Monday, June 27, 2005

Am I in an alternate universe?

What is going on? I checked the interweb this morning to see what the newpapers had to harp on about today and what did I find? Well amidst the rubbish about JFK Jr and Diana there was an entire front page devoted to the plight of 100 Zimbabwean asylum seekers who have been threatened with deportation, despite the considerable risk of their persecution at the hands of Robert Mugabes thugs.

Was this 'campaign' to let these poor people stay in Blighty on the front cover of the Independent? No. What about the Guardian? Afraid not.

No, the new crusader for Zimbabwes poor refugees is none other than the Daily Fascist itself.

Wonders never cease ;-)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Doctor Who: season review

Before I get started, I should point out that I am not a long-time Doctor Who fan, although I watched it as a child. As a result, this review does not compare new to old, but rather holds this show up against the many other science fiction shows out there atm.


Viewing figures
I think I approached the new Doctor Who with trepidation. Returning to a cult classic is always a risky business. you may create something that hits the right notes with a new generation, but risk alienating the fans who have campaigned for years to bring the show back.

With this new show, it would appear that the makers have succeeded in keeping both groups happy. While there has been a drop-off in viewing figures (from 10.8 million in ep 1 to just over 6m in ep 13), the average is still very good for a saturday night show and clearly seems to have hit the right notes with the family audience it was aimed at. However, I would air a note of concern at the final eps low ratings. Often final eps on both side of the atlantic tend to see a ratings boost because of their prominence. This did not occur here. This probably points to the split in viewers. While there is probably a key majority who will watch every episode, there may be a fair percentage that see the show as something they can 'take or leave', resulting in fluctuating viewing figures.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in my concern about Billie Piper taking up the role of the Doctors companion. Well, after 13 episodes I can honestly say the concern was very much misplaced. From the first episode the show was clearly more about Rose Tyler and her role in life, than it was about the Doctors. Pipers performances rarely faltered, even when the dialogue, plot and other actors seemed to conspire against her. Her recurring trips back to her Eastenders-esque existence worked well against the drama of life travelling with the Doctor.

Meanwhile, Christoper Ecclestone rarely disappointed. His upbeat assessment of every situation cleverly masked a tortured soul. As the season progressed we saw his guard slip to reveal a man full of hate, fear and vengeance, predominantly focussed at the infamous Daleks.

While his quirky style was occasionally annoying, I was saddened to learn he was leaving after season 1. I feel we had only scratched the surface of a tremendously complex character, one that would have surely grown even more in season 2. I do feel that David Tennant will have his work cut out to emerge from the daunting shadow cast by his predecessor.

The remaining cast were predominantly forgetful. Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) wasn't really given enough development, although he did get a few good one-liners. The hideous super kid (Adam) who lasted all of two episodes (Dalek and The Long Game) was pretty unrealistic and it was good to see him go. There were one or two superb guest stars, most notably Simon Callow playing Charles Dickens in what was one of the strongest episode (The Unquiet Dead).


I've been trying to get out of the habit of giving stuff a rating out of 10, but I just couldn't help myself. On the whole, I felt the season was seriously pegged back by the writing. While there were some very well written eps, there was probably a similar number of poor ones.

Rose: written by Russell T Davies
A very average start. Piper and Ecclestone put in good debuts which set the tone for the season. Unfortunately, they were let down by a very poor script and some unrealistic performances by the characters around them. Many American shows get feature length pilot eps and I feel that this episode was probably in need of more time to set things up. There was just too much to cover in 45 minutes and it came across as tremendously disjointed.

The End of the World: written by Russell T Davies
A reasonable ep which saw Rose transported to a truly alien future. This really gave Ecclestone a chance to shine and gave us our first glimpse of the many colourful characters in the Doctor Who universe. Let down in the last third by some laughable plot devices and a weak conclusion, it was still a massive improvement on the opener.

The Unquiet Dead: written by Mark Gatiss
Really strong sci-fi ep, which draws on thriller, period drama and even a bit of horror to keep the viewer glued. Not that I remember much about Doctor Who from my childhood, but this is what I've told myself it was like. Fun, freaky and scary enough to make a child hide behind the duvet. Ecclestone and Piper are strong again, but the show is completely stolen by Simon Callow, as Charles Dickens. Only just bettered by 'The Empty Child'.

Aliens of London: written by Russell T Davies
Oh dear. When I reviewed this on a forum I believe I used the words 'screaming pile of dog turd' to describe it. Battlelines were certainly drawn over 'Aliens of London' and to this day I honestly can't see why, because it was so not worth expending that much effort on it. For me, this was the worst episode in the season. It was hard to understand how a show could slip from such a high the week before to this. The opening minutes, which offer a rather intriguing setup, are the only thing that prevents this ep from getting one out of ten!

World War Three: written by Russell T Davies
Part two of the 'Slitheen invasion' story was always going to struggle to climb from the gutter that part one had left it in. To their credit, the actors did try. There were some good moments involving Mickey and the Doctor, but these brief scenes could not escape the appalling plot that had me in hysterics for all the wrong reasons. A few of us had a bit of an argument about whether it is ok to have dumbass storylines cause it was aimed at children. I've gotta say it certainly isn't. A story aimed at children, can still be intelligent, witty and compelling, even for adults. This one was not.

Dalek: written by Rob Shearman
Oh thank god for the Daleks. This episode of a captured Dalek struggling with it's new found emotions was compelling predominantly for Ecclestones gripping performance. He was so full of hate it actually shocked me. The story was quite unoriginal but this did not detract from just how moving it became in the final third.

The Long Game: written by Russell T Davies
I don't think it helped that I was quite optimistic about this ep after learning that Simon Pegg (of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead fame) was appearing. In the end, Pegg is pretty wooden as the villainous henchman, while too much time is taken up with ill-fated side-kick Adam and his quest to have a hole drilled in his head. This ep had its moments, but they were far too few.

Father's Day: written by Paul Cornell
Like 'Aliens of London', this episode had a really compelling setup involving Rose wanting to return to see her father on the day he died. Unfortunately, like 'Aliens of London' it also descended quicker than a stone off a tall building. This time it was the cliche-driven hollywood-isms that just had me wincing in my seat. Each character felt like a caricature of 1980s London. While some people may have found this endearing, it put across a very skewed perspective of the World imo. The final scenes (which should have had us reaching for the hankies) involved some of the most intense melodrama I've seen in recent years. It wasn't emotional, it was like bad Eastenders.

The Empty Child: written by Steven Moffat
Probably the best episode of the season and like 'The Unquiet Dead' draws brilliantly on the audiences fears. Ecclestone seems in his element when all hell is breaking loose and it shows. Florence Hoath is superb as the homeless guardian of dozens of children in wartime London. The ep also contains some of the best special effects in the season as the Luftwaffe relentlessly bomb the capital.

The Doctor Dances: written by Steven Moffat
Luckily the second part manages to live up to first as scary dead people run amok determined to find their mommy! The cliffhanger from the previous ep is dealt with a little quickly but in such a funny fashion that I can let it go. This ep sees Captain Jack Harkness join the Tardis, and he's a significant improvement on the irritating Adam. Sadly his character is often underused which is a shame.

Boom Town: written by Russell T Davies
Finally, an episode by the series head honcho that delivers something. It's ironic that it should be the return of the 'Slitheen' from 'Aliens of London' that sees Davies post a good ep. The episode is relatively low on action as the Doctor and his team are forced to face up to the moral choices they make. It is a decent story with some superb scenes between the Doctor and Margaret (Annette Badland). The b-plot lets the ep down though as the Mickey/Rose relationship takes on a rather inconsistent direction.

Bad Wolf: written by Russell T Davies
The big two-part ending is sadly little more than a damp squib as Davies again returns to what he seems to do best (or should that be worst?); cliched plots driven by stereotypical characters, with a liberal sprinking of referential humour. Get past the first 15 minutes and the ep isn't too bad. The mystery surrounding 'Bad Wolf' is pretty interesting, as is the cliffhanger. However, the final morale boosting speech from Ecclestone is just too long and seems forced.

The Parting of the Ways: written by Russell T Davies
The followup to Bad Wolf, failed to deliver a fitting finale imo. It had some reasonable moments, but was again let down by the almost incessant use of Hollywood cliches. It is rescued by the final 10 minutes which, for me, offer a pretty deep insight into humanity. Some may think I'm reading too much into Roses actions, but for me it helped redeem the ep. Ecclestones departure is also quite poignant and laced with humour. What the future holds, though, is anyones guess.

Episode average: 5.4/10

The numbers aren't exactly glowing, yet while I know a lot of my friends will undoubtedly disagree, I feel I've given an honest assessment from the POV of a guy who loves and watches a helluva lot of sci-fi.

I think this season of Doctor Who is pretty average and probably quite in keeping with many first seasons of TV sci-fi. It's probably on par with the first seasons of Dark Angel or ST:Voyager (shows that I quite enjoyed but often infuriated me by their lack of consistency).

Ironically, when I look back I feel that the thing most hampering the show is actually the person responsible for bringing the show back to life; Russell T Davies. Only once in the 5 eps that Davies did not write did the story feel too cliched and formulaic. (Fathers Day). The remaining 4 eps were easily the best of the season and stood out from the whole show. If I look at the 8 eps written by Davies, 6 of them are littered with cliche-driven plots, stereotypical characters and inconsistent storytelling. Of course this is only a matter of opinion, and I realise that a lot of people out there may like those eps, but for me I felt Davies' writing was carried by Ecclestones and Pipers performances on far too many occasions.

Which brings me to the future. I said I'd give Doctor Who a try, and I have. I'll certainly give season 2 a go also, but I need a marked improvement in the writing to keep me watching. The most sensible thing, would be for Davies to concentrate more on his role as Exec Producer (a job I think he is doing well) and cut down on the writing. However, I gather this is unlikely.

Of course, it is very likely that I am not a key demograph for the makers. I am neither a fan of the earlier shows nor a child, so it's highly plausible. However, I still feel that a show aimed at a younger audience can be scripted in an intelligent and funny way. Some might say that if the family audiences love the more puerile episodes then Doctor Who is a success. That's true, however Doctor Who has the advantage of mainstream appeal and thus has the opportunity to tell powerful stories to a wide range of people, rather than to stoop to lowest common denominator storytelling.

I still love Roald Dahl books, and their film adaptations, while I think that the Lemony Snicket stuff is some of the most intelligent and witty storytelling aimed at children in years. It can be done, and eps like 'The Unquiet Dead' and 'The Empty Child' prove it, but there needs to be more like this.

In summary, if you're a kid or a fan, you'll probably love Doctor Who season 1. Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper are superb, while the tone of the overall series is well structured and quite compelling. About 5 or 6 of the eps offer some quite exciting stories which should appeal to everyone. The remainder of the season offer little if you are over the age of 14 or a non-fan. There is definite potential, but for me Doctor Who must improve in season 2 and hopefully it will.

UPDATED 21st June, 11:21pm
Pretty surprised to hear that Doctor Who season 1 cost a whopping £1.2m per episode! This is only a few million less than a season of Trek (which is heavily overpriced anyway) and far more than shows like Galactica and Firefly. I've gotta admit, that despite my enjoyment of a number of eps, I don't feel that the show was worth this much money. The sets, costumes and effects are not that spectacular when compared with much cheaper shows and you've gotta wonder where all that money went.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Batman Begins - for real this time!

For over 10 years I remained a loyal fan of Tim Burtons original Batman film. Having grown up on films like Superman, Captain America and Flash, the sight of this dark and brooding Batman was the perfect antidote to years of camp latex.

However, for the last few years, George, has been trying to convince me that, despite her own love of Tim Burton, the Keaton film is a poor and unrealistic portrayal of the Dark Knight. Not being a comic afficionado I had difficulty seeing her point, until she lent me 'The Dark Knight Returns', a gritty comic by Frank Miller (Sin City, Daredevil).

It isn't an understatement when I say that this comic changed the way I view not only Batman but all superheroes. Superman is the golden one, a product of middle-American upbringing and thus easily manipulated by the American President; Spiderman is the confused kid who struggles from crisis to crisis only wanting to help (and impress the girl while he's at it); while Batman is the stubborn, detached vigilante cut off from society both because of his mission and equally due to the billionaire status of his alter-ego.

We've been lucky in the last few years to see a clutch of movies about superheroes that actually have a level of depth to their characters. It started with X-Men and reached full speed with Spiderman 1 and 2. With Batman Begins, the juggernaut looks unstoppable.

Christopher Nolan has produced a film that is as much about the inner demons of Bruce Wayne as it is about fighting crime. It is fitting that it takes a good hour before we actually see a fully costumed Christian Bale bringing down Gothams bad guys.

As the title suggests, this movie is about origins, and a lot of time is given to how and why any man would choose a path like Batmans. In Tim Burtons 1989 film we are given an insight into how the death of his parents led Bruce Wayne into a quest for vengeance. However, with Batman Begins we see a more complete story, one that paints a picture of a tormented young man who has to go through anger, fear and self-loathing before he can ever find the focus to don the cape.

I should have expected nothing less from Nolan, the man who brought Memento and Insomnia to the screen. Both are films that deal with the dark side of the human psyche, and with Batman Begins, Nolan completes a superb hat-trick of psychological thrillers.

The central figures all play their roles well, with the relationship between Bales rebellious Bruce and Michael Caines loyal Alfred a particular high point. Even the obligatory love interest, in the form of District Attorney Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), is handled with great subtlety so as not to detract from the main story of Bruce Waynes journey from a lost boy to a legendary hero.

Amidst all the darkness, there is still time for some comedy. Waynes attempt at counteracting his alter-ego by creating the persona of a billionaire playboy is wonderful, while Gary Oldman offers up some subtle one-liners as one of Batmans few allies; honest cop Jim Gordon.

The flaws in the film are few and relatively small, the main one being the rather implausible 'super-weapon' that is used to set up the final confrontation. When you consider that Nolan spends 2 hours creating a World not that far removed from our own (a feat in itself for a movie about a superhero) it is an unfortunate oversight. Personally, I also found the final fights, while well choreographed, a little poorly shot. I think this has a lot to do with Nolans own claustrophobic style of directing, which works very well when delving into the psyche of a tortured soul, but less so with fast paced action set pieces. It's an issue of personal taste though, and I'd be surprised if anyone found their appreciation of the movie significantly lessened by it.

When I left the cinema I was surprised to find that only 2 hours had gone by. Nolan has managed to fit a significant amount of backstory, character development and kickass action into Batman Begins, while ensuring that the central story does not lose its way, even briefly. This is, after all, Bruce Waynes story. A story that, for me, doesn't disappoint.

In summary, Nolan delivers a sublime cross-genre movie which draws on everything that is great about action, martial arts, horror and psychological thrillers. Batman Begins is not just another movie version of the origins of the Dark Knight, it is the only movie version. I'll always have fond memories of Tim Burtons Batman, but I think I finally have to admit, that it was but a poor imitation of a Bob Kanes tremendous legacy. With Batman Begins, we finally have a movie worthy of the comics.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


About a year ago I remember reading (as many people did) all the rumours on the internet about Michael Jackson. They said that he was a sick, twisted deviant who seduced families with his money and manipulated children into his bed. I remember people harping on about the wealth of evidence picked up at the Neverland Ranch which clearly proved Jacko was guilty.


3 months after the start of 'The Trial of the Century', Michael Jackson has been found not guilty on all counts. Regardless of peoples opinions of Jacko, something has never felt right about this entire media circus.

Firstly Tom Sneddon, the man who has relentlessly pursued Jackson for over 10 years, comes across more and more like a man with a vendetta, rather than a sound case. In the latter months he reminded less of a man who wanted to do good and more of a Ken Starr type figure, the man who relentlessly pursued Clinton for years with little cause and next to no evidence.

Secondly, the mountain of evidence that websites across the World claimed would destroy Jackson turned out to be nothing more than "eyewitness" accounts from former staff members, whose own testimonies were refuted by the alleged victims throughout the trial. Can it be that after 10 years, this is all Sneddon could come up with?

I dunno, clearly there is something abnormal about Michael Jackson and the way he conducts his life. Whether he is a threat to children I don't think we'll ever know, but on the basis of this trial, justice has been done. You cannot convict a man of anything based on hearsay.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

War of the Worlds

No, not the horrendous looking Spielberg flick but a new CGI version based on the original book.

I know what you're thinking, yet another hack is trying to peddle one of the most peddled sci-fi stories of all time without even the slightest inkling of knowledge or talent.

Well this ain't no ordinary peddler.

When Jeff Wayne released his 1978 musical it instantly became a classic that still draws a huge following. A couple of months back, while wandering around a Sci-Fi fair in Milton Keynes (well I suppose the place has something going for it!), I stumbled across a stall with some tremendous War of the Worlds artwork. Turns out, that in late 2004 Jeff Wayne commissioned some CGI test sequences for a possible feature length movie. He has since released this news story confirming that his own movie version will finally see the light of day in 2007/8.

a martian fighting machine

Of course the jury is still out on whether Wayne can transfer both the vision of the book and his own musical onto the big screen, but I live in hope.

The test footage can be seen here.