The Mentalist S3 E23/24: Strawberries and Cream

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The Mentalist is a curious little show. Even in an era flooded with light and mainly fun “cop shows” – shows like the delightful Castle, or the always-entertaining NCIS franchises – this one comes over as the lightest, frothiest and least substantial of them all. Well, most of the time.

At its heart, The Mentalist features one of the darkest series-spanning arcs of all of this genre of shows, in that the title character (Patrick Jane, played with laid-back charm by Simon Baker) is deeply emotionally scarred by the killing of his wife and daughter by infamous serial killer Red John. This strand alone could drive a series as dark and complex as, for example, House, M.D.; but instead, most of the time Jane’s light and cheerful, delighting himself in running rings around odious guest characters and solving flimsy crime cases investigated by the CBI (the surprisingly non-fictional California Bureau of Investigation) that we care little about and barely have to watch to know what’s going on. Sometimes the show will find unexpected pathos such as with the return of guest character of Coroner Steiner, played by the ever-wonderful George Wyner who must have guested in every US TV show of the last three decades, but mostly it’s gentle comedy all the way.

And then suddenly the show will shift gear and go incredibly dark and serious for its arc episodes; and of course, the end-of-season two-parter was always going to be among those more substantial outings. But even though were primed to suspect something weighty, I don’t think anyone quite saw this coming.

(Note: contains some spoilers from here on.)

It had started with a routine case “ripped from the headlines” or a man who had been forced to rob a bank after being locked in a bomb jacket. The culprit was given away by a piece of casting – Ravi Kapoor is too good (and too well known) to be in a throwaway role of a convenience store clerk.

However, that was not the end and instead led into a related story where it seemed that this was just a plot by Red John to find Madeleine Hightower, a senior CBI agent that Red John had framed for another murder and who might now be the key to finding Red John’s ‘mole’ in the CBI itself. Realising this set Patrick Jane off on one of his best and most clever little traps of the entire season, which also delivered a delightful double whammy of a red herring where you knew something had gone awry but couldn’t work out why – until Jane pieced it together. The show’s other star (Agent Lisbon played by Robin Tunney) ended up being shot, and moreover Jane himself ended up being stranded all by himself in a shopping mall.

At which point you realise that it’s all a ruse to end up with Jane – and us – coming face-to-face with Red John himself after all, following previous season cliffhanger near-miss teases. Although I’d heard Red John was going to turn out to be a star from an “Emmy-award winning show” I genuinely hadn’t expected it to be who it turned out to be, or how magnificent the ensuing five minute face-off confrontation between the two excellent actors would turn out to be. After three years of tease and bait-and-switch, this was a scene that had a lot to live up to if it were to deliver: and it hit it out of the park thanks to the writing and the performances coming on top of an already-strong episode leading up to this point.

Where this leaves the show is another matter. Not only has it (apparently) dealt with the series over-arching plot and finished the Red John story once and for all, it’s also left the main character in a situation which is … How can I put this without giving too much away? Let’s just say, he was good to his word with regard as to what he would do if ever he came face-to-face with Red John. It’s nice to know that he really was up to following through and wasn’t stricken by any prime-time attack of conscience, especially surprising given the show’s general tendency toward the insubstantial and frothy in the more routine episodes.

But as for what this does to the show and to its lead character’s psyche from here …

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

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I really wish I could come up with a coherent review of the three-part documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace by Adam Curtis that aired recently on BBC2, but coherence defeats me. I don’t feel too badly about this, because it seemed to have defeated the programme makers too.

The programme took some very high level abstract concepts and then mashed them with a pile of anecdotes and archive footage, linked with Curtis’ own mesmeric voiceover narrative that outlined the documentary’s arguments. The result is really quite something – always watchable, but also very puzzling and confusing.

The first episode, “Love and Power”, seemed designed to attack the rise of the Internet by linking it with the frightful philosophy of selfishness of Ayn Rand and her effect on computer pioneers, but I was never convinced that it made its point and it so patently ignored anything positive about the Internet as to make it non-credible to me in the end. Instead, it seemed to blame the Internet for all the failings more specifically of the free market and globalisation, but apparently another assault on the pillars of world trade wasn’t eye-catching and sexy enough a target for the film.

The second episode was “The Use And Abuse Of Vegetational Concepts” which was a lot more intelligible and better constructed documentary, but it did so by setting up a patent straw man that’s already been entirely discredited (the sixties hippie communes), critiqued them all over again and then concluded that voilà, systems analysis and process were similarly vapid. It missed entirely the reason why those communes failed to in the first place: they sought to find a new equilibrium without realising how powerfully the current one is the natural state of affairs for humans, not least because human nature is so persuasive that to ignore it from the process diagrams was to doom those analyses to failure from the start. But that was a failing with the initial understanding, assumption and set-up rather than excuse for dismissing the systems approach altogether.

And the third, final episode was “The Monkey and in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey”, which was just horribly depressing because it concluded that everything that’s wrong in the world is due either to the legacy of various western empires or – even worse – the liberal left-wing hand-wringing and attempts to do anything about that legacy. In other words: the world is broken, we did it, and the only thing that makes it any worse is our attempt to do anything about it. Or not to do anything at all. Either way it’ll end in bloodshed, death and violent breakdown. Honestly, if someone spent an hour on a psychiatrist’s couch saying all this to their therapist, the doctor would be reaching for the straight jacket and Valium and calling for an ambulance to take care of a suicide risk. It certainly depressed the hell out of me.

Ultimately that was what was wrong with the film: it spent so long explaining why everything had gone so terribly wrong that by the end it left no road forward, no hope. The films seemed to be ushering us to a point of thinking that we may as well drink and be merry and to hell with it all, for there is no tomorrow worth a damn.

All in all, Curtis’ work here seems far more scatter-shot than some of his earlier, better films such as the impressive and persuasive “The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear” in the post-9/11 days, which gave voice to a lot of fears in the back of people’s minds but also empowered the viewers to then do something about it once their eyes were opened to the problem. I simply got a sense that Curtis had picked some abstract, niche targets – almost at random, and at times not even the best ones to support the arguments he was making – then lined them up against the wall and let off a few rounds in their direction with an antique blunderbuss in the hope that enough pellets would find one or more targets to lead them to exsanguinate by accumulation, rather than constructing a proper surgical strike with a point to it.

It was interesting enough to watch and it got the mind working – and certainly TV should show films like this that have big ideas and big consequences to them and shouldn’t shy away from high-brow fare. But as such things go, this was not one of the better examples, alas.

Attack the Block (2011)

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Writer/director Joe Cornish hasn’t made it easy on himself as far as feature film debuts go.

To start with, he’s trying to do a science fiction alien monster movie on a British indie film budget, shooting it in a council estate in South London and hoping that it can look anything like as good as the Hollywood blockbusters of its ilk. That he pulls this off is quite remarkable: at no time do you really feel that this is at all budget-challenged – it’s all polished and stylish throughout and he gives the eponymous block more screen presence and charisma than any cinematic high rise since Die Hard’s Nakatomi Plaza, a really impressive directorial debut with real visual flair and style.

The second burden Cornish gives himself is his selection of protagonists – it’s hard to label them as ‘heroes’ since their first act is to mug a young female nurse at knifepoint, and their second is to sign up as street drug dealers. Both acts are reprehensible and at no time does the film admonish them or require them to see “the error of their ways” as any mainstream (and certainly American) film would do. Instead the film simply unpacks their world view and their sense of honour and ethos: they later apologise to the nurse, saying that if they’d known she was a block resident they would never have attacked her, like that really should make any difference to the morality of the situation but neatly showing the twisted but nonetheless coherent code of conduct they adhere to.

And finally, the film gets laden with too many expectations to be the “next Shaun of the Dead.” Some of these are accidental – Cornish’s background in comedy and radio light entertainment do help set up the expectation – but in other ways the comparison is self-inflicted, such as the casting of that film’s co-star Nick Frost in a supporting role here, and the movie posters topped with “from the producers of Shaun of the Dead“. I guess you have to sell a film any way you can, but ultimately this one does the film more harm than good.

Anyone going in expecting a laugh-a-minute romcom (with monsters) in the style of that earlier British classic is going to be quite badly disappointed: it’s not a comedy. It’s got laughs in it, to be sure, but these arise out of characters and the surreal nature of the events going on around them rather than any concerted attempt to be funny or comedic. Only Frost and his stoned cohort Luke Treadaway (playing a posh whiteboy graduate who just wants some streetgang/black cred) provide anything like authentic comedy beats, and they rather stick out at times as a result. If the sight of nine-year-olds fronting up to face the aliens with a cap gun and a super-squirter, or the gang going into battle against the alien hoards driving the dumbest pizza delivery mopeds ever seen on film don’t strike you as beautifully laugh-out-loud incongruous and silly moments, then there won’t be much here for you. (And watch out for the super-squirter – it has the final say.)

The film’s also been criticised for not having enough action or scares. That’s a shame, and I disagree – I thought it was very nicely judged, with the action not overpowering the characters and leaving room for a full-rounded film rather than the usual blockbuster bombast we have to put up with these days. Again, outright “horror” isn’t its aim – this isn’t Alien by any means – but the film plays a lovely trick with its limited budget by having the monsters be impenetrable blobs of black that can’t really be seen – except for their luminescent teeth, the reveal of which in the dark back-of-frame enables Cornish to have some of his best and most cinematic moments of all when the scale of the infestation and their proximity becomes grippingly clear.

For me, the film really did overcome all those problems it started off carrying. I suspect that for others, the desire for it to be Shaun of the Dead overrode the critical ability to view this as a completely different film seeking to do different things. Where Shaun had romcom, this film has a more serious social commentary heart beating in its genre chest, such as the moment when the gang seriously wonder if the aliens are the authorities’ way of wiping out the black population “because we aren’t killing ourselves fast enough for them” – sharp observation of both how the gangs see the white mainstream society’s attitude toward them while also skewering the too-common self-harming tendencies of some black communities at the same time.

The way this all opens up an “alien culture” of street gangs for a mainstream (and doubtless mainly white) film-going audience is praiseworthy enough. It does this not by having the protagonists repent and be redeemed – that would be too easy – but by having them remain true to themselves but open up their world so that we, the outsiders, can see what they’re really about. It doesn’t forgive them their actions, but it does perhaps facilitate some cross-battlelines understanding.

It’s not a perfect film. The opening half hour spends so much time with the protagonist gang that the cutaways to some of the other characters (the mugged nurse played by Jodie Whittaker; the sisters and girlfriends; Frost and Treadaway’s characters) seem underdeveloped distractions and they really don’t work until their fates are properly intertwined with the gang’s. But once things do cohere then there is some clever pacing and writing which ensures that instead of key character moments being dropped into a “quite moment” where they won’t get in the way like you usually get in action films, the emotional climaxes are instead absolutely intertwined with and essential to the film’s action highlights in a very effective way.

All in all, it’s a film well worth seeing – a definite four stars – but if you go, try and put preconceptions aside and take this as an entirely fresh, different film and not necessarily judge it as the one you thought it was going to be.

2012 (Blu-ray)

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Director Roland Emmerich and his collaborator Harald Kloser are used to blowing up the world: they did it with aliens in Independence Day and the environment in The Day After Tomorrow, and along the way wrecked a fair portion of New York by unleashing Godzilla.

If you’ve seen any of those films, you’ll know just what to expect from 2012, which is global doomsday via Mayan prophecy (oh, alright then – by solar flares, if you will.)

Emmerich isn’t one for abandoning a tried and tested template, so you get the same sprawling cast, their initially disconnected lives eventually overlapping and linking up to form the narrative. And along the way, some eye-popping visual effects are unleashed as the world gets quite literally torn apart.

It’s basically standard B-movie stuff, but with a big budget. It’s very bit as clichéd and schmaltzy as its Emmerich forebears: remember how you cringed when President Bill Pullman gave his All-American rousing speech before the final battle? There’s a similar heart-tugging script beat here, too. It’s obvious who will live and who will die (and frankly, a little disturbingly so – it’s not good to be anything but a nice middle class American nuclear family in these films, so Indians and Russians have a very slim survival chance.) But the dog survives, as ever – it’s an Emmerich trope.

Also as is typical with these films, there’s some really great casting going on. John Cusack is always watchable whether in an indie film or a big budget blockbuster; Chiwetel Ejiofor is a new name and face to American audiences, but the young British actor is excellent and assured here, while Amanda Peet and Thandie Newton do well to bring life to the inevitable “supporting wife/girlfriend/daughter” roles. Add lovely turns from old stagers like Danny Glover, Oliver Platt and George Segal, and mix in a scene stealing Zlatko Buric as a Russian oligarch and you have a very agreeable mix.

All in all, then, it’s rather enjoyable as end-of-the-world stories go, and perfectly entertaining. It doesn’t try to do anything more, which puts it one ahead of the painfully worthy The Day After Tomorrow with its po-faced climate change message; and it much better done overall than the lazy, bloated Godzilla. It just about puts it into the three star category.

The Blu-ray disk on the other hand is something else. The film looks absolutely fantastic in high definition even on my relatively pokey 32″ screen, and the CGI sequences are so astonishingly well rendered with such level of detail that they’ll leave you well and truly eye-popped. And while I don’t have a sophisticated sound system, the way that the audio track threw an immersive, all-encompassing soundscape around me was really impressive and the best I think I’ve heard at home.

Not sure if I’d call it “reference quality” – I reserve that for Pixar releases, to be honest – but this Blu-ray still really surprised me by how good it was. It almost made me want to re-watch the film again just by how good it looked and sounded, the quality of the film itself almost irrelevant.

Doctor Who – What, and Where Next?

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doctorwho-mattsmith-creditsWe’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.

As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.

This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.

It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something genuinely different and new after too many years of the Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.

Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.

Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.

When Russell T Davies took on the tast of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.

As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.

It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.

You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)

It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.

For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.

But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?

It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancelation.)

This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.

Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?

So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to realise this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.

The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy or Rory too often as a result just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just role our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.

Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.

The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?

Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.

Dr Who S6 Ep7 – A Good Man Goes To War

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Contains some oblique spoilers, sweetie.

And so the first half of this year’s “double mini-series” season 6 of Doctor Who has come to an end, allowing us time to pause and reflect about the season overall. But before that – what about the final episode?

I skipped over reviewing the last episode, “The Almost People”, as it was the second half of a story about which I felt I’d already said pretty much everything I wanted to in my previous “The Rebel Flesh” review: the two-parter finished solidly and just as the first part would have had you expect. A very safe pair of hands and an enjoyable story overall.

And then came that final cliffhanger in the Tardis with not-Amy. Certainly didn’t see that one coming, and yet doesn’t it make sense about the Doctor’s whole insistence on trying to prove to her that The Flesh avatars are not monsters and are real people too. He was trying to prepare her for what was to come.

That shock ending led directly into “A Good Man Goes To War”, and we’re expecting greatness of epic proportions. For the first 20 minutes it royally delivers: the scale of the Doctor’s preparations of assembling an army and tracking down Amy are truly astonishing, with the Tardis and Rory (the Lone Centurion) acting in the Doctor’s place and the man himself appearing only briefly in (unconvincing) silhouette as befits a legend and a myth.

By this point we’re prepared for something absolutely sensational: the Doctor’s (uncharacteristically) casual destruction of a entire Cyber battle fleet to make a rhetorical point leads us to believe that this is the Time Lord Victorious pushed over the edge, driven to darker deeds by an incomparable fury. Except that neither the Doctor nor head writer Steven Moffat are ever that obvious or predictable. Instead, when the Doctor finally does pop up, he looks very much as normal and he outwits the army arrayed against him with typical light-hearted cunning (brilliantly plotted). The battle is defused, and while there is a subsequent trap to be sprung by Madame Kovarian this proves to be an even lower-key plot beat with just half a dozen or so on either side, and the action essentially taking place off-screen. (Judging how stodgy the pirate battle antics ended up looking in “The Curse of the Black Spot”, it may be just as well.)

It’s Moffat’s greatest strength that he confounds and defies our every expectation; but it can also be his greatest weakness. Having promised us that “the Doctor will climb higher than ever before”, the way the episode unfurls simply doesn’t deliver on this promise. The structure of the episode is oddly inverted, starting with epic and sweeping but then getting smaller and smaller until finally it comes down to a rather talky final scene between the regulars. It leaves an oddly awkward, unfulfilled feeling to it: having opened a Christmas present in huge extravagant wrappings, the end result is the perfectly fine but still rather-expected Doctor Who annual.

How you feel about the climax depends on how big a shock the final reveal about River Song’s true identity is. I confess, I’ve thought that she is who she turned out to be ever since episode 1 of this season, when she and Rory were investigating underground and had a rather interesting conversation that only has genuine emotional resonance if River Song is one particular person. The line of dialogue in “The Doctor’s Wife” that ‘the only water in the forest is the river’ sealed it for me, so this week’s reveal was not in the end a big surprise, although Moffat certainly played around in the episode with a few red herrings to make it pleasingly in doubt until the very final moments.

A small genius of Moffat’s writing is that despite having finally revealed River Song’s true identity, it turns out that the answer gives rise to far more questions than the answer ever addressed – the perfect sort of plotting. Instead of being an end to River’s story, if anything it just throws up even more avenues that need exploring which are far more interesting. How exactly does River’s story now intersect with the Impossible Astronaut, the little girl regenerating, and River’s own ultimate fate seen back in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”? What’s this going to mean to Rory and Amy? Where has the Doctor gone after learning this piece of information – how does it give him the location of the baby? Will the baby be lost to them for years, stuck in a Silents-infested orphanage for years to come? What’s with the astronaut suit, anyway? And why doesn’t River know?

Overall, the episode was extremely well done and great fun – just not the episode to end all episodes that we’d been led to hope for. It felt like a reprise of “The Pandorica Opens” in that it’s all a trap to snare the Doctor and features alliances of various old foes; the difference being is that here the Doctor builds his own alliance to fight back. In the end, this felt more like Russell T Davies’ era of the show (in particular his biggest shows, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”) than anything Moffat himself has previously done: only that instead of gathering together a feel-good line-up of his old friends, allies and companions to help him as RTD gave us, here the Doctor seeks out more unlikely line-up of Silurians, Judoon and Sontarans who owe him.

And what delights there were in that alliance. For all the praise Moffat gets for his intricate plotting, it’s easy to forget that his real strength is in giving us the most brilliant characters the show has ever seen: not just Amy, but Rory who has developed into one of the true stars of the show; then there’s River Song, without whom it’s almost impossible to think of modern Doctor Who, such a fabulous and vibrant part of the team she’s become. And let’s not forget that Moffat also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, the first character to sustain a successful Doctor Who spin-off series of his own.

This week, add to this line up the brilliant characters of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny: is there any fan out there not dying to see a Victorian Era-set spin off featuring these two? Such a shame that blue-marketeer Dorium and Commander/Nurse Strax are also not available for future stories: Robert Holmes must be beaming down from on high with delight that someone has finally grasped his Sontaran creations and made them into richly textured, fully-rounded and even humorous personalities without betraying the underlying principle of the cloned warrior race. Even the odd minor character of Lorna Bucket with her memory of 30 seconds running through a forest with the Doctor (who doesn’t know her) feels like someone with far more tale left to tell. Even if she is dead for now.

In the end, the episode is less of a season climax and a major cliffhanger than the episode that preceded it: instead it feels more like the end of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – everything has been thrown up in the air, the pieces are in play, and suddenly it all looks less like a happy fairytale than it did, and more like a dark and dangerous time. And like that brilliant film it leaves us sitting on the edge of our seats counting down the hours to part two of series six in the Autumn.

Just as long as Moffat doesn’t try and add any sodding Ewoks to the Silurian/Judoon/Sontaran alliance, we should be in for a treat as the story continues to unfold.

Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

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I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.

Unfortunately, that season was 1994.

By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”

This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.

Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.

But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.

Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.

But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.

Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.

I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.

When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.

Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.

But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.

It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.

But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.

Primeval S5 E2

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What on earth just happened to Primeval, ITV’s dinosaur-hunting Saturday night family program intended as some sort of answer to the dominance in the market of Doctor Who?

Those with a long memory might recall that the series was briefly cancelled by ITV last year after season 3, because of middling ratings not justifying expensive production costs (CGI dinosaurs don’t come cheap.) It was saved by ITV coming to a co-production deal with UK TV that saw season 4 air on ITV earlier this year and season 5 now premièring on UK TV’s Watch satellite and cable channel (before being released on DVD in July and making it on to ITV later in the year.)

I’d really hoped that the near-death experience would motivate the makers of Primeval to pull their finger out and overhaul the show into a fit state, but alas season 4 earlier this year dashed those hopes. Despite some vague overarching plot lines (that were frankly not as interesting as the writers clearly thought they were, especially the Lady Emily distraction), every single episode still came down to the same tired old “runaround chasing after/being chased by the CGI monster of the week” schtick. It seemed that the show’s format was simply too restrictive to allow it to live.

And so I was genuinely startled by the first episode of season 5 (the first series to premier on UK Watch) because it was – well, no other way of putting this: shockingly good. Almost a different show to what had gone before. The direction; the sharp editing; the vastly improved writing including some lovely witty character lines (the cast was always the best thing about this show and now they’re getting the material to work with that they deserve); a genuine sense of peril where it seemed like they really were about to write out one of the most popular characters; and the overarching plot lines that had been rather an afterthought before now suddenly becoming a genuinely interesting conspiracy plot. Even though the basic plot was still something like a CGI monster runaround, the monster was interesting (a huge louse, basically) and instead of lots of running around it all had to be tackled by out-thinking the problem rather than outrunning it.

Perhaps they were just pulling out all the stops for the season opener on the new channel, I thought? Don’t get too excited about it, it’ll be back to ho-hum next week.

Instead, this week’s episode was set on a submarine as the team seek to close one of the “time portal” anomalies. It managed to pack in a fun Alien-eque “monster stalking the crew in a confined space” as well as some rather good FX sequences of the submarine being menaced by aquatic dinosaurs – anyone who saw the BBC’s lamentable The Deep will know just how back wrong these underwater sequences can end up being rendered, so kudos to the show’s producers for pulling this one off. All the while we have Navy types back at base threatening to use nuclear missiles to take care of the problem leading to an initially humorous but ultimately nerve-wracking game of “I’ll go over your head” top trumps to try and avert disaster.

It all points to a completely different scale and ambition and even confidence to the “safe but tepid” shows that Primeval was putting out before. The change is a quantum leap forward. Can they maintain it or will it slip back to “normality” in a week or two?

I’m optimistic. Next week the trailers tell us that one of the characters heads back to Victorian London to do battle with Spring-Heeled Jack (a real pre-cursor of Jack the Ripper from the 1860s). They’ve never done “time travel” except to some vague far-future or far-past wasteland, so truing to evoke Victorian England is further evidence that the show has suddenly decided to smash the previous constraints of what it had assumed was its format and just go for it. It wants to have some real fun, rather than settling for chasing down another anonymous CGI monster in another part of a Docklands-lookalike part of the city.

It’s just what I’d hoped that would happen when the show got a jolt from its near-death experience. I was disappointed when that hadn’t seemed to have sunk in for season 4, but I think finally it’s got there. I really hope it’s not too late, because now for the first time this series has real promise of becoming something rather excellent.

Dr Who S6 Ep5 – The Rebel Flesh

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Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!

Due to other commitments this week, this is a rather late review; but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my lack of a timely review for this weeks episode should be in any way construed as a lack of enthusiasm for it.

Far from it. In terms of atmosphere, interesting premise, excellent cast and overall great script, this was as good as anything Doctor Who has done of late. It’s also utterly different from anything Doctor Who has done of late: after the massively complex, deeply layered and intricately constructed opening two parter, together with the fun pirate romp (your mileage may vary on the ‘fun’ part) and the magical Neil Gaiman entry, this couldn’t possibly have been more different.

For one thing: it was slow. Now, that could be taken as an insult or a criticism, so let me assure you that I mean anything but an insult. It’s just that as I was watching, I was aware that not all that much had happened; and that was giving me time to absorb the story, and to think through some of the serious points being made (both important plot points, and equally important sociological points for the real world.) How nice to have a chance to watch a piece of TV that gives me time to absorb it and contemplate, rather than something that pummels you with its cleverness (no matter how much we might like that!) or tries to hide its script problems with raw pace (a few RTD scripts come to mind there.)

The slowness also allows the story to build a fantastically creepy atmosphere of claustrophobic dread, aided immeasurably by the decision to film much of it on location at various castles and monasteries that gave it such a unique feeling. But if this is to happen – if “slow” is to lead to “effective, creepy atmosphere” – then it can only happen with a good script and moreover a highly effective direction. Fortunately this episode had both in Matthew Graham and Julian Simpson respectively.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made between this two-parter and the season five episodes “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”, which was also deliberately slow-paced, and also shot in some some potentially very effective locations (caves, in that case.) Unfortunately, after a decent and fairly effective first part, that episode petered out into a story that felt like watching a particularly turgid council meeting and wasted almost every opportunity to create something special – one example of how “slow” really can end up being a pejorative.

I’m trusting this two-parter not to end up fumbling the second part – I have no reason to believe it will, it seems in very assured hands. There’s criticisms you can make of it, such as:

  • it’s not exactly original and is very much showing its roots (The Thing and Name of the Rose are acknowledged by the writer) – but then, some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time during the Tom Baker era came from this sort of Who-reimagining of classic stories like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;
  • some of the guest characters are chronically underwritten or given some really clichéd broad strokes to work with (such as Jimmy’s memories of his son) – but it succeeds by some clever casting of the likes of Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar, Marshall Lancaster and Sarah Smart who immediately and very effectively bring something of their previous screen personas to the part;
  • Rory’s sudden spark of independence instead of trotting after Amy all the time is out of character – but how good to see it, and lovely to see Arthur Darvill have some more meaty material work with at last rather than just as comedy relief. Plus, he didn’t die for once!
  • And really, it was always going to end with that cliffhanger from the moment that the Doctor poked and prodded the pool of milk. Consequently so much of what preceded it felt like treading water waiting for the big reveal to happen. But when it did … Boy, was it worth it.

When I watched “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”, I thought to myself that this is what a Doctor Who feature film would look like. Then along came “The Doctor’s Wife” and that was so gorgeously directed and photographed that it put many a Hollywood film to shame. But now I’m convinced that this is the perfect paradigm for a Doctor Who film – it felt like a motion picture from the get-go, and any doubts were dispelled by the “Next Time” trailer which was the best they’ve ever done. You could put that on as a trailer in a movie theatre and have them lining up around the block to see the film next week in no time.

We only have to remember to switch on our TV sets. Although sadly Americans and Canadians will have to restrain themselves for an extra week before getting to see it. Don’t worry, we’ll tease you mercilessly about it in the meantime.

Dr Who: Cobwebs (Big Finish Productions/BBC Radio 4 Extra)

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During its wilderness years – after the BBC banished it from television after 1989 not to return until 2005 save for one TV movie that must never, ever be mentioned – Doctor Who was kept alive by a series of novels and audio adventures. The production company Big Finish Productions won the license to produce the latter and is still going strong.

Strangely these new adventures have been relatively unexploited by the BBC in their quest for new radio drama material, when you would think they would be ideal. Until recently the the only such stories to have made it onto the BBC’s Radio 7 spoken word station were those featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor with a new companion (played by the wonderful Sheridan Smith) in an almost entirely separate, self-contained ‘series’ that the Corporation felt could run in parallel with the TV adventures of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith without interfering or confusing.

But this week, in a rather daring and very welcome departure to boost the launch of the new BBC Radio 4 Extra brand, the BBC have bought up a batch of Big Finish stories for the station. These feature not only Peter Davison as the Doctor, but his actual early 80s companion line-up of bolshy Tegan (Janet Fielding – particularly wonderful to have her back!), scheming Turlough (Mark Strickson) and nice Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). And the stories are in four half hour episodes with cliffhangers: it really is like being transported back.

Nyssa was always one of the dullest, least formed, “nicest” companions of 70s and 80s Doctor Who and Big Finish have pulled a nice twist here in setting this story two days after Nyssa departed the crew. In a lovely character touch, Tegan goes from pinning for the departed Nyssa to being incredibly antagonised when she returns, and Tegan is reminded of her former friend’s goody-goody tendencies and made to realise that she has much more in common with the “evil” Turlough whom she had formerly loathed – a nice transition that also fills in a character development gap in the original 80s stories, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence or accident that it does so.

In fact, while Nyssa’s been gone for only two days, that’s two days Tardis time – but 50 years for her, a marvellous idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the original production team but is very much in the spirit of the Moffat era of playing with time. It gives Sarah Sutton so much more to work with, while playing with time is what this whole “Cobwebs” episode is about – in a wonderfully simple, boiled-down and creepy first episode set in an abandoned station the Tardis crew find what look to be their own bodies, dead for 40 years; and in the second episode, it all starts to come true as they travel back in time. So far, so great.

If there’s a criticism of this story (and of some others that I’ve listened to in the Big Finish line) it’s that they’re simply too clever, intelligent and audacious for their own good. If you’re used to the nice, steady, linear productions that form the bulk of Radio 4’s drama output then these stories can overwhelm and become really quite confusing, as in the case of “Cobwebs” where the third episode goes off on a different tangent altogether and the guest characters we thought we had been introduced to suddenly turn out not to be who we – or even they – thought they were. It’s so many switches and reversals that – taken together with all the advanced timey-wimey stuff playing out as well – could well leave people struggling to maintain a grip with its breathless pace.

I suspect that this shows the roots of the Big Finish production. This is something like the 130th instalment and they’re well into their groove, so for those of us jumping in late in the day it’s hard for us to keep our balance on an already fast-moving vehicle. Also, let’s not forget that these productions were originally created for CD (and download) where listeners would set everything aside and play it when they have the requisite two hours’ of attention to devote to it, not just when it happened to come on the radio even if they were in the middle of doing something else. Such context can make a big difference: perhaps this is drama best reserved to iPlayer scheduling.

Still, it’s surely no bad criticism to say that something’s too clever or too ambitious – better than than safe-but-dull conservatism. And maybe it’s just that I hadn’t engaged my thinking head mode before listening.

Dr Who S6 Ep4 – The Doctor’s Wife

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Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!

After all the build-up, hype, anticipation and expectation of having one of the world’s foremost science fiction and fantasy writers, Neil Gaiman, supply a script to Doctor Who it was inevitable that the final result couldn’t possibly live up to it all.

Inevitable, perhaps. But – as it turns out – utterly incorrect.

I’m not even a particular Neil Gaiman fan (or more accurately, I’m not a huge fantasy genre fan) and so approached this episode with a degree of caution that it wouldn’t be “my sort of thing”. I had been fortunate to miss any spoilers about the episode – I understand there have been many online and even in mainstream press, to which I can only say “Shame on you.”

I very quickly cottoned on to who Idris was going to be, and the concept was initially interesting but only in an eye-brow raising “Oh, they’re trying that are they?”

It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious, even as it is revealed, that you (a) can’t believe no one has ever done it before, and (b) still feel won’t be all that special after all. And yet within minutes it pulled together so many strands that the show burst through its series format confines and became, for the next 40 minutes, bigger on the inside than it ever previously appeared before.

It was a show packed with brilliant lines, from the Doctor’s chilling “Fear me, I killed all of them” to his aching for forgiveness, to Amy’s arch “Did you wish really hard?” when she finds out Idris’ real identity, to the way the Doctor said he’d stolen her and she responds that in fact it was the other way around. But surely the best of them was something we have always known deep down but never had confirmed before: when the Doctor accuses Idris of being unreliable and never taking him where he wanted, her reply was brilliant: “I’ve always taken you where you’ve needed to be.”

Even the traditional weekly Rory death scene was forgiveable, seeing how well it was done (quick, snappy, nightmarish – the graffiti on the Tardis walls was chilling and Rory’s rebuke citing his 2,000 years of waiting packed a huge emotional punch). Rory and Amy both got some great moments again in this episode, in a show packed with brilliant and astounding performances from Matt Smith (surely never better in the role?) to Suranne Jones as Idris, and the creepy, deep tones of Michael Sheen as House.

Despite the fact that this was probably the most satisfying stand-alone episode for even casual viewers to watch, it packed in more love notes for Doctor Who geeks than anything even Russell T Davies managed in his tenure, right down to finding the Tardis setting down in…a junkyard, just where it all started. It’s clear just how much Neil Gaiman is a massive Doctor Who geek himself, as the companion behind-the-scenes Confidential show followed him going totally fanboi as he stood on the console room of the Tardis reading aloud the script that he’d written. And what magnificent prose that script sounded in its own right, too – surely it will get published? Just the sight of Amy and Rory arriving at a certain old console room deep in the heart of the Tardis was enough to spark geekgasms up and down the country. Bravo to Mr Gaiman for envisaging that – I might just have to start reading your books now after all, sir.

Confidential showed just how much the core concept of this episode had been seeded through the 32 previous seasons of the show, and clips of Rose and Sarah Jane Smith (awww, Lis …) comparing notes on how the Doctor cooed and stroked and talked to the Tardis seemed like some crazy script editors had been feverishly at work laying out the series arc even then, going back decades.

As you’ll recall, last week’s pirates caper felt to me like disappointing “filler”, treading water despite all those series arc continuity references it packed in. Ironically, this episode was structurally far more of a classic “bottle show” in that it lacked any continuity references to the episodes or series immediately around it. It could be parachuted in to any season (indeed, it was famously ‘bumped’ from series 5 where it had been originally scheduled.) And yet the episode was such that far from being lightweight, disposable fluff, detached and unnecessary to the series, it instead managed to be profoundly connected to an entire 48 years’ worth of the show’s history.

In a way that I’m not sure we the audience or even they the production crew quite understand or expect, this episode can’t help but change the way we see so much of the series and the character of the Doctor. For one thing, it brings home to us why the Doctor can and will never be in love with his companions (and doesn’t it show his time with Rose as a rather shallow distraction?): because there can only ever be one true romance in his life. She’s the one companion who has been there throughout; even before Susan, Ian and Barbara, she was the first, and she’s still with the Doctor and with us. She’s the most important character in the show, along with the Doctor himself.

Shows like Doctor Who can, at their very, very best, produce genuine magic. In previous years it has been Steven Moffat who had provided exactly those highs, with ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. It’s taken someone of Neil Gaiman’s calibre to top all of them: with this episode, the show has cast perhaps its most magnificent spell over its viewers yet in its entire history.

“Hello, sexy,” indeed.

Family Guy: And Then There Were Fewer

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Family Guy is one of those shows that you always expect – and hope – will be funnier than it is. If only it were as funny as the makers think it (and they themselves) are, it would be a non-stop riot.

Instead, it never quite is. Which is not to say that it’s bad, or not funny, because it certainly has its moments – usually gross ones. But it seems to work best when caught in brief five or ten minute snatches, and so is never better than when you catch it on BBC3 or FX while TV-hopping, waiting for something else to start or an ad break to be over.

Sit down and watch a whole episode, however, and it never quite lives up to those brilliant laugh out snatches you caught while channel surfing. And that’s especially the case when they do an hour-long “special” instalment – as was so clearly proved with their pastiches of the first Star Wars trilogy, which were scarily spot-on accurate reconstructions of the original films but oddly lacking in jokes.

Now the show does a two-parter based on the scary movie/psychopath/haunted house genre, and the effect is broadly the same: it’s amusing, has some great moments, but overall the effect is less than the sum of its parts and not as good as you wanted it to be going in. The basic plot is that the inhabitants of Quahog, Rhode Island get invited to a remote location only to find themselves the guests of a murderous serial killer.

This time, the show isn’t even spoofing one specific film. It assembles all the vague conventions of the genre – the isolated house, the lightning storm, secret passages – but rather than spoofing any particular film, it’s just spoofing the general clichés so you don’t get the fun of “spot the film reference”. The opening sequence feels like it’s straight out of The Shining, but not quite close enough to be sure whether that’s intended or accidental; the music feels like it’s a riff on the Murder, She Wrote theme, and other parts of it feel like the production team have been watching little-known 70s spoof Murder By Death on endless repeat in the DVD player (well worth seeking out a copy if you haven’t seen it already by the way – Alec Guinness, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Truman Capote; need I say more?)

And the story itself isn’t as full blooded as you’d expect. The whole point about these genre films is the delight in seeing the characters get murdered one by one, by various nefarious means, until only a very small number of cast (and suspects) remain. Here, the writers don’t seem to have the nerve to go through with their set-up and only a couple of minor supporting characters get killed, and very boringly at that, and so we’re denied some good bloody over the top humour along the way.

It’s a strangely reserved, reigned-in instalment for the show, which also relies rather too much on the audience’s familiarity with the characters and with the recurring jokes of the show. These give some good laughs to even just occasional viewers of the show (Herbert the pederast’s choice of vehicle is a hoot; the reveal of who shot the killer at the end is a delight), but they’re very familiar now and nothing advances or stretches the very safe ground that the episode keeps well within.

It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and you’ll laugh; and really what more should we expect from a comedy sitcom? And yet it could have been so much more. When you spend so much of the episode admiring the quality of the CGI-enhanced, near-3D animation you can’t help but think that somewhere along the way, it rather missed its target.

Chatroom (Blu-ray)

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Every now and then I weaken and pick up a low-cost DVD on impulse at the checkout, of a film that I’ve never heard of before and know nothing about. Frankly its anonymity is usually a good warning: there are usually reasons why a movie sinks without trace, and that’s certainly the case here.

This is a film you really hope and expect will be better than it actually turns out to be. It’s got a good pedigree, directed by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (who brought us the original “Ring”) and featuring rising star Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) and it has an interesting concept of a sociopath twisting an online social network to their own ends. But frankly it never really gels or takes off.

There’s no trace of Nakata’s trademark “Japan horror” style, and the film is amazingly “English domestic” more in common with naff 90s TV miniseries “KillerNet” than the “Ring” films. Nakata does bring a nice visual flair to the online life which is presented in vivid colours and appealing (and peeling) design, the different chat rooms all having different and equally interesting visual personalities, while “real” life is effectively contrasted in washed out, pale and bleached out drabness. Nakata also brings a good sound design to the film that adds atmosphere that does much to unsettle the viewer.

The performances are good too, especially from rising star of the moment Aaron Johnson who gets to swing from insecure, troubled real persona to swaggering, confident virtual personality, which itself swings from initially charming group leader to gradually revealing his intensively evil impulses – and Johnson does evil well, too. Matthew Beard is very impressive too as the weak link who is deconstructed by Johnson’s character, while Imogen Poots has the most potential as the upper class airhead bitch initially attracted to but then repelled by Johnson. Sadly the other two characters are barely developed and their storylines suddenly peter out as the film loses interest in them (and the audience’s was never really engaged in them in the first place.)

The chatroom concept itself is nicely presented as a real location (bypassing people hammering away at keyboards) but every so often non sequitor dialogue such as “what do you look like?” or “where are you?” between two characters who appear to be sitting side by side remind you of the actual online situation; when characters do assemble in real life there’s a nice touch with one of them having to hold up a chalkboard in the air with their screen name on it so that they can recognise each other. This confusion of virtual life with real life is very much how many people experience it, and technically the film is reasonably realistic too, with nice roles of iPhones and iMacs, good representations of hacking and pedophiles and password protection into the visual representation of the virtual reality. For all that, it’s strange that this VR should be seemingly based on a text-line chat programme like AOL IM which instantly seems dated.

So how come this doesn’t work better? Really it’s because despite the film’s PR marketing and Nakata’s presence at the helm, this is no horror film. The stageplay on which its based is an “issue play” about online bullying which isn’t really as clever, original or interesting as it thinks it is, and it instantly feels like it would be more at home as a storyline in a teen soap instead of a film. The storyline is also disconnected, confusing, unfocussed and lacking subtlety, ending up in a pointless run around chase sequence around north-west London that feels tacked on.

It gets widely differing reviews online, from those thinking it’s underrated and deserves better, to those who want those 94 minutes of their life back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dreadful by any means, but it’s far from being one that will make you feel that your world is incomplete if you don’t happen to see it. Its flaws are enough to make the film feel rather laboured when it needs to fly, resulting in an okay watch but nothing special despite its occasional merits.

** out of *****.

The Shadow Line – Ep1

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Caution: contains spoilers

It’s been a very strange week for TV drama. After months of domestic drama drought we suddenly get overloaded with Exile, Vera, Case Sensitive – and now this conspiracy thriller boasting a staggering cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Tobias Menzies, Rafe Spall, Sir Antony Sher and Stephen Rea. Whoa.

I had high hopes for this because I do love a good conspiracy thriller – State of Play is one of my all time favourite BBC shows. How does this measure up by comparison?

In the BBC2 trailers leading up to the show’s first instalment, much play is made of this being a thriller by Hugo Blick: I guess we’re supposed to know the name but I confess it was totally new to me. Turns out he made the highly regarded comedy Marion and Geoff that launched Rob Brydon as a star, but I couldn’t see why that warranted him getting Hitchcockian above-the-title credit, even if he was the writer, director and producer of the darn thing.

Having seen the first episode, I am happy to reappraise those doubts: Blick has produced something rather special here and deserves every bit of the kudos in return. Often, we Brits lament how come we can’t produce television as good as The Wire from the US, or The Killing (Forbrydelsen) from Denmark. Well, The Shadow Line essentially shows that we can, and potentially have – right here, right now.

The visual style of the first episode is wonderful (although it will have to reign it in a little as the show goes on if it’s to avoid overdoing it.) It’s summed up by the first scene, a seven minute sequence of two policemen investigating a body found in a car in the woods. It’s virtually monochrome, all high contrast black and chrome with the two uniformed officers looking pale and blanched and only the victim’s blood adding colour; the first shot is from overhead, showing the flashlights of the policemen as they approach the car. Later on, when the forensic team arrive, the brilliantly-lit pure white tent they erect over the crime scene is more like a spaceship than anything earthly.

As well as the visual style, it’s also a programme that allows the script and moreover the actors time and space to breath and develop their characters, and the result is truly compelling and top-notch. The flashiest turn is from Rafe Spall as the murder victim’s nephew: he’s a damaged, deranged psychotic who looks like he wants to take on the world, who laughs and grins when he shouldn’t, and is utterly unpredictable and dangerous. Spall has a terrific time in this role and I found him compulsively watchable.

Christopher Eccleston gets the quieter role as a “business associate” of the murder victim, a quiet man who looks like he should be a mid-ranking civil servant but instead finds himself trying to control violent criminals, while also coping with the decline of his wife (the ever-brilliant Lesley Sharp) from early-onset Alzheimers – and how odd that both BBC drama series this week have had key characters with that terrible affliction? You can see every thought, every fear flash across Eccleston’s face as he tries to stay one twist ahead of everyone else, and it’s a role he suits far better than he ever did Doctor Who.

It’s great to have Chiwetel Ejiofor back on loan from Hollywood. You feel that there should be some big aspect to the story about the lead detective being black, but actually the colour of his skin is the least interesting thing to him: of more interest is the bullet in his brain, how it came to be there and what personality changes it has caused; and then of course the small matter of a briefcase of cash that he doesn’t know anything about.

What’s particularly outstanding about the first episode is how the “supporting” cast are also universally good and stand-out – anyone of them could carry a show of their own. In particular, all the characters are simply excellent at their jobs: too often we get plots driven by stupid people doing stupid things and making mistakes, but here you feel everyone is lethally efficient. There’s the superbly named Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing playing Ejiofor’s sergeant) who is way ahead of her boss; Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry as Eccleston’s enforcer), able to improvise an ambush on some pursuing villains and then walk calmly over to their wrecked car to ask “What the f*** do you want?” as he brandishes a baton); Ross McGovern (Tobias Menzies) as a tenacious journalist; and Patterson (Richard Lintern as Ejiofor’s boss) who clearly has his own agenda). Add in the always wonderful David Schofield as the corrupt Sgt Foley who dominates that throat-grabbing first seven minute scene and you have as good an ensemble as you could hope to see in any TV programme.

We haven’t even been introduced to Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse yet, or know who Anthony Sher will be. Maybe he will play the shadowy figure of Glickman, who has been much talked about but – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects – is still legend and myth and has not yet been glimpsed in person.

With seven parts in total, it’s too early to declare whether this will be a classic TV show – it could all go horribly pear-shaped at some point. But based on the quality, confidence and verve of the first episode I don’t think so. It’s in safe and exciting hands and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Dr Who S6/E3 – The Curse of the Black Spot

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Note: contains some spoilers

Well, this is embarrassing. I finished off my last review (of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two parter) by saying that my brain was broken and that all I wanted was a nice, simple straight-forward adventure to give my head a bit of a break, and that’s duly what this episode gives us. And … how unsatisfying does it feel? It’s as though, having feasted on full steak dinners for two weeks, we turn up this week to get a sub-sub-McDonalds burger at a motorway café.

In truth this episode was always up against it as far as I was concerned because of the subject matter. I’m just not a big pirates fan: the only film/TV show featuring pirates that’s ever worked for me to any degree was the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie (and not even, you’ll notice, the sequels) to which this week’s episode will always be inevitably (very unfairly) compared. That film succeeded because it really went for it and was as outrageous as Johnny Depp’s inspired creation of Jack Sparrow; but where Pirates was full-blooded, The Curse of the Black Spot was half-fat and semi-skimmed by comparison.

The fight sequences never had a chance of being motion picture quality of course, but even so they were peculiarly flat and sluggishly shot here. The tone of the show as a whole was also very uneven, with some of the pirate crew doing full-on pirate cliché performances while others looked like they hadn’t got the memo – and then there was Hugh Bonneville giving a serious, intelligent performance of dignity and gravitas that belonged in a far more high-minded production altogether. And considering the production team went to the trouble of decamping to Cornwall to shoot on an actual tall ship, it’s amazing how studio-bound this episode felt, with the on-deck sequences against a featureless black background feeling as artificial as the 1983 Classic Who serial Enlightenment: there’s no sense of genuine place or atmosphere, of the claustrophobia of such a ship.

There were some definite pluses to the episode: I thought the performances of the three leads delightful, with Matt Smith never embracing the weirdness and the fun of the Doctor as much as he did here in scene after scene, and in particular his moments captain-to-captain with Bonneville were a genuine delight (although his sudden cry of “urgh, alien bogies!” was very ill-advised and made him sound like the Play School version of the character); Rory continues to steal the show, not so much with dialogue or plot in this episode but with little moments of physical comedy improvisation from Arthur Darvill such as his little wave at the pirates before the titles crash in; and Karen Gillan got some lovely moments, from her fight scene to her interplay with Rory over his falling for the siren. Oh, and said siren was tremendously effectively realised – well acted (perhaps surprisingly) by Lily Cole and by turns beautiful, creepy and scary, a lovely bit of CGI work that was exactly the sort of FX that had previously looked so poor and cheap in season five but here looks the proverbial million dollars (note to media critics of the BBC: not actually spent a million dollars. Oh, no, definitely not. Heaven forbid.)

Lots of good ideas (seeing into another world through the mirror – very Lewis Carroll) and moments, then, but the whole thing just didn’t really gel together and felt very uneven. Where the script and direction needed to be light and playful, instead we could hear the gears crunching as it tried to move from one set-up to another, particularly when young Toby was introduced to impose an unnecessary and clichéd pathos onto Captain Avery’s character and then later (more understandably) as the show tried to abruptly transition from pirates, folklore and horror to science fiction on another dimension’s ship rather too late in the day to make it work, feeling tacked-on instead.

Most of all – a surprisingly large number of plot lapses to be found here, of ideas not fully worked through and a script that hasn’t been finessed nearly enough. Was Steven Moffat too wrapped up writing his own scripts to run full due diligence here? To name a few: how did Toby stay undiscovered on board such a small ship for so long? Why is the Doctor so quick to call time and abandon ship on his beloved Tardis? Why on earth should breaking a mirror destroy the possibility of reflections – arguably it just makes a thousand more reflective pieces (c.f. the aforementioned Enlightenment?) What happened to the Boatswain who apparently just disappears from the Armoury? Why are all of the pirate crew left on the space ship when at least a few of them suffered from nothing more serious than a paper cut? Toby we can understand, and an ending that saw Avery choose to stay behind with just his son would have had more impact that a group shot of pirates gathering around with nothing else to do other than look at the stars and tie up a loose end. It can’t be that once transported, everyone – no matter how serious the original injury – is unable to leave or else the Doctor and Amy would be similarly dependent on the place forever more, let alone Rory.

Talking of which, I really can’t work out exactly what the logic was behind Rory’s condition. If the alien medical technology had cleared the water from his lungs and resuscitated his heart and respiration, why should be suddenly go back to a drowned state once removed? It’s pretty useless medical technology in that case, and the alien creators of it should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of foresight. No wonder they were all wiped out by the common cold (and – a space faring race wiped out by earthly bugs? Not exactly well prepared, were they!) It would be petty of me to say that I was disappointed that the siren/Lily Cole didn’t get to have a holographic moment with a line like “Please state the nature of your medical emergency,” but I could have sworn that the alien sick bay stole a couple of sound FX cues from the original Star Trek.

Oh, and please – can they stop killing Rory (or some series regular) seemingly every week? Have we really got to the point where we can’t believe that it’s a high-stakes adventure unless and until one of the main cast are apparently offed? I’ve lost count now of how many death scenes Rory in particular has had. If ever he is written out this way, no one in the country is going to realise/get it/care until several weeks later after all these cry wolf moments.

Sadly, all the plot threads from the opening two-parter were thoroughly parked, despite some heavy-handed attempts to reference them to make sure people didn’t forget and to establish a “through-story/season arc” feel to things. But rather than advancing the story in any way, all of these (Rory and Amy discussing the Doctor’s first episode death and how they couldn’t tell him; the Doctor re-running Amy’s pregnancy test and still not getting a clear answer; the re-appearance of Eyepatch Woman peering at Amy through a shutter) were literal restagings of what we saw in the first two episodes and consequently add nothing, except to either confuse or frustrate depending upon your personal mood.

All in all it felt like a filler episode, which in a season as short as this one is inexcusable. Or perhaps, in view of the pirate subject matter, we should just say that this episode was merely “treading water”; presumably having just walked the plank.