Saturday, 20 May 2017

Doctor Who - Extremis

Contains Spoilers.

Doctor Who is neither as family friendly nor crowd pleasing as it once was, and there's no escaping the below average ratings, but does that stop Steven Moffat from still going all out and giving us one of the strangest, most dizzyingly unique Doctor Who stories in the show's lengthy history? No, Sir, it does not. And quite right too.

"Extremis" is entirely unpredictable. Well, saying that, the episode reveals to us that it is indeed Missy (Michelle Gomez, as delightful as ever) inside the Vault that's been popping up every episode thus far - it's hardly a revelation no one saw coming. Yet, "Extremis" does well to sidestep the reveal's obviousness in favour of even more intrigue. We know now that it is Missy in the vault, locked there when the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, as commanding as ever) refused to execute her hundreds of years ago. He has promised to guard her nonetheless, but why was she being executed? Why has the Doctor still guarded her in the vault? The mystery is answered, but fresh layers take its place.

This is only one portion of the episode though, unfolding through flashback. The present timeline - or so we think - finds the Doctor approached by the Pope. An ancient text called the Veritas has been uncovered, and every person who has ever translated it has ultimately taken their own life. After picking up Bill (Pearl Mackie, as enjoyable as ever), the Doctor and Nardole take the TARDIS to the Vatican to work out what the hell is going on with this Veritas. Once there, they uncover a sinister group of monk-like aliens who  want to take over the world.

Much like you'd expect from the genius mind of Moffat, though, this is no ordinary invasion. In fact, this isn't even an ordinary world. After some rare brilliant VFX work that sees Nardole pixelate and fade away into nothingness, the Doctor reveals the truth to Bill - this isn't our world, it's a virtual reality. A hologram, if you will. This alien species is so clever that they create entirely realistic fake versions of their target worlds in order to practice their invasion, to get a sense of the response so that they can strategise the best plan to invade with. 

It's a head-spinning concept, and the twist lands brilliantly. It's unfolded slowly, with Bill and Nardole getting all the relevant information first but unable to piece it all together. That job belongs to the Doctor, and Capaldi relishes every moment. His conversation with Bill in the episode's climax is terrifying in how scared and sinister the Doctor appears, yet Capaldi is forced to ground his performance in vulnerability. The Doctor is still blind, remember. He's facing the most intelligent invasion he's ever seen, and he can't even see it.

It sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but Moffat's script knows when to lighten the tone a bit - morbid Doctor Who is unpleasant Doctor who, save for the phenomenal "Heaven Sent". An early sequence of the Pope wandering into Bill's bedroom is brilliantly funny, and Bill and Nardole's lovable chemistry further adds a bit of lightheartedness to an otherwise dark episode. Moffat demonstrates a remarkable control of tone here, and it's vital to some of the episode's more risky subject matter - a Religious group are key players in the episode, but "Extremis" doesn't dismiss them or laugh at the them within the Sci-Fi.

Director Daniel Nettheim brings even more to the episode's impact. Doctor Who is renowned for its long corridors, but they've never looked creepier than the ones Nettheim conjures up inside the Vatican's secret library. The projection room oozes influence from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the effect is fantastically disorientating, it truly looks and feels alien - something Doctor Who can frequently struggle with on a BBC budget.

In other words, everything about "Extremis" is first rate. This is Moffat's second script of the series, but due to the nature of "The Pilot" this feels like the first time he's been able to let loose and get weird. The first five episodes found the show on good form, but it rarely left its own self imposed boundaries. "Extremis" doesn't just step over those boundaries, it sprints past them - never looking back and grinning as it goes.

Notes -
  • Seriously, that moment of the Pope in Bill's flat is the hardest I've laughed at this show in ages.
  • The Doctor returning to the real world and immediately telling Bill to phone Penny was a nice touch. Even amid all the crazy plot twists, Moffat finds some heart inside the episode.
  • Those monk creatures are scary as hell. I don't know whose idea it was to have their mouths open but only move slightly when they speak, but they're an evil genius.
  • It's so great to have Michelle Gomez back. She doesn't get a tonne of screen time here, but boy does she make the most of it. She's such an infectious presence in this show, I'll miss her a lot come the new era.
  • Next week sees the middle episode of this three parter. Considering it's written by Peter Harness, the man who helmed the exceptional "Kill the Moon" and the breathtaking "The Zygon Inversion", I'm considerably excited.

Oxygen - Previous | Next - The Pyramid at the End of the World

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Doctor Who - Oxygen

Contains spoilers.

I'm going to dive straight into this one: Jamie Mathieson is Doctor Who's strongest guest writer of the Peter Capaldi era. Premiering with the superb "Mummy on the Orient Express," Mathieson demonstrated an uncanny understanding of how Doctor Who works and how to exploit that within a script. He then served up the frighteningly good "Flatline" followed by the sensational "The Girl Who Died," and now he gives us "Oxygen" - which is ironic in a way, as I'm fairly certain I didn't breathe for most of this episode.

"Oxygen" is without question the best episode of Series 10 so far for a plethora of reasons, which we'll come to shortly. The episode's premise is standard Doctor Who: the Doctor, Bill and Nardole respond to a distress call from a mining facility deep in space. When they arrive they discover that a crew of forty has been reduced down to just four, but the dearly departed haven't been laid to rest - instead, they're still strolling around the station.

What seems like a gimmicky "zombies in space" premise soon unfolds into something strikingly innovative, a story unlike any Doctor Who has told in years. Capitalism as a theme isn't something Doctor Who normally associates with, but it's one that really works within the context of "Oxygen" - what better way to land a futuristic political theme than by tying it into something we all need but rarely consider. The mere concept of oxygen becoming a monetisable entity is tough to buy into, but Mathieson's script is clever in the way it tackles such an idea.

Quite simply, he never gives us time to properly think it through. "Oxygen" leaps from one tense set piece to the next with incredible efficiency - one moment the dead are approaching from all angles, and it doesn't take long until Bill's suit locks her into the ground with her helmet removed while the station depressurises to prepare for a vacuum. Every set piece works, too. There's not a single false alarm or fake out, and the episode paces itself masterfully so that each action or horror sequence is stronger than the last.

But even with the episode's structure somewhat masking the thematic work, "Oxygen" never feels thin or half baked. While the concept is tricky to accept, the episode handles it admirably. You could make a case for Mathieson's script spelling its themes out loud when the Doctor audibly remarks "Capitalism in space" but the moment just about escapes awkwardness through Capaldi's conviction to his character. "Oxygen" may not dive head first into capitalism as a theme, but it allows it to surface enough for the idea to resonate and applies just the right amount of focus on it during the conclusion to prevent it from feeling tacked on. In other words it's a light thematic touch, but a respectable one.

"Oxygen" is on remarkable form for its first two acts, but it's the final third in which the episode finally comes into its own. The Doctor saves Bill from death by removing his own helmet and attaching it to her suit, the ensuing vacuum rendering him blind. Mathieson refuses to bind his episode by convention, consistently finding new angles to take the story - we've never had a Doctor without his vision before, and it throws the entire final act into a terrifying state of unpredictability.

The episode's strongest moment comes after even this, though, as the Doctor begins to understand the real story unfolding before him and is forced to leave Bill under the assumption that death is coming for her too. The Doctor's pleas with her spark some kind of faith within Bill - she trusts him, we know that. Earlier in the episode, Bill asks the Doctor why he always tells jokes in serious moments, and the two mutually agree that it serves as a distraction from potentially nasty results. When the Doctor leaves Bill with an army of the dead approaching, she asks him to tell her a joke, but he simply walks away.

It's a deeply moving moment, and it's terrifically performed by Pearl Mackie. The cutaways to the images of Bill's mum feel a bit forced, but the episode earns the right to do so from the strength of Mackie's performance here. There's genuine fear in Bill's eyes when her suit locks down, followed by devastation when the Doctor tells her what will happen, resulting in heartbreak when he walks away from her. Mackie has often struggled with the heavier moments this season, but she nails this one beautifully.

After a conclusion that makes sense and doesn't feel rushed - a first for this season - "Oxygen" seems to tie itself up too nicely, but then Mathieson throws us his final curve ball: the Doctor is still blind. The trick in the TARDIS didn't work. Not only is it brutally effective in the moment, but it throws the remainder of the season into uncertainty - I have legitimately no idea how long this will last. Doctor Who has been on terrific form for the past two seasons, but I can't remember the last time the show felt as unpredictable as it does now. This is shaping up to be yet another superb run for the show - its third great season in a row, perhaps, which would be a record - and with a three part story kicking off next week, the stakes truly feel higher than ever.

  • Anyone worried by Nardole's presence this season should have been silenced by tonight. Matt Lucas is effortlessly brilliant in the role, his one liners land naturally and with precision all while he serves as an efficient character within the story itself.
  • Capaldi was also finally given some meatier stuff to play with tonight, chewing it all up wonderfully as is expected. He is so fitting with this role, the show seems to improve its understand of his Doctor which each passing season and Capaldi simply adapts and grows. It's a real pleasure to watch.
  • The supporting cast were all great tonight, too. Doctor Who is often plagued by weak supporting performances, but this season hasn't fallen victim to that once so far.
  • The Doctor sent Nardole to Birmingham for a packet of crisps, but Nardole saw through that cunning ruse. The chemistry between these two is delightful.
  • Missy's back next week. Yay!

Knock Knock - Previous | Next - Extremis

Friday, 12 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

Remember back in 1979 when a film came out that would forever change the way aliens were tackled in sci-fi cinema? I don't remember of course, I wasn't born until a good sixteen years later, but even with that in mind it's tough for me not to long for the early days of this tired franchise. Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant should be great, it has all the hallmarks of a film that jump starts a franchise that's showing signs of struggling. Instead, it winds up woefully similar to Scott's own Prometheus in that all of its interesting ideas succumb to a inescapable sense of pointlessness.

Covenant finds a crew of 15, plus android Walter (Michael Fassbender) and about 2000 colonists, on route to a new inhabitable planet that humanity has discovered. On the way, a solar shockwave wakes the crew and they stumble upon a much closer planet that also shows incredibly promising signs of sustaining human life. They abandon their former directives, and set course for the new planet instead, but what they find there is far from what they expect.

So right off the bat it's frustrating that Covenant's story hinges on a coincidence. The film's script acknowledges this too, with a character proudly declaring that he "doesn't believe in coincidence". Oh, good. I guess we shouldn't too then? What makes this an even bigger issue is the direction Covenant's plot takes, ultimately going into incredible depth as to the history of the Alien franchise's iconic Xenomorph.

I can forgive coincidence in storytelling, but when coincidence leads to two hours of exposition it's harder to justify. After things calm down following a brief hectic burst on the new planet, Covenant abandons thrills in favour of a lengthy talking patch, but ultimately reveals nothing about itself. There's no character development, there's little thematic exploration, there's not even much in terms of plot progression specific to this film. Covenant is rooted in the past to such an extent that it forgets to craft its own story - there's little here that couldn't be explained in a webisode.

A lot of this hinges on how you view the Aliens, too. If you love a little backstory with your horror then Covenant will likely go down nicely with you, but if you'd much rather take your evil, unstoppable killing machines with no explanation and only your mind to imagine the very worst, this is bound to be a redundant feature in your eyes. Unfortunately, I fit firmly within the latter, meaning the bulk of Covenant annoys me more than it intrigues me. Certain fans of the franchise are bound to be glued to their seats during the film's middle act, but if you aren't one of those people, Covenant will bore you to tears.

And if the meaningless fleshing out of the creatures' history doesn't hammer the final nail into the coffin, Covenant's visual handling of the Xenomorphs is just as poor. CGI facehuggers stick out like a sore thumb, the few appearances of the iconic Aliens don't muster up the same sense of dread and horror that they used to. There's a sense that Scott has entirely forgotten how terrifying these creatures can be and is now content to just throw them into lazily executed action scenes and hope for the best. These Aliens used to be jaw dropping, but now the only mouth action they'll induce is a yawn.

Perhaps Covenant's most niggling issue though is how dedicated it is to recapturing the successes of former instalments despite being completely inept at doing so. Scott is very clearly trying to infuse Covenant with elements of Alien, Aliens and Prometheus, but each film's individual strength gets lost in the mix. This film lacks the incessant tension of Alien, the all out action of Aliens and the visual splendour of Prometheus. What we get instead is a film with small splutters of each, but never enough to really satisfy. It never coalesces into a fluid, functioning story - Covenant feels more like a pit stop than a film, just a pit stop with occasional nostalgia. 

The small bursts do come in handy though, as Covenant occasionally lands on something great. The so called Neomorphs are a masterclass in creature design, feral in their movements and brutal in their killings. A fresh take on the iconic "chest bursting" scene is horrendous in its intensity, upping the visual horror with every new second. Michael Fassbender is also on hand to serve up not one but two sensationally good performances, his portrayal of androids Walter and David is ingenious in how he separates the two through tiny details like a hand gesture or a pronunciation. Fassbender saves a large chunk of this film from total mundanity, even when the script threatens to turn itself into fan fiction he remains a compelling on screen presence.

A handful of decent ideas can't save Covenant though, as it eventually botches its final act with a plot twist that feels painfully predicable from the moment it's conceived yet seemingly takes forever to be revealed. Despite its best efforts, the film loses sight of just what makes Alien and Aliens the masterpieces they are - a complete lack of explanation. As soon as you know where something comes from and why it is the way it is, it stops being effective. Covenant brings this franchise right up to that point and tips it way over the edge. Even besides this, the film is just plain dull. Prometheus was a bit of a wobble, but it'll be truly tough to come back from this one.

In A Sentence
Despite some solid scares and a bone-chilling performance from Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant can't escape its derivative plot and woefully misjudged handling of its own franchise's biggest asset.