Monday, 20 May 2013

The big finale to Doctor Who series 7 coincided with the Eurovision Song Contest this Saturday. This was very good timing, as Doctor Who finales and Eurovision are both things best watched drunk, in the mood to cheer and applaud but not to think too hard. So I cracked open a bottle of red and settled down for an evening of camp, incomprehensible delight.

And wow, The Name of the Doctor was excellent fun. I cheered and applauded and squeed out loud throughout.

On Sunday, I rewatched it while sober. This time, I noticed a couple of loose ends that failed to be tied up and that I’m not optimistic about the show returning to –  the motivations of the Silence to stop the Doctor reaching Trenzalore, the “Fall of the Eleventh”, the “woman in the shop”, who exactly Clarence was. OK, more than a couple. But despite this, I once again really enjoyed the episode. Not quite as much, but I did. Honest.

The Great Intelligence and its servants the Whisper Men had kidnapped the Paternoster gang and taken them to Trenzalore, leading the Doctor to take Clara to the one place a time traveller should never go – his own grave. With River Song joining them in the form of a psychic time ghost projected across the universe from the Library’s backup database (did you know Doctor Who once aimed to educate kids about real science?), the stage was set for a confrontation that could reveal the Doctor’s greatest secret, which may or may not have been his name.

Unlike some other recent Moffat episodes, it didn't feel too rushed. I’m not a fan of the ditching of two-parters, but this finale worked well in the 45 minute format. As it wasn’t packed to a ‘kitchen sink’ degree, all the characters involved had nice character moments, particularly Vastra, Jenny and Strax, who were for once compelling characters rather than caricatures. Jenny’s “I think I’ve been murdered” was a chilling moment and Vastra’s panic at the prospect of losing Jenny added not-before-seen believability to their relationship. River Song, meanwhile, was a welcome presence without being overly focused upon in a manner reminiscent of the more dire moments of series 6.

Another welcome return was Richard E. Grant as the human form of the Great Intelligence. While it wasn’t entirely clear where this story fits into Mr. GI’s chronology or why it chose to reuse the body of Dr. Simeon, Grant’s performance had an excellently sinister gusto. The Whisper Men were great villains, too – their combination of posh Victorian garb, rhyming couplets and uncanny facelessness was a great recipe for the stuff of nightmares. It would have been nice to explore these villains a little more, but I can understand sidelining them – after all, the GI and co. were mere pawns in the mystery of Clara Oswald.

It was this mystery that had been threading throughout the series and came to a culmination in the final act of The Name of the Doctor. Clara threw herself into the Doctor’s time stream to save him throughout all his past from the paradoxes caused by the Great Intelligence jumping into his time stream to kill him throughout his past. Which, by Doctor Who standards, makes sense. Much more than The Angels Take Manhattan did, anyway. Clara wasn’t, as she insists she was, “born to save the Doctor” – rather, she was born and then later saved the Doctor, as well as the entire universe – creating many alternate incarnations of herself which kind of were “born to save the Doctor (and the universe)”. This decision to put herself at great risk in order to save the Doctor reminds me of Rose Tyler’s similar sacrifice from the end of series 1. I think, if anyone looks back upon these years on the hundredth anniversary of Who, Rose looking into the heart of the TARDIS will be looked upon as by far the better ending – perhaps because The Parting of the Ways was as much Rose’s story as the Doctor’s, and we really got the feeling of a difficult decision between her devotion to her family and her escapist adventures, whereas The Name of the Doctor is primarily the Doctor’s story, with Clara as a plot element to explore the mythos of the Doctor himself.

This brings back my initial criticisms of Clara – in The Bells of Saint John, I was unimpressed by Moffat’s presentation of her as a mystery rather than a character. In the hands of series 7’s other writers, I did grow to like her, and it did feel like she was growing stronger, from the girl rendered horrified by the Ice Warrior’s massacre to the more hardened (perhaps too hardened) companion of Nightmare in Silver. However, she doesn’t seem to have been changed by her experiences as much as Rose, Donna, or Amy, and in the end, her sacrifice feels less personal and less deserved than Rose’s.

The conclusion to the other great mystery of the series – Doctor Who? – well, that wasn’t concluded. We didn’t actually discover the Doctor’s name. Another “My name is Rose Tyler, and this is the story of how I died” style cop-out, you say? Well, it’s not a bad thing – any possible name would have been arbitrary and underwhelming. But the issue did seem underplayed given the massive build up that’s typical of Who these days and the fact that the episode was called 'The Name of the Doctor'. Still, this allowed for that great final line, and that old cheer/drinking game rule of "he said the title!" as if we're watching a Bond film.

This was the scene in which John Hurt’s incarnation of the Doctor was revealed. Yes, John Hurt. At this point I clapped manically and jumped around the house fanboying, before pouring a fourth glass of wine. Who is he? A pre-Hartnell Doctor? An incarnation from the Time War, wiped from the memory of the Doctor due to the necessary brutalities? My money’s on that theory, but I can’t wait for November 23rd to find out for sure.

And I haven't even mentioned the past Doctors yet. Appearing in the pre-titles sequence and when Clara fell through the Doctor’s past, every Doctor from Hartnell to Tennant had some form of appearance, which was madly exciting for this wine-addled fan. There are some ardent classic series fans who’ll burn down Steven Moffat’s house if he does any less than give each classic Doctor, even the dead ones, equal billing with Matt Smith in the fiftieth anniversary special, but for those of us with the most basic of narrative sense, this great Trouble with Tribbles-eque homage was enough to allow the special to focus on Ten and Eleven only. Not that I'm not hoping for some more lovely classic references...

Yes, there are lots of loose ends hanging in Moffat Who. I’d like the fiftieth anniversary special to tie one or two up, but I’m also looking forward to seeing how Moffat decides to celebrate the show’s past, present, and future. The Name of the Doctor is an enjoyable conclusion to the, perhaps overall unsatisfying, mystery of Clara Oswald, and, with good character moments and a great deal of fanboy-pleasing references, stands on its own two feet as a better finale than 2011’s The Wedding of River Song or 2012’s The Angels Take Manhattan.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Monday, 13 May 2013

I’ll happily admit that Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite writers, and I did love his previous Doctor Who episode, 2011’s The Doctor’s Wife. So of course, I had high hopes for his return to the series, Nightmare in Silver, pitched as "making the Cybermen scary again”.

Following on from last week’s somewhat dodgy lead-in, the episode opened with the Doctor and Clara taking a couple of kids to the biggest amusement park in the universe. Unfortunately, after a brutal war against the Cybermen, the theme park was a little past its best.

As we’d expect from Gaiman, this was a wonderfully imagined dark fantasy world inhabited by a band of quirkily named misfits. From the comical castle to the creepy waxwork gallery reminiscent of American Gods' House on the Rock, plus loads of nice little touches (a giant colourful plastic flower standing out in the middle of a barren wasteland), the production designers did a magnificent job of bringing Hedgewick’s World to life visually. What a perfect setting for the resurrection of the Cybermen…

But were these new Cybermen, as Gaiman wanted them to be, scary again? Well, no. They were scarier than they have been recently, yes, and harder to kill. They were an unstoppable alien force, but that’s missing what originally made the Cybermen scary – they’re not alien, they’re human. This fear of body manipulation, this extrapolation of what we could become, and the associated body horror element of humans being cut apart and replaced with machine parts, was explored in 2005’s Rise of the Cybermen, but hasn’t really been seen since. I was hoping for more of this from Gaiman. In terms of actual Cyber-action, there were some nice scenes where a lone silver warrior stalked the platoon of soldiers, taking them out with strange new abilities, but I wasn't left chilled.

One element to Gaiman’s story that I did really like was the Doctor’s invasion by the Cyber-Planner. His Bergman-esque chess game against the darker side of himself allowed a magnificently charged double performance from Matt Smith (except for the Chris Eccleston and David Tennant impressions; I do hope they were deliberately bad). In fact, Smith’s Doctor was great throughout this episode, minus that awkward final line. I'd rather the Doctor not have the sexy likes for Clara, to be honest.

Speaking of Clara, my criticism of her in this episode is that she took on the military commander role bestowed upon her a little too quickly. I’ve been growing to like Clara recently, but her actions here didn’t seem to fit with how she’s previously been characterized by her friendly, caring nature; I’d have liked to see a little more reluctance to take up arms.

Of course, this episode had two extra companions in the form of Artie and Angie. I'm not sure why. OK, the idea of a kids’ day out to a theme park going wrong has some promise in it, but I never really grew to like the kids. Angie showing up at a military barracks and declaring “I’m bored’ as if the soldiers’ job was to entertain her really reminded me why I’m not a fan of children. For most of the rest of the episode, the two were in a walking coma, which really rendered their presence pointless except as a MacGuffin for the Doctor and Clara to save. Perhaps if some other, more imaginative, imprisonment had been placed on them – failed attempts at cyber-conversion perhaps – we could have got to care about them, and also be scared of the Cybermen, a little more.

In fact, a few of the guest characters were under-developed. Who actually was Jason Watkins’ Webley? What did the Captain do to warrant her punishment? The exception was Porridge, played with amiable charm by Warwick Davis. Like the Doctor, he was running away from his own necessary brutalities, and this guilt was explored touchingly though his growing friendship with Clara. Shame about the awkward proposal.

Also, I really like how the platoon had a speccy ginger bloke. Despite the fact that eye surgery surely will have eliminated the need for glasses much sooner than this was set, it's nice to know that this particular war movie trope, as well as the ginger gene itself, isn’t going to die out.

The best Cybermen story for a while, I did enjoy Nightmare in Silver, but it fell far from making the old enemy scary again, and far from living up to the best of Gaiman’s writing.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Continuing series 7B’s ‘Northern agenda’ (even better than Russell T Davies’ ‘gay agenda’), The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’ second Doctor Who script of the series, took the Doctor and Clara, along with Victorian detective team Vastra, Jenny and Strax, to Yorkshire. Corpses stained crimson were washing up, with the suspicion pointed at a Saltaire-esque model town run by Diana Rigg’s Mrs Gillyflower.

Those familiar with Mark Gatiss’ macabre style of comedy from The League of Gentlemen will have recognised a similar style in The Crimson Horror. It was the most characteristically Gatiss script Doctor Who has had yet, and in that respect, was brilliant.  Gatiss conjured up a richly woven world of mad characters and lovingly over-the-top Northern dialect, with more laugh-out-loud moments than Doctor Who has had for a while – the hilarious highlight for me was the recurring fainting of poor Mr. Thursday.

I also really liked the way the plot progressed like the gradual solving of a Holmes-esque mystery, culminating in a stand-off resolved by sneaking and shooting rather than timey-wimey bollocks or the power of emotion, which was a nice change. Perhaps a leech that can live for 65 million years and then give an old woman the ability to build rockets that poison the world is a little dodgy plot-wise, but I’m inclined to forgive this for its contributions to the gothic steampunk aesthetic.

Another sequence I loved was the vintage style flashback, a fine experimentation with the Doctor Who form. It fit the genre of the episode perfectly and had a particularly catchy Victorian-esque tune. Plus, Matt Smith's Northern accent gets my “quote of the series” award - "Grand! That's smashin', that is. Ee, the missus an' I cun't* be more chuffed, eh, love?" 

While all the actors seemed to have fun revelling in the camp, it wasn’t an episode that stopped for many character developing moments. This meant Clara got left behind in the whirlwind of a plot, and it would also have been nice to have explored Gillyflower’s motivations, besides being ‘nuts', a little more. Rachel Stirling's Ada, on the contrary, was the most interesting of the guest characters, suffering under the oppression of her mad mother but rising against her after realising the extent of her brutality and splatting the villainous leech with her cane - the kind of violent retribution that the Doctor would never carry out (except in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship) but feels appropriate and even blackly comic in Gatiss' dark world. 

All in all, T' Crimson 'orror wasn’t an episode without its flaws, but it was a magnificently enjoyable vintage adventure unashamed of its influences and all the better for it, as well as by far the funniest of the series. Compared to his so-so previous contributions to Who, Mark Gatiss has really been let free and upped his game this series. Don’t ask me to choose between them, but Cold War and this macabre comedy are his best Who episodes to date.

I’ve left my opinions on the final scene until after making my mind up on the episode, as it isn’t really part of the story at all. While the kids theoretically could mix up the TARDIS crew dynamic a little, they weren’t the best child actors, were they? And at what point did the Doctor and Clara stop battling Ice Warriors/dimensionally-lost-time-traveller-ghost-things to pose for photos? More than a little forced, but I am optimistic for the episode it’s leading into. Don’t let me down, Neil Gaiman.

*NB. Despite my best efforts, the Yorkshire conjugation of "couldn't" can't be typed without nearly writing "cunt", so sorry if writing "cunt" offends you.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On 6.5.13 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

SPOILER WARNING: This warning contains spoilers. Seriously, don't read on if you haven't seen the film.

The latest addition to Marvel’s cinematic masterplan, the first thing to say about Iron Man Three is that, at times, it is very funny, and these are the times at which it excels. Shane Black’s script is characteristically rich with one-liners that kept me happy through the film, mainly from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, but also with some crackers from the supporting cast, including computer JARVIS – “I’m alright, sir, but at the end of a sentence I say the wrong cranberry”.

Outside of the comedy, though, it’s all a bit meh. The majority of the action sequences bored me and left me impatient for more of the funny bits. The exception is the climactic shipyard battle; despite the deus ex machina army of Iron Men making it more of a toy advert than a film, the sequence was finely directed enough and contained enough hints of comedy to retain my attention – the Iron Man suit failing to reach a dramatically-posed Tony when it hits a piece of scenery and shatters was the best laugh of the film.

I was worried about how the film would portray the Mandarin, the comic book arch-enemy of Iron Man. A character developed in a less politically correct age, the Mandarin of the comics is an amalgamation of oriental stereotypes. Combining this with a Bin Laden-esque terrorist, the film appeared to be running the risk of being extremely racist in tone. But in having this villain turn out to be a decoy, the film finds a surprising and funny way around this while satirizing American cultural fears and creating a character that Ben Kingsley seems to have a lot of fun playing. This way, it’s only racist towards the British, and that’s a socially acceptable form of racism. The only downside to this is that Guy Pearce’s true ‘Mandarin’, as slimily charismatic as he is in the role, is a little too generic to get close to a place in the Rogue’s Gallery of great movie villains.

On the other side of the conflict, Tony Stark isn’t exactly my favourite hero either. The first reason for this is that his character arc throughout the film is really quite sketchy. The film begins with him having anxiety attacks about having survived falling through a wormhole… OK, not a bad set-up. I mean, I can’t exactly empathise with it, but I imagine I’d be a little shaken if that had happened to me. Unfortunately, the final act of the film seems to forget all of this, leaving us with a resolution in which Tony solves all his personal issues by blowing up all his Iron Man suits, a solution that isn’t at all a logical progression from the problem, and so is unsatisfying as an ending.

The second reason I don’t like him is that he's a knob. Wisecracking is funny. Outright arrogance is not, and he often crosses that line, not least when he meets a small boy and dickishly makes fun of the child’s family issues. His only acts of apology for this behavior are giving the boy weapon with which to violently attack bullies and a sports car which he won’t be able to drive for over a decade. What a role model, eh?

Meanwhile, Rebecca Hall is brilliant, if underused, as genius botanist Dr. Maya Hansen, Gwyneth Paltrow is a bit annoying as Pepper Potts, Don Cheadle adds a nice buddy cop element to his scenes as that colonel bloke, and Jon Favreau, refusing to give up his bodyguard character despite having given up the director's chair, is a pointless waste of screen time.

All in all, the best way to approach Iron Man Three is as a superhero film which is by no means meant to be taken seriously. Where it fails is in having an interesting or meaningful character story below the surface. Then again, Tony Stark has always been the second best billionaire-playboy-come-superhero for me, and if that’s what you’re looking for, go rewatch Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Iron Man Three makes the right decision when playing to its lighter strengths, as where it excels is in comedy – in particular Stark’s quips and Ben Kingsley’s every moment on screen after the decoy reveal. The film is by all means an entertaining two hours, if not much more.

Final point: I really liked how the title was written as Iron Man Three and not Iron Man 3. Not sure why I liked that. Probably just because it was unconventional.