The Opinion Engine 2.0:

Higgs boson - LHC

That Day It's that time of year again when I assess what were my predictions for the passing year and make up some new ones. Here's what I thought:

There will be a UK general election.

What we have now is a situation in which the Lib Dems are being given some latitude to criticise their coalition “partners” even some of the personalities (see the Euro-vito), but the actual specifics of the "friendship" are holding, largely because when there is a general election they’ll be wiped out. and thanks to fixed term parliaments that in theory that should give them until 2015.  Yes, well, hum.  They’re in limbo essentially and a limbo they’d probably still be in even if the maths had meant they could have joined with Labour in the last election. This isn’t a solid prediction, I’m insane enough to put it in the list below, but having read Deborah Orr’s excellent column on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an SDP/UKIP-like splinter group at some point in the future of supporters like me who were LibDems because they hated both Labour and the Tories and can’t find it in themselves to vote for the party as it stands. No marks, for me or them.

A lost episode of Doctor Who will be found.
The annual wild stab in the dark which turns out to be true. Two whole episodes. One mark.

A scientific discovery will revolutionise philosophical thought.
The Higgs particle. Though I don’t see the supernaturalists quaking just yet. Half a mark.

BBC Four will begin showing theatre on a regular basis.

No marks and indeed, other than some reruns, including Rupert Goold’s Macbeth last January, I don’t think there’s been any newish theatre on BBC Four this year. Even BBC Three had Frankenstein’s Wedding in March. Save BBC Four, yes, but can we have some diversity please?

A major high street entertainment retailer will close.

HMV’s still holding on by its nails. This year was the first in decades when I didn’t make a special trip to the shop in town to buy something in the Christmas Eve sale, having ordered the complete Alias (ironically) from the (not) Zavvi website a few days before and decided that would do. A favourable credit line from Universal is helping and there’s the potential for a takeover bid. US Borders finally went under this year and since I didn’t specify a geographical region (!) and I’m desperate for points, one mark.

Two and half which if you look at the archive of these predictions is about average. Now, let’s see. Hello, 2012, let’s go big …

Obama re-elected.

Murdoch's empire collapses.

Sugababes reforms.

Shakespeare found.

Planet saved.

That’s Sugababes rather than “Sugababes”. Either a Shakespeare manuscript or a lost play.  You never know. I have high hopes about us all finding a mutually agreed decision on climate change though what I really mean is that we’ll simply move from being negative to positive about the future. I’ll leave it to the thirty-eight year old version of me, next year, to measure exactly what that means. Sorry, future me.

This is the opinion engine closing down, for now.  Happy New Year!

@shakespearelogs mentioned in Around The Globe.

Around The Globe is Shakepeare's Globe's Magazine and in the latest issue writer Tom Brown (of So Long, Shakespeare) is kind enough to mention the @shakespearelogs twitter feed in an article about the controversy surrounding the release of Anonymous. I hope they and he won't mind me posting the relevant paragraph below:

Seems only fair to add, though, that the feed is only as good as the content, as the bloggers who are included and listed here in the sidebar on the far right, augmented with the contents of a Google News search.  But it's still exciting to see my name quoted in one of my favourite magazines.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
My Year With Books.

Books In 2011, for a change, I decided to read a something everyone was talking about and so thanks to twitter's recommendation I tore through Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman in a couple of days. There’s little point repeating my review here, except to wonder why it is I so rarely do make a point of selecting something from the best seller lists. Partly it’s for reasons discussed below, partly it’s because I tend to find my fiction in films and television, partly it’s because I’m such an excruciatingly slow reader at times, but mostly it’s habit. For someone who professes to be intensely interested in everything, my range of reading tends to be on-line. Everything else is film, Shakespeare and Doctor Who and lately only the very latter on audio. I am taking some steps to change that.

Firstly I’ve been working through the collection of books I’ve amassed over the years with fascinating titles like Hyde Park Atrocity: Epstein's "Rima" - Creation and Controversy or Shape of the World: Mapping and Discovery of the Earth. I began with the coffee table books, some freebees, some presents, some impulse buys. One of the best was undoubtedly Hollywood: The Pioneers by Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, an in-depth investigation based on an ancient ITV documentary into pre-sound cinema which investigated not just the films themselves but the technology and the copyright wars which resembled scenes from the later gangster pictures, largely because they were gangsters. When watching both Mark Cousins’s epic series The Story of Film and Scorsese’s Hugo, I could recognise the technology and what an important innovation sprockets were.

Secondly, as you may have gathered, in an effort to widen my exposure to literature beyond Elizabethan and Jacobian classical drama I’ve begun collecting the Oxford World Classics, picking up copies in used bookstores, charity shops and ebay with the plan to read them in the order of purchase and utilising an Amazon wish list to keep track of the books I'm still looking for. With almost all of literature available, and me being the king of indecision, I wanted to introduce a random element, so I’m only buying the very latest edition (see above) both because I like the simplicity of the cover design and because they’re relatively new and so rarer and more of a challenge to find. I’ve just completed Pride & Prejudice (Red Cross, Old Swan, last month), with Wuthering Heights (Oxfam, Allerton Road, 13th December) still to come.

But I’m a creature of habit and this year’s also been stuffed with Shakespeare. As well as finally reading Jonathan Bates’s super The Genius of … I’ve been lucky enough to be receiving review mailings of The Arden Shakespeare which now also includes the other series the Early Modern Classics. The banner publication and somewhat straddling both was Sir Thomas More the collaboration which editor John Jowett convincingly argued Shakespeare contributed to and which means that (the royal) we have a page and a half of manuscript in his hand. Also in their Library series was Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Upstart Crow to Sweet Swan which investigated the lesser known documentation from the period of Shakespeare’s life, demonstrating the ebbs and flows of his social status as an actor and poet.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
How do you arrange your bookshelves?

Question asked by Alexander McCall Smith via Today on BBC Radio Four.

Books Readers with long memories will know about the slightly baroque approach I’ve taken to cataloguing my dvds (more here) and that continues apace unfortunately. But the other morning just before work, I caught the end of this piece on Today in which Alexander McCall Smith explained how he arranged his books and asking listeners the same question, with replies via Twitter.

One of the benefit of having a relatively monosyllabic taste in books is that they’re fairly easy to organise. Sitting on the desk where I’m typing is a bookcase, the top of which has all of the pre-nuWho spin-off novels in some kind of relative order with the Eighth Doctor BBC Books up front waiting to be worked through. Below that are three shelves filled with Shakespeare handbooks and biographies and other contextual stuff.

Right next to my chair are two old Argos bookcases piled on top of one another. Top shelf are the Cygnet editions of Shakespeare plays, and Penguin second editions and on the shelves downwards, Arden Shakespeare second edition, Arden’s third edition, Penguin thirds plus the Arden Early Modern Drama (all alphabetical by title), miscellaneous editions, then the plays on cassette, then various Hamlet productions.

The books on the rest of the shelves, the general knowledge, aren’t in any particular order other than height with some series gathered together. Unlike the dvds I don’t own enough that it’s too much to have to bother with and I quite like having to look for a title if I really need to because of the resultant tiny sense of satisfaction when it’s been found. One bookshelf contains the backlog, spine towards the ceiling, taunting me.

Given my professional librarian qualification, you’d think I would be more organised. But the dvds have essentially fulfilled that addiction. Watching Alan Yentob’s Imagine about the rise of ebooks the other night I couldn’t help having a slightly guilty tinge, just briefly, relishing all the space I could save if all of these volumes were just files on a Kindle. Apart from anything else, I’d never have to have a clear out.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Doctor Who's The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardobe.

TV On Christmas morning, on BBC Breakfast, Susanna Reid (wearing rather fetching TARDIS blue dress), introduced a rendition of Shakin’ Stevens’s Merry Christmas Everyone from soldiers stationed in Helmand province beamed in live through a camera phone. Next on the running order was interview via similar technology with Blue Peter’s Helen Skelton preparing for her cycle ride to the South Pole, who commented on how the singing had made her feel very Christmassy. A lady standing in Antarctica can now listen to the voices of soldiers in Afghanistan and then mention it to a presenter sitting in London.

On realising this, my face must have been the spit of little Cyril in The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardobe as I was swept up in the magic of the moment, and as well as all the presents, first turkey dinner on Christmas Day in years and a copy of The Brilliant Book, the experience set me up perfectly for the night’s Doctor Who. In the days since broadcast the backlash has already begun, about how it’s another loose collection of Steven Moffat’s same old tropes, that it’s not the most complex of stories, that Matt’s on auto and although some of that’s true (I’d strongly disagree about Matt), this is one of those episodes about atmosphere and about being swept up along by it all.

Which accounts for the brevity and lateness of this review. I don’t want to unpick it, take it apart and put it back together again, paragraphs filled with discussion about the language of television and the TARDIS’s status as a wardrobe metaphor especially since, as if to emphasise the point, it’s not the time machine which transports the family to the fantastical forest but just an ordinary box. Not to mention, Jonathan Morris’s recent strip for Doctor Who Magazine, The Professor, the Queen and the Bookshop covered much of the territory in pictorial form. I want my memory of it not to be about hour spent forming an opinion, but the episode itself, the images.

Images like Claire Skinner’s Madge entirely at ease with the technology she’s presented with almost as though she’s encountered such things before. Skinner captures the spirit perfectly, the slight sense of reverie, Rose’s initial reaction to the aliens on Platform One, (“Ok.” “Ok.”) layered across an entire episode and she’s another example of a one off “companion” with a strong, almost Doctorish sense of independence, even able to outwit admittedly clueless examples of humanity from centuries into her future. We could fantasise about her being Amy and Rory’s replacement, but Skinner’s a busy actress and Madge would never leave her kids.

Excellent kids too, especially Holly Earl’s playing of someone slightly younger. The in-depth version of this review would consider the increasing preponderance of children in the Moffat era, far more than in the first four or five years and how they help to create a portal into the stories for kids. Actually like companions for the Doctor, Cyril’s sense of wonder is more of a way for us adults to be enchanted again, allowing us to project ourselves backwards, become the kinds of people who can marvel at modern technology. Either way it certainly works here, as the forest reveals its secrets like organic baubles in a sequence which reminded me of the first tentative steps into Skaro in The Daleks (or whatever it's called).

The sudden re-emergence of old mythology in the form of Androzani Major is also good fun even if it’s a reminder that characters like the three miners will always be given less to do now the format skews towards shorter stories. Moffat cleverly frames them psychologically in 80s terms, closer to Red Dwarf crewmembers, which suits all three actors perfectly, Bill Bailey’s fearful reaction shot as he realises what this mother means business, one of the story’s big laughs. Like Madge, they seem designed for a return engagement and with thirteen singles in the next series and so thirteen episodes, there’s plenty of room.

Visually binding this together is photographer Stephan Pehrsson, taking a break from his collaboration with Toby Haynes to work with new to Who director Farren Blackburn, someone he’s also previous collaborated on episodes of Holby City. It’s another beautiful rendition from Pehrsson, who aided by some typically stunning production design from Michael Pickwoad, conjures a world that’s partly The Box of Delights, partly The Shining. In her shot choices and direction, Blackburn keeps the focus on Madge and the children only bringing the Doctor to the fore when absolutely necessary. It’s their story and Matt’s forever at the back of shot, straightening his tie.

As we await the sale at Dobbies of licensed garden ornaments based on the wood people, let’s finally ponder another reminder that as well as the Doctor, Moffat’s rule one is that he lies. In The Brilliant Book, he says Amy and Rory aren’t in the special and yet there they are and thank goodness. Off they may be, but this reunion scene, mirroring the departure in The God Complex reminds us of how much they’ll be missed when they’re gone. The Doctor’s had happy tears before, even in recent memory, but these were the kinds of tears we only have when we know that we have a home. Sadly, unbeknownst to him, this is home from which he'll soon be evicted.  Sad tears soon.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Challenging cinema.

Warning. Contains spoilers. I talk about the ending of the first two films highlighted. Do not read you haven't watched. Please. Thank you.

One of my theories is that in most circumstances comedies should be half an hour, dramas ideally two and Never Let Me Go was a perfect subversion of that. Over and over on-line and in some professional reviews, I’ve seen criticism that the film lacks a resolution, no third act, has an abrupt ending. Even not having read any of this before “going in” (if that’s possible with the a dvd) I understood that cleverly, as the characters reach their premature end, that is also being illustrated in the structure of the film, that the story is being purposefully denied its extra half hour. Rather like the metafictional games at the heart of Charlie Kauffman’s script for Adaptation, it trusts that the audience will understand the approach being taken, the point being made. Sadly too few people did.

The brave sport film structure of Scott Pilgrim vs The World also experiments with the audience’s ability to deal with narrative structure and the understanding of character development, almost including the alternative ending bonus feature from dvd in the actual film. The dvd of course does itself have alternative ending bonus feature and it’s a rare example of the one in the actual film being the correct choice. Like everyone else I became slightly obsessed with Ramona Flowers who seems to encapsulate every unapproachable cool girl but having tested the audience’s patience, it was inconceivable that there wouldn’t the potentiality for Scott not to be with her, allowing Knives to retain her independence.

Other films employed the production techniques of documentary to produce genre based efforts. In Monsters, like Inception last year (thanks to the way I watch movies via the home release schedule, there is a general blurring of what constitutes my cinematic year which is why this and Pilgrim have rolled over), Gareth Edwards melded the art house imperative with Hollywood concerns, in this case the loose plotting of the new wave with an alien invasion film. If you’re asking where the Monsters are, you’ve missed the point. But it’s still fairly ballsy to take your actors on a road trip, film their interactions with the locals and the landscape and hope that you have enough footage to produce a coherent story, let alone something in a genre which demands certain satisfactions.

Burlesque was a guilty pleasure, this year’s Coyote Ugly, but On Tour makes the list instead because (a) it’s actually about burlesque and (b) we’re never entirely sure what was scripted or improvised. Like Edwards, I understand that actor/director Mathieu Amalric took some mainly real American burlesque performers on a tour of the French coast filming very real shows then worked them around a narrative about his aging producer attempting to rekindle past glories but taken advantage of by his old friends. Many of the scenes are improvised and like Monsters we’re never entirely sure what was scripted or staged, and how much of the jeopardy is as a result of events over taking themselves in production.

But hands down the most startling image was in the documentary Gasland in which our perception of reality was bent by footage of actuality. An investigation into the potential risks of hydraulic fracking to the health of people and their communities, writer/director Josh Fox knows that his entire story is encapsulated in a single moment, when one of the participants sets light to their drinking water, flames shooting out from the one elemental place it shouldn’t. Over and over we’re greeted by this image and it’s scarier than a dozen horror films. Fracking is due to be carried out soon in Cheshire but as Fox’s film demonstrates, since the science is being wilfully submerged thanks to confidentiality, corporations are allowed to wilfully deny responsibility for ensuing health problems.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
The year in "nostalgic" films that aren't Hugo.

Chalet Girl was this year’s secret classic and I suspect the teenage version of me would have judged it the year’s best (which makes this choice about nostalgia for the person I once was). It’s essentially a British take on the Mary-Kate and Ashley cultural tourism series, but throughout it explodes expectations by making the bitchy blonde rival the best friend, putting the handsome suitor at the epicentre of a discussion on class politics and hiring Bill Bailey to play an emotionally crippled Dad. But the key success is Felicity Jones as the eponymous service worker who uncannily appropriates in her tiny form some of Katherine Hepburn’s verve, timing and just general weirdness, taking full advantage of a script which is drenched in buckets full of cynicism and still able to look just plain cute in a ski coat against the snow.  it's just a shame the typically mishandled advertising campaign and critical reaction put everyone else off.

Time was that late sequels to films recast everyone or put the same name on a remake and although that's still happening (though luckily so far not to The Happening), with the upcoming American Wedding and Scre4m there’s been a Herculean effort to bring the gang back together no matter where they are in their film career. Ostensibly rerunning some of the elements of Scream 3 with Sydney reliving past horrors, there’s often nothing wrong in seeing much the same thing, with the same characters in a slightly different order (I should know being a Doctor Who fan). I was even surprised by the ending, entirely buying in to expectations of what the fourth film in a horror series should deliver. Hopefully we’ll have 5cream before too long.

In The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Luc Besson attempts to remake all of Steven Speilberg’s films. At the same time. It’s Indiana Jones meets Jurassic Park with the sensibilities of 1941 directed in the style of Hook.  I suppose.  A plot synopsis would resemble a game of consequences because just when you feel as though you have a handle on the story, Besson chucks in something else to contend with. I don’t want to give too much away because his film wasn’t much seen, but this has one of the best closing scenes of the year and I might even have enjoyed this more than the Harry Potter conclusion which felt slightly anticlimactic somehow (other than essentially making Neville the hero). People who were disappointed by Tin Tin have said this is a useful alternative.

One of my few really vivid memories of primary school was the Film Club. Each Friday after four o’clock, a large percentage of the constituency would pile into the main hall, where a giant screen had been erected by a teacher who would show us actual film prints of old Disney classics. I remember particularly seeing One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and the Winnie the Pooh features. The latest release in that series by denying almost all modern innovations bar Zooey on the soundtrack took me right back to those times, reminding me that sometimes the simplest stories are the best. The sequence in which everyone is stuck in a hole was one of the most amusing in a year which also brought the seminal projectile vomiting scene in Bridesmaids but Disney's film as whole demonstrates it is still possible to be funny without being rude.

Hands down my favourite sequence of the year at least in the Hollywoods that aren’t Hugo, is the appearance during Thor of the Warriors Three in New Mexico, their panto costumes otherwise so in-keeping with the sets of Asgard entirely incongruous against the small town backdrop.  Looking nostalgically backwards to the kind of fantasy epics of the 80s  which were guaranteed the cover of Marvel’s Starburst, if Thor was anything, it was a homage to the Masters of the Universe film, but done properly with a sizable chunk set in Eternia. This whole Avengers project has been a joy and it’s a tragedy that some creative agreement can’t be made with the rights holders to other Marvel characters to have them all set in this same universe rather than making the rivals they shouldn’t be.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
The year in Doctor Who.

TV The rather narrow posting structure of Review 2011 has meant that when the announcement was made of Amy and Rory's passing I couldn't just blurt something out. Having had a few days to cogitate on it, I've decided three things:

(a) That it's about time. At least on television, few companions lasted longer than a couple of series in the first twenty odd years so it's good that Moffat's prepared to move on and wants to see how this Doctor reacts to a new companion.

(b) I'm also ultimately pleased that Moffat decided to make the announcement himself at a big event (the preview showing of tonight's special) rather than let it squeek out, either via a tabloid or someone on the show saying the wrong thing in an interview, not least because we now have the buzz about who the new companion will be.

(c) I love  the buzz about who the new companion will be. An unknown? Will it be someone Moffat's already familiar with? Will it be Mels?

When I posted sentiments similar to (b) on The Guardian's article about all of this, I received a response:

Wow.  It's not every day you're accused of excusing the Bush doctrine in so many words.  But really, GJMW, it's not the same thing.

The other big news at the closing of the year was the number of missing episodes being reduced to a hundred and six with the entertainingly mixed reaction from fans, best summed up as "But did it have to be those two?"  Personally I'm quite looking forward to seeing the Dravins (as mentioned in The Pandorica Opens) moving around for longer than a few minutes and Joseph Furst's Zaroff is the greatest villian in the show's history. Yes, he is.  A Lost In Time II box set is apparently forthcoming though quite what else will be on there is anyone's guess.  We've still no idea how they're resolving the Shada thing despite 2Entertains twitter feed filling up with news of the value added material.

But we're here to talk about the rest of the year which, despite the obvious tragedy in the loss of two of its most iconic players, has been one of the richest since the show came back with three franchise related series on television, Big Finish going from strength to strength and AudioGo backfilling the audiobook versions of old nuWho novels as well as producing their own original dramas.  My best Doctor Who related experience of the year was listening to Jonathan Morris's novel Touched By An Angel read by Claire Corbett across five hours, which kept me occupied on the bus to and from work.  I've already talked at length about the effect it had on me in the review, but it was a reminder that Who at its best doesn't just feature great storytelling but has the capacity to take the viewer/reader/listener on an emotional journey (a phrase which I hate but I'll forgive myself for on this occasion) as potent as any other great art.  Now on to the telly box.

Like Steven Moffat himself during the previous era, Neil Gaiman strode in and within just forty-five minutes, just one line perhaps, changed our understanding of the history of the programme whilst still elsewhere through the appearance of junkyards and corridors and other iconography commemorating it too. Not long after The Doctor’s Wife was broadcast (review), Frontios was released on dvd, the 80s story which opens with the TARDIS going dramatically off course and the Doctor moaning about such and my first thought was that the old girl was taking him where he needed to go. But Gaiman also managed to inject something of the time war back into the series without it becoming incongruous and Suranne Jones offered the best guest star performance of the series. The God Complex was a close runner-up (review). At some point I’ll write my thesis about how the whole season was a homage to The Mind Robber, but not today.

I know this is being astonishingly cruel, especially on Christmas Day, but trying to choose the best episode of the unendurable Miracle Day is like trying to decide which of the post Christmas leftovers to risk first if they’ve been sitting in the fridge for a few days. While individual moments stood out, notably when the show was set in Wales even if it was being shot under the sun, the weight of pointless exposition eventually caused the thing to collapse. News from the commentary that Davies went through the script for episode ten removing every use of the word ‘crack’ demonstrates the loss of confidence they had. No, the best Torchwood this year was on the radio, the three episodes which ran in Radio 4’s Afternoon Play slot, which saw the return of Ianto and in the closing moments of James Gross’s The House of the Dead (review), a reminder of what the show is capable of when someone puts their mind to it. External factors suggest the tv version’s now on extended hiatus. More radio drama would be a welcome stopgap.

The loss or the irreplaceable Lis Sladen meant The Sarah Jane Adventures had too short a season, but the show went out on a high, not least with Phil Ford’s best script. It might sound like dodgy hyperbole to describe The Curse of Clyde Langer an unsung televisual event of the year, (review) but considering the time slot, this was a mature, clever, literate presentation of homelessness of the kind which seemed common when I was growing up, wrapped in the trappings of a kids sci-fi adventure. Only recently have I realised just how cleverly the episode was structured. I’d assumed that Clyde’s story had simply been divorced from the fantasy elements so that the issues could be properly investigated. I’ve now realised that as well as removing him from his family and friends, Ford was purposefully denying him those fantasy elements as well only plunging back in when Sarah Jane and the gang turned up, which is another reason Ellie doesn’t return at the end. She’s a symbol of the “normal” life he no longer has.

Happy Christmas!

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
When really was the
golden age?


Guest answer from Ian Jones of TV Cream.

I'm a sucker for compartmentalism.

Life is far more manageable when ordered and filed in different boxes. That's what I tell myself, anyway.

Trouble is, you need to decide which boxes are which before you begin. Then there are the criteria for keeping item A separate from item B.

And on whose terms are you trying to file, slice, categorise and datestamp the people and things you like to believe are important to you? Theirs, or yours?

Compartmentalising is addictive. You find yourself doing it while washing up after tea or lying in bed trying to sleep. Then you find yourself wanting to do it while washing up after tea or lying in bed trying to sleep. It ends with you washing up or lying in bed simply to give yourself another opportunity for doing it.

But as a pastime, it's often less personally intrusive or distressing to try doing it at one remove.

By this I mean applying a bit of compartmentalism to, for example, time itself.

I think it's fun to argue that the 1960s didn't run from 1960 to 1969, but in fact ran from 6 June 1962 to 1 April 1970: the dates of the very first and the very last Beatles recording sessions at Abbey Road.

Or that the 1990s didn't start until Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party, and lasted until 11 September 2001.

Or that 20th century pop culture lasted from the birth of Radio 1 to the death of Princess Diana.

This last time-frame is the one loosely adhered to over on TV Cream, where various people including myself attempt to make nostalgia sound as fresh and as funny as it did 10 years ago when all those clip shows were on the telly. (A time when, mark you, TV Cream was already getting on for being five years old.)

To be honest, such a rule came about more through expediency than decree.

We needed some kind of start and end point to give the site a bit of shape and focus. Perhaps one day we’ll actually manage both.

Yet all this cultural compartmentalising is again something of a diversion from applying similar sorts of itemisation to more personal matters.

And yes, it can be more fun, but only if you've already decided into which box you've put the people with which you intend to do the compartmentalising.

You can see that this can all become a bit of a chore.

Historians build and destroy reputations when splicing up the past in order to give it meaning. The idea that the whole of the 1970s could be shoved in a cabinet labelled GHASTLY MISTAKE, or perhaps more precisely GHASTLY MISTAKE WHERE EVERYONE WORE FLARES HA HA HA, has only recently, and thankfully, been challenged by more thoughtful accounts from the likes of Andy Beckett and Dominic Sandbrook.

Yet the notion of an entire era being singly and neatly summed up is surely something that appeals to all of us, not just those of a historical persuasion.

Who doesn't like to believe that the UK was a better or worse place in such and such a decade, or during so and so's reign as prime minister?

Compartmentalising something as a "golden age", however, always comes with the charge of a different, more potent kind of addiction: that of a misplaced wielding of rose-tinted spectacles, or the wrong kind of conservatism (yes, there is a right and a wrong kind), or delusion about a uniformity of excellence that once flourished and is now extinct.

In response, I would simply question the idea of a “golden age” needing both a start and end point.

Take, for example, the idea of there being a “golden age” for pop music, for cinema, or for television.

In all cases there certainly has been one. But it’s one that began when the first note was recorded, the first reel projected, the first broadcast transmitted; and in each case, it hasn’t finished yet.

These are all open-ended compartments. Which, on reflection, also happen to be the very best kind.

Ken Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter now available on R1 dvd. Ish.

Tonight, after my usual pre-Christmas viewing of Ken Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter via an increasingly ropey VHS recording from S4C about ten years ago, I grumpily checked Amazon for a dvd release. I've also done this pretty much every year and come up disappointed.

Not this year.

This year revealed that in December 2010, the film was released on Region One under its US title A Midwinter's Tale by the Warner Bros Archive Collection imprint, and copies are available still available.

There are still a few copies from Amazon's Marketplace.

See where it says 2 new from £11.98?

That used to be three.

Looks like I'll be watching it again in January.

Updated!  It's back up to three.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
If Star Wars were made today who would you cast in which part?

Film Sacrilege. One might even say “blasphemy”. Recast Star Wars? Are you mad? But note this isn’t a question about remaking Star Wars. This is about who would be cast if time skipped a beat and George Lucas was making the series now. It’s a challenge especially since when Lucas was casting the original film he was looking generally at unknowns for the young parts with established British actors in the main roles.

Economies of scale now generally mitigate against that, actors tend to have to be established to some degree even if it's for television work and perhaps even more. So just to offer my first justification I’ve selected from known knowns rather than known unknowns. I’ve also stuck to the main roles, the kinds of faces that might appear on the posters (sorry fans of Mon Mothma).

Michael Cera is Luke Skywalker

Nathan Fillion is Han Solo

 Emma Stone is Princess Leia Organa

 Alan Rickman is Grand Moff Tarkin
 Kenneth Branagh is Ben Kenobi

 Anthony Daniels is C-3PO
(Eddie Izzard if unavailable)

 R2-D2 is CGI

 Paul Kasey (on stilts) is Chewbacca

 Stellan Skarsgård is Uncle Owen

 Juliette Binoche is Aunt Beru

Paul Kasey is Darth Vader
James Earl Jones is his voice
(Peter Serafinowicz if unavailable)

 Michael Kenneth Williams is Lando Calrissian
 Paul Kasey is Boba Fett

 Kevin Spacey is The Emperor

Paul Kasey is Greedo

Most of those are predictably self-explanatory. But since you’ve asked, Luke isn’t an action character in a traditional sense; he’s a farm boy forced to take up his calling so it doesn’t need a Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth but a loser who could become a hero. Paul Kasey is under the suit of most nuWho aliens so has tons of experience. Plus, there has to be someone from The Wire, and Omar fits the bill.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What's the last game you played, and did you win?

Game Of Life on PSP

Question asked by Jess Haskins.

Life  When did everything in life become a game? Perhaps everything in life has always been a game, hence the board game. It just seems that as I age, everything from interpersonal relationships, to using public transport to shopping requires strategies, acute senses and problem solving skills which fill every decision with some element of jeopardy, negative outcomes leading to a loss of time, a loss of money and sometimes much worse. Without thinking ahead you’ll find yourself saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, missing the bus or inadvertently being ripped off in a supermarket, drip on drip of anxiety which ultimately leads to exhaustion, mental and physical.

Why does everything we say feel like it’s under a microscope and why is every conversation so fraught with danger that every sentence, clause and tone of voice has the awareness of being picked over because we’re so desperate to project a certain version of ourselves, which also changes depending on the people we’re with? Unlike most, I seem to be at ease amongst strangers because they haven’t worked me out yet, I could still be anyone. The worry only descends when those strangers become friends and I suddenly feel the potentiality to be judged and rejected so I begin to question everything, every word, which is presumably why making new friends, proper friends, trusted friends becomes impossible.

Sometimes it’s easier just to bug out, lose a life. As some of you know I work at the weekends finishing at around five o’clock and there are about five bus stops weaving through the city centre until the place where I should wait. When I began this job, it soon became apparent that because it’s only a half hour, it would always be full by the time it reaches me and it would always drive past. For a couple of years I gritted my teeth but the wait was becoming ever longer, pointless, because of the relative distances. Eventually I just decided to get a taxi home those two nights and absorb the extra twenty pound a month on top of the exorbitant bus fair (£1.90 flat fair) it would have been anyway, worth it just to get the time back and reduce my stress levels.

Even something as simple as buying a Christmas tree.  Last year we turned up at the seller a week before the 25th, as usual, and there were few trees left and the only scotch pine was more akin to a branch than an actual tree. Charlie Brown’s was larger.  So this year we decided to attend a week earlier and sure enough loads more scotches but they were far too tall for our ceiling and mostly bagged. Which is where the gamesmanship comes in. Which to choose? Eventually we came to a decision, having rejected others for being too bushy or having a longer trunk than we required, but the whole process was amazingly tense, despite the fact that any real tree looks amazing in the corner of the room with some lights on.

I tend to win and lose in equal measure I think, which actually a higher ratio than when I used to play computer games regularly and the only chance I had of seeing past the average first level was via cheat code entered using an Action Replay cartridge in the back of the Commodore 64.  But life has few cheat codes, bar the odd money off voucher or competition win, no way to turn off sprite detection or have infinite ammunition (at least I don’t think so).  I’ve also realised that it’s up to me to decide exactly what “winning” might be because unlike the boxed game, life itself doesn’t have any particular rules. So I’ll just keep playing and hope at some point I’ll escape the Jet Set Willy infinite death loop by myself.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Why do you think the common discourse in our society, at political, technical and cultural levels, generally ignores the likely impending collapse of our civilisation? Answer can include things like: What are the consequences of this ignorance? How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? What could alter it? Bonus: Avoid making assumptions about the exact nature and timing of the collapse - there are lots of possible ones, and nobody knows the future. It's probabilistic.

Soylent green sign

Question from Francis Irving.

Let's begin.  Prestissimo, please.

Civilisation is going to collapse. We won’t know how, we won’t know when, but at some point, civilisation is going to collapse. In order to answer the question we have to work from that assumption outwards. If the question was, “Will civilisation collapse?” my answer would more likely be “maybe” (illustrated by a picture of me shrugging) because to continue in the first person, even though I’m inherently pessimistic about myself, I’m optimistic that civilisation will survive. But the question is the question and so we must proceed from the assumption that civilisation will collapse.

If society is wilfully ignoring that impending collapse then it’s for the same reason that I doesn’t think it will happen. It’s because society itself is inherently optimistic and to work, to carry on, it has to assume that civilisation has a future. What’s the point of trying to accumulate wealth if you can’t spend it? What’s the point in having a car if you can’t drive it? But society is constantly as war with itself on these issues, because it knows collectively, not always subliminally that the consequences of such optimism and ignorance could itself bring about the collapse of society. But it can’t help itself. It has an addictive personality.

To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement. We should be aware of all potentialities for collapse and making plans. But there are enough clever stupid people and ignorant stupid people willing to listen to stop that from happening. It’s become an ideological fight between whether bringers of truth or lies can have the upper hand and too often, because this is a petulant, self-perpetuating machine, the latter takes precedence, largely because it’s cunning enough to offer the version of the truth which best suits their purposes. That’s how apathy develops. Why bother arguing against someone who isn’t willing to be rational in the first place?

It’s like this column/piece/essay/blogpost/blog post which could and probably should have been well researched and planned out pointing to useful articles like this one from The Guardian about how the population will increase to such an extent the film Soylent Green will look like a documentary. But the bonus section wilfully disallows me from coming to any conclusions about what the nature of the collapse will be, forces me to ignore the specifics and work in generalisations leading to woolly thinking. Which is society’s other approach to the collapse.  There are so many potentialities it chooses to ignore them all.

Which means that in the end, because society is fixed in a reactive rather than proactive cycle, the only way the situation can alter is the actual collapse of our civilisation, because then, and only then, will society, or what’s left of it, know what hit it and have some ideas on how to deal with it. But of course, we’ll probably spend so much time analysing what happened, having arguments about who was to blame, with the people who were to blame pointing to other about causes and wanting to see how they can profit from it, that it’ll stay collapsed. Which is why I have to be optimistic, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
If Matt Smith was to leave Dr Who tomorrow and then the BBC rang to offer you the role, how would you play it?

Question from Risa Arendall via Facebook.

TV For a fan like me this is a two part question.  Would I play it?  Then how would I play it? My immediate answer to the first would be in the negative for the simple reason of concern at the kind of madness which has led the BBC or more specifically whoever’s running the show to offer the lead part in one of the flagship programmes to an amateur blogger from Liverpool with miniscule acting experience (a twenty week night course and understudying a public speaking competition at school). Apart from anything else we’re ex-directory which means they’d have to do some detective work to get the number which means they’d really want me and I’d be wondering whether this was their attempt to run the series into the ground.

To buy into the fantasy and assume in fact I do look, sound and have the acting ability of Laurence Fox (if not him for the twelfth Doctor, who else?) or Romola Garai (that's who else) would I take the role? Well, on the one hand it’s very seductive. It’s the Doctor. It’s the role of a lifetime, even if, like Matt Smith, you aren’t really fan before you get the call. Assuming there’s a decent writer at the helm, support from the BBC and you’re likeable enough to attract people to watch even on Christmas Day, you’re set up for life, especially now that it won’t necessarily typecast you in the way it might have done in the past. And even if that doesn’t work out the convention circuit is very welcoming.

On the other it’s hard bloody work and not just spending nine months in production with its bonkers scheduling. There’s the publicity machine, the endless interviews with people asking the same old questions, there’s the media you don’t want to talk to who’ll make up stories about you anyway and you wouldn’t be able to go out in public ever again if you’re a private kind of person. Then there’s the Malkovich element of seeing your face everywhere including the merchandise you once may have coveted. There’s no use picking up a copy of Doctor Who Magazine to find out what’s happening, because you are what’s happening.

Plus, and this is important, you’ll no longer be able to watch the show like a fan, which is at least one of the reasons offered for leaving by both Russell T Davies and David Tennant, that they wanted to be able to watch the programme again and not know what was going to happen. Which is bonkers, especially since you’re doubtless going to also be at the epicentre of merchandising freebees, boxes of books and cds and dvds turning up on a weekly basis, probably. But yes, that would be in the mix. Plus I’d be on the other side of the internet’s review nexus dealing with amateur bloggers from Liverpool describe how rubbish I am on a weekly basis.

And yet, and yet, like the tenth Doctor himself looking into The Satan Pit in The Satan Pit, there’s the itch. It’s Doctor Who. Why would anyone not want to be in Doctor Who no matter the consequences? Look at an average episode of Confidential and look at the production team at least, that family, that amazingly democratic family. Everyone says how much they’ve enjoyed working on the programme (at least the less egotistical ones, Swift) and it’s because of that family. There’s a reason Danny Hargreaves is still in there, blowing things up after all these years. There can’t be many shows like it.

In addition, for good or ill, even if you’re rubbish, you’d become part of television history. For most of the populace, Paul McGann only had one adventure as the Doctor, but he’s still the Eighth Doctor. He still appears in montage sequences, in the general historical articles in newspapers, still asked about the role, still does the convention circuit. People can barely remember who all the actors in the average soap are, or which series of Spooks this or that spy appeared in, but they always seem to know who’s played the Doctor. Never mind the fictional character, it’s become one of the few roles in which an actor can be immortalised.

So on reflection, yeeees, yeeees, I would do it! I would do it! And probably even if I wasn’t married to Billie Piper or a woman. Because actually the franchise is probably actor proof. Anyone can play the Doctor. Hugh Grant’s played the Doctor, albeit for just a few moments, and he was amazing. Arabella Weir’s played the Doctor on audio in an alternative universe story and she was amazing too. Those were twenty very good weeks and I probably would have given Henry V’s “Once More Unto The Breach…” a fair bit of welly, even if the sixteen year old version of me couldn’t remember all of it. I could be the first Doctor to improvise the role. 

Agonising over, how would I do it? Doctors seem to be rather split down the middle between those for whom its a job of acting and those for whom the role is a natural extension of their personality.  As you might expect there's some discussion as to which Who fits into which category, though there's not much argument that Tom Baker and Matt Smith were and are largely playing versions themselves.  I'd argue Tennant is somewhere in the middle, giving the "Tennant" performance which crops up throughout his work.

Legendary writer Terrance Dicks always said that you just need to write the same Doctor and leave it up to the actor's interpretation but I'd disagree.  The brilliance of Who isn't just that the show itself is flexible, or that the main character can change his appearance, it's also that his attitude is quantum locked with the needs of the story.  The Eleventh Doctor in The Doctor's Wife is a different presence to Let's Kill Hitler then Closing Time, partly because of the writer but also because of the actor's reaction to the script.

To an extent, nuWho's spoilt the gene pool because aristocratic is right out.  Unless Mark Gattis has a few ideas when he inevitably takes over, the Pertwee approach wouldn't work.  Much as we love him, or some of us do, he's something of an alienating presence, and although like all Doctors he warmed up over time, the last thing you'd want is for him to be patronising all in sundry and visiting private clubs.  He needs to be a bonkers presence, the benevolent alien with the darker side bubbling under the surface waiting to explode.

But always clever.  And kind.  Don't laugh (though you will), but I sometimes catch myself being Doctorish in real life, running my voice off, injecting a hint of unnecessary sarcasm and searching for the right thing to say in order to diffuse whatever mood someone's in.  And problem solving, lots of problem solving.  It's not on purpose, it's not consciously "What would the Doctor do?"  It just sort of happens.  Then I notice later.  Or project it.  I wonder sometimes if it's a fan thing.  If we all do this.  That we've all played the Doctor.  Sort of.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Are the tips in The Sunscreen Song really useful?

Got any sunscreen?

Guest answer from Lisa-Marie Ferla.

Life I feel as have been spending most of this month backpedalling furiously, playing catch-up. More so than usual, I mean. The fact that I thought Stuart’s original deadline of “the first week of December” for my contribution to this project was a long way off, and easily reachable, probably tells you all I need to know.

This time last year I was working in retail, an aftershock of the Great Financial Downturn of 2008. I was working for a company who probably see themselves as more than a consumer electronics outlet, and to be fair some of its innovations have come to define this first decade of the 21st century in much the same way as the death of its pioneer made particular headlines on the tech blogs I now scan in my current role here in 2011. What I’ll tell you about retail is that there ain’t no way the festive season is sneaking up on you in that environment, particularly when you’re selling the ‘must-have’ gadgets some of the richer brats of Glasgow are expecting bulking out their stockings. This December, however, I’m back working in journalism (I’ve always thought of myself as a journalist first and foremost, but it’s only this year I haven’t had to stretch the boundaries of the definition to include the word in my CV). My focus is the law, particularly as it pertains to business, and as the Government releases report after consultation trying to clear its desks and justify its existence before the country closes down for the holidays I don’t think I’ve ever found myself generating so many words.

Still, December is a great month for those of us concerned for what we’ve been missing. Some blog, somewhere, will for example have curated a list of the Best Memes of 2011 - although surely, if you missed them first time around, they can hardly have been meme-y at all.

Seriously. WTF is a “nyan cat”? Did you..?

The Sunscreen Song, which you’ll probably best remember from its Baz Luhrman-remixed spoken word single interpretation, was fourteen years old this summer. Think about that. Fourteen years (twelve, I suppose, if you’re going by the single release but the newspaper column the words come from appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 1 June 1997. That’s a little less than half a lifetime, yet I’m pretty sure you can still remember huge chunks of the words in a way you certainly won’t be able to recall huge chunks of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” when you hit your mid-forties. The word “meme” was yet to slither its insidious way into the Oxford English Dictionary when The Sunscreen Song entered popular culture, but that its words still have some sort of ageless resonance - in fact, they’re perfectly pitched to be pretty much endlessly reblogged on Tumblr - is a testament to the power and simplicity of its advice.

Incidentally, I’ve been layering on sunscreen and hiding in the shade with a book since before Boots the Chemist Buy One Get One Free Ambre Solaire made it a necessity. Pale and interesting, even if it is under a head of hair more suited to Mediterranean ancestry, beats skin cancer hands down any day. Plus, the sweat? Not so attractive.

In its original op-ed incarnation the ‘song’ carried the strapline Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted On The Young and what strikes me now as I reread its words, trembling on the precipice of my 30s, is that that line is perhaps its most prophetic. I have no idea how old its author was when she penned them but I am beginning to suspect they were never aimed at a carefree seventeen-year-old. Age is, of course, nothing but a number but as those numbers begin to stack up they’re still pretty scary. That’s why I might be eating chocolate spread for breakfast, using rich tea biscuits as a spoon, but I’ve still drawn up a list of thirty things I’m putting pressure on myself to accomplish before there’s a change in both column (a) and column (b) come June. Because I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but the difference between 29 and and the breakdown I had when I graduated with my second degree at 22 is that at least I’m living it, to some extent, rather than hiding under the covers and considering the whole thing a tremendous amount of pressure to pile on a girl.

You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded... You are not as fat as you imagine.

You know, 2011 was the year that I gathered my Righteous Feminist Rage to my ample chest and realised I didn’t care any more. If fifty sit-ups in the morning and regular two-mile walks with my headphones on isn’t going to flatten out my stomach then perhaps it isn’t meant to be flat. As long as I can still shoehorn my boobs into a dress that makes me look like Christina Hendricks and accessorise my eyeshadow with my shoes before I head into the office, I’m golden. Nobody has yet to call me on my continuous mission to dress like a six-year-old. You should have seen the length on the skirts I wore on my eighteen-month hiatus from #corporatelaw. Actually, you probably couldn’t. If you get my meaning.

Respect yourself. That’s the message in its purest form. Don’t waste your time on jealousy, worrying about the future or chewing over the insults you receive. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with [your heart]. It’s easier said than done, but I’m going to print that one out in 24pt font and stick it on my fridge. I wish I’d made a note of it when I was seventeen. But I probably wouldn’t have learned the importance of it otherwise.

What do I honestly believe? Yes advice, like youth, may be wasted on the young but if you don’t make your own mistakes in the first place then you’ll have no platform for recognising how right that advice was. So read as much as you can, then go out and make your own mistakes. Allow yourself five minutes to wallow in the stupidity of your decisions: the empty gin bottle, the text message you can hardly remember, the corns that will only disappear after two weeks in trainers. Then phone a friend, phone a pizza and remember that everything usually looks better in the morning.

And besides, if I didn’t mess too much with my hair I’d already look 85.

In the meantime I’m working on my list, eating chocolate spread for breakfast and looking forward to spending my next sunny holiday sitting in the shade, plotting how to turn The Sunscreen Song’s most important advice - to live in New York City once - into a reality. And when my sister asks me what I’m doing, as she turns over to get some colour on her front, I will tell her that I heard it in a song once.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:

Egg Cafe, Vegetarian Cafe - Liverpool, UK

Topic suggested by Rosie Fernandez.

Food My first visit to the Egg Café was over ten years ago for a works Christmas night out. The whole idea seemed terribly exotic. Not because it was as it is now, a vegetarian restaurant but because as now, it didn’t have a drinks license and so diners could take their own alcohol and the cafe charging a pound for corkage. Paying someone to open a bottle seemed strange until someone pointed out to me that they’d also ultimately have to deal with disposing of the bottles. There was a Secret Santa that night I now remember; I gave someone a wine carrier and I was given a Blackwells mouse mat.

Even after ten years, the restaurant/café hasn’t changed that much. It’s in a loft in Newington Buildings just off Renshaw Street at the top of a winding staircase, containing an exhibition area and as you can see from the photo I've embedded from flickr because I neglected to take a camera myself, more tables than it might seem capable of accommodating from looking up from street level. It’s perhaps slightly less bo-ho than I remember, less about sofas, but it still retains an atmosphere inclusive enough for regulars searching the mythic third place, large parties and the sharing of secrets amongst secretive people.

I chose it after meeting another friend there recently for the beginning of a night out.  After climbing the many stairs I pushed through the heavy doors into the candle-lit space unable to quite comprehend the difference to everything else outside.  The beautifully painted rafters, the wooden floors and the paintings all combined to make me wonder if I'd entered some new dimension.  "Why don't I come here?"  I kept saying to my friend, "Why don't I come here?"  So when another friend was in town for a few days, this was the perfect place for us to go.

Ordering is from a bewildering selection of food on a chalkboard behind a counter filled with prospective dishes, which is sometimes much more preferable to the monolithic mystery of most menus where the diner is locked in a bond of trust with the waiter and the chef as to what the plate will contain once a selection’s been made. It’s one of the reasons I was a regular at the late Everyman Bistro which also had the virtue of being able to watch the food being heated in the microwaves at the back.

Cash conscious, my visiting dining companion and I decided on the set menu which is all three courses and a beverage for £9.75. Orders for the starters and mains are made up front and as far we could tell because that's what seemed to work for us, diners attend the counter between courses when they’re ready which allows for a leisurely pace and there’s no sense as in some restaurants of being hurried through the meal by over attentive waiters. We’re identified by a number on a slip of paper.

This is the point in professional restaurant reviews when you’d receive a length dissection of the courses.  This being my first restaurant review (I'm winging it, can't you tell?) and lacking a rarefied palate and liking what I like, all I can say is that I couldn’t find fault. This was a meal between old friends catching up, so it wasn’t really about the food to begin with, but there weren’t any moments when the quality of anything going into the mouth interrupted the flow of conversation which in most cases, in most night’s out in fact, is all diners really want.

The starter, some kind of spicy lentil soup, was smooth and tasty and not indigestibly strong in that way that indicates the chef doesn’t appreciate that there may be more courses to come. After a slight wobble, I chose the garlic bread, a large slice of tin loaf which is helpfully illustrated in the front page of the Egg’s website. It looks greasy but it was the perfect accompaniment and there’s something to be said for the effort in breaking up the bread and dripping it in the soup, so that even in a deceptively simple dish you become an active presence.

That was especially true of the mains, or at least the bolognaise I ordered which was served half with rice and half with a kitchen sink like salad that even included pesto pasta. This was based, I think, on some kind of meat substitute rather than just beans (although there were plenty of those) and came in a portion which almost dwarfed the table which meant I was half conversing with my dinner companion and half making sure that I wasn’t the messy eater I tend to be. Much cleverer than me, he’d selected a broccoli quiche which he seemed to relish.

We returned to the counter to select a desert, he a carrot cake, me a chocolate fudge which were trayed up with a large pot of tea for two. Both were again excellent, mine as indulgent and rich as chocolate fudge cake should be and somehow despite everything else my stomach was able to fit it all in, as though it was replicating the TARDIS-like properties of the café. For just under a tenner the whole meal represents excellent value.

Since the closure of the Everyman Bistro, I’ve been looking for an alternate which has the same relaxed atmosphere, easy ordering system and flavoursome food and I think I may have found it in the Egg. There’s the same sense of feeling right at home whilst simultaneously being in a space unlike most anywhere else in Liverpool which considering my oscillating comfort zone is no mean feat. As we left, my friend, who is a vegetarian said, “Good choice” and despite loving meat, I had to agree with him.

The Egg Cafe, 16 - 18 Newington, Liverpool L1 4ED (0151 707 2755). Meal for two, including tea and service, £19.50.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
What's the most exciting thing you see on the way to work?

Guest answer from Jess Haskins.

Life First, what work for me is — I'm a game designer. I work at a small game development studio in New York City called Muse Games. Earlier this year we moved our office from a loft in Chinatown to an office block in the Financial District, right on Bowling Green. In the weeks that followed our move, we experienced an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood warning, and the dawn of a protest movement: Occupy Wall Street.

I pass Zuccotti Park on my way to work every day, and I first noticed that something was happening when on my morning walk I was joined by a merging phalanx of drum-tapping, horn-tooting, sign-bearing, mask-wearing protesters. As I read their signs and listened to the sound of their chants and matched the cadence of their steps, I inhaled deeply and breathed it in. I was marching! I was protesting! At the next corner, they turned and I kept going straight, resuming my New-York-paced speedwalk, once more weaving and dodging into the crowd instead of trundling along with it in synchronized solidarity.

From then on, I watched the burgeoning movement with interest, observing the daily evolution of the protest campsite: the information desk and its staffers, the expanding library, the cardboard Faux News cameras, the print edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. (OWS was making its own media, as the mainstream media seemed conspicuously absent from this engaging and newsworthy scene.) Although I didn't feel the urge to participate personally, I appreciated the efforts of the protesters and admired their presence and perseverance. I sympathized with their message and hoped the movement would be a success.

Zuccotti Park ready for public enjoyment

But I don't want to talk about the park. The park is empty now, stormed and swept and cleared away so that the space could be freed up for the use of "the public" — now it's a sea of barricades and trees decorated for the holidays, ringed with police and a handful of hangers-on and of no use to anyone at all. I don't want to talk about the park. I want to talk about the bull.

A few blocks from Zuccotti Park is Bowling Green, site of Charging Bull, the famous statue representing the virile capitalist vigor of Wall Street. Our office building sits directly opposite the statue, affording us an excellent view of the daily throngs of tourists queuing up and massing around it, snapping photos, clambering over its back, swinging from its horns, and polishing its scrotum for luck. But this ritual molestation is a thing of the past — since the outbreak of the Occupation, the barriers went up around the bull, too, and now it enjoys the protection of a 24-hour security detail. The poor tourists can only stand around the outside of the pen for their photos, sometimes leaning over for an awkward hug with one of the horns before running over to pester the cops for more photos and directions to Century 21. (It's up Broadway. Just keep walking.)

A frustrated tourist reaches for the bull's horns

It's for the bull's own good. Since OWS kicked off with Adbusters' poster of a revolutionary ballerina poised atop Charging Bull's head, with a vanguard of occupiers rushing forward from the misty background, the statue, with all its loathsome, potent symbolism, must have been deemed a prime target for the movement's rage. As far as I know, no shenanigans have been attempted by occupiers (the last prank I remember directed at the hapless bovine was the painting of its balls blue during the depths of the recession over a year ago), and all I can think of is how disappointed the tourists must be. Apparently the bull is a big deal in some parts of the world, and people come from far away just to see it — then to be forced to stand back and have to grope it clumsily while stretched across a crowd barrier! For one day only I saw the cops allowing the tourists to line up and enter the pen one at a time for hugs and photos, as if the bull were signing autographs. That didn't stick, though, and the next day it was back to leaning on barricades, longing to get just a little closer to the symbol and source of all that throbbing financial potency. Just a few blocks away people were camping out 'round the clock in the deepening cold to protest a corrupt and exploitative financial establishment, while here just down the road were people who had traveled thousands of miles just to line up and fondle the testicles of the establishment's graven idol.

I thought up a game for Occupy Wall Street. It's a mobile game. There are crowds of people filling a public square, and you are Charging Bull. With a flick of your finger you send Charging Bull careering through the crowds. Every time you hit someone they fall down and some money flies out, and they yell out a slogan, like "People Not Profits!" or "Make Love Not Toxic Assets Repackaged As Junk Derivatives And Foisted On The American Taxpayer!" You eat the dropped money, which represents your score. The crowd has a a 1% chance of spawning a suited investment banker who will jostle his way through the crowd; if you hit a one-percenter, he will yell a slogan like "Get a job!" or "Corporations are people, too!," then the game immediately ends and you lose. There will also be white-shirted police officers who move through the crowd, randomly pepper-spraying people who will fall down and stop moving (but you can still hit them and get their money). If you hit the white shirt, he will pepper-spray down your throat and you will regurgitate and lose all the money you have collected so far. The game ends when you have collected all the money from the people and retire to a villa in the Caribbean. I call it Bowling for Green.

The Opinion Engine 2.0: 16/31:
Republic of the Moon at FACT.

Press view invite from FACT in Liverpool.

Art When was the last time you looked at the Moon? Properly looked at it? Walking around Republic of the Moon it occurred to me how much I took for granted one of the most extraordinary examples of natural beauty, one which is accessible to our wonder every evening no matter our geographic location (depending on weather conditions) and which as the work demonstrates is almost unique in its ability to inspire both those who comprehend it with their imagination and those who strive to measure its properties, artists and scientists.

It’s apt that Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is still playing at FACT's cinema (just about) with its flashback sequences showing the production of Meliere's Le Voyage dans la lune. Like him, these artists seek to investigate humanities motivation in choosing to go to the moon through fantastical elements and fictions. The gallery guide mentions the recent Mars 500 ‘wood panelled spacecraft’ in Moscow, six men simulating a space mission on the ground. Through another prism that would be performance art.

In Enter At Own Risk, 2011 We Colonised the Moon, Hagen Betzwiser and Sue Corke imagines the work of lunar scientists on the moon’s surface, specifically the smell generated by moon dust as they re-entered the lunar module. They’ve attempted a recreation, which to my nasal cavity is somewhat like the Yankee Candle shop but through scratch and sniff postcards has been confirmed by one of the actual astronauts. One of the repeated elements of the exhibition is the revealing of little known facts about our natural satellite.

Beyond an airlock which reminds us of the preparatory processes from FACT’s previous success, ZEE, a room is set out like a mock up of the lunar surface and visitors at the weekend will be able to see the artist’s own astronaut recreating a moon mission, gardening the artificial rocks. We received a preview and its an eerie experience not least because as a group we were awed into silence presumably so as not to distract the performer from their task. We met the person behind the mask later but I won’t spoil their anonymity.

The last Apollo landing was by the Soviet Union, when in 1976, the Lunik 24, an unmanned probe stopped off for twenty-four hours and collected moon rocks. Leonid Tishkov cherishes that fact and in Private Moon he personalises it by presenting a series of photos illustrating the story of man who meets the moon and decides to spend the rest of his life with it. These are beautiful evocations of the city, illuminated by the moon itself carried about like the heart in the promo for Rodger Sanchez’s Another Chance, a reference he probably wasn’t intending.

Similarly its unlikely Sharon Houkema had the rippling moon of the surface of the water in the opening titles of Arena, the BBC’s arts strand when producing M3, but as it ebbs and flows on the wall above us, it replicates the same broken quality in a clever adaptation of an overhead projector. As the accompanying text describes: “The moon image – often surrounded with mysticism, romanticism and fantasy – is rendered (un)intelligible, yet the magic doesn’t disappear, it merely switches position.”

The point were science and art properly coexist is in Andy Gracie’s Drosophila Titanus a small display which gathers evidence of the artist’s attempt to breed a fruit fly capable of withstanding the extreme conditions on Titan (Saturn’s moon) (which you already knew) (sorry to insult your intelligence). When Gracie says the experiment could take many thousands of generation it gains an epic quality even on discovering the life cycle of the fly is nine days. One of the outcomes will be in seeing how mutant strains and deformities can speed up the process.

Liliane Lijn imagined in 1992 a moment when she’d behold it and see the word printed across it in block capitals, the celestial body becoming a metaphor for the female body which it already effects indirectly. He decades long project has resulted in a video piece representing her vision which shifts every twenty-six hours in time with its actuality, the natural lunar cycle suggestion a gender transformation as SHE becomes HE and back again. In the darkness of the media lounge, moonememe is accompanied by the voice of Lijn and a friend vocalising these shifts.

If you take my advice you will visit the media lounge then Gallery Two first because for once it’s Gallery One (opposite the box office) which provides the grand finale and perhaps one of the most original, astonishing, exciting art pieces these thirty-seven year old eyes has seen, a work which taps directly into my whimsy gene with its poignancy. Glimpsing at it through a window on an exterior wall as I arrived for the press view suggested this would be a simple reproduction of the control room for a moon mission.  I was wrong.

At which point the title does much of the work. Agnes Meyer-Brandis’s The Moon Goose Analogue: Lunar Migration Bird Facility takes it inspiration from Francis Goodwin’s Jacobian utopian fantasy novel The Man in the Moone, which recounts the diary of one Domingo Gonsales who’s carried to the moon in a chariot by geese and the artist has bred eleven of the fowl at an analogue for the moon in Italy, the secret success being that instead of simply faking these elements, we’re seeing their behaviour live.

None of which really describes the excitement of being in the room, the attention to detail of some of the elements, and it’s not supposed to. You have to visit, even for ten minutes, even if you’re primarily in the building to go the movies (though chances are whatever you’re seeing will have a tenth of the imagination of this). It’s rare that I become quite so evangelic about an art piece but along with the accompanying film which charts the development of the experiment, Meyer-Brandis captures the magic of Melieres through even more dimensions than Hugo.  Breathtaking.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Are You Easily Distracted?

My october symphony

Guest answer from Karie (@kariebookish).

Life The fact that I had to be asked three times to contribute this piece says a lot. I am not sure if I can blame impending middle-age or the internet. What did you say .. oh, look! A funny dog video! All I know is that I have been meaning to make that important phone call for two months and I nearly forgot the postal deadline for sending Christmas presents abroad but I am able to tell you all about a trampoline being blown away in Scotland and a dog chasing deer outside London. Has my brain succumbed to memes?

Maybe our brains are not wired for this post-industrial age of information. Information used to have gate keepers: people who made sure that we did not get distracted from important local news by stories about US mall officers tracking down owners of lost envelopes. These days our gatekeepers seem to be the people who find the most obscure piece of news and spread it via Reddit or Metafilter until it ends up on Twitter and then Facebook where your aunt will read it and email it to you three months after you first plus-'d-oned it. Can our brains be trusted to filter the deluge of information and suss out which are the important things to remember?

So, the way information has disseminated has changed irrevocably. Arguably the ways we receive, store and process information have also changed. Twenty years ago the critic Donna Haraway wrote her famous “Cyborg Manifesto”. The manifesto uses the concept of “cyborg” as a feminist metaphor, but Haraway's essay is eerily prescient. We receive, store and process information as though we are machines although I'd say we are closer to being conduits than actual machines. Can we be so distracted that we forget we are human?

I used to think of myself as a woman of the modern age – someone who looked at buildings as machines and saw art as an escape from emotion. I confess there has been a change and that I am more a romantic in the old 19th century sense of the word. I find myself becoming increasingly interested in the ideas of authenticity and origin. Words that I should be rejecting as obsolete in this day and age. I think I am reacting to my own distracted state of being: I crave slowness and I need time to think in order to connect to myself again. I read books (not on a Kindle although I am clearly the demographic for it) and I knit (preferably from yarn so authentic that I know the name of the sheep) – both gestures reaching back through time though interestingly also both infinitely now gestures.

2011 was the year of protests, so the media tell us. I like to think that my brain has protesting against what I have been doing to it. Will 2012 be the year of Luddism? Will I remember to make that phone call and write letters? Ask me next year.

The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Torchwood's Web of Lies.

TV  Revisiting Torchwood’s Miracle Day, this summer’s great televisual disappointment in any form is rather like picking at a scab, but for completion sake I did buy a copy of the blu-ray if only to see if the commentaries would offer any indications as to what went wrong. Recorded during post-production for the last episode by Russell T Davies and Julie Gardener it is possible to hear some weary exhaustion and with all of the criticism and qualifications of their own work, we can now take the view that they had a massive loss of confidence when faced with working in a new idiom and followed too many dodgy notes from Starz as to how to make the programme.  Meanwhile, it sounds as though the BBC just left them to get on with it.

Amongst the other extras are a deleted scene which allows us to watch Alexa Havens park a car outside an airport over and over and over again (and for no good reason it turns out) and this “motion comic” Web of Lies originally released on iTunes in ten weekly chunks during the original broadcast. Already finding the forty-five minutes or so of the main series quite enough to slog through per week I decided to leave my enjoyment of this as late as possible and so here we are at the closing of the year. I could of course have waited until next year’s Doctor Who drought but decided that the last thing I wanted was for Torchwood’s Miracle Day to spread across any more of my calendar, especially since it looks like it’s never coming back anyway.

In the event, Web of Lies is about as I expected with just a few surprises. Split between two time frames, it sees Holly, a surprisingly connected young woman, investigating the shooting of her brother during Miracle Day and in parallel, a flashback sequence set during Torchwood’s first season in which Gwen travels the world searching for a kidnapped Jack, the two stories ultimately segwaying in a way that Immortal Sins failed to. At half an hour it doesn’t outstay its welcome and Jane Espenson’s script flows pretty well so long as you keep in mind that the reason everyone keeps repeating themselves every three minutes is because we’re skipping the week in between, and narrative leaps are because the interactive elements are missing.

The pre-release/publication/download excitement was because of the appearance of Eliza Dushku as the lead though there’s two obvious disappointments. As well as the aforementioned isolation from actual Torchwood, thereby nullifying hope of a kind of faux-Faith/Jack stand-off, Holly isn’t drawn to look like her either, the artist clearly a fan of Maggie Hopey from Love and Rockets (see above). Of course, in animation such things aren’t to be expected, but since the rest of the cast includes Jesse Eisenberg and Daniel Craig (at least in terms of drawing inspiration), it’s a shame the artist didn’t decide to give Eliza her tru calling (sorry). Perhaps she was cast after the design work was done.

There’s no Web of Lies Confidential so we don’t really know what the production process was like, but it’s fair to say not all of the animation works and in this case the “motion comic” label is designed to set the viewer up for something fairly rudimentary. It’s at about the level of the Shada remake with some moving parts, so although the rendering of the Cardiff characters is perfectly fine, the multiple facial expressions of Eve Myles captured, especially the one in which her eyeballs seem to envelop half of her face, their heads often wobble back and forth in a very curious manner like office toys.  The two or three frame style of walking will be familiar to fans of 8-bit computer games.

But like Shada and dozens of missing episode recons, it’s the performances and writing which generally carry things. Eve and Jack are at about the tone of Torchwood’s radio series and there’s a strange nostalgia to hearing them refer to absent friends even if the actuality of that old series, as we’ve noted in recent weeks, left a bit to be desired (a bit?). Dushku is a bit hesitant at first but soon the Faith/Tru/Echo paradigm kicks in and almost makes up for the lack of proper Torchwood action for her. The story resolution even seems to make sense of a section of the main series, although arguably it should have been up to the main series to do that. Presumably they decided it was already overburdened with stuff.