Saturday, 30 March 2013

WHO REVIEW: 2013-1: The Bells of Saint John

There’s a lot resting on this episode. Not only does it have to provide an exciting intro to this latest run of episodes (I’m avoiding the Series 7-b/Series 8/Season 33 argument for the moment), it has to kick of the anniversary year’s programming, and reintroduce Clara as a bona fide companion, finally moving the programme on from its three year obsession with Amy Pond.

Matt Smith carries the bulk of this episode on his shoulders (somewhat broader than before, I think – has he been working out?) but it’s Jenna-Louise Coleman who has to make the best impression. Most characters get just one introduction, but Clara has had three, and each time Coleman has managed to bring something new to the table. The contemporary version of Clara is subtly different from her predecessors, a little younger, not quite as sassy and somewhat more vulnerable. It’s easy to see how she could grow into the supremely capable Oswin or the sharply witty Governess versions of the character, but here we meet a little earlier in her lifetime. She’s nonetheless recognisable as a version of the same character; flirty, adventurous and intelligent, just not quite so self-assured just yet.

With Smith on top form as a Doctor driven to the point of obsession by Clara’s mystery, the new leads make a tremendously charismatic duo. There’s an easy chemistry between them, perhaps more convincingly so than with Karen Gillan as Amy. In spite of Coleman actually being a little older than Gillan, she gives the impression of being younger, and this lends the Doctor’s protectiveness a paternal element. Which does make the flirting and ‘snogging booth’ comments a bit weird. No wonder he freaks out when she mentions it.

Of course, all this would be lost without a decent story to showcase it. Fortunately, The Bells of Saint John is the best opening episode since Smith’s debut in The Eleventh Hour three years ago. Pre-broadcast hype boasted the episode would have an urban vibe, and while that’s true to an extent, Moffat never forgets to bring the threat home to the viewer. For the first half, the episode is distinctly suburban, focussing on Clara’s own exposure to the danger in her comfortable home-from-home. Having an unknowable threat invade ones home is a classic tactic, for good reason; houses are supposed to be safe, and having something dangerous simply stride in like the walls aren’t there is unnerving.

For the first time in years, Doctor Who provides a genuinely unsettling and insightful look at the future. It’s undeniable that we live in a “wi-fi soup” as the Doctor calls it. With the never-ending march of technology seemingly continuing to pick up pace, it’s not difficult to imagine that there will come a time when human minds can be uploaded and personalities hacked. That the threat to mankind is based in the corporate world of the City is no accident; we are indeed as cattle to the consumer industry. There’s a little social commentary here on our ongoing need for the newest app and our near-permanent connectivity in modern life.

However, rather than a Steve Jobs type masterminding the affair for the sake of profit, we have a return appearance from the Great Intelligence. Although it is only one episode since it arrived back in the Doctor’s world, it has been three months, and I wonder how many casual viewers will immediately make the connection between the shadowy figure on the screen and the talking snowglobe of The Snowmen. While I guessed that the Intelligence might be behind all this, it was a stab in the dark; I wasn’t really expecting it to return, sporting the features of Richard E. Grant. Will the Intelligence be a new Big Bad for this current run, and how does this tie in to the mystery of Clara?

Grant’s appearance as the baddie-in-chief is little more than a cameo; it’s Celia Imrie who gets the meaty villain role. A classy thesp who was long overdue for a Who role, Imrie is perfect as the amoral but brittle Kislet. Her final scene, her mind reduced to that of the child, is beautifully played. A chilling reversal of fortune for a powerful character revealed as just another victim of the Intelligence.

The Spoonheads are reasonably effective. They’re not a classic addition to the swelling ranks of monsters, but then, they’re clearly not supposed to be. The walking base stations are there to fulfil plot functions with a little style and panache. The visual effects for them are perfectly pitched, not too showy, just enough to give some flare to what might otherwise be a slightly nebulous threat. The ranks of panicking faces behind screens in Kislet’s control room is also very effective; not unlike the similar threat of the Wire in 2006’s The Idiot’s Lantern, but more effectively pitched.

The effects are excellent throughout, in fact, combined with some top-notch direction and photography that makes watching the show in HD worthwhile at last. Not only does this series have the verve to open in a mediaeval monastery that has nothing to do with the main body of the storyline, it makes the entire sequence look gorgeous. Then, once we’re in the midst of the main story, it throws in a staggering near-crash sequence on a plane. In most series and, indeed, a blockbuster movie, this would be the central action sequence. In Doctor Who, it’s just one incident on the way, followed up by a quick jaunt on a bike to a good sit down in a cafĂ©.

Title Tattle: I laughed out loud when they revealed what “the Bells of Saint John” meant. Very clever, if an odd choice of title for the episode. Has a nice ring to it though (sorry).

The Doctor’s New Clothes: The purplish look suits Matt Smith well. The tweedy frock coat and bow-tie have a hint of the Troughton look but with a more refined Pertwee aesthetic. Very retro. The Doctor’s prior outfit (I’m sorry, I will stop that) is a monk’s habit, which strangely suits him equally well. Although, apparently, monks aren’t cool. Personally, I’ve met some very cool monks.

Hanky-Panky in the TARDIS: Jenna-Louise Coleman is beautiful as ever, Matt Smith is particularly dashing in this episode, and I’ve long had a bit of a crush on Celia Imrie. Clara is a flirt, but nowhere near as much as her other two incarnations.

Links and foreshadowings: The Intelligence ratchets up a fourth appearance; honestly, nothing since 1967 and then it makes two appearances in a matter of months.

This isn't the first time we've seen the Doctor on a motorbike - he's done so in three previous incarnations. (Three in The Daemons, Seven in  Delta and the Bannermen and Eight in the TV Movie, fact fans.)

The book Summer Falls is written by one Amelia Williams, almost certainly our friend Amy. The significance is of chapter eleven – if there is any – remains to be see. Equally intriguing is that Clara was given her ‘helpline’ number by a woman at a shop. Could this be Amy? River? Or even Rose, now that we know she is returning for the 50th anniversary special?

And did anyone else briefly expect the Meddling Monk to turn up based on the 1207 sequence?

Best Line: “It’s 1207!”
“I’ve got half-past three.”

Oh, the old ones are the best…

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

WHO BOOK-QUEST #3: Last of the Gaderene by Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss works primarily in nostalgia. His Lucifer Box trilogy pastiches adventure stories from the Edwardian era, the roaring twenties, and the Bondian fifties; his debut novel, the Doctor Who New Adventure Nightshade was a meditation on nostalgia and a Quatermass pastiche to boot. His Doctor Who episodes are among the most straightforwardly evocative of the show’s past, and include a Dickensian yarn and a story set around the coronation and the beginnings of television. He has presented series on the evolution of horror cinema and has had a Victorian laboratory built in his house. Mr Gatiss likes to live in the past.

With Last of the Gaderene, Gatiss’s last Who work until the series’ return to television in 2005, he takes this to its logical limit. The 2000 BBC novel is a clear attempt to reproduce his favourite era of Doctor Who in prose. Last of the Gaderene was chosen by BBC Books to represent the third Doctor in their new celebratory set of reprints, and it’s easy to see why. This is the purest example of Pertwee era Who you can find in print. In fact, it’s so Pertwee it’s even more Pertwee than the series was on telly.

So, no, Last of the Gaderene is not an attempt to do something new and interesting with Doctor Who, but Gatiss has never really been interested in that in his own work. Even his New Adventures had the air of someone trying to get a show back to its roots, away from the direction it had careened into in its later years. This is the ultimate nostalgia piece for anyone who grew up with Pertwee as the Doctor. This is a flaw as much as a benefit, of course. Seventies nostalgia just isn’t going to work that well on someone who was born in 1984. Admittedly, it is entirely possible to have nostalgic feelings for something that one never directly experienced; we are saturated in the past, and it can often feel that we were present for events that occurred before our birth.

This exposes another flaw in this approach, however. Gatiss presents this novel not merely as an evocation of Pertwee’s era on television, but also as a reproduction of the Doctor Who novelisations that he grew up with. I love the Target novelisations, but by the time I began reading them they were collectors’ pieces, not the everyday face of Doctor Who between TV seasons. The reason, of course, was that by then the series was readily available on video and was being repeated on UKTV Gold. Now, of course, the entire Pertwee canon is available on DVD and more readily available than ever. There’s not really any need for a book to recreate this era of the show, any more than there was in 2000.

Still, Gatiss is a great writer. One of my favourites, in fact. He may not be notable for experimentation or literary merit, but he writes bloody good adventure tales in clear, enjoyable prose. Gaderene is less well written than some of his work, but then it is clearly trying to reproduce the classic Target style, which is more-or-less the style of Terrence Dicks. That is to say, straightforward, breathless and pacy with the occasional moment that makes you stop and think: ooh, nice. Right down to the chapter titles, which include the obligatory ‘Escape to Danger’ (still being used by authors even now – I’m thinking of you here, Mr Wolverson) and the supremely puntastic ‘A Fate Worse Than Death,’ which made me give a little cheer out loud.

The plot is as straightforward as the prose, concerning a Body Snatcher-styled invasion force – the eponymous Gaderene – that have entered a small village and begun to take over the inhabitants, as a spearhead to a worldwide infiltration. The use of Legion International, a military-industrial airline, gives the story something of a Quatermass­-feel, which in turn makes it feel very Who season seven in places. Otherwise, this is pure Pertwee, from the claustrophobic village, the characterful locals, the UNIT presence, the Brigadier up against petty bureaucrats, the token visit to an alien world and, of course, the revelation that the Master is behind all of it. Gatiss is great at character work, and all his incidental cast are well-realised. Alec Whistler, late of the RAF, is a delight to read, a proper officer and a gentleman who would have made a perfectly good hero in his own right if he wasn’t required to be overshadowed by the Doctor. The Brigadier, Jo, the Master and the Doctor himself are all perfectly recreated. You can hear Courtney, Manning, Delgado and Pertwee speak every line.

There are a few nods to ongoing character development which fit with the novel’s placement at the end of season ten. Jo is realising that soon she will have to leave the Doctor and the Time Lord is himself spending more and more time away from Earth, albeit with the realisation that he has come to think of the planet as his home. A specific placement isn’t really the point, of course; this is the Pertwee era writ large. The Doctor even gets to fly a Spitfire, and wouldn’t that have looked amazing on telly? Well, no, they’d have used some really shonky CSO, wouldn’t they? Still, it would have been great in the Target novelisation…

Monday, 25 March 2013

REVIEW: Foyle's War 8-1: The Eternity Ring

Foyle’s War returns for an eighth series, almost eleven years since its debut. The last run aired three years ago, at which point the creators of the series had already run out of war. After three stories set in WWII’s aftermath, series seven ended with Foyle heading for the United States. He returns to Britain after a year or so away, to the London of 1946, characterised by rationing, bomb damage and the slow return of demobbed soldiers from overseas.

The series could very easily have ended with the war, or have been content to tread water in a perpetual nineteen forty-something. Gratifyingly, creator  Anthony Horowitz has avoided such temptations and moved the series forward, first with the immediate aftermath of the War in the previous season, and now with a more distinct change of direction. Having spent many years protecting Hastings from wartime criminals, Foyle is persuaded to remain in London working for MI5 in the chillier climate of the burgeoning Cold War.

While such a shift was necessary to give the series new life, the fundamentals that made earlier instalments so successful have not been forgotten. Foyle remains the committed policeman he always was, and Michael Kitchen’s exemplary performance remains a masterclass in taciturn understatement. Foyle’s uneasiness in his role at MI5, due to a mix of respect at their work and contempt at their methods, takes him out of his comfort zone and gives Kitchen plenty to underplay. Ellie Haddington is almost as good as Foyle’s amoral equal, his superior Hilda Pierce, and the remaining players in the game of Intelligence are, on both sides of the board, on top form throughout.

Foyle’s War wouldn’t be the same without Sam, of course, and she is dragged into this new world of spies and cover-ups by her employment by a leading atomic physicist. It is her connection to him that is used as the excuse to bring Foyle into MI5, with his connection to Sam, here accused of supplying data to enemy agents, as a reason to bring him in on the investigation. Satisfyingly, Foyle’s dogged police nature isn’t overlooked or amended by this new role; in fact, it is the very reason he is considered valuable by the Intelligence service, which requires some good, old-fashioned police work.

Naturally, we don’t believe for a moment that Sam has sold out to the Soviets, but her unwilling involvement in the plot gives Honeysuckle Weeks good material and threatens to drive a wedge between her character and Foyle. She has her own problems to deal with too, as her husband Adam (Daniel Weyman) is running for government and she herself is having problems conceiving, a burden she is shouldering alone. Longterm viewers will realise something is wrong as soon as Sam’s famously powerful appetite abandons her at lunch with Foyle.

A separate plot strand is provided by Frank Shaw, a former policeman now returning from armed service in the East. Shaw is well played by Joe Duttine, his storyline capturing the alienation and disenfranchisement felt by many ex-servicemen when arriving back in the country they had fought for, only to found there were no jobs available and that their families had adapted to life without them. Shaw’s wife now works full-time, something that must be terribly emasculating to a former breadwinner now unable to find work for himself, while his sixteen-year-old son works behind the bar at a club. Shaw’s descent from a proud soldier returning home to his attack on one of the club’s “nancy boy” patrons is sympathetically played. Horowitz uses the writer’s licence to use unlikely coincidences to untie these plot strands through Foyle, who both knows Shaw from before the war and now works for his victim. As an aside, Foyle’s stiff-upper-lipped disinterest at what grown men do in their private lives speaks volumes about his progressive thinking for the period, something the series has explored equally subtly in previous episodes.

Placing Foyle in the world of Cold War paranoia has great potential and should provide some interesting storylines. ‘The Eternity Ring’ begins this new phase of the series well, providing an enjoyably twisty-turny web of intrigue and double-cross without ever becoming overly complex. (Not that this is the universal view. There’s a hilarious review on IMDB in which someone who admits to being “not the most cerebral person” complains that they didn’t understand the plot. It was when they said, “as a writer myself” and proceeded to criticise Horowitz that I laughed. Really, if you try reading this piece you’ll see why it’s funny).  ‘The Eternity Ring’ is a fine start to the new series with some accessible Cold War drama. It ends with Sam once again at Foyle’s side (her appointment as his driver being his condition for working for Pierce permanently). I look forward to seeing where this new direction will take them both. I do hope we find out a little more about what Foyle got up to in the States that upset the FBI so much though. What price a one-off special set in America?

New Gerry Anderson website

A brand new, official website celebrating the late, great Gerry Anderson has just been unveiled. All the classics are there, as well as news on Anderson Entertainment's upcoming productions.

Personally, Captain Scarlet was always my favourite. I wish this site had gone up last month - I might have stood more of a chance in the Gerry Anderson round of the March Geekest Link. Never mind, we still won.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Recent Radio

I like radio. Not the endless barrage of drivel interspersed with mediocre high-charting music that fills up much of the BBC and local output, but the actual programmes, most of which are confined to Radio 4 and its baby brother, 4 Extra. Well written, well performed drama and comedy through the medium of sound, the sort of thing that was a mainstay of popular entertainment in the Good Old Days but is now a shadow of its former glorious self. When there are decent programmes on offer, they are frequently missed, since the BBC is mostly intent of pushing its televisual output. Even the Radio Times has little time for radio anymore.

One of the few items that has received a good deal of coverage lately is the new adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Dirk Maggs adapted this one, as he has previously adapted several prose works, including the later Hitchhikers books. Neverwhere is a bit different, of course, having started out as a six-part TV series. It was broadcast in 1996, so I was twelve, for once exactly the right age to catch something on its original broadcast. The TV version of Neverwhere isn’t popular, having been thoroughly eclipsed by Gaiman’s novelisation, but I adore it. A broadcast serial is how it was originally conceived (by Lenny Henry, no less), although I have read of stage versions, for which I imagine it is equally well-suited.

The new radio version mainly pulled the media due to its superstellar cast, which includes James MacAvoy as the hero Richard, Natalie Dormer as Door and man-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. There’s more to it than big names, of course. There’s a reason big names become big. These are some of the best actors of their generation. While Cumberbatch’s presence will be the most celebrated – and I did enjoy how hammy he got in the final episode – it’s the leading duo that holds it together, with real chemistry on display. David Harewood is silkily smooth as the Marquis de Carabas, coming across as a little more dangerous than his televisual alter ego (played by Paterson Joseph), and we get the sheer joy of hearing Bernard Cribbens as Old Bailey and Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court. If there is ever a sequel, please may we have David Warner as the Baron of Baron’s Court? Thank you kindly.

The joy of audio is its ability to create vivid worlds solely through the medium of sound. Neverwhere triumphs over its TV incarnation, forever looked down upon because of its limited budget and untreated video footage. On radio, the battle with the Beast of London is as powerful as it should be, rather than a slightly embarrassing mess. Equally well served by this format is Eric, a new adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s short novel of Discworld. Discworld adaptations for radio are common, but this one works particularly well. For a start, it’s actually funny, something that certain adaptations have somehow managed to miss. The difficulty, I guess, is in translating Pratchett’s humour, which comes across primarily from his prose style and turn of phrase, to a non-narrated format. Eric works it by focussing on the silliness of the situations. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone more suited to the role of Rincewind the Wizzard than Mark Heap, the unfairly overlooked actor of Spaced and Green Wing fame. The man is comedy on legs, and should any further TV adaptations of Rincewind stories be in the pipeline, I really, really hope they seek him out. The only issue I have with this adaptation is the terribly brief running time, with episodes only lasting thirteen minutes. Still, this does at least prevent them from getting stale.

Remaining on the fantasy-comedy route we come to Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully. I’m undecided on this one. I reviewed the pilot episode last year, and concluded that it had potential, but, after hearing two episodes (I missed the first and they’re only up for a week), I have yet to hear it reach that potential. This week’s episode was the better of the two, with some genuinely funny moments and a solid story idea. It’s not bad by any means; I just think that Eddie Robson can do a lot better than this. Village skirts on the edge of science fiction, with most of its jokes coming from the exploration of middle class England, and more could be made from the juxtaposition of this and the invading Geonin.

I suppose it’s only natural that I’d want more sci-fi in the show, as a sci-fi geek of some repute, but it still feels like Village is playing it too safe. Perhaps it should be taken off Radio 2 and given to a 4 Extra? Fewer people would tune in of course, but if it was left on iPlayer for more than a few days I’m sure it would garner a great many listeners after initial broadcast. A big shame is that my beloved Katherine Parkinson has not stayed on, Katrina now being played by Hattie Morahan. She’s perfectly fine, but Parkinson has is just a natural for comedy. Thankfully, Julian Rhind-Tutt is still on hand as Uljabaan, the alien leader, and Peter Davison is Katrina’s weary father Richard.

By far the most impressive programme I have listened to in some time is ‘The Startling Truths of Old World Sparrows,’ an instalment of Radio 3’s The Wire. The author and producer, Fiona Evans and Pauline Harris respectively, interviewed several elderly people and much of this is reproduced verbatim in a dramatic presentation concerning three pensioners dealing with a severe snowfall. The programme jumps from one person to the next as we explore the potential consequences of the snow on their lives, and we realise just how reliant they are on those who care for them. It’s a powerfully affecting look at the realities of old age in our country, and deserves praise for allowing elderly people to present their own concerns instead of having a younger writer explain them to us.

The most inspired decision is the casting. Rather than having three elderly actors portray the roles, the creators have chosen to cast children. All three of them are quite astonishingly fine actors, to the degree that there were several points at which I entirely forgot I was listening to children instead of fully-grown adults. Their names are Sydney Wade, Daniel Kerr and Ellis Hollins – ones to watch for in future, I feel. It’s an incredibly affecting and moving piece, with the vulnerability of the three protagonists really brought to the fore by their portrayal by children. It’s not something I would normally have listened to, and I did so on the recommendation of Paul Magrs. Truly exceptional.

Doctor by Doctor #3

License to Frill 

Jon Pertwee, 1970-74

After three years of alternating adventures in science and history with an aged professor, and another three fighting monsters in the company of a scruffy little anarchist, Doctor Who underwent what must be the greatest shift in style and content it has ever seen. In 1970, coinciding with the series’ shift to colour, Doctor Who ceased to be a programme about travels in space and time, and was reinvented as a military action series set in near-future England – in the company of an upper-class dandy agent.

Exiled to Earth, with his knowledge of time travel mechanics supressed and his TARDIS grounded, the Doctor started a new phase of his life. Without travel in time and space an option, the Doctor might as well have been an eccentric human scientist. Thus, after the mostly human seeming first and second Doctors, the third Doctor arrived with a sudden barrel-load of extraterrestrial attributes. Stumbling out of the TARDIS in his predecessor’s ill-fitting clothes, he loses consciousness and is taken to a local hospital, whereby he is examined, revealing twin hearts, an inhuman pulse rate and unrecognisable blood. He even, following an injury, puts himself into a healing coma, a talent that this incarnation will come to use several times in dire straits. As if this alien biology wasn’t enough, the Doctor, always an incorrigible namedropper, takes this habit to new lengths, peppering almost every conversation with stories about Sir Walter Raleigh and Napoleon, just in case anyone forgot he used to be a time traveller.

Despite the blocks on his TARDIS knowledge, our Time Lord hero (we can call him that now) displays a vast knowledge of the universe. After having spent his first two lives blundering into situations and learning most things on the hop, the Doctor now drops sudden insights into Delphon eyebrow-wiggling and the history of the Daemons. This encyclopaedic knowledge of the universe seems to be a Time Lord gift, allowing him access to a great database (we later see the ninth Doctor searching his brain for information in such a fashion). Perhaps this is part of his reintroduction to Time Lord society; in spite of his exile, he seems to have now been linked to his homeworld once more. Could this explain his sudden acquisition of a hitherto unmentioned second heart? Another mystery is the Doctor’s serpent tattoo, displayed during the Doctor’s first ever nude scene in Spearhead from Space. Of course, in reality this is a relic of Jon Pertwee’s time in the navy, but its presence in the series makes one wonder (and rather wonderfully, it’s coiled into a question mark shape). Fan consensus is that it’s a Time Lord criminal brand (an idea introduced later in the New Adventures novel line). It’s a cool idea, although the tattoo looks distinctly faded, as if he’s had it for a while. Could this hint at some kind of earlier existence for the third Doctor? If the ‘Season 6-B) theory is true, who’s to say the Doctor didn’t regenerate before his exile? He has had his memory tampered with, after all…

Monday, 18 March 2013

Sunday Movie-Day

I live right next to the Orion Cinema, a run-down old building with tiny screens, unreliable heating and damp that isn't so much rising as galloping uphill. I like an independent cinema, and I want to support the Orion, although I do know one of the electricians who has looked at the place and he warned me against using the place, since he expects it to go up any minute. However, I want the old wreck to stay, and the council is now  assisting with the funding to get the place up to scratch (although knocking it down and starting again might be more cost-effective). It means the Orion have put their prices up, to help pay for this on their end, but they're still significantly cheaper than any of the big cinemas, and the staff are friendlier.

Yesterday was a quiet day, everyone having spent their St. Patrick's Day money on Saturday while I was at work. So my flatmate and I decided we'd take in a couple of films, both of which happened to be Disney extravaganzas. We'd missed Wreck-It Ralph during its main run, so we caught the midday children's matinee while we could, and later on followed it up with Oz, the Great and Powerful.

Wreck-It Ralph was brilliant. I was expecting to enjoy, if only for the nostalgia, it being filled with recognisable video game characters from my youth (it's a shame Bowser didn't get a line, but Zangief stole the scene at the Bad-Anon support group). It was far better than a simple nostalgia exercise though, a really sweet story of outsiders finding their place among their peers and coming to terms with who they are. Proper, feel-good Disney stuff, really. Ralph is the villain of the Fix-It Felix game, a kind of parody of Donkey Kong and similar old arcade titles. He's basically a big fella with a bad past who wants to make something of himself. So he goes off, through the cables into the wonderfully realised arcade world, where all the game sprites intermingle. The animation is a gorgeous mix of cutting-edge CGI and old 8-bit graphical styling.

Other than the Felix game, we explore two other games in depth, the first-person shoot-em-up Hero's Duty, and the sweetie-themed go-kart racer Sugar Rush. Both are rendered in spectacular depth and detail. The Cy-Bugs from the shooter invade the racer, absorbing code as they go, turning into fantastic confectionary monsters. In Sugar Rush, Ralph meets Vannelope, an ostracised glitch with 'pixlexia.' It's all very, very sweet, and leads to a great race/monster attack/baddy-showdown climax, followed by the obligatory but welcome happily-ever-after montage. The voice work is great too, particularly John Reilly as Ralph, Sarah Silverman as Vannelope, Jane Lynch as Sgt. Tamora, the head of the Hero's Duty army, and Alan Tudyk as the nut-job King Candy. Plus we get Maurice 'Egon' LaMarche as a barman and Martin Jarvis as the Devil, so what's not to love?

OZ wasn't so great. There's a lot to love, of course. The opening in monochrome that moves into full colour as the protagonist, James Franco's Oscar 'Oz' Diggs is swept away in his balloon to the land of Oz is a wonderful touch, harking back to the classic 1930s Wizard of Oz. The little china girl is adorable, there are flying monkeys, both good and evil - still not as scary as the Wheelers from Return to Oz, but pretty fraky nonetheless - and the CGI landscape of Oz is extremely beautiful. However, the pace is very slack to begin with, the film dragging terribly for the first half. While a prequel to the Baum's novel series is a great idea, focusing on the origin of the Wizard means that everything in the film will succeed or fail based on this central performance, and James Franco just isn't good enough an actor. Sure, he's handsome as hell, and I could watch him smile all night, but he hasn't got the charisma to pull this off. It's telling that the producers wanted Robert Downey Jr. for the role, and an older actor with some real charisma would have saved the film. If anything, this feels like a modern Tim Burton film, but with Johnny Depp taken ill so that his understudy has to fill in.

The three witches are similarly cast for their looks, with Rachel Wiesz, Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis all looking stunning. However, Weisz is on half-power as wicked witch Evanora, while Kunis sleepwalks the part of naive 'not-too-bad' witch Theodora. She steps up once she transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West (still kind of hot, despite the hook-nose, but then I've been brought up to fancy green women), and as a cackling villain looks like she's having a whale of a time. Still, it's only Williams as good witch Glenda who really gives a decent performance, convincing as a woman who is far cleverer and more powerful than her cherry-pie exterior would suggest.

I cant' help but think something more interesting could have been done with this. Wicked took the idea of following the supposedly wicked witch much further and more successfully, but we can't really care about Theodora enough in the first half of the movie to really care about her transformation. A lot of commentators have noted how Baum's original books have strong female characters, both heroic and villainous, but in this film the three witches are dependent on Oz to move on their stories, waiting for their prophecised wizard to come down from the sky, sweep them off their feet and save the kingdom. It wasn't bad - the second half pulled up the pace, it had an inventive finale and there were some great nods to the other stories (more than I noticed, I'm sure, as I'm no expert). Still, I expect more from Sam Raimi than a pretty film with an obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo. And there's something quite dissatisfying about a film that is supposedly about celebrating ingenuity and sleight-of-hand, but that actually relies on computer animation to achieve all this. At least Wreck-It Ralph was about computers.

All of that said, however, my favourite film of the weekend was the short cartoon before Ralph. It's called Paperman, and it was the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long time. I confess, I had a little tear in my eye.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

A quick trip round the block

A short video uploaded by the American Museum of Natural History, taking in the local stellar neighbourhood and stopping off at star system HR 8799.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013


A BBC video clip of the metamorphosis of Morpho menalaus, the blue morpho, from caterpillar to butterfly - with internal X-ray images. Amazing. I can never get over the phenomenon of complete metamorphosis. If there's one thing that makes me question Darwinian evolution, it's this. I just can't get my head round how such an extensive transformation can have evolved. Nature is incredible, if frequently inexplicable.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

WHO REVIEW: Destiny of the Doctor releases 1-3

Destiny of the Doctor is another of the ‘Doctor-a-month series’ that have been thought up for this anniversary year, and, so far, it seems to be the most successful. It’s a co-production between Big Finish and the BBC AudioGo, with eleven stories released from January to November. The style of the pieces is similar to BF’s Companion Chronicles range, with two performers per play, one as the main storyteller and another as a guest star. Like the Chronicles, the main performer here is a companion actor from the series (at least, so far, whether we get any read by Doctors remains to be seen). However, unlike the Chronicles, these new releases are third-person tellings, rather than being told in the first person by the companion. This gives them a little more leeway in their storytelling, allowing them to spend time alone with other characters and get into their heads in a way the Companion Chronicles are unable to utilise.

It being March, we now have three releases to enjoy, one for each of the first three Doctors – the late, lost heroes. Each release makes a good attempt to bring to life a particular era of the series, although they also make some moves to tying in to a larger plot that threads throughout the series. This element is quite low-key for the moment, but it seems its significance will gradually develop as the series progresses. Plus, there are some cute nods and winks to the ‘future’ of the series in these retrospective releases – Magpie Electricals gets a cheeky nod in the first story, for example.

It’s a peculiar thing, but since Kim Newman’s 2002 novella Time and Relative, the time before An Unearthly Child has gradually become more and more explored. At one point, this period was out of bounds for Doctor Who authors, but over the last few years several releases have been set therein. This year, both the opening instalments of Destiny of the Doctor and the Puffin e-book range take place in this ‘Season Zero’ period, and Big Finish are planning at least one more excursion back there before the year is out.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

They came from Mars...

The Beeb have released an official image of the new Ice Warrior design, set to appear in the third episode of the upcoming run of Doctor Who (which should see them appearing on Saturday the 13th of April). Actually, the image started appearing on the internet a couple of days ago, but it's very much out there now. Personally, I love it, and I'm looking forward to seeing the Martians return; although they were never the most scintillating of enemies for the Doctor, there's something about a big green Martian lizard-man that's just hard to beat. 

The first thing every fan does - well, the second, after the little squeak of joy at seeing a brand new Ice Warrior - is compare it to the original design. The most obvious point is that the redesign is astonishingly faithful to the original, certainly the most faithful monster remake of the new series. Even the Autons looked more apart from their forebears than this, and they were just walking mannequins. 

There are plenty of differences when you look at the two designs together. Apart from the obvious things, like the use of more modern materials and so on, the main difference is an altogether more streamlined appearance when compared to the very cumbersome original. The hips in particular have been slimmed down. However, it's not all that different, in silhouette, to the 'Ice Lord' upper-class that commanded the Warriors in their 60s and 70s appearances (I do hope we get to see a Lord). The new version's shoulders are more built up, making its arms appear a little short compared to its body, and it lacks the tufts of hair found on its forebears (although the one pictures does seem particularly hairy).  The new Warrior's shell is more clearly divided into plates, but the overall effect is much the same, down to the boots and turtle-neck torso armour. One major difference is the hands; the original Ice Warriors had clamp-like pincers, while the new version appears to have bulky but clearly differentiated fingers. I am also very pleased to note that on its right arm, the new Warrior sports some kind of implanted device; I'm hoping this is the sonic weapon favoured by the originals, which made the screen go all wibbly when they shot people.

The status of the BBC foam machines is presently unknown.

Friday, 1 March 2013

REVIEW: The Minister of Chance episode 4: 'The Tiger'



Today, the Minister returns, stepping through a door cut into the very fabric of space and time and into your download folder. It’s the fourth and penultimate episode, but it’s been a while since we last heard him, so a brief reintroduction and recap might be in order:

The Minister of Chance is a powerful and mysterious being of undisclosed origins, although, unofficially, he is in fact a Time Lord. In his current incarnation, in this radiophonic production, he is played by Julian Wadham, having toughened up somewhat since his debut appearance in the Doctor Who webcast Death Comes to Time, played by Stephen Fry.

Having arrived in the land of Tanto on a distant world, the Minister investigates terrible events that portend to an unwelcome future. The Sezians have invaded Tanto and are enforcing their cultural hatred of science upon the locals, and all the while gearing up for war against the neighbouring nation of Juro. However, this seemingly local affair threaten to have repercussions far beyond, and other forces are at work here…

Really, though, it’s all about Kitty.

‘The Tiger’ launches straight into high gear as relations between the neighbouring nations grow ever more precarious. There’s action from the off, grippingly evoked by some ingenious sound design. It’s worth re-listening to episodes one through three before taking on part four. The listener has little opportunity to pause to get their bearings, and this is a refreshingly complex story – not one to half-listen to while doing the ironing. Thankfully, all episodes are available for free on the Ministry’s website, so there’s no excuse not to catch up from the beginning.

The cast is as impressive as ever, but what less can you expect when the likes Julian Wadham, Paul Darrow, Paul McGann and Jenny Agutter are taking part? Agutter shows just what a talented actress she is as her character, Professor Cantha, becomes hugely important to the events in Tanto, building on the foundations laid by earlier instalments. Her championing of science is nothing new in a science fiction setting, but is portrayed with more thought and reasoning than in many stories. The Sezians’ belief in magic is a thinly-veiled commentary on the nature of theistic religion, with the ‘stuff just happens’ approach unable to stand up against the relentless logic of empirical enquiry.

The religious parallels are equally clear in the presentation of the higher echelons of the invaders’ society. Sylvester McCoy gives the impression his theocratic (thaumocratic?) leader, the Witch Prime, would be a canny opponent undermore ordinary pressures, but he cannot stand up to Paul McGann’s Machiavellian Durian, continually climbing the ladder to ever greater reaches of power. He may, however, have exceeded his reach this time. Paul Darrow steals every scene he’s in, and, although his appearances are tantalisingly few in this episode, his viperous character the Lord Rathen drives events from the background.

As the Minister himself, Julian Wadham is perfectly cast, combining an educated superiority, a natural charm, and a ruthlessness of purpose into a convincing portrayal of a god amongst men – one whose powers we are only now realising the extent. He’s a more dangerous character than his original incarnation, and, much like the production of a whole, succeeds because he is no longer beholden to the Doctor Who universe. Stepping out from its progenitor series, The Minister of Chance can take its inspiration in any direction its producers choose.

Peter Guinness is equally impressive as the Horseman, a dark figure whose motives are only now becoming clear. Finally, this frightening character is given not only a proper confrontation with his equal number in the Minister, but is afforded some development. His part in things starts to become clear as the complexities of his character become apparent.  Also worth singling out for praise is Tamsin Greig, whose character, the Sage of the Waves, provides further commentary on the trappings of religion and power.

However, it really is all about Kitty. Lauren Crace brings this captivating and hugely entertaining character to vivid life. Seemingly nothing more than an innocuous, if uncompromisingly assertive peasant girl, Kitty has slowly revealed hidden depths as the serial has progressed. A woman of great strength and resourcefulness, and a seemingly limitless supply of swearwords, Kitty is far more important than she may first appear, and her presence as the Minister’s companion is surely no accident.

‘The Tiger’ builds on the foundations of the earlier episodes, teasing us with answers to earlier questions before challenging us with yet more mysteries. Events lead to a thrilling cliffhanger, and episode five looks set to be a gripping conclusion.

Download episode four from the Ministry here.