Thursday 26 October 2017


I don't update this blog so much any more, but I'm still writing about Doctor Who through my weirdo lefty pseudo-academic lens at DoWntime, a collaborative blog run by the excellent Tibere Lechat and Script Scribbles, fabulous writers with their own great takes on pop culture, and Doctor Who in particular. You can find my posts for DoWntime here:

If I have any non Doctor Who related stuff to write about, I will still probably post on here, but otherwise my posts on here will continue to be sporadic at best.

But do check out DoWntime, Scribbles and Tibere are fantastic writers to work with, and there are a ton of great guest essays, as well as our episode reactions to series 10 and Tibere and Scribbles' reactions to the classic series! If you've enjoyed my writing here, then you'll love the stuff that myself and my very talented colleagues have written over there!

Sunday 22 January 2017

Doctor Who Review: Notes on "Rose"


·      He already had, and would go on to, write better episodes of television, but “Rose” is RTD’s greatest ever achievement as a writer. Against all the odds, he successfully relaunched an old cult sci-fi show that hadn’t been regularly on air for 16 years, and according to all industry experts and media commentators, was out of place in the 21st century. To pull the show’s triumphant return off in that context is hugely impressive, and to write an episode that still sparkles in its own way, and carries the promise of further brilliance is no mean feat.
·      There are weak points, most of them linked to the alien invasion plot, which is threadbare: most revealed by the anti plastic being used to defeat the Nestene Consciousness, far from an organic plot resolution. There are also weaknesses in the effects and direction (although there are some brilliant visual touches too, which I’ll get into later), plastic Mickey in particular being a bit of cheap camp that never quite convinces (although it is reassuring to go back and see that the New Series, just like its predecessor, has aged somewhat poorly in terms of effects that are dated). Finally, the pacing sags a little between the Doctor leaving after his “Turn of the Earth” speech and returning to the story in the restaurant. But these weakness are mostly made up for by RTD’s brilliant decision to basically set the story in the final act of the alien invasion plot: “you lot, all you do is eat chips, go to bed, and watch telly, while all the time, underneath you, there's a war going on” the Doctor tells Rose. As a result, RTD doesn’t need to worry about giving the alien invasion story a tight plot, because it’s just a backdrop to the episode’s real story: Rose stumbling into the world of Doctor Who at the end of a traditional alien invasion story.
·      And my God, everything else here is pretty much perfect: this remains the blueprint for the best way to launch a new show. But it’s not just in terms of functionality, the episode is packed with scenes that showcase superb writing and acting. The “Turn of the Earth” speech is the obvious highlight, with Eccleston giving an absolutely hypnotic performance, but there are other great scenes: the Doctor completely missing the London eye being the transmitter is a perfect demonstration of the series’ sense of humour. And Rose entering the TARDIS for the first time is beautifully done: the joke where she runs around the outside is inspired, the first shot showing the scope of the inside awe-spiring. 
·      At the centre of the best bits of the episode are Eccleston and Piper, one of the best TARDIS teams, perfectly cast, and both, for completely different reasons, entirely left field choices for their respectively roles. Every scene with Rose and the Doctor is pure gold: they’re a funny double act, Rose challenges the Doctor in all the right ways, the Doctor opens Rose up to a new, mad and dangerous world, and they just look right running along the Thames hand in hand. Their characters are captured perfectly, and it’s this that gives the show the platform to go on and be, in the words of the ninth Doctor, utterly fantastic.
·      The dynamic between Rose and Mickey is also worth noting, and it’s genuinely well handled in this episode. Billie Piper and Noel Clarke capture the sense a couple who are comfortable around each other, but as a result a little too used to each other, perfectly. The scene where Rose play-trips Mickeys as he walks out to go the pub and they make faces at each other is genuinely sweet, but the scene where she talks about wanting him to actually wash his dishes shows the flipside: that they are used to each other in a way that perhaps means they are holding each other back, just coasting in their relationship. But there are also moments like the “don’t Read my Emails!” exchange, and Mickey using comforting Rose as an excuse to go and watch a football match: Mickey isn’t as completely the innocent victim in the falling apart of their relationship, as is often suggested by fandom. Rose is really callous in the “Thanks”/ “For What?”/ “Exactly” exchange at the end of the episode, but it’s not a callousness that is rooted in nothing.
·      Also key is the way the camera contributes to the characterisation of the Doctor: in each of his first three entrances to the scene, note the way he’s framed by the camera: he doesn’t come in all guns blazing, front and centre, to save the helpless Rose, but pops up in the corner of the screen, cheeky grin on his face, grabs Rose’s hand, and whispers “Run”. Then, when he comes to Rose’s flat, we first see him poking his face through a cat flap. Finally, rescuing Rose from Auton Mickey, in the scene where he finally lets Rose into the story, we spend a good extended period of time holding on the shot of him holding the champagne in the background of Rose and auton Mickey’s conversation, politely insisting that they pay him some attention. It’s a use of visual storytelling to emphasize what makes the Doctor an unusual Hero: he is not a screen hogging action man, but a cheeky, peripheral figure of impish subversion. It’s a good example of the way the visual storytelling is in sync with the script: the Doctor is a figure of legend and mystery, kept at the margins of the story as Rose slowly discovers more about him.
·      Underneath the fun, however, is a sens of the danger represented by the Doctor and his world: Rose’s store is blown up when, symbolically, it comes into contact with Doctor Who, Jackie’s coffee table gets smashed, and Clive, the story’s stand in for a Classic Doctor Who fan (portrayed in a mostly sympathetic manner, as an ordinary man with a wife and kids who happens to have an unusual hobby) warns Rose about this danger, only to be the named character killed in the auton invasion at the end of the story. There s a lingering sense that the competing worlds of everyday life and Doctor Who are not compatible, or that there will be damage as a result of the two worlds meeting.

·      More than just the competing worlds of the mundane and the fantastic, this is a story about crossing thresholds: there’s a clear preoccupation with doors and barriers, both physical and symbolic. Rose drags the Doctor through a doorway into her flat: just as he drags her into his world when rescuing her at Harrod’s, she drags him into hers, demanding that he participate in her world just as she starts to become a part of his. The story is also subtly aware of the barriers of class boundaries: Jackie suggests working in a posh department store was giving Rose “airs and graces”, even though it’s still very clearly a working class job, there’s a feel for the class dynamics at play within Rose’s own family as she gets a slightly higher paying job that is still incredibly low down in the paygrade in a capitalist economy. And working class girl Rose goes from her council estate to learn about the Doctor (and Doctor Who itself) from a middle aged man in middle class suburbia: and notably, Clive misunderstands Doctor Who in key ways, even if he has knowledge about the Doctor that Rose doesn’t: the lens through which Doctor Who is seen shifts from its arguably traditional middle England audience to a figure like Rose, whose take on Doctor Who hasn’t been valued in this way before. This is all buildup to the ultimate threshold crossing in the story, when Rose finally steps through the doorway of the TARDIS for the first time, discovering and feeling the world of Doctor Who in a way Clive, who theorises and gathers together information, never quite does. But this isn’t quite the ultimate threshold crossed in the story: that comes in the final scene. Over the course of the story we see her fly in the TARDIS, run with the Doctor, and battle monsters, but the final threshold to cross comes when Rose, runs away with the Doctor, leaving the world of her ordinary life for the world of Doctor Who.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Ranking the Films I Saw in 2016

Well, I decided to list the new films I watched in 2016, and realised I have seen enough films this year to make a top 10. Literally, I've seen 10 films. So, let’s have a look back at 2016 in the cinema.

10. X Men: Apocalypse

Meh, X men by numbers. Overblown and tedious.

9. Trolls

Dreamworks by numbers, but cute and fun enough that I was able to like it. I liked the animation style, and the songs were nicely done. The velcro-like animation style is an unusual and distinctive look for the film, and its message on the relationship between happiness and sadness works as a (less skilfully done) inversion of "Inside Out".

8. Ghostbusters

Formulaic and middle of the road really, but so much fun - my friends and I had a blast watching it for a film night the other week. The main cast are genuinely fun together, and the final act is spectacular, colourful, and utterful gorgeous to look at. Jerks on the internet need to get over themselves.

7. Finding Dory

A Pixar's greatest hits montage with a slightly overblown ending keeps this from being a Pixar Classic, but it's still their best film this side of Toy Story 3 (which this plot borrows a lot from, basically being another prison break story) that isn't "Inside Out". And it's incredibly funny moving in its best bits, plus baby Dory is the cutest thing ever.

6. Captain America: Civil War

Undeniably one of the better Marvel movies, with well done action, plotting, and character work. They've finally made a movie Spiderman where Spiderman and Peter Parker both work (and somehow, I'm excited for yet another Spiderman reboot as a result). Left me a bit cold, though, as most Marvel movies do - it's incredibly efficient, but feels, like all Marvel films, like another part of the production line, and that doesn't do it for me any more.

5. Rogue One

Disney successfully make another good "Star Wars" movie, and it's nice to see them break the "Hero's Journey" mould, instead intelligently and successfully exploring the politics behind the forming of the rebel alliance. The cinematography was gorgeous (probably the best Star Wars has had), the action great, the fanservice was handled tastefuly, and the central concept was quite a clever take on an odd plot point from the original trilogy (not wanting to spoil too much). The characters were distinctive enough, and produced some wonderful funny moments. And yet, I felt slightly at a remove from it: I was never as attached to the plucky group of rebels as I felt I was supposed to be, so the ending wasn’t as devastating as it needed to be to put this up there with the best films of the year. Still a very good film, though, and it leaves me hopeful that Disney can keep this run of form going all the way through to episode Nine.

4. Deadpool

This was just great fun, and serves as the perfect filmic interpretation of the much loved comic book character: it’s a part Ryan Reynolds was born to play. While it follows the basic structure of most superhero origin stories, its fourth wall breaking, self awareness, R Rating, and sense of fun give it an oddball weirdness that successfully distinguishes it from its peers.

3. Moana

This was really rather beautiful. In its structure, the story reminded me lot of my first-placed film, but that’s no bad thing: it’s a story type that genuinely works. The animation was beautiful, Lin Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack is gorgeous, and Moana might just be the best of this new generation of Disney princess movies. The source material comes from a different culture, there’s not a hint of romance between the male and female lead, which is a nice change for a princess movie, and it’s always nice to have a non white Disney Princess: that feels important in 2016. And Moana’s a great character: flawed, but brave, and kind, and she’s given a ton of agency throughout the film. This was a real breath of fresh air.

2. Zootopia

Intelligent commentary on racial politics in an animated Disney movie, something that feels like an exorcism of the studio’s past sins, and in the context of 2016, a genuinely important piece of storytelling. But it feels like it will last beyond that immediate context: the plot is an intelligent and fun detective caper, the world is fascinating and immersive, and the characters are wonderful and easy to get attached to. Great stuff, this was a very good year for Disney.

1. Kubo and the Two Strings

Wow. Just wow. This movie left me utterly speechless: it mixed spellbinding fantasy, poetic themes and storytelling, beautiful animation, and an incredibly moving conclusion to create the perfect movie. The story follows a simple enough hero’s journey formula, but the way said story unfolds manages to surprise and delight, making the moments where it hits the expected beats feel genuinely fresh. Frankly, the knowledge that it probably won’t do well at awards ceremonies leaves me rather devastated. There wasn’t another movie in 2016 that managed to make me feel quite like this one, and for that, it deservedly takes the top spot on this list.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Moffat Era Rewatch: Notes on "The Husbands of River Song"

·      I’ll put my stake in the ground on this one. This is the best River Song story. Not necessarily the best story to feature River Song (although it’s a very good one), but the best use of her character in the show.
·      The central brilliance comes in the way the episode uses the conceit of River not recognising the Doctor to basically make this a backdoor pilot for "The Diary of River Song": this isn’t a story where River arrives in one of the Doctor’s adventures, but where the Doctor stumbles into one of River’s adventures. We've always had hints of her adventures without the Doctor in her previous episodes, but it's nice to fill the last gap in her story by actually showing us one of those adventures in full and it's bigger, madder, and slightly more amoral than any of the Doctor's adventures. Great fun.
·      The episode also cleverly finds a good reason for the Doctor coincidentally bumping into River: she’s looking for time travel, so tracks him down so that she can ask for his help or steal his TARDIS, which is why the Doctor’s around to get mixed up with the surgeon. It’s a nice way to cover a potential bit of wishy washy plotting in a way that actually serves the story.
·      And because he has ended up in one of her adventures, the Doctor basically plays the role of River’s companion. She confronts Hydroflax with a big “I’m the Woman Who’s Gonna steal it back” speech about the Halassi Diamond, she takes his hand to lead him when they are running from Hydroflax’s rogue body, and, best of all, the Doctor gets the chance to do the “bigger on the inside” reaction to the TARDIS takes the Doctor by the hand when running from danger, possibly the best of Moffat’s twists on the concept.
·      But there’s a serious side to this fun concept: the Doctor sees what River is like when he’s not around, and in his own words, can’t approve of any of it. At first this is played for comedic effect, as the Doctor sees her many marriages that don’t involve him. And in spite of being played for farce, it’s actually quite a sensitive take on their polyamorous relationship, something that had been hinted at before, but is only explicitly shown here. The Doctor is clearly a little jealous, but doesn’t act betrayed, mostly just feeling a little awkward that he has to watch her snogging Ramone, and slightly incredulous that she married Hydroflax. His little “down girl!” when she flirts with Ramone at the end of the episode is playful, not jealous or possessive (and thank goodness for that, that would have been ugly to watch): he’s clearly fine with her seeing other people. This is further evidenced by the scene where they try to salvage the crashing spaceship, and they both matter of factly acknowledge the other’s ridiculous list of celebrity marriages: it generates humour out of the situation without sneering at the concept of a polyamorous relationship. In fact, the episode treats it as a sensible way for River and the Doctor to make their highly unusual relationship work. But after the initial jokes that lightheartedly explore this polyamourous relationship, the episode then takes on a more serious tone, as the Doctor realises the disturbing morality of River’s adventures: her wilfully casual attitude towards murdering Hydroflax, and lack of concern for whether the diamond returns to the Halassi standing out.
·      The story builds on this serious turn from the moment the Doctor and River discuss the fact that her diary (I love the Oscar Wilde reference with the “one always needs something sensational to read” quote) is almost full, and the Doctor sees not just how she conducts her own adventures, but how she talks about him personally when she’s not around. Once again, this thread starts with comedy, such as the the “damsel” codename and the joke that he’s never noticed her stealing the TARDIS before, but then builds to more serious tone. River describes falling in love as “the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll believe any story they’re the hero of”, a quote that plays with the fact that the Doctor isn’t the hero of this episode, so can see what River might actually think of him without the bias of thinking he is. Except she’s hiding her feelings, both because of insecurity and also because her love for the Doctor probably isn’t something she wants to talk about to random strangers. She’s being understandably guarded about her feelings, but it’s clear the Doctor worries she might be genuine: he’s been given a different perspective on their relationship through the lens of a story where he isn’t the hero. I also love the Doctor’s face when he says “he sounds horrible” after River points out that the Doctor is the kind of man who would know how many pages she would need: it’s as if he only just realised that, yes, that’s exactly why he gave her that specific diary. In this episode, he sees what River really thinks of her relationship with him, and is confronted with the mistakes he’s made over the course their marriage, with the fact he has hurt her by not being clear about his feelings, and by the way he has handled the chronologically messed up nature of their relationship.
·      This exploration of the Doctor learning about River’s hidden insecurities about his feelings towards her culminates in her “you don’t expect a sunset to admire you back” speech (one of Alex Kingston’s finest moments on the show). River isn’t hiding her feelings about the Doctor with an insecure pretense he doesn’t matter to her, but unashamedly acknowledging that she loves him, even though she is clearly convinced he doesn’t love her (which, as with the “sounds horrible” exchange, says volumes about her insecurities regarding the Doctor’s feelings towards her). But River’s fears are answered with possibly the best “Hello Sweetie” ever. In many ways, the scene serves a metatextual purpose, as well as an in story one. It’s Moffat’s impassioned argument against the line of thinking that claims falling in love is something the Doctor shouldn’t do, expressed through River’s insecurities about her relationship with the Doctor: she cites the arguments many fans have claimed applies to romance in Doctor Who, that it’s too “small” and “ordinary” for the Doctor. Moffat’s response is the Doctor’s visible love for River in that “Hello Sweetie”. The Doctor absolutely is in love with River enough to find himself standing in it with her, and love isn’t too small and ordinary for him, as there is nothing small and ordinary about love.
·      The episode’s final scene is also centered on this issue as the Singing Towers of Darillium are used as a metaphor for the Doctor and River’s relationship, nicely tying this long teased part of the Doctor and River’s story into the episode’s themes surrounding the previously unaddressed side of the Doctor and River’s relationship. “They’re ignoring me” says River of the towers, though she’s really talking about the Doctor, who does seem to be ignoring River, talking about the harmonizing of the wind in the towers, just as he talks about the planets to avoid the emotionally weighty conversation with Clara in “Mummy on the Orient Express”: but he’s actually building to a conclusion where he shows that he has been listening, and is trying to put his love for River into words: when he needs it the most, there is always a Song.

·      Beautifully setting up the mix of heartbreak and redemption in the final scene. For me, it's one of the most powerful messages in the show. The Doctor shows that he has learned from his experience in the series nine finale, admitting that everything ends, and nothing can last forever, only for River to respond by pointing out that "Happily ever after doesn't mean forever, it just means time. A little time", a wise and actually quite subversive take on the fairytale themes that have run through the Moffat era. River critiques the Doctor by pointing out that things don’t have to be forever to be worthwhile, that knowing things don’t last means we should make the most of the time we have, instead of worrying about their inevitable end, an idea the Doctor has yet to fully grasp, evidenced by his grim attitude to accepting that everything ends. And then, as River predicted, the Doctor smiles his smug smile when all hope is lost, and saves the day with a night that lasts twenty-four years. The picture of the words "And they lived happily ever after" fading out to become "And they lived happily" before further fading out to “happily” would have been a lovely note to end the Moffat era on (much as I'm looking forward to series 10 and Moffat's remaining Christmas specials). It's a low key, unobtrusive way to say a reassuring goodbye, which I hope Moffat takes when he actually leaves the show, just as he meant to when this was intended to be his final script. It doesn't matter that good times come to an end. Just that they were lived well, and happily.