Episode 8: Human Nature

“You are, quite definitely, human.”

I hate the word “squee”. It makes me think of all that’s worst about over-enthusiastic fandom, coupled with the cliquey insularity of the net community and its need to come up with exclusive jargon. Then I saw this episode. Young Barry, sitting next to me, may not have actually heard me go “Squee! Squee!”, but I suspect I probably did, in my head at least.

I’ve known Paul Cornell for a few years now, and found him to be one of the nicest, most welcoming and self-effacing of the Who authors I’ve met. He even gave me some of his wedding cake! Yet every time I talk to him I trip over my tongue like a drunken idiot (which, by that point, I usually am). The reason for this is Human Nature (the novel). It was, and still is, one of my favourite pieces of fiction of any kind, Doctor Who or otherwise, and I was, and still am, totally in awe of the man who wrote it.

And this adaptation did nothing to change my opinion. Paul has done a splendid job of adapting his story to another medium, and as a talented scriptwriter has managed to retain the story’s essence while trimming some of the numerous subplots and adding some more televisual elements.

The historical setting was perfectly realised, thanks to some excellent “living museum” locations, but more than that, it was integral to the flavour of the script. Without being didactic, it demonstrated perfectly both the social mores of the period and the world politics that were dragging Britain inexorably towards the Great War. The sequence of the schoolboys at machine gun practice was masterly, redolent of what the viewer knew was soon to come; a feel reinforced by Latimer’s flash-forward to the trenches. Even the Boer War was touched upon, with Joan mentioning that she lost her husband at the battle of Spion Kop.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I wondered whether this detailed examination of history might be lost on some of the show’s younger viewers. This was by far the most mature, adult script since Doctor Who returned, and unlike many of the others didn’t seem to have been made primarily with the younger child in mind. But if it prompts a few young minds to take an interest in history, so much the better!

David Tennant was, quite frankly, superb in the most demanding story the series has yet offered him. He managed to make John Smith a quite distinct entity from the Doctor, and sympathetic in his own right. He even modified his usual Estuary English accent. Smith came across as a naive innocent, much as he did in the book, conforming to social norms like allowing a beating or scolding the servants simply because he was a man of his time. This “little boy lost” quality made his blossoming romance with the more worldly Joan truly touching.

Jessica Hynes also did a cracking job as Joan, the first straight role I’ve seen her in. She perfectly conveyed the nature of Edwardian repressed emotion in a manner reminiscent of Remains of the Day, and the scenes with her and Tennant were pure magic.

Martha got more to do than usual this week, too, though it still seemed weird to me that she wasn’t Bernice Summerfield! Freema did a good job of showing her confusion at being left to deal with events without the Doctor, and her scenes inside the dormant TARDIS were pregnant with emotion. The one thing I found somewhat lacking subtlety was her line about how the Doctor had fallen in love “but not with me”. Given the ongoing relationship there, it might have been nicer for that to have remained unspoken. In any case, she did well in her assumed role as servant, accepting with equanimity the racist, classist nature of the times. I particularly liked that far from condemning Baines and Hutchinson for the racist sneering, she showed some sympathy for what she saw as their possible oncoming fates.

As the first part of a two-parter, the episode took time to build up these characters and situations in a way a single 45 minute could not have, and was far richer as a result. The boys’ school setting was well-realised, and redolent of that old saw about the Great War having been won “on the playing fields of Eton”. The schoolboys themselves may have seemed on occasion to teeter close to parody, but were probably good representations of boys of the period. Thomas Sangster (who must be about 18 now but still looks much younger) was superb as Latimer, the quiet, sensitive one who doesn’t quite fit in. He’s been impressive in everything I’ve seen him in and hopefully has a great future ahead of him.

And the villains? At first I was disappointed to see that they were incorporeal aliens, quite different from the creepy Family of the book. Then as they started to take human forms, I was pleased to see that they were exactly as I had envisioned them, especially the little girl with the balloon. But as nominal leader, it’s Harry Lloyd’s Baines who takes the honours here, effectively playing a convincing double role. As Baines the schoolboy, he was a convincing upper class twit, but on his possession by the alien he became incredibly creepy, with his flaring nostrils and sinister but confident smile. A revelation, then, as previously all I’ve seen him do is stand around and look pretty as Will Scarlet in the new Robin Hood. This guy is amazingly talented, and even as a creepy alien, amazingly attractive!

Fittingly for a story so centred on the Doctor (and the effect of his absence) there was a deal of emphasis on the series’ history, something I feel is too often ignored. Like most fans I loved the simple but significant in-joke about Smith’s parents being named Sydney and Verity after Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, effectively the show’s creators. It was a lovely moment for the fans that nonetheless fitted perfectly with the script – after all, those names do sound convincingly Edwardian! But the best stuff was in Smith’s dreams, and that marvellous notebook he showed to Joan. The beautiful pencil sketches of old monsters were only beaten by the heart-stopping moment when we saw a page adorned with pictures of several of his previous selves. I can’t be the only fan who was overjoyed to see Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor right at the centre of it!

And Smith got to save the day with a cricket ball, something the 5th Doctor would have heartily approved of. I can see how this sequence could have seemed contrived, but actually it worked perfectly. Not only was it a thrilling moment, but it was the scene which establishes that maybe Smith and the Doctor aren’t so different after all. As Stan Lee so groan inducingly put it in Spiderman 3, “maybe one man can make a difference!”.

Then there were the scarecrows. Perhaps a weak point, they’d plainly been put in (at Russell’s suggestion, apparently) as a bit of excitement to keep younger viewers interested in an admittedly somewhat slow-moving episode. British gothic horror has a fine tradition of animated scarecrows, perhaps because these wood-and-straw homunculi are inherently creepy (no matter what L Frank Baum might think). These were done rather well; I loved the moment when Clarke put his hand right through one and out of its back, trailing straw and all. But while they provided a few nice moments, I still found them a little extraneous, as the unsettlingly alien presence of the Family of Blood was quite menacing enough, thank you.

As you can tell by the number of exclamation marks in this review, I loved, loved, loved this episode. But it’s only a first part. It may be perhaps the finest single episode new Who has yet offered us (and I don’t say that lightly), but a lot rides on how the story is concluded. Given that Paul describes himself as new Who’s “emo” writer, I suspect it’ll be in more tears even than his previous script Father’s Day. And I can hardly wait!

Episode 7: 42

“Everything on this ship is so cheap!”

-That’s not something I would have drawn attention to, in-joke or not!

After two weeks wait, the anticipation was almost too much. The long-vaunted real time episode of Doctor Who! All set on a spaceship plunging into the sun! How could this not be brilliant? Oh, wait… “by Chris Chibnall”. So much for that, then.

All right, it’s true that I have a pre-existing prejudice against Mr Chibnall, for writing all the worst episodes of Torchwood, and being generally in charge of that show’s style and storylines. He it was, after all, who gave us the immortal line “when was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”, not so much a chat-up line as a direct quote from some very cheesy porn. However, he also wrote a pretty good episode of Life on Mars, and where Doctor Who‘s concerned I’m always prepared to put aside these prejudices and give the artist a chance. After all, I loathe Peter Kay and Catherine Tate, both of whom were very good in the show!

So I tried to put my anti-Chibnall feeling aside and hoped to see a good episode. After all, the premise was interesting, and I’d heard some good things about it. Sadly, my leniency was wasted on the author, who produced a script that could most charitably be described as “average”.

To be fair, it was well-executed. The direction, by veteran Graeme Harper, was tense and visually imaginative. I particularly liked the exchange of shots between the Doctor and Martha as the latter was blasted into space in an escape pod. And the recurring countdown clock, while an obvious lift from 24, nevertheless worked well to heighten the tension.

Some of the effects were pretty good, too. The boiling, amorphous surface of the sun was convincing enough to be terrifying as Martha’s pod plunged towards it; though it has to be said, the ship itself was rather variably rendered. In some shots it looked terrifically detailed, but in others it was simply cartoony.

No, the real problem here was the script. For a start, the exact – and I do mean exact – same plot has been done before, and better, in 1976’s Planet of Evil. Think about it – living planet is exploited by ruthless humans who nick bits of it for a fuel source, said planet then captures humans’ spaceship and starts dragging it back to certain doom, while the crew are menaced by one of their own who has become infected with the planet’s substance and can kill gruesomely with a glance. OK, I’ll grant you that your average modern Who viewer may well be unaware of this, but there’s still no excuse for such wholesale theft – even Russell’s not that blatant!

Then there were the characters. Much like in Torchwood, they were either as flimsy as cardboard or thoroughly unlikeable. We never really learned anything about Lerner or Erina, the first two victims, and third victim Ashton fared little better. We learned he was some kind of engineer, anyway. And Scannell, who actually made it through to the end in a high body-count story, wasn’t given any kind of character at all -it wasn’t even clear what he did on the ship!

Michelle Collins put in a game performance as Captain McDonnell, but the character really didn’t have much going for her. She could have been sympathetic in spite of being responsible for the whole situation – pleading ignorance and all – or she could have been a more out and out bad guy. Instead, we got a character written as a kind of third rate Ripley, self-serving, incapable, prone to sudden fits of hysterical emotion. More than once I found myself wondering what kind of loon would have put her in charge of a spacecraft in the first place. Presumably the writer thought we’d be moved by her “epic” self-sacrifice in the name of love, as she plunged herself and her possessed husband into the fires of the living sun as some kind of quest for redemption. The trouble was, she’d already established herself as a cod Sigourney Weaver, so I just found myself remembering the strangely similar but far more powerful climax to Alien 3.

And did she really have to be married to another guy on the ship? That kind of relationship in that kind of environment is usually a bad idea, but the main problem for me was that I knew Michelle Collins from Eastenders. Every time she finished a scene on an emotional cliffhanger, her lower lip trembling as she contemplated the futility of the situation, I expected the familar drumbeat of the soap’s closing theme to thunder in! I should stress, though, that this is nobody’s fault but my own.

And the actual plot! The pub quiz idea was quite a nice one, as Martha and Riley (the only likeable one in the crew) raced to open more doors than Mystery Science Theater‘s Satellite of Love. But it led nowhere, and just made me ponder the sci-fi cliche of a very long ship in which the middle bit doesn’t actually seem to serve any purpose (see 2001, Event Horizon, The Black Hole etc). The struggle for control of the escape pod was quite well-realised, but seemed a little illogical. But all that paled into insignificance before the sheer, mind-warping absurdity of the scene in which the Doctor has to go outside the ship to reactivate the magnet that would recapture the pod. Leaving aside the issue of how strong the magnet would have to be, you’re still left with the question: what the bloody hell are those controls doing on the outside of the ship? How could anyone who needed them actually get to them? Russell commented in Confidential that it was necessary for the plot that the Doctor should “expose himself to the sun” (fnarr, fnarr). Fine, but why not come up with a convincing reason for him to do so, instead of a sub Four to Doomsday space walk with as much logic behind it as that reset button behind the deadly whirring fans in Russell’s own End of the World? It was the worst kind of illogical, unnecessary set piece.

David Tennant was as good as usual, really controlling his performance. There were no hysterical outbursts, no hugging, and he never once said that he was sorry. He did say “allons-y”, though, which I rather hoped he’d got out of his system. And his speech about humanity’s ruthless greed and self-interest seemed rather at odds with a lot of his “isn’t humanity great?” moments from last year! He put on a good show of being genuinely frightened when possessed by the sun-stuff, but this just made me recall similar bits in The Invisible Enemy.

Martha at least got a lot to do this week. She’s been threatening to become a stereotypical captive, ankle twisting companion of late, so it was refreshing to see her acting to solve the situation with the Doctor incapacitated in a hastily repainted MRI machine (which never once looked like anything else). Her authoritative commands to the crew resolved everything, though the solution of dumping the fuel actually negated any need for the Captain’s “dramatic” self-sacrifice. After all, dumping the fuel cured the Doctor, so it would presumably have cured her husband, and anyone else infected.

I was a little irritated to see Martha given a Time Lord enhanced mobile phone just like Rose’s, but it was at least put to good use, plotwise. It was good to see Martha phoning her mum when stuck in the pod and certain of her own demise (though if it were Torchwood, she’d have been too busy shagging the cute young bloke stuck in there with her). But the main reason for the slightly jarring sequences set on contemporary Earth was to enhance the ongoing Mr Saxon plotline. It was a nice directorial touch as the camera pulled out from Martha’s mum to reveal some sinister government spooks standing behind her, who seemed to be multiplying between scenes! This plot’s being handled well, starting off low-key and becoming more significant in later stories. Far better than the constant name-dropping of Torchwood last year.

Overall, I’d have to say 42 was a very poor script executed rather well. Kudos to Graeme Harper for some good direction, but Chris Chibnall, please try and get some original ideas! And remember – Alien was twenty-eight years ago, and that style’s getting a little dated now! Still, roll on next week and an adaptation of my favourite New Adventure from the 90s, Human Nature. Half of me hopes it’ll be brilliant, half of me dreads that they’ll mess it up!

The Great Gig at the Exhibition Centre – Roger Waters at Earl’s Court

“Did you know Roger Waters is touring and playing the whole of Dark Side of the Moon?” our friend and confidant Steve Roberts remarked one night at Pizza Express. Myself and young Barry, my other half, being very longstanding Pink Floyd fans, cogitated for mere moments before rushing to a computer to buy tickets.

Let’s get it out of the way early: the pig made an appearance. Beautifully bedecked with a set of udders to legally distinguish it from the not entirely dissimilar pig still used by Dave Gilmour’s Floyd, it soared majestically over the audience during a spirited rendition of “Sheep” from Animals. It was good to see it again.

And good to see Roger too. After his appearance with his former bandmates at 2005’s Live 8 extravaganza, I was less than convinced of his remaining ability to play live. His voice audibly cracking and his hands shaking on the bass, he seemed to finally be succumbing to the rigours of age. But my favourite era of Pink Floyd was Roger’s; the majestic combination of poetry and music on Dark Side of the Moon, the savage satire of Animals, the bloated bombast of The Wall (my favourite album when I was seventeen). So trepidation notwithstanding, I was happy to see the old curmudgeon for what might be the last time.

This turned out to be just as well, as Roger is still capable of delivering a storming show. Short on between songs banter, he kicked off with a high-octane rendition of “In the Flesh”, his Oswald Mosley satire from The Wall. I was initially rather worried that the pissed up, shaven headed geezers in front of us might take his mock fascist rant seriously, especially when the spotlight rove around the auditorium as he yelled “Are there any queers in the theatre tonight? Get ’em up against the wall!”. But thankfully, even pissed up geezers can obviously recognize satire, and were just as loudly applauding during Rog’s many anti-Bush rants of the evening.

There were plenty of them, too. Roger’s material has always been politically charged, but there’s always been something rather safe about hearing him lay into distant 70s figures like Harold Wilson or Mary Whitehouse. With the faithful back-projection screen subtly (and sometimes glaringly obviously) transforming the old Floyd songs into things of relevance to the mess in the Middle East, it became clear that Roger’s idealism (and occasional naivete) remained undimmed. A heartfelt rendition of anti-Falklands song “Southampton Dock” from The Final Cut spoke for itself, but as he followed this with the same album’s anti-politics anthem “The Fletcher Memorial Home” fleeting images of Bin Laden, Bush, Blair et al moved across the screen, together with graffitoed political and philosophical quotes on the nature of war. Even the pig got in on the act, its inflatable sides emblazoned with graffiti condemning the war, religion, George Bush, and most savagely, Dick Cheney, whose name was vivid under the pig’s arse.

Politics aside, this was also about the music, and it didn’t disappoint. Having the memory span of a goldfish and being unwilling to purchase the rather expensive programme, I didn’t catch the names of all the musicians involved, but they did a credible, occasionally inspired job of recreating the Floyd sound. And of course, underpinning it was Roger’s familiar voice, sometimes wistful, sometimes angry. Mindful of what his audience wanted, he concentrated on old Floyd classics, delving into his solo work only once; for an absolutely sensational performance of anti-war anthem “It All Makes Perfect Sense” from Amused to Death. Which was, rather marvellously, accompanied by a life-sized astronaut floating above the heads of the audience. The old showmanship’s still there!

The Floyd stuff, of course, was heavily slanted towards their “remembering Syd” era, after the recent death of their mercurial founder member. From the unexpected arrival of psychedelic classic “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, Rog went on to play about half of melancholy requiem for Syd Wish You Were Here. A slightly truncated version of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” did nothing to blunt its power, as giant images of Syd floated across the screen. The there was a surprisingly ballsy version of the same album’s “Have a Cigar”, a song which, originally, Roger didn’t feel he could sing and handed over to Roy Harper to record. Finally, he went on to title track “Wish You Were Here”, and as the delicate guitar melodies backed by the heartfelt lyrics wafted over us, I found myself welling up. A bit. It was all rather like being seventeen again, smoking a joint on a summer afternoon, listening to the song and reflecting with melancholy that, nonetheless, my whole life was still in front of me.

Perhaps slightly less successful was the new song Roger brought out for the evening, another hand-on-heart anti-war rant called “Leaving Beirut”. Based on his experience of Arab hospitality as a hitchhiking teenager and illustrated by some actually rather amusing comic-style drawings on the screen, it suffered from not being a tune that the faithful could sing along to. Nonetheless, it’s nice that he is doing something new.

After a short interval during which I managed to cram in three cigarettes, it was back to the stalls for the bit we’d all come for. Dark Side of the Moon. In its entirety. Truthfully, I would have thought I’d got my money’s worth if I’d just seen the first half, but this was even better. Performed as a single, coherent piece, it seemed to just fly by. The old Floyd back-projections reappeared on many occasions, notably during “Time”, one of my strong contenders for the best song ever. The beauty of this song is not just in its music but its lyrics; as a non-musical English graduate, I’ve always held lyrics to be very important. “Time” is a song blessed with lyrics reminiscent of great English poets like Betjeman and Larkin. It beautifully sums up that horrible realisation that you’ve wasted your life – “And then one day you find, ten years have dropped behind you, no-one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.” All wrapped up in a great rock tune, with some amazing guitar and that bit at the beginning where all the clocks chime, which is great fun to play on pub jukeboxes.

Classic instrumental (well, sort of instrumental;there’s no actual words) “Great Gig in the Sky” was as magical as ever, the beautiful keyboard solo building up to the soulful wail of one of the redoubtable chorus, illuminated in the spotlight to thunderous applause. It almost made me forget its irritating use in a painkiller commercial some years ago… Album showstopper “Money”, which is fun but always seemed the weakest bit of the whole thing to me, was performed with gusto, Roger surprisingly laying off the vocal duties in favour of the impressive lead guitarist. Still, I suppose he might have been concentrating on the very heavy use of bass here!

The swelling epic “Us and Them” saw vocals shared between the keyboardist (for the verses) and Rog (the chorus) and saw some sterling saxophone work from a man whose name I… didn’t quite catch. Sorry, mate, but you were excellent! Then, as the album approached its climax (and it really has one, like an epic-length version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit), the lasers came into play. I was familiar with the swirling effect as the multi-coloured beams cut through the deliberately smoky atmosphere, but staggeringly impressive was the laser formed prism that rotated to form the album’s logo, as a beam of white light shot through it to be split into rainbow colours on the other side. This, like the appearance of the pig, was heralded by the other light show you get at a big modern gig; literally thousands of cameraphone displays lit up all over the audience as they tried to photograph it!

But a light show’s only as good as the music, and as Roger warbled his way through a superb version of “Brain Damage” towards the tumultuous conclusion of “Eclipse”, I found myself moved to tears all over again. Dark Side of the Moon is an album I’ve lived with and loved for more than half of my life, and I’d just seen an amazing performance of it by the guy who wrote the lion’s share of it!

Back in the heady days of The Mary Whitehouse Experience, David Baddiel held forth on the phenomenon of “the phony encore”. He summed it up thus: “You’ve been to see EMF. They haven’t done “Unbelievable”. Will there be an encore?”
And so it held true. We’d been to see Roger Waters, and he hadn’t done “Another Brick In The Wall”. Would there be an encore? Well, of course. But unlike my compadres, who seemed vaguely aware of the setlist already, I was genuinely surprised to see him wheel out “Vera” from The Wall. As on the album, it was followed by the relevant-again “Bring the Boys Back Home”, which seemed to have the whole audience singing along, and then it became clear that, as on the album, he would follow that with “Comfortably Numb”. It’s a testament to how good the rest of the show was that I’d all but forgotten this perennial Floyd show-closer, used by Mr Gilmour as well. And so it should be; it’s a song written in virtually equal parts by them both. This was a cracking version with a long but not indulgent guitar solo at the end, and a fine conclusion to a gig that, overall, I think I’ll look back on as one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to.

Drawn in the Sand (Spidey 3 – With spoilers!)

So there’s this guy, see? He was bitten by a radioactive spider and took on spider abilities. So far, so Marvel. But after two rather good movies, does Spiderman really have anything more to contribute to the increasingly crowded superhero arena?

Sad to say, no he doesn’t. I’m not an avid reader of Spiderman (the comic), but my spider sense alerted me early that this was a hodge podge of ideas drawn from several, unconnected comic plot strands, just as Constantine mangled Hellblazer by nicking the comic’s best set pieces and putting them in a story that made little sense.

So, we have Spidey’s Venom-enhanced black suit that draws on Peter Parker’s inherent darker side, we have the genesis of the new Green Goblin in Norman Osborn’s son Harry, and the birth of Venom as a villain in his own right, once the (X-Files-like) black oil latches onto someone other than Peter. Not to mention the appearance of Flint Marko, the apparent murderer of Peter’s Uncle Ben, who by unwisely stumbling into an area marked “Particle Physics Test Area” (there’s so many of them about) is reincarnated as the near intangible Sandman.

This is a crowded plot by any definition, but the writers feel bound to draw on the movie series’ own mythology by expanding the character conflicts built up in the previous two films. So, we see Peter’s nascent relationship with Mary Jane falling apart as his fascination with his own (Spiderman’s) fame eclipses her modest ambitions to be a Broadway singer, while Harry Osborn’s discovery of his father’s Green Goblin hardware leads to a low key series of confrontations with Peter, who Harry feels to be responsible for his father’s death. The result of this is rather like an episode of a TV soap with occasional superhero battles, which are too few and too far between.

When they come, though, these are stonking, directed with Sam Raimi’s usual flair for kinetic action. An early battle between Spidey and the new Goblin takes place entirely down an impossibly long New York alley, with the two gravity defying enemies smashing the hell out of each other and the nearby buildings. This conveniently wipes Harry’s memory for a while, lengthening an already unnecessarily convoluted plot, but the sequence is amazing. Likewise, some impressive CG is used to realise Flint Marko’s transformation into Sandman, as he falls into a rather contrived death device not dissimilar to Watchmen‘s Intrinsic Field Remover, then reconstructs himself out of sand much as Dr Manhattan did out of whatever was handy. The ensuing sequences of Sandman’s crime wave across New York also make very good use of the CG possibilities inherent in the character.

Sad to say, though, it almost feels like these play second fiddle to a script that takes its own mythology far too seriously. Rewriting the movies’ own continuity to make Marko responsible for Uncle Ben’s death smacks far too much of convenience, of giving Peter an additional motivation to go all “dark” and try to kill him. The concept of Venom allows the screenwriters to further explore Peter’s darker depths as the alien parasite infesting his new black suit brings out nastier sides to his character. Still, while I like Tobey Maguire a great deal, brushing your newly black dyed fringe down in a Hitler hairdo is not the subtlest means of indicating that you’ve gone all “dark”. Similarly, we were supposed to believe that Peter’s new look made him very seductive to women… Well, I quite fancy Tobey Maguire, and I thought he looked like a dick.

Laboured screenplay aside, director and cast did a pretty good job. Tobey Maguire was likeable as always, if unconvincing as the “dark” Spidey, and Kirsten Dunst added increasing (though unnecessary) levels of complexity to Mary Jane. The problem was the rather heavyweight cast of villains somewhat unbalancing the movie. With James Franco getting the lion’s share of the motivation as Harry Osborn, Thomas Haden Church and Topher Grace were left with rather cardboard characters as Sandman and Venom. It was constructed well enough, but each character was given an overly A-B-C motivation, as Marko’s desire to help his sick daughter and Grace’s Eddie Brock’s desire for a photography job were the most obvious of motivators.

I think the main problem with the movie, though, is that it commits the cardinal sin in a comic book movie of being rather dull. All the relationship detail and colourful characters (notably the usual Stan Lee cameo and a hilarious Peter Sellers-like Bruce Campbell) can’t make up for a singular lack of drive and spectacle. This is a great big summer blockbuster, not Ingmar Bergman’s Winter of My Despondency! It needs more joie de vivre, more colour, and ultimately more action. Spiderman is a loud four colour classic from Marvel, but it’s not Batman. I’m the first to champion depth in superhero comics, but not at the expense of excitement and fun, which let’s face it was what made us kids read these things in the first place!

In the end, I think this movie was a victim of the sequels’ syndrome: a perceived need to get bigger and bigger with each movie. The vast number of plot strands here would be difficult to do justice in a three hour arthouse flick, and this certainly isn’t one of those. While it is still fun, you get a sense that director and cast are fed up with the whole thing and merely going through the motions, quite different than the energetic first Spidey movie of 2001. Let’s hope that they call it a day, for now, and let the new Batman movie take the reins of the “dark” superheroes.

Episode 6: The Lazarus Experiment

“My name is Richard Lazarus. I am 76 years old. And I am reborn!”

Lucky he lived up to his name, then.
Professor Richard Lazarus is a true comic book style mad scientist in that his destiny is dictated by his name. Like the biblical Lazarus, he is reborn not once but twice in this entertaining but ultimately inconsequential episode. Just as Spiderman‘s Dr Otto Octavius spent his life working towards becoming an octopus, just as DC’s Dr Jason Woodrue dedicated his life to becoming the plantlike Floronic Man.

While reminiscent of classic comics in tone, the script didn’t shy away from nicking ideas from other sources. Lazarus’ machine and the monster it eventually produced were reminiscent of nothing so much as The Fly, while the cathedral-bound finale was obviously from The Quatermass Experiment. As was, indeed, the title! Still, as was evident from the Philip Hinchcliffe era of Who, plundering the heritage of gothic horror is nothing new for the show, and if done well can have remarkable results.

It didn’t here, though. The Lazarus Experiment passes 45 minutes entertainingly enough, and is a good yarn, but ultimately is no more a classic story than last year’s equally fun but inconsequential Idiot’s Lantern. Mostly, it’s an extended chase with a scary but none too convincing CG monster and a plot identical to Quatermass. What was intriguing was the integration of this year’s ongoing themes and plots. The uncertain future of Martha was resolved as the Doctor decided to take her onboard the TARDIS full time, and we got to see more of her family. I could have lived without this, but they were far less irritating than their initial appearance made them seem. Sister Tish was a strong, interesting character, and even brother Leo was a sympathetic, occasionally comic foil. The character that made the most impression though was Martha’s mum. I’m not sure the show really needs another dragonlike disapproving mother, but the part was played well and given a twist by her acquisition of (presumably distorted) information about the Doctor.

And this was where the previously low-key plot of the mysterious Mr Saxon came into play. The mysterious henchman who whispered indistinct words into the ear of Martha’s mother was a nice touch – if Saxon’s the main villain this year we wouldn’t want him to show his hand so early by appearing in person. We also learned that his full name is Harold Saxon, which presumably is already making the anagram hunters on the internet crazy with possibilities. Can’t say I came up with anything coherent, though, unless you’re meant to work the word “mister” into it as well…

As to the script itself, while there was little of originality in it, the dialogue was superb. Lazarus was given a real personality, with a believable history of a childhood in the Blitz and seeing London change around him. His discussions on the morality and motives of his actions with the Doctor were extremely well-scripted, and I loved the inclusion of various quotes from TS Eliot, one of the moodiest of doom saying poets. Mark Gatiss played the part surprisingly well; given the couple of lines evident in the trailer, I expected him to go for a high-camp League of Gentlemen / Nebulous style performance, but he was actually rather restrained. There was just enough camp relish to make him a memorable bad guy without becoming a cartoon Bond villain. Although he did seem to be channelling early Peter Davison in his blond-wigged younger version! For that matter, his performance as the older Lazarus was very impressive, seeming genuinely doddering with the aid of some surprisingly effective prosthetics. As ageing make-up goes, it’s some of the best I’ve seen, even down to the bulging veins and liver spots on the hands.

But at the other end of the scale, there was that monster. Oh dear. Clearly a lot of thought went into the design; it was a good idea to have Lazarus’ face on its head, and the Blade 2 -like splitting of the lower jaw was an impressively scary concept. But it seemed like the Mill had let their ambition exceed their ability again, and the CGI looked very cartoonish, blending into the live action about as convincingly as Tom and Jerry in On the Town. Added to that, not only did the face look very little like Mark Gatiss, it seemed like a 2-D mask painted onto the front of the creature’s head, oddly like those eerie cardboard masks Vic and Bob used to wear in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer. There’s a school of thought which says that the monster was made to look deliberately unconvincing so as to avoid scaring the kiddies too much; personally though, I just thought that the Mill had bitten off more than they could chew again. Points for trying, though.

David Tennant was again excellent, reining in his shouting and moralising for an effective confrontation with Lazarus in the Cathedral. The haunting dialogue about living too long and seeing those you love die was delivered with a sombre, convincing understatement, and was thankfully the only (oblique) reference to Rose this week. The humour was well-handled, too. I loved his enthusiastic reaction to being described as a “science geek”, his comically misunderstood exchange with Martha’s mum (“we didn’t have much time for talking…!”), and especially the Spinal Tap gag as he turned the organ up to 11 with his sonic screwdriver.

In a story that showcased her family quite effectively, Martha was oddly… ineffective. With the exception of her impressive exchanges with the Doctor at the episode’s beginning and end, she seemed to mostly be in the story to run away and/or be menaced. Ok, so that’s the trad companion role, but I’d hate for her to become the sort of cypher you used to see so often in the original show. I think we’ve already seen that the character has more potential than that.

So, a solid, entertaining episode enlivened by some good dialogue and excellent guest performances, but ultimately rather forgettable. Given its dark tone, it might resonate rather well with nightmare-prone kiddies, but I wonder if they’ll remember it with the same thrill of comfy fear that I remember The Horror of Fang Rock? Somehow I rather doubt it.

And now the show is on an enforced two week break. That’s irritating, and if anything reality tat-fest Any Dream Will Do is more responsible for its shifting around the schedules than the perennial Eurovision Song Contest, which let’s face it hasn’t interfered for the last two seasons. But it provides what looks like a convenient mid-season break as the Martha plotline comes to a conclusion of sorts while the Saxon plotline begins. At the very least, it gave us the chance to see a storming trailer for the remaining half of the season. It looks storming! I know that’s sort of the point of trailers, and it’s all in the editing, but I’ve got to say, I’m excited!

Nuts ‘n Baltars (Warning – many spoilers!)

So, a third season of Battlestar Galactica has wound its way to a conclusion. A conclusion this time much more low key and quasi-mystical than ever before. Leaving us, as usual, with lots of questions, it was also occasionally a little unclear. Was Starbuck dead after all? So where did she appear from and how had she “been to Earth”? Is Earth Heaven, then? Since they’ve yet to reach it, how was it that the newly revealed Cylons were triggered to wake by Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower? Who were the mysterious ships flying over our heroes in the nebula? Didn’t see any Cylons, that’s for sure…

Many friends of mine, and indeed people I don’t know, find Galactica hard to take for various reasons, the most prominent being that they see it as right wing propaganda. To me, this is an indication of not really having paid attention, or taking certain themes, plots and characters out of context. It’s true that the series shows the future to be dominated by an analogue of the US military, but the mistake people seem to make is to assume that soldiers are mere cyphers, extensions of the political philosophy of their government. Galactica deals with the fact that soldiers are people, as flawed and fallible as anyone else. They hold a variety of political views and are as prone to being wrong as anyone else. And in high office, while President Laura Roslin seems like a bit of a liberal, we found out last year about her strongly held views on abortion, which led to a decision that, by both moral and strategic terms, was very wrong and has come back to haunt her.

As for the political philosophy of the show itself, it was a revelation to me to sit in a panel at this year’s Gallifrey One convention and hear left wingers decry the show as right wing propaganda, and right wingers decry it as left wing propaganda. The truth, like the show’s characters themselves, is rather more muddy. The Cylons began as mass murderers in a Dalek style – witness Number Six’s unfeeling murder of a baby in the marketplace in the original miniseries. Yet they’ve been shown to be divided among themselves as to how to treat humanity, some feeling that attempted genocide was the worst mistake they ever made. Conversely, our heroes make no attempt to understand their enemy, which would make sense from both a moral and a military point of view. Whenever they capture a Cylon, instead of trying to figure out what makes it tick, they just shove it out the nearest airlock. The military can be both right and wrong, a fact acknowledged by Ronald D Moore when he ran Star Trek‘s most sophisticated incarnation, Deep Space Nine. Curiously, that realisation served to defuse the very real right wing agenda of Starfleet, an organisation who, as Clive James once put it, would “beam down and impose the Federation’s will in the name of freedom.” Their endlessly disposable red shirted cannon fodder really do show the soldier as merely a weapon rather than a person.

Since it began, Galactica has tackled potentially very controversial subjects, politically analogous to the real world and in particular the Iraq war. On no occasion, it seems to me, has it come down on either side of the political fence, but it has presented arguments for both sides very powerfully. The topic of prisoner abuse was deliberately rubbed in the viewer’s face in season 2’s Pegasus, in which the captured Number Six had been horrifically treated by the crew of the titular Battlestar, ostensibly on the side of humanity. This being indefensible, both right and left wingers can feel vindicated.

Things became rather greyer this year, with the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. Intentionally portrayed as a parallel to the US occupation of Iraq, this plotline even lifted the awful jargon of the US army and news media. “Insurgents” were referred to, and the occupiers formed a police force of the natives that became an instant target for the “terrorists”. But if the show has a right wing agenda, how would it make sense to cast the Cylons in the role of the Americans? For that matter, when it’s our heroes who are the insurgency, and they start strapping on explosives to suicide bomb what they see as collaborators, isn’t that encouraging us even more to see things from the point of view of the people of Iraq? On the other hand, as left-wingers might see it, the plot seems to show the Cylons taking a much softer line, indeed trying, in a cack-handed sort of way, to be a benevolent force for co-operation. Their violence seems to spring from frustration at the humans’ unwillingness to accept this. That, though, seems perilously close to defending the policies of people like Hans Frank, Nazi governor of Poland.

So in my view, the show presents plots about which one can make up one’s own mind. Both Cylons and humans have evolved immensely since the series began, and even then it seemed to be humanity’s treatment of their sentient creations as slaves that led to the enmity. Perhaps there is no right or wrong side; no right or left wing in this galaxy.

Other unfavourable comparisons, though, have been drawn with the original series. The original Battlestar Galactica was an expensive but shallow rip off of Star Wars, which nonetheless had an interesting premise. Its villain was a man named Count Baltar, with whom the newer Gaius Baltar has little but a name in common. Some see the new Baltar as a stereotypical English bad guy, but once again this seems to be a question of not looking hard enough. Gaius Baltar is vain, arrogant, weak-willed and hedonistic, but he’s not a villain. It is his fault that the Cylons were able to penetrate the Colonial defences and wipe out most of mankind, but he had no idea that was going to happen. All he wanted was a shag, with that tall, mysterious blonde woman! The series since has built on his sense of guilt and cowardice, and his fear of getting caught. In many ways, he’s the most realistic character in it; the slimy, “it’s not my fault” worm that perhaps a lot of us would become in such circumstances.

In contrast, the original Baltar was a camp, cackling pantomime villain who made Anthony Ainley’s Master look like a model of depth and complexity. John Colicos plays him with a great over the top relish, but really he’s a paper-thin 2D character who makes no sense. What does he hope to gain by betraying humanity to the Cylons? They want to kill all the humans. He’s a human. Does he expect them to make a distinction? It’s like that bit in Terror of the Autons where the Master suddenly realises that the Nestenes won’t distinguish between him and the people of Earth, and you think “if you’re a genius, how did you miss that rather large flaw in your plan?”. Colicos’ Baltar can’t be after money or power either; what use would they be to the last man in the universe? No, the new Baltar holds up far better in comparison, but for heaven’s sake try to see beyond James Callis’ English accent. At the very least it’s caused the use of words like “butterfingers”!

The other criticism of the show is that it’s unremittingly grim and visually drab. Well, be fair; being the last survivors of a holocaust on the run from a lethal enemy with superior firepower in a hostile environment is hardly the stuff of Terry and June, is it? And yet even given this, the show’s often displayed a fair sense of humour. Baltar’s ghostly sex fantasies of Number Six have led to a number of “whoops, Vicar” moments as other characters discover him pleasuring himself in his lab, and there’s even an outright comedy episode in season one. Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down, directed by stony-faced Edward James Olmos himself, is a Run For Your Wife-style farce of the highest order; or perhaps Abigail’s Party would be a more sophisticated comparison. As for being visually drab, well, the show is set on a bunch of clapped out military spaceships with some very low technology. The military aren’t known for painting things lilac, are they? Well, maybe some of them, but they work on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. It seems to be an acquired taste, but I think the kinetic, “handheld camera” style of the space battles provides plenty to stimulate the viewer visually. It’s a logical development of the style used in Babylon 5, DS9, and most notably Firefly, whose main ship Serenity can be glimpsed in the Galactica miniseries as a kind of tribute.

One criticism that I initially shared before I saw the show was the concept of the Cylons looking like humans. It seemed like a cost-cutting measure, and it’s true that the early CG centurions in the miniseries looked less than convincing. Besides the “they look like us and they’re already here” plot is one of the oldest in sci fi, stretching from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers through TV shows The Invaders, The X-Files, and last year’s ill-fated Invasion. But it’s a plot device that works brilliantly, especially with the self-imposed limitation of only twelve Cylon models. And now the Cylon ships are actual Cylons too, from their raiders to their base ships. Fitting for a robot race evolving towards true life form status. Besides, they’ve really improved the CG on the robotic Centurion models; they’re leaner and more vicious looking than the originals, with built in weaponry and a capability to be lethal even when partially dismembered. And they move like lightning! By contrast, the originals, while looking and sounding pretty cool, always looked like they’d fall over when they started moving. With hilarious results, as shown in an episode of Robot Chicken.

Perhaps Galactica appeals to a very different kind of sci fi fan than the lighter, frothier reborn Doctor Who; perhaps also one’s enjoyment of it may depend on one’s enjoyment of old war movies, whose conventions it frequently appropriates. But it’s a sophisticated, very human show, with many interesting science fiction concepts and limitations, and one deserving already of the term “classic”.

With all that in mind, now that season three has come to an end, what did I think of it?

It’s been a rather unbalanced season, with the strong opening episodes featuring the occupation of New Caprica and Galactica’s wham-bang rescue mission, but after that it seemed somewhat to go into idle. There were an unusual number of, admittedly very well done, filler episodes, such as the one about Chief Tyrol unionizing the refinery ship, or the one where he and his wife got stuck in an airlock. There were also a few tantalising plot threads left hanging from earlier. In particular, what happened to the mysterious Cylon plague that had decimated one of their ships and appeared to have no effect on humans? A perfect weapon for some of the nasty neo-cons on Galactica, I’d have thought.

Baltar’s enforced absence on a Cylon base ship gave us an ever greater insight into the truly alien world of these hyper-evolved machines, operating out of gigantic, living ships controlled by Minority Report-alike weirdoes wired into the system from tanks of goo. The problem with this was that Baltar’s presence in the Colonial fleet was one of the best dynamics of the show’s drama, and with the unwitting collaborator gone, the conflicts between characters seemed somehow less important.

They pulled it all together with the climactic two-parter, though. Taking the tried-and-tested dramatic format of a trial, it also weaved its increasingly mystical themes through a genuinely gripping exploration of the importance of the law, and how Baltar may not be as guilty as people think. The trial featured some powerful speeches on the rights of the individual, and grizzled old Adama surprised us all by voting Baltar not guilty. Meanwhile Lee Adama discovered that the legal process is no place for an honest man, as he sold his soul by betraying all around him to win the case. Small wonder then that he piled into a Viper at the first opportunity and flew off to almost certain doom.

And now we know the identity of four of the final five Cylon replicants. This might have been more of a surprise if Sky hadn’t said this in their listings, particularly since it became obvious after about ten minutes that only four of the characters could hear the mysterious snatches of music that turned out to be Bob Dylan. Still, the revelation begged yet more questions. Now aware that he’s a Cylon, Colonel Tigh seems intent on carrying on as the man he thought he was. But his ambiguous response to Adama at the close of the show was open to all manner of interpretation, and also made me wonder if there are multiple versions of these models in the fleet. Perhaps the Tigh we saw in the last scene wasn’t the one we’d seen before… Also, none of these four seemed to merit the hushed, humbled apology spoken by D’Anna when she glimpsed one of their faces in her temple-bound vision earlier in the season. Unless, of course, it was Tigh, and she was mortally embarrassed at having gouged his eye out!

Not as spectacular a conclusion as season one’s coup d’etat by Adama or season two’s Cylon invasion of New Caprica, this year’s finale seemed designed to stimulate the brain more than the adrenal glands. But that won’t stop me rushing back next year…