Archive for February, 2020

So… what did I think of Ascension of the Cybermen?

Posted on February 26th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Well, this seems to have gone down well with fandom as a whole. And it’s not hard to see why – classic monsters reimagined, proper jeopardy for the regulars, some Moffatian mystery with impregnable Brendan, lots of action and excitement and a doozie of a cliffhanger ending.

Me? I’m not quite so happy.

Let’s take this in stages. The basic plot begins with the Doctor arriving to save the last vestiges of humanity from the Cybermen. So far, so Utopia. The aforesaid vestiges are apparently named Ravioli, You-Alarm-Me, Fearcat, Biscuit, Fo’c’sle and – for some reason – Ethan. Nothing any of them can do, not even doughty Julie Graham, can put much life into them although Steve Toussaint does much with little.

The Doctor comes armed with a multitude of anti-Cyberman devices which she confidently deploys but none of them work. So, in plot terms, the same as if she’d turned up without them. I mean, I suppose we’ve raised the stakes a bit but we know the Cybermen are fearsome foes anyway and it’s much more in character for the Doctor to turn up in the thick of things and have to improvise. Having all her gadgets fail is not only narrative vamping (and if you like that, you’ll love the rest of the episode) it also does much more to weaken her than it does to build up the threat.

When the Cybermen make their appearance, it’s initially in the rather comical form of a swarm of flying Cyberheads. If you can stop giggling at how absurd this looks, then it’s suddenly clear that these flying drones are way more effective at finding, cornering and eliminating the humans than the slow-moving stompy Cybermen of yore. So it’s rather surprising (and convenient) that the efficient and brutal drones kill a single human and then all bugger off, job done.

The fam get split up with Graham and Yaz joining Ravioli, Biscuit and You-Alarm-Me and Graham and Yaz prove that when the chips are down a tone-deaf approach to personal trauma is all you need to get out of a sticky situation. Sadly, the script can’t make up its mind whether the plan is to vent the oxygen into space to propel them to the “safety” of a Cyberfreighter, or whether it’s instead to divert all life support power to the thrusters. It genuinely sounds as if different drafts of the script were being shot simultaneously.

Although the stuff with the Cybermen all waking up is well done (hey, cute, they look like the ones from the 1970s), the level of threat seems absurd compared to the number of humans. One Cyberman should be enough to “delete” half a dozen exhausted freedom fighters. Once you get above about six, who really cares? Having thousands just seems pointless. And just what is Ashad doing to them to make them scream? I thought he was reviving them, but in one shot, he looks like he’s murdering them.

Speaking of Ashad, his stuff with the Doctor is all much better. Again, none of this really accomplishes very much. Just as all that ultimately happens to Yaz, Graham and the numpty squad is that they move from one place where there are Cybermen to another place where there is a portal, all that ultimately happens to the Doctor and the other one is the same thing, but the Doctor and Ashad get better dialogue. Patrick O’Kane is the real MVP of this and the previous episode and Jodie Whittaker really rises to the occasion here too.

Finally, after an awful lot of running up and down corridors, we arrive at the portal. Hey! It’s Gallfrey! Oh! It’s the Master! Gosh, it’s the end of the episode. So, this is all tease and no pay-off, and it’s taken a enormous amount of screen time to accomplish precious little.

And speaking of all tease and no payoff, let’s talk about Brendan. Having channelled RTD for a lot of this series, the teaser and subsequent Brendan material is straight out of the Steven Moffat playbook – except I can’t help but think that Moffat would have got us at least to the cliff fall (very familiar looking cliffs, those, DI Hardy…) if not to the electrocution / chameleon arch / shock therapy scene before the opening titles and given us much more to go on by the episode’s end.

So as 50 minutes of television, this was profoundly unsatisfying. Lots that made very little sense. Lots of running around accomplishing nothing. No characters that really popped (although it was nice to see Ian McElhinney). And no real sense that this season arc is coming together at all. That makes this episode hard to judge on its own merits. If The Timeless Children smashes it out of the park, then that might make this seem far more effective in hindsight. If Chibnall flubs the finale, this will likely seem ever thinner. For now, 2½ stars is the most I can muster.

2.5 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of The Haunting of Villa Diodati?

Posted on February 21st, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m really conflicted about this one. Much of this was very good indeed. Frustratingly good. If this is what this team can do when they try, why have we had to suffer through so much slurry recently? But there are still lots of niggles, lots of things which smack more of fan fiction than prestige television for all the family.

Let’s start with the fact that we only have ten episodes to play with and yet we’ve got two episodes in a row in which the team are stuck in spooky situations, unsure what’s real and what’s not and menaced by animated fingers. And what on earth is the point of bringing back the cold open if you don’t actually have anything to do with it? Everybody screaming makes no sense at all. It’s just stupid.

And there probably isn’t quite enough story for 50 minutes of television. The first third is all exposition and marking time. The second third is fun-and-games in The House That Jack Built. And the final third is where things really start getting good. But it’s quite a long wait and, again, while there’s some good stuff here, there’s some pretty ropey stuff too.

The eternal problem of the trio of redundant companions hasn’t gone away. Maxine Alderton does make them sound like people – and she doesn’t make them all sound like the same person. That might be damning with faint praise, but she’s the only writer to do that so far this series. What she can’t fathom (and nor can anyone else) is how to integrate them into the storyline. Yaz, who’s the most archetypal companion anyway, does do a bit of poking around, but only during the early “marking time” sections of the plot. Ryan manages to get challenged to a pistol duel – a hugely exciting development, especially for a series which is so reluctant to put any of the regular cast in mortal danger.

(Sidebar: that’s only recently struck me, but it’s really odd. One of the reasons that the end of Spyfall Part One was so effective was that it looked like all three companions were going to die. But that’s super-unusual. One of the benefits surely of having an expanded regular cast is that it gives us a lot of people who we care about who can get into life-threatening situations and need rescuing – by the Doctor or by each other. But most of the time, they just stand around comfortably. Even when plans fail such as when Rani Not the Queen of the Racnoss comes through those doors near the end of Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, the fact that Graham is in harm’s way doesn’t seem to be the point. Why aren’t all three of them constantly being menaced by buzz-saws, taken over by alien mind parasites, facing firing squads, being infected by spektrox nests and so on?)

But, then, in a truly bizarre bit of scripting, this terrifying turn is just forgotten about and never referred to again. Poor Graham, meanwhile is stuck in a subplot which involves him needing the loo. Thrill! As TV’s Bradley Walsh asks people where he can spend a penny. Marvel! At his inability to empty his bladder! Truly, this is our “the one with the giant maggots” moment.

And the guest cast are a bit thinly drawn too. With characters as big as Mary Wollstonecraft and Lord Byron to play with, I would have expected a bit more dash and panache, but – as with Rosa and to some extent Tesla – this is just decent actors reading out parts of Wikipedia at each other. And it’s truly weird to have Byron in one episode and Ada Lovelace in another and have nothing more than a single line of hasty acknowledgment to cover this. Christ, maybe they need even longer to plan the series out properly.

Now, all of this sounds like I didn’t like it, and it’s true, I was frustrated, but this episode had some much better stuff coming. Once the Castrovalva walls kicked in, the atmosphere was incredibly intense, and I did find myself starting to care about what happened to these bland people. We even got a couple of actual jokes. I laughed out loud at “Is it too late to pick another group?” True, Steven Moffat would have given us ten lines as good as that before the opening titles, but that doesn’t make it less funny.

And when the Lone Cyberman appears, it’s a genuine triumph of costume, make-up, performance and conception. True, it’s largely the same trick with a Cyberman which Chibnall already played with a Dalek in Resolution but it works even better here, and the Frankenstein allusions thankfully remain just that. We’re spared seeing Mary’s clunky moment of inspiration. But down in that cellar, backed into a corner, Jodie Whittaker shows us just what she can do as the Doctor, and just where the series has been taking her. It’s with only a trace of smugness that I report that her defining moment of owning the character comes through an epiphany that her three companions are essentially useless, but all of this stuff is actual proper drama. High stakes science-fiction adventure coupled with a real feeling for character and a genuine moral dilemma.

There’s a slight fumble towards the end as the Doctor first needs to retain the Cyberium and then, within the space of the same scene, needs to surrender it, but the ending is absolutely gangbusters. Of course she’d risk the universe to save one poet – not because he’s Shelley but because he’s a life. Because she’s the Doctor. Yes.

So, I’m tempted to give this five stars, overlooking all of the flaws in the first half – as I overlooked the gibberish science in Kill the Moon. But this isn’t as sure-footed as It Takes You Away or The Witchfinders, nor does it have the sheer brazen shock value of Fugitive of the Judoon. I think four is fair, but the last fifteen minutes were an easy five.

4 out of 5 stars

So… What did I think of Can You Hear Me?

Posted on February 15th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I mean at least it’s trying…

God, where to start with this one. Again, it’s a mix of old episodes tossed into a blender, with very little thought for how all the pieces are going to work together. The storybook exposition as well as the theme of nightmares put me in mind of Listen, the darkest fears bit is a lift from (among many other places) The God Complex and Amy’s Choice and there’s the now obligatory pointless references to Classic episodes, because Chibnall has now decided that he needs to do that all the time, instead of never as was his stated philosophy last season.

It’s heartening, I suppose, to see some attempt made to give the companions a bit of characterisation, and some attempt has been made to actually connect the inner lives of the TARDIS crew to the adventure story of the week, rather than putting the adventure on pause while somebody talks unconvincingly about their feelings, but the pacing and the construction of the early part of the episode is very clumsy, as everybody simultaneously has somewhere better to be, and then everybody simultaneously wants to come back on board the TARDIS again. And just what is it that Yaz and her sister a celebrating the anniversary of in this desultory way? Her suicide attempt? Who does that?

The main threat is original enough, I guess, but instead of that pleasing obvious-only-when-you-hear-it kind of originality, like the explanation in The Witch’s Familiar about why Daleks talk the way they do, or Rose being missed by her family in Aliens of London, this is just odd for its own sake. It doesn’t make sense for dreams to communicated finger-to-ear and even visually, this just looks wrong as the fingers pop off (all five although only one is needed) and sail aerodynamically towards their target before very awkwardly reversing course and then burrowing into the ear fat end first – you know, the way that fingers don’t.

And this is another episode which seems determined to weaken and diminish the Doctor. First she can’t cope with being left on her own. Then she can’t tell that The Terrible Zodin is using her to free his friend. And then, worst of all, she can’t even give poor Graham a hug. Even the conversation between Yaz and the other one at the end weakens the Doctor. Past companions have been so enriched by being their travels in the TARDIS, they can’t conceive of ever having to leave. This lot are worried that it’s making them lesser.

And the poor structuring continues. Having tried to make the companions’ nightmares a part of the actual story, Chibnall and co-writer Charlene James just give up and give us the (fairly weak) catharsis for Yaz after the main story is over. The actual climax is almost too stupid for words. The all-powerful immortal Zodin who can travel at will through time and space shits his pants at the sight of the monster he summoned into being? Give me strength. And just how did the Doctor get hold of that sonic screwdriver? Does she have Force powers now?

And yet, as frustrated – and often, frankly, bored – as I was watching this, there are flickers. Finally, somebody (I assume James) has tried to dig a little deeper into these three bland characters who stand around and let plots happen near them. The animated exposition is fun and it is new. Asking the question: what do you gain, and what do you lose travelling with the Doctor? is the kind of thing that having a bigger regular cast should give you access to – although it’s somewhat pointless if they all come up with the same answer. So this isn’t an Orphan 55 or Very Long Walk to What is Obviously the TARDIS scale of disaster, but the general level of incompetence coming from the top is still doing its best to smother the best intentions of the rest of the writing team.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Parasite and predictions

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Parasite was my final film of this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, and it came with quite the hoopla. People better-versed than me in South Korean cinema tell me that in comparison this seems very very good as opposed to exceptional, but my only previous exposure to Bong Joon Ho had been his very Hollywood (and totally demented) Snowpiercer, so I sat down with high if rather vague expectations.

I’d also tried to keep myself spoiler-free, so I didn’t even know the premise of the film, and in many ways it was the early scenes which I found most engaging. The apparently feckless Kim family, living in a squalid sub-basement, always on the scrounge or on the make – but furious at the bad behaviour of others – turn out to have a more entrepreneurial side. Following an introduction from his cousin, the son becomes English tutor to the daughter of the very wealthy Park family, whose bonkers house resembles that in Mon Oncle (although they don’t quickly turn on the fountain whenever there are visitors).

Ki-woo passes his sister Ki-jeong off as an art teacher for the other child and pretty soon, Kim père and Kim mère have replaced the incumbent chauffeur and housekeeper. When the Parks go away for the weekend, the Kims revel in their borrowed luxury. But hiding in the basement is a terrible secret, and it’s this plot left turn which gave me a moment’s pause, because although there is thematic unity here (height equals wealth and status; depth equals degradation and poverty) nothing to this point has been quite so outré as the previous housekeeper hiding her unemployed husband in a secret basement for the past four years.

Once I swallowed that, I was on board all the way to the end. There’s one plot contrivance in the climax which I felt was a little too constructed to really resonate, but for the most part this sings. The story is expertly assembled, Bong shoots it with the eye of a master and the acting is absolutely superb throughout. I was particularly struck by the Kim family matriarch (Chang Hyae-jin) and son (Choi Woo-shik) both of whom manage to transform themselves in a way which is utterly convincing for the Park family and yet the deception is perfectly clear to the audience.

There’s loads going on here about capitalism, climate change, wealth inequality and the nature of trust and deceit. The point of the title (for me at any rate) is that both families are parasites. The Kims leech off the Parks’ good natures and the Parks can’t survive without the seemingly servile Kims. I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated this parable even more if it had avoided the shift into the grand guinol but I can’t deny that I was completely enthralled for every minute it was on.

So, despite the fact that my track record is pretty pisspoor, if you’ll indulge me, I will embarrass myself once again with some predictions. Best Picture will go to 1917 and Sam Mendes will also take Best Director. As luck would have it, I also think this is the most deserving film of the year, with shoutouts to Little Women and Parasite, coming in a close second and third. While it’s just possible that Bong will pinch Best Director, no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture and if Roma can’t do it than I don’t see Parasite succeeding. 1917 seems to have all the momentum anyway.

I did not like Joker at all, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is exactly the kind of showboating so often rewarded by the Academy, and provided it doesn’t win either Picture or Director, I’ll allow it. Of those nominees, I’d probably give it to Adam Driver, but it’s a crime George McKay isn’t nominated. Best Actress can only go to Renée Zellweger who has no doubt been working on her speech since June.

Best Supporting Actor likewise has Brad Pitt pretty much nailed on, and fair enough I suppose. Best Supporting Actor is tougher to call. I’d love to see Scarlett Johansson lift the statuette on Sunday but Laura Dern seems to be a lock. Best Original Screenplay should go to Rian Johnson for his delightful and inventive Knives Out, but I suspect Tarantino will nick it. Best Adapted Screenplay must surely go to Greta Gerwig for her magnificent Little Women script or there’s no justice whatever in the world.

See you in a few days for a detailed explanation of how and why I got it all so wrong.

So… what did I think of Praxeus?

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

And, like an over-extended elastic band, Doctor Who snaps back into familiar patterns. What had briefly threatened to be a US-style saga with an ongoing narrative across the season, reverts unceremoniously to being an anthology show as it has been for most of its existence. We’ve seen this before of course, most notably in Series 9 where the transition from Let’s Kill Hitler to Night Terrors was particularly jarring, and this doesn’t have that particular problem. But it is disappointing and frustrating to see no more of Doctor Ruth and learn nothing further about her origins.

Anyway, let’s try and judge this episode on its own merits. And here we have another problem, because the overall standard since Chibnall took over has been so poor that I’m now pouncing on any crumb of competency with joyful delight. Stories I gave two or three stars to under Moffat now look like near-masterpieces.

We start, as is becoming the norm, in media res at least for the TARDIS team. After two virtually-identical death scenes, it becomes apparent that the Doctor and fam have been investigating strange goings-on in Peru, Hong Kong and Madagascar for some time. This country-hopping is fairly new for Doctor Who (the opening reminded me strongly of Resolution) and if we are going to have an Earthbound season, then it’s nice if it isn’t all in the UK. And thhis does all look fantastic. The location filming in South Africa has really paid off, director Jamie Magnus Stone makes the most of all of the scenery he has access to, and the bird attack is gangbusters.

The companions are… better. Instead of commenting banally on the story as it rolls past them, unheeded by their presence, they’re active, purposeful and resourceful. They’re still written fairly interchangeably (save for a couple of Graham-is-a-doofus gags) but I’ll take these generic investigator archetypes over the passive along-for-the-ride or sequestered-in-their-own-unrelated-story versions we’ve had for the last five episodes. It’s a shame they don’t figure out that Jake isn’t on duty. They had all the pieces but couldn’t put them together, which weakens them unnecessarily (especially as we already have the information).

And although the supporting cast is super top heavy, there’s still time for the actors to chisel out some kind of characterisation here. Warren Brown and Matthew McNulty get the most to do, but Joana Borja and Molly Harris have their moments also. And Tosin Cole seems to come alive in his scenes with Gabriela. Presumably that’s what the production team saw in him at his audition. Shame he’s been sticking with his half-asleep-monotone line delivery for a season and a half.

It’s also a shame that having spent all that money on plane tickets, the monster costumes ended up being some hazmat suits and old gasmasks. The section with Yaz in the Hong Kong lab is definitely the weakest part of the whole episode, with Yaz’s sudden picking up of a bit of equipment and divining that it is highly valued by the gas mask crew totally unmotivated and clumsy.

The big climax sees all of the supporting cast standing back and watching the Doctor at work, as is the usual way of things lately, but Jake’s threatened self-sacrifice adds a bit of needed human drama, and does work despite – or maybe because of – being a very familiar Doctor Who trope. And it’s freshened-up here by having him survive, which felt right overall given the number of unmourned bodies which have hit the deck already.

So, what to say about this? Jodie is fine – coasting rather than soaring, but the material doesn’t give her much to work with this time round, beyond enthusiastically solving the problem. Clearly it’s far less ambitious than Judoon but equally clearly, it’s a competent piece of writing on the whole, certainly compared to dross like Orphan 55 or The Very Slow Race to What is Obviously the TARDIS from last year. It’s a bit frantic, and the plot has to grind to a halt to allow a slightly forced character moment between Graham and Jake. But the science-fiction-adventure plot does work and the fam can’t be cut out of it. It’s an RTD three but a Chibnall four I suppose.

4 out of 5 stars