Thursday, 29 April 2010
If you are wondering where Mr Jim Moon's next review is, or waiting for that Who article he promised, unfortunately an alligator ate them.
Mr Jim's Mum
PS - And here's the proof...
Saturday, 24 April 2010
Yes, that's right folks, I regret to inform you that there will be no review of The Time of The Angels. However in the timeless words both of Corporal Jones and Douglas Adams - don't panic! As I will be writing out my thoughts on this much anticipated story at some point in the future...
Now there are two good reasons why I'm not doing the review this weekend...
Firstly, this the first half of a two parter and it makes more sense to me to review the story as a whole. By reviewing both parts as one, I'm not having to slip on my Mystic Jim Head (courtesy of Gummidge Enterprises) judge episode elements by how well I think they going to pay off in the second half.
Secondly, I'm actually out of the UK at the moment and indeed I'll be still on my travels for next week's Who too - so I can't actually see the story until I return to Blighty. Yes, I could *ahem* acquire it quite easily - well,that is if the travel agent hasn't been telling porkies about the internet access in the places I'm going to be staying in.
But do I really want to have my first look at episodes in what a non-Who obsessed friend - a sane man who can't tell a Mandrel from a Bandril - is hailing as "a new golden age of Doctor Who on a tiny netbook screen?
Of course not! I want to sit down smashed out of my bonce on a potent mix of Earl Grey and jetlag and watch both parts on my big hi-def idiot's lantern in glorious don't-blink-0-vision.
However in the meantime for any of you jonsing for some of my patent rambling on Who, I will be posting up an article very soon on the many faces of the Doctor - The Regeneration Game.
Wednesday, 21 April 2010
There’s a growing school of thought that these days everything, no matter how obscure or for that matter unpalatable, has its own cult following thanks to the magic of the internet making fellow devotees aware of each other. Certainly, it’s very true that these days it’s easier than ever for word of mouth about a creator or a property to spread among the audience of a particular genre.
However despite the digital tentacles of cyberspace writhing ever deeper into our lifestyles, things still manage to get lost down the cracks of the cultural sofa sometimes. Now this is becoming a rarer phenomena, but I’m sure many of you out there can name at least one thing that you hold dear to your fan heart and yet bafflingly seems to remain overlooked and under seen by the rest of the world. For me, it’s been an enduring mystery for many years why Kim Newman’s fiction isn’t commanding legions of fans.
Now that’s not to say that the good Mr Newman is a total unknown, or that his work doesn’t have its devotees. For example, many of his titles are much sought after on second-hand and auction sites, and others consistently sell out their print runs whenever they are reappear on the shelves. And yet despite this encouraging signs, the majority of his canon remains stupidly out of print and thus limiting the potential for new fans to enter the fold.
Now you’ve probably heard that variant on the classic dig at teachers - ‘those who can’t, become critics’. And while there is no doubt that sometimes there is some truth in this, with failed creators taking up the pen and spraying their more successful brethren with the bitter ink of resentment, Kim Newman’s fiction convincingly proves that this claim is by no means a hard and fast law.
Aside from being one of our more erudite and entertaining critics, Kim is at least as equally accomplished as an author of fiction. In fact, his literary work is frankly breathtakingly good and it is nothing short of criminal that he isn’t better known. And for so much of his work to be unavailable is almost an act of cultural vandalism on the part of the publishing world. And so to rectify this sorry state of affairs, I offer this comprehensive tour of his literary works.
Undoubtedly a large contributing factor in his fiction’s off-the-radar status is that his publishers have often been confused as to how to market him, and similarly the book stores befuddled as to which section to place his tomes. For Kim’s work tends to skip genres and defies easy pigeon holing at every turn – one book may appear to be most at home in the horror section, but his next may be science fiction. But then if some one takes the trouble to read them, and discovers the intelligent layers of muscular cultural deconstruction and the extensive veins of satire pulsing beneath the skin, then the question arises whether this book perhaps should be in the section reserved for literature.
Now to an ordinary reader, such distinctions aren’t a problem and most will happily lump all of Kim’s work under the simple banner of ‘good books’. However if you are a worshipper at the charnel altar of the Arch Fiend Demographics, his fiction will have you weeping into your pie charts. The stat counters and graph makers really don’t like works that don’t fit their slots, you know. For example, take the Twilight books…
…and please do! Dah-dum-tish! Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week!
But seriously though folks, despite the twinkly vampire saga having seemingly captured the not inconsiderable market of every female under 30, I’ve noticed books stores getting in a right old flap over where to display Miss Meyer’s novels. Considering the books are already flying out of the stores by the boat load, you’d think they wouldn’t be too worried whether to place them in teen, horror of romance fiction sections. But no, they’ve taken to inventing new sections to solve this non problem. Unbelievably now major books chains here in the UK are sporting spurious new sections such as ‘paranormal romance’ and ‘dark fantasy’.
So if this how they react to a string of best sellers they can’t definitively tag, you can deduce their response to an lower profile author like Newman who is similarly confusing for them. If you guessed apathy and disinterest, then award yourself a double bill of your favourite obscure cult movies…
HOwever for the rest of us, who inhabit a saner universe where everything doesn;t need to be beaten to death to fit a bloody graph, this kind of genre bending is a draw in itself. A range of works spanning multiple genres and milieus is usually a reliable indicator of a writer who is honestly attempting to progress in his craft, rather hacking away at the same tired seam, content to just shovel out more of the same. Roughly speaking, an average author will write using the same kind of plots ring-fenced in a particular genre, but a brilliant writer will be returning again and again to the similar themes and philosophies in his works.
Now despite his canon roving across many different genres, Kim is consistently exploring the same artistic territories. If you will indulge me in a moment of literary pretentiousness, we could hypothesise that Kim’s textual mission statement for his fiction is 'deconstruction through juxtaposition'.
Yes, that is a ghastly critical phrase I’ve just coined, and rest assured I will atone by flogging myself with a copy of Pierce Nace’s Eat Them Alive later, but it’s still la better fit than taking the dahwn wiv da kidz route and calling Kim’s work ‘mash-up’ fiction.
For although one could loosely categorise much of his work as cross-over fiction, there is far more going on than merely playing a literary game of wouldn’t it be fun if Character X met Character Y. Firstly often he is creating little worlds where different fictional beings co-exist rather merely teaming up a brace of fictional people; any given piece of Kim’s fiction is literally teeming with references and allusions to other movies, television, books and comics.
Now anyone reasonably familiar with popular culture in all its many forms can have a lot of fun recognising all these little homages and cameos. But more importantly than the trainspotter thrills for your inner cultural anorak, is the way he employs these fictions; it’s a case of melding the genre styles and concepts of different works rather than indulging in dream team fantasies.
Basically what he is actually doing is running textual explorations that are the literary/cultural equivalent of the experiments they are running at CERN. Now if particle physics doesn't give you a large hadron, the charming Alpinekat explains it all nicely in rap here. But basically the point is this, in order to discover more about the nature of the fabric of space-time, physicists collide atomic particles at high speed and observe the resulting fireworks. And essentially Kim is doing the same thing but with fictional properties.
So for example, while a story like the much anthologised Big Fish on one level is a fun yarn of which might be loosely summarised as ‘Phillip Marlowe vs. The Deep Ones’, it also illuminates the concepts underpinning the writings of Raymond Chandler and HP Lovecraft, and unearths thematic parallels in their works.
Now some may say that this is nothing new and that Alan Moore – he who knows the score apparently – has been doing this kind of thing for ages with his ongoing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics saga. And this is perfectly true.
But in all fairness, both of these gentlemen are taking their cues from Phillip José Farmer, who created what is termed the Wold Newton Universe. In a series of books and stories, Farmer created an alternate world where not only many famous classic fictional heroes coexisted but were shown to be related.
However in a similar spirit of equity, it also must be pointed out that Mr Newman had picked up Mr Farmer’s ball a good many years before Mr Moore. And, although I hold Alan Moore in the highest regard, I must confess that for my money, Kim has carried it far further and better than the Wizard of Northampton…
In PART II we’ll take a tour of the Newman multiverse, and have an exhaustive look through his entire back catalogue. But in the meantime, you can have a taste of this fine gentlemen’s literary work at the following online reading rooms…
The Wandering Christian (with Eugene Bryne)
A Shambles in Bohemia
Saturday, 17 April 2010
One of the more unanimous niggles about the resurrected Doctor Who has been the fact that the Daleks have returned, regular as clockwork, every single season. And even though none of the four specials last year were tales concerning Skaro’s finest, those pesky pepperpots still managed to get their polycarbide shells back on the old goggle-box with a generous cameo in The Waters of Mars.
And I have to say, I broadly agree with this popular sentiment that we are seeing them far too regularly these days. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Daleks to bits but I do think that things were better when you couldn’t set your watch by their reappearances. In the classic series, despite the great public appetite for Dalek stories, they rationed their appearances and so a new battle between the Doctor and his arch enemies was a big deal – what we would now call ‘event television’ – rather than an expected feature of every season.
However other diluting their screen power, there is another problem tied up with the overexposure of the Daleks, and I suspect, a major source of the annoyance with their constant returns in the new show. And it’s this: in every appearance, they rebuild their ranks from a handful of survivors only to be completely wiped out again.
Now way back in 2005, when Who had just returned this was acceptable; when the Emperor and his hoard were dissolved by Bad Wolf/Rose it made for an epic and thrilling finale to the first series. The mass destruction of the Dalek fleet had an almost operatic feel to it and neatly provided closure to the back-story arc concerning the Time War and its effect on the Ninth Doctor. And from a production point of view, considering that no one foresaw the huge success of the show would turn out to be, it made sense to tie up all those loose ends neatly. More to the point, as it was very possible that the new Who could end up being axed, Russell T Davies could afford to go for a real Götterdämmerung ending and exterminate the Daleks completely.
However repeating this formula every series since is less forgivable. Firstly, even though we always expect arch enemies to cheat death and return again and again, does every outing have to end with their final end? Couldn’t the Doctor just defeat them for a change? Foil their plans and force them back, rather than commit another act of genocide. Secondly, these constant Dalek apocalypses create a real pain in the arse for the unlucky sod that has to find a way to conjure up another hoard of Daleks to menace the universe.
And for this latest Dalek return, the aforementioned unlucky sod is Mark Gatiss. Although perhaps best known for being one of the League of Gentlemen, he also is a long time Doctor Who fan who has ended up realising his dreams to be involved with the show. In the regenerated series, he penned The Unquiet Dead - a personal favourite of mine from Series 1, The Idiot’s Lantern in Series 2, and starred as the villainous Professor Lazarus in Series 3’s The Lazarus Effect.
Furthermore, during what Gatiss himself wryly refers to as ‘the interregnum’ – that dark time between 1989 and 2005 when the good Doctor had vanished from our screens - he wrote four Who novels. Two were for Virgin Books’ continuation of the series, furthering the adventures of the Seventh Doctor in Nightshade and St Anthony’s Fire. And the other pair were for the later BBC range of Past Doctor Adventures; The Roundheads which was a historical outing for the Second Doctor, and Last of the Gaderene which was a tale set in the UNIT era of the Third Doctor’s life. Plus he also scripted two audio plays for Big Finish (who were also furthering the travels of the Doctor while he was away from television) -Phantasmagoria and Invaders From Mars.
And if all of that wasn’t enough Time Lord credibility for you, his favourite book in childhood was the Target novelisation of the Jon Pertwee classic Planet of the Daleks. And perhaps this is most relevant thing on his Who CV…
But more on that later! On the episode itself…
Considering the first two episodes have effectively been new pilots for the revamped series, Gatiss was a good choice to helm the third, the point when the show can just get on with the action. And being very familiar with most of his previous Who output, and indeed the rest of his canon, I was hoping an old school adventure but packed with fresh ideas rather than lapsing into a mere pastiche of past stories. And indeed this is what he delivered. In spades!
My initial reaction is that this is perhaps the best of the three episodes he has penned for new Who. Let’s face it, when you give a writer who understands stories and genre tropes as well as Mark Gatiss the brief 'write a script involving Daleks and Churchill', you’re bound to get something good out the other end.
So we have a wonderful portrait of Churchill, that is both fun and respectful, and brilliantly performed by Ian McNeice, Bill Paterson shining as the slightly bumbling but quite brilliant Dr Bracewell, the Daleks being subtle and cunning, and all wrapped up beautifully in the wartime setting. Throw into the mix an impressive set piece consisting of spitfires taking on a Dalek saucer plus some clever plot twists and we have a winning episode here.
Also it was nice to see Amy getting plenty to contribute throughout the story and again it was good that the resolution involved some old fashioned quick thinking rather than the magic solution new Who has relied on too heavily in the past, particularly when the Daleks are involved.
However I do have some negative points to raise. I don’t whether it was down to the traditional adventure yarn structure or the fact that this is an early outing for a new incarnation, but the Doctor himself felt a little more generic. Now Matt Smith was wonderful as ever, but some of the time his part could have been played by any of the other Doctors. And I am perhaps being a little nitpicky - after all we get the superb scene where he bluffs the Daleks with a jammy dodger!
On reflection, I think the problem was that the episode was so fast paced that at some points there just wasn’t the time for the Doctor’s new personality to shine through as much as the previous two episodes. Of course, stories not having the space to breathe is the curse of modern Doctor Who.
To be honest, I really think that the BBC should bite the bullet and extend the running time and make each episode an hour long. As the specials last year proved, that extra fifteen minutes does make for better pacing and story telling. I appreciate that in an effects heavy show like Doctor Who the mandarins at Broadcasting House will be worried about the extra expense but really the additional time doesn’t need to be more explosions and eye candy. In fact, the extra time would ideally be more of the cheapest scenes - people talking and mood shots; all those little details that flesh out the plot and the characters.
And certainly I feel that this episode was deserving of more a little more time. Perhaps not stretching it out to a two parter, but an extra quarter of an hour would have given the plot more room to breathe and for the script to spread its wings a lot further. For example, I'm not sure we get to spend enough time with Bracewell for his ultimate salvation to have all the proper dramatic impact it could have.
Secondly, those spitfires in space… They were marvellous but - and this is not a criticism of the episode itself - I did think it was a bit of shame that they’d showed snippets of this impressive set piece in the trails. Now obviously as it’s a brilliantly executed sequence that looks truly cinematic it's only natural the BBC wanted to show it off in the previews.
But as stunning as it was - and I heartily concur with a tweet I’ve just seen by comics author Andy Diggle that reads ‘Hard to focus on the aerial dogfight in tonight's DR WHO because I was literally weeping with joy’ - imagine how much more amazing it would have been if you didn’t know it was coming...
Last niggle - the new Dalek design. Now I don’t mind the bright colours - after all, these are a set of Dalek leaders. The Stolen Earth/Journeys End has shown us a Supreme Dalek in red livery, and in the classic series we've seen colour coded Daleks in command positions - a pertintent example here would be the Gatiss favorite, Planet of the Daleks which features another Supreme Dalek in gold and black. Similarly the loss of the slats around their waists and the enlarged bumpers is a return to the designs of the Hartnell days - check out this Dalek Commander from their second outing The Dalek Invasion of Earth and compare it with tonight's newcomers.
My problem is they seem to be, well, a little too chunky for my tastes... Oh sod it, I’ll just come out and say it - to my eyes it looks like they’ve got fat arses now! Exterminated all the pies, did you? Maybe the new look will grow on me - I hated the new Cybermen the first time I saw them but love the design now - so time will tell.
Of course, not all future Daleks may follow the new design - these were a set of founding father models remember. Which brings me to the biggest issue I had coming into this episode and the one I addressed in the opening of this review - were the scourge from Skaro back again only to meet another ‘final’ end?
Thankfully no! As I’d hoped, the new Moffat broom isn’t repeating the same lazy pattern of threat to the universe/destroy the Dalek race. And as I suspected Mark Gatiss was the perfect man to break the cycle. Remember I mentioned his love for the Third Doctor story Planet of the Daleks? Well, the pertinent point here is the portrayal of the Daleks in this outing. This six parter’s plot takes place in future history when the Daleks are plotting an major intergalactic campaign, one of several they launched in this period. On the mysterious planet Spiridon, they are secretly building up an army to conquer the galaxy and carrying out covert experiments to replicate a unique ability Spiridon’s natives possess - the power of invisibility.
Now while the Time War and the elevation of the Daleks to universe destroyers was a logical extrapolation of their ultimate plans, it is a limiting factor for story lines. After all, after they have attempted to obliterate the rest of creation, how do you top that? And the cycle of return/total destruction was just as constricting.
Now with Victory of the Daleks Gatiss has returned them to the status they held in the classic series - a constant menace to other civilised worlds, building empires and hatching fiendish plans to conquer galaxies. And the redesign, which harks back to these earlier days, reflects this back to basis approach. The way is open once again for smaller stories - the small defeats and thwarted schemes we all want to see again. Indeed skirmishes like this one, where the stakes are high but not apocalyptic.
And for this reason, despite a few niggles, I rate this episode very highly. Victory of the Daleks is well named - it restores the Daleks to their rightful place in the show’s mythology, but more importantly, the Daleks actually win this one! Yes, the Doctor and Amy may have prevented them from destroying the Earth but that was never their real objective. Their true goal was accomplished - to build a new Dalek race and even as I type this they are no doubt making planet fall on their old home world Skaro, ready to begin hatch further diabolical plans…
Friday, 16 April 2010
Spoiler and dragon free!
Although fitting movies into clearly defined demographic slots – such as ‘chick flick’, ‘teen movie’, ‘kids’ film’ or ‘family entertainment’ – maybe useful from a critical standpoint, it’s not necessarily such a good thing when it comes to marketing. Demographics are useful in their way but in recent years have come to a dominant factor in the herd-mind of Hollywood studio bosses and this has led to many decisions where the tail has been wagging the dog. The trouble is as much as you try to reduce your audience to chunks of figures of predictable patterns, the general public have a remarkable tendency to not have the good grace to stay put in any category the hardworking and very clever men with the graphs have the decency have carefully placed them in.
And this is why How To Train Your Dragon opened to disappointingly low box office returns. The knuckleheads who believe the world is just one big bloody pie chart reasoned thus – its animation therefore it’s for kids and hence as it’s a kids’ flick you gotta shove it out during school holidays. Now there were some rumbling and grumbling from theatre owners who were concerned about a logjam of 3D films, but as cinema owners and the limited availability of 3D capable screens weren’t on the predicted audience pie charts they were roundly ignored.
And so How Train Your Dragon was released head-to-head with the remake of Clash of the Titans. Now the demographics wizards no doubt reasoned that this wouldn’t be a problem as they were going for two different age markets accorded to their data. Because as we all now little kids don’t love big monsters and definitely aren’t bloodthirsty little sods… So therefore they certainly wouldn’t be pestering their parents to take them to see Perseus hacking lumps out of giant scorpions and beheading a gorgon. Of course not!
Now I have some pie charts of my own and according to my data analysis, demographics experts are Type Z people – berks who need to get their heads out of their arses and take a good look at the real world for a change…
Of course, you may say that I’m being a little too sarcastic here and that maybe the industry string pullers just really, honestly believed that their movie was the better piece of cinema and quality would win out at the box office. However years of reading and watching making of features and retrospectives, plus countless tales from actors and directors about what goes on in the business end of the Hollywood, does lead me to severely doubt this as my overall impression is that the folk in charge of the purse strings aren’t actually that interested in any given movie’s actual content and in general seem to be people who don’t actually like movies at all.
However fortunately for How To Train Your Dragon it is easily a far better film than the botched Clash of the Titans - and not simply because Louis Leterrier can’t seem to make a film in Hollywood without someone sticking their oar in and screwing everything up with perpetual reshoots and re-edits. No How To Train Your Dragon isn’t just better by default, it’s one of the best animated features I’ve seen in quite a while. And I’d go further - it’s one of the best pieces of all round family entertainment we’ve had in some time too.
Now there is some serious competition for these accolades but for me How To Train Your Dragon trumps them all. Wall-E and Up both start really well but their second halves don’t quite manages scale the heights of the first. Fantastic Mr Fox is a delight of wit and old school stop motion and although it plays better to kids than some critics gave it credit for, it still entertains the grown-ups a touch more than a good family should. Avatar is probably a little too intense for the very young to earn a family tag and A Christmas Carol is an excellent adaption of Dickens’ classic but as such belongs more to the genre of Christmas films. As for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland… rubbish wasn’t it. Pretty rubbish I’ll grant you, but rubbish none the less. Like his trademark trees, Burton needs to branch out a bit…
So then what makes How To Train Your Dragon so good? First up, it looks absolutely gorgeous. A recurring irritation I’ve had with a lot of modern animation, both CG and old fashioned 2D, is the tendency to overly stylized designs. There seems to have been far too many cartoons all featuring characters that comprise of polygonal shapes with stick-thin arms and legs and in general, demonstrate only a passing acquaintance with correct anatomical proportions. Now stylization is fine and I love The Nightmare Before Christmas, which seems to have popularised this particular style, as much has the next skellington. But it would appear that this tendency to carry it to the point of needless freakishness and often regardless of whether it suits the subject has increased in direct proportion to the use of computers in the animation process. And this leads me to suspect that a lot of lazy, if not downright shoddy, draughtsmanship is masking its failings by playing the stylistic card – why else did the animators of the first Clone Wars get the gig when they blatantly could draw an elbow to save their lives?
Thankfully though, the animators and designers on How To Train Your Dragon are not followers of this trend, and instead deliver characters that are cartoony but still realistic enough to pass as people rather modern art sculptures come to life. Wisely they have channelled their wilder inspirations into the designs of the different species of dragon and as a consequence have created a range of marvellous beasties that are fantastic in every sense of the word.
And these deft character and creature designs are given a wonderful home in the island of Berk. The world of How To Train Your Dragon is portrayed in loving and lush detail; we are talking an Avatar-like level of realistically rendering a fantasy landscape. I was very impressed that the designers had perfectly created an authentic Viking look for the buildings and artefacts; clearly they have done a lot of historical homework and their efforts are rewarded with the creation of a fantasy world with an original vision and brimming with flavour.
But equal to the design work in bringing depth and life to the universe of How To Train Your Dragon is the cinematography. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois hired Roger Deakins, veteran cinematographer for the Coens, to help craft the visual look of the movie; apparently the concept was to give the film a more live action/real life look than is usual for an animated feature and this has paid off in spades. At a couple of points, I honestly caught myself thinking ‘Wow! Stunning location!’ before remembering it was filmed in the land of RAM – seriously I had completely forgotten I was watching an animated feature!
In addition the 3D work is superb too – this is a film firmly in the not-too-pointy and plenty of depth school set up by Zemeckis and Cameron. How To Train Your Dragon is packed with whizzing firebolts and breath taking flying sequences but equally important is the little details it brings to life such as the characters expressions and the textures of their gorgeously rendered world. It’s another demonstration that you really need both imaginative directors and to plan a movie for 3D from the outset to creatively justify using the process. How To Train Your Dragon don’t just knock the retro-fitted 3D of Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titan into a cocked hat, it fells them with a great axe and performs a blood eagle on their quivering backs.
However that said, this film is not dependant on the 3D wow factor and although it is nice to see it with dragons flapping off the screen it’s not essential. Partly because the direction and cinematography is dynamic enough to be impressive when viewed flat, but more importantly than delivering the eye candy, How To Train Your Dragon tells a great story that is wonderfully rounded in many different ways.
We have a nicely balanced selection of memorable characters which, incredibly for a film with an eye on the younger market, doesn’t include a cute, supposed to be comedic but actually as funny as the Black Death, sidekick. And this Viking crew is ably voiced by a fine cast who all have a good grasp on both the script’s comedy and drama. And the story has plenty of both; unlike so many family films it doesn’t feel the need to wrap everything in broad comedy.
On the comedy front, it’s a refreshing change to have a family movie whose humour stems from wit rather than just slapstick. It doesn’t play the game of throwing in a custard pie gag for the kids and then a smart arse reference only the grown-ups get; rather it’s humour is completely inclusive – a challenge most scripts fudge with the one for them, one for us approach.
However some mainstream critics have docked it marks for not being funnier, but I applaud it for having the balls to treat its dramatic elemetns seriously. A bane of modern fiction that is aimed at children is the reliance on the same old platitudes – the worst repeat offender being the ‘just be your self and everything will fine!”. Now this is a noble enough message for a younger audience but so often it is delivered in a story so devoid of any real danger, pain or darkness that it starts to grate and becomes a bit “…and we’ll all go and live with the tofu dolphins who live under fridge”.
And at first glance, it would seem that How To Train Your Dragon is heading down the same path – introducing us to Hiccup, a most un-Vikingly Viking who is better at thinking and making things than hitting them. However as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that that this is more of a coming of age story than the usual watered down ugly duckling routine. And it lead to some harsh emotional places and there is a personal cost to the happy every after.
In short, there are a lot more layers than is usual in this kind of family fare and the movie is all the stronger for it. And it’s this emotional depth that’s got people talking as much as the thrills, the laughs or the 3D. Indeed I’d say it’s the strength of the story that’s inspired the word of mouth that has turned the film’s box office fortunes around.
More to the point, it’s also what makes How To Train Your Dragon a real classic. And that’s why I gave the demographics boys such stick earlier for allowing this movie to go out and be shoved in the afternoon only showing ghetto of school holiday cinema schedules. However in a delicious piece of irony, How To Train Your Dragon has successfully challenged and overturned the received wisdom just like Hiccup himself.
It skilfully avoids the pitfalls and tar pits that scupper many films for all the family – it’s not too cute, patronising or fluffy. Instead it’s fun, exciting and thrilling with a strong heart and a smart head on its shoulders. How To Train Your Dragon is simply pure gold.
Sunday, 11 April 2010
Spoiler warning! Press 'Read' or 'Ignore'!
After inflicting several thousand words on the return of Doctor Who upon you all last week, I honestly intended leave well alone and perhaps return for a mid season report. However like Vic and Bob, I just couldn’t let it lie! And so ignoring the rod manufacture/my own back equation, I’ve decided to review every damn episode in this season…
Last week’s opening episode, which ushered in the Moffat era, was a huge success; generally going down very well across the board and saw Matt Smith very swiftly winning the hearts of the general audience and the die hard fans alike. And this was no mean feat, considering David Tennant is pretty much tied with Tom Baker for the title of most loved incarnation of the Doctor.
And although Moffat didn’t stray too far from the templates laid down by Russell T Davies, The Eleventh Hour showed a tighter grasp of plotlines and characterisation, a better integrated sense of humour and a whole new level of brio. In short, although it didn’t deliver the darker, more adult Who some were hoping Mr Moffat to unleash, nearly everyone could agree that this was a show refreshed and reinvigorated.
But there were still many questions and expectations hanging over the next story. After all, as the old saying goes one swallow does not a summer make, but more pertinently, episodes in the previous series of new Who often varied in quality. So then, having got all those pilot episode constraints out of the way, where would Moffat take us next? Would The Beast Below see the show’s tone and style shifting further? And would Matt Smith’s performance differ now the regeneration had fully stabilised?
As it stands, a quick trawl of the reviews popping up all over the web show that this second helping seems to be somewhat more divisive. And while I wouldn’t hail this as a masterpiece, it is far from being a failure, and I can’t help feeling that some of the more negative critics out there are missing some key points.
The main bone of contention seems to be that the plot is a little thin and some are seeing this as a proof that the script demons of RTD are going to continue their reign of terror. Now I appreciate that from the trailers and teasers, a lot of folk would have been expecting something different. Having seen the sinister Smilers, I’m betting more than a few were expecting Moffat to be donning his King of the Scary crown and giving us another hunted by monsters with a catchphrase outing. And hence I completely understand why it is something of a let down to find out that the Smilers and Winders don’t actually do much in the story other than be a bit creepy.
And others have felt that the whole plot is a little too derivative for its own good. And again I can sympathise, the general set-up was very redolent of Season 3’s Gridlock and the reveal that the titular beast was a benign star whale was a little too close to the Torchwood episode Meat.
However in fairness, the whole future society living by the grace of alien monsters below is a very old saw in the science fiction toolbox. And if you look closely you can still see the words ‘Property of Herbert George Wells’ inscribed on the handle – because this is another of the myriad descendants of the Eloi/Morlock dynamics from The Time Machine. Equally one of the other big twists in The Beast Below; the ‘this has all happened before’ routine, can be found in the same toolbox.
But I’d argue this isn’t the Ghost of Thin Storylines Past manifesting once more. The key point here isn’t the originality of these tropes but what use a writer makes of them. And Moffat does build a solid enough story with them. But crucially he’s not relying on them to deliver the big punches, because it’s not the ins and outs of the storyline that are his real focus.
No, this isn’t meant be a scary tale of tunnel chases and grinning manikins – this is an episode about getting to know Amy. Yes, we were introduced to her last week, but it’s in The Beast Below we get a proper measure of who she is. In a way, this is her pilot episode. What was so great about The Eleventh Hour was that it was a story from the Doctor’s point of view, and so for the Time Lord/Companion dynamic to be properly set up, it’s only natural that Moffat would follow it up with an episode where Amy takes centre stage.
Now the Moff rattles through a good deal of the usual stuff the companion has to learn very quickly and effectively. Rather stint on the story to cover such topics as the Doctor’s species, what happened to the Time Lords, and basic time travel etiquette, he builds them into the action in a way that feels natural and doesn’t bore the audience who already knows all of these things. Similarly, the plot is structured to allow the audience to discover Amy’s real character through its events rather than clunky expository dialogues. And it’s here where the REAL plot twist occurs.
For although some are looking at this episode and seeing the same shallow treatment of big sci-fi ideas as in the Davies version of the show, I can’t help but feel that there is a crucial difference going unnoticed. And it’s a big one too – can you see the 10th Doctor as written by RTD being actually stumped by the plot threat and the companion saving the day?
What would probably happen if this was an RTD script is that Amy would mention children in passing and then Tennant yells “Yes, yes, yes you beauty, that’s it! I’m brilliant!”, burble the full solution to the dilemma like a puppy with logorrhoea, and then no doubt tow Starship UK to a safe planet with the TARDIS. And I wouldn’t rule out the Doctor actually riding the star whale like the universe’s smallest jockey in order to accomplish the happy ever after ending either…
See how that different that is from the Moffat end we actually got? Now that’s what I call a real tonal shift! And so I can easily forgive the fact that this episode wasn’t creating another addition to the Scary Monsters Hall of Fame, because what we have here is the creation of a fallible hero once again; an incarnation of the Time Lord who doesn’t have all of the answers, all of the time. And also The Beast Below presents a problem that isn’t one that can be solved with the invention of another superpower for the sonic screwdriver or some extreme extra-human cleverness on the Doctor’s part.
Although the boundless confidence and energy of the 10th Doctor was fun at the time, this tendency to omnipotence was getting all a bit much, to the point it was actually weakening the character. And Who has been down this road before, and funnily enough it was during Tennant’s rival for favourite Doctor, Tom Baker’s tenure. In the latter half of his run, the Fourth Doctor was suffering the same problem of being such a smart arse as to negate any real sense of threat in the stories. Indeed, Baker himself was so convinced of the Doctor’s god-like genius that he felt that he didn’t really need a companion anymore and mooted the idea of having a talking cabbage perched on his shoulder to provide the necessary expository questions.
But The Beast Below scales back the Lonely God motif of the RTD days, showing us a Doctor who doesn't know everything. But also it shows us why the Doctor really needs a companion - it's not because he's so powerful he needs a mortal to anchor his perspective but more simply because he needs a friend and helping hand as much as the rest of us. And just like us, no matter how intelligent or talented we are, we all need rescuing sometimes by the people closest to us.
So while the surface plot may not be dazzling, the redefinition of the character dynamics is laying the foundation for stories that won’t rely so heavily on deus ex doctor resolutions. And this is both an important change and a very welcome development.
However, debates over the plot’s strengths and weaknesses aside, what this episode did provide was excellent performances from the two leads. Karen Gillan really shone in this story, showing there is a lot of heart and intelligence to back up her feistiness. Although a typical fiery red-head would have made a good and interesting foil for the Doctor, I’m pleased that her character is turning out to have far more depth. And she can deliver the funny lines naturally too without slipping into broad comedy.
As for Matt Smith, well, he’s just magic isn’t he? His performance has lots of touches of previous Doctors – Troughton’s mischief, both Bakers’ alien quirks, Davision’s vulnerability, Pertwee’s scientist, McCoy’s twinkle and Hartnell’s irascibility – all tied up with his own weird energy. But he also brings a thoughtful gentleness underscored with a touch of melancholy. Now I really enjoyed David Tennant, but I have to say Smith has totally out Doctored him.
In conclusion, it’s all the little touches and not the big plot lines that make the difference here. And I think that The Beast Below works best when you see it as the second part of Moffat's new pilot. Now of course that leaves us back where we started the episode in a sense – waiting to see what Moffat and his merry band are going to produce when they tackle a story unfettered by character intros and bring a plot to the foregorund. And as it happens guys and gals, next week we’ve got Churchill meeting the Daleks in a Mark Gatiss script … and if that’s not an opportunity for a full blooded slice of Who adventure I don’t know what is. In Moff we trust - oh yes!
Thursday, 8 April 2010
It’s an important but unpopular fact that the reason stereotypes endure is because generally they hold true. And one of the most well known stereotypes about the British is that they as a nation tend towards eccentricity. And indeed we are – an Englishman’s home may be his castle but inside you might find anything from scale models of the Great Western Railway to a collection of novelty umbrellas. From the Sealed Knot to extreme ironing, we are a nation of cultists – being slightly mad is as British as a nice cup of tea. And our indulgence of those who would pursue the eccentric has nurtured generations of inventors, artists and musicians.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, our national love of all things off-kilter has produced all manner of cults in the world of entertainment. Only the British would embrace surrealism not as an art form but as a new mode of comedy thanks to the BBC letting The Goons and later Monty Python follow their own warped muses, and only in the leafy suburbs of England could Syd Barrett mutate the blues into extra-cosmic freak outs.
And it’s very telling that HG Wells was not only a pioneer of science fiction but also managed to invent war gaming with his catchily titled 1911 book Little Wars: a Game for Boys From Twelve Years of Age to One hundred and Fifty and For That More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Boys' Games and Books. Furthermore, it was a British director Walter Booth who was the first to follow Georges Méliès into cinematic sci-fi, with The Airship Destroyer in 1909. And it was the venerable BBC that first brought this genre to television with an adaption of Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots in 1938.
From Lewis Carroll to Edgar Wright, from Day of the Triffids to The Mighty Boosh, British cult fiction is a broad territory spanning many genres. And hence it’s always good to have some reliable guides when venturing into this vast landscape, which is where Cadmium 2 the podcast of Cult Britannia comes in.
Airing fortnightly Cadmium 2 brings you in-depth discussions and critical commentary on all that’s British and cult. As in all things cult, sci-fi, horror and fantasy works tend to predominate but Cadmium 2 does also cover comedies like Hot Fuzz and Carry On films as well some more mainstream fare like the James Bond films that inspire cult followings.
The show is hosted by a trio of very knowledgeable chaps, Andrew Richards, Mike Greaves and Paul Greaves, and with each episode they deliver a comprehensive history of the production, rich in the behind the scenes details, building into a full review. They bring to light the context their subject first appeared in but also assess it plays to a modern audience. However the amiable banter and occasional comedy bickering that ensues prevents the show from becoming overly academic; like the BBC, Cadmium 2 informs AND entertains.
For long running shows like The Tomorrow People, they will devote episodes to individual seasons/series or stories, and for franchises like Bond, single films. And this has led to their greatest undertaking, covering every Doctor Who story since the beginning in 1963. Now as this is such a massive undertaking, roughly every other episode returns to the TARDIS’ travels. However their critical approach really pays off here – by illuminating the production history and assessing the stories in the context of the times of their original screenings, Cadmium 2 isn’t just building up an archive of reviews of all the Doctor’s adventures but creating a series in itself that examines the history of this long running cult favourite.
However, even if you are immune to the charms of Gallifrey’s most famous son, there is plenty more to enjoy. And as well as delving into the worlds of cinema and television they also cover radio and audio productions too. It’s a very diverse menu, covering a nice mix of the well known and the obscure - check out the show list here and see for yourself the cornucopia of delights on offer.
For lovers of cult fiction everywhere, Cadmium 2 is a real treat. Find all the details for subscribing and the latest news at their blog here. Additionally there is also a Facebook group to join and you can follow these fine fellows on Twitter too.
Saturday, 3 April 2010
The Shadow Proclamation decrees this to be a class IV protected review and is certified spoiler free.
The first episode of a new era of Doctor Who has literally just aired – credits rolling as I type – and so here’s my instant review…
First off the bat, there has been a fair bit of fan muttering about the youth of new leads Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and since the trailers and teasers started to appear, I have heard more than few opine that Who has been turned into Twilight by the new production team.
Now before I get what the episode actually delivered and weigh up the merit of this accusation, there are a few important points to be noted. Firstly the casting of Matt Smith would have been decided at the same time if not before as the first Twilight film was being released, certainly well before the screen incarnation of Stephanie Meyer’s books became a bona fide phenomena.
Secondly, young Doctors are not a new thing - and no, I’m not talking about that kitsch ‘80s soap from Down Under either. Doctors 1 to 3 – Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee – were all older chaps and Tom Baker appeared to quite the young whippersnapper in comparison; in fact I recall much proto-fanboy moaning in the playground that he was too young for the role. And the same ‘too young’ argument kicked off again big style with 5th Doctor Peter Davison but we all got used to it and indeed, bar the blip of the older Sylvester McCoy, the world’s favourite Time Lord has been considerably more youthful than the initial trio of incarnation. And come to think of it, the ‘too young’ thing reared its head again when David Tenant was cast… and we all know how well that turned out.
Finally though and most conclusively, Doctor Who had already done the romance between an immortal and a human girl thing back when Edward was still Cedric Diggory. And although it’s a little early in the season to speculate on the twists and turns of the new Doctor’s relationship with Amy, I really can’t see Steven Moffat rerunning the Rose/10th Doctor romance. The defence rests m’lud!
Now onto the episode itself!
Well, I am quite stunned - that was a truly frenetic hour and five minutes! Don’t fret the TARDIS is in safe hands and the new boys are going to turn out just fine.
Of course what you really want to know is how is the new Doctor?
Well, as I expected this episode doesn’t gives us an entirely clear picture of what the new Doctor will be like. Whenever a Doctor regenerates there is always the now traditional period of flapping confusion until his new character stabilises and The Eleventh Hour is no different. However with the extended running time of this episode he actually gets plenty of time to get to grips with his new self.
Now rather than the usual excuse for acting strange and mugging comically, in this bout of post-regeneration trauma you get a clearer sense of the new character emerging. And what he like? Barking, mate. I think we could well be in for the most alien doctor since Tom Baker - he has that same balance for shifting between appearing mad as a brush and the sanest man alive at the same time.
But the real acid test for any new actor in the role is how long does it take them to convince that the are not the new Doctor but they ARE the Doctor. And personally speaking, Matt Smith had me by the halfway point.
We don’t get to learn very much about Amy Pond due to the frantic storyline but I suspect we’ve been introduced to key players in her life throughout the episode that will more significant later in the series.
But despite the lack of biography, we do get a strong measure of what kind of girls going to be and it’s safe to say she’s no drippy Bella - “feisty” is the word that going to be on everybody’s’ lips. Yes it’s a cliché but in this case it is bang on for once. And performance-wise Karen Gillan displays a great chemistry with Smith. Sparks are going to fly, mark my words!
Now story-wise, essentially what we have here is almost a brand new pilot, but we tend to get these very time there a new companion, never mind a new Doctor. And as such the story line is less about the threat of the week to be foiled than throwing the new characters together. However, I’d say The Eleventh Hour is best the bunch. Streets ahead of Tennant’s debut which he slept through most of, and showcasing the Doctor better even than Rose.
The plot itself is fairly typical menace to the entire planet that RTD was so fond of. And I suspect that’s deliberate - Moffat’s bringing in the new but reassuring us with the sort of story we all know the shape of. For example, The Atraxi are right out of Big Russell’s Big Book Of Retro-pulp Sci-Fi but Prisoner Zero is pure Moffat and I can already hear a media studies thesis being written exploring the aliens in this story are culturally symbolic of the aesthetic ethos of the old and new production regimes.
Now I wouldn’t be going that far this early into the new run you’ll all be relieved to hear. But I do think that my prediction of this story functioning as a bridge to the previous era holds up. Moffat delivered exactly what people expect of Doctor Who but is doing it in a somewhat different way - the show seems a lot more energised and yes, it did seem to have a slightly darker feel to it.
Really though it’s too early to tell how the season is going turn out stylistically. As this is a fresh start for the Doctor, I’m wary speculating on the rest of the series based on what is effectively a pilot, because as every fanboy knows pilot episodes are living proof that children don’t always resemble their parents.
What I can say though is that no matter whether the show’s approach changes significantly or not, the quality level will be remain as high as we are used to. And if the remaining episodes simply continue with the same sort of fare as the RTD days I suspect the team will be serving it with a higher level of elan.
But shifts in the tonal direction of the show aside there are all of cosmetic changes. The first swish of the new broom comes with an all new title sequence which is really liked. However there is also a new theme tune which frankly just didn’t impress me. It’s a lot more electronic which is good but they seem to have blunted the tune somewhere in the ambient noises. It might grow on me but I think it’s going to be unpopular. Personally I think they should just admit defeat and go back to the Delia Derbyshire renditions of score. Beef up the production a little maybe, but basically you are never going to get another arrangement that will ever come close to those original radiophonic arrangements. Even today they still sound like they are beaming in from the future.
Now we don’t get to see all the new kit until the close of the episode but you get to see it all onscreen long enough for a good look.
The new TARDIS is a definite improvement in this old Who head’s book. Don’t get me wrong I liked the revamped version sporting the coral desktop theme introduced for the RTD era, but this version is has it all. While clearly retaining much of the aesthetic stylings of the former console room, the new design also incorporates a lot more of the classic series TARDIS in its decor. The roundels that bedeck the walls are closer to the original design and the huge concentric silver rings and attendant gubbins are right out of the very first console room design back in the William Hartnell days (have a gander here and see for yourselves!).
And while still on the hardware, I was particularly taken with the new look sonic screwdriver. We only get a glimpse in this episode but having just a good look at some stills, again like the TARDIS refit, it’s pleasingly closer to the classic series version. Although in the case of the Doctor’s famous multi-purpose tool I’ve never really seen what was so wrong with the original design. But that said, I do like that the new sonic screwdriver looks more like a proper tool than a space age magic wand. And I can only hope the scripts follow suite.
The Doctor’s new togs work pretty well too - there’s aren’t many men who can wear a bow tie and not look a plonker but thankfully Matt Smith is one of their hallowed ranks. Although have raised eyebrows over the new garb, I personally quite like the Time Team chic his outfit has. Plus the tweedy absent minded professor helps to remind us that although he may look young, the good Doctor is just well over nine hundred years old.
So in conclusion, the Doctor is back and his future is in safe hands. If the show keeps up this level of energy then we are in for the best season yet. Now in all honest, I start every season with that hope when you see a preview, however it’s the first I’m still entertaining such high hopes after the close of the first episode.
My only real concern at this point, other than that bloody new theme, is that if Karen Gillan is going to continue wearing such short skirts, by the end of the season a goodly proportion of the male population are going to have palms hairier than Larry Talbot and all be shrieking “MY VISION IS IMPAIRED! I CANNOT SEE!!!!”
As any dyed-in-the-woolly scarf Doctor Who fan will tell you, the faithful mark the long running sci-fi show’s different eras are measured, not by which actor is in the eponymous role, but by who is sat in the producer’s chair and who is script editing. And so, on the eve of the 11th Doctor’s debut, it seems only fitting to have a look back at the Russell T Davies helmed first era of the regenerated Doctor Who and indulge in some tentative speculation on what the Steven Moffat incarnation is going to bring.
It’s difficult to remember now, in these days when our favourite Time Lord’s latest outing regular gives the top rated reality shows and soaps a run for their money in the ratings and the shops are brimming with Whovian ephemera, that it was a huge risk bringing this show back. And not least for show runner Davies who stood to see all his hard earned industry kudos go up in flames if the show flopped. However as we all now know, the show quickly achieved a level of success that nobody ever dreamed it could.
And we are not just talking about the ratings here either. Although the sight of children playing daleks in the street again is a wonderful and heart-warming sight for fans of the original incarnation of the show, the real triumph of Doctor Who is that it has had a massive impact on television itself. According to those arch-enemies of the viewing public, demo-bloody-graphics experts claimed that a show that could appeal right across the board wasn’t possible in the brave new world of niche market television they had helped to spawn. The gospel delivered by these chumps with their graphs was that family TV watching was over, and in their book any telefantasy show was to be labelled ‘cult’ and immediately relegated to a scheduling ghetto.
However the amazing reception to the revamped Doctor Who and its continuing success over the next half decade has proved that this gospel according to St Demograph to be the work of a false prophet - the old adage that “there are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics” springs to mind. Thanks to the Davies version of Doctor Who the stations are once again producing a plethora of entertaining adventures for all the family. And not only that, but since the continuing tales of a bloke zipping about all time and space have proved so popular, it looks like the attitude that sci-fi is purely for the geek market is finally dissolving.
For example, witness the development arc of Who spin off Torchwood. After the successful return of its parent show, Auntie Beeb green lit Torchwood which incidentally was a format devised by Big Russell some time before the High Council of the Broadcasting House sanctioned the resurrection of the Doctor. It was a bold but wary move; brave because the new Who was still in its infancy and could yet prove to be a passing fad, and yet the BBC cardinals were somewhat cautious, limiting the budget and production time and airing the series on one of their more niche channels, BBC 3.
But despite a certain unevenness in the first series, Torchwood garnered healthy ratings, and quickly secured repeats on the more prestigious BBC2. And when Captain Jack and co. returned for series 2, the show had better funds in the coffers and a longer production time. And there was a marked improvement in the quality of the show and this time it aired directly to BBC2. Again the series performed well with the viewers, and so last year when the third batch of Torchwood arrived this time it was as a five part mini series but going out on BBC 1 at prime time, heavily promoted and shown over the course of a week as event television.
And lo, it not only did it clean up in the ratings game but Torchwood: Children of Earth actually turned out to be the best televisual science fiction we’d seen in a long time. In fact, considering the weight and depth of the story, Children of Earth was simply the best TV drama is quite a while too. It wove a story full of aliens in an intelligent manner, was jam-packed with social and political commentary, and managed to grip the nation - Nigel Kneale would have been proud.
Undoubtedly the remarkable blossoming of Torchwood is partly due to the production team actually listening to the criticisms of the first two series, but its trajectory from a small digital channel to the big gun of BBC 1 is also a reflection of the developments ushered in by Doctor Who itself. No matter how well written the script was Children of Earth would have not have received the slot, budget or backing without the shift in cultural perception that you can enjoy a drama featuring monsters and spaceships and have an Aspergers level knowledge of a pretend universe and have to live perpetually in fancy dress. Indeed without Doctor Who returning from the wilds of space-time to exorcise the demographics demons, it’s doubtful that even a script as good as Children of Earth would have ever even gotten the green light.
So then regardless of what you think of the new Who, lovers of genre fiction and good television should be raising a glass to old RTD for all the changes to the medium he has wrought. However what of the changes to the show itself? Because there is obviously a large ‘but’ lurking here like a Cyberman in a shadowy corridor.
Now I’m not indulging in the lazy critical ploy of bait and switch here, building him up only to systematically dismantle him until all his achievements spectacularly collapse. No, there will be no such Jenga sarcasm here – for a start I’ve already remarked on his weaknesses in my review of The Waters of Mars, and I’m not holding the fact that The End of Time didn’t join up with his Martian excursion to form a tight trilogy as I’d hoped it would against him either.
Nor am I not one of those somewhat bitter old school fans who for years fantasised about how good the show could be if they brought it back thanks to the wonders of CGI and advances in the quality of television productions, only to hypocritically dismiss the new stories as being too flashy and full of special effects. Because I do think that overall the new Who is rather good. Yes, there have been some missteps here and there but largely RTD and co. have done a great job in returning the show to our screens and hit a pleasing balance on new and old. However although it is very good television – and cue the Cyberman and screaming Dudley Simpson synths – there is room for improvement.
As stated as the beginning of this piece, the different geological strata of the show in the pop cultural bedrock are delineated by the production team rather than the title role’s incumbent. For example, Tom Baker’s reign covers three eras and each time a new producer takes the stage the show shifts in tone and style. If you become a fan of the original series, you will soon find that different combinations of producer and script editor, and particular writers and directors are more to your taste than others.
So to nail my colours to the mast, personally I favour the dark and gothic Phillip Hinchcliffe era (the first few Tom Baker series) and the 70s action psychedelia of Barry Letts (Jon Pertwee) to the frothier fun in space of Graham Williams/Douglas Adams team (late Tom Baker) or the hard sci-fi approach implemented by Christopher Bidmead under the John Nathan Turner flag (last series Baker and early Davison).
Now for me, the RTD era most closely resembles the Williams/Adams period – there is the same focus on space fantasy and the humour is more pronounced. But also there’s more than a touch of JNT about RTD too – Big Russell played the press and generated plenty of interest in the Who in much the same way JNT used to and he shares with his predecessor a tendency to stunt casting – casting well known name actors and assorted other familiar faces from the goggle box in roles.
Obviously neither of these fit my favourite mode of Who but I do enjoy stories from all eras of the show, indeed there are many stories that I hold in high regard that aren’t from the Hinchcliffe/Letts stables. So I don’t take issue with the tonal and stylist directions RTD has taken the show in just because they do not mesh with the preferred rubrics in my head. At the end of the day, as important as the producer’s influence is, individual stories live or die on their own strengths.
And the RTD era has had a good strike rate in this regard; generally it has produced episodes that land in the ‘good’ folder. Admittedly some episodes like The Long Game or The Unicorn and the Wasp are standard lightweight run-arounds, perhaps a little too rompy for their own good, but the quality is still there and the stories are fun and entertaining even though they may not be breaking any new imaginative ground. Even Love and Monsters which is a strong contender for the least favoured episode of new Who, still has enough positive points to be a total write-off.
But even the kooky tale of the monster from Klom has its fans. And this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of RTD Who and particular the episodes penned by Big Russell himself. While we can all agree on some negative points like the fact that this era has seen too much of the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, there is a wild divergence in opinion over what works and what does not. The conker headed aliens in The End of Time are a case in point - some loved them for their portrayal as jobbing technicians rather than extraterrestrial villains, others enjoyed the colour and comic relief they brought, and some just didn’t like them, seeing them as irrelevant at best and cheesy annoyances at worst.
And this sort of polarisation is true for the wider aspects of the show. For every viewer that finds the moments of broader humour too much, there’s another who loves the show for it. And similarly people are equally divided over whether the higher emotional content of new Who is a hit or a fumble. Now there are no right or wrong answers here, it is a matter of personal taste pure and simple but the key point is that Davies nearly always manages to include enough of the aspects you like as well as elements that irritate. So regardless of whatever pros and cons make up the personal scorecard for any particular viewer, he does manage to please most of the people most of the time as the ratings bear out.
However this attempt to cover all the bases for everybody is also why many episodes, although hitting the ‘good’ mark fall short of being brilliant. And perhaps this commitment to the broadest possible appeal is also the real root of many of the weaknesses in the show. The overuse of humour, the too insistent tugging at the hearts strings, Murray Gold and his orchestra going crazy ape bonkers every five minutes and the papering over of plot holes with big special effects dues ex machine all stem from the urge to make the show as accessible and appealing to the widest possible audience.
But this populist approach is the right route to go down – in its previous incarnation Doctor Who began to flounder when began to wrap itself up in its own continuity and shifted from being a TV show all the family could watch to being purely for the benefit of the fans. In the Colin Baker years, we had Attack of the Cybermen which was a sequel to the Patrick Troughton adventure Tomb of the Cybermen and an even earlier Hartnell story The Tenth Planet. And obviously such continuity obsessed hi-jinks meant little to the average viewer who couldn’t remember the details of episodes aired over EIGHTEEN years ago and were lost forever at the time (Tomb has since been found). And the crowning irony was that even the die hard fans didn’t like this particular outing much either!
And the scars of Attack of the Cybermen run deep, and as life-long fan of the show RTD is all too well aware. Hence we have had a preponderance of stories that are full of easy to relate to humans, plenty of laughs and an avoidance of technobabble and info at all costs. However this has come at the expense of the scripts – it is my guess that the infamous under exploration and resolutions of his plots stems directly from this fear of alienating the causal viewer and tipping show back into the dreaded cult category. Ironically, it would appear that the shadows of those freshly exorcised fiendish demographics are still haunting the corners of the production office.
However as Children of Earth has proved, the public has a far greater tolerance and appetite for harder science fiction that expected these days. People are not going to turn off in droves if they develop the more fantastic elements of the show or explore the mythology a little deeper. And looking back over the past five years, it seems clear to me that Doctor Who can still scale new heights provided they stop playing it quite so safe.
Now, new producer Steven Moffat has been widely heralded as being the man who could accomplish this. His episodes in the Davies era have been some of the best, brimming with intelligence and imagination as well as being some of the most spooky stories. And consequently everyone is hoping Moffat will usher in an edgier Who, replacing RTD’s Williams style froth with some Hinchcliffian darkness.
It is true that new producers often rebooted and reimagined the format during the show’s classic run, and with a new Doctor, a new Tardis and a new logo it would appear we are in for a big change. However looking at the handovers in the past, I don’t think we are going to get anything quite so radically different just yet – there is always a transition period where the old bleeds into the new.
For example, in 1970 when Barry Letts took the reins and was substantially altering the format – the then new Doctor John Pertwee was to be exiled on earth – the first story Spearhead From Space wisely didn’t shock the viewers by plunging into all the tropes he would later establish. Indeed it wasn’t really until his second season that he really began to ring the changes and the show mutated to reflect the popular ITC action serials of the day.
And I can see Moffat doing the same, with the first couple of stories acting as a bridge between the two modes. However despite penning some of the most frightening stories in modern Who, I think it is a mistake to expect dark and creepy to be the order of the day for every single outing. To begin with his new Doctor, Matt Smith is following on the heels of one of the most popular Doctors ever and the new boy need a level playing field to win the audience’s affections. Hence to start shifting the stylistics of the show too much now is not a smart move, the viewers boat will be rocking enough acclimatising to the new face in the Tardis.
Now blatantly, although I’d lap up a darker Who like a big fat Ogron Eater, what I’m really hoping for from Mr Moffat isn’t a tougher, grittier show. Actually I’d be more than happy with more of the same but with tighter plotting and more imaginative scripting. And I believe that in this emerging new climate where fantasy and scifi are becoming part of the mainstream again, that taking a few more risks will see audience figures will increase rather than decline…