Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: The Caretaker"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

Doctor Who never lets its audience forget that its main character is an alien. This interesting concept is extrapolated upon when the Doctor must interact with human characters and occasionally try to blend in. That's the premise behind The Caretaker, the latest episode of Series 8.

Clara (Jenna Coleman) finds herself juggling two separate lives - her life as English teacher at the Coal Hill School and her life as companion to the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). She has done her best to make sure these two sides of her personality do not overlap. That is until the Doctor turns up at the school masquerading as the new caretaker. He's on the trail of the Skovox Blitzer, a robotic machine with the power to destroy Earth within seconds. It's on the loose in London and the Doctor may have to rely on Clara and her boyfriend Danny (Samuel Anderson) for help.

Like many of the other episodes this series, The Caretaker was a collaborative effort. This time around it was penned by showrunner Steven Moffat and recurring writer Gareth Roberts. Roberts is one of my favourite writers on Doctor Who with such episodes as The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp and Closing Time ranking among my favourites. In terms of style, Roberts seems to have drawn inspiration from his episodes The Lodger and Closing Time, which found Matt Smith's Doctor trying (unsuccessfully) to integrate himself into regular society. While the concept worked well its first two goes-around, I can't help but feel it rather misses the mark here.

I chalk it up to Peter Capaldi's Doctor. Capaldi is far more serious, dark and brooding than his decidedly more silly predecessor so this more comedic story-line does seem rather out-of-character for the Twelfth Doctor. That's not to say the comedy fell flat throughout. Much like the previously humourous Robot of Sherwood, Capaldi delivers his sardonic, sarcastic lines well, and did make me laugh out loud at times. But, while Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor seemed at home in a comedy-driven plot, I don't know if I can say the same for Capaldi.

This episode saw the return of the so-called "Clara-centric" story. Jenna Coleman's companion really is the focal point with both the Doctor and Danny Pink in more supporting roles. This isn't really a bad thing, and I argue that exploring the personalities of the companions makes for interesting viewing. Jenna Coleman proves to be an excellent actress and her screen chemistry with Samuel Anderson is good. Speaking of whom, Anderson's character of Danny Pink gets the most screen time thus far, and I continue to believe he's a likable, complex character with more background which is waiting to be explored. Anderson also has a fine set of acting chops - the scene where he discovers the truth about Clara and the Doctor was probably the episode's finest.

That's probably the ironic thing about The Caretaker - an episode obviously written for laughs delivers better drama than comedy. The alien threat, the Skovox Blitzer, was also a brilliantly designed monster and one of the creepiest things I've seen in Doctor Who lately. I wouldn't have expected such a creepy alien threat in a comedy episode - however the Blitzer receives far too little screen time. Maybe it will turn up at some point in the future.

In all, The Caretaker didn't quite deliver where it was supposed to. Despite a few laughs here and there, Peter Capaldi's darker Doctor succeeded more in the scenes where drama was at the forefront. Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson delivered solid performances, but I would have to say that The Caretaker is the weakest episode of Series 8 so far. I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Next Time - Kill the Moon by Peter Harness

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Time Heist"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

The notion of combining Doctor Who with the heist movie sub-genre seems like such a successful idea, it's surprising it hasn't happened before now. The latest episode of Series 8, Time Heist combines these two elements seamlessly, making for a very entertaining viewing experience. Let's take a closer look.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) find themselves in a locked room with two strangers, their memories having been completely wiped. A masked figure calling himself The Architect gives them a proposition they cannot refuse - the group must steal from the Bank of Karabraxos, the most dangerous and highly-secure bank in all the cosmos. Their lives at risk, the Doctor agrees to the mission as does Psi (Jonathon Bailey), an augmented human with half a computer for a brain and Saibra (Pippa Bennett Warner) who can replicate the DNA of anyone she touches. But will their entire mission be for naught as they come face-to-face with The Teller, an alien being who can detect guilt?

Time Heist was the collaborative effort of showrunner Steven Moffat and writer Steve Thompson. Thompson's two previous efforts for Doctor Who, Curse of the Black Spot and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS have been mediocre romps but nothing more. Yet, Thompson was also responsible for The Reichenbach Fall and The Sign of Three, putting him on the good side of many a picky Sherlockian. I have to say that Time Heist is probably Thompson's best script thus far. It's full of wit, suspense and plenty of plot twists. How much of this was contributed by Steven Moffat I cannot say, but whoever did the majority of the work for the episode took the obviously entertaining concept and really turned it into something fun.

The Doctor prepares to rob the most secure
safe in all the cosmos
As always, Peter Capaldi continues to shine as the Doctor. Dare I say he has mellowed out a bit in the role - he's a bit less prickly and bit more likable which makes for an interesting character arc. Jenna Coleman continues to do a nice job as Clara though she was not as much in the spotlight this time as she was in last week's episode Listen. However, I must say that the best performances of the episode were provided by the guest stars. Jonathon Bailey was excellent as Psi. Bailey's line delivery was excellent making the most of his obvious character-building moments. The scene in which he is willing to sacrifice himself to save Clara was very well executed as well. I have read much since the episode's broadcast from viewers in hopes that Psi makes a return in the future, and I agree on that point. Bailey had great on-screen chemistry with Capaldi and I must admit I wouldn't mind if he played a more intrical part of the TARDIS team in future. Pippa Bennett Warner was also very good as Saibra and she too had some excellent line delivery, hiding one of the episode's most vital clues to its twist ending in plain sight.

While the episode was very good, I do feel that the twist could have been executed a little better. It was rather shoe-horned in and my mind had to play catch-up as one revelation was made after another. That's not to say that the ending was bad and the feeling of mental shock is what accompanies any good plot twist. I also agree with those who said that the ending was a little too similar to last season's episode Hide.

In all though, Time Heist was a finely-crafted piece of television. With superb performances from both its principle cast and the guest stars, I do not hesitate in saying that it was my favorite episode of the series so far. What's even more exciting is that next week's episode will be the first which was not leaked to the public in some form. So, all Whovians are going into just as blind as the next. In the meantime, I give Time Heist a well-deserved 4 out of 5 stars.

Next Week - The Caretaker by Gareth Roberts

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Listen"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers

Of all the episodes which make up the eighth series of Doctor Who, Listen was probably the one which was hyped-up the most. It seemed to receive the most publicity and advance praise. Looking on it now, it's probably the most well-made episode of the series thus far, but is it perfect? Let's take a closer look.

While travelling on his own, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) dreams up an interesting theory: what if we are never really alone? What if each person has a silent companion who watches them, never truly making their presence known. To see if his fantastical claim has any validity, the Doctor employs Clara (Jenna Coleman) to help. However, things go awry and the Doctor will be catapulted from the past to the end of the universe in search of answers.

Listen was written by Steven Moffat and if there is one complaint which I can level unto Moffat's writing it's that he seems to believe ambiguity creates sophistication. A number of his scripts feature ambiguous scenes or character motivations (see Deep Breath, A Scandal in Belgravia and even to some extent Blink). Listen is no different, in fact the question to the Doctor's problem is never truly answered. An explanation is given, but that explanation doesn't answer all of the other questions unresolved. That is surely my biggest complaint with the episode - it simply left too many things open. I am all for creative ambiguity, but it has to be done right and though Listen very nearly succeeded, it left a little something to be desired.

On the plus side though, the performances in this episode were brilliant. Peter Capaldi turned in what is probably his finest performance as the Doctor so far and the script for the episode seems tailor-made for Capaldi's Doctor. The level of intensity and total conviction which Capaldi brings to the role could only suit this Doctor and the pre-title scene in which he lays his theory before the audience is perhaps the episode's highlight; Capaldi simply marvelous standing in the TARDIS talking aloud as though he were addressing a live audience.

Interestingly, Listen truly seemed like an episode focused more on Clara and I'm happy to say that Jenna Coleman did excellently in the spotlight. She continues to be one of the Doctor's most independent, strong-willed companions, going toe-to-toe with the Doctor in a way no other companion has done before. Samuel Anderson also returned in the role of Danny Pink, Clara's romantic interest. He also played one of Danny's descendants, time-traveler Orson Pink. How Danny will eventually impact the series has yet to be determined, so it will be interesting to see his character unfold as Series 8 progresses. There are really no other characters to speak of - the number of players in this episode was incredibly small, the weight of the story upon the principle cast's shoulders entirely.

Listen also played with a few previously established Doctor Who concepts - something which is a real big concern for the more traditional fans. On a whole, the episode succeeded in adding new dimensions to the Doctor's character, but never giving away too much. The scene where we learn that the barn in which the young Doctor sleeps is the same location seen in the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor added some new depth to that story, and really the Doctor's character as well.

In all, Listen was a good, albeit very different episode of Doctor Who. Traditional storytelling is replaced by character study, an interesting change from the norm. Peter Capaldi continues to be brilliant in the role of the Doctor and coupled with an eerie atmosphere, I have no trouble in saying that Listen is probably the best episode of the eighth series so far. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Next Time - Time Heist by Steve Thompson

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review - "The Spirit Box"

George Mann has returned to add another chapter to the Sherlock Holmes mythos with The Spirit Box. Set during World War I, Dr. Watson finds himself living in a London under constant threat. German zeppelins are dropping bombs on the city and many have evacuated. Amid this chaotic scene, Watson reunites with Sherlock Holmes who has been called away from his retirement in the Sussex Downs by his brother Mycroft. Three mysterious deaths have piqued Mycroft's interest - one of a government official who threw himself into the Thames, a military advisor who feeds himself to a lion at the London Zoo and a woman suffragette who jumps in front of a moving train.

While the three deaths seem to be suicides, Holmes is not so sure. Teaming up with Watson once more, the two begin their investigation, and before long begin to hear of a fabled spirit box. What is it and how did it connect the three deaths? Holmes, ever the skeptic, will be faced with one difficult question: could the victims have been possessed at the times of their deaths?

George Mann's writing, from what I have read, seems to be lean more towards the science fiction and steampunk aspects of fiction. This was clearly evident in his first Sherlock Holmes novel, The Will of the Dead, which featured mechanical, steam-powered men. So, going into The Spirit Box, I had some idea that the story might take a sci-fi turn. Yet, I was very surprised. Without giving away too much information, the plot twists in the novel remained fairly grounded, and even some of the more wild notions discussed in the novel had a good explanation. This helped the novel retain some continuity with Doyle's canon.

The Spirit Box nicely captured the voices of the main characters. Holmes and Watson were excellently presented - Watson especially. While at times Mann's tone didn't mirror Doyle's exactly, the novel was always fun to read. Interestingly, Sir Maurice Newbury makes a brief appearance in the novel. Newbury, an investigator with a predilection towards the bizarre, is a creation of Mann's own imagination and has appeared in a series of novels and short stories. I have never read any of Newbury's stories, however the collection of short stories on which he appears has tempted me at the book shop many times.

While The Spirit Box was quite good, there were a few minor faults. Despite the fact that the novel takes place during the height of the First World War, never is Doyle's story His Last Vow mentioned. This would have furthered the continuity between the canon and the novel. Also, the book was a little on the shorter side - it was only a little over 200 pages. Therefore, the climax seemed a bit rushed, and while the ending does leave the possibility open for further adventures between Holmes and Watson, it was a little ambiguous.

All in all, The Spirit Box was a fun and enjoyable read. Featuring excellent portrayals of Holmes and Watson as well as a tight, surprising plot, I do not hesitate in awarding the novel 4 out of 5 stars. I hope that Mr. Mann will put pen to paper and deliver more in the near future.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review - "Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood"

Warning: The following review will contain spoilers. 

Doctor Who is a television show which I think is made to entertain. While Series 8 has so far been a bit more bleak and dark, the latest episode has restored the sense of adventure inherent in so many of Doctor Who's other episodes. That episode is Robot of Sherwood written by Mark Gatiss and finds the Doctor meeting the one, the only Robin Hood!

Despite great skepticism, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) agrees to take Clara (Jenna Coleman) to Sherwood Forest during the medieval period to meet Robin Hood (Tom Riley). Certain that Robin Hood is only a legend, the Doctor is at first reluctant to give the prince of thieves a hand. The people of Nottingham are being oppressed by the tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Miller), the Sheriff unleashing a veritable army of mechanical soldiers on the peasants. When the Doctor learns that robots are residing in England circa 1100's, his interest is suddenly piqued...

Mark Gatiss is one of my favourite writers. Aside from one misfire during the show's sixth series, all of his episodes for Doctor Who have been very enjoyable, a characteristic which applies to Robot of Sherwood as well. Gatiss' latest script seems to take inspiration from his last contribution The Crimson Horror in that the story is a high-spirited romp peppered with the writer's usual vein of sly, black humour. This comedy reaches great heights in the scene which finds the Doctor, Robin and Clara imprisoned by the Sheriff; the Doctor and Robin going at each other tooth-and-nail.

Peter Capaldi continues to shine in the role of the Doctor, and this time around we get to see some new facets of the Twelfth Doctor's character. Capaldi's Doctor, while being dark and serious, certainly has a delightful sense of humour, and despite his more aged exterior, can be quite childish and stubborn. This episode was the perfect opportunity to showcase this different side of the character as we are still looking for a complete image of Capaldi's Doctor.

The guest cast also turned in fine performances. Tom Riley was excellent as Robin Hood, obviously channeling Errol Flynn with a few good-natured parodying moments of the famed actor. While Riley's Robin may have appeared to be a bit too one-dimensional, his final scene with Capaldi added some much-needed layers to Robin Hood. Ben Miller as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham also appeared to be channeling movie villains of old in his over-the-top presentation. He pulls the part off with great bombast and makes for a fine foil.

While the performances were on a whole good, the script wasn't Gatiss' best. While a humorous romp, the episode seemed to lack drama and I never felt that much was at stake. The titular robots were also rather underused and simply didn't make a great impression. That is not to say that the episode was a disappointment. It did exactly what it was made to do - entertain! I would be lying if I said that I didn't laugh out loud at some moments and found myself drawn into the story line.

With a fun story, some excellent dialogue and great performances not only from its principle cast but guest stars, Robot of Sherwood was a truly fun episode of Doctor Who. Peter Capaldi continues to impress as the Doctor and I cannot wait for the rest of the series to unfold. In the meantime, I give Robot of Sherwood 3.5 out of 5.

Next Week - Listen by Steven Moffat

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Actors (Of All Time) Part II

Okay, let's dive right in as we look at the Top 5 actors (of all time) to have played Sherlock Holmes!

#5 - Robert Stephens - As I have written elsewhere, I consider Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to be the greatest Sherlock Holmes major motion picture. Featured in the role of Holmes was Robert Stephens who turns in a brilliant performance which at once mixes subtle humour and drama. Seldom has the detective been portrayed employing a wry sense of humour which is not only very funny in its own right, but helps lighten some of the film's darker moments.

Stephens' Holmes is perhaps the most complex version ever captured on film, performing the role with true melancholia. Despite the fact that he is at odds with Doyle's original, Stephens is a compelling actor who draws into the great detective's world. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes also features excellent performances from Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson, Genevieve Page as Holmes' client Madame Valladon and Christopher Lee as a manipulative Mycroft. Each one of them backs-up Stephens' Holmes wonderfully and help create a sense of unity and familiarity about their characters. In all, Robert Stephens' Holmes has seldom been matched on the big screen since his role in 1970.

#4 - Benedict Cumberbatch - It seems pretty obvious that Benedict Cumberbatch helped to bring Sherlock Holmes back into the limelight. While I have been quite verbose before about some of the repercussions of BBC's Sherlock, I cannot deny that it is a brilliant show and Cumberbatch's performance appeals to all sorts of audiences. Between the writing and acting, it seems that Cumberbatch's portrayal is what a modern Sherlock Holmes may have been like.

What is especially interesting about Cumberbatch's performance, seldom seen in other incarnations of the great detective, is the audience gets to see change in the detective's character. Between his debut in A Study in Pink and the most recent episode, His Last Vow, Sherlock has come a long way, becoming more humane. Yet, Cumberbatch never forgets to show the distant, calculating side to the detective. Few actors have been able to rival Cumberbatch in his delivery of the detective's amazing deductions - these scenes nearly always leaving me in a state of surprise (that rapid fire delivery is quite extraordinary and almost impossible to replicate - believe me I've tried). While I may not be totally happy with the impact which Sherlock has made on the Sherlockian world, it's nice to know that the Sherlockian world does have a future.

#3 - Basil Rathbone - Rathbone is the epitome of classic Sherlockian fare. Between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone starred in fourteen films as the great detective. Rathbone was truly the first face to be associated with the great detective, bringing the part to life with total conviction and determination.

What is best about Rathbone, and perhaps the most endearing thing about him, is that even seventy-five years since Rathbone initially donned the deerstalker, he is still fondly remembered, and oftentimes placed at the top of many lists for favourite Sherlockian actors. His performances elevated all of his films (even such one-dimensional films as 1945's Pursuit to Algiers or Terror by Night). Coupled with Nigel Bruce, who is unduly hated amongst the Sherlockian community, the two had excellent screen chemistry, and the two men's off-screen friendship translated to the screen on all fourteen of their films. Rathbone dominated the Sherlock Holmes world of the 1940s, and would dominate the role for many years to come. In their excellent book Universal Horrors, writers Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas put it best: "Their endearing charms have not been lost on generations of film fans. Until the popular...television series with Jeremy Brett in the '90s, Basil Rathbone was vitually unrivaled as the quintessential screen incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective."

#2 - Jeremy Brett - Jeremy Brett perhaps contributed more to the Sherlockian sub-genre more than any other actor. Beginning in 1984, Brett threw himself into the role of the detective, bringing to life one of the finest versions versions of the detective ever seen on the big screen or on film.

I say without fear of contradiction that Brett's tenure as Holmes is the finest series of Sherlock Holmes television ever made - 1984's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes being the true highlight. Brett's total commitment to the role of the detective coupled with Granada's desire to faithfully adapt Doyle's stories to the screen yielded some of the most striking and enjoyable episodes of Sherlock Holmes television. As the series progressed and Brett's health began to fade, the series' quality did dwindle. However, Brett still turned in striking performances to the best of his ability, and Brett made such episodes as The Last Vampyre and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1988) far more enjoyable than they would have been if an actor of lesser talent had been cast in the role of Sherlock Holmes. To a legion of Sherlock Holmes fans, Jeremy Brett is the finest actor ever to have taken on the role of the detective. However, I believe that there is one actor who slightly surpasses Brett in the role. (Drum-roll please...)

#1 - Peter Cushing - In retrospect, Sherlock Holmes was a fairly minor part of Peter Cushing's great filmography which ranged from multiple turns as Professor Van Helsing to the villain in Star Wars. Cushing was a classically trained actor, mentored by the great Laurence Olivier, and it's obvious on screen. In all of his parts, Cushing was unrivaled in his determination on screen.

What is especially interesting about Cushing which sets him apart from the other actors on this list is that he played Holmes in both film and on television. In both mediums, Cushing succeeded brilliantly; his Holmes in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles being one of his finest performances and his portrayal in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1968) true to Doyle's stories. The lengths which Cushing went to to accurately bring Holmes to life are impressive and Cushing's desire to faithfully bring the detective to the screen truly sets him apart from many of the other actors on his list. And like many of the other performers who played Holmes on TV, we got to see many facets to Holmes' character, making him well-rounded and complex. Peter Cushing is not only a brilliant actor, but perhaps the finest to ever play the world's greatest detective.

And so, we come to the end of another Top 10 list. I will be the first to say that this one is more routed in opinion than the others as it really comes down to what appeals to each individual. All-the-same, what do you think of this list?