TV Yesterday, for the first time in a hundred and thirty five years, the National Grid was able to deliver enough power to consumers without utilising any electricity generated by coal. Tonight, I almost passed a similar rubicon and didn't watch Doctor Who live on I think the only occasion since 2005, having decided that life was too short for me to wait for the potential extra time to play out in the FA Cup semi-final between some teams.  Any later than scheduled and I would have iPlayered Doctor Who tomorrow night and this review would have been a day late.  In the event, one team beat the other by a couple of goals so Smile was broadcast at the correct TX so I'm not watching American Gigolo as would have been the otherwise plan and sit writing this instead.  You lucky personages.

During the Moffat era, second episodes of seasons have tended to be the climactic movement of an opening story, the idea being that what would traditionally be a finale is being front loaded at the top to attract viewers.  Smile takes the approach of The Beast Below and Into The Dalek of a stand alone set in the future with a few side references to whatever the ongoing storyline of the series is.  In this case, that's the box/vault/thingy and the Doctor's promise to protect it of which we discovered a little more this week, that the Doctor has promised to protect the box/vault/thingy in a kind of self inflicted exile and really shouldn't be leaving Earth.  Again we shrug and hope that this is more exciting and mysterious than it currently seems.  Plastic Rory guarded the Pandorica for two thousand years and it's impossible to beat that sort of heroism (even if he tried to undermine it himself by using his heroism as a form of point scoring in an argument with the very person he was protecting).

Smile is inferior to both those episodes.  Indeed it's the weakest of the second episodes since the show returned, an astonishingly lifeless, boring effort which like Frank Cottrell-Boyce's previous entry in the franchise only just manages to keep watchable thanks to some stunning visuals and likeable performances from the regulars.  In The Forest of the Night has its fans, and it's apparently very popular with children.  But in what had already been a generally horrible season thanks to a miscalculation in the characterisation of the Doctor, it just felt like another example of the show losing its way and having the same writer at the top end of Capaldi's final season doesn't pay off.  It's not as awful as ITFotN, just horrifyingly simplistic in a way which would even embarrass the writers of the usually far more imaginative Doctor Who Adventures comic strips.

Now, there is something to be said for stories which have the Doctor escorting his companions around a new locale revealing their wonders of this new world.  The Ark In Space gives us one of the Time Lords best moments when he's describing humanity, "They're indomitable!" and the first episode of that story is a clear influence here.  Target Books had several publishing successes with exactly this format.  The Colony city Gilese 581 D is an architectural design marvel, a brilliant white Utopian space, exactly the place the inhabitants of the rocket in the episode Utopia might have ended up if the Master hadn't become involved.  Shot at the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, if there's one thing you can't fault about the episode, it's the production design and location choices, redolent of Elysium, the Aeon Flux movie and the Festival Hall at Liverpool's International Garden Festival in 1984.  It's impossible not to be impressed when Capaldi's holding forth against this backdrop.

It's also fair to say that the banter between the Doctor and Bill is always entertaining, his exposition endlessly counterpointed by her fixation on other details, like how many hearts he has or why a police box, questions which have been pondered in the past but with great whimsical vigour here.  Capaldi seems more at ease with Mackie than he ever did with Coleman, where there always seemed to be a professional detachment and I appreciate that one of the reasons the episode seems so empty otherwise is because, like The Beast Below, it's allowing time for the characters to bond and the audience to understand the dynamic, which in this case is teacher and pupil more than simply best friends.  We're seeing another facet of the Fourteenth Doctor in this series, much more benevolent and easy going if a little bit generic in the early Eighth Doctor BBC Books range, oh err, what do we do with this, kind of way.

But the rest?  Damn.  The Black Mirror for kids concept of a society in which a robot executes if you don't smile enough was accomplished very successfully during the McCoy era and perhaps the sun-blessed production design was an attempt to obscure that we're essentially watching The Happiness Patrol. sans its noirish lighting. for the social media generation.  But unlike Graeme Curry's political satire (which was definitely not about Thatcher, obvs), the commentary here is rather more confused and with a vague whiff of a older writer trying to say something about how Twitter or Facebook effect people's mood and something emoji without being entirely sure what the social implications of all of this is.  Patronising lines like "Emojis, selfies and wearable communications.  We're in  he Utopia of vacuous teens." don't help much either.

In the parish circular, the Boyce says liked that the use of the emoji has become a kind of universal language for communicating mood, that it's quite touching, which is precisely what they were originally designed for.  It's also true that like hugs, they're an excellent way for a person to hide their true feelings.  Even if you're feeling shit but not wanting to communicate such, bunging in a smiley face masks how we're actually doing.  But in the episode they have the more sinister application of demonstrating exactly how a person is feeling, but only on a very superficial level.  You might be terrified inside but turn the frown upside down, Mrs Brown, and the emoji disc reflects that instead.  The writer likes the idea of emojis but isn't sure how to communicate that within the internal logic of the script.  It's a writer experiencing the anxieties of Douglas Adams's technology rules in script form.

The problem is there's no great depth to any of this.  For all the enjoyable bantz, there's nothing much for us to become invested in amongst the characters or story.  Although there's a brief glance toward Bill realising that they have the fate of humanity in their hands and how the Doctor's motivated by his need to help, the episode coasts on the kind of astonishingly generic, run of the mill jeopardy which turns up in the less skillful spin-off media.  Casting Ralph Little as the lead human was presumable an attempt to shorthand some sympathies, but I don't remember his name even being mentioned on-screen and his entire character exists to simply blunder in and do something stupid with guns.  Mina Anwar's cameo at the beginning of the episode is gut wrenching but once she's gone there's no one for us to latch on to, someone we care about for the Doctor and Bill to save.  The small boy isn't on screen long enough.

Much of this is a casualty of the Moffat approved structure of old school episodes one and four bonded together with the running around of episode two and three tossed out.  But just having the first and last instalments of The Ark In Space misses the opportunity to meet the characters who're going to be threatened in the concluding moments, become involved in their stories.  Which admittedly would have been difficult given the obvious aim of the episode, as I said, to present the new dynamic and adding third wheel to those moments would have diluted their effect but these are more fundamental issues to do with choosing this story as the containment force field.  There's a version of the episode were the Doctor re-engineering the robots and having them co-habit with the humans is the start of the story not the whole thing,

Including the ending, which is just rubbish in a way which simply can't be masked by having Capaldi read us a bedtime story.  JNT roasted Davison's sonic because of its potential to create precisely the kind of story resolution we enjoy here and along with similar efforts in the likes of New Earth shows a mediocre lack of imagination.  One of the side effects of my anti-anxiety tablets is I have a tendency to nod off if I'm sat in one place for too long, and I'll admit to my eyes closing a couple times during the episode and after the show ended I wondered if I'd missed something spectacular.  Having gone back just now and had a glance on the iPlayer, I've discover that no I didn't.  It really is one of those stories where the Doctor and his companion walk through a lot of corridors, stumble into an explanation as to what's occurring then solve it by turning something off and on again which is frankly embarrassing when you consider this is the same show which almost ten years ago this week gave us Gridlock.

Once again this week Twitter's filled with people saying how much they enjoyed the episode and good for them.  But I just miss the version of the show which had emotional and structurally  complexity week in and out which perhaps isn't as child friendly as smiley robots and killer swarms, but at least meant you felt like you'd had a meal rather than just skipped breakfast. You were thrilled at the end rather than simply, ah, ok.  Judging by the cliffhanger, tonight's instalment could simply be anomalous and Sarah Dollard script might offer something more akin to drama than whatever this was.  But so far there's nothing in here which feels like appointment television and if it was any other show I'd be iPlayering it, assuming I remembered to even watch it at all.  Perhaps a rubicon has been passed after all.

[On rewatch: Having seen the episode a second time, I think I still agree with huge tracts of the above and also with a lot of the people who's opinion usually chime with mine who seemed to love it to bits.  Thematically it is a bit confusing, the secondary characters are nothing burgers and the conclusion is rushed and unimpressive.  But it's very enjoyable indeed in places because of Capaldi and Mackie, because some of the dialogue and character work is superb and because of the locations.  That's why I'll disagree with the drowsy Saturday night version of myself about it being boring.  It's never boring.  That's unfair.  They're such overwhelming compelling company that it can't be.  Like the best companions, Pearl is always acting even when she doesn't have dialogue, her entire body communicating the space between the lines.  Background business like taking photographs make her incredibly human.

As was the charge that it lacks depth.  Not every Doctor Who episode, even in the RTD years had a lot of depth and such episodes grow on you.  The Long Game isn't something you'd sit down to watch on purpose but as part of the series, it's pleasant enough and like Smile have moments which are simply about showing what life could be like in the future.  I do keep forgetting, perhaps because of how spin-off media tends to be much more densely written. that the television version is often about the visuals more than story, and that it's illegitimate to smack a fifty-three year old franchise around the four act structures for repeating itself.  It's a very rare modern Who story which has no traces of something happening the background.  I've often been an apologist for such thing.  Not sure what I forgot about that this time.

Smile was designed to have a particular function within the ongoing story of these two characters and not much else and that's fine.  I mean it's not much more than fine and I still think that even this kind of episode should strive to leave the viewer thrilled but I also have to acknowledge that isn't always going to be the case.  You might also wonder if, like The Beast Below, the reason the conclusion bleeds into the next episode, as well as a homage to the Hartnell years, is because the production team suspected that the ending wasn't quite as bigley as it could have been.  There's a version of Smile which ends on a quip from the Doctor or Bill.  How much better to leave the viewer with the image of an elephant on the frozen Thames, which is fascinating even if you know how it could be and when the next episode is set?]

Screen Select Lives!

Film As you know, I recently signed again with Lovefilm-by-post having become tired with the tedious wait for the few films I actually want to see to be uploaded to one of the streaming services (as opposed to those entertainments which I'll watch because they're there). Surprisingly they'd retained my previously viewed items from the six months before back to 200 titles.

I've always been slightly cheesed off about brevity of that list. Back when Lovefilm had its own website and before that ScreenSelect, it was possible to look backwards right through the archive, be able to check if you'd seen a title before. Now, it seemed, anything before 200 was dropping off, just a year or two going backwards.

Well. Idling online late the other night, I was startled to discover that the entire archive is still there. Amazon still retains the entire list of everything I've watched either via shiny disc or streaming right back to 2004, albeit in their own format.

For the three people reading this for whom it'll be of interest, here's how I found it.

 At the top of the page under the search box it a link for "Stuart's Amazon" replacing my name with yours. Click this.

Now you'll see a link for "Improve Your Recommendations". Click that too.

Log-in. That brings a page which defaults to items you've purchased. To the left there's a link called "Videos you've watched". Click that.

You'll now see a list of all the discs you've had by post and watched through Amazon Prime in reverse chronological order.

This is where is gets a bit tricky. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you'll see a yellow "next" button with 1-15 to the left. Click that.

At this point I assumed that this would just take me backwards through the two hundred. But I was wrong.  It went even further.

 Now, look up at the address bar. You might need to scroll a bit but it should contain something like the following text:

As you can see at the end, there are instructions to tell the website which section of the dvd list the show, fifteen items, in this case items 16 to 30. This is the tricky part.

Feeling myself backwards, I first tried to look at the page with items 185 to 200. So I changed the numbers thusly:

That worked. So decided to go further.

And was amazed to find a series of items from the Lovefilm era, from Michael Clayton to Spider-Man 3. How far backwards did this go?

Produced a blank page indicating I hadn't watched anything, so I began working backwards in 50 item intervals until, magically I reached:

And the start of my viewing list, right back in 2004, the ScreenSelect days with the "previous" button at the bottom of the list allowing me to go forward in time.  A record of my dvd viewing for the past decade and a half, beginning with my French New Wave obsession.

There they were, the first discs I ever rented, Keanu Reeves actioner Chain Reaction, The China Syndrome and anthology series "Perfect Crimes" with its episode by Steven Soderbergh.

Much of this first year is recorded already on this blog in the ultra tedious Review 2004, but everything after that is like a diary of my viewing tastes which have always been eclectic and reminded me that back then I was just as likely to watch something archival or back catalogue as something new.

That's something I'm trying again.  To be continued.

Elizabeth Wurtzel on Girls.

TV For the Washington Post. She saw a lot of herself in there:
"I am scared of my 20s. That decade took me down. My Room 13 is being 25 again. I spent every day getting over the night before. I lived downtown in New York City, in every neighborhood south of 14th Street, because I moved all the time, as I ran rampant through life. I had boyfriends who broke lamps to make a point. I ordered in morning coffee at 2 in the afternoon. I did not understand a schedule. My heart had a black and blue mark on it all the time."
Elsewhere, here's Lena Dunham on the final episode. I thought initially it was a bit "These Are The Voyages" in that episode nine felt like the structural end of the series, but on reading this I can appreciate that having episode 9 as the climax isn't very Girls. Episode ten and that final shot it.  Marnie spin-off please?

My Favourite Film of 1903.

Film  Some brief notes on genre. Again.

The Great Train Robbery is popularly thought of as the first Western or at least a pre-cursor to the modern western. But in production, this was not in the minds of the film makers. The situation is rather more complicated and although for various reasons it’s possible to label it a “western” it’s also a number of other things.

Genre tends to be defined in two ways, semantic and syntactic. Semantic refers to how the film looks and the tropes of the genre are in what we can see. If everyone has guns, hats and horses in a desert it’s a western. If it’s guns, hats and cars in the city it’s gangster film.  If it's phasers, environmental suits and spaceships its sci-fi.

Syntactic is about the structure of the story. A romantic comedy is a meet cute with various obstacles then inhibiting the couple from coupling until they do. A hyperlink film has lots of different plots, with lots of different demographics of people mixing unexpectedly across numerous geographic locations. A walking film is a road movie on foot.  If everyone dies at the end, its a tragedy.

There are also two ways of deciding the genre in which a film fits. The first is to watch a “corpus” of similar looking films, looking for commonalities, “tropes” and then dismissing titles which don’t match and seeking others which do. Semantically that’s how The Great Train Robbery became thought of as a western due to the tropes we’ve already discussed.

The other is through cycles, in which a film is popular, does business and so a lot of similar films are made to capitalise. Found footage films are a recent example, as is teen horror in the wake of Scream or “torture porn” after Saw. Usually these genres are actually presenting a new twist on some old format and so antecedents will show themselves.

Which is why The Great Train Robbery is so complicated; in production it was actually within contemporary a cycle of “heist” or caper films (see also A Daring Daylight Burglary) and is even still listed as such at the Wikipedia. It fits the syntactic tropes of planning a robbery and carrying it out ala the Oceans films, albeit over a slender run time.

It’s also a period drama, since it’s recalling recent history, the production design recreating a landscape and people from just a couple of decades previous not unlike a 2010s filmmaker setting their film in the 80s. Some of the people watching The Great Train Robbery would recognise the images in their own memories.

The “western” didn’t exist as a film genre when this was made, the term not being used until 1912 and even then it would be decades before directors set out to make a “western” rather than a film which happened to be set in the 1880s in the American West. The final shot of the film is up front on the genre’s Wikipedia page.

Which is why I find film studies so interesting. Nothing is fixed, everything is in flux and preconceptions can be annihilated with a new piece of information or thought and how you approach viewing films changes. Watching The Great Train Robbery as a heist or period film gives it a completely different texture, making it even more entertaining.

Romola on Feminism. Lot's of other things.

Film Eve Wiseman talks to the next Doctor and recounts this horrifying anecdote about the filming of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights:
"Romola Garai was 17, standing in her underwear while a female producer pointed at her thighs and told her: “This isn’t good enough.” She was weighed in and out every day, with a dietician flown to Puerto Rico to make sure she stayed underweight. It was her first Hollywood studio film, a sequel to Dirty Dancing, and it would prove to be her last. “It screwed me up for years. Not only did it completely change how I felt about my body, but I felt like I’d failed because I hadn’t fought back. I felt complicit, because I didn’t say no. I signed off on Photoshopped images and felt terrible for perpetrating this… lie.”"