Posts Tagged ‘David Tennant’

I don’t as a general rule go in much for navel-gazing, but I find I have to ask myself: why did I watch Inside Man? And, furthermore, why do I feel the need to write about Inside Man? I am not talking about the 2006 Spike Lee movie with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen, by the way, but the recent BBC drama serial.

I mean, there are crime dramas by the cartload on TV nowadays; the crime drama is to mainstream TV drama what the superhero film is to mainstream cinema. So why this one? What made it distinctive? Certainly it had a very good cast, including a few people you might just as easily expect to find in movies as on the box: David Tennant and Stanley Tucci, most obviously, as well as a few people who would more comfortably fall into the ‘rising star’ bracket – well, here I’m mostly thinking of Lydia West, if we’re honest. Dolly Wells is in it too: I’d never heard of her before she was in Dracula, to be honest, but she clearly knows her business.

The different threads of the plot initially seem to be wilfully disparate: West plays a journalist who befriends a private maths tutor (Wells) after a nasty outbreak of toxic masculinity (which is putting it mildly) on a train. Wells is tutoring the teenage son of amiable C of E vicar Tennant (fairly high church C of E, from the look of things, though it is possible the writer just doesn’t really grasp the distinction between the Churches of England and Rome). Meanwhile, West is flying off to the south-west of America to interview a rather unusual subject: a convicted killer (Tucci) who has developed an interesting sideline. The man used to be a professor of criminology before he was arrested for murdering his wife, and now works as a (and here’s a tip-off) consulting detective from Death Row.

And it all kicks off from here. Tennant does his verger a favour, which involves a mix-up with a USB stick and results in Wells concluding Tennant’s son is guilty of one of the most revolting crimes imaginable; to protect the lad Tennant ends up attacking her and locking her in his cellar. If he lets her out, she’s bound to go to the police, and his son’s life will be destroyed. He and his wife are really all out of options – if they can’t let her go, surely their only option is…?

What they don’t realise, of course, is that Wells was able to send one last quick text message before it all went south for her: West is aware that something is up and manages to recruit Tucci to point his mighty intellect in the direction of this peculiar incident. Will anyone get out alive and with their moral principles intact…?

I’ve rather coyly mentioned ‘the writer’ of Inside Man when the creator of this show is, of course, Steven Moffat. Twenty years ago I would have said, ‘Oh, yes, Steven Moffat, the guy who did Chalk and Coupling and wrote a pretty good Dr Who short story, he’s not bad.’ Fifteen years ago I would have said, ‘Steven Moffat, of course, the guy who wrote the one with the gas masks and the scary statues, he’s terrific.’ Ten years ago I would have said, ‘Yes, Steven Moffat, great writer, not so good as a showrunner.’ And five years ago my opinion of Moffat would have been unprintable on a website intended for a general audience.

On reflection, I suppose that part of my reason for watching Inside Man was to see if I was still capable of engaging with a Moffat project, giving it a fair crack of the whip, and perhaps even enjoying it. (I know I watched his version of Dracula, but that was co-written with Gatiss, a less obviously brilliant writer but also a somewhat less divisive figure.) My view of the guy has mellowed a bit in recent years – possibly I’m just a big softy, but I just can’t help thinking that the inside story of Moffat’s relationship with BBC drama management over the last ten years must have been far more turbulent than anyone involved has been prepared to let on – Moffat was showrunning two big, high-profile shows simultaneously, but both of them appeared quite irregularly, possibly less often than the BBC would have preferred. Then there’s the fact that Moffat’s interviews have hardly been consistent with things he actually did – I may be too keen to cut the guy a break, but I’d honestly like to imagine there was a degree of arm-twisting from the management. Of course, I could be wrong and he genuinely loved and believed in everything he wrote. We may never know for sure; such is the nature of NDAs.

Inside Man is a bit of a departure for Steven Moffat as it’s not a sitcom and not his take on an established character. Nevertheless, it’s still very Moffatty, and not just in the way the dialogue zings and crackles cynically along – the plotting is playfully convoluted in that familiar Moffat way. Above all else, Inside Man sticks with the idea that seems to have been at the heart of most of his writing over the last fifteen years – that brilliant intellects reside in flawed people, and the greater the brilliance, the more profound the flaws. Moffat’s take on Sherlock Holmes was that he wasn’t just someone disinterested in most social interactions, but a man with some sort of profound behavioural disorder – a sociopath, in his own words (if memory serves, anyway). In a similar vein, on Moffat’s watch Dr Who referred to himself as a ‘psychopath’ on at least one occasion and a running theme of some of the later seasons overseen by Moffat was the depths of the character’s self-hatred. It’s probably psychologically quite illuminating, and may also say something about the conventions of contemporary drama, but both of these things always seemed a bit jarring to me. Weirdly, it’s less of an issue with Grieff (Tucci’s character here) as he is a (theoretically) original creation, even if his almost-magical deductive powers clearly owe a lot to that other famous detective.

Moffat seems to be doubling down on his usual theme, as one of the subtexts of Inside Man is clearly the idea that the difference between an ordinary law-abiding citizen and a murderer is simply one bad day. Tennant’s character is clearly meant to exemplify this – he starts off as an amiable, much-loved, very laid back Home Counties vicar and by the end of the serial is prepared to smash an innocent person’s skull with a hammer. It’s a bit like Breaking Bad, I suppose, but whether or not it works is all down to how well they sell the transition to you. Breaking Bad had sixty episodes to transform its protagonist from mild-mannered teacher to ruthless crime lord; Inside Man has only a tiny fraction of the time and has to rely on some frantic, convoluted plotting (and Tennant’s predictably good performance) to make it work. The results are not particularly plausible, though always entertaining to watch: the storyline is ingenious, but you never really believe that these are real people behaving in the way that real people actually behave – they’re just stick-puppets being manipulated in the name of a rather dark flavour of entertainment.

And what do you know, in the end it pretty much hangs together. It’s essentially absurd (‘bonkers’ in the words of one proper TV critic) but the relentlessness of the plot, the strength of the performances, and the cleverness of the dialogue kept me watching very happily (even as I frequently commented on how essentially absurd the whole thing was). Clever: that’s Moffat’s thing, and the thing he probably does better than anyone else in British TV today. Clever isn’t everything, but neither is it something negligible or especially common in modern culture. It would be very interesting if Moffat ever collaborated with someone with a real grasp of characterisation or less of a desire to show off how witty they can be (I realise this probably constitutes a massive criticism of Mark Gatiss, which really wasn’t my intention), but even working alone on a project like this he can produce something which is certainly diverting and often amusing, though probably never as profound as Moffat thinks it is.

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When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever.

I suppose it probably says something about my advancing years that I still think of a TV episode rapidly closing in on its eighth birthday as ‘comparatively recent’. But then again, we are talking (once again) about Doctor Who, where – in my mind – anything made this century is comparatively recent, and in order to count as ‘really old’ you’re talking about something made more than fifty years ago.

I’m talking about Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, one of those rather inelegantly-titled full-length Doctor Who stories from the middle of 2008. I know I haven’t gone back to the show a lot recently, and don’t write about the comparatively recent stories very much (and the very recent stories not at all – note I am still just about capable of recognising recent stories as being, on some level, Doctor Who), so what has brought on this dip into the flowing stream of recent remembrance?


Well, it was this year’s Christmas show, which rather to my surprise I found to be very enjoyable, in complete defiance of my expectations. You can complain all you like about Steven Moffat’s tendency to turn Doctor Who into a comedy programme, and of course I frequently do at great length to anyone who’ll listen, but when he’s actually setting out to write a comedy that suddenly seems a bit pointless. As a comedy, the Christmas show was sparkling stuff, but also – and this was what really surprised me – I found it very moving, particularly in its closing stages.

This was mainly because, for me, the episode was paying off on so many emotional themes that had been running, one way or another and on or off, since 2008 and the story with the Library. It tapped into the great affection I have for the stories of the mid-late 2000s, in much the same way that by far my favourite moment of the Viking story, and possibly the whole season, was the flashback to The Fires of Pompeii. And (I’m suddenly aware I may be starting to sound like Anton Walbrook during his wonderful ‘truth’ monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) I suddenly felt a great desire to go back and watch the story again – having seen its end, to watch its beginning. Or, having seen its beginning, to watch its end.

I won’t deny there is a touch of the master artist in the way Moffat and his team have closed the circle so brilliantly, but that’s more to do with how the whole River Song storyline unfolded during the Moffat regime. There was no sign of that at the time, or really very little, and yet I still think this stands up as one of the greatest and most sophisticated stories of 21st century Doctor Who.

The Doctor (looking remarkably like David Tennant) and his friend Donna (looking not unlike Catherine Tate) find themselves summoned to the Library, a planet-sized repository containing specially-printed copies of every book in existence (the ‘specially-printed’ thing turns out to be absolutely vital to the plot, and note the casual finesse with which Moffat inserts that fact into the story very early on). Yet the place is deserted, except for some ominous, seemingly self-propelled shadows, and some equally odd security camera drones. Then others arrive: a team of space archaeologists, drawn to the site of this legendary disaster where thousands vanished in a single day. Leading the group is Professor River Song (looking very similar to Alex Kingston), a woman who seems on peculiarly intimate terms with the Doctor – which is especially odd, given he has no memory of ever meeting her before…

Even at the time, close followers of Doctor Who were aware that this story was making its debut at a time when the series was gearing up for one of its periodic transformations. The announcement that Moffat was going to be showrunning was made at just about the same these episodes were broadcast, or perhaps very slightly earlier (I know I was coming to the end of my Italian sojourn at the time, which dates them fairly precisely). I believe that it was actually on the set of this story that Moffat had to bluntly tell David Tennant to make his mind up about whether he was staying for another year or not, as he had to start writing what would ultimately become The Eleventh Hour the following Monday.

And watching it again now, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was written by Moffat with a view to setting up the River Song storyline for when he eventually took over. It would be surprising if there wasn’t at least an element of that going on, even if the implied ‘you think this guy’s good? wait until you see the next one!’ subtext is rather self-aggrandising.

At the time, though, I remember commenting that it was entirely possible that River Song would turn out to be a one-off character, and the whole mystery of the Doctor’s implied future here would turn out to have no more substance than the similar plot-thread in Battlefield. Hey, say what you like, but I’m never afraid to be wrong.

I have to say, furthermore, that this story kind of nonplussed me the first time I watched it. From way back in around 2004, I was always pretty certain that of all the writers on the revived series, Moffat was going to be the one to watch, and the brilliance of the one with the gasmasks, the one with the clockwork robots, and the one with the statues only served to confirm that (I’m happy to say that I was flying the flag for The Girl in the Fireplace ahead of the likes of Doomsday as soon as the episodes aired).

But this one? This one felt odd and different. Moffat’s first two scripts were just examples of brilliant ideas, executed with a laser-like precision, while Blink… well, Blink‘s another kettle of fish entirely – like City of Death, one of those genius Doctor Who stories that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably within the bounds of the series. The story with the Library – well, it’s carefully constructed so as to make things very clear it’s not just a story about a spooky library. It opens with that sequence of the little girl (in an apparently contemporary home) talking about her dreams of the Library, into which the Doctor and Donna abruptly crash at the end of the teaser, and that sequence very clearly sends up flags to the attentive viewer: not everything is as simple as it seems.

Rather than a single idea, by the end of its first instalment, the Library story seems to have exploded with an embarrassment of creative riches, concepts and plotlines bursting off in all directions. It is very nearly breathtaking – no, it is breathtaking. The concept of the man-eating shadows owes a little, I suspect, to an early X-Files episode, but the way Moffat uses them to service the grotesquely surreal concept of the Doctor and company being chased by skeletons in spacesuits is, once again, masterful. The conceit of the dead surviving as ‘data ghosts’ just seems like a bravura attempt at creeping out the audience, with no hint being given of what a huge role this will have in the resolution of the story.

And this is before we have even got to the second episode, which introduces the idea of the ‘data world’ of the Library properly, and with it rather more philosophical issues than one is wont to find in the average episode of Doctor Who. What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to exist? Is the world into which Donna is transported actually a ‘real’ place, in some way? If so, why does it operate according to the fractured logic of a bad dream? The rules there resemble those of a surreal Sergio Leone movie: if something isn’t in frame in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the characters are unaware of its existence even when they’re standing right next to it. The limits of the screen define their world, in just the same way that the editor’s technique shapes Donna’s existence.

It’s a very grown-up conceit from a story which ventures into some very strange and dark places, and which surely pushes at the limits of what a family show can get away with – never mind the horrible images of grinning skulls behind space helmet visors, the various scenes of young children either vanishing or accidentally ‘switching off’ their parents are simply messed up. I can see some kids getting quite traumatised by this sort of thing.


In the end, of course, Moffat’s legerdemaine gathers up all of these threads and contrives a story where no-one actually dies, and everything comes together in a very satisfying way – the shadows, the empty library planet, the data ghosts and the little girl all turn out to be fundamentally connected in a wholly satisfying way.

The only thing which feels arbitrarily added in, of course, is the element which gives the climax of the story its great power: the mystery woman, River Song. It’s strange to watch the story again now – the first few times, of course, one’s viewpoint character was the Doctor, but now it’s just as easy to see the story through River’s eyes, knowing who she is and what is to come for them both.

I must confess to being equally nonplussed by the end of the story, the first time I watched it – but then this was very late at night, after an extremely long day largely spent making flights on budget airlines between southern Italy, central Germany and Manchester (though I should report that Stuttgart is an extremely pleasant city on a nice day). It was only a bit more than a year later that I paused to watch a repeat of River’s final scene and found myself so profoundly moved by it (it is one of the very few scenes in Doctor Who which consistently makes me cry when I watch it – for the record, the others include the Master’s death in Last of the Time Lords and Tom’s cameo in The Day of the Doctor): not just by the performances of the two actors (though David Tennant, need it even be said, contributes as much to the scene as Alex Kingston), but by the awful pathos of the basic ideas involved – she dies for him, in the full knowledge that he has no real idea who she is and is thus unable to say goodbye properly. He watches her die for him, knowing who she will be in his future, but with only a vague theoretical idea of their relationship, no emotional substance. I mean, as an actor, how do you think yourself into that kind of situation? Where do you get your references? You really can’t say too often how much effort David Tennant is putting into every single episode he appears in.

It’s that moment which the most recent episode taps into for so much of its own wallop, which (as I think I said) may explain why I enjoyed it so much. The story with the Library is Doctor Who soaring, going all cylinders, and (again) with retrospect, it’s very easy to see it all as Moffat figuratively proclaiming that this is what the programme can be, and will be, all the time now that he is in charge!

…sigh. And here we are eight years later, and I have watched most of the episodes of the most recent series only once apiece, and most of those with a dull sense of anger and frustration, and I do not own a single Capaldi episode and doubt I ever will, because I am not spending my or anyone else’s money in support of a so-called curatorship that has as little grasp of or respect for the classic characters of the series as Moffat’s seems to. If, as seems standard, Capaldi only does three series, and if, as seems likely, Moffat insists on imposing his own ideas about Time Lord identity, then very soon I will not be watching the programme at all, because it will have stopped being the programme I have loved for the vast majority of my life.

And I wonder just what went wrong, and how we got from The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink and the story with the Library, to Dark Water and that story with the Daleks being overthrown by their own renegade plumbing. And I wonder if I will ever really understand Steven Moffat, and how the same person can write both. But, I can’t deny it: those Eccleston and Tennant stories are sublime. Those stories alone put him on the list alongside Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and the other immortals. It makes perfect sense that he should have been invited – even begged! – to oversee the series. I can recall my own excitement and anticipation when the great handover took place. Those were good days. The programme was on a high, and it felt like it would never end.

But nothing lasts forever.

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It is a bit of a truism that you never really appreciate something until it’s gone, and – for me at least – this certainly applies to the Doctor Who created under the auspices of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. I recall, a bit ruefully, the cheerfulness with which I was willing to disregard the flaws in the final episodes produced by this team, as they were heading out of the door anyway and a new golden age under Steven Moffat was only a year or so away.

Watching the episodes from David Tennant’s run now – those from his full seasons, anyway, as opposed to the various specials – my response is very similar to that I had upon revisiting Christopher Eccleston’s tenure, if not quite as strong. Most of these episodes are good, and some of them are very strong indeed. There is a tendency towards mid-season slumps (The Idiot’s Lantern, 42, The Doctor’s Daughter), which may be one of the factors which lead to the current format of dismembered seasons, but generally they start strongly and finish very strongly.

Picking one story in particular to write about has therefore been a bit difficult. The temptation is obviously to do a Moffat story, as his contributions are unfailingly one of the best stories each season, if not the best of all (I’m going to say it: he’s more Eric Saward than Robert Holmes, a brilliant scriptwriter but a bit questionable as a story wrangler), but they’re so very similar to the tone of the current show that I feel we would be missing out on the essential Rustiness of the Rusty Davies era.

And so – it’s a tough call, but I think David Tennant’s second season is his best. And of these episodes the one I found myself revisiting again and again, even in the days immediately after its first broadcast, is not Blink but the following episode, Utopia, written by Davies himself.


This is, by any sensible reckoning, only the initial third of a much longer story, but I’m mostly going to focus on it as opposed to the two following instalments. This is mainly because it is by far the best of the three, and one of the best episodes of 21st century Doctor Who.

The story goes thus. The Doctor pays a brief visit to Cardiff, not realising this is where his former associate, the man known as Jack Harkness, is now leading an underground team (this is underground in the sense of appearing on BBC3, not because their base is subterranean). Instinctively both he and the TARDIS recoil from Jack, who is now impossibly immortal, a fairly sizable flinch as it transports everyone involved to the planet Malcassairo in the final years of the universe’s existence – the End of Time.

However, life clings on and a tiny colony of humans are struggling to survive the predations of the feral Futurekind. Their one hope is a ship that will take them to the planet Utopia, a beacon of hope in the final darkness. But the ship is the creation of the kindly Professor Yana, a man struggling with the weight of expectation upon him – and also a terrifying secret not even he is fully aware of…

Why do I like Utopia so much? I think mainly because, more than virtually any other episode, it takes the greatest virtues of both 20th and 21st century Doctor Who and combines them almost flawlessly.

One of the ways this manifests is in the sheer amount of continuity essential to the plot, complete with copious flashbacks. The 21st century show under Davies got increasingly confident about this sort of thing, but this is still a high-water mark in terms of how involved the continuity references get. Never mind that most of the rest of the season feeds into Utopia and the two following episodes, there are also flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion and The Parting of the Ways, not to mention the fact that the Torchwood episode End of Days leads directly into this. Most gobsmackingly of all at the time, there are actually audio flashbacks to the 20th century series, although you have to be fairly hardcore to identify them as such.

Despite all this, Davies is careful to craft a story which is (I would imagine) pleasing to a wider audience and not remotely dependent on you actually having to remember the significance of the continuity for yourself. Every key point is helpfully signposted and recapped, usually by Martha. I’m not the world’s biggest Martha Jones fan, but I do think both she and Freema Agyeman weren’t really done any favours by a series of scripts which focussed on the Doctor not quite having got over his previous companion. There’s a bit of that here, but mostly she just recaps the continuity and has character-building moments with Chipo Chung.

Everything is slick and positive and generally upbeat, and the pace of the thing is a marvel – but there’s still time for a heart-to-hearts between Jack and the Doctor, so the relationships of the main characters aren’t neglected. In short, it’s a great example of how the series under Davies excelled. Except that on this occasion, the subject matter is much more like that of a 20th century story.

In some ways this is rather like a Terry Nation script, maybe even a Blake’s 7 script – most obviously in the presence of the Futurekind. Who and what they are is never really explained – despite initial appearances, they’re more of an incidental threat than the main menace of the story – but it’s clearly implied that they’re a possible evolutionary destiny of the human race. On one level this foreshadows the Toclafane from the rest of the story, but it also very much recalls the savage Links from Nation’s Terminal, and the origin of the Daleks as presented in a 1973 text story.

However, Davies also does something very clever in his presentation of Professor Yana. Davies is very keen on playing up the idea of the Master as a reflection of the Doctor, and in his Yana form the reflection is that of a generic Doctor from the 20th century series. The big difference between the Doctor in the 20th century and that in the modern show comes in his transformation from Ancient Wise Man to Juvenile Lead (I simplify, but not that much), and Yana is almost indistinguishable from an old-school Doctor in his diction and even his dress sense (there is apparently even a frock coat somewhere in Yana’s lab).

Every time the modern series revives a monster or villain from the original run it essentially constitutes a tribute, and so it makes sense for this particular revival to be so steeped in the ancient lore and mythos of the series. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that the last third of this episode is brilliantly, brilliantly done, the slow build from the almost-casual revelation of Yana’s watch to one of the greatest cliffhangers in the show’s history being perfectly executed. Direction, music, and Derek Jacobi’s jaw-dropping performance come together and the result is simply magical.

It’s not really a surprise that The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords struggle a bit to live up to the quality of Utopia. The consensus is that this story gets weaker as it goes on, and I would tend to agree – but that isn’t to say that there’s nothing of interest here, either. There’s some serious political commentary going on in The Sound of Drums, behind all the jokes and the fanservice – and there’s possibly a piece to be written on how public views of the establishment can be monitored through how they’re presented down the years. The Delgado Master is a threat to the establishment, but the Simm Master is the embodiment of it, and neither seem out of step with their zeitgeist. Last of the Time Lords has one of those climaxes you either like or you don’t, but I’m always impressed by the scene of the Master’s ‘death’ – it seems to me to get very little comment that here we’re presented with a hero who barely reacts to the loss of a woman we’re always being told he loves, but is reduced to tears by the death of his arch-enemy.

(I feel obliged to point out the slightly eggy plot device whereby the Master, even over eighteen months, is unable to repair the damage done to the TARDIS by the Doctor – while the Doctor himself is able to fix it all up apparently in a matter of days. When the plot demands it…)

I get a sense from reading interviews published not long after this story aired that the production team thought they had perhaps pushed the boat out a bit too far, in terms of the darkness of the plot and how convoluted the season-long arc was. Certainly the story of the following year was lighter and less demanding to follow, and I do think Tennant’s final full season is also extremely strong. But if you want to see just why the Tennant years were great Doctor Who, and why Doctor Who itself is such a legend, then this is a good place to look.

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One thing about going to see an animated film during the school holidays: in a rare display of restraint the forces of the market refrain from putting the usual parade of dreary old commercials on before the movie, allowing one to get stuck straight into the trailers (often one of the best parts of the movie-going experience, especially if it’s a Paul W.S. Anderson film). The downside to this is, of course, that it’s generally just trailers for other movies aimed at kids that you get to see, most of which I would rather be dipped in fondue than go to watch.

You know what I mean: slick CGI stuff that seems best described as ‘product’ than anything else, focus-grouped and target-audienced to within an inch of what passes for its life, with the ratio of jokes-for-kids to jokes-for-parents determined through some abstruse hyphenate algebra. That, and I should probably mention the trailer for the first of this year’s cracks at a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The other one seems to be trying to be Lord of the Rings, but the first one out of the blocks appears to be so heavy in broad-brush whimsy that one wonders why they bothered doing it in live-action at all. You know what they say: don’t bother to see one, don’t bother to see ‘em all.

Most of these films are in 3D, anyway – it seems like the kid’s market, along with summer blockbusters and classic re-releases, has been tasked with trying to prop up the whole stereoscopic edifice in the face of increasing public indifference to its dubious charms. I was mildly appalled but not especially surprised to learn that plans are afoot to bring down the price of 3D tickets (which studio suits believe may be putting punters off), with the extra costs being met by (yes, you’ve guessed it) bumping up the price of 2D tickets.  Both formats will cost the same – presumably, at least until 3D has killed off proper films, at which point the price will rocket up again. Is it just me who thinks there is something suspiciously protectionist about studio bosses doing their best to preserve such a potentially lucrative enterprise in the face of growing public indifference?

Sorry, I’m just in a bit of a sour mood today, for reasons I don’t propose to trouble you with. (Although a strange close encounter in Oxford city centre – full details of which hopefully to follow over the weekend – may have something to do with it.) At least I was able to enjoy Peter Lord’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! in 2D (make the most of it while you can, guys). I suppose you could argue that this is exactly the sort of mass-produced big studio fodder I was railing so ineffectually about just a few paragraphs ago, but this has enough quirky British stuff going on to redeem it.

Anyway. Based on the books by Gideon Defoe, this is the soaringly improbable story of the Pirate Captain (a bold move into acting for the political activist and media spokesperson Hugh Grant), who is not so much a briny marauder as an affably feckless halfwit. Nevertheless, he and his crew of freaks and weirdoes are determined to (finally) win the much-coveted ‘Pirate of the Year’ award. Their initial attempts to get their hands on some booty (steady now) are not very successful, but this changes when they encounter the Beagle and its most celebrated passenger, Charles Darwin (David Tennant).  Darwin has had no luck in the booty department either, but he does know where there’s a prize for ‘Scientific Discovery of the Year’ about to be awarded – and a startling revelation regarding the Pirate Captain’s beloved pet Polly gives everybody hope that their luck is about to change…

Well, it’s a bit difficult to know what to say about Pirates! The first thing is probably that the fact this film has been made at all is somewhat noteworthy, given that up until less than ten years ago making a big movie about pirates was considered as good an investment as putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff. Yes, this movie is clearly following in the wake of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with many of the jokes having exactly the same off-beat flavour – except perhaps even moreso, given the latitude available to the makers of an animation.

As animations go, this is a stunningly beautiful one, with virtually every shot being lovingly composed and photographed, every background packed with tiny details. Aardman have possibly surpassed themselves in their attention to detail with this film, because the look of it is almost literally breathtaking. Everyone is saying the same thing, which is that this is a film you’ll have to watch on DVD with a finger on the pause button to fully appreciate, there are so many sight gags and throwaway jokes packed into the backgrounds of shots.

The film is stuffed with good jokes of this kind from the opening seconds until deep into the closing titles and this is possibly just as well as – while often very funny indeed – the main plot and the gags in the dialogue are not as consistently funny as they could be. The general beats and reversals of said plot are, in fact, almost entirely predictable.

This is a bit of a shame as many of the details of the plot have a pleasingly baroque insanity about them – I might almost suggest that this film sort of resembles Captain Pugwash, but as written by Michael Moorcock. In fact, there are some signs here of a much darker and more grotesque film buried under all the family-friendly plasticine – there was a bit of a fuss earlier this year when some lepers complained that one scene shown in the trailer was in poor taste. This scene has since been rewritten, but there are still flashes of really strange black humour now and then. I have to say that a version of Pirates! which followed this path a bit further and wasn’t quite so fixated on hitting familiar character-development beats looks like it would have been considerably more interesting.

Nevertheless, consummate craft and attention to detail have gone into this film, and it has attracted a correspondingly top-notch voice cast – as well as Grant and Tennant, there are appearances by Martin Freeman, Salma Hayek, Russell Tovey, Lassie laureate Brendan Gleeson, and Lenny Henry (to name but a few), and a characteristically ear-splitting turn from Brian Blessed (who also gets name-checked in one of the on-screen gags, pleasingly enough). There is plenty here for all ages to enjoy; I laughed a lot and was captivated by the look of the thing, even if the incidental details sometimes seemed to be slightly more interesting and entertaining than the actual meat of the story. Still, fun.

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‘I don’t think vampires are frightening any more… we know the rules so well.’ Sir Christopher Frayling

Or, if you prefer a pithier quote from someone less respectable, how about ‘Vampires have become Horror’s equivalent of Star Trek,’ from Kim Newman? These days I think a better comparison would be with McDonalds, and not on the grounds that both are questionable on dietary grounds. But they’ve both become vaguely disreputable, while remaining very popular and continuing to dish up more-or-less exactly the same fare.

Nevertheless, when launching a new vampire story into a fairly unforgiving marketplace, it helps to have an edge, even if that edge solely consists of being a remake. Which brings us to Craig Gillespie’s version of Fright Night, the original of which hit our screens in 1985.

Former Buffy scribe Marti Noxon has relocated the story to Las Vegas, a smart move given it’s a city where everyone’s up all night as a matter of course and abnormal behaviour is, er, normal. Our protagonist is Charlie (Anton Yelchin, possibly best known for playing Chekov in the Star Trek re-do), a recovering geek living with his mum (Toni Collette, possibly best known for Muriel’s Wedding) and doing improbably well with his beautiful girlfriend (Imogen Poots, possibly best known for 28 Weeks Later). However, his old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, possibly best known for Kick-Ass) breaks surprising news to him – his new neighbour Jerry (Colin Farrell, possibly best known for his remarkable ubiquity over the last decade) is a bloodsucking undead predator!

As you’d expect, Charlie is initially very dubious about this but events convince him otherwise (one of his other neighbours goes on a date with Jerry then explodes when the sun comes up the next day, for one thing). Jerry does not take kindly to having his secret exposed and soon Charlie’s loved ones are also in peril. In desperation, Charlie resorts to asking for help from Goth-styled stage magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant, possibly best known for… um… er… I expect it’ll come to me), little suspecting that he is really about as much use in this situation as a rubber stake…

The original Fright Night was part of a slew of vampire movies that came out in the mid Eighties, appearing just after The Hunger but before The Lost Boys and Near Dark. I don’t think it’s as accomplished as any of those, but it did make a pile of money which is probably why it’s been given the remake treatment. That said, elements from some of those movies make an appearance here, and the new film is tonally fairly different too. You could argue that this refers to Eighties horror in the same way the Eighties version was a homage to a still earlier era, I suppose – although the way the rewrite changes Peter Vincent from a fading movie actor to a magician sort of disconnects the gag that he’s named in honour of two legends of horror. Hey ho.

Things get off to a slightly wobbly start due to the plot’s demands that Charlie be simultaneously best friends with an enormous geek and possessor of an amazingly hot girlfriend, and the script does not negotiate around this issue with tremendous deftness. It also seems for a while as if everything will degenerate into knowing self-referentiality and wearisome irony – though there are also some very neat moments, such as a scene where Charlie desperately tries to avoid inviting Jerry into his house without making it too obvious.

However, once the story picks up pace the film stops trying to be clever and actually becomes a rather engaging piece of knockabout schlock. Some showing-off from the director doesn’t help, and the rather naturalistic atmosphere is slightly at odds with some of the excesses involved. But the performances are very good throughout – David Tennant resists the temptation to steal the entire movie (it was clearly a close thing) but is clearly having a lot of fun, while Colin Farrell manages to find a way of playing a vampire that isn’t obviously influenced by anyone else.

It’s actually a bit of a pleasure to find a vampire movie that’s so resolutely old-school in its treatment of the beasts – as someone says, Jerry isn’t lonely or tragic or heartbroken, he’s the shark in Jaws! On the other hand, the movie’s reading of the vampire myth isn’t especially profound – apparently the vampire symbolises a cooler and richer older guy out to steal your girlfriend. Not a lot of material there for Freud to work with.

Anyway, while the new Fright Night isn’t anything very special, I would say the same was arguably true of the first one too. Nevertheless, it’s a nicely put-together movie with lots of good performances and a solid understanding of the conventions of vampire movies. It’s not actually scary in any but the most mechanical of ways, but it’s frequently amusing and often very nearly thrilling. A good bet for a fun trip out, always assuming you like this sort of thing.

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