Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Great Gatsby Review

Ok, this one's going to be tricky: I do not feel even remotely equipped to tackle this film. Partly because I haven't read the novel, but mainly because I'm not sure director Baz Luhrmann functions on the same plane of existence as we mere humans. I have no idea if I mean that as a complement or an insult.

I've only seen two of his films before - Romeo Plus Juliet and Moulin Rouge Exclamation-Mark - and I remember very little of Moulin Rouge! beyond Kylie Minogue as the Absinthe Fairy, a gravelly version of Roxanne, and waking up with a headache and no trousers. But even that minimal familiarity is enough that I knew what to expect.
Luhrmann's films are visual explosions, often literally, which assault the senses with over-the-top imagery and incredible design. They're a glowing hyper-reality where everything, from emotions to costumes, are heightened and exaggerated. Worlds of over-the-top characters and doomed romances. They're pure style-over-substance but, oh, what style! The Great Gatsby is no different.
It's not entirely clear who Luhrmann is making these films for. They're too bizarre for the mainstream; too shallow for the art-crowd; too unorthodox for fans of the source material. While I may appreciate a version of Romeo and Juliet that opens with a shootout at a petrol station, I'm not sure it's quite what Shakespeare fans are after. Likewise The Great Gatsby punctuated with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. But then, it's quite possible he's just making these films for Baz Luhrmann.
What is clear, though, is that this man was born to make films in 3D.

The Great Gatsby does things with 3D that I've never seen before - stuff that genuinely blew me away. There are shots that drop through people's hollow shadows, into the next scene that's already playing there. There are shots superimposed together, but intersecting at the same depth rather than hovering above one-another. There's a scene where the windows in a New York building all warp in size, bigger and smaller, and some where text is scrawled on the screen in pencil, then ripples like water. My favourite scene in the film might be early on when Luhrmann uses actual period stock-footage, badly-recoloured and converted to 3D - it's surprisingly wonderful and immersive.
Those are mostly standard 2D techniques, but in adding that extra dimension Luhrmann makes them into something more. And even when it's not using tricks like these, The Great Gatsby's 3D is truly top-level stuff - up there with Avatar and Prometheus. The huge parties that make up much of the first act lend themselves spectacularly to the format - enormous halls filled with gleaming, reflective surfaces and garish colours; tinsel and fireworks and champagne. There are a few scenes of obvious CGI, but that actually adds to the dream-like hyper-reality of it all. It's gorgeous.

Into these stunning, excessive parties walks Nick Carraway, played by Toby Maguire, experiencing the decadence of the New York high-life for the first time. Well, the second time actually - the first time he gets dragged by his cousin's brutish husband on a drunken night of debauchery with his mistress. When Nick emerges the next day (with a headache, no trousers, and only fleeting memories of Moulin Rouge!) it's already pretty clear that these people and their lifestyle are rotten and corrupt. That's the obvious message at play here: that all the glamour and hedonism of the elite are hiding a festering core. But, having established this already on Nick's first night, where else is there to go?
It feels like a false-start. When we do reach the much more lavish, enticing parties of Mr. Gatsby, we should be taken in as Nick is, but instead we already see through it. By the time Jay Gatsby himself appears, with the suave, perfect smile of Leonardo DiCaprio, we already know that the smile is hiding something. This is probably carried over from the novel but it nevertheless feels structurally off - the illusion should fall apart slowly, not topple over right at the start.

It would have worked, too! DiCaprio is so charming and mysterious as Gatsby that we would have bought into him in a second if the movie hadn't already given the game away. As it is, he's still amazing in a role that combines the roguishness of his Titanic days with the intensity of his more recent years. Gatsby may have an annoying accent, and say “old sport” a few dozen times too many, but Leo owns the screen.
The entire cast is similarly excellent. Maguire creates a strong character from what is essentially an audience stand-in; Carey Mulligan gives depth to Daisy (the aforementioned cousin), both the object of Gatsby's affections and a pawn in his game; and Joel Edgerton is fantastic fun as her monstrous husband Tom Buchanan. They're all great, but there's a reason only one gets called that in the title.
What's weird about Gatsby though (and, again, this may stem from the book) is how he's presented as inspiring and aspirational throughout. Even after the other shoe drops, and it becomes quite clear that Gatsby is not only crooked but completely delusional and maybe even psychotic, he's still presented as someone to look up to. Carraway certainly looks up to him and, beyond a certain point, I really struggled to understand why.
It's strange, but strangely compelling - which pretty much sums up the whole film.

The Great Gatsby is first and foremost an experience - from glitzy parties to burnt-out junkyards it's never less than beautiful and, like the parties themselves, you get sucked in even though you know you shouldn't. It's thematically confused and the messages either don't land or land way too soon, but the brilliant performances and direction make it completely captivating. Baz Luhrmann has created another crazy, over-the-top world, but it somehow stays more grounded and vastly more effective than either Romeo + Juliet or that bit with the green fairy.
If you have any interest in Gatsby at all, I totally recommend it - but for gods' sake see it in 3D, old sport.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Doctor Who Series 7 Post-Mortem

And so, as we find ourselves on the Fields of Trenzalore, in the final resting place of the Doctor, it seems a fitting time to examine the still-warm corpse of Series 7.
This series had something wrong with it from the beginning. We already had a look at the symptoms but, now that we have the whole thing laid out on a slab, we may finally be able to locate the cause. Let's cut this thing open and see what we find.

We learned an invaluable lesson this year: Doctor Who is only as good as its Companion.
This is something we probably should have known already. Series 4 didn't have the best of episodes, but it was elevated to greatness by the awesomeness of Donna. Series 3 had much better episodes, but it was dragged down by the simpering of Martha (note that the best episode is the one she's barely in). One of the main problems with David Tennant's final year was the lack of a constant Companion to give the audience a human anchor. The Companion makes or breaks this show, and always has.

To that end, I have a correction to make. I said before that, of the two Who showrunners, Steven Moffat is the better writer. That's not entirely true. While Moffat is definitely the better story-writer, I've come to realise, after a discussion with my sister, that Russel T. Davies is much better at writing characters.
Actually, that's still not true. Moffat has written many fantastic characters - dropping them into the middle of an episode, fully-formed, deep and engaging. Sally Sparrow; Madame de Pompadour; Jack Harkness; River Song. He writes great characters. Where Davies outmatches him is not in writing characters, but in writing people.
The difference is that while Moffat's characters are created to function within a story (and do so brilliantly), Russelty's creations have lives beyond the confines of that story - beyond the Doctor. They have families, and jobs, and hopes and dreams.

Rose Tylor was the Bad Wolf - she gave the Doctor something to live for - and that was her purpose, narratively speaking. But what was the purpose of Jackie and Micky? From a story perspective, what was the reason for introducing her mother and long-suffering boyfriend?
There really wasn't one - they didn't affect the story in any way. Micky stepped up in Series 2 but, originally, they had no reason to be there. But they were Rose's family; they were her life outside the Doctor. Without them, she'd just have been some random chav who climbed in a phonebox. They humanised her - helping us relate to her and understand her. Without her family's soap-opera antics, Rose would have been a very dull, blank character. Instead, she's one of the show's best.
A major reason Martha didn't work as well as Rose is that her life was less fleshed out. We saw her family a couple of times, but the connections never felt as strong or as real as her predecessor's. Donna, on the other hand, succeeded because her relationship with her mother felt so real, and because Bernard Cribbins is the best thing ever.
Notice, too, that Rose and Donna were both very flawed characters. Rose in particular could be outright horrible (usually to Micky) and Donna was an obnoxious, loud-mouthed idiot - even goody-goody Martha had that whole infatuation thing. Those aspects may have influenced the story in certain places, but they were independent of it. It's these faults, along with their personal-lives, that make them more than just characters. That's Davies' great strength - he creates living, breathing human beings.

Moffat... doesn't. His characters can be deep and interesting and textured but, in the end, they only exist to serve the story. When an episode ends, there is no life for them to go back to. Amy has no family or even any friends outside of the Doctor and Rory. Rory has no life beyond a job description; Clara, likewise. They are defined entirely by their relationships to the narrative.
Moffat simply cannot write people the way Davies can; but that isn't a problem because he writes such strong stories and, in many ways, his characters are stories. The characters have a beginning, a middle and an end - they evolve across an arc, where Davies' Companions were constant and unchanging. Those character-arcs are then intertwined with the overall arc of the series (think how integral Amy's lifelong relationship to the cracks is) creating a huge compelling whole. Amy and Rory don't need to be brilliantly fleshed out people, because so much interesting stuff is happening with their characters. That's why Series 5 and 6 work so well. It's also why Series 7 doesn't.

Which brings us to Clara. The problem with Series 7 is that the central story isn't a story at all, but a mystery. It's barely even a mystery, in fact - it's basically just an oft-repeated question.
As I've said before, that was the modus operandi of the Russelty era. But Russelty got away with it because the characters were compelling in their own right - I could happily watch Donna gardening with Wilf all day (let alone travelling space and time) because they're both interesting people. They didn't necessarily need a story to drive them, so a vague mystery was enough. But without the anchor of a strongly-plotted narrative, Amy and Rory wouldn't hold my attention the same way.
Clara isn't a detailed, complex person like Rose, and she isn't undertaking a compelling character journey like Amy. She's just sort of there. And because Moffat's characters are defined by their relationship to the story, not having a story means that Clara's character remains undefined. That's why Oswin (the Clara from Asylum of the Daleks) is a stronger character than the current Clara - that episode had a well-defined narrative and Oswin was built around it. With no story-beats to hit (other than the very basic "get in the TARDIS"), Clara's character doesn't need any specific personality or motivations (except "wants to travel") and she isn't given any. She's also not given any of the human flaws that made her predecessors more interesting.
This means that neither Jenna-Louise Coleman nor the writers have anything to work with. Coleman is good, and does the best she can with incredibly slight material - managing a shallow kind of likeability - but she's fighting a losing battle from the very beginning. The writers have it worse though. With nothing to go on and no real backbone to start with, the writers seem to have guessed at who Clara is and used her however they need at the time. As a result her personality fluctuates wildly from episode to episode.
This was clearest in Neil Gaiman's otherwise successful Cybermen episode Nightmare in Silver, where Clara is suddenly put in charge of a military unit and is just instantly good at it. Also, people are dying around her - because of her orders, in some cases - and this doesn't seem to affect her at all: she's told that a woman just died and she shrugs it off as a useful source of strategic information. Later she waves a gun in the face of not just a child, but a child she actually knows and cares about! We kept being told that Clara is perfectly normal, yet suddenly she was a warrior.

It was jarring. It was so jarring, in fact, that I was certain it was leading into some kind of reveal - that Clara would turn out to be some kind of adaptable chameleon, designed to be the ideal Companion in any situation. It would also explain why she seemingly has no faults. Clara is, after all, the one who saves the day throughout most of this series. She defeats a giant, evil god-face with a scrapbook that we never see again, appears to become an empath in the presence of another empath, talks down a warmongering Martian with peacefulness, and kills lots of Cybermen with violence. She changes to fit the scenario.
Further supporting the chameleon theory was this trailer for the final episode, where the Doctor calls her, "Perfect. Too perfect.” It seemed like all this weird, inconsistent character use might actually lead somewhere...

But no.
The final episode came, and it turns out Clara was inconsistent and amorphous just because the writing was inconsistent. The reveal - the solution to the series' big mystery - was that Clara actually was normal all along, just like everyone kept telling us. So she wasn't a robot, or a shape-shifter, or (as I thought for quite a while) a Dalek flesh-puppet; she was just Clara Oswald - a girl with no discernible characteristics.

That last episode, The Name of the Doctor, was actually very good. It was much better than it probably had any right to be, coming off the rest of Series 7. But it suffered, again, from the single-episode structure of this series. Where The Power of Three was all build-up, with no satisfying payoff, this episode was all conclusion with an incredibly rushed setup. The Whisper Men were creepy, but were just there for no reason. The Great Intelligence (played by Russelty Davies' spirit-brother, Richardy Grant) was just assumed to be evil, with no real explanation or motivation for what he was doing. Clara becomes aware that she's died twice - and that the Doctor has been lying to her and studying her - but there's no time to explore her reaction to this (yet another wasted chance to characterise her) let alone to explore how the hell she remembers it. A two-part story would have had room to breathe and make this all feel a little more organic.
But the rushed beginning at least means that the rest plays well. The Intelligence's plan is a cool and unsettling idea, and the solution is neat, if obvious. It explains the many Claras better than it might have (and it retroactively gives her a little more life - she inherits Oswin's personality, if that makes sense) and her sacrifice is handled well, though more time to see her struggle with that choice might have helped. In the absence of a compelling Companion this season, Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax have sort of taken that place - so watching Vastra's life unravel around her was a great, sad touch. Also, I personally like River Song more than most, so that farewell kiss meant more to me than any other moment this series (yes, including the Ponds).

It was a decent ending to a below-par series but, like everything else this year, there are definite things wrong with it.
I wondered before whether this series was trying to be more friendly to new viewers, who would benefit from a less serialised story structure. But if that were the case, why is this ending so steeped in Doctor Who lore? The episode opens with a montage of clips from Doctors and episodes past, which would fly over any newbies' heads, and it ends with a reveal that I didn't even understand the first time (I'm not entirely sure I understand it now).
If it was always going to delve so deep into the mythology, why has Series 7 stayed so detached until this point? Why did it shy away from mentioning the Question or the Silence? If we were going to end up on Trenzalore and the Question was going to be asked (if, indeed, it has been asked), then why were they never mentioned before this point, when they were so integral to Series 6? Has the Doctor even mentioned the Time War to Clara? The final moment of the series was a revelation about the most important event in the Doctor's many lives, yet that event has barely been mentioned (if at all) this series. It's loose and it's sloppy and it feels like it's tying up the wrong series. It's giving us conclusions to plot-lines that weren't actually explored.
As much as the reveal of John Hurt (freaking John Hurt!) was shocking and thrilling, it was also kind of irrelevant to anything else we saw this year. And, worst of all, it was a bloody cliffhanger.

At the risk of looking like an absolute self-obsessed prat, I'm going to quote myself:

"Series 6 also had a break in the middle... It had a cliffhanger ending... it didn't resolve everything, threw in a bunch of new problems, then left us hanging for a few months to let excitement build. This is how mid-season breaks are supposed to work.
The first half of the current series, by comparison, ended with the full conclusion of the Ponds' story, tying everything up nicely... It was an ending, not a pause. If it weren't for the fact that it was only the fifth episode of the series, it would have felt like the finale."

So Series 7 split for a mid-series break with an episode that felt like a season finale. Then Series 7 ended with a season finale that felt like a mid-series break. That's just a terrible way to approach a series!
The reveal of Hurt could be considered a tease, not a cliffhanger, in the same way that the blue head-in-a-box shouting, "Doctor Who?" at the end of the last series was a tease. But the difference is that Series 6 wrapped up all its other plotlines first. In this series, the mystery of Clara was pretty much the only thing resolved - the characters are still stuck on Trenzalore, and the Question has finally been asked (I think) which should not only cause the fall of Silence but also "the fall of the eleventh", and finally, of course, Clara and the Doctor are still floating within the Doctor's psyche! There was not a great deal of finality to this episode; it was definitely a cliffhanger.
I know that there is an anniversary special of some kind coming later in the year, and that this episode presumably feeds into it, but I had assumed that the special would be just that - a special - not just a continuation of the series. As it is (assuming that it does continue this story, and I can't really see how it couldn't) it's actually just a delayed finale - meaning that Series 7 has now had two stupidly long and unnecessary breaks in it.
Despite all that, the ending was a shocking enough moment - a big enough twist - that I was actually willing to give it a pass. But then the "Introducing..." caption flashed up, slapping us in the face with the incomplete story, drawing attention to how little this felt like an ending, and I actually felt a little insulted.

Ultimately though, the finale was still satisfying, incomplete as it was, if only because it provided an end and a point to all this faffing around with Clara. I wouldn't say that it was worth it, or that it made up for the shaky, floundering series that led to it, but at least it was something; at least it was good. It felt like the Doctor Who I want to be watching.
As we wheel this corpse back to the morgue, I just hope the show learns from this strange, disappointing year. The structure of the series has been messed with too much - with massive holes in the middle, no double-episodes, endings where there shouldn't be and none where there should - and the lack of a narrative arc has damaged and cheapened the power of the ending. Hopefully we'll see some of that addressed but, even if they fix it all, it won't mean a damn unless they also fix Clara. Now that we know who and what she is - now that she's no longer a mystery - hopefully she can become either a person or a story. Hopefully she can finally develop and emote. Hopefully she'll connect.

Doctor Who is only as good as its Companion. I've finally realised that - I just hope that Steven Moffat realises it too.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness Review

In 2009, JJ Abram's excellent soft-reboot of Star Trek spent much of its runtime explaining how and why its events didn't match up with the series' long-established continuity. The reason: alternating realities, or something similar. This went some way towards quelling the inevitable backlash from fans, who were now less upset about story-points being changed.
Abram's sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, seeks to explain and address the other source of fan outrage leveled at the first film - that it wasn't true to the "spirit" of creator Gene Roddenberry's original vision. Where the original series (and films) held an optimistic and hopeful view of the future (and of communism, if I'm reading them right), Abrams' films are more cynical - driven by conflict rather than cooperation.
The reason: terrorism.

The obvious example of this is Benedict Cumberbatch's intimidating villain John Harrison who, early on, blows up a facility in London, and kills many other people besides. But Harrison's actions - his very existence, in some ways - stem from the first film's destruction of the Vulcan homeworld; another act of terrorism. That act shook the Federation - the universe - to its core, and this film deals with the fallout.
When Chris Pine's Kirk willingly volunteers his crew to assassinate Harrison, it's clear that this is a Star Trek that has lost its innocence - a dark mirror of Roddenberry's vision, tainted by genocide, where violence begets violence. It's a wonder Spock doesn't have a beard.
The title, though, is a misnomer (and not just in its punctuation) - it is not a descent into the dark. This film is Star Trek escaping that darkness, rebelling against it, and embracing the original spirit of hope. Star Trek: Out of Darkness. By the end, things are seemingly back on track.

Despite how bleak and serious that potentially sounds, Abrams keeps things mostly light and buoyant, with a sense of fun and humour throughout. He works his usual magic - somehow making his crazy angles and crazier lens-flares feel entirely natural and very cinematic - and he rushes the film along at a dizzying pace. The action is spectacular and thrilling, and the movie is almost entirely relentless once it gets rolling. It's also very pretty, with excellent design work and some great little details (like lasers fired at warp-speed being overtaken by the ship that fires them).
Also keeping you on your toes are the usual Abrams twists and reveals - some of which don't land, but which are smartly used to distract you from the ones that do. These twists come, of course, courtesy of JJ's regular writers Kurtzman, Orci and Lindelof.
Their script for the first Star Trek is often criticised for the amount to which it relies on coincidence (Kirk, Spock and Scotty just happen to end up on the same planet), convenience (“Red Matter”) and random asides (that bit with the water pipes). The script for Into Darkness is much tighter and neater, with things slotting logically into place. Barring one incredibly stupid moment, where the crew desperately hunt for something despite already being sat on a pile of identical somethings, the story is solid, engaging and holds together better than the first.

Elevating that story to greater heights are the cast. By this point all seven of the lead actors have grown comfortably into their roles - no longer emulating the original performers, they can make the characters their own. It's a credit to the movie that you sometimes wish it would slow down so you could spend more time with the crew.
While they're all great, the focus is very much on Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock, as they learn about responsibility and friendship respectively. Both actors are excellent, and their bond feels genuine and affecting. Outside of that central relationship, with a cast this large, there are inevitably some characters that suffer; so while Zoe Saldana's Uhura and Simon Pegg's Scotty get bigger roles this time, the other three feel a little under-served. John Cho's Sulu does have maybe the film's coolest moment, though, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov gets its funniest (involving shirts); but I really wish we'd had more of Karl Urban's brilliant Dr. McCoy.
There's also newcomer Alice Eve, who does admirable work with a character who is little more than a plot-device in a bra.

Despite that large and very talented cast, every single scene of the movie is then stolen from them by Cumberbatch. There's been much speculation about whether John Harrison is actually classic Trek villain Khan - which is sort of beside the point because, either way, the guy has a lot of Wrath.
Harrison is charismatic and intelligent, seemingly controlled and collected, but you can always feel the rage bubbling beneath his calm surface. Cumberbatch is fantastic in the role - whether he's delivering chilling speeches or frothing at the mouth as he strangles people - and, incredibly, he even makes you feel for Harrison: he has been wronged and you can see that it's tearing him up.

And therein lies the true strength of both Star Trek films - their ability to make you care, even about the villains. The stories are interesting and enjoyable, but it's the characters that matter. They may not all stand out individually, but the interplay between the crew is the best part of the movie. Whether it's being silly or serious, the script is always imbued with real emotion - you care about these people, and you're happy just to be trekking with them.

The film's other great strength is its score. In the same week that I foolishly wrote about music for the first time, I have to say that Michael Giacchino's sweeping Star Trek theme (used in both movies) is easily one of my favourite film themes in quite a few years. It just fits this space opera so wonderfully.

The only real problem, negligible beside all the positives, is the film's reverence to the Star Trek movies that have come before. This is fine at the beginning, when it's just familiar details and individual plot-points appearing but, come the end, entire scenes are being replicated wholesale. Despite feeling both obvious and forced, these parts do still work because the actors sell them so well - but then Spock says one particular word and the whole thing collapses into parody.
The film recovers easily, but it's a shame that it needs to.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is an exhilarating film with a brilliant cast and a great villain. It has a few minor problems, but the strength of the performances and the skill of the director easily overcome them, and though it may flirt with the Darkness of the title, it always stays on the right side of fun. Abrams sweeps the audience up in a whirlwind of action and charms you with genuine heart.
Whatever Roddenberry's intention may have been, the original show was about the exploits of a group of great characters, and this new film series continues to capture that perfectly.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Iron Man's iPod

It's been a couple of weeks since I saw Iron Man 3, and I've wanted to write a few things about it ever since. Unfortunately, writing that huge, depressing Doctor Who thing ate up all my blogging time (speaking of which, the new episode was pretty good but it just reinforced everything I dislike about Clara). Now that that's finally out of the way, I can write about cheerful happy things again - like the music in Iron Man 3.
Please understand that I know barely anything about music. I'm writing this post completely as a layman; which means I'll be talking even more bollocks than usual. I'm calling 'em as I see 'em. Or hear 'em.

I said in my review that it's weird to see an Iron Man film with no AC/DC on the soundtrack. That band has been inseparable from this series since the first shot of the first trailer for the first film. So much so that Tony Stark himself diegetically uses Shoot to Thrill to announce his arrival in both the second film and The Avengers.
But dropping AC/DC from its soundtrack gives Iron Man 3 an opportunity to have something the other two films were missing: a real honest-to-gods theme-tune!

All the Marvel films have decent scores (Thor is a personal favourite) but until now they've not really had clear central themes associated with the characters. The first Iron Man came close, but the theme was underused and swallowed by the well-known-rock soundtrack. They could have built that theme into something stronger for the second film - but they strangely opted for a totally different theme that I barely even recognise.
That's a really odd move, actually. Batman Begins' theme is not very strong at all, but Warner Bros. stuck with it throughout the series and two films later The Dark Knight Rises had a recognisable (if minimalist) theme for Batman. Likewise, Sony's Spider-Man theme is one we all know (or knew at the time, at least) because it was used throughout the trilogy. Iron Man, on the other hand, has three different films with three very different soundtracks.

I actually prefer the first Iron Man theme to the third (it's got a more industrial, electric, metal feel that really fits with the character) but, of the two, the new theme is definitely much easier to hum.
The humming's important because it's not about the actual quality of the music (though that obviously helps); it's about being memorable and, if done right, iconic. Thor and Captain America both have great music, but you can't identify any real character theme. Iron Man and Iron Man 3 are the only Marvel themes that really pass the test.

What's interesting is how well this new theme fits with the theme from The Avengers (which was also pretty hummable). It's almost as though they're intended to blend into one-another in some future movie, but I can't imagine what.
We'll see later this year if Thor: The Dark World does something similar. If it does - and I really hope it does - then The Avengers 2 may bring Marvel's various theme-tunes together alongside its characters. Imagine that amazing swooping shot from the first Avengers, but with each character's iconic theme playing as that character does their bit. I just got chills.

Why theme-music is important, as opposed to just having a great score in general, I'm not sure. I just know that being able to hum the Iron Man 3 theme from memory makes it a little more special for me. I want to have that with their other heroes, too.
Marvel still have a long way to go if they want to compete with the gold standard of the form, though.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Journey to the Centre of Doctor Who (part 2)

Yesterday we looked at a broad view of Doctor Who, and saw that the current series is a strange, disappointing departure for the programme. Today we'll get deeper into it and try to work out how and why this happened.

Until this week the best episode of Series 7, for my money, was Cold War - a tight, Alien-esque thriller set in a claustrophobic Soviet submarine. It has no ties to the main story and barely any development of our main characters, but it's a solid, atmospheric episode.
In any other year, though, a solid standalone thriller would be a mid-level episode at best - does anyone even remember Series 3's 42, for example? The fact that Cold War is even in the running tells us that something is off this season; the fact that some people are then unfavourably comparing Cold War to The Curse of the Black Spot (which was dreadful) suggests it's even worse than that.

The truly great Doctor Who episodes are the emotional ones that explore the characters (Dalek, Human Nature, Journey's End, The Doctor's Wife) "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" ones that explore the show's mechanics (Day of the Moon, Blink) and especially those episodes that do both (Father's Day, The Girl in the Fireplace, Forest of the Dead, The Girl who Waited). But the current series has none of these. It doesn't even have any of those episodes that stand out just for their unique approach, like Love and Monsters or The Lodger.
Yes, there's emotional weight to The Angels Take Manhattan - but it's the residual weight of two series with these characters, not anything earned in the episode itself - and beyond that the entire series has been a succession of average, generic standalone episodes. They're mostly fine, but there's no spark or magic to any of them.
The closest we came to something unusual or special, in fact, was The Power of Three - which had a beautifully slow and creepy build-up, but then totally wasted it on a rushed, nonsensical ending. After that great set-up, it really needed more room to breathe - it would have worked much better as a two-parter.

And that's another thing - why are there no double-episodes this season? They've been some of the best episodes in the past and are a big part of the structure of the show - only having single-episode stories this year seems a really weird and limiting decision. Admittedly, it's not nearly as weird or limiting as the decision to cut the series in half, though. That just seems crazy!
Series 6 also had a break in the middle (from which point, arguably, it never fully recovered) but that split worked much better for several reasons. It had a cliffhanger ending, for one thing - it didn't resolve everything, threw in a bunch of new problems, then left us hanging for a few months to let excitement build. This is how mid-season breaks are supposed to work.
The first half of the current series, by comparison, ended with the full conclusion of the Ponds' story, tying everything up nicely. There was nothing to keep the programme on our minds - the Question hadn't come back into play and the mystery of Clara hadn't even begun. It was an ending, not a pause. If it weren't for the fact that it was only the fifth episode of the series, it would have felt like the finale.
Why only five episodes, anyway? That's not a mid-series break - it's a one-third-of-the-way-through-the-series break!
And then there was Christmas. Last season's break lasted for three months during summer. This season's break lasted for six months and was spread across two years! I can find no way of looking at that decision that makes any kind of sense - it's ludicrous! I appreciate that, for the first time since the awesome The Christmas Invasion, the Christmas episode actually tied into the main story but, surely, that can't be the only reason that there was half a year between episodes 5 and 6? That's clearly madness! It was such a long wait that even Doctor Who's own website began talking about the "New Series" when advertising the show's return.
To put this into perspective, in 2012 we saw less Doctor Who than we did in 2009 - the year when David Tennant was too busy to work on a full series. And, much as I disliked roughly half of Tennant's final season, there's no denying that it was far more satisfying than the five episodes we got last year.

The final nail in the coffin, for me, is that when the show returned, a full six months after wrapping up the story of the Ponds, it filled the hole left by Amy and Rory with... nothing. We lost two fully realised, fleshed-out characters and we gained nothing in return. That void has not been filled.
Oh, there's Clara, of course. But what do we actually know about her? As a person, I mean - not as some strange recurring human construct. Clara is clearly meant to be an enigma, yes, but that doesn't excuse her painfully inadequate characterisation.
We know that she looks after kids, both as a job and just in general (the only time she actually resembles a character is in The Rings of Akhaten, when she interacts with a child) and we know that she was bad with computers but now she's great with computers. At least, I think we know that - or did her computer knowledge disappear again at the end of The Bells of Saint John? We don't know! Like so many things this series, her technical know-how has never been touched on again.
Five episodes in, all we can say for sure is that Clara Oswald is good with kids and is spunky; but that second one is a default trait of all Companions, so it doesn't really count.

Compare this to how much we know about Amy after just her first episode. We know that she is disillusioned with life, stuck in a crappy job with a prickly outlook - but we know that, deep down, there's an adventurous little girl who never stopped believing. We know that she is lonely - looking for affection and attention from both Rory and the Doctor, even as she pushes them away - and, above all, we know that she's terrified of commitment and boring normalcy. This is all after just one episode! There's then an arc and a lot of development on top of that!
Better yet, think of what we know about Oswin (Clara's first incarnation) who is, of course, only in one episode. We know that she's resilient and resourceful, and defiantly optimistic. We know that this bouncy optimism is actually how she copes with the constant terror of her situation (trapped on this planet, and also the other thing). We know that, despite that fear, she's not easily phased, and that when she is scared that still won't stop her. We know that she's an absolute genius. And, most importantly, we know that she likes soufflés.
The soufflés may seem like quite a little thing, but they're an important contrast to the current Clara: I can't name a single one of Clara's likes or interests. She had a scrap-book that one time but, like her computer skills, it's never appeared since - I'd actually forgotten it existed.
All we really know about Clara-the-third is that she's normal; which we only know because people keep telling us that, not because she actually acts that way. This new Companion is meant to be a compelling mystery - but she's no more than a blank slate. That may well be mysterious, but it sure as hell isn't compelling.

In summary, Series 7 has been a weird, failed experiment, bordering on a disaster. It was split up into two shorter series for no apparent reason, and neither one of those series has anything resembling a true narrative. It’s episodic to the point that it’s actually damaging - preventing the characters from changing or progressing week-to-week, and preventing the central mysteries from actually affecting anyone (especially the audience).
This disconnected nature, unhindered by a central story, should at least allow for some very inventive episodes, but they’ve all been fairly vanilla - examining neither the characters nor the universe in any real depth. It’s hard to imagine that any episode from this series will ever be brought up in future discussions of the show’s best. Likewise, the vacuous Clara will never, ever, be brought up in discussions of the best Companion - she’s somehow even less interesting than Martha.
All this adds up to the least successful series the reincarnated Who has ever had, and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the crowning jewel of that failure - an episode with limitless potential (the inside of the TARDIS!) that was unforgivably wasted on a poor story with bad characters and unimaginative ideas.

That’s the current state of Doctor Who. It’s not pretty. What I want to know is why? How on Earth did Steven Moffat, who did such a good job shepherding one solid and one excellent year of the programme, let Series 7 fall so far off course?
I have a couple of theories, and they’re probably wrong, but I think they're worth a try. My first thought is that Series 6 was criticised for being far too serialised, where missing just one episode could potentially cause massive confusion, and that this series - a return to the earlier, more episodic style - is a reaction to that criticism. This seems plausible (there certainly was criticism) but, if it is the case, the reaction seems incredibly extreme. It makes sense for the show to want to become more episodic, but here that’s pushed to a point that doesn’t even allow for character development or the loosest of arcs. This is no mere course-adjustment; it’s a complete swerve in a new direction.

My second theory feels less likely, but possibly makes more sense. What if these decisions were not made with the current audience in mind - those of us who have been watching the show for eight years - but the audience that is only just discovering it. Namely, the American audience.
Series 6 was the first year to be broadcast in the US at the same as it was in the UK, meaning that it will have been the first series many Americans saw. And while the serial can’t-miss-an-episode nature of Series 6 was an annoyance for people who’d been watching for years, it must have been an absolute nightmare for anyone watching for the first time. That season is many things, but it is not a good entry point.
Viewed this way, Series 7 is a much better series for new viewers. That’s perhaps why it feels more like Davies’ work than Moffat’s: because it isn’t actually the seventh series - for many people, it’s only the first or second. This not only explains the unconnected episodes (most shows have a highly episodic first season, to not confuse newcomers catching episodes in the middle) but also the lack of two-parters and, more than that, it explains the weird six-month break and the lack of cliffhanger.
New viewers wouldn’t know the Ponds, so those first five episodes would resonate less. By presenting the second half as a new series (because, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much what it is) this new audience can learn about the show through this new character. This may even explain why Clara is such a blank - she’s an audience surrogate for viewers to project themselves onto.
It doesn’t really explain why there’s been no stand-out episodes, but you can’t have it all.

Whatever the reason, I stand by my statement that something is wrong with Doctor Who.
This series has almost driven me away several times now, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. If I’m right about the US connection (and even if I’m not) then hopefully the next series will have the courage to return to its grander, over-arching stories, without fear of losing potential viewers. Hopefully it can reignite the incredible creative spark of its best episodes, and hopefully we'll even get all thirteen episodes in the same bloody year!

Speaking of hope - this blog has taken me so long to write that another Saturday has been and gone, and it was quite a good one. I may actually have liked The Crimson Horror better than Cold War (note that both were written by Mark Gatiss) - it's not as atmospheric and tight, but it's much more fun. While still not an excellent episode it was certainly top-tier for this series, with well-written, well-acted characters, an unusual villain, a strong emotional kick, some wonderful northern accents and, at long last, some interesting (if tiny) developments in Clara’s story!
The truth is that it feels like too little too late - but at least it’s something and, while I still can't bring myself to actually be excited, I finally feel at least interested to know where it will lead.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Journey to the Centre of Doctor Who (part 1)

I'm back! Did you miss me?
Sorry for the long wait. This post was supposed to be finished some time last week, but it was a lot harder to write than I hoped. I've been dreading writing it, to be honest. It's been coming for a while but, every Saturday at six, I've hoped I would find a reason not to write it. After the other week's Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, though, I knew the time had come to face it:

Something is wrong with Doctor Who.

Discounting anything with "fire" or "fly" in the title, Doctor Who is my very favourite programme. There's not much on television that I go out of my way to catch every week - but I've watched Doctor Who religiously since its revival (regeneration?) in 2005. It's not the best show in the world - it's not even close - but it's quite possibly the most enjoyable.
It's about a nine-hundred-year-old alien time-traveller; which is basically just another way of saying that it's about anything and everything. The Doctor, as he's known, doesn't just go to different places each week, or even different time-periods - he often visits completely different genres! The show is built on a foundation of (loose) sci-fi, but there's horror, romance, fantasy, action, drama, comedy, mystery, and a surprising abundance of tragedy.
At worst this means self-contained little episodes with simple stories and a few fun ideas; at best it means multi-layered explorations of life, the universe and everything. Either way, it just has such wild, creative energy that it's impossible not to love!
Which is not to say it's never bad. Every so often there are some truly awful episodes. New Earth, Smith and Jones, The Unicorn and the Wasp and The Curse of the Black Spot are all rubbish - and the first episode of The End of Time is utterly abysmal. But none of those - not even The End of Time (which, as David Tennant's swansong, deserved to be so much better) - disappointed me the way last week's episode did.

While pretty much every episode ends with the Doctor pulling a barely-reasonable solution out of thin air (that's just how it works) at least that solution is always interesting and inventive. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, however, basically ended with the Doctor going back in time and telling himself how to prevent the future. That's the most lazy, obvious, clichéd ending a time-travel story can have. It's so boring and overused that I've seen it subverted by My Little Pony!
Doctor Who itself actually has an in-universe rule about never crossing your own timeline, which exists solely to prevent this kind of cop-out. The episode may have had a tear in spacetime that allowed the rule to be broken, but a cop-out it remained.

That's far from the only problem with the episode. Almost everything on screen was either terrible or made no sense. Why would a burnt person's first instinct be to attack their past self (rather than, say, lie down in pain)? Why did the star not burn them for ages, then suddenly burn them to a certain point, then not burn them any further? How did the brothers learn their ham-fisted lesson about human decency if their day was erased from time? And why was that one guy ("Robot, make me a sandwich,") such a terrible actor?!
I could go on but, thankfully, I don't have to, because Badass Digest already covered it pretty comprehensively.

So, yeah, it was a bad episode - it was a very bad episode - but why was it so much more disappointing than the bad episodes of the past?
In part it's that this episode mattered. We were promised our first real exploration of the TARDIS - a spaceship of infinite size - but, other than a room with a glowy tree, a one-second shot of a library, and the admittedly cool Eye of Harmony, all we got was an exploration of short, tight corridors and rooms we've already seen.
It also didn't help that the episode kept referencing other, much better, stories - most notably Sunshine (the burnt-monster-people were filmed the exact same way as Pinbacker, the burnt guy in that film), Aliens ("They're in the room!") and, in one completely bizarre, out-of-place scene, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ("Only in the leap from the lion's head will he prove his worth,"). Nothing causes disappointment quicker than being reminded of better things.
But, though those factors added to the disappointment, they are not the reason for it. The reason is that this was the worst episode of what is already a hugely disappointing season. Series 7 has been a weirdly hollow, empty experience - and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the hollow, empty embodiment of that feeling.

At this point, the standard course of action for a certain type of Doctor Who fan (I refuse to use the word "Whovian") is to whine and moan about how the show hasn't been good since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner at the start of Series 5. But I won't be doing that, because that's clearly insane.
Moffat has long been the show's best writer and putting him in charge was absolutely the right choice. The boost in quality since that moment has been quite wonderful, and I consider Series 5 and 6 to be easily the programme's best seasons.

Until Series 5, the four-and-a-half preceding series were overseen by Russell T. Davies (or "Russelty" for short). Davies managed the impossible in not only bringing back a long-defunct joke of a programme, but turning it into a hugely successful, and critically acclaimed, cultural juggernaut. What he achieved is truly incredible but, the fact is, he was never the strongest of writers.
Davies' approach to Doctor Who (and, indeed, most other writers' approach to Doctor Who) is to use time-travel to visit an interesting setting, and then tell a story there. Where Moffat sets himself apart is that, for him, the time-travel is the story.
The Girl in the Fireplace, Silence in the Library and, of course, perennial favourite Blink all deal with time-travel as a core mechanic of their plot. Even two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances - not content to merely be two of the strongest, most atmospheric episodes of the first series - deal with the dangerous meddling of the Time Agency (an organisation we, sadly, still know nothing about). Not coincidentally, all of these rank among the show's absolute best episodes. Even his signature monsters - the Weeping Angels and, later, the Silence - are based around manipulation and perception of time. Moffat just gets it in a way that Davies never did - he is exactly the right kind of person to be working on a show about time-travel.

Conventional fan wisdom holds that, while Moffat is indeed the better writer, Davies was the better showrunner because he had stronger season-long arcs. Again, I think that's insane. Davies didn't have season-long arcs at all! With the exception of the parallel-universe business in Series 2, his entire approach consisted of mentioning something throughout the series, then revealing what that something was in the last two episodes.
Bad Wolf. Torchwood. "You are not alone". Saxon. The stars going out. "He will knock four times". These are not arcs - they are teasing mysteries at best.
Moffat, on the other hand, works through slow reveal and domino effect. In Series 5 we learn straight away that there are cracks in the universe and, if it were an earlier series, that's likely all we would ever learn before the finale. Instead we slowly learn what the cracks are, what they do, and even what caused them. Five episodes from the end a major character dies. This is a completely different approach to Davies', and it's far more engaging on every level. Series 5 is my favourite series of the show, balancing great individual episodes with a strong overarching story - and that's before you take the wonderful new characters into account!

Series 6 goes even further in this direction and pushes its main story to the fore, and, in true Moffat fashion, it's a story very much about time-travel. It has the strongest opening the show has ever had - showing us the ending right at the beginning - then lets the series slowly show us how that point is reached and how it's overcome. And this works amazingly until the halfway point. If the whole series had managed to keep this up, it would be even better than Series 5 - but, alas, after A Good Man Goes to War things get messy.
The quality of writing, and of individual episodes, remains as good as ever, but the overall story becomes tangled up in itself - ending with River getting in an astronaut suit for no reason other than that's what we know happened so it has to happen. Anyone could have been in the suit (and why is there a suit anyway?) but it has to be River because it just has to be, so there, shut up. It does introduce the genius idea that Who's infamous "fixed points in time" are only fixed in terms of their impact, not their actual events (something also touched on in The Waters of Mars) - which is an excellent concept but handled extremely poorly.
The final episode itself is actually great fun, though, even if it ties things up badly, and the good parts of the series easily outweigh the bad. Series 6 is still highly enjoyable, despite its overcooked ideas and undercooked execution, and it remains my second-favourite series. When it ended, finally asking the ancient Question that had echoed throughout the season, I was buzzing with energy. I couldn't wait to watch the layers peel back from the mystery and see the answer slowly revealed - the show could not return quickly enough.

Yet here we are, a year-and-a-half later, three episodes from the end, and we are none the wiser. Series 7 has paid lip-service to the Question, but not in any meaningful way. It's had about as much narrative weight as "Why are the stars going out?" (or even "Where are the bees?") in Series 4: we know it's important somehow, but that's all we know.
Weirdly, the series then went on to introduce a second, unrelated mystery on top of the first - who (or what) is Clara? And, similarly, we've learned nothing in that respect either. The show keeps asking who this woman is, and it keeps not giving us even a hint of a suggestion of the beginnings of an answer. The way it's being handled is far more "Who is Harold Saxon?" than the much more engaging "Who is River Song?"

This series really does feel like a throwback to the Russelty days - far more episodic, and lacking the strong through-line of the last few years. Not that there was anything wrong with that approach at the time - Davies, as I've said, achieved amazing things in his time on the programme - but the show has grown and evolved since then; we've come to expect something more. Besides which, it feels episodic and unconnected to a far greater extent than any of Davies' series - the Ponds were getting a divorce at one point, for example, but then they kissed and by the next week it was forgotten entirely, and their final episode just happened without any real build-up.
The truly vital difference, though, is that the early episodic series all produced some truly excellent episodes.

Tomorrow we'll look at some of those great episodes, and how they compare to the ones this season. I'll also get into the more specific problems of this series, and try to figure out exactly what went wrong and why.