Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Recent Doctor Who Christmas specials have had something of a festivity overdose, with frankly implausible quantities of snow for Matt Smith’s Doctor to frolic through as he spilled Christmas miracles all over sparkly kittens. Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely bloody love A Christmas Carol, the less said about the Narnia one the better, and The Snowmen is alright – but it’s difficult to see how Steven Moffat could follow up an episode in which the Doctor spends nine hundred years in a snowy village called Christmas with something more Christmassy. Surely with the less cheery Twelfth Doctor will come a less stylised, less ludicrously twee Christmas episode? Oh never mind, Santa’s in it.

The addition of Santa had me admittedly worried. Not only because there's only so much faux-sentimentality I can take after all that champagne without wanting to throttle the nearest reindeer, but I was unsure how he could fit into the universe of Doctor Who. Sure, this series has had werewolves, Robin Hood, and Angels that send you back in time, but Santa? Most mythological figures that show up in Who are explained away as robots or giant fish aliens in disguise, but that kind of twist would ruin Christmas for kids across the nation, whereas the only other obvious option – having him actually really real – worked for Robin Hood but would be a step too far for a man of Santa’s present-delivering abilities (sorry, kids). 

To my relief, Last Christmas dealt with this pretty damn well, incorporating Nick Frost’s ‘Big Papa Chrimbo’ into an oneiric plot (I can tick that off my words-to-use list) that makes a tense thriller out of the question: “Do you believe this is real?” The Doctor and Clara arrive at a polar base, where they find themselves joining forces with Santa and his elves to rescue its scientist crew from nasty little Dream Crabs. But all is not what it seems, and ‘Santa’ turns out to be a construct dreamed up by the gang.

What we had here was no Christmas fairytale but a refreshingly grimy horror story, with distinct parallels to The Thing, Aliens and Inception. And with Santa in it. As with this year’s Listen, showrunner Moffat proved that he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the spooky, with the manuals scene a particularly twisted highlight and with the kind of plants for twists that are really hard to write – the kind that totally pass you by at first, but seem so obvious on second watch. Did you notice the repetition of “It’s a long story”? Or Clara’s stairlift in the opening scene? If so, well done, you’re much more observant than me. If not, go and watch again. 

The crabs themselves are a very Steven Moffat villain – defined by the effect they have on the heroes and the mental trick required to beat them, albeit lacking their own motivation and backstory. I do also have to question why exactly it is the group were so scared of the crabs that had already attached themselves to people – as we were never shown what these lumbering crabheads do when they get you.

Now content in the fact that he’s an idiot, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was on fine form in this episode; it was great to see him being clever and solving the mystery while having rival hero Santa, himself less amiable than the traditional Father C, to riff off. The “bantering” (ugh) between these two very funny actors was by far one of the episode’s highlights, particularly Mr Frost’s “dreamy-weamy” impression of Capaldi. And yet their tetchy relationship was paid off with the touchingly cheery climax of the Doctor getting to drive Santa’s sleigh – though I was expecting him to fly it from Dream London to Dream Gallifrey and a little disappointed that I was wrong.

The real emotional heart of the episode, of course, was how the relationship between Clara and the Doctor would develop from Death in Heaven’s downbeat cliffhanger. After a touching scene in which they both admit having lied to each other, the Doctor spends this episode helping Clara move on from the ghost of Danny Pink past and so it’s fitting that it ends with them running off to adventures new, even if the double ending is a little have-your-cake-and-eat-it. It seems Moffat is determined to repeatedly pretend to write Clara out of the show before revealing that she's not gone quite yet, just as he pretended to introduce her a couple of times. My biggest complaint, though – how shit was that Old Clara make-up? This show's had some pretty dodgy old-age make-up in its time, but this was by far the least convincing. They didn't even change her voice in the slightest!

Perhaps one shortfall from focusing on the Doctor/Clara relationship is that some supporting characters felt underwritten. While Faye Marsay’s Shona had some nice characterisation, the introduction of Michael Troughton’s Professor as a pervy bugger who’d been feeling Shona up and had unpleasant nasal hair didn't go anywhere. As in, this whole element of his character from his introductory scene was never mentioned again. And thus when he dies, it feels entirely arbitrary. Death just to establish danger, rather than the loss of an actual character. Perhaps this would have worked better if his sexism had been played up throughout the episode and directly led to his death – a female character warns him of the danger but he doesn’t believe her so pushes her aside, for example. Similarly, there was a nice bittersweet moment for that woman who wakes up and she’s in a wheelchair, but this could have been more effective had she been particularly active in the polar base – had it been her rather than the Doctor who’d saved Clara from the grasp of the crabhead, for example.

But that’s a minor quibble about what is the best Doctor Who Christmas special since A Christmas Carol. Which will never be beaten. While Last Christmas retained some of the OTT stylings of its predecessors – how many fairy lights does one living room need, Clara? – it was an effectively creepy, intelligently plotted horror story that in true Doctor Who fashion was entirely unashamed to rip off classic horror films, and had some fine comic relief and emotional heft to boot. Let’s hope the Doctor can stay this cheery throughout whatever 2015 brings for him…

Saturday, 20 December 2014

On 20.12.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

Issue 408 of the fantastic Starburst Magazine is out now - as usual, you can pick it up from WH Smiths, independent comics stores, or online.

This is the 2015 preview issue, with a massive feature by myself and the rest of the Starburst team telling you what to look forward to in the world of sci-fi, horror and fantasy in the next year. Particularly Star Wars. It's less than a year until new Star Wars, and I'm already practising my lightsaber swinging in anticipation.

Also in the magazine are Starburst's countdown of the top 40 genre films of 2014 (I disagree with how The LEGO Movie didn't win, but it's a good read nonetheless), a look back at Hammer Horror's back catalogue, and loads of reviews (one of which is my Spione review...).

Sunday, 30 November 2014

On 30.11.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

Even the world’s biggest directors have to scale down once in a while – after making iconic sci-fi epic Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s studio asked if he wouldn’t mind losing a zero or two from the budget sheets next time around, and thus was born Spione (it’s German for ‘Spies’, don’t you know).

When government agent 326 encounters the beautiful Sonja, pursued by the police for a crime she was forced to commit, she convinces him to hide her away, but little does he know she’s one of those eponymous Spione, out to get him. And if 326 is a proto-007, his nemesis and Sonja’s employer is a proto-Blofeld: Haghi, a bank director (boo, hiss) who secretly leads a sinister espionage organisation and plans to steal a vital Japanese treaty in order to bring about war (even more boos and hisses).

If you’ve seen Metropolis, Spione may initially strike you as less visually decadent. There are no sweeping futuristic cityscapes here, no enormous and imaginative sets – don’t expect proto-Blofeld to have a proto-volcano lair – and some of the longer office-set sequences may test a modern viewer’s patience across the two-and-a-half-hour running time. But Lang really is a master of imagery, and there are some great action sequences, inventive settings, and some real top-quality moustaches on show.

Spione may not be Fritz Lang’s finest film, but it is a surprisingly exciting thriller, visually rich despite not having Metropolis’ budget, and nicely critical of the wasteful rich in a time of Great Depression – all in all, further proof if ever it was needed that Lang truly was a Master of Cinema.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

If you read my review of last year’s Catching Fire, you’ll know that I rather like The Hunger Games. The first two films established this series as much more than the admittedly-funny ‘Battle Royale with cheese’ joke suggests – it’s simultaneously a big sci-fi blockbuster that appeals to a broad audience and an intelligent media satire, avoiding many of the more annoying trappings of many other ‘teen’-marketed films – all the angst-ridden moping around that goes on in Twilight, for example.  

For the final part of the trilogy, however, the series seems to have fallen into one of those traps – in what can either be interpreted as wanting to retain as many of the book’s details as possible or wanting to milk as much money as possible, Suzanne Collins’ third novel Mockingjay has been adapted into not one but two films.  

Following on from Catching Fire’s dramatic cliffhanger, Mockingjay Part 1 is distinctly different from its two predecessors in that it doesn’t feature a visit to the Hunger Games themselves; rather, it throws us into the action as all-out war is beginning between the bourgeoisie of the Capitol and rebellious forces from the impoverished districts. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is taken to the believed-destroyed District 13, where Julianne Moore’s President Coin and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee plan to use her as a propagandic heroine to incite rebellion across the districts. Though re-united with old buddy Gale, whose hair is far too neat to be realistic for the fugitive resistance fighter he now is, Katniss is more concerned about games buddy Peeta, who’s being held captive in the Capitol by a wonderfully bearded Donald Sutherland. And there’s a film crew led by Natalie Dormer off of Game of Thrones, who has a really cool half-shaved hairstyle. Got all that? Oh, and there’s Jeffrey Wright as techie Beetee whose name you really should remember, otherwise you’ll be as confused as me by the line “Thanks to Beetee, we now have ten percent improved access to the airwaves” – now isn’t that the weirdest product placement ever?

That was a lot of set-up for the actual critical bit of the review, which seems fitting for this film; at times, Part 1 feels like set-up for Part 2 rather than a story which works in itself – whereas previous instalments, while clearly part of a larger story, had their individual trips to the games arena as structural devices. A big part of this problem is the distinct scarcity of good action sequences, and there are only two or three moments when it feels like, you know, stuff is happening. And the best bit’s in the trailer.

That’s actually a common criticism of this film; some critics seem to have really disliked Mockingjay Part 1 because it’s very much a Part 1. Personally, while I found this a problem at some of the slower moments, it didn’t bother me as much as it has others. I remained engrossed through large chunks of the film, largely because I found myself really invested in the political side of it, a fascinating exploration of the importance of wartime icons. Whereas previous instalments saw the Capitol pacify their citizens with reality TV, this time both sides are up to the same tricks – even the rebels we side with are using Katniss as the futuristic equivalent of Kitchener on the the ‘Your Country Needs You’ posters. A rebellion needs its figureheads to give the oppressed people hope, but to what extent is this type of broadcast any different to the villains’ propaganda, and to what extent should we believe everything we see on TV? This is not just a ‘teen’ film – it’s a clever media satire.

As well as the political side of it, I also found myself very invested in the characters. As ever, Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Katniss – heartbroken by the horrors she sees, awkward when placed in front of a camera, but a passionate activist who’ll fight for her cause when provoked. I’m not sure if Katniss is quite as likeable in this film as before, though – she spends a little too much time worrying about Peeta, and it borders on Twilight-level mopey, straying from the sterner, resilient side which I liked before. The 'I'm not sure I signed up to be a propaganda tool' moping is interesting. The 'Do I love Peeta?' moping, not so much. It’s also not quite clear what exactly her feelings for Gale are – previously he was the love interest neglected because she was too busy fighting the good fight, here he’s the fellow soldier who she’s kind of friends with but also there may be something romantic there and I don’t really know… I’m sure readers of the books will know exactly what’s going on, but to someone like me who hasn’t got around to them, it could all be a little clearer and more concise.

One more point, and it’s a positive one – I love the production design on this series, which consistently hits just the right balance between grounded realism, bleak dystopia, and futuristic fantasy. I particularly love how the design of the Capitol’s soldiers is somewhere between Star Wars’ stormtroopers and a modern-day SWAT team, and the visual disparity between the ruined districts and the Capitol’s colourful pomposity perfectly enforces the film’s themes – though I kind of wish we’d seen more exteriors of the Capitol in this instalment, even if just as establishing shots for the President Snow scenes, to counter all the bleakness…

So Mockingjay Part 1 has its flaws – Katniss isn’t quite as strong a heroine, and its lack of action causes it to feel too set-up heavy. Nevertheless, it does have lots of interesting characters, it builds strongly on the series’ satirical edge, and it looks lovely. Would Mockingjay have been better as one long third film? Probably. But the whole of The Hunger Games series remains an excellent example of politically aware sci-fi with broad appeal. I compared Catching Fire to The Empire Strikes Back, so Mockingjay Part 1 is the first half of Return of the Jedi. It gets all the pieces in place for the big finale, it’s almost-but-not-quite as good, and it features an attempt to rescue one of the male leads from captivity. Hey, that works weirdly well. I hope there’s not a big trap coming.

Friday, 21 November 2014

On 21.11.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

Issue 407 of Starburst Magazine is out now, available in all good retailers, as long as they're a large WH Smiths*.

It's a Doctor Who issue, so I've contributed a feature article – a history of the TARDIS in the style of an interior design magazine. Weirdest thing I've written in a long time. I'm now Starburst's "resident interior designer", so this should open up a whole new career path for me.

Also, look out for my review of the fantastic What We Do In The Shadows, and lots more great Doctor Who content.

* Or a Forbidden Planet, one of many independent comics retailers, or this website.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Though it sometimes feels like it’s aspiring to the heights of 2001 but not quite reaching them, Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar is an entertaining effort which asks important questions about our relationship with the universe and has some fascinating sci-fi ideas.

The central concept – we used to look up to the stars, now we just look down into the dust – is one that I, as a supporter of space travel, find compelling, and the world of Interstellar is a dystopia I really don’t want to end up living in. This is a world where schools teach that the Apollo landings were faked to bankrupt the Russians and where NASA’s been forced to go underground after lack of public support for space exploration. If only the human race had realised sooner that the only hope for humanity lies in the stars…

But Matthew McConaughey comes to the rescue! He’s great as Cooper, an astronaut leading the mission to find a new home for humanity, and his relationship with his daughter is particularly affecting. I dare you to watch the sequence where he has to tell her he’s going, then drives away as her granddad holds her back, the rocket countdown playing over this, and not have something in your eye.

The supporting characters, however, are not so great – even Anne Hathaway’s fellow astronaut isn’t given nearly enough depth or character for us to enjoy spending the film’s long running time in her presence. Dialogue is often terribly expository and theme-setting, including one particularly clunky speech from Hathaway about how love is the most powerful force in the universe. No, really.

It doesn’t help that everyone takes everything deathly seriously, and the only attempt at comic relief is a robot slab. Which could be a daringly brilliant move in a better script, but here… really isn't. It’s just not funny enough. Without any laugh-out-loud moments, Interstellar’s humour settings are disappointingly low (I know I’m not the first to make that joke) and I was left wondering if this would be any better if, as originally planned, Steven Spielberg had led this project.

Nevertheless, it’s a visually remarkable film, and there are some great concepts behind the planets the team visit. A planet with clouds of ice, a planet where time runs one hour to seven years anywhere else – all very different to what’s often seen in other sci-fi movies, and all used to great dramatic effect. Like Gravity, this is a film that should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

So, some really interesting ideas, but flawed by poor characterisation and awkward dialogue. Still, I can get behind any film that warns us against being negligent of developing space travel – let’s not leave our legacy as one little flag on the moon, eh?

Alan Turing was one of the biggest heroes of World War II, right? His work cracking the Nazi enigma codes brought forward the Allied victory by an estimated two years, saving fourteen million lives and developing the predecessor for the modern computer in the process. A top bloke. 

Naturally, society repaid Turing by prosecuting him for his homosexuality, treating him with chemical castration which drove him to suicide, and omitting him entirely from Dougray Scott thriller Enigma. It took some time, but Turing was pardoned for his so-called crimes in 2013 and, in 2014, finally finds himself the subject of a film – portrayed by Sherlock himself Benedict Cumberbatch in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game.

Flitting between three periods of Turing’s life, The Imitation Game shows us Turing’s codebreaking career at Bletchley Park, along with his schooltime relationship with first love Christopher, and his prosecution in later life. The bulk of the film, naturally, is in the wartime drama, as Turing struggles to prove both to his team and to Commander Charles Dance that his codebreaking machine will work. It’s surprisingly tense for a film about a man making a computer, with the team constantly against the clock, and the shocking ethical dilemma they face once they do crack Enigma – just how much of their intel can they use without letting the Germans know their code’s been cracked?

The emotional focus of this section is where the film’s come under criticism, for Graham Moore's script explores Turing’s relationship with the talented Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley); while he’s not allowed a woman on his team, Turing sneaks work to her discreetly, and builds up a lasting friendship along the way. While the story of Turing championing Clarke as she overcomes the sexism of the time is great, the film’s focus on their relationship has been decried by some critics as a defocus away from Turing's sexuality and therefore a cynical move to gain a broad audience. Indeed, there’s a distinct lack of any substance or grit to the theme of his sexuality – other than some coy looks between young Turing and Christopher, we never actually see him with any male partners.

On the other hand, while we don’t see his sexuality, we certainly hear about it, and it’s impossible to say the issue’s glossed over when we’re faced with heartbreaking scenes of Turing admitting he can never have feelings for the woman he’s had to take as a fiancĂ©e and of a great war hero turned into a shivering mess as a result of punishment for, as he puts it, “asking a man to touch my penis”.

Also, I don’t believe it’s fair to criticise the film for aiming at a wide audience. Turing's story is not as well known as it should be – a family member of mine hadn't even heard of him before this film. If a populist biopic can increase awareness of the great work Turing did – and The Imitation Game does make that clear – then that is a good thing. But would a little bit of gay shagging have done too much harm? There is the old stereotype that mainstream audiences would be put off by it, but one look through Tumblr would show that there’s definitely an audience out there for Benedict Cumberbatch taking his clothes off.

Speaking of Benedict Cumberbatch – he’s great, of course. He has the whole arrogant yet insecure genius shtick down to a tee. It's what he does. His Turing is basically Sherlock but with the social awkwardness played for sympathy rather than for laughs. The real surprise is the kid who plays young Alan. He's incredible. The way he experiences his first great love and first great loss, without saying it out loud, hiding his feelings from the world, yet clearly betraying them in his face. That kid's going to do well for himself. The supporting cast is full of exactly the actors you want in a Posh British Period Drama – Knightley, Dance, Rory Kinnear, and Mark Strong, who was born to play the heads of secret government organisations. 

The Imitation Game is a very impressive film – it may be another Posh British Period Drama, but it’s a bloody good one; a compelling portrayal of an incredibly sad, incredibly important story that needs to be told. Is it softened, Hollywoodised? Yes, to the extent that it talks about Turing’s sexuality rather than showing it. But that doesn't remove the celebration of Turing's successes and the sadness of his fate.

Monday, 17 November 2014

On 17.11.14 by KieronMoore in ,    No comments

I am a success! Well, more of a success than I was this time last week. My sitcom Breaking News has won an RTS award - more specifically, the 'Royal Television Society Yorkshire Centre Student Television Award 2015, Second Place, Comedy and Entertainment'. But if that's too much of a mouthful, just satisfy yourself that I win because I'm awesome. They gave me champagne and everything.

Watch episode one of the award-winning Breaking News below and the other award-winning episodes here.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

It’s always sad when a Doctor Who series finishes. Even the end of the shambolic series six left me at a loss. I mean, I’d rather spend my Saturday evenings watching shit Doctor Who than sitting staring into a wall, crying at how everything eventually dies. Or worse, watching Atlantis. Series eight has been a surprisingly enjoyable series – no masterpiece, but a big step up from the latter half of the Matt Smith era, thanks to Peter Capaldi’s frostier Doctor, Clara having a consistent character, and an absence of overwhelmingly bollocks plot arcs – and so it was a shame to see this run come to an end with Death in Heaven, the second part of the big Cybermen-and-Master-vs-Earth finale that began with Dark Water.

The main point I have to make about Death in Heaven is that Michelle Gomez is amazing as the Master. Manipulative, unhinged, and utterly terrifying, yet hilarious and impossible not to enjoy, with a playful evilness bordering on childishly silly; I love how she switches accents throughout the episode, doing one whole scene in a ridiculous cockney twang. A brilliant Master for a brilliant Doctor – I do hope she comes back sooner rather than later.

I particularly enjoyed the Master’s scene with endearingly nerdy UNIT scientist Osgood. “I’m going to kill you,” she whispers. “Is she really?”, we ask, as she counts down in her charming, evil manner. Yes. Yes, she does, shaking any doubts about her as a serious threat by nastily dispatching a character I’d started to like. It is a shame, however, that Osgood never got a chance to really shine! Sure, she had the best line of the episode (“We do have files on all our ex-prime ministers. She wasn’t even the worst”) but it feels like Osgood had so much more to give. Which is probably why her death comes as a shock. 

This came in the middle of a globe-spanning conflict against the Master’s Cyber-army, which was Steven Moffat’s most simply-but-deftly plotted finale in a while, seeing the villain always in search of more life joining forces with a Cyber-race offering immortality, lacking the rushed pace of recent finales and with some great graveyard horror and airborne action chucked in. I do, however, think the first half hour of the episode has two major flaws. 

Firstly, like Dark Water and a couple of other episodes this series (In the Forest of the Night, Deep Breath), the Doctor spends a lot of time being told things and not actually doing anything. Done well, this story could have been a brilliant Doctor-Master chess game, but at times, the Doctor’s passive willingness to fall into any trap placed in front of him rendered the action rather flat. In fact, once he's taken Clara to the Nethersphere, the only time the Doctor really advances the plot in the entire two-part finale is when he throws the bracelet to Danny. That’s it, he throws a bracelet. In comparison, look at The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. All the heroes are constantly on the move, defeating zombie Cybermen and stone Daleks, progressing the plot, earning every piece of information they gain – and exposition sneaks in seamlessly as all this shit goes down.

My other major problem is a pretty gaping plot hole – why the hell does Danny, in full knowledge that Cybermen are about to emerge from all the graves in the world, rescue Clara then dump her unconscious in, of all places, a graveyard? That’s the stupidest thing he could possibly have done, and it’s never even mentioned why. A big jump too far in the name of plot convenience…

One more minor gripe… that title sequence giving Jenna Coleman top billing was an unnecessary gimmick typical of Moffat at his most mindlessly attention-grabbing. It would have been a cool idea had the episode actually delivered on that premise, but Clara pretending to be the Doctor was inevitably revealed to be just that – pretending – in her first post-titles scene. Maybe this sequence would have been more appropriate in Flatline, just two episodes ago, which actually had Clara take up a Doctor-type role. Here, it was all a bit pointless.

Oh yeah, and the kid being resurrected – nice emotional beat, but – what? If the bracelet’s a teleporter, how does he gain a body?

These points aside, there are a lot of great moments in Death in Heaven, and I particularly enjoyed the final fifteen minutes, which fittingly paid off a lot of the series’ emotional threads. Clara seeing off Cyber-Danny is surprisingly affecting (though it would have been nice to have seen more of their relationship prospering in order for this to hit hard), but the real kicker is that final scene in the cafe, in which Clara and the Doctor tell each other that most common of lies – “I’m alright”. I’ll never think of hugs in the same way again. 

Despite a couple of major flaws, and a few minor ones, Dark Water/Death in Heaven is Steven Moffat’s strongest finale since 2010. That may not be particularly high praise, as recent finales have been more than a little problematic, but there really is a lot I loved about it. This is a story that, if sometimes lacking in the dramatic tension required, benefitted from a longer running time that allowed it to not rush its terror – so let’s have more two-parters in series nine. Also begging to be brought back next year, of course, is this fantastic new incarnation of the Master. After all, she can never stay dead for long.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers caused rather a bit of a controversy upon its original 1994 release. Aiming to satirise media representations of violence, the strongly 18-rated serial killer movie ended up accused of inciting ‘copycat’ crimes itself. Returning to it 20 years later with this new Blu-ray release, it’s not difficult to see why it raised so many eyebrows.

Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are a pair of extremely dangerous murderers on a killing spree. But while the couple on the run provide the film’s Badlands-inspired emotional backbone, Stone’s real interest lies in the vast and sensationalised media storm that brews up around Mickey and Mallory – we see interviews with their ‘fans’ across the globe, and the film’s climax sees ratings-seeking journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., on fine egotistical form) broadcasting live from a prison riot Mickey incites, even as the riot descends into horrifying carnage. Important questions are raised about media portrayal of criminals – questions which there are no easy answers to and which are still relevant in 2014.

Stone adds to this theme with his use of hyper-stylised visuals. The violence may be more stylised than a Tarantino flick (indeed, Quentin wrote an early draft of the script) but this is all part of the highly political filmmaker’s argument – it’s telling that the fight scenes, which switch between colour and black & white seemingly at random, are shot in exactly the same style as a “reconstruction” in Gale’s show, the only notable difference being that Mickey and Mallory are played by different actors.

The sheer style and brutality of Natural Born Killers may leave you shocked on first watch, but close examination reveals a darkly satirical film with a thought-provoking central issue, one that’s as relevant in the year of the film’s 20th anniversary as it ever has been.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

On 6.11.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

I've been a contributor to film website The Big Picture for a couple of years now, and have recently been asked to step up as the site's new editor. Blimey. Only time will tell how I handle this position of responsibility.

Anyway, The Big Picture now carries a monthly theme, and November's is sci-fi. Which is good for me, as it's a genre I can bullshit my way around reasonably well. Here's a piece I've written on THX-1138.

"If there’s one sci-fi film that comes to mind at the mention of George Lucas, it’s Star Wars. And yet, six years before his grand space opera undeniably changed the course of the genre, Lucas gave us THX-1138, a lower key and much more cerebral piece of science fiction. Despite both commercial and critical failure upon release, Lucas’ debut feature presents a unique and unsettling dystopian vision that’s worth revisiting today."

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Only ten weeks ago, we all sat down to watch Peter Capaldi’s debut as the Doctor, and already we’re at the beginning of the end of his first series – Steven Moffat’s Dark Water, the first instalment of a two-part finale. I was both excited and anxious for this one. On the one hand, I’ve been enjoying series 8's characters a lot more than series 7's, and the ‘Missy’ plot has been intriguingly built up. On the other hand, recent Steven Moffat finales have been disappointing, and I didn’t want another Name of the Doctor type mess…

Dark Water starts on a weird note. One minute in, and Danny Pink is dead, knocked over by a car – a scene that should have been tragic and yet, because of its strange placing in the narrative, really isn’t. We know this episode’s going to be about the afterlife, so this is a clear set-up for our leads to arrive in Missy’s Nethersphere, and thus there’s no believability in it. Maybe it would have worked better to have Danny die at the end of the previous episode (yes, I know that’s what happened with Rory in series five, but at least that worked dramatically). And, as much as Clara’s disbelief draws attention to this, and as much as Doctor Who has dealt with death-by-car brilliantly before (2005's Father’s Day), it does feel like an overly obvious, mundane way to go about this scene. Like Doctor Who made by the writer/director of Sometimes Fires Go Out. Maybe the tiger still on the loose from last week could have mauled him to death.

Then it gets weirder. Clara’s response to this situation is to concoct a sinister plan in which she’ll threaten the Doctor with destruction of his TARDIS keys if he doesn’t agree to bring Danny back. Now, I get that the Doctor’s not always keen on messing with time and so may need persuading, but couldn’t she just, you know, ask him? Appeal to emotion? Rather than turning into an evil supervillain in the awkwardly melodramatic and entirely unnatural manner typical of Moffat’s writing.

So, ten minutes in, and Dark Water is a painful experience so far. And then they go to hell, and it gets a lot better.

What strikes me most about the events that unfold in the Nethersphere is that they’re surprisingly… coherent. Now, obviously, that’s no mark of a great episode, and should be the bare minimum, but compared to Moffat’s recent timey-wimey, all-over-the-place, new-scene-every-20-seconds finales, the slow pace with which the true nature of this so-called afterlife was revealed was refreshingly tense, leading up to a brilliant reveal of the Cybermen and an even more brilliant reveal of Missy’s identity – this is why we should have two-parters back! (Though it is silly how the trailer consisted mostly of clips from next week’s episode, thus giving away too much, too soon.)

And, with Danny finding out just how horrible death can be and with skeletons coming to life in their tombs, Dark Water was also a deeply unsettling episode. Not monsters-jumping-from-dark-corners scary, but ideas scary. Proper, clever horror. The kind of scary that parents will complain about after their kids have gone to bed worried that grandma was conscious during her cremation. The kind of scary that came with a wonderfully dark sense of humour – the “iPads? We’ve got Steve Jobs!” line being both morbidly hilarious and the single most unexpected justification of a minor detail I’d previously complained about ever. 

My main problem with this episode, however, is its use of Clara and Danny. Their character development over this series has been great – just last week I praised how their relationship has tangibly moved on with each story. And yet, this episode, part of the showrunner-penned finale, seemed to have less of a sense of their relationship than others. Sure, things happened to them, and we had lots of “I love you” exchanges, but what happened to all the conflicts being built up between them? Clara lying to Danny about travelling with the Doctor, Danny hiding his traumatic past from her, the Doctor's distrust of Danny as a soldier – these should be coming to a crescendo, but were hardly brought up. Oh, and the “shut up, shut up, shut up” line – please, Steven, stop turning every line of dialogue into a catchphrase.

Of course, the real talking point of Dark Water is its final reveal. Missy is the Master. The clues were there – Missy as short for Mistress, the heart scene, the Time Lord tech, the fact that this is the one major Who villain Moffat hasn’t done yet. And yet, even though I’d worked it out, I thought the reveal was terrific. Michelle Gomez is an incredible Master, simultaneously funny and terrifying, and I do hope she’ll stick around for stories to come. My one complaint is that Moffat, as we’ve come to expect, made a little too much use of gender stereotypes in his dialogue. If you want to change the minds of those who don’t believe the Master can be female (and thus, don’t believe the Doctor can be female), just don’t mention it. Just let her be brilliant, because she clearly can be. This is a villain who’s previously been a rotting corpse, a snake, and a super-powered tramp firing electricity from his hands – it’s not so weird that she’s now got boobs, is it? And that tumblr-baiting kiss really wasn’t necessary…

We’ll see if Gomez’s Master is allowed to come into her own next week. And whether Clara and Danny’s on-the-rocks relationship is at all tied up. And how the Earth deals with all those pesky Cybermen. But in Dark Water we have a promising set-up that, if weak in character beats, is both a solid alien conspiracy thriller and a fantastically morbid horror story.

Friday, 31 October 2014

I like Doctor Who episodes to be bold. This is a show that can go anywhere and anywhen, but it’s too easy for stories to stick too firmly to a safely established formula, or, in the case of the Moffat series, mimic a cinematic genre too closely. My favourite episode of all time is Vincent and the Doctor, which uses the show’s format to tell a heartbreaking story about depression, and one of my favourites from this series has been Listen, a story like no other in its use of nothing but fear itself as a villain. 

This week’s In the Forest of the Night had all the hallmarks of a great, unconventional story – a high-profile guest writer (children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce), a cracking concept (the whole world comes to a sudden arboreal stop), a modern take on the fairytale, incorporating issues of mental health. Hey, for us pretentious arty types, it was even named after a great poem.

So, it could have been a brilliant episode. In execution – not so brilliant.

OK, good things first. I loved the idea of the forest as a nightmarish place, the inspiration for our scariest folklore. Very true, and the references were handled nicely – while it took imagery from Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, it self-reflexively wove these into the narrative, an exploration of what these tales mean to us. And showing this through a child’s perspective made it all the more scary. A big, bad forest is no safe place – and yet it is “lovely”, as Maebh recurrently points out. Like the Tyger of Blake’s poem, the forest is at once brutal and beautiful, and the direction of this episode really showed that off. It’s amazing how much you can do by plonking a few traffic lights and a London taxi in the middle of Welsh forest, and child’s-eye-view camerawork built a great sense of wonder, including one of the greatest ‘entering the TARDIS’ shots I’ve seen.

And thrown into the depths of this forest we have the Coal Hill Gifted and Talented school trip. Except they’re not really gifted and talented, they’re the failures of Coal Hill. Aka the underdogs – the real heroes of any Doctor Who story. In Maebh Arden, we have a vulnerable child, on medication to suppress the voices she hears. Now, the message the Doctor spouts regarding Maebh – we should listen to what children have to say – is commendable, but many people have understandably seen the episode’s stance on medication as somewhat problematic (see this guy, for example) – some kind of ‘she may be on medication, but that’s fine, it helps, it doesn’t make her any less special’ speech from Clara could have rectified things but never came. I did like the missing sister element, a very sad and believable edge to Maebh’s story; it’s just a shame that the sister’s return had to be so awkwardly twee.

The other kids in the group are much more weakly characterised. The episode attempts to set up one kid as the bully and one kid as thick, in a couple of fast-paced classroom flashbacks, but this only appeared after Clara had commented on how the adventure in the forest had made the bully say please and had made the thick kid work something out. And this is about ten minutes into the episode. The problem solved before it’s set up, and a wasted opportunity to develop these characters over the course of the episode. Plus, the actress playing the ginger kid is really shit. I cringed whenever she talked.

On the plus side, I do think Clara and Danny’s relationship is progressing nicely, as Clara’s deceit is revealed and Danny’s secret is yet to emerge. I like how there’s a solid development of their relationship in each episode. It feels planned out, whereas character arcs in recent years have felt like an afterthought, or, in last year’s case, non-existent.

My main problem with ITFOTN, however, is the lack of tension. The invasion resolves itself. Which leaves the Doctor and pals doing absolutely nothing of any purpose. Well, Maebh makes that phone call which apparently stops governments from destroying the trees – but come on, really? I find it very hard to believe that the world’s governments just put down their acid sprays and abandon the plan that, as far as they’re concerned, will save the earth, just because a little girl tells them to. Maybe the threat and its resolution would seem more real had we seen some of these government planes in action – as it is, there feels like little connection between what we see in the TARDIS and the rest of the world, and so the episode’s final act falls dramatically very flat.

My other major quibble is with the science behind this story. Now, I know this is a fairy tale, and I know Doctor Who is science fantasy not hard science fiction, and I hate to be that guy who points out any inaccuracy, but there’s a point where suspension of disbelief fails, and this episode, like Kill The Moon before it, crosses that line. More than anything, the bit which grated with me was the “You’ll forget all of this” resolution. Hmm. Really? At least come up with some bullshit sci-fi explanation and not just “oh, humanity just forget anything traumatic that happens”.  No, we absolutely don’t. We have a day called Remembrance Day, and we complain to the BBC when our news presenters fail to wear memorial poppies. And even if we did forget, would people not notice the loose tiger and the collapsed Nelson’s column, and all the selfies and TV news broadcasts with the trees clearly on show?


Maybe I'm being overly critical as this is an episode I really wanted to be good. I honestly had high hopes for In the Forest of the Night, and it let me down. OK, there's a lot to love – the enchanting visuals, the message about listening to kids, the fluffy old tiger. But it could have been so much better.


Thursday, 30 October 2014

On 30.10.14 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

You may be more familiar with John Frankenheimer’s disastrously weird version of the H.G. Wells classic, but The Island of Dr. Moreau has actually been adapted for cinema three times – the Brando-starring flop was preceded by 1932’s Island of Lost Souls and by Don Taylor’s 1977 adaptation, now available on Blu-ray.

Mariner Andrew Braddock finds himself stranded on the remote island of Doctor Moreau. Suspicious of the exiled scientist’s peculiarly grotesque servants, Braddock comes to realise that Moreau has been experimenting on the islands’ animals, turning them into humanoid creatures with the ability to walk and talk just like us. Moreau rules over these ‘humanimals’ like a god, but, of course, they’re not going to stick to his laws forever.

Compared to the Frankenheimer version, which brought the story into the modern day and added some unusual ideas to the mix, this is a relatively faithful adaptation, and Wells’ story remains a powerful warning against abuse of animals in the name of science. Burt Lancaster is a great Moreau, if more genial than the Brando and Charles Laughton incarnations, while Michael York is a strong lead as Braddock. The film’s also successful in lending depth to its human-animal hybrids, rather than treating them as mere ghastly brutes. 

The more problematic characters are the ones that don’t originate in the source novel, such as Maria, a conveniently attractive young woman living with Moreau. Despite the fact that Maria repeatedly says she’d rather stay on the island, Braddock decides she’s wrong and needs to escape with him. She follows along unquestionably and does absolutely nothing to affect the plot. Sigh.

A couple of unnecessary narrative additions and dated make-up work aside, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a well-made adaptation of an important sci-fi novel. Hiding its low budget reasonably well, it’s no blockbuster but a solid piece of Sunday afternoon viewing.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

After last week’s cracking outer-space romp Mummy on the Orient Express, writer Jamie Mathieson had a second shot at Doctor Who with Flatline.

The Doctor and Clara arrive in a Bristol council estate to find something leeching off the dimensional energy of the TARDIS (science!), leaving Clara’s ride home unfortunately miniscule. With the Doctor trapped inside this tiny merchandising opportunity (there has to be a hand puppet, right?), it’s up to Clara to take the lead in an investigation which brings them into conflict with aliens from a two-dimensional universe. And, like last week, Mathieson’s script has all the right elements of a solid Doctor Who story... 

A mix of detective work and action set pieces? Check. Nicely planted clues in the weird murals, effective rise in terror as the monsters grow stronger. I'm not sure exactly what they were trying to achieve by ramming the train, though. That was a silly plan.

An edge of comedy? Check. This was funny in all the right places, mainly drawing its laughs from the Doctor's predicament – passing the sledgehammer out of the miniature TARDIS is a wonderfully slapstick moment, and that Addams family reference is just brilliant. 

A weird and scary monster? Check. The flattening of people into the walls is properly unnerving stuff, tied neatly into the graffiti-strewn estate, and the idea of a two-dimensional villain breaking into our universe is one of those "why hasn't anyone thought of that before?" ideas.

Developed supporting characters? Check. The conflict between the community service worker Rigsy and his grouchy supervisor Fenton plays throughout, and like all good Doctor Who, it’s the underdog who wins out. It could, however, have been nice to dig a little deeper into these two – could either of them have a more noticeable change over the episode? What is it that made Fenton such a grump? 

But the real lead here was, for once, Clara. Sure, the real reason the Doctor was locked in the TARDIS was that this episode was filmed simultaneously with the last one, where Clara was stuck in a carriage, but this clever way around the double-banking issue allowed the Doctor to still be present and Clara to take charge. She’s been growing from strength to strength over this series, and made a great ringleader in the Doctor’s place – clever, compassionate, tough. I also like that she’s been lying to the Doctor about Danny, adding an extra layer of complexity to their relationship and making her more active and decision-making than last week's ‘Danny’s fine with it, so I am’ reveal implied. The obligatory ‘Danny Pink on the phone’ scene, however, did feel crowbarred into this episode – it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to be taking personal calls when there’s an alien that needs urgent escaping from. And I do get the feeling that Danny’s one-scene-per-episode is starting to make him a little dull – luckily, next episode seems to be throwing him centre stage again.

So this was a very strong episode and all my criticisms are but minor niggles – a little more depth to the supporting characters, Danny felt shoehorned in, the train-ramming idea was silly. Oh, and why does Missy have a normal iPad? They could have at least decorated it a bit to make it all sci-fi. That’ll look dated in five years (and that, dear friends, is the epitome of a minor niggle).

As I was saying, a very strong Doctor Who story. Funny and scary in equal measure; a lot packed in without feeling rushed. With this and Mummy on the Orient Express to his name, I’d definitely welcome Jamie Mathieson back for more.

Friday, 17 October 2014

On 17.10.14 by KieronMoore in , ,    1 comment

Holy New Magazine, Batman!

Issue 406 of Starburst Magazine is out now, and it contains a preview of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar written by yours truly. Plus, there's a lot of Batman content to celebrate the Blu-ray release of everyone's favourite god-awful-yet-utterly-brilliant 1960s superhero series.

You can buy the issue in print here or digitally here.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

After last week’s ambitious but flawed attempt at dealing with Big Serious Issues, this week’s Doctor Who had a less high-brow pitch. The title says it all, really – Mummy on the Orient Express. There’s a Mummy. And it’s on the Orient Express. In space.

The Doctor takes Clara, on the brink of giving up on the whole time travel lark, on one last hurrah, a grandiose train journey through the wonders of the universe. Of course, there’s been a murder, an old lady killed by a Mummy only she could see. It’s Agatha Christie meets Hammer horror, and the Doctor soon finds himself leading the investigation.

And that’s the main thing I loved about this episode. It’s an investigation. The Doctor’s often depicted as an action hero, but I like to see him as a detective – a Sherlock Holmes in space, picking up clues from his environment and defeating the monster with intellect. There wasn’t much room on this train for running around, and so new writer Jamie Mathieson gave us a tightly plotted mystery – and also deserves a biscuit for having the often-overused sonic screwdriver rendered useless. Some of the reveals in the climax may have felt a slight bit rushed, and a slight bit scientifically iffy, but that’s difficult to avoid with the format; importantly, everything slotted together nicely and it was fun to watch the Doctor work things out.

The episode also works well because of the eponymous villain. Mummies are rarely done well and are little used in modern genre fiction, especially compared to similar iconic creatures such as vampires and werewolves. I certainly can’t imagine a Mummy joining the Being Human gang Mathieson spent four years writing for. But this was a Mummy done brilliantly. With its rotting bandages and lumbering yet unstoppable approach, the very sight of it meant death, and the on-screen clock only added to the tension, involving us in the investigation and acting as a constant reminder that time is running out. And time did run out for several characters – despite its seemingly wacky premise, this was an episode in which people died, and their deaths were felt. And just when you think you know what’ll happen next, the evil supercomputer controlling the train chucks all the chefs into the coldness of space. Ouch. Dark, but not at the expense of the fun.

It’s not quite the last hurrah Clara had hoped for, and the B-story of her desire to leave the TARDIS for good is brought in at just the right moments without stepping on the toes of the plot, though it did feel like she was in that luggage car for a bit too long (practical reasons, I assume, as this episode was double-banked with the next). And I’m not entirely sure that Clara deciding to stay with the Doctor because Danny says it’s OK is sending the best messages about independent women. At least Clara’s continuing to be a lot more believable this series than she has been previously, thanks to much more consistent characterisation and having an emotional, character-based arc rather than that impossibly convoluted Impossible Girl bollocks.

My only other gripe with this episode is with the bunch of apparent genius scientists gathered together to fight the Mummy. They’re the best in their fields, and yet… they all just stand around. Sure, it’s a decision to keep the script economic, but it’s incredibly noticeable that only one of them ever actually speaks. 'Scientist with Enormous Beard' was a particular favourite character of mine and I was disappointed he didn't get any lines.

All in all, though, Mummy on the Orient Express is, if not groundbreaking, solid Doctor Who. A great monster, a tightly plotted investigation, the Doctor and Clara both on form. I’m looking forward to Jamie Mathieson’s second episode next week, even if the trailer failed to grab me.

Oh, and it also had a cool jazz cover of Don’t Stop Me Now. It only clicked after the credits had rolled that it ties in with Clara’s story. Clever. I had no idea who Foxes is, and having now googled her, her music is not to my taste, but who can object to jazzed-up Queen? Here it is again:

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The title of the latest Doctor Who episode may have reminded you of Steven Moffat’s Let’s Kill Hitler, or of that quote from Romeo and Juliet. But is Peter Harness’ Kill The Moon an epic of Shakespearean quality that will endure for centuries or a big pile of crap with no redeeming qualities other than one of history’s most evil men being comically punched in the face? Or somewhere in the middle?

The Doctor takes Clara and Coal Hill pupil Courtney on a trip to the moon, only to find that something’s up with its gravity (I love how he uses a yo-yo for this, much cooler than the oft-overused sonic screwdriver). This is apparently causing chaos for those down on Earth, and so our time travellers bump into Lundvik (Hermione Norris) and her astronaut henchmen, sent to blow up the moon. Which will make everything fine. I’m not going to try to work out the science here. 

The team’s search of the barren lunar landscape leads them to a worryingly cobwebbed Mexican research project, and its not long before they’re under attack from very deadly spiders. With a Lanzarote volcano standing in effectively for the moon, this early section of the episode looks and feels great, an isolated horror reminiscent of The Waters of Mars and certainly not comfortable for arachnophobes.

And then, at its midpoint, Kill The Moon takes an unexpected twist. The Doctor works out what’s going on: the spiders are bacteria, and the moon is… an egg. Housing a giant alien creature, about to hatch. And we’re treated to one of the best pieces of dialogue in the history of Doctor Who:

“I think that it’s unique. I think that it’s the only one of its kind in the universe. I think that that is… utterly beautiful.”

“How do we kill it?”

Ouch. A heartbreaking statement of intent, and a curt summary of the moral dilemma that makes up the second half of the episode. The Doctor, appearing callous in a way unexpected of previous incarnations, but with the best of intentions in letting humanity decide its own fate, buggers off. Clara, Lundvik and Courtney are left with a difficult choice – kill the creature and save Earth, or let it live and risk bits of moon-egg falling into the atmosphere. I love sci-fi that deals with tough dilemmas and the interchanges here are exquisite. Lundvik, who has no children, is cold and logical – one life to save the entire earth is no loss to her – and uses the argument that Clara might have children down on Earth to try to convince her to save them. But it’s Clara’s caring, you could say maternal, side that keeps her firmly in favour of not blowing up baby. Is this an exploration of maternity? A metaphor for abortion? (If so, is it problematic that it comes to a pro-life conclusion?) This is worthy of a lot of discussion, but however you interpret it, what we have is three female characters arguing about whether it’s right to kill an unborn. Which, compared to the likes of Time Heist, is pretty deep stuff.

But, despite this great central dilemma, Kill The Moon does have its flaws…

Firstly, once the moon’s secret has been revealed, the episode is suddenly lacking in physical threat. A great monster has been set up in the ‘bacteria’ spiders, but they just… stop attacking. Why? The bomb countdown set by Lundvik is arbitrary and dramatically meaningless, because the heroes have control over it, so the situation would be much more immediately tense if they were under attack and had to make their decision before the spiders overwhelmed them. At one point, the three of them run down a corridor in slow motion with explosions going on around them, for no real reason other than  that the director probably realised how visually dull the surrounding scenes are.

Secondly, I want to know more about Lundvik and her team. She’s a very interesting character – the loner scientist who’s concluded that “some things are just bad” – and so I wanted to know more about how she got to this point, what made her so bitter. More backstory would have made her side in the big debate even more powerful. But a bigger problem is her team, who are just… well, nobodies. One of them is presented as the bumbling comedy moron who worries about how to find the instruction manual for the nuclear bombs he’s been entrusted with. Even considering Lundvik’s line about them being the last astronauts left on an Earth turned against space travel, this Mr. Bean wannabe would never had been allowed within five kilometres of NASA. Giving either of them a hint of personality wouldn’t have hurt, either.

Thirdly, Courtney, while a great addition to mix up the TARDIS dynamic, didn’t do enough to earn her place in this episode. Her early nervousness and desire to go home seemed like a set-up for her to build some courage and save the day in the episode’s climax, but no. She sort of stood around as Clara did stuff. Plus, she gave us one of the worst lines of dialogue in the history of Doctor Who:

“One small thing for a thing, one enormous thing for a thingy thing.”

Fuck’s sake. I complained about series eight’s abuse of the word thing last week, but it’s fought back, and it’s fought back hard.

Anyway. Kill the Moon isn’t brilliant, but teeters on the brink of brilliance. Issues with its characters and its suspense aside, this was the kind of sci-fi that has a deep ethical dilemma at its heart, and a load of great dialogue exploring that issue. And the same cannot be said for Let’s Kill Hitler.

Next week: Thing on the Orient Express, followed by In the Forest of the Thing, Thing of the Daleks, and The Last Thing of the Time Things.