Archive for December, 2018

So… what did I think of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos?

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | 1 Comment »

Arghh!! So close!

This is Chibnall’s best script so far. But it’s probably the fourth best story of the year, about level with Arachnids in the UK and with some of the same flaws.

What’s frustrating is that Arachnids was almost as good as it could have been, it just needed an ending that made sense and was on-theme. Whereas Battle comprehensively squanders any number of hugely promising story ideas in its last ten minutes, in a rather dispiriting and depressing way.

The opening is some of the best stuff we’ve seen all season.The Ux are a fascinating creation and the visuals are absolutely eye-popping. The mystery of Ranskoor Av Kolos is fascinating and guest star Mark Addy makesa great impression as Paltracki. I have two niggling complaints about all this.

Firstly, the neurobalancers are clearly going to be very important later (read on) but why don’t we get a clear shot of team TARDIS applying them?And why does this story need two separate unrelated little black gizmos which you stick to your face? Secondly, as always sagacious Andrew Ellard points out, Chris Chibnall’s talent for euphonious alien planets, characters and races lags very far behind his showrunner predecessors. Epzo, Tsuranga, Krasko, Ranskoor Av Kolos and even Paltracki are all awkward in the mouth and grating on the ear.

Then, the mission is defined and the team sets off. Two things here. Firstly, Steven Moffat acutely pointed out that a great deal of classic Doctor Who, for budgetary reasons, involves people standing around urgently. Russell T Davies brought running to the series, if not for the first time, then certainly as a regular feature. Chris Chibnall’s revolutionary vision for the show seems to involve walking. An awful lot of walking. Walking towards the Ghost Monument, walking around Robertson’s hotel, walking around the corridors of the Tsuranga, walking up and down Pendle Hill, walking through the anti-zone and now plodding across the surface of Ranskoor Av Kolos. Rather like the anti-zone (although far less colourful and dramatic) it’s another plot-retardation device. Everyone needs time for a chat. Have to keep the plot on hold for a bit. It’s bad writing. It just is.

However, one of those chats is probably the best-written and acted scene in the whole season. When Graham tells the Doctor he’s going to kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, I believe him. And I care. It’s powerful stuff, paying off story threads started nine weeks early, beautifully played by both Whittaker and Walsh.

The rest of the actual plot is pretty much standard middle-level Doctor Who science fiction nonsense. Ancient religion, blah blah blah. Mysterious crystals, blah blah blah. Hugely powerful forces, blah blah blah. Fine, but hardly the point.

It really is best not to think too much about the details. One of the bad-guys who was just banished but not killed in an earlier episode (Tzim-Sha) returns, leaving the fate of Racist Fonzie still open. The robo-sentries from the terribly tiresome Ghost Monument are back for no very good reason. The Doctor finally admits that her anti-gun rhetoric is inconsistent, hypocritical and badly thought-through, further weakening her character. The Ux are a race of exactly two people (saves on budget) who live three thousand years or more, conveniently the same time that Tzim-Sha has been waiting for the Doctor. The very important people who urgently need rescuing just get treated like cargo and contribute nothing to the story. Nothing really feels like it means anything or it matters terribly much. Even getting back out of the floating rock castle in the sky, which took an awful lot of sonicking and frowning to get into, happens easily, quickly and off-screen.

As things ramp up, Jamie Childs does his best to build the energy and excitement, so it does feel dramatic, but when the character stuff should be paying off, there’s nothing he can do to fill the void that Chibnall leaves him. In order to save the day, the Doctor has to convince Andinio andDelph that their creator is a fraud and that the last three thousand years of sacrifice and toil have been for nothing. This should be appalling news and they should hate her for telling them this. No, they just happily agree to switch sides. On Earth, Tzim-Sha killed passers-by without a second thought. Now, he just stands there and listens to the Doctor explain that she’s going to foil his plan, and then lets her do that. Oh wait, he’s plumbed into this machine in some way. Is that why he can’t act more directly? It must be super-important that he stay connected. No, he just pulls out the tubes when it’s time to go and be shot by Graham.

And most egregiously of all, the hugely built-up neurobalancers come to nothing. Forcing characters to act against their nature, confronting them with their darkest secrets, paranoid fantasies and basest thoughts is a wonderfully effective science-fiction trope which can really reveal character in a way which is not available to conventional drama. The Doctor and Yas losing their identities as the terrible forces of the planet take hold once they’ve removed their neurobalancers could have been an amazing sequence, easily helping me to overlook some of the other rather iffy plotting and catapulting this to the top ranks of this season.

What actually happens? The Doctor and Yas get a bit of a sore head for thirty seconds, then put the neurobalancers back on again. I’ve never seen a writer so allergic to drama, so blind to the possibilities of their own scripts.

The other big payoff here is Graham’s confrontation with Tzim-Sha. As I’ve said, this is very clumsily arranged, and it doesn’t really come to anything. Graham just decides not to kill him – but again trapping a villain for eternity is presented as a kindness, compared to a quick death. What does help slightly is that Tosin Cole does his best work of the whole season. His stuff with Graham gives us a flash of what this relationship could have been, with a bit more time, a bit more care and a bit more talent.

And that’s it. We’re done for 2018.

Chris Chibnall has had more time to prepare fewer episodes than any showrunner in history, and yet most of these scripts felt to me like hasty first drafts. There’s enough good stuff here to scrape together four stars, but the only really good scripts this year have been the three without Chibnall’s name on them – the fun Kerblam!, the very dramatic and funny Witchfinders and the truly excellent It Takes You Away. These are also the only scripts to even attempt to make proper use of the four regulars (can you tell me one necessary or even interesting thing which Yas does in this entire episode?).

As usual, let’s compare my reactions to fandom at large. Over on Gallifrey Base, Rosa comes out top, averaging 8.49 out of ten. with The Woman Who Fell to Earth just behind it on 8.44. But Rosa has a lot more 9s and 10s. The Ghost Monument does surprisingly well in fourth place with an 8.26, just inching ahead of It Takes You Away. The Tsuranga Conundrum is decisively last with an average of just 6.6 and nearly double the 1s and 2s of its nearest rival The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

So, this has been a divisive year, to say the least, and we now need to wait till early 2020 for the next full season. But ratings are top-notch so I imagine the BBC will be happy, and therefore that the job is Chibnall’s for as long as he wants it. Sigh.

One troubling stat though is to be found on Rotten Tomatoes which aggregates critics’ and users’ ratings. For the first ten seasons of the revived series, critic ratings range from a low of 71% (Series One) to a high of 100% (Series Two to Five) with recent series all in the mid to low nineties.

Audience ratings range from a high of 94% (Series Two) to a low of 73% (Series Ten) with Russell’s stuff generally doing better than Moffat’s and Smith’s stuff generally doing better than Capaldi’s.

Series Eleven gets 95% from critics and a jaw-dropping 46% from users.

Can they all be woman-hating, mouth-frothing, misogynistic bros who just loathe the show now because of the sex of the lead performer? I mean – it’s possible. But maybe, just maybe, Chris Chibnall should look at some of the feedback in more detail. Once the fans turn on you, there’s no going back…

Pre-Oscars 2019: First Man

Posted on December 11th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Image result for first man movie

First Man has all the trappings of an Oscar triumph. True to life story of American heroism? Check. Opportunity for visionary filmmaker tocreate indelible images? Check. Strong Oscar pedigree among creative team?Check. Box office smash hit… eh, not so much.

Damian Chazelle is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and – far more than the rather low-stakes and meandering La La Land – his new filmshares a lot of DNA with his first big hit Whiplash. Again, we are plunged intothe action with precious little in the way of explanation or backstory. Again, we are left to impose our own thought processes on to a stubbornly taciturnleading man. But here, rather than focusing on an intensely human battle ofwills, with a (frankly rather odd conception of) jazz music as the background,we instead have one of the most audacious engineering projects in the historyof the twentieth century as our story material.

The problem is that Neil Armstrong isn’t the most pivotal figure in this story. The Right Stuff succeeds partly because it finds a very specific angle from which to come at this tale – who are the people who will fly these machines and what qualities do they need to have? – and because of director Philip Kaufman’s determinedly quirky approach. The other companion film to these two is 2016’s Hidden Figures, which successfully finds an untold and very human story, but squanders it in unambitious, sitcom-level execution.

Not only does Armstrong spend the movie obediently carrying out the wishes of others, rather than being a wilful hero who makes decisions and controls his own destiny, the very facets of his personality which make him ideal for the job – calm under pressure, presents well, not prone to outbreaks of emotion – also make him a pretty dull hero for a movie. In this regard, Ryan Gosling is an excellent choice. His movie-star stoicism translates very well into Armstrong’s patient heroics.

What Chazelle attempts is a portrait of a marriage. Second-billed Claire Foy should have an equal stake in the narrative, but when he’s flying a rocket to the moon, and she’s at home hoping her intercom connection to mission control won’t be cut off, it’s hard to see them as equals. This version of the film suddenly crackles into life when Foy makes him sit down and tell their kids that there’s a chance he won’t be coming back. Suddenly, Gosling’s closed-off performance becomes the point, rather than a detail. But it’s a long time to wait and it’s over with fairly quickly.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much drama-documentary here’s-how-we-went-to-the-moon stuff, buoyed by Chazelle’s sense of style – for example, almost completely denyingus exterior shots of rockets taking off, instead keeping us trapped in the variouscapsules and cockpits with the pilots. But even here, fascinating parts of the story don’t make the cut. Not just planting the American flag on the moon (for fuck’s sake) but the details of who (if anyone) wrote those first words for Armstrong to say – and did he blow his lines? Or Aldrin damaging the circuit breaker which would enable the lander to take off again – and having to jam a pen inthere to make it work. That would have been a great pay-off for the kind-of-an-asshole version of Aldrin essayed by Corey Stoll, but it’s omitted entirely.

Meanwhile, an entirely fictitious tribute to Armstrong’s late daughter is introduced instead, which I object to not because it’s made up but because it didn’t ring true, which is far more important.

Will this sweep the boards on 24 February? Hard to say at this point, but I think probably not. With up to ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s in with a shout there, but stands very little chance of winning. Chazelle and Gosling might pick up nominations too, but both were overlooked at the Golden Globes, so it doesn’t look likely.

Other films on my Oscar radar include: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma, Vice, The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me.

So… what did I think of It Takes You Away

Posted on December 6th, 2018 in Culture | No Comments »

Let me put you out of your suspense. Five stars. This is it. This everything I’ve been looking for all season long.

Is it perfect? No, not quite. But I don’t require perfection for five stars, if enough elements are strong enough. I will defend Kill the Moon to the death. Does that mean I don’t think that the science is total and utter garbage that doesn’t even make intuitive sense? Of course not. But the moral dilemma and the presentation of the Doctor’s relationship with Clara is so outstanding, I’ll happily give the gibberish biology a total pass.

So, let me get a few gripes out of the way early on, then we can all luxuriate in praise. This episode balances the needs of the four main characters better than anything since episode one. Yas is the most side-lined, but Ed Hime doesn’t overstuff the supporting cast and manages to give Graham a real stake in the action – and, for basically the first time – Ryan too. But Ryan’s early interactions with Hanne are so clumsy and frankly shitty, I question why he’s allowed on the TARDIS at all. By the end of the episode, it’s easier to see that this gives him an arc, but the barrier for entry to the most incredible ship in the universe has never seemed lower.

Also, the Doctor’s lying to Hanne about the “map” she scrawls on the wall is unconscionably awful. It pays off at the end, and it’s great that Hanne wasn’t fooled, but it’s still a fairly hateful thing to do, and unlike previous displays of lack of empathy from her male-presenting predecessors, she isn’t criticised or punished for it. It just stands. Also, I didn’t like her promising the sonic to Ribbons, when clearly she had no intention of keeping this promise.

And lastly, we can now add “wee” to the “chicken poo” from Not-Really-Demons in the Punjab to our list of potty training words that have somehow made their way into a Nebula-winning science fiction programme.

I think that’s it.

Yup, those are all my complains.

I know, I know. But read on…

Let’s start with what’s good. The set-up is briskly efficient. Hanne is an engaging character, well-played by Ellie Wallwork. The mystery is clearly established, and the mirror/portal is a splendid and sudden left-turn. The anti-zone acts as a plot-delaying device more than anything else. That’s not a criticism, merely an observation, because while you can imagine a version of this story which deletes the buffer zone between dimensions, and just has the characters stepping from one version of the house to the other, a lot of what happens in there is the episode’s most visual striking, funniest and contains the most genuine peril – something which has been in short supply this year. And who could complain about extra Kevin Eldon.

Everyone’s actions throughout are clearly motivated and spring from character. Hanne knocks Ryan out and heads for the portal, against the Doctor’s instructions, because she doesn’t trust him, not because the plot requires her to. And the arrival of Team TARDIS in the mirror universe is genuinely surprising, unsettling and unpredictable.

And then WHAM! The episode drops the other shoe like an anvil. Finally, Graham’s grief over Grace – in early episodes either ignored or inappropriately painful given the hijinks elsewhere – means something. It connects to the theme of the episode, it increases the jeopardy for the characters and we get a proper stitching together of emotion, adventure and high concept in a way which we haven’t seen frankly since World Enough and Time. I’m amazed that Chibnall, who presumably had some kind of scene like this in mind when he wrote The Woman Who Fell to Earth, let another writer deliver the punchline. Or maybe he didn’t have this in mind at all, and Ed Hime just saw the opportunity. Whatever, I don’t care. This episode is too good. And Bradley Walsh is sublime.

The Doctor – and it really is the Doctor all the way through this episode – desperately tries to get the humans to reject those they’ve loved, while the Solitract universe starts to tear itself to pieces. Jamie Childs does a wonderful job here, creating the apocalyptic atmosphere the script demands, aided by some of Segun Akinola’s best music.

And then it all comes down to the Timelord and the talking frog.

You don’t like the talking frog? Fine. Okay. I get it. It’s a bold choice, for sure. And if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s a pretty pisspoor special effect too, but c’mon. We’re Doctor Who fans. We can take it.

For me, it hardly matters what form the Solitract takes. For it to take a form associated with Grace, but which isn’t Grace, makes perfect sense. And the image is one which only Doctor Who could provide.

We’ve one more episode to go. I frankly doubt this series can do any better than this.

Ed Hime for showrunner.