Saturday, 10 March 2018

Review: Firewatch

Writing about video games is not my strong suit. A game experience is so much more dynamic than film, and has a lot more potential to engage. Nowhere is this more true than in Firewatch, a 2016 game from small Campo Santo studio which I played two days ago and haven't been able to shake since. It's often grouped into the Walking Simulator genre, itself making nods to the genre-defining Gone Home, although it has a great deal more freedom of movement than the term usually suggests. What it does have in ommon with other walking sims is a deep, engaging story, told with expertise and simplicity. With a pretty woodland sandbox and a handful of voice actors, Firewatch manages to tell a story about isolation and paranoia which, while perhaps inelegant, had me hooked from start to finish. This review will touch upon spoilers, so if you intend to play, please go do so now.

You play as Henry, a Fire Watchman in the lush Shoshone National Forest who took this job to escape his ill wife, who has dementia. His only regular contact is with Delilah from the next tower over, and Henry's supervisor. Mundane operations in the forest soon turn into a desperate hunt to uncover what seems to be a conspiracy to stalk and harass Henry and Delilah for unknown reasons. The story is told mostly through the radio, with the player able to call Delilah to talk, ask about interesting places and things, and even to flirt on occasion. While the actual plot of the game is fairly linear, your comments and behaviours do come back to haunt you later, which gives it a little bit of replay value. There are elements of the story which are either left ambiguous or are plot holes, and it's not sure which, but I think a lot of them exist as red herrings to drive the player's paranoia. As for the ending: I think that, although a little abrupt, it works in context and drives home the message that running away from your problems is more often than not a terrible idea.

Firewatch is short and sweet - six hours tops if you have no sense of direction, and a smooth three if you're on a second or third play through. The game's environment, navigated with a map and compass, is immersive and beautiful, and although initially you are limited in where you travel, the map soon opens up as Henry acquires more tools and resources. For those who desire more challenge, there is an option to turn off the "you are here" icon on the in-game map, requiring you to work out where you are from your surroundings. I personally didn't notice that option until my second play through, by which time I rarely needed to use the map. By the end of my first time with the game, I felt like I had learnt its paths as well as my own hometown, and the minimal, immersive design is a big factor in that. Firewatch made me want to go for a walk in the woods.

As for graphics, the game runs on Unity in a rugged art style that very much favours the game's terrain. This game is very pretty, and can sometimes be breathtaking. The designers obviously saved a lot of time and money in making it so the only animated human we see up close is Henry's own torso,but that in itself helps the theme of isolation. The game's only real downfall in that regard was the consistent framerate drops on PS4, which two years post-release still haven't been addressed. One thing I found hard to get used to was that going too far off the path sometimes led Henry to just stop abruptly, which broke up the flow but luckily didn't happen too often. The game was updated after launch to include a designer commentary and a Free Roam mode, which is much appreciated but could have done with little tweaks like including Delilah's comments on everything and allowing you to sleep to change the in-game time.

Overall though, the only thing I'd complain about with Firewatch is that there simply wasn't enough of it. I would have appreciated a little more time as a mundane Watchman before the paranoia started to set in, if only another twenty minutes or so. This game grabbed me in a way that a game hasn't in a long time - owing mainly to its beautiful immersive visuals, its impressive minimalist storytelling and its short runtime, which meant that the twists and turns of the plot came hard and fast. For me, games like this don't come along that often, and I don't think I'm ever going to forget it.

Thanks.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Top Ten Worst Moffat Era Episodes, Part Two

(Previous article containing entries 6-10 here).
Basing an entire season's drama on whether the title character
of a decades old series will die is an awful writing move.

5 - The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Series 6, Episodes 1 & 2)
Written by Steven Moffat

I went camping in Easter 2011 and it was terrible, just terrible. The worst aspect, for me, was not being able to see The Impossible Astronaut, a premiere I had been really excited for. In hindsight, this was to be the start of a lifetime of disappointment. When I finally watched this two-parter I was initially blown away, but as Season 6 went on, it became increasingly clear that the admittedly well-done setup of The Doctor's death and Amy and Rory's decision to hide it from his younger self were all for nought, and it was a very egregious example of the way that Moffat fails to write compelling mystery and suspense.

The Silents, introduced in this episode, have the inklings of a good idea. Moffat likes to play around with sight and memory, and so the gimmick of the Silents erasing your memory of them when you look away is quite spectacular. As time wears on, though, it becomes a bit of a tired meme, and holes start appearing in the concept - how did these things come to be, and how do they communicate? We're never given those details; neither are we very clear on why they are manipulating the Human race, other than some vague mentions of them blowing up the TARDIS last season and one of them killing a woman at random in a bathroom. For me and a few others, the story fails to convince the viewer that the Doctor's solution to the problem - brainwashing Humanity into committing a Silent genocide using the Moon Landing video - is anything short of barbaric and cruel, especially when the music and tone make it seem like a heroic and dashing thing to do with no moral implications.

Other annoyances in the episode bought it a place on the upper half of this list. Like Churchill before and after, the episode sees the Doctor palling around with war criminal Richard Nixon. (I look forward to Doctor Who in 40 years doing an episode where the 21st Doctor goes for dinner with Trump). In Moffat tradition, there is melodrama and death fake-outs, further damaging the credibility of the show's stakes, and River Song is here at her most annoying, clich├ęd self. It's also worth mentioning that as a whole, Series 6 is my least favourite of the revival for a number of reasons, and some of them are showcased here - poor writing, the really bad mytharc story surrounding River Song, and a feeling that the show is just being half-assed on every front.

Honourable Mention: The Wedding of River Song is the culmination of this terrible storyline and is just as muddled and poorly thought-out. It manages to barely escape the list by not including a genocide, and by being too similar to some other episodes already here.
Rory thinks he look intimidating, but he's also wearing a
Roman outfit for literally no reason and he looks like a stoned
hipster asking after his weed stash.

4 - A Good Man Goes To War (Series 6, Episode 7)
Written by Steven Moffat

I don't quite know where to start with Good Man. It feels quite unique, for both good and bad reasons. At the time I recognised it as fluffy in the extreme - heavy in style, light in substance. Now Meant to be the dramatic cliffhanger to the first half of a season unnecessarily split in two, the events of Good Man are so bizarre and ridiculous that sometimes I have to remind myself that an episode this bad even exists.

Never one for subtlety, the Doctor (the one famous for solving his problems with words and using violence as a last resort) blows up an entire fleet of Cyberman ships (which they apparently have now) to extort information about Amy's location. Rory thinks he's cool because he's wearing a centurion costume, and for some reason the soundtrack agrees. We find that Amy has been kidnapped by a military cult called the Silence; an offshoot of a Space Church that wants the Doctor dead. This army includes human soldiers, two gay characters who literally ask why they deserve to have names, and headless monks who never appear before or after and who make no sense. This trained army is disabled by a bunch of Silurians and a "good" Sontaran who talks about breastfeeding. After humiliating one of the Silence generals, it is revealed that Amy's baby is part Time Lord because she was conceived in the TARDIS, "in a bunk bed" and that River Song was Amy's baby after all. The bad guy gets away with Amy's baby, as the one they thought they rescued was a clone that melts when she leaves.

The moment I heard that Amy had named her child "Melody Pond" I knew what the twist was; I'm not sure anyone was particularly asking for that kind of twist, either. River Song's welcome was long overstayed, and tying her destiny even more tightly with The Doctor's feels uncomfortable for a show with a characteristically transitive nature. The loss of Amy's baby, something that should be traumatising to Amy and Rory, never gets the treatment it deserves in follow-up episodes, and this is where for me they cease to be characters and become delivery devices for cool one-liners.

Honourable Mention: The Almost People is nowhere near this list, as the two parter it closes actually has good ideas and executes them well, but the ending scene where Amy is revealed as a ganger and then we watch her being forced to give birth in captivity is traumatic and horrible. It has Moffat's hands all over it.

And billions died.
3 - Kill The Moon (Series 8, Episode 7)
Written by Peter Harness
Please read my review of this episode, it goes into much more detail on just how scientifically illiterate it is.

I have debated with myself about how high on this list this episode deserves to be; it was in second place for a while until I came to my senses. While it does deserve to be here, the reason that this episode is so bad is entirely down to its own writer, Peter Harness, who likes to bring right-wing political elements to his episodes. Kill The Moon fails on three fronts - the science that is so bad as to render the episode unbelievable, the anti-abortion message shoved into a show it does not belong in, and a general failure to make anyone in the slightest bit likable.

The central dilemma at the heart of the story, whether to kill the alien living in the moon, never has any weight because the science used in the episode is so laughable. The Doctor has been coming to Earth for thousands of years, and has only now noticed that the Moon is an egg?! Lines about there being no minerals or water on the moon betray the fact that Harness didn't seem to do a cursory Wikipedia search before writing this trash, and that lack of effort seeps into the episode. We're meant to be struck by the moral dilemma, and be taught that not aborting the child is the best thing to do in the long run, but unlike in the real world, Harness brings in magic nonsense that defies the laws of physics in order to avoid all consequences for that choice. That over all other things makes the polemic nature of this episode as clear as glass. The anti-abortion message is so woven into the episode that there's no hope of actually exploring sci-fi ideas, because everything is pointed towards making you hate the idea of abortion in every situation.

I really have to wonder how this got past the writing team. It's notable that Harness' later stories are co-written with Moffat, in a miraculous case of him making something better by being there. That would not be the case in the remainder of this list, with two Moffat episodes taking the silver and gold slots by a country mile...

Honourable Mention: The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion two-parter, also written by Harness, spends its first half going, "Did you know that all refugees are terrorists? Dangerous terrorists. Anyone of them could be a terrorist. Your mum could be a terrorist." It then spends its second half going, "How dare you suggest that refugees are terrorists!? All that terrorists need to stop terroristing is a good talking to." It was stupid, insensitive, and although the speech at the end is well performed, the whole exercise was a total disaster.

I would mention the amazing moment when Moffat kills off a
new black character so she can have been a white woman all
along, but that feels like overkill.
2 - Let's Kill Hitler (Series 6, Episode 8)
Written by Steven Moffat

This was originally going to be one step above its immediate predecessor, A Good Man Goes To War, but then I realised that it had Hitler in it as a joke character and it just shot up here. Let's Kill Hitler is, quite frankly, an embarrassment. The end of hiatus should be a time for a good episode to bring the audience back on side, but instead we are given this nonsense - more of everything Moffat; fake-outs, making The Doctor the centre of everything, River Song, sexism, and so on.

Let's Kill Hitler is a confusing beast because it expects us to take it seriously as Moffat abuses time travel and retcons to try and make River Song's story make sense. The deep trauma Amy and Rory would suffer at losing their newborn daughter is explained away; "She was with them the whole time," he says, "She was the immature friend they had, so really they helped raise her after all!" The simple fact is that, not only is this callous, it doesn't even make sense. The Doctor's personality changes drastically even across one life, and yet we're meant to believe that River's brainwashing lasted two lifetimes, even when one of them saw her being raised as a human child in Leadworth. Her character bounces around so much in this one episode that the "surprise" at the end when she decides to sacrifice the rest of her regenerations to reverse The Doctor's poisoning feels hollow, and, along with the time-travelling vigilante team, puts a focus on Moffat's hero-worship of the Doctor over all other things.

Trying to mix this shambles of a main plot with the biggest sci-fi cliche of all time is a big no-no, as is the entire threat of the episode. You can't have the Doctor's death lingering over us from the premiere and then expect us to care that he might die now instead of then. We all know he isn't going to die, but Moffat just resist using this trope over and over. What we're left with is an episode that really serves no purpose beyond dropping the hint for the solution to this season's grand gambit. It doesn't even manage to be fun, because it all rings as insincere and childish, and with a deep lack of respect for those watching.

Honourable MentionThe Big Bang, where Moffat... retcons the Universe? I should have seen it coming.

That's the worst Series 6 episodes gone, which can only leave...

The worst, most drawn-out regeneration. Even worse than the
one before. Yes, that one.
1 - Time of the Doctor (Series 7, Third Christmas Special)
Written by Steven Moffat
My review here from the time is really good, and talks about the plot.

Here it is. The worst story belongs to the worst Doctor. Since 2013 I have seen almost everything in the Classic Series, and I have been waiting for something to knock Time from its pedestal, and nothing has. In his attempt to culminate everything in the Matt Smith era, Moffat manages to encapsulate almost every shit thing about it. He makes the Doctor the centre of the Universe one last time, and simultaneously tries to brand his mark onto the show in a permanent and terrifying way. Not content to retcon his predecessor's main storyline out of existence, not content to retcon his terrible companion into every area of Doctor Who history, Moffat decided he also had to be the one to solve the issue of the Doctor's regeneration limit, despite being two Doctors too soon, just so they can write that Moffat woz 'ere.

I might not have minded Moffat's solution to the 13 life problem had it not been such a deus ex machina. Clara begging the Time Lords to help The Doctor is something that should not have worked, and only works because of her status as a magical plot device here in her first season. The paradox the Doctor's survival creates is one that Moffat never apparently realised, as without his death and grave to send Clara through time in Name of the Doctor, all of this never happens, and Series 7 never happened. Which seems to be the show's attitude as well, as apart from the Zygon two-parter, nobody has ever mentioned the events of this season after the fact.

Sexism and archaic attitudes to gender politics were rife throughout Moffat's era, especially in Smith's tenure, and that is one of the things I remember the most from this episode. Smith's Doctor is not a role model for children - he is a pest. The Doctor by this point in his life has literally no excuse to be unfamiliar with human customs and standards of reasonable interaction. He smacks Clara on the bottom and shows up to her house naked. Five episodes before this he sexually assaults a rape survivor in The Crimson Horror by holding her down and kissing her. He laughs when she slaps him, and tells her it feels good. It may seem like I'm demonising the Doctor here, but it's clear from elsewhere both in Doctor Who and away from it that Moffat simply doesn't see anything wrong with these things

Fuckety-bye!
I would go into more detail about the episode, but I think you get the idea. My review linked above is a lot more comprehensive, and has a fun drinking game. I wanted to take a moment to say something personal. There are episodes on this list which made me mad, Kill the Moon in particular being a big one for that. But no episode crushed my faith in Doctor Who more than Time of the Doctor. I was fully prepared to sit and wait for Moffat to leave the show before watching it again. So I have to thank Peter Capaldi and Brian Minchin, who managed to steer the show back into something that, although flawed, I wanted to tune into every week. Part of me is looking forward to the future of the show, because I know that however much I have disliked what Chibnall brought to the show before now, nothing can ever be as bad as this shitty, shitty farce of an finale.

Thanks

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Top Ten Worst Moffat Era Episodes, Part One

I recently wrote a list of my favourite Moffat era episodes in order to shine to positivity onto what I saw as a bad time for the show. This is not that list. For all intents and purposes, this list is intended to be my final word on everything Moffat did wrong in his seven years with the program. Some episodes are on this list because they are truly bad; others because they encapsulate an aspect of the era as a whole that really ground my gears. I'll also include (dis)honourable mentions with each entry to highlight episodes that escaped being included here. Okay, here goes...

The original placing of this episode saw Amy larking about
on a pirate ship right after traumatically losing her child.
Small blessings.
10 - Curse of the Black Spot (Series 6, Episode 3)
Written by Steve Thompson.

Eleven, Amy and Rory are a trio who, in Season 5, were developed as a fun alternative to previous companions. Eleven wasn't the authority figure that previous Doctors had been; instead, he came off as a weird mate to two fun hipsters. While this worked in Series 5, in Series 6 it starts to become jarring. I started to hate Eleven's humour, and the way that the series would excuse some of his more morally questionable actions in the name of "fun" and spectacle. Soon, on top of the that, the individual episodes would begin to suffer when the series' mytharc began to colour every aspect of production. While we will explore more of that later, what comes first on this list is the painfully mediocre Curse of the Black Spot.

I was initially excited for this story - it's got pirates and magic, as well as Hugh Bonneville and Lily Cole (who at 15 I liked for two very different reasons). The episode's main concept actually works fairly well  - a pirate curse which sends a Siren to destroy those who are injured is, in actual fact, the workings of an alien medical system trying to heal members of the crew. The problems come in the execution. Everything goes well until we actually reach the alien ship and Rory is almost drowned, leading to a long, drawn-out scene where we are meant to be sad and actually believe that Rory is going to die, even though by this point in Moffat's tenure they had pulled this trick about six times. This is just one facet of an overall problem Moffat's era has with believable stakes, with Moffat's inability to actually kill a main character lasting into the final episode of his tenure.

And, on top of all that, the issue I and others have had is that it isn't particularly memorable. A lot of the other episodes in this season have had very iconic images, whereas the pirate theme is such stale window-dressing that I'm not sure people even remember it as "the pirate one". Maybe "the one on the boat with the supermodel". While it was initially this mediocrity that got it put on this list, the melodrama was what ensured it stayed here.

Honourable mention: Night Terrors, which is just as bland and ridiculous but at least tries to be scary with some competence.

How The Moff Stole Christmas
9 - The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe (Series 7, First Christmas Special)
Written by Steven Moffat.
"You and me, Cyril, we're weak. But she's female."

Doctor Who is cursed with bad Christmas specials, it's just the case. They've tried to offset this in recent years by having important plot things happen in them, but before they tried this, there was this episode. Doctor-Widow-Wardrobe is full of so many odd things that I'm actually surprised that the thing that immediately comes to mind when I look back on it was how exceedingly dull it was. This episode might be lower on the list if it weren't for its bizarre sexual politics and for the fact that this is the start of Series 7, the series that took two years to finally end.

It feels very much like Moffat trying to convince us, and not too successfully, that he is a feminist.
The climax of the episode has guest character Madge save the day because the aliens see her as the strongest member of the group. This is because she is a mother, and women are strong and better than men because they can be mothers. Aside from the fact that motherhood is not the only thing that defines a woman's worth, the outright statement of "we're weak, but she's female" is such a clear attempt to dispel the discussion of the thoroughly unpleasant things that Moffat wrote previously. "Look, he said that women were great. He must be feminist." That falls through though when we see the backstory, where the most romantic way he can think of having Madge and her husband get together is him stalking her until she is worn down by his constant harassment.

The episode does have some nice moments with Madge's kids, and with Bill Bailey's cameo. But the rest of it feels as wooden as the monsters of the week.

Honourable Mention: Last Christmas, whose wasted potential as a great send-off for Clara is tempered by a passable plot and a fun guest star.

8 - The Power of Three (Series 7, Episode 4)
Written by Chris Chibnall

It's an appearance by our next showrunner, whose writing for Doctor Who has always towed the line between okay and terrible. Chibnall had a big hand in the story of 2012's September Season, writing two of its five episodes and also writing online-exclusive prologues and epilogues (one of which included the Doctor sexing up a historical figure and "laying down some backing vocals" for Dizzee Rascal. With the exception of its' third episode, I really don't like the September Season very much at all, and his two episodes I hate this one slightly more.

The Power of Three acted as part of the September Season's theme statement, with The Doctor acting as a random interjector into Amy and Rory's suburban life. While this departure from Who norm should have been an refreshing new take, it instead highlights just how much Amy and Rory had ceased to work as companions - why would they ever want to spend time in the TARDIS? The episode loosely follows an alien plot where millions of black cubes appear out of nowhere. Apart from letting us get to know Moffat's modern version of UNIT, the episode's main plot goes nowhere, with a forgettable alien villain with zero visible motivation. Instead, a lot of the runtime is filled with smaller ideas that never get fleshed out, leaving the main story deflated and unimpressive.

Part of my feeling on this is clouded by the fact that as the years have dragged on I have come to find Amy and Rory absolutely insufferable. Something about them feels off and unrealistic, possibly the way that throughout their tenure on the show they never react to trauma in the way that real people do, and they aren't allowed to when the stakes are never high enough for us to care either.

Honourable Mention: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which I hate almost as much as this episode for its bland guest characters, weird rapey undertones and flashbacks to Pete, Part Two. It escapes this list by at least trying, and because I couldn't fit them both in when there's so much else that needs to be on here.

I have never hated a TARDIS team more. 
7 - Angels Take Manhattan (Series 7, Episode 5)
Written by Steven Moffat

We've moved one space in the list, and one episode along in the show. When the Weeping Angels first appeared in Blink they were scary and unique, and even though I didn't rate them much, I understood the novelty and admired its execution. Their next appearance in Season 5 was great too, enhancing their powers and reputation. Then came this. Angels Take Manhattan, like most of the Moffat mytharc episodes, is a mess. It wants to impress you with its cleverness, move you with its pathos, make you mourn for two companions who were, at that time, the longest runners in the revival series. Instead, I was left frustrated and confused, baffled at how this made it to the screen in its current condition.

The development of the Angels goes from the bizarre to the absurd - as weak statues, as cherubs, as the Statue of Liberty. At one point the script orchestrates a scene where an Angel is weak enough that it can't use the touch time-travel powers (the ones Angels are famous for using when they're, you know, weak) so that one can grab River Song's arm, leading her to, I shit you not, break her own hand out of love for The Doctor.

At the time I described Amy and Rory's departure as "the adult conclusion for these characters." Now I see them as being written out for narrative purposes - the September Season shows that there was clearly nothing left to do with them. Weeping Angel time travel nonsense is put in place to trap Amy and Rory in 1940s New York, where the TARDIS can now "never go", but no mention is made of them just getting a boat somewhere where the Doctor can reach them. It feels less like the Doctor has felt a great loss and more like he just gave up on his friends because he's a dick. What's worse is that, as I've said above for other episodes, them dying all the time and coming back robbed every single ounce of suspense out of their actual finale.

Rather than dressing up their departure in melodrama, it would have been far more effective and moving for them to leave the TARDIS permanently of their own accord, or even just to kill them. This half-assed crap makes important character moments feel weak. When I think of companion exits that just gut me, that make me miss them, I think of Tegan and "It stopped being fun, Doctor", I think of Sarah Jane stood on a street corner in Aberdeen with her luggage, I think of Jo, with The Doctor leaving her party and slowly driving away. There was so much potential in this but the show set itself up for failure time and time again, and this is the result.

Honourable Mention: Asylum of the Daleks because it began the utter mess that was the multiple-Claras arc and saw Amy and Rory divorce and then get together again for no reason. Also, Daleks don't have Asylums.

The biggest retcon, of course, is the idea that Ten would
ever go around with a floppy fringe.
6 - Day of the Doctor (Series 7, 50th Anniversary Special)
Written by Steven Moffat

It is no exaggeration to say that I had been looking forward to the 50th Anniversary for about 9 years, which at the time was over half my life. I expected something spectacular, and true to Doctor Who's long and varied history. What we got was the second part of the "of the Doctor" trilogy, Moffat's insidious attempt to imprint himself on every aspect of the show's history regardless of sense or reason. It featured so many retcons and bad storytelling decisions that it felt more like a monument to the Moffat era than anything else - and that includes all the foibles, including having no stakes, remedial attitudes towards women and having a piss poor conclusion. The only reason that is isn't higher on the list is because I am a sucker for nostalgia.

Day's worst crime is the Time War retcon. There were quite a few ways to write the Time Lords back into the series in a way which wouldn't rob the emotional core out of the revival's first four seasons, but instead, the Doctor's greatest regret never actually happened. The event that informed the character of Nine and Ten was a fake, according to this story. Also, there was a WHOLE DOCTOR between Eight and Nine that messes up the numbering, and his inclusion is my most contentious point. Moffat couldn't include Eight because the layman wouldn't know who he was, and couldn't include Nine because Eccleston refused to return (likely balking at the idea of his character's entire personality being a lie), so he just made up his own so he could have one more Doctor to contribute to the series. The War Doctor, while well acted by the late and great John Hurt, doesn't make sense as a character - he's supposed to be a regeneration designed to be capable of genocide, but he ends up not being able to do it, and Eleven is far more genocidal than he is.

Other elements of the episode also don't belong in a 50th Anniversary special. Ten's engagement to Queen Elizabeth I, admittedly a hangover from RTD, is made even worse by sexist writing, including a line completely ignoring the original irony of "the body of a weak and feeble woman". Most of the not-Time-War plot was taken up by a Zygon invasion of earth, which seemed an oddly specific callback to make and whose only real legacy was setting up the politically insensitive Zygon two-parter in Series 9. Among other miscellanea, the show also contained a random appearance by Billie Piper, not playing Rose Tyler; a Doctor Who superfan who would later go on to be killed by Missy, and Tom Baker as "The Curator", who is implied to be a future incarnation of the Doctor re-wearing Four's body.

Honourable Mention: Name of the Doctor also pulls off a spectacularly bad retcon when it tries to claim that Clara is responsible for not only saving The Doctor's life thousands of time, but for every good thing that has ever happened in the Doctor Who universe. Is not on this list because I already included two from the "...of the Doctor" trilogy on here.

I cut this article in half because of its length, so expect the top five soon.

Thanks.

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.