Sunday, 29 December 2013

His Last Bow-Tie

Doctor Who
The Time Of The Doctor
2013 Christmas Special

Farewell, old friend.  Oh, and Clara.
It's over.  Matt Smith is no longer the Doctor.  And good luck to him: four years is a long time on one show, there are greener pastures out there, and he's a brilliant young actor with lots to do.  But since about 2011 Matt has been the only thing I consistently liked about Doctor Who.  The writing, the direction and the supporting cast all benefit from Matt Smith who has become my favourite Doctor, ever, out of all of them and now he's gone.  It's not a happy occasion.

I'm not sure what would make a "good" finale for Matt, since I don't want him to go.  The Time Of The Doctor feels more like it's saying goodbye to Steven Moffat which it isn't, worse luck throwing in a few of his old monsters, and tying up many of his lingering plot threads.  The Crack, The Silence, Trenzalore, The Oldest Question In The Universe and Who Blew Up The TARDIS are all resolved, or at least name-checked.  If you're the sort of obsessive Doctor Who nerd who's still asking these questions (so me, then), this episode has you in mind.  But I'm not sure that makes it a very good Christmas Special (my family and friends were lost), or a good send-off for Matt.  Frankly, I don't know what I think of it.

The plot's a mess, but I do like bits of it.  Here's the gist, and here be spoilers: the Time Lords sent the Oldest Question ("Doctor who?") through the Crack, to check if it's the Doctor they're talking to, and to see if it's safe to come through from wherever Gallifrey is stuck.  (Why do they need his real name?  Couldn't they just say "Who's there?" and see if the Doctor answers?  Couldn't one Time Lord pop through and check?)  A lot of aliens don't want the Time Lords back, so they've surrounded the source of the transmission, which is Trenzalore.  (We know the Doctor will be buried there.)  The planet is protected by the Papal Mainframe, who want to keep the Doctor from answering the question as it'll cause havoc.  They become The Silence, who are (mostly) a force for good, apart from the bad ones in Series Six who blew up the TARDIS and caused the Cracks.  (D'oh!)

I like that effort has gone into resolving these things, although Christmas seems like a funny time to do so.  It's very telling that this stuff needed resolving in the first place, but there you go.

Onwards: nearing the end of his life, the Doctor devotes his remaining years to guarding Trenzalore, repelling every attempt to, er, destroy the Crack?  Get at the Time Lords?  Kill the village of humans that inexplicably lives on Trenzalore in a town called Christmas?  Kill him?  I've no idea what they're after if they just want the Time Lords to stay gone, why not leave the Papal Mainframe to it? but when the monsters show up, the Doctor sends them packing.  It's easy.  Their aim (particularly the Daleks) is worse than ever.

Hang on, back up: since when is the Doctor nearing the end of his life?  Well, Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and it turns out he's used all of his.  John Hurt's Doctor counts, as does David Tennant's clone/regeneration in 2008, so there we go: Matt is the Thirteenth Doctor, not the Eleventh.  This is more complicated than actually interesting.  (The story of modern Doctor Who.)  The twelve-regenerations rule was the last real danger to the Doctor's existence.  It was probably interesting enough to make a full episode some day, so it seems a shame to tidy it away early, in the middle of everything else, using nothing more than small print and fairy dust.  What a waste.  It's not as if Moffat's thought of a brilliant solution to the problem: Clara just asks the Time Lords nicely to give him some more regenerations.  Is that it?  Couldn't he have done that?  It's a bit obvious, isn't it?  Hands up who already dismissed that sort of thing as being too obvious?  (Again, that's modern Doctor Who.  Surprise!  It's the thing you were expecting!)

Well, you wanted an older Doctor.
Anyway: I like the Doctor's choice to stay and protect the town.  I think it's a Doctorly way to finish his life, even if I don't really get who these people are, I don't really care about them, and I don't know why they're being attacked.  I like Matt Smith very much in these scenes, give or take a bit of dodgy age make-up; he always made the Doctor seem old, but he does a great job of being decrepit on top of all that.  (Mind you, the Doctor once said he regenerated instead of ageing, and Smith's Doctor has aged centuries since 2010 (he reminds us in this episode) but hasn't got visibly older.  Why are we only paying attention to some continuity?)

Start to finish, it's a beautiful performance from Matt Smith.  Everything that makes him the Eleventh Doctor is here, including a few direct references like spitting out a drink (The Lodger), doing his awful wedding dance (The Big Bang) and interacting strangely with a wall (The Eleventh Hour).  He even chomps a bit of fish custard before he regenerates.  More importantly, he's understated and clever and constantly interesting.  The way he responds to regeneration as something miraculous that will save his life, rather than something horrible that will kill him makes a nice change from how David Tennant exited the show.  Of course, he's sad and reflective given time to think about it, but it's still done differently from last time.

The way regeneration is used in the plot (magic energy that blows up the Daleks) makes little sense and involves Matt Smith shouting, which is probably the only thing his Doctor doesn't do well.  But Matt's final scene is perfect, thank goodness.  He gives a thoughtful speech that bends the fourth wall a little, and yes, I cried.  I've seen it again, and cried again.  It's brilliantly written, brilliantly done, and exhibits all the natty understatement that makes Matt so thrilling to watch.  If there's a downside, it's the cameo from Karen Gillan (who insists on calling him "Raggedy man" one last time) which over-eggs the emotion by some way.  It was more than enough for the Doctor to glimpse little Amelia running around.

Anyway, he regenerates (with a bang, which is different but undeniably a bit disappointing), and we get a neat scene with Peter Capaldi.  Typical new-body-part joke with the TARDIS crashing (seriously, park that thing when you're regenerating), but he makes a good impression.  I was too upset about Matt to really think about it, but I'm sure he'll be great.  It's not his fault they've done the regeneration/"I've got new ___!"/TARDIS crashing routine to death now.

So what else is here?  There's Clara, with her previously unseen family, at Christmas.  (Seriously, who are these guys?  Why have they re-cast her dad?  What was all that trite pretend-you're-my-boyfriend rubbish in aid of?)  She's the same as ever, so enthusiastic, competent, a gaping hole where a personality should be.  She seems desperate to be with the Doctor (who sends her away, just like Christopher Eccleston did with Rose coincidence?), but given that she goes home between episodes anyway, that doesn't ring true.  Matt Smith bounces off her with the usual verve, but it's telling that in his final moments, he's thinking of someone else.  Maybe she'll get on better with Twelve.  (Or is it Fourteen?  Oh, whatever.)

We've also got Tasha Lem, head of the Papal Mainframe, who's written suspiciously like River Song (with references to psychopaths and an unexplained ability to fly the TARDIS).  Given that I'd rather gnaw my arms off than see River again, I'll refrain from complaining about Tasha, who does the heavy-handed flirting thing rather well, I suppose.  (Though really, Steven: are all women psychopaths?)

Isn't he adorable?  And... presumably someone's head?
We've also got lots of monsters, which is good news for younger viewers.  There's Daleks who refuse to shoot straight; Cybermen rendered cute by the Doctor's Cyber-pet, Handles (will they ever catch a break?); Weeping Angels who are interested in Trenzalore for some reason; and those weird Silent things which are apparently not so bad after all.  (Nice try, but I haven't forgotten them zapping a woman to death in The Impossible Astronaut.)  The Daleks are the Big Bad, and they're doing that silly convert-you-into-a-Dalek thing again, except now it's reversible if you concentrate.  (This buggers up the plot of Asylum Of The Daleks, but never mind.)  They've also remembered who the Doctor is, so I guess erasing him from their memory banks went nowhere after all.  Brilliant!

Speaking of ideas that never went anywhere, the Doctor leaves Trenzalore.  Back up: does that mean he isn't buried there?  Didn't he say he can't change that?  What does that mean for his grave (specifically Eleven's) in The Name Of The Doctor, which was what allowed him to meet Clara in the first place?  I guess since he changed his own timeline massively in the previous episode with no apparent repercussions, we're not meant to pay attention to this stuff any more.  Except when we are.

When you stack it up, the plot's largely bollocks, held together with obsessive continuity, bad continuity and tinsel.  Some of it's almost too inconsequential for comment, like the farce about cooking a turkey, needing to be naked (but still wear a clothes hologram) when you visit the Papal Mainframe, and the truth field on Trenzalore.  (What, are the Time Lords worried he'll give a false name?)  It's probably meant to be clever to go from "fluff" to "heartbreaking tragedy" in one episode, but I could do without the fluff altogether, thanks.  Still, I liked the joke about Matt Smith's wig, which is meta but really funny, and the wooden Cyberman was cool.  When all's said and done, I've seen worse Christmas Specials.  But then, I've seen better regeneration stories.

Sigh.  It's a jumble of sweet, well-intentioned rubbish, and it's typically up to Matt Smith to be the best thing in it.  It's a shame we didn't get to see more of him (and we should have: only three series were made in Matt's four years), but I'm grateful to have seen him at all.  We're losing a brilliant talent, a unique take on the Doctor, and something interesting to watch every week.  He's my favourite, and I'll miss him.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Bookcase Of Fear #4: To Kill A Mockingbird (and some others)

To Kill A Mockingbird
By Harper Lee

The front cover of To Kill A Mockingbird (my copy, at least) is a statement.  Black.  The title and the name of the author in simple print.  A vague doodle of a mockingbird, plus a note: Pulitzer Prize Winner over 30,000,000 sold.  What more do you need?  Why put extraneous effort into selling a thing that is about as officially "good" as it gets?  (Of course, it might just be an inexpensive edition.  But I like my theory better.)

The book's reputation precedes it, but still, famous as it is, I didn't know the ins and outs of the story.  I knew the theme racism and injustice and had an inkling there'd be a court-case, possibly over a rape or a murder.  It's rare and gratifying to remain otherwise spoiler-free on something so famous.  (I recently had the same pleasure reading Great Expectations.  Never read it before, never saw the movie.  Not much chance of that with Oliver Twist.)  As it happens, a well-meaning friend told me how Mockingbird ended as I read it – oddly, they remembered it wrong and spoiled nothing.  (EDIT: Turns out I misread their comment, so it wasn't the spoiler I thought it was.  D'oh!  Apologies...)  I spent the rest of the book expecting one outcome, and when the opposite occurred, I literally gasped.  This doesn't happen often when I read.  I suspect that, with or without the dodgy spoiler, this makes potent reading.

I almost don't want to discuss the plot, as there might be others like me who don't know it.  Suffice to say, a black man is accused of raping a white woman; his attorney is Atticus Finch, serious and straight-talking father of two, and probably the most level-headed person in Maycomb.  Finch is one of the most wonderful characters I've ever come across.  His relationship with Scout and Jem (his daughter and son) is beautifully handled – their habit of calling him "Atticus" (never any variation of "Dad"), and his policy of absolute honesty with them, makes the family feel real.

The book is told from Scout's point of view, which is a masterstroke.  The court-case is the crux of the plot, but it's only on Scout's periphery.  This is a clever way to handle what could have been a simple courtroom drama: the town folks' foibles, the dramatic twists, and the issues Lee wishes to examine are all seen through Scout's inimitable perspective.  A great way to ground what could have been a dry, even obvious look at racism.  Contrary to its serious themes, Mockingbird is an often fun, funny, delightful book, and much of this has to do with the observations of the unselfconscious tomboy, Scout.

The book's stance on racism is well-known enough for me not to go on about it.  (Pulitzer Prize, 30,000,000 sold, book and film both appear on a lot of Best Ever lists.)  As a plea for racial tolerance, it's honest and realistic; Lee doesn't ultimately believe these problems will go away overnight, even with guys like Atticus Finch on the case.  But it's also important to appreciate this book as a story, and it's a rich, well-told, frequently poignant one, numerous passages and phrases having passed deservedly into fame.  I'll be reading it again some day.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
By Jules Verne

Another one of those famous classics I've been meaning to read, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea sounds like a rollicking adventure. It is and it isn't.

We begin with men on a mission: a mysterious something has been sinking ships, an expedition is afoot to capture it.  Professor Aronnax is brought along to identify it; his dutiful manservant Conseil and Canadian whaler Ned Land come too.  The monster is, in reality, the submarine Nautilus.  Our three heroes are captured by its mysterious Captain Nemo, who keeps them captive on his trip around the world.  (Just to clear up a particularly stupid misconception of mine, they travel twenty thousand leagues in the ocean.  They don't go twenty thousand leagues down, as that's impossible.  You know, a more accurate title would have been Twenty Thousand Leagues Around The World Under The Sea...)

This voyage allows Jules Verne's imagination to run riot.  Aronnax and co. see amazing sights, such as Atlantis, the North Pole, and innumerable wrecked ships.  It's an often thrilling adventure, particularly a moment when the crew face sharks in hand-to-hand combat (!).  But it's too long, and filled to bursting with obsessively tedious cataloguing of every single marine organism the Nautilus encounters.  I can't stress enough how boring this is.  It became such an issue slogging through these passages that I began skipping entire paragraphs, and eventually pages that began with "As for mollusks" or "As for zoophytes".  I can't imagine anyone but a marine biologist having room in their head for this amount of raw list-making data, and none of it progresses the story one iota.  (A more accurate title might have been Twenty Thousand Different Kinds Of Fish.)

This (at times, excruciating) need to identify and describe every single thing Professor Aronnax is looking at highlights one of the book's major problems: it is entirely episodic, and not really going anywhere.  Ned Land wants to escape from the Nautilus.  The Professor is quite happy to stay and catalogue marine life.  Loyal Conseil is happy as long as the Professor's happy.  So two thirds of this group just aren't all that bothered about regaining their freedom.  Months pass, some of it apparently in real-time, while the crew make notes of (and invariably, eat) every living thing in their path.  Nemo's stance on marine life is a little unclear, just as a few of Verne's ideas appear a little outdated: sperm whales are painted as vicious monsters, and Nemo seems entirely subjective about which animals it's okay to slaughter for his larder.  (A more accurate title might have been Twenty Thousand Exotic Fish Recipes.)  A great many fish seem curious about the Nautilus and swim beside it.  I wanted to yell, "Run!"

Like Mockingbird, I didn't know too much about Twenty Thousand Leagues: I only knew there'd be a battle with a giant squid.  There are myriad references to shipwrecks, which led me to think "Ah, that'll be the squid, this is going somewhere."  It isn't.  Eventually they encounter some squids, then they go away.  I'm guessing the movie exaggerated, but that particular sequence is a disappointment.  Also, I'm going to spoil something now to save you any disappointment: despite endless references to the mystery of Captain Nemo and his troubled, anti-heroic past, there are no answers at all in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.  Verne wrote a sequel, The Mysterious Island, which apparently delves into Nemo's past.  If that means another 400 pages of zoophytes and mollusks, I think I'll stick to Wikipedia.

When this is good, it is thrillingly so.  At its best I was reminded of other fantastic voyages (like Conan Doyle's The Lost World, a book I adore, and H. Rider Haggard's She).  At its worst, I was reminded that Jules Verne probably did a considerable amount of research before writing the book, and yes, he'd like you to know about it.

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang
By David A. McIntee

Sequels are a tricky business, especially when they follow something popular. (Which, really, all sequels do.)  Author David A. McIntee says here, "No one in their right mind would even suggest a sequel to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, which is why [I] volunteered instead."  To his credit, his book doesn't try to copy that fan-favourite Doctor Who story, very much telling its own tale in its own style.  But it is arguably less effective on both counts.

Shadow concerns a group of Chinese mercenaries (circa 1937) trying to recreate the time travelling villainy of Magnus Greel.  (The Weng-Chiang of the title.)  Shedloads of historical research has gone into it: you're never far from some detail about how things looked and worked, or what the political climate was like.  It's impressively thorough.  The characters are similarly well-rounded, to the point where McIntee's sympathies seemingly lie with all of them.  The villain, beautiful and ageless Hsien-Ko, has her reasons.  Her violent lieutenant loves her, and wants to spare her the grief of killing.  Her enemies include Lee, a policeman with a dupicitous past, and Wong, a man with a double-life as a vigilante crime-fighter and nightclub-owner.  Everyone has a secret agenda, families to consider, and so on.  It gets a little muddled trying to figure everyone out.  The absence of a strong villain (as Magnus Greel stays fittingly in the shadows) dampens the tension quite a bit, although a monster from Talons, murderous ventriloquist dummy Mr Sin, steals the show.

McIntee has a good ear for the Fourth Doctor and Romana, but as they're among the more confident and indomitable TARDIS teams (armed with K9, who can zap anyone into submission), they never seem to be in any real danger.  At least they're never less than entertaining something Tom Baker and Mary Tamm always guaranteed.

A book of thoughtful detail that does not simply retread the original Gothic masterpiece, this is a diverting action-adventure, but isn't without its problems.  The climax is big on technobabble and small on simple, compelling threat; we stay away from the creepy atmosphere of Talons, but Shadow tries a little too hard to avoid it and is rarely creepy at all, which is not what I wanted; heartening as it is to consider every character's feelings, it does makes a good vs evil struggle rather harder to pull off; and as I discovered reading Twenty Thousand Leagues, there's only so much historical research you can do before you're in danger of using fiction just to join the dots.  But, grumbling aside, it's an often exciting story.

By Terry Pratchett

One of roughly a million Terry Pratchett books I had yet to read, Thud! is among the more recent (and to my mind, more mature) Discworld stories, touching on racial tension via the amusing medium of dwarfs and trolls: they've never been able to stand each other due to a historic misunderstanding no one can clearly remember.  It's a Sam Vimes novel – that's the head of Ankh-Morpork's police force, The Watch – and Vimes must solve a dwarf's murder whilst also being a good dad to his very young son.

I've previously found Vimes one of Pratchett's more archetypal (and therefore, boring) heroes.  He's old, had much Hard Knocks schooling, and is generally wiser than anybody else.  See also, Granny Weatherwax.  Basically he's in danger of being too good at his job to remain interesting – it's nice to have a little honest incompetence, and just what happened to Rincewind, anyway? – but Thud! keeps him interesting with the problem of keeping his son happy, and juggling the ever-irritating responsibilities of being part of Ankh-Morpork nobility.  Vimes, and the rest of his beloved Watch, are vivid fun to be around.  I'm looking forward to the next Watch book.

Pratchett deals with racism with a light touch – which is to say, if this wasn't set in a fantasy realm, schoolteachers would probably take it quite seriously.  Just having plenty to say on the subject of age-old prejudices doesn't make it a worthy or serious book, however.  It's as compulsively readable (and fun) as Pratchett's best, and manages to say things without hitting you over the head with them.  (Although characters do frequently hit each other over the head.  There are a lot of trolls, after all.)

The only real downer for me was the ending: as Vimes is possessed by a weird "darkness" pervading the city, and does its bidding, everything goes a bit metaphysical and illusory, in that how-much-of-it-really-happened way usually associated with dream sequences.  As the all-important conclusion, this didn't especially satisfy me.  But it's one of the book's very few bum notes.  I'd recommend the rest.

Casino Royale
By Ian Fleming

Right, then.  James Bond.  He's not an especially nice or interesting person – something exacerbated by his various film personae, who rely on how charming or flippant they are to distract from his basic bastardliness.  He's paid to spy and kill people, and he has absolutely nothing else in his life.  Unsurprisingly in Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, it's characters other than Bond who caught my attention.  His chipper French friend RenĂ©e Mathis, and American counterpart Felix Leiter, both hold court better than he does.  Bond is just a man doing a job.

But there's an understated poignancy to him, a sad addiction to work and routine, touched on (at least) in the recent film adaptation.  He's solitary and dogged.  Also, good at Poker, which is largely the reason he got this job.  (Incidentally, Casino Royale comes close to making me understand how Poker works.  Close, but no cigar.)

Fleming's misanthropic hero spends a surprising amount of time contemplating the morality of what he does.  Not something you'd expect from Roger Moore and chums.  Also, while the infamous torture scene does elicit a wince, what's surprising is the amount of time it takes Bond to recover.  He almost doesn't.  He's no superman after all, and unlike most of the films (sorry!), he does fall in love. 

I'd be interested to see what the subsequent books are like.  Does Bond turn into a soulless caricature, or was that the films' fault?  Whatever happened afterwards, Casino Royale is a well-told thriller and it has aged well.  The 2006 film added a lot to the start, but the story didn't change very much.  That's a bit of a rarity, and a good sign.