Film 2019: In The Loop


I didn’t go for The Thick of It in the first place. I watched the first, three-episode series, the one with Chris Langham. It was billed as Yes Minister for the 21st century, which led me to expect what I wasn’t going to get. I didn’t find it funny, and it took me a long time until I did find it funny.

In The Loop, borrowed on DVD from the local library, got me over that hurdle. It’s a spin-off from the TV series, a 2009 feature film splitting its time between England and America, intended as a satire of the Iraq war. Several of the Thick of It cast appear, together with half a dozen American actors, the biggest of whom – in every sense – being James Gandolfini, Tony Sporano as was.

What I didn’t understand properly, then, was that only Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker and Paul Higgins as Jamie MacDonald were playing ‘themselves’, with other familiar characters, most prominently Chris Addison, playing new characters closely related to their TV selves.

The spine of the story is very simple. Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander as a soft-boiled egg, says something stupid on the radio, bringing down the ire of Tucker (it’s no good, Capaldi is and always will be Malcolm Tucker, forget this nonsense about being Doctor Who). Foster, you can rapidly tell, is born to say something stupid as he stands for nothing except being a career politician.

His new aide, Toby Wright (Addison), undermining his rather more efficient Director of Communications, Judy Molloy (Gina McKee, looking frankly gorgeous), gets Foster into a meeting with American Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) but only as ‘meat’ (i.e., another warm body to make the meeting look good). Foster compounds his error by speaking up when he’s not wanted.

This gets him dragged into affairs in America, where Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) has created a secret War Committee aiming to invade an unnamed Middle East country. Clark, assisted by a very much more Con than Pro position paper written by her staffer, Lisa Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and General George Miller (Gandolfini) are opposed to War and want Foster to help ‘internationalise dissent’. Malcolm Tucker has other ideas.

There’s more to it than that, a lot more, branching out in multiple directions, but that’s enough. The film is a wind-up toy that whirrs and crashes. It’s embedded with personalities that are all exaggerations, but the thing that worries you is just how big – or in the circumstances little – an exaggeration they are.

Capaldi is just Tucker, his non-stop foul-mouthed invective a masterpiece of scripting given the perfect delivery: Tucker is bile and fury, he doesn’t just run on it, he is it. Foster is all soft edges and no convictions, the only flaw in Hollander’s portrayal being that you wonder how he got as far as he did without a vertebrate spine.

Addison’s Toby gets the biggest comeuppance in the film, in an unemphasised way. He screws Lisa in Washington which blows his relationship with girlfriend Suzy (Olivia Poulet), costing him his home, and is displaced at the Ministry almost as soon as Foster departs. It’s difficult to know whether to characterise him as a slimy creep or a creepy slime but after he tries to to explain away fucking Lisa as a protest against the war, he deserves everything he gets.

Of the other performers, I have just got to pick out Gandolfini. His is the most grounded in reality in the film (apart from McKee as Judy, who is more level-headed and unneurotic than everyone else). You can believe in him as a soldier and a General, more solid on the earth than anyone else, and yet every bit as cutting.

In the Loop was a success on all levels, thugh it’s fair to say it was slightly out of date when it was released. Obama was in the White House by then, and the film’s world is Dubya and Cheney, Republican hawks. Nevertheless, it hits all its marks with stiletto-like precision, and you come out of the film not merely wondering how close to the reality this is but convinced it’s more accurate than any history book or hard-hitting documentary will ever be.

I should also mention that it’s bloody funny too, that’s it’s full-to-bursting with undercurrents, sub-stories and clashing personalities without ever once feeling crammed, the performances are exactly brilliant and, most worrying of all, in these days of pandemics, crisis and potential panic, the feeling that you wish this lot were really in charge instead of the, you should pardon the expression, leaders we actually have.

Film 2018: Local Hero


Local Hero was Bill Forsyth’s third film as writer and director and his first to move beyond working with the Scottish Youth Theatre (though the connection is not entirely forgotten, with John Gordon Sinclair and Caroline Guthrie having minor but amusing roles). It stars Burt Lancaster, in a typically graceful role, though the film actually belongs to the unlikely duo of Peter Reigert and Denis Lawson, the latter of whom doesn’t even get billed as a star.

Like Forsyth’s first two films, the story is about, and largely takes part in Scotland, in the fictional fishing village of Ferness on the West coast. Knox Oil, a big American company owned by Felix Happer (Lancaster), plans to build an oil refinery in the only suitable place, Ferness. ‘Mac’ Macintyre (Reigart), a skilled negotiator, is sent to buy the place, everything between both headlands and up to a mile inland.

Mac is your fish out of water, complaining from the outset at having to actually go to Scotland: he calls himself a telex man (seriously dating the film or what?) and that he could wrap up the deal in an afternoon by telex. In Aberdeen he finds local Know representative Danny Oldsen (a young and fresh-faced Peter Capaldi) wished upon him as an assistant. They also meet and admire, Oldsen especially, a marine biologist named Marina (Jenny Seagrove in a dark-blue swimsuit).

The pair drive westward to Ferness. Forsyth adds a Brigadoon touch, having the pair stuck in mist after hitting a rabbit with the car (Oldsen names it Harry, Mac Trudy, after his ex-, and whilst they think they’re nursing it back to health, they end up with it being served to them as Casserole de lapin). After a night in the car, in the mist, they wake to a beautiful coastline and clear air. The nod to the magical village, which is accessible only once a year, sets the tone for the externally idyllic village, set in a place of immense beauty, and gives us expectations that Forsyth will quickly puncture.

You see, this tine, enclosed village, this home to families whose roots in the land go back centuries, this backwater of peace and stillness, where people do all that’s needed and time ceases to be a concern, can’t wait for the Americans to buy them out and make them stinking rich.

That’s the central joke of the film, and one that negates the traditional tension that stories of this kind tend to portray. Mac and Oldsen book in to the hotel, run by Gordon (Lawson) and Stella Urquhart (Jennifer Black), a married couple with a healthy appetite for each other that, in keeping with Forsyth’s approach, is treated as a semi-comic, semi-admirable joke. Gordon also turns out to be the Chartered Accountant Mac’s here to negotiate with, playing things cool on behalf of the village, who all want the money: Gordon’s just doing everything he can to make sure that they squeeze out everything they realistically can, rather than undersell themselves.

But it all takes time, and that’s the point. Mac begins as the fish out of water, chafing at having to work to Scottish pace, with nothing realistically to do except to hang around and wait, and gradually let the atmosphere of Ferness seep into him. His problem becomes that Ferness is unspoiled, that he is there to spoil it irrecoverably, that he doesn’t want to see that happen, but that the villagers want it passionately.

Typically, Forsyth throws in a Russian fishing boat captain, Victor (Christopher Rozycki), a regular and celebrated visitor, not to mention a closet capitalist whose portfolio Gordon manages, to remind Mac that the villagers lead a hard life, that the money he represents is a godsend to them, making life incredibly easy for them, and that at the end of the day they have the right to make decisions for themselves. Mac remains troubled however. He even offers to swap lives with Gordon: Gordon can have Houston, the Porsche, the salary and the stocks, Mac will have Ferness. And Stella, of course, don’t forget Stella.

I’ll come back to Stella, and Marina, and Caroline Guthrie’s part, but the story demands a twist. We’ve been expecting all along, because there’s always one in real life, and stories like this demand one to make them into stories as opposed to still pictures, but with everything going swimmingly, Gordon discovers the hitch; the beach itself, four miles of seafront, is owned by old Ben, the beachcomber, Ben Knox to give him his full name. Ben is played by Fulton Mackay, the third named star, in gently obtuse bucolic manner. And Ben won’t sell. There has to be one.

Ben’s attitude is that he needs to work the beach for its benefit, and it is his living. The idea that the money he could make by selling it would make him secure for the rest of his life doesn’t seem to penetrate. Not need to work: We  all have to work, he chides, gently.

We’ve already had the nod to Brigadoon, and without being in any way explicit we’re being invited to see Ben in a mythical light too, a protector of the beach, its guardian. He’s not the only figure we’re invited to see in such a subtle light: Marina keeps popping up out of the water, in ankle to neck wet suit, appearing to the faithful and besotted Danny. She’s proposed a marine biology study for the bay, and is convinced Mac and Danny are there to study its financial aspects. Even after Danny confesses about the refinery, she’s blithely convinced it won’t happen. And, like the water goddess we’re meant to see her as, she has webbed feet.

Everything’s being set up for a fairy-tale ending. Mac has a second task, direct from Felix Happer himself. Happer’s obsessed with astronomy and his legacy (which is played on in an unfortunately weak and unfunny strand in which his psychiatrist practices humiliation therapy). He wants a comet to name after himself and wants Mac studying the skies in Scotland. Mac starts off ignorant and bemused, but ends ignorant and enthused by the sight of meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis, the latter of which triggers the film’s denouement.

Again, there’s a gentle hint towards the mythical. Ben’s refusal to sell threatens the whole deal. The villagers start to converge on his beach hut at eve: give them pitchforks and flaming torches and the place could be Castle Frankenstein. Something bad could happen, but not in this film. Enter Happer, Burt Lancaster, arriving by helicopter, literally the deus ex machina, which means ‘the God in the machine’.

Happer’s here to see the skies Mac has raved over, and to talk to Ben, Ben Knox. We don’t get to hear that talk but when Happer emerges, the onshore refinery is dead. An astronomical institute instead. The gangling Oldsen seizes his chance to push Marina’s proposal, inverting the whole prospect: a happy ending. Ferness will remain unspoiled, there’ll still be money in it, though we sense that that will be less all round than for the refinery. Oldsen will stay on with Happer to plan things, Mac is sent back to Houston. That day. Danny, the non-swimmer, commits an act of propitiation, swimming out to greet his goddess with the glad tidings of her worship (though she promptly dives beneath the water).

The ending is deliberately downbeat, with a comic twist that is never more than wry. Mac, who’s come to love Ferness, is wrenched away. We sense it will be his Brigadoon: once gone, he can never return. Clean-shave, suit-and-tie, refusing a private farewell with Stella, helicopter, plane, return to his empty, modern, cold apartment in the Houston night: it’s overbearingly miserable which makes the last touch – the Ferness phone box ringing unanswered, impliedly Macs call – too slight to overcome the melancholy.

It’s not that the ending is bad: like the irony of the title, which makes the ultimate stranger Mac, who isn’t even of Scottish extraction despite his name, the ‘local’ hero to the villagers of Ferness, the ending is an ironic inversion of the theme: the village is not spoiled but Mac is. Completing the under-structure of myth, Brigadoon has been saved. Mac is the sacrifice that preserves the way things should be.

Watching Local Hero the first time, I eagerly expected more of the fun I’d had out of Gregory’s Girl, but these are two different films. Forsyth is dealing with adults and a much more adult situation, and whilst there’s a mild comic inflexion to much of the film, especially in the background, the humour aims more for irony than out and out laughs. The film’s deliberately slow, which sometimes, especially in its American sequences, drags. I’ve already mentioned the abusive psychiatrist, Moritz, which is a crashing mistake, and I’ve got to be honest and say that I don’t find Peter Reigart convincing, especially in his voice: for an American, his American accent sounds like a bad attempt at faking it. Reigart’s lack of energy plays true to the overall feel of the film, but given what he is, it’s unconvincing, especially in the American segment, at the beginning. Reigart has no dynamics, which detracts from his absorption into the life of Ferness less impressive: he comes over as ready for a rest, making the village’s quasi-mythical conversion of him less impressive.

I said I’d return to the ladies, MesDames Seagrove, Black and Guthrie. Watching the film this time, I was struck at just how much a male-dominated film it it (and by extension Forsyth’s first two films are). Apart from a middle-aged shopkeeper with an implied relationship with Victor, these are the only female roles of any note in the film and Guthrie (who was Carol in Gregory’s Girl) has a minimal part as the village’s spiky-haired punk girl who tries to get off with Danny at the ceilidh.

So that leaves two women. Of the two, Seagrove gets the better deal, as the biologist-cum-water goddess. The lady was a beautiful young woman, long hair, clear blue eyes, a slim figure, but she’s out of the loop as far as the story is concerned. With the exception of a few seconds in a lab-coat, and a slightly longer scene in a beautiful gown, she’s only ever seen in swimsuit or wet-suit, in the water. Seagrove looks lovely, plays otherworldly, and after her introductory scene, interacts with  nobody but the gangly, inexperienced Danny (Capaldi makes him into a miracle of loose-limbed unco-ordinated movement, a gem of a performance).

And Jennifer Black gets even less. She’s ever better than a background figure, cool, composed, always fully in control, but she’s nothing to do with the story, despite a last minute attempt to portray her as the Boss. All Stella has to do is stand around, looking pretty, at which she excels, with a natural understated charm that shines through big cardigans and ankle-length practical skirts.

Whereas Seagrove’s Marina was always intended to be a slightly unrealistic character, the film does fall down in failing to capitalise upon Stella, or indeed offering any kind of substantial female role, even though it suspends itself between two very masculine cultures.

So: a film mostly of parts that, for me, never quite wholly coalesce. Still, I wouldn’t get rid of Local Hero, even despite its bloody soundtrack, lauded by many but not me because I mostly cannot stand Mark Knopfler. It was the third of four Scottish films by Forsyth, that led to David Puttnam taking him to Hollywood and basically crashing his career terminally. I think this film stands testament that, limited as it sounds, Forsyth was at his best as a Local Hero.

 

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Who – Twice upon a Time


Since the high point of the 50th Anniversary special, and Matt Smith’s ending close behind it, I have gone a long way from Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who. From the little I have seen of her in the role, I think I have done a disservice to myself over Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, but how would it have been possible to enjoy a single, however delightful, character/actress when I found the writing so tiresome and ridiculous, and the direction it has meant for Peter Capaldi so meaningless and irrelevant?

This year’s Xmas Special marks Moffat and Capaldi’s departure. It’s always intriguing to watch a new Doctor emerge, to try to guess from the seconds of time they are allotted in such Specials what they might possibly be, to wonder if a lost enthusiasm is about to undergo its own regeneration.

Of course, the decision to break with tradition and go with a female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, for the first time has attracted controversy and much head-full-of-shit predictions of doom from a large part of the Whovian audience. One particular YouTuber has poured out a stream of videos castigating the decision, predicting that the show will be killed off, this time forever, and generally being completely Cassandra about the whole thing.

I use the term ‘head-full-of-shit’ for this gentleman and those who flock to ‘like’ his pronouncements of doom because their reasoning is full-of-shit. The key moment came when he said that he had no intrinsic objections to there one day being a female Doctor, providing it was done for the right reasons: apparently, the selection of Jodie Whittaker is solely due to a stridently feminist agenda, crossed with fervent Social Justice Warrior preoccupations.

Do you recall that episode of Yes Minister in which Jim Hacker decides to spearhead the promotion of women within the Civil Service, in an attempt to bring parity forward? This led to a glorious scene where the Private Secretaries all meet to welcome the scheme, to heap praise on it as a worthy intention and one to which they would all lend their support, before going on to explain why a female Private Secretary would be completely unsuitable for their particular Department.

Yeah, full-of-shit, like I said.

In condemning this bozo-esque response, I’m not maligning those with genuine, and reasoned concerns about the idea, or about what we already know of how it’s to be executed, and in particular those who, for some strange reason, plan to actually watch the new series before making up their minds. Weird bunch, aren’t we?

In the end, and of course it literally was the end, Capaldi regenerates, the camera does everything it can to actually prevent us seeing anything of the Thirteenth Doctor, except that her left and right eyeballs are definitely surrounded by women’s eyelashes, then there’s one facial shot, two words (“Oh, brilliant!”) and the usual cheap melodramatic chaos. The Tardis goes haywire (why do they always regenerate inside the Tradis when they know it always wrecks the bloody place?), turns on its side, opens the door and, after a bit of desperate clinging to run out the last of those measly seconds Moffat left to Chibnall, she falls out. Into the raw timestream. And the Tardis vanishes.

Oh, of course I’ll watch the first episode of the next series. But it’s hardly encouraging.

After that long digression, what of the story? What of the meeting of Two Doctors, of Twelfth and First (a lovely performance by David Bradley, echoing my distant recollections of William Hartnell to gentle perfection), both determined to resist Regeneration and die?

Twelve’s got the better excuse. He’s been doing this for so long, he has seen so many people come and go, and that goes for versions of himself too, he’s tired beyond endurance of saving a Universe that never gets better for it, that only wants saving all the more for his doing so. Is he never allowed to seek rest?

One is  the anomaly. He’s the hard-headed, practical Doctor, the rebel who left Gallifrey to learn why Good, with everything it’s got stacked against it, always beats Evil. He wants to claim the right to live and die as himself. If he does so, all that everyone from Troughton to Capaldi will cease to exist. But One doesn’t yet know that he is why Good wins every time (little bit megalomaniacal there, Moffat, but we’ll let you have that one).

The story’s about One learning to accept his future, which comes as a lesson learned from how Twelve resolves the practical problem before them, a case of Frozen Time for which their joint decision to commit Time Lord suicide at the South Pole is responsible. You can read that as a bit of reflexive ego from Moffat, propounding NewWho’s superiority over Old… sorry, ClassicWho, teaching it a lesson: I certainly didn’t miss that implication.

How it’s worked is this: a First World War British Captain facing a scared German Soldier in No Man’s Land, both wounded, both with a gun pointed at the other, neither able to speak the other’s language, is about to die. With the stiffest of upper lips, he is prepared for it, accepts it. Instead, he winds up at the south Pole, with the two Doctors, kidnapped by a barenakedlady made out of CGI glass.

To save confusion, this is not an enemy. This is Testimony, an organisation created in the 5 Billionth Century, that reaches through time to people at the moment of their death, extracts and copies their memories and returns them to that moment, so as not to upset the flow of history. In short, they are granting immortality, to everyone, who’s names, faces, bodies, personalities can be recreated on these women of glass. The dead, all of them, can live again. Including Bill Potts.

Much of the hour is taken up with working through this plot, to find out who Testimony are and learn they’re not baddies. In the end, Twelve and One have to take the Captain back, to the crater, to the frightened German, to his death. By then, hope of a miracle has undermined his stoicism.

The Captain is played by Mark Gatiss. In a way, he’s a stereotype, almost but not a caricature. Gatiss plays him note-perfect, in every quaver and semi-quaver. He may be a type but he’s a human type, quiet, determined, incredibly brave. He breaks your heart just standing there, so clearly baffled by what has happened to him, yet accepting of his fate. He goes without a name until the moment he has to return to his position in the crater, and then that name is both so obvious and yet so heart-achingly perfect: Captain Lethbridge-Stewart.

But Twelve has a trick, one impossible trick.bTime can be cheated, but only because of the day this is, the one impossible day in all the history of War. He moves the scene forwards in time, two hours. From the German trenches, the sound of singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. From the British trenches, Silent Night, Holy Night. It’s the Christmas Day Armistice, the troops spreading out into No Man’s Land, shaking hands, sharing food and drink, booting a football around. And two wounded men in a crater receive first aid, and don’t shoot each other.

Of course, it’s all a Moffat cheat, it’s the complete upset of everything Testimony do, it’s changed time, and I can see that even as I’m swept up into the great big swirl of emotion, and I give way to the sentiment being evoked, and to the stoic, quiet man who accepted his duty, who trusted his wife to carry on, whose love for his sons was evident even as he was accepting that his removal from them was the natural way of things, who gets to go home after all. Goodwill and tidings of joy to all Lethbridge-Stewarts, whenever you are.

He’s pulled it off, or enough of it for me to give Moffat credit for a beautifully judged finale, only he’s Stephen Moffat and he can’t help himself, he has to go and blow it completely with some twattishly stupid, overwrought, overdrawn-out writing that Capaldi has no alternative but to go Over The Top with, as he rants around the Tardis shouting instructions to the next Doctor as to what he’s got to be, like the next Doctor doesn’t already know after twelve times round the houses, sounding for all the world like Stephen Moffat trying to stamp an indelible stamp all over Doctor Who and tie Chris Chibnall into a strait-jacket.

Then Chibnall gets his, what was it, ninety seconds? and chucks poor Jodie out of the door still wearing Capaldi’s clobber (her own is nothing to write home about either).

So, behind the running around, the outrageous appeals to sentiment (I so did not need Jenna Coleman popping up to play Clara-the-Calamity, even for sixty seconds) there was a deeply affecting story that deeply affected me. Only it wasn’t the Doctor’s struggle with himself to accept Regeneration, which was a hideous piece of ghastly hamming, it was Mark Gatiss and Captain Lethbridge-Stewart, and the understanding that no matter how alien they seem to us now, such men were real, and what they thought and felt was real, no matter how much they had to mask it.

And that made this hour worthwhile to me.

Uncollected Thoughts: The Doctor Falls


Series 10

It’s been something like two whole seasons since I last watched Doctor Who, with not even getting rid of Jenna Coleman being enough to tempt me back whilst Stephen Moffat was still there. I tended to read the reviews in the Guardian, though not always, doubtful that the praise being lavished on the current series, and particularly on Pearl Mackie as current companion, Bill Potts, was enough to make the series any more palatable to me.

Last night marked the end of the season and the ends of Moffat and Peter Capaldi, who will always go down for me as the Doctor who could have been abso-frickin’-lutely brilliant but in the end was wasted by the flailing/flailing imagination of his writer. It got such a write-up, and gave one massive spoiler away that I felt compelled to break the moratorium and catch the episode whilst it’s still just possible to use the BBC i-Player without having to register.

Given that she’d been killed and turned into a Cyberman, I probably wasn’t getting to see Bill at her best, but I saw enough to think I’d probably concur with the consensus: Pearl Mackie looked like she was a brilliant companion.

As for the rest of it, well, even with two Masters, it was all a bit flat. A lot of it can be put down to my not having seen any of the series to date, but very little of it worked. Take the Master and Missy. It’s been done before with multiple Doctors but this is, I believe, the first instance of two successive versions of the Master hyping each other up. I never felt them to be equals though, the John Simm version was clearly the dominant one (Moffat never could handle strong women), and their fate was a colossal clunker, for all it tried to be portentous.

Missy hugs the Master and kills him, leaving him enough time to reach his Tardis, escape, and regenerate into her. She’s going to go stand alongside the Doctor in his solitary, foredoomed, final battle against the Cybermen. But the Master is so determined not to assist his old friend-turned-enemy, that he shoots Missy in the back, with one of those special, made-up-on-the-spot magic guns that lets Moffat do a big flourish without having to bogged down with consistency, logic or anything remotely plausible, because you see it doesn’t just kill his next regeneration but all the ones after it. It’s a magic destroy all regeneration energy gun, you see.

Never mind that no-one believes that shit for a second, or thinks that if Chris Chibnall doesn’t want the Master/Missy,the showrunner after him won’t bring him/them back in an instant, though hopefully with an actual explanation instead of Moffat’s out of a back pocket and no-one will notice bullshit.

Then there’s the rest of it. The Doctor goes around merrily blasting Cybermen with his sonic screwdriver until the Bill-one blasts him. He sets off an explosion that destroys all of them, blasts them to bits, except himself and the Bill-one. Why are they intact when the more more heavily armoured ones are smithereened? You want an explanation, a rationalisation? Ha, ha! you mad fool.

Up pops Puddle-Heather from a puddle. Don’t ask me, go google her like I did. Remember that bit about how Bill can’t possibly be turned back from being a Cyberman, it’s completely and utterly impossible? And you believed it? Stephanie Hyams snogs Pearl Mackie on Saturday night prime-time TV and we are definitely not in Kansas any more, Toto, and all the better for it, and, hey presto, Bill’s Bill again. She’s Puddle-Bill, mind you, and she’s off on a tour of the universe with Heather, not the Doctor, whose dead and unregenerated body she leaves in the TARDIS.

Now I do remember the impressive effort Moffat put into satisfyingly breaking the Twelve Regenerations cycle, back when he’d do things like put explanations in, so suddenly, with no apparent reason, the first Doctor of that new cycle isn’t going to regenerate, until Bill drops a tear on him, which wakes him up, but only after she’s jumped out the door.

(This is a right mess by now, isn’t it?)

So now the Twelfth Doctor is bubbling over with regeneration energy, but he’s fighting it. We get that by now massively overused line, “I don’t want to go” (is that going to be used in every fucking regeneration in future?) and Capaldi’s fighting it down. He’s had enough, he doesn’t want to change any more, he’s sick of turning into another person over and over again, the TARDIS takes him somewhere where it’s snowing outside and he stumbles out still shouting that he’s never going to change again and it’s echoed by the cliffhanger, the bit that got me to watch this farrago again, the bit where David Bradley does what he did so stunningly three and a half years ago in An Adventure in Time and Space, where he reincarnates old Bill Hartnell, and out of the snow, equally refusing to change, walks the First Doctor…

Cue Christmas Special.

Now I’ll watch that one, just to see how Chris Chibnall gets out of that, though I don’t mind saying I would roll on the floor, kicking my little heels in the air, if they had the balls to make David Bradley the Thirteenth Doctor and roll it round again, not that they will. But I haven’t missed anything whilst I’ve been away, and Moffat hasn’t got any better, and if Chibnall isn’t planning a radical change of pace, I won’t be back for the next series either.

But we shall wait and see.

A Bit of a Gloat


Gloating is an ugly emotion, and I get so few chances to indulge in it.

Having jacked Doctor Who in after a series of increasingly disastrous and nonsensical episodes, I have to confess to finding myself amused to read that the series is apparently in trouble.

If the reports I have been reading are to be believed, last year’s ratings – the first series to feature Capaldi – tanked it big time, and the first two episodes of this season – the ones to which I took such exception when I watched them – made last year’s audiences look like a major success.

Add to this the by-now confirmed fact that Jenna Coleman is leaving and the new rumours that Peter Capaldi wants to quit to spend more time with his wife and children, and the waters are seriously mounting.

But what astonished me most was the rumour that the BBC are considering radically reformatting the programme by cancelling the 2016 series and substituting a short series of films, a la Sherlock.

This isn’t without precedent: there was a year under Russell T Davies where the same approach was adopted, but I don’t think that had anything to do with audiences.

We shall await developments with interest. This is but one report and may have no truth to it whatsoever, but in case it’s on the money, I just wanted to bring this up. Needless to say, I believe I have the solution: it should be Stephen Moffat who leaves. Time for fresh minds and ones that can combine imagination and wit with plots that actually make sense.

Dr Who series 9: Uncollected Thoughts part 2


Actually, I forgot this was on.

I’ve watched the second episode via the i-Player. It wasn’t as frenetic as the first part, nor, quite, as silly. Instead, it was tedious and long-winded, and boring, and I only stayed to the end out of duty, which for the few of you interested in my words about Dr Who, I’m going to betray anyway.

It just wasn’t worth talking about. It was dull. And Capaldi was as hammy as a ton of hickory ham.

If Moffat ever leaves, someone nudge me. And please, please let Mark Gatiss have the major influence on Sherlock.

Doctor Who Series 9: Uncollected Thoughts


Go away. Please. Just go away.

Well now, that was embarrassingly bad, wasn’t it?

After the announcement that Jenna Coleman was leaving Dr Who, thus removing from the series its single, most glaringly awful annoyance, I made the last-minute decision to rescind my personal ban on watching the series. That was an awful mistake.

‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ was a perfect example of Stephen Moffat’s increasing tendency to throw it a lot of brightly coloured bits of jumble, whirl them around a bit and pretend that the outcome was a coherent story. So, we had, in short order, a fourteen year old boy wandering into an explicable war scene, the Twelfth Doctor all set to help him out of a forest of hand-mines (so much effort for a very weedy, nonsensical pun) and learning that freckle-face’s name is Davros, some guy sliding around on roller skates under a monk’s cowl, looking for the Doctor, Missy freezing aircraft all over the world to attract UNIT’s attention, the Doctor partying in 1128AD with an electric guitar and more anachronisms than you could shake a stick at, a conversation with a very low-key, non-shouty Davros who’s due to die in the morning and the Daleks destroying Missy, Clara and the TARDIS.

That none of it made the least amount of sense, and will make even less after part 2 finishes the story off next week, is exactly why Moffat has, with unbelievable rapidity considering how well he handled the Fiftieth Anniversary, fallen out of the bottom of the dustbin and needs to be removed from control of the show. It has already become unwatchable, and that’s without Clara.

Take Missy’s return. When last she was seen, the Doctor was killing her, permanently, no regenerations, no flowers by request, so as to ensure that Clara, who was intent on doing it out of revenge for the death of Danny (you remember, the guy who got run over by a car when she announced her undying love by mobile phone whilst he was crossing a busy road: talk about Displacement) wouldn’t have to live with blood on her hands.

Nobody believed for a minute that that was the last we’d seen of the erstwhile Master. So, how do they get over this hurdle? What ingenious little story lies behind this latest resurrection? Six words: ‘Not dead. Back. Get over it.’ with one might bound, Moffat frees himself from the curse of rationality forever. He can do anything he wants, and then just flip it without explanation. The last link to reality is this shattered and Dr Who becomes literally meaningless.

Then there’s Clara. She’s in the classroom, teaching badly as always, Jane Austen, brilliant writer, and totally great kisser, and then suddenly, without anyone batting an eyelid, she’s shooting off to UNIT HQ at the Prime Minister’s personal request (which no-one finds in the least bit strange), and it’s not because she’s the Doctor’s current official companion, it’s because UNIT, and Kate Stewart, desperately need Clara’s superior knowledge and understanding of A) how to recognise an alien invasion when you see one and B) what to do about an alien invasion.

Seriously, I am not kidding. Moffat has gotten so totally involved with his jumped-up companion – who is so fucking ignorant she actually tells the Daleks, the Daleks, that they can’t destroy the TARDIS – that he thinks he can sell the idea that a 29 year old teacher knows more about planetary defence than the whole of UNIT.

After that, the bit with the Doctor in the Twelfth Century was basic-level inanity, and not even Clara being exterminated could raise a smile because we know it won’t take.

What made everything exponentially worse is that this fifth-rate, amateurish tripe was based on a supposedly serious idea. Admittedly, it’s a very old idea, one that was explored back in Tom Baker’s day and, what’s more, taken directly from dialogue of a higher standard that this dog.

We saw it all a very long time ago in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, the moment when the Fourth Doctor held up two bare wires that, it touched together, would destroy at source the entire Dalek race, removing them from history before they entered it. It was a moral dilemma of epic dimension. Moffat even had the conversation replayed, as Baker posed the question of what if you had the life of a young boy in your hands that, by snuffing him out, you could avoid untold dearth, destruction and carnage?

That’s exactly what the opening scene did. And the Doctor, the Twelfth Doctor, left Davros where he was as soon as he learned the boy’s name.

The cliffhanger is that the Doctor returns, directly from Skaro, where he’s seen Clara evaporated, mad with grief, toting a Dalek exterminatory arm and ready to save Clara’s life by exterminating Davros to little pieces.

Cheap, inane, moronic. I shall submit myself to watching next week’s second part, then wash my hands of things until Moffat walks. Please, please, please let this colossal abdication of writing standards not have crept into Sherlock as well.

Dr Who: Ok, then, maybe…


With the new series of Doctor Who coming up on Saturday, I have been busy avoiding any trailers or spolilers, though not for the usual reason of wishing to watch the actual broadcast without knowing what to expect: you know, as a drama.

No, this time I’ve been ignoring the programme because of Clara Oswald.

However much of a minority I may have been in, I rapidly grew to hate the Doctor’s current companion the longer series eight went on. Stupid, self-willed, convinced of her own righteousness, cheating and lying and avoiding responsibility for her actions, she was not what I wanted to see in the programme. When you spend roughly a third of each episode screaming at one character’s bone-headedness, one of two things has to give: her or you.

And when the exceedingly risible end to the Xmas Special made it plain that Clara wasn’t going, I decided I had to.

Until just this afternoon, when it was announced that Jenna Coleman was leaving, and before this year’s Xmas Special, because she’s going off to play Queen Victoria.

That doesn’t mean to say that things will be any better this forthcoming season, nor that her eventual replacement will prove to have a brain between her no doubt pretty ears, but I can at least try the series again, knowing that instead of screaming at the screen, I can keep repeating, “this too shall pass, this too shall pass, this too shall pass…”

Doctor Who : The Last Christmas – Uncollected Thoughts


I’m not showing a picture of the Doctor or his Companion

Oh dear. And it was all going so well, right up to the last moment, when…

Actually, strike that. It wasn’t going at all well. This year’s Doctor Who Xmas Day special was, and let’s be honest about it, a mish-mash of styles, trying to marry up industrial strength whimsy in the form of Nick ‘Santa Claus’ Frost, complete with two self-aware elfs and a battery-powered Rudolph, and Xmas horror in the form of Dream Crabs who weren’t even pretending not to be a direct rip-off of Alien. It can be done and if anyone could do it, you’d have bet on Moffat.

But not this year’s Moffat. Not after the disaster of a one-year-too-many series which has gone overly loud on the emotional moment basso profundo pedal time and time again, and wasted the opportunity that always exists with a new Doctor.

That Moffat had lost that fine touch was obvious from the opening scene of Santa knocking down a chimney stack, the elves bickering, the reindeer running riot and Clara standing there in the snow earing nothing but pyjamas and dressing gown (which she was to wear for the whole episode), open-mouthed. In the snow, falling like a cartoon. And not feeling the cold in the slightest.

After that, the second-hand horror hardly had a chance, and that was before we got to the Polar expedition scientist Shona. Shona – twenty-something, with a pronounced Lancashire accent and heavily into Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ which was only thirteen years older than she was – was played by Faye Marsay, and played to perfection. If this were a previously undiscovered episode of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV from 1986 or thereabouts.

The Earth’s under attack by these Dream Crabs, who cause people to live in their dreams until they die. That meant that, whenever somebody woke up, they were still asleep and dying, until the Doctor finally got everyone to realise they were dreaming and wake up, by flying away on Santa’s sled. Except for the one who spent more time guzzling on a turkey leg than anyone outside a dream state physically could: he died, but that was all right because nobody gave a damn about him, or the fact that a living Dream Crab remained behind, temporarily sated and looking for another victim. Missed that, didn’t you, Moffat?

Clara’s dream as, of course, Xmas Day with Danny. She’d already drawn the Doctor’s attention to the fact that Danny hadn’t survived, the lie on which the series ended with she and the Doctor separated, and this Xmas idyll – he’d got her all the right presents – allowed Clara for the only time ever to be what she wanted to be: relaxed, in love and content.

And Moffat struck gold in this scene: Dream-Danny was so beautifully dreamed by Clara, so exact, that the moment he heard that he was a dream and a dream that was killing Clara, he ordered her out, sacrificing himself again to ensure that she would live.

It was a beautiful highlight, which made the ending turn out so appalling. Everybody’s waking up to grossly disintegrated Dream Crabs (except for the poor, dead sod that Moffat forgot after he’d served his purpose as cannon-fodder). Except for Clara, who wants a few more minutes… So theDoctor has to turn up in her real-life bedroom, to pry the rubber mask off her face and reveal… that Clara fell into her dream sixty-two years after she last saw the Doctor.

She has no regrets. Well, not many. She travelled all over. She taught in every country in Europe. She lived a full life. There were no more men for her after Danny: well, there was one who matched up to him but, well, you know… (break out the sick-buckets, please). Jenna Coleman’s time, which has been the subject of no litte debate, is clearly up.

Except, and I am typing this bit from within the sick-bucket itself, the Doctor suddenly wakes up with a faceful of disintegrating Dream Crab again, races off to Clara, sonics the Dream Crab off her face and fuck all that misleading shit, she’s still young, and lovely and, do you know what, despite everything that’s happened, perfectly willing to reject every atom of character, personality or believable response to the trauma she suffered over Danny, cos she can still go surfing the Universe of Time and Space.

It’s unbelievably glutinous and unforgivably false to anything resembling human emotion. My response, the moment the Doctor woke up a second time (in defiance of all story logic, such as it was, that had been established) was an out-loud, “Oh, fucking hell, no.”

And that’s me and Doctor Who  done. Call me when Moffat leaves, because until then I m just not interested any more. Marry Xmas.

Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Who series 8 finale – part 2


Nothing personal. Just go away. Now. Please.

Hmmm.

To repeat what I said last week, I have struggled with this series. Not with Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, but with Clara Oswald, companion and self-important entity, bowing out at the last with a declaration of how special she felt at having gone travelling with the Doctor, and a thank you for making her feel special. Here I was prepared to say that she got so far up my nose that you would have to reach through the next three incarnations to get her out, but to be truthful, by this point the once-glorious Impossible Girl had just become a black hole that sucked in any sympathy I could muster wherever she was in this story.

Which was a shame for parts of it were good, and one part was very good indeed when Moffat’s desire to touch the heartstrings worked perfectly.

The story itself was relatively simple: the Master had worked out how to bond Cybermen to the dead, an unbeatable combination, and had been zipping up and down the Doctor’s timeline applying her formula to his friends and those who had died for him. Interestingly, the whole point of this inescapable menace was to place the army that could control the Universe and all of Space and Time in the hands of the Doctor. It was both an appeal to the Dark Side that Moffat’s been teasing ever since Capaldi’s eyebrows came along, but mainly it was an attempt to get the Master’s childhood friends back, and to prove that the Master could not possibly be all that bad, because the Doctor is just like her.

To do good. For a moment we were in Bag End, in the Shire, as Frodo Baggins offers the Ring to Gandalf. All the wrongs you could right… but just as Gandalf found the strength of heart to refuse the Ring, the Doctor removed the One Bracelet that Controlled Them All, and instead flung it to Danny-the-unassimilated-Cyberman, who led the Cyberman army to destroy all the Master’s plans.

After that, it was all a matter of endings, and there were too bloody many of them, lined up like dominoes, some of them better than others. Clara insists that the Master be killed for what she’s done (though the part of me that isn’t prepared to be blinded by great goops of emotion at this point notes that Clara isn’t out for justice but revenge for her poor dead Danny, and that though Danny fought nobly back against proper Cybernising – with not even an inadequate explanation for how – it was Clara who got him killed: talk about Displacement Activity). However, in order that dear Clara shouldn’t be tainted by comitting murder, the Doctor does it himself disintegrating the Master (a truly scenery chewing performance by Michelle Gomez) into a puff of smoke.

No Regeneration there then. Until the next showrunner wants to bring the Master back, so lets hope that the next one has more of a taste for tedious but necessary explanations of how than Moffat has sadly proven to be.

Then there’s the suggestion that Danny can come back from the dead to Clara, except that he instead sends back the boy he killed when a soldier, which was in its way equally saccharine. This led into the goodbye scene between the Doctor and his Companion with both of them lying furiously to each other in a wholly unconvincing manner (except that Jenna Coleman’s booked to do the Xmas Special, for which Nick Frost is playing Father Xmas – I may plotz, which is not meant disrespectfully. Npt to Nick Frost).

The other two endings were good though. A long time ago, last November to be exact, Gallifrey was restored and the Doctor (Matt Smith) promised to find it, setting up an exciting plot strand full of potential, which has been completely ignored all series. Now the Master has found it, and it’s back where it’s always been. Just before being disintegrated, she whispered its co-ordinates to the Doctor, except that she lied and she’s dead and it wasn’t there. Maybe this will get some people off their arses and pursue that story.

But the one that sealed it for me, though it was in its own way just as full of synthetically created emotion as everything else, was Kate Stewart. The Brigadier’s daughter popped up to appoint the Doctor President of Earth and commander of the globe’s armies, a somewhat unnecessary foreshadowing of the Master’s plan, but she also popped out, sucked from a crashing plane and spiralling off to die.

Except that she’s found safe and alive in the graveyard, under the safe guard of a Cyberman who spared the Doctor the actual execution of the Master. One Cyberman, among those created from the Doctor’s associates, who saved the woman who grew up to step into his shoes. Though Nicholas Courtney cannot give us a bow, his shade can occupy a Cyberman’s uniform and stop time for a moment for those of us who go back that far.

So the series is over. I switched off quickly to avoid trailers for the Xmas Special. It surely can’t be as bad as this was, please.