Sunday, 30 September 2012

On 30.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

The final farewell for Amy and Rory Pond, The Angels Take Manhattan was the culmination of two and half series of adventuring with the Doctor. I didn’t cry. Much.

Setting the tone for the bulk of the episode was a very noir pre-titles sequence following a 1930s private detective, trenchcoat and hat included, as he took a case from a shady pinstriped client and encountered moving stone Angels. Brilliantly eerie and shot in a fantastically terrorised version of the noir style, this rain-soaked opening was a perfect way to start off the episode. He was even called Sam.

Then our favourite time travelling trio, trying to have a relaxing picnic in Central Park, found themselves thrust into the same situation. Taking a wrong turn while off to get coffee, Rory ended up separated from Amy and the Doctor by 74 years. Poor guy. I sometimes mess up navigating big cities too. This led Team TARDIS into an adventure bringing them face to face with Professor River Song, Weeping Angels and their own deaths. In Rory’s case, three times in one episode. A new record.

But the third time, though we didn’t see it, was the one that counted. Banished to the past together, Amy and Rory were properly Angelled – fated to “live to death” without being able to se the Doctor again. The final page, a message from Amy to the Doctor, was a real tearjerker and one of the most emotional pieces of writing I’ve seen on television, and the Doctor breaking down after realising that he’s lost two of his closest friends forever was a masterfully heartbreaking performance from Matt Smith. Ending by tying the past few series together by returning to little Amelia in the garden... Sniff.

Unfortunately, this emotion didn’t fully manage to cloud how little sense the episode made. While the emotional side of my brain was wailing for the loss of the Ponds and the Doctor’s sad, lost, 1200 year old puppy dog face, the logical side of my brain was doing what it does best and compiling a list with the header 'Plot Holes'. How exactly did the Statue of Liberty stomp across half of New York without anyone seeing it? Surely there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of people with Liberty in their sight at any one time. How unlikely a coincidence was it that the Doctor decided to read the book in his pocket at the time of Rory’s failed coffee run? And if anyone cares to explain why the Doctor can’t go back to visit Amy and Rory in their past lives, please go ahead.

Another qualm is that, after getting Amy to 1938 via ancient China, the Doctor didn’t really do much. He just paced around angrily like a passive aggressive giraffe as the plot advanced around him, with Amy and Rory kicking off most of the major twists. I like it when the Doctor does clever things and it feels like a shame that he couldn’t have done more to facilitate their sort-of survival.

Putting all this aside, the story did have its strong points. Other than the beautiful ending discussed above, there was the fantastic New York City location shooting, which, combined with the film noir style and a nice little bit of Sting, gave the episode a distinct and vibrantly dark visual style. The Angels, stripped of most of the silly extra powers granted on them by series five and returned to their Blink modus operandi, fitted perfectly into this setting, making it a fantastically sci-fi noir with an edge of horror. This episode certainly lived up to Moffat’s ‘blockbuster in 45 minutes’ hype.

Though she wasn't the focus of this episode, it was nice to see River again, away from the complex timey-wimey timeline of hers which has pervaded her recent appearances. She had some nice interaction with the Doctor, now her husband, and hinted that she'll be seeing him again, which is cool - I wouldn't want her associated only with one set of companions, even if they are her parents, after she was set up to be someone who knows many of the Doctor's incarnations.

So it’s goodbye to the Ponds in a story that I did enjoy, but was hoping to enjoy more. The emotional punch, while certainly powerful, is not helped by the illogical plot. It’s a shame that their exit couldn’t be as strong as their entrance in the brilliant The Eleventh Hour, or as Moffat’s recent Asylum of the Daleks, but Manhattan was nevertheless an entertaining episode. Emotional Kieron Brain and Logical Kieron Brain will be in a heated argument about whether it was really any good for at least a year.

Amy and Rory have been an interesting take on the Doctor Who companion – the first time New Who has had two companions for an extended period of time, with a deeply explored relationship between the two. In ways they’ve been endearing, with character moments such as Asylum’s teleporter scene really making us care about their relationship, although there have been problems with their characterisation – the mess of series six’s story arc didn’t do them any good. Overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following their developments as characters, from children to young engaged couple to experienced travellers, and feel that now was the right time for them to leave.

Farewell Ponds, come along soufflé girl! 
On 30.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
I've reviewed Dredd for The Film Pilgrim.

Summary: better than the Sylvester Stallone version.

Monday, 24 September 2012

On 24.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments
Chris Chibnall, all is forgiven.

After the more than disappointing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I wasn't overly optimistic about Chibnall's second Doctor Who episode of the series, The Power of Three. But I do love it when an episode exceeds my expectations...

The Power of Three fits into a Who genre we've not seen since the Russell T Davies era, the invasion of contemporary Earth episode. This trope had become tiresome by the time the Tenth Doctor regenerated, but as Earth had since gone quite some years without being invaded, now felt like a good time for another look at that story. Indeed, it felt very much like a Davies script, with its look into the companions' domestic lives, its celebrity cameos (Brian Cox, but not the one who played the Ood Elder), and the Eleventh Doctor's first interaction with UNIT (Sarah Jane Adventures aside). On the other hand, it wasn't just an RTD-esque invasion story - it had two interesting twists on this genre. The first was the nature of the invasion - the Earth was invaded by small black cubes, which did nothing. The second was the point we're at in Amy and Rory's story.

The small black cubes appeared all across the Earth one night and, as I said, did nothing. That was the alien invasion. And it wasn't entirely as rubbish as it sounds. The Doctor's investigation into this phenomenon led him to the attention of UNIT, now led by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), daughter of old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. While she wasn't a remarkable or deeply explored character, in the small role she had to play in this episode, Kate was more endearing than a lot of RTD's UNIT officers (if we never see Lee Evans' scientific advisor again, it will be too soon), had a good chemistry with Matt Smith's Doctor, and had a sensible reason to be in the story, which is more than can be said for some other Chris Chibnall supporting characters.  Meanwhile, the human race were collecting these cubes and bringing them into their homes, their offices, and their tea rooms. Of course, this was all part of the plan. When the cubes inevitably started attacking the human race and Steven Berkoff's craggy-faced villain was revealed, it was up to the three heroes to save the day. Which they did surprisingly quickly. The villain was easily defeated, lacking in depth, and, to be honest, arbitrary. But the episode wasn't really about him...

Where The Power of Three shone was as an exploration of the relationship between the eponymous three - Amy, Rory and the Doctor (the title also refers to maths). From the start, the episode highlighted the contrast between Amy and Rory's two lives - life with the Doctor, and 'real' life at home. Amy and Rory, clearly growing tired of an action packed life and wanting to settle down, have continuously been reminding themselves that they need to choose one or the other - but not yet. Their story is unlike that of any other companion from the RTD era, as by this point we're really seeing a large chunk of their life, rather than the Doctor travelling with them for a year and then moving on to the next. The slowness of the cubes' invasion was really just a plot excuse to look at Amy and Rory's life over a longer period of time and explore how their adventures with the Doctor are affecting their social and professional lives. This worked really well, drawing up a good deal of both drama and humour. Rory is offered a full time job and Amy is to be a bridesmaid, but will they be able to keep these commitments or will the Doctor whisk them away? It also allowed a second appearance from Rory's dad Brian, the funniest and least pointless of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship's supporting characters. 

Making this more powerful was the knowledge that The Power of Three is Amy and Rory's penultimate story, with Moffat's hype suggesting a heartbreaking exit for them next week, and there was a suiting sense of foreboding and sadness throughout. The scene with the Doctor and Amy outside the Tower of London was particularly touching, almost as much as the Amy/Rory/teleporter scene in series opener Asylum of the Daleks - "You were the first. The first face this face saw. And you are sealed onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. Always will be. I'm running to you. And Rory. Before you fade from me." With Matt Smith and Karen Gillan giving assured, emotional performances, this was a scene to make the hardest of viewers pretend they've looked into the eyes of a Weeping Angel and have one growing in their eye.

The episode ended with the Doctor running off, but Amy and Rory deciding to go with him for further adventures. "Bring them back safely" said Brian, upsettingly. Poor Brian. I am unconvinced, however, by how quickly Amy and Rory make the decision to run off in that scene, after leaning towards settling down in real life for most of the episode. Perhaps a better ending woud have been them telling the Doctor of their decision not to travel with him any more, but him convincing them to come on one last trip, making it even more tragic that this would become the one on which some tragic Angel-based tragedy occurs. I reserve full judgement on this point until next week, when the Ponds' story has ended.

The major flaw of The Power of Three is the empty and generic nature of the invasion plot, but I can let that slip a little, because the focus of the episode is the relationship of the central characters, which, along with the comedic aspects, kept me thoroughly entertained throughout. Let's not talk abut Dinosaurs, Chris Chibnall has written his best Doctor Who yet.

Though he's still nowhere near the standards of Steven Moffat at his best. I'm going to be spending the next week preparing myself emotionally for The Angels Take Manhattan.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

On 23.9.12 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

Why did I ever think it was a good idea to watch a Japanese horror film late at night?

Audition is remarkable in that, for the first 45 minutes, there’s no indication that it actually is a horror film. Rather, it’s a touching drama about a widower trying to find a second wife in order to put his life back together. It even has a touch of comedy, as he auditions a series of women, officially for a film but actually to be his potential partner. This is an unconventional move that a Western horror flick probably wouldn’t risk, but it’s worth it for the investment built in the characters, making the second half even trickier to watch. This then starts to slowly build up a chilling, mysterious element, as he gets involved with a woman that the rules of cinema say he really should stay away from, leading into an horrendously disturbing and violent crescendo.  I can honestly say I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in a torture scene before. The film achieves the effect it wants to achieve perfectly. 

It’s brilliant, but don’t watch it. I’ll never trust a Japanese woman again.

Monday, 17 September 2012

A departure from my string of Doctor Who posts to talk about an entirely different branch of science fiction, as I've just finished reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. I knew I'd enjoy it, being a fan of his classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and its film adaptation Blade Runner), but can safely say it's gone straight onto my list of favourite books.

High Castle is set in a parallel world in which Germany and Japan won the second world war and features a remarkably detailed piece of world building - the alternative timeline begins in 1933 when the assassination of President Roosevelt, a failed attempt in our reality, sets events in motion for America to be unprepared to save the Allied war effort. This leads to a world in which the Western USA is occupied by Japan, the Eastern USA is occupied by the Reich, and the central states are a neutral buffer zone. The Nazis have sent all of New York's Jews to concentration camps, wiped out Africa's native population, and developed a space program to send rockets to Mars (yes, Iron Sky wasn't the first example of space Nazis). With Hitler in an insane asylum and his replacement Bormann dying, the Nazi higher ups are squabbling for power and planning their next moves. Meanwhile, an American novelist has written a novel speculating on what the world would be like had the Allies won the war - but in a different way to in our reality. Yes, by incorporating the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Dick has created not one but two very interesting theories of what could have happened had history taken a different course. 

This last part may sound a little self-indulgent, but The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is one of many elements of the world that come together to explore history from a variety of character viewpoints, for High Castle isn't an action packed war story; rather, we explore this world through the lives of a variety of people and cultures mainly living in what has become of the United States. High Castle isn't a long novel, but a lot is packed in - from the Japanese trade missioner Tagomi struggling to  find meaning in his life to the factory worker of Jewish descent finding himself without a job and the Abwehr spy defying his country to bring a message of warning, it's a tensely realised world in which everyone is lost, hopeless, and afraid of superior authorities. There's a chilling darkness inherent in many characters - Childan, the antique store owner, is particularly dislikable - he's bitter towards the occupying Japanese yet panders to their every need, secretly admiring the Nazis as noble yet too cowardly to express his racist sentiment. Dick has a gift for conjuring up thought-provoking horror through the thoughts of ordinary people in an evil world.

There is, nevertheless, a spirituality to the book. Many of the characters consult the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, for advice in times of trouble - Tagomi's reliance on the I Ching is almost obsessive. Indeed, there's a Taoist interconnectivity to the stories as the characters' lives intertwine, sometimes in ways they don't even realise. Meanwhile, other characters prefer to read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and one tries to connect the two, with a very strange result. Yes, as expected of Dick, it's not a story of neat conclusions or happy endings. If you thought it's ambiguous whether Deckard is an android (he is), High Castle's endings will really perplex you.

A fascinating, concise yet detailed study of history, of spirituality, and of humanity, The Man in the High Castle is a perfect example of the power of science fiction.

A side note, back to my usual film and TV focus - there hasn't been a single adaptation of High Castle for either medium, and I can see why. It's very focused on inner monologues, making it hard to adapt for the screen. The internet indicates that a BBC version was in development at one point, to be produced by Ridley Scott, but only the I Ching can tell what's happened to that. I'd be cautious about watching it, though looking at some of the BBC's other quality adaptations such as Parade's End, it could potentially be excellent. Nevertheless, what is true is that The Man in the High Castle has been very influential in developing the whole alternate history sub-genre, one I'd like to be influenced by at some point. When I get around to writing my Space Nazis series.
On 17.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

A man who walks into towns, solves their problems and leaves without revealing his name; a man who saves many but is destined to be a lonely figure. The Doctor shares many traits with the quintessential Western hero. In this way, perhaps it’s a surprise that it took the revived Doctor Who seven series to do a Western episode, the first since 1966’s The Gunfighters.

Toby Whithouse’s A Town Called Mercy had the Doctor, along with Amy and Rory, strolling into a town under siege from a mysterious gunslinger - part cowboy, part machine, entirely dangerous. Their investigation led them to another alien doctor, Kahler-Jex, creator of the gunslinging cyborg and escaped war criminal redeeming himself by serving the town of Mercy.

Everything you’d want from a good Western was there. A saloon, a showdown, a stetson, and shot beautifully on location in Almeria, previously used for A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven and many more classic Westerns. The episode certainly looked the part, with bright blue skies contrasting with bright orange sands. It was magnificently scored too, with a Western twist on Murray Gold’s usual incidental music making the episode really distinct and underpinning certain dramatic moments perfectly. OK, so a few of the actors overdid the American accents more than others, but Ben Browder made up for them and A Town Called Mercy very much felt like a Western.

But this was no ordinary Western, it was a sci-fi Western. The clunking beast of the gunslinger was a finely designed creation, mashing cowboy and robot into something intimidating and powerful. The plotline of a doctor on the run after his cyborg creation had turned against him, a futuristic Frankenstein in the Old West, did feel like it reused some plot elements we'd seen before but fit the setting strangely well, allowing for a series of tense confrontations.

But this was no ordinary sci-fi Western, this was a Doctor Who sci-fi Western. From the moment the Doc and co. walked into the town, the story looked at the typical Western tropes with a strong element of the typical British humour we’ve come to associate with Doctor Who. “Tea. But the strong stuff. Leave the bag in” the Doctor orders in the saloon, in a brilliant piece of comic writing.

Besides this, the episode was a very interesting character study. Though Amy and Rory, the focus of a lot of this series, didn’t have a lot to do, the episode, like Whithouse’s The God Complex last year, focused on a particular element of the Doctor’s character. This time it was his anger, as his frustration with always encountering death caused him to take up a gun and throw Kahler-Jex out of Mercy into the hands of his assassin. I’m not sure I like the direction the Doctor’s been going in this series, first with killing Solomon and now this. I liked the Doctor of series five, who occasionally had mad outbursts of rage, but only in defence of his principles and would never contemplate killing, but this Doctor seems to be becoming more ruthless, a characteristic I don’t want associated with the character. Amy attributed this to too long travelling alone, though I don’t see that as an excuse – that shouldn’t turn anyone into a killer, and besides, he seems to be visiting the Ponds and other friends often enough. Nevertheless, for actually exploring the anger in a well-written, reflective manner rather than last week’s Bond-esque nonchalant smarmy murder, Whithouse gets a lot more of my appreciation than Chris Chibnall. We've seen the 'enemy is akin to the Doctor' trope before, yes, but some of the dialogue was chillingly effective - “Looking at you, Doctor, is like looking into a mirror, almost. There’s rage there like me, guilt like me, solitude, everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done” taunts Kahler-Jex. And the Doctor flips. Perhaps understandably, though I’m not sure the Doctor as I know him should.

Whatever your opinion on the Doctor’s character arc, A Town Called Mercy really was an accomplished mix of Western, sci-fi, and that Doctor Who Britishness, in terms of humour and the prevailing “violence doesn’t end violence” message. Toby Whithouse’s scripts can be criticised for following the traditions of Doctor Who a little too closely, and indeed this episode’s use of well-worn tropes in Kahler-Jex’s story means that it’s not one of the very best episodes, but it is Whithouse’s best yet and one that this Whovian would be more than happy to watch again and again.

Plus, the Doctor rode a transgender horse and wore a Stetson. Stetsons are cool. I just wish he’d worn that gorgeous cowboy coat for longer.

Monday, 10 September 2012

On 10.9.12 by KieronMoore in , ,    3 comments

The second episode of Doctor Who series seven was always going to struggle to live up to last week’s excellent Asylum of the Daleks. A struggle which Chris Chibnall’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship did not emerge out of successfully. Cool title, but, frankly, what a load of rubbish.

Looking at Gallifrey Base, the main argument of those defending Chris Chibnall’s episode is that it was “a fun romp”. Well, yes, sure, it did have a brilliant concept. Dinosaurs. On a spaceship. And there were some very enjoyable action sequences provided by the brilliantly rendered CGI dinosaurs. An ankylosaur stampede, the climactic fight against a horde of raptors, the Doctor riding a triceratops. All fantastic sequences to watch.

But Asylum of the Daleks was more fun, as it had a coherent story and interesting development of characters. You know, it is possible to have the big blockbuster action alongside interesting characters, clever plotting and maybe even thought provoking drama. If last week’s was Inception or Raiders of the Lost Ark, this was Transformers 2.

The main problem with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was that it had too many characters and none of them had any time to really develop. Faced with a mysterious spaceship heading on a collision course with Earth, 2367AD, the Doctor gathered a “gang” to investigate – Queen Nefertiti, big game hunter Riddell, the Ponds, and Brian, Rory’s dad. Add into the mix a sinister space pirate, two mildly (very mildly) amusing Mitchell and Webb-voiced robots and a Silurian cameo to drive the plot forward and we have ourselves a particularly busy episode.

I liked Brian. The initial scene with him trying to change a lightbulb told us everything we needed to know about Brian and his unadventurous lifestyle, and Mark Williams’ portrayal of the comically practical and disbelieving character led to some very funny clashes with the Doctor and the dinosaur antagonists. "You don’t have any vegetable matter in your trousers, do you Brian?" is this year's "Look at the detail on that cheese plant!"

Riddell and Nefertiti, however, seemed unnecessary and only made the episode more convoluted than it needed to be. Nefertiti was merely a pastiche of the typical Moffat-era sassy, flirty female and not at all a believable character I could empathise with. Rupert Graves’ Riddell, though unlikeable due to his hobby of killing things and his misogyny, was a more interesting character, who would have made for a good guest star in an episode more prominently featuring him. But here, neither served great purpose. Nefertiti giving up both her feminist principles and her kingdom at the end to get together with someone as sexist as Riddell, who never really redeemed himself of this quality, was, well, dumb.

The villain of the piece was space pirate Solomon, played wonderfully evilly by David Bradley. Though again there wasn’t much depth to the character, the revelation of Solomon’s massacre of the Silurians was shocking enough to make him a truly hateful villain. No-one likes a killer, right? Well, you see, that’s kind of awkward, because… the Doctor murdered Solomon. Murdered him when he could have saved him. The Doctor I'm used to wouldn't accept him massacring the Silurians as an excuse to do so and so neither will I. Painfully out of character. Not good.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship had a good cast, very impressive CGI, some funny moments, and enjoyable action, but was let down severely by its mess of a plot and poor writing of the Doctor. The main impression I got was that Chibnall was trying to emulate the Moffat era-style - collecting people from space and time, big mad blockbuster action - but failing to add much depth or talent of his own.

On the plus side, next week’s Western looks really good.