After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.
Saturday, 16 January 2077
After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.
Thursday, 2 December 2021
The Doctor has fended off a major Dalek invasion in the distant future, but only at the cost of his life. Regenerated into a new form, the Doctor and his companion Rose continue their adventures through the universe and beyond, tackling Cybermen, Ood, clockwork robots, werewoves and the Krillitane, and along the way meeting Queen Victoria, Sarah-Jane Smith and...the devil?
With Doctor Who's return to television in 2005 a qualified success, Russell T. Davies and his team stretched their muscles for their second season, displaying more confidence in what they wanted to achieve. With a new lead actor on board, David Tennant replacing Christopher Eccleston, there was also an excuse to re-explore the character of the Doctor in a new way, as well as a feeling of confidence in linking the new Doctor Who to the old series. The Cybermen, Sarah Jane Smith and K9 all return from the original series this season, although in a way that does not require newcomers to be familiar with the classic series.
Things kick off with The Christmas Invasion, which properly introduces David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor only for him to spend most of the episode asleep in his pyjamas. I sometimes think it would have been better to have committed fully to the bit, having Rose and her friends and family fully save the day whilst the Doctor only wakes up at the end, but I can see that would have been a bit anticlimactic. Tennant impresses on his first outing, his overbubbling enthusiasm being likeable rather than annoying.
This second series of the reboot achieves a higher level of consistency and background quality than the first. Episodes like New Earth and Tooth and Claw don't set the world on fire, but they feature solid performances and tick along nicely. There's also a growing feeling of enthusiasm in the effects and CGI, which in the first season could feel a bit amateur hour but here there's escalating confidence and verve in how the show uses effects.
The series starts shining with School Reunion, which brings back Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane was (very) arguably the most popular companion from the classic run of the series, working alongside the Third and Fourth Doctors from 1973 to 1976, appearing in 18 serials over four seasons. She even got her own spin-off pilot, K9 and Company, before returning in the 20th anniversary special, The Five Doctors, in 1983. When the production team decided to bring back a classic companion for the rebooted version of the show, intending to give Rose doubts about how long she could travel with the Doctor and what would happen afterwards, Sarah Jane was the natural choice. The episode is engaging and fun, which also improves the characterisation of Rose's on-off boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke). A splendid, scene-chewing villain performance by Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Tony Head is just the icing on the cake.
The highlight of the season, and one of the best episodes of the entire reboot run, is the Hugo Award-winning The Girl in the Fireplace, written by one of the show's best writers at this stage, Steven Moffat. The episode cleverly intersects the Doctor repeatedly with the life of historical French figure Madame de Pompadour, developing a relationship through just hours on the Doctor's side but over thirty years on her's. The episode wins thanks to an excellent guest performance by Sophia Myles and a Moffat script that balances clever timey-wimey stuff with heart.
The Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel two-parter is another winner, taking advantage of its parallel universe storyline to further Mickey's characterisation and featuring an excellent (if underused) villainous performance by Roger Lloyd-Pack. The new Cybermen are a great design and it's a good story that rattles along nicely.
Even better is the two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, which is Doctor Who by way of Event Horizon and Sunshine. Arguably the most adult-focused story of the reboot series so far (to that point, any way), the duology makes little concession for young children, with some genuine moments of disturbing horror and a ruthless attitude to dispatching characters. The budget can't quite stretch to everything the story wants to do, but it's an impressive attempt.
The season culminates, as the first did, with an epic two-part finale. Whilst the Series 1 finale was a bit of a mixed bag (mainly down to dated cultural references in the first part), Series 2's is far superior. It's a grab-bag of throwing fun ideas at the wall to see what sticks, but seeing Torchwood and UNIT fending off a Cybermen invasion which is then dramatically complicated when a bunch of Daleks show up is thing of every seven-year-old Doctor Who's fan's dreams going back to the 1970s, which forgives an awful lot of plot contrivance. However, the dramatic ending as the Doctor and Rose are parted forever (or so it seems) is extremely well-played by both actors.
The season does have several sharp moments of weakness, though. The Idiot's Lantern sees Mark Gatiss try to further his reputation as the writer of fun period pieces, but after a strong opening the episode is let down by not giving its villain, played by the reliable Maureen Lipman, enough to do and the episode runs in circles for a bit before reaching a fairly pedestrian conclusion. Fear Her, about missing children on the eve of the then-in-the-future 2012 Olympics, falls flat because of a total lack of concern about the missing kids by the authorities and some iffy guest performances.
The most infamous episode of the season is Love & Monsters, which actually starts with the superb premise of various "civilians" whose lives have brushed against the Doctor's in various ways joining forces to try to find him. However, they instead bond and form a real friendship (and possibly a band), which is upset when an alien with hostile intent uses the group for evil purposes instead. The episode's early promise and excellent guest cast (particularly Marc Warren, Shirley Henderson) are let down badly by the woefully miscast Peter Kay and a rare total failure by Davies in judging tone. The episode moves from being touching to uncharacteristically nasty to just weird, and fails to make it work. One of the very weakest episodes of the reboot series, especially since with a few script tweaks and a recast antagonist it could have been a classic.
The second series of the revived Doctor Who (****) is an improvement on the first, with improved effects, bolder and more inventive storytelling and cleverer ideas. The show is more consistent and David Tennant is a sympathetic, winning lead actor who very quickly shows why he's regarded as the best, or maybe joint-best, actor to have ever played the role. The season is currently available in the UK via BBC iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.
- 2X: The Christmas Invasion ***½
- 201: New Earth ***½
- 202: Tooth and Claw ***½
- 203: School Reunion ****½
- 204: The Girl in the Fireplace *****
- 205: Rise of the Cybermen ****
- 206: The Age of Steel ****
- 207: The Idiot's Lantern ***
- 208: The Impossible Planet ****½
- 209: The Satan Pit ****
- 210: Love & Monsters *½
- 211: Fear Her **
- 212: Army of Ghosts ****
- 213: Doomsday ****½
Tuesday, 30 November 2021
Earth, 2005. Rose Tyler is a normal 19-year-old Londoner, working, partying and still living at home with her mum. A mysterious stranger known as the Doctor whisks her off on adventures through time and space. Gradually, Rose learns of his origins as the last of his race, the once-mighty Time Lords of Gallifrey, and the Great Time War that destroyed his world. But their journeys through space and time are being followed, two words that appear almost everywhere they go, foreshadowing the great battle that is to come: Bad Wolf.
In 2005, TV writer and producer Russell T. Davies was faced with a daunting task: resurrecting and restoring to relevance the vintage British SF TV series Doctor Who. The show had aired across twenty-six seasons between 1963 and 1989 before being "rested" by the BBC due to declining ratings (the result of deliberately being put in a dead slot opposite the country's most popular TV show, Coronation Street). In the sixteen-year interregnum there had been several attempts to resurrect the show for TV and film, including a one-off 1996 TV movie as a co-production with the American Universal and Fox Studios. There'd also been enormous numbers of novels and audio dramas, with Davies himself making his Doctor Who debut by writing Damaged Goods, which saw the Doctor going undercover in a working-class housing estate to flush out an alien threat.
To bring back Doctor Who, Davies decided to make it a fast-moving, action-packed adventure series inspired by American shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but, also like Buffy, featuring serialised elements spanning the series, greater continuity, a larger cast of recurring characters and some quieter character moments. He also wanted to firmly reset Doctor Who as a show suitable for the entire family, feeling (as many critics had) that in the 1980s Doctor Who had become too focused on adults and long-term fans and was no longer entertaining to young children, who had felt that the show had become cheap and outdated compared to contemporary American shows. Davies also wanted to move the show on in terms of progression and representation, with a more balanced role for the companion, and more roles for characters of all colours and sexuality.
He did - eventually - succeed, but it is fair to say that it took most of the revival season to get there.
Airing on 26 March 2005, the episode Rose can be charitably described as a hyperactive live-action cartoon. It introduces Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and Billie Piper as his new companion Rose, both excellent performers but here performing in a story that has all the grace and subtlety of being hit in the face with a brick made of cow dung. Almost wholly lacking in logic or sense, the episode was a mess in 2005 and remains so today, and it's frankly remarkable it spawned a renewed series lasting thirteen seasons (and counting). The best thing about the episode is its enthusiasm, as well as its nostalgia-tugging by redeploying the memorable Autons from the Jon Pertwee serials Spearhead from Space (1970) and Terror of the Autons (1971). It got the job of resurrecting Doctor Who done, but rather unpleasantly, with gurning performances, a silly script and cheap effects.
Fortunately things improve immediately: The End of the World is an effective "base under siege" story of the kind that Doctor Who does so well, with the Doctor, Rose and assorted alien dignitaries stuck on a space station overseeing the final moments of the planet Earth, five billion years in the future. The Unquiet Dead, by resident Victorian expert Mark Gatiss, is an excellent horror story set in Victorian Cardiff, complete with Charles Dickens (a superb performance by Simon Callow). Other season highlights include The Long Game, with a cast-against-type Simon Pegg as an evil villain, and Boom Town, a surprisingly moving story which runs as a morality play with the Doctor and his companions being given the power of live and death over a villainous character and struggling with how to deal with that.
The season flags again with the Aliens of London/World War Three two-parter where the Earth is held to ransom by the Slitheen, a very silly race of farting aliens. Despite some effective set-up (including Big Ben being destroyed by an alien spacecraft crashing into the Thames) and some continuity-pleasing nods to the existence of UNIT, it's a story poorly afflicted by poor direction; it's notable that the director of this two-parter (and Rose), Keith Boak, never worked on the show again, and seems to have been criticised by Christopher Eccleston for how he ran the set.
The latter half of the season improves immensely. Dalek can be best described as Doctor Who's answer to Alien, employing a single Dalek to show the immense danger posed by just one of the Doctor's signature foes. Even better is Father's Day, by possibly the greatest living Doctor Who writer, Paul Cornell. Rose sets out to meet her father Pete, who died in 1987 when she was just a few months old, and inadvertently changing history for the worse. This is a five-star episode let down only by the poor execution (and inexplicable nature) of the monstrous Reapers.
The two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances marks the arrival of future showrunner Steven Moffat to the franchise. The serial slightly over-eggs the pudding (the creepy child saying "Are you my mummy?" starts off being uncanny and horrifying but gets rather old before the first episode is over) but is nevertheless effective, with superb guest performances, a great WWII period feeling and the debut of John Barrowman as fan-favourite Captain Jack Harkness.
The series finale is a tale of two halves, with Bad Wolf being amusing but now painfully dated with 2005 pop culture references which really don't mean anything any more. The cliffhanger is certainly impressive. The Parting of the Ways is far superior, a much more ambitious episode with impressive vfx and a real epic sense of danger as the Doctor takes on a Dalek battle fleet head-to-head, culminating in the first regeneration of the modern era.
The first season of the revived Doctor Who (***½) has gotten a reputation of being rough and ready over the years, some of it much-deserved, but much of it has aged surprisingly well (dated CGI and the unfathomable decision not to shoot the show in proper HD until 2009 aside). Dalek and Father's Day are among the finest episodes of the revival era of the series, and most of the rest of the season is at least watchable. It's only really Rose and the Slitheen two-parter which emerge as really poor. Ultimately Russell T. Davies achieves his goal of resurrecting the show with enthusiasm, verve and heart, and beginning the process of turning it into a phenomenon. The season is currently available in the UK via iPlayer and in the USA via HBO Max.
- 101: Rose **
- 102: The End of the World ***½
- 103: The Unquiet Dead ****
- 104: Aliens of London **½
- 105: World War Three **½
- 106: Dalek ****½
- 107: The Long Game ***½
- 108: Father's Day ****½
- 109: The Empty Child ****
- 110: The Doctor Dances ****
- 111: Boom Town ****
- 112: Bad Wolf ***
- 113: The Parting of the Ways ****½
Friday, 26 November 2021
Amazon's Lord of the Rings prequel television series has found its new home. After shooting the first season in Auckland in New Zealand, the second season sees the show basing itself at Bray Studios, Berkshire, just west of London.
The studio was built in 1951 by Hammer Film Productions, who were developing an old country manor estate overlooking the River Thames. The studio expanded rapidly, with Columbia coming on board in 1959 to co-develop the property. The studio was divided into different areas, with the BBC doing vfx work for Doctor Who in one area. In 2014 it was announced that the studio would close and be demolished, to be replaced by flats, in the face of fierce competition from Pinewood and Shepperton. However, although some redevelopment took place, the soundstages were saved and shooting resumed there in 2019, as other UK studio facilities had been maxed out and Bray was suddenly in demand once more.
Projects shot at Bray include the Quatermass movies, Space: 1999, a huge number of Hammer Horror movies, Poirot, Dracula, Ali G Indahouse and Terrahawks.
The UK and New Zealand were previously in fierce competition to host the Lord of the Rings project, with the UK presenting a convincing argument for basing shooting in Scotland. However, New Zealand won out due to better tax incentives and more impressive scenery. It was therefore a surprise when Amazon announced in August that the second season of the show would shoot in the UK instead. It was assumed that Scotland would again be the front-runner, although since the original presentation a whole host of projects have set up north of the border, including Amazon's own Good Omens (shooting at the moment) and Anansi Boys. Being based at Bray would still allow the production to shoot elsewhere in the UK, of course.
Additional shooting will also take place at Bovingdon Airfield. The former RAF base has frequently been used as a location for large-scale, outdoor shooting, appearing in projects such as The Prisoner and Bohemian Rhapsody.
Other fantasy shows are also eating up studio space in the UK: HBO's House of the Dragon has set up at the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, whilst Netflix's The Witcher has taken over Arborfield Studios (not far from Bray).
Amazon's Lord of the Rings project is expected to debut on Amazon Prime Video on 2 September 2022. Production is about to begin on the second season.
- Leavetaking ***
- Shadow's Waiting ***½
- A Place of Safety ****
- The Dragon Reborn ****½
Thursday, 25 November 2021
Bear, Willie Jack, Cheese and Elora Danan (named for film Willow) are four youngsters frustrated with their life on a small reservation community in Oklahoma. In honour of their friend Daniel, who died a year previously, they plan to save up some money and escape to California. But their hopes are interrupted by a series of challenges, including the arrival of a new, rival gang; family issues; and Bear acquiring a somewhat incompetent spirit guide who tries to give him useful life advice.
Reservation Dogs is an off-kilter, low-fi comedy series created and showrun by Sterlin Harjo, with Taika Waititi attached as co-creator and producer. The show is noteworthy for being the first American scripted series to entirely be written (or co-written) and directed by an indigenous North American team, as is the majority of the cast (Waititi is notable as the only non-indigenous creative involved, and notes his job was using his name to get the show set up and then getting out of the way of everyone else). Set on a reservation in Oklahoma, the show attempts to show how people live in an isolated rural community, making the best of things or, in some cases, not.
The show centres on four key protagonists: Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear Smallhill (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor) and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who plan to escape their small town existence by fair means or foul, whether that's selling dodgy meat products or robbing vans. At the end of the first episode the gang gain a name and identity, the "Rez Dogs," which fires them up in their mission. Several of the eight episodes involve the Rez Dogs getting into various scrapes in the closest the show gets to acquiring a traditional format. However, the series also eschews that to focus on each character at a time, as they each get a solo mission which explores their character and backstory in which the other members of the gang don't appear, or appear only briefly. Other episodes focus much more firmly on supporting castmembers, such as local cop Big, Willie Jack's father Leon, Elora's uncle Brownie, or Bear's mother who is anxiously trying to find a happier life for herself.
The show is also not afraid to change gears and tones. The show is ostensibly a comedy, but several episodes are more serious, dealing with more dramatic issues. One episode is even something of a tragedy. At least one episode conjures up a genuine horror movie vibe with some decidedly disturbing moments.
Where Reservation Dogs works is by making all of this work so absolutely effortlessly that it's genuine pleasure to watch. Each episode is exactly what it needs to be in tone and style. The direction is frequently original and fresh, the young cast is absolutely on point, the supporting cast is brilliant and the comedy moments are genuinely hilarious (especially Dallas Goldtooth's brilliantly incompetent spirit guide). The show's low-fi, laidback vibe and the way the action unfolds very slowly through long, lazy summer afternoons in the middle of nowhere gives it a chill feeling, but the short running time and tight focus means it's never boring.
In fact, although the subject matter and characters are completely different, Reservation Dogs recalls FX sister show Atlanta, which similarly uses off-kilter humour, drama, tragedy and horror to explore the lives of a small number of characters. That's a high bar to raise as a point of comparison, but Reservation Dogs rather handily meets it.
The debut season of Reservation Dogs (*****) is brilliantly-executed television. At times strange and artistic, at others accessible and riotously funny, it mixes and matches styles, stories and tones with assured ease and a confidence that belies its status as a debut show. The show is available to watch on FX and Hulu in the United States and Disney+ in most of the rest of the world.