Friday, 18 April 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 2: Fires of Pompeii

We are now two episodes in to Series 4 of the new Doctor Who and it is pretty clear already that this is going to be a fantastic series. "Fires of Pompeii" is the kind of thing that the new Doctor Who does best, the historical romp, but this time with some added value -- much further into earth's past than before, with filming in Rome's Cinecittà studios, and with far better special effects than usual. The fans all seem to love it and Catherine Tate is beginning to woo even the sceptics -- "Hmmmm... humble pie. Yummy" (Behind the Sofa). She had already won me over by last week's episode, when I said "Donna is going to make us laugh (and then we are going to end up crying too)." I must admit that I didn't expect it so soon.

This is a very good episode, perhaps the best of the historical episodes, though I did love "Tooth and Claw", the Queen Victoria episode in the second series. I suspect that it will be a grower too. It was not as immediately appealing to me as the first episode -- it took a lot of work to figure out who all the people in Pompeii were, and I didn't feel like I really cared about the family at the centre of the action. I didn't think the rock monsters were especially impressive, and I didn't care much for the flapping around with the big tiles with circuit boards on them. This episode was enjoyable because of nice little elements like the doctor and Donna on the streets of Pompeii, not because of its story. A particular favourite clip from early in the episode, where Donna tests out how she will sound when speaking Latin:

There were lots of other enjoyable historical elements there for the nerds, like the use of the characters from the Cambridge Latin Course including Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, and the reference to the Sibylline Oracles (Doctor Who meets the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha!).

It may be that my appreciation of the narrative will improve on future viewings. I wondered whether this was a script that would have benefited from the 75 minute treatment that "Voyage of the Damned" got at Christmas. We needed more time to learn to care about these people (cf. Den of Geek's review, which makes a similar point). Still, a fine entry. Just about makes four TARDIS groans for me, though if I do give it the four, I may have to up my rating for "Partners in Crime" to four and a half since that was such a satisfying episode.

So far then, and contrasting with Loren Rosson on the first episode, but with him on the second, my ratings are:

Partners in Crime: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans
Fires of Pompeii: 4 TARDIS groans.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Doctor Who Series 4, episode 1: Partners in Crime

[Includes Episode 1 Spoilers]

I didn't have a personal blog for any of the previous series of Doctor Who and so I couldn't comment as the episodes went along. This time I am quite inclined to do it. I am not an expert TV critic, or even a competent TV critic, so these will just my own jottings as we go through, and you are encouraged to ignore them. One of my commenters, Loren Rosson, has already indicated that he disliked the first episode of the series. Although not surprised, I disagree. I loved every minute of "Partners in Crime". Gush, gush, gush. It was just he kind of story that Russell T. Davies has made his name for. Funny, clever, delightful, full of exquisite touches that have marked new Doctor Who. This episode surpassed the introduction of Martha this time last year, in "Smith and Jones", and was on a par with the introduction of Rose in series 1, in "Rose".

The first twenty minutes of the episode was rather Sarah Jane Adventures -- investigative journalism, and the doctor very nearly running into Donna as they both tried to get behind Adipose Industries. We know that Donna and the doctor are going to meet eventually, and the anticipation of the meeting keeps the tension throughout that first half. And when they finally meet, with lip-reading across the room, as the drama is already reaching its high point, it's a great Doctor Who moment (and very funny).

There are the requisite action sequences, with the window cleaner's box, all nicely done. And the action between the doctor and Donna is wonderfully handled -- you can't wait for the dialogue when they finally get together. We love meeting Donna's mother properly, and seeing the mother-daughter tittle-tattle, and Bernard Cribbins, as her grandfather, up the garden watching the stars, was a fantastic creation (apparently substituted for Donna's father, the actor having died before filing began, as we found out in Confidential afterwards).

I like to laugh out loud in Doctor Who and this looks likely to be the funniest series yet. Donna is going to make us laugh (and then we are going to end up crying too). I loved the way that the episode ended by playing around with several of the standard themes. He doesn't need to explain about how it is "bigger on the inside". She has all her luggage ready in the boot of the car. She doesn't want "to mate" with him. Fantastic. It's about time we had a companion like Donna; she can tell him where to go and what to do and won't end up fancying him. Excellent.

And that final moment, when we see the return of Rose, just how fantastic was that? Well, it went down very well in my family, where we were watching it together at my parents' house. We all knew that Rose was to return, and we had seen the pictures, but in the first episode?!! This was as good as Derek Jacobi and Whogasm in "Utopia" last series. Well done, Russell, on springing this on us. The moment where one realizes that Donna is talking to Rose, without knowing it, as we see the blond girl in the crowd turn around -- this was fantastic. And it only leaves us desperate for more of the story. Why is Rose there? Why does she react the way she does? How has she made it through from the parallel dimension? Where is she going as she disappears at the end? Has Russell ever set the stakes so high at so early a point in a series?

No doubts whatsoever. Series 4 is going to be fantastic. I can't wait for more.

By the way, I loved the Adipose.

4 Tardis groans.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Doctor Who Series 4 is nearly here

[Post features light spoilers and silly spoiler speculation]

. . . . and it is great to be in England to see the first episode tonight. I am over for the Oxford Synoptic Problem conference). Over on The Busybody, Loren Rosson has his series speculations and they make interesting reading. I think I am a little less pessimistic than Loren overall, though I think I share his apprehension about the Sontaran double bill ("The Sontaran Stratagem" / "Poison Sky"), episodes 4 and 5, because Helen Raynor's dalek double bill in series 3 ("Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks") was probably the low point in that series . Like Loren, I look forward very much to the Agatha Christie episode, "The Unicorn and the Wasp"; I also suspect that "The Doctor's Daughter", starring the fourth doctor's real life daughter, Georgia Moffatt, will be a cracker. And I doubt it will turn out to be the doctor's real daughter. There'll be some sort of story about some alien DNA or something. It would be fun if it does fill in a little in the doctor's biography, though. I've recently been watching the first ever Doctor Who, having received "The Beginnings" DVD set for my birthday. It has always been odd that we know so much about the doctor's granddaughter, Susan, from those days, but little more since then.

Tonight's first episode, "Partners in Crime" looks like a light, fun kind of episode, ideal to introduce the new companion, and comparable with "Rose", the first episode of the first series, and "Smith and Jones", the first episode of the third, each of which introduced new companions. This preview certainly gives the impression that this is going to be a fun episode and not a scary one:

I am looking forward to the return of old friends in the new series too, Martha, Rose, Captain Jack and others (Sarah Jane?, Mickey?, Rose's Mum?). I suspect that Russell T. Davies will handle these very well, and I also suspect that this season's "doctor lite" episode, usually only incidental to the main story arc, will be folded into the action in a major way -- the doctor gets into trouble and is separated from Donna, and old friends return to save the day.

Here is my fun spoiler speculation for the series. This is probably complete rubbish, but please don't read on if you think there is any chance of my being right and so spoiling one's enjoyment. Also don't read on if you have not yet seen series 3!

At the end of Series 3, the Master was offered the chance to travel with the doctor. He chooses instead to die, but we know that he lives on, somehow, with the ring, picked up by a female hand. Is this the ring that Donna is wearing in the campfire trailer? She utters a line from The Usual Suspects that might make us suspect that all is not as it seems. Has the Master somehow managed to infiltrate and devastate Donna's life, and is this why she ends up in trouble in the latter part of the series (cf. current Radio Times plot synopses)? The Master is back, and this time he is ready. He has teamed up with the doctor's oldest enemies, the daleks and, of course, Davros, surely now due for his much-rumoured return. Remember how much Russel T. Davies likes the partnership of old enemies, like the appearance together of the Cybermen and the daleks at the end of series 2? Against these forces, the doctor, now separated from Donna, needs help from old friends, and back come Rose, Martha, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane, Mickey and Jackie. Well, that's my idle speculation, only some of based on actual facts. It will be fun to see if Russel T. Davies can spring a surprise on us as good as Whogasm?