Monday, 26 June 2017

TV Review: Doctor Who serves up an instant all time classic

S10E11 - "World Enough and Time"

Contains Spoilers.

Oh can you even begin to imagine how that ending would've felt if we didn't all already know it was coming? "World Enough and Time" is expertly paced in how it builds to two enormous reveals - the Mondasian Cybermen are making a comeback, and John Simm's Master has returned. Unfortunately, these two reveals were announced by the BBC way back before the season even began. It was a move to try and win viewers back to Doctor Who, to try and get the much needed casual viewer interested again with the return of an old face from the much-adored Tennant years, but that doesn't prevent it from being an incredibly frustrating decision by the BBC.

Let's get this straight first, knowing that these reveals were coming in no way lessened "World Enough and Time". This is a brilliant hour of television from Steven Moffat, beautifully directed by Rachel Talalay. It's an episode as smart as it is intricate, as bold as it is thoughtful. Every cast member is on top form throughout, arguably stronger than any of them have been all season. I just can't help but think - how unspeakably exciting would the final five minutes of this episode have been if we didn't know they were coming?

Alas, that's something we can't change, and so "World Enough and Time" must be judged as is. The genius of Moffat's script here is subtle, impressively so. The man's writing can often feel very loud, very "in your face" about how great it is, whether or not he's earned the right to do so. But this penultimate episode holds back from that, taking a brilliant concept and using it in unexpected ways. The Doctor, Bill, Nardole and Missy are on a 400-mile long spaceship that is reversing away from the gravitational pull of a black hole - AKA, on one end of the ship time is moving much faster.

Rather than use this concept to form an episode of conventional wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey nature, Moffat instead uses it to craft something more emotional. By pulling Bill away from the rest of the cast and putting her on the other end of the ship, a race against time begins - but it's one the Doctor has already lost. Within mere minutes passing for the Doctor, Bill has already been fitted with a robotic heart and is forming a new life down on the bottom floor. The Doctor has left an imprint in her mind though - "Wait for me", he tells her, and so she does.

Only then, about fifteen minutes in, does the episode slow down and take some time to start thinking. It's unquestionably the strongest first act of any episode this series, but what's refreshing is that the slower parts of the episode are still just as strong. We follow Bill through a hospital ward in what can only be described as the most unnerving Doctor Who sequence in a decade - a room filled with masked patients, the only conscious one repeating the word "pain" over and over again. After nearly being discovered by a creepy man she soon befriends, Bill learns a horrible truth - the other patients aren't sleeping peacefully, they're just on mute.

It's downright horrifying, and it adds a whole new layer to "World Enough and Time". Moffat's episode tackles a lot here, but his script is seamless in how it juggles everything. We cut back and forward in time repeatedly, but the transitions are slick and there's a clear path from point A to point B. Complex and confusing are two things that frequently, unintentionally, come hand in hand - "World Enough and Time" is a deeply complex script, but not once does it leave you in confusion.

This is elevated even further by the reliably brilliant work from Talalay, the go-to director for Peter Capaldi era finales. Her magnum opus for Doctor Who - or maybe even her whole career - will always be her work on "Heaven Sent", but Talalay carries a multitude of visual tones through this episode and balances them all with precision. We range from the horror fuelled sequences in the hospital ward to that playful first act in the ship's cockpit, and Talalay captures each mood perfectly.

As terrific as it is, though, most of the episode would feel redundant if it weren't for that ending - and, boy, what an ending. There's an awful lot going on in the final few moments here, but the episode cuts between scenes smoothly, allowing the tension to build on both sides simultaneously. Bill's creepy friend reveals himself to be the Master in disguise all while Bill herself is turned into a Cyberman. If this really is the end for Bill Potts, it's a damn harsh way for her to go. As the Doctor finally learns the truth, the former Bill Potts only has two words for him - "I waited".

"World Enough and Time" is an unforgettable episode of Doctor Who. Not only does it give us two massive plot twists in its final act, but everything beforehand is so elegantly structured and beautifully executed that it would be a contender for the series' highlight even before these reveals take place. This is Doctor Who as smart, emotionally charged sci-fi, the kind of show it always should be. It's never going to operate at this scale on a permanent basis, but every other episode this series - bar perhaps "Extremis" - should take a long hard look at what Doctor Who is capable of when everything comes together like it did here. Chris Chibnall, take note.

Notes - 
  • If this episode didn't feel important enough, Peter Capaldi's regeneration seemingly begins in a flashforward before the titles have even rolled. 
  • I'm not sure how I feel about all that meta humour in the first act. Michelle Gomez delivers it all wonderfully, but is all the "Doctor Who" stuff a bit too on the nose? Or is it so on the nose that it crosses back over into brilliance? I don't think I'll ever decide. "Exposition and...comic relief" was hilarious though.
  • I didn't really mention how great Capaldi and Mackie and Lucas were here, mostly because there's little left I can say about them that hasn't already been said. They're terrific.
  • I'm reserving judgement until next week on how John Simm will play the Master this time around. I loved him in "The Sound of Drums", wasn't fully convinced by "Last of the Timelords" and outright hated him in "The End of Time". This should be very interesting.
  • How beautifully rendered was that black hole? A solid contender for Doctor Who's greatest ever VFX moment, for sure.
  • Next week comes the season finale. Steven Moffat has a pretty uneven track record when it comes to finales ("The Big Bang" and "Hell Bent" are exceptional, the rest are...not), but here's hoping he lets Capaldi go out with the bang he really, truly deserves.
  • I guessed that creepy man was John Simm about twenty minutes into the episode. Just sayin'.

The Eaters of Light - Previous | Next - The Doctor Falls

Friday, 23 June 2017

Film Review: Michael Bay's franchise hits rock bottom with Transformers: The Last Knight

Quite often with poor films you can pinpoint the moment you lose hope in enjoying everything yet to come. When David Hasslehoff popped up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I gave up hope. When Michael Fassbender started seductively teaching another Michael Fassbender how to play the flute in Alien: Covenant, I gave up hope. The Last Knight, the fifth (yes, fifth) film of Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, offers no such moment. That might sound like a surprisingly positive way to begin this review - alas, I simply mean that a moment like this was impossible to begin with. In order to lose hope you must have hope to begin with, and nothing - and I really mean nothing - in this movie gave me the faintest slither of hope that I could find something, anything here even remotely enjoyable.

But first, some history. Bay's first Transformers isn't a great film, but it's likeable and filled with a kind of giddy, childish excitement that somehow makes it work. The sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, loses all sense of this - it's plodding, overlong and borderline irredeemable. The third in the series, Dark of the Moon, is my personal favourite - it serves up a surprisingly high number of great action set pieces, and finally locates a somewhat interesting story after two failed narratives. Film four, Age of Extinction, ultimately abandons any notion of sense, taking forever to get going and, when it does, it eventually goes nowhere. Somehow, The Last Knight is worse than all of these films.

This time, Megatron has a new plan to literally bring Cyberton to Earth in some egotistical bid for domination. Y'know, pretty much what he tried in Dark of the Moon, just a different tactic - gotta give the guy credit for consistency. Optimus Prime has popped off to the shops or something, leaving a bunch of stranded Autobots essentially useless until Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) gets caught up in the mix. He soon finds himself - along with Oxford University professor Vivian (Laura Haddock) - recruited by historian Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), who knows the long history of Transformers on Earth, and together they kickstart a plan to prevent Megatron's evil scheme.

And yes, it's all about as long winded and bland as it sounds. If it isn't bad enough that the base plot of the film is merely a retread of film three's narrative (I did say Dark of the Moon has the only good story of the bunch, I can't blame the writers for picking that one to fall back on), it's worsened by the fact that The Last Knight can't even tell a ripped off story well, let alone an original one. The Transformers franchise is hardly known for compelling, thoughtful storytelling, but this fifth film represents its most pitiful excuse for a plot yet - it's woefully thin, and stretched so far across nearly 150 minutes that you could snap it with a feather's touch.

Within the poor storytelling, we're forced to endure characters that still lack personality or likeability. Wahlberg does his best, but Yeager remains a hollow entity - if he isn't whining over his daughter being at College he's just shouting at people for disagreeing with him. At least in Age of Extinction we had a father/daughter bond at the core of the film, some kind of heart to bind the story around even if it wasn't exactly beating. Transformers film doesn't need to be emotionally resplendent, granted, but every film needs a soul. The Last Knight has no such core, this is a film so hollow that it plummets into sheer ugliness.

The Transformers themselves are just as lacking, they feel dull and lifeless. It makes you long for the days of Blackout and Ratchet and Jazz. These were hardly multidimensional characters, but they had distinct personalities and roles - their combat styles matched their identities, you felt who they were even when they weren't speaking. In The Last Knight, Autobots exist seemingly to absorb stereotypes and throw one liners around like a tennis match while the Decepticons are about as threatening and interesting as tarmac. These giant, incredible creatures should be the selling point of the film, but you'll just greet each and every one here with either an eye roll or a sigh.

As well as being narratively and thematically inept, The Last Knight can't even serve up a decent action sequence - there's not one display of effective, well choreographed action across all two and a half hours. There's no imagination on screen here, no new ideas or even one standout set piece. The original Transformers has that terrific opening battle with Blackout at the Army base, Dark of the Moon has the unforgettable skyscraper sequence. The Last Knight is wholly devoid of anything memorable - a submarine set sequence should be the film's strongest action moment, but Bay stages it with the energy and enthusiasm of a sleep deprived sloth.

VFX is really all that's left to save The Last Knight, and on a technical level it is admittedly flawless - but it's put to bad use. The CGI is undeniably impressive but what good is that when you know this already? Bay can't find anything new to do with his huge budgets now, mesmerising CGI is wasted away on bland cinematography. The film finally brings up a stunning VFX shot involving the moon - and, trust me, it's breathtaking - but Bay doesn't have the courage to hold on it. Instead he merely teases the idea and then, like an excitable kid hyped up on Smarties, runs off to the next scene - he spends the whole film chasing a plot that he has no intention of ever actually exploring.

For some bizarre reason the film's aspect ratio seems to change every other shot too but, quite frankly, there's little more I can say about this film's ineptitude that hasn't already been said. Bay's franchise was running on fumes back in 2014, but if Age of Extinction represented a car's engine spluttering on its final lick of petrol, The Last Knight finds that car upturned in a ditch somewhere far away. Transformers is beyond hope now, it can't be salvaged. Bay has supposedly confirmed that this was his last dovetail into the franchise, so (assuming he sticks to his word), to whoever has to pick up the pieces and craft film number six, I say this: good luck buddy, you're gonna need it.

In A Sentence

Thinly plotted, devoid of personality and unimaginative to the point of insult, Transformers: The Last Knight is the magnum opus of awfulness in Michael Bay's long lost franchise.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

TV Review - A nuanced script from a classic era writer brings Doctor Who back to top form

S10E10 - "The Eaters of Light"

Contains Spoilers.

Now this is what I'm talking about.

After a few weeks of episodes that weren't eventful enough and abandoned the characters we thought we knew and refused to properly dive into the thematic material they were offering, Doctor Who is back on track, and it's all courtesy of one woman: Rona Munro. Munro is the first writer to serve up episodes in both the classic and revived era of the show, and, if "The Eaters of Light" is anything to go by, she certainly knows her stuff.

We begin with a fairly standard opening. The Doctor and Bill have gone back to 2nd Century Scotland to track down the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army - the Doctor believes the army was wiped out while Bill is adamant it wasn't. They split up to find their answers, but after Bill stumbles across one survivor of the Ninth Legion and the Doctor finds a whole different kind of tribe, it becomes increasingly possible that neither of them will be right about what happened all those years ago.

Splitting the Doctor and Bill up seems like a frustrating choice given how underused Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie have been for a high percentage of this series, but Munro balances her episode perfectly. It's without question the sharpest script of the series in how it divides the episode into two halves but doesn't let any key cast member fall beneath the surface. For the first time all series, I feel like I watched Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie at the top of  their games.

We'll look at Mackie first. Separated from the Doctor, Bill is forced into trusting other people - something she's learned to do across Series 10. Bill as a character still feels frustratingly underdeveloped but that isn't too big of an issue if she's still likeable, and Mackie simply oozes likeability. She makes Bill fun and giddy - listen to the excitement in her voice when she asks the soldier if he's from the Ninth Legion - but she carries a heavy weight on her shoulders when the table turns. Mackie struggled with the more hard hitting scenes earlier in the series, but she's come a long way - there's real, honest heartbreak on her face when Bill has to tell the other soldiers that Simon has died. It's a remarkable performance, unquestionably Mackie's strongest work on the show to date.

On the other end of the episode is Capaldi, who has felt so far separated from the calibre of acting he gave us last year that it's frequently been tough to identify him as the same Doctor we saw in Series 9. This year's scripts just haven't given him the material to work with, but Munro does - albeit subtly. There's no giant speech here, but Munro adds significant depth to the Doctor's words - the wise, thoughtful man we once knew makes a comeback here. The Doctor rousing the two opposing armies to come together is a notably powerful moment, and his potential sacrifice of guarding the gate for all eternity would feel empty in the hands of a lesser actor. It's thrilling to see him on top form again.

As well as being terrifically performed, Munro's episode is benefited by a real willingness to tackle the themes it offers. When Bill first begins to understand the TARDIS translation trick it feels like a fun little throwaway, but Munro soon transforms it into something infinitely more powerful. "The Eaters of Light" tackles the futility of war in a quiet way, looking at something as simple as understanding your enemy's language and how that can change your whole perspective.

The notion that when you can understand the whole Universe everyone sounds like children is a moving sentiment, and one that fits the Doctor Who brand perfectly. Munro even plays it through to the endgame, as two rival tribes come together to defend a force more powerful than them both. After last week's under baked look at war, Munro hits the nail on the head. It's exactly what's been missing from Series 10, an episode of strong performances and nuanced ideas that understands show to shine a spotlight on them both.

"The Eaters of Light" isn't the strongest episode of the series - supporting performances are questionable and there's a few too many moments that don't quite add up - but it brings the show back to reliable ground before it heads into what promises to be a delightfully weird and over the top finale. Doctor Who hasn't been operating on the same level this year as its past two seasons, but "The Eaters of Light" is an episode that stands high in the Capaldi era if only for how it lets the man be himself again. It's about damn time.

Notes - 
  • Can Rona Munro become a regular writer for this show during the Chibnall era? I'd love that.
  • This episode was gorgeously directed, too. Charles Palmer relishes in both the night and the day, capturing the scenery with beauty.
  • Nardole remains a highlight of this series. From his popcorn antics to his Scottish accents, Matt Lucas has been effortlessly enjoyable in every last scene. I was sceptical to his presence this year, but boy was I wrong about that.
  • "She's not a soldier, she's an embryo. What are you gonna do, throw your action figures at them?"
  • Missy is proving better used this year than ever. Next week's penultimate episode looks very Missy-centric, here's hoping it lives up to what we've seen of her so far.
  • This was probably the last outright standalone episode we'll have with Capaldi in the TARDIS, so what a treat to end with something inherently Scottish.