Peter Harness

The War of the Worlds (2019) [BBC One}

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At the start of 2019, the BBC’s forthcoming new adaptation of HG Wells’ classic story The War of the World was one of the productions featured in the ‘coming soon’ preview showreel, tantalising fans with the promise of the first screen version of the tale to be set in the original time and location. But after that it seemed to disappear off the face of the earth; rather than popping up as expected in the spring schedules it disappeared into thin air leaving everyone wondering what had happened.

The BBC subsequently explained that the Visual FX work was taking longer than expected, but even when it started to be shown in overseas territories it was still striking that there wasn’t a peep about when it would receive its UK broadcast. When it was finally scheduled at the end of November it was set for Sunday nights at 9pm putting it opposite the ITV reality ratings powerhouse I’m a Celebrity… – making it look like the BBC had lost all confidence in the production and was trying to push it out the backdoor when no one was looking. Unfortunately we were looking, and what we saw only confirmed those worst fears.

The first of the three hour-long episodes is slow and stodgy as it tries to establish its lead characters, Eleanor Tomlinson as Amy and Rafe Spall as George. The big problem here is that the source novel doesn’t really do characters: written as a first person account, the narrator isn’t even named in the book. At one point the account switches to his brother who is fleeing in the Martian invasion on the other side of London, and who is similarly unnamed. Crucially there are few female characters at all in the story, with the narrator’s wife packed off to relatives in Leatherhead at the outset of the Martian invasion. Two other women are present, only there to be saved by the narrator’s brother. In the enlightened 21st century, a television production with no significant female leads with any sort of agency is simply not tenable.

Perhaps writer Peter Harness could have got away with simply making the narrator a woman. Instead he creates an unnecessarily complicated back story, based on Wells’ own domestic life at the time, in which timid journalist George is married and seeking a divorce from his wife while scandalously living with his lover Amy in Woking, making them social outcasts. Even George’s government official brother Frederick (Rupert Graves) vehemently disapproves, resulting in a family schism. It’s a way of criticising the uptight Edwardian conventions of the period, but the soapy story drags down the narrative – and once the Martians arrive this whole plot evaporates in subsequent episodes and is barely mentioned again. So what was the point of that, then? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S10E7 “The Pyramid at the End of the World” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.

With “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, Doctor Who returns to one of its less-familiar genres. It’s a global techno-thriller in which the end of the world is nigh, only nobody knows exactly which one of several dozen apocalyptic scenarios is actually in play. The only group that does are the mysterious Monks introduced in last week’s episode, but who this week step out of the shadows and emerge in the glaring light of day to offer to save humanity – if we ask them to. And for an ill-defined price in return. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S9E8 “The Zygon Inversion”

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Contains spoilers, in duplicate

zygon-inversion-1As someone who had been an out-and-proud, unabashed fan of Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman for sometime now, one of my biggest frustrations has been why so many other people have not been able to see the self-evident truth of their greatness as the Doctor and Clara. Initially I could kinda-sorta understand it in the latter case, since Clara’s first year was somewhat wasted being saddled with ‘the impossible girl’ label, and even once that was mercifully put to bed showrunner Steven Moffat continued to have an oddly unfocused view of the core of the character that remained. Clara ended up being pushed and pulled all over the place, first by the demands of that week’s story and then by that season’s overall arc, yet even when Clara was at her most untethered Coleman herself was always excellent, often making Clara credible purely through the force of her own will and acting talent alone.

Similarly, I’ve completely believed in Capaldi’s Doctor ever since his opening scene in the first post-regeneration story “Into the Dalek”. I liked the whole ‘crisis of confidence’ voyage of self-discovery of season eight and how they dared to make the the Doctor a much darker and more mysterious figure than his most recent predecessors – although at the same time I’m even more thrilled by the way they’ve matured the character this season, making him warmer and more heroic while at the same time still retaining the spiky edges and the sense of alienness. And yet strangely a lot of people people seem to have remained rather cool toward the twelfth Doctor, perhaps still pining for the days of the more straightforwardly cute and adorable Matt Smith or David Tennant to return.

One theory I’ve seen is that for many, Capaldi’s Doctor has been lacking a ‘signature moment’ to match Tom Baker’s early highlight in “Genesis of the Daleks” when he debates about whether to destroy the Daleks for all time; or Sylvester McCoy’s ‘Unlimited rice pudding”; Eccleston’s “Everybody Lives!”; or Tennant showing up to a sword fight in his pyjamas and toppling a Prime Minister with a whispered “Doesn’t she look tired?”; or Smith’s full-blown rock star moment at Stonehenge. Actually I’d argue that if anything, the problem for Capaldi is that his tenure-to-date as the Doctor has been so packed full of such moments that we’ve become overloaded by them, inured and immune to their effect. Rather like the way that we develop a protective shell and become blasé about Aaron Sorkin’s genius by dismissing his work as ‘just’ a bunch of stylistic tricks and tropes, we run the risk of becoming hardened about and blind toward just what Moffat and Capaldi are achieving not just on a week-by-week basis but also in a scene-by-scene and at times even line-by-line sense.

zygon-inversion-0When that sort of attitude sets in it can be very hard to break through the shell and make people see the matter with fresh eyes; but from the online reaction I saw after “The Zygon Inversion” from professional critics, die hard fans and casual viewers alike then the breakthrough defining moment for the Twelfth Doctor might just have finally arrived, and it was a glorious sight to behold. The ‘truth or consequences’ third act is surely the moment that will be played on clip shows whenever they cover the Capaldi era on the show; and the only worry is that it might end up overshadowing everything else around it, because it really was that good. It’s the kind of scene where everything – concept, plot, dialogue, performance – comes together so brilliantly that if just this one scene had been in any other television series in history, that series would necessarily be instantly acclaimed an all-time classic. That it comes in a show already 52 years old and with more than 200 stories under its belt is almost unfathomable.

But let’s go back for a few minutes and rewind all the way to the start. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S9E7 “The Zygon Invasion”

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Contains Spoilers in Duplicate

zygonA few weeks ago, I commented on how Steven Moffat is able to pick up a stray bit of random, accidental production miscontinuity and weave an entire story beat out of it, as he did recently in “The Girl Who Died” when he made use of the fact that Peter Capaldi had already appeared in Doctor Who as a different character before he was subsequently cast in the title role.

This week’s story “The Zygon Invasion” does that again, this time taking a whole bunch of loose threads left over from past stories and fashioning from them a full-blown tapestry to compete with the very best that Bayeux can produce. So much so in this case that for the first time I can recall outside of a formal two-parter, the episode has to do a fully-fledged American-style pre-titles flashback in order to recap events that happened a couple of years ago – specifically in the 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” which had marked the first return of the classic Who adversaries the Zygons, one of the best loved creatures from the history of the show despite the fact that they only ever made one appearance back in a 1975 Tom Baker story. Read the rest of this entry »

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)

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Contains spoilers for the TV show and for the novel

This is not a repeat! I say again, this is not a repeat.

200px-Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverYou may recall that a couple of months ago I handed out my somewhat less than enamoured views on the first two episodes of BBC One’s big new Sunday night drama adaptation Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and confessed that it simply hadn’t really been to my liking. The period tale of magical fantasy had been just a little too way out and weird not to mention somewhat over the top and florid for my liking, and my views didn’t really change over the course of the remainder of the seven-part series – although at least on the upside I did just about stick with it to the end. The final episode was the most difficult when everything was turned up to eleventy-stupid as far as I was concerned, but at the same time it also contained the single best scene of the entire series in the form of a quiet moment of simple honesty and reconciliation between the two titular characters just before everything went to Hell or thereabouts.

I admitted at the time of my original review that I hadn’t read the original novel by Susannah Clarke from which the television serial was adapted, and moreover added that I had no real desire to. That comment was picked up by a couple of friends of mine, who both insisted that I absolutely must do so. I was very resistant to the idea – why read a book when the TV version had not been to my taste in the first place? Plus I rarely read a book after having seen the film or TV version since I find that re-covering such recently trodden familiar ground is so tedious that I invariably lose interest and stop reading part-way through. However the friends in question are smart and frighteningly well-informed, and when I also found that the eBook was on special offer to coincide with the TV broadcast I realised I didn’t even have a financial leg to stand on to help me put it off. As a result I duly did as I was told and bought the book and gave it a go, wondering just how many chapters I had to plough through before I could in all honesty stop and say in good faith that I’d given it the good old college try and that my initial prejudices had been confirmed and that enough was enough and could I read something else now? Read the rest of this entry »

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell E1-2 (BBC One)

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I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of heightened magical fantasy/adult fairytales. Even when Doctor Who veers into this sort of thing, I struggle – as my reviews of some of the more recent episodes of that show under Steven Moffat can attest. The mix has to be spot-on to keep me engaged, and if it all gets too weird or fantastical then I’m afraid I’m usually to be found heading to the check-out desk forthwith.

strange-norrellUnfortunately, admirable and impressive though many parts of this TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel undoubtedly are, the BBC’s new seven-part drama Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is teetering at the very outside edge of the sort of thing I’ll hang around for. And I stress again, this is very much to do with my personal preferences and attitudes, not a criticism of the work of director Toby Haynes or writer Peter Harness in bringing the book to the screen. Set in an alternative 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, the period detail is top-notch and the CGI realisation of the magical spells as impressive as anything you’ll see on television or indeed many a feature film. Read the rest of this entry »

Dr Who S8 E7 “Kill The Moon” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode.

If in the future anyone ever insists on describing Doctor Who as just a children’s show, sit them down to watch the first half of “Kill The Moon” and then stop the DVD, turn to them, peel the cushion off their face that they’ve been hiding behind, and ask them if they still think that.

killthemoonBecause blimey, Charlie – that first 20 minutes on the moon was quite something. Fans (myself included) who’ve wanted the show to return to the darker, grimmer, horror-inflected days of Philip Hinchcliffe-produced 1970s Who not only got what what we asked for but had even us saying ‘Whoa, wait a minute, let’s back it down a few notches here!’ It’s a good job that the show aired so late (8.30pm) – as it is, if it had had even longer to establish the incredibly creepy and threatening setting any further than it did, even the watershed mightn’t have been enough to stave off a flood of angry letters from viewers worried why their children turned out all traumatised on Sunday morning.

It’s not the first time that giant spiders have turned up on Doctor Who of course – I still have fond (if that’s the right word) memories of the antagonists of “Planet of the Spiders” who did for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in 1974. But back then we knew that the spiders weren’t real because the FX were ever so slightly crap, which was a relief. Not the case in “Kill The Moon” however, where – thanks to some incredibly sharp and precise direction from Paul Wilmshurst – everything appeared terrifyingly real, enhanced by some of Murray Gold’s best incidental music for the show in many a long year. Also to be highly commended is the way that the show reproduced the surface of the Moon via a combination of location shooting in Lanzarote and some digital decolourisation and grading to make it suitably lunar-hued. I would honestly say I’ve never seen the Moon look better on screen in any TV show or film, even 2001. It certainly knocked that studio set they used to mock up the Apollo 11 landings into a cocked hat. (Kidding!) Read the rest of this entry »