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Trekaday #091: Image in the Sand, Shadows and Symbols, Afterimage, Night, Take Me Out to the Holosuite, Drone

Posted on June 15th, 2023 in Culture, Uncategorized | No Comments »

DS9 S07E01 Image in the Sand (3.5 out of 5 stars). In some ways, it’s convenient that it was Terry Farrell who quit. Probably only Odo and Worf were genuinely irreplaceable. Losing Sisko would have been tough, but Kira could have stepped up to run the station. We could have got a new doctor, Rom could have taken over the bar, O’Brien and Kira we could have worked around. Obviously, Deep Space Nine works without Worf, but his connection back to 1987 is difficult to replace. And having a Changeling on the station was obviously needed for the final stages of the Dominion War to have personal as well as Galactic stakes.

But the nifty thing about Dax is that, just as Curzon gave way to Jadzia, so Jadzia can give way to Ezri, and we can have a whole new angle on this interesting bit of science fiction biology. It’s just a shame that it curtails the Worf/Jadzia relationship so decisively. Nicole de Boer doesn’t appear until the episode’s end (which seems tactful) so we’ll discuss her next time.

In the inter-season gap, various things have changed. Major Kira is now Colonel Kira, and she has a new all-business hairdo. She’s in charge of the station in Sisko’s continuing absence (and she calls Admiral Ross “Bill” now). The invasion of Cardassia has ground to a halt (according to Worf, who is drowning his sorrows in Vic Fontaine songs). Sisko is back on Earth, seeing visions of a woman’s face peeking out of some sand dunes, and she turns out to be a figure from his dad’s past.

It’s a slow-burn, this episode, rather reminiscent of TNG’s excellent Family, all people talking miserably in rooms, rather than the epic space battles we were treated to at the end of the last season. It’s almost a relief when a creepy guy in a red hood slices Sisko’s belly open. But the rich characters make a check-in episode like this worthwhile, even if it doesn’t start us off with a bang.

DS9 S07E02 Shadows and Symbols (4 out of 5 stars). There’s no “Part II” caption, but this continues nearly seamlessly from where Image in the Sand left off, and here’s where we meet Ezri for the first time, learn her backstory and start deciding whether we like her or not. Well, she’s no Terry Farrell, but the producers have clearly decided to head in a very different direction. If Jadzia was an old head on young shoulders, Ezri is a blur of personalities, still coming to terms with fundamental facts about her biology, with none of the support that was offered to her predecessors. She turns to Sisko for help, and you can see immediately how much it helps him to have someone to help. So, off they go together, to seek the Wizard. I’m less impressed when she starts barfing on the runabout. It would be a shame to replace one of the most capable, experienced members of the team with a little girl character who’s nervous about everything and space in particular.

Quark volunteers to join Worf’s mission to get Jadzia into Sto’Vo’Cor. I confess I don’t entirely understand how this works, or if – as mentioned by other characters – whether Klingon Valhalla is going to be Jadzia’s idea of a good time. How does Worf risking his life guarantee someone else’s place in the afterlife? Of more interest to me is Kira negotiating to get those Romulan weapons off Bajor’s moon, even if it means setting up a blockade.

Dax is right, Sisko is getting stranger. And in a quite brilliant flourish, his story is partly told through the eyes of his 1950s alter-ego Benny Russell. This is very fine stuff, expertly melding mysticism, character drama, science fiction adventure and meta fiction in a very complex way – and the crosscutting between this and Kira’s brinkmanship adds tension to both strands. Only the Klingon story thread is a let-down, and even that has a strong ending. However, it can’t be denied that the chief function of this episode is to undo much of the exciting developments from the end of last year, which gives me a queasy feeling. Are we going to start yo-yo-ing back and forth instead of forging on to new situations? Meanwhile: “Worf, we have to talk.” Er, yes.

DS9 S07E03 Afterimage (3 out of 5 stars). Weird times for Ensign Ezri Dax who walks around the station, and even examines the Bajoran wormhole doom box where Jadzia met her end, and has clear memories of all these places despite never having been there before. As Kira says, it’s a lot to get used to. She also claims she isn’t staying on the station. We’ll see about that. When Worf appears over her shoulder at Quark’s, the Ferengi comments drily “I bet the two of you have a lot to talk about,” which is pretty soggy scriptwriting, as that’s almost exactly what Ezri said right to his face last episode. The Klingon’s initial fury at seeing Ezri is a powerful evocation of grief but risks making the proud Klingon seem petulant and immature.

Garak is being kept far too busy by Starfleet Intelligence to make silly costumes for O’Brien and Bashir. He’s also more tetchy than usual and eventually he suffers from a claustrophobic attack and – lo! – Ezri Dax is a counsellor-in-training and Sisko thinks she might be just what Garak needs. I still struggle to connect Nicole de Boer’s lisping lost-little-girl performance to the assured swagger which Terry Farrell brought to Jadzia. She’s appealing enough as a performer, but definitely a downgrade in terms of capability and, I fear, story possibilities. Her attempt to counsel Garak out of his claustrophobia by sharing stories about her space-sickness at first only ends up with Garak feeling claustrophobic and her feeling space-sick.

Of all people, it’s Julian Bashir who forms the strongest bond with the newly-promoted Lt Ezri Dax, who – somewhat inevitably – ends up as station counsellor. And that’s the job of this episode, which it does smoothly but rather unsurprisingly.

VOY S05E01 Night (4.5 out of 5 stars). The Republic serial opening with Kim as Flash Gordon and Paris as King of the Rocketmen (aka Captain Proton) is a supremely confident way to kick off the episode, and the series (as is the Doctor’s colourful intrusion into their monochrome fantasy). It’s certainly more fun that that dreary pool hall, the tiresome luau, or the only fitfully interesting Florentine workshop. In the real world, Voyager is trudging through eerily empty space with no stars, planets or ships to be seen. Another concept which feels both very Star Trek and uniquely Voyager, which is all to the good.

Taking the tedium of the featureless stretch hardest is Janeway, who has retired to her quarters, seemingly forever, leaving Chakotay to run the ship with his usual bland efficiency. Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky’s script likewise keeps Kate Mulgrew off screen for much of the early running as crew morale continues to plummet. When we do catch up with Janeway, she’s mired in introspection and self-doubt, re-living the decision she took in The Caretaker which put two crews in this dire situation.

When a sudden power drain hits the ship, just before the third act break, it’s almost a disappointment. But it’s on theme, as the featureless blackness of space earlier seen through the windows gives way to familiar rooms and corridors shrouded in darkness. And hiding in the darkness is an intruder of some kind. So this does end up as yet more Zagbars vs Zoobles, but it forces Janeway to confront the benefits and drawbacks of her leadership style in a “Captain my Captain” scene which teeters on the brink of cheese, but just – and I do mean just – manages to avoid toppling over. Overall, this is a very imaginative and effective season opener, Voyager setting out its stall as the flagship series, on the big network, and unencumbered by years of necessary continuity.

DS9 S07E04 Take Me Out to the Holosuite (3.5 out of 5 stars) Sisko greets the visiting Vulcan coldly. After waving their medals at each other, the rivals decide to settle their differences via a Holographic baseball game. I don’t share Ron Moore’s enthusiasm for the most American of sports, but I do like Sisko cutting corners, treating rules as guidelines and acting from the gut (just as much as I like seeing Picard following the book, finding loopholes instead of ignoring inconvenient statutes and articulating detailed reasons for his actions). It possibly hasn’t occurred to the grinning station commander as he beams at his senior staff that there isn’t one American human among them, but the Irishman, Anglo-Indian, Bajoran, Klingon, Trill and Ferengi agree to give it a try and begin studying up. It’s complex stuff, full of confusing and unfamiliar terminology. Thank goodness they aren’t playing cricket.

It’s nice seeing Ezri included as part of the crew without issue. Sure, it’s quick, but there are only so many episodes left and we spent much of the last two (and almost all of the last one) dealing with the fact that she was here and Jadzia wasn’t. If she’s going to be an outsider for much longer, it’s going to get repetitive. But the antics of watching the mismatched crew struggle to achieve any kind of competence, together with rum-te-tum music from David Bell to tell us how amusing it all is, does test my patience over this kind of length. I know sports movies and I know how they go. This one is fine, and it’s nice to see our characters as a gang of friends, but it’s not really what I’m here for.

After one brief establishing shot, Sisko elects to have the computer delete the holographic (and expensive) spectators for most of the rest of the match.

VOY S05E02 Drone (4 out of 5 stars). The Doctor and Seven of Nine are working together on a stellar surveying mission. Seven doesn’t understand why the Doctor is included and neither do I. It all goes tits-up and an emergency beam-out is required, which damages (and Borg-ifys) the Doctor’s mobile emitter. This is the kind of junk science which I have come to actively look forward to from this show. Maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but the drawback with a Serious Science Fiction Series like Deep Space Nine is that every so often, I catch myself looking at the absurdity of all these actors furiously emoting away in these ridiculous rubber heads and then the gravitas they’re going for just seems stupid. The beauty of Voyager is that it’s ridiculous all the time, by design.

Torres is trying to diagnose the emitter (when the Doctor isn’t hassling her for updates) and it Borgifys a passing red-shirt. This is a very nifty use of the creatures, as its shiny tendrils spread out through the science lab, like fronds of an alien man eating plant (see Doctor Who’s “The Seeds of Doom”, or for that matter Little Shop of Horrors).

The tendrils become a nursery and the nursery becomes an incubator and the product is a beefy Borg drone, which Janeway wants to keep around. Alas it summons other Borg, which leads to a lot of snooty-bang-bang action, followed by the Reset Button of Inevitable Tragedy. We’ve been here before of course, not just with Hugh Borg but also Data’s daughter, the broken changeling which Odo tried to nurse back to health and so on. But even if it’s easy to see the scaffolding, there is power here, not least because the performances of J Paul Boehmer as “One” and especially Jeri Ryan are so spectacular. Strong start for Season 5. Just in case you were confused, Drone is the episode with One in it and One is the episode I gave five stars to. Speaking of things being confusing, Torres gives the order to Paris “All stop. Keep our distance.”

Trekaday 057: Tribunal, The Jem’Hadar, The Search

Posted on November 26th, 2022 in Culture, Uncategorized | No Comments »

DS9 S02E25 Tribunal (4 out of 5 stars). O’Brien is off on his hols, and good thing too – he seems to have bodyswapped with Dr Bashir, or at least he’s been taking how-to-be-annoying lessons from him. A chance meeting with an old friend on his way out the airlock leads to him being framed for gun running.

As I’ve observed before, the benefit of a flexible format is that you can take a story with a familiar shape and feed it through the meat-grinder of your setting and your people and hopefully get something unique. Here it’s the courtroom drama, and more than that it’s the innocent-falsely-accused flavour of courtroom drama. Deep Space Nine has always had a nuanced take on the Cardassians, with characters like Garak and Dukat showing the shades of grey in their black hearts, but they’re still the series’ main “heavies’ (at least for now), so it’s intriguing to see their idea of a fair trial, especially when we remember Gul Madred’s treatment of Picard.

As there, so here – O’Brien is stripped naked, given drugs and Cardassians clip off any bits of him they like the look of. (Other fans have noted that most seasons contain one or two episodes in the sub-genre of O’Brien Must Suffer, and this is one such.) The verdict of course, has already been determined, and his execution has been scheduled. The purpose of the trial is merely to establish how the crime was committed. The plot runs on rails from this point on, but there’s loads of fun to be had in the ripe guest performances, Colm Meaney’s impassioned ranting, the Kafka-esque Cardassian jurisprudence and the frantic scrambling of his friends on the station.

The Enterprise gets a name check. Avery Brooks is behind the camera for this one. He wasn’t going to make Gates McFadden’s mistake and wait until Season 7.

DS9 S02E26 The Jem’Hadar (4.5 out of 5 stars). Jake exists. And he’s doing generic kid thing number five – a science project for school. He twists his old man’s arm and scores a trip to the Gamma Quadrant, with Quark and Nog along for the ride. It’s kind of a low-stakes and domestic way to kick-off a season finale and it quickly morphs into generic kid thing number six – the family camping trip.

As well as being an outsider in a way that no regular cast member of any previous Star Trek series was, Quark is also unique thus far in being deployed principally for comic relief. Early attempts to give him dramatic material foundered – who can forget his absurd hysterics in Move Along Home? But Armin Shimerman is such a skilled performer that given an even half-decent script he can make it sing, and there are layers to this avaricious creature which keep revealing themselves. It does help though, that when his purpose is to be amusing, he reliably is – such as here, where he declares himself allergic to nature and starts putting aluminium sunblock on his ears.

This is all just softening us up, however, as the true threat, for most of the rest of the series, is coming – and they’re named in the title. The Jem’Hadar don’t quite have the charisma of the Borg, or the complexity of the Cardassians, but they’re going to prove to be quite intractable foes. Before then, please enjoy this backstory.

Having detained Sisko, Quark and a Dominion woman called Eris, the Jem’Hadar saunter on to the station, willies waving, and pretty soon Starfleet’s all in a paddy. Since the first episode, the fabled wormhole has been little more than a hyperspace bypass to novel races, who one hopes will bring interesting plots with them. Now, we turn a major corner as it turns out that a far more deadly enemy is lurking there – one that doesn’t take kindly to strangers.

Jake and Nog’s adventures on the runabout are little but busywork, but Sisko and Quark end up making quite a formidable team – and it’s nice to see a galaxy-class ship and my preferred uniforms once more. But Captain Keogh on the Odyssey struggles to hold his own once Jem’Hadar forces close in. Really, it isn’t since the Borg that we’ve seen anything close to this kind of existential threat to the Federation and our guys. In fact, this is essentially Q Who but without John de Lancie – establishing a major new threat and not resolving it. The difference is that on TNG, the Odyssey would never have been taken out by a suicide run as it was retreating.

DS9 S03E01 The Search, Part I (4 out of 5 stars). After a little over three months off the air, but without the prior episode ending “To be continued…” we’re back with quite a detailed recap. This is called “Part I” but really it’s part two of The Jem’Hadar trilogy. However, things have happened while we’ve been away. Sisko’s gone and got a new motor, Dax is doing her hair like Betty Grable and I think finally the coloured uniform tops have been given a bit of starch so they aren’t flopping about in that aggravating fashion.

The news is grim. Seven simulations give the station two hours to hold off the Jem’Hadar once they start coming through the wormhole. The Defiant was supposed to be the solution to the Borg threat – a new fighting-class runabout, so snazzy it even gets into the opening titles. Starfleet is building warships, with – pointedly – no families and no science labs on board. All available space is used for weapons, which means that the damn thing doesn’t work properly. But Benjamin “Take the Fight to Them” Sisko has a sabre and he’s going to rattle it. The new warp-powered H-bomb even has a cloaking device, courtesy of visiting Romulan T’Rul, played by Martha Hackett who we will see again in another role in Voyager.

And as this is the “all change” episode, Odo is being stood down. He now has to report to Starfleet’s Lt Eddington, which leads to his resignation. Kira, knowing that he’s contracted for six seaons, tries to reinvent him as a diplomat. And Sisko is trying to do the same with Quark, who suggests his brother instead, since “Rom only has a son to think about, I have a business.” Hah!

The other change is that, after two years, Sisko has finally unpacked his stuff. Once again, Jake doesn’t get anything resembling an actual storyline of his own, but having Sisko discuss his personal life with his offspring is more believable than him discussing it with the crew, even Dax, and more elegant than having him growl his way through a voice-over or give himself a pep talk in the mirror.

Off we go then, to try and bring about peace through superior firepower. It doesn’t work, but nor do we see much of the action. The Defiant is presumed destroyed and we discover that Odo and Kira have escaped in a shuttlecraft. After a tense and thrillingly doom-laden episode, this feels like a bit of a cheat, but the final scene with Odo gives us our proper cliffhanger into the next episode. He’s home.

DS9 S03E02 The Search, Part II (3.5 out of 5 stars). We’ve been given hints about Odo’s origins, but – rather like Data – some of his past is unknown even to him. René Auberjonois is superbly good here, creating a genuinely touching portrait of a lost man trying to find his way home. However, some of the information given in past episodes is contradicted here: Odo based his human form on the Bajoran who found him, Dr Mora. But all of the other Changelings greet him in a version of the same form. This is an acceptable visual shorthand, of course, but it feels sloppy. (Let’s not stop and explain it though, I’d prefer to accept the ret-con and move on.)

Oddly, Kira seems more concerned that Odo observe social niceties with the other Changelings that she does about the high probability that Sisko, Bashir and the rest are floating like cinders in space and she’ll never see them again. We quickly establish that they’re fine and have made it back to the station, so we can stop worrying, but I don’t think Kira should.

And, my things move quickly back on the station. The Dominion start creating a formal alliance with the Federation and the Cardassians, but they insist on being a dick to the Romulans. When Sisko – a Starfleet commander who is able to summon a motherfucking admiral to a very brief face-to-face meeting! – can’t talk his superiors round, he sets off on a mission to collapse the wormhole, which mission involves and costs the life of poor old Garak, who thinks the Dominion will be dangerous friends.

As the manic pace builds, and the small inconsistencies build up, eventually it’s a mild relief to be told: it was only a dream, as unsatisfying as that is. The real revelation here is that the Founders, the Changelings, the Dominion and the Jem’Hadar are all aspects of the same group. In other words, the implacable foe waiting on the other side of the wormhole is Odo’s kith and kin. That promises much for the future, but for now, it’s hard not to feel cheated by the rugpull at the end of the episode.

The new-style com-badge (designed for Generations) turns up here, and for the rest of the run.

Season 2 Wrap-up

  • A big jump in quality from Season 1. As we might expect, the characters are stronger, the actors are more comfortable, the writing is surer. But more than that, the true personality of the show is coming through. This is going to be about long arcs, dealing with consequences, and an end to the comfortable complacency that we sometimes saw on TNG.
  • To make that work, the darkness is going to need to be balanced with some fun. Too much O’Brien Must Suffer and The Dominion Kills Everybody and we’re going to be wrung out. That doesn’t mean I want more episodes like Leprechauns on the Station or Deadly Space Monopoly
  • The Dominion is going to shape the next several years of the show. One fair question would be – did we need to wait two years to get here? After all, TNG had already spent five years creating the 24th century. But even though Season 1 in particular was a rough ride, the big strength of this show is the secondary/tertiary cast, so the time taken to establish characters like Kai Winn, Gul Dukat, Gul Evek and especially Elim Garak is time very well spent.
  • Average score for Season 2 is a very impressive 3.62, nudging ahead of TNG Seasons 3-5, but not quite exceeding TNG Season 6 or TOS Season 1 – still the high-water-marks for the franchise in my view.

Trekaday 042: Realm of Fear, Man of the People, Relics, Schisms, True Q

Posted on August 26th, 2022 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

TNG S06E02 Realm of Fear (3.5 out of 5 stars). Poor Barclay should have kept his mouth shut. He figures out how to get the transporter to work through a technobabble interference cloud but then finds himself on the team having to take this “bumpy” ride over to a stricken ship and he scurries off the transporter pad. Before long, he’s confessing his transporterphobia to Troi and he seems almost eager to face his fears. And for the first time, we see transportation from the point of view of the transporter, with a nifty parallax effect on the sparkles. As usual, it’s gratifying to see that Barclay is largely believed when he babbles about creatures in the transport stream (no Michigan J Frog shenanigans here) and the final twist is very cool. Titles are back to normal, but Roddenberry no longer gets a mention in the closing credits (actually this was true of S06E01 as well).

TNG S06E03 Man of the People (2 out of 5 stars). A remix of fairly familiar elements, from Oscar Wilde and from TNG episodes past. Ambassador Smoothie is the only person in the galaxy who can negotiate peace between the Zagbars and the Zoobles. A cranky older lady is on board, snarling at Troi over her marital future. Poor Marina Sirtis struggles to find any chemistry at all with Chip Lucia who presumably got his first name from being carved out of wood. Before long, Old Mother Cranky is dead and Chip Board is performing a hugely suspicious ritual with Troi who promptly turns into Counsellor Cougar. So as well as Troi-falls-in-love-with-the-wrong-dude we’re also going to get the oh-no-I’m-aging-to-death storyline, with a spoonful of the Sarek-needs-a-vessel-for-his-unwanted-emotions-plot, only this time more rapey. Marina Sirtis gets to show a bit more range than usual, but it’s not exactly progress to see her screaming for affection like an unruly child. Once again, sex proves to be the biggest blindspot for this creative team. Even Jeri Taylor, now a permanent fixture in the writers room, can’t stop this from feeling as if it was written by a gang of adolescent boys who haven’t had their first kiss yet. In a particularly absurd version of the Precise Countdown To Certain Doom, Troi can stay dead for exactly 30 minutes with zero ill-effects, but at one second past that time, she will be definitely deceased with no hope of recovery. Once the link with her is severed, her physical condition snaps back into place like a bungee cord too (which is the equivalent of putting out the fire burning your house down and seeing all of your possessions un-incinerate themselves). I’m also concerned for the young science officer that Evil Troi doled out that gleeful tough love to. Although, who knows – maybe it worked!

TNG S06E04 Relics (5 out of 5 stars). Being largely familiar with the original crew only from the movies, watching all of TOS for the first time was an eye-opening experience, not least because both McCoy and Scotty get such short-shrift on the big screen. McCoy gets plenty of screen time, but he’s usually just someone for Kirk to talk to, rather than a person in his own right, and he never gets anything remotely resembling character development. And Scotty gets lumped in with all the others, generally getting four lines of purely functional dialogue and one moment of comic relief per movie. But in the original series, he’s possibly the most able and vital member of Kirk’s crew after Spock – perceptive, shrewd, level-headed, warm and of course an engineering genius. Here, something like that character is back and it’s a pleasure to see him, albeit now as somewhat of a gasbag. The gag of having him survive for decades in the transporter pattern buffer is very clever and it’s a complete delight to luxuriate in the nostalgia of this episode. Eventually of course, it turns out that he has something to learn from the 24th century and the 24th century has something to learn from him, but this never feels cloying or saccharine. I note that this episode edits out the movies too – the transporter effect and the Holodeck recreation of the bridge of the Enterprise are both 60s versions, not later.

TNG S06E05 Schisms (4 out of 5 stars). The crew of the Enterprise is tackling a globular cluster, but there’s an ointment you can get which will clear that right up. Riker is having trouble sleeping, but Data has a cure: his poetry which is enough to put anyone out for the night. Meanwhile the sensors are on the fritz and other officers are starting to complain of similar symptoms. This one doesn’t cut very deep into any of our characters but it’s an engaging mystery, with a satisfyingly detailed solution and Jonathan Frakes is as watchable as ever. This is a high 3.5 but the spooky camerawork in the climax persuades me to round up rather than down. It’s also cool that we don’t get a complete solution to the mystery. It’s fun to think that there are still some strange new worlds out there…

TNG S06E06 True Q (3.5 out of 5 stars). The Enterprise is saddled with an intern, but she’s of surprising interest to Q, who we haven’t seen in some time (not since the incredibly uninteresting Qpid in Season 4). Q is implacably opposed to the Protestant work-ethic which Crusher, Picard and co. are intent on instilling in young Amanda. Like a divorcing parent, Picard insists that he and Q display a united front in front of their charge. Immature characters with god-like powers is scarcely a new Star Trek concept but there’s an intriguing glimpse here into what it would actually be like to be suddenly granted them. On the other hand, Amanda’s mooning after Riker is exactly the same kind of adolescent view of sex and relationships which dogs all four Berman series.

Coping and how I’m doing it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe. Stay indoors. Wash your hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 out of 5 stars


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 out of 5 stars


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

So… what did I think of Heaven Sent?

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


5 out of 5 stars

Let’s have another talk about formal constraints. In my review of Sleep No Bore, I referred to the handful of classic series episodes featuring only the regular cast. I could also have mentioned episode one of The Ark in Space or even episode one of The Space Museum. At this moment of course, the regular cast is only Peter Capaldi, so also relevant to this week’s episode is The Deadly Assassin. Tom Baker had “inherited” Lis Sladen but by the time she had decided to go, he was supremely confident in the role and had begun to wonder whether his next companion could be something other than a spunky young girl (most sources say he suggested a talking cabbage among other notions). Or whether in fact he needed a companion at all. Yes, of course you do, argued producer Philip Hinchcliffe, with one eye on the door marked “Exit” and to prove the point, commissioned a story with no companion. Unfortunately, he asked Robert Holmes to write it who was absolutely at the peak of his powers, and the story which resulted (although hated at the time for its revisionist attitude towards established continuity) is now seen as a stone cold classic. We will return to the subject of how to depict Gallifrey next time…

However, 45 minutes with only one actor (depending on how you count) is hard enough if the goal is something like Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads, but to attempt the same thing in an action-adventure-sci-fi drama is little short of insanity. But Steven Moffat can never be faulted for lacking ambition, and is hugely interested himself in structural devices and formal games, so this is another intricate puzzle box of a script.

Let’s have a talk about those. The potential drawbacks of puzzle box stories are two-fold. Firstly, they are very hard to pull off. Like a good joke, their purpose is to guide you towards a moment of insight where various elements of the narrative suddenly coalesce. If you fumble that moment of insight (either because the resolution is very easy to see coming or because it’s just complete gibberish, or both as in The Wedding of River Song) then the whole construction of your story starts to collapse. But even if you do pull this off, there’s the danger that the experience is rather an empty one, because the need to preserve the twist has distorted the story in so many other areas, and there isn’t room for any emotional catharsis or the usual thrilling-escape-from-death stuff. Blink is the perfect example of the form, and as this blog has previously noted, rather a millstone around the show-runner’s neck.

Returning director Rachel Talaly certainly makes the most of the visual storytelling which the script requires of her. The shots of the castle stranded out at sea, and the underwater material are particularly striking (even if I’m absolutely sure that Capaldi never even got his hair wet). And if the Veil is a bit of a standard issue shambling man-in-a-suit monster, well this is Doctor Who after all. The problem-solving monologues in the imaginary TARDIS are a neat spin on Sherlock Holmes’s mind palace, and I will accept the memories of Clara as falling short of her resurrection, so Face the Raven keeps its four stars for now.

As the final pennies drop, and the reason for the Doctor’s seemingly demented physical attack on the azbantium wall becomes clear, the solution to the puzzle box is married with an appalling sense of just what an enormous cost this victory has come at. Fans of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day may be interested to know that in Danny Rubin’s rather darker original screenplay, it was clear the Phil Connors was trapped not just for a few decades but thousands or even millions of years.

Just before we move on to the final scenes, a few quick points. Firstly, as with the Chronolock last week, the rules aren’t especially clear. It’s established fairly early on that everything in the castle resets itself, but the skulls in the sea outside don’t (so after two billion years, they should be high above the water-line, surely?) and neither – luckily for the Doctor – does that azbantium wall. Secondly, I’m not sure what the second law of thermodynamics has to say about each of the Doctor’s bodies containing enough energy to generate the next one, but with a skull left over each time.

Finally, as well as liking puzzles more than dramatic resolutions, I’ve also taken Steven Moffat to task this year for storytelling loops or narrative vamping. Pages of script which might be full of jokes and incident but do nothing to advance the plot, because they keep one or more characters in a “holding pattern” or return them unchanged to their starting point. I will be very interested to see just how relevant this episode is to next week’s, or whether in fact one could go from the end of Raven to the beginning of Hell, apparently missing nothing.

What makes me suspicious is the reveal that this castle of horrors was the Doctor’s own confession dial. This is presented as an explanation but in fact it is anything but. It raises far more questions, chiefly if this was the Doctor’s own confession dial, then why are its workings a mystery to him? And we still don’t have an answer to the question of why he sent it to Missy in the first place.

Standing alone from the rest of the season, this is a mighty achievement. Funny, excited, impossible to get ahead of, and with a resolution that actually makes sense, while proudly brandishing its absurd ambition. It’s clearly worth five stars if only for Capaldi’s titanic performance and if next week’s episode ends up tarnishing it a little, I will take my disappointment out on the story total score rather than downgrading this one.

Eleven down, one to go…

So… what did I think of Sleep no Morezzzz….

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


2.5 out of 5 stars

I rather like formal games. Movies like Rope (all shot in one take – supposedly) or Interview (with essentially a speaking cast of two) excite me immediately. The best of them make a virtue of the formal constraint, telling a story which wouldn’t make sense without it. Some of them make the constraint into more of a gimmick, which might still be admirably clever but is less likely to quite so thrilling. Sometimes, it’s just an annoying distraction.

Doctor Who stories with this kind of constraint are rare and usually the product of a last-minute scramble to get a script ready. The Edge of Destruction, a faintly demented psychodrama set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast was an act of desperation on the part of the first script editor David Whitaker when not only the TARDIS set but also the Dalek seven-parter had proved far more expensive than anticipated and two more cheapie episodes had to be magicked out of nowhere to keep the show on the road. Similarly, when Derrick Sherwin cut The Dominators from six episodes to five, The Mind Robber had to gain an episode which would only the regular cast and some standing sets (plus some left-over robot costumes from another series).

In the modern era, despite both show-runner’s zeal for headlines, most of the attention-grabbing aspects of the stories have come from their content rather than their form. Sometimes just their titles: The Next Doctor, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Doctor’s Wife etc. Midnight has something of this quality, but the prologue and coda and the overall large size of the cast mean that it doesn’t have quite the same feel. 42 has a very clear constraint – played out in real-time in exactly 42 minutes, but otherwise feels like quite an ordinary slab of mid-Russell Who.

So because of its found-footage gimmick Sleep No More already feels like something a bit out of the ordinary, and it’s not clear (even less so than with The Girl Who Died) whether it is part one of a two parter, contributing to the overall season arc, a true stand-alone story, or some other kind of narrative hybrid. The question will be – does the gimmick satisfyingly integrate itself into the story, is it an unwanted distraction, or is a nice addition but scarcely essential?

From the opening minutes, it’s clear that writer Mark Gatiss and the rest of the production team are doubling-down on the found-footage gimmick. There is no opening title sequence (a first in the show’s 52 year history), just a sort of space word-search (sorry, Doctor), and a dire warning from Reece Shearsmith, finally completing the League of Gentlemen guest star box set. We are introduced to yet another set of hard-to-differentiate cannon fodder, and then we meet the Doctor and Clara.

What follows is rather disappointing. Firstly, the found footage camera style largely just makes the action hard to follow. Secondly, surely someone at some point must have noticed how similar this is to Under the Lake? I don’t just mean they are both base-under-siege stories. They are both base-under-siege stories in which a largely deserted base is set upon by faceless and not entirely corporeal monsters with whom they struggle to communicate and from whom they must hide in special rooms. And this isn’t just linguistic trickery, pulling out the bits which sound the same and ignoring the rest. The two shows feel very much the same, even down to the use of closed-circuit camera footage, except that Sleep No More doesn’t have the time travel element to keep the narrative going.

When it doesn’t feel almost the same as Under the Lake, it has another problem. In the excellent book The Making of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry recalls a studio exec coming to see the filming of a scene from The Devil in the Dark. One of the more highly-regarded episodes of the series, turning a science fiction cliché on its head, the monster which is attacking innocent people turns out to be a mother protecting its young. However, on the day that the studio exec is present, Spock is being treated for his injuries and has the rather graceless line: “Captain, the monster attacked me!” So what the exec sees is a pointy-eared alien bleeding green blood attacked by a monster – pure sci-fi pulp nonsense!

Imagine turning on Sleep No More about half way through and seeing Peter Capaldi running away from those lumbering foam-rubber sleep monsters babbling about sentient mucus, or rolling around on the floor while they shake the cameras because of a “gravity shield failure”. It just looks and sounds like complete drivel. It doesn’t help that as the basically indistinguishable crew get gobbled up, and the explanations are slowly forthcoming, less and less makes any real sense, to the point where the Doctor himself is forced to conclude that the episode is basically nonsense.

And then, there’s that coda where Rasmussen admits that, rather too much like the Angels in The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone, the speck of magic sand dust sleep mucus is embedded in the video rather than a physical item, and that the whole thing was just intended to make us watch so as to infect us. So – wait, does that mean that what we were watching didn’t really happen? If so, why not create a story which did make sense? Or at least not include a character who complains that it didn’t make sense. If it did really happen then how did Rasmussen avoid death? And it’s very out-of-character for the Doctor to leave with so many unanswered questions (or maybe he will continue his investigations next week). And if he has left (assuming he was there at all) and permitted this lethal message to be transmitted back to Earth, does that mean that in the 38th Century, humans on Earth were wiped out by the Sandmen? Bluntly, this is a total mess and none of it makes any real sense at all.

All of which would be much more forgivable – the slightly pointless experimentation with form, the pick-and-mix supporting cast, the aching familiarity, the gibberish ending – if the whole thing had been even a little bit less dull. But this was probably the most boring episode of Doctor Who I’ve sat through in quite a long time. Bland characters in stock situations, a real dearth of good jokes and no spark of imagination.

Well, Shearsmith I suppose was good value and the notion of the Morpheus chamber, if not hugely original, is at least a compelling science-fiction hook. The “no helmet cams” reveal is quite nice – although what was that heads-up display stuff in the first five minutes in that case? – and Capaldi and Coleman continue to do good work with the very little which is available to them.

So, a major misstep in what has been quite a strong season so far. It’s hard to say whether I would have liked this more if it had been transmitted before Under the Lake rather than after, so I’m disinclined to mark it down too harshly for being repetitive, but for being nonsensical and especially for being boring, I have to deduct quite a lot of points. It’s better than the total nonsense of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, the wholly unsatisfactory In the Forest of the Night or the complete gibberish of The Wedding of River Song, but not nearly as interesting as good-but-not-great episodes like The God Complex or The Lodger. Let’s say two-and-a-half stars, whether or not any of these questions get answered in later episodes.

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


Oscars 2014 – The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bells of St John

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

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

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

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

Stray observations

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

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

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

The Rings of Akhaten

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

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

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

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

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

Stray observations

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

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

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

Cold War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stray observations

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Stray observations

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

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