Uncollected Thoughts: The Twelfth Doctor

I’ve been here before – five years ago, was it? A new Doctor, Matt Smith, the Eleventh. What would he be like? Would the show be better under Stephen Moffat than the turgid treacliness of the last half hour of David Tennant under Russell T. Davies?

Funnily enough, those weren’t the questions in my head. The only question I had was: did Karen Gillan look as good onscreen as her photos suggested? To which the answer was a decided yes, plus I loved the accent, and that Matt Smith seemed interesting in his own right.

After not having watched the series regularly since the days of Baker (C), I found myself back with Doctor Who. And, with a few reservations here and there, usually in the places where everybody else was cheering, I’ve enjoyed the ride, none more so than in that final sequence of stories: The Name of the Doctor,The Day of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor.

So here we are, with another new Doctor to assess: Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, the oldest Doctor, a reversal of New Who policy, an experiment in changing more than just the face of the Doctor. And unlike five years ago, I was watching the start of this new series for the Doctor himself, and not his companion. Though they are both Scots, so I suppose the difference isn’t that great.


Well, I could start by saying that they had me at the moment the Dinosaur wading down the Thames hacked, and coughed up the Tardis. Then Strax knocks on the door, and the Doctor pops his head out and says, “Shush!” and shuts the door again (and when are we going to get the Madame Vastri, Jenny and Strax soin-off, Moffat? Come on, we will not be patient forever). And they did. I was on the hook and ready to be wound in.

But by the end of this extended introductory episode, things were different. By then I was no longer roaring with laughter, and fully into the swing of the old madness once more. Because, as the episode deftly progressed, that was the madness of Matt Smith, of Number Eleven. There’s always a perod of unsettlement with Re-generations, as the Doctor’s new form shapes his mind in the new direction it will take, with the old self acting as a conduit. Capaldi made an excellent job of hosting the spirit of Smith, especially in some of the early boasts he was making, ruffling the startled Clara’s feathers.

And this section of the programme confronted explicitly some of the questions about Capaldi’s appointment, the abrupt (and chancey) reversion to the Doctor as an adult, almost grandfatherly figure. From Clara’s doubts, her instinctive shying away from the stranger, her unconcealed distaste for the lined face and the grey hair, her conviction that she didn’t know the Doctor any more, to Twelve’s own confusions about himself and how he looks.

Adroitly, given that Capaldi has already twice appeared in the series with other Doctors, this was dealt with by Twelve trying to recollect where he’d seen his face before, and asking himself the rhetorical question about why he’d chosen this one? Interesting word, ‘chosen’. But did not the Curator himself all but state outright that he had chosen to return to a favourite face, or were our nostalgic tears brimming too much at that moment? I’d like to see that investigated a little deeper, Mr Moffat, the extent to which a Re-generating Doctor can choose his new incarnation.

But once he began to concentrate, Capaldi’s Doctor began to take on gravitas. The Smithian flipness dropped away, the confusion realigned itself, and the new Doctor, a more serious, and darker version, began to take shape. With age, Capaldi brings gravitas back to the role. What’s more, he’s set a theme for this series: he’s lived for over 2,000 years, during which time he’s made mistakes: it’s time to go and sort them out.

I’ve not really discussed the plot, as it wasn’t really what mattered in this episode. It was just a vehicle for Twelve to emerge, just as the Victorian setting was a welcome excuse to have the Paternoster Gang around (spin-off! spin-off! spin-off!) as well as a basis for Capaldi’s ‘costume’ as Twelve. Though it can’t be completely ignored: the Doctor persuades the big bad villain, the Half-Faced Man to accept death, though we are left ignorant of the final detail of jump or push. But it leads to a beautiful moment at the end, when the Half-Faced Man finds himself taking tea in a delightful garden, with a familiar dark-haired woman, talking of her ‘boyfriend’: if I say she’s an uncredited Suranne Jones, would you recognise her?

Boyfriend. That’s a loaded word now. Clara, 27 years old and looking pretty darned pretty in her twenty-first century cardigan/blouse/short skirt/opaque tights ensemble, is very unsure about continuing her journey without Eleven’s youthful buoyancy. Twelve solemnly tells her, he’s not her boyfriend (but we know whose he is, don’t we?). And then, in an unheralded cameo, we get Matt Smith on the line, moments before Re-generating, basically pleading the Impossible Girl to stay with Twelve and help him.

It’s a bit weepy and manipulative, and it’s the one thing in the whole episode that I found to be a bit dodgy, and a bit of a nervous let-down: did we really need a bit of Eleven just to buttress things? Are we that nervous about the new direction?

On the whole, I think I’m going to enjoy this new incarnation, and I’m certain the series needs to row back a bit on the daffiness of Smith. In the end, though, Deep Breath was a transition episode and we haven’t seen all that much yet of what it’s transitioning into. It took me three weeks befoe concluding that I really did not like the Davies/Eccleston Doctor. We’re on the brink here, but I think the balance will tip the right way.


Salamander: Fairly considered Thoughts

Maverick cop, check.

Practically anything was going to struggle if asked to follow the second series of The Bridge, which set the bar for great television incredibly high for anything else in 2014 to measure up to. After two weeks, and four episodes, Belgium’s Salamander is not going to cut it.
However, let’s try to assess BBC4’s first essay in Belgian crime thrillers in its own right, and see whether it’s worth watching for himself.
Frankly, I’m disappointed. After opening with a superbly executed, very detailed and absorbing theft from the private Jonkaere Bank, the series has gone downhill from the moment it introduced its hero, Chief Inspector Philip Gerardi (played by Filip Peeters).
Gerardi is a maverick cop, from the top of his silvery, curling, unkempt hair to the bottom of his jeans. You don’t have to watch him in action to know it, the look of him telegraphs it. And that, by itself, is the big giveaway as to what is fundamentally flawed about this series.
The plot, so far, is that the safe deposit accounts robbed – 66 in total – belong to a cartel of powerful and influential Belgians in positions of public, political, industrial, financial and royal power. They belonged to an exclusive, long-established cartel known as Salamander. The safe deposit boxes contain personal items that can be used to blackmail the owners: exposure of so many would destroy Belgium as a country.
Therefore the theft, and any investigation of it, must be carried out in conditions of the strictest secrecy. And that’s where Gerardi comes in. In his quiet, understated way, Gerardi is the proverbial bull in search of a china shop. He’s a dedicated cop: people have died covering this operation up, and their killers must be brought to justice, no matter who they are. He’s been suspended, threatened, his wife and 15 year old daughter harassed, and had to take refuge in a monastery, but Gerardi is pure of heart and motive and will not give in.
Which is exactly the problem with Salamander: it’s so utterly conventional. Four episodes in and I know that there will be nothing in this series that will surprise me in any way.
Currently the two big mysteries are what, exactly, is Salamander and what does it do (which seems likely to be no more than the obvious, namely that it’s an association of the rich and powerful intent on ensuring that they remain the rich and powerful, and that nobody who looks to become rich and powerful can do so without being co-opted), and who has gotten all this damaging material; and what do they intend doing with it?
This latter is, to date, the more intriguing of the questions: we see the break-on leader coolly addressing and posting envelopes, to devastating effect, but that’s all we know. At the moment, that’s the main thing keeping me from doing something else on Saturday nights, in the hope that this will prove to be interesting in some way.
Another thing that disappointed me in the first week is the absence of strong female characters. That’s something that the Scandi-dramas have done superbly: not merely placed female characters front and centre, but to have done so in so matter of fact a manner, as if it is no big thing, which has been great to watch. So far, Salamander has given us exactly three female roles of any significance: Gerardi’s wife Sarah, who is frustrated at the amount of time he spends working as opposed to with his family, who once had a short affair with Gerardi’s ex-partner Carl Cassimon (who has now become a monk, but not necessarily a good one), his daughter Sofie, who is devoted to her father but, having now guessed about her mother’s affair, has run away into night-time Brussels, and, introduced in episode 3, Madame Karin Rasenberg, wife of Salamander member Guy Rasenberg, who has taken the traditional immediate shine to the maverick detective and who seems eager to help him against her husband.
None of then have yet made any substantial impression on the course of events: Sarah and Sofie in particular seem only to be capable of reacting to things.
Looking at the trailers for episode five, it looks like they’re going to make a meal of the apparent killing and disposal of Gerardi, who is in the hands of the secret forces controlled by Public Prosecutor Persigal – another of the Salamander 66 – but who has refused to work for him to find out who is behind this. Meanwhile, Cassimon is helping Sarah look for Sofie, despite the fact that Sarah seems more eager to jump back into bed with him than to find a fifteen year old loose on the mean streets of Brussels.
Salamander may yet improve. It’s got a lot to do though to achieve that.

The Bridge 2: Uncollected Thoughts

This isn’t going to be one of those full-scale, first impression analyses that usually go under the rubric of Uncollected Thoughts, more of a gosh-wow-holy-fuck sort of reaction to the kind of thing that, if there was more of it around, would have me looking for somewhere to wedge a TV into this pokey living space of mine.

For the past four weeks, like a million or so discerning others, I’ve spent large chunks of my Saturday evenings watching The Bridge series 2 on BBC4, all sub-titles and all, just like I’ve done with The Killing (x3) and Borgen (x3). I watched the first series, a year back, and loved the interaction between its stars, Kim Bodnia as Danish Police Detective Martin Rohde and Sofia Helin as Swedish Police Detective Saga Noren. It had its flaws, such as one particular red herring plot that got too big to contain and instead just got shut off, but overall, the stunning ending, and the performances of irs two leading lights made superb drama.

As evidenced by the clueless, inept, carbon copy plotting of the British-French remake, The Tunnel, which got a lot of praise from people who had no idea just how big a rip-off it sought to be of the original, nor who had any idea of the weight and life given to Martin and Saga by Bodnia and Helin, which Stephen Dillane and especially the hopeless Clemence Poesy couldn’t begin to even dream of matching.

As for series 2, though, which has combined complex and intricate eco-terrorism plottings with an amazing number of personal stories, not least those of Martin and Saga themselves, this started strong and just got better and better with every double-episode, until tonight’s finale just crackled with unbearable tension, leading to an ending that will have us all churning our minds to think of a way of getting out of that.

Throughout it (except in the moments I was screaming mad at my connection running slow or dropping out), I couldn’t help thinking at every moment that if there was one piece of British Drama that you could given an unequivocal 10 to, The Bridge would rate somewhere around 300. It can’t be that difficult to create television of that quality, we used to do it all the time. But then that was whem we trusted our audiences to understand up to the level of our shows’ intelligence.

The ending, when it came, was foreseeable from the outset of the final episode: the crucial clue was casually presented but nonetheless immediately noticeable, and both Saga and Martin acted as they had to, foreordained by who they were and what they had experienced, understanding the necessity of it for each other.

The writers have set themselves an even higher bar that Sherlock series 2 when it comes to getting out of that one convincingly.

Fi9nally, now that it’s over and I can go on Wikipedia to check out the casting without stumbling on a spoiler, let me just say that Tova Magnusson, who played Viktoria Nordgren, not only acted the part superbly but was bloody gorgeous to look at, and it’s nice to put a name to the eyes (and other associated features).

Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts

A monster

I want to say that this is the episode that answers all the critics of series 3, that was all that we hope for and expect from Sherlock, and there is so much of this story that would make it absolutely right to begin by crowing that, and shaking a fist at those who have expressed their disgust at the series so far. Yet I’d be dishonest, guilty of simplification, if I were to do so. For, what, forty five minutes approximately, His Last Vow was on course for just such an outcome but then there was…

Was something I can’t define, even to myself, not yet. It seemed as if the programme lost focus, became detached from its narrative thrust, and for a long period it seemed to float, removed entirely from any motivating force. It ceased to move, as if caught in an eddy, away from the downstream flow, and we became trapped in that eddy, for much too long.

Yes, I think that’s the appropriate metaphor for what I felt. What we were treated to during this eddy was, frequently, brilliant of itself. But it was a stall, and not until the decision was taken, by John Watson, to forgive and accept his mystery of a wife,could the episode begin to move forward again. And as soon as it did, the episode once again took on the mark of genius that had sustained it for its first half.

First thing to say is that all my dire expectations about Mary Watson and her death were confounded entirely. Two people died in this episode, and two people came back to life – and one character cropped up in both lists and he’s the one with his name above the door, which wasn’t what we expected – but Mary Watson was not one of the dead. Nor was she the character I suddenly flashed on her being, during the bit where Sherlock was tricking her into spilling the beans to John, a flash of intuition that had me saying “oh, fuck” whilst I was revealing that I was being a bit too obvious about such things.

So, how do we describe this story? The first thing to say was that it depicted a monster, a true, unalloyedly evil monster, a creature of power and venality, of control, brilliantly incarnated by guest star Lars Mikkelsen. I know Lars from his role as the charismatic Troels Hartman in the first series of The Killing, a seeming good man, a hero, and yet self-centred, self-obsessed, unable to see beyond his own advantage and ultimately a monster.

But not such a monster as here, as Charles Arthur Magnussen, newspaper proprietor, Napoleon of Blackmail and a character who does whatever he wishes in the knowledge that he owns everyone. Mikkelsen was not just cold and precise, using only the faintest hint of a Danish accent, but he was creepy as hell. The early scene when he licks Lindsay Duncan’s face, just because no-one can stop him, established him as something not human. After that, his pissing in Sherlock’s fireplace as he and John stand by was comic with a very sharp edge, and his game with John’s face at the end, in which he let slip the callousness enough to show that he was enjoying himself, was icing on the cake.

This came on top of his revelation that his ‘Vaults’, into which he would disappear to search for material, making curiously precise yet stylised hand-movements, was a Mind Palace equivalent to Sherlock’s. The revelation that there never were, and never had been, physical documents to retrieve did set up the obvious conclusion, yet even there I got it wrong as I expected John to put a bullet through Magnussen’s head, instead of Sherlock: mentally outwitted but taking the curiously obvious step.

Magnusson was the river. We rode its currents from the improbable start of finding Sherlock in a drug’s den, the hugely comic spectacle of everyone homing in on him to protect him from exposure, in the face of his weary claims that he was undercover, working a case: creating a Pressure Point for Magnussen to ‘use’ against him. The big laugh was that Magnussen, the kind of guy who, Sherlock-fashion, analyses everyone he meets for what he’s got on them before identifying said Pressure Point, had a torrent of red lines for Sherlock, zipping by too fast to be seen or even counted!

So the clues were there for us, if not Sherlock, to see all along, that there were no Vaults, not real ones. Sherlock pursues the retrieval of certain documents, going so far as to acquire a girl-friend (Magnussen’s PA) in order to get inside his flat (another lovely comic improbability, though by the end we do learn he hadn’t actually gone so far as to shag her). Inside, he finds Magnusson with a gun to his head, pointed by a black-clad figure wearing Claire-de-Lune perfume. The sleazy Magnussen had already impressed upon us that Lady Smallwood (Duncan’s character) wears Claire-de-Lune, but it’s also dropped in, in passing, that so does Mary Watson. And though Sherlock calls on Lady Smallwood to stop, when she turns it is Mary.

And she shoots him.

Now, of necessity, the storyline stops here, for a bravura sequence in which Sherlock, in the three seconds he has before collapsing, manages with the aid of Mycroft and Molly Hooper – not to mention the late Jim Moriarty, played to manic perfection by Andrew Scott – oh how I miss him – to self-diagnose how best to keep himself from dying. Yet die he does, his heart stopping on the operating table, until he’s spurred on by the desire not to be Moriarty into returning to life.

Now all this creates a situation that then takes precedence, forcing the story for a long period, into an essentially static eddy. John’s wife – who Sherlock has already categorised as a liar, who can recognise skip codes and has a bloody good memory of her own, is being black-mailed by Magnussen and has come close to killing our hero. Who is she? What is she? Why?

We never do get those answers, and we’re better for it, as these are all questions that are better put in the past tense: was, not is. What little we are allowed to share sounds grim, yet to Sherlock his Vow takes precedence. She loves John, and John needs her: she saved his life (by a shot so precise that it did not kill, and by calling the ambulance before John found him).

This is the sequence that basically pulls me up short from praising the episode unceasingly: that and the moment where I threatened to disconnect entirely, when John demands to know why it always seems to be his fault, and Sherlock explains that it is, because John is addicted to danger, which his why his best friend is a highly-functioning sociopath and he’s fallen in love with a psychopath. Oh well, if you put it that way…

Nevertheless, the episode gets itself back on track with its ending, with Sherlock’s desperately risky plan to bring Magnussen down, that leads to the revelation of the Mind Palace and the tormenting of John Watson (who has his gun on him and who knows that a bullet to the brain will destroy Magnussen’s hold over his wife). But again we are confounded, for it is Sherlock who takes the necessary, and not necessarily regrettable step.

His lot is exile, to an undercover role that Mycroft predicts will kill him in six months time. There’s a few parting words with John, in which the two have almost nothing to say, having done all this before, a private flight into exile and the closing credits begin without the slightest suggestion of an end-of-series cliffhanger…

Except that the credits turn into a pub TV showing football but experiencing interference. The same interference everyone is seeing, all over Britain, at the same time, which causes an awful lot of reactions and which is directly responsible for Sherlock’s exile being cut short after a record-breaking four minutes. It’s a face and a voice: it’s Andrew Scott, it’s Jim Moriarty.”Miss Me?” he asks. And oh but I did.

All I ask now is that somehow Messrs Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Watson, not to mention Ms Abbington, get their act together to let us see this in 2015 because I seriously do not want to wait two years to see how they got out of that (although I suppose there’s a certain irony to it: this year’s cliffhanger is almost identical to 2012’s, and look what consternation that caused!).

Sherlock: series 3, episode 2 – Uncollected Thoughts

Traditionally, the middle episode of a series of Sherlock is the one where it sags, the worthy-but-slightly-dull one, the one not written by Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat. There’s no such failure here, in an episode in which the funny lines sometimes ran the risk of colliding with each other, but the episode has already provoked a lot of online unrest and accusations of shark-jumping that are hard to refute for the obvious reason: they’re entirely valid.

Now, I liked this story, even though, properly speaking, there was only about ten minutes of story in it, and that right at the end. The advance publicity – which the opening and potentially completely irelevant sequence only emphasised – laid heavily on the idea that Sherlock’s biggest ever task was being Best Man at John Watson’s wedding, and giving a speech.

The episode set out to be a comedy, whose paucity of plot was disguised by an intricate chronological to-and-fro about the build-up to the wedding, interspersed with a Best Man’s speech that seemed to fill about two-thirds of the running time and which did, with the best will in the world, test the credibility of the wedding audience’s patience. A lot of the speech, and its accompanying byways, was designed to build up Watson to the point where his character could be put on a par with Holmes, which was laudable, and entirely in keeping with Martin Freeman’s continuing note-perfect performances, but which is potentially lethal to the classic concept of the partnership’s skills: I know this is a modern interpretation, a re-creation rather than an adaptation, but how far can you get from the original Holmes-Watson template before the point is lost?

What you had no sense of, throughout all this time, was that the thin and unconvincing cases the time-filling duo were engaged in were not only serious but related. The show gave the very smart ample opportunity to see this before it was spelt out, given that it began with the intended murder victim – Watson’s old Commander – strapping on the very belt that would prove key to deciphering the plot. The seeming scattergun approach scattered all the clues necessary, in a very fair manner, in plain sight between the dazzling distractions of the one-liners.

So many people seem to have hated it, yet in many ways this episode does fill the classic mould of detection. What makes it differ from previous episodes is the fact that, exactly like the first episode, the plot isn’t the focus of the story. It’s there throughout, unseen until Sherlock finally adds enough of the pieces together, but by then a lot of people were way out of sympathy with the show.

And I take their point. Part of the beauty of Sherlock, inherent to its appeal but simultaneously a pain in the arse, is that the series are so short: three 90 minute stories every couple of years. The series started less than a week ago, and its final episode – for another two years – is on Sunday: everything in twelve days only. So whilst this story is a brilliant change of pace if taken in isolation, it’s an enormous and potentially destabilising step in a series of three: change of pace from what? And given that so much of the first episode was devoted to atmosphere and relationships, pushing the plot to one side, the series doesn’t only risk being imbalanced, it actually is imbalanced.

What remains to be seen is how the series will end, on Sunday. Reading between the lines of what I’ve seen so far, and factoring in my decidedly imperfect knowledge of the original (confession: I have read very little Conan Doyle, and have not been impressed by what I have – I much prefer Raffles if I’m being honest), I am expecting a massive changing up through the gears in the final episode, and a very much blacker affair.

There’s the unexplained but vivid assault on Watson in episode one, the mysterious observer that everyone thinks is Alex Ferguson but who’s really Troels Hartman from The Killing series one, the elusive Waters gang from the start of this episode, the fact that the Conan Doyle Mary Watson died, and the title of episode three – His Last Vow. A vow made explicitly near the end of this episode, to love and protect the Watsons, and their barely-conceived child.

This series has, I think, been planned over four and a half hours, planned so that these two, somewhat uncharacteristic episodes create a mood, an atmosphere that will be blown apart. I recognise Dave Sim’s technique, honed over a quarter century of reading Cerebus, of breaking free of the confines of the individual chapter to greatly enhance the force of the overall story.

Moffat’s come in for a lot of flak for using this approach in Doctor Who, and is now being slagged off for bringing the two series’ closer togethet, in tone and attack. But where the criticism has a degree of validity when applied to the long-running Who, I think that in such a short series, appearing so rapidly, that the combination of episodes in this manner is entirely justified. And, frankly, there are enough programmes out there that pander to the audience’s dull wish to be led by the hand through the tulip fields, and I really don’t want to be held up waiting for them.

So: loved it, recognise it’s flaws, but if I’m right about the final episode, I think that those ‘flaws’ will then be seen as a perfectly judged element of a whole. Not so much a three act play, as a three movement Symphony.

But that’s down to Moffat…

Sherlock: series 3, episode 1: Uncollected Thoughts

Whatever they came up with, it was going to be a disappointment on some level. You can’t leave a climax like that hanging for two years and come up with the perfect explanation. Either it’s going to be so plausible that it could never have been a mystery in the first place, or so convoluted that the only mystery lies in how you let yourself be taken in by it.

So how did Sherlock Holmes survive The Reichenbach Fall? Mark Gattis, writing the opening episode of the third (and no longer intended to be final) series offered not one explanation but three. Two came from poor, obsessive, semi-demented Anderson or his group of like-minded conspiracy theorists and one from Sherlock himself, explaining it to Anderson, who professes himself, well… disappointed.

From that I think we are supposed to take the latter as gospel, but as it was no more plausible than the first explanation (the one about it being a plot between gay lovers Sherlock and Moriarty was a nod to fan slash-fiction and not meant to be taken seriously), and as Sherlock was immediately afterwards shown telling the most enormous lie of the story, I remain unconvinced. Clearly, like the best of all death-traps, we were never meant to know how it was really done. Having escaped from having to come up with anything serious, the writers heaved a sigh of relief.

So, and we do not do SPOILER SPACE here, so read on at your own risk, just what had Sherlock been doing these past two-planned-to-be-one-but-it-got-away-from-us years? The answer was, dismantling Moriarty’s network into unreconstructable pieces, which is a damned shame given how much I loved Andrew Collins’ Jim Moriarty (who deserved the soubriquet, Count). Now, with an underground terrorist threat aimed at London, Sherlock has to come home and come out into the open.

And he has to explain to his old colleague, Dr John Watson, both a) that he is, in fact, alive and b) that there was a good reason why he didn’t let John in on the closely-guarded but still mildly open secret that he’s still alive. The fact that Sherlock does not anticipate the remotest antipathy from John, who he interrupts just before the crucial ‘Will you marry me?’ bit of Watson’s marriage proposal, led to the absolute best and funniest part of the episode, which was John’s increasingly violent reaction to the whole thing.

(Mary does accept the never-delivered proposal, incidentally, as you might expect given that Amanda Abbington in Martin Freeman’s real life partner).

The terrorist threat is clearly intended to be the plot of this story, though it only plays a part for the final half-hour, and even then the main piece of drama – the drugging, kidnapping and near-death of John Watson in a bonfire seeingly being lit on November 4th – in fact relates to something else entirely, which will not become an issue until the third and final episode, much as Moriarty never emerged thus in series 1. I was a little bit disappointed with the notion of a tube-car-turned-bomb being left on a disused branch line directly beneath Parliament as that’s a direct steal from the finale of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta.

But I was even more disappointed with Sherlock’s cruel and mocking deception of John Watson over the fact that he’d switched the bomb off without letting John know that he wasn’t going to die in ninety seconds time. Where the original Watson’s reaction to the reappearance of his dead friend had to be made more believably robust, this went too far in the opposite direction as most people in Watson’s shoes at that point would have killed Holmes, and in the case of one viewer at least have made this the last episode ever, in that this time I really would have never gone near Sherlock again.

But then I’m not being written into a stylised, highly enjoyable and not necessarily ultra-plausible TV drama.

The pattern of the two preceding series has been a superb first and third episode with a bit of a slump in the middle. Whilst I enjoyed The Empty Hearse overall, it wasn’t a match for either its predecessors as opening episode, so I’m hoping for something more completely satisfying next week. And the news of a confirmed series 4, in 2016, is welcome, though it puts a further delay on my plan not to get a DVD set of Sherlock until it’s of the Complete variety.

The Time of the Doctor – Uncollected Thoughts

There are many people ready to criticise Stephen Moffat for diverting new Doctor Who away from the sentimentality of the Russell T. Davies years, which I did not like, but in Matt Smith’s last appearance in the role, we got enough sentiment to satisfy anyone. But then we already knew he could do it from Rory and Amy’s departure.

In a way that hasn’t been so since my youngest years, when I watched Hartnell and Troughton as unfailingly as a kid with no control over his life could do, Matt Smith’s been ‘my’ Doctor. Or, when paired with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darville, he certainly has been. I was very disappointed with the half series with Jenna Coleman, until that extraordinary final episode, and Moffat has been travelling a light speed ever since.

I’ve avoided knowing anything about this Christmas Special (like I’ve avoided anything to do with next Wednesday’s Sherlock) so I came to this with clean hands, ready to be astonished. And again the pieces moved into place: the Crack in the Universe, the Silence, the explosion of the Tardis, River Song even, all part of this final sequence of stories. Either Moffat had known all along what he was doing and where he was going or the man is a fucking genius at fitting half-ideas into a whole, and I’m not so sure I wouldn’t want it to be the latter because if the pattern wasn’t there all along, then this man is awesome and I would like him to take over scripting my life, right now, immediately. Please.

Because what we had from this story was The End. Of that story that began when two teachers grew concerned about an unusual pupil. Because Matt Smith recognised he was the last, despite everything the Curator had implied. The Eleventh Doctor, plus John Hurt and that part regeneration of David Tennant: the show’s only low moment, that ungenerous snipe there, even as Moffat was using it to his advantage to allow him to now, not in some future time when he’s no longer in control, break the bonds of the Twelve Regenerations.

First though, in his resignation to a future that becomes inevitable once he learns he has been drawn to Trenzalore, Smith’s Doctor can grow old, in one place, bent on protecting those who need protection for as long as he shall live. To guard the secret of his name – which is no secret at all, despite the demands of Gallifrey for the answer to ‘Doctor Who’? His name is the Doctor: whatever he may once have been known by, that is his name, and the whole of it.

And thanks once more to Clara, devoted, loving, impossible, he gets to go on. Gallifrey ceases its attempt to get back into the Universe and instead confers life upon its most infuriating child: new Regeneration energy. Another go around. The queston resolved and removed, for another fifty years, no doubt.

And a final, mercifully brief moment of goodbyes, reminiscent of Tennant’s farewell but not so pukingly, dully drawn-out. A glimpse of Amelia, a moment of Amy – and the suddenest of transformations into Peter Capaldi…

What comes next won’t appear until July, if I understand correctly. Matt Smith has been ‘my’ Doctor, but I’m open to negotiations over Peter Capaldi.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Uncollected Thoughts

Continued from last year…

Firstly, let me say to those who are depressed or disgusted at Peter Jackson turning the slight, childish The Hobbit into three very long films whose style and tone do not reflect exactly this children’s book, and which contain material not appearing in the book but instead expand upon matters only referred to obliquely by Tolkien (or in the case of Evangeline Lilly’s female elf-warrior, Tauriel, woven out of whole cloth: don’t bother going any further. You won’t agree with a word I say.

I loved the Lord of the Rings films. I did not find them faultless, especially not the middle film, The Two Towers, where I still take great issue with the changes made to the story, but overall, having due regard to the source and considering the requirements of translating books into film, I regard them as superb. Having been reading the book for nearly thirty years beforehand, I could not imagine it being possible to film it successfully.

So I’m already ok with a Hobbit trilogy that takes its cue from the LOTR films, and which – since its story is a precursor to the events of Lord of the Rings – decides not to undercut its illustrious predecessor by turning its world into a hobbit-romp with silly songs. Since the two stories are inextricably linked by Tolkien’s own decision to inextricably link, how the hell else are you going to tell the stories?

I read Lord of the Rings first. I wanted to read The Hobbit for more of the same, without knowing anything in advance of its true nature, and I was awfully disappointed. Peter Jackson’s films are far more what I expected in January 1974.

So: what of Part 2?

I have been firmly instructed not to give anything away to anyone about The Desolation of Smaug at our Christmas meal tomorrow night, so I will restrict comments then to two words: ‘Oh’ and ‘Wow’.

I thoroughly enjoyed An Unexpected Journey last December, and disagreed with those who found it bloated, but I can understand the criticism now. TDOS moves at a rapid pace, from scene to scene, without ever lingering too long in any one moment. In that sense, it’s like The Fellowship of the Ring, in keeping to the spine of Tolkien’s story, but compressing everything into a more continual period of time.

The film starts, slightly disconcertingly, in flashback, in, of all places, Bree (in the pouring rain). Thorin Oakenshield, pursuing vain rumours that his father has been seen in the wilds, seeks shelter for the night, only to meet Gandalf the Grey. Nor is the meeting by chance: Gandalf is concerned about the North, about the need to shore up Middle Earth’s defences in that quarter. Which means that the Dwarves must re-take the Lonely Mountain and dispose of the Dragon…

From here, we go into the pell mell of the film. There’s no disguising that structurally it is not a distinct story, with a shape and purpose of its own, not even to the extent of The Two Towers. It begins with Bilbo and the Dwarves still in flight from Azog’s Orcs (and even though Azog himself is summonsed off the trail by his master, the Necromancer, the chase goes on, a constant driver of the action, with his lieutenant, Bolg, now in command), and it ends on a cliffhanger, Jackson having opted for that type of ending in the absence of something climactic in the book that does not leave him entirely to close to the end.

It’s all action, all motion all the way between, though the pace does slow somewhat during the time the Dwarves are endungeoned in the Wood-elves’ kingdom, where Tauriel, after being introduced as a doughty fighter, is superficially depicted as a romantic interest: remotely by Thranduil, who forbids her to give his son any hope of love with her, and directly by the young dwarf Kili. Despite reactions of disgust at the idea of a love story being welded into the plot, it’s actually handled quite well. There are no declarations, no snogging and only the very briefest brushing of fingers.

Mostly Tauriel fights, and she’s not only bloody good at it, she looks bloody good at it (always did like Evangeline Lilley on Lost).

The king’s son? Did I not mention his name? Of course it’s Legolas, and where Andy Serkis memorably recreated Gollum this time last year, Orlando Bloom is hurling himself about athletically for a good half the length on the film

The two long scenes are the Dwarves’ escape from the elves, which instead of being comic and bucolic is instead a fight, with the Orc band trying to kill the Dwarves, the Elves trying to recapture them and everybody killing Orcs, and the clash between the Dwarves and Smaug, the Dragon, inside the Lonely Mountain which is the effective climax to the film, and which is bloody brilliant and does not feel in the least overdone or extended. I mean, this is a Dragon, for Iluvatar’s sake, you don’t just hit it with half a brick and it falls over. You need at least half a mountain, and still he’s coming at you.

Whilst the events of this section of Tolkien’s original are followed in strict order, every scene is re-imagined with a dramatic viewpoint. The spine is there, and the essential marks are hit, again in the order of the original, but there is a greater firmness and intensity to each and every moment. This is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings and much is, quite correctly, made of the gathering storm that is to follow.

This is emphasised by the parallel story of Gandalf, leaving the Dwarves on the edge of Mirkwood, as he does in the book. This time, he doesn’t just vanish off-screen, to reappear much later: something in the atmosphere of Mirkwood, and in mental communication with the Lady Galadriel, sends him on a mission to the North, to the Tomb.

This was a moment of some confusion at first for me: Tomb? Whose Tomb? They can’t surely be about to blow it by suggesting Sauron has a Tomb, can they? No, Jackson hasn’t been utterly inconsistent. The Tomb is dark, forbidding, dangerous to access, but what it held is gone, breaking out of barred cells. There are Nine…

Sylveste McCoy reprises Radaghast in an entirely humour-free cameo, before he is sent to Lothlorien, to Galadriel. Gandalf goes alone into Dol Gulder, to confront the Necromancer – a stunningly effective concoction of rushing CGI shadows – and to identify him, as long ago he did offstage, between books in fact, as Sauron.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s brilliant use of material that Tolkien ‘lost’ in the Appendices and it provides an echo of The Twin Towers by giving us a parallel tale to the main story.

As with An Unexpected Journey, I watched the film in 3D, which was again highly effective after the initial unreality of the effect. The film makes very skilful use of it in terms of elf-arrows, which zing around from every point of the compass, but the two moments that stuck in my mind came fairly early on. There’s a bucolic scene in Beorn’s house where fat bumble bees buzz around, slow and contented: I don’t get on with bees and wasps and I damned well didn’t need an absolutely massive bumble bee flying out if the screen and into my face, thank you very much.

The same goes for the Spiders of Mirkwood. There’s a moment in The Return of the King that I can’t watch. It’s where Shelob comes hurtling into the centre of the screen, straight at you. No matter how hard I try, how rational I am about it being only a film, only CGI, I cannot watch it: my eyes slam shut every time. And that was in 2D: the Mirkwood spiders might not be in Shelob’s class but when they’re coming out of the screen into your face they don’t need to be.

So yes, I loved this. I thought it was bloody brilliant, from start to finish and I had no idea of the time passing whilst I had my eyes on the screen. Which, through both glasses AND 3D glasses, is no mean absorption. It’s main flaw? The twelve months to go between tonight and part 3: There and Back Again.

And if Peter Jackson does want to mine some more material from the hidden years in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, if it’s this involving, he has my permission to get right on with it.

To be continued in December 2014…

Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam – Uncollected Thoughts

It’s, what, thirty years ago since I bought The Colour of Magic as a Corgi paperback, back when it looked like someone doing a Douglas Adams-job on fantasy, as opposed to SF. Bought it, read it, thought it was ok but couldn’t really see wanting to read it again so moved it on in the way you did with unwanted books before eBay. And it’s still that, what, thirty years ago since I was on holiday in the Lakes, and faced with an evening in a Keswick guesthouse with nothing to do or read and limited options in picking up a book before bedtime, so I bought The Light Fantastic, knowing it would keep me going for the evening and I could always move it on.

Except that it was very much more entertaining, a lot funnier, more enthralling and altogether the work, it seemed, of someone who’d sat down with his first book (we didn’t know better then) and looked at it hard until he’d worked out what he’d done wrong and had used it to make the second book work.

Raising Steam is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (counting Young Adults but noy Diaries, Almanacks and Cookbooks) and it’s thirty years on, and as I’ve already said more years back than I’d prefer to remember, against all the odds of series fiction, the books are still brilliant (insert number of years here) later, and indeed many of the later ones are the best, well, I’d have been sceptical, to a very high value of sceptic.

Raising Steam is also, to be technical, the third Moist von Lipwig book, as well as being the fourth to be written since Terry Pratchett announced that he was suffering from a form of Alzheimer’s. It was published last Thursday but I’ve held off reading it until today, as a present to myself.

And now I’ve read it, what are my first impressions of it and how it matches up with the oh-so-often splendid array of its predecessors?

Raising Steam has a curious feel to it. It’s very different from the ‘usual’ Discworld book, in that it is focussed upon its theme, almost to the exclusion of its characters. Each book is gifted with a clear and present central idea – it is part of Pratchett’s immense skill that he has found so many distinct and individual ‘abouts’ to build a story upon – but in all cases prior to this, the story has played out through the central characters, whose fates and fortunes are bound up in the resolution of whatever threat may be about to unbalance the Discworld, or some discrete part of it.

In Raising Steam, there are two such forces. The first and most obvious of these is the discovery of steam power and the creation of the Railway. This arrives courtesy of Dick Simnel, the Discworld’s first Engineer (and a self-evidently translated Lancastrian – as opposed to Lancrastian) and his Goddess of controlled Power, Iron Girder. The power of Steam comes to Ankh-Morpork, the fulcrum on which the Discworld’s balance swings, and it is accepted, welcomed and in every way facilitated, to transform the world in a way more radical than any such idea before it. Where the clacks system brings people together mentally, the railway will bring people together physically. In one single idea, Pratchett changes his creation to the greatest extent, pushing science to the forefront of the world and magic to the back in an act that, more than anything else, makes Discworld more correspondent to our own Roundworld.

This is because, instead of translating a Roundworld notion into Discworld terms, what Pratchett has done is to bolt the Railway in the very form we know it to be, on top of his fiction. Discworld has now had the Industrial Revolution, and just as that changed our world out of all recognition, so too is Discworld changed. And the thing about change is that it doesn’t have to be for the better, or for the worse: it is Change, and it can’t be undone.

The real problem with this in terms of the novel is twofold. Whilst most Discworld books take place in a relatively short compass of time, the actuality of steam and rails occupies years: though Pratchett tries to play this down, time plays a greater part in Raising Steam than in any other (apart from Thief of Time, of course). The story takes over a year to play out, and most notably of all, there are for the first time references to previous stories having taken place at identified intervals in the past. The increasing prominence of goblins is specifically dated to two years ago (in Snuff) and the Low King’s election in Uberwald (in The Fifth Element) is specified as eight years ago.

Discworld in this book, acquires a concreteness that cannot help but change the nature of the books.

The biggest problem, however, is that there is no conflict. Steam arrives and, apart from a couple of diversionary conversations early on, everybody’s ready for it, everybody wants it, everybody welcomes it, everybody gains from it. Which makes it a most  unconvincing vehicle for Moist von Lipwig (subliminally reinforced by the absence of Chapters, signalling that everybody’s favourite ex con-man has been absorbed into mainstream Discworld). Lipwig has no uphill struggle, no enemies of any significance, no obstacles to overcome to drive his latest task into acceptance: instead, he’s surfing a tidal wave, whose objectors have no substantial power to resist, on a road where whatever (briefly) threatens to get in the way is overwhelmed by others, not Moist’s special ingenuity.

I mean, he’s even married to Adora Belle now, so he’s not fighting her, and whilst Moist occasionally drops the pet name in, it’s significant that the book usually calls her Adora Belle, not Spike.

In a way, it’s only a Moist von Lipwig book because he’s primus inter pares: whilst he’s the only one whose head we really get into, the book is as much about the Patrician, Harry King (of the Golden River), Dick Simnel, the goblin Of the Twilight the Darkness, Rhys Rhysson, Low King of the Dwarfs and Sam Vines as it is about Moist.

The secondary force of the story does constitute opposition. Indeed, it’s nothing but opposition. This is the revolt of the grags, the dwarf hardliners/priests introduced in Thud!, who are trying to overthrow the Koom Valley Accord and the growing peaceful relationship between dwarf and troll (mainly in Ankh-Morpork), and to drag the dwarfs back down into the darkness that they believe is their spiritual home.

The grags start off trying to destroy clacks towers, an ineffectual approach that only earns universal opposition, and they go on to ‘overthrow’ Rhys Rhysson when the Low King is out of Uberwald. This is where the railway saves the day, delivering the Low King back to his kingdom, against all the opposition of the grags.

This provides the ‘opposition’ that the railway badly needs for the book to fully function as a book, but the problem with that is that although opposition to the Railway is as fundamental to the grags’ being as is hatred of clack towers, it isn’t integral to the railway. The grag opposition is coincidental, in that it’s happening at the same time, and that opposition is directed not at the railway but something larger and less definable, of which the railway is only an incidental symbol.

The two are not direct opponents, and Moist’s success in getting the railway through is a lesser triumph besides Rhysson’s resumption of her throne, which deprives the book of its necessary triumph. Indeed, Moist’s greatest battle is not with the grags’ attempt to derail Iron Girder, but with the natural obstacle of a gorge and a bridge unable to support the train’s weight.

This may be in bad taste to mention, but I’m sure it’s a common trait amongst those of us for whom each new Pratchett is a highlight, especially now we are aware that the time is definitely coming when Pratchett’s condition will end the delight we’ve had these, what, thirty years. Put crudely, it is: Can he still do it? Or is he beginning to fail?

So far, the answer has been fervently No. Indeed, I Shall Wear Midnight, and Snuff have been two excellent novels, as was the non-Discworld story, Dodger. But to me there’s a sense of a waning to this book. There is no one, lineal story to which everything, no matter how discursivve or digressive, is ultimately related. Instead, there are a succession of buffers, each quickly knocked down, too quickly. And I find myself seriously worried that Raising Steam is so open about the natures of both Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician. They each tell each other too much about what they do and why, acknowledging it instead of it being a matter of half-sentences and indirection. There is an entirely too large amount of Tell, and much less Show, especially about Lord Vetinari, who goes around explaining all those little things that people used to speculate about, worriedly.

I hate to think this, and I so desperately want to be proved wrong by next year’s book, whatever it is, that the Pratchett mind, that source of invention and wit, that has so many times used these things as the architecture and construction of very serious nd very important tales, is still focussed, still sharp, still faster than most everyone of us.

But Raising Steam has raised doubts, that we are now seeing the the onset, seeing what pessimism has thrust before us since the announcement of Terry Pratchett’s condition, and those doubts are desperately sad.

Ultimately, though these criticisms are making it sound as if Raising Steam is a failure, it’s not. It’s not up to Pratchett’s high standards (and I should know as I’ve been re-reading a lot of the books recently, concentrating on the ones you don’t automatically turn to as being the ‘great’ ones). Indeed, it lacks a lot compared to them, even as Pratchett slips in a lot of ideas from Roundworld, not to mention cameos from people like Ridcully, Captain Angua and, less likely, Lu-Tze and Feeny Upshot. But that’s down to the problem of Pratchett’s standards being so very high, because this is still going to be better than most stuff out there on the market.

Which isn’t as assessment I anticipated making after reading The Colour of Magic, what, thirty years ago.