Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Posted on April 12th, 2015 in Culture | No Comments »

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There is an alternate universe somewhere, where in addition to all the nice people glowering from behind their dark goatee beards, the principle guest star in Star Trek IV was Eddie Murphy.

Really.

It seems insane, but after the dour Search for Spock, Paramount was keen to make the fourth instalment a little lighter in tone and a little easier for newbies to get on board with. Murphy had made a boat-load of money for Paramount in Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places and Superman III had done well with comedian Richard Pryor only a couple of years before. With the contemporary San Francisco setting which Nimoy and Harve Bennett were considering, Murphy would work well. No?

Eddie Murphy turned them down.

Who can say how much money the Star Trek IV: The Eddie Murphy Show would have made, or how well-received it might have been by fans? In our universe, despite (or maybe because of) sitting very oddly in the rest of the canon, it was the highest regarded since Khan, and remained so probably until First Contact, or possibly forever. It also made more money than Khan, in fact its box office haul wasn’t bettered until First Contact, ten years later.

And yet, it isn’t really a Star Trek film at all.

It kinda-sorta looks like a Star Trek film for the first twenty minutes or so, picking up where III left off (again, for no particular reason, except that that seems to be the form now), with the ramshackle crew of the Enterprise limping home in their stolen Klingon ship to face the music. But – whaddyaknow! – another Mysterious Alien Probe is attacking Earth and playing whale song at it. Whales having long gone extinct in the 23rd century, Kirk announces that this beaten up and very unfamiliar ship is capable of time travel (who knew it was so easy?) and they nip back to 1986 to scoop some up.

When they arrive in then-contemporary San Francisco, the movie’s tone changes completely. The epic space opera of the previous two movies gives way to a breezy, eighties whale-out-of-water comedy, with the Eddie Murphy role blandly but ably fulfilled by Catherine Hicks as whale-ologist Gillian Taylor. The huge success of this very enjoyable movie is to avoid the baggage of Treks past, and to treat the ensemble cast as an ensemble, instead of three lead guys and a bunch of red shirts.

Kirk splits his crew up so he and Spock go find the whales; Scottie, McCoy and Sulu build a tank to put them in; and Uhuru and Chekhov go and find a nuclear reactor so… so Chekhov can say “nook-ular wessels” I think. Everyone seizes the opportunity to have fun with these parts, and William Shatner seems far more comfortable playing this easy going time traveller, even with his rival Nimoy behind the camera once more. Their crackerjack timing in this little exchange is just delightful.

If I have a criticism, it’s when all the other characters are getting such good scenes to play, Spock seems a little absent. Possibly this is due to Nimoy’s duties behind the camera, possibly it’s that dying and being resurrected just takes it out of even the hardiest half-Vulcan, but he seems a shadow of his former self for much of the movie.

Needless to say, in its cheerful what-the-hell way, returning to the future presents no new problems and the whales are presented to the space probe which obediently buggers off and leaves our heroes to it. They are rewarded with a spanking new Enterprise-A, Kirk is demoted back to Captain where he belongs and we have come full circle.

What a perfect place to stop.

Facts and figures

Released: 26 November 1986
Budget: $21m
Box office: $133m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer (plus Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes who mainly worked on the Eddie Murphy version)
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

 

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Posted on February 19th, 2015 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

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The old adage with Star Trek movies is “the even-numbered ones are good”. This doesn’t work with Star Trek X as we’ll see, but it holds pretty well for most of the series and it’s certainly true that III isn’t half as good as the films either side of it. But it’s easy to overlook it, sitting as it does between the most iconic film in the series and the most fun film in the series.

The success of Star Trek II had made Star Trek III inevitable, and Harve Bennett had more than proved himself an able producer. But more Trek meant more Spock and Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to return only if we was also able to sit in the director’s chair. Luckily (or not, as we’ll see) Nicholas Meyer wanted no part of a movie which was going to unpick the narrative of Star Trek II, and so with a studio-imposed deadline breathing down his neck, Harve Bennett sat down to write the screenplay on his own.

With the benefit of hindsight, the job of Star Trek III is to move the characters from their positions at the end of Star Trek II, to the positions they need to be in to start Star Trek IV. These three films make a particularly tight trilogy, unlike anything else in the series. They didn’t need to do that. Plenty of screenwriters would have picked up the story back on Earth, or at a Starbase, where the Enterprise and her crew are getting patched up. But Bennett just keeps the ball rolling, bringing Saavik and David along for the ride, and reusing the Genesis device as the Macguffin (as well as an awful lot of footage from the previous film). Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a very efficient or a very unimaginative way of constructing a story. The only new element is a gang of Klingons (if you can call Klingons in a Star Trek movie “new”) led by a virtually unrecognisable Christopher Lloyd as Kruge. He makes a fine villain, but he’s hardly in Ricardo Montalban’s class.

As well as being lean to the point of austere, the movie is also very, very depressing at times. Whereas in Wrath of Khan, Kirk triumphs over impossible odds, in Search for Spock, he fails at pretty much every turn. Yes, he finally manages to deliver Bones to Vulcan where they extract his Vulcan pal’s marbles and ladle them back into his rapidly-aging body – but pretty much everything else is a disaster. Kirk gets his son killed, has to blow up the Enterprise, loses his standing with Star Fleet and barely escapes with his own sorry life. The constant air of gloom which pervades this movie makes it quite difficult to engage with at times. The motto of the first film was “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The motto of the second film clearly seems to be “one Leonard Nimoy is worth a dozen of you clowns.”

And yet, amid all the bloodshed and destruction and horror, it’s the lighter moments which work best and which stick in the mind. Bennett’s script is the first (and probably one of only two) which actually succeeds in using the TV cast as an ensemble, instead of making it the Kirk, Spock and (if you’re lucky) McCoy show, plus five other guys who get seven lines between them.

Obviously it helps that Spock (or at least Leonard Nimoy) is absent almost throughout, but one wonders at the patience of George Takei, James Doohan et al, as they stood quietly at the back for most of the two previous films. And for no reason – the film roars into life when Kirk elects to steal the Enterprise and Scotty, Chekhov, Uhuru and Sulu spring into action like a space-faring Oceans Eleven, while Saavik tends to the brainless Spock on the Genesis planet. Kirstie Alley declined to return to the role, but miraculously, Saavik once again makes it to the end credits without betraying anyone or dying at all. She is now played with a good deal more class but rather less vulnerability by Robin Curtis. The nearest we get to a turncoat/sacrificial lamb is James B Sikking as the odious commander of the Excelsior, the Federations latest and greatest, which can’t make it out of space-dock when Scotty removes the spark-plugs. So, he’s just a doofus rather than a traitor.

Nimoy directs efficiently, but without noticeable flair and professional standards are all suitably high, with ILM once again turning in beautiful matte paintings, spaceships and phaser blasts. And if the Genesis planet sometimes looks a bit studio-y as it blows itself up, well that adds a welcome touch of nostalgia. The movie ends with the Star Trek cast (even Nichelle Nichols, bafflingly left out of the adventures on and around Genesis) celebrating the return of Spock, but with no ship, several casualties and on the run. Given how much of the set-up takes place in the previous film and given how little is resolved in this one, it’s hard to see Star Trek III as a hugely successful movie in its own right, but as a chapter in the ongoing saga, it works just fine.

Facts and figures

Released: 1 June 1984
Budget: $16m
Box office: $87m
Writers: Harve Bennett
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Producer: Harve Bennett

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Posted on December 30th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

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Now, that’s more like it.

Once again, with hindsight, what’s remarkable about Star Trek II is not so much that it set the template for the billion-dollar franchise which followed (although it undoubtedly did), it’s that Paramount was willing to make another movie at all. Actually, on paper that’s not so surprising. The film did make money – around three times what it cost to make – but it was hugely expensive. Disney’s The Black Hole, released the same year cost half what Star Trek The Motion Picture cost and it was Disney’s most expensive movie ever. But the reception from mainstream media and die-hard fans alike had been luke-warm. Did it really make sense to risk another forty million dollars to try again?

Enter TV producer Harve Bennett who confidently told Paramount bosses he could make five movies for the budget of the first one. After a year or two of script development going nowhere and staring down the barrel of a release date, Bennett sent for Nicholas Meyer who compiled a list of the bits-and-pieces people liked from the dozens of Star Trek II draft scripts and sat down to write the final screenplay, stitching all these disparate bits together, before beginning work on directing the movie, days later. These two men, neither of them familiar with Star Trek before they started work, saved the franchise, largely by completely and utterly ignoring the first film.

Meyer knew nothing about spaceships and future technology, but he saw the Enterprise as a sailing ship and Captain Kirk as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Ironically, Gene Roddenberry – who had by now been kicked unceremoniously upstairs – hated the naval paraphernalia and militaristic feel which Meyer gave to the Enterprise, but had himself used Hornblower has a frequent touch-point for the character of Kirk. Generally, Meyer’s reimagining of the Enterprise and Star Fleet through a naval lens works very well to create an impression of a colossal ship, manned by an enormous and active crew. Occasionally, he goes too far, such as when Kirk is literally piped aboard, or when photon torpedoes sit under hatches which have to be manually levered open, but these are tiny and easily-overlooked transgressions.

The whole look-and-feel of the film is vastly improved. The new uniforms strike the perfect balance between the colourful sixties jerseys and something which does actually resemble military garb, as opposed to pyjamas. They would still be in use for Star Trek Generations, a dozen years later. The bridge feels more like a submarine and less like the lobby of a futuristic hotel. The plot has the kind energy and drive so lacking in the first film, and the charm and humour of the characters returns, most noticeably in the early birthday scenes, but also throughout.

Despite – or possibly because of – the script’s mongrel heritage, it’s pretty much iconic scene after iconic scene. Playing into rumours of Spock’s death, Meyer apparently kills him off in the first five minutes as new crew member Lt Saavik struggles with the Kobyashi Maru scenario. Before long, Captain Chekov is facing down Ricardo Montalban’s fearsome Khan Noonien Singh, reincorporated from the original series, but that hardly matters.

Saaviki is also notable for actually making it to the end of the movie, but Paul Winfield as Terrell fulfils the usual role of doomed new cast member – in fact he does double-duty being both revealed as traitor and dying at the half-way point. Few of the rest of the cast get very much to do, but Bones gets a few choice lines and of course Leonard Nimoy gets to play a very real death scene at the end.

There are just a few moments where the film’s joie de vivre shades into smugness. On second viewing, it’s a little hard to understand just why Captain Kirk lets Carol and the rest continue to believe that they are trapped in the Genesis Cave with no hope of rescue, and the gag of the Reliant not bothering to look up or down in the final space battle in the nebula is a little hard to take seriously, but overall, this movie give us the space adventure we had so missed in the first film, and yet manages to be about something at the same time. Themes of age, decay, responsibility and obsession reverberate pleasingly throughout but never upstage the blood-and-thunder action and Montalban of course is an exceptional villain, gleefully chewing on Meyer’s theatrical dialogue.

What adds to the power of the film, and almost certainly secures its crown as the very best of the series, even thirty-odd years later, is that Kirk’s victory is so hard-won and comes at such a terrible cost. Spock’s death is meaningful, poignant and apparently permanent – three things it’s very hard to say about its karaoke re-enactment at the clumsy hands of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams recently.

Meyer might have cut back on the super-expensive transporter and warp drive effects, but he puts the money on the screen, re-using a few models and even model shots from the first film, and using then cutting-edge computer graphics to show the effect of the Genesis wave – a sequence which would become very familiar not only from its use and reuse in this film and its sequels but also as the iconic images for early eighties CGI in the movies in countless documentaries and behind-the-scenes TV specials.

Of course, as production neared its close, the whole cast and crew began to suspect that they might be on to a winner, and so rather than being the film that would shut the door on Star Trek, there was every chance that it might be only the beginning, and so Nimoy and Bennett hatched a plan to leave just enough of a thread to pull on if Spock needed resurrecting in Star Trek III – should that ever be made. This is done just gracefully enough that it doesn’t spoil the ending, and even that shot of Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet which enraged Meyer doesn’t bother me too much.

Pretty much perfect in every way, Star Trek II gave the series a future – without the Great Bird of the Galaxy who would soon turn his ambitions back to TV.

Facts and figures

Released: 4 June 1982
Budget: $11.2m
Box office: $97m
Writers: Harve Bennett, Jack B Sowards, Nicholas Meyer
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Producer: Harve Bennett

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Posted on December 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

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I got into watching science fiction in the 1980s, and that was a fallow time for Star Trek. Unlike in America where the adventures of Kirk and Spock were on permanent syndication, in the UK I remember watching a few episodes on BBC2, and I remember reading one or two novels, but I didn’t really grow up with Trek the way some people did. When The Next Generation launched in 1987, I devoured it, and watching those episodes again, spiffed-up on blu-ray, the best of them have scarcely dated at all. What’s shocking is that TNG launched 27 years ago and still looks great, whereas 1966 Star Trek had already begun to look old and creaky after only 21 years when TNG began.

So, my affection for the old crew rests largely on the original films. I was just about old enough to want to go and see The Motion Picture when it first came out. I don’t remember seeing the next two at the cinema but I read and re-read the novelisations and I’m sure I saw The Voyage Home and all the rest on the big screen. There follows brief reviews and historical context based on recent re-watches of the movies on blu-ray.

A quick rant first of all. Buying and rebuying the same material is something I’ve grown accustomed to and made peace with. I’ve bought the James Bond movies four times now (VHS, DVD, remastered DVD, blu-ray) and I don’t rule out buying them again if consumer 4K ever becomes a thing. But it is galling to have had original director Robert Wise recut the first Star Trek film and supervise the creation of new special effects sequences for the DVD, only to learn that this work was only ever done at DVD resolution which means that the blu-ray release has reverted to the theatrical cut. Anyway. Some history…

With hindsight, it seems inevitable that a Star Trek movie franchise would be attempted but what’s remarkable is that it survived this shaky start. Gene Roddenberry, genius though he surely was, seemed incapable of learning from experience. The original pilot of Star Trek back in the middle sixties was rejected by NBC for being “too cerebral”. Roddenberry had pitched “Wagon Train to the stars” and had delivered a philosophical musing on the nature of freedom. He got a second chance and so the good humoured, action-oriented, show we (some of us) came to love was born. Yes, the original series had some strong science fiction elements, and some notable moral stances, but the audience was really there to see Bones tease Spock and for Kirk to hit people with both fists at once. Hurrah! At yet, The Motion Picture seems determined to revert to the style of storytelling which Roddenberry had conclusively proved there was no audience for.

The first Star Trek film had a troubled birth. The success of films like 2001 and Silent Running initially convinced Paramount (who now owned the rights) that a Star Trek movie would be a smash hit, and so they began pre-production but when script development began to hit the weeds, they decided that a new TV series made more sense and so “Star Trek Phase Two” began to gestate, with a few younger actors to round out the cast and to cater for the absent Leonard Nimoy and the expensive William Shatner. And then, with casting complete and sets under construction, the even greater success of Close Encounters and especially Star Wars reconvinced Paramount that the movie idea had been right all along. Nimoy was tempted back into the ears after director Robert Wise was told by his daughter that it wouldn’t be Star Trek without Spock.

Throughout this process, the notion of the Enterprise encountering God refused to go away – an early draft for the movie was called The God Thing and the story concerned a god-like extra-dimensional alien supercomputer and the eventual movie script began life as a Phase Two pilot script called In Thy Image which is basically the movie as released (even including the name “Veejur” corrupted from “Voyager”) but with a damp squib of an ending. And all this despite the fact that the original 1960s series had included countless god-like aliens including but not limited to Charlie X, Gary Mitchell after his encounter with the Galactic Barrier, the Squire of Gothos / Trelane and Gorgan the Friendly Angel. The Enterprise had even previously come across an Earth probe retrofitted by unseen aliens which now murderously sought its creator – Nomad in the episode The Changeling, hence the bitter joke that the first movie should have been called “Where Nomad Has Gone Before”.

Anyway, the whole bridge crew was eventually assembled, an end was found for the Phase Two script and Robert Wise was handed a handsome budget with which to shoot his epic adventure. Watching it now, what is at first immediately apparent is that this belongs neither to the tradition of Star Trek movies (not surprising since no such tradition then existed), nor to the tradition of the Star Trek television series, but rather to the cycle of ponderous, highbrow and above all beige science-fiction movies which Star Wars had only just brought to a decisive end – films like Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Soylent Green. Very little of the charm and good humour of the original series survives this earnest and plodding encounter, with Spock in particular a shadow of his TV self and Bones given very few lines which are anything other than strictly functional.

Part of this is the need to give new crew-members Decker and Ilia some room to establish themselves. They are the first in a long line of new crew-members introduced at the beginning of a movie who take screen time and lines away from the TV cast, but fail to make it to the end credits because they get unexpectedly killed half-way through / sacrifice themselves at the end / turn out to be working for the bad guys. But Stephen Collins is too stiff and annoying to really register as Decker and Persis Khambatta, although cutting a very striking figure, doesn’t really make much of an impression before her reappearance as a probe, which makes her fate considerably less shocking than it might have been. Compared to Nomad wiping beloved Uhuru’s memory (don’t worry, she got it back) this is weak sauce.

The other problem is that writers and director are both putting the emphasis in all the wrong places. I read and reread the novelisation when I was a kid and so when I rewatched the movie I expected the first Shatner scene to be Kirk negotiating the return of his ship from Star Fleet top brass. Actually, when we first meet Kirk, this scene is already presumed to have happened. Fair enough, by all means start in the middle, but we then have ten minutes of sometimes impressive, but sometimes ropey, model shots to get Kirk and Scotty over to the Enterprise. I’d far rather have five more minutes of my hero standing up for what he believes in than five minutes of dialogue-free effects work, no matter how stately.

In fact the movie seems determined to undermine Kirk at every turn. He doesn’t know how his own ship works, is shown up by subordinates, is helpless before Veejur, is disobeyed by Spock and generally does very little to earn his keep until the very end. A pretty poor return for such a heroic figure, and this is especially noteworthy when so few of the original cast are given anything to do. It even seems to go unnoticed that on the TV show, Sulu and Chekov used to alternate in the same job. Here, both Walter Koenig and George Takei get about half-a-dozen bland lines each and that’s your lot. I hope they got paid properly because this will only have added to their typecasting problems. I’m assured that Nichelle Nichols is in it, but I honestly don’t remember even seeing her. Oh wait, yes I do, because she’s been given a very unflattering Diana Ross “do”.

What is good then? Well, the sets are nice, if beige, although it’s a shame we spend so much of the damn movie on board the Enterprise. “Bottle shows” are an inevitable feature of year-round TV production, where an unusually expensive adventure is paired with a show which uses only the regular cast and standing sets to keep the average price-per-episode within the budget. But on a big budget movie, surely we could stretch our legs a little? And then there are those damn silly uniforms with their navel height buckles-with-no-belts and Dick Tracy style wrist communicators, scrapped like so much else, after this movie.

So, the film retains its reputation for being slow – not only do scenes drag on for ages, but whole sub-plots such as the wormhole are included as very obvious padding. And overall, it does nothing which the TV series couldn’t do in a third the time with better jokes and more colourful décor. The effects work is often top-notch for the time, with a particularly snazzy transporter and warp drive effect – both too expensive to ever use again – and of course we get that wonderful Jerry Goldsmith sig tune for the first time. And if you’re in the mood for something not quite as glacial as 2001 but not quite as mindless as Buck Rogers, then this will fill 132 minutes quite handily. But it doesn’t really have much to do with Star Trek past (save re-using a basic plot) nor does it really set the template for Star Trek’s future. Best thought of as a slightly wonky prototype, this film established the need, but much more work needed to be done on the fit-and-finish before it was ready for mass production. Much better films were to come, and some much worse.

Facts and figures

Released: 7 December 1979
Budget: $46m
Box office: $139m
Writers: Alan Dean Foster, Harold Livingstone
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Gene Roddenberry

So… what did I think of Nightmare in Silver?

Posted on May 21st, 2013 in Culture | 1 Comment »

nightmareSuperstar Doctor Who writers are few and far between. Douglas Adams became a superstar only after writing for Doctor Who. Robert Holmes is only a superstar within the world of Doctor Who. Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat are arguably superstar writers but they also got to run the whole show. Series Five featured scripts from Simon Nye and Richard Curtis, one of which seemed to clip the writer’s wings and the other which seemed happiest when it wasn’t really a Doctor Who story at all.

But Neil Gaiman is a true superstar writer and he’s also a very, very good match for the version of Doctor Who which Moffat is going for – complex but with a fairy tale aesthetic. For a while it seemed as if The Doctor’s Wife (five stars, Tom Salinsky) was set to be a glorious one-off, but the creator of Sandman has been lured back by Cybermen and the results are, if not quite the perfection of Bigger on the Inside (as it obviously should have been called) then still pretty good.

As with his previous effort, Gaiman’s first act is to take the TARDIS somewhere completely removed from any kind of established continuity – a bubble in which he can create an entirely self-sustaining story. This time it’s Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, but inevitably when it’s long-past its best and under military occupation. The break with the past isn’t entirely complete however, as the Doctor and whatshername are lumbered with the two ghastly moppets from the previous episode. Child actors are always dodgy and these two are awkward and cloying simultaneously. Luckily they don’t stick around for long (making me wonder if a version of this script exists without them…?)

We also have a bunch of marines running about the place, and while I’m aware they came in for criticism from some quarters, I adored the idea of crap marines, sent to guard this cold rock as a punishment with pisspoor weapons, very little training and hardly any military skill. Putting them up against the Cybermen made me laugh one minute and gasp in horror the next – that’s pretty much ideal Doctor Who. Putting Little Miss Nothing in charge of them gives her something to do and that’s a good thing I suppose.

So, yes, the Cybermen themselves make a quick appearance. When the Borg debuted on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1989 (the same year that Doctor Who was taken off the air), many British sci-fi fans commented that they were basically ripped-off Cybermen. Well Gaiman now has taken the opportunity to return the favour – unconsciously, he claims not to have watched much TNG. Actually, there’s another, earlier, probably equally unconscious rip-off – Big Finish already portrayed a Cybermen as a Mechanical Turk in a Paul McGann audio adventure from 2011.

The Borgified Cybermen work wonderfully well, however, storming the compound, upgrading themselves to overcome each new threat. I did feel just slightly that these new metal meanies were starting to become so un-Cyberlike that I wondered if there was any point in re-using them instead of creating new baddies from scratch (see also the Ice Warriors in Cold War). This is especially true when it comes to the hugely emotional Cyberplanner – of whom more in a minute. The one constant in the Cybermen’s history has been their lack of emotion, but here the Cyberplanner rants and raves with the best of the Doctor Who baddies. It’s great, but it isn’t very Cyber. The Cybermites are a brilliant conceit, fantastically well executed however.

The Doctor’s identity crisis is the most outré idea in the whole episode, but thanks to an absolutely astonishing performance from Matt Smith, it’s also the most successful. Fun though the Doctor’s doppelganger in The Rebel Flesh was, this was the real deal, executed occasionally with green screen in a Mara-like Neverwhere, but more often than not just by Smith’s committed performance. And the resolution of the chess game actually makes sense – about to lose the game on the board, the Doctor moves the field of play to the psychological realm, goading the Cyberplanner until he is able to take advantage of a momentary lapse in concentration. It’s brilliant, brilliant stuff.

What I’m less sold on is the Cyber weakness to gold being a software issues (which just makes no sense at all) and the fact that this generation of Cybermen hasn’t eliminated that as part of their constant and unstoppable upgrading.

The ending is a little rushed and throughout there’s some dodgy editing – a persistent flaw in this run of episodes, not sure why.  Fair enough, I didn’t spot Warwick Davis hiding in plain sight, but the conclusion didn’t have as much of a gut punch as I thought it needed, and it’s not at all clear what happened to the TARDIS when the planet blew.

Very, very good stuff then, rather than perfect. Four-and-a-half stars but I’m still waiting for this year’s cast-iron classic.

So.. what did I think of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS?

Posted on May 4th, 2013 in Culture | 2 Comments »

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Sh…. spoilers!

Unlike the various incarnations of Star Trek which regularly included “bottle shows” using only the standing spaceship interior sets as a cost-saving measure, stories set largely or completely inside the TARDIS are rare on Doctor Who, despite the fact that the Doctor’s Type 40 is potentially a much more interesting space. Or maybe because of that. Like Gallifrey, the Time War or – nota bene Mr Moffatt – the Doctor’s name, some things are much more interesting because we know so little about them.

So, in the 1960s we had the distinctly peculiar two-parter, The Edge of Destruction, in the 1970s, Tom Baker gave Sontarans the run-around in a very atypical TARDIS in The Invasion of Time and in the 1980s, Peter Davison spent the first two episodes of Castrovalva wandering around the TARDIS impersonating his predecessors. Since the show returned in 2005, however, we’ve almost never seen anything beyond the console room, so we were about due an episode like this.

Regular blog readers (hello!) may recall that I don’t hold Steve Thompson’s last effort The Soggy Pirate Rubbish (I genuinely cannot recall its real name off the top of my head) in particularly high regard, so while I have a definite fondness for stories told within formal constraints and I’m well up for seeing a bit more TARDIS feng shui, I just wish they hadn’t given the job to this guy. TSPR was typified by scanty explanations, very little originality, a fatal lack of follow-through on its few interesting ideas and a general “that’ll do” approach to structure and characterisation. Surely this would be an improvement…?

Well, it doesn’t make a very good first impression. The space haulage team are clumsily-made photocopies of the crew of the Nostromo, even down to the fact that one of them is an android, complete with cute but implausible vocal effect. Better “Tricky” than those appalling would-be comedy robots from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship I suppose, but c’mon. Their ship is equipped with a sort of souped-up tractor beam, which mysteriously comes equipped with a remote control. I cannot think of a single reason why this piece of equipment should require operation from anywhere other than the command deck, especially with more than a one-man crew. As we’ll see, the real reason has nothing whatever to do with logic or world-building, but is simply a requirement to resolve the plot.

The plot firstly requires that make this impossibly, magical, indestructible, engineering miracle of a time-space ship vulnerable to the three stooges’ space-grabby thing. The Doctor, annoyed that the TARDIS and Clara don’t get along, offers to show her how to pilot it, promising he will make it easy by “shutting it down to basics”. In other words, switch off all the automatic safety devices and switching to manual. But isn’t switching to manual what you do when you’re an expert? When you’re a novice, don’t you need as many automatic systems as you can possibly get your hands on? Rather like the Ice Warrior leaving its shell, this action clearly results in the opposite outcome from what was intended, regardless of what the script later claims.

The titles end and we witness the TARDIS being carried hundreds of feet inside the salvage ship by a great claw hammer. Rather than place it conveniently on the deck, this machine ends up dumping the old girl on a big pile of cables. Then I can only imagine that the poor director turned two pages of script at once because somehow we are asked to accept that, while our backs were turned, Clara has been lost in the TARDIS’s labyrinthine corridors, while the Doctor now finds himself buried in the pile of cables and outside his own ship. Try as I might, I can see no way in which this can have happened. Evidently neither could the writer, but that’s what he requires in order to make the story work, so we are just presented with it and have to accept it. Sigh.

The android crew member now announces that the TARDIS is leaking fuel and that Clara will be overcome by fumes. Remember that they believe the Doctor’s ship to be a product of their own technology, a small escape pod just big enough for two. They evidently have no knowledge of Gallifreyan time-space manipulation, and yet on the basis of a glance, van Baalen number one, seems to know more about the Doctor’s ship than he does. Because that’s what the writer requires in order to make the story work, so we have to accept it. Sigh.

The Doctor accepts this diagnosis and rather than fixing his ship which he knows intimately, on his own and in his own time, he decides that he needs to recruit the help of these three shady individuals, who are clearly out for themselves and have already lied to him to protect their own skin. Can’t see anything wrong with that plan – can you?

Why the Doctor needs the Chuckle Brothers is therefore something of a mystery. Why they need this expedition is even more puzzling. The Doctor promises them “the salvage of a lifetime” and the director – doing what the script can’t or won’t – dollies in on Ashely Walters who clearly decides this is worth risking everything for – even though he has no idea what the Doctor is actually promising him and has absolutely no reason to believe him. No, he just goes along with it because – well you get the idea.

Once on board, the Doctor pushes a button and removes the “poison” from the air but announces that the rest of the TARDIS may still be toxic (there’s zero evidence of this at any point in the episode) and so finding Clara must be done swiftly. I would have thought there would be another button there somewhere which would remove the rest of the “poison” too but apparently not. There’s probably a “locate passenger” button if you look hard enough. There is on the Enterprise. (In fact, one of the salvage brothers turns out to be packing one.) And the mission is so urgent, the Doctor is even willing to play around with the TARDIS self-destruct system. 30 minutes to find Clara or we all die. This of course turns out to be a lie. Even this version of the Doctor isn’t quite that idiotic.

So, the set up is dumb, badly constructed and scarcely making a particle of sense, but given we’ve all agreed to get on the train, let’s see if we can’t at least enjoy the ride. And this is the real point of this episode – Clara, plus Huey, Duey and Louey wandering around beautifully designed corridors, bumping into boot closets, swimming pools and libraries of which we’ve often heard tell.

Except that we can’t get on with that because we’re saddled with these characters of the greedy salvage haulers. And you don’t have to be the most brilliant man in the universe to realise that if you let greedy salvage haulers wander around the most incredible ship in the universe, then they will try and carve bits off it to take home. I suppose we should be grateful for some consistent characterisation, but it’s hard not to think that the Doctor must have hit his head a bit harder than we thought. His actions throughout the first fifteen minutes of the story seem designed to make his life far, far harder than necessary.

There’s some nice The House That Jack Built stuff once Gregor nicks the glowy globe thing, but just as the Doctor’s pointless stupidity weakens his character, the TARDIS’s reaction to this threat weakens it in turn. Inside the ship, space, volume even gravity are completely configurable by the ship itself. Guy’s nicked your glowy globe thing? Reverse gravity so it falls out of his backpack. Then burn him up like you nearly did Clara. Why fuck about just making them walk in circles?

And I thought the TARDIS was bust? If it isn’t bust, then the Doctor can fly it to a more convenient location and hunt for Clara at his leisure. But it seems perfectly capable of pulling these sub-M C Escher tricks so just how bust is it? And of course, trapping the Doctor in a maze means he won’t be able to get to the console room to cancel the self-destruct, as possibly one of the Marx Brothers should have noticed. Still maybe they will concluded that the TARDIS will cancel it of its own accord if “she’s” genuinely that self-aware. You see? Once you start trying to make story out of these ideas you have to make them rigorous, and then you run the risk of making them mundane. Thompson needs the capabilities and limitations of the TARDIS to be accurately defined for his story to have any power, but evidently is anxious about binding his successors (or contradicting his predecessors) and so refuses to give us any such clarity.

Now, just being lost isn’t interesting enough, so send in the cheap-looking shambling monsters to menace the interlopers. Director Mat King, possibly aware that this dog of a script has been let down by some shoddy design work shoots them in the dark and out-of-focus but it doesn’t really help. One of them offs Huey (or was it Duey?) which again makes the Doctor’s decision to drag these three reprobates into this environment very, very questionable.

And of course, all of this frantic wandering around, this introduction of morally-bankrupt ship-wreckers, is rendered instantly moot as soon as the TARDIS obediently guides Clara back to the console room. So if the Doctor had jumped in and shut the doors (we’ve seen that damaged or not, it’s as invulnerable as ever, so who cares what the salvage crew try and do to it), Clara would have strolled in about ten minutes later. Job done. Sigh. Sigh. Sigh. Except it isn’t the same console room as the one the Doctor enters later. It’s a shadow… echo… thing… And the TARDIS has done this because…?

Rather than subject you (and me) to much more of this, let’s brush past much of the rest – echoes of the past for no very good reason, steel poles shooting through the walls for no very good reason, and then the genuinely peculiar revelation that yeah, Huey did tell his brother he was an android, BUT AS A JOKE, YEAH?! Moffat is very fond of this Philip K Dick style revelation and with good reason – handled correctly it can be very powerful, as in the case of Oswin the Dalek or poor Miss Kizlet. Here what might have been a neat flip of the android who thinks it’s human never really plays. It doesn’t seem to be a real part of this story and it’s not given sufficient detail to gain any credibility. I mean, be honest, which of us hasn’t tried to deal with the grief brought on by seeing a loved-one suffer a near-fatal accident by attempting to rewrite their entire identity for them. What laughs!

On to the Gantry of Doom. Once again, things we are told in dialogue turn out to have no tangible reality at all. “We can only remain in there for a minute or two or our skin will burn and our cells will liquify,” intones the Doctor severely, but all four then spend many many minutes trotting back and forth, Benny Hill style, without even a wisp of smoke curling up from them. Remember that the apparitions of the Doctor and Clara are because the past was echoing back into the TARDIS? But the golems turn out to be Clara (because one identity crisis is never enough) because now there are echoes of the future too. Why? Does it matter at this point?

And for that matter, just why does being burned up by the Eye of Harmony turn one into a murderous zombie? If there’s enough Clara DNA left for the tricorder to identify, why isn’t there enough for some residual compassion? If her cells have liquified why isn’t she a puddle on the floor?

“Don’t touch each other, or time will reassert itself,” proclaims the Doctor mysteriously, as not-Android-van-Balen bashes the zombie Claras about the head and neck and the two brothers grapple with each other. Who mustn’t touch whom? What will happen should time reassert itself? Is anyone remotely following any of this any more, writer, director and cast included? At this point, the glowy-globe thing suddenly ceases to have any impact on the plot, becoming just another in a long list of ideas that don’t go anywhere or connect to anything in this complete dogs-dinner of a script. It’s also disappointing to see the remaining Val Baalen brothers slaughtered with zero remorse from the Doctor, who tricked them into entering this fatal environment for his own purposes and largely unnecessarily as we’ve seen. That’s more than a sliver of ice in your heart. That’s just being a bastard.

Once we get to the Heart of the TARDIS things improve a little. For once, what we are told actually matches what we see, and the rendering of the exploded TARDIS engine, frozen in time is hugely impressive. But it’s telling that the vision we see here is not a coherent explanation of what we’ve seen before, tying together the loose threads from earlier in the episode. On the contrary, it’s just another new idea stacked on top of an already perilously shaky pile of largely disconnected ideas. And almost as soon as we’ve been taken here, we are taken away by a literal reset button. Okay, Steve Thompson gets a couple of points for bothering to chuck in a couple of lines of dialogue early on to set this up, but instantly loses them again for stealing the key clue shamelessly from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

He then loses more by fudging the reset. At the beginning of the episode we saw the remote control rolling along the floor, so it must have been thrown there by the future Doctor. But we didn’t see the future Doctor whom the past Doctor clearly sees and acknowledges this time. And just what exactly is supposed to have happened when the Doctor presses the button? I think the idea here is just a little cleverer than the execution. By bringing the magic grappling hook’s unnecessary remote control on board the TARDIS, the Doctor is able to give it to his earlier self and use it to switch off the machine before its TARDIS-destroying capabilities are given long enough to do any real damage. But Thompson seems so delighted that he’s been able to generate a reset button that he’s lost interest in how it actually works and so far from seeing Gregor van Baalen mystified at just how another party has managed to take control of his space salvage scoop, seeing the TARDIS freed from its grasp so the Doctor can dematerialise, we just get told that the TARDIS disappeared from the scanner.

And, just as with all good “it was only a dream” endings, we get to have our cake and eat it too. Because of the traumatic experiences that he hasn’t actually been through Gregor van Baalen might be 5% less of a shit from now on. Whoop-de-doo.

So, what can we salvage from this mess? Well, production design and effects were largely up-to-snuff – which used to be a given, but ever since that rotten space bike in The Ringpiece of Akhaten I’m not so complacent. The exception being the Clara-creatures which looked like they could have walked straight off the set of a Jon Pertwee adventure. Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman continued to give it their all, but the guest cast looked ill-at-ease throughout, and who can blame them with a script that makes as little sense as this?

It’s almost a cliché of the older actor asked to perform in a Doctor Who script that they cheerfully admit they didn’t really understand a word of it, but like an old pro, they manage to look the other actor in the eye and say the lines with conviction. But it’s actually rather atypical of the series that it makes as little sense as this. The Void in Doomsday might be an awfully convenient way of hoovering up an army of Cybermen and Daleks but it has specifically defined qualities and capabilities that do not get rewritten as the plot demands. Time and again in this script, the only explanation for all of the bizarre landscapes and peculiarities visited by the cast is the one word TARDIS and that just isn’t good enough. What’s really unforgivable, however, is the lack of connection between the dialogue and the visuals. If the cast are going into a location hot enough to fry their skin and liquify their body cells, is it asking too much to see their clothing smoulder a little?

So, I’m a grumpy fan today. Exploring the delights of the TARDIS should have been a joy and instead it was nonsense. Worse if anything than Akhaten because it promised so much more. But at least we were spared the earlier story’s glacial pacing, litres of schmaltz and adorable moppety heroine, so it’s probably a wash. Two, very grudging stars.

And whither Doctor Who under Steven Moffat? It really is troubling that for all the effort he has gone to to surround new companion Clara with a mysterious plot, he has apparently forgotten to put an actual person in the centre of it. Mistaking complication for complexity is easily done, but there needs to be some actual human cost to all of this mucking about with multiple Claras and there needs to be somebody reading these scripts who is at least trying to connect the dots properly. Dare I say it – possibly the best thing Moffatt could do now for Doctor Who is to leave after the fiftieth anniversary and let someone else take over.

So… what did I think of The God Complex?

Posted on October 1st, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

First of all, I’m aware how horribly late this is. It might be a bit briefer than normal, as I try and crank out this and some thoughts about Closing Time before the finale starts.

To begin with, I’m not a huge Toby Whithouse fan. School Reunion was lovely whenever it was about Sarah Jane and K9, but I detect the jolly Welsh hand of Russell T Davies in much of that material, and I honestly couldn’t have cared less about the standard-issue and barely coherent science-fiction plot it was grafted on to. Did those silly bat things want to eat the children or harness their brains? What was the Skasis Paradigm anyway? Why do I care?

Vampires of Venice was one of a number of stories from series five which I thought suffered badly from being composed largely of left-over-bits and pieces of other (generally better) stories, and so I wasn’t really looking forward to this one much. However, once it began, my wariness began to evaporate. I always enjoy stories confined to a single location – I appreciate the economy and the look forward to seeing the results of a creative constraint. The direction is particularly stylish and energised, with text flashed up on the screen to dramatise poor Lucy’s collapsing mental state.

The Doctor and co. arrive and meet a fairly standard-issue gaggle of cannon-fodder types who explain the horrible secret of this hotel with its shifting walls. I say standard issue, but actually they’re for the most part clearly differentiated, written with wit and played with style. David Walliams as eager-to-surrender Gibbis is terribly funny and Amara Karan makes a huge impact as never-was companion Rita. The large ensemble cast sidelines Rory and Amy a little but the central conceit of the rooms which hold your worst fears is a lovely one.

However, not all of the characters are as fresh or as interesting. Joe is well-played by Daniel Pirrie, but just serves as Basil Exposition. Howie is a tedious cliché, and among a lot of rather uninteresting “worst fears” (PE teachers, spouting hand-me-down lines about “doing it in your pants”, old monster costumes pressed into service, shouty parents who feel disappointed) his is the least interesting by far. An awkward teenage boy afraid of girls. What a waste. A brilliant mechanism for probing each of these characters’ deepest, darkest fears and we get this miserable shop-worn collection. We don’t even get to see what the Doctor’s was, which might have seemed sly and smart if everyone else’s was gangbusters, but here it just seems like a lack of imagination.

And then, as mysteries are replaced by answers, the whole thing completely falls apart. The scene of the Doctor talking to the minotaur is shot splendidly – I imagine there was deep concern here that the thing looked immobile, awkward and not a little ridiculous and consistently shooting it through other semi-transparent objects is a wonderful solution, but what on earth did the explanation mean?

Two new clichés of twenty-first century Doctor Who are pressed into service here. I mentioned Encounter At Farpoint when writing about The Soggy Pirate Rubbish which has basically the same dénouement as this episode. Star Trek, in most of its recent incarnations has suffered a bit by “Farpointing” all of its best enemies. Not content with putting a Klingon on the bridge, DS9 we had jolly Ferengi and in Voyager we had to put up with a friendly Borg. But the best movies – Wrath of Khan, First Contact – are the ones with genuinely evil villains who have to be destroyed. It might be more sensitive and new-age to make your villains well-rounded and understandable, but it’s much, much harder to bring your adventure story to a thrilling conclusion if all your bad-guy wants is a hug.

Then we have the other dominant cliché of modern Doctor Who – say it with me – The Automated System Run Amok. Not only do we have this for the arguably fifth time this year, here it doesn’t even make any sense. As with the leathery Anthony Head things in School Reunion, I’ve absolutely no idea who gains from having this demented prison operate in this bizarre way, nor why the minotaur was so powerless to stop it, not what the Doctor did to bring about its end. It reminded me a little of the Cylons in the (generally excellent) rebooted Battlestar Galactica, whose plan – as it was revealed – appeared more and more to be designed less to bring about what the Cylons claimed to want, but instead to be designed to create maximally dramatic psychological suffering for a small handful of humans. It’s fun for viewers to watch people face their worst fears (or it would have been if they had been more interesting) but what purpose does it solve?

Possibly the best scene in the whole episode was the Doctor ruthlessly dismantling his companion’s faith in order to allow his plan to work. This however, is a near-identical replication of a scene from 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, which uses the neat idea that vampires may be warded off by crosses, not it’s not the object itself that matters but the faith of the person carrying it.

A very frustrating watch – lots of wit, invention and energy, especially in some of the supporting cast, but a central idea which is poorly exploited and a resolution which fatally lacks energy or coherence and – despite Nick Hurran’s extremely accomplished direction – a very ropey looking monster. And then – that coda.

Rather like the Flesh two-parter, a rather run-of-the-mill script, redeemed by some excellent direction, is suddenly elevated by a single stunning scene which ties the events of the preceding story into the fabric of the season as a whole. The Doctor dropping Amy and Rory off in suburban luxury is not shocking in the way that Amy’s milky disintegration was, but it still calls the whole nature of the Doctor/Companion relationship into question in a profound way. I don’t think the Doctor has flung anyone out of the TARDIS since he locked the doors on Susan in until-recently-Dalek-occupied London. Yet, I imagine we’ll see Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill’s names in the credits next week, and I know they will be on the shores of Lake Silencio, so just what is happening here? Is this a genuine departure, with just a few loose ends to tie up, or is it a feint? Is this Adric on the bridge of the freighter his presence in the Radio Times listings for Time Flight notwithstanding, or is it Tegan at the end of that same story, apparently left behind, but picked up again before the next story is over?

In any case, The God Complex earns three, rather generous, stars.

So.. what did I think of The Curse of the Black Spot?

Posted on May 14th, 2011 in Culture | 1 Comment »

This review is late again, partly because I’ve been ill but partly because I just couldn’t get excited about this episode. It’s perfectly fine and entertaining stuff, it isn’t a horrible failure. But nor is it a cast-iron copper-bottomed classic. And that makes it hard to write about, especially because I was left with a vague feeling of disappointment when it was over, despite the fact that it hardly put a piratical boot wrong.

This, of course, is part of the problem with establishing a very strong season arc but (wisely) not committing to fully-serialised storytelling. The “non-arc” episodes automatically have less heft to them than the “arc” episode which means they have to be better than usual in order to compete. But even this really isn’t quite as new as perhaps it seems. Like any non-fully-serialised and long-running series, Doctor Who works because the premise generates any number of stories. Like a medical show in which life-and-death stories can walk in the door every week, the TARDIS can deliver the TARDIS crew to literally any situation imaginable. We don’t need The Death of the Doctor, The Return of the Time Lords, or The Secret of the Eye of Harmony every fucking week. We just want a good story.

But episode two left so many plot threads so ostentatiously dangling that to basically ignore all of them – certainly to develop none of them – and have the Doctor, Amy and Rory seemingly lose all interest is jarring to say the least. It’s rather like watching Jack Bauer surrounded by terrorists armed with automatic weapons, claymores and rabid dogs at 4:59 and then tuning back in for 5:01 to watch them all cheerfully playing softball together. For an hour.

So, maybe the problem – if there really is one – is just in the running order. Black Spot might have played much more strongly if it had come first in the season. We’d have seen the new TARDIS crew functioning as a unit for the first time, without any time-travelling archaeologists obscuring the chemistry. We would be perfectly happy for a carefree pseudo-historical romp, with no strong expectations that the half-remembered plot threads from the end of the last series were going to be urgently addressed. Then you chuck in River Song at the end to set up the arc and you’re off and running. It’s what Davies would have done, I suspect.

Anyway. Taken on its own terms this is basically fine. Some good jokes, especially the captain-on-captain banter between Matt Smith and a very sturdy Hugh Bonneville. Decent pirates – hey look it’s Lee Ross off of Press Gang. A pretty strong central mystery / threat, with the repeated motif of the Doctor proclaiming “ignore all my previous theories” a nice way of keeping the tension up. Some of the details are a little foggy. I think I understand why even moppety Toby can wander the spaceship, free of tubes and wires but will drop dead as soon as he leaves it, but I’m not sure I’d want to explain it to a nine year old. Also, protecting Rory from the “demon” seems to be simply a matter of holding him back (even spindly Amy can do it) so it’s a little peculiar that none of the pirates even try to save their shipmates. And the whole business of her jumping out of reflections is just magic as far as I can tell. Still, so’s the TARDIS being bigger on this inside.

Okay, proper complaints. I have two. Firstly, a series which is really committing to the idea that we have seen the Doctor die, actually die, for realz, Matt Smith is the last incarnation, and he’s only got 200 years to live, a series like that really, really, really needs to stop killing and resurrecting Rory who is rapidly becoming the Kenny of Doctor Who. Following non-fatal terminations in Amy’s Choice, Cold BloodThe Big Bang (sort of) and Day of the Moon (in other words, last week’s episode!) to have him seemingly snuff it only to pop back up again like a novelty birthday candle is a little ridiculous. And, it’s been a while since I did my St John’s Ambulance but Amy’s CPR looked all-sorts-of-wrong to me.

Secondly, I’ve moaned before that Moffat doesn’t write proper villains, so it’s particularly disappointing here that the striking Lily Cole turns out not be a vicious alien beast in urgent need of termination, but yet another automatic system gone awry. Since the series returned in 2005, this has been the solution to the central mystery in a total of four stories – The Empty Child (nanogenes), The Girl in the Fireplace (clockwork androids), Silence in the Library (CAL computer) and The Lodger (emergency holographic program). Depending on your definition of “automatic” and “system” you could also add Fear Her, Smith and Jones, The Eleventh Hour and even Amy’s Choice, although at least there the psycho-pollen was given a charismatically malevolent face by Toby Jones. Examples from the previous 26 seasons are vanishingly rare – The Edge of Destruction, Ghost Light (sort-of), um, er…

Why should this be? Well, firstly, not because no-one had ever thought of it before. It had been a staple of Star Trek for years. Not just implacable computerised killers like The Doomsday Machine, VGER and its TV predecessor Nomad but also in its revelation that horrible monsters have feelings too – the Farpoint creature in the Next Gen pilot, and its original series predecessor the Horta. The appeal of this kind of ending is twofold. Firstly, if your series is identified by its championing of rationality, understanding and humanity instead of featuring heroes who solve problems with fists, guns and explosives, then an heroic epiphany which transforms the threat into an empathetic character is a neat variation from the normal kill-or-be-killed approach. But it’s only a neat variation if you don’t do it all the bloody time.

Secondly, it’s faster. If you have to determine your foe’s weakness, devise a plan, put that plan into action and then confirm it succeeded, then you’d better not be too close to the end of the story when you start that process. On the other hand, it hardly takes any time to at all to say “Wait! It’s just a robot / protecting its young / nanogenes – let’s not kill it.” In the old days, after forty minutes of running-around-being-captured-escaping-and-running-around-again during episodes two and three, it was quite a relief when the plan to kill the bad guy or wipe out the monsters reared its head fairly early in part four. Often, the murdering was all done with five minutes to go and we had plenty of time for smiles, handshakes, goodbyes, tag-lines and “But Doctor, there’s just one thing I still don’t understand”. Nowadays, we can’t hang around. We’ve got 45 minutes and that’s it, including titles, throw-forward and incongruous “arc” moments, to tell a complete non-arc story. We can’t hang about.

But it’s just less satisfying for the solution to be “I know! Let’s do nothing! Everything is in fact okay, despite seeming disastrous mere moments before,” rather than “I’ve got you now” (or even “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”) followed by “I’ll get you for this, Doctor, I’ll… aaarrrghhh!” Where would The Seeds of Doom be without Harrison Chase, or The Invasion without Tobias Vaughan? Even Voyage of the Damned, flawed in all sorts of ways, sputters into demented life whenever Max Capricorn is on-screen. He may not be the best and most layered antagonist the Doctor has ever faced, but when so much else seems so out-of-kilter, it’s reassuring to be in the presence of a genuinely pop-eyed megalomaniac in a funny wheelchair, hurling hubristic insults at the Doctor – before being dumped into nuclear storm drive. By Kylie Minogue. Driving a fork-lift.

Three stars.

Storytelling I: Cause and effect

Posted on March 1st, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

The fundamental quality of stories is cause and effect. A happens and so B happens. The famous quote comparing “The king died and then the queen died” to “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” exemplifies this perfectly.

Consider what we do NOT like about stories. We reject a story when…
– it is too episodic
– it contains too many elements
– it is confusing
– it relies on coincidence
– it “cheats” by introducing new concepts late in the day (deux ex machina)
– (more subtly) the resolution is “too easy”

These are all failures of causality.

The last one is deserving of special attention. Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the story.

Little Red Riding Hood begins with the following (trivial) cause-and-effect.

LRH’s mother asks her to take a basket of cookies to grandma -> LRH sets out on her journey.

Without this causality, the story doesn’t begin.

But there is a deeper causality too. LRH’s mother tells her “don’t stray from the path” (or “don’t stop to pick flowers on the way” or “don’t talk to strangers” or some combination, depending on which version you read). When LRH does stray/stop/talk she brings about her own brush with death, further strengthening the bonds of cause-and-effect. Without this instruction and disobeyment, the wolf feels arbitrary. With them, we understand what CAUSES the interaction with the wolf.

Hence, when a story is resolved too easily – we sometimes feel that cause-and-effect is missing. If at the end of Star Trek II, the engines are fixed in time to escape the Genesis Wave, then the audience feels they are fixed in time BECAUSE that gets the Enterprise out of danger and for no other reason. If (as actually happens) the engines are fixed at the cost of Spock’s life, then the audience knows that the Enterprise was saved BECAUSE Spock was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The following film, despite some bright moments, effectively unpicks the previous films causality.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.