SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

DOCTOR WHO: KILL THE MOON (2014) // In which Peter Capaldi's Doctor Comes of Age ~ "Makes you turn round at the end credits and smile because: Yep, that was it - that was the one . ."


And so the new series of BBC TV sci-fi, Doctor Who (and the first season to star new Doctor, Peter Capaldi) finally came of age and proved that there's life - angry, vibrant, brilliantly disillusioned life - in the old dog yet.

Doctor Who was revitalised (saved) as a show in 2005, thanks to a rebirth and new confidence from the BBC in its 40-something TV sci-fi baby after a substantial sabbatical. Along with a brand new and off-centre producer (Russell T. Davies) bringing along big, revolutionary ideas for the show (but held in check with a clear reverence for the past) there was a star turn from the terrific Christopher Ecclestone as a grumpier, madder, 'Northern Doctor' and his spunkier, younger companion from an Outer London housing estate in the shape of Billie Piper (as Rose Tyler, a girl developing a proper crush on the man she was travelling through space and time with).


Doctor Who was suddenly pretty cool again in the new millennium. And this 'New Who' stayed relevant, thoughtful, sometimes just plain weird and captured media headlines and the youth vote for the next nine years through increasingly younger Doctors (David Tennant and Matt Smith - both often mesmerising) all the way up to the show's 50th Anniversary at the end of 2013. One final adventure with Matt Smith at Christmas that same year and the walking gawkily sexed-up whirling firebrand of a Doctor handed the role over to the much older (Smith was barely in his 30s when he left the show) Peter Capaldi (a Doctor representing the over-50s).

Capaldi was already a good, dour, wild-eyed and established actor (most famously swearing his way through political BBC spin drama, The Thick of It) and the show, when it relaunched, took a predictable downturn - beaten in the ratings by ITV's X-Factor and soon shunted to a later night time slot (BBC denials that this was anything other than their expected masterplan were suddenly everywhere, but you couldn't help suspect that Doctor Who was faltering).

A shame - over the first six episodes starting in Autumn 2014, there were clearly some amazing 'Who moments' with Brit horror director Ben (Sightseers) Wheatley adding much-needed initial fright, barely-faced androids and dark inner Dalek-exploring to hotchpotch scripts in the series openers 'Deep Breath' and 'Into the Dalek'.
Third adventure for Capaldi was 'Robot of Sherwood', written by Mark Gatiss, that infused sudden quirk, merriment and outright playfulness to the show after fairly moody starters. But this was an episode that was effectively ruined after news of a similar act of violence as that befalling (cartoonishly) the lead 'robot' in the episode's climax dominated the press and resulted in hugely damaging last-minute BBC cuts to a vital explanatory scene. The story was fun and had some killer robot designs and neat death-by-cross-shaped-laser, but being denied a proper payoff means it really needs that uncut DVD release.
'Listen', by series executive producer Steven Moffat, was up next and brought back traditionally dark gothic undercurrents and a cracking childhood theme focusing on what (or even maybe who) actually forms the basis of all our nightmares - a corker of an episode that maybe only failed in the absence of a matching traditional payoff (as much as I love the untraditional - the idea of our imaginations causing fear was limp).
'Time Heist' fared better - featuring a brilliant bug-eyed, brain-draining monster (and excellent skull-crushing effects) but it was next adventure 'The Caretaker', effortlessly developing inspired interplay between the three main cast members of the Doctor, companion Clara and new boy Danny Pink (a teacher, like Clara) that set the bar for quality dialogue and a fresh approach to a suddenly and (at least in Capaldi's performance and seeming lack of interest at the start of the season) threateningly old creaky dinosaur of a show - which it wasn't.


It was actress Jenna Coleman - as wistful, gorgeous, feisty, twitchy-nosed Clara Oswald, now a teacher at the same school that the first Doctor's granddaughter (and his first couple of companions - also teachers) attended, that initially saved the day. This young actress has been exceptional in the companion role - holding the show together like a manically-depressed (shown only in her grinning, over-compensated, bristling calm) Samantha-like character (from cult suburban witch show Bewitched).

Also, the introduction of Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) - the injured ex-army man struggling to make ends meet as a teacher (slightly irritating 'Doctor doesn't like the army' plotline aside) breathed fresh, sexy life into the show too, especially when alongside co-star and on-screen love interest Clara. This was a double-act clearly destined for a spin-off show one day, if it's ever needed. An especially promising concept if the two teachers were to be joined by new schoolgirl friend of the Doctor (and frequent visitor to the Tardis) - sassy but vulnerable 14 year old Courtney Woods (played by young actress Ellis George in her first TV role and playing to age - balancing acting career with normal life at secondary school).
Courtney's role was cautiously extended in The Caretaker (becoming the first companion to actually vomit in the Tardis in the process) and approached joint lead in Kill The Moon. The character is a brilliantly-crafted addition to the show regulars this season and expertly neuters the Capaldi age issue with one ring of the dinner bell.
'Kill the Moon' has a wild plot where the Doctor, Clara and Courtney hitch a ride on a space shuttle/ virtual museum piece (linking nicely to a theme in another 'Who Moon' adventure - Troughton's 'Seeds of Death', from 1969) before landing (badly) on the surface of the moon and helping a team of reserve - and rather rubbish - astronauts sent to investigate why that old grey Earth satellite is having such a negative effect on the gravitational comfort we used to have back on Earth. Their directive: to kill whatever is causing the chaos back home, at any cost to life on the moon.

The ragtag group soon discover that bacteria on the planet's surface in the shape of scuttling, red and black spiders, are only the start of the increasingly strange dangers the team get to face. Soon, it's discovered that the spiders feed on a beast that lives below the surface in a shell and is ready to rise - or rather hatch - from its egg (the moon's surface being the shell).


Shuttle crew team leader Lundvik (Hermione Norris) faces her toughest decision yet (in the face of a schoolgirl and her teacher barking a possible anti-abortion agenda at her) - does she press the button and 'kill that chick' before it cracks its way free or does she let it live, and the Earth die? A surreal scene has Clara ask Earth via some kind of galactic public address system whether the people vote the space chicken lives - or dies. Turn your light out now if you vote 'die', she says: all the lights go out. Yes - I bet even yours! The Doctor disappears in the Tardis - deliberately - and leaves this one to the girls.
Someone should have told the Doctor's previous incarnations (perhaps most memorably Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor as he hopped between earth and moon evading Ice Warriors in The Seeds of Death - but also David Tennant in 2007 episode Smith and Jones) that the moon was going to hatch one day, so why bother saving it from alien intruders on the surface anyway - if they'll all going to be hatched to bits? But no, Capaldi's Doctor does at least try to explain the concept to Clara that future events can still be changed, or are open to being sculpted, by whoever is around at the time they happen (namely in this case - them!).


With a healthy dose of the kind of space fantasy that author Terry Pratchett (and his bonkers but brilliantly realised Discworld series - where a giant turtle transporting a world through space on the back of four giant elephants is par for the course) specialises in, or the wild, anything-goes imagination of mind-bending sci-fi tall-teller Harry Harrisson himself (planets - they can be Hell, literally, or just full of plants that want to eat you), be in no doubt: the script by Peter Harness for Kill the Moon is wild, completely bonkers, often poignant and unrestrained. Like all the best sci-fi, it's completely crazy and irresponsibly unscientific, but believably futuristic and fantastical (even if not) - H.G. Wells would have approved. Some of the best dreamers still believe the moon is flat - or at least in the shape of an egg.

Harness, with his electrifyingly random and feverish script (along with the introduction to the show of younger, harder-edged directors such as Ben Wheatley) has brought a grown-up touch to Who's proceedings and his past career writing for shows such as the English-language version of Wallander and the extraordinarily poignant drama about the life of Frankie Howerd - 'Rather You Than Me' (2008) has clearly helped shapeshift the show into one that's perfect for teenagers and students, going against, perhaps, a way of thinking in the past that there would always be a gap for any Who fan at the age of 17-24 (approx.) where you take your breath and get back your life, before returning to being that 'older, but more retro' fan of the show.
You know, you hear many fans talk about how they went through those Doctor Who 'gap years' when they abandoned the Tardis for far more interesting trips in real life - even Capaldi himself (on a recent edition of the BBC's Graham Norton show) said much the same. It's time that old cliché was bludgeoned by a Judoon. Like Matt Smith's bow tie of the past - the Doctor is 'cool these days', right? (And, hey - he even wears lace-up boots to prove it!)

Of course - the 'older, more grandfatherly mad scientist/ serious but quirky schoolteachers/ excitable pupil' Tardis team (easily traced back to 60s Hartnell and the Cushing film versions) that is now at the heart of this new Who blueprint and its extravagantly fan-pleasing, fun retro-scares such as those lunar spiders in the dark, still makes the show a capturer of the hearts of children as well as adults. As it should be.


But executive producer Steven Moffat has done more: a brilliant thing. Yes, he's seemingly brought the series back to its roots, effortlessly, but it's with an unforced, modern approach and (whisper it - as saying it out loud ruins it) defiantly trendy agenda. Fully in keeping with the series since its rebirth in 2005, but if anything - reaching a balance between old and new that, for many, may have just been perfected.

I wasn't convinced at first. Not when - at the start of this new season, Moffat introduced a slightly annoying new season arc about some mysterious woman taking away the dead falling around the Doctor to some mysterious nowhere place - "Welcome," this strange woman would greet new arrivals, "to Heaven". It was all a bit 'blah' really - a bit 'late season Lost in Space'. (Or was this deliberate - a humorous extension of past po-facedness? It's just Heaven and a cup of tea awaits you now!) But this red Heaven herring has been pleasingly toned-down after the first few adventures of Capaldi's first run.

It'll be back of course, but at least it hasn't been shoved down our throats the entire season as some other story arcs may have done in the past. It clearly proves that standalone adventures in Doctor Who always seem to work best, and have the most longevity (though some seasons with story arcs, even Matt Smith's, ahem, 'crack' one - have been memorable, and some: The Key to Time from Tom Baker's era or Black Guardian from Davison's, have been outstanding).

The thing is: there's a balance to be had with story arcs. Too much and the viewer gets irritated. The Trial of a Time Lord, from Colin Baker's era, especially suffered from thematic overkill (despite huge effort from all concerned and some wonderfully fun adventures) with a threading storyline based on manipulation of whether events are real or not. This had the effect - eventually - of making you no longer care in the plotting, in case it wasn't real. That's what's known as one massive 'fatal flaw' - to give up believing in a script, or being forced to, by the writers themselves. Equally, if there's no thematic playfulness, or progress of any kind, then a long-running series rests in familiar territory without developing a unique voice or regenerative (so to speak) identity. Cancellation will follow.
Modern drama is very much story arc-based; full of sub-plots and backstories - it's not good enough today, with increasingly more cynical audiences, not to inject some kind of surprise, shock and deviation from the norm. Or occasionally flitter around between scenes like a random flick through YouTube clips. We probably - in such a fast-paced world - don't even have time for some of the more slow-paced drama of the BBC's past (even some Doctor Who - where the 45 minute episodes of today could be dragged out across six twenty-five minute episode lengths and lots of running up and down polystyrene corridors to kill the time).

With a subtle reduction in the 'Are you in Heaven - or Hell?' linking teasers at the end of every episode as Capaldi's first season progressed, I'm now quite looking forward to seeing where this mysterious place actually is and what it's all about - so long as it's not Shatner's version of 'Heaven' as found in Star Trek V (1989); all godlike man with beard and Uhura's nearly-nude moon dancing. Hang on - I may just have to re-evaluate. Thinking about this odd entry in the Trek film canon has made me want to go back and re-watch it - after all, if Who can get away with space chicken eggs making up the entire moon . .
One pleasing aspect of Capaldi's lunar adventure is that the moon itself actually feels like the place it's meant to be, with rock-surfaced scenes shot in Lanzarote (last time the BBC allowed this it was for Peter Davison's adventures on the 'Planet of Fire' with companion Peri staking her claim as the new companion with a dayglo bikini). While the Tardis in flight (especially in the show's opening titles) of new Who have been annoying CGI-heavy, the moon's surface is brilliantly grey and brightly lit: almost surreal. Certainly other-worldly. You could almost convince an entire audience that the BBC had actually been to the moon for a TV first.

Those spiders too (decently realised, especially when in shadow; only occasionally a bit CGI) and a planet full of sticky umbilical fluid for the Doctor to swim in are mind-bendingly brilliant - a shot showing an army of spiders huddling under the moon's surface, glimpsed through the narrowest of cracks, makes for one of the most disturbing images in the show's history. Killing the bacteria off with toilet cleaner (a schoolgirl's weapon of choice) was also inspired.

But at the heart of this story - is 'heart'. A theme of whether the Doctor manipulates people (us stupid Earth people) like playthings is one touched on often in the show's past, but never as believably as it is done in Kill the Moon. First: schoolgirl Courtney, who the Doctor tells (off camera) to her face that she's "not special" (without realising, it seems, the effect this would have) means he has to make amends by taking her to the moon to be the first girl to step foot there (even if it means her own life is now in danger). Next: Clara herself gets to take part in the Doctor's 'test' when he leaves her on the moon's rapidly violently cracking surface with an option (also facing Courtney and Lundvik) to kill the beast below - or save its life.

While Courtney has been half-heartedly 'protected' by the Doctor in the middle of this episode (after Clara berates the Gallifreyan for putting a child she is responsible for, from Coal Hill School, in danger the Doctor then shoves the poor girl into the Tardis in response and tells her to "Watch some DVDs") it's in the episode's climatic scenes that Courtney is as much in danger (even if just a worst case scenario kind) as the two women she is with. And the Doctor knows it. There's an ongoing cruelty, as well as a hidden warmth, to this new version of the Doctor, whose characteristics in the past we usually knew how to read. Suddenly, with Capaldi - we can't.

'Kill the Moon' is a fabulously demented and devil-may-care episode of Doctor Who that isn't afraid to embrace ridiculous, fantastical ideas - like great sci-fi often does. Best of all, this episode ends with very real anger from a companion towards the Doctor (a very 'alien' being now) that's never been seen before; at least not in such a disarming, almost cruel way. When Clara's smile suddenly drops and the rage (very real; quite aggressive) wins through - it's as much a surprise to us, as it is to the Doctor (who suddenly looks as chastised as a small child and unsure how to react - in the end, he just sort of shuffles away, like he often does).

In the closing minutes of this episode, with the Doctor once more free to roam the universe alone - really alone - you realise that Peter Capaldi is a flippin brilliant choice for Doctor Who: he's wild and eccentric, harsh and loveable, childlike and serious. This is how it should be. Maybe how it always was.

I thought, at first, that Doctor Who has died at the start of this new season. I think - still - that it did, for a moment. But something has changed. Self-doubt, achingly evidenced in Capaldi's performance at the start when he didn't have an identity (or didn't seem to) has all gone. That lack of identity could have been the fault of writers working with a new character they knew little about - or our fault, for seeing the new Doctor as too old, too serious, too dour.

No, I don't think that actually was the case. I'm convinced that Capaldi was uncertain - nervous - in the Who role at first, and visibly uncomfortable. As an actor, he had to earn his place in the classic sci-fi show's great history as other Doctors have done before him. I think Capaldi has proved himself since those opening episodes with a portrayal of the Doctor that is more how everyone thinks the Doctor should be like - the perfect Doctor Who. But also different. It's also, for all its new, improved alienness - a very human show now with dramatic interplay forming its core.
At this point, I think Capaldi has potential to carry on being a great Doctor and the show has a healthy, excitable future ahead. It has come of age. It's as if companion Clara has told the Doctor to wake up and smell the coffee. Oh he's been forced into that corner before and Doctor Who as a series has often brought tears to our eyes (notably in David Tennant's more emotional reign or Tom Baker's many scenes with Liz Sladen's perfect Sarah Jane) but like a regeneration gone wrong: this time it's different. This time it feels real: a lonely man with too much time on his spindly hands and even feeling his age. This is a man out of place - the true outsider. At last. And you know what - I'm excited again. I'm a giddy fan again. Just a few weeks ago I thought the show I loved had lost its main character for good (that I put down to a mistake made in casting the new Doctor) - that, I'm afraid, was my bad. I even feared a new cancellation of the show (the kind it's survived before) was looming.
'Kill the Moon' isn't just brilliant sci-fi (or even anti-'sci-fi' if you like) or a series-changing moment in the history of Doctor Who (the one that makes you turn round at the end credits and smile because: "Yep, that was it - that was the one..") - it's also terrific BBC drama. Not just another episode in another series, of a long-running show. When a TV programme loses that edge and does something stupid (killing the whole thing off) it's described as having 'jumped the shark' but I can honestly say that everything went right when the Doctor jumped, right over the moon.


words: mark gordon palmer




1 comment:

  1. Sorry to say this but I disagree totally with you on almost every point. Capaldi is the second worst Doctor, second only to the disastrous Christopher Ecclestone. The New Series of Doctor Who would have been a success even if they had put a chimp in the part, due entirely to the fact that classic fans had kept the series alive. Russell Davies was useless and took credit where it was not due. Best scripts were from Moffet, but as a producer he mostly sucks. Tennant and Smith were good energetic Doctors and worked. Companions have been good to start but fell down on subsequent episodes. This whole soap opera thing is not entertaining and is not something This series needs. And what is with the BBC and its push of interracial relationships??? Enough is enough already...

    Of all the New Series episodes to date 'Kill The Moon' was the worst. For the first time I hated Doctor Who, and that is saying a lot from a fan who has watched all the episodes from the word go (And I'm talking original series here not the johnny come lately). I was so put off my liking of the series by this rubbish that it was many weeks before I actually watched another episode, and I still have not finished the series, and have not much desire to either. This whole useless subplot of the Female Master is see through and likewise not watchable. Roger Delgado must be turning in his grave over this tripe.

    What the series needs is a change of hands to bring it right, someone new who knows the classic series and likes the way it was made (and I'm not talking about the wobbly sets and monsters either, I'm talking acting and story) and can hire the right actor for the part. Get rid of the whole soap rubbish, and bring back mystery and science fiction to the series. Admittedly Jenna Coleman is holding the series together at the moment, but the series is called Doctor Who, not The Companion Of Doctor Who, which is how this whole New Series is treated. I've noticed that companions do not listen to the Doctor, are actually contrary to him and often do the complete wrong thing while being stupid. They undermine the heroic quality of the Doctor's character, and are ruining the show. It was always meant to be a case where disaster has struck and the Doctor shows up and from his font of knowledge he saves the day and mostly all the people who deserve to be saved, the rest are usually vile types, self serving or just out and out villains. There is so much wrong with the new series that it will be hard to fix. And fixing is what it needs!