Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Twelve Moffat Era Episodes Worth Keeping

After almost eight years in the driving seat, Moffat's time with Doctor Who is at an end. I have made no secret over the past couple of years how much I grew to dislike his time on the show, sometimes to the point of recommending that new fans skip entire seasons just so they don't get led down the same garden paths I did. But, now we've reached the end, I decided it would be charitable to pick some episodes from Moffat's six seasons of the show that I actually like; two for each series. They're not the only ones I like, but they are the standout few that I would recommend to people, and they are my personal highlights of what I consider to be a terrible part of the show. In order of broadcast...

The Eleventh Hour - Series 5, Episode 1 (2010)

It's easy to forget after all that followed just what a strong start the Eleventh Doctor had. After a lot of initial misgivings following the bizarre ending to The End of Time, Matt Smith's first outing was full of fun action and witty writing that reassured a lot of us about the show's future. Smith's Doctor is yet to degenerate into his later self-obsessed creep and is instead energetic and warm, giving us memorable post-regeneration moments like fish fingers and custard. The time-bending nature of the new companion's introduction strikes an innovative note across the new series, and more than makes up for the run-of-the-mill nature of the rather dull bad guy in the Atraxi.

As I said in my review of the episode, there was definitely a "moment" where the Eleventh Doctor clicked with me as the same character as the previous ten. What interests me now is that despite his actually fairly competent beginning, the bad writing for this Doctor as the show went on led to him becoming my least favourite version. That knowledge makes it difficult to watch the scene here with the same excitement, but I think it just about works. All told, I would say that The Eleventh Hour is the best first episode for any of the NuWho Doctors, and the irony is delicious.

Vincent and the Doctor - Series 5, Episode 10 (2010)

A show like Doctor Who often goes into the past for cameos from historical celebrities, but this episode stands out. Instead of simply placing said celebrity into a story and having events happen around him, this episode is directly aimed at establish Vincent's character and backstory. British comedy writer Richard Curtis uses Doctor Who's conventions in unconventional ways, taking a monster-of-the-week pseudohistorical format and using it to explore the depression of one of Europe's great unappreciated artists.

While the 42-minute format of a Doctor Who story requires that a lot of the real-world subtleties are smoothed over, the story's decision to look into mental health and the legacy of art makes something beautiful out of what would otherwise be an end-of-season filler episode.

The Doctor's Wife - Series 6, Episode 4 (2011)

This series is my least favourite of the revival show by a country mile - long arcs which constrain real story-telling, bizarre decisions like Amy's forced pregnancy and the Doctor's fake-out death, and the mid-season split that exacerbated all of the other issues. The only episode of the season that isn't affected by the all-absorbing tendrils of mediocrity is this one, written by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman for the previous series and moved over to this one.

While at times the episode veers into fan-fiction territory, the discussion of the idea of the TARDIS as a sentient entity was a long time coming, and could not have been brought into reality more perfectly than by Suranne Jones. Add to that lots of nostalgic nods to both RTD and the Classic Series, a fab villain in Michael Sheen's House and a general sense of fantastic whimsy, and you have one of NuWho's best episodes.

The God Complex - Series 6, Episode 11 (2011)

So what if Toby Whithouse took the ending straight from The Curse of Fenric? I *love* The Curse of Fenric! And I love Toby Whithouse. Despite me saying that The Doctor's Wife was the only episode that had escaped Series 6's terribleness, this one is actually my favourite from the season, and the only one I consider worth rewatching. The unnerving hotel which exploits people's fears is such a fantastically Doctor Who kind of plot, and with the episode's well-realised cast of characters the episode hits every beat it needs to in terms of action and plot. I remember especially liking the fake-out companion Rita, even if the exchange "You're a Muslim/Don't be frightened" is even more tone deaf now than it was in 2011. And, although it wasn't permanent (it never is with Moffat), I loved the fact that Amy and Rory left! Needless to say that they had outstayed their welcome considerably by this point, and I was glad for the small hope that this was the back of them.

A Town Called Mercy - Series 7, Episode 3 (2012)

The only decent episode of the five episode "September Series" from 2012, A Town Called Mercy is another decent Whithouse episode, this time putting the Doctor, Amy and Rory into a Western town that has been infiltrated by an alien war criminal and the cyborg sent to bring him to justice. Aside from just loving Westerns, I liked this episode because of the fact it actually asked some moral questions. You know, like this is actually science fiction or something. While it has its goofy moments, and the main moral conflict isn't satisfied in a particularly interesting way, the fact that it actually inspires thought makes it an oasis of civilisation in a period of the show that was veering wildly out of control.

Cold War - Series 7, Episode 8 (2013)

Guys, I was so excited for Clara. After watching Amy and Rory's terrible writing for three years, I was looking forward to some Northern charm from Jenna Coleman's new companion. Clara is difficult to parse for me, because her three-ish seasons varied so wildly. In Series 7, she had little to no actual character that we could see, with a great deal more that was simply told to us by other characters without much evidence. Cold War, the third episode of the 2013 half of Series 7, is the best because it manages to take this and, for one episode, subvert it.

Finding themselves on a Russian submarine in 1983, the Doctor and Clara find themselves trying to pacify an Ice Warrior, making their first appearance since 1974. Clara is seen to be compassionate and empathetic, and is ultimately the solution to the episode's dilemma. I love the 80s soundtrack, the base-under-siege plot and the new-look Ice Warriors, who manage the difficult task of respecting the Classic Series and still feeling modern.

Flatline - Series 8, Episode 9 (2014)

True story: this list was almost a ten episode list, because I forgot Series 8 existed. Capaldi's first season suffers from writing that is usually more bland than painful, as the writers tried to make Twelve into an ambiguous moral figure. This has been attempted before, but the issue with this was more that instead of spending time showing Twelve making questionable moral choices, the end result felt a lot more like Capaldi being constantly grumpy and rude, and going "Am I a good man?" every other episode. The only upshot of this was that Clara seemed to gain a personality overnight and the relationship between her and Twelve became more complex and real as a result.

By comparison to the season around it, Flatline felt a lot more like an early Tennant episode - set on a council estate with some unique aliens and TARDIS hijinks. The standout performances of Jovian Wade and Christopher Fairbank as graffiti artist Rigsy and council worker Fenton respectively help to flesh out the premise of 2D aliens trying to enter our dimension by providing stakes we can work with. Add to that the element of The Doctor being trapped in the TARDIS and relying on Clara throughout the episode, and what could have been bland comes alive.

Dark Water - Series 8, Episode 11 (2014)

You will notice later that every one of Capaldi's eleventh episodes is on this list. Capaldi's finales have a flare for the ridiculous that usually start off on the right foot with a strong premise and go downhill in the second half. In this case, the episode actually culminates a lot of the season's slightly nebulous themes and brings it together in a way which threatens to change the status quo of the Doctor Who universe, as well as providing a double whammy cliffhanger that left me excited to be watching the show again after so many boring episodes.

Danny Pink is not my favourite NuWho character, especially as his relationship with Clara gave off some abusive vibes in the mid-season with Clara scared to let him know that she was with The Doctor for fear of his reaction. The finale worked with his character and gave us a side to his soldier past that felt three dimensional and worth the build-up. It also let us have the moment at the start of the episode with Clara and the Doctor where they finally have a stand-off, and it's great stuff.

This in turn leads us into the grander plot of the episode - the Nethersphere, and Missy's plot with the Cybermen. While I questioned whether some of the comments in the episode were wise ("The dead can feel it when you cremate them, lol!"), I really did like the concept and how it was executed. Missy is a bloody masterstroke - Michelle Gomez brings a brand new personality to The Master that is playful and unpredictable in a way that is more endearing than Simm's Joker-like performance.

The Woman Who Lived - Series 9, Episode 6 (2015) 

Season 9 had a number of gimmicks that felt a little off. The main one, apart from it being split up into two-parters, was a RTD-style keyword, The Hybrid, which fed into each episode in more subtle way than the previous series' inclusion of Missy in almost every episode's epilogue. Like most of Moffat's running stories, it ended in a copout, but it also gave us the character of Me, a character I genuinely thought was really cool. The only episode where that character gets the right amount of focus is this one, The Woman Who Lived.

Introduced in the first part of this loose two-parter as a Viking child who the Doctor hubristically resurrects by bonding with alien technology, we see her here as an immortal being, slowly losing her morality and memories, and desperate to be The Doctor's companion. I initially dismissed the casting of Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) as stunt casting, but she really can act. I guess it was hard to see that at the time, with her storyline in the 2015 series of Thrones mostly consisting of her wiping corpses and selling cockles.

The only bad thing I have to say about the episode is that it has one too many talking lions. And that is almost entirely negated by there being almost no Clara in it.

Heaven Sent - Series 9, Episode 11 (2015)

Because of this season's odd nature, the finale two-parter is a lot more loose than usual, and this is immeasurably for the better. Simply put, Heaven Sent is one of the program's finest episodes, way beyond the likes of Blink. And I mean it; unlike the previous season finale, where I have to overlook glaring faults, this is a really well-crafted story, with everything just coming together. It's essentially a Capaldi one-hander, seeing him trapped inside a bigger-on-the-inside Time Lord device which makes him relive the same sequence of events over and over again. The theme of persistence and certainty in the face of death is a strong one, especially with Capaldi at the helm, giving it his all, portraying a man so determined to escape that he repeatedly resigns himself to death just to make a millimetre's progress.

Oxygen - Series 10, Episode 5 (2017)

Due to personal goings-on in my own life, I have not reviewed Series 10 and I don't know if I will, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the semi-reboot of the series and Bill Potts is a light shining down on the show. Oxygen was a great base-under-siege episode that had some good ideas, my favourite of which was the Adams-esque dilemma of the parent company making them pay for their oxygen. It's kind of a like a traditional Doctor Who Base-Under-Siege story where the enemy is the life-support system.

Unlike a lot of Base-Under-Siege stories in NuWho, it avoided the pitfall of not feeling like there were any stakes by seriously threatening the lives of both Bill and The Doctor. They both experience the vacuum of space and are choked and chased and electrocuted. Just when you think the status quo will be reasserted, we discover that The Doctor is now blind! This was a great way to end the episode, as well as a lead-in to the following three-part story where The Doctor's need to protect Bill is a major theme.

World Enough And Time - Series 10, Episode 11 (2017)

In the year-long hiatus between Series 9 and 10, I started listening to Big Finish audios - I've listened to about a dozen now, and when they are good, they are good. My favourite, predictably, is the Fifth Doctor audio Spare Parts, which takes place on Mondas and gives a very thorough look at the kind of world that would create the Cybermen. It's spooky and full gruesome moments. I bring it up because World Enough and Time borrows extensively from Spare Parts and it's legacy, even more than the supposed "adaptation" that was Rise of the Cybermen back in 2006.

The marketing was full of spoilers for the return of John Simm as The Master. I will admit that Simm's disguise fooled me for a good while; his reveal at the end to Missy is fantastic. I had always wanted a multi-Master story, and it was a real coup to get Simm back to the show after his ambiguous exit seven year prior. Not only was it fun from a fan perspective, but it was also the perfect way to highlight the character development that Gomez' Master had been undergoing throughout this weird and wonderful season. 

For the first time in a while there was a palpable sense of horror in this story, as Bill Potts spent time in the creepy hospital at the base of a ship falling into a black hole, with The Doctor and Missy at the top watching her life pass on fast-forward. The most memorable parts of the episode are the parts that surround the Cybermen, with pre-formed cloth-faced bodies crying out for death, and the crushing blow at the end of the episode when Bill is transformed. I was annoyed that this amazing character had been given so tragic a fate, but the following episodes made up for that slightly. Scenes like the ones in the hospital are what I have been asking for for so long - actually exploring the body horror of the Cyberman premise and using it to bring nightmares to whole new generation.

Epilogue

I can't honestly say, now that it's over, that this part of the show wasn't entirely bad. The Capaldi era feels like a much-needed improvement over the Smith era, which went downhill fast. I think the key difference is that during those first three or so years, the writing of the Doctor and his companions entirely focused on archetypes and "mysteries" which never amounted to anything resembling human behaviour. The Twelfth Doctor is much more of a complex personality, even outside the narrative constantly informing us without evidence that he's morally shady. Now that I've lended the era some charity and genuinely discussed episodes I liked, I think it's time to do a top ten worst list. This is going to be fun.

Thanks.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Update

The outcome of my time at University.
When I started my Uni course back in 2014, I wanted to become a Lecturer of Particle Physics, because that is what I had told myself was my passion. Within a week of starting, I saw that this was not the path I would be taking. So I turned to my backup plan of teaching, but that too didn't work out. By my third year I was in the difficult but not unusual position of having to finish a course I hated, and having no idea of what to do with my life. I could have changed courses, but I was always taught to finish what I had started, and people reassured me that I would make it through and come out with the all-important Physics Degree at the end of it.

In third year I got a job. Not a big job, but a job, and the appeal of earning money for my time rather than spending money for it was a huge attraction. Taking more and more hours meant that I begin to regularly miss deadlines. I missed my girlfriend, and was taking time out every two weeks to visit her in Derby. My bedroom in the new house was dark and covered in damp. In January, about half-way through the second and last proper term, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. I had been walking to work in freezing cold conditions with liquid on the lung, and had barely noticed.

All of this was contributing to, although not completely the cause of, my plummeting grades. The simple fact was, it is hard to focus and learn something you have grown to hate. Third year Physics requires the internalisation of most of the first two years, and I might as well have arrived straight from Sixth Form, because I had forgotten most of it. The only course I did not fail outright was the group project, and I will freely admit that I did fuck-all on that. The worst failure was probably the Java course, where I submitted only one piece of work on time and failed to submit even the final coursework, the one worth half the marks. Through this I kept my mind busy on other things, all the time watching in slow motion as my degree careered wildly off the road.

Also, don't get me started on "Design The Spine" or the
"Physics Garden".
During this time I managed to burn a lot of the bridges I had spent the last two years building. Because I had been skipping most lectures by leaving after the first five minutes, I never got to see the people I sat in lectures with, and they seemed bemused and maybe a little disappointed by the way I was going. My best friend at Uni, the one who had pretty much defined my amazing second year, I barely saw because of competing schedules. And, eventually, I was barely interacting with my flatmates of three years. We used to spend long evenings watching TV together and cooking, and while it wasn't close, it was good. At the end of second term I left my job in sad circumstances. I was poor, depressed and lonely. I was even beginning to worry my girlfriend, however grateful she was to see me.

Obviously, I failed my third year. Nine modules out of ten. I had one month to learn enough to pass each of my eight exams, and finish six pieces of coursework, including the entire Java module. I was used to failing by this point, having failed my first and second year exams as well, but by this time it was clear that the odds were stacked heavily against me, and that hard graft would not be enough. As it turns out, no, a month is not enough time to completely learn the Third Year Physics syllabus, and while I did pass several more modules (including, thankfully, Particle Physics), I failed the year overall.

Apparently I can refer to myself as Andrew Smith DipHE, although unless I'm a nurse or carer it's usually discouraged. My "Diploma" was a consolation prize, of sorts. It turns out that I might as well have not bothered going through my third year hardship at all; I would have got my Diploma of Higher Education if I had dropped out a week into October. While I am grateful that I have some recognition of the work I did at University, it will always be a mark against my name. Without it, I have no way to explain what I did between September 2014 and August 2017. With it, I will always be seen as someone who failed where so many others succeeded. Not quite good enough. Not quite.

I have contemplated coming back here to write many times, even in the knowledge that the readership is basically nonexistent. Nostalgia Filter was a way to put life in focus, if only for a brief time, but I had to stop it when it started to interfere with the various busybodying that accompanied my long, ill, lonely denial. That is yet to be seen. The good news, though, is that I have moved on. I am now living with my girlfriend, in Derby, and have a part-time job. I have no idea where I am going in life right now, and although I've heard some people say that's a good thing, I will need a long time before I am convinced.

I am going to miss you, Lancaster.
Thanks

Monday, 26 December 2016

Doctor Who 10.X: The Return of Doctor Mysterio

Nardole looks as out of place on this poster as he does in
the whole bloody episode.
Doctor Who has been away from our screen for an entire calendar year, and we really needed something to bring the series back into the public consciousness. While the episode certainly tried to do this, you wouldn't know from the rest of it - the publicity for this episode was a damp squib. The trailers were badly edited, the premise looked ridiculous and most of my Doctor Who loving friends were completely meh about the whole thing. Which is a damn shame, because I actually enjoyed this episode. Its remarkably fun spirit, owed to superhero movies and general, also comes down to the fact that the superhero story is just a cover for a well-acted rom-com.
      The plot surrounds the flailing relationship between Lucy (Charity Wakefield) and Grant (Justin Chatwin, who had a bit part in Lost), the secret of course being that the latter was accidentally made a superhero by The Doctor has a child. The two's secret-identity relationship has been ripped straight from the Christopher Reeve superhero movies, with a love triangle between Lucy, Grant and Grant's alter-ego, Ghost. Despite the hackneyed ideas behind them, they are the most interesting part of the episode, with the actual threat of the piece being either confusing or boring or both. The bad guys are aliens who want to take over the world. They make lines in people's heads and replace their brains, and want to gather the world's leaders together by blowing up New York and pretending to be a safeguard against alien invasion. I immediately remembered the Aliens of London two-parter, except that had a lot more political satire and didn't just re-use a random special effect from the episode before.
     Grant could have come across as a bit creepy, and I'm sure many people thought he did, but for me I think he hit the balance perfectly and came across as genuinely charming in a kind of" "Andrew Garfield Spiderman" kinda way. Charity Wakefield was also wonderful as Lucy, who I hope will get more roles from this. I wish we'd have just focused on them rather than having this external alien story, because it brought nothing new and was actively dull at times. It didn't help that despite bringing aliens in from last year's Christmas special, no mention was made of them being in both, leading me to simply believe that Moffat had reused a special effect, something which is not particularly unlikely.
This sums up the Moffat era perfectly.. Why use fucking pockets
when you could store a loaded weapon inside your fucking head.
     Peter Capaldi was fantastic in this episode, which makes it all the more irritating that we see the return of Nardole (Matt Lucas) from last year's Christmas special. Quite like one of John Nathan Turner's mad whims, Moffat has decided that we all loved Nardole, so Nardole will be in this episode, and every episode of Series 10. The levels of wtf involved in this decision are baffling - there was no great love for Lucas' character, and he doesn't really add anything to this episode beyond very, very light comic relief that Capaldi could likely have provided himself. The main thing he seems to provide uniquely is an info-dump near the end about River Song, revealing that Capaldi spent 24 years with her before sending her to the Library. Seeing as I want River Song to go away, and go away now, this did nothing to endear the character to me, and seeing him in the rest of Moffat's finale season is going to be a chore.
     The Return of Doctor Mysterio pleasantly surprised me, but that felt very too little too late. You can make a bloody brilliant episode and it'll still fail to get the ratings if the publicity surrounding it is as lacklustre as was here. A few choices - the editing of the trailer, the general lack of advertising and the total lack of hype - meant that the return of The Doctor to our screens occured with a whimper rather than a bang. Capaldi doesn't deserve this level of apathy, this corporate assassination, and I often worry that his entire tenure is going to be draped with the same brush as Colin Baker's - a brash Doctor beset by decreasing ratings, pushed up against ITV rivals and absent publicity.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Red Dwarf 11.2: Samsara

Warning: This review is being published before the official Dave broadcast of Series XI, at the pace of the UKTV Play streaming service. It's free, it's there right now and I love Red Dwarf too much to wait. If you want to wait for broadcast, stop reading now.

Usually I'm not sympathetic to adultery, but I kind of like these
guys?
Red Dwarf XI continues to be fantastic! This is great news! Samsara continues this series' reverence towards Series IV and V with a fascinating episode with a great concept whose foreshadowing is layered from the moment the episode starts. Apparently this episode has been divisive in the fandom - and that's to be expected, with an episode so driven by a simple concept, and one which pushes Red Dwarf norms. I will admit that there are places where this episode could have been considerably improved, but I was laughing throughout and that's generally a good sign.
     The USS Samsara crashes into an ocean planet, a single escape pod launching into orbit. 3 million years later, and after a particularly unlucky game of "Mineopoly", the crew discover the escape pod, its two inhabitants dust and the ship repeating a broken warning. The crew head down to the ship proper and discover through trial and error that the ship was destroyed by its Karma Drive, an offshoot of "Justice Field" technology that manipulated reality to reward those who abide by its moral code, and punishes those who do not. We find out through flashbacks that this was the fault of a pair of crewman, the two in the escape pod, who were engaging in an adulterous relationship and inverted the Karma Drive to continue their affair, only for everyone else on the ship to be punished and destroyed.
     The episode's pacing starts off ambitious, and the mystery hidden within the comedy worked really well, but after the break it starts to go downhill. By the midpoint of the story the mystery becomes a lot more obvious, and the explanations and flashbacks start to feel a little redundant. Added to this is a long, long sequence between Lister and The Cat in the dark which, despite having a great punchline, felt out of character and unfunny. Together they stall the episode and create an incredibly abrupt ending, making me wish that the format of the show on Dave allowed for the extra 6 minutes it's now missing.
Give me strength.
     As to the controversial flashbacks that run throughout the episode, I have no problem with their actual content. While they seem to be following Doug's "dramedy" stylings from Series VII, it works better without the actual cast present, and I don't mind the performances of the two guest actors (whose names I can't find because IMDB doesn't seem to have been updated). I liked the fluidity of the transitions between the past and present, and until the mystery was revealed later on they added a great deal to the tension of the story. I would have watched more of the flashback rather than sit through that cringe-worthy Cat scene again.
    That said, the episode looked just as good as last week, and I really liked that the pacing wasn't as break-neck - I liked the Lister/Rimmer scene at the beginning and I felt that overall the characters were much more familiar. This episode of the season was the one with the lowest budget - and that makes a existence of a few things make more sense - the length of the talking scenes, the relative lack of special effects. I was impressed that the writers decided to do what you *should* do with a bottle episode and make up for a it with a great concept, and as a result this episode is nowhere as bad as it could have been.

Thanks.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Red Dwarf 11.1: Twentica

Warning: This review is being published before the official Dave premiere of Series XI, at the pace of the UKTV Play streaming service. It's free, it's there right now and I love Red Dwarf too much to wait. If you want to wait for broadcast, stop reading now.


The boys are back in town, and the return is fast-paced goodness.
From Den of Geek
This morning, at about 11am, I sat down on my girlfriend's bed, a tray of eggs and soldiers perched before us as I clicked onto UKTV Play. Compared to the anticipation I felt for the arrival of Red Dwarf X four years ago, I could have been watching Poldark. Twentica definitely benefited from that lack of expectation, but at the same time I felt like it didn't really need it - this episode was much more assuredly Red Dwarf than any episode since Series VI, and four years of work and a higher budget mean that the show is looking more gorgeous than ever before.
     The episode's main conceit is yet another historical farce - this time a bit smarter than Tikka to Ride and Lemons, although borrowing elements from both. After a race of time-bending Simulants steal a piece of tech from Starbug under duress, the Dwarfers go back in time to an Alternate 1952 in which said simulants have prevented humanity from developing, culturally and technologically, beyond the 1920s. Instead of living under a prohibition of booze, however, any technology more advanced than steam is banned, leading to the hilarious idea of speakeasies full of Theoretical Physicists. Eventually the Dwarfers manage to piece enough technology to get home.
     Something which made Series X a little bit weird for me was the amount of time I spent analysing each and every joke and scene in a way that I just wouldn't with the older stuff. Unfortunately I've found myself doing that with this episode, noting in particular the episode length. The Dave episodes are a full five minutes long - as trivial as that may seem, that's a lot of breathing room for jokes and ideas. Twentica blew through its 24 minute runtime so fast that there were always going to be jokes that didn't work. A scene in the scientist speakeasy where a guest character reeled off lots of Physics references as jokes was hilarious to me as a Physics student, but it went on a tad too long for comfort. On the other hand, a minute-long gag about the Dwarfers mistaking a bum for Albert Einstein felt a bit rushed and cheap. The jokes about cliches and quantum mechanics had me tickled, but they might not have been to everyone's tastes.
     A lot of the pre-publicity for the series (which I've been following since filming started for Series XI/XII in December of last year) focused on the technical effects, which usually is just something that appeals to hardcore Red Dwarf fans who can tell the difference between shades of green on Starbug models. The new sets for Starbug were gorgeous, as were the steampunk streets of 1952. I was a little disappointed that our only shot of the new Red Dwarf sets was a brief scene at the end, but I'm glad they focused on story instead of just giving us a set tour to satisfy nerds like me. One thing I think is important is seeing whether Doug Naylor has learnt from the mistakes of Series VII and VIII - that good special effects do not good comedy make. Luckily, I was laughing my ass off.
     Comparing this episode to X's premiere, Trojan, the latter definitely feels like it's trying too hard. Twentica, odd name aside (is it some kind of pun on the Twenties and robotics?), instantly felt like Red Dwarf. The gang were all here, doing the same thing as usual, although with the same character development they carried over from the last series. If Red Dwarf X showed that Red Dwarf as a concept would work with older characters, then this season will hopefully demonstrate that the show can be high-tech and flashy and still be as funny as the "Golden Age" of the early 90s.

Thanks.

P.S. Yes, it's been a while. Also, out goes the "Review" prefix at the beginning of articles. You know what you're reading.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Review: Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman
(Henry Cavill) square off.
Warner Bros.
This review contains spoilers for the film's climax. I'll try to mark them where possible. 

Are DC and Warner Brothers really so desperate to cash in on the success of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe that they would rush the production of the Justice League? Well, yes. Yes they are.
     Warner Brothers launched the so-called "DC Extended Universe" with Man of Steel back in 2013, a film plagued by a painfully serious mood, extensive shoed-in messianic overtones, a confusing editing style and a climax in which Superman commits cold-blooded murder and produces $750 million worth of property damage. (That's thirteen 9/11 attacks.) Years later, the loquaciously titled Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to rephrase that film in terms of a serious discussion about the nature of messianic figures and individual vigilantism. It doesn't work, instead providing a painfully long, loud and bland attempt to rush the formation of the Justice League and be "controversial".
      Aside from a very confusing editing style which often randomly goes off into ridiculous dream sequences, the film gives itself far too much to juggle - it's quite sad when a film lasts the same length as a Lord of the Rings movie and it barely feels like any characterisation has actually occurred. Aside from continuing the storyline of Man of Steel, BvS also introduces Batman, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. (Although to be fair the last three are glorified cameos.) Batman is arguably the main star of the film, with Ben Affleck actually being surprisingly good in the role, giving a seriousness which is more serious than his predecessor Christian Bale, but which feels like it has more authority (especially as Batfleck uses a voice modulator and doesn't just put on a silly deep voice.) Gal Gadot is also great as Wonder Woman, although mysteriously they decided to leave all of her character development for next year's stand-alone movie, keeping her appearances down to several scenes sneaking around and then a final triumphant appearance in the final Boss Fight.
    As we're meant to eventually care about both Batman and Superman, we need a villain, which takes the form of Alexander Luthor. Instead of the comics' suave genius Lex Luthor, we instead get his son, a nerdy neurotic psychopath whose mannerisms have a lot more in common with Heath Ledger's Joker - although the most obvious comparison was with a slightly deranged version of actor Jesse Eisenberg's most famous role, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Luthor's plans are never clear, and the fact that the finale depends on him seemingly randomly manipulating Kryptonian technology to create a monster seems to come out of nowhere. Lex Luthor's mere existence causes a lot of the film's plot holes, from his bizzare and self-defeating desire to blow up the world, his out-of-nowhere personal vendetta with Superman, and the fact that he's able to gain access to giant amounts of alien technology by basically assaulting a US Senator.
It's not a bad performance, but his character does cause the
movie a lot of its problems.
Warner Bros.
      The film's biggest lasting legacy is its darkness, and that's not just a media circus. Everything is taken to its darkest point possible while still keeping the PG-13 rating. Batman, whose character tends to abhor guns due to the murder of his parents at gunpoint, is seen in this movie carrying dual kalashnikovs and gunning, stabbing and impaling his criminal enemies willie nillie. The film takes the idea of Superman as a vision of hope and grinds it into the dirt, reveling in in-universe right-wing media sources decrying Superman as an alien monster to be treated with utmost suspicion. And, funnily enough, I see there point - this is a Superman who gets angry, who doesn't control his immense power, and this inevitably leads to his destructive battle with Batman. By far the lasting impact of this film's darker influences was a scene in which Superman is tricked into going to a Congressional Hearing by Lex's men - a hearing which turns out to be a trap when an explosion flattens Capitol Hill. The image and shooting of the scene was very well done and caught me completely by surprise, but the subject matter may still be a little raw given the events only three days prior to the film's release.
      By far the worst symptom of this darkness, though, was the ending. Spoilers follow for this paragraph. Once Lex Luthor's plot has been defeated, we find his back-up plan - Doomsday. Via some alien jigory-pokery that isn't really explained very well, Lex Luthor creates the giant Kryptonian supermutant Doomsday, a fella who looks like Azog the Defiler and who can fire immense electromagnetic blasts from his face. Superman and Batman team up with new arrival Wonder Woman to fight him, with Superman using Batman's Kryptonite spear to stab him in the chest. In the resulting melee, Doomsday impales Superman on one of his claws, and Superman dies. The problem is that despite five grueling hours of Dark!Superman material, we still don't know him in as much depth as we do other versions of the character. I don't care enough about the character to be shocked by his death, and I also don't believe that DC is going to permenantly kill off their headline character in the second film of a franchise that already has five more films planned out. This plotline was used far too early, and it essentially destroys any tension in future films from the DCEU. It also continues the ridiculous, lazy messianic archetypes ruling over the Superman character - even to the point where in both the UK and US, the film premiered on Good Friday.
Maybe if people stop obsessing over Gal Gadot's physical
appearance, they might realise she's a fantastic Wonder Woman
and I'd love to see more of her.
Warner Bros.
   At its core, Batman V Superman: Electric Boogaloo could have hit some very interesting points - if they had kept the drama down to just Batman and Superman, following on from the repercussions of Man of Steel and deconstructing the typical Superhero action film by really showing the consequences of mass-scale collateral damage. Those aspects of the film were by far the best, especially the superb performance by Holly Hunter as the Senator in charge of leading the hearings. Sadly, it was Lex Luthor and the endless tie-ins to future movies that took a strong premise and coated it in tar and feathers. Warner Brothers really failed to understand that the reason why The Avengers works is because we had time to get personally invested in each character over a number of years. This film is often compared to Captain America: Civil War, a similar superhero duel movie coming out in May, but that ignores the main difference that will almost certainly make Civil War superior - it is the thirteenth film in its franchise, while this is only the second. Combine that rushed pace with poor direction and a general lack of a sense of humour, and you get one of the biggest let-downs of this year so far.

Thanks.

P.S. Hopefully my review won't make Ben Affleck too sad. (Thanks to my friend Jen for asking me to include this. ^.^)
P.S.S Reasons to watch Channel Five news...

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Eurovision: You Decide (2016)

Written 27th February 2016.

It's that time of year again, folks - time for us to choose our Eurovision entry. The last time we actually did that was a whole six years ago - and, as it happens, I discussed that car-crash of a show then, too. As with all of Nostalgia Filter's up-to-the-minute breaking news, I've decided to discuss the program, half to carry on the proud tradition I kind-of began all those years ago and half to vent about the current state of the UK's position in the content and the BBC's misguided attempts to put us back on the right track.

Dulcima - "When You Go"

Posh hippy bohemians with a full band of folksy instrumentalists, Dulcima were a duo composed of singers Dulcima and Thomas, the latter of whom wrote the song. The actual song was fairly upbeat and catchy, with the central melody still stuck in my head afterwards, even if the words disappeared into the sort of slurring high-pitched chirping employed by the likes of the Lumineers. The song ends with a nice little anthemic bit which would probably go down very well in the hall in Stockholm - but folksy acts play all the time at Eurovision, and not a single one has ever won. There's definitely an image problem that the two bring to the table - Macedonia can get away with presenting their local flavour, but if we do it looks a bit like we don't really care. 6/10.

Matthew James - "A Better Man"

My instant least favourite of the six songs, A Better Man is by Matthew James, former lead singer of "Bad Boys Inc", a boyband who broke the UK Top Ten once in their whirlwind two-year existence in the mid-Nineties. Because of this, James' vocal style sounds very much like pre-breakup Take That and feels like an instant throwback of the kind that sank the UK's chances in 2007 and 2010. Employed with creating a bastion of positivity (something which happened in 2010 as well, unfortunately), the judges tried to make out how "intimate" and "well-crafted" the song was - even as it was obvious (thanks to several repetitions during the voting recaps) that James was consistently out of tune throughout the song. 4/10.

Darline - "Until Tomorrow"

"Until Tomorrow" is a folksy pop song by young duo Darline, two girls with beaming smiles, the slight air of charming amateurism and acoustic guitars. There were some countryish vibes, which always go down well at Eurovision (well, recently anyway), and a great deal of quite good harmonization from the pair. It feels like a Eurovision song, and it felt like a song that would give the UK credibility in the way that Molly did in 2014. Darline was the act I voted for, and I was really, really worried that they wouldn't do well - but most of the feedback from the judges, at least, was fairly positive, with former winner Katrina noting that, "this is the kind of song that Europe would vote for." 9/10.

Karl William Lund - "Miracle"

Karl was a minor YouTube celebrity five years ago, and his song "Miracle" is about his brother's battle with cancer. I think some of the vocals are a bit shakey, but it is catchy (I'm writing this a day later and it's the main one stuck in my head) and I can imagine it representing us in Stockholm. Miracle seemed to get the biggest reaction last night, and the fact that Lund doesn't need much work doing on his look meant that it kinda felt like we had a pre-built package to send to Sweden. It wasn't my favourite song of the night, but I wouldn't have been sad if it had won. 8/10.

Bianca - "Shine a Little Light"

Quite possibly the bookie's favourite, Bianca, like Matthew James, was a member of a girl group, but that group disbanded last year rather than twenty-one years ago. Bianca has a contemporary sound with elements of light reggae and vocals that are very evocative of one the song's writers, Leona Lewis. Shine a Little Light is a classic Eurovision power-ballad, and yet another song which would have gone down a storm in Stockholm. Bianca's strange red gown with train needed a little bit of fashion advice, but even that was a sign that she was the correct choice to send to Eurovision. I chose Darline because I personally enjoyed their performance more, but like Karl William Lund, I still would have been pretty chuffed if Bianca had been elected. 9/10.

Joe and Jake - "You're Not Alone"

And finally, the first song of this sextet that was released last Monday on the Ken Bruce BBC Radio 2 morning show. Joe and Jake are "musicians" who became "famous" by both being on the 2015 series of The Voice UK, something true of one-half of last year's outfit Electro Velvet (with the qualifier that these guys actually got through into some stages while she was rejected completely.) You're Not Alone is not a bad song - it has a... let's say "modern" sound and it doesn't sound completely out of place at Eurovision. The two lads are enthusiastic about their song, but their live performance left a bitterly amateur taste in the air, and their "singing in the pub on the corner" aesthetic meant that I really wasn't impressed. It's a mediocre combination of stuff - I've heard several different descriptions of the two lads - I especially love the Telegraph's "Two fifths of an alternate universe One Direction." 5/10.

The Show Itself

It did feel like the producers of this show were taking things more seriously, even if there were some good jokes in their from mel Giedroyc. The whole show was plagued by technical issues throughout, which did worry me slightly, with the ghostly voice of Scott Mills occasionally announcing Mel's presence on stage half-way through her monologues and the amazing moment when Katrina's microphone distorted into some satanic-sounding blur. The interval acts during the voting and the voting tally were a tribute to the late Terry Wogan, a performance of "Love Shine a Light" from Katrina's winning 1997 contest and, bizarrely, a montage of the best moments from the BBC's 60th Anniversary Eurovision tribute broadcast in April last year.
      One thing I wish they'd scrap is the whole endless positivity crap, because other European countries who do these types of shows don't do that. Why? Because it produces crappy songs. This was one of the few times where endless positivity-producer Carrie Grant, vocal coach and former Eurovision singer, actually tried to produce some constructive criticism, but was so booed by the crowd that she didn't really get a chance.

Final Result

In 2015, we sent an amateur singer and a primary-school music teacher to Eurovision. In terms of points, they achieved the United Kingdom's worst score since nul points in 2003. The British public voted, and decided this year to send a PE Teacher and a former Garden Centre employee. Joe and Jake, two amateur singers who happened to be on The Voice, are going to be our representatives in Stockholm. I can't say I'm not disappointed, but I guess that's what happens. Let's just look forward to Stockholm and hope that Europe like our lads.

Thanks.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Review: Voyager 4.2: The Gift

Kes says one final goodbye (Shush, Fury isn't, like, a thing.)
Star Trek Voyager - Season Four, Episode Two - The Gift
Written between 30th January and 8th February 2016.

Seven of Nine and Kes share a surprising number of attributes. They're both attractive blond women from very alien cultures who help serve as an audience avatar when the rest of the crew explain things to them. They occupy the same spot in the credits and they both have unique abilities which help the show's writers make stories more interesting. But there's a very key difference between them - Kes was a background character who rarely ended up having a huge effect on the show, while Seven of Nine practically takes over the show for the rest of its run. The Gift is the meeting of two worlds - Kes' definite goodbye and Seven's incredible hello.
     Janeway and crew are trying to help Seven adapt to being disconnected from the Borg, something which the drone greatly resents. As they attempt to treat her, her body now beginning to reject the Borg implants, Kes begins displaying greater telepathic and telekinetic powers. Seemingly brought on by the recent encounter with the telepathic Species 8472, she begins to be able to wield her powers in much greater magnitudes. She uses her mental powers to save Seven's life, and Tuvok begins attempting to train her again like he did in Cold Fire. Janeway tries to have Seven help to remove the Borg technology fused to the ship, but in a moment of opportunity she knocks out Harry and attempts to contact her people. Kes begins to turn incorporeal and to save the ship and herself, she leaves Voyager on a shuttle. As a last gift to the crew who gave her so much, she launches Voyager 10,000ly forward - taking 10 years off of their journey home, and taking them far out of Borg Space. Seven is finally convinced to come round, and The Doctor fits her with a catsuit and a bionic eye.
   Harry Kim couldn't go, but the show couldn't afford to keep him and another actor, so the writers decided to get rid of Kes. As irritated as I am by how much Kes' development felt a little stunted and misdirected over the course of the first three seasons, her departure is at least the culmination of a character arc, with her slowly becoming more independent and headstrong as time went on. The way that it was tied into the examination of Ocampan abilities from Caretaker and Cold Fire felt like a very neat tie back to the show's beginnings, and helped to blend Kes' story with Seven's in a way which felt both tragic and necessary. I really don't see why they couldn't have removed Neelix instead - he was hated by the fans at the time, and the fact he was often coupled with Kes was one of his few saving graces. (Although, as I've said in some of my other reviews, Neelix can be a good character if he tries.)
From one unique female character onto the next.
     The episode's main moral quandary was one that was very much tied into the entire concept of The Borg - the nature of individuality, and of individual freedom. The Federation purports to be the ultimate in individual freedom - there is no money, so everything you do is towards making yourself better, and the galaxy better in general. Want to become a starship pilot? Go ahead, we'll train you up, give you a ship, off you go. Want to be a cook? Go on, enjoy yourself scamp. The Borg, on the other hand, is the most exaggerated nightmare of statism and communism - every being a drone with no individual thought, every action done for the good of the collective. The question that this episode asked was thus: by how much does having been a Borg remove one's ability to hold individual thought once they are disconnected. The answer seems to be, entirely. Seven, now separated from the collective, demands to be reunited with it, but Janeway tells her that, ironically, she no longer has the right to make that choice. I know they had to make this work to keep the character in the show, but it does make Janeway sound a little controlling and hypocritical - especially due to the fact she doesn't even have a long consideration about it.
      Kes' departure from the show and Seven's integration into the cast set forth a new era for the show. It didn't exactly reinvent itself in the way that DS9 managed to do two years earlier, but it did manage to take a show that was spiralling in mediocrity and provide its best season and some of the show's best episodes. The Gift feels a little disparate from the first two parts of this trilogy of story, but I think that's kind of the point - Kes' departure is important, and her decision to leave and launch the crew forward 10,000ly begins the point in the show where Voyager's attempts to find shortcuts home actually work. It's a great departure for Kes, a great development piece for Seven of Nine, and it showed the bright new direction the show was headed in.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: We finally bring the Tom/B'Elanna romance to a head with the B'Elanna-centric Day of Honor.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Review: Voyager 4.1: Scorpion, Part II

Jeri Ryan finally appears as Seven of Nine
Star Trek Voyager - Season Four, Episode One - Scorpion, Part II
Written between 26/1/16.

The first half of Scorpion was designed as an apology to the fans, giving them a proper Borg episode after the incredible misfire that was Unity. Like Scorpion's spiritual predecessor The Best of Both Worlds over on TNG, the two halves of this story were written months apart, with the second half being adjusted to meet with fan reactions to the first. The main changes became very obvious - the arrival of Seven of Nine as a way to bring in a horny-teenage-boy demographic and shake up the cast, and the decision that instead of finally killing off Garratt Wang's Harry Kim for good, they would ask Kes actress Jennifer Lien to leave the series. Scorpion, Part II ended up being the episode which saved Voyager from complete and total ratings mediocrity, and ensured that it would reach seven seasons.
       The truce continues and Janeway and Tuvok begin working on the weapon with the Borg which will help them to destroy Species 8472. The Borg want to partially assimilate them to enhance communication, but Janeway makes a different bargain - choose one Borg to represent them, or the deal if off. Said Borg chosen is the intimidating Seven of Nine, a human girl assimilated by the collective when she was a small child and has spent the past 18 years as a drone. Eventually the Borg Cube that they are all stationed on is forced to destroy itself to stop a Bioship from attacking Voyager, and so Janeway, Tuvok and the Borg take a ride on Voyager, with the Borg assimilating one of the Cargo bays as part of their "truce". Seven of Nine eventually hijacks the ship and takes it into Species 8472's home dimension, Fluidic Space, revealing that the entire war was due to a Borg invasion of their space in an attempt to assimilate Species 8472 for their genetic diversity. The weapon is deployed and upon the Borg's betrayal most of them are blown out of an airlock - except Seven, who they manage to separate from the Collective by force.
       This episode didn't carry as much of the tension of its first half, although it did rather admirably carry on the themes between Janeway and Chakotay, this time focussing a lot more on Chakotay as he is forced to take command in Janeway's incapacity and the rift it creates between them. I loved the animosity that very quickly developed between Chakotay and Seven, with Seven standing in for what Chakotay considers to be Janeway's worst decision, and the bitterness he has over the fact that he feels obligated to continue following her (slightly crackers) plan until the last possible moment. The scene near the end where Janeway recovers and confronts him over his disloyalty was an incredibly strong moment for Voyager the show in general, finally managing to portray with high drama the conflict between Federation and Maquis philosophy, the problems this causes between two people clearly with love and affection for each other, and the way that each must compromise their values in order to keep things running. It's a dynamic that would make Deep Space Nine proud.
Harry Kim... lives? What the hell?
     Elsewhere, a lot of the character work was also shifted over to Kes and Seven of Nine, with the latter sitting as a big obvious neon sign saying "LOOK THIS CHARACTER IS IMPORTANT." (Well, that and the fact that Jeri Ryan's name had replaced Kes' in the opening sequence.) Seven immediately gives a good impression, with Jeri Ryan managing to admirably catch the spirit of the Borg with a commanding screen presence which makes you want to learn about her story and her character. It was this presence which would make Season Four (and arguably the rest of the show) work so well. I've not done gushing about Seven of Nine, not by a long shot. On the other hand there was Kes, with her magical abilities both serving as some slight character development for her an as the episode's main form of exposition about Species 8472 and their impending threat.
     Part of me knows that this episode isn't as classically "good" as it's first half - there's a lot more focus on action rather than the well-developed character drama, the plot sort of just floats around, and Harry Kim lives. But the arrival of Seven of Nine and the immediate shake-up it has on the cast of characters is incredibly interesting to me, and it puts this episode onto the map of the series as a whole.

Thanks

NEXT WEEK: We carry on the story of Seven of Nine and say a sad farewell to Kes in The Gift.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Review: Voyager 3.26: Scorpion

Star Trek Voyager - Season Three, Episode Twenty-Six - Scorpion
Written 23rd January 2016.

The idea of reviewing Star Trek was always a very daunting one to me when I started here on Nostalgia Filter, mainly because a lot of the context which I had for these shows was from having watched them back when I was a kid. Star Trek was a relatively new addition to the pantheon, and as well as being a more long-winded US show it also had seven seasons. I told myself that I might review it, but that if I did, it might make sense to stop at the end of the third season. That's not going to happen,  but I thought it was important to mention anyway.  Scorpion, like many end-of-third-season episodes for these shows, is something of a game changer, opening up many new avenues for the show and, for a time, taking us out of the doldrums.
Species 8472 are the show's most alien species yet.
     Voyager is about to enter Borg Space - the massive home territories of the Borg, a race of cyborgs who seek only to assimilate and destroy. (We met them back in Unity.) The crew are very tense, planning to continue their journey home via "The Northwest Passage", a thin corridor of space unvisited by Borg Ships due to Technobabble. Being passed and ignored by an armada of Borg Ships, they're later confused to find that all of them have been destroyed by a bizarre species of non-humanoid creatures who use biological ships and who telepathically tell Kes that, "The weak will perish." While exploring an abandoned bio-ship, Harry Kim is attacked by one of the species, and his body starts to be enveloped by toxic vines. The alien race, known only by their Borg designation of Species 8472, turns out to be basing itself in the Northwest Passage, emerging through a wormhole from a place known as Fluidic Space. Debating how to proceed, Janeway consults a Hologram of her idol Leonardo Da Vinci, and decides to make an important decision - to make an alliance with the Borg.
     This episode is often called the Best of Voyager, and it's easy to see why. Voyager often lost a lot of points on the consistency of its characterisation, to the point where even Kate Mulgrew was on board with the fan theory that Janeway had some form of bipolar disorder. This episode sets up a character play between Janeway and Chakotay, in three scenes which explore all aspects of their relationship - the first showing their almost romantic admiration and devotion to one another, the next showing Chakotay's role as an advisor and advocate, and the last showing the ideological divides between them that separate Federation and Maquis. The issues of the episode are discussed thoroughly, and we aren't driven by the narrative to necessarily agree with either of the two on their stances on the Borg Alliance. It's not in-depth characterisation as Voyager often does; instead, it's utilising those characters for the good of the plot, and it works marvellously.
     One of the episode's hallmarks that set it apart from the season it's about to finish is the sense of tension woven through the script. This is before the days when Voyager would go around blowing up Borg cubes willy nilly, and there's a feeling that everyone involved is terrified, either at the possibility of inevitable assimilation, the new possibility of destruction by Species 8472, or the prospect that their 67 year journey will have to be postponed even further to find some way around Borg Space. This comes across in everyone's tone - there is still some mild humour, but everyone feels more alert and the idea that the Borg does this to Voyager lends them an amazing sense of gravitas.
Janeway negotiates with the Borg. I'm actually impressed at
that badassitude.
       This balances out the other side of the episode, the introduction of Species 8472. Their introduction here presents them almost as the "new" Borg, a new villain for the series to hook itself on. Unfortunately they wouldn't get to use them this way (having only two appearances after this two-parter, the latter of which saw them going to great lengths to make peace), but right here it works immensely well - the sheer alienness of the 8472 and their (as yet) unexplained hostility towards our Galaxy, their living ships and their immune system, which is so powerful it can destroy Borg nanoprobes. It was a really interesting concept which was, at least initially, fairly well executed, and the added threat they present manages to make the Borg that more interesting an enemy.
     Scorpion isn't my favourite episode of Voyager - they tend to be the more stand-alone character pieces or great, well-executed concepts. As a piece of serialised television, though, taking Voyager into the next stage of its evolution, Voyager's attempt to reach the heights of TNG's Best of Both Worlds manages not just to reach its target, but excel it and take the show into a brand new direction. Scorpion marks the beginning of a string of amazing Voyager episodes, and I look forward to taking on Season Four with fresh eyes and fresh enthusiasm. And to see Seven of Nine, of course.

Thanks.

NEXT TIME: We rejoin the conflict and meet Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine in Scorpion, Part II.