Monthly Archives: February 2020

Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, 
Knocking on the moonlit door…

Well. Since you ask me for a tale of ghosts and chills and things that go bump in the night, I shall provide not a story from my own collection, but rather I shall defer to the pen of Emmerdale writer Maxine Alderton. For our entertainment tonight, she would like to transport us across the waters, where there’s a storm blowing in over ninteenth century Switzerland. It’s been the year without a summer – hardly a phenomenon if you’re in the UK, but we’ll let that go – and in a pretty house on the shores of Lake Geneva, a group of writers are trying to outspook each other on a night that’s destined to change literary history. Except right now it isn’t, because Percy Shelley’s gone missing and the others are more interested in playing Twister (they might have been having a dance, but that’s not what it looked like) than doing any writing. As observations about procrastination go it’s painfully astute, but something is quite clearly off, and luckily the four newcomers on the doorstep have arrived just in time to put things right.

The Doctor’s met Mary Shelley before, of course, and even travelled with her for a bit – something ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ wisely elects to ignore completely, much to the chagrin of various fans for whom a steady and sensible continuity is the be all and end all (what did these people do during ‘Genesis of the Daleks’?). We get a similar story – in the Big Finish audios it is an encounter with a pair of Cybermen in Vienna that sets the creative cogs a-turning, but here the encounter is framed within the simple narrative conceit that is the haunted house. And haunted it certainly is: lightning flashes at opportune moments (when it follows a declaration that the Doctor is from “the North” you will spit your cocoa), strange shapes appear in the doorway, skeletal hands lurk the corridors and vases fly across the hall. It’s all explained by the plot, with the exception of the mysterious peasant woman who brings Graham his supper, but that’s all part of the fun.

If anything, the explanation feels a little frenzied. At first we’re at a loss as to why the Doctor’s got a headache and why Polidori is able to phase shift through a wall and why the rooms are looping back on themselves (yes, Pete, I know it saves on set-design, but the article still needs an in-universe explanation). It’s all very Escher, in a good way, and it is inevitably leading to a brain dump – which you can just about follow, providing you concentrate. At first it’s all running from disembodied Hammer hands and wondering what happened to Shelley. And then, twenty-five minutes after the TARDIS crew have arrived, the story kicks well and truly into gear when a familiar-looking monster turns up in the driveway, shaking the mud from its thick metal boots. I say familiar: it’s had a couple of refits, its emotions are still working and half the visor is missing. This is a redesigned Cyberman for an age of gothic horror, both tragic and deadly, arguably more human than many of the human characters bedding down for the night at the sunless villa.

If you know your Highlander, you’ll know that Byron faked his own death, and lived for hundreds of years, turning up in 1960s California in the guise of Jim Morrison, and eventually losing his head to Duncan MacLeod. His first quickening gives Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein: similarly here it is the monstrous Cyberman (theatre veteran Patrick O’Kane), lurching through the villa in a mangling of limbs, perhaps the most human cyborg we’ve seen since Lytton, that provides the creative spark she needs. It’s a literal spark, the Cyberman taking energy from a lightning strike that is enough to recharge its power cells, and in what is far and away the standout scene, a frightened Mary pleads with the monster’s remnant of humanity – it’s a gambit that seems certain to pay off, until it doesn’t. If Graham’s confrontation with Tim Shaw in ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’ was irritatingly formulaic, ‘Haunting’ shows what can happen when you shake the net a little. And all the while, Byron’s whimpering in a corner and using an innocent woman as a human shield.

The other thing about this scene is the Doctor. Faced with a seemingly impossible decision – kill Shelley or doom humanity – Whittaker’s lake is finally ruffled when Ryan elects to make the decision for her, and in an instant we see all the fire and fury of Tennant at Pompeii; of Smith as he frets over the star whale; of Capaldi at the edge of the volcano. Even if the possible consequences of Shelley’s death are overdone slightly, it still works, and (just about) manages to make its point without overstating it. There have been angrier Doctors, and there has been better dialogue, but it’s welcome relief to see Whittaker finally uncaged as she turns on her companions: “Sometimes,” she spits at them, “this team structure isn’t flat. It’s mountainous, with me at the summit, in the stratosphere alone.” It’s an astonishing moment – it won’t be enough to silence the naysayers, but you can’t have everything.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Haunting’ is this year’s ‘Utopia’: a contextually disconnected narrative that feeds directly into the finale, as the Doctor dashes to the future in order to save it from an unavoidable mistake. It nonetheless manages to be more self-contained and standalone than its spiritual predecessor, a story about the telling of stories and what happens when they’re left untold. Just how much, we’re asked to ponder, is society dependent upon the arts? It’s a stretch to imagine that Whittaker’s arrival was enough to inspire Byron to write ‘Darkness’, but not a wildly implausible one. These people aren’t just writers talking shop: their actions would go on to reshape the world, with more ideas and narrative conceits than can be dreamt of in your philosophy. I speak from the unavoidable bias of being someone who’s often mocked for having an arts degree, but this stuff counts, dammit, and in the days that curricula are being drastically restructured and the BBC looks set to lose its license fee it feels more topical than ever. Quoth Churchill: “Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.” (At the risk of watering the argument he did not, at any point, say “Then what are we fighting for?” when asked to cut arts funding.)

Not everything is perfect, but then no episode of Doctor Who ever was. I mentioned a slightly hurried info dump; elsewhere it’s a little frustrating to see Graham sidelined as this week’s comic relief, reduced to quibbling over sandwiches and being frightened by the butler while in search of a toilet. Ryan’s ‘believe in yourself’ encounter with Mary is decently written but clumsily rendered, and it’s left to Yas to provide the most malleable of this week’s companion encounters, as she ruminates with Claire Claremont over a possible love interest – it could theoretically be Ryan, it’s more likely to be the Doctor and if fan theory is correct it will turn out to be the Master. Whittaker herself is the subject of Byron’s wandering eye, although she promptly rebuffs him; something of a shame, as the fan fiction from that alone would be absolute gold dust.

But just when your interest is starting to dip then bang! The candles flicker or the staircases shift or there’s another corpse. Crammed but not quite overstuffed with ideas, this is a thrilling, compelling and downright frightening piece of television, impeccably lit (in the traditional sense of the word) and, for the most part, decently directed, although you sometimes wish Emma Sullivan would angle the cameras a little more. An unexpected gem in a lackluster and frustrating season, it is as singularly enjoyable an episode of Doctor Who as we have seen in a long time, due in no small part to Alderton’s sparkling teleplay. The next time there’s a gathering of great literary minds, they could do a lot worse than inviting her along.

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Review: Can You Hear Me?

Doctor Who ventures into dangerous waters when it tackles the surreal. Sometimes (‘Warrior’s Gate’, ‘Heaven Sent’) it works beautifully. Other times it’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets that serve pizza and chips alongside the curry and prawn crackers: an enjambment of elements that don’t quite come together, but which you’ll happily ingest anyway because at least it’s calories. Is it a good idea to venture into the domain of the unorthodox when the show is already struggling? Charlene James (this week’s co-writer, arguably most famous for a play about FGM) might not have realised quite what she was getting herself into, but given that Doctor Who has spent this year utterly confused as to its own identity, what she’s managed to produce is an uncannily appropriate precis of where we’ve got to, which is no mean feat.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is this year’s ‘It Takes You Away’: abstract, meandering and often confusing, a world where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Hopping from fourteenth century Syria to the orbit of a distant star – Sheffield, as per usual, acts as an intermediate waypoint – the Doctor is investigating monsters in the dark and anomalous biological wave patterns, along with the strange wrinkled fellow dressed as the owner of a London bookshop sneaking in and out of people’s bedrooms. No one knows who he is (spoiler: he’s not the Black Guardian) or why he’s feeding off the nightmares of unsuspecting children like some sort of dark and twisted BFG – still, Graham’s getting headaches and can’t deal his cards properly. Something’s got to give.

The evidence all points to a curious planetary alignment, and thus – with a sense of aplomb that that’s becoming quite alarming – Whittaker puts on her Resolved Face and fires up the Quattro. But no sooner has the TARDIS gang arrived at their destination (a roomy, predictably metallic spacecraft, or a beacon, or something; I wasn’t really paying attention) than they’re all plunged into a series of nightmares: Graham is haunted by the spectre of Grace, who informs him that his cancer has returned; Yas is abandoned on the hills over Sheffield; Ryan is given a vision of the apocalyptic future teased in ‘Orphan 55’. The Doctor herself gets a brief glimpse of the Timeless Child (although I can’t be the only one who was hoping that her initial confrontation with Zellin would turn out to be a dream), wandering outside the Gallifreyan citadel in the manner of something in a Japanese horror film. These nightmares are rendered flesh thanks to a parasite that buries itself in the ear canal; it’s like a slightly less unpleasant version of The Wrath of Khan. “It may be,” said one online acquaintance, “the first time in history that a main DW villain has given the Doctor the finger.”

It’s not entirely without context. The early parts of the episode deal with domestic drudgery and the fact that the Doctor’s companions all have worlds they’ve left behind – a concept not explored properly since Davies was in charge (Moffat, while fond of dipping in and out of his characters’ Earth-bound existences, nonetheless gave them a curious sort of dependence on the TARDIS, a succession of well-heeled addicts constantly looking for their next fix). Here, for the first time in Chibnall’s run, we learn what happens when your nearest and dearest have to manage without you: Yas’s sister Sonya can’t hold down a job, while Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang, seen out on the basketball court in the first part of ‘Spyfall’) has lapsed into depression. The timings with Time To Talk Day are deliberate and it’s hard not to shake the notion that both James and Chibnall were writing from a spec sheet, but it’s not totally incongruous, just a little rushed. (Curiously, Tibo’s venture into support group territory includes a grump about supermarket self checkouts, something the BBC seems to dislike in general.)

‘Rushed’ might be a decent word for it, actually. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ suffered from having almost no story: ‘Can You Hear Me?’ suffers from having rather too much. The net result is an episode that wants to push the envelope for the companions, leading up to an inevitable departure for at least one of them (visualised on screen by a wordless exchange of nervous glances across the TARDIS console at the story’s conclusion), but it does so within the context of establishing a separate mythos and by introducing supporting characters who show promise but who barely have room to breathe. This is one of those stories that would have benefited from two parts – more insight into the nightmares, more time with Tibo and Sonya and a better, more character-driven expansion of the false gods’ motives would all have been welcome, and the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t always have your cake and eat it, particularly if you only have fifty-odd minutes before the cafe shuts. It is an onslaught of ideas and concepts and themes, as confused about its own identity as Ryan apparently is about his own.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial expository scenes with Zellin (Ian Gelder, rather less sinister than he was in Torchwood), who appears on the spacecraft in a literal puff of smoke and then proceeds to namedrop half a dozen Classic Who characters for no reason other than the bet that Chibnall was presumably trying to win. I’m sure it must have sounded splendid as pure concept: in practice it is an atrocious melange of ephemeral garbage, there purely to keep the Gallifrey Base threads ticking over. Things improve marginally when Rakaya turns up, strutting around like an intergalactic supermodel with her own portable wind machine, and the animation that explains her imprisonment is decent enough, but it’s too little, too late. You can almost picture Chibnall at his writing desk, knocking back that third whiskey and poring over James’ script while browsing his Twitter feed, seething “Fine. You want references? SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!”

This is a great shame, because there’s actually quite a lot in here to enjoy, if you can extract it from what is a structural car crash. The set design and cinematography are both imaginative: Graham, shot from above, as if observed by some unseen phantom, foreshadowing both the arrival of Zellin and the cameo from Grace; the wide-angled shots of Mandip Gill, alone and isolated in the countryside; the neon, Tron-like sparsity of the ship / beacon / outpost. There’s even a stab at fleshing out Yas, something Doctor Who has needed for quite some time. While James’ dialogue fails to ascend the lofty heights of the show’s heyday, she does, at least, have a flair for reasonable conversation – Whittaker’s closing dalliance with Graham, awkward for all the right reasons, is quintessential Doctor, and if it makes you angry and uncomfortable, it should.

A brief foray online confirms that the angry voices are invariably the loudest, but one thing I’m struggling with this week is the recurring accusation that this was “more preachy PC bullshit” – the meat of which seems to have escaped me, at least during a first watch. Perhaps it was the ethnically diverse casting, a by-product of the fact that Ryan and Yas both hung out with people of their own skin colour. Perhaps it was the notion of a crinkly white god who was to all intents and purposes subservient to a hot-looking black god. Perhaps it was the inclusion of mental health issues, which – while awkwardly shoehorned – stayed just the right side of condescending, largely because the Doctor wasn’t in the room. None of this is a problem, and the insistence the fandom has of labelling everything that jars “PC bullshit” serves no purpose – it’s the same reason I can’t get on with “bad writing”, which serves as a euphemism for “this episode was not to my taste and I can’t really explain why”. Forgive me if I’m preaching to the choir, but at the risk of sounding like a shill, one reason it’s called political correctness is that sometimes, believe it or not, it’s actually correct.

It still doesn’t work, though. This is two good episodes crammed into a single, mediocre instalment: a heady concoction of ideas and concepts that unleashes a series of frivolous monsters and has them tackle big issues. There is no sense of real menace about Zellin or Rakaya, which is part of the point – the real monster is man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to himself. But it takes time to adequately convey a message like that, and somewhere along the line, between all the curries and the FIFA games and the hospital drips, the message gets rather lost. The central question the story poses, at least ostensibly, is ‘Can You Hear Me?’: an appropriate answer might be “Yes, but we have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

On the upside, at least there were no bloody frogs.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 12 edition, part three)

This week? Well, among other things, I’ve been thinking about Terry Jones.

In the streets of Gloucester, Marcia is surprised when Colin Baker turns up early to collect his scarf.

I’m posting this one without comment, because I think we’ve all had enough of experts, haven’t we?

Meanwhile, Hollywood mourns the death of the legendary Kirk Douglas – who, at the age of 103, really seemed to be like one of those people you thought would go on forever…

Bodega Bay, March 1963: the TARDIS makes an unexpected stop that leaves the Doctor and her companions with a distinct sense of deja vu.

Dallas, November 1963: Atop a grassy knoll, the Lone Cyberman watches and waits and bides his time.

Madagascar, 2019.

And in a fictional hospital in Bristol, a certain Jo Martin does her rounds.

“Yeah, just ‘Doctor’ is fine.”

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Review: Praxeus

Greetings, fellow foodies! This week’s recipe is an exotic one, submitted by Pete and Chris; a calorific concoction of intriguing flavours wrapped in a flash casing, guaranteed to bring sparkle to even the drabbest Sunday evening. Some caution is needed: Pete tells me the last time he and Chris made one they briefly set fire to the internet, so make sure you don’t do the same!

Ingredients:

  • Three continents (if you don’t have these lying around you can re-use the same footage from the recipe we made three weeks ago; neon signs are usually available in all good home & garden stores)
  • Two grizzled sidekicks, gay for preference (I always like to season their backstory in advance)
  • Two tonnes of plastic
  • One obviously robotic bird (make sure you change the batteries first)
  • More plastic references
  • Three hazmat suits and a couple of gas masks
  • Seven tablespoons of BBC interference
  • Did we mention plastic?

Time: 50 minutes

Difficulty: Amiable to infuriating

Method: 

1. First, grease a large baking sheet with marketing hype. I find it helps to do this in layers, but you’ll need to include a really good press release talking about the environmental themes.

2. Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 6. This won’t take long as it should still be fairly hot from our last bake.

3. Separate your characters into three piles. Then, in three separate bowls, mix them until they start to combine. This is a lengthy process but they’ll eventually form a loose sort of dough. Be careful not to prod it, though, or it’ll break apart.

4. Place one Doctor in each bowl. Leave to stew.

5. Over a low heat, boil up three technobabble dumplings. Start this early, so they have time to boil dry – the drier the better.

6. While the technobabble is simmering, blend up three McGuffins – I tend to use human-shaped McGuffins – into thousands of pieces. This will be your layer of unpleasant death.

7. Combine all three bowls until the mixture just about clumps together. Crimp the edges with a pathogen reference.

8. Now it’s time to add our flavouring. Dip the hazmat suits very briefly into the mixture and then pull them out straight away; you want only the mildest hint of them. Sprinkle the layer of unpleasant death over the top.

9. When this is done, drizzle with social commentary. I find it helps to do this slowly and laboriously, really allowing the juices to soak in: you’ll probably find it gets concentrated in one area, and will almost certainly drift to the bottom, but your dinner guests will expect this so it doesn’t matter too much. They’ll eat it anyway.

10. The pudding is now ready to be over-egged. You know what to do, right?

11. Place in the oven. While it’s baking, you could catch up on Twitter.

12. It’s vital that you remove your Praxeus from the oven midway through the cooking time. This will ensure it’s half-baked and collapsing in the middle.

13. Garnish with a twist of half-expected villain and, if you have one, a sprig of noble self-sacrifice.

14. If prepared to perfection, the Praxeus should be stodgy and sweet, but leave a mildly unpleasant aftertaste.

 

And that’s it. In two weeks: Dry Roasted Cybermen, guaranteed nut (and bolt) free.

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