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!