The Magician's Apprentice.

TV Fucking-A! No sober reflection from me here as we embark on another series of Saturday evening ministrations. After last year, my expectations for these twelve weeks have been lowered to such an extent, anything half competent probably would have done, episode one of The Space Museum as opposed to the other three if you will, and yet here we are, judging by the Twitters, all relaxing in the splendour of watching the show that we know and love reconstituting itself before our eyes. Look at a something like The Magician’s Apprentice with its swagger and general sense of “Yeah, we’re back” and it’s impossible not to think, “He knows he done wrong last time. Moffat knows he done wrong.”

Dispassionately (right?) you might wonder if another idea would simply to have produced an excellent example of a more traditional piece of Doctor Who, with the Time Lord and Clara landing somewhere, chasing about for forty-five minutes heading into a cliffhanger and underscoring the fundamentals of the series, demonstrating that Doctor Who’s an event no matter what it’s about, not unlike the classical mode, a Terror of the Autons affair or Horror of Fang Rock. This is actually a moment when such a thing could have made sense, since a companion’s already in situ and a new incarnation isn’t being introduced. Last time we were in this space was The Impossible Astronaut, so yes, the other approach would have been something neutral.

I can relate. When the show was non-televisual, after a while it existed in two streams, the past Doctor material which archaeologically excavated the show’s history and the Eighth Doctor material which for the most part didn’t. Arguably it went off the rails slightly when it tried to be too experimental, the Divergent Universe on audio and whatever it was Lawrence Miles was doing in the books, but there was always a sense of trying to move forward, do something new. But as the reaction to the Divergent Universe on audio and whatever it was Lawrence Miles was doing in the books and arguably the modern tv equivalent which was last year’s season demonstrate, if you don’t get it completely right, you’re sunk. As is the case with most genre material, we want it different, just not too different.

Having acknowledged that, let’s just throw it out of an airlock (a proper one not something pretending to be an alien planet) and remind ourselves that the part of the mode of the revival is beginning each season with a big brassy occasion and that however much we tell ourselves the Weight Watchers Chocolate Roll is tasty enough and will do, what we really want is the Cadburys. We’ve been so spoilt now, that not for us any more a bog standard alien invasion story or base under siege. Which is a bit weird when you consider that during the Davies era, pretty much all his season openers were just that. Go back and read a synopsis of Smith and Jones some time in the context of tonight’s episode. For goodness sake.

Now, we’re simply not happy with a season opener unless the Doctor’s running to or from something with his current companion(s) wondering what the hell’s going on. Moffat knew that as he wrote The Impossible Astronaut and here he is again, but with near Sisyphian task of pulling back to the fold those of us who strayed and thought he’d lost his mind when putting something as expressively appalling as The Caretaker or Kill The Moon into production and the way to do that is through our fan gene. Taking the chocolate roll metaphor to stretching point, The Magician’s Apprentice is the televisual equivalent of the Tesco Express that has just moved in around the corner with its aisles filled with pastries and cakes within five minutes walking distance. Sticking with the Weight Watchers has been an act of will. But I’m six stones lighter than when The Name of the Doctor was broadcast so …

Davros. Fucking Davros. You and me both know for how many years I’ve been making that joke about every mysterious figure which has darkened the narrative’s door would turn out to be Davros and finally, there he is, pre and post the Big Finish spin-off series (which hasn’t been contradicted yet – that began when he was sixteen years old). I think you can imagine me laughing rather than doing this which was presumably the reaction they were going for, but it’s so rare to be genuinely surprised at such an early stage in a season’s development. Excellent build up too, with the false sense of security surrounding the non-descript battlefield, which if you’ve heard the bullshit rumour that was floating around a couple of days ago, led me to wonder if this young chap was actually the Doctor.

There are multiple questions about this. If young Davros’s existence is pre-Time War, then how’s the Doctor able to go back in time to save or kill the boy? True, such things have become a bit fluid lately, as per Listen - in which Clara confusingly visits the past of a planet which is “lost” in the future – but even the Doctor’s progress through the time vortex wasn’t that easy back in Genesis and he didn’t have a time lock so stringent it sent Dalek Caan mad when he traversed it in order to retrieve Davros. You see, this is what happens when you stack and episode like this with mythology, sections of it are bound to topple over. Perhaps we’ll be gifted with an explanation next week, but probably not.  We'll talk more after the story resolves itself about the effects of the Doctor stepping into his foe's timeline.  Perhaps Hayley Westenra will sing on the soundtrack this time around.

In any case, the callback to Tom’s speech from Genesis was the last thing I expected to hear to tonight which means of course it’s probably just the thing I needed to hear. As the clips tumbled out of the speakers surrounding Julian Bleach (a feat of archival casting worthy of a John Wells drama in an episode filled with them), I almost expected Joseph Lidster’s Terra Firma to put in an appearance to represent the Eighth incarnation and felt slightly cheated when it didn’t. But then Tom’s face actually appeared and those sodding wires and I forgave them everything, even if it wasn’t clear exactly who captured the footage. In universe I mean. David Maloney directed the episode but the TARDIS Datacore entry is a bit thin on facts when it comes to camera operators.

Such are the way of things in an anniversary year, when Moffat’s in the mood to produce his version of The Five Doctors. With all of the references to the Davies era in the episode, it’s impossible not to think of the story as being in some way a tenth birthday celebration, even to the point of the Doctor holding up a gun, not just to a Dalek this time, but their creator. Oh well good. Not the gun thing - hopefully somebody will be there to stop him - because sometimes he needs someone to stop him - but the acknowledgement that although this is all one story, that something immense happened ten years ago. Incidentally, I’m also convinced I saw Martha’s silhouette in The Maldovarium so part of me’s hopeful Freema was able to make some time in her Sense8 schedule.

But this was still very solidly of the Moffat era. Anyone else think Kate and rest of the UNIT were especially uselessless in this episode with Clara essentially telling them the plot? What was with all the freezer-like temperatures in the base? I’m having a lapse in memory but wasn’t a cold environments one of the requirements of the Zygon race? Were we looking at the real UNIT or their doppelgangers from the other anniversary story and if that’s the case why didn’t Clara pick up on it as she was striding about being oh so clever? I expect I’m reading too much into a slightly overaggressive piece of CG, but this could also be a new item of mythology to deal with autonomous Zygons lacking stored imprints, a different strain to the version portrayed in Alan Barnes’s Eighth Doctor audio Death in Blackpool.

Missy’s back too and we’ll forgive them the winking manner of it, the yes I’m alive and can’t even be bothered with explanation because "So you escaped from Castrovalva..." was weak mead even in the 80s. Michelle Gomez feels like she’s been playing the character for years, but there’s a clear re-modulation of the approach in comparison to Dark Water with its Dutch angled push-ins and strange gesticulations, a realisation that a downbeat menace has a more long term gain and funnier in some respects when she’s bluffing away. Best moment (because it’s supposed to be): her approbation at being lower, if not non-existent in the Doctor’s pecking order of arch enemies than Davros. Oh and clearly not dying again at the end.

Her re-emergence also sees Jenna Coleman up her game as she’s forced to rationalise how her character can interact in any kind of meaningful with the Time Lord who slaughtered her boyfriend and put to the back of her mind seeing the deaths of those UNIT agents at the moment when she’s supposed to be working with this lunatic. Her approach is to mainly follow the requirements of the script which sometimes puts her the companion mode to Missy. But watch her in the background of shot, especially her eyes and we're sure that at any moment she could treat this murderess with all the diplomacy that Amy Pond did with Madame Kevorkian (taking us right back to Davros’s speech from Journey’s End about how the Doctor trains soldiers even if he doesn’t mean to).

Is she dead? Hmm, probably not yet, although given yesterday’s announcement which now feels like a piece of stage management rather than post-tabloid damage control, I’m not entirely discounting the idea that they shot footage specially for the trailers featuring her in other locales and that the synopsis for all the episodes after this are a complete blag. Unless Clara’s being played by a different, much younger actress. Or they’re different Claras from across history. Part of me even wishes this extermination was real, due to the poetry of a facet of the character having been somewhat introduced as being a Dalek and her now being killed by one. Well, not poetry exactly, but using a phrase like “narrative bookends” is a bit clunky in this context.  Or one of Lucas's rhymes.

Bestride all of this is Capaldi who now, after a shakier start than we’re used to in the revivals or expected, feels like the Doctor, feels like the same man who played tiddlywinks with Lenin and eloped with Marilyn Monroe, the benevolent alien deploying rudeness as a prop rather than simply his mode. Oh and stop it with your harrumphing over the guitar playing and the tank – this is precisely the sort of business you were expecting from an incarnation played by this actor and were disappointed when you largely didn’t get it last year. I know I was. Everything about Capaldi here is more confident, from his line readings, to his physicality, to his hair, which has finally decided to do that. A lot. The clothes help. The Pertwee homage of last year was fine, but the relaxed David Banks homage, albeit with a darker jacket over the t-shirt, feels more like him.  It's also about the feels, essentially, finally.

Just as an aside, notice how the two prologues that accompanied this episode online actually deepened the experience of the episode, especially The Doctor's Meditation which appeared on Facebook earlier today featuring more from the Doctor's friend Bors played by Daniel Hoffman-Gill (who I'm sure is one of the blokes from that horrendous deodorant commercial which filled the cinemas this year with the dance-off in the middle).  After seeing those five or minutes, we have a real connection to character which makes his fate in the actual episode all the more horrible.  Although paradoxically releasing it before the broadcast of the episode did rather ruin the reveal of where the Doctor is and also one or two of his jokes.

With all this talk of characters and actors, it’s all too easy to ignore the production elements, what's changed from last year, what hasn't. Having expected the show to return to the editing style of Eleventh’s era, perhaps the more interesting aspect is that scene durations are still surprisingly long. One of the more striking choices last year was how some dialogue scenes continued for whole minutes and the general lack of parallel storylines and The Magician’s Apprentice still has those. The teaser is really just two long scenes and there’s a lot of characters chatting in rooms, sitting or standing, admittedly sometimes very large rooms in the case of the arena.

But it doesn’t feel static. Although we don't quite reach the level of editing inherent in something like The Crimson Horror, the cameras are certainly moving around a lot more, shooting from a greater number of angles than last year where directors in some cases seemed to have been asked to provide a mutation of the multi-camera set up of the 60s to 80s.  Now, there’s less of a sense of being able to see which scenes would have been shot on film back then. Everything has the same visual viscosity, not that the style isn’t still markedly different to Blink, Hettie MacDonald’s previous credit for the series. Plenty of the episode is similarly about atmosphere however, notably around the young Davros scenes. For a few brief moments up front, I was somewhat convinced we were about to see a return to The War Games.

But no, it’s Skaro, it’s the Daleks and its multiple Daleks from many eras including what looked like a CG recreation of an classic version in the wilderness. The “new” paradigm’s pretty much dumped now isn’t it? Not since the Mechanoids has a new Dalek related creation been set to one side and good riddance to them. Unless there was one there and I didn’t notice it. The return of the battle-model from Remembrance and such is another attempt to re-engage us older viewers and we’re suckers even though my wilderness years birthed fandom inoculates me a little bit, probably. Armies with a single, authoritarian visual look feel more impressive and deadly than this ragtag, whose slightly jaded appearance resembles the Dalek equivalent of LINDA, even if they clearly have just as much of a destructive capability.

As is the case with two-parters, of this season is supposed to have several, we won’t really know if this is able to maintain the same level of squee-inducing slack-jawed intensity. We fans know that no matter what’s in the throw-forward trailer, we can never completely trust what we see with our eyes and the chances of any of those three having gone are pretty slim. Perhaps my biggest complement is that I wanted to watch it again straight after it had finish, which is quite something when you considered that some of the discs in my copy of the blu-ray set from last year still haven’t left the trays in the amaray case. Welcome back Doctor and welcome back Doctor Who. Here’s to the next eleven weeks and Christmas. Fucking-A!

Bye then Jenna.

TV After days of the media thinking fans would be rioting in the streets about it as though a companion moving on was some new thing after fifty-odd years, Jenna Coleman confirmed on the radio this morning that she's already left Doctor Who, having filmed her final scenes even before the show's reached broadcast, Christopher Eccleston style - though obviously with warmer feelings about it.

Would we know this if The Mirror hadn't decided to stick it in the front page?  I shouldn't think so and it's another example of how the modern commercial media's scrutiny of the show effects how we interpret and enjoy the fiction.  Now the season will about how Clara leaves rather than "Wow, she's leaving..."  Unless, as has been highly speculated about the Chris X cover story, it was leaked to a tabloid by someone on the production team.  On purpose.  For some reason.

As you know, I've always firmly been in Team Clara camp, though I know she's not been an especially popular companion over the years.  This is partially due to her introduction as a plot point with multiple versions rather than as a straight in through the doors kind of figure, the version we have now only having shown up after us seeing to earlier fragments of the same personality.  Exciting idea in principle, well conveyed, but still with the inherent Dollhouse-style protagonist problems.

The above interview is as ever about what's not being said.  Jenna hints that it might not be before the end of the year and in fact so tied down is Cardiff now in terms of production blocks and the order of filming, it could well be that her final wrap scene wasn't in her final episode.  Her first episode shot was Hide, with the TARDIS scenes only being filmed months later.  One of these days I should get around to compiling that production calender based on the Pixley specials.

Agent Carter finally reaches UK BD.

TV Why did we end up with BD as the acronym for blu-ray rather than BR. Yes, I know it's supposed to stand for Blu-ray Disc - in much the same way as Digital Versatile Disc for the other thing, but it really is confusing. Plus I never can tell whether to capitalise blu-ray or Blu-ray or Blu-Ray. The Guardian's style guide indicates "Blu-ray -- TM; full name is Blu-ray Disc (not Disk), abbreviation BD" because it's a trade mark, which make sense I suppose.

In any case, Agent Carter is finally available on Blu-ray Disc in the UK.

DVD too.

Jimmy Carter's Cinema Choices.

Film As you know I like a good, massively depthful and time consuming annotation project. So here's a very good, massively depthful and time consuming annotation project. Matt Novak has worked his way through Jimmy Carter's presidential diaries and made big long list of all the film that President watched:
"It seems like Carter would watch anything and everything, with over 400 movies screened at the White House and Camp David while he was in office. Some of the screenings were private affairs with just the President and First Lady. Other times a movie was that night’s entertainment for guests at the White House. An April 30, 1979 screening of the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata notes that there were “approximately 48 members of the White House staff” on hand to watch."
Of course it's worth reminding younger viewers that in order to view these films in the late 70s and early 80s he would have had to have viewed an original print. The first film he apparently saw after his inauguration was All The President's Men, which is of course, hilarious. But the title at least of his final film more than beats it.  I'd say if you wanted a pretty varied, cineliterate list to work through, this would do the job, albeit a few decades out of date.

Isabel Hardman on the Twitters.

Social Media I might not agree with everything Isabel Hardman says, but I always find her contributions valuable, at least in terms of offering a verifiable direction as to where my own political compass is.

 Although she writes for The Spectator, which is in so many ways anathema to me, she has an even hand doesn't feel as ideologically guided as some of their other writers.

 Now here she on Medium talking about just much of a pain that is:
"Those in a political tribe are the least able to judge what is “balanced” or what valid questions are. That is why the stream of angry tweets every time one of us writes an article about any political party or politician don’t make any difference to the journalists reading them, other than to foster a sense that Twitter is just becoming unbelievably tedious. The partiality of those complaining that we’re prioritising something they they consider tittle-tattle is so easy to spot. Often they seem only to have read pieces that they know will make them angry, rather than the ones that paint their opponents in an unfavourable light too. Write a piece about Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem and you’ll receive hundreds of messages asking how you dare do such a thing. Write a piece about the Tory changes to tax credits, or disability benefit cuts, or countering Isil, and it’s as though they were never published. The mob is busy elsewhere."
Twitter has become really quite tedious and certainly not as much fun as a networking tool as it used to be. A lot people who I used to follow/talk to have, I suspect, migrated to the walled garden of Facebook, a place which like tumblr I barely understand or like that much.

In Our Time: The Angry Years.

Radio Having embarked on a project to listen my way through the In Our Time podcast from Radio 4 the last thing I expected to hear was just how argumentative the programme was back when the format was first broadcast back in 1998. For just over the past decade, it's generally been a kind of encyclopedia in discussion format with subjects broad and narrow explained in as much detail as is possible in half an hour by three academics refereed by Melvyn Bragg.

But the first series is markedly different, much closer to Start The Week, which Melvyn had just completed  a year's stewardship. In 1998/9 a guest academic with a new book out would be invited on to what was essentially a Phd supervision meeting with someone else in their field and Melyvn, whose style was far more analytical and journalistic back then. From what I've heard so far the discussions were often intriguingly fractious with old scores bubbling to the surface. Here are some highlights.


Dr Helena Cronin vs Dr Germaine Greer.

There are few things in life more entertaining than hearing Greer in full flow and on point destroying the argument of someone who she disagrees with, and so it is with Cronin and her Darwinian theory about women in society which is essentially that men and women have evolutionary developed to be capable of different things and that society should get around to accepting that. Things begin well when Greer, having heard Cronin's initial argument, gives a very lengthy, very telling pause. What follows is twenty minutes of evisceration in which Germaine more than lives up to her name. Utterly thrilling and also likely to promote a goodly amount of righteous indignation, notably when Cronin suggests that women are predisposed not to be geniuses...

Modern Culture

Roger Scrutton vs Will Self.

Oh yes. I think you can imagine which way this goes and it's a typical example of how Melvyn and his guest would essentially tag team as they pick holes in the other guest's work. On this occasion, Scrutton's selling his monograph An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture which if their discussion is anything to go by ignores all popular music but for Nirvana and Oasis, film (something Bragg is especially distressed about) and modern technology in general. Admittedly for much of the duration it's good natured sniping, but there are moments when Scrutton sounds like he wants to leave because he knows he's on to a loser. Self is superb on how the artificial walled gardens between high and popular culture are increasingly designed for no other reason than to make intellectuals feel better about themselves.

The Avant Garde's Decline and Fall in the 20th Century

Professor Eric Hobsbawm vs Frances Morris.

Bit of surprising one this. Morris was then specialist in contemporary art and Art Programme Curator for the Tate Gallery of Modern Art and so obviously has an interest in defending the avant-guarde, something which Hobsbawm is keen to indicate is merely the process of watching the decline of a once great cultural force, suggesting that film is by far the more vibrant and important visual art in the twentieth century. Unlike the other two I can see this from both sides, mainly because comparing Gone With The Wind and Guernica seems like an essentially pointless exercise. Everything begins relative genially and then Hobsbawn starts referring to Morris patronisingly as "my dear" which gets her back up, with good reason.  It's an age thing, but it doesn't half start making you want to side with her.

Shakespeare and Literary Criticism

Professor Harold Bloom vs Jacqueline Rose.

There are few things more entertaining than when Melvyn scoffs and there's a classic one in here when Bloom suggests that Freud's Oedipal complex was more heavily influenced by Hamlet. "Do you have proof of that?" Bragg asks and we then hear a superb example of how the arguments some academics have around subject are too complex to be able to articulate in a few sentences whichever side of the fence of correctness they're on.  Worth listening for the moment when Rose utterly destroys Jane Eyre for any reader with a social conscience and Bloom proposes an utterly barmy new approach to teaching literature in universities.

Architecture in the 20th Century

Daniel Libeskind vs Richard Weston

Actually pretty good natured even though the participants are on opposite ends of the architectural belief spectrum. The real meat is in how Bragg and Weston attempt to describe Libeskind's buildings for the radio, notably the Spiral Extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum which wasn't subsequently built.  Most of it isn't anything the architect hasn't heard before, but there is still one moment which made me "oof" as I was walking around Sainsbury's.  As with all these discussions, they're time sensitive and there's plenty of talk about where architecture is in the 20th century and where it will be going in the next couple of decades.

My Favourite Film of 1981.

Film With the school exam results released in the past few weeks, I thought again, somewhat wistfully, of those days, though cautiously given that I was bullied mercilessly most of the time and didn't come away with anything like what might be described as decent exam results. But it's still possible for me to think of the good times, the aforementioned art classes (see the Adventures in Babysitting entry) and pre-GSCE English classes when a teacher took it upon himself to show feature films during English lessons for a year or two. One of those films was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps it's important to contextualise this.  Some of the films were Shakespeare adaptations.  It's here I first saw - and giggled through it has to be admitted - the Polanski Macbeth and the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, my only recollection of that viewing being his boasting that part it had been filmed at his house (something which to this day I've not been able to verify).  But some of his choices were rather more eclectic.  Even the afterlife of the Pythons made an appearance in the form of The Jabberwocky and Time Bandits.

The television room at school was a tiny space which would otherwise have been used as an office for a head of department.  I can still smell the dust of the wooden varnished floors and the chair were those fairly standard 70s stacking examples with the tubular metal frames as featured in this eBay entry;   The screen was a 26 inch DER colour CRT locked in a large television cupboard with a top-loading VHS player underneath.  All of the films we watched were off-air recordings with the adverts edited out via the pause button during broadcast were necessary.

Much of the time this English teacher would simply show the films.  But every now and then he'd throw in some rudimentary film studies, perhaps as a way of introducing us to how narratives work in preparation for future exam courses.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, this meant the mechanics of the action sequences and character foreshadowing.  He'd pause the film now and then to highlight signposts.  How establishing shots emphasise the geography of the plane before Indy struggles against Pat Roach.  How Indy earlier notes his lack of appreciation for serpents before later being thrown into a pit full of snakes.

In that period just before the National Curriculum was introduced and teachers didn't feel constricted about how to teach or indeed what to teach, I wonder what value any of this had other than to give us access to something which we might not otherwise have encountered at least not in the context of serious discussion rather than pure entertainment.  Part of me wishes he'd been able to go further and still do.  Despite its academia, film is still considered the poor cousin of literature despite, as I've since discovered, having the potential for just as much complexity to tax the young critical mind, both through textual matters, themes, signs and meaning.

Dr Hannah Fry on Ada Lovelace.

Science Dr Hannah Fry has a new BBC Four documentary on Thursday about Ada Lovelace. Which is, well it is, isn't it?
"Ada Lovelace was a most unlikely computer pioneer. In this film, Dr Hannah Fry tells the story of Ada's remarkable life. Born in the early 19th century Ada was a countess of the realm, a scandalous socialite and an 'enchantress of numbers'. The film is an enthralling tale of how a life infused with brilliance, but blighted by illness and gambling addiction, helped give rise to the modern era of computing."
If you're as much of a fan of Fry's work as I am, you might like this collection of talks I put together earlier in the year.


Film Welcome to the newest edition of Every Frame a Painting, the film essay channel in which @tonyszhou offers incredibly compelling slices of commentary in about ten minutes. The latest montage is an especially personal example in which he describes how his home city is constantly on film, but never as itself. Yes, it has a shot from the Doctor Who tv movie and yes it does acknowledge the existence of Continuum.  I wonder if a rep cinema or tv channel in Vancouver has ever scheduled a season of these films?

We've generally been more lucky in Liverpool for all the reasons you can imagine, but there has been an increase in seeing parts of the city centre doubling for everywhere from London to other European capitals and especially New York, the streets around Dale Street resembling Manhattan and Brooklyn.  None of this will be on the scale of a Cardiff audience watching Doctor Who perhaps, but it's still relatively jarring to be watching the car chase in Fast & Furious 6, heading through the Mersey tunnel or past the World Museum and William Brown Street.