Nightmare In Silver

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She was very beguiling and interesting, this girl I went out with once: pointed, glittery and sharp. Bladed. A scythe of a woman. Good in a harvest. Bit of knobbly wood sticking out of her. Feared by the elderly and infirm.

Not those last three.

What she liked to do when we were out for a meal was this: during the starter she would talk excitedly about the oncoming main course; during the main course she would anticipate dessert; during dessert she would be planning future meals.

I don’t know what she’s doing now, but if it is film journalism then I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

As I sat in Iron Man 3 last week it did strike me that the actual seeing of a film, the process of lolloping out to the cinema, renting a chair and then watching the thing one frame at a time or however they do it in these complicated digital days, is now the least significant part of the process from the industry’s point of view.

The Iron Man 3 screening I went to was the earliest one available in Inverness and yet, even as I slithered around on my leathery VIP seat trying not to get stuck in the gigantic pop-cup hole in the armrest, Iron Man 3 was already a bit passé, if one were to go by press coverage. The very femto-second the movie was actually available for public inspection it abruptly became of no interest to film journalists it seemed. They were already getting fizzy about next week’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

Bizarrely, the next week when I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on its opening day I again felt behind the times. The bigger news that day was that the trailer for The World’s End (due in July) had just been posted on that internet.

And there I always am, trying to enjoy a brand new thing whilst being exhorted on all sides to ignore the brand new thing because there’s something even newer on the way. Oh, if only it would hurry up.

Defocused temporal perception is all well and good if you are a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter, but it is less useful if you are a barely functional simpleton like me. I am just about equipped to live in the moment, but anything other than that I find depleting and harmful. When hungry, be hungry. When eating, eat. That’s the sort of thing I aspire to. It’s not quite The Power Of Now, but then I am no Eckhart Tolle. I don’t even look like him.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

I find it hard at the best of times to remain in the living present. I don’t know how your consciousness works, but I think mine is, in broad terms, an aggregation of a fancifully remembered past and a wildly approximated future. There is no way of apprehending the fleeting moment of now before it becomes then. The past is just memories. The future is just potentialities. And irritatingly enough there is no present for the consciously aware to cling to. It’s all very frustrating.

So, to a degree we each extend into the past and future, however immediate we are, but blimey some people take it to extremes, don’t they?

I live in a country where, because of where I was born and how I speak, I am occasionally held personally responsible for some stuff that went down several hundred years ago. There are some people, a trivial minority, who are that deeply in thrall to the past.

And when I watched Star Trek Into Darkness it took right up to the end credits for me to realise that there were going to be no surprises. Everything in the film had already been blurted out to me online over the past year by people who seem to live permanently in thrall to the future.

Iron Man 3 managed something of a coup by keeping a narrative twist under its curvy metal hat for the duration of its pre-publicity. No such luck with Star Trek though. It was all completely, dismayingly familiar the first time I saw it. Into Darkness is a good film. I just didn’t enjoy the experience of going to see it particularly much.

The film makers aren’t that bothered I would imagine. The anticipatory build up is where a movie’s reputation is mainly established. Then the long home entertainment afterlife is where the money is. That minuscule intermediate spell where the film just actually is a film is a bit of an embarrassment to them, one senses.

It is the modern way of things.

As with the films, so with Doctor Who.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to avoid internet speculation about next week’s season finale, The Name Of The Doctor, and November’s fiftieth anniversary special. There seems to be no way of blocking it and this irks me slightly. The spoiler-blurters are not like kids who go truffling for their own Christmas presents in the yuletide run up. They are like kids who find out what your presents are and then burst into your home screaming the information at the tops of their lungs.

All the other bits of their lungs too I should think. I don’t know. I’m not a lung doctor.

Their excuse of “Well you didn’t have to listen to/read what I had to say” does not suffice in this situation. It is the spoiliest of spoiling. I wish people would appreciate what has passed, relish what is happening now, and decorously await future developments. But, alas, I am old, and not in charge of the world.

There was a small amount of spoilering with Nightmare In Silver. A couple of recipients of the preview discs, including the Radio Times reviewer, were quite negative before the rest of us even got a chance to see it. There was an interview in which the script-writer Neil Gaiman became slightly defensive too, and the sulphurous suggestion of failure began to cling to the episode. The end result of all this was that those of us who just watch the programme for the first time as it is broadcast, the bottom of the heap guys, never got a chance to see it clean. It had been stamped with the reject stamp before we even opened the box.

This reminds me of the kickings that the movies John Carter and Prometheus received last year. A couple of folk got in early with some snark. A posse got rounded up. High horses were mounted. And by the time the poor bastards got released in the cinemas they were dead films walking. There will be reassessments later. Commentators of the future will wonder why the majority of contemporary viewers were so scathing. It has happened before. Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Scarface, Blade Runner. And that’s just off the top of my head.

Approximately twelve inches north of the top of my lungs.

What I would like, in fact what my glorious new Reich will insist upon, is for everybody to just take a deep breath, actually have a look at whatever they are reviewing (the thing itself, not their preconceptions of the thing) and establish a bit of context before going off on one.

Nightmare In Silver is a great episode.

The return of the Cybermen was not a thing I had been pining for even slightly, but I am glad it was done now, and I am particularly glad it was done this way. They seem to be an interstellar race once more, and no longer a domestic appliance invented by a parallel universe version of him off of Only Fools And Horses.

Their extinction, save for one tiny outpost, brought back welcome memories of the tin pot soldiers from Revenge Of The Cybermen (1975), a story whose reputation is only as slight as it is because of the sheer majesty of the stories surrounding it.

Of the abundant other past story references my favourite was the return of the Cyberplanner from The Wheel In Space (1968).

Adorable Doctor Who touches included the return of the matronly Clara, allowing her to bring back a bravado to proceedings, one that was noticeably absent from the child-free Cold War, for example. I also revelled in Matt Smith’s performance once again, and was grateful to see it emphatically illustrated that he is the eleventh Doctor, and that the previous ten are the ones we are familiar with. So let’s stop worrying about that now, shall we?

Beyond the requirements of Who however what I most loved about this episode was how much of a Neil Gaiman story it was. Much more so than his previous script The Doctor’s Wife.

There were more characters than we have had for a while in a single episode, but they were all adroitly managed. The kids (the clever boy who turns out to be a bit thick and the stroppy girl who works everything out) were exactly the sort of heterodoxical individuals you get in a Gaiman story.

Warwick Davis’ dignified portrayal of a leader in self-imposed exile, possibly the perpetrator of a necessary atrocity, is a beautiful touch too. It’s a delicate filigree of character work, far removed from most TV drama.

It was good to see characters bedding down for a good night’s sleep too. That’s a Gaiman thing, and we don’t see enough of it in Doctor Who. Jo gets some kip in The Daemons. Nyssa has a nice nap in Kinda, though that’s more to do with being surplus to narrative requirements rather than an actual plot point. There must be others.

When I praise Neil Gaiman, and I do this quite a lot, I do it almost entirely with reference to his series of Sandman comic books in the eighties and nineties. This is still an extraordinary work, transcending its apparently base origins to incorporate myth and classical literature in an astonishing, confident, novel way.

As a young man I was driven to write a letter to the comic’s publishers in a strangled attempt to explain just how brilliant Sandman 50 (Ramadan) was. They were kind enough to publish it and, even though the letter got edited rather clumsily to take out some spoilers I had inadvertently stumbled across, it still remains one of the three coolest things I have ever been involved with.

(Interestingly, writing a letter to a comic was the only way of publicly articulating an opinion at that level in the nineties. The downside was that it took three months for your observations to see the light of day. The upside was that not so many people could add a comment underneath comparing you to Hitler.)

Scan 16

The single most Sandman-esque thing about Nightmare In Silver though may not, in fact, be a Gaiman touch. It seems more like a happy confluence of Gaiman themes with Steven Moffat’s arc for this season. It is when the Cybermen point out to the Doctor that in erasing himself from history he is still definable by the gaps that he has left behind. This is exactly the starting point of the Sandman story.

In the early issues of the comic we see a world suffering because Morpheus has been removed from it. The Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, is even explained retroactively as being the universe’s response to something that it knows is missing. And it is an ongoing aspect of the series that Morpheus himself is often absent from the narrative running through his comic.

This does seem a little like Moffat-era Who, with its accentuation of the supporting characters whilst the title figure remains mythically in the background.

A few things that went by quite quickly so I wasn’t sure. Was that the blowfish in a sports car from Torchwood? And did they really have Ansible class communicators?

I am very happy with all of this.

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Tim Hunter or Harry Potter?

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Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS/The Crimson Horror

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Philip Jose Farmer is to be applauded for many great auctorial achievements, one of the jauntiest being his Wold Newton sequence of books.

Introduced in the 1972 novel Tarzan Alive, Farmer’s core idea is that a meteorite falling in Wold Newton, Yorkshire in 1795 irradiated a coachful of passing travellers. The descendants of these travellers were, as a result, uniquely endowed and included Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Peter Wimsey, Phileas Fogg, Allan Quatermain, Raffles, Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Professor Challenger, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Travis McGee and many others.

It prefigures and has clearly influenced Kim Newman’s spirited Anno Dracula series as well as Alan Moore’s cussed, helical League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book.

Farmer also created Riverworld. I pretty much love him.

A similar catalysis to the one provided by the Wold Newton meteorite is observable in the real world in a legendary 1974 Halloween TV screening of Carry On Screaming.

It seems that every curious and morbidly inclined person of my approximate age saw it (including, independently, all four members of The League Of Gentlemen), and it sent a nerdy generation of us, already under the influence of Doctor Who, off on a search which would lead us to discover Hammer films, Quatermass, the Universal monster movies, The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so forth.

The fallout of that single showing of Carry On Screaming, I remain convinced, influenced the direction of British genre broadcasting way more than Star Wars ever did. And this clutch of Doctor Who episodes bears witness to that pretty spectacularly.

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS opens like a private sector version of Aliens, but rapidly shrugs off this hard SF carapace in favour of a late Victorian/early Edwardian phantasmagoria in the idiom of H.G. Wells or (as alluded to in the episode title) Jules Verne.

There is a lot to love in Journey: the repartee between Clara and the Doctor (once they are reunited); the sinister lighting schemes and skewed camera angles; the defocused, agonised monsters which reminded me so much of the discorporating Eddie Jessup in Altered States willing himself back into existence. But, incidental pleasures aside, Journey To the Heart Of The TARDIS is by an order of magnitude the weakest episode of the series so far.

(As a side note, Altered States is a key movie of the eighties, often overlooked. If you haven’t seen it you absolutely must. Or we can’t be friends any more.)

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Writer Steve Thompson, as with his earlier endeavour The Curse Of The Black Spot (2011), fails to distinguish his supporting characters sufficiently. The Van Baalen brothers’ motivation is all over the place, their dialogue is awful, and I do not buy for one microsecond all that stuff about Tricky thinking he is an android. It simply doesn’t work.

The overuse of self-actuating, circular plot devices is a bit of an eye-roller too. It is sort of clever that the monsters are Clara and the Van Baalen brothers, and that the act of escaping from the monsters causes their creation. But to couch that twist in a story whose denouement involves interfering with the past so that events never happen is really pretty feeble.

It’s a shocking cop-out that ending. One that makes you wonder why there have been any stories at all over the last fifty years, if that’s really an option: going back to the beginning and preventing the narrative’s inciting incident. And to then stick on some half-hearted attempt to suggest that the Van Baalen brothers have somehow become nicer as a result of the events that NEVER HAPPENED is really taking the fucking biscuit.

Journey reportedly came about as a result of Steven Moffat’s dissatisfaction at earlier explorations of the TARDIS, specifically in the closing episodes of The Invasion Of Time (1978). Now, leaving aside the fact that I love the dank, municipal aspect of the bits of the TARDIS we see in that story, it is still not always a good idea to concretise things we have been imagining for so long.

As an object of infinite potential the interior of the TARDIS was a very beguiling environment. Its reification was inevitably disappointing. This making explicit of that which has previously been alluded to is really fan fiction territory. It would have to be pretty damn special to work in the context of the programme and this, sadly, isn’t.

TARDIS pool

Leela in the pool

A happy aspect of the episode is that it does at least carry on the season’s motif of referencing specific classic Doctors, the Fourth in this instance. Beyond the simple giggle at the TARDIS pool, the whole thing is reminiscent of an unproduced Fourth Doctor story called The Enemy Within. Written by esteemed novelist Christopher Priest (himself highly influenced by H.G. Wells) this was to have revealed the source of the TARDIS’s power as an octopus-like creature living off fear.

That would have been better.

Carry On Screaming!

Carry On Screaming exerts a much more direct influence on the next episode, the vastly superior The Crimson Horror written by Mark Gatiss.

He is one of the writers most closely attuned to Doctor Who is Gatiss. Several exemplary Who stories aside, he has also been involved with The League Of Gentlemen (whose influences are manifold), Crooked House (a scary Tigon/Amicus-style compilation), The First Men In The Moon, Catterick, Funland, the remake of The Quatermass Experiment, Dr. Terrible’s House Of Horrible and Sherlock. That’s an unimpeachable oeuvre. (We will leave his appearance in Sex Lives Of the Potato Men to one side as I have not seen it. Perhaps it’s good.)

He brings all these influences to bear in The Crimson Horror but especially one I have not seen him reference before: his beloved James Bond. Because what is The Crimson Horror if it is not a steampunk Moonraker? And Moonraker itself is triple distilled Bond being a straight re-write of The Spy Who Loved Me which was itself a version of You Only Live Twice.

Do pay attention, 007.

And there was so much more.

The fainting Mr. Thursday (the name possibly a G.K. Chesterton wink) seems to be a specific reference to Peter Butterworth’s Carry On Screaming character, Constable Slobotham.

The optogram business, which I adored, is straight out of Eugenio Martin’s perfunctory but awesome film Horror Express.

Jenny’s leather catsuit seemed particularly provocative in the presence of Diana Rigg. “Mrs. Peel. We’re needed!” And how great was it to finally hear Diana Rigg acting in her native Doncaster accent? Bloody great, that’s how great.

What tickled me most though, as a lad from Leeds with a lust for life, was to see Mark Gatiss getting stuck into a proper Yorkshire Doctor Who story. I loved the idea that Mr. Sweet is the antithesis of the real world’s Mr. Salt: Titus Salt who used his textile wealth to establish Saltaire, a model village designed to reduce pollution in Bradford and to deliver his workers from the slums. A lovely, clever touch.

The only things I was slightly unsure about were Matt and Jenna-Louise’s accents which sounded less Yorkshire to me, and more Victoria Wood comedy-Lancashire. This may have been deliberate. They were very, very funny.

Also I didn’t quite get Clara’s mystification at the pictures of her in Victorian London. Surely she would have thought, well I haven’t been there yet but, you know, blah blah blah time machine blah blah blah. Anyway, no matter. It was a brilliantly chilling scene rounding off a masterful episode.

Nice Fifth Doctor touches included the heavy roster of companions and a loving description of Tegan.

Next time, Neil Gaiman’s Cybermen.

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Cold War/Hide

Cold War

Hide

Andrew V. McLaglen’s movie directing career is not ignoble exactly, but neither is it spangled with greatness. A formative experience as assistant director on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) set him up to direct a sequence of movies in the sixties and early seventies that signified the twilight of John Wayne’s career. Never less than workmanlike, and never more than workmanlike either, these were cheap, quick films whose titles often simply took the form of the surname of Wayne’s character: McClintock; Chisum; Cahill US Marshall.

McLaglen’s last film as director was Return From The River Kwai (1989), a less necessary film than which it is hard to imagine. It starred Timothy Bottoms, and pretty much the only way of seeing it these days is by looking up the word “hubris” in the dictionary.

But in between John Wayne’s death and his own retirement McLaglen gouged out a niche as a director of the briefly voguish mercenary movies of the late seventies and early eighties.

The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980) were two of his and so, more pertinently to this blog, was 1979’s North Sea Hijack (sometimes known, in that surnamey way he had, as Ffolkes).

North sea Hijack

North Sea Hijack is an extraordinary piece of work. In brief: lunatic Yank Anthony Perkins hijacks a North Sea oil platform. Admiralty bigwig James Mason summons the help of Roger Moore, who here plays an eccentric, woman-hating, cat-loving, whiskey-hoovering marine consultant called Rufus Excalibur ffolkes.

The action is insipid and the characters laughable, but there is some joy to be had from the early appearance (as one of ffolkes’ men) of Tim Bentinck. He is more famous these days as David Archer in Radio 4 soap The Archers, as well as having been the “Mind The Gap” voice on the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground for some years. In North Sea Hijack he essays the role of Harris with a jaunty Scottish accent and a moustache that went on to have its own career as one of the Village People.

James Bond fans may also relish Bentinck’s appearance alongside Roger Moore, as he would go on to play the voice of 007 in the video games The World Is Not Enough and Everything Or Nothing.

North Sea Hijack is a slack film on almost every level. Everybody seems to be waiting for a payday. Mason and Perkins in particular look as though they desperately want to be elsewhere doing something different. Salem’s Lot and The Black Hole perhaps. And it is difficult as an informed modern day viewer to see the jocular, fogeyish misogyny as anything other than an actual, deep-seated hatred or fear of women.

It is one of those works where the light, buffoonish wearing of an attitude serves to cloak an actual endorsement of that attitude.

Roger Moore in the worst Where's Wally ever

Roger Moore in the worst Where’s Wally ever

Archer, David Archer

Yep, definitely a girl

Mark Gatiss has drawn on many things for his Doctor Who script Cold War. As well as established parts of the Who mythology there are evident influences of the first three Alien films, John Carpenter’s The Thing, all manner of Martian attack films (particularly the two versions of Invaders From Mars) and the looming morbidity of nuclear-era dramas such as Threads, When The Wind Blows and The Day After.

Cold War is a beautiful synthesis of all of these things and, of course, Gatiss’s own creativity, but the submarine aspects of the programme, whilst looking familiar, do not adhere to the clichés of the genre. Das Boot, The Hunt For Red October, K-19: The Widowmaker, Crimson Tide (I bet there are more) all thrive on an absence of sexual tension. Like Carpenter’s version of The Thing there are no female characters to speak of, giving the stories a distinctive dynamic.

That wouldn’t play on Doctor Who of course where an acknowledged part of the drama, previously subtextual but now flagrantly part of the text, is the relationship between the Time Lord and his companion.

Invaders From Mars

Invaders From Mars

In North Sea Hijack (which to be clear is not a submarine film but is broadly analogous to one) there is a single female character amid the hurly-burly: Sanna played by Lea Brodie. It is part of the film’s brusque, laddish idiom that Roger Moore’s character doesn’t even recognise her as a girl, literally, until he’s scrubbing her down in the shower towards the end of the movie.

“My God,” says ffolkes. “You are a girl… Even so, a lot of people owe you a great deal.”

Sanna is a patronised and almost marginalised character but nevertheless she is a character who gets some plot to do, and it was Lea Brodie splashing through oil rig corridors that popped into my mind above all else when I saw Jenna-Louise Coleman in her frock and Russian naval coat ensemble in Cold War.

The very superficial similarities between North Sea Hijack and Cold War serve to emphasise two things for which I am grateful:

Firstly, that we have colossally higher narrative and technical standards serving as baseline, minimum requirements now than we did in 1979.

Secondly, that attitudes towards women’s roles in mainstream entertainment have moved on a long way.

The sexual politics of Doctor Who are slightly beyond this simple lad, but it is clear even to me that the role of companion has moved on from the original functions of dolly-bird accoutrement or frowsy explicator.

The knottedness of the River/Amy/Melody tangle was not quite to my taste, but I continue to applaud the audacity of the author’s intentions. And with Clara now we have somebody even richer and fuller of potential, I think.

Thus far, apart from her stint in solitary in Asylum Of The Daleks we have seen a phenomenal amount of Clara as surrogate Mum: nannying Digby and Francesca in The Snowmen; minding Angie and Artie in The Bells Of Saint John; protecting Merry Gejelh in the Rings Of Akhaten.

It is significant that the pivot point in the action of Cold War comes not through any agency of the Doctor, but rather when Clara starts empathising with Skaldak about his long-dead daughter.

It’s a sensitive moment, very delicately written, and quite the opposite of a conventional denouement.

And whilst Mark Gatiss gets it bang tidy in Cold War, Neil Cross knocks it out of the bloody park in his following episode, the exemplary Hide.

Hide has going for it that it is based on all the things I like best. It is a clear homage to the Pertwee era (my Doctor) and reflects the relationship the third Doctor had with Jo, and then Sarah, in the relationship between Professor Palmer and Emma Grayling. More importantly though Hide is a love letter to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, particularly his TV plays The Stone Tape and The Road, the second of which is sadly lost now.

It was Kneale’s gift to be able to provoke in his audience a deep, superstitious dread from events that would subsequently prove to have a rationally explainable basis. It is a neat narrative trick of simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating.

More than just successfully crow-barring some of Kneale’s flourishes into the Doctor Who format, Neil Cross then went further and gave us an entirely happy ending as the apparent antagonists turn out to be nothing more than a soppy lovelorn pair of monsters split across universes.

The mood of the piece then, and the now-expected acknowledgements of classical Who, as well as the actual nuts and bolts storytelling were all, ahem, top-notch, but beyond this we got more of the season’s over-arching theme of maternal Clara. She’s so empathic that she’s the one the empath turns to.

It is noticeable as well that the central relationship in the story is not the Doctor and Clara or the Professor and Emma, or even the crooked man and crooked (presumably) lady.

The core relationship, the one that starts and finishes the story, is the mother/daughter one between Emma and Hila Tukurian.

Great great great great great grandmother/great great great great great granddaughter, if you want to be specific.

There are many questions that may or may not be answered, and that indeed may or may not even be questions.

What is it with Clara and all the red stuff?

Why doesn’t the TARDIS like Clara?

What is going on with all the gaps, particularly the problematic hiatus between the end of The Bells Of Saint John and the beginning of The Rings Of Akhaten?

And what is the significance of the Doctor’s Barbie doll?

Cold War poster

Unknown-1

There are podcast commentaries available for these two episodes free to download at http://feexby.podbean.com

Alternatively you can subscribe free to the podcast through iTunes at http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

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The Rings Of Akhaten

Credits

It is never a comfortable moment in Star Trek when Uhura starts vigorously strumming her space harp and crooning about the green, glowing skies or Spock’s pointy anatomical idiosyncrasies.

Neither are the noblest bits of Survivors the episodes when Greg Preston, otherwise an exemplar of post-catastrophe competence, picks up his guitar in the manner of a party-twat and actually brings the mood of a shattered planet down even further. God knows, I love Greg as played by Ian McCulloch. He is a man so manly that he is able to wrestle even male pattern baldness into submission by sheer force of will, but this guitar stuff is unacceptable.

Uhura's space harp

Spock and Uhura

There is a musical episode of Buffy, I gather: Once More, With Feeling. People also tell me that Xena and Fringe have done them. I’m not going to dignify this with too much research because, basically, when characters are making a musical noise in a drama with the intention of amusing me I deeply and desperately want them to stop.

These musical films: West Side Story, Singin’ In the Rain, My Fair Lady, Calamity Jane, The Sound Of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I love them. They are brilliant. They are proper musicals. But see if Blake and Avon started a duet, There Is Nothing Like An Auron or something like that, in an episode of Blake’s Seven I would not consider myself to be chuffed.

It’s context dependent, I think.

And yet there is still a rumbling insistence from some quarters that Doctor Who should totally do a musical episode.

No need, say I. Because we already have an abundance of them. There’s the uneasy Abide With Me climax of Gridlock. The Christmas Carol one with the nice opera lady singer. That was one too. Then there was a spell when the musical Oods had a level of ubiquity not seen since the 1977-era Bee Gees. And now finally we have The Rings Of Akhaten in which there is a purgatorial amount of singsong to get through between the opening and closing credits.

The orchestral assault of Murray Gold was a wondrous thing in 2005. A great deal of his subsequent work has been thrilling too. I am particularly a fan of his piece I Am The Doctor which is the de facto theme for Matt Smith’s incumbency. It’s a really insistent, galvanising composition.

Enough is plenty, though. It’s been eight years, and that’s quite a high proportion of the show’s fifty-year span. Nearly a fifth of the time the show has actually been on air.

There already exists a splendid documentary about the evolution of Doctor Who soundtracks called Dance Of The Daleks. It was originally transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in 2010 and was recently reissued as part of the bonus material in the third Lost TV Episodes collection. Narrated by Matthew Sweet it takes us swiftly and educationally through the avant-garde early years, Dudley Simpson’s tenure, the unsurpassable work of the Radiophonic Workshop under Paddy Kingsland and the Art Of Noise-inflected bombast of Keff McCulloch’s incidental music. It’s fascinating.

My point is that the music of Doctor Who has always previously evolved and that doesn’t feel as if it’s happening any more. And the more keening contralto hymns I hear with the composer nudging me heavily and saying “This is the bit where you have some feels” the more arsey and non-compliant I get with the whole business.

Sentimental, manipulative music cues aside I thought there was a lot to take out The Rings Of Akhaten.

The 1981 prelude is, I think, significant. What a great year that was. One of its cultural highlights was the sui generis single Ghost Town by The Specials, though I remember it as the aggrieved instigator of, and soundtrack to, some astonishing summer rioting, rather than the melancholy Autumn scene-setter it is sequestered as here. Another 1981 milestone was the UK cinema release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or, as the grim re-writers of history would have it Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

promo-s7poster-tall-theringsofakhaten-xl

Here is the touchstone. This is manifestly what show runner Steven Moffat and writer Neil Cross are aiming at. It is clear in the BBC poster art. It is clear in Clara’s mother’s maiden name of Ravenwood, in Clara’s marketplace fruit pilfering (“It’s a date. You eat ’em.”) and in the shooty-light, God-bothering climax. Ultimately, whilst hitting the character beats really well, The Rings Of Akhaten lacks Raiders’ kinetic energy and openness of place. This is nothing to do with lack of ambition and everything to do with failures of execution. In a few places the spatial aspects of the story are quite confusing. After two viewings I am still fundamentally puzzled as to how far away from things other things are, and I am surprised at the low level of cinematic literacy on display in some of the transitions. It is hard to believe director Farren Blackburn is to blame for any of this. His work on The Fades was tremendous. It looks more like borked editing.

Ravenwood

It's a date - you eat em

The pre-credits montage provides a startling callback to the 2005 episode Father’s Day in which Pete Tyler is variously run over and not run over causing a diverging of different realities. I actually though it was the same car used again but, from memory, Pete Tyler was menaced by a Vauxhall Chevette whereas Dave Oswald’s vehicular nemesis appears to be a Morris Marina. Is it? Over to you, car nerds.

Speaking as someone who got his driving licence in the eighties I feel it necessary to point out that in fact we drove carefully in those days and very rarely ran over fictional characters’ dads.

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There follows a series of vignettes from young Clara’s life, each featuring the Doctor observing cautiously in the background, and once in the foreground as he is clobbered on the head by a ball kicked by infant Oswald. As funny as it was to see Matt’s Kato-esque response (the Venusian Aikido skills never leave you it seems) the incident asked a question that was left unanswered: In the course of his snooping did the eleventh Doctor cross his own timeline from the Bells Of Saint John Prequel?

We at last learn why present-day Clara was first glimpsed in a graveyard, though no explanation yet as to who her friend was. The cemetery is the resting place of Clara’s mother Ellie who died, aged 44, exactly three weeks before the incidents in Rose, the first episode of the new Doctor Who era. Interesting, but not very interesting.

Date

Jenna-Louise Coleman turns in some beautiful character acting swinging from an angsty wait on her staircase (will the Doctor show up, or not?) to full on over-excitement in the TARDIS. I loved the writing and the playing of the scene where her mind goes blank presented with the whole of time and space, and she can’t decide where she wants to go. Her subsequent querulous indignation at the Doctor’s mention of his grand-daughter (presumably, but by no means certainly, Susan) was a delight to behold too.

The Doctor, at her eventual request, takes her to see something awesome. And whilst I very much enjoyed the ambition of the Disneyland Mos Eisley souk sequence it ultimately felt quite stilted and constricted in the manner of the crowd scenes in The Long Game and several other RTD episodes. This wasn’t helped by the context-jarring appropriation of Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo (hyper intelligent shades of the colour blue in the Hitch Hiker books), and the TARDIS’s apparent inability to be uniquely unable to translate the speech of Hawkman Rocket Cycle vendor Dor’een.

Once past the minuscule quibbles though this was a fun re-run of The Beast below. New companion averts massive tragedy by displaying a capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. It’s hard to criticise that in these days of self-will run riot.

For the third episode running the Doctor was not marginalised in his own programme, a tendency that I was beginning to weary of. It was nice to see him get stuck in to actually trying to save the day, though his over-reliance on his sonic screwdriver was a bit pestilential. It’s like Gandalf’s staff or Harry Potter’s wand these days. The unbeatable Top Trumps weapon of mass convenience.

There was a reason the sonic screwdriver got written out of the lore in The Visitation thirty-one years ago, trodden on by a Terileptil I seem to recall. It’s too lazy a plot contrivance. There is a lovely scene in the recent audio release Babblesphere (part of the Destiny Of the Doctor series, warmly recommended) in which neither the fourth Doctor nor Romana have theirs with them, each having left them recharging in the TARDIS on the assumption that the other would have theirs with them.

The only upside to the sonic screwdriver’s inclusion in The Rings Of Akhaten is that it facilitated a bit more Indiana Jones action as the Doctor retrieved it from under a rapidly descending door.

I appreciated the story’s denouement which, despite superficial resemblances to the end of every Christmas episode of recent years, nevertheless had its own character. There is something quite powerful in the notion that the infinity of possibilities ahead of us will trump the finite reservoir of collapsed wave functions behind us. I applaud the quick resolution of the leaf’s significance too.

The relationship between Clara and the Doctor is a warmer, more adult, mutually appreciative one than we have come to expect latterly. This is a good thing. Jenna-Louise has astonishing levels of self-possession, and I continue to be in awe of Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor: half Merlin, half Stan Laurel.I was especially affected by his “Cross my hearts” moment which had Pertwee levels of reassuring conviction.

The Rings Of Akhaten has some extremely vocal and articulate detractors already (The bloody Radio Times, for heaven’s sake) and I can understand why. I am not totally blind to the deficiencies of the episode but I think that the good in it far outweighs the bad. It is easy to mythologise what has gone before, but to the critics I would say this. Go and have another look at Partners In Crime, Planet Of The Ood, Midnight or Curse Of The Black Spot then have another honest look at this. Is it really that much of an affront?

I was surprised that Clara was dropped off back at home at the episode’s conclusion. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” says the Doctor, invoking the fairytale/Mother Goose atmosphere once more. Clara feels that something has changed, but this may just be that she has evolved. The Doctor still looks stern, concerned and confused.

I like this.

Next: Ice Warriorssssss.

Venusian Aikido

Venusian Aikido

Disapproving TARDIS

Disapproving TARDIS

It doesn't like me!

It doesn’t like me!

Rings

Alarm clock

The Vigil

Tough crowd

Clara and Ollie

Clara and Ollie 2

It really hurts

Cross my hearts

Angry Birds

Ghost Rider in the sky

Leaf

The Bells Of Saint John

The Bells Of Saint John

At the outset of Richard Lester’s magnificent, lumbering Robin And Marian (1976) Robin Hood and Little John return from an ignoble post-Crusade adventure to England, their home. Both are grey in the muzzle and their best is manifestly behind them.

There is lurking, unfinished business with Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham and King John, and a melancholy air pervades the whole enterprise. The abiding theme of the film is of people in the late stages of their lives attempting to redress balances, pay back debts and set right wrongs before the inevitable end.

The cast is cosmically good. Nicol Williamson as Little John, Robert Shaw as the Sheriff, Ian Holm as King John, Richard Harris as King Richard, Denholm Elliott as Will Scarlet, Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck. But it is the title characters, played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn that the story mostly concerns itself with.

Their re-acquaintance with each other, and the slow, honest exploration of what they had, what they lost and what they have left is delicate and convincing and has great emotional mass, I feel.

Robin And Marian

There is something overpoweringly sad about the indignities of the passage of time. However great one’s achievements are, they pass. The lone and level sands stretch far away. Vast and trunkless legs of stone? You’d be lucky, mate.

And that’s Robin And Marian for you. Two once great figures reduced and senescent, and waiting for the sunset.

The film has a terribly sad ending.

What wistfulness this has wrought within me, I thought poncily as the credits rolled.

There is no way I could possibly feel more wistful than this, I continued to think. Like a git.

Then I discovered that at the time of filming both Connery and Hepburn were younger than I am now and I had to have a bit of a sit down.

What happens in life is you stand still and the sandbank erodes in front of you. People fall in the water and are gone. More sand accretes behind you and people clamber on, but you don’t get to know too much about them as you get nearer the falling off point yourself.

More than usual of late I have been aware of dim but constant lights in my life winking out and not being replaced. Of the texture of life changing, and not for the better.

The TV and radio news is a constant low, unsettling hum, set to unbalance rather than to panic.

The revoltingly wealthy are cutting themselves tax breaks because too much money is not enough for them. At the same time the vulnerable, the ill, the unfortunate are being dehumanised and blamed.

A national agenda of selfishness is kicking the cock off neighbourly love.

The regression towards barbarism is accelerating. The howls are drowned out by auto-tuned product that is to music what KFC is to chickens.

I feel, for want of a better word, sad. Also angry and powerless.

This is the problem. What, then, is the solution?

It is, for me, to get into a bit of action. Hold out a hand for someone who needs it. Talk to a person who looks like they want a chat. Do the stuff that is in front of me. Change what can be changed, and work hard at accepting that a lot of things are beyond my ability to affect.

Oblivion is easy but unhelpful, and anaesthesia is not my friend. Thus my old familiar comforts are things I view with some suspicion today.

So, what of Doctor Who? This is a programme which has been uninterruptedly in my life since 1971, my first clear recollection of it being The Daemons. Since then I have embraced it all, loving it for its awkward spikiness and its insistence, year after year, of embracing the outsiders and conferring a sense of fellowship on those to whom interpersonal niceties do not come easily.

Am I hiding behind Who today? Am I using it to distract myself from the moral abattoir of UK politics, and the insane galloping selfishness of the world?

Possibly.

But I will say this.

There is nothing snarling, sarcastic or judgmental about the show. Its values seem solid to me. Love, compassion, tolerance. That’s the stuff I find in it which I don’t see in The X Factor, Downton Abbey, EastEnders, Deal Or No Deal, Broadchurch, Embarrassing Bodies or any of the other million shrieking, brow-furrowed incitements to hatred that are jizzed incontinently across the schedules.

The most recent episode of Doctor Who, The Bells Of Saint John, was preceded by an almost unbearable swell of badly articulated anticipation, a lot of it on Twitter, most of it in capital letters.

The fan reaction to the show is not the same as the show however, and it is a basic category error to review the one under the guise of reviewing the other.

The episode itself was, I thought, pure, glittering essence of modern-era Who. After a rousing new reinterpretation of the theme tune – less orchestral now, more like The Crunch by The Rah Band – the story kicks off more proactively than it has done for a while. The Doctor takes a positive, practical, moral stance against an entity which is harvesting human souls. He uses the antagonist’s own weapons against it, ingeniously I thought, and restores a righteous balance as best he can with the help of new companion Clara Oswald.

There are aspects of The Bells Of Saint John which are amusingly familiar to viewers of the last few years’ worth of stories. The TARDIS telephone evokes memories of The Empty Child (2005). The mobile base stations known as the Spoonheads are distant cousins of the Nodes from Silence In The Library (2008) and the Smilers in The Beast Below (2010). But, beyond this, writer Steven Moffat also homages some great early era stories too.

The Great Intelligence’s commandeering of Wi-Fi networks is a puckish reference to The Web Of Fear (1968). The Doctor’s monastic seclusion in thirteenth-century Cumbria provokes comparisons with The Time Meddler (1965). Most splendidly though the whole story is a huge love letter to the William Hartnell episode The War Machines (1966) with The Shard standing in for the Post Office Tower.

Hey hey! We're the monks

Spotting these is fun for the fan, but is not essential for enjoyment of the story. That remains a tight 45 minutes of movie-spectacle on telly-money. There’s good writing and some ace Tommy Cooper-esque physical comedy. I was particularly fond of Matt’s phone cable foolery and subsequent monkish channelling of Exidor from Mork & Mindy.

The rapport between Matt Smith’s Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s winsome teapot Clara is a joy, particularly after the prolonged and baffling Pond saga.

And importantly there are enough unanalysed enigmas left to make the journey to November’s fiftieth anniversary special look particularly exciting. Clara seems to have two years missing from her life. And what of the mysterious helpline woman, and the even more mysterious Nina?

And does the Eleventh Doctor’s purple wardrobe reflect the end of an era, the way Tom Baker’s burgundy raiment did thirty-two years ago?

Complexity abounds. Questions flourish.

We are lucky to have this. It’s good.

You can download for free the podcast commentary I recorded with Lawrence Sutcliffe at:

iTunes – The Bells Of Saint John

or

Podbean – The Bells Of Saint John

Web Of Fear

Exidor!

Exidor!

Sherlock Babies

Sherlock Babies

Clip-On

Face

St Paul's

Shard

Clara

Doctor Spoon

Teapot Onboard

The Snowmen – Audio commentary podcast

I neglected to mention this because I am quite shy but there exists a podcast commentary for The Snowmen which I recorded with my friends Lawrence Sutcliffe and Scott Benson.

It is here on iTunes:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

Or here on Podbean:

http://feexby.podbean.com/2013/01/12/706-the-snowmen/

Also here is a noise I made about Clara’s bustle:

Snow Falling On Clara

And here is a picture of Jenna-Louise Coleman:

Cat-Clara

The Snowmen

Christmas 2012 logo

Face

Titles

For a little woman she casts a long shadow.

In his magisterial comic book sequence The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Alan Moore writes a bold narrative of authentic Darwinian winnowing, allowing his advancing plot and characters to dwindle through wastage over time rather than to proliferate explosively.

At its culmination in Century: 2009 the story has very few of the original Victorian league left. Effectively only Orlando and the immortal Mina Harker remain to combat the twenty-first century antichrist, and they are forced to rely upon a literal deus ex machina in order to prevail. As things look hopelessly, lethally bleak a single new character sails down from the sky to scold the monstrous antagonist.

Deus ex machina

“I’m well famous, actually,” declaims the antichrist in the manner of a dim, self-centred, Jeremy Kyle-inflected youth. “I’m in a book of the BIBLE!”

“Tsk,” says the recently arrived stranger. “Just the one book? I’m on every page. Who did you think you were talking to?”

It’s the God-Poppins basically.

Splish splash

All of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is brilliant, and really it works best if read from the beginning right through, but for any near-horizoned Doctor Who fans with little time to invest Century: 2009 is the one to concentrate on. Look. It has a Hartnell/Smith cameo in a couple of frames and propounds the spiffing notion that Emma Peel (now going by her maiden name) has charge of UNIT and Torchwood.

Doctor Who?

Night, Miss Emma Night

Potterheads and Bond fans will find things to delight them too.

There was a lot of Mary Poppins stuff in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode, The Snowmen, though wasn’t there?

Mary Poppins has always had something of Gallifrey about her. In the original P.L. Travers stories written between 1934 and 1988 she is a character of enigmatic origin who blows in without warning and leaves when the wind changes, who carries an umbrella, whose bag is smaller outside than in, and who has fantastical adventures that she then rarely discusses afterwards. If Chancellor Flavia had unbuttoned a bit and absconded in a Type 40 all those centuries ago, isn’t that what she would be like?

The two previous Steven Moffat Doctor Who seasonal episodes have merrily abstracted elements of A Christmas Carol and The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, and I had previously pondered what he might have planned for 2012. That the Doctor recently appeared to have removed himself from the Universe in a self-erasing huff did lead me to wonder if we were heading towards It’s A Wonderful Life territory, but no. We got a jolly holiday with Mary instead.

Poppins isn’t intrinsically Christmassy but she has, thanks to the easily-scheduled, endearing 1964 Disney film adaptation, assumed a place in the festive hierarchy.

It is clever and funny and wise of Moffat to appropriate Poppins for Whodom. It is a good fit, and gives him an opportunity once more to explore his philosophy that Doctor Who is a programme about the companions rather than about the Time Lord himself. Having said that though, the Doctor is not as drastically sidelined in The Snowmen as he was in some of the Pond episodes thank God. And, whilst there are elements of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert about his portrayal in this episode, Matt Smith’s Doctor never wanders too far from the dramatic centre of gravity.

The biggest big thing though, and there are many big things about The Snowmen, is not the Doctor, it is not the notional villain, and neither is it the ultimately revealed monster (more, joyous self-perpetuating causally-wausally stuff from King Moff). It isn’t even the hootingly funny comedy ensemble of supporting characters.

Nope. It is the loudly proclaimed inauguration of the new companion Clara that is the biggest big thing. For the second time now Clara Oswald Oswin has been introduced to us, has seduced us entirely and has then been unexpectedly killed before our eyes.

What are we to make of this?

Let It Snow

The Snowmen

Clara concerned

Those were the days

Here are my handles… There's my spout

First time round (in Asylum Of The Daleks) we didn’t find out too much about Oswin other than that, for a ship’s entertainment officer, she has a damn fine line in killing a besieging Dalek horde. If that had been the Christmas episode it would doubtless have been seen as Steven Moffat’s tribute to Home Alone. By me anyway.

Second time around, in The Snowmen, there is a clearer depiction of her ambiguous personal duality. As “Clara Oswald” she consorts chirpily with mutton-chop whiskered Cockney types (no chimney sweeps or one-man bands in evidence sadly), whereas as the more demure “Miss Montague” she is the spit-spot governess of two well-to-do kids.

The children are aware of her double life. They get her to use her “secret voice”, and beseech her to tell them more of her stories. Given that we know the one about the man who lives on a cloud is true should we make the same inference about her Big Ben story? Or the one about inventing fish? You wouldn’t put it past her now would you?

What the actual heck is going on with Clara?

Taking steps

Cloudboxing

Knock knock

Who's there

The internet is not short of speculations, ideas and frothy-minded thinks, and many of them are, in fairness, quite persuasive. This galloping, ravening urge to know things in advance though is just the fannish equivalent of shaking and squeezing your presents whilst they are still under the tree. When you reach a certain age you lose that impatience I have found, and it is easier to just enjoy what is in front of you.

I don’t think the Mary Poppins stuff is actually that significant. Steven Moffat is the emperor magpie and takes what he needs from wherever it is. There is the taller-on-the-inside clever staircase, the umbrella, the flying, the kids and so on to give us a handle on Clara, but that is all it is. An efficient contextualising device.

And there are plenty of homages in The Snowmen that have nothing to do with Poppins: There are cheery plunderings from Citizen Kane (a lonely, old snowglobe-owning, rich man never frees himself from the influence of childhood); Les Diaboliques (there’s a body in the pool, or is there?); and even Chandler once again (as Vastra’s interview with Clara echoes Philip Marlowe’s introduction to General Sternwood at the beginning of The Big Sleep).

None of it, I think, signifies anything other than Moffat’s ingenious ability to suggest an atmosphere from a few quick semiotic flourishes. It’s not deep but it is clever.

Vastra

Snowglobe

Matt the master detective

I think I used to go out with her

That's the way to do it

Very naughty

Clara ascending

Cloudboxing 2

Clara confused

New interior

Falling

Grave

Clara contemporary

I like Steven Moffat a lot. In his tenure on Doctor Who he has done very little to pander to the demands of fans (new and old) and, though this seems to have brought him a large amount of personal derision, it has been of immeasurable benefit to the programme.

When he has overseen the return of old enemies (the Autons, the Silurians, the sort of Nimon) he has done it respectfully but imaginatively. Same with the Great Intelligence here in The Snowmen. He does, however, seem to understand quite sensibly that for a programme to thrive for fifty years it is not enough to dwell on past favourites, it has to be constantly innovating. So in Moff’s time alone we have had the introduction of the Dream Lord, Liz Ten, Van Gogh, Churchill, Nixon, Canton Everett Delaware III, the Silence, Prisoner Zero, the Flesh, the Pandorica Alliance and loads more, all of which can be revisited at will any time in the future.

One of the more insistently shrill, fannish exhortations is for there to be some sort of New Who/New Sherlock crossover. Now, ignoring the fact that there has already been the ne plus ultra of Wholock convergence in Robert Holmes’s sublime The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (1977), this is still the stupidest of ideas. You know how good the Alien Versus Predator films aren’t? Well this would be that, but worse.

Wholock

Four and Leela

Impudently Moff has acknowledged the unfeasibility of the idea in The Snowmen whilst, at the same time, executing it. After a pleasing implication that Vastra and Jenny are the progenitors of Conan Doyle’s stories in The Strand magazine Moffat then dresses the Doctor up in the dimmest popular conception of a Sherlock Holmes outfit and has him do a crass deductive pantomime: “Do you have a goldfish called Colin?” “No.” “I thought not!”

I have found it funny each time I’ve seen it, and am delighted that now, at each subsequent Wholock demand, we are allowed to say, “You’ve already had it. There it is in The Snowmen.”

In fact for what could have been a thoroughly grief-drenched affair The Snowmen is pleasingly rich in laughs, and mostly these come from the Blackadder/Baldrick dynamic of The Doctor and Strax. “I’m the clever one. You’re the potato one.” Smith’s comic abilities have never been in doubt, but Dan Starkey’s performance as Strax is a magnificent revelation. Still, I think that sometimes less is more and I am emphatically not one of those clamouring for a thirteen-episode Vastra/Jenny/Strax spin-off. I deeply enjoyed what we got though.

A grenade!

Did I miss the explanation of which of the Doctor’s friends brought Strax back to life, or has that been left intentionally vague? Also I am not quite clear on which not-red-wine drink Vastra was enjoying. Vimto, hopefully.

The rest of the humour derives from Jenna-Louise Coleman’s boisterous, glittering performance as Clara. I haven’t dwelt too much on J-LC because there’s a limit to how much thigh-rubbing, Cosmo Smallpiece mimicking you need from me. Presumably.

Still, though. What a little teapot, eh?

You also don’t need me to tell you how superbly lugubrious Richard E. Grant is as Simeon, or how wonderful Tom Ward is as the lovelorn, Von Trapp-esque Captain Latimer. As chaos unfolds about the latter gentleman, still the only question he can think of to ask is the poignantly rhetorical “You have a gentleman friend?” to Clara. So sweet.

The whole thing looks lush too in the way-more-than-safe pair of hands that is Saul Metzstein. This is some of the most sumptuous TV drama around.

It is a relief to me that ratings and audience satisfaction have been high. I had slight concerns that the subject matter might be a bit savage or a bit opaque for kids, and that the continuity-dependence might have been alienating for the non-nerdish adults.

Once again we seem to have got away with it though. This year we had Christmas Day teatime telly that contained carnivorous telepathic snow, a Silurian detective, a Sontaran valet and a baffling governess who seems to exist across time and space. What did EastEnders have, by contrast? I don’t know. I didn’t watch it. But I am going to guess at adultery and fistfights.

We won.

Coming Soon...

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Coming Soon 9

The Angels Take Manhattan

“I could write a book and this book would be thick enough to stun an ox.”

Thus intones New York art-kook Laurie Anderson in the song Let X=X on her 1982 album Big Science. It’s a great song on a great album by a woman who once chose Lou Reed over me without ever even doing me the courtesy of knowing I exist. Nonetheless she is great also. You should buy Big Science. You’d like it.

She recorded a very fine album called Strange Angels too.

The Doctor Who episode The Angels Take Manhattan has its characters taking their cues from a book which one of the characters will write subsequently. This book, Melody Malone, contains the line “I was packing cleavage that could fell an ox at twenty feet”.

There is no obvious dramatic connection with Laurie Anderson, but I was struck by the closeness of the wording, by the idea of the narrator being aware of their book, and by the evoked imaginary New York space.

For a not particularly old city New York has a great deal of accreted history. This is very visibly evident in Manhattan where, in the absence of archaeological depth, there is an extensive stratified narrative moving upwards in the borough’s architecture.

Horror movies have made great use of this from King Kong’s energetic trapezing round the Empire State Building in 1933, through the vitrified implacability of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, to the post-9/11 trauma of Cloverfield.

The city’s adorning accoutrements have not escaped the attentions of filmmakers either. The Art Deco style and radiator cap finishings of The Chrysler Building make a brilliant location for Larry Cohen’s 1982 horror film Q – The Winged Serpent. It’s a mad, skippy movie about an Aztec god biting the heads off window cleaners above, whilst the street cops investigate down below. Cohen filmed it semi-guerrilla style. Presumably this was a financial consideration first and foremost, but it has aesthetic advantages too, keeping matters fast and character-based.

Is there much left to be said about the two Ghostbusters movies? I shall let a picture take a stab at representing a thousand words instead.

Doctor Who itself has had fun in New York before. A brief segment of the chaotic 1966 story The Chase takes place on top of the Empire State Building. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicky land and then take off in short order pursued by a Dalek Incursion Squad. It’s a long story. Really quite a surprisingly long story. The only witness to events is the gawky Arkansas tourist Morton Dill played by Peter Purves, still a long way from the subsequent dignity of, oh let’s say Junior Kickstart.

In her brisk, endearing two-parter Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks (2007) Helen Raynor gives us a surviving Dalek faction using the construction of the Empire State Building in the thirties to cover a project in which the Dalek and human races are being hybridised. Makes kind of sense too, which is a thing we expected from stories back in the olden days of five years ago.

And now we are back for The Angels Take Manhattan, the final Amy and Rory story, the hype for which has been, candidly, ridiculous.

Now, I love Steven Moffat. He is a witty writer who has managed to keep the Russell T Davies fun-times going whilst simultaneously introducing his own subverting, necrotic darkness. In particular he has proved himself to be breathtakingly adept at the impossible PR tasks that are ancillary to his job as show-runner. Writing well, structuring a series, keeping secrets, engaging with an unimaginably frothy fan-base. He has done it all with some verve.

The run up to The Angels Take Manhattan has however felt a little galumphing to me. For the last six months Moff appears to have been bobbing up and down everywhere, a chuckling psychopomp, promising Amy and Rory’s demise and averring constantly that we, the audience, will cry.

I personally don’t like audience manipulation like that, but if that was his brief, to provoke a grief storm, then the job has most assuredly been done. The wailing and gnashing of teeth has nearly broken Twitter. The dread beforehand was touchable. The subsequent emotional outpourings make the Lamentations of Jeremiah look and sound like a tiny, sad face emoticon playing a quiet kazoo.

That’s impressive. Left me a bit cold though.

My inability to engage with the story feelinglingly is my shortcoming, I accept. Maybe it is my age. Certainly as an eight year old in 1973 I sobbed my tiny, adorable eyes out when Jo Grant (Katy Manning) eloped with that Welsh hippy from the Wholeweal.

I have clearly lost a lot of sentimental ability since then.

So what do we have here in The Angels Take Manhattan?

Once more a voiceover sets events out for us. That’s happening a lot this series. There are some pleasing semiotic pointers straight off the bat which tell us we are in fictional detective country:

In the opening narration the city is referred to as having “a million stories”, a self-conscious allusion to Jules Dassin’s The Naked City with its closing lines “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Our detective’s rates are taken almost verbatim from Marlowe’s tariff in The Big Sleep of “twenty-five a day and expenses – when I’m lucky”.

Even our detective’s name, Garner, to someone of my age (and the age of the Moff) means one thing above all others: The Rockford Files.

This bit of the story never happens. Literally. This brilliant detective set up culminating in the pre-credit climax of a looming Angel of Liberty is all part of the book River will eventually write to alert Amy and the Doctor as to what’s going on. I think. (Though it doesn’t seem to fit well with the other book excerpts we are treated to.)

I absolutely missed that first time round.

In present day New York Rory is zapped back in time by the city’s infestation of Angels. The Doctor and Amy become aware of this through the novel the Doctor is reading. They travel by TARDIS back to the thirties, discover that the Angels are effectively battery-farming humans using looped time. (A chronic hysteresis we used to call that.) Rory kills himself, taking Amy with him, causing a paradox. Everything snaps back to where and when it should be. Except there’s one last Angel which transports Rory back again. Amy follows. The Doctor says they are fixed in time now and lost to him.

OK.

It is brilliant. Obviously.

I want to state that clearly because I am about to list a couple of things I flat out don’t understand. That does not mean I am down on the story. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand how important the closure of Amy and Rory’s saga is. All it means is that I want to ask these questions so that they are off my chest.

What is River doing in the thirties?

How does the Angels’ battery farm work exactly? You lure someone to a trap. They see themselves as an old person. You zap them back in time, and then what? You get that “time energy” once and once only. Now you have the corpse of an old person on your hands. It’s not a self-starting causal loop at all.

Why does the guy from off of Whose Line Is It Anyway keep all those statues in his house anyway for Christ’s sake?

How come the Angels can do stuff whilst they are being watched now? Blowing out candles, zapping Amy away and so forth? Is there ever actually a point when no one is watching the Statue of Liberty and it is free to go for a walk around?

If the Doctor can’t see Amy any more then how come River is able to give her the manuscript of a book for publication?

And how would a book get published with that daffy afterword anyway? It’s a device that makes sense with the DVD Easter eggs in Blink, but which is much more of a stretch here. And how does the Doctor end up with the book? The scripted line “explaining” it is awful.

None of this matters of course. It is stuff from the top of my head based on two fairly casual viewings. Some of it may be stuff I just don’t get. The rest of it is trivial. The validity of this episode lies in its emotional truth rather than in any ideas I have about what constitutes coherent storytelling. And whilst I may find that emotional truth somewhat elusive at the moment, millions of others don’t.

And it is worth my while remembering that my eight year old self would not have taken too kindly to your telling him that chemical waste doesn’t make maggots mutate into giant versions of themselves, because in The Green Death it just did.

This is a story written for the adoring fans of Amy and Rory and in that role it succeeds one hundred percent.

I did not much care for the way the Doctor was sidelined, emasculated, rendered powerless and petulant, and slapped by his wife. Poor me. That’s just the way the programme is this week.

It has changed before. It will change again.

The podcast episode commentaries I recorded with Lawrence Sutcliffe are available to download for free from iTunes here:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053

Or alternatively here:

http://feexby.podbean.com

The Power of Three

It is rare to get an icosahedron in a romcom, and octahedra almost never trouble a cop buddy movie. In fact when Euclidean geometry does manifest itself in the field of film it is almost inevitably within the science fiction, fantasy or horror genres, and it never augurs well.

Spheres, from the sphere in Sphere to the globe in 2008’s unwished for revamp of The Day The Earth Stood Still, can carry a degree of implacable menace. My own favourites though are the flying, drilling, bloodsucking balls of Don Coscarelli’s four Phantasm films. Seek the movies out now, if you haven’t already seen them. They are magnificent.

All of Coscarelli’s movies are magnificent, really.

In addition to Phantasms I-IV (Phantasm IV being pretty much entirely made out of spare bits from the first three) he directed Bubba Ho-Tep (2002). This is the film that stars Bruce Campbell as an aging Elvis living out his dotage in an old folks home. During the course of the narrative he is called on to face down an ancient Egyptian mummy. It is based on a story by Joe R. Lansdale, so you are in safe hands.

Coscarelli was also responsible for The Beastmaster (1982), a pale bud on the, by then thoroughly etiolated, post-Conan fantasy profusion. Marc Singer is likable enough in it though, and the movie does feature a sequence in which Charlie’s Angel Tanya Roberts frolics topless whilst ogled by ferrets.

Look!

Some people are a little ungenerous towards The Beastmaster but they tend to be people who have not seen Yor, The Hunter from the Future (and its little-known sequel Yor The Person Regretting You Watched This Film).

Anyway, the preternatural dread brought about by spheres is nothing compared to the terror occasioned by the cubes.

The obelisks in 2001 are cuboids rather than cubes, but their pleasing dimensional ratio of 1:4:9 (the first three square numbers) makes them interesting enough to discuss briefly.

Although they are ultimately demonstrated to be benign at a species level, prompting accelerated evolutionary change and paving, literally paving, the way to ascension they are, nonetheless, incredibly destructive at an individual level. They are big, black and scary and they make monkeys go hairy mental. People die because of them.

Regular cubes of the 1:1:1 variety are invariably horrifying. The cubic Lament Configuration in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser comes with a promise that it will “tear your soul apart”. The lethal, ludic prisons of the three Cube films fulfil none of their original philosophical promise, becoming instead inescapable sadistic death traps.

And then there’s the whole film career of Ice Cube, but that may be for another blog.

Within Doctor Who two of the five Platonic solids are completely neglected, unless I have missed something. We get a fine dodecahedron in the underestimated Meglos (1980); and William Hartnell makes as dignified a job as is possible of being squashed into an octahedron for The Three Doctors (1972-73). But of icosahedra and tetrahedra we hear nothing. The Pyramids of Mars come close, but square based pyramids are not tetrahedra, and you get nothing for half an octahedron in this game.

Of hexahedra, however, we have plenty. There is the Rubik’s cube twatted about with by Eleven in Night Terrors (2011); there is the Pandorica; there are the neat Time Lord distress beacon doo-dahs from The War Games (1969), which reappeared con brio in Neil Gaiman’s thrilling The Doctor’s Wife (2011).

And now we have the Cubes. Just that. Cubes. “All absolutely identical. Not a single molecule’s difference between them. No blemishes, imperfections, individualities…” A proliferation of them, resistant to the analytical powers of Professor Brian Cox, Doctor Who and Brian Williams combined.

The Power Of Three had an absolutely cracking set up: that of a slow, un-guessable invasion, a process so gradual that it involved the Doctor standing still for a while and experiencing life at the pace his companions usually live it.

I had some micro-quibbles which do not really signify much and which I will dispatch now so that they are out of the way:

Firstly I didn’t understand what the spooky little girl was up to. She is explained away as an “outlier droid” observing everything, but surely the cubes were already observing everything. Anyway she didn’t observe everything. She just sat, seemingly unnoticed, in the hospital for a year.

Secondly, I remain confused as to what the hexagon-head guys were doing and why they kidnapped the bloke with the Len Deighton novel. I am going to assume that they and the spooky droid girl were just some sort of portal guardians, but I could have done with another sentence or two just to clarify matters.

Thirdly and finally, the Shakri: Terrific idea for monsters. Things living “one dimension to the left” like Lovecraftian old gods, servants of The Tally, brutal dispensers of justice and legendary even to the Time Lords. A shame then that they were squandered almost immediately. The Doctor dispatched them pretty quickly and, to my simple mind, confusingly. Also they seemed to be exceeding their brief a bit by extinguishing humanity before humanity had even done anything.

Micro-quibbles, as I say. And that’s the end of any negativity from me because, for the fourth time running this season, we got a single episode story of exquisite lapidary beauty.

This, uniquely for the Matt Smith era, could have slotted easily into any of the first four seasons of New Who. The slow invasion brought to mind immediately the farty old Slitheen of yore; the blood control used by the Sycorax in the Christmas Invasion (2005); the apparitions in Army Of Ghosts (2006); the gloopy Adipose of  Partners In Crime (2008).

It is textbook Russell T. Davies-style storytelling, and all the more welcome for that.

To draw a line under the RTD influences and highlight them with squiggly lines from different coloured highlighter pens we also got tons of family involvement. We got wall after wall of news – I searched in vain for Trinity Wells but could not see her, alas. And, mirabile dictu, we got UNIT.

Proper, proper UNIT with Trap One and Trap Three and all that.

Just as I was fangasming at the whole thing we then discovered that Kate Stewart (coy, demure, understated Jemma Redgrave) was the Brigadier’s daughter, and my head fell off.

We have missed the Brig, those of us who grew up with him, but we surely have to applaud this final postscript to his character. He was quite blimpish when I became aware of him in the early seventies. He sanctioned the Silurian massacre. He couldn’t tell the anti-matter universe from Cromer. He had a bit on the side called Doris. But over time I became aware of how important a part of the family he was.

Battlefield (1989) is slightly too glossy and glib, too heavy on the Keff McCulloch Art Of Noise-wannabe music, for me to thoroughly love. But it did feature The Brigadier, and how great it was too see him back in action after the doomy solemnities of Mawdryn Undead (1983).

The Brig’s next, and final, return in the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures (Enemy Of The Bane, 2008) was a beautiful thing to behold. That his daughter Kate has not only survived him but has brought science to the forefront of the UNIT directives is an ingenious twist.

I gather that Kate Stewart as a character pre-exists The Power Of Three in some of the Reeltime fan videos, but you will need to find some Special Weapons Nerds to tell you about that, because I know nowt of them at all.

A final RTD leitmotif appears when Brian, in a compelling moment of gravitas, presses the Doctor for details of what happens to those who go travelling with him. This is something touched on very movingly in The Death Of The Doctor, a two-episode story of The Sarah Jane Adventures written by Russell T. Davies himself. It’s an amazingly ambitious bit of writing (especially given that it was in the context of a show for young children) in which it is suggested that the parting of the ways of the Doctor and his companions is not always as final as it seems.

The characters of Rory and Amy have grown significantly in the last four episodes. They are now explicitly ten years on from their first encounter (as adults) with the Doctor.

They have two lives, as they point out at the beginning of the episode: Their time with the Doctor and the more quotidian time by themselves when they fulfil their roles of journalist and nurse. (And if the female journalist/male nurse paradigm isn’t set up specifically to evoke memories of Sarah Jane and Harry then I’d be amazed.)

We have always accepted this fact of their existence, but this is the first time we have really seen it played out. The first time that we have watched the Doctor attempt to live at a human pace. And what a bathetic spectacle it is.

It is played as comedy, but there is something quite wrenching about seeing the Doctor so patently unable to live life at our level. It reminded me of a line in (er, I think) an Alan Moore issue of Swamp Thing when it is pointed out that the life of superhero the Flash must be like a gallery of still images.

There’s something of a shock about that realisation that a character does not actually see the universe the way you think he does.

I enjoyed very much the Doctor’s explanation of how he has to rush to things before they gutter out so completely and so quickly. And I enjoyed how much we got to see things through someone else’s eyes. There is an element of the 2010 episode The Lodger in this, but it reminded me more of Love & Monsters (2006) which, again, is narrated by a character whom the Doctor only meets fleetingly, but whose life is completely changed by the encounter.

Love & Monsters attracts some flak because of Peter Kay’s pantomime villainy as The Abzorbaloff, but putting that clodhopping casting decision to one side I think it is a really sweet story. I also applaud the experimental nature of it.

Back in The Power Of Three we see that Brian’s transformation from prosaic Dad to diligent, considerate parent is now complete. We only have one more Pond episode to go, so it looks as though the mystery of Rory’s Mum will never be solved, but I can live with that. Brian’s arc has been wholly satisfying and I love the way he hasn’t quite relinquished his daddliness. His plodding video log and his insistence on pronouncing UNIT as You En Eye Tee made me lol out loud.

And, on the subject of funny dialogue: “mass-defibrillation” indeed. Ha! Give Arthur Darvill a prize for getting that one out.

This is continuing to be a brilliant epoch of Doctor Who. There is evolutionary change in the character that I never expected to see. Matt Smith’s initial portrayal seemed, I thought, almost autistically “other”. Bouncing around like Tigger in The Eleventh Hour. Denouncing all of humankind in The Beast Below. Whereas now, arguably because of the ten year influence of Rory and Amy and probably Craig, he is capable of a degree of domesticity. Not only that, but he is back to defending humanity from colossal threats, not merely because of exigencies of plot, but because of character motivation. The Doctor has now seen enough to know that the good in us far outweighs the bad.

We have come a long way.

You can find the podcast commentary I did with Lawrence Sutcliffe on iTunes here:

http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053