Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

And so we come to yet another season finale of the greatest science fiction series ever created. This is the recap I’ve been both anticipating and dreading writing in equal parts since first seeing “The Big Bang” some weeks ago; anticipating because of how much I adored this finale, and dreading because there’s no way I can do it justice in a mere recap. It’s not even an issue of space or time (or is it?), it’s a matter of the story, as well as the 12 episodes prior to it, being too dense to dissect thoroughly. You’ll have to forgive that this doesn’t resemble a recap proper, and I instead ramble on about other issues.

I didn’t go into “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” expecting a whole lot, conditioned as I am on Russell T Davies’s extravagant-yet-ultimately-lightweight season finales. Don’t get me wrong, they were most always a great deal of fun, but they most always left me somewhat wanting – excepting Season Three’s Master trilogy, although I’m not sure that’s in line with popular opinion. Oh, and “The Parting of the Ways.” Wait a minute…I loved most of his finales! But I often felt as if they didn’t go as far as they could. Part of the way through the current season the Pandoricrack, as I’ve come to call it, started to annoy me, and I began not so much resenting the thread, but rather simply dismissing it – assuming that whatever it was about wouldn’t be terribly thrilling. It turned out to be not only thrilling, but strange and deep and stimulating. This was Steven Moffat’s trademark “Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey” taken up to 11. (Maybe next year will go to 12?) This two-part finale forces viewers to go back and reexamine most of the season, and that isn’t something that can really be said for the Davies finales, which isn’t to imply they’re inferior. More on that later…

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Doctor Who 5.11 – The Lodger

Each season of the new “Doctor Who” has one or two “experimental” episodes – stories that just don’t feel like anything that’s come before. Thus far, most – if not all – of these stories have been successes. “Boom Town,” “Love & Monsters,” “Blink,” “Turn Left,” and “Midnight” have arguably been highlights in each of their seasons. It’s noteworthy that all but one of those was written by Russell T. Davies (and of course the one that wasn’t, “Blink,” was written by Steven Moffat). Davies seemed to be giving himself chances to think outside the [police?] box, and do something radical and different with the series on each occasion. I’m still not sure whether “Amy’s Choice” (which, like this one, was also directed by Catherine Moreshead) should be lumped into this group, but surely “The Lodger” is oddball enough to add to the list. So how does it stack up?

Well, it’s worth pondering why the story was made in the first place. For starters, it was very likely a chance to save some money. Aside from the episode’s climax, most of this tale is just people involved in seemingly everyday situations. But I think maybe there was more to it than just saving cash. Aside from “Boom Town,” the aforementioned stories were all designed to give the lead actors breaks. Given that this was the inaugural season of a new era for the show, it probably would have been a risky move to write the Doctor and Amy out for the bulk of a story, so instead what “The Lodger” does is remove Karen Gillan for most of the episode, while allowing Matt Smith the chance to chill out and just banter with James Corden (“Gavin & Stacey”) for an hour. Oh, and he also gets to play football, but since Smith has a history with the game, that probably wasn’t too taxing for him – the guy looks like he had a blast in that scene. Yes, for those of you who don’t know, Matt Smith once upon a time had dreams of being footballer, but a back injury led to him taking up acting instead.

Unlike Davies however, Moffat handed the oddball story over to Gareth Roberts, who has a long and winding history with “Doctor Who.” He’s one of “those” writers who’s been tied to it in one form or another for seemingly forever. I’m not familiar with the prose work he’s done over the years, so I can only really judge him on the scripts he’s written for the series, most of which haven’t been any great shakes. I quite liked “The Shakespeare Code” back when it was broadcast, but time hasn’t been too kind to my opinion of it. The following year he did “The Unicorn and The Wasp,” which I hated then, and hate only slightly less now. A recent viewing of it on BBC America led me to take it less seriously than I did a couple years ago, and hence, I was able to laugh at it a little more. The ending and the idea behind it is still pants though.

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Doctor Who 5.5 – Flesh and Stone

Now I’d had a little bit to drink – OK, a lot to drink – before I watched “Flesh and Stone,” and when it was over I swore it was the best episode of new “Who” ever. Upon sobering up, I watched it again. It was not the best episode of new “Who” ever…but it was still pretty damn great, and certainly both parts of this story combined make for one helluva sterling example of what makes the new series tick. Indeed, from now on, when I want to turn somebody on to this show, it may very well be through this two-parter.

I’ve written before about my theories of “Who” cliffhangers, which essentially boils down to “the resolve is rarely as good as the hang.” In this case that probably still holds, but Moffat came awfully close to equaling the hang by delivering a way out of an impossible situation that was surprising and fun. I’m not sure it made a whole lot of sense – the destruction of the gravity globe gave them an updraft? They must make this shit up as they go along (of course, how else do you do it?). The shifting of the camera turning around to show the group on ceiling was gorgeous and great little reveal. But the save is short-lived, and the Angels are restoring themselves via the power of the Byzantium. Everybody follows the Doctor into the ship, and once again, the camera has a lot of fun here – the shot of the Doctor standing upright as Amy looks down the hole at him.

Octavian: “Dr. Song, I’ve lost good Clerics today. Do you trust this man?”
River: “I absolutely trust him.”
Octavian: “He’s not some kind of madman then?”
River: (beat) “I absolutely trust him.”

Then the story shifts into an action flick. The Angels attack in the dark in a thrilling, claustrophobic sequence, peppered with further tension between River (Alex Kingston) and Octavian (Iain Glen). What is this woman hiding? It’s within this sequence that we first hear Amy says the number 10. There’s really so much going on in the action arena in this section of the episode that it’d be pointlessly drab to recap it, and yet it’s amazing to watch. Once they discover the forest within the ship, the story pulls back on the action, but not the tension. It just keeps building. The gimmick of Amy counting down heightens, and during the conversation with Angel Bob, the Doctor finally snaps, and gets to the bottom of what’s going on with the countdown, and it appears Amy looks into the eyes of the videotaped Angel for a tad too long in the previous episode. And as if not enough is going on by this point, the crack from Amy’s wall makes another appearance, only this time everyone sees it. Octavian leads the group away from the crack and into the forest while the Doctor stays behind to investigate the crack. While he’s doing so, the Angels mount yet another attack, this time against the Doctor solo. Particularly effective is the shot of the Angel grabbing the Doctor’s jacket. He manages to worm his way out of his jacket while talking to the Angels about the crack and runs off into the forest.

Again, most of this stuff makes for a lousy recap, but it’s so much damn fun to watch. It’s like trying to explain why “Die Hard” is great action movie by telling someone who hasn’t seen it about John McClane tying himself to a fire hose and jumping off a building in his bare feet. There’s no substitute for the real thing, and it’s rather silly to break it all down, because it wasn’t written to be deconstructed – it was written and directed to be a thrill ride. So kudos to Steven Moffat for writing a cracking screenplay that Adam Smith then proceeded to direct the hell out of. With this two-parter, Moffat has really redeemed himself as both a writer and a showrunner. This is the kind of fare I expected from him but wasn’t getting in 5.2 and 5.3. Adding to that, if this is Moffat’s version of the action-packed two-parters that always featured early in the Davies era, then blow me down. This is scads better than stuff like “Rise of the Cybermen” and “The Sontaran Strategem.” It’s not that those stories were bad, but they always felt like the bubblegum installments of their seasons, whereas this may also be bubblegum, but it’s bubblegum that keeps its flavor for a long, long time; in the midst of all this action, there’s room for great character development, stellar acting and strong drama. Oh, you know what else is mildly noteworthy? As I understand it, these two episodes were the first of the season that were shot, so it’s fascinating to note how firm a grasp Matt Smith and Karen Gillan had on not only their roles, but also the concept of the series at this early stage in the game. I’d speculate on what it must have been like to work through the lame scripts for “The Beast Below” and “Victory of the Daleks” after shooting fare like this first, but I’d best not. Surely these two actors had the time of their lives while making this season no matter how weak any given script may have been.

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