So… what did I think of The Witch’s Familiar?

Posted on September 30th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »


Is it about the destination or is it about the journey? As usual, the only accurate answer is “it depends”. A more helpful answer would be at least as long as this blog post.

Early on in the curiously-titled The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor orders Davros out of his chair at gunpoint and sails into the midst of a horde of Daleks, whose weapons are unable to penetrate the chair’s forcefield. Colony Sarff London (I think that’s his name) however, already has his snake-y bits inside the chair and so the Doctor is overpowered and returned to Davros. We go from the Doctor trapped in Davros’s chamber back to the Doctor trapped in Davros’s chamber and in narrative terms nothing whatever has been accomplished. But – the two scenes with the Doctor in Davros’s chair also contain some of the funniest moments of the whole episode. That’s this story all over.

The plot is split roughly in two with the Doctor vs Davros being largely static and Missy and Clara’s journey having a bit more adventure to it. But notice again that all of Missy and Clara’s actions are designed to get them right back where they were at the end of the last episode – in the centre of Dalek mission control. At least here, Clara has been sealed up inside a little tank during the previous thirty minutes.

Let’s take a little step back. Firstly, Moffat clearly does understand that “killing” Clara wasn’t the real cliff-hanger last week and so we open on Jenna Coleman clearly alive if dangling upside down from a convenient rock. The pretitles sequence is fun and reminds of the business of the Doctor’s “will” (which is then ignored until just before the end – I fear it’s this season’s arc-plot) but the story doesn’t start until after the titles. So that’s another scene which could just be cut and no-one would notice. I’m quite tempted to see if I could do a shorter edit of these two episodes. What do you think I could get it down to? 60 minutes? 45?

Let’s look at the Doctor’s side of things first. In interviews, Steven Moffat has opined that Doctor/Davros scenes are always great. That may be true, but they aren’t always this long. True, we have here – maybe for the first time – a pair of actors who could rival Tom Baker and Michael Wisher, but that doesn’t mean that, stripped of any meaningful context, I’m going to be happy to watch them sit and chat for 20 minutes. Don’t misunderstand me – I love it when characters get a chance to express themselves, but it works best when the stakes are really high. Midnight is basically one long dialogue scene, but the Doctor is frantically trying to work out how to save not just himself but a whole bus-load of innocents throughout. Here, not only is the dramatic situation curiously inert – Davros clearly does not wish the Doctor dead, or he could have accomplished that very easily – but no-one seems to be trying to achieve anything either. The Doctor is full of bluster and fury at first, but his murderous rage never materialises – like Clara staring impotently at Missy’s impudently turned back.

So while they blather elegantly on, it’s left to Jenna Coleman and the sublime Michelle Gomez to carry the day, which they do with some style. Clara and Missy’s adventures in the Dalek sewers are funny, exciting and have crackling dialogue and the notion of what happens when one is not only encased in a Dalek shell but (unlike Ian Chesterton in The Daleks) actually wired into its telepathic circuits is Steven Moffat at his absolute best, taking a piece of Doctor Who lore we’ve all just accepted for fifty-plus years and providing an explanation which makes perfect sense and which sets up the only genuinely suspenseful part of the entire episodes – Missy goading the Doctor into exterminating the Dalek which unbeknownst to him houses his best friend.

About the only thing wrong with this scene is that nobody at any point recognises that the Doctor and Clara have been here before. The Doctor’s first encounter with Clara was when she was inside a Dalek and didn’t know it (Asylum of the Daleks) and yet this goes unremarked-upon. It’s one thing to insist that Doctor Who works best as a series of basically unrelated stand-alone tales (a view I’ve expressed more than once). It’s quite another to design an incomprehensibly intricate arc plot spanning several seasons and then just not stop to remember what you’ve already written. There are a few other niggles like this in this episode. “The chamber is sealed,” intones Davros. However, the Doctor, Colony Sarff and later Missy all sail in and out with any trouble at all. “Look at the cables,” the Doctor is told, and we can see that some of them at least are Colony Sarff serpents, but this fact is never mentioned again.

As the two plot-lines converge it transpires that Davros needed the Doctor’s regeneration energy to reinvigorate the Daleks. Why exactly? They don’t look old and clapped out. They swarm and fly and exterminate and generally seem in absolutely tip-top condition – if a bit piebald.

Sidenote: One of Steven Moffat’s absolutely worst decisions as show-runner was certainly that appallingly misguided Dalek redesign we got in the generally fairly rubbish Victory of the Daleks. Since then, in Asylum and now here, he has attempted to conceal the error by surrounding his “Beyonce” Daleks with as many different models as possible. Here, although the Victory models I think are absent, the eighties “special weapons Daleks” makes a cameo appearance as do some sliver and blue chaps from the sixties. “And they look fine together,” proclaims the executive producer. Yeah, but the bronze ones still look the best, striking a perfect balance between the iconic silhouette and the detail required in modern TV production. It’s no coincidence that that’s what Clara gets sealed up in. Anyway…

Once infused with regeneration energy, the not-particularly-enervated Daleks don’t seem suddenly more potent and ferocious either – they seem exactly the same. Hettie MacDonald doesn’t seem to have read the script either. And it’s really, really unusual in this day and age for the effects work to be so poor that it actually gets in the way of the storytelling, but nothing about the revenge of the sludge Daleks is remotely convincing and it’s genuinely hard to understand what the script intended here. The visual cause-and-effect is almost completely absent, and that includes Missy’s execution of the Dalek too. A mid of mud on the floor, a lot of screaming and shouting, a bit more mud on the Dalek’s casing and boom! Excuse me? Did I turn two pages at once?

And how did we get here? Because Davros wanted to see the sunrise. Pardon? This is a ploy so maudlin and so transparent, I would be furious at the Doctor for falling for it, if it were not tediously obvious that he was setting up his own plan. As other commentators have pointed out, this is “I bribed the architect first” from The Curse of Fatal Death only played with a straight face, and as much as it makes the writer feel clever, it makes the audience disengage because the drama evaporates. “I knew what was happening all along and I’ve already put a plan into motion to save the day,” isn’t half as much fun as “I’ve been caught completely by surprise and I just have to hope that this desperate improvisation somehow works!”

Finally, we come back to the real cliff-hanger – not whether Clara will survive (of course she will) but whether the Doctor will be morally compromised. But this too is the writer outsmarting the audience, not the Doctor outsmarting the enemy. Rather like those shocking scenes on the front of sixties superhero comics which seem to show game-changing revelations and then turn out not to be quite so epic as they seemed once you get to that page in the comic itself, the scene we thought we were watching at the end of part one was in fact revealed as a less interesting version wherein the Doctor does the nice thing and shoots the mines, which obediently vanish, unlike less sophisticated twentieth century mines which would have blown up when hit and taken Little Davros with them. Isn’t the progress of weapons technology a marvellous thing.

So, once again, I’m frustrated. Steven Moffat is an immensely clever writer and Doctor Who in theory is an ideal medium for his talents, but this episode contained far too much writer self-indulgence, in the form of narrative loops which fail to advance the plot, repetitive dialogue scenes which tell us the same thing over and over again (no matter how elegantly phrased or beautifully spoken) and “clever” solutions to plot problems which feel like the answers to crossword puzzles rather than the needed dramatic catharsis.

All that having been said, for Clara’s adventures in the Dalek, for Peter Capaldi’s impassioned performance, for the line “anyone for dodgems?”, and especially for the absolutely scintillating Michelle Gomez, I’m not only going to dredge up three stars for this, I’m going to keep the score for the two-parter at four. It may be rather less than the sum of its parts, but many of those parts are awfully good.

Those sonic sunglasses were only for this episode though, right? Right?

So… what did I think of The Magician’s Apprentice?

Posted on September 24th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

Let’s have a little talk about series structure. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, it was – with the benefit of hindsight – astonishingly surefooted. Yes, it might have taken a few episodes for the tone and the command of resources to settle down (I don’t mind the fact that the bin in Rose was made to burp, but I slightly regret that the CG work was so poor) but the template which Russell T Davies set, although unfamiliar, seemed right, and continued to work for four more seasons. A breezy season opener, a couple of standalone episodes to explore contrasts, a meatier two parter, some quirkier episodes, a “prestige” two parter, a cheapie to save money and then a blood-and-thunder two part finale. Hooray!

As this blog has lovingly chronicled, since Steven Moffat took over, things have been rather less stable. Series Five moreorless followed this template, but Moffat was far more keen than Davies to create an arc which linked the episodes together, a practice which just about succeeded but which rendered the finale a little hard to follow, to say the least.

In Series Six, the wheels started to come off. As part of the planning for the anniversary year, the series was split in two with the first seven episodes airing in the spring, and the remaining six pushed back to the autumn. The insoluble puzzle of the first two episodes proved to be exactly that, with the finale when it eventually arrived amounting to little more than narrative gibberish. Along the way, two parters fell aside. With the sole exception of The Rebel Flesh / The Also People, every other episode of the 2011 series is simply either “arc” or “non-arc” and the collision of these two was sometimes very ugly.

Far from learning the lessons of the previous year, Series Seven was even more violently divided, with a Christmas special separating the two halves but stand-alone adventures also were the order of the day, although Clara’s increasingly incoherent back-story acted as a sort of arc, finally being resolved in the entertaining but rather muddled anniversary show before the Eleventh Doctor himself stood aside in the fatally jumbled Christmas special.

So, last year there was an opportunity to take stock and run a whole twelve episodes (why not thirteen?) in a single calendar year, uninterrupted, with the same lead actors for the first time since 2010 and now in the right season. What was the result? Actually, on the whole, pretty good. The “slutty titles” which dragged down especially the first half of Series Seven seemed to have gone away, and after a slightly bumpy start, we got an incredibly strong run of episodes from about the half way point onwards, so much so that I didn’t miss the two parters at all – especially when episode twelve was such a let-down after episode eleven.

But this year, two parters are the order of the day and so The Magician’s Apprentice must be judged as not only the start of the 2015 season of Doctor Who, not only as the reintroduction of the Peter Capaldi Doctor, but as the first half of a story which will be resolved (I assume! I hope!) next week. I propose therefore to give each episode of this season a score, and also a score for the two-parter as a whole, which may be different from the average of the two scores.

I’m almost tempted to give a separate score to the teaser sequence. It’s an absolute barnstormer. Without trying particularly hard, I had managed to stay spoiler-free as far as the return of Julian Bleach as Davros was concerned (although I was aware that Missy and the Daleks were back) so the last line before the titles crashed in knocked me completely for six, and the further connecting of this story to the Doctor’s idle hypothetical dilemma in Genesis of the Daleks is absolutely fantastic – strong enough not to need any fanwanky familiarity with 1975 episode, but far stronger and more resonant for those who have seen it.

The journey between those two points is a little more pedestrian. We start with some familiar tropes. The “tour of the universe” is a trick Moffat has used several times before, as is the “absent Doctor” and the “weird phenomena which makes UNIT scramble”, although to be fair everyone treats this last as a bit of a cliché too, which I suppose hangs enough of a lantern on it. Missy’s one liners are a treat however, and Capaldi’s eventual entrance, riding a medieval tank while thwanging an axe, is absolutely iconic. The “secret” of Colony Sarff is a bit less interesting, and not quite so well realised.

It’s also a testament to the pace and energy of the direction (Hettie MacDonald, finally making a return to the programme after the success of Blink) that the episode manages to combine UNIT, the Master, Davro and the Daleks in 45 minutes and never once feel like empty fan-servicing.

Once on Skaro, the episode starts to unravel slightly. At the risk of specu-spoilers, Dalek guns don’t vaporise and Missy and Clara are wearing vortex manipulators, so I imagine they’re both fine and it’s somehow less exciting because if I see them killed, then I know they haven’t been, but if they’re merely threatened, then I start to worry that they might be. Which brings us to the real cliff-hanger – “exterminate”. Will he? Won’t he? I genuinely don’t know. Four stars. So far.

Posted on May 8th, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments »


One week with the Apple Watch

Posted on May 1st, 2015 in Technology | No Comments »

As my recent blog post related, I am an early adopter of new tech, although not always a bleeding-edge one. When it comes to Apple gear, I never owned an iPod Classic, Mini, Nano or Shuffle and the original iPhone seemed tremendously expensive and wildly limited. My path to Apple-dom started with the original iPod Touch which was a gateway device to the iPhone 3G and every iPhone since then. I also bought the original iPad, although very late in the day, and every iPad since, bar the most recent iteration. Obviously I was going to buy an Apple Watch.


Once the prices were announced, it was equally obvious that I was going to buy an Apple Watch Sport. Discounting the not merely ludicrous but actually demented Apple Watch Edition range, starting at eight grand, I rather fancied the black Apple Watch with matching link bracelet but as that was nine hundred quid, I decided to go for the more reasonably priced Apple Watch Sport with black band. Looking at band sizes and my relatively slender wrists, it seemed obvious that the smaller 38mm version was the one to go for. I fretted briefly about the possibly better battery life and higher resolution screen of the 42mm version, but decided it would probably be too big and so I saved myself the forty quid difference.

When 8:00am on 10 April arrived, I already had my preferred item saved as a favourite in the Apple Store app on my iPhone and so I was able to place my order immediately and I got my email confirmation at 8:03am and a shipping window of 24 April – 8 May (nobody got an earlier estimate that I know of).

Later that day I went down to the Apple Store on Regent Street for a try-on and a demo. After almost no queuing, the perky young Apple-thing there showed me the 42mm version first and I was immensely struck by how small it was. I was relieved to notice that it did not jut out from my wrist by half a mile (some of the photos make it look very thick) but troubled by the way it didn’t dwarf my arm. The 38mm was fine, but I started to worry even more about accurately hitting touch targets on a screen that small. Then she showed me the leather loop with its graceful magnetic closure and I began to worry that I should have hedged my bets by buying a smarter Apple band to go with my Sport watch. This particular band however is only available for the 42mm version. I could have bought the link bracelet separately, but not the black one and the silver one costs more than the Sport watch itself. The leather loop was only £109 though. Maybe I should switch to the 42mm item? Of course, by this time, the delivery estimate was “June” so I stayed pat.


On 24 April, I had already seen that my Apple watch was “out for delivery” so I tried to not start any long projects at work in order that I could instantly set whatever I was doing aside to play with my new device. Around 1:30pm, I nipped out for lunch, almost assuming it would arrive in my absence. By 4:00pm I was quite annoyed by its continued non-arrival. At 5:30pm, my office building was locked up for the night, so I waited outside until at 6:10pm I saw a UPS van apparently driving straight past. I flagged down the callow driver and retrieved my bounty.

The Apple Watch Sport is delivered in a narrow white plastic box in which the watch lies in repose at full stretch. Also inside the box is a longer band (or one half of a longer band), a magnetic charging cable and a USB power adapter which in the UK version is equipped with very nifty folding pins which snap up and down in a very satisfying manner. Setting the watch up first requires “pairing” it with an iPhone. The phone’s camera records an intricate swirling pattern on the face of the watch which mysteriously identifies it and then you need to wait about 15 minutes for information from your phone to sync over to the watch.


Once on my wrist, futile dreams of a bigger version melted away. I haven’t tried on the 42mm version since, but the 38mm version now looks just right to me. And since with a skinny wrist comes slender fingers, I’ve had no trouble whatever with hitting touch targets on the screen. I still yearn for that impossibly elegant leather loop, but I’ve got a red leather strap and a black link bracelet coming soon, courtesy of this Kickstarter project at a cost of $150 the pair. Also, this cheap-and-cheerful “Night Stand” dock for bedside charging.

The sport band has proved tricky for some people to put on and take off. What works for me is holding the near side of the strap between my thumb and forefinger, and dragging the far side of the strap into place with my middle fingertip lodged in the hole. What’s neat is that if you password-lock the watch, it stays unlocked until you take it off your wrist, whereupon it locks again. Nifty!

Using the Apple Watch

Reviews of the Apple Watch so far have centred on three main themes. Firstly battery life, which in my case has proven to be ample. In the seven days I’ve had it on my wrist, I’ve only run it down to zero once and that was on day one when it was delivered at 60% charge and I played with it almost constantly until midnight when it died. Every day since, I strapped it on my wrist somewhere between 8:00am and 10:00am and I’ve always had more than 30% left when I’ve taken it off sometime after midnight. The combination of the AMOLED screen and the wake-on-raise seems to work great.

That’s theme number two – wake-on-raise. Lifting my wrist to look at the time makes the watch come on. This works 99 times out of 100 for me and seems perfectly natural. I’ve almost never had an issue with it not turning on when I want, and the lack of a backlight means that it’s fine to give it a subtle glance in a theatre or cinema without a glowing column of light emanating from my seat and annoying other people.

Theme number three is trickier. What is it good for? Okay, let’s start with the obvious. It keeps perfect time and has a number of excellent options for watch faces all of which are customisable. I started with the “Modular” option but I really want the time to go in the big space in the middle, and this is not available, so for now I’m using the “Utility” face which is a bit smarter. For the time being, Apple is forbidding third-party faces, but this will probably come at some point.

watch faces

The key thing to understand about the Apple Watch is that it isn’t a computer on your wrist. Not really. It’s a companion to your iPhone and can’t do a lot without your iPhone there. That may seem limiting, and it is, but let’s remember that this is a first generation device. Just as the iPhone was once dependent on a computer running iTunes, but no longer has any need of such a thing, so I imagine will the Apple Watch develop more and more independence from the iPhone as the generations roll by.

It might be worth remembering just how limited the original iPhone was. The first-gen iPhone had…

  • No GPS, digital compass or gyroscope
  • No 3G (so no Internet while talking)
  • No front-facing camera (and only a 2MP camera on the back, with no flash and no ability to record video)
  • No voice control (not just no Siri)
  • A meagre 4Gb storage in the base model
  • And – unbelievably! – no third party apps. You could make calls, browse online and play music. That’s your lot.

Next to this, the first-gen Apple Watch looks pretty capable.

Here’s a quick list of some ways I’ve found it useful and some frustrations I’ve had.

Taking calls. Walking down the street, with my phone in my pocket, listening to a podcast or audio book (a very common procedure for me), I can now see who is calling by glancing at my wrist, so I can decide whether or not to take the call and if so how I should answer it. You can take the call on the watch, and yell into the back of your arm to talk to the other person, but I normally just click the button on my headphones. At first it seemed to me that if I did tap the watch to answer the call instead I had no way of transferring it to the phone. In fact “handoff” works the same way with phone calls as it does with other apps. Having answered the call on your watch, you should see the handoff icon in the bottom left corner of your iPhone’s lock screen. Slide up and you can transfer the call to your phone.

Walking directions are a great experience with the Apple Watch. The “taptic engine” taps me on the wrist to let you know a turn is coming and a glance at the watch confirms I am taking the right road. Now my podcast listening is no longer interrupted by spoken directions and I don’t have to dig the phone out of my pocket to make sure I’m going the right way. You even get different taps for turn left and turn right.

Another frequent situation for me is sitting at work, listening to something while my phone sits in its dock. Being able to stop and start the audio by sliding up the audio controls glance is very handy, and in general notifications work fine (a handy and discrete little red dot at the top of the display lets you know that unread notifications are present) although many are frustratingly limited. Facebook notifications come through for example, but there’s no way to get more information than so-and-so updated their status. Sometimes the opposite is true. Despite there being no dedicated watch app, when tasks fall due I can snooze them or make them completed straight from the notifications area of the watch. There are some bizarre gaps as well. There is no Apple Watch reminders app anywhere, but you can set new reminders on the watch and you will be notified when reminders fall due. You can’t see a list of current reminders anywhere however.

The watch UI is not always as intuitive as it could be. The digital crown works well, but I have to keep reminding myself to scroll using that rather than swiping with my finger. The side button is mainly used to access a ring of 12 favourite contacts. It isn’t possible to access this any other way, nor is it possible to program that button to do anything else. Holding this button down gives you access to shut-down options (hard to guess that) and holding it down again force-quits the current app (impossible to guess that). The other mode of interaction is the force touch which is used mainly as a sort-of right click. Force touching on notifications allows you to clear them all, which is handy, but once again very hard to discover by accident.

Other apps work okay – when they work. Ordering a Hailo cab on my watch was smooth enough, and saved me getting up to fetch my watch from the other room. Despite some advance word to the contrary however, the watch does need to be within Bluetooth range of the phone to do anything useful. Being on a familiar wifi network is not enough. This really should be addressed sooner rather than later.

What’s more problematic is the slowness of many apps to respond. The genuinely useful-to-have-on-the-wrist bus checker app has never actually launched before the bus has arrived, despite half-a-dozen trials. Even on familiar wifi networks or in 4G areas, a great many apps take longer to load than the screen will stay on for, which is not a good experience. Hopefully a software fix which caches better or works more efficiently is coming.

I haven’t used many of the fitness functions yet. I get nagged to stand up once in a while but I haven’t done anything as foolish as go for a run yet. I imagine they work fine – although once again please note there is no GPS in the watch, so you still need to take your phone with you if you want to track your route. Replying to text messages works great, with the canned responses often appropriate and Siri working extremely well otherwise. And I still get a little living-in-the-future thrill from adjusting my Hue lights from my watch.

Overall, then for £300 and for a first-gen device I’m pretty pleased. The Apple Watch is attractive, comfortable, useful and fun. It still needs work, and in particular it needs to start developing independence away from the iPhone – for speed more than anything else – but it’s a terrific start and I’m very happy to own one. I’m already looking forward to the second generation model, which will be half the thickness, twice the speed, with a camera for wrist-based Facetiming, have its own onboard GPS and third party watch faces. And of course, by selling my first-gen model, I’ll get if for £200 off.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

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


There is an alternate universe somewhere, where in addition to all the nice people glowering from behind their dark goatee beards, the principle guest star in Star Trek IV was Eddie Murphy.


It seems insane, but after the dour Search for Spock, Paramount was keen to make the fourth instalment a little lighter in tone and a little easier for newbies to get on board with. Murphy had made a boat-load of money for Paramount in Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places and Superman III had done well with comedian Richard Pryor only a couple of years before. With the contemporary San Francisco setting which Nimoy and Harve Bennett were considering, Murphy would work well. No?

Eddie Murphy turned them down.

Who can say how much money the Star Trek IV: The Eddie Murphy Show would have made, or how well-received it might have been by fans? In our universe, despite (or maybe because of) sitting very oddly in the rest of the canon, it was the highest regarded since Khan, and remained so probably until First Contact, or possibly forever. It also made more money than Khan, in fact its box office haul wasn’t bettered until First Contact, ten years later.

And yet, it isn’t really a Star Trek film at all.

It kinda-sorta looks like a Star Trek film for the first twenty minutes or so, picking up where III left off (again, for no particular reason, except that that seems to be the form now), with the ramshackle crew of the Enterprise limping home in their stolen Klingon ship to face the music. But – whaddyaknow! – another Mysterious Alien Probe is attacking Earth and playing whale song at it. Whales having long gone extinct in the 23rd century, Kirk announces that this beaten up and very unfamiliar ship is capable of time travel (who knew it was so easy?) and they nip back to 1986 to scoop some up.

When they arrive in then-contemporary San Francisco, the movie’s tone changes completely. The epic space opera of the previous two movies gives way to a breezy, eighties whale-out-of-water comedy, with the Eddie Murphy role blandly but ably fulfilled by Catherine Hicks as whale-ologist Gillian Taylor. The huge success of this very enjoyable movie is to avoid the baggage of Treks past, and to treat the ensemble cast as an ensemble, instead of three lead guys and a bunch of red shirts.

Kirk splits his crew up so he and Spock go find the whales; Scottie, McCoy and Sulu build a tank to put them in; and Uhuru and Chekhov go and find a nuclear reactor so… so Chekhov can say “nook-ular wessels” I think. Everyone seizes the opportunity to have fun with these parts, and William Shatner seems far more comfortable playing this easy going time traveller, even with his rival Nimoy behind the camera once more. Their crackerjack timing in this little exchange is just delightful.

If I have a criticism, it’s when all the other characters are getting such good scenes to play, Spock seems a little absent. Possibly this is due to Nimoy’s duties behind the camera, possibly it’s that dying and being resurrected just takes it out of even the hardiest half-Vulcan, but he seems a shadow of his former self for much of the movie.

Needless to say, in its cheerful what-the-hell way, returning to the future presents no new problems and the whales are presented to the space probe which obediently buggers off and leaves our heroes to it. They are rewarded with a spanking new Enterprise-A, Kirk is demoted back to Captain where he belongs and we have come full circle.

What a perfect place to stop.

Facts and figures

Released: 26 November 1986
Budget: $21m
Box office: $133m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer (plus Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes who mainly worked on the Eddie Murphy version)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett


Chicken Dhansak

Posted on March 13th, 2015 in recipes | No Comments »

Here’s a quick recipe for dhal which you can use to make a speedy chicken dhansak as well. The richness of the lentils creates a depth of flavour in the sauce which it’s hard to get without a lot more cooking time, but the dhal on its own is also well worth knowing about. A plate of dhal with basmati rice is a wonderfully soothing quick supper.


For the dhal

  • 250g red split lentils
  • thumb-sized piece of ginger
  • 2 fat garlic cloves
  • 1 green or red chilli
  • 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tsp each ground cardamom, ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric, salt, black pepper
  • 1 small can chopped tomatoes (200g)
  • 1 lime
  • vegetable oil for frying

For the chicken

  • 500g chicken breast
  • 1 medium onion
  • thumb-sized piece of ginger
  • 2 fat garlic cloves
  • 1 green or red chilli
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tsp each ground fenugreek, ground cumin, ground coriander, ground turmeric, salt, black pepper
  • Fresh coriander to garnish
  • vegetable oil for frying


Dice the onion for the dhal and slice the onion for the dhansak.

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Finely chop the ginger and garlic, deseed and chop the chillis, measure out all the spices.

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Gently fry the diced onion in a saucepan until it starts to go transparent. Then add the garlic, chilli and ginger.

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Add the spices, stir to combine, then add the lentils.

Pour over the stock  and stir well. Simmer for 15 minutes, adding extra water if it starts to get too thick.

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While the dhal cooks, cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.

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Fry the sliced onion in a wok, and add the ginger, garlic and chilli when it starts to go transparent.

Add the spices, stir to combine.

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Then add the chicken and keep frying until it is cooked through.

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By now, 15 minutes should be up and the lentils will have largely collapsed into a delicious mush.

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Add the juice of the lime, and the chopped tomatoes to the lentils and then pour over the chicken, and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

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Serve with basmati rice, pita bread or naan bread, and sprinkled with fresh coriander.

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If you just want dhal, then ignore all the chicken-related stuff and just keep simmering the lentils in the saucepan for another five minutes after the lime juice and tomatoes go in. I like my dhal thick and porridge-y, but 500ml of stock is never enough, however I have to remember that extra liquid is going in shortly before the end of the cooking time, and restrain myself from adding too much extra water, especially towards the end, or the lentils end up too soup-y for my liking.

My Life in Tech – or The Unexpected Virtue of Apple-ness

Posted on February 27th, 2015 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Are you thinking about the Apple Watch?

Wait, let me start at the beginning.

motorola_memphis_mr2011997 was a vastly different time. Yes, email had been around for a while (I had my first email account at university in 1990) but the Internet wasn’t anything like the all-pervading force it is today. I accessed the Internet via a dial-up modem (which stopped other people in the house from using the telephone). I used it mainly to access bulletin boards like CiX, since the World Wide Web was in its infancy. I wouldn’t make my first purchase on Amazon until October 1998. I wouldn’t upload my first website until 1999. Paypal was a year away. YouTube was eight years away. Public access to Facebook was nine years away. Twitter was inconceivable. And my first mobile phone looked something like this.

The battery life was pretty good, and it made phone calls and sent new things called SMSes or “text messages”. Mobile phones had only recently stopped being the preserve of yuppies and had also recently stopped being the size (and weight) of housebricks. They were fairly expensive to own and to use, however, and so my wife and I ended up sharing this one. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally got my own, which by now looked something like this.

nokia3310It was also in 2000 that I bought a PDA (personal digital assistant) for the first time. I’d been tempted by a Psion Organiser in the 1980s but I couldn’t afford one that was actually any good. By now, Psion was in decline and Palm was the new market leader.

Palm had introduced the original Palm Pilot in 1996. This digital calendar, phone book, eBook reader, notepad and calculator used a stylus to enter data via a simplified alphabet called Graffiti, but early models – although impressive for the time – were very expensive.

m100_bigWhen Palm released the Palm m100, I had to have it. It cost around a hundred quid, was powered by two AAA batteries and it had to be synced to a computer to get updated information on to it (a service called AvantGo synced and cached stripped-down web-pages for later reading on-the-go). It rapidly took over my life.

tungstenOver time, I went through several generations of Palms, culminating in the Palm Tungsten TX which finally got rid of the dedicated Graffiti area (which accepted input from the stylus but which couldn’t display anything), had a colour screen (320×480) and Wi-Fi – but still no cellular connectivity. I got mine around 2006 and its vibrant app development community meant there was precious little it couldn’t do.

Sony_Ericsson_K810i_front (1)I still had a mobile phone at this point which by now looked something like this. For a while, I had an MP3 player as well but later Palms which accepted SD cards eventually took over this role.

Why so many devices? Obviously, I knew that objects existed which combined the functions of phone and PDA into a single device, but Palm Treos and Compaq iPAQs seemed somehow clunky to me, certainly physically if not in terms of software, and I’d got really used to my Sony Ericsson and my Palm Tungsten and didn’t really see a compelling reason to drop either.

I’d also stopped using Apple products since giving up being a graphic designer. At one point my desk at work had a Mac for Photoshop and QuarkXPress and a Windows PC for coding and I was running both of them off one giant monitor. Now, I was working from home and I’d scaled my home computer down to a laptop and relegated my Windows PC to the role of media centre. I’d played with iMacs and been impressed at how pretty they were, but Apple was a niche player as far as I could see, and I wasn’t in that niche.

It’s worth pausing just for a moment here to look at where Palm stood at this point. They were the market leaders in PDAs, largely because of the enormous variety of apps available. Even as far back as 2000, usability guru Jakob Neilsen had noted that what he called the “deck of cards form-factor” was far superior to the “candy bar” format of most “feature phones”. Palm was surely poised to dominate the fast-approaching smartphone revolution. Weren’t they?

Well, I might not have been using Apple products regularly, but I certainly sat up and took notice when Beaming Steve unveiled the original iPhone in June 2007. Clearly this was an amazing device, but as someone who’d never even owned an iPod, I didn’t have any brand loyalty to Apple and all I could see were the flaws. No 3G, which meant sluggish Internet, and you couldn’t surf and talk at the same time. No apps, so you couldn’t find nifty new software like I could on my Palm. No expandable storage. And – ouch – that price! When O2 announced it for sale to UK consumers in November, I just continued with my Wi-Fi Palm Tungsten and my T-Mobile Sony Ericsson candy bar phone.

However, when the far cheaper iPod Touch was announced in 2007, I was suddenly convinced, and got Deborah to buy me one in the States where she was visiting friends and send it home to me. I abandoned my Palm, downloaded iTunes and bought a bunch of CDs to rip in order to use it to its fullest. Suddenly my crummy Tungsten with its fiddly stylus seemed like Stone Age technology. But worse was to come for Palm.

foleoAlso, in 2007, Palm announced what amounted to a new category of devices – the Palm Foleo. This amazingly small and light personal computer had a full-sized keyboard and a 10 inch screen. Today we’d say it looks a little like a netbook and a little like a Microsoft Surface. What it didn’t have was 3G connectivity, but you could pair it with your Treo and download email on the go.

Apple should have been worried. Blackberry – who owned corporate-email-on-the-go at this point – should have been worried. But if you’re wondering why you never saw any of these Foleos in the wild, it’s because three months after announcing it – and before it had shipped a single unit – Palm cancelled the project altogether. From there, Palm spiralled into take-overs, functional divisions and ultimately irrelevancy as Apple seized the initiative.

When the refreshingly affordable iPhone 3G was announced in 2008, I needed no more persuading. My iPod Touch had become invaluable. I had “jailbroken” it so I could install apps, I was subscribing to a bunch of podcasts and listening to audio books, and I was sick of having to try and find Wi-Fi hotspots before I could check my email or browse the web. I paid off T-Mobile, abandoned my Sony Ericsson candybar phone and I was all-in with Apple.

The rest is pretty much as you might expect. I have bought every model of iPhone since – Apple products keep their value surprisingly well, so I can often very nearly subsidise the entire cost of the upgrade by selling the old model on eBay. I bought the original iPad, then fell in love with the smart cover on the iPad 2, then felt I needed the retina display on the iPad 3 and then finally wanted to get an iPad with a lightning connector, so I got the iPad Air. I didn’t get the iPad Air 2, as the only reason to upgrade that I could see was Touch ID, which is nice and all, but I’m saving up for…

The Apple Watch.

Okay, so – to be clear – this is almost certainly a bad idea. The first generation Apple Watch, like the 2G iPhone and the inch-thick 2010 iPad is likely to be a lavishly-priced prototype rather than the real deal. The inevitable Apple Watch 2 is no doubt going to be half the thickness, have twice the battery life and provide intimate massages on demand but – I can’t wait. I want to test this thing out, and I’m getting itchy. We’re told that it will be out in “early 2015” which has now been clarified to “April” (which I guess is early 2015, but it’s certainly late early 2015). If it goes on-sale Friday 24 April, say, that means we can expect an event of some kind week beginning 6 April 2015, so we should be hearing something around the end of March. (Updated to note – we learned yesterday, 26 February, that the event will be held on 9 March, which suggests a slightly earlier ship date.)

At the moment we don’t really know what kind of money we’re going to have to plunk down. Apple has said prices will start at $349 which probably works out as something between £279 and £319 when you factor in VAT. But is that for the watch, and then your choice of strap is extra? Or do all the combos on the Apple website represent different SKUs? And if they do, will you be able to also buy extra straps? What does $349 get you? The stainless steel model or only something in the aluminium “Sport” range? Just the luminous plastic strap, or something fancier like the Link Bracelet or the Milanese Loop? Will it be out in the UK in April, or do we have to wait? (Ominously, the US Apple web site says “Coming early 2015” but the UK Apple web site says “Available in 2015”.)

And when it is finally available, what do I want? Previously, it was an easy choice (“the black one with the most storage, please,”) but this is a fashion accessory and Apple has provided a bewildering array of possible options. My skinny wrist probably means the 38mm model is the one to go for (even though that means fewer pixels, not just a physically smaller screen). I would ideally like the Black Stainless Steel model with the Link Bracelet, but I’m not paying £700 for the privilege. If the Watch Sport range is the only one which is remotely affordable, then I guess it will have to be the Space Grey Aluminium with Black Fluroelastomer band. The 18 carat gold models are clearly meant only for demented millionaires, in which category I do not alas qualify – some estimates put the price as high as $20,000!

And if it is US only, I may be looking into one of those services which provides you with a US postal address and then ships the goods on to you. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Oscars 2015: Wrap-up

Posted on February 23rd, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Okay, let’s take the ceremony itself first. Following stellar opening numbers at various Tony Awards, expectations were high for Neil Patrick Harris. His opening number was technically nifty and passably amusing, but not in quite the same league, even with help from Anna Kendrick and Jack Black. Harris subsequently restricted himself to 30 second spots and the weakest of all possible jokes. Serious, after he began “Our next presenter is so sweet you could eat her up with-a-spoon…” we all expected him to continue “…please welcome Jennifer Lopez.” But no, the winsome star of Wild showed up instead.

The magic trick at the end was cute and funny, but the pencil sketches for In Memoriam were much less interesting and moving than clips would have been, and the bizarre Lady Gaga tribute to The Sound of Music was baffling. Why, with all the time and money and talent in the world, does the Academy find this show so difficult to pull off, year after year?

On to the results – the acting categories all went exactly as anticipated, and it was great to see The Grand Budapest Hotel scooping up so many awards outside the “big eight”, to the point where it tied with Birdman for the most awards (four), one behind Whiplash, which in the end did not benefit from its inclusion in the Best Adapted Screenplay award which went to a tiny squeaky-voiced child who claims to have written The Imitation Game. Graham Moore being seven years old might excuse his car-crash of a script, but I have to say his acceptance speech was just about perfect. In my blog, I had picked Budapest for Best Original Screenplay, but at our sweepstake on the night I opted for Birdman which proved correct, but honestly it was a three-way coin-flip between those two and Boyhood.

The only other call I got wrong was the big one – Best Picture. It looked like a straight fight between Boyhood and Birdman with the former starting off as the bookies’ favourite, but the latter gathering momentum as the day neared. I figured that Boyhood was the bigger achievement in movie-making, but that the director of Birdman could not be ignored and so picked Iñárritu for director, but Boyhood for Best Picture. In the end, Birdman took both which I can’t help but be pleased about. The making of Boyhood is an amazing process, but the eventual movie is rather a thin piece of work. Birdman ain’t perfect, but it fizzes with invention and was probably my favourite of the nominees.

That’s it for this year. I still hope to catch up with Big Eyes, Inherent Vice, Big Hero 6 and Mr Turner at some point, and I watched Nightcrawler on my iPad on a train recently and I thoroughly recommend it. See you next time.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Posted on February 19th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


The old adage with Star Trek movies is “the even-numbered ones are good”. This doesn’t work with Star Trek X as we’ll see, but it holds pretty well for most of the series and it’s certainly true that III isn’t half as good as the films either side of it. But it’s easy to overlook it, sitting as it does between the most iconic film in the series and the most fun film in the series.

The success of Star Trek II had made Star Trek III inevitable, and Harve Bennett had more than proved himself an able producer. But more Trek meant more Spock and Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to return only if we was also able to sit in the director’s chair. Luckily (or not, as we’ll see) Nicholas Meyer wanted no part of a movie which was going to unpick the narrative of Star Trek II, and so with a studio-imposed deadline breathing down his neck, Harve Bennett sat down to write the screenplay on his own.

With the benefit of hindsight, the job of Star Trek III is to move the characters from their positions at the end of Star Trek II, to the positions they need to be in to start Star Trek IV. These three films make a particularly tight trilogy, unlike anything else in the series. They didn’t need to do that. Plenty of screenwriters would have picked up the story back on Earth, or at a Starbase, where the Enterprise and her crew are getting patched up. But Bennett just keeps the ball rolling, bringing Saavik and David along for the ride, and reusing the Genesis device as the Macguffin (as well as an awful lot of footage from the previous film). Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a very efficient or a very unimaginative way of constructing a story. The only new element is a gang of Klingons (if you can call Klingons in a Star Trek movie “new”) led by a virtually unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. He makes a fine villain, but he’s hardly in Ricardo Montalban’s class.

As well as being lean to the point of austere, the movie is also very, very depressing at times. Whereas in Wrath of Khan, Kirk triumphs over impossible odds, in Search for Spock, he fails at pretty much every turn. Yes, he finally manages to deliver Bones to Vulcan where they extract his Vulcan pal’s marbles and ladle them back into his rapidly-aging body – but pretty much everything else is a disaster. Kirk gets his son killed, has to blow up the Enterprise, loses his standing with Star Fleet and barely escapes with his own sorry life. The constant air of gloom which pervades this movie makes it quite difficult to engage with at times. The motto of the first film was “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The motto of the second film clearly seems to be “one Leonard Nimoy is worth a dozen of you clowns.”

And yet, amid all the bloodshed and destruction and horror, it’s the lighter moments which work best and which stick in the mind. Bennett’s script is the first (and probably one of only two) which actually succeeds in using the TV cast as an ensemble, instead of making it the Kirk, Spock and (if you’re lucky) McCoy show, plus five other guys who get seven lines between them.

Obviously it helps that Spock (or at least Leonard Nimoy) is absent almost throughout, but one wonders at the patience of George Takei, James Doohan et al, as they stood quietly at the back for most of the two previous films. And for no reason – the film roars into life when Kirk elects to steal the Enterprise and Scotty, Chekhov, Uhuru and Sulu spring into action like a space-faring Oceans Eleven, while Saavik tends to the brainless Spock on the Genesis planet. Kirstie Alley declined to return to the role, but miraculously, Saavik once again makes it to the end credits without betraying anyone or dying at all. She is now played with a good deal more class but rather less vulnerability by Robin Curtis. The nearest we get to a turncoat/sacrificial lamb is James B Sikking as the odious commander of the Excelsior, the Federations latest and greatest, which can’t make it out of space-dock when Scotty removes the spark-plugs. So, he’s just a doofus rather than a traitor.

Nimoy directs efficiently, but without noticeable flair and professional standards are all suitably high, with ILM once again turning in beautiful matte paintings, spaceships and phaser blasts. And if the Genesis planet sometimes looks a bit studio-y as it blows itself up, well that adds a welcome touch of nostalgia. The movie ends with the Star Trek cast (even Nichelle Nichols, bafflingly left out of the adventures on and around Genesis) celebrating the return of Spock, but with no ship, several casualties and on the run. Given how much of the set-up takes place in the previous film and given how little is resolved in this one, it’s hard to see Star Trek III as a hugely successful movie in its own right, but as a chapter in the ongoing saga, it works just fine.

Facts and figures

Released: 1 June 1984
Budget: $16m
Box office: $87m
Writers: Harve Bennett
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

Oscars 2015: American Sniper

Posted on February 9th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »


In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood loved movies called “The Big Something”. These days it’s “American Something” (American Hustle, American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Pie, American Graffiti, The American President, An American Tale, American Dreamz, Wet Hot American Summer et cetera and so forth). However, the title American Sniper is rather apt here, since Clint Eastwood’s uneasy meditation on Iraq is largely about being an American as well as being a sniper.

Two quick announcements before we proceed. Firstly, read on with caution – there will be spoilers. Secondly, this will be a rather indecisive review of a rather indecisive film. Okay. Ready, aim, fire…

Yet another awards-season biopic, this movie wears its true life credentials a little more lightly than The Irritation Game or The Theory of Nothing. Protagonist Chris Kyle is drawn from real life, but he’s nowhere near as famous as Britain’s beloved wheelchair boffin, or the Father of Modern Computing™. The first third of the movie is by far the most satisfying, build around a neat structural device as Navy SEAL Kyle targets a woman and child in the streets of Iraq and has to decide whether or not the object which they are carrying presents a threat to the American troops below. From here, we flip back to his youth, and young adulthood, but although the movies’ chronology darts all over the place, Director Eastwood doesn’t need captions or clunky dialogue to tell us where or when we are (four captions numbering off Kyle’s four tours of duty are all we ever get). Throughout his style is simple, economical and effective – with one exception as we’ll see.

Once Kyle becomes a grown-up, he is portrayed by a physically pumped-up but emotionally restrained Bradley Cooper. As a young man, chatting up Sienna Miller in a bar, and later in basic training, he is pinkly buff, like an over-inflated child’s toy, but as the war wears on, he becomes leaner, more grizzled. The bar scene is a neat one. Nothing very striking or new about it – you’ve seen similar scenes dozens of times before – but it’s hard to pick out a cliché in Jason Hall’s dialogue, and both stars give it life and specificity.

Once the narrative circle closes at the end of Act One, however, two things happen. The first is that the genre demands of a war movie start to make themselves felt. I have no idea how much of what happens in American Sniper is accurate, but I don’t have the same complaints that I had about the Turing biopic. Nothing in the Eastwood movie violates logic, but Kyle does quickly become a one-man army, taking charge of another division’s operations without orders, and uncovering hidden gun caches all on his own. And when we start narrowing the scope of the conflict down to a crazed war lord who murders children with a drill to the head, I can’t help but feel that the Prestige War is Hell movie has been hijacked by Rambo, or more aptly Dirty Harry. So, when a young marine starts showing off his new engagement ring, is it too much to hope that the improbably named “Biggles” won’t be next in line for a bullet? Bang! Yup, I guess so.

The second thing which happens is that we start flipping between Kyle’s life in Iraq and his life back home with wife Miller and suitably adorable kids. There’s a suggestion here that the emotional walls which Kyle has to erect in order to sustain his sanity in the madness of the war-zone make it impossible to fully function back in a domestic environment. His chipper, single-minded, simple-headed philosophy of “America first” begins to contrast quite strongly with the mess, chaos and lack of order he faces in Fallujah, and the pointless, saccharine quality of his suburban married life at home.

But while I admire the restraint shown in avoiding giving movie-Kyle the kind of full-blown melt-down, or colossal epiphany which real-life Kyle evidently did not have, as a movie experience it constantly simmers but never quite comes to the boil. This is perhaps why some viewers have read it as an anti-war polemic and other as a blood-soaked paean to the glories of warfare. Eastwood just gives us the story and lets us make up our own minds. This is an admirable stance, but a rather unsatisfying way of making a movie.

So, we avoid the movie-of-the-week cocksure young man who learns Important Lessons About Life and who Returns from the Theatre of War a Different Man rubbish, but we also avoid a third act. After a rather touching sequence in which Kyle befriends a number of injured veterans, the film ends very abruptly, as did Kyle’s own life. The circumstances of his death are unclear and don’t in any way form a continuation of the human story and thus are wisely omitted, and so the real third act of the movie comes twenty minutes earlier when the genre demands take hold completely, and we get an extremely well-executed and very suspenseful sequence in which Kyle makes an impossible shot to take out his Iraqi counterpart, and no doubt saves American lives by doing so. But he also calls attention to his team’s position and there follows a tremendous firefight and last minute panicky extraction in the middle of a dust-storm.

Well done thought it is, this is pure boys own adventure stuff, which would not have been out-of-place in any moderate intelligent action thriller. The only bum note is the ridiculous CGI slow-motion bullet which whistles over a mile across an Iraqi cityscape, (which is the Eastwood’s one slip) but even without that, all of the complexity, both human and political, just drops clean out of the movie at this point.

So, what to make of American Sniper? Well, I’m certainly grateful that for all the compressing, simplifying and streamlining which is an inevitable part of the process of turning messy reality into a two hour movie, we haven’t ended up with something as plastic and hollow as the Turing or Hawking biopics. However, Eastwood only has himself to blame if people are reading the movie in a way other than he intended, since it’s very hard to work out just what he’s trying to say here. Kyle is altered by his four tours of duty, but less so (physically and emotionally) than many others we see and hear about. The Iraq conflict appears to be mismanaged and to lack any real coordination, but there’s no attempt at a Green Zone-style analysis of just how the point of going to war got lost somewhere between the politicians and the generals. And after that sparky bar scene, Sienna Miller just becomes “the wife” and the scenes with Kyle back home are frustratingly generic for the most part.

Bradley Cooper’s restrained performance fills in a few of these gaps – the contrast between the cocky young cowboy in his twenties and the sober veteran in his thirties is well executed, but quite what point Eastwood was trying to make I could not tell you. And whether this would have been a better or a worse movie if he’d make that point more clearly – well I can’t tell you that either.

As that concludes my viewing of the Best Picture nominees, let me have a go at a few predictions. After a generally rotten performance in most previous years, I did manage 100% success in our Oscars sweepstake last year, so here are my current thoughts about the top categories.

Best Picture must surely go to Boyhood. It’s the bookies’ favourite by a long way and is scooping up a lot of awards all over the place.

Best Director I’m not sure about. While these two awards often go in lock-step I have a feeling that Alejandro Iñárritu might have a better shot that Richard Linklater, simply because Birdman looks so stunning.

Best Actor and Best Actress are both pretty easy to call. Nothing the Academy likes better than a disability and so Eddie Redmayne and Julianne Moore both better have speeches ready.

Best Supporting Actor will very likely go to JK Simmons, and deservedly so. Best Supporting Actress I think might go to Patricia Arquette. She’s probably the best thing in Boyhood and she just scooped the BAFTA, so she must be in with a shout.

Best Original Screenplay is a tough one to call with Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel all having strong claims. I’ve got a hunch that Budapest is going to do well overall and it’s probably the best screenplay of the lot, as a piece of literature.

Best Adapted Screenplay is a touch more straightforward. If we discount the flabby boffin biopics, and remove too-controversial American Sniper and too-divisive Inherent Vice from the running, we are left with Whiplash which may benefit from the extra attention it got due to its bizarre placing int this category – but that might work out well for Chazelle.

My Star Trek movie reviews will resume next week, and I’ll also have a report on the ceremony and the winners and losers shortly after the big show on 22 February.