Monday, July 31, 2006

REVIEW: Doctor Who: Season 2 - The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit

Deep in space, an impossible planet orbits a black hole in an impossible way. It emanates an impossible cone of gravity while beknown to the human explorers on its surface, the impossible planet has an impossible, devilish secret.

Impossible, is the theme to “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” two parter. Not just its concept, but its philosophy. This episode is as much about how the Doctor deals with the inexplicable - or should I say, the impossible - as it is an adventure trapped in a scientific absurdity.

The setting for this adventure, the impossible and unnamed planet, is crafted with an eye for detail. The base itself brings back images of all sorts of dirty science fiction TV and film shows. Visually, the story has very intentional ties to Ripley Scott’s “Alien”. As a story, it shifts slightly closer towards the science fiction horror, “Event Horizon”. There is a little of Space:1999 in the base’s external design and I thought the adjoining spacecraft had a little bit of the retro rocket ship from the likes of Buster Crabbe’s “Flash Gordon”. By taking a little from various places in the genre it gives this story its own identity playing homage to the best without mimicking or feeling like a second rate copy.

As with the New Series as a whole, the acting is hard to fault, which in a claustrophobic nightmare as in “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit”, is vital. There are few minor characters to draw attention away from the main cast and being a very science fiction orientated story, you HAVE to believe in those actors. There is no question about believability which is testament to the acting and direction.

Helping them along is a wonderful script by Matthew Jones, a veteran writer from the Virgin New Adventure’s era. It has to be said that “The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” certainly has a taste of those seventh Doctor novels. However, it also feesl quite “traditional Who” at the same time. This story takes from the classic show in a way I felt “Rise of the Cybermen” failed to suceed. The story doesn’t just take old formulaic ideas and integrate them (my concern with “Rise Of The Cybermen”), it takes classic devices from the old series and uses them in a contemporary context. For instance, the TARDIS is lost within a few minutes. Very traditional Who, but actually there is no specific need to do this with the tenth Doctor. The tradition is there, but upated for the requirements of the story. Iin the sixties, Doctor Who had to find a practical reason as to why the TARDIS team didn’t run away - which often lead to being severed from their route back to the TARDIS - “The Impossible Planet” actually knocks this possibility aside with its teaser - Rose and the Doctor laughing at the very prospect of leaving. Yet, losing the TARDIS early on helps create that helpless environment that is required for the episode.

Furthermore, we also have some death scenes in “The Satan’s Pit” which are very old school Who. Security controller Jefferson stays behind to fight the enemy off and thereby sacrificing his life. Very typical Doctor Who, yet, in “The Satan’s Pit”, the scene uses this formula to focus on the emotional drama. No simple scream to announce the death of the straggler - we see the man and his friends dealing with his choice.

“The Impossible Planet” is a joyous piece of writing. The idea of being caught by a black hole was a premise set up in a similar vein by the aptly titled Disney film “The Black Hole”, however the focus on this story is less on the collapsed star above, but what’s going on below. Rather than simply become a “monster vs human” affair, “The Impossible Planet” rapidly changes direction from science fiction to mythological horror. This movement from one genre to the other is seamless. The “Ood”, a willing slave race, provide the obligatory monster to keep the tension up, but the real monster is the devil in the pit. The scene in which Tobey the archeologist is “infected” by the devil is probably the scariest moment in Doctor Who. What makes it even more impressive is it relies on nothing but the actor and the production crew to create the suspense. No effects, no monsters. It’s just good acting, direction and a deft piece of editing.

The climax to “The Impossible Pit” is one of the best ones of the New Series. As with “Aliens Of London” it’s a multi cliff-hanger, which really does build the tension to impossible levels. It’s only weakness is the resolution is wrapped up rather fast and a little too neatly in “The Satan Pit”

“The Satan Pit” doesn’t start off as strong as “The Impossible Planet” ended, but it makes up for any such weakness by the final act. This episode is Doctor Who at it’s best. We have tension, we action, we have drama. The New Series Doctor Who knows when to lay off the comedy and British eccentricities and there is little of either in “The Satan Pit”. What we do have is a wonderful fusion of drama and character scenes. While Rose has the drama and action, the Doctor has the character moments and the two arcs compliment themselves beautifully.

Rose’s role in “The Satan’s Pit” is probably the best use of the character this series. She gets to work on her own story arc rather than just tagging onto the Doctor’s. Giving both Rose and the Doctor space from each other really helped the characters to breathe. It’s only when they are pulled apart as in this story does one realise how their natural dynamic just suffocates the pair when they are together. My only silly quibble with Rose in this episode was during the finale where she dispatches the monster by blowing out the window with a bolt gun. It’s a nice idea and a lot of fun, but when the villain is strapped next to you, you’d think your instinctive reaction would be to fire it into the villain’s chest not blow open the cabin and undo his belt. Far more dramatic - and I appreciate there is only so much cold blood you can dish out to a companion, but this sort of reaction seems a little out of character for anyone in Rose’s situation! Oh, and while we’re on minor quibbles, a superficial suggestion is for makeup to lighten up on the eyeliner. Rose has black eyes that a panda would envy.

The finale is a great piece of television full of suspence and growing tension. The whole plot resolution was a relief as I was beginning to question some of the episode’s plausibility (if there is any in a story set on an impossible planet to begin with).

The devil is established as such a powerful omnipotent villain, yet when the crew fight back, he goes strangely impotent. Now this happens a lot when shows pit a mighty power against lesser powered heroes; the writer has to de-power or empower one of the two in order to create a victory for the underdog. With the characters successfully fighting back from the might of the Ood, it suddenly feels as if we’ve seen the devil suffer some power withdrawal. Thankfully, the end makes it clear this was never the intention.

With a whole story so steeped in mystery, the audience are kept one step behind which really serves the storyline. This is after all, unusual territory for Doctor Who; no blasé explanation of godly powers, no affirmation that this is an advanced alien.. the details are kept to a minimum all the way to the end. The story, in essense, makes a battle against formula and leaves the audience wondering in which direction it’s going to go: Will it expose the enemy as a powerful alien? Or is this the first unholy terror we’ve seen in Doctor Who?

The story has a great balance between dark and light. It is a tense watch, but the ending has a joyous lift which feels appropriate for the show. I suppose one could see it as a metaphor; escaping the dire gravity of the situation is almost like escaping the Black Hole’s pull.

Throughout, the music is wonderful. A collection of the standard Murray Gold motifs, with a natural earthy mix of strings akin to “Firefly” and Chris Carter’s “Millennium”.

Any grumbles? A couple. The Rose and Doctor relationship explored in “The Impossible Planet” still feels naff. While “The Satan’s Pit” gives us a little glimpse into what the Doctor sees in Rose, she still seems very childish. Her dreams of settling down with the Doctor in this story, the selfish possessiveness of the Time Lord she’s exhibited throughout the season - she doesn’t feel like a character you’d imagine someone as old and well travelled like the Doctor falling for. I suppose one could argue he has so much respect for the instinctive drive for mankind - as referenced a great deal in this story - someone who is so honest to their whims - to the point they are discourteous to others, may be strangely attractive to him. Either way, it’s still not something I’m personally keen on the series exploring. Madame De Pompedeau seemed a more realistic pairing. The romance isn’t the issue - it’s the subject of the romance I question.

[Article for Outpost Gallifrey June 2006]

One grumble we’re sure to hear is how conveniently the Doctor finds the TARDIS after his wonderfully dramatic test of faith in front of the demon. To me, it was a perfect resolution. This story is about the nature of the inexplicable; that there are some things that we can’t explain. Finding the TARDIS shows that same inexplicable circumstances that brings us the devil in this story - only in a more positive form. For me it made the episode, but considering how certain sections of fandom found the lack of science in having a “Impossible Planet” hard to get by, such solutions in “The Satan Pit” are bound to agitate.

An excellent story from start to finish. Best two parter I’ve seen. Yes, I believe it’s better than “The Empty Child”. Tennant is great, Piper does a wonderful job in part two and the whole performance shines. This is truly an ensemble story and no one let’s the side down.

”The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit” is some scary Doctor Who that mixes wonderful homage and classic Who concepts into a story which feels fresh exciting and brimming with drama. Comparing individual episodes in such a diverse series as Doctor Who is hard, but, this has to be one of the best episodes of Doctor Who - period. Honestly dear fans, we’ve never had it so good.

REVIEW: Out of Steam? Not a Ghost of a Chance!

[Article for Toon Zone News 20.7.06]

A much belated review thanks to some personal physical distress to my hands. Irrelevant as this may seem to you dear reader, it offers me a perfect lead in to my opening for Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG Volume 5.

Imagine cybernetics becoming so physically integrated that the only aspect of humanity left is the spirit—or “Ghost”—of the user. Having to write this full review with a physical hand complaint still present, the idea of extreme and endurable prosthetics is very attractive. Not only can you look great—as fans of the story’s heroine, Major Kusanagi, will attest—you’d have the ability to interchange bodies; the power to jack into any electronic network, manipulating or screening anyone else attached; you’d have endurance beyond comparison and thereby hands that don’t suffer discomfort when reviewing screeners. Sounds a perfect world to me, n’est pas?

Any one who has read Masamune’s legendary comic book, Ghost in the Shell or followed the movies and TV series that followed will know the world of the mid 21st century is anything but perfect. Political intrigue, technological mayhem and human greed wrapped tightly by the blur of man and machine. Masamune’s original comic book was a wondrous mix of a dark future painted with an almost whimsical touch of intelligence. It could be gory, it could be humorous, it could be both, but it always treated its audience with respect, and this has been true of its move to animation.

This volume is one of the later ones of the second season of the animated television series. If you’ve not read Ghost in the Shell, or seen any of the animated genres, might be best to go read an article on Mickey Mouse. There is a lot to catch up on and those uneducated in all things cyberpunk might be best enjoying a yarn from Walt’s favorite rodent instead.

This volume contains four episodes, some of which follow the current season arc, some stand alone. I’ll presume that those reading the review of this later volume will be aware of concepts and characters and move straight onto the episodes themselves. If you’ve not had that good fortune, try and keep up.

In actual fact, my DVD player was being cantankerous with the Japanese soundtrack on the screener so I was only able to watch it in the English dub. I’ll presume again that those who have watched previous volumes will know what to expect on this score.

Red Data
“Red Data” is possibly the most unusual of the four episodes. Set in Taiwan, the Major goes on the hunt for Kuze and runs into a young kid who is in trouble with some local gangs. The story follows the season’s Individual Eleven arc but actually proves its worth as a rather gentle character piece; the majority of the story is simply dialogue between the Major and the child. This is certainly an interesting dynamic for Major Kusanagi, who then gets to explore the more maternal aspect of her character. The direction is smooth and the colors are rich. The pacing however is what makes this feel rather special—it just nonchalantly walks through the narrative without falling into any specific formula or expectation. It feels like a chapter of a book rather than an episode of a futuristic anime thriller. The final scenes in the hotel just play so smoothly with an air of intelligence and grace with some lovely dialogue and good characterization.

Trans Parent
A left over story concept from the show’s first season, “Trans Parent” has the Major and Batou on a mission to Berlin to locate the terrorist known as Angel’s Wing. This is a really beautiful stand alone story and almost worth the DVD on its own. You need to understand very little about the character and story background to GitS to enjoy this. The pacing for “Trans Parent” is as with “Red Data,” a confident waltz through this gentle tale. This is very much a Batou adventure and manages to mix a little film noir into the atmosphere thanks to Batou’s internal narrative and an organic soundtrack. The whole tale oozes professionalism. However, when a show lightly touches an alternative genre, it does tend to hit some familiar notes. There are some narrative techniques which are a little formulaic in kind, but in implementation doesn’t harm the story, merely enforcing the cross genre. The ending scene in the church is beautiful even if it’s predictable, proof that a story can fall into certain genre expectations and still deliver.

Chain Reaction
Here we’re moving back to the story arc with something a little more to anime expectations. The pacing has picked up and the action is a little more spotlighted. Nevertheless the characters remain well realized and drama isn’t lost in any of the more action orientated storylines. Not quite as unique as the first two parts but what it does, it does well. The hunt for Kuze works and the finale has a little twist to it which isn’t apparent thanks to some nice visual direction and well developed plot. Not quite as memorable as the first two episodes, but nevertheless a solid piece of storytelling.

Fabricate Fog
“Fabricate Fog” is really a second part to “Chain Reaction,” picking up where the last episode left off. The action is even more at the forefront; however the previous episode did enough to build the foundations to let this ride. There are some nice character scenes in here—particularly among the refugees and Kuze. I really like the Kuze character; it’s rare to have a character act like a megalomaniac, yet have a certain truth and honesty in his desire. This episode does a lot to realize those elements of his character and questions the line between terrorist and freedom fighter. The final few minutes pick up the action and the volume ends on a very different tone to which it started.

The Tachikoma epilogues help add that little comic touch present in the original comic. On a personal note, I’ve always found it a pity that the animation itself keeps so far away from the original touches of abstract humor by Shirow Masamune. It’s an interpretation, but this is one anime which would have benefited from the more comical Japanese visualizations from time to time. It certainly helped the original comic books from becoming too rooted in its own serious agenda.

The DVD features complement the volume, with cast interviews that are surprisingly enjoyable. Often DVD cast interviews can be rather inert affairs, but these are quite informal and having the director Kamiyama as the interviewer helps keep the information relevant and informative.

Overall this is a nice volume that offers a collection of episodes that have a hint of diversity while remaining true to the spirit of Ghost in the Shell and the second season arc. It is not totally inaccessible for new watchers, though clearly it would be better for the uninitiated to start their Ghost in the Shell experience with a DVD or comic book that covers earlier parts of the storyline.

REVIEW: Doctor Who: Season 2 - The Idiot's Lantern

[ARTICLE written for Outpost Gallifrey - Summer 2006]

With Mark “The Unquiet Dead” Gatiss at the helm, we are whisked off into England’s past to see the Queen’s Coronation, Squiffy haircuts, archaic BBC footage and most importantly, the year 1953.

“The Idiot’s Lantern” is a stand-alone episode that takes Doctor Who away from the action epic of the Cyber Saga and back to its more New Series orientated character drama. Period drama is what the BBC has always excelled at and The Idiot’s Lantern is a lavish slice of fifties Britain. While I’ve never had the chance to dip my twinkly toes into the 1950’s, I’m assured by several elder sources this was a pretty authentic take on the time and captured the atmosphere of the Queen’s Coronation.

The tale is a fairly simple: The Doctor and Rose unintentionally land in London, 1953 just before the Queen’s Coronation. In usual style, they find themselves slap bang in the middle of a rum mystery involving missing faces, cutting edge TV sets and a new callous villain called “The Wire”.

To a certain degree, the fantasy element of The Idiot’s Lantern plays a relatively minor role for the majority of the story allowing Gatiss to immerse the viewer into the characters and social dynamics of the period. The whole episode is focused around the Queen’s Coronation and that not only plays an important story role, it also successfully roots the audience in the 1950s via a major event.

In the forefront of the story is Mr. Magpie, a debt riddled television salesman under the control of villainous The Wire. Magpie is a beautifully tragic character lucklessly doomed from the show’s teaser. We also have the Connelly family - an atypical 50s household with a dominating husband, a submissive mother and son who is gradually rebelling against his father’s authority. As much as they are an example of the post war family unit, the challenge between the father and son convey the transition between the rigidity of the 1950s to the liberalism of the following decade. Eddie the father is a portrayal as to how historically rigid many family sets were in post war England, trapped in their need to retain a sense of order after a decade filled with uncertainty. The irony as to how so many who fought against the unrelenting power of German forces would assert a similar dictatorship in their own home – particularly against the shift in a younger more liberal generation - is not lost in this story. As with Tommy Connelly, the youth of the 1950s began experiencing a life beyond the constraints of fear, death and rationing as times became wealthier and more stable. As the stability grew, the young began to balk at the controlling older generation and we see Tommy do with his father. These historical movements are neatly encapsulated in this episode - quite a feat for a little teatime sci-fi drama.

This intense and rich focus on the 1950s characters works in more ways than one. Not only does it bring the period to life, it actually supports the story’s weaker arc -the fairly uninteresting alien threat.

The interstellar invasion of the week - The Wire - is consuming the faces of the local populace by absorbing their energy. The Wire’s intention is to escape its non-corporeal form via the communities TV sets. It is all very quirky science fiction, replete with that unique Who flavour. The Wire’s visual identity of a televised 50’s BBC announcer (played by Maureen Lipman) fulfils that Doctor Who requirement of being both eccentric and British all at once.

Unfortunately, people being left as faceless zombies was a key threat of “The Empty Child” last season and this concept doesn’t really evolve beyond Moffat’s gas masked creations. The Wire’s demands of being “Hungry!” is overused and Lipman’s abrasive cries become rapidly irritating. Furthermore, when Rose has her own face absorbed, the story automatically loses the threat value because we know the process will be resolved in order to save the heroine.

That said, Rose’s dilemma does benefit the story as much as it dissipates the danger. The Doctor’s reaction to the faceless remnant of Rose does add some extra energy to the story; by making the attack personal, it brings the Doctor even further into the mix. Tennant plays his more edgy Doctor persona perfectly.

Personally, I had a second benefit to this plot turn - we loose Rose for half the story. From being pleasantly surprised with Rose’s character in Series One, I’ve grown to find her presence detrimental to my viewing pleasure. For this story she is – as always – perfectly performed by Billie Piper and realistically written by Mark Gatiss. In The Idiot’s Lantern, dear Miss Piper is really pushing her all into the role, clearly looking for ways to give the audience a fresh take on Rose Tyler. Piper pulls off all her lines with ease and Rose never feels contrived, nevertheless Miss Tyler is simply frustrating to watch. Throughout Series One, many viewers have struggled to see what the Doctor saw in Rose; just what for him put this companion beyond all his others. We are now half way through Series Two and it feels as if we’re still no closer to understanding what makes her so special. Yes, she does occasionally see things which one wouldn’t expect a 19 year old to notice, for instance, the mass of aerials on the houses they pass in this story was unusual for 1953 – it is indeed Rose who spots this. However, she seems to retain far more negative attributes compared to the Doctor’s past associates and certainly far from the perfection he seems to see. She is demanding, cocky, selfish and when it suits, quite manipulative. These characteristics are indeed a perfect portrayal of a teenager, but unlike Mickey or the Doctor, Rose doesn’t feel like she’s evolving through the Doctor’s travel. Maybe this is realistic - she is a fairly arrogant and confident character, and such are the types who rarely change, but as we watch the Doctor’s presence affect so many (and in this episode we see how several characters break their shackles in his company) we see no advancement with Rose and this is frustrating. There is no progression from irritating selfish love struck teen, to anything further.

Perhaps, the reason why Rose can’t evolve is that she’s locked in a deep relationship with the Doctor and akin to Whedon’s Angel and Buffy characters they are trapped within the limits of their relationship. With no signs of any catalyst to change this dynamic and with Rose’s background fully explored, the chemistry stagnates.

In fact, I’m not even sure whether it’s Rose who is so frustrating – maybe the Doctor, for whom Rose’s importance overrides all else. We see in “Rise Of The Cybermen” how he follows Rose on one of her impulsive whims leaving Mickey alone, clearly doubting his worth to Rose or the Doctor. He and Rose seem blissfully unaware or uncaring when their travels ice others out and this has long term damage to the audience’s relationship with the lead characters.

Thankfully, both Tennant and Piper do their very best to keep The Idiot’s Lantern fresh and visually exciting. Nevertheless, if there is a weakness to Doctor Who at the moment, it is Rose. In fairness, Rose was actually fairly fun this week, so any audience animosity – in this reviewer’s opinion – comes down to an overspill of her more negative presence in previous episodes.

Regardless, having her absent for half the episode didn’t do the show any harm at all and with Rose, I’m wondering if less is more; if having a reduced role actually makes her more likeable.

While the characters really captures the British values of the 50s, the resolution has a little too much contemporary social value. I would be surprised if Eddie Connelly would have been so easily kicked out of the house in 1953 - even if the house were in his mother-in-law’s name. In the 1950s, courts did not favour divorces filed by the wife unless there was evidence of extramarital affairs. While there is no explicit reference to divorce, it is fairly clear the family is heading towards break up. One wonders whether Eddie is suffering a resolution at the whims of 21st century expectations and this does jar with my understanding of the period. The outcome is not an impossible solution for 1953, but one that feels contrived to appease the audience than to be true to the era. Perhaps one could argue this is just evidence of the Doctor’s presence - once again affecting those who meet him.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the advice Rose gave to Tommy about not cutting off his father. This maybe a realistic piece of advice to come from Rose bearing in mind her own personal feelings towards her dad, but the implication is that Eddie is not just mentally abusive, but physically. I’m not sure having the narrative imply that such relationships should be continued simply because of blood relations is healthy. I would go so far to suggest there would be few in the medical field that would generally advise someone like Tommy to retain ties with Eddie. Mental abuse alone can wreck a child’s ability to function in the world and any such ties should be broken until the kid is at an age to deal with parent on an even footing. It is certainly a questionable moral to end the show on.

While the show’s pacing is fairly fluid, the finale gets a little confused. I certainly wasn’t sure if DI Bishop would become such a believer in The Wire affair so quickly as he seems to accept the situation all too fast. Furthermore, the time differences between Magpie and the Doctor’s race to Alexandra Palace appear a little garbled. The Magpie rushes to Alexandra in a van and races up the transmitter, yet the Doctor manages to find time to grab some gadgets from Magpie’s shop, go to the TARDIS, grab some more gadgets, run to Alexandra Palace, set up said gadgets and then make it up the transmitter in what seems like relatively the same space of time. Be there a missing scene with a car or TARDIS, whether there was some serious stalling by a drained Mr. Magpie on his climb up the tower, the final cut just doesn’t flow evenly to the story’s climax.

Nevertheless, The Idiot's Lantern is a good story. It does suffer from a couple of minor glitches in pacing and a diminished threat value but in the overall scheme, it doesn’t damage the production. It has to be said that the acting is excellent throughout and the incidental music complements the drama. However the highlight of the story is Gatiss’ script - there are so many intelligent and witty touches to the dialogue it truly is a delightful experience.

The Idiot’s Lantern is another great episode from a generally excellent second series. The fifties are very much brought to life and Elvis would be proudly rocking in his grave at such a decent rendition of the era – that is if he was actually dead of course.