Archive for November, 2015

So… what did I think of Sleep no Morezzzz….

Posted on November 16th, 2015 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

sleep

2.5 Stars

I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.

Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).

In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.

So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?

From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.

What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.

When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!

Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.

And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.

All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.

Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.

So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.

So… what did I think of The Zygon Inversion?

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

inversion

5 Stars

Another hugely promising opening episode. Could it be that we were finally about to… invert the trend?

Rather than being a story of two halves like basically everything else so far this season, Peter Harness’s script for part two (like The Woman Who Lived, co-written with the show-runner) keeps up the momentum inherited from the opener, only letting up just before the end in a scene which many are already calling a highlight of the revived series. And I agree!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The opening scenes with Jenna Coleman in a bafflingly generic flat are very Steven Moffat (think Last Christmas or Forest of the Dead) but none the worse for that, and it’s a great way of keeping Clara “alive” and active while Bonnie gets all the best lines. The Doctor’s escape from the plane is absurd, but no more absurd than the Bond film that the Doctor’s Union Jack parachute is surely a nod to – and the Doctor and Kate Stewart are reunited.

Obviously Kate’s resurrection is a bit of a cheat too, but the lovely wink to the fans helps this potentially bitter pill slip down beautifully – the Harry Sullivan references were great as well. Along the way, the Zygons use some social media to spread fear and uncertainty among humans and invaders alike, in a scene which was maybe the only one to strike a wrong note. The make-up job seemed to keep coming and going and I struggled to care about the plight of this guy we’d barely even met.

But anyway, we’re all set for the grand show-down. It’s entirely appropriate that the Doctor impersonates Hughie Green early in the proceedings. This is the world’s deadliest game-show and the careful pacing which allows this scene to play out for (I haven’t timed it, sorry) something like 6-7 minutes is just one of the many things to admire about the writing and production of this fantastic two-parter.

I rewatched Day of the Doctor recently and pretty much stand by my review, although it seemed a little less frantic on second viewing. Clearly the Zygon accord and the methods by which it was achieved warranted a little more time however, and to be able to unpack all the intricacies of this peace-keeping was marvellous.

Pitting Kate Stewart against Bonnie and also the Doctor is particularly interesting. Daughter of a solider, but UNIT’s scientific advisor – inheriting the Doctor’s role, not her old dad’s – which side will she fall on? It seems more interesting somehow that she should continue to believe that offence is the best defence, but equally that leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth when I think of noble Nick Courtney. It’s a bit humiliating that she ends the scene collapsed and brain-wiped, but that’s better I think than the lie of her becoming a peace-loving hippie or the unpleasantness of portraying her as a warmongering psychopath.

Bonnie and Clara form a fantastic pair here, with Jenna Coleman doing her best-ever work in the series, and the details of the two boxes with their two buttons manage to be a genuinely interesting and credible bluff (as opposed to something which seems cool at first but then turns out to be utter nonsense – Doctor Who has always had a weakness for these).

But this would count for nothing if it was a mere logic problem, and exercise in game theory, a crossword puzzle. Having a mystery to solve elevates proceedings, keeping all the players off-balance as well as keeping the audience guessing, but the point – the real point – is that maintaining a peace means that those with the power to wage war have to actually want peace, really want it. The Doctor doesn’t need to outsmart Bonnie and her gang of murderous blobby things. He needs to change their minds. And Peter Capaldi relishes every glorious word of this magnificent scene. There have been quite a few climactic scenes like this is Doctor Who from Tom Baker’s impassioned appeal to Magnus Greel, to Sylvester McCoy’s infamous “CND speech” in Battlefield but this one might just be the best of them all.

Finally, Bonnie is reborn as Osgood 3.0 in a coda which strikes a suitably hopeful note, while never forgetting just how fucking difficult this kind of peace is to create and to maintain. It’s lovely stuff throughout, making hugely effective use of the series recent and more distant past, while creating a ripped-from-the-headlines adventure which doesn’t feel like it will date. Daniel Nettheim directs with the vigour the series is now known for and the rest of the production team is on top form.

So, as we pass the half-way point, this is the first cast-iron classic of Series Nine. I have no hesitation in awarding this episode and the two-parter as a whole five stars. Peter Harness for show-runner? He’s run Wallander. Just sayin…

So… what did I think of The Zygon Invasion?

Posted on November 5th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

zygon

4.5 Stars

In only the third story of the new run, Doctor Who presented one of its famous “romps” – a jaunt around Victorian Cardiff with Charles Dickens, undertakers and ghosts who turned out to be aliens trying to come and live on Earth. These aliens professed to be benign, but actually proved to be malevolent. Elder fans might have recognised this plot-line from The Claws of Axos among others. Some less nerdy viewers wondered if author Mark Gatiss was trying to say something rather Daily Mail-ish about immigration.

Then, last year, writer Peter Harness gave us the hugely divisive Kill the Moon which some chose to interpret as an anti-abortion tirade. Neither of these readings seems remotely plausible to me. And yet, here is that same writer, apparently wading into the same treacherous waters as The Unquiet Dead all over again.

Okay, let’s start with the null hypothesis. Let’s assume that the point of the story is not “No blacks, no Irish” and see where that leads us. I remarked at the time of transmission of Day of the Doctor that the Zygon plot-line deserved more room and probably fewer Doctors to explore it. Strikingly, the Big Finish range of audio plays has already explored the notion of Zygons who just want to live among humans peacefully, and Steven Moffat’s notion that a peace can be best negotiated by people who genuinely can’t be sure which side they are on is rather brilliant.

But, because this is storytelling, a peace like this can’t last – the Gelth must be up to no good, the Axons must be out for themselves, otherwise what we have is a sermon, not an adventure. Exactly how and why the peace has collapsed has not yet been made clear. What we do have are some classic science-fiction tropes assembled with a tremendous amount of style and care. This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Thing with a hefty dose of UNIT and Quatermass.

Then there’s Osgood. Far from being a cheat, the revelation that only one half of an Osgood-Zygon symbiotic pair was vaporised by Missy gives genuine emotional weight to the hijinks which follow. The early part of the story is largely concerned with back-story and exposition, but this is doled out with enough grace that it goes down easily enough. When Kate Stewart arrives in Truth or Consequences, the Doctor arrives in Turmezistan and Clara discovers what’s weird about the lifts in London, then the story really starts to accelerate. And there are a couple of quick references to immigration to reassure you that – yes, it is okay if that crossed your mind, and no, that’s not intended to actually be the moral of the story.

The Zygons’ shapeshifting ability creates two different narrative games for the script to play. As noted, neither is new, but both are well-used here. The first is to manipulate aggressors by pretending to be loved ones. The drone operator calling off the strike is a little thin, but undeterred, Harness tries the same trick again in Turmezistan and here it works wonderfully well – provided you don’t stop and think about what the Doctor and Walsh were doing while all this was going on. Wasn’t this long conversation exactly the diversion they needed to slip in the back way?

The other game is to manipulate the audience by revealing that such-and-such is actually a Zygon. A made a mental note of a particularly awkward line from Clara when she sees the Doctor off on his Presidential Plane. Why would she suddenly announce she has to go back to her flat? Ugh. Of course, by the episode’s end, the reason is obvious – she’s already been replaced by a Zygon copy. I thought it would be Jac, but how marvellous to see Jenna Coleman given the chance to play a baddie before she goes – even shooting down the Doctor’s plane with a motherfucking rocket launcher.

The supporting cast are all great too with regular UNIT stalwarts Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver and Jaye Griffiths now joined by Peter Capaldi’s The Thick of It mucker Rebecca Front as Walsh, but it’s impossible for me to see them as Malcolm Tucker and Nicola Murray. And Capaldi is still having a ball, even though the Doctor is a little on the back foot, a little passive so far.

So, how to rate this? I really wish I’d let myself suspend judgement as this is hugely promising stuff, but this season has generally been a story of awesome take-offs and disappointing landings. This is certainly every bit as good as Under the Lake, and far better paced than The Magician’s Apprentice but giving five stars to part one of two just doesn’t feel right. Four-and-a-half then.

Now – don’t screw up the conclusion!