Sunday, September 30, 2012

Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan

It would be easy to pull “The Angels Take Manhattan” apart for one little thing after another, and many people no doubt will. Even if they do, that doesn’t make it a bad or a weak episode, but it does point to how complicated this series has gotten over the years, much of it due to the heavy injection of romance. “Angels” isall about romance, though it wants to be about plot, too. Here’s where Steven Moffat has a tendency to trip up in his writing, because his aim is to deliver a big twisty-turny story alongside gushy-wushy emotions, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to do both, especially where long term arcs are concerned. Classic Doctor Who didn’t have this problem, as it wasn’t cluttered with complicated feelings between its characters (or extended story arcs, for that matter). If the Doctor said he couldn’t go back and save Adric from being blown to smithereens, we believed him. There were certain laws of time that couldn’t or shouldn’t be broken, and it made perfect sense.

Now we have a Doctor Who that not only features a godlike central character who appears to be governed by nobody outside of himself, but who’s also an extremely clingy, emotional being, desperate to hang on to his companion, possibly even at the expense of her own husband. So when the script puts him into the position of claiming to be unable to do anything about the situation Amy and Rory find themselves in at the close of this episode, it’s an almost impossible notion to swallow, because in any other episode besides this one, it would’ve been quickly remedied, probably with the wave of the sonic screwdriver.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Absolutely Fabulous: 20th Anniversary Specials DVD review

A few years ago, in a review of the complete series box set of Absolutely Fabulous, I wrote, “Even though the name of this set is ‘Absolutely Everything,’ I wouldn’t put it past Jennifer Saunders to revisit Edina Monsoon at some point in the future. She’s seemingly ended Absolutely Fabulous so many times and then come back to it that it’s hard to believe that it’ll ever truly be over.”

If it weren’t such a no-brainer that Saunders would've again charted the Ab Fab waters, I’d be tempted to gloat. The 20th Anniversary Specials are three, 30-minute episodes, and they’re every bit as funny as the reams of bawdy, satirical nonsense that preceded them. I’m not sure I have a whole lot more to say about this show that I didn’t say in the last review, other than Saunders is more than welcome to continually drop in on these characters time and again, forever, because the joke never gets old (at least not in these tiny increments), and even 20 years after it all began, Jennifer, Joanna, Julia, Jane, and June still have the ability to make me fling my arms around, and cackle at the ceiling.

The first episode, “Identity,” sees Saffy returning home after having done a couple years in prison for creating fraudulent passports. She invites a fellow inmate, Baron (Lucy Montgomery), to come and stay at the flat. Turns out, Baron and Patsy have a sordid history together, and suddenly the inmate’s stay takes a potentially dangerous (but still funny) turn. In this one, Edina has a brief dream sequence that’s the result of her watching the Danish version of The Killing, and the star of that series, Sofie Gråbøl, makes a brief cameo.

“Job” sees Edina and Patsy attempting to resurrect the career of fictional faded 60s film icon Jeanne Durand (Lindsay Duncan), who’s sort of a version of Catherine Deneuve, I guess, if Deneuve had quit working 20 or 30 years ago. Only problem is, she cannot sing, literally – no sounds comes out of her mouth, and Edina and Patsy have booked the Royal Albert Hall! This episode features appearances from Emma Bunton, Lulu and La Roux.

The third and final installment is probably the one to beat. “Olympics” guest-stars Stella McCartney, as well as Olympians Kelly Holmes and Tanni Grey-Thompson, yet the plot is threadbare, but involves lots of sight gags and physical humor, and is chock full of the sort of stuff Ab Fab does best.

Additionally, classic guest characters Justin, Sarah, Bo, Marshall, and Patsy’s co-workers Fleur and Catriona, each get a few minutes here and there, but once again, as has so often been the case, Jane Horrocks steals every scene she’s in as Bubble (and she’s in all three episodes). This is a fine celebration of 20 years of Ab Fab, that never goes overboard, or feels pathetic or dreary like so many such celebrations. It’s just more, good Ab Fab, plain and simple, and this disc would make a great birthday gift or stocking stuffer for the Ab Fab fan in your life, or indeed, for you sweetie dahling!

DVD Extras: A quick Comic Relief sketch, “Ab Fab Does Sports Relief,” also featuring Bunton and McCartney, is best viewed in between “Job” and “Olympics.” There’s also a behind the scenes bit on the sketch.   

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Doctor Who: The Power of Three

If you didn’t find yourself humming the tune (and theme song to Weeds) “Little Boxes,” after watching this week’s episode of Doctor Who, you’re made of much stronger (or are at least less pop culturally obsessed) stuff than I. Too bad that isn’t the worst thing that can be said “The Power of Three,” which was a mighty letdown after the last three installments, and only one week before the big Pond finale.

"It’s Doctor Who from Amy and Rory's point of view. We're in the last days of the Ponds as everybody keeps saying, and it was really a chance to see where they've got to in their lives since “The Eleventh Hour,” and to see what it’s like to be them. And I think what’s interesting is that the companion/Doctor relationship in this series is very different to any we’ve seen before because really, they're part-time travellers. They’re living at home, and the Doctor pops in and goes, "Shall we go somewhere?", and they're off. That's very new, because they're not permanently with him, and I wanted to see what that would mean. I think it's very different to pretty much any other episode of Doctor Who ever, which is both wonderful and terrifying." - Chris Chibnall, writer of “The Power of Three”

Let’s start by addressing the “it’s different than any other episode” claim, which is simply not true. “The Power of Three” is all but a carbon copy of the Gareth Roberts penned episodes, guest starring James Corden, of the last two seasons, except that instead of the Doctor hanging out with Craig, or Craig and his baby, he’s hanging out with Amy and Rory. That formula was novel the first time in the form of “The Lodger,” but had the serious stench of been there, done that surrounding it once “Closing Time” came around, and by now it just smacks of desperation, and the need to make an episode which will save the season some money. That last part is perfectly understandable, but couldn’t something better than this have been devised?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos Special Edition DVD review

A couple years ago, upon the release of “The Twin Dilemma” - which despite being the first story of the Sixth Doctor, was the final tale of Colin Baker’s to get a DVD release – it felt like the last time I’d be writing about this most divisive era of the classic series for a good long while. But then came the special edition double-dip craze, and a question was posed to fans, “Would you like to see a special edition of ‘Vengeance on Varos’?” And the answer was an enthusiastic yes. But since this is a double dip, rather than talk about “Varos” exclusively, I’d like to use this space to discuss Season 22 as a whole.

“Varos” in many ways exemplifies and is emblematic of the season, given its dark and violent satirical nature. Many claim the story the high point of Baker’s entire stint, something I probably wouldn’t argue, though it’s never been a big favorite of mine. From his era I prefer “The Two Doctors,” “Revelation of the Daleks,” and even “Mindwarp,” which was a sequel (of sorts) to “Varos” from the “Trial” season. Yet through this DVD I gained a considerable appreciation for “Varos” that I didn’t have before, or at least the first half of it, as the second half never quite delivers on the promise of the setup, though your mileage may vary.

There’s a bigger picture here, though, and for better and/or worse, Season 22 is unique in the history of the series. Though the previous season had toyed with a 45-minute episode format via “Resurrection of the Daleks,” that story wasn’t envisioned, scripted or shot to be screened as two 45-minute episodes. But the screening was judged a success, and so when Season 22 was commissioned, the plan was to move ahead with an entire season of 13 45-minute episodes. Sound familiar? It should, because that's essentially the format for a season of the new series. Unfortunately, Season 22 was such a departure on so many levels from the Doctor Who BBC audiences had come to know and love over the previous 21 years, that it was ultimately deemed a failure, and the show was put on hiatus, and ended up going back to the 25-minute format a year and a half later. But as a result of the format change, these six stories have a much different feel than other tales of the classic series. They do not move in quite the same way as the 25-minute format, and it’s typical for the Doctor and Peri to become involved in their adventures at a much more leisurely pace, for instance. They are closer to the tempo of two-parters of the new series, than they are to the four-parters of the classic.

Season 22 has a pretty bad reputation, mostly for all the wrong reasons, and there’s only one truly poor story (“Timelash”) in the half dozen, with the other five ranging from watchable (“The Mark of the Rani”) to good (“The Two Doctors”) to arguably excellent (“Revelation of the Daleks”). There’d certainly been plenty of Doctor Who seasons past with far worse good to bad ratios, though as with so much TV, ratings played a part, and the ratings for Season 22 were less than stellar. But the content was the real killer, and one wonders what might’ve been if Season 22 hadn’t felt like such an upheaval.

The new Doctor was considered by most to be unlikable. There’s surely no Doctor in the history of the series that was and is less liked en masse than the Sixth…though personally I’ve an enormous appreciation for him, and even many fans have grown to love Colin Baker and Doctor #6 through his work on the Big Finish audios. But it’s easy to look at his performance from the time, and see why it was so unpopular. This Doctor didn’t feel like a hero, and the Doctor, no matter how diverse his personality may become, must always be portrayed as a hero, even if it’s a flawed one. Perhaps the Sixth Doctor was a flawed hero, but his boastful, obnoxious manner wasn’t the right complement for viewers adjusting to the loss of Peter Davison. Yet from the vantage point of today, the Sixth Doctor is arguably a fascinating slice of Who, and one that’s much easier to digest as a small part of the now much larger whole.

Nicolas Chagrin as Quillam and Forbes Collins the Chief Officer

Perhaps even more controversial than the abrasive Doctor, was the show’s violent content, which appears to be a logical extension of the violence in the preceding season’s “Resurrection of the Daleks,” as well as “The Caves of Androzani,” both of which were considered successful serials. But whereas the violence in those stories was mostly justified, there are too many times in Season 22 in which the show feels as though it’s engaging in mayhem just for the sake of it. Random acts of brutality occur around and sometimes even because of the Doctor, which he’s uninterested in addressing (or if he does, it's with a tasteless pun). As a teenager, it didn’t occur to me that Baker’s era was necessarily harsher than the material that came before it, but as an adult I’m able to see what all the fuss was about. Thing is, I really don’t mind it, because the violence here remains child’s play compared to the endless displays of cruelty I’ve seen in all manner of TV and film over the years, and because it hardly defines the series as a whole, and just happens to be where the series was at this particular point. 

Martin Jarvis as the Governor
It’s the satire, probably, that really kills this season for so many people. There’s often a wry undercurrent of sadistic humor that pervades these stories (which, when presented alongside the violence and the snotty Doctor, can feel weirdly oppressive) and never more so than in “Vengeance on Varos,” which thrives on it. The story revolves around the class and political structure of the titular planet, which is a dreary sort of place that can most easily be described as Orwellian. On Varos, the populace seemingly works all day at the mines (the planet’s most valuable resource is an ore called Zeiton-7), and spends all night viewing the cruel displays of torture of political prisoners on their big screen TVs. Meanwhile, the actions of their leader, the Governor (Martin Jarvis), must be voted on from within individual households. Basically, everyone has access to their very own “yes” and “no” buttons, and if enough nays are pressed, what appears to be a beam of radiation comes cascading down onto the Governor for all his constituents to see. So it’s only a matter of time until a new Governor must be put into place, because the system is set up so that its leaders must ultimately fail and die.

Nabil Shaban as Sil
If you’ve not seen “Varos,” you can already pretty much glean whether or not it’s your cup of tea, and it’s hardly light entertainment. It boasts an early performance from the 21-year old Jason Connery, as the rebel Jondar, but what “Varos” is probably best known for is the reptilian villain Sil (Nabil Shaban), who’s sort of the breakout creature of the second Baker’s era. Again, I’d take some issue with that, as I’ve never been a giant Sil fan, yet it’s easy to see why many folks are. He’s a sleazy, slimy creepy little thing, that’s something of a triumph of the makeup and/or effects departments of the time. And he’s got a fair share of decent lines, assuming you can understand him.

“Vengeance on Varos” is tough to recommend for, well, for all the reasons I’ve written here. For someone who’s never seen it, it’s a fair representation of this era of the series, and - my overall opinion of it notwithstanding - there’s no question that it’s the most original story of the season, and probably of the entire Colin Baker era. And here in the States there can be no better time to view it than now, given that the political season is upon us, and there’s nothing in “Varos” uglier than what we’re often seeing on TV right now, or reading on the internet every day. You may even find it a sort of release from the frequent mockery of the American political system you’re forced to endure from one day to the next, and you’ll very likely come away from it wishing you had “yes” and “no” buttons of your very own.

Jarvis, Jason Connery and Baker

DVD Extras: All the extras from the original disc seem to have been ported over, including the commentary track featuring Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban, so if you’re a “Varos” fan, you can safely pass your old disc on to a newbie. And if you are a “Varos” fan, I’m pretty confident in predicting you’ll want to make the double dip for this double-disc set. There’s a 32-minute making-of called “Nice or Nasty” that’s appropriately over the top in its exploration and presentation. (Sadly, no Jason Connery, though!) “The Idiot’s Lantern” is a fine, but short piece on the show’s relationship with television over the years (as in how TV is portrayed within the series itself). There’s a 17-minute selection of deleted and extended scenes, which is more than what was on the original disc I think, as well as three minutes of outtakes. The infamous acid bath scene is presented with alternate music in the extras as well. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Sixth Doctor” was reason enough for this double dip; the DVD range would’ve had a big hole without it!

There is also a news item on Colin’s casting, and some Colin talk show appearances from Breakfast Time and Saturday Superstore (the latter also features Bryant, and a phone-in from the Master!). I guess these haven’t been on DVD before, but honestly it’s hard to keep track. There’s a rare French & Saunders sketch with the ladies playing Silurians on the set of a fictitious Who taping that’s great fun, and the opposite of the Jim Broadbent bit I recently trashed. There are the usual Radio Times listings in PDF form, as well as a trailer for the eagerly anticipated “The Ambassadors of Death,” which is due out in October. Finally, the disc features a half a dozen different audio track options, which must surely be a Who DVD record: Aside from the commentary, there’s the original mono mix, a 5.1 Surround mix (that I personally found exceptional), an isolated music score, and the isolated music score in 5.1, and finally a clean production track with no sound effects or music! Go figure. Even better, go and enjoy!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy

The modern western is a fertile ground for writers to play around with morally ambiguous characters, and it was refreshing to see how deep “A Town Called Mercy” was willing to go in its exploration of morality, given that Doctor Who remains family viewing. What was touted to viewers as some kind of shoot ‘em up romp, ended up a thoughtful riff on maybe a half a dozen concepts of different shapes and sizes: High Noon, Leone’s spaghetti westerns, High Plains Drifter, Blade Runner, Frankenstein,The Terminator, and Westworld all leaped to mind while taking in this clever amalgam of ideas. Yet for all its inspirations, “Mercy” was mostly just some excellent, thought-provoking Doctor Who.

Rory: “The sign does say ‘Keep Out.’”

The Doctor: “I see ‘Keep Out’ signs as suggestions more than actual orders. Like ‘Dry Clean Only’!”

“Mercy” writer Toby Whithouse penned the second season Who tale “School Reunion,” in which Lis Sladen’s Sarah Jane Smith came back to us. It was early days still, and he was working with an iconic figure, so it was easy to forgive some of that story’s weaknesses, particularly in regards to the batlike, shape-shifting Krillitane, who weren’t especially memorable villains. A couple years later, he unleashed what he’s perhaps best known for, the supernatural vampire/werewolf/ghost series, Being Human.

Whithouse finally returned to the Who fold during the last two seasons with “The God Complex,” a script that felt like it was maybe trying too hard, and the year before that, with “The Vampires of Venice,” a script that felt like it wasn’t trying quite hard enough. Aspects all of his Who scripts share, however, are complex, sympathetic villains next to complex, flawed portrayals of the Doctor. With “A Town Called Mercy,” Whithouse has done it again, and this time better than ever before.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters DVD review

With “A Town Called Mercy” debuting this weekend, it seemed like a good time to go back and take a look at the DVD of the last Doctor Who story that tackled the western, which was a long time ago - like, 46 years. Yes, we’ll have to travel all the way back to 1966, the third season, when William Hartnell was still the Doctor – the first Doctor…

The TARDIS arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, in a stable near the O.K. Corral. Predictably, it’s just days before the infamous shootout, but the Doctor hasn’t chosen the time and place on purpose. No, the TARDIS has randomly chosen Tombstone, while the Doctor has a serious toothache, and is in need of a dentist. Bizarrely, the fact that the American Old West may not be an ideal place to seek medical attention only becomes an issue when it's too late. The Doctor heads out into the town, along with Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) - collectively one of the least effective TARDIS teams, perhaps never more so than here – in search of a dentist. He finds one in the form of Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), who’s just set up practice, and the Doctor is his first customer.

Post surgery, our Doc is mistaken for the other, and the first couple episodes mostly revolve around the time travelers being threatened and intimidated by the Clantons. But then Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne[1]) shows up in episode three (aptly titled “Johnny Ringo”; “The Gunfighters” is in fact the final story to give individual episodes their own title), and events escalate towards the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, around which the final episode is set.

“The Gunfighters,” back when I was a teenager, had one of the worst reputations of the entire series. People don’t say quite as many bad things about the “The Gunfighters” these days, but then again people don’t really say much about it at all. According to Wikipedia, back in ’66 it wasn’t the ratings that were a disaster, but rather the Audience Appreciation scores, which were among the lowest Doctor Who has ever received. It’s sort of easy to see why, too, for much of “The Gunfighters” is intentionally played for laughs, yet the jokes exist side by side with a fair amount of ruthless bloodshed.

So, “The Gunfighters” is funny and violent, and neither thing, at that time anyway, was Doctor Who necessarily well known for, never mind mixing them together. Add into that mix some frequently dodgy accents (though they’re not nearly as bad as reputation suggests), and the song The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon[2], which plays ad nauseum throughout the entire four episodes, essentially narrating the story in a Greek chorus kind of way, and you’ve got a recipe for potentially one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever.

Except that it isn’t. Not quite. Looking at “The Gunfighters” through the eyes of today, it holds up well enough, all things considered, and kudos should be given to something that dared to be so bold and different during what was a fairly turbulent time for the series. Its moody lighting and the direction from Rex Tucker are also rather impressive. 

If it fails to engage, it’s not because its tone shifts all over the place, but rather because the leads are so ineffectual and unimportant to the storyline. The Doctor is utterly ill-equipped to deal with these ruthless sorts of folk. He’s out of his element here, and Hartnell seems to grasp that, and in turn does a remarkable job of doing almost nothing, aside from being a flustered old man. He’s hardly the hero of the tale, which makes for a much different dynamic, as one character after the next has no patience for this seemingly doddering geriatric and his goofy companions. It’s as if the story happens around them, and they have little effect on the outcome of events. On the other hand, it could be argued that this is a strength of “The Gunfighters”; that the Doctor cannot stride into every situation and have influence on the outcome. Indeed, the events of the O.K. Corral may very well be a fixed point in time, of the type that was outlined in “The Waters of Mars.”

It’s tough to recommend “The Gunfighters” to anyone but completists and the like, but at the very least, it’s certainly a more entertaining viewing than something like, say, “The Ark.” By premature comparison, “A Town Called Mercy” likely has nowhere to go but up. Last but not least, I would personally love to someday see the Doctor’s extracted tooth come back into play ala the Tenth Doctor’s severed hand. Silly fanboy wish; nothing more.

[1] Laurence Payne would go on to play major roles in the 80’s Doctor Who stories “The Leisure Hive” and “The Two Doctors.  

[2] The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon was sung by Lynda Baron, who 17 years later played Captain Wrack in “Enlightenment,” and then 28 years after that, played Val, the department store clerk in “Closing Time.”

DVD Extras: Easy enough to recommend is the fascinating 43-minute documentary on this disc entitled “The End of the Line,” which details all the behind the scenes turmoil of the show’s third season. It’s worth checking out this disc for the doc alone. Beyond that, there’s a commentary track featuring actors Peter Purves, Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper), David Graham (Charlie), Richard Beale (Bat Masterson), and production assistant Tristan de Vere Cole, all moderated by the mighty Toby Hadoke. “Tomorrow’s Times – The First Doctor” is a featurette which looks at press coverage of the series during the Hartnell era. There’s also a photo gallery, production notes subtitle option, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Paradise Towers.” 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Thankfully, writer Chris Chibnall did not riff on Sam Jackson’s infamously profane line of Snakes on a Plane dialogue, which, going into this episode, was the most unsettlingly awkward prospect imaginable, especially if it had been in the form of a PG-rated tongue twister coming from Matt Smith. Since that didn’t happen, though, the only direction for estimation to go was up, and that’s mostly because, with a title like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” expectations were low to begin with, since, well, we’re not 10-year olds anymore.

The Doctor: “Well, there’s so much to discover. Think how much wiser we’ll be by the end of all this.”

In this digital age of creating dinosaurs with ease, it’s almost amazing that it’s taken Doctor Who seven seasons to get around to doing it, yet for much of the time the revival’s been on the air, one of its chief competitors, creatively speaking, has been the ITV series Primeval. With that show currently in a production limbo, it was probably seen as a good time to go find out what might be done with the Doctor meeting dinos. As it turns out, the prehistoric creatures were only slightly more pivotal to the goings-on than the Führer was to “Let’s Kill Hitler.”

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD review

With the release of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” the Sylvester McCoy era draws to its DVD close, and the final tale of Season 25 is a fine enough series of notes to go out on. Like “The Happiness Patrol” before it, “Galaxy” is (sometimes) a satire, only the satirical elements here aren’t as prominent as the story’s emphasis on surrealism. This is the sort of material that the McCoy era seemed hell bent on exploring, yet came away from with mixed results. “Galaxy,” to my mind, never quite scales the perfection of the story that brought us Helen A and the Kandy Man, but then it’s not going for as political a statement, either. At its core, “Galaxy” is about not following your dreams by selling out, and the horror and hurt that results from inaction.

That such ideas should be wrapped around a story set at a circus makes “Galaxy” a possibly appealing proposition, and it is a worthy story, even if flawed, due to a somewhat unsatisfying final act. (Similarly, writer Stephen Wyatt’s previous Doctor Who script, “Paradise Towers,” resulted in much the same ratio, though this is still superior to that offering.) 

The Doctor (McCoy) and Ace (Sophie Aldred) receive a piece of intergalactic junk mail inviting them to the Psychic Circus, currently operating on the planet Segonax. The Circus, which was once quite the draw for young and old alike, has fallen on hard times. The staff is in shambles and at odds with one another, while visitors go in and don’t come out. Seemingly unaware of what the Circus has devolved into, and despite Ace’s fear of clowns, the Doctor heads for Segonax, and naturally the pair find themselves in loads of trouble and danger, yet always surrounded by an extremely colorful cast of characters.

Christopher Guard's Bellboy menaced by Ian Reddington's Chief Clown
It’s the clowns, though, that elevate “Galaxy” from intriguing to well worth a look. The Chief Clown was brought to life by a guy named Ian Reddington, who was so good in his role, that in a Doctor Who Magazine poll, he won best villain of the season – in a year that had already featured villainy in the forms of Daleks, Davros, Cybermen, Nazis, a time-traveling witch, as well as the aforementioned tyrannical dictator, and her sweet-toothed psychotic servant. Yes, even through the lens of today, the Chief Clown (and to a lesser degree, his silent, robotic minions) makes an impression, and if you’ve a fear of clowns, as many seem to, you can’t say you weren’t warned. Reddington gets a great deal of mileage from never playing the part even remotely for laughs, yet his clown has an unsettling welcoming quality, but doesn’t necessarily give off a sinister vibe until the camera captures him in just the right moments. It’s a tough act to describe, and better imbibed; one helluva performance, which might’ve made Pennywise weep with envy.

Sophie Aldred & Sylvester McCoy
The rest of the cast shines as well, featuring an array of talented Brits - mostly unknown here in the States - who inhabit all the various carnies and fans of the circus. Aldred is in as fine a form as usual, and McCoy acquits himself nicely, turning in a subdued performance that only falls apart in the final act when he’s forced to do a bunch cheap parlor tricks that are more at home on a vaudevillian stage than on Doctor Who (though keep an eye out for the hanging man tarot card introduced in episode two, that’s paid off in episode four). Further, this is a tale in which it’s never made specifically clear whether or not the Doctor is manipulating events in his favor; might be, might not. The revelations of the true enemy in the final act indicate that maybe he “knew all along,” yet it’s in no way ever spelled out. Frankly, I prefer McCoy’s Doctor a little more ambiguous, such as he is here, but the lack of narrative clarity may have some viewers calling foul.

Behind the scenes of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” things were a disaster, and, due to an asbestos scare at the BBC, the serial was this close to being scrapped entirely. All of its exterior location work had been completed when this was discovered, but the remainder of the production (roughly ¾ of it) was scheduled to be completed in studio at the BBC, which was now unavailable. Producer John Nathan-Turner knew the potential power of this tale, and wasn’t about to let it go. He fought tooth and nail to finish “Galaxy,” and in the end a giant tent (so perfect given that it largely takes place inside, wait for it…a giant tent!) was erected on the Elstree Film Studios parking lot, where the serial was completed. Kudos also to director Alan Wareing, who makes the most of everything at his disposal, imbuing the serial with proper chilly atmosphere, and casting a sense of dread over the entire piece.

John Nathan-Turner
But much credit must be given to Nathan-Turner. If it weren’t for his dedication, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” would barely exist today. We’d have about an episode’s worth of existing footage, and the serial would probably survive only in some sort of “Shada”-like limbo, with animated recreations, or audios, or books to attempt to show us what the serial might have been. The extras on this DVD go a long way toward giving him that much deserved credit, and those associated with the serial appear to have nothing but admiration for the man. People all too often talk a great deal of smack about Nathan-Turner, but not here. Not on this disc - which in addition to being generous towards JN-T, is also bursting at the seams with worthy bonus material.

T.P. McKenna as Captain Cook & Jessica Martin as Mags
DVD Extras: The Toby Hadoke-moderated commentary is a blast, loaded with fun, opinions and information. It features Aldred, alongside actors Jessica Martin (Mags) and Christopher Guard (Bellboy), as well as writer Wyatt, script editor Andrew Cartmel, and composer Mark Ayres. It’s something of a shame, given that it’s the last disc of his era to get a release, but McCoy is nowhere to be seen here, in any form or fashion (it seems unlikely that any of his other stories will get special edition treatment, but who knows?). The aptly-titled “The Show Must Go On” is a fine, 30-minute making-of which explores much of what’s been talked about here, including the behind-the-scenes complications. It also includes an on-camera interview with Ian Reddington, which is quite the bonus for fans of the Chief Clown.

There’s an 11-minute selection of extended and deleted scenes culled from the first and third episodes, alongside some intriguing model footage that was originally set to open the serial. “The Psychic Circus” is a mostly terrible music video for an even worse song that’s written by Christopher Guard, and features vox from Guard, Jessica Martin, and T.P. McKenna (who must surely have been drunk when he agreed to take part in the project). “‘Remembrance’ Demo” is a couple scenes from the Season 25 Dalek story, rescored by Ayres. “Tomorrow’s Times – The Seventh Doctor” is a look at the press reaction to the McCoy years. “Victoria Wood As Seen on TV is a mercifully short, howlingly awful piece of sketch comedy featuring none other than Jim Broadbent sending up a version of the Doctor. I can actually remember when this fiasco made the cover of Doctor Who Magazine; must've been a slow month for news. There’s also an isolated music score, the option to listen to the serial in 5.1 Surround, an unusually excellent photo gallery packed with great behind-the scenes shots, the production notes subtitle option, and Radio Times listings & some storyboards in PDF form. Finally, there’s an Easter Egg that flew entirely over my head, and a coming soon trailer for “Planet of Giants.”

Behind the scenes, at lunch

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks

Two types of Doctor Who episodes Steven Moffat has excelled at envisioning are Christmas episodes and season premieres. Once again, in the latter area, he has not failed. “Asylum of the Daleks” is a deliriously intense dramatic trip — a Hammer House of Dalek Horrors — that delivers on just about every count and expectation one could have from a 50-minute installment of this series. It’s probably Moffat’s finest season opener yet. (The list of requests I wrote earlier this week? Let’s just say I’m presently a satisfied Whovian.) After the bad taste left by so much of season six, this felt very much like a series getting itself back on track. Perhaps we shouldn’t get prematurely excited, though, lest we end up let down later? It is, after all, only the first installment of a season of 14 that’s going to stretch well into next year. Still, this was most reassuring.

Many aspects are worthy of discussion, but the one that was the most startling was the early appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman, here playing a character named Oswin Oswald, revealed in the climax to be a human converted into a Dalek. Moffat has insisted for months that Coleman’s new companion would be introduced at Christmas, to the point where this was an accepted fact; obviously a massive deception. Why keep it a secret, and is the “surprise” a surprise to the average viewer who doesn’t keep track of behind the scenes stuff such as casting? Even over in the U.K., where the public actually knows who Coleman is, won’t most viewers just shrug and say, “Oh yeah, I heard she was coming onto the show.” It’s a long way to go to keep a secret that didn’t necessarily need to be kept.

Read the rest of this recap by clicking here and visiting Vulture.