The Empress of Mars.

TV Good evening ladies and other genders, I give you my favourite episode of the series so far. No purportedly clever opening paragraph here, no wandering off into some personal blogging cul-de-sac in an attempt to put off the inevitable shrugs and sighs, The Empress of Mars is a winner, baby, and that's the truth (that's the truth).  Woo-hoo.  If this is Mark Gatiss's last episode for the television series (not that there's any indication of that), it's a pretty good summation of his favourite tropes and ideas, a televisual Last of the Gaderine so authentically Who that it demonstrates once again  that for all Steven Moffat's reliance on showrunners nervously turning out a first Who script which in the end feels like the work of someone who only thinks they know the franchise, it's no replacement for someone who has it running through their creative veins and written more stories about the Doctor than anyone else this series.

When reviewing Gatiss stories in the past, it's always been customary for me to stick up for the writer early and so here we are again.  Apart from Sleep No More, which I thought was a misstep but Graham Kibble-White adored enough in the friends publication that I'm looking forward to re-evaluating when I finally get around to a binge through the Capaldi era after Christmas (I've only ever rewatched about the first five episodes of series 8), there are few of the writer's stories I haven't at least admired and have indeed thought better of in retrospect (notably The Idiot's Lantern and Night Terrors) even taking into account how much of them are filtered through a show runner rewrite or whatever an actor decides to improvise on set.  Of everyone I hoped would take over when Moffat leaves, he was at the top of the list, but it's understandable he's reneged on attempting to tame this all consuming monster with so many of other creative vices available.

What makes The Empress of Mars so special?  Simplistically but resolutely because it feels like "real" Doctor Who, which is paradoxical given how much of the past few episodes have attracted my dismay at their derivativeness.  Except there's a big difference between pastiche and appreciating the core elements of a series, and simply lifting wholesale from previous stories.   An unfavourable review might point to how we're watching a group of humans blunder into defrosting another tomb full of monsters having seen that process before with Cybermen and Silurians with the Doctor mediating at the centre, or relying on some less xenophobic element of humanity to do some such.  That Gatiss recycles his notion from Victory of the Daleks of humanity arrogantly putting an alien race into servitude even though in reality they're the ones serving their captive visitor in some other cause.

Yet as the preview in this month's fan circular demonstrates, all of this is a feature rather than a bug, from a writer who had the bug to feature all of his great interests in one script.  He says he wanted to do "Tomb of the Ice Warriors", to finally show the "monsters" on their native planet even if it isn't at the height of their empire (still too expensive) and to have them facing up against a Victorian opposition in a homage to the film adaptations of Wells and Burroughs.  To somewhat repeat the point, it's someone writing from a position of knowledge about what's gone before and doing more of that rather than assuming they're creating something new which has actually been done before but for some reason no one's bothered to tell them because they probably haven't noticed.  Or they have but just don't care, forgetting that viewers can actually watch old episodes again.

But perhaps the biggest difference in The Empress of Mars is that Gatiss isn't trying to put some "modern" spin on all of this; he's gone out of his way to produce a script which would work just as well in any era.  Again from DWM, something which would pass the "Dad" test of being simple enough for anyone to follow.  There's a version of this story which fits just as snugly into an old school four or six episode structure with the Doctor and Bill spending a whole episode in the cell and Friday's reveal as the first episode cliffhanger.  Second episode cliffhanger is the reveal of the Tomb.  Third the Empress.  Fourth the opening of the tomb.  Fifth the Doctor standing between the humans and Ice Warriors guns pointed at one another.  You'd have to have some other story strands but yes, that would work a treat.

Dialogue wise too, with the exception of the film references, the Doctor and Bill are in full on generic Time Lord and companion mode and with a few tweaks, Tenth and Rose or Tom and Sarah could easily be slotted in almost as a homage to Sir Terrance's dictum that the Doctor himself doesn't change, it's about the actor's interpretation.  Capaldi has the opportunity to be the benevolent alien and Pearl an exposition sponge and in a week of uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic, there's something rather comforting about that.  When the Doctor runs after Bill as she falls down the hole in the ground, I don't remember seeing Twelfth treat the moment with such irrevocable terror.  For some reason, the Doctor's likeability rating always goes up when he seems to care about the well being of his friends and Capaldi's charming here.  Imagine if he'd been like this all along.  Imagine, imagine.

Unlike most episodes this series, we're also greeted by a supporting characters with relatable back stories who we care about when they die.  Deliberately referencing Zulu, Gatiss offers a mix of naive young officers, grizzled old hands, villainous racists and shaky commanding officer.  What I especially enjoyed about these red coats is that that they're actual Victorians on Mars in Victorian times, not the results of a times coop or Autons or some other replica.  If only there'd been the budget for a flashback to their voyage aboard Friday's ship, the juxtaposition of these moustacheode fellows and interstellar technology recalling the crew of the R101 roaring against the Triskele Uncreators in Storm Warning (yes, I know they were Edwardians but go with it).  Look everyone, I'm referencing old Eighth Doctor spin-offs.  That's how energised I am with the episode.

The Ice Warriors too are brilliantly realised, developing what we've seen before rather than wiping away ala the Silurians.  Perhaps noticing that the CGI unsuited version in Cold War wasn't quite as good as it could be, this lot remain in armour and although I miss original destructive imagery and sound from the 60s, the new flesh compactor is just horrible.  The simplistic leadership of Iraxxa the eponymous contrasts well with the simple minded buffoonery on the human side of the argument.  Thank goodness we're witnessing a Moffat loop - without the Doctor, these two would slaughtered one another.  Iraxxa actress Adele Lynch only has to tv credits, this and a couple of episode of The Bill in the 90s.  Her Spotlight entry indicates she's mainly worked on stage and that she's a capable dancer, which is ironic considering the most actors playing Ice Warriors can do is stomp around a lot.  I wonder how she ended up here.

All this and a couple of moments of pure unadulterated squee.  Does the BBC have to get permission for Pauline Collins to reprise her role as Queen Victoria in pictorial form?  On top of that, Alpha Centuri with Ysanne Churchman reprising the role from the Peladon stories she last played forty odd years ago,  having last appeared on television as "Woman in Street" on Alan Bleasdale's Oliver Twist adaptation for ITV in '99 (along with half of Christendom) and better known as ill-fated Grace Archer.  Even Big Finish recast her.  Gatiss almost set this on Peladon itself and this whole business leads naturally to wanting a sequel set there with all the usual attributes of an uncertain ruler, intergalactic saboteurs, human miners and a cameo from Ageddor.  The story's also set in 1881, the year of The Gunfighters and I like to think that the Last Chance Salloon is being hammered out down on Earth while all this going on.

Even the Nardole scenes didn't grate too much this week, even if as usual they only seem to exist so that Matt Lucas can be in ever episode because they like working with with him.  One of these weeks I long for his "and" in the opening titles to be replaced with one of Mark Strong's "but"s.  Perhaps its because it is a classic Who move to have the TARDIS unavailable in a tricky situation and we now have the added mystery of why she decided to fly off without them, refusing to land until Missy became involved.  Incidentally Michelle Gomez's version of the character has quietly passed the Rubicon into absolutely haunting.  There are numerous ways she could have played those final lines and in choosing honest concern, backed up by Murray's glorious Ligeti-tinged vocal cue, we're left in pieces in a way which demonstrates that evil is always more potent when it's entombed, waiting to be uncovered.

Melon Farmer.

Film Sony Pictures have announced they'll be releasing "clean" versions of their films as extras when people digitally buy the theatrical version. In other words, what you'd expect to find on a plane or on network television in the US (and as used to be the case in the UK until films stopped being shown in prime time outside of national holidays). Here's the Yahoo Movies version of the story.

My first reaction was "What?".

But my next was surprisingly sanguine.

Outside of the use of the word "clean" which somehow implies that the theatrical version is "dirty" in some way, it's not as though that version is being suppressed.

I'm not a parent, but I imagine that there will be films that we'd be happy to show our kids were it not for some elements which we don't think they're quite ready for.  The BBFC website offers guidance on the content of some films for this reason.

If the cuts are done sensitively and keep the overall story intact (unlike the murder perpetrated by Channel 4 on the likes of Angel or Alias back in the day) well then fine.

Quite often alternative lines are shot as part of the schedule anyway.  There's a great extra on the Cornetto trilogy dvds (Sean of the Dead etc) which takes the piss out of this and it does mean that you don't have to endure poor dubbing of the melon farmer variety.

That said, some of the items on the list seem ludicrous.  How the hell do you clean up Easy A, Captain Philips or Elysium?  I'm actually intrigued enough to want to watch some of these versions just to see what's cut out / massaged in order to remove the "objectionable" content.

The Sony video above has a sense of what's been done and sure enough, it's mostly new dialogue and alternative shots. True enough in removing the swearing some of the comedy is bled out, but given the titles selected, you could argue that if the only source of comedy is the swearing, they need to try harder.

So, yes, strangely, fair enough.

 Plus kids will then have the surprise of seeing what was cut out when they're older, much as I did when I saw the non-tv version of When Harry Met Sally back in the day.  I never did quite understand the argument scene outside the brownstone until I bought a copy on VHS and realised the BBC had cut out several fucks.

Why Vote?

Politics So it's election day again tomorrow and here's the usual slightly rambling open letter pleading with you to use your democratic right. It was originally posted back in 2005 so thought it was about time for a refresh:

Dear Disaffected Voter,

Hello again. After the complete mess that was 2015, the pollsters have been compensating this way and that. But what's especially interesting is those who're weighting their numbers depending on the number of young people who'll get out the vote. Servation and YouGov are optimistic about this and said that if enough young people turn out, a hung parliament at least might be in the offering. That it could be inevitable if the turn out is at least 78% across all voting ages.

The turnout is generally about 60%.

There'll be some of you who won't be voting because for some reason you simply can't. You recently moved house and didn't have enough to time to get your vote moved to your new house. You'll be on holiday and the whole postal voting thing couldn't be scheduled properly with while you're away. Those and a whole raft of perfectly good reasons. I'm not talking to you.

I'm talking to the rest. You'll be split into two camps. Those who can't be bothered and those who don't see the point. Yes, you. You idiot.

If you're insulted by that, you should be.

The biggest idiots are the ones who can't be bothered. The ones who have the facility to vote, aren't impeded, but simply can't be arsed walking all the way to the polling station, even though there are enough of them that the local will be in the next street. Do you realise you're screwing things up for the rest of us? Here is a list of the knock on effects of you not showing up.

(1) It makes us all look bad. There are certain parts of the world were people don't have the choice of more than one party, for that matter the ability to vote at all. Not naming any names. In some of the these places people have been killed whilst they've fought to get the chance to choose who they want as a leader. By noting voting yourself, you're pissing on their fight because you're devaluing what they're fighting for. You're like Cameron's dad in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Lovely car parked up in the garage being wasted. Take it out for a spin once in a while.

(2) It's not a fair contest. By not showing your support for a party, whoever wins won't necessarily have won because the country wants them to be there. It'll be because the majority of 60% of the country wants them there. Which isn't the same thing.

(3) It makes you look bad. If you can't be bothered spending twenty minutes of the day going into a room in a school somewhere to put a cross on a slip of paper, a process which has been made as easy as possible now (now that they even print the name of the party on the ballot paper) what frankly are you good for?

Now there are the rest of you who are making a point of not voting. My Dad believes that everyone should be forced to vote by law, even if they show up and spoil their ballot paper. Within the current system it's your choice and right not to vote. So there will be a percentage of people who don't vote because they believe it's sending a message that you're unhappy with the political process in this country. There are a couple of flaws to this plan:

(1) Politicians don't give a shit about you. Because you didn't turn up at a polling station, come the day they don't even know you exist. If you don't like the political process the only way to develop it is to engage with politicians and ask for that change. Some of the parties have ideas for reform using systems such a proportional representation which means that every vote is counted.

(2) Your plan only works if no one votes. Like that's going to happen. No matter what you do, someone will be Prime Minister on Friday.

There are some, who aren't voting because they say that the manifestos and party policies aren't offering anything to them. What doesn't occur to you is that manifestos are written to interest the various demographics of voters. So if you don't turn up, you're not a voter so why should they try and attract you with tailored policies? So effectively if enough of you people turned up and voted, it'd frighten the shit out of the politicians and they'd have to start listen and developing useful policies so that they can keep you on their side. There were no policies effecting women in manifestos until women got the vote. It's pretty much the same thing. You turn up, so will they.

I know this has been a bit freewheeling. If I'd wanted to I could have found a bunch of statistics and anecdotal evidence to back up some of these things. But I thought I'd go for the simple, direct, approach because don't think I've said anything which you don't already know.

I'm just trying to give you a nudge.

Even if you turn up and vote for a man with a bucket on his head you'll at least have the satifaction of knowing when the announcements are made, someone who just wanted to have a bit of fun hasn't lost their deposit.

Just don't waste you vote. Pick a party and go.

And if the one you pick doesn't win, there's always next time....


My Favourite Film of 1896.

Film You’ll already know the story about L'ArrivĂ©e d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (watchable here), that on its first public projection the audience was so amazed by the realism of the vehicle heading from the background to foreground that they thought it might continue into the auditorium and vacated the building in a panic. Martin Scorsese parodies the moment in Hugo with an actual train crash through a railway station (albeit in a dream sequence). The Wikipedia page has a short discussion about the veracity of the story or at least the cause of the audience’s reaction, but the point is that if it did happen, that audience had a reaction, a visceral, physical reaction to a film, however short it is.

Over the past couple years and before I’ve talked about my own emotional reaction to films. Crying tears of awe on seeing the olyphants in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Puking my guts out one Christmas whilst watching Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Shouting during a screening of Like Water For Chocolate at an inopportune moment. Running myself out of a screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre unable to cope as soon as the meat hooks appeared, leaving an empty screen at the Showcase Cinema on the East Lancs Road. Sobbing through Titanic at that same cinema, indeed sobbing through numerous movies. Most recently shouting Blinovich’s name right through the end of The Lake House (luckily at home where no one but me could hear).

Looking back, for the most part, none of these seems to have anything to do with the real purpose of the given film. Does a comedy make you laugh? Does a drama take you on an emotionally satisfying journey? Does a thriller literally thrill? Is an action film actually exciting? Aren’t the best films capable of many or all of these? To that we might include those films designed to provoke an intellectual response which is still a reaction of a sort although I’d argue that the best of that type of work is capable of making us laugh or cry on the way to making us think. But ultimately this is still predicated on who we are, or experience. Pauper’s Jack Black and humour vacuum Josh Gadd has enough admirers to sustain his career.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker has one of the funniest scenes in cinema and a really mind bending conclusion despite for the most part allowing us to meditate on voids and losses and the search for a purpose. When the three men, who we’ve watched walk for over an hour through a deserted, apocalyptic wilderness reach their destination at the centre of the zone and hear a phone ring it’s impossible not to laugh due how unexpected it is. Did the filmmaker expect that? The laconic performances suggest so as the characters seem as surprised as us, but in what’s otherwise a relatively serious film, we’re as surprised to be laughing as much as they are to hear the phone ringing. Did Tarkovsky build to this emotional release?

There’s strong evidence the brothers Lumiere wanted to scare their audience or at least find realism in the image. The position of the camera looks like an early experiment in 3D and the film was later reshot with a stereoscopic camera and rescreened for screening in 1935 along with numerous similar experiments. It’s speculated that perhaps the audience ran out of that screening when indeed they did in fact have the train unexpectedly coming towards them and that reaction has become attributed to the earlier event. You would think that the audience might have become more cine-literate by the 1930s but considering how some couldn’t see the artifice during early screenings of The Blair Witch Project decades later, a spellbound audience can be convinced of anything.

Perhaps we should simply agree that for any piece of art, especially cinema, to provoke any reaction is a good thing, even if it’s unintended. Laughing at the ineptitude of a film might not be what a filmmaker expects but they should take some solace in the fact that enough people care enough about it to actively dislike it. How many mediocre comedies, dramas, thrillers and art house pieces pass by without notice. The makers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre would surely have preferred me to stick around for the final hour of their film (otherwise it would have been a short) but they’d probably get a kick out of the fact it scared and sickened me to the point of wanting to run for the exit. I’m certain that nothing could replace the relief I felt at the auditorium doors clattered behind me.

Class Dismissed.

TV Ish. Sort of. Patrick Ness posted this a couple of hours ago:

Essentially he's saying that if the show was going forward it would be in production now, but it's not happening and he's not waiting.  He says that BBC America like the show but blames BBC One's scheduling despite its "critical acclaim".  So it's effectively cancelled barring some last minute resurrection.

A few things to unpack here.

The iPlayer treatment of the show was a headscratcher.  The publicity for the show was relatively minimal given the pedigree and it seems they expected it to work as a viral phenomina in the style of Fleabag or Thirteen.  That didn't happen and even people who like Doctor Who didn't know it existed despite Capaldi being in the first episode.

Given that but still with the need to have it broadcast on network television, the BBC bunged it out on BBC One late at night as they do with a lot of BBC Three shows.  At least it didn't get shoved out in the middle of the night as happened with the last series of Orphan Black the BBC had the rights to.

If Class had been loved online, there was always the possibility it could have found an earlier timeslot but its forty-five minute format isn't a natural fit in prime time now on BBC UK when most shows are either thirty or sixty minutes outside of early evening Saturday night. But if it had been good enough, they would have found a way.

But it just simply wasn't that great, not Being Human great or Misfits great or Buffy great despite its attempts at such.  After a decent first episode, the storytelling became increasingly muddled and the overall premise and promise of the show didn't follow through.  See my old reviews for a longer version of that opinion.

Yet it is a show which has ended on a cliffhanger.  There could be a comic book conclusion perhaps, or Ness wiill write a novel, or Big Finish will pick it up in a few years ala Torchwood (although I don't know the extent to which Miracle Day is going to be resolved).  In the Doctor Who universe, nothing is ever final.