Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Passion

“It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank... without passion, we'd be truly dead.”

This episode is so, so devastating. It’s emotionally draining. It’s also very, very, very clever in the way it uses structure to deliver its massive emotional punch. It’s probably best to talk about these things separately, and to get the structural stuff out of the way first.

The first we hear is Angel’s voice, as narrator, and we hear this narration throughout. This immediately shows us just how much control Angel has over Buffy and the Scoobies; a narrator has authorial, omnipotent, godlike powers. Connected with this is his absolute power over space- he’s able to enter anyone’s private spaces whenever he wants, leaving tokens to show he’s been by the bedsides of Buffy, Willow and even Joyce. All this is just to mentally torture Buffy.

In this context, the scene in which Jonathan and another student essentially evict Giles and the Scoobies from the School Library (such effrontery to want to actually use it as a library!) is a massive contrast. While Angel has absolute control over everyone’s space, the Scoobies have no control even over their own.

Things don’t continue this way, though; Buffy manages to assume at least some limited control over space (Giles’ spell, which “changes the locks”) and over the narrative (the closing narration is hers). But she most certainly doesn’t win.

Jenny’s horrible murder, just as she and Giles are about to be reconciled and just after she’s admitted that she loves him, is the most devastating thing. Angel’s cruel taunting of Giles, with the roses, the Puccini and the champagne, perversely seems even more horrible than the murder itself. And Anthony Head’s performance sells the devastation utterly. But the worst thing for me is Alyson Hannigan’s reaction to receiving the phone call. This whole succession of scenes is very, very powerful. And that’s why the final hug between Buffy and Giles after the fight at the factory is so very, very important. Our surrogate father and daughter still have each other, and they’re so very, very close.

Speaking of parental relations, Joyce is wonderfully supportive of Buffy here, and it’s a joy that the character has consistently avoided being pigeonholed into being the obstructive authority figure. She gives Buffy a bit of grief for sleeping with Angel, but everything she says is quite correct, and she knows when to stop. It’s very clear (as Buffy pretty much acknowledges early on) that she needs to be told everything, and soon. I can’t remember from my previous viewing of the series when exactly it is that she finds out, but the narrative impetus strongly suggests that it must be soon.

So… deep breath. This episode is emotionally draining, very clever and absolutely pivotal- Buffy is now left in no doubt that Angel has to die. But could he be re-souled? That final shot of the disk, lodged between the tables, reminds me of something Raymond Chandler is once reputed to have said about guns and first scenes…

Monday, 30 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered

“Blackmail is such an ugly word.”

“I didn’t mention blackmail.”

“Yeah, but I’m about to blackmail you, so I thought I’d bring it up.”

This is essentially a farce, well-performed by the cast and well-crafted by the increasingly impressive Marti Noxon; clearly a second comedy episode in a row to leaven the heavy stuff surrounding it on either side. And yes, it has a nice subtext about the violent possessiveness of men towards women and its extreme consequences. But there’s a problem. Xander is one of the central characters of the show, someone whom it’s essential that we like. And yet I’m trying to find a way of not seeing him as being essentially guilty of something awkwardly close to attempted rape here. I can’t. That’s a big problem.

The thing is, the spell which Xander gets Amy to cast seems to be a mind control spell, and a cruel one; he wants Cordelia to love him so he can reject her and break her heart. That’s nasty. Yes, I know there’s no implication of actual sex here, but we’re still talking the supernatural equivalent of rohypnol. We’re not talking something which is effectively just pheromones (that, I think, is what more-or-less lets Owen off the hook in the first episode of Torchwood, although even that is problematic). I’m glad to see Giles making it clear how disgusted he is, but even he doesn’t really get the point, and Xander gets off far too lightly. Buffy actually seems grateful that he didn’t take sexual advantage of her- surely that sort of thing should be taken for granted. Worse, Cordelia actually takes him back after dumping him (and makes the huge sacrifice of giving up her place in the social hierarchy) because she realises the spell was meant for her, and somehow finds this romantic as opposed to incredibly creepy and controlling.

All this is a huge problem for the series. What Xander has done is not ok, and Whedon & co simply can’t expect us to suddenly like him again.

Cordelia, on the other hand, I like a lot. She’s still as cluelessly tactless as ever (dumping Xander, in public, on Valentine’s Day!) but I just melted when I say that she was still wearing her gift from Xander, and her angry sheep accusing Harmony and co of being sheep is the best thing ever. Xander had better be very, very nice to her, or else. Her being so lovely deep down just makes him look even worse.

Oh, and I like Oz, too, because he punched Xander for making Willow cry. And Willow, of course, for the axe, and for that look on her face while telling everyone that “My boyfriend’s in the band”. And Joyce, for the sheer pricelessness. There are other couples on this Valentine’s Day, too; Angel is still gradually prising Drusilla away from Spike, while Giles is still unable to forgive Jenny.

It’s good to see Amy again, off course, this time as a witch in her own right. And I suppose that Buffy being turned into a rat allows Sarah Michelle Gellar to have a bit of a rest. The comedy farce element is well directed (I particularly love that slow-mo shot of Xander walking through a school corridor as all the girls perv at him) and performed, but there’ll always be a problem with the premised of this episode for me. Right now, I don’t like Xander much at all. The character is aged goods. He’d better bleeding well redeem himself.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Phases

“Werewolves! It’s one of the classics!”

Inevitably, we get a somewhat light-hearted episode after all the recent heaviness. But there’s still an awful lot of arc and character stuff going on. Plus, it’s the inevitable werewolf episode.

I’ve commented before about the series of apparent tributes to classic Universal Horror movies which I happen to have seen recently. Of course, they’re also referring to the obvious novels / tropes, but it’s amusing to look for similarities between Out of Mind, Out of Sight and The Invisible Man, what with the invisible naughty person theme, and there are clear nods to James Whale’s Frankenstein in Some Assembly Required, and to The Mummy in Inca Mummy Girl. I don’t think that there are many obvious parallels between this episode and the Lon Chaney Jr version of The Wolf Man, though. Yes, Oz has a love interest (Willow) and there’s a scene where he changes in a forest, but I think we’ve now reached a point where the show is no longer in the business of overt tributes.

That isn’t to say that it doesn’t have lots of fun with the tropes, of course. In fact, there’s a lot of metatextual fun going on here, from the Giles quote up there to Oz’s phone conversation to his aunt (“Is Jordy a werewolf? Uh huh. And how long has that been going on?”). Best of all is the treatment of Kane, the inevitable silver bullet-using werewolf hunter, who is pretty much explicitly paralleled with the sort of big game hunter who goes after endangered species with no concern for ethics. He is, as Giles says, a pillock.

This being Buffy, the whole Oz-being-a-werewolf thing is probably some sort of metaphor for male sexuality, and how it’s all wild and dangerous and stuff. Er, I’m really not sure about that; I’m male, and there’s nothing violent or nasty about my sexual urges. And isn’t it a little misogynistic to hint at the whole “men are horny, women are innocent, chaste and passive” sort of thing? Then again, I’m not sure that’s what’s meant at all. After all, it’s explicitly stated that werewolves can be either gender. Perhaps, even on Buffy, we shouldn’t always look for a metaphor.

Certainly, Oz is now a fully-fledged Scooby just like Cordelia, who now seems to be hanging out with the gang pretty much exclusively. And his relationship with Willow is developing nicely, if not quickly. There’s even a very brief kiss towards the end. I like the character; he’s a nice guy and he’s witty, even if he does seem to have a tendency to be the voice of the author with some of his quips.

Oh, and then there’s Larry, background character, master of the single entendre and red herring, who is revealed to be gay in a nice bit of misdirection. It’s a great comic scene (Xander’s reaction to realising what he’s implied about himself is hilarious), but also a nice little nod to an issue that many teenage viewers must be going through. Being a teenager is bad enough as it is, but being a gay teenager must be so much more difficult, not only because of homophobia but with the lack of obvious outlets to express your sexuality in a mainly heterosexual culture. Surely, though, this general theme deserves an episode of its own?

Obviously this is a pivotal episode for Oz, and for Willow’s relationship with him, and an overdue use of the werewolf trope, but there’s other arc stuff, too. Angel continues to mess with Buffy’s head, and there’s an interesting scene where Xander saves Buffy, she hugs him, and suddenly they both realise the awkwardness of the situation. He also accidentally “outs” himself in a second way, letting slip that he remembers being possessed by a hyena, which is interesting in the light of this. What’s in store for him…?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Innocence

“You got a lot to learn about men, kiddo.”

Again, wow. So much to talk about. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance is… more wow. Joss Whedon writes and directs but, for once, the dialogue is (mostly) deadly serious and the camerawork is (mostly) unshowy. Buffy, Willow and Giles all have their hearts broken, and things will never be the same again. But, for Buffy, it’s worse: not only is her heat broken, but terrible things are happening and it’s all her fault. That’ll teach her to be a woman and actually enjoy sex, eh?

Dramatic though these events are, though, this is a development of last episode’s themes as well as its events- namely relationships and their different stages. There’s an obvious three-way parallel between Buffy (who gets her heart broken by Angel, who suddenly turns bad after she shags him), Willow (who gets her heart broken by seeing Xander, her long-time crush, locking lips with Cordelia of all people and says “You’d rather be with someone you hate than with me”- ouch) and Jenny (whose conflict between family and friends causes her to betray Buffy and be brusquely rejected by Giles, who is very protective of his surrogate daughter). But the theme broadens out. Willow (oh, and Alyson Hannigan is extraordinary, too) continues to develop her relationship with Oz, who shows how much he thinks of her by waiting to kiss her until it’s right for them both).

Oh, and there’s Drusilla, and the symbolically emasculated Spike. Angelus suddenly walking in and joining them is simply huge: it was only a couple of episodes ago that Angel was goading Spike about his ability to sexually satisfy Drusilla. There’s already an incipient triangle developing, and Spike isn’t going to be able to compete. Oh, and if all this isn’t enough, Angel’s torment of Buffy is explicitly paralleled with what he did to Drusilla, a century ago. This whole situation has been cleverly foreshadowed right through the season. Joss Whedon is a clever man.

Angel is deliciously evil here, as he has to be- not only does he kill a woman during the opening teaser, but he (gasp) smokes a cigarette. Yes, David Boreanaz is superb in this too. And he’s clearly playing a long game, and a game it is. He (and for that matter Spike and Dru) has very little time for the old-fashioned, moustache-twirling villainy of the Judge, whom the script rather amusingly mocks throughout. I love his death scene, and Xander’s plan, and the fact that he gets to use his military skills from Halloween. Xander now has superpowers, sort of.

There’s only slight problem with this episode, though; I’m a bit uncomfortable with its portrayal of gypsies. They’re portrayed as mysterious, magical, “other”. I suppose, as far as popular culture goes where gypsies are concerned, that it could be much worse, but there’s an awkwardness.

This aside, though, this is probably the most extraordinary episode yet. I remember watching this for the first time with my mate Dave (hi if you’re reading this!) who introduced me to the series for the first time, and him telling me that Angelus was in fact to be the season’s Big Bad. And that’s made clear by the ending: Buffy can’t bring herself to kill him, but it’s rather appropriate that she should kick him in the bollocks.

Buffy goes through the wringer here, in ways she never has before. But at least we end with Buffy receiving support from both her surrogate father, Giles, and her mother.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Surprise

“Surprise me, Angel.”

“OK, I will…”

Oh dear. Things are, indeed, about to get bad. Very bad. This is an extraordinary episode, and nothing will ever be the same again.

As usual there’s a theme: relationships, and their various stages. For Willow and Oz, things are only just beginning, and all is fluffy and lovely and nice. The scene where Oz asks Willow out is heartwarming and witty and perfect, and even Oz’s deadpan reaction to seeing Buffy slaying a vampire in the library (“Actually, it explains a lot.”) is a signal that this could be the start of something good, for the foreseeable future, anyway. For Cordelia and Xander, though, there’s little but foreboding? Things aren’t working out, there’s never been anything between them but animal instincts, and the secret can’t be kept for ever. Cordy’s refusal of Xander’s request that they go to Buffy’s birthday party as a couple (well, obviously they can’t) is pretty much the confirmation that their relationship can’t develop any more. Dramatically, something has to happen, and it won’t be nice. As for the third couple… let’s talk about them, shall we?

It’s Buffy’s birthday. She’s seventeen. Is that the age of consent in California? It would make sense in context. I could Google that, but I’d rather not. If Big Brother is indeed watching me then I’d rather not be watched Googling the age of consent in various territories. It could seem rather creepy.

Anyway… the episode is basically about Buffy having sex with Angel for the first time and, in fact, popping her actual cherry. That’s clear from the opening dream sequence (I love the French monkey!) in which Joyce asks Buffy whether she’s ready. And their relationship continues to get more and more intense, as it has of late. There’s one thing after another: the prospect of enforced separation, Angel (after much skirting around the issue) finally telling Buffy that he loves her as he gives her a Claddagh ring, and the intensity of their recent escape from Drusilla and Spike. There’s a short scene, charged with eroticism, and it’s implied that, overnight, the deed is done. We’ll leave the consequences for next episode’s review, but it’s very, very clear that the recent status quo is no more. And Buffy is going to get hurt. Badly.

It’s very noticeable that, in the very first scene where Buffy accidentally alludes to the possibility of sex, she then tells Angel that she’s off to school. This reminds us that she is, in fact, a schoolgirl, and that a relationship with someone much, much older is, to say the least, problematic, and so it’s clear that we’re not exactly supposed to approve. On the other hand, though, I wouldn’t accuse the episode of a more general Puritanism, as I did the last time I saw it, perhaps now because I’m old enough to be very conscious that Buffy is not an adult. In fact, there may even be a subtext that making such a big deal out of the popping of one’s cherry is not exactly healthy: you’ll probably enjoy it more if you lose the awkward self-consciousness and just do it.

Er, there’s one thing that’s been bothering me, though. Vampires don’t have blood, right? So how can he possibly get an erection? Sorry. These questions have to be asked.

There are other things to be mentioned too, of course. I love the camerawork as Willow approaches Oz early on, the unsteady movement of the camera reflecting Willow’s nerves. And also, of course, we get a revelation about Jenny (or “Janna Kalderash”); she’s a member of the very Gypsy tribe that cursed Angel, and a visit by her uncle (guest star Vincent Schiavelli) reminds her that she must act against them to destroy their relationship. I’m, er, not entirely sure that this is a sensitive portrayal of Gypsy culture, but it’s yet another sign of a broken status quo. Jenny, unbeknownst to Giles or anyone else, has an agenda which is antagonistic to that of the Scoobies. There’s going to be conflict. This is a drama, after all.

The final couple is Drusilla and Spike, who have now reversed roles fully. Spike is obviously scarred and confined to a wheelchair while Drusilla, while still as mad as a pincushion, is clearly the one in charge, taking over the henchman-threatening duties. There is potential for drama here, too. We’ve already seen Angel, Drusilla’s former lover (and tormentor) goading Spike over his sexual performance, and it looks as though further gradual emasculation is on the cards. He’s still the alpha male at this point, but much diminished.

Oh, and he says the word “wanker”, something which British characters often say in American TV shows, comics, etc. Note to all American writers: this is a rather strong swear word, about on a par with “shit”, and if you include it then we Brits have to watch a censored version on television, which is well annoying. Still, it’s certainly the sort of thing that Spike would say.

I’m a bit nervous about the next episode, which should be up tomorrow.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bad Eggs

“As far as punishments go, this is fairly abstract.”

I was under the impression that this was supposed to be a notoriously bad episode. In fact, I was rather looking forward to it for that very reason. There’s a certain kind of perverse glee to be found in watching something you know to be bad in the full knowledge that you’re going to be mocking it on your blog before long. Except… this episode is bloody brilliant. Why the bad reputation? This is possibly the best comedy episode we’ve had yet.

Oh, the concept’s a bit blah- a massive subterranean parasite uses nasty little eggs which hatch creepy-crawly things to control people so it can use them for, er, egg mining, and this all sprawls out of a school assignment to look after eggs as though they’re babies. Unusually for Buffy, there’s not really a great deal happening in the shape of a big, central metaphor; I did ponder the idea of the parasite being a metaphor for Joyce, who makes Buffy’s life particularly difficult, but I don’t think so. I certainly hope not; I really like Joyce. And the fun little conversation between the two of them at the start shows that they can be great together when they’re not being confrontational.

There is, perhaps, a bit of a theme developing with regards to pleasures distracting us from our responsibilities. Ironically, neglect of her responsibilities is what Joyce finds so upsetting about her daughter, even though the reason for her apparent misbehaviour is the awesome responsibility of the Slayer. But there’s a second layer of irony here, as Buffy is in fact spending most of her time snogging her boyfriend instead of hunting vampires as she’s supposed to; perhaps she isn’t being too unfairly punished, after all. Alarm bells are beginning to ring about this relationship; I’m reminded of Kendra’s admonition that Angel, whatever his virtues, is a vampire, and “He should die”. Gosh, you don’t think something really, really bad could be about to happen between those two, do you?

As for the comedy parallel to this couple of snoggers, namely Cordelia and Xander, whose kissing / insulting sessions are such fun to watch, they’re beginning to get less and less careful. It’s rather obvious that the others (particularly Willow) are going to find out, very, very soon, and the laughter is going to stop.

Lyle Gorch (I love the hat!) is another great thing about this episode, and I’m delighted that he survives, obviously to prepare for another appearance. The first season gave us the Master and some rather ritual-heavy vampires who did what they were told, but this season’s vampires are much more fun. Spike is the character who announced this new direction, of course, but Lyle shows us that we can expect a lot more of this sort of thing- quirky vampires with fun personalities. I love the Lenny George thing he has going on with his brother.

There are other cool touches, though- the long scene with Buffy looking for the creature is shot and soundtracked like a horror film, and it’s really, really scary. Plus there’s that nice frisson of nostalgia at Buffy’s mention of a Giga Pet- remember those? But this kind of fun episode usually means only one thing: this is our last chance to sit back and feel comfortable for a while, because things are probably about to get very, very dark…

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Blog-Light Weekend...

Just making a quick post-pub post to say I'll be out the next two nights too, so no blogging until Sunday. It'll be Bad Eggs, everyone's favourite episode of Buffy...

There'll be a bit of a semi-hiatus towards the end of next week, too (training course for work) and probably next month for a slightly longer time (similar, though rather more annoying), which I'll warn you about in advance. But fear not- the blog will continue at the usual pace aside from these annoying real life interventions.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ted

“Hey, Freud would have said the exact same thing. Except he might not have done that little dance.”

Wow. That was a beautifully done piece of television, packing so much subtext about patriarchal attitudes and abusive relationships (parental and spousal) in to forty-two minutes. We’re looking here at something so finely crafted that it features the perfect ending: a mother / daughter viewing of Thelma and Louise. Take that, patriarchy. This episode filled me with a sense of feminist fellow-feeling, and I have a y-chromosome. And not only that: we have wit too. Aren’t Joss Whedon scripts great?

The clever thing is how the episode starts by showing Ted as a charming, nice, likeable guy who cooks, and is therefore symbolically in touch with his feminine side, and only gradually reveals his nasty, authoritarian tendencies. First he seduces Joyce, a vulnerable single mother, by turning on the charm, and then he charms all of Buffy’s friends. At first it’s only Buffy who’s the target of his abuse, but the final scenes between him and Joyce show him in all of his violent, controlling ways. He is- literally, as it turns out- a man from the 1950s as far as gender roles are concerned.

Of course, there’s a deliberate contrast with Giles, Buffy’s real father figure, who is shown as being particularly understanding here. His reconciliation with Jenny is incredibly sweet, and very fitting for this episode as his behaviour endorses a very different kind of masculinity. Guys may wear the tweed, but he’s not too old-fashioned to let Jenny wear the trousers. He also gets one of the best lines in all of television, ever: “Er, Buffy… I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming a… a text.”

This episode is very noticeably lacking in the supernatural element, other than the occasional perfunctory vampire, but it’s great how that gets used. At the moment where Buffy is most alone, with everyone liking Ted except her, she desperately wants some vampires to use as punchbags. But none appear.

The apparent climax comes as Ted discovers Buffy’s slaying paraphernalia, and is clearly just about to completely ruin her life. Buffy snaps, and kills him. What’s nice is that Buffy’s moral responsibility for what’s happened- and what she’s done to her mother- isn’t ducked, but the metaphor here seems to be the homicide of an abusive partner, which leads to many women being controversially imprisoned.

There’s a nice bit of contrast at this point, though. Buffy may have lied earlier about the frivolous matter of her hole-in-one at miniature golf. But when it comes to important matters, she’s honest. She confesses to the killing in spite of her mother offering her a way out. This is terrible for Joyce; she has a boyfriend to mourn and a daughter who may be going to prison.

Kristine Sutherland is simply extraordinary here, and the silent scene of her driving Buffy home is very, very powerful. Now it’s her life that’s potentially ruined, yet never is she anything other than a loving and well-meaning parent.

There’s another metaphor, I suppose, in the fact that the embodiment of 1950’s masculinity should turn out to be a robot: without feelings or any true empathy, and probably not the greatest of sexual partners because of this. Normally, I’d protest at the use of a kind of science fiction which, unlike in the case of Some Assembly Required, doesn’t belong to the horror aesthetic, but the subtext is so powerful that it hardly matters.

Oh, and aren’t Cordy and Xander adorable? Their relationship is great fun, which means that very serious things must be about to happen. And that kiss between Giles and Jenny… aaah!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“Don’t be dead. Will you do that just for me?”


Right, now that the formalities have been dispensed with… that was excellent telly. Superb, in fact. Steve Thompson has come good at last. Even so, it wasn’t quite as good as either of the Steven Moffat scripts (it lacked the spark and wasn’t quite as clever), or as good as Mark Gatiss’ The Great Game (the cleverest of them all). That’s to praise with faint damn, of course, but Thompson is no Steven Moffat. Similarly, we Doctor Who fans know all too well that Toby Haynes is a first rate director (I bet the Nina Simone stuff was played back during recording. Nice.), and he's done a first rate job here. He’s no Paul McGuigan, though. Then again, who is? Actually, let’s not allow the fact that other episodes of this superlative series are even better distract us from how bloody good this is.

The framing device, with the first scene being John telling us that Sherlock is dead and the story then unfolding in flashback, is utterly predictable, but that’s the joy of it. And yes, even the fact that it’s undercut in the final scene by a blatantly not-dead Sherlock is predictable. But again, that’s the joy of it. The cleverness is in the little things and the characterisation.

A lot of stuff pays off here, from Donovan’s suspicions about Holmes to Holmes’ relationship with the lovely Molly; at last he finally says something nice to her, and a bloody good thing too! I just want to hug her whenever she’s on screen. I suspect she had a lot to do with how Sherlock faked his death, although there’s quite a lot to be explained. There was a body! It was buried! And yet today we find out that a new series is on the way. Yay!

Both Cumberbatch and Freeman are extraordinary here, giving us a much wider emotional range than they’ve previously been called upon to show. But it’s Andrew Scott who’s the revelation here, managing to square the circle of being suitably and terrifyingly psychopathic without crossing the line into pantomime villain territory. This is Moriarty as the Joker, and it works. He’s a very disturbed individual, with a death wish because he’s “bored”. He defeats Sherlock, yet he’s the one who is, seemingly, genuinely dead. His own life means less to him than the silly little game he's playing. He’s clever enough to virtually warp reality itself, creating a world in which Sherlock is a fraud, but what does it bring him in the end?

Interestingly, this is an episode in which all the clever people fail. The fall of Sherlock, the apparent death of Moriarty and the accidental betrayal of his brother by Sherlock can perhaps be set against the humanity of John and, arguably, Molly, who finally gets at least some appreciation from the man she loves. Even Donovan and the journalist (it’s great to see Katharine Parkinson, but even better to see the tabloids getting skewered)) are arguably portrayed as too clever for their own good. This is the triumph of the ordinary. Appropriate; this episode is clever but, compared to other episodes, not too clever. But it certainly has heart.

Still, I thought last series ended in a big cliffhanger… how will they get out of this one? I suspect empty houses may be involved somehow…

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Nineteen Eighty-Four

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot, stamping on a human face, forever.”

I should probably say at the start that this is the 1954 BBC teleplay, written by Nigel Kneale, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing. It’s rather interesting to see this for the first time just one week after seeing The Year of the Sex Olympics; suddenly the debt the later play, set in a future with a diminishing vocabulary, owes to Orwell’s concept of Newspeak becomes even more blatant.

This is first class telly, though. Yes, it’s of its time, with a rather blurry picture quality (although, to be fair, the prints could really do with a good clean), and technical limitations mean that a slow pace is sort of inevitable, but this is no bad thing. The cast is superb, with Peter Cushing putting in an outstanding performance, with honourable mentions also going top Yvonne Mitchell and André Morell. It’s quite a shock, too, to see Donald Pleasance in a television role. There’s also a nice little cameo from Wilfrid Brambell.

It’s not just the picture quality that dates this; it is, after all, the earliest piece of telly I’m likely to be reviewing on this blog except, probably, for the surviving bits of The Quatermass Experiment once I get to it. The fact that it was made live (apart from the many film sequence!) isn’t really too obvious, but lots of other things are, notably the plummy accents, Mr. Cholmondely-Warner strength, which are spoken by every character who isn’t a prole. And this is a future with things like valves in it It’s rather interesting, though, to see an adaptation made just five years after George Orwell’s novel was published; the general feel of austerity (how very topical!) seems very fitting, especially as 1954 was the year that rationing finally ended. I couldn’t help also noticing that, among the many sinister notices seen in the programme is one saying “Be ready to produce identity papers”. Orwell would have been horrified at the last Government’s plan to introduce identity cards, now thankfully off the table for now in a rare wise decision from our current lords and masters.

Cartier’s sets, with ever-present posters and pictures of Big Brother, are a triumph of design, and it’s a nice touch that everyone (except, again, the proles, who wear 1950’s clothes) wears what look very much like prison uniforms, while Winston Smith’s room looks awfully like a prison cell. This is a confining, utilitarian world, devoid of all beauty and ornament. The constant televised announcements, which cannot be switched off, remind me a lot of the 15 Million Merits episode of Black Mirror.

It’s a while, certainly more than fifteen years, since I last read the novel, so the sheer levels of totalitarianism on display here come as quite a shock. Big Brother is indeed watching everyone, even language itself is being perverted so as to render “thought crime” impossible, but the scenes towards the end, with Morell’s Obrien as the torturer, are more chilling still. The line asking how many fingers are being held up (blatantly ripped off / homaged, decades later, by Star Trek: The Next Generation), and the following dialogue, make it clear that the Party claims the right to dictate reality itself; there is no empirical truth. Rather cleverly, this is all foreshadowed by Smith’s job of “adjusting” past records to fit with current political convenience.

It’s interesting, although somewhat patronising, that hope lies with the uneducated and ignorant proles, and the fact that their cultural fare is all written or composed by computer could be read all sorts of ways. Hope certainly seems to be closed up elsewhere; even Smith is not quite the pure hero, agreeing to commit all sorts of awful crimes. But the romance between him and Julia is rather sweet and lovely, but also profound. What they have is theirs alone, and it’s real. Nothing else is. And their relationship burns all the brighter for the fact that it, and they, are doomed, and they both know it.

The ending, with both Julia and Winston denouncing each other under torture, is devastating, but brainwashing was very much in the zeitgeist so soon after the Korean War. This is a first class piece of telly, whether in terms of script, directing or performances, but I think its view of the future is a little pessimistic. Totalitarian regimes always have a limited life expectancy. They always burn themselves out eventually; the world is a chaotic place, for good or ill. The future will be far more Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

“No girl wants to marry a doctor who can’t tell if a man’s dead or not.”

Before you buy this DVD on film, you might want to consider that it forces you to watch an advert for Blu-Ray lasting several minutes before you get to the menu. This is unacceptable, frankly, and if, unlike me, you don’t prefer your films with subtitles, you’d be much better off recording it off the telly.

Not that my first film to be reviewed in 2012 is particularly great, although Robert Downey Jr’s superlative central performance and Guy Ritchie’s brilliantly executed set pieces make it well worth seeing anyway. It’s a nice idea- Sherlock Holmes as action film- which actually works quite well. Downey’s Holmes is decidedly bohemian, physical, fast-moving and decidedly not asexual, and while this is arguably a departure from “canon”, it’s no more so than many more boring interpretations. And this treatment of the Sherlockian world may not be as good, quality-wise, as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ superlative Sherlock, it’s no less legitimate an interpretation.

There’s a touch of plywood to Jude Law’s performance, but Downey really shows what a first class actor he is, arguably the single best leading man in contemporary English-speaking cinema. His rakish charisma is reason alone to make this film worth watching, and he’s superb at physical comedy. His facial acting is first class, and it’s very noticeable that he spends the whole film speaking in an accent not his own (flawlessly, I might add, and I’m British) without forgetting to act as well, something which is all too common. His Holmes is as suited to the big screen as Benedict Cumberbatch’s is to television.

Mr Madonna is also a dab hand behind the camera, giving us enough adrenalin-fuelled action sequences to be worthy of a Michael Bay film, although the style is noticeably the same as Lock, Stock and Snatch, despite the period setting. Victorian London looks great, though, if a bit CGI-ey. Except… there’s a certain lack of substance to the storyline, although there’s certainly enough bangs and excitement to carry us through. This Watson, far from being a bumbler, is full of back-chat; I like that. But the characterisation of Holmes suffers from a slight problem. Actually it makes a lot of sense for him to be an action hero, but the deductive skills fall flat, often relying more on obscure chemistry factoids than the sort of deductive leaps that you really expect.

The plot is a rather odd mish-mash of tropes and explosions, taking us from an attempted virgin sacrifice by cowled figures (a nice familiar trope, that!) to alchemy and a vast conspiracy theories involving thinly veiled Freemasons which seem to come straight out of Alan Moore’s From Hell (if you haven’t already done so, read it!). Lord Blackwood seems to be based on the real life Francis Dashwood, leader of the Hellfire Club during the Eighteenth Century. His plan, bizarrely, involves conquering the United States, one of Britain’s main trading partners at the time, which would be a particularly stupid thing to do as it would entirely bugger up the British economy, and the whole point of the British Empire was to make money. Sorry, my bad: I probably shouldn’t be looking too hard at the plot.

Oh, and the scene where Dashwood is hanged is quite visceral and shocking. I don’t object to the violence per se, but people were still being barbarically killed like this well within living memory, and may presumably have living relatives.

There’s a fair bit of what we Doctor Who fans call fanwank here. The inclusion of Irene Adler (the rather good Rachel McAdams) is surprisingly justified here, though, establishing the non-asexuality of Downey’s Holmes, and I suppose Moriarty is in the film to do a bit of sequel-hunting. It tends to work out. If I might nitpick, though, Tower Bridge is still under construction, which would place this film in 1892. This is rather at odds with the Conan Doyle canon, as Holmes is supposed to have fallen down the Reichenbach Falls in 1891 and disappeared for three years. Not, of course, that this kind of obscure wankery is any excuse not to use a good idea for a set-piece.

So this is a rather good action film, although nothing special, but it’s worth watching for Downey’s performance alone.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What’s My Line? Part Two

“All monkeys are French. You didn’t know?”

No recap! Is it just on the DVD?

Kendra (well, Bianca Lawson) is completely gorgeous, but the accent is awful. It’s obviously supposed to be West Indian, but it sounds all over the place. Never mind, though, I like the character, and this episode (Marti Noxon’s first solo writing credit, I believe?), a good one if not one of the best, sees some nice development of last episode’s themes in the interaction between her and Buffy.

There’s an awful lot of other things happening in this episode, though. For starters, we get to see Angel in a sewer, a nice bit of foreshadowing for his own show. Jonathan gets another cameo in which, again, he’s a bit of a victim. And then, yes, there’s the shipping. How can anyone not love the Cordelia / Xander thing? In hindsight it was inevitable; both of them were characters who desperately needed plot threads of their own, having just about made it as far as they could through charm and comic relief alone. And both of the arguing / kissing scenes are such fun. This is set to be the most screwball thing ever.

On the other hand, there’s the sweet interaction between Willow and Oz. They’re both nice and innocent, but what’s wonderful is that they’re both extremely witty with it. Seeing them both on screen together, and clearly starting to become a proper couple, is so utterly heartwarming that it can only possibly end in devastating heartbreak. Such are the rules on Planet Joss Whedon.

But the meat of the episode is in the scenes between Buffy and Kendra. The basic themes of the conveyor belt from school to employment, the crushing pressure of choice, and the depressing realisation that your life path has been chosen for you, have already been established, so this episode can apply all of this directly to Buffy’s character. Kendra is, so to speak, the control of the experiment while Buffy is the subject. So Kendra is a slayer done by-the-book with no distractions. She was raised by her Watcher, away from her family; she has no friends; she isn’t allowed to talk to boys, and is shy around them; her only studying is directed by her Watcher, to whom she’s extremely respectful.

Buffy is none of these things. And yet it’s made clear that all of these things- her friends, her ordinary life, her family- are a strength. Kendra is, as Buffy says, technically very, very good, but she’s lacking in imagination. And while Buffy’s attachment to Angel may lead her to walk into a trap (so the argument isn’t all one way), she has friends to rescue her.

Buffy learns a lesson here; from speculating on handing the Slayer baton to Kendra so she can live a normal life, she comes to accept that, as Kendra says, slaying isn’t her job: it’s who she is. I’m not really sure that this is any more than waffle, but it works in terms of the characters and story beats so it gets away with it.

But our heroes haven’t won. Drusilla, it seems, is restored to health. And, from what we saw earlier as she got all kinky, tied up Angel and burned him with holy water, she might well be a bit dangerous…

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: What’s My Line? Part One

“How do you know?”

“I lurk.”

There’s an awful lot going on in this episode, the first of Marti Noxon’s many writing credits; Buffy gets moody, she and Angel start to get really, properly, couply, and Xander uses the phrase “Scooby Gang” for the first time. Yay! But, as so often with Buffy, it’s all based around a theme, and the theme is handled brilliantly.

The theme is, superficially, careers, but in reality it’s a lot more than that. From the teenage perspective it can all be rather depressing and angsty to know that you’re on a carrier belt through school, university and some unknown career, with scarcely a moment to stop and think about what it is that you want. Buffy, of course has no choice, and this is getting her down, quite understandably. The career fair means nothing to her, as her life has already been mapped out for her by others, and her future doesn’t seem to include much in the way of wealth, happiness or, indeed, years.

Xander’s and Cordelia’s predicted careers are used more-or-less only as a little light relief, but Willow, as a high-flyer, has been pretty much head-hunted by a big IT tycoon- will she take the proffered apple? Interestingly, this means she gets to spend some time with the only other student also chosen- Oz. They meet at last.

Spike and Drusilla are such a sweet couple, in an incredibly perverted way, and it’s quite touching how Spike loves his girlfriend so much that he hires the Order of Taraka, an unstoppable bunch of demonic assassins, to kill Buffy. And Buffy’s response to the knowledge that she’s being marked for death is extremely well-done, as various strangers arrive in Sunnydale. Director David Solomon gives us a brilliant sequence of Buffy walking down the school corridor, becoming increasingly paranoid that every face she sees could be that of her killer.

The stress drives Buffy to flee, alone, to Angel, who significantly is the person she turns to when she’s most desperate. But Angel is out, doing the Batman thing to some bloke called Willie, and he’s soon attacked and defeated by a mysterious young lady with awesome fighting skills and a most peculiar accent. My God, though; ain’t she gorgeous?

Angel’s left in a cage, where he will eventually die when the Sun comes up. That’ll be the first element of the cliffhanger, then, this being our first two-parter. Isn’t it exciting? Part two is Cordelia and the maggot man. Urrgh!

The last shot, though, as Buffy and our mysterious young lady are mid-fight, is where she introduces herself as Kendra… the Vampire Slayer. Duh duh DUNNN.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

Ah well, it had to happen. We move from poetry to prose, and from the superlative to the merely very good. Also, this script is not so dense with subtext as last weeks, meaning this review won’t be as long. Gatiss’ script here may play to his supposed macabre strengths but, rather good though it is, it can’t complete with the extraordinary episode he gave us last series. Still, judged without reference to its illustrious predecessors this is a highly impressive ninety minutes of television. Plus I had the added fun being able to compare it to a Conan Doyle original that, for once, I know well.

Se, Henry Knight, not Sir Henry Baskerville. See what they did there? The print original may have been a baronet, not a knight, but it still made me smile. Plus we have a Mortimer and a Stapleton- both women, helping almost to smooth out the gender imbalance of the source material. There’s even a Barrymore, but this chap is a soldier, an arrogant sod and, worse, a Tory. He doesn’t buttle.

We have some nice misdirection, too; Sherlock tricks us into thinking he’s going to just send Watson to Devon, and not go himself. There’s a red herring- Gary and Billy- to take the place of the escaped convict subplot in the novel. And, of course, it was Frankland, not Stapleton, what dunnit. Plus the circumstances are entirely different.

We get a fair amount of fanwank here- I love the opening scenes, and particularly the Cluedo line. We get the “Once you’ve ruled out the impossible, whatever remains- however improbable- must be true. But, most interestingly, a drugged-up Holmes comes to doubt his own belief in reason and empirical truth, the very foundation of who he is, and is left literally shaking at the possibility of having seen something truly supernatural. Cumberbatch is extraordinary here. And the chemistry between him and the equally excellent Martin Freeman continues to be superb.

Oh, and it’s left nicely ambiguous, early on, whether Sherlock’s cold turkey relates just to cigarettes or to something stronger. We know what the reference to “seven per cent” means, but does it infer the same thing in a twenty-first century context, I wonder?

Paul McGuigan is superlative as always, but this is something we’re tending to take for granted by now, and a more linear plot gives him less room to be creative. The many moments with Sherlock making deductive leaps (always fun) look fab, though. And the location shots of Dartmoor look truly awesome, far better than any previous version of this story that I’ve seen.

Oh, and I don’t believe the Morse code message was explained. Something for next week?

All the same, though, excellent whodunnit and superb character piece though this is, it seems to be lacking a certain extra something. Partly it may be a case of middle episode disease, although this is far superior to The Blind Banker. But something’s missing.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Dark Age

“I’m so used to you being a grown-up, and then I find out that you’re a person.”

Well, well, well! It’s only a couple of episodes since we were introduced to Ethan Rayne and hints of Giles’ “Ripper” past, and it’s paying off already. This is a great episode, and a necessary one: things had reached the point where the character of Giles needed to acquire some hinterland if he was going to show any depths beyond his function as father figure to Buffy. I could have done without the tiresome line about British people allegedly having bad teeth, mind.

Oh, and we get zombies for the first time in Buffy, although the episode doesn’t really focus on them much. The script is far more interested in Giles, and the effect of all these revelations on those around with him. Notably, it first brings Jenny much closer to him- it’s clear that their relationship is about to get physical and Jenny is happy to share even the troubling things about Giles’ life- but then she’s possessed by Eghyon. This has to be traumatic, and understandably she feels she has to push Giles away, at least for a while. This establishes, of course, that Giles may be a dangerous person with whom to have a relationship. Foreshadowing, anyone?

His powerful bond with his more-or-less adoptive daughter, on the other hand, is made even stronger. Buffy’s caring and understanding reaction to her surrogate father is lovely to see, and the final scene is the sweetest thing ever.

Of course, this being Buffy, the whole thing’s a metaphor, and this time it’s about the fact that our parents were young once, and may have done stuff. We’re told that the young Giles, in an obvious parallel with Buffy, became frustrated at the life that had already been planned out for him (I’ve just started playing Green Day’s “She” on iTunes as I write this, one of the comfort records of my teenage years), and dropped out of Oxford in frustration. Not much different from Buffy so far, except that he was a little older and didn’t have a Watcher to look after him. But then he fell in with the wrong crowd and started playing around with magic to get high. It was fun for a while, until someone OD’d and died. Gosh, do you reckon this might be a metaphor for something? And then there’s the photo, with the leather jacket and leather jacket. Surely that can’t possibly be a photo of a pyjama-wearing Bay City Rollers fan?

There are other great character moments, too. Cordelia is getting really quite integrated into the Scooby gang, although she’s as oblivious as ever. I loved her “He seemed perfectly normal yesterday when I saw him talking to the police.” There’s also a wonderful moment in the library as Willow shouts at Xander and Cordelia for wasting time with silly arguments while their friends are in danger, only to revert to her normal, diffident self. This is part of a definite process; Willow is slowly growing in confidence before our eyes.

This is a great run of episodes; we’re now some way into Season Two and it’s clear that plates are shifting and all sorts of arcs are underway. It’s all rather exciting

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Year of the Sex Olympics

“Do you like to read?”

(Shakes head)

“Well, who does?”

There’s a certain narrative that we’ve all come to expect from reviews of this teleplay, isn’t there? We’re supposed to mention how prescient it is (to be fair, it gets there first at the very start with the caption “sooner than you think”, but...), in 1968, in predicting reality TV, tasteless sex programmes and crappy telly in general, and to fawn on how it’s a great piece of British dystopian sci-fi in the lineage of Nineteen Eighty-Four and (especially) Brave New World. Actually, though, well-made, well-acted and (objectionable subtext aside) well-written though this may be, it’s still a pile of reactionary crap. So much so that even the metatextual fun of its being a TV drama about TV production wasn’t even enough to placate me, and you know how much I love metatextual fun.

The expository dialogue we get fairly on from Ugo Priest (the excellent Leonard Rossiter) establishes the situation; overpopulation has led to a situation in which the masses (low-drives) do nothing all day but watch crap telly about food (to put them off eating) and sex (to put them off sex), the theory being “see, not do”. The theory seems a pile of crap to me, but let’s run with it. Even the elite (high-drives- this seems to be the first society in fiction where your place in society is determined by your sex drive!) don’t read, struggle to understand the concept of paintings as art, dress like hippies (it’s probably a mercy that only a monochrome version has survived; I’m sure the costumes would look garish and horrible in colour) and have very small vocabularies owing to a lack of any meaningful cultural or intellectual pastimes. Never mind how absurdly unrealistic it is for a managerial class to be so under-educated.

Let’s look at what Nigel Kneale is saying here. Everyone looks and shags like stereotypical hippies, so I think it’s fair to take this largely as a stab at youth culture and the “permissive society”. We’re essentially being told that the art and music of the baby boomer generation has no cultural value and is, without exception, a load of dumbed-down crap which will rot the minds of society. No one reads; they just watch telly, because it’s obviously an idiot box. Even the bizarre cod-northern accents are suspect in this context; are we being told that even the use of regional accents on TV constitutes part of this dumbing-down? Then there’s the apparent endorsement of traditional family values as Nat, Deanie and Keten (until outside agencies make everything go horribly wrong) are shown, as a family unit, to be truly happy in the way that makes everyone else, with their flighty, ridiculously exaggerated polyamorous ways, look incredibly shallow. Yes, I know: I’m probably not going to like The Quatermass Conclusion. But all this, as a subtext, is extremely nasty, mean-spirited and spoils the whole play for me. I happen to quite like sex, TV and youth culture.

That’s a shame; there’s a lot that’s good here. Perhaps the problem is partly that this is obviously in the tradition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I quite like the novel, but it’s no Point Counter Point. And the whole concept of the Sex Olympics is just absurd to me, even aside from the fact that it looks just like It’s a Knockout. Now, I admit I may not be typical. After all, I’m a man who doesn’t watch porn. I just don’t get turned on by watching other people: do and not watch, so to speak. I’m no puritan- actually, I’m quite the libertine- but the thought of having sex for the pleasure, not of your partner, but the watching public, just horrifies me.

Oh, and I just don’t buy the sadism of the watching public at all. Yes, I know that cruel and evil talent shows like The X-Factor are fundamentally based on the general public’s ever-present sense of bastardry and schadenfreude, and seem to prove Lasar Opie (Brian Cox) right, but murder and death on the equivalent of live Big Brother on E4 is orders of magnitude different.

For balance, though, I ought to mention something I genuinely liked about this programme: the credits mention “custard pie experts”.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Lie to Me

“Everybody lies.”

Interesting, isn’t it, how Joss Whedon can take a fairly ho-hum premise for an episode and, in both scripting and helming the thing, turn it into a sublime thing of beauty? This episode is, at first glance, a fairly standard brief; everybody lies to Buffy and there’s a bit of subtext about how vampires being evil is far cooler and less dorky than any of that Anne Rice stuff (and, I’d imagine, Whedon would probably apply such thinking to Twilight today, not that I’m likely to ever experience that particular series of novels / movies).

Even the opening shot, with the abandoned playground in the dark, is utterly gorgeous. As is Ford, Buffy’s curiously never-before-mentioned old flame / friend from LA. He’s a good looking man. I probably might, and I’m not even gay. He’s certainly a cuckoo in the Scooby nest though; I love Xanders’s comment that he’s imposing himself “only in the literal sense”. Still holding that long-extinguished candle for Buffy, I see.

The basic theme of this episode, which ties right into the character stuff, is that everyone lies to Buffy, and none of them for the best of reasons. Ford is plotting to betray and incidentally kill her from the start. Angel lies about speaking to Drusilla, because (arrogantly making the decision for her about what she needs to know) he doesn’t want to know that it was he who originally drove Drusilla mad by psychological torture, finally turning her into a vampire on the day she becomes a nun. That’s some fairly heavy shit, and most definitely is the sort of thing that a girl ought to know about a potential boyfriend.

You have to give him credit for the best line in the episode, though: “A hundred years just hanging out, feeling guilty. Really honed my breeding skills.” I love Joss Whedon scripts. The only trouble is that everyone else’s scripts just seem so unwitty by comparison.

Angel, Willow and Xander all lie to Buffy as they keep her out of the loop while investigating Ford’s dodgy dealings. Xander, in particular, doesn’t exactly have the best of motives. Even Giles lies to Jenny Callendar about enjoying their date with the, er, monster trucks, although in his case he can hardly do otherwise.

The naïve kids in the goth / metal club are also liars of a sort, especially as it’s themselves they’re lying to. Deluding themselves into thinking that vampires are drippy, handsome, cute fluffy bunnies who will make them immortal. I’m loving the dig at a popular culture idea of vampirism that has since become annoyingly ubiquitous, although I’m a little annoyed at the negative portrayal of goths / metalheads; aside from their dorky leader, Ford’s friends are rather sexily-dressed, attractive and look like the sort of people you’d find in a perfectly normal late ‘90s rock club. I mean, this place is the spitting image of Nottingham Rock City back in its ‘90s heyday. (I don’t mean to say that Rock City has declined in any way, just that I no longer frequent the place, being nearly 35 and no longer living in Nottingham). Oh, and this is the first time we meet Chanterelle.

Ford comes across as quite fun in his meeting with Spike; we have the lovely metatextual joke that he demands clichés while Spike finds them utterly tiresome. But, just as we think he’s a fully-fledged, black hat-wearing baddy, he pulls the rug from under us; within six months he’ll be dead from brain cancer at seventeen. And he genuinely missed Buffy. That doesn’t, as Buffy says, excuse mass murder, but suddenly there are shades of grey and Buffy learns again that life is complicated.

There’s a nice ending for Giles, who really shows what a great father figure he can be now that he’s seemingly decided to cut Buffy a bit of slack after the events of Reptile Boy. We end on another of his lies but, again, it’s a little white one.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Halloween

“I was brought up to be a proper lady. I wasn’t meant to understand things.”

Another good ‘un, this. I rather enjoyed the conceit of Halloween being the one night of the year that things go a bit quiet in Sunnydale. Also, we have continuing arc stuff happening; Spike and Drusilla (who’s as mad ever) are back, while Oz (is director Bruce Seth Green the same as Seth Green? I bet he is!) continues to notice Willow while she’s dressed rather sexily. On that subject, incidentally, my reaction to seeing Alyson Hannigan in THAT outfit was the same as Buffy predicted for Xander and Angel.

Oh, and we’re introduced to Larry, and also to new baddie Ethan Rayne (surely the only British chap in all of history to be called Ethan…), who shares a mysterious past with Giles who, unlikely though it seems, has suddenly acquired a dark and mysterious past, along with the rather eyebrow-raising nickname of “Ripper”. He also proves to be rather better with his fists than hitherto suspected. I await further developments.

Incidentally, it’s established that Rayne worships the Roman god Janus, and his prayer seems to have real, magical effects. And yet Giles later describes Janus as “mythical”. What’s all that about, then?

Mostly, though, we have the conceit of people turning into the things represented by their Halloween costumes. I’m aware than Halloween costumes in Americas can be anything, and not just horror-themed stuff, but it still seems a little odd to see soldiers, pirates etc. Never mind that, though: this episode (by newcomer Carl Ellsworth) is basically using this conceit to examine gender roles, a fairly central theme for the show.

This is most obvious in what happens to Buffy, of course; Sarah Michelle Gellar shows what a great comic actress she is in playing a simpering, uneducated, fainting, frock-wearing damsel in distress who thinks a car is a demon and who is, rather obviously, the polar opposite of what Buffy’s character usually represents. Xander, meanwhile, finally gets to spend an episode as the alpha male and protector of the womenfolk. All this is nicely foreshadowed early on as Buffy somehow condemns Xander to social death by saving him from being beaten up by Larry. Boys are indeed fragile. All that said, though, I’m not sure the stuff about gender roles really goes any deeper than that. It’s fun, though.

Willow gets some character development, too. As Buffy points out (and this also happened in Inca Mummy Girl),whenever she dresses up she wants to hide as she’s too afraid and introverted to express herself although, of course, when she does, Oz fancies her like the clappers. Meanwhile, the Buffy / Angel romance continues to simmer.

And I should probably mention how good the comedy is, this being a comedy episode and all. I love the comic acting from Alyson Hannigan as Willow sneaks into the library to steal Giles’ diary.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Reptile Boy

“Some guy’s attacking Buffy with a sword. Also, there’s a really big snake.”

Back to Buffy after my Christmas break, and the sheer Nineties-ness of the whole thing hits me immediately. It’s not the most fashionable of decades at the moment, is it? It’s old enough to be dated but not old enough to gain any of that retro cool. One day, perhaps, there will be Nineties-themes parties where we all wear faded jeans, lumberjack shirts and terrible hair. That day, alas, is yet to come.

Meanwhile, in the actual episode, we have one of the more obvious metaphors as a fraternity club is pretty much directly equivocated with those nasty, cowled, virgin-sacrificing cults that the horror genre seems to love so much. This leads to much subtext in which points are made regarding gender, age, social class and (in a rather puritanical way) alcohol.

…All of which leads to an abiding theme of these reviews, namely that I, a foreigner, know nothing about the many rituals of school and college life aside from what I’ve gleaned from popular culture. It’s all quite exotic to me. So, these fraternity things… they seem quite elitist, laddish and, well, uncool to me. Are they really such an elite thing as this episode seems to be saying? We seem to be literally told that they’re a disturbing cult and, while they may not literally sacrifice girls to an unconvincing-looking snake man, this is an obvious metaphor for their laddish abuse of women. God, I hate lad culture. I hate it almost as much as I love being old enough to ignore it and not care what anyone thinks. I’m a man, not a lad.

Er, anyway, ranting aside, there’s also an obvious class subtext here. First it pops up humorously, in pretty much all of the interactions between Cordelia and Buffy, but the way the frat boys abuse Xander, the most unambiguously working-class character, is downright sinister, and almost enough to drive one to Marxism. All the same, though, is this damning view of frat boy culture widely held in the US? There are times here where the imagery and subtext seem to border on conspiracy theory.

Oh, and isn’t there an excessively and disturbingly puritanical subtext to alcohol here? Buffy only symbolically “falls” once she drinks a cocktail (although, yes, there’s also a simultaneous rohypnol analogy here), and all the characters (who are sixteen or seventeen) speak of it as something utterly taboo. When I was sixteen my parents would let me have some wine or beer with a meal quite often, although admittedly this had a lot to do with my Dad’s ultimately successful campaign to impart his taste in beer unto the next generation. Oh, and there was also the underage drinking, but let’s gloss over that, shall we?

In other news, I completely adore the opening, as Buffy, Willow and Xander comment on a Bollywood musical. They should force them all to record a DVD commentary for every Bollywood film ever made. The campaign starts here. Also, Willow’s lecture to Giles and Angel on their treatment of Buffy (and her reaction afterwards!) is the best thing ever. I love Alyson Hannigan.

Jonathan gets an appearance, too. And this time he has a name!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

“You don’t trust your own secret service?”

“Naturally not. They spy on people for money.”

Well, what a very cheeky resolution to the cliffhanger that was. It was an anti-climax of sorts, but in such a knowing way that you’re too busy admiring the chutzpah to mind. I love the ringtone. In fact, although I wasn’t sure before, I think the silently mouthed “sorry” may have entirely won me over to Andrew Scott’s Moriarty.

This is as good as television gets. Let’s just take the superlatives and the gushing as read so we can talk about it, shall we? I’d just like to emphasise that, although the performances are uniformly great here (Mark Gatiss’ arch performance as Mycroft has also won me over at this point, and Steven Moffat’s script is extraordinary even for him, Paul McGuigan has to be singled out for special praise. He must surely be the finest director working in British TV. There are so many little tricks that take my brat away here, from the parade of clients at the start, the flashback to the mystery of the hiker with Sherlock discoursing to Irene, on her sofa, in the middle of the field (Douglas Adams, anyone?); to Sherlock’s subsequent change of location from the field to his bed, in one shot; to all those little tricks with text on the screen that we’ve come to know so well- I love the question marks! This is all shot as wittily as it is written.

There are so many threads to this intricate story from the very beginning, as we’re immediately bombarded with multiple problems, not all of which are red herrings. But the intricacy of the storyline doesn’t mean that character is at all neglected; in fact there’s loads of character development here. Sarah is long gone; John has since had a string of girlfriends, all of whom have dumped him because his most important relationship is clearly with Sherlock. Sherlock is shown to be much closer to Mrs Hudson than we’ve seen before. There are heavy hints, after Irene “dies”, that Sherlock may have a recurring habit of turning to some rather dodgy substances when emotionally low. John and Mycroft are clearly much better acquainted by now. But we can’t go any further without talking about Irene Adler.

Ah yes, “The Woman”. I’m not sure that such a vague “brand” name would be much good for a dominatrix advertising her services, but perhaps she doesn’t need to, and that’s the point. She’s such a brilliant and multi-faceted character, played to perfection by Lara Pulver. She’s Sherlock’s match, and literally, er, beats him at one point, but she isn’t quite his mirror image. She isn’t exactly a repressed “high-functioning psychopath” like Sherlock; she’s very self-controlled but emotionally relates to other people in a very normal way. It isn’t about the intellectual challenge for her; it’s about playing power games. And there’s a very sharp distinction between her and Moriarty, too. Moriarty is a disturbed psychopath, whereas Irene’s power games are obviously all about the fun, and even more obviously sexual in nature. She’s not interested in power for its own sake, but only in fun, and the slightly more mundane matter of personal protection through the possession of secrets. And she’s so, so sexy. I hope she’d be gentle with me, but I so would.

The “other woman” (and one we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future episodes, I expect) is Molly. And we seem to get an explicit contrast between her and Irene. She’s jealous, obviously (Sherlock “recognises Irene’s “body” through “not her face”), but her reaction to Sherlock’s faux pas at the Christmas party is very revealing; she seems to actively enjoy being on the receiving end of Sherlock’s unintended verbal humiliation. It’s hard not to see this as an obviously intentional binary opposition between her and Irene.

Oh, and his infatuation with “The Woman” leads to much dialogue speculating on Sherlock’s sexuality. It seems most likely to me that he’s asexual, and that his attraction to Irene is genuine but has nothing to do with squishy body parts and nothing to do with her gender. He’s capable of bonding with others to an extent (I love the conspiratorial naughtiness between him and John in the palace) but he seems to have no sexual urges at all. She obviously likes him, though, even though she never refers to him as anything other than “Mr Holmes”.

We have some wonderfully metatextual fun here, as always; the parade of cases at the start are blogged about by John under such titles as “The Speckled Blonde” and “The Geek Interpreter”. This is cool, although it also carries the worrying implication that Moffat believes there probably won’t be another series so he might as well use up the titles. Of similar coolness is the fact that Sherlock is always being mistakenly assumed to always wear a deerstalker, based on a single photograph! Even better is his very individual method of calling the police.

There’s a lot of delightfully cheeky lèse-majesté here, too. I love Sherlock’s quip about his illustrious client (there goes another title…) being “someone with a navy”, and the fun with the ashtray and God Save the Queen on the violin. I bet Brenda watched this, too! It would also be fun to speculate on which young, female royal Moffat had in mind, but I’m not touching that one with a bargepole.

The final fifteen minutes are pretty much orgasmic. The bang bang bang of inspired revelations is just exquisite, but not quite as cool as Mycroft’s observation that Sherlock chooses to use his intellect not to be a scientist or a philosopher, but a detective, and once wanted to be a pirate. He may be asexual, but he certainly has a romantic side. And this is the final thing we see, as swords flash in Karachi and rumours of Irene’s death are about to be exaggerated. This might be a little implausible, if we were to nit-pick, but it’s so, so cool, and the moment has so been earned. As I said, this is as good as television gets.