I feel guilty that after airing my views on that early teaser trailer on this blog, warning that this series may fall short, it is only now that I have found the time to correct myself. However that is largely due to the fact that I have enjoyed this series so much that to sit down and analyse both its successes and failings after each individual episode would have spoilt the experience. In truth though the vast majority of my doubts for the future of the nation’s beloved Timelord had been dispelled following Moffat’s first episode, The Eleventh Hour. This extended adventure abandoned the repetitive London setting of the Russell T. Davies era and brilliantly ushered in a whole new set of characters and relationships, along with a regenerated Doctor. My greatest concern, the ability of Matt Smith to replace Tennant in the role, was also mostly alleviated by his first performance alone.
That is not to say this series has not had its disappointments. When Moffat has personally penned an episode there have been no problems with quality or balance, but other writers struggled to successfully tick all the Whovian boxes. The first episode to disappoint was The Victory of the Daleks, although to be fair this may have been because expectations were disproportionately raised by the sight of Churchill and the pepper pot villains in the trailer and were impossible to live up to in a single episode. Perhaps the worst episodes of the series were the Silurian double bill set somewhat unbelievably in a Welsh mining town undergoing a globally ambitious drilling project, staffed by the odd local. I think it was a mistake to follow the rurally set Amy’s Choice, one of those brilliant low budget, idea heavy episodes stuffed with terrific acting performances, humour and insight into the Doctor’s character, with another village location and casually brush aside the glaring lack of funds by having the Doctor insist he had been aiming for Rio. This two part story also felt thin and unable to properly engage for two whole weeks. A promising start, of Amy being sucked into the earth, gave way to a predictable storyline of culture clash and negotiation, with crudely drawn Silurian and human characters.
Following this Richard Curtis’ Van Gogh episode was also weak, despite some nice flourishes. The gaping hole in the strength of Curtis’ tale was the fact that the monster of “pure evil” only Van Gogh could see turned out to be an irrelevance, easily dealt with and disconnected from the heart of the story. In many ways it may have been better to dispense with the monster completely and simply have the Doctor indulge in a spot of emotional time travel, as this is clearly all Curtis wanted to do and in the final scene he did it wonderfully movingly. I was also not enthused by The Lodger despite generally positive reviews of it elsewhere. For me the basic premise of the plot could have been much more satisfactorily explored (I mean something was building a TARDIS??? What?) and the sight of James Corden on television is beginning to verge on repulsive.
Having said this that episode did offer an unblemished close up of the eleventh Doctor’s character, charisma and performance. For me the most pleasantly surprising thing about this series has been the ease with which Matt Smith has become a Timelord and banished nostalgic longing for Tennant. His interpretation of the character has seen a refreshing return to a more detached, alien figure, as by the end of RTD’s tenure Tennant’s Timelord was still lamenting the loss of Rose and envying his duplicate’s mortal existence with her. It’s clear that each actor playing the Doctor draws heavily on his predecessor however, and Smith clearly embraces much of Tennant’s lunacy, whilst also reviving the arrogance embodied in Eccleston’s leather swagger. For me it seems only fitting that the last of the Timelord’s should have such a high minded view of himself and Smith plays the Doctor brimming with a quirky, bumbling confidence of his own. Karen Gillan also brings assurance and feisty fire to the role of redhead Amy Pond. The actress has been at her best when not trundling out generic whiny phrases in a thickening Scottish accent, but in rare glimpses of emotion such as during the scene when she could not open her eyes, surrounded by Weeping Angels. The return of these stealthy statues from critically acclaimed Blink was a gamble for Moffat but one he pulled off spectacularly. He must also gain much credit for Smith’s fresh take on the Doctor, as his writing emphasises both the marvellous methodical detective and mad professor in him.
Indeed there seems to be no doubt that most of what is good about this new look Doctor Who is down to new head writer Steven Moffat. Previous contributions to the RTD series made his talent for exploiting childhood fears evident, but given creative control over the show he has shown an aptitude for the perfect two part episode and a gripping narrative arc. I have already praised the opening episode but the second, The Beast Below, thrilled me. It had a chilling cocktail of scares, “smilers”, floors sliding away in lifts, a shadowy government (led by the demon headmaster!), and also established Amy’s competence as a companion in a unique, imaginative way (Britain floating on a space whale!) that said something about the Doctor. The return of the Weeping Angels managed to capture the brilliance of the original by acknowledging the need for a different type of story, with Moffat himself comparing it to the greater scale of Aliens 2 following Aliens. And after all the teasing about cracks in time, what a finale last weekend!
Episode 12, The Pandorica Opens, was fantastically bold in scale and again the setting of Roman Britain was a refreshing departure from the RTD trend of grand finales unravelling in present day London. After several twists and turns the Doctor was imprisoned within the Pandorica by an alliance of his foes, as the TARDIS began to explode and destroy the universe itself. It was difficult to predict the direction of episode 13, but one would have guessed some sort of reckoning for the Doctor with his formidable coalition of villains and an explanation as to who, or what, was manipulating the TARDIS and causing it to explode. Certainly what sounded like the voice of Davros could be heard in episode 12, cackling that “silence will fall”.
However much to my relief Moffat continued to surprise, as Davros would have been a tired end to such a fresh new series. Moffat seems to recognise the key to successful double episodes is contrast, and so the Doctor went from facing a horde of enemies to a solitary, ailing Dalek and the little problem of a “total event collapse”. Cue some gloriously fun time hopping involving a fez and a mop and a performance ranging from daft brilliance to retrained pain from Smith that confirms his evolution into the last Timelord. The significance of the wedding was at last explained and Rory and Amy restored to the TARDIS, all set for new adventures, with the huge questions of River Song and who caused that explosion still to be answered.
All in all Moffat has rebooted the show, just as the Doctor hit refresh on the universe with the “Big Bang 2”, and restored a sense of the magical and fairytale by always surprising and sometimes replacing the blockbuster scale of RTD’s tenure with classic, intimate scares (e.g. the headless Cyberman in episode 12 vs. the hordes of them in RTD stories). Best of all as this fairytale series comes to an end it feels as if it is only the set up for something greater to come.
A note on a BBC iPlayer double bill: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and Wall-E
I can’t work out whether or not I’m a massive fan of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace yet. It’s been recommended to me by several people and I finally watched episode 2, about the illusion of self-regulating ecosystems, and a lot more. On the one hand it’s clearly very different, ambitious and bold, and should be applauded for a rare example of demanding and ideas driven television. But then it also seems simplistic and forced at times, especially when trying to bring the focus of its enormous scope back to its core theme of the influence of machines.
There’s definitely a strong chance that I simply did not fully understand the programme. I am still digesting the theories in my head and the central thrust of its weaving argument. I think my only reservations about it stem from the fact that All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace relies on being an impartial, enlightening and myth busting statement. Clearly though it has its own agenda and world view.
Whilst most of the analysis and arguments are sound, indeed I agree with most of it, I was slightly annoyed at times that a programme attacking deceit was playing its own tricks on the audience. Now and then the tone veered across a line from informative and intelligent to preachy and patronising.
However I will be watching more of the series. Undoubtedly I enjoyed it. Indeed whilst I moan about the programme’s own agenda, it was refreshing that this was something with a worthwhile point to get across. Somehow it encompassed vital but mostly overlooked elements of formative 20th century history, scientific theory, cultural shifts, communes and topical stories like the Arab Spring and even the Big Society.
I’m not going to delve into the depths of the arguments here because even though I have my opinions they will be convoluted and poorly expressed. For the most part though, rest assured, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace talks valuable sense. It is clever. But don’t be intimidated as it’s no bad thing to question the weaknesses of its points either, as there are clearly holes in such an admirably ambitious undertaking.
Aside from the substance, the style is a delight. Weird and wonderful archive footage is mashed together to give a vivid sense of the times, as well as the spooling complexities of some of the theories. The narration is mostly engaging but sometimes repetitive and, as I’ve said, patronisingly simplistic. However one of the good points to take from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is that in the past solutions have tended to be unnecessarily complex in pursuit of unrealistic ideals.
Enough vague waffling about something that, basically, you should watch to judge for yourself. And onto Wall-E, one of just a handful of Pixar pictures I hadn’t seen. Last night, at a silly early morning hour, I decided to finally meet the lovable waste management unit on iPlayer.
Wall-E has everything you expect from Pixar, and more. Not only is it touching, funny and heart warming, with a particularly poignant and understated love story, but it makes political points too. This certainly isn’t the complex, deep level of commentary on offer in All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, but rather symbols highlighting contemporary and sometimes controversial problems.
Some themes certainly do overlap with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, mainly to do with mankind’s dependency on technology. In Wall-E the point is predictable and hardly subtle, with robots scurrying round to cater to our every need and humans literally not having to leave their hover chairs. But for children’s animation this is still a film with some brains as well as that required Pixar heart.
The key point Wall-E has to make is about over consumption, with Earth so littered with waste that humans have had to take an extended space cruise. But this 90 minute romp also touches on the power of corporations, advertising, global warming and junk food. We get so fat we can’t stand and so pampered and manipulated that we can’t think.
The real magic is that all of this is seamlessly stitched into a charming and compelling story though. Wall-E stands out from other Pixar creations because it’s given space and all its sci-fi trappings with which to visually dazzle, and also because the protagonist barely speaks. Much of Wall-E is without dialogue and the wonder of silent movies is recaptured, especially when he’s making use of his extensive collection of human memorabilia and music. Stripping away everything else allows the best of Pixar to shine.
So if you’ve got time on your hands head over to BBC iPlayer for a thrilling and touching journey with Wall-E through outer space, and an intelligent and inspiring tour of our recent past with All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
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