Homemade Pizza

Posted on June 12th, 2020 in recipes | No Comments »

Making pizza at home is one of those things I’d wanted to do for ages, and being in lockdown was the spur I needed. That and discovering the secret of no-knead pizza dough as I’m not blessed with a stand mixer nor the patience to knead bread dough for twenty minutes. Here’s what worked for me.

Equipment

You will need…

  • A pizza stone or a pizza steel. This is a lump of metal or stone with the ability to absorb a lot of heat. It simulates the cooking from below that a pizza sitting on the floor of a wood burning stove would get. Some people use both in combination. A steel is more expensive, and I got a stone because I’m cheap, which is why my pizzas, although crisp on the bottom, are still very pale. Mine cost about £25.
  • A pizza peel. Don’t under-estimate the importance of this bit of kit. Transferring a pizza from the worktop to the stone/steel is very tricky without it. Mine cost about £40 and has a nifty handle which rotates under it for easy storage.
  • Some kind of blender or liquidiser for the tomato sauce.

The principle here is to let time do the work for us. So this has the benefit of requiring very little time actively spent making pizza, but you do have to plan ahead. If you’re starting this Monday morning, the earliest you’ll have pizza is Wednesday lunchtime.

Dough ingredients

Makes four small pizzas

  • 500g flour. I use strong white bread flour but you can use almost anything.
  • ¼ tsp active dry yeast (yes, that’s all you need)
  • 2 tsp fine salt
  • 350ml water

This couldn’t be easier. Put the ingredients in a bowl and stir them together. The result will look like a shaggy mess, but you don’t have to get everything incorporated. Just stir until there isn’t any dry flour left. Then cover with a tea towel and leave on the kitchen workbench for 8-24 hours. Active time spent so far: five minutes.

At the end of this time, your shaggy bowl of nonsense will have transformed into a much more homogenous, but still very sticky dough. Pizza nerds will tell you that this dough has a 70% hydration, which is another way of saying it’s very sticky. Generously flour the worksurface and your hands. Turn out the dough, ball it up, and divide it into four. Shape each quarter into a ball and put in a Tupperware container or bowl covered with clingfilm and stash in the fridge for another 8 hours or up to a week. Active time spent so far: 10-15 minutes depending on if you count cleaning the work surface, washing up the bowl etc.

Sauce

During one of these intervals, you can start thinking about sauce. A few experiments taught me that I prefer a raw tomato sauce – it gets plenty of cooking on the pizza in the oven. Whole canned tomatoes have better flavour than the chopped variety but tend to be watery. I dump the can of tomatoes into a bowl, fish out the tomatoes, leaving the juice (presumably made from less good quality tomatoes), spoon them into a liquidiser and blitz them for 20 seconds or so. Even this tends to give me a sauce which is too watery, so I transfer the pulverised tomatoes into a sieve and strain off most of the water until I end up with two or three tablespoons of richly flavoursome tomato goodness. To this I add a generous pinch of salt, a slightly less generous pinch of black pepper, a half teaspoon of sugar and a whole teaspoon of oregano or dried mixed herbs. One 420g can makes about enough sauce for one pizza, but it’s as easy to do two cans at a time, and you can stash the sauce in the fridge next to the containers of dough. This all takes about another ten minutes including the washing up. With dough balls and tomato sauce in the fridge, you can have a pizza ready to eat in only about twenty minutes, with over half of that spent watching it cook in the oven.

Pizza

Okay – it’s pizza day. First, put your pizza stone on the top rack of your oven and crank it up as high as it will go. With my oven, that’s 275 degrees. Leave it there for 45 minutes. Now, assemble your pizza station. I prefer my mozzarella finely chopped or grated as opposed to in big slices. About 50g per pizza. Do that first, as well as any other toppings you want.

Now, sprinkle flour and/or semolina on your pizza peel, and flour on your work surface. Plop a dough ball out on to the floured worktop and start pressing and stretching it out as thin as you can get it. Once it’s nice and thin and round(ish), quickly lift it up and drop it on the peel. Give the peel a shake to make sure it isn’t sticking. Work fast! It will stick eventually and then you are completely screwed.

Spoon on the tomato sauce and spread it almost to the edges, then any other toppings you want, then the cheese. Carry the pizza on the peel to the oven and jiggle it off onto the hot stone. Every oven is different, but I’ve settled on 12 minutes to get the crust a nice colour and all the cheese melted. It will go faster if you turn the grill on, but then there’s the risk that the underside of the crust won’t get crisp.

Grab some tongs and yank the cooked pizza off the stone onto a plate or cooling rack and now you can start work on the second pizza. Do not let a fully assembled pizza sit on the peel while the pizza ahead of it cooks. It will stick and you will have no way of removing it intact.

Here’s the result of a recent batch. Light, crispy, chewy, salty, cheesy and pretty much perfect.

Coping and how I’m doing it

Posted on April 1st, 2020 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The COVID-19/Novel Coronavirus worldwide pandemic has changed everything and everyone is finding their own way of coping.

I’m not sure to what end, but I thought I would put down a few observations about my own personal strategies – possibly as a marker to look back on next week, next month or next year.

In many ways, the stay indoors, socially isolate, talk to people mainly over the Internet lifestyle sounds a lot like my preferred way of living. But it turns out there’s an awfully big difference between a lifestyle chosen and a lifestyle enforced.

In the Before Times, my week was rather unstructured and quite unpredictable. Some days would see me up early, suit on, and meeting corporate clients or delivering workshops or seminars at banks, law firms, ad agencies or the like. Some days I would be meeting friends, talking about creative projects such as a new play, or being the public face of one of our podcasts. We maintain an office in Camden so some days I would be there, cranking through admin, talking to Gina or Alex or Ned about future plans, or meeting our bookkeeper or accountant. When I’m editing podcasts, I prefer to work from home. Some of these “edit days” are spent entirely in my dressing gown. Often, I end up working late and at weekends, so I’m rarely up early unless I need to be. I’m blessed with living only a 40-minute walk from the West End, so sometimes I’ll walk into town to see a movie.

I’ve learned that what I need to keep myself happy and rested – since I don’t get weekends off in any meaningful way – is one “snow day” per month. On this day I need never get dressed if I don’t feel like it, and spend most of my waking hours eating cheese and watching old movies / Doctor Who episodes. It’s preferable for all concerned if I’m alone in the house.

Suddenly, in the last two weeks, all of that has changed. And I’ve had to change with it. So I’ve made some deliberate choices about my schedule which may be the opposite of what you’ve done if you previously had a fairly strictly routined working life.

I’m setting my alarm for 8:30am every morning, and trying to do 20 minutes on the exercise bike each day, starting no later than 9:30am. Since I get most of my exercise from walking, and I won’t be doing as much of that, this seems like a sensible way to burn some calories, and not just spend the day in bed. Then, I shower, shave and dress. I rarely wear t-shirts in any case, so I’m typing this in a business shirt with cufflinks. If I’m not seeing people I don’t live with, I sometimes don’t shave for several days. That can’t happen anymore. With no access to a hairdresser either, that way madness lies. I’m not prepared to come out of hibernation looking like the wild man of Borneo. (Is that an okay thing to say?)

10:30am to 6:00pm are working hours – this includes editing podcasts, but it also includes all the other usual things: replying to emails, updating websites, financial planning, conference calls and so on. At 12:00pm on Monday and Friday, we have a regular company catch-up (there are five of us) so we can stay sane, stay connected, and plan together. At 6:00pm every weekday, Deborah is recording her Instagram Live series “The New Normal” so I can be on hand to help with that and when she’s up and running, I can sign off for the day.

I’m making a real effort to keep the flat tidy and stack the dishwasher and/or wash the dishes each night. We’re continuing to pay our cleaner – who used to come three times a week! – but she’s no longer visiting our home and cleaning it. Coming downstairs to a clean kitchen is a good and important start to the day. Going to the supermarket involved queueing outside for twenty minutes (standing 2m away from the person in front) but once inside, most items were available and most shelves looked well-stocked.

I suddenly have a very active virtual social life! I spent one evening with old university friends on Zoom, celebrated a friend’s birthday on House Party and I’m looking into whether it might be possible for my monthly poker game to go ahead virtually.

I’m trying to do as little work as possible in the evenings and at the weekend. Often, Monday’s Guilty Feminist has to be uploaded on a Sunday evening, and that’s fine, and we’re planning on recording an episode of Best Pick on Saturday. But last weekend I mainly spent watching Pixar’s Onward (very good) and Tiger King on Netflix (with friends on House Party for bants).

It’s just over one week in and this is working for me so far. I know I’m lucky. I have no kids I’m trying to home school, I have money in the bank (at least for now), I have a wonderful partner to go through this with me, a team of motivated and talented people working on our business and a pleasant home environment with fast Internet and three adorable cats. Many people around the country are far worse off than me, which is why I’ve also filled in the form to volunteer for the NHS Responders. I’ll let you know how that goes soon.

Stay safe. Stay indoors. Wash your hands.

Doctor Who Series 12 Overview

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Fuck me, that was rough.

My final rankings are as follows…

Best of a profoundly sorry bunch was The Haunting of Villa Diodati (4 out of 5 stars) which actually had some thematic unity and dramatic power to it.

Praxeus (4 out of 5 stars) and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (3.5 out of 5 stars) are thin but they basically work. Spyfall (3 out of 5 stars) was nonsense but it was fastmoving and the surprise reveal of The Master was well-handled. Can You Hear Me(2.5 out of 5 stars) and Orphan 55 (2 out of 5 stars) are both mis-fires. Ascension of the Cybermen (2.5 out of 5 stars) showed some promise, but the finale isn’t worth any stars at all because it wasn’t a story. Fugitive of the Judoon was the story I enjoyed most as it was on, despite its maddening flaws. Whether it’s still worth the 4.5 stars I gave it then is up for debate.

This compares to the noble burghers of GallifreyBase as follows. Averaging their scores out of ten, we get the following. They put Fugitive top with 8/10, then Villa Diodati close behind on 7.9. Ascension and the two parts of Spyfall are next, all scoring in the mid-7s. TeslaThe Timeless Children and Can You Hear Me are all in the mid-sixes and Praxeus gets 6.1 before Orphan 55 rounds out the series with a pretty poor 4.8. What these averages don’t reveal is the enormous number of ones (balanced by a fair few nines and tens) for the finale which really has proven to be divisive.

At the end of his first series “I don’t read reviews” Chibnall suddenly seemed to realise that his plan to treat this as a brand new programme with no past, and to never reference the show’s 57 year history had been an error and so he threw the lever so far back in the other direction it snapped off in his hand. What the hell this means for Series Thirteen is anyone’s guess. I suppose I’ll still be watching. And hoping.

 

The Tiresome Children

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

This isn’t so much a review as a collection of disorganised rambling thoughts. I can only assume Chris Chibnall would approve.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who appears to be incapable of structuring a story. The companions are once again shunted off into a side quest which is boring on its face (running away from Cybermen, hiding from Cybermen, mysteriously not being shot dead by Cybermen). The Doctor is completely passive throughout. Absurd plot elements such as a so-called “death particle” are introduced arbitrarily, their abilities never defined, and then they are written out when convenient.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who appears to be allergic to drama. If we absolutely have to disinter the foundations of the central character and make what was once so appealing – those lovely mysterious origins – so much more prosaic and dull, then could we not at least find some way to do it which has a bit more power to it than the Doctor being shown a slide show? And how does the Doctor escape from her confinement? She plays herself a clip compilation of old episodes of Doctor Who. Does she literally fanwank herself out of jail??

The current showrunner of Doctor Who has decided to have three companions and has forgotten why. I don’t think we even see Ryan back on Earth. Why should we bother? He’s a nothing character. A space where a person might be.

The current showrunner of Doctor Who is impervious to the dramatic possibilities of his own ideas. Committing, for whatever boneheaded reason to putting a piece of the Doctor’s DNA inside every Time Lord, he then continues to write a story in which there’s a piece of Time Lord in every Cyberman, but the implications of this are never addressed because let’s just blow them all up instead. Not by the Doctor though, ugh, yuck, violence. Let’s have someone else do it instead. Hurrah. I love happy endings. Never cowardly or cruel! Run away and have them all blown up by someone else. Look for a third way? Why bother?

And the stupidity mounts up and up and up. Two of the companions and some other people I couldn’t give a shit about are trapped on an impossibly vast Cyber battle cruiser. Some of the Cybermen have been activated to go and kill humans on the planet below. How many? Not sure. What about the rest? Never specified.

The humans have been detected by Cyber technology so they need to hide – and quick. Luckily, they come up with a plan to very slowly and laboriously dismantle the dormant Cybermen they happen to be standing next to. Hide all the (apparently odourless) body parts they’ve had to scoop out from the inside. Then climb inside the suits – what do you know, they’re all a perfect fit – and stand and wait for Ashad the hero Cyberman to do his rounds. On the countless floors of this enormous ship, WHICH HAS SENSORS TO DETECT HUMANS, he finally wanders into the bit where the humans actually are, potters around a bit sniffing the Cybermen and then just leaves. Phew. Now our plucky humans can escape to the planet’s surface. Not before, that would have been silly. How do they get there? Never specified.

This, for one reviewer, was the highlight of the episode.

And I could go on, and on, and on. Try as I might, I can’t bring myself to care about the Doctor’s previous lives. Clearly the interesting version of the Doctor is the one who decided to steal a TARDIS and go on the run. Previous versions apparently just obediently did what they were programmed to do by a higher power – you know the way The Doctor never would. In fact, the insight which allows the Whittaker Doctor to get her shit together and dive back into the fray (for all the good that does) is that her past doesn’t define her. How can it? Her memory of being all those other incarnations has been wiped. So, it hasn’t changed her at all, then? And all that build up was for… nothing, I guess. Why should we care? Why should she care? Why should anyone care about all this bullshit?

It hasn’t “broken the show”, because it’s all just demented fan theory nonsense that doesn’t mean anything either while it’s on, or for the future of the programme, or its past. But I guess at least we know where Chris Chibnall stands on the Morbius Faces Debate now. Next year – the UNIT DATING REVELATION THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING. “Doctor, every calendar you thought you knew, was a lie.” Etc, etc. Continued on page 94.

And I’m sorry Sasha, but I’m really bored of this performance now. Third time out, there’s no gas left in the tank. While Michelle Gomez’s Missy revealed layer after layer in writing and performance, this time around, the actor repeats the same pop-eyed ranting and the writer just turns the character into his own personal avatar. “You miserable fans! Quake in fear as I threaten the very nature of your realities! Ha ha ha!” He’s so keen to make the Master the hero of the story (he does have agency after all, which is more than can be said for any other character) that he has him in two places at once. Heaven forbid that the Doctor should be allowed to investigate her own back-story.

And like all good writers, with two charismatic mega-villains, facing off against each other, he just unceremoniously writes one out in a flat second when he’s run out of ideas. Ashad, the paranoid Cyberman, brilliantly played by Patrick O’Kane, reduced to a magic mega bomb to end the story with.

It’s all so stupid and pointless, that it’s barely worthwhile trying to summon up the energy to point out all the plot holes. How did the Master find Gallifrey? Never explained. How did he manage to get past their defences and kill everyone? Never explained. How does this enable him to discover the Doctor’s boring origin story? Never explained. Why are portions of Gallifrey’s darkest secret which must never be revealed to anyone because… reasons… redacted and others not? Never explained. Why is Ruth Martin swanning around as the Doctor when Brendan has no idea who he is? Never explained. Why is Brendan’s magic power to survive death by shooting and falling unscathed, when the whole point of this stupid backstory is that what makes Time Lords special is regeneration? Why did they call themselves Time Lords when they gave themselves regeneration not Time Travel? If there are countless previous incarnations of the Doctor running around the Universe, why have our Doctor and them never crossed paths before? Why does Ko Sharmus even have a bomb which can only be detonated manually? Who would make such a thing? Who would buy it? Why is the TARDIS suddenly so vulnerable to incursion? How can the Judoon suddenly identify their quarry on sight? Are we meant to be pleased that the current showrunner remembers how funny it was when an earlier showrunner had the Doctor repeatedly say “What?” during an end-of-season cliffhanger?

This is not so much a story, it’s a mad Whovian ranting his idiotic fan fiction in your face for an hour.

And that’s who’s running Doctor Who now.

Jesus suffering Christ.

Anyway, I hear Star Trek: Picard is good.

So, what did I think… oh for fuck’s sake, I can’t even…

Posted on March 2nd, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

In 1986, a teenaged Chris Chibnall appeared on BBC television to publicly criticize the 14 part serial The Trial of a Time Lord which made up the 23rd Season of Doctor Who. Now, in 2020, he is able to put his own vision of the show on screen. A vision which includes…

  • The Doctor in an incongruously colourful costume
  • The unexpected return of The Master
  • A heavy reliance on old enemies and PR-friendly guest stars
  • An alternative version of the Doctor whose provenance is uncertain, and who we don’t realize is the Doctor until later in the story
  • A desolate alien planet revealed as Earth in the far future
  • Evil capitalists who want to use human brains for their own purposes
  • An over-arching season-long storyline revolving around Gallifrey and the Time Lords, which makes it hard for casual viewers to understand or keep up.
  • Lengthy sections consisting of the Doctor watching Doctor Who via the Matrix instead of taking part in the story.
  • In the final bumper-length episode, the Doctor and the Master disappear into the Matrix, a world of illusion where it isn’t clear what’s real and what’s not (a bit like in The Deadly Assassin).

Make of that what you will.

As to the content of this episode – I mean it defies reviewing really, doesn’t it, being mainly gibberish. Not so much a sci-fi adventure story as a mad Whovian ranting his dreadful fan theories into your face for an hour. I may have some more detailed thoughts later, but for now I’m just profoundly disappointed and shocked at the vacuous inanity of it all.

And then there’s this.

So… yeah…

So… what did I think of Ascension of the Cybermen?

Posted on February 26th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Well, this seems to have gone down well with fandom as a whole. And it’s not hard to see why – classic monsters reimagined, proper jeopardy for the regulars, some Moffatian mystery with impregnable Brendan, lots of action and excitement and a doozie of a cliffhanger ending.

Me? I’m not quite so happy.

Let’s take this in stages. The basic plot begins with the Doctor arriving to save the last vestiges of humanity from the Cybermen. So far, so Utopia. The aforesaid vestiges are apparently named Ravioli, You-Alarm-Me, Fearcat, Biscuit, Fo’c’sle and – for some reason – Ethan. Nothing any of them can do, not even doughty Julie Graham, can put much life into them although Steve Toussaint does much with little.

The Doctor comes armed with a multitude of anti-Cyberman devices which she confidently deploys but none of them work. So, in plot terms, the same as if she’d turned up without them. I mean, I suppose we’ve raised the stakes a bit but we know the Cybermen are fearsome foes anyway and it’s much more in character for the Doctor to turn up in the thick of things and have to improvise. Having all her gadgets fail is not only narrative vamping (and if you like that, you’ll love the rest of the episode) it also does much more to weaken her than it does to build up the threat.

When the Cybermen make their appearance, it’s initially in the rather comical form of a swarm of flying Cyberheads. If you can stop giggling at how absurd this looks, then it’s suddenly clear that these flying drones are way more effective at finding, cornering and eliminating the humans than the slow-moving stompy Cybermen of yore. So it’s rather surprising (and convenient) that the efficient and brutal drones kill a single human and then all bugger off, job done.

The fam get split up with Graham and Yaz joining Ravioli, Biscuit and You-Alarm-Me and Graham and Yaz prove that when the chips are down a tone-deaf approach to personal trauma is all you need to get out of a sticky situation. Sadly, the script can’t make up its mind whether the plan is to vent the oxygen into space to propel them to the “safety” of a Cyberfreighter, or whether it’s instead to divert all life support power to the thrusters. It genuinely sounds as if different drafts of the script were being shot simultaneously.

Although the stuff with the Cybermen all waking up is well done (hey, cute, they look like the ones from the 1970s), the level of threat seems absurd compared to the number of humans. One Cyberman should be enough to “delete” half a dozen exhausted freedom fighters. Once you get above about six, who really cares? Having thousands just seems pointless. And just what is Ashad doing to them to make them scream? I thought he was reviving them, but in one shot, he looks like he’s murdering them.

Speaking of Ashad, his stuff with the Doctor is all much better. Again, none of this really accomplishes very much. Just as all that ultimately happens to Yaz, Graham and the numpty squad is that they move from one place where there are Cybermen to another place where there is a portal, all that ultimately happens to the Doctor and the other one is the same thing, but the Doctor and Ashad get better dialogue. Patrick O’Kane is the real MVP of this and the previous episode and Jodie Whittaker really rises to the occasion here too.

Finally, after an awful lot of running up and down corridors, we arrive at the portal. Hey! It’s Gallfrey! Oh! It’s the Master! Gosh, it’s the end of the episode. So, this is all tease and no pay-off, and it’s taken a enormous amount of screen time to accomplish precious little.

And speaking of all tease and no payoff, let’s talk about Brendan. Having channelled RTD for a lot of this series, the teaser and subsequent Brendan material is straight out of the Steven Moffat playbook – except I can’t help but think that Moffat would have got us at least to the cliff fall (very familiar looking cliffs, those, DI Hardy…) if not to the electrocution / chameleon arch / shock therapy scene before the opening titles and given us much more to go on by the episode’s end.

So as 50 minutes of television, this was profoundly unsatisfying. Lots that made very little sense. Lots of running around accomplishing nothing. No characters that really popped (although it was nice to see Ian McElhinney). And no real sense that this season arc is coming together at all. That makes this episode hard to judge on its own merits. If The Timeless Children smashes it out of the park, then that might make this seem far more effective in hindsight. If Chibnall flubs the finale, this will likely seem ever thinner. For now, 2½ stars is the most I can muster.

2.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Haunting of Villa Diodati?

Posted on February 21st, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m really conflicted about this one. Much of this was very good indeed. Frustratingly good. If this is what this team can do when they try, why have we had to suffer through so much slurry recently? But there are still lots of niggles, lots of things which smack more of fan fiction than prestige television for all the family.

Let’s start with the fact that we only have ten episodes to play with and yet we’ve got two episodes in a row in which the team are stuck in spooky situations, unsure what’s real and what’s not and menaced by animated fingers. And what on earth is the point of bringing back the cold open if you don’t actually have anything to do with it? Everybody screaming makes no sense at all. It’s just stupid.

And there probably isn’t quite enough story for 50 minutes of television. The first third is all exposition and marking time. The second third is fun-and-games in The House That Jack Built. And the final third is where things really start getting good. But it’s quite a long wait and, again, while there’s some good stuff here, there’s some pretty ropey stuff too.

The eternal problem of the trio of redundant companions hasn’t gone away. Maxine Alderton does make them sound like people – and she doesn’t make them all sound like the same person. That might be damning with faint praise, but she’s the only writer to do that so far this series. What she can’t fathom (and nor can anyone else) is how to integrate them into the storyline. Yaz, who’s the most archetypal companion anyway, does do a bit of poking around, but only during the early “marking time” sections of the plot. Ryan manages to get challenged to a pistol duel – a hugely exciting development, especially for a series which is so reluctant to put any of the regular cast in mortal danger.

(Sidebar: that’s only recently struck me, but it’s really odd. One of the reasons that the end of Spyfall Part One was so effective was that it looked like all three companions were going to die. But that’s super-unusual. One of the benefits surely of having an expanded regular cast is that it gives us a lot of people who we care about who can get into life-threatening situations and need rescuing – by the Doctor or by each other. But most of the time, they just stand around comfortably. Even when plans fail such as when Rani Not the Queen of the Racnoss comes through those doors near the end of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fact that Graham is in harm’s way doesn’t seem to be the point. Why aren’t all three of them constantly being menaced by buzz-saws, taken over by alien mind parasites, facing firing squads, being infected by spektrox nests and so on?)

But, then, in a truly bizarre bit of scripting, this terrifying turn is just forgotten about and never referred to again. Poor Graham, meanwhile is stuck in a subplot which involves him needing the loo. Thrill! As TV’s Bradley Walsh asks people where he can spend a penny. Marvel! At his inability to empty his bladder! Truly, this is our “the one with the giant maggots” moment.

And the guest cast are a bit thinly drawn too. With characters as big as Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron to play with, I would have expected a bit more dash and panache, but – as with Rosa and to some extent Tesla – this is just decent actors reading out parts of Wikipedia at each other. And it’s truly weird to have Byron in one episode and Ada Lovelace in another and have nothing more than a single line of hasty acknowledgment to cover this. Christ, maybe they need even longer to plan the series out properly.

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t like it, and it’s true, I was frustrated, but this episode had some much better stuff coming. Once the Castrovalva walls kicked in, the atmosphere was incredibly intense, and I did find myself starting to care about what happened to these bland people. We even got a couple of actual jokes. I laughed out loud at “Is it too late to pick another group?” True, Steven Moffat would have given us ten lines as good as that before the opening titles, but that doesn’t make it less funny.

And when the Lone Cyberman appears, it’s a genuine triumph of costume, make-up, performance and conception. True, it’s largely the same trick with a Cyberman which Chibnall already played with a Dalek in Resolution but it works even better here, and the Frankenstein allusions thankfully remain just that. We’re spared seeing Mary’s clunky moment of inspiration. But down in that cellar, backed into a corner, Jodie Whittaker shows us just what she can do as the Doctor, and just where the series has been taking her. It’s with only a trace of smugness that I report that her defining moment of owning the character comes through an epiphany that her three companions are essentially useless, but all of this stuff is actual proper drama. High stakes science-fiction adventure coupled with a real feeling for character and a genuine moral dilemma.

There’s a slight fumble towards the end as the Doctor first needs to retain the Cyberium and then, within the space of the same scene, needs to surrender it, but the ending is absolutely gangbusters. Of course she’d risk the universe to save one poet – not because he’s Shelley but because he’s a life. Because she’s the Doctor. Yes.

So, I’m tempted to give this five stars, overlooking all of the flaws in the first half – as I overlooked the gibberish science in Kill the Moon. But this isn’t as sure-footed as It Takes You Away or The Witchfinders, nor does it have the sheer brazen shock value of Fugitive of the Judoon. I think four is fair, but the last fifteen minutes were an easy five.

4 out of 5 stars

So… What did I think of Can You Hear Me?

Posted on February 15th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I mean at least it’s trying…

God, where to start with this one. Again, it’s a mix of old episodes tossed into a blender, with very little thought for how all the pieces are going to work together. The storybook exposition as well as the theme of nightmares put me in mind of Listen, the darkest fears bit is a lift from (among many other places) The God Complex and Amy’s Choice and there’s the now obligatory pointless references to Classic episodes, because Chibnall has now decided that he needs to do that all the time, instead of never as was his stated philosophy last season.

It’s heartening, I suppose, to see some attempt made to give the companions a bit of characterisation, and some attempt has been made to actually connect the inner lives of the TARDIS crew to the adventure story of the week, rather than putting the adventure on pause while somebody talks unconvincingly about their feelings, but the pacing and the construction of the early part of the episode is very clumsy, as everybody simultaneously has somewhere better to be, and then everybody simultaneously wants to come back on board the TARDIS again. And just what is it that Yaz and her sister a celebrating the anniversary of in this desultory way? Her suicide attempt? Who does that?

The main threat is original enough, I guess, but instead of that pleasing obvious-only-when-you-hear-it kind of originality, like the explanation in The Witch’s Familiar about why Daleks talk the way they do, or Rose being missed by her family in Aliens of London, this is just odd for its own sake. It doesn’t make sense for dreams to communicated finger-to-ear and even visually, this just looks wrong as the fingers pop off (all five although only one is needed) and sail aerodynamically towards their target before very awkwardly reversing course and then burrowing into the ear fat end first – you know, the way that fingers don’t.

And this is another episode which seems determined to weaken and diminish the Doctor. First she can’t cope with being left on her own. Then she can’t tell that The Terrible Zodin is using her to free his friend. And then, worst of all, she can’t even give poor Graham a hug. Even the conversation between Yaz and the other one at the end weakens the Doctor. Past companions have been so enriched by being their travels in the TARDIS, they can’t conceive of ever having to leave. This lot are worried that it’s making them lesser.

And the poor structuring continues. Having tried to make the companions’ nightmares a part of the actual story, Chibnall and co-writer Charlene James just give up and give us the (fairly weak) catharsis for Yaz after the main story is over. The actual climax is almost too stupid for words. The all-powerful immortal Zodin who can travel at will through time and space shits his pants at the sight of the monster he summoned into being? Give me strength. And just how did the Doctor get hold of that sonic screwdriver? Does she have Force powers now?

And yet, as frustrated – and often, frankly, bored – as I was watching this, there are flickers. Finally, somebody (I assume James) has tried to dig a little deeper into these three bland characters who stand around and let plots happen near them. The animated exposition is fun and it is new. Asking the question: what do you gain, and what do you lose travelling with the Doctor? is the kind of thing that having a bigger regular cast should give you access to – although it’s somewhat pointless if they all come up with the same answer. So this isn’t an Orphan 55 or Very Long Walk to What is Obviously the TARDIS scale of disaster, but the general level of incompetence coming from the top is still doing its best to smother the best intentions of the rest of the writing team.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Parasite and predictions

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Parasite was my final film of this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, and it came with quite the hoopla. People better-versed than me in South Korean cinema tell me that in comparison this seems very very good as opposed to exceptional, but my only previous exposure to Bong Joon Ho had been his very Hollywood (and totally demented) Snowpiercer, so I sat down with high if rather vague expectations.

I’d also tried to keep myself spoiler-free, so I didn’t even know the premise of the film, and in many ways it was the early scenes which I found most engaging. The apparently feckless Kim family, living in a squalid sub-basement, always on the scrounge or on the make – but furious at the bad behaviour of others – turn out to have a more entrepreneurial side. Following an introduction from his cousin, the son becomes English tutor to the daughter of the very wealthy Park family, whose bonkers house resembles that in Mon Oncle (although they don’t quickly turn on the fountain whenever there are visitors).

Ki-woo passes his sister Ki-jeong off as an art teacher for the other child and pretty soon, Kim père and Kim mère have replaced the incumbent chauffeur and housekeeper. When the Parks go away for the weekend, the Kims revel in their borrowed luxury. But hiding in the basement is a terrible secret, and it’s this plot left turn which gave me a moment’s pause, because although there is thematic unity here (height equals wealth and status; depth equals degradation and poverty) nothing to this point has been quite so outré as the previous housekeeper hiding her unemployed husband in a secret basement for the past four years.

Once I swallowed that, I was on board all the way to the end. There’s one plot contrivance in the climax which I felt was a little too constructed to really resonate, but for the most part this sings. The story is expertly assembled, Bong shoots it with the eye of a master and the acting is absolutely superb throughout. I was particularly struck by the Kim family matriarch (Chang Hyae-jin) and son (Choi Woo-shik) both of whom manage to transform themselves in a way which is utterly convincing for the Park family and yet the deception is perfectly clear to the audience.

There’s loads going on here about capitalism, climate change, wealth inequality and the nature of trust and deceit. The point of the title (for me at any rate) is that both families are parasites. The Kims leech off the Parks’ good natures and the Parks can’t survive without the seemingly servile Kims. I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated this parable even more if it had avoided the shift into the grand guinol but I can’t deny that I was completely enthralled for every minute it was on.

So, despite the fact that my track record is pretty pisspoor, if you’ll indulge me, I will embarrass myself once again with some predictions. Best Picture will go to 1917 and Sam Mendes will also take Best Director. As luck would have it, I also think this is the most deserving film of the year, with shoutouts to Little Women and Parasite, coming in a close second and third. While it’s just possible that Bong will pinch Best Director, no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture and if Roma can’t do it than I don’t see Parasite succeeding. 1917 seems to have all the momentum anyway.

I did not like Joker at all, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is exactly the kind of showboating so often rewarded by the Academy, and provided it doesn’t win either Picture or Director, I’ll allow it. Of those nominees, I’d probably give it to Adam Driver, but it’s a crime George McKay isn’t nominated. Best Actress can only go to Renée Zellweger who has no doubt been working on her speech since June.

Best Supporting Actor likewise has Brad Pitt pretty much nailed on, and fair enough I suppose. Best Supporting Actor is tougher to call. I’d love to see Scarlett Johansson lift the statuette on Sunday but Laura Dern seems to be a lock. Best Original Screenplay should go to Rian Johnson for his delightful and inventive Knives Out, but I suspect Tarantino will nick it. Best Adapted Screenplay must surely go to Greta Gerwig for her magnificent Little Women script or there’s no justice whatever in the world.

See you in a few days for a detailed explanation of how and why I got it all so wrong.

So… what did I think of Praxeus?

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

And, like an over-extended elastic band, Doctor Who snaps back into familiar patterns. What had briefly threatened to be a US-style saga with an ongoing narrative across the season, reverts unceremoniously to being an anthology show as it has been for most of its existence. We’ve seen this before of course, most notably in Series 9 where the transition from Let’s Kill Hitler to Night Terrors was particularly jarring, and this doesn’t have that particular problem. But it is disappointing and frustrating to see no more of Doctor Ruth and learn nothing further about her origins.

Anyway, let’s try and judge this episode on its own merits. And here we have another problem, because the overall standard since Chibnall took over has been so poor that I’m now pouncing on any crumb of competency with joyful delight. Stories I gave two or three stars to under Moffat now look like near-masterpieces.

We start, as is becoming the norm, in media res at least for the TARDIS team. After two virtually-identical death scenes, it becomes apparent that the Doctor and fam have been investigating strange goings-on in Peru, Hong Kong and Madagascar for some time. This country-hopping is fairly new for Doctor Who (the opening reminded me strongly of Resolution) and if we are going to have an Earthbound season, then it’s nice if it isn’t all in the UK. And thhis does all look fantastic. The location filming in South Africa has really paid off, director Jamie Magnus Stone makes the most of all of the scenery he has access to, and the bird attack is gangbusters.

The companions are… better. Instead of commenting banally on the story as it rolls past them, unheeded by their presence, they’re active, purposeful and resourceful. They’re still written fairly interchangeably (save for a couple of Graham-is-a-doofus gags) but I’ll take these generic investigator archetypes over the passive along-for-the-ride or sequestered-in-their-own-unrelated-story versions we’ve had for the last five episodes. It’s a shame they don’t figure out that Jake isn’t on duty. They had all the pieces but couldn’t put them together, which weakens them unnecessarily (especially as we already have the information).

And although the supporting cast is super top heavy, there’s still time for the actors to chisel out some kind of characterisation here. Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty get the most to do, but Joana Borja and Molly Harris have their moments also. And Tosin Cole seems to come alive in his scenes with Gabriela. Presumably that’s what the production team saw in him at his audition. Shame he’s been sticking with his half-asleep-monotone line delivery for a season and a half.

It’s also a shame that having spent all that money on plane tickets, the monster costumes ended up being some hazmat suits and old gasmasks. The section with Yaz in the Hong Kong lab is definitely the weakest part of the whole episode, with Yaz’s sudden picking up of a bit of equipment and divining that it is highly valued by the gas mask crew totally unmotivated and clumsy.

The big climax sees all of the supporting cast standing back and watching the Doctor at work, as is the usual way of things lately, but Jake’s threatened self-sacrifice adds a bit of needed human drama, and does work despite – or maybe because of – being a very familiar Doctor Who trope. And it’s freshened-up here by having him survive, which felt right overall given the number of unmourned bodies which have hit the deck already.

So, what to say about this? Jodie is fine – coasting rather than soaring, but the material doesn’t give her much to work with this time round, beyond enthusiastically solving the problem. Clearly it’s far less ambitious than Judoon but equally clearly, it’s a competent piece of writing on the whole, certainly compared to dross like Orphan 55 or The Very Slow Race to What is Obviously the TARDIS from last year. It’s a bit frantic, and the plot has to grind to a halt to allow a slightly forced character moment between Graham and Jake. But the science-fiction-adventure plot does work and the fam can’t be cut out of it. It’s an RTD three but a Chibnall four I suppose.

4 out of 5 stars