Thursday, 29 September 2011

Frankenstein (1931)

“It’s alive!”

Hooray! The real life stuff has finished and I can start blogging again as normal. Time for a film, methinks. I’ve done a lot of Hammer; it’s time to do a Universal.

I love the bloke in the tux at the start with his wonderfully camp introduction. It sets the tone for the whole film, which is essentially a great big knowing wink. The credits are interesting, too: Mary Shelley is credited as “Mrs Percy B. Shelley” (it’s feminism gone mad!), and Boris Karloff is referred to as “?”, only being named in the closing credits.

The look of the film is just as stylised and atmospheric, paying no heed to realism and with no tree left ungnarled, as per the Hammers we’ve covered so far, but the whole thing seems to be shot so as to be a lot more claustrophobic. It’s also striking that everyone is in (for 1931) modern dress, and the setting seems to be firmly Bavarian (see the peasants’ costumes) rather than the mittel-European vagueness of Hammer.

For all that he starts off with grave robbing and stealing brains from dissection labs, Henry Frankenstein (why the name change?) is nothing like as nasty as the later Cushing version. Colin Clive does a great job of portraying his monomania, but as soon as his family performs an intervention halfway through the film he comes to his senses, and even leads a mob of baying peasants after the monster at the end. He seems to get away with rather a lot really. I was left mouth agape at the sight of Igor, whose name is Fritz, climbing up a not-very-solid gallows, in defiance of all health-and safety standards.

The early scene with the lecture is hilarious, with the lecturer telling his students with a straight face that he can physically tell the difference between a “criminal” brain and a “normal” brain! We’re also reminded that it’s 1931 by the fact that he goes on to say “Thank you, gentlemen- the class is dismissed,” in spite of the fact that at least a good third of the students seem to be women.

Elizabeth (token love interest and token woman) and Moritz are characters who exist only to advance the plot and be a bit wet, and are given dialogue so trite that it has to be deliberate; this is clearly James Whale having a laugh with the tropes. Even the performances of both actors seem to be deliberately wooden. And Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s grumpy, bibulous yet loveable old dad, is the funniest character in the film, who quite rightly gets the last word.

Funny though this film is, though, it’s full of iconic moments, and the moment where the monster is raised to the skylight to be infused with life as his creator raves that “Now I know what it feels like to be God!” is justly iconic. It’s is justly iconic. It’s easy to take for granted, too, how fantastic the monster’s make-up is, so familiar has it become. And our first glimpse of the monster’s face is simple but powerful. Even so, this doesn’t really feel like a horror film; there’s plenty of room for some archly ridiculous line about Frankenstein having found the “great ray”, beyond ultraviolet, which brought life into the world. Er, how scientifically rigorous.

The monster kills Igor, whose name is Fritz, but he was asking for it, frankly. It’s only when Dr. Waldman is killed that we realise the monster has become truly dangerous. The scene between the monster and the girl is the heart of the film, driving home the monster’s childlike innocence at the same time as we see it do the deed that puts it beyond redemption. Even here, though, the monster shows no malice. It is horrified and upset to see the little girl sink into the lake.

The scene of the girl’s father, numbed with grief, carrying his dead daughter towards the burgomeister is sad and effective, but I’m not sure how he realises she’s been murdered, or that there’s some unseen murderer hiding bin the woods. And I don’t think much of this society’s sense of justice, with the authorities happy to organise lynch mobs with not the slightest shred of evidence! Still, there’s no denying that the ending, with the mill quickly catching fire and Karloff brilliantly portraying the monster’s fear, is superb. There’s no way it can get out of that, right?

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Doctor Who: Closing Time

“I’m the Doctor. I work in a shop now.”

Oh dear. I seem to have fallen into a bit of a rut in lavishing praise on how nicely shot the pre-titles sequences are. Shall we just take it as read that I’ve done that and move swiftly on?

This is the umpteenth bloody good episode in a row, and maintains Gareth Roberts’ impressive record. His four episodes might not be quite up there with the very best, but all of them are consistently brilliant, and this one is probably his best yet. Even the sickly-sweet resolution is appropriate given the context of Cybermen vis-à-vis emotions.

It’s good to see Craig again; James Corden is bloody fantastic with his subtle physical comedy and nice balance between humour and pathos. It helps that he and Matt Smith are a great double act. The “fact” that Matt Smith speaks baby is a fab gimmick, too.

Two centuries have passed since the last episode tomorrow. Tomorrow (by the Doctor’s subjective timeline- how does this work? He’s a time traveller. I suppose he has to die at his present age because it was stated in The Impossible Astronaut, but why this particular day? Is it the day before his next birthday or summat?) he gets shot dead. He’s spending his last day visiting Craig (and others, I assume).

There’s a lot of great humorous dialogue. We get a “You’ve redecorated. I don’t like it.” to please the fans and a hilarious “Social call. Thought I’d try one out.” There’s a lot of nicely metatextual humour here; we all know perfectly know that noticing g things and sorting out the baddies is all the Doctor ever does; of course there’s going to be a massively coincidental alien invasion.

Once again it’s nice to see the Doctor in a contemporary setting; combined with this episode’s comic focus it gives Matt Smith’s Doctor a chance to breathe and be really Doctorish. His interaction with George, Kelly and the Fabulous Val (the great Lynda Barron, again!) is great; this is a sweet, likeable Doctor who is liked and trusted by all. Midnight feels a long time ago. Plus, we have a nice little mystery with Cybermen. Yay! This is a particularly good story for them, not least because they lurk in the background being menacing and hardly say a word, as they do in all their best stories. The new Cybermats are great, too, with real and very pointy teeth. We even get a small snatch of Murray Gold’s old Cyber-theme. If only we could have that “Space Adventure” theme from the ‘60s again…

Of course, it’s in no way surprising to see Amy and Rory here. You were expecting them too, right? And I don’t need to have seen any spoilers to know that they’ll be back full-time next week. But it’s great that Amy has stopped being a kissogram and become a model, although there still a certain objectification-of-women thing going on, and I understand the fashion industry is largely run by bastards. Still, it’s great that she’s advertising something called “Petrichor”.

The Doctor gets a nice little monologue to the baby, but his mournful admission to Craig that he’s going to die because he’s “a stupid, selfish man” gets the perfect response. Craig knows the Doctor- he’s been inside his head- and instinctively knows that this is all a load of pants; the Doctor has saved loads of people and can be forgiven a little vanity and self-indulgence.

Oh, and we get that line again: “Silence will fall when the question is asked”. On which story arc-y note I really ought to do what I ought have done a few paragraphs ago, and point out that this is the first time since 1989 that a series has ended without a two-part season finale. The next episode, if it really is going to wrap everything up, has a lot of work to do in forty-five minutes, or an hour, or whatever.

The actual alien plot is rather prosaic, and very much takes second fiddle to the stuff about the Doctor and Craig. Six Cybermen and their ship have recently been woken up after centuries of slumber (Cyber continuity? Let’s not go there…), are a bit rubbish, they try to Cybernise Craig (always nice to see the Cybermen trying to do this; it brings out the full body horror), but it doesn’t work because he’s a great dad, and he kills them with love for his son. That’s it. It should be tacky and sentimental, but somehow manages to be brilliant instead.

Interesting, too, that the Cybermen are more impressed by Craig than they are by the Doctor, and even see him as potential Cyber Controller material.

We end with some throwbacks to the start of the series; the Doctor has bought some nice blue envelopes, and Craig gives him a Stetson. The scene then suddenly shifts to River Song, who’s just got her Doctorate. Suddenly, along comes Madame Kovarian, she who has pulled River’s strings for her entire life. She’s accompanied by a couple of Silents (“Your owners”). River is put into an astronaut suit and shoved at the bottom of Lake Silencio…

I shouldn’t really mention the “Next Time” trailer, but it’s all about to kick off. I can’t wait…

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Doctor Who: The God Complex

“Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone, I have this overwhelming urge to notify their next of kin.”

On the surface, this episode is a good, if not great, one-off tale with a twist at the end. But I get a strong impression that, far more importantly, it rehearses the main themes and foreshadows the events which will end this season- and I say this as someone who’s spoiler-free. The above quote from Rory is one of many examples in which we explore Amy’s and Rory’s contrasting attitudes to, and confidence in, the Doctor. Their departure is foreshadowed throughout the episode, and yet I think we all suspect that their “departure” is a massive red herring. Anyway…

This series, and the Moffat era in general, is getting quite a reputation for more creative directing, and the pre-titles sequences have shown some fantastic shots of late, with Night Terrors being a particular highlight. This episode does it again; I particularly loved the shot of the stairwell, suggesting a Castrovalva-like shifting geography with great economy and style. There are some nice-looking shots from the POV of the CCTV, too, which give a real feeling of being watched.

There are lots of strange and scary things in the early minutes of this episode: the clown, the photographer, the man in the (deliberately?) unconvincing gorilla suit, but the most eerie of the lot has to be the hall full of ventriloquist’s dummies, all moving their heads in unison.

We have a nicely fleshed-out guest cast. Rita- intelligent, resourceful, brave, nice, and liked a lot by the audience and therefore the viewer- is a bit of a Mary Sue character, and therefore doomed, but of course we’re supposed to know that. The Doctor even seems to offer her a trip in the TARDIS at one point, which of course makes her death inevitable, in a Lynda with a “y” sort of way. Howie is a tiresome conspiracy theorist (I really don’t like conspiracy theories, they are not harmless, and anyone reading this who believes in any of that nonsense should read this book), and therefore also doomed. Joe is doomed already before we meet him. This leaves Gibbis, a cowardly alien from Tivoli, most invaded planet in the universe. This is a funny yet sinister performance from David Walliams, and of course he doesn’t die. The cowardly ones never do in Doctor Who.

The first few minutes set up the situation as we understand it- people are drawn to the hotel, given a room with their biggest individual fear, and eventually come to welcome their own inevitable death with religious fervour. No one leaves alive. It all pays off later, except for one bit: what’s the significance of the disappearing fire exit found by Rory? As far as I can see, this is never followed up.

The main flaw in this episode, and by no means a fundamental one, is that the handling of religious themes is a bit clumsy. I don’t think there’s any great message intended here about religion- it’s basically there as a metaphor for Amy’s faith in the Doctor, about which more later- and I say this as an atheist, but it comes across that way without, I think, meaning to. This is awkward, especially given the emphasis on faith, and the foregrounding of Rita’s Islamic beliefs. The implicit assumption that faith is a weakness, and the Doctor’s casual statement at the end that the minotaur “god” was overthrown when its worshippers became more civilised and went “all secular” (that isn’t what the word “secular” means!) is arguably a bit arrogant. I’ve no problem with arguments that there isn’t a God (I myself think this is the most likely probability by far), but there’s no need to be arrogant, or rude, or Richard Dawkinsy about it.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing of the end of the episode; after Howie’s death, the Doctor notices Rory speaking of his time in the TARDIS in the past tense, and he speaks admiringly of Howie’s speech therapy, to get rid of his stutter, as a phenomenal achievement, implying that he sees just as much potential for adventure in his everyday life as a nurse as in his travels with the Doctor. His chat with Rita on the stairs is also full of foreboding; her suggestion that he has a “God complex” (the title of the episode is clever, multi-layered and rather interesting in terms of the Doctor’s development as a character) is more perceptive than is probably intended, and the Doctor seems to accept that his whimsical adventuring is rather frivolous, “which is why grown-ups were invented. Rita, by contrast, has a serious and proper job with responsibilities, as indeed does Rory. I’m also reminded of the home truths spoken by the older Amy in the previous episode.

What does the Doctor see in his room? We hear the cloister bell, but we don’t see anything. Perhaps there is a clue, though? Can we perhaps read something into the “Do Not Disturb” sign?  Perhaps the Doctor is sleeping with someone in that room, perhaps married, perhaps to River Song? Perhaps his fear is of something symbolised by marriage, such as commitment, which would be anathema to his wandering lifestyle? Perhaps it terrified him, because it would make him into a “grown-up”?

His words to Amy at the end show an obvious parallel with his words to Amy in The Curse of Fenric, although this time he doesn’t want Amy to hate him, just to lose her faith in him! I think what he’s telling her is simply the unvarnished truth, although these things are of course subjective: “I took you with me because I was vain. I want to be adored. I’m not a hero; I really am just a madman in a box.”

I was overjoyed at the links to the Nimon (yay!) and intrigued that Amy’s question of what Time Lords pray to is left unanswered. But the most interesting words spoken at the end of the main story, with the hotel dissolved into an empty cyberspace grid, are by the dying minotaur: “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless, shifting maze…to such a creature, death would be a gift.”

The departure of Amy (especially) and Rory, although effective and touching, is bound to be a red herring; they’ll be back for the series finale, I’m sure, although I have no idea whether they’ll stay after that. The Doctor ends the story alone, so alone, slumped in the TARDIS…

By the way, as someone who’s a little deaf, I have to give a virtual high five to the person (definitely a fan!) who did the subtitles. The TARDIS leaves with a Vworp! Vworp!...

(Probably no blogging until Saturday now, and there might not be anything other than current Doctor Who until the end of September. Real ife intrudes, I;m afraid! Fear not, though- normal service witll be resumed from the start of October!)

Friday, 16 September 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Ten)

“I’ve seen some crazy shit with Torchwood, but now I’m at the limit!”

Be warned: this review contains massive, massive spoilers from the start!

Hmmm. Well, I suppose that worked as an ending, tying up the necessary loose ends: I don’t think we necessarily need chapter and verse on who exactly ordered every attempt to kill or hinder our heroes. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing I’m left underwhelmed by the disappointment of the revelations (it really was nothing more than the Families using Jack’s blood to alter the Blessing, as I’m sure we all guessed) and confirmed in my problems with the pacing of the whole series. Miracle Day has had some great individual scenes, and indeed great individual episodes, and the character development has been impressive. But the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.

It’s interesting to get a collaboration between RTD and Jane Espenson. Gwen’s opening monologue is classic RTD, but otherwise it’s hard to tell which writer is in the driving seat. It’s a well-structured finale, though, full of action but with loads of character as our heroes race to find the Blessing in both Shanghai and Buenos Aires.

There are a couple of early moments with Rex that made me smile: he suggests that he and Jack should go for a drink after everything is over, and even admits he’s never thanked Esther (“But don’t expect me to start now!”- this kind of foreshadows Esther’s death). Both of these hint at something lying beneath the gruff exterior, although you’d need a colossally huge mining operation to get at it.

We’re inevitably going to get a lot of exposition in this episode, so it makes sense to dump it all into the scenes of Exposition Woman expositing at Jilly. Interestingly, Jack is referred to as “The Creator”. It’s probably a good thing he doesn’t hear her saying that.

It’s also striking that Jack chooses to tell Danes that he’s from the spacefaring future, although I find that the attempt to contrast this with the smallness of Danes’ life is a little contrived. But I suppose it sort of works as foreshadowing of his decision to become a suicide bomber. Importantly, this scene helps to ensure this isn’t an heroic act.

Finally, the CIA is about to discover that Charlotte is a mole, but she’s prepared. I was devastated to see Shapiro blown up- John De Lancie is one of the best things about this series! I have to mention the superb performances from Bill Pullman and Jilly Kitzinger, too; both of them superbly deliver a lot of dialogue which could have fallen flat if not delivered well.

The climax begins with a standoff; Rex and Esther are prisoners at the Buenos Aires end of the Blessing, whereas Jack and Gwen have a bit more leverage from being accompanied by a suicide bomber. This gives a nice opportunity to bury a lot of the much-needed exposition in dramatic scenes. We learn that the Families are essentially a bunch of nasty eugenicists and social Darwinists who want to destroy the weak to strengthen the human race, a familiar trope that doesn’t need a lot of fleshing out. Their overall plan is left somewhat vague, though; it feels odd to hear Jilly (great though Lauren Ambrose is here) expressing such enthusiasm for something so ill-defined. And I love the way that Jack’s attempt to explain the phenomenon by quoting things the Doctor has said (“Silurian mythology, Huon particles, Racnoss energy…” is immediately undercut by Gwen getting him to admit he has no idea what it is. And this is one of those occasions where it’s better that we get no explanation.

I’m not sure I dig the solution; why do Jack and Rex both need to sacrifice themselves instead of just pricking their fingers or something? Either way would surely mean very little quantity of blood in proportion to the size of the blessing. Still, it works, the Miracle ends, there’s a mad rush to escape, and Danes blows up himself, the Shanghai access to the Blessing, and exposition woman.

We’re left uncertain whether Esther and Rex are going to survive as they both lie on stretchers. We then immediately cut to Esther’s funeral. She dies and Jilly lives. Together with the dialogue from Gwen that no one should have the power over life and death that the Families claim, I’m reminded of Mr Copper’s speech at the end of Voyage of the Damned, to the effect that survivors are not always the ones we would have chosen.

Only at the very end does Rex realise that Charlotte is the traitor. He chases her, but is shot dead. And then comes back to life, seemingly made immortal by the infusion of Jack’s blood. It’s a fantastic closing moment.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Blake's 7: Blake

“Stand still! Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?”

So, it’s Chris Boucher who gets to write the last episode, not Terry Nation after all. I suppose Terry really was properly in America by this point.

Isn’t this exciting? Even the very first thing that happens- the Scorpio leaving Xenon for the last time as our heroes blow up their now compromised base- reminds us that this is it; from this point onwards there is no reset button and anything can happen.

Of course, this being the final episode, it has the luxury of being largely about the series’ own mythology in a way which the series up to now has rather wisely resisted. But this is entirely appropriate, of course, and it fits in nicely with the series’ running themes and threads. The increasing sense of desperation that has run through Season Four reaches a head for; our heroes’ ambitious plan has failed, they are now homeless vagrants in a tatty old ship, and one last desperate throw of the dice is needed. Avon’s words about needing a new figurehead may sound as cynical as always, but there’s a real sense that in resorting to Blake he’s clutching at straws. For one thing, this represents a real loss of faith; for all Avon’s talk of “idealists” needing “direction” from the likes of himself, he is essentially admitting that he has failed as leader and that it’s time to reassert the hierarchy against which he once rebelled.

Blake himself is a shocking site; not only is he physically scarred, with his sight seemingly lost in one eye, but we see him in the least glamorous surroundings we could possibly have imagined. Worse, he’s revealed to be a bounty hunter: has he abandoned all his principles for the most amoral lifestyle possible? There’s one hint that this may not be true: he freely admits his name to Arlen, his captive, and there seems to be no consequences to her later revealing this information to Blake’s Federation employer. At first this seems to be a hole in the plot but, as we later discover, it hints that all may not be as it seems.

Orac has traced Blake to Gauda Prime, which we now learn is Soolin’s home planet. At last, in the final episode of the series, she acquires a hinterland and an identity! The planet has officially been declared lawless, purely so the mining companies can evict farmers from their lucrative land, but now wish to reverse this now that money is being made! This is a great concept, reminiscent of Westerns and nicely pointing forward to the series I’m going to move on to after Blake’s 7! (Hint: it’s American, 21st century, sci-fi, and the most appropriate follow-up series possible!)

In order to have the Federation re-impose law, such authorities as exist are hiring bounty hunters to assassinate all known troublemakers so that any future laws stand some chance of being enforced. Sadly, this comes too late for Soolin’s entire family, but at least she got her revenge in while she still could.

Anything can happen during this episode, though, and when the Scorpio is shot down we’re made very aware that this could be the end for the ship ands at least some of the crew, although of course the minutes left to be filled do rather hint at some survivors. This means we get a nice bit of misdirection: Tarrant is unable to teleport away with the others and it really seems that he’s about to die. In the end, he doesn’t, but that’s it for Scorpio. And Slave’s final words are even a bit poignant.

Tarrant is soon accosted, and apparently rescued by Blake, and taken in a flyer back to base, being told along the way that Jenna is dead (ensuring of course that, by the end of the episode, there are no survivors at all from the crews of the Liberator and Scorpio!). Dayna, Soolin and Vila are meanwhile making a right mess of things until Avon comes and sorts then out. Still, Avon has Orac, he has a plan, and he has a flier. All he needs to do is follow the other nearby flier back to base. Simple as. What could possibly go wrong?

Blake gets Tarrant back to base, and immediately seems to sell him out to the Federation. Tarrant runs away, but Blake seems unconcerned. He explains to his accomplice Deva (David Collings) that Tarrant will lead them to two bigger prizes: Avon and Orac. The dialogue is cleverly ambiguous here, but seems on the surface to imply that Blake is a traitor. It’; all a bit ominous; what if Avon and co should burst in at an awkward moment?

Oh, look. They have. Oh dear. And all mere seconds after Blake, talking to Deva, makes it clear that this is all part of elaborate plan to recruit capable people against the Federation.

Paul Darrow has never been better; the anguish in his voice as he asks whether Blake has betrayed him is haunting, as is the look in Gareth Thomas’s eyes as the dying Blake, shot three times by Avon, stares at him in disbelief.

It’s all gone horribly wrong; from this point there’s no hope for anyone. I’d heard that Avon’s fate, at least, was a bit ambiguous, but that isn’t the impression that I get. Fittingly, they all meet their ends at the hands of faceless minions of the system. As in 1984. Totalitarianism wins.

That was an amazing programme. Yes, there was the odd bad episode, many elements have dated, there could be a certain campness, and story arcs were less distinct than in modern television, but Blake’s 7 is generally well-written, well-acted and is at times a fascinating little meditation on totalitarianism.

Right. Torchwood tomorrow, and of course I’ll carry on with Doctor Who until the current season ends. I’ll be a bit less prolific over the next couple of weeks (real life intrudes, alas), so there might be the odd film review for a bit before I properly start reviewing the next programme…

Blake's 7: Warlord

“I see my bad dreams in other people’s eyes.”

Oh my word. Not long now at all, and this episode hints heavily that the end is nigh. Servalan knows where they all live, for one thing.

I’m always going on about new writers, so I won’t start with that here! It’s a most interesting beginning, though: a council of bizarrely dressed people. It’s clear that Avon’s strategy of recruiting allies is coming to a head, and successfully. And his opening speech makes it clear that the Federation’s use of the Pylene-50 drug is accelerating. Indeed, we see some disturbing scenes which are as reminiscent of Brave New World as they are of 1984.

The most interesting (and powerful) of these new allies is Zukan. He and his stowaway daughter Zeeona, it seems, hail from the Planet of Great Hair. These are very interesting scenes, though, and not just for the squabbling. Or, indeed, for the presence of Rick James, the worst actor ever to appear in Doctor Who. We learn that, although our heroes have the antitoxin to the drug, they have no means of mass-producing it on their own: stalemate.

We also learn, as if we didn’t know, that Tarrant is an utter twonk. Yes, it’s nice that he and Zeeona have a thing for each other and yes, Zukan is being a bit of a controlling tyrant figure to his daughter. But Tarrant is being utterly stupid in jeopardising such an important conference, in which the lives of billions are at stake, by gratuitously pissing off the most powerful delegate. Admittedly, the fact that said delegate turns out to be in the pay of Servalan doesn’t help that argument. But still…

Soolin bonds with Zeeona (who is rather attractive!), and actually lets slip a bit of hinterland; her dad got killed when she was eight and she later get her revenge. A bit slim for a backstory, yes, but at least it’s something. In the nick of time, too, considering how close to the end we are…

Of course, Zukan finds out about his daughter, but the upshot is that she ends up back on Xenon, her father ostensibly flies home, and Avon and a rather prattish Soolin head after him to check out all this industrial equipment he’s apparently got. Unfortunately, he’s done a deal with Servalan, interestingly foreshadowed a little earlier in an eloquent little speech about darkness and light. There’s a fascinating depth to Zukan, the warlord of the title, in both writing and performance.

The episode hinges on two parallel betrayals and two bombs. The first, left to Zukan by Servalan and his “reward”, leaves him helpless in his ship (a nice bit of early CGI here!), awaiting death unless he is rescued. And the bomb at our heroes’ base (paralleling the start of the season, and something for which there can be no reset button!), leaves Tarrant, Dayna, Vila and Zeeona facing eventual death by either virus or decapitation. This leads out to a very interesting falling-out between Tarrant and Vila, digging up all the darker elements of their somewhat unhappy relationship.

It’s left to Avon and Soolin to discover Zukan’s betrayal and get captured, but fortunately Soolin redeems her earlier foolishness by rescuing Avon in a rather clever way. Soon we end up with a complex three-way communication of everyone’s problems, which are neatly solved by Avon cleverly working out what to do and getting Tarrant to do as he says. That’s one to Avon, methinks.

That done, Zukan is fittingly blown up along with his ship. Everyone seems to be fine otherwise, though, as they are all teleported up to Scorpio. Zeeona volunteers to go down and check the virus has gone, and it’s honourable of her to take the risk after what her father has done. Still, it seems she’ll be ok, although that lingering kiss she gives to Tarrant gives us a hint that she may not be. The ending is powerful, leaving us in no doubt that she has committed suicide out of shame.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Blake's 7: Orbit

“Natural leaders are rarely encumbered with intelligence.”

At last a writer I know, and it’s the great Robert Homes again, at last! This episode is great. These two statements may well be connected…!

Yet again we get a notoriously clever scientist whom Avon wants to contact in case his cleverness might be useful- the standard Season Four plot, basically. But, this being Robert Holmes, we get a much more entertaining scientist. In fact, Egrogian must be the campest scientist ever, in all senses of the word. John Savident chews the scenery magnificently, and is the best thing in this.

His interaction with Pinder is great, too; in fact, it’s pretty much a textbook example of what we Doctor Who fans call a “Holmesian double act”; the “smart” one, with a rich fruity vocabulary and great quotable dialogue, and the put-upon underling. But it’s very, very dark here. For a start, there are hints of past sexual abuse. And the revelation that Pinder is only twenty-eight, but was aged fifty years in a freak accident, which was entirely Egrogian’s fault, is a wonderfully dark, twisted, Holmesian touch. Even the wart and hairstyle work perfectly for this gloriously grotesque villain.

It’s a dramatic moment when Avon and Vila are offered the tachyon nuke, capable of blowing up stars. Obviously, no one can have this much power. We know from the start that this uber-weapon cannot possibly be allowed to survive the episode. Especially as Egrogian proceeds to go on a bit of a rant about revenge and destroying stuff.

Avon is more or less his old self here; clever, level-headed and showing no sign of his self-destructive streak which has been showing itself occasionally of late. He sensibly agrees Egrogian’s proposed swap of the uber-weapon for Orac but, as we’ll see, has a rather cunning little contingency plan, double-crossing the double-crossing. I would have said how clever it was of him to infer the involvement of Servalan, but I won’t; Servalan is in every bloody episode these days. She’s very, very Thatcher here, so far more evil than usual.

Probably the creepiest moment is where our ultra-camp mad scientist expresses a bit of a thing for Vila (“One could become very fond of that young man…”), who would no doubt be abused in the same way as Pinder.

That’s not the only indignity Vila is made to suffer, of course. Both Holmes’ script and Darrow’s performance make it clear that, faced with death as the alternative, Avon is quite willing to throw Vila off the ship so he can achieve escape velocity. I’m still unsure whether this is a regression on the character’s part (the Avon we see in this episode is not quite the reckless Avon of Season Four), but the circumstances give him little choice, perhaps.

The twist ending is great, though; a little dwarf star, foreshadowed earlier, being the thing that’s pulling the shuttle down. I suspect that it’s not entirely realistic for Avon to push it around, but never mind! This episode is such enormous fun I can forgive anything. Top stuff.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Blake's 7: Gold

“I’ve got a criminal record.”

“Hasn’t everybody.”

I seem to start every single Blake’s 7 review these days by saying that I don’t know who the writer is and, er, I’m going to do it again now. So, Colin Davis: who he? Well, I dunno.  Even my good friend Wikipedia can’t help me with this one.

This is a fairly middling episode, really; a simple bank heist with a fairly ho-hum twist at the end. It starts well, though; I always like to see episodes of Blake’s 7 start as Star Wars films do, with cool-looking ships floating through space.

We’re soon introduced to Keiller, an old friend of Avon, played by a suitably shifty Roy Kinnear. Aside from outlining as much of the details of the heist as the unravelling of the plot requires us to know at this point, we’re clearly shown that Keiller is not to be trusted. He has an interesting line to Avon, too: “On the grapevine, my friend, you’re getting to be big news.” Avon’s reaction suggests this is unwelcome news. He isn’t Blake; he recognises that notoriety will not do any good for his chances of survival.

With the necessary exposition over with, the scene switches to the initial phase of the heist with admirable speed. Our heroes have to do something there to ensure they can convert the “black gold” into proper gold again once the job is done. As this is a drama and dramas need conflict, things don’t go well, and we spend quite a few minutes wondering whether Avon and Soolin are dead. Soolin, incidentally, is starting to acquire some character traits. Only some, mind you, but we’re beginning to establish that she’s efficient, no-nonsense, slow to trust people, self-reliant and fearless. This might all add up to a fairly generic character type, and she still has no hinterland whatsoever, but you have to start somewhere.

We now begin to get some answers from Keiller; he’s being employed by persons unknown, but we all immediately guessed it would be Servalan, right? I like the concept of the entire space cruise being a sham to cover up the delivery of gold to the Federation on Earth, mind. Even better is Avon’s explanation of how it is possible to dupe the passengers (“I imagine they have chemical help.”

I’m very conscious with Blake’s 7 that the teleport can create quite a problem for the sense of threat: how can the characters be in danger if they can be immediately teleported out. Davis finds a neat and very cheeky solution; teleporting the gold would immediately destroy its value. Hah!

The heist itself is quite clever and well-executed, but once again Avon and co find themselves in some very murky moral areas. Not only do they shoot an awful lot of security guards throughout the episode, but Keiller murders an unarmed doctor in cold blood. They’re all accessories to that, I’m afraid. It hardly makes our “heroes” look heroic. But then, I think that’s the point. They are criminals. Yes, they’re politically opposed to the totalitarian rule of the Federation, but they’re not nice people and they never have been.

It’s eventually revealed that Servalan has planned it all- of course- and Keiller gets his comeuppance. But, in a final twist, recent financial developments mean that their money is worthless, while Servalan is in possession of loads of gold (“We risked our lives to make Servalan rich”). Everyone seems to be pretty scathing of Avon; will there be consequences? And once again there are signs that he’s not quite right in the head any more, laughing hysterically at his own misfortune…

Doctor Who: The Girl Who Waited

“You didn’t save me.”

Five years on and we finally get another script from Tom MacRae. Rise of the Cybermen / The Age of Steel was a fine story of a traditional bent, but this time he’s given us an extraordinary piece of conceptual brilliance. This season just won’t stop being great.

Essentially, we have a world in quarantine. A plague fatal to all two-hearted races infests the planet, and death is inevitable within one day. This means the Doctor has to spend most of the time in the TARDIS in what is a rather effective way of telling a Doctor-lite story; there certainly isn’t any obvious lack of screen time. Still, if the Doctor is vulnerable to this plague, does this mean he was born with two hearts rather than gaining one on his first or second regeneration? Perhaps that’s a can of worms which should be left well alone.

There are 40,000 people on this world, all occupying a different time stream, a device which leaves the cast nice and small. Each individual timeline exists so that the last day of an infected person can be dragged out for a whole lifetime, spent alone but with a magnificent array of entertainments, some of which would presumably not be suitable for broadcast on a family show. It is, indeed, “a kindness”, although it’s perhaps not entirely realistic that a civilisation would expend such a massive amount of resources on doing this.

All this is no good to Amy, though; she’s trapped, in a different and faster timestream to that of Roy and the Doctor, and even an exact replica of Disneyland Clom(!) is not much consolation. Rory’s massive magnifying glass is a nice way of showing this. There’s one problem, aside from the prospect of years passing before she’s rescued; there are loads of white robots which want to give her injections from some nasty-looking syringes. As she’s not a native of this world, these injections would kill her, and the robots are pretty persistent, to the point of shooting needles at her. I don’t think much of their bedside manner.

The big emotional kick of the episode occurs once Rory meets a much older and very bitter Amy, who has spent thirty-six years alone, surviving. (Incidentally, the prosthetics work here is the best I’ve ever seen.) It’s pleasing to see that Amy is resourceful, handling the robots with ease and uber-cool sword-wielding slow-motion martial arts and showing an unexpected technical wizardry. But her bitterness at being so carelessly abandoned (and the Doctor was careless to lose her at the beginning) is shocking. Karen Gillan’s performance is magnificent: completely different from the normal, kooky Amy while still being recognisably the same character. It’s an emotionally devastating performance by an actress too often taken for granted.

The older Amy is at her harshest in the first few moments, with some very harsh words aimed at the Doctor. She even rejects Rory’s attempts to comfort her, and insists that her sonic device is a probe, not a screwdriver. The edges soon soften, though; she’s still Amy. I liked the ‘armless robot with the smiley face, which she has inevitably named after Rory.

Still, Amy refuses point blank to be “saved”.  She has good existential reasons for this; if the Doctor and Rory rescue her earlier self, that means the last thirty-six years of her life will never have happened and she will effectively die. It’s nice to see this acknowledged. This sort of thing is too often brushed under the carpet; here it’s foregrounded.

Instead, the older Amy wants to go with them, in the TARDIS, now. And this means condemning her earlier self to an otherwise avoidable thirty-six years alone. After all, why should she sacrifice her life? This means, as the Doctor says, that Rory has to choose between them. And it’s a horrible choice to have to make. Unsurprisingly, he’s angry at the Doctor, and we’re reminded very much of the less travelled Rory of last season as he firmly tells the Doctor that “…I do not want to travel with you!”

Rory is able to use the magnifying glass and allow the two Amy’s to talk to each other, which sets up a kind of time loop. The older Amy remembers being the younger Amy, hearing her older self refuse to save her. It’s a closed circle and, seemingly, there can be no way out of the paradox.

I love the way MacRae just takes a sword to the Gordian Knot, though! It may be outrageously cheeky to solve the paradox simply by saying that Amy is “bloody minded, contradictory and bloody unpredictable!”, but it works. What I particularly love is that the fact this doesn’t really make sense isn’t just glossed over, but positively revelled in! That’s proper Doctor Who, all right. And it’s perfect that the older Amy would do it out of love for Rory.

Mind you, there’s trouble ahead. The prospect of two Amy Ponds in the TARDIS makes Rory a kind of bigamist. And, let’s face it, if he has two Amy Ponds as sexual partners, one in her early twenties and one in her late fifties, he’s not exactly going to treat them both equally, even with the best will in the world. It’s pretty obvious that the older Amy has to die.

Still, the older Amy gets an uber-cool death scene, with lots of swordy, kicky action, and gets to heroically sacrifice herself in the final moments. And there’s an interesting parallel. “I’m giving you my days” she says to her younger self, paralleling what River did for the Doctor a couple of episodes ago.

I had to raise an eyebrow at the Doctor saying “Calm down, dear” to the TARDIS, incidentally. I hope we don’t get any more of this; Michael Winner and David Cameron are not exactly the two greatest role models out there.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Nine)

“We need you to write history.”

Two months have passed (“Day 61 of the Great Depression”), and much has happened. This episode feels very different, in fact; the action has largely moved back to Wales, and there’s a real sense that we’re reaching the endgame, with lots and lots of revelations. John Fay does an excellent job of keeping the characterisation on track as we whizz through it all.

The opening scene, with Gwen robbing a pharmacy, has lots of unintended consequences with the recent riots down south, while the use of pizzas echoes Torchwood’s beginnings in Everything Changes, a long time ago now. It’s also quite arresting that Gwen’s dad is being given diamorphine (pure heroin) by his ex-police officer daughter.

Meanwhile, Esther and Jack are holed up somewhere up in Scotland while Jack recovers from his wounds. Once again, Esther shows that she is competent despite her doubts. It’s hard to escape from the realities of what the world has become, though; I’m not sure how Esther is supporting Jack and herself, but Rhys is forced to consider taking a job which is essentially the transport of concentration camp inmates to the gas chambers, just to make ends meet. This series has done an excellent job of showing us how a whole society can eventually come to accept such things.

Surprisingly, it seems that no one at the CIA has noticed Rex’s obvious complicity in last week’s escape. Perhaps Shapiro knows, and is taking advantage of the situation? He’s certainly a lot more pensive and philosophical that he was last episode, even passive in his willingness to allow Rex to pretty much do as he wants.

Rex is certainly on top of things, though, unearthing a 1935 pulp magazine story which is clearly based on Jack’s experiences in 1928. The writer’s entire family seem to have vanished, but the earlier murder of a family member means that DNA traces must exist. Unfortunately, it’s Charlotte who takes charge of this, and she’s an agent of the Families. Unsurprisingly, she finds nothing. There’s only so long this sort of thing can go on before she gets caught.

Things are coming to a head for Jilly, too, as her promotion is shown to consist of a new identity, a one-way ticket to Shanghai and a trip to the “Blessing”. We’re getting a lot of exposition here, not that I’m complaining. An action sequence of some kind is pretty much obligatory at this point, so we have the Gestapo narrowly failing to find Gwen’s dad.

One thing I certainly wasn’t expecting was to see Oswald Danes walking into Gwen’s home. He’s not exactly made welcome, but he has the psychopath’s ability to manipulate. Once Jack and Esther arrive, we get to see what he has to say. At first, all this stuff about “Harry Bosco” doesn’t seem to amount to much, but the simple concept of deliberate mistranslation turns out to be the key to everything. I like this; everything hinges on language, which is all a bit metatextual.

The scene between Jilly and the geeky bloke is fascinating; is he a member of the Families? He certainly seems to know a lot about them, and gets one fascinating line: “One family took politics, one family took finance, one family took media.” It’s implied, though, that this neat division of labour is all in the past.

It all kicks off in the last few minutes. Gwen’s dad is carted off to the death camps, but it suddenly becomes clear that the “Blessing”, whatever it is, runs right through the centre of the Earth between Shanghai and Buenos Aires. Somebody should give Rhys a gold star for his geography homework.

So, the team splits and heads to those two cities. Rex seems to have very little trouble getting permission from Shapiro to “go off-grid”; to me, this heavily implies that Shapiro knows exactly what he’s doing, and is far more in control than he appears. But he and Esther, as soon as they arrive in Argentina, are somehow betrayed by Charlotte. Jack, Gwen and Danes(!), in Shanghai, meanwhile, find Jack’s health beginning to deteriorate at an inconvenient time; is he dying?

Jilly’s trip to see the Blessing is dragged out by all sorts of suspense. We even get a strangely Moffat-esque line about “something in the corner of your eye that you can’t quite see.” What we see, though, is very abstract and odd. We still have no clear idea what it is. But what people see is subjective. And Jilly’s revelation is that “I’m right.” What does this mean? No doubt we’ll find out in the last episode.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Jack’s serious health problems might not be as inconvenient as they appear at first, as his blood seems to roll towards the blessing…

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Blake's 7: Sand

“Perhaps I like watching old films?”

Oh my. This is the best episode ever. Yes, the central conceit is a bit of an off-the-shelf sci-fi concept, but who cares? Poetic dialogue; fascinating character stuff; fourth wall-shattering critiques of how rubbish this series has mostly been, smuggled into the dialogue- this episode has it all. I rather admired the last episode by Tanith Lee while feeling it went somewhat over my head. But this is an episode to love without reserve. Prepare for much gushing.

The opening moments show us an atmospheric panorama of the planet Virn, over which we hear some rather poetic dialogue which echoes Shelley or Coleridge. This is a statement of intent; we’re getting more than an ordinary Blake’s 7 script here. And the sudden reveal that all this happened five years ago, and Keller’s last message is being watched by Servalan also introduces us to all the lovely metatextual fun that we’re going to be having.

The parallel opening scenes, sharing exposition duties between Servalan, Reeve and underling on the one hand and Avon and co on the other, is nicely done. And the sudden crashing of Servalan’s shuttle is both unexpected and a powerful demonstration of the threat posed by this eerie, silent planet. Virn, almost uniquely in this series, looks nothing like the South-East of England. It may not look quite real, perhaps- it’s more like a stage set than anything one might see at the cinema- but realism doesn’t matter. The look of the planet just works, and drenches the episode in atmosphere.

The initial dynamics between Servalan and Reeve is fascinating; marooned and helpless, the dynamics of the group are in flux, and Servalan’s position as top dog is under threat. This is emphasised even more once their underling has been attacked and killed, apparently by the sand.

There’s a great scene with Reeve revealing that he knows that “Sleer” is in fact Servalan, and this leads to a situation with Servalan, Reeve and Tarrant all wandering independently around pillars with a gun as though they’re in a shoot-‘em-up! Of course, Reeve ends up dead- such is the fate of all who discover who Servalan really is- and the fascinating scenes between Tarrant and Servalan begin. The chemistry between the two is apparent from the start. Jacqueline Pearce is fantastic here.

Aboard the Scorpio, Avon has pretty much worked out that the planet is a single living organism, and that the thunder is caused by Scorpio “irritating” the atmosphere. All things electronic are going a bit funny, too; it’s rather arresting to hear Orac saying “I love you”!

After a bit of flirting, Servalan and Tarrant arrive at Keller’s crashed ship, and begin to work out what’s going in while continuing to flirt and, eventually, connect with each other.

On the Scorpio, though, there’s some extraordinary character stuff going on. Soolin’s throwaway reference to Lee’s previous script isn’t very significant at face value, as she dismisses the theory at once, but hints that the rules are not as they usually are. And Vila, the drunken court jester, is allowed to say some very true things. “Who cared about Cally?” he moans, implicitly criticising the scripts in the earlier part of the season for their unforgivable failure to mourn her passing in any way.

Both Tarrant and Avon work out the truth; the planet is alive, and the sand carnivorous. It seeks to kill the humans it does not need, and domesticate the rest. This, of course, means as many fertile females as it can get, plus a solitary “bull” to service them! I’m not sure this is good genetics, but as a dramatic plot device it certainly works. If nothing, it gives us Josette Simon’s wonderful delivery of the line “Well, how could we refuse, Avon? You are the dominant male, aren’t you?”

It’s interesting that it should be the less than cerebral Tarrant, not the usually self-assured Servalan, that should work this out. Servalan is unusually vulnerable here; it seems that Don Keller was her lover when she was eighteen, but he left her. Since then she has devoted herself to power, and “Power is like a drug. It’s beautiful!” It says a lot that she should tell all this to Tarrant. Oh, and then there’s that kiss. Although we’re left in no doubt that she’s dangerous, and will have no compunction about killing Tarrant when the time comes.

It’s obvious what Tarrant has been up to once he’s back aboard the Scorpio. Dayna is disgusted- nice touch- and Avon, I believe, is jealous!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Blake's 7: Games

“Your survival is becoming more miraculous by the moment…”

Well, here’s another episode, and here’s another writer who’s unknown to me. Bill Lyons gives us a good, witty script though.

We get some exposition to start with; Avon and his crew are planning to rob an Unobtainium mine run by the Federation; simple enough. Except that this particular Unobtainium is magic, and produces huge amounts of energy at very little cost. It’s notable that, although this story ends with a load of it destroyed, the Federation are still mining another eight planets of the stuff. The subtext continues to be that the Federation are increasingly becoming quite worryingly powerful.

Isn’t Stratford Johns great? Belkov (naturally, the chess player has a Russian-sounding name) is such a fun character- a bit like Vila, but cooler and with more style. I love the booby traps / obstacle course protecting his ship, but the coolness of the character basically comes from Johns’ performance. I love his calm, scheming acceptance of the situation when he’s arrested by Servalan; his refusal to accept the situation and his insistence on bargaining with “Sleer” even seems to gain her grudging admiration. Also, the sheer bare-faced cheek he shows in playing our heroes and Servalan against each other is a joy to behold.

It’s interesting, incidentally, that chess has survived unaltered so far into the future as, although chess computers are apparently some way behind Deep Thought. It’s amusing that this world of interstellar travel and all sorts of marvels should be so far behind our own in this respect, but never mind! At least Gambit seems to have feelings, something beyond our ken, as we see at the end.

This is an episode which seems to return us to traditional Blake’s 7 values in many ways: Avon seems to be motivated essentially by greed, which seems a little inconsistent with his behaviour of late; the landing party is out of teleport range for much of the episode; and Avon even gets to practice his thieving skills, not once but three times. None of these things really seem to belong in this season, but it’s nice to see them all the same.

This is a nice, light-hearted episode, and rather leads me to expect much grimness in the near future. There is one horrific moment, though; we last see Gerren (always doomed to be a redshirt) quivering with fear as Servalan puts her gun in his mouth. It’s hard not to see this as symbolising another kind of violation, although the literal meaning is dark enough. The actor does a great job of portraying real, paralysing terror.

Back to lighter matters, though… isn’t the ‘80s amusement arcade near the end of the episode a fantastic piece of nostalgia? Soolin even acquires a rare couple of personality traits; she’s a crack shot and confident at taking risks to prove it. And Tarrant, of course, is a flight sim fan.

The twists at the end- no unobtainium on the ship, and the ultimate goal being death by black hole- is interesting, I suppose, but it loses something for not paying off anything established earlier. It fails to match the last episode in that respect. And the characterisations of the regulars don’t quite seem to fit in with their more recent development, however vague this development admittedly is. This is very much a standalone episode, then; light, fluffy and entertaining without really advancing the arcs or the characters. But there’s nothing wrong with that every now and then; this is our third good episode of the season. It may not end up such a bad season after all...

Monday, 5 September 2011

Blake's 7: Assassin

“All right then; he’s not infallible. It’s just that up to now he’s never failed.”

At last, this rather piss-poor season has produced a second decent episode. I’ve no idea who this Rod Beacham chap is, but he’s really come up trumps with this rather clever little script. All the characters are well-served, the story is gripping, there’s a nice little twist and the pacing is well fast.

The first scene, for all that it’s basically exposition (the team learn about Servalan hiring an assassin to get them and decide to pre-empt her, blah blah blah) is both funny and interesting character-wise, as for once we get to see Avon being scared, however much he may try to hide it. In fact, he spends most of this episode being rather more sensible than he has been of late.

Interesting name for the assassin- Cancer- although I’ve concluded that it’s probably not worth going subtext-hunting here. This episode is all about the action, anyway, as we fast-forward to Avon and Vila having teleported down to the surface of Gomo, one of those ubiquitous quarry worlds, without bothering with any pointless scene beforehand establishing that they’re going to do so. It’s not the last time that this will happen during this episode, and it’s the most refreshing example of the refreshing economy of storytelling that’s on display here.

Avon succeeds in his rather barmy plan of being captured as a slave (What’s with this element of masochistic craziness in Avon’s plans? He did something similar in Rumours of Death. Actually, I take back what I said about him acting sensibly here.), although his losing the bracelet is going to be a bit of a bother.

I fear that for once I’m going to break my golden rule and discuss another programme here, as it’s blindingly obvious that this episode is the reason that Richard Hurndall (Nebrox) gets cast as the First Doctor two years later in The Five Doctors. You can see why. The resemblance is uncanny, far more so, in fact, than it would be when he actually came to play the role.

This isn’t the only delightful piece of casting, either. At the slave auction scene (Servalan’s there, naturally) we get a wonderful little cameo from the legendary Betty Marsden of Round the Horne fame. She gets an interesting little speech, incidentally, which implies (well, says out loud, really) that there are such people as “nouveaux riches” and “nobles” at this point in the future. Also hilarious is her excuse for why so few extras are needed to play the punters at the auction!

There’s a wonderfully kinky little moment as Servalan buys Avon as a slave, but it’s time for the plot to move on, so Avon duly gets rescued. We now move to Cancer’s seemingly marooned ship, the main setting for this episode. Cancer is overpowered, seemingly quite easily, much to the apparent relief of the too-girly-to-be-true Piri. You’ll forgive me for revealing the plot twist at this early stage (I guessed at the 29 minutes and 45 seconds mark), but her awfully stereotyped personality actually turns out to be a very clever postmodern trick- I love that.

Incidentally, the bridge of Cancer’s ship is straight out of an ‘80s music video, with the bearded “Cancer” looking just like General Zod. But the real Cancer, once we finally get to see her as she is, looks utterly fab in a way that transcends the decades, with great hair. Oh, and the fight scenes on the bridge are shot really excitingly, with lots of fast cutting. It’s really, really weird to see direction like this in 1981. I’m really impressed with David Sullivan Proudfoot’s work here. His surname is pretty cool too.

The plot really is very, very clever. “Piri” manages to quite easily manipulate everyone, deliberately alienating Soolin (who comes a little closer to having a personality than she has before, if only because she slaps Piri, and seems to work out that she’s a baddie) and getting Avon and Tarrant to fight over her. Her plan actually seems pretty likely to succeed, too; I suspect that Vila, Dayna and the smitten Tarrant, aboard the Scorpio, would prove rather easy to manipulate.

I like the animatronic spider, too. But the ending is satisfying, giving us a nice little verbal exchange between Servalan and Avon before things are resolved. And it seems the episode ends with Servalan thinking they’re all dead?

That was good. Very good. More like this please.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Doctor Who: Night Terrors

“Today, we’re answering a cry for help from the scariest place in the universe: a child’s bedroom.”

You might have noticed that my weekly Torchwood and Doctor Who reviews are somewhat late this weekend. This is because I spent yesterday at the rather splendid Whooverville convention in Derby. And after the excellent day’s entertainment had finished and some beer had been drunk, it was time to sit down at 7pm and watch Doctor Who, on a big screen, with my mates and loads of other fans- the best way to watch it! But fear not, my readers- I’ve just rewatched it with subtitles and written up my notes…

Richard Clark is a bloody brilliant director. The opening shots are amazing, and really looked magnificent on a big screen. The whole aesthetic is fascinating, too; taking a rather run-down 1960s housing block, complete with bin bags across a wall, and make it look both scary and beautiful. It succeeds at both brilliantly, and the direction really brings out the scariness right through the episode.

Living on the estate is a little boy called George, who seems to be afraid of everything, including, we’re told, pants. So scared, in fact, that his pleas for help against the “monsters” reach the TARDIS and the Doctor’s psychic paper.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory split up and, in some very funny intercut scenes in which Arthur Darvill shines in particular, get to meet the neighbours. We’re introduced to Mrs Rossiter, whom George thinks is a witch, and to the extremely nasty landlord, Jim Purcell, with his threatening pit-bull, Bernard. More about him later.

George, unfortunately, overhears Rory joking that “Maybe we should just let the monsters gobble him up?”. Seconds later, Rory and Amy find themselves taking a much faster and scarier trip in a lift than they had intended. Mrs Rossiter, meanwhile, is swallowed by some bin bags. I can think of no other TV series in which that could happen!

Amy and Rory discover themselves to be somewhere else, somewhere very dark and more than a little odd. They’re uncertain about where they are (I love Rory’s “We’re dead. Again.”). It seems to be a big but featureless house, with a massive glass eye in a drawer (urgh!), wooden pots and pans and electric candles. It’s all very mysterious, but the clues are there…

The Doctor tries to bond with George (I loved the fan-pleasing reference to “Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday”), and establishes that everything that scares George is put into the cupboard? The suspense is ramped up to unbearable levels, but just as the Doctor is about to open the door, he’s interrupted by some loud knocking.

Alex opens the door to the bullying Purcell, and we get a glimpse of a parallel and perhaps worse terror. Alex, we learn, is unemployed, and Claire’s wages are not enough to pay the rent. None of this is resolved by the end; Purcell is still their landlord. It seems to be implied that the family may be in the early stages of a Cathy Come Home-style spiral of descent into poverty and eventual homelessness. If this is even partly correct, then the apparent happy ending we eventually see may well be illusory, and George may end up being taken away after all.

Back to fears of a more fantastic kind, though, the Doctor scans the cupboard, and discovers that George’s monsters are real. Things are getting creepy for Amy and Rory, too; children’s laughter has never seemed so scary. There’s something very Sapphire and Steel about this thread of the story.

Alex eventually asks the Doctor to leave, but is unable to. For all that these scenes are played for laughs, it’s clear that Alex is rather a weak personality- and so, from what we see of her, is Claire. None of this bodes well for the family’s future.

Amy and Rory are perhaps too eager to open their cupboard downstairs, but all they find is a horrible old doll. At first, it seems to be eerie but harmless. The cupboard, upstairs, though, after some further scenes of tension, turns out to be empty. But then the Doctor discovers something odd about the family photos; Claire photographed a fortnight before giving birth to George, is clearly not pregnant. This confuses Alex, and he blurts out that “Claire can’t have kids.” we realise two things: firstly, George is not what we thought, and secondly, he has been there all the time, listening. The room starts to shake, and the Doctor and Alex are pulled into the cupboard.

Purcell gets a hard time, too; George has heard him being nasty to his Dad, and he is pulled under the ground to the doll’s house. Amy and Rory see him there, being chased by dolls and, in a horribly memorable scene, see him being turned into one of them. These dolls are one of the best Doctor Who monsters ever, in both concept and execution. They’re simply terrifying. It’s not just the faceless, decayed appearance of the faces, but the slow advance, the childish voices and the nursery rhymes.

Amy and Rory are trapped in a room by advancing dolls, but Amy works out that the only solution is to open the door and push past. This sort of works, but Amy is caught, and turned into one of them: a terrifying moment.

The Doctor works out that the cupboard is a repository for all of George’s fears; everything that terrifies George is in there with them. It’s odd that there should be a doll’s house in the house, mind- George is a boy- but there we are. It seems that George is a Tenza (why not re-use the concept of an Isolus from Fear Her? Perhaps that’s an episode the production team would like to forget…), an alien “cuckoo” who has instinctively created a perception filter around the circumstances of his birth. The Doctor shouts to George to try and stop it, and the advancing dolls stop. And then start again, because George fears rejection. Alex soon sorts this out by running to his son, and the episode seems to end happily. But does it? What happens if the family get evicted and bad things keep following on…?

At last, a truly first class script from Mark Gatiss and probably the scariest story since The Time of Angels.

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Part Eight)

“You’re telling me the whole world got screwed because two gay guys had a hissy fit?”

Right. That’s it. That opening spiel with the white background and the numbers going upwards is getting well annoying, and it’s a relief that I’m only going to have to see it twice more. It’s also becoming clear as we reach the end just how uneven and oddly paced the series have been- surely the gradual revelation of the plot could have been paced better? Still, at least we have John de Lancie to add a bit of fun.

The team are taken by Nana Visitor to see Angelo, now a centenarian vegetable, and to receive the necessary exposition. There are some old pics of Jack on the mantelpiece, including one from the ‘70s with a moustache; although Angelo has married, become very wealthy and fathered children, he hasn’t forgotten Jack.

This isn’t purely for personal reasons, of course. Angelo has been watching Jack partly to learn whatever he can from Jack’s immortality. So have others, including those three men we saw in flashback last episode.  The three families of Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines have been watching Jack for eighty-three years, constantly watching his resurrections, since 1928. They seem to have been collecting his blood. And, in 1998, a message was intercepted, referring to the “blessing”…

Suddenly, they’re all raided and arrested by a CIA team lead by none other than Newman. Except, this doesn’t seem to be entirely official. Newman seems nervous about the imminent arrival of others, and his sadistic behaviour towards Rex isn’t exactly that of someone who expects to explain himself to a superior.

The “official” CIA arrive, led by the brilliant John de Lancie as Shapiro, the CIA’s big boss. It turns out that Rex has deliberately allowed himself to be caught by Newman so he can set a trap; he’s wearing contact lenses, and Newman’s revealing comments to him are being relayed on every screen in the area for everyone to see.

The introduction of Shapiro gives the series a much-needed shot of adrenaline; De Lancie is perfectly cast, and Jane Espenson and Ryan Scott keep him well-supplied with great dialogue. And it feels as though we’ve reached a point where big revelations are going to keep coming. It seems that Newman is an agent of the Families; he gets to recite the mantra (“They are everywhere. They are always. They are no one.”), before blowing up the car he’s in, along with Nana Visitor.

Jack gets a few moments alone with Angelo, and is tactless enough to mention Ianto(!). But then, unexpectedly, Angelo dies, becoming the first person to do so since Miracle Day. It’s a bit of a mystery what causes this; we’re going to get some revelations shortly about what lies underneath the bed, but I reckon it’s Jack’s breath what did it. Surely the presence of the world’s only mortal man can’t be a coincidence?

Shapiro certainly suspects something along those lines, and insists that no one leaves. Other things are going on in the wider world, too, although frankly I’d rather not be reminded of the EU’s slow-burn financial crisis in my escapist drama!

The scene switches to Dallas, where we return to the sublime Bill Pullman and the wonderful Lauren Ambrose after far too long. Jilly Kitzinger is continuing to give Danes a load of very detailed instructions so he can further advance her employers’ agenda, but Danes is showing an increasing tendency to generally act like a rebellious teenager. Then, he changes the subject with a simple “Get me a girl”. Apparently, she has to be of “legal age”. Is this supposed to tell us something beyond the fact that we as viewers would not accept things being otherwise?

Jilly is approached by a very self-confident young wannabe “intern”, Shawnie Yamaguchi. We’re told, pretty much immediately, that she’s a CIA spy. I felt rather stupid for not having guessed that.

Bad things are happening. Esther’s sister, whom she reported to social services a while ago, intends to volunteer herself and her two children as Category One. Gwen’s dad is completely buggered- he’s in a bad way, but they can’t call a doctor without outing him as Category One. And the world economy continues to implode (We can smoke our way into the next Great Depression!”), as there are runs on the banks.

Esther spots something odd about the raised platform under Angelo’s bed, but Jack seems oddly reluctant for him to mention this to Shapiro. He’s eventually forced to mention that it’s a kind of localised “morphic field”, whatever that is.

Oswald manages to freak out his prostitute by insisting on sort of date, with conversation and dinner, rather than the sort of depraved activities one might expect. I’m not sure how realistic this is, frankly; it seems rather too neat. Surely a worldly-wise courtesan who sleeps with senators and so must be known for her intelligent conversation would either be willing to do this or (most likely by far) not be willing to have anything to do with someone like Danes at all?

Danes ends up in a massive row with Jilly I which he is violent towards her. Enraged, she lets slip that he is to be designated as “Category Zero” and sent to the ovens to carry out the judicial killing.

Back in Nevada, Jack utilises the bizarre properties of the morphic field to speak privately with Jack and Esther. He makes it clear that this is alien technology, once in the possession of Torchwood, with which humanity cannot be trusted. Esther is convinced instantly. Rex takes more persuasion, but ultimately it is agreed that they will attempt an escape.

Jilly, meanwhile, is approached by a mysterious, yet clearly important, chap. Warning her that she’s being watched by a CIA spy, he casually shoots Shawnie. Both of them seem to take this in their stride.  She is then offered a promotion within the “Family business”, and immediately accepts. We are then immediately shown that one of the CIA agents we’ve followed throughout the series, a friend of Rex and Esther’s whose name I didn’t catch, is working for the Family too. Their tentacles seem to be everywhere.

In Nevada, the escape begins; the plan is for Jack to escape, with Rex and Esther staying to bluff things out. But things go wrong. Jack, who is now mortal, is shot, and needs Esther to go with him. Rex has blood on his clothes. Gwen has been deported. And Esther is left alone in a stolen car with a possibly dying Jack as the radio delivers alarming news of financial Armageddon. We are reminded of her earlier crises of confidence as she panics. Where can she go? What can she do?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Blake's 7: Headhunter

“I was a perfect gentleman towards her!”

“That’s what bothered us.”

Oh dear. Another rubbish episode. That’ll be five out of six for the season so far. Not good. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise; Roger Parkes wrote Children of Auron, after all…

For the second episode in a row, our heroes are desperately flailing around trying to recruit an eminent scientist in the hope he’ll be of some vague use. Vila and Tarrant are sent to collect this chap, Muller, while Avon uses his limitless charm to entertain his girlfriend, played by a disturbingly young Lynda Bellingham. But Muller calls Scorpio to say that someone’s on to him and he needs to be teleported up immediately.

There are clues that something’s up as soon as Vila and Tarrant teleport down. For a start, Muller is dressed quite absurdly, and his voice sounds a bit robotic which, as we will soon learn, a dead giveaway. Tarrant decides at the last minute to bring along a mysterious black box. Lucky he did, in the light of what happens.

Muller goes completely off his rocker once he finds the box is aboard, and sets about tussling with Tarrant in a highly unconvincing way. Plot convenience demands at this point that Vila is able to knock him out, possibly killing him, by a simple blow on the back, in spite of the superhuman strength he is later revealed to have.

Vila and Tarrant set off back to base with their black box and seemingly dead passenger, but things soon start to go wrong. Firstly Slave starts to become notably less obsequious, and then the destination of the ship is altered (Why? We never discover any reason for this to happen!). Finally, life support is withdrawn, meaning that Vila and Tarrant will gradually find their environment getting more and more airless and cold. Back at base, Orac suspects something is up, and suggests quarantine. Avon agrees. But ultimately, when it’s clear that the choice is to rescue them or let them die, Avon angrily refuses to abandon them. In fact, Paul Darrow’s decision to play both this scene and the episode’s final moments with real, passionate anger is pretty much the only interesting thing about this episode.

Orac starts acting a bit odd to Soolin (we still know sod all about her), though. Apparently all human life in the galaxy is doomed. Isn’t that nice? It seems he wants to be switched off until the “intruder” is destroyed. I suppose, in a halfway-decent episode, this would be in some way ominous.

We soon discover that not only is Muller alive but he’s happily walking around the premises (so when did he teleport down then?), and is in such a bad mood that he manages to rather unconvincingly kill his own girlfriend. He also seems to have superhuman strength, the power to control all electronic stuff, and the power to turn guns to stone for some reason.

The big revelation of the episode is very silly indeed; “Muller” is in fact a headless robot who has killed Muller so he can graft his head on to his robot body and pose as his creator, so he can make his way to Xenon, join forces with Orac, and enslave Orac. Oh, and the black box contains the robot’s head, which contains its metal superego, which is supposed to stop its metal id going out of control. Is this the silliest Blake’s 7 episode ever?

Our heroes manage to defeat their metal foe with the use of a dam and a bridge, and we get a very silly moment where Avon struggles to re-attach the head. With the threat over, Avon proposes to use the robot as a weapon, but Tarrant and Dayna proceed to blow it up behind its back. He throws a right wobbly here, which leads Orac- traditionally the voice of reason who speaks wisdom- to lambast his arrogance and hint that, perhaps, he may no longer be entirely sane or reliable…