10 June 2011

The Zero Room #9- Gangers and Cliffhangers

As we're already through the first half of Series 6, we now have to wait until Autumn for the tantalisingly titled Let's Kill Hitler. First though, I'm reviewing Matthew Graham's old-timey two-parter The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People (to be referred to henceforth by the latter name to save time) and Steven Moffat's mid-series finale, A Good Man Goes To War.

Reviews will contain spoilers, so if you haven't seen the episode yet, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats.

At the beginning of The Almost People, the Doctor plans to drop off Amy and Rory for a day out and fish and chips. Then a solar tsunami buffers the TARDIS into the 22nd century, where an industrial accident is about to take place on a secluded island. The island holds an acid refinery, operated by a group of workers via Avatar-esque disposable duplicates called the Flesh. When the celestial weather troubles knock out a crucial system, the Flesh become independent of their operators, sharing their personalities, minds and experiences, and decide to fight for their rights.

If The Curse of the Black Spot is analogous to last year's The Vampires of Venice, this story is closest in spirit to The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, last year's Silurian two-fer. We've seen dozens of base-under-siege stories in Doctor Who over the years, but in much the same way as the Silurian story went back to Jon Pertwee's first season in many ways, The Almost People feels like something of a Patrick Troughton outing (Trought-ing?), but with New Who staples very much at the forefront.

Matt Smith takes every opportunity he gets to develop his Doctor, and this story gives him lots of meaty morality questions to chew over. The situation becomes more convoluted with the first episode cliffhanger that gives the Doctor his own doppelganger, or Ganger, for the purposes of this story, but he's always watchable. He evokes many of his predecessors in a sequence where the Ganger struggles to adjust to memories of being William Hartnell and Tom Baker, but more pertinent are Smith's own nods to Troughton, who's my own favourite Doctor.

Amongst the supporting cast, there are important roles to be played by Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy. With most of the supporting cast pulling double duty as the workers and their Gangers, Cassidy stands out for her character's ebullient leadership and later for her poignant resignation towards a terminal blood clot in her brain. Smart carries much of the two-parter as Jennifer Lucas, by turns sweet and righteously furious. Plus, her character makes for some very nice development of the alway excellent Arthur Darvill.

The effects are great, with the Gangers realised as pallid Voldemort-like images of the "real" characters, and the general nostalgic tone of the story is highly enjoyable. The difficulty is in how some of the second episode is quite deliberately misleading and confusing. It rattles along so breathlessly that you can't keep track of who just died- the Ganger or the original person. Also, the ethical questions earlier in the story resolve themselves without an awful lot of conflict. Don't expect une quandary a la Genesis of the Daleks here, there's a mid-series finale to set up for.

Brilliant in execution, if a little clumsy in its resolution, The Almost People is a welcome dose of old-school Doctor Who with a New Who inflection. Ultimately, the cliffhanger to Part 2 is more immediately arresting than the mid-story cliffhanger. But seeing as how many of the fans unfairly pilloried writer Matthew Graham for pulling Fear Her together back in 2006, with a couple of weeks to write, and not much of a budget, this should rehabilitate his reputation in a big way. Here's hoping he writes another like this for the next series.

And so as the Amy Pond we've been following all series is revealed to have been a Flesh duplicate, the real Amy gives birth to a baby girl in A Good Man Goes To War. The good man in question could equally be the intrepid Rory Williams or a more vengeful Doctor. As the two of them raise hell across the galaxy, the battle of Demon's Run is set to take place under the hanging spectre of Madame Kovarian's mysterious intentions for Amy's child. And in her prison at Stormcage, River Song realises that the Doctor is about to find out who she is.

As far as I'm concerned, Craig Ferguson put it best, when he said sang that Doctor Who's main theme was "the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism." So the idea of The Doctor getting angry and raising an army to fight off an enemy almost kind of cheapens the character. I think Steven Moffat just about carried it off, for me, but only just. What allows me to excuse some of the stuff in this programme that I would never excuse in movies is just how bloody exhilarating it all is.

Moffat's trademark humour also goes a long way towards making an episode based on quite an out-of-character move into something really enjoyable. There's a beautiful Stevie Wonder gag and the frankly brilliant creation of Commander Strax, a Sontaran nurse who pretty much steals the show from the huge special effects and major character revelations. I don't know that this should have been as much of a monster mash as it is, but I'm always happy to see Sontarans, especially when producing "magnificent quantities of lactic fluid."

But it's really a big old space opera of an episode, and one that is unusually out of order. The Doctor wins, then has some good character moments, and then loses at the end of the episode. Madame Kovarian makes a sinister adversary, with Frances Barber finally getting to shine after random eye-patched cameos all series, but the motivations for her "war" with The Doctor are never fully explained. Oh, never mind, I suppose an explanation is coming later on, as with so much of this series.

But leave it to Moffat to give all of his regulars some great character moments. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill consolidate their great chemistry, now that their characters are parents, and Darvill gets to play out Rory's CMOA in the episode's opening. Matt Smith is on sparkling form, whether furiously facing off with his imperious foes or awkwardly having a conversation with the newborn Melody Pond. And of course, Alex Kingston finally puts paid to all of that speculation about River Song.

Well, we still don't exactly know who she is to the Doctor, but the revelation that she is Amy's daughter at least completes an early fairytale arc of Moffat's. Amy Pond meets the Doctor when she's very young and eventually goes on adventures with him, a la Wendy Darling and Peter Pan. With the revelation that the Doctor will (maybe?) fall in love with her daughter once Amy's gone home and grown up, that parallel continues. It's not exactly an earth-shattering twist with the foreshadowing from earlier in the episode, but it is still very well acted and nicely written by Moffat too.

Jinkies, imagine if A Good Man Goes To War had been written by Eric Saward. It's only by the efficiency of Steven Moffat that I can just about stand to see The Doctor favouring brute force over intellect. Moffat always writes very romantic, uncynical scripts, so perhaps that's where it balances out. Saward would never have had it in him to come up with Strax, or Madame Vastra, or Dorium, or that heartbreaking moment where Amy literally has a jelly baby. Somehow all this made The Doctor decide to kill Hitler. It was exciting and all, but that one might need just a little context...

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We'll return to The Zero Room in the Autumn, where we'll hopefully get explanations for some of the ongoing story arcs we've seen in the first seven episodes of Series 6. Until then, why not share your comments below?

The next episode of Doctor Who, Let's Kill Hitler, airs on BBC One and BBC HD later in 2011.

1 comment:

The Jester said...

What's up Mad Prophet? I just read you comment and I appreciate you getting back with me. Also I am wondering how many followers you have? How you advertise? and How many hits your site has received since you began?
I also just linked over to your blogger bio and can't believe how alike we are, except for the Optimistic/Pessimistic thing.
I have been drinking a little wine all night, so forgive the rambling. I think we should definitely play off each other.
I don't know if you make any money off what you do, but I don't. I am in talks of letting the local 6 screen advertise for free for letting me watch unlimited new releases. That is the reason I don't do very many new movies is the price. Our evening films cost as much as $10.50 or $13.00 (3D) just to get a seat. Ridiculous. I originally had a goal of doing one review per day for 365 days and am nearing that mark. July 26 is that mark. I will continue because of the feedback I have gotten. I should have 20,000 hits by next month and that is exciting. Anyway, I think we should definitely stay connected. We offer something so much different that the average critic. You hate critics as I do, but you will rip a movie, whereas I will find the silver lining. Let me know what you think. Keep writing and reading.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is gonna be 30 years old on June 12. I feel it is the greatest movie of all time. I am gonna write my 365th review on it for that reason. Think about integrating it into your site somehow.
P.S. Don't hate on the U.S. Military so much. It is very obvious where you stand.
Until Next Time..... The Jester
You can hit me up at nobadmovies@hotmail.com