Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Be Excited About the Casting of Doctor Strange

Casting announcements are the new trailers. I stated in my Avengers 2 article that really the trailer is the product to sell the film, but I think we've moved onto a deeper level of abstraction now where all people need is the whiff of an actor in order to be whipped into a frenzy. The most recent instance of that as of my writing this is the announcement that the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch is going to be playing the character of Doctor Stephen Strange in 2016's film of that name as part of the obnoxiously-titled "Phase Three" of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe." Now one wouldn't want to predict a superhero film crash and end up looking a fool like one of those people who thought that there'd never be a market for television or that the world was going to end because the Mayans ran out of space on their calendar, but I'm dubious about the notion that we're to expect ten films in this period, involving less well known characters like these. So why do you need to calm down about Cumberbatch?

1. You Probably Don't Know Who Doctor Strange Is
I mean, I don't. He's a wizard in Marvel comics. I've read a couple of Doctor Doom-related comics with him in, and a couple of old issues of Fantastic Four, but that's about it. He wears a funny cape. I don't know anything substantial about him. Do you? If you do, fair play to you, especially if you're a big Doctor Strange fan. It's probably cool to see a favourite character getting big screen recognition - although admittedly, if you're a big fan you really shouldn't need the character to get lots of mainstream public exposure because you should be content in your own enjoyment. Every conversation you ever have about the character after 2016 is going to be coloured by the film in any event.
On the other hand, if you know jack shit about Doctor Strange, it's probably not particularly necessary for you to be excited; curious, maybe, but not excited. Just because it's a superhero doesn't mean you need to start jumping up and down in your chair and tagging all your friends, who will inevitably have seen the news as well, in comments on Facebook posts about it. How would you know if you're going to like the concept, that the casting will suit the role, or indeed that the film will be any good at all? People are always saying "start with a positive outlook." Screw that. Start with a neutral outlook. Assuming something will be good is as bad as assuming it'll be bad.

2. Marvel Films Suck Now
I know, I know, the internet party line these days is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the dog's bollocks. But it wasn't. It was shite. It was repetitive and unfocused and its political commentary was pathetically superficial. Iron Man 3 was bland and Thor: The Dark World was mediocre. Admittedly I haven't seen Guardians of the Galaxy, but that's largely because I couldn't be arsed, and when everyone started going on about how it was one of the best films they'd ever seen, I was even more dubious. Let's face it, my tastes aren't particularly orthodox by the public standard, so I figure people like stuff for different reasons to me, and therefore that the stuff they like a lot is probably full of things I hate. That being said, the rot set in with Avengers, which is also a bland and badly-paced film where Iron Man and Captain America spend about ten hours sitting around frowning at each other in a flying conference room and then they have a giant Transformers battle at the end which is resolved in the same manner as the invasion of Naboo in Star Wars Episode I.
My point is, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were all decent superhero flicks. Iron Man 2 was balls, but it doesn't count. Everything afterwards has just been going through the motions as Marvel print money by drumming up hype and cranking out pieces of filler that people go to see for cross-references to other characters or teases about other Marvel elements about which they can pretend to have knowledge. With all this mediocrity in mind, there's no reason to expect anything good or bad about Doctor Strange.

3. It isn't coming out for two years
As of my writing this, "Doctor Strange" is just under two years away. What's there to get excited about? You won't be seeing it anytime soon. Calm down and stop embarrassing yourself. 

4. It's just Cumberbatch
Look, I don't want to rag on Cumberbatch. I think he's a decent enough actor, but he's always in such crap, like the majority of Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness. I know he's been in other films I haven't seen that aren't just trashy pieces of pop nonsense but I still can't shake this feeling that one day a bunch of people decided that he was the best thing ever and somehow that spread and then everyone who previously had no particular opinion on the subject suddenly thought he was the best thing ever too. I mean, where does it come from? When was it decided that he was such a big deal?
The thing is, Cumberbatch is a boring, safe casting choice on the part of Disney/Marvel because of this inexplicable "geek" cachet he has, despite his only real connection to "pop culture" being a single Reboot Star Trek film and a crime TV series that is written by two of the writers of New Who - note that Sherlock itself isn't actually a sci-fi/fantasy/horror/whatever show. It's a crime show with heavy-handed drama elements. I get that crime has always attracted its own fair share of Anoraks, but definitely in a somewhat different cultural space to those other things. So where's the connection? Somehow it exists, and Marvel knows it all too well.

I know I've been ragging on about this a lot lately, but once again: Marvel didn't cast Mr Cumberbatch because they care about all you Mr Cumberbatch fans. They did it because they want your money. And I hear you ask, "Hey Opinions Can Be Wrong, what's your beef with people making money? Are you some kind of communist or something?" Obviously not; without a market economy, how would I feed my own despicable consumerist hobby of collecting toy soldiers? But these businesses don't want you to make an informed, sensible choice, they want you to make an ideological choice and limit your capacity for independent decision making. Of course at the same time, it's also partially consumers' faults for being wilfully exploited and manipulated. You can at least recognise how calculated these kinds of moves are, however, and consider your own dignity and self-respect. They're just superhero films and actors in a profit-machine. Excitement is giving these things far more credit than they deserve.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Be Excited About Star Wars Episode VII

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge Star Wars fan. Don't get me wrong, I've seen all six films multiple times, albeit not in a few years. That being said, I don't care about it a great deal. I think Return of the Jedi is the best one, whatever that means, purely for the scenes between Luke and Darth Vader. I respect the 'Original Trilogy.' Technically, they're very impressive in terms of effects, they're well-designed, Darth Vader is a well-realised character and the twist at the end of The Empire Strikes Back is a classic film moment. I don't hate the Prequels. I was a little kid in 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out so I still have some affection for it. I thought Darth Maul was cool and never found Jar Jar sufficiently annoying to be worth worrying about. That being said, I do think the Prequels are nothing more than mediocre action films. I definitely don't like Revenge of the Sith, which I found narratively disappointing. The only decent bit is when Yoda fights the Emperor. Grievous was stupid. Anyway, my point is I'm neither here nor there when it comes to Star Wars. I get that people like them but at the same time I think they're limited.

Now that Disney owns Lucasfilm and has J.J. Abrams making a new Star Wars film a lot of people have been, I think, optimistic, because they're bringing back the original cast and because Abrams' Star Trek films show that he has a greater aptitude for space-opera action than he does for insightful sci-fi. But now the teaser is out and everyone's carrying on like it's the Second Coming. Beyond the fact that all we saw was some desert, some stormtroopers, some X-Wings and a new silly lightsaber design, all fairly calculated signifiers of what "Star Wars" is in the popular unconscious, it's ridiculous the amount of anticipation this has generated. I wish to interrogate this in the style of a hypothetical conversation with someone who is getting really hyped about this project.

WOW OMG STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS LIGHTSABER HNNNGH
Frankly, I thought it just looked like a collection of random postmodern signifiers of what people think Star Wars is: a silly hovering vehicle, the desert, a funny droid, stormtroopers, X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon. All that tells me is that the people making this are trying to cash in on people's nostalgia and expectations rather than trying to make a good film.

BUT MILLENNIUM FALCON ORIGINAL TRILOGY
So because you see a bunch of digital recreations of stuff from thirty years ago, that makes you excited? Why?

YOU'RE JUST A HATER YOU WANT JAR JAR TO BE THE LAST THING EVER
True, I'm no great Star Wars fan. But I'd be curious to know how big a Star Wars fan you are as well. And if you are such a big fan, why do you care about new films made by someone else? Sure, some of the actors are the same, and George Lucas had a little involvement, but do you get this excited about fan fiction? These are sequels, they're not the same thing. They could be crap for all you know - unless of course you convince yourself that they're not crap before you even see it, which is no different to, say, writing it off as garbage before you even see it (as I'm doing). The original films were successful for their engagement with theory (especially Campbell's Monomyth) and their technical achievements. By the Prequels, that wasn't possible anymore. Bringing back Hamill, Ford and Fisher isn't going to change that.

IT'LL BE ENTERTAINING YOU HATE ENTERTAINMENT HIPSTER
As I've discussed elsewhere surely 'entertainment' means different things to different people. Besides, as I said in my article on the Avengers 2 teaser, there's nothing noble or admirable about wanting 'just entertainment,' about not wanting to think. These corporations want you to not think so that you'll give them more money. Hollywood is about profit, and profit is about the bottom line: what's the least we can do to make the most? And if that means tricking people into seeing a 'continuation of the beloved original films' by using a bunch of meaningless signifiers (like the original cast) then that's what they'll do. You're not a hero for wanting to shut off your brain. That's a fatuous declaration that you want greedy businesses, who, and I must emphasise this, do not know or care about you at all, to manipulate you, exploit you and treat you with utter contempt in return for a few charlatan tricks to make you think you're consuming something you aren't.

Hollywood is the McDonald's of culture. Sure, the film might be good. I doubt it very, very much, but it might be. But as I said with Avengers, these films are pieces of product, and they don't deserve your enthusiasm. Or maybe I'm just a curmudgeon with a chip on his shoulder. But I still think you ought to calm down, show a little self-respect and not give these people exactly what they want.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"In the Forest of the Night"

With what desp'rate pleas or lies
Was this role put 'fore his eyes?
If you want a piece of speculative fiction that effectively references William Blake's The Tyger, read Watchmen, with particular reference to its fifth chapter, 'Fearful Symmetry.' But hey, New Who can do intertextuality as well, right? Its primogenitor, Doctor Who, did it all the time with regards to classical literature, the golden age of science-fiction and the infinite variety of the English canon. We even got to see some clumsy references to Eliot back in 2007's 'The Lazarus Experiment,' which despite being seven years and two Doctors ago as of my writing this hardly seems old because of how enthusiastically the show has been repeating itself, navel-gazing and treading water for the majority of the time since. So how does a New Who episode reference a pre-Romantic poem which ponders theodicy, the question of evil? Well apparently it doesn't. We begin with a red riding hood girl called Maebh (pronounced "Mave") hurtling through the woods looking for the Doctor. Appropriately enough, Capaldi's not having any of it, but she talks her way into the TARDIS anyway where she more or less reveals that she had some kind of vision or dream where Clara told her to find him. The Doctor drops some crap about being the last of his species which we know from 'The Day of the Doctor' isn't even true anymore, and then when he doubts that the TARDIS is actually in London it plays a satnav voice, which of course caused me to violently evacuate my contents with the hilarity of it all. Shut up, New Who. You suck.
To what goal did they aspire?
When did they editors fire?

We zoom out to discover that London is covered in forest, giving us an intriguing shot of the overgrown metropolis, but if you're expecting a properly post-apocalyptic 'Life After People' type scenario you're going to be disappointed. The Day of the Triffids did apocalyptic London. Why not Who? Well, maybe too many literary references would make their heads explode. Meanwhile, who knows why, Danny and Clara are supervising a very small class of school children at the "Zoological Museum," a place in London that doesn't really exist. Danny's a maths teacher and Clara's an English teacher. Why are they supervising what is surely a science excursion? What's more, why do they need two teachers for this tiny class? Well as we find out later these kids are supposedly what I believe tends to be euphemistically termed the "special class" in education systems throughout the world, although beyond Maebh I'm not sure how "special needs" any of them really are, unless at Coal Hill in 2014 "special" means "a bit annoying." Well, Bradley's first scene is annoying, and Ruby is pretty annoying, but I thought Samson was okay, mainly because he takes the piss out of Mr. Pink. As they're leaving Ruby points out a rather thick tree ring in some fairly clunky exposition. Okay, I'm sure you could justify it, but why would a tree cutting be a front-centre display at a "zoological museum," which one assumes ostensibly deals largely with animals, rather than plants?
And what meaning, and what art
Could hope to thrive in this show's heart?
There's some time wasting as an old caretaker struggles to open a door, with Danny going "No, no, no, no it moved!" in a very stagey way. Then we inexplicably cut to news reports about how the trees are appearing not just in London but all over the world. Who's watching this? Clara and Danny aren't. The Doctor isn't. Maybe Maebh's condition picks up satellite. Clara phones up the Doctor, who slags off Les Misérables. The novel? The musical? One of the many film adaptations? In any event it's of course always encouraging to see the Doctor, a man who notionally uses his brain to solve problems, anti-intellectually slagging off art. Knowing New Who's imperialist nostalgia it's probably because it's French. He does get a decent line here: "I'm a Time Lord, not a child minder," which I'm going to assume is a Star Trek reference. Clara pretends to Danny that she called the school but he swiftly susses that it was the Doctor. I know we're meant to see how irresponsible and self-centred Clara is over the course of this series so I guess this is a good thing in terms of characterisation? It kind of makes you wonder why on Earth we're meant to sympathise with her though. We also find out Maebh's on medication. Danny takes the kids on a wilderness ramble to try to get them home. Unlike Clara he doesn't give a shit about where the trees are coming from because a Taliban soldier shot his imagination during the war and they had to amputate it. The government announces their intention to use "carefully controlled fires" to clear the trees. I don't want to defend the British government in any way - I don't know a terribly large amount about them, but one assumes that like all major political parties of all Western democracies they're lazy, narrow-minded, self-righteous crony capitalist plutocrats who are only better than authoritarian states according to the lesser of two evils principle and who care more about tribalistic "us-and-them-ism" than actually governing, with a blistering contempt and disregard for the very people who elect them - but one assumes that even they would understand that cutting trees down with bulldozers or chainsaws is going to be an infinitely more efficient solution than waiting for them to burn down. So unless this was an active attempt to mock the government's incompetence, it seems like it wasn't terribly well thought through at the writing stage. They also recommend stocking up on fresh water. Are they worried the trees are going to crack the pipes or something? Maybe Frank Cottrell Boyce read Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide and assumed that it applied to all apocalyptic scenarios. There's probably a deleted scene where they recommend destroying any staircases so that the trees can't follow you to high ground.
And when that heart began to beat,
What dread jokes! And what plot cheat!
Enough of my complaining. We get some indications that Maebh is psychic, and then cut to her mother freaking out about her absence. We also discover a few snippets about the student supporting cast with, needless to say, side-splitting cutaways to them being daft and poorly behaved at school which is pure sitcom, like something out of Family Guy. We learn that the trees grew overnight given that they have no rings, and the Doctor, joining the others, considers that it must be a natural event like an ice age, the Earth's history involving a "series of catastrophes." This one, however, seemingly involves messing with time, a fact the Doctor reveals after Clara muses on the way that "he pretends he's not interested," in this episode's serving of self-congratulatory self-referential pseudo-postmodern shite. Why don't they just have a bit where Moffat walks in, breaks the fourth wall and says straight to camera, "This is brilliant television and if you don't think so you must be a shithead," gives you the finger and then walks off again? Capaldi gets another amusing line, however, about an "arboreal coincidence," evocative of the "boyfriend error" of a few episodes previous. In the TARDIS, Danny finds Maebh's homework book, which is full of those stereotypical child's drawings that children never actually do, here depicting the sun and trees. Isn't she meant to be in year eight? Why does she draw like she's five years old? Anyway Capaldi starts running around like a fruit loop trying to figure out which one of the kids is Maebh who, much like Mario in 1992, is missing. We find out that Maebh hears voices, and has been taking psychiatric medication since her sister disappeared. The Doctor deduces from her drawings that a solar flare is heading for Earth. Clara complains that the sonic screwdriver isn't a magic wand, which is presumably the writers listening to criticism and ridiculing it. As the Doctor and Clara go looking for the missing small child-type person, Nelson's column collapses for no particular reason, which might actually, now that I think about it, be a reference to Shelley's Ozymandias, or even Horace Smith's Ozymandias, written in contest with Shelley, which specifically contemplates London becoming one day like Ancient Egypt.
What the pacing? How explain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
For reasons I didn't feel were entirely clear Danny hustles the kids back out of the TARDIS again, with smoke everywhere. Why did the collapsing column affect the TARDIS? Maebh's mother starts cycling through the forest yelling randomly for her. London's a pretty big place. What does she expect to happen? Unless somehow their suburban terrace is on a prime piece of real estate only a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, I can't help but feel that she might be being a bit optimistic. The Doctor and Clara find Maebh's phone, following a breadcrumb of clues, but instead of following it they veer off in an arbitrary direction. The Doctor claims that "the forest is mankind's nightmare." Is it, though? Or is that, actually, Mr. Cottrell Boyce, faux-poetic bullshit that doesn't really mean anything and is just meant to sound impressive? What about human societies that didn't develop in forested areas? Clearly New Who being Eurocentric. That's intended as sarcasm on my part, but it's actually worth thinking about in terms of New Who's tunnel-vision. I really can't help but feel that this would work more successfully as some kind of fairytale if the forest was better realised, rather than mostly looking like Peter Capaldi stumping around in a copse. The lighting doesn't help. It's just too bright and airy. I just looked up the place where the location shooting was done, the satisfyingly Welsh-sounding "Fforest Fawr Woods," and there are way more interesting looking bits than these, although I suppose they're meant to convey still being in the middle of London. Not sure where all the buildings went. The Doctor and Clara somehow find Maebh's stuff despite the fact that she's not moving in a straight line or leaving the clues in a straight line either, and they encounter some hazmat guys trying to burn the forest. This doesn't work, of course, their very "controlled" looking flamethrower failing to ignite the wood. Capaldi argues that "the whole natural order's turning against this planet." Is it? How? Against human infrastructure, maybe. He also tells off Clara for worrying about her relationship. The Doctor reveals that Maebh predicted the future in her homework book and Clara tells him that the "gifted and talented group" are actually the special kids. I think we would have been better off with Form K from Bad Education. Then some wolves start howling because the zoo's been broken open. Maebh gets menaced by the wolves but escapes through an unexpected gate, and the Doctor tells them to look big. From what I've read this would probably achieve jack shit. The wolves piss off nonetheless and he gets another good line: "Told you there were rubbish." Then the poetic references come to a head when what scared the wolves is revealed: a big stripy cereal-loving cat otherwise known as a tiger shows up looking surly, but Danny flickers a torch in its eyes and it too says "Blow this noise," and trots off, having no further relevance to the episode, not unlike the late war German heavy tank which took its name.
What the plotting? What sad cast
Dare its deadly script read past? 
The Doctor insists that they not give Maebh her medication - make of that what you will - Danny cracks out some "funny racism" when he claims that she's been "abducted by a Scotsman," and then she runs off with everyone else in pursit. "You won't find your sister out there!" Shut up Ruby. They come upon a poky-looking ring of saplings and the forest starts communicating with Maebh, although the Doctor reassures her that she wasn't responsible for it. Bradley has to shoosh at one point in this as well. The problem with the kids isn't so much that they themselves are bad as that the writing and editing is clunky and lacks timing. Somehow the Doctor "turns up" the gravity or whatever with the sonic screwdriver, and this in turn somehow causes some firefly-looking things to appear which represent the consciousness of nature or something to that effect, which claims that it's answering a call from the sun. Clara wonders why the trees want to kill them. What gave her that impression? Isn't the solar flare the thing that's going to kill them? The Doctor's toothless response is "you've been chopping them down for furniture for centuries." Were they scared of upsetting climate change deniers or something? He believes that Earth's future is going to be erased. They go back to the TARDIS, Clara tricking the Doctor into thinking that he's going to save them when actually she wants him to just save himself. She doesn't want to be the last of her species and thinks the kids will never be able to cope with the loss of everything. He declares, however, that "this is my world too," in a resolution of the issue from 'Kill the Moon.' I still don't fully understand why they assume everyone's going to die. The Doctor, however, realises that in fact the forest is filling the atmosphere with extra oxygen which will be burnt off by the solar flare. Uh... okay. Right. Well, no, it makes no sense whatsoever, but what do we expect from New Who, really? Capaldi has a few chances where he could have completely hammed it up here and he doesn't, which is all we can be grateful for these days. He compares the situation to the Tunguska event, which was a meteor strike and therefore almost totally irrelevant to the matter of oxygen and solar flares.
When these trees ate solar spears
And Moffat drank the fanboy tears
There's a minor panic when they realise that the government is planning to start defoliating. Surely, given that they know the solar flare is very soon to hit, it's unlikely that they'll be able to do enough to make a difference? Nonetheless Murray Gold's comedy music starts playing as the kids write and recite a lovely message to the world about courage and trust. The Doctor offers a trip to check out the flare in all its glory, but the kids don't give a shit about going to space and just want their parents. Danny doesn't care either, outright stating "I don't want to see more things," and arguing that "one person is more amazing than universes." So are we, as Doctor Who viewers, meant to agree with that sentiment? It's a typical false dichotomy where notionally you can't both experience new things and simultaneously appreciate them with depth. Lao Tzu said that the farther one travels, the less one knows. Then again, Sarah Jane said that travel broadened the mind. Anyway, let's not give Danny any further unnecessary airtime and join the Doctor and Clara in space where a big fire gushes harmlessly all over the Earth. Missy is watching this too for no particular reason. Back at Clara's apartment our dashing protagonists observe the trees vanishing in clouds of typical New Who all-purpose golden fairy dust, the hallmark of quality plotting. The Doctor argues that humanity's super power, among the many we've heard about this series, is forgetfulness, and that they'll put the event into "fairy stories." Spare me. He also cracks out the inexplicable remark "if you remembered how things felt you'd have stopped having wars and stopped having babies." Not even going to touch that one. Maebh and her mother go home and, clumsily, we end on a shot of a random extra playing Maebh's missing sister who appears out of a bush. Not only is the shot of this young woman whom we've never seen before totally devoid of meaning or profundity, but the music and Maebh's mother's reaction makes this one of the most embarrassing and cringeworthy moments in all of Series 8.
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who wrote 'Blink' showrun thee?
I'm afraid to say that at least in my books "In the Forest of the Night" is probably going to go down as one of the weaker episodes of Series 8. It's lacking in structure, poorly paced for the first half and simply insubstantial. On the other hand it has some nice moments for the Doctor, some decent imagery and it's a good indicator of the fact that the show doesn't need an identifiable monster, or even the idea of one, as in 'Listen,' to at least be in some respect functional, but 'functional' is probably the highest compliment I can give it. The kids are a bit pointless but nothing worth worrying about, and the dilemma doesn't seem to be terribly well thought through, but if you like your New Who with loads of arseing about then this is the episode for you. It may seem a bit rich for me, Old Who devotee that I am, to criticise arseing about, but at least Old Who's arseing about generally involved some kind of plot. This just has lots of meandering back and forth. As an experiment it's okay, but I think if you're going to do this kind of thing it needs to have a good deal more atmosphere, which ironically this episode rather lacks, the brightly-lit forest and humdrum supporting cast making the whole thing feel like nothing more than a traipse in the woods. Maybe this is what they were going for, and maybe some people like it, but for me this didn't even function as a "fairy tale" because it was all too vague. Being the second in a hat-trick of three present day Earth stories doesn't endear it a great deal either. I took a break for about a week or more in between watching halves of this episode and I found that very telling. It's not offensive particularly in dramatic terms, although you can take your pick when it comes to matters like mental illness, but it's not exactly compelling either. Maybe you could torture parallels to Blake's poem out of it, but in my view this is less "problem of evil" and more "problem of budget."

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Flatline"

"It's caught in the latch!"
We open with a scared beardy fellow gabbling on the phone to the police about certain disappearances which have been taking place, but of course he's mostly speaking in pure TV-boilerplate "cryptic" bullshit: "They are everywhere, we've been so blind." I wonder if people really have a propensity for speaking in cliché when they're in fear of their lives. Anyway, he gets merged with the wall like that painting 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger with the skull-feather visual illusion, although since this is New Who it's less Flemish portraiture and more 'Magic Eye Book.' In the TARDIS we get some deeply weird characterisation from Clara where she contrasts her lie about Danny being "territorial" to how "you think he'd object to me travelling." Not a great showing from Clara, that she's willing to pretend that she conforms to her boyfriends' made-up jealousy. Fortunately, much like my good self, the Doctor doesn't give a toss, instead setting the plot in motion. They've landed a bit off course, which Clara complains about. Back in my day, companions expected the Doctor to land in the wrong place. The front door's small and so's the TARDIS. Instead of being interested, Clara continues to whinge about the detour. "This is annoying," Capaldi remarks, pointing the finger at her. He's channelling me at the moment. Clara goes to look around, seeing a bunch of guys cleaning up graffiti, including 'Rigsy,' who is doing so as part of his community service. They're led by some crusty fellow whose name the wiki tells me is 'Fenton,' - I didn't really pick up on that in the episode - who looks like he's a pack-a-day and undead. Back in the TARDIS Capaldi makes the console wobble in what is clearly an intentional tribute to the good old days. Just thought I'd mention it. Clara checks out a shrine and a tunnel with pictures of people on the wall. One of the council guys calls out to her and Rigsy runs up to apologise. She says she's "heard worse." There's a bit of a conflicted message about men approaching random women in the street here. Rigsy is obviously helpful, but evidently Clara's been bothered by men before. It turns out people are going missing all over the estate. If this was RTD Who we'd have had fifteen mentions of chips and reality TV by now.
"Think about it, three times the slapping!"
Back where they materialised, the TARDIS is now tiny, Clara laughing at "you and your big old face," which is a funny line. Something is "leeching the external dimensions" of the TARDIS, whatever that means. Clara sticks the ship in her bag - luckily she's carrying one of those big ones - and the Doctor remarks that the true weight of the TARDIS would fracture the earth. He then sticks his hand out of the door in a way which Clara lamely jokes is "just wrong." Why? I mean, what is she imagining it looks like? A hand coming out of something? What does that convey? Well, anyway, he hands over his New Who Travel Essentials Kit, the psychic paper and the sonic screwdriver, and we get some dodgy effects work which makes Capaldi's face look flat. Back at the buildings, Clara tells Rigsy that she's the Doctor, which is kind of funny, but then goes into typical pomo ball soup mode when she starts making self-referential remarks about how vague the Doctor is about the title and so forth. Rigsy sneaks her off to an apartment of a missing person, remarking that the police don't care about the disappearances. After a bit of stuffing around she starts scaring him off by saying the absentees might have been shrunk to tiny size before showing him the Doctor inside the TARDIS to prove she means business. There's a weird noise and we discover that something has "drained a massive amount of energy from inside the TARDIS." Of course it has.
You could have a big dipper.
The Doctor's confused because "dimensions are kind of our thing," referring to the Time Lords. Yeah, but Time moreso, right? They're not Dimension Lords. A police officer at an apartment outside the estate talks about the absent 'Mr Heath,' Clara gets a Mary Poppins moment when she pulls an entire sledgehammer out of her bag via the TARDIS, she walks up uneasily behind the police officer as if she's going to bash her skull in, and then she and Rigsy start tearing down the walls on the Doctor's advice. Speaking of walls, stuff starts running down them more quickly than any positive expression lingering on my face runs off when an episode of New Who starts, and the police officer gets merged with the floor. We already know this is going on due to the teaser; there's no mystery. There's a real 'Fear Her' vibe about all this, but slightly less shite. The Doctor figures that whoever's doing this must be from another universe and are trying to understand humans. They can flatten three-dimensional objects, thus removing the door handle and Clara and Rigsy's means of escape. Does this really make sense? Even if they're two-dimensional entities, why do they slide along defined flat surfaces? Isn't that still, really, operating in three-dimensions. Ah, who cares.
"What is on the positive y axis, my female dog?"
So Clara gets a call from Danny which the internet informs me was amusingly mis-captioned by BBC America. He says "Got our bench," but it kind of sounds a bit like he says "What up bitch?" which is what appeared on their captions. Clara and Rigsy climb onto a convenient swing chair and Danny remarks that whatever they're doing "sounds kind of active." Really? A sex joke now? Seriously though, why does Danny even need to be in this? There's a dodgy cutaway as they somehow manage to get the entire chair to fly out the window, and then Capaldi announces the existence of two-dimensional aliens: "Yes, that is a thing." Stop saying 'thing' all the time, Series 8 characters! You're not funny! The Doctor also susses out that Clara's lying about Danny, but this never really goes anywhere. Meanwhile that crusty council guy Fenton is getting his crew to paint over the murals, which Clara and the Doctor realise are actually the missing people physically merged into the walls. What a surprise. The psychic paper doesn't work on Fenton because he has "quite a lack of imagination," but fortunately, much like the guard being killed by the Mummy in front of everyone in the previous episode, community service Stan gets sucked into the wall in front of everyone. The Doctor reveals that they're "wearing the dead like camouflage." Are they? To what purpose? Everyone screams and runs off waving their hands in the air as all the murals trickle down and slide along the floor.
Aim for the head.
In a convenient nearby disused train shed, Clara has to become the leader, leaning in to menacingly tell Fenton "I'm the one chance you've got of staying alive." Somehow she's not knocked cold by the overpowering smell of stale cigarette smoke that I am arbitrarily imagining him possessing. The Doctor gets to be all dark as usual, convincing Clara to give them possibly false hope, and reveals that the TARDIS can't translate the aliens' language so they need a more primitive form of communication. He talks about a lot of bizarre alien races that sound like they're stripped straight from drafts for Moffat's 'Curse of Fatal Death,' and then sends 'pi' to them in some fashion, to which they respond with the number '55' and then '22.' These, Rigsy deduces, correspond to the numbers on their uniforms. Hang on, so these things have only just figured out sort of how to exist in a three-dimensional universe, but they know how to read Hindu-Arabic numerals? So number 22, George, gets merged with the wall optical-illusion style, and everyone runs flailing into some tunnel below the train depot, where there are more flattened door handles preventing their escape. The Doctor builds some gizmo to reverse this, but it doesn't work. He talks about how the aliens are "leeching the TARDIS" again on a different frequency, whatever that means. Fenton complains that everything they're saying "sounds important but means absolutely nothing." It's basically a one-sentence review of almost every episode of New Who ever. Suddenly one of our remaining stiffs is grabbed by a gigantic hand that reaches down from far behind them, which is probably one of the only genuinely unsettling moments in the entire episode. The aliens then proceed to reveal themselves as lurching, flickering facsimiles of the flattened people, which is far less exciting. Maybe they should have manifested as random body parts and stuff. The Doctor thinks he knows a way to send them back but the TARDIS doesn't have enough "dimensional energy," because dimensions have "energy," much like time, life and everything else in New Who. He also says something about if they "pump it out as fast as they can steal it." It's actually an important piece of foreshadowing for the resolution, but the delivery here is totally unclear. It seems he says "Apparently these things can" pump etc but without looking up the captions just now I couldn't tell despite replaying the scene multiple times.
He watches you from your TARDIS toy while you sleep
and while you engage in acts of carnal pleasure.
Fenton knocks the TARDIS down into a pit for some reason and I think this somehow damages it. Now it's on the train lines and a train is coming. Clara tells him to "move the TARDIS like Addams family." As if Clara would reference the Addams family. Somehow the Doctor's able to simply turn his hand to flip the TARDIS up even though he himself is inside it - it would have made more sense if he'd been contracting the external surface of the floor in some way - and walks it off the tracks with his fingers. He spontaneously gets a haircut as we cut back to the interior of the ship, an obvious continuity error, and starts dancing and scat singing, something I don't think we've seen the Doctor do before. But somehow despite being well out of danger the TARDIS is now closer to the tracks than it was in a shot five seconds ago and falls back down on them with the train about to hit. The Doctor pulls some big lever just before collision, which we assume does something. Meanwhile another train's bearing down on Clara and co, but they stop it and ask the driver if they can use it to ram the aliens. "I've always wanted to ram something," the driver remarks, which is nice subtle minor-characterisation, and Rigsy bizarrely attempts to sacrifice his life but Clara uses a headband instead to hold the lever down. The aliens of course just merge the train with the wall before it can harm them. Why did they think ramming would work, anyway?
LOL ZELDA REFERENCE
So the Doctor starts rambling about the TARDIS being in "siege mode," whatever that means, and how there's "not enough power left now to turn it off." To turn off the TARDIS, or to turn off "siege mode"? It now resembles a small silver cube. Apparently it's right there by the train and Clara notices it, carrying it off. In a nearby room Clara concocts a plan for Rigsy to draw up a fake door on a poster so that the aliens feed the "dimensional energy" back into the TARDIS. Why does the energy go through the poster, rather than simply into it? Capaldi waxes lyrical about Clara making "a mighty fine Doctor," and Clara remarks that "rule number one of being the Doctor" is to "use your enemy's power against them." I don't know if that's universally true, but it's better than "the Doctor lies." So the TARDIS gets powered back up and blasts the aliens with some big green energy wave. Then we get a questionable scene of the Doctor rationalising his plan to, probably fatally, send them back to their own universe: "You are monsters, that is the role you seem determined to play." Yeah, they have killed a lot of people, but at the same time it sounds almost xenophobic, especially when he bursts out giving a horrible 'New Who' Doctor-speech, declaring "you are not welcome here, this plane is protected." Then he declares over-dramatically "I name you the Boneless!" Seriously? This is the worst part of the episode. We have no idea how he's sent them back, and time is wasted with one of these stock, cringe inducing self-aggrandizing New Who speeches they like to have the Doctor crack out once or twice a series. It's dreadful.
"I don't give a shit if I 'have the right' or not!"
Outside, everyone pisses off, the Johnny-come-lately train driver still earning himself a big hug from Clara and Fenton's survival seeming awfully reminiscent of that guy 'Rickston Slade' from 'Voyage of the Damned,' the Doctor remarking that "maybe the wrong people survived." No one bothers to question it this time because Clara's too caught up in self-love at her competence at being the Doctor, after Rigsy gives her an eyebrow-raisingly lingering hug. Then we get a bunch of characterisation crap shoehorned in at the end about how the Doctor makes decisions "largely so other people don't have to," and that "goodness had nothing to do with it," hammering away at this "good man" shite as usual. Then we see Michelle Gomez aka Missy being herself for a few seconds. Fin. 'Flatline,' despite also being written by Jamie Mathieson, writer of 'Mummy on the Orient Express,' is not exactly very riveting material, in my view. In fact on the rewatch for this review I found it terrifically boring. The thing is, most of this series has just been a collection of mash-ups of previous New Who episodes. This one is 'Fear Her' (stuff living in the walls) crossed with 'The Girl Who Waited' (The Doctor can't leave the TARDIS). The aliens (I'm not calling them 'The Boneless' because that's dreck) are kind of interesting, but the fact that they're just kill-'em-all monsters as usual limits their appeal, especially when they turn into zombies that never seem to actually do anything. If there was more like the giant hand coming out of the roof, that would have been better. The supporting cast aren't memorable. Jenna Coleman does a decent job of carrying things on her own but I find her a bit tiresome. It's a bit weird comparing her now, where she's basically just Amy with a little Tegan thrown in, to last year where she simply had no characterisation at all. The resolution is more or less unexplained, and replaced with that abominable speech that Peter Capaldi is forced to deliver. To be honest this feels like New Who on autopilot to me, a dirt-cheap-looking location-shoot runaround with no real plot and antagonists with zero motivation. It's not one I can see myself viewing again, for fear that the episode's title would be an accurate description for what my heart monitor would display by about ten minutes in.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Mummy on the Orient Express"

"There's no more bog roll."
Right. Let's do this. We begin with Capaldi's voice, even though he isn't there, while over the course of 66 surprisingly long seconds Mrs Bale from As Time Goes By gets menaced by a mummy that no one else can see. The word 'thing' rears its loathsome head here again when she refers to it as a 'mummy monster thing' because in Moffat land everyone shares identical verbal tics. The mummy places its hands on her head and she carks it, her distressed relative claiming rather clinically that "she just stopped." Outside we get our 'holy shit' special effects budget down the toilet moment when we discover that we're on a train going through space. After the titles, we find the Doctor and Clara arriving on the train taking a final trip together following Clara's explosion in 'Kill the Moon.' In the carriage we have some pop singer I'd never heard of prior to the show's promotional campaign on Facebook singing a swing version of classic overplayed Queen track 'Don't Stop Me Know,' although as an Old Who purist I was of course appalled to hear the phrase 'sex machine' being uttered in Doctor Who, when it should of course only ever be used in a scientific sense, or perhaps when a Victorian gentleman refers to 'the fair sex.' We've got the mummy, we've got the Orient Express, we've got the Doctor: now we need the last bit of the episode that isn't established in the title, which is to say our obligatory boring "emotional" crap, "emotional" in massive scare quotes where "emotional" means melodrama and tired dialogue clichés. The Doctor acts as if he's all confused about Clara having a sad smile, which gets to completely overplay this ludicrous 'the Twelfth Doctor doesn't get emotions' garbage.
Don't get too excited, she doesn't actually leave.
While I thought Capaldi should have started necking the complimentary champagne like a seasoned campaigner, he and Clara instead settle down to some idle sips while the posh train voice provided by an unrecognisable (to me, at least) John Sessions points out a fancy black hole, about which the Doctor reminisces while Clara waffles about how she doesn't hate the Doctor despite not wanting to travel with him anymore. The Doctor tries to steer the conversation away towards interesting things in space - Clara is on an interbellum-themed space train but can't stop gasbagging about her feelings - but he's rudely interrupted by Miss Pitt whose elderly relative kicked the bucket in the opening. As she's ushered away to her padded cell we're introduced to train captain Quell, who asks what he's a Doctor of. An opportunity to respond with "practically everything" is missed and then despite having just arrived the Doctor and Clara decide to take to their respective beds. The Doctor busts out this episode's obligatory ageist comment, stating that old ladies dying is "practically their job description" and asks if Clara wants the death to be a "thing," of course. It's dreadful. Clara claims that she'll see the Doctor again, which he queries. Ugh, we're back on this again?
"Can you stop wiggling your middle finger against my palm?"
In their rooms - how do they have rooms on the train if they just showed up? we find out later they're not on the guest list - Clara and Danny bore each other to death on the phone while Peter Capaldi seemingly impersonates Tom Baker, presumably due to both Doctors' experience with mummies. He pisses off to investigate without his silk-pyjama-clad companion and runs into Perkins the chief engineer, played by comedian Frank Skinner. He's not much of an actor but he gets the job done in this one, and in playing a dry, sarcastic character he has a good rapport with Capaldi himself. Meanwhile Clara follows crazy Maisie, Miss Pitt, who smashes a locked door panel with a high heeled shoe. Back in the carriage everyone's still up, which makes it look even more odd than Clara and the Doctor retired, and the Doctor accosts a 'Professor Moorhouse' about a legendary alien mummy called The Foretold which takes sixty-six seconds to kill its victims. He also gives him a jelly baby as this episode's next piece of feeble lip service to real Doctor Who. Meanwhile said mummy kills a chef in the kitchen, proving that there's no escape and that he doesn't discriminate based on class. In the locked room crazy Maisie reveals that Mrs Bale was her grandmother and that she feels guilty because she used to picture her dying. But was she picturing her dying because she disliked her, or to soften the blow for when it actually happened? It's not clear. Clara makes it about her of course, before noticing a big sarcophagus in the room.
"How dare you impugn my moustache sir."
Elsewhere, it's time for a joke so the much-loathed psychic paper informs Captain Quell that the Doctor is a 'mystery shopper.' In his office he offers the Doctor a snifter of the neat stuff but, despite what happened in 'Deep Breath,' he turns him down. The Doctor gets fed up with him, however, and leaves when he refuses to take action. Fortunately trusty Perkins has been gathering info for a while and provides this to the Doctor. The two of them and Moorhouse discuss 'the Foretold' and its alleged invincibility but before we can go any further we cut back to Clara and crazy Maisie still waffling about Clara leaving the Doctor. Remember kids, men talk business while women sit around chatting about their feelings. Clara regurgitates the sentiment Danny Pink gave her, that "you can't end on a slammed door," which Maisie immediately contradicts. The award for nonsensical shoehorned Moffat-style bullshit line of the week, however, goes to Maisie's "life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people, the people you're supposed to like, but then I guess there'd be no fairy tales" What on earth is that supposed to mean? The premise has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the conclusion. It's contemptible pseudo-intellectual nonsense that sounds like it was precisely engineered to be quoted on tumblr.
"Good lord, we're on a train."
The windows become bright which I assume is meant to convey day on the train, the Doctor turns some communicator thing from the wall into a phone to call Clara, fails to get her out of the locked room, is caught by Quell and arrested. The sarcophagus opens on Clara and crazy Maisie but it's just full of, to quote Clara's intonation, "booble wrap." We get an old school moment when the Captain suggests that the Doctor's behind the killings, but changes his mind when one of the guards snuffs it in front of him. Why does he let the Doctor go as a result of that? It's not like the Doctor was there any of the other times, how does he know he's not a bit of an Eddie Mars - a killer by remote control? It's nice to see that everyone's changed out of evening dress for the 'morning' on the train. The Doctor susses that someone's gathered numerous experts to the train on purpose and Gus the computer reveals that everything's actually a lab, the other passengers and some of the crew being 'hard light holograms,' in another instance of this show owing a worrying large amount not to itself but to Red Dwarf, which despite being a sitcom is an infinitely better science fiction programme than New Who will ever be. Frank Skinner gets to deliver the line "the engines, they've stopped," in a way that shows off that he's not an actor, and Gus announces that "around the room you will find a variety of scientific equipment" although I believe going by the flasks and test tubes he forgot the words 'generic' and 'stereotypical' in there. The scientists are meant to figure out how to capture the Foretold mummy, which has been brought on board via an ancient scroll around which it typically manifests.
Let me play among the stars.
The mummy arrives to kill Moorhouse, who basically describes it as being a mummy to the Doctor before he panics and carks it. This establishes our new 'drama' of the Doctor spending people's lives in order to try to stop the mummy. He calls Clara for some info near the sarcophagus but Gus voids a bunch of the crew into space to try to keep him on task. Couldn't Gus recognise that he's actually getting information? They figure out that the Foretold picks off the weakest first: the old lady, the sick chef, the cyborg guard and the psychologically troubled Moorhouse. The part about psychological issues being an illness or weakness could be construed as a dicey claim, but my bigger issue is that it doesn't make sense. By the law of averages, the mummy is actually making its enemies collectively stronger by going for the weakest first. It should be picking off the strongest. Quell, being a sufferer of PTSD, is next, seeing the Mummy's hand pass through the Doctor's head. It struck me at this point that this episode would have been more effective if we, not being the mummy's victims, could also not see it. After Quell's death the Doctor begs the other scientists for assistance in figuring out how it works, but they're all extras and haven't been paid to speak, which borders on the utterly ridiculous as they stand there silently while being picked off one by one.
Don't get glue on your fingers.
Some scanner Perkins whips out from hammerspace reveals that Quell's body has no "energy" at a cellular level. They could have at least said something scientifically meaningful, like electrical charge. The Doctor and Perkins figure that the mummy moves its victims 'out of phase' which is why only they can see it. So how come everyone else can still see the victim? I guess they're in a half way house between normal phase and the mummy's phase, but it's not my job to explain this shit. The Doctor figures that crazy Maisie is next because of what happened to her grandmother, so he bluntly instructs Clara to lie to her to bring her along. Clara has no choice as the TARDIS is behind a force field, the Doctor revealing that Gus has tried to entice him there before. Clara starts complaining about the Doctor lying to her: now I see where we were going with all the 'egomaniac' stuff in 'Deep Breath.' The mummy appears to crazy Maisie but the Doctor somehow uses the scanner to suck all her negative energy or whatever out of her head and stick it in himself, which causes the mummy to come after him instead. "Are you my mummy," gets its obligatory appearance, but it's still lame. The Doctor notices a similar design to that on the scroll under the mummy's bandages, realises the scroll is a flag and that the mummy must be a soldier, and then stops it in its tracks by saying "We surrender." The mummy comes out of phase. Why is it accepting the Doctor's surrender? He tells it it's relieved, so it salutes him and then crumbles into dust. It looks kind of cool, but why is the mummy suddenly taking orders from and saluting the guy who just surrendered to it? It's also very similar to how they stopped that robot in 'The Caretaker.'
"I saved everyone and dropped them
off in the nearest inhabited Wales."
Gus tries to kill everyone on board because he's a dick, Frank Skinner immediately doing a turn with some horrendous 'choking' acting even though Gus only just started venting the air. The train blows up and Clara wakes up on a stony beach in Wales somewhere, which is to say an alien planet on which the Doctor has dropped off everyone from the train after teleporting them into the TARDIS. He tells Clara that it was his plan to steal all of Maisie's bad juju all along, but he "couldn't risk Gus finding out my plan." What would Gus have cared? What would it have mattered to him how he figured out how to stop the mummy? Maybe we're meant to figure that the Doctor's lying, although he gets to utter the trite remark "sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose." Pretty groundbreaking stuff. Perkins pisses off even though he probably could have worked as a companion back in the Eighties or something and Clara asks the Doctor if he "loovs" being "the man making the impossible choice." I think Moffat and Jamie Mathieson have been reading my forum posts. She asks "is it like an addiction?" For a moment I thought she was going to ask if it was like being god. Then Danny Pink calls her up and Clara decides to lie, blame Danny for her previous desire to leave, and in fact keep travelling. The Doctor swallows this hook, line, sinker, rod and copy of Angling Times, sir, and thus the episode ends.
They're coming to get you, Clara.
'Mummy on the Orient Express' should be an average episode of New Who. I should have watched it and thought "that was okay." Actually, although the review may not convey this, I thought it was the best episode of the series, and two episodes later I still do. I've mostly been negative here for a laugh, but I actually felt like this episode did one of the things that Doctor Who does best: a mystery in space. The Doctor's in good form, he solves the problem with the help of competent guest characters, of which Frank Skinner's Perkins, despite some questionable acting, is a particular highlight, it's reasonably atmospheric, the mummy looks pretty decent and it moves along at a decent clip. This is actually an episode of New Who that I would consider to be somewhat comparable to the real stuff. The fact that this was written by newcomer Jamie Mathieson shows how desperate this show is for some fresh blood in the writing department. Where it's let down, however, are with some typical New Who complaints. For a start, the rushed and convenient resolution is disappointing and doesn't make a terrific amount of sense. That's par for the course in New Who, but doesn't justify it. The lack of a real sub plot is as usual also a problem. The story could have easily been fleshed out to a greater degree and functioned as a two-parter. The episode's other biggest weakness, of course, is that it's still bogged down with boring, heavy-handed 'drama' which here is channelled almost exclusively through the companion in a way that borders on outright sexism. I don't care about how Clara feels about the Doctor or whatever. She's not a real person. Unless her conflict with him has something to say which isn't typical, routine mainstream-entertainment 'human interest' crap then I don't care. It's interesting to observe that many people considered this episode to be a real success by New Who's standards, while others have been more apathetic for the exact same reasons. Personally, however, I would not by any means object to more like this, or better and more developed. I think the people who are uninterested in this and prefer the 'drama' and the reverie-episodes which are basically just pure flights of fancy are after a very different Doctor Who than what I am. But bugger them, say I, and let's have more of this.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 'Age of Ultron' Teaser

Thrills, spills and adventure.
As we all know, in the age of modern cinema, the main job of the Hollywood film is to live up to the trailer with which it was sold to audiences. With that in mind, let's not bother waiting until next year to see 'The Avengers: Age of Ultron' and just review the teaser that Marvel released today after it was leaked. There are three dominant features to this teaser: Ultron doing what bad guys do, delivering monologues; people running around screaming and carrying on, including the majority of the Avengers; and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour fighting Hulk.
Beep boop.
Obviously the most intriguing element is going to be Ultron himself: his truncated line "not to protect the world, but you don't want it to change," cuts rather deeply to the heart of the entire superhero premise. Superheroes are a purely reactive force. They wait for things to go wrong, and then try to put them back to how they were before. If they capitalise upon this it could potentially be interesting. We also hear him quoting Disney's 'Pinocchio,' presumably in reference to him seeing himself as freed from the shackles not literally of his control by the Avengers but from society, convention, tradition, morality, cultural conditioning and so forth. It's an interesting idea and I hope that it goes to interesting places.
Upon discovering the fine print in his supposed six-film contract.
Back to the gym for another ten years.
Now let's talk about people running around screaming and carrying on. There's some kind of intense masochism in Hollywood action cinema these days, that morbid fascination where you don't want to watch but can't look away. Specifically, it's a masochism about 9-11 and terrorism in general, with action films becoming obsessed since the rise of CGI with huge swathes of destruction being cut through densely-constructed cities, buildings falling over, and helpless people fleeing for their lives. This already reached its logical conclusion in 2013's 'Man of Steel' where a city was reduced to a wasteland revealing the existential brittleness of modernity, so I fail to see what more mayhem of that nature will achieve here. This  teaser also includes footage of the Avengers looking dour, of course, because that's how we get our drama. This I feel like we see all the time in trailers now: lots of notionally 'intriguing' shots of the heroes looking all distressed.
Coming soon to a toy store near you.
Finally our last major element is Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour fighting Hulk. We see a weirdly large amount of this. Didn't we already see Thor fight Hulk in the last film? I suppose Captain America will fight him in Avengers 3 and then we can call it quits. This is the same stuff as the last item though really, devastation in an urban environment and heroes showing a reckless disregard for collateral damage. We get some other random stuff as well of course, like the token shots of Hawkeye and Black Widow, Andy Serkis for some reason and some dancers. "Nothing lasts forever" is Black Widow's pointless cliché. Nick Fury appears too, unfortunately. I'm sick of him. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver appear too but not in such a way as you'd notice. Pietro needs his pointy hair and bright blue jumpsuit.
"If you don't stop I'll take my shirt off again!"
The thing is, apart from Ultron I can't help but feel like this is just the same old song and dance. Our heroes are shown in a comfortable place, something goes wrong, they have a big punch up with the bad guy and it ends. So the real challenge, then, is for 'Age of Ultron' to not live up to its teaser, to do something different, to surprise me. Maybe the full trailer will be different. Do I trust Joss Whedon? Not even slightly. I'm not a great enthusiast of his work. He's competent, yes, but he's also going to be constrained by the edicts of his employers.
My face when trying to find information on when and
why they were retconned into being Magneto's children.
The biggest issue with these Marvel films, however, is the ridiculous hype and over-excitement that this stuff seems to generate. If you like these Marvel films that's fine. I like some of them, but I'm going to be an outlier when I say that I think 'Captain America: The First Avenger' was the best one and that 'The Winter Soldier' in my opinion just isn't what people say it is. All genres run stale, and I feel like superhero cinema, or at least the superhero cinema that began with 'Batman Begins' and 'Iron Man,' is exhausted. Obviously other people don't agree, but I don't understand why. I think a lot of you need to start thinking a little more critically about what you watch and realise that just because there's loads of 'cool' CGI action, stuff blowing up and actors making sarcastic, postmodern, self-aware and self-referential quips doesn't mean that what you're watching is good. You also need to realise that there's nothing commendable or noble about wanting 'just action' and nothing deeper. That's the attitude of a fatuous dullard who's intimidated by other media because they're too lazy or insecure to try them.
"Would you like a cup of tea, sir?"
I'm not trying to write off 'Age of Ultron' from the start and I think elements of it look vaguely interesting, but I think 'geek culture' or genre culture or whatever it is is really suffering from a condition where every new thing is the 'best thing ever' and it's a race to see who can express how much they love these films or TV shows or games or whatever with the most hyperbole. The thing is, these films are adequate, but they're not masterpieces, or inspired, or works of genius. They're workmanlike pieces of 'product' that follow corporate templates to maximise profit, and they're not deserving of great praise or enthusiasm. The advent of CGI certainly means that there's no craft to them anymore, because unlike the period from the late Seventies, through the Eighties to say the mid Nineties effects are not an accomplishment. They're an expectation. There's nothing we can be shown visually now that we couldn't imagine. You need to look for more in what you consume than the 'cool factor' of Hulkbuster Armour or Cap's shield getting broken, and figure out if there's something more beneath the surface, and if there is, then whether it's the same trite, simplistic message that mainstream cinema spews forth constantly (usually about humdrum themes such as trust and friendship) or if it's something radical and new (insofar as anything can be new). That's the job of 'Age of Ultron,' then: to not live up to the teaser where it seems to be a generic angsty action film, and to use whatever's going on with Ultron himself to show us something we wouldn't see otherwise.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"Robot"

"The pub you say?"
What do you do if you mix James Bond, King Kong, Isaac Asimov, filter it through the formula of a routine Third Doctor serial, take out the Jon Pertwee and put some Tom Baker in instead? In case you're unsure, the answer is 'Robot,' the inaugural Fourth Doctor serial of Doctor Who. The basic plot is this: in the wake of the Third Doctor's regeneration, the plans for a top-secret disintegrator gun have been stolen. This turns out to be the work of an organisation called the Scientific Reform Society, a technocratic-fascist organisation using the gun and a robot built by one of its members, Kettlewell, to steal launch codes held in Britain which control the entire world's nuclear arsenal. UNIT attacks the SRS bunker while they're threatening the world, they take out the people, the robot goes mental after killing its creator and is accidentally turned into a giant through the combination of the Brigadier turning the disintegrator gun on it and some iffy CSO work, and then Tom Baker throws a bucket of soapy water on it and it melts. As usual the Doctor gets knocked out, Sarah Jane gets captured a couple of times and the Brigadier frowns a lot at all the silliness going on around him despite doing a lot of fairly silly things himself.
A sudden prophetic vision of 'Battlefield.'
It's weird to think that in the run-up to New Who Series 8, they were bigging up the idea that the introduction of their Doctor would take cues from Tom Baker's first season as the Doctor, with this new man being a 'difficult' incarnation. Unsurprisingly they're talking out of their rear ends, as the Fourth Doctor's not especially difficult at all. He's more distant - one of his character traits in this serial is not always bothering to listen to people a good deal - and he's very chirpy, but beyond a little bit of tomfoolery with the Brigadier and one or two scenes where he's still recovering his memory and identity he's not especially difficult at all. It's interesting to observe that Tom Baker 'hits the ground running' as the cliché goes in this serial, establishing a pretty firm grasp on his character more or less immediately. His voice and expressions, as well as his costume, go a long way towards this of course. It must have been shocking at the time going from the smoothly-spoken, swashbuckling Third Doctor to this much more mercurial and yet enigmatic figure. In that regard despite how run-of-the-mill it is 'Robot' succeeds as an opportunity to establish the character of this new Doctor, obviously in a comfortable environment. The important thing is that characters aside, it's a comfortable plot and setting, which allows us to see the Fourth Doctor as someone who - and we can even see this from the blocking of scenes, for instance - is someone willing to stand back for a moment, survey the situation, and then proceed to show up everybody around him.
"Now do your best 'there's a big robot over there' look."
It's very odd, of course, seeing Tom Baker driving the Third Doctor's car Bessie, for instance, which was immediately abandoned after this serial. It's also curious to think that this serial, broadcast in late 1974 and early 1975, is using characters first established in the late Sixties, '68 for Lethbridge-Stewart and '69 for Benton. Characters connecting the Tom Baker era to the Patrick Troughton era? Weird. UNIT's obviously run its course by this point though, and the Fourth Doctor doesn't fit with them, so it's appropriate enough that he leaves at the end: "I really think we've had enough bangs and flashes for a bit, don't you?" I think the idea that the Third Doctor is 'establishment' is a bit oversold, but the introduction of the Fourth really displays a rejection of any association with, much less loyalty to, parochial human institutions on the part of the character, the Doctor essentially deciding that his role as UNIT's scientific advisor simply doesn't matter. An interesting analogue is that the human conspiracy is defeated early in the final episode, with the remainder devoted to defeating the rogue robot itself. The serial really establishes itself as somewhat beyond the point where 20th century espionage and intrigue is particularly worthy of attention.
"Does he do interviews?"
In fact the serial in general doesn't devote enormous amounts of time to any one thing in particular beyond perhaps the Robot itself. The new Doctor's character is established in a handful of scenes. Our brand new companion, Harry, in fact barely appears at all in the second and third episodes. Sarah gets a fair shake, but beyond a remark about chauvinism they're totally forgetting the entire notion of Sarah as a particularly outspoken feminist character, spending a lot of time in rather impractical outfits (I immediately thought 'heels' when she got her cliché trip in front of the growing robot) and getting captured, menaced and placed in the bizarre position of the robot's surrogate mother. That being said, 'Robot' is a good example of how well Sarah Jane functions, particularly in these Earth-centric serials, when she has the opportunity to actually operate as a full protagonist in her own right rather than as simply a tag-along to the Doctor, because her investigative skills and willingness to use trickery and guile to get to the truth allow her to operate very competently as the Doctor's associate. Another strong element, of course, is the fact that she has such an immediate rapport with Tom Baker's Doctor. Viewing it through the modern lens, it's interesting to observe that her evident relief that her friend is still alive is clearly of far greater importance than any changes to his appearance or personality.
The Terrance Dicks Monument.
One thing I thought was somewhat interesting viewing this is the rather blasé approach to the threat of nuclear disaster, one which is, to a degree, also evoked in 'The Hand of Fear' a couple of years later. I realise that they were kind of aiming towards an ambiguous near-future setting during the UNIT era, but all the talk of peace between the superpowers and so on is rather surprising. More surprising too is the UK, with its "special relationship" with the United States, being a dyed-in-the-wool NATO founder and everything, being presented as a supposedly "neutral" country in possession of the American, Soviet and Chinese nuclear codes. Somehow I doubt that that would ever have been a possibility. It's interesting to perceive, however, a time period in the relative calm of the mid-Seventies, post-Vietnam, in which evidently nuclear warmongering was able to be presented as the purview of comic-book evil organisations rather than mainstream political activity. Indeed the nuclear threat posed by the fascistic SRS group, I would argue, portrays such policies as, in a sense, "Nazi behaviour," which may or may not say something about the behaviour of the real nuclear-armed groups, which is to say world governments, and whether they were in any degree holding the world to ransom. It's interesting to observe here Jellicoe's remark that the higher-budget group which develops Think Tank projects is "usually the government." There's a little slice of Seventies social politics that makes this story stand out in today's corporatocratic world.
"Have I told you about Scratchman?"
Another mention ought to go, of course, to a few other important characters in the serial: Hilda Winters, the leader of SRS, and Professor Kettlewell, inventor of the Robot. Winters, one might argue, is intended as a foil for both Sarah and the Doctor. She specifically makes the joke about Sarah being a "chauvinist" when she assumes that the head of Think Tank would be a man, and I would argue that the character's empowerment and her villainy aren't given much explanation, and I wouldn't begrudge anyone thinking that the character is rather problematic. We never find out why Winters and the SRS are so fascistic, so it's easy to see it as Terrance Dicks taking his regular jab at feminism. The fact that this is the point where everyone pretty much gives up on the characterisation of Sarah as an outspoken "women's lib" type may or may not add to that. As I always say, this isn't my area of expertise in criticism. I could do a utopian reading of the text, but I couldn't be arsed. Of course Winters' technocratic fascism and scientific irresponsibility also make her an effective opponent for the Doctor. The character is not, perhaps, given her full due, but there are definitely some striking elements there. Kettlewell is another Doctor-analogue, an eccentric radical scientist, but one who lacks conviction or firmness of purpose. There's also, of course, the whole plot device of his "living metal" and "metal virus" which both become elements of pure convenience by the end. Those ideas could almost carry a plot on their own independent of any Earth-centric Robots, while the intended purpose of the Robot, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans, doesn't fully get its due either. There's probably something to be made about intelligent and arguably emotional robots which are nonetheless purely intended to fulfil dangerous and unpleasant tasks, but the argument more ends up being that powerful people are all the more dangerous if they're weak-willed and easily influenced or lack the necessary wisdom to use their power responsibly. Something like that, at least. In this way, of course, the Robot and the SRS reflect each other as well.
"I expect coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and breaks
to salute a picture of the Queen five times a day."
All in all, 'Robot' isn't exactly the most groundbreaking of introductory stories for a new Doctor, but after five years of Jon Pertwee that might have been for the best. My biggest criticisms would probably be that Harry's not given nearly enough of an introduction given that he's the new companion, and that the plot I feel doesn't fully get to flex some of its more interesting ideas what with all the running around, UNIT blowing stuff up, Sarah and Harry getting captured and the Robot going crazy. I'm not fond of criticising Doctor Who's special effects because I think in a lot of cases it took guts to at least try stuff even if it looked crap, and personally I could completely live with the CSO work in this serial, but I have to admit that the Robot costume isn't terrific. If I'm going to be perfectly honest, though, I think the design is probably its biggest drawback because it's so bulky and clumsy. There are some pretty corny moments, too, like the stupid costumes the Doctor tries on and that pointless reference the Doctor and Harry make to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I realise I haven't actually spent an enormous amount of time discussing Tom Baker's introduction here, but I think that's because it's so understated and enmeshed with the writing as it stands. It's interesting as an end to the UNIT era though, although we'd see them again in 'Terror of the Zygons' and get another half-hearted motions towards them with 'The Android Invasion,' before they appear with no familiar faces in 'The Seeds of Doom,' because it really shows the Doctor leaving them behind. The universe of the Fourth Doctor is just too big for them, which fits given that this is followed by probably the most ambitious and imaginative run of stories, in my opinion, since mid-Hartnell. It's also odd to think that this and 'Spearhead from Space' are the only two original Doctor Who post-regeneration serials to be set on Earth (unless you count the TV Movie, I guess). But that's fair enough, because 'Robot' works as a safe launching point which really permits the subsequent seven years of Fourth Doctor serials to scale impressive heights of adventure.
"Stand back, it's going to be a big one."