So… what did I think of Twice Upon A Time?

Posted on December 27th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Give me a second to blow the dust off. Right, there we go. Hello everyone.

As what I fondly imagine are “regular readers” will recall, I was, by and large, hugely impressed with Series Ten of Doctor Who, and the two-part season finale in particular I thought was a total triumph, one of Steven Moffatt’s very best scripts for the series, brilliantly orchestrated by Rachel Talalay and anchored by a titanic performance from Peter Capaldi. I was fully on-board for the gimmick of regenerating Doctor meets regenerating Doctor and so was beside myself with anticipation for this year’s Christmas special.

What we got was… unexpected.

The opening was glorious, clips from The Tenth Planet artfully merged with recreated scenes, until finally Doctor meets Doctor in the nostalgically studio-bound polar wastes. But for the first forty minutes or so, this was pretty flaccid stuff. True, both Doctors played their parts to the hilt – although as usual the returning Doctor is a pastiche version rather than an accurate evocation of the real thing. The most outré lines though, were accurate Hartnell quotes. Mark Gatiss too plays his part with real feeling and sensitivity, and of course it’s a delight to have Bill Potts back, and even more of a delight to see her wandering around a beautifully-recreated classic TARDIS.

But where’s the jeopardy? Where’s the drama? Where, in short, is the plot? As delightful as it is to have Peter Capaldi and David Bradley exchanging well-crafted zingers, put-downs and in-jokes (“Mr Pastry”) the whole thing seems almost entirely inert, and that allows nagging questions to start to impinge. Just why exactly does two Doctors meeting in 1986 pluck a dying soldier from the battlefield in 1914? Why is such a big issue being made of Bill’s identity if no solution proffered is going to prove acceptable to the Doctor? And why on Earth are we risking life and regenerating limb to double check Nikki Amuka-Bird’s story with Rusty the Dalek from the forgettable Series Eight story?

If that was all this story had to offer, I would be pretty pissed off by now. Luckily, the last fifteen minutes are something a bit special. From the Christmas Eve Armistice onwards, the story suddenly takes flight. An evil villain plotting the downfall of our heroes still fails to materialise, but the rich themes of sacrifice, honour, friendship and kindness come to the fore, and the returning companions are handled with much more grace and subtlety than Karen Gillan’s reprise of Amy in the very unsatisfactory Time of the Doctor.

The regeneration itself – alone as it was the last time a Doctor and a showrunner departed together – was a little laboured, but who could really argue for cutting Capaldi’s final barnstorming performance? And lo! There she is. The Doctor. All blonde hair, wide eyes and in the most terrible trouble, plunging to certain death out of the TARDIS doors. Oh brilliant.

 

So – some housekeeping.

To briefly recap, Steven Moffat’s first three seasons were characterised by vaulting ambition which rapidly out-reached the series’ ability to attain them. While the arc-plot collapsed into further and further gibberish, only a few stand-out episodes survived (The Girl Who Waited, A Good Man Goes to War, The Crimson Horror and especially The Doctor’s Wife) despite Matt Smith’s supple performance.

With Capaldi at the helm, the seas were calmer. The last series alone boasted Thin Ice, Oxygen and The Pyramid at the End of the World which would be poll-winners in any year which didn’t include World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. So, Chibnall and Whittaker inherit a series in rude health. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

Lastly, this blog will probably not spring back into the kind of life which it enjoyed in its heyday, but I will be recording some probably fairly brief Oscar reviews in the coming weeks and months, when I can find time away from my new podcast – Best Pick.

So… what did I think of the end of Series Ten?

Posted on July 3rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

As the Capaldi era comes to an end, Steven Moffat has just three more chances to show us that his technical brilliance, his love for the programme and his vaulting ambition can work together to provide some really terrific storytelling, and not get in each other’s way as they are so wont to do.

The opening of World Enough and Time is unbelievably cheeky, with Missy proclaiming “I am Doctor Who and these are my expendables – Exposition and Comic Relief.” This almost feels last-day-of-school, but Moffat, guardian of the legacy, is always careful to provide a canon-friendly interpretation of the lines.

We find ourselves on board a miles-long spaceship, fighting the gravity well of a black hole, such that it is experiencing massive time dilation effects. This is a lovely science fiction concept, based in real physics, it’s just a shame that we saw another, slightly less rigorous version, last week. Suddenly, shockingly, Bill Potts gets a hole visibly blasted through her middle and then Cybermen bundle her off to the floors below. Although – if the Cybermen are evolving on the very bottom floors, where time is running the slowest, surely it should take them decades to even notice the presence of humans on the upper levels?

While the Doctor debates and argues, Bill makes friends with a shambling Fagin-like figure in the hospital on the ground floor. A lot of this is just vamping, and it’s slightly annoying that the time dilation isn’t ramped up just a little bit more. We know full well that the “hospital” is a cyber-conversion centre so the suspense is when and not if Bill will be fully converted. But the scenes of the Doctor working the problem feel a bit lifeless, which is a shame when the time dilation means that the Doctor and company could have headed straight for the lift and still been years getting down to where Bill is.

What’s brilliant about the stuff with Bill is how cleverly Moffat uses parts of the mythology which have gone unnoticed until now and provides justifications for them. Just as Clara’s calm words get turned into Dalek ranting in The Witch’s Familiar, and so we understand why Daleks sound the way they do, here the Cyber chest-units are retconned into elaborate surgical heart-replacements. And don’t the “Mondasian” Cybermen look fantastic?

About half way through the episode, I caught myself musing “I wonder when John Simm is going to show up,” and then I instantly realised that that’s who Fagin was. I honestly don’t think I would ever have got there without the advanced publicity. Shame on you, BBC.

Finally, at the episode’s end it all comes together. The Master is unveiled, Bill is converted, and the Doctor is at a loss. It’s a great part one, emphasising personal loss and avoiding the diminishing returns which set in when writers start trying to raise the stakes by having the threat become greater and greater.

The Doctor Falls takes an hour to wrap up – well sort of – what the previous episode began, but compare to season finales past, never seems hurried or over-stuffed. It’s nice to see the Doctor on the front foot so early on, springing into action and escaping to higher floors. The location footage on Sam Spiro’s farm somewhat fights the notion that we are on a gigantic spaceship, but there are sufficient reminders so this just about works and Rachel Talalay handles this visual conundrum very well indeed.

Shooting cyber-Bill as Pearl Mackie means we never forget the person inside the tin suit, and keeps hope alive that she will be returned, even if the rest of the script is dismantling that hope piece-by-piece. Her plight is hugely affecting and it’s clear that – for once – Moffat is thinking through the human side of the dilemma he’s created instead of just writing crossword puzzle clues for the viewers to solve.

The time dilation works for and against our heroes. On the one hand, it means that the Cybermen have time to evolve (another lovely piece of ret-conning – the Cybermen are not unique to Mondas or Telos, or Marinus(!), but are an inevitable by-product of technological advancement). But it also means that with each floor you go up, it takes them longer to follow. So Nardole figuring out how to selectively blow up parts of the ship buys them time, but more time than it might have done otherwise. (Although the justification that Nardole’s remote control device can’t be controlled remotely is astonishingly feeble.)

From here – the story follows three tracks. The fate of Bill. The fate of the children. The fate of the Master. They don’t really affect each other, which is not perhaps ideal. The Master can be removed from the story entirely without anything changing, but unlike the pointless cameo from Clare Higgins in Hell Bent, here they serve not just as something to cut away to, but underline the real point of the story, and indeed the point of the Doctor. I would have liked it underlined that the Master(s) leave the children to die not because they refuse to be kind, but because they are cowardly. But nevertheless, the Doctor’s desperate plea that they stand and fight with him, and their ironic mutual destruction add immeasurably to the episode’s bleak tone.

Bill of course, finds a saviour, in the form of The Pilot from Episode One. Again – serialised storytelling done right. This is not vaguely mentioning a past event in order to get a fanwanky cheer. This is setting up a figure with clearly defined abilities and proclivities and then dropping her back into the narrative when she’s needed.

The fate of the children and Nardole is rather less clear. The Doctor is totally backed into a corner here. Wounded, dying even. An army of cybermen below him which will only grow bigger. One opportunity to get innocents out of the line of fire. All he can do is send them a few floors up and hope that they have a few extra months or years – either to live and grow and be happy, or to think of another plan.

The Doctor himself, meanwhile, fighting off regeneration, stumbles out of the TARDIS and into the snowy landscape, presumably of the North Pole c. 1986 and meets – himself.

Well, we’ll judge this audacious move on the merits of the Christmas special, but let’s try and assess this two parter on its own merits.

Clearly, it’s by far the best finale Steven Moffat has written. The Big Bang barely makes any sense, and coming off the back of The Pandorica Opens with its absurd Monster Convention, it’s amazing that it works at all on any level. The Wedding of River Song is total gibberish, failing to wrap up the Lake Silencio storyline in any satisfactory way, and providing next to nothing in terms of narrative coherence. The Name of the Doctor doubles down on this kind of unintelligibility, although The Time of the Doctor makes it look like a masterpiece of structure. Time is surely the worst regeneration episode in the entire show’s history.

Under the firm leadership of Peter Capaldi, things improve. Death in Heaven isn’t a patch on Dark Water, but is still far better than any of the Smith finale episodes (maybe on a par with The Big Bang). Hell Bent, alas squanders the considerable capital built up by Heaven Sent, but this year’s pair work beautifully together to tell a complicated science-fiction story, that keeps its focus on the characters we love and care about, which doesn’t try and pack too much in to its running time, and which lets five amazing actors do wonderful work together. It’s telling how much more apocalyptic this feels than The Big Bang for example, not because the fate of the universe is threatened, but because the Doctor gives so much to eke out a draw against impossible odds.

A few little niggles in both episodes prevent me from offering up a full five stars but I’ll happily give four and a half to both.

Overall, this has been another very strong season, with only Smile and Knock Knock really letting the side down. Extremis makes not a whit of sense but is quite fun while it’s on and all the others have been good to great. Here’s my final ranking.

  1. World Enough and Time
  2. The Doctor Falls 
  3. The Pyramid at the End of the World 
  4. Oxygen 
  5. Thin Ice 
  6. The Lie of the Land 
  7. The Eaters of Light 
  8. Empress of Mars 
  9. The Pilot 
  10. Extremis 
  11. Knock Knock
  12. Smile 

And just for fun, let’s compare this to the rankings on Gallifrey Base to see just how in-tune or out-of-step I am with Doctor Who fans across the world.

  1. World Enough and Time 91%
  2. The Doctor Falls 86%
  3. Oxygen 82%
  4. Extremis 79%
  5. The Pilot 76%
  6. Thin Ice 74%
  7. Knock Knock 74%
  8. Empress of Mars 73%
  9. The Pyramid at the End of the World 73%
  10. The Eaters of Light 69%
  11. Smile 67%
  12. The Lie of the Land 64%

The fondness for Oxygen as well as the finale two-parter doesn’t surprise me, nor does how much people like Extremis. The excellent Pyramid coming so low down, beneath the awful Knock Knock is very surprising, and I would never have picked The Lie of the Land as the season’s worst. I wonder why people disliked it so much?

One more Capaldi episode to go. See you at Christmas…

So… what did I think of The Eaters of Light?

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

I don’t remember whether or not, as I sat and watched Survival in December 1989, I knew I was watching the last episode of Doctor Who for the foreseeable future. Over ten years, I’d watched this stalwart of British TV get shunted around the schedules, have its season lengths slashed, and finally I’d watched it get shut down and pensioned off.

When the series came back (properly came back), sixteen years had passed. Yes, we got the Daleks back, but without Roy Skelton and without John Scott Martin. The Cybermen returned, but David Banks and Michael Kilgariff remained absent. The Master returned, but Geoffrey Beevers stayed at home. It was a new broom. A new team. About the only exception to this implacable rule was director Graeme Harper. (Thinking of other exceptions is left as an exercise for the reader.)

So, when last week Ysanne Churchman reprised her role as Alpha Centauri, it seemed only fitting that this week was the first time a classic series writer returned to the fold. Rona Munroe created the planet of the Kitlings, and it is she who now brings us The Eaters of Light.

Before we gear up for the no-doubt dementedly epic two-part finale we take a break from serialised storytelling and just go for a yarn. This is a pretty good one, albeit kicked off by the fairly unlikely premise that Bill Potts, yes, that Bill Potts, would be so invested in the fate of the ninth Legion of the Imperial Roman Army that she would have to go and see for herself. What she in fact finds is one of the best-designed and executed monsters the series has ever done, linked with a strong science-fiction device that actually seems to make sense and to work. All this and a nifty moral dilemma too.  If this is non-epic, non game-changing, Doctor Who business-as-usual, then I’m all for it.

There is a slight issue, as there so often is, with the cannon-fodder cast not always being too readily distinguishable, but Rebecca Benson does well as Kar, and so do Brian Vernal and Sam Adewunmi on the Roman side. But after a week in which they were slightly overshadowed by the guest cast, this time around the regulars really get to shine. Ten episodes in and the writers still haven’t got bored of the concept of Bill asking all those questions which have never been asked before, which is great because neither have I. But this is easily the best Nardole episode yet, playing right into Matt Lucas’s comedy talents without him ever becoming annoying.

The Stones of Blood style opening probably isn’t needed. Either this was a set-up for a pay-off later deleted, or a last-minute addition to bulk out the running time. The tag with Missy obviously belongs to the next story and not this one, so I’ll overlook it for now. And the nonsense with the crows is a hideous stumble, bringing back horrid memories of Matt Smith claiming he can speak baby. But overall, this is fine stuff, funny, exciting and properly thought through with Charles Palmer doing a fantastic job behind the camera. Four stars.

So… what did I think of The Lie of the Land?

Posted on June 12th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Endings are tough, as this blog has observed before, and following the excellent Pyramid at the End of the World was never going to be easy. And The Lie of the Land made a decent fist of it, while not quite scaling the same heights.

The time jump helps enormously, defining this as its own story, linked to but separate from the two (or three?) earlier installments. People who compile lists of Doctor Who stories (how tragic!) worry endlessly about whether The Trial of a Time Lord is one story or four (or three) (it’s four) or whether the Return of the Master sequence at the end of Series Three is one story or two (or three) (it’s one). As I observed last week, this is serialised storytelling done right, and that means I have no hesitation in calling “The Monk Trilogy” three stories.

It’s not just the fact of it’s being a trilogy which calls Last of the Time Lords to mind, nor the brief presence of the Master. The whole dystopian Earth subjugated by fascist overlord aesthetic seems familiar both from this and Turn Left, especially because in all three versions, the companion is forced to survive separated from the Doctor. The nifty turn here is that the Doctor is broadcasting propaganda videos on behalf of the oppressors.

All the most interesting stuff surrounds the Doctor’s apparent turncoat shenanigans, culminating in the powerful and cheeky confrontation between Bill and Capaldi, complete with faux-regeneration light-show, so handy for casting-related trailer internet chatter. What follows is rather less interesting, not least because the whole set-up screams “reset button”. In Turn Left, this is not an issue, because the whole episode is a might-have-been. In Last of the Time Lords, Russell goes to tremendous lengths to make sure that the year-that-never-was is remembered by some people, so there is a least some cost to the Master’s cruelty.

Here, once the Monk’s spell is broken, it’s business as usual very quickly, so the only point of interest is the manner of their despatch. This is thought through, again using material developed earlier in the season in an intelligent way, without making the whole thing a Gordian Plot of bewildering complexity. But Bill’s sacrifice doesn’t really resonate, because it’s just vastly unlikely that her mind-meld actually will kill her, and because it just doesn’t and for no very good reason.

Bridging the gap between these two halves (one very strong, the other serviceable but slightly uninspired) is another confrontation between the Doctor and Missy. Far more than the much-hyped but rather empty Doctor/Davros scenes in Series Nine, the issues explored here are genuinely fascinating, and Michelle Gomez continues to find new things to do with the character, deepening and broadening a figure who was once the very epitome of a moustache-twirling pantomime villain.

So this is an easy four stars. Very far from a catastrophic let-down, but not quite delivering the clarity, originality and depth of the previous installment.

And… what did I think of The Empress of Mars?

Mark Gattis is nothing if not prolific. With nine scripts for the series under his belt, only the two show-runners have written more for the modern day incarnation of the show and he is only beaten by Terry Nation and Robert Holmes in the classic era. However, the quality of his output ranges from the excellent (The Crimson Horror) to the serviceable (The Idiot’s Lantern, Cold War) to the downright terrible (Robot of Sherwood, Sleep No More).

This story is absolutely in his wheelhouse, combining his love for England and Empire with his knowledge of Doctor Who’s past, with his somewhat carefree relationship with technology (how Victorian technology is pressed into space-faring service is never really explained).

The teaser is a bit Moffat-by-the-numbers with the Doctor and Bill on a lackadaisical tourist trip to no real purpose, but the reveal of the message under the Martian ice is interesting enough and once we get to Mars, the visuals are eye-poppingly brilliant. I’m a bit disgruntled by once again, putting the actors in great big uncomfortable space suits and then having them take off the helmets on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Instead of a handful of human cannon-fodder, we get a small army of redcoats to worry about, but it’s a tribute to the writing, directing, casting and acting that the three principals – Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw all manage to distinguish themselves and avoid all blurring together. And the double-crossing plot does seem to make sense at first viewing. “Friday” exploits the greed of the human soldiers for assistance in rescuing his queen, who first turns on her saviours and then grudgingly respects the nobility of their leader.

The updated version of the Ice Warrior’s sonic weapon is absolutely brilliant, a fantastic 3D evocation of the Mylar-wobble that Leader Clent and Commander Radnor had to worry about, and Adele Lynch chews up all the scenery available (and has the false teeth to do it) as Queen Iraxxa. And while, as noted, the magic Victorian spacesuits don’t really make any sense, in general the sight of a Zulu-style steampunk British Army facing off against some “upright crocodiles” seems joyfully silly as opposed to offensively stupid the way those spitfires in space did.

What’s missing I suppose is any sense of real depth or surprise. There are interesting issues here which Doctor Who has been keen to tackle lately, but the Empire-building British forces are thinly drawn and there is very little moral dimension to their actions, beyond what the plot requires. Similarly, while the story unfolds very smoothly and fairly satisfyingly, there are hardly any heart-in-the-mouth goodness-whatever-will-happen-next moments.

I think the disappearance of the TARDIS is meant to be like that (it provokes the Doctor to exclaim “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” which feels totally wrong) but this is evidently another script written before Matt Lucas agreed to come on board, so the whole jaunt with Nardole and Missy feels like it’s coming from another story entirely. And while Capaldi and Mackie do everything that’s asked of them, neither really gets any opportunity to show what they’re capable of here, leaving Anthony Calf to walk off with the acting honours.

So, this is probably three-and-a-half stars if we’re being fair, but I’ll bump it up to four for the reappearance of Ysanne Churchman – returning to the series after 43 years which must be some kind of record.

So… what did I think of The Pyramid at the End of the World

Posted on May 28th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Part ones are arguably far easier than concluding part twos. Creating mysteries, locked box conundrums, impossible life-or-death situations is far, far easier than providing solutions which manage to be simultaneously surprising, satisfying, and with hindsight seem inevitable. Recent Doctor Who is (understandably) littered with examples of part twos which fail to live up to the promise of part one, and sometimes even tarnish the memory of part one.

A notable exception is last year’s The Zygon Inversion, a co-pro between showrunner Steven Moffat and Wallander scribe Peter Harness, the conclusion of which is still for me a high water mark for the series as a whole (up there with Human Nature, Dalek and, yes, I suppose, Blink).

I didn’t really review Extremis last week, but suffice to say I thought it was a fairly empty and meaningless exercise. A glorified “and it was all a dream” ending which makes very little sense on any level. So, I had rather mixed feelings sitting down to watch this week’s installment.

I needn’t have worried. This is masterly stuff, playing to both writers’ strengths. I suspect Moffat’s hand in the chain-of-chance plotting which leads lab workers Rachel Denning and Tony Gardner to accidentally create a bacterium antithetical to all life. And Harness’s contribution I imagine is likely to be the stunning pair of moral dilemmas – first those faced by the three generals, and then the even greater one faced by Bill at the very end.

It’s also very well worth pointing out that – for perhaps the first time since Matt Smith took over – this is serialised storytelling done right. Doctor Who 1963-1996 was always fundamentally a serialised anthology series. Even linked seasons like The Key to Time or (gawdelpus) The Trial of a Time Lord fell neatly into self-contained sections. Parts two, three and four might be a little hard to follow if you hadn’t seen last week’s episode, but every part one was a new story, and all you needed to know was the Doctor travels in time in a police box and you could start watching.

But in 2005, the television landscape was very different. Post Babylon 5, post Murder One, post The Wire, audiences were happy with – maybe even expected – a series arc at the very least. Russell’s approach to this was cautious. Mentions of Bad Wolf, Torchwood or Mr Saxon could be picked up by devoted watchers, safely ignored by casual viewers.

When Moffat and Smith took over in 2010, we were post Breaking Bad, post Man Men. And Moffat was keen to show that Doctor Who could compete. However, not wanting to sacrifice variety, the end result was a pretty ghastly muddle at times, with “arc” stories rubbing up against “non-arc stories” sometimes in the clumsiest of ways (see Night Terrors for arguably the worst offender in this regard).

Under Capaldi’s reign, things have been a bit smoother, with stand-alone-stories generally being the order of the day, but we’ve still had to suffer end-of-season gibberish like Death in Heaven. Now it seems like the balance between these two forces is being struck perfectly. Both this episode and the preceding one stand alone, but they work better together. In fact, Pyramid retrospectively flatters the earlier episode. I’m considering bumping it up from two stars to three.

Back to the episode itself. The structure is more sophisticated than, say, Robot, but far simpler and far less OCD than many recent stories. The Doctor madly scrambles to figure out what the monks in the pyramid are up to, but we know he’s looking in the wrong direction. Finally, the Doctor’s blindness pays off – he figures out how to find the source of the impending catastrophe.

Here the physical geography of the lab is a little confusing. It would have been better to have found some way in the scripting or the shooting to clearly demarcate which areas were compromised and which were safe, but the key elements of the problem are assembled very neatly. The Doctor on one side of a door. The TARDIS on the other. Nardole, incapacitated inside. And the Doctor’s sonic glasses totally unable to read the numbers on the combination lock. As a piece of plotting, forcing Bill to sacrifice the stewardship of the Earth out of pure love, it’s basically perfect.

Let’s have a little talk about that prop though. The actual combination lock itself looks like a child’s toy and no lab in the world ever had a combination lock like that. Surely it should be a keypad? That’s a problem if Denning knows the code, because then the Doctor can enter it without looking at it, but surely a better solution would be to have the code be 10-12 digits long – so long that Denning and Gardner keep it written down. Now Denning doesn’t know it, and any sighted person would be able to read it and we don’t have to have that ridiculous looking Duplo prop.

This is a minor niggle, and I hate giving episode five stars when there’s a conclusion still to come, but this is really, really good stuff. The regulars are on great form, the UN quartet do everything that’s asked of them, the effects are all top notch and director Daniel Nettheim generally keeps things moving. I’m going to keep half a star in my back pocket though. 4½ stars and onwards to The Lie of the Land.

So… what did I think of Extremis?

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Evil Monk 1: So, how did we fare in our simulated invasion of Earth?

Evil Monk 2: Oh, pretty well.

Evil Monk 1: Did we learn all we needed to about how to subdue the Earth people and take their planet?

Evil Monk 2: Yup. Pretty much.

Evil Monk 1: Good, good. And this “Doctor”, were we able to handle his interference?

Evil Monk 2: Oh yes. Well, I mean he was blind.

Evil Monk 1: What?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, we made him blind.

Evil Monk 1: What? Why?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he’d just been made blind when we started gathering data for the simulation, so we thought…

Evil Monk 1: But we want the Doctor at the absolute peak of his powers. What’s the point in testing our invasion against a weakened version of the Doctor?

Evil Monk 2: Well, he wasn’t all that weakened. He had these glasses with a sort of heads-up display.

Evil Monk 1: Glasses with a what?

Evil Monk 2: A heads-up display. Showing him what he couldn’t see with his eyes.

Evil Monk 1: And what was he using to look at the heads-up display?

Evil Monk 2: Eh?

Evil Monk 1: If his eyes don’t work, how does a heads-up display help- oh, look it doesn’t matter. The point is, we’ve ironed out all the kinks in our invasion plan now, right?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it was pretty easy once everyone started to commit suicide.

Evil Monk 1: When they what?

Evil Monk 2: Well, once they found the book, the er, Extremis, which told them that they were in a simulation and how to test it, then they just started committing suicide.

Evil Monk 1: How to test it?

Evil Monk 2: Yeah. Despite the fact that each subroutine controlling each of the billions of people in our simulation is fantastically unique and complicated, so much so that the simulations believe they are alive, we couldn’t think of a single way of using that rich, complicated and unique data to find an arbitrary starting point for a random number generator, so when they-

Evil Monk 1: Wait, stop, go back. You put a book in the simulation…

Evil Monk 2: Extremis, yeah…

Evil Monk 1: Telling the people in the simulation that it was just a simulation?

Pause.

Evil Monk 2: We did make it very hard to translate.

Evil Monk 1: But what was it doing there at all??

Evil Monk 2: Sort of like an in-joke.

Evil Monk 1: Acolyte, I’m hugely disappointed. You were clearly the wrong person to put in charge of this simulation project. I should have realised something was up when I watched the Doctor execute the Master and take the body away for safekeeping – and not mention that he was doing this for the second time.

Evil Monk 2: I’m sorry, sir. I failed you.

Evil Monk 1: Never mind. We’re in no hurry. We’ll build a new simulation and do it properly this time. After all, what difference does it make if we invade this week, or next week, or next year?

Evil Monk 2: Ah… well…

Evil Monk 1: “Ah well” what?

Evil Monk 2: You know how you said we should make absolutely sure that the simulation was connected to the Earth Internet?

Evil Monk 1: What? No, I said it was to be totally isolated from any other networks. It was to be totally air-gapped. Any other plan of action would be foolhardy to the point of self-defeating.

Evil Monk 2: Oh…

Evil Monk 1: Why???

And, scene…

So… What did I think of Oxygen?

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts for the show – Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline attracted near-universal praise, including from this blog, so expectations were high for his return in series ten. Were they met? Ah… nearly.

The set-up is largely great. Putting the Doctor and his – still very new – companion at risk of a terrible death in the icy vacuum of space is a great idea. The David Tennant episode 42, and in particular the sight of Martha Jones drifting off into nothing, is one of the very few things keeping me optimistic about Chris Chibnall’s forthcoming takeover of the programme. And who doesn’t like seeing Capaldi wandering around a deserted base making macabre quips, even if that kind of thing has been happening a lot lately.

The teaser is also very compelling, with the zombie colleague offing the newly-engaged couple and – look! – Nardole’s allowed to come. So what’s the problem? Well, there are too. One is a science niggle, but it’s such an important plot point that I can’t permit it to go unchallenged. For, I suspect practical production reasons, the cast don’t wear their helmets most of the time, but instead have a forcefield around their heads which keeps the air in. Thus even though the inside of the station is a vacuum, they can breathe normally.

But suddenly when they have to go outside the station, proper helmets are required. But either the station is deprived of air or it isn’t. As soon as there’s any opportunity, the pressure will equalise. You can’t maintain a thin atmosphere like on a small planet. And thus, either the forcefield can create an air-tight seal or it can’t. There’s just no way that the vacuum inside the station is more vacuum-y than the vacuum outside the station.

So, this rather takes the shine off the generally terrifying ordeal of the station inhabitants (as usually, poorly-differentiated, although the blue one is a nice sources of gags about racism, although played by a white actor I believe) and horrendous sacrifice – more on that later. The other, far bigger problem is that the episode is not so much rushed as absolutely stuffed. Whereas several recent episodes have had about thirty minutes of story and ten-fifteen minutes of running around and quipping (The Witch’s Familiar being the most egregious recent example) this could have certainly made a 60 minute special and is probably only one subplot away from being a two-parter.

So, when the Doctor’s blindness is easily fixed back at base, I’m intensely frustrated that such a brilliant idea wasn’t given time enough to be really developed and explored. Except of course – they aren’t done with that idea yet, are they! A lovely final twist to a thrilling and very well-executed episode.

I’ll quickly note that I don’t regard the profiteering algorithm as another automatic system gone awry for the simple reason that the algorithm was programmed by heartlessly profiteering bad-guys, so it’s not a benevolent system which becomes accidentally fatal, it’s a ruthless system doing exactly what it was intended to do.

4 ½ stars. Hurrah.

So… what did I think of Thin Ice?

Posted on May 13th, 2017 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay, now this is more like it.

There’s a tremendous amount to like in Sarah Dollard’s script, which has much of the same atmosphere as her previous Face the Raven, but doesn’t spend so much time tying itself in quasi-legal knots to make the story work.

Bill’s role as the companion who questions all those things which we’ve taken as read for years continues to impress and delight, whether she’s pondering how her presence will change history, or how people will react to the presence of the TARDIS and the melanin in her skin, she’s an unqualified joy and Pearl Mackie’s chemistry with Peter Capaldi is amazing. This is quickly becoming my favourite TARDIS team since Tennant and Tate.

The central mystery is clearly presented, with adorable ragamuffins who narrowly stay on the right side of cloying, pointing the Doctor and Bill in the right direction, even if that means one of them gets sacrificed to The Beast Below – which, yes, this story does stand as a less-bonkers version of. But whereas the Matt Smith story was about morality on a colossal scale, this story is much more about personal morality. The Doctor and Bill have two exchanges, which bookend her questioning whether traveling with him is any sense right. In the first, exquisitely painful interaction, she makes him confront the fact that his presence costs lives. In the second, slightly less successful one, his clear-minded speech wins her back round. Capaldi beautifully underplays this, but it’s a little simplistic by the standards of The Zygon Inversion.

What a tale of this kind needs, therefore is – hurrah! – a real villain, rather than an Automated System Gone Wrong. And Nicholas Burns is suitably slimy and selfish and – yes – punchable, effects work ever done, well it’s certainly no Skarasen either. I will note in passing that once again, Matt Lucas is completely sidelined. Did he film all of his scenes for the season in a weekend?

And what did I think of Knock Knock?

It’s the turn of another Proper Writer to have a go at Doctor Who, which either means they will bring a completely new perspective, or it means they will blunder into all the cliches and traps which they don’t know are there. Sadly, Mike Bartlett needs a new sat-nav because this is pretty ropey, samey stuff, until the end which is almost gibberish.

The set-up is okay, I suppose. Bill is now a student and is doing the student thing of finding people to share a house with. One thing you must give Steven Moffat – he can do jokes. But the tour of awful shared houses is woefully unfunny, very unlike the usual high standard of comedy which modern Doctor Who is capable of.

So, the largely indistinguishable bunch of cannon fodder shows up ready to move in to their totally not suspicious at all giant gothic mansion, only to discover David Suchet apparently going out of his way to be evil and mysterious. Bill seems determined to hide the fact the Doctor is a lecturer at the University and that’s how she knows him, even though it was established in The Pilot that he is well-known on campus and his lectures are very popular. When no-one believes that he’s her grandfather, everybody just stops mentioning it. It feels like a set-up for a punchline that never comes – maybe a fossil from an earlier draft.

But nobody in this story behaves like a real person. It’s completely unclear how any of these uninteresting students knows each other or for how long, and it utterly beggars belief that they would leave one of their number locked in his room like that. There’s also no particular reason for the house/woodworm/daughter/mother to pick them off one at a time, let alone have so much time elapse between the first devouring and all the subsequent ones, during which time, the inhabitants could think better of it and get out of dodge.

Finally, the revelation, although beautifully played by both Suchet and Mariah Gale, makes no sense whatsoever. If the space bugs eat people, then why didn’t they just eat Eliza to begin with? How did Suchet find out that he could keep Eliza alive by feeding them people? Why six people every twenty years instead of a more regular diet? Why do they come back to life at the end if their energy has already been consumed. And at exactly what point did she start thinking he was her dad?

The whole thing is muddled to the point of near total nonsense, and because it doesn’t make any real sense, it’s impossible to buy into the emotion, which is a tremendous waste of the talent involved.
Director Bill Anderson shoots it and paces it nicely, and the Bill’s continuing exploration of Doctor Who lore are as delightful as ever, but this is an often dull, rather forgettable instalment, which may ultimately only be noteworthy for the clues as to what – or who – the Doctor is keeping in that vault.

Three stars, and I will also note that we have so far has an alien puddle which eats someone, swarms of nanobots which eat people, swarms of glowing bugs under the ice which eat people and now swarms of insects in the walls which eat people. From the look of it, next week we have space suits which eat people. Is this the new Automated System Gone Wrong?

Culture round-up early 2017

Posted on February 1st, 2017 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Well, for some time now, my new role as podcast producer has made updating this blog very difficult, and in the light of the ghastly developments in UK and world politics, my half-assed views on TV shows and movie seem hardly relevant. But the world keeps turning and since I’ve been to see a few movies and things, I may as well try and keep up my record.

So, let’s start with the Doctor Who Christmas Special. One reason for my not reviewing this at the time is that it was basically fine. Nothing terribly wrong, but nothing terribly exciting either. As writer, Steven Moffat reigned in most of his worst excesses, Ed Bazalgette frames it all with professionalism and style, real (north) American Justin Chatwin and faux American Charity Wakefield are both convincing and Matt Lucas was far less irritating than we might have feared.

Even the one big error simply duplicates a mistake made in pretty much every superhero movie ever shot, which is the physics-defying fantasy of magic catching hands. A person falling off a building will hit the floor and be made to stop very suddenly, and the impact will cause them severe damage. The kinetic energy they give up when their acceleration towards the ground suddenly ceases has to go somewhere. However, in superhero movies and in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, no such problem exists if the thing which the falling person (or object) collides with is a person’s hands. When Grant catches the ship, it stops just as suddenly as if it had hit the ground, but mysteriously with no damage to Grant, the ship or any of its occupants. Other than that, absolutely fine. Four stars.

Next let’s turn to Arrival, the cerebral science-fiction slow-burn movie starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Dennis Villeneuve which depicts the international response to a number of alien obelisks which descend without warning on planet Earth. Putting so much emphasis on Adams’ painstaking attempts to decipher the alien language is undoubtedly gutsy and for me in pays off handsomely, drawing me in to the puzzle as the various military powers across the globe get increasingly twitchy.

The central twist is a little over-familiar for those of us who have seen more than half-a-dozen science fiction films, but it’s artfully concealed and bolstered by excellent performances, from a luminous Adams on down. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which more later.

And finally, let’s tick off Rogue One. I’m not really a devoted Star Wars nerd, which meant that the number of “Easter Eggs” I noticed was not excessive, although I gather that they come at the rate of about two a minute if you really know your Force from your elbow. The tactic of alternating “saga” movies (like The Force Awakens) with “anthology” movies seems like a smart one and by inserting a narrative into the gap between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope seems like an excellent way to start things off.

And so, this is not quite the Star Wars we’re familiar with. No opening crawl! No John Williams! No wipes! On-screen captions to identify the planets we’re visiting. And early on, it’s all a bit clunky, as we whip from planet-to-planet in search of the film’s plot. As the characters start to establish themselves, and the humour and adventure comes to the fore, things begin to improve, and the team assembled around Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso all get some great moments, especially Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed droid K-2SO, even if Jones herself can’t quite match up to the astonishing Daisy Ridley.

But the narrative momentum isn’t sustained, as the plot ties itself in knots to prevent us from getting to the last act too soon. I swear when they meet up with Jyn’s father, I can actually hear two different drafts of the film fighting each other, as the person Jyn trusted to deliver her to her father, whose message the rest of the film depends on her hearing, has a crisis of confidence and decides not to betray her by killing him anyway. Badguy Krennic then kills all of his men but not him and then rebel bombers blow him up anyway! Not exactly a clean narrative line!

In the final mission to get the plans out of the Imperial base, however, things improve enormously as director Gareth Edwards manages not just to summon up the spirit of the original trilogy, but to finally give his movie the singularity of purpose it seemed to struggle for earlier. And I have to admire both the commitment to the reality of the suicide mission and the neat plugging of the original film’s most glaring plot hole.

Everyone seems to have their own opinion about the digital Cushing and Fisher avatars which appear throughout the movie. For me, the brief glimpse of digital Leia worked fine. But the continual featuring of the CGI Tarkin stretched the envelope well-past breaking point. The dead eyes and weird mouth and imperfect vocal impression were a constant distraction and I was left with an appreciation of just how wide and featureless the uncanny valley truly is.

A full round-up of the 2017 Oscars will be here soon.

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

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

husbands


As well as snuggling down to watch Capaldi, Kingston et al on Christmas Day, I also flogged out to the BFI IMAX to watch the Force Awakens a few days earlier, so here’s your Boxing Day double-bill review. We’ll take the good Doctor first.

More than other episodes, except possibly the first few aired in 2005, Christmas Specials have to attract and entertain a wide audience. Not just the dedicated fans, but the casual viewers, the grumpy sceptics, their sleepy relatives and various other waifs and strays. Sometimes, Christmas Specials have basically ignored all other continuity and these have often been among the most effective – A Christmas Carol, Voyage of the Damned – although not always – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. Others have been bound into the fabric of the series, dealing with a new Doctor – The Christmas Invasion – a regeneration – The Time of the Doctor – or a new companion – The Snowmen. This year, Steven Moffat attempts a middle-ground. On the one hand, almost nothing that happens at least for the first 45 minutes is in any way dependent on the viewer ever having watched the series before. On the other hand, those first 45 minutes might be a wee bit confusing if you’ve literally no idea who River Song even is. The last 15 minutes… well, we’ll come to those.

This is very much an episode of two halves, or if not quite halves then certainly pieces. The first, longer, piece is hugely entertaining. A “romp” in all the best senses of the word – full of dash and wit and good will to all, with fruity performances from guest stars Matt Lucas and Greg Davies and some dazzlingly brilliant plot turns, such as the revelation that Scratch is planning on delivering the diamond to King Hydroflax as a tribute.

A lot is asked of the effects department here and they mainly deliver, cutting away from some of the more gruesome head-related activities no doubt both in the name of propriety and keeping the budget down to a manageable level. Even more than usual, the set design and dressing is absolutely gorgeous from the cheekily repurposed Trap Street to the claustrophobic surgeon’s table to the opulent decks of the ship Harmony and Redemption.

It’s when the Doctor and River leave the ship that the story starts to come off the rails slightly. Knowing the form of these things pretty well, and having thoroughly enjoyed the story so far, I had already thought to myself that what would elevate it to greatness would be a perfectly judged moment of pain, pathos or gloom. Actually, what happens is a little fuzzier than that. The clean plotting starts to fray at the edges when River and the Doctor take it in turns to pilot the TARDIS on and off the bridge of the doomed star liner, and the Doctor’s attitude to the widespread death and destruction seems uncharacteristically callous as well. Sure, there were a lot of rotters on board, but were none of them past redemption? And what about the cooks, cleaners, accountants, engineers and what-not?

It’s not like the script is fighting to pack every last detail into the remaining few seconds either. In fact, Moffat squanders the dizzying narrative momentum he’s built up and lazily coasts for the last ten minutes of the episode. It’s at this stage that we’re invited to consider the River Song flowchart in a bit more detail, and I’m not absolutely sure it makes sense. This was advertised as the first meeting between the two (from River’s point of view) and it’s implied that she’s borrowed TARDISes of earlier Doctors without them noticing. It also seems as if she recognised Tennant and Smith because she had publicity photos of them, not because she is able to sense who they truly are, regardless of what face they wear.

But she seems to have fallen prey to that old fan-trap of thinking that the twelve regeneration limit means twelve faces, when of course it actually means thirteen, so there’s no reason for her not to have a picture of Capaldi too. And then, it turns out that this is actually their penultimate meeting – next time will be the Library and then it’s all over. But, for some reason, the pain of this revelation doesn’t quite resonate. After he has targeted the correct audience with laser-like precision for most of the episode, we’re suddenly being asked to applaud the writer’s neurotic box-ticking as he reminds us of every detail of Silence in the Library. It’s a slightly limp end to an episode which spent most of its running time fizzing with invention.

Ultimately, however, the first three-quarters is so hugely enjoyable, from Capaldi’s antlers to his doing bigger on the inside “properly” to the demented Hydroflax story to the final “hello sweetie” that I can’t bring myself to knock off more than half a star.

On to The Force Awakens, which I saw at the BFI IMAX despite the best efforts of the Odeon website to prevent me from so doing. I don’t have the same emotional attachment to the Star Wars series as many of my contemporaries. A school friend took a bunch of us to see Return of the Jedi at the cinema when I was 11 and for him it was the most exciting thing in the world, but I was a bit bewildered about all the fuss. Of course, I saw the wretched prequel trilogy in the cinemas, and roundly detested every one of them, but like everyone else, I settled down with a growing sense of optimism to watch this new incarnation.

Is it any good? Well, compared to what? Obviously it can’t hope to equal, or even come close to the era-defining, cultural-warping, iconic cataclysm of the first film. But also obviously, no-one really expected it to repeat the colossal errors of judgement of the prequel trilogy either. What JJ Abrams has done, for sure, is to leave the franchise in a better state than he found it. Disney’s multi-billion dollar investment is certainly safe and the movie will probably stand up quite nicely to further viewings. But is this the work of a maverick genius, boldly reinvisioning the series and creating whole swathes of new lore? Hardly? For once, I find myself in perfect agreement with usually demented contrarian Julian Simpson who commented “It’s like someone lent JJ Abrams a priceless old Ferrari and, instead of putting his foot down and seeing what this fucker can do, he’s driven it round the block at 20mph for fear of scratching the paintwork.”

It might be worth pausing for a moment to reflect on JJ Abrams’s relationship with Stars Trek and Wars. Regardless of the necrophiliac karaoke gibberish of Into Darkness, Abrams was probably the ideal director to resurrect this ailing franchise – his TV background, obvious talent for character and action, and his success with Mission Impossible III allied with his total lack of any reverence for the Trek universe meant that he could create a new version of the series which would resonate with an audience of Trek-lovers and Trek-agnostics alike.

But Abrams loves Star Wars, grew up watching it, played with the toys, read the spin-offs and then suffered as we all did when the prequels came out. His challenge, a much greater one than he faced with Star Trek, is to recreate the series without feeling like he is treading on egg-shells.

As a movie, it works very well. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega effortlessly carry the show, with new droid BB8 a worthy successor to R2D2. The Luke Skywalker map McGuffin does its job and the action sequences, especially in the first half, work very well indeed, with the Millennium Falcon dogfight on Jakku being a particular highlight. The one truly revisionist touch – Boyega’s stormtrooper defecting from the First Order – brilliantly sets the plot in motion, even if Oscar Isaac’s rather colourless Poe Dameron is clumsily removed from the narrative simply in order to be fed back in later.

As a nostalgia-fest sequel that’s been 25 years in the making, it also works fantastically well. Harrison Ford’s reintroduction with Chewie at his side gave me a warm glow and the use of Solo and Leia’s own off-spring as the chief villain (not to mention Solo’s untimely despatch) manages to echo the original trilogy without actually duplicating it.

However, an enormous amount of the run-time is devoted to things we’ve already seen in the original three movies. Most obvious and most egregious is that substitution of the Death Star with the basically identical only much bigger, but also far more easily-defeated Starkiller Base. Then we have the familial light-saber duel, a spin on the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Grand Old Jedi at the end of his years, etc and so forth. There’s not a lot wrong with this, but when the creative team is obviously so comfortable in the Star Wars universe, it’s a damn shame they didn’t do a bit more than just rearrange the furniture a little.

A few other quibbles – Finn’s reaction to the death around him on Jakku, conveyed brilliantly with almost no dialogue, is a wonderful motivation for his character. But he then proceeds to indiscriminately slaughter fellow stormtroopers from his initial escape onwards, with rather undermines his nobility. Captain Phasma’s wonderful name and high profile casting led me to believe that rather more would be done with her character, but in fact she gets three or four bland scenes which add nothing and Gwendoline Christie’s charisma is rather hard to spot under that chrome helmet. And if the First Order is, as the opening crawl implies, a rag-tag band of disgruntled former soldiers, why do they appear to have the full might and discipline of the former Empire?

Anyway, what we have here is a cautious new beginning, which nevertheless contains great jokes, wonderful action sequences, splendid new characters, welcome cameos from the old guard (and some unnecessary ones – I’m looking at you Anthony Daniels) and the hint of a new mythos which just might keep the franchise running for the next 25 years. It’s a very good job, if not quite the bold triumph it might have been.

Happy Christmas everyone!