Posts Tagged With: science fiction

What is Jodie staring at?

I don’t know, it was probably in The Guardian or something.

It’s one of those enigmatic, thoughtful shots, and not just because of the critical thinking pose. The way the eyes are cast up, not necessarily in contemplation but in anticipation of something that is either out of shot or invisible to all but the woman looking at it. There are a bunch of publicity shots like these when the broadsheets are running an interview and usually the art is in the composition, but this is even more abstract than most. That doesn’t even look like a real table. It’s like a slab of blue, as if Jodie was folding her right arm over a JPEG.

Anyway, it was crying out for a Photoshop or something, and I kept getting ideas, and I wound up doing a whole series of them. So here they are, and if anyone has any requests, I’ll make more. You know where to write.

In the meantime…

 

 

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Review: Resolution

It’s no coincidence that during the screening of this week’s Doctor Who I started thinking about The Iron Giant. Specifically there’s a scene at the end of The Iron Giant where the shattered leviathan lies strewn and scattered across the world, having been partially incinerated in an atomic blast, only for its fragments to jiggle and wobble and then gravitate towards the disembodied head, buried in the ice like a decapitated Statue of Liberty, gradually and painfully reassembling. Assuming you’ve seen the New Year’s special – specifically its opening scenes – you will know why this moment sprang to mind. You will also remember that The Iron Giant was about an unorthodox family dealing with advanced alien technology and military bureaucracy, at which point the analogy more or less breaks down. But still. The jiggling components remain: a loose collection of nuts and bolts knitted together into something that shouldn’t make sense, and yet somehow does.

‘Resolution’ is ostensibly a remake of ‘Dalek’, which was in itself a remake of ‘Jubilee’, making it a cannibalised slip of a thing: a hotchpotch of ideas and themes that crawls from the belly of post-hangover prime time entertainment like something that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be. Part domestic, part love story, part Nationesque action adventure, part sprawling epoch-jumping drama, it has a go at everything, trying on a variety of outfits over the course of its hour-long running time, and just about gets away with it. The result is a light, airy affair, with discussion points kept to a minimum. The links to ‘Dalek’, for example, are slighter than they may appear, and are largely about setup rather than thematic elements – being restricted solely to the concept of a lone, conveniently superpowered travel machine that has been cut off from its fleet and is understandably desperate to phone home.

But ‘Dalek’ – whatever Russell T. Davies may want to tell you – was never about introducing Nation’s finest to a new audience. It was about reinventing the damned thing so it was improbably potent, drawing a huge number of parallels with the man who was trying to kill it. In many ways it was a strange choice for a first Nu Who Dalek story: this creature that was more like the Doctor than anyone had previously cared to admit, setting the stage for a dozen similar confrontations over the next decade, all saddled with the curse of diminishing returns. There is none of that here; no soul-searching from the Doctor, save a couple of hurried lines – Whittaker confessing, over furrowed brow, that she “learned to think like a Dalek a long time ago”, before seeking affirmation from her companions that she’s given the Dalek sufficient warning before trying to melt it with bits of an oven.

But that’s all you get. For the most part, there simply isn’t room. There is a lot of fetch and carry, but it occurs at breakneck speed: the Doctor flies back and forth along the vortex, events seemingly transpiring in real time, parking the TARDIS with newfound precision in front rooms (crushing at least one chair, which will have the Facebook groups arguing for weeks about continuity) and on city streets and in the confines of GCHQ come the episode’s fiery finale. There is technobabble but the Doctor seems infused with a new sense of purpose, someone who’s been given a tangible and unambiguous enemy to fight, when she gets the chance. It is not until the eleventh hour that she actually gets that chance, but it is worth the wait, just.

This is, once more, a story about family, Chibnall sidelining some of his characters during the episode’s downtime so that they can deal with personal issues. Early on, Ryan – who apparently can’t decide whether to call Graham ‘Gramps’ or ‘Grandad’ – takes his estranged father (Darren Adegboyega) to a familiar-looking cafe so that they can not quite bond, Aaron’s prepared monologue about running from your mistakes apparently falling on deaf ears. A few minutes later Graham has a go, with considerably more success, although the net result is unavoidably cloying. They make for the weakest moments in an otherwise decent script; it’s not that Chibnall can’t write domestic, more that…actually, look, Chibnall can’t write domestic. On the other hand, neither could Davies; Camille Coduri just about walked out of series one with her dignity intact but ‘Love and Monsters’ was – for all its other brilliance – simply embarrassing at times, at least when Jackie was on screen. Moffat wasn’t much better, decorating his heartfelt monologues and teary exchanges with a barbed wit and layered emotional pathos that frankly never felt real or authentic, becoming the sort of approach that outstayed its welcome long before the man who actually turned in the scripts.

Is it fair to say that Doctor Who’s family scenes only really work when they happen offscreen? Perhaps it is. Perhaps we’re being overly harsh. Nonetheless it is the family scenes that grate this week, and it’s a pity in a way that the story’s climax hinges around the possibility that we might lose a supporting character who was there largely to provide narrative closure and a convenient (not to mention clumsy) plant and payoff. That this doesn’t happen – the seemingly inevitable self-sacrifice of Aaron postponed, at least for a year or two – is, at least, quietly refreshing, even if Ryan’s old man is far too happy to accept that his son travels the cosmos in a flying police box with a whole tick sheet of BBC diversity rendered flesh.

Elsewhere, there’s the usual fan-baiting. The Doctor waxes lyrical about her own father, in a deliberately ambiguous exchange that provides a Rorschach of possibilities. Ryan is ‘a kid with dyspraxia’. There is also a line about Rels that had me on the floor. Still, you feel as if you’re being toyed with, each new location that the tentacled parasite visits providing a potential hotspot for the inevitable reunion with its casing. Surely it’s buried somewhere in UNIT headquarters? No, there is no UNIT – the taskforce conveniently sidelined as a result of Brexit-inspired shenanigans – and the nation that held its breath when Kate Stewart’s name was mentioned can let it out again in a hiss of disappointment, and then nip back on to iPlayer to watch ‘The Power of Three’.

That we do not see the Dalek proper until the fourth act is a risky stunt, but one that pays off: Briggs’ deep-throated growl is effective, and the sight of Lin (a watchable Charlotte Ritchie) shooting out speed cameras with an untethered ray gun undoubtedly had Top Gear fans cheering into their pint glasses, but it’s like watching an Avengers film where Bruce Banner can’t Hulk out (actually, did that happen? somebody told me that happened). There was a deep-rooted fear that it would be reduced to little more than a cameo, the sort of thing the BBC show as little as possible because they’ve only got the props for one afternoon. That would have been a reasonable assumption given the little we’ve seen of the TARDIS this year, but thankfully it’s unfounded – and following the sort of dimly lit montage that could have occurred on an episode of The A-Team (for the second time this series), the new Dalek emerges from the smoke like the prototype suit that Tony Stark built in the first Iron Man, all welded metal and anger. For a cobbled alien built with junk by an archaeologist it is almost comically robust, right down to the jet pack thrusters and the tank-breaking rockets hidden behind its bumps. It is an excuse for an explosive showdown with the army from which the Dalek emerges unscathed, flying off into the sights of military jet planes and angry Twitter users who complained about ‘needless reinvention’. (For the record, it’s not needless and it’s not a reinvention; it’s an improvised Dalek made from scrap and you know perfectly well that you’ll buy the bloody thing when it comes out in May.)

Somehow, none of it matters. This is as high octane and blazing as we’ve got this series – and even if that’s not a great deal, it somehow feels like enough. Whether it’s the galactic firework display that opens the narrative, the TARDIS crew standing at the doorway wearing expressions of unbridled, childlike joy; Segin Akinola’s pleasingly retro score; the numerous offscreen adventures the Doctor and her companions have been having that will have fan fiction writers reaching for notebooks…just the sheer joy of the thing, it all zips by in an hour of silliness, a metal dustbin doing ridiculous things before getting covered in lashed-together circuitry in a scene worthy of Scrapheap Challenge. It feels like the most overused monsters in the canon are fun again, and for all the clunky dialogue and jokes about the internet and narrative shortcomings (are we really supposed to be worried about the fact that the Dalek is about to call a fleet that isn’t there?) this is that rarity in Nu Who: an episode that I not only enjoyed but would actually watch again. ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had us asking whether there could be any such thing as a good Dalek, when perhaps the question we ought to have been asking was whether, in today’s day and age, there could still be any such thing as a good Dalek story. If ‘Resolution’ proves anything, it’s that the answer is ‘yes’. It wasn’t as good as The Iron Giant, but that’s OK. Nothing is.

An earlier version of this article, published 01-01-2019, contained an error of judgement. It mistakenly attributed UNIT’s suspension to a funding crisis, rather than a retrospectively obvious Brexit gag. This has now been updated.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition, part 3)

“Yeah. Like this, wasn’t it?”

You would not believe the flak I got from this one. I had to block three people. Some pointed out it was badly Photoshopped; it is. Others said “HOW DARE YOU DESECRATE THAT WONDERFUL MOMENT WITH THIS IMPOSTER”, or words to that effect. I said that it was there simply because I observed Whittaker walking through a forest and the image jumped out at me. I’d say that some people have too much free time, but that’s a bit pot-kettle, isn’t it?

The scenery in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ was, of course, one of the best things about it, although travelling through those wonderful grasslands and woodland glades does have a downside.

That’s to say nothing, of course, to what happens when you get to the edge of a cliff only to find there’s an unexpected visitor sneaking up behind you.

Oh, and finally this week: proof, as if any were actually needed, that episode five really was a conundrum.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Brexit Edition)

You will notice – or at least you will when it subsequently doesn’t show up – that there is no God Is In The Detail post this week. To be honest I thought it best if I leave this one; it seems disrespectful.

Let’s talk about something else, shall we? We’ve got a stack of episode 5 and 6 memes coming your way soon, but they can wait a bit. We’re getting behind in our coverage of current events; for example, 5th November came and went.

So, for that matter, did National Sandwich Day.

In music, news emerges of the other Spice Girls reunion.

And there’s conspiracy and intrigue over at the BBC when a certain entertainment journalist meets a sticky end.

All of which brings us neatly up to today, when Theresa May unveiled her new Brexit secretary.

Ah, the Brexit secretary. The only significant Civil Service role where the occupants last less time than the Chelsea manager. I have watched today’s events with an unhealthy mixture of amusement and alarm. How did we end up here, with this dog’s breakfast? What was the point at which people lost their minds? Perhaps my spectacles are rose-tinted but I’m sure – in fact I’d stake my reputation on it – that there was a time we were sensible about these things. There was a bit of politeness. We listened to each other, or at least we were sufficiently reserved to give the outward appearance of listening, rather than simply waiting for the other person to finish so we could say our bit.

My grasp of the situation is somewhat limited, but from what I understand, a year or two ago somebody made a controversial decision to shake up a system that a number of people – a large number, or a small-but vocal number, depending on who you talk to – didn’t seem to like very much. There are all sorts of reasons why this might have happened, but the fallout was anger and division and an awful lot of arguing, and now the woman who’s acting as figurehead is getting heaps of abuse even though most of the problem has nothing to do with her.

Some are saying we should have done this years ago: others are saying it’s a bad idea full stop. And there are a few people saying “Told you so” in response to a much larger group of people who are complaining that while they wanted change, they really didn’t expect it to be quite like this.

So that’s where we are, in a nutshell. I think I might go and watch some Doctor Who now, to take my mind off things.

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God is in the detail (11-05)

It’s a complicated business, having a baby. There you are, flat out on the hospital bed, squeezing an object the size of a melon out through a hole the size of….yes, well, let’s leave out the specifics, shall we? I’m sure many of you know are familar with the process, and I know I am; I’ve watched it four times, although my wife was doing most of the pushing.

Anyway, if you’re on a hospital bed – as poor Yoss was, in last week’s ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’, you won’t have much time for pattern spotting. And thus it’s possible that the likes of Yoss allowed the whole of episode 5 to pass without being made aware of a single VERY IMPORTANT DETAIL. Which is a shame, because there were tons of them this week – so many I’ve had to skimp on the text a bit, and allow the pictures to speak for themselves. All those gleaming white corridors are full of secrets; a number of them concern screens. We like screens. Screens only look like gibberish – the sort of thing that’s roughed in the BBC’s graphics department during post-production – and to the uninitiated reader that’s exactly what they are. It’s a good thing you and I can read between the lines, isn’t it?

We begin with a star chart. Let’s cut to the chase: there is, along the zip-like curve stretching from left to right, a singular point which serves as the start and end for a clearly mapped trajectory. Using a particularly select (and far too complicated to explain) set of criteria I have thus determined that the asteroid field is in fact a set of waypoints that produces the following:

In other words, LTA is (gestures) that way.

But what is LTA? Local Traffic Authority? Licensed Travel Agency? The Lawn Tennis Association? It’s none of the above, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. No, LTA in fact stands for Lost Time Accident. Superficially this refers to any accident that prevents an employee from returning to work the next day. Of course, in Doctor Who it means something completely different: it is any episode in which the characters find themselves displaced in time, or finding that time has passed without them. The arrow is pointing to the right, suggesting that this concept will feature in a future installment: could we be set for a fiery, Moffat-inspired series finale? Perhaps one that features, I don’t know, monsters that displace people in time? Monsters made…from STONE? (And yes, I know what Chibnall said. Rule one: Chibnall lies.)

Next we’ll take a look at the conveniently small bomb stored in the anti-matter drive.

It looks like a simple rejig from the designs department, mildly steampunk in appearance. Doesn’t it? But there was a reason they made it look this way – and once annotated, we uncover a wealth of information.

And you thought it was just a prop.

Let’s move on to the set itself now. For the most part the scenery was relatively minimalist – a lot of gleaming white corridors and hospital waiting rooms – but there were some intriguing moments in some of the labs. Take this shot, for example, of Eve and Ronan.

(It’s telling that Suzanne Packer’s character was so bland I couldn’t remember her name. I had to Google it. Is there any chance of having interesting supporting characters who aren’t there for comic relief?)

Anyway: the scenery here is loaded with symbolism and foreshadowing – throwbacks, imagery and clues about what is to come. Observe:

I mean, the Guardians really are due a revival, and they can be anyone they want, as long as they get the outfits right. Can we have Liam Neeson?

Screens again. There is a crucial wall panel displayed about a third of the way in, when Durkas (had to look that one up as well) is searching for information on his sister.

There are two things we need to be looking at. In the first instance, you’ll notice the three circular patterns in the centre of the image, each of which contains four dots, followed by a further dot at the bottom: a reference to twelve of the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus the War Doctor at the bottom. Which twelve, I hear you ask? That would be Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker. And no, I didn’t deliberately type out their names to help with search rankings. Honest guv.

Those of you who recite these names in your prayers before bedtime will have noticed immediately that one of them is missing. To answer the question of exactly where David Tennant is, it is necessary first to look at the top of the image, and then superimpose something on top of it.

So now you know.

Last but not least, another screen.

This is a deceptively confusing image, because despite having many apparent layers, we’re only looking at one thing – and that’s the grid on the right. Starting from the very top and then moving to the right and then down, in rows, I’ve made a note of the highlighted squares and their correlating numbers, assuming that the first, unoccupied square in the grid corresponds to one. The sequence runs like this:

At first glance it looks like a lottery draw that got hideously out of control, but this is, in point of fact, a very deliberate and cleverly coded message. In order to unscramble it we have to glance back through story lists, whereupon we can ascribe each number as follows:

2 – The Daleks
3 – The Edge of Destruction
15 – The Space Museum
25 – The Gunfighters
31 – The Highlanders
34 – The Macra Terror
37 – The Tomb of the Cybermen
40 – The Enemy of the World
44 – The Dominators
52 – The Silurians
54 – Inferno
61 – The Curse of Peladon
62 – The Sea Devils
67 – Frontier in Space
69 – The Green Death
70 – The Time Warrior
79 – Revenge of the Cybermen
83 – The Android Invasion

Finally, if you take the fifth line of dialogue from each script, and arrange them in (just about) chronological order, this is what happens.

“There’s been a forest fire. Everything’s sort of white and ashen.”
“Well, let me look at it.”
“Well, upon my soul, yes. Yes. Now isn’t that extraordinary? Yes, we were wearing those cloaks and things, weren’t we? Well, I must say, it’s going to save us a lot of bother changing. Yes. Now, lets see where we are, shall we?”
“Where do we all meet up with Seth?”
“Oh, it’s cold and damp.”
“That’s right.”
“What, these?”
“Oh, stop fussing, you two. Come on. ”
“I decided otherwise, Probationer Toba.”
“Come on, Bessie, be more co-operative. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths – ”
“Excuse me, Sir Keith?”
“Hepesh, you have already had your say in the Grand Council. The question has been discussed and decided.”
“We’re abandoning ship! We’re abandoning ship! Our position is – ”
“You can keep it. Spit and polish, cocktail parties and all those passengers?”
“It were a shame, that was.”
“Sour wine! Stinking meat! Sour wine. Is this how I am served?”
“Can’t stand the stuff, thanks all the same. So we could be anytime, anywhere?”
“Doctor?”

 

And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

That’s all we have time for this week. Join me next time, when we’ll be looking at cranberries, and why they’re purple. Santé!

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Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Back in the dim and distant past, in the days when I actually had time to re-read things instead of going through them once and then consigning them to the charity shop pile, there was a well-thumbed volume on our study bookshelf called Action Movies. By an author whose name now escapes me, it took it upon itself to list, assess and score as many adrenaline-pumping gung ho films as it possibly could within a couple of hundred pages, giving them brief, irreverent write-ups. The best got five-gun ratings. The worst received the author’s withering contempt, which I’m sure had the likes of Michael Bay weeping into their satin-lined pillowcases.

Not that I suspect this author would have had it in for Bay; he prized quality of chase sequences over quality of writing and it is for this reason, perhaps, that his assessment of The Last Crusade sticks with me long after the book has found a new home. He’s not interested in the Ford / Connery dynamic, the fact that the narrative comes full circle, the religious themes or the fact that the film literally concludes with everyone riding off into the sunset – he’s more put out that it’s simply not quite as exciting as the first two. Ranking it three (Raiders and Temple both got five, of course) he notes that “This must be what an average Indiana Jones movie must feel like”. I still wonder, sometimes, what he’d have made of Crystal Skull.

We’re five episodes into the new Doctor Who series and it seems that fatigue is beginning to set in. Oh, I’m not talking about the show. I’m talking about the audience. There is a genuine sense of discomfort on social media at the moment, a sea of discontented viewers who are unimpressed when the story is average and formulaic rather than important and worthy – and that’s just the Radio Times, who were uncharacteristically scathing in yesterday’s write-up. Elsewhere, I’m seeing remarks from online acquaintances (and a few people I go out of my way to avoid speaking to) who are in a state of distress about a story that didn’t really do an awful lot, said far less, and yet somehow emerged relatively unscathed.

‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ begins in an interstellar junkyard, jumps almost immediately to a hospital ship and then promptly stays there, allocating forty-seven minutes of its fifty-minute running time to a set of pristine white corridors and a couple of bedrooms. Nor, too, do the Doctor and companions have any real time to recover from the accident that put them there: no sooner have they regained consciousness than an unexplained object is tearing its way through space, eating through the ship’s hull and then the mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano. Before we know it, the ship is drifting helplessly through space, bereft of its clinical lead and left in the hands of two women with apparent confidence issues, hurtling towards a planet that’s quite anxious to blast it into smithereens because there’s a monster lurking in the vents.

The moment the Pting attacks is unfortunate for the cast but thankfully kicks things up a gear, because in its first fifteen minutes ‘Tsuranga’ is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around the gleaming interior trying to make sense of things, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that nobody cares about. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City in an attempt to get them to reverse thrusters so she can get back to the junkyard. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.

Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Stitch tribute the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). Eve Cicero – named for the Roman statesman, although that’s where it ends – is played by a suitably dry Suzanne Packer, and is ably assisted by her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith, whom Daniel recognised from The Four O’Clock Club) and android Ronan (a sadly underused David Shields). Ronan is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb his hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?

One potential pitfall behind a larger TARDIS crew in this day and age is the problem of how you keep them all busy, so while the Doctor’s orgasming over perfunctory anti-matter drives (this from a woman who keeps a black hole on her ship’s engine deck) and lying to planetary defence systems, Ryan and Graham are off delivering a baby. Said baby is the unwanted child of Yoss (Jack Shalloo), who is granted far more screen time than his character deserves and is there largely to up the threat level and help flesh out Ryan’s family relations, or lack thereof. That 67th century male pregnancies only last a week and end in involuntary caesarean (I was going to ask how else you’d get it out, but let’s not go there) is quickly cast aside as Yoss lies in the birthing chamber while Ryan is suitably reassuring and Graham conveniently plugs Call The Midwife. The concept of medical professionals who learn something from their patients is a narrative depth that both Holby and Casualty plumb on an almost weekly basis, but this idea of putting Graham and Ryan into difficult situations to get them to bond is swiftly getting old, and is inevitably going to conclude with Graham’s death just as Ryan calls him ‘Grandad’ for the first time. I was going to ask why we couldn’t just skip to that chapter now, but Bradley Walsh is still the best thing in the show right now and it would be nice to make the most of his screen time – but sometimes the road up the Green Mile is oh, so long.

Four years ago, in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, we had the Doctor stuck on a spaceship with a monster that was over-exposed. The single biggest problem with ‘Tsuranga’ – besides the narrative favouring of Ed Sheeran over David the Android – is the fact that an expensive and interesting creature is granted not nearly enough time in front of the camera, with its appearances largely confined to the reveal and the moment it’s flushed, Alien-like, from the ship’s airlock with exactly the level of clinical detachment that the Doctor ought to have observed when she was facing off against the mutated spiders last week. I know I tend to applaud whenever the Doctor Who team learn the value of restraint, but it does seem a shame to create something that’s given less screen time than baby Avocado. Still, that’s five for five adversaries the Doctor has singularly failed to kill. Perhaps they’re halfway through a series arc, or perhaps this is Chibnall’s brave new world – but God help us if it is, because these damp squib finales are starting to get a little tedious, even if they do manage to throw in a pop at the hipsters.

All that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. What happens in ‘Tsuranga’ (a word I’ve had to self-correct five times this morning; why can’t they come up with titles I can spell?!?) is nothing earth-shattering or groundbreaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless fun, exactly the way Doctor Who should be. It is like the Pting itself: short and reasonably interesting and ultimately discarded until the next time it rolls around. This week was filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.

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Review: Arachnids in the UK

It’s 1988. I’m in the last year of primary school and I have a dream that gets inside my head, more or less permanently. It takes place in one of those alt-universe scenarios in which the school has been converted into a wildlife reserve, and what passed for a stationery cupboard and ICT suite thirty years ago has been designated ‘The Tarantula Room’. As the dream begins I’m walking out of that room into the main hall, which has been made over as a snow scene, where there is a tarantula the size of a park bench sitting near the piano. Back in the main enclosure, I come across two glass cases: one is filled with babies, the other is seemingly empty. As I approach, a colossal, black-and-orange arachnid is climbing into view, filling the entire cage. It’s smaller than the one in the hall, but it terrifies me, and I scream and I run for the doors – and find them locked.

That was three decades back and since then I can’t look at a tarantula without breaking into a sweat. Actually I don’t look at them at all. I leave the room during the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven’t even bothered with Arachnophobia. Years ago I visited the cinema with a few friends; they ran the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks and I watched the whole thing from behind my hands, along with one other similarly afflicted member of our party who is now a respected children’s author. I just about made it through Return of the King, although I still haven’t quite forgiven Emily for running a hand up my arm when Shelob came out.

Still. Spiders are OK. Spiders are useful and clever and always welcome in our house. Spiders I can handle. Except. Except when…look, when I was four, my parents took me to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. It was all going well until we got to the giant tortoises. Tortoises are supposed to be something you can pick up and hold, which can have devastating consequences if you’re partially sighted and mistake them for a pasty or something. Coming face to face with one that’s as tall as you are was a bit of a shock. It’s a great shame because the Galapagos tortoises are dignified and wrinkled and command our respect. You’re not supposed to run away screaming, although the tortoise probably couldn’t do much if you did. It calls to mind the Eddie Izzard routine about the Attack of the Giant Land Snails. “They’re coming!….They’re still coming!”

This is basically the three-paragraph method of explaining that last night’s Doctor Who was, in many ways, a bit of a difficult one. But we got through it, largely because the kids came and sat on the sofa, giving my whitened knuckles a reassuring squeeze with one hand while using the other one to run their fingers up my arm. I am considering a will rewrite.

What happened in ‘Arachnids in the UK’? Well, the long-awaited “She’s in charge” scene finally reared its ugly head, although it flows nicely when it does. The Doctor is competent in a crisis and flustered by social niceties. Ryan’s into Stormzy. We get to meet Yaz’s family, who are disappointingly ordinary. Graham is seeing ghosts. And on the site of an abandoned coal mine, Donald Trump is building a hotel populated by giant spiders. These are house spiders, grown to a colossal size thanks to a combination of genetic experimentation and toxic fumes from the landfill that is sitting beneath the hotel’s foundations. It’s like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, except no one jumps on a skateboard.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the episode that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in ‘Under The Lake’ has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else ‘Arachnids’ throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.

Four stories in and the staples of Chibnall’s writing style – at least the ones he’s adopted for his tenure in charge – are starting to arrange themselves into patterns. There is the obligatory lesbian character. There is the moment Graham is refreshingly practical. There is the bit where Ryan flirts with Yaz. Some of it is good; some of it isn’t. The gay thing is, at least, dealt with with more subtlety than it was under Moffat, who insisted that it wasn’t a big deal that Bill was gay and then rammed it home just about every week, doing everything except giving her a badge to wear. Chibnall’s approach is to drop it in for a random character and then move on, and perhaps this is the best way forward. Perhaps the only way to meld this into the show’s philosophy is to do it in every episode until we stop realising it’s there. “How often does the train go past?” / “So often you won’t even notice it.”

The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Don’t they know already that guns kill people? Wouldn’t we be better aiming something at the NRA? We can see from the outset that Robertson is an irredeemable bastard – cowardly, selfish, and ready to believe his own hype. He is Trump (or at least the left-wing media’s embodiment of Trump) in all but name – indeed, that particular elephant is dealt with halfway through the episode when it is revealed Trump is a business rival whom Robertson hates, leaving Chibnall free to poke jibes at the current President without fear of Cease and Desist notices from the White House legal team.

When you’re writing for the screen they go on and on about ‘show, don’t tell’ – but was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.

It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had twenty minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by twenty further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. ‘Arachnids’ doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within twenty-four hours of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.

This was a great episode, until its last ten minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.

Does all that make up for things? Perhaps it does; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that ‘Arachnids’ should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition)

I’m currently in Yorkshire, sampling the heady delights of rolling hills, ruined abbeys and the local chips – so you’ll have to wait a bit for more serious content. And yes, if you hadn’t noticed, the video reviews have been sadly absent. The first one took far longer to do than I thought it would and frankly I think there are other things I could be doing with my time. So I’m ditching it. Maybe another year, but not this one.

Have a few images to keep you going. We start with the obvious.

And yes, in answer to your question, I am working on a video version of this, but we need to wait for the unscored upload for ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ first. Otherwise it’s going to be all over the place.

Speaking of all over the place, the DW location scouts have been all over the place in their search for exotic filming spots. They found one off the coast of South Africa that stood in for the planet known only as Desolation, but there was still something rather familiar about some of the scenery.

Not to mention this.

You draw far too much attention to yourself, Ms. Whittaker.

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God is in the detail (11-02)

When I first watched ‘The Ghost Monument’, my heart sank a little. For all my heartfelt belief that Chibnall had inherited the mantle of Chief Puzzler and Imp that Steven Moffat cast from his bosom ere he ran forth from the Doctor Who production offices clicking his heels and shouting “I’M FREE!” while dancing a merry jig, it seemed that the second episode was as dry as the desert in which it was filmed, barren and stagnant and utterly bereft of clues. There were no monitor readouts. No intricately decorated chambers. Not even a bus to look at. Just a lot of ruins. I was lost and helpless and out of inspiration. There were tears, I tell you. Actual tears.

But that second viewing was like a light bulb going on. Because when you dig beneath the surface (shortly before lying down on your back and throwing a cigar in the air) there is a whole bunch of VERY IMPORTANT SIGNS AND WONDERS in this story, pertaining to this year’s series arc and beyond. And today we bring you just a few of the very important CLUES AND HINTS that we noticed. Just a few, mind; I’m on holiday tomorrow and I need to pack.

And while I’m doing that, constant reader, perhaps you would be good enough to examine this.

They keep telling us to count the shadows: today I’m telling you to count the spotlights. There are ten in total, of varying sizes, alluding to Doctors One through Nine, including the war Doctor. The angle from which this was shot – in which identical-sized lights suddenly take on unique and distorted sizes – is itself highly important as it enables us to ascribe values to each spot. Because (and this is the crucial point) THESE DO NOT APPEAR IN ORDER. Taking into account the relative number of episodes that each Doctor has appeared in, we may number the spots like this.

Starting with 1 and working our way clockwise, we get the number 12759346885, and Googling this leads us to a French phone number lookup site. It runs off the acronym CACS, and is part of the OVH cloud computing network. But a curious thing happens when we rearrange these letters: we get ‘Cosh Vac’, which is an UNMISTAKABLE WARNING that in a subsequent episode Bradley Walsh will be whacked on the head and then thrown out into the vacuum of space (again), and that the cryptic sight of the Doctor blowing a kiss to her companions is the moment she’s going out to rescue him.

Also note that Whittaker is angling her head into the sweet spot between one and two, which refers to the much-desired and sadly missing final episode of ‘The Tenth Planet’, in which viewers saw William Hartnell regenerate onscreen into a scruffy cosmic hobo. But is it still missing, or is this a clue that they’ve found it? Could it be that Philip Morris’s rummaging through Nairobi skips and Saudi military compounds has finally borne fruit? Are they saving this for a Christmas download? Only time will tell, but I’d start digging out your piggy bank now, if I were you.

Next let’s look at this rather splendid piece of South African architecture.

You will observe:

  • The four pyramid-style pillars at the top, symbolising the first four Doctors
  • The pillar on the dunes below, positioned directly below the fourth pillar, therefore referring CLEARLY AND EXPLICITLY to the imminent return of the Curator, as played by Tom Baker
  • The general prettiness of the whole thing.

I mean it is rather grand, isn’t it? Beats a quarry in Suffolk, that’s for sure. Still, don’t let the aesthetics distract you – we’re not finished yet. You see the lines of square holes just above the sand? Examine the top layer. For this it’s necessary to resort to binary, taking the presence of a hole as a 1 and the absence of a hole as a 0.

Thus, if we read along that top layer of holes, we get the following: 10100100010001

which converts to decimal as

1051310

Or, in other words:

It’s when we examine this week’s guest cast that things get really interesting. First let’s look at Shaun Dooley, who played opposite John Simm and Olivia Coleman in Exile and David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in Broadchurch. And yes, there’s an old joke about the BBC having only a dozen actors and endlessly reusing them – but c’mon, folks. These actors? Can that really be a coincidence? I’m calling it here: The Thirteenth Doctor will meet with an alliance of Prisoner Zero and the Master in 2019, and will find herself aided and abetted by the Tenth Doctor. As if all this weren’t enough to whet your appetite, Dooley was also seen in The Woman In Black, THE COLOUR OF CHOICE FOR JODIE WHITTAKER’S THIRTEENTH DOCTOR REVEAL VIDEO. This is all building to something. Just watch.

Then there’s Art Malik, who appears in hologramatic form, sitting in a tent. But we have to rummage through his CV to get to the meat. First there’s his role in A Passage To India, A COUNTRY THAT WILL BE VISITED LATER IN THE SERIES. Then there’s his role in The Living Daylights, playing opposite Timothy Dalton – yes, him wot played Rassilon. Some years later, after fourteen months of unemployment and some nasty letters from the Inland Revenue, Malik resurfaced in what is probably his most popular role, playing a terrorist opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994 blockbuster True Lies.

What do we make of this? The title itself is a blatant clue as to the existence of the series arc, given Chibnall’s insistence that he was speaking the truth about a non-existent series arc that now seems to be about to rear its toothy head. And, of course there were [coughs] one or two other things he may have been lying about, all the while feigning his innocence like a naughty schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Need we point out the homophonic parallels between Malik and Dalek? We need not.

However: we may also rearrange the letters of Salim Abu Aziz (Malik’s True Lies character) into ‘Lamia is abuzz’, which CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY pertains to the Greek story of Lamia, a Libyan queen who was mutated into a child-murdering monster by her own grief. I will just remind you all that in the last episode we were warned about a timeless child. And I leave it to you, dear reader, to join the dots.

Susan Lynch was in Ready Player One, which features a TARDIS. Um.

Oh, and just before I sign off, has anyone noticed the cushions? The cushions that happen to be THE SAME COLOUR AS JODIE WHITTAKER’S TROUSERS? Who else saw that one coming?

Yep. Thought so.

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Review: The Ghost Monument

A little over four years ago, we saw the Doctor get pretty close to performing actual surgery. It happened when a group of military types decided to insert him into a Dalek. As written it sounds a little kinky (which was entirely deliberate on my part) – as it stands, there was miniaturisation technology, a cast of entirely forgettable military types and a bit where the Doctor appeared inside an eighties music video, as well as a seemingly abandoned plot strand involving the likely parentage of a soldier named Journey Blue.

If it seems strange that you’ve just been regaled with the plot for ‘Into The Dalek’ it’s largely because I basically had to remind myself. It’s the sort of episode that is so staggeringly average I can barely remember anything about it. My interest level for that week is a single flat line, like a close-up of a heart monitor in a medical drama. It was about as by-the-numbers as they come, with a couple of amusingly callous remarks from the (then) new Doctor the only thing that stands out in my memory. There was absolutely nothing that would make you want to experience it again; neither was there anything that made me want to throw things at the TV. It is the Whovian equivalent of Northampton: an inconsequential place you drive through in order to get to Sherwood Forest.

I’ve devoted two paragraphs to this because it strikes me that in years to come, ‘The Ghost Monument’ will be remembered in much the same way. In the tradition of ‘The Bells of Saint John’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ or ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ (insert your own), it is staggeringly average. Last week’s cliffhanger is resolved quite literally at the speed of light – the Doctor and her companions rescued from the vacuum of space faster than you can say ‘Bowl of petunias’, as two ships jump out of hyperspace looking for a planet that’s no longer there. It’s been knocked out of orbit, leading to a crash landing that is arguably the only really memorable set piece in the entire story.

The planet itself is the final waypoint for an intergalactic space race – think Cannonball Run, without the jokes – hosted by none other than Art Malik, appearing like a Grand Vizier in a tent that, at least from the outside, looks rather like the one where Sylvester McCoy once fought clowns and gods. There is none of that here, of course: this is all about getting enough cash to escape from poverty and ethnic cleansing, and you can bet that somewhere in a ramshackle tenement slum on some dystopian colony there is a middle-aged couple watching the whole thing on TV. The race has been narrowed down to two final contestants: Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic and conveniently lesbian. Both would kill each other given the chance, but violence results in instant disqualification, so in this week’s morality play the two must learn to put aside their differences if they’re going to get out alive.

Only the Doctor smells a rat. If this was once a thriving planet, she reasons, then where are all the people? It’s not long before we find out, although having Whittaker read the confession from a scientist’s log book somewhat lessens the horror: it’s clear what they’re trying to do, but talking scarves really aren’t much of a threat, and besides the sense of isolation was already done and dusted the moment the killer robots turned up.

You know, there was a time when you could get away with a quick remark about firearms and then that would be the end of it, but ‘The Ghost Monument’ makes it clear that ship has sailed (and docked, and sailed again, and struck an iceberg). It’s not enough for the Doctor to snap “No firearms!” when Ryan suggests gunning down the robots: instead, the aversion to shooting things is contextualised with a ludicrous set piece, where the young fella shouts “CALL OF DUTY!” before displaying an uncanny level of precision while handling a gun he’s never seen before and has no idea how to use. (For the record, I have played several of the Call of Duty games, and whatever Ryan says, the only thing you really learn is that Activision wouldn’t know a decent story if it clonked them over the head with a rifle butt and then locked them in a Gulag.)

Look, I don’t mind the social commentary. And I know this is for kids. But I was watching it with several kids, and at least two of them thought it was ridiculous, particularly when the Doctor then clarifies her remarks by systematically frying all the robots with a conveniently placed EMP, not long before she then blows up several pieces of fabric with this week’s Chekov’s Gun, which happens to be cigar-shaped. The lesson we learn from all this is that mindless violence is fine as long as it doesn’t involve shooting anything, because that’s something the Doctor left behind in the eighties. This in itself isn’t a problem – the concept of absurd double standards has been going on for years, and it’s pointless to complain about it now – it’s just the heavy-handed approach that has the audience rolling its collective eyes. It’s for the kids, but kids are smart, and they know when they’re being patronised. Maybe we could have a monologue to camera next week?

It should come as no great surprise that the titular Monument turns out to be the TARDIS. Chibnall sensibly gets it out of the way at the beginning, and the scene in which the Doctor is eventually reunited with her craft is understated and genuinely touching, although the gag about redecorating – with its obvious punch line – is a misfire. Indeed, some of the best things about this week involve character, from Yaz’s frank conversation with Angstrom about her family to Graham’s tentative sparring with Ryan. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but Graham is swiftly becoming my favourite character this year, with Bradley Walsh throwing himself into the role of reluctant adventurer with dignity and aplomb: Graham hasn’t got a clue what’s going on most of the time but he’s always willing to have a go, and that makes him great fun to watch.

It’s now apparent that Chibnall’s promise that these would be no series arc this year may have been a misdirection, as indicated by both the re-emergence of the Tenza and Whittaker’s apparent shock at being told about ‘the timeless child’, which may or may not have been the Doctor but probably is, in the same manner that Series 9’s Hybrid may or may not have been the Doctor but probably was. It’s too soon to know where we’re going with this but it keeps the press hot and the fan theories bubbling, so everybody wins. There was a brief window when the comparative novelty of an overarching narrative was just about enough for the show to escape with its dignity intact: such an approach had worn out its welcome by the end of Series 5 and by the time the Doctor was stomping across Gallifrey I was just about ready to throw in the towel and get on board that shuttle with Rassilon. Things may improve this year but there’s no point in shoehorning character development and sacrificing narrative for the sake of fulfilling a grand design, and if that’s really what’s about to happen again then the audience may be in for a long and tedious few weeks.

Still, at least they’ve got the TARDIS back. Now can we please talk about something else?

 

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