Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Grand Doctor Who Survey

There's been a survey going round Facebook covering people's cinema preferences. Unsurprisingly, this has been adapted by Doctor Who fans. Here's my response. Arguments have ensued with big name fans and close friends alike.


FAVOURITE TV DOCTOR: Second
FAVOURITE AUDIO DOCTOR: Eighth or David Warner
FAVOURITE COMIC STRIP DOCTOR: Eighth
BEST TV DOCTOR WE NEVER HAD: Paterson Joseph
FAVOURITE TV COMPANION: Romana II
FAVOURITE AUDIO COMPANION: Molly O'Sullivan
FAVOURITE COMIC STRIP COMPANION: Izzy
MOST UNDERRATED DOCTOR: First
MOST UNDERRATED COMPANION: Sara Kingdom (does she count?)
FAVOURITE CLASSIC SERIES STORY: City of Death
LEAST FAVOURITE CLASSIC SERIES STORY: Time-Flight
GUILTY PLEASURE CLASSIC SERIES STORY: Paradise Towers
MOST UNDERRATED CLASSIC SERIES STORY: The Gunfighters
MOST OVERRATED CLASSIC SERIES STORY: Brain of Morbius tied with Tomb of the Cybermen
FAVOURITE NEW SERIES STORY: The Doctor's Wife
LEAST FAVOURITE NEW SERIES STORY: The Doctor's Daughter
GUILTY PLEASURE NEW SERIES STORY: Love & Monsters
MOST UNDERRATED NEW SERIES STORY: Gridlock
MOST OVERRATED NEW SERIES STORY: The End of Time
FAVOURITE AUDIO STORY: The Wormery
LEAST FAVOURITE AUDIO STORY: Something dull enough that I've forgotten it
GUILTY PLEASURE AUDIO STORY: The Pescatons
MOST UNDERRATED AUDIO STORY: Iris Wildthyme series 2
FAVOURITE COMIC STRIP STORY: Happy Deathday
LEAST FAVOURITE COMIC STRIP STORY: that eighth Doc football one
GUILTY PLEASURE COMIC STRIP STORY: Something with the Kleptons in, probably
MOST UNDERRATED COMIC STRIP STORY: The Autonomy Bug
FAVOURITE TARDIS INTERIOR: Eighth/TV Movie
LEAST FAVOURITE TARDIS INTERIOR: Seventh, by the time it was just a backdrop with the lights dimmed.
FAVOURITE MONSTER: The Voord
LEAST FAVOURITE MONSTER: Plasmatons
FAVOURITE REGENERATION SCENE: Fifth to Sixth
LEAST FAVOURITE REGENERATION SCENE: Sixth to Seventh
FAVOURITE NEW DOCTOR STORY: Spearhead from Space tied with The Eleventh Hour
LEAST FAVOURITE NEW DOCTOR STORY: Time and the Rani
FAVOURITE MULTI-DOCTOR STORY: The Day of the Doctor
LEAST FAVOURITE MULTI-DOCTOR STORY: Dimensions in Time
FAVOURITE UNIT STORY: Spearhead from Space
LEAST FAVOURITE UNIT STORY: The Android Invasion
FAVOURITE PLANET NAME: Rex Vox Jax
FAVOURITE MASTER: Roger Delgado
LEAST FAVOURITE MASTER: Eric Roberts, but I like them all
FAVOURITE DALEK STORY: Genesis
LEAST FAVOURITE DALEK STORY: Into the Dalek
FAVOURITE CYBERMAN STORY: The Tenth Planet or Spare Parts
LEAST FAVOURITE CYBERMAN STORY: Silver Nemesis
CHARACTER WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN A COMPANION: Sally Sparrow
COMPANION WHO SHOULD NOT HAVE JOINED THE TARDIS: Mel
FAVOURITE DOCTOR WHO BOOK: The Scarlet Empress tied with The Infinity Doctors
LEAST FAVOURITE DOCTOR WHO BOOK: Nightdreamers
GUILTY PLEASURE DOCTOR WHO BOOK: War of the Daleks
WHO SHOULD PLAY THE 13th DOCTOR: Peter Dinklage or Tilda Swinton
FAVOURITE SPINOFF - Iris Wildthyme
LEAST FAVOURITE SPINOFF - Class

Sunday, 16 April 2017

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

I don't have a problem with remakes. Remakes are a time-honoured Hollywood tradition. Even straight, shot-for-shot remakes weren't uncommon in the golden days of film. It wasn't unusual for a successful film to be remade with a bigger budget, either with the same cast or a more star-studded one, and then rereleased to rake in even more money. Stage plays were frequently adapted to film, older movies were revamped for the age of colour, and once television became the entertainment behemoth of the twentieth century, TV films were reshot for cinema. By the seventies, even sitcoms were being remade virtually shot-for-shot for film. 

There is, however, the risk of alienating the very people who loved the original. We can become very attached to our favourite films, and take them more seriously than they were ever intended. Beauty and the Beast is, of course, an adaptation of La Belle et la Bete, a gothic fairytale written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve way back in 1740. There were doubtless outcries from purists when her original novel was rewritten to be more child-friendly in the 1750s and again in the 19th century. Even then, Barbot's novel was based on traditional folk tales dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Still, there's something about that romantic, cutesified Disney Classic from 1991 that's never been beaten. I was initially reluctant to go see a new, live-action version, particularly after the disappointment that were Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent





I'm happy to say that Beauty and the Beast was a huge success. It recreates the animated original just enough to hit the same highs but adds enough to make it something new. I still prefer the original, but the live action version is a very enjoyable film in its own right. It's absolutely gorgeous, with wonderful locations, sets and CG animation. (Live action might be an exaggeration for this film, considering about a quarter of the characters are CG.) There was a risk that the songs would come across as disappointing cover versions, but there's a pleasant feel of a stage musical to the big numbers. 

The cast are generally pretty fine. Luke Evans is probably the best as Gaston, managing to make him genuinely quite likeable, at least until he becomes a murderous psycho. Josh Gad is hugely entertaining as LeFou. Keven Kline is perfect as Maurice, rewritten as a highly skilled and engaging artisan, rather than the senile old man of the original (it's harder to see why he's so quickly written off as a nutter in this version). The enchanted objects are all pretty good, although Ewan MacGregor's French accent is, somehow, slightly worse than his attempt at Alec Guinness in the Star Wars prequels.  (Why are Lumiere and Plumette the only ones with French accents?) I love Stanley Tucci's new character, Cadenza, the harpsichord. 






Dan Stevens and Emma Watson are both fine. There's nothing wrong with either of their performances, but neither do they light up the screen. They're likeable and they work well together, but they're probably the least interesting members of the cast. Looks-wise, the Beast is a little more human in this version, which is sensible if we're dealing with a more realistic design than a cartoon, but he still looks better before his regeneration. (You don't think that's a regeneration? Watch it alongside an equivalent scene on Doctor Who, and tell me where RTD got his ideas from.) At least Belle lampshades this (but then , these days, every guy has to have a beard.) The iconic scenes are recreated, but the most memorable, the ballroom scene set to the song "Beauty and the Beast," just doesn't compare. For a start, yellow just isn't Emma Watson's colour.

I'm not particularly keen on any of the new songs, although at least the Beast gets his own number this time round, which was something that in retrospect was sorely missing from the original. Gaston's song is possibly even better this time round, if that's actually possible (it uses a slightly different set of lyrics from an earlier draft of the original script). I do like the extra backstory for the characters (with the exception of the Beast's, who was better off just being a shallow arsehole). Belle and Maurice have some family history, and we find out why Belle's mother isn't around. Gaston isn't beloved just because he's handsome and barge-sized, he's an actual war hero. LeFou is an actual character, not just comic relief. The enchanted objects have some humanity behind them. It's additions like this that make it a little deeper, and that's exactly the kind of changes that benefit the film.

One character who is developed is the Enchantress, who actually becomes a character here rather than just part of the film's own backstory. She's revealed as Agathe, an impoverished old woman in Belle's village who displays compassion towards Maurice - the compassion that the prince so lacked. She's a deeper version of the original Enchantress, but she's still a vindictive old witch. While her cursing of the prince is given more reasoning in this version, it's still viciously capricious, especially as she seems even more powerful here. She rocks up at his castle in the middle of a party looking for shelter, when all the while she has power over the elements and the ability to zap herself wherever she wants. Bloody witch is looking for trouble. Then she turns the prince into a buffalo, all his staff into furnishings even though they've done nothing wrong at all, splits up a community and devastates an ecosystem. Maybe they'll do a sequel where they burn her.

Both versions of Beauty and the Beast are gorgeous, and they both have the same story issues. Even more of Belle's desire to leave her provincial life and explore the world are made in the new version, and still she settles down with a rich guy in a big house up the road. Still, the French Revolution will be along soon, so let's hope they don't have puppies.

WHO REVIEW: 10-1 - The Pilot

It takes a certain cheek to call an episode “The Pilot” at the beginning of a programme's tenth, or even thirty-sixth, season. It's a statement of intent: Steven Moffat has called the episode a reboot, and while this is overstating it, there's a clear design to make this a new starting point for the series. To an extent, this works. We've got a new companion, who acts as the viewpoint figure the series has been missing for some time, through whose eyes we discover the elements of the programme. The kids who started watching Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are grown-up now, and a new generation of children are starting to tune in. Doctor Who has a sort of soft-reboot built into its concept, with a continually changing roster of companions and Doctors, and the occasional slate-clean is good for its continuation.

On the other hand, this is the last season for both Capaldi and Moffat. The decision to make this a new starting point seems willfully perverse with Chris Chibnall taking over as showrunner, and a new Doctor joining at the same time. While there are callbacks a-plenty in this episode, it works reasonably well as something standalone. On the other hand, during the upcoming series, we have Ice Warriors, retro-Cybermen and two versions of the Master to look forward to. All wonderful fun, but hardly a fresh start.

There were several attempts to bring back Doctor Who in the long gap between the TV movie and “Rose,” and more than one of them had the Doctor grounded, living and working as a professor in some dusty old college. (Usually, they were proposed with an eye to having an older Tom Baker return to the role, and Moffat's already done that.) It's a perfect set-up for an introduction to the character, putting him in a position of authority but also making him interesting, a little distant, and with plenty of opportunities to impress. It's a nice touch making Bill, not a student who's impressed him with her intellect, but another outsider who's impressed him with her enthusiasm (and also recognising that not everyone can afford to go to university).

I wasn't keen on Bill based on her brief appearances in trailers and so on. She just came across as gobby and a bit dense. It goes to show how poorly done those trailers were. Pearl Mackie is extremely likeable as Bill, and by the episode's end I was thoroughly sold on her. Bill is, admittedly, a bit of a re-run of Rose (with a touch of eighties Ace thrown in), but she's different enough to make an impression herself. It's gratifiying to have a character who's genre savvy, not only pointing out the obvious sci-fi-ness of everything that's going on around her, but immediately rationalising everything as a clever effect. After all, a clever knock-through is a much more logical explanation than a dimensionally transcendental timeship. Also, although everyone has made way too big a deal of it, it's great to have a companion who's happily, uncomplicatedly gay. Plus having an actor of colour, playing someone in foster care... there are lots of different ways to live a life in Britain today. I didn't care much for Bill's jokes about models and fat women; those were low shots.





I'm also now completely sold on Nardole. He works perfectly as an assistant and valet to the Doctor. He exists as a sort-of cushion between the Doctor and the outside world, easing his interactions. It's looks like they've been good for one another, with the Doctor's hardened exterior softening and Nardole becoming more Doctorish (his explanation of the TARDIS' nature is cribbed almost exactly from the fourth Doctor's explanation in The Robots of Death).

The alien threat for the episode is a clever one, albeit highly derivative (we've seen living water in “The Waters of Mars,” a mimic in “Midnight” and a ship in need of someone with wanderlust to become its pilot in “The Lodger”). It's an arresting visual and a witty but easy-to-grasp concept, and leads to a clever, non-violent resolution. It drives me mad that both Bill and the Doctor take an age to realise what's wrong with the reflection. I understand that the script can only move as fast as the slowest member in the audience, but Bill's meant to be intelligent and the Doctor's a genius. It's infuriating.





The problem with being sic-fi savvy, of course, is expecting storylines to go a certain way. I was convinced that Heather (a lovely performance from Stephanie Hyam) was going to be an alien of some kind, just as Bill was convinced that the star in her eye was evidence of an alien possession. In the event, she was an ordinary girl, until she fell victim to the sinister puddle (and why would you want to get a “defect” like that fixed? It looks amazing!) We were also forewarned that the Daleks were going to appear in this episode, so naturally I spent much of the episode wondering how they were involved with the whole thing. I assumed that the spacecraft that left the oil and scorch marks was of Dalek origin (the last time we saw a landing pattern like that was in Remembrance of the Daleks). As it happens, the Daleks were nothing but a brief sideshow, presumably only included so as to incorporate the little scene from over a year ago that introduced Bill. Quite why the Doctor thinks it's a good idea to hide out in the midst of a Dalek assault isn't clear, but it's a fun aside and drops that last essential element of the series into the episode.

“The Pilot” is the best opening episode for quite some time, probably since “The Eleventh Hour” way back in 2010, which remains one of the best episodes in the revived series. As much as I enjoyed much of the last season, the series needs a shot in the arm, and maybe a new companion was just what it's been waiting for. I am optimistic for the remainder of Capaldi and Moffat's last run. We shall see what is kept within the Vault, and why it's important enough to keep the Doctor grounded for fifty years, although I hope it doesn't override the individual episodes' stories.


Title Tattle: “The Pilot,” although clever, is the most generic possible title for an episode. There must be a thousand American series that have begun with an episode called “Pilot,” even when they're not actually pilot episodes. It is, however, a better name than the working title “A Star in her Eye.”

Links: The Daleks are seen battling the Movellans, a race of androids we saw in 1979's Destiny of the Daleks. By this stage, the two armies had become locked in stalemate due to their logical natures (it was suggested that the Daleks were, at this point in their history, entirely mechanical). It's a cute little aside for fans, and in no way intrusive for normal people. They just look like fun disco aliens. The Doctor states that they've gone into the past here, although that probably means from the perspective of their previous stop-off, 23 million years in the future.

Among the many little callbacks in the Doctor's study are photographs of two of the most important women in his life: his late wife River, and his (presumably late) granddaughter Susan. Capaldi has made no secret of his desire to see Susan return to the series, so perhaps this is foreshadowing of her eventual arrival later in the season.

The Doctor's moonlighting as a lecturer calls back to his old friend Professor Chronotis, a Time Lord from the previous generation who retired to live as a don at Cambridge. This was in Douglas Adams's notoriously unfinished serial Shada, many elements of which he reworked for his Dirk Gently books. He also pitched a story which would have seen the Doctor retire from adventuring and settle down on Earth, possibly as a tutor. (Adams also wrote Destiny of the Daleks. Any Hitchhikers references I didn't spot?)

The Doctor again tries to wipe his friend's memory, and again gets shouted down. It's good to see that Moffat clearly thinks that this is pretty unconscionable behaviour on his part. It calls back to the end of the previous season, where he intended to erase Clara's memory of him, only to get the tables turned. This was almost two years ago now and the missus had completely forgotten about it. This is the difference between people who watch things normally and people like me.

Best line: “No one's from space. I'm from a planet, like everyone else.”
I've been shouting this at sci-fi shows for years.



Friday, 14 April 2017

I've just read a rather excellent article on Strange Horizons, having discovered it via Alistair Reynolds's blog. It's entitled "Kirk Drift" and is written by Erin Horakova, who takes some time to dissect the cultural shorthand of Captain Kirk and the original Star Trek in general, and see how different it is to what was actually presented.

It's a long piece but worth reading through. As she goes, Horakova takes a look at representation in media and gender expectancy, but it's fundamentally about how Kirk is far from the brash womaniser that he is commonly remembered to be. In fairness, I think there are times where Kirk acted rashly or in quite unpleasant ways in the original series, although generally with a nobler goal. Horakova goes into some depth here on those times and not always in ways I fully agree with, but on the whole I think she's absolutely spot on. In particular I like her attack on the modern reboot franchise, which I am a fan of, but can see has a wealth of flaws. Certainly, I'm no big fan of Star Trek Into Darkness, which I dislike considerably more now than when I first saw it in the cinema. I'm struck by how Kirk's character in these films is markedly different to how he was described during his Academy years in TOS. Clearly, George Kirk had a significant influence on his son in the original timeline. At the risk of letting this be taken as a criticism of Millennials (I am one, just about), there's a clear difference between the original idea of a respectful, studious man making his way up the ladder and an arrogant jock who's rewarded the captaincy because he gets bloody lucky and just sort of deserves it, and it's one that reflects our expectations of life in the early 21st.

Anyway, you can read it here. It's worth a few minutes.

Monday, 10 April 2017

REVIEW: UnHistory by Lance Parkin and Lars Pearson

"Apocryphal stories too strange for even AHistory."

Deciding what parts of a fictional universe “count” is a rum game, all the more so in one as long-running and inconsistent as Doctor Who. AHistory has expanded since its first remit to include all manner of spin-offs and expanded universe material, but there's still a huge selection of officially published and broadcast Doctor Who that is essentially impossible to fit into the overall narrative. Not that this is any indication or reflection of quality: Time-Flight is inarguably canonical, but is absolutely awful, while there are very good reasons to discount The Infinity Doctors, The Kingmaker , Happy Deathday and Full Fathom Five in spite their clear brilliance. Parkin and Pearson take a similar approach to me, which is that everything counts, as long as it can be squeezed in there somewhere. UnHistory, then, includes all the other things that we really can't squeeze in to the “real” Whoniverse. Fiction that is, somehow, even more fictional than the rest.

This has led to some odd decisions about what to include. Scream of the Shalka was included in the first edition of AHistory, before being omitted from follow-ups as apocrypha, and finally included here. The Unbound audios have been omitted from all editions of AHistory as “elseworlds” type stories, but the recent crossover of the David Warner Doctor into The New Adventures of Bernice Summerfield has led to them being included as “real,” albeit alternative, adventures. Thus, none of them, not even the metatextual Deadline, make it into UnHistory. Other stories' inclusion here is inarguable: few fans seriously try to include the 1960s Dalek movies into the Doctor's timeline, nor the early comics strips featuring Doctor Who and his ugly grandchildren. Nonetheless, this hasn't stopped everyone, and in a fictional multiverse filled with time travel, parallel timelines, temporal duplicates and a Land of Fiction, virtually everything can be made to fit somehow. Indeed, Peter Cushing himself had some very novel ideas as to how his two movies could be incorporated into the Doctor's timeline.

UnHistory includes such exciting adventures as the strips from TV Comic, TV Action and Countdown, The Dalek Book, The Dalek World and The Dalek Outer Space Book, The Curse of the Daleks, Seven Keys to Doomsday, The Cadet Sweet Cigarette Cards, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style stories (often with multiple endings) and much more. After dismissing most short stories from AHistory on grounds of space and sanity, Short Trips and Side Steps and even the many Doctor Who annuals have entries here (as such, this makes a wonderful companion to Obverse Books' The Annual Years by Paul Magrs). TV broadcasts that we may wish to forget, from A Fix With Sontarans and Dimensions in Time to sundry adverts are included. The authors have made a somewhat arbitrary decision where to draw the line when it comes to the various sketches and skits broadcast over the years, but they've got to draw it somewhere. The traditional inclusion of a Gallifrey section to the timeline allows them to include otherwise undateable but absolutely essential stories such as The Curse of Fatal Death into the mix.

As always, Parkin and Pearson have gone to exquisite and absurd lengths to date the stories, which is all the more commendable/ridiculous (delete according to taste)when the whole point is that these stories don't fit. It's a work that revels in the absurdity of its premise, and as always, shows its working, however contrived. Occasionally a year will appear in the wrong spot or an index entry will be conspicuous by its absence, but this is a tiny quibble in such a huge work such as this. So, if you ever wanted to know how “The Monster Files” fit into the mix or when the events of “The Not-So-Sinister Sponge” took place, or if you're just a geek with a sense of humour or too much time on their hands, this is the book for you.