Wednesday, 8 August 2012

“Excuse me, Mr Dalek, would you care to move onto this cape?”




Dr Who and the Daleks
Written by Terry Nation and Milton Subotsky, directed by Gordon Flemyng, 1965

I’m a big fan of sixties Doctor Who, and especially of Hartnell. Therefore, you’d be forgiven for expecting me to tow the party line when it comes to the Aaru movies (such as there is even a fan consensus at all): that at best they’re a bit of fun, and at worst a cartoonish Technicolor travesty of the original stories’ relatively unparalleled realism and ‘grittiness’. And I do. I think they’re shit.

But, see, here’s the thing – I’d love, I’d really love to like the films. I love apocrypha – the weird digressions and convolutions that Doctor Who’s colossus-like straddling of numerous media inevitably throws up. I like to be able to go, ‘Hey, you know what – I love the TV originals’ committed approach (which makes their no-budget values pretty much irrelevant), but this is something different’; I’d like to be able to embrace the idea that these are a different thing, some bold, fun, deliriously colourful digression from the norms of the canon. Well, let’s see, as I get my blog-along on for Dr Who and the Daleks.

  • If its existence weren’t so accepted (albeit tacitly ignored), it’d seem like a joke: a big-screen sixties remake of Doctor Who?! The jazzy sub-Barbarella titles scream YouTube fake.
  • The pratfalls immediately count against it.
  • What’s majorly frustrating is that it should be FRICKING AMAZING that Peter Cushing played the Doctor, in any capacity, but, though it’s sweet for him to get to play cuddly, this dithery old duffer is so far from his customary hawkish, dignified screen persona that it might as well be anyone.
  • I get the logic of going down the human ‘Dr Who’ path, but eschewing the series’ most iconic elements – the theme, the TARDIS interior design and dematerialisation sound effect – just seems bizarrely contrary (rights issues, perhaps?).
  • The protagonists’ absolutely total non-reaction to their arrival on AN ALIEN PLANET firmly locates us within the cartoony tone the film occupies, which has absolutely no time for even the most basic sense of realism, let alone actual emotion or character development. In fairness, that just highlights the original series’ (comparative) realism, and the skills of the TV regulars. By contrast, no-one’s required to act here. It kind of emphasises how miraculous it is that the series bothered to engage with at least an approximation of the emotional trauma that being whirled away through time and space by (in this case) your girlfriend’s dementia-ridden grandfather might engender.
  • I was always chronically embarrassed by these films’ naffness as a kid (and my family’s assumption that they must be like catnip to my ming-mong soul). Unfortunately, I really haven’t loosened up on that view. There’s total non-characterisation, non-drama.
  • Okay, this isn’t meant to be the Doctor we know, but I find his characterisation at its most compelling when the series plays on his ambiguities, as in The Daleks, which makes dramatic meat out of his endangering the TARDIS crew through his selfishness – something that’s totally skipped over here. Like everything, a potential moment of conflict is neutered by this kiddie bullshit. By contrast to Hartnell’s early crotchety and irascible old gentleman, a loveable Eagle-reading granddad is a bit dull. Similarly, they even fudge the dangling-Thal suicide/self-sacrifice (“Oh, he’s alright!”). So toothless.
  • Roy Castle fucking around with some comedy doors is pretty weak anyway, but its unfunniness is emphasised by much of the film’s lack of score.
  • Tinfoil on the walls?!
  • The Daleks do look ace (you might want to savour that statement; it might be the only positive one), and the forest is pretty good (in a studio-bound, luridly-lit kind of way), but, really, shouldn’t Aaru have been embarrassed that for all their “on the big screen… in colour!” posturing, the sets, while impressively sizeable, are far tackier and crapper than the small screen production design?
  • So flat, so undramatic. It’s just stupid and dull. I imagine this might be what it feels like to be a not-we watching Doctor Who in general.
  • I like trash – ie, things that are consciously setting themselves up to be about cheap thrills – at least, if they’re well done. But this manages the feat of having zero dramatic value or depth, but while not even being fun either. Even a bag of white chocolate and raspberry cookies to dunk in my tea hasn’t improved my goodwill; maybe getting blitzed on red wine might’ve done the trick. At least the Thals’ Liz Taylor makeup might’ve been funny that way. (Well, there’s a plan for Daleks – Invasion: Earth 2150 A.D.) I’d’ve preferred to see Cushing tackle the role in dramatic mode (he’s far more Doctorish in stuff like The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires), but failing that I sort of wish, as it is a travesty of the original, they’d gone the whole hog and ramped up the camp to the proportions of the Adam West Batman, or at least B-movie thrills’n’spills.
  • So static.
  • Hard not to see it as a bit of a travesty of the original.
  • Roy Castle bumps into things! Comedy gold!
  • I reread the DWM Time Team’s comments on the movies recently, so a lot of their comments are still fresh in my mind, yet I’m failing to get their appreciation for Roberta Tovey’s Susan. I mean, she is the only member of the cast who isn’t a total moron, but still.
  • There’s some painted landscapes the artificiality of which is quite delish, verging on an almost Fantastic Planet look, bu-ut…
  • None of it really makes sense, which is pretty damningly indicative of a fundamental lack of care or even respect for the audience: why does ‘Dr Who’ live in a bungalow but dress like a Victorian? Why did he make ‘TARDIS’ in the form of a police box?
  • The TV version (take your pick of titles) is overlong and, obviously, in terms of editing, etc, seems more dated than this; but it’s so much more impressive in its integrity and conviction. This has got higher production values but – not that this should surprise anyone – what does it matter if it’s so flat and moronic, and populated by blue-skinned ponces?
  • The Chase would have been fun on the silver screen, though.

Final verdict: Interminable. Toothless. Invasion: Earth might be put on hold, I need a few months to recover myself.

Friday, 22 June 2012

“A box with little windows! Terrific!”



Review: JUNK-YARD DEMON
Written by Steve Parkhouse, drawn by Mike McMahon, 1981

The Dragon's Claw comic collection is a bit blah overall - the stories are the sort of light silliness you'd expect of a seventies comic tie-in, rather than the sort of thing actually delivered in The Iron Legion (notably, The Star Beast and the titular story). So I can't really be bothered to review it. It's all stories which amount to 'the Doctor goes to a planet where the inhabitants turn out to be butterfly people,' or, 'he encounters some cannibals and helps some other people get away, but who don't really get away'. Hmm.

Junk-Yard Demon, by contrast, is something else. I know I’m behind the curve here… by thirty-one years (the closest I’ve got to it previously being an Adrian Salmon-drawn sequel in a nineties annual), but - it is perfect. It's a snappy story, yet has an actual plot (albeit a slight one – but which fits the length rather than feeling like a truncated or unfinished vignette). Considering its brevity, the incidental characters - scrap merchants Flotsam and Jetsam and their wind-powered robot, Dutch – just work: they’re effortlessly memorable, with idiosyncrasies that show up the deficiencies of characters elsewhere in the collection, like Prometheus (a mythological figure... in space, for no good reason), whose only defining feature is his lack of clothes and perfect pecs.

Probably the story's most apparent advantage though is Mike McMahon's scratchy, stylised, idiosyncratically proportioned and exaggerated art - which is in revelatory contrast to Dave Gibbons' precise, always-impressive but, at this stage, slightly less fresh art. Thanks to McMahon, something that could have been unassuming is instead – let’s say it – freaking beautiful. Even in terms of layout, the use of numerous small panels is remarkable, and impressively used along with silent panels which create filmic pauses in the action.

The whole thing – art and story – still stands up today; it's funny and cool and a bit offbeat, and feels like a one-off, whereas a lot of the rest of Dragon’s Claw is quite flat and very much of its (slightly na├»ve) time. (I hope future issues of Vworp Vworp! might focus on Junk-Yard Demon…)

And all this is in spite of the slightly odd Tenth Planet-cum-Moonbase design of the Cyberman, the use of exclamation marks for nearly all of its dialogue, and its "Cybernaut" controller, which should make the strip seem horribly apocryphal and unofficial.

The Neutron Knights is the only other story in this collection that really stands up with the best of these earliest strips – strangely, because its King-Arthur-and-Merlin-in-the-future premise should be bollocks – but even that is little more than a scenario rather than a complete story. But with Junk-Yard Demon, the art, the dialogue, everything seems a cut above - one of those depressingly rare occasions of a story being as much of a classic as its reputation - bold and instantly memorable. Love at first sight with this one.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Reaction: THE DOCTOR, THE WIDOW AND THE WARDROBE



Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Farren Blackburn, 2011

So, was it me, or is this basically total shite? That it manages to be simplistic yet somehow still laboured, is, I suppose, a triumph of sorts. But it’s entirely lacking in danger, far too well-equipped with wildly hokey concepts (piloting a disguised-wood spaceship thing through the vortex with the power of a mother's maternal instincts?!), and it even looks massively cheap - all those big, plain sets feel a bit… season seventeen.

And was it strictly necessary to CG the aerial views of the forest? Unfortunately, that says a lot about the level of realism; it probably would've seemed more awkward, in such a cartoon, to have shown some stock footage of the Black Forest or whatever, such was the episode's distance from any sense of realism (I don't mean reality, rather any sense that disbelief could be suspended about the whole premise - acid rain to melt trees which act as power sources?! WTF? Once again, there’s a disappointing sense of Moffat hurriedly and imperfectly filling in the gaps of a concept which was more important that its justification). Even the acting was shit (Arabella! Holy god).

The only spark it mustered was the scene on the Ponds’ doorstep – mainly, it must be said, due to Amy – which is odd as that felt quite inorganically tacked-on anyway. Most damning though is its total lack of story, the plot amounting to the Doctor arriving (alright, in this case he was already in situ); something bad happening; and then… the Doctor not even solving the situation - it simply progresses to a point where it all sorts itself out. That's IT. The story amounted to a walk through a wood. I don't like CS Lewis (who does?!), but at least The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, plundered here for its iconography if nothing else, had the time and space for a plot that involved more than four characters, and more than one situation. 

I’ve spoken before about how much I like low-key episodes, but, oddly, despite its small cast, I wouldn’t categorise this as one: it's definitely leaning toward Moffat's occasional flirtations with his predecessor’s more ‘Superman’ approach to the series (the in-orbit opening; the journey through the vortex), yet the fact that it has so few characters just makes it feel sort of inadequate or unfinished, like they could only afford to do it on a shoestring. And, like the simple plot nevertheless feeling totally forced, even given the small size of its cast, none of them really get to do very much, much less have the opportunity to ring true as real people.

I really love Claire Skinner, but even she just got to play a less funny version of her Outnumbered persona. Which is telling, actually; she basically doesn’t have a character, and isn’t presented as being important to the Doctor in a way other one-off seasonal companions like Astrid were; that the Doctor goes running back to Amy at the end just reinforces the idea that she is where Moffat’s heart (...or whatever) lies, and makes me a bit dubious about how well he's going to cope with her eventual departure and replacement.

The comparison to Caves (which Moffat might regret making), in purely story terms, does TDTWATW no favours. Think of the characters in that: Jek, Salateen (and his double), the colonel, the bounty hunter dudes, Morgus, the president... Yeah, yeah; I know it’s longer, but there aren't even equivalent roles here - everyone's a goodie: the mother, the kids (companion-surrogates); even Bill Bailey's posse are mild-mannered even when threatening interrogation, and even the nominal monsters aren't bad. WHERE'S THE TENSION, bitch?!

There are some nice ideas, for sure - well, namely the idea of trees growing together into a disguised tower - but co-opted into a 'sci-fi' environment (the conspicuous nods to Caves didn't help this) just seems awkward and ridiculous – ‘It's the future!’ has come to be used as justification for trees spawning fairytale wooden monarchs, growing into towers apparently made of stone, metal (and glass), and expelling their souls. (God, since when has DW had any truck with such a wanky concept as souls? I know it's just being used as shorthand, but I miss the series’ formerly relentless rationalist religion-bashing.)

And then there's the fact that, despite its simplicity, the plot still didn't WORK: much is made of Madge being a suitable receptacle for the trees’ ‘souls’... yet they're dumped into space at an undisclosed point during the journey (rather than finding a home on earth?). And no word at all on how exactly the trees’ spaceship/golf ball thing found its way into the time vortex - what, the power of Madge's desire to get home? (It didnt even NEED to time travel, for the trees' sake.) Give me a break. Why is Doctor Who lately so riddled with full-on ‘magical’ explanations from the love-saves-the-day school.

Also, the lifts from A Matter of Life and Death were unfortunate, as the association simply served as a reminder of something actually packed with ingenuity, creativity, imagination, emotion, and a satisfactory plot...

 God, I found that really dispiriting. I don't LIKE specials; I don't like the idea of a ‘Christmassy’ Doctor Who story automatically being magical, but equally, I don't think it should be that difficult to achieve that confluence. In advance, the elements of the story - the wartime setting, the old house, the Narnian forest, seemed to have a lot of potential richness, but in practice that's lost in the story's prevailing tone of glibness. I think that's what’s been bugging me about this phase of DW: its increasingly one-note comic/smug tone. All the Doctor's ‘I know’ bollocks, and still more self-indulgent references to ‘timey-wiminess’ and all that. It’s just becoming a bit... painful. There's no danger, no originality...

I mean, I realise this is a bit harsh, as there were some stories I really liked in the last season, but... it was all a bit depressing, really. Which sucks especially because it shouldn’t be hard to do a Christmas story. Creepy old house. Snow. That should write itself. Obviously it's a hard balance to strike, as neither Davies nor Moffat have ever quite nailed it.

I'm even dubious about the Doctor's positioning as goofy Santa, providing the children with hammocks and rotating Christmas trees. For a nominally moral series, I'd hope that it might engage with a less self-involved Christmas message: helping others, no...? It’s okay, we have remote-control armchairs.

Thursday, 3 May 2012



Every time I sodding well say I’m going to try to get back into the habit of updating this site, I… totally fail to do so. Soz. (I’ve been spending more time on a collaborative film review blog what I've started with a friend, Caramels & Kerosene – which will include illustrations and everything, eventually.) But I keep getting urges to watch, like, Time and the Rani, so maybe the time has come for a revival. I’ll post that motherfucking Doctor, the Witch and the Wardrobe review soon, I promise. And then I can do something more interesting.

In the meantime, enjoy this Robert Hack picture.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Reaction: THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG



You might have noticed I’ve neglected this site a little recently (in favour of Wild Horses of Fire!) – though the idea of anyone noticing may be wishful thinking; is this thing on?!

I have to admit to a certain amount of apathy to this season; I like these characters, and, as I’ve repeatedly said, the prevailing tone Moffat’s brought to the series in much more my bag than it was under Davies… However, there’s a glibness to the series too – it’s almost never convincingly serious or authentically emotional – which I find quite disappointing, and makes me miss the perhaps more successful engagement with the regulars as real people under Davies. Therefore it’s been a bit of a stuggle to get round to posting all these reviews – which is particularly a shame as I have a million billion other reviews to put up afterwards.

But - okay, so: The Wedding of River Song.

I know it’s kind of Moffat’s thing to have certain tropes that he reuses, but – haven’t we been here before? The death of time, creating a messed-up unreality with the Doctor/TARDIS as the epicentre. I quite like his wide-ranging thing, but, strangely, this story left me a bit cold. It’s nifty, lots of things come together nicely, it ranges all over the universe, but… well: seen it. It’s funny, under Davies (ohh, that doesn’t bear thinking about), Moffat’s stories were reliably the best of their seasons, but, as showrunner, his stories – at least this season – have been at the other end of the scale. They have the big events and twists, and the ambition, but they just haven’t been satisfying to me.

In fact, I like ideas like that of River visiting her mum and dad in between previous adventures and found the simple link back to Flesh and Stone more satisfying than, say, the cheat of the Doctor’s ‘death’. Oh. A shapechanging robot. That seems like a work of desperate convenience on the part of Moffat, and, where the whimsy of the Tessalectas fitted in the mid-season opener, it seems a bit shonky in relation to a big universe-spanning death-of-the-Doctor narrative. I mean, surely that’s a bit below Moffat? Or has he started second-guessing his audience so much that he’s starting to rely on simple solutions cos no-one’d expect it? Whatever – it does feel like a cheat in a way that River’s revival of the Doctor in Let’s Kill Hitler didn’t.

Hmm, River. She’s a funny one – much as I like her, the schematics of her timeline and where she fits into the Doctor’s world kind of overshadow her significance as a character. I think, perhaps, once the series itself isn’t so based around the various revelations of her life, it’ll be easier to see her purely as a memorable addition to the Doctor’s world – as a recurring figure, she’s kind of up there with the Brigadier; the recurring friend who know him that much more than anyyone else.

Ever since Silence of the Library, which immediately established her as a significant character, I was concerned that the scale and scope of the relationship suggested there would be undermined slightly by the relatively few conventional adventure encounters they were ever likely to share on-screen – but, at the point we’re at now, where they’re both equally familiar with each other, it’s fun to speculate on the scale of the relationship they share during her nights.

Having read other reviewers’ takes on the finale – and the series in general – I feel a bit churlish; I forget that my underlying appreciation for the current regulars may not always come out (River especially is perhaps one of the most fascinating and effective additions to the Doctor’s world, with the idea of his marrying his ‘bespoke psychopath’ being quite genius), and, equally, even if it may not have sustained the dizzy heights of some of his earlier, standalone stories, we’re extraordinarily lucky to have a man of Moffat’s audacious imagination at the reigns.

I did really hate the mashed-up history, though; it’s churlish, but, it really seemed a pretty limited history. A sort of week junior-school-curriculum take on the scope of something like Philip Purser-Hallard’s City of the Saved.

And as for the ‘Doctor who?’ thing – okay, I get that it’s nice that this is being given significance within the fictive reality of the show, but I just hope Moffat has more of a plan than the slightly abortive ‘Cartmel Masterplan,’ which planned to add mystery in the same way, but which, one speculates, never had any actual answers to deliver. At least Moffat’s built in the caveat that it’s a question that should never be answered. That doesn’t make it very appealing as a season-spanning tease, though, but who knows…

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Stuart Manning


Apologies for the lack of recent updates (I've been posting more on my film/TV blog, Wild Horses of Fire!) - however, The Wedding of River Song and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe reviews will be forthcoming in the probably-quite-immediate future. And after that I've got a bazillion other reviews lined up, of all manner of Who-ish marvellousness - so fear not!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Reaction: CLOSING TIME




Written by Gareth Roberts, directed by Steve Hughes, 2011

Being a fan of The Lodger, I was very much hoping this’d make a hat-trick of high-quality consecutive episodes, yet in the end it erred somewhat too much on the side of mundanity. Not quite as funny or likeable as the previous Colchester-set offering, the general tone is undoubtedly congenial, but let down by the marginalised and somewhat ineffectual Cybermen. Seriously: impassive robot men with the strength of ten who make people like themselves – this stuff should write itself, yet the Cybermen have nary a handful of effective stories under their shiny belts (for my money, Tomb and The Invasion, and, er…?), and, while it kind of worked in The Lodger, the love-conquers-all ending is pretty weak; conversion is the thing that should give the Cybermen a frisson of abjection, so to have the process overcome by fatherly affection is just… weak. Having said that, it’s characteristically snappy and fun, and I think will no doubt repay multiple viewing, but seems a little bit nothingy at this point in the season.

I know nothing about the finale beyond having seen the RT cover [at the time of originally writing this], so I know Amy and Rory are on hiatus here rather than gone for good already – and let’s face it, they were never going to be written out at the end of an inter-season story – however, I quite like the disruption of the norms of companions’ coming and going by having them not appear. Craig makes a surprisingly good surrogate comp, though it makes me realise, given the Tenth Doctor’s multiple pairings (…slag), how much I’d like to see Eleven in the context of someone new.

As for the coda… Well, let’s leave that until after The Wedding of River Song…though it was nice to see Alex Kingston get to do some Actual Acting for once, as opposed to her usual vamping.