Saturday, 1 November 2014

Monthly Mini-Reviews: October - Halloween Special

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

 Frankenstein (2011 Stage Play)

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

Psycho II

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

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth

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

Pan's Labyrinth 

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

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

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - In the Forest of the Night

Once upon a time a forest grew across the world overnight.. But does this story have a happy ending?

'This is my world too. I walk your earth. I breathe your air.' 

Doctor Who has fashioned a new tradition for itself under Steven Moffat's reign; that of the 'celebrity guest writer.' Though perhaps not as much a household name as other such writers as Neil Gaiman and Richard Curtis, this week's episode was penned by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the Carnegie Award-winning novelist and writer of the famous opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. Clearly, this guy has big writing chops (never understood that phrase. Doesn't chops mean mouth? And if so, why does the size of your mouth denote how talented you are at your chosen field?). So did he pull it off with his déb-Who?  

'In the Forest of the Night' opens with a wonderful pre-titles sequence featuring the Doctor befriending the sweet yet troubled Maebh (Abigail Earnes being by far the best of this week's younger guest stars). It's a charming scene that really feels like a new writer putting a fresh stamp on the show (the explanation of the TARDIS as like sugar in coke is inspired) and its topped off with the reveal of London landmarks surrounded by trees, a truly enchanting image that sets up the whimsical tone of the episode.

Unfortunately, this assuredness does not hold out for the whole forty five minutes. The symbolism of forests in our collective consciousness, how they are always places of danger in folk tales and myths, is very strong. Hidden amongst other plot points there was even a reason why woods are humanity's primal fear. It is a shame then that this fascinating notion was passed aside for none-too-subtle ecological messages ('if they're good then why are we chopping them down?' one child even says) which feel somewhat recycled from the other year's 'The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe' (which also featured living trees with tinkly lights, now I think about it).

Still, Samuel Anderson is served a considerable role this week as Danny gets to be in his comfort zone, leading his young troops through danger, and Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are as good as ever with particular praise going to the Doctor's touching nod back to 'Kill the Moon.' Also, not enough mention has been made this year to Murray Gold, who has delivered endless memorable music for the show for almost ten years now. In this episode he seemed to have a ball, playing off the fairy tale qualities of the story in his score (there was a fabulous, rousing piece of music accompanying the shot of Nelson's Column surrounded by the forest). It's amazing that man's talent hasn't run dry after all this time.

Full of literary allusions, this ecological fairy tale of an episode was certainly an original treat. It had its flaws - a promising premise that never quite lived up to its potential (with an unfortunately risible final scene that was predictable from the off) - but Cottrell-Boyce bravely fashions a sort of all-ages modern fantasy out of the stuff of Doctor Who and experimentation must be encouraged. Otherwise nothing would ever grow.

'You need an appointment to see the Doctor' - The TARDIS turns classroom this week...

Next week: Old friends and foes alike return for the first part of this year's finale. Terrible sacrifices must be made when things get murky in 'Dark Water.' BBC One, next Saturday.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Flatline

The TARDIS really was bigger on the inside this week but did the episode itself exceed its dimensions or did it just 'Flatline'?

'I'm the Doctor. But you can call me Clara.' 

Some Doctor Who titles say it all. No one sat down to watch last week's 'Mummy on the Orient Express' saying 'I wonder what this will be about?' This week's episode, however, sported much more nondescript nomenclature. With so little able to be gathered about the episode, it could have gone anywhere. In the end, it was one of the strongest episodes of this series, featuring a fantastic new enemy and a great use of its leading characters. 

This series is already full of fabulous monsters - The Teller, the Foretold, Skovox Blitzer (only joking) - but this week's lot (no idea what to call them - living graffiti? The muralons?) might just be the best so far. This show's already made us take notice of statues, or flickers in the corner of the eye but now we also have to watch our backs when we pass a piece of street art. Two-dimensional aliens could have felt like a hodge-podge of other monsters - a bit of Vashta Nerada, a sprinkle of Chloe Webber and her penchant for literally capturing people on paper - but it never does and the aliens come out as true original creations. Kudos to Jamie Mathieson, who has proved himself these last two weeks to be a talented Doctor Who writer. A veteran of other quirky genre shows Being Human and Dirk Gently, he clearly understands how to spin a proper Doctor Who yarn. In my books, he is welcome back any time. 

It is indicative of the extent of Clara's growth this year that an episode led by the character last series might have been a worrying concept - would she be strong enough to carry it? - but here it feels perfectly natural, and, just as the Doctor says, she made a 'mighty fine Doctor.' Speaking of the Time Lord, compared to other so-called 'Doctor-lite' episodes, he really was in it a fair amount. In reality, the episode was more of a role reversal for the two - even down to the fact that the Doctor gets to chastise Clara for her lack of 'goodness.' Is this the start of a slippery slope for Clara? Will she be able to climb back up? With the finale only weeks away, we may find out soon enough...

This has been one of those reviews that has turned into a string of praise but there were simply so many moments to relish this week. The Doctor acting like Thing from The Addams Family when pulling the tiny TARDIS away from the train tracks. The rather Looney Tunes method of fooling the aliens (remember Wile E Coyote drawing a fake door in a mountain to trick Road Runner?). Even the 'phoning home' segments of this episode had much more of a purpose than last week, embellishing the idea of Clara's 'cheating' on Danny. The bottom line is, though it was at first as hazy as the nature of this week's ambiguous aliens, 'Flatline' turned out to be anything but flat.

You know when people say paintings follow you around the room? Apparently it's the same with graffiti...

Next Week: 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night...' William Blake's famous poem comes true when trees sprout up overnight in next Saturday's episode of Doctor Who. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Mummy on the Orient Express

Mummy! The Doctor's holiday turns into a horror when something goes a-murdering on the Orient Express...

'I'm the Doctor and I will be your victim this evening. Are you my mummy?'

Doctor Who has cultivated a new type of story for itself in recent years. Rather than just historical stories, contemporary adventures and proper sci-fi dramas set in the future, there is now the historical-in-space. In the past we've had the Titanic ... in space! Dickensian London... in space! This week, the show gave us, you've guessed it, the Orient Express ... in space! And, something else you already guessed, on board is a rather ancient and unwanted passenger...

As this was an episode premise I was very much looking forward to I'm glad to say it was a very enjoyable adventure. We have a gaggle of guest characters with their own secrets but other than that, 'Mummy on the Orient Express' wisely does not lay on the Agatha Christie allusions (something already done brilliantly in 'The Unicorn and the Wasp') and largely plays its absurd plot straight, meaning that we just accept the bonkers juxtaposition of a classic horror creature and the period glitz and glamour. In fact, a word (or a few words. Oh, what the heck, a whole sentence) must be given to the set and costume designs here as the famous train looked wonderful in its 1920s décor and the Mummy, along with its chilling conceit, really was quite a visceral creation for Doctor Who. It is sure to give children tears before bedtime (that is if they're even still awake - for British viewers, the show is being shown increasingly late in the evening, something I'm not too sure of). 

Due to the lack of the Doctor's companion in promotional material, I assumed the Orient Express was going to be a Clara-lite ride but in the end Jenna Coleman (looking glorious in full flapper garb) had an important decision to make this episode and it was lovely to see the Doctor's kinder side leaking out again as he tries not to annoy his friend. Frank Skinner is also likeable as engineer Perkins but with the amount of screen time he shares with the Doctor the role does smack a little of  'celebrity guest star of the week.' So much was made of him, in fact, that I was a convinced that he would either turn out to be the culprit or an agent of Missy. Well, it still could happen.

Overall, featuring an entertaining script from newcomer Jamie Mathieson and great visuals (the clock counting down in the corner of the screen is a nifty, almost Sherlockian, device), the episode's lighter touch is a welcome change from 'Kill the Moon' although particular moments of happiness here do somewhat undercut the drama of that episode. Still, it seems a trifle unfair to complain about such things as, on an insular level (there was no appearance of the Promised Land this week), this episode invited us on board and took us on surely the most solid, classic and classy adventure this series. If you have a counter-argument, I'd like to hear it. You've got 66 seconds...

Is there a Doctor on board? - The Time Lord has to solve the mystery of the mummy murders...

Next week: Separated from the Doctor, Clara must face an alien menace from another dimension in 'Flatline' on BBC One at 8.30pm.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Review: Doctor Who - Kill the Moon

Stepping on the Moon might be one small step for a man, but it's also one massive decision for all of mankind in 'Kill the Moon'...

 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike.'

Over its long history, Doctor Who has posited quite a few difficult moral decisions - should humanity share the world with the Silurians? Should the Doctor save Pompeii? Is it right to destroy Gallifrey for the sake of the Universe? Well, the latest episode of Series Eight offered us a new, more avant-garde, one. Would you kill the Moon?

Without saying too much (I know, if you're reading this you've probably already seen the episode, but you just might be here to get some sort of spoiler fix, and I don't want to indulge that - see a Doctor), this episodes sports a terrific premise and one that's pure Doctor Who; an ingenious twist on a familiar (if outer space) object. Much like 'Listen' elsewhere this series, the episode also earns marks for audacity for switching styles half-way through, beginning as a sci-fi horror story (with that wonderfully eerie image of cobwebs on the Moon) and then developing into a moral debate which shakes the solidarity of our heroes' friendship...

On the other hand, 'Kill the Moon' isn't perfect. First-time writer Peter Harness is, in my opinion, still learning the Who ropes and much of this episode lacks the witty repartee that distinguishes most stories. Furthermore, there was some dissonance between the matter of the episode and how it had been promoted - the shocking action that the Doctor was said to make here was not quite so Earth-shattering (or rather Moon-shattering) as it had been made out to be. This could be seen as a plus, though, as rather than breaking the character in the end it just pushed the Doctor towards measures he doesn't usually take but kept the morals of our hero intact. 

It hardly needs saying any more, but Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman once again did their best with the dramatic possibilities of what they were given. Clara's tearing the Doctor apart is particularly impressive, even though I generally find it more enjoyable to watch a Doctor and a companion getting on rather than arguing (yes, I'm looking at you, Sixth Doctor and Peri). Likewise, Ellis George did a commendable job this week as guest traveller Courtney. The school girl was not a crucial element to the episode but at least was not as superfluous as the Matiland children from 'Nightmare in Silver.' Still, after last week's sparks between the Doctor and Danny I'd have much rather seen Mr Pink join the TARDIS crew in place of his student. As a soldier, he might have been on the 'Kill the Moon' side of the argument - which would have given it a more interesting voice than Hermione Norris' sadly undeveloped character, Lundvik

For all my grumblings, however, 'Kill the Moon' was a worth addition to the series, moving this run of episodes up a gear as it heads into murkier territories. It might not have been out of this world, but, with a thoughtful subject matter, an unpredictable Doctor and a lack of easy answers, it certainly had gravity.

Dark Side of the Moon - a difficult decision has to be made... but what will the Doctor do?

Next week: The Doctor has a ticket to board the Orient Express... in space! With a Mummy! I bet you'll never guess the title...
'The Mummy on the Orient Express' is next Saturday at 8.30pm on BBC One. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Monthly Mini-Reviews: September - Young Adult Novel Special

Despite how it may look on this blog, I haven't simply spent the last two months watching the new series of Doctor Who non-stop (you have to do something in the time that it takes to load the next episode). I've also been reading, and the following post will focus on the Young Adult titles I have consumed of late. 
There's always something of a debate going on between literary people about whether adults should read Young Adult books or not. Personally, I'm a big advocate for the former as I have no idea why you would close yourself off to such an imaginative and all-consuming range of books. Something these mini-reviews will hopefully demonstrate...

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

There's always something especially alluring (at least for me) about books that are quirky and indefinable, and Ransom Rigg's hit début novel Miss Peregrine... definitely fits this bill - a light sci-fi/fantasy novel, it is inspired and illustrated by old photos of peculiar children. As fascinating as the images are - and the book itself is a beautiful thing to behold - the story is also engaging, featuring lots of great ideas. For a British reader, I noticed a few Americanisms slip through into the Wales-set story but that is not enough to detract from the well-disseminated mystery plot, with a brilliant monster and, on occasion, unexpected depth. Apparently, that old master of the macabre, Tim Burton is set to direct a film version and, after enjoying the book as I did, I'd say he could have something very good - but certainly peculiar - on his hands.

 Skulduggery Pleasant

Sometimes things in the world just don't make sense. When the first book in the Skulduggery Pleasant series - sporting the fabulous premise of an undead detective caught in a war against the forces of darkness - was released I was the perfect age to read it... but I didn't. Several, years later, I'm now playing catch-up. The first book is, as one would expect, a fun adventure with great snappy dialogue and a enjoyable apocalyptic plot. It's one that feels familiar but writer Derek Landy uses this to his advantage, to spend more time filling out the bare bones of the characters (and, yes, that pun was definitely intended), most notably the skeletal Skulduggery and his new teenage sidekick Stephanie (or Valkyrie, as is her preferred name). After the experience of reading this one, I look forward to the rest (I'm told that the latest, final, book is absolutely heart-breaking). As for why it took so long for it to occur to me to read the books, that is still a mystery. In fact, I might need the services of Skulduggery himself to investigate it...

A Monster Calls

Whereas the previous two books I've looked at have been popular series-starters, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is a very kind of book. From an idea by Siobhan Dowd, who sadly passed away before she could write it, this story sees Conor, whose mother suffers from cancer, being visited by a giant, story-telling monster every night. It's a very moving and heartfelt book and, again, supported by gorgeous illustrations from Jim Kay (I'm loving this trend for well-designed books - I wonder if it's a stand against Kindle?). Ness handles the sensitive material well, making the tale a very human story with elements of fantasy rather than the other way around. If a monster comes to your window tonight to tell you a story, you wouldn't go wrong if you asked it to tell you this one.

 11 Doctors 11 Stories

No, I can't go a whole post without mentioning Doctor Who. I'm well aware I have a condition and I'd thank you not to mention it. Hmph.
For the 50th anniversary last year, BBC Books brought together eleven of Young Adult fiction's finest writers to pen a story for each of the eleven Doctors (aw bless, only eleven) and this chunky compendium is the result. As all anthologies do, the collection has its highs and lows. Some authors, sadly, while no doubt talented, do not quite connect with the world of Doctor Who enough to pen a proper Doctor Who tale. However, applause must be given to Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson and our old friend Derek Landy for some of the best stories in the collection. Rather predictably, my favourite was Neil Gaiman's effort featuring the Eleventh Doctor and Amy fighting the chilling monsters, old enemies of the Time Lords, the Kin. If Mr Gaiman ever writes for the show again (and he'd bloody better do) here's hoping he brings the Kin with him to the smallscreen.
Typically, just as I have purchased this, the BBC are about to release the collection with an extra story starring the Twelfth Doctor. I think I'm just going to hop a few years into the future and grab the 25 Doctors 25 Stories version.

If you are interested in reading more, then please visit my run-down of the 10 Best Moments of Series 8 So Far. For every view it gets, one pound is given to the British Whovian Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping Doctor Who fans deal with their terrible life-long affliction. Thank you, every little helps.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Review: Doctor Who - The Caretaker

After taking care of the universe for centuries, the Doctor becomes the caretaker of Coal Hill School when an alien menace arrives. This really is the end of the world for Clara...

'I'm the one who carries you out of the fire. He's the one who lights it.'

Last week we had Doctor Who as a classy crime caper but this week was a very different kind of class as the show turned into a high-school drama - demonstrating the perils of Parent's Evening and examining the home lives of teachers. Waterwho Road, if you like. However, if this all sounds a little domestic (you wannabe Ninth Doctor, you), the Doctor and his impact on the everyday is very much at the heart of this school day in the life. 

Contrasting with other episodes this year, 'The Caretaker' had a simple plot, merely used as a tool to hang lots of heart and humour on to. Much more than most Doctor Whos this episode was led by its characters with the three leads all giving wonderful turns. Clara and Danny's relationship continues to impress and Samuel Anderson displays a nonchalant charm as his character treats the Doctor with irreverence rather than the usual awe, quite rightly pointing out the Doctor's hypocrisy when it comes to soldiers. There will surely be sparks to come in the TARDIS soon, and it won't just be because of some faulty switch...

The highlight of the episode though is, as it should be, the Doctor. Cast hilariously as Clara's disapproving dad, he's eager to meet his ward's suitor and sports a proud glint in his eye when he thinks she has chosen a boyfriend like himself (or one of his selves). This was surely Capaldi's most endearing performance in the role yet with the dour tones of his first few episodes thankfully toned down to be replaced by a twinkly-eyed irascibility in the vein of the First and Third Doctors.

On the other hand, after the magnificence of the Teller from last week, the twitchy, ungainly Skovox Blitzer must be one of the least threatening Doctor Who monsters ever, despite it apparently being 'one of the most deadly killing machines ever created.' Personally, I assume the Doctor was embellishing the danger somewhat to impress Clara - rather than having the potential to blow up the planet, the Skovox Blitzer seemed to merely be the scourge of school chairs.

Overall, as with any episode by Doctor Who's king of comedy, co-writer Gareth Roberts, 'The Caretaker' gave us lots to smile at, even if it was not his best work (that's a tie between 'The Shakespeare Code' and 'The Lodger' for this reviewer). By virtue of it being the episode that took care of the series' ongoing plot threads (Danny meeting the Doctor and, going by the 'next time' trailers, providing us with a new companion in schoolgirl Courtney) it was not a standalone great. However, with an abundance of warmth and wit, plus a welcome appearance by Peter Capaldi's The Thick of It co-star Chris Addison as Missy' prissy secretary. this caretaker episode of the show went about its job with flair. Top marks!

The Caretaker throws a spanner in the works of Clara and Danny's relationship

Next Week: The TARDIS takes the Time Lord, Clara and Courtney on a grand day out to the Moon. However, the Doctor must take a giant leap and face a grave decision - can he really 'Kill the Moon?' 
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