Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Halloween and Ashes To Ashes 3.8

The nights are dark and mired in storms; leaves turn brown and die, falling to their doom. Autumn has been upon us for two glorious months, and now it's that time of the year when we set aside our differences and celebrate the scary, the horrifying and the tacky. It's Halloween, and as a treat this year I'll be looking at the final episode of the Gene Hunt Time Travel Bonanza, the first piece of TV I ever talked about on this blog (here). Contains spoilers for Ashes To Ashes, Life On Mars and, funnily enough, the ending of LOST.

Ashes To Ashes - Series Three, Episode Eight (Revisited)
Written 15/8/12
Keats forces the team to face reality. Or limbo, as it were.
It's a tad strange to be back here after two years. At the time, the finale of Ashes To Ashes seemed like a betrayal of everything I'd hoped and expected from the series; really, I didn't see a problem. As far as I was concerned, Alex was in a coma; that was that. All the anomalies, all the strangeness - that could be explained incredibly simply using that comaworld concept, and I felt that the rather more religiously motivated retcon was ridiculous and unnecessary. Now of course it still could be a coma, but I'll admit that the finale's concepts do stretch all the way back to the second series of Life On Mars, which gives them some credence.
     A case pops up surrounding some dead Dutch gangsters, but Gene is pissed off by Alex walking out on him in the previous episode. They have an argument, and Alex decides to follow the picture to Lancashire, and Gene follows. With their leaders gone, Keats gives Ray, Shaz and Chris individual videos, which they initially disregard to get on with the case. In Lancashire, Alex finds the shallow grave mentioned in her hospital room, and finds a body there - although not, as she'd expected, that of Sam Tyler. Instead, it's the body of young PC Gene Hunt, who in reality died in 1953 and has occupied this world ever since. Gene claims that the world around them is a form of copper's limbo, and Keats arrives to confirm that he is a Demon.
     Back at CID, and in turn the three officers watch the videos: Ray killed himself in the 70s after accidentally killing a fellow officer; Chris was shot in the 60s when a raid went wrong; and Shaz was stabbed with a screwdriver in the 90s by a car-thief. They go with Keats to his "new department" downstairs, with Gene trying to persuade them to come with him and do their blag operation on the Dutch gangsters. While Keats freaks out, the three eventually decide that Gene is their friend and they do the blag, culminating in a scene in which Ray, Chris, Shaz and then, sadly, Alex go into their heaven, the Railway Arms from Life On Mars.
Gene stays in Limbo to guide dead coppers into Heaven.
     I'm fine with quasi-religious themes in fiction; I don't like them, but there's nothing wrong with them in theory. However, I am averse to them being thrown into series that have never had those themes before just to make a dramatic point. It came just before the broadcast of the final episode of LOST, which did exactly the same thing. LOST, admittedly, was a lot more devastating because it betrayed everything that I'd ever liked the series for; it's admirable attempts to provide sci-fi explanations for supernatural phenomena were spat at by having a magical plug and a man-made afterlife. The Bonanza was even worse than that: there never had been any supernatural phenomena, everything that went haywire with reality was as a direct response to their comaworlds being stimulated from the outside. Introducing a copper's limbo that can be dipped in and out of by anyone in a coma may tidy up a few ends, but it simply opens up others. Under the coma-only theory, officer Frank Morgan was simply Sam's experience of his neuro-surgeon. In this explanation, if you're a copper then you've got to have been a copper and then either died or gone into a coma, which just doesn't make sense.
     At the same time, the finale highlihgts a lot of the problems inherant within Series Three. Mainly, it took our characters and simplified their characterisations by ridiculous amounts. Series Two felt like a more standard, higher-quality crime drama that just happened to have a present-day protagonist, while this story tries to pretend that Ashes To Ashes has been playing out like some kind of fairytale. The image of Gene Hunt and his escapades isn't the reality of the series, but rather the edited highlights of the series' embryonic moments that completely sheds any of the times in which the Bonanza had depth and power. I think that this, perhaps, is the greater betrayal; the betrayal of its own potential, of its own past. 
     I did like it much more than I did on first viewing, however, as this time I knew what was coming and could see the buildup and the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. Like that LOST finale, the episode hit the right emotional strings in all the right places, and exposed Gene's character to its very core before building him back up in a more confident way. While it was sad and quite disconcerting how quickly Alex got over never seeing her daughter ever again, it was a good end for the character and brought closure to this two-year marathon with great grace.

Thanks. Goodbye GHTTB. Happy Halloween.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Review: Doctor Who Classic: The Leisure Hive

Four and Romana go on holiday.
Doctor Who - Season 18, Story One - The Leisure Hive
Written between 6th and 7th July 2012

And we begin the weird and wonderful Bidmead era, a series characterised by its use of more interesting scientific topics and a massive reduction of the humour that threatened to sink the series the year before. So, what has Bidmead got for us? Well, this is cheating a little bit - this episode was made before he was even hired as script editor, but it's still an interesting look at the mixing styles of newly-promoted innovator John Nathan Turner and old-hand Executive Producer Barry Letts, who served as series controller across the Pertwee era. The story's structure is a bit unorthodox, and that causes a few problems, but for now the focus on ideas over humour does the serial justice.
     Removing the Randomiser from the TARDIS after having escaped from the Black Guardian, The Doctor and Romana decide to go on holiday to The Leisure Hive, a spa on the war-torn planet of Argolis. The Argolins are troubled; their race is dying due to their sterility, caused by experimentation with Tachyon technology. When the two try and investigate the Argolins' machines, The Doctor is aged dramatically and, together with Romana and other assistance, he manages to uncover one conspiracy after the other. By the end, The Doctor's age has returned to normal and everyone's hunky dory.
     The story's structure is very bottom-ended, with a ridiculously slow beginning that leads into a rushed expositional finale. The opening shot of a dull Brighton beach is two minutes long before we even see the main characters, and the first two episodes contain several long, long, model shots that go on forever and add nothing to the story. While television is a show don't tell medium, I think it's ok for us just to hear, "The shuttle has arrived." rather than wasting time watching it slowly enter into the docking bay. Luckily this slow start gives our characters a lot more room to breathe, and the politics and beliefs of the Argolins are rather wonderfully explained in great detail. It's such a shame, then, that the main villain's plan only starts at the end of the third episode, and we rush through the end to ensure everything's tied up properly.
David Haig plays the slimey Pangol.
     I loved the episode's villain, Pangol; an Argolin created using their Tachyon technology who is hell-bent on not just using the technology to continue his race, but also to gain revenge against their old enemies the Foamasi. It was a bit distracting when I realised who played him; David Haig would later go on to play the desperate DCI in 90s Rowan Atkinson sitcom The Thin Blue Line. The Foamasi are an interesting alien species, and they subvert the usual, "it's reptilian; must be evil" tropes, but their design is a tad lazy; it looks like a man standing in a green bag with some eyes stuck on.
     The big high-concept for this episode was Tachyon techology, which is briefly explained to be a particle that always travels faster than the speed of light. These particles have been theorised by real world scientists; they wouldn't break the Cosmic Speed Limit's grip on reality because they would be travelling so fast that they could never deliver information on an event before it happened (and thus causality is conserved). Put simply, objects can't travel faster than the speed of light because they would arrive before they left, breaking causality. Tachyons are fine with this. The episode does unfortunately mix this up a bit, with Tachyon technology being used as a placeholder for "magic!" - such technology being used to age and youthen people, as well as create clones. There's also a random piece of technobabble about Baryon shielding. A Baryon is a type of subatomic particle; it describes particles made of three quarks with neutral chromodynamics. I don't really see how blocking Protons and Neutrons from hitting machinery is a great concern.
     The atmosphere of the story is helped greatly by a great soundtrack, which uses Eighties synth to its very best. It's the first of a number of aesthetic changes that are immediately apparent now that JNT has taken over the series; including, importantly, the level of humour. Sure, Tom is still madcap and uncontrollable, but there's a lot less slapstick and ham when compared with the previous story, The Horns of Nimon. JNT is clearly trying to impress. He'd been working on Doctor Who since the Sixties, and so he had a lot of pressure on his shoulders to sort things out. Personally, for now I like this more serious direction for the series. It's a lot more focussed, and before all hell broke loose, it was a fairly good story.
The last of the old Argolins.
     When compared to the rest of the series, The Leisure Hive is a step back onto the straight and narrow. At it's heart it's a straight-forward story held up by a high-concept and a very strong characterisation. It was slightly let down by its structure, which gave it a rushed ending and a lack of a real pay-off, but it's still a great start to what looks to be a promising season.


NEXT WEEK: Tom Baker plays a shape-shifting Cactus in Meglos.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Review: Misfits 4.1

Jess (Karla Crome) and Finn (Nathan McMullen) join
the team under stressful circumstances.
When it started, people compared Misfits' urban appeal to that of E4's flagship show, Skins. And we had to hope, really, that that comparison continued when not one but three of the original cast members left last season; two in story and one that may or may not be because of an unfortunate incident where Lauren Socha racially abused a taxi-driver. So we've got two new guys, Jess (the wonderful Karla Crome, who was in Hit And Miss which I reviewed before I gave up on it half-way-through) and Finn (Nathan McMullen). Now with a cast that looks rather different from the original, we have to wonder whether Misfits can survive the change. As far as I can tell, it has. And rather well.
      Jess and Finn arrive, suspicious of their new "probation worker" Rudy. Rudy and Seth are torturing two people in order to find out the combination to a briefcase - including Curtis, whom the two new recruits release from a freezer. Rudy explains that Seth returned from war-torn Uganda (where Kelly has apparently stayed). The three were touched by a gangster carrying the briefcase, whose power made them obsessed with opening it and getting the cash inside. Rudy cut the gangster's hand off in the night. Believing them to be in cahoots with Curtis, Rudy drugs the two new guys and throws them in the freezer. They argue and flirt, with Finn telling an imaginary story about being sexually abused as a child.
     The thief gets dumped in with them, and he explains that ever since he stole the money, everyone around him has been desperate to get it off of him. Finn gets affected by the power just as the theif dies. Seth knocks Rudy out, but Frudy is still around to stand-in. He lets them out, and after explaining that he's not the real Rudy, he tells them that it was he who stole the briefcase. He retrieves it and discovers that Finn and Jess have both been affected by the thief's ability. Finn runs off with the case and there's a confrontation on the roof. The thief takes the case and falls off the roof, opening it and letting the cash fly free. Everyone makes up and they bury yet another body. A new Probation Worker turns up, and he's a badass. Finn goes home, and it's revealed that he keeps a girl locked up.
The new line-up.
     Karla Crome stands out immediately - Jess is confident, witty and wise and she's an absolute joy to have on screen. Nathan McMullen's Finn took a bit longer to convince me, but his optimistic yet jittery persona gave a replacement to the original Simon that wasn't as creepy as fuck. In short, yeah, I really liked these new characters. It seems like both have places they could go, and I thought that their introductions were handled a lot better than Rudy's last year, which seemed to consist of, "Here's the new Nathan, deal with it." This episode felt much more balanced between a genuinely intriguing plot and the new character beats. The comedy came hard and fast, and worked well with the rest of the story to provide a good all-rounder.
     So yeah, I was really impressed by this week. It managed to get everything right in a really intriguing way, with both a fascinating scenario to work in and a set of new characters with impressive opening resumes. Heck, at this point Curtis feels like a bit of a weight, and I'd really like it if his veteran position on the team could be exploited more this series. Other than that, then, this premier was just what I'd wanted - interesting, well-aced and just very, very funny. Good job, Misfits. Keep it up.


Super Sunday: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Jack and Sally get together. For some reason.
Super Sunday
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Written between 26 and 27 October 2012

Four years. That's how long The Nightmare Before Christmas took to make. All of the characters and sets had to be sculpted out of clay, each character having many, many different mouldings for different movements, expressions and scenarios. They then of course all had to be painted and designed according to a long series of preliminary sketches and storyboards. Then, each frame of film had to be set-up and photographed seperately, with one second of film for every 24 frames. Add in the editing, voice-acting work, and issues elsewhere, and you've got a film that is not only a labour of love, but a work worthy of being considered many people's magnus opuses. I say this now so that even if I do happen to say anything bad about the film in the positive paragraphs, I haven't ignored the effort that went into it.
     Jack Skellington, the spindly-armed king of Halloweentown, has one hell of a midlife crisis and decides that this Halloween thing is getting a bit old. While wandering through the forest, he stumbles into a portal to another Holiday-land, sending him to the cheery realm of Christmastown. The idea of Christmas entices Jack to do it for himself, against the advice of his belittled friend Sally, and after getting the whole town involved he delivers a warped and strange Christmas to a world that doesn't want it. The experience teaches Jack to love Halloween again, and thus he returns and saves Santa Claus from the evil Oogie Boogie in order to save Christmas.
     Like I said on Tuesday, one of the problems with a film with such a deliberately "spooky" aesthetic is that they lose something by being so unreal. Jack is fundamentally in search of something different, a change from his regular routine. But unlike most midlife-crises, it's a very destructive way of doing things that nearly gets quite a few people killed or seriously injured. We're supposed to sympathise with Jack because he's awesome and he's tired of life and who hasn't been tired of life at some point? But I guess what I'm saying is, that, like another Jack from a TV series that I recently decided I should pick up again next year, I don't get why there's such a big buzz around him.
Oogie Boogie.
     At the same time, though, the incredibly over-simplistic plotting also leads to ridiculously black-and-white characterisations. I mean, Jack, Sally and perhaps Oogie Boogie are the only characters in this damn thing who have a character with more than one beat. It's frustrating to the point of anger that so much effort went into this film and yet they never once thought to do something more with this momentous project than tell a silly little Christmas/Halloween story. It could have been about something, but at the end it settled on, "be happy with what you've got, no matter what your situation - any attempt to change will fail spectacularly". Very family friendly. Oh, and Sally and Jack get together at the end despite having ridiculously little chemistry in the film prior. For that extra hack value.
     I don't want to hate on Nightmare or Corpse Bride, but they could have been so much better, and the issue is not in the aesthetic but in the damn script. If either of these films could have cobbled together better scripts, then maybe they'd be more worthwhile, but as they stand they're filled with unfortunately two-dimensional characters despite their deliberately three-dimensional construction. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. And, if you don't like that, ignore this post and wait for the Misfits one that's coming around 11:30.


P.S. That ends this run of Super Sundays. I might do a December one for Christmassy films, but ciao until then.
P.S.S Fans of this film, if you're reading this, I'm sorry, don't kill me.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Review: Merlin 5.4: Another's Sorrow

Princess Mithian is back, and her role isn't really
used to its full potential. Ok actress, though.
Back in the day, Morgana's plots would make me tear my hair out - both because of how relatively unambitious and incredibly convoluted they were, but also how stupid the people of Camelot would actually have to be to fall for them. While it tried its hardest, that was unavoidable in this episode, who saw the use of one of the most blatant shitty disguises that Morgana's ever pulled off. I think at this point even the character knows how bad her plans are, and her only consolation is how much she manages to get away with before Merlin uses some weird logic to call her out.
     This week's episode saw Morgana storm the land of Season Four's Princess Mithian with Arthur's rival king Odin, the guy who payed for the contract to kill Uther. She tricks Mithian into entering into Camelot and Arthur's protection, disguising herself blatantly as Hilda, who looks about ten years older than Morgana and has exactly the same fucking eyes, voice, hair, everything. They head off to Odin's lands (and of course Odin's had a heads up) and Merlin and Gaius do their usual slow twigging thing. Merlin works out that Morgana's there because Mithian has written her name on a rock. She attacks him but he's only incapacitated, and "Hilda" brings him back alive, leading Arthur to leave him behind with Gwaine and Gaius. He recovers too late to warn Arthur that he's walking into a death-trap, and he gets caught. Luckily, Merlin walks in and saves the day without trying. Arthur and Odin have a stand-off in which Arthur wins with a truce, and Morgana manages to escape yet again.
     It wasn't as blatantly empty and formulaic as the past two series have been, but it also didn't do much better. We've been presented with three very, very good epsiodes that ignored those past cliches, and to be given this rather predicable fare is just, well, disappointing. "Hilda" looked like Morgana instantaneously, of course Mithian was gonna accidentally betray Arthur and get forgiven for it, of course Morgana wouls somehow survive, of course Merlin would wake up and come in and save the day. So many of courses. This episode could have been a chance to do so many interesting things - Morgana could have discovered Merlin's powers, there could have been some resolution with Mithian, something could have happened to actually further the plot that wasn't the ending of a conflict that's very rarely affected the main plot.
The Terrible Zodin!
    I suppose I have to look for positives, and the main one was that standards of performance, direction and aesthetic are still incredibly high. The choreography was great, the fight scenes were awesome and Morgana got some great things to do. Regardless of how ridiculously predictable the story actually was, you couldn't say it wasn't entertaining. I just wish it actually had something to contribute.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Review: Red Dwarf 10.4: Entangled

Kryten and the Cat suffer some weird coincidences.
Red Dwarf - Series Ten, Episode Four - Entangled
Written 25/10/12

That's much more like it. After last week's really quite poor episode featuring the Novocastrian Messiah, Entangled saw the return to form for Red Dwarf X, and it is by far the best episode yet because it did a lot of things that previous episodes were trying to do and did them without it feeling tired. It wasn't perfect, sure, but I certainly couldn't pick out as many faults as I've been able to in past weeks. No doubt the Red Dwarf fandom will disagree with me, but Entangled is exactly what Red Dwarf should be - at least when it isn't being particularly high-concept.
     Lister is interested in a nearby moon showing life-signs, and bypasses Rimmer's new obsessive health-and-safety procedures in order to take a look. At the same time, Cat and Kryten become quantumly entangled, meaning that when they are togther, outstandingly coincidental things are more likely to happy. Lister returns from the moon, occupied by a gang of GELFs, having lost both Starbug and Rimmer in a game of cards. Their only problem is that Lister has had a bomb attatched to his knackers that will go off if he doesn't deliver the goods. When they confront the GELFs, the Cat and Kryten's powers accidentally cause them to choke to death, leading them to awaken from stasis the bomb's creator at a space-station based on erroneous thinking. After she helps to turn the bomb off, she accidentally gets sucked out of an airlock.
      When I first saw the trailer-clip from Entangled, I thought that the gimmick (whoo, Cat and Kryten keep talking at the same time, how funny) was a bit lacklustre, but they realy made it work because it developed beyond that and, quite like the luck-virus from Quarantine, it allows a series of conveniently absurd events to unfold without it seeming strange. The only hitch was probably the sorta-unexplained death of the three GELFs, but that didn't matter because the pace of the episode was enough, as in the past, to smooth over any lumps and bumps.
Beggs GELFs bargain for Rimmer's life.
     The most important thing that the episode got right was in the characterisations. As much as I enjoyed Lister's older persona in previous episodes, I found that this episode got the characters dead on and that, in a way, cemented the episode's success. When you look at it, the episode doesn't seem to keep focus very well - one moment we're with some Gelfs, next we're on a spaceship, next there's a quirky scientist girl, oops she's dead oh well. But the main concepts regarding the Cat and Kryten's synchronicity gave the episode enough oof to hold up its characterisations, and enough firepower to have a hell of a lot of fun.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Review: GHTTB: Ashes To Ashes 3.7

Tobias tries to protect his cause.
Ashes To Ashes - Series Three, Episode Seven
Written 14/8/12

Last week saw Ashes To Ashes rise out of a four-week slump in standards to meet up with my expectations, and this week, while slightly more conflicted in its aims, still continues that quality. Tackling both Chris Skelton's characterisation surge and the 80s issue of Apartheid South Africa,the episode managed to keep a healthy air of darkness and paranoia about the place, which made is a damn-side more fun than it should have been.
      After Viv's death, emotions are running high at CID. Gene is angry and upset, keen to get rid of Keats through a decent collar, while Chris has finally grown some balls and has decided that he needs to stand up for himself. Both get a chance to prove themselves when there's an incident at a secret hideout of the ANC, the freedom fighter organisation fighting against Apartheid in South Africa. A body is found, but no-one wants to own up until group-leader Tobias hands himself in to protect the other members of the group. It's revealed that the murdered man was a Special Division spy, and that he was killed by the woman who believed herself to be his lover. A bomb goes off at the South African embassy, and the White government are keen to have Tobias deported, but Chris knows that he is innocent and stands up to Gene by letting him go. After Chris finally gains Hunt's respect, he gets his Life On Mars Music Moment and joins with Shaz and Ray in seeing a wall filled with stars.
     Meanwhile, Alex has been given her remit by Keats; Gene is the enemy, and she needs to go and get him., transforming into the equivalent of Life On Mars' Frank Morgan. She goes out for an intimate dinner with Gene, where he admits that Sam Tyler didn't die in the accident; rather, he told Gene to fake his death when he had discovered something that changed his view of the world. Keats questions her confidence in him; where did Annie go, and why did Sam just vanish completely from the world? She goes back to Gene's place, where they slowdance, but Keats knocks on at the last minute and gives Alex an address: there's a grave on a hill in Lancashire, and he wants Alex to see.
Chris gets some characterisation, but it's too late.
     Despite all of the movements in plot, the episode left we with very, very little feeling. It was wonderfully atmospheric, and I'm glad Chris finally got some character development, but its too little too late and the crime plot was really quite weak in so many ways.  There have been four damn episodes in this series that could have been filled with these main-plot developments, but instead we've been given useless "hints" that serve to do nothing but frustrate, while the main plots still suffer because they lack the episodes' focuses! 3.7 certainly did a lot and I did enjoy it, but it's bittersweet because it shows how much of the series has been wasted.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Review: Corpse Bride

Victor is prepared to die to make Emily happy.
The One That Got Away
Corpse Bride - Produced by Tim Burton
Written 21/10/12

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is a story that doesn't really know what it's doing. I mean, sure, they probably had a plan and worked to it, and there were tons of motivations behind every little stylistic and script-writing decision, but there's something to it, something inherantly wrong that prevents Corpse Bride from ever reaching the true heights that its spiritual predecessor, The Nightmare Before Christmas, ever did. And that's weird, really, considering that he surely had more time to work on this one. It isn't the visual style that lets Corpse Bride down, nor its music, but a general sense that while it's all very well-done, it isn't particularly relevant to anything.
     The story follows Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp) as he is due to be married to daughter of bankrupt aristocrats, Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson). He messes up his vows and runs off into the woods, where, by practising his vows on what appears to be a tree branch, inadvertantly awaken the sleeping Corpse Bride, Emily. (Helena Bonham-Carter). While Victor tries to figure out a way to escape his arrangement, they must also foil the plans of the evil Lord Barkis (Richard E Grant) who killed Emily years ago and is planning to do the same to Victoria. Eventually Barkis is defeated and Emily gives Victor to Victoria, finally free to move on.
     It's clear that Burton is making some ironic statement about how the land of the living is more dead and stagnant than the land of the undead, but aside from the surface aesthetic it's not clear why. I mean, is he talking about rules? About the dangers of adhering to social conventions? Because, you know Tim, we don't really have those Arranged Marriage things in the West any more. Or is it about the perils of seeking True Love, like Emily did? Well, why does he then have Victor and Victoria get together, when they've known each other for even less time? It's confusing. It's very, very strong aesthetically, but there's nothing backing it up.
Lord Barkis weds Victoria.
     The film is Stop-Motion Animation, which is making me feel incredibly, incredibly guilty for even daring to say anything about it. Basically, stop-motion means that you can create awesome animations that look very physical, but it also means that you have to take each frame individually, meaning that you're producing a few seconds of film with each day's work. Therefore, these films are the hardest to make - they have the most effort, the most love and I practically feel like some sort of criminal for even daring to say that perhaps The Corpse Bride is a little bit on the empty side. But it's not just down to the animators, because they're great. Or the designers, because the design is awesome. No, it's to do with the writing and, in particular, the music. What's so wrong about the music, you ask, clutching hold of your signed Danny Elfman soundtracks and baring your teeth like I've just said that Adolf Hitler would have looked great in a tutu.Well, it's simply that the songs are too relevant, too specific to gain outside appeal.
     Corpse Bride is a success in its animation, style, atmosphere and aesthetic - a wonderfully gothic masterpiece that celebrates the style as well as furthering it. But it is also the epitome of style over substance, pretending to say lots of important things while really not saying anything at all. And that was a downright shame, because the story of Emily and Victor could have been one of great poignancy and drama. Instead, it felt like it was there just so we could see all the pretty clay animations. I still enjoy the film, and i think that it's something very beautiful, but I wish that it could have just been better.


Monday, 22 October 2012

Overview: Doctor Who: The Cartmel Era

Sly and Sophie Aldred formed the best TARDIS team
this side of Five/Nyssa.
Written between the 1st and 2nd of July 2012.

I was a lot more apprehensive about this part of the series. I'd barely seen any McCoy growing up, but I had heard about his era in both positive and negative terms - he was daft at first, then manipulative and dark in a creepy way. Add to that my dislike of Mel and the knowledge that Season 24 is oft considered one of the worst by "fan consensus", and I knew I was in for a ride. Perhaps, I wagered, I wouldn't like it. That might be a change for me, the man who likes some of the worst Who ever made, I might be able to write those fun kinds of scathing reviews that inspired me to start this blog in the first place.
     I had no such luck, and for that I am glad. Even in Season 24, I found the Cartmel era to be a source of either constant fun or constant fascination, ranging from the hilarious antics of Time and the Rani to the dark, primal battles present in Survival. Even where the scripts themselves weren't very good, the characters' humour and characterisation made everything hold together, and there isn't a single serial here that left me truly disappointed - even the depressingly underacheiving Silver Nemesis still has quite a few moments that make me chuckle, and is another of Seven's great chess games.
     Key to this era's success is most definitely McCoy himself, who is an excellent actor. He's perfectly able to balance comedy and drama, his character ranging from the light-hearted, analogy-mixing buffoon to the manipulative chessmaster who seems to revel in the shortest of games. Importantly, he was the first Doctor in a long time (think late Hartnell) to be a true pacifist, even if it meant turning his friends into weapons to fight his battles for him. This can be seen nowhere better than in the closing scenes of Survival, where The Doctor, almost drawn in by the influence of the Cheetah Planet, nearly kills The Master before resurfacing and defying it, enforcing his pacifistic will. It's also seen in a wonderful bit from The Happiness Patrol, where The Doctor manages to get a Sniper to throw away his weapon using only his mind.
I used to hate Mel, but in Season 24 she's
just really awesome.
     The companions are consistantly good in this era, although Mel does have a few issues. She's not a bad companion per se, and her portrayl in Season 24 was enough to make me forget my larger problems with her from Season 23. She's really quite a lot of fun, and her chirpyness, which initially put me off, helped to save the season from total disaster. However, the problem with Mel, especially when compared with Ace, is that she doesn't really have a characterisation; it's once mentioned where she lived, and that she was a computer programmer, but that never has any effect on any of the stories. Sure, it would have been weird for her to solve problems with her knowledge of the ridiculously primitive (by today's standards) 80s computer programming languages, but it would have made the character more of a presence instead of simply some fit ginger bird who pops in for six stories then buggers off with Robert Holmes' version of Captain Jack.

     Ace is much more interesting, and this is probably because she's one of the most well-developed companions that the series ever had. More modernistic writing leading into the Nineties saw a much more definite move away from Something for the Dads and a greater focus on characterisation. As a result, we got to see a hell of a lot more of Ace's background - her family, her hometown and her childhood. Sure, we'd seen companions' families before, but they were all aliens - this was the first time a contempory companion had been given such depth, and the development of Sophie Aldred's character from the boistrous teenage girl of Dragonfire into the mature young woman of The Curse of Fenric is a wonder to behold. If I have any complaints, it's mainly that the 27-year-old Aldred never really came off convincingly as the 16-year-old Ace, but that's purely surface level and there's so much right with the character that I can make that fall squarely into my suspension of disbelief.
     Over all else, this era was a pioneer for interesting sci-fi ideas. Cartmel insisted that he hire new writers instead of lending from the previous era, and this brought the show screaming towards the innovation of the early Nineties with great swiftness. This works best in the final season, with stories like Ghost Light; an example of the era's metaphorical prowess. I interpret Ghost Light as a large metaphor for the Evolution vs Creationism debate, and the anger that bubbles up on both sides. My favourite of these, however, has to be the parable of The Happiness Patrol, which is a brutal, brutal satire of Thatcher's government. The Cartmel Era showed the world that Doctor Who still had good stories to tell.
      I can't do an overview of the Cartmel without discussing his eponymous masterplan. Cartmel wanted to bring mystery back to the Doctor after the eras after Troughton had revealed more and more about his origins and his society of origin. His plan was to reveal that the Doctor had been created (or loomed) from the genetic material of the one of the Time Lord founders, making him incredibly powerful. Eventually, Ace would have gone to the Time Lord Acadamy in Season 27, and trained to be a Time Lady despite her human heritage. This only really pops up in three of the serials, but I'm really not a fan of it and there's a small part of me that's sorta glad that this never happened. The Doctor, as we saw in Season 24, is a chaotic wizard that flies from place to place, righting wrongs and changing lives. He's not a flipping God.
Farewell, Sly. It's all backwards from here.
     My favourite stories of the era? The Happiness Patrol is just 75 minutes of pure awesome, showing The Doctor topple a regime in a single night, a regime that slashed at the contempory government in a way that was subtle enough to not cause trouble and obvious enough to get people thinking. The Kandyman is an excellent creation, a satire of modern capitalism, and he's also scary enough for the kids. Another favourite is Time and the Rani - it's perhaps not the best of stories, but it's far better structured than either of the Rani's other stories, and it's brilliant fun from start to finish. My most disappointing story is probably Silver Nemesis, which tried so much and managed to accomplish so little. It's also where the Cartmel Masterplan is at it's least subtle, which may or may not have something to do with my dislike of it.
      The Cartmel Era is 12 bloody brilliant serials, all of which show that Doctor Who was heading in a really good direction. I enjoy every minute of it, and despite a few issues here or there, it's been one of my most fulfilling examinations of Who so far. I personally will miss McCoy, Langford and Aldred, and I hope that some day they'll get to revisit Who again. The era was intelligent, fun and certainly one of the best.


NEXT WEEK: I rewind eight years to Season 18.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Super Sunday: Batman (1989)

Sit down, relax, have a drink...
Super Sundays
Batman (1989)
Written between 18th and 20th October 2012

Batman, as a character, is legendary for simply how awesome he is. He dressed up in dark clothes and goes off into the night, striking fear into the hearts of Gotham's undesirables and fighting the schemes of Gotham's ridiculously large array of insane supervillains. While he's perhaps not as awesome as Iron Man, he takes the same tropes and puts them to rights in a way that asks the viewer simply whether they're man enough to face the world's darkness and hit it with a batarang. Tim Burton's version of the character and the series is a rather interesting one for many reasons, one of the biggest being his attitudes towards the central character and some of the questionable decisions his obsession with the gothic leads him to make.
      Gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is about to take over his mob, and for good. He is made restless by the appearance in the news of a strange, Bat-like figure known only as The Batman. Batman's true identity is the charming billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who, after entertaining reporter Vicki Vale, rushes off to stop a raid on a factory by Napier and his men. While there, he knocks Napier into a vat of acid. He doesn't die instantly, but his private Doctors are forced to suffer when it turns out that the experience has turned him into the Joker - a permenant smile, green hair, paper white skin and something seriously wrong in his brain. Batman must fight The Joker to the end to rid the town of his menace, and on the way identifies Jack Napier as the man who killed his parents in childhood and led him to becoming the Batman.
     The story's most unique take on the Batman mythos is the humanisation of Jack Napier; Nicholson's Joker isn't just deranged, he's also someone who is very clearly developed from a more ruthless but logical persona. Instead of being something that the already-insane Joker gave to himself, this Joker's appearance has been forced upon him and is often detrimental to his plans. What this results in is a very methodical, extravagant Joker who seems to relish in the newfound freedom that the persona creates. He performs to his audience and he likes it. While this part is great, I did disagree with the way that Burton twisted the story to make Napier his parents' killer, because it creates an Archenemy structure that disagrees with what Batman's about. Batman's is not a quest for vengeance, but for justice, and he never explicitly seeks out his parent's killer but instead sees him as an example of a trend in society that he needs to stop, with the authorities' help or otherwise.
Michael Keaton makes a decent Bruce Wayne but
as Batman he's less than I'd hoped.
      I think my ultimate problem with Batman in general is that while the story is very much able to say things about our society, it ultimately collapses into a standard, "morality is grey and so are our curtains" tale of death and destruction that most of the time I'm just not in the mood for. It stops being about justice and power and about wondering exactly who is more of a complete and total dick. Of course, Keaton's Batman is effing whiter-than-white, creating a clearer hero/villain structure that conflicts with the ambiguity the character is known for. I think Keaton makes a much better Bruce Wayne, and you certainly would have no suspicision that he was a crime-fighting superhero, but in a way he seems too nice, too normal. Bruce Wayne as a character is an inherantly fucked up guy - he's got such mommy and daddy issues that he dresses up as a bat, goes around beating people up and then doesn't care what happens to them afterwards. And this Batman isn't really as imposing a presence as he could have been, for the sole reason that, as we see in the sequel, Burton much prefers gothic villains to accepted comic-book heroes.
     I suppose at the end of the day, my problem with the film is simply that it's a little too full. I think Burton realised his bias very early on in the writing process and did his best to give Keaton interesting stuff to do, but what that results in is a film that's two hours long and contains long, long chunks where nothing of any value really happens. Well then, I could have gotten behind the messages and themes of the film, surely - oh, wait, sorry, Burton has taken those themes and packaged them for Hollywood. The film was still very entertaining and I enjoyed some of the aesthetic choices and ideas that Burton used, but I've come away from it without much feeling, without emotion. It didn't give me anything, and it didn't leave me wanting to watch it again.


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Review: Merlin 4.3: The Death Song of Uther Pendragon

Uther's back, and he's... he's covered in white makeup!
The position of Episode Three is forever cursed for me by its two predecessor stories, both of which came after two-parters of decent quality and both of which were absolutely terrible. Both were written by someone that I'm actually quite fond of, Howard Overman, and he's arrived here to try and fix his record and break the everlasting curse of the third episode. Whether he was fully successful I'm not sure, but The Death Song of Uther Pendragon was certainly better than its annular predecessors by many, many degrees and managed to be consistently enjoyable while only rarely resorting to crappy komedy. In fact, I'd even say that it was quite good. Wooo!
     Merlin and Arthur find a random old woman about to be burnt for Witchcraft, which Arthur doesn't think is very nice. He saves her, and in thanks she gives him, as a dying present, a magical Horn which lets him enter the Afterlife and speak to the dead. Since it's conveniently the anniversary of Uther's death, Arthur is sad and wants to have a natter with pop. He passes through the veil, and Uther, in typical Uther-y fashion, is a complete and total dick. Disillusioned, Arthur leaves, but finds afterwards that strange things are happening in the castle. Sir Percival is attacked from nowhere, Gwen is nearly set on fire - it turns out that Arthur has accidentally let Uther's ghost into the real world, and he's being a bigger dick than usual in order to "save" his kingdom. Faced with a choice between his father and his safety, he rightly chooses his safety and he and Merlin go to send Uther back to the afterlife. Arthur gets knocked out and Merlin takes the opportunity to beat Uther's ass with magic, but before it can be revealed to Arthur, he's sent back to the afterlife with a scream.
     Howard Overman, as history has shown, isn't good at comedy - at least in the style appropriate for Merlin (his Misfits stuff, on the other hand, is hilarious.) I got the feeling this episode that he wanted to make sure that we knew that the change he made last season (to kill Uther, which would have been awesome had he done it properly and not played it for comedy) was the right one. He did so by doing something very clever - exploiting the shitty characterisation of his colleagues, he showed us in no uncertain terms just what an unbridled asshole Uther really was. He hasn't really had to do much work at all, and that's the genius of it all - TDSoUP worked because it fit so perfectly with both the shambles that the series used to be and with the more adult version of itself that it is now.
Dr. Uther, or how Arthur Learned To Stop Worrying
And Love The Magic.
     I mean, this could have been another Goblin's Gold, what with the magical presence making things move magically and messing things up for everyone. But Overman took it and sorta mixed it with that other episode, The Wicked Day, and used lots of great characterisation to make it work. Under the surface, it could have been so formulaic, but it worked - for one, very important reason, that I hope Merlin's other writers have caught on to. It worked because effort was put into it. Because it had good character beats, good ideas and a well-laid foundation to work upon. Because this is Series Five, and this is important if your series is gonna be remembered well.
     The Death Song of Uther Pendragon wasn't perfect. But it was so much better than Overman's previous Third Episodes that it might as well be, in the same way that 0.9 recurring equals 1. It had Uther being incredibly consistent with his previous characterisation as a complete whazzock, and it seemed like this was the first time that the show actually acknowledged that fact. Overman's script was refreshingly open, honest and moving, and pushes the series in a direction that I'm liking very, very much.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Review: Red Dwarf 10.3: Lemons

Lemons truly are a remarkable fruit.
Red Dwarf - Series Ten, Episode Three - Lemons
Written 19/10/12
Spoilers from the off.

This isn't gonna be a traditional style review, because I missed it on initial broadcast and when I caught up with it I had very, very mixed feelings. On the one hand, the episode did a lot of things in a very interesting ways. On the other, it tried to execute a fun idea and did so in a way that robbed it of all rhyme or reason. That wasn't to say that I didn't enjoy Lemons, but I felt that the core premise of the story was one that was not only fundamentally unnecessary but one that was almost guranteed to come with the level of disappointment that the episode inevitably came with.
     The episode began on a promising note, with the standard style of weirdy technobabbly device to take us to Earth in the past. Our crew landed in "Albion", or England, in 23D, and then proceeded to completely ignore the opportunity to have the Dwarfers mess around with Romans. Instead, they got a quick-cut to India from the same time period, which was in a thousand ways anachronistic. So perhaps they fucked up a bit there, I can take that, I've seen the mess Stasis Leak caused and I'm still ok with that. It's what happens next that hammers the final nail into the episode's coffin. And that's Jesus Christ.
     More specifically, a Jesus Christ (who isn't the real Christ, but we only find that out at the end so bah) with a thick Geordy accent who speaks perfect English despite having been born in Judea (/Turkey) several thousand years before Modern English was invented. There was a fun bit of comedy background comedy with Rimmer, discussing the reason why his middle name is Judas, but did the episode use the fact that they were covering Jesus to do anything interesting? To make any satirical statements, mock ideologies, did it have any opinion on anything? Not one. Oh, it tried, of course, they always try. It had our Geordy Jesus breaking the ten commandments and sprouting off common criticisms of the Bible to a chorus of gasps (in India, where the predominant religion was Hinduism and thus this shouldn't have shocked anyone and what the fuck are Roman soldiers doing in India in the first place and argh) and it had Lister arguing the negative and positive aspects of Christianity's influence on the world, but... something was missing. It may not be very nice to say so, but so far it feels like RDX doesn't have the... what's the word I want... the intelligence to deliver that kind of comedy.
The Last Supper. With Dwarfers.
     In the past forthnight I've been too scared, too much of a fan, to actually say anything negative about the series. I knew it wasn't going to be as good as the olden days, I knew that, and I know that it's nowhere as bad as the Dark Days of the late nineties. But if you're gonna even go near that topic, it needs to be done with subtley and/or intense parody. Best example? Goddamned Waiting For God, the fourth episode of the series, which despite its failings on an acting and production front, manages to get across a more subtle, nuanced and interesting view on religion than Lemons ever even comes close to doing.
     I still enjoyed Lemons, in the same way that I've really enjoyed the rest of Series X so far, but I have a few underlying problems that make this otherwise ok series feel a bit stagnant. The Dwarfers don't end up doing anything interesting beyond the dialogue, and while a lot of the dialogue is very good it's nowhere near as polished as it was in previous series. For ever Moose scene there's a hackneyed Telephone joke, for every Lister-v-Lister convo there's an ill-thought-out robot. For every decent running gag, every fun scene or piece of background, there's a Jesus Christ from Newcastle. I'll still be enjoying Dwarf, but I will have to get used to this new style and hope that I've come to terms with it by the time the show ends.


Overview: Doctor Who Classic: Season 26

This last season saw the bond between Doctor
and Companion grow stronger than it ever had
Written 1/7/12.

The last season of Doctor Who's original run was certainly worthy of heaped praise. Even the much-maligned Battlefield contains a lot of interesting ideas that more than stand up to the heavyweights of the Ace Trilogy, three stories that form some of the best Who I've ever seen. The characters are perfect, the settings are very well executed and the sheer level of sci-fi/fantasy quality is absolutely superb. In previous seasons I've liked the stories ironically, seeing past their faults and just enjoying them warts and all. It's come as a great relief that in Season 26 I haven't had to do that at all - it's been one great story after another.
     The story opens a bit shoddily, with Battlefield's attention-grabbing premise of UNIT and the Brigadier trying to hold up a story that is fundamentally overstuffed. It's the only place where Season 26 falls down, and that's a shame, but the ideas within this first story are still on par with the rest. The Arthurian Parallel Universe is an awesome idea, and with the right execution it could have dwarfed everything else. As it stands, the only thing coming close to decent is the characterisation of Morgaine, which is enjoyably complex. It's nice to see the Brigadier one last time, but his and UNIT's presence don't make up for a story where half of the characters are uninintentionally hilarious in their sheer incompetance.
     The next three stories visit Ace's past, and this in-depth examination of her history is what makes her one of the most well-developed Classic Companions. In Ghost Light we see her troubled childhood, in Curse of Fenric her maternal issues and her manipulation by both The Doctor and Fenric, and in Survival we see her home town and her fight to seperate her own ego from her id. Adding to this are the hints, in her blatant flirting with certain guest characters, that Ace is a bisexual, making her the first LGBT companion. It's a shame that this wasn't allowed to come through on screen, especially as RTD paved the way into equality the moment he came back.
    Of the three stories in the Trilogy, my favourite is probably The Curse of Fenric, which shows the Seventh Doctor at his most manipulative, although not directly. He doesn't do as much direct scheming as in Remembrance of the Daleks and The Happiness Patrol, but it does reveal in part that he's been planning to use Ace to defeat Fenric ever since he met her on Iceworld. It's also got a great atmosphere and a great set of characters, all of which are utilized to their optimal potential.
This series had some great villains, including
a more subtle and controlled Ainley Master.
    This season has some awesome villains, and they're all really complex, which makes a change from the norm. Morgaine is honourable and wise, willing to both kill a woman to test her worth and to cure a blind woman as an act of charity. Light and Josiah Smith are metaphors for the Evolution Versus Creationism debate, with Light as the Creationist so afraid of change that he's willing to harm those around him and then himself. Fenric is dark and scheming, a master chess player who has manipulated hundreds of people over a thousand years. And The Ainley Master gets one last chance to try out his more subtle characterisation, creating a villain that is, for Who, truley unique in his priorities.
     As a final season, we couldn't have asked for anything better. The last third of the Cartmel era, and by extension the end of the Original Run, is an absolute triumph in variety of complex characterisation, setting and theme. The brilliance exhibited here only emphasises the tragedy that so few people were watching, and that this saw the last Who produced by the BBC for a decade and a half. After this, I'll be heading to Bidmead to finish the JNT era as a whole. Before I go though, I just have to say... thank you, Professor. But I've got to go. We've got work to do.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Review: GHTTB: Ashes To Ashes 3.6

Paul Thordy claims to be one Sam Tyler.
Ashes To Ashes - Series Three, Episode Six
Written 9/8/12 

Woah, someone decided to get serious all of a sudden. After five weeks of bandying about with prophecies and cryptic hints with very weak main plots, the finale spirit finally kicked in with a dark and brooding story that struck at the heart of our characters and took time to fuck with the audience's perceptions. It also saw one of our main cast actually die, which is pretty breathtaking when you consider how safe the series has been in that regard up until now. Spoilers follow. (As if you care.)
       There's been a prison riot, and with desk sergeant Viv having gone inside to sort things out, the place has been overrun, with the brutal ringleader Sachs holding him as a hostage. Keats is breathing down Fenchurch's necks as they try to get their officer out of the fray, with Gene going in desperation to criminal Paul Thordy. Using brutality we haven't seen since Series One, Gene tries to get info on Sachs' plan, Thordy having shared a cell with him in prison. When Alex talks to Thordy, the man claims to be Sam Tyler, speaking in a very northern accent and knowing things about both the future and about Gene that makes her uncomfortable. He claims to have seen the truth behind Alex's world, and it's a truth that Gene clearly doesn't want her to know about. Just as Alex manages to discover the truth from Thordy about Sachs' plan, Gene has sent Ray and Chris in disguised as members of the press. As soon as Alex reveals to CID that Viv was originally working with Sachs to release his nephew, Sachs works out Ray and Chris' identities, and ties the three officers up to a fence. Keats sends in members of the Riot Squad, but Alex and Gene know that the place is tripwired to electrify the fences the moment they walk in. They turn off the power and save the two senior officers, but Viv has been shot and he dies when Keats ushers him to sleep, this time taking a much more creepy overtone.
     The drama here seemed real for the first time this season, with the steaks very much on the line. It was a very pessimistic series of events, almost every action taking CID further from success until the end. This was confounded slightly by the Thordy subplot, which felt both pandering and very psychologically weird at the same time. Thordy doesn't really fit into the final series model painted by the finale, and at the end of the day his knowledge of the inner workings of Sam Tyler remain unexplained. It was a nice way to add some character tension, but at the same time it felt very sensationalist and felt more like an excuse to use the characterisation of the former protagonist.
Viv's death was gruesome and unsettling.
     Keats is still creepy, Gene is still angry and misleadingly evil, Alex is still clueless and Chris has no character development. But at least the tone was flowing in the right direction this week, as we ready ourselves for the finale. The penultimate episode of the Bonanza won't really focus on the main themes of the series as much as this episode does, but it will see us in towards one of the most divisive grand finales in the last few years of British Television.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Review: Doctor Who Classic: Survival

The Doctor and the Ainley Master have one
final battle.
Doctor Who - Season 26, Story Four - Survival
Written 1/7/12

This has been a sad time for me, to say the least. Despite the fact that Doctor Who returned triumphantly 16 years later (and I should know, I was there), I still feel a tad poignant knowing that I've just watched the end of Doctor Who's original run. Survival could have been a disaster, but it did a lot of things in unexpected ways and, along with the rest of Season 26, it's another great example of Who done right. While it's not perfect, it's a fitting end to the 26 year run that pioneers both its adventurer spirit and its focus on character.
     In the final part of the accidental Ace trilogy, The Doctor follows one of Ace's offhand requests and takes her home to Perivale to meet her old friends. To her surpise, they're all missing - taken by what appears to be a mysterious cat, controlled from afar by a shadowy figure. Soon Ace has been taken, and The Doctor goes with her, alerted to the true nature of their situation - people are being taken to the planet of the Cheetah People, a place where people are transformed and possessed by their own primal rage, and where the planet responds empathically to the mood of its inhabitants. The Doctor must make sure that Ace does not succumb to the planet's allure, and that his enemy, The Master, doesn't manage to do any more damage to Earth than he already has.
     Ainley at times is a bit subdued as The Master, but it's a brilliant portrayel that oozes sophistication. For the once, he's not trying to control the Universe or even escape - his motivations tie into the themes of the story, about survival and desperation. The Master only wants to escape the Cheetah Planet and prevent himself from being absorbed by the planet's power. Apparently this was what he originally wanted to go with, all the way from Logopolis, and I so wish he had, because he's so wonderfully intimidating in the part. It's a shame, really, because the next story, 7 years later, saw another Master being incredibly camp. Given the power of the Ainley Master here, I despair more about the state of his character in the modern era - the horrendous Eric Roberts, the boring Derek Jacobi and the absolutely ridiculous John Simm.
Ace and Karra have a great chemistry, as she tears Ace
away from everything she knows.
     Survival also finished off Ace's story in style, beautifully showing her conflict between her older, confident side and the primal, possessed Ace attracted to the planet and its people (especially a Cheetah woman named Karra, who has a lot of lesbian chemistry with Ace despite the script having to be reeled back.) This episode does more than any other to cement the character and her dynamics with the Doctor, and it's absolutely perfect. She's flawed, but not in a really irritating way, and she has genuine reasons for being torn between both sides.
      The episode's theme was perhaps an incredibly ironic one. Even though this was never meant to be the final story of the season (that was Ghost Light, in which we find the final filmed scenes), the episodes focus upon survival against all odds does seem rather fitting for a show that had survived so much and was at an all time high. I have absolutely no idea why it was cancelled, but the general consensus was that after the controversy of the Saward Era and the show's rescheduling to run opposite soap giant Coronation Street, so few people were watching that it wasn't worth it any more. The show was put on indefinite hiatus, and in 1990 it was officially cancelled, as had nearly happened three years prior. Survival is a perfect ending to a great season, and to the Original Run. I've had a lot of fun with the Cartmel Era, and I'm gonna miss it.