Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice

I have to admit I began watching this story with some trepidation. When I see words like “vampire” in the title of a Doctor Who story I worry that we’re going to get some sort of second rate wannabe Buffy the Vampire plot, or a story that considers science fiction as an opportunity present gothic horror as if it were part of the same genre. This seemed especially likely as the writer was Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human. But it turned out I was doing Toby Whithouse a big injustice. In actual fact Vampires of Venice was a lot better than any of those possibilities and succeeded in creating a very science fiction back story for what was only an apparent vampire plot.

The story itself had a very “Big FinishEighth Doctor “Byronesque” feel to it, with a romantic historical location and sinister mystery to solve. This potentially horrific plot was diluted with a great deal of humour with the inclusion of Amy’s insecure fiancée Rory Williams and the “Mummy’s Boy” alien Francesco (played by “Alex Price”) to the point that, I felt, too much of the tension and fear was lost. Given that the regular audience includes so many youngsters this is a difficult balance to get right.

One of the big pluses of the story was the inclusion of Rory Williams (played by Arthur Darvill) who has hinted that he is a lot cleverer than he may seem. With him as part of the TARDIS crew the dynamics between the overly young Doctor and Amy might actually work.

A final word of praise for the BBC production team, especially the location scouts, who managed to find locations, in particular St Donat’s Castle, that created such a convincing 16th Century Venice for this story and all without the use of a TARDIS of their own!

Written by Peter Grehan


Doctor Who: Flesh and Stone

Written by the one and only Peter Grehan

This lived up to the expectations created by last week’s episode The Time of Angels. It is a story that is showcasing Steven Moffat’s writing at its best and it seems he has completely overcome any reticence with killing off his characters. These character deaths become opportunities to show their depth and culminate in the courageous death of Father Octavian. I was reminded of a passage in the bible that exhorts us not to fear the death of our bodies, but rather fear the death of our souls. This is the first science fiction story I have ever seen that actually showed us what that warning could mean. The appearance of the crack in time meant that people and angels could be removed from time itself, so that they never existed, never lived a life. There are things worse than death indeed. Also interesting was how Moffat worked one of the classics of fairytales, the forest, into his story in a way that is entirely plausible and logical.

The only part of the story I really didn’t like was Amy Pond’s attempt to “hump” the Doctor at the end of the episode. Just didn’t seem right for an episode of Doctor Who, especially given its younger audience.

Steven Moffat may have made a rod for his own back with the time altering “crack” story arch. Messing with timelines can be tricky, especially if people or angels cease to have existed. Do the dead they killed become alive again? Would the mission to destroy the weeping angel ever have been instigated in the first place? Why was there a prison ship waiting to collect River Song (great name by the way)? When there was now no longer a reason to have taken to her there anyway. It’s for this reason that science fiction writers should tread very carefully when messing with time lines. Unless of course you are Robert A. Heinlein, in which case you just embrace it and write something like All You Zombies.


Doctor Who: The Time of Angels

This story has nice classic format; small group of isolated humans on a remote alien world threatened by a creeping and overwhelming alien menace. And when I say ‘classic’ I don’t just mean classic Doctor Who when this was a formula that seemed to reach its peak during the Patrick Troughton years. The idea of a small group of humans stranded in an isolated location while battling with some alien threat reoccurs throughout science fiction and is often interpreted as a metaphor for human isolation in a hostile post Darwin universe.
Add to this creepy tunnels, that are in fact a graveyard, and deadly statues that are more menacing then when we saw them last time in Blink and we end up with a story that promises to live up to what we were hoping for from Steven Moffat. Being a two part story also allows the story and tension to develop at a more sustainable pace, though some of it seemed so fast (especially at the beginning) and accompanied by loud dramatic music that I had trouble following the dialogue.

It always good when you feel you can engage with a character in a story. I believe that Doctor Who has occasionally been guilty of masking two dimensional characters with glib and clever remarks. So how good to have Bishop Octavian reprove the Doctor by reminding him that, “I’ll be the one to tell [the dead brothers] families while you go off in your blue box.” A statement like this suggests that the writer has given this characters some depth by making them emotionally real.

I like the idea of having warrior clerics. It is so refreshingly different from ‘today’ that it adds credibility to the assertion that these events are happening in the future (something let down a little by the early 21st Century styling of clothes and weapons appearing in the far future museum and on the planet Alfava Metraxis). The idea of warrior monks is made more credible by its precedence in history; specifically the Templar Knights established as a military monastic order to protect pilgrims to the Holy land after the First Crusade.

One of the irritating features of current TV science fiction (not just Doctor Who) is the use of current weapons, particularly small arms in stories set in the future. There may be cost or practical reasons for this and I can even accept an argument that firearms are so reliable and sophisticated now that they would be continue to be used by humans as they expanded out into the universe for centuries to come. But surely they would continue to develop? Couldn’t the application of a little CGI make them behave like a design of the future? Couldn’t we have exploding, incendiary and heat seeking bullets? After all these ideas have been around in Judge Dredd for some time now so they wouldn’t be too radical to include.

Interestingly this is the first episode of Series 5 to be filmed and was therefore Matt Smith’s first full episode outing as the Doctor. Perhaps, for that reason he sometimes looked like the school prefect telling off the headmaster. Early days yet, but I think his youth is working against him so it may take him longer to develop a style that can counteract that disadvantage. On the plus side he does have a suitable non-human quirky manner about him and I’m convinced that his performance will improve.

Overall a good episode and I’m left eagerly looking forward to seeing Flesh and Stone this Saturday.

written by Peter Grehan


Doctor Who: Victory of The Daleks

I find it hard to believe that anybody could not enjoy an episode of Doctor Who that features RAF Spitfires attacking a Dalek spacecraft, though I suspect that this episode, written by DW actor/scriptwriter Mark Gatiss, might well divide opinion.

I may as well state that I loved it, but then I’m only ten years old (inside at least). This was the sort of story that might have appeared in the Lion, Victor or Eagle comics of the sixties and its biggest fault was that there was just too much to compress comfortably into a single forty-five minutes. I could see this story unfolding over several half-hour episodes in the classic era of Doctor and the idea of Daleks pretending to be the servants of humanity to gain their own ends is not new. In the second Doctor’s (Patrick Troughton) first story, The Power of the Daleks, the Time Lord was also faced with a group of Daleks who claimed to want to serve mankind, and people always believe what they want to believe don’t they?

The reason for this ploy being used by them in Victory of The Daleks, was really quite clever. The last remaining Progenitor Device did not recognise them as Dalek, because of the suspect source of their DNA, therefore they needed the Doctor’s reliable testimony to prove they were. This is the sort of motivation for evil alien that can be believed. No longer is the “we like your world so we’ll take it” reason good enough anymore.

One slightly ironic aspect of the story was that the Daleks were working for the British, when Cardiff writer Terry Nation created them he based them on the Nazis. To quote him,

I did try to include something of the Nazis, that unfeeling, icy-cold mentality. That, no matter what you did, you couldn’t deflect them. I’ve always felt that was the SS in a way. So I like to think that was part of their motives, part of their characters.”

Somehow this story might have been so much more interesting, and somehow more in tune with their origins, if the Doctor had come to face the Daleks working for Adolf Hitler. Perhaps it could have been set towards the end of the war with the Russians banging on the gates of Berlin.

The episode did have its problems, as suggested above it would have been better spread over two episodes. I’m not sure what having Winston Churchill in the story did, other than he is one of the few British historical characters that Americans might have heard of. He spent most of the episode blowing cigar smoke, but then he did provide another short cut for a single episode story. The Doctor and Ami had his authority to take whatever action they deem fit, like converting the Spitfires for spaceflight; there’s time wasted in general persuading. Matt Smith also seemed very young in this episode, perhaps in comparison to Ian McNeice who played Churchill. He seemed to lack… gravitas?

The one big negative as far as I was concerned was the new style Daleks. They looked like they had been designed by a motor manufacturer to bring them up to date; all flowing lines and bright colours. I was reminded of the Ford Ka for some reason! You can imagine it can’t you. The original Daleks reflected the styling of the sixties car designs. Today’s Daleks need to look like today’s cars. Are we evolving into Daleks because of our cars?

All in all though it was a refreshingly different story.

written by Peter Grehan


Doctor Who: The Beast Below

Your friendly local election candidate

In his second outing as executive producer and main series writer Steven Moffat seems to have followed a pattern, established by his predecessor Russell T. Davies, of putting the “here and now” in strange ‘future’ situations. This is a pity, because it underrates his own imagination and the audience’s ability to see themselves from an altered perspective within a totally strange world. Had Starship UK been populated by a totally alien race it would not have altered our empathy for them and would, I believe, have enhanced it because all those twee Disneyland-like UK icons scattered around the story simply distracted from the pathos of the story. Frankly I don’t believe people are so shallow that they can’t connect with characters unless they are framed as the everyday and familiar “us”.

It was Darko Suvin who defined Science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.”

In other words, SF allows you change everything so that you can view a situation from a fresh perspective without having all that baggage of prejudices and biases we all carry getting in the way of the real point of the story.

Another way to look at science fiction is as an anthropological thought experiment. And an hour wasn’t long enough to explore, or indeed explain, all the ways Britain had changed as a nomadic star travelling species (not to mention all the bits that hadn’t). Why were those gruesome, fairground manikins (  being used to teach children and why where children thrown to the beast below when they did badly at the schoolwork? It would be easier to accept a situation like this in a culture that was already alien and that didn’t beg for a sequence of explanations to these odd changes to “our” culture.

The story itself was interesting with a happy “feel good” twist at the end that Steven Moffat is noted for, though I did feel I was being rushed through it in order not to dwell on all the plot holes (again).

My fear is that the pressures of being Executive Producer and main series writer might force Steven Moffat to churn out substandard scripts the way that Russell T. Davies seemed to do.  My hope is that we begin to see some fresh and stylish stories from a very talented writer who quickly develops the confidence to be different from his predecessor.

Written by Peter Grehan


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