Thin Ice.

TV Thank fuck for that. After a couple of disappointing episodes and the kind of ennui I haven't experienced for this franchise since the darker days of season eight, I really did almost iPlayer tonight's Doctor Who and viewing when I had the chance and watch some old Star Trek: Voyager instead (forty odd episodes to go).  But feeling a bit guilty about cheating on Who by mainlining five episodes of Trek per day and being pretty mean spirited in writing about Smile despite its best intentions, I decided to give this show another chance, what with it having provided me so much comfort over the past couple of decades.  That's the problem when you're this close to something.  It'll annoy you and annoy but you'll keep coming back just in case some of the old magic returns.

To which I'll say again, thank fuck for that.  Although Sarah Dollard's Thin Ice isn't arguably up to the very highest standards of what the show can do, it's just the sort of assured format embracer which has become quite rare lately, too often limited to spin-off books and audios, in which the Time Lord and his plus one simply problem solve, beat the bad person and save as many people as possible along the way.  Although that's arguably true of Smile, this provided a much more realistic dynamic between the Doctor and Bill as she discovers what he's capable of, supporting characters worth rooting for, an enemy with a recognisable face and a relatable locale.

Which is odd when you consider how much of Thin Ice feels familiar.  There's a Beast Below the Thames being exploited by humanity for the scientific results of its existence (see also Planet of the Ood).  There are homeless street children straight out of The Empty Child.   The Doctor forces his companion to make a choice between destroying or saving a unique lifeform which is threatening humanity (albeit without him recklessly buggering off in the middle as he did during Kill The Moon) deciding that she should take the moral high ground.  But unlike some instances, it's forgivable because the results are so pleasurable.

Once again that's mainly due to the chemistry between Capaldi and Mackie.  It's wonderful having a team who are simply enjoying each other's company again, there isn't some element of suspicion, something not seen since probably RTD's final year, so desperate has Moffat been to create conflict inside the TARDIS.  They're finishing each other's sentences, not making every argument the end of life itself.  The "How many people ..." conversation has had versions before, but never resolved as economically or as much warmth as when Bill pulls her tongues at the Doctor and he returns his wordless appreciation.  The show's arguably always at its best outside of the grand gestures.

Apart from when the Doctor punches a racist.  Like the Prince t-shirt before, this could be interpreted as a loving homage to recent events even though this was filmed months ago.  When Martha joined back in s3, her presence in less woke time frames was treated lightly and euphemistically but it's measure of how much as changed in recent years that the show feels like it has the confidence and duty to confront the issue head on and quite bluntly in places ("History's a white wash.").  The writer's research of the period is admirable; notice the understated portrayal of the domestic staff in the racist's house.  Will the children keep them on?  Give them better conditions?

As a slight detour, it's also noticable just how much of the Doctor's dialogue and Capaldi's performance has shifted towards the Baker of Season 17.  Throughout we find a benevolent bluffer with the potential for darkness, pleasantly bamboozling the likes of the pie maker and the shit miner to give him the information he wants and later facing the villain with a poetic, if ineffectual speech noticing their moral decrepitude.  But unlike recent episodes (both of them) where the bantz are all surface, this is very much about creating a believable bond within the TARDIS and furthering this budding friendship.

Plus it's funny.  I laughed out loud when the chemical make up of the fuel bricks is revealed and when Bill herself manages half a syllable of profanity, because nothing works better than potty humour in unlikely settings.  Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a TARDIS Datacore entry on the topic so I can't confirm but this has to be a first, as least in the main series, at least since "Boll-".  Torchwood was pretty much all about effing and jeffing and even though Bill didn't manage to get all the way to it, this was still a pleasant surprise.  There has to be some shit in the spin-off media though, and I don't just mean ... [cut to next paragraph].

From a colder perspective, as Dickens knew, the homeless street urchin trope are the easy slam dunk of sympathetic jeopardy attractors and are this story's equivalent of the Cute Overload or Emergency Kitten Twitter feeds.  But throughout the Moffat years, in his bid to remind us that this was originally a show for children, he's been unafraid to make them central to the stories and continues because like Smith before him, Capaldi clearly enjoys the challenge of acting with them.  But it's rare that a child has actually died and if I've a question mark about the episode at all, it's how younger viewers might react to this scene, especially as the Doctor seems more intent on saving his screwdriver.

Bill's reaction is the key to all of this.  I rather skirted past the "How many ..." conversation, but this Doctor's approach to death has always been open to scrutiny.  Quite often he's failed to intervene in situations when he could quite obviously have made point at least, generally in Season Eight, and this seems like another example.  Except Bill somewhat accepts that he's a big picture kind of guy, that some deaths, however tragic, cannot be avoided.  Later in the episode, when the surfaces of the Thames is about to be ripped apart, she decides to prioritise her new friends above the strangers who can't be helped, a judgement the Doctor has had to make time and again.

Like the street urchins, casting Nicholas Burns as the villain is flagrant shortcuttery, given his track record in such roles.  But he's only rarely played complete evil.  His key skill is smug arrogance or characters with very punchable faces like Nathan Barley.  There's a version of this story in which he's layered in from the start, whole Holmesian scenes in which he's colluding with an underling regarding their mysterious discovery intercut with the Doctor's investigation, but there really is something to be said for figures with creepily smooth faces hoving into view two thirds of the way in like an end of level boss or the murderer in an episode of Elementary.

All of which is enveloped in a near perfect expression of Victorian London, shot by veteran tv director Bill Anderson with just the right visual gene splicing between the language of costume drama and the need to have people running places and dodging things.  A lack of realism between the merging of actual people and CGI is compensated for with a painterly quality, with the Doctor and Bill's underwater meeting with the creature evocative of the posters for 60s Jules Verne adaptations beloved by Mark Gattis and the rest of us.  Expect an episode later in the run which takes place all in one room to compensate for the visual splendour.

If there's another slight hiccup its the episode doesn't complete at the obvious moment in the house, but cuts back to Earth in order to justify Matt Lucas's screen credit.  DS9 often has brilliant scenes, usually set in Quarks, in which numerous series regulars are stuffed around a table for contractual reasons and chat about something unrelated to a story which concerns Odo falling love or Worf handed discommendation by the Klingons again.  Nardole's return here, as with last week, although related to the main season arc, feel superfluous and to some extent hurts the main story of the week by reducing the available screen time (which could arguably have benefited Smile a bit).

The upshot is having given the episode a satisfactory conclusion, the writers then have to ramp up the tension again with another cliffhanger.  Perhaps if, like Agents of Shield, a logo had popped up making this feel more like a coda scene than an unexpected five minutes more episode it would have flowed better.  Perhaps it'll work best during a rewatch, when the three episodes are seen in close succession, with this final scene wrapping up the mini-arc of the Doctor defying his orders about leaving the 21st century and taking Bill on a very long journey.  Perhaps I'm simply picking nits more than usual.

Since Moffat wants us to case about this thing, what could be the vault?  I had actually thought about it being the Simm Master before reading Dan Martin's recap but as he says, he's knocking just three times for the most part.  But given that he was in that trailer, it feels too obvious.  Which leaves us with either something which'll be revealed in the coming weeks or my current suspicion that we're watching another Moffat loop and something horrendous happens to Bill, who Nardole is deeply suspicious of and would explain why the Doctor's decided to teach her, his past self having agreed to take care of her before meeting the younger version of her on purpose in the future. Or something.

"Look at it this way, Dawson ..."

TV This blog's so old, I was reviewing episodes of Dawson's Creek during the original broadcast. For old time's sake, here's James Van Der Beek being brutally honest to a Guardian interviewer about the aftermath, especially how he can't quite seem to find visual safe harbour:
"In the 14 years since Dawson’s Creek ended, Van der Beek has taken all sorts of roles in mainly short-lived sitcoms, including Friends With Better Lives, made by the people behind Friends and Frazier. When that was pulled after eight episodes he took a role in police procedural CSI: Cyber but it was “a desert for me, creatively. There’s a lot of standing around and laying expositional pipe.”"
Dawson was actually probably something of a hero if I'm being honest; certainly his love of films somewhat represented my own attitude and was one of the reasons it became my primary hobby - for better or worse.

Second Smile.

TV Having seen Saturday night's episode of Doctor Who a second time, I think I still agree with huge tracts of my Saturday night instaopinion but 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?

My Favourite Film of 1902.

Film There is a home video in existence, recorded during my A-Levels, about a quarter of a century ago, in which I’m shown, because it happened, reading the description of how various chunks of technology on the Starship Enterprise D work from a copy of the official Technical Manual to some school friends who’re doing their best to ignore me. I was about sixteen years old and I think it’s probably my nerdiest moment which is quite something considered everything which has been published on this blog and elsewhere for the past fifteen odd years. Later in this filmed conversation, I turn to describing the Vulcan concept of the IDIC before someone throws an empty water bottle at someone else’s head. I don’t think it was mine. It’s quite a while since I’ve been able to watch it.

Not long afterwards, I declared this to be a different person, that I’d completely changed and I was more interested in other things, had some kind of “awakening”. But I was fooling myself. I’m still that person, I just multiplied my number of interests and learned when to shut up about it within disinterested company. I’m in the process of watching all of Star Trek in hard chronological order for goodness sake. I watched the first twenty minutes of Star Trek Generations before Encounter at Farpoint and returned to the rest of it between the Deep Space Nine episode Distant Voices and Voyager’s State of Flux. I was nervously holding my finger next to the pause button during TNG’s The Pegasus, guessing the exact moment to insert Enterprise’s These Are The Voyages before realising that they run in parallel so need to be watched concurrently.

Why do some people gravitate towards science fiction more than others? Escapism certainly, but all kinds of page and screen fiction offers that release. It’s what it’s designed for. How I became enraptured was probably through habit. As a child, I’d be slotted in front of Saturday morning cartoons and Star Trek, Doctor Who and Buck Rogers, Street Hawk and Airwolf and at a certain point it just becomes the thing I most looked forward to. Plus although I know they’re not mutually exclusive, an especially disastrous afternoon watching Everton lose to Manchester United in a cup final turned me away from football forever. My finely tuned trauma reaction led me quickly to decide that anything which made me cry that much wasn’t a good thing.

I also have a collector’s mind and most science fiction is designed to take advantage of my kind of personality. From a perspective of pure commerce, the franchises are designed to churn out more story, more product leading completest to want it all and now. But that’s because we want to know the whole story. Once a world has been established, we’re desperate to know all of the details, watch the narrative cartographers, both solo and within a writing staff of a television show explain how their world fits together. That’s how they survive in numerous formats. We’re desperate to see what’s next and how it fits with what’s gone before, ready and eager to point out when it doesn’t much and perhaps publish a corrective.

But single stories still have great power. In Melies’s A Trip To The Moon, we know little to nothing about the society which inspires the mission, the film is closer to fantasy than scientific fact, obviously. But its impossible to watch with just a surface interpretation of events. We’ll wonder about the kind of propulsion the space ship has, why they’re breathing on the moon and why the celestial body has a face. We’re equally delighted and perplexed, our imaginations filled with notions of what the rest of the society might be like even though we know it’s futile and silly. Same with Blade Runner. Same with Gravity. Same with Inception. Tiny details here and there engaging with our detective skills. Often films which explain too much are crushing bores.

But other than the intellectual exercise, when even with the most generic quest storyline there’ll be something engaging about the world even if the film itself doesn’t disappointingly take advantage of it, there’s the sense of being shown something new, outside of our reality. During the meet and greet for my MA Film Studies course, when we were introducing ourselves and the kinds of films we like, I said that I’m often impressed by films which are critically derided if they’re visually interesting. That’s still true. I love the Resident Evil film franchise whose newest instalment received a one-star review in Empire. Every film is visually stunning even if the stories have become repetitive. I can’t wait to see it.

In other words, I completely understand what enthralled that younger version of me even if I’m thoroughly embarrassed by his approach. You are what you are and I’m pleased that I embraced that if only because the person I was in my early twenties who sold off his original Doctor Who collection at a flea market for buttons in heavy denial probably wasn’t a happy young adult. Of course it helps that the social stigma has somewhat dissipated but I like to think I would have ended up here either way. When you reach a point when you can ask a box the size of a hockey puck to play almost any music you’d like, what the weather is and to tell you a joke, in other words you’re living in the future, it helps if you’ve already considered the possibilities.