19 June 2017: The Eaters of Light review added.
11 June 2017: Empress Of Mars review added.
6 June 2017: Extremis/Pyramid At The End Of The World/Lie Of The Land review added.
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SCREAM OF THE SHALKA
"Tell me honestly. Am I irritating you yet?"
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New Who. New Who. With a new Doctor and everything. Okay, it's animation, but still, new Who. That's pretty heady stuff. And Richard E Grant as the Doctor, too - an actor we adore and one whose name has often come up in those who-should-be-the-next-Doctor conversations you have. (You do have them too, don't you?) So you might safely hazard a guess that we were quite looking forward to it.
On the other hand, there's always that fear. That visceral terror that says "Do we have another 1996 movie on our hands?" And that wasn't helped by finding out the writer of Scream Of The Shalka was Paul Cornell, a man with a good reputation in Who literary circles but whose Shadows Of Avalon we thought stunk like week-old Sea Devil.
So, fantastic or terrible? Well, neither really.
Let's start with the most important bit: the Doctor. Because let's face it, if the Doctor doesn't work, the script could be written by Shakespeare and the thing would still sink like an overweight stone. Paul Cornell's portrayal of the Brigadier was one of the only things we thought was any good in Shadows Of Avalon, so we were pleased but not surprised that we liked the Doctor as scripted. He's a touch angsty - clearly Something Very Nasty has happened in the backstory, although we're not allowed to know just what it is yet - and that works well: it adds depth and intrigue to his character without overwhelming him with Angel-style bitter moodiness. And despite a charming and ungirly sensitivity, he's also out there kicking ass and taking names, so a big tick for that from us, especially after suffering our way through the Fifth Doctor's wibbliness. Most important, though, is that he's got that alien quality that reminds us constantly, as it should, that the guy isn't human.
But that's on the page. And sad as we are to say it, Richard E Grant's portrayal lets the script down badly. We were incredibly disappointed by this: we loved his camp-masking-action-hero Scarlet Pimpernel, so we were sure he'd have the Doctor down cold. But it just doesn't work. Grant's delivery is flat and uncertain, and in particular he completely crucifies the Doctor's repartee: lines with lots of tee-hee potential fall flatter than a pancake under a bulldozer. Grant has said that he's never seen Doctor Who before (ever notice how actors rush to say this kind of thing when they're cast in SF? Couldn't admit they actually liked it or anything, could they? Stories with - ugh - imagination might be infectious) and frankly, it shows, because he just doesn't get it. Cornell's script's not perfect, but Grant's performance makes it seem worse than it is. Who do we have to sleep with to make sure he's not the next TV Doctor?
As for the other characters, they're mostly OK if not stellar. We liked Sophie Okenedo as the gutsy and down-to-earth Alison, and we want to see her again as a companion. We really didn't want the Doctor to get mixed up with the military, but the characters if dull work well enough, especially the light-relief Greaves, who has some great lines. And we really, really didn't want to see the Master, but since we have to, at least it's Derek Jacobi, who with his killer delivery makes the rest of the cast sound like dress-rehearsal night at the Worthington Amateur Dramatic Society.
And the plot? Rubbish. It's rare for us not to be be bored senseless by Who monsters, and the Shalka are no exception. Invasion, conquest, mass extermination, all the usual suspects. Yawn. And what's more, they're wrapped up in science that's mindbendingly ludicrous. Some people have had their vocal cords modified so that by screaming they can change the composition of the Earth's atmosphere. The Doctor falls towards a black hole without getting squished and without exploding in the vacuum. The ozone layer gets stripped away and there's a lot of twittering about how everyone has only minutes to live. (Er, Cornell does know that there's a hole in the ozone layer every year, doesn't he?) Not to mention that the ozone layer's been miraculously reinstated without explanation at the end of the story. Um, yeah, right, Paul. We believe you. And let's not forget the horrible PC garnishes: the hit-us-over-the-head-why-don't-you ecological and peace messages.
The responsibility of New Who's gone to Cornell's head, and the script's far too self-conscious, with great dollops of arch knowingness. Sometimes he gets away with it ("You heard the man, Greaves - don't bully the monster!"), but most of the time it's just excruciating - the references to weapons of mass destruction and regime change are glaring examples of this, but the dreadful fanwanky stuff about the Doctor's mythology is even worse. We really would like to see new Who being produced without this defensive coating of irony. If it's something we have to be embarrassed about - if we have to put it in quotation marks so that we don't lose our street cred for liking it - then why bother producing it at all? It's more than strong enough to stand on its own without apology.
Overall, though, despite the disappointing stuff, we found Scream Of The Shalka reasonably entertaining. Although the last episode's a bit dull, the story starts very atmospherically and builds nicely through the middle episodes. There are some great one-liners, even if they're not well integrated, and even with Grant's delivery we particularly liked the byplay between the Doctor and Alison ("I should have let you die!" "Oh, cheers.") And the theme tune's brilliant. Now we want to know what's made the Doctor so sulky, and we want to see how Alison likes time travel. Strip the irony from the scripts and find a way to splice Derek Jacobi's delivery with Richard E Grant's and we'll be lining up for the next one. Hey, when all's said and done, it's new Who.
MORAL: Keep the noise down. People are trying to breathe.
Yay! The story starts in New Zealand! But why write Maori placenames into the script if none of the actors can pronounce them?
TWO WORDS. OPEN UNIVERSITY
"I gave up a degree in history so I could live with Joe." Excuse us? Which century did they say this was again?
I'VE LEFT THE IRONY ON
Show tunes? No, no, no. Stop that immediately. It's not funny and it's not clever.
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Buy this Dr Who book: UK US: no book available