Friday, 30 December 2011

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

“A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”

This is the last review I’ll be doing in this strange, alcohol-fuelled, work-free interregnum between Christmas and New Year and, indeed, my last review of 2011. In 2012 I’ll go back to the usual schedule, continuing with the Buffyverse and (mostly) a film on Saturdays. I’ll also be reviewing certain programmes pretty much as they air in the UK- Doctor Who, obviously, but also, starting next week, Sherlock. In the meantime, here’s a fun little movie review that I didn’t have to think too hard about.

This is the perfect movie to watch if you have a certain sense of humour and you don’t want anything too heavy; it spends ninety minutes doing nothing but mocking its own tropes. Phibes (played, with the expected brilliance, by Vincent Price) has an absurd lack of any real motive for his ridiculously over-theatrical crimes, and that every little intricate little thing goes to plan is utterly unrealistic, but all of this is gleefully thrown in our faces; the film knows exactly what it’s doing. That Phibes is just a take on a certain archetype is shown near the end as he reveals his true, horrifying, Lon Chaney-esque face, and starts playing the organ in an obvious reference to Universal’s silent version of Phantom of the Opera. Yep, this is more of that metatextual fun that I love so much.

The police are hilarious, too; nice, decent, but with all the plodding incompetence that tradition leads us to expect from the Yard. For all that Trout (a great performance from Peter Jeffrey) is a thoroughly decent, put-upon chap (his interactions with his superior are the funniest thing about the film, mainly because his superior is only saying what the audience thinks!), he cocks every single thing up at every single opportunity.

All of the surgeons are subject to a certain amount of mockery too, and none more so than Terry-Thomas’ lecherous old man.  This is not a film that exactly treats authority figures with respect; in fact the gleeful grotesqueness of the various methods of dispatch is the film’s main selling point, as the audience has fun trying to guess how the theme of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, revealed quite earlier on, will show itself in the murders. The chap being impaled by a brass unicorn is the best, but many of them are quite horrific, especially the frog mask. Given the otherwise light tone of the film, there’s something particularly nasty about this one.

Still, it’s a superbly entertaining, and rather undemanding, piece of entertainment. One thing, though; who was Vulnavia?

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

“Cyril! What have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen!”

This is the seventh Christmas special since Doctor Who came back in 2005; it’s become quite the seasonal institution. And it’s established itself as something quite distinct from a regular episode; Doctor Who should always primarily be aimed at a general family audience rather than us fans, but never is this truer than on Christmas Day, when most people all bunged up with food and on at least their second glass of wine. What’s needed is a nice, uplifting blockbuster movie type thing that’s easy to follow for the semi-inebriated, of which I was definitely one; re-watching it with pen, paper and no wine was a very different experience.

(Incidentally, we actually live paused this for thirty minutes while we finished our game of Scrabble. The last two nights have been epic, alcohol-fuelled sessions of Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit until the wee small hours. This is my first alcohol-free night since December 23rd and will probably be my last alcohol-free day of 2011. What a time of year, eh?)

There’s another Christmas tradition that seems to have established itself over the years, too: the Doctor, travelling alone, has a one-off adventure with a guest star in which he discovers the importance of family and friends. It really ought to get tired, but good writing from RTD and now the Moff has generally ensured that it doesn’t. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we begin with some rather good CGI, some music from Murray Gold that clearly signifies this as a blockbuster family movie, and some nice comic scenes. We’re introduced to guest star Claire Skinner of Outnumbered (which I’d seen for the first time earlier that day- rather good!) as the terribly British yet resourceful Madge, Alexander Armstrong in a surprisingly small role (as are Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir), and the two children, Lily and Cyril. The family dynamic is quickly and very wittily established in some superb dialogue from the Moff, and we like these characters immediately. But Christmas seems set to be ruined; Madge has received a telegram, stating that her husband is missing, presumed dead.

Just as entertaining are the scenes in which the Doctor introduces the three of them to the fantastic alterations he’s made to all the rooms. One might perhaps quibble at how the Doctor has the resources to do all this but that would be churlish, I think; it’s Christmas and it’s cool. And Matt Smith is amazing in these scenes. Yet he’s just as good in a more serious context, as he gently comforts Madge about her husband’s death and the terrible responsibility of informing her children.

The concept of a wardrobe leading to another room is, er, not entirely original, and tends to give rise to the temptation to see Christian subtexts which aren’t there. There’s a real temptation to the alien forest of real Christmas teams, even if this is a curiously benign alien world, devoid of any real threat at this point, in which it’s safe for a child to wonder. One might pause to tut at the Doctor allowing a child to wander somewhere dangerous through his own negligence but, again, it’s Christmas and it’s cool.

Fanwank alert: this planet is Androzani Major, in spite of the lack of obvious references to The Caves of Androzani, and the year is 5345, although how this fits into the other story’s timeline is anyone’s guess. The people who impart this information are, of course, quickly outsmarted by Madge, who is easily the coolest character in this. Serves them right; they want to “melt” this forest with acid rain to make “battery fluid”.

The ending, with females and particularly mothers being “strong”, is cool, and Madge quite simply rules, but I suppose I ought to say something about the sexual politics of this, as a brief glance at Gallifrey Base (and I really do mean just a glance at thread titles) indicates that it’s being discussed. Personally, although it’s obvious that the role of mother is being celebrated, I don’t see any wider indication that women are being defined only in relation to this, or that patriarchal structures are being reinforced in any way. It’s just a tribute to motherhood, and quite a cool one.

That Madge’s husband hasn’t in fact died is a little soppy, but also inevitable and satisfying, and it’s good to see Amy and Rory again. Also cool is that this is one of those Christmases where the Doctor does stay for Christmas dinner.

I liked that. It’s Christmas and it’s cool.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)

“Back in the cell?”

Unlike its predecessor, I’d never seen this film before.  Like its predecessor, though, it’s based on a rather flawed, if generally ok, television story by Terry Nation. Inevitably, given the source material, this is a much darker film, and there’s a certain awkwardness to this. It isn’t as good a film as its predecessor.

Again, the Daleks look much more impressive on the big screen, and there are loads of them. Their voices have improved considerably, although the fact that we see them on location means the smoke fired by their guns looks rubbish. The flying saucer, while much more impressive than the TV version, is nevertheless much less cool in design. Interestingly, though, they aren’t really much more of a focus than they were in the previous film, in spite of the fact that we now have no “Dr. Who and” in the title. So much for that thing we’re supposed to call “Dalekmania”.

The best thing about the film is, of course, the great Bernard Cribbins, as policeman Tom Campbell from an England of 1966 where posters advertise holidays in Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. Lovely. He’s essentially playing the same type of character as Roy Castle, but more successfully as he’s a much more accomplished physical comedian; the extended mime sequence with the Robomen (who appear to be wearing gimp suits) is priceless. The other new character, Dr. Who’s niece Louise Who(?!), is a personality-free zone, but in that regard there’s no difference between her and Barbara.

Peter Cushing is a little more subdued here than in Dr. Who and the Daleks, not quite phoning it in but not quite firing on all cylinders, either. It’s also oddly disappointing to hear him referred to as “the Doctor”: David Whitaker’s influence on the script, no doubt. I suspect, given how faithful to its source material the original film was, that he is also responsible for the slight deviations from the original plot, in particular the combinations of people who get split up at which times.

For a deserted Earth, there’s an awful lot of product placement around- it’s good to know that Sugar Puffs are still popular in 2150. But the whole effect of the way the deserted Earth looks, along with the contemporary clothing, means that the highly evocative themes and imagery of World War Two Nazi occupation are no less evident here than in the televised original. Philip Madoc as the black marketer, and Eileen Way as the collaborator, particularly shine in their portrayal of character types which are very familiar from tales of Nazi occupation. All of this would have had much more resonance back in 1966, when much of London was still covered in bombed-out craters, than it is now, but we seem to be entering some rather less stable times in the Europe of 2012 than in 1966: a sobering thought.

The Daleks’ plan is very slightly less bonkers than in the original- at least they now have a reason for piloting the Earth around the Galaxy, rubbish though it is. And there’s now a reason why they suddenly all die at the end, even if it’s bobbins. Unfortunately, though, the film just isn’t that good; the four leads just look out of place in such a gritty tale, and the fact that Susan is a child is particularly awkward.

(And yes, I'll get round to The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe before the New Year!)

Friday, 23 December 2011

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965)

“If they call us monsters…. What must they be like?”

I’ve reviewed every single episode of Doctor Who on this blog. Why on Earth did it take me so long to get round to watching this? Well, it was the lack of subtitles on the DVD, which is a pretty poor state of affairs for a DVD release. I’m not all that deaf, but lack of subtitles does tend to be something of a deterrent. Fortunately, though, the dialogue here is very clear and easy to follow.

Anyway, the film… Steven Moffat has recently given interviews in which he firmly (and clearly with the support of senior BBC bods; he wouldn’t be using words like “off-message” otherwise) squishes the idea that any hypothetical new film of Doctor Who might ignore the continuity of the television show, because that would “insult the audience.” I’m not sure he’s right for the right reasons, but I think he’s right to be wary of the idea; what if the film was successful and the new continuity came to obliterate the old? On the other hand, why make a two hour film based on the existing series when you could make thirteen episodes and a Christmas special? I don’t really see much sense in doing a film at all. We no longer live in an age where film is necessarily considered the superior medium, in any case.

And yet… it has been done before. And it seems to have done no harm to the TV show, wary though I am of taking this as a precedent. It’s not the best film ever made (mainly because the TV story on which it was based, Terry Nation’s The Daleks, isn’t the greatest story ever told), but it’s utterly fascinating to watch. I first saw this back in 1988, aged eleven, when I rented it from my local video shop. I’d become a Doctor Who fan just weeks earlier, catching the broadcast of part two of Remembrance of the Daleks, and I wouldn’t see The Daleks until Christmas Day 1989. I hated the film; it didn’t seem like Doctor Who at all. In hindsight, the reasons for this are rather interesting.

To begin with, this is bound to offend those with an excessive regard for “canon”. It simply doesn’t fit our conception of what Doctor Who is. The Doctor is a human scientist, who invented the TARDIS (which seems here to have mislaid its definite article) himself, and our four time travellers are not heroes but bumbling travellers. And yet, in 1965, neither of these things (perhaps the second, but only up to a point) was in any way inconsistent with what the audience had seen on their TV screen.

It’s rather difficult to judge Peter Cushing’s performance as the Doctor- or, rather, Dr. Who, as I shall have to get used to calling him; I’m usually the first to start winding up people who insist that “Doctor Who” is not the name of the character, but nevertheless it’s an assumption I tend to make for everyday purposes. Cushing is not playing a new version of the character, as per Troughton, Pertwee etc; he’s playing a version of the character Hartnell was playing on television, and that’s an important distinction. The concept of recasting the lead- regeneration, renewal, rejuvenation, whatever- had at this point occurred to no one, except possibly John Wiles. Cushing is playing the Doctor exactly as Hartnell did, albeit the cuddlier side of the character, with most rough edges removed. That makes it rather difficult to evaluate his performance, but he certainly has the charisma, even if he’s necessarily unable to put his personal stamp on the role, not being given the freedom allowed to Troughton or his successors.

The other three regulars are very different, too; Barbara (Barbara Who?!) is Dr. Who’s granddaughter, alongside Susan (Susie Who?), meaning that Dr. Who looks rather young for someone with a granddaughter in her twenties. Susan is very clever; Barbara, sadly, has no particular character traits. Ian is an accident prone Yorkshireman, here essentially to provide the comic relief. He isn’t so much the leading man as is his TV equivalent.

Oh, and TARDIS (no definite article, remember?) seems to work by disassembling particles and re-assembling them. This means, of course, that all four leads are instantly killed within the first five minutes, with copies of themselves having all those adventures on Skaro (although the planet isn’t named?), until they in turn all die at the end, and some second generation copies watch some stock footage of Romans.

The whole thing looks glorious in its Technicolor mid-Sixtiesness. It’s dated enormously, but that’s part of its charm; who can fail to be enchanted by the sight of Dr. Who reading The Eagle? There’s a sense of scale, too; the sets look much larger at Shepperton Studios than they did at Lime Grove, where most of them seemed about the size of the room I’m typing this in. The Daleks are also huge, impressive-looking, and there are loads of them, with nary a cardboard cut-out in sight. Admittedly, they do rather tend to spend all their time telling other Daleks things they already know for the benefit of the audience (something which, I believe, is known over on TV Tropes as “As You Know, Bob”), very…..very…..slowly….

Still, the cinematic scale also removes some of the coolness. The Dalek city doesn’t look anywhere as cool as the Expressionist original (although I like the moving eyestalks) and the orchestral score isn’t a patch on Tristram Cary. And other things are just different; the Thals look much, much gayer with all that make-up, and Antodus doesn’t die after falling down that chasm, as Milton Subotsky is rather more forgiving to his characters than Terry Nation. Mind you, the chasm looks far scarier than it did on the telly.

The climax is a bit sudden and dodgy, I suppose; this must be the slowest countdown ever, and the mighty Daleks are essentially defeated by a bit of pushing and shoving. This isn’t a great film; it’s rather formulaic and lacking in vim. But it’s entertaining enough.

Incidentally, a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Inca Mummy Girl

“So, Ampata. You’re a girl.”

“For many years now.”

Buffy has done an episode based on The Invisible Man and Frankenstein. What classic Universal style horror tropes are still left? Well, there’s werewolves (oh, and Oz gets his first appearance here) and… oh yes, mummies.

This episode follows the tropes pretty closely, really- we have a sarcophagus, an inscription and even a museum. The mummy may be Incan rather than Egyptian, but otherwise everything is just as we would expect, except for one nice touch: the genders are reversed. The mummy is a girl this time, while the traditionally feminine role of the semi-brainwashed love interest goes to Xander.

There’s more, though. The mummy is a sixteen year old Inca princess, a human sacrifice who just wants to live a normal life, but can’t because she’s the Chosen One and must make huge sacrifices. Parallel much? The parallels between her and Buffy are very explicit, probably too explicit. But there are differences. On the one hand, Ampata actually kills people so she can stay alive but, on the other, she’s very, very innocent and sympathetic, very different from the savvy valley girl she’s being contrasted with.

This episode is much underrated, I think. Not only is it a nice use of a trope that’s fun to see in Buffy, it’s also a good character episode. Xander, for once, gets to realise that, actually, being a nice guy, he can be attractive to nice girls, in spite of the paralysing lack of confidence that afflicts all teenage boys (“You’re not a praying mantis, are you?”). Speaking as an ex-teenage boy, I’m very much of the opinion that teenage boys who don’t feel this crippling sense of self-doubt when it comes to the opposite (or indeed same) sex should be shot. It’s only fair on the others.

We clearly have another direction looming for Willow’s character, too. Two things happen, significantly, in the same episode: she comes to realise, sort of, that she’s not going to get Dwith Xander, and Oz, making his first appearance, very much notices her. It’s not hard to see where this is headed.

Oz is an interesting character in the context of this American High School thing where everybody is supposed to fit into some sort of pre-defined category- jock, nerd, stoner, etc. Or at least it seems to this foreigner, whose experience of the American High School is drawn entirely from popular culture. Oz doesn’t fit into this: he’s the type who, because he plays guitar in a band and knows his music, is considered cool without being a jock, and is even allowed a certain measure of geekiness while retaining his coolness quota. How does all this work, exactly?

Oh, and another character makes his debut in a low-key cameo: Jonathan. It’s moments like this that you only notice while marathoning the Buffyverse for a second time. And I’m also noticing that all kinds of arc-related character things have kicked off already…

(Oh, and this is my last regular blog post until the New Year, when things will be back to normal. Christmas stuff, you know. There will probably be the odd posrt here and threre- and I'm certainly blogging Christmas Day's episode of Doctor Who not long after it airs- but don't expect anything like a regular schedule until January 2nd.)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Black Mirror: The Entire History of You

“Not everything that isn’t true is a lie, Liam.”

This is so, so clever. It takes a central conceit (what if you could play back your memories at any time via a “grain”, either in your head or on a screen to others?), and then turns it around and examines it from every conceivable angle. And some of the consequences are huge.

In some ways, Liam and Fi live in a very recognisable middle-class world of appraisals and dinner parties, but their world is subtly different, with very little concept of privacy or civil liberties. You can’t get on a plane without having your memories scanned. You can’t even report a serious crime to the police without providing identification. Children can retrospectively sue their parents for disadvantaging them through a poor upbringing. These people don’t live in anything vaguely resembling a free society; the “grain” makes that impossible.

The crucial exposition, which underlines the way the “grain” works, is the big dinner party scene, and this is underlined, of course, by the fact that Liam plays back parts of it so many times. The character of Helen, who chooses to go without a “grain”, is more or less the control in this experiment, and the voice of the viewer, generally speaking. The reasons behind her abstinence are, of course, horrifying; to be “gouged” (interesting word!), and to have the chip containing a perfect record of all your memories stolen, brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “identity theft”, and is about as terrifying a thing I can imagine. But Helen’s philosophical perspective is interesting, and is a microcosm of the play’s theme; perhaps it’s a good thing that our memories should be fuzzy and unreliable, as this allows us to cope with life.

This whole theme is illustrated by a simple tale of sexual jealousy. Because he can “re-do” this dinner party conversation as many times as he likes, Liam comes to suspect (correctly) that Jonas, a somewhat crude character whom he dislikes, is his wife’s ex. He’s able to indulge his increasing obsession by analysing every little thing and discover truths that should have remained unburied. Things spiral to the point where he drinks and drives, starts sounding much more Northern, commits a serious violent assault, crashes his car, comes to doubt that his daughter is his own, and has a massive row with his wife. Eventually he’s driven to remove his “grain” in way seems a rather painful way. All of this is relatively straightforward and even, as far as the conclusion is concerned, even a little underwhelming and lacking in impact.

But none of that is the reason why this is such a brilliant play. It’s the little things that underpin it all. Sex, for example, is completely stripped of meaning. We see what seems to be a sex scene with Fi riding Liam, but it’s then revealed that they’re both reliving the memory together, and finish by having very real orgasms. The line between sex and masturbation has become blurred. This being the case, when Jonas replays the memories of sex with Fi, it feels to Liam as though the other man really is sleeping with his wife. Sex may be devalued (as made clear by Liam’s big speech at the dinner party), but sexual jealousy is magnified hugely.

No one has any privacy; Liam is almost forced to play out the scene of his appraisal at the party. Life is much more stressful, as there is no much more opportunity to obsess over slights. The play is a warning, I suppose, of the need for civil liberties to keep up with technology. There are reasons to be very fearful that they won’t.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: School Hard

“From now on we’re going to have a little less ritual and a lot more fun around here.”

At last we’ve reached School Hard. I was worried for a while that I wouldn’t get to it before Christmas, but here we are. This is a massive milestone and in some ways a reboot of the entire series; up to now the baddies have been rather clichéd, hierarchical and obsessed with ceremonies and other such things. They’ve been more than a little perfunctory, frankly. And this has been entirely appropriate; the show needed to establish the premise and the characters. It made sense to keep the baddies a little dull and perfunctory for a while, plus this very dullness allowed for the occasional bit of metatextual silliness about how predictable and trope-ridden the vampires were. All that ends here.

Spike is magnificent; charismatic, cool, irreverent, wearing a black leather trenchcoat which is, er, a bit like mine, and completely rewriting our ideas about how vampires are supposed to behave. He has absolutely no time for the kinds of rituals and ceremonies that have dominated vampire behaviour in Buffy up to this point and just wants to have some gloriously chaotic fun. There’s quite a parallel with what punk rock did to music in the ‘70s, so it’s appropriate that Spike should come across like a kind of blond Sid Vicious. He gets all the best lines, too (“Please! If every vampire who said he was at the Crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock.”).

James Marsters is amazing here; he just owns the screen. The accent isn’t quite perfect (he has particular trouble with his flat o’s, as in “not”), but that’s easily explained away if we suppose that Spike has spent quite some time in the United States. On the other hand, it sounds a bit modern and estuarised for someone who hasn’t lived in Britain for a while, but we mustn’t be picky. The mannerisms are all there from the start, and the contrast with the vampires we’ve seen thus far is huge.

Just as amazing is Juliet Landau as the uber-gothic and wonderfully mad Drusilla, who comes across like a character from Alice in Wonderland (“Do you like daisies? I plant them but they always die.”), especially with her dolls. It seems appropriate that she should be named after the Emperor Caligula’s favourite sister. She’s gloriously, sexually evil and the little erotic touches between her and Spike really highlight their amazing chemistry. This season is going to be fun.

Of course, this episode isn’t all Spike and Drusilla. The theme here is all the different lives that Buffy has to juggle (at least three, as she mentions), while somehow keeping them apart against all odds. It’s stressful and horrible to be a teenage girl, and this episode just piles on the pressure. We begin with Snyder piling extra pressure on Buffy by forcing her to arrange the parent / teacher evening or be expelled, which sets the benchmark. Later on we get two scenes in quick succession which pile on the pressure even more. Joyce reminds her daughter that she’s made sacrifices in moving towns, starting a new business and a new life, all because of her daughter’s behaviour in LA. Worse, she tells Buffy that she doesn’t want to be disappointed again, a horrible thing to hear.

As if this wasn’t enough (she’s already mixing up studying with her social life at the Bronze to fit everything in), along comes Giles, in the very next scene, with dire warnings about this St Vigeous thing on Saturday. The pressures on her have never been more intense. Her life is very complicated and this must be overwhelming for a teenage girl. And yet… it’s her mother who ultimately saves her from Spike, and Spike refers to the fact that she has a life as a strength.

Although, of course, there's an obvious parallel with John Maclean, of Die Hard fame, a similarly put-upon individual from the film which obviously inspired this episode.

Other interesting stuff happens, too. Joyce and Snyder meet for the first time, and clearly don’t like each other. And our hints that Snyder knows more than he’s letting on are confirmed at the end of the episode, as he and a senior police officer discuss a cover-up of what happened at the school. I wasn’t expecting this to happen quite so early.

Oh, and we have Angel pretending to be his evil former self, Angelus. How very interesting. We’re also told that Angelus “sired” Spike, and I think it’s pretty obvious what that means.

This is a pivotal episode, where the show really changes gears. The arrival of Spike and Drusilla has instantly made things seem more exciting, dangerous and fun, but perhaps equally important is the gradual emergence from the shadows of characters such as Joyce and Snyder.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Stone Tape

“A ghost is a mass of data waiting for a correct interpretation.”

I usually do films on Saturdays, but I suppose a one-off television play will just about do. It’s appropriate for the time of year, too; this was originally commissioned in 1972 as a Christmas ghost story. It’s the first drama by Nigel Kneale that I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it certainly won’t be the last. It’s also the first thing I’ve watched without subtitles for this blog (I’m a little hard of hearing) since those episodes of Doctor Who which had yet to get a DVD release. I don’t need them, exactly, but I’ve become used to being spoiled and not having to miss any lines of dialogue, so it’s become very annoying to have to suffer that here, at times. For a DVD release to neglect the subtitles is unforgiveable.

There’s something about the culture shock inherent in watching older dramas that makes them particularly interesting to write about. Here we have a bunch of characters who smoke all the time, drink whisky while they’re working, and wear… interesting clothes. The entire concept of a recording medium to replace magnetic tape is, of course, ancient. Peter’s attitude towards Jill is frequently quite eye-poppingly sexist. The vicar has an old-fashioned and incomprehensible Rowley Birkin-style way of speaking. We even get a full-on racist impression of a Japanese person which made my jaw hit the floor. The past is indeed a foreign country.

Aside from the fact that it’s dated, though, it hasn’t dated. The performances are great, with an extraordinarily intense Jane Asher putting in a superlative performance, and Michael Bryant convincingly playing a gradual descent into obsession. Peter is one of those men who seem to belong in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; forthright, intelligent without being posh, meritocratic, a little bit bohemian, and dressed very much of the era- a bit of a cross between Alfie and Roger from The Great Escape. The direction is great, too; this doesn’t look at all like the static, multi-camera ‘70s stuff you’d expect.

But the main star here is Kneale’s script, which lets the characters breathe and gives us moments of humour while gradually building up the tension towards the incredible climax. The central concept is great; ghosts are in fact recordings, in stone, of emotionally intense moments. But there’s a twist, of course, and the revelation that there is in fact something ancient and malevolent behind this phenomenon is brilliantly shown just by the use of red lights. The final twist- that Jill takes the place of the erased ghost- is amazing.

As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t any belief in the supernatural whatsoever, and some amount of such a belief is pretty much a precondition for being scared by this sort of thing. So it’s no criticism to say that I wasn’t scared, exactly. But I was riveted by the tension and the inexorable sense that things were heading towards an inevitable and horrible conclusion. Kneale may be a little dry as a writer (I found it very hard indeed to come up with an opening quote), but he’s an absolute master of storytelling.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer : Some Assembly Required

“Sorry, but I'm an old-fashioned gal. I was raised to believe that men dig up the corpses and the women have the babies.”

So, we get the inevitable Buffy take on Frankenstein. A pretty good one too, really, although I don’t think this is exactly the best or most significant episode. It’s interesting in the sense that Frankenstein is pretty much science fiction, but it’s pretty much the only piece of sci-fi as opposed to fantasy (aside from Out of Mind, Out of Sight which it now occurs to me long after the fact, was a rather neat take on The Invisible Man) that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its horror aesthetic, is allowed to do.

There are a few little nods to the source material, aside from the basic plot: Cordelia’s scream at the sight of Darryl reminds me very much of Bride of Frankenstein, while the whole thing inevitably ends with a burning building. Even the scientific basis for re-animating a corpse maintains a charmingly early nineteenth-century reliance on that exotic phenomenon, electricity.

There’s also a bit of social commentary here, in that some men, who surely can’t possibly get anything out of sex that they don’t get from masturbation with this attitude, just want women to be pliable sex objects (Darryl), hence rape, abuse and such things. Also there’s a general “laddish” culture which leads lots of other men to acquiesce in this (our two teenage Victor Frankensteins). This isn’t made much of, but it’s there.

Back to Buffy itself, though… as the dialogue towards the end implies, this is the episode where people start to pair off in proto-relationships, which all feels like setting-up for later in the season. Giles and Jenny are now a couple, and Buffy is beginning to re-connect with Angel. Only Xander and Willow, significantly, are not involved with anyone, and their own “will-they-won’t-they” thing is definitely stuck on the “won’t-they” part of the dial at the moment. And Cordelia seems genuinely grateful to Xander for saving her life in a way which genuinely is “brave and heroic”. It’s almost as though she sees him in a new light, in spite of the rather rude rebuff. Of course, nothing will come of it. And the relationships which are being set up are bound to end up happily. That always happens in Joss Whedon shows, right?

I like that it’s Jenny, completely unflustered, who asks out a stuttering Giles. Odd to invite him to a game of American Football, though; trust me, I’m a countryman of his. He won’t have a clue what’s going on. Although I have to say that, amusing though Giles comment comparing American football to Rugby may be, I’m going to fail the patriotism test on this one, I’m afraid. Rugby is rubbish, and overcomplicated, and boring. It keeps stopping and starting, it doesn’t flow properly, it’s really boring to watch and it totally lacks the elegance of cricket or football. Oh, and both the oval “ball” and the silly h-shaped goal are both blatantly just being different for the sake of it.

Having said that, though, all sport is boring. Except for the Olympics. And sometimes cricket. If I happen to be in the mood. Everything else is rubbish, so nyaaah.

Next up is a rather significant episode, so I expect to be spending much more time actually talking about it...!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: When She Was Bad

"There are some things I can just smell. It's like a sixth sense."

"No, actually that would be one of the five."

This is a bit of a perfunctory season opener, I suppose. It isn’t much to write home about, but it does what it’s supposed to, namely remind us what this series is about in case we’ve forgotten during the gap since the first season ended.

Buffy acting like a bit of a bitch because of her unresolved “issues” over “dying” don’t exactly ring very true, mainly because the reset button is pressed at the end and none of this can exactly be classed as character development. Nevertheless, there’s cool stuff in you look for it. The first seeds of the inevitable Willow / Xander relationship are sown, while Snyder continues to be hilarious, once again balancing menace and comic relief perfectly. It’s also nice to see that Cordelia, while still very much the vacuous queen bee on the surface, has enough intelligence not to go into denial about what happened just before the summer. It’s also nice that she should reveal a glimpse of her not-vacuous inner self as she calls out Buffy for her behaviour outside the Bronze. There’s actually a deeper and more likeable character inside, although of course we all love the surface Cordelia’s dialogue. Long may she reign.

There are a couple of very nice bits of metatextual fun in this episode, too. For a start, Buffy pretty much says out loud that the vampires and demons have taken the Summer off, out of sheer plot convenience, so that she can stay in LA with her dad! And the last shot leaves us in no doubt that Joss Whedon is well aware that the Anointed One is a rubbish villain. We shall have to look elsewhere for our Big Bad of the season.

Speaking of whom… I notice that David Boreanaz has now made it into the opening titles. Robia LaMorte hasn’t, but it still seems as though the expanded Scooby Gang is here to stay. And it’s very, very obvious that there are now sparks flying between Jenny and Giles.

Other than that, there isn’t much to say about this episode. I suppose Buffy’s “journey” (much though I hate to use the word like that!) is a bit of a microcosm of her character arc from last season in that she rejects the help of her civilian friends only to prevail by accepting them. I trust she’ll be back to normal this episode, although her out-of-character behaviour was cool for one thing; I love the bit where she goes all Batman and starts beating up random vampires for details on where her friends are being held!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Black Mirror: 15 Million Merits

“That throat cutting thing? Neat gimmick.”

Wow. So much to talk about, most of which will only occur to me once this post is finished. That was proper good telly, that was; Nigel Kneale for the age of YouTube, iPhones and bloody X-Factor. How ironic that the best and most cutting statement about Britain in 2011 should come from something so old-fashioned as a one-off teleplay.

This feels very Charlie Brooker, but I suspect much of it (it’s hard to tell- I have no other script by her with which to compare) is by his missus, Ex-Blue Peter presenter and person with X-Factor related baggage Konnie Huq. Unlike last week’s, though, it’s a very human story. Daniel Kaluuya is superb as Bing (his name is a reference to modern tech in itself), our everyman. He’s a very subtle character, hardly uttering a word for most of the story and expressing his disquiet with his surroundings by means of passivity and inaction. It says a lot about him that we don’t even learn his name until we’re some way in. This gives him a certain nobility of character. Unlike most of his neighbours in this depressing world, he maintains a sense of feeling and authenticity. And yet, as we see, his fine feelings are ultimately rendered meaningless as he eventually learns, if not to love Big Brother, then to be co-opted by it, and to take his soma.

This is such a depressing existence, in which everyone lives in small cells and spends their days pointlessly cycling nowhere so they can earn credits with which to buy crap. There is no joy, no social interaction, and no attachment to the physical- everyone wears dull; grey clothing and even bits of origami are confiscated as “detritus”. Worst of all, people are forced to watch adverts for the crudest of porn and the tackiest of light entertainment shows, and heed to actively pay to opt out. Life exists to a constant soundtrack of the most awful and cynical of chart pop. There’s no fast-forwarding through the adverts in this society, and no peace, time to think, or to be truly alone. Significantly, Bings’s moment of connection with Abi, as her avatar blows him a kiss, is interrupted by porn.

Ah yes, Abi. I don’t watch The X-Factor, but I really, really don’t like these sorts of talent shows, It isn’t just snobbery (Although I really, really hate the way that this sort of thing is once again reducing pop music to the culture of the exploitative Svengali figure, after we all thought the Beatles had slain that particular dragon back in the ‘60s by writing their own songs. I exaggerate, but still.)- it’s the cruelty, the element of public humiliation, that I have often found just too upsetting to watch. And that’s what’s skewered here; poor Abi’s dream is cruelly reduced to a life of pimped sexual exploitation, alleviated only by drugs. It’s not difficult to see the metaphor here, or the implied comment on the ultimate fate that awaits the winners of these talent shows. And Jessica Brown Findlay is devastatingly good at portraying the sheer horror of Abi’s life as a “star”.

This is tyranny, all right, but it’s the tyranny of conformity, as expressed by Bing’s horrible neighbour on the exercise bikes, and by the reaction of the crowds. Bing’s final speech is wonderfully eloquent, and all the more effective coming from someone so passive and quiet. But he, like everyone, is co-opted, and the shard of glass he places to his neck is eventually reduced to a mere prop.

This is extraordinary stuff. It’s bleak, it’s brilliant and it’s Brooker.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Two Doctor Who missing episodes found!!!

In case you didn't know, the comnplete third episode of Galaxy Four (Air Lock) and the second episode of The Underwater Menace have been returned to the archives. More details here.

I won't pretend that these particular episodes were the most eagerly-awaited, but any episode recovery is wonderful news, and it's particularly great to get such an early Troughton episode returned. His performance was all in the visual nuances and it's been so frustrating not to see this developing in his earlier episodes.

It'll probably be a while until I see the recovered episodes, but I'll be adding an extra bit on to the end of the relevant blog posts when I do.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Prophecy Girl

“I may be dead, but I’m still pretty.”

Let’s talk about first seasons, shall we? Because I’m well aware that this season doesn’t have too good a reputation among fans, and I don’t think this is fair. First seasons are different, and they’re not quite doing the same job as subsequent seasons. The show’s premise has to be established, we have to get to know the characters, and everything which we will later take for granted has to be set up. This season does all of that brilliantly.

It’s very obvious, watching this season finale, that all the stuff about the Master, the prophecy, the Anointed One, etc, is more than a little perfunctory and predictable- as the show will cheerfully admit in about three episodes’ time. But it would be a mistake to see this as a problem. It’s actually a wise move for the season arc to take a back seat while we learn about this show, its rules and its tropes, and get to know and love these brilliant characters.

So yes, the Master is an off-the-shelf villain, but he’s supposed to be. And, wonderfully, he knows he is, as the end of this episode’s teaser makes clear. And yes, the nature of his plan is a bit ho-hum, but it’s supposed to be. Because this series finale is essentially about the characters- pulling them apart from each other and then finishing off with the gang as strong as before.

One by one they all alienate each other. Xander asks Buffy to the “Spring Thing” (another of these traditional events which seem to punctuate life in an American High School!) and she turns him down. He takes it badly. He’s unreasonable, of course, but rejection is a lot more crushing when you’re a teenage boy. I know; I was one. As I keep saying, being a teenager is horrible.

Things now get even worse as Xander unthinkingly asks Willow to go with him instead as an obvious second choice. Oops. And, just to ensure that all the Scoobies are alienated from each other completely, Buffy overhears Giles and Angel discussing the prophecy of her imminent death. She, er, doesn’t take the news at all well.

We get a nice scene with Joyce here which makes it clear what the metaphor is; stress about who to go to the prom with is, like, the end of the world if you’re a teenager. Er, how subtle. But it was right that Joyce should appear (all the other semi-regulars are present and correct; Jenny Callendar gets her second appearance and is seemingly integrated properly into the team), and this is probably the best way to do it.

It’s Willow’s upset at seeing the world of the vampires invade her own sanctuary, killing two boys she knows in a place she knows well, that leads Buffy to snap out of her state of denial and decide to go ahead and do the hero thing. Giles, bless him, insists in going in her place, but there was only one person who was going to win that argument.

It’s fascinating that Xander and Angel, rivals for Buffy’s affections, should be thrust together and should find Buffy’s body once she’s been killed by the Master. Interesting, too that Angel as a vampire is unable to perform CPR and that Xander has to do it. I can’t help thinking that there are… other things… that a vampire may not be able to do and that they might not quite be able to cut it as sexual partners. There are things like, er, blood circulation to consider…

Anyway, Buffy is revived. Which is a bit of a problem, really. If she can be revived by CPR then she was never actually dead and it’s a bit of a cop-out to treat this as the fulfilment of the prophecy. She didn’t die, simple as.

We get a nice, epic finale, though, with loads of vampires and the school library under siege from a Muppet Hellmouth. The Master is dead and everyone is off to the Bronze. Including Jenny (who clearly has something going with Giles) and Cordelia, who is now definitely a full semi-member of the gang.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Omen (1976)

“When the Jews return to Zion
And a comet rips the sky
And the Holy Roman Empire rises,
Then you and I must die.
From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
Till man exists no more.”

…And no, that poem isn’t real, it was made up for the film.

I’m not really what you’d call the most suitable person to review a horror film like this. Yes, I’ve done a few camp Hammers and Universals, but this is the first time I’ve done one which is supposed to scare you witless. But the thing is that I just don’t believe in anything supernatural- I’m the ultimate sceptic. Plus, I’m as atheist as they come- not the Richard Dawkins kind, mind. I just wasn’t brought up to be religious, I live in a fairly secular part of the world, and I’m one of those people who are simply unable to accept the existence of a higher being without actual physical evidence. The upshot of which is that films like this, which are reliant on at least some belief in the Devil and in predestination, just don’t scare me. Now, slasher movies, on the other hand…

None of this means I can’t appreciate when this sort of thing is done well, however, and it’s done brilliantly here. And, although Gregory Peck is always the most straightforwardly decent and heroic of leading men, there’s still a bit of camp horror here in the wonderfully over-the-top deaths of Father Brennan (the wonderful Patrick Troughton, whom we Doctor Who fans know to be a first-rate actor) and Keith (a shockingly young-looking David Warner).Plus, watching the film now, the atmosphere is a little diminished by the sheer retro pleasure that is the extreme 1970’s-ness of it all.

It’s a superbly taut script, with the first few scenes establishing the situation very quickly and economically, and unapologetically giving us a cast with fairly superficial; personalities so that we can focus on the plot. We’re given an image of a supremely successful man, Robert Thorn, United States ambassador to the Court of St James, and his seemingly idyllic family life. It’s only when Father Brennan intrudes into his life for the first time that we begin to get an inkling that his adopted son, Damien, may be something evil.

It’s interesting to ponder on the conceit of a child being evil in the light of the recent novel We Need to Talk about Kevin (recently filmed, of course) by Lionel Shriver. I should emphasise that I haven’t read or seen it yet, but it’s central theme- what if you, as a parent, raise a child who goes on to do something terrible?- seems to be the subtext of this film too, except that the fantasy / pseudo-religious elements help to make it more palatable for the movie-going public. It’s a deeply shocking idea (and redolent of original sin, of course) that a young child could be in some way “evil”. That’s what gives the film its power. That and the pacing.

There are a couple of plot holes, perhaps. Would a mother really not notice that her child had been switched just after birth? And how come the US ambassador to Great Britain has all this free time to go gallivanting all around Italy and Israel? But the whole thing fits together so well that I’m prepared to overlook these little things. The set pieces are superb: the sequence where Father Brennan is pursued by gales and tempests before his grotesque death is probably the highlight, but all the deaths are memorable, and the mutilated monk is a highlight too.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen this film- I’m 34, but today was the first time I’d seen it- as it looms rather too large in popular culture for it to be a film that can go unseen. I can’t say that I was scared, but that’s simply because such things don’t scare me. I enjoyed and appreciated it, at least. And so did Windsor Safari Park, I expect, who must have been delighted with the publicity.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Out of Mind, Out of Sight

“Being popular is not just my right. It’s my responsibility.”

We get a lot more in the way of witty lines than we did last week, but this is another so-so episode of The X-Files- er, Buffy. We get another metaphor for teenage life, as a friendless girl becomes literally invisible. And we get our first real look at Cordelia as something more than comic relief. Oh, and did someone say that men in black were in the zeitgeist during 1997?

Oh, and as I’m writing this, my iTunes library is on shuffle. It’s playing Metallica’s “Invisible Kid”, appropriately enough. And the metaphor is a good one. But I don’t like Giles’ explanation that it’s quantum mechanics; this is science fiction, not horror / fantasy, and this is too early in the show’s run for that kind of extreme playing around with the genre. You need to fully establish rules before you break them. Besides, I’m no scientist, but even I know that the phenomenon of particles only being in one definite place one they’re observed only works on the quantum level; once one gets above a certain (very small) size, it’s classical physics all the way.

Oh, and this May Queen thing. That’s one of those traditions they have in American High Schools that I know nothing about. Is it something of a trope for the most popular girl to get elected? It’s a nice framework for some fun with Cordelia, anyway. She’s a fantastic character, and in this episode she gets all the best lines. My favourite is when she dismisses a girl she ran over on her bike: “It’s the most traumatic event of my life, and she’s trying to make it about her legs.”

And yet, we get more hints of a deeper and more intelligent Cordelia beneath this popular and vacuous front. Her heart-to-heart with Buffy is gripping, and we get a glimpse into a much more self-aware and psychologically astute Cordelia; she “can be surrounded by people and be completely alone.” Her desire for popularity is just another way of coping with the anxieties of being a teenager. She’s a fascinating character, and it’s great to see the beginnings of her involvement with the Scooby Gang. She’s in on the secret, sort of.

Oh, and Angel pops by to be all mysterious and to establish a bit of a rapport with Giles, which has to happen at some point. He’s also gone to get a book about some prophecy, in the season’s most obvious bit of arc stuff. That’ll be the McGuffin for the season finale, then. Oh, and the Master has a big plan. Gosh.

Oh, and there’s loads more fun with Principal Snyder. Of course, the character, in his role of obstructive authority figure, has to tread a fine line between being annoying and losing credibility, but he’s achieving this perfectly by being funny and seeming yet again as though he may know exactly what’s going on: “Dead? What are you, ghouls? There are no dead students here. This week.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Nightmares

“Anyone can make a giraffe!”

Well, er… meh. There’s nothing particularly awful about this one, but nothing particularly memorable or significant. I suppose it pads out the season arc a bit (Buffy meets the Master above ground, sort of), but it’s a very skippable episode.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, though, aside from the rushed subtext about the abusive baseball coach being a bit awkward and a disappointing lack of witty lines. The plot makes sense. Everyone’s in character. It works. The initial worries that Buffy’s dad arriving at 3.30pm to spend the weekend with her might cause some sort of tiresome scheduling drama with slaying activities doesn’t materialise, mercifully. It’s just that there’s little to say about it. Perhaps it was a last minute filler, with Joss Whedon providing the story and the script provided by David Greenwalt? So I think I’ll spend the rest of this review just making some random observations.

Characters’ fears being made manifest is a bit of a standard trope, unfortunately, and things like spiders and being naked are par for the course- although I’m amused by the fact that Xander wasn’t quite naked, which rather spoiled the, er, realism (which we’ll come back to) and the fun for many viewers, I’m sure. Giles’ sudden ability to read is in-character, I suppose, but is it really a fear, as the others are? Still, Buffy’s fear of being the cause of her parents’ divorce and her father leaving is by far the most powerful.

Oh, and clowns- at what point did the primary function of clowns stop being “trying to be funny” and start being “utterly terrifying”? Was it around the time of Stephen King’s It? I remember this question coming up in a Doctor Who story I reviewed many moons ago. The best fear is Cordelia’s, though; being dragged into the chess club by two ridiculous nerdy stereotypes. This moment sees the story departing from the pretence of realism and starting to endanger the fourth wall, if only for a moment. I love this sort of thing!

In fact, we end with an increasingly absurd fracturing of reality, which almost seems designed to foreground the power of the omnipotent writer over the fictional universe. Giant wasps are attacking Sunnydale, while over the road is a new cemetery. And it’s nice. There’s even a few scenes, where Buffy is following Billy, where there are a couple of jump cuts, one of them from day to night, which really are happening in real time; the director is omnipotent, too!

Metatextual fun aside, though (and I’m exaggerating just a tad!), roll on the next one…

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Puppet Show

“That’s the kind of woolly, liberal thinking that leads to being eaten.”

I love, love, love this episode. It’s not just the ventriloquist dummy demon hunter with the wandering hands. It’s not just the introduction of the fabulous Principal Snyder. It’s not just the perfect banter between the Scoobies. It’s the wit of the script and its sheer sense of fun. Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel impressed with Never Kill a Boy on a First Date, but with this one they become the first writers to approach the high standards of Joss Whedon himself.

Principal Snyder is an utter delight, and Armin “Quark” Shimerman is perfect casting. This character, as Giles acknowledges, is an authority figure with the power to make life very difficult for the Scoobies, and it’s essential that he doesn’t end up turning into a character who exists purely to annoy and frustrate the viewer by placing arbitrary obstacles. There are good signs that this isn’t going to happen, though; while remaining a character with real presence, he’s a brilliant comic character. He lays out his position from the start (“My predecessor, Mr. Flutie, may have gone for all that touchy-feely, relating nonsense. But he was eaten. You’re in my world now.”

In hindsight, though, there are two rather interesting sides to the character. Firstly, with this being his first episode, the writers are able to have fun by using him as a red herring. Secondly, much though his lines about recent weird events and being eaten are played for laughs, they could be taken as hints that he already knows perfectly well about the Hellmouth, and what’s going on. Two of his run-ins with Buffy, where he asserts his presence assertively while not actually stopping her from doing anything, might also be taken as hints that he knows more than he’s letting on. It’s tempting to speculate that the episode title may be clever than it seems and be referring to him as puppet master, although sadly I think this might be going way too far.

Great though this is as a comedy, it also works brilliantly as a surprisingly layered whodunit. I for one had no idea of whom the demonic murderer would turn out to be, and the attempted method of killing Giles with a guillotine was delightfully over the top.

Sid’s great, isn’t he? If a fight scene between him and Buffy isn’t cool enough, the big reveal is even better. We also learn of a previous, Korean, Slayer back in the ‘30’s with whom Sid, er, had relations. And the scene where Buffy removes his naughty hand from her leg is priceless. All the same, though, there’s real pathos at his tragic death.

The ending is wonderfully witty; both the demon and Sid have literally died on stage before the curtain opens; now it’s the turn of the Scoobies to do the same in public!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

“The online hive mind did the maths.”

If you expected to see the next Buffy review, don’t worry; the blog is otherwise going to be entirely Buffy (plus a movie most Saturdays) at least until I get to the end of Season Three. After that I might switch to a short, one-off series (probably Edge of Darkness, but we’ll see. It might be Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set- any preferences?) before I start to alternate episodes of Buffy and Angel. After that, I’ll probably do something similar after each 44-episode block. Otherwise, though, the only other stuff I’ll be reviewing is current television. And that pretty much only means Dark Mirror, Sherlock, and Doctor Who. Otherwise it’s Buffyverse all the way!

Anyway… I’ve really been looking forward to this. It’s by Charlie Brooker, for one thing, and the man can (almost!) do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. But the concept seems brilliant; a modern take on The Twilight Zone, with three independent teleplays extrapolating various ultra-modern technologies (Twitter, reality TV, Sky Plus) and extrapolating in a vaguely sci-fi way. Plus, knowing the writers involves, I suspect there’s going to be the exact sort of darkly humorous tone that I like so much.

This episode begins with a ringing mobile phone in the marital bed of prime minister Michael Callow (Roy Kinnear). This is appropriate, as it more or less foreshadows the theme of modern technology, its intrusiveness, and the way it speeds things up to a pace which makes rational thought impossible. I notice the last thing we hear, in the final scene before the flash forward at the end, is also a ringing mobile phone, but the circumstances are horribly distance. It’s a nice touch to bookend things with this motif.

We have the highest of high concept, er, concepts: a terrorist has kidnapped a popular princess, and is going to kill her unless the prime minister has sex with a pig, on live TV, that very afternoon. Eurgh. This is strangely appropriate from a former writer from Oink, a comic I remember well from my childhood. But, obviously, this is really about the media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, the tyranny of mass opinion, and the impossibility of hiding things in our post-superinjunction age. No sooner does the PM see the video than he’s told it’s up on YouTube, and trending on Twitter. D Notices mean nothing in this context, and the British rolling news channels can’t keep quiet if CNN and Al Jazeera are not. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There are some delicious moments of very Charlie Brooker cynicism- the Queen’s attitude; the tweets in general; the journalist getting information by shooting footage of herself naked, and then literally getting shot; and of course the attitude of the public once the severed finger from the princess is apparently received. If there’s one consistent theme in Brooker’s work then it’s a healthy disdain for the mob. Ironically, the PM doesn’t even know of the attempt to fake the… footage in question. But it’s still him who has to face the consequences.

From this point onward we know that the clock is ticking and there’s no escape. Deliciously, it’s the opinion polling that seals the PM’s fate, as well as the clear implication that neither he nor his family would be safe from the mob. From hereon in there are many, many shots of the PM all alone. And that’s what he is, despite the audience of 1.3 billion and the empty streets- Brooker has no doubt that empty is what they would be. We don’t get to see the act itself, mercifully, but the PM’s suffering is very clear. He’s left pounding away for nearly an hour.

The twist, of course, is that it’s all a twisted joke; the ultimate artistic installation from a former winner of the Turner Prize. One year later it’s all back to normal, except that the PM is now dead to his wife, whose final call he couldn’t bring himself to take.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I, Robot... You, Jane

“My Spider-Sense is tingling.”

“Your… Spider-Sense?”

“Pop culture reference. Sorry.”

I really, really love the title to this one. It isn’t just the coolness; it’s the metatextual comment that it’s making, and long-time readers of this blog will know how much I love that sort of thing. The title mixes the title of a very well-known science fiction novel with a reference from early Twentieth Century cult magazine culture- two genres in collision, none of which belong in the modern-day horror / fantasy / teen drama series which is Buffy. We have a provocative clash of genres, both with each other and with the show.

Except… cool though that sounds, it isn’t what we end up getting, not quite. Yes, the story has a robot in it, but the sense of threat is strictly occult- and our first “proper” non-vampire demon story to boot. It feels very Buffy. No, the trappings of science and technology are merely the medium through which a tale of evil demonic seduction can take place, much as though the medium is indeed the message in this case, with the Internet being this episode’s theme.

That the Internet is pretty much just a medium through which human beings do the same old stuff, albeit more quickly and with a more globalised bunch of people than before, is something which both Giles, with his rather silly and exaggerated technophobia, and new character Jenny Callendar, with her rather more realistically drawn technophilia, fail to realise, so caught up are they in their increasingly absurd and hyperbolic claims.

Robia LaMorte is great, incidentally, and so is the character; strong, forceful, but also very likeable and able to undercut her own forcefulness with humour. I like her. I’m sure she’ll enjoy a long and happy time on the show. The sexual chemistry between her and Giles is there from the start, although at this point they haven’t progressed much further than, er, arranging the sexual test tubes.

Anyway… the opening spiel is present and correct, but then we launch straight into a flashback from centuries past which establishes the supernatural threat we are soon to face in a modern context; thus a trope is born. We have a demon who exists as text in a book, waiting to be read and brought into physical being, but rather fortunately vulnerable to a binding spell which turns him right back into ink. That must be a fairly boring way to spend 579 years. Unfortunately, the book has reached the library of Sunnydale High, which has a scanner. Yep, there’s a demon loose inside the internet. Metaphor much?

Let’s pause for a moment and remember that it’s 1997. This is not very long ago, really. I was twenty that year. But, in terms of the Internet, it was the Dark Ages. I’m no Luddite, and I was three years away from properly using the Internet. You can tell how long ago it is here- Buffy, who is young, mentions an “e-letter” and fails to understand the word “online”. It’s clear that the Internet is seen by her and most of the students as something for “nerds”. So we shouldn’t be surprised if some of the obvious real life metaphors- online romances ending in axe murdering tragedy, or the hilariously literal “demon” let loose within the Internet. But, alongside the quaintness, there’s stuff that still speaks to us. Willow skips classes because of the time she spends online- this sort of reminds me of World of Warcraft and the like. The fact that Moloch cannot simply be “deleted” seems particularly redolent today, when we all leave so much personal stuff in all sorts of places online. And chatting to people you haven’t met online can still be just as self-conscious as it is for Willow.

The revelation that Jenny Callendar knows all about demons and stuff, and that the mystical can be modern, is a great moment. It turns out that she, and what she represents, are the medium through which demons can be defeated- a nice little message there, I think. In spite of the occasional quaintness, the story’s attitude towards the Internet is not reactionary.

We obviously have a new semi-member of the semi-Scooby gang, which is nice. This episode is great, possibly the best since the opening two-parter; kudos to the newcomers Ashley Gable and Thomas A. Swynden. It’s just a shame that Giles comes across as a bit too fuddy-duddy; he would definitely get the Spider-Man reference.

The final scene (“Let’s face it, none of us are ever going to have a normal, happy relationship”) is an even more fantastic moment of metatextuality, as our three Scoobies suddenly realise that they are trapped inside a drama for which Joss Whedon is showrunner. They are, indeed, doomed.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel

“The most vicious creature I ever met…”

It’s somewhat alienating to watch an episode which relies entirely on big twists and revelations which you not only know but have taken for granted for such a long time. I’m not sure this is a review blog, strictly speaking- I meander far too much for that- but it’s impossible to judge this episode. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not.

We begin with two firsts, though. I believe this is our first “Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…”, and we also get the first appearance of that “Into every generation a Slayer is born” spiel. Meh. It seems my prediction that I’ll have moved on from discussing the first this and the first that by this episode were a bit wrong.

I’ll not spell out the big revelation; we all know it, and for anyone who doesn’t, it’s a spoiler. It’s odd to listen to that conversation between Darla and Angel, though; from Darla’s dialogue it’s clear that the fine print of Angel’s backstory is not quite all written yet. Speaking of Darla, it’s great to see this episode again having seen the whole of both series before; the first time I saw this I had no inkling that she would go on to be important (she dies, after all!), and so I’d completely forgotten about her by her next appearance, whenever that will be.

Oh, and this is where the simmering sexual tension between Buffy and Angel reaches the stage where both of them admit their feelings, and there is actual kissing. This is TV kissing, mind; a bit too full-on and aggressive for my taste. Why don’t they just relax and slow down…?

We have more scenes of Giles rather implausibly trying to teach the still relatively inexperienced Buffy how to fight but by now, at last, it’s been realised that the absurdity of this is best played for laughs. Well done, David Greenwalt. Incidentally, this is a much better script from him than Teacher’s Pet.

Joyce gets to meet Angel- interesting. I’m sure this is going to simmer, although I’m surprised it doesn’t explode right here; her daughter is sixteen and Angel is clearly a much older man, although he doesn’t exactly look all of his 240-odd years. In less dramatic news, she also meets Giles. She will of course, eventually come to, er, “know” him quite well.

It’s surprising how much backstory we get here: Angelus’ Irish origins, the gypsy curse, his relationship with Darla (there’s even a claim that she “made” him), and Darla’s origins in colonial America- it would be really cool if there was a bit of fanfic somewhere which established that she had first been turned undead by a vampire called Croatoan.

We end with another kiss, and this one looks much nicer. That simmering sexual tension is going to stay on the hob for a good while yet…

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Pack

“Why can’t Xander be possessed by a puppy or…. Or… some ducks!”

Another good episode, this. For all the bad reputation this season has, the hit rate has been pretty good so far with only one real stinker. I suppose this means most of the rest of the season will be terrible. We’ll see.

Anyway, this is obviously an allegory about bullying- the most horrifying part of it in this respect is the pathetically useless way that Principal Flutie fails to deal with a spot of obvious bullying early on. This doesn’t necessarily mean he deserves to be eaten, but it’s a nice little indictment of how bullying is often not taken seriously enough. It is, in fact, a very big deal indeed. So the hyenas are an allegory for this, but also, I think, for the inherent nastiness of mobs, groupthink, and conformity.

Of course, this is made all the more shocking by the inclusion of Xander as part of the pack, with devastating consequences for Willow. Importantly, he doesn’t play any part in Flutie’s death, but he does quite blatantly try to rape Buffy. And he remembers this. Blimey. “Embarrassing” is not exactly the word.

Oh, and there are some interesting things in this episode about the American High School, an institution which is quite alien to this foreigner. It seems there’s an emphasis on “school spirit” which we don’t get in the UK- yes, schools have sports teams for those that like that sort of thing, but that’s all. I suppose it’s an interesting inversion of American vs. European stereotypes- UK schools are all about rugged individualism and getting good grades for yourself, while American schools do community and “school spirit” and cheerleading and so on? Also, this dodgeball thing- what’s all that about, then?

Digressions aside, this is good character stuff. Taking “our” Xander away is actually good for fleshing out Willow a bit more, and establishing that she and Buffy have become close friends by now. I also love Giles’ reaction (“It’s devastating. He’s turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course, you’ll have to kill him.”), which is only really possible at this early stage, while he doesn’t know Xander very well. Even cooler, though, is Buffy’s reaction to his reaction (“I cannot believe that you of all people are trying to Scully me!”). I’m still wondering how exactly a librarian is supposed to be teaching Buffy how to fight, though.

The ending is pleasingly neat; the whole thing is quite well-structured with a satisfying conclusion, a twist in that the zookeeper turns out to be some kind of bizarre evil cultist chap, and Xander redeeming himself by immediately risking his own life to save Willow’s. I love the hug at the end, too. This is a rather promising debut from newcomers Matt Kleine and Joe Reinkemeyer.

Angel doesn’t appear in this episode, but the episode rather pointedly includes a scene in which Willow hints at Buffy rather obviously fancying him a bit. What could possibly happen next?

Monday, 28 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Never Kill a Boy on a First Date

“Wow! I never knew being a teenager was so full of possibilities!”

…And the first bad episode is succeeded by a good one. That’s a relief. It’s still somewhat lacking in that extra Whedon polish, but this is a solid episode which develops the characters and themes while also moving on the season arc another notch. Although I must protest that being bookish as a teenage boy doesn’t actually work quite as well in attracting girls as this episode seems to imply…!

We begin with Buffy, in that graveyard, fighting a vampire; only four episodes in and this type of scene has already become iconic. But then we get the rather odd sight of Giles training her. Is it just me who wonders why this rather bookish chap should be considered at all suited to teaching Buffy how to fight? He certainly seems to have difficulty in handing himself later in the episode.

Still, Buffy, Giles and the Master’s plan to bring about the “Anointed One” are the B plot of the episode. This is there to contrast thematically with the teenage allegorical stuff of the A plot, to accomplish a bit of stuff for the season arc (we end with the discovery that the Master has succeeded, and the “Anointed One” is the little boy we saw in the bus earlier), and, I suppose, to provide this episode with its quota of vampire-slaying.

But this episode is basically about Owen and the normal life he represents. Buffy can never date a “civilian” without putting him in danger; her status as the Slayer means she can’t quite be normal. Admittedly, the insistence that Willow and Xander aren’t imperilled in the same way because they “know the score” and are “careful” is a bit shaky, but I’ll let that slide as I really like them both.

The way we gradually learn more about Owen is really quite clever in an impressive debut script from Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batadi. At first he seems a nice, shy, bookish, deep, brooding(!), very handsome boy who is ogled at by all the girls, and Buffy is amazed and delighted to have caught him in her net. He seems to be intellectual, reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson, although the first alarm bells start ringing quite early in the date as he explains that he likes Dickinson because she’s “morbid”. Still, he seems mature, and Buffy is obviously overjoyed to see him giving Cordelia the brush-off.

There are massive tensions between Buffy’s normal life and her Slayer life, though. Both of her attempts at dating Owen clash with Slayer stuff she has to do, and Giles is insistent, however much Buffy may protest that “Clark Kent has a job”. But this is more that the clichéd old superhero / secret identity stuff; there’s a feminist subtext. Buffy, here, is the woman who Does It All, just as many women have to balance a full time career with all the childcare and domestic chores as lots of men, and I say this as a fully qualified possessor of a “y” chromosome, are useless arses.

In a surprising twist, it’s Buffy who dumps Owen; the earlier hints pay off with the revelation that he’s a danger junkie, far less mature than he appears (hey, he’s a teenage boy!) and far too much trouble. Perhaps this is a little convenient as an excuse to dump him from the show (which had to happen) without killing him (which obviously couldn’t happen as the title implies it too heavily), but it’s a nice pay-off of all the hints we’ve been getting.

In other news, I believe we get our first “Bite me”.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Teacher’s Pet

“It’s certainly not something I’ll ever bring up again.”

Well, it had to happen; the first bad episode. I seem to recall David Greenwalt as a fairly prolific writer, so presumably his future scripts will be much better, but this is pretty awful. In fact, it’s pretty pointless, too; nothing seems to happen here which advances the season arc in any way, and there’s very little to say about it. This is going to be one of my shortest reviews ever, but there’s just so little to say.

There are a few funny moments, admittedly, and this is clearly meant to be a comedy episode- presumably this means that something serious is about to happen. But the funniest moments all belong to Cordelia, who gets all the best lines (I love her instinctive “Excuse you” when she clumsily bumps into Buffy!). Charisma Carpenter is perfect at doing comedy, and she's the best thing about this episode. Most of the other light-hearted stuff falls flat.

There isn’t much of a subtext, either, beyond the sexual insecurities of teenage boys. Yes, teenage boys are pretty much all virgins and pretty much none of them will admit it- is that it? Coupled with a rather poor-looking mantis monster and a silly fork-handed vampire, this makes for a rather pointless and forgettable episode. Still, at least the characters and the performances are strong enough to survive a stinker like this, and all of the main cast prove themselves to be quite brilliant bat performing comedy. It’s just a shame that the scenes themselves are not funny enough.

We get another appearance from Angel, after an episode of absence, and this time Willow and Xander get to see him too. He’s as cryptic and as annoyingly good-looking as ever, and seems to be quite the gentleman. But these scenes in the Bronze are mainly noticeable for the sheer awfulness of everyone’s clothes- the late ‘90s were not exactly the coolest of times.

There’s also a moment which really emphasises how long ago 1997 was, as Buffy plays the wrong side of Giles’ tape. This is the technology of the Dark Ages.

To the sheer horror of the viewers, the episode ends with eggs hatching, threatening the unspeakable prospect of a sequel. We can count ourselves extremely lucky that this never happens.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

“Perhaps there isn’t anyone?”

“Then life is a meaningless horror!”

I must admit I’ve been taking refuge in more light-hearted films, usually Hammer or Universal horror, or sci-fi, etc, up to now. I’ve been a little afraid to tackle the many films in my DVD collection which tend to be more gushed over by critics; would my reviews pass muster? Would I fail to mention something which is generally considered to belong to the category of the bleeding obvious? Well, I’ve finally bitten the bullet with this film and, if anything, it’s actually easier to write about as the themes are handed to you on a plate.

This is essentially a fairly straightforward and transparent meditation on existentialism, pretty much wearing its themes on its metaphorical sleeves and covering much the same ground as loads of stuff by people like Sartre and Camus. God is dead, life is therefore meaningless, it’s up to us to assign meaning, we are therefore terrifyingly free to make all sorts of stupid decisions, yadda yadda yadda. This sort of thing was everywhere in the ‘50s.

It’s the squire, Jöns, who is the voice for this philosophy, and he spends much of the film trying to push it on to the other characters. I’m not sure we’re quite supposed to approve of him, however; he’s quite pointedly amoral. There’s a particularly unpleasant moment where he casually declines to rape the mute girl, having just forcibly kissed her, because it’s “dry in the long run.” This is a rather nasty pun, and hints that he has done otherwise in the past. His misogyny pops up everywhere, too.

The knight, Antonius Block, is a thoroughly decent chap, played superbly by Max Von Sydow, but paralysed by existential angst in its purest form. He spends the entire film with the certain knowledge of imminent death and wrestling with his lack of faith versus his desire to believe in a God. He soliloquises a lot. But he finds a brief moment of happiness in a simple picnic with Jof, Mia and their baby son. They are simple, poor, but happy people who love each other without complications and, of course, they end up being the only survivors. The ending would have been a bit of a downer otherwise. But then, they are the only characters who truly represent Life, as we shall discuss.

Block and Jöns have wasted the last ten years in a pointless crusade and are now returning home, like Odysseus, although I’m not sure that comparisons to the Odyssey would really hold up. But death, in the form of plague, stalks the land. And the Black Death, in Scandinavia and the British Isles in particular, was truly genocidal, killing perhaps 50% of the population, although perhaps we should be wary of taking the historical setting too literally. Existentialist thought was not widespread in the 1350s.

The film contrasts death with life throughout. Death predominates; the early scene in the tavern makes it clear that people do not expect to live and that many believe they are living in the End Times, hence the prominence of quotes from the Book of Revelation. This morbidity reaches a disgusting peak with the arrival of the flagellants, with their gloatingly sadistic leader, who are met with reverence by the kneeling townsfolk. This contrasts sharply with the sneering attitude towards the actors, and their lovely, witty, bawdy song. The contrast makes it clear that Jof and Mia, fertile and happy in spite of life’s travails, represent Life, which for some reason I am writing in capitals They’re lovely, aren’t they? But it’s because of Block, if indirectly, that they are saved. He does in fact achieve something with the extra time he’s given.

The most upsetting part of the film is the treatment of the “witch”, so very young, who is burned to death, and what seems even worse is the fact that her final hours are spent in the stocks, surrounded by people who hate her. Block is able to ease her suffering at the end, which has definite echoes of Christ being offered a drink at the Crucifixion.

Oh yes, and I suppose I’d better mention the chess game between Block and Death, one of the most iconic things in the history of ever. Obviously, it’s pretty much compulsory to mention Wayne’s World 2 here, but I’m sure I’ve seen some stuff from popular culture which references Death chopping down that tree. Anybody know where it might have been from? And the ending, with Death interrupting breakfast just minutes after Block has been reunited with his lovely wife, has got to be an inspiration for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

That was fairly painless. I’ll be a bit less afraid to tackle such critically adored films in future.