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Trekaday #000: The Cage

Posted on December 28th, 2021 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I hadn’t planned to watch The Cage on the basis that it wasn’t shown on TV (well, all right, it was as part of a celebration of Trek during the TNG era) and because I was going to see most of it in The Menagerie anyway but a bout of COVID has left me with extra time on my hands, so – as it was included on my Blu-ray box set – I popped it on.

Doctor Who fans, whose knowledge of the show in the 1960s is at the mercy of the random quirks of the BBC archive and overseas sales policies, can look at Star Trek with a certain degree of envy. Everything exists, all shot on 35mm film and able to be cleaned up and look fantastic (until we get to Deep Space Nine anyway). But we almost don’t have The Cage for the stupidest of reasons.

The two-part story The Menagerie was a desperate manoeuvre during Season One which enabled the Star Trek production team to magic up two whole episodes with the bare minimum of extra writing and filming. Kirk, Spock and co. sit around and watch Star Trek’s original pilot while a thin court-room drama unfolds. Shades of Trial of a Time Lord but that was on purpose.

To make this happen, Gene Roddenberry handed over the only known existing colour print of the pilot assuming that the editing team would make a duplicate and return the print to him. In fact the editing team assumed that they had been given a duplicate and merrily began hacking it up with scissors in order to assemble The Menagerie. When the pilot was finally released on video and shown on TV, the now-missing sections had to be patched from a black-and-white workprint.

Then – hurrah! – the negative trims turned up in a warehouse somewhere (or most of them did) and so now we can watch the pilot in all its glory. You can even watch it with early 2000s CGI spaceships if you want.

The story behind the story has been told often enough. Roddenberry sold the studio a space western – Wagon Train to the Stars – and then delivered a cerebral mini-movie with almost no action and a female second-in-command. This was Roddenberry’s girlfriend Majel Barrett and depending on who you ask, the studio couldn’t bear the idea of a woman on the bridge, or that’s what Roddenberry told her to spare her feelings, when actually they savaged her performance.

There’s a lot to like here. The crew works together very well – one of the pleasures of Trek is seeing a group of professionals problem-solving as a team – and the problem is a knotty one: once they know they can’t trust their senses, how do they know if they’re ever making progress? And the script doesn’t tease us for very long. Almost as soon as the crew has met the “colonists”, we zoom out to see the Talosians watching Star Trek. Not long after that, the illusion melts (very convincingly) away and Captain Pike knows what we know.

The ground-breaking effects look great, especially considering that this is before even 2001: A Space Odyssey had hit cinemas, so Forbidden Planet was the high watermark of moving-image science fiction (and there’s quite a big chunk of Forbidden Planet here). The Talosians, with diminutive and heavily made-up women playing the parts, but dubbed by male actors, look and sound completely original and their attitudes to the crew are fascinating.

But if the plot and the guest performances are all working, what’s wrong? A few things aren’t quite as we remember them. Spock orders that the Enterprise proceed at “time warp factor four”, he isn’t the emotionless Vulcan we remember, and he has a silly haircut and fluffy eyebrows. Reports are faxed to the bridge (I think paper was nixed from the second pilot onwards), the guns are called “lasers” and the communicators are very chunky. Also, the uniforms aren’t quite the ones we remember, although I rather like the grey-blue away jackets worn over the colourful pullovers – more functional and more interesting to look at than the plain velour jerseys we’d get next time.

But it’s the characters that don’t work. I rather like Majel Barrett as “Number One” and it’s refreshing to see a female second-in-command, but even after Captain Pike lampshades her sex, audiences couldn’t get on board with a bossy woman, so when the show is re-tooled the Enterprise becomes the boys club we’re familiar with. Number One’s emotionless cool was transferred to Spock instead. Variations on this character crop up again later in the form of Seven of Nine, T’Pol and (sort of) the Borg Queen. Leonard Nimoy becomes the only actor to survive to the second pilot (although Barrett is slipped in as recurring character Nurse Chapel in a blonde wig).

The other members of the regular cast don’t really register. There’s a young ginger kid who didn’t even get a name as far as I can recall, a perky Yeoman who keeps being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s a crusty doctor who exists principally to shine a light on Captain Pike’s character. As the lead character of the show, he’s genuinely fascinating. Jeffrey Hunter plays him with a fiery intensity and he even seems to have an arc of sorts – at the start of the episode, he’s haunted by an away mission that went wrong and is beginning to buckle under the weight of command responsibility.

What he isn’t, however, is fun. I really don’t imagine very many viewers would be tuning in week-after-week, in 1966, to spend more time with this sourpuss. Hunter does exactly what’s asked of him – including bawling out Perky Yeoman for no reason – and the camera loves his freakishly angular handsomeness, but the sense of a family unit, which Roddenberry and co would carefully contrive and/or happily stumble into, is fatally missing. We get the sense that Spock and Number One are rescuing their clinically depressed Captain out of a weary sense of duty, rather than a passionate need to save a beloved comrade. In fact, apart from Pike’s various outbursts from his titular confinement, the rest of the crew barely breaks a sweat. In the series, Spock’s calm in the face of a crisis is the exception – here it’s the norm, which lends proceedings a dry and tepid air. It’s this I think, more than the exotic concepts in the plotting, which gave this 60 minutes of film its often-repeated tag of “cerebral”.

So – we didn’t lose a masterpiece when the studio rejected this pilot. Hunter may be a better actor than Shatner, but Pike would never have been able to carry the series, and while we can only imagine that Perky Yeoman and Mister Ginge would have been given more to do in future episodes, they completely fail to register here. Crusty Doctor is a good idea for a character but he doesn’t jump off the screen, and while I’m sad about Number One, her absence created the Vulcan mythology which built the series, so it’s hard to get too cut up about it.

Okay, that’s the first go. Who’s ready for the first episode to be actually transmitted? We begin on New Year’s Day with The Man Trap.

So… what do I think of the news that Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whittaker are leaving Doctor Who?

Posted on August 3rd, 2021 in Culture, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Honestly? Relief.

That sounds harsh, but for me personally this era of the show has been a slog more than a joy. I’m reminded of the Annie Hall “such small portions” joke but there’s been so little new Doctor Who since Capaldi left that it’s doubly frustrating that the tiny morsels we get have been so poor. However, that does at least mean that’s when we look back on the grand sweep of the show as a whole, the Chibnall years will be a fairly brief segment. Thus, relief. As odd as it is for showrunner and leading actor to both commence and depart together, and as odd as it is for a producer not to outlive a Doctor, they’re leaving, it’s official and plans are no doubt already underway for their replacements.

Now, let’s acknowledge that bad things happen when people are made to run shows for which they no longer have any enthusiasm. Watching the Season 24 Blu-ray box set, it becomes clear that John Nathan-Turner first expressed thoughts of leaving after The Five Doctors anniversary special in 1983. He ended up still working on the show when it was cancelled in 1989 – following the BBC’s eccentric decision to fire Colin Baker who wanted more than anything to keep playing the part, but to retain the services of JNT who wanted more than anything to be assigned to a different show.

So, if Chris and Jodie want to leave, then leave they should. But the timing is odd.

Less so for Jodie. Every Doctor post Eccleston has done about-three-seasons over about-four-years. Tennant did three x 14 episodes back-to-back and then four specials between Christmas 2008 and New Year’s Day 2010. Matt Smith had that weird split series six which was at least partly about manoeuvring the fiftieth anniversary special into position, but again completed the equivalent of three full seasons between spring 2010 and Christmas 2013. Under Capaldi, an episode was shaved off the season length and he had a year off between December 2015 and December 2016 but again he completed his tenure about four years after he began and with the usual quota of 40 or so episodes to his name.

Even before COVID, the latest team took an unprecedentedly long amount of time to prepare an unprecedentedly short season. Ten months after Capaldi’s farewell, a ten episode season began airing on BBC One. Over a year later, another ten episodes finally emerged. Now, after a further eighteen months, we will get Jodie’s third season of just six episodes. Together with two New Year’s Day specials and three more 2022 specials, that will give us just 31 episodes broadcast over five calendar years. At the end of which the showrunner is so knackered that he has no option but to quit the show? Really? (I’m not saying he was forced out, but it is peculiar.)

As lovingly detailed elsewhere in these pages, very few of these episodes have been to my taste. But rather than the tone being too jokey or too serious, or the emphasis being on elements of the show I care less rather than more for, my chief complaint about what little we’ve been given is that basic elements of scriptwriting craft have been largely absent. So we have an overstuffed TARDIS full of thinly-drawn characters, who rarely impact the plot in meaningful ways. We have episodes in which good ideas are squandered and dialogue is rarely more than functional. We have endless minutes drifting by in which the main cast just wanders about. We have horrific interpretations of the Doctor’s morality and we have plotting which is as often predictable as it is nonsensical. And no good jokes. At all. None.

A few episodes stand out. The Witchfinders has a plot that makes sense and a strong guest cast and it’s about something. It Takes You Away has a real sense of atmosphere and a balls-to-the-wall bonkers climax. The Haunting of Villa Diodati has some of the best the era has to offer, although it’s not consistent. But honestly, that’s about it. And that’s before we get to the gibberish of the Jo Martin Doctor and the Timeless Child. Chris Chibnall upends the history of the show, proffers a lengthy explanation that barely explains a quarter of the mysteries he introduces, then immediately tells us why it doesn’t change anything (before having the murderous and cowardly Doctor have someone else do her killing for her to resolve the plot). Sigh.

Amidst all of this is Jodie Whittaker. Veteran script editor Terrance Dicks observed that the part of the Doctor is basically actor-proof. This is a diplomatic slam on some of the actors who post-dated his day-to-day involvement in the show who he thought were miscast. And he’s probably right. The part isn’t ideally suited to traditional leading-man actors like Peter Davison or Paul McGann. Weirdos like Tom Baker and Matt Smith are easier to write for. It’s hugely to both of their credits that the combination of Russell T Davies and David Tennant created such a massively popular version of the programme, despite Tennant seeming to lacking the eccentricity that the part usually benefits from.

As far as non-male actors go, Jodie Whittaker is firmly in the traditional leading camp, rather than the character type. If the part had gone to Tilda Swinton or Miriam Margolyes or Meera Syal or Katherine Parkinson, that would have hugely impacted the way the scripts were written. But, while Jodie will show up, look the other actors in the eye, and say the lines with conviction, she isn’t going to alter the fabric of the programme in any way at all. And beyond taking the not-good-with-social-niceties element of the previous two Doctors and running with that, the showrunner hasn’t created an actual character for her to play either, so she’s generally been reduced to little more than a bit of Davison-esque breathless enthusiasm where an interpretation should be.

The other apparent sea-change since 2018, apparently, is that the show is “woke” now. I’ll deal with this briefly as it doesn’t really warrant more than a few lines. No, the show which told stories about the need for pacifism, green politics and feminism in the 1970s hasn’t suddenly gone Marxist. No, the show which first included two men kissing in 2005, first included a non-white regular cast member that same year, and first gender-swapped a familiar character in 2017 didn’t suddenly discover diverse casting when Jodie Whittaker was handed the keys to the TARDIS. It’s just that when previous showrunners did these things, fans generally liked them because they were using these characters to tell good stories. But when the only thing you can say about Ryan is that he’s black (and he’s dyspraxic for about one episode in five) then that’s going to look much more like stunt casting than Michelle Gomez as Missy. The anti-woke brigade isn’t out in force in the same way for Sacha Dhawan. Why not? Because he was good (at least to begin with). If anything, it will be a pity if there’s pressure on the next team to retreat to the “safety” of the kind of white, male, straight, non-disabled casting which in fact we were already seeing less and less of between 2005 and 2017.

So, who will be the next team and what will they do? Obviously, I have no idea. (Aren’t you glad you took the time to read this?) But since there hasn’t been a female showrunner since 1965, it’s probably time for a woman behind the typewriter as well as hovering over the console. That rules out my top choice of Peter Harness (sorry Peter), assuming Neil Gaiman isn’t free. Maxine Alderton’s work on Villa Diodati shows enormous promise, but if someone with Chibnall’s CV can fail as comprehensively as he did, that suggests that we really do want someone with some miles on the clock in this role. Phoebe Waller-Bridge I suspect wouldn’t want to be tied down for three or more years. Sarah Phelps?

And what do we want? Firstly, a vision for who the Doctor is. The blessing and the curse of the show at this point is you have 13 hard acts to follow. You have more than a dozen incarnations, all with their adherents and detractors, which means finding a new version which adds to the corpus, while not violating what we already know, is hard. That’s why I say that it needs to be actor-driven. I had no idea that the Doctor was capable of some of the things which Matt Smith pulled off, but they all (or almost all) made sense once I’d seen them.

Secondly, we need to get back to stories being plot-and-character led. Don’t have three companions because you think it would be nice to go back to having three companions again. Have three companions because you have stories which need three companions. And give them at least as much personality and individuality as, say, Tegan Jovanka, even if they don’t get the depth of Rose Tyler or Amy Pond. Don’t have stories in which you revisit the show’s origins because you think revisiting the show’s origins is intrinsically exciting or interesting. Revisit the show’s origins because you have an exciting story to tell which naturally leads you there.

And maybe it should be someone who wasn’t a childhood fan of the show. Hiring fans worked with RTD and Steven Moffat, but hiring non-fans also worked with Barry Letts and Phillip Hinchcliffe. There’s no shortage of people knocking around who can tell a future showrunner what a Judoon is, or what Fenric means. But people who can write really good science fiction television drama for a family audience and within a BBC budget – maybe they are rarer than we think.

There’s also the sixtieth anniversary to consider. My guess is that we will learn who the new producer is around the same time as the new series starts airing, and who the new Doctor will be shortly after those six episodes have gone out. So, say we get Jodie Whittaker regenerating into Gemma Whelan in December 2022. A production team headed by Kate Herron could be working on scripts from late this year and have 10-12 episodes ready to go by spring or summer 2023 – September at the latest. That one full series is going to be essential to establish the new direction of the show before any kind of nostalgic anniversary special at the end of November. And while it would be fun to get Capaldi, Smith, Tennant – even McGann – back for one last trip in the TARDIS, it’s likely that Whittaker won’t want to come back so soon, so I wonder if some other mode could be discovered to celebrate sixty years, rather than another multi-Doctor story?

Whatever happens, I will still be watching. And, as always, hoping for the best.

Coping and how I’m doing it

Posted on April 1st, 2020 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The COVID-19/Novel Coronavirus worldwide pandemic has changed everything and everyone is finding their own way of coping.

I’m not sure to what end, but I thought I would put down a few observations about my own personal strategies – possibly as a marker to look back on next week, next month or next year.

In many ways, the stay indoors, socially isolate, talk to people mainly over the Internet lifestyle sounds a lot like my preferred way of living. But it turns out there’s an awfully big difference between a lifestyle chosen and a lifestyle enforced.

In the Before Times, my week was rather unstructured and quite unpredictable. Some days would see me up early, suit on, and meeting corporate clients or delivering workshops or seminars at banks, law firms, ad agencies or the like. Some days I would be meeting friends, talking about creative projects such as a new play, or being the public face of one of our podcasts. We maintain an office in Camden so some days I would be there, cranking through admin, talking to Gina or Alex or Ned about future plans, or meeting our bookkeeper or accountant. When I’m editing podcasts, I prefer to work from home. Some of these “edit days” are spent entirely in my dressing gown. Often, I end up working late and at weekends, so I’m rarely up early unless I need to be. I’m blessed with living only a 40-minute walk from the West End, so sometimes I’ll walk into town to see a movie.

I’ve learned that what I need to keep myself happy and rested – since I don’t get weekends off in any meaningful way – is one “snow day” per month. On this day I need never get dressed if I don’t feel like it, and spend most of my waking hours eating cheese and watching old movies / Doctor Who episodes. It’s preferable for all concerned if I’m alone in the house.

Suddenly, in the last two weeks, all of that has changed. And I’ve had to change with it. So I’ve made some deliberate choices about my schedule which may be the opposite of what you’ve done if you previously had a fairly strictly routined working life.

I’m setting my alarm for 8:30am every morning, and trying to do 20 minutes on the exercise bike each day, starting no later than 9:30am. Since I get most of my exercise from walking, and I won’t be doing as much of that, this seems like a sensible way to burn some calories, and not just spend the day in bed. Then, I shower, shave and dress. I rarely wear t-shirts in any case, so I’m typing this in a business shirt with cufflinks. If I’m not seeing people I don’t live with, I sometimes don’t shave for several days. That can’t happen anymore. With no access to a hairdresser either, that way madness lies. I’m not prepared to come out of hibernation looking like the wild man of Borneo. (Is that an okay thing to say?)

10:30am to 6:00pm are working hours – this includes editing podcasts, but it also includes all the other usual things: replying to emails, updating websites, financial planning, conference calls and so on. At 12:00pm on Monday and Friday, we have a regular company catch-up (there are five of us) so we can stay sane, stay connected, and plan together. At 6:00pm every weekday, Deborah is recording her Instagram Live series “The New Normal” so I can be on hand to help with that and when she’s up and running, I can sign off for the day.

I’m making a real effort to keep the flat tidy and stack the dishwasher and/or wash the dishes each night. We’re continuing to pay our cleaner – who used to come three times a week! – but she’s no longer visiting our home and cleaning it. Coming downstairs to a clean kitchen is a good and important start to the day. Going to the supermarket involved queueing outside for twenty minutes (standing 2m away from the person in front) but once inside, most items were available and most shelves looked well-stocked.

I suddenly have a very active virtual social life! I spent one evening with old university friends on Zoom, celebrated a friend’s birthday on House Party and I’m looking into whether it might be possible for my monthly poker game to go ahead virtually.

I’m trying to do as little work as possible in the evenings and at the weekend. Often, Monday’s Guilty Feminist has to be uploaded on a Sunday evening, and that’s fine, and we’re planning on recording an episode of Best Pick on Saturday. But last weekend I mainly spent watching Pixar’s Onward (very good) and Tiger King on Netflix (with friends on House Party for bants).

It’s just over one week in and this is working for me so far. I know I’m lucky. I have no kids I’m trying to home school, I have money in the bank (at least for now), I have a wonderful partner to go through this with me, a team of motivated and talented people working on our business and a pleasant home environment with fast Internet and three adorable cats. Many people around the country are far worse off than me, which is why I’ve also filled in the form to volunteer for the NHS Responders. I’ll let you know how that goes soon.

Stay safe. Stay indoors. Wash your hands.

So… what did I think of Series 10 so far?

Posted on April 27th, 2017 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Series 10 feels like an event for all sorts of reasons. Twelve years after the triumphant return of Doctor Who, we finally reach our tenth set of episodes, with Capaldi following the now-established pattern of lead actors doing three-seasons-over-four-years in the part. So, it’s the last set of episodes with Malcolm Tucker at the helm of the TARDIS, and it’s the last set of episodes with Steven Moffat at the reins behind the scenes.

And despite, or maybe because of that, the avowed intention for the first episode is to provide a new jumping-on point for new viewers, with the cheeky title given to the season opener making this even more obvious.

In keeping with his notion of the War Doctor being a Doctor we, the viewers, somehow missed in 1996-2005, Moffat allows that more time has passed since Christmas 2016 than was seen during The Return of Doctor Mysterio. So, while we’ve been away, the Time Lord has stopped his wandering, taken up residence as a university don, and taken to guarding a mysterious vault. Only Matt Lucas’s Nardole represents an explicit link to episodes past.

So we get the repeated pleasure of seeing the Doctor through fresh eyes, those eyes this time belonging to Pearl Mackie’s amazingly winning Bill. To be sure, the companion part is fast becoming one of BBC television’s plumb roles and the producers no doubt had their pick of fresh young British talent, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they have come up with an immensely charming and skilled performer here, who will brighten the TARDIS considerably for at least these twelve episodes (rumours are that incoming show-runner Chris Chibnall wants to cast his own companion as well as his own Doctor).

That’s despite the fact that the writing is by-and-large twisting itself into absurd pretzels to make her as appealing across the board as possible. After Billie Piper’s defiantly chavvy Rose and Catherine Tate’s abrasive Donna, the TARDIS was subsequently inhabited by the rather more middle class Karen Gillian and the very plummy Clara The Impossible Girl. Where to put Bill on the social spectrum? Her speech is highly articulate and yet her accent contains frequent glottal stops and rough edges. She’s serving chips, so she’s common, but she’s attending lectures so she’s upwardly mobile. She’s upper lower working middle class and it’s a testament largely to Mackie that she emerges as a person and not as a bundle of unrelated characteristics.

The story meanwhile is largely a remix of familiar elements, including such old favorites as the possessed body, the pool of alien goo, the remnants of alien visitors and – a peculiarly Moffat one this – the inconsequential tour of the universe. In the context of the episode, this last one works fine (it’s partly there to show Bill and therefore the new viewers what the TARDIS is capable of) but it’s symptomatic of a nasty habit of the outgoing head writer – taking gigantic ideas and treating them trivially. The TARDIS’s ability to flit across all of time and space is utterly remarkable. Any opponent which can match it point-for-point should be an absolutely colossal threat. But here it just gets talked to death as if it were barely even a problem. Still, nice to see the Movellans again.

Still as remixes go, this was well enough-paced and witty enough to keep me happy. It’s worth three-and-a-half stars, but I’ll give it four because it’s the season opener and I think the rules are a little different for first episodes – but I’ll need next week to considerably up the stakes.

4 out of 5 stars


Of course, next week has already been-and-gone and rather than taking the ground-work laid by The Pilot and building on it, Smile simply repeated achingly familiar tropes from Doctor Who and other series past, while committing many of the same rookie mistakes as Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previously limp offering.

Some writers just aren’t suited to Doctor Who. Now, I’m fine with people like Richard Curtis and Simon Nye being given the chance to try their hand because one of the advantages of the anthology nature of the series is that it can effectively reinvent itself every week if it chooses. But once someone has shat the bed as comprehensively as the writer of In The Forest of the Night then there’s simply no need to give them another go, regardless of how much the show-runner likes them personally, or how heavily-laden their awards shelf is.

To be fair, this isn’t quite as bad as the previous offering, but it’s pretty soggy, generic stuff, suffering from poor pacing, rotten characterisation, a lack of new ideas and stupid costumes. The earlier scenes with the colonists set up both the problem and its solution too clearly for the Doctor’s laborious discovery of the same to hold any interest at all. And it really doesn’t help that while Mina Anwar is remixing – of all classic era stories – The Happiness Patrol, she appears to be wearing a costume made out of bubble wrap. For a moment I thought I was watching a Victoria Wood or French and Saunders spoof of the unloved and under-budgeted 80s programme, with ludicrous technobabble and silly plastic robots, not the BBC’s now much-feted and well-loved flagship family export.

Then the script can’t make up its mind whether there are colonists here or not. Instead of the Doctor arriving in time to save the last remaining embattled survivors, when he and Bill show up, the place is deserted. Now it can be argued that deserted corridors are spookier or more atmospheric, but it makes it much harder to establish a world, or a society when there are no other people around. Either way, it’s undeniably cheaper to do it this way, and that’s what these early scenes looked like – done on the cheap.

The Doctor first deduces that the colonists are on-their-way, then that the advance guard has already been killed, then that the colonists are here but in suspended animation – and then he decides to wake them up first and solve the lethal problem later. That’s after he’s decided not to blow the place up of course – a spectacularly stupid and reckless plan for the world’s smartest man, which sits very poorly with the overall morality of the series. The sense of a script desperately spinning its wheels isn’t helped by the Doctor repeatedly trying and failing to leave Bill behind, which is fair enough as the story would have unfolded in exactly the same way if she’d never set foot in the TARDIS at all.

And as well as being over-familiar, the central idea doesn’t really makes sense either – in two different ways. The silly plastic robots (hereafter referred to as SPRs) are so keen to make the humans happy that they murder anyone who is miserable. Surely this is a glitch which a) can be corrected by their human masters who – as the teaser makes perfectly clear – know precisely why the robots are killing them all; and b) which could have been found during early field trials and corrected then?

But let’s not forget that the whole complex, including the SPRs, has actually been constructed from swarms of nano-bots. This tedious science-fiction cliché seems to be everywhere at the moment, from Disney’s Big Hero Six, to this week’s episode of Supergirl, to – let’s not forget – Doctor Who’s own The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances. The nano-bots can construct anything – walls, floors, ceilings, kitchens. So, why do they need SPRs at all? What can a SPR possibly do that that nano-bots couldn’t do far more easily and conveniently without assuming that clumsy form?

And when the generic band of colonists are inexplicably defrosted at the least convenient time, not one of them can summon up an ounce of characterization or interest. Instead, the Doctor actually literally pushes the reset button to solve the problem.

This is very, very thin stuff, which fails to play to any of its writer’s strengths, gives two brilliant lead actors almost nothing to do and fails to add anything at all to the body of Doctor Who ideas. I can only assume it was commissioned a very long time ago, before Nardole was added to the TARDIS crew, because the solution to the problem of how you stop Matt Lucas being so annoying was solved this time by leaving him behind. A better solution might be to give his character an actual stake in the narrative.

So, far from my favorite, but not quite as suffocatingly poor as Forest. I’ll scrape together two stars for it, and then knock half a star off again for this being yet another Automated System Gone Awry. It even looks like The Girl Who Waited. Was it shot in the same location?

1.5 out of 5 stars


Next week, we complete the new companion trifecta of Earth-bound adventure, far future space fantasy, and creepy historical. Hopefully, these two episodes represent a slightly wobbly take-off and not a fatal collapse of the whole infra-structure.

So… what did I think of Heaven Sent?

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


5 out of 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 Sleep no Morezzzz….

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


2.5 out of 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.

Posted on May 8th, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments »


Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Posted on February 3rd, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting double bill – both vaguely based on true life stories (Wolf much more so than Hustle), both doling out exposition via voice over from the leader character(s), both open to accusations of self-indulgence from their powerhouse directors, and both widely praised for the performances, especially of the leading men. They both even begin in the middle of the narrative before flashing back many years (handled in both cases rather better than in 12 Years).


Let’s take Wolf first. Scorsese returns to the well-spring of inspiration which has served him so well in the past. In outline, his new movie is a virtual retread of his amazing 1990 classic Goodfellas, only in pin-striped shirts and braces. It even opens with DiCaprio all but saying “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a stockbroker.”

When his journey starts, DiCaprio is eager young stockbroker to be Jordan Belfort. Belfort is quickly taken under the wing of Matthew McConaughey’s lanquid master of the universe who schools him in the art of keeping his clients’ money moving from deal-to-deal while he pockets commission each and every time. Oh, and lots of masturbation, obviously. Belfort’s plans are abruptly derailed by Black Monday but he lands on his feet pushing worthless penny stocks to suckers.

Along the way he picks up eager young salesman Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, virtually recreating his role in Money Ball only with more and whiter teeth), and a motley gang of drop-outs and reprobates whom he in turn schools to extract even more sales from even richer marks until his firm of Stratton Oakmont has become a genuine, if thoroughly corrupt, Wall Street powerhouse, eventually attracting the attention of federal agent Kyle Chandler.

Throw in Rob Reiner as Belfort’s dad, newcomer Margot Robbie as his smoking hot second wife, Joanna Lumley (really!) as her English Aunt and Jean du Jardin as a crooked Swiss banker and you have a fizzy, heady concoction which held me absolutely riveted despite the fact that the tale of Jordan’s life doesn’t really have the kind of pivot point which most strong narratives require. Jordan simply is not able to learn the lessons that life tries to teach him, consistently failing to cash out when the opportunity is presented and hardly ever deviating from the course he sets in the film’s opening sequences – line your own pockets, share with your friends, and live to preposterous excess.

That at three hours the film never once seems boring, despite this lack of plotting, is largely testimony to how precisely Scorsese handles the material. Realising that bravura shot after bravura shot would become wearing, he wisely keeps his powder dry save for a handful of delirious sequences. More often than not – as in the lengthy but gripping sequence when DiCaprio and Chandler meet on Belfort’s yacht and trade first pleasantries, then vague threats and finally profane insults – Scorsese is content to trust the script and the actors to carry the audience with them.

And what actors! Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Rob Reiner in particular are all quite outstanding, carefully finding a tone which suits the extraordinary largesse of the movie. But striding magnificently across the whole enterprise is DiCaprio who is quite exceptional. I’ve long wondered at the appeal of this charming but rather ordinary-seeming actor, and in particular I’ve struggled to see what Scorsese sees in him. Now I get it. In scene after scene, he pours demented energy into his characterisation of Belfort, filling him up until it seems as if he might explode. His rat-a-tat voice-over in the film’s opening is pure movie star. Later when he addresses the camera Francis Urqhuart-style, and then declines to bore and confuse the audience with the technical details of this latest fraud, he’s electric. In the lengthy sequence when he and Hill are reduced to spastic incoherence on weapons-grade Quaaludes, he is absolutely astonishing. And in the terrifying yacht sequence, when in wild-eyed hysteria he bellows at Hill “I’m not going to die sober!” he is frightening, pitiful, hilarious and sickening all in one.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t an important film that needed to be made. The stakes are often relatively low – even though Belfort’s actions may be destroying lives, neither he nor Scorsese are even slightly interested in that – but the world the movie takes place in is so bracingly absurd, so shockingly excessive, so confoundingly amoral that it’s a hugely entertaining place to spend three hours.


The grifters in American Hustle have nothing like the ambition of Belfort and his crew, for whom bigger is better and diminishing returns never set in. Paunchy, middle-aged, dry cleaning operator and fraudulent loan salesman Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale with a comb-over of prodigious proportions, cautions again and again that for their own safety, they need to maintain an operation that isn’t too big.

His world is upset by the arrival of a new girlfriend, luminous Amy Adams, FBI agent on the make Bradley Cooper, and by the continued presence of his lunatic wife, Jennifer Lawrence, who is seemingly able to make any new household gadget catch on fire (especially her new Science Oven, i.e. microwave). Determined to make a name for himself, Cooper recruits Adams and Bale to run a sting operation involving the mayor of Camden New Jersey, a number of high-ranking politicians, Florida mob bosses (led by Robert De Niro) and a fake Arab Sheikh. Everyone involved is bedecked with ridiculous hair-dos, and most hide behind gigantic glasses, in a way which creates a weirdly consistent look, knitting together this disparate collection of clashing characters.

Early on, director David O Russell is fully in command, swiftly and engagingly painting in back-stories for these compelling characters, nimbly allowing Bale and Adams to share voice-over duties as the need arises, and populating the rest of the world with delightful cameos – none more so than Louis CK as Cooper’s stick-in-the-mud (or should that be fall-through-the-ice?) boss. But, as the plans of the various participants start to unravel, so too does the narrative focus of the movie. It’s telling that, for me at least, the three hour movie actually felt lean, propulsive and sleek, while the 138 minute movie feels indulgent, sprawling and undisciplined, at least in the middle third. It’s during this forty minute or so stretch that the movie can’t seem to find a centre, wandering aimlessly from sub-plot to sub-plot – never less than interesting, but starting to feel like channel-hopping between four or five different, but oddly similar, movies.

Everything picks up however, for a final act which delivers in style and stays perfectly true to the rich and rounded characters which Russell and his “repertory company” of actors have created. Amy Adams is wonderful as the mercurial Sydney whose loyalties shift as easily as her accent. Bradley Cooper uncovers layer after layer of sleaze under what we first take to be a pretty straight-arrow G-man. Jennifer Lawrence, in a role which sometimes seems like an afterthought, is a force of nature as Bale’s emotionally crippled wife – but Bale is outstandingly good as Irving, adding a vivid and completely original new face to an already amazingly impressive rogues’ gallery. There’s a lightness of touch to his nervy conman which I haven’t seen from him before. Sometimes when strong dramatic actors are given licence to be funny, the results are clunking and overblown, but Bale allows the absurdity of the situation to flow through the character and is content to let his hair be the most over-the-top aspect of the performance.

Sadly for this fantastic quartet, although all are nominated, I don’t think any of them are going to win come Oscar night – each is up against a juggernaut. Bale will lose out to Chiwetal Ejiofor, Amy Adams will have to watch Cate Blanchett win and Bradley Cooper will have to fake-smile as Jared Leto lifts the Oscar. Jennifer Lawrence has got a chance, but seeing as she won last year, I think that Lupita Nyong’o will be the one smiling on 2 March.

The Academy’s eccentric rules about screenplays means that of the various movies inspired by true stories which are in contention, 12 Years A Slave is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, which means that Hustle will almost certainly pick up Best Original Screenplay, which is a little disappointing, since the storytelling is probably where it’s weakest, even if only in the middle.

The last two movies on the list – Dallas Buyers Club and Her – are not released in the UK at the time of writing, so I may try and take in August Osage County and Inside Llewyn Davis to fill the gap. So far, though, this has been a strong year, the strongest I can remember since the Academy decided to nominate more than five films for Best Picture.

So… what did I think about Series 7b so far?

Posted on April 23rd, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

I have actually had complaints on Facebook about the lack of Doctor Who reviews on here. And quite right too. There won’t be time (or recall) for any in-depth analysis of the first four stories – sorry – but here are some capsule reviews to stave off the pangs.

The Bells of St John

bellsAn evocative title which turns out to be essentially irrelevant to the story, being simply the ringing of the TARDIS telephone. Following in the footsteps of RTD new companion stories Smith and Jones and Partners in Crime, this is a very silly but hugely enjoyable story. Had this been mid-way through the season, or – god forbid – the finale, I would have been rather harder on it, but as a “welcome back” it functions beautifully, even if it does feel like a Moffat spoof of RTD’s style at times – London landmark, check; vertical chase sequence, check; evil matriarch, check…

Jenna Louise-Coleman makes an instant impression as new/old companion Clara and the story is rather better than the one-line pitch sounds. “Ghosts in the Wi-Fi” really didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, but in fact this is perfectly fine possess-the-mortals stuff with some whizzy visuals in the shape of the spoon-heads and the Doctor’s demented motorcycle ride up the side of the gherkin.

Moffat’s script manages to be clever without being clever-clever which is a huge relief. The Doctor’s neat trick of skipping ahead a few hours is very nice and gives rise to one of the best jokes in the show – Earl’s Court. It’s not all fizz and sparks and fun and games though. The final fate of Celia Imrie’s Miss Kizlet is genuinely shocking.

Aiming low but hitting a bullseye, I will happily give this four-and-half stars.

Stray observations

The Doctor’s new togs are fine, but threatening to go a bit “fancy dress” as a BBC big-wig described Paul McGann’s outfit during RTD’s interview for the show-runner job. They look like the kind of thing Doctor Who used to wear as opposed to defining a new iconic appearance as David Tennant’s stripy suit did so brilliantly.

Was there any particular reason to wheel out Richard E Grant again? I suppose this is the 7b arc story gearing up, but really The Great Intelligence is just fanservicing without the Yeti (or arguably even with).

That book written by Amelia Williams (aka Amy Pond) is also presumably significant in some way.

The Rings of Akhaten

ringsThe 21st century formula dictates that having met a new companion in contemporary Earth, their first trip in the TARDIS should be as outlandish as possible. Generally speaking, this means an all-pile-on alien extravaganza (although celebrity historicals are also permissible). But whereas Bells felt like a David Tennant episode at its best, this felt like all the least interesting bits of The End of the World and The Beast Below put into a blender with an overdose of Love Conquers All.

The opening segments with the Doctor creepily spying on young Clara have next-to-nothing to do with the main plot, except to delay its arrival. Neither Neil Cross’s script nor the production design can summon up a proper sense of time, space or urgency. From the early shot of the pyramid… thing… I was almost permanently confused about who was sitting where or where things were in relation to other things, and that’s after a second viewing.

Time and again, we are told in dialogue that terrible things are happening now or soon, but people just wander about unconcerned. The Doctor vanishes early on for no discernible reason, except to give Clara a chance to give unwise advice to a moppety singer, and plays almost no part in the resolution of the plot.

Technical standards are very poor – an all-time low for the revised series. Compared to the motor-cycle in the previous episode the space bike… thing… is amazingly unconvincing, and the poor director is constantly forced to cut away from it landing or taking off. Took me right back to the 1970s that did. The plot meanwhile lurches from supposed crisis to supposed crisis until Clara gives the planet-killing god a leaf and suddenly that’s that.

Genuinely poor stuff, hugely disappointing, easily the worst story since Victory of the Daleks or The Soggy Pirate Rubbish. Two stars. One for Matt Smith, spouting the most appalling rubbish with complete conviction and one because, you know, it’s Doctor Who.

Stray observations

Apparently, Neil Cross got the gig for this one because the producers liked his script for Hide so much. Doesn’t bode well…

Just how long was that black… thing… pawing at that glass? I’m surprised everyone didn’t pop off for a cup of tea and come back when it had finally decided to pose a legitimate threat.

Is it me or do no-one’s reactions in this story make the slightest bit of sense?

Cold War

coldHaving been burned by Akhaten, I turned on the TV with not a little trepidation. Immediately, a turn for the better – as the sub starts to sink, there is a feeling of genuine urgency. People in this story do seem to have reactions to events. Basic narrative cause-and-effect is present in the script and the director seems capable of distinguishing dialogue scenes from suspense scenes. So far so good.

The pitch for this one is instantly compelling – Ice Warriors on a submarine. But the Ice Warriors are not the most well-defined of foes. In their first two appearances, The Ice Warriors and The Seeds of Death they are pretty much indistinguishable from any number of Troughton-era lumbering baddies who put bases of various kinds under siege. Their popularity probably stems from the fact that the in first of the stories, everything else was so well done. When they returned for the two Peladon stories with Jon Pertwee, their individuality as a race was subsumed by the script’s need to satirise the then EEC and so some business about “honour” was grafted on, which the Sontarans later adopted to rather better effect.

So, they’re a chilly cross between Cybermen, Yeti and Sontarans, with lately some of the latter’s issues about war being a glorious thing and the nobility of a soldier and so on. Quite a good mix with the setting of Cold War Soviet sub? And look, there’s Tobias Menzies clueing us in what the Cold War was all about. Entertain, educate and inform indeed.

Skaldak’s escape from his armour is a shocking development, and it’s great – in theory – to see new spins on old monsters. But if you are going to bring back an old monster surely they should do at least some of the things they are known for? As soon as Mr Frosty is able to scamper about the ducts of the sub, we are in Alien territory, as the script is at least self-aware enough to acknowledge.  It could have been any old monster. More pointless fanservicing I fear.

And, despite a couple of desperate lines trying to make sense of it, making Ice Warriors able to leave their suits at will is completely idiotic. As depicted, without the armour, they are lithe, deadly, near invisible and not noticeably any more vulnerable. So why would they ever fight with it on?

If you can overlook all that, then the actual sequences are rather fine, neatly balancing suspense with humour, although the shooting of the fates of Stepashin and Piotr is so PG as to be incomprehensible. Where it starts to really come apart at the seams is the very end, where the Doctor’s clever scheme to prevent the Ice Warriors from condemning the world to nuclear armageddon is to, well, hope that they don’t.

Three-and-a-half stars. Good, solid stuff, but too many bumps in the narrative.

Stray observations

David Warner will do just about anything won’t he? It’s a fun part, to be sure, and he does live to the end, but – Christ – how many other past Hamlets would have taken it?

Technical standards still a little ropey. The CG ice warrior’s lip-sync is never convincing and the whole thing looks like a video game. A Neill Gorton rubber suit was definitely the better way to go here.

It’s not really clear what Skaldak thought he was trying to achieve beyond Being Scary. Oh well.

I’m starting to lose track a little bit of just who Clara is. It’s true Doctor Who girls have rarely been all that clearly delineated, but after Rose, Martha, Amy and especially Donna got some actual character development I’ve been a bit spoiled. Clara so far isn’t much more than a very pretty face.


hideFor the second time in as many weeks, we get a period Doctor Who story set within Doctor Who’s own lifetime – the series has gone all Sam Beckett on us. Oh boy. The set-up is a sort of cross between Quatermass  and Sapphire and Steel and since those are both very fine things, I’ve no objection to dropping Matt Smith into the middle of them. It’s a bit perplexing that the Doctor seems to have a very clear mission in mind from the off, but that we don’t know what it is until very late in the day, but maybe the intention is to play the first half from the point of view of Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling, in which case fair enough.

Although this is miles and miles better than the horrendous Ringpiece of Akhaten, there are still a few oddities. The ghost is clearly manifested as a woman with a distended jaw and one hand raised, although when she is made to manifest, she takes the form of a weird spinning disc thing. We are told again and again that the pocket universe is collapsing, but what we see is it never collapse or shrink or diminish in any way – it’s just a bit blowy in there. And just what is “the crooked man” (only so-named in the titles) and how did it get there?

What elevates this is the elegant way in which the puzzle is solved and the lovely perspective we get of the Doctor, who has to turn all of Earthly (let alone human) history into an enormous cosmic flip-book in order to understand the nature of the apparition and who does so in the manner of a man sorting a hand of cards. A shard of ice in his heart indeed.

It’s a shame the script doesn’t have time to give the rescued Hila Tukurian any characterisation or even any lines to speak of. She’s the answer to a riddle, a macguffin to be acquired, and a means to move on the Alec/Emma story, but I can’t help feeling that with Rusty at the helm she would have been something more. In the more rarified atmosphere of a Moffat-era story, it’s up to the bogeyman to have a more thorough characterisation than might be expected. This is a steal from Encounter at Farpoint (if not earlier) but it’s neatly on theme – as the Doctor says, this wasn’t a ghost story, it was a love story.

Another fair-to-middling effort then. Lots of good atmos, some lively banter and some nice surprises, but not entirely solid. Three-and-a-half stars once more.

Stray observations

The TARDIS locking Clara out feels grafted-on, as does her being presented with a hologram of herself. If that were Tegan, I would be going “oh yes, of course, perfect”, but I simply have no idea of who Clara is, so I wonder if this is just saving on actor fees in a show which already had a very very small cast.

I am prepared to assume that Moffat missed the read-through and wasn’t present on the set on the day Matt Smith said “Meh-TEH-beliss”, but surely he was in the dub or the edit and could have had the actor loop the line? Is he too busy on Sherlock these days? Steven Moffat must go now! Worst show-runner ever! Et cetera and so forth.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted on January 17th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

To The Hobbit last night, in the relatively luxury of a Vue cinema, where I found (as I generally do there) comfortable seats, ample leg room, a decent rake with good sightlines, a nice big screen with accurate masking and an enthusiastic sound system. This all compares very favourably to, say, the modest wardrobe with a small screen in one wall which whispered The Master at me at the Panton Street Odeon.

That aside, the big question of course is can you make a film version of a 250 page book run as long as the film version of a 1200 page book without major compromises? Well, it won’t be possible to definitely answer that until late next year when part three of The Hobbit is released, but on the evidence of the first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, my answer is… maybe.

While not a Tolkein scholar, I did think it worthwhile reading The Lord of the Rings before seeing the movie versions. I had enjoyed The Hobbit as a child (book and ZX-Spectrum text adventure game) but had never got through the first of the sequel’s six sections. Having read the literary version (except for all that doggerel poetry obviously) I actually thought that the movie versions short-changed two of the most successful elements of the books – the growing affection between Legolas and Gimli, overcoming their natural antipathy, a relationship which is in some ways deeper and more affecting than that between Frodo and Samwise; and the scouring of the Shire, without which the whole adventure has no context and few ramifications.

So if nine hours of screentime isn’t quite enough to encompass the whole of Rings, maybe, just maybe, it will suit the far more slender and simplistic Hobbit quite nicely. Certainly, after an opening 30-40 minutes which is a little on the sluggish side (two prologues?), Jackson never lets the pace slacken, throwing incident after incident at our merry band of dwarves. As they ricochet from trolls to orcs to goblins, the only potential problem is whether the film will ever stop and pause for breath. When it does, first in Rivendell and then, most successfully of all for the famous Riddles In The Dark sequence, it’s arguably at its most effective.

It helps that there’s a marvellous gang of character actors essaying the dwarves and managing to give each of them a distinct attitude and characterisation, while also providing them a unity as a pack. As well as Ian McKellan as Gandalf, we also have a host of Rings actors returning for an extended curtain call – reprises from Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Christopher Lee and Cate Blanchett are all fine I suppose, but none adds much to the story. The introduction of Radagast the Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy is more welcome, turning a brief mention in the book into a memorable character in the film (although McCoy needs to learn that his trick of going cross-eyed isn’t as amusing as her thinks).

Shouldering almost the entire burden of the film though, is Martin Freeman as fussy hero Bilbo Baggins. It’s a marvellous performance, drawing on all the actor’s strengths from his other famous roles in The Office and Sherlock but managing to find something new as well – a sort of unassuming steeliness which is absolutely fascinating to watch.

It’s not perfect. The humour is a little too broad at times, and the effects work is so effortless now – it’s so easy to transform a live actor into a CGI avatar seamlessly – that the temptation is to keep ramping the action up and up and up. I had my doubts as to whether anything made of flesh and bone could survive the ride on the stone giants, but that every dwarf could have escaped intact from the goblin’s hopelessly precarious underground city absolutely beggars belief.

It’s also worth mentioning that I watched the movie in the HFR 3D format. My thoughts on 3D are available elsewhere. Here it’s largely used fairly tastefully and it wasn’t a distraction. High Frame Rate is another matter entirely and this has caused a good deal of confusion, so let me try and clear things up…

When a movie is shot using a traditional film camera, film is advanced through the mechanism, brought to a stop so that one frame is behind the lens, then the shutter is opened to briefly expose that one frame, the shutter is closed and the film advanced another frame and so on. Clearly there are some physical limitations to how fast this can be achieved, since if you yank the film on too quickly and stop it too suddenly, you will start to shred the celluloid. The “shutter” by the way is usually a rotating disc with one missing section, generally 180 degrees.

When the movie is projected, a similar system is employed to show one steady image every 24th of a second. This is just about fast enough for persistence of vision to take over and for the succession of still images to be perceived as a moving picture, especially if each image is shown twice so that the rate of flicker goes up to 48Hz (48 times per second) which is standard.

Returning to the filming process, some of the time, when the shutter is open, the camera will be recording an object which is moving and this will result in a blurred frame. This blur is something we are used to seeing when watching a movie and generally we think nothing of it. In fact, we are more likely to notice it when it’s missing, as when footage is sped-up to give it more excitement or when stop-motion animation is combined with live action (think of those Ray Harryhausen skeletons fighting Jason and the Argonauts). Some directors will also create this strobing effect deliberately by using a camera shutter which is open for less time, 90 degrees, or with very fast film, even less. Think of the Normandy Landings sequence in Saving Private Ryan, shot with a 45 degree shutter.

Video is another matter entirely. Wanting a flicker rate of around 50Hz (which is also conveniently the usual mains electricity frequency, at least in the UK) but not having physical film which must be held still and then briefly exposed, standard video recording exposes a whole new frame fifty times a second, with the result that there is less motion blur – the images have a smoother and more fluid look. (This is a slight simplification which ignores interlacing, but we don’t really have to worry about that for the purposes of this explanation.)

Devotees of vintage television will remember that the standard model for filming both drama and comedy in the seventies and eighties was to shoot on location with 16mm film cameras, one set-up at a time. This allowed for better lighting, more dramatic angles and so on, but it was slower and more expensive and so tended to be kept to a minimum. This location footage would then be combined with studio footage, shot with three or four or five cameras all following the action as it unfolded like a play. This often meant blasting the studio sets with light to make sure that the actors could clearly be seen by all cameras and in all positions. This flat, over-lit, smooth video look became associated with cheapness. The bigger your budget, the more location filming you could afford and the more cinematic your show seemed. But switching between film and video created a jarring shift in image quality and texture which some viewers and some directors found offputting and so in the late eighties and early nineties, it became more and more common to take video cameras out on location too, to ensure that everything looked the same.

But the film “look” was still felt to be more prestigious, to have a more high-quality “feel” to it, so with digital post-processing it was possible to “filmise” video footage, artificially transforming footage shot on video tape to give it movie-like motion. At around the same time, researchers were discovering how to add extra computer-generated frames to make film footage look like video, in order to restore old episodes of – you guessed it – Doctor Who, which had been originally shot on video but now only existed as 16mm film recordings, back to how they would have looked on transmission.

So, when watching The Hobbit in 48fps, we are undeniably seeing more detail. Twice as many distinct images flash before our eyes watching the HFR version as opposed to the standard version. And there’s no lack of quality in these images, captured as they are with the very latest Red Epic cameras, shooting preposterously high resolution. So this way of shooting is far more like how our eyes perceive the world – there’s no celluloid in my skull and no shutter in my eye-socket, and so therefore no motion blur. But it’s also true that The Hobbit‘s smooth motion, lacking the motion blur associated with the prestige of film, tends to remind older viewers of video tape and younger viewers of video games. Indeed, during the first prologue I could have sworn the image was speeded-up, but of course I was just seeing the lack of motion blur.

This then is the crux of the matter. Is a preference for 24fps cultural, due entirely to decades of having been exposed to prestige material shot in this format, compared to less fancy material shot at higher frame rates? Or is there something about a lower frame rate which is intrinsically more appealing? My subjective response to The Hobbit at 48fps is that I didn’t hate it, but I did notice it and when I noticed it I found it distracting. But who’s to say that sixty years from now, 24fps footage won’t look like black-and-white does to us – or worse?