Sunday, May 28, 2006

Who Review: The Idiot's Lantern

I always remember Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis, the co-creators of that other great time-travelling series Back to the Future, saying that an audience needs someone like Michael J Fox (as Marty McFly) to go on a time-travel adventure with, someone they trust, someone who is "reassuring". In short, a figure who can take you to the strangest, darkest places and still make you feel safe whilst you're in their company. David Tennant's Doctor is that figure. As the series has progressed (we're now past the halfway mark) I've seen Tennant take to the role with relish and make it his own, so much so that it now seems impossible for him to ever leave it (but I know he will, of course, but please, David, give us another series at least!) This week's episode was eight parts Fifties romp and two parts "scary movie". The scary parts were proper scary, too - for kids, at least. I'm in my mid-thirties now, but I can imagine if I was a youngster watching this, the faceless grandmother and the Doctor's encounter in the cage full of similar "sans-visage victims" would have given me the willies for months! But, like I've said, when you're travelling with Tennant's Doctor you always have that reassuring sensation at the back of your mind. No matter how bad things get, the Doctor will win through and throw in a few cheeky gags whilst he's at it. The reinvention of the Doctor (which includes Eccleston's phase last year) is a great one. They've brightened up the Doctor and made him accessible for all. Yeah, the hardcore fan base will probably be twitching in their cagoules at every flippant joke and moment of romantic melodrama, but this is just too much fun , dammit. As Tennant himself said, the show's about a guy who travels round the universe in a blue box - if you can't have fun with that, well... And I agree.
The story this week, written by Mark Gatiss ('The Unquiet Dead' from last season), was another effortless piece of entertainment. The Doctor and Rose set out to see Elvis Presley in Vegas just in time for his breakthrough moment, only to end up in suburban England on the day of the Queen's coronation. Confound that Tardis! A sinister force known as the Wire is using the new technology of television to feast on the people of England and what better day to do it than the day when most of the country is sat around the old "idiot's lantern" - telly to you and me. Our time-travelling heroes quickly twig that all is not proper and things lead to a showdown between the Doctor and the Wire, personified as a plummy BBC-style presenter, and played with chilling menace by everyone's favourite mother figure, Maureen Lipman. (Remember those BT ads? "He's got an 'ology'!") Along the way, though, Rose ends up "face/off" and the Doctor gets really angry and shouts really loudly for a while, which is always entertaining. Another great episode and a huge slice of British nostalgia.
Doctor Who trivia point: did you know that the Union flag is only called a Union Jack when it's at sea? Well, there you go. You learn something every week.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Who Review: The Age of Steel

Well, it’s been almost a week since viewing ‘The Age of Steel’, and I’m undecided as to whether it was great or just good. To be honest, my appreciation of most new episodes has improved considerably on second viewing (with the exception of ’New Earth’ which is still my least favourite episode of this second series). I’ve not had a chance to watch ‘Age of Steel’ a second time which is probably why I feel unsure of how good it really is. The episode provided some great moments, although the way our leads escaped the cliff-hanger was a little too convenient. (But then, aren’t they always?) That aside, the story was action-packed and ticked all the boxes of a good Doctor Who adventure. The armies of Cybermen marching through the streets at night was fantastic. Lumic’s transformation into the Cyber Controller was brilliantly done (“No! I’m not ready!” cried the evil genius.) The scene in the tunnel filled with ‘sleeping Cybermen’ was suitably eerie, and the escape via airship was a rousing end to the adventure. Two surprises for me, though, this week: one minor, one major. I enjoyed the shock of Rose’s mum being turned into a Cyberman (Cyberwoman?) My initial reaction was amusement, but then I thought how disturbing it was, that no matter who you were, man or woman, black, white or Asian, you were destined to become one of these characterless ‘things’. Not nice. The second major surprise was the resolution made by Mickey at the end. I had a feeling that his character had really run its course and that he was destined to either be killed or be dumped by Rose. The writers came up with the perfect solution ‘the Mickey situation’ and gave him a story arc.
Mickey the idiot becomes Mickey the brave and decides to stay in this alternate world to fight the evil of Cybus industries around the world. Mickey effectively dumps Rose, saying that it will always be the Doctor she runs to, and his decision comes as quite a wake-up call for Rose. She realises then and there how much she undervalued Mickey, and because time is short, she must say goodbye forever. I thought it was a touching finale. Rose can’t be too gutted, though, because next week it’s early-1950s quiffs and big pink skirts! Hooray!
And Maureen Lipman!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Who Review: Rise of the Cybermen

The relentless thud-thud-thud of steel boots. The Doctor’s fearful, “It’s happening again!” The iconic silhouettes. The Cybermen are back and they’re beautiful!
Just like the resurrection of the Daleks in season one, the Doctor Who production team have brought back one of the Doctor’s most revered enemies and they’ve done it with style. The art-deco look of the new Cybermen is a sublime rendering of an iconic figure. When you look back at past incarnations of the Cybermen - always a variation on a theme - the new version beats them all hands down. It is the integration of all production departments on this series which makes it work so well. The Cybermen are not designed merely to look cool (which they do), but because it fits with the overall look of the episode, the universe they exist in. This episode (the first of a two-part story) sees The Doctor, Rose and Mickey inadvertently falling into a parallel world, very much like ours but one which has numerous echoes of the 1930s - for a start, everyone rides around in zeppelins, and the set design is reminiscent of the old Flash Gordon serials. Art-deco is ‘in’ in this universe. And it looks great.

As for the main characters: Rose finds that her father is alive in this parallel world, he’s still married to Jackie Tyler, and he’s a hugely successful businessman - the only difference is, they don’t have Rose. As I’d hoped, Billie Piper was given much more to do in this episode and she delivered some nice moments, like when she realises that her parents are happy and have everything they could ever want because they never had her, and later when she discovers there is a ‘Rose’ in her parents’ lives - a little yappie-type dog!
Mickey also gets a storyline! There’s an emotional visit to his Gran who raised him - until, that is, she fell and broke her neck on the stairs! Then Mickey finds out that his counterpart in this parallel world is an activist called Ricky (nice irony!) who is fighting to uncover the sinister truth behind Cybus Industries. Apparently, next week, Mickey really comes into his own. But will he survive?
And the Doctor? Definitely taking a step back this time around, understandably so, allowing his assistants to explore their own storylines, but Tennant is such a good actor that he packs a broad range of emotions into the smallest screen time. See him acting the angry “Dad” when Rose and Mickey threaten to run off! See his horror when he realises the awful truth about Cybus Industries! See him laughing at ‘Rose’ the yappie-type dog!
Naturally, the episode ended on a suitably cliff-hanging cliff-hanger, and it was nice to see that the BBC had learnt from last year’s faux pas and didn’t show a trailer for next week in which everyone clearly survives the cliff-hanging cliff-hanger!
Roll on “The Age of Steel”!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Writing is such sweet sorrow...

Feeling very frustrated at the moment. Three of my leading stories are out of circulation because I'm unhappy with them in their current forms. The thing is, the rewrites aren't going well at all. In fact, it's like pulling teeth. The problem is the endings. They just aren't satisfying on any level. I don't know if it's because I'm tired (getting up at 6:30am every morning with the baby is pretty draining, especially when you've a full day of work ahead, too!) or because my degree studies are demanding so much of my mental power (what's left of it, anyway!), but the burst of inspiration which set these stories in motion has fizzled out and left me fumbling about in the dark like a fumbling-about-in-the-dark-type-person. I can't remember the last time I sat down to write feeling refreshed, invigorated, and with all my synapses snapping away like good synapses should. What happened to the guy who wrote a 120,000-word novel in thirty days? Anyway, I'm changing jobs in two week's time so hopefully things will all change for the better.

On the plus side, I've just sold my story "The Midnight Men" to Canadian magazine Dark Recesses Press. The editor, Bailey Hunter, informs me that an artist will be producing an original illustration to accompany my story. I can't wait to see it!
My longest story to date "Medea's Children" is still at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show (trying saying that after one too many Pangalactic Gargle-Blasters!). It's been there for almost seven months now. I queried after three months and was assured that it had made it through the first cut and was being considered by Mr Scott Card himself. Four months have now passed since then and I'm beginning to wonder if I will ever hear anything back. But the sub-editor said I would hear "one way or the other".
Seven months! Can my nerve hold out...?

Coming soon:
GROGHOL'S STAFF - Will appear in Scifantastic issue 5 (Jun/July)
THE MIDNIGHT MEN - Will appear in Dark Recesses Press issue 4 (July)
DEATH'S HEAD - Twisted Tongue issue 3 (Aug)
GUARDIAN - From the Asylum, later in the year

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Who Review: The Girl in the Fireplace

Steven Moffat’s critically-acclaimed Doctor Who writing debut 'The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances' last season was always going to be a hard act to follow, but I'm glad to report that he has produced another fantastic and totally satisfying Who adventure. The story involves a group of sinister clockwork robots from the 51st century who are pursuing a young French aristocrat called Reinette Poisson from the 18th century. Why? Well, why indeed. The Doctor forms a very quick relationship with the young French girl who he first meets through a time portal on the spaceship which opens up on the girl's fireplace. The ship is full of such portals which enable the Doctor (and the evil robots) to flit in and out of the girl's life. In the space of five minutes, the Doctor has visited her three times and sees her growing up at an alarming rate, until she is a beautiful young woman who he realises is the renowned Madame de Pompadour. "How could you be a stranger to me?" she says. "I've known you since I was seven years old!" Before he knows it, the Doctor is in love.

The episode is packed with great moments: the juxtaposition of the ship and pre-revolutionary France is delightful; the clockwork robots with grinning masquerade ball faces and that sinister ticking noise are a wonderful creation; the Doctor's first 'proper' kiss (we'll ignore that silliness in the first episode because Rose wasn't herself!) is beautifully played; and the unusual sight of the Doctor crashing through a giant mirror on a horse into a crowded ballroom - well, you just don't see that every day! But as with all the successful Who episodes, the best moments are the quiet moments. When we reach the inevitable tragic denoument, there are two moments to savour: firstly, the look on Rose's face when she senses the Doctor's sadness. It is a look which only lasts a few seconds, but in that short time she conveys such feeling that it makes up entirely for the fact that, once again, her character has been sidelined in this episode. And then the Doctor's quiet moment as he leans against the Tardis console and reads the letter left to him by Madame de Pompadour. And then, to top it off, just as the episode is about to end and we realise that the central question (why Madame de Pompadour?) has not been answered, we get a shot of the spaceship's exterior and we see that the ship was named after her! Brilliant!

Next week we have the Rise of the Cybermen, the first part of a two-parter. This series just gets better and better.