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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

So, in the last week I’ve come to the conclusion that if I’m only really going to be impressed by one or two episodes of Doctor Who every year, that’s better than nothing – even if it is about the same average as in the mid-80s, and a definite decline from the situation five years ago. And, when one of those really not bad episodes comes along, the thing to do is to make the most of it.

I had unusually high expectations for Nightmare in Silver, simply because it was written by Neil Gaiman – I’m not what you’d call a massive Gaiman fan, but I like nearly everything of his that I’ve encountered and he did write The Doctor’s Wife, my favourite Matt Smith episode so far. Set against this, of course, there was always the possibility of Difficult Second Episode syndrome and the fact that – judging from the behind-the-scenes promo material – Gaiman was invited back partly with a view to making the Cybermen less rubbish, a task which has defeated virtually every writer in the history of the series (I’m no great fan of Eric Saward’s writing but he could justifiably have ‘Wrote a story where the Cybermen were genuinely impressive’ put on his gravestone).

It's only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

It’s only in silhouette that you really appreciate the value of the handles.

So, how did it all turn out? Well, there was the sense (usual, these days) of a story being squashed down to fit a 45 minute time slot, the same typical sense of jolly superficiality, even when the story was going into some quite dark places. On the whole though, I enjoyed it at least as much as any of the other episodes this season – wasn’t mad about Tamsin Outhwaite’s prominently-lipsticked near-cameo, and the quality of the child acting wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen, but I liked Warwick Davis very much. I got the sense that there was the seed of quite a dark story about redemption and guilt buried here somewhere, but it seemed to get lost in the running around and shouting that a 45-minute story apparently requires these days. Not quite so sure about Matt Smith’s performance as (spoiler incoming) the Cyberplanner – I know it’s Matt Smith, and the makers of the series seem to think that a sort of manic camp is the best way his talents can be exploited, but would a Cyberplanner really call itself Mr Clever and say things like ‘toodle-oo’? If they’d put in a line about the Cyber-implants mimicking the Doctor’s own personality, I’d have bought into that much more happily.

So, there’s my opinion – an above-standard episode by current standards, which translates objectively to mean ‘decent enough’. Critical faculties duly exercised, let’s dig into the geeky stuff, starting with – when’s this episode meant to be set?

Well, we’re repeatedly told it’s a thousand years since the last Cyber War, and what looks very much like a Human-led Empire is the dominant space power. I’m favourably disposed towards David Banks’ theory that there was a Cyber War in which humans weren’t involved, happening round about the 22nd century (it’s the one referred to on-screen in Revenge of the Cybermen, which must happen prior to 2526 as it’s discussed as a historical event in Earthshock – for some reason, this is one of those fairly straightforward pieces of continuity which some people bend over backwards to explain away), but it’s strongly implied there’s going to be another one round about 2527, following the events of Earthshock itself – Banks suggests that Attack of the Cybermen is set during the final stages of this war, which he dates as concluding in 2530.

This would therefore give the earliest possible date for Nightmare in Silver as around 3500AD – however, there is that Human Empire to take into account. The Earth Empire seen in Frontier in Space, and so on, is shown to have been in decline by the 30th century, and nearly every chronology agrees that the second half of the fourth millennium is the era of the Galactic Federation. On the face of it, then, it seems fairly unlikely that the Cyber War mentioned in Nightmare in Silver is one previously referred to in the TV series.

There’s also the issue of the Cybermen we see in the story, too: this is the same model shown to be operating in the early sixth millennium in A Good Man Goes To War (there’s an article to be written on how much store we should set by the varying appearances of recurring Doctor Who monsters, but let’s take this at face value for now) – which, incidentally, suggests the Cybermen of that period are at a peak of military power beyond anything seen elsewhere in the series. These same Cybermen appear decrepit and obsolete in Nightmare in Silver, suggesting the story takes place in an even more distant future.

This suggests the empire we see in this story could be the Third Great and Bountiful Human Empire (the First Empire appears to have existed from the 25th to the 30th centuries, the Second round about the 42nd), for which we have never received an on-screen date – there’s plenty of room, given the Fourth Empire doesn’t appear for nearly 200,000 years. The implication that this is an intergalactic empire, and the existence not just of planet-busting but galaxy-destroying weapons, suggests a date in the very distant future is not unreasonable.

And yet even here the Cybermen are still around and perceived as a deadly menace: not bad for a race who once lost in a fair fight with UNIT. It’s tempting to construct a narrative in which virtually every previous appearance by the Cybermen (certainly all the ones set between 1979 and the 26th century) portrays the very early and rather fragile beginnings of the Cyber Race, with Nightmare in Silver (and, if you like, A Good Man Goes To War) our first glimpses of them as a mature and established power (in the circumstances I’m hesitant to use the word ‘culture’). That’s what I draw from the references to the Cyberiad and the high level of technological sophistication depicted here (just the sort of evocative little touches you’d expect from a writer of Gaiman’s ability), anyway. (Could’ve done without the bullet-time Cyberman, though.)

It certainly leaves a lot of unanswered questions and room for manoeuver in further stories featuring these Cyberiad-Cybermen, which is very nearly mission accomplished all by itself in terms of revamping the race: previously, the Cybermen were usually generic robots-in-all-but-name who were not very good at infiltrating remote outposts – the Cybermen’s Big Thing, the concept of conversion, is more often used as colour for a story than its absolute core. Are these Cybermen interesting enough to justify being brought back for any reason other than the fact that they’re an iconic big name bad guy? I would certainly give them the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, Neil Gaiman seems to have smacked into the usual problem modern writers encounter when trying to make the Cybermen less rubbish – you’ve got an impersonal, cybernetic culture which in many ways has more of the characteristics of a sentient plague, where the individual members are drones and the worst thing they can do to you is to destroy your sense of self. You can give the Cybermen new tricks and tinker with the styling all you like (and I think the new-model Cybermen are an improvement) but on paper the Cyberiad is arguably more like the Borg Collective than ever before. I’m not the first person to say that in many ways Star Trek actually ‘did’ the Cybermen better than Doctor Who, but it’s still true, and this is a headache I don’t really see going away. Still, for possibly the first time ever the Cybermen look like they could actually give the Borg a good showing should it come to a fight, and this in itself suggests that Nightmare in Silver achieved at least some of its ambitions.

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Wandering Loonies, that is – well, sort of. Have I said before how much season 5 of Babylon 5 reminds me, in a funny way, of season 1? Probably due to the sense of something starting from scratch, although season 5’s ambitions are necessarily different. Certainly the most recent quartet has done nothing to dispel this impression, partly because the episodes are less about people in rooms arguing about political philosophy and more about oddballs visiting the station and bringing the plot with them.

However, it would be stretching a point to suggest that these are the startling wandering loonies of old – the days of Jack the Ripper or King Arthur turning up on the station are gone, alas. In Learning Curve the visitors are a bunch of senior Rangers and their trainees, who turn up to have a bit of a natter with Delenn about nothing terribly important. However, their presence does enable a story to get going where one of the trainees gets on the wrong side of one of the station’s gangsters: he is, of course, a Gaw-Blimey-Cockernee gangster of the kind JMS seems oddly fond and yet incapable of writing credibly.

It all ends up with a lot of moderately oblique Minbari philosophy and people hitting each other with pipes. This is not especially interesting as a story, except for the way in which the Rangers adopt a rule-through-terror philosophy against their enemies, overruling the local authorities as they do so. Once again, this seems very authoritarian and undemocratic – the Rangers come across as not far removed from a secret police force operating without any real checks, but there’s no sense that this is ambiguity is in any way intended by JMS, any more than earlier when the Alliance was promulgated.

Threaded through this story is a plotline about tension and distrust between Garibaldi and Lochley, which becomes more central in Strange Relations, the episode immediately following. However, this story is more about the plight of glossy-barneted Byron and his fellow telepaths as they are pursued by the very-possibly-synthetically-coiffured Bester and his fascist colleagues. Bester actually isn’t in the episode very much, and the confrontation between him and Garibaldi is bumped to a future point. There are some striking confrontations in this episode, but I do get the sense that this episode is more about setting up future plot developments than concentrating on this particular plot – the season arc starts to take on a bit more shape from this point on.

Secrets of the Soul comes next and would normally be considered a bit of an oddity, given that – of all the characters featuring in the title sequence – only three actually appear in the story, and minor ones at that. I would suspect the show of a little surreptitious double-banking if I didn’t know better. Anyway, Dr Franklin gets involved in a sort-of Trek-ish story about an alien race with a terrible secret, which works as well as it does only because Richard Biggs is as solid as ever as the doc. The main event is more stuff with Byron and his fellow telepaths being harassed by more British ruffians, and Lyta’s efforts to help him. This would work better if Byron was a slightly less irritating character, and there’s more apparently-unconscious ambiguity – irritating or not, Byron comes across as a cult leader and Lyta as someone deeply troubled getting in over her head.

It concludes with some telepathic whoa-ho-ho and a flashback sequence which I didn’t recall in the slightest, but then the only previous time I saw this episode  was on its original Sunday lunchtime broadcast in  the UK, when it was probably savagely cut for the sex and violence. Not content with getting his leg over, Byron goes all allegorical-Zionist and declares he wants the telepaths to have their own homeworld, something which is obviously going to have ominous consequences.

Only not just yet. Next, in the DVD set if not in broadcast or recommended chronological order, comes a genuine oddity, Day of the Dead, notable for being the only mid- or late-period Babylon 5 episode not written by JMS – instead the writer responsible is one Neil Gaiman, of thingy fame.

After nearly three years of JMS, a new narrative voice is very noticeable – and the story itself is very much the antithesis of Straczynski’s style. Where JMS tends to tell hard-headed SF action thrillers or character pieces, but do so using wildly eccentric plot structures and experimental techniques, Gaiman opts for a full-on fantasy story, but told in a very conventional manner. There’s a very rare alien religious festival about to happen and as part of the preparations for this, the aliens temporarily buy a large chunk of the station. G’Kar issues various grave warnings of strange events in the offing, but as usual no-one listens to him (you’d have thought, by this point…).

When the festival gets underway, the purchased area and everyone inside it is cut off, and instruments suggest it is in some way physically now on the alien homeworld. As if this wasn’t strange enough, everyone inside the affected zone is visited by the embodiment of someone they knew who has died. Londo’s old girlfriend from the start of season 1 comes back, along with someone Garibaldi nearly got it on with in season 2. Lochley is visited by a friend who died of an OD before she joined up, while – most promisingly – Lennier has an encounter with Morden, who appears to have changed his hairstyle since he died, but is still the same warm loveable human being. Rather curiously, no-one seems very interested in actually talking to their visitor, except Lochley, and this is because her subplot is just there to fill in her background a bit. It’s an interesting, if rather weird premise, but not very much comes from it.

'...and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.'

‘…and, then as a punishment, they did this to my hair.’

Meanwhile, in a B-plot, Penn and Teller guest-star as a legendary comedy team visiting the station. I like Penn and Teller very much, but they are almost supernaturally unfunny as the comedians here, and the forced fake laughter of every other actor in the scenes where they are supposedly being hilarious is deeply grating. Once again, this thread doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and the episode as a whole doesn’t really live up to Gaiman’s reputation – it didn’t really at the time, and it certainly doesn’t now. Nevertheless the break from JMS is rather welcome, and makes one wish he’d given someone else the reins more often.

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The modern world being what it is, it’s quite hard to completely miss a movie that you genuinely want to see – unless you’re living in rural Sri Lanka or the wilds of central Asia, I suppose. But it can still be done. Towards the end of 2007, posters started going up in the language school in Tokyo where I was working at the time, advertising Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (I’ve no idea why the school was promoting the movie – some sort of targeted Anglophile campaign, I expect), which was due out there early the next year. Due to leave Japan in December, I already knew that, due to the lengthy gap between the European and Japanese release of most non-blockbuster films (over 18 months in the case of Slither), I would already have missed Stardust in the UK. But such is life.

However, I was delighted to see that Stardust was one of the featured in-flight movies on the plane from Narita to Copenhagen. I hate flying long-haul and this promised to take the edge off the eleven-hour journey. Unfortunately, I had reckoned without the idiosyncratic way SAS organise their onboard entertainment. Most airlines have a system where you choose the movie, push a button, and it plays from the start for you. Not our Scandinavian friends: each movie played on a continuous loop on its own channel throughout the flight, and to see the whole thing in the right order you had to be lucky and tune in at just the right moment when the film was starting. Needless to say luck was not with me that day, and not only did I miss seeing Stardust, I missed seeing it about five times. This has rankled with me ever since and I was recently pleased to finally catch up with the damn thing.

This is not so much a fantasy movie as a full-on fairy tale. Charlie Cox plays Tristan, a young man of unusual parentage living in Victorian England. His village adjoins a gateway to another world, but everyone seems to take that in their stride. But when a girl with whom Tristan is infatuated (Sienna Miller) reveals she is planning to marry another, Tristan vows to enter the other world and retrieve a fallen star (which has taken on the form of Claire Danes), in the hope that this will make her choose him instead.

However, the star has fallen as part of the machinations of the dying king of the other world (Peter O’Toole, briefly), who is setting a challenge to determine which of his sons will succeed him – the wise money is on the ruthless Septimus (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong). Whoever finds the star will be the new king. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, the star is also being hunted by a trio of witches led by the vicious Lamia, played by Michelle Pfeiffer – for me this piece of casting had the same whiff of ‘British movie imports slightly past-it American star’ about it as, for example, Andie McDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, simply because Pfeiffer doesn’t work very much these days, but I’m probably being unfair. That’s her choice, after all: she’s certainly perfectly fine here.

Well, would anyone be really shocked to learn that as they get to know each other in the course of their adventures, Tristan and the star find their initial distaste for each other considerably mellowing? Thought not. I found Stardust to be a fun film, and sometimes very funny indeed, but difficult to get a grip on. The combination of classic fairy tale tropes with a modern rom-com structure is just one example of the way in which the film slips and slithers about, never quite being what you expect from one moment to the next.

This is, of course, based on a Neil Gaiman novel (he’s also credited as producer). I am, mutatis mutandis, a fan of Gaiman’s work, and the writers of Stardust (Vaughn and Jane Goldman) have worked hard to ensure it sits easily within the canon. Gaiman’s schtick, to the extent that he has one, is to combine classic story themes and ideas with a modern, often knowing sensibility – taking them seriously but not often sending them up. But while it’s smart and funny, Stardust is really lacking in the darkness it probably needs to convince as a genuine fairy tale – much of the time it’s desperately whimsical, occasionally bordering on the twee. It should really be as annoying as hell and the fact that it isn’t is to Vaughn’s credit.

So it’s not quite a parody – the makers of this film are quite probably sick of having it compared to The Princess Bride, but that’s the closest thing to it. I suppose there are also elements from Terry Gilliam films in there too, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he was involved with the project at one point. If Matthew Vaughn doesn’t quite put his own stamp on it, he still does a good job both as writer and director, for this is a film with a definite vision.

Quite who it’s aimed at, I’m not sure – I suspect young children will find some of the story a bit dull and not get many of the jokes, while adults may find the whole thing a bit too sweet and precious and silly for their tastes. I imagine it will probably do very well with a certain type of teenage girl.

Perhaps I am overstating this, as there are lots of good things here for all kinds of people to enjoy: a satisfying, understatedly clever plot, good art direction, and there are some brilliantly orchestrated sequences – the voodoo swordfight being a particular standout. Most of the acting is, shall we say, not especially nuanced, but none the worse for that, with only a few performances that really make you grimance – Robert de Niro takes an axe to his own reputation once again with a deeply peculiar turn as a gay transvestite pirate (another weird tonal choice), Ricky Gervais is, well, Ricky Gervais, as usual, and, above all…

Well, look, I haven’t seen Claire Danes in a lot of stuff – just Romeo + Juliet and Terminator 3 (and I had to check her filmography for both of them) – but I don’t remember her being too bad in either film. Here, though, she gives a strangely over-animated performance that’s deeply distracting. There’s a moment where she has to deliver a lengthy monologue declaring her undying love to a small furry animal, and it’s one of the oddest pieces of screen acting I can recall – eyes rolling, eyebrows waggling, emphasising the dialogue a bit too much. It’s a bit like watching Al Pacino at his least restrained, or the Haitian puppet theatre.

In the end, though, Stardust was worth the wait. The whole thing is as light and insubstantial as a feather, and probably wholly unbefitting of serious analysis (please disregard previous 1182 words), but it’s fun and clever and only infrequently irritating. I would be interested to see a Neil Gaiman movie that was true to the darker elements that feature in his work, but in terms of handling the notes that come from his upper register, Stardust does a pretty good job.

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Ah, the joys of trying to write a spoiler-free response to an episode with a central conceit as big and mad and brilliant as this one… I’ve already taken a tiny bit of stick from some of my friends for deleting spoilery comments from Facebook, on the grounds that a) the big idea at the heart of this story is all over the internet already and b) anyone who doesn’t work it out for themselves by the time the opening credits roll simply isn’t paying attention. I don’t care, to be honest – figuring these things out for yourself is part of the fun. The Doctor’s Wife provides fun of such quality, and in such lavish portions, that its secrets deserve to be preserved.

 

I’ve felt rather ambivalent about the first two stories this year (and I still think using the word ‘story’ in association with Day of the Moon is being extremely generous, mutter grumble), which coupled to the high expectations arising from the fact that Neil Gaiman’s episode was, um, written by Neil Gaiman, could have been awkward. Then again, the same was often true back when a Steven Moffat episode was due in the Rusty era, and those were never disappointing either.

That’s what The Doctor’s Wife (a brilliant title in all kinds of ways, if a little cheeky given that… oh, well, never mind) felt like to me: something completely fresh and a bit different, unrestrained by the ongoing plot (references to which were still crowbarred in, a little intrusively), funny and thought-provoking and above all in love with the sheer possibilities running through the heart of Doctor Who.

This is the kind of episode that couldn’t have been made before 2005, and embodies all that’s wonderful about the modern show at its best – steeped in the mythology of the series, but not afraid to be playful or to examine it from a new angle, and bringing to it a tremendous depth of emotion. And genuine feeling, too, arising from the story naturally, not the ladled-on sentiment that sometimes takes its place.

Was this episode perfect? Not quite, of course – the much-heralded (ye gods) new TARDIS corridors seemed a little sterile and reminded me, dismayingly, of the ventilator ducts on the Starship Enterprise when they let Shatner direct, while everyone conveniently seemed to forget that… oh, bother, spoilers again. Not sure there wasn’t a minor plot hole at one point too, but…

Back in 2004 when the relaunch was coming together, Rusty’s press-release quotes talked about new recruitments ‘raising the bar’ so much I rapidly became entirely intolerant of the expression. But, The Doctor’s Wife has raised the bar for the rest of this series – probably my favourite Matt Smith episode to date, and my favourite full-stop since… Utopia? Blink? If it had been written by anyone else I would expect an enormous campaign to have them installed as Moffy’s heir apparent, but given it’s Neil Gaiman I can’t imagine that happening. I just hope that more stories from him in the future aren’t too much to ask for.

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