Oscars 2016: Spotlight and The Martian

Posted on February 8th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Spotlight is one of those movies that crept up on me. Before it started making the rounds as Oscar-buzz, I had no idea it even existed. Today, priests molesting kids is often little more than a careless punchline to an “edgy” comedy routine, but in Boston in 2001, it was absolutely unthinkable. Like a modern-day All the President’s Men, the movie focuses not on the vile actions of the priests or the suffering of the victims but on the diligence of the journalists who brought the case to the public’s attention.

Leading the (sometimes absurdly over-praised) “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe is Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, who keeps his wide-eyed mannerisms under control to create a sober portrait of a modest crusader. He is flanked by Rachel McAdams who does much with relatively little to create a softer but no less driven counterpoint to Keaton’s eyes-on-the-prize clarity; and by Mark Ruffalo in an Oscar nominated turn, bizarrely appropriating some of Bruce Willis’s facial tics, who is the true heart and soul of much of the movie’s long middle section. The fourth member of the team, Matt Carroll, is played by Brian d’Arcy James who sadly lacks the star-wattage to compete in this company.

Above Keaton and co sit John Slattery as Managing Editor and Liev Schreiber as Editor in Chief. When the movie opens, the new boss is just taking over and Schreiber has tremendous fun making Marty Barron absolutely impossible to read. His impassive declaration over lunch that he intends to make the Boston Globe “indispensable to its readers” hilariously leaves Keaton none-the-wiser about whether he intends to kill off the Spotlight team or retain them.

In fact, it’s Barron who directs them towards the shady goings-on between the DA, the church and the underage population of Boston. His relentless, although underplayed, zeal to strike at not just the wrong-doing but the systemic cover-up hints that he may know more than he is giving away. Likewise, little moments of tension between Keaton, Slattery and Schreiber keep hinting at a forthcoming crisis, feud, conflict of interest or horrible secret. But in the event none of this materialises and everyone just gets on with the job. Schreiber is still fun, but he turns out to be scarcely relevant to the story. And apart from those viewers with a vested interest in seeing the chain of command accurately depicted, I doubt anyone would notice if Slattery’s character was deleted altogether (which might free him up to play Matt Carroll instead – there’s a thought).

That’s this film all over. There are some great cameos from luminaries such as Len Cariou, Billy Crudup and especially Stanley Tucci as a devious but secretive lawyer working with victims, and there are some very well-judged bits of testimony from some of those victims. But generally it sticks strongly to its sober, methodical, procedural playbook with the result that it only flickers into emotional or comedic life very briefly and occasionally.

This is not necessarily to suggest that a more hysterical, heart-tugging, garment-rending version of the film would have been better. On the contrary, it would almost certainly have been worse. But given that – due to the nature of the subject matter – the story can’t be turned into Erin Brockovich or (God help us) Jerry Maguire, I question the need to make a drama out of it at all. With Making A Murderer the latest binge-watching craze, why would not a documentary have told the story just as clearly and soberly?

Listen, I had a good time watching it – or if not a good time, then at least an engrossing time. But the little clues that something more melodramatic might be about to happen between our central characters ended up as distracting. And as a piece of cinema entertainment, while it didn’t do very much wrong, it didn’t really strike me as terribly exceptional either, except possibly in its restraint.

That’s how I’m feeling about most of the movies on the Best Picture list this year. Plenty are solid, workmanlike and entertaining enough, but few if any are genuinely remarkable. True there have so far been no turkeys like Amazingly Long and Incredibly Shit or even ill-conceived misfires like Warhorse but likewise there are no real stand-outs. Even The Revenant, certainly the most extraordinary film of the year, blots its copybook by going all Terrance Malik and wonkily spiritual from time-to-time in a manner which seems rather at odds with the rest of its triumph-over-absurdity storytelling and which is wisely abandoned at the end. It seems I did such a good job of mentally editing this out that I forget to mention it at all in my review. Rather like skimming over all the turgid poetry in The Lord of the Rings.

I also found a cinema still showing The Martian which I had greatly enjoyed reading on holiday a year or two ago. The book is a fast-moving popcorn science adventure story with smart plotting, a great sense of humour and a love for technical details which I really appreciated. There isn’t a lot more to say about the movie which captures the book pretty faithfully and where it does streamline or re-order events, does so intelligently and skilfully. Ridley Scott directs with pace and clarity, and seems generally in control of the narrative. A large group of supporting characters is well-differentiated and brought to life by a pleasingly diverse cast (even if the diversity of the cast does not always match the diversity of the name of the character they are playing). And Matt Damon is a very strong centre for the whole thing. If the climactic sequence is even more demented than the version in the book, that’s made-up-for by the new-for-the-movie coda which gives astronaut Mark Watney a chance to reflect on what his Martian adventures have given him.

So, that just leaves Room and The Big Short. Watch this space…

Oscars 2016 – Nominations and the Hateful Eight

Posted on January 14th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

The Academy Award nominations for 2016 were announced earlier today and my campaign to see all eight nominees at the cinema before the ceremony is off to a flying start. Here’s an alphabetical list of the films in the running.

The Big Short. Out here next week, and one of those films I would have gone to see anyway. On a good day, might combine breezy character work from funny actors with a clear insight into the systemic problems which contributed to the credit crunch. On a bad day, of course, it could just be a lot of mugging and shouting. Very unlikely to walk off with the top prize.

Bridge of Spies. Pure Hollywood craft and hugely entertaining. Full review here. No nod for Spielberg as best director, but Mark Rylance is nominated for best supporting actor and might have a chance, as does the screenplay. Top three, for sure, but probably won’t win the big prize.

Brooklyn. Sweet, affecting, laugh-out-loud funny, but rather unambitious both structurally and in its presentation. Doesn’t stand a chance of winning, and Saoirse Ronan and Nick Hornby are both going to face heavy competition too for Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Full review here.

Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw this at the IMAX but I don’t think I ever reviewed it. The best of the Mad Max films (and how extraordinary that a fourth chapter should ever get even a nomination) it’s probably the most purely entertaining film on the list, and in fact I think the race is between this and The Revenant – it’s that good.

The Martian. This was the one that fell through the cracks, but it’s still showing on a handful of tiny screens, so I will try and catch it in the next few days. I loved the book, and the film seems like a suitable faithful but not slavish version, so I imagine it will be pretty good, but it’s far too boys-own to win, nor does Matt Damon have a chance against DiCaprio. Might win some technical awards if Mad Max doesn’t snaffle them all.

The Revenant. This is it – the one to beat. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and an early favourite not just for Best Picture but Best Director and Best Actor too. My full review is here.

Room. Out here next week, so check back for my full review then.

Spotlight. Out here at the end of the month, so check back here for my full review then.

Not nominated were Joy and The Danish Girl, both of which I am very happy to catch-up with on iTunes, and also Creed which I had no interest in at all.

Also not nominated for Best Picture, but still picking up three other nominations is The Hateful Eight, the self-styled Eighth Film By Quentin Tarantino. I’ve moaned before about how QT’s career since the elegant and thoughtful Jackie Brown has been characterised by a flight from maturity towards gleeful juvenilia. One of the (several) reasons I disliked Django Unchained was that it seemed to have been made by a writer/director who has lost his balls and so couldn’t bear to see his hero parted from his.

Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is yet more pulpy melodrama, but it manages to find a way to exploit all of Tarantino’s habits, tics and vices and turn them into strengths – most of the time at least. Just as Django was a Western, set in the American south, this is a Western, set in the snowy wastes of Wyoming. A stagecoach brings together bounty hunters John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) as well as nervy good-old-boy sheriff-in-waiting Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins in a star-making turn) and Ruth’s captive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, gleefully chewing up the scenery). They are in turn deposited at Minnie’s Haberdashery where more distinguished character actors familiar from previous Tarantino movies are already in residence (Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen et al), there to wait out the storm, shoot the shit, and blow each others’ brains out.

The three-hour plus film (I saw the “Roadshow” version in 70mm with overture and interval at the Odeon Leicester Square) is split up into six chapters with cute names, as in Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds (and for that matter Billy Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie) and not all of these chapters are presented in chronological order. It also takes a tremendous amount of time for the expected physical violence to erupt, but to criticise the film for being baggy I think is probably unfair.

Django certainly has far more going on than the film’s structure can handle, and Basterds sprawls all over the place (which is partly why the script has to adjust the end of the Second World War, in order to somehow gather up the various narrative threads it has strewn over the preceding two hours). And while Eight doesn’t have anything like Reservoir Dogs lean, propulsive energy, the fact that the characters spend an awfully long time just exchanging back-stories doesn’t stop the whole of the film from being thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing. In fact, as is often the case with Tarantino, the long conversations are largely the point, especially since they do contribute to the melodrama (unlike those in Deathproof for example).

The whole film looks absolutely stunning as well. I admire the perversity of returning to Super Panavision 70 and shooting with lenses made in the 1960s to create some of the widest and most detailed images cinema is capable of and then telling a story set almost entirely in one room. But the old fashioned feel of the celluloid images (created with no digital intermediate) is part of the texture of the story. If I have a concern, it’s a vague wonder about whether this, fairly simple, story really deserves to have all of this care and attention lavished on it. Does shooting in this way inflate the film to epic proportions, which the actual narrative can’t quite live up to?

Well, it’s a close run thing, but I think ultimately the operatic nature of the final reel harmonises the form and the content. This is not a film which is going to tell you very much about the human condition or the nature of America or anything else (despite what the auteur behind the camera might want to believe) but as an pressure-cooker tale of trial-by-wits, in its dementedly stylised way, with its almost Agatha Christie mystery plot (for once, telling the story out of sequence seems to serve a purpose) and with such ripe and juicy performances as these, it really does work.

For such an indulgent director, this is a very controlled piece of filmmaking – still not as grown-up as Jackie Brown, but worlds away from the cartoon nonsense of Kill Bill or the tedious Death Proof.

Oscars 2016: Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies

Posted on January 9th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

While waiting for the official list of nominees in a few days’ time, I took in a couple more likely contenders. Brooklyn was a film which passed me by almost completely but then started showing up on all sorts of Best Films of 2015 lists, and has plenty of Oscar buzz attached to it, so I was keen to try and watch it before it left cinemas. And while it passed the time very pleasantly, I’m not at all sure what all the fuss is about.

Theatre director John Crowley helms this slender tale, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, and Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a spunky young woman who has tired of her provincial life in a sleepy Irish village in the early 1950s and (we learn in a flurry of exposition) has arranged passage to Brooklyn, New York, where a boarding house, green card and department store job await her, all arranged by a kindly ex-pat priest. Following the grim details of her voyage, she initially struggles with home sickness but eventually meets a nice boy and proceeds essentially to lead an utterly charmed life.

When tragedy does finally strike and she has to return to Ireland, life there is almost equally charmed, with her New York stories buying her tremendous street cred, and a better job and an equally nice boy are presented to her. Eventually, she makes the right choice and scampers off back to Brooklyn where presumably she pops out babies and lives in domestic bliss.

This is all presented with a great deal of charm and wit, and the supporting cast is stuffed with good turns – notably from Jim Broadbent as the aforementioned priest and Julie Walters playing the kind of batty old Irish landlady she’s cornered the market in for the past thirty years. Other parts are well-cast too with Domnhall Gleeson almost inevitably cropping up as her Irish beau and Emory Cohen – a sort of Diet Coke James Dean or Marlon Brando, all rueful lips and doe eyes and mumbling dialogue – as her Brooklyn boy. And no review of this film would be complete without mentioning James DiGiacomo as the world’s funniest eight-year-old.

So, all the details are well-captured, all the parts are well-played and I was never bored. But as a piece of movie-making, this is pretty thin stuff. There is so little jeopardy, so little tension for great swathes of the film. As luminous as Saiorise Ronan is, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Ailis grow and flourish, it would have meant more if she had been tested even a little. And the real dilemma of the story – will she stay at home in Ireland or return to the unfamiliar but much more exciting world of Brooklyn – takes half the film to appear, and when it does, is somewhat of a foregone conclusion.

A more daring adaptation might have played with the timeline a little, to present this decision as the true focal point of the film. As it is, it just appears as another diverting but not especially moving episode following the equally diverting but rather disconnected Leaving Ireland episode, the Boat Voyage episode, the Meeting an Italian Boy episode and so on.

Adding to the sense of a TV movie rather than a cinema experience is the rather ordinary presentation from the director who shoots, for example, the two contrasting beach scenes in almost exactly the same way. There is nothing done with the camera, lenses, grading, sound or editing which in any way elevates this or makes the story bigger than before.

Maybe this is what fans of the book were looking for, but not having been a fan of the book, I found myself charmed but rather unsatisfied.

Equally charming but rather more satisfying is Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, the true story of insurance attorney James Donovan who was involved in negotiating a spy swap in Berlin as the Iron Curtain was being built. This film might suffer from the same slightly episodic feel, as we first meet suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel who is swiftly apprehended by the FBI. Then we are introduced to Donovan, who is given the thankless task of defending him, and quickly finds that American justice is more interested in being seen to be done than actually giving Abel a fair hearing. This narrative is intercut with material relating to the American U2 spy plane programme which eventually results in one Lt Powers being captured, and thus the suggestion of a prisoner exchange, which Donovan must mediate.

As with Brooklyn, each episode unfurls at its own measured pace, but several things elevate this above the other film. Firstly, the script (doctored by – of all people the Coen Brothers) is well aware of the danger of the structure falling apart and so there are plenty of thematic, character and dialogue moments which tether various sections to each other. It’s absolutely clear from quite early on what all of this is about: country, duty, humanity, honour.

Secondly, Spielberg mounts it beautifully and Janusz Kamiński shoots it luminously. There is something stately, elegant, old-fashioned in all the best senses of the word about this film. It was even shot on celluloid! It could almost have been made in 1952, but the clear hindsight of our modern perspective allows all sides to have the fairest of hearings.

Thirdly, among an excellent cast (Jesse Plemons, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda to name but three) Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance do astoundingly good work. Hanks is possibly the only actor alive who could have pulled off Donovan’s crucial speech about the constitution early on without either underselling it or making it sound corny as hell. And Rylance – who was seemingly scared off movies by the horrors of porno-drama Intimacy in 2001 but who seems since to have made-up with the camera – is an understated marvel. With two actors like this, who can tell you whole paragraphs with one flicker of an eyelid, it’s hard to go too far wrong. And the fact that Spielberg (who hasn’t directed a movie set in modern-day since War of the Worlds in 2005) can do this kind of stuff without breaking a sweat shouldn’t cause us to forget how few other directors can marshal sound, light and emotion this way – nor how effective it all is.

This doesn’t quite have the epic power of The Revenant or the breadth of scope of the (oddly similar) Argo, but it’s handsome, grown-up, intelligent movie making and it’s cinema craft of the highest order.

Also worthy of brief mention is The Lobster which is unlikely to trouble Academy voters much, but is a breathtakingly original undertaking. Colin Farrell (paunchy, dead-eyed) is one of a number of guests at a bizarre hotel run by Olivia Colman. Guests have 45 days in which to successfully pair up with another guest or be transformed into the animal of their choosing (Farrell has picked a lobster). Extra time can be obtained by shooting the “loners” who live in the woods during regular hunts.

The film is every bit as demented as it sounds, with great turns from other familiar faces including John C Reilly, Ashley Jensen and Ben Wishaw, but loses momentum a little in the second half when Farrell spends most of his time in the woods with other loners including Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz. Lovely little gags, many of them jet black, pepper the film and the discordant soundtrack and stilted acting style unite the whole very successfully. It certainly won’t bust any blocks but it’s very funny and rather disturbing, all in a good way.

Oscars 2016: The Revenant and Carol

Posted on January 7th, 2016 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another year, another awards season. Once again, I am attempting to see all the movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, on the big screen if at all possible and before the awards ceremony itself. Partly because there are a lot of movies out that I want to see, partly because I’ve not seen many movies at the cinema in recent months apart from the great big blockbusters, and partly because I have had a few free evenings recently, I am attempting to get ahead of the game by going to see some likely contenders before the nominees are announced.

My first visit was to the poky confines of my local Camden Odeon for one of their Screen Unseen showings. The, rather fun, idea of these is that you pay a fiver and sit down to watch a film not yet released in the UK, but with (in theory) no idea what it is until it starts. In practice, they often give some pretty easy clues on their Facebook page, but I rarely look at these.

So it was with some happiness that the film which unspooled on Monday was Alejandra Iñárritu’s much-anticipated The Revenant starring Leonardo diCaprio as an apparently unbreakable fur-trapper fighting for life and revenge in an American wilderness of the 1820s. This is not a film which is remotely interested in spoon-feeding the viewers. The exact nature of di Caprio and company’s organisation, where and when they are, and what relationships – personal and formal – exist within and without are all pretty much left to the viewer to puzzle out. There are no handy captions to tell us what is going on, precious little dialogue of any kind (at least a quarter of which is not in English) and next to nothing in the way of back story.

What it does have is a tremendous immediacy and almost physical power. Although not quite going as far as the apparently single-take Birdman, Iñárritu shoots almost the whole film with long, swooping steadicam takes. When (as happens on several occasions) one of our characters is standing over the other, with a rifle in his face, there is no cut from one man to the other. The camera instead floats around the face of the aggressor and then glides down the barrel of the gun to eventually discover the other person lying on the ground. It’s a technique which makes the two early stand-out sequences (the initial attack on the compound and diCaprio’s mauling at the hands of a bear) utterly terrifying and engrossing.

Once pragmatically ruthless Tom Hardy (once again strangling his vocal cords, Bane-style) and nervy naïf Will Poulter leave diCaprio’s ironically-named Hugh Glass for dead, much of the movie documents his agonising struggle to regain sufficient fitness to return to base and let Captain (I think?) Domhnall Gleeson know what has happened. Let’s have a little talk about diCaprio. When Wolf of Wall Street was released, I mused that I had previously found the career of this appealing but unexceptional actor hard to fathom, but that as crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort I saw something of the power of which he is capable.

Almost uniquely among modern Hollywood leading men, he manages to precisely straddle the divide between “personality” actors, who generally play some variant of themselves (Bradley Cooper, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr) and “chameleon” actors who routinely transform themselves for each role (Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Christian Bale). (This is not, by the way intended to imply that this division is precise or absolute, nor that one kind of actor is more admirable than the other.) Different wigs and costumes aside, diCaprio generally looks and sounds the same, but there is something bizarrely protean about this blandly good-looking male. Want someone to play a tortured dream thief in an urban psycho adventure? DiCaprio will nail it. Want someone to play a happy-go-lucky conman chancer? DiCaprio is all over it. Want someone to play a delusional US Marshall? DiCaprio is your guy. Need a charming front for your slave-fighting gang? DiCaprio’s got you covered. Quite how he does this still is not clear to me, but now he adds a fiercely protective, utterly determined nineteenth century fur-trapper to his resume.

As I’ve said, the film uses dialogue very sparingly. Often the only sound we can hear is diCaprio’s stertorous breathing, and at times his breath even seems to fog up the lens of the camera – not an effect I can recall ever seeing before. It’s probably a little flabby in the second half, and it’s possibly telling that I began to become more interested in the lies that Hardy was having to tell in the safety of the compound, and less interested in diCaprio’s physical ordeals as the film wore on, but the final confrontation is perfectly satisfying and the film as a whole is an amazing achievement.

Next on my list, in the rather more luxurious confines of the embattled Curzon Soho, was Todd Haynes’ Carol. I’d been hugely impressed with this director’s 2002 offering Far From Heaven and couldn’t wait to see this simple tale (adapted with economy and grace by Phyllis Nagy from a novel by Patricia Highsmith) of forbidden love in the 1950s.

I hope it isn’t a spoiler, but although I hadn’t read the book I was vaguely aware that it was famous not for its ground-breaker depiction of a lesbian affair (although it does depict that and it was ground-breaking) but because the lesbians in question don’t end up dead or insane or grief-stricken. That isn’t to say their story is entirely a happy one, but Haynes accurately steers a path between the tedium of a lack of incident and the deadening effect of too much melodrama.

He is helped enormously by two absolutely stand-out performances without which the entire enterprise would founder. Rooney Mara is incredibly good, her pinched-pixie face and apologetic manner perfectly counter-parted by Cate Blanchett’s far more lavish and statuesque bearing. Weirdly, as much as Mara put me in mind of Audrey Hepburn, Blanchett put me in mind of Katharine.

Although it’s Mara’s Therese Belivet who learns who she is, what she wants and how to order lunch over the course of the movie, it’s no surprise that the title is Carol (and not for example, When Carol Met Therese or the rather more obscure The Price of Salt, the title of the original novel). Blanchett’s Carol Aird presents herself to the world, and to Therese in particular as gloriously and completely in control of her own destiny. In fact, her failing marriage and the struggle with her husband over custody of her child, the improbably-named Rindy, are gradually hollowing her out until she becomes little more than a gaily-painted husk. Finally, in the film’s last reel, she is able to reconstruct her personality and become the person that Therese has begun to love. It’s an incredible journey and Blanchett shines off the screen at every turn.

Ably supported by familiar faces from TV (Sarah Paulson, Jack Lacy, Kyle Chandler – even Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia and Sleater-Kinney), this centre pairing is certain to be among the Best Actress nominees – my guess would be Blanchett for Actress and Mara for Supporting Actress so they aren’t competing with each other.

I do have one quibble and it’s perhaps an odd one. The power of the emotion between the two women is absolutely clear and the role than each can play in the life of the other is certainly vivid, but what was perhaps missing for me was any sense that they just enjoyed being with each other. Apart from one flirtatious comment about Therese’s company-mandated Santa hat at their first meeting, these two never make each other laugh or share a joke. A curious omission I thought.

Not a bad start to awards season then. Let’s see what the rest of the month has to offer.

So… what did I think of the Star Husbands of River Force Awakens Wars?

Posted on December 26th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

husbands

4.5 Stars
As well as snuggling down to watch Capaldi, Kingston et al on Christmas Day, I also flogged out to the BFI IMAX to watch the Force Awakens a few days earlier, so here’s your Boxing Day double-bill review. We’ll take the good Doctor first.

More than other episodes, except possibly the first few aired in 2005, Christmas Specials have to attract and entertain a wide audience. Not just the dedicated fans, but the casual viewers, the grumpy sceptics, their sleepy relatives and various other waifs and strays. Sometimes, Christmas Specials have basically ignored all other continuity and these have often been among the most effective – A Christmas Carol, Voyage of the Damned – although not always – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. Others have been bound into the fabric of the series, dealing with a new Doctor – The Christmas Invasion – a regeneration – The Time of the Doctor – or a new companion – The Snowmen. This year, Steven Moffat attempts a middle-ground. On the one hand, almost nothing that happens at least for the first 45 minutes is in any way dependent on the viewer ever having watched the series before. On the other hand, those first 45 minutes might be a wee bit confusing if you’ve literally no idea who River Song even is. The last 15 minutes… well, we’ll come to those.

This is very much an episode of two halves, or if not quite halves then certainly pieces. The first, longer, piece is hugely entertaining. A “romp” in all the best senses of the word – full of dash and wit and good will to all, with fruity performances from guest stars Matt Lucas and Greg Davies and some dazzlingly brilliant plot turns, such as the revelation that Scratch is planning on delivering the diamond to King Hydroflax as a tribute.

A lot is asked of the effects department here and they mainly deliver, cutting away from some of the more gruesome head-related activities no doubt both in the name of propriety and keeping the budget down to a manageable level. Even more than usual, the set design and dressing is absolutely gorgeous from the cheekily repurposed Trap Street to the claustrophobic surgeon’s table to the opulent decks of the ship Harmony and Redemption.

It’s when the Doctor and River leave the ship that the story starts to come off the rails slightly. Knowing the form of these things pretty well, and having thoroughly enjoyed the story so far, I had already thought to myself that what would elevate it to greatness would be a perfectly judged moment of pain, pathos or gloom. Actually, what happens is a little fuzzier than that. The clean plotting starts to fray at the edges when River and the Doctor take it in turns to pilot the TARDIS on and off the bridge of the doomed star liner, and the Doctor’s attitude to the widespread death and destruction seems uncharacteristically callous as well. Sure, there were a lot of rotters on board, but were none of them past redemption? And what about the cooks, cleaners, accountants, engineers and what-not?

It’s not like the script is fighting to pack every last detail into the remaining few seconds either. In fact, Moffat squanders the dizzying narrative momentum he’s built up and lazily coasts for the last ten minutes of the episode. It’s at this stage that we’re invited to consider the River Song flowchart in a bit more detail, and I’m not absolutely sure it makes sense. This was advertised as the first meeting between the two (from River’s point of view) and it’s implied that she’s borrowed TARDISes of earlier Doctors without them noticing. It also seems as if she recognised Tennant and Smith because she had publicity photos of them, not because she is able to sense who they truly are, regardless of what face they wear.

But she seems to have fallen prey to that old fan-trap of thinking that the twelve regeneration limit means twelve faces, when of course it actually means thirteen, so there’s no reason for her not to have a picture of Capaldi too. And then, it turns out that this is actually their penultimate meeting – next time will be the Library and then it’s all over. But, for some reason, the pain of this revelation doesn’t quite resonate. After he has targeted the correct audience with laser-like precision for most of the episode, we’re suddenly being asked to applaud the writer’s neurotic box-ticking as he reminds us of every detail of Silence in the Library. It’s a slightly limp end to an episode which spent most of its running time fizzing with invention.

Ultimately, however, the first three-quarters is so hugely enjoyable, from Capaldi’s antlers to his doing bigger on the inside “properly” to the demented Hydroflax story to the final “hello sweetie” that I can’t bring myself to knock off more than half a star.

On to The Force Awakens, which I saw at the BFI IMAX despite the best efforts of the Odeon website to prevent me from so doing. I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the Star Wars series as many of my contemporaries. A school friend took a bunch of us to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema when I was 11 and for him it was the most exciting thing in the world, but I was a bit bewildered about all the fuss. Of course, I saw the wretched prequel trilogy in the cinemas, and roundly detested every one of them, but like everyone else, I settled down with a growing sense of optimism to watch this new incarnation.

Is it any good? Well, compared to what? Obviously it can’t hope to equal, or even come close to the era-defining, cultural-warping, iconic cataclysm of the first film. But also obviously, no-one really expected it to repeat the colossal errors of judgement of the prequel trilogy either. What JJ Abrams has done, for sure, is to leave the franchise in a better state than he found it. Disney’s multi-billion dollar investment is certainly safe and the movie will probably stand up quite nicely to further viewings. But is this the work of a maverick genius, boldly reinvisioning the series and creating whole swathes of new lore? Hardly? For once, I find myself in perfect agreement with usually demented contrarian Julian Simpson who commented “It’s like someone lent JJ Abrams a priceless old Ferrari and, instead of putting his foot down and seeing what this fucker can do, he’s driven it round the block at 20mph for fear of scratching the paintwork.”

It might be worth pausing for a moment to reflect on JJ Abrams’s relationship with Stars Trek and Wars. Regardless of the necrophiliac karaoke gibberish of Into Darkness, Abrams was probably the ideal director to resurrect this ailing franchise – his TV background, obvious talent for character and action, and his success with Mission Impossible III allied with his total lack of any reverence for the Trek universe meant that he could create a new version of the series which would resonate with an audience of Trek-lovers and Trek-agnostics alike.

But Abrams loves Star Wars, grew up watching it, played with the toys, read the spin-offs and then suffered as we all did when the prequels came out. His challenge, a much greater one than he faced with Star Trek, is to recreate the series without feeling like he is treading on egg-shells.

As a movie, it works very well. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega effortlessly carry the show, with new droid BB8 a worthy successor to R2D2. The Luke Skywalker map McGuffin does its job and the action sequences, especially in the first half, work very well indeed, with the Millennium Falcon dogfight on Jakku being a particular highlight. The one truly revisionist touch – Boyega’s stormtrooper defecting from the First Order – brilliantly sets the plot in motion, even if Oscar Isaac’s rather colourless Poe Dameron is clumsily removed from the narrative simply in order to be fed back in later.

As a nostalgia-fest sequel that’s been 25 years in the making, it also works fantastically well. Harrison Ford’s reintroduction with Chewie at his side gave me a warm glow and the use of Solo and Leia’s own off-spring as the chief villain (not to mention Solo’s untimely despatch) manages to echo the original trilogy without actually duplicating it.

However, an enormous amount of the run-time is devoted to things we’ve already seen in the original three movies. Most obvious and most egregious is that substitution of the Death Star with the basically identical only much bigger, but also far more easily-defeated Starkiller Base. Then we have the familial light-saber duel, a spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Grand Old Jedi at the end of his years, etc and so forth. There’s not a lot wrong with this, but when the creative team is obviously so comfortable in the Star Wars universe, it’s a damn shame they didn’t do a bit more than just rearrange the furniture a little.

A few other quibbles – Finn’s reaction to the death around him on Jakku, conveyed brilliantly with almost no dialogue, is a wonderful motivation for his character. But he then proceeds to indiscriminately slaughter fellow stormtroopers from his initial escape onwards, with rather undermines his nobility. Captain Phasma’s wonderful name and high profile casting led me to believe that rather more would be done with her character, but in fact she gets three or four bland scenes which add nothing and Gwendoline Christie’s charisma is rather hard to spot under that chrome helmet. And if the First Order is, as the opening crawl implies, a rag-tag band of disgruntled former soldiers, why do they appear to have the full might and discipline of the former Empire?

Anyway, what we have here is a cautious new beginning, which nevertheless contains great jokes, wonderful action sequences, splendid new characters, welcome cameos from the old guard (and some unnecessary ones – I’m looking at you Anthony Daniels) and the hint of a new mythos which just might keep the franchise running for the next 25 years. It’s a very good job, if not quite the bold triumph it might have been.

Happy Christmas everyone!

So… what did I think of Hell Bent?

Posted on December 13th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

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2 Stars
Are there two Steven Moffats? And does the one who wrote Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace and The Doctor Dances and Heaven Sent know about the imposter who merrily bashes out nonsense like The Wedding of River Song, The Name of the Doctor and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe?

The first Steven Moffat takes a single, strong, clear dramatic idea and focuses all of his considerable energies on to it, developing the consequences, teasing out the possibilities. Very often, a story will end in an intellectual catharsis, which can feel satisfying as the puzzle pieces click together, but his very best work also allows for an emotional catharsis: “everybody lives!”, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”, the fate of Miss Kizlet.

His rival leaps seemingly at random from setting to setting, plot point to plot point, rarely sticking with an idea long enough for us to determine whether it’s good or bad, clear or confusing, vital or irrelevant. The story will give enormous weight to a concept for a moment and then abandon it with shocking haste, and when the dust finally settles, the casual viewer might be forgiven for thinking they’ve just watched a 50 minute trailer for a seven hour movie and that it will all make sense once they’ve watched the whole thing.

SM#1 was in masterly control of Heaven Sent but he appears to have collapsed, exhausted, over the typewriter and left the job of wrapping up the whole saga to SM#2 who was in particularly ADHD mood. Let’s go through the whole jumble as briefly as we can so we can look forward to the Christmas special instead.

The Doctor is chatting to Clara in a mighty familiar looking diner, but neither seems to recognise the other, although the Doctor clearly remembers Clara and starts narrating the tale of his adventures on Gallifrey and beyond. Various Gallifreyan types learn of his arrival and are all of a tizzy. It’s not at all clear why, but it transpires they trapped him in the confession dial. So, did the Doctor produce this back in episode one in order that Gallifreyans could trap him? If not, for what purpose did he produce it? And Gallifrey, lost Gallifrey, unreachable Gallifrey at the end of the Universe, is able to – what call Ashildr on the phone and set all this up? Actually, that doesn’t seem too unlikely, since passing members of the Sisterhood of Karn can drop by any time they like – and lucky that Claire Higgins as Ohila did drop by because without her… the plot would be exactly the same.

There’s also plenty of talk about the Doctor having been trapped in the confession dial for four billion years, but of course, he will only remember the last “go-round” which for him was I think only a few days or weeks.

There follows a very, very strange sequence in which the Doctor mooches around his hut from Day of the Doctor and draws lines in the sand until everybody drops their guns. I don’t really understand what we were supposed to draw from this, but anyway the Doctor convinces Rassilon (now played by Donald Sumpter) and The General (Ken Bones) to use Gallifreyan technology to extract Clara at the moment of her death. Of course, the Doctor doesn’t want a last chat with Clara, he wants to break the laws of time to bring her back to life. Now the Laws of Time have been referred to many times on Doctor Who and it’s never been entirely clear whether they are Laws of Physics (you literally can’t go against them) or Laws of Propriety (it’s frowned upon to violate them). Usually, it’s stated that there may be dire consequences for the universe if they are ignored, and so generally they are obeyed.

Here, they are flagrantly disobeyed, there is much talk of the Universe unravelling but past a certain point, nobody seems to give a shit anymore and the Universe appears to carry on as it always does. What a wonderful dramatic climax to twelve weeks of television!

Then, to execute this plan, the Doctor motherfucking shoots Ken Bones to death with a Gallifreyan staser. Everything is wrong about this. That single shot of the Doctor aiming that gun and pulling the trigger is wrong. (SM#1 knows this perfectly well, hence the enormity of the cliffhanger of episode one of this series.) The Doctor’s assertion that death to a Time Lord is the equivalent of a bad cold is absolutely contradicted by every single time we’ve seen a Time Lord face death on this show. And it’s certainly been made clear that a Time Lord can fail to regenerate quickly enough and so die for good a long time before all thirteen bodies are used up, so we are expected to believe that Gallifreyan Palace Guards carry weapons which are effectively useless against Gallifreyans. It’s painfully obvious that the only point of this scene is to underline in red felt tip pen for those who haven’t got it yet that a female Doctor is possible within the rules of the show. As if Michelle Gomez hasn’t made that point abundantly clear already. Ugh. Horrible.

Following a quick tour of the Doctor Who Experience which is badly in need of a spring-clean, our heroes steal a pleasingly retro TARDIS and head off to parts unknown. Now the Doctor begins his desperate plan to bring Clara back to life, but to pull it off, he’s going to need a bit of magic kit to do a re-run of the trick he pulled on Donna, for which he had no need of the magic kit. And there isn’t a “this way up” on the magic kit so he doesn’t know if he’s going to zap himself or Clara. So we get the final switcheroo at the end – the Doctor has forgotten Clara (or at least what she looks like (or at least until he makes it back to the TARDIS)) and not the other way round.

Why? What’s the point of any of it? What does any of it mean?

Anyway… Jenna Coleman does much with very little, Peter Capaldi never once gives away that he’s speaking pure gibberish, it’s nice to see Maisie Williams again, even if like Claire Higgins, nothing she says or does affects the plot in any way at all, there’s lots of talk of hybrids, but we never meet one (or rather we meet various vague candidates for one, none of which really live up to the hype) and I think Gallifrey is back now, so hurrah, probably.

This isn’t quite as bewildering as The Wedding of River Song or The Time of the Doctor but it’s a big big let-down at the end of a by-and-large stunningly good season. I suppose it was never boring, and the retro TARDIS was a bit of a treat, as was the thought of Ashildr and Clara charging around the universe in it, but this was such a mess, I can’t possibly give it more than two stars. I probably enjoyed it more than the dreary Sleep No More, but season finales are held to a higher standard.

So, my final order is as follows…

1. The Zygon Inversion
= Heaven Sent
3. Under the Lake
= The Zygon Invasion
5. The Magician’s Apprentice
= Face the Raven
7. The Witch’s Familiar
= Before the Flood
= The Girl Who Died
= The Woman Who Lived
11. Sleep No More
12. Hell Bent

Once again, if I compare my ratings to the averages over on Gallifrey Base, we find the following order from best to worst…

1. Heaven Sent
2. The Zygon Inversion
3. Face the Raven
4. Under the Lake
5. The Witch’s Familiar
6. The Magician’s Apprentice
7. The Zygon Invasion
8. Before the Flood
9. Hell Bent
10. The Girl Who Died
11. The Woman Who Lived
12. Sleep No More

So, fandom at large was a bit happier with The Witch’s Familiar, and a bit kinder to Hell Bent, but took a bit longer to get on board the Peter Harness train than me. What these numbers don’t reveal is how much fandom (as measured by Gallifrey Base) adored Heaven Sent, which got 51% ten-out-of-tens. Wow.

So… what did I think of Heaven Sent?

Posted on December 2nd, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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5 Stars

Let’s have another talk about formal constraints. In my review of Sleep No Bore, I referred to the handful of classic series episodes featuring only the regular cast. I could also have mentioned episode one of The Ark in Space or even episode one of The Space Museum. At this moment of course, the regular cast is only Peter Capaldi, so also relevant to this week’s episode is The Deadly Assassin. Tom Baker had “inherited” Lis Sladen but by the time she had decided to go, he was supremely confident in the role and had begun to wonder whether his next companion could be something other than a spunky young girl (most sources say he suggested a talking cabbage among other notions). Or whether in fact he needed a companion at all. Yes, of course you do, argued producer Philip Hinchcliffe, with one eye on the door marked “Exit” and to prove the point, commissioned a story with no companion. Unfortunately, he asked Robert Holmes to write it who was absolutely at the peak of his powers, and the story which resulted (although hated at the time for its revisionist attitude towards established continuity) is now seen as a stone cold classic. We will return to the subject of how to depict Gallifrey next time…

However, 45 minutes with only one actor (depending on how you count) is hard enough if the goal is something like Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads, but to attempt the same thing in an action-adventure-sci-fi drama is little short of insanity. But Steven Moffat can never be faulted for lacking ambition, and is hugely interested himself in structural devices and formal games, so this is another intricate puzzle box of a script.

Let’s have a talk about those. The potential drawbacks of puzzle box stories are two-fold. Firstly, they are very hard to pull off. Like a good joke, their purpose is to guide you towards a moment of insight where various elements of the narrative suddenly coalesce. If you fumble that moment of insight (either because the resolution is very easy to see coming or because it’s just complete gibberish, or both as in The Wedding of River Song) then the whole construction of your story starts to collapse. But even if you do pull this off, there’s the danger that the experience is rather an empty one, because the need to preserve the twist has distorted the story in so many other areas, and there isn’t room for any emotional catharsis or the usual thrilling-escape-from-death stuff. Blink is the perfect example of the form, and as this blog has previously noted, rather a millstone around the show-runner’s neck.

Returning director Rachel Talaly certainly makes the most of the visual storytelling which the script requires of her. The shots of the castle stranded out at sea, and the underwater material are particularly striking (even if I’m absolutely sure that Capaldi never even got his hair wet). And if the Veil is a bit of a standard issue shambling man-in-a-suit monster, well this is Doctor Who after all. The problem-solving monologues in the imaginary TARDIS are a neat spin on Sherlock Holmes’s mind palace, and I will accept the memories of Clara as falling short of her resurrection, so Face the Raven keeps its four stars for now.

As the final pennies drop, and the reason for the Doctor’s seemingly demented physical attack on the azbantium wall becomes clear, the solution to the puzzle box is married with an appalling sense of just what an enormous cost this victory has come at. Fans of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day may be interested to know that in Danny Rubin’s rather darker original screenplay, it was clear the Phil Connors was trapped not just for a few decades but thousands or even millions of years.

Just before we move on to the final scenes, a few quick points. Firstly, as with the Chronolock last week, the rules aren’t especially clear. It’s established fairly early on that everything in the castle resets itself, but the skulls in the sea outside don’t (so after two billion years, they should be high above the water-line, surely?) and neither – luckily for the Doctor – does that azbantium wall. Secondly, I’m not sure what the second law of thermodynamics has to say about each of the Doctor’s bodies containing enough energy to generate the next one, but with a skull left over each time.

Finally, as well as liking puzzles more than dramatic resolutions, I’ve also taken Steven Moffat to task this year for storytelling loops or narrative vamping. Pages of script which might be full of jokes and incident but do nothing to advance the plot, because they keep one or more characters in a “holding pattern” or return them unchanged to their starting point. I will be very interested to see just how relevant this episode is to next week’s, or whether in fact one could go from the end of Raven to the beginning of Hell, apparently missing nothing.

What makes me suspicious is the reveal that this castle of horrors was the Doctor’s own confession dial. This is presented as an explanation but in fact it is anything but. It raises far more questions, chiefly if this was the Doctor’s own confession dial, then why are its workings a mystery to him? And we still don’t have an answer to the question of why he sent it to Missy in the first place.

Standing alone from the rest of the season, this is a mighty achievement. Funny, excited, impossible to get ahead of, and with a resolution that actually makes sense, while proudly brandishing its absurd ambition. It’s clearly worth five stars if only for Capaldi’s titanic performance and if next week’s episode ends up tarnishing it a little, I will take my disappointment out on the story total score rather than downgrading this one.

Eleven down, one to go…

So… what did I think of Face the Raven?

Posted on December 2nd, 2015 in Culture | 1 Comment »

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4 Stars

Now the structure of the season starts to reveal itself. The over-familiar gibberish of Sleep No More is not going to be redeemed by a second episode which ties everything up. Actually, what we’re heading in to is a three-part finale. Just as well, the nonsense of last week is probably best forgotten.

But even if last week isn’t being referenced, events from earlier this season and indeed, last season, certainly are. Capaldi and Coleman practically waltz into the TARDIS, chattering happily about unseen adventures. This is a little on-the-nose – an even more extreme version of Ten and Rose’s smug self-satisfaction around the time of Fear Her, all designed to set up the tragedy of Doomsday. So it’s pretty clear what we’re heading towards.

Early on, though this is pretty much business-as-usual. In what is becoming quite a familiar Moffat-trope, the TARDIS lands in response to a telephone call from an old friend. This time it’s Joivan Wade’s chirpy Rigsy from last year’s excellent Flatline who is now in possession of an unseen wife and daughter and a suitably creepy countdown tattoo.

The search for the source of this is a little bit plodding, a little bit procedural, for modern Doctor Who. And I must slightly take issue with some of nomenclature. Including made-up details in factual compendiums to guard against copyright theft is certainly a real thing. A trivia book compiler invented the fact that Lt Columbo’s first name was Philip for a book he published in the 1970s which enabled him to show that his book had been ripped off by the makers of Trival Pursuit years later (although in fact he lost the case).

So, I’m perfectly happy that a street which is shown on a map but which you can’t walk down is known as a Trap Street, but it seems a little odd to use that same terminology to describe a street which is not shown on a map but which you can walk down. And anyway, as pretty much every fan in the world has noticed, the correct name for this street is Diagon Alley.

Here we find Maisie Williams returning as – are we really supposed to call her “Mayor Me”? And the true nature of the street is gradually revealed. It’s a refugee camp for stranded aliens and Maisie rules it with a rod of iron because she can’t risk any funny business. Most of this works, but it feels like Jenga storytelling to me – pull out too many of the pieces and have a look at them it all starts to fall apart a bit.

The aliens use the same misdirection trick as the street to appear human. But why? The point of the street is that they are all aliens, but the street is inaccessible to humans. They know they aren’t human and no human will ever see them. Also, why doesn’t the trick work on Anah’s second face which seems to be visible throughout? And what’s the point of sentencing someone to death, sending them home so they can set their affairs in order, but wiping their memory so that they no longer know they’re going to die? Maisie must have been very sure Rigsy was going to call the Doctor and that’s a bit of stretch. And how are we to square her protestations that nobody was supposed to die with her cold-hearted execution of the convicted criminal earlier in the episode?

The rules of the Chronolock seem to be that if person A is Chronolocked then Maisie has the power to cancel it. Person B can agree to have the Chronolock transferred to them at any time, but presumably can’t give it back to Person A again, and once transferred, Maisie loses the power to cancel it. Okay, I guess, but this all seems terrifically arbitrary and doesn’t really make any sense except to set up the ending.

But in the last fifteen minutes, none of this really seems to matter. Terrific performances from Capaldi, Coleman, Williams and Wade sell the emotional content of the situation and Clara’s death when it comes is really affecting, aided by some of the very best CGI that the series has ever used – that horrible black smoke curling out of the lips of the executed is totally convincing. Almost as chilling is the Doctor’s cold, muted reaction. He grimly straps on the teleport and disappears to…

So let’s finally have a quick chat about cliff-hangers. The point of a cliff-hanger is to leave the audience wondering “what will happen next?” This can be done by subjecting the hero to a mortal threat or by using the next surprise which the narrative has to offer. If you pick the latter, then you have two choices. You can pose only the question – have the villain take off his mask but then cut to the hero murmuring “You…?” before we smash into the credits. Or you can reveal the shocking answer and let the audience mull the ramifications for the next seven days. Obviously, the first of these is rather easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily less effective. It was a surprise to me that the credits appeared when they did. The confession dial returns at least, so maybe now we’ll have some kind of an explanation as to just what it was and why the Doctor sent it to Missy.

Okay, so a rather plodding first third, a rather muddled middle third, but a full-bloodied, totally committed final act. I’d certainly rather have it that way around. As an exit for one of the series’ longest-running companions it works very well indeed. (From first appearance to last appearance it’s been over three years if you count Asylum of the Daleks and she’s done 35 episodes, most of which were complete stories. Amy Pond counts 33 episodes over two and a half years and among classic companions, only K9, Sarah Jane Smith and Jamie McCrimmon come anywhere close.)

That’s four stars – on the absolute proviso that Clara Oswald stays dead. If they resurrect her in any meaningful way I’m taking off a whole star, maybe more. This is the first time a companion has actually, properly died since Adric and that needs to be given a little bit of respect. If Moffat tries to Rory her, I won’t be happy.

(Sorry this is so late – Heaven Sent is coming now.)

So… what did I think of Sleep no Morezzzz….

Posted on November 16th, 2015 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

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2.5 Stars

I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.

Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).

In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.

So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?

From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.

What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.

When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!

Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.

And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.

All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.

Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.

So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.

So… what did I think of The Zygon Inversion?

Posted on November 12th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

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5 Stars

Another hugely promising opening episode. Could it be that we were finally about to… invert the trend?

Rather than being a story of two halves like basically everything else so far this season, Peter Harness’s script for part two (like The Woman Who Lived, co-written with the show-runner) keeps up the momentum inherited from the opener, only letting up just before the end in a scene which many are already calling a highlight of the revived series. And I agree!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The opening scenes with Jenna Coleman in a bafflingly generic flat are very Steven Moffat (think Last Christmas or Forest of the Dead) but none the worse for that, and it’s a great way of keeping Clara “alive” and active while Bonnie gets all the best lines. The Doctor’s escape from the plane is absurd, but no more absurd than the Bond film that the Doctor’s Union Jack parachute is surely a nod to – and the Doctor and Kate Stewart are reunited.

Obviously Kate’s resurrection is a bit of a cheat too, but the lovely wink to the fans helps this potentially bitter pill slip down beautifully – the Harry Sullivan references were great as well. Along the way, the Zygons use some social media to spread fear and uncertainty among humans and invaders alike, in a scene which was maybe the only one to strike a wrong note. The make-up job seemed to keep coming and going and I struggled to care about the plight of this guy we’d barely even met.

But anyway, we’re all set for the grand show-down. It’s entirely appropriate that the Doctor impersonates Hughie Green early in the proceedings. This is the world’s deadliest game-show and the careful pacing which allows this scene to play out for (I haven’t timed it, sorry) something like 6-7 minutes is just one of the many things to admire about the writing and production of this fantastic two-parter.

I rewatched Day of the Doctor recently and pretty much stand by my review, although it seemed a little less frantic on second viewing. Clearly the Zygon accord and the methods by which it was achieved warranted a little more time however, and to be able to unpack all the intricacies of this peace-keeping was marvellous.

Pitting Kate Stewart against Bonnie and also the Doctor is particularly interesting. Daughter of a solider, but UNIT’s scientific advisor – inheriting the Doctor’s role, not her old dad’s – which side will she fall on? It seems more interesting somehow that she should continue to believe that offence is the best defence, but equally that leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth when I think of noble Nick Courtney. It’s a bit humiliating that she ends the scene collapsed and brain-wiped, but that’s better I think than the lie of her becoming a peace-loving hippie or the unpleasantness of portraying her as a warmongering psychopath.

Bonnie and Clara form a fantastic pair here, with Jenna Coleman doing her best-ever work in the series, and the details of the two boxes with their two buttons manage to be a genuinely interesting and credible bluff (as opposed to something which seems cool at first but then turns out to be utter nonsense – Doctor Who has always had a weakness for these).

But this would count for nothing if it was a mere logic problem, and exercise in game theory, a crossword puzzle. Having a mystery to solve elevates proceedings, keeping all the players off-balance as well as keeping the audience guessing, but the point – the real point – is that maintaining a peace means that those with the power to wage war have to actually want peace, really want it. The Doctor doesn’t need to outsmart Bonnie and her gang of murderous blobby things. He needs to change their minds. And Peter Capaldi relishes every glorious word of this magnificent scene. There have been quite a few climactic scenes like this is Doctor Who from Tom Baker’s impassioned appeal to Magnus Greel, to Sylvester McCoy’s infamous “CND speech” in Battlefield but this one might just be the best of them all.

Finally, Bonnie is reborn as Osgood 3.0 in a coda which strikes a suitably hopeful note, while never forgetting just how fucking difficult this kind of peace is to create and to maintain. It’s lovely stuff throughout, making hugely effective use of the series recent and more distant past, while creating a ripped-from-the-headlines adventure which doesn’t feel like it will date. Daniel Nettheim directs with the vigour the series is now known for and the rest of the production team is on top form.

So, as we pass the half-way point, this is the first cast-iron classic of Series Nine. I have no hesitation in awarding this episode and the two-parter as a whole five stars. Peter Harness for show-runner? He’s run Wallander. Just sayin…