Tuesday, 31 December 2013

I loved Matt Smith’s first series of Doctor Who, and will stick up for it to this day. Series 5 got the balance of plot arc and character just right, a grand fairytale adventure with surprising twists, an interesting new take on the Doctor, and finely developed relationships at its heart. It was after that when Steven Moffat’s showrunning went awry for me, with series 6 being an utter mess and series 7’s ‘Impossible Girl’ arc simply uninteresting. And now, three and a half years later, we’ve reached the other bookend, the final episode of Doctor Smith, who bowed out in this year’s Christmas special, The Time of the Doctor. This episode aimed to tie up Matt’s era and to see him out with a bang, harking back to all the important memories of the past few years. Did it recapture what I initially loved about this Doctor? Well, yes, but also, largely, no.

After an audacious opening declaring that after a multi-Doctor story we’re having one of Moffat’s multi-monster stories, The Time of the Doctor descended into silly farce for the first fifteen minutes. And not the good kind of silly farce, but a crude and not really very funny attempt at humour in which we’re constantly told that the Doctor is actually naked. We didn’t even get to see any arse.

Nevertheless, the story picked up a bit when the Doctor and Clara finally set foot in the town of Christmas. With costumes reminiscent of 2010’s best Christmas special ever, A Christmas Carol, the setting for the Doctor’s final battle was a brilliant piece of production design, a snow-capped fairytale village encased in near-permanent darkness. A lot of people seem to have taken against the voiceover, but for me it built upon a really nice atmosphere, and the Doctor growing old while defending this town against all his enemies was a neat way to sign off this Doctor’s adventures – there was even a nice throwback to the very beginning in the Doctor befriending young Barnable, who waited for him as did Amelia Pond.

I also did really like the way this adventure brought together plot points from throughout Matt’s era, not only bringing back the crack in time but also explaining “Silence will fall when the question is asked” in a way much more satisfactory than I ever expected Moffat to manage. OK, not everything made sense – brushing over the Silence as a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future does beg the question of why a bunch of genetically-engineered confessional priests from the future would have bothered to go back in time and influence human history from the days of the Stone Age – not exactly the most logical plan to kill the Doctor, is it?

But the big problem with The Time of the Doctor is that, while I really like a lot of the ideas in it, it failed to engage me on an emotional level. The scenes that were meant to be sad… weren’t. And those are the scenes that are important in a regeneration episode. Remember Rose distraught at having been sent home because the Doctor didn’t want her to die alongside him? Heartbreaking, wasn’t it? That basically happened again, and this time there wasn’t a wet eye in the house (especially bad considering I’d been softened by Toy Story 3 and a good deal of wine). Remember the Tenth Doctor breaking down in the cafĂ© with Wilf? And then his final scene, promising the young Rose she’d have a great year? That’s the kind of beautiful writing a regeneration episode deserves, and The Time of the Doctor’s brief attempts at anything similar fell flat. The fact that it’s half as long as the previous regeneration story shouldn’t have been the issue; if Moffat had just taken out some of the unnecessary stuff, like the entirely irrelevant confrontation with the Weeping Angels, who were cheapened in The Angels Take Manhattan and haven’t been scary since, or the unfunny farce at the beginning, then he’d have had room to take his time with the character stuff and maybe make the episode a bit more affecting. But even that might have been a lost cause, for this episode was far too late for me to engage with Clara as a character.

The problem with Clara is that she’s very much the generic companion and there’s no continuous character arc to get behind. The presentation of her family, introduced as she serves them Christmas dinner, seems entirely disconnected to anything that’s been mentioned of them in previous episodes. Her father’s even played by a different actor, and I bet most of the audience didn’t notice, due to the very little shits we’ve been led to give – a vast let down from Russell T Davies’ skill in giving the companion’s families rounded and interesting characters. In their brief appearances here, Moffat tries to emulate what Davies did – “Look, they’re watching Strictly, that means they’re relatable!” – but fails miserably, with these characters both coming from nowhere and going nowhere.

As well as Clara, this episode introduced us to Tasha Lem, ‘Mother Superious of the Papal Mainframe’. Though I did appreciate Orla Brady’s Irish accent, that was the extent to which I enjoyed Lem, who seemed familiar in many ways. As well as fitting that overused Moffat trope, an old friend of the Doctor, her dialogue felt like it had been written for River Song – “Flying the TARDIS was always easy. It’s flying the Doctor I never quite mastered” and the Doctor’s line “You’ve been fighting the psychopath inside you all your life.” And yes, of course she tried to seduce the Doctor, later being pounced on by him. Moffat’s repetitive and demeaning treatment of female characters as nothing more than his space-based sex fantasies seems to be getting worse all the time.

At least we had Handles, the Eleventh Doctor’s longest serving companion. OK, I actually think there is a good idea in having the Doctor carry around a Cyber-head as a personal computer – it’s reminiscent of K9, some of their interaction in the opening sequence was quite funny, and at least it stopped him from over-using the sonic screwdriver for once. But, come on, were we really meant to be sad at his death scene? It’s another example of Moffat’s hyper-pacing spoiling the effect – if we’d known Handles for longer, maybe this scene would have had a chance at working.

So what of the Doctor himself, and his regeneration? Playing it loose with the character’s history so that the Eleventh Doctor is actually the Thirteenth Doctor was a bold move by Moffat, and one I have no problem with in theory – the show was always going to make something up to get past the classic bit of continuity that is the regeneration limit, and it might as well do this sooner rather than later to shut up those who keep going on about how Doctor Who is going to end. The problem is introducing the fact that this is the Doctor’s last incarnation and then wrapping it up in one episode is very sudden for such a major event in his life. This finale could have been more effective had the seeds been planted earlier. Why no mention of this when the Doctor was so worried about his death in series 6, or when faced with his own grave in The Name of the Doctor?

That aside, the new set of regenerations meant that Smith’s Doctor got rather spoiled, having not one, but two regeneration scenes: a massive fuck-off Dalek-destroying tornado of a regeneration, followed by a much more personal handover in the TARDIS. This scene had a lot of nice touches – the Doctor’s “I will not forget one line of this” monologue, the bewigged ghost of Amy Pond, the dropping of the bow tie, the song from The Rings of Akhaten (yes, I still like that episode). And yet, despite all of this, I felt, again, significantly less moved than the fan I was three years ago, who loved the Doctor of series 5, would have wanted the fan I am today to be.

And so it is with an episode which nicely ties up the era both visually and narratively but is a significant emotional letdown that we say goodbye to Matt Smith. A very fine actor, and an occasionally brilliant Doctor, who was increasingly dumped with problematic scripts. At least anniversary special The Day of the Doctor didn’t disappoint, and at least we’ll always have such classics as The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor to remember Eleven by. Matt, you will always be the Doctor.

And now, so will Peter Capaldi – who failed to make much of an impression in a very short final scene, to be honest. I wanted something a bit more daring than the now-conventional comment about part of his new body and the realisation that the TARDIS is crashing again, albeit less dramatically than last time. I did like his stare, though. I hope he does a lot of that staring.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

On 28.12.13 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments
Hi there. How was your Christmas? Oh, really? What did you think of Doctor Who, then? Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. But now we have Sherlock to look forward to. Weather's been a bit iffy, eh?

Right. Enough small talk. I need your money.

A film I've written, The Crow Scarer, is being shot at the start of February as one of my final year university projects. My team have already raised £2000 but need to double that in order to fund logistics, actors, and, importantly, crows. So, if you've somehow managed not to throw away all your money over the Christmas period, we can help you fix that - head over to The Crow Scarer’s IndieGoGo page here.

Here's a little summary of the story:

Charlie is a professional Crow Scarer and has been all his life. But one day, he’s made redundant, to be replaced by ‘scarecrows’ – artificial crow scarers made of straw and rags. It takes the best efforts of local seamstress Lilly to cheer Charlie up and set him on the path to finding a new job – but none of his new jobs work out, and all Charlie wants to do is scare crows.

 Will Lilly be able to help Charlie get his job back, will he find a way to move on with the changing times, or will he be left as a relic of a bygone era? One thing’s for sure – scaring crows isn’t the same as it used to be.

Please give us money. There’s a selection of perks available and whatever you give will make a difference. And we'll love you for ever.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Issue 396 of Starburst Magazine is out now, and, as you may have deduced from the cover, it's a Sherlock Holmes themed issue, to celebrate the return of the BBC's Sherlock this new year, which I personally am very excited about. My contribution to this issue is not more than a page about Sherlock Holmes books written by people who aren't Arthur Conan Doyle, but it's worth buying for the bits that aren't written by me too.

Pick it up from WH Smith, your specialist comic store, possibly Tesco (not sure if this one's in Tesco), or, of course, right here.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

I was apprehensive when I saw the first Hunger Games film. I didn’t know what to expect, and one of the many things I’d heard about it was “it’s the new Twilight”. Thankfully, this turned out to be bollocks – Hollywood were looking to make as much from the teenage market as they’d done with Twilight, yes, but it was so much more than that. The other comparison I'd heard over and over again was to Battle Royale, often in a very sniffy manner implying that Hunger Games had ‘copied’ the Japanese classic and so lacked originality. Again, it was so much more than that. Yes, it featured young people being placed in a confined environment and forced to fight to the death, but the unique characters, futuristic setting and satire of reality TV were among the elements that made it stand out.

The second film, Catching Fire, moves the story on, with Katniss Everdeen forced back into the Hunger Games as the powers that be work out how to deal with her increasing fame and what this represents for the growing buds of revolution. The Hunger Games pointed its sharp satirical finger at the horrors of reality TV, and Catching Fire turns this into an exploration of the cult of celebrity, with the establishment trying to use figureheads like Katniss to control the populace, and the populace appropriating them as symbols for themselves. As Catching Fire begins, Katniss is putting on the public show of being in love with Josh Hutcherson's Peeta - an unwilling part of the Capitol's propaganda war. When the populace won't take this any more, however, and violent control has to be asserted, she's on the side of the Districts, and the film does a great world-building job in contrasting the bourgeoisie pomposity of the Capitol with the oppressed slums of the Districts, and in exploring what Katniss can represent to each community. Pretty deep for science fiction aimed at a teenage audience, eh?

The one big thing which the Hunger Games series has that comparable films lack, and indeed is very hard to find in Hollywood cinema, is a strong central heroine. If I referred to any other Hollywood female as 'well-rounded', I'd have to be talking about her boobs, but with Katniss, I'd be talking about her character (not that there's anything wrong with Jennifer Lawrence's boobs). Lawrence's Katniss is a perfect action hero – resourceful and agile, vulnerable but determined to survive, facing impossible odds but committed to making a difference. Yes, there’s a love triangle, and that’s a point of comparison with the dreaded T-word, but if anyone, it’s the men in this triangle who do the moping and Katniss sees it as secondary to her struggles to fight for the people. It’s so good to see this subversion of gender conventions create a great female role model in mainstream cinema.

Speaking of that love triangle, I do feel that neither Josh Hutcherson nor Liam Hemsworth come close to matching up to Lawrence in terms of acting ability. But hey, I don’t go for hunky guys, and they’ll get the stereotypical teenage girls into cinemas… At least the supporting cast has some pretty reliable names, including Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci, who has the most hypnotically shiny teeth. No wonder the people of the Capitol can't get enough of that shit; I'd happily sit through any show he presented and just stare at the teeth, wandering my gaze over the equally glitzy jacket if I needed a momentary break. Get him on The One Show.

Philip Seymour Hoffman also joins the cast for the second instalment, though his clothes and teeth are both notably less shiny, as is his performance - he's strangely understated as Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, as if he was hoping for a break in between demanding Paul Thomas Anderson films, had entirely forgotten he had to turn up to The Hunger Games, and nearly slept through his alarm. Hopefully Plutarch will come into his own when we go deeper into the character in the next films.

If I had one big complaint about the first film, it was the shaky camerawork. I do like shakycam when it’s used well (Greengrass' Bourne films, for example), but not when used with overzealous shakiness and no real motivation, and in The Hunger Games it felt very distracting from the story. Luckily, new director Francis Lawrence appears to have brought an Allen key to set and tightened the loose bolt on the steadicam, as the shakiness is a lot less problematic in Catching Fire.

There are a few weaknesses in the direction. Though there’s a great sense of jeopardy throughout, a few of the more CGI-reliant action sequences, including an attack from evil fog and a horde of monkeys, feel confusingly choreographed, unclear as to who's trying to do what and who just saved who. “You think she sacrificed herself to save you?”, Katniss asks Peeta regarding a fellow warrior killed in the monkey imbroglio. Katniss doesn’t know what happened in that fight, and nor did I.

Luckily, there are enough action scenes that do work, and they’re balanced well with the more emotional stuff – well enough, in fact, for me to have no problem with the 146 minute running time. One possible criticism is that Catching Fire overall is structurally quite unbalanced, setting up a lot of plot but resolving little. This isn't too much of a problem if you look at it as very much a ‘middle of the trilogy’ film, like The Empire Strikes Back – you really have to have seen the first film to know what’s going on, and it has an ending which left me anxious to see the next. I am a little bit worried that with Mockingjay, the series will follow the Hollywood trend of making the final book into two films – just how long it can be stretched out for without becoming too much is yet to be seen. 

Nevertheless, if the series can keep up the quality of Catching Fire, I’m all in. It’s an exciting science fiction thriller. It’s full of intelligent and relevant satire. It has a strong female protagonist. Young audiences love it. There’s nothing else out there that combines all these qualities, and in that respect, The Hunger Games are well worth celebrating.