Sunday, 9 November 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Death in Heaven

Two of the Doctor's oldest enemies have returned and want to take away everything that is precious to the Time Lord and Clara. Will there really be 'Death in Heaven' in the series finale?

'Hey Missy, you're so fine. You're so fine you blow my mind, hey Missy.' 

Doctor Who finales are always something of a double-edged Darth Maul-style sword. On one hand, they are automatically the most anticipated and often most exciting to watch by nature of their sending off the current run of the show with a bang. On the other, the pressure of ending the series on a high note can be too much and such episodes don't always live up to the hype. In this respect, 'Death in Heaven' succeeds, delivering an episode both exciting and emotional in equal measure.

Perhaps unlike the feature-length series opener 'Deep Breath', this episode certainly benefited from its fifteen minute extra running time, which really allowed for a few scenes to be further explored that might otherwise have been cut short. The story deserves praise alone for wrapping up most of the ongoing ideas and themes of the series - from Clara and Danny's relationship to the Doctor's dislike of soldiers. Building on the thoroughly glum 'Dark Water', 'Death in Heaven' tugged at the heartstrings and contained its fair share of shocks to boot. Much like last week, however, there were points at which I thought the show was pushing the boundaries of taste. In particular, one 'reappearance' of a much-loved character seemed a tad dubious in its execution to me and I'd rather it hadn't happened. Still, there was much to enjoy elsewhere…

While it was fun to see them, this episode had the unenviable task of featuring two classic villains in the Cybermen and their Master. For the Cybermen, this was glorious comeback. Their new jet-powered boots are a great new superpower to add to their evergrowing collection and the image of them attacking UNIT's plane like gremlins is a terrific moment. Likewise, not since 'Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel' has the true terror of the Cybermen been demonstrated this well: that they were once us. Whereas previous episodes have cast them as regular robots, we are left in no doubt here as to who these Cybermen are underneath. 
Also, Michelle Gomez is rather wonderful here as an utterly 'bananas' incarnation of the Master. What she does, particularly mowing her way through the episode's supporting cast and her scenes with the Doctor, she is brilliant at but with the episode as packed as it is the character is not as well explored as she could be - just why was she suddenly so besotted with the Doctor, for instance? This reviewer certainly hopes she will return. 

Despite the shocks and the Cybermen, the true heart of this episode is the trio of central characters who all go through the ringer here. Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson have been superb all year and each go out with another fine performance. Anderson's Danny proves to be the real hero of the series as he finds redemption for past failures in the most tragic of ways. Faced with his old enemy, the Doctor has to look hard at who he is but comes out the other end a wiser man by realising he is nothing but ‘an idiot with a box.’ And Clara...Well, poor Clara. The final scene between Capaldi and Coleman is a touching affair and beautifully scripted by Steven Moffat, acting as a bittersweet round-up of the characters’ journeys over the series.

There really was much to like about this finale which encapsulates this series' style, mood and its courage to be different. It was not a heavenly episode of Doctor Who but that's not to say it came from the Nethersphere either. Say something nice? How about: 'Death in Heaven' is almost certainly the best finale since 2010. There you go, that's something to squee about. 

In the words of Clara, thank you Capaldi and Coleman for making Doctor Who feel special. 

Next time: The Doctor returns at Christmas when he faces the great evil of ... Santa Claus and his elves? 

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Top Five Fictional Female Villains

Last week, there was a shocking reveal at the end of the penultimate episode of this year's run of Doctor Who. It turned out that - oh, it's been a whole week now, I can say it - the mad Marry Poppins-esque Missy who has been terrorising the Doctor is in fact... the Master!
So to coincide with the return of the Doctor's greatest adversary in a very different form, I thought it time to look at the most despicable women from the halls of fiction, an illustrious category that the Master now belongs to. In no particular order, I give you the most terrible, terrifying and iconic female villains.

Morgan Le Fay
Appeared in: The legends of King Arthur

I'm something of an enthusiast of the legend of King Arthur. I don't claim to be an out-and-out expert but I appreciate the tales as something like the founding fathers of British storytelling and always enjoy dipping into the wealth of interpretations of the stories (although I was never that fussed about the popular BBC series Merlin, oddly enough). The legends, of course, have brave heroes in King Arthur and Merlin but also have a great villain in Arthur's half-sister, Morgan Le Fey (sometimes called Morgana) who acts as the main antagonist in most modern versions. Lusting after the throne of Camelot, Morgana will stop at nothing to end Arthur's reign, including using her own son, Mordred, to kill his uncle (and sometimes father) in battle. She's been hounding King Arthur in various forms over roughly a thousand years - you don't get much more of a determined villain than that.

Irene Adler
Appeared in: 'A Scandal in Bohemia' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and numerous film and TV adaptations and literary pastiches.

Technically, Conan Doyle's original character from the Sherlock Holmes canon was not a true villain - Holmes was against her in the case but her only crime is a dalliance with a European royal in her youth. In most adaptations, however, her character is extrapolated to become a proper criminal. Much like Catwoman is to Batman, she and Holmes tend to work on opposite sides of the law but nevertheless harbour an affection for each other, sometimes this is unspoken, sometimes it is a fully-fledged love affair. This version of the character has been explored recently in both Sherlock and the Robert Downey Jr films but in Elementary, the character was taken further. The presumed dead ex-love of Sherlock, Irene turned out to be a female Moriarty in disguise. Changing a male master criminal into a woman - I'm sorry, Moffat, I think someone beat you to the punch.

The Other Mother
Appeared in: Coraline by Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman's Other Mother from his exquisitely creepy children's novel Coraline is less of a villain in the femme fatale mould of Morgana and Irene and more of a walking nightmare. A creature from a realm of her own devising, like a spider in its web, the Other Mother lures children into her lair to feast on their souls. To entice the children, rather than use a house made of sweets, she acts as a loving parent... just one with buttons for eyes. The Other Mother is an utterly terrifying creation, playing off the inherent childhood fear of adults you trust to look after you turning out to do the opposite. As well as the simply intrinsically scary image of people with buttons for eyes. something which resides firmly in the uncanny valley.

Miss Havisham
Appeared in: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

As a creation of Dickens, the claim that Miss Havisham is a cast-iron villain is a less clear one than with others on this list. The woman has a sympathetic backstory and eventually repents her wickedness, but she is still the greatest thorn in Pip's side as he tries to woo the love of his life, the icy Estella. Having been jilted at the altar, the ageing bride-to-never-be forever wears her ragged wedding dress and plans to use her adopted daughter, Estella, to break the hearts of men everywhere like her's was broken. Miss Havisham is someone whose own debilitating heartbreak and thirst for revenge has blinded her to how her actions affect others. Firstly, not only does she torment Pip merely to wallow in his pain but, more importantly, she raised Estella to be nothing more than her foot soldier, to go and act out her wish to destroy all men for her. 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', indeed.

Dolores Umbridge 
Appeared in: the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling and its film series, played by Imelda Staunton

The most despicable character in the Harry Potter series. Yes, Voldemort killed Harry's parents. Yes, Bellatrix Lestrange killed Sirius Black but neither of them wore such an alarming shade of pink.
Outwardly twee, Professor Umbridge harbours a deep lust for power and a sadistic streak as great as the Dark Lord's own, shown in the gruesome punishments she dishes out in detention and her placement at the head of the Ministry of Magic's witch-hunt (sorry, muggle-hunt). From her prissy, condescending nature to her more despotic tendencies, Umbridge is unlikeable to the core. In fact, Umbridge is so repulsive you can hardly stand to look at her photograph. That's why I've put her last, so you don't have to look at her for too long. And that's the truth because, as Umbridge herself likes to brand people with, I must not tell lies...

'Death in Heaven', the Doctor Who finale, is on tonight at 8.00 pm on BBC One.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Dark Water

The future becomes unclear when events take a turn for the existential in 'Dark Water.' Things are going to get very murky, indeed...

'The darkest day. The blackest hour. Chin up, shoulders back. Let's see what we're made of.' 

Before this regenerated series of Doctor Who started, a lot was made of the fact that it would be 'darker.' Upon airing, it could be said this was met with a pinch of salt. Sure, the show had a more serious Doctor and the series had sported episodes about weighty topics such as the nature of fear and tricky moral dilemmas but was it actually any darker than Doctor Who before it? Well, after tonight, we can say they were right to give us that warning as 'Dark Water', the penultimate episode of Series 8, was as bleak as the show's ever got. 

As with the hints scattered throughout preceding episodes, this episode's premise revolved around the age-old question: what happens after death? The answer, it turns out, is not a happy one, to say the least...
A few years ago, Torchwood presented its own, suitably nasty, depiction of the afterlife which was a natural fit for an adult-orientated programme that enjoyed exploring areas that its parent show couldn't. When said parent show did exactly this here, however, it felt unsettling in more than just the obvious way - should the show, that is avidly watched by children everywhere, do something as properly dark as this? Or perhaps this is a distinctly adult fear, one which kids will miss, but will keep us old folks awake at night? Either way, 'Dark Water' is certainly paving new ground. 

In other matters, the episode is on surer ground. The Cybermen's return in this episode was no secret but their actual reveal in the episode is inspired, a macabre twist on the classic image of Cybermen escaping their tombs. Gone are the invincible athletes of 'Nightmare in Silver', these silver soldiers march with menace down the steps of famous London landmarks and even use their old catchphrase 'delete.' Amongst the boundary pushing elsewhere its nice to see something so punch-the-air 100% Doctor Who

But enough of these trifles. There was only one question on our lips going in to this episode; who is Missy? Well, we certainly got the answer to that. In the end, it's the reveal many of us were expecting. The clues were all there. A penchant for pseudonyms. A love for teaming up with other baddies.  A general need to cause trouble for the Doctor. My personal reaction was to cackle for the next ten minutes at the sheer bravura of the move. Here's hoping Michelle Gomez gives the role its due now that the cat is out of the bag (or the Time Lord is out of the Time War...).

It is, of course, impossible to judge the episode fully without seeing its concluding chapter (what is Missy planning next? will everyone get out alive?) but the first forty-five minutes of this show-stopping story contained heartbreak, horror and shocks aplenty. Just like the Cybermen hiding in Dark Water, we've seen the skeleton of this finale, now I can't wait for the rest. 

The Doctor and Clara land in water that is deep as well as dark when the Cybermen arrive...

Next Week: Old friends and old foes surround the Doctor and Clara as the series comes to a blistering end. Will there really be 'Death in Heaven'? 

Monthly Mini-Reviews: October - Halloween Special

We made it through the horrors of All Hallows' Eve, everyone (that is unless you are a ghost reading this, in which case I apologise for my insensitive comment but commend you on being a thoroughly modern ghoul and using the internet)! However, the terror isn't over yet. Today, we have horrifying tales of a monster and a man (but which is which?), a killer with some vacancies in his motel, a ghost story on a broken-down train and a whole other world underneath a world at war. Read on, if you dare, for the Monthly Mini-Reviews... Halloween Special!

 Frankenstein (2011 Stage Play)

Mary Shelley's immortal Frankenstein has been adapted so many times over the years that there's a whole myth around the story which is far removed from Shelley's original text. In this recent theatrical version, from the combined talents of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle and therious thespians Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (also both Sherlocks), the story is taken back to the beginning, keeping the shape and power of Shelley's exploration of science and the ambition of men while also not afraid to embellish details to enhance the material. Namely, the duality between creation and creator is increased, which was showcased, famously, by having the two main actors swap roles every night. I have been lucky enough to see the play with both actors in the roles (it was reshown in cinemas this Halloween) and both are terrific in capturing the tragic creature and the aloof doctor and the whole thing really is an exquisite production. Much like Dr Frankenstein's experiment, Frankenstein refuses to stay dead and long may it live if it is still being interpreted in such novel ways after two hundred years.

Psycho II

Since seeing Hitchcock's seminal thriller/horror Psycho for the first time last year, I've become quite a fan (but not in a creepy copycat kind of way) of Norman Bates, having also enjoyed the television series based on the character's early years. I settled into Psycho II, then, expecting a schlocky slasher but perhaps one with a enough of a hint at the original to sustain interest. In the result, Psycho II is a decent, if superfluous, sequel to the original. This is in large part down to Anthony Perkins who once again nails the nervy charisma of Norman as his character returns to Bates Motel twenty years later and fights to prevent his 'mother' from controlling him again. While it obviously ups the gore of the original, it is mostly psychological horror on show here as we get inside the mind of a killer. It's the sort of horror film that makes you want to have a shower after watching it. Just make sure you lock the bathroom door first...

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth

Gothic horror is not something touched on enough in Young Adult fiction, but thanks to modern master of the macabre Chris Priestley the great tradition of Poe and MR James is being kept alive in his Tales of Terror, an anthology of spooky stories linked together by a encompassing narrative. The first two in the series - Uncle Montague's... and ... From the Black Ship - I loved and this final instalment is as much of a treat at this time of year. The tales are of a consistent quality but particular highlights include the peculiar puppets of 'Gerald' and murderous murmurs of 'The Voice.' Priestley clearly is a lover of the genre which comes through in his gleeful splashes of horror and habit for giving his characters a hard time (to say the least). The whole thing is saturated in Victoriana, evoking the masters of the craft, and an old broken down steam train makes for an eerie backdrop. Be warned: not one to read while commuting.

Pan's Labyrinth 

I haven't been much of a fan of other works by Guillermo Del Toro I've seen. Though his inimitable style is obviously visually interesting his films, to me, seemed to lack a depth or heart. This is the exact opposite of the case with his Spanish language dark fantasy film, Pan's Labyrinth, which marries gorgeous visuals with an in turns disturbing and uplifting story of fairy tales and war.
The contrast of Ofelia's magical underworld, represented by the avuncular Faun (played by prolific monster man, Doug Jones, star of Hellboy, Hocus Pocus and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) with the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, characterised by the sadistic Captain Vidal (a far scarier horror villain than Dracula or the Wolfman) could be jarring but they come together to tell a tale about how there is light in even the darkest of scenarios. It is all topped off with a terrific performance from the young Ivana Baquero as the bookish but brave Ofelia, the Alice in this twisted take on the works of Lewis Carroll, Arthur Machen and others.

Pick of the Month: It's a tough choice but as I've seen the terrific Frankenstein before, the one I was most blown away by this month, of this quartet of stories to make your quiver, was Pan's Labyrinth. Well done, Pan's Labyrinth. I owe you a coke.
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