Dr Who and the End of the Universe

I will try to steal Heather’s jump on this topic today as I had the rare chance to watch Dr Who first time round.

It was always going to be hard for Dr Who to improve on last weeks brilliant episode and I am not sure this week managed it. Last week, there was a fantastic mix of tension which gave the episode the air of a classic horror film (i.e. not relying on gore). This week it seems to have fallen back on some tried and tested Dr Who routines but it was still watchable.

Warning – spoiler. Don’t read on if it will bother you to get an insight into the plot.

In a nutshell, the Dr has been catapulted to the end of the universe, comes across a bunch of humans who are heading to Utopia (which may be mythical) and he helps them on their way. The humans are being attacked by “Future Kind” (frankly pathetic baddies) and at the end the doctor realises he is not alone when he confronts the Master. Next week, in the series finale (season finale to colonials) we find out what happens after the Master steals the Tardis and abandons the Dr on the planet, about to be overwhelmed by Future Kind.

As I said, it was watchable. It didn’t have the tension that “Blink” had but it was head and shoulders above some of the dross episodes previously (like the first one of the season). As general TV goes, it is one of the BBCs strongest programmes and probably the only worthwhile UK-made Sci Fi on TV now. This isn’t saying much though.

Almost as if the scriptwriters were pandering to my demands, this episode (and the next one, I assume) was set quite some distance from 21st century London. This certainly helped the episode and is well overdue for the series. Moving to an alien planet in an alien time is what Dr Who should be about. I will admit my heart sank when the episode opened in Cardiff but thankfully that was brief!

Added into this, the two-parter nature gave the plot lots of breathing space. Russell Davies was allowed to create a few minor twists and introduce some side-characters to give the whole thing a feeling of depth. This helps and really, the BBC should make every “story” span over several episodes. Do they really have such a low opinion of their viewers?

Pushing on from this, there was the requisite “crazy science” thrown in – sometimes this worked, but sometimes it dropped a bit of a stone. I like the concept of the rocket etc., but I am intrigued how, gazillions of years in the future, Humanity has managed to avoid evolving beyond how we are today – even in dress sense. Comically, the human enclave was guarded by men carrying AK-47 assault rifles, I am sure if Mr Kalashnikov had known how robust his design actually was, he would have been over the moon. Suspension of disbelief is important, but really, a culture which has a rocket that can escape the end of the universe using an assault rifle that is, even now, over sixty years old… 😀

Last, but not least, of the good points. David Tennant is a brilliant Dr Who. Easily on a par with Tom Baker – which is saying an awful lot! Freema Agyeman is now a more than competent assistant. I have revised my opinion of her acting skills over the last few episodes and she is quite good now. Well done to them both. Sadly, the supporting cast rarely match up to their acting skills.

There were downsides. Capt Harkness is always a negative point. A massive one most of the time. Possibly the most irritating character to ever “assist” the Dr, he was put out to pasture in Torchwood. This was terrible, so why they have brought him back is beyond me. Obviously he either owns the BBC or has lots of black mail material. Do they think it was the other people (cant bring myself to call them actors) who made torchwood crap? Please, can’t they just kill him?

The “Future Kind” we offensive as monsters go. It must have taken about six seconds to come up with them and less time to decide on their look. Most school kids can make more believable baddies. Add in the sole effect of evolution seems to be a lot of tattoos and jewellery and it becomes a bit too comical. And not in the good way. Might as well have made them all march in step, taken loads of shots of their feet stamping and put them in jump suits – it is what they have done for all the other baddies…

I am going to hold judgement on the Master. I never really took to him in the Tom Baker episodes, and he has stolen the Tardis before IIRC so this might be an unoriginal plot… Hopefully he will be more than a stereotyped cackling baddie, and I am a bit optimistic from the part where the Master says how he isn’t going to spend time telling the Doctor his plans, which would allow the Doctor time to come up with a counter. I liked that, but it has been done before.

Overall, though, this was a good episode. It had the requisite back references to other geek-culture items (blogs for instance), but it was not brilliant. “Blink” was much better.  Much, much better. That said, when the series finishes next week I will be sad. Hopefully the BBC will replace it with something decent, otherwise I can spend the hour after eating, before NCIS starts, playing Medieval Total War II….

[tags]bbc, david-tennent, david-tennant, dr-who, doctor-who, freema-agyeman, Captain Jack, Jack Harkness, Captain Jack Harkness, Tom Baker, Tardis, Master, Timelords, NCIS, Torchwood, Future Kind, Evolution, Russell T Davies, Televistion, Sci Fi, Science Fiction, Science[/tags]

Good but overly formulaic Dr Who

Normally, I find myself agreeing with Heather’s comments on Dr Who, however having been able to watch tonight’s episode on time (not as easy as you would think), this time I don’t. Well, I don’t fully agree…

Basically, I thought both episodes of this two parter were quite good. Dr Who has had a tendency to find it has good plot lines but the squash to make everything fit 40 mins really effects it. The breathing room these two episodes had showed in the plot development and subsequent deliverance. If the BBC had any sense (which, sadly, it doesn’t) then it would give Dr Who a longer run each year and allow every story to have at least two episodes. The pinnacle of Dr Who (Tom Baker, obviously) normally had around four episodes in which to deliver a story line. The difference is startling.

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Sci-fi cliches

This is further to the post about Dr Who’s references to other sci-fi and some very knowledgeable comments, one of which pointed out that sci-fi movies owe a fair bit to Dr Who.

Spotting the refences and cliches makes up a good part of the enjoyment of sci-fi. There’s an inclusive list on cthreepio among other sites. Here are a few of my own favourites:

All alien races speak English. This is very convenient, of course. (Although, unusually, Klingons do have their own language.)

The most advanced computer can be completely confused into breaking, by being asked to process a contradictory statement.

Any high spec computer will become sentient. And homicidal. It can then only be defeated by making use of the surprising design fault listed above.

Non-humans usually look exactly like humans or exactly like humans with insect heads or with some wierd ear, nose, eye or forehead attribute.

About 70% of all non-earth civilisations are identical to those of medieval Europe. A further 20% are basically the same as Ancient Egypt.

The crew of any spaceship will happily mate with non-humans but there is less than 1% chance of crew members of different earth “races” ever getting involved with each other. Which is odd, given that space travel is only achieved when the earth becomes one big happy international family.

The holodeck is always broken in such a way that game characters will come to life and threaten the life of the crew, while the crew will never be able to end the game. Nevertheless, the holosuite is never dismantled. The crew will still go blithely into it. They will always choose Nazi Germany or an interplanetary war or some other blatantly dangerous setting.

Any Stargate crew member that you’ve never seen before who speaks a few lines at the beginning of an episode is doomed to die in the next few minutes. Being assigned to SG6 is a death sentence

Dr Who – Alien meets 24

Another pretty good Dr Who episode tonight.

Visually, Dr Who is getting better and better. There was better rendering (a good space ship and a bubbling sun) and more interesting lighting (red and blue on the face close-ups) than we’d expect from normally cash-short British tv.

Altogether, it had the look and feel of “proper” sci-fi. Racing headlong into the sun is par for the course. (Solaris, and the film where Bruce Willis has to destroy an asteroid.) So is being trapped on a space ship with an unknown evil entity. (Alien, 2001.) As well as being stalked by a mechanical humanoid figure. (Predator, Terminator, Judge Dredd.) The computer female voice that keeps giving out unemotional messages of the pressure of time (can’t think of a reference sorry, but it seems standard…)

The main visual influence seemed to be the Alien movies (with a nod to Das Boot, but maybe that’s just me.) Both male and female technicians looked like the crew of Alien (vests, combat suits, artfully arranged sweat) . The ship also had the same sort of look and there was an intense claustrophobic feel to the plot, as well as to the sets.

This episode was called “42”, with a nod to Douglas Adams (the “answer to the universe”) and to “24” (the episode was supposed to be in real-time and there was a 42 minute timer countdown providing constant pressure).

So, a bit of an art-house-for-nerds episode. This series is shaping up to be the best one ever. Although this is from someone who loves sci-fi clich̩s. And who thinks that the very first Dr Who series Рwith that weird Quatermassy feel and the old man with long white hair Рand the mainly-played for laughs Tom Baker Dr Who were the only really good bits, out of what was often dire.

[tags]42, dr-who, episode, rave, sci-fi, sci-fi-cliches, television, tv, BBC, Douglas Adams[/tags]

Dr Who on the road to nowhere

A fair bit of social comment from Dr Who in another good episode.

I guess that makes it proper sci-fi. It certainly “referenced” lots of existing sci-fi. The sky traffic flows brought to mind the Fifth Element; the people changed into animals looked like they’d stepped off the set of Dark Angel. There were still some specifically British elements, like the old ladies singing inspirational hymns in way that brought to mind both Vera Lynn (who is astonishingly still alive and giving lucid interviews) and Songs of Praise.

For a change, the setting wasn’t London, it was set in a future dystopic New York, although you certainly couldn’t tell from the accents. Which has got to be better than actors trying to fake American accents, given how few have the gift of getting away with it. The acting standard seemed to be up a few notches in any case.

People in the lower levels of the city chase away unwanted thoughts by patching on medication. The rest are on the motorway. Everyone on the motorway lives in groups of one or two, on an endless commute to nowhere. Communication is through receipt of central instructions from the tv. The police put you on infinite hold until you finally get through to two women who can offer almost no assistance. Everyone is expressing a borrowed “individuality” while remaining isolated. (See what I mean about the social comment)

Their cars are a cross between old Volkswagen Travellers and Tardises laid on their sides. With skirts instead of wheels, bacause they fly. They are fitted out with all the necessities of life, like human wastes recycled for food.

I’ve just watched the accompanying “Making of” show on BBC4 (?) where the scene designers discussed what they’d done and why. There was a great bit – that I must have missed through the dsitractions caused by defragging – where they played Snow patrol’s Chasing Cars to a scene of the flying cars. (Sorry, I just really like Snow Patrol.) THe making of programme is pretty good as well.

Dr Who

The new series of Dr Who started on BBC1 today and, while I was only half watching it, I must say that so far it is not as good as those that went before. I am not sure if it is a combination of dodgy scripting or atrocious supporting actors, but there is certainly room for improvement.

First off, sadly, David Tennant is a very, very good Doctor. Christopher Eccleston is a very good actor and really got the new series off to a good start after the problems which ended the series in the late 80’s. (Colin Baker and Sylverster McCoy truly have a place in the LinuxGod’s hell for their part) Despite this, Eccleston never really was “Doctor Who.” He was a touch too agressive and militaristic (maybe I just remember 28 Days Later too much).

Tennant is as close to the real Doctor (Tom Baker of course) as any one since has ever been. Shame everything about him screams that he should be terrible, he just isn’t.

Unfortunately he is pretty much on his own though. For some reason Dr Who’s scriptwriters – who include some of the most imaginative people in Britain – have a hard time putting together a decent plot. I suspect it is not all their fault, the constraints of the new format are against them.

Compared to the old series, the new ones are rushed. They try to introduce a setting, build tension, create a conflict, get the audience attached to the protagonists, get all dramatic and conclude in about 45 minutes. That is never going to be good. If you look at the Tom Baker years, each “episode” ran about 3 hours long and the extra breathing room certainly pays off. The plots are massively more engaging and you can actually get into the characters and their interactions. Are children really so short of attention span now? I doubt it myself.

The scriptwriters obviously collude with the set designers to make life easy. Oddly it goes horribly wrong. Unlike the first seven doctors, Doctors 9 and 10 never seem to leave Earth. It is rare for them to go anywhere other than London. Nearly every episode starts and ends “today” which seems to miss most of the point of it being Sci-Fi. None of this fighting Daleks on Skaro or the like, now the Doctor largely fights comedy monsters in London. Sometimes it is Victorian London, and I think a total of three episodes out of the last two seasons have been elsewhere. On the massively rare off chance any one involved reads this GET OFF EARTH! Go to colony ships in deep space, go to weird trading worlds, or planets which are stuck in a combination of the middle ages with lasers. Get SCIFI! Please! Don’t turn this into Hollyoaks with a sonic screwdriver.

Obviously the set designers like this because it should be easy to mock up sets that look like London. However, they still get things weirdly wrong. Tonight’s episode had a hospital moved to the moon, and every time they tried to show shots of people looking at the stars, or the ones back home looking at the hole you could see massive visual artefacts round the join points. I know it is not high budget, but this is 2007. Even the BBC can afford a decent Linux box with decent software… surely… ?

Add to all this the nonsensical “baddies” and it seems the BBC is trying to cut costs for what should be the flagship programme for 1900hrs on a Saturday. In the episode tonight, there were two sets of baddies, a blood sucker (who kills Dr Stoker – see, humour is not dead) in the form of a little old lady and some intergalactic police. When the police turn up, they are basically cybermen in black with bigger helmets. They walk the same, they form up the same and initially they act the same. It was almost painful. Please Dr Who scriptwriters. Use decent monsters. Stop going for people with funny masks on. Remember this is 2007. Check your calendar if you don’t believe me!

In a similar vein, despite Tennant’s excellent acting skill, the rest of the cast are painfully bad. I thought “Rose Tyler’s” family in the last season were poor but this new crop reach a new nadir of poor acting. The new sidekick/leading lady “Martha Jones” (Freema Agyeman) is a poor actor. She seems to be constantly giggling and gives the program the air of watching a secondary school play (High School for the Americans). Even at the most traumatic, shocking, surprising or scary moments, she appears to be fighting to suppress a grin. It is painful. I can only assume she will get better.

That said, she outclasses the rest of the supporting cast by an order of magnitude. Watching them pretend to scream, pretend to faint, argue or whatever is painful. I know this is “Kids TV” but if the support can’t act, write scripts that need less of them. Stop trying to recreate Ben Hur in a hospital.

I know this is a bit of a rant and there seems to be quite a few whines, but overall, I quite enjoyed the program. I am sure kids today will like it, but sadly they miss out on the real joys that Dr Who could provide. The lack of a cliff hanger is a shame and it seems to pander to limited attention spans rather than make people want to come back and watch more – this is odd, as each episode shows a taster for the next one…

Maybe someone, who knows someone, who knows someone who works on the team for this will read this blog and pass on some comments. If it changes for the better, brilliant and it could be a fantastic series. If it doesn’t, never mind. It will still be OK (if repetitive). At least the science is broadly sound 🙂

[tags]Dr Who, Doctor Who, BBC, Freema Agyeman, David Tennent, Tom Baker, Television, TV, Daleks, Sci-Fi, Science Fiction, Rants, Christopher Eccleston, Martha Jones, Cybermen, Rose Tyler, Society[/tags]