strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
Start of term = busy = also tired when not actually busy = still haven't finished writing up the Starburst Film Festival I attended in late August. Friday and Saturday are covered at the links; the schedule for Sunday is here, with what I did below.

Sunday schedule.jpg

Space-flight and puzzle games )

Interview with Toby Whithouse )

23. Aliens (1986), dir. James Cameron )

Red Dwarf series XI: exclusive first episode preview and interview with Doug Naylor )

Finally, it was time to depart, sad that it had already all come to an end, but already making plans for future fantastic film-related adventures as we bid one another goodbye. I'll certainly come back for another Starburst festival if they do it again next year.

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strange_complex: (Doctor Who anniversary)
Still with the muscle aches and general tiredness. I do think it is starting to get better at base level now, but between the approach of term and me wanting to go off a lot at weekends and Do Things, I suspect I am also cancelling out a lot of the gains. So this morning, the first time for three weeks that I haven't had to set an alarm, my eyes gradually opened at around 11:30am. Which is fine, because my whole plan for today was to Do Nothing, but I clearly need a few more of those.

Anyway, by around 13:30 I had eaten some breakfast and read the internet, and was looking for something nothingy to do, when I came across the Eruditorum Press Doctor Who Poll. Perfect! I have now voted, and since I started out by writing up a short-list of stories and ranking them, I have a record of what I chose which I may as well preserve here. Votes in different categories, including brief recaps of the poll rules, under the cuts.

Best televised Doctor Who story - five points )

Nineteen other top televised Doctor Who stories - one point each )

Twenty also-rans - nul points )

Top five non-televised stories )

Five hate votes )

Best People etc. )

Polls close at the end of September, and the results will be on the Eruditorum blog over the course of October, apparently.

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

2016-08-26 20.27.12.jpg


22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I didn't actually plan it this way. Before I started watching the first of these two films, Dawn Addams was nothing more than a half-known name to me, and I also didn't even realise she was in the second until her character appeared on the screen. But that's how it worked out, and having noticed her properly across these two films I'm pretty sure I will remember her again in the future, as she has a lot of screen presence and is great to watch. Checking out her filmography now, I realise that I actually saw her earlier this year in Amicus' The Vault of Horror too (though I didn't comment on her character in that review), and I must have seen her in The Robe when I watched it many years ago, though her role there is minor.

28. The Treasure of San Teresa (aka Hot Money Girl, 1959), dir. Alvin Rakoff

Anyway, the first is a black and white adventure film, involving an everyman hero, a lawyer and a fallen woman (Dawn Addams) who together attempt to recover a box-full of jewels belonging to the woman's father which had been placed for safe-keeping by the hero in a nunnery in Czechoslovakia during the war. There is various double-crossing and sadness for lost opportunities, and even sometimes a sense of aspiring to the same niche as The Third Man - but in practice, it isn't really on that level.

Christopher Lee is not part of the core trio, and indeed doesn't appear until at least half-way through the film. He had made his name in Dracula by this time, but it feels more like a pre-Dracula film for him, in that he's a reasonably important member of the supporting cast, but not even really the main antagonist, let alone the star. It is a typically villainous role, though. He plays a gangster posing as a cop who appears after our gang have recovered the jewels and tries to appropriate them. This involves wearing a leather trench-coat, pointing guns at people, being sharp and authoritative and of course eventually dying (in this case as a result of being strangled by the everyman hero). All things which he is very good at, and does perfectly.

I don't think I otherwise have a huge amount to say about this one, but I did notice that the direction was very accomplished, with a lot of really eye-catching shots from interesting angles which made the most of various locations and sets. And when I looked up the director, Alvin Rakoff, I discovered that there is a Whovian connection there, as he was married to Jacqueline Hill, well known to all Doctor Who fans as the lady who played much-beloved original companion Barbara Wright. I'm very glad to know she had such a worthy husband!

29. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), dir. Terence Fisher

The second was a loose Hammer adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, it isn't that great. I think I can see what the central conceit was meant to be - namely that while Dr. Jekyll is busy trying to separate out the two halves of his personality through science, his apparently perfect Victorian wife (played by Dawn Addams) is already leading a double life as she conducts a secret affair with his best friend (played by Christopher Lee). But the whole effort is badly hampered by the casting of Paul Massie in the title role, who somehow manages to be utterly dull as both Jekyll and Hyde (quite a feat!). All I could really think while watching him was how infinitely much better Peter Cushing would have been in the role - indeed, some of his lines as the obsessively-scientific Jekyll could have come right out of the mouth of Cushing's Frankenstein. In spite of that, though, the script as a whole also seemed rather clunky to me. It's by someone called Wolf Mankowitz whom I've never heard of before, and who wasn't a regular Hammer writer - though apparently he had written a novel and a successful West End musical before this film.

Lee's character this time is much more prominent (basically 2nd male lead), but not a villain - rather, a louche gentleman playboy who has an unfortunate gambling habit and relies on Jekyll to service his debts, even while enthusiastically introducing Hyde to the greatest depths of decadence London has to offer. He gets some rather sweet kissing scenes with Dawn Addams, and did 'leglessly drunk but still attempting to be charming and authoritative' almost rather too well for my taste - I saw too much of that behaviour in real life in my late teens / early 20s, and don't really want to be reminded of it, especially through the person of Christopher Lee. He also - of course! - dies horribly, this time at the fangs of a snake, though we only see the aftermath, not the death itself, presumably at the behest of the censors.

This film is also notable for featuring Janina Faye, aka Tania from Dracula, in a brief non-speaking role, and Oliver Reed as a night-club patron who takes exception to Hyde leading on one of the establishment's ladies of negotiable affection and then reneging on the deal. So, worth a watch if you're a Hammer fan and want to trace the evolving fortunes of the studio and its stars. But the contribution which this one makes to the story really is to show that not all of their Gothic horror adaptations were going to be hits.

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strange_complex: (Barbara Susan planning)
OK, so here's me trying to catch up with Doctor Who reviews. I'll aim to keep them short(ish... for me), as there are so many to catch up with. And obviously, I'm now doing this with hindsight, so I'm unlikely to be saying the same things here that I would have said if I'd written about each episode at the time. But I do have the notes I wrote while watching each episode to hand, so can see what I thought about them on initial viewing.

Between its Viking setting and its explicit concern with the consequences of time travellers changing history, the first half of this story reminded me strongly of The Time Meddler, and was clearly supposed to. My own notes for the latter remind me that it was the first Doctor Who story to articulate the idea that time travellers shouldn't change history, as opposed to the idea that they can't (which is what we get the very first time the issue comes up at all in The Aztecs). As the Doctor says to the Monk, "You know as well as I do the golden rule about space and time travelling - never, never interfere with the course of history" - though it's noticeable that this rule has only ever applied to Earth history, as known to a contemporary TV audience. The Doctor can clearly change history on other planets as much as he likes!

This story is all about the Doctor breaking that 'golden rule' and creating a tidal wave where he should leave only ripples. At the time of broadcast, this was clearly signalled as a pivotal moment both emotionally for the Twelfth Doctor, and structurally for New Who as a whole - particularly through the explicit flashbacks to his decision to save the Caecilius family in Fires of Pompeii and his self-identification as someone who 'saves people'. And now in retrospect we can see how much it foreshadowed, too. The first half of this story put a lot of emphasis on how in saving Ashildr by using Mire technology, the Doctor had created a hybrid of the two races, and the second had Ashildr referring to herself simply as 'Me'. To join those dots, the closing words of Heaven Sent:
You got the prophecy wrong. The Hybrid is not half-Dalek. Nothing is half-Dalek; the Daleks would never allow that. The Hybrid destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins is me.
Of the two halves, I preferred the second. That's not to say I disliked the first, and especially its core idea of the Mire being defeated with the power of imagination, stories and spin rather than brute force. But the second half appealed more aesthetically, offering a lot that was Hammeresque or generally Gothic, while its explorations of the consequences of immortality were suitably emotionally weighty. I also liked many of the smaller touches in the second episode - like comedy highwayman Sam Swift, Ashildr / Me trying out life as a man for a while (very Orlando), or her use of journals to work around the problem of a limited memory but an unlimited life-span. I'm only 39, but I am beginning to know the feeling!

Meanwhile, I found myself wondering whether both halves of this two-parter could actually have been handled as pure historicals, rather than pseudo-historicals. This takes us back once again to The Time Meddler, which was the first Doctor Who story to insert an alien threat (the Meddling Monk himself) into a story set in Earth's past. Both halves of this story qualify likewise, thanks to the presence of fake-Odin and the Mire in the first and Leandro and his people in the second - but could much the same plots otherwise have unfolded without them? I'm pretty sure it could have done for the first episode, with Ashildr's village simply facing down a more powerful neighbouring warrior tribe instead of the Mire and making them look like fools to be laughed at around camp-fires up and down the land. The only adjustment needed would be to establish that the Doctor carries medical chips of some kind around on the TARDIS which could take the place of the Mire chip - but that wouldn't be hard.

It would perhaps be slightly harder for the second episode, as it's important to Ashildr / Me's emotional arc in this story that she is trying to find a way off the Earth to more exciting prospects beyond - this is what makes her collaborate with Leandro, kill Sam Swift and then realise that she has done something awful in a flawed cause. But I should think a clever story-teller (not me!) could still come up with some way to put her through that arc which didn't involve aliens. Perhaps she could instead have ended up aspiring to some kind of apocalyptic destruction-of-Earth plan, in the hope that it would put paid to her own unwanted and unending life along with everyone else's, but realised once her plan began to unfold that she didn't want this after all, and needed the Doctor's help to stop it? (Though that may be too utterly dark for Doctor Who, even now - defeating an alien-of-the-week is always a much safer bet for a feel-good story.)

But my point is that I felt that we were dancing on the edge of not really needing the alien element in either of these episodes - like it was there because that is simply the accepted Doctor Who format, rather than because it was actually necessary to what the stories were trying to do. Certainly, these weren't celebrity historicals - indeed, they stayed well clear altogether of touching on any specific Earth history as it might be known to a contemporary TV audience, which as I've suggested above is the real 'golden rule' of time travel. The matter of whether or not a particular Viking village was defended successfully against attack, or whether someone called Sam Swift was or wasn't hanged at Tyburn, wouldn't break our suspension of disbelief about these stories (and thus the whole of Doctor Who) taking place within our history, and our universe as we know it. And if we've got to the point where Doctor Who is producing historical stories that barely need aliens in them to work, then could it be possible that some time soon we'll take the next step onwards from there, and get to the stage of having a historical story which doesn't have aliens in it at all? That's something I have to say I'd really like to see after all these years without one.

Finally, I don't really watch Game of Thrones properly, though I've seen enough of it to have been able to recognise some of its musical cues in The Woman Who Lived in particular. But I enjoyed Maisie Williams' performance last year as the central character in the Channel 4 film Cyberbully, and was impressed again across these two stories - and of course Face the Raven, which I've also seen since. She has already appeared in the 'next time' trailer for Hell Bent, and I'm glad that we will be seeing both her and her character again.

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strange_complex: (Jessica rebel)
Right, I'm ready to write about Doctor Who now. So, basically I liked this episode. I liked all these things ) Fundamentally, I feel we've now had four strong episodes in a row - which hasn't happened for a long time.

But!

But.

There is a trope in SF and horror stories which has annoyed me for a long time, which involves a woman being told to stay somewhere safe by the male characters, her refusing to follow their advice and going off on her own into danger anyway, and then her getting into danger and / or compromising the success of whatever mission they are all involved in as a result. I've complained about it multiple times in reviews of such stories, for example here in relation to Isobel in the Second Doctor story, The Invasion (1968) or here in relation to Jessica Van Helsing in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and it's now occurred to me to check whether or not it has an entry in TV Tropes. Sure enough, it seems to be a sub-type of Stay In The Kitchen, which in its simplest sense just involves men telling women to stay in the (metaphorical) kitchen, but here is extended to 'prove' that such advice should be heeded in the first place by acting out the negative consequences of women ignoring such advice.

The TV Tropes article claims that "Nowadays, when this trope is invoked, this character [i.e. the man telling the woman to Stay In The Kitchen] is unlikely to be treated sympathetically for his opinion." But there seems to be no 'nowadays' about it in Doctor Who. What we saw in this episode was exactly in line with the examples I've mentioned above )

Meanwhile, there were two other crappy discriminatory tropes in play here, despite the obvious current efforts of the production team to acknowledge and represent diversity through their casting ) What's going on, Doctor Who? And when can it stop?

So I feel like this is hardly a 'review' of the story at all, and just a massive rant about diversity and -isms in TV shows instead. Let me go back to the beginning - the story, as a story, was good. I liked it - I really did. Its narrative arc, its characterisation and its ideas were all good. But having tropish fails at work in the same story throws me off what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable experience, and ends up making all the actually-good drama fade away into the background. I'd really like to not have to keep being distracted from a show and character I otherwise love by all this.

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strange_complex: (Strange complex)
Well, I think we can safely say that Moffat's decision to go heavy on the two-parters this season was a good one. Oh, mid-story cliff-hangers, how we have missed you! Plus the obvious advantages of being able to develop both characters and complex mysteries over a more generous span of time. Not all two-parters are perfect, of course. Mid-season ones in particular have tended to be a noticeable New Who weakness, in fact. But perhaps that was only ever because they were in the middle of the season, rather than because they happened to be two-parters, all along?

I'm also starting to think I like the pitch of the Doctor's character a little bit better this season. He seems less arrogant / grouchy for the sake of it, more at ease with himself and more natural in his exuberance when he shows it. Maybe it is partly to do with how his relationship with Clara has developed? Now that she is stronger too, and we've got past the whole lying-to-each-other theme from last season, he too seems to have become more enjoyable to have around the screen. The business with the cue-cards, with the Doctor needing to make a thing about even a whole dimension (inside the TARDIS) only having room for one him, and Clara being all 'yeah, whatever' in response, was all just lovely for being obviously a performance on both sides, rather than fragile and tense for being a little to close to the truth as it tended to be last season.

It helps, too that I absolutely love cabin-fever stories like this one - and even better when they acknowledge what they are, as this one did when Cass told the Doctor he could "stay and do the whole cabin-in-the-woods thing" if he wanted. In fact, I think this story was actively nodding at some of Doctor Who's very own cabin-fever stories of the past )

Other strong moments which I haven't had occasion to mention yet include spoilers )

Diversity issues also involve spoilers )

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strange_complex: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! A new season of Doctor Who, then! I missed the first episode because I was in Bournemouth for Lib Dem Conference, and although I did catch up with it last Saturday (effectively watching both as a two-parter that evening), I haven't had time to write about them until now because I wanted to get conference written up first, and have then had a busy week.

I really liked these two episodes, though. I went into them with fairly low expectations, after a week of reading various comments around the internet to the effect that The Magician's Apprentice was not that great. So it may be that the low expectations in themselves helped me enjoy both episodes more than I might have done otherwise. But certainly, watched together, they seemed pretty strong to me.

The basic set-up and central drama, revisiting the Genesis of the Daleks dilemma by giving the Doctor the power of life and death over a being whom he knows will kill billions but right now is powerless and innocent, is sound enough and professionally handled. OK, you could argue it's a lazy re-hash of Doctor Who's back catalogue, but I liked the structuring principle which meant that we kept getting new takes on how the Doctor had actually responded to that dilemma right up until the end of the two-parter, even while the consequences (and causes) of his actions played out in another time-line.

The real star of this story for me, though, was Missy. Looking back at my reviews for the last two stories of last season, I didn't have terribly much to say about her beyond the gender-switch thing, but this story really let her blossom into a fully-developed character, so that she has officially become loads of fun. In particular, she is far more interesting here than she ever was in the last series for the ambiguity around whether she is temporarily collaborating with the Doctor and Clara purely out of expedience, or out of some kind of respect for her history with the Doctor. This really broadened her out from a fairly one-dimensional villain into a fully-fledged incarnation of the Master, whose relationship with the Doctor always was shot through with the ongoing reverberations of their childhood friendship / rivalry. As others have said, Michelle Gomez's performance very much rose to meet the new opportunities, replete with echoes of Masters past along the way. So I am now really looking forward to seeing more of her (and her gorgeous purple Victorian outfit!) in the future, and fervently hope that she will displace River Bloody Song as Doctor Who's resident mysterious recurring female character. I'm also looking forward to meeting her daughter (or son by this time, of course) - though in grand Whovian tradition, it could literally be decades before we do.

Missy wouldn't have worked anything like as well as she did, though, without Clara to play up against - and torment a bit. I thought Clara's side of the dynamic worked particularly well during their first encounter, when she was able to pin Missy down to business and stop her from randomly killing people because she could by insisting that Missy 'make [her] believe' that there really was something serious going on relating to the Doctor. That is the same self-assured, experienced Clara that she had grown into by the end of last season, and whom I like very much.

Clara's moments trapped within the Dalek shell, unable to communicate her human emotions and even frighteningly unable to convey her identity to the Doctor were excellent too. They were stronger for recalling the life of Oswin Oswald her fellow-inmates in Asylum of the Daleks, but would have been good anyway for giving us a new level of insight into the horror of what Daleks are - not to mention an explanation for why they shout 'exterminate' all the time! Fine achievements after over fifty years of them.

Then there were the scenes between the Doctor and Davros - also good, and for much the same reasons of ambiguity as those involving Missy. Probably Davros is just Evil, and tricked the Doctor into coming to Skaro so that he could harness his regeneration energy. And probably the Doctor, for all his compassion, knew full well that he could turn Davros' plans against him by activating the gloopy dead sewer-Daleks, so was never really in Davros' emotional grasp. But maybe, just maybe, on some level they do actually also like and respect one another. Certainly, it was compelling to see these two ancient enemies recognising each other for the two sides of the same coin they have always been, even if it was only a temporary and somewhat illusory truce.

In general, then, excellent character-led drama, with just enough new twists on the familiar staples of the format to make the story seem new. On the other hand, though, I could really have done without yet another fake companion death, and particularly one used so overtly as a fridging device to push the Doctor into doing (plot-necessary) crazy things in the Dalek city. And while I appreciate the attempt at representing racial diversity by putting black faces in the crowd in AD 1138, still in this story a black character (young Davros' companion in the hand-mine field) was the first person to die on screen yet again. Doesn't anybody explicitly double-check scripts for this, given how a) common and b) fucking racist it is?

Finally, two things in this episode reminded me strongly of The Fires of Pompeii - 1) the hand-mines with eyes in the palms of their hands, much like the Soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, and 2) the Doctor and Clara standing on a hill-side, watching the destruction of the Dalek city. This is what I mean on the latter point - the composition of the shots is never quite the same, but the general feeling is very, very similar:

Pompeii watching destruction.jpg

Dalek city destruction.jpg

So Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and the Doctor in The Witch's Familiar have now stood in similar settings, watching cities being destroyed, while wearing the same face. And since the Doctor said himself at the beginning of last season that he must have been trying to tell himself something by choosing it, I feel like we should pay attention to that.

A few smaller, random thoughts to finish us off:
  • Missy's static planes reminded me really strongly of the various examples of planes caught mid-flight by Google mapping satellites.
  • Davros being referred to as a Dark Lord and being served by an intelligent snake all seemed very Harry Potter.
  • But there was also something very Darth Vader-ish about Davros having once been a round-faced little boy on a desert planet, becoming dependent on a life-support system later in his life, and wanting to see the Doctor with his own eyes in his final moments.
  • Davros' supposedly-dying speech rang some strong Augustan bells for me. Compare and contrast: "Did I do right? Tell me, was I right? I need to know before the end - was I a good man?" and "Did I play my part well in this comedy called life?" It is classic Great Man / Strong Leader stuff - the iconic historical agent with power over millions revealing his inner humanity just before the end.
  • There was a strong set-up for a scene in which the Doctor would have to pull the Dalek wires out of Clara's head, causing her significant pain in the cause of restoring her humanity, but in the end we didn't get it, and skipped straight to her being fine and running along a corridor again. Looks like shoddy editing, I would guess because the story as initially planned turned out to over-run.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
The central conceit of this year's Christmas special was that Doctor Who is just as real, and just as unreal, as Santa Claus. In and of itself, I loved this. It was very meta, perfectly true, and extremely productive for bouncing the two mythic traditions off against one another. As the Doctor himself put it, "D'you know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They're both ridiculous." Maybe it was a slightly repetitive line to take, after having done much the same thing with Robin Hood earlier this year, but that's less of a problem for a Christmas episode than it would be a regular one, given that Christmas episodes tend to pull in a higher proportion of casual viewers who may not have seen Robot of Sherwood anyway. And there were lots of cool moments to enjoy, like the snarky Elves, Santa rearing up on Rudolph like a heroic knight, Nick Frost generally being completely brilliant, and everything about Shona.

But a week, much musing, and some re-watching of key scenes later, and I'm still both puzzled and bothered by the question of whose dream(s) we are seeing at any given stage in the episode, and where the dreams end and 'reality' begins. I realise that worrying about this at all is at odds with that central conceit, according to which it doesn't matter, since everything you're seeing is a story anyway. But the difference between Doctor Who and the mythos of Santa Claus is that Doctor Who is an ongoing, unfolding story presented by an identifiable single source (the BBC TV series), which purports to offer internal consistency of plot and character development. So while Santa Claus can merrily get away with being and doing many different and contradictory things, depending on who is telling him, Doctor Who cannot - or at least not if it wants to keep hold of viewers who care about what has and hasn't actually 'happened' to the characters they are following.

As far as I understand it, the official line on this episode is that everything we see is a dream (often within one or more other dreams), except for the final scene when the Doctor arrives at the large house in which a twenty-something Clara is now sleeping, rescues her from the last dream-crab, and they leave together in the TARDIS. This, at least, is what Moffat himself has stated. The problem is that this scene comes at the end of a whole story in which the Doctor has repeatedly insisted on applying critical thinking to determine the difference between dreaming and reality. "Trust nothing, interrogate everything", he says. But the 'waking-up' scene which Moffat insists is 'real' comes directly after the Doctor has voiced the wish to older-dream-Clara that he had returned to her sooner, so it is a wish-fulfilment scenario for him (the second chance he doesn't normally get, as he says), while the tangerine on the windowsill is a heavy hint that this is meant to have been set up for him by Santa. So everything that has gone before this scene should have trained us to spot the big red flags here, and recognise this as another dream. And yet Moffat is insisting outside the text that it is real, without having given us anything within the text to support that.

This feels lazy to me, as well as like Moffat is trying to have it both ways. Within the story he's saying that the distinction between dreams and reality doesn't matter, yet from outside the story he is still leaning in over our shoulders anyway to tell us which bits are dreams and which 'real'. If that distinction matters to him after all, couldn't he have put the effort into making it clear from within the story itself? Like a lot of Moffat stories in recent years, what this all feels like is that he had a promising idea for what could have been a really great episode, but in practice it didn't go through enough rewriting drafts, so that we have something nearly-brilliant, but which kind of flakes out at the last hurdle. And what really bothers me about all this as a viewer is not so much not knowing which scenes are dreams and which 'real' per se, but the fact that a knock-on consequence of this is that we don't really know whose dreams we are seeing at any given time either, and thus whose subconscious we are being granted an insight into. These are the various different possibilities which could apply, as far as I can figure them out:

1. As per Moffat's Diktat, "Everything except the very last scene is a dream". This means that dream-crabs really exist, since we see the Doctor removing one from Clara's face, and I think we're meant to understand that both were attacked by them (the Doctor in a mysterious cave and Clara in her equally-mysterious house), and were somehow experiencing a shared dream from their different locations. Under this scenario, then, the Doctor and Clara have both effectively told each other that they were lying about Gallifrey and Danny respectively at the end of season 8, because they did this in a dream which both were experiencing. Both have also effectively admitted to each other that they really just want to keep on travelling together. But, as I've said above, there are pretty hefty in-story reasons to view Moffat's Diktat as bollocks and read the last scene as just as much of a dream as everything else. In which case, they possibly haven't shared these emotional breakthroughs after all.

2. Even if we accept Moffat's Diktat, the roles of Shona, Albert, Fiona and Ashley remain unclear. By "the very last scene", does he literally mean the last scene with the Doctor and Clara, or does he extend that to mean each of the other characters' last scenes as well? (Well, except for Albert, who doesn't get one 'cos 'e snuffed it.) I.e. is it a shared crab-induced dream with input from all of them, which began for each character in the various different real-life locations where we see them waking up towards the end of the story? Or not? Do the other characters even exist, or are they dream-inventions of the Doctor's and / or Clara's? After he rescues her from her dream-crab, the Doctor tells older Clara that "The dream crabs must have got to me first and then found you in my memory. The others were collateral damage." But this doesn't really clear things up. Does it mean they were in his memory too? Or hers? And are they present in the dream as the Doctor and / or Clara's subconscious memories, right down to dreaming happy endings for them where they awake back into reality, or are they there as real people who are dreaming too, and really do wake up back in their own realities? When Albert, who put his hand on Shona's knee during the briefing process, is sucked into a security monitor and never seen again, is that Shona's sub-conscious wish-fulfilment? Or Clara's? Or the Doctor's? Or what?

3. Another approach is to ignore Moffat's blethering, and rewind back to the end of the last episode of season 8, where we saw the Doctor nodding off at the console of his TARDIS, before being rudely awakened by a knocking at the TARDIS door and Santa coming in declaring that he couldn't leave things with Clara like that. Everything Last Christmas has shown us should signal this, too, was a dream, and one which we never see the Doctor waking up from throughout the entirety of the Christmas special. Under this scenario, we can actually forget about the dream-crabs, and read the whole of Last Christmas as a perfectly normal non-crab-induced dream of the Doctor's, and his alone, within which he has presumably invented (or subconsciously remembered) a character, Shona, whom he imagined in turn inventing both the crabs and Santa Claus out of a combination of her favourite movies. This is actually what I think is the most plausible reading of everything we've seen on screen - but it does matter quite a lot for ongoing character development purposes whether or not it's correct, because under this theory, the Doctor and Clara haven't admitted to each other that they've lied, or that they want to keep on travelling together. In fact, they still haven't even seen or had any other kind of contact with one another since parting in the café.

I don't really know why I'm worrying or puzzling over any of this, because I am 99.9% sure that at the beginning of the next season, Moffat will carry on regardless. We'll never really know whether any of what we saw 'happened', and thus what the Doctor and Clara have or haven't said or revealed to each other, and it will all just become yet another unresolved plot string to trouble us vaguely in the background even while we're being asked to follow another. But the fact is that the weight of those loose strings is bothering me, and making me more and more jaded about each new one that follows. I wish we could find some way to cut free of them all, so that I can get on with enjoying what are otherwise still a lot of awesome stories and great characters.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I watched this last night with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan after a lovely home-made lasagne and over half a bottle of wine. We really needed the wine. It is a hokey sci-fi movie, in which alien beings land on a British island called Fara, and cause a freak mid-winter heat-wave. Doctor Who fans will instantly understand how carefully thought-through and plausible the plot was, how compelling and nuanced the dialogue and how well-delineated the characters if I say that much of the screen-play was written by Pip and Jane Baker. For those fortunate enough not to be familiar with their work, I will simply explain that it displays none of the characteristics referred to in my previous sentence.

I recently used the broadcast of Death in Heaven as a prompt for some musings on the general phenomenon of the New Who season finale, which regularly sees writers boxing themselves into corners which only dei ex machinis and magic reset buttons can get them out of. Well, the plot of this film made every single New Who season finale ever broadcast look sober, realistic and meticulously thought through. The alien invaders were initially described as beings made entirely of light or heat waves (it was never clear which), who had been attracted to a space observation station based on the island because of the radio signals it had been broadcasting. Later, they turn out to generate heat, to be attracted to light, to have physical bodies after all (rather like huge glowing jellyfish), and to burn up random things - sheep, people, car batteries, gas cannisters. So it's all a bit incoherent, really, and not surprising that neither the characters in the film nor the writers can come up with any convincing plan to defeat them. The characters decide to set fire to some haystacks in the hope of attracting the aliens and then blasting them with dynamite, which utterly fails, while the best the writers could come up with was a freak thunderstorm and downpour, which kills the aliens by essentially dousing them out. That's it - the whole plot.

And that would be fine, if there was a compelling and convincing drama going on around it. But there isn't. The main attempt at human drama is a story-line about a couple whose marriage is threatened when an old fling of the husband's arrives on the island and starts trying to seduce him again. But this literally switches on and off from scene to scene, depending on how the main plot is progressing. So for example the wife eventually catches her husband kissing the old fling, and is supposed to be really upset about it. Then we get a couple of scenes where she appears to have forgotten all about it while some expository dialogue about the aliens goes on. And then she is all upset again. And so on. Also, it didn't help that the husband attempted to win his wife back over by saying that the old fling was a "common slut" who meant nothing to him, and that the wife responded to this by smiling and apparently being mollified. Or that the old fling was made to be the object of a gratuitous attempted-rape scene from a heat-crazed islander at one point, either. No indeed.

So why did we watch it? Oh, you know why. Because it stars both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, that's why! Both were playing very much to type - Peter as a kindly local doctor, and Christopher as an arrogant and irascible (though not actually evil) scientist. They even played out a very typically-them gentlemanly hierarchy through their costumes, too. While most of the male characters in the film responded to the heat-wave by unbuttoning their collars and rolling up their shirt sleeves, Christopher Lee's insisted on wearing a tie throughout, while Peter Cushing's kept his jacket on to the last! Bless. Other familiar faces included Patrick Allen as the cheating husband, who also plays the captain of the king's troops in Captain Clegg, Sydney Bromley as an old tramp killed by the aliens, who likewise appears in Captain Clegg as poor old Tom Ketch (and thus dies within the first few minutes of both films) and Sarah Lawson as the wronged wife, also famous as Paul Eddington's wife in The Devil Rides Out. It's quite the Hammer reunion, then, right down to having Terence Fisher as the director. But I guess Terence Fisher didn't have the same feel for sci-fi as he did for Gothic horror, and that there are limits to what anyone can do to bring a flat script to life.

As a Christopher Lee fan, the film offers a certain value. His character appears very early on, remains prominent throughout, and even makes it almost to the end of the film without dying - though not quite. He wears smart-specs quite a lot, exclaims impatiently at people, and does lots of sciencey stuff. Very nice. Actually, in plot terms he essentially serves as the Doctor Who character in this story, since he comes to the island to figure out what is going on, has to convince everybody else that what he claims is happening is true, and concocts a plan to defeat the aliens at the end (though this is a failure). But if so, he is ruder and grumpier than any real Doctor who has ever appeared on screen, including the Sixth for whom Pip and Jane Baker went on to write. Meanwhile, of course, his character, like all the others, suffers from being pretty two-dimensional, and having a lot of extremely banal dialogue to deliver. So it is worth watching once if you really like him, but is neither one of his best performances, nor his best films.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I'm still hideously busy for all sorts of reasons, including a new one which I may write about tomorrow if I have time and the inclination. But I did at least get to see Death in Heaven on live broadcast, which I think I've only managed for about 50% of this season. That evening on Twitter, I opined that it was "genuinely, and easily, the best New #DoctorWho season finale I have ever seen!" Not, you will carefully note, the best New Who episode ever - just the best finale. It was a hasty judgement, of course, but LJ offers the opportunity for a more considered appraisal against the competition, so let's take that opportunity:

  • The Parting of the Ways (2005) - classic deus ex machina ending in which Rose turns into a goddess and magics everything better. Didn't seem too bad at the time, because it was all new, but in hindsight it was the start of a very regrettable trend.
  • Doomsday (2006) - actually, I quite like this one. A bit hand-wavey, and the business of Rose and the Doctor being trapped in parallel universes gets mawkish, but it follows its own internal logic and delivers some thrilling moments.
  • Last of the Time Lords (2007) - a real let-down after *that* moment in Utopia. The solution to the problem essentially turns out to be that everyone on the entire planet really loves Doctor Who, which is pretty narcissistic, while the magic re-set button which then causes them to forget everything which happened felt like a cheat.
  • Journey's End (2008) - even if I could forgive the fact that new Who's best companion to date had her entire memory and everything which she had gained from travelling with the Doctor wiped arbitrarily, the awful spectacle of 10.5 and Rose kissing on the beach would utterly kill this episode for me. As far as I'm concerned, it never happened.
  • The End of Time (2010; I suppose this counts, since it concluded the 2009-10 specials) - yeah, not bad actually. Ten's extended death scene is a little self-indulgent, but the music is amazing and after 5 years both the characters and the production team of the RTD era had earnt it.
  • The Big Bang (2010) - altogether too timey-wimey and cheaty. Took RTD's magic reset buttons, dei ex machinis and Total Bollocks Overdrive and doubled all of them. I still don't understand how or why the TARDIS exploded, or whether that is going to matter again at any point in the future, either.
  • The Wedding of River Song (2011) - the time folding in on itself and parallel universe bits of this were quite fun in a cracky sort of way, but I've never liked River, and liked seeing her reduced to endangering the universe because she is so 'in love' with the Doctor even less.
  • The Name of the Doctor (2013) - a bit different, as its real job was to set things up for the anniversary special, so it didn't need to offer definitive plot resolutions in the same way as most of the others. As such, not too bad, especially for the presence of the Paternoster gang, although Clara hadn't yet been well enough developed for her decision to jump into the Doctor's timeline and become the Impossible Girl to really convince.

Conclusion - it turns out there are two previous season finales which I like better than I had remembered: Doomsday and The End of Time. But on the whole I'm right in my basic view that they collectively tend to stretch credibility too far with their cheaty magic reset buttons and dei ex machinis, and regularly end up trampling all over female agency to boot.

By contrast, the resolution to Death in Heaven really did feel quite plausible )

Meanwhile, we got some fantastic moments )

Of course, spoilery sad stuff was sad )

Meanwhile, Clara was great )

Finally, the previous episode left me confused on a few points )

On the whole, then, I am definitely happy to name this season finale amongst my top three, but would need to re-watch Doomsday and The End of Time to decide which is actually the best overall. In the meantime, though - OMG IT'S SANTA!!!!

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
Cor, is it really season finale two-parter time already? This season has gone fast! And although there have been two episodes which I found weak (Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night), on the whole it has been pretty strong - above all for the key themes and motifs developed and explored from different angles from episode to episode.

This episode certainly felt like a logical culmination to the season as a whole, but it also served up plenty of surprises, as well as some interesting plot ideas and some proper emotional weight )

For all that the fact of Missy collecting dead people had been well established throughout the season, I must say I never quite expected Doctor Who to do a katabasis story )

On Missy herself, woo-hoo to the spoilery goodness )

Smaller points )

Finally, obviously I knew the title of this episode from an early stage in the season, which is partly what has encouraged me to keep running Water-and-Breathing Watch )

OK, that's it - I am caught up, and am now off to bed. Looking forward to the final instalment tomorrow!

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strange_complex: (Adric Ugg boots)
Behind as ever, I've yet to even watch Dark Water yet, though I am determined to do so before the actual finale on Saturday. Stage one in that process is writing up In the Forest of the Night first.

Short version - I can see what this story was trying to do, but I just don't think it was very good. Things started out quite promisingly, with the title, Maebh Arden's name and her Red Riding Hood cloak-coat all immediately recalling Robot of Sherwood's meta-referential engagement with fairy-tales, and promising to take the theme further. Maebh herself was good value, too - I liked the way she wasn't fazed at all by the way the TARDIS was bigger on the inside, simply assuming that it was meant to be that way, and figured out for herself that the trees must be able to communicate with one another in order for them all to grow at once. London's metamorphosis into a forest was pretty to look at, and this sort of transformation of the familiar into the unfamiliar is very much what fantasy is all about. Motifs like Nelson falling off his column and wild beasts coming out of the bushes tap satisfyingly into our ever-present subconscious fear that civilisation may not be as robust and as proof against the ravages of nature as we think.

But I'm afraid I have to sit alongside the many, many people who found the 'explanation' for it all (faerie beings making sentient trees grow up overnight and disappear just as quickly in order to save the Earth from a solar flare) unsatisfying. Indeed, even before that was revealed, I was having trouble suspending disbelief about some of the details. OK, there were occasional mentions or even glimpses of government clean-up teams attempting to burn down trees, or parents looking for their children, but for the most part forest-London was utterly deserted, which just doesn't make any sense. Where were the hordes of people, emerged from offices, tower-blocks and underground stations, picking their way through the trees just like Clara, Danny and the kids, and loudly demanding to know what the hell was going on? The wolves and tigers also felt too much like they had been crow-barred in to fulfil the promise of the title, and certainly weren't developed enough to fulfil their dramatic potential as avatars of the dark and untamed forces of nature. As for the unexplained reappearance of Maebh's sister at the end - why do that? Either engage with emotive issues properly, or don't include them - don't just tack on a magical happy ending which you have arbitrarily pulled out of a hat.

I am, though, prepared to give the episode a pass on another aspect of it which has been widely criticised - viz the implicit suggestion that people who have been prescribed medication to deal with hallucinations or psychoses should stop taking it so that they can experience the full 'magic' of their symptoms. What makes me willing to let that one go is the Doctor's comments that what Maebh really needs is not medication, but to be listened to. This represents at least a basic attempt to evoke the relevant debates around the issue, such as: do we over-prescribe medication as a quick, cheap fix, rather than listening to and engaging with people properly? Like most of the episode, I don't think this was done as well as it could have been. It was a side-issue, where it really needed to be either a full and nuanced engagement or not there at all. So I have every sympathy with the people who have found the script's overall tone irresponsible here, especially in what is still essentially a family show (despite the later and later scheduling). But it wasn't quite the total mess it could have been without the comments about listening.

Meanwhile, the emotional trajectories of the long-running characters just didn't ring true at all. In this episode, Danny realises for certain that Clara has been travelling with the Doctor after all, and lying to him about it, which he should be furious about. In The Caretaker, he laid down an ultimatum about it, telling her that their relationship would be over if she carried on lying to him. But here, he more or less waves it away, merely saying (with exaggerated patient indulgence) that she needs to think about it and tell him the truth. To me this felt as incongruous as the bizarre point in season 7 where Amy and Rory were supposed to have got divorced one minute, and then were fine again the next. Not quite as bad, but still weak, was the handling of Clara's decision to see out the death of the Earth, along with Danny and the kids, rather than be the last of her kind. This is a brave stance, which tells us a lot about what she has learnt about herself on her travels, and how much she cares for the Doctor. But we should have seen something of the fear which she was having to suppress in order to make it - and we didn't. So the end result was that this scene just didn't fulfil its dramatic potential either.

Water-and-breathing watch noted that:
  • Obviously, the entire plot of this story was inherently concerned with oxygen, which trees are essential producers of even in normal circumstances, and which they have arrived to produce huge quantities of in this particular circumstance.
  • Clara also explains to the Doctor that Danny and the kids in his care come as a package by using the words "Danny Pink will never leave those kids, so long as he is breathing."
  • And the Doctor responds to her attempt to save him by sending him off the planet with the very words she used to accuse him of disengagement in Kill the Moon: "This is my world too. I walk your Earth, I breathe your air."
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strange_complex: (Penny Crayon)
I am very happy to say that I now have my laptop back. Since several of you were kind enough to comment on my post about the original fault, and some of you got really quite into speculating about what the problem might be, I will report back that it was indeed a hardware problem. It now has a new screen and LCD back-light unit, and is fine again. Which means that I can now write reviews from the comfort of my sofa once more - yay!

So, continuing with my Doctor Who reviewing, I reach new writer Jamie Mathieson's second story - another good effort, justifying Moffat's confidence in giving him two episodes right from the off. That said, although it was solid all round in ideas, realisation, characterisation and script, and also did a very professional job of carrying forward the big themes of the series, I don't think I have anything very major or original to say about it, especially some ten days after broadcast. So just a few notes follow.

The most obvious 'hook' to this episode is that the Doctor's imprisonment in the TARDIS allows Clara to take on his usual role - something which she has progressively been doing anyway over the course of this series, but which is fully developed and articulated here. Early on, she takes possession of the sonic screwdriver, joking "Does this mean I'm you now?"; by about mid-way through the episode, she is going round saying things like "I am the one chance you've got of staying alive"; and by the time the TARDIS is in siege mode and she can no longer communicate with the Doctor, she explicitly switches from asking "What would the Doctor do?" to "What will I do?" The answer, of course, is to save the day by working out that she can use the 2D beings' power against them - though it very much deserves notice that the detail and execution of the plan falls to Rigsy, whose painting of a door provides the 'bait' needed to attract that power and recharge the TARDIS. This isn't the absolute first time that a black character has saved the world on Doctor Who - Martha did it too, and indeed took on the role of the Doctor herself while he was a shrunken puppet living in a cage. But it's still too rare, hence the need to notice it and to hope for more.

Just like The Mummy on the Orient Express, this story had a high body-count, but because this time the Clara is in the Doctor's role, balancing individual lives against the greater good, Flatline importantly gives him the opportunity to see what that sort of behaviour looks like from the outside - something which evidently unsettles him. At the end of the story, he finds Clara just a little too 'chipper' given how many people have died, and when Fenton (the community service overseer) callously declares that they were just "community pay-back scum-bags", and that the objective in a forest fire is to save the big trees by sacrificing the brushwood, he feels moved to snap, "It wasn't a fire. Those weren't trees. They were people." This is a stark contrast from his coldly scientific usage of dying people to extract information about the mummy in the previous episode, suggesting that he has actually learnt something about himself from the experience, and in the end his judgement on Clara articulates it quite clearly: "You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it." Clara, by contrast, has perhaps learnt rather less, as she continue to lie to Danny about her activities with the Doctor like it's going out of fashion, even when it's obvious that he knows it - something which should, of course, build into a meaningful emotional confrontation in the next episode, but I already know does not. :-(

Like the previous week's episode, this one too was buzzing with Whovian intertexts. We've seen the outside of the TARDIS shrink before in Logopolis, but shouldn't forget also The Time Meddler in which the Doctor shrinks the inside of the Monk's TARDIS so that he can't get into it, or Planet of the Giants, in which its inside, outside and inhabitants all shrink to approximately the size of ants in a thimble. Post-2005 Who was also strongly in evidence. Non-corporeal beings tried to take over dead human bodies in The Unquiet Dead, the relationship between real people and 2D drawings was central to Fear Her (though to much poorer effect), and the Doctor's proclamation that "This place is protected" as he sends the 2D people back to their Universe is of course a repeat of what Ten told the Sycorax. Meanwhile, as Matthew Kilburn has pointed out, the very subject of 2D beings can be taken as a meta-reference to the entire show, which is of course (nearly) always experienced by its viewers in 2D, and at its best feels as though it is emerging into and taking over our 3D world. On the whole the effect of these is merely the simple, obvious one of reminding us that this story forms part of a much larger complex narrative which its writer is intimately familiar with, but that in itself is always pleasing.

Finally, Water-and-Breathing Watch wasn't entirely sure there was any 'significant' water this week, though obviously there was some from time to time - e.g. unexplained steam inside the TARDIS, drizzle while Clara was looking at the mural, or a water-bottle clutched in the hand of the community service bloke who told her to "Cheer up, love". More striking, though, was the fact that as the life-support system on the TARDIS began to fail, the Doctor inside was struggling to breathe - now a repeated theme this season, which I'm sure will feature in the finale.

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strange_complex: (Poirot truth)
I missed the live broadcast of this, as I was out watching Dracula by the Mark Bruce Company in Manchester, and then I had a busy week involving going to Dublin, so I only even got round to watching it nearly a week after broadcast. And then my laptop broke, and then I prioritised writing up reviews of some of the awesome Dracula films I've seen recently (on my PC, as I'm still sans laptop), so now it is another week after that again and I am three episodes behind with my Doctor Who reviews, which makes me sad. :-(

I liked the episode, though. It looked like it was lined up to be a 'silly', especially since (as effectively acknowledged within the script) the entire scenario was derived from a throw-away line four years ago at the end of The Big Bang. But actually the very impressive rendering of the mummy itself (loved the dragging foot!), the high body-count, a decent plot and some good character moments with real emotional weight gave it much more gravitas than I was expecting. It might have been nice to have both a 'Doctor-lite' episode and a 'Clara-lite' episode, showing each of them going it alone after last week's row, before going straight into this (supposedly) 'last hoorah' journey together, but the dialogue between the two of them as they skirted awkwardly around their issues was well written - as was that between Clara and Maisie, and between Perkins the engineer and the Doctor. In other words, this week's new writer (Jamie Mathiesion) seems a lot more competent all round than last week's - as his CV, which mainly includes a lot of Being Human, ought to suggest.

Certainly, the script carried its status as a genre piece both self-consciously and lightly. Obviously it was positioned as a mash-up between the grand tradition of mummy stories and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (which itself now also relates to Whovian continuity thanks to The Unicorn and the Wasp), but there were plenty of other genre references going on besides. Anything to do with the baggage car instantly conjured up Horror Express (though we never got a Baggage Man, alas), while the gaping mouth, trailing bandages and reaching arms of the mummy also reminded me a lot of the scenes with the Dementors on the Hogwarts Express. I also felt the echoes of some Classic Who, and particularly Fourth Doctor stories - the Egyptian-style sarcophagus obviously recalled Pyramids of Mars, but the bubble-warp inside it made me think of the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, while the notion of GUS collecting the Universe's leading scientists together in a single location reminded me of Skagra doing the same in Shada. Meanwhile, Clara's exasperated exclamation to Maisie that "We're stuck in this carriage, probably all night, and all you can do talk about is some man?" sounded very much to me like a knowing reference to the fannish dissection device that is the Bechdel test - which the script had already carefully passed through an earlier conversation between Clara and Maisie about the latter's relationship with grandmother.

This episode also kept the season's well-established themes close to the surface. In Into the Dalek, we saw the Doctor using a team-member who was clearly about to die to establish information which would be useful to the wider mission, and likewise in this story he repeatedly made people about to die at the mummy's hands describe what they were seeing, rather than (as he would see it) waste time attempting to sympathise with them. It is Clara instead who takes on a recognisable aspect of some past Doctors' roles when she is the one to say "I am so sorry" to Maisie as she dies. Twelve, by contrast with some of his recent incarnations, is a very utilitarian Doctor, and indeed Clara calls him on the fact at the end of the story - did he pretend to be heartless, she wants to know? But we are also reassured that his moral compass is essentially in the right place, even if he lacks sentiment, by the fact that he manages to save everyone he can, attempts to figure out who GUS was in order to address the real villain of the piece, and is in the end aware that sometimes you don't have any good options, but still have to have the guts to choose the least worst.

Lying has become a pretty big theme over the past few episodes, too, featuring prominently in Clara's interactions with both the Doctor and Danny, and here she finds herself doing it on the Doctor's orders once he has worked out that Maisie is likely to be the next in the mummy's firing-line. Clara is horrified at the Doctor's request that she should lie to Maisie in order to get her into the lab so that they can observe what happens while the mummy kills her, but her understanding of this Doctor's modus operandi, and her essential trust in him, is revealed in the fact that she agrees to do it all the same. Meanwhile, the Doctor's issues around soldiers are raised once again by the fact that the mummy turns out to be a former soldier, still fatally unable to break with the orders it has been given, and who is finally defeated by applying the correct military protocols (here, a surrender).

I'm sure it was significant that the scroll apparently connected to the mummy's appearances was not in hieroglyphics, as you might expect, but in Achaemenid Persian nail script, and somebody who knew that script might very well be able to decipher what the scroll says from a few screen-caps. But unfortunately that does not include me, and nor does Google reveal anyone else around the internet who has attempted a translation, so it remains a mystery - as, of course, does the true identity of GUS. In manner he reminded me of Eddie the Shipboard Computer from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while his monocle icon of course recalled Poirot, but I am guessing that in the end he will turn out to have something to do with Missy, and that the acronym behind his name will be de-coded for us at some point during the final two-parter.

Last but not least, Water-and-breathing watch noted that:
  • The Doctor's initial theory to account for Maisie's grandmother's claim to have seen a mummy while she was dying went "Dying brain, lack of oxygen, hallucinations."
  • The same grandmother's Excelsior Life Extender included bubbling water as a prominent feature - explicitly good, life-giving water here once again, as opposed to the nasty, dirty drowning type.
  • After the mummy has been defeated, GUS announces, "Air will now be removed from the entire train", which does indeed proceed to happen, rendering Clara and most of the other passengers unconscious - but not, of course, the Doctor, who has a respiratory bypass system which may well turn out to be very useful indeed if, as I now very strongly suspect, water-related oxygen-deprivation turns out to be a major plot-point somewhere in the final two-parter.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
The first half of this season of Doctor Who has been characterised by Steven Moffat either writing or co-writing all of the episodes himself, except for Robot of Sherwood, which he apparently trusted Mark Gatiss to do on his own. We now move into a second phase - a run of stories by writers who are all entirely new to the series.

I think the biggest consequence of that this week is that the sciencey plot details suddenly went from sketchy-but-good-enough to utterly hokey )

I also didn't like the way the entire story was precipitated by Courtney Woods' desperate desire for the Doctor's approval )

That said, we did get some pretty decent material as the episode unfolded )

In the end, though, that whole discussion was utterly undermined by the have it both ways ending )

Other notes - this was an episode heavy with Classic Who continuity references )

Meanwhile, Water-and-Breathing Watch was once again on the case this week )

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strange_complex: (Eight DIY)
Oof! I am hideously behind with reviews of all kinds. Term has started, and a fatal combination of front-loaded teaching commitments this semester and getting behind on things due to being in Vienna has meant I've had all of about one hour of usable free time to myself each evening this week. That's just about enough time to browse through a few social media sites, answer emails from friends and family, and maybe watch an episode of Plebs before collapsing into bed. Not sit there doing yet more writing. So I'm now two weeks behind with Doctor Who write-ups, never mind anything else. Let's see how far I can get on clearing the backlog before another very similar week begins.

The Caretaker, then. Another good, solid episode, I thought. Basically all about characterisation, this time focused on the stand-off between the Doctor and Danny, and with the robot-of-the-week plot only really serving as a catalyst to their drama rather than a story in its own right. But that's absolutely fine by me, as long as the characterisation is done well. Which it was! All very emotionally plausible, and nicely structured too - as for example when Clara explained Danny to the Doctor, and I was sitting there thinking, "Ah, but this works two ways, doesn't it? What about the other side of that?" and just at that very moment the Doctor voiced exactly the same point: "You haven't explained him to me."

I liked the montage at the beginning, sketching out Clara's adventures with the Doctor and dates with Danny. Apart from anything else, it creates lots of lovely gaps for fan-fiction - and I thought it not uncoincidental that some spin-off novels were advertised in a little spot at the end of the programme. I couldn't quite tell from their titles, but I am guessing some of those will link in with the exact adventures referenced in the programme. More importantly, though, it created the right backdrop against which the characters could be moved quite far forward emotionally, without us needing to go through the details of lots of corridor-running adventures in order to get there. Just enough for us to have got to the point where the crisis and confrontation in this story could unfold and be resolved, without it seeming premature.

It was nice to finally see Clara doing some actual teaching. which I don't think has really happened before now. And to see her generally continuing to be sharp, self-assured and well able to handle the Doctor. I thought the scene in which she made him tell her what was going on by pointing out that the fact he hadn't so far must mean he knew she would disapprove, and thus that his plans must be endangering the school, was a particularly good example of that. But Danny's comments at the end about how people like the Doctor can push those who work with them to be better and stronger, and yet present a constant danger that they will try to push too far, are an important signpost for where all this could go. It seems a lot like the Doctor will ask too much of Clara in the final two-parter, and that she will finally decide to prioritise Danny, the man who tries his hardest to be good enough for her, over him.

Meanwhile, for the moment, Clara's situation reminds me a great deal of Gwen's in Torchwood, which went through a similar evolution from her hiding the true nature of her work from Rhys, him finding out and being angry about the lies, to him finally accepting it and becoming involved himself. Indeed, the scenes between Clara and Danny in his-or-her flat at the end of the story reminded me visually of the same sorts of scenes between Gwen and Rhys in Torchwood as well - both the talking-on-the-sofa scenes and the looking-out-over-a-night-time-city scenes. It's a good story-line, and one which gets to the heart of the disjunction between real life and fantasy-adventure life which is a very big part of what I love so much about all these stories.

Smaller things:
  • The invisibility watch - this had an in-story pay-off, when Danny used it to follow Clara at the end of the story and take the Skovox by surprise, so it may already have served out its purpose. But it also struck me as rather like the fob-watch from season 3 - an actually pretty game-changing piece of technology which turned out to have far greater implications than it first appeared. Certainly, it means the Doctor can be anywhere now, even when we think he's not, and we should be looking out for that in the season finale.
  • The Doctor was genuinely scared for his life when he realised that his plan to transport the Skovox to another time-zone had gone wrong, and he was face to face with a killing-machine. It's not something we often see, but it's important to have it sometimes if he is not to seem too much like a super-hero, and Capaldi did it well.
  • I liked the chess-set as a motif in a story all about the one-on-one confrontation between the Doctor and Danny, and indeed one concerned with the relationship between commanders (chess-players) and their troops (the pieces).
  • And it was lovely to see Courtney Woods being developed as a character (in preparation for her role in the next story, of course).
As per my previous reviews, I also kept a careful eye out this time for references to both water and breathing. Actually, there wasn't much happening on the breathing front this week (apart from all characters doing it in all scenes, obvs), but not to worry - there was plenty to make up for it in Kill The Moon. As for water, though, we had:
  • Clara arriving all wet and covered in sea-weed after her montage-adventure with the Doctor to see the fish-people.
  • The Doctor commenting that Clara looks good and asking whether it is because she's had a wash when he is trying to distract her from finding out that he is about to embark on trying to save the world from an alien danger in the Coal Hill area.
  • Clara grabbing a watering-can in the school garden so that she could get near enough to the Doctor, Danny and Adrian to hear their conversation. This was probably the most overt water-reference in the story, and rather like Clara with the wash-bowl in Deep Breath it draws a pretty clear link between her and pure, clean, life-giving water.
  • Courtney Woods finds out about the Doctor and the TARDIS because she has come to get paper towels to deal with a 'spillage' in the Geography class-room.
Enough to be going on with, then, I think.

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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
After last week's big scares, deep exploration of the Doctor / companion dynamic, and epic rewriting of the Doctor's personal history, this episode was bound to seem rather work-a-day and ordinary by comparison. It did, and that's OK. You do actually need some of those each season to fill the gaps between the OMGWTF? episodes. But it was a very polished and nicely thought-out work-a-day episode, all the same. Just as they should be when Who is running properly.

This one gave us a nice mystery, some clever time-travel shenanigans, and indeed some further development of the season's big themes to boot )

Also ongoing is the importance of Clara and her relationship to the Doctor )

Meanwhile, it seems like the people responsible for both the casting and the wardrobe for this episode worked quite hard to make it inclusive and diverse )

A few smaller things )

Finally, I am now going to have to talk not only about water, but also about breathing )

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strange_complex: (Poirot truth)
So, yes - still a week behind on Who blogging, then. But I did really enjoy this episode, and not just in and of itself, but as yet another entry in what has so far been one of the thematically-strongest seasons of Doctor Who I've ever seen. Fear, heroism, companionship and prejudice are all being developed steadily and substantially from episode to episode - as the genre of each story permits, of course - and it is really looking impressive. I don't know what changed or what happened, but it really seems like Steven Moffat has his eye 100% on the ball at last. Perhaps things will suddenly go downhill again this evening, or perhaps the price we'll pay for this is a shoddy next season of Sherlock? But right now, I am liking it.

In this particular episode, there was a lot of very good stuff about fear and bravery and what makes a hero, but most of that has been discussed at length all over the internet, so I won't be adding much if I talk about that now. Let's just say I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Perhaps more interesting, and less thoroughly raked over, was how much the story really explored the relationship between the Doctor and Clara )

Companionship issues aside, Listen was more straightforwardly a classic ghost story, and like all the best ghost stories, it kept the matter of whether or not there is actually an unseen other-worldly entity out there as ambiguous as possible )

Other things... I like the way the Doctor and Clara are positioned as complementary equals in this story )

I also think there was a nice little riff on Harry Potter )

Then, of course, there is the scene in the barn )

Finally - and I am sorry to keep going on about this - there really is quite a lot of watery business going on in this season ) All of this could still turn out to be nothing remarkable, but in case it isn't, I'm setting out the pattern as I see it so far here. Time will tell.

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