Doctor Who S10E6 “Extremis” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for aired episodes

The clue to this episode of Doctor Who is in the title: “Extremis” is expressly designed to push the series’ format to its limits. It’s outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat allowing himself once last burst of unrestrained fun, one final valedictory outing for the writer who has scrambled our brains time and again since he took over the show in 2010. As he says himself in the most recent edition of Doctor Who Magazine, “It was my last chance to bend this show to see how far you can go before it breaks. Forgive the indulgence.”

Whether you will forgive said indulgence or not depends on how much of a fan you are of the classic ‘timey-wimey’ Moffat style of writing. This is an episode that takes great delight in confounding and confusing the audience, just as Moffat regularly used to do in the likes of “The Impossible Astronaut”. You’ll be intrigued and irritated in turn, excited and exasperated almost at the same instant. Love it or hate it, the one thing you can’t be is indifferent.

I’ll certainly confess to being baffled by most of the episode, in which very little seems to be following any kind of logical narrative structure. Nor does Moffat exactly play fair with us, because even if you’re paying full attention it’s still absolutely impossible to work out what’s going on – at least not until the moment when Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) stumble across the portal hub, and Nardole discovers a certain lack of substance to his existence. After that things fall pretty quickly into place – fortunately, as there’s only about five minutes left to run at this point – and after all the teasing baffling build-up it has to be said that my reaction to the big reveal was: “Oh. Is that it?” Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E5 “Oxygen” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for aired episodes

Given that I tipped my hand last week and declared myself a fan of the scarier side of Doctor Who, you’d probably expect me to wax lyrical over the latest episode “Oxygen” and say how utterly brilliant and fantastic it was. And just to defuse any potential anxiety in the minds of readers of this article, I’ll cut to the chase and admit that yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

In terms of the spectrum of scariness, last week’s “Knock Knock” was a familiar, cosy haunted house story with a happy ending; but “Oxygen” is a desperately chilling story in which everything we thought we could rely on is systematically taken away or turned against us. It is unsettling from the very beginning, and only gets worse as the story goes on. The demise of the sonic screwdriver is painful enough, even before the killer punch in the final scene that we simply don’t see coming and which has big implications for the rest of season 10.

Having brought us a “Mummy on the Orient Express” in his first contribution to the show in 2014, writer Jamie Mathieson this time offers up zombies on a space station. At least, that’s the ‘high concept’ pitch for the episode suggested by the publicity stills. In fact, there are no zombies here – the 36 terminated workers on the Chasm Forge (a brilliant name for an asteroid mining station) aren’t supernaturally reanimated, but are just literally dead weight strapped into their still-operating smart space suits. The question is: what happened to them, and why? Read the rest of this entry »

A brief tour of Universal’s monster horror legacy

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Almost five years ago I wrote enthusiastically about the release of Universal Studio’s Monsters – The Essential Collection, a boxset of eight of its most famous golden age horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the first time these iconic movies had been officially released in the UK on Blu-ray in newly remastered high definition versions, and they were a glorious sight to behold

At the time I penned gushing reviews of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. As it happens I recently rewatched the original 1931 Frankenstein film and was astounded all over again – both by the flawless and beautiful monochrome restoration of a film that’s now nearly 90 years old, and also by how terrific the film itself still is, and how brilliant Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster remains to this day. My only criticism is that it’s so short and over all too quickly, the Monster no sooner brought to life than he is running amok and being hunted by a pitchfork-wielding mob of angry villagers. The clarity is so vivid, you can clearly see the folds and creases in the cloth backdrops used for the sky and clouds.

The Monsters – The Essential Collection boxset was one of my favourite purchases of 2012, and the only drawback to it was that several of the later movies from the Universal horror franchise were not included, among them some of my favourite if lesser-known genre films of the period. I confidently predicted that it surely wouldn’t be long before a second volume took care of that omission; alas, I waited in vain for years for such a boxset to materialise here in the UK, and it never happened. Until now. Well, sort of. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E4 “Knock Knock” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

Over the years, Doctor Who has been many things and dabbled in dozens of genres. But while its adaptability and flexibility is undoubtedly the show’s core strength, for me at least it is never better than when it’s scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion. Think of the show’s golden period when it borrowed liberally from horror stories such as Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde during Tom Baker’s early years; or the memories of the giant maggots and equally oversize spiders faced by Jon Pertwee; or even the eerie dead forest and the ghostly abandoned futuristic city of “The Daleks” in 1963. Or more recently, the remarkable success of the spectacularly creepy “Blink”, still regarded by many as the singe best Who story of all time. As it happens, the location for this week’s story was next door to the house used for “Blink” in 2008; it’s a small universe after all.

It’s why I had such high hopes for this week’s episode which promised flat-out old-fashioned horror movie chills. If “Knock Knock” had only managed to deliver on that level, I would have been a very happy camper.

The thing is – it did deliver. And I was happy. And then it continued. In the end, it so far exceeded my initial already ridiculously over-optimistic expectations that ‘happy’ falls absurdly short of capturing my current mood. Read the rest of this entry »

OJ: Made in America (2016) [DVD]

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A year ago, I found myself unexpectedly drawn into watching the first season of American Crime Story, which dramatised the story of the 1994-5 OJ Simpson trial. While I didn’t specifically follow the original case at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of the key points given the saturation coverage of it in the media at the time. Much of what was shown in Ryan Murphy’s The People vs OJ Simpson turned out to be remarkably familiar to me, and I was surprised by quite how many details I had retained.

The advantage of a dramatisation is that it can take you behind closed doors where cameras were never allowed at the time; and it is also able to shape the narrative into a more understandable format to make the events easier for the layperson to understand compared to the miasma of contemporary news reports and frenzied speculation. That said, a dramatisation does leave you wondering just how much or what we see and hear has been invented, however well-meaningly. You’re left wondering about some of the performances and some of the weird wardrobe and make-up decisions, such as why David Schwimmer is made up as a Word of Sport Dickie Davies lookalike, and why they cast such a bad actor in the role of OJ’s live-in friend Kato Kaelin. That’s because we’re far more critical of the authenticity of a drama in ways that we would never question live television news footage, which confirms that Bob Kardashian really did have a ‘skunk stripe’, and that Kato actually was that weird and the actor totally nailed the portrayal after all.

Even so, much as I liked The People vs OJ Simpson, after ten episodes of OJ drama I had absolutely no appetite to seek out another seven and a half hours of viewing on the subject, factual or otherwise. But then ESPN’s epic OJ: Made In America won the Best Documentary Academy Award in February, and I heard such good things about it that I felt an itch that needed to be scratched – maybe not least because having seen the dramatised version, I now wanted to see how reality measured up. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E3 “Thin Ice” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

Judging from the online reaction to “Thin Ice”, the third episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, it’s been a huge hit with both professional and fan critics who evidently believe it to be the best episode of the show in years. And I’m very happy to see that sort of positive reaction, even if it does make me feel I’m on the outside looking in on this occasion – able to see the enthusiasm from a distance but unable to join in, like the designated driver at a particularly exuberant house party.

It’s not that I thought “Thin Ice” wasn’t very good – far from it, it’s got some great moments and overall is really quite admirable. But I didn’t love it, not in the same way that everyone else seems to have done. Instead, it left me oddly cool – which is perhaps appropriate given the title and the setting of a 1814 Frost Fair on the frozen surface of the River Thames, a far cry from last week’s futuristic utopia. Read the rest of this entry »

Mr Robot S1 (2015) (Amazon Prime/DVD)

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A thriller about technology and hacking is the sort of thing that’s right up my street, and I’ve been keen to watch Mr Robot for ages. Thanks to Amazon Prime I’ve finally got around to digesting the first ten episodes, and I have to say it didn’t disappoint.

At the same time, neither was it quite what I was expecting – which is good, actually. It’s much rougher and more authentic, stylishly directed and photographed but never forgetting that it lives on the streets of New York City every bit as much as the sleek corporate offices that tower over the skyline, their chief executives looking down on the teaming masses below and utterly disconnected and removed from ordinary people both physically and mentally.

It’s a story with its roots in the Occupy campaigns, a drama about the rage and helplessness that normal folks feel in the 21st century as prices spiral, banks foreclose and surveillance is everywhere. That oppressive malevolence is represented in Mr Robot by the not-too-subtly named E Corp which hacktivist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) targets, aiming to wipe out the international conglomerate’s records which will free millions of people of their debt – and potentially crash the entire capitalist system worldwide. Read the rest of this entry »

Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1954-1956)

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I like to think of myself as a fan of cult TV and indeed of vintage television as a whole, so I was rather startled to stumble across Colonel March of Scotland Yard completely by accident while browsing through Amazon Prime a few weeks ago. It’s very much the sort of niche thing I enjoy and yet for some reason its very existence had totally passed me by.

Made in the mid-1950s, it’s a classic example of television of that era – which is to say, it’s almost entirely shot on a soundstage in long unedited single takes in which people talk to each other and any action such as there is will be limited to a single punch thrown in an attempt to make the showdown more dramatic. It’s certainly not going to appeal to a modern day audience raised on the kinetic antics of 24 or The Blacklist, and most viewers will find it cripplingly dull. But for a small number of people – myself included – its copious charms more than make up for its manifest limitations. Read the rest of this entry »

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

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If you wander into any High Street book store at the moment you’ll almost certainly stumble across Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall placed in prominent locations. Part of that is because Hawley has become something of a star name and hot property thanks to his day job as showrunner and lead writer of the successful Fargo and Legion television series. I confess it was his name on the cover that initially drew my interest too. However, I stayed because of the book’s concept – and pretty soon I ended up paying for a copy because I was by then hooked after reading the first chapter.

Before the Fall starts with a plane crash. A private jet chartered by TV news executive David Bateman to take him, his wife Maggie and their two young children along with family friends Ben and Sarah Kipling and bodyguard Gil Baruch back to New York City from their holiday home in Martha’s Vineyard ends up plummeting into the Atlantic. Of the eleven passengers and flight crew aboard, there are only two survivors: one of them is Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who shouldn’t even have been on the flight but who now finds his life transformed by the experiences he goes through. Read the rest of this entry »

Connections (BBC One) (1978)

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When I was growing up, there were two non-fiction television series that had a huge effect on me and the direction I would later go as an adult. One was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos which cemented a lifelong love of astronomy, the planets and space exploration; and the other was Connections, a BBC documentary presented by James Burke who had been the Corporation’s charismatic lead science correspondent during its coverage of the Apollo moon missions.

I still have the original hardback book that was published as a companion to the 1978 series, just as I still have my lavishly illustrated volume of Cosmos written by Sagan a couple of years later. However I’d long since given up any chance of actually getting to see the show on screen again, until I noticed an advertisement in a recent Radio Times for various new TV-related DVD releases – and was startled to find Connections listed among them. I don’t think I’ve ever decided to order anything quite so quickly as did here.

As always, the danger of revisiting something that was such an important touchstone of one’s childhood is that it can only disappoint when seen again. However in this case, it never even occurred to me to be wary about acquiring and watching Connections again, especially after nearly four decades having passed since my one and only previous viewing. And you know what? I was absolutely right not to worry. This is still one of the greatest factual shows in broadcasting history, with the power to keep you captivated and enlightened for every second of its ten 50 minute episodes. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E2 “Smile” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

It must take a huge sense of self-confidence and belief to be the show-runner of a huge international series like Doctor Who, to the point of hubris and arrogance. That’s not a criticism – I just don’t see how anyone could do the job otherwise. Part of that mindset must include never fully accepting when you’ve made a mistake – or at least, not one that you can’t rectify down the line.

Back in season 8, Steven Moffat picked children’s novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (of London 2012 opening ceremony fame) to write an episode for Doctor Who. The end result – “In the Forest of the Night” – sharply divided both fans and critics, and was the least popular story of that run. Personally I liked the episode somewhat better than most people seemed to and found its change of pace refreshing, but even so I can’t say I was clamouring for more of the same anytime soon.

But Moffat sticks to his guns, and Cottrell-Boyce gets a second bite of the Who apple with this week’s episode “Smile”. This sophomore effort shows that the writer has worked hard to address the criticisms of his maiden outing and in some areas is much improved, while other aspects show much the same hallmarks of Cottrell-Boyce’s work – for both good and ill. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10 E1 “The Pilot” (BBC One)

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Contains some spoilers for the episode

It wasn’t until the opening credits rolled on Saturday’s brand new series of Doctor Who that it was fully brought home to me just how long it’s been since we’ve had a proper first-run episode to savour, Christmas specials notwithstanding. It’s been more than 16 months since the end of series nine – already the travels of the Doctor and Clara seem like they belong to a completely different era of the show.

Clara’s extended tenancy in the Tardis also means that it’s been four and a half years since we last had the pleasure of being introduced to a new companion. In that time we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show, seen one Doctor bow out and another take over who himself is already about to move on. Fond as I was of Jenna Coleman, that’s probably too long a period than is entirely good for the show: while the Doctor might regenerate from time to time he’s still the same character, and these days it’s the companion who offers the best opportunity for the production team to refresh the show from the ground up with new blood.

Given that series star Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat are both moving on after the current run, they would have been forgiven if they’d simply opted to just coast to the finish line on auto-pilot, before handing things over to Chris Chibnall who will do his own thing in 2018. But that’s not their way; revitalised by the lengthy interval between seasons, Moffat throws himself into this latest reinvention with the enthusiasm of a three-day-old puppy playing with a new favourite toy rather than the jaded 55-year-old who’s been grinding away at this every day for almost eight years now. It’s not the first time he’s reimagined the show: he transformed it into a charming fairy tale with Matt Smith’s first season, before going for a more hard-edged science fiction approach with convoluted time travel plots that continually tested the audience’s ability to keep up. He reinvented the show once more when Capaldi took over the role by daring to be darker, and played with the format again with more two-parters in 2015 than ever before. Read the rest of this entry »

Oasis E1 “Pilot” (Amazon Prime), and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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Last week I wrote about Sneaky Pete, an Amazon Prime original show that had gone through the ‘pilot season’ of being selected for a full ten-part series commission based on viewers’ comments and ratings. Another previously reviewed series, Bosch, also made it to series based on positive fan response compared with tepid critical reaction, and thank goodness it did.

This year, science fiction drama Oasis is one of five new pilots up for consideration. Set in a dystopian 2032, the story centres on Christian chaplain Peter Leigh who receives a request to travel to Oasis, Earth’s first off-world colony. Said to be located on the far side of the galaxy, the method of travel is not explained. When Peter arrives he finds that the person who asked for him to come – the colony’s founder, billionaire David Morgan – is missing, and no one knows why he wanted Peter there in the first place. Meanwhile the workforce is starting to experience hallucinations and an escalating number of serious and even fatal accidents that suggest the new world is rejecting their presence. Eventually Peter discovers a clue as to Morgan’s whereabouts and travels deep into the wilderness, where he makes a bewildering discovery in a cave… Read the rest of this entry »

Sneaky Pete S1 (Amazon Prime)

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I’m rather a fan of con and heist stories, so I confess that I was predisposed to like Sneaky Pete from the start. But this one is perhaps a little different from the kind of movies and TV shows from the genre that we’re used to.

These days the image we have from film and television of con men is a rather glamorous one – Brad Pitt and George Clooney striding through Las Vegas casinos on their way to scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in a daring heist, for example. Or there’s Adrian Lester, Marc Warren and Jamie Murray having impish fun on a small screen budget in Hustle. Then there’s Tim Hutton and his gang of latter day Merry Men (and women) using their grifter skills to right wrongs for others. Either way it all looks good fun, doesn’t it?

Of course the real world reality is a much grimmer and grimier affair. Grifters live in a darker, dirtier and altogether more dangerous world, surviving from hand to mouth and lucky to get away with stealing a few dollars and cents which they’ll gladly take from anyone gullible enough to fall for one of their cons. Usually they’re less than a day away from disaster – from being arrested if they’re lucky, or being beaten to a pulp by a deadly rival or a furious victim if they’re not. Read the rest of this entry »

Top Gear S24 E1-4 (BBC 2)

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A little under one year ago, everyone was watching the latest episodes of Top Gear with consternation as it struggled and faltered in its first post-Clarkson outing. The situation was so bad that at one point it seemed possible that the show – formerly one of the BBC’s most prestigious and profitable international brands – could even be summarily cancelled.

It didn’t help when Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May’s The Grand Tour launched on Amazon Prime later in the year and was everything that the BBC’s new take on Top Gear had failed to be – although naturally, anyone who had previously hated Clarkson on Top Gear continued to hate him in his new Amazonian habitat too. All of it piled new pressure on the BBC’s motoring show. Read the rest of this entry »