So… what did I think of the end of Series Ten?

Posted on July 3rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

As the Capaldi era comes to an end, Steven Moffat has just three more chances to show us that his technical brilliance, his love for the programme and his vaulting ambition can work together to provide some really terrific storytelling, and not get in each other’s way as they are so wont to do.

The opening of World Enough and Time is unbelievably cheeky, with Missy proclaiming “I am Doctor Who and these are my expendables – Exposition and Comic Relief.” This almost feels last-day-of-school, but Moffat, guardian of the legacy, is always careful to provide a canon-friendly interpretation of the lines.

We find ourselves on board a miles-long spaceship, fighting the gravity well of a black hole, such that it is experiencing massive time dilation effects. This is a lovely science fiction concept, based in real physics, it’s just a shame that we saw another, slightly less rigorous version, last week. Suddenly, shockingly, Bill Potts gets a hole visibly blasted through her middle and then Cybermen bundle her off to the floors below. Although – if the Cybermen are evolving on the very bottom floors, where time is running the slowest, surely it should take them decades to even notice the presence of humans on the upper levels?

While the Doctor debates and argues, Bill makes friends with a shambling Fagin-like figure in the hospital on the ground floor. A lot of this is just vamping, and it’s slightly annoying that the time dilation isn’t ramped up just a little bit more. We know full well that the “hospital” is a cyber-conversion centre so the suspense is when and not if Bill will be fully converted. But the scenes of the Doctor working the problem feel a bit lifeless, which is a shame when the time dilation means that the Doctor and company could have headed straight for the lift and still been years getting down to where Bill is.

What’s brilliant about the stuff with Bill is how cleverly Moffat uses parts of the mythology which have gone unnoticed until now and provides justifications for them. Just as Clara’s calm words get turned into Dalek ranting in The Witch’s Familiar, and so we understand why Daleks sound the way they do, here the Cyber chest-units are retconned into elaborate surgical heart-replacements. And don’t the “Mondasian” Cybermen look fantastic?

About half way through the episode, I caught myself musing “I wonder when John Simm is going to show up,” and then I instantly realised that that’s who Fagin was. I honestly don’t think I would ever have got there without the advanced publicity. Shame on you, BBC.

Finally, at the episode’s end it all comes together. The Master is unveiled, Bill is converted, and the Doctor is at a loss. It’s a great part one, emphasising personal loss and avoiding the diminishing returns which set in when writers start trying to raise the stakes by having the threat become greater and greater.

The Doctor Falls takes an hour to wrap up – well sort of – what the previous episode began, but compare to season finales past, never seems hurried or over-stuffed. It’s nice to see the Doctor on the front foot so early on, springing into action and escaping to higher floors. The location footage on Sam Spiro’s farm somewhat fights the notion that we are on a gigantic spaceship, but there are sufficient reminders so this just about works and Rachel Talalay handles this visual conundrum very well indeed.

Shooting cyber-Bill as Pearl Mackie means we never forget the person inside the tin suit, and keeps hope alive that she will be returned, even if the rest of the script is dismantling that hope piece-by-piece. Her plight is hugely affecting and it’s clear that – for once – Moffat is thinking through the human side of the dilemma he’s created instead of just writing crossword puzzle clues for the viewers to solve.

The time dilation works for and against our heroes. On the one hand, it means that the Cybermen have time to evolve (another lovely piece of ret-conning – the Cybermen are not unique to Mondas or Telos, or Marinus(!), but are an inevitable by-product of technological advancement). But it also means that with each floor you go up, it takes them longer to follow. So Nardole figuring out how to selectively blow up parts of the ship buys them time, but more time than it might have done otherwise. (Although the justification that Nardole’s remote control device can’t be controlled remotely is astonishingly feeble.)

From here – the story follows three tracks. The fate of Bill. The fate of the children. The fate of the Master. They don’t really affect each other, which is not perhaps ideal. The Master can be removed from the story entirely without anything changing, but unlike the pointless cameo from Clare Higgins in Hell Bent, here they serve not just as something to cut away to, but underline the real point of the story, and indeed the point of the Doctor. I would have liked it underlined that the Master(s) leave the children to die not because they refuse to be kind, but because they are cowardly. But nevertheless, the Doctor’s desperate plea that they stand and fight with him, and their ironic mutual destruction add immeasurably to the episode’s bleak tone.

Bill of course, finds a saviour, in the form of The Pilot from Episode One. Again – serialised storytelling done right. This is not vaguely mentioning a past event in order to get a fanwanky cheer. This is setting up a figure with clearly defined abilities and proclivities and then dropping her back into the narrative when she’s needed.

The fate of the children and Nardole is rather less clear. The Doctor is totally backed into a corner here. Wounded, dying even. An army of cybermen below him which will only grow bigger. One opportunity to get innocents out of the line of fire. All he can do is send them a few floors up and hope that they have a few extra months or years – either to live and grow and be happy, or to think of another plan.

The Doctor himself, meanwhile, fighting off regeneration, stumbles out of the TARDIS and into the snowy landscape, presumably of the North Pole c. 1986 and meets – himself.

Well, we’ll judge this audacious move on the merits of the Christmas special, but let’s try and assess this two parter on its own merits.

Clearly, it’s by far the best finale Steven Moffat has written. The Big Bang barely makes any sense, and coming off the back of The Pandorica Opens with its absurd Monster Convention, it’s amazing that it works at all on any level. The Wedding of River Song is total gibberish, failing to wrap up the Lake Silencio storyline in any satisfactory way, and providing next to nothing in terms of narrative coherence. The Name of the Doctor doubles down on this kind of unintelligibility, although The Time of the Doctor makes it look like a masterpiece of structure. Time is surely the worst regeneration episode in the entire show’s history.

Under the firm leadership of Peter Capaldi, things improve. Death in Heaven isn’t a patch on Dark Water, but is still far better than any of the Smith finale episodes (maybe on a par with The Big Bang). Hell Bent, alas squanders the considerable capital built up by Heaven Sent, but this year’s pair work beautifully together to tell a complicated science-fiction story, that keeps its focus on the characters we love and care about, which doesn’t try and pack too much in to its running time, and which lets five amazing actors do wonderful work together. It’s telling how much more apocalyptic this feels than The Big Bang for example, not because the fate of the universe is threatened, but because the Doctor gives so much to eke out a draw against impossible odds.

A few little niggles in both episodes prevent me from offering up a full five stars but I’ll happily give four and a half to both.

Overall, this has been another very strong season, with only Smile and Knock Knock really letting the side down. Extremis makes not a whit of sense but is quite fun while it’s on and all the others have been good to great. Here’s my final ranking.

  1. World Enough and Time 4.5 Stars
  2. The Doctor Falls 4.5 Stars
  3. The Pyramid at the End of the World 4.5 Stars
  4. Oxygen 4.5 Stars
  5. Thin Ice 4 Stars
  6. The Lie of the Land 4 Stars
  7. The Eaters of Light 4 Stars
  8. Empress of Mars 4 Stars
  9. The Pilot 4 Stars
  10. Extremis 2.5 Stars
  11. Knock Knock 2 Stars
  12. Smile 1 Stars

And just for fun, let’s compare this to the rankings on Gallifrey Base to see just how in-tune or out-of-step I am with Doctor Who fans across the world.

  1. World Enough and Time 91%
  2. The Doctor Falls 86%
  3. Oxygen 82%
  4. Extremis 79%
  5. The Pilot 76%
  6. Thin Ice 74%
  7. Knock Knock 74%
  8. Empress of Mars 73%
  9. The Pyramid at the End of the World 73%
  10. The Eaters of Light 69%
  11. Smile 67%
  12. The Lie of the Land 64%

The fondness for Oxygen as well as the finale two-parter doesn’t surprise me, nor does how much people like Extremis. The excellent Pyramid coming so low down, beneath the awful Knock Knock is very surprising, and I would never have picked The Lie of the Land as the season’s worst. I wonder why people disliked it so much?

One more Capaldi episode to go. See you at Christmas…

So… what did I think of The Eaters of Light?

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

I don’t remember whether or not, as I sat and watched Survival in December 1989, I knew I was watching the last episode of Doctor Who for the foreseeable future. Over ten years, I’d watched this stalwart of British TV get shunted around the schedules, have its season lengths slashed, and finally I’d watched it get shut down and pensioned off.

When the series came back (properly came back), sixteen years had passed. Yes, we got the Daleks back, but without Roy Skelton and without John Scott Martin. The Cybermen returned, but David Banks and Michael Kilgariff remained absent. The Master returned, but Geoffrey Beevers stayed at home. It was a new broom. A new team. About the only exception to this implacable rule was director Graeme Harper. (Thinking of other exceptions is left as an exercise for the reader.)

So, when last week Ysanne Churchman reprised her role as Alpha Centauri, it seemed only fitting that this week was the first time a classic series writer returned to the fold. Rona Munroe created the planet of the Kitlings, and it is she who now brings us The Eaters of Light.

Before we gear up for the no-doubt dementedly epic two-part finale we take a break from serialised storytelling and just go for a yarn. This is a pretty good one, albeit kicked off by the fairly unlikely premise that Bill Potts, yes, that Bill Potts, would be so invested in the fate of the ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army that she would have to go and see for herself. What she in fact finds is one of the best-designed and executed monsters the series has ever done, linked with a strong science-fiction device that actually seems to make sense and to work. All this and a nifty moral dilemma too.  If this is non-epic, non game-changing, Doctor Who business-as-usual, then I’m all for it.

There is a slight issue, as there so often is, with the cannon-fodder cast not always being too readily distinguishable, but Rebecca Benson does well as Kar, and so do Brian Vernal and Sam Adewunmi on the Roman side. But after a week in which they were slightly overshadowed by the guest cast, this time around the regulars really get to shine. Ten episodes in and the writers still haven’t got bored of the concept of Bill asking all those questions which have never been asked before, which is great because neither have I. But this is easily the best Nardole episode yet, playing right into Matt Lucas’s comedy talents without him ever becoming annoying.

The Stones of Blood style opening probably isn’t needed. Either this was a set-up for a pay-off later deleted, or a last-minute addition to bulk out the running time. The tag with Missy obviously belongs to the next story and not this one, so I’ll overlook it for now. And the nonsense with the crows is a hideous stumble, bringing back horrid memories of Matt Smith claiming he can speak baby. But overall, this is fine stuff, funny, exciting and properly thought through with Charles Palmer doing a fantastic job behind the camera. Four stars.

So… what did I think of The Lie of the Land?

Posted on June 12th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Endings are tough, as this blog has observed before, and following the excellent Pyramid at the End of the World was never going to be easy. And The Lie of the Land made a decent fist of it, while not quite scaling the same heights.

The time jump helps enormously, defining this as its own story, linked to but separate from the two (or three?) earlier installments. People who compile lists of Doctor Who stories (how tragic!) worry endlessly about whether The Trial of a Time Lord is one story or four (or three) (it’s four) or whether the Return of the Master sequence at the end of Series Three is one story or two (or three) (it’s one). As I observed last week, this is serialised storytelling done right, and that means I have no hesitation in calling “The Monk Trilogy” three stories.

It’s not just the fact of it’s being a trilogy which calls Last of the Time Lords to mind, nor the brief presence of the Master. The whole dystopian Earth subjugated by fascist overlord aesthetic seems familiar both from this and Turn Left, especially because in all three versions, the companion is forced to survive separated from the Doctor. The nifty turn here is that the Doctor is broadcasting propaganda videos on behalf of the oppressors.

All the most interesting stuff surrounds the Doctor’s apparent turncoat shenanigans, culminating in the powerful and cheeky confrontation between Bill and Capaldi, complete with faux-regeneration light-show, so handy for casting-related trailer internet chatter. What follows is rather less interesting, not least because the whole set-up screams “reset button”. In Turn Left, this is not an issue, because the whole episode is a might-have-been. In Last of the Time Lords, Russell goes to tremendous lengths to make sure that the year-that-never-was is remembered by some people, so there is a least some cost to the Master’s cruelty.

Here, once the Monk’s spell is broken, it’s business as usual very quickly, so the only point of interest is the manner of their despatch. This is thought through, again using material developed earlier in the season in an intelligent way, without making the whole thing a Gordian Plot of bewildering complexity. But Bill’s sacrifice doesn’t really resonate, because it’s just vastly unlikely that her mind-meld actually will kill her, and because it just doesn’t and for no very good reason.

Bridging the gap between these two halves (one very strong, the other serviceable but slightly uninspired) is another confrontation between the Doctor and Missy. Far more than the much-hyped but rather empty Doctor/Davros scenes in Series Nine, the issues explored here are genuinely fascinating, and Michelle Gomez continues to find new things to do with the character, deepening and broadening a figure who was once the very epitome of a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

So this is an easy four stars. Very far from a catastrophic let-down, but not quite delivering the clarity, originality and depth of the previous installment.

And… what did I think of The Empress of Mars?

Mark Gattis is nothing if not prolific. With nine scripts for the series under his belt, only the two show-runners have written more for the modern day incarnation of the show and he is only beaten by Terry Nation and Robert Holmes in the classic era. However, the quality of his output ranges from the excellent (The Crimson Horror) to the serviceable (The Idiot’s Lantern, Cold War) to the downright terrible (Robot of Sherwood, Sleep No More).

This story is absolutely in his wheelhouse, combining his love for England and Empire with his knowledge of Doctor Who’s past, with his somewhat carefree relationship with technology (how Victorian technology is pressed into space-faring service is never really explained).

The teaser is a bit Moffat-by-the-numbers with the Doctor and Bill on a lackadaisical tourist trip to no real purpose, but the reveal of the message under the Martian ice is interesting enough and once we get to Mars, the visuals are eye-poppingly brilliant. I’m a bit disgruntled by once again, putting the actors in great big uncomfortable space suits and then having them take off the helmets on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Instead of a handful of human cannon-fodder, we get a small army of redcoats to worry about, but it’s a tribute to the writing, directing, casting and acting that the three principals – Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw all manage to distinguish themselves and avoid all blurring together. And the double-crossing plot does seem to make sense at first viewing. “Friday” exploits the greed of the human soldiers for assistance in rescuing his queen, who first turns on her saviours and then grudgingly respects the nobility of their leader.

The updated version of the Ice Warrior’s sonic weapon is absolutely brilliant, a fantastic 3D evocation of the Mylar-wobble that Leader Clent and Commander Radnor had to worry about, and Adele Lynch chews up all the scenery available (and has the false teeth to do it) as Queen Iraxxa. And while, as noted, the magic Victorian spacesuits don’t really make any sense, in general the sight of a Zulu-style steampunk British Army facing off against some “upright crocodiles” seems joyfully silly as opposed to offensively stupid the way those spitfires in space did.

What’s missing I suppose is any sense of real depth or surprise. There are interesting issues here which Doctor Who has been keen to tackle lately, but the Empire-building British forces are thinly drawn and there is very little moral dimension to their actions, beyond what the plot requires. Similarly, while the story unfolds very smoothly and fairly satisfyingly, there are hardly any heart-in-the-mouth goodness-whatever-will-happen-next moments.

I think the disappearance of the TARDIS is meant to be like that (it provokes the Doctor to exclaim “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” which feels totally wrong) but this is evidently another script written before Matt Lucas agreed to come on board, so the whole jaunt with Nardole and Missy feels like it’s coming from another story entirely. And while Capaldi and Mackie do everything that’s asked of them, neither really gets any opportunity to show what they’re capable of here, leaving Anthony Calf to walk off with the acting honours.

So, this is probably three-and-a-half stars if we’re being fair, but I’ll bump it up to four for the reappearance of Ysanne Churchman – returning to the series after 43 years which must be some kind of record.

So… what did I think of The Pyramid at the End of the World

Posted on May 28th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Part ones are arguably far easier than concluding part twos. Creating mysteries, locked box conundrums, impossible life-or-death situations is far, far easier than providing solutions which manage to be simultaneously surprising, satisfying, and with hindsight seem inevitable. Recent Doctor Who is (understandably) littered with examples of part twos which fail to live up to the promise of part one, and sometimes even tarnish the memory of part one.

A notable exception is last year’s The Zygon Inversion, a co-pro between showrunner Steven Moffat and Wallander scribe Peter Harness, the conclusion of which is still for me a high water mark for the series as a whole (up there with Human Nature, Dalek and, yes, I suppose, Blink).

I didn’t really review Extremis last week, but suffice to say I thought it was a fairly empty and meaningless exercise. A glorified “and it was all a dream” ending which makes very little sense on any level. So, I had rather mixed feelings sitting down to watch this week’s installment.

I needn’t have worried. This is masterly stuff, playing to both writers’ strengths. I suspect Moffat’s hand in the chain-of-chance plotting which leads lab workers Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner to accidentally create a bacterium antithetical to all life. And Harness’s contribution I imagine is likely to be the stunning pair of moral dilemmas – first those faced by the three generals, and then the even greater one faced by Bill at the very end.

It’s also very well worth pointing out that – for perhaps the first time since Matt Smith took over – this is serialised storytelling done right. Doctor Who 1963-1996 was always fundamentally a serialised anthology series. Even linked seasons like The Key to Time or (gawdelpus) The Trial of a Time Lord fell neatly into self-contained sections. Parts two, three and four might be a little hard to follow if you hadn’t seen last week’s episode, but every part one was a new story, and all you needed to know was the Doctor travels in time in a police box and you could start watching.

But in 2005, the television landscape was very different. Post Babylon 5, post Murder One, post The Wire, audiences were happy with – maybe even expected – a series arc at the very least. Russell’s approach to this was cautious. Mentions of Bad Wolf, Torchwood or Mr Saxon could be picked up by devoted watchers, safely ignored by casual viewers.

When Moffat and Smith took over in 2010, we were post Breaking Bad, post Man Men. And Moffat was keen to show that Doctor Who could compete. However, not wanting to sacrifice variety, the end result was a pretty ghastly muddle at times, with “arc” stories rubbing up against “non-arc stories” sometimes in the clumsiest of ways (see Night Terrors for arguably the worst offender in this regard).

Under Capaldi’s reign, things have been a bit smoother, with stand-alone-stories generally being the order of the day, but we’ve still had to suffer end-of-season gibberish like Death in Heaven. Now it seems like the balance between these two forces is being struck perfectly. Both this episode and the preceding one stand alone, but they work better together. In fact, Pyramid retrospectively flatters the earlier episode. I’m considering bumping it up from two stars to three.

Back to the episode itself. The structure is more sophisticated than, say, Robot, but far simpler and far less OCD than many recent stories. The Doctor madly scrambles to figure out what the monks in the pyramid are up to, but we know he’s looking in the wrong direction. Finally, the Doctor’s blindness pays off – he figures out how to find the source of the impending catastrophe.

Here the physical geography of the lab is a little confusing. It would have been better to have found some way in the scripting or the shooting to clearly demarcate which areas were compromised and which were safe, but the key elements of the problem are assembled very neatly. The Doctor on one side of a door. The TARDIS on the other. Nardole, incapacitated inside. And the Doctor’s sonic glasses totally unable to read the numbers on the combination lock. As a piece of plotting, forcing Bill to sacrifice the stewardship of the Earth out of pure love, it’s basically perfect.

Let’s have a little talk about that prop though. The actual combination lock itself looks like a child’s toy and no lab in the world ever had a combination lock like that. Surely it should be a keypad? That’s a problem if Denning knows the code, because then the Doctor can enter it without looking at it, but surely a better solution would be to have the code be 10-12 digits long – so long that Denning and Gardner keep it written down. Now Denning doesn’t know it, and any sighted person would be able to read it and we don’t have to have that ridiculous looking Duplo prop.

This is a minor niggle, and I hate giving episode five stars when there’s a conclusion still to come, but this is really, really good stuff. The regulars are on great form, the UN quartet do everything that’s asked of them, the effects are all top notch and director Daniel Nettheim generally keeps things moving. I’m going to keep half a star in my back pocket though. 4½ stars and onwards to The Lie of the Land.

So… what did I think of Extremis?

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Evil Monk 1: So, how did we fare in our simulated invasion of Earth?

Evil Monk 2: Oh, pretty well.

Evil Monk 1: Did we learn all we needed to about how to subdue the Earth people and take their planet?

Evil Monk 2: Yup. Pretty much.

Evil Monk 1: Good, good. And this “Doctor”, were we able to handle his interference?

Evil Monk 2: Oh yes. Well, I mean he was blind.

Evil Monk 1: What?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, we made him blind.

Evil Monk 1: What? Why?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he’d just been made blind when we started gathering data for the simulation, so we thought…

Evil Monk 1: But we want the Doctor at the absolute peak of his powers. What’s the point in testing our invasion against a weakened version of the Doctor?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he wasn’t all that weakened. He had these glasses with a sort of heads-up display.

Evil Monk 1: Glasses with a what?

Evil Monk 2: A heads-up display. Showing him what he couldn’t see with his eyes.

Evil Monk 1: And what was he using to look at the heads-up display?

Evil Monk 2: Eh?

Evil Monk 1: If his eyes don’t work, how does a heads-up display help- oh, look it doesn’t matter. The point is, we’ve ironed out all the kinks in our invasion plan now, right?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it was pretty easy once everyone started to commit suicide.

Evil Monk 1: When they what?

Evil Monk 2: Well, once they found the book, the er, Extremis, which told them that they were in a simulation and how to test it, then they just started committing suicide.

Evil Monk 1: How to test it?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah. Despite the fact that each subroutine controlling each of the billions of people in our simulation is fantastically unique and complicated, so much so that the simulations believe they are alive, we couldn’t think of a single way of using that rich, complicated and unique data to find an arbitrary starting point for a random number generator, so when they-

Evil Monk 1: Wait, stop, go back. You put a book in the simulation…

Evil Monk 2: Extremis, yeah…

Evil Monk 1: Telling the people in the simulation that it was just a simulation?

Pause.

Evil Monk 2: We did make it very hard to translate.

Evil Monk 1: But what was it doing there at all??

Evil Monk 2: Sort of like an in-joke.

Evil Monk 1: Acolyte, I’m hugely disappointed. You were clearly the wrong person to put in charge of this simulation project. I should have realised something was up when I watched the Doctor execute the Master and take the body away for safekeeping – and not mention that he was doing this for the second time.

Evil Monk 2: I’m sorry, sir. I failed you.

Evil Monk 1: Never mind. We’re in no hurry. We’ll build a new simulation and do it properly this time. After all, what difference does it make if we invade this week, or next week, or next year?

Evil Monk 2: Ah… well…

Evil Monk 1: “Ah well” what?

Evil Monk 2: You know how you said we should make absolutely sure that the simulation was connected to the Earth Internet?

Evil Monk 1: What? No, I said it was to be totally isolated from any other networks. It was to be totally air-gapped. Any other plan of action would be foolhardy to the point of self-defeating.

Evil Monk 2: Oh…

Evil Monk 1: Why???

And, scene…

So… What did I think of Oxygen?

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts for the show – Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline attracted near-universal praise, including from this blog, so expectations were high for his return in series ten. Were they met? Ah… nearly.

The set-up is largely great. Putting the Doctor and his – still very new – companion at risk of a terrible death in the icy vacuum of space is a great idea. The David Tennant episode 42, and in particular the sight of Martha Jones drifting off into nothing, is one of the very few things keeping me optimistic about Chris Chibnall’s forthcoming takeover of the programme. And who doesn’t like seeing Capaldi wandering around a deserted base making macabre quips, even if that kind of thing has been happening a lot lately.

The teaser is also very compelling, with the zombie colleague offing the newly-engaged couple and – look! – Nardole’s allowed to come. So what’s the problem? Well, there are too. One is a science niggle, but it’s such an important plot point that I can’t permit it to go unchallenged. For, I suspect practical production reasons, the cast don’t wear their helmets most of the time, but instead have a forcefield around their heads which keeps the air in. Thus even though the inside of the station is a vacuum, they can breathe normally.

But suddenly when they have to go outside the station, proper helmets are required. But either the station is deprived of air or it isn’t. As soon as there’s any opportunity, the pressure will equalise. You can’t maintain a thin atmosphere like on a small planet. And thus, either the forcefield can create an air-tight seal or it can’t. There’s just no way that the vacuum inside the station is more vacuum-y than the vacuum outside the station.

So, this rather takes the shine off the generally terrifying ordeal of the station inhabitants (as usually, poorly-differentiated, although the blue one is a nice sources of gags about racism, although played by a white actor I believe) and horrendous sacrifice – more on that later. The other, far bigger problem is that the episode is not so much rushed as absolutely stuffed. Whereas several recent episodes have had about thirty minutes of story and ten-fifteen minutes of running around and quipping (The Witch’s Familiar being the most egregious recent example) this could have certainly made a 60 minute special and is probably only one subplot away from being a two-parter.

So, when the Doctor’s blindness is easily fixed back at base, I’m intensely frustrated that such a brilliant idea wasn’t given time enough to be really developed and explored. Except of course – they aren’t done with that idea yet, are they! A lovely final twist to a thrilling and very well-executed episode.

I’ll quickly note that I don’t regard the profiteering algorithm as another automatic system gone awry for the simple reason that the algorithm was programmed by heartlessly profiteering bad-guys, so it’s not a benevolent system which becomes accidentally fatal, it’s a ruthless system doing exactly what it was intended to do.

4 ½ stars. Hurrah.

So… what did I think of Thin Ice?

Posted on May 13th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay, now this is more like it.

There’s a tremendous amount to like in Sarah Dollard’s script, which has much of the same atmosphere as her previous Face the Raven, but doesn’t spend so much time tying itself in quasi-legal knots to make the story work.

Bill’s role as the companion who questions all those things which we’ve taken as read for years continues to impress and delight, whether she’s pondering how her presence will change history, or how people will react to the presence of the TARDIS and the melanin in her skin, she’s an unqualified joy and Pearl Mackie’s chemistry with Peter Capaldi is amazing. This is quickly becoming my favourite TARDIS team since Tennant and Tate.

The central mystery is clearly presented, with adorable ragamuffins who narrowly stay on the right side of cloying, pointing the Doctor and Bill in the right direction, even if that means one of them gets sacrificed to The Beast Below – which, yes, this story does stand as a less-bonkers version of. But whereas the Matt Smith story was about morality on a colossal scale, this story is much more about personal morality. The Doctor and Bill have two exchanges, which bookend her questioning whether traveling with him is any sense right. In the first, exquisitely painful interaction, she makes him confront the fact that his presence costs lives. In the second, slightly less successful one, his clear-minded speech wins her back round. Capaldi beautifully underplays this, but it’s a little simplistic by the standards of The Zygon Inversion.

What a tale of this kind needs, therefore is – hurrah! – a real villain, rather than an Automated System Gone Wrong. And Nicholas Burns is suitably slimy and selfish and – yes – punchable, effects work ever done, well it’s certainly no Skarasen either. I will note in passing that once again, Matt Lucas is completely sidelined. Did he film all of his scenes for the season in a weekend?

And what did I think of Knock Knock?

It’s the turn of another Proper Writer to have a go at Doctor Who, which either means they will bring a completely new perspective, or it means they will blunder into all the cliches and traps which they don’t know are there. Sadly, Mike Bartlett needs a new sat-nav because this is pretty ropey, samey stuff, until the end which is almost gibberish.

The set-up is okay, I suppose. Bill is now a student and is doing the student thing of finding people to share a house with. One thing you must give Steven Moffat – he can do jokes. But the tour of awful shared houses is woefully unfunny, very unlike the usual high standard of comedy which modern Doctor Who is capable of.

So, the largely indistinguishable bunch of cannon fodder shows up ready to move in to their totally not suspicious at all giant gothic mansion, only to discover David Suchet apparently going out of his way to be evil and mysterious. Bill seems determined to hide the fact the Doctor is a lecturer at the University and that’s how she knows him, even though it was established in The Pilot that he is well-known on campus and his lectures are very popular. When no-one believes that he’s her grandfather, everybody just stops mentioning it. It feels like a set-up for a punchline that never comes – maybe a fossil from an earlier draft.

But nobody in this story behaves like a real person. It’s completely unclear how any of these uninteresting students knows each other or for how long, and it utterly beggars belief that they would leave one of their number locked in his room like that. There’s also no particular reason for the house/woodworm/daughter/mother to pick them off one at a time, let alone have so much time elapse between the first devouring and all the subsequent ones, during which time, the inhabitants could think better of it and get out of dodge.

Finally, the revelation, although beautifully played by both Suchet and Mariah Gale, makes no sense whatsoever. If the space bugs eat people, then why didn’t they just eat Eliza to begin with? How did Suchet find out that he could keep Eliza alive by feeding them people? Why six people every twenty years instead of a more regular diet? Why do they come back to life at the end if their energy has already been consumed. And at exactly what point did she start thinking he was her dad?

The whole thing is muddled to the point of near total nonsense, and because it doesn’t make any real sense, it’s impossible to buy into the emotion, which is a tremendous waste of the talent involved.
Director Bill Anderson shoots it and paces it nicely, and the Bill’s continuing exploration of Doctor Who lore are as delightful as ever, but this is an often dull, rather forgettable instalment, which may ultimately only be noteworthy for the clues as to what – or who – the Doctor is keeping in that vault.

Three stars, and I will also note that we have so far has an alien puddle which eats someone, swarms of nanobots which eat people, swarms of glowing bugs under the ice which eat people and now swarms of insects in the walls which eat people. From the look of it, next week we have space suits which eat people. Is this the new Automated System Gone Wrong?

So… what did I think of Series 10 so far?

Posted on April 27th, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Series 10 feels like an event for all sorts of reasons. Twelve years after the triumphant return of Doctor Who, we finally reach our tenth set of episodes, with Capaldi following the now-established pattern of lead actors doing three-seasons-over-four-years in the part. So, it’s the last set of episodes with Malcolm Tucker at the helm of the TARDIS, and it’s the last set of episodes with Steven Moffat at the reins behind the scenes.

And despite, or maybe because of that, the avowed intention for the first episode is to provide a new jumping-on point for new viewers, with the cheeky title given to the season opener making this even more obvious.

In keeping with his notion of the War Doctor being a Doctor we, the viewers, somehow missed in 1996-2005, Moffat allows that more time has passed since Christmas 2016 than was seen during The Return of Doctor Mysterio. So, while we’ve been away, the Time Lord has stopped his wandering, taken up residence as a university don, and taken to guarding a mysterious vault. Only Matt Lucas’s Nardole represents an explicit link to episodes past.

So we get the repeated pleasure of seeing the Doctor through fresh eyes, those eyes this time belonging to Pearl Mackie’s amazingly winning Bill. To be sure, the companion part is fast becoming one of BBC television’s plumb roles and the producers no doubt had their pick of fresh young British talent, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have come up with an immensely charming and skilled performer here, who will brighten the TARDIS considerably for at least these twelve episodes (rumours are that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall wants to cast his own companion as well as his own Doctor).

That’s despite the fact that the writing is by-and-large twisting itself into absurd pretzels to make her as appealing across the board as possible. After Billie Piper’s defiantly chavvy Rose and Catherine Tate’s abrasive Donna, the TARDIS was subsequently inhabited by the rather more middle class Karen Gillian and the very plummy Clara The Impossible Girl. Where to put Bill on the social spectrum? Her speech is highly articulate and yet her accent contains frequent glottal stops and rough edges. She’s serving chips, so she’s common, but she’s attending lectures so she’s upwardly mobile. She’s upper lower working middle class and it’s a testament largely to Mackie that she emerges as a person and not as a bundle of unrelated characteristics.

The story meanwhile is largely a remix of familiar elements, including such old favorites as the possessed body, the pool of alien goo, the remnants of alien visitors and – a peculiarly Moffat one this – the inconsequential tour of the universe. In the context of the episode, this last one works fine (it’s partly there to show Bill and therefore the new viewers what the TARDIS is capable of) but it’s symptomatic of a nasty habit of the outgoing head writer – taking gigantic ideas and treating them trivially. The TARDIS’s ability to flit across all of time and space is utterly remarkable. Any opponent which can match it point-for-point should be an absolutely colossal threat. But here it just gets talked to death as if it were barely even a problem. Still, nice to see the Movellans again.

Still as remixes go, this was well enough-paced and witty enough to keep me happy. It’s worth three-and-a-half stars, but I’ll give it four because it’s the season opener and I think the rules are a little different for first episodes – but I’ll need next week to considerably up the stakes.

4 Stars

 

Of course, next week has already been-and-gone and rather than taking the ground-work laid by The Pilot and building on it, Smile simply repeated achingly familiar tropes from Doctor Who and other series past, while committing many of the same rookie mistakes as Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previously limp offering.

Some writers just aren’t suited to Doctor Who. Now, I’m fine with people like Richard Curtis and Simon Nye being given the chance to try their hand because one of the advantages of the anthology nature of the series is that it can effectively reinvent itself every week if it chooses. But once someone has shat the bed as comprehensively as the writer of In The Forest of the Night then there’s simply no need to give them another go, regardless of how much the show-runner likes them personally, or how heavily-laden their awards shelf is.

To be fair, this isn’t quite as bad as the previous offering, but it’s pretty soggy, generic stuff, suffering from poor pacing, rotten characterisation, a lack of new ideas and stupid costumes. The earlier scenes with the colonists set up both the problem and its solution too clearly for the Doctor’s laborious discovery of the same to hold any interest at all. And it really doesn’t help that while Mina Anwar is remixing – of all classic era stories – The Happiness Patrol, she appears to be wearing a costume made out of bubble wrap. For a moment I thought I was watching a Victoria Wood or French and Saunders spoof of the unloved and under-budgeted 80s programme, with ludicrous technobabble and silly plastic robots, not the BBC’s now much-feted and well-loved flagship family export.

Then the script can’t make up its mind whether there are colonists here or not. Instead of the Doctor arriving in time to save the last remaining embattled survivors, when he and Bill show up, the place is deserted. Now it can be argued that deserted corridors are spookier or more atmospheric, but it makes it much harder to establish a world, or a society when there are no other people around. Either way, it’s undeniably cheaper to do it this way, and that’s what these early scenes looked like – done on the cheap.

The Doctor first deduces that the colonists are on-their-way, then that the advance guard has already been killed, then that the colonists are here but in suspended animation – and then he decides to wake them up first and solve the lethal problem later. That’s after he’s decided not to blow the place up of course – a spectacularly stupid and reckless plan for the world’s smartest man, which sits very poorly with the overall morality of the series. The sense of a script desperately spinning its wheels isn’t helped by the Doctor repeatedly trying and failing to leave Bill behind, which is fair enough as the story would have unfolded in exactly the same way if she’d never set foot in the TARDIS at all.

And as well as being over-familiar, the central idea doesn’t really makes sense either – in two different ways. The silly plastic robots (hereafter referred to as SPRs) are so keen to make the humans happy that they murder anyone who is miserable. Surely this is a glitch which a) can be corrected by their human masters who – as the teaser makes perfectly clear – know precisely why the robots are killing them all; and b) which could have been found during early field trials and corrected then?

But let’s not forget that the whole complex, including the SPRs, has actually been constructed from swarms of nano-bots. This tedious science-fiction cliché seems to be everywhere at the moment, from Disney’s Big Hero Six, to this week’s episode of Supergirl, to – let’s not forget – Doctor Who’s own The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. The nano-bots can construct anything – walls, floors, ceilings, kitchens. So, why do they need SPRs at all? What can a SPR possibly do that that nano-bots couldn’t do far more easily and conveniently without assuming that clumsy form?

And when the generic band of colonists are inexplicably defrosted at the least convenient time, not one of them can summon up an ounce of characterization or interest. Instead, the Doctor actually literally pushes the reset button to solve the problem.

This is very, very thin stuff, which fails to play to any of its writer’s strengths, gives two brilliant lead actors almost nothing to do and fails to add anything at all to the body of Doctor Who ideas. I can only assume it was commissioned a very long time ago, before Nardole was added to the TARDIS crew, because the solution to the problem of how you stop Matt Lucas being so annoying was solved this time by leaving him behind. A better solution might be to give his character an actual stake in the narrative.

So, far from my favorite, but not quite as suffocatingly poor as Forest. I’ll scrape together two stars for it, and then knock half a star off again for this being yet another Automated System Gone Awry. It even looks like The Girl Who Waited. Was it shot in the same location?

1.5 Stars

 

Next week, we complete the new companion trifecta of Earth-bound adventure, far future space fantasy, and creepy historical. Hopefully, these two episodes represent a slightly wobbly take-off and not a fatal collapse of the whole infra-structure.

Oscars 2017 – Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Hell or High Water

This was still showing at a couple of rep cinemas but I missed it and had to catch up with it on iTunes. Maybe it would have cast a stronger spell over me in a cinema, but watching at home on my own I was immensely struck by how ordinary it was, especially in the light of the other nominees. It’s not a bad film by any means, but nothing in it is in any way striking, original or important.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are fine as the brothers resorting to bank robbery for reasons which (to create a bit of extra false suspense) are not immediately clear and Jeff Bridges is in good form as the laconic sheriff on their tale. The sprawling rural setting, casual violence and Bridges in particular all call the Coen Brothers to mind, but this is even more straight down the line than True Grit, arguably their most conventional film, and it sorely lacks the kind of idiosyncrasies which they or someone like them might have been able to bring.

Taylor Sheridan’s script is unhurried (good!), the characters do more than simply go through the motions, and David Mackenzie photographs and paces it well, but I couldn’t find anything to excite me. It’s all fine, but it’s all been done as well or better elsewhere, notably on TV in shows like Justified and especially Breaking Bad.

Hidden Figures

More problematic is Hidden Figures, which aims higher and misses much more comprehensively. On paper, this looks like ideal Oscar fodder. Like Best Picture Winners before it including The King’s Speech, Argo and god help us, Shakespeare in Love, it appears to tackle important issues but does so in a way which is ultimately reassuring rather than challenging. While this is not as cack-handed as either, this film reminded me not of the foregoing but rather of previous nominees The Help and The Imitation Game.

To begin with, this was a story which deserved a wider airing and if people who had not known about their contribution beforehand leave the cinema able to cite the names Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson (as well as appreciating that they were three of an entire team of African-American women who contributed to NASA in very significant ways over several decades) then that is a very good thing indeed.

But it’s a shame that the movie itself is so generic, bland and unconvincing. As with The Imitation Game, I am not unduly worried about historical accuracy (although it’s reassuring that unlike with that film, someone on set knows how to pronounce the name Euler). I did feel that I didn’t learn an awful lot, compared to, say Selma for example, but to be fair it’s not entirely to Selma’s credit that I was rather uninformed about that period of Dr King’s life, nor is it a slam against the makers of Hidden Figures that I was rather more aware of the facts that movie is based on. But whereas Selma viscerally made me feel what life was like for black people in the segregated south, Hidden Figures feels like the carnival float version, depicting the pain and struggle in very broad and familiar brushstrokes.

So I don’t mind at all that in reality Katherine Johnson just went ahead and used the whites-only ladies’ room, nor that although John Glenn did ask for her personally to check the calculations, she had a couple of days to do it. What I do mind is that the depiction of these women’s struggle is not on its own terms convincing, illuminating or even terribly interesting. Compared to the depiction of sexism (and to a lesser extent, racism) in Mad Men, although the fictional versions of Dorothy, Katherine and Mary do face a lot of road blocks, most of them are overcome fairly easily once they make an Impassioned Speech. When in 2017, Donald Trump is trying to stop transgender people from using appropriate bathrooms and stopping green card holders from being with their families, the cosy come-on-in-and-join-us, racism-is-solved moments come across as smug and complacent, rather than punch-the-air triumphant. The slow thawing of Kirsten Dunst’s character towards Octavia Spencer is the sole exception, as this is at least presented without the implausible grandstanding seen elsewhere.

Screenwriter Allison Schroeder does little to really establish who these three women are and what sets them apart from each other, so we must be thankful that the three leads do such amazing work. Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all manage to find moments to elevate the largely sit-com style script to something a bit deeper and more complex, but these opportunities are frustratingly rare. Meanwhile Director Theodore Melfi has failed to learn the lesson of Apollo 13, where Ron Howard used all-CGI shots of rockets and spacecraft, but made them all look as much like real footage as possible. Here we have science-fiction style sequences where virtual cameras whirl around shiny capsules, cut together with archive footage which clashes horribly.

So, I fear that one of the films I was most looking forward to ends up as probably the weakest of this year’s bunch.

Now – predictions. The big question is: will this be La La Land’s night? I’m going to say yes. Moonlight is gathering a lot of buzz but faced with a choice between the feel-good musical about Hollywood itself, or the low-key drama about a black, gay man whose life is turned around by the drug trade, the very conservative Academy is going to stick firmly in the middle ground, so La La Land takes Best Picture and Damien Chazelle takes Best Director, although I wouldn’t entirely rule Barry Jenkins out of the running.

Denzel Washington has probably done enough to eclipse Casey Affleck in the Best Actor stakes, but if it is going to be La La Land’s night, then Emma Stone will take Best Actress. The Best Supporting categories are far easier to predict, with Mahershala Ali needing to write a speech and Viola Davis probably having already cleared space on her dresser.

As they are nominated in different categories, Moonlight and La La Land can expect to split the screenwriting awards and I’d expect La La Land to take Best Song, Best Score and maybe Best Cinematography too.

Let’s check back here tomorrow and see how I did.

Oscars 2017- Fences and Moonlight

Posted on February 19th, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It would be easy to lazily lump these two films in the same category – family dramas dealing with contemporary issues of race and class – but actually Denzel Washington and Barry Jenkins’ films reveal two fundamentally different approaches to movie-making. I didn’t think either of them was entirely “complete” but both have immensely powerful moments.

Fences

Fences is probably an extremely good play. I never saw it on the stage, either on its first run in 1987, or its 2010 production with Washington and Viola Davis. It won a slew of awards in the eighties though, and watching the movie, I can sense its power. But original author August Wilson died in 2005 and Tony Kushner (discreetly taking only a producer credit) has reverentially adapted it for the screen, while Denzel Washington directs himself in the leading part.

From the opening scenes, something is off. Troy Maxson (Washington) and buddy Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) shoot the shit, first riding around on the back of their garbage truck, later with Maxson’s wife Rose (Davis). Their dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, half-sentences and interruptions, but the rhythms are practised, mannered and artificial. Part of the problem is that Washington is such an articulate and literate actor that, in these early scenes, Troy’s storytelling never convinces as the imagination of a salt-of-the-earth working man. The fourth wall becomes a narrow slit through which we glimpse real humans only occasionally, through a mesh of stylised language and pseudo-authentic banter.

The story takes its time to get going as well, but as it does, the depths of Troy’s character are revealed and the movie begins to evade its stagey origins. An early speech from Troy to his son in which he is lectured about the importance of duty sets up just how selfish and hypocritical this man truly is. Washington has never had any compunction about playing morally flawed characters, but Troy Maxson must be the most compromised of all his creations, constantly screwing over the people around him, while angrily denouncing the injustices which life metes out to him.

Despite this, the fog of artificiality never really goes away and among the very small cast (one major character is never seen at all) Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother in particular fails to convince. One key problem is that not only has Kushner been unable or unwilling to open the play out in any useful way, but as director Washington often frames the shots awkwardly and almost never finds ways of telling the story visually. Even the fence of the title is much more often talked about than seen, to the point where each repetition clangs more absurdly than the last.

However, as the human drama builds, the film slowly starts to weave its spell, and when Troy has to tell his wife the worst news she’s ever heard, Washington just points the camera at Viola Davis and lets her fall apart. It’s an incredible piece of acting, a shattering moment in the story and there can’t be many actors alive who could have pulled it off.

The last episode in the film belongs to Jovan Adepo, as Troy’s son Cory. This young British/American actor had been extremely solid bouncing off Washington earlier, but he is completely convincing in these final fifteen minutes, and if it weren’t for Davis’s barnstorming performance, would have been the MVP for sure.

It’s a shame then that such quality material has been handled with such clumsy reverence. Washington is good when he’s good, but he’s been better on-screen many times before, and as director it feels like he’s out of his depth. However, Viola Davis is absolutely sensational and her grip on the Best Actress Oscar is now iron-clad.

Moonlight

If Fences is a film stuck in the eighties, then Moonlight feels like a film which simply could not have been made even three years ago. Although the story is much simpler, smaller, more contained than Fences, it feels like cinema throughout, with its three narrative sections identified by named and numbered chapters (one of my favourite devices), we meet our hero as a child, teenager and young man. Early on, Jenkins is so determined that this small story should not feel like TV (or, worse, theatre) that his camera whirls dementedly around a simple three-person dialogue scene. Later on it settles down, but the shot selection is always inventive and the lighting and grading are sumptuous.

The first section revolves as much around Juan (Mahershala Ali, worlds away from the smooth charisma of Remy Danton on House of Cards) as it does Chiron, a taciturn and lonely child whose mother (Naomie Harris, also miles away from Moneypenny) is slowly falling apart. The drug trade is an ever-present feature of the film, but it is presented clearly and without judgement. Juan is the most principled and compassionate drug lord you are ever likely to meet, and when later Chiron slips into his erstwhile mentor’s shoes he is presented more as a successful entrepreneur than anything else.

The second section is at once the most familiar and the most successful. In its early parts, where Chiron is bullied at school, it feels like every other eighties or nineties high school movie remixed, but the tone is so intense that the broad familiarity ceases to matter as the specific details make it sing. When Chiron finally connects with Kevin, it’s a really beautiful moment.

In a film filled with truthful, subtle and powerful acting, the third section is blessed with a marvellous performance from Andre Holland (Selma). Kevin and Chiron, reunited after countless years, struggle to reconnect and rebuild what they once had. So far, so fantastic. Moments of real power, beautifully underplayed and shot with great skill and panache. But the movie doesn’t so much end as stop, leaving any number of unanswered questions and a gnawing feeling that the shattering conclusion which would bring these various threads together is still sitting on Barry Jenkins’ hard drive.

It’s fascinating how the old-fashioned melodrama of Fences, finally overcomes the staginess of its presentation to create a moment whose sucker-punch power Moonlight cannot hope to match. But it’s equally fascinating how, even without a narrative which conforms to those expected shapes, the tiny details of Chiron’s life remain telling, affecting and moving.