Good Omens: e06 – The Very Last Day of the Rest of their Lives


good omens

And so it ends.

Much as I like Good Omens, and much as I enjoy watching it, and much as the acting throughout is superb, even down to the youngsters playing the youngsters, on a critical level I’m still concerned about how Neil Gaiman structured the adaptation. Clearly, in part because it was his book and in honour of his friend and co-author, the late Terry Pratchett, he has stayed as faithful to the book, and has put in as much of it as was humanly possible, but this has led to his losing sight of that age-old stricture, that a book and a tv series are two entirely different things demanding different approaches. In giving us so much of the one Gaiman has, I regret saying, given us so much less of the other.

Take this final episode. It’s the crunch, its Armageddon, the world is about to be destroyed by all-out, all-country nuclear war. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are gathered. The Antichrist has only to say the word. Four children aged eleven, an ineffectual angel and a sneaky but equally ineffectual devil, a mad Witchfinder and an ageing lady of discipline and fake medium, one professional descendent and one absolute nerd are gathered against them. As dear old much much-missed Terry would have pointed out, million to one chances come up nine times out of ten.

Of course they’re going to win. Not only would we not have a book, or series, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have anyone to read it afterwards. The fun is in the unlikelihood of how, most especially the notion of absolute power NOT going to the head of William Brown, I’m sorry, Adam Young.

But it’s over and done with so quickly, not even a full third of the way into the episode. Even Satan, an effects-laden cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch that’s waaay too short, doesn’t hold things up for long. And then we have the aftermaths.

In the book, these are nicely balanced. Pratchett and Gaiman wrote these not too short nor too long: Agnes Nutter’s sequel book of prophecies arrives with Anathema and Newton, who have settled into being a couple with no demonstrations and Newton persuades his girlfriend to burn it, Sergeant Shadwell and Madame Tracey settle into being a pair with admirable economy (and the best joke functions perfectly by being implied in print instead of having to be blunted by being spoken out loud on air), Crowley and Aziraphale find themselves back where they were, and the book ends in a literally poetic, and poignant moment, on Adam Young, former Antichrist, now an enigma, slouching towards… Tadfield. To be born as, what?

On screen these feel stretched out. And the episode is certainly stretched out as Gaiman chooses to import a lost scene, written but excluded from the book (or perhaps for its mooted but never written sequel, ‘668: The Neighbour of the Beast’, another one to check out of Lucien’s Library). This deals with Crowley and Aziraphale’s aftermath with their respective sides, unhappy about having their respective intentions thwarted, and seeking to effect consequences. No, I’m not going to reveal how our faithful central pair escape their fateful destructions, with the aid of Agnes’ last prophecy, and yes, the scene is wonderful, bright, intelligent and with that close connection to reality and logic that is the hallmark of the best fantastic schemes: not only could it happen but it would, given the premises on which the book is anchored.

I just question adding it to the series and extending the aftermath sequence to positively Lord of the Rings proportions. And I regret it switching the focus of these final sequences. This, ironically, is an example of Gaiman being only too television oriented: you have to feed the stars. So instead of the poetic and enigmatic, and let’s not forget poignant ending on Adam Young, we end on Aziraphale and Crowley, the superb Michael Sheen and David Tennant, and Gaiman’s pal Tori Amos singing ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, to concretize a nice little footnote-aside that is better as the brevity of a footnote, for its precision and conciseness.

imdb has references to a potential sequel series being put into abeyance by the COVID crisis and I’d watch that but I wonder what Gaiman would have to do to top this, and how he’d have to wriggle out of a final ending next time. The trouble with a sequel to this story is that I cannot imagine it happening without going down one of two disturbing routes, either to play for comedy and a more trivial storyline, which would be flatly unequal, or else accept the inevitable darkening of the drama and squeeze the comedy out.

But there’s a reason why Gaiman is a world famous best-selling author and I’m a blogger: he could make it work. If he can, I’d love to see it. The book is still better though.

Good Omens: s05 – The Doomsday Option


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Now all roads were running together to the East to meet the coming of the War, wrote Tolkien in The Return of the King and, save for the fact that Oxfordshire lies west of London, it goes for the penultimate episode of Good Omens as well. Though Neil Gaiman took a lot of trouble to keep all the narrative strands spinning in as many disparate corners as he could, there was no question about it: everything was now leading to one place only, and that was Armageddon.

Considering how much of this section of the book had to be left out to prevent it flying apart under its own centripetal force – I really did regret the excision of the Four Other Bikers of the Apocalypse – there was still a lot of territory to cover. There’s Aziraphale, unexpectedly discorporated anf having to improvise by possessing the body of Madame Tracey, albeit on a purely co-operative basis, of course, and Crowley going hell-for-leather in a car on fire, the only instance of weak CGI in the series, let alone the episode, there’s Anathema and Newton, having hung out between episodes and now concentrating on the urgent matter at hand, and there’s Adam Young, Antichrist, doing the one thing unexpected of him, the one thing you thought was beyond even his red-flashing-eyed power: being human.

So the Four Bikers ride to Tadfield Airbase and kickstart the end of the World – now a mere 17 minutes hence – whilst the opposing forces gather. Adam’s supposed to meet his friends here, his new friends. But instead he brings his old friends with him, his real friends. I’m here, he calls. And we go into the credit sequence in disbelief that already 52 minutes have passed, because we sure didn’t notice them going by…

Good Omens: e04 – Saturday Morning Funtime


good omens

Adapting any book for film or television automatically requires simplification. Themes are altered, characters reduced, emphasis shifted towards those things that visual representation does better. Sometimes, though, a television series offers the opportunity to expand. Sometimes it demands it, requiring transitional scenes that can be sped through on the page. What Neil Gaiman has done, on many occasions, is to concretize parts of the book that existed merely as comic asides: footnotes a la Pratchett.

There’s a perfect example in the open to episode 4, as Gaiman and Amazon go to a lot of time and trouble and expense, not to mention the CGI, to animate the near throwaway paragraph where Atlantis rises from the ocean depths. It’s a direct transition from the previous episode. which ended with Adam Young – the Antichrist, you may recall – under the influence of Anathema Device’s New Age concerns, dreaming away an entire Nuclear Power Plant, and this is his raising Atlantis.

It’s fun, and very well-made, but I think he and Pratchett got it right first time, since the joke works well as a quick, clipped, absurdist sting, setting up and smacking you with its punchline and clearing out of the way for the next gag. Here, it’s spectacular, but inevitably slow. The camera has to linger to make it worthwhile.

There are other examples that are more important in that they directly impinge on the story: the UFO landing and the message of Cosmic Peace delivered to Newton Pulsifer that blows it thanks to some very poor acting by the Alien Leader, and the Tibetan pair digging a secret tunnel and causing Pulsifer’s Reliant Robin to crash outside Anathema’s cottage. They have to be done but in each case, the concretization doesn’t completely work because the book version is more compact and the series has to convert things into real-time, not reading-time.

On the other hand, since time is now at a bit of a premium, our Delivery Driver has to summon the two remaining Horsemen, Pollution and Death. And you can guess just how he has to attract the latter’s intention. So before this happens, Gaiman throws in a scene early on Saturday morning, in his bedroom. The Driver’s wife, Maud, an ordinary middle-aged woman in a garish orange nightie, doesn’t want him to go. She’d rather he came back to bed, It’s nothing sexy. It’s just an understated scene demonstarting the love and commitment between two people, who you wouldn’t look at twice in the streets, but who together make up a pair, committed to one another, for whom love-making is every bit as vital as it is for the handsome and the virile, yet is just one of many ways in which they share their lives together. And which is about to stop dead.

This concretization expands wonderfully on the implications in the book. Death describes the Driver’s demise as ‘leaving early to avoid the rush’, but it’s a foreshadowing of what’s actually at stake here, an understable and touching microcosm represzenting the macrocosm that is at the end of this story but which is simply too much to imagine or take seriously. This we can, and do, take seriously.

We’re now in the back half of the series and, more importantly, it’s Saturday, the day of Armageddon, so not much time left. Crowley and Aziraphale are still not working together, a combination of the Angel’s genuine concerns about the propriety of working with the Demon and the total contrast between their attitudes to where they are. Crowley has given up hope, it’s all useless, Armageddon is going to happen and nothing, least of all the pair of them, will stop it. Aziraphale, on the other hand, is still blessed with the belief that everything can be resolved without all this nasty destroy-the-Earth-and-everybody-upon-it business, if only everybody would just sit down and discuss it sensibly, over a nice cup of tea and some thinly-sliced sandwiches. Cut diagonally.

It’s just not going to hapen. Things are coming to a head. Wars have been stigmatised as merely the end product of economic competition, which is basically blinding yourself to the truth: that often they are just what happens when people reach the point of not being able to tolerate the sight of each other. All the Angels in Heaven and Devils in Hell, except one on each side, are set upon War. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we weren’t stuck in the bloody middle. And it’s going to be bloody alright.

Because the focus of it all is an 11 year old boy who happens to be the Son of the Devil, the Antichrist, etc. Adam Young, leader of the Them, a Just William mischief-maker for no better reason than that he’s 11, and his friends Pepper, Wensleydale and Brian are 11, and they live in an idyllic land that Adam has, subconsciously, made into the perfect children’s book playground, and he’s the World Champion at filling up the endless hours with the best games, to keep boredom at a distance.

And Adam Young has just stared at an image of the Devil in Anathema Device’s cottage. He may not have had the least instruction or inkling as to who he is and what he can do but he’s still the trigger for Armageddon and, matephorically he’s started ticking. Adam is taking control of the world, starting with the rest of the Them, and he’s terrifying them. With an 11 year old’s zeal he’s going to wipe the world clean and re-start it with all the games that an 11 year old mind can conceive, free from anything constraining him or them from doing whatever they want whenever they want it. Adam’s so lost in himself he can’t see that he’s doing the exact oposite to his friends, who are left with no option but to do whatever Adam wants whenever Adam wants it. When he removes their mouths so that they cannot even say they disagree it’s a moment of utter horror, all the more forceful for its relevance to a world in which one political party is doing everything it can to stifle even the most inefectual opposition to its actions.

It’s also a moment in which trust is irrevocably breached. This is a story, and things will change, but I for one could never again give the remotest amount of trust to a ‘friend’ who forced that on me.

So it’s begun. Not only are Crowley and Aziraphale out on their own, without support, but their respective sides have begun to suspect them of collaboration with the enemy. Which is, to be fair, true. Aziraphale finsally reaches as high as he’s going to get, the Matatron, the Word of God, Derek Jacobi’s floating and talking head. The rot goes all the way to the top. He’s going to have to ally himself with Crowley, because there is no-one else on his side. Which is when the misunderstanding Witchfinder-Sergeant Shadwell intervenes, performing an on-the-fly exorcism that results in Aizraphale stepping over a line he shouldn’t have, and discorporating. And his bookshop catching fire.

Things aren’t looking very hopeful, are they?

Good Omens: e03 – Hard Times


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It was once again noticeable that the third part of Good Omens began by diverting away from the mechanics of the plot, the onwards progression to the end of everything, or tomorrow as the episode’s final image firmly indicated. But you can hardly call it a tangent when the pre-credits sequence actually lasted slightly longer than half the show. An obtuse angle?

Either way, what we got was a ton of material only a tiny bit of which – the Voice of God asking the Angel Aziraphale where his flaming sword is, last seen as a footnote about an unusual edition of the Bible – actually came from the book, whilst all the rest was about the slowly developing relationship between the Angel and the Demon throughout many different historical settings and producing the ‘Arrangement’ that prevails today. It was astonishingly long but, unlikle episode 2, didn’t feel as if it was delaying out getting back into the swing of things because, firstly, it was incredibly entertaining and I just love seeing Michael Sheen playing Aziraphale, and secondly because it all went to buttressing and building.

Atr the end of the day, you’re asking us to accept that an Angel and a Demon – once but no longer identical creatures of God’s devising – are working together and any residual doubts as to the credibility of that notion were well and truly dispelled.

The other half of the episode, called the plot, sees Aziraphale try to divert the War only to discover his side wants it to happen come what may, fall out with Crowley over working together when they so obviously have nothing in common but a like for the Earth where it is and the desire to keep it that way, both call in their private army of secret operatives, namely Sergeant Shadwell and Private Pulsifer, and Adam Young (an Antichrist) meet Anathema Device and become overwhelmed by New Age philosophy, resulting in something extremely odd happening to a Nuclear Power Station.

This is a hard series to write about, principally because it’s very good.

Good Omens: e02 – The Book


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Good Omens is very much a discursive book. It builds slowly, it follows diverse paths, it has multiple criss-cross elements that havbe no seming relation to one another but which we know are tributaries that will eventually come together into one major river of story. You can do that in books. It’s a lot harder in television, especially when you’re dealing with an exaggerated reality that exceeds normal expectations. There’s a a lot of it about in episode 2.

Last week’s opening episode was mainly linear, keeping everything going in a straight line so that the audience knew what they were getting: Armageddon and an Antichrist who comes over as a less sullen Just William. With the train on the tracks, episode 2 decided to devote large parts of its running time to the branch lines, and a whole horde of new characters we didn’t get to in the opening episode.

First up was a plot reminder. The Angels Gabriel and Sandalphon visit Aziraphale’s Soho bookshop to check all is well, and make a holy show of themselves in ‘fooling’ the simple humans into accepting them as material beings, whilst Hastur and Ligur (I do so relish Ned Dennehy’s performance and look as Hastur!) replace a Breakfast Show hosting pair to demand the same of Crowley: neither angel nor demon admit they’ve absolutely no bloody idea where the Antichrist is.

So the narative drive this week is set upon finding him, except that it’s not being done with any urgency and without any great plan, and in the meantime, enter the following: Agnes Nutter, a Lancashire Witch (Josie Lawrence) to be burned by Witchfinder General Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall): the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War, aka National Weekly News War Correspondent Carmine Zuigiber (Mireille Enos), and an outsourced summoner, a delivery driver (Simon Merrells): profesional descendent Anathema Device (Adria Arjona), carrying the only copy of the #nice and Accurate Propheies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, dressed from head to toe to wrist in heavy, faintly archaic, form-concealing clothes, the way Melanie Safka always did: professional failure Newton Pulsifer, who’s ‘not good with computers’ (Jack Whitehall again, of course): Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean with a Scottish accent that keeps nipping back up to the Highlands, leaving him floundering) and his landlady, Madame Tracey (Miranda Richardson, still looking pretty good). That’s a lot of characters to take care of in one go, and they need time which detracts from Aziraphale and Crowley’s presence and kee[ps us from getting to the Them, the Antichrist’s little gang, until well down the running time.

And Gaiman does insist on keeping as much of his and Pratchett’s amusing little asides as he possibly can, like the wyt Crowley talks to his plants.

These are all well and good in the book: in the book they’re more than good, they’re hilarious. But this is the difference between books and television/film. In any kind of decent television series I’m eager for this kind of multiple strand approach, setting up theaudience to guess, and red herrings are fair game. But I didn’t think it worked here. That’s because, after setting things up, and that reminder of what this story is all about, the episode went all over the place, at some length, to avoid taking the next step. When are we going to get on with it was the prevailing response.

Which leads us to the matter of the writing. Thgis is very much Neil Gaiman’s project. It adapts a book of which he is the co-author and it is driven by the desire to do seriously right by his co-author and his very dear friend, the late Terry Pratchett – is it really six years? On the one hand, the teleplay writer knows and understands the material and can be alert to it and its nuances in a way no-one else can. On the other, how detached can he become? How distanced can he be to carry out the essential task of the adapter, which is to reconstruct the book in a medium alien to the original work?

Episode 2 shows Gaiman to be perhaps a bit too determined to get in as much of Good Omens as he can, which isn’t necessarily the best thing to do.

Mind you, I had fun with it. And we’ve four more episodes in which to draw things together even tighter.

Good Omens: e01 – In the Beginning


Sometimes, a bit of fun is what you want, without necessarily the scope for too much serious thinking. You can have a bit too much serious thinking, and not always enough fun. Not that Good Omens is necessarily a case for leaving out serious thinking, nothing that comes from the word processor of Terry Pratchett can be entirely free from that, and this Neil Gaiman bloke isn’t exactly behind the door for that kind of business, what with his ‘There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.’

I got ‘Good Omens’ the book as soon as it went into paperback. My battered old paperback, much read, in fact as recently as the week before last, is signed by both authors. I love it to bits. Well, not every bit of it. There’s this line, early on, where the demon Crowley, listing his demonic feats in causing horror and confusion on Earth, states that ‘he was particularly proud of Manchester’. I’m bound to resent that.

Adaptations of any of Terry Pratchett’s work, and I’m not slighting Gaiman here by putting Pratchett in the frame, are exceedingly difficult to make successfully. Partly that’s because the worlds he writes in are fantasies, impossible to reproduce as live action, or indeed visually at all, without an extremely expensive special effects budget, but primarily because the humour in the books is skewed to the narrative, not to mention the footnotes. The characters don’t say the funny lines, the author does. Getting those lines on screen, in any kind of convincing form, is the real difficulty, because putting them into someone’s mouth to say onscreen is next to impossible to do without it sounding like the character is reading the narrative.

Fortunately for all concerned, the adaptation, and the screenplay, is being done by Neil Gaiman himself, and more than authorial pride is involved here because Neil was doing this in tribute to Terry, his friend, his much-missed friend, with a ferocious determination to do right by him. Gaiman knows the book. What’s more, he knows what wasn’t in the book, and how much of that to fold in. And he is key to visualising what happens on the page and putting it on the screen, backed with a very expensive special effects budget where necessary, in a way that both dazles and satisfies every reader’s internal vision of what’s going on.

The mini-series is by far and away the most recent tv series I’ve blogged other than live. It appeared in 2019, when I watched it weekly, and I watched it again when I bought the DVD. I would expect most readers of this blog to be familiar with book or series or both but for those who are not aware of it, a short background is necessary. Good Omens is about Armageddon, the coming of the Antichrist and the final bettle betwen Heaven and Hell. It is also a comedy. This is brought about primarily by the principals, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), an Angel, and Crowley (David Tennant), a Demon.

Aziraphale was originally the Angel with a Flaming Sword who guarded the gates to the Garden of Eden, who gave his flaming sword to Adam and Eve when they were expelled because, well, there are beasts out there, it’s going to rain and she’s already expecting. And Crowley was the Snake who tempted Eve because he was told to get up there and cause some trouble, but who’s a bit worried about why God made it so easy.

The point is that this pair of opposites have been on Earth ever since, some 6,000 years of tempting and thwarting. They’ve been the only consistent face either sees and they’ve become sort-of friends, each having been among humans for so long that they’ve more in common with each other than with either respective Head Office.

These are the pair who get involved when the Plan unfolds. Satan’s child, the Antichrist, is brought to Earth eleven years ago. Crowley delivers it to the Nuns’ Hospital where it will be switched for the American Ambassador’s new baby.  He would rather not get involved, and his wish to distance himself as fast as he can combines with the unfortunate coincidence of another, this time English and utterly ordinary couple turning up with her contractions every four minutes and a Chattering Satanic Nun who’s a bit of an airhead. The baby switch ends up being a threeway, and you can guess who gets the Adversary (hint: it’s not the Ambassador).

The big problem is that, in their entirely separate ways, Crowley and Aziraphale like the Earth. Neither wishes to see it end in eleven year’s time. So they work together to frustrate Armageddon…

As the title indicates, this episode is about setting all of this up, as well as our two principal characters. Gaiman makes a superb job of parcelling out information sensibly and intelligently, and he gets round the problem of animating narrative by limiting the use of dialogue, keeping these bits brief and as natural as they can be (not everywhere but at this sort of thing a 90% success rate is damned good) but mainly by hiving the job over to a voiceover narrative (by Frances McDormand) as the voice of God.

She’s good. The whole cast are good. Jon Hamm as the Angel Gabriel and Nick Offerman as the Ambassador, appearing by iPad, are perfect in cameo roles. And in his brief appearance at the end as Adam Young, the Antichrist, Sam Taylor Buck gives a brief but wonderfuly naturalistic show.

But the series stands and falls on Aziraphale and Crowley. David Tennant as Crowley is a given. I mean, David Tennant, demon, you’re wrapped up. It’s Michael Sheen who has the infinitely harder job, playing an Angel who’s basically, just, well, Good. How do you play that? Good and innocence – or as much as is left after 6,000 years of human beings – we’re just talking bland aren’t we? Nothing to work with. And he’s brilliant, bringing to the role a degree of effeteness that comes over as otherworldly as opposed to faintly gay, coupled to an underlying worry. Aziraphale is in earnest, but under everything he does he’s not entirely certain he’s doing the right thing. It’s a brilliant performance.

I look forward to more. Next wek, the story really starts. It’s Wednesday afternoon. The World Ends on Saturday.

Uncollected Thoughts: Good Omens – part 1


I’m not used to this Netflix all-at-once bit yet (and yes, I do know this isn’t Netflix but Amazon Prime and the BBC, but it’s the same idea), and I don’t have another five lots of fifty minutes stretching out in front of me right now, but I have just watched  the first episode of Good Omens, the TV series of the brilliant book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by Neil Gaiman, and I am here to tell you that it’s ok, you can watch it without thinking it’s vastly inferior to the book, and in fact you can enjoy it, and you can laugh at it. No, make that: you will laugh at it.

This was only to be expected, though I was going more along the linesof hoped for, because it’s adapted by Gaiman himself, wanting to do the very best by his friend, it has an all-star cast starting with David Tennant and Crowley and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, andit’s  had enough money thrown at it to fill up a whole chain of gravel pits, but even so you have to wait and see for yourself.

Teennant is all wonderfully laid-back and with-it, but it’s Sheen who has the harder task because Aziraphale is supposed to be an angel, also somewhat unwordly, definitely unrealistic, and it’s so much easier to do bad because then you have positive traits to work with, whereas good is ethereal and altogether bland, especially when you’re tying to be funny with it, but Sheen is as good as can be, rather like Ryan Giggs running at a packed Arsenal defence.

As for the adaptation, given how much of the book’s humour is in its narration (and its footnotes), it’s awe-inspiring just how closely Gaiman manages to adhere to the exact plot, keeping scenes focused and brief without the sense of anything being rushed or pared down or letting you start to drift off and remember what’s been left out.

No, take it from me, this is one that works, at least up to End of Part 1, and I’m confident it won’t all fall apart, despite the lukewarm reviews that have appeared this week. And I speak as one of the ones who’s owned Good Omens since it came out, who’s read it a dozen times, who’s inordinately pleased that they left out that line about Manchester, and who can safely and defiantly say that for this series the Omens are decidedly Good.

Film 2018: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!


As Film 2018 moves into the final quarter of the year, the pile of DVDs gets shorter and the choices narrower. It’s easier now to see where I haven’t been spacing out categories of films as well as I might, and the choice of a concluding film from those that remain becomes correspondingly more difficult to make.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! is one of four animation films remaining, another one of which comes from Aardman’s peculiarly wonderful brand of stop-go animation (can you guess what it is yet?). Watching it again this quiet, bright morning, I was shocked to see that it came out as long ago as 2012, as I have such vivid memories of watching it at Grand Central, and of laughing so hard in so many places that I seriously thought of going to see it a second time, just to catch the jokes I’d laughed through.

The film is an adaptation of the first of Gideon Defoe’s series of five comedy adventures about a band of inept pirates. It’s wonderfully silly, endlessly inventive and, in the true Aardman style, crams in visual background jokes in such profusion that you can’t guarantee to catch them all.

Essentially, the storyline is that The Pirate Captain wants to win the Pirate of the Year award but has no chance because a) he and his crew are rubbish at being pirates and b) they have no luck whatsoever. However, when they bump into a shifty Charles Darwin (who fears he’ll never get a girlfriend), he tells them that ship’s parrot Polly is not a parrot at all but a long-extinct Dodo, and a worthy winner of the Scientist of the Year award.

The Pirate Captain goes for it, even though that means going to London, home of the young Queen Victoria, who loathes pirates. And when the Pirate Captain wins, Vicky wants Polly, ostensibly for her Petting Zoo but in reality for the Rare Diners Club, a group of world leaders who like to banquet off the most endangered species they can find.

Seduced by a massive amount of gold booty, and a pardon (which promptly disqualifies him from winning the Pirate of the Year award, and from being a pirate), the Pirate Captain hands over Polly, which, when he’s forced to admit it, costs him his crew’s loyalty.

So, all on his own – well, with a reluctant but now discredited Darwin and his trained monkey, Mr Bobo – the Pirate Captain goes after Victoria’s heavily armed flagship, the QV1, to rescue Polly, which earns him his crew’s faith again.

It’s a light story but an ideal one upon which to hang the gags, and these come in a mixture of forms. There’s visual, there’s slapstick, there’s verbal and even a plethora of character-based gags, the last of which are put over splendidly by a very strong voice line-up indeed. The leading quartet are Hugh Grant, in splendidly self-satirical mode as the Pirate Captain, David Tennant in manly self-pitying/miserable mode as Charles Darwin, Martin Freeman giving a lovely, solid Dr Watson-esque performance as Number Two (aka The Pirate with a Scarf), and Imelda Staunton exuding surprising menace as Queen Victoria.

With the exception of Freeman, displaying his strengths as the solid anchor that keeps things from flying apart, everyone is encouraged to go OTT in various degrees, but not uncontrollably so. There are smaller vocal roles for people like Russell Tovey, Lenny Henry, Ashley Jensen, Brian Blessed (going seriously OTT but when does he ever do anything else?) and even Selma Hayek as the sultry Cutlass Lil.

The film was the second and final co-production with Sony Animation (in respect of which it was named The Pirates! Band of Misfits in America and elsewhere). This gave Aardman access to CGI for the sea-scenes and elsewhere, and slightly flattens the comedy though to no deleterious effect. The film was obviously set up for a sequel, and even a series, and Aardman did start work on scripting The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! (not taken from one of Defoe’s books) but Sony weren’t interested. Pity, it would have been fun.

The problem, I imagine, from Sony’s end, as the mucking about with the title evidences, is that ultimately Aardman are too British. It’s gloriously part of their appeal, and they stand foursquare in the great tradition of British absurdity/eccentricity. But it also meant that The Pirates! etc. ultimately brought in modest returns, worldwide, and especially in America, which made it not commercial enough for Sony.

Personally, I don’t care. This film is Aardman lightly watered down, but not to an extent that compromises their spirit or harms the comedy. To extend the series, I would expect Sony would have demanded a more diluted version. So maybe it’s best that The Pirates! In an Adventure with Cowboys! was never more than a giddy, gleeful, imaginary film where everything can be as pure as can be.

Let’s have a Ham Nite!

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor – A More Considered Response


I watched the first one, so very long ago. In the living room, at my Gran and Grandad’s, at 53 Chappell Road, Droylsden. I was probably the only one watching, absorbed in a black and white television set showing BBC, and thus tuned to Doctor Who because it followed on from Grandstand and, maybe, The Telegoons.
My parents, my grandparents and uncle were talking as our traditional Saturday afternoon wound down towards that soon-to-come moment when Uncle Arthur would run us back to Openshaw. They may have been talking about what had happened the day before, about the assassination of President Kennedy, or they may have been just talking about what families talk about. I was the only one watching: this was a children’s programme, and the only other child present was my sister, then only sixteen months old and not interested in television.
Fifty years later and everybody’s been waiting for months for the Fiftieth Anniversary special. There’s a funny feeling to watching this, knowing that I am now old enough to, officially, remember something for half a century. To be able to draw a parallel between myself then and myself now.
But that’s my problem, not yours (just wait until you reach that point, that’s all I can say).
Apart from an initial flurry of speculation when John Hurt made that astonishing appearance in the last minute of the last series (and nearly everybody was right in guessing that he was the Doctor who had actually ended the Time War, though there were no other plausible moment in the Who mythology where he could, with any satisfaction, have been accommodated) I’ve deliberately avoided anything that would tip any hands as to what would happen in the special. If there were to be any moments of great dramatic revelation, I wanted them to be dramatically revealed at that moment in the story that Stephen Moffat had conceived, and not in any trailer, forum, newspaper or spoiler.
And I managed to get to the start of The Day of the Doctor as free of pre-conceptions as it was possible to be without having hermetically sealed myself away for the last six months and five days. I knew that David Tennant and Billie Piper (groan) were going to be in it, and Christopher Eccleston wasn’t, but I had avoided everything else with determination.
Except for The Night of the Doctor, which was a game-changer in that opening moment when the Doctor you weren’t expecting appeared, and then the bloody door was blown off and if they’d kept that so hidden, anything was possible.
So I got there with no idea what to expect, unlike the millions of others who knew what they wanted to see, so many of whom, in the watching and the immediate aftermath, seem to have not got their Fiftieth Anniversary. I, on the other hand, can say that it satisfied me. It was, of all improbable things from Moffat, low-key, and personal in its heart. And I think that it was all the better for it.
The mandatory nod to the very beginning was dealt with joyfully: the original (and greatest) theme music, Clara a teacher at the school that grand-daughter Susan attended, Ian Chesterton’s name on the Board of Governors. It was the best kind of Easter Egg, placed in plain sight for all to see and recognise, but without the sense of having missed something for those who saw but did not recognise – like all the others I didn’t notice and which didn’t get in the way.
Moffat built his mystery quickly but carefully. A message from Queen Elizabeth: the First. Paintings that contain a frozen moment of time, the answer shown before the question is asked, just as the two sides of the Smith Doctor’s mobile phone call were shown in reverse order. The time fissures that bring together the Smith Doctor and the Tennant Doctor in Elizabethan times, where we can see the typing up of a loose end from Tennant’s era. The convention that whenever two or more Doctor’s meet, they really don’t approve of each other, but still end up working like a dream.
But this Special is about John Hurt, the unknown Doctor, the interloper who’s inserted into the mythology at precisely the moment where all is obscure: the Time War, Russell T Davies’ great sweeping away of a cluttered past, of Time Lords and Daleks, the addition of the dark element that is so bloody, uniformly, boringly mandatory in everything and everyone, without the slightest thought for individuality. The corruption without which any character in television or film becomes, somehow, unreal and unrealistic.
Sorry to all you Davies fans: I wanted to like Doctor Who when it came back but I lasted three episodes of Eccleston before giving up, and I know an awful lot of you regard this story as just a comprehensive shitting on Davies’ Doctor(s), but what Moffat did was brilliant.
The Hurt Doctor who was introduced in such dark circumstances, the version that could not justify himself with the Name, the Warrior conceived to make War, the man who chose, with deliberation and knowledge, to commit double-genocide, turned out to be a Doctor – a real Doctor. On the day his decision had to be made, on the day when he would activate the Moment – the alien weapon which would do this – the machine’s conscience intervened.
To have her played by Billie Piper, not Rose nor the Bad Wolf, but a simulacrum, a deliberate pre-echo, was a moment of inspiration. I hated Rose, and I loathe Billie Piper, but here she was brilliant, incarnating her role with thought, compassion and gentleness.
If he were to do this, the Hurt Doctor’s punishment is to live. But first, he must see how he will live. So he too is introduced to the Smith and Tennant Doctors, via the Time Fissure, and he is neither raging warrior, destiny-laden nor dark, but a Doctor who can snap and snipe at his successors as much as they do at each other, with the same irreverent humour that has always come with the turf of Doctor Who, and who makes himself real in his successors eyes in a way that they, culpable but removed and wishing to distance themselves, had not before been able to do.
So much so that when the Moment comes, they are prepared to accept, and share the responsibility that they have, in their different ways, sought to avoid. So much done, yet the inevitability of things prevails. Time is Time.
Yet this is to reckon without the Impossible Girl, Clara who has occupied the Doctor’s life, all of it, and who still has the belief in this unusual being to ask if there is not another way?
I’ve screamed at Moffat’s misogyny in the past – it very nearly fucked all over The Naming of the Doctor – but he can here be absolved of much, by putting the resistance to inevitability into the hands of Jenna Coleman and Billie Piper.
And there is another way. A way that preserves the unity of time, the sanctity of these years of New Who, of the Doctors who lived with themselves as ultimate villains. It comes from the Smith Doctor because he’s the current incarnation, but also because he’s the one who’s lived longest and had the most time to think. And through him, Gallifrey is saved, in secret, by removing the planet into a frozen moment of time.
Into a painting.
And in that glorious ending, all the Doctors – ALL of them, each in their TARDISs – come together to have the home they fled at a time that is so long ago that it might as well no longer exist: and because we are so close to another regeneration, there are not just Twelve, there are Thirteen, for a second of time in which we glimpse the Capaldi Doctor’s face.
And it is all reset, and the Hurt Doctor is redeemed, and regenerates into Christopher Eccleston (whose refusal to take part robs us of a moment that should have happened, the preservation of the final unity, his face in the wardrobe of his predecessor, the full regeneration). But there is one final moment for those of us who go back to marvel at.
New Who has often been accused of rejecting Old Who. That can’t be said any longer: this Special alone has built the bridge between the two eras: the unexpected, unimagined Doctor has cemented Old Who in the shape of McGann to New Who in the shape of Eccleston. It has opened a very great door, whilst accelerating the series towards confrontation with a chance bit of lore that seemed meaningless and fay when spoken casually in the past: twelve regenerations, and twelve only: Thirteen Doctors.
And Capaldi makes Thirteen.
But in its final moments, as Smith muses on retiring, and becoming a curator, he is approached by the curator, of this museum of the strange on that silly little planet that the Doctor, in all his faces, has visited so often. The curator is an old man: he is Tom Baker, the oldest survivor of the Thirteen faces. And in his guidance as to what to understand from the painting Gallifrey Falls No More, he is the promise to all of us that Capaldi cannot be the end, that one day the Doctor will retire, and will regenerate into an old, familiar, beloved face and form.
I’m grateful to Moffat for meeting the expectations I never had, for eschewing empty bombast and pomposity, and making this story about redemption, acceptance and the removal of an inhumane burden. As far as I’m concerned, fifty years has been worth it, and in a subtle fashion, the ground has been relaid for fifty more. To those of you who hated this, or were bored with it, or confused, or sneered, or thought that it was conceived in hatred to shit all over Russell T Davies, I’m sorry that you can’t take joy from this.
I, at least, am content.