The Idiot's Lantern.

TV Anyone else slightly freaked out by bald Mark Gatiss on Doctor Who Confidential tonight? In amongst what seemed like the many hundred interviews he'd apparently done in various modes of facial and cranial hair was that initial answer in which he looked like he was plotting the downfall of the human race. Although it was obviously for a role (?) he strikes me again as someone who's keen to make a statement, and that's exactly what tonight's episode felt like. Again. About what Doctor Who is.

Glancing over at Outpost Gallifrey I can see that already the fan reaction is mixed which is amusing if slightly disappointing, because really this was the best episode since The Girl In The Fireplace. Tonally it was perfect, mixing the comedy and drama to just the right measure, dropping just enough pop culture references to be funny without being annoying ('Or was it Kylie?'). And for once it did that thing which gives the Doctor's quest some resonance -- it put Rose, the companion, in actual danger. Recently his ideology has been y'know because. Here it was personal and for once you really, really cared. And, in keeping with much of this series, the Doctor saved the day. Why couldn't it have been like this last year?

I remember watching an interview with Sir John Reith, the first Director General of the Beeb, in which he described television as "A potential social menace of the first magnitude!" Now, we all know that's not true (depending whether you've been watching this year's Big Brother). Unlike the new new Cybermen, whose creation felt very abstract thematically, the idea of your television taking over your life is a very real and tangible threat, especially when you consider how many man hours some of us actually spend in front of it rather than in a park somewhere enjoying the grass, the trees, the air, the view. I sometimes look at those HDtvs in Currys the size of a house and wonder whether it really will suck the life out of you a bit at a time if you let it.

As the manifestation of the threat, the ever dependable and completely brilliant Maureen Lipman was excellent. Given that she apparently spent but a day at Alexander Palace, her performance was three dimensional and perfectly captured that kind of abstract madness you need in a villian. And for once the Doctor just wanted to kill it, not save it for a rainy day. Ron Cook's Magpie was just the right sort of minion too, the ones with the weak souls without an actual axe to grind who perish in the end because they don't have the strength the fight back. If I had a worry, it was that the victims were a touch like the gasmasked ones, that same lack of face. If they'd started marching places I would have wondered why they weren't bumping into lamp posts...

It'll take someone older than I am to say whether the setting was authentic, but the street party certainly brought back memories of the jubilee in which I remember a cousin turning up in fancy dress as a television set -- someone had scooped out the innards of an old Granada rental set and cut holes in the bottom. It seemed right that Rose should still seem incongruous even though she was wearing close to period costume, although I'm not sure about the Doctor's blow back which was a bit too far the wrong end Mark Kermode. Still at least he tried.

The Radio Times threw flack at the domestic subplot in this episode as being a touch superfluous that seems unfair. It was good for once to have a bit of social commentary layered into the episode to give the characters within the story a life when they could so easily be cyphers. I used to love this sort of thing in Quantum Leap and it wasn't really out of place here. Like the wedding guests in Father's Day, they give the show heart. That said, I'm surprised someone like Russell T didn't pop-up in Confidential to say that the show has always talked about the social issues of the time, citing the quest for fire in The Tribe of Gum.

I've said in the past that it's really tricky to divorce the contributions of the various directors, but it's really odd how, for my money, the best episodes of the season have been directed by Euros Lynn. Which isn't to decry Graham Harper or James Hawes (I don't think) and surely it's the luck of the draw, but each of these episodes enjoyed a particular feel, a certain coalescence that the others lacked. This Doctor has a particular manic energy and particularly in this episode it let rip and we could see it -- no useless cutaways to actors waiting for something to happen here. Also I've been a bit critical of Murray Gold lately but the score here was perfectly fine, even if, again, there was far too much of it. I would have like something close to the period though. Sometimes the orchestration jarred with the setting.

Tennant's bedded in now but still we're seeing new sides to the performance. Eccleston voiced a concern last year that there was a danger with the role that you could end up repeating yourself in each episode. Whilst that's true, it's also normal. People fall into patterns of behaviour so they're not going to be doing something entirely new all the time. Everything I love about Tennant was on display again tonight, that on-a-dime twist from friendly to angry -- which we saw when he discovered that Rose had become a faceless one -- that keeps him from being totally cuddly.

Despite dropping out of the episode for the last twenty minutes, Billie was a shiny as ever, particularly in the scenes when Rose confronted Magpie about the televisions. One of my favourite moments of the series was at the end when we saw that her face had returned and she gave that smile of hers. I don't know about you but I melted. Davies (again in Confidential) was fueling the rumour that our friends are heading for a fall and I can't wait, if only to see what these actors do with it.

So here we are past the half way point. Has the series been as good as last year? At the half way point it has, although I think it's been hurt slightly because understandably we no longer have the shock of the new. The format and formula are in place so re-itterating my comments from last week, the production team are going to have to try very hard not to be in the thrall of the repeated meme. The Idiot's Lantern worked because it didn't look or feel like a previous episode and that's something they're going to need to continue doing. What we've heard about Love & Monsters sounds exciting, and shroud of secrecy surrounding Fear Her is interesting and tantalising. I'm most concerned about the finale though -- the last thing we need is another hour and a half on contemporary Earth even if it is battling you know what. We've seen that. We know what it looks like...


Elsewhere I'm having non-blogging time at the moment while I get my brain around my dissertation, which is proving to be a mind bender. Which doesn't stop me from doing things like this.

Whilst I'm here I should say Happy Birthday to TV Cream, who have a Look-In style issue available to celebrate. Andrew Collins has details.

It's a steel

TV In an not entirely unexpected follow up to this, some people with a sense of humour have been in touch with the Metro to note what we all (ish) realised ...

The headline reads: Klingon alert: Beware of Swords.

Vulcanised steel

Law  I know this isn't totally Doctor Who, well alright not at all, but we are in The Age of Steel so I beg your patience. I'm flicking through the free Metro newspaper on the bus this morning, turn to page four find this photo in connection with the knife amnesty which is being run throughout the country ...

... now I might be a lapsed Star Trek follower, but I know a bat'leth when I see one. Imagine the conversation in said trekkers home...

"Mum. Have you seen my bat'leth? I'm going to the Qi'tomer re-enactment at the weekend."
"Oh that large knife thing? You could have somebody's eye out. I gave it to the police."
"What!?! How will I be able to avenge my comrades in the House of Entwistle now?"

Still pot luck

Flm Cedric Klapisch's Russian Dolls picks up the story of Xavier, the Tefl student from the director's earlier beautiful film Pot Luck (L'auberge espagnole) five years on from his stay in Barcelona, still directionless in life and love. The film episodically charts a series of his relationships as he attempts to find a soul mate. The title is a metaphore -- he concludes that each encounter and woman is someone he has to love and leave before he can find the near-perfect relationship at the centre.

Which is the tension within the film because done badly this could have some across as a transcontinental Confessions of a Window Cleaner as a French Casanova jumps from bed to bed. It's a fine line, and indeed there are enough too easy connections to make a grown man jealous. But film stays on the right side of that line because the script is careful to portray Xavier's flaws despite lead actor Romain Duris' charisma. On more than one occasion you'll be wanting to shout asshole at the screen as his latent misogyny drifts to the surface and despite his apparent position of hero you'll want to cheer when someone literally gives him a punch in the face.

The drift out of Asquith territory is also helped immeasurably by individuality of the female characters and the performances of this predominantly female cast. C├ęcile De France as Isabelle continues to steal scenes much as she did first time around. This was the other film that Kelly Reilly made in the year which also included her 'break out' roles in Pride & Prejudice and Mrs Henderson Presents and again I'd say this is another example of her versatility -- there's a scene on a station platform which will make you melt. This was the bridging film for Audrey Tautou between A Very Long Engagement and The Da Vinci Code and as with Pot Luck it's odd to see her disappearing into an ensemble, not the focus of the camera's attentions.

Which isn't to say that it isn't a gorgrous looking film, Klapisch trademark collage like visual textures and lusterous photography of Paris and ... that would spoil it. Suffice to say that familiar places look totally uncommon and there's an amazing moment when Duris and Reilly are sitting at the front top of a double decker bus and it's being shot from the outside through the window. I've never seen anything like that. Also watch for fun with mobile phones and people standing on the balconies of building behind people's shoulder. You know how it was shot, you just didn't think anyone had the patience.

Like Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, this is the opportunity to revisit loved characters some years later to see what happened next, and the results are logical within the world of the original film. It seems right that Xavier would not quite have settled yet, just as mockney wildboy William was changed by the experience. As you would expect, some of these changes and developments will only resonate with people who enjoyed the original film, but I think there's still enough going on for people who missed that to join anew here. The director's not afraid to break from Xavier as the focus of the story if it allows us to peak into the new lives of our old friends.

One of the joys of Klapisch's films is that he doesn't feel the need to imprint a too structured story if the material doesn't demand it. Even when one presents itself -- a shift from girl to girl in order in the style of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, the director breaks the time frame, dropping in flashbacks or possible dream sequences that break the expected pattern. It's refreshing because it breaks the audience's expectations although it does rather mean that unlike anything else, you're not quite sure when it will end. I'd stay for the credits -- it'll save you getting up and then having to sit down again...

[I still don't understand why this took a whole calender year to be released in the UK or why it hasn't had a much wider release considering the present of flavours of the month Duris, Tatou and especially Reilly. I can't tell whether it's because the first film also suffered from a tiny release, or the collage of language and setting or the anti-structure approach to the material. All I can say is that I'm glad it's finally here, I've seen it and I can't wait for the dvd.]

Going postal

About "I have to say, as personal as a blog can be, it really can't match the personal quality of a hand-written letter. How cool to imagine Stu writing this on the train that he has written so much about. And he has a strange way of forming his t's that threw me for a loop at first but which I found quite charming after awhile. The content was also definitely more personal than what he usually writes about, though unmistakably in the format of one of his blog posts, this one categorized under "Life"." -- Annette

Readers with long memories will remember in February that I volunteered to send a handwritten blog post to anyone who wrote with their address and a topic. I couple of people answered and not too long ago I finally managed to send them out. Annette's received hers and been gracious enough to respond. She's right -- my handwriting is horrifyingly illegible, which comes from spending most of my natural life using a keyboard far more than a pen and paper -- but in my defence as I said in the bit that appears on her site, the rock of the train didn't help. Do look at her response because in its own way it's just a personal as that which I wrote to her and the kind of thing I'd love to put up here if this place wasn't quite so public. The offer is still open to anyone else who'd like something hand crafted posting ...

Mark up

Commerce I don't know if this is genius or not. Someone is selling Kit Kats on ebay because they potentially have a golden ticket in them (no guarantees). This one currently has a bid of £16 on it. That's quite a mark up.

How much just for the salad?

Commerce I'm studying at a library at Liverpool University today, it's lunch time and I'm hungry. I find an eatery. There a salad bar with plastic tubs. There are no prices.
"How much is the salad bar?" I ask the till lady.
"It's quite expensive." She 'answers'.
"Right. So how much is it?"
"Well you weigh the food and then you find out how much it is."
"OK. So do you charge it? By the...."
"The prices are up here." She sighs (by the way), stepping aside to reveal the price list. Which is an A4 laminated sheet stuck to the wall. In light yellow writing I can just about make out that its 50p for two ounces, a pound for more going up to a tenner.
I buy a soup and sandwich instead.

Links for 2006-05-22 []

  • Michael Atkinson of 'The Village Voice' reviews 'The Da Vinci Code'
    "Without the 40 million books already sold, this overpuzzled hogwash - which, it should be rationally said, is no less risible than the Christian dogma it disputes - might've commanded the presence of Scott Bakula and gone straight to video."
  • Julie Deply to write and direct film
    I love that Adam Goldberg is the love interest. He's a much underrated actor.
  • Unfinished

    Life For the first time this year there was a computer network problem at the university which meant that unless you'd logged in before a certain time, you couldn't log in at all. So although I'd managed to hammer through four hundred words of my essay in the morning since I'd logged out, I couldn't continue after lunch. I resorted to pen and paper and noticed again how much I was used to the write/delete culture of the word processor. I managed to type the passages up when I got home, fighting through the words I meant to use and those I'd crossed out, with the usual notes here and there to remind me at a later date where to put footnotes and turn the language into something approaching English. But even though I also managed to add in a paragraph of extra explanation, I still feel unsatisfied, as though because my work time was curtailed I've failed somehow. Like one of those conversational moments when you have a point to make but he group has moved on to something else before you can interrupt so you have to forget about saying it because it makes no sense. Even though I know that's crazy.

    Sometimes those notes can be an art form or if I leave it too long obscure or incomprehensible. In one of the French film essays I had the stop gap phrase 'Mention Freud' for weeks before I did anything with it and by the time the moment came I'd totally forgotten exactly which aspect of the good doctor's work I was supposed to be talking about and how it related to the topic. I realised after two days then spent hours trying to work it back in because I'd written around the subject so much. Dangerously I still drop the 'Mention Freud' phrase in now and then to remind me that I need to just write this stuff up front rather than leaving it until I'm 'in the mood'. I say dangerously because I hope I never forget that it's a joke and quote some Sigmund in an area were he's not related. But then, to be honest, he always seems to anyway.

    Nobody knows anything.

    Whenever a newspaper or magazine is trying to account for the unaccountable success of the latest piece of awfulness featuring Adam Sandler they invariably throw the sentence: "As legendary screenwriter William Goldman says - 'Nobody knows anything.' " into the opening paragraph. Adventures In The Screentrade is the book in which he said it. This is also the book that made me want to take up Screen Studies. Written at a time when the craft was still a fairly big mystery to the general public, Goldman produced an accessible introduction which outlines all of the principals involved, at the same time throwing in a heap of gossip about Hollywood and films he has worked on (Butch Cassidy, The Stepford Wives and A Bridge Too Far). A sequel some years later, Which Lie Did I Tell? completes the biographical story, delves into the world of script doctoring and offers many great examples of good screenwriting.

    The Age of Steel.

    TV One of the problems with being a Doctor Who fan whose been enjoying the series for long enough is that anything new the franchise presents will be filtered through the collected memory of other stories. One of the strengths of this ongoing history is that it has the capacity to shock, amaze and confuse with its brilliance. But all too easily it can fall into a pattern, have a hint of trotting out a formula or just simply make the viewer feel slightly disappointed that they haven't seen anything that new.

    The Age of Steel is a good episode. It's by turns exciting, well scripted, funny and scary. But it also felt, at least to me, like a series of creative decisions based around a need to tell a story a certain way in order to create a particular response in the audience. In other words, to gave the viewer what they want. The trouble with this approach is that it means that they aren't challenged -- it's not a case of being predictable necessarily, it's just that the audience expects certain things to happen before they do.

    Listening to Tachyon's excellent live podcast is a perfect demonstration. If you pay close attention to what's being said (and why wouldn't you?), it slowly becomes obvious on too many occasions that Neil and the gang actually say that something might happen and it inevitably does, to their great surprise. The big one would be at the beginning when some guesses that Ricky would die and Mickey would stay in the alternate dimension. Granted there had already been some interview fuelled speculation to that effect but still you would expect that by the end of the episode that there would be some shock, jolt, surprise or twist. Nothing happens (unless the shooting star really is a cyber-attack fleet poised to invade the galaxy as someone on Outpost Gallifrey suggested). Second example: Neil, I think says, as Pete, Rose and the Doctor are climbing up the rope towards the zepellin away from the Cyber-leader, that the timelord should pass down his sonic screwdriver and burn through the rope. And sure enough, seconds later, that's exactly what he does.

    I'm not writing this because I hated the episode, I didn't. It delivered on a number of levels. I just felt like I wasn't seeing anything new -- it seemed to be an amalgam of successful elements from the first series reorganised -- from the emotional reunion of Rose and her father to the Doctor's big shouty monologue at the end to Mickey saving the day through his computer again to the Cybermen regaining their emotional side (see Dalek) and wierdly enough zepellins, none of which are tropes of the whole series but of the new series in particular.

    We've seen that the series still has the capacity to do something exciting and new. Both The Girl In The Fireplace and Tooth & Claw have proved that. And this was certainly a more preferable monsters invade London episode than anything with a Slitheen in it (even if you could argue, that story had slightly more memorable characters). I just feel that somewhere in here the magic was lost and the production team need to be ultra careful not to fall into the trap of other shows of simply taking the audience's taste for granted -- because in the end they're clever enough that they'll notice and become bored.

    Ratings Steel

    TV As expected, The Age of Steel took a hit last night with a decent opposition on ITV (Prince's Trust and Ant+Dec interview with Charles) and much earlier timeslot. Average 6.7m.

    Time ………. BBC1 ……………… ITV ……………… BBC2 ……………… CH4 ……………… CH5
    18:30 … 5.7 (32.3%) …. 4.0 (22.4%) … 1.0 ( 5.4%) .......… 1.4 ( 7.9%) ....… 0.9 ( 5.2%)
    18:45 … 6.6 (34.9%) … 4.3 (23.0%) … 1.1 ( 5.6%) …....... 1.4 ( 7.2%) .....… 1.0 ( 5.2%)
    19:00 … 7.5 (37.6%) … 5.1 (25.7%) … 1.0 ( 4.9%) .......… 1.1 ( 5.6%) …...... 1.1 ( 5.3%)
    19:15 ….. 6.2 (30.7%) … 5.7 (28.7%) ….. 1.1 ( 5.5%) ….... 1.3 ( 6.3%) ….. 1.0 ( 5.2%)

    You have to wonder though -- did the viewers who shifted channels forget there was a cliffhanger last week or did they just not care?