Saturday, June 23, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "Utopia"

Only two more episodes of Doctor Who's third season remain - which is a scary thought (even if I am planning to watch all three seasons back to back during July and August!). What's even more scary is that there are rumours that this season's finale won't actually be final - that it'll end on a cliff-hanger that won't be resolved until the Christmas Special. Argh ! I don't want to think about the prospect of waiting 6 months for the resolution... In the meantime, last week's episode, "Utopia" saw the return of two Doctor Who characters, one from the classic era and one from the New era: The Master, the Doctor's arch-nemesis, and Capt. Jack Harkness, respectively. This episode is actually the first part in a three-part build up to the end of the season, so if you get the chance watch "Utopia", "The Sound of Drums" and "The Last of the Time Lords" back to back without a break !

Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor and Martha Jones

My biggest complaint with this episode is that it's largely filler - it's a way of re-introducing Captain Jack, whom we haven't seen in "Doctor Who" since the end of season 1, and of introducing The Master to New Doctor Who. So for the first thirty minutes or so, not a lot happens. The episode opens with the Doctor and Martha landing the TARDIS on the time rift in Cardiff to refuel (something the Ninth Doctor did in season 1's "Boom Town). Captain Jack appears in the distance, running madly towards the TARDIS, shouting for the Doctor. The Doctor sees him on the view screen in the TARDIS, but ignores him and the TARDIS dematerialises - but with Jack clinging to the outside, which propels the TARDIS forward in time thousands of years, and in space, to the very edge of the universe, where the last remnants of humanity are still clinging to existence. Outside their compound exists a race of mutated humans who are vicious, savage and enjoy hunting down (and presumably eating) regular humans. The TARDIS lands and Martha asks the Doctor what's out there. He admits he doesn't know, and she asks him to repeat that since it's rare that he doesn't know where they are (or anything else!) After the Doctor suggests to Martha that they should really leave, the pair hurry outside where Martha spots Jack lying on the ground nearby, apparently dead. She dashes back inside the TARDIS whilst the Doctor says greets Jack less than enthusiastically. Just as Martha is telling the Doctor that Jack is dead, he springs back into life, scaring her silly, although she soon recovers when he flirtatiously introduces himself. Martha's a bit shocked when the Doctor reveals that he knows Jack and that he used to travel with the Doctor.

We then cut to Jack explaining to Martha what happened to him (something "Torchwood" viewers waited 13 weeks for in vain) - that he woke up alive on Satellite Five after being exterminated by the Daleks and he used his Vortex Manipulator (a watch-like device he wears on his wrist) to get back to Earth. He sarcastically notes that the Doctor's not "the only one who can time travel", prompting the Doctor to reply "Oh excuse me! That is not time travel. It's like I've got a sports car and you've got a space-hopper" and Martha to comment "Oh-ho! Boys and their toys!" Martha then asks the Doctor if he makes a habit of abandoning his Companions in odd places around the universe and Jack makes a snide comment about "Unless you're blonde", prompting Martha to say (of Rose) "Oh so she was blonde". This causes the Doctor to lose his temper with them both, pointing out that they're "at the end of the Universe. Eh? Right at the edge of knowledge itself and you're busy - BLOGGING!"

Moments later they spot a human being chased by a group of humanoids (the vicious futurekind as they've been dubbed) and the three go haring to the rescue, only to find themselves even more out-numbered than they'd realised, and their route back to the TARDIS cut off as well. The man whom they've attempted to rescue suggests they ruin for the silo and the four hare off with the futurekind in hot pursuit. Once inside, someone tells Professor Yana (Sir Derek Jacobi) via an intercom that four humans have arrived and one of them's a doctor. He gets excited and rushes down to meet the four. He rushes the Doctor back to his lab and starts talking about the technology he's been trying to use to send a rocket out to Utopia which humanity is desperate to reach. Unsurprisingly, the Doctor steps in, and despite knowing nothing of the technology, helps out and gets it working in no time.

Up until this point, not much has happened, except that Professor Yana reveals that all his life he's had a noise in his head - the sound of drums - which has been getting louder as if they're getting closer. Then one of the futurekind, who has at some point snuck inside the compound, causes some havoc, which means the power fails and the radiation in the room where the rocket couplings are being prepared for the take off, reaches critical - and there's no way of restoring the power or lowering the radiation levels quickly. So the Doctor volunteers indestructible Captain Jack (who, since Rose's actions in looking into the heart of the TARDIS, taking the power of the Vortex into herself and restoring Jack to life, cannot die), to enter the room below the rocket so that he can deal with the couplings. He and the Doctor then discuss Jack's situation (one on either side of a door) and their conversation is overheard by Martha, Professor Yana and his assistant Chanto (a blue alien who looks like a humanoid bug). Bits of the conversation start to echo through Yana's brain and then Martha discovers that he has a fob-watch which is very similar to the one the Doctor had in "Human Nature" and "Family of Blood", which the Doctor used to contain his Time Lord essence whilst he was a human. Yana explains that the watch doesn't work and can't be opened, explaining that he's had it all his life, ever since he was found as a naked child on the shores of the Silver Devastation. Martha realises the watch's significance and runs to tell the Doctor about it, but whilst she's gone Yana opens the watch, restoring his true self. And his true self is revealed to be The Master, the Doctor's greatest enemy.

But the episode doesn't end there. The Doctor, Jack and Martha race back to Yana's lab, but they're too late. The Master has attacked Chanto, intending to kill her, revealing that he's never really liked her (although that's really the Master, not the Professor speaking) and expressing anger that in the 17 years she's worked with him, she never thought to ask him about the watch, which he's barely paid attention to as it's had a perception filter on it - just as the Doctor's did. He picks up the Doctor's hand (which had been chopped off by the leader of the Sycorax way back in "The Christmas Invasion" (Tennant's first episode as the Doctor) which Jack had kept stored in a jar at Torchwood Three to act as a "Doctor detector") and takes it aboard the TARDIS. Just as the Master is preparing to leave, Chanto shoots him and the Doctor and co. arrive - having had to fight their way through two locked doors and race against the futurekind (whom the Master had allowed into the compound).

After Chanto shoots him, the Master is forced to regenerate (from Derek Jacobi into John Simm) and he has a quick conversation with the Doctor, tauting him from the safety of the TARDIS (which he's locked from the inside) before he disappears with the TARDIS, leaving the others trapped at the end of the Universe.

And leaving the viewer wondering how they will get back to Earth - and just what plans Harold Saxon (the Master) has for Earth when he's elected as Prime Minister...

Professor Yana and the Doctor

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "Blink"

Continuing the tradition established in season 2 of Doctor Who, this episode is what's known to fans as the "Doctor-Lite" episode - we see less of the Doctor and his Companion in this episode. This is a decision made by the production team after the BBC asked for a Christmas Special after season 1 did well, meaning that they were actually making and needing to budget for 14 episodes instead of the 13 originally planned and budgeted for by the production team. The episode is filmed at the same time as at least one other (in a process known to the production team as "double-banking") and in addition to allowing 14 episodes to be filmed in the same time as 13 were in season 1, it also gives the leads a slightly less exhausting schedule. Last year's "Doctor-Lite" episode was "Love and Monsters", which I largely liked, apart from the ending (which spoils the rest of the episode for me). Steve Moffat's "Blink", on the other hand, is marvellous - although I failed to find it at all scary, which has baffled most of my Whovian friends !

Sally Sparrow goes to visit a house named Wester Drumlins - a rather dilapidated building that's not been lived in many years. Whilst she's there, taking photos, she spots a bit of wallpaper hanging down with some writing behind, and pulls it loose to find a message from the Doctor, dated 1969, that warns her to beware of the "Weeping Angels" and telling her to "Duck now!" She does, just a piece of pottery is thrown at her head. She goes back to the house the following day with her friend Cathy Nightingale, mainly to prove that she's not imagining the message. Whilst she and Cathy are looking around, someone rings the doorbell and a young man gives Sally a letter, telling her that he'd been told he could find her in the house at exactly this time. She opens the letter but when she asks who told him, he answers that it was his grandmother, who died 20 years ago, and her maiden name was Cathy Nightingale. Assuming that the young man is playing a prank, she rushes upstairs to discover that Cathy has disappeared. Moments later we see her in Hull in 1920 talking to a young man. Cathy has been sent back in time by one of the Weeping Angel statues that lurk around the house.

It turns out that the statues are actually psychopathic hunters with a unique method of dispatching their prey: with a single touch, they push their victims decades into the past (the number of years appears to be completely random), leaving the victims to live out their lives a generation or more before they were even born. The Angels then feed on the "potential energy" of the lives their victims would have lived in the present. They have the ability to move with blinding speed in order to catch their victims and they also have a unique, completely perfect defence mechanism. Whilst any living being is looking at them, they are reduced to the literal stone statues they resemble, a state which the Doctor describes as Quantum Locked, which prevents them from being killed (since you cannot kill a stone). This is the reason for their appearance of weeping - the same rule applies to others of their species, meaning that if one looks upon another, they would both be forever locked in stone. By virtue of their defence mechanism, the Angels can't be seen moving.

According to the Doctor, the Weeping Angels are a very old species who have existed since the dawn of the universe, and he describes them as "creatures of the abstract". He also notes that they are the kindest of killers, as their method of "killing" their prey doesn't actually kill, it just dispatches them into the past. A quartet of the Weeping Angels have stranded the Doctor and Martha in 1969 without the TARDIS, which they have kept in order to feed from its potential energy. The Doctor uses DVD "Easter Eggs" (the hidden extras that appear on some DVDs) to communicate with Sally and guide her to send the TARDIS back to him and Martha.

Cathy's letter to Sally asks her to tell her brother Laurence, whom Sally had briefly met at Cathy’s house the night before, that his sister is safe and that she loves him. After she delivers this message, she sees the Doctor talking on a DVD and Laurence explains about the Easter Eggs which only appear on 17 completely unrelated DVDs, a list of which he gives to Sally. She then goes to the police and talks to DI Billy Shipton, who tells her that many people have vanished from around Wester Drumlins without explanation, some even leaving their cars with the engine still running. He shows her an old Police Public Call Box that was also found near the house before he too vanishes, finding himself back in 1969 where he meets the Doctor and Martha. Sally gets a phone call on her mobile from a hospital and meets Billy who is now an old man and dying. He tells Sally what he can of his conversation with the Doctor before he dies. Sally then goes to see Laurence, having realised that the 17 DVDs do have one thing in common - they're all the DVDs she owns.

She and Laurence go back to Wester Drumlins and watch one of the DVD Easter Eggs where she has a "conversation" with the Doctor - he has a transcript of their conversation on his auto-cue - Laurence has made a copy of the things the Doctor says in the Easter Egg, then records Sally's responses to the Doctor's remarks, creating a transcript of their conversation which the Doctor tells Sally he picked up in the future. She and Laurance manage to get the TARDIS back to the Doctor despite being attacked by four of the Weeping Angels.

A year later, she sees the Doctor and Martha getting out a taxi outside the shop that she and Laurence now run, and she gives him her file of information relating to the case, including a transcript of both sides of the Easter Egg conversation, thus setting in motion the whole thing again in a continuous paradox.

Steve Moffat comes up trumps with this story, just as he did with his season 1 two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (two of my favourite episodes of season 1) and his season 2 episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" (one of my favourite season 1 episodes). The story is based on a short story he wrote for the 2006 Doctor Who annual, which the BBC have made available on their website.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Doctor Who Season 3 - "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood"

David Tennant as the Edwardian John Smith

In Paul Cornell's fabulous two-parter "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" (adapted from his very popular and critically acclaimed novel Human Nature), David Tennant's Tenth Doctor and his companion Martha Jones find themselves in 1913 England on the run from The Family Of Blood, a small group of aliens who exist in a green gaseous form until they possess human bodies. For their escape to work, the Doctor uses a Chameleon Arch to hide his Time Lord essence in a fob watch and becomes an ordinary human. He becomes a school teacher named John Smith and finds employment teaching history (appropriately enough for a person so familiar with all of history) at a private school.

Martha meanwhile finds work at the school as a maid and does her best to keep an eye on the Doctor (not easy, since he doesn't actually remember who she is) and waits for the time when the Family Of Blood will die as their life spans are short; she and the Doctor don't expect to be at the school for more than three months (when the story opens, it's November and they've been at the school for 2 months already). Once the Family dies, Martha will open the watch and the Doctor's Time Lord essence will be returned allowing him to become the Doctor once more. Unfortunately for Martha, an unusual boy named Tim Latimer (played brilliantly and beautifully by Thomas Sangster of Love Actually and Nanny McPhee fame) takes the watch from John Smith's mantle shelf when he's in Smith's office to collect a book, and opens it. He releases some of the Doctor's memories and allows the Family Of Blood (who've arrived in the area by this time and begun to inhabit various members of the surrounding community and one of the students, Jeremy Baines) to scent out the Time Lord essence contained in the watch.

Unfortunately, John Smith has begun a relationship with Matron Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson), the school nurse, to whom John Smith shows his Journal of Impossible Things - a record of his dreams of his life as the Doctor, though he doesn't know that's what his dreams are about.

A page from The Journal of Impossible Things
showing all ten incarnations of the Doctor.
(Left hand page: Ten and Nine;
Right hand page, left to right, top to bottom:
Four, Three, Two, Seven, Eight, One, Six, Five)

The first episode ends with the four members of the Family arriving at the November 11 village dance to persuade John Smith to turn back into the Doctor as they want his Time Lord biodata to allow them to survive beyond their usual short lifespans. The cliff-hanger ending of the episode sees Baines insisting that John Smith turn back into the Doctor or choose between who will die - his friend (Martha) or his lover (Joan). Since John Smith isn't the Doctor, it's up to Martha to get them out of this impossible situation, which she does by executing a nifty move that allows her to claim the gun belonging to the Mother of the Family, and threatening to kill Baines. She then shouts at John to get everyone out before making a run for it herself when one of the Family's creepy scarecrow soldier turns up and snatches the gun from her. (One of the episode's funniest lines comes from Martha moments later, when she hurtles out of the village hall to find John and Joan standing outside still: "Don't just stand there, MOVE ! God you're rubbish as a human!")

The three of them get back to the school where John sets about sounding the alarm (ringing a handbell in this case) and telling the boys to arm themselves to fight against the Family. The Headmaster turns up and berates them without bothering to find out what's going on (pompous ass!), then agrees that the boys should be armed and, ignoring Martha's advice (since she's merely a servant), goes outside with another teacher to talk to Baines and the others (who've arrived by this point). The second teacher (a Red Shirt if ever there was one, since I can't recall his name !) is killed by Baines and the Head flees back into the school. The boys then set up a barricade in the courtyard, although Latimer runs off, still carrying the fob watch. He uses it to try to distract the Family once the Scarecrow soldiers have all been shot (though not killed, because you can't kill a scarecrow except, perhaps, by burning it).

John, Martha and Joan then flee the school and head for a cottage that belonged to the parents of the little girl (with the red balloon) whom the Family have taken over, and on the way there Martha insists that John has to return to being the Doctor because only he can save them from the Family. He gives a moving speech about wanting to remain John Smith:

"I am John Smith. That's all I want to be, John Smith, with his life and his job and his love. Why can't I be John Smith ? Isn't he a good man ? Why can't I stay ?"

Shortly after they arrive at the cottage, Tim Latimer turns up with the watch and explains that it's been "talking" to him (he can hear the voices from the Doctor's consciousness that are trapped inside it). He tells John that the watch wants him to become the Doctor again, but he doesn't know why he's been able to hear the voices. Whilst holding the watch John suddenly, briefly, lapses back into his Doctor persona to explain that Tim probably has a low-level telepathic ability that allows him to "hear" the memories stored in the watch. He looks in terror at Martha and asks if the Doctor always sounds like that and she says he does. John wants to know why Martha and Tim want him to return to being the Doctor and Tim Latimer tells him:

He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm and the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of Time and he can see the turn of the Universe. And he's wonderful.

A speech that I have to confess had me in tears. Finally Joan asks Tim and Martha to give her and John some time alone, and she allows him to talk himself into becoming the Doctor again, although not without them first sharing a brief vision of what John and Joan's life could be - marriage, children, dying of old age knowing his children and grandchildren are safe (and kudos to the make-up and prosthetics people for the fantastic ageing job they did on David for the sake of one brief scene).

Finally John goes to the Family's spaceship (they've been busy firing on the village whilst John, Martha, Joan and Tim have been talking at the cottage) and offers them the watch, which they accept, but it's a trick - John has already returned to being the Doctor (although he uses the equivalent of "olfactory ventriloquism" (don't ask !)) to disguise his Time Lord scent in order to fool them. He presses a host of buttons which set up a feedback loop in the fuel lines that blows up the ship, then he punishes the Family in various fairly cruel and harsh ways. He then heads back to the cottage to invite Joan to go with him and Martha, which she understandably refuses. He heads back to the TARDIS, where Martha's waiting for him, and Tim turns up to say goodbye. The Doctor gives him the watch, which is just a watch now, and then they say goodbye and disappear. We have a brief scene of Latimer and one of the other boys from the school during one of the many WW1 battles just avoiding being blown up by a shell, and then the episode closes with the Doctor and Martha attending an Armistice Day service which Tim, as an old man in a wheelchair, is also attending, still clutching the Doctor's watch.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Ruby in the Smoke - Philip Pullman

In Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke 16 year old Sally Lockhart lives in Victorian London. Her mother died during the Indian Mutiny when she was a baby and now her father, a shipping agent, has been drowned whilst out in the Far East. One morning she receives a cryptic note that warns her of danger but tells her that "Marchbanks will help", although she knows no one by that name. She decides to visit her father’s offices and asks Higgs, the company secretary, about the note. However, when she mentions "the Seven Blessings" to him (one of the things mentioned in the note), he has a heart attack and dies. Shortly afterwards she talks to Jim, the office boy, who had overheard Sally’s conversation with Higgs and he offers to help Sally find out why her father died.

Whilst Sally is thus engaged, Mrs Holland (a nasty old woman who runs a grim lodging house in Hangman's Wharf at Wapping) has intimidated a Major Marchbanks into leaving an immensely valuable ruby to her in his Will. Marchbanks writes to Sally warning her of danger but insisting also that he must see her. When she goes to see him in Kent, he is very scared because Mrs. Holland is also there. He gives Sally an old diary and sends her away but Mrs. Holland follows her; fortunately Sally is able to hide in the dark tent of a photographer, Frederick Garland, whom she had already met on the riverbank as she was heading to Major Marchbanks' home. As she's heading back to London on the train, Sally reads the diary Marchbanks gave her, but she falls asleep and when she wakes up, the diary has been stolen although a few loose sheets from have dropped, unseen, onto the floor. Mrs Holland, who had arranged for the theft of the diary, wants the loose pages and will stop at nothing to get them back. Besides, she has a grudge of her own against the Lockharts and she intends to get her revenge on Sally as the last surviving member of the family.

Simultaneously, Matthew Bedwell, a sailor who is struggling against his opium addiction, arrives at the docks and takes a lodging with Mrs Holland. She supplies him with opium because in his delirium he mentions fragments of his own story, which is concerned with Sally’s father and the sinking of his ship. In fact Lockhart had given Bedwell instructions to find Sally and give her a message. From what she can piece together from Bedwell’s ramblings, Mrs Holland realises that she has some very useful information with which to bribe Mr Lockhart’s business partner. In the meantime, Sally, with the help of Jim and Frederick Garland, must discover what is going on before something terrible happens to her.

Discussing the Sally Lockhart series of books, Philip Pullman says on his website
Historical thrillers, that's what these books are. Old-fashioned Victorian blood-and-thunder. Actually, I wrote each one with a genuine cliché of melodrama right at the heart of it, on purpose: the priceless jewel with a curse on it – the madman with a weapon that could destroy the world – the situation of being trapped in a cellar with the water rising – the little illiterate servant girl from the slums of London who becomes a princess ... And I set the stories up so that each of those stock situations, when they arose, would do so naturally and with the most convincing realism I could manage.

Some questions about the book that you might want to consider and discuss:

1. If you had read His Dark Materials before reading The Ruby in the Smoke, did this book meet your expectations or disappoint you ?

2. In the quotation from Philip Pullman above, he says he tried to make the central cliché form a natural and realistic part of the story. Do you think he succeeded in this ? Which elements of the story are most/least believable ?

3. Did you like this book enough to want to read the other three in the series ?

4. Have you seen the BBC TV adaptation starring Billie Piper as Sally Lockhart, and if so did you like it ? If you liked it, did you prefer it to the book ?