So… what did I think of In The Forest Of The Night.

Posted on October 26th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Oh dear, what went wrong?

It’s a pretty good test I think of any narrative work of art to ask yourself – what would happen if the lead character was not present? The answer here is: absolutely nothing. The Doctor and Clara are stripped of all agency and just left to spectate as the plot sorts itself out. It’s a dramatically inert climax to a tedious and impoverished episode which brings the recent strong run of stories to a grinding halt. I may not have liked Vincent and the Doctor – another script from a celebrity writer attempting to do something different with the format – but I recognised that that was a matter of taste and I could appreciate the craft in Richard Curtis’s script. This is insultingly poor as a piece of writing and the production creaks under the weight of the visuals that the script requires, just as reality creaks under the weight of those which are omitted.

To be fair, the central idea of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is a cracker. Overnight a dense forest has sprung up and covered the entire Earth (including the oceans it seems, judging by the shots of the planet from space). To be equally fair, however, the veteran writer seems to have been so pleased with this that he’s knocked off early and gone down the pub.

Nothing about this works on any level. An idea as striking, as simple, as bizarre as this needs to be grounded thoroughly in reality for it to work as a piece of television airing in 2014. But right from the beginning, everything is a little “off” – and by the way, saying “fairy tale” with a hopeful expression doesn’t turn a badly thought through and poorly executed concept into a gem. First of all, school sleepovers in museums. Is that a thing? I don’t remember it ever happening to me. What’s the point of it exactly? Other than to surround the Doctor with yet another troupe of adorable moppets?

Once the first shoe begins to drop, we really start to confront the two different problems which this story has to contend with. The first is that neither on the script, nor the production level, is anyone really trying to make me believe this. What very few people we see react with mild puzzlement, or keep their focus on what’s right in front of them – or not, as in the case of Maebh’s mum. Surely, if this were to happen for real, there would be panic, outrage, pandemonium. At the very least, in the middle of central London there would be people. But the casting money having all been splurged on moppets this week, we are denied even token extras, and the dialogue doesn’t even try and hide this fact. All poor director Sheree Folkson can do is plonk some road signs down on location and keep doing lens flares and hope for the best.

Just on the basic level of individual incidents, nothing really works. It’s bad enough that between emerging from the museum and watching the plot sort itself out from orbit, the Doctor, Clara, Danny and the moppets just sort of aimlessly traipse from the TARDIS to the forest, back to the TARDIS, back out in to the forest again and so on. This kind of narrative vamping is fair enough in episode four of a 1970s six-parter, but in a 44 minute episode it’s just appalling.

But even when the story stumbles across a good idea, like having all the animals from London Zoo released and roaming the woods, the production can’t really make it work, and the script can’t be bothered to think it through. Once Danny has shone a light in a tiger’s eyes, we’ll never ever be troubled by any of those animals again. Yeah, and Guy Crayford has never looked under his eyepatch before today either.

The resolution when it comes makes no sense and is very easy to see coming. Both of these statements require caveats. I let Kill The Moon off the hook (controversially in some quarters) for its nonsensical science for two reasons: firstly, the rest of the episode was gangbusters and secondly, it did make sense on its own terms, just about. But the idea that a bunch of magic trees will protect Earth from a gigantic solar flare just like an air bag makes no sense at all on any level. It doesn’t make sense when I say it, and it doesn’t make sense visually. An air bag absorbs a force, because the air is in a, well, a bag. Bagless air doesn’t work nearly so well. That’s why cars don’t come equipped with safety air. But unburnable trees will just sit there as the fire rages around them. Just how will they prevent the local air temperature from shooting up. By creating excess oxygen? Like when you blow on the embers of a fire you mean? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to work and it doesn’t look like it’s going to work. And it’s very far from clear from whence the trees came – moppety voices? Tinkerbell sparkles? Homework doodles? Um, did I miss something?

And I saw it coming, which might just be luck. Any good plot twist needs to be hidden in plain sight or what’s the fun of it, and if you hide something in plain sight, a few people will be lucky (or unlucky) enough to see it coming purely by chance. But I can’t be the only one who noticed that with an enormous solar flare on the way and magic trees suddenly appearing, we seemed to be playing a game of Double Mumbo Jumbo. Isn’t it rather more likely that one of these things is the solution to the other? I got there about twenty minutes in.

And, as noted, the Doctor has nothing to do in the climax. Yes, he issues some sort of dementedly childish warning to the people of Earth to let the trees alone, which would have had a great deal more impact had it not been comprehensively shown how indestructible they were mere minutes earlier. Then he and Clara just sit back and enjoy the show – rather more than I did, it seems.

Of course, if a planet-killing solar flare were on the way, astronomers would have noticed and the world would already be in crisis mode. This is hinted at, but never properly explored when Clara says she knew but didn’t tell the kids. So – the end of the world is coming, and you aren’t going to prepare in any way, or discuss it ever, or mention it to your space alien wizard friend, you’re just going to carry on doing your job because… I don’t know how to finish that sentence, I’m sorry.

Clara’s “trick” of packing the Doctor away to life and freedom when it becomes clear that the end is nigh (because of the flare or the trees, or the sparkly forest fairies, or magic Maebh, or some other damn thing, I was past caring by this point) falls utterly flat as drama, because I just didn’t buy a single moment of it, having checked out from the reality of the programme some time earlier.

And then finally, just when this impoverished production of a tissue-thin story looked like it couldn’t get any worse, we get the final kick in the nuts. The utterly unearned, unbelievable, treacly, reappearance of missing sister Annabel. This moment is meaningless because I was absolutely not invested in that loss, and false because that’s not what happens when family members go missing, and it certainly isn’t what would happen if they were to suddenly and shockingly reappear. The brilliant French drama The Returned worked incredibly hard to show us what would really happen if a daughter or a sister, long thought dead, turned up out of the blue. To “season” an already over-sweet story with this extra dollop of syrup is utterly misjudged and pointless.

I really am struggling to find any redeeming features, but this is easily the worst of the season so far. Capaldi does what he can with the limited material (stripped not only of agency but good jokes – even the naive and sloppy Bobbins of Sherwood gave him a couple of decent one-liners), and Jenna Coleman continues to do good work, but the relationship story with Danny is starting to feel unnecessarily drawn-out now, and Samuel Anderson is hitting the same notes over and over again. Missing the sweet spot of grounded drama with a hint of fairy tale magic by absolutely miles, this was a story which Doctor Who’s budget could never have made work, which doesn’t entirely excuse all concerned from trying so little in its execution. Certainly the poorest effort since Journey to the Nadir of the TARDIS and maybe poorer than anything in the Moffat reign to date. One star. Bugger.

So… What did I think of Flatline?

Posted on October 23rd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Another monster-of-the-week story, another Jamie Mathieson script, a further exploration of the Doctor/Clara relationship and – I have to say – another triumph for all concerned.

It seems as if the reduced episode count hasn’t resulted in the obviation of a Doctor Lite episode, and this was it, with Capaldi filming just one day on location and one day on the TARDIS set. But the rationale is amazing and created some of the episode’s best moments, from the enormous sledgehammer Clara pulls out of her handbag, to the delightful Addams Family routine on the train tracks. Only in a couple of shots of the Doctor’s face peering out of the tiny TARDIS did the effects fall in any way short. Ironically for an episode so devoted to the difference between 2D and 3D, I suspect this is because 2D shots of Capaldi were inserted into existing footage of the TARDIS prop, instead of having the actor actually shove his face through a set of tiny doors, but other than that, the effects are lovely.

And scary too. The various scenes of Clara and Rigsy menaced by drawings are properly exciting, and if the budget can’t quite stretch to the hanging chair crashing through the window, the pace of the editing and Murray Gold’s music just about manages to bridge the gap.

Of course, this episode can’t help but call to mind the lamentable Fear Her, a feeble cough of an episode which dragged down the average of an otherwise pretty solid season. In both cases, animated drawings come to murderous life, but Flatline has atmosphere, jokes, and a cast of supporting characters to spare where Fear Her just lies there, begging for euthanasia.

In fact, the supporting cast put me more in mind of Midnight, one of my favourite Tennant episodes, wherein we see how petty, short-sighted and selfish people can be if you put them under enough pressure. That nasty side of human nature is here represented by Christopher Fairbank as the odious Fenton – who naturally has to survive, while bright, good-hearted folk like PC Forrest get slaughtered by The Boneless.

Clara’s audition as The Doctor is an interesting twist and with the revelation that the she has been lying to Danny about her “break-up” with her Timelord chum, it now becomes possibly to see the run of stories from The Caretaker to this as a very clear and logical progression of the relationship.

Niggles? Yeah. A few. As well the iffy Doctor/TARDIS shots, the train whizzing through the tunnel looked very digital to me, and I didn’t quite buy Rigsy’s Noble Act Of Self-Sacrifice (although I was amused to see him substituted with a scrunchie). Clara’s use of Rigsy’s artistic talents to Road Runner The Boneless into regenerating the TARDIS was a great twist, but it was a shame that when the Doctor emerged, all he had to do was Sonic them away.

A bit like its immediate predecessor then, Flatline gets high marks from me, not because it dared to do something extraordinary, but because it did what Doctor Who is supposed to do and did it to a very, very high standard. Funny, scary, weird, arresting, original and exciting, it’s Saturday family viewing at its best. Four-and-a-half stars, and we are really on a roll now.

So… what did I think about Mummy on the Orient Express?

Posted on October 13th, 2014 in Culture | 1 Comment »

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Doctor Who eras are defined as much by their titles as anything else. In the Hartnell years (mostly), individual episodes had names whereas whole stories weren’t given any identification on-screen. Thus, the story we know as The Aztecs was broadcast as four episodes titled The Temple of Evil, The Warriors of Death, The Bride of Sacrifice and The Day of Darkness. This has caused a great deal of confusion and controversy about the “correct” titles, which we need not go into now.

Once Troughton took over, simple descriptive titles became the order of the day. It’s about the Ice Warriors? Call it The Ice Warriors then. Set on a Moonbase is it? Wait a tick. The Moonbase will do. Pirates but they’re in space? How about The Space Pirates.

Once Pertwee settles in, the story titles get a bit more dramatic. Alien ambassadors? Nah, let’s go for The Ambassadors of Death. And the trend continued throughout the Tom Baker era. The Deadly Assassin. But aren’t all assassins deadly by definition? Shut up, it sounds great. Once John Nathan-Turner takes over, the story titles become a little more restrained – Full Circle, Black Orchid – or incomprehensible – Kinda, Castrovalva. One word titles become commonplace, especially one-word-two-word titles – Time-Flight, Snakedance, Earthshock.

Under RTD, the titles were far less predictable. Some hysterical – The End of the World – some evasive – The Empty Child. We had “The Doctor” in the titles for the first time and, with Smith and Jones, the letter J. But under Steven Moffat, and especially from Series 7 onwards, there has been an explicit desire on the part of the show-runner to make the title part of the marketing of the episode. What’s tonight’s Doctor Who about? Dinosaurs on a Spaceship! Who could not want to watch that? (Answer, anyone who has watched it once already.)

There’s nothing terribly wrong with that I suppose, but I find it very hard to forgive our illustrious show-runner for not transmitting Neil Gaiman’s brilliant, brilliant story under its correct title Bigger on the Inside.

So, I’m not a huge fan of Mummy on the Orient Express, as a title. It’s a poor gag in the vein of Rubbish of Sherwood, a weird mash-up of two ideas related only by being vaguely contemporary (Howard Carter’s expedition was 1922, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published in 1934) and sounds rather like a penny dreadful. I was full of foreboding that the cataclysmic show-down between Clara and the Doctor would be ignored and I was jumpy at the prospect of Frank Skinner in a guest part.

The pre-credit sequence is perfectly fine, if rather wasteful of the great Janet Henfrey. A horrible and inexplicable death in the first five minutes is very traditional for Doctor Who, but when Clara and Capaldi emerge from the TARDIS bantering happily, my heart sank. However, this was merely a feint by the production team, since this is intended to be a final trip. Okay, fair enough.

An excellent guest cast fills out the remaining roles – David Bamber, Daisy Beaumont, Christopher Villiers, John Sessions and someone who apparently would like to be called “Foxes”. Plus, seeing Jenna Coleman in that plunging mini dress and then in those silky jamas made me feel a bit funny. Of course, this is the Orient Express IN SPACE!! I’m not quite sure why it has to be IN SPACE!! Except for the fact that not having to show trees rushing by saves on the budget as does not having anyone climbing around the outside, as is generally required of adventure stories set on trains.

The threat is a neatly insoluable puzzle and the Doctor’s approach to tackling it is very interesting. “Mystery shopper” is a cute way to undercut the power of the psychic paper. I’m not sure what suddenly stripping away the holographic set dressing adds to the drama – it did make the mise-en-scene a bit less interesting from that point on.

So, enter Frank Skinner. Far from the catastrophes of stunt casting past (Beryl Reid, Ken Dodd etc), Skinner underplays nicely, with a little twinkle giving away that there is far more to this innocuous engineer than at first glance. Alas, I spotted very early that his only dialogue is with the Doctor, and in a story where the main threat can only be perceived by the person about to die, it was a little too obvious that “Engineer Perkins” was actually a hologram whom only the Doctor could see.

Alright, actually that didn’t happen, but right up till the moment Clara turns to watch him leave the TARDIS, I was convinced it was going to. Watch the episode again – I swear, nobody apart from Capaldi ever acknowledges his presence. David Bamber says “shut that man up” at one point, but even that is ambiguous. Part of the problem is that we quickly get down to half-a-dozen non-speaking extras (if they have even one line of dialogue, you have to pay them more money) but still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear set-up for a payoff that never arrives before in my life.

Overall then, this is strong stuff. Yet another penetrating look at this darkest of all Doctors, his clear-eyed morality dramatically juxtaposed with his clodhopping bedside manner. An exciting, fast-moving adventure with a neat solution which manages to be tense and fun, all at the same time. An engaging group of supporting characters whom I actually missed when they fell foul of the Foretold and smart, pacey direction that holds the whole thing together.

What takes the shine off a little is Clara’s change of heart at the end. I am tremendously relieved that the events of Kill the Moon have had an impact on the episode(s) which followed, and I don’t object in theory to sending Clara on an adventure which causes her to do a complete volte-face and jump back on board the TARDIS, but I’m not sure this was that adventure.

Anyway, 4½ stars for what is shaping up to be a very strong run of episodes.

Taking a bit of time out and setting up 12 consecutive episodes as well as the remarkable coup of landing Peter Capaldi in the leading part really seems to have re-energised the production team from Moffat on down. Finally, he seems to be finding the balance between a really good story-of-the-week (and they have all pretty much been good-to-great, with the exception of Bobbins of Sherwood), and an engaging season-arc-mystery, while providing genuine character development between the two leads week-to-week.

It may have taken four and a half years and four seasons, but I think Steven Moffat might finally be getting the hang of this show-runner job. I can hardly believe we only have four episodes to go.

So… what did I think of Kill the Moon?

Posted on October 10th, 2014 in Culture | 6 Comments »

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Newcomer Peter Harness begins his script in about the least promising way possible. The TARDIS – as well as not housing any hanky-panky – also ought not to be home to moppets. Moppets practically undid a Neil Gaiman script quite recently and I remain stubbornly uninterested on whatever tiresome journey of self-discovery Courtney Woods pleases to be on.

The arrival on the moon is visually stunning however. Really amazing. I’ve said before that the production values of modern Doctor Who are rarely an issue but this is another level. The location filming in Lanzarote, combined with some incredibly elegant pixel-shuffling from Milk, creates an incredible evocation of walking on our satellite. And I would have forgiven them for just ignoring the one-sixth gravity, but actually, the weight of the TARDIS crew turns out to be a plot point.

We then meet the Space Shuttle crew – Captain NotNamedOnScreen and her cohorts Lt FirstToDie and Cpl DontKnowDontCare – who are here with loads of nukes because – blowing up the moon is their last resort. The next twenty minutes is pretty standard run, jump and hide stuff. Some good jokes. Some good scares. Murray Gold, giving it some welly. And then, rather earlier than I expected, the truth is revealed. The moon is an egg. And it’s hatching.

Big problem with this episode #1: Pretty much all of the forgoing is utter bullshit from a scientific point of view.

But… c’mon #1: Basically, all the science in Doctor Who is bullshit. As an anthology show, Doctor Who can and does work in a lot of different genres, but “hard SF” is one it visits very rarely. Even if you give the essentially magical powers of the TARDIS and regeneration a pass, that doesn’t make past plotlines any more plausible. Just so we’re clear – you can’t power travel suits with static electricity, use mirrors to travel through time, maintain a corporeal body with the power of your will, alter the structure of the universe with maths, reassemble a shattered spaceship by gravity, grab a young American botanist with one of your branches if you’ve been turned into a tree, or expect a code-cracking computer to translate ancient languages either. No grand tradition of hard SF concepts has been traduced here, and the notion of the moon as an egg is beguiling, poetic, dramatic and visual. That’s good enough for me.

Building an entire episode around a moral dilemma is bold enough. Having the Doctor abandon Clara, Captain Cold Feet and Moppet to their own devices is incredible. Steven Moffat has talked about finding a Capaldi moment in each episode. Looking the Half Faced Man in the eye while pointing out that one of them is bound to kill the other springs to mind, so does he lack of concern with the fate of Ross in Into the Dalek. “Kill the little girl first,” is chilling enough – but his attitude to the humans here is nothing short of astonishing. Only the Fourth Doctor refusing to assist in the amputation of Winlett’s infected arm in Seeds of Doom even comes close.

Big problem with this episode #2: It’s an anti-abortion parable.

But… c’mon #2: No it isn’t.

Not enough for you? Okay, look of course, abortion flitted through my mind watching this episode, but I dismissed it almost as quickly. The debate here is about whether to murder an innocent creature which is already unequivocally alive. The fact that it is currently inside an egg-shell does not make this action an abortion. The abortion debate hinges on firstly the rights of the mother vs the rights of a zygote (there is no mother here) and secondly the difference between an undifferentiated ball of cells and a unique, viable life, capable of existing outside of its mother (evidently the moon-lizard-bat-thing has reached this point).

In the end, Clara flies in the face of the will of the people of Earth and pushes the big red do-the-right-thing button. We get an appropriately heart-string-tugging ending and –

Big problem with this episode #3: A newly-hatched creature immediately laying a new egg that’s bigger than it is…

But… c’mon #3: See #1.

And then Clara rips the Doctor a new arsehole.

Jesus Christ!

Possibly the rawest scene of the Moffat era, maybe in the show’s entire history, this isn’t the Doctor being a bit moody, this isn’t a companion having a grump, this is a full on, balls-out, emotionally scarring show-down. No companion – no character – has ever called the Doctor on his antics like this, and no incarnation of the Doctor has ever deserved it more. Finally, after a couple of very engaging false starts, the contemporary incarnation of Clara eventually gets something resembling a personality and Jenna Coleman finally gets a scene worthy of her talents.

The whole story is quite an achievement and I can feel my fingers nudging towards the five star key. It isn’t perfect, alas, and the biggest failing is the supporting characters. Hermione Norris grasps at a few flimsy clues in the thin dialogue and manages to carve out something resembling a human. Phil Nice and Tony Osoba do good work, but the script is far too eager to bump them off and so they never get a chance to register. Ellis George grates a little less this time round, but I’m still not absolutely convinced of the need for her to be here.

And I’m assuming the production team will remember that all this has happened and that life on board the Orient Express in Space (why?) on Saturday will in some way reflect this and not show the Doctor and Clara as pals again (I note no Coleman in the trailer). So, on that basis – and aware that the episode has Divided Fandom (no bad thing), I am all-in on Kill the Moon. Five stars. My first since The Girl Who Waited I believe.

So… what did I think of Listen/Time Heist/The Caretaker

Posted on October 2nd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

Terrible dereliction of duty around here lately, sorry about that. I think partly because none of these three episodes provoked terribly strong feelings in me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Tat Wood acutely points out in the About Time series, the production team fatally forgot how to churn out good, solid, workaday episodes in the mid-eighties and it nearly ended the programme for good. That’s what these three are – good, solid, workaday episodes in their different ways.

So, for a start I’m not a Listen hater, nor do I think it really deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Blink. It’s great to see Moffat sit down and write a non-special, non-arc episode and it’s generally good stuff. I don’t subscribe to the notion put forwarded by some bloggers that having Clara give the proto-Doctor nightmares is an enormous ego trip for the writer (“Isn’t my character special? Isn’t my character the most significantest ever?”) but I do think that having already been threaded through the Doctor’s timeline, she isn’t the best choice for this role.

I didn’t mind the Danny Pink soap opera stuff, but I was put out by the fact that an enormous amount of plot hinges on Clara wilfully withholding vital information from the Doctor out of utterly uncharacteristic embarrassment (as noted the part is horribly underwritten, but Jenna Coleman plays her with a forthright vigour which is completely at odds with this narrative choice). And I don’t mind that the whole story is a closed loop, accomplishing nothing by its end, because some of the individual moments are so arresting – notably The Thing Under The Bed Covers – but I desperately care that we were never told what the The Thing Under The Bed Covers was, and I can’t quite escape the suspicion that that question will be answered in a future episode.

Three and a half stars seems miserly for an episode that was so formally daring and so much fun to watch, but four seems over generous given its various flaws. Tell you what, because Young Danny was so brilliantly cast, I’ll bump it up to four.

I’ve had the same conversation with several people regarding the extraordinary find of two Patrick Troughton stories long thought lost (one episode still eludes us). Do you prefer the amazing ambition and individuality of Enemy of the World or do you find more to admire in the way that The Web of Fear is just like every other Patrick Troughton base-under-siege story but so much better? I’m in the latter camp – I can’t overlook the way Enemy trips itself up when the execution isn’t up to the ideas. So I’m perfectly happy with Time Heist being a pretty unambitious by-the-numbers script. It’s chief problem is that it isn’t quite as novel or original as perhaps it thinks it is. There’s actually precious little here we haven’t seen before and most of the twists are pretty easy to see coming. But it clips along very pleasingly, nothing is wasted, nothing is flubbed and it is novel to see the Oceans Eleven genre grafted on to Doctor Who. Four stars seems about right here too.

Finally, The Caretaker. All three of Gareth Roberts’ The-Doctor-Blends-In-With-Earth-Humans scripts have had some basic problems of plot credibility. It rarely actually seems necessary for the Doctor to have to blend in with Earth humans in order to solve the ostensible problem. Of the three, The Lodger is easily the best and Closing Time with its vile love-conquers-all-ending is handily the worst. The Caretaker sits in the middle. Again, it seems utterly unnecessary for the Doctor to either bother to dress up as a caretaker at all, or to be so brazen about it. Clara and Danny’s romance which was tolerable in Listen is really rather irritating idea and the Scovox Blitzer is a remarkably generic and unthreatening creation which seems to have been designed by Kroagnon The Great Architect and which would have been much more at home in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Whereas Time Heist was a romp with a bit of vinegar to balance it out, this is just larks and that’s hard to take over 45 minutes unless the level of invention and humour is absolutely top notch, and here it isn’t. The Doctor continually referring to Danny as a PE teacher is very funny, but the subplot with Courtney the cocky school kid is dull and goes nowhere. Danny Pink’s soldiering which had been a distant bell sounding every so often to punctuate the relationship now becomes a great clanging gong, drowning out everything else about him and the whole thing seems a little short on story for the running time. When it works, however, it works, and I have to give it props for Danny rejecting Clara’s absurd lies about rehearsing for the school play. Three stars seems about right.

So… what did I think of Robot of Sherwood?

Posted on September 11th, 2014 in Culture | 1 Comment »

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I’m currently listening to a podcast about TV, wherein two (slightly clueless) American chaps discuss the series they are watching at the moment, both recent and current, and offer their views. These young guys have grown up with The Wire and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and so it’s fascinating to hear them discuss Doctor Who. They’ve been going season-by-season, starting with Eccleston and they’re pretty down on some of the early RTD stuff, although – while they can’t stand Catherine Tate as Donna – they like it more and more as the David Tennant years conclude.

What they don’t seem to get – having never watched the “Classic” Series – is that unlike the heavily-serialised epics of modern US television, Doctor Who has always been designed as an anthology series. So when they complain (and they do) that one episode just seems to completely disregard a previous one, or that no-one has sat down and worked out a consistent chronology of the Whoniverse (no-one who works on the show at any rate), I just want to shout “that’s a plus, not a minus!”

Designing the show as an anthology is what has given it the flexibility to continually reinvent itself, not just Doctor after Doctor, or year after year, but episode after episode. Grim horror follows whimsical fairy tale, follows ripsnorting adventure, follows conceptual sci-fi. By avoiding serialised storytelling, the show constantly opens itself up to new avenues, and by not setting the characters out on a clearly-defined journey, it never needs to end. My big problem with the Matt Smith years was the show was trying to do far more serialised storytelling than was really good for it, and then not really committing to that either.

So, I don’t mind the fact that the supposed “darker Doctor” is taking a week off this week and I don’t mind the fact that this episode is explicitly designed as a “romp”. Both the classic and new series have provided some excellent “romps” including some of my favourite episodes. But this one didn’t really work for me. Unfocused, smug, and seemingly determined to undermine the Doctor at every step. Let’s look at how and why.

Clara’s desire to meet Robin Hood to begin with is utterly arbitrary, further underlining just what a perfect vacuum of a companion she is – by modern standards anyway. Having told her such a thing is impossible, the Doctor manages to land almost on top of the smarmy icon – so clearly something much more is going on here. No, it’s just a coincidence.

As we meet the Merry Men as well as the Outlaw himself, I am ready for one of two different outcomes. Either the promise of the title will be fulfilled and the Doctor proved to be correct – of course this person isn’t the real Robin Hood, that would be absurd – or we will discover that this is the real Robin Hood but that the reality is very different from the myth.

The story at first feints with the first of these – the sheriff’s ship is leaking Robinhoodmium into the area making everything all storybooky – but then parries with the contradictory revelation that, no, this actually is the real Robin Hood. But in that case, you have to give us the truth behind the myth. Simply reproducing the myth and having Peter Capaldi scoff at it is pretty much the Dame Sally Markham school of copy-and-paste scriptwriting.

And while Ben Miller’s performance was perfectly judged, I don’t quite understand what happened to the real sheriff or if there was a real sheriff or really what the hell is going on. I imagine we were meant to find the Doctor’s bantering with Robin amusing – why else have them both chained up for static minute after static minute in the middle of the story? If you did, I’m happy for you. I found Robin profoundly annoying and the Doctor petty and childish in completely the wrong way.

Towards the end, we get a nice shot of them using molten gold to create an intricate circuit to help the ship take off again – heading for the planet Seasonarcphrase. Obviously this requires the gold to be precisely arranged to create the right effect. Except when it doesn’t and the mass of gold aboard the ship is the only important thing, thus allowing Our Heroes to save the day by firing an arrow after it. None of this is properly thought through, none of it makes any real sense, none of it feels grounded or authentic and all of it is irritating, including the Doctor’s spoon-fight with Robin.

It isn’t completely awful. It looks good – as usual – Ben Miller is absolutely excellent and I did like the Doctor’s remote controlled arrow gag, but on the whole and especially after the first two parts, this is limp, throw-away stuff, and labelling it a “romp” can’t begin to redeem it. Better I suppose than Journey to the Centre of My Rectum or The Soggy Pirate Rubbish but that ain’t saying much. Two and a half stars

 

So… what did I think of Peter Capaldi?

Posted on September 1st, 2014 in Culture | 2 Comments »

deep breath

In all the general delight that Doctor Who is back (yay!) after eight months off our screens (boo!) and that we are getting an unbroken run of episodes this year (yay!) and in the atmospheric autumn months to boot (yay! yay! yay!), it seems to have gone unremarked upon that we are only getting 12 episodes plus the Christmas special instead of the hither-to traditional 13. Perhaps the sprawling 80 minute run-time of the season opener is to blame? If so, I’m not convinced that it’s a good trade-off.

New Doctor stories break into roughly two types. The first, largely out-of-favour now, shakes the Doc up a bit for the first 20 minutes or so and then plunges him in to an adventure which becomes the real point of the story. See Power of the Daleks, Robot and, if it counts, Rose. The other type makes the Doctor’s regeneration and new persona the main point of the story and although there generally is a threat which must be overcome, it’s usually a fairly minor one. See Spearhead from Space, Castrovalva and The Christmas Invasion. In these stories, the Doctor is off-stage, usually incapacitated, for part of the story, and much of the action deals with the consequences of this violent alteration of his body and mind.

Ever eager to have his intricately decorated cake and greedily devour it too, Steven Moffat has inevitably tried to use the extra running time to do both here, and the result is an episode full of marvellous moments, but with some very strange pacing and a couple of choices that seem rather too forced.

I noted around the time of Tennant’s departure the two very different positions adopted by the outgoing and incoming show-runners. “This is a death. The Tenth Doctor will die,” intoned Russell T Davies as he prepared to clear out his desk. “He’s the same man,” reassured Steven Moffat as he tried Rusty’s boots on for size. Now it’s Moffat’s turn to execute a Doctor and he’s no longer prepared to show the process as consequence free.

Capaldi makes an instant first impression, although he’s given fairly generic Moffat-Doctor stuff at first, when he isn’t being given fairly generic post-regenerative-Doctor stuff. There are some lovely one liners in the mix though, especially the bit about the Doctor taking micro-naps while other people are talking. While learning his lines, Jon Pertwee used to rip out all the pages which didn’t feature the Doctor. On occasion he’d wander into the rehearsal room grumbling “very thin script this week.” Once he decides to leave via the window rather than the door, the character starts to snap into focus. It’s around this time that the main science-fiction mystery plot starts to take over, but it’s also remarkable – almost profligate – that the story is willing to introduce a fully-grown tyrannosaurus rex stomping across Victorian London and then toss it aside as a mere curtain-raiser for the supposedly more interesting tale of alien impersonators. Terror of the Zygons didn’t have Moffat’s budget but at least Robert Banks Stewart had the sense to do those things the other way round.

But the middle part of the episode is largely unconcerned with threats sauropodian or other-wordly. Instead we tackle the question above head-on – is this the same man? Clara’s scene with Madame Vastra and her veil is an arresting, confronting and beautifully written answer to this question, serving both to give fans a new take on what regeneration is as well as gently reassuring the little ones that it’s okay to miss Matt Smith and give this new bloke with the scary eyebrows a chance.

The only thing which spoils this scene is that of all the companions the Doctor has ever had, it’s this one who gets to play this scene. Clara the Impossible Girl who has helped the Doctor in every regeneration he has ever had. Clara, who only two stories ago was hanging out with not two but three Doctors and seemed perfectly happy that they were all the same man. Clara who watched the regeneration happen before her eyes, and told the Paternoster Gang in no uncertain times who this wild Caledonian really was. It’s a nice scene, but it’s absolutely impossible to fit it into Clara’s character development so far.

On which subject, there follows another very nice scene in which the Doctor and Clara meet in that weird restaurant. “Game-playing narcissist” is a pretty odd description of the Doctor. “Game-playing” possibly describes the fourth Doctor, certainly the seventh, but “narcissist” sounds totally wrong. And just what has Clara ever done which earns her either of those titles? Clara still has yet to make any characterisation beyond the incomprehensible Impossible Girl nonsense and Jenna Coleman’s winning smile. But it is a nice scene.

Once the main sci-fi plot takes over, the pacing smoothes out and the threat is vanquished in a suitably satisfying manner, with just two little wrinkles. How striking, how fascinating, in an episode devoted to telling us who this new Doctor is, to end the adventure on such a profound note of ambiguity. Both outcomes seem profoundly unlikely – that the Doctor bodily ejected his clockwork nemesis or that such a single-minded automaton elected to terminate himself. I almost don’t want to know the answer – for once the question might actually be more interesting.

What did give me pause is the very final scene with the first appearance of Michelle Gomez as “Missy” who appears to run a version of heaven populated only by people who have died at the Doctor’s hands. This evidently is our season-runner and so far I’m dubious as to its worth.

I’d rather have had that than the very peculiar and unnecessary Matt Smith cameo. Everything was wrong about this. Just when we’d begun to accept Capaldi, his predecessor shows up, bringing back all those tedious memories. The kids who were so subtly reassured earlier now have the message rammed down their throats and the whole thing smacks of “we can so let’s not ask if we should.”

But I’m sounding awfully grumbly about an episode I did like a lot. Ben Wheatley directs with atmosphere and class, the Paternoster Gang are huge fun as ever, Capaldi nails it right from the off and the new TARDIS and titles are lovely, even if the theme music is a bit Dominic Glynn. 3½ stars sounds about right. A promising beginning.

into the dalek

So, let’s go on to what should be an easier job – Capaldi’s second story. There’s not so much to say about this one – Fantastic Voyage inside a Dalek. This aims pretty low – a rollicking adventure with a thin veneer of moral philosophy – but it hits the bullseye pretty much every time. Twelve’s rescue of Journey Blue and his disregard for the fate of Ross are particularly striking. Some of this is by-the-numbers – she’s a soldier but she’s got a conscience (yawn) – some of it feels a bit over-familiar – a lot is cribbed from the end of Dalek, and visually its reminiscent of the Battle of Canary Wharf – but it’s fast-moving, funny, exciting and novel enough to be a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes of television. Hardly likely to go down as a cast-iron classic but the kind of high-quality work-a-day story which the production team needs to be able to crank out.

The joint writing credit for Phil Ford and Moffat is interesting too. Is Moffat scaling back or is he doing RTD style rewrites now but taking a bigger credit for them? Only Ford was taking the credit on Doctor Who Extra in any case. I can’t quite bring myself to give a shit about Danny Pink, but I daresay he’ll be given something interesting to do at some point.

So, I’m optimistic at the moment. We haven’t managed a complete break with the past (I really don’t care who that woman in The Bells of St John was) but we’ve so far avoided the tangled continuity webs and nonsensical plotting of Time and Day of the Doctor and Capaldi is marvellous in the part. Four stars for Into the Dalek and away we go…

Too absurd to be true

Posted on July 9th, 2014 in Skepticism | No Comments »

Conspiracy theories regarding 9-11 never fail to get my sceptical antennae twitching, and I was particularly appalled at a recent spate of Facebook posts claiming that the supposed victims on board the doomed planes were actually alive and well and living in secret on a government pension. Fair enough for the armchair engineer to claim that the Twin Towers fell this way or that, but what on earth are the families of the dead passengers supposed to feel when they read this kind of nonsense? The clodhopping insensitivity of it is far worse than the stupidity and implausibility of the claims being made.

The claim that the planes were actually missiles (or holograms!?) is fairly clearly absurd on its face, contradicted as it is by such a vast array of video evidence. However, a more common and seemingly more reasonable claim is that the planes did hit the towers, but their eventual collapse was the result of a controlled demolition. On his Neurologica blog, senior sceptic Steve Novella invited one Michael Fullerton to debate the issue. You can read the back-and-forth here but it seems to me that Michael’s whole argument boils down to “I know the Twin Towers fell as a result of a controlled demolition because it kinda-sorta looks like that.” And in both his posts, Steve Novella did an excellent job at seeing past the hand-waving and name-calling and long-word-using to show the emptiness of this claim, while walking us through the basic physics of the situation with admirable clarity,

I posted a comment on the blog explaining that that you don’t even have to bother looking at the physics of the situation to know that the assertion that the Twin Towers fell due to a controlled demolition is absurd, if not actually insane. Anyone who wants to show that this is the case has some very, very hard questions to answer before they even begin to look at the physics involved. Here’s the rest of that comment in full…

Controlled demolition requires explosives – in the case of a building the size of the Twin Towers, massive quantities of explosives, in all likelihood hundreds of pounds. We are not talking about one guy smuggling a briefcase past security, we are talking multiple individuals making multiple undetected trips into and out of the World Trade Center carrying not just explosives but detonators, wiring and other paraphernalia. There is simply no plausible way in which that quantity of explosives could have been smuggled covertly into the buildings, and no evidence that they in fact were. Among the variety of conspirators, deceased and living, on American soil and overseas, none has been identified as playing this role. Nor was any evidence of explosives found in the wreckage. And in all the documents we have regarding the planning of the 9-11 attacks, there is no mention of explosives. Hard question one: exactly how and by whom and when were the explosives introduced?

Some might argue that given the planes and the burning jet fuel had already weakened the structure, less explosives would be required than if the planes had not struck, but this is a slippery slope to giving up the whole game. Once the stalwart Conspiracy Theorist has admitted that collision from a jet plane followed by raging fires burning for many minutes might weaken a building’s integrity, we have to start doing Hard Sums to figure out just how much it might be weakened, and as Steve has shown, the Hard Sums are not in the Conspiracy Theorist’s favour. But, as I say, we don’t need Hard Sums to dismiss this argument.

Even given that explosives could somehow have been introduced into the buildings – hard question two: why the need for a controlled demolition? You are already crashing fully-laden jet airliners into the buildings, which is bound to cause a tremendous amount of damage and loss of life. Why should it be an essential part of the plan to cause those towers to definitely collapse utterly? Remember, that until the planes are minutes away from the World Trade Center, no-one in power will have the slightest clue what the target is. As a terrorist attack it is chillingly perfect, unstoppable. As opposed to spending weeks carefully smuggling explosives into the building, which as soon as they are found, the entire game is up. Why risk the whole operation in that way?

But given that it is a fundamental part of the attack, for reasons unknown, to have the buildings not merely damaged beyond all likely repair but actually razed to the ground, why was the same approach not taken with the other two targets – the Pentagon, which suffered damage only at the impact site, and the Capitol building which was thought to be the target of the fourth plane? Neither of these exploded an hour or two later. Hard question three: why take one approach with one major American landmark and not take the same approach with either of the others?

But, okay, let us grant that for these particularly demented terrorists, and/or their Shadowy Government Overlords, it is tremendously important that the Twin Towers be razed to the ground, and entirely unimportant that the Pentagon and the Capitol building be destroyed completely – it is sufficient to merely damage those. And let us grant once again that our terrorists have the means as well as the desire to covertly introduce, install and detonate at will the prodigious quantity of explosives needed to topple two of the largest buildings on earth in a controlled demolition.

Hard question four: why bother with the planes? As noted, laboriously introducing package after package of explosives risks discovery far more, but if you already have the power to carry out such an operation, likely over several weeks, you now have the power to suddenly and terrifyingly wipe two buildings off the face of the earth. Why do you now bother attempting to hijack a couple of planes? At the very least, why not send them off to two further targets?

Okay, okay, okay. Let us grant – and I’m not sure who still would at this point, but here we go anyway – that our terrorists absolutely must raze the Twin Towers to the ground (but not any other targets); this is such an important part of the plan that they have risked everything to ensure it will happen, and they also have the means to covertly introduce hundreds of pounds of explosive, accurately position it, and detonate it at will; and that it seems sensible to take effectively a belt-and-braces approach by first crashing a plane in to each building, and then setting off their explosives an hour or so later.

Hard question five: why the delay? The purpose of a terrorist attack is to spread terror, to kill innocents and to make the government seem powerless. In the time which elapsed between the planes hitting and the buildings falling, many, many people were evacuated from the buildings and taken to safety. If the explosives had detonated immediately the planes had hit, the result would have been no less spectacular and far more fatal.

Ah, but that might reveal the presence of the explosives. While those who obediently swallow the Official Story might be fooled by the towers collapsing after the fires had raged for an hour, they surely will detect the presence of explosives if the towers fall as soon as the planes hit?

Which brings us to the hardest hard question. Hard question six: why continue to keep the explosives secret? Why on earth would Al Quaeda not be boasting about the bombs? How can it possibly ever, ever, ever advance their cause in any way at all to have secret bombs inside the World Trade Center? Even if the terrorists are acting in cahoots with the government (or secret world government or whomever) pinning the bombs on the terrorists makes their terror even more terrible, whereas keeping the bombs secret achieves nothing whatsoever.

I know that the Twin Towers did not fall due to a controlled explosion because the very idea makes no sense on any level. Adding secret bombs complicates the plan, makes it far more likely to be uncovered, is not necessary, requires a mysterious unmotivated pause in the day’s action and would have been acknowledged by the terrorists, or pinned on them by the government.

That the physics and the video evidence also supports this is welcome, but unnecessary.

Overt planes but secret bombs. For fuck’s sake.

The Curry Secret

Posted on June 6th, 2014 in recipes | No Comments »

In what seems like a previous life, when I was just getting to grips with cooking for myself, not long out of university, I picked up a copy of Kris Dhillon’s The Curry Secret. The premise of this book is as follows (I paraphrase). British people like going to Indian restaurants. British home cooks like the idea of cooking Indian food at home, but a recipe book describing Indian dishes will almost certainly be describing what an Indian housewife would cook, which is not at all like what a British Indian restaurant serves. Dhillon’s book tells you how to cook British Indian Restaurant Food at home.

The key recipe in the book is Curry Sauce. Once you have a batch of this made, you can whip up an curry you like. Chicken curry? Chicken + Curry Sauce. Lamb vindaloo? Lamb + Curry Sauce + chili + potatoes. Prawn korma? Prawns + Curry sauce + almonds + cream. And so on. The curry sauce recipe is a bit daunting and it doesn’t look at all appetising until the very final stage. Decades after I bought the book, I’ve gone through the whole process and documented it for you. Quantities are deliberately vague to encourage you to buy the book.

Step 1. Cut up a shit-ton of onions.

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Step 2: Cut up a load of ginger and garlic.

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Step 3: Blend the ginger and garlic together with some water.

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Step 4: Simmer the ginger, garlic and onion with more water and some salt for a long-ass time.

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Step 5: After it has cooled, blend the simmered onion mixture. Reserve some of the sauce at this stage to cook the chicken in later.

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Step 6: Blend up a can of tomatoes.

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Step 7: Briefly fry tomato puree, turmeric and paprika then add the blended tomatoes and simmer.

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Step 8: Add the onion mixture. Keep simmering and skim off the froth which rises to the surface every so often. Ugh.

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Step 9: Your curry sauce is now ready. You may now prepare the chicken. Cut that sucker up into bite-sized pieces.

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Step 10: Fry the reserved curry sauce with some turmeric until it darkens in colour.

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Step 11: Add the chicken and cook throughly.

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Step 12: Both curry sauce and chicken can be put in the fridge at this stage. After several hours, we are now 20 minutes away from curry o’clock.

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Step 13: I made Chicken Dopiaza. Slice onions and fry ‘em up.

Step 14: Add curry sauce, salt, chilli powder and chicken.

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Step 15: Cook until sauce thickens. Stir in more spices.

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Step 16: Serve with basmati rice and sprinkled with coriander.

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The result was very authentic and absolutely delicious. Worth the time and effort? Ah, well that’s another matter.

Sundance 2014

Posted on May 8th, 2014 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Deborah and I spent the weekend at Sundance watching five films and seeing four panels in three days. No, we didn’t go to Utah – for the last few years Sundance has come to the bizarre environs of the O2 so we were able to catch the latest in independent film without leaving London. I won’t go through the panels, except occasionally if they’re relevant, because panels are one-offs, but here are the movies we saw.

Obvious Child (wd. Gillian Robsepierre. Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman)

Our first film is so indie it almost hurts. A simple, unambitious tale of a newly-single stand-up comedian (Slate, familiar from Parks and Recreation) flailing around through something approximating adult life. Wistfully amusing, rather than laugh out loud funny with fun cameos from the likes of Richard Kind and David Cross, the main plot when it emerges might shock America’s conservative heartland but seems unremarkable in liberal London Town. The same goes for Slate’s “earthy humour” (i.e. fart jokes). Obvious Child works but aims fairly low, which I suppose is better than wildly overreaching but it made for a rather low-key start to the Sundance experience.

The Case Against 8 (d. Ben Cotner, Ryan White)

After panels about film music and “finding your story” we were back in the cinema for what was the undoubted highlight of the whole Sundance experience. When Californian voters passed “Proposition 8”, overturning the state’s recent commitment to gay marriage, young filmmakers Cotner and White followed the legal proceedings instigated by the American Federation for Equal Rights. For over four years, through endless appeals, the legal process ground on and Cotner and White’s extraordinary access documents the whole thing. Elegantly streamlined to a sub-two hour running time, the whole film is expertly judged, full of humour, insight, emotion and brilliant storytelling. A fascinating account of a vital human rights battle which deserves the biggest possible audience.

Hits (wd. David Cross. Matt Walsh, James Adomian, Meredith Hagner)

Things took an immediate turn for the worse later on Saturday night. Hits is the directorial debut of Arrested Development’s David Cross and it bears all the hallmarks of a sketch comedy writer and actor trying to tackle a full-length narrative for the first time. Hits is beset with problems, from the tonal to the structural. The story of a young woman who lusts for talent-show fame, it cannot find a focus, immediately shifting point-of-view to whomever happens to be in the frame, with the result that no coherent narrative emerges. Rather, it feels as if five different films are fighting for dominance. Compounding the problems, the satire is years if not decades old, and piss-weak, with an extra dose of supposed shock-value at the end doing nothing to pep the film up. But these weakness might have been overcome were it not for the fact that writer-director Cross so evidently loathes and despises all of the characters, from the bitchy local official to the idiot racist dad to the self-obsessed hipsters. In his panel with David Wain (read on), Cross earnestly told the audience that he took jokes out of the script to protect the story. In my view, the story wasn’t worth preserving, even if it had been structured with more discipline. A welter of funny jokes might have been a saving grace, but we are denied even that. Awful. Avoid.

The One I Love (w. Justin Lader, d. Charlie McDowell. Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ted Danson)

The best fiction film we saw, this nifty drama sees Mad Men’s Moss and husband Duplass bundled off to a weekend retreat for couples in need of reconnecting. Once there, they… man, this film is hard to describe fairly. Let’s just say that some weird shit goes down and leave it at that, shall we? The film expertly judges the tone, presenting the aforementioned weird shit simply and effectively and mining the premise carefully and satisfyingly, while the two leads tackle the often difficult material with grace and style. Only in the last ten minutes, when the filmmakers become a little too interested in the mechanism of the premise does the movie even threaten to go off the rails, but by that time I had had too good a time to care much. I will be fascinated to see how this one is marketed and how well it does at the box office, but if it comes to a screen near you, I urge you to go and see it while reading as little about it as you possibly can.

They Came Together (w David Wain, Michael Showalter; d. Wain. Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler)

Significantly less ghastly than Hits, this was still a disappointment. A spoof romantic comedy, this isn’t quite the all-out joke-fest of Airplane and it’s ilk, but it’s far too broad to be genuinely romantic in the way that Scream was genuinely scary. Good jokes (Poehler and Rudd frolick in autumn leaves, oblivious to the mouldering corpse buried just under them) sit next to poor jokes (Poehler’s approach to running her candy store is just to give all the candy away, because why not) but often the demands of the narrative lead to joke-free passages where the thin nature of the material becomes painfully apparent. Even the good jokes aren’t always capitalised upon which is particularly remarkable and disappointing. The line between characterisation and running joke is a very fine one in a movie like this, but even when Poehler’s character is identified as an adorable klutz, and Poehler very amusingly pulls a load of boxes down on her own head apparently on purpose – subsequently this trait is never referred to again. Much of the time the laughs come from characters smugly commenting on the tropes they are enacting, in the way which might seem witty in an improv setting, but here just seems a bit laboured. Every so often there’s a performance or a gag which threatens to make the whole thing worthwhile, but ultimately this is weak sauce.

Short Film Programme

We rounded off Sunday night with one of two short film programmes. Rather than go through all the ten-or-so shorts we saw, I will pick out two favourites. Firstly I Think This Is the Closest to How the Footage Looked (d. Yuval Hameiri). In this haunting piece, a young man reenacts the last hour’s of his sick mother’s life with household objects. The reason for the reenactment becomes devastatingly clear half-way through. A huge emotional bang for barely a single buck, Hameiri’s film is a tiny triumph of feeling over resources. More traditional in form is the Irish documentary The Last Days of Peter Bergmann (d. Ciaran Cassidy) which uses interview and CCTV footage to document the meticulous preparations of an unknown man who checked into a hotel in Sligo, Ireland, using the fake name Peter Bergmann. A 20 minute human mystery that may never be solved, Bergmann is a touching riddle, a fleeting enigma, a tiny treatise on how to take charge of matters which no-one can truly control.

All the Sundance staff (though not all the O2 staff) were friendly and helpful and although we felt a bit abandoned to the tender mercies of a dozen or so chain restaurants in the TGI Fridays vein when it came to food and drink, we left the festival inspired, invigorated and largely entertained.