Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted on December 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

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I got into watching science fiction in the 1980s, and that was a fallow time for Star Trek. Unlike in America where the adventures of Kirk and Spock were on permanent syndication, in the UK I remember watching a few episodes on BBC2, and I remember reading one or two novels, but I didn’t really grow up with Trek the way some people did. When The Next Generation launched in 1987, I devoured it, and watching those episodes again, spiffed-up on blu-ray, the best of them have scarcely dated at all. What’s shocking is that TNG launched 27 years ago and still looks great, whereas 1966 Star Trek had already begun to look old and creaky after only 21 years when TNG began.

So, my affection for the old crew rests largely on the original films. I was just about old enough to want to go and see The Motion Picture when it first came out. I don’t remember seeing the next two at the cinema but I read and re-read the novelisations and I’m sure I saw The Voyage Home and all the rest on the big screen. There follows brief reviews and historical context based on recent re-watches of the movies on blu-ray.

A quick rant first of all. Buying and rebuying the same material is something I’ve grown accustomed to and made peace with. I’ve bought the James Bond movies four times now (VHS, DVD, remastered DVD, blu-ray) and I don’t rule out buying them again if consumer 4K ever becomes a thing. But it is galling to have had original director Robert Wise recut the first Star Trek film and supervise the creation of new special effects sequences for the DVD, only to learn that this work was only ever done at DVD resolution which means that the blu-ray release has reverted to the theatrical cut. Anyway. Some history…

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that a Star Trek movie franchise would be attempted but what’s remarkable is that it survived this shaky start. Gene Roddenberry, genius though he surely was, seemed incapable of learning from experience. The original pilot of Star Trek back in the middle sixties was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral”. Roddenberry had pitched “Wagon Train to the stars” and had delivered a philosophical musing on the nature of freedom. He got a second chance and so the good humoured, action-oriented, show we (some of us) came to love was born. Yes, the original series had some strong science fiction elements, and some notable moral stances, but the audience was really there to see Bones tease Spock and for Kirk to hit people with both fists at once. Hurrah! At yet, The Motion Picture seems determined to revert to the style of storytelling which Roddenberry had conclusively proved there was no audience for.

The first Star Trek film had a troubled birth. The success of films like 2001 and Silent Running initially convinced Paramount (who now owned the rights) that a Star Trek movie would be a smash hit, and so they began pre-production but when script development began to hit the weeds, they decided that a new TV series made more sense and so “Star Trek Phase Two” began to gestate, with a few younger actors to round out the cast and to cater for the absent Leonard Nimoy and the expensive William Shatner. And then, with casting complete and sets under construction, the even greater success of Close Encounters and especially Star Wars reconvinced Paramount that the movie idea had been right all along. Nimoy was tempted back into the ears after director Robert Wise was told by his daughter that it wouldn’t be Star Trek without Spock.

Throughout this process, the notion of the Enterprise encountering God refused to go away – an early draft for the movie was called The God Thing and the story concerned a god-like extra-dimensional alien supercomputer and the eventual movie script began life as a Phase Two pilot script called In Thy Image which is basically the movie as released (even including the name “Veejur” corrupted from “Voyager”) but with a damp squib of an ending. And all this despite the fact that the original 1960s series had included countless god-like aliens including but not limited to Charlie X, Gary Mitchell after his encounter with the Galactic Barrier, the Squire of Gothos / Trelane and Gorgan the Friendly Angel. The Enterprise had even previously come across an Earth probe retrofitted by unseen aliens which now murderously sought its creator – Nomad in the episode The Changeling, hence the bitter joke that the first movie should have been called “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”.

Anyway, the whole bridge crew was eventually assembled, an end was found for the Phase Two script and Robert Wise was handed a handsome budget with which to shoot his epic adventure. Watching it now, what is at first immediately apparent is that this belongs neither to the tradition of Star Trek movies (not surprising since no such tradition then existed), nor to the tradition of the Star Trek television series, but rather to the cycle of ponderous, highbrow and above all beige science-fiction movies which Star Wars had only just brought to a decisive end – films like Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Soylent Green. Very little of the charm and good humour of the original series survives this earnest and plodding encounter, with Spock in particular a shadow of his TV self and Bones given very few lines which are anything other than strictly functional.

Part of this is the need to give new crew-members Decker and Ilia some room to establish themselves. They are the first in a long line of new crew-members introduced at the beginning of a movie who take screen time and lines away from the TV cast, but fail to make it to the end credits because they get unexpectedly killed half-way through / sacrifice themselves at the end / turn out to be working for the bad guys. But Stephen Collins is too stiff and annoying to really register as Decker and Persis Khambatta, although cutting a very striking figure, doesn’t really make much of an impression before her reappearance as a probe, which makes her fate considerably less shocking than it might have been. Compared to Nomad wiping beloved Uhuru’s memory (don’t worry, she got it back) this is weak sauce.

The other problem is that writers and director are both putting the emphasis in all the wrong places. I read and reread the novelisation when I was a kid and so when I rewatched the movie I expected the first Shatner scene to be Kirk negotiating the return of his ship from Star Fleet top brass. Actually, when we first meet Kirk, this scene is already presumed to have happened. Fair enough, by all means start in the middle, but we then have ten minutes of sometimes impressive, but sometimes ropey, model shots to get Kirk and Scotty over to the Enterprise. I’d far rather have five more minutes of my hero standing up for what he believes in than five minutes of dialogue-free effects work, no matter how stately.

In fact the movie seems determined to undermine Kirk at every turn. He doesn’t know how his own ship works, is shown up by subordinates, is helpless before Veejur, is disobeyed by Spock and generally does very little to earn his keep until the very end. A pretty poor return for such a heroic figure, and this is especially noteworthy when so few of the original cast are given anything to do. It even seems to go unnoticed that on the TV show, Sulu and Chekov used to alternate in the same job. Here, both Walter Koenig and George Takei get about half-a-dozen bland lines each and that’s your lot. I hope they got paid properly because this will only have added to their typecasting problems. I’m assured that Nichelle Nichols is in it, but I honestly don’t remember even seeing her. Oh wait, yes I do, because she’s been given a very unflattering Diana Ross “do”.

What is good then? Well, the sets are nice, if beige, although it’s a shame we spend so much of the damn movie on board the Enterprise. “Bottle shows” are an inevitable feature of year-round TV production, where an unusually expensive adventure is paired with a show which uses only the regular cast and standing sets to keep the average price-per-episode within the budget. But on a big budget movie, surely we could stretch our legs a little? And then there are those damn silly uniforms with their navel height buckles-with-no-belts and Dick Tracy style wrist communicators, scrapped like so much else, after this movie.

So, the film retains its reputation for being slow – not only do scenes drag on for ages, but whole sub-plots such as the wormhole are included as very obvious padding. And overall, it does nothing which the TV series couldn’t do in a third the time with better jokes and more colourful décor. The effects work is often top-notch for the time, with a particularly snazzy transporter and warp drive effect – both too expensive to ever use again – and of course we get that wonderful Jerry Goldsmith sig tune for the first time. And if you’re in the mood for something not quite as glacial as 2001 but not quite as mindless as Buck Rogers, then this will fill 132 minutes quite handily. But it doesn’t really have much to do with Star Trek past (save re-using a basic plot) nor does it really set the template for Star Trek’s future. Best thought of as a slightly wonky prototype, this film established the need, but much more work needed to be done on the fit-and-finish before it was ready for mass production. Much better films were to come, and some much worse.

Facts and figures

Released: 7 December 1979
Budget: $46m
Box office: $139m
Writers: Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingstone
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

At the movies: Interstellar

Posted on November 24th, 2014 in At the cinema | 1 Comment »

By and large, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan. I’m aware that Memento doesn’t entirely make sense but it was such an arresting and compelling device that I’m not minded to go back and try and pick it apart. All of the Batman movies are eminently watchable, with the middle episode being by far the best. Inception I thought was marvellous – a brilliant combination of eye-popping effects, bright performances, a few weighty themes to chew on, and an emotional story which didn’t swamp the narrative but which managed to hold its own against the noise and colour.

So, I sat down to watch Interstellar, at the BFI IMAX in a happy mood, but my overall impression, at the end of a lengthy run-time was disappointment. There is good stuff here, but key moments are flubbed, and crucially, the film doesn’t do for me what I’m pretty sure Nolan thinks it’s doing. It doesn’t stir my soul, it doesn’t mash my brain and it doesn’t even delight my eyes the way I thought it would. Let’s get into this. There will be some spoilers, but I won’t assume you’ve seen the film.

Firstly, the film borrows from earlier works with a magpie-ish zeal which makes Tarantino look like a hermit-like recluse who’s never seen a film in his life. Just off the top of my head, Nolan has stirred in chunks of Contact, Armageddon, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Gravity, The Right Stuff, Solaris, Disney’s The Black Hole and great dollops of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is the most damning comparison, but we’ll get to that later.

We open in a future world where an unspecified ecological disaster has created a crop blight, with the result that no wheat or barley can grow and so America (and we assume the world) is subsisting on corn. Given that we will spend only about a quarter of the film in this environment, Nolan attempts to avoid lengthy and tedious world-building. We are spared long professorial lectures about just what has happened and when (although long professorial lectures are coming, don’t worry) and instead just spend time getting to know Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper (no first name is given) and his family including John Lithgow who is given absolutely nothing to do.

But Nolan fills these early sections with set-pieces which are either obvious set-ups for pay-offs which result later in the movie (Murph’s “ghost”) or obvious set-ups for pay-offs which never arrive (Cooper wrangling a rogue drone back to Earth). Meanwhile, back-story which might actually help, like whatever the hell crash McConaughey is trying to get over, is scarcely referred to again.

But this approach means that I’m still asking vital questions about what is happening down on earth after McConaghey’s mission, and struggling to believe it all. The story we are told about NASA – unfunded, unloved, a misfit band of scientists still toiling away in isolation – is totally at odds with what they have accomplished – building enormous ships capable of interplanetary travel and devising a plan to save the lives of thousands of people. And the last-minute recruiting of McConaghey on to the mission also seems profoundly unlikely, no matter how much gravitas Michael Caine brings to his long professorial lectures (see I told you).

Once we leave the planet, things take a turn for the better. The world on board the various spaceships is better defined, even if, again what we are told is often at odds with what we see. This is our near future where the need for better farming has caused society to turn its back on science (because how could science help with making food? – that’s crazytown) and yet, this same technologically backwards culture has created miraculous double-jointed robots with Genuine People Personalities of the kind we can barely dream of (but which are a staple of science fiction movie-making).

There are other niggles here as well. Filming partly with IMAX cameras means that the aspect ratio keeps jumping about, and Nolan keeps shooting the ship our heroes are in from inside or from a “camera” “clamped” to its hull (I’m aware this was all CGI). That means it’s absolutely ages before we get a clear idea of what the thing actually looks like. We also have to hear about and not see the earlier missions. Not having any visual reference makes it hard to keep everything straight, and it seems an odd narrative choice to have one last rescue ship following twelve earlier ships, three of whom might have found something useful. These ships can transmit “data” but nothing useful about what the planets are actually like. You know, like “hey watch out for waves” or pictures of the surface. And vital mission strategy decisions seem to be taken by the four astronauts on the fly instead of being figured out before take-off. I guess this distributes the exposition more evenly, but the movie’s bigger problem by far is that I’m struggling to believe any of it.

Much has been made of the scientific accuracy of the film, and Nolan in interviews has claimed again and again that his pet physicist Kip Thorne wouldn’t allow anything in which couldn’t be justified scientifically. However, Thorne also seems to know which side his bread is buttered as he is developing a nice side-line in Hollywood and I suspect has let a lot of nonsense past. In particular, the planet on which time passes more rapidly for those on its surface than for those in orbit around it. This is a perfectly fine science fiction conceit, but it has nothing to do with relativistic time dilation at all as far as I can tell. If McConaghey and co accelerated away from crew-member David Gyasi at near light speed and then returned, they could find he had aged 23 years while they had been gone only a few hours, but nothing like this actually occurs.

Gyasi meanwhile is gathering “data” from the black hole for years on end. “Data”, you see is what Michael Caine needs for his “equations” which will save the human race. In my screening, Gyasi’s 23 years of isolation and loneliness were greeted with sniggers, but really it’s the Michael Caine / Jessica Chastain equation narrative which is most derisibly thin. Chastain works hard to sell it, but is given nothing to work with. Her breezy optimism is preferable at least to Anne Hathaway’s relentless earnestness. In a film sorely lacking in humour, her character is a particular dead-spot, and her freakish features, accentuated by her pixie cut make her seem distractingly alien in a movie which is trying so hard to suggest but not quite say that there are Mysterious Forces Beyond Our Comprehension Somewhere Out There.

Still, the adventures on Waterworld are at least exciting, and the decisions the crew have to make next are a neat dilemma. Arrival on Iceworld with Secret Guest Star Matt Damon also brings fresh pleasures, and if Damon’s evil secret is a) blatantly obvious and b) his plan makes hardly any sense, well we can put that down to Space Madness. In fact, pretty much everything from Saturn to Gargantua is at least good, and some of it is great action adventure, thrilling-escape-from-death stuff.

However, in its final act, when the debt to 2001 becomes a crippling sub-prime mortgage and when the film imagines it is at its most poetic, lyrical and spiritual, I actually experienced it as thuddingly, ploddingly literal. It surely can’t have escaped the attention of many viewers that McConaghey leaves Earth a) with a massive unsolved mystery in the form of those NASA coordinates spelled out by “gravity” and b) through a wormhole theorised to have been constructed by friendly aliens and that there is bound to be some causal link between these two and that link is McConaghey!

But even if the link between the two was a surprise to you, it is just far, far less interesting than what happens to Dave Bowman through the stargate, and at the same time the “data” is a McGuffin that makes no sense at all.

The coda on board a space station heading for the stars also barely makes any sense and the impression I am left with is that Nolan has badly overreached himself. This masterly creator of epic adventure tales, who also delights in playing with memory and reality, has failed to effectively realise most of the various worlds his story takes place in, has failed to create a sense of awe and mystery which his story depends on, is at best weak when it comes to the father-daughter emotions which the plot depends on, and has a very misguided idea of how scientifically accurate the whole thing is.

But a lot of it looks pretty and there is a good bit in the middle with mountain sized waves and a fist fight on a glacier and a demented docking manoeuvre and Matt Damon.

So… what did I think of Death in Heaven?

Posted on November 11th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Agh! So close!

Finales are tough, there’s no question about that, but after the lean, purposeful drive of part one, I had very high expectations for part two. Sad to say, while it delivered some excellent moments, Death in Heaven didn’t really work for me as a narrative, falling as it did into a pile of largely unrelated episodes; and it didn’t really work as drama because so little of it really resonated or indeed made sense.

Some of Steven Moffat’s recent work on the series has stretched the boundaries of narrative sense past visual poetry and into Dada-ist absurdism. The events at the end of The Name of the Doctor are basically incomprehensible nonsense, but everyone sounds so committed and the pictures keep whirling past the viewer’s eyes so fast, it seems inescapable that it all must mean something terribly important. I fear that this is an illusion and what we are actually watching isn’t storytelling, it’s – to appropriate a phrase from linguistics – image salad.

This has been largely kept at bay under Capaldi’s realm, with really only In The Forest of the Shite dipping into this kind of pretty-pictures-and-funny-lines-doesn’t-have-to-mean-much-just-let-it-wash-over-you montage effect. In the finale however, while nothing is quite as bad as the gibberish of the later Matt Smith stuff, there’s an awful lot which just doesn’t quite hang together.

Let’s start with that bizarre pre-titles sequence with Clara claiming to be the Doctor, which then segues into the titles, now sporting Jenna Coleman’s eyes in place of Peter Capaldi’s and putting her name first. With all the opportunities Clara has had to attempt the role of the Doctor recently, especially in the excellent Flatline, and given her dementedly absurd back-story, it’s clear that this is far more than a feeble lie intended to stall a plodding cyber-assassination. It would be gamesmanship of the most poisonous kind to redo the titles just for the sake of a completely pointless plot feint.

Well, it was a completely pointless plot feint, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a “fuck you” from Steven Moffat to the fans. The Next Doctor played the same stupid games but at least Jackson Lake’s mental confusion was integrated into the main plot a bit. Clara’s pretence is abandoned almost instantly and now it just feels like a retread of Flatline instead of a fascinating development of it.

Next, evil villains need an evil plan. Death in Heaven brings us two evil villains who presumably, between them, can muster at least one evil plan. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. All the cybermen seem to want to do is plod around and cos-play at Iron Man (when they aren’t re-enacting the end of Carrie) and all Missy/The Master seems to want to do is make speeches. This is a significant drawback in what is supposed to be the great big dramatic culmination of 12 episodes of rollicking science-fiction adventure.

Outside St Pauls, things start briskly enough with Kate Stewart and Osgood marching up and taking control in a very pleasing way, and the notion of the Doctor on board Moffat One, forced to be President of Earth and take decisions for the whole human race is very striking and a logical progression from UNIT’s relationship with the Doctor in recent years. So – what will the Doctor do with this terrible power? Absolutely nothing. The Cybermen blow up the plane and the whole idea is completely forgotten about forever. You can essentially remove everything from Kate’s entrance to the Doctor’s arrival at the graveyard and you will have missed nothing essential to the plot.

It’s really not clear to me what is happening at these and other graveyards. Missy has amassed a collection of minds of the deceased (“software”) which she now proposes to turn into decant into waiting bodies in graves on Earth. But cyber-conditioning generally removes what makes people individual so the minds cannot be especially valuable, and they replace most of the flesh with metal, so the rotting corpses are going to be of little use. What they need is the great hunks of steel which make up most of the body, which Missy doesn’t supply and which just mysteriously finds itself six feet under after a brief downpour. So, anyway, Missy has created her metal army of obedient killers, who generally aren’t disposed to killing anyone today. But one is not so obedient. Danny Pink has come back in cyber-form but he still has his human memories and emotions, and apparently he’s the only one.

Why is this? Something to do with a button that should have been pressed, or not pressed, or sonic-ed or – I don’t know, look this is pretty unforgivably sloppy. To the extent that anything here makes sense, everything that happens once our four main protagonists are together in that graveyard depends on cyber-Danny’s disobedience, yet there is not one line to account for why he, out of countless billions of resurrected chrome corpses is the only one still in control of his faculties. Nobody else in love died in the last 48 hours across the entire world? C’mon, this is lazy, lazy stuff.

The Doctor is desperate to know what the cyber-army’s instructions are, and his moral dilemma with Danny’s emo-button is interesting, but when the light in Danny’s eyes goes out, he mysteriously fails to fall in line with the others and maintains his independence. Still, at least the Doctor now has the vital information he needs, so the horrendous sacrifice of Danny’s emotional life was worthwhile. No, it wasn’t. Danny doesn’t know anything and in any case, Missy is about to explain the entire plan anyway. All the Doctor had to do was wait two minutes.

And what is her ghastly, season-finale, earth-shattering plan? To give the Doctor an army. To make him the most powerful man in the… wait, what? First of all this is pretty thin stuff, dramatically. I do prefer my evil villains to have a rather more grandiose plan than simply Making A Point. And if their plan is just to Make A Point, it should at least leave a medium-sized trail of destruction in its wake (see The Dark Knight). But not only is Missy’s plan feeble, it’s redundant, because the Doctor was in the exact same position twenty minutes ago on-board that sodding plane.

Danny’s final speech contrasting the orders of a general with the promise of a soldier is, I suppose, the culmination of all this relentlessly repetitive soldier-talk we’ve had to put up with, but – and maybe this is just me – it didn’t feel like it resonated. The ending of The Big Bang is at least as nonsensical as the ending of The Name of the Doctor but the notion of the TARDIS being something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue is so beautiful that I just don’t care. Danny’s speech by contrast is less than the sum of its parts, an exercise in joining-the-dots, nothing more.

Better that I suppose than the ghastly necrophiliac resurrecting of the poor old Brigadier for a final Doctor Who hurrah. When you’ve got Jemma Redgrave on the payroll, you don’t really need to be constantly sticking her in Nicholas Courtney’s shadow – let her be her own character for christ’s sake and let us remember the Brig by watching Inferno or The Invasion.

Danny Pink, now inexplicably back in the Nethersphere, has the opportunity to resurrect himself with the aid of a magic bracelet, whose properties again make next-to no sense but I can’t bring myself to plod through the problems it presents. He selflessly offers the Iraqi sprog whom he shot in the face another chance at life instead, which is a scene which did have some power and resonance, finally. But this Noble Act Of Self Sacrifice strongly suggests that Clara is already pregnant with Orson Pink’s ancestor – either that or something is seriously screwed-up with the timelines. And then, finally we get the chance to resolve the ongoing Doctor/Clara relationship drama.

In an episode full of bizarre, incomprehensible plot muddle, this scene might just be the strangest. Both of these two people who have suffered so much, who have gone through so much together, are just purposelessly lying to each other for the sake of a cutely ironic bittersweet ending. Light years away from the power and raw honesty of their confrontation at the beginning of Dark Water, this is hard-to-follow, obscure and rooted in a psychology which I cannot begin to relate to or understand.

And then, Santa Claus shows up.

Well, what did I like? Actually, there is some good stuff here, among the debris. Once again, everything looks fantastic, with the colour grading in the graveyard scenes working particularly well to remind us of those oppressive clouds. Even though nothing that happens affects the rest of the story in any way at all, a lot of the stuff on board the plane works well, with Missy’s murder of Osgood probably a highlight, if you can stomach just how dopey she was to go over there. Not that it made a difference, as Missy was already free of her bonds at this point.

In fact, Michelle Gomez as Missy is pretty much the saving grace of this episode – funny, scary, mercurial and “bananas”, she’s a wonderful addition to the roster of actors to play the Doctor’s nemesis. I’m very keen for a rematch, hopefully this time when she’s thought of an evil plan.

And amid the whirl and flurry and nonsense of it all, Capaldi stands fiercely tall, a remarkable casting coup which has created an indelible version of this most flexible and yet most constant fictional character. For the season as a whole, I’m hugely pleased. For the final episode, I’m baffled and bitterly disappointed at the missed opportunity. The combination of Capaldi, Gomez and Coleman, plus a handful of stand-out moments means that this episode scrapes in with three stars.

So, here’s my run-down of Series 8.

Deep Breath, 3.5 stars, a bit bumpy but enjoyable enough

Into the Dalek, 4 stars, pushes all the right buttons

Robot of Sherwood, 2.5 stars, smug and silly

Listen, 4 stars, very well done, but a bit empty

Time Heist, 4 stars, less ambitious, but probably more successful than Listen, so it’s a wash

The Caretaker, 3 stars, shoddy production values and clumsy humour weigh it down

Kill the Moon, 5 stars, epic but divisive

Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, 4.5 stars, both basically perfect, but neither has a scene which can match the end of Kill the Moon

In the Forest of the Night, 1 star, even the title is wrong

Dark Water, 4.5 stars, fantastic take-off…

Death in Heaven, 3 stars, wobbly landing.

If anyone wants to know how in-line this is with fandom at large, readers of Gallifrey base who voted put these 12 episodes in a very narrow band of average marks out of ten from 6.89 (Robot of Sherwood) to 8.48 (Flatline) with In the Forest of the Night a significant outlier on 5.68.

The final ranking of stories according to this group is as follows (from best to worst)…

Flatline
Listen
Dark Water
Mummy on the Orient Express
Into the Dalek
Deep Breath
Death in Heaven
Time Heist
Kill the Moon
The Caretaker
Robot of Sherwood
In the Forest of the Night

And there’s almost nothing between the top four. So, my own views are broadly in-line with fan consensus, but I’ve availed myself of a wider range of marks and I’m considerably more enthusiastic about Kill the Moon and a bit less excited about Listen.

That’s it for Doctor Who until Christmas, see you then. Next week – Star Trek.

So… what in heaven’s name did I think of Dark Water?

Posted on November 7th, 2014 in Culture | 2 Comments »

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Dark Water brings up two themes which I’ve touched on before – two parters and plot twists.

The “aha” moment a viewer experiences when plot elements suddenly and unexpectedly collide is delicious. It’s one of the most exciting things which narrative can offer. I’m not talking about surprises, and I’m certainly not talking about shocks. Those can be fun too – the head under the boat in Jaws is justly famous – but that empty startle is not as rich an experience as the plot turn which suddenly causes a re-evaluation of everything that’s gone before.

So a twist is more than a surprise. You can surprise a viewer simply by withholding information. Nothing could be easier. A twist has to give you the feeling that you could have worked it out for yourself, and so the art that the writer constructing the twist has to, ahem, master, is to provide all the clues needed, but somehow disguise their true meaning.

Steven Moffat, for all his many and various faults as a writer, has always taken a particular pleasure in doing this, and no wonder for he is supremely able. But a really, really good plot twist doesn’t depend absolutely on catching the viewer out. Really, really good plot twists stand repeated viewing – and not just because you can experience again the visceral thrill of mainlining the shocking information, but because watching the pieces assemble is as interesting as seeing them snap together, and because the twist deepens and enriches what the story is really about – rather than sitting on top of the rest of the narrative, serving as mere decoration.

This episode includes three plot twists, deployed with varying degrees of success and spoiled in various ways before the episode aired. The death of Danny Pink, falling under the wheels of a stray automobile while having a telephonic heart-to-heart with Clara, does not count. Surprising, yes. Shocking, certainly. But using the term as I’ve defined it above, not a plot twist.

Clara’s next actions are nothing short of astonishing, almost psychotic. This most thinly-drawn of all major Doctor Who supporting characters since the revival somehow seems to develop an identity only when pitched in violent opposition to the Doctor. Look how quickly she formulates her plan, look how efficiently she puts it into action, look how well she knows the TARDIS and the Doctor’s habits. If Turlough had been this single-minded, Mawdryn Undead would have been one episode long and ended the series in 1983.

What follows is possibly the most dramatic, tension-filled, eye-popping Doctor and companion seen we’ve ever had – except possibly for the end of Kill the Moon of course. And when the last TARDIS key is gone, and it seems as if Clara has killed the series, or at least stalled it for a good long while – then we get plot twist number one. And in some ways, this is the feeblest plot twist of them all: it was all a dream. The lazy cop-out of lacklustre writers who paint themselves into a corner and then try and cliché their way out. But, a familiar device can still be made fresh. The ending of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil essentially uses this same cliché but in a way which is bone-chilling rather than cosy.

And the choice here does not – as we say in improvisation – cancel the events of the scene on the rim of the volcano. In fact, those events, as imaginary as they may have been, drive the entire narrative as well as providing us with another one of the great Doctor and companion scenes, this one full of compassion and tenderness. No, Clara, betrayal is hardly enough to turn even this chilliest of Doctors against you. Even I’m growing accustomed to your face.

It’s of course not even a surprise that Danny Pink ends up in the same version of heaven which we have been visiting periodically, although Moffat’s tendency to play fast-and-loose with logic returns here. Missy’s (we’ll come back to Missy) Nethersphere seems to be simultaneously in Victorian London, the command ship Aristotle in the far future, where and whenever Doctor Chang is from, and St Pauls in 2014. I hope that will be cleared up tomorrow night, but I frankly doubt that it will.

After a bit of narrative vamping which was not uninteresting, but could have moved a bit more briskly (we’ll come back to pacing) we get plot twist number two. The Dark Water of the title provides the perfect cover for an army of Cybermen. Now, this had been comprehensively spoiled by most of the print and on-line media, but I confess it still caught me out. Near the beginning I was wondering where the Cybermen had got two, but I wasn’t quick enough to put the skeletons in their display cases and the power of Dark Water together. And by having them bust out of their tombs and then march down the steps of St Pauls, Moffat manages to reference two classic Troughton stories in the space of five minutes, and director Rachel Talalay frames it all beautifully.

So then, finally, we get the identity of Missy. I don’t know if I would have worked this one out for myself or not, but lots of other people did and I’d already seen their guesses on-line, so the revelation wasn’t scrambling my brain, it was more – okay, fair enough. And it is fair enough in my view. Michelle Gomez is an excellent actor with just the right kind of nutso malevolence to make a classic Master. I have no problem whatever with her standing alongside Delgado, Pratt, Beevers, Ainley, Jacobi and Simm (don’t worry Roberts, we’ll call you). Does it open the door to a female Doctor? Yes, kinda, but the series has been referring to regenerative sex-change for a while now, so it’s not that big of an upset to me.

Sidebar – I am in general opposed to the idea of a female Doctor, but I reckon I could be convinced by the right casting. As Steven Moffat has said before, the way that writers deal with the fact that the story they want to tell is contradicted by an earlier episode, is by the powerful and secret ploy of Making Something Up. You can do what you like, ultimately. I can’t off-hand think of a woman who could do the job, but I don’t think I could have conceived of a 24-year-old pulling it off before Matt Smith was cast. You do have to get the right person for the job, and because I don’t think a black, 70-something, French, wheelchair bound actor would make a good James Bond doesn’t make me racist, ageist, Eurosceptic, disablist or anything else. Actually, now I come to think of it – Emma Thompson would probably silence a lot of doubters. As Doctor Who, not as James Bond.

And the episode builds to the traditional cliff-hanger ending – our first in quite a while. Moffat’s bean-counting proved that two-parters didn’t save any money and so he axed them after The Almost People. But the real problem for watchers of the show was never that stories were too short, it was generally the case that two-parters either had about enough material for 60-75 minutes of story, and so episode one was a lot of padding; or there was enough material for a full 90 minutes of story, but it was felt necessary to keep all the good stuff for part two, which was consequently rather frantic while episode one, again, was a lot of padding.

And the pace does slow once we reach the Nethersphere, but not disastrously so. And the finale has a luxurious 60 minutes to play out its secrets. So – it’s very hard to judge at this stage because a disappointing dénouement can sour happy memories of a suspenseful built-up. But in general, this series has been so strong – one or two ghastly lapses aside – that I’m going to go ahead and award it four-and-a-half stars and sit back and watch part two in a spirit of giddy optimism.

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

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

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Oh dear, what went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… What did I think of Flatline?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of Kill the Moon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But… c’mon #2: No it isn’t.

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

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

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

But… c’mon #3: See #1.

And then Clara rips the Doctor a new arsehole.

Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… what did I think of Robot of Sherwood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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