Posts Tagged With: stephen fry

Review: Spyfall

   

Warning: a plethora of spoilers follow.

The other night, my family and I sat down to watch Johnny English Strikes Again. It’s been on the to-do list for a while and we had a spare ninety minutes, which is all it takes for David Kerr to tell his tale of a haphazard secret agent pulled out of retirement when all the other active agents across the globe become suddenly and inexplicably compromised. The man responsible? A seemingly benevolent tech billionaire from Silicon Valley with designs on taking over the world. And only Rowan Atkinson, with his reliance on old school techiques and prowess with a baguette (if you’ve seen the film you’ll know what this is about) can stop him.

I can’t help thinking that such recent exposure to a swiftly flagging franchise renders me incapable of supplying an on-point and unbiased review after the spectacle we all just witnessed. Because it was hard not to feel a sense of already seen as we watched Jodie Whittaker bumble her way through an hour of awkard gags and mildly tedious chase sequences. Bond 25 is due in April and it was clear from the very first shot – a glorious African vista with a secret service operative hiding behind an oversized title card – that this was going to be a jetsetting tour-de-force of espionage and intrigue, with gadgets and guns and sharp-dressed villains. It was obvious enough from the trailer, which featured Lenny Henry shooting out the back of a moving car while Whittaker dons a tuxedo in the middle of a vineyard. This was clearly about cashing in on 007 while it’s hot – like the garage of a kleptomaniac roadworks operator, all the signs were there.

Still, needs must. I’m not sure I can say with a clear conscience that this was any sort of classic, but neither was it a car crash (although it features one or two). ‘Spyfall’ strides the awkward middle line between haphazard fun and mediocre buffoonery, equal parts cringe to crowdpleasing, and there is a sense, as its closing credits roll, of having watched something that was basically candy floss: enjoyable while it lasts but flimsily and loosely constructed, and prone to falling apart the second you poke at it. That’s probably OK: some people like candy floss.

When we last saw Team TARDIS, they were dematerialising into the sunset after the events of ‘Resolution’. A discarded calendar later, the three companions are about to go travelling again: Graham, winner of this year’s “Most likely to have his backstory sidelined” award, is having a check-up; Yas is explaining away yet another secondment; and Ryan has bunked off work for months by faking a series of health scares, including but not limited to a detached retina. (It’s played for laughs, but I had an ex-colleague who used to do this and it’s no joking matter when you spend half your working day covering someone else’s paperwork.) Meanwhile, the Doctor is in the process of changing a spark plug, or something. It’s not exactly a grand entrance, but at least she still has the steampunk eyewear.

Things kick off when the intrepid foursome are all but kidnapped by a bunch of government agents whose job it is to drive them from Sheffield to London: this being Doctor Who, the sat nav goes awry and tries to kill them en route. Before long they’re in the office of C (Stephen Fry, phoning it in from SW1), an MI6 executive whose job it is to look very grave just before he’s shot in the back of the head. It’s so sudden, Ryan almost has a facial movement. The assassins are strange, multi-dimensional chameleonic beings who can seep through walls and even into the console room, and once it becomes apparent that they’re all in danger, the Doctor decides that the best plan is for the four of them to pair off so they’re not as well protected. Thus, she and Graham fly the TARDIS to Australia to catch up with an old friend, while Ryan and Yas visit San Francisco to grill the shady internet mogul (Lenny Henry) who may be responsible.

We ought to say at this point in proceedings that for all her champing at the bit, the Doctor makes a rubbish spy. Her stratagem for getting results at Daniel Barton’s birthday party is to directly confront its host, with not a shred of tangible evidence beyond a couple of readouts, and she then wonders why he immediately jumps into a Bentley in order to escape from the crazy woman on the patio. Such a clumsily presented scene can only be there to lead us into yet another set piece, and indeed ‘Spyfall’ is full of such moments, jumping from one locale to the next with barely enough time to breathe or explore. A single scene with Yas and Ryan, perched outside an Australian cottage hiding a deep dark secret, is about the only real character-advancing moment we get: all the rest is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

It’s a shame, because Whittaker really is quite good: self-assured and endearing with just a pinch of the darkness we were hoping for. Whether it’s confusing Pontoon with Snap or using a wing mirror to deflect laser blasts in a malfunctioning vehicle, she approaches the role with grace and dignity and seems more Doctor-like than she did last year, even when Chibnall’s script hands her another clunky monologue. She even manages to make the technobabble work, just about. Likewise, the supporting cast do their thing well enough, although it’s a bit tiresome they all get on so well. No one wants another Adric and Tegan, but can’t we at least have a bit of an argument about the TARDIS lighting or something?

Two minutes from the end, the Master shows up. This isn’t strictly true, of course: he’s been there all the time, hiding beneath Sacha Dhawan’s amiable exterior. Dhawan (no stranger to Who, having played Waris Hussein in 2013’s ‘Adventure in Space and Time’) is already a likeable sidekick, but he makes for an even better villain, sneering and angry and possibly quite mad, all the things the Master should be, embodied in a single blazing sequence on board a booby-trapped passenger jet. We were promised a big bang to Episode 1, and for a change this one actually delivers, largely thanks to O’s abrupt heel turn into a character we all know, in an incarnation who is at once new and yet instantly recognisable, even if the fans are going to be arguing for weeks about the chronology. Having been set up as a feasible romantic foil for Yas, the renegade Time Lord engineers a sudden (some would say rushed) cliffhanger, with the Doctor spirited abruptly away from proceedings as her companions face almost certain death – although there’s a TARDIS with a functioning chameleon circuit just outside the window, so probably not.

There are good things about this besides Dhawan. Certainly the whole thing feels like Fleming on a BBC budget; it’s just a question of whether that’s the sort of thing that tickles your fancy or leaves you wondering why they bothered. There are briefcases full of laser shoes and near misses in plush corporate offices (although are we really supposed to believe that Barton didn’t see Yas and Ryan poking their heads three feet above that sofa?). The plot may be nonsensical but this is, at least, something that’s trying to entertain us, even if it’s occasionally trying much too hard. The visual style carries a flair of its own, matched by the score: composer Segun Akinola, having paid tribute to nineties-style Bond orchestrations in ‘Resolution’, delves into outright pastiche here as the camera pans up over the vineyards surrounding Barton’s birthday shindig. It’s ridiculous but it does the job, just like everything else.

But the giggles and surprises can’t mask the pitfalls of last series creeping in. Whether it’s the nondescript villains, the awkward social commentary, the pedestrian dialogue or Chibnall trolling the fandom as the Doctor explains her gender switch with the words “I’ve had an upgrade”, there’s a sense here that some lessons have been learned, but perhaps not quite enough. As hard as it tries, ‘Spyfall’ (at least this part) can’t help but feel like something that was so desperate to be Bond it forgot it also had to be Doctor Who. It’s gift horse and mouth territory so the temptation is to be kind, and it’s still the beginning of the run, so there’s time to get this right – and perhaps with Dhawan’s Master at the helm (or at least in the cargo bay, planting explosives), the series can get back on track without lapsing into tedium. Certainly by bringing him back in this manner Chibnall’s paved an avenue worth exploring, with a new Master / Doctor relationship ready for the harvest, like the grapes in Barton’s vineyard. “Our paths crossed very briefly once,” the Master explains to Graham, a few minutes from the end, referencing a scene that dearly deserves to be written, “when she was a man”. That’s the sort of backstory that deserves a bit of flesh, if only to find out which Doctor he was talking about. I can’t help wondering whether it was Rowan Atkinson.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Mandalorian Edition)

Happy December! Did you know that the Master’s hatred of Will Ferrell spawned an unexpected seasonal tradition?

It’s Monday, which means two things. First, I’m entirely failing to finish tidying the lounge. Second, it’s time for our regular roundup of news and gossip from the world of everyone’s second favourite TV show (right behind Stranger Things, which I will get round to seeing one of these days). So what’s been going on in Whovania this week?

Needless to say, Jodie Whittaker has dominated. It’s not enough that we had two – two! trailers in the space of a week; we also have an episode title and guest cast. (At the risk of implementing a well-worn cliche, Doctor Who trailers are like buses, only they’re like buses in Reading town centre on a Friday night, because you have to wait ages and then two come along at once and you can’t actually hear yourself think on there for all the shouting and food fights and babies throwing toys out of prams. At least you can block these people on the internet; you can’t do that on the 38 to Purley-on-Thames.)

Still. I think we can all agree that ‘Spyfall’ really is a fairly dreadful title, although it did give me the excuse to do this, which almost works.

What happens in ‘Spyfall’? Well, there’s a bit of gubbins about rewritten DNA and Stephen Fry turns up playing a character called ‘C’. Whittaker herself is heard to mutter “The name’s Doctor…the Doctor” in a moment so gut-wrenchingly corny it could only have come from the hand of Chris “HELP ME WITH MY BEATLES QUIZ, MUM!” Chibnall, but this is the sort of thing I’m prepared to let go if I’m watching something enjoyable. ‘The Crimson Horror’ was thoroughly stupid, and occasionally excruciating, but it was also fun. Isn’t that really what Doctor Who is supposed to be about? Fun, and hopefully not too transparently woke?

I’ve been thinking about the word ‘woke’, really. It implies a heightened state of awareness, the notion that all those who are not transparently and overtly tuned in to injustice and equality and political correctness are in some way unconscious. It’s ridiculous terminology because there’s really nothing wrong with being asleep, particularly when you’ve spent a hell of a long time campaigning and fighting and you just need a bit of a rest. You never get the full story, really, do you, from someone who seems to be the opposite of ‘woke’? They’re just dismissed as fossilised dinosaurs who have no awareness of the world around them, rather than someone who has perhaps more awareness than you’d care to realise, and who has learned how to pick their battles, and who has decided that the best thing for their own state of mind is to give the outward appearance of being asleep.

“Yeah, I think we’re gonna have to cancel Christmas.”

While we’re at it, I have another pet hate I’d like to just mention and then talk about another day when I have more time.

Seriously, this is what happens if you let the internet write Doctor Who scripts.

There’s also news about the upcoming comic crossover in which Jodie Whittaker encounters the Tenth Doctor; one that had already given rise to speculation that he would appear in the next TV series for the current Doctor to castigate (in a conspiracy laden video I refuse to link to, because it’s bollocks and I’m not giving them the traffic). After much back and forth between the idiot fans who genuinely thought this was happening in the TV series and those of us who actually read beyond the headline, we’ve finally cleared up that this is a spin-off, and that whatever happens it’s probably not going to be hateful. I almost wish it was, really; you might as well give the haters something to really complain about.

In any case, it’s now emerged that said crossover will actually be a revisitation of the events of ‘Blink’, but from the perspective of both Doctors rather than Sally Sparrow. Unfortunately the most widely-shared link for this story came from Screen Rant, who ran with “BLINK TO BE REWRITTEN” (paraphrasing, but that was the sentiment), in a story I refuse to link to for reasons that should by now be obvious, and then all hell broke loose because many people, it turns out, are too thick to go any further than a fan baiting headline.

I had a near miss with writing for Screen Rant; did I ever tell you? I will spare you the details, but let’s just say there were one or two creative issues with their work ethic, and given the garbage they put out these days I think it was a lucky escape. Teaching piano is far more fun, and nobody tells you to kill yourself.

A little Star Wars news now, because I’ve got a stack of gags, and Jodie Whittaker’s got a bad feeling about this.

There’s also an exclusive press photo from the Episode IX After Party.

And this deleted scene from ‘It Takes You Away’ suggests that the BBC originally planned something quite different for last year.

It’s very easy to knock the direction Star Wars has taken, simply because it’s contemporary. You remember what you choose to remember, which was that the Ewoks were rubbish but at least they were cute rubbish, and that yes, Jar Jar was racist, but I suppose it was a long time ago and anyway it’s NOT AS BAD AS THAT STUPID SCENE WHERE LEIA SHOOTS OUT INTO SPACE. Likewise, there are a bunch of people yelling at Chibnall for producing an overly simplified portrait of racist white people in ‘Rosa’, simply because that was the best way to tell a story which (let’s be honest) was aimed at kids, and every single one of these people has completely forgotten the laboured monologues we used to get from McCoy and Pertwee and Hartnell, mostly when they were slagging off the military, or the lecturing about sweat shops in ‘Planet of the Ood’, or…I mean, if we’re going to throw any shade in the direction of last year, couldn’t we just agree that the monsters weren’t much cop? I don’t mind straight white men being the villains, because that’s kind of the way it always used to be, but the new creations they did include (benevolent or otherwise) weren’t so much offensive as simply dull. But that’s all fine, because Bradley Walsh has promised us that series 11 will feature some “absolutely terrifying monsters”.

Oh well, at least it’s official.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Not Exactly Trailer Edition)

God. The sequel to ‘Army of Ghosts’ looks rubbish.

Content warning: if you really want me to talk about the trailer, you’re best heading off to The Doctor Who Companion, where you’ll find a brief missive I tapped out Saturday afternoon in between doing the taxi run and preparing for Edward’s birthday party. Suffice it to say that “The name’s Doctor – the Doctor” is an absolutely dreadful way to begin anything, let alone one of the most hotly-anticipated trailers since…well, since the last one, but apart from that clunker of an opening I really rather enjoyed it. Certainly it felt like Doctor Who. Things exploded and there were monsters. Oh, and we got our first proper glimpse of Stephen Fry, whose presence in the upcoming series has been foretold since the ancient times.

“So you’re the Master, then?”
“Of Lake-town, yes.”
“But you are the Master.”
“Yes. Of Lake-town.”

Having said all that, I really can’t see how some vloggers managed to stretch out the conversation to an hour. An hour? To discuss a fifty-second montage of shots? Did they talk about the location of the vineyard or Jodie Whittaker’s goggles? Oh, no, wait. It was the tuxedo, wasn’t it? I mean, I’m only guessing (I refuse to listen to the thing), but I assume there was a lengthy discourse as to whether or not it ought to be her permanent costume this time round, along with whether she borrowed the coat from Jack (she didn’t; Jack’s coat is completely different). Either way they all scrub up nicely. And ooh look, scenery.

“I could have sworn it said White Tie.”

One of the big talking points is about exactly how the series opener (from which this shot is purportedly taken) will be the ‘game changer’ it’s reported to be. Speculation is rife, with everything from Tennant’s supposed return – leading to a scene in which Whittaker castigates every single male Doctor that’s preceded her – to the revelation that Hartnell was actually the first of a brand new set of regenerations, with the previous thirteen being female. Which is so ridiculous I don’t really know where to start, although as it turns out I started here.

When one particular fan chose to speculate about whether or not this would happen, I told him it was unlikely because it was a stupid idea – leading someone else to interject with the words “It’s plausible, though”, and then follow it up with a long explanation of Gallifreyan history I didn’t need to read. I replied that it was plausible, but still stupid.

“Hang on,” he said. “How could something plausible also be stupid?”

“In the world of Doctor Who,” I explained, “just about anything is plausible. That doesn’t mean it’s sensible. The next Doctor could be a young girl with pigtails, a pink TARDIS and a pony fetish. That would be plausible, within the confines of established scientific laws. But it’s a stupid idea and it would kill the show outright. You can see where I’m going with this.”

I mean, I’m fine with tinkering with the history, but fan-baiting is always going to land you in hot water. That’s what Moffat did, and people didn’t enjoy it then either. I am at the stage where I genuinely don’t care any more – Doctor Who is a silly show and I don’t have any particular concerns about them making it even more silly, as long as it’s dramatically satisfying (in a way that the frog wasn’t), but doing a retcon of Captain-America-is-actually-from-Hydra proportions for no other reason than to grab a headline is frankly a little bit insulting.

(Incidentally, when I posted the above, I had a few people saying “Hinchcliffe? Everybody loved Hinchcliffe, surely?” To which I had to explain that no, no they didn’t. Not at first. The love came later, once people had got used to the disbanding of UNIT and Baker being a bit mad and the whole Gothic thing. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. I wonder if years later people will look back at ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ and hail it as the classic it probably isn’t?)

1975 was also the year that Jaws came out, which made me think about Bradley Walsh’s assertion that series 12 will feature some “absolutely terrifying monsters.”

Oh well, at least it’s official.

[coughs politely]

In other news this week: a photo of three small children outside a Canadian gold mine in 1898 has led to much speculation that Greta Thunberg could in fact be a time traveller. I have embedded it below so that you may judge for yourself. No idea who the fella at the back is.

Entertainment, and one of the big talking points at the moment is the BBC’s grandiose, delayed-beyond-explanation adaptation of War of the Worlds – big-budget, ‘contemporary’, and (if you read the Telegraph) unnecessarily Woke. I’ve not seen it yet, and thus couldn’t possibly comment, but I note with interest that they seem to have cast Francis Begbie as the astronomer.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to – what? What is it? What?”

War of the Worlds may be the most anticipated BBC show in years, and just about the only thing to rival it for sheer levels of excitement is Picard, the new Star Trek series that sees Admiral Jean-Luc climb back into his spaceship for one last job. Patrick Stewart’s been rather quiet about the whole thing, but I’ve had this one hanging around for a while, so in it goes.

Oh, and in a highly anticipated crossover moment, the Doctor laments to Clara his decision to allow Yoda to examine the heart of the TARDIS.

“I told him not to look inside. I bloody told him.”

 

Categories: Have I Got Whos For You | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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