FAN FILM REVIEWS – FIRE AND ICE
Synopsis: Alice Hemingway is an ordinary young woman. But strange things are happening. She’s having recurrent dreams of a flying child whispering about an oncoming storm. The army is having maneuvers near her home, and there are strange things in the woods. She meets a man…
Review: Let’s set our Wayback machine for something closer to home. Let’s leave the 80’s, that strange era when Hair Spray was sold by the gallons, Duran Duran was not a speech impediment and dinosaurs roamed the earth. Let’s go to 2009. 2009 was kind of a watershed year for the new Doctor Who. It was the year without a season. It was the year of David Tennant Leaving. Actually, the word was out in late 2008, David Tennant had had three successful years, he’d done great, now it was time, he had other commitments, but the BBC didn’t want to let him go.
The result was a series of ‘Specials’ – starting in December, 2008, with the Next Doctor – tweaking the fans as it were, and concluding in December, 2009 and January, 2010, with the End of Time.
So we had Shrodinger’s Doctor. He was here, he wasn’t here. He’s leaving. Oh look, there’s a special! He’s gone again. A lot of uncertainty in fandom. He was going, we didn’t know who the new guy was going to be. We didn’t know if we’d like the new guy. Russell T. Davies was leaving, Steven Moffat was taking over, we didn’t know what he’d do with the show.
It’s in this context that a fan group decided to go for it, and produce their own Doctor Who. As I’ve been writing these things, I’ve been starting to notice that a lot of the more interesting fan films seem to emerge on ‘cusps’ for the BBC series – at crisis points where the show is in doubt or uncertain, where there’s a state of anxiety or anticipation.
The Benedetti Doctor wasn’t produced by the 84-85 hiatus, but I think it owes a lot of its success, and its evolution into a body of work to that. Both Timebase, the Projection Room, BBV and Reeltime are all children of the post-1989 era, or of the failed revival of 1993. Gene Genius or Death Comes to time seem to be anticipating the revival of the show. So it fits that Fire and Ice should emerge from the gestalt in that period of uncertainty between the end of Tennant’s last full formal series, and the beginning of Matt Smith’s.
You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? No worries. If you read enough of these, it’ll start to come clear.
Fire and Ice has the distinction of being voted the greatest Doctor Who fan film of the ‘Noughties’ by Youtubers. It got real press coverage. The ‘Den of Geek’ an online sci fi news site gave it a feature. It was going to be the launching pad of a fan based Doctor Who series that was intended to rival the new series in terms of ambition and quality. This was going to be the Greatest Doctor Who Fan Film Ever!
So what happened? Well, according to some reports, it played and people laughed their assess off. And not in the good way.
These things take an immense amount of work, a lot of time, talent and dedication, and it’s hard to sustain that in the best of times. Apparently there was a hard drive crash, which would be just heartbreaking. I kind of have the impression that there may have been a falling out, and perhaps some hard feelings. But really, the truth is that these things are just so difficult and require so much effort, it’s hard to sustain. There are a few people who were involved who are still floating around, but I haven’t seen much in the way of a production history or making of, from any of them. So I don’t really have a window into what was going on behind the scenes.
Which leaves us with Fire and Ice, the fan film, the pilot and sole survivor of the planned fan season. The artifact itself, shorn of much of its history and context. How is it?
Well, first up – there’s at least two or more versions out there. The full length version has been described as 75 minutes, although the long versions on Youtube is actually just under seventy 70. The broad consensus is that it’s too long, but fair warning, I haven’t watched it.
The version that I did watch on Youtube was 64 minutes. You know what? Still too long.
Technically that is. I’ve known a few film makers, and there’s this danger that many run into: Falling in love with your footage. The shot looks so good, the woman brushing her teeth or painting her toes, there’s such poety in it, yadda yadda. Let it stretch out for a bit. It’s only five minutes! You could show it in five seconds, but it’s so good how about ten or fifteen!
Sorry, you but you gots to kill your babies sometimes. There’s a lot of shots that could have done with some shaving, and a few that needed some hacking.
The trouble is that we, the audience, have not fallen in love with your footage. We’re okay with dating it for a while, but we don’t want to make a commitment. We want to get on with the story, because we’re looking for hotter sexier footage further on.
At this point, I’m going to step out of the review for a bit and have a digression. I figure if you’re reading this, it’s all right, you’ve got nothing better to do anyway. So why not? Now, I might have said this before, but the thing is, audiences are trained to have certain expectations. Form, convention, the three act story structure. Some are overt, things that everyone knows. Some can be subtle.
Running times are a subtle expection. We’ve all grown up with that. Basically, we’ve all grown up on television. Television divides its time up into half hour, one hour and two hour blocks. And of course, theatrical movies are generally structured as a two hour block.
Now, with television, they make way for commercials, announcements etc., so a television half hour – a self contained, satisfying, television half hour story is actually about 24 to 28 minutes. The old classic Doctor Who ran about 25 minutes per serial episode. A television hour is actually about 50 to 55 minutes. A two hour television movie typically runs 90-100 minutes. In the movie theatres, the movie experience is generally about 90 to 120 minutes, not much longer.
The point is, this is what we expect. Go off those ranges, people start getting uncomfortable. A two and a half hour movie? People are tapping their feet, checking their watches. A three hour movie, people are feigning death to get out. A four hour movie, and you start checking out your neighbors in case you have to kill them for food.
It’s not just the length, a longer work is paced differently, the beats, the climaxes and plot points, they’re in different places than we expect. So there’s an accumulating feeling of discomfort. It’s just stretching and stretching.
That same holds true for lesser lengths. 80 to 85 minutes is roughly all people will tolerate for a short movie. Less than that, and you’ve got trouble. Hard to even call it a movie. On the other hand, 65 or 70 minutes… Way too long for a television hour. Then there’s that uncanny valley, say 35 to 45 minutes – too long for a half hour, too short for a movie! It doesn’t fit for us, the pacing isn’t right.
Maybe this seems like crazy stuff. But trust me, it’s the way people work. Used to be that we were all happy sitting through six hour productions in Elizabethan England. Now… Out tastes different, not better, not worse, it’s just what we’re accustomed to, what our comfort zone is.
So, Fire and Ice at 70 minutes, or 64 minutes? That’s just death. The audience has some leeway, we’re willing to go a few minutes long, a few minutes short. But geez. Needed to be 55 to 60 minutes. Sorry, that’s how it is. Take it up with the entertainment industry.
Ah, you might say, but what about Day of the Doctor and Deep Breath, weren’t they extra-long and in my so called ‘uncanny valley’? Right you are. But then again, both of those had been building up goodwill and anticipation for eight years. We were going to watch them, no matter what. Fire and Ice didn’t have that going for it.
Okay, back to the review…
The first five minutes … smashing. The floating child thing is visually brilliant, and way creepy to boot. Setting up plot threads and raising questions intended for future episodes never produced, or maybe for a DVD commentary track.
Overall, Fire and Ice reminded me a lot of Rose. The feel and the progression of the story is very similar. Both of them really are stories about the Companions, not the Doctors. The Doctor is almost a secondary character, one who comes into the story, a force of chaos or change, an avatar of menace and possibility.
We get to know the Doctor through their eyes, as this mysterious, oddly quirky stranger who shows up and turns their orderly world around… Although more accurately, he doesn’t turn it upside down. He just shows them that beneath the safe orderly world they thought they lived in, is another world strange and beautiful and dangerous, and he’s a beacon of safety in it.
The two stories open the same way, basically with Alice and Rose, respectively, getting up in the morning and getting on with their day. Rose does it better – we see Rose’s mum, her boyfriend, her job, we kind of get to see where she is in life, we get a very strong sense of who she is. With Alice, not so much, her actions are mundane, we don’t necessarily get such a strong sense of who she is. Later on we’ll be told that she’s late for class, and then later that she’s been late for classes a lot, and then still later that she’s frightened by life – but none of this is really shown. Alice gets up, gets dressed, has her coffee…. but she’s not scrambling frantically because she’s late for class and needs to get her stuff together, we don’t see clips that seem to show her where she is in life, or what’s bothering her. They knew what they wanted to do, they just had a little trouble getting there.
The sense is that Alice, played by Jennifer Richman, isn’t really as immersed in her life, not as connected or grounded as Rose was. Maybe that’s deliberate. There’s several hints through the story that there might be a lot more going on with or around Alice than she realizes. Alice may be a lot more important, and Alice may have more gifts, than she knows.
The stories continue to unfold similarly. Both Rose and Alice get dragged out of their regular lives by encounters with the monster – literally because in both cases, it grows under their feet. Because of their proximity, they keep running into both the Doctor and the monsters. Eventually they’re deeply involved.
There’s differences. Rose’s episode is much more comedic, there’s cool surreal and silly bits. And it’s a bit more baroque, the plot, while linear, has wiggles to it as Rose tries to figure out what’s going on. In comparison, Alice’s episode tends to emphasize drama or suspense, and there’s more effort at a character arc than trying to put swerve into the plot.
Indeed, in both cases, the plot gets almost perfunctory – the Doctor confronts the Monster, has a little chat, the Doctor gets in trouble, and it gets sorted out by a third party coming to the rescue. In Alice’s episode, it’s because the Doctor had some tricks up his sleeve, in Rose’s episode, he just got lucky.
The point is that the two episodes are similar enough in terms of content and process that comparisons are almost inescapable. Is that a bad thing? Mmm maybe. Fire and Ice is going to suffer in comparison to Rose. But it’s not completely one sided.
Take Monsters, for instance. Rose gets Autons, which is sort of a silly-creepy monster, and kind of goes with the strong comedic touches of the episode. Fire and Ice gives us…. Ice Warriors.
Oops! Was that a spoiler! Did I just spoil something for you! Oh no!!! Actually, no, it’s not a spoiler, it’s an incentive.
Look, here’s how I see it. Sometimes, in a piece of work, there are plot twists, or revelations, or characters, that you go ‘wow’ for. They change the whole direction of the story, they make you think new things, or realize something. Those are the things you have to watch out for. Those are spoilers.
Now, there’s things which are part of the narrative, and which are things that may intrigue you in the narrative. It’s the premise, or the information that draws you in, that sets the story in motion. You don’t watch out for those. You actually talk about those. Those aren’t spoilers, they’re incentives.
Take the sixth sense as an example. Bruce Willis plays a sad psychologist in a bad marriage whose wife won’t talk to him. Not a spoiler, kind of an incentive. He tries to help a kid who can see dead people. Also not a spoiler, actually, a really intriguing incentive. This sounds like a pretty weird kid, I bet Bruce and the kid are going to get into some wacky hijinx! These are not spoilers. Bruce Willis was dead all along and didn’t realize it. That’s a spoiler! See the difference?
So anyway, I could say ‘Fire and Ice has some monsters in it.’ Well, big deal. Doctor Who always has monsters of one sort or another. But if I say ‘Fire and Ice has the Ice Warriors in it.’ Whoa! Stop the presses! I want to watch that! Ice Warriors are cool. You definitely want to watch an Ice Warriors episode a lot more than you want to watch a TBA monster. You see?
So Ice Warriors! Really well done too, in just about every sense. The build up is gradual but effective. They’re physically imposing, they contribute meaningfully to the action and sense of escalating menace. The costumes are great – very classic look, kind of inhuman, with a bulk that gives them menace, despite being somewhat slow moving. Their lair has good visuals, they have some history, some motivation, they argue their case convincingly against the Doctor without ever losing the fact that they’re the bad guys. They’re really well done.
Some people have said that they handled the Ice Warriors better than the Matt Smith episode. You know what. They’re right. I give this one to Fire and Ice, fair and square. They win.
I guess now we come to the Doctor, played by Kevin Raymond Moore. Well, he’s not a Rupert Booth. He’s not even a Barbara Benedetti. He’s not one of those actors that walks out and is The Doctor. Tom Baker had that. David Tennant and Matt Smith had it, from their first moment, they are The Doctor.
On the other hand, he’s not a complete failure either. Some fan actors that play the role, they’re not the Doctor, will never be the Doctor, it just ain’t who they are, no matter how long a scarf they wear. This guy, falls in the middle. He’s not the Doctor, but you could see him coming into the role. That’s fair enough, I mean, you look at someone like Davison or maybe Pertwee… They started off slow, and kind of established themselves as The Doctor through the episode. They both started off their adventures flat on their backs. Come to think of it, so did Tenant.
Anyway, my first impression was no. Too thin, too timid, too forced, trying to hard, not enough presence. He starts out a bit too slow and tentative. First glimpse, that’s effective. Second appearance… he needed to be a lot stronger, he starts out quirky and then doesn’t seem to have an idea where to go. Third appearance… sabotaged by a tweety bird. But the thing is, as he goes along, I tended to buy him more and more as the Doctor. At the end, was I completely sold? Don’t think so. Even by the end of the story, he still lacks that charisma, that magnetism that makes a Doctor. But he was a lot closer.
At the end of the episode, I was willing to keep buying in. If they’d made more, I’d have watched, and I think it’s likely that over time, he would have gotten it, filled out or inhabited the persona of The Doctor more fully. Does that make any sense? If there had been more episodes, I think… yes. As it is, he’s sort of a near-Doctor, or slightly better than that, but definitely not quite all there.
There’s a lot of really nice stuff here. There’s a scene of snow in the forest, that’s just beautifully done. The near car crash, terrific. But there’s downsides. Jennifer Richman who plays Alice is simply not the actress that Billie Piper is. Or maybe she doesn’t get as much to work with from her script. Serviceable. Mostly the acting and a lot of the writing is like that, serviceable, not extraordinary. I think that maybe one line, from an Ice Warrior, really struck me. But then again, there were a number of lines and images that stuck with me.
One thing that strikes me, is that it is remarkable how computer animation has become accessible. We see an entirely CGI rendered Tharsis lizard romping around, interacting with the cast. The larger part, perhaps all of the Ice Warriors base that the Doctor sneaks into is CGI and composited in quite nicely. It’s perhaps a bit sub-par compared to things that they’re doing in Hollywood with real money. But even as little as ten years before, the amount and quality of CGI that we see would be outside the budget of anything but a fairly well funded Hollywood production.
The amount of processing power available keeps doubling, and long with it, we see these quantum leaps in the sophistication of editing software of all sorts, storing and manipulating film files in digital format, and doing increasingly complex CGI, all of it more and more accessible to ordinary people.
Apart from that, there’s some technical and structural problems. The sound mix has a few issues. Sound mix is probably one of the hardest things to work out, and it’s often overlooked. When it goes wrong it kills you dead. If people’s voices are muddy, or there’s too much echo, or voice levels are too low, it takes you out of the experience. And then, foley is just such an easy path off the cliff. The wrong incidental music in the wrong place, and it’s ‘WTF?’ Or too loud?
There’s a crucial scene, the first real meeting of Alice and the Doctor, out in the woods after he rescues her from a Tharsis Lizard. You can barely make them out, because the world’s loudest songbird is drowning them out with its tweets. Even worse, the tweety bird is a loop, so after a while, it gets visibly repetitive and annoying. Just a small tweak would have fixed it. But as it is, I’m sure that the incongruity had people howling with laughter.
It’s maddening. Think about how hard they must have worked to pull that scene together. How much weight and passion went into it, what care they must have taken. Think of all the love and attention and commitment that got lavished on the scene, from shooting, all the way to post production. Think of the care and ingeniousness that went into thinking ‘well, they’re in the woods, some forest sounds in the background, a bird tweeting.’ They must have felt so clever, and so proud of their attention to detail. And then, when it played, people laughed out loud at that point because the goddammed tweeting was so intrusive. I’m sure hearts broke at that moment.
Which is a shame, because generally the sound mix is pretty good. I actually like their music selections a lot. They do some David Bowie at the end, which in a commercial production, you’d never get the rights to.
There’s also a few strange choices that drag down the script. The big one is a pivotal moment. A monster attacks, Alice runs home, then she has what feels like a five minute long life-crisis speech with her friend about how she’s terrified by life and running away from her problems, before rushing back to help the doctor. Uh… what? Two things: First, kills the momentum right stone dead. Second, if you stop to have a heart to heart with your girlfriend in a situation like that, well, when you get back, the Doctor will have already been eaten.
I’m not saying she shouldn’t have had that conversation. It should just have taken place somewhere, else, earlier on, so that it didn’t interrupt the flow of the crises, and it would have been more meaningful because we’d have had more time to integrate it with the character. Again, that’s one of those things that people were probably laughing at. And again, I’d bet it really hurt, because it was an important moment for the creators, and it’s an important moment in the story.
But hey, this is a review not an autopsy. I don’t propose to spend all my time reviewing every decision, good or bad. Those were the two most destructive boners. They made other mistakes, but most of the others didn’t produce the level of sabotage that those two did. Had they managed to dodge those bullets, the production would have had a better reception, would have been stronger.
What’s the bottom line? If you ask me, for a Doctor Who fan, is this worth watching? Yes! Definitely, yes. Totally! Is it the best Fan Film evah! Nope. It’s good, but it’s got some problems that drag it down.
Is it a match for the new BBC series? Mostly, no, those problems I mentioned, it’s hard to rise above them. But the boners aside – there’s a critical weakness.
It’s not the story or the effects, Matt Smith had more than his share of crap stories, and a large part of Peter Capaldi’s work so far are epic stinkers. But the thing is, we loved Matt Smith and we were prepared to forgive him any number of things. Peter Capaldi is new, but he’s got a force of personality.
Here, we’ve got a story which is perfectly acceptable, even good. The writing’s not Shakespeare, but it does the job. The Ice Warriors are terrific and they’re well handled in almost every possible way. Ladies, gentlemen, we’ve had much worse.
The weakness, however, is the leading cast members – Alice and the Doctor. Neither of them truly comes across as a strong enough personality to carry the episode. I feel bad for saying this. I’m not sure what it is, maybe the script, maybe the directing, maybe the performance. But it’s there. And it’s tough – Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have all played very big very extroverted Doctors. So a quiet performance, even if deliberate, is just going to be pushed out. Doesn’t mean we can’t have quiet Doctors – Peter Davidson was well beloved. But a quiet Doctor needs support. Alice just isn’t well defined or focused enough.
So, mostly no. But that operative word is ‘mostly.’ It’s not up there with the best of Ecclestone, Tenant and Smith. But it’s far from easily dismissed. Is it damning with faint praise to say it has a respectable claim to being on par with the average, or a match for the weaker. It does do the Ice Warriors better than their recent appearance in the BBC show. And Richman and Moore, while weak, are far from disasters. It does a lot of good things. In the end, a few bad decisions do damage, well, perhaps its worth looking past that.
The original plan was for a thirteen episode fan season. Can you imagine that? The sheer amount of work that entails boggles my mind. We’re not talking OCD sufferers with a camcorder here, we’re talking a remarkably professional production on a shoestring. It didn’t come off.
It’s entirely possible, that there was a plan to start off quiet and then build up the characters. If so, they should have talkd to Colin Baker. The plan for him was to establish his character as a major jerk, and then through the course of a seasons long arc reveal the loving and loveable soul beneath the hard exterior. We all know what happened to Colin Baker and his Doctor. This business is unpredictable and nasty enough that you can’t count on second chances, you make your hit count right now, because you may not get another shot.
Or it’s possible that even in the absence of any sort of plan like that, the actors would have grown into the role, comfort and increasing experience, in front of and behind the scenes would have refined this fan Doctor into something that could stand in the company of the BBC Doctors without a flinch.
So in the end, weak Doctor, weak Companion, an okay story undermined by boners, which just doesn’t have the oomph to compensate for them. Three legs – one of them had to be strong enough to carry the whole thing. Instead, it limps. By no means a failure. But it limps a bit.
Does it feel like authentic Doctor Who?
Mmmm not quite, but I think a lot of that comes down to excessive length … it’s padded and stretched longer than it needs to be, and this throws off the pacing, and it throws off our comfort. It’s trapped in uncanny valley. It doesn’t feel authentic to the show the way that Timebase Productions work does, it doesn’t feel like it you could just slip it in to the canon seamlessly. But it’s within sight of it.
You want my advice? Go watch it. There are plenty of versions online to pick from. Just do it, go watch. Decide for yourself if I’m right. What if I’m wrong, and it’s stupendous! What if I’m right, but by god, it’s still stupendous! Or what if I’m right about everything wrong, or its even worse… stop watching. Some talented people put their blood sweat and tears into it, they put their hearts and souls, and the only reward they’ll ever get is people like you and me watching it.
Postscript: The second story in the series was going to be called ‘Guardian of the Solar System.’ As I understand it, this was going to be a prequel to the 12 episode William Hartnell serial, the Dalek Masterplan. A substantial part of that revolved around the far future, when Earth ruled a vast space Empire, and was in turn ruled by a dictator named Mavic Chan.
That story will probably never get released, something about a hard drive crash, partial recovery.
But there was a trailer that they did for it. I’ll include the link, check it out.
2009. Running time 75 to 64 minutes, depending. Starring: Kenneth Raymond Moore as the Doctor; Jennifer Richman as Alice Hemingway; Carmel Stowe as Marisa; Emily Richman as Captain Lynn Johnson; Matthew Johnson as Lord Slyzzar; Cody Presswood as Corporal Rothemid; Jonathan Davis as various Ice Warriors; Ben Patrick as Child of Prophecy.
Produced by Kenneth Dinkins, Jennifer Richman and Aron Presswood. Directed by Kenneth Dinkins and Aron Presswood. Written by Kenneth Dinkins; & lots of little Richmans, Dinkins and Presswoods pulling up the rear.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Den of Geek
Jed Rhodes Review
Youtube’s 69.40 minute verion
Youtube’s 64 minute version
Guardians of the Solar System, different youtube trailers
War in Heaven – final scene,