Sunday, 24 May 2015

Review: Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular

Saturday 23rd May marked the first of a new Doctor Who musical event in the UK - the Symphonic Spectacular! Here's a riff on this melodious matinee...

While many film scores are well celebrated (and, now that I mention it, you might like to know I've recently written about my favourite superhero movie themes here) there's not a lot of love for television soundtracks. Doctor Who, of course, is the exception with its incidental music being yet another aspect of the show that it does better than anyone else. Over the last ten years, Murray Gold's music has been just as thrilling and moving as any of your favourite film scores and deserves him a place amongst the best score composers working today. The Symphonic Spectacular which, much like the Proms Doctor Who specials before it, is dedicated to showcasing Gold's, er, gold-standard stuff has been touring Australia since 2012 but has now crossed over the pond.

I was lucky enough to get tickets to attend the premiere performance yesterday - but not before a spanner was thrown in the works. The day before the event it was revealed that builders had uncovered an unexploded WW2 bomb in the vicinity of Wembley (where the concert was being held). Still, it was decided that the show must go on...

Only one thing was certain. Whether it be from the music or the bomb, this was definitely going to be an explosive afternoon.

At about two and half hours (including interval), this was the perfect afternoon out for any Doctor Who fan. The BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales played a cherry-picked selection of Gold's music just as well as they do in the actual show - although it's even more impressive in the flesh. To give some extra entertainment for the kids (oh, all right, everyone), various monsters also popped up throughout (a highlight was the Daleks ordering the orchestra to play some Dalek music or face EX-TER-MIN-ATION). What's more, the event had a charming and cheeky host in the form of none other than the Fifth Doctor himself, Peter Davison, who has quite the repertoire of good-natured digs at such varied targets as conductor Ben Foster, his fellow Doctors (particularly Colin Baker) and even Adric ('cos that kid doesn't get enough flak).

But of course the music is the real star of the show. The pieces chosen are mostly from the recent Series Eight but memorable melodies from previous eras also get a look in, including 'The Doctor's Theme.' It's a tough one to call but, for this audience-member, favourite pieces include the always inspiring 'All the Strange, Strange Creatures' (a great excuse to get lots of monsters on stage), the air-thumping anthem 'I Am the Doctor' hidden in the medley 'The Pandorica Suite' as well as the moody, elusive Twelfth Doctor theme 'A Good Man?' Plus, there are a couple of extra-special treats for those who don't rush off at the end.

So, although the bomb thankfully did not go off (it was removed and detonated safely elsewhere, for anyone interested), the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular certainly was da bomb!*

The Daleks invade! Luckily, the Doctor (Peter Davison) is there to save us.
*I'm never saying that again... 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Monthly Scribbles: Inside Series Nine

Well, now that April's upped and left (won't be seeing her again til next year now - just the odd phone call wouldn't go amiss), it's time to look at what happened over the past month. Up first, the Doctor will be seeing doubles in the next series...

Doctor Who Series Nine is shaping up

Quite a few details about the 2015 series of Doctor Who have come to light over the past few weeks. One of the most high-profile was the news that Game of Throne's Maisie Williams is to guest star in episodes 5 and 6 of Series Nine - The Girl Who Died, co-written by Series Eight's Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, and The Woman Who Lived, by Torchwood writer Cathrine Treganna. With all the coverage she is getting, it's assumed Maisie will be playing a major character. The prevalent theory is that she will be a younger version of Clara. The character's detractors will no doubt be pleased that there may be two Claras runnng about this year...

Elsewhere, we now know UNIT head Kate Stewart will be back not once but twice in Series Nine, in episodes 1, 2, 7 and 8. And let's not forget this rocking monster, the first new enemy to be revealed from the series.
However, the most intriguing tidbit we now know is that Series Nine will be much heavier on two parters. In a move away from the usual series structure of the one-three double-decker stories, apparently every two episodes of the series will be linked in some way - with it only being revealed that they will be of the same story when you watch it. This is a very bold new way of laying out a series and one I'm very excited to see unfold. Hurry up, August!

I was Sherlocked! 

Let's zoom in from the whole of time and space and forcus on Baker Street now. This month, I was lucky enough to attend the first official Sherlock convention. I could only make it up to London for one of the days but it was still good fun, although I unfortunately missed Benedict Cumberbatch's appearance. A highlight was Moffat and Gatiss' talk - the pair being as entertaining and informative as they always are (with some tantalising hints about what stories they want to do next on the show) - and there was always something to do (with prop musuems and, well, the endless queing). You can read a fuller write-up of the event here.

Mr Holmes trailer

Sticking with Sherlock, here's the trailer for Mr Holmes, which sees Ian McKellen as an elderly Holmes revisiting the case that made him retire. I have some misgivings about the film - it doesn't seem particularly Holmesian in tone and I'm not sure I really want to see my beloved Sherlock Holmes at the end of his life, losing his great mental faculties, but I'm certainly fascinated. Here's hoping it makes a reference to Miss Mary Russell, the retired Holmes' partner in detection - and wife! - in one series of novels.

Highlight of the month

Inside No. 9 (Series Two)

Despite never having seen TV's masters of macabre Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's previous dark comic hits The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, I was very pleased to recently catch the second series of Inside No. 9, a hidden gem of a show that deserves more attention. An anthology series, every episode differs wildly in tone and atmosphere but are linked by the fact they are set in somewhere labelled 'no.9' (e.g. a train carriage, a haunted house, a seemingly-ordinary flat). As with every anthology series, the quality varies but each episode is a tense, witty treat with at least half of the six-part run being outright classics. Shearsmith and Pemberton manage to carve each half hour segment into whatever shape they want - be it a nail-biting horror or a surprising tear-jerker. When it surely returns for a series three, I urge you to go a-knocking on No.9 - you never know what you might find inside...

Friday, 1 May 2015

Top Five Immortal Characters

Immortality has always been a popular trope in all forms of fiction, as it's a perenially fascinating topic. As such there are many great fictional characters who never shuffled off this mortal coil - and here are some of my favourites. 
To keep things interesting I've banned myself from putting any Doctor Who characters on this list (really, I could fill the whole lot up with Who folks - The Doctor, Captain Jack, the Master, the Cybermen...). So read on for a who's-who-and-also-not-in-Who of immortal characters. Hurry up, before we all die of old age...  


Fiction is full of vampires tortured by their immortality, so I've bundled them all into one for the sake of variety (and to represent them I've chosen one of the world's more underappreciated vampires; the Count from Sesame Street. Not enough evil undead give their eternal lives to teach young children arithmatic). They come in different groups. Many like to spend eternity causing bloodshed - Dracula. Some like to spend it righting wrongs - Genevieve Dieudonne who fights the aforementioned Prince of Darkness in Anno Dracula. And others like to switch between both - such as TV vampires Hal York and Spike. Whatever the type, though, you can rely on a vampire to spark an interesting discussion on the nature of immortality. 

The Hempstock Women

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is really the story of two ancient forces battling each other with a small ordinary boy caught in the middle. While the terrifying Ursula is vehemently on the side of the bad, the Hempstock women serve as the boy's saviours and prove that immortality doesn't have to make you tortured - it can just make you wise. The three Hempstocks (almost personifying the stereotypical three witches) and the nature of their long shelflife is well dealt with; we know they were around at the time of the Domesday Book and beyond but we never really find out who or what they are. The Hempstocks tell us that, yes, we don't understand all the mysteries of the universe but sometimes it's better not to. 

 Peter Pan 

It is an oft-discussed notion if one would choose immortality. Certainly, most of the characters on this list would call it a curse. But Peter Pan, the Boy Who Never Grew Up, chooses to be immortal rather than face the terrors of adulthood. At first, just as Peter does, many of us would love to be carefree children forever but there's tragedy in Peter's decision, as ably presented in the surprisingly good 2003 film and messed about with in Steven Spielberg's Hook, as he cannot do such grown-up things as reciprocate his feelings for Wendy. Ultimately, though, it's up to you whether Peter's life is a blessing or a curse, making him one of the most interesting immortal characters around. 

Edward Scissorhands

I was going to put Frankenstein's monster on this list but then remembered that immortality is not really an attribute of Mary Shelley's original creation, more of the films that it spawned. So instead Frankie's gothic cousin Eddie takes his spot on this list. A cross between the monster, the Beast and Tim Burton himself, Edward is an innocent who, just like the monster, is corrupted by the outside world. Unlike Frankie, he's also one half of a doomed romance, partly made impossible by his immortality. Edward serves as a warning that it's no fun to be different. 


 While others on this list might not have enjoyed their immortality, they at least had the comfort of being frozen in time, never ageing. Unfortunately, Tithonus, one of the unluckiest figures in Greek Mythology, learnt the hard way that your should always check the fine print when wishing for eternal life. After falling in love with this lowly mortal, the goddess Aurora pleaded with Zeus to make him immortal - unfortunately, she forgot to ask for everlasting youth. Thus, Tithonus grows into a withered husk of a man - who his immortal lover eventually grows tired of. Tithonus is the epitome of all immortal fictional characters as he embodies the idea at the heart of all of them; we might all wish for longer lives but you have to be careful what you wish for. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Doctor Who: Step Back in Time - The Unquiet Dead

To celebrate Doctor Who's tenth anniversary, it's time to look back at the story that started it all. Well, for this fan anyway...

'What the Shakespeare?' 

*Disclaimer: As mentioned in several previous posts, 'The Unquiet Dead' is a very important Doctor Who for me so this review shall be shamelessly personal*

I have a very vivid memory of 9th April 2005, ten years ago this very day. It was a Saturday evening and I was settled in front of the TV, happy to be finally about to catch an episode of this new sci-fi series that I had managed to miss so far. Whizz forward 45 minutes, and I was even happier - it was fair to say this Doctor Who had captured my attention. In no small part due to the episode I had chosen to watch first.

'The Unquiet Dead' is the first in the distinguished line of the so-called 'celebrity historicals', a subgenre of new Doctor Who that includes 'Vincent and the Doctor,' and last year's 'Robot of Sherwood' (sort of) - and I think it's one of the best, delivering an enjoyable snapshot of its guest star. Simon Callow plays 'ol' Charlie boy' to a T (a role he's returned to in the Whoniverse in 'The Wedding of River Song'). His Scrooge-like awakening might be swiftly-handled but it is well done, particularly the Tiny Tim-quoting final line. It might not be as deep a character study as the aforementioned Vincent but it is probably the best episode for taking a famous author on an adventure just like their own fictions.
As such, the usual stars of a Doctor Who episode - its monsters - might not be as good as many others but the Gelth deserve something for being the first controversial creation of the revived series (the visceral sound of the Gelth snapping their victim's necks is not something I think the BBC would allow now). Importantly, this episode told us that Doctor Who could still scare the Dickens out of us.

As with every Doctor Who, it's the Doctor who makes the episode and Christopher Eccleston's number Nine is at his best here. Going from cheeky and charming to commanding and stubborn in a flash - just look at the seance scene where he goes from quipping one moment ('I love a happy medium!') to outlying his alien nature, by allowing the Gelth to inhabit human corpses, the next. Also of note is the chemistry he and Billie Piper share here. Much is made of that between Tennant and Piper but the still-grieving Ninth Doctor is positively bursting with love for Rose, just as she has burgeoning feelings for him. In short, this episode has both salient parts of the show in check - the love and the monsters.

In retrospect, this was the perfect Doctor Who for me to catch first - I love a bit of Victoriana and you can't beat a good ghost story - but those interests actually came later. What struck me at the time about 'The Unquiet Dead' was just the power of the show. The time travel, the monsters, the adventure and the amazing, eccentric man at its heart. This episode isn't one you often see on best episodes lists, even on lists of the best episodes of this series, but it's always been special to me. It might not be up there with the absolute classics but it contains all the elements that make Doctor Who great. The best evidence for that is the fact that I am writing these words at all, all these years later, now a seasoned Doctor Who fan - something for which I have this episode to thank.

And so, as Charles Dickens almost observed, God bless 'The Unquiet Dead', everyone!

Ghost town - The Ninth Doctor and Rose find Victorian Cardiff swarming with spectres.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Monthly Scribbles: The Spectre of Sherlock and Doctor Who

This month we have the ultimate crossover as the Doctor, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes team up ... in this retrospective on March.

Doctor Who at 10

If you're a Doctor Who fan you'll no doubt know that the revived series turned ten last month, causing much celebration internet-wide.
One of the most fun was this series of birthday wishes, seen on the Radio Times website, from most of the major - and many minor - members of the cast and cr-Who. Here's a selection (click to enlarge). 

Personally, as I (whisper it) missed the first couple of episodes on original transmission my tenth anniversary of being a Doctor Who fan comes on 9th April (when 'The Unquiet Dead', the first episode I saw, was shown). I talk about the beginnings of my Doctor Who viewing here (please excuse my younger self his love of exclamation marks!).

SPECTRE trailer released!

As a fan of Casino Royale and Skyfall (let's not mention Quantum of Solace) I'm eagerly awaiting Daniel Craig's fourth outing as the not-so secret agent, Spectre. The trailer's a well-done teaser (love the tinkly, slightly sinister version of the Bond theme) and demonstrates just why I like Craig's films. Rather than just mindless action flicks, they have character and mood which makes them, in my opinion, even more exciting. Have a look for yourself below.

Absolutely squee-inducing, eh? The trailer has whet my appetite so much I have many questions - but there's one thing in particular I want to find out about this film. Not the mystery of Bond's childhood or if Blofeld really is back but rather how are you meant to write that title? SPECTRE? Spectre?

SpEcTrE comes out this October.

Sherlock Series Four will be 'tougher', says Steven Moffat 

March was definitely the month for news on Britain's greatest heroes. On the Sherlock front, Steven Moffat revealed that, after the positively cuddly Series Three (for three quarters of it, at least), the next series will be 'tougher' and there will be 'consequences' to Sherlock's actions. It's all very intriguing and reminds me very much of how Moffat described Series 8 of Doctor Who. It seems that Moffat's in the mood for writing 'dark' at the moment. Work on Series Four is in the early stages but a Christmas special, set in Victorian times, is upcoming.

Highlight of the month

The film, TV show or book I've decided to highlight this month coincidentally fits into the impromptu 'British heroes' theme of this post as we look at one of the forgotten heroes of World War Two...

The Imitation Game

I've heard mixed reactions to The Imitation Game, the story of the man who cracked the Enigma Code Alan Turing, but I'm glad to say I fell on the positive side. Cumberbatch is tremendous as Turing, employing an entirely different physicality from his other socially-awkward genius so you don't simply see him as, as he put it, 'Sherlock in tweed.' Away from its lead, the film as a whole is intelligently done, with many an affecting moment. It's always difficult for biopics to straddle the line between historic fact and good drama but I think Imitation largely manages it. The emotional elements may cause the film to overlook the fine points of how Turing built his machine and solved Enigma but this isn't a documentary. What it succeeds in is presenting a truly inimitable individual who deserved to have his story remembered.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: Blink

Clearly March is the month of telly birthdays. The other week I celebrated the eighteenth birthday of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now, on 26th March, 21st century Doctor Who reaches double figures. To celebrate - with this, my 100th Doctor Who post on this blog - I'm looking back at one of my favourite stories of the modern Who era. But first, I have a confession to make.
In Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary year, I wrote a post entitled 'My Top Three Doctor Who Stories: The Doctor's Wife' and then promised to write the next two soon after. Well, finally, I'm making good on that promise and am finally giving you Part Two of my top three Doctor Who episodes. Expect Part Three in the summer of 2017...

'People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more of a big ball of  wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey... stuff.'

What more can be said about 'Blink' that hasn't been said before? Casual viewers and hardcore fans alike seem to hail this one above all other Whos. Myself, although I don't think it's quality is quite as above the rest of the show as some do (every episode of Doctor Who is brilliant in its own way), it is one of my all-time favourites. But just why is 'Blink' so popular?

The big reason why I think it stands as such an impressive piece of work - even after multiple, multiple viewings - is because of how everything feels necessary and perfectly pitched. Usually when you endlessly rewatch old favourites, you start to notice things that could be done better or bits that don't make sense. 'Blink', however, manages to withstand such weary eyes and survive intact. One thing, even if it is not a fault, that does leap out now though is all the intrigue surrounding DVD easter eggs. It might have occurred to some already but you can imagine watching this in a few years time and thinking 'aw bless, I remember 'easter eggs.'' Hopefully, due to the precision of everything else this won't date the episode too much. 

Understandably, as they are perhaps the TV series' scariest monster (though for my personal creepiest creature in Who I point you to Steven Moffat's Floofs from his short story 'The Corner of the Eye') the Weeping Angels are generally the most praised aspect of the story. For me, however, Carey Mulligan's Sally Sparrow is just as integral to its success - as in her capable hands we remarkably never miss the Doctor, who is reduced to a fleeting guiding presence here. Without any offence to Amy and Clara, it is a shame neither of Moffat's companions share the maturity and strong-headedness of Sally.

After their breakout success, it was a no-brainer that the aforementioned Angels would return (and, for what it's worth, I really like their next two appearances, though popular opinion says they are far inferior) but I wish other elements of this episode had been repeated as well. Because of how well it works here, 'Blink' makes me wish there were more of these Doctor/companion-less adventures. Not only do they free up the main actors' schedules they also make the Whoniverse feel more expansive and it reminds you that the Doctor can't solve all of the alien shenanigans going on in the universe. Personally, I'd love one of these self-contained mini-movies every year!

Like, say, 'Genesis of the Daleks' before it, 'Blink' has proven itself to be one of Doctor Who's most fiercely acclaimed stories. Thanks to the Weeping Angels, Steven Moffat's tightest script and a glittering lead, 'Blink' certainly isn't a disposable episode that disappears when you stop watching it - rather it's a veritable stone-cold classic. The perfect reminder for fans, or the perfect convincer for a newcomer, of why modern Doctor Who is so blinking brilliant.*

Stone circle - The Angels are trapped staring at each other at the end of Blink. But I've always wondered what will happen when the light bulb goes off?

Fancy a Doctor Who marathon on this special day but don't know which ones to watch? Then read my list of the 30 Greatest Doctor Who Episodes of the Revived Series over on Whatculture!

*Even I think I might have overstepped my pun quota in that last paragraph.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Best of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I was something of a late-comer to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only starting watching it a few years ago, but I learnt to love it just as many longer-running fans have done. Buffy has the features of all the great shows - wit, heart and loveable characters - but I admire it most of all for being the mother of largely every genre show made since. Torchwood, Being Human, Merlin, 21st century Doctor Who and more all owe Buffy a huge debt. Russell T Davies has gone on record saying how Buffy 'raised the bar' of television in general. From the way it mixes all the elements so well, it's hard to disagree. 
This week Buffy turned 18 years old so in celebration, I'm going to talk you through my favourite episodes of the show. And I'll begin right about... now. 

'Hush', (Season 4, Episode 10)

The 'Blink' of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Inspired by how critics only seemed to praise the show's dialogue, creator Joss Whedon crafted this episode to be almost entirely silent - as the residents of Sunnydale have their voices stolen. The thieves are the grinning, murderous Gentlemen - I'd wager the scariest band of TV monsters outside of Doctor Who. 'Hush' is so wonderfully creepy it makes you wish Buffy had thought to be properly scary more often but, then, this episode is so successful that there was probably no point in attempting to top it.

 Restless, (Season 4, Episode 22)

Dreams are an oft-used device on TV but rarely, if ever, are they portrayed as realistically as here. Unlike, say, Inception which simply uses dreams to play with the laws of physics, 'Restless' embraces all the randomness-yet-possibly-meaningful nature of dreams to peek a glimpse at the psyche of the main characters. What's more, it's a novel approach to the series finale - more of a coda than a climax. Quite possibly, one of the surrealist - and bravest - episodes of mainstream telly ever.

The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

A little like 'Restless' embraces everything about dreams, 'The Body' portrays the grief process with stark reality, particularly that on the very day that one loses a loved one. Inspired by the loss of Whedon's own mother, this episode looks at how each of Buffy's friends - and in particular Buffy herself and her sister Dawn - react to the sudden death of Joyce. Not from a vampire attack, but an aneurysm, It's the perfect example of how Buffy transcended the expectation of what genre shows could do - something that other shows have continued since. Yet none of them have delivered something as truly devastating as this.

Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

But on the other hand, Buffy can be, and usually is, lots of fun. And this musical episode is surely the most gloriously enjoyable Buffy of them all. I'm not a massive fan of musicals, but the way in which the usual character drama and plot development of a normal Buffy episode is done through song is sublime - and also they're just really good songs. This episode teaches a lesson a lot of TV shows could learn from Buffy as a whole - with just a bit more dedication and care, you can turn average television into something really special.

Fancy some more of my favourite Buffy episodes? Then you can read my, more sweeping, look at the show's finest hours over on Whatculture here.

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