Archive for November, 2014

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 »


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)…

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 »


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.