Thursday, 21 December 2017

There are enough spoiler-free reviews on the internet already. Here's my very spoiler-ridden list of things I thought during and after watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi:

  • Back in 2015, I really enjoyed The Force Awakens at the time I was watching it, but over time, it dropped in my estimations, largely due to the realisation that it does share a few too many plot points with A New Hope. It's a hit of Star Wars nostalgia, which is perhaps what the brand needed, but fails to add much truly new to that nostalgia. Its main strength, which still holds up, is in the characters of Rey, Finn and Poe, and what Episode VIII needed to do was push those characters, and the series, in new directions. The Last Jedi certainly does that. I feel that, like The Force Awakens, my opinion on it will change over time, but already, it’s going the opposite way to that film - reflecting on it is revealing depths and strengths that can’t be appreciated in a first-watch hit. Ultimately, The Last Jedi is likely to be looked back on as the better film.
  • That said, there are things I’m uncertain on. The storyline of the Resistance fleet being chased across space by the First Order allows for some nice tension, in a manner reminiscent of the brilliant Battlestar Galactica episode 33, but highlights how the two sequel films so far are really unclear about what state the galaxy as a whole is meant to be in. How can the Resistance fleet be so small and unsupported when just a couple of weeks ago in story time, they were linked to a galaxy-wide Republic? What does life on the average planet look like right now? If the FO do hold control, how’d they do that so quick? The small scale of this war jars compared to the presentation of a vast, multicultural galaxy as seen in the rest of the saga, particularly the prequels.
  • But I can forgive flaws in this greater story because it's a narrative that is - unlike the prequels - built on top of strong character arcs. The moment when The Last Jedi completely swept me away was the three-way confrontation in Snoke’s throne room. There are so many good moments in that scene: the genuine uncertainty as to which way Kylo’s going to turn; the punch-the-air moment when he kills Snoke; the ballsiness of killing off the main villain halfway through a trilogy; the gorgeous cinematography of the shot where Rey and Kylo fight the guards back-to-back; wondering who the villain will be now Kylo’s apparently turned good; the heartbreaking realisation that he hasn’t. From that point on, the film really began to surprise and enthrall me.
  • And then there’s the reveal about Rey’s parents, which I'm so glad turned out the way it did. All these silly fanboy theories about her being a Skywalker, Palpatine’s genetic creation, the reincarnation of Boss Nass, etc. are just so inward-looking and naff. Making the story about her overcoming that disappointment and realising that the daughter of junk traders, a true underdog, can be the hero of the galaxy is so much more poignant than any of that. And Adam Driver delivers it in such a beautifully nasty way.
  • Kylo, by the way, is such a good character. Too many blockbusters these days put all the work into their heroes and leave the villains with no characterisation other than a cape and a desire to kill everything. It’s so good to have a villain with psychological depth and tangible motivation, who grows in parallel with the heroes.
  • Going back to that point about underdogs, the final scene is magnificent. It really got to me. (So, who do we reckon Broom Kid’s parents are?)
  • I notice that the people who were angry about Rey being too perfect are now angry about Luke Skywalker not being perfect. And sure, it’s never easy to find out your heroes aren’t, and that we have to hold everyone to account for their mistakes. That brave twist is the heart of the thematic depth which The Last Jedi has and which The Force Awakens does not, and is perhaps the element of The Last Jedi which will, in the long term, see it remembered as one of the greater Star Wars movies.
  • I heard from a couple of people before I saw the film that they felt it has too many jokes. Having seen the film, I cannot begin to understand that criticism. No, it doesn’t. The humour never overshadows the serious dramatic scenes, and when it is there, it’s funny.
  • My favourite laugh out loud moments were the ironing droid and Chewie eating Porg BBQ. The Porgs are reasonably funny, and not in it enough to become annoying.
  • The script is careful to give all of the minor players something both characteristic and useful to do. Like how, near the beginning, Chewie helps Rey get to Luke physically by bashing the door down, while R2 also helps out by playing to Luke's emotions with the Leia hologram. No character is wasted.
  • Except maybe Phasma, who doesn't do much at all.
  • The shot from the Battle of Crait where Poe slides across the salt and smoothly lands in the trench is my new favourite image of Oscar Isaac. And I have a lot of images of Oscar Isaac in my head.
  • I’m not sure about Luke declaring near the end that Rey is a Jedi. Surely the point of all this was that she can move on and create something better than the Jedi?
  • Luke’s death reminded me of the War Doctor’s from Doctor Who. They’ve won the enormous battle and all come out unscathed! Oh, he’s dead now.
  • A point I also made with Rogue One - I want more alien characters with speaking parts. The galaxy feels very human-centric. 
  • The much more important counter-point to that is, as with Rogue One, the human cast is wonderfully diverse.
  • I’m nervous about Episode IX. Partly due to the director’s chair returning to JJ Abrams, who made a good film with The Force Awakens, but one that played it safe, when IX needs to continue the boundary-pushing of this film. And partly because I have no idea how they’ll deal with the Carrie Fisher problem, given that Last Jedi’s ending sets Leia up as a big part of the story to come.
  • Of all the characters who could have had a topless scene, why did it have to be Kylo?

Saturday, 21 October 2017

On 21.10.17 by KieronMoore in , , ,    1 comment

I've become a bit lax with posting out links to reviews I've written for Starburst recently, so here's a bunch of 'em, along with some slapdash attempts at micro-reviews to get you in the mood:

Doctor Who Audios
Other Stuff
On 21.10.17 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

The latest issue of STARBURST Magazine has hit the shops, like Batman might hit an unarmed old woman in one of these dark Zack Snyder takes on your favourite comic book 'heroes'. That's relevant, because it's a Justice League-themed issue.

What you're really gonna buy it for, though, is the feature in which I wank over how great the Coen brothers are for four whole pages. It's a good one. If you like that kind of thing.

Also: my Doctor Who news column, my review of Accent UK's excellent new comic The Lizard, and a letter complaining about my ignorance of 1980s computer culture. You get it all in STARBURST.

Buy it in stores or online!

Friday, 1 September 2017

On 1.9.17 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

Full review on Starburst.

An expedition is sent into the jungle to join the reclusive Dr. Thorkel, who’s been digging up radioactive ore using a device that looks something like a giant Incan dildo. The radiation, it turns out, makes organisms smaller! Soon, our heroes find themselves shrunk and struggling to escape from the insane scientist, who, through a rather contrived mythological analogy, they’ve dubbed... Doctor Cyclops!

It’s not the only classic sci-fi movie that features people being shrunk, and you’re probably wondering how it compares to the more well known The Incredible Shrinking Man. Well, despite being made seventeen years earlier, the effects in Cyclops stand up just as well, if not better. For a start, it’s in colour, lending an exoticism to the Amazon setting which is backed up by probably-stock footage of various ferocious beasties.

But the story and characterisation is where this movie falls apart, even given that you know from the start it’s going to be schlocky. To go back to that same comparison, The Incredible Shrinking Man knew to keep its plot simple and its characters sharply defined in order to let the effects lead; Doctor Cyclops, however, gets itself lost amidst the wonky science of its eponymous madman’s plans, while making the bigger mistake of not explaining why he’s doing any of this.

Full review on Starburst.

The Seventh Doctor, Ace and Mel land in a Merseyside shipyard run by an old university boyfriend of Mel’s, Stuart Dale, who's become very successful thanks to a mysterious new material he’s been given possession of by a mysterious new client. You can see where that's going.

The Blood Furnace is an imaginative sci-fi mystery that plays out against the background of the political and social atmosphere of the early ‘90s. Real life concerns, such as the shutting down of the shipyards and the difficulties of finding jobs, are brought into characters’ motivations in a way more reminiscent of Russell T. Davies’ later revival of Doctor Who, working well to add depth to the story and its world. 

It would be nice to have more development of Mel’s relationship with Stuart, which plays a large part in the opening chapter of the four-part story but becomes sidelined after that. Nevertheless, this trio of TARDIS travellers continue to work very well together.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The latest issue of Starburst Magazine is out now! Well, tomorrow really. But it's the evening, so shops are closed now anyway. When they next open, the mag will be there. My copy arrived today, anyway.

The point is, it's a good one. I have a four-page feature in which I visit the set of new sci-fi web series Space Junk and interview the cast, and my Doctor Who news column takes the Jodie Whittaker controversy completely seriously (well...).

Plus, there's lots of Blade Runner content - if that doesn't sell it to you, you're probably not a Blade Runner fan, and thus I don't want to sell you my magazine anyway, you don't have good enough taste to deserve it.

Purchase Starburst 440 from the official site here.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

On 8.8.17 by KieronMoore in , ,    2 comments

Full review on Starburst.

The subject matter of this insane '80s movie, featuring a love triangle between an architect, his new computer, and his neighbour, might just scrape by as plausible if rejigged for a modern movie about AI, along the lines of Spike Jonze’s Her, but it’s downright ludicrous when it’s 1980s technology we’re dealing with. 

Thankfully, though, the film knows its own silliness and plays everything with tongue firmly in cheek; Rusty Lemorande’s script is chock-full of gags which play on the daftness of the computer’s desire for love.

But it’s Steve Barron’s direction that really makes Electric Dreams, well, unique. The director of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean video applies that aesthetic sensibility to his first feature, shooting it as a ninety-minute music video; sweeping close-ups of computer parts are intercut with shots of Miles looking forlorn and moody, edited to the blaring sounds of ‘80s synthpop. 

The result is a visually and aurally cluttered film, in an enjoyably cheesy way, but the scenes that develop Miles and Madeline’s relationship are less competently handled; Barron’s stylistic focus means that the characters, like those in a music video, never step out from being 2D archetypes into rounded people we can believe in.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

On 20.7.17 by KieronMoore in , , ,    1 comment

Full review on Starburst.

The X-Men film series has become a mess. It has tried to juggle a huge amount of characters, and as well as the resultant continuity clusterfucks, instalments like Apocalypse have ended up as unfocused and dull CGI-heavy smash-ups, big on epic spectacle but low on character stakes.

This year’s Logan attempted to remedy that by focusing on a small number of characters and telling a different kind of story. Tasked with protecting a young girl with powers similar to his own and with the ailing Professor X in tow, the man who was once Wolverine takes a journey across America that uses the visual cues of the modern Western much more than those of the typical superhero movie. In Logan’s worn-down settings, fights are violent and bloody, and heroes need to be tough and brutal rather than stylishly super.

What’s important, though, is that Logan uses its grim aesthetic to serve poignant character stories, the strongest in the entire X-Men franchise. Xavier’s Alzheimer’s is a particularly clever use of the superhero genre to tell a human story, but this is Hugh Jackman’s movie, really, his send-off to the franchise that has defined his career, and his performance here channels every hard-drinking, gruff-talking gunslinger you’ve ever seen. 

Logan, then, is low on epic spectacle but high on character stakes – the opposite of the X-Men franchise at its worst. 

Young Pauline explores a Kent countryside village and meets an oddly welcoming stationmaster with a gnome-like hunch, beard and hat, as well as his brutish, half-witted friend. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Pauline gets herself murdered very early on in the film, and the focus then shifts onto this strange duo as they try to cover up what’s occurred.

The Orchard End Murder is a strange, strange movie, willing to take completely unexpected turns at any moment. You think you have a handle on its idyllically dull portrayal of village life, complete with lengthy small talk, and then suddenly someone slams a live rabbit into a fruitcake before ripping its innards out. And that’s just the first ten minutes.

Indeed, there are many odd decisions in this film’s story, and not all in a good way. Some scenes make little sense, such as the men’s decision to bury the body a few metres away from where the police are currently standing, and the way that the story ends couldn’t feel more forced. 

Nevertheless, it has an odd charm about it and never feels boring, perhaps due to a combination of just how unpredictable the whole thing is and Peter Jessop’s artful camerawork, which carefully juxtaposes the beautiful country landscapes with the much more sinister.

The Doctor and Romana materialise the TARDIS underground in the opening of Subterranea, the latest Fourth Doctor audio play from Big Finish. But this doesn’t mean they’re far from civilisation – this planet’s mole-like inhabitants live in huge vehicles called Drill-towns, which constantly mine their way around the rocks. And there’s another race among the rocks; the cyborgs known as Silex are on the prowl and have a habit of feeding on the Drill-towns.

The story, from veteran Who writer Jonathan Morris, plays out simply but enjoyably, well fitted to the hour-long format and to the era of Who in which it’s set. There are some nice twists, particularly at the end of part one cliffhanger, and the Silex are effectively threatening villains, if at times overly reminiscent of the Cybermen. Perhaps a name not starting with the ‘cy’ sound would have helped.

What makes Subterranea well worth a listen, though, is not the plot but the characterisation of the race who live on this planet. There’s an Industrial Revolution-esque style to them, which makes the whole thing feel like a Dickens novel crossed with Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

On 18.7.17 by KieronMoore in    No comments

I've taken a short holiday in Berlin over the past week. Here's what I learned:
  • The Germans really love their techno music. Not only is it played in all the bars and clubs, but sometimes people sit next to you on the train and start playing techno at you.
  • I don’t like techno.
  • They also really love their beer. They drink it in the street, and shops that appear to be corner shops actually sell little but beer. I first thought that beer was really cheap, but then I realised it’s everything else that’s expensive. One club I was in charged €3 for the cheapest beer, and €2,50 for water. 
  • Cider doesn’t exist.
  • Marlene Dietrich was the coolest film star ever (and the film museum is amazing).
  • There's a U-bahn line called U2, and imagining the train's being driven by Bono never stops being funny.
  • The term for East Berliners is ‘Ossis’, though I actually met more Aussies than Ossis - Berlin is a prime destination for Australian tourists.
  • And some New Zealanders, though never compare them to Aussies.
  • The entire history and culture of New Zealand.
  • Germany's equivalent of WHSmiths is called McPaper.
  • There are so many types of absinthe, with names like ’Suicide’, ‘Leaky Crucifix’ and ‘Death Suckle’ (I made one of those up).
  • Lola Rennt is even more of a '90s masterpiece when you're watching it in a hip Berlin cinema rather than across two German lessons at the end of term.
  • The Germans sure know how to party. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe...
  • English really does seem to be the lingua franca, and I heard it probably as much as I heard German. Visitors to Germany, wherever they’re from, are more likely to know English than German, so bartenders, waiters, etc. tend to switch to it very quickly when they realise someone ain’t from around these parts.
  • Despite this, I managed to maintain a few conversations in German, but my Achilles heel is 'sorry' - if I got in someone’s way in the street, I’d immediately say this and forget to even attempt a German equivalent.
  • If they get in someone’s way in the street, the Germans generally don’t attempt to apologise in any language.
  • They do, however, have perfect etiquette when it comes to waiting for the red man at road crossings. Even if there’s no traffic at all.
  • The burgers at ‘The Bird’ are the best in the world, ever.
  • Speaking of birds, the term for what happens to one when it flies into an aeroplane engine is ‘ingested’.

Monday, 17 July 2017

On 17.7.17 by KieronMoore in , ,    1 comment

Jodie Whittaker has been announced as the Thirteenth Doctor. I personally reckon she'll do an excellent job, but not everyone is convinced. In light of the overblown controversy and awful, nasty comments all over social media, here are my reactions to all the arguments against casting a female Doctor Who:

"The Doctor has always been a man!" - He was always William Hartnell until he was Patrick Troughton. He was always over 45 until he was Tom Baker. He was always English until he was Sylvester McCoy.

"Time Lords can't change gender!" - Humans can. If anything, it should be easier for Time Lords.

"But it's ridiculous!" - Mate, the Doctor lives in a police box that's bigger on the inside and travels in time and space. If the gender change is where it becomes too difficult for you to believe, the problem isn't with the show.

"It's lazy, why don't they make an original show with a female lead?" - There should be more original sci-fi/fantasy with female leads, sure. Some international productions have managed that, such as Orphan Black and Buffy. But it's really difficult to get genre shows produced in Britain - writers I've spoken to who've pitched sci-fi to the BBC or ITV have always concluded that commissioners hate the genre. Doctor Who is kind of all we have; it has that existing platform to provide a role model to young girls, to show them that they can be heroes too, and good on it for using that. Plus, it's not only all we have, it's iconic - when they cast a Doctor, they're not just casting an actor to be in a TV show, but someone who'll represent the brand at conventions, whose face will be on lunchboxes and action figures, who'll be part of the show's mythology for as long as it runs - what other series has that platform to make such a statement?

"Boys need role models, too!" - They can still watch it. Lots of boys liked Rey in Star Wars. It's healthy for them to have female role models so they don't grow up to be like those men who've emerged on the internet since yesterday.

"Rubbish, when I were a lad I wouldn't be seen watching something with all girls in!" - Oh for fuck's sake, the companion will probably be a dude, alright?

"It should be all about the quality of the writing, not feminist politics!" - Well, yeah, obviously quality storytelling is important. No one's saying it isn't, or that Chibnall now has a free pass to write a whole series of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship-level cack. But representation matters too, and in things such as how they represent society through the diversity of their characters, all stories are political. The gender imbalance in TV can't be ignored, and is a separate issue to how good the scripts are.

"What next, Jane Bond?" - The reaction to that would be hilarious, but the gender flip might actually be a more awkward fit. Bond's always been stuck in that '60s macho spy mentality, whereas Who is about change and forward thinking. Or maybe that's why they should do Jane Bond.

"It's not the same show as in my childhood!" - Well, obviously not, that was 40 years ago, old buddy. Times change. But the old ones are available on DVD if all you want is to replay the past. Except the ones that got wiped.

"It's ruined my childhood!" - D'awww.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

On 11.7.17 by KieronMoore in , ,    27 comments

Well, this is exciting.

My graphic novel, Buddha: An Enlightened Life, is now available internationally!

It follows the story of the Buddha from his early days as the unsatisfied Prince Siddhartha Gautama, through his enlightenment and building of his sangha, all the way up to his legacy as the founder of a global religion.

The book was a lot of fun to write, and I'm very grateful to the team at Campfire Graphic Novels for putting the thing together, to Rajesh Nagulakonda for his gorgeous art, and to Jason Quinn for recommending me to Campfire.

I'm also grateful to my mum, for texting me the below photo of her copy and so reminding me to post this.

And here's the obligatory link to the Amazon UK page. Help fund my continued existence!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Where to start, other than by saying that I loved every moment of that. Well, not quite every moment, but most of them.

After the creepy horror-inflected introduction of the Cybermen in World Enough and Time, this episode shifts the tone into an action-packed sci-fi Western – Cy-Noon, perhaps – with the Doctor taking charge of a small town preparing itself for a Cyber onslaught. 

The Moffat era’s two- or three-parters have tended to shift tone between episodes, with the result sometimes being very jarring (see this series’ Monk trilogy for the most disastrous example of that), while last year’s finale also incorporated some Western elements alongside assorted bits and bobs of genres, creating an engaging but somewhat jumbled episode. The Doctor Falls, in comparison, both flows on nicely from part one and feels very assured about everything it’s trying to be; it transitions between its various threads neatly, and the chronological jumping around feels like it adds to the experience rather than being a gimmick. It feels like, if I’m allowed to make assumptions, this is Steven Moffat when he finishes the first draft in good enough advance to have time to rewrite carefully.

But that overall structural solidity would be worthless if all the elements going into the episode weren’t good by themselves. Thankfully, they are...

The standout of The Doctor Falls, the part that will make it very easily rewatchable, is the Master and Missy. Last week’s cliffhanger promised a ‘Two Masters’ scenario and boy, does this deliver on that fan dream. Every moment Michelle Gomez and John Simm are on screen together is completely delightful. Them discussing ways to kill the Doctor (like a Time Lord Natural Born Killers, with the homicidal playfulness of Joker and Harley Quinn), the dance on the rooftop, even the boner joke (because of course the Master would try to shag himself). Every scene with the Masters has at least one line that made me laugh out loud, but it’s not just the jokes that work... 

My criticisms still stand about how the ‘redeeming Missy’ arc played out (or didn’t) across the first ten episodes of Series 10, but the way it’s ended has been perfect, and pitting her against her previous incarnation is such a clever move. Simm’s Master was always focused on his madcap evil plans, whereas Missy has been more interested in playing up her friendship with the Doctor, a difference which makes them a perfect pairing for this story. And, while both play their Masters as very larger than life, there’s a subtlety underneath the mayhem here, with Gomez really showing that she can do heavy emotional stuff as well as the comedy schtick she’s had nailed down since she began the role; their little interplay after she refers to Cyber-Bill as ‘her’ rather than ‘it’ is just one of many examples of that.

Speaking of which... Bill’s a Cyberman. The scenes where she learns what she’s become and tries to repress it are beautifully played, allowing Mackie to give one last impressive performance while revealing her horrifying new nature at just the right moments. Yes, there are similarities to Oswin’s story in Asylum of the Daleks, but this is very differently handled, playing up the emotion and horror from the beginning rather than holding it back for a twist.

And then we have Bill’s ending, being rescued by the Heather alien water spaceship thing from The Pilot. Hmm. I’d been worried that Bill wouldn’t get a proper ending, and while she does at least get this, it feels rushed; the one part of an otherwise flawless episode that grated for me. It’s all too convenient, and it’s been too long since we last saw Heather; perhaps if she’d reappeared in the middle of the series so Bill’s relationship with her could be developed and her seemingly limitless superpowers could be explained, this ending would have worked better. The similarity to Clara’s exit just one series ago is also a problem; is it not possible for a companion just to decide to leave the TARDIS any more? On the plus side, it did allow for a gay kiss on primetime Saturday night sci-fi, which is wonderful (and interestingly, Bill is the only new series companion to leave the show without having kissed the Doctor at any point – glad we’ve got past that weird recurring trope).

Keeping with the companions, it’s nice that Nardole gets some development. I always suspected that he’d prove himself to be more than just comic relief; there were hints of that throughout the series, but he fully comes into his own here, and Matt Lucas is seriously impressive in the scene where he realises he has to take responsibility and lead the town. This conflict-averse alien criminal was a refreshingly different type of companion for the Doctor to take on, and here we get the impression that he’s matured and improved himself through his travels.

On a whole, then, the character work in The Doctor Falls feels, like the episode's pacing and tone, assured. Sure, the villagers may be thinly sketched, but there's meaningful development for the Doctor, two companions, and two Masters – which is three more characters than Moffat usually focuses on! The dialogue is calmed down, as well, less gimmicky and catchphrase-driven than in many of Moffat’s flashier episodes, and much better for it, to the extent that it jars on the rare occasion Moffat falls back into his more annoying habits (the gag about John Simm's face being round, for example, is a reminder of his predilection for forced jokes about facial features, but it comes in the middle of a scene full of genuinely cracking lines).

Oh yeah, the Doctor. Not talked about him yet. It’s impressive just how much the Twelfth Doctor has himself matured over his three series. Peter Capaldi has never been anything short of excellent, but the show wobbled over what to do with him for two years. He started off as the grumpy Malcolm Tucker in space, riddled with insecurities about his identity, then became some sort of rock star, and this series has settled as a very balanced yet distinct take on the Doctor. And while I really wish we could have had more of the Twelfth Doctor as he has been in Series 10, it is interesting to note that arc of development over his lifetime, however unplanned it may have been; the brilliant, desperate “I do it because it’s kind” speech in this episode is a matured take on the Series 8 finale’s “I’m an idiot” speech – the Doctor again expressing his identity to his oldest friend, but this time sure of it. And consequently, Missy’s “thanks for trying” is the saddest moment of the Capaldi era.

In fact, with a finale this good, it feels a shame that he doesn’t regenerate at the end of it. Because if this were Capaldi’s last episode, it would be a perfect ending for him. So let’s hope the Christmas special doesn’t drop the ball.

  1. The Doctor Falls
  2. Oxygen
  3. Thin Ice
  4. Extremis
  5. The Pilot
  6. World Enough and Time
  7. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  8. Empress of Mars
  9. Knock Knock
  10. The Eaters of Light
  11. Smile
  12. The Lie of the Land

Friday, 30 June 2017

Hey, I managed to get this written before the finale airs! It looked like I was going to have to write one long review for the two-parter and pretend that had been the plan all along.

Though the quality of Steven Moffat’s series finales has varied, one thing I’ve always liked about them is how he’s not stuck to one story type, like how Russell T Davies always ended his runs with a big invasion of Earth, with the annual attempt to go bigger by adding an extra zero to the number of Daleks getting to the point where returns had considerably diminished. Here we are now at the finale not just of Series 10 but of the Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi eras of the show (assuming, as Moffat has hinted, the Christmas special follows on from 10.11 and 10.12 as a loose third part), and we’re ending with a story that’s similarly dissimilar to the finales that have gone before; it’s still very ambitious, but instead of Davies-esque epic stakes, its ambition lies in its concept. Well, concepts.

As World Enough and Time begins, we have two different stories going on – the time dilation affecting the 400 mile-long ship, which by itself is an intriguing pitch for a Who episode, and the redemption of Missy. As we go along, these develop into storylines that could easily be defined as 'Genesis of the Cybermen' and 'The Two Masters' – both of which would be better episode titles than we’ve actually got, but neither of which should actually be said out loud by any of the characters, because that would be cheesy as hell. Oops.

And they’re both really strong ideas for finales, at least as far as pleasing fans is concerned. Over the years I’ve been a Who fan, a Mondasian Cyberman origin story and a Master-ful twist on the multi-Doctor episode are two of the ideas I’ve seen come up most often as fans’ most dreamed about stories. Trust Moffat to do both of them at once, then.

Let’s talk about the Cybermen first. Though one of the most commonly recurring villains, post-2005 Doctor Who has consistently struggled to get them right. When they were originally conceived by Kit Pedler, the Cybes reflected 1960s fears about transplants and ‘spare part surgery’, allowing for body horror-focused villainy. I really like Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen as a modernised update on that – asking what upgrading humanity means in the age of the internet. Since then, however, they’ve mostly been generic stompy robot villains; even Neil Gaiman, promising to make the Cybermen scary again, did little more than give them superficial new tricks.

So it makes a lot of sense for this story to have taken the Cybermen back to their beginnings. I was worried that the Tenth Planet-esque costumes would look ludicrous today, particularly from the perspective of casual viewers who don't care for the nostalgia, but the gradual build-up of these cloth-faced 'patients' is more than strong enough for the episode to get away with it, especially thanks to the macabre touches of the kind Moffat excels at – the volume knob sequence is delectably nasty. It’s the closest the Cybermen have got in New Who to living up to their original concept – though that, to an extent, can be a bad thing as well as good. As I said, the Cybermen in the 1960s reflected 1960s fears, and so the Cybermen in this 2017 episode also reflect 1960s fears. It might be a creepy story, but it lacks the contemporary relevance that the 2006 episodes did succeed in updating. Still, it’s a much better use of the Cybermen than the boring battle droids they’ve been for the past few years.

With the Master, by comparison, Moffat may be looking back at the villain’s history, but he's also moving that story forward. Missy’s recurring presence throughout the three Capaldi series has explored her friendship with the Doctor and how similar they really are, so it feels very right for this era to end with the Doctor trying to redeem her. And if we pretend Series 10 so far had done a good job of building up this arc, having her on the way to redemption and thrown into a story in lieu of the Doctor is a great way to start the finale.

Indeed, her parody of his entrances is a lot of fun (well, except for the ‘Doctor Who’ joke; though a nice dig at fans who get too wound up about this sort of thing, it goes on way too long – had it ended after her first mention of “it’s his real name”, it would have been a much stronger skit overall). The flashbacks with the Doctor opening up to Bill are lovely, too, feeling like a welcome and insightful change of pace in order to dig deep into this friendship. Plus, there’s a surprisingly mature view on gender from the keyboard of the man who once made Karen Gillan wear a policewoman stripper outfit.

But then... Missy doesn’t do a lot for the middle section of the episode. In fact, she does nothing except watch the Doctor spout out exposition (which, by the way, is a stupid move on his part – he’s wasting years of Bill’s life drawing diagrams when he should be calling for the lift). It’s sad that this promising story is so completely abandoned and she doesn’t get much chance to actually play the Doctor once the plot begins.

However, after they finally do get moving, which is basically at the end of the episode, we have that reveal – it’s John Simm! There’s not too much to say about this at the moment, as it’s the next episode where we’ll properly get to see Simm and Gomez together, other than what a cracker of a cliffhanger it is. Well, it would have been better had he not been all over the trailers – I still remember my giddy disbelief in 2006 when the Daleks showed up at the end of Army of Ghosts, and this could have been an equivalent moment. Nevertheless, having Simm appear in disguise throughout this episode is a fun way to introduce him, and a very classic Master kind of plan from his perspective; it draws attention to the distinctly different approaches both of these Masters have, which only makes me more eager to find out how they get on, and just what Simm Master’s real plan is. But that’s all for next time.

The other thing I’m most eager to find out, and the part of the story I’m least sure where it’s going, is what will happen to Bill. And that’s one I’m less confident will be pulled off... With a full regime change coming for Doctor Who, it’s looking very unlikely that Pearl Mackie will stay on for another series, but as I pointed out last week, Bill’s been seriously sidelined towards the end of Series 10. This series started off so well, with a clear focus on Bill being the Doctor’s student, and so it’s fitting that the finale features a ‘test’ – but it’s for Missy, not Bill! In fact, nothing in this episode has much to do with Bill’s character arc; while the episode does have other things to focus on, it would be a shame for her to be written out in an episode as impersonal for her as World Enough and Time. Whether she stays a Cyberman or not, Bill deserves an ending, and I hope the finale delivers.

And that seems to be the conclusion of a lot of my points about this episode – it sets up a lot of things that are reliant on the second half of the story not dropping the ball. I have a lot of questions that I hope are answered, but I’ll be happy for those answers to come alongside more of this deliciously creepy take on the Cybermen and the inevitable delight of watching Simm and Gomez riff off each other. In fact, despite my trepidation (and partly because of it), I think I’m looking forward to The Doctor Falls more than I have any other individual Who episode for years, which means World Enough and Time must have done something right.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Hmm. This is an odd one to review. It feels in many ways very generic – enjoyable while watching but with not much jumping out as worth talking about. It may also be a factor that I’m writing this while suffering some minor form of sunstroke because it went over 25 degrees in Manchester. So, where to start? My heat-addled mind says with the ‘Next Time’ trailer at the end...

As these clips shouted loud and proud about the presence of ‘Mondasian Cybermen!’, a 1960s reference which undoubtedly made a certain miniscule section of the viewership go hard and went completely over the heads of the rest, the classic Who link of The Eaters of Light itself was less onanistic – it’s the first new series episode to be written by someone who also contributed to the 1963 to 1985 run, specifically Rona Munro.

Although if you didn’t know that fact but have seen at least one classic Who serial, you might have guessed, based on the fact that the episode sees the Doctor and companions split up, get captured by opposing factions, talk to these guys a lot, escape, team up with the same factions again, and talk a lot more, before eventually everyone unites and the Doctor solves everything. Which is basically the plot of any classic Who story. Eaters has an interesting setting, though – second century Scotland at the time of the Ninth Roman Legion’s disappearance – and Munro manages to characterise the Roman and Pict characters effectively and efficiently given she only has 45 minutes rather than 75.

But then there are elements on top of this that are very new Who. The monster, for example. Its CGI-heavy design and lack of any real motivation – it’s hungry for light, or something – is reminiscent of a lot of recent antagonists. That’s doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out of place in this story, but I’m not convinced it works either. It seems to me, based on the opening scene and the crow and music motifs (which are both neat touches), that the episode is going for a folk horror style, and so the monster would be less of a let-down were it less ‘generic CGI dragon with flashy bits’ and more ‘actually scary’. I can in no way believe this thing is capable of, as the Doctor warns, eating all the stars.

Another way in which the particular beats of this episode feel familiar is that a lot of them are repeated from last week’s. Empress of Mars also begins with Bill getting separated from the Doctor by falling down a hole, resulting in the two of them meeting soldiers from opposing factions. Both episodes deal with small units of soldiers separated from their armies, and both deal with themes of cowardice. This isn’t a criticism of either episode, but it is clumsy oversight on behalf of showrunner Moffat and the script editors. Particularly the hole thing – how did no one notice that?

What else to say? The two-companion dynamic here in interesting, in that though Nardole’s been a constant presence throughout the series, this and Oxygen are the only two episodes to have felt like a typical adventure featuring the three of them travelling together. I know some people are finding Nardy annoying; I’ve been rather enjoying him, though some of his lines here did grate on me more than they usually do – “Crows in the future are all in a huff?” feels weirdly CBBC sidekick-esque in its repetition of exactly what the Doctor has just said. “Death by Scotland!” is  highlight, though.

Bill, meanwhile... she started off the series very promising and has continued to be likeable, but we’re at the finale now and I’m not sure where her storyline’s going. For her, this episode felt like it should have been at the start of the series; though her figuring out the TARDIS translation circuit ties satisfyingly into how they later bring the warring sides together, it's jarring that she doesn't already know that by Episode 10. Looking at the bigger picture, any development of her supposed mentorship under the Doctor has stalled, with the series instead focusing on this Missy stuff, and it’s starting to look unlikely that we’ll ever see Heather again, as hinted at the end of The Pilot. I just don’t get the feeling that, if Series 10 is Bill’s story, we’ve had much of that story. I don’t know where she as a character wants to be going.

Speaking of that Missy stuff, the couple of scenes with her at the end feel like an odd bodge, don’t they? Way too long for something that’s got nothing to do with the rest of the episode, and yet her bits in this series have collectively been way too short to convince us of the change in character she’s supposedly gone through. This style of telling a story arc through the epilogue of various episodes isn’t really working.

And finally, I liked the fact that all the Romans are bi. Probably not historically accurate, but what the hell, worth it to imagine the comments on the Daily Mail right now.

If only the rest of the episode was similarly able to provoke reaction. For such a noted playwright as Munro has become since first writing for Who 28 years ago, this episode is notably... fine.

Series 10 began strongly, dropped the ball with the Monk trilogy, and has since failed to regain its momentum. Still, with the two-part finale up next, it’s all to play for...

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Empress of Mars
  7. Knock Knock
  8. The Eaters of Light
  9. Smile
  10. The Lie of the Land

Monday, 12 June 2017

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (someone must be), or have spent any time with me, you’ll know that I’ve written some comics for Doctor Who Adventures. Being aimed at children and told over a short number of pages, the DWA strips can’t be too complicated or experimental, but must have some kind of hook. You couldn’t, for example, tell the narratively convoluted and politically exploratory story of the Monks’ invasion in a DWA strip. Empress of Mars, however, has a pitch that I would have jumped on if I’d thought of it when brainstorming DWA ideas – Victorian soldiers trapped on Mars with Ice Warriors. It’s a simple pitch but immediately visual, colourful, brimming with story potential, a new twist on the world of Doctor Who yet one that fits in perfectly.

Now, I do like how the TV show can do much more than such simplistic stories, and the episodes that set out to push boundaries are often among the best, but frankly, after three weeks of convoluted heaviness, I was all up for this slice of fun.

The other thing that stands out about the episode’s concept is how thoroughly Mark Gatiss it is. Stiff upper lip Victorian soldiers with names like Neville Catchlove, monsters from the Pertwee era, a retro adventure feel with the particular influences being Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells – all toys in Gatiss’s favourite playpen. He’s generally had more success when he’s been allowed to play around with such toys – see The Crimson Horror – as opposed to when he’s tried newer, more experimental styles – see Sleep No More – so I was hopeful for this one.

And to an extent, it’s what I wanted. It’s a pacey adventure with enjoyably heightened characters and clear, precise motivations. It's simply but sturdily plotted; it never tries to deceive, never becomes convoluted. It’s good old-fashioned fun. Plus, unlike the talkative last three episodes, it’s full of action. The direction of these scenes isn’t perfect, possibly due to budget – that climactic shootout relies way too heavily on close-ups and cutaways, meaning there’s no real sense of its geography – but nevertheless, what we want from this story is redcoats shooting it out with Ice Warriors, and that’s what it delivers.

Because of this action adventure feel, Empress of Mars never gets too deep into the theme of imperialism it touches upon and which a more political writer like Peter Harness would take from the concept and run away with. That’s not a criticism, though – after all, it’s never what Gatiss was going to be interested in.

What we could have expected more from Gatiss, though, and what is lacking here, is the tongue-in-cheek humour that characterised The Crimson Horror. A few awkwardly crowbarred movie references aside, the dialogue is all very mechanical, and Gatiss plays his Burroughs homages too straight, leaving the episode often feeling dry.

It’s also lacking in characterisation. Gatiss has always tended to write the Doctor and companion as very generic, but that’s taken to an extreme here; neither Bill nor the Doctor do much to stand out from the crowd, or even to impact the plot, largely being mere observers of the fantastical adventure going on around them. Some of the soldiers get more depth, but it’s lacking in subtlety; the central ‘redeemed coward versus aggressive usurper’ dynamic is fine for the story the episode wants to tell, if nothing surprising, but what really annoyed me was how obvious the details given to supporting characters are. He has a photo of his fiancĂ©e... they’re planning to get married once they’ve found a comfortable place... the village church... so green... you could get a computer to write this.

On the plus side: individual alien characters! I’ve been complaining for the past few weeks about how the Monks lack personality, and actually, thinking about it, that applies to every single monster of Series 10 so far, so it’s great that both Friday and Iraxxa have traits which identify them individually as opposed to their entire race, and even have development. Iraxxa starts off as a proud and single-minded warlord and gradually becomes more sympathetic, but it’s Friday who’s really interesting – the old and weary soldier who’s seen both sides of the conflict and has come to the conclusion that he must join the Doctor as an arbiter of peace – and it’s refreshing to see this perspective from one of the aliens. Shame, though, that he’s forgotten about after he’s broken our heroes out of jail; it feels that there was a concluding beat to his story that’s been cut out.

(Oh yeah, the Nardole/Missy thing. I’d forgotten to write about this as much as Gatiss forgot to write any sense into it. An awkward way of getting Nardole out of the way, and we’re never going to get an explanation as to why the TARDIS malfunctioned, are we? Bringing Missy out for that final scene does little to move her story forward, given she’s presumably going back in the vault until the finale now, and is out of character for Nardole, who spent the first half of the series calling the Doctor irresponsible for even talking to her.)

Empress of Mars, then, has enough going for it, in terms of old-fashioned ideas done well and new twists on top of them, to make for an entertaining piece of telly, and it's a relaxing, easy watch compared to the heavy past few weeks. But it’s in many ways unrefined and lacking the real spark that it needs. It’s Mark Gatiss at his most characteristic, but not at his best.

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Empress of Mars
  7. Knock Knock
  8. Smile
  9. The Lie of the Land

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

And Series 10 was going so well.

The really disappointing thing is that there are good ideas in here. A satire on ‘post-truth’ society via a 1984-style dystopia? Sure. The Doctor becoming the oppressors’ Big Brother-esque mouthpiece? I’m intrigued to see how that works out. Bringing in Missy? Could be fun. Even the idea of plonking an epic three-parter in the middle of the series is a promising experiment.

But, well, come on... 

The first two episodes of this ‘Monk trilogy’ have felt a little disjointed from each other, but Toby Whithouse's The Lie of the Land takes that to an extreme, with individual sequences having neither connection to those before and after them, nor valid reason to be there. All those ideas are brought up and disposed of one by one, leaving us asking just what the point of any of them was, and what this episode is meant to be about. 

It’s hard to decide which of them pissed me off more, so let’s start from the beginning. Ooh, we have Memory Police, we have the populace generally accepting the Monks, we have a few lone rebels being taken away. All good so far. Are we going to get to the heart of this society, of what life is like under the shadow of the Monk statues, of what leads people to fall for fascist lies, of why some collaborate and others question?

Well, no. We’re going to head off to sea to dither around a ‘rescuing the Doctor’ subplot.

So, his deception. For six months he spearheaded a fascist regime and encouraged people to report on their friends and families, just so he could test Bill’s loyalties? To set up this ‘Bill versus evil Doctor’ confrontation as the main spine of the episode, and heavily trailer those regeneration clips as if they’re the real thing, only to have it laughed off as a ruse fifteen minutes into the episode with no satisfactory explanation, is not only a massive dick move on the Doctor's part but an infuriatingly cheap narrative trick on Whithouse's. To make matters worse, it's never mentioned again, not even when the episode briefly becomes about Missy’s manipulative nature, which, we're told, in unquestioned contrast to the Doctor’s, is objectively a bad thing. 

This stupid distraction also throws away a very pointedly relevant speech about fascism. That “you had history...” speech could be such a powerful moment, this series’ equivalent of the anti-war speech in The Zygon Inversion, but the episode couldn’t cock it up more in the way it’s used in entirely the wrong context. The Doctor makes a brilliant anti-fascist speech... to defend his own collaboration with a fascist regime. Which is then revealed to be a ruse, so he doesn’t mean it anyway. Any possible point that could be made there is lost in just how muddled it all is.

So he takes control of the boat he could have taken control of months ago, crashes it into a pier (why?) and goes to visit Missy. Again, it’s a nice idea to have Missy brought into the second half of the season as we build to the finale and develop that arc of the Doctor trying to turn her ‘good’ (bet he doesn’t), but it’s really very convenient that she happens to have the exact knowledge needed. And really very stupid that the Doctor hadn’t already asked her about the Monks after the end of Extremis. And really very clumsy that this information doesn’t turn out to be that useful after all, as the Doctor decides to just look at a map and go to the Monks’ conspicuously evil lair instead.

It’s a serious problem that, if both the sequences I’ve just discussed were cut out of the episode, and the Doctor simply showed up at Bill’s door five minutes in, the plot would work just as well. And that’s... let me check iPlayer... twenty minutes. Half the episode, which could have instead have been spent on developing this dystopian world to the point where it has something to say about fascism, or on giving the Monks some actual character.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure about the Monks after the previous two episodes, and now I am sure – they’re rubbish. They have no personality at all. Why do they want to invade Earth? What do they gain from it? How come they can now fire electricity from their hands, and why did no one point out that that’s a blatant rip from the Silence? 

One plus point (honest) – I was glad that the need for a human's consent, which felt forced in last week’s episode, was actually tied into their method of ruling over the world. However, it remains the case that there’s little connection between what they do in any of the three episodes. If they always use the same tactics, as per Missy’s experience, then what was the point of the simulation? Perhaps the fault lies with Moffat’s style of writing two- or three-parters, where each episode is a very distinct story and they just happen to be linked by cliffhangers – no one ever stopped to work out who the Monks are or why they fit into these particular stories. They’re not villains, they’re plot devices. Crap ones.

And then there’s the ending. The power of emotion saves the day, yet again. It’s one of the most egregious plot tropes of Moffat-era Who, and this, at the end of what should be an epic three-parter, is one of the worst instances of it. The episode doesn’t even use the emotion it’s previously tried to explore. If The Lie of the Land has anything resembling an emotional story for Bill, it’s about her guilt over having caused this apocalyptic chaos. So how does her memory of her mum tie into any of this?

Still, it's nearly over, at least that’s the worst bit of nonsense we’re going to get in this episode, right?

Oh. All of humanity forgot being invaded. Despite the masses of evidence which must surely exist. Again.

I mean, for an episode full of such dramatically promising concepts, there isn’t a single beat that The Lie of the Land doesn’t bungle. It’s the Doctor Who equivalent of a Bullseye contestant whose partner’s already done well so they only need to get ten more points to win the speedboat and yet – THUNK, THUNK, THUNK – bounces all three darts off the board in quick succession. It’s just... really shit.

Also, why was everyone wearing black jumpsuits?

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Knock Knock
  7. Smile
  8. The Lie of the Land

Monday, 29 May 2017

Earth faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong government with the Monks, or chaos with the Doctor...

After Extremis saw the Monks run a simulation to analyse all Earth’s weaknesses, it turns out that the human race was about to wipe itself out the very next week. Which is an outrageous coincidence but a neat link into ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World by Peter Harness and Steven Moffat’ – a title card as extensive as the episode’s ambitions.

Harness seems to have become the guy brought on board when Who wants to do a political thriller with contemporary relevance, and for good reason – his Zygon two-parter was my highlight of Series 9. Pyramid returns to the same approach, and indeed the same fictional Middle Eastern country – in an area of Turmezistan where the US, Chinese, and Russian armies are facing off, a mysterious pyramid appears, and the Monks give humanity a warning that the world will end unless they accept the aliens’ help... and invasion.

Ah, but there’s a twist! The end of the world comes not, as it seems, from war between superpowers, but from Brian off of My Parents Are Aliens being hungover and accidentally creating an evil biotoxin. Oh, Brian! It’s a very clever plot structure to maximise stakes in what could easily be an overly talky episode – we know exactly where both storylines are heading, even before the Doctor does, and the outcomes are scarily apocalyptic, so the tension is in whether the Doctor will work it out, and whether he’ll be able to stop it.

So does he? Well, yeah, pretty easily. He goes straight from figuring out that the armies are a diversion to concluding that it can only be a biological accident. Sure, there was a line cut from this scene about terrorism being another option, due to the recent attacks in Manchester, but even with that in, it feels like a big jump to the correct answer. Maybe some clues to what caused the apocalypse should have been planted in the images they saw of the destroyed world?

And that’s not the only thing that didn’t quite work for me in this episode. The Monks are still failing to convince as villains. I watched all of the original Star Trek series last year and they’re reminding me of a villain trope from that which my flatmate and I came to call the ‘omnipotent pretentious space twat’ – arbitrary and ill-defined godlike powers, lack of any characterisation other than their perceived superiority, daft robes. 

They also fulfil the very Steven Moffat trope of villains defined less by their own personalities and more by their effect on people; they’re clearly here to allow the episode to tell a story about humanity, but their own unbelievability, in contrast to Series 9’s very well characterised Zygons, weakens that story. Just look at the plan from their perspective – why do they need consent, exactly, and why does it need to be motivated by love? Why does Bill’s motivation for giving consent mean that the whole human race is going to be fine with them? It makes no sense at all. 

That human story they allow is actually an interesting one, or at least a very relevant one. It’s about why people would choose to be ruled by those who promise to keep them safe – those who promise strong and stable leadership, maybe – without really looking into how that’s going to play out for themselves, or without fully considering how else society’s problems could be solved through less easy but ultimately better options. It’s a bold theme to explore in Saturday night sci-fi, and the script has some interesting things to say on the issue. It offers up more questions than it does answers, being more of an exploratory political piece than something like Thin Ice’s strongly polemical ‘racism is bad’ message.

But again, it doesn’t nail it. The military leaders lack characterisation, and so plot developments feel like going through the motions rather than human-led drama. That guy failed the test because of fear, these guys because of strategy – that’s those ticked off the list of points to make. We never get a real sense of the Secretary General's fear, or of what protecting the Earth at any cost means to the other leaders. Even the moment when they supposedly solve world peace feels limp because there never seemed to be much conflict between them. And is it me, or is the actor playing the American guy really quite bland?

Then there’s the other story – the Doctor’s blindness. It’s still a nice twist to have him struggling with this disability, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until the final sequence. And then, when he finally reveals his secret to Bill, it’s almost immediately fixed. Because the Monks can do that, apparently, despite needing to hack UNIT’s CCTV to even see into the lab. There’s that magical elixir of sight I predicted, then. It’s such a cop-out, and there was so much more potential in this blindness storyline that’s gone wasted. Perhaps the episode would have worked better had the Doctor revealed the blindness to Bill earlier on in Turmezistan – it would have avoided the repetition of the secrecy beats, and would have given Bill, underused again in this episode, some actual drama in how she reacts to this, making her final decision more relevant to what came before it.

...huh. As I’ve written this review, I’ve realised I’m being very negative, perhaps unfairly so. I admire what this episode tries to do. It has some really bold ideas, and is a real change in approach for this kind of story. But in too many ways, it just isn’t quite there. Still, particularly when it comes to Doctor Who, ambitious failures can be more fun than boring successes.

The next episode is the third part of this Monk trilogy, and looks a lot like Last of the Time Lords...

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Knock Knock
  7. Smile