Posts Tagged With: the horns of nimon

Review: The Witchfinders

Lurking on Facebook somewhere is a woman that I recently blocked. Actually the blocking was mutual, which is in itself a long and not terribly interesting story, although the reasons behind it are worth a mention. She has spent a number of months in vehement protest against the casting of a female Doctor, because it was her concrete belief that the historical treatment of women would make it all but impossible for the writers to churn out adequate stories set in the past. Either no one would take the Doctor seriously, thus rendering her all but useless, or everyone would improbably fall for her irreverence and charm and the story would be historically inaccurate. There were a dozen ways the rest of us managed to explain away this potential stumbling block, both with narrative workarounds and at least a dozen male-dominated stories where this happened (not to mention the show’s frequent historical cock-ups), but they fell largely on deaf ears.

For all the bleating and cat-fighting on the internet, it was clearly preying on the mind of Joy Wilkinson – late of Nicholas Nickleby and now the writer of two episodes of this year’s Doctor Who. The first of these is ‘The Witchfinders’, in which the intrepid Time Lord and her companions land the TARDIS in the wrong place and wind up in a (literal) witch hunt. Taking charge as is her custom, the Doctor swiftly finds herself demoted, outvoted and dismissed by the patriarchy, and ends up accused of witchcraft herself and tied to an anachronistic ducking stool. Meanwhile, the witches aren’t really witches at all. But you knew that before they’d finished rolling the opening titles, didn’t you?

Fun fact: in this week’s episode the word ‘Satan’ is used thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine. I know this because I checked the subtitles. It’s almost as bad as the overuse of ‘fungus’ in the Mario movie. It wouldn’t be a problem had they unpacked things a little bit. Oh, there’s a passing reference to Lucifer. The rest of it is cries of “Burn the witch!” from authoritarian dignitaries and disappointingly quiet villagers; there is a token nod to the Bible but the Doctor casually brushes aside any religious arguments about Satan, merely declaring herself ‘not a fan’, while Graham quotes Pulp Fiction.

There’s a lot of reacting going on in ‘The Witchfinders’. Graham wears a hat; that is about all you can say for him. Ryan’s job is to look uncomfortable, but Cole does this extremely well and thus it seems almost churlish to bring it up. Whittaker, for her part, is snooping around examining the mud like a caffeine-fuelled archeolologist and mostly getting wet, at least during the scenes when she’s not sending Yaz off to do a bit of family liaison – real police work for the second time in two weeks. (Why is it only the guest writers who remember Yaz’s career choices? Did Chibnall forget his own brief, or does he simply not care?)

As seems to be the custom this year, Wilkinson keeps her supporting cast light: three with speaking roles, and one whose job is mainly to advance through a forest holding an axe, leering like someone doing a cut-price Jack Nicholson impression. Siobhan Finneran (Benidorm, Downton Abbey) acquits herself well enough: the revelation that Becka is related to the witch she accuses comes as an interesting twist that sadly goes nowhere very promising. She’s out for blood against Tilly Steele (Victoria), who does a decent line in frightened peasant, before becoming sufficiently empowered to lend a hand in Whittaker’s final rescue operation, marching across the fields with flaming torches like a Frankensteinian mob.

Then there’s Alan Cumming – an extremely talented actor who is clearly having a ball with this cacophony of mud monsters and pitchforks, although it is frankly difficult to see him as anyone but Alan Cumming. Playing James I like an effete pantomime baron – or at the very least a supporting character in Casanova – he is a braggart and a poseur, condescending to the Doctor (who stomps away complaining about being ‘patronised to death’) and flirting with Ryan. It’s a warm and memorable performance but there’s something off key about it: something that hearkens back to Graham Crowden in ‘The Horns of Nimon’, a serious part rendered utterly ridiculous. Is this a good thing? It depends whom you ask, surely?

Certainly Cumming (largely thanks to the considerable amount of screen time he is given, not to mention the insights into his lineage) has the effect of transforming the story, rendering a dark fable largely ridiculous and impossible to take remotely seriously even in its most sinister moments. Not that we can blame this entirely on him, considering the monster-of-the-week is an imprisoned race of alien warriors who emerge when a woman cuts down a tree, taking the form of sentient, bodysnatching dirt. At least I think they were alien warriors. While we leave the forests of Lancashire knowing King James all the better, the Morax – surely a verbal play on Lorax, Dr Seuss’s ecological fable – are a by-product, a last-minute substitute for real witchcraft, a focus for the villagers’ hate. There are dark things afoot in Pendle Hill but none of them concern black magic, just a panicky landowner who cannot cover her tracks quite fast enough.

In a way it’s a great shame that the story doesn’t actually feature any real black magic, because Clarke’s third law – to which Wilkinson pays affectionate homage at the episode’s denouement – has been done to death by now. The convenient dismissal of the occult happens in just about every story in which it makes an appearance, with the notable exception of ‘The Satan Pit’, introducing a monster whose existence even the Doctor isn’t able to adequately explain. “Maybe that’s all the Devil is, in the end,” he muses to Ida in that episode’s best scene. “An idea.” It’s a powerful moment, rendered all the more so for the story’s uncertain conclusion. But this is an infrequent occurrence, memorable for precisely that reason, and whether it is ‘The Daemons’ or ‘State of Decay’ anything supernatural in this programme is typically cast into the harsh light of reality the moment the TARDIS crew turn on the lights. With certain rare and deliberately ambiguous exceptions, the Doctor doesn’t do God.

Still, perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the lesson we’re learning from this Brave New World that is Chibnall’s Who is that it is capable of good things when it is worthy and serious, but even greater things when it is not. Would ‘The Witchfinders’ have worked better had it been graced with serious performances, or more elaborate social commentary than the brief monologue that we were given? It seems doubtful. Forty-five minutes is not long enough, and the world does not need another Crucible. In many respects this week was as wobbly and precariously balanced as a house of cards, but I spent most of it laughing. I’m honestly not sure, this morning, just how much of that was intentional. But nonetheless I was laughing. That’s not a bad way to spend a sabbath.

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The Nimon, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There’s acting, and then there’s acting. And there are sandwiches, and then there are peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

One of my favourite performances in Doctor Who is that of Peter Barkworth in ‘The Ice Warriors’. He plays Clent, the obstinate leader of the base under siege (I use those words quite deliberately), a man with an agenda, a performance target and a serious problem. Clent’s journey encompasses the usual suspicion and paranoia but, like most surviving supporting characters, he’s sensible enough to listen to those who know what they’re doing before it’s too late. In the story’s conclusion, Clent is finally reconciled with the excommunicated Penley (played to perfection by a bearded Peter Sallis). “You are,” he says, “the most insufferably irritating and infuriating person I’ve ever been privileged to work with. Can’t write a report though, can you?”

It’s a marvellous moment. There’s something joyously reassuring about it. You instinctively like these men and you are glad that they have come through unscathed. It’s a scene in which supporting characters cease to be people who bounce off the Doctor and become people in their own right. It’s understated and beautifully performed. It seems, in a way, an odd scene to rank among one’s personal highlight reel, given that it does not consist of bombastic speeches, dazzling plot twists or epic moments of self-sacrifice. But there it is nonetheless, squarely placed in mine.

‘Understated’ is not, perhaps, a word that one might apply to the character of Soldeed. Doctor Who villains are known for being twisted and a bit mad, but Soldeed is off the scale. It’s partly the eyes – Graham Crowden is a master of the unfocussed stare, taking clear lessons, perhaps, from John Laurie in Dad’s Army. It culminates in a gratuitously tortured mental collapse as Soldeed realises the extent to which he has been duped, before dying in a shower of sparks and the bitterest of cackles. It’s the sort of scene you do at parties. Or maybe that’s just our house.

Soldeed

My feelings on ‘The Horns of Nimon’ are well-documented, at least on this blog. It is – for reasons that will become obvious if you read the thing – one of my favourite stories, precisely because it is so uproariously flamboyant. I have attended hog roasts with less ham. It’s very easy to be critical of this period of Who, coming as it does hot on the heels of some of the best stories in the show’s history, but there is a place for silliness. There’s nothing wrong with having a story that knows its own identity and bears no shame in it, unless that story happens to be ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one person who’s allowed to hate ‘The Horns of Nimon’, and that’s Anthony Read.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days talking about animatronic lions and Michael Aldridge – but when we watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the other week, it was Barbara Kellerman who lit up the screen. I hadn’t seen it in well over twenty years but I had forgotten (no, strike that, I had never even noticed) what a thoroughly melodramatic performance it is. Her temper is as brittle as the ice. There are sentences teased out to snapping point. She does this thing with her wand. And when she gesticulates, it’s with her whole body. It’s as if Kellerman was in a drama workshop demonstrating the principles of over-acting, and her switch got stuck.

Jadis

This isn’t a bad thing. The role demands it, after all, at least it does in this particular rendition, which demands that actors chew up the scenery so that you can’t see the holes. Tilda Swinton is all the more subtle, which suits the mood (and production values) of the film. Kellerman is as subtle as a house brick through an immigrant’s window. She is clearly having tremendous fun – indeed, there are times when, rather like Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, she looks like the only one who’s having any fun. It’s hard to single out a particular scene where she is, perhaps, being even more ridiculous than in the rest of the story – her “How many Nimons?” moment – but if I had to pick one, it would be the moment Edmund arrives in her throne room. “ASLAN?!?” she bellows, in a deep, throaty voice that makes her sound rather like a furious Margaret Thatcher. “HERE??? IS THIS TRUE?!?”

You can see quite a bit of that in the video. It was Joshua who suggested that the White Witch was “A bit like Soldeed”, and I had to agree. So I put them together, and found that of the two, the Witch comes out on top. For the most part she wipes the floor with him. Only in his final scene does Crowden come anywhere near the theatrical pomp of his castle-dwelling, wand-packing rival, but it was fun finding out. There was only one musical choice for this sequence, and it was Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets – better known, perhaps, as the theme from The Apprentice – for no reason other than it fit. There is even a loose narrative of sorts, or at least a simulacrum of interaction between them. I do not pretend that it makes any sense at all. But it’s like peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You really don’t think it’s going to work. And yet somehow, it does.

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You said that you’d had only one!

Happy Shrove Tuesday!

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Calls from mobiles will be considerably higher

Jeremy-Kyle

I have said before that I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, but if I did, I suppose The Jeremy Kyle Show would be one of them.

It’s a horrible, spiteful programme. I know perfectly well that it’s manipulated to breaking point. The guests are usually in a bad situation that’s made worse by a team of gossiping runners who stick them in separate dressing rooms and lie to them (or, at least, heavily embellish the truth) about what the other party may or may not have said, just before they’re hauled out onstage and shouted at by a womanising bully. The whole thing is then edited for maximum dramatic impact, reasoned conversation truncated or omitted entirely. The tabloids pick it up and social media – which Kyle himself so frequently decries, typically with frustrated shouts of “Oh, FACEBOOK!” – is a juggernaut of hatred and snap judgements. Jeremy calls it “conflict resolution in a controlled environment”, arguing that if he didn’t do it, they’d be doing it in the streets. He has a point, but it’s rather like throwing whiskey onto a bonfire. Or it’s like Bill Hicks’ routine about Jack Palance in Shane (a scene that doesn’t actually happen, at least not the way that Hicks describes, but you can see what he means).

At the same time, I can’t stop watching it. The inconvenient truth is that for all the manipulations of the show, many of its guests are rotten to the core. It’s not even a question of Jeremy making them look bad; they do that well enough for themselves. There are twenty-year-old cannabis-smoking layabouts, unable to hold a decent posture, most of whom have already fathered several children. There are fifty-year-old screamers who are guilty of emotional abuse. (Julie – who was on the show the other morning – I’m looking at you.) Some of these people have had dreadful upbringings and never stood a chance, and need the sort of comprehensive long-term counselling that the dubious and ambiguous ‘after-show care’ is in all likelihood not going to provide. But all the liberal apologetics in the world (and I’m as left as they come) can’t undermine the undeniable fact that some people are simply bastards. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy it. I enjoy the moral superiority I get over simply being incompetent and moody, rather than a bastard.

Anyway, I was thinking about New Who the other day, largely in the context of continuity. And given the myriad twists and turns taken in series six, it struck me that this is how ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ ought to have ended.

Yes, I know the Photoshopping is dreadful. It was the best I could do. River’s top doesn’t reveal nearly enough neckline, and Rory looks a bit like he’s been on the growth enhancement pills. The tattoos are a nice touch, anyway.

But why stop there? Here’s Jeremy giving writing advice.

Jeremy_3

(I live for the day that Jeremy challenges someone to put something on the end of it, only for them to reveal their Catholicism. I wonder if he’d have a comeback.)

Here’s Jeremy tackling those bathtub stains that other domestic cleaners can’t reach.

Jeremy_4

To be fair, I don’t think he’s ever actually used that word. Oh, it comes across in the heavily implied loathing of some of his contestants (deservedly so; I know they’re edited badly and not always portrayed in the best light but some of these people really are dreadful). ‘Waste of space’ is a popular one. ‘Silly little boy’ is another. But I don’t remember him actually calling anyone ‘scum’, at least outside this video.

Of course, if he did, we could do this.

And finally –

And I really should stop harping on about him now. I have to go and shoot at some chavs. See you next time.

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The Nimon be praised

Ah, how do I love thee, ‘Horns of Nimon’? Let me count the ways.

For starters, this is one of the silliest stories in the canon. The premise is fairly sound: it’s Theseus and the Minotaur, half a universe adrift. It has a labyrinth, a bull-like monster and a batch of unnecessary sacrifices. Even Theseus himself makes a token appearance in the form of the partially anagrammed Seth, who has feigned nobility in order to impress girls, and has wound up being hero-worshipped by a Blue Peter presenter. Somewhat disappointingly, this is not Peter Purves.

The Doctor and Romana arrive in the TARDIS – Romana wearing a bright red coat that turns out to be something of a mistake when she’s cornered by the titular bull. There is a lot of running and shouting and some frantic mugging from Baker, who buries his head in K-9’s neck with a gasp of horror when the pair are about to crash into a planet (not long after giving him the kiss of life). It’s partly the excesses of a performer about to enter his twilight, ‘needs to be reigned in’ phase, and partly Kenny McBain’s direction, which allows for moments like this.

(“Simultaneously the best Tom Baker moment,” says YouTube user Cybjon, “and the worst. It’s like the show jumped the shark, got eaten by the shark, only for the show to eat its way out of the shark triumphant. Also, the shark has the face of Graham Crowden on acid.”)

We can’t single out Baker. Lalla Ward is also clearly having fun, whether it’s sparring with the aforementioned Crowden, sneering at the bullying co-pilot (whose role is largely to shout “WEAKLING SCUM!” at his prisoners) or leading an escape attempt by running halfway across the room, crying “GO! GO!”, and throwing her arm over her shoulder in the sort of theatrical manner that you’d expect from a stage school graduate. Indeed, the whole story is borderline pantomime in places, before crossing the border completely and acquiring a visa, and then applying for citizenship. It’s no secret that Anthony Read was less than happy with the interpretation of his script, which is relatively straight-laced until it wound up in the hands of a cast who play it mostly for its comic potential. Small wonder, then, that this story divides fans as much as it does.

But I enjoyed ‘The Horns of Nimon’ so much I watched it twice in the same day. Once by myself, with Edward to keep me company in between clambering up on the table and emptying out the cat food (this is him, you understand, rather than me) and once with Joshua and Daniel, both of whom were thoroughly gripped. We particularly enjoyed Soldeed’s final comeuppance, where the power-crazed fanatic comes to the unmistakable conclusion that he’s been duped:

Somewhere in the creative ether there is a dramatic, serious version of this scene which would make Anthony Read a happy man. I have no interest in seeing it. I confess I love this with a passion. Crowden goes through all five stages of Lear’s madness in the space of a couple of minutes. In contrast, Lalla plays it comparatively seriously, even if she delivers her lines with perhaps more resonance than is strictly necessary. It calls to mind the Doctor / Pirate Captain face-off in ‘The Pirate Planet’, in that you have a normally flippant and detached character being the serious one, because the gravity of the situation calls for it. Crowden hams it up like a loon, building his entire performance to this one moment, but somehow it fits.

There are many ways to skin a cat. But here, exclusive to this blog (because nobody else would be quite so silly) is a line-by-line breakdown with appropriate stage directions, showing how you – yes, YOU! – can reconstruct this scene, as it originally played, within the privacy of your own home / school / club / whatever. (Transcript by Chakoteya.net; annotations by me.)

INT. NIMON’S LARDER

[Teka has joined her friends in suspended animation.]

SETH: Teka!

[Romana goes to the controls.]

SOLDEED [out-of-control public schoolteacher]: You…you meddlesome hussy. Do not touch the sacrifices!

ROMANA [curiously straight]: It’s all over, Soldeed. You’re finished.

SOLDEED [evangelical street preacher]: No, the Nimon will fulfil his great promise! The Nimon be praised!

ROMANA [chiding parent]: The Nimon be praised? How many Nimons have you seen today?

SOLDEED [eyes glued open]: Don’t dare blaspheme the Nimon.

ROMANA [mother asking child about biscuit consumption]: How many!

SOLDEED [hand in cookie jar]: Skonnos will-

ROMANA [as above]: How many Nimons?

SOLDEED [King Lear]: Three. I have seen three.

ROMANA [angry committee meeting]: Well, I’ve just seen a whole lot more rampaging down the corridor. Face it, Soldeed, you’re being invaded.

SOLDEED [Billy Bones]: He said he was the only one. The last survivor of his race.

ROMANA [chewing out a drunken teenager]: He told you what you wanted to hear, promised you what you wanted to have.

SOLDEED [Sylvester McCoy, eight years early]: So this is the great journey of life?

ROMANA [“Yes, this was my favourite line”]: They’re parasitic nomads who’ve been feeding off your selfishness and gullibility.

SOLDEED [Johnny the Painter]: My dreams of conquest. [Lairy drunk] You have brought this calamity upon me!

ROMANA [Angry headmistress]: You’ve brought it on yourself!

SOLDEED [Richard III]: You will die for your interference!

[Soldeed runs through to the furnace and pulls the lever.]

ROMANA: Stop him!

[Seth shoots Soldeed as the alarm starts to sound.]

SOLDEED [Private Frazer from Dad’s Army]: You fools. You are all doomed. Doomed.

[Soldeed dies with a manic laugh.]

DISCLAIMER: Please note that Brian of Morbius is by no means liable for death caused by bad exposure to over-acting, or indeed over-exposure to bad acting.

There is also this.

In any event, I was struck throughout that the story’s title is only one letter shy of ‘The Horns of Nimoy’, so –

You pronounce it differently, of course. A closer homophonic parallel is ‘The Horns of Simon’, which automatically made my children think of a certain grumpy millionaire, known for his weekly pantomime theatrics.

20165_1

(For years now, every time the boys want to dress up, at least one of them will do nothing more than pull their trousers up to the armpit and shout “Hey, I’m Simon Cowell!”.)

I did not produce this image. I will possibly be producing a video mashup of the Nimon making derisive remarks, using MP3s I found on the internet.

But I think that’s for another day, don’t you?

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