28 November 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 11 of 12 | The Day of the Doctor written by Steven Moffat

In 2013, something terrible is awakening in London’s National Gallery; in 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; and somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor’s own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.

23rd November 2013 is a day that I’m not likely to forget in a long time. After an almost sleepless night set to the soundtrack of a two-year-old coughing so hard that she kept vomiting herself awake, I rose to find that the diverter valve in our gas boiler had gone kaput for the second time in as many years, leaving us without any hot water upstairs. Shortly afterwards, to my horror, I discovered that the upstairs toilet wouldn’t flush in a completely unrelated, but still every bit as maddening, cistern failure. I went on to spend most of the morning building a flat-pack desk for my wife, only to discover, right at the end, that its drawer’s baroque ‘Daisy’ handle was missing, and so then had to spend much of the afternoon stood at the service desk in Dunelm trying my level best not to inflict grievous bodily harm on its staff who wanted me to disassemble and return the entire desk, rather than just exchange its unfinished drawer with that of their display desk’s, as I had reasonably suggested.

As 19:50 neared, and my daughter ran riot upstairs in a unique, but by this point expected, contravention of her bedtime, I gritted my teeth and spat, “No more,” and I would’ve blasted the words into our landing’s wall with a bazooka, had I not had the foresight to realise that replastering would have done for my Sunday as well. But then, in a startling flash of empathy that owes as much to a decade beside a Who fan as it does a career in psychology, my good lady softly ushered me downstairs, taking custody of not just our rampaging toddler, but her cough-emitting baby monitor too, at least for the next seventy-seven minutes. I can’t remember the last time that I felt such a rush of relief - and excitement.

As Doctor Who’s original monochrome titles bled into a redolent shot of a bobby on the beat down Totter’s Lane, I felt something stir inside me. But such exquisite and duly reverent classic series nostalgia was only fleeting, as greyscale soon turned to colour and Nick Hurran’s visceral direction swiftly carried me through a motorbike-shaped Paul McGann movie homage and then into a sequence that exemplified the very best of new Who; a set piece that had me instantly regretting not vying for tickets to see The Day of the Doctor in 3-D at the cinema. But even in 2-D 1080i, the spectacular, consciously cinematic in-vision credits still brought a movie to mind. Compare the dark and brief Eleventh Hour pre-title sequence with The Day of the Doctor’s drawn-out daylight dangling and note the difference. Though still confined to the domestic television screen for most viewers, The Day of the Doctor exuded blockbuster ambition right from its outset.

And from there, the fiftieth anniversary special only got bigger and bolder. Almost every fan watching will have suspected, will have known, that Steven Moffat’s story was set to crack open the final day of the Last Great Time War for all too see, but that foreknowledge couldn’t have possibly prepared them to be thrown straight into the heat of Arcadia as legions of Daleks broke through its sky trenches. Doctor Who fans had clamoured for years to see this, even just to hear it, only to be told by those such as Big Finish’s executive producer, Nicholas Briggs, that it couldn’t be done successfully; you can’t dramatise a time war - it’s too abstract. I’ve always disagreed, albeit with the caveat that we don’t spoil its mythic status with too much revelation, and would still love to see what writers in the Marc Platt or Jonathan Morris mould could do in the farthermost corners of its constantly-shifting canvas. However, Moffat’s conventional military approach neatly circumvented the tricky temporal trappings of the conflict, depicting its decisive battle as a very linear and very physical fight. Indeed, The Day of the Doctor steered well clear of the jaws of the Nightmare Child and dodged the advances of the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles, instead cutting quickly to the heart of what makes this conflict so damned compelling: that terrible choice. That terrible moment.

Aided and abetted by superlative short stories like “Museum Peace” and the eighth Doctor’s increasingly bleak adventures with Big Finish Productions, my mind had often pictured an old and weathered McGann with his hand hovering tentatively above the kill switch, forced to decide between the death of his people and the end of time itself. Though I’m not normally quick to rule things out, Doctor Who Confidential’s day one captioning of Christopher Eccleston’s Time Lord as the ninth Doctor combined with Russell T Davies’ explicit statement that his Doctor was indeed the ninth had me convinced that Eccleston’s apparently preceding incarnation was the one with the blood on his hands. It could still have been Eccleston’s, admittedly, but his antics in Rose were suggestive of a recent regeneration, so to me it never seemed likely. Such officially-sanctioned certainties made Moffat’s move to shoehorn a fourth ninth incarnation (Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Christopher Eccleston, and now John Hurt, in case you’re wondering) into the mythology all the more alluring; all the more illicit. For me, that seminal, earthshocking scene at the end of Series 7 in which we first heard John Hurt’s gravelly voice offering a justification for his necessary evils ranks amongst the series’ most thrilling, and its gradual payoff through The Night... and Day of the Doctor somehow managed to live up to its incredible promise, if with some unforeseen consequences - or more accurately, erasure thereof. Most people have darker sides to their personalities, and most do things that, with hindsight, seem so far removed from who they are now and what they believe in the present that it feels as if they were done by someone else. How many good men have gone to war? How many have done the unthinkable, have sacrificed their principles, for the sake of a greater good? The beauty of Moffat’s ‘War Doctor’ idea is that Doctor Who could take this abstract conceit and make it solid. The ghost of the Doctor’s past, of his most terrible day, could wear its own face, even take on its own temperament.

And “Granddad” certainly did that.

Hurt’s portrayal was devastatingly serious, particularly when viewed alongside the childlike exuberance of two of his later incarnations, who The Day of the Doctor suggested have been running from the dread conjured by his memory. This was beautifully borne out in the scene in which he asked them, “Do you have to talk like children? What makes you both so ashamed of being a grown-up?”, and the answer was written all over their faces. Throughout the story, Hurt, quite fittingly, showed us a soberer side to the character that we hadn’t seen since at least Jon Perwee’s era, perhaps even William Hartnell’s, but it was still recognisable - he was still the Doctor at heart. The coat that he wore provided a visual link to the man he would become, and his actions provided a more subtle one. Yes, to save the universe he’d wipe out two almighty races, but only because nobody else would do what needed to be done. I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, nor do I find it “cruel or cowardly” – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s saving the universe, but at a cost, just as he’d done before, and would do again. He even tried to protect his TARDIS’s feelings by materialising miles from the site of his terrible deed and trekking to it through the desert. That’s not the act of cruel or cowardly man, or even the act of a man who’s given up - it’s being the Doctor on a day when it was impossible to be. The Doctor can try to divorce himself from his ‘Warrior’ self, lock his past incarnation away in the recesses of his mind, strip him of his name and lay all the guilt at his door, but when it comes down to it, this ‘War Doctor’ is the Doctor as much as the man in the fez who thinks that bow ties are cool or the “matchstick man” in the pin-striped suit, and The Day of the Doctor was an inspired, and really quite touching, exploration of the notion.

Like just about everyone else in the world, the news of David Tennant and Billie Piper’s return to the series led me to do some very sloppy arithmetic and end up with five. I half-dreaded the return of Rose and her quasi-Doctor lover, but lost just as much sleep pondering on the ramifications of Hurt’s incarnation meeting a Series 2 Rose, or the other two encountering her post-Bad Wolf Bay II. The same must have been true of Mr Moffat, as instead of bringing back the prototypical new companion, he cast her actress as the Moment - a living Time Lord weapon in the style of Nemesis (this is also the silver anniversary of Silver Nemesis, don’t forget) that stands in judgement of those who would deploy it. There may have been nowhere left for Rose Tyler to go, but there was a beautiful symmetry to be found in the very embodiment of the falling Time Lord’s darkest hour wearing the face of the woman whose love would eventually catch him to try and prick at his conscience. The conceit that the Time Lord would have to face his future to see what using the Moment would do to him is almost Dickensian in its brilliance.

It’s nonetheless a heck of a testament to both David Tennant and Matt Smith that when the action cut away from the climax of the Last Great Time War, away from the gravitational Mr Hurt and Piper’s ghost of relative past and future, The Day of the Doctor remained relentlessly engrossing. It would have been joy enough to see good old David Ten-inch (or is that Eleven-inch, now, hmm?) playing his “grunge-phase” Doctor once again, and particularly in a page of history once mentioned but never before explored, as he battled Zygons in Elizabethan England alongside his bride-to-be, Good Queen Bess (played here by Gavin and Stacey’s buoyant girl next door, Joanna Page). Yet when Smith’s Doctor entered the mix, we witnessed something very special indeed. Rather than perpetuate the now-obligatory bickering first, and most memorably, demonstrated by Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee over forty years ago, Moffat presented us with two young-looking Doctors ripping the piss out of each other and indulging in some riotous, laddish banter as Chinny mocked Sandshoes’ wooing of Zygons and they compared sonic screwdrivers suggestively.

The heavily-hyped Zygons were wonderfully recreated too. They’re essentially exactly the same in 2013 as they were in 1975, just more convincingly realised, especially when it comes to the now quite horrific human to Zygon morph and vice-versa. Though their thread of the plot was never going to be more than a thin and fun diversion, I still applaud their inclusion in their special for three very important reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the curious and popular fact that the Zygons have always been highly-regarded second-tier foes, yet they hadn’t been seen on telly since the days of scarves and jelly babies. Secondly, their first appearance heralded the end of the UNIT era, marking Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, which this special neatly counterpointed with the return of the Brigadier’s daughter and her modern-day UNIT, who themselves were facing a dilemma not dissimilar to that of Hurt’s Doctor. Most serendipitously though, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons established that the Zygon homeworld had been destroyed in some loosely-described disaster, enabling Moffat to weave the first linking timey-wimey thread through his tantalising television tapestry as he tied the titular Time Lord’s ninth life fighting in the Time War to the destruction of a planet in that very war, leading to an invasion of the Earth in the 1970s (or ’80s...) that he’d already foiled five regenerations back. In of itself, that’s a hell of a lovesong to the legacy of the show.

And many of The Day of the Doctor’s finest moments came as the three Doctors conspired to put paid to the Zygon threat, with Hurt’s incarnation’s apparent seniority gradually deferring to Smith’s Doctor’s actual, and most palpable, precedence. I love how the later two Doctors showed their younger, war-addled self exactly how it’s done, leading to his epiphany that the guilt of what he must do is what will drive him to shine brighter, to fight harder, to become the brilliant men that he saw before him effortlessly doing their thing. “Great men are forged in fire,” he declared, in the wizened voice of a dragon. “It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”

But, of course, he didn’t light that flame, and as a result my beloved iPhone 4S became the final casualty of the Last Great Time War when its screen found itself being smashed. This wasn’t an act of rage, I should stress - just the cack-handedness that follows utter astonishment.

The rewriting of the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s greatest ever triumph, and if the millions watching at home and in cinemas in ninety-four countries were anything like me, then they would have shared in that joyous sense of vindication and victory. The trouble is, once the Moment had gone and the moment had passed, we were left with a Doctor that had been changed beyond recognition; effectively snapped back to a much safer, pre-new series state, his once defining dark edges dulled and ultimately overwritten by the greatest cop-out that ever there was; the almost tangible angst of the last seven seasons rendered hollow by Moffat’s waving of a tripartite magic wand.

Ever since The End of the World, the Doctor’s (then only implied) actions had lent him an edge that none of the classic incarnations, not even Sylvester McCoy’s master manipulator, could match, not to mention a depth that could break hearts. Now most of that’s been torn from him in a moment of decisive victory; an ultimate save that only the unprecedented, and really quite overwhelming, presence of all thirteen Doctors (yep, even the one yet to come was thrown straight into the thick of it) could have a shot at making up for. Fair dues, Moffat’s made up for his predecessor’s cruel Christmas 2008 Next Doctor trickery, but in doing so he pulled off a much grander swerve. Gallifrey falls no more, and the Doctors wipe their collective slate clean.

But surely the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s volcano day - if that doesn’t have to stand, then how can viewers be expected to care about anything, as it can just be undone by a future producer who doesn’t feel bound by the laws of time? Why not pop back and save Adric right now? How is this act any different to the borderline-villainous “Time Lord victorious” that The Waters of Mars so vociferously warned against? Whilst I can understand wanting to steer the show away from sinister soubriquets like ‘The Oncoming Storm’ and ‘The Destroyer of Worlds’, both of which emerged from the darkness between series and reeked of fan despair, there must be a way to push on with a nutty, dicky-bow Doctor without ripping the guts out of seven seasons of telly and a character that’s become so much more than he once was.

And burning just as hot is the question of why. Why resurrect Gallifrey for what will be the second time for viewers, and the third time for followers of all Who media? Whilst the scintillating snapshots offered by The End of Time and The Day of the Doctor are more than welcome, if viewers are shown too much of the Time Lords, then not only does this erode the mystery of the Doctor (which we’ve really got to hang on to now that we’ve been robbed of his war guilt), but it risks Gallifrey becoming the high-collared bad joke that it did in the 1980s. The prospect of the Doctor heading home to end his days, even “the long way round,” is not one that sits well with me at all, even if he has to overcome the likes of an omnicidal Rassilon and a deranged, moribund Master first. The best that we can hope for is that Gallifrey’s destroyed yet again after another sensational shitstorm, but by then, will anyone really care? It’d be just another empty Rory Williams half-death for the children of Gallifrey. 

Yet despite the above, despite the mounting mountain of reasons why I should hate this development, for some reason that I can’t fathom yet, I don’t. Perhaps I’m just caught up in the anniversary fervour; perhaps it was executed so very well, so very emotively, that the overriding triumph of the moment quashes even the most sensible and well-reasoned of reservations. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt so conflicted about a Doctor Who story as I do about The Day of the Doctor, and I doubt that I ever will again. If that’s not a testament to a thought-provoking celebratory tale, then I don’t know what is. 

But the retcon wasn’t quite the end; indeed, ’twas a beginning. The Day of the Doctor concluded with a scene so nonsensically reverent that I would have forgiven the series anything. Tom Baker’s cameo as the art gallery’s curator was as beautiful as it was mischievous, radiating through both the dissolved fourth wall and the Time Lord 3-D artwork’s window to Gallifrey (meta-fiction within meta-fiction...), somewhere out there in the show’s future, yet tied to a past impossibly embodied in this eccentric old man. The whole spirit of the special is distilled right there; the collision between past and future, the disambiguation of seemingly separate titles, of seemingly separate men. It’s an all-time high point for Who.

http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk/The%20Day%20of%20the%20Doctor.htm#Continuity-CornerAnd so, though it deliberately confused the polarity of the neutron flow and sold out to the Happy Ending Brigade in a manner that makes the events of Journey’s End seem innocuous in comparison, The Day of the Doctor was without question the Doctors’ finest hour - every single one of the splendid chaps, Hurt’s included - and it was a finest hour felt concurrently around the world, crossing continents and time zones and setting simulcast world records. I’ve written this piece, quite aberrantly, in the past tense because I don’t feel like I’m reviewing a film or an episode that can be revisited with the same effect - I’m recalling a discrete event. For fifty years, the question’s been, “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” The question now is, “Where were you on The Day of the Doctor?” Me, I was on my sofa, torn in half, smashing up an iPhone, completely and utterly rapt.

The Day of the Doctor is available to download in 2-D 1080p HD from iTunes as part of The 50th Anniversary Collection, which you can purchase for £14.99. The series pass includes Doctor Who at the Proms 2010; several otherwise US-exclusive Doctor Who Revisited documentaries; Doctor Who Explained; the Mark Gatiss-penned drama An Adventure in Space and Time; and the recent mini-episodes The Night of the Doctor and The Last Day.

The Blu-ray set includes both 2-D and 3-D editions of the special as well as the short BBC
Behind the Lens documentary; Doctor Who Explained; and the two minisodes, but not the other US documentaries or An Adventure in Space and Time. The cheapest pre-order price for the Blu-ray release is £9.85 from Base.

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23 November 2013

Fiftieth Birthday DVD Review | Doctor Who: The Tenth Planet


Fifty years ago today, Doctor Whos first episode, An Unearthly Child, was broadcast. More relevantly - or terrifyingly - for those of my age though is that we’re now as far from Silver Nemesis as Silver Nemesis was from An Unearthly Child!

To celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, or, if you prefer, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its twenty-fifth anniversary, The History of the Doctor turns its attention to the adventure that made such unprecedented longevity possible, recently released on DVD with its lost fourth episode replaced by an all-new animation. It’s not bad at all if you appreciate the irony of listening to the musings of an actor with two titanium knees commentate on a near-fifty-year-old production that reflects society’s fear of “spare parts”; a production that itself is now one-quarter artificial, sporting the serialised equivalent of a prosthetic limb....

Happy birthday to Who!


17 November 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 10 of 12 | The Beast of Babylon written by Charlie Higson

Though his time was short, Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor remains my firm favourite. Russell T Davies’ original vision of the rebooted Doctor was literally and figuratively dark, yet his tough, Northern front belied an often startlingly passionate, exuberant and even quite tender soul. While Matt Smith and particularly David Tennant built their tenures on being able to turn from daffy to dominant in the space of a double heartbeat, it was Eccleston that made that mould; Eccleston that set the standard.

As such, it’s nothing short of criminal that the definitive new Doctor has been almost completely overlooked since the autumn that followed his departure. Six tie-in novels, a few comic strips and that was his lot – it’s not that long ago that Paul McGann’s Doctor would get that within the space of a month or three. But salvation recently came for me in the most unlikely of forms: September’s Penguin short story, published exclusively as an e-book and written by a newcomer to the franchise. “Eleven Doctors, eleven months, eleven authors, eleven stories” is the slogan. Well, this is the ninth of each.

Penned by Fast Show writer and star Charlie Higson, “The Beast of Babylon” is a fast tale for a “fast and impatient” Doctor whose audience have come to expect their action to come at an even faster lick than in a Terrance Dicks-penned Target. Set in the subjective chasm between the TARDIS’s dematerialisation and reappearance in the closing moments of Rose, this adventure follows the Doctor as he tries to stop a creature – a god – forged in the heart of a dead star from destroying ancient Babylon. Along for the ride is Ali – a forceful young female that the Doctor picked up on Karkinos.
Higson portrays Eccleston’s Time Lord exquisitely in print, capturing not just the incarnation’s distinctive dialect, but also his runaway train delivery of it. Nine’s mannerisms are also perfectly painted in plain, Dicks-like prose, for me evoking that specific Target thrill that today’s precession of original novels often struggle to. This illusion is occasionally, but nonetheless happily, shattered by insuppressibly comic lines from the Doctor, my favourite of which is, “Christ… He was a bit like Sherlock Holmes. Knew the answers to everything. Very good at solving mysteries. Some humans use him to measure time…” However, even these are redolent of the revived series, and Russell T Davies in particular. This meshes tantalisingly with the ancient historic setting, which feels remarkably fresh for this incarnation, who on television didn’t make it back any further than Dickens’ day.

My favourite aspect of the tale though is how it serves as a wonderful leveller for Rose in several ways. Superficially, it mirrors the revived series’ first episode in terms of its structure and almost peripheral plot, which is there only to serve the characters as opposed to vice-versa. The Doctor strolls into Ali’s life with monsters right behind him, and within moments she’s been whisked away on the trip of a lifetime. On a deeper level though, Ali is, in of herself, a cruel reflection of Rose. I can’t say too much without running the risk of spoiling the sting in the tale, but I will say that Higson uses his author’s omniscience to profound effect here. With its initial omissions and obfuscation, this is a story made for this medium.

It seems that Eccleston era stories are like buses in my village – there are none for eight years, then two come along at once. Around the same time that I discovered “The Beast of Babylon” on the digital shelves, the release of Cavan Scott and Mark Wright’s Destiny of the Doctors audio book, Night of the Whisper, saw the ninth Doctor pulling double duty for the month. Whether this marks the beginning of a brave new era for an incarnation who’s in danger of becoming as forgotten as the warrior that he follows remains to be seen, but I sincerely hope that after years in the wilderness, the ninth (or should that be tenth now...?) Doctor’s back for good.

The Beast of Babylon is currently available to download from Amazons Kindle Store for just 99p. The iTunes version will set you back a further quid.

In 2013, something terrible is awakening in London’s National Gallery; in 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; and somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor’s own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.

Read retro Doctor Who reviews @

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75021 Republic Gunship

Between 2008 and 2012, LEGO released dozens of sets inspired by the animated television series and one-off movie Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but comparatively few from the live action films sat either side of it. However, the premature demise of Dave Filoni’s hit series would leave the doors wide open for 2013’s first wave of Star Wars sets to be dominated by the often-underrated Episode II, with more than half a dozen sets taking their inspiration from that initial attack of the clones.

I’ve been in the market for a Republic gunship for some time now, and so was delighted to see it taking pride of place as the top-tier 2013 Attack of the Clones set. Save for the Venator-class attack cruisers, which from an aesthetic point of view I rate even more highly than I do the colourless star destroyers of the original trilogy, these gunships are my favourite vehicles from the Clone Wars, and they’re definitely one of the most iconic. Their presence was felt throughout the conflict, appearing in countless animated episodes as well as the decisive Revenge of the Sith, but I don’t think that they’ve ever had quite the same impact that they did when they first set the burnt orange skies of Geonosis alight in the Clone Wars’ opening battle depicted in Episode II’s final act. And, unlike its 2008 Clone Wars movie-inspired LEGO incarnation (set #7676), it is that spectacular cinematic sequence that this set strives to recreate.

With almost 1,200 pieces, this 18” gunship boasts more elements than the attack cruisers meant to house hundreds of its type. As a result, this set feels very much like a special collector’s edition set in the mould of the recently released Red Five, such is its detail, but of course here everything is minifigure scaled for maximum playability. The belly of the craft, which can be accessed via side doors that don’t quite close, is easily large enough to house a decent-sized detachment of clone troopers and their Jedi generals, and this is before we even consider the gun turrets and cockpits that can also be manned. The thoughtful design also contains five storage containers in which the minifigures’ weapons can be stored whilst they operate their various stations, as well as separate compartments to the aft and stern, one of which can be used to house Anakin’s swoop bike (which is admittedly a little out of place here, far from the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine) and the other either more minifigures or reserve flick missiles or lightsabers. Best of all though, the gunship is a dazzlingly clean white adorned with proud Republic red, and to a lesser extent, lime green liveries. It’s spectacular to behold, if not reflective of the grim realities of war.

The set’s minifigure complement is every bit as extraordinary, offering seven characters for the £109.99 RRP, including brand new Attack of the Clones iterations of Obi-Wan Kenobi; Anakin Skywalker; and Padmé Amidala. The floppy-haired and facially-hirsute Obi-Wan is the standout; he’s instantly redolent of Ewan McGregor’s dry Episode II portrayal. Similarly, the Anakin minifigure is by far his most convincing Episode II LEGO interpretation, the added detail in the outfit and hairpiece (woefully miscoloured though it is) offering a good likeness of the troubled teen Romeo. And after years in yellow and then even longer in absentia, a flesh-tone Padmé is now cropping up all over the shop in minifigure form, but never more welcomely than here. With her tight bun and even tighter outfit, duly frayed by the Patrenaki arena’s rampaging nexu, she’s every inch the gun-toting Juliet that Natalie Portman was on screen. All three stars boast reversible headpieces, as is fast becoming the LEGO standard, allowing you to alter their expressions from mildly vexed to utterly enraged. The two clone troopers aren’t by any means as exciting, though the captain is the first of his rank to enter my personal LEGO Grand Army of the Republic, and the super battle droids are wholly dull and grey – just as they are on screen, so no complaints there.

The only real problems with this set are its overreliance on stickers – I hate the damned things, and for this price LEGO could surely afford to manufacture some bespoke pieces that won’t rot or be applied cock-handedly – and its almost amusing fragility. I’m a relatively dexterous man in his early thirties, and I managed to break off several extremities just getting the thing up into my loft, so I shudder to think what damage nine to fourteen-year-olds might wreak should the craft find itself in their age-appropriate thrall. Of course, rebuilding is half the fun of LEGO – provided you can find the tiny pieces again, that is.

A final thought is that you simply can’t buy this set in isolation. Even if you’re immune to the marketing of all the associated Episode II sets released alongside this one, the set looks distressingly incomplete with its skeleton crew of just two clones. You need at least four or five battle packs’ worth of troopers to make this thing look anything like the business, so if you are considering adding it to your empire, you’ve got to be prepared to make a few expensive trips to Kamino to boot.

The Star Wars LEGO Republic Gunship is available from LEGO directly for £109.99 with free delivery. Today’s cheapest online retailer though is Smyths Toys, who are currently selling this set for £83.99 with free delivery.

16 November 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 9 of 12 | The Night of the Doctor written by Steven Moffat

On the eve of his most terrible battle, the Time Lord is faced with a choice that will change the course of his life. The darkest of days are about to begin. The Doctor has always been a man of secrets - and now they can be told...

Only Doctor Who could turn an otherwise ordinary Thursday into one of the most exciting days of the decade. Without any warning whatsoever, Steven Moffat’s seven-minute mini-episode, The Night of the Doctor, popped up on the BBC iPlayer, within seconds hurling thousands of eagle-eyed viewers back into the Last Great Time War for the first time since The End of Time. There they’d meet a Doctor – but not the one that they were probably expecting…
With Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor having faded from public memory long ago, The Night of the Doctor is an unabashed birthday present for the series’ die-hard fans, who have supported McGann and his Big Finish employers though over a decade’s worth of audio adventures. Whilst I’m sure that 23rd November’s Day of the Doctor will contain more than its fair share of fan service, its mainstream audience means that it couldn’t hope to match its pocket-sized counterpoint when it comes to scratching itches that have burned for as long as the series has been back on our television screens, if not longer still.
Ostensibly the most incredible thing about this minisode is that it finally provides the eighth Doctor’s ardent following with the regeneration scene that they’ve waited more than fifteen years to see. To put this in perspective, you have to consider the sheer enormity of the eighth Doctor’s multimedia empire – his long-lived incarnation shouldered more of the responsibility for keeping the franchise alive during its wilderness years than any other. He enjoyed one of the most successful comic strip runs of any Doctor within the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, while concurrently propping up a groundbreaking, seventy-book strong series of paperbacks. He has now appeared in the equivalent of at least ten seasons’ worth of television stories in full-cast audio dramas, alongside actresses as renowned as Sheridan Smith and Ruth Bradley, and as loved as India Fisher. For Eight more than any other Doctor, the extra-curricular stuff is what really matters, though for all the classic Doctors now, it’s no longer a question of where the audios and books fit in around the televised stories – these days, telly’s just the bits in between.
And it isn’t just any regeneration that we witness here. Far removed from the innocuous bang on the head that did for Old Sixy, or the ravages of old age that killed off the Doctor’s first incarnation, this is a little death that has been speculated about with great fervour ever since Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor alluded to his role in the Last Great Time War, and as such it would have had the impact of la petite mort even without the Sisters of the Flame’s iniquitous, fan-pleasing intervention or the veritable pipe bomb of the eighth Doctor not regenerating into the ninth. You see, he doesn’t actually regenerate into a Doctor at all.
The series’ lacklustre 2013 run really tested my faith in the hitherto-redoubtable Mr Moffat, but having the audaciousness to even conceive of, let alone implement, such a controversial and frankly thrilling concept as this one has put paid to my doubts as effectively as sledgehammer cracks an egg. Not only does this mesmerising move give us the performance of the mercurial John Hurt to look forward to, but it cuts right to the heart of a contradiction that’s blazed throughout the revived series, irritating everyone from the fans in the forums to those such as Davros sat on the other side of the fictional divide. Whether it was in the name of peace or sanity or both, the pacifist Doctor fought on the front line in the most destructive conflict in the history of creation. More than that, in circumstances that, from its trailer, I gather The Day of the Doctor will broach, he committed double near-genocide – and he did so himself. He didn’t manipulate an ally into doing the dirty work for him, nor did he set a planet-busting trap for a megalomaniac. He seized “the moment” and he ended the war.
Most people have darker sides to their personalities, and most do things that, with hindsight, seem so far removed from who they are now and what they believe in the present that it feels as if they were done by someone else. How many good men have gone to war? How many have done the unthinkable, have sacrificed their principles, for the sake of a greater good? The beauty of Moffat’s idea is that Doctor Who can take this abstract conceit and make it solid. The ghost of the Doctor’s past, of his most terrible day, can wear its own face, even take on its own temperament. The Doctor can try to divorce himself from his ‘Warrior’ self, lock his past self away in the recesses of his mind, strip him of his name and lay all the guilt at his door, but when it comes down to it, this ‘Warrior’ is the Doctor as much as the man in the fez who thinks that bow ties are cool. The incumbent Doctor might call his past self “…the one who broke the promise…” of his name, but The Night of the Doctor shows us that the truth is far more compelling than that. It was the Doctor, the eighth Doctor, who made a conscious choice to eschew the trappings of his carefully-chosen title and be reborn as a warrior capable of ending the destructive conflict. The duress might have been extreme, but nonetheless the “man who never would”, most definitively did.
And McGann is so bloody good here; so bloody intense. Having become so accustomed to hearing that RP-veiled velvet Scouse in isolation, it really took me aback to actually see him bounding out of the TARDIS, his daft wig and cowboy costume long-since lost in the trenches of Earth’s Great War in Dark Eyes. His presence is immediately persuasive, and as the story progresses it becomes powerful, eventually frightening. The Night of the Doctor really showcases how brutally short-changed he and we were when it comes to television, while at the same time embracing and celebrating the aural icon that he’s become, as he runs through the most notable of his Big Finish companions in a last-gasp salute. It’s an astonishingly generous and unprecedented gesture from Moffat (albeit one that reeks of contrivance in an otherwise tight script) as it effectively puts the canonicity of the Big Finish audio dramas beyond naysayers’ reproach, and will hopefully steer many fans of the revived series towards the Big Finish product.

Of course, such a bold move is likely to encounter some resistance, particularly as John Hurt’s incarnation of the Time Lord seems to have “wasted” one of the Doctor’s thirteen lives, but I think that it is this sense of sacrifice that makes the move so dramatically staggering. In his memoirs, former producer John Nathan-Turner spoke of how he insisted that the Doctor’s bitter “Valeyard” self seen in The Trial of a Time Lord could not be a concrete regeneration, and as a result the fudged, intra-incarnation spectre lacked any real sense of weight. Besides, it doesn’t automatically follow that Peter Capaldi’s thirteenth incarnation will be the last Doctor – as evidenced by the Sisterhood of Karn’s explained-in-a-line actions here, there are innumerable ways in which the Doctor’s regeneration cycle could be extended. Provided that the series is careful not to paint him as someone who wants to survive at all costs, á la the Master, then there’s no reason that the series can’t inflict immortality on the Doctor. He should be the lonely god that has to live forever – not because he wants to, but because we wouldn’t have it any other way.

When a girl called Ali pockets a silver orb that falls from the sky, little does she realise it’s her ticket to seeing the universe! Desperate to retrieve the mysterious object, the ninth Doctor agrees to let her join him on a dangerous trip to ancient Babylon. Together they must join forces to stop a giant Starman from destroying Earth before it’s too late!

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03 November 2013

Blu-ray Review | Star Wars: The Clone Wars – The Complete Season Five

It was Christmas 2008 when the missus presented me with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie on DVD. I wasn’t impressed. I’d seen the movie’s posters that summer, of course; even caught its trailer a few times. But I wasn’t interested – the combination of the recently-released Star Wars: Droids DVD and Genndy Tartakovsky’s three seasons of vapid Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts had put paid to any interest that I might have once expressed in animated Star Wars. But I watched the film, dutifully, and I thought that it was alright. The CG animation was in a different league to Tartakovsky’s highly-stylised two-dimensional renderings, and the blend of authentic movie voice talent and convincing soundalikes conspired to present something that approached the look and feel of the Star Wars movies (particularly the CGI-heavy prequels), but that sadly lacked any of their weight. The movie told a story that didn’t really need to be told; one that focused on spectacle at the expense of substance. Fortunately Dave Filoni’s subsequent TV series would correct that mistake in its very first episode, the deep but action-packed “Ambush”, and ever since then I’ve not only been hooked, but awestruck.

Indeed, the series’ animation belies some surprisingly adult and sophisticated themes – themes that are invariably meshed delectably with what Doctor Who fans would call “fanwank” and that are always encapsulated by a bite-sized title sequence slogan. The show’s second season, for instance, caught up with Boba Fett in the wake of his father’s demise, and shed some light on how his quest for revenge against the Jedi leads him to a life spent hunting bounties. The next year showed us the beginnings of Tarkin’s ascent to power; explored Chewbecca’s pre-Solo solo adventures; it even featured a number of episodes that explored the intricacies of the prophecy that Anakin will bring balance to the Force, offering viewers a more literal interpretation than the anything-but-balanced “He’ll destroy the Sith…” one, while at the same time allowing them to see him impossibly raging against the dark future literally crystallising before him. The following season upped the ante further, reintroducing the now delectably-deranged torso that was once Darth Maul, and teaming him up with his equally-monstrous Zabrak brother, Savage Opress, to battle the odd couple of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and fallen (risen?) Sith Asajj Ventress. All the politics, all the subtext, all the myth and all the legend – it’s all here, all punctuated with stunning set piece after stunning set piece.

Whilst there are stand-alone episodes strewn across its five seasons, most of the series’ stories are told over arcs that span three or four episodes, and to the series’ credit it doesn’t concern itself with presenting them chronologically. Unusually for a spin-off series, let alone one produced for a children’s network, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is an anthology that zips back and forth in time on a whim, allowing stories to flourish backwards almost as often as they do forwards. Not only is this true to the spirit of the two inverted Star Wars trilogies, but it gives the writers and producers tremendous freedom to develop successful characters and threads without much, if any, advanced consideration.

Interestingly, one of the things that I disliked about the 2008 movie was the introduction of a Padawan learner for Anakin, Ahsoka Tano, played then and since by the dazzling Ashley Eckstein. However, from today’s perspective it’s hard to imagine the series without her as she’s its centre. This show is her story, in the same way that the original Star Wars movie is Luke’s. And, as was also the case with the farmboy turned Jedi Knight, it’s her effect on Anakin that makes things really interesting. On the silver screen, we get to see precious little of the hero conjured by Obi-Wan’s stirring précis of his “good friend” in the original trilogy; Anakin’s either an annoying kid, a moody teenager, or on the edge of a precipice. Ahsoka, however, really brings out the dashing hero in him, as well as the considerate mentor. Every ounce of virtue inside him is eked out by his snippy Padawan, whether it’s in battle; round the negotiating table; or even, as we come into the fifth season, when weighing matters of the heart against matters of duty.

In a departure from previous releases, the inconsistency of which is bound to annoy people irrespective of whether they approve of the move or not, the Blu-ray release presents the fifth season’s episodes in story order, rather than as they were aired. This means that the explosive season opener isn’t even on the first disc – instead, the Blu-ray season creeps to life with the four-part Onderon serial that sees Ahsoka tasked with turning an ailing group of freedom fighters, her last-season crush and friend in need amongst them, into a fighting force. Whilst slow to start, the story is an appealing one as it subtly sows the seeds of next year’s new Disney XD spin-off series, Star Wars Rebels, by showing us how the stretched-thin Jedi began to foment rebellions on clone-wary Separatists worlds towards the end of the Clone Wars, unwittingly putting in place the infrastructures for what would eventually become the Rebel Alliance. It’s also an intriguing story from a personal perspective as it explores the gulf between Ahsoka, the commander in the Grand Army of the Republic, and Ahsoka, the infatuated teenage girl, and how that chasm is bridged by the most unlikely of Jedi.

Rather than accompany each arc with an in-depth video commentary, such as those found on the preceding season’s Blu-rays, here we are instead presented with a short featurette for each individual episode originally produced for StarWars.com. Whether this is due to the series “winding down” or straightforward disc space restrictions (as there are fewer episodes this year, everything is crammed onto just two discs) I don’t know, but it does feel like the bonus material has been hastily cobbled together, particularly when compared with the last couple of seasons’ sterling efforts. Fortunately, the StarWars.com features are as informative as they are fleeting - the experience of watching them isn’t a million miles from watching the first season’s comprehensive but convoluted Blu-rays with their countless four-minute features.

Of more concern is the audio mastering on the episodes themselves. To say that Blu-ray is supposed to represent the zenith of audio and picture quality, I’ve been burnt twice by it in the past year or so – something that has not happened to me once with DVDs (or, for that matter, iTunes downloads). Here, rather than have to suffer the tinny distortion of much of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first HD season, I’ve had to sit through an audio soundtrack that is frequently out of sync with the picture – particularly, as per Sod’s law, in the most significant episodes. It’s only by half a second or so, if that, and it’s not usually all the way through an episode, but if anything that makes the aural injury worse as you’re constantly doubting yourself. “Is it me?” Well, no - it isn’t. I Googled it.

Thankfully an arc as compelling as the set’s second one adequately compensates for any technical shortcomings. In fact, the four episodes that focus on the younglings and recurring antagonist Hondo is one of the series’ best. Deliberately harking back to the swords and sorcery of the original Star Wars film, the story set in motion by “The Gathering” is the one that would have been Luke’s, had his father not turned to the dark side and exterminated most of his former kinsmen just prior to his birth. It takes a disparate group of Jedi younglings, each with his or her own limitations, and guides them through the process of constructing their lightsabers. Aided by an ancient droid whose personality constantly flits between quirky and authoritative (characteristics that the actor voicing it, a certain Mr David Tennant, is well-versed in portraying), the younglings must each overcome their personal demons to discover the unique crystal that will power their weapon, and then use the sheer power of the Force to assemble it. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, as a raid from the suave Weequay buccaneer draws the younglings right into the heart of the Clone Wars. I can’t call to mind another serial that so deftly juggles the magic of the Jedi and the horror of the Clone Wars; it’s a perfect effort in every sense, driven yet deeply pensive.

Straddling the two discs is an adventure that is everything that the mid-’80s Droids spin-off should have been. Carried largely by R2-D2, a few of his fellow droids and their hilarious Napoleon complex-suffering commander, the diminutive Colonel Meebur Gascon, these four episodes really push the series’ boundaries, experimenting with nihilistic, existential themes while at the same time bringing the show right back to its core Star Wars values. Artoo may have shone throughout The Clone Wars series, but in this arc he’s given the opportunity to personally change the course of the whole conflict, as he later would the rebellion against the Empire.

Next up on the second disc are the season’s four Maul / Opress episodes, beginning with the fast and furious season-opener. Picking up precisely where the fourth season left off, “Revival” sees Obi-Wan and Adi Gallia track the Sith brothers to Hondo’s pirate planet, where an electrifying double duel costs both sides dearly. From there, we’re launched straight into what is, perhaps, the finest trilogy of the entire series, as it’s not only a technical masterpiece, but also a compelling and fan-serving saga that’s typified by set pieces so breathtaking that you’ll find yourself in need of a Vader-like iron lung if you watch them in HD. Bringing together elements as sundry as Maul and his brother’s conquest of the underworld, Pre Vizsla’s Mandalorian Death Watch sect’s ascent to power, Obi-Wan and Duchess Satine’s unrequited romance, the Hutts and a couple of the expanded universe’s most famous criminal clans, these three episodes are bursting with heartbreak and horror, not to mention a few moments that will leave you violently shaking your head in disbelief. Are Maul, Opress, the Death Watch and Black Sun really storming Jabba’s palace? Are Maul and Vizsla actually duelling, bloodshine Sith lightsaber against mythical Mandalorian darksaber? And surely Darth Sidious couldn’t be so bold as to risk revealing his true identity simply to rein in his erstwhile apprentice, who’s rapidly becoming a rival? There can only be two...

After that slobberknocker of a serial, the production team needed something really special to finish the season, and, as it would turn out, the whole series. And with “The Wrong Jedi” arc, they delivered something that’s every bit as alluring as the blockbuster Maul saga, albeit in equal and opposite ways. This time around, we don’t follow the villains, but the heroes – if they are still heroes, that is. Segueing beautifully into the greyscale world of Revenge of the Sith, the series’ finale explores the subtle shifts in the war-weary public’s opinion of the Jedi, who have demonstrably strayed from their path of peacekeeping and become unwilling warriors, and how this is carefully exploited by those such as Palpatine and Tarkin for their own nefarious ends. Caught in the middle are Ahsoka, Anakin and Ventress: the young Padawan finds herself accused of a crime that she didn’t commit, and so her master does all that he can to clear her name, but finds himself pent by his closed-minded and condemnatory superiors on the Jedi High Council, who seem more concerned with appeasing the Senate than they do Ahsoka’s guilt or innocence. Count Dooku’s former assassin, meanwhile, finds herself in the unprecedented position of sharing the unjustly-excommunicated Jedi’s cause, particularly when finds herself similarly framed. It’s a beguiling and defining tale; one that cleverly lays the foundations for Anakin’s Episode III dissent, and answers the obvious question that’s burned ever since we first met Ahsoka. The final episode’s closing scene is ruefully beautiful, on a level pegging with some of Revenge of the Sith’s most seminal scenes. Even George Lucas had to, uncharacteristically, defer to Dave Filoni’s adamant fade to black as the series’ final moment is so very emotive that the obligatory, bombastic Star Wars iris-out would have been preposterously out of place.

Of course, that blazing instant may not prove to be the end for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as I understand that a number of episodes pencilled in for the Disney-slain sixth season are being completed by Filoni and his team for a tentative 2014 commercial release, which hopefully will continue the superlative standards of this fifth season and tie up the remaining loose threads to boot. Wherever we go from here though, Filoni’s series has already earned its defining definite article. To anyone like me who was put off by its impulsive theatrical pilot, I’d urge them to trust in the Force and check it out before the impending rebellion steals its thunder - it really is one of the most addictive and groundbreaking shows of the past five years, if not the millennium.

Until the Blu-ray release is reissued with its audio issues remedied (and in any event, if you don’t care much for bonus material), I would recommend that you download Star Wars: The Clone Wars in 1080p HD from iTunes, where you can buy a fifth season pass for £38.99 or just cherry pick individual episodes for £2.49 each.