Archive for the ‘TV reviews’ Category

The Haunting, director Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, is arguably my favourite film, one I’ve watched numerous times and one I always seem to get something new out of, but it was a long time until I read the source novel. A few years ago saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House tv miniseries on Netflix. In the past nine months I’ve re-watched both the film and the tv series, and I’ve also reread Jackson’s novel, so it seemed a good time to examine all three.

This will be a fairly deep dive, so I will go into spoilerific detail. If you haven’t read/seen any of these and you’re worried about finding out how they end, maybe look away now, but if you’re a fan, or maybe if you don’t mind spoilers, why not take a trip with me to Hill House, which has stood for eighty years, and might stand for eighty more…


The Novel. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson (1959)


Given its reputation as a true classic of literature, it is perhaps surprising that I’m not as enamoured of the source novel as many are. In part I think it’s the fact that I came to the party late, as it were, reading the book many years (and many repeat viewings) after seeing the film, which means there’s a lot that’s fixed in my mind, my image of the central characters for one. There’s also Jackson’s prose, which is at times superb and at others a little cold. The book isn’t that old yet feels a trifle old fashioned. That said you can’t argue with that opening paragraph:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Just reading that last line makes me shudder.

The original story is slightly different than the film that followed. There’s no Dr Markway, distinguished and handsome potential love interest here, Dr Montague is a different figure altogether, only ever paternal, and Nell has no eyes for him, only for Luke but otherwise the dynamic fans of the film are familiar with is the same. Four intrepid investigators. The academic, the rich layabout, the bohemian extrovert and the guilt-ridden introvert.

The other big difference is that Jackson’s tale sprawls beyond the house, and many of the spookier elements take place outside. In particular Nell and Theo coming across a (clearly ghostly) family picnic is shudderingly written, most particularly because Jackson never tells us what is so wrong with it that prompts the pair to run, and for Theo to tell Nell not to look back. Later still Nell walks into the undergrowth believing Theo and Luke are following, only they aren’t… Brrr!!!

It seems likely there is a ghostly presence at Hill House in the novel. It isn’t impossible that it’s all Eleanor’s doing, her grief and guilt magnifying her psychic powers but I think even Jackson made it clear there’s something spooky afoot. The sense of dread regarding Nell as the book progresses has a horrible inevitability about it as well.

The one misstep I think, is the arrival of Mrs Montague and her curious companion. She’s too broad and overbearing and their inclusion does feel a bit jarring.

One can’t quibble with the story, and some truly wonderful prose however, and if it wasn’t for the novel, we wouldn’t have got…

The Film. The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise (1963)


It’s sometimes incredible to consider just how eclectic Wise’s career was. He directed everything, from musicals (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) to science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Star Trek the Motion Picture) as well as Westerns, war movies, thrillers and of course horror (The Curse of the Cat People, The Haunting.) He directed his first film in 1944 and his last in 2000. Some have called him a journeyman, but I think that’s unfair, and The Haunting just shows how good he was. A technically perfect film featuring four wonderful performances and inventive camerawork to instil fear without ever really showing us anything.

Ostensibly it follows the beats of the novel, with a group of four intrepid researchers travelling to Hill House, although there are some changes. Dr Montague is replaced by Dr Markway, and it’s Markway rather than Luke who provides us with Nell’s unobtainable love interest, and while Mrs Markway does show up, she isn’t remotely as annoying, and doesn’t come complete with her own sidekick in this version.

Perhaps the biggest change is that Wise dispenses with the garden scenes, and whilst a few scenes take place outside—most notably the finale—for the most part he eschews the grounds in favour of bottling his characters up inside of Hill House. This is a great stylistic choice, emphasising the claustrophobia of the story, implying our heroes have been swallowed whole by the vile house that Hugh Crain built, and suggesting there’s no escape.


The choice to film in black and white is another masterstroke. The sets are superb, with an oppressive rococo style and claustrophobic feel. The statues and the library are wonderful. Wise utilised a revolutionary amorphic camera that was so new he had to sign an understanding that the lens was imperfect. Wise and his cinematographer keep the camera moving and utilise crazy angles, skewed shots and weird lenses—as well as utilising mirrors— to give the impression of an insane house that’s always watching, always waiting.

And of course, perhaps the best decision Wise made was to rely on unseen terrors, with the exception of curious shadows (the face in the grill) and of course the breathing door. There are sounds as well of course, the banging, and the ghostly voices of Hugh Crain and the distressed children, but for the most part he relied upon his actor’s reactions to the house, the most famous of course being Nell’s “But whose hand was I holding?”

Which brings us onto the actors. Setting aside Lois Maxwell (yes Moneypenny!) as Mrs Markway and Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley as the wonderfully creepy Mr and Mrs Dudley, and a few other minor players, this film revolves around the four leads who play off one another perfectly.


As Nell, Julie Harris is superb (why wasn’t she Oscar nominated?) fragile and frequently on the edge of hysteria, she’s a jittery mess of anxieties and guilt, a child in the body of a grown woman. With every tic and tremor Harris speaks volumes. By all accounts she was suffering with depression during filming, and isolated herself from the others further enhancing the character’s disconnection. She’s a pitiful, utterly empathetic character and you can’t help but feel for her.

As Theo, Claire Bloom is the polar opposite of Nell, experienced, confident and quite patently gay, even if it’s never explicitly stated, and her relationship with Nell is incredibly complex. At times friends, at times almost sisters, at times perhaps something more, is she interested in Nell? Theo clearly cares about Nell, yet can’t help sniping at her. It’s Theo after all who suggests Eleanor might be the one who wrote her name on the wall, and her throwaway “like sisters” line is heavy with meaning given we know how fractious Nell’s relationship with her own sister is. In weaker hands the relationship could have been flat and predictable, yet instead it’s vibrant, testament to Bloom and Harris’ acting. All the more amazing since they didn’t speak during the filming (though reconciled later).

As Markway Richard Johnson is cool, calm and collected, and quite debonair (in a slightly stuffy academic kinda way). Of the four his performance is the one that feels a little false at times, especially in the tenser segments, a little more theatrical should we say. I’m being harsh, because he’s still very good and as with the others it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.

Finally we have former child star Russ Tamblyn as Luke. Young , hip and flippant it’s a performance that could have gone over the edge but Tamblyn carries it off perfectly , and in many ways he’s the reason the film works, going to sceptic to  believer over the course of the story. He’s the one after all who at the end says the house should be burned down and the ground sown with salt. He’s wonderful in this, playing off each of the others perfectly. And of course this won’t be the last time Tamblyn crosses paths with Hill House….


A superb film, a textbook example of creating tension without resorting to special effects. Claustrophobic and, pardon the pun, haunting, with wonderful characters at its heart, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons it succeeds. Even if nothing supernatural happened at Hill House, you’d still enjoy watching these four characters interact. Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve watched this so many times they almost feel like old friends, and Nell’s death still hurts every time.

Anyway, let’s shift forward fifty odd—very odd—years to…

The TV series. The Haunting of Hill House, created and directed by Mike Flanagan (2018)


The arrival onto the scene of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime has seen a whole slew of new TV shows, and when  it was announced that a 10 part series based on Jackson’s novel was in the works I was concerned, mainly off the back of the truly atrocious 1999 remake of The Haunting, an exemplar for how not to remake a classic that misunderstood everything about the story and which wastes a decent cast by surrounding them with terrible CGI, overexaggerating the plot, and by having Catherine Zeta-Jones play Theo with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. I saw it once at the cinema and I never plan to see it again.

But enough about 1999’s exercise in how not to make a Hill House story, let’s talk about 2018’s exercise in how to do things properly, because Flanagan’s series is really top drawer storytelling, pretty much every episode scared me at some point and at least two of them are stone cold classics. Sure, it all kinda falls apart at the end but I can forgive it because the journey getting there is So. Damn. Good.

It’d be wrong to say there’s no nuance in the story, but from the perspective of the supernatural it’s clearly real. There isn’t even the hint that what’s going on is in characters’ heads. And we see most of the horror full on, albeit this is done far more effectively than the 1999 film managed. Flanagan also takes liberties, lifting pieces of the story and rearranging them, or in many cases rewriting them completely, and yet the essence of the story and the more familiar characters remain.


The story is set in two timeframes. 1992 and 2018, with different actors playing child and adult versions of the Crain children, and in fact Hugh Crain himself. Back in 1992 the Crain family were renovating Hill House, until tragedy struck, a tragedy that left questions over what, exactly happened there, and a tragedy that’s informed each character’s life since. The eldest son Steven (Michael Huisman in the present day) used a fictional account of what happened to springboard his writing career, and now makes a living writing true ghost books. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is ostensibly the most together of the Crain children, and she runs a mortuary. Living rent free in a guest house on her property is Theo (Kate Siegel) who works as a child psychologist. A sensitive, she wears gloves most of the time to keep her curse at bay, and has distanced herself from any emotional attachments.

This leaves the youngest, and perhaps most damaged Crain children. Twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a man with a history of substance abuse, and Nell (Victoria Pedretti) haunted by sleep paralysis and recurring imagines of a particularly terrifying spectre.

There’s Henry Thomas and Timothy Hutton as the past and present versions of Hugh, and Carla Gugino as Olivia, the children’s mother.

Like all the best horror Flanagan’s tale is about something beyond scaring people. This isn’t some soulless fairground attraction, it’s a tale of guilt and loss and redemption, and above all else love and family. Even if there weren’t a possessed house involved, it’d be interesting due to the writing, the direction and the cast.


The Crain children think they’ve moved on with their lives, but the death of one of them will prove that, in many ways, they never left Hill House. The interweaving of timelines is exquisitely done, and not only between 1992 and 2018, even within the distinct timelines the story shifts back and forth as we see the same event from different characters’ perspectives.

In terms of frights there are some fantastic jump scares (a couple in particular had me literally screaming, even second time around when I knew they were coming) but beyond this there’s a palpable sense of dread, and many of the scares take their time, tension building as you wait for what you know is coming—take little Luke hiding under his bed as footsteps approach!!

By all accounts there are dozens of spectres in some scenes, hidden away in the shadows, though even on a second viewing I only spotted a couple of them. Two of the ghosts at the forefront are the most effective however. The tall man who menaces Luke (and there’s a Luke centric episode in the present that I’m sure Flanagan loaded with really tall extras so the ghost is subconsciously always on our minds) and the Bent Neck Lady who terrified Nell both as a child and an adult.

Which brings me to those two episodes. Episode 5 is named the Bent Neck Lady, a Nell focused episode that shows the full nightmare she experiences as she’s haunted by the titular phantom. It starts out utterly terrifying, but eventually morphs into something utterly heart-breaking. If you thought Nell’s fate in the book and the film were tragic you ain’t seen nothing yet, and by the end I was in pieces. One of the best episodes of television ever, in my not so humble opinion, and for a ghost story something that plays with time better than 99% of actual time travel sci-fi.

And then we get episode 6. Two Storms. A story that alternates between two thunderstorms, one in 1992 which the Crain family experienced in Hill House, the other in 2018 the night before Nell’s funeral as the family reconvene in the funeral home to talk about their sister, and old wounds will be reopened. The 1992 stuff is eerie, especially when one of the children goes missing, but it’s in the present day that the episode excels. The direction and cinematography, the script and the actors all combine to create (pardon the pun) a perfect storm of grief and anger captured in fluid tracking shots that show us spectres the family can’t see, and intercut between 2018 and 1992 seamlessly. It’s a heartrending episode where every single character’s wounds are raw. Again, strip out the horror and it’d still work.


There are so many other things I could mention; the return of Russ Tamblyn in a cameo as Nell’s psychiatrist, the cup of stars (missing from the film),  Luke’s imaginary friend who it turns out is anything but ghostly, the character names (Shirley for Shirley Jackson, Steven for King etc), the secret of the red room that’s been staring us in the face the whole time, the clock repairman, Mr Smiley Face, the elevation of the Dudley’s beyond just creepy two dimensional plot points…and of course the fact that the five Crain siblings represent the stages of grief: Steve is denial, Shirley is anger, Theo is bargaining, Luke is depression, and Nell is acceptance.

Nothing is ever perfect, and maybe it could have been an episode or two shorter, and maybe it does all wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and yes, Oliva as the crazy woman who wants to kill her kids in order to save them isn’t a great trope, but any flaws are minor, and if a second viewing taught me one thing, it’s this, much like the film, The Haunting of Hill House is a series I will return to again and again because I think there’ll always be something new to take from the story, and much as with The Haunting these are characters I enjoy spending time with, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Flanagan does with The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on The Turn of the Screw.


In the final analysis this is a tale that’s stood the test of time for over sixty years, and might stand for sixty more, testament to the strength of Jackson’s original story. It’s been remade and reimagined, and even survived Jan de Bont and Liam Neeson! Nobody’s tearing this story down and sowing the ground with salt in a hurry!


Growing up in the seventies and eighties there was no such thing as iPlayer, no DVD boxsets or Netflix, so unless you videoed something off the telly at the time, or it got a VHS release, oft times you’d see something when it aired, and that would be that.

Coming back to things later in life can be a dangerous thing, for every TV show that I’ve found I love just as much—maybe even more— now (exhibit 1 m’lud: Blakes 7) there’s one that, in hindsight, is a touch embarrassing (exhibit 2 m’lud: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.)

When The One Game aired in the summer of 1988 I was seventeen, and over the course of four weeks it held me spellbound. TV shows came and TV shows went, and there are probably miniseries that I watched that you could show me footage of me watching and I still wouldn’t remember them, but The One Game stuck in my mind, The One Game was something I never forgot, and even though I wouldn’t see it again until the 21st Century every so often something would spark in my mind and I’d be reminded of the quirky thriller I’d loved. Most pertinently this happened when I watched David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, which parallels The One Game so much (even down to the ‘it was all for your own good’ ending) that I couldn’t help wondering if anyone got sued!

When The One Game was finally released on DVD I eagerly purchased it, but would it be Blakes 7 or Buck Rogers? Well clearly since I’m still eager to talk about it a decade after buying the DVD it’s probably pretty obvious that it is something I love just as much today, probably more, than I did back in the day.

The setup is thus:

Nicholas Thorne (Stephen Dillane) is the very epitome of a yuppie, young and arrogant he’s also wealthy courtesy of his company Sorcerer, which makes games. During the course of one bank holiday weekend however he’ll potentially lose everything. First someone steals over two million pounds from the company accounts, bypassing supposedly fool proof passwords, and then Nick watches has is ex-wife Jenny (Philippa “Pippa” Haywood) is kidnapped.

The man behind this is Magnus (Patrick Malahide) Nick’s former business partner who Nick forced out of the company (and indirectly into an asylum). Magnus entices Nick into playing The One Game, a reality game that will see Nick battle skinheads, knights in armour, mysterious gunmen and even find him having to joust on a motorbike, but when you’re playing a reality game, where everyone you meet might be playing as well, can you trust anyone, or anything that you see?

Clearly this was a reworking of the Arthurian myth, and writer John Brown described it thusly: “What if Arthur said to Merlin after he’d helped set up the Kingdom, ‘Get lost. I don’t need you anymore.'”. Arthurian imagery is scattered throughout. A knife tossed into a canal, a woman’s beseeching hand rising up from a lake, knights in armour, sword fights and jousts, and with Nick playing Arthur and Magnus clearly Merlin. (I have seen it suggested that Magnus is Arthur and Nick Lancelot, and I can see where they’re coming from given Magnus’ clear affection for Jenny/Guinevere, however I don’t buy it, the story makes a lot more sense if Magnus is Merlin so that’s the interpretation I’m going with.)

This isn’t just a tale of revenge with an Arthurian twist however, because it becomes clear as the story progresses that Magnus’ intentions are not wholly vindictive towards his dear Nicholas, and in the end, after seemingly taking everything away from Nick, Magnus turns the tables and places himself solely in Nick’s hands in order to provide Nick with an opportunity for redemption.

The show has a wonderfully surreal tone, which was a refreshing call-back to the past in a decade not known for subtlety, but despite its fantastical elements it’s mostly grounded in reality.

In tone the show feels like The Avengers (as in John Steed not Iron Man!) and this vibe is never more obvious than when Nick finds himself being shot at in an abandoned village, a scene which riffs off ‘Target’, an episode of the New Avengers. The paranoia that pervades the story (who can I trust, who is playing the game?) also harkens back to The Prisoner, although Nick is far removed from McGoohan’s everyman Number 6.

Aside from a few magic tricks there isn’t anything that’s wholly impossible, but we still get some wonderfully surreal moments. From motorcycle jousting (yes I know George Romero did it first), to Magnus’ business meetings in an abandoned warehouse (complete with modern furniture and three piece suits) to the curious hobbies of Lord Maine (played with contemptible glee by former Quatermass Andrew Keir). When we first meet him he’s dressed as a cavalier about to refight Naseby and the next time he’s letting off some steam doing kendo! He isn’t in it much, but Keir’s enthusiasm and these playful asides elevate what could have been just stock evil 80s businessman into something more interesting.

There’s a definite contrast between the old and the new throughout the show, in the characters and the settings and you get a feeling of a Britain stuck somewhere between the industrial past and the technological future, with Magnus representing the old guard and Nick the future, although neither is portrayed as being an ideal, and if anything you get the impression each man was at his best when they were working together.

The 80s industrial decline is represented by decay, lots of industrial estates and abandoned warehouses where outsiders like the biker gang reside. This is juxtaposed with the luxury yuppie riverside flats and the increasing reliance on computers. And compare Sorcerer’s gleaming offices with the original shop the two men started the business in.

Although never more than oblique there’s a criticism of Thatcherism (and Nick is clearly a child of Thatcher, a self-made man interested solely in himself) inherent in the story. Nick is successful but not happy, and for all that Sorcerer is a success, it’s built on hollow foundations. Ephemeral numbers on a screen and, as Tom Darke, Sorcerer’s finance director, says, leased office space and rented furniture, the firm has no real assets beyond ideas; it’s almost prescient of the dotcom bubble bursting.

At the heart of the story are two great performances from Dillane and Malahide, and I make no apologies for the puntastic title of this posting given both men have recently been in Game of Thrones, Malahide with a relatively minor role as Balon Greyjoy (father of Theon Greyjoy, the unluckiest man in Westeros!) and Dillane with the much meatier role as Stannis Baratheon. Interestingly it’s not the first time the two men have worked together since The One Game as they were also both in the relatively disappointing Melissa George headed series Hunted a couple of years ago. Although I don’t believe they’ve shared scenes in either show.

Dillane was the less well known when The One Game was made, although around the same time he was in the excellent Christabel, but he plays Nick exceedingly well, balancing the arrogance and sneering disdain with a man haunted by past demons, and a man who, in his heart, is quite heroic. Yes his choice to play the game is born out of arrogance, his desire to beat Magnus, but he also genuinely wants to rescue Jenny. By contrast Malahide was very well known at the time, most famously as bumbling Detective Sergeant Chisolm in Minder, constantly being outwitted by George Cole and Dennis Waterman, so seeing him as Magnus was quite shock. He’s almost unrecognisable as the urbane, mystical and ever so slightly unhinged Magnus and for a man best known for playing incompetent coppers or vicious gangsters it shows what actors can do when given the chance.

The rest of the cast is mostly very good, although the least said about the guy playing the yuppie hacker in episode one the better. Kate McKenzie is perhaps the weakest of the main cast as Nick’s girlfriend Fay, but then she also has a bit of a thankless task because it is pretty obvious from very early on that Fay is more than she seems (even if you don’t make the connection between Fay and Morgan Le Fay, i.e. Morgana). It’s interesting watching in hindsight because Fay solves half the puzzles for Nick (in fairness Nick says early on that he’s terrible at games and puzzles).

David Mallinson fares better as Tom Darke, and his, on the surface, bland accountant manages to have quite a character arc, ending with, if not redemption, then at least a modicum of decency.

Magnus’ associates are played with gleeful nastiness by actors who are required to switch between personas at a moment’s thought, and do so very well, and finally Pippa Haywood is great as Jenny. Though terrified her character never gives up fighting, and even though she may have fallen out of love with Nick she clearly still has feelings for him, and even though she respects Magnus she isn’t afraid to tell him to his face that he’s a maniac, even when still his prisoner. It’s interesting to note as well that though we the audience know from the get go that Jenny is innocent, Nick has no such luxury, and so for a time her role in the One Game is uncertain from his perceptive.

In the end Magnus’ motives remain oblique. Is it about revenge tempered with a modicum of redemption for Nick, or does Magnus truly believe that Nick was a better man before money and guilt corrupted him? Is he trying to return a man he clearly loved like a brother to an earlier, simpler iteration of himself by stripping him of all the trappings of wealth and giving him the opportunity to right a terrible wrong that quite clearly was still haunting Nick, even before The One Game began? Just see Nick’s reaction upon seeing a lake when he and Fay go to dinner in the first episode, before he’s even aware any money is missing, let alone that Magnus has returned.

The One Game ends with some mysteries still unsolved, and with the final appearance of the Conjurer, the Beggar and the Comedian the inference that the Game isn’t over, and maybe never will be…

Yes it might look a little dated now, yes some of the puzzles are fairly simplistic, and some of the games seem a trifle tame (but then maybe that was the point) even though there are fatalities, but this is still a wonderful little show that remains intriguing and eminently watchable, a perfect blend of the gritty and the mystical, with a lilting and evocative Celtic soundtrack that makes even the most drab of locations appear magical.

Centred around two great performances perhaps the final thing I should say about how much The One Game means to me is that, as a writer, I’m still trying to come up with an idea just as original. If you can track it down please do so, just try and look beyond Tom Darkes’s giant glasses and computers that look like they might struggle to add two and two together and enjoy a story that’s one of a kind.

Warning. This review will contain spoilers, and you’ll still see them, even if you blink…

And so we come to the last episode of Doctor Who for a while, and the long heralded departure of Rory and Amy.  In truth, much as I’ve loved both of them as companions, they’ve probably stuck around a smidgen too long, and in many ways they got a perfect departure last year. That they’ve been bought back for one final hurrah has seen them hanging around somewhat like spare parts this year. As I say, I love em, but even the best companions have a finite shelf life.

The episode opens in a stylish recreation of 1930’s New York, and a PI, hired by a fellow named Grayle, investigating moving statues, upon visiting a mysterious hotel called the Winter Quay he finds an old man in one room, an old man who’s him…

Meanwhile the Doctor, Amy and Rory are enjoying some R&R in present day Central Park, for the Doctor this means reading a pulp novel about a female private eye called Melody Malone, only all of a sudden it seems less like fiction when the book mentions Rory going off for coffee (which he’s just done.) The Doctor and Amy race after him, but it’s too late, Rory’s been zapped by a weeping angel back to 1938 where he and Melody Malone (Who’s River, obviously) become the prisoners of Grayle. All too quickly River’s in the grip of a damaged Angel and Rory’s been zapped again, this time to the Winter Quay hotel, where there’s a room with his name on it…

I’ll be honest, when I heard the Angels were going to feature in Amy and Rory’s last episode, I kinda guessed how things were going to end. I’m not bragging, I think it was just fairly obvious given the Angels’ MO (i.e. they zap you back in time and let you live to death) that this was how Rory and Amy would become separated from the Doctor, and in many ways this is reminiscent of Sally’s friend, and the cop in Blink, it also brings to mind the Girl in the Fireplace.

Obviously both those stories were penned by Steven Moffat as well, and it does seem he’s plundered his own play list to come up with this story.

Although that really doesn’t do this justice. This is a damn fine episode in spite of any similarities it has to his other work, and it’s also a damn fine episode in spite of some rather cumbersome plot holes, chief amongst them being why no one (in the City than never sleeps) happens to notice the statue of Liberty going walkabout! That said, as ridiculous as it is, the first time you see the giant Angel looming over the rooftop is a stunning visual.

As befits her finale, Karen Gillan’s Amy has a stormer, showing all the feistiness that certainly made me love her over the years, tempered with maturity and confidence, and an utterly believable certainty that wherever Rory goes, she goes too. She’s matched by Smith, in fact it’s Smith’s performance that makes the final separation work, he plays heartbroken so very well, and it is truly amazing how many facial expressions the man has, and how any one man of his age can look like a matinee idol one moment, and a crotchety old man the next, and the pain in his face as he sees Amy vanish to join Rory is palpable.

Alex Kingston plays River as flirty as always, but there’s some genuine pathos in her performance this time around, especially when she remarks to Amy that she shouldn’t let the Doctor see her age, because he doesn’t like endings. One can’t help but wonder how close she is to setting off for the library and her first/last meeting with the Doctor.

If anyone is short-changed it’s Arthur Darvill, and Rory does seem to get the thin end of the wedge. When Rory and Amy go over the edge of the rooftop, it’s only Amy’s name the Doctor screams, and he does seem to spend most of his time in the dark being menaced by tiny angels. That said he gets to have a moment of self-sacrifice, gets some great scenes with Karen, and also manages to make a gag about the fact that even though he’s died before he always comes back. Plus he’s never quite been hyped as the Doctor’s companion as much as Amy has.

The 30’s noir setting for much of the episode, and the Angels themselves give this a wonderfully gothic feel, and the introduction of the baby Angels is downright creepy, in many ways the cherubs are scarier than their elder brethren. The Angels still aren’t quite the terror they were in Blink, but somehow I doubt they’ll ever be that good again, they do at least make for a better foe this time around than in their last outing back in series 5, when their MO seemed to have changed too much, and they were short-changed in the second part of that story. Here they’re back to something close to their best, even if their presence suggests Amy and Rory will survive the encounter…well will survive it but be zapped back in time to die before they were born…which is better than just dying at least!

The fact that the Doctor can never see them again might not be explained well enough to seem a completely overwhelming obstacle, but even so Moffat tugged at my heart three times here. My spine tingled as Amy and Rory fell from the hotel roof, I had a sniff when Amy said goodbye to the raggedy man, but the final nail in the coffin was the beautiful final line.

“This is the story of Amelia Pond. And this is how it ends.”

I only hope that both Moffat and Gillain have the courage to stick to this as the end of Amy’s story…after all, I remember when Rose was trapped in another universe and would never EVER see the Doctor again…until she did.

Don’t let me down Moff…




Doctor Who: The Power of Three

Posted: September 24, 2012 in TV reviews

Warning. Spoilers ahoy.

And so we come to the penultimate episode featuring Amy and Rory before they meet whatever fate Steven Moffat has in store for them next week…and again Chris Chibnall has the writing duties.

When millions of small black cubes appear out of nowhere all across the world, it seems like the harbinger of an alien attack, and the Doctor quickly appears at Amy and Rory’s house to investigate—little realising that, after almost ten years of travelling with the Doctor, they’re considering some major changes in their lives. Much as they love him, they also want to settle down and enjoy their real life, and it may be that they have to give the Doctor up.

Things are complicated when the cubes don’t do anything. They’re invulnerable, can’t be scanned, and they just sit there. And so, as Amy narrates, the year of the long invasion has begun, and in order to monitor the situation, the Doctor might need to hang around with the Ponds for once rather than them with him…

Well, after deriding him for some time, Chibnall has actually gone and written two enjoyable episodes this series, plus the interesting ‘Pond Life’ web serial. Don’t get me wrong, The Power of Three is flawed, and it lacks the sheer exuberance of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (the best episode of series 7 so far) but it’s still a good episode in spite of this.

It’s also something of a nostalgia trip, not only for the current Tardis crew (complete with a fish fingers and custard reference) but also in more general terms, because it’s very reminiscent of an RTD era episode. The use of UNIT, the present day setting and Earth invasion storyline make it feel at times like David Tennant is going to show up.

It’s nice to see things revolve around Rory and Amy for once, and when the Doctor does intrude it’s on their terms, although there is an amusing scene where he takes them to the Savoy in 1890 as an anniversary gift, one which turns sour when, apparently, it turns out there’s a Zygon ship under the Savoy. There’s also a reference to Henry VIII which suggests that this episode sits before A Town Called Mercy.

In a nod to The Lodger/Closing Time, we get to see the Doctor try and deal with the mundane nature of everyday life, and while this gives Smith the chance to indulge in some great physical comedy, the notion that the Doctor would get that bored, that quickly seems a bit extreme.

The episode also features the return of UNIT, led now by Kate Stewart, the daughter of the Brigadier, which is a nice touch, and it’s good to see UNIT portrayed as a force for good rather than being incompetent/overly militaristic. UNIT perhaps don’t contribute much to the story, apart from providing the Doctor with some scientific facilities, but it would be difficult to imagine the story without the Doctor liaising with someone on Earth at a global level about the cubes, and better UNIT than anyone else. Jemma Redgrave makes an engaging Kate and I hope she and UNIT return soon.

Someone already returning is Rory’s dad, Brian, and again Mark Williams does a great job in what could so easily be a clichéd role as the dad who’s “expert” in everything and takes things far too seriously. Just witness his cube logs for details. Brian’s been a great addition to the show, and I hope we see him again, although given we won’t be seeing Amy or Rory after next week, this, sadly, seems unlikely.

There are some funny lines (Matt Smith gets most but not all of them) and some creepy scenes revolving around some monstrous orderlies skulking around Rory’s hospital, and the notion of the cubes appearing  and then do nothing gives the episode a nice hook, especially when so much time passes that they eventually become part of everyday life.

It’s a shame then that the resolution of the cube story comes to very little. They’re the emissaries of an alien race called the Shakri, played here by Steven Berkoff, a species the Doctor thought were mythical, but who have decided to purge humanity from the universe before they can spread to the stars. In order to do this the cubes cause a cardiac arrest in 1/3 of the population, and the Shakri are readying a second wave…

As villains go the Shakri are pretty banal, and it seems a waste of Berkoff. Surely the best reason to hire the man is to let him cut loose, to chew the scenery and basically ham it up something rotten, instead he’s given a role anyone could play.

And the Doctor’s solution to the problem is a bit too neat and tidy as well, given all the Doctor has to do is wave his sonic screwdriver around to get the boxes to reverse their effects, restarting the hearts they’d stopped. This seems very simplistic, and doesn’t address the fact that people’s hearts had been stopped for some time, yet there’s no mention of brain damage or other side effects.

But, perhaps, this off the cuff resolution is in keeping with the episode. As I’ve said, this felt very much like an RTD episode, and perhaps it’s only fitting that it gave us the patented Russell T Davies button pushing/knob twirling/lever pulling resolution that we saw so often?

If this was the intention then all I can say is; you can take nostalgia too far.

Similarly the robot girl/monster orderlies seem to be there just to service the plot/provide something more threatening than the cubes, and to give our heroes an excuse to get aboard the Shakri ship, and the issue of why they were harvesting humans, and why the Doctor left their victims (apart from Rory and Brian) behind to be blown up is left unanswered. One can only hope they were already dead!

Still, it’s churlish to focus on the episode’s flaws when it has far more plusses. It’s funny, nostalgic, and has a nice central mystery (even if it all comes to very little) but even without all of these it would rank as a great episode for two wonderful conversations. The first is between the Doctor and Amy, with Smith and Gillan on top, emotional form as the Doctor explains that Amy and Rory aren’t chasing him, that he’s chasing them, that he feels compelled to run towards them before they flare and die. As an exploration why a 1200 year old alien continues to be so fascinated by, let’s be honest, lesser races and by events throughout space and time it’s very telling, as a shared moment between two good friends it’s incredibly touching, and as prescience of next week’s episode it’s rather chilling.

As is the second conversation, the one where Brian asks the Doctor what happened to his other companions, and the Doctor answers that some left him, some were left behind and a few, just a few, died.

Arghhh! I want it to be Saturday NOW!

Doctor Who: A Town Called Mercy

Posted: September 16, 2012 in TV reviews

Ok partner, just to warn you to be careful, this here review will contain spoilers…

So for the third episode of Series 7 we have a script by Toby Whithouse; The man who wrote the wonderful School Reunion, the quite good Vampires of Venice, and the fantastic God Complex, oh and also the man who created Being Human. We also see Doctor Who do a western for the first time since the Gunfighters, a somewhat derided Hartnell story.

The Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive at a small western town named Mercy (population 81) and discover a circle of stone and wood surrounding the place. Upon entering they discover that the town is being menaced by a cyborg gunslinger who wants to find an alien doctor who he wants to kill.

After a misunderstanding where the townsfolk try to placate the gunslinger by handing over our Doctor, it soon becomes clear that the man the cyborg is after is the town doctor, an alien called Kahler Jex who saved the town from cholera and had provided them with electric light and heat. As it turns out Jex isn’t quite the noble man he appears to be, and the cyborg isn’t quite the monster either. Question is what will the Doctor do when he finds a man who doesn’t fit into a neat box marked ‘villain’?

Sometimes a great idea can make for a less than spectacular story, and sometimes the opposite is true. The central conceit at the heart of A Town Called Mercy is a good one. There really is no villain as such. Jex did terrible things, but he did them in time of war, and felt they were justified to end suffering, and since arriving on Earth he’s done a lot of good, saved lives. Does the Doctor have the right to hand him over to the cyborg, even though the cyborg has every reason to want him dead.

The trouble is that, aside from the central idea, the rest of the episode seems somewhat flat. The location is excellent, a faux western town in Spain, they really couldn’t have done better short of flying to the states, similarly effort was made to cast American actors, well one at least, Ben Browder star of Farscape and Stargate SG1.

Somehow, despite this, the location never quite seems to come alive. Maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that Doctor Who and the Wild West are an odd fit. In the same way James Bond never seems quite as cool when he visits the states.

It doesn’t help that having told us the town has a population of 80 odd people, it seems strangely deserted, and we don’t see nearly enough people. Perhaps they’re hiding? This seems unlikely given there are small children milling around.  The people we do see rarely get to rise above being ciphers; the undertaker sizing up the Doctor for a coffin, the kid who isn’t as tough as he thinks, the noble Marshall…we’ve seen them all before but none really escape cliché, well except maybe Browder, but he’s killed so early in the episode that you wonder why the heck they cast him. Frankly it might have been better to cast him as the gunslinger; at least he’d have got more screen time.

The gunslinger is well realised, though you do wonder why he’s dressed as a cowboy, and also wonder at his curious tactics. He can clearly teleport, is well armed, and may be invulnerable to human weapons, yet rather than just walk into town and take Jex, he instead lays siege to the town and just waits for Jex to come to him. There’s just no logic to it.

But thenmany of his actions lack consistency. When Rory and the marshal lead him away to enable the Doctor to reach the Tardis, he first avoids shooting at them because he recognises them as innocent, but then a few seconds later he’s shooting to kill. It all seems very odd.

Matt Smith is excellent again, and there are some funny lines, but Rory is side-lined and Amy is just used as the Doctor’s conscience, the episode could have worked just as well without them. It’s fun to see the Doctor as a marshal, and always nice to have a story with no sneering, complete and utter bad guy, it’s just a shame that so many elements of the story make little sense and there’s so little drama, and whilst the use of well-known Western tropes is unavoidable, it’s a shame more wasn’t done to give us something a little different.

Weakest episode of series 7 so far for me, but even average Who is better than most stuff on telly, and they can’t all be fantastic…

Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Posted: September 10, 2012 in TV reviews

Warning, this blog post will feature dinosaurs, spaceships and SPOILERS!

I’ll be honest; I didn’t expect to like this episode. First off it’s written by Chris Chibnall, whose output is variable to say the least. He was responsible for some truly awful episode of Torchwood, and his Who episodes to date have been average at best. There’s nothing especially bad about 42, or the Silurian 2-parter, but nothing makes them stand out either.

Link this in with a story seemingly built abound a title, much like Snakes on a Plane, and my expectations weren’t high.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much?

In 2367 a huge spaceship is on a collision course with Earth, and the Indian Space Agency (makes a change doesn’t it) are going to vaporise it in six hours, unless the Doctor can turn it around first. Before he scoots over there however he picks up a gang to go with him (because, as he says, he’s never had a gang before, which is as good a reason as any I suppose.)  There’s Queen Nefertiti, an Edwardian hunter named Riddell, and of course Rory and Amy…oh yes, and Rory’s dad who was changing a light bulb when the Doctor materialised the Tardis around them all.

To be honest, the roping in of the gang seems a little, er, ropy. Ok so Nefertiti obviously barged her way into the Tardis during a previous adventure, but it’s hard to see why he brings Riddell along, and materialising around the Ponds seems an awfully convenient way to pick up Brian.

Luckily the pre title sequence rushes along at such great pace that you don’t have time to wonder, as first the Doctor accuses of Brian of being an infiltrator, then berates Rory for bringing him along, ignoring the fact he brought him along. It’s a lovely little scene showcasing Smith and Darvill’s comic timing to perfection.

The pre title sequence ends with the first appearance of the titular dinos. By this point the episode’s only been going for a few minutes yet an amazing amount of stuff has already been introduced.

For an episode potentially envisaged around such a vague notion, this episode really is chock full of great ideas, wonderful characters, and zippy dialogue, and it zooms along at such a great pace that even if something doesn’t quite work you’re miles past it before you realise it. Not that the story even has that many holes, in fact for the most part it hangs together quite well.

Ok so the teleporter dividing the gang into two groups is slightly convenient, but separating companions from the Doctor has been a well-used plot device since the early days of Hartnell, plus it adds to the drama, and gives Amy the chance to play at being the Doctor (Her “I will not have flirting companions” line when Riddell and Nefertiti start doing just that is hilarious.)

The reveal that the ship is Silurian in origin is not only a nice surprise, but it neatly explains what a bunch of dinosaurs are doing on board. We then discover that there was a crew of Silurians on board, but that they were killed, ejected into space, by a pair of robots under the instruction of David Bradley’s evil space trader, Solomon. It says something about Bradley’s performance that he manages to make Solomon threatening, even when he’s flat on his back, badly wounded. Even the robots manage to be intimidating, despite being voiced by Mitchell and Webb.

I imagine some people might have been annoyed by the use of the comedy duo, but I found their bickering robots brilliant, another fab part of a fab episode, though as funny as they are, they’re not to be trifled with, as Solomon first orders them to injure Brian, and then to kill the friendly Triceratops that the Doctor and co almost escape on.

It says a lot about how well this episode is directed that the death of Triccy (as I like to call him) is genuinely a touch emotional.

With the Indian missiles about to hit, Nefertiti offers to go with Solomon if he’ll let everyone else go. Solomon agrees because he realises her value (in a nice touch to this series’ theme Solomon’s super computer can’t identify the Doctor, Oswin’s wipe of the Dalek Path Web obviously had far reaching repercussions. )

Of course the Doctor doesn’t let Nefertiti stay in Solomon’s clutches, rescuing her and ensuring the Indian missies ignore the Silurian ship and instead target Solomon’s ship. There’s a slightly uneasy moment as the Doctor leaves Solomon to die, even though the Doctor has killed before it’s still slightly jarring, but not enough to spoil a great episode.

As I’ve said, perhaps the most amazing thing about this episode is how much there is going on, not a minute is wasted, and despite quite a large cast everyone gets their moment to shine, even if Nefertiti and Riddell are sidelined at times. In fact it’d be nice to see both again, and it would definitely be a pleasure to have Mark Williams return as Brian Williams.

Smith is on top form, manic, funny, yet capable of being cold and calculating, he really is a great Doctor, and when he eventually leaves (hopefully not for a while yet) I pity the guy who has to follow him.

Amy gets to play the leader, and gets a nice foreshadowing conversation with the Doctor when he says she and Rory will outlive him, and Amy says “Or vice versa,” Handily reminding us that we only have a few episodes of the Ponds left.

Arthur Darvill plays off Williams well, and it’s nice to see Rory get to do some nursing, it’s been a while.

I’m sure the frenetic pace won’t suit everyone, and I’m sure some will think this was too silly, or perhaps too dark, but for me it’s a top drawer classic that manages to encompass practically everything that’s great about Doctor Who all in one episode, proving yet again that it’s possible to be both funny and serious, epic and intimate. A fast paced romp that, were I still under ten, would probably rank as the greatest thing I’d ever seen. EVER!

As it is it was nice to let my inner eight year old out to play, if only for 45 or so minutes. Mr. Chibnall, you wrote a cracker.

Oh, and did I mention there were dinosaurs in it?

Doctor Who: Asylum of the Daleks

Posted: September 7, 2012 in TV reviews
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Ok first things first, this review will include SPOILERS so if you haven’t seen it yet, for god’s sake stop reading now!

So, after what feels like too long a break (and really it was just Christmas Day) Doctor Who is back with Asylum of the Daleks, written by show runner Steven Moffat, and despite the pre episode hype suggesting we’d see every kind of Dalek ever built, and the trailers which suggested the Doctor and his companions would be facing off against a giant army of Daleks, in the end this is a quite low key, smaller scale Dalek story, and actually is all the better because of that.

That doesn’t mean it’s low budget, or that it isn’t epic, because in places its grand and sweeping—we get to see the battle scarred surface of the Dalek’s home planet of Skaro, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Daleks in the Parliament, a whole heap of Dalek saucers, and the shielded asylum planet itself—but what makes the episode, its beating heart(s) mostly isn’t found within these parts.

At the start the Doctor is kidnapped by the Daleks, as are his companions Amy and Rory, and we also learn that they’re on the verge of divorce (although those of us who watched the ‘Pond Life’ web episodes the week before already knew this.)

The Daleks don’t want to kill the Doctor however, they need his help…for some reason, and here the story does fall down somewhat, because it all feels very contrived, and the McGuffin cited by the Daleks as their reason for needing the Doctor is iffy to say the least, not to mention their reasons for bringing Rory and Amy along, and in fact Rory and Amy’s breakup, which feels a bit like an excuse to give them something to do—it pains me to say it because I love them both, but it’s probably a good thing they’re leaving soon because it really feels like the writers are running out of things to do with them.

Still, even in the weakest part of the episode there are some golden moments. The Dalek Prime Minister explaining that the Daleks find hatred beautiful, and then intimating they’ve never been able to kill the Doctor because he hates them so much. Then there’s Amy’s assessment of the Doctor as he strides around the room, counting all the Daleks, identifying all the exits, and noting that Amy and Rory are standing too far apart, it’s wonderfully observed, especially the moment he straightens his bow tie. The humans who’ve been converted to Dalek puppets are a nice riff on the 60’s Robomen too.

“You want to fire me at a planet? That’s your plan?” says the Doctor, highlighting the ludicrous nature of the Dalek scheme in what could be construed as Moffat indulging in a bit of lampshading (the practice of a writer intentionally highlighting the plot holes in his/her own story). It’s almost as if he’s saying “This is daft, you know it’s daft and I know you know it’s daft, but let’s choose to ignore it and get on with the story anyway.”

Which is fair enough, especially given that from this point on the episode is a corker.

For starters buried in the heart of the Dalek Asylum is a young woman named Oswin played by Jenna Louise Coleman…the same Jenna Louise Coleman who’s signed on as the Doctor’s new companion, the same Jenna Louise Coleman who we weren’t expecting to see until Christmas…In this internet age it’s easy to become jaded, and far too easy to know what’s coming in advance, so to have the new companion turn up out of the blue was a surprise, a very pleasant surprise as it turns out  because she’s great, almost as bonkers and hyper as Matt Smith’s Doctor.

The Asylum itself is suitably moody and creepy, from the crashed escape pod full of decomposing bodies that are still functioning as Dalek zombies, to the narrow corridors deep below the surface where dusty, cobweb covered old Daleks sit like long abandoned manikins…until they start to wake up. And of course there’s the look on Amy’s face when she’s told that, not only will she become a humanoid Dalek, but that she’s been told this four times already.

Rory’s failure to understand that eggs is just the Dalek’s stutteringly trying to say Exterminate is both funny, and also keeps in our mind the conundrum of where Oswin’s getting the milk and eggs from to keep making soufflés?

Despite being unarmed, the Doctor manages to take out a gaggle of Daleks by turning their own insane desire to destroy him against them, but not before there’s a wonderfully surreal scene of Amy seeing the Daleks as dancers (which makes sense when you think about how Skaro’s finest glide about.)

Soon Amy and Rory are reconciled, and despite the contrived nature of their breakup it’s still a sweet moment. The same cannot be said of the reveal of Oswin’s true nature. She was human, once, but now she’s a Dalek, not even a puppet, a full on Dalek, and for all her boundless energy and quipping of earlier, Coleman does a wonderful job of going from a woman brimming with confidence to one who’s  broken, a small girl scared of the dark, and the horrible truth of her existence. It’s heart-breaking, yet also heartening, because it implies she’ll make a great companion…the only question remains is, will she be playing Oswin, or someone else?

On the whole this is a very good episode, but not quite a great one, not a classic. On the plus side the cast are wonderful, in the case of Smith, Gillian and Darvill this is just par for the course, but Coleman is icing on the cake. The Asylum is a wonderful notion, and this is perhaps the most original Dalek story since “Dalek”, interesting to note that they don’t exterminate anyone, at all, a first?

There are some great lines (Rory gets most of them) and when, in the end, Oswin wipes all trace of the Doctor from the Dalek’s hive memory, this opens up all sorts of interesting future storylines, imagine a universe where the Daleks no longer fear the oncoming storm, truly Moffat seems to be trying to take the Doctor back to his roots as a mysterious character, rather than a god like being who everyone knows…the Timelord equivalent of James Bond. “Ah Doctor, your reputation precedes you.” This is a welcome change.

It’s just a shame the Dalek’s reasoning behind kidnapping the Doctor didn’t make more sense, because if the opening hadn’t been so jarring this could have been a classic. Still, if every Doctor Who episode was only as good as this I’d be more than happy to keep watching forever.   (Though let’s face it I might do that anyway!)

Next up, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship!!

I feel like Danson!

Posted: March 14, 2012 in TV reviews

The first episode of the new season on CSI aired last night on channel 5, notable because it’s the 12th season of the show (seriously I’d love to go to Vegas but by my reckoning you have a 50/50 chance of being horribly murdered if you go there) but perhaps more importantly because of the new big name lead actor. Laurence Fishburne (who replaced William Petersen) has left the show after about 2 ½ years and been replaced by Ted (Cheers) Danson (I’m pretty sure that’s his full name).

It’s nice to have the show back, yeah it’s formulaic but you get what you pay for. I like the characters and I’m amused that even after so many years they can still conjure up inventive deaths and mysteries. I don’t want to know how the writers found out about the octopus stuff though!

And what of the new boy, Ted Danson’s DB Russell? Well obviously I don’t know how things are going to pan out long term, but it’s an assured start, and Danson already seems more comfortable in his role, and on the show, after one episode than Fishburne did after dozens of them. It helps as well that Russell is the supervisor; it always seemed odd that Langston was such a rookie character given Fishburne was the big name—it was potentially interesting but all too soon Langston morphed into first an arse kicking, name taking action hero, then a potential psychopath, and he never seemed to fit in.

Russell on the other hand already seems quite at home, and has that relaxed, quirky nature the show’s been missing since Grissom left, though judging by the first episode he’s going to be quirkier than Gil Grissom ever was. My only fear is that he becomes too kooky, but for the moment I’m impressed. The show might actually go back to being quite fun to watch now.