The Cosmic Hobo

Thoughts & reviews about the science fiction series Doctor Who.

Archive for the category “reviews”

Episode Review: Time Heist

DW Time Heist

I get that it’s hard to follow an amazing episode like “Listen,” but “Time Heist” ultimately felt hollow and uninteresting. In opposition to other episodes of Doctor Who which seem to get better on subsequent viewings, I actually enjoyed “Time Heist” less the second time around. It’s the sort of writing that doesn’t look good under any actual scrutiny, as the plot holes are vast and the supporting character archetypes are so generic that there’s essentially zero emotional investment.

The story revolves around the Doctor and Clara being forced to rob a bank, in a sort of crappy Whovian Oceans 11. There is an interesting alien, pictured above, which has the ability to feed on thoughts and help law enforcement figure out who is planning to commit crimes. It never feels particularly scary, though, as you never for a second think anyone important is in any kind of danger. This is where the crappy supporting characterization hurts the episode in a big way, as people who aren’t particularly well written getting picked off is never going to matter to me as a viewer.

Peter Capaldi is strong in this episode, and finally seems to be settling into the role. I wasn’t sold on him for the first three episodes, but he has at least climbed his way up to being a middle-of-the-pack Doctor for me. By this time in Matt Smith’s run, I was convinced that he was one of the greats, while Capaldi is actually occupying territory along the lines of David Tennant. Some good points, yes, but not particularly inspiring. He has moments of greatness but others where he could be more dynamic.

“Time Heist” basically fails in the same way that “Robot of Sherwood” did, but not nearly as spectacularly. It’s nice that the writers are trying to do something new to Doctor Who here, but “Time Heist” is pretty much forgettable and bland. The plot is uninteresting, the characters are crap, and the visual style is really the only area of the story where it stands out in any way. Unfortunately, this is probably the least important Clara has been in any of the episodes of the series so far, so she doesn’t even get a chance to save things as usual. A bit of a letdown.

Final Grade: C-

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Episode Review: Listen

DW Listen

I hadn’t enjoyed Series 8 of Doctor Who up until this point. I thought “Deep Breath” was a bloated mess of pacing, “Into the Dalek” was too derivative to be compelling, and “Robot of Sherwood” was barely watchable garbage. “Listen” is so much better than those three preceding episodes that even comparing it to the previous parts of Series 8 is insulting to its pure awesomeness. What “The Girl Who Waited” was for the Eleventh Doctor, I feel that “Listen” is capable of being for the Twelfth, when all is said and done.

Spooky has been something that Doctor Who has done well since returning for the new series. Steven Moffat’s Weeping Angels are easily the greatest villains of the new show, and in general, Moffat has done creepy super well. “Listen” is arguably the scariest episode so far, and yet has so much more to it than most of the episodes that are just scary for the sake of creeping you out. “Listen” is about fear as a thing, and specifically the fear of nothingness. In some cases, this is the fear of what could be out there in the dark, and in others, it’s illogical anxiety and fear of simple social situations for no reason whatsoever. It has real backbone and substance to go with the thrills.

This episode wasn’t enough to singularly convince me that Peter Capaldi is awesome as the Doctor, but this is definitely the best he has been. He seems to flourish when things get scary and serious, whereas he comes across as clumsy when the humor is the focus; this is essentially the complete opposite to my opinion of the Fourth Doctor, who I like for comedy but groan about when gravitas is necessary. This episode doesn’t use much humor at all, and instead relies on good ol’ drama and horror elements to be compelling. More of these kind of stories is definitely something that Capaldi can knock out of the park. This episode is the first of his run that I felt had genuine wonderful and memorable Doctor Who moments, which is nice. Finally, something for his highlight reel.

Jenna Coleman is once again completely amazing and perfect. Although I adored the TARDIS team of the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory, I would say that I think Jenna as her own character may be my favorite Doctor Who companion ever. She has such versatility and the ability to carry entire episodes on her shoulders, something I don’t think we’ve ever really seen from a companion on the show. As much as I love past companions like Zoe Heriot, Sarah Jane Smith, and Ace, I think that Jenna Coleman as Clara is genuinely even better and more capable. She may not have the benefit of the chemistry of a combination like the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, or the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but as an actress she has just completely nailed it every single time. If there was a spinoff of “The Clara Oswald Adventures” I would not hesitate for a second to watch.

It seems ridiculous to recap the story of “Listen,” because the chances are you have already seen it or plan to soon. I thought it was wonderful, compelling, creepy, and just plain pure awesomeness from start to finish. I was starting to get bummed out about this year of Doctor Who, but I am pleased to report that Doctor Who is still completely capable of being amazing when everything works. This time, everything worked.

Final Grade: A

Book Review: Ten Little Aliens by Stephen Cole

Doctor Who Ten Little AliensMilitary science fiction is not a sub-genre generally associated with Doctor Who, so Ten Little Aliens was a surprising choice to represent the First Doctor in the 50th Anniversary line of novel reprints. Stephen Cole is a well-established writer of tie-ins, though, and was once in charge of the entire line. Naturally, all of the writers represented by the reprints have written more than a few novels for Doctor Who.

In the new introduction in the reprinted edition, Cole describes his initial pitch for Ten Littlie Aliens as “Starship Troopers meets Agatha Christie.” It is important not to let the fact that Starship Troopers is one of the most overrated novels in the sci-fi canon make you think Ten Little Aliens isn’t worth reading. It has some early struggles, as the pacing is a bit slow and the huge supporting cast makes it difficult to keep track of everyone, but it hits its stride around a third of the way in.

The novel features the First Doctor traveling with Ben and Polly, a pair of companions that is unfortunately the victim of so many episodes being missing. In the fact, “The War Machines” is the only serial they appear in that is still in existence, and it isn’t a particularly good one. This makes tie-ins like Ten Little Aliens all the more important in getting more out of these characters. Ben is as annoying here as he is on the show, and Polly is likable and spunky as always, so the characterization is spot on.

Ten Little Aliens is more appealing for the action and intensity, rather than any sense of mystery. The TARDIS team are on a strange rock and run into a platoon of ten space marines, as they are at war with aliens called the Schirr. Things get interesting when soldiers start getting picked off one by one, and naturally this is something they want to prevent. The supporting characters that make it through the bulk of the text actually turn out to be really well-developed and interesting characters. They are much better than the typical cookie-cutter supporting cast.

This novel may end up being too intense for a lot of readers. It is definitely not a children’s Doctor Who story, and the violence and gore is worse than has ever been shown on screen in the franchise. Those who aren’t bothered by a bit of blood and guts will probably enjoy the intensity, but fans who like their Doctor Who a bit more innocent will probably find it off-putting. Being that this particular reviewer likes Doctor Who novels that have a bit of edge and try something different, Ten Little Aliens is definitely a memorable and worthwhile read.

Rating: B

This review was cross-posted to Hardcover Wonderland, a website about literature of all kinds.

Book Review: The Monsters Inside by Stephen Cole

Doctor Who The Monsters InsideThe Monsters Inside is very notable for being the first tie-in novel in the new series to be referenced directly in an episode. That basically makes it indisputably canon, and it’s a shame that a rather “meh” novel like this would get that honor. Stephen Cole is a very good writer, who has contributed great things to the Doctor Who mythos, but this isn’t one of them.

As if the “Aliens of London/World War Three” two-parter in the series itself wasn’t enough to establish that the Raxacoricofallapatorians are a terrible alien species, The Monsters Inside brings them back pretty quickly and drives the point home. They’re awful. Whether it’s the Slitheen or the “Blathereen,” as the primary problem family is called here, they are just useless and not interesting at all.

Luckily, Cole at the very least gets the characterization right. Unfortunately, this is not used to its full potential because Rose and the Doctor spend the majority of the storyline apart. This wouldn’t be so bad if the storyline were better, but it’s really not particularly interesting here. The Doctor and Rose accidentally land on a planet that is being used as an experimental prison colony, so they are forcibly imprisoned and spend the entirety of the novel trying to find their way out.

I love a good dystopian story, but The Monsters Inside never quite achieves the mood it should. The Doctor and Rose being forced into a space prison should feel a lot heavier than this story does, and that stops it from being as compelling as it could have been. There’s nothing wrong with the prose, supporting cast, and the rest of it, but the mood is all wrong and the Blathereen are just another family in a species of terrible aliens.

Rating: D+

Audio Review: Scherzo

Doctor Who Big Finish Scherzo“Scherzo” (Big Finish #52)
Written by Robert Shearman
Directed by Gary Russell
Featuring the Doctor and Charley

Although a bit of a disappointment coming from the writer of The Chimes of Midnight, Scherzo at the very least continues to show Paul McGann’s and India Fisher’s excellence in the Big Finish productions. Robert Shearman has obviously written better audios, but Scherzo isn’t completely without merit.

Scherzo is definitely firmly in the “Doctor Who dabbles in horror” section of the mythos, and recalls The Edge of Destruction in that the only cast members are the the Doctor and his companion. It’s not TARDIS centric the way that television story was, but it is a creepy horror story with an unseen enemy. There are some genuinely unsettling moments, but most of the scares come from sudden waves of noise that make you jump. Essentially, cheap thrills.

Luckily, this audio play doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Adding up to a tidy 90 minutes, it might have been pretty bad if it were stretched out any more. It manages to be enjoyable on the strength of the performances, as the team of the Eighth Doctor and Charley is quickly rocketing up my list of favorite TARDIS teams. Being that they only have each other to act against, this would be one of the bigger challenges they have had so far. In the end, Scherzo is not one of the best audio plays Big Finish has produced, but it is solid and worthwhile for McGann and Fisher.

Rating: C

Book Review: 50th Anniversary Stories – The Nameless City by Michael Scott

DW Michael Scott The Nameless CityIn celebration of the 50th anniversary, Puffin Books are releasing eBook exclusive novelettes on a monthly basis. The series, which started in January, is representing every individual incarnation of the Doctor with their own story. The Nameless City, written by Michael Scott, is the second entry.

The story follows the Second Doctor and Jamie McCrimmon, probably setting the story in Season 6B, as they are thrust into intense danger upon being gifted a strange book that predates known time. The plot has a sort of “Doctor Who meets Lovecraft” feel, and it really works. Scott, who is probably best known as the writer of the Nicholas Flamel series of novels, clearly has a strong understanding of his main characters and does a wonderful job of establishing mood.

Because of the inherent brevity of the books in the series, it is difficult to have too much in terms of background or character. Still, The Nameless City makes the best of its low word count, showing Jamie and the Doctor at their best while still being surprisingly thrilling for a book aimed at younger readers. Naturally, it is fast paced, but doesn’t feel rushed at all. Although it doesn’t have the excellence of longer Second Doctor novels like The Murder Game or Dreams of Empire, there is a lot to enjoy in the story.

Because of the word limit, the ending feels like it comes on very suddenly. Still, there is adequate foreshadowing of the solution. If this story had about double the room to work with, it could have been a much higher echelon Doctor Who story. Still, it has a lot more good about it than bad. The entirety of the series of stories will be collected at the end of the year, but this particular novelette is worth discovering beforehand. Second Doctor fans specifically will be pleased with the characterization.

Rating: B-

P.S.: This review has been cross-posted, in a slightly altered form, to Hardcover Wonderland, my new website that covers books of all kinds. Book reviews I write regarding Who will find their way to this blog in modified form. I’m hoping to getting back to reviewing other stuff soon, too.

Audio Review: Neverland

“Neverland” (Big Finish #33)
Written by Alan Barnes
Directed by Gary Russell
Featuring the Doctor, Charley, and Romana II

Rating: B

After traveling through space and time for about ten adventures (that we know of) with Charley Pollard, the girl who was supposed to die at the crash of the R101 in the early 20th century, time has finally caught up with the TARDIS team. The Doctor is forced to accept that perhaps the only way to restore time to its own rightful order is to kill Charley and fulfill her unfortunate destiny. The pair go to Gallifrey where Paul McGann’s Doctor must answer for breaking the laws of time to none other than the President of Gallifrey and former Doctor companion Romana.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of the overly Gallifrey-centric stories. Things like “The Deadly Assassin” just don’t appeal to me that much, and before this, I didn’t really have much feeling for anything Gallifrey related outside of the last two episodes of the Patrick Troughton serial “The War Games”. Although this story gets a bit bogged down in wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey towards the end, I actually ended up really enjoying “Neverland”.

The Eighth Doctor and Charley as a pair are one of my favorite TARDIS teams ever, and probably my favorite of the audios (though it may be a tie with the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe). I’m one of the few people who really enjoys the 1996 TV movie, and I’m a big fan of Paul McGann’s interpretation of the Doctor. That being said, I don’t feel like up to this point that McGann’s Doctor had gotten particularly good scripts in the audios. Aside from the really phenomenal “The Chimes of Midnight” and the enjoyable “The Sword of Orion”, I could take or leave the rest of his up to this point. That said, the chemistry between India Fisher and McGann is so strong that it makes even the weaker stories listenable and enjoyable (with the exception of the completely unsalvageable “Invaders from Mars”). Luckily, “Neverland” proves to be a damn good story. Compounding the enjoyability of India Fisher and Paul McGann as a team, Lalla Ward makes a great appearance as one of the cooler Fourth Doctor era companions, Romana (in her second incarnation).

Although there are times in “Neverland” where the plot is a bit hard to follow, and the solution didn’t really register in my head (probably my fault), I really enjoyed the ride in this one. It is a bit odd that this one features two hour-long parts rather than the standard four, the story flies by so it doesn’t bug me. Lalla Ward was phenomenal in “The Apocalypse Element” (featuring the Sixth Doctor) and once again kicks ass and takes names in “Neverland”. The dialogue throughout is strong, and using India Fisher ina double role suits the story’s flow and gives it more gravity. Also quite interesting to see the return of an important Time Lord (not counting Romana and the Doctor), but I won’t spoil it in case there are readers here who haven’t taken a listen. Although not in the same category as “The Chimes of Midnight” or the aforementioned “Spare Parts”, I seriously enjoyed “Neverland” and look forward to getting to the further adventures of the Eighth Doctor.

Serial Review: The Seeds of Doom (Season 13)

“The Seeds of Doom”
Written by Robert Banks Stewart, dir. by Douglas Camfield
Featuring the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and a plant monster thing

Rating: A

A group of scientists in the Arctic region discover a strange seed pod. When folks back in the mainland are informed, they seek out the help of UNIT, who in turn send the Doctor and Sarah Jane to investigate this strange alien life form. At the same time, corrupt operators are trying to sell the rights to the seed, while the scientists become overly violent in protecting their discovery. Meanwhile, the seed seems to burst and take over one of the scientists, turning him into a strange plantlike humanoid. All sorts of shit hitting all sorts of fans.

Six part stories have the inherent problem of having 150% of the time to fill that the usual four parters do. Slow pace is a common complaint of the classic serials, and when you have that much more space to deal with, it is all together too likely that the problem will pop up even more. “The Seeds of Doom” seems to be an exception to this, however, as it is one of the few stories longer than four parts that seems to fly by, much like the similarly named Patrick Troughton serial “The Seeds of Death”.

This serial has Tom Baker playing it very serious, as the script requires. I’ve always said that I think Baker handles comedy much better than he does drama, but he’s damn near awesome here. Both he and Elisabeth Sladen absolutely bring out their A game. There are times when Baker’s version of the Doctor is written as being a complete asshole towards Sarah Jane, but I still like the Doctor overall as a character more as a dramatic role than a comedic one. Although I don’t think Tom handles drama as well as say Sylvester McCoy or Patrick Troughton, I’d still rather watch a serious Doctor than a funny one, and in this particular serial Baker is excellent.

In terms of story, “The Seeds of Doom” has a lot of intrigue. The idea of a sort of symbiotic plant alien landing on Earth and taking over the life forms isn’t all together too original, but it is interesting enough and this story has a great pace that was able to hold my interest better than the average story of the Tom Baker era. I would imagine it would be slightly controversial in that at one point the Doctor pulls back and punches a guy in the face in part three, but being that I really enjoyed the Pertwee era, I like when the Doctor goes for a bit of a rough and tumble. In real life, I’m not a fan of violence as a rule, but somehow I enjoy a good fist fight in my fiction.

To compound the excellent parts of the story, the villain is brilliant. He is sort of a cross between your average conniving Bond villain and Poison Ivy from the Batman comics. He’s a psychotic environmentalist and plant enthusiast who is played picture perfectly by Tony Beckley. There are some thematic similarities between this and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, both of which deal with extremist environmentalists. In both instances, the Doctor indicates that he sympathizes with their overall perspective of concern for the environment, but feels that their means are too extreme. It’s a fair point and a good moral for the story, really.

I was jumping for joy when watching “The Robots of Death” a couple weeks ago, but I liked this even more. I basically have nothing at all to criticize about this story, which is definitely a rarity for me. My new favorite Baker serial by far, and at the very least in my top ten favorite Doctor Who stories.

Audio Review: The Chimes of Midnight

“The Chimes of Midnight” (Big Finish #29)
Written by Robert Shearman, directed by Barnaby Edwards
Featuring the Doctor, Charley, and a haunted house

Rating: A+

Audio plays as a medium for Doctor Who are generally at their best when they take best advantage of the way they are telling their story. Horror as a genre is the perfect area for Doctor Who in audio form to dabble in because horror as a genre in any medium is always more scary when you can’t see what you’re being afraid of. When it is left up to your imagination to generate the evil, it is much more affecting. By virtue of audio being just audio, you’re forced to imagine the scary parts in your head, which is actually a positive for the medium in this case rather than a negative.

The Doctor and Charley find themselves in a house that is experiencing a strange sort of time dilation. People who apparently die seem to vanish from everyone’s collective memory, while likewise everything seems connected in a strange and incomprehensible way. The Doctor is particularly confused in this one, and it all starts with a mysterious message in dust from a time passed, or yet to come.

I’ve previously enjoyed the Eighth Doctor in audio form (and in the TV movie, for that matter), but this is really the first excellent audio from his era. After the godawful “Invaders from Mars”, I was so pleased to see that things managed to pick up right away. Both Paul McGann and India Fisher are frankly fantastic in this audio, who are helped in no small part by really excellent writing and solid direction. I’ve never actually been scared by anything in horror, much less Doctor Who horror, but I would say that “The Chimes of Midnight” came closer to it than even television stories like “Blink” that are outstanding but didn’t manage to scare me.

Aside from brilliant acting and perfect atmosphere, one of the things that I think made this audio play better than the rest is that there are actually characters here that are worth liking. There is a subplot involving Charley and one of the workers at the old house that is pretty heartbreaking, with India Fisher totally knocking it out of the park. I feel like I have less interesting things to say when a story succeeds on every level, but audios like this are the reason I am such a fan of Big Finish. If I were to try to convert someone to the audios I would have to pick either this or “Spare Parts”. Being that it was written by the guy responsible for the first actually good episode of the new series (“Dalek”), I expected something at least solid, but I adored it.

Serial Review: Planet of Evil (Season 13)

“Planet of Evil”
Written by Louis Marks, dir. by David Maloney
Featuring the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Anti-matter

Rating: B-

I know I’m some kind of weirdo for not liking Tom Baker, but that’s just kinda the way it is. And the even stranger thing is, no matter how much I see, he isn’t really growing on me. Unlike Paul McGann, who I am enjoying more and more for each audio I hear, I’m actually liking Tom Baker less and less as every story goes on. That’s not to say he’s getting worse, it’s just that it is becoming more clear that I don’t like him. When I had only seen a few stories, I could tell myself that I just haven’t seen enough yet. I’ve now basically seen two seasons worth of serials, and am still scratching my head as to why everyone likes him so much.

That being said, I like him the best so far in “Planet of Evil.” This isn’t my favorite story of his that I’ve seen, but as far as Tom Baker himself in the role, I think he is strongest here of what I’ve seen. There are actually moments here where he has to be slightly dramatic where I don’t think he’s hamming it up. Everyone knows he does the comedy part well, but he is significantly bad when the scene requires him to be dramatic. The scene in “Genesis of Daleks” when he contemplates whether he has the right to kill all of the Daleks at once before they have a chance to take over the universe is seen by many to be one of the seminal scenes in Classic Who. For me, it’s a wasted opportunity, because I think Baker is pretty shit in that scene.

“Planet of Evil” is most notable for it’s excellent sets, and that is definitely worth mentioning. The jungles here look like they were made on about ten times the budget they actually had. Sure, they re-use them endlessly and run past the same square of jungle a dozen times, but it’s such a good set that it doesn’t bug me. This serial also gets some points on my good side for just being bizarre. I love the really strange moments in this, much like I enjoy the slow motion fight of the minds between the Third Doctor and Omega in “The Three Doctors.”

That being said, I never found myself REALLY into the story; it just doesn’t have enough there to be one of my favorites. Still, with great sets, enough bizarre to keep me amused, and an actually pretty solid Tom Baker, I think in the end, “Planet of Evil” is an above average story. Worth a re-watch down the line.

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