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Starburst Magazine Issue 406 - Out Now

TV Zone - (Issue 367)

PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount Tuesday, 14 June 2011

TV Zone - By veteran Paul Mount


It would be wrong of me - and probably quite inflammatory (much as I enjoy a good…inflame) - to declare that this year‘s Doctor Who is the most improved show on TV because that would be to suggest that there was something fundamentally wrong with the series last year. There clearly wasn’t because the show’s viewing figures remained buoyant, fan and public acclaim remained high, all seemed right with the Time Lord’s world(s) in the wake of that always-difficult new Doctor transformation. But the force of nature which is Matt Smith proved that there could be life after David Tennant (sorry, girls, there can) and new showrunner Steven Moffatt forged ahead with his own vision for the series, a vision that slowly but surely eased Doctor Who away from the big, blustering, very modern style of his predecessor Russell T Davies and into something a bit more surreal and other-wordly, a bit more fairytale. And therein lied my own particular problem...

Because it often seemed to me that Russell T had crafted his version of Doctor Who directly to my own preferred specifications. Davies rooted the show and its characters in the here and now with both his Doctors resolutely contemporary and relatable and yet still forged from the template of those eccentrics who had come before. The supporting characters with their real life families and issues (the “soap opera” stick so often used to beat the show with by lazy critics and fans who don’t seem to understand that proper human drama isn’t necessarily just the domain of the soap) struck a chord too. Come on, who didn’t love Jackie Tyler and Sylvia Noble? Who wouldn’t want Wilf as their own real Grandad? I even had a soft spot for Francine, Martha’s rarely-seen Mum. These characters - and the council estate and suburban backgrounds they came from - made the Doctor Who Universe that bit richer and that bit more real in the Davies era and the combination of believable people and wild, imaginative, sometimes barking mad stories made the 2005 - 2010 era a very special one indeed.

But one of the show’s strengths is its ability to subtly change its style and it’s only to be expected that Moffat would be keen to make his own mark on the show and tell his own stories his own way without being fettered by the work and style of Davies. My problem was that, as someone whose view of how the show should be in the 21st century chimed so perfectly with Davies's, season five (or season thirty-one just to keep the fanboys happy!) didn't always cut the mustard in quite the same way - or if it did it was a less fiery mustard than it had been before. I think I'll leave the mustard analogies there for now, if it's all the same to you... Doctor Who just seemed a bit underpowered last year; the stories were less dynamic, the production values seemed to have dropped a notch or two and - most fatally of all - the Doctor was lumbered with his least likable assistant since the heady days of Adric (smirk!) or Mel (horrors!).


Dr Who Companion - Now with 30% extra leg...

I never really warmed to Amy Pond in season five, despite the fact that she's "the Doctor's leggiest assistant yet!" according to various over-excited tabloids. She may well have been (I have not measured the legs of previous "assistants" so I can't say for sure) but as a character she was pretty much all over the place. Instead of the steadily-growing Doctor/companion relationship born out of trust, admiration and devotion depicted in the previous few seasons, Moffat gave us a fiery redheaded kissogram (in a remote Gloucestershire village where work must surely be a little thin on the ground) who just wanted to snog the Doctor for the sake of it despite the fact she had a stereotypical under-the-thumb boyfriend waiting back at home. There were hints that there might be a bit more to Amy than met the eye (and there could hardly have been less) but nothing much ever came through beyond the the sultry, over-sexed pouting one-dimensional figure on the screen. There were some other problems too, not least those risible redesigned Daleks and a reinvention of the Silurians, who first appeared in 1970, which was so radical they might as well have been another species entirely. The two-part season finale looked as if it was cobbled together just to accommodate old monster outfits gathering dust in the costume store (a charge which could possibly also be leveled to a lesser extent at A Good Man Goes To War, the current half-season finale) and, as a story, didn't really tie up anything hinted at in the rest of the season in any comprehensible manner.

As a contributor to the show from 2005 onwards Steven Moffat turned in some blindingly good stories. However as a showrunner he seemed to be either trying too hard to be different or had just lost the ability to tell a clear, linear story. TV Zone approached season six (all right, all right, thirty-two!) with some trepidation fearful of more of the same and yet hoping for some refinement and adjustment. Sighs of relief all round then, as, apart from some remaining niggles, the latest (half) season has been pretty triumphant so far, a show with a renewed focus, better characterisation and, thankfully, a far grander visual scale.

Much was made in the prepublicity of the cast's jaunt over to Utah to film sequences for the opening two-parter and whilst the resulting footage was impressive enough and gave the show a 'look' it hadn't had for a while, at the end of the day we're talking about a handful of scenes - just two in the second episode - which probably could have been realised with the help of a quarry and some green screen over in the UK. But hey, who am I to deny the Doctor Who crew a mini-break in the US? The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon were in many ways typical Moffat; lots of snappy dialogue (people talking in quips rather than actually communicating properly), some big ideas which reminded us of better ones (the much-vaunted Silence, too easily defeated in Day of the Moon were basically a variation on the Weeping Angels), Smith on manic form and some puzzling mysteries set up to keep ticking over throughout the rest of the run. All well and good but also slightly unsatisfying if you just want the quick adrenalin fix of a romping big Doctor Who story with a beginning, a middle, an end and a really good monster. On the plus side we saw the return of the intriguing River Song (Alex Kingston) and, best of all, a massive improvement in the characterisation (and performance) of Amy. Now happily married to Rory (Arthur Darvill) Amy's become much more sympathetic and likable and Karen Gillan has grown nicely into the role. Of course, this is with the understanding that the character we've thought was Amy throughout this season wasn't exactly Amy at all...

Steve Thompson's episode Curse of the Black Spot promised pirate shenanigans aplenty but the show's budget could only stretch to a handful of pirates and a becalmed boat with a CGI-enhanced Lily Cole wafting about the place zapping pirates. All the pirate boxes were rightly ticked; walking the plank, a bit of swordplay, a sudden storm, a young lad as stowaway. But the story never really moved out of first gear and the resolution was a Moffat standby we've seen twice before now - a pre-programmed automated system carrying on its work of protecting humans without realising it's actually damaging them - and it's one whose novelty has somewhat worn off by now. But after the darker pace and lightning-fast tone of the season opener, Curse of the Black Spot was a welcome return for the pure romp and it was infinitely better than the latest Pirates of the Caribbean debacle so everyone's a winner.

I don't worship at the altar of Neil Gaiman so the prospect of an episode of Doctor Who, written by the acclaimed fantasy novelist, was pretty much neither here nor there for me. It turns out The Doctor's Wife was actually a rather charming little number, the writer's own personal love letter to a show he clearly remains in awe of. It's also an episode which is a lot more fun the second time around when all the pieces fit and all the little clues and references make sense with the benefit of knowing what it was all about in the end. Despite its lavish production values this was an intimate episode about the Doctor's most intense and important relationship - with his own TARDIS, here personified as Idris (Suranne Jones) as an evil entity known only as House (voiced by Michael Sheen) lures the TARDIS to a junkyard in space where it has destroyed hundreds of other Time Lords. The Doctor, realising that Idris in his travelling machine in human form, berates the TARDIS for never taking him where he wanted to go. Idris/the TARDIS responds with "I always took you where you needed to be" which offers the tantalising proposition that the TARDIS is a lot more sentient than we ever thought and that it's been instrumental in influencing the Doctor and his destiny all along. The Doctor's Wife might just be one of the most beautiful and touching episodes of the series ever made.



Idris (The TARDIS) and the Doctor say their goodbyes in the frankly superb The Doctor's Wife

Watching The Rebel Flesh, the first part of Matthew Graham's two-parter, I almost expected the picture to bleach to white and for Matt Smith to morph into Patrick Troughton and for Amy and Rory to turn into Jamie and Zoe. This episode and its second part The Almost People was about as traditional as Doctor Who has been since it was resurrected. Classic base-under-siege stuff with the Doctor and co trapped in a monastery-cum-acid factory on a remote island whilst under attack by artificial flesh (doppelgangers) turning on their human creators. But there was some decent moralising about the nature of humanity here along with good action set pieces and some quite disturbing images - the half-formed Ganger faces, the Geiger-like creature which Jennifer's second Ganger turned into at the end of the second episode; more fuel for the rumbling argument that Doctor Who has suddenly become a lot scarier and a lot more adult than it has been for some time. A quality guest cast - Marshall Lancaster, Mark Bonnar and the excellent Raquel Cassidy and Sarah Smart - made for a solid and engrossing story with a clear narrative which resulted in the most wholly-satisfying story of the season so far.

Moffat's finale A Good man Goes To War was a different kettle of fish again, another example of the ‘and there's the kitchen sink’ approach he seems to favour for the big Event episodes. Typically Moffat this was pretty much just a collection of ideas, jokes and random characters with a vague story threaded somewhere through the madness and yet it all made a sort of splendid sense as long as you were paying close attention and it continued the theme of the Doctor as this legendary, mythic almost God-like figure which the series has been carefully propogating since it returned in 2005. With Amy revealed at the shock climax of the previous episode as a Ganger the Doctor sets off trying to round up an Army so he and Rory can track down and rescue the real Amy and her new-born daughter. This Army isn't, however, anyone we've ever met before or ever seen the Doctor meeting; Moffat develops his obsession with the Doctor having had countless off-screen adventures as here his 'friends' are a Sontaran battlefield nurse, a lesbian Silurian living in Victorian London and apparently eating Jack the Ripper (I'm not making this stuff up!), a fat blue bloke (hardly warrior material, Doc, what were you thinking?) and Rory dressed a roman centurian again (yawn). The sheer grandiose visual spectacle of the thing not only belied the show's budget but managed to take the viewers' mind off the fact that the promised war was really just a short scene in which a few people in outlandish costumes swung swords about whilst others indulged in a spot of heavy Thesping as a prelude to the 'revelation' of River Song's true identity in the last scene. This isn't a mystery which has kept me awake at night, I'll freely admit, but even I was able to put two and two together when Amy's baby's name was revealed early in the episode as Melody. The half-series ends with another of Moffat's ‘game-changing’ finales with the Doctor racing off to rescue Amy's baby and the promise of, no doubt, more mind-bending yarns to come later in the year. All in all a pretty cracking if occasionally frustrating mid-season finale.

There's no doubt then that this has been a much bolder, confident set of episodes than last year. This is due in part to new production designer Michael Pickwoad who has really given the show its big visual look again - these have been, almost without exception, massive widescreen affairs full of spectacle and space and the show has benefited enormously from his input as much as it has from a more sympathetic Amy/Rory partnership and, of course, Matt Smith himself. Moffat's version of the Doctor is now very much established as the 'mad man in a box' and Smith plays up to this at every opportunity, arms flailing, pulling faces, cracking gags. In truth his relentlessness can get a bit wearing but, like his two immediate predecessors, Smith comes into his own in the quieter, more contemplative moments, the moments of quiet rage or moral superiority when we're sharply reminded that this man is something more and less than human, often at the same time.



"Hello Sweetie!" Grrrrr...

The half-series ends with questions both answered and unanswered. How come the Doctor is killed in The Impossible Astronaut, what's all that about? The mysterious regenerating girl in the spacesuit at the end of Day of the Moon - who the Hell is she exactly? And the Silence - were they really beaten that easily? Grumbles about Moffat's opaque plotting and reliance on catchphrases (I can happily live the rest of my life without hearing "Spoilers!", "Hello sweetie" or, most fist-clenchingly-irritating of all "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" ever again, thanks) remain but worries that his time-twisting style of story-telling and, now, the utter abandonment of contemporary Earth settings and subsidiary characters might chase away an easily-confused casual audience appear to be unfounded. In fact the show's position in the hearts and minds of the viewing public seems pretty much as secure as ever. And after all, any series which can end a portentous episode like A Good Man Goes To War with a caption advising us that the Doctor will return in an episode hilariously entitled Let's Kill Hitler has got to be doing something right.


THE WALKING DEAD


With the BBC having last year cruelly killed off their reboot of Survivors after only two series it falls to US Network AMC and their adaptation of The Walking Dead to give us post-apocalypse fiends our much needed end of the world television fix. The first series of six episodes ran to huge acclaim in the US last year (and initially on FX in the UK) and has just completed a pretty successful first screening on 5 in the UK. The series has run for some time as a comic book in the States, created by writer Robert Kirkman who became irritated by zombie apocalypse films which just ended; he wanted to find out what happened next, the aftermath to the aftermath, if you like, and how those who survive continue to survive and the trials and tribulations they face in a world crawling with the living dead. Brrrr.

With Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist - my favourite genre movie of the last ten years) on board, AMC have stepped back and let the show tell its story its own way and it's strong, uncompromising stuff. Like most post apocalypse fiction (especially Day of the Triffids and 28 Days Later) it starts with a man in a hospital waking up after the world has ended. In The Walking Dead it's Rick Grimes (Brit actor Andrew Lincoln, best known in the UK from seminal 1990s BBC2 drama This Life and the underrated UK supernatural series Afterlife), a run-of-the-mill cop from Atlanta injured in a gunfight who wakes from a coma to find that something Very Bad Indeed has happened to the world. Rick's our point-of-view as he stumbles through the undead world determined to find his wife and child whom he's convinced have somehow escaped the apocalypse. They have, of course; they're shacked up on the outskirts of the city with a bunch of other survivors but unfortunately Rick's wife has turned to his former Police colleague for comfort amongst other things. Meanwhile Rick has wandered into Atlanta itself and is soon under attack by hordes of ravening zombies and, teaming up with a bunch of foragers, he has to fight his way out back to the community where, as he discovers, his wife and son are safe and sound.

Rarely a dull moment in The Walking Dead which depicts its undead world with a cinematic relish and buckets of gore with grisly images such as the half-zombie crawling across the grass and the sequence in which Rick and his new-found friends smear themselves in entrails to persuade the zombies that they're undead too. Elsewhere there are dismemberments and zombie attacks galore as the series truncates the events and storyline of the original comic and takes its survivors off in new directions; with a season finale based at the Atlanta HQ of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and a possible explanation for the zombie virus outbreak (something the comic strip has resolutely refused to address).

The Walking Dead is powerful, haunting and at time genuinely unsettling. The sequences set in the deserted Atlanta are astonishingly-effective and whilst the supporting characters don't really have enough screentime to properly establish themselves, there's enough there to shock as the odd cast member succumbs or makes the odd self-sacrifice. With a longer 12-episode run just entering production for screening towards the end of the year, The Walking Dead looks as if it's in for the long haul and if it even vaguely follows the path of the comic book there are grim times ahead for Grimes and his ragtag band of refugees.


DINOSHARK


Is it just me or does she look remarkably calm considering?

I'm sorry but I'm still a sucker for a creature feature and I just couldn't resist this Roger Corman gem which surfaced (arf arf) recently on the SyFy (??) Channel following a DVD release a few weeks back. I've endured enough cheap Asylum Studios’ knock-offs over the last few years to know that little good can come from watching these trashy TV movies (Megashark vs Giant Octopus springs to mind when I really wish it wouldn't) and I know that I risk whatever credibility I have left by...ulp...reporting that Dinoshark is (whisper it) actually not bad at all. Of course it's a Jaws rip-off, and it knows it and acknowledges it (in the incidental music which has shades of the legendary Jaws theme here and there and in the dialogue - "You're going to need a bigger chopper" deadpans one character when Dinoshark launches itself out of the water and drags a passing helicopter into the sea).

The plot may be familiar; a dinoshark (that's half dinosur, half shark, fool!) thaws out of the Arctic ice and makes its way to Mexico (as it would) where it starts making a meal of various swimmers and boats...and wouldn't you know it there's some sort of water gala planned for the local resort just as Dino hoves into view. But this is a Corman-produced movie (he guests as a marine scientist and let's charitably say that his performance is...interesting) and we know what to expect. What we get is something cheap and cheerful with some iffy special effects (and some decent stuff, to be fair), hugely derivative and surprisingly bloody. But it's also surprisingly entertaining with a decent starring turn from Eric Balfour (most recently seen in Skyline...whether that's step up from Dinoshark is a matter for you) and a nice pacey script with some decent cinematography. So be warned...TV Zone will be scouring the SyFy (???) schedules in the months ahead for more monstrous TV movie treats! For now, I'm outta here...


COMING SOON;: More Primeval on Watch, Camelot on Channel 4 plus Teen Wolf (no, honestly, they've made a series!) and the new US post-alien invasion series Falling Skies. Oh, and there's that little matter of Torchwood too... Don't go changing!



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