bar' of television in general. From the way it mixes all the elements so well, it's hard to disagree. 
This week Buffy turned 18 years old so in celebration, I'm going to talk you through my favourite episodes of the show. And I'll begin right about... now. 

'Hush', (Season 4, Episode 10)

The 'Blink' of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Inspired by how critics only seemed to praise the show's dialogue, creator Joss Whedon crafted this episode to be almost entirely silent - as the residents of Sunnydale have their voices stolen. The thieves are the grinning, murderous Gentlemen - I'd wager the scariest band of TV monsters outside of Doctor Who. 'Hush' is so wonderfully creepy it makes you wish Buffy had thought to be properly scary more often but, then, this episode is so successful that there was probably no point in attempting to top it.

 Restless, (Season 4, Episode 22)

Dreams are an oft-used device on TV but rarely, if ever, are they portrayed as realistically as here. Unlike, say, Inception which simply uses dreams to play with the laws of physics, 'Restless' embraces all the randomness-yet-possibly-meaningful nature of dreams to peek a glimpse at the psyche of the main characters. What's more, it's a novel approach to the series finale - more of a coda than a climax. Quite possibly, one of the surrealist - and bravest - episodes of mainstream telly ever.

The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

A little like 'Restless' embraces everything about dreams, 'The Body' portrays the grief process with stark reality, particularly that on the very day that one loses a loved one. Inspired by the loss of Whedon's own mother, this episode looks at how each of Buffy's friends - and in particular Buffy herself and her sister Dawn - react to the sudden death of Joyce. Not from a vampire attack, but an aneurysm, It's the perfect example of how Buffy transcended the expectation of what genre shows could do - something that other shows have continued since. Yet none of them have delivered something as truly devastating as this.

Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

But on the other hand, Buffy can be, and usually is, lots of fun. And this musical episode is surely the most gloriously enjoyable Buffy of them all. I'm not a massive fan of musicals, but the way in which the usual character drama and plot development of a normal Buffy episode is done through song is sublime - and also they're just really good songs. This episode teaches a lesson a lot of TV shows could learn from Buffy as a whole - with just a bit more dedication and care, you can turn average television into something really special.

Fancy some more of my favourite Buffy episodes? Then you can read my, more sweeping, look at the show's finest hours over on Whatculture here.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Doctor Who: Off the Screen - Engines of War

Last month we looked at the birth of the Cybermen in Spare Parts but now we turn to another great chapter in Doctor Who history that wasn't shown on TV - the Last Great Time War...

'No more.'

Ever since it was first mentioned in 2005, Doctor Who fans have been clamouring for a glimpse of the fabled Last Great Time War. We got something in 2010's 'The End of Time' and even more in 'The Day of the Doctor' when we met the War Doctor, a whole new incarnation of our hero. It was thought that was it for that massive period of the Doctor's life but then, to the surprise and excitement of many, George Mann's Engines of War came out - another adventure with the War Doctor! It had better be good...

Thankfully, Engines is a truly commendable achievement. I think every Doctor Who fan would simultaneously jump at and reel away from the chance to properly document such an oft-discussed but hardly seen piece of Who lore. In light of that, Mann does a remarkable job of weaving together most of the strands that we've heard about it alongside every fan's own idea of what it was like to create a very convincing realisation of the Time War. It may leave out some of the tantalising hints we've been told over the years - The Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles, anyone? - but we see enough of the horror and the scale to totally believe in it. 

Yet, there's much more to the novel than merely filling in a gap. It really is a unique piece with a feel very different from any other Who story. It certainly has a much bleaker outlook than most - the notion that everything and everyone is corruptible is a quite a prevalent idea here - yet hope still exists in the form of the leads. The War Doctor and Cinder make for a great partnership - both are jaded, battle-weary soldiers but they still believe there's something better out there than just the War. 

The War Doctor as a character is much like we saw on screen - a broken man but still with the Doctor's eccentricities and bravado peeking through - and it's easy to see and hear John Hurt while reading. His companion Cinder - who gets her name from her auburn hair as well as the fact that she was found in the ashes of her family home as a girl - is surely the most memorable one-off companion introduced in a novel. Actually, scratch that, she's probably one of the most memorable of any one-off companions. Thankfully, despite being very much involved in the conflict, she never feels like simply a boring hard-nosed soldier but a believable person who has had a terrible life but still has a sense of humour and a strong heart - like all the best companions, really. 

Completely engaging and satisfying, if a story of the Time War needed to be told I am glad it was this one. Due to its unique angle and fascinating setting, it could even be the best Doctor Who novel out there. It is certainly the most significant. We can but hope that there is more of the War Doctor still to come but if his catchphrase turns out to belie his number of appearances at least there is Engines of War.

Before the Moment - Engines of War sees the War Doctor at an earlier point in his life.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Review: A Doctor Who Fan on Star Trek (2009)

To boldly go where no Whovian (well, not this Whovian) has gone before...

Recently, hundreds of people across the world fell into mourning over the sad death of Leonard Nimoy, the perhaps most beloved actor from the long-lasting Star Trek. Myself, I felt the loss of such a bastion figure of popular culture and thought, in his honour, this would be a good time to rectify something: I'd never really seen any Star Trek.

Well, not properly. I'd vaguely watched Star Trek Into Darkness for Benedict Cumberbatch but most of it flew above my head so I don't think I can really count it. Initially, it might seem odd that I had never given that other great sci-fi show a go but Trek's sterile-looking, emphasis-on-big-ideas take was so far from the (generally) cheerful, ramshackle feel of Doctor Who that they might as well have been different genres. I didn't dislike the idea of Star Trek I just hadn't given it a go. Having committed to it now, though, I decided a good starting point was the film I probably should have watched first: the 2009 reboot.

Firstly, I certainly enjoyed it more than Into Darkness. That film (apart from being, I gather, a strange semi-remake of 'the' classic Trek film) left me feeling like I should be caring for the characters but I didn't know them well enough to. Here, however, I did and the film does a really good job of introducing the characters to fresh eyes, particularly Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine strikes me as something of a generic Hollywood leading man but he does fine as a young hot-headed Kirk while Zachary Quinto impresses as the apparently emotionless Spock. Much like Bond in Casino Royale, it doesn't feel like a cheap prequel but an interesting exploration of how these characters developed into their more familiar selves.  

While watching the film I wondered what the Who equivalent would be. While Doctor Who has had film versions separate from the series (two movies were produced in the 60s starring Peter Cushing as 'Doctor Who'), in terms of awe factor it's more similar to 'The Day of the Doctor.' They both use time travel to give the franchise a new lease of life (rebooting the universe/saving the Time Lords), different incarnations of characters (Three Doctors/two Spocks) and lots of kisses to the past (even I got references like 'I have been, and always shall be, your friend'). Much like I imagine a new Who viewer watching 'Day', I felt like I was missing out on something - being new to the party - but was still sufficiently swept along.

Overall, I'm impressed that the film manages to both keep the original in tact while rebooting it (I've always found straight reboots to be a boring way of ditching continuity - Who and James Bond know that all you have to do is ignore all the stuff you don't want and let the fans work it out) although the plot was a little convoluted. That said, I enjoyed it enough to be willing to watch more Trek in the future. So thank you, Mr Nimoy, for your integral role in Doctor Who's rival from across the pond. This Whovian (Vulcan) salutes you.

'Pleasure to meet you, Mr Spock' - Perhaps the two aren't quite so different, after all...

Friday, 27 February 2015

Scribble Creatures Spotlight: Lucifer Box

Kicking off last month with Return to Oz, a new regular feature on this blog will look at personal favourites - books, fictional characters, films ETC - which I think go unfortunately under-appreciated in the big wide world. This month, we turn to the exploits of a rather fiendish fellow...

Secret agents are going through something of a renaissance at the moment. On TV, there are shows like Marvel's Agent Carter and Toby Whithouse's The Game and the cinema is chock-a-block with retro, cool spies, such as those in Kingsman and The Man from UNCLE. Something tells me, however, that one retro secret agent you won't be seeing on screen any time soon is Mark Gatiss' debonair, if decadent, Lucifer Box.

Appearing in three novels by the Doctor Who and Sherlock writer, Lucifer Box is apparently a dandified artist - an early 20th century playboy who resides in No 9 Downing Street ('someone's got to live there'). In fact, Lucifer is the top agent of the Royal Academy, the front for Britain's Secret Service.
On the face of it, what with Gatiss being a big name on telly, Lucifer Box's stories seem perfect for an adaptation for a mainstream audience. However, his adventures are far wackier and more eccentric than the average spy thriller. And, even in 2015, possibly too risqué. Lucifer himself, as he carefully puts it, 'travels' on both 'the number 38 bus and the 19.' If you can imagine Captain Jack Harkness crossed with Oscar Wilde you have Lucifer in a nutshell.

Filled to the brim with wit and Gatiss' rich, descriptive writing style, the Box books are, as you would expect, something of a Bond pastiche but only to a certain degree. Unlike many perennial heroes, Lucifer Box ages, with each instalment moving the story forward several decades. The first sees a young Box in Edwardian times, the second a middle-aged Box in the 20s and the finale of the trilogy has Box, now an elder statesman, investigating one final case in the 50s. As such, Gatiss is allowed to unleash a tirade of pastiches, going from Edwardian garden party stories to the pulpy horrors of the 20s and 30s to the spy novels of John Le Carre and Ian Fleming. The books may be, as Gatiss puts it, 'bits of fluff' but that doesn't stop them from being an incredibly quotable, memorable and just genuinely enjoyable novel series.

So while Lucifer Box may deserve to rub shoulders (and probably more knowing him) with the likes of James Bond and Sherlock Holmes in the Hall of Famous Heroes, I can't see it happening. Still, with a fine trilogy of novels out there as it is, perhaps it is better that way. After all, some Boxes are best left unopened.

The Books

The Vesuvius Club

Lucifer is sent to investigate the disappearance of a number of eminent scientists in Naples - just when he has started courting the lovely Bella Pok. However, aided by his new valet Charlie Jackpot, Lucifer realises he has bigger problems on his finely-manicured hands when he uncovers the sinister machinations of the Vesuvius Club. Can Lucifer use his artistic license to kill to save the planet form a calamity of volcanic proportions?

The Devil in Amber

Lucifer, now feeling his age, is sent to New York to observe the suspicious activities of fascist leader Olympus Mons - but is framed for murder in the process. As resilient as ever, Lucifer escapes to Norfolk where he uncovers a plot to rule the world more diabolical than any he has faced. Is it possible for Lucifer, saviour of the world, to beat Lucifer, prince of darkness?
 Black Butterfly

An elderly Lucifer finds himself on his final case when pillars of the establishment keep dying bizarre deaths. The mystery takes him from Soho to Istanbul to Jamaica and back into battle with an old enemy - and into the path of the deadly assassin, Kingdom Kum. Will Lucifer, now well past his prime, survive an embrace by the lethal wings of the Black Butterfly?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Missy Will Return in Series Nine

Get ready to say something nice, everyone - the Queen of Evil is returning to plague the Doctor and Clara's lives sooner than we thought...

Today it was revealed that Series Eight's big bad, Missy - the Master in female form, in case you didn't know - is coming straight back into the show in Series Nine's opening episode, 'The Magician's Apprentice.'

I, for one, am terribly excited for Missy's return, with Michelle Gomez's scenery-crunching performance being one of the highlights of last year. We had been starved of the Master for years before Missy so who can complain if we get more of her so soon?

As cryptic as ever, Steven Moffat has said that what brings Missy back into the Doctor and Clara's lives 'is the last thing they'd expect.'

Other details about the series opener have also been revealed, including the announcement that Jemma Redgrave will be returning as UNIT head, Kate Stewart. What with her also appearing in the Series Eight finale just as Missy did, it looks like this will be something of a sequel to the 'Dark Water/Death in Heaven' story. Also announced to be in the episode is Claire Higgins, the actress who previously played Ohila in 'The Night of the Doctor.' Could the Sisterhood of Karn be returning too? They were always linked to the Time Lords so will we finally learn more about what really happened to Gallifrey?

Also now known is that the opener will be a two-parter - the second episode being called 'The Witch's Familiar.' Firstly, has there ever been a two-parter with such well-matching episode titles as these? The eponymous Magician and Witch surely refer to the Doctor and Missy - but who is their Apprentice/Familiar? Clara is certainly the Doctor's apprentice and could be said to be Missy's familiar (the term for a Witch's pet, such as their black cat), as Missy was revealed to be behind Clara meeting the Doctor in the first place.

In the wider context of Series Nine, it seems like this year will see a return to the multi two-parter series of yesteryear as Toby Whithouse (writer of several previous Whos and creator of Being Human) is said to be writing a 'spooky' two-parter while Moffat has previously spoken about the 'fantastic' cliffhanger he's written to lead into this year's finale, suggesting that will be a two-parter as well.


Is it August yet?

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Doctor Who: Off the Screen - Spare Parts

Fairly uniquely amongst television shows, Doctor Who has an incredibly diverse range spin-off media, in literally any medium you can think of. Other franchises might have the odd tie-in novel or comic book series but none of these stand on their own two feet as much as those in the Whoniverse. For instance, in this post, I take a look at one of the most significant of all Doctor Who stories - and it was never even on the telly...

I have a confession to make that may seriously damage my credentials as a Doctor Who fan - I don't often listen to the Big Finish audios. Don't get me wrong, I love hearing the Doctors and companions returning to their roles as much as the next person (or more, actually, as this metaphorical 'next person' is statistically unlikely to be a Who fan) but I don't purchase them regularly so I've missed out on some great adventures. Recently, I set out to rectify this by catching up with this story from 2002 which later influenced the revived series by filling in a previously-unseen part of the Whoniverse. The Genesis of the Cybermen.

Much like 'The Fires of Pompeii' and 'The Waters of Mars', the (Fifth) Doctor arrives in a place he never wanted to visit - Mondas, Earth's twin planet that he knows will become the homeworld of the Cybermen. He can't interfere this time, lest mess with established history, yet like always he really rather does.
Mondas is a planet on the edge of destruction. What's left of the populace is fooled with propaganda into offering themselves to the workforce - the heroes of Mondas who brave the planet's frozen surface. Really, the unfortunate souls are converted into... Cybermen.

Before we get to those silver giants, it needs to be said that the story makes great use of its TARDIS team. The Doctor and Nyssa as a pair works much better than the TARDIS-cramming gang that accompanied the Fifth Doctor on television. Their dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of the Fourth Doctor and Romana as it's a relationship of equals more than hero-sidekick like most Doctor and companions. And, unlike the TV stories, the heartache Nyssa has been through since meeting the Doctor - the death of her father and Adric, not to mention the destruction of her homeworld - are addressed here, helping to make Nyssa feel like a real person.

All right, let's talk about 'em. First and foremost, Spare Parts reminds you of how good the Cybermen can be when used correctly. In the modern series, the Cybermen's primary goal has been to upgrade and convert humanity. When they were first introduced, however, their aim was the survival of their species - converting others into Cybermen was just a by-product. Spare Parts rectifies this change and spins a scarily believable tale about the Cybermen being born from a species on the brink of extinction, desperate to survive - at whatever the cost.

This is the thinking of the scientist behind the Cybermen. Though this story goes against the expected idea of creating a Cyber-Davros - just as the TV series did in 'Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel' in John Lumic - it retains their creator as an important character, as well as giving the Cybermen a greater autonomy. She's certainly a more layered individual than Lumic's selfish Bond villain and suits the more tragic backstory of the Cybermen. These are not genetically-engineered monsters like the Daleks. The Cybermen are us.

For all its plusses, though, the audio has its flaws. While the world-building is well done, the smaller character moments which are meant to really ram home the horror of the Cybermen are not handled with as much emotion as they were in, say, The Age of Steel. That said, Spare Parts gets the most important thing right - the Cybermen. Returning to those strange squawking voices from 'The Tenth Planet', they are an impressive piece of characterisation through sound. For any Doctor Who fan wanting to upgrade to Big Finish, this is the story that will convert you.

Fun fact: the Cybermen's ear handles conceal headphones which constantly play Big Finish audios to keep them motivated. 
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