As well as snuggling down to watch Capaldi, Kingston et al on Christmas Day, I also flogged out to the BFI IMAX to watch the Force Awakens a few days earlier, so here’s your Boxing Day double-bill review. We’ll take the good Doctor first.
More than other episodes, except possibly the first few aired in 2005, Christmas Specials have to attract and entertain a wide audience. Not just the dedicated fans, but the casual viewers, the grumpy sceptics, their sleepy relatives and various other waifs and strays. Sometimes, Christmas Specials have basically ignored all other continuity and these have often been among the most effective – A Christmas Carol, Voyage of the Damned – although not always – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. Others have been bound into the fabric of the series, dealing with a new Doctor – The Christmas Invasion – a regeneration – The Time of the Doctor – or a new companion – The Snowmen. This year, Steven Moffat attempts a middle-ground. On the one hand, almost nothing that happens at least for the first 45 minutes is in any way dependent on the viewer ever having watched the series before. On the other hand, those first 45 minutes might be a wee bit confusing if you’ve literally no idea who River Song even is. The last 15 minutes… well, we’ll come to those.
This is very much an episode of two halves, or if not quite halves then certainly pieces. The first, longer, piece is hugely entertaining. A “romp” in all the best senses of the word – full of dash and wit and good will to all, with fruity performances from guest stars Matt Lucas and Greg Davies and some dazzlingly brilliant plot turns, such as the revelation that Scratch is planning on delivering the diamond to King Hydroflax as a tribute.
A lot is asked of the effects department here and they mainly deliver, cutting away from some of the more gruesome head-related activities no doubt both in the name of propriety and keeping the budget down to a manageable level. Even more than usual, the set design and dressing is absolutely gorgeous from the cheekily repurposed Trap Street to the claustrophobic surgeon’s table to the opulent decks of the ship Harmony and Redemption.
It’s when the Doctor and River leave the ship that the story starts to come off the rails slightly. Knowing the form of these things pretty well, and having thoroughly enjoyed the story so far, I had already thought to myself that what would elevate it to greatness would be a perfectly judged moment of pain, pathos or gloom. Actually, what happens is a little fuzzier than that. The clean plotting starts to fray at the edges when River and the Doctor take it in turns to pilot the TARDIS on and off the bridge of the doomed star liner, and the Doctor’s attitude to the widespread death and destruction seems uncharacteristically callous as well. Sure, there were a lot of rotters on board, but were none of them past redemption? And what about the cooks, cleaners, accountants, engineers and what-not?
It’s not like the script is fighting to pack every last detail into the remaining few seconds either. In fact, Moffat squanders the dizzying narrative momentum he’s built up and lazily coasts for the last ten minutes of the episode. It’s at this stage that we’re invited to consider the River Song flowchart in a bit more detail, and I’m not absolutely sure it makes sense. This was advertised as the first meeting between the two (from River’s point of view) and it’s implied that she’s borrowed TARDISes of earlier Doctors without them noticing. It also seems as if she recognised Tennant and Smith because she had publicity photos of them, not because she is able to sense who they truly are, regardless of what face they wear.
But she seems to have fallen prey to that old fan-trap of thinking that the twelve regeneration limit means twelve faces, when of course it actually means thirteen, so there’s no reason for her not to have a picture of Capaldi too. And then, it turns out that this is actually their penultimate meeting – next time will be the Library and then it’s all over. But, for some reason, the pain of this revelation doesn’t quite resonate. After he has targeted the correct audience with laser-like precision for most of the episode, we’re suddenly being asked to applaud the writer’s neurotic box-ticking as he reminds us of every detail of Silence in the Library. It’s a slightly limp end to an episode which spent most of its running time fizzing with invention.
Ultimately, however, the first three-quarters is so hugely enjoyable, from Capaldi’s antlers to his doing bigger on the inside “properly” to the demented Hydroflax story to the final “hello sweetie” that I can’t bring myself to knock off more than half a star.
On to The Force Awakens, which I saw at the BFI IMAX despite the best efforts of the Odeon website to prevent me from so doing. I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the Star Wars series as many of my contemporaries. A school friend took a bunch of us to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema when I was 11 and for him it was the most exciting thing in the world, but I was a bit bewildered about all the fuss. Of course, I saw the wretched prequel trilogy in the cinemas, and roundly detested every one of them, but like everyone else, I settled down with a growing sense of optimism to watch this new incarnation.
Is it any good? Well, compared to what? Obviously it can’t hope to equal, or even come close to the era-defining, cultural-warping, iconic cataclysm of the first film. But also obviously, no-one really expected it to repeat the colossal errors of judgement of the prequel trilogy either. What JJ Abrams has done, for sure, is to leave the franchise in a better state than he found it. Disney’s multi-billion dollar investment is certainly safe and the movie will probably stand up quite nicely to further viewings. But is this the work of a maverick genius, boldly reinvisioning the series and creating whole swathes of new lore? Hardly? For once, I find myself in perfect agreement with usually demented contrarian Julian Simpson who commented “It’s like someone lent JJ Abrams a priceless old Ferrari and, instead of putting his foot down and seeing what this fucker can do, he’s driven it round the block at 20mph for fear of scratching the paintwork.”
It might be worth pausing for a moment to reflect on JJ Abrams’s relationship with Stars Trek and Wars. Regardless of the necrophiliac karaoke gibberish of Into Darkness, Abrams was probably the ideal director to resurrect this ailing franchise – his TV background, obvious talent for character and action, and his success with Mission Impossible III allied with his total lack of any reverence for the Trek universe meant that he could create a new version of the series which would resonate with an audience of Trek-lovers and Trek-agnostics alike.
But Abrams loves Star Wars, grew up watching it, played with the toys, read the spin-offs and then suffered as we all did when the prequels came out. His challenge, a much greater one than he faced with Star Trek, is to recreate the series without feeling like he is treading on egg-shells.
As a movie, it works very well. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega effortlessly carry the show, with new droid BB8 a worthy successor to R2D2. The Luke Skywalker map McGuffin does its job and the action sequences, especially in the first half, work very well indeed, with the Millennium Falcon dogfight on Jakku being a particular highlight. The one truly revisionist touch – Boyega’s stormtrooper defecting from the First Order – brilliantly sets the plot in motion, even if Oscar Isaac’s rather colourless Poe Dameron is clumsily removed from the narrative simply in order to be fed back in later.
As a nostalgia-fest sequel that’s been 25 years in the making, it also works fantastically well. Harrison Ford’s reintroduction with Chewie at his side gave me a warm glow and the use of Solo and Leia’s own off-spring as the chief villain (not to mention Solo’s untimely despatch) manages to echo the original trilogy without actually duplicating it.
However, an enormous amount of the run-time is devoted to things we’ve already seen in the original three movies. Most obvious and most egregious is that substitution of the Death Star with the basically identical only much bigger, but also far more easily-defeated Starkiller Base. Then we have the familial light-saber duel, a spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Grand Old Jedi at the end of his years, etc and so forth. There’s not a lot wrong with this, but when the creative team is obviously so comfortable in the Star Wars universe, it’s a damn shame they didn’t do a bit more than just rearrange the furniture a little.
A few other quibbles – Finn’s reaction to the death around him on Jakku, conveyed brilliantly with almost no dialogue, is a wonderful motivation for his character. But he then proceeds to indiscriminately slaughter fellow stormtroopers from his initial escape onwards, with rather undermines his nobility. Captain Phasma’s wonderful name and high profile casting led me to believe that rather more would be done with her character, but in fact she gets three or four bland scenes which add nothing and Gwendoline Christie’s charisma is rather hard to spot under that chrome helmet. And if the First Order is, as the opening crawl implies, a rag-tag band of disgruntled former soldiers, why do they appear to have the full might and discipline of the former Empire?
Anyway, what we have here is a cautious new beginning, which nevertheless contains great jokes, wonderful action sequences, splendid new characters, welcome cameos from the old guard (and some unnecessary ones – I’m looking at you Anthony Daniels) and the hint of a new mythos which just might keep the franchise running for the next 25 years. It’s a very good job, if not quite the bold triumph it might have been.
Happy Christmas everyone!