Archive for October, 2011

The Hunt for Tony Blair vs Holy Flying Circus

Posted on October 23rd, 2011 in Culture | No Comments »

Recent days in television have brought us two resurrections of once-feted comedy group, one recreated by new actors, courtesy of a script from The Thick Of It scribe Tony Roche, the other with many of the old team reassembled for another jog around the track.

Taking The Comic Strip’s The Hunt for Tony Blair first, it can certainly be said that this is better by far than the almost entirely uninteresting Sex, Actually. It also runs true to that strand’s usual form, in tone, structure and approach. The team that satirised the miners strike in 1988 (three years after it ended), The Professionals in 1984 (three years after it ended) and The Fly in 1988 (two years after the film was released) now tackles the Prime Ministership of Tony Blair four years after he left office.

Structurally, the film resembles several other Comic Strip efforts including War (the second-ever), South Atlantic Raiders and Spaghetti Hoops, being essentially a series of sketches, related only by the fact that the same protagonist turns up to each situation in turn. Here that protagonist is Comic Strip newcomer Stephen Mangan whose wide-eyed optimism suits Blair nicely, and the recurrent trope of Blair’s blithe optimism and ruthless rationalisation is probably the film’s best joke. “It’s never pleasant strangling an old man with his own tie,” muses Blair in a voice-over, “but what’s done is done and we move on.”

However, the secondary focus of the satire is all over the place. Lurching from decade-to-decade the piece spoofs The Thirty Nine Steps, The Fugitive, Sunset Boulevard and others, never really skewering any of them. From the steady aim and clear focus of Five Go Mad In Dorset, we are now dangerously close to Scary Movie territory. It’s when Blair turns up at Mrs Thatcher’s mansion (with Jennifer Saunders reprising the role with far less wit than in GLC) that things completely fall apart as tone, taste and even basic plotting are jettisoned in pursuit of cheap laughs.

Elsewhere, Robbie Coltrane and Nigel Planer prove once again that they are the best actors in the team, but are never given anything funny to say. Rik Mayall is reduced to face-pulling and falling over. Harry Enfield is very funny but only on screen for sixty seconds and Richardson himself is embarrassingly poor as George Bush. Technical standards have slipped too with several shots overexposed, ruining the film noir look and several mismatched shots just stuck together hopefully when surely a cut-away could have been found somewhere.

Overall, this feels laboured, plodding and rather uninspired. Holy Flying Circus at least had energy, taking the smart decision to tell the story of the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian by focusing on a manageably short period of time – the few months between the film’s American release and Cleese and Palin’s appearance on TV opposite Malcom Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark. Whereas the Comic Strip film shows a shaky hand, falteringly guessing at what effect these various choices might have on an audience, Tony Roche’s script has a very clear intent – to play fast-and-loose with time, space, reality and truth (to the ire of many of the real Pythons).

This is only partially successful. Some of the tropes are fun, like the same actor playing both Terry Jones and Mrs Michael Palin. Others just seem pointless, like Darren Boyd apologising to camera for basing his portrayal of John Cleese mainly on Fawlty Towers or Jason Thorpe’s ludicrously manic TV director Alan Dick screaming absurd insanities in the manner of Matt Berry in The IT Crowd. The trio of Christian protestors lead by Mark Heap get a bit too much screentime for my liking, and their rejection of the Bishop is too pat to be convincing. Far more telling, I think, is the story oft-told by the Pythons but omitted here, that back in the green room after the show was over, a genuinely angry Michael Palin was staggered to see Muggeridge and the Bishop genially passing around drinks and congratulating all concerned with having pulled off such a lovely piece of television.

Hats off to some of the other cast members though, including a spookily accurate Michael Palin from Charles Edwards, a hilarious Malcolm Muggeridge from Michael Cochrane and a brilliantly sappy Tim Rice from Tom “PC Andy” Price. A worthily experimental telling of a fascinating moment in English comedy history, told with brio but with enormous self-indulgence, and that probably only needed an hour to be just as effective.

So… what did I think of The Wedding of River Song

Posted on October 5th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

Oh, that Steven Moffat can write a Doctor Who season finale, can’t he? A weird vision of Earth – all familiar elements but jumbled up in delightful ways, a storyline which jumps back and forth in time, revisiting events from earlier episodes and seeing them from a new angle, set ups from the very first episode of the season now being paid off, old friends and enemies popping back for a visit, a quick appearance of a Dalek just for fun, Rory nobly in uniform bravely protecting Amy who has forgotten who he is. Some of it was a bit of cheat, sure, and I’m not quite sure I understood what the Doctor did at the end there, but it came with such a huge emotional wallop I really didn’t care. Four stars.

Unfortunately, that’s last year’s season finale I’m talking about. And this year’s slavish emulation of last year’s is the least of its problems.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. As irrelevant and idiotic as it was, the vision of the 5:02 universe was bracing and superbly well-realised – what a pleasure to see Simon Callow back as Charles Dickens. The Doctor with a beard is a fun image and the Silents are as effective as ever, albeit rather under-used. Amy’s office-on-a-train is all sorts of awesome and her execution of Madame Kovarian finally gives some heft to the baby-kidnapping plot which has been treated in such an off-hand manner since the series returned. The punch-line with The Doctor (like James Bond at the beginning of You Only Live Twice) believed dead by his enemies is a good way of modestly rebooting a series which was rapidly disappearing up its own probic vent. The tribute to Nicholas Courtney is touching and appropriate.

Okay, now the minor niggles.

The whole story requires the Doctor to be constantly talking to other people about how clever he is being, which is dramatically weak, despite Moffat’s best efforts to ramp up the tension by having Churchill’s palace progressively invaded by Silents. When Churchill is abandoned, a not-very-convincingly decapitated Dorium Maldovar takes over the role. The last thing we need at the end of this Moebius Pretzel of a series is the set-up for another arc, let alone one derived from Silver Nemesis of all things. Could we not have even a little bit of closure for once?

My need for a good, hissable villain and some genuinely malevolent monsters is fed by the reappearance of Madame Kovarian and her army of Silents, but her reappearance doesn’t achieve anything (except her satisfying death at Amy’s hands, as noted) and it’s not at all clear to me what, if any, role the Silents played in her plan to turn Rory and Amy’s offspring into a custom-made Doctor-killer, nor really how the events of The Impossible Astronaut and A Good Man Goes To War are even remotely connected.

Simon Fisher-Becker needed to keep his head a lot stiller in that box to avoid looking like he was wearing it on his shoulders (which of course, he was). And on the subject of dodgy effects, the sight of Mark Gattiss (for it was he) being chewed up by those skulls was just embarrassing.


Since 23 April 2011 – 161 days ago, 23 weeks, over five months – we’ve been told that the Doctor dies at Lake Silencio. Canton Everett Delaware III intones “that most certainly is the Doctor and he most certainly is dead.” Now, shortly before the series finale, news reached us that filming on the Christmas Special with Matt Smith had begun, so if even a scintilla of doubt remained that the Doctor would in fact survive this encounter, those doubts were swept away. We all knew, sitting down on 1 October – as in fact we know every week – that this was not the end of Our Hero. The question was not “whether?” but “how?”

And after this much build-up, after cranking up the stakes this high, after making us wait nearly half a year and then making the Doctor increasingly pessimistic, resigned, fatalistic and gloomy as his certain death approaches, the answer that was provided needed to clear a pretty high bar. To be clear, it needed to be…

  • Surprising. If it’s predictable, what’s the point?
  • Set up. The solution needs to be hiding in plain sight (to coin a phrase), not some magic new whoosit we’ve never seen before. Note that these first two are in apparent conflict, and yet Moffat has proved himself a master at this kind of sleight-of-narrative in the past.
  • Not a cheat. It must not contradict anything we’ve already heard, or rely on anything brand new. Agatha Christie rules. It’s only satisfying if we have enough information to work it out ourselves. It must be consistent.
  • Come at a cost. If it’s too glib, too easy, then who cares? The apotheosis of this is the Doctor’s despatch of the Daleks into the Void in Doomsday. The solution is apparently a little too easy, but the cost of carrying out this plan, turns out to be heartbreakingly mighty. As noted in paragraph one, The Big Bang rescues the glib nonsense of its ending with the emotional punch of the Doctor’s goodbyes and Amy’s resurrection of the TARDIS using the wedding rhyme – something old, something new…

In my view, the resolution of the death of the Doctor in The Wedding of River Song fails in every one these. Let’s take them in order.

Was it surprising? No, not really. As I noted in my review of Let’s Kill Hitler, we now have not one but two sources of Doctor-Dopplegangers to take that supposedly fatal blast by the shore of Lake Silencio. This in itself is poor plotting. Just as The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People ought not to have needed two different crucibles of magic goo serving different purposes, Series Six ought not to have need two different magic people-copying technologies. If the surprise is just a matter of guessing which of them is needed to accomplish the switch, then it’s hardly a surprise at all. In fact, the heavy favouring of the Tesselecta in the “previously” gives the game away almost completely.

Now actually, for me this is the least important of the four. It will never be a total surprise anyway, because we know the Doctor won’t die, but making the resolution so totally predictable puts even more pressure on the other elements. Unfortunately, they all fail too.

Set up. Well, insofar as we have seen the Tesselecta before, I suppose this is set up – at the cost of surprise as noted above. But when we consider point three – is it a cheat? – we begin to see just how poorly set up it is. Almost nothing about what the Tesselecta is required to do is set up in its earlier appearance in Let’s Kill Hitler. Although able to mimic humans, clothing and even motorbikes (although not glasses, bizarrely), it nevertheless renders them rather stiffly and bloodlessly. It carries a human(oid) crew which can react, albeit not very quickly, to fresh stimuli and all of whom are apparently necessary for its operation.

However, the Doctor we see at Lake Silencio is not stiff and awkward, he’s not slow to react, he’s just as quicksilver, lithe and supple as ever. When the astronaut zaps him (with what weaponry, by the way?) he then appears to regenerate, despite the Tesselecta having shown no ability to regenerate and no known ability to simulate the appearance of such a thing. Steven Moffat’s slightly grumpy Twitter reply to a fan who raised this – very fair – point is as follows: “If it can simulate a human being to the last detail, a light show is nothing. We can do that NOW – ask the Mill.” Sadly, all three of these points are wrong. It has been set up as being unable to simulate a human being to the last detail, it’s simulations have always been depicted as flawed and imperfect up till now. But even if it had been depicted as able to replicate humans perfectly, it does not follow that it perforce has the ability to simulate a uniquely Time Lord attribute. It’s like rebutting a complaint that a hero had shown no previous ability to hold his breath for ten minutes by pointing out that he is very good at skiing, so holding his breath for a superhuman length of time would probably be easy – no? Finally, The Mill may be able to overlay a flat image of a regeneration effect on a flat image on a TV screen, at a modest resolution and given sufficient rendering time. Neither they nor anyone else can make such a thing appear, in three dimensions, visible from all angles, in real-time, around a moving human.

Finally, the Tesseledoctor “dies” and is burned. So all the exquisite machinery which drives this phenomenal robot is burned up and at no time is anything resembling a mechanism revealed. Everyone who witnesses the pyre continues to see burning flesh and bones, and not the charred remains of circuits, gantries control panels – oh, and while I’m at it – the burned and useless remains of the machinery required to return the Doctor back to his regular size. And presumably the rest of the crew, all willingly risking their lives too. Or does the ship only require one operator now?

Now, no doubt it’s possible to invent explanations for all of these apparent contradictions, but that’s not my fucking job. It’s the writer’s job, and when the writer fails, it’s the show-runners.

Finally, what’s the cost of all of this? Absolutely nothing! And who is it for exactly? Either time – all-powerful, all-knowing TIME – requires and insists that the Doctor meet his death at Lake Silencio or it will be 5:02 forever, or the universe will end, or some fucking thing. OR time merely requires that four random individuals witness something which looks a bit like the Doctor being murdered and the Doctor knows that and so can cheerfully stage a fraudulent version of the supposed event whenever he wishes with a minimum of soul-searching and companion-torturing. But not fucking both. If he could have sent a Flesh avatar or a robot double in his place at any time, why didn’t he just do that and get on with it? Quite how these four eye-witnesses turn into the entire universe knowing of the Doctor’s death is also not remotely apparent.

By the time River was switching between “I can’t stop myself” and “hello sweetie” for no apparent reason at all, I was ready to abandon the whole enterprise. Consider what we are being asked to swallow here – a robot double of the Doctor from 200 years in the future, controlled by a miniaturised Doctor, summons Rory, Canton, a Flesh avatar of Amy and one version of River Song to watch another version of River Song dressed in a spacesuit for no reason, hiding in a lake for no reason, to pretend to execute him and then burn the robot body because a nursery rhyme told him to. For fuck’s sake.

So, that was Series Six. I can’t give the finale more than one star. It’s worth at least two, maybe even two-and-a-half. Technical standards are high, performances are faultless, lots of good jokes. But the one thing it had to accomplish was to pay off all the set-ups and after this much waiting, it just wasn’t good enough. This is a particular shame, since Series Six has been in general a huge improvement over the vertiginously variable Series Five. Whereas last year gave me disappointment after disappointment in the form of mis-fires like Victory of the Daleks, Vampires of Venice and Vincent and the Doctor (yes I know you liked it, fair enough), and a competent but unremarkable piece like the Silurian two-parter seemed magical in comparison, this year we’ve had a much higher average, with even minor disappointments like The God Complex and Closing Time still seeming fresher and more confident than much of the previous year, and the best this year was some of the best the series has ever done. I suppose what I’m saying is that a creative team that can come up with The Doctor’s Wife, A Good Man Goes To War and The Girl Who Waited is surely capable of a better season finale than this. Apparently not.

Final ratings…

  • The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon – The Silents are a brilliant creation, and this is vibrant, funny, challenging stuff. Four stars.
  • Curse of the Black Spot – Soggy. Two stars.
  • The Doctor’s Wife – perfection. Five stars.
  • The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People – didn’t quite deliver everything it promised. Just scrapes four stars, largely for the Doctor/Doctor double act and the shattering ending.
  • A Good Man Goes To War – propulsive, kinetic stuff. Some of Moffat’s very best writing with Strax and Colonel Runaway. Five stars.
  • Let’s Kill Hitler – Again, this is so structurally awkward that I want to downgrade it to three stars but it’s just so winning. I think the finale has tarnished it a little. Three-and-a-half stars.
  • Night Terrors – not the very best of the best, but everyone involved knows what they’re doing. Especially if you ignore the series arc, four stars.
  • The Girl Who Waited – outstanding stuff. Proper science-fiction, proper acting and proper tear-jerking. Five stars.
  • The God Complex – a better start than Curse of the Black Spot, but exactly the same damned low-stakes, who cares, ending. Three stars.
  • Closing Time – amusing but uneventful. Two-and-a-half stars.
  • The Wedding of River Song – colourful but entirely vacuous. I feel rather betrayed. One star.

So… what did I think of Closing Time?

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

I like Gareth Roberts’ stuff enormously as a rule, and although I felt some of the humour in The Lodger was over-done, I liked the Craig character very much and was genuinely invested in his relationship with Sophie, so I was perfectly happy to see them return. As it happens, the splendid Daisy Haggard is bundled out of the door with unseemly haste, so we can explore the relationship between The Doctor, Craig and of course Stormaggeddon.

I’m really not sure what this episode was about. One of the issues I had with The Lodger was the way in which the Doctor, purportedly desperate to discover what was happening in the flat above Craig’s, was perfectly happy cooking omelettes and playing football for the most part. Likewise here, while I’m pleased to see Cybermats again, and pleased that they still fly through the air as unconvincingly as ever when on the attack, I don’t have any real sense of who these Cybermen were, what they were doing there or what they wanted, or what the Doctor was doing there.

There’s plenty of fun and funny lines along the way. The play on the word “companion” is delightful, exploiting always-amusing male homosexual anxiety without being too On The Buses about it. Matt Smith excels at making the Doctor’s bizarre behaviour result in having people who have never met him instantly like and trust him, and Craig’s fumbling attempts to recreate Time Lord charisma makes for a fun set-piece.

But surely nobody believes even for a second that when that dodgy-digital Cyberskull closes around Craig’s chubby head that he will never be seen again, or even be affected in the least by his encounter, so the climax has no real suspense or power or energy at all. Worse, after the Farpointing of last week’s minotaur, Craig’s demolition of the Cybership is only a millimetre away from the horrendous Star Trek cliché of confusing a computer to death (not that Doctor Who has always successfully avoided this trope either). Hanging a lantern on this by having Craig make fun of it doesn’t make it go away either.

In what has been a remarkably strong run of episodes, navigating the mid-season bridge very effectively, this penultimate instalment unfortunately feels cheap, second-hand, uninspired and not at all thought-through. Presumably Moffat was too busy making sure that episode 13 was going to be a total barnstormer. Again, the most effective part of the episode is the coda, which has nothing whatever to do with the episode-of-the-week plot, but is sowing (and reaping) seeds for the season arc, confirming that – yes indeed – it was River Song herself in that sub-aqua spacesuit. And providing the welcome return of the genuinely villainous Frances Barber complete with her Travis-style eyepatch. Now, if she turns out to be a misunderstood automated medical program, I really am going to be pissed off.

Apparently I gave The Soggy Pirate Rubbish three stars when I first reviewed it. This is an obvious error. That story goes down to two stars, which gives me room to give Closing Time two-and-a-half.

Bring on Lake Silencio!

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.