Nice one, Oscar.

I finally visited the new Odeon cinema at Liverpool One last night. Despite my reticence about dealing with the prospect of seeing a film in an auditorium I found myself as excited as I usually am when greeting a new cinema, with the questions about what the screen will be like, the seating, the ticket prices. I’m very nerdy about this. I’m also very out of touch. These are the innovations and unovations of the modern multiplex:

(1) Odeon One (as they’ve decided to call it) has a cavernous foyer, presumably so that there’s plenty of room for the audience, should the audience turn up on mass for some blockbuster or other. Which is a pity, since seeing them lined up outside in the park outside would be a picturesque image.

(2) There is a range of dvds on sale at their recommended retail prices, though the titles seem relatively random. Did I see Lake Placid? The Full Monty?

(3) Is it usual these days for the box office and the refreshment stand to be combined, with hotdogs rolling around behind the usher while you’re trying to negotiate the seating arrangements? I’m not complaining – it’s perfectly logical and actually I remember it being much the same at the Hyde Park cinema all those years ago.

(4) The problem is that it doesn’t look like a box office; it’s the first I’ve actually had to ask if I’m in the right place to buy a ticket, which by the way came in the form of a receipt rather than an actual ticket, which also doesn’t isn’t really the same thing. I still have stubs from over a decade ago, tucked into the dvd cases of the films they’re related to and there seems to be more of a value to that. Though it probably saves on coloured cardboard, that is definitely a retrograde step, and doesn't rip properly at the right moment.

(5) There are infrared security cameras in every screen, unobtrusive enough that I didn’t notice they were there until I saw the plasma screen in the foyer as I was leaving. FACT Liverpool do this also and it’s a great way of finding out if a film is busy and I’d like to think that the staff would react should they see any jiggery-pokery going on. I once saw 24 Hour Party People at the Filmworks in Manchester and there were teenagers pleasuring each other loudly on the back row. No really, I did.

(6) The screens are on two floors which means that like all good cinemas Odeon One is actually taller than it looks on the outside – though there’s an inescapable feeling of banishment in trekking all the way to screen thirteen while presumably the really cool films are on screen one.

(7) The screen at thirteen is big enough. Since the cinema’s only been open for a few weeks, it still has that new smell of fabric and plastic rather than stale popcorn.

(8) Here’s about the only problem I really had with the visit – the screen 13 doors have windows in them and they’re opposite to the side of the screen. Which means that in late afternoon, when the sun’s still out, light reflects over the edge of the screen, particularly when there’s a lot of black in the image, even when they’re closed.

(9) But since that's only thing I've got to moan about, the new Odeon One gets the thumbs up from me. The three of us strangers who saw the film did so in comfort with no distractions and even though it wasn't the best movie ever (for reasons I'll get to) I enjoyed the experience enough that I'd want to go back again. It's certainly better than London Road.

(10) Nice one, Oscar.

I still, can't quite, believe it.

I'm just about back on track having slept for ten hours last night. I haven't done that in years. I can't stop smiling. I saw someone today who raised their fist aloft and shouted "Obama!". I had to repeat the gesture. I still, can't quite, believe it.

Now for some BO (Before Obama) & AO (After Obama) excitement:

“I think the thing that gets me is,” I slur, “The French thing.”
Sarah Palin apparently didn't know who the members of NAFTA were. The more I'm hearing about this woman, the more I'm becoming convinced that substance is back on the agenda rather than image.

I just assumed they were plastic, I didn't think you could actually mail order a real monkey which turned up in what amounted to a shoe box.

Which Adviser Are You?
Captures life in a call centre perfectly. Wrap or idle, anyone?

You looking at us?
"I'm in The Ship & Mitre in Liverpool's Dale Street" is a sentence I didn't think I'd ever read in a national newspaper.

Lost Gems: Life Story
Still one of my favourite films (previously).

Obama: First Trekkie President?
Says Nimoy: "About a year and a half a go I was at a political event and one of our current campaigners for the office of President of the United States saw me, approached, and he gave me the Vulcan signal…it was not John McCain"

Obama has won a historic mandate. But delivering his promised 'change' will depend on holding that support through 2012
Just after the first election in The West Wing, Leo is talking to a senator who's already talking about re-election and they agree on one thing. It does get earlier and earlier.

The nature of work - visible, invisible, and that doesn’t look like work
"One of the big problems with working in a knowledge job is that much of your work is done in your head. There is no way to embody what goes on in your brain, no matter how important it is in helping you to attain your goals. Indeed, a lot of what knowledge workers do is very creative, and creativity needs to be fed. That means knowledge workers can often end up doing things that, to the uninitiated, look like anything except work."

It’s not an automatic turning point

Politics I’m tired and happy. I didn’t cry last night, which was a surprise, but it takes a lot for me to offer tears of joy. Perhaps, if like Lewis Hamilton’s near miss, the race had been closer, won at the last minute, not as much of a forgone conclusion, the relief would have overtaken me. But as soon as Pennsylvania was called for the Democrats, the scale of the electoral achievement was becoming clear, it was a waiting game, waiting to hear if the speeches would be of the kind which would be quoted for decades to come. McCain’s won’t but I think Obama’s will. It cleverly worked in elements of his campaign speeches and simultaneously captured the euphoria of the nation.

It’s not an automatic turning point, there’s no lever to be pulled which can suddenly make everything better, which is as it should be, because sometimes you need to be challenged for a satisfying victory. Some areas of the United States will persist in being divided at least for now. The fact is that during the speeches, when McCain mentioned his rival the crowd in Phoenix booed, and when Obama commiserated his opponent the Chicago gathering cheered. The US isn’t just divided by big issues such as race, gender and sexuality but small ones like manners. Some may be convinced when the new President turns his words into actions and shows that there is a new way, but some never will.

When I was eleven years old, when I was still in primary school and didn’t know anything about the world, I stayed up late and watched the Giotto space probe pass by the nucleus of Halley’s Comet (or at least Patrick Moore’s description of it). I was awake for the millennium, full of cold, watching the new age pass through the various time zones. I’ve waited up for Oscar coverage. But last night beat them all. Yes, even the Titanic landslide. Last night, watching the BBC’s coverage, the blogs, and Twitter, from the outside, I could still see a country in transition, a population almost realising on mass that not everything is certain, not everything is fixed, that with work, together they can bring change.

Were you up for Gore Vidal?

Politics I'm still not quite awake yet, but I have to ask. Were you up for Gore Vidal?

Live Twittering.

Elsewhere I think I'll be Tweeting a lot to keep myself awake.

It’s a frustrating time to be an Ameriphile.

After two years of following the primaries then the conventions then the past couple of months of intensive campaigning, watching the stump speeches, reading the weblogs, listening to the rhetoric, being inspired by Barack’s message of change, I can’t vote. Of course I can’t. I’m British, I live in a whole other country. Yet, here I am, watching the BBC’s tv coverage (Jane Hill looks amazing this evening), following updates on @TheGuardian, @DailyKos, @Indecision2008 with both fingers crossed (as you can imagine that’s not helping my ability to type).

I’m actually nervous. I’ve had a knot in my stomach for most of the day and I expect that it’ll still be there until Barack makes his acceptance speech. Whatever the polls are saying, whatever I hope will happen, I know that shock results are possible, and that nothing is certain. I’ve seen interviews with undecided voters which scare the hell out of me due to the person’s lack of understanding of the issues, a genuine fear that the world is out to get them without realising that this fear is as a result of the actions of the very party they’re considering voting for.

It’s a frustrating time to be an Ameriphile.

Anyway, I’m inevitably staying up for the event, the blow by blow, play by play. Apparently it could all be over as soon at 1am, but this is such a historic event, even if the worst comes to the worst, I can’t imagine I’ll be under the duvet until the speeches have been made, until the last state has been called. I’m mainlining coffee, drinking lots of water, munching biscuits, hoping for a second and third wind. I used to stay up for the Oscars when they were still being shown on proper television, but this is different. This is legendary. By tomorrow morning, the US could have its first black president and why would I want to sleep through that?

Secrets of the Stars (Part Two)

TV Many rels ago before David Tennant was playing the Doctor let alone announcing that he didn’t feel like it any more (James Purefoy anyone?), Doctor Who Magazine ran a series of four article which dissected the structure of a typical four episode story. Unlike Luke, I don’t remember everything I read, so right now I can’t recall the most of what (I think it was) Gary Gillatt wrote but I do remember two things. Firstly that essentially said structure amounts to an episode of set up some running around for two episodes (extended to ten depending on how long the story is) and then the conclusion. I’ll talk about structure some more later.

The other observation was that if a story’s rotten at its opening, it won’t improve for its entire duration. There may some good things about it but – and I know these weren’t Gary’s actual words – you can’t gold plate a dog turd. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true – there are many Doctor Who stories which begin well but flounder somewhere in their execution – and the series is replete with examples of those as anyone who’s sat through The Space Museum and The Mind Robber can attest. But we love it anyway for all these flaws, because just now and then it, bucks such trends and like non-league football team working their way through the FA Cup, now and then it repays the faith we have in it.

Sadly, part two of Secrets of the Stars was interned into the former camp; having begun rather badly with the exception of that lovely scene about Luke’s lack of womb-time, the worst elements of the opening half continued: Russ Abbott continued to over-act, the kind of cult leader that needs hypnosis since natural charisma won’t do it for him; the inability to trust it's audience's intelligence and over explain everything to the point of not giving the characters enough to room to breath and have a moment unrelated to the plot and a tendency to run away from anything remotely unpredictable should it make to target audience at all confused by what they’re seeing.

But what really hurt this episode most was over familiarity. Like the “classic” version of the parent series, The Sarah Jane Adventures has developed a structure which we’re now seeing story in and out. In episode one, the threat is revealed and in the second episode our heroes go and confront it at its lair, having worked up some kind of plan. To be frank, there’s only so many times that the gang can turn up at some building/spaceship/house just after the cliffhanger resolution, trick their way in then talk the villain into submission, no matter how entertaining the incidental moment. This is the third time it’s happened this season and I’d be surprised if even the most undemanding kid would notice. Here, the approach was even reduced to a quick scoot past the human rope line in the car.

On top of that we’ve the return of incidental imagery; a hynotised population marching the streets their loved ones close behind looking perturbed (The Christmas Invasion on), the budget saving re-emergence of the juddering CG shot of the Earth from Journey’s End and the hooped tractor beam from The Empty Child, another global catastrophe being commented on by the world’s media (which did at least have that fun moment with Trinity Wells being taken over) and a global catastrophe for that matter, and Luke ultimately saving the day because he’s special, his lack of a star sign, this story’s equivalent of the Doctor’s hand as important plot point waiting to come to fruition. I’ve pointed out that nu-Who’s repeated tropes too in the past, but not even those were quite as pronounced as this.

Which means that in these episodes the series has dipped into the category of “undemanding fare”, the description usually branded on films in the satellite pages of the Radio Times when the reviewer’s on a deadline, only has a couple of lines and can’t think of very much else to say. The performances of the regulars are still good, there’s some fun dialogue and the music has the requisite drama, it’s well directed, it’s also just so frustratingly bland, and though it’s good that it was brave enough to not to save Trueman and make some general observations about the mechanics of cults, it’s pretty worrying that this was dropped into the same slot as last year’s epic Warriors of Kudlak and rattled out of the fingertips and onto the keyboard of the same writer as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? which was one of best stories the franchise has produced in any media.

Still, I’m an optimist and I’m sure all of this is just a blip. With three more stories to go, including sequels to that alternate reality tale and the pilot there is plenty of time for Gareth, Phil and the team to get their mojo back. Even if, so far, with the exception of Rani the Chandra family have been no substitute for Jacksons and those wonderful double act scenes between Clyde and Luke have been kept to a shocking minimum, there’s still room for some surprises and a change of tone and how many times have we seen that? I was about to say something like "Who would have thought the Davison era could produce The Caves of Androzani", but then I remembered what came next. So perhaps I'd best leave it there.

Next Week: My love for you is like a truck, berserker ...

Brave New Town.

Audio Last year (though it feels longer) before every review of the first series of Eighth Doctor BBC7 (as it was then) plays, I’d include a spoiler warning because I was aware that they hadn’t been released on CD yet and there would be some people waiting for those rather than listening to their radio broadcast. This time, the reverse is true and yet, with Brave New Town I feel like it’s still important because there’s a rather neat left (or right) turn which is best approach without some idea of a road map. The title was even changed because the original gave too much information away. The Wikipedia gives the game away too, rotters. So consider yourself warned. There be spoilers ahead.

With that kind of build up, you’d expect me to dive straight into a glowing review, infused with phrases like, “tonight the nature of the franchise changed – the show will never be the same again” but I’m really not. Brave New Town is actually a pleasantly old fashioned bit of Doctor Who, which in its plotting and payoff wouldn’t have seemed too out of place in the 60s, tucked in between The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker. The story begins with the opening of the Tardis and the Doctor and Lucie finding themselves trailing around a desolate sea side town and as they discover that every day isn’t like Sunday, but is Sunday and the power is off, for they’re passengers in the ensuing events, with the Doctor only really taking charge at the conclusion.

Where writer Jonathan Clements parts company with the Spooner style of storytelling is the lack of jeopardy for the time travellers – the blue box doesn’t disappear into quicksand and it hasn’t been half-inched by powers unknown. Alternatively, now in the position of simply expecting something to be wrong wherever they land, the cravat man and her dive straight into the mystery discovering that this isn’t some pocket universe of the kind already featured in Dead London or Memory Lane, or a repeating time loop resonating with the sound of the Chimes of Midnight, but a Soviet recreation of the English Riviera; it’s the old late eighties John Travolta film The Experts. That’s surprise number one – that the setting is so pleasingly mundane, not weird for its own sake and as far as I’ve heard perfectly plausible, a Pleasantville with an aural Bryan Adams inspired soundscape instead of Leave It To (Joan Allen's) Beaver.

Surprise number two is of course the Autons. Don’t cut yourself up too much for your stupidity, Doctor, I had no idea it was them either. If this hadn’t been an audio and they looked like the rubbish Mickey from their last broadcast outing in Rose I might have had a chance. Clements takes full advantage of the fact that we couldn’t see them, allowing us to sympathise with them before their being revealed as latex alien psychopaths. The understandable tendency in on television is to reveal the monster in the teaser and let the Doctor and co catch up with them and the audience – call that the Columbo approach; I much prefer the Poirot in which we’re as in the dark as the detective for much of the time and perhaps just slightly behind him; it’s more satisfying somehow and offers the tantalising prospect of ‘working out’ what’s going on before the hero does (though in the best written stories we never can).

Flipping expectations, the antagonist here isn’t the Autons themselves but the pirate radio version of the Nestene Consciousness invading and sapping away their identity. Though with shades of umpteen episodes of Star Trek in which the Borg attempt to assert their identity from the hive mind, though in this largely angst free version of the Whoniverse, there were no great complaints from the community about their loss of identity (unlike say Marc Platt’s seminal Spare Parts) mostly because they weren’t too aware that voice in their heads was doing much harm. Instead, the plastic cast of an Ealing comedy were passive-aggressively non-threatening even as they marched on the oil wells never sounding like they’d know what to do with their finger guns, let alone shoot them. It’s potentially arresting image, the entire population of a village marching across an empty river bed.

Surprisingly considering the lack of story to go round, I think this is the kind of story which is hurt by the short format. Over four episodes, we would have been able to spend more time with Jason the newsagent so touchingly played by Derek Griffiths, and his daughter Sally, dealing with that dynamic, she his daughter but not quite. Also flesh wounded are the army types whose presence was kept fairly shadowy and enigmatic, with Adrian Dunbar’s McCarthy never quite breaking out of his fairly generic anti-Alistair shell, despite the actor’s spirited playing. But this might well be my preference for character over plot bobbing to the surface; it’s just that everything seemed to be over too soon with the climax being typically rushed. Like the Hartnell stories which seemed to be influencing it, the resolution was beautifully simplistic, tossing something in a thing and then drop a cliff on top of it.

I suppose it’s worth discussing where the series is three episodes in. Broadcasting to a tiny audience on a minority channel, listening to these stories in contrast to the television series feels rather like attending a fringe meeting at a party conference when the leader of the party is giving his speech in the main hall. Unlike last year with the connecting tissue of the Lucie story or the various arc stories in the in-vision counterpart, these three so far have betrayed a lack of momentum, a lack of continuity. Paul and Sheridan are clearly loving each other’s company which is infectious and still the best thing about the plays, but I think this is the first run of Eighth Doctor stories in any media which aren’t connected to one another somehow, and it feels weird. Perhaps I expect too much, perhaps I should just be pleased to have a new weekly slice of the franchise on free radio, for at least another three weeks, especially given the upcoming drought. We have been spoilt of late, haven’t we?

the last thing you'd expect

Elsewhere And also tonight, an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which I describe as frustratingly bland. Which is the last thing you'd expect when you consider it features Russ Abbot giving a performance of acting.

a grotesque lack of subtext

TV My speedy rewatch of The West Wing has reached the handover between writer Aaron Sorkin to John Wells, the close of season four to the opening of season five. I've not been looking forward to this. It’s a while since I’ve seen these episodes and originally two whole years, just long enough for me to forget how good Sorkin’s writing really was. Having seen them in quick succession, here are some brief remarks.

In Twenty-Five (the last episode of season four) as Bartlett hands the presidency to Walken, I think Sorkin is writing about himself. I think that Zoe symbolises his own problems both personal and with the studio, that effectively he’s the president and that Wells is Walken and he's communicating the off-screen handover. It’s significant that the closing shot is of Bartlett leaving the oval office just as Sorkin writes his final lines for the series.

How clearly you see Wells trying to get to grips with such a complex show and characters as far as we can tell he’s never written for before. 7A WF 83429 looks the same, all of the actors are there, the directing style hasn’t changed much and yet there’s something missing. It’s in small things such as how different characters are referred to both in the first and third person – at one point Leo coldly talks about the kidnapped daughter as ‘Zoe Bartlett’ in the Situation Room when clearly even there, he’s still he calling her Zoe.

It also lacks history and precedent and literature. Episodes in the Sorkin era were thick with characters talking about something which happened to another figure or there’s a quote from literature or philosophy. Some of the first words from Walken’s lips in Twenty-Five are about Franz Ferdinand. It’s always relatively obscure and pertinent. The best Wells can come up with is ‘Cry havok and let slip the dogs of war’ which is sad.

7A WF 83429 is also without a greater theme. Twenty-Five was about Toby realising that he can be a great father by watching the President’s reaction to Zoe’s kidnap; there’s even often a moment usually between Josh and Donna or a flashback structure which iterates what the story is trying to say. There’s none of that in Wells’s script. You detect that what he wanted to do is talk about Jed seeking forgiveness from God. Instead, he simply takes communion, even though you’re dying for a reference back to Two Cathedrals in which the President told God what he thought of the metaphysical being and his policies towards the human race.

Some beats ring true: CJ telling Danny to run the story about the assassination before Walken can get it out there; Ellie comforting her Dad at the kitchen table; Walken’s yappy dog and its effects on CJ's clothing. But overwhelmingly there are scene after scene in which characters blandly say what they mean or nothing at all – there’s a grotesque lack of subtext and I’m already annoyed and I’m only an episode in. It’s going to be a long three seasons. I might wait until the real world US politics have blown over before continuing…

a brain jangling roller coaster

Elsewhere, a lazy meander through last night's Doctor Who. 'Dwas good, though for reasons I've sort of explained therein slightly disappointing. I like Doctor Who to be a brain jangling roller coaster and it certainly wasn't that, though there was a very nice twist in the middle.