Tuesday, 22 December 2015

On 22.12.15 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

The latest issue of Starburst magazine is out now!

This one's got a lot of me in it - I've written preview features for The Hateful Eight and the new X-Files series, I've contributed to the 2015 retrospective and the 2016 preview, and my review of Fear the Walking Dead is re-printed.

Plus, there's other stuff by other people.

Buy it from Tesco, WH Smiths or online.

Oh, and there's this letter. You know you've made it as a journo when someone writes in having failed to understand your joke.

Visit Starburst for the full version of this review.

One of the most common questions current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat has had to fend off is whether the Doctor will ever meet that other hero of his, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. And yet, that very crossover happened twenty-one years ago, albeit with different incarnations of both heroes, in Andy Lane’s New Adventures novel All-Consuming Fire. That novel has become the latest in a series of fan favourites to be adapted by Big Finish into the audio format.

All-Consuming Fire starts off like a proper Sherlock Holmes story, with a case taking in the gangs of London, dog fighting, and a secret library, and with some finely plotted moments of deduction. But when the Doctor visits 221B Baker Street, things start to get unusual. The second half feels more like a Doctor Who story, with a portal underneath an Indian palace and a trip to an alien planet leading to a confrontation with a god-like being. It’s at this bombastic climax where the story falters, becoming a little too simplistic and action-oriented and so not giving us the clever pay-off Holmes fans in particular may expect.

Nevertheless, the story’s simplicity makes it easy to enjoy the team-up of the characters, who fit neatly into each other’s worlds; Holmes being uncharacteristically perplexed upon first meeting the Doctor is a highlight, as are Holmes and Watson’s differing reactions to arriving on an alien planet. The dynamic gets mixed up further in the second half when the Doctor’s companions Ace and Benny show up; it’s particularly enjoyable to hear archaeologist-from-the-future Benny contribute to solving the mystery while challenging Victorian assumptions of how a woman should behave – even flirting with Watson, to the horny old soldier’s delight.

So stop worrying about how it fits into the continuity and enjoy this lovingly crafted retro-Wholock; though the later part of the story may rely on one sci-fi action cliché too many, spending time in the company of McCoy’s Doctor, Briggs’ Holmes, and respective companions is a delight.

OK, same deal as with Spectre - there are loads of spoiler-free reviews out there, all saying the same thing (“There are some stars and a war. It’s great!”), and everyone’s seen the film now anyway, so no point in adding to that pile. Here are my very spoilery notes on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

  • Love love love John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. These two are a lot of fun to spend time with. His swagger and boyish excitement combined with her calm competence and refusal to be treated as a damsel in distress makes for some very good comic moments; her telling him off for grabbing her hand comes to mind. 
  • It’s not a film that takes a breather to explore the characters for too long; rather it constantly throws in character-enlightening moments amongst the action. One that really stuck in my mind was Rey looking at Takodana and saying “I never knew there was so much green in the galaxy” - the sad realisation that someone so adept with spaceships had never actually made it into space before is lovely, especially with Han’s pitying reaction. And then we're immediately exploring an alien cantina - she best get used to the colours, as this is her life for the next three films.
  • Another moment of character development that, fitting for the film’s pace, comes through not stating something - Han never questions whether it’s right for him to get involved in the attack on Starkiller Base, despite having achieved all his earlier goals. Han’s story in the original trilogy was all about whether he’d choose to join the force for good or just stick out for himself, and this offers an understated conclusion to that, with him having been changed for the better by his adventures (and by the responsibility of being a parent).
  • One thing did grate for me about Daisy Ridley’s performance: her voice is too posh. She sounds more like a Queen of Naboo than someone who’s meant to have grown up among the skids of a desert village, scavenging scraps of dead ships to survive. Probably not a problem for American viewers, but it sounded odd to British ears.
  • Very wise to have the two new heroes not be the children of Han/Leia/Luke/Lando/Ackbar, as it fits with Star Wars’ values of anyone being able to become a hero, of supporting the underdog. Plus, them only having heard of people like Luke Skywalker paves the way for one of the most fascinating parts of the film - the fact that the Force and the Jedi have become myths, stories that everyone knows but can’t believe - perhaps like they have for film audiences. 'Those days when Star Wars was brilliant' was kind of a myth for viewers of the prequels. And then when Han says “It’s true. All of it”, Rey and Finn get the opportunity to become part of the next generation of this myth. As do we. Compare that to the everything-must-be-explained mindset which created midichlorians; Abrams and Kasdan’s approach makes it all so much bigger and more magical.
  • And that relates to what makes The Force Awakens so good – its perfect balance of nostalgia and the new, of 1977 and 2015 (entirely avoiding 1999). It feels like classic Star Wars: the worn-down settings, the practical effects, the big uncomplicated adventure story, the sense of humour. And yet it uses modern visual effects where they can help out, it confidently makes a black man and a non-feminised woman the lead characters, and it develops the classic characters rather than throw them in for referential box-ticking. And not a trade negotiation in sight. 
  • Despite what I said about Finn and Rey, it does work for Kylo Ren to be Han and Leia’s son. He’s already established in this universe as a villain – like Luke and Vader in A New Hope, a hero needs to earn their place in the story, while it’s easier for the villain to start fully formed – and the backstory adds weight to that. He still has some development throughout the film, though, clearly not yet at the height of his powers, and the decision to kill Han feels like an important point for him - a reversal of Luke refusing to kill his father and thus refusing to succumb to the dark side.
  • The way Han and Leia keep referring to Ren/Ben as “our son” is awfully clunky - too obviously holding his name back for a reveal.
  • BB-8 is fucking brilliant. I want one. Such good comic relief. His ‘thumbs-up’ is the possibly the funniest moment I’ve seen in a film this year.
  • Supreme Leader Snoke reminded me of Thanos from the Marvel movies - a big dude in a chair whose one personality trait is ‘evil'. There’s not much depth to him here, but like Thanos, there doesn't need to be at this point - there’s a clear parallel with the Emperor’s appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, keeping him mysterious but clearly powerful, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed. I wonder if he’s really that big or if the hologram makes him so?
  • My thoughts during the final shots: “He’s put on a few pounds, hasn’t he?” Also, it should have ended on the close-up.
  • I’ve seen some criticisms that Poe doesn’t appear enough in the movie. For me, this criticism doesn’t fly. Firstly, this is Finn and Rey’s origin story, whereas Poe turns up fully formed, already the best pilot in the galaxy, and fulfils his purposes of being a role model to inspire Finn and doing cool things in the dogfights.  Secondly, a good Star Wars supporting character makes you want more. Boba Fett did less in the whole original trilogy than Poe did in this film, and look at the cult following he’s built up. In that spirit, he gets the right amount of screen time here, but a prequel comic series, or even an anthology film, explaining how Poe got to where he is by the start of Force Awakens could be amazing.
  • On the subject of the anthology movies, it's odd that all the announced spin-off films - Rogue One, Young Han - are set around the original trilogy. That may have sounded exciting to fans before, but once Force Awakens has settled, I think there'll be a hunger for more from this new era. Same with all the new comics etc, and with Battlefront being focused on the Rebels vs Empire conflict. I'm sure that'll change with time for the other media, but the anthology films seem planned out for a good few years and it’s a shame not to have them develop the same era as the main episodes.
  • Back to The Force Awakens, and that death… It was inevitable that a major character from the original trilogy would be killed off - what better way to set up the new villain as a credible threat? Interestingly, I’d actually been spoiled wrongly there - I’d seen a blog in which someone took this shot from the trailer and interpreted it as Rey crying over Chewbacca’s dead, furry body, which seemed annoyingly convincing at the time. As it turns out, that’s actually Finn, and he’s not dead (not sure what the fur-like things are - is it the bush behind them?). So it was good to find that my annoyance at having been spoiled was actually wrong. Anyway, the unlucky soul who did die turned out to be Han. Which makes sense, as Harrison Ford famously wanted to be killed off in Return of the Jedi, only for George Lucas to refuse, so he probably pushed for a way out again. And what a good death scene! The way it offers hope that there’s still good in Ren and then flips it, Chewbacca’s mad rampage… all chillingly good. It's rare for a big franchise movie to properly kill off such an iconic character in a way that feels real and shocking, without a hint of cop-out (the death in Skyfall is the only recent comparison I can think of), and this will become one of the sequel trilogy's defining moments.
  • The big final battle - all the stuff with the guys on the ground is fantastic, but the dogfight section doesn’t work quite as well. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a narrative to it; compared to the trench run of A New Hope, in which they had the clear goal of getting to the end of the trench, this just seems to be a lot of X-Wings flying around, with a bit of a trench thrown in arbitrarily at one point.
  • Is it me, or is the destruction of all those planets brushed over rather quickly? It's hardly mentioned again.
  • Han and Finn putting Captain Phasma in the trash compactor seems a bit harsh… It’s not clear that it kills her, but we know from A New Hope that it damn well could. Killing stormtroopers in battle is fair game in a film called Star Wars, but I don’t want my heroes to brutally execute their enemies.
  • The original Star Wars was influenced by films as diverse as Flash Gordon serials and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. I noticed similar cinematic nerdiness in the shot of the TIE fighters flying across the jungle sunset, which was taken right from Apocalypse Now. Love it. 
  • There are some stars and a war. it’s great.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Two weeks ago, I hoped Steven Moffat would let a death be a death and not bring Clara back, for fear it would ruin the impact of Face the Raven’s ending.

You know what? I take that back. I was wrong.

Though ostensibly set up as an episode about the return of Gallifrey and the prophecy of the “hybrid”, Hell Bent turned out to be something different entirely – a test of the levels to which the Doctor would go to bring back a dead friend, an interrogation of the recklessness of these lengths, and a very fitting conclusion to the story of a companion who wanted to be a Doctor.

The return to Gallifrey is actually a great backdrop to this story – what better way to show the Doctor at his worst than by confronting him with his own race, the race from whom he ran away, now a reminder of his worst war crimes? Peter Capaldi, not for the first time this series, is electrifying as Angry Doctor – sure, he leads a coup and shoots a fellow Time Lord, but the real ‘gone too far’ moment is his “I am answerable to no one!” rage. This is a hell bent Doctor, and no Doctor can be hell bent like the Twelfth.

But this episode’s not about the Doctor. It’s – like the possible solution to the hybrid mystery – about Clara and the Doctor. Though Face the Raven’s death scene was a brilliant one, Clara’s arc was about her becoming more and more like the Doctor, and so this gives us a very fitting (and much more uplifting) culmination to her story, with her saving him from his sins and simultaneously taking the opportunity to become a ‘Doctor’ herself. What's particularly brilliant is the way Moffat takes Donna’s ending from Journey’s End, which, while undoubtedly emotional, took all agency away from Catherine Tate’s character, and subverts it by allowing Clara to say no to the Doctor trying to wipe her memory – “These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine … I insist upon my past, I am entitled to that". Unlike Donna, Clara ends her story in control of her destiny.

And that’s part of why her being brought back from the dead isn’t the Angels Take Manhattan-esque cop-out I feared, and doesn’t ruin the impact of Face the Raven. In fact, Face the Raven needed to be impactful for this episode’s story to work. Not only does Clara end her story in control, she ends it more mature than she was two episodes ago. She’s aware of her recklessness, having seen its consequences and stopped the Doctor from going off the rail himself. And she’s accepting of her fate, ready to go and face the raven. This isn’t a cop out – she’s still going to die on Trap Street. Why not show that death here? Well, it’s Doctor Who – there’s always time and space for a bit of optimism. Time and space to take the long way round.

Out of all the endings Clara’s had (I count six now), this is the best.

And I haven’t even mentioned the framing story yet. Not only does it keep us on our toes with its misdirection as to who remembers what (thus making the twist that Clara's the knowledgable one here even more powerful), but it's also the most affecting element, largely due to its very clever use of music, surely vindicating the Doctor’s adoption of the guitar for those who weren’t yet convinced – his sad song called Clara, actually a diegetic rendition of her musical motif, is just pure brilliance. Plus, it made me laugh how the script acknowledged that there's only one American-style diner in Cardiff – "I've been here before, with Amy and Rory".

As well as Clara’s, Hell Bent nicely rounds off Me’s story – she finally gets the TARDIS she dreamed of in The Woman Who Lived, and, after billions of years, is now mature enough to use it for the sake of good. Now where’s the spin-off in which her and Clara meet Jenny and bond over how they’re all space-time abnormalities due to the Doctor’s mucking around? Or the one where pre-Hell Bent Me shares the final days of the universe with Jack Harkness?

What’s also deserving of praise is how, outside of the emotional backbone, Hell Bent just flows. Moffat’s finales have often been vast and epic in scale, but this one flips between genres, settings and times with a smoothness that others have been lacking – perhaps best summed up by the way the Doctor casually removes his jacket, unbuttons his waistcoat, and becomes the hero of a Western as if it’s the role he was born to play. Though it deals with Big Things (the return of Gallifrey, Me's immortality, Clara’s mortality), this is a remarkably accessible finale, never feeling muddled or over-reliant on continuity – see the confidence with which it references the TV Movie’s half-human thing in a way that works perfectly for those unfamiliar with the TV Movie, and the sense with which it doesn’t actually make the Doctor a half—human hybrid (because fuck the TV Movie, right?).

There's one thing that annoyed me, which is the return of Gallifrey being under-explained. After all we’ve had in the past ten years about it being inaccessible (and we’ve had a damn lot), the hand-wavey 'oh, it’s back now, sure' explanation is very light. Yes, Moffat’s right not to focus entirely on this, as the Doctor/Clara stuff is more emotionally interesting, but such a big twist for the Who universe deserves more. Equally problematic is the dropping of Gallifreyan politics mid-way through the episode – the Doctor becoming Lord President of this brutal society in which anyone living outside the Capitol 'doesn’t matter' and then simply swanning off is a bit of a dick move, and though this is acknowledged, it’s then never returned to. Who will fill the power vacuum he’s left behind? Nevertheless, as with the Zygon loose end in The Day of the Doctor, there’s always potential for another visit in a later series to work these things out…

A few minor points:
  • The scene about how he spent 4.5 billion years in the confession dial didn’t work for me, given that he didn’t. Approximately 4.5 billion versions of him spent approximately one year in it each. Also, didn’t Heaven Sent say it was 12 billion? 
  • It’s good, however, that it explained what a confession dial is, addressing a problem I raised last week but never expected to actually be addressed.
  • Hooray for seeing a regeneration in which the Time Lord not only switches gender, but race as well. That’ll piss off a certain sub-section of Who fandom who deserve to be pissed off.
  • How good does that ‘60s style TARDIS look? The slightly dirtied textures and subtly pulsating lights stop it from being too awkwardly clean, and I imagine Capaldi had the time of his life Doctoring around in it.
Hell Bent is the best Doctor Who finale in a long time, and series nine has been the best series in a long time, with Moffat really having upped his game. As a companion departure, this is everything The Angels Take Manhattan wasn’t – coherent, for a start – as well as, and I didn’t expect to be making this comparison, everything Journey’s End wasn’t – a story that allowed the companion to take control of their departure. As a finale, it works – epic but uncluttered, exciting, emotional. As a Gallifrey story, it perhaps lacks, offering intriguing glimpses into the Time Lord’s home planet but failing to conclude them. But that’s just one more reason to hope series ten comes sooner rather than later…

  1. The Zygon Inversion
  2. The Zygon Invasion
  3. Hell Bent
  4. Face the Raven
  5. The Girl Who Died
  6. Heaven Sent
  7. The Woman Who Lived
  8. The Witch’s Familiar
  9. Under the Lake
  10. The Magician’s Apprentice
  11. Before the Flood
  12. Sleep No More
Post-script: The ‘Next Time’ trailer for the Christmas special is the most incoherently edited trailer I’ve ever seen, seemingly slapped together on Saturday afternoon. It boggles me even more that BBC One aired a second, slightly better, trailer for it immediately after the first one. What the hell happened there?

Friday, 4 December 2015

On 4.12.15 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

Visit Starburst for the full version of this review.

Anyone interested in the Western should have seen George Stevens’ Technicolor Shane, a classic of the genre ranked as the third greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute – and if you haven’t, now’s your chance, as Eureka have released it on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK.

The story is simple and archetypal. A ruthless cattle baron is waging war on a Wyoming valley’s homesteaders, intent on intimidating them out of their homes. Gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd) rides into town, gets a job on the Starrett family’s farm, and helps them defend what’s theirs.

Watching it in 2015, there’s a lot about Shane that gives away its age – the slow pacing may jar for some viewers (so… much… woodcutting), and the way Shane’s affair with Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) is implied rather than shown shows up the sensibilities of the era.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to appreciate, even today. There’s the iconic imagery of the gunslinger who rides off into the night after saving the town, which inspired Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. There’s the subtle development of the relationships between the Starrett family. There’s the commentary on the use of guns, oddly thoughtful for a studio Western – “We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley – including yours”, Marian tells Shane, words that resonate today. And there’s the display of ‘50s acting talent, from Jack Palance to Elisha Cook, Jr. – though this is let down by the focus on young Joey Starrett, played by a child actor with approximately one facial expression. There’s a good drinking game rule in taking a swig every time he whinges the word “Shaaaaane”.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

On 3.12.15 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    4 comments

Last year I was full of praise for Listen, an unconventional, pared-down episode of Doctor Who that showcased the intellectual nature of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor while showing us Steven Moffat could still write. Heaven Sent, ostensibly the first half of this year’s finale, is the closest to that which series nine has got.

A criticism I've levelled at Moffat’s Who before is that it focuses heavily on the Doctor to the detriment of other characters. Heaven Sent takes that to the extreme, by, well, not bothering with other characters. After being spirited away by the mysterious force behind the tragic events of last week’s Face the Raven, the Doctor found himself in a castle seemingly designed to terrify him – all by himself.

What follows is an episode that feels both intriguingly original and like the kind of episode Steven Moffat does best (after all, we can’t complain about his crap writing of women if there are no women…). Like Listen, it shows off the problem-solving academic side of the Twelfth Doctor, and like Listen, it uses high-concept psychological horror rather than physically scary monsters to be one of the creepier episodes of the series (though the monster that does appear is great, it's the horror of being trapped in this castle on an eternal loop that really stood out for me). Yet unlike Listen, it doesn’t feel reliant on Moffat’s oft-used tropes (not that this was too much of a problem in that episode). The sheer uniqueness of this episode deserves a certain amount of praise – and it’s not the first time I’ve said something along those lines regarding series nine, which has been fantastically bold in terms of trying out new kinds of story, from very political thrillers to found footage horror (though not exactly successful in that case…).

What didn't work for me in comparison to Listen is the thematic depth; Listen took in several settings united by an exploration of fear, that of both the Doctor and the characters around him, whereas this episode's portrayal of the Doctor’s stay in the castle as a journey of grief, despite some great lines (“The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. It’s all the days they stay dead.”), didn't feel quite as strong to me – the Doctor dealing with the loss of a companion is ground well-trodden by recent Who.

Heaven Sent is, however, an incredible episode in terms of showing off the Twelfth Doctor’s problem-solving nature – watching him pace the castle solving the riddles in front of him is a delight, and it’s unlikely any Doctor other than Capaldi would pull this off quite so engrossingly. The use of the TARDIS as a Sherlock-esque mind palace is a very nice way of getting into his head and finding intellectual pleasure in observing the working-out of a problem that can’t be solved by pointing a sonic device at it. 

It’s an episode that, despite its simple concept, is visually and aurally engrossing, thanks to director Rachel Talalay and composer Murray Gold – his score for Heaven Sent is unlike that of any other episode, giving it an operatic grandeur. The music combined with Will Oswald’s editing of that big montage towards the end makes for a breathtakingly intense climax.

It’s also an episode rich with wonderful details, from the bird fairy tale and its double meaning as a reminder of Clara’s avian fate to the design of the citadel reflecting the cogs of the confession dial. Though I would have liked more clarity as to what a confession dial actually is – if the Doctor hadn’t made his confession yet, why'd he been carrying the dial around so preciously? If he had no idea that the castle was the dial's interior, then what did he think was inside it? I don't like to be pernickety, but when the logic issues are this notable, as they often are with Moffat, it does detract from everything that's great about an episode.

It is interesting to note the influences that have found their way into Heaven Sent. I’ve seen some comparisons to a Dante-esque journey into Hell (if anyone fancies writing a proper essay on that parallel, I’m up for reading it), and some saying the twist resembles that of the horror film Triangle. For me, the opening monologue felt very reminiscent of recent horror It Follows – perhaps a bit too jarringly reminiscent, to be honest, despite Doctor Who’s grand tradition of nicking stuff from popular movies. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steven owns the Blu-ray.

I have to mention the continuity-heavy ending. So we’re back on Gallifrey. It’s perhaps a shame that the Doctor got to Gallifrey as a result of being pulled into a Time Lord trap rather than finding it himself, but still, there’s a lot of potential for his confrontation with his own race. Plus, I’ve seen some interesting theories going around about that final line. It could all go either way, really – Moffat playing around with the Doctor’s past is always a dangerous game! But I do like the reveal that the hybrid isn’t part Dalek – I had thought that anything being ‘part Dalek’ is against everything the Daleks stand for. 

Back to the episode at hand – I didn’t love Heaven Sent quite as much as some portions of fandom seem to have (the Zygon two-parter is keeping the top spot for me this series), but it’s a stunningly original episode. Yes, it’s another Doctor-centric story from Moffat, but with the brave concept and the showing off of Capaldi’s strengths, it earns the right to be. Not only does it allow all involved (Moffat, Capaldi, Talalay and Gold in particular) to do what they do best, but it highlights one of series nine’s greatest strengths – pushing the boundaries of Doctor Who.

  1. The Zygon Inversion
  2. The Zygon Invasion
  3. Face the Raven
  4. The Girl Who Died
  5. Heaven Sent
  6. The Woman Who Lived
  7. The Witch’s Familiar
  8. Under the Lake
  9. The Magician’s Apprentice
  10. Before the Flood
  11. Sleep No More