Mummy on the Orient Express.

TV We live in interesting times. As is often the case, especially in relation to the web, opinions are polarised, confusion reigns. There seem to be loads of people who’re very happy indeed with this latest series of Doctor Who and the character of the Doctor himself, exclamations that it’s the best season since the show returned and that in Twelfth the Doctor they always wanted. Then there are those who’re entirely disappointed with the whole thing, which they find highly derivative and that the Doctor, their hero is somehow absent. Someone even told me that they felt like they've lost a friend.

Opinions are opinions and there are many available and if you’re in the former constellation you’ve nothing to worry about. If you’re in the latter, well, you’re possibly like me hoping against hope that the Doctor’s general attitude which, to disappointingly quote a correspondent in Radio Times (who hadn’t even seen Kill The Moon yet), is “angry, defensive and doesn’t seem to like the human race very much. […] no light and shade in the character, the humour and compassion have been lost” is part of some arc plot, the reason why he asked up front about his face and enquired to Clara if he’s a good man or some other power governing his actions.

In the midst of what feels like open warfare (the kind in which long term fans who’ve written books on the topic have said they can’t be fussed with the next episode) comes Mummy on the Orient Express which will no doubt confirm to some that we’re essentially watching the pre-Capaldi era rewritten with the aid of the Oblique Strategy Cards which just for fun and to try and keep myself awake I’m going to utilise a bit in writing this review. “What is the reality of the situation?” Oh um, here we are on the Voyage of the Damned ramming into The Curse of the Black Spot with The God Complex floating in the wreckage.

In his first piece for the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Miller says of John Updike’s The Centaur, “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.” I think that’s about where I am with this season of Who. When faced with an episode with such ostensible fine qualities like Mummy on the Orient Express, doing some very good things, there’s still that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it’s not quite gelling, that the level of familiarity is just too strong this time and not in the same way as in classic Who where the Dalek’s same old plans was comforting. Next week looks like Fear Her with Chloe Webber replaced with Banksy.

“Fill every beat with something” Which is fine. It is. If I thought the show was being particularly meta, it’s just possible that like Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation which is ironically rubbish in its closing act, it’s testing viewer's resolve, putting in the same position as Clara in really, really hating this man we’ve so previously loved, and by extension the programme but know that we’ll be tuning in the following week anyway. The above mentioned Radio Times correspondent says that they won’t be watching it again until Capaldi regenerates, but they’ll have tutted through Kill The Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express too probably.

“Look at the order in which you do things” Yes, should get on with saying some things about it. For the past couple of weeks I've been a bit wary about rewatching the given week's episode. No sense of that here, I can't wait to see it again to catch its many nuances. Jamie Mathieson is a real find, someone who unlike most of the other writers in the Moffat era hasn't been a show runner, but is very capable and shows that a more open script policy does work even if the material which ultimately makes it to the screen is a bit derivative. Not that we can tell yet if it's meant to be deliberately so. Who is Gus and why does he sound like Tannis?

It’s certainly scary, the teaser teaching the viewer what they should be scared of thanks to the on screen clock actually telling us when the moment of death of the onscreen character is about to occur, brilliant paid off at the end as the sixty-six seconds which the Doctor had in which to save himself. Just the sort of Hitchcockian tension which hasn’t surfaced often in the show across the years and especially not in this form even if arguably it’s a simply a chronologically rigid version of the time between receiving the black spot and a visit from a supermodel shaped siren.

“Work at a different speed” The characters are meatier creations too, or at least feel as much thanks to the performances, Daisy Beaumont providing real emotional resonance to Maisie, a character who ostensibly exists for Clara to have a girly chat with thanks to the absence of such on Earth and Frank Skinner, the Cribbins of the affair, so scared that he’d let the side down when talking to DWM and it’s fair to say didn’t. At all. In those closing moments when the Doctor’s offering him passage on the TARDIS has an actors scripted words belied the sparkle in his eye. Seriously, if they wanted to make him a companion next year, well, they just should. As Joss Whedon notices, comedians make really effective actors.

“Only a part, not the whole” The Voyage of the Damned fake out was fun, turning the audience’s trailer expectations of seeing the parody ending of The Big Bang turned into a full episode. If someone was starting to write about the episode before it had even gone out, one might have been led to try to find clearer connections between the two so it’s lucky that I didn’t do anything of the sort. Clearly the idea is that that the Doctor’s supposed to imagine that they’re from Sto even if he also doesn’t ever thing anything of the sort. But you could forgive him for at least trying to allow himself a moment to think that. They even having a pop singer.

“Is the tuning appropriate?” Ah Foxes. I can count the number of artistes that I’ve seen in real life who’ve appeared in the television programme on one hand for loads of complex reasons to do with not wanting to ruin things by meeting my heroes. But it has happened, a few because they were in Shakespeare productions and Bonnie Langford who passed on Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool next to the 86 bus stop because she was in panto that year. And Foxes. Foxes is the one I saw on purpose. She had a set at Liverpool International Music Festival this year and since the stage was literally across the road from my house I couldn’t not go.

In the event she was very good even if it wasn’t the most attentive of teenage audiences (who seemed more interested in trying to kill each other, gangs creating sinister looking circles, paramedics and police storming into the crowd at various intervals, that sort of thing), good enough for me to download the album that night and listening to it pretty much solidly since. It’s in the same kind of synthpop area with Little Boots without ever quite tripping over in the folktronica of Ellie Goulding. Her signature song, Clarity is entirely unrepresentative but like Lady Gaga’s move back towards jazz, designed to show that she can actually sing. In octaves.

“"Look closely at the most embarrassing things and amplify them"” Now that I’ve presented a good example of why I don’t review music, ever, how did this addition to the growing list of this franchise’s foxes do? She did very well in her thirty seconds of screen time, though like UB40 in Speed 2: Cruise Control it was little more than a cameo and it seems her character of “Singer” may not have existed after all which in an episode heavy on societal stereotypes, men the experts in science, women the experts in entertaining and emoting, is a bit of a disappointment. When this was announced it seemed like a full blown part in the mode of Miranda Raison or Kylie.

Why cast her then? Her voice, that voice, which with its melancholy undertow as her in Clarity, is the perfect fit for a counter intuitive cover of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, coming at us like the soundtrack to a John Lewis advert for funeral services, with its horrendous thematic implications for Clara, who when faced with a choice between a boring life on earth with the man she loves and the all of space and time with an alien she can barely stand to be in the same room with, she chooses the latter, just as we all would, even if he isn’t the man he once was. “Why can’t I quite you?” The promo featuring the whole song is unbearable, this song, these words, but in this form, against often up beat shots of explosions! Running! Grins!

“Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor” Notice how there’s less of a sense of the companions being lost in time. Last week Courtney was able to update her Tumblr and here’s Clara casually phoning her boyfriend from her bunk. Such phone calls used to be magical interruptions conducted in moments of high tension, when Rose is first dealing with the notion of being in the far future or Martha on board the SS Pentallian. Clara ringing him for tech support was the first indication of a change and now she can contact her boyfriend in the right order. If only Rose’s call in The End of the World had landed some time in the middle of her missing year.

“Question the heroic approach” All of which said, I’m still not happy and for many of the same reasons as last week even though the episode is very much about explaining this incarnation and in richer and with more emotional clarity. We’re supposed to see him as continuation of the pre-Tennant form, of the man who in the face of death can’t mourn because there’s too much work to do saving lives.  Provocatively on the beach ala the torture scene in Mindwipe,  Clara slumbering amongst the dunes, finally he's gifted his version of C. Baker’s “I’m the Doctor, whether you like it or not” or indeed Eccleston’s “this is me, right here, right now."

“Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities” Beautifully played by both, directed skilfully by Paul Wilmshurst in the style of an idle moment in some ancient BBC costume drama, I still watched in an abject state of not understanding quite what they were doing. Cheering a heroic figure without sentiment is a difficult ask. Why it works with Tom in Pyramids of Mars, but not Capaldi, I can’t say other than that there are moments when you can see his love of humanity on the surface. Eccleston was brusque at times, but he still stopped for a moment in number 10 and apologise to a corpse for not being their quick enough to save their life.

“Abandon normal instructions” Now we have a Doctor who is more interested in the information he can gain from a dying man than the fact of his death. Perkins’s protestations here and similar queries by characters in previous stories demonstrate this is supposed to be a feature of the character, but I simply don’t understand why it would, could or should be. And also why, in relation to consolidating on the work of Matt Smith, you’d take this kind of a risk. As we’ve seen on other shows, and even this show in the past, viewers are fickle. If they’re not liking something, they simply won’t bother catching up once The X Factor has finished.

The props are there. The psychic paper makes a triumphant return this week as do the jelly babies, albeit from a cigarette case which is funny on first inspection but then oh so terribly wrong, which might well be the perfect metaphor for this incarnation of the Doctor, whose lack of understanding of humans now extends to the ones who used to be his best friend. I appreciate that this is a more sweary repetition of my comments from last week and the week before, but all I see is Capaldi acting his socks off with a character that’s as hollow as a tree would be if it was the same age and who simply doesn’t make any kind of sense within the unfolding text.

“Just carry on” But it is an unfolding text and that text surely wouldn’t be spending so much existential time questioning the nature of its lead character in this way if it wasn’t leading up to something and as I’ve said to people who ask, and people do ask, there’s every possibility that like my original positive review of Fear Her, this is all going to look a bit foolish. There has to be a reason why Clara hasn’t asked him why his personality isn’t what it used to be, even taking into account his attack eyebrows, its because somebody else surely will, just as there has to be a reason why he’s talking about himself as though he’s always been this way, as though he can’t even remember stopping for a moment in number 10 and apologising to a corpse.

“Simple subtraction” If I wanted to try to look at this from the perspective of this amazing show doing interesting things, it’s that we’re seeing a mirror of last season’s arc which was about the Doctor trying to understand Clara, and instead we have Clara trying to understand the Doctor. She’s playing him, being the wide-eyed human on a great spirit of adventure, both handles down on the console, but really she’s going in with her wide eyes open trying to find out why he’s become this person she doesn’t recognise. It’s always bugged me that we didn’t see a post regenerative console room scene at the start of Deep Breath, a Pudsey Cutaway.

“A very small object –Its centre” I don’t know. Possibly. Maybe. But that’s what happens when the thing you love confuses you, sends you reaching for rationalisations, makes you question exactly why you do love it. Of course the very best thing about Doctor Who is that it carries on, that there’s so much of it and it’s ok not to love all of it.  Even if there isn’t some clever, clever on-screen resolution to all this, Romola Garai’s incarnation will be along in a few years reading Abi Morgan’s scripts and pissing off a whole different group of fans. Assuming it survives. Next week’s episode title is just asking for trouble.

No MySpace, just no.

About For months, six months possibly, I've been experiencing worrisome incidents when visiting this blog myself to check how items have posted or layout changes. Now and then I've heard random noise, sometimes music, sometimes people talking and sometimes, usually through Safari on ios, a pop-up purporting to be from asking for permission to see the current location.

After scanning my computers a dozen times for malware and viruses and checking the code on the blog several dozen more and finding nothing wrong and no ill effects elsewhere, I pondered and pondered and pondered, The West Wing scene featuring Toby Ziegler and his bouncy ball on repeat in my head because watching someone think is about the only recourse you have if you don't have any thoughts of your own.

I googled and googled. I used Twitter search and this morning, just now in fact after having the pop-up appear again on my ipad I googled and googled again and finally used the correct keywords in the magic combination and stumbled up this blog, a blog about solar energy written by someone trying to get the word out.

It's Site Meter.

For years, since I began this blog practically, I've had the little sitemeter square in the sidebar. Back then it was something you did, that you had, and when this blog began was about the only way to track how many visitors it was getting all thirty of them usually via Google. Since then, even though I've moved on to blogger's own counters and the like, I've kept it there as a historical curiosity.

Also since then, sitemeter's been sold on to another company and as part of its monetary strategy, has begun funneling ads through the sitemeter code on other websites and for months, six months possibly, that's been a pop-up advert for myspace. It doesn't appear with every visit and on most browsers it's blocked, apart from the audio which plays in the background, and on Safari ios asks for a location first.

Well, I've deleted the widget now and after reloading the blog a few times in ios Safari, the pop-up has gone too. None of you complained about seeing this thing yourselves so I wonder how many of you did. Did any of you notice? What did you think? Who you do trust? How do you know? Did Justin Timberlake know?

"I hate the fact that I have to hate this"

Film My lack of interest in the Star Wars expanded universe saga continues but I did spend five or fifteen minutes reading through's length, well researched article about how fans of the now dumped continuity are campaigning for its return. Caught between two banthas, of not wanting to shit all over part of its core readership whilst simultaneously trying demonstrate the sheer pointlessness of the exercise, the writer nevertheless manages to capture a flavour of the human wreckage that results from detailed continuities being rebooted:
"The members of the campaign to save the EU come from all walks of life and represent a diverse array of Star Wars fan constituencies. There are people who love the prequels and people who hate them. There are people who love The Clone Wars and (in far greater numbers, it seems) people who hate it.

Regardless of their particular interests, one thing unites these hardcore EU fans: They are deeply frustrated by the the decision to classify the EU as "Legends" and to only selectively incorporate its elements into future stories.

"I won't spend one dime on Star Wars until they make it crystal clear how much money I've wasted over the past thirty years," wrote Tony Castronovo.

In an interview, John Sadler, who helps run the "Alliance to Save the Star Wars Legends, Expanded Universe" page, said that the canon decision "really screwed over the EU fans."

These fans, Sadler said, "are the ones who helped keep Star Wars alive after Episode 6 came out and they are the ones who are invested the most in the EU." According to him, these fans "were told that those books/comics were official Canon [sic] for 30+ years."
Nothing illustrates fan interactions with this cross-platform media franchise is how in fighting against Disney and everything they've stood for, they've nevertheless adopted its language, describing the EU as Legends, as per the hashtag, #BuyLegendsOnly!, as though even if they do only buy Legends it'll change Disney/Lucasfilm's mind.  Disney/Lucasfilm don't care what you buy so long as it has the Star Wars logo on it, indeed they'd be pleased as punch if material from the discontinued continuity, the longtail, continues selling alongside the nuWars (sorry Graham).

Bip.... Bip.... Bip....

Music After six months of inactivity, Mutya Keisha Siobhan's Facebook page was quietly updated today:

The references to "heart failure" and "life support" in this context is interesting considering the title of their only release so far in this incarnation.  "New team!" "Amazing album!"  Does that mean that there's now some zombie album knocking around which was deemed unreleasable or some such?

Of course it's possible they're just rereleasing Flatline to coincide with the new Doctor Who story of the same name.  Yes, it's probably that.

Richard Curtis: Love Actually was a "catastrophe".

Film Apologies for recreating the same click bate headline I saw on about three other blogs with its implication that Richard Curtis (who at this point I'd welcome back to Doctor Who with open arms) and his opinion of his own film has evolved. It hasn't really. He actually just describing the editing process:
"The only nightmare scenario that I’ve been caught in was Love Actually, which worked at the read-through, and when we finished the film and I watched it edited it was … a catastrophe,” said Curtis in comments first reported by the Radio Times. “Because there were 12 stories, [finding the right order] was like three-dimensional chess … And that was enormously difficult to finish or get right.”
The editing left the film riddled with plot holes and continuity errors as I described in the original post-mortem.  He only finished in as much as he didn't do anything else to it.  He didn't get it right.

36 Zach Appelman

Hamlet played by Zach Appelman.
Directed by Robert Richmond.

The Shakespeare Folger Library, in conjunction with Simon & Schuster have begun a new series of full text audio recordings of the plays based on their own texts and inevitably, probably, Hamlet is amongst the first off the battlements.  The packaging is pretty basic, a cardboard box with the cds in a similarly cardboard inlay with the cast and credits printed on the first of the three cds, which was difficult to refer to when I wanted to confirm that once of the voices I could hear was John "Q" De Lancie.  It wasn't but I didn't find that out until I had to swap discs.

All of the discs explain this was recorded at Omega Studios and Audio School in Rockville, Maryland.  The cast is from the States who keep their accents, which might seem like a redundant statement, but I have heard similarly US produced versions in which the cast effect "British" accents.  Sometimes, tonally, it is confusing.  The smallish cast often doubles up and I'm sure I heard the same actor playing different characters in the same scene, especially the battlements.  Many audio productions can offer a range of regional accents to provide an extra clarity this does not.

As expected, due to its educational purposes, this is a pretty neutral rendering, director Robert Richmond realising that the target audience of teachers and students do not really wanting to deal with an eclectic interpretation of the text.  The audio design and music are basic, with simple suggestive stop effects and, I think I heard, two different synthesised musical jingles depending on whether the text is shifting between scenes or acts.  The intent is presumably for the listener to read along with a text, probably Folger's own.

The neutrality extends to the performances which dedicate themselves for the most part to textual clarity.  At times the irony of the text is ignored (Horatio admitting to Hamlet he's seen his father's spirit), at others its somewhat pantomimed (Gertrude's course correction on the identities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).  But it's difficult to fault this kind of production when you're aware of the intent, that the creative decisions have led to a purposeful blandness that can only really be apparent to someone who's seen/heard this many productions (albeit not recently...).

Polonius is largely played as though he drifted in from one of the comedies, probably Much Ado, notably when Ophelia's describing her strange visit from Hamlet to him, her father very pleased that he's taking an interest.  As sometimes happens, the Ophelia actress, in this case Emily Trask, really comes into her own during the descent into madness.  She also poignantly plays Gravedigger II later, which if this was on stage would provide the spooky image of Ophelia posthumously digging her own grave.  Ian Merrill Peakes's Claudius sounds disconcertingly like Jacobi.

In about ten days, Zach Appelman begins a two month run as Hamlet in Hartford.  His prince is not especially mad.  It's more that we hear the more adolescent, uncertain man in the private moments, but play-acts a kind of aristocracy in public.  As the production winds onward, particularly through the closet scene, the latter becomes his default as he gains a clearer direction of purpose.  His breathing, which earlier is raspy, the words difficult to say, reduces, increasing the coherence of what he's communicating. But like the rest of the production he's never, ever difficult to understand right up to and including his final words.

Folger Shakespeare Library presents Hamlet By William Shakespeare is out now on cd. Review copy supplied.

The Films I've Watched This Year #37

Film As I said last night, I've been ill this week and binged on television. Completed the horrendous third season of Veronica Mars which like Doctor Who now, Buffy in its sixth season, the even numbered seasons of Friends and season five of The West Wing demonstrates that even the best series can go off the rails through a number of unforeseeable creative problems.  Thank god for the second season of The Newsroom which is as peerless as the first, even if it also Sorkin working through the same creative demons that dogged Studio 60 that spring from him not complete The West Wing himself.  Time and again I  applauded the screen in my lonely room, especially deep into the season when these acting giants, Fonda, Waterson and Gay Harden are supping away at this screwball dialogue, the direction buzzing, just buzzing.  If Hollywood was worth a damn any more, another rom com with Fonda and Redford would be greenlit, these two old pros bringing it once again.  Though not a sequel to Barefoot in the Park.  Well, ok, maybe.

Crime d'amour
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Veronica Mars

The essential problem with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that the Raimi films exist, which was also the problem with the first film of course, but here the effects are much more severe.  The really iconic moments having been snaffood for those earlier works, Marc Webb and his screenwriters are stuck trying to do something else knowing full well their target audience still has that imagery knocking around in their brains which is a shame because by some measure these feel more like the comics than Raimi's films ever did.  Garfield's a superior Peter.  Stone's playing the perfect Gren.  Paul Giamatti's a fabulous Rhino.  Spidey's connection to the city is enunciated much more clearly and the pacing of the narrative, rushed through in the opening installment there is played out at a much more leisurely pace.  I can take or leave some of the mythology manipulation, but it's within the DNA of the comics title for all kinds of narrative ookiness to occur, for such discoveries to be made.

The gravitational pull of Oscorp is problematic, especially as its related later in the film and how it suggests its connection to a range of other characters.  There's narrative short hand at play here in setting up the moribund Sinister Six film.  If only Sony and Disney could have come to some arrangement about the cinematic universe.  If only.  Without that backdrop, this iteration feels the need to justify why all of these superpowered beings exist in such close proximity, whereas the MCU offers the justification of just because.  It's a similar issue which seems to be brewing at WB/DC were Snyder's even apparently making Wonder Woman a result of Krypton exploding for some reason, as though having her moulded from clay by a God is somehow less problematic.  Either way, despite the Transformers moment, it's still a lot more watchable than Spider-Man 3 even though that at least had the unabashed lack of embarrassment about introducing the world to alien life for, you know, reasons.

The essential problem with Veronica Mars is that it ends.  Having endured s3, even though this isn't a monumental return to form, probably for reasons of budget and scheduling Piz, Wallace, Mac and Weevil are short changed and the mystery isn't that surprising, but Kristen Bell is extraordinary at this, and as soon as the voiceover kicks in, there's a sense of "and we're back".  All of the strengths of the series in its earlier years are here, the chemistry between Bell and Enrico Colantoni as her father, the class struggle, the corrupt police department and the sense of her investigations as a calling and addiction, not something she simply does as a lark but because she can and so therefore she has to.  There are a few stunt cameos but not so many that it gets in the way of the story too.  It's affectionate without being cloying.  If they ever do get around to making the My So-Called Life reunion it should be just like this, though you sort of expect by now it'll be more akin to The Big Chill.  Who would they bump off?

Like I said, the essential problem with Veronica Mars is that it ends.  For all the way its shot, this is still television and if nothing else this feels like a pilot episode for a new series, especially at the end when Veronica marks out her territory.  Don't read further if you haven't seen this yet.  Still here?  Gone yet?  Good.  Everything about it breathes set-up.  Wallace is back at Neptune High.  Mac's as Kane Software.  Weevil's back with the gangs.  The old information network's being put back in place.  That doesn't feel like an ending but a beginning and there's a desperate moment right as the screen turns black when you realise that the next episode isn't on the disc.  Plus it's more clearly what the show was leading up to than the silly FBI reboot which made the mistake of trying keep the spirit of Veronica Mars while removing everything which made it different to other shows.  You can take the Mars out of Neptune but you can't take the Neptune out of Mars.  Which probably works just as well as the moon being a giant space egg.