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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Gatiss’

If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varies hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose hanging out in a semi-mythic patch of vegetation with CGI versions of well-loved children’s characters while a major international corporation trots out some rather hackneyed platitudes about getting your work-life balance right…’

I know I should keep an open mind, but as the prospect of viewing Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin approached, I was gripped by an ineluctable sense that I was, in some way, entering the abyss. I mean, we’ve been here before this year, haven’t we? Classic children’s story… post-Paddington CGI-live action update… big-name voice cast… In short, the spectre of Peter Rabbit loomed. An unwelcome level of further confusion was provided by the fact that only last year Domhnall Gleeson, one of that unhappy band who made up the human cast of the Rabbit movie, was to be seen playing A. A. Milne (creator, I should not need to mention, of the Winnie-the-Pooh books) in a British film entitled Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Well, anyway, no Domhnall Gleeson in this one, just a lot of Ewan McGregor. Though not quite from the start: there is a prologue restaging the closing moments of The House at Pooh Corner, one of the most profoundly moving episodes in the entirety of children’s literature. The young Christopher Robin bids a sad adieu to his childhood friends: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest (there is something slightly odd about the fact that some of the animal characters resemble animated soft toys, while others are more photorealistic). Christopher Robin and Pooh swear eternal friendship, before he departs: off to boarding school and a more grown-up world.

Eventually he grows up into McGregor, who gets married (to Hayley Atwell), fights in the Second World War, goes into business, and eventually finds himself the efficiency manager of a luggage company managed by a worthless and contemptible money-grubbing toff in a suit (Mark Gatiss, in a hairpiece so startling it almost looks computer-animated itself). The adult Christopher Robin is a bit of a workaholic, a joyless drone obsessed with the nine-to-five grind who is, needless to say, in dire peril of losing touch with the Important Things in Life. Things come to a head when he is obliged to cancel a family trip to the country by the need to come up with brutal, heartless cuts at the office: Christopher Robin is in danger of becoming a lost soul, but can anything save him?

You may very well be ahead of me on this one. It seems that the unhappiness of Christopher Robin’s life has some sort of metaphysical resonance in the fantastical realm of the Hundred Acre Wood, causing things there to be less thoroughly agreeable than usual, and this motivates Pooh Bear (inasmuch as Pooh can ever really be said to be motivated to do anything) to go in search of Christopher Robin and seek his assistance. Perhaps having to help the toys and animals is just the help he himself needs…

As I said, the trailer for Christopher Robin (a slightly odd choice of title, presumably there is some legal reason why they can’t use the Winnie-the-Pooh brand name in the title) looked worrisomely like another visit to the horrendous cultural wasteland of the Rabbit movie, right down to the climactic scenes in which the CGI characters find themselves out of their comfort zones on a trip to London. I was aware there was a possibility I might find myself spending another 104 minutes doing the Rabbit face. But like a Vietnam veteran finding himself irresistibly drawn to reenlist for another tour of duty, I went along anyway. And it is with enormous pleasure and relief that I can report that Christopher Robin is approximately 239 times better than Peter Rabbit.

It doesn’t feel like a vicious, cynical parody of the original stories, for one thing; it makes almost no attempt to be contemporary or have any kind of attitude, for another (a few aspects of the film’s post-war setting don’t quite ring true, but you would have to be a churl to make a big deal out of this). The gentle, amiable, slightly melancholic tone of the Milne stories survives very much intact – although, this being a major Disney production, we are still saddled with a Pooh who speaks with an American accent, while the characters resemble the animated Disney versions at least as much as Ernest Shepherd’s timeless illustrations (people are suggesting this is why the film is not being released in China: apparently the government has an issue with suggestions that there is any resemblance between Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh and President Xi).

Although, if we’re talking Disney, there is obviously something just a little bit Toy Story about the premise of Christopher Robin – it’s central to the plot that, rather than being imaginary friends to Christopher Robin, Pooh and the others have some kind of odd, objective existence of their own. They are on some level ‘real’. Naturally the film never goes into this in too much detail, but it does kind of add to the slightly bleak nature of the story: abandoned toys left to wander pointlessly in their pocket universe once their owner starts to grow up… it could almost be the premise for a particularly disturbing horror movie, with the embittered, maddened toys breaking through into the real world to take revenge on the man who has forsaken them.

This is not that movie, however. This one is gentle and sweet and genuinely very funny in places, and it’s quite well-written, catching the tone of Milne even when some very un-Milne-like events are in progress (at one point Winnie-the-Pooh and the others turn up at a board meeting of the luggage company). It is also rather well played by all the human performers, particularly McGregor who basically has to carry most of the movie himself. You might hope for more from some of the better-known voice artists (Peter Capaldi as Rabbit and Toby Jones as Owl don’t get much to do), but it makes sense for the film to focus on the most famous characters.

In short, I rather enjoyed Christopher Robin – it is a rather predictable film, by any measure, and the lavishly-realised post-war England it is set in is every bit as much a fantasy world as the Hundred Acre Wood, but it has a laid-back, gentle cosiness which I found really rather appealing, even if the theme – a bittersweet meditation on what it means to grow up – may be more resonant with adults than children. But maybe this is just another sign of how woefully out of touch I am with modern tastes: the Rabbit movie has racked up $350 million at the global box office, making a sequel grimly inevitably, while Christopher Robin is languishing by comparison, with less than a third of that total. Well, maybe we really do get the movies we deserve – but if so, I had no idea we had become quite so troubled as a society. Not a happy thought, but Christopher Robin is a film which will probably stand a good chance of cheering up anyone with a soul.

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If you’re the kind of person who wanders t’Internet seeking out the views of complete strangers on new episodes of massively-popular mainstream audience cult children’s TV series, then you probably spotted the little in-joke towards the end of Robot of Sherwood, where the succession of images of Robin Hood from down the years concluded, not with Kevin Costner, Richard Greene, or even Jason Connery as you might expect, but with a youthful Patrick Troughton from the BBC’s 1953 version of the story.

The odd knowing quote from Douglas Adams excepted, this is – as far as I can recall – the first time it’s been implied that any of the principle creators of Doctor Who actually has, or had, a parallel existence in Who-world itself. In theory, then – and I hope I’m not inciting fanfic in the impressionable here – the Doctor could go back and meet Patrick Troughton, or indeed any of the others. (What a terrible idea for a story.)

This, of course, begs the question of how the Who-world version of Patrick Troughton spent his time between making The Viking Queen in 1967 and Scars of Dracula in 1970. Unless, of course – as Remembrance of the Daleks implies – there is an actual Who-world version of Doctor Who which uncannily reflects the Doctor’s actual life. The fact that the fourth Doctor was never mobbed in the street or pursued by groupies seems to suggest otherwise, though.

The Virgin books actually answered the question of what was running on Saturday teatimes in Who-world by creating a show-within-the-show entitled Professor X, although I don’t recall Patrick Troughton being on the list of Professors: the only one to make it to even the borderline level of canonicity the Virgin books achieved was Frankie Howerd, who was apparently the third or the fourth Professor X (he appears at one point in Paul Cornell’s No Future). No doubt it is only a matter of time until we hear of the stupendously-successful Paul Abbott-curated 21st century revival of Professor X starring Alan Davies and someone from S Club 7.

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You may well be thinking I am spending a lot of time obsessing over one tiny detail of Robot of Sherwood and not talking very much about the rest of the episode. Well, this episode got an unexpected and unwelcome piece of extra publicity last week when it was announced that a decapitation had been subtly recut: in the light of recent events, the BBC felt it had to act to protect the public’s sensibilities.

Well, I have to applaud them, but I have to say that I’m not sure the re-edit was entirely successful. If we’re talking about preserving public sensibilities, I would have cut slightly deeper. I would have cut probably about another forty-five minutes from the episode and shown a repeat of The Time Warrior instead so people would get an idea of what medieval-set Doctor Who actually looks like.

Yes, I’m prepared to be the one swimming against the tide on this one, but the last episode I remember taking such an instant and violent dislike to was Midnight. These days I can see the merits of Midnight, but I can’t imagine the same thing happening with Robot of Sherwood. It’s not the case that this is a badly-realised story like… well, you can probably take your pick from the 20th century series… or a badly-plotted story like The Seeds of Death (bracing myself now for another argument about that one) or Nonsense of the Daleks. It’s just that this is a well-produced, decently-acted realisation of a really, really terrible idea.

I am aware some people have been cooing over the episode for its witty deconstruction of heroic cliches and its ongoing reappraisal of the Doctor’s character, but I am quite sure you could have made an episode including all of those things, but without the broad, crass slapstick and the children’s-TV-level acting and plotting. To begin with I thought the idea of putting Capaldi’s sour and curmudgeonly Doctor into a frothy Matt Smith-style romp might actually work quite well, and the first few moments of the episode were not too bad. (I was amused by the tiny touch of the TARDIS shell resealing itself after the arrow was pulled out, which explains a few things.)

And then the spoon came out and I could’ve sworn I felt the internet rising up in fury – but no, it’s just me. My problem with the spoonfighting sequence isn’t just that it doesn’t make sense – in order to be able to do this, the Doctor would need levels of superhuman strength and co-ordination beyond the wildest dreams of Terrance Dicks, not to mention an adamantium spoon – but simply that it makes the Doctor look silly. The main problem with the whole episode isn’t that its 12th century is almost utterly unconvincing, or that the plot is largely ridiculous, but that it makes the Doctor look petty and childish and stupid. An arrogant or flawed Doctor I can get behind and find interesting, but not one as foolish as we got here.

Why would you make an episode which undercuts the authority and dignity of such an established protagonist in this way? It’s almost as if they don’t actually like the Doctor, or – in a continued attempt to woo the Smith audience – feel the need to show that he can be silly and absurd too, in the right circumstances. All I can say is that I felt slightly embarrassed on Peter Capaldi’s behalf: you wait half your life for your dream job and then get handed a script like this. The sense of disappointment must have been crushing.

Ho well. At least next week is the somewhat-feted return of Steven Moffat to a non-event episode, and the trailer does look promising. Almost anything would be an improvement, though.

(For the two or three strange individuals who actively look forward to and seek out these rants every week: I am unavoidably in Seville for the next ten days (the idea of doing a Two Doctors location tour has occurred to me, obviously). Reaction to Listen will probably appear around the 18th. Sorry.)

 

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Time for a quick look at the second tranche of anniversary-related Doctor Who stuff across the BBC this week. To be perfectly honest, I think that keeping up with everything that’s been broadcast and published this week (both in print and online, even limiting ourselves to the legitimate press) would be a pretty tall order for anyone with something approaching a full-time job (as I write the BBC has Doctor Who-related programming running on three different radio and TV channels virtually simultaneously). But I suppose it all stands as a testament to the level of attention this anniversary, and this weekend’s very special event, have attracted.

Attracting a lot of attention, possibly a bit more than its slightness warranted, was the BBC’s second prequel minisode The Last Day. Night of the Doctor was, obviously, an incredibly tough act to follow – that was full-fledged, if very brief, drama, but The Last Day wasn’t much more than a scene-setting vignette, and not – I would argue – particularly essential.

Obviously, from a fannish point of view, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on here – the minisode showed a side of Gallifrey hardly even alluded to in the TV series in the past. Even the idea of the Time Lords having multiple cities on their planet probably qualifies as a bit of a departure, while I found it a bit surprising that their armed forces should be so… well… identifiable as such. What the episode really does seem to stress is something very little commented upon in discussion of the Time War, which is that – prior to the Doctor’s final, terminal intervention – the Time Lords were losing, and losing badly. If the Daleks are now so powerful, one wonders what exactly it is that’s stopping the post-War Dalek Empire from steamrollering everything in their path.

Back to more rational concerns with Matthew Sweet’s thoughtful and accessible Me, You, and Doctor Who, a cultural-sociological-historical documentary on the programme’s impact. If you ask me, you could do a six-part series on the history and development of the programme and not run out of important material to cover or interesting stories to tell, but this did a decent job with its sixty minutes. I am, of course, very much one of the converted when it comes to this topic, but I thought it covered all the bases rather well, especially when it came to the importance of music to the success of Doctor Who – it was just a pity they didn’t get a chance to interview Dudley Simpson himself.

Whether it was appropriate to dwell on the more dubious activities of John Nathan-Turner during his time on the programme to the extent that they did is probably a matter for the individual to decide. If nothing else it showed commendable honesty on the part of the BBC, something they are probably quite twitchy about post-Savile.

If I had to really make a criticism of Sweet’s programme it’s that it never quite got to grips with just why it is that Doctor Who has become such an extraordinary, legendary, indestructible institution, beyond the obvious fact that at its best it’s simply very, very, very good. But the words ‘indefinable magic’ are bearing down on me at high speed so I think we should move on.

As far as An Adventure in Space and Time is concerned, I am once again very much in the choir section. The in-jokes in the opening disclaimer and the very first shot of the film were disarmingly lovely and from that point I was completely enraptured by the thing.

aaisat

Now, obviously, I am already familiar with the various stories of the origins and early years of Doctor Who, so there was very little here which honestly came as a surprise to me, and I suppose there’s a case to be made that the film slipped up by not including more material on – for example – Delia Derbyshire’s contribution, or that of Terry Nation and Ray Cusick. A super-pedant could also complain about the fact the film implies that Verity Lambert left the show at the end of The Web Planet, when of course she hung in there until Mission to the Unknown.

But at the end of the day this was a drama, and an engaging one – its real achievement was to take all these slightly dry origin myths and turn them into a story of disparate people accidentally forging a legend. This was strongest when it came to the story of William Hartnell. I have grown up with the story of how a poorly Hartnell had to be replaced by a new actor – but the great achievement of the drama was to remind us that this was, in reality, a man of failing powers being forced out of a job which he genuinely loved.

I wasn’t completely sold on Mark Gatiss’ fondness for inserting in-jokes in the dialogue, especially the ones looking forward to Doctor Who scripts from the 70s and beyond, but this was a minor thing. And prior to watching it I had idly wondered whether or not we might get a surprise cameo from Matt Smith… and of course we did. It was a lovely moment, although it does occur to me that this moment is going to make the film look dated almost at once, with Matt Smith already having concluded filming duties on the series.

It’s one of the minor mysteries of modern culture – Mark Gatiss is such an eloquent and passionate Doctor Who fan, and yet most of his actual scripts for the show never quite reach the first rank. I think his writing for Sherlock and other dramas is actually rather better – but An Adventure in Space and Time is up there with the best of his work. Surely the time has come to forgive him for the ‘any old **** with an equity card’ gag, last time he covered this subject…

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So, then, other than a potential continuity headache regarding the Silurians, what has The Crimson Horror brought into our lives? What have we learned? What feelings has it summoned forth?

Well, firstly, a mild sense of surprise, although quite at whom it should be directed I’m not entirely certain. Ben Kingsley has taken a considerable amount of stick in the past over his supposed insistence upon being called, and credited as, Sir Ben (I don’t seem to recall this happening on Iron Man 3, for what it’s worth), and yet here we have the show’s major guest star listed as Dame Diana Rigg, and hardly anyone seems to have raised an eyebrow. I’m not sure I would have recognised her were it not for the attendant publicity, but then the image of Diana Rigg I store in my head is of her in about 1967, and the passage of time does make grotesques of us all. Not that she wasn’t predictably brilliant, of course.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It's Diana Rigg and she's awesome.

No, not doing a sarcastic caption. It’s Diana Rigg and she’s awesome.

This was a good episode all round for the guest cast, though – when I was first watching it, I found myself thinking ‘is some sneaky double-banking going on here?’ because the actual regulars felt like they were in it rather less than usual. You notice this less than would be the case with most other episodes due to the raft of recurring characters brought in to cover the hole. Now, I’m not in the habit of frequenting Doctor Who message boards as I am generally wary of Doctor Who fans en masse (except when they’re queueing up to buy Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories, available now from ATB Publishing, of course) but recently I was quite surprised to discover that in some ways my opinion is not that far removed from the superfan consensus.

Now, I like the Paternoster Street Gang, broadly speaking. I’m a bit wary of the way they seem to have been designed to appeal to the in-jokey cutesy meme-loving element of fandom – and if this wasn’t intentional, they’ve certainly been adopted by said element – but on the whole I like the characters, especially Vastra. At the same time, though, I’m very sympathetic to the suggestion that the characterisation of Strax in particular is a bit problematic if you like the Sontarans as a proper antagonistic returning race: we’ve gone some way beyond the basic idea of an honour-bound warrior forced to go against his instincts and natural proclivities, and into the realms of comedy so broad it inevitably kicks you out of the story. I’m thinking particularly of the satnav joke, which was… well… jaw-droppingly stupid.

And this was a shame, because I have to confess that overall I enjoyed The Crimson Horror much more than most of the other episodes in the last year, its only real rival being The Snowmen (another Paternoster Street Gang story, funnily enough). I’ve been trying to think why this should be – I don’t think it’s just down to my appreciation of the performances involved. In the case of The Crimson Horror I think it was just because this was a rattling good yarn where the basic plot came first, didn’t feel over-squashed by other considerations, and didn’t seem to exist mainly to articulate some sort of hackneyed and overwrought emotional story. Not that it was wholly bereft of this sort of thing: but the revelation of the truth of the relationship between Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling didn’t swamp the story and didn’t feel particularly contrived or irrelevant.

As I say, some of the humour was too broad for my taste, and some of the plot developments whizzed by a bit too fast for comfort – brilliant scientist by the standards of her day she may have been, but where exactly in 1893 did Mrs Gillyflower get the funds and expertise to build what’s essentially an ICBM? No doubt collusion with Torchwood will be proposed by someone, sooner or later. And quite how did standing in a cupboard with the sonic screwdriver enable the Doctor to miraculously cure himself of the odd affliction he’d acquired? (I’ve been watching this show too long: I guessed pretty much straight off the bat the identity of the monster in the locked cell.)

But now I think I’m starting to nitpick. It occurs to me I’ve slowly turned into one of those people who claims to be a Doctor Who fan but really does nothing but whinge and pick holes in the current version of the programme. This is quite a recent phenomenon – certainly, even during David Tennant’s final full season I remember walking away from each episode shaking my head in delighted amazement at the consistent inventiveness and surefootedness of the show in balancing its various constituents, and my memories of Matt Smith’s first year are overwhelmingly positive too. These days, though – I don’t know. Most of the time gimmicks and cleverness for its own sake seem to be the guiding principles involved in commissioning episodes, sentimentality feels crowbarred in, and the show’s beginning to feel relentlessly pleased with itself. Even Matt Smith’s performance is starting to feel less nuanced than it used to.

The Crimson Horror was not what I’d describe as a genuinely great Doctor Who story by any means. But there were still enough of what I’d describe as the classic Doctor Who virtues in it for it to qualify as a superior example of the modern show. I’m hoping for more of the same over the next fortnight; not, admittedly, with much expectation of them actually appearing. I think I am almost at the point of hunkering down and waiting for Moffat and Smith to finish their work and move on, although where the series will go then is surely anybody’s guess. I’m betting the answers will not be too long in coming, though.

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Hey, I’m big enough to admit when I get something wrong – my idea that this current run of Doctor Who was systematically revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season was clearly totally erroneous. No, in the wake of this week’s episode (close-to-the-present-day confined-space setting, and old enemy  which a) reveals a new side to itself b) appears chained up at one point and c) believes itself to be the last of its kind) one can only conclude that the series is actually selectively revisiting the triumphs of the 2005 season: Cold War and Ice Warrior aren’t that far apart as titles go, and it would’ve made the parallels between this episode and Dalek even more explicit.

Having said that, I’ve no real desire to overstress the point, as Dalek remains one of the best episodes of 21st century Who and Cold War… isn’t. It’s not awful, and it’s a lot better than The Rings of Akhaten (but then it would take shocking mismanagement and a truly heroic effort to produce anything substantively worse), but it just felt, at best, terribly safe – almost like snap-together modern Doctor Who, well-machined bits assembled into a sturdy whole, but without much in the way of imagination or wit. Think of some of the other stories using this kind of structure outside Doctor Who – the monster-in-the-ice story surely started with Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, as I’ve argued elsewhere – compared to most of them, this was just a bit plodding.

Perhaps this is being a bit too kind to the script, which really felt scrunched up to fit the 40-minute time slot, and as a result came fully stocked with some excruciating plot contrivances – the junior crewman deciding, apparently of his own initiative, to take a welding torch to the block of ice, the crew not seemingly feeling much surprise at people appearing out of thin air on their sub, the whole business with the TARDIS vanishing (invoking the Great God of Continuity References doesn’t cover this, especially when the reference in question is to – for crying out loud – The Krotons), and so on. And how exactly did the Ice Warrior end up frozen at the pole? I admit I’ve only watched this episode twice so far, so I may have missed it, but I think that sort of fairly essential background information should be a bit more prominent.

Another victim of the running time was Liam Cunningham’s character. Modern Doctor Who being what it is, it’s rare to get more than two even partially-developed characters, and one of those is usually the villain. Cunningham certainly seemed to lose out to David Warner in the development stakes – I suppose the professor’s presence was essential to the plot, but he didn’t add much to it. A shame, as Cunningham’s a solid performer (he was even okay in Outcasts).

'Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I'll nut you.'

‘Mention the Host Force again, Doctor, and I’ll nut you.’

And the script really lacked the bravery and innovation of Dalek, which took the Doctor and the old enemy to completely new and shocking places. Consider: deciding that the entire human race deserved to die, as Skaldak did here, is clearly not the action of a remotely fair-minded or rational individual. Putting the Martian down would obviously be justified in the circumstances – and yet we had the Doctor refusing to directly threaten it, opting to potentially kill himself and everyone else on the sub instead. Consider the version of this episode where the Russians, wanting Martian technology, and Clara, not understanding the situation and filled with compassion for the creature, both want the Ice Warrior alive, but the Doctor – understanding just how lethal the Martian can be – insists that it must be killed. Wouldn’t that have been a more interesting  and potentially dramatic story, and done more to re-establish the Ice Warriors as a significant menace? One should review the story-as-made, not the version in your head, of course, but still…

The Ice Warriors came out of their revamp better than the Silurians did theirs, at least – and I suppose you have to admire the efforts Mark Gatiss went to in order to square the circle in terms of reconciling the two takes on the monsters we’ve seen in the past – the classic monster version, from – let’s be honest – the vast majority of their screen appearances, and the ‘noble alien race’ interpretation from The Curse of Peladon and many, many apocryphal stories. Bravo to the designers, who clearly realised that the classic armour design was clearly not broken and resisted the urge to ‘fix’ it too much.

(Although I have to say I fear for the future of Grand Marshal Skaldak – was that really a Martian ship rescuing him at the end of the episode? Given that the Ice Warriors attacked Earth at some point in the 21st century, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there are Martians operating in the Solar System in the 1980s (the events of this story may explain how UNIT know what a Martian looks like in The Christmas Invasion), but they seemed to be absent from Mars itself when the UK sent numerous missions there only a few years earlier (The Ambassadors of Death). They seem to have gone by the time of The Waters of Mars, too, and the Doctor certainly talks about their civilisation as if it’s long-defunct at that point.

And then there’s the level of technology displayed – Skaldak’s rescuers had some kind of transmat system, which the Ice Warriors have never been depicted on TV as having. It appeared to have an extremely short range, so there isn’t necessarily an inconsistency with their need to hijack the human transmat systems in The Seeds of Death during the following century – but even so, this put their technology well in advance of Earth’s at this point, which doesn’t appear to be the case in the Galactic Federation stories – though those are admittedly set at least a few centuries, and probably much further, in the future. Either way, I suppose, Skaldak’s a big boy and seems capable of looking after himself.)

This story got quite a bit of advance publicity, mainly on the strength of the iconic returning monster, but in the end I’m not sure that was entirely warranted: there were a lot of little niggles and issues with this episode, but no terminal problems – however, there was nothing really memorable or outstanding going on either. This was really Doctor Who by the numbers, and that’s never going to produce anything more than, at best, basic competency.

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So – second series of Sherlock, eh? The obvious thing to say is that Steven Moffat didn’t do himself any favours with a first series that was so unutterably hit-the-ground-running brilliant, and – foolish boy! – has continued to make life difficult for himself by overseeing a just-as-good second run. One could grumble about the fact that, on pretty much any level you care to mention, his second pass at Sherlock totally eclipsed his second full series of Doctor Who (and come to think of it I did) but this would be a bit churlish, and I’m not the kind of person to endlessly draw fatuous parallels between either the series or the characters.

Anyway, as the ongoing adventures of a fiercely intelligent, asexual hero temporarily pause with the central character forced to fake his own death as a consequence of an unexpected rise in his profile, let’s look back at the three episodes.

Thinking about this piece, my initial response to A Scandal in Belgravia was that this was one of those practically perfect pieces of art that are actually quite difficult to review without just gushing. Then I remembered beyond all the usual Moffat verbal and narrative pyrotechnics, to the remarkable plunge into pathos and genuine emotion of the second half of the episode. The bit that sticks with me is of Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss together outside the morgue, a brilliant written and underplayed scene, with – for me – Gatiss never better: ‘There’s a limit to how much damage you can do.’

I’m not such a dyed-in-the-wool Sherlockian as to venerate Irene Adler as much as some do (much grumbling in some circles, I understand, concerning the handling of the character in Game of Shadows), but I thought the Sherlock version was very engagingly written and played. Some elements of the plot rattled by just a bit too fast to completely keep track of but for me this remains, probably, the best episode of the six so far.

I suspect it was inevitable that Mark Gatiss would demand the rights to the Sherlock version of the most famous Conan Doyle story of them all, and The Hounds of Baskerville turned out to be very characteristic. For the first time, the series had the problem of dealing with a plot which is well known – there are people who haven’t a clue about the plots of any of the short stories in the canon, but who are familiar with the story of Hound from one of the other umpteen versions that have already been made. In some ways this was a more faithful episode than some others, in terms of character names, but more energetically free in many respects, as well as being fun and intelligent. I must confess to guessing a) the nature of the hound’s dreadful influence and b) the identity of the villain, if not his motivation, but these are fairly small quibbles.

And so to The Reichenbach Fall, waltzing delicately through the same narrative territory as Game of Shadows. Certainly Sherlock‘s enthusiastically deranged Moriarty is some considerable distance from Doyle’s character, an interesting choice given that Jared Harris’s very faithful interpretation is, if anything, just as effective. That said, Andrew Scott was terrific in the role, just as good in his own way as Harris.

This is the best thing I’ve seen from the pen of Steve Thompson, but having said that this is the kind of story I can imagine myself returning to in future and going ‘Haaaaang on a minute…’ about. Viewing it the first time, the rush and surprise of it do a very good job of papering over the holes in the narrative, but I don’t think that’ll hold up for subsequent viewings. On the other hand, the handling of Sherlock’s celebrity was intelligent and depressingly believeable.

Looking back, I enjoyed the nod to Moriarty’s stealing-the-crown-jewels caper from the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie. And, on a similar note, I wonder how many non-obsessives spotted the presence of the 92-year-old Douglas Wilmer in a cameo role, Wilmer having played Holmes for the BBC nearly 50 years ago? In itself a sobering reminder of how few notable Sherlocks of years gone by are still with us.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes remains a going concern, of course, but the writers really were in a corner when it came to the climax of the series. The real final problem, of course, is that everyone knows that Holmes dies at the end of the original story – but also that he rises from the dead some time later! How to achieve the proper emotional impact without killing the character off for real?

Well, they managed to come up with a suitably shocking climax, but the jury is surely still out on the manner of Holmes’s resurrection. The danger was that his death wouldn’t convince – the problem turned out to be that it was just too believable! Without even the hint of an explanation (not even the tiniest trace of a miniaturised aqualung or its equivalent), his inexplicable survival looked ominously contrived.

Still, better that than the end of what’s surely a contender for drama series of the year (and January only just half over). Given the rocketing profiles of Cumberbatch and Freeman, it’d take a brave person to predict when the series will be back, but surely no-one would not expect it to be worth the wait.

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Block Therapy

When Doctor Who came back, one of the numerous nice things frequently said about it was how fresh and contemporary the show seemed, and how many of the old cliches had been finally put out to grass. (I find this quite amusing now, partly because these critics were more often comparing the new run with their folk memory of Ancient Who than with the series as it actually was, but mainly because one of things Rusty deserves immense and unqualified praise for is not how much he changed about Doctor Who, but how much he left exactly the same.) Six and a bit years down the line I find myself observing how many new cliches and tropes the series has spawned for itself.

I am, of course, supposed to be writing about Mark Gatiss’ Night Terrors, the tale of a worried parent on an anonymous modern estate, and a child who seems to have fallen under an alien influence and wields remarkable powers as a result. Oh, hang on, that’s Fear Her from 2006, isn’t it? Wait a minute. Oh. It’s both of them.

More trouble with groupies for young-me-laddo.

Beyond saying ‘It’s just Fear Her in a tower block’ I find it very difficult to think of anything substantial to say about this episode beyond a few snippy points. Even the bits that didn’t resemble the older story seemed familiar from elsewhere – the climactic ‘parent finally acknowledges child’ moment recalled the end of The Doctor Dances, for instance. Possibly I am a high-functioning psychopath with minimal capacity for basic human empathy (don’t laugh, I saw a documentary about this the other day and it’s more common than you’d think) but the emotion seemed trite and overdone to me. The plot being explained/resolved by the Doctor helpfully remembering some piece of arcane alien lore also felt terribly contrived.

Ho hum. Not all bad, of course, Daniel Mays was fine as the dad (looking back he was one of the plus points to the unlamented Outcasts) although I was sorry not to see more of Emma Cunniffe, an actress who was briefly everywhere on TV in the late 1990s but seems to have dropped out of sight since.

Anyway, having had a go at Let’s Kill Hitler for being too wrapped up in the ongoing storyline I have now put the boot into a standalone episode for just being a retread of older stories. It’s not as if this is the first time it’s happened, and at least they waited five years to do it on this occasion. There’s no pleasing some people is there?

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 26th February 2004.

More evidence of the British Film Council’s unerring instinct when it comes to investing millions of pounds in complete crap is provided with the release of Andy Humphries’ Sex Lives of the Potato Men, which I unhesitatingly award the title of Worst Film I’ve Seen Since I Started Writing For The Post. It possesses all the wit, charm, and entertainment value of being harpooned in the scrotum.

This plotless shambles revolves around the doings of a quartet of Birmingham spud delivery men. Johnny Vegas (who’s mainly notable, filmically, for failing to get the part of Sam Gamgee) plays Dave, a lazy drunk who’s just been chucked out by his wife and is now desperate to play the field a bit. Mackenzie Crook (from Pirates of the Caribbean, although come to think of it he could probably have played Gollum without the need for CGI) plays Ferris, who’s giving his former mother-in-law personal services in lieu of rent. Sam Kisgart (from The League of Gentlemen) plays Jeremy, who’s hilariously stalking his ex-girlfriend. And Dominic Coleman plays Tolley, an enthusiastic w**ker (in every sense). They are all obsessed with sex, one way or another.

And that’s pretty much the entirety of the movie, which is pretty consistently squalid and unfunny for the duration of its (thankfully brief) running time. There really is not any plot to speak of, just a series of sketch-like vignettes with a few running jokes linking them together – I use the word ‘joke’ both broadly and charitably. Humphries, the auteur responsible for this wretched farrago, is under the impression that ‘I’d be a workaholic if I wasn’t so lazy‘ is a passably witty line, and his idea of a sight-gag is a close-up of a gob of snot on the end of someone’s finger. So Ferris is nearly fellated by an octogenarian, Jeremy kidnaps his ex’s dog, Dave turns up for a threesome only to find he won’t be the only male participant, and the audience remains stolidly untroubled by the urge to laugh.

To be fair, to begin with it just looks like Sex Lives is going to just be charmingly awful like many British comedies before it, but the truth soon sinks in: this is really determinedly worthless and awful, a film which treats both its audience and its characters with utter contempt. That said, it would take even less talent than Humphries possesses to make a film with this strong a cast (as well as Crook, Vegas and Kisgart, Julia Davis and Lucy Davis also appear) that doesn’t raise a few smiles. And so it proves: there is the occasional mildly funny moment, but – tellingly – most of these spring from broad physical comedy, where the film manages to tear itself away from its schoolboy obsession with sex. But these moments are very few and very far between.

Humphries’ direction is almost completely artless, his sole good idea being to make copious use of classic pop and rock (Motorhead, the Coral, Carl Douglas) on the soundtrack in order to hide how ropey the rest of the film is. As diversionary tactics go this is marginally effective. But I really wonder if it’s worth even trying to have a domestic film industry if the best we can come up with is total crap like this. Clearly inspired by all those mid-70s Robin Asquith sex comedies and late period Carry On films, Sex Lives Of The Potato Men fails to meet even their risibly low standards. For pity’s sake, avoid.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 8th 2005:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to this ‘stealth’ edition of the film review column that isn’t as defunct as everyone thought it might be, 24 Lies A Second. Quite coincidentally this week we feature a tale of authors haunted by a past project that refuses to go away, in the form of Steve Bendelack’s The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie that’s dragged its feet in reaching the screen, given that it’s more than thirty months since the League’s last TV series (and arguably about five years since the peak of their popularity). Doubtless this is partly down to the vagaries of getting a British comedy film made these days – the vaguely similar Shaun of the Dead took three years to get made – while the extracurricular projects of the various League members (novels, appearances in other people’s shows, straight acting, doing the Guide movie, radical televised biographies of Dickens, etc) have probably taken their toll as well. But here we are, and the question is: just what have the famously unwilling-to-just-sit-there-and-coast League come up with?

Well, ahem. The renowned Scottish hippy-writer-visionary-nutcase Grant Morrison has proposed that such is the complexity and sophistication of certain longstanding fictional universes that sooner or later they will inevitably achieve sentience and start evolving without the assistance of writers. This certainly seems to be happening to the grotesque rural hellhole of Royston Vasey in the movie. Strange and terrible events (some involving the ejaculate of the camelopardalis reticulata) are occuring, leading clinically fed-up vicar Bernice (Reece Shearsmith) to realise an appalling truth – Royston Vasey is only fictional! The writers responsible for its creation have decided to move onto new projects, and as a result its dissolution is imminent. The folk of Vasey being the horrific monsters that they are, they’re not going to take this lying down. Using a convenient plot device they effect entry into the ‘real’ world, and a crack (and cracked) team comprising local shopkeepers Edward (Shearsmith) and Tubbs (Steve Pemberton), Hilary Briss the specialist butcher (Mark Gatiss), hopeless businessman Geoff Tipps (Reece Shearsmith), the unsavoury Herr Lipp (Steve Pemberton) and the indescribable Papa Lazarou (Reece Shearsmith) set out to change the minds of recalcitrant writers Reece Shearsmith (Reece Shearsmith), Steve Pemberton (Steve Pemberton), Mark Gatiss (Mark Gatiss) and Jeremy Dyson (Michael Sheen – eh?).

Oh well, if nothing else at least the League have managed to get their names into one single review more often than virtually anyone else I can recall. Anyway it turns out that they have forsaken Vasey in favour of a Tigon-style horror movie set in the 17th century, The King’s Evil. Obviously the Vaseyites endeavour to halt this project, but not before one of their number accidentally wanders into the fictional reality of the new film. Peculiar wizard Doctor Pea (David Warner) and his friends have no more desire to be set aside than their predecessors, and so the stage is set for… oh, don’t ask.

I’d like to see how this goes down in Topeka, demanding as it does a fairly detailed familiarity with not only the original TV show but the personalities responsible for it – there’s a fairly pivotal scene involving Dyson-the-character which is largely there simply because Dyson-the-writer is the Leaguer who hardly does any acting and he was clearly equally unwilling to appear as himself in the film. It’s clear the League didn’t want to fall into the same traps as some of their predecessors transferring from TV to film (the notoriously bad ‘everyone goes on holiday to Spain together’ plot of the big screen Are You Being Served? is inevitably referenced), and their strenuous efforts to do something new and original means that they fall into a brand new set of traps instead.

Well probably. This is such a dementedly strange film that it’s difficult to be sure. It’s certainly not as funny as one might have expected (and the makers doubtless hoped) it to be. There are some laughs, but not that many – and the humour, rather than dark, is more often broad and crass. However it certainly retains the attention and even engages the emotions: there’s a touch of pathos as one Vasey resident in particular struggles to come to terms with the realisation that he’s a one joke character based around a bad pun. It’s never dull.

The Leaguers themselves carry most of the film, playing the vast majority of roles between them. Reece Shearsmith probably wins the ‘most parts played’ trophy, while Steve Pemberton gets the strength in depth award (he also spends more time playing himself than either of the others). Rather disappointingly Mark Gatiss seems to spend most of the film playing Hilary Briss (not a particularly engaging character). It’s to the credit of the League that they portray themselves as complete sods: pill-poppers, poor parents, uncharitable and prone to making film references at the least helpful moments. They’ve drafted in some top-drawer support for cameo duty: Peter Kaye, Bernard Hill, Victoria Wood and Simon Pegg all feature in The King’s Evil. It’s David Warner who walks off with the film’s comic acting honours, though. (Initial reports that the great Ray Harryhausen would be coming out of retirement for this movie seem to have been premature, though there are suitably reverent homages to the master at a couple of points.)

But in the end this an infuriatingly patchy film. It never quite overcomes the flaw in its central idea (if the Vasey characters are so utterly dependent on being written by the League for their existence, how can they sneak up on them without the writers knowing what’s going on?), and the perspective of the film (the story is told from the point of view of the characters rather than the creators) means the story loses some of its impact (the opening sequence, which reverses this, is considerably more successful in blending comedy with genuine creepiness and horror). It’s undeniably original, but probably the kind of original that baffles and repels audiences instead of beguiling them. The League of Gentlemen get ten out of ten for effort, but the fact remains that Apocalypse is the stuff of cult raves rather than mainstream success.

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