Thursday, 31 January 2013

Telly Addicts

Doctor Who
The Idiot's Lantern
Series Two, Episode Seven

Mark Gatiss is no stranger to nostalgia.  The Unquiet Dead, an episode I enjoyed, had a sense of horror and excitement distinctly like Doctor Who's golden years.  In The Idiot's Lantern, Gatiss once again uses nostalgia to get his creep on, reminding us uncomfortably of a time when TV programmes had titles like Watch With Mother.  Thanks for that.

Actually, never mind; I can't come up with
anything creepier than Watch With Mother.
Alas, a general sense of creepiness isn't enough to fill an episode, and unfortunately, The Idiot's Lantern hasn't got much else going for it.

Okay, so it's set in the 1950s, one of those historical eras that's close enough to vaguely recall, far enough away to be exotic.  Much like the '80s in Father's Day, it has plenty of novelty even if it's fairly easy to recreate.  The Idiot's Lantern certainly takes the easy route, opting for a street that generally looks like the '50s and setting most of the action indoors where everything's cramped and a bit brown.  (As for the extremely tilted camera angles unique to this episode, one must assume they're something to do with the '50s as well.)  It's set during the Queen's coronation, and all the bunting and street parties tie things pretty well to the present – it was 2006, and Great Britain had just secured the Olympics.  It's a neat parallel.  But, pretty soon nostalgia turns to criticism, as the '50s is presented as a repressed, backward time that is wrong and must be fixed, hence the Doctor encouraging a man to do the housework and ultimately, a woman to leave her overbearing husband.

This is all rather wince-inducing.  It's just too easy to say the patriarchal Connolly family is wrong because it's not very 2006 (and more importantly, not to Rose's liking), and it's ludicrous to fix it by chucking the dad out on his ear.  That might work now, but it wouldn't work then, as the Doctor of all people should understand.  In any case, this is promptly followed by Rose encouraging young Tommy to forgive his monstrous dad after all.  Huh?  By alternately condemning and then instantly forgiving all this, the episode's stance on the '50s is an empty one, little better than Rose thinking Gwyneth was an idiot for living in 1869 and not 2005.

But all that's just the subplot.  In the main, Maureen Lipman is The Wire, an alien masquerading as the continuity announcer from hell.  It scarcely takes any effort to make 1950s telly look creepy remember Andy Pandy, whose existential weirdness is only outcreeped by his permanent rictus leer? but she's marvellously sinister all the same.

When the Wire is prim and proper and just a little bit unsettling, it goes a long way.  It's just a shame they won't let her stay that way.  As things progress and The Wire gets hungrier, she starts bellowing "HUNGRY!", "FEED ME!" and, for those in the cheap seats, "FEED ME-EEEEEEE!"  It's not only disappointingly obvious for a monster to behave like, er, a monster, but it also makes it much harder to forget how obviously this was based on Little Shop Of Horrors.  (By all means pinch ideas from other stories so long as you're going to take them somewhere interesting, but don't then remind everyone what they could be watching instead.)

So, The Wire feeds on viewers' brain energy, and is so greedy that she consumes their faces as well.  (Although they get them back at the end, somehow.)  This is done presumably because it's less harrowing than showing lots of normal-looking people in a catatonic state; also because the Mill want to show off their CGI faceless effect; and more importantly, because you can sell more toys this way.  (Because who wouldn't want the Granny Connolly With No Face action figure?)  Unfortunately, as well as making absolutely no sense, this leaves the production team in a quandary.  Are the faceless people scary, or not?  The no-face thing is scary to look at, but they're presented as victims.  However, in a scene highly reminiscent of Rose first meeting the killer shop dummies, complete with mystifying plasticky sound-effects, they're a generic zombie menace as well.  It's never really clear what they're going for.

Bet you thought I was kidding.
The story doesn't seem to know what to do with them, either.  The police are whisking the faceless ones off to a warehouse, keeping them out of the way during the coronation.  The eyes of the world are on Britain, so orders are to sweep any weirdness under the rug until afterwards.  As evil conspiracies go, it's all a bit half-arsed: all the police are doing is locking them up, besides which, they aren't to blame for their wacky orders, and they turn into guilty wrecks the moment they're taken to task over it.  They only know about the faceless people in the first place because Mr Connolly is ratting them out one by one – because somehow he knows which houses contain them, and for some reason he really hates people who don't have faces.  The whole thing's held together with silly string.

On the other hand, at least it allows for some serious Doctoring.  The moment Rose is de-faced, the Doctor snaps: "Now, Detective Inspector Bishop, there is no power on this Earth that can stop me!"  As turning points go, it's cringily overwritten, and it suggests he doesn't really care about what's going on unless it impacts Rose... but okay.  Where's it going?  Simple: stand back, everyone, the Doctor's going to shout a bit!

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the louder he gets, the less impressive he is.  This is an episode full of the Doctor yammering on and acting wacky, with a silly haircut and lots of pop culture references.  (The Doctor loves watching TV and listens to Kylie, because we don't want to frighten anyone by reminding them he's from another planet.)  When the big change comes over him, awesome as it's clearly meant to be, all he really does is whack up the volume, put on his pouty face and brandish the sonic screwdriver some more.  People listen to him as much or as little as they already did; as for his battle of wits with The Wire, all he needs to do to scare her off is produce the screwdriver.  Yawntastic.

The Doctor is at his best here when he's quiet and subtle, either regarding the misogynist Mr Connolly with silent boredom, or deftly talking the police interrogater into being the interrogated.  As this stuff clearly shows, throwing your Doctorly weight around ought to be about being the most influential person in the room – not, necessarily, the loudest.  And it's got sod all to do with the screwdriver.

Rose has her moments, though despite her Magical Powers Of Observation she still can't deduce that someone's trying to warn her away from danger.  And hey, Tennant's not bad when he's not trying quite so hard: those quiet moments really do resonate.  I don't like the idea that his only investment in all this is Rose, but if it's cause for him to emote well, which he does nicely before launching on his "No one can stop me now!" monologue, then it can't be all bad.

The plot rumbles along as always, Euros Lyn tilting the camera like mad and Maureen Lipman shouting her head off, but still the whole thing leaves a resounding impression of... meh.  For all those criticisms, the tenuous plot, the hit-and-miss monsters, the ironically black-and-white moralising, it's more underwhelming than terrible.  This is sadly not an ideal position for something all about people being glued to their TV screens.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Spare Pants

Doctor Who
Rise Of The Cybermen and The Age Of Steel
Series Two, Episodes Five and Six

Hmm.  Cybermen.

With the Daleks back on our screens, it was inevitable that Doctor Who would dust off its second-most-famous monsters at some point.  But that's the thing with Cybermen: they're second-best.  And for good reason.

The idea's creepy.  They're mostly-mechanical people who skulk around turning everyone else into one of them.  Creepy, right?  So why do they mostly settle for blowing stuff up and killing people, just like every other sci-fi villain?  The whole they-used-to-be-people thing never really makes a difference.  No wonder Star Trek saw an opening and invented the Borg, who are essentially the same thing, only actually creepy.

In their defence, they can bust a move.
Fortunately, the tedious tin-men have an ace in the hole.  Their origin story is an absolute belter, and it's never been done on screen.  It's the subject of a dazzling audio drama, Spare Parts, and why not just straight-up adapt that?  The tale of a people forced to mechanise themselves or die, it's some of the most poignant and compelling Doctor Who you're ever likely to find, and it's just what the Cybermen needed.  Had it been a television script thirty years ago, rather than an audio drama made after the series finished, it'd be one of the major highlights of Doctor Who.

And, well, that's not what we have here.  Spare Parts is credited for inspiration, but what made it to the screen is more like a Doctor Who panto, guest starring the Cybermen.  "It's alive!"  "You're not God!"  "Noooooo!"  So much for poignant and compelling; this is more the stuff of really cheesy B-movies.

Okay, down to business.  How do the Cybermen go about Rising?  Well, an insane megalomaniac (sigh) has come up with a way to improve mankind, whether they like it or not.  Using his popular Earpod technology (geddit?), he remote-controls people straight into factories to be processed as Cybermen.  Meanwhile, the homeless are led into lorries, using the unlikely promise of hot food and a bath, so they too can be carted off to factory-land.  Well, that was easy.

Where's all the good stuff?  The tragedy, for a start.  If they're not choosing to become like this, it stops being about heartbreaking inevitability – which was what made it terrifying, and therefore good in the first place and just becomes another bog-standard nutter forcing his way on the masses.  You've seen that before.

I'm not saying this had to be exactly the same as Spare Parts, but if you're going to fundamentally cut the bit that inspired you to begin with, wouldn't a few fresh ideas make better substitutes than whatever's in the Sci-Fi Cliché Bargain Bin?  Standing in for the good stuff is some lame satire about depending too much on technology.  As for the business of herding hobos with a dodgy bit of "Step right up, sir!", it's considerably less chilling than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  Absolutely none of this is helped by Roger Lloyd-Pack being hysterically over the top in every single scene as the megalomaniac, but then what else is he supposed to do with a wheelchair-bound Dr Evil who says things like "And how can you do that from beyond the grave?"

Some of the most poignant and compelling... ah, never mind.
So the origin story is liberated of its terror and its heart, and the mad scientist's a write-off.  What about the actual Cybermen?  Well, they look pretty cool, although the stomping-in-unison teeters terrifyingly close to Thriller.  The voices, courtesy of Nick Briggs, aim for robotic monotone but just come off unintelligable.  Maybe that's just as well, as they're mostly saying moronic stuff like "We are Human.2" and "Delete!"  (And not content with their embarrassing "Exterminate" rip-off, they're soon crowing about "Maximum deletion" as well.  What, as in the difference between Deleting a file and emptying the Recycle Bin?)

Obviously it's sad that they used to be people, but as they're frogmarched to their doom, and as we're dealing with a parallel universe anyway (specifically a quite nasty parallel version of Jackie Tyler), the point never hits home.  Nor is it explored in any depth.  There appears to be no actual use for a human brain inside a Cyberman, as they're almost entirely mechanical anyway.  If you remove all the emotions and humanity, well it's tragic in a blunt fashion, but what's the actual point of having a brain, then?  Why not a robot?  (There's a completely brainless Cyberman at one point, and that one works well enough.)

Any ramifications of all this are thrown away as quick as possible.  The Doctor, faced with cyborgs who used to be people, chooses to explode them rather than let them expand what humanity they have left.  Well, we can't go dealing with any actual issues, can we?  That girl, who's getting married tomorrow but for the slight inconvenience of being a Cyberman?  Not that she has an especially bright future ahead, but it might have been worth a shot, or at least an informed decision about whether she can continue to exist.  Nope: she's better off dead.  Just like New Earth, this raises horrific questions and then steamrolls over them, trading emotion for a comedic montage of exploding heads, adding a cursory "I'm sorry" from the Doctor to make it all better.  How utterly useless.

Perhaps in a generous attempt to leave the good version of this story in tact, Rise is set in a parallel universe  it concerns a whole different bunch of Cybermen.  Fair enough.  Parallel universes are a sci-fi staple, and you don't often see them in Doctor Who.  (The last one was in 1970.)  So what's this one like?  Sigh again: same universe, plus earpods, zeppelins and a totally unexplained military curfew.  Goodness, what breathtaking imagination.  Like so much else here, I honestly wonder why they bothered.

Still, it does throw up a few possibilities, and some of them work.  Mickey gets to meet his nan, who died in our universe, and his brief moments with her have real impact.  It's nice to see Mickey eke out a life away from Rose, and his eventual departure makes sense.  He's The Best Thing In This, hands down.  It's just a shame he hangs around with Jake, a shiny-faced Cyber-fighter who looks and sounds like he's in a soap opera, and his own horribly ridiculous doppelganger, Ricky.  (The extent of Noel Clarke's transformation is a frown and a silly voice.  What were they thinking?)

Worse than Ricky, oh so much worse, is the decision to have Rose meet her still-alive parallel dad.  Let's count the ways this doesn't work, shall we?  It trivialises Father's Day, an episode that explored these emotions in depth.  It makes Rose look like a horrible brat for thinking her lack of existence in this universe is solely to blame for ruining Pete and Jackie's marriage.  It makes the Doctor look like a moron for failing to keep her away from Pete and, as predicted, leaving Mickey to fates unknown.  Rose's eventual failure to kidnap alterna-dad, and the sobbing that ensues, seems less like a tragic outcome and more like Little Miss Greedy not getting her way.  Urgh.  There's just no part of this that works.  Why go there in the first place?

Tennant, here modelling a variety of Halloween "Doctor" masks.
Dum de dum.  What else?  Well the plot's so stupid, full of brains-being-welded-to-things and other genius ideas, it's fruitless to explore it in depth.  (Although I will say that finding out the Cybermen's kill-code, texting it to the Doctor and having him jam the entire phone into the nearest computer orifice is profoundly dumb.)  In all this, the Doctor barely registers.  So brilliant just two episodes ago, David Tennant has become a shouty, ineffectual plonker, and the script affords him little more opportunity to grow than seeing which ridiculous noises and faces he can make.  Yet again there are occasions when the Doctor yells at people to do or not do things, and they just ignore him.  It's getting old already.

Is it written in stone somewhere that the first two-parter in a series has to be really stupid?  Actually, that's not fair: Aliens Of London has some brilliant character development and wit mixed in with the dross.  Rise Of The Cybermen is nothing but a drossfest.  Delete!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Filmflam: Prometheus

Directed by Ridley Scott

Ridley Scott's Alien is, in the best possible way, a textbook horror movie.  It's about seven people trapped in a confined space with a monster.  There's a sinister reason for this predicament which is revealed later, and there's a great deal we don't know about the monster, but the important thing is, they're here, the monster's dangerous, and they may not survive.  It moves at a confident pace, and there isn't an unnecessary moment in it.

Much is left to our imaginations, such as: where the alien eggs came from.   Why the alien ship crashed on LV-426.   What purpose, if any, the aliens were intended to carry out.   Did we need to know any of this to enjoy Alien?   No.   So the long gestation of Ridley Scott's prequel, Prometheus, has left me puzzled.   The aim is to fill those blanks. But how can doing so enhance a movie where the characters neither knew nor cared about the answers to those questions?

In its defence, Scott has tried to distance Prometheus from its crude "How we got to Alien" mission statement, suggesting it will spiral off into its own film series that is about entirely different things.   Time will tell on that.   But it is first, foremost, unavoidably a prequel.   And it does nothing to dispel my feeling that there may never exist a good prequel.

A theologically curious film hoping to evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey in theme, it concerns a group of scientists searching for the meaning of human existence.   Using ancient cave-drawings as a grid reference, they (and a crew of oblivious misfits) trek to an unknown world, hoping to stumble on our Creators.   On board are people who want to investigate at all costs, people who don't want to be there, and people with their own agenda... all of which can be found in Alien.  It's just a lot more complicated and a lot less interesting here.   (Theological curiosity is less gripping than answering a distress call, for starters.)

Scott's strengths have always been in design rather than characterisation, and in Alien he's on record as saying he hired seven really good character-actors and basically left them to it.   For a film where the heroine was arguably less humanitarian than the ship's robot, Alien still felt like it was about real people, bitching and sniping and wanting to go home.   Prometheus does not.   The crew is too numerous for Scott's "leave them to it" approach to work, and the dialogue is too hokey, too full of leaden banter to let them feel real.   Certain characters, like Sean Harris's bizarre mistanthropic geologist and Idris Elba's apathetic captain, feel like half an idea that goes nowhere.

As an ensemble, it's an absolute haystack of accents, clichés and the feeling of scenes and motivations gone missing.   When things are revealed about them, such as a family secret for Charlize Theron's icy executive, they're so redundant as to be downright laughable.   Similarly, letting it fall on Idris Elba to explain the plot, even though his character possesses none of the knowledge he's suddenly splurging for no reason, is sheer laugh-out-loud ineptitude.

The standout is obviously Michael Fassbender as the franchise's latest android, David.   Drawing distinctly from the pantheon of creepy cinematic robots, Fassbender appears to be the only one putting some thought into his character.   Unfortunately, while he may be the brightest spark in a very dull mix, he still must do dreadful things for no clearly established reason.   Strip away the thesping and he's as much a mess as the rest of them.   (Okay, so HAL's betrayal in 2001 didn't make a lot of sense either, but then 2001 wasn't a film designed in the first place to answer questions.   Anyway, all was revealed in the book.)

This film's Ripley, or at least its main character is Noomi Rapace as Dr Shaw.   She's a prominent scientist with a keen religious faith, driven to find answers because she can't conceive and because disease killed her father and blah, blah, blah.   Her husband, Dr Holloway, ought to be Shaw's crucial counterpoint, but the two are equally boring to be around, and he makes even less sense than she does.   (When a scientist finds evidence of alien life immediately on his first attempt to look for it, to then sulk that it's dead after 2000 years is simple churlishness.)

Holloway's eventual descent (for with a much bigger crew comes a much bigger bodycount) is one big plot-hole courtesy of David, and his eventual willingness to die for the greater good is symptomatic of one of the film's major flaws.   Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, these guys just don't try very hard to survive.   If they're utterly terrible at taking care of themselves, and quite offhand about dying to save others, why should we care when they meet their doom?   It was a very human stupidity that drove Harry Dean-Stanton to ill-fatedly look for the ship's cat in Alien; no such logic grounds Rafe Spall's decision to get within spitting distance of an alien snake.   Oh, so you want to make friends with an unknown reptile on a hostile planet, do you?   Good luck with that.

What we have is essentially a group of poorly-defined idiots doing stupid things for no reason.   The film's great mystery remains entirely obscure, and does nothing but add to the pot of unanswered questions, thereby defeating its own purpose.  We learn that the Engineers may have created mankind.   Okay.   We don't know why.   They apparently want to destroy us.  We still don't know why.  None of this explains what a spaceship full of eggs was doing on LV-426, so... what was gained by making this?

In leaving out the answers, Prometheus is not automatically rendered profound.  It is after all a lot easier to ask questions than it is to satisfactorily answer them.   The film's attempt to seem lofty and thoughtful, just by refusing to answer its own ponderings, is betrayed by the minutae of the plot making equally miniscule sense.   (And sorry, but I refuse to believe in the subtextual cleverness of a movie wherein people greet discoveries with "My God!", and desperate missions with "We've only got one shot at this!")  It's surely aiming for the kind of intense debate generated by 2001, but even setting aside its thorough ineptitude, it's far too conscious of the franchise's horror roots to operate on a higher plane.  The ghost of Alien is ever-apparent: the structure is of course very similar, but there are designs, references, character behaviours, even bits of music that remind us, paradoxically, it was Alien that brought us here.

Prometheus is visually accomplished, of course, and the music is pretty and strangely optimistic  a juxtaposition that would have pleased Jerry Goldsmith, who always felt his finished theme for Alien was too obviously sinister.  But attractive production aside, it remains that contradictory thing: a prequel, so it must nod, sequel-like to its predecessors.   There's a semi-facehugger, a faux-chestbuster, even a proto-Alien, because that's what you came here for.   But what is this a ponderous work of science fiction, or The Old Dark House In Space Part 5?   Ridley's attempt to do both will leave the deep thinker irritated, and the horror afficionado counting his diminishing returns.