TV Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. There’s not a lot more you can say about The Witch's Familiar even though I expect I will as the night draws on. Much of Doctor Who is pretty ridiculous. It’s why we love it so, and why all of it is amazing even when it is rubbish. Try to describe the plot of most stories to someone with only a passing interest in the series and they’ll generally look at you as though you spent the whole of the 60s dropping acid despite you having been born in the 70s. Try it some time, pick something at random, The Sunmakers, for example, and have a go. Watch carefully for the moment when they either (a) try to look for the quickest route out of the conversation or (b) have the phrase “And you watch this?” pop into their brains awaiting the most strategic moment of deployment.
This isn’t unique to Doctor Who. Most of science fiction and fantasy has to be pretty bonkers in order to justify its own existence and keep us entertained, but there’s just something expressively weird about Doctor Who because no matter how many times you think you have a story understood and you know what’s about to happen, some random element will introduce itself and everything will narratively head off in a direction you weren’t expecting. Indeed there’s an argument that Doctor Who fails when it isn’t doing that, when everything you think will happen in a story happens, when a particular story element is set up to occur in an episode and there is no twist and the outcome is as expected. But I think I’ve clobbered half of last year’s episodes more than enough.
That’s why The Witch's Familiar is so damn good. Throughout I had absolutely no idea what it was doing, where it was going and how it was going to end. Not one. As a friend pointed out to me last week, there were story elements in the first part, the Hand Mines, the planes with laser being shot at by bows and arrows which would have been key elements of some other shows and yet they’re introduced and forgotten almost immediately. Such as we are with the hybrid Daleks. In another series, that would have been status quo from now onwards, the old threat regenerated. But in Doctor Who, it’s blown up almost as soon as it’s introduced as a way of underscoring how its main character reacts to danger, his compulsive expectation that he’s going to win (wearing now what amounts a pair of Joo Janta 200s).
Even when it looks predictable, it really isn’t. Knowing full well that we didn’t really believe that the Daleks would have exterminated Missy and Clara (despite neither of the given actresses appearing in any of the published cast lists), the writer Steven Moffat, for it is he, boldly just sticks them in the teaser, explaining how they got out of that as a way of introducing the aforementioned compulsive expectation. Even then we know, because they tell us, that their part of the episode will be about them returning to the city, but because Missy’s an even more unhinged presence than ever before, “a nightmare dressed like a daydream” if you will, we’ve no idea what that will look like especially since the only reason she’s keeping Clara alive is because of some notion murder her further down the line. Or sewer.
Sure enough what results is a version of the Hulk and Loki incident from The Avengers (Assemble) over and over and over again with Clara, the familiar in this case, on the receiving end. In this strand Moffat’s paying homage to The Mutants (or whatever Doctor Who Magazine’s deciding to call it now) to a large extent, with the companion in much the same position as the Thals in that earlier adventure, but whereas the unpredictable element then was dependent on which of the fair haired ciphers would be eaten by a tentacled something from the deep, here it's whatever horror Missy will subject the companion to. With the chemistry between Michelle and Jenna underpinning the comedy with dread and Hettie MacDonald’s nose for slapstick and editing, it’s all hilarious and scary. And sticky.
And perverse because here’s Missy also inflicting on Clara the shocking truth behind, Oswin, the character played by the actress’s first appearance in the series. Across the years Daleks have supposed to be scary but there are few fans who haven’t also wanted to become one, running around in circular columns of printed pvc or a cardboard box with some blu-tac stuck on the end of a pencil applied to the front (depending on the disposable income of the parent). Yet here’s poor Oswin or at least a version of her, having a similar experience turned into a nightmare for a second time. Like Chesterton she finds herself locked inside. Unlike Chesterton that captivity extends to her ability to communicate. Expect an ios or (ironically) Android translation doodat which does much the same thing at an app store in time for Christmas.
Except, all of this is just the B-story. Weaving throughout is the Doctor’s confrontation with Davros which barring the introductory scenes in which this Twelfth incarnation finally recreates the bitter John Birt end of the 1993 BBC VT Christmas tape (“So Jeannette, by increasing my assistant’s salary to above my own I can then point out to the governors the foolishness of the pay scale AND GUARANTEE FOR MYSELF A HANDSOME PAY RISE”) is a two hander between these old, old foes and friends. Again, ridiculously, we’re in episode two of a twelve episode run and it’s largely about emotional chicanery and referencing forty year old mythology at a time when in earlier series it was about properly introducing some new companion or showing a post-regenerative Doctor’s first adventure. Thrilling, intellectually satisfying and also shifting that old mythology onwards still.
After his first couple of appearances, the original television run of the show tended to made a point of keeping these two separate for as long as possible which was nonsense because as even Davros knows, the reason Genesis of the Daleks is a classic is because of his lengthy conversation with the Doctor over the price of eggs or the universe (which is roughly the same in the Organic food section of Waitrose). In later years, Big Finish has thankfully noticed and Joseph Lidster’s Terror Firma in particular presents a spiritually similar conversation as appears here with Davros apparently close to death (which is why its absence was felt so much last week presumably due to licensing and BBC charter reasons). For all his whimsy, the Doctor’s always at his best when academically jousting with scientists even if he has the beating hearts of an artist.
As expected, Moffat’s Genesis wave from last week wasn’t just the introduction of some gratuitous continuity point and paid off this week (and how). There was always something slightly nonsensical about Fourth's attitude to those two wires in Genesis since he’d destroyed the Dalek race on numerous occasions already and all he’d be doing was saving his younger incarnations from doing much the same thing as Twelfth does at the conclusion of this story (somewhat referencing Power in the process). He mentions the effects on history (which various chronologies have since suggested happen anyway due to the line about setting back the development of the Daleks) and Russell T Davies has since suggested it was the original front of the Time War. But, yes, it’s a very odd scene in retrospect.
Even more than Journey’s End, the intensity of Julian Bleach’s depiction of Davros is breathtaking, continuing the legacy of Wisher, Gooderson and Molloy with the script providing him the opportunity for offering even greater emotional depths, at least for the screen version (Molloy has been astonishing in the audios too and I don’t want to draw away from his achievement). Davros’s eyes open and suddenly the least expressive element of the old mask is given force. We know now of course that both figures in the conversation are play acting, but anyone who's heard the biographical audio series about Davros (which Moffat studiously doesn’t contradict at all here) will find even greater poignancy in the action (even as we’re wondering if Moffat meant to paraphrase George Lucas or more probably Lawrence Kasdan here).
Up against him is the Doctor giving his A-game. Yes, he is the Doctor. He really, really is. There were glimmers in the final production block episode of last year and Last Christmas that Capaldi had realised how to play him and Moffat to write him, but finally we have a figure that fulfils the promise of those technicolour eyebrows from The Day of the Doctor, all of the fierce, powerful forces, underpinned by tenderness, diplomacy and yes, compassion even if in the latter case it’s being deployed as a bluff. Peter finally looks like he’s properly enjoying himself and also that his Time Lord skin fits snugly rather than as something he’s been told to wear and is making the most of it. Even without the visual reference at the start of the episode, we can see the Fourth Doctor as a major influence, but Scottish (with a few Tennanty ticks).
More than that, I also feel like my hero’s returned, which as anyone who held my hand through the dark times last year will know is huge. This man simply doesn’t feel like the cruel impostor who wandered through series eight, though I say that cautiously given that he only has a conversation with about half a dozen people across this entire story and none of them are strangers. We’ll see what happens next week. But when he smiles here, it’s with the gleeful, comfortable warmth of Tom or the other Peter or Matt rather than because his teeth want a divorce from his gums and can’t seem to find a decent solicitor. It’s been argued that what we saw last year was the mania of a post-regenerative cycle stretched across twelve episodes, but without that made plain in the script, it was really hard to take.
Then, just when it looks like everything’s about resolve itself and the Dalek base is about to tip into its own sewers, there’s the supremely odd scene of Missy trying to convince the Doctor to murder Clara. Designed mainly to give the Time Lady a point in the story which isn’t that she not River Song, it’s the Doctor Who equivalent of the repeated fake out which causes the surviving cast of the various Scream sequels to have weapons to hand when current wearer of Ghost Face looks like he’s already checked out. We know he won’t do it and on the surface it seems like the kind of slightly bland confrontation designed to ramp up some false tension that often ruins a good story.
But as has been the case in the rest of the story, it has a purpose: to return the Doctor to moment of cliff-hanger in the previous episode, the reasons for which are self-explanatory. Nevertheless there are staggering implications which are somewhat glossed over and are connected to the end scene of Listen. How is the TARDIS able to visit these points in time now, old Skaro and old Gallifrey, given the events of the Time Way and why is he not asking that question? When young Davros was revealed last week, I thought half of the surprise was that the Doctor could even be in that space let alone be speaking to a pint-sized version of his arch enemy. Moffat’s said that all these stories will be linked in some way. Perhaps he’ll return to this element later in the year.
The upshot of all this is that I’m really excited about the next ten episodes plus Christmas special which is really good news since the last thing you want is to dread watching the next episode of what purports to be a favourite television series (as anyone who sat through s6 of Buffy and s5 of The West Wing will tell you). Moffat seems to be enjoying himself again, evidenced by the teaser and at the other end of the episode Missy’s first meeting with Davros after all these years. We’ll see how that transmits through the other writers, if this is a genuine new direction for the series or an abiration. Nevertheless, for now, Doctor Who’s back to be being the thing it should always be, ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. But in a good way.
TV I've just tweeted the following but I'm putting a version of it here for posterity.
Jenna Coleman's not listed in the cast for episode two but Clara is mentioned in the official synopsis for episode three.
Clara really has been exterminated. She's gone.
But before the next adventure, either at the end of tomorrow night or the beginning of the third episode, the Doctor breaks into his own chronology and picks up a Clara from earlier in her timestream, before the version we saw at the beginning of The Magician's Apprentice and they travel the universe in the classical style, usual sorts of adventures, the Doctor knowing her fate.
Then at the end of the final episode, he drops her back on Earth, knowing it has to end some time, and knowing her fate. Which she doesn't.
Or the final episode will about him trying to get around the laws of time in order so that she can live. Something like that.
Yes, it's very reminiscent of at least three things Moffat's done before but if he and Doctor Who are capable of anything it's re-using old ideas that work.
Updated 27/9/2015 Well, I got that wrong.
Posted on Friday, September 25, 2015
Health Something I had absolutely no idea about. From the NYT:
"The BRCA mutation entered the Jewish community in Poland some 500 years ago, and because the Jews of Eastern Europe lived in isolated communities, they incubated it among themselves. Entire families of women were wiped out by breast cancer, and no one knew why as they buried their dead.
"Even though the 14 million Jews of the world today have scattered and intermarried, the BRCA mutation still disproportionately affects Ashkenazi Jews."
Film The new Peanuts film has a website which offers you the chance to produce a version of yourself in the new threedification of Charles Schultz's style. Find me above, in all my man at Asda, t-shirt and jeans glory. As with the Paddington film, I'm expecting nothing but good things from this film. The trailer feels in keeping with the original comics and the reliance of that music in the publicity shows that the producers are clearly very clued in on what makes this franchise unique.
Posted on Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Film Find embedded above a TIFF Industry discussion about the financing of female-led films, encompassing what's gone wrong in the past and with an idea for the kinds of action which could and should be taken in the future. The too long to watch version is that because women have always been in the minority on boards and in decision making roles even if a discrimination in creative circles isn't actively brought by men it can be unconsciously. The action plan is essentially to create goals. The best contributor is Anna Serner, the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute were 50% of the productions they finance are by women directors and as she notes it's all very well women filmmakers getting together in support networks and talking but its then up to them to take their talents up the hierarchy.
Frankly, and let's call them what they are, man films made by men about men for men. To unfairly selecting something at random, I watched the exceedingly average Out of the Furnace recently which stars Christian Bale as a mill worker who's trying to protect his younger wayward war veteran brother Casey Affleck. There's more to it than that, but suffice to say there's some punching and shooting and shouting and amongst a cast which includes the likes of Woody Harrelson and Willem Defoe there's room for just one female character, played as she so often is by Zoe Saldana. Now the potential argument is that the film's portraying a world in which there are few women and in which these men don't much interact with women, but my counter-argument would be ask why we have to see that again?
Despite only appearing in about three scenes, it's soon pretty clear that Saldana's character's story arc is a lot more original and interesting than the generically grim nonsense happening elsewhere but the filmmakers, all men, just simply aren't interested in expanding her role beyond girlfriend who leaves and hooks up with someone else in order to cause the protagonist pain. To have done so would have led to a completely different film, but I suppose my point is we've otherwise seen this film. We haven't seen the version of this film which is about her character. Not that there's any reason why this story couldn't be told with women in the lead roles either beyond the usual lazy gender stereotypes and that in and of itself would have created the necessary variance.
But as the discussion touches upon, it's also about recognising that women make up 50% of the world's population and that not having more than one woman in a lead role both behind and in front of the camera is morally wrong. Flicking through the winter preview section of this month's Empire, all I see are pages and pages of films with male protagonists, often with the character's name in the title. Apart from The Hunger Games (and possibly Star Wars), when women are visible it's as part of an ensemble and even then often as a romantic interest or daughter and the vast majority of this work is created by men. But when these things are made and are successful, as the panel agrees it's treated as a fluke rather than something to be turned into a movement and I'd add if they're a failure it stops that kind of film being made again as if that's what's important.
TV Surprise. One of the benefits of launching into this list without creating any clear definitions as to what constitutes a "film" is that I can essentially make it up as I go along. To suggest a "film" can only be a "film" if it's been theatrically released denies status to a number of clearly very worthy films which have only been broadcast on television or released in a home format.
Perhaps we could look to the intent of the artist or production company, but again now that theatre is being broadcast in cinemas, films projected in theatres and most of it on an iProduct, I'm going to allow myself a certain flexibility. The IMDb lists this the BBC Shakespeares as "TV Movies" which is good enough for me - and both the game shows Pointless and In It To Win It on several occasions.
Does the selection of a video taped studio production require this sort of justification? Probably. But of all the films released in 1980 which due to the list rules I could choose (no repetitions of director or franchise) there isn't anything theatrical which I've actually seen which quite matches up to the esteem I have for the BBC Shakespeare adaptation of Hamlet.
It's quite nice to be able to cross post (original post here) something in from one of my other long term projects, a rare example of something on this list which you can watch legally for free. This means I don't feel so guilty for having to ignore the Branagh version in the mid-90s part of the list. It seems quite fitting to have Lalla up there in the week that Doctor Who began again.
For the uninitiated, all three of you, The Hamlet Weblog was and is an effort to watch as many different versions of Hamlet as I can. This is a sporadic endeavour largely because there's a balance between wanting to see the play but not wanting to see it too much so although there was a period in the past decade when I saw plenty of productions, it's slowed to a trickle.
As is so often the case with these projects, there's the process of reviewing the production afterwards for posterity and there's only so interesting ways you can try and explain why a director might have chosen to include the scenes featuring Fortinbras. Or not.
Perhaps I should mention I disagree with my slightly younger self on a few points (Lalla's Ophelia particularly), so greet what follows with all the caution of Laertes when he's visited by the ghost at the start of the play.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (TV Movie)
I knew when I began this process that there would be certain 'tentpole' productions, so renowned that I'd want to save them and relish them. The BBC Shakespeare Hamlet is one such presentation with its central performance from Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart's Claudius and Claire Bloom's Gertrude. But for this fanboy there's an extra level of interest because glancing through the cast list beforehand it would be quite easy to say 'I can't believe it's not Doctor Who'.
In casting terms that means Geoffrey Beavers who played the Doctor's nemesis The Master during the eighties, Lalla Ward (Ophelia), who famously companioned Tom Baker's Time Lord as Romana (before marrying him briefly in real life) and Jacobi who would later go on to play a version of the Doctor on an audio cd (Deadline), The Master in an animated story for the BBC website (The Scream of the Shalka) and is soon to appear in an episode of the new television series (Utopia).
But a range of actors who filled bit part roles in Hamlet would go on to do the same in Who. Geoffrey Bateman (Guildenstern) played Dymond in The Nightmare of Eden), Emrys James (First Player) was Aukon in State of Decay, Peter Burroughs (Player) was the Jester in The King's Demons, Peter Benson (Second Gravedigger) essayed the role of Bor in Terminus, Stuart Fell (Player) has been a whole vast range of different characters including Alpha Centauri in The Curse of Peladon and Reginald Jessop (Messenger) was type cast as a Servant in a number of episodes.
That connection continues behind the camera as the production is kinetically directed by Rodney Bennett who helmed a range of stories for that series in the same period (The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment and The Masque of Mandragora), the fights were co-ordinated by B.H. Barry (The Mind Robber and Four To Doomsday) and the vision mixed by Shirley Coward (The Tenth Planet and Remembrance of the Daleks). The music too is supplied by that series' main composer during the Baker era, Dudley Simpson and indeed one of the few distractions is when Simpson's familiar brass section clashes in between acts or scenes, so redolent of a cliff hanger or the attack of a Wyrrrn.
This is a wonderful production. Tied though it is to the BBC drama department's idiom of the time, all studio bound, multi-camera setups shot on video, it straddles the divide between pure theatre and television and is one of the jewels in the BBC Shakespeare series, so traditional in many ways but radical in others. Perhaps acknowledging the limitations of the medium, Bennett favours performances over setting, a decision that pays dividends.
Series producer Cedric Messina's hope was that the big roles should be played by renowned actors and Jacobi certainly fitted the bill, having seen him in a famous 1977 West End production (more on which at a later date). At the planned time of taping, Jacobi was contracted to play Richard II on stage, so Messina waited until he would be free and thank goodness he did -- this recording captures one of the best characteristics of the role I've ever seen.
I don't think I've seen Jacobi give a poor performance -- even in Evolution: Underworld he manages to keep his dignity. What makes this so special is that the actor absolutely understands the range of emotions that Hamlet is dragged through and is able to successfully layer in the sheer frustration of not being able to carry out his dead father's wishes either because of the situation or his own fallibilities. Watch his face during The Mousetrap as he realises that his uncle hasn't reacted to the mime of the death of Gonzago and that he'll actually have to talk him through the deed, hammering home the message that he knows of the murder.
He's so very vulnerable too, slightly nervous, never entirely sure of his actions even when he's addressing the audience during soliloquys; rather like other fourth wall breakers in such films as High Fidelity, Alfie or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, there's a bond of trust between him and us as he imparts his feelings -- a connection which isn't granted to Claudius when he too sits alone and faces the emotional consequences of his actions (Stewart looks away from the lense even in close up). Only towards the end does Hamlet's loyalty really shift to his good friend Horatio, loyally played by Robert Swann with just a hint of homo-erotic tension.
It's also a very droll turn as Jacobi mines the seam of black comedy that Shakespeare has threaded through the dialogue that I've seen so few other actors take advantage of. Some moments are laugh out loud funny, such as his treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here portrayed as nothing more than acquaintances suddenly dropping in unannounced rather like that email you sometimes get from someone you hardly knew at school who's signed up to Friends Reunited.
Some of this is made possible because of the choice to use a near complete text, allowing the actors the space to provide a more complete psychological arc for their characters. In this reading Claudius becomes a full blooded antagonist with almost as much screen time as Hamlet, Stewart relishing the opportunity to show both sides of the character, the public statesman who is privately guilt ridden. That tension is particularly clear in his dealings with a grief stricken Laertes (David Robb), nervously turning parental and sibling loss to his advantage.
There's certainly a grey area as to who the audience should be sympathising with. Although Claudius's murder of Hamlet Snr is unconscionable there's an inference that he took the action for the good of the country to help the peace process with Fortinbras who to my understanding lost part of his kingdom in a previous war. To an extent it's almost as though Hamlet isn't seeing the bigger picture, putting his own revenge plot ahead of the country's needs, Denmark's strength. This production makes plain that if Hamlet Snr hadn't visited his son the stable status quo would have continued -- it's Hamlet Jnr's plans which lead to the death of a family and the downfall of the kingdom. Comedy, tragedy, irony.
It's no pleasure though to report that I don't think Lalla Ward's Ophelia really works. Perhaps it's because her noble Romana in Doctor Who is so effective that here she seems defeated by the text, never once coming across as really being Laertes sister or in love with Hamlet. Only later, during the descent into madness does the performance gain power but even then it's a forced mess of histrionics. Claire Bloom's Gertrude, by contrast, exudes nobility and a surprising eroticism (frankly she's a babe). Throughout there's an implication that her marriage with old Hamlet was rather boring one and her shift to his brother not too difficult a choice and indeed that the bond with her son was broken long before his father's death.
As Susan Willis notes in her wonderful book, The BBC Shakespeare Plays: Making The Canon, from an initial push to produce backdrops that attempt to create a realistic period setting for each of the plays, as the productions drifted onward, taste shifted from representation to abstract with Don Homfray's designs for Hamlet being one of the first experiments. The exteriors then occur in a large empty studio, a grey void ringed with flooring at a slight incline, filled with mist for the battlement scenes, the sounds of the sea for the departing of Laertes and soil and a grave for Ophelia's funeral (which includes the sight of poor Lalla wrapped in drapes lying actually in the grave with mud dropped on top of her).
The interiors are even more experimental. Partitions have been painted with columns and vistas, bookshelves and libraries, paintings and wardrobes but they're generally used without regard for what's on them. During the scene when Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet's disposition with Ophelia they hide behind a wall with a landscape painted on to imply the view from the palace and Hamlet opens up the wall to see if he can find them hiding. It's the representation of a palace without regard for its geography which is by turns confusing and exhilarating and could be interpreted as an example of Hamlet losing his grip on reality, of the details of his surroundings losing their importance in comparison to his cause.
Having bought the box set, I'm slowly working my way through all of these BBC Shakespeare 'performances', geekily in production order minus the histories which I'm going to watch together at the end. Some have been better than others but I wouldn't describe any of them as awful. Inevitably I've loved the Measure for Measure and the As You Like It is far from the disaster its reputation suggests (with it just see a young Helen Mirren and an old David Prowse acting in the same scene). If the Romeo and Juliet shows signs of early nerves, Twelfth Night is a lovely romp and The Tempest has real power. But I think this Hamlet almost towers above them all and will be hard to beat.
Film Students are slowly beginning to return to university or beginning their courses and at around this time, ten years ago, I began my MA in Screen Studies at the University of Manchester. Setting aside the nostalgia implications, a bit, I've decided to celebrate by creating a series of posts highlighting some of my favourite pieces of film related academia.
We begin with Laura Mulvey's essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, a pdf of which is available here.
Mulvey is a feminist theorist who's currently professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London but for many years worked at the BFI. This seminal essay published in 1975, took a psychoanalytical approach to the representation of women in cinema as objects of desire, encapsulated in the concept of "the male gaze".
At its most basic level this amounts to a moment in a film when a shot lingers on a female form, then cuts to a man enjoying said form then cuts back, and the notion is that through editing we've been trained to appreciate the woman in a particular way.
Here's a video filled with examples that seems to have been gathered by a student for class project on just this topic:
At university I was tasked with writing about this in relation to particular films on a couple of occasions and posted the first, about The Breakfast Club here focusing on the "Allison reveal" scene, which through modern eyes, as with all minor pygmaliona, looks utterly wrong. Andrew should accept her for who she is.
The problem, as Mulvey identified forty years ago, is that it utterly destroys the agency of the female character because it becomes about her appearance rather than her existence as a human being. It's about what she can do visually for the man rather than her own autonomy.
This is even true when a male character isn't in the scene, since the use of camera angles puts the viewer in that position (with the potential to suggest that a male camera operator, director and cinematographer are also fulfilling this requirement). Here's another video with plenty of example of the toe to head shot.
Whilst this kind of photography is still prevalent, the trend seems to be that if a film has a solid female protagonist, this kind of shot does not exist. I don't remember seeing it in Jurassic World, for example, or Max Max: Fury Road. I don't think Paul Feig uses it much either.
When they do occur, in MARVEL films for example, they tend to be counterbalanced in the opposite direction (Thor), though it's important to note that the implications of the female gaze and also how all of this works within queer theory are also markedly different.
But it's so ingrained in the language of cinema now it hasn't gone and is still in use, partly because we as viewers have become trained to expect it. There's an argument that the reason there was a negative reaction from some about Bryce Dallas Howard's character in Jurassic World is because the film didn't (again as far as I can remember) have Chris Pratt ogling her.