doctor who 3.9: human nature

29 05 2007

Finally, series 3 hits it’s stride.

Too much of the third season has disappointingly chosen to rehash elements of past episodes, so it’s strange that the only story to be explicitly based on a previously published story (the New Adventure novel of the same name, published in 1995) is the freshest episode yet, crackling with innovation and energy.

Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson), fresh from being the best thing about Magicians, is on sparkling form here. Tennant is great as the perpetually bemused John Smith, perfectly realising a new facet to the Doctor’s character.

It’s a good episode for Freema Agyeman too, as Martha finally stops being annoying and starts being feisty, smart and spiky. Quite why she has to be a housemaid isn’t entirely clear – couldn’t she just sit things out in theTARDIS? – but it does provide a social commentary subtext.

The standout performance is Harry Lloyd, whose wonky-faced posh possession is exquisitely creepy. An Old Etonian himself (and descendant of Charles Dickens), his stare burns a hole in the screen with every appearance. Coupled with the scary zombie-like scarecrows, I can imagine that this episode will imprint on the younger generation, to be cited with a shiver on I Love 2007 in 20 years time as ‘the one with the scarecrows’.

Human Nature is refreshingly short on badly-designed-spaceship moments – except the big question of why isn’t Martha looking after the watch if it’s so important? And why doesn’t it have a lock on it? But we’ll ignore that as a trade-off for the wealth of old series continuity references. I especially liked the sketches of the previous incarnations, and the mention of ‘Sydney and Verity’ as Smith’s parents (named for Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the 60s ‘parents’ of the show).

It’s interesting that the series has continued it’s collection of unconventional families with the villains of the piece, the Family of Blood. Like the Raxacoricofallapatorian family Slitheen, these villains are related as well as hunting together. Here’s hoping the next episode resolves the question of how they found Martha and Smith in the first place.

The flashbacks (and forwards) give the whole thing an epic quality that I can’t wait to see resolved. Cannot wait. Cracking stuff.


doctor who 3.8: 42

29 05 2007

Ironic that, just as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine echoes elements of the Doctor Who episode The End of The World, 42 turns up and is basically Sunshine with the brakes off.

If Sunshine wasn’t so fresh in my mind, I might have enjoyed 42 a bit more. Sure, it’s solid and entertaining, and holds its own in visual and effects terms with the much larger-budgeted film, but the breathless real-time gimmick doesn’t really nail you to the floor. The main problem yet again is that it’s just too reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen before: not just Sunshine, but last season’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Both those episodes generated more tension with slow-burning atmospherics than 42 does with all its sweaty histrionics.

As such, the highlight is the slowest, stillest moment, as Martha falls into the sun while the Doctor looks on despairingly. It’s a moment of real anguish that kicks proceedings into top gear.

The following scenes with the Doctor possessed have potential – the Doctor as the villain of the piece! – but instead the momentum dissipates as the Doctor flops about looking ill. A missed opportunity.

I quite liked the pub quiz gags, but it didn’t seem the most logical security measure… Just another example of bad spaceship design, which to me encompasses anything that has no basis in logic and exists solely to create drama. Like a handle… on the outside of the spaceship. On the outside… andjuuust out of arm’s reach. What idiot designed this spaceship?

Churlish to question such things, perhaps. But it’s all tied up in the suspension of disbelief. I’ll buy time travelling aliens, hospitals on the moon, and zombie scarecrows, as long as the door handles are in places that make sense. It’s the trivialities of everyday life that sell the big fictions.

Environmental message aside, it’s all on the surface. None of the subtexts and ambiguity that made The Satan Pit so interesting. Passably entertaining, but hardly the answer to life, the universe and everything.

this is england (shane meadows 2007)

29 05 2007

Thomas Turgoose
Stephen Graham
Jo Hartley

Best film of the year. Yeah, I said it.

magicians (andrew o’connor 2007)

25 05 2007

David Mitchell
Robert Webb
Jessica Stevenson

Playing like Peep Show crossed with the closing credits of Phoenix Nights, Magicians is charming rather than hilarious, with plenty of chuckles but not much substantial going on.

This is the third film in the last year to tell the story of two magicians driven to rivalry by the death of a woman they both loved. The Prestige is David Copperfield – dazzling but empty. The Illusionist is David Blaine – po-faced and sticks around too long.

Magicians is The Great Suprendo.

It doesn’t transcend Peep Show the way Shaun of The Dead was so much more than a feature-length episode of Spaced. Where Shaun took familiar personas and developed them into new and interesting characters, Magicians sticks to the Peep Show double act dynamic too closely. Mitchell’s Harry Kane is good-hearted but awkward and uptight, while Webb’s Carl is cool but feckless. Both are, well, idiots.

Because of this familiarity with the Apple/PC geeky loser personas, we are never led to believe that the guillotining of Harry’s wife is anything more than a tragic accident, the inevitable cringeworthy punchline to any hint of success the pair may have. Things just go wrong because they’re such losers.

More interesting are the tiny moments when we get a hint that maybe it wasn’t an accident, and maybe there’s a darker undercurrent to Harry’s put-upon desperation. But these moments are never explored, which is a shame as they could have sailed Magicians into blacker comedy waters than Peep Show ever navigated.

The same is true of Peter Capaldi. He essays a similarly bristling character to Malcolm Tucker, the scabrous spin doctor he plays in The Thick Of It. So when he does spew invective ticks of foul-mouthed exasperation, they’re funny, but a bit lame compared to what we’ve heard him unleash on the small-screen.

In this regard Jessica Stevenson comes off best. An early dance scene seems to suggest that Linda will be another self-deluded ditzy frump. But dancing aside, Linda is actually the most together person here. The dance – a stockroom-gestated all-too-literal interpretation of Electric Six’s Gay Bar – seems shoehorned in for David Brent-style laughs, except it isn’t that funny. But neither was Brent’s dance either. Instead, Stevenson gets to be the voice of normality, and sexy with it.

There’s space too for small-screen where-do-I-know-them-froms Darren ‘the bloke in Smack The Pony’ Boyd, Alex ‘Holby City’ MacQueen and Steve ‘Phoenix Nights’ Edge to flesh out their grotesque characters, despite the script cheating them of that killer line.

In fact nobody gets any killer lines. Which is a problem for a comedy. The Memorable Quotes section of MagiciansIMDb entry is empty. I can’t think of any laugh-out-loud quotes either.

Ultimately, Magicians just can’t shake the spectre of its POV predecessor. There isn’t a moment in the film that couldn’t have been shoehorned down into a zippy half-hour episode of Peep Show. The film also doesn’t conjure a sense of place in its Jersey setting the way that, say, Funny Bones is so anchored in Blackpool, but that’s a quibble. And there isn’t enough magic!

I don’t want to say bad things about Mitchell and Webb, or Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, but Magicians, while kind of entertaining, just doesn’t pull the rabbit out of the hat.

2000ad: prog 1535

21 05 2007

After a slightly nondescript Simon Davis cover, prog 1535 opens with the climax of the Judge Dredd: Origins mega-epic. This last installment is a fairly breathless sprint to the end, and having not read the preceding twenty-three episodes I can’t help feeling that this part zips by too fast. There’s some nice details though: I like the arc followed by Logan, who started the story with a bad hip and ends up by this point with just about everything else wrong with him, the payoff being that his hip is fixed along with the rest of his wounds when he returns to Mega-City One. I really like the evocative future-medical concept of a ‘paper lung’ (or do they already have those?).

There’s a lovely gnomic Dredd moment on page two. Joe asks the newly-arrived rescue party how they found him, and gets the reply: “Just followed the smoke.”

I have to admit at this point a certain blasphemy, a dirty little secret I have borne with secret shame for most of my life: I don’t really like CarlosEzquerra’s style. While I acknowledge his incredible body of work, his important place in comics lore, I just don’t like his lumpy shapes or scratchy hatching. And his women look awful (what is going on with Hershey’s fringe?). But his Judges in full gear do look wicked.

Heresy I know. Don’t mention Ron Smith or Mike McMahon either.

If the first few pages race by, the last three screech to a halt with the shattering meeting between Dredd and Fargo on the old man’s long-deferred deathbed. There’s a double revelation of Fargo’s regret, and Dredd’s concealing Fargo’s dying wish. It’s a Pyrrhic victory to say the least, and definitely the sort of moral and narrative ambiguity I want to see in action comics. The last three panels are a moment of stillness but possess a real punch that resonates forward and backwards through theDredd mythos: Was it all a lie? And what will Dredd do now?

More hard-hitting ambiguity in the climax to Savage: Double Yellow. Charlie Adlard’s wetter, high contrast black and white art has a real feel of solidity. It’s richly contemporary stuff from Pat Mills, with insurgent groups threatening to behead hostages, popular demos turning into armed revolution, and talk of ‘blood for oil’. Only the oil comes from the North Sea, not the Middle East. The oppressive armed forces are overthrown in the West End, not the West Bank. There’s a message of hope in the realisation by fanatical revolutionaries that popular uprising (“This really is ‘our finest hour’!”) is better than extremism (“For an eye – both eyes. For a tooth – the whole jaw.”) Then there’s the great little moment of unreconstructed ‘ard man Bill Savage delivering a message to the US president that “nobody like armed missionaries.”

After all that breathless social comment Detonator X seems a bit vanilla. Alright, there’s an environmental message in there, but aren’t warsuits vs intradimensional monster invaders a bit old hat? I haven’t read the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic regularly for years, and even I’ve seen it before. Yowell’s art is a bit insubstantial and the colours are too pastel. And the warsuits look lame. We’ll see if it gets better.

You can, of course, always rely on Sinister Dexter. Not sure about Finnigan’s new look (I liked it when he looked like Ginger Wildheart) but I do like Simon Coleby’s chunky, dynamic art that keeps things ticking even when not much is actually happening. I actually prefer this kind of flowing, subtle narrative development to the choppier, tie-things-up-quick bang-bang-bang-the-end of the Savage andDredd stories.

The Nikolai Dante strip is a bit like that. Another final part, it’s not much more than a scrap with a werewolf, and as such doesn’t really have a huge amount of storyline to draw together, so you can forgive the simplicity. There is a touch of depth in the Christian iconography and John Woo-esque church setting which could have been teased out more. Still, I love John Burns’ work, especially his mad-eyed loonie priest here, but I wish he’d put borders on his panels. The speech bubbles are too incongruous without similarly weighted frame borders.

I zipped through this prog faster than I wanted to. But I’ll be coming back to the last three frames of Origins again, I suspect.

c30 c60 c90 gone

11 05 2007

I am sick of hearing about the death of the audio cassette. Silly season is obviously on the way because the London and national radio stations are jumping all over the news that Currys is to stop selling blank tapes and stereos with tape decks.

First off: so what? Woolies stopped ages ago but their PR officer obviously didn’t have the nous to tell the press – or maybe they did, but there was some of that, wotchercallit, oh yeah, actual news to report that day.

Secondly, there has not been a blanket ban on the use of tape cassettes punishable by death. Just one shop has stopped selling them. It does not mean that you will have to take all your tapes to the car boot sale. Anyone listening to tapes will have their lives impacted by this in, hmmm, preciselyno way at all.

And third: Currys? Hmmm, not sure… I know, I’ll go over the high street to Dixons and see if I can get better value there. Consumer choice in action. Except oh no, sorry, ‘fraid not, they’ve been the same fucking company since 1984 (oh the irony) hence the Dixons rebrand to one year ago.

So actually, when I think about it, that is the essence of postmodern consumer choice: it’s all a fucking illusion.

doctor who 3.5: evolution of the daleks

1 05 2007

Booorrrrringgg. Have to admit I only saw half of this episode (ATP!) so my biggest complaint is aimed at whichever time meddler at the BBC keeps shunting the show around. I run home from work and I’m forced to sit through forty minutes of Man Utd poncing about, and this week I break off my weekend of fine live music early and I’ve missed half of it!

Anyway. Wasn’t really moved by Evolution of The Daleks. More repetition (the Doctor climbing the antenna, just like in The Idiot’s Lantern). Tallulah was annoying. It all seemed a bit static: characters lining up to blather at each other, then going somewhere else and lining up again. Like the shootout at the end: a line of Daleks and a line of people just standing there shooting at each other. Not very dynamic.

Plus Martha isn’t showing half the feistiness of Rose, and is in fact turning out to be, well, just dull. And hey, this week her family’s in it! Jeeeeeesssuuus.

I did like the Dalek Tommy guns: touch of class. And I really like Dalek Sec now, but he was wasted here just standing around for a while and then crawling around for a while and then dead. If he and the Doctor had gone on the run together that would have been more interesting, maybe encountering some actual humans. He should have found himself in Hooverville, getting a taste of what it was like to be different, marginalised. If he’d had a greater awakening of that sort, fed by the strength and dignity of Solomon as a resident of Hooverville and as an African-American, then his extermination would have had much greater pathos and poignancy.

Still, at least this episode wasn’t afraid to develop the mythos of the Daleks. Straight invasion stories are old hat these days, so it’s nice to see continuation of the internecine conflict along genetic/purity lines first suggested in Remembrance of the Daleks. Remembrance frankly blew my mind sideways as a kid, and still holds as one of the pieces of fiction that inspires me in the way it twists and reinvigorates an established genre or narrative (alongside The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Grant Morrison ’s Dare, all of which freaked me the hell out then and stagger me to this day).

Hey, maybe the theatre was an underlying metaphor for the performance of social roles: in the climax, the Daleks, on stage, perform their purity routine but are overwhelmed by those who revel in difference and diversity. How’s that for Sec’s in the City?