TV Sigh. Unlike the Doctor and Clara right at the end there, I’m going to begin with some truth. I genuinely can’t be fussed with this tonight. I’ll probably find some way to fill the next six to eight paragraphs with something, but honestly if I could just go with my original plan of writing the sentence “Osgood. Really. Well, I hope you’re pleased with yourselves” hit post and shuffle on with my life I’d be quite happy. At which point I’m sure you’re at least thinking, well don’t let us stop you, but the quest is the quest and here I am, Saturday night, tapping away. Again. A friend’s just tweeted, “I'd have been disappointed if the last episode of this series hadn't been just as deeply unsatisfying as the rest of it.” Which pretty much does the business. Thanks Lis.
Which isn’t to say it didn’t start well, with, as we presumed Jenna Coleman revealing herself to be the Doctor, fulfilling a fair few fan theories and the opening credits gleefully going along with her plan, including her attack eyebrows. Certainly having Clara suddenly have the TARDIS Datacore in her head after giving every indication twelve episodes before that she’d forgotten watching The Ultimate Guide was a pretty convincing indication that we’d had the wool pulled over our eyes somehow. Imagine that episode or idea and ramifications for the rest of the run. But no, in a series were the really brilliant ideas have forever been replaced with the average instead we have a rerun of the Rory the Auton with a character which the show has gone out of its way to make us really dislike across its previous eleven instalments instead (despite the whole rotten PE business resurrected here (ho, bloody, ho) as dissected by GKW in DWM in his brilliant review of The Caretaker).
Similarly the mid-credits sequences had me hooting and gleefully looking forward to the Christmas special because even after the disappointment of The World’s End (Paul’s still a better film) you have to love Nick Frost and having Nick Frost play Father Christmas is funny. Oh and every now and then we had a ghost of the good Moffat of old offering his Blink era poetry with the likes of “Never trust hugging. It’s just a way of hiding your face” even if that only works if you don’t actually care about the person your hugging and don’t trust that the expression on their face is pleasure. Oh and the performances, especially Michelle Gomez who really does capture the post-Drums psychotic Missy who thanks to some ambiguity in relation to Cyber-Alistair’s laser blast clearly isn’t dead.
But apart from all of that? Yeah, no. From the death of Osgood which was entirely unearned, an insult to Ingrid Oliver, pretty much kills (ironically) stone dead part of our enjoyment of The Day of the Doctor and very epitome of how some series attempt to Whedon but fail miserably to the realisation that the whole absence of the Doctor arc we’ve had to endure this series has been leading up to him learning something he already had licked a dozen incarnations and a couple of millennia ago, Death in Heaven is a joyless experience, full of cynical emotional manipulation of the worst kind and unfunny banter which makes the critical error of offering us a flashback to when the show was none of those things. I miss the Matt Smith years, I really do. Now, I think you can see why I’m really not fussed with this tonight.
I promised you six to eight paragraphs and we’re already at the fifth but genuinely. After all the build up, Missy is wasted here. Gomez does her best with it, all boggling eyes and knuckle chewing but much of her contribution amounts to killing Osgood, revealing that she was the woman in the shop and that she brought him and Clara together for no particular reason unless I missed it then stand around in a graveyard essentially making the same offer Mr Finch did in School Reunion whilst making the same accusation as Davros in Journey’s End. And the problem is we can see it and we’re wondering, or at least I was, why isn’t this working? It isn’t working because it’s predictable. And obvious and we’re on to paragraph six.
The cyberfication of Alistair is tasteless isn’t it? Having given the much loved character a decent send off in The Wedding of River Song and respectfully resurrected his spirit in Kate, forgivably retconning No Future and The Shadows of Avalon, we now have his spirit encased in a flying Cyberman. On the one hand, it’s of course a continuation of the idea, from Battlefield, that the man will never die, and certainly worse crimes have been wrought on other companions in the spin-off universe (poor Dodo) but the whole idea of it, and the business of the salute is just horrendous and … it’s really interesting how having so perfectly judged this sort of thing was last year (barring some dodgy rotoscoping and stand-ins), we’re now in a position to suggest Adric got a better deal in the audios.
Plus, as Santa indicates, Clara’s not gone yet. Just as in The God Complex, Amy and Rory received a perfectly useful exit before being brought back ready for everything end in tragedy, there’s no way Oswald will be allowed to simply walk into the distance like that. Unless she is and we’re going to meet another alternative Clara in the Christmas special ready to die for the cause. One of my pet theories has been that Jenna Coleman isn’t going anywhere, but that yet another version of Clara perhaps from the future will be the “new” companion and that like Anna Torv in Fringe we’ll all be marvelling at her versatility. Failing that how about Kate Stewart? She was brilliant here for the precious few lines Moffat gave to her until she was blown out of the plane and literally dropped out of the rest of the story.
Phew, made it to paragraph eight so might as well find one other positive thing to say about the episode before I go and I can’t take credit for this either because it’s SFX Magazine which noticed. The Doctor’s four marriages. Liz 1, Marilyn Monroe and River Song are three. What about the fourth? Well, that would be Scarlette in the Lawrence Miles Eighth Doctor opus The Adventuress Of Henrietta Street, a novel as divisive as this series of Doctor Who's been. Dave Golder gives the potential alternative of the Tenth Doctor’s alternate future with Joan Redfern in The Family Of Blood but really, like his “conceptual space” homage in the Comic Relief spoof, Time/Space, it’s Moffat showing his love for Miles once again. Plus it makes the Eighth Doctor range canonical now too. Just the comics left to do.
Updated: 09/11/2014 Damn:
Film The new Star Wars has a title, The Force Awakens, which has led to the usual idiocy about it being awful (which it isn't) and inferring there'll be "more of that Jedi shit" (as though the original three weren't about a teenager learning to be a man through the medium of the force and becoming a Jedi). Despite getting the band back together, despite the brilliant new casting, despite the set photos, despite everything feeling right about the way JJ (Babylon 5'll be next) Abrams is going about things, the stench of the prequels still lingers for them sadly. My hope is the first shot of the very first scene will have an elderly Jar Jar's face grinning broadly saying something "Meeza welcoming you back..." whilst holding out his hand to the audience through the medium of 3D just for this reason, but perhaps that's just me. But yes, The Force Awakens is ambiguous enough to not reveal much of anything we don't already expect but also feels like it might suggest a narrative journey for someone in the film and more so than The Phantom Menace which is still inherently meaningless.
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D
The Pretty One
If there's a running theme to this week's films it is female protagonists with only Hercules and Tarzan fulfilling the usual masculine story arc which, now that I'm come to think about it is pretty similar in that it's also essentially Superman. All three are about young men fostered by parents from a different species becoming heroes, not actualising until they've successfully defended the realm from some dastardly villain. What's interesting about Mulan, of course, is that apart from the fostering, it has a very similar story but her heroic fight for acceptance also includes having to convince a male dominated society that she too can become a warrior. I love all three. Hercules is funny, funny, funny, especially James Woods as Hades. Tarzan always makes me cry and is at the spectacular apogee of the integration between cell animation and cgi backgrounds. But Mulan, which I haven't seen since release is the biggest surprise simply because it's a template of how female orientated action films can be done and now I wish there were more of them.
This week Vulture published Jesse David Fox's 27 Great Indie Romantic-Comedies From the Last 10 Years and having seen and enjoyed many of the items on the list already it prodded me to see a few more. As Fox identifies, Zoe Kazan's appeared in a quadrilogy of brill alt.romcoms and The Pretty One has all the hallmarks, notably a high concept which you can see being done horribly in a mainstream film but presented with great emotional depth in this idiom, in this case a "dowdy" identical twin not correcting anyone when she's mistaken for her more successful and confident sister. Unlike the other three films, even though there are male co-stars, in this case Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston, the focus remains on her throughout and we see through the world through the prism of her personality. Even when she's supposed to be the object of desire, the male gaze is nowhere to be seen, which is really refreshing and create an unpredictability in what could be an inherently predictable premise.
Similarly, despite the title, Celeste and Jesse Forever favours the latter, with the mighty Rashida Jones in what's effectively the Bill Murray role of not being able to deal falling in love with a best friend and just the wrong moment. Co-written by Jones herself (with Will McCormack who c0-stars and she's now writing Toy Story 4 with), like The Pretty One it has the not quite mainstream atmosphere of going with the emotional rather than comic beat whilst still being completely hilarious. In places the screenplay even seems to be commenting on mainstream romcom cliche. Elijah Wood plays a gay friend and Ari Graynor is the foul mouthed mate but neither of them fulfills the cliche, for reasons which border too closely to being a spoiler. If nothing else, it's made me want to revisit NY-LON which is still on 4od bless it, in which Jones plays a character not too dissimilar to this and indeed everything else she's ever made. Or at least the good things. A few pointers would be helpful. I can't imagine I Love You Man is any good. Or The Big Year.
My film of the week is Tracks. Having watched most of Mia Wasikowska's back catalogue in the past few weeks, including the utterly rubbish Suburban Mayhem in which she plays a beautician, I think Tracks is her defining moment. The real life story of Robyn Davidson, who decided to walk the Australian outback in the 70s in order to get away from people, Wasikowska convincingly portrays someone who simply wants to be left alone and has to leave those people behind in order to understand why she really needs them. Which sounds like a snatch of the voiceover script but is the best description I can come up with. Adam Driver plays the National Geographic photographer tasked with photographing her and pretty much confirms his position as his generation's Jeff Goldblum. No desert film trope is ignored, but it's mostly because they're part of the experience she's searching for. It's a confirmation for people like me that there's nothing pointless in challenging yourself and experiences what, from the outside, look like entirely pointless exercises.
Art I hate Andy Warhol. I loathe him all out of proportion. As a deeply held, foundational personality trait, my hatred of Andy Warhol has been an important part of my life almost as important as my inability to eat fish and to call people “honey”. It’s just always been there, the sense that at a certain point art history ended, expiring in the form of a painted representation of a Campbell soup can, a brand of soup that I dislike intensely no less and Warhol’s conviction that “art should be for everyone” leading to a stream of subsequent art which in trying to satisfy everyone ends up impressing no one and which also devalues existing art because of the prevailing attitude that it must be accessible. Oh really, must it?
There’s a frustration to standing in an art space filled with iconic, apparently important pieces of art not feeling anything positive but that’s what happened today at the press view for Tate Liverpool’s Transmitting Andy Warhol, whose first room, "Expanded Painting", contains all the work which crowds will be flocking to see but which makes me seethe. Oh it’s the Brillo boxes. Oh it’s those soup cans. Oh it’s the dayglo Monroe screenprints. Oh it’s the, well, you get the idea. It’s everything I hate about Andy Warhol within a single art space, have loathed across the years, as I say, all out of proportion. I’m fine with it. As Taylor Swift says, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate” and it’s ok sometimes to be one of those.
Except, of course, it’s an irrational, incoherent hatred. Look closely at the earliest of the Monroes in the Marilyn Dyptich from 1962 and you can see that he’s not simply creating identical replicas, brush strokes introducing variations and I like that. His Dance Diagram, a painted reproduction of the foot movements in the Foxtrot just made me want to try it out, which I did, even though it’s ultimately impossible to do without a partner. When creating his Rorschach prints in the 1984 he misunderstood how the original test worked assuming subjects created their own blotches, which led to him creating his own version. That gives him an attractive fallibility.
Which is really the narrative of my approach to this very good exhibition. No matter how much I like to say I hate Andy Warhol, I don’t really. I like the idea of him and I like some of his work and what I probably hate is what’s been done to him in respect to exposure and the effect he had on the art world, plenty of which wasn’t really his fault and was a result instead of the art world’s inability to cope with his subversion. Plus he’s an extremely important marker in how we now approach celebrity and fame, especially at a time when the famous fifteen minutes have become literal, when a figure like Alex from Target bubbles up from nowhere on a Sunday via a Twitter meme only to lose credibility in days when a marketing company falsely takes credit.
So I took Taylor Swift’s other advice, shook it off and really quite enjoyed myself. In the next room is Exploding Plastic Inevitable or EPI, a recreation of a mixed media installation, in which a room is filled with footage from a series of similarly named events Warhol held in Chicago in 1966 featuring The Velvet Underground, projected across every wall amid mirror balls. About twenty-minutes long, it’s like standing inside a dream, as close-ups of Salvador Dali and a Nico are interspersed with performances pieces starring a man in a gimp mask and someone who looks disconcertingly like late era Lennon being hogtied and whipped. Bob Dylan wanders through briefly with his harmonica.
The experience notionally mimics what it’s assumed it must have been like in the Factory and certainly how it appears in some film representations (notably Men in Black 3 of all things) even though you know it was probably boring as sin with all the high and drunk celebrities talking rubbish while having their picture taken. Ironically, EPI will probably work best when the room’s filled with people, perhaps even a college group, folks from the same generation as would have attended the original happenings. Even with the professional press pack, the reflective light of the mirror balls flashing against their faces, pixels from the projectors making them look like products of Andy Warhol’s mind, the imagery was utterly transcendental.
And so I continued and in each successive room found my resolve broken. “Dispersal” is about Warhol in the wider world, through his commercial design products for magazines and for book and album covers, Chigall-like line drawings which show a draftsman with real flair and in the case of his fashion spreads accuracy. His classical and jazz images, providing in a still image what promotional videos still can’t all these years later, are so alluring and so perfectly capturing that moment in time, that I was jotting down titles for future reference (this is what Spotify was designed for, Taylor!). Not The Velvet Undergound and Nico with their banana, of course. I already own a copy of that.
I’m even charitable towards the concept of his novel, a, now, even though in many ways its appalling. A response to Joyce’s Ulysses (art is for everyone remember), it features a transcript of everything Factory stalwart, the actor Ondine says over a twenty-four hour period, poorly transcribed by non-professionals so as to render it entirely unreadable. Sigh. Except, having produced the worst book of all time, he stood behind it, putting poor reviews on the posters and generally taking advantage of his own celebrity to sell a few books, effectively taking the piss out of the kinds publishers for whom the ghost-written celebrity biography is their foundation and the kinds of people who buy them. You have to love that.
The final room is "Transmission" which sees Warhol wrestling with the artistic possibilities of new media, of putting his beliefs into practice. Piles of cathode ray tube televisions presenting recordings of Andy Warhol’s TV, his chatshow and magazine programme which ran in the early eighties. Although there are headphones, most visitors will probably simply glance at the given screens as, people who may or may not be a celebrity are interviewed about their lives. While I was there someone called Jim Fourett from something called Dancetaria was holding forth from a couch about something. Was anything he had to say any more useful or interesting than any of the other anonymous faces which cropped up on the other screens?
The pieces I spent the most time with are a collection of covers from Interview Magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969, this selection spanning from 1979 to the mid-Eighties. By then Warhol had withdrawn from the publication, it seems, only really being an ambassador but this display underscores, as so much of his work does the fleeting nature of celebrity, how some faces Jack Nicholson would go on to become iconic whilst others like Maxwell Caulfield slowly fade. Half of the covers on show don’t have the name of the cover star emblazoned on them and our inability to name them ourselves is very powerful. I spent a good five minutes with someone trying to identify one face. We think its Carole King. Perhaps. Bette Midler?
His film work is largely represented by Empire, the legendary eight hour shot of the Empire State Building, shot in 24 frames, projected in 16. A gallery space is presumably not the best place for this though it’s only rarely been presented in the style of a typical “movie” (the wikipedia has a handy screening history). Within this setting and with the pressures of seeing it within the context of an exhibition, it’s difficult to see the subtle changes in image, as the accompanying text suggests, the drama. Inevitably there is an modern fan-produced sequel available on YouTube, Empire II: The Empire Strikes Back, which is more of the same, with the subtle addition of daylight, of only three hours. See it here.
All of which should illustrate that the problem with deeply held hatreds is that they’re inherently inconsistent. I will eat fish if they’re covered in a batter. I don’t hate Andy Warhol as much as I thought I did. I still hate his screen prints, but as this exhibition demonstrates, his work was so multi-faceted, because he applied himself to so many different media, because he was so clearly talented, it’s impossible to hate everything. It’s also impossible to hate the man too because all he really did was what we should all do which is take advantage of the opportunities presented to him, forever with his fingers crossed behind his back that he wouldn’t get found out, knowing better than anyone just how fleeting celebrity can be.
Taylor Swift’s Giant Middle Finger:
"It likely won’t be long before we start forgetting Swift was a country music darling who found early inspiration from the likes of Faith Hill, Dolly Parton and the Dixie Chicks. Back when she was known primarily as a country artist, she had three multi-platinum albums under her belt before Red. When you watch her in the “Shake It Off” video, that seems like forever ago. Today she is no longer the sweet girl who was so rudely interrupted by Kanye. She’s defiant and sarcastic, brushing off the haters and navigating the high seas of giant, twerking booties."
Orson Welles’s Last Film May Finally Be Released:
"For more than four decades, Hollywood insiders, financiers and dreamers have been obsessed by the quest to recover “The Other Side of the Wind,” the unfinished last film of Orson Welles. Cinema buffs consider it the most famous movie never released, an epic work by one of the great filmmakers."
Producers detail plans for completing ‘The Other Side of the Wind’:
"Producers are not pursuing a film-within-a-film-within-a-film scenario or a documentary on the making of the movie. Rather, the movie will utilize instructions left behind by Welles, as well as a 40-minute workprint edited by Welles and now in Kodar's possession, to complete the movie he set out to make."
Kiss and Make Up With Anne Hathaway. We Dare You:
""I couldn't tie this moment to what I really wanted to say," she continues. "And that's on me, because Lupita did it," she observes of Lupita N'yongo's graceful speech on winning Best Supporting Actress earlier this year for 12 Years a Slave. Hathaway "fumbled through the end," got offstage, and realized that she'd forgotten to thank her manager of 15 years, who was battling cancer. "One of my most regretted life moments," she says. When Les Misérables won for Best Musical or Comedy, Hathaway asked the film's producer Eric Fellner if she could say something else. "While everyone was still getting onstage, I spoke. I should have gone after everyone else. I own that; it was rude. People saw that as grabby, I guess. I don't know.""
24 Things You May Not Know About The Moomins:
"8. Incidentally, Tove Jansson is pronounced “Tor-vay Yarn-son”."
American Hustle Microwave Scene Sparks Lawsuit:
"In a brief scene, Lawrence’s character tells her husband (Christian Bale) that microwaves make food less nutritious, saying she “read it in an article. Look, by Paul Brodeur.” Brodeur has written about the hazards of microwaves but never, he claims in a new lawsuit against Columbia Pictures and the other companies behind Hustle, according to The Hollywood Reporter, that they leach the nutrition out of food."
We're Witches Of Halloween... Woo-Ooo!
"Words And Pictures was a long running BBC television series created to help small children to learn to read and write. From back in an era when most broadcasting seemed designed to utterly terrify its younger viewers here is the Halloween episode yt that managed to traumatized several generations as it was repeated year-in year-out (if not on television, then on scratchy VHS recordings in school classrooms) seemingly forever."
86th anniversary of the first radio calisthenics broadcast in Japan (in a Google Doodle):
"Animation could have been used to great effect. The above illustration is an early concept exploring the idea of anthropomorphized letters performing an exercise routine. However, we wanted to pay homage to the long tradition of uniform composition and staging set forth by NHK (Japan’s national broadcasting station), so the idea of using real ‘calisthenists’ in a live-action video doodle seemed not only appropriate, but relevant. We began by referencing their instructional calisthenics videos as a visual starting point."
Film Evening. There's nothing much else to report here other than that on the basis of its first two episodes Agents of SHIELD's continuing its upward trajectory towards being half competent continues with characters you genuinely care about who aren't complete morons and a proper sense of purpose, even if that's essentially Torchwood in Children of Earth. Dodging the government and fighting Hydra creates an extra level of tension which didn't exist when they were some all powerful organisation and multiple Ward replacements are far more interesting figures than Ward ever was, even taking into consideration Ward himself is more interesting than he ever was too. Since The Winter Soldier too, we now in the business of wondering how each new other thing in the MCU will impact on these characters, not least the upcoming Civil War storyline and Avengers before that. Excellent stuff.
All That Matters Is Past
The Lion King
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
For all my stressing about the unconscionable Pocahontas being the last film I watched of my thirties, the first film of my forties was Sinister and thanks to me posting the information here, now, I'm going to have a reminder of the fact forever (or until Google closes Blogger). It's rubbish and the special kind of rubbish in which the story falls apart within about ten minutes of the film starting due to a single point, in this case that Ethan Hawke's true crime author has moved into the house which was the scene of the murder he's investigating and somehow his wife doesn't know. No, and indeed, no, now look I'm sorry but no. Hawke just about keeps it watchable, not least because you know its appearing in rubbish like this which is keeping his Linklater work viable, though as the typically brilliant Sins video notes, there's not one moment when you don't wish Julie Delpy would wander in for a conversation.
All That Matters Is Past is a Norwegian whydunnit with a similar structure to a Columbo episode but from the point of view of the murders. We witness their work at the opening of the film and through an intricate flashback structure which shifts between various time periods we slowly learn the truth of what occurred. Great performances from the central cast and lustrous photography from John Andreas Andersen (who previously shot Headhunters) which oscillates between something akin to the apocalyptic natural collapse of Beasts of the Southern Wild and the blander end of Norwegian Noir keep our attention as does the technique with which writer/director Sara Johnsen parcels out the mystery, wrong footing us throughout. There's also a slightly odd interest in human anatomy, with various physical conditions shown from angles rarely seen on screen (he says desperately trying not spoil a crucial, if eye popping moment).
#disneywatch continues in earnest. Now that Robin's not with us, Aladdin's an intensely difficult viewing especially in the moments when the title character suggests he might not give the genie his freedom, so filled now with metaphoric resonance. The Lion King remains my favourite of all the Disneys; every song is a winner, the anthropomorphism's perfectly judged and the Hamlet connection of course. Plus it's witty. Wittiness goes a long way as is also demonstrated in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which the jokes pretty much make up for some of Disney's very worse songs, especially the amazingly pias God Help the Outcasts. Ugh. The animation is gorgeous, especially of the human characters, but the general sense of trying to create a preparatory drawing for an ensuing stage musical in the Lloyd-Webber mode is impossible to ignore. Ugh again.
Finally, welcome to Rogue and welcome to 2007 when Sam Worthington and Radha Mitchell were bit players and Michael Vartan, just coming off five years of Alias is the leading man. Directed by Wolf Creek's Greg McLean, this b-movie exploitation flick about a river boat cruise which falls foul of a massive crocodile and at no point veers from any of the expected genre beats or tropes but is still pretty thrilling. Raising it way above expectations is DP Will Gibson's photography, which like All That Matters Is Past is intensely interested in nature, with dozens of cutaways to the species of the outback and the rocky wilderness of such high quality in places it feels like a Bristol wildlife documentary. Often we simply sit in the boat with the doomed tourists watching the scenery and it's almost a disappointment when the tranquility is destroyed. Which, I know, is sort of the point...
TV Well of course it is, anyone with half a brain after watching Deep Breath thought this is who Missy would turn out to be, even if the other half sushed its cranial neighbour for being too obvious. But as anyone whose also seen Leon Ny Taiy manfully brave his way though the scenes in Time-Flight when the Master’s pretending to be Kalid for no reason since it’s a disguise and no one is there and in any case he looked like Anthony Ainley in some make-up or indeed watched the Pertwee era and is surprised when it isn’t the Master, sometimes Doctor Who shamelessly does the obvious because to do anything else wouldn’t be Doctor Who.
Which isn’t to say Steven doesn’t tease us a bit on the way, providing Ted Rogers levels of obfuscation and misdirection through Missy’s dialogue. " “You left me for dead" … now that could be a reference to his grand daughter Susan Foreman, who the Doctor left in the post-apocalyptic remains of the Dalek invasion of Earth, but he’s met her since in the now canonical Eighth Doctor audios so it can’t be her. That also rules out Romana though the late reference to “mistress” could also provide a similar red herring. What about those two hearts? Well, River Song and the Rani both had two hearts…”
Given Moffat’s correct adoration for Big Finish, I don’t think he could bring himself to do any of that, assuming he even considered a different answer. Like the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration, Big Finish would have done something with it presumably even if it had been Romana, and of all of them, I sort of wish it had been her, foreshadowed by Clara’s own betrayal early on in the episode. Or indeed the rather clever theory and that she’d turn out to be some alternative version of Clara generated during The Name of the Doctor, all grown up. Or something so amazingly gonzo that most of us wouldn't have thought "Well, of course it is..."
But obvious is obvious, and, this is crucial, think on that despite this and that and the other happening online, they’d changed the gender of the Doctor’s key foe and it’s arguably the least interesting thing about it, other than to say some viewers might find the notion of gender as effectively the new school iteration of Ainley’s make-up in Time-Flight offensive. I’m just going to leave that sentence where it is and move on because I’m not sure either way and I think to an extent Moffat himself is commenting on the idea of the Master of disguise when he has Missy pretending to be a robot in the false reveal.
Is the notion that a Time Persons can change gender that much of a thing? Is it that big of a deal? Clearly we’ve been building up to this since the Corsair business but I suppose that she’s the Doctor’s mortal enemy and potential sibling makes it so. Creating malleability in a Time Person’s regenerative cycle does also offer some preparatory towards what we all suspect will happen after Capaldi leaves in 2016 and Romola Garai takes over. There’s always been a notion in genre fiction, or indeed life, that one thing has to happen for something to be normalised before the even greater shift occurs.
Now we’re in Utopia territory of dealing with the hows. Given everything which happened to the Simm model, does Missy still have a regenerative cycle? Or is this some kind of possession ala Tremas (though I was always foggy about whether the Ainley Master had a Time Lord’s anatomy and if he did where the extra heart came from unless he had the luck of possessing someone from a planet in which everyone happened to have a duel vascular system or whatever a time space incident with a personality has.) Plus how did he escape from Gallifrey? She escape from Gallifrey? It’s going to be fun watching professional reviewers deal with the pronoun issue over the coming weeks as they wrestle with the timeline [updated 20/11/2014: Mags has pointed me towards the BBC's approach and the GLAAD guidelines].
All of which said, Michelle Gomez is of course, blooming marvellous in the role and a brilliant choice going forward. My first introduction to her work was in The Book Group, whose twelve episodes are still on 4od, and also features Rory "The Hound" McGann from Game of Thrones. She's very much observed how her predecessors have tended to oscillate between calculating repose and bursts of evil energy, but like them brought herself to it, though her flamboyance is oddly closer to Eric Roberts than any of the others. Notice the moment in the corridor when she's listening to the Doctor attempting to put the pieces together almost waiting for her cue to go on...
Nearly seven hundred words in and I haven’t mentioned the title yet, so it’s important to do that now. Dark Water. There we go. As for the rest … well … this is the first proper two-parter since The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People in 2011 and as has always been the case, it’s near impossible to really appreciate whether it’s actually any good until the second half. As we discovered with that story, the first episode is merely average then goes gang busters for the second half but there are a few stories across the show’s history in which the opposite is true (The Space Museum).
With that in mind, where am I on this? Well … it’s entirely possible to list the virtues. The general sense of unease which pervades the thing, in which director Rachel Talalay (IMDb) always seems to choose the item in the scene we don't expect to be looking at, not unlike the first episode of The Mind Robber, works extremely well. This is aided in no small part by the trailers and clips, which suggested the story would be one thing, what’s happening next week presumably, and instead had us watching something else entirely, a bit like plonking the preview for The Sontaran Stratagem at the end of The Unicorn and the Wasp.
The Silence in the Library is one of the key texts here, the Doctor and his companion exploring some old building and meeting skeletons which aren’t what they seem cross cut with a parallel storyline set, as its revealed within a parallel world inside a tiny space. For all the style with which its delivered its impossible not to think of it as another example of Moffat’s conscious/unconscious recycling, of which we know the writer himself is clearly appreciative thanks to having the Doctor ruminate on the notion of paradoxes early in the episode as if to red flag to the perceptive viewer that it’s not going to be one of those for a change.
Revelation of the Daleks is another influence but they’re notably doing different things. One has Daleks. The other has Cybermen. But if as we’re expecting, the Nethersphere’s inhabitants will turn out to be the raw materials for the creation of these Cybermen, not that different. We’ll see. What is worth noticing for the purposes of some future essay in one of those several hundred amateur Kindle books full of bean-plating, is how the Doctor’s motivation there is visiting some dude whom we’ve never met, whereas this had the greater emotional pick up of a dead boyfriend as the quest goal, underscoring how times and tastes change.
But yes, even though it’s clear exactly where Dark Water is going, it’s possible for much of the duration to have no idea (though you could argue this would have been heightened by not actually knowing the Cybermen would be appearing though filming outside St Pauls in broad daylight was a bit of a give away). These slights of hand, of presenting one set of events only to reveal the intent in another set of events are classic Moffat and thanks to a lack of flashback structure for much of the duration (unlike some recent instalments) (The Time of the Doctor) it gives the episode a feeling of seeing events as they happened, of being lived events.
It goes without saying that the performances are top notch but I’ll say it anyway. The performances are top notch. Overlookable but Andrew Leung is remarkable as Dr Chang, one of those thankless roles in which someone has to find a character from nothing other than some exposition and a suit, be likeable enough that we care if they die but not so much that he becomes the focus of the episode (cf, Navin Choudry or Ayesha Dharker). His death scene is gut-wrenching as his character realises that he’s doomed no matter what he says, the paradox of knowing that his complement will lead to his demise anyway. Good manners as a death sentence.
The Nethersphere sequences are the most extraordinary in the show’s history, certainly some of Moffat’s best writing. Wickedly dark in places, it’s about as Pythoneseque as the show’s been in years, arguably since we had an honorary Python as our script editor, though it’s also fair to say that Danny’s reaction to the Nethersphere is very much like Arthur’s adventures on Magrathea. There is something rather impressive about how this whole new world is evoked through what Danny and so us can see outside the office balcony window and what he’s told by Seb (Chris Addision showing a real facility for character acting).
Except, and I can already see a couple of you raise your attack eyebrows because I’ve begun the paragraph with “except” which is never a good indication that said paragraph will go well, I still have reservations. One of the problems with having not enjoyed a run of episodes or a season of any show is that even the high points can seem like blips on an otherwise downward spiral. Buffy’s season six gave us both Once More With Feeling and Doublemeat Palace (and Hell’s Bells) and if you’re not entirely on board with a general approach, you’re not going to be suddenly convinced to change your mind about the whole thing.
Clara’s behaviour here is problematic because it’s supposed to be but that doesn’t stop it from being lemon difficult in relation to the arc of the character and the structure of the series. Thanks to the way it’s written and shot and Jenna’s tender performance, the motivational groundwork is there but nevertheless given everything they’ve been through together, as is always the case between Doctor and companion, it feels wrong that she wouldn’t just ask him, however undramatic that is, that we have watch this false drama in a purposefully fake as Genesis in The Search for Spock set (which looked exciting in the trailer) in order to get to that point.
If the previous ten episodes have been about making the Doctor seem unapproachable enough so that we don’t feel like he would help her anyway in this moment, just as she doesn’t, “Is that how you think of me...” (I’m paraphrasing), that really, really, well, sucks. Plus in the post-Flatline “world” it doesn’t seem to make that much sense especially if she’s had adventures with him between In The Forest of the Night and Danny’s accident has the Doctor’s convenient lack of availability, which may yet have an in-story reasoning but now I’m also in danger of bean-plating so I’ll move on.
To those preview clips, that shooting outside St Pauls. As we’ve already discussed, obvious is obvious and the show’s notorious for naming a story after a monster then having everything being terribly surprised therein when said monster reveals themselves for the first cliffhanger. Dark Water doesn’t go that far, but a fair proportion of the episode is about teasing the reveal of the Cybermen before they finally appear and although some elements, like the doors, feel like literal winks to us viewers who knew what was coming, I do wonder if they would instead have been even more exciting if we’d not been away of their implications beforehand.
The episode drags in places and I think it’s partly that, the Daleks in Manhattan syndrome of the audience watching characters investigating and catching-up to their knowledge and the Missy question isn’t enough in this instance for the story to ride through on. Which seems like I’m simply trying to find fault with what’s otherwise a pretty good instalment, but like that previous episode, it is interesting how external marketing forces can change the perceptions of a story without it necessarily being said story’s blunder (then it was the cliffhanger appearing on the cover of the Radio Times). Viewers who’ve managed to avoid such things will have a completely different appreciation.
But there’s also a sense of stretching material, of scenes going on just slightly longer than they need to be, of Moffat’s narrative sensibilities being calibrated for what he was trying to accomplish in earlier years but drawn out across season eight’s pacing. I joked to a friend who shared my unease on the Twitters that it’s twenty-five minutes of material stretched out across forty-five and although I don’t think it’s that, there’s an odd repetition of scenes in which the same point is being made or has been made and you’re expecting to move on but you’re still there, Danny deliberately unconvincing Clara of his identity for one or two.
Which all looks pretty churlish and probably is but like I said, it’s nearly impossible to not find faults when that’s been your repose for weeks. First parts are first parts and we won’t really know how successful this is until we see the second, what Missy is really like without the tease, and what the Cybermen’s plans are on Earth outside of assimilation assuming they have plans of their own (and if we follow the old pattern here they will betray Missy, oh yes, they will betray Missy). Next week we do have the season bookend of seeing Twelfth with more of his predecessors friends and the differing chemistry this new incarnation will bring. Until then, Dark Water will do nicely.
And now some music ...