Archive for December, 2015

So… what did I think of the Star Husbands of River Force Awakens Wars?

Posted on December 26th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

husbands

4.5 Stars
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!

So… what did I think of Hell Bent?

Posted on December 13th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

rsz_94363

2 Stars
Are there two Steven Moffats? And does the one who wrote Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace and The Doctor Dances and Heaven Sent know about the imposter who merrily bashes out nonsense like The Wedding of River Song, The Name of the Doctor and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe?

The first Steven Moffat takes a single, strong, clear dramatic idea and focuses all of his considerable energies on to it, developing the consequences, teasing out the possibilities. Very often, a story will end in an intellectual catharsis, which can feel satisfying as the puzzle pieces click together, but his very best work also allows for an emotional catharsis: “everybody lives!”, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”, the fate of Miss Kizlet.

His rival leaps seemingly at random from setting to setting, plot point to plot point, rarely sticking with an idea long enough for us to determine whether it’s good or bad, clear or confusing, vital or irrelevant. The story will give enormous weight to a concept for a moment and then abandon it with shocking haste, and when the dust finally settles, the casual viewer might be forgiven for thinking they’ve just watched a 50 minute trailer for a seven hour movie and that it will all make sense once they’ve watched the whole thing.

SM#1 was in masterly control of Heaven Sent but he appears to have collapsed, exhausted, over the typewriter and left the job of wrapping up the whole saga to SM#2 who was in particularly ADHD mood. Let’s go through the whole jumble as briefly as we can so we can look forward to the Christmas special instead.

The Doctor is chatting to Clara in a mighty familiar looking diner, but neither seems to recognise the other, although the Doctor clearly remembers Clara and starts narrating the tale of his adventures on Gallifrey and beyond. Various Gallifreyan types learn of his arrival and are all of a tizzy. It’s not at all clear why, but it transpires they trapped him in the confession dial. So, did the Doctor produce this back in episode one in order that Gallifreyans could trap him? If not, for what purpose did he produce it? And Gallifrey, lost Gallifrey, unreachable Gallifrey at the end of the Universe, is able to – what call Ashildr on the phone and set all this up? Actually, that doesn’t seem too unlikely, since passing members of the Sisterhood of Karn can drop by any time they like – and lucky that Claire Higgins as Ohila did drop by because without her… the plot would be exactly the same.

There’s also plenty of talk about the Doctor having been trapped in the confession dial for four billion years, but of course, he will only remember the last “go-round” which for him was I think only a few days or weeks.

There follows a very, very strange sequence in which the Doctor mooches around his hut from Day of the Doctor and draws lines in the sand until everybody drops their guns. I don’t really understand what we were supposed to draw from this, but anyway the Doctor convinces Rassilon (now played by Donald Sumpter) and The General (Ken Bones) to use Gallifreyan technology to extract Clara at the moment of her death. Of course, the Doctor doesn’t want a last chat with Clara, he wants to break the laws of time to bring her back to life. Now the Laws of Time have been referred to many times on Doctor Who and it’s never been entirely clear whether they are Laws of Physics (you literally can’t go against them) or Laws of Propriety (it’s frowned upon to violate them). Usually, it’s stated that there may be dire consequences for the universe if they are ignored, and so generally they are obeyed.

Here, they are flagrantly disobeyed, there is much talk of the Universe unravelling but past a certain point, nobody seems to give a shit anymore and the Universe appears to carry on as it always does. What a wonderful dramatic climax to twelve weeks of television!

Then, to execute this plan, the Doctor motherfucking shoots Ken Bones to death with a Gallifreyan staser. Everything is wrong about this. That single shot of the Doctor aiming that gun and pulling the trigger is wrong. (SM#1 knows this perfectly well, hence the enormity of the cliffhanger of episode one of this series.) The Doctor’s assertion that death to a Time Lord is the equivalent of a bad cold is absolutely contradicted by every single time we’ve seen a Time Lord face death on this show. And it’s certainly been made clear that a Time Lord can fail to regenerate quickly enough and so die for good a long time before all thirteen bodies are used up, so we are expected to believe that Gallifreyan Palace Guards carry weapons which are effectively useless against Gallifreyans. It’s painfully obvious that the only point of this scene is to underline in red felt tip pen for those who haven’t got it yet that a female Doctor is possible within the rules of the show. As if Michelle Gomez hasn’t made that point abundantly clear already. Ugh. Horrible.

Following a quick tour of the Doctor Who Experience which is badly in need of a spring-clean, our heroes steal a pleasingly retro TARDIS and head off to parts unknown. Now the Doctor begins his desperate plan to bring Clara back to life, but to pull it off, he’s going to need a bit of magic kit to do a re-run of the trick he pulled on Donna, for which he had no need of the magic kit. And there isn’t a “this way up” on the magic kit so he doesn’t know if he’s going to zap himself or Clara. So we get the final switcheroo at the end – the Doctor has forgotten Clara (or at least what she looks like (or at least until he makes it back to the TARDIS)) and not the other way round.

Why? What’s the point of any of it? What does any of it mean?

Anyway… Jenna Coleman does much with very little, Peter Capaldi never once gives away that he’s speaking pure gibberish, it’s nice to see Maisie Williams again, even if like Claire Higgins, nothing she says or does affects the plot in any way at all, there’s lots of talk of hybrids, but we never meet one (or rather we meet various vague candidates for one, none of which really live up to the hype) and I think Gallifrey is back now, so hurrah, probably.

This isn’t quite as bewildering as The Wedding of River Song or The Time of the Doctor but it’s a big big let-down at the end of a by-and-large stunningly good season. I suppose it was never boring, and the retro TARDIS was a bit of a treat, as was the thought of Ashildr and Clara charging around the universe in it, but this was such a mess, I can’t possibly give it more than two stars. I probably enjoyed it more than the dreary Sleep No More, but season finales are held to a higher standard.

So, my final order is as follows…

1. The Zygon Inversion
= Heaven Sent
3. Under the Lake
= The Zygon Invasion
5. The Magician’s Apprentice
= Face the Raven
7. The Witch’s Familiar
= Before the Flood
= The Girl Who Died
= The Woman Who Lived
11. Sleep No More
12. Hell Bent

Once again, if I compare my ratings to the averages over on Gallifrey Base, we find the following order from best to worst…

1. Heaven Sent
2. The Zygon Inversion
3. Face the Raven
4. Under the Lake
5. The Witch’s Familiar
6. The Magician’s Apprentice
7. The Zygon Invasion
8. Before the Flood
9. Hell Bent
10. The Girl Who Died
11. The Woman Who Lived
12. Sleep No More

So, fandom at large was a bit happier with The Witch’s Familiar, and a bit kinder to Hell Bent, but took a bit longer to get on board the Peter Harness train than me. What these numbers don’t reveal is how much fandom (as measured by Gallifrey Base) adored Heaven Sent, which got 51% ten-out-of-tens. Wow.

So… what did I think of Heaven Sent?

Posted on December 2nd, 2015 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

rsz_clipboard013

5 Stars

Let’s have another talk about formal constraints. In my review of Sleep No Bore, I referred to the handful of classic series episodes featuring only the regular cast. I could also have mentioned episode one of The Ark in Space or even episode one of The Space Museum. At this moment of course, the regular cast is only Peter Capaldi, so also relevant to this week’s episode is The Deadly Assassin. Tom Baker had “inherited” Lis Sladen but by the time she had decided to go, he was supremely confident in the role and had begun to wonder whether his next companion could be something other than a spunky young girl (most sources say he suggested a talking cabbage among other notions). Or whether in fact he needed a companion at all. Yes, of course you do, argued producer Philip Hinchcliffe, with one eye on the door marked “Exit” and to prove the point, commissioned a story with no companion. Unfortunately, he asked Robert Holmes to write it who was absolutely at the peak of his powers, and the story which resulted (although hated at the time for its revisionist attitude towards established continuity) is now seen as a stone cold classic. We will return to the subject of how to depict Gallifrey next time…

However, 45 minutes with only one actor (depending on how you count) is hard enough if the goal is something like Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads, but to attempt the same thing in an action-adventure-sci-fi drama is little short of insanity. But Steven Moffat can never be faulted for lacking ambition, and is hugely interested himself in structural devices and formal games, so this is another intricate puzzle box of a script.

Let’s have a talk about those. The potential drawbacks of puzzle box stories are two-fold. Firstly, they are very hard to pull off. Like a good joke, their purpose is to guide you towards a moment of insight where various elements of the narrative suddenly coalesce. If you fumble that moment of insight (either because the resolution is very easy to see coming or because it’s just complete gibberish, or both as in The Wedding of River Song) then the whole construction of your story starts to collapse. But even if you do pull this off, there’s the danger that the experience is rather an empty one, because the need to preserve the twist has distorted the story in so many other areas, and there isn’t room for any emotional catharsis or the usual thrilling-escape-from-death stuff. Blink is the perfect example of the form, and as this blog has previously noted, rather a millstone around the show-runner’s neck.

Returning director Rachel Talaly certainly makes the most of the visual storytelling which the script requires of her. The shots of the castle stranded out at sea, and the underwater material are particularly striking (even if I’m absolutely sure that Capaldi never even got his hair wet). And if the Veil is a bit of a standard issue shambling man-in-a-suit monster, well this is Doctor Who after all. The problem-solving monologues in the imaginary TARDIS are a neat spin on Sherlock Holmes’s mind palace, and I will accept the memories of Clara as falling short of her resurrection, so Face the Raven keeps its four stars for now.

As the final pennies drop, and the reason for the Doctor’s seemingly demented physical attack on the azbantium wall becomes clear, the solution to the puzzle box is married with an appalling sense of just what an enormous cost this victory has come at. Fans of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day may be interested to know that in Danny Rubin’s rather darker original screenplay, it was clear the Phil Connors was trapped not just for a few decades but thousands or even millions of years.

Just before we move on to the final scenes, a few quick points. Firstly, as with the Chronolock last week, the rules aren’t especially clear. It’s established fairly early on that everything in the castle resets itself, but the skulls in the sea outside don’t (so after two billion years, they should be high above the water-line, surely?) and neither – luckily for the Doctor – does that azbantium wall. Secondly, I’m not sure what the second law of thermodynamics has to say about each of the Doctor’s bodies containing enough energy to generate the next one, but with a skull left over each time.

Finally, as well as liking puzzles more than dramatic resolutions, I’ve also taken Steven Moffat to task this year for storytelling loops or narrative vamping. Pages of script which might be full of jokes and incident but do nothing to advance the plot, because they keep one or more characters in a “holding pattern” or return them unchanged to their starting point. I will be very interested to see just how relevant this episode is to next week’s, or whether in fact one could go from the end of Raven to the beginning of Hell, apparently missing nothing.

What makes me suspicious is the reveal that this castle of horrors was the Doctor’s own confession dial. This is presented as an explanation but in fact it is anything but. It raises far more questions, chiefly if this was the Doctor’s own confession dial, then why are its workings a mystery to him? And we still don’t have an answer to the question of why he sent it to Missy in the first place.

Standing alone from the rest of the season, this is a mighty achievement. Funny, excited, impossible to get ahead of, and with a resolution that actually makes sense, while proudly brandishing its absurd ambition. It’s clearly worth five stars if only for Capaldi’s titanic performance and if next week’s episode ends up tarnishing it a little, I will take my disappointment out on the story total score rather than downgrading this one.

Eleven down, one to go…

So… what did I think of Face the Raven?

Posted on December 2nd, 2015 in Culture | 1 Comment »

rsz_p038771d

4 Stars

Now the structure of the season starts to reveal itself. The over-familiar gibberish of Sleep No More is not going to be redeemed by a second episode which ties everything up. Actually, what we’re heading in to is a three-part finale. Just as well, the nonsense of last week is probably best forgotten.

But even if last week isn’t being referenced, events from earlier this season and indeed, last season, certainly are. Capaldi and Coleman practically waltz into the TARDIS, chattering happily about unseen adventures. This is a little on-the-nose – an even more extreme version of Ten and Rose’s smug self-satisfaction around the time of Fear Her, all designed to set up the tragedy of Doomsday. So it’s pretty clear what we’re heading towards.

Early on, though this is pretty much business-as-usual. In what is becoming quite a familiar Moffat-trope, the TARDIS lands in response to a telephone call from an old friend. This time it’s Joivan Wade’s chirpy Rigsy from last year’s excellent Flatline who is now in possession of an unseen wife and daughter and a suitably creepy countdown tattoo.

The search for the source of this is a little bit plodding, a little bit procedural, for modern Doctor Who. And I must slightly take issue with some of nomenclature. Including made-up details in factual compendiums to guard against copyright theft is certainly a real thing. A trivia book compiler invented the fact that Lt Columbo’s first name was Philip for a book he published in the 1970s which enabled him to show that his book had been ripped off by the makers of Trival Pursuit years later (although in fact he lost the case).

So, I’m perfectly happy that a street which is shown on a map but which you can’t walk down is known as a Trap Street, but it seems a little odd to use that same terminology to describe a street which is not shown on a map but which you can walk down. And anyway, as pretty much every fan in the world has noticed, the correct name for this street is Diagon Alley.

Here we find Maisie Williams returning as – are we really supposed to call her “Mayor Me”? And the true nature of the street is gradually revealed. It’s a refugee camp for stranded aliens and Maisie rules it with a rod of iron because she can’t risk any funny business. Most of this works, but it feels like Jenga storytelling to me – pull out too many of the pieces and have a look at them it all starts to fall apart a bit.

The aliens use the same misdirection trick as the street to appear human. But why? The point of the street is that they are all aliens, but the street is inaccessible to humans. They know they aren’t human and no human will ever see them. Also, why doesn’t the trick work on Anah’s second face which seems to be visible throughout? And what’s the point of sentencing someone to death, sending them home so they can set their affairs in order, but wiping their memory so that they no longer know they’re going to die? Maisie must have been very sure Rigsy was going to call the Doctor and that’s a bit of stretch. And how are we to square her protestations that nobody was supposed to die with her cold-hearted execution of the convicted criminal earlier in the episode?

The rules of the Chronolock seem to be that if person A is Chronolocked then Maisie has the power to cancel it. Person B can agree to have the Chronolock transferred to them at any time, but presumably can’t give it back to Person A again, and once transferred, Maisie loses the power to cancel it. Okay, I guess, but this all seems terrifically arbitrary and doesn’t really make any sense except to set up the ending.

But in the last fifteen minutes, none of this really seems to matter. Terrific performances from Capaldi, Coleman, Williams and Wade sell the emotional content of the situation and Clara’s death when it comes is really affecting, aided by some of the very best CGI that the series has ever used – that horrible black smoke curling out of the lips of the executed is totally convincing. Almost as chilling is the Doctor’s cold, muted reaction. He grimly straps on the teleport and disappears to…

So let’s finally have a quick chat about cliff-hangers. The point of a cliff-hanger is to leave the audience wondering “what will happen next?” This can be done by subjecting the hero to a mortal threat or by using the next surprise which the narrative has to offer. If you pick the latter, then you have two choices. You can pose only the question – have the villain take off his mask but then cut to the hero murmuring “You…?” before we smash into the credits. Or you can reveal the shocking answer and let the audience mull the ramifications for the next seven days. Obviously, the first of these is rather easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily less effective. It was a surprise to me that the credits appeared when they did. The confession dial returns at least, so maybe now we’ll have some kind of an explanation as to just what it was and why the Doctor sent it to Missy.

Okay, so a rather plodding first third, a rather muddled middle third, but a full-bloodied, totally committed final act. I’d certainly rather have it that way around. As an exit for one of the series’ longest-running companions it works very well indeed. (From first appearance to last appearance it’s been over three years if you count Asylum of the Daleks and she’s done 35 episodes, most of which were complete stories. Amy Pond counts 33 episodes over two and a half years and among classic companions, only K9, Sarah Jane Smith and Jamie McCrimmon come anywhere close.)

That’s four stars – on the absolute proviso that Clara Oswald stays dead. If they resurrect her in any meaningful way I’m taking off a whole star, maybe more. This is the first time a companion has actually, properly died since Adric and that needs to be given a little bit of respect. If Moffat tries to Rory her, I won’t be happy.

(Sorry this is so late – Heaven Sent is coming now.)