The Past Month on TV #17

My name is Annie. I’ve been with Laura and Dale. The good Dale is in the Lodge and he can’t leave. Write it in your diary.

Doctor Who (Series 10 Episodes 2-5)
Doctor Who, series 10 part 1This is shaping up to be a top-quality run of Who. You have to go back a good few years to find a similar-length run of consecutive episodes with the consistency this season is boasting. Obviously there are some divided opinions out there (as I’ve noted before, there is literally no pleasing all of Doctor Who fandom), but the consensus seems to be pretty positive.

So, the past month’s episodes kicked off with Smile, which sees writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce return after the mediocre In the Forest of the Night for a much stronger adventure. It plays like Doctor Who meets Black Mirror: emoji-faced robots try to keep people happy by killing those who aren’t. The use of emojis was a neat reflection of current culture, the episode looked fantastic thanks to some stunning location filming, and the Doctor/Bill dynamic is constantly entertaining. It wasn’t perfect: any sense of mystery or investigation was shortchanged by the episode’s own pre-titles that gave the game away, and the denouement was a little muddled on some thematic points. Still, A for effort.

Thin Ice brought to mind previous Whoniverse episodes (series five’s The Beast Below and Torchwood series two episode Meat), but there’s a long, rich history of self-plagiarism within Who so that’s hardly unprecedented. Besides, the devil’s in the details: here’s another evocative location well-realised by the production team, and writer Sarah Dollard keeps things spry — again, Bill’s attitude pays dividends. The structure of her learning something new about the Doctor every episode, and challenging some of his actions and reactions, and in turn him challenging her, is working very nicely.

Knock knock. Who's there?The fourth episode, Knock Knock, by Doctor Foster’s Mike Bartlett, is my least favourite episode so far this series; but it’s not bad, just not all it could be. The horror-movie-styled first half was suitably atmospheric, and there was some great gruesome imagery, but the episode runs out of steam as it goes on, with a talky and hurried resolution provoking as many questions as it offers answers. Guest star David Suchet gives an expectedly strong performance, with some particularly nice notes after the truth about his past is revealed, even if that rushed finale ill serves his subtle transformation. It’s a shame it’s this episode that has the iPlayer-exclusive “binaural” version, because I’m curious about that process but in no rush to rewatch the episode itself.

Finally, Jamie Mathieson — writer of some of the best episodes of Capaldi’s tenure — returns with Oxygen, another superb addition to his CV. At a base level the episode functions as a zombies-in-space thriller, but it’s powered by a cynically satirical setup, which leads to plenty of great one-liners. Clever plot developments allow for some effective sequences (the spacewalk seen from Bill’s semi-unconscious perspective) and some neat “how are they going to get out of that?” aspects to the episode’s climax — yes, we know Bill’s not going to die and the Doctor’s going to regain his sight, but the “how?” matters here.

Of course, as things turn out, it’s not all as neat as expected, and we have a hook to draw us on into the middle of the season. If they can keep this up, it’ll definitely be worth sticking around for the pay-off.

Twin Peaks (Season 2 Episodes 10-22)
Twin Peaks season 2In the wake of the network-enforced resolution of the Laura Palmer storyline, Twin Peaks flounders. The writers clearly took a while to find a new footing, not helped by behind-the-scenes kerfuffles that led them to have to scrap entire prominent storylines (primarily, Kyle MacLachlan vetoed a Cooper-Audrey romance, reportedly because his then-girlfriend Lara Flynn Boyle was jealous of co-star Sherilyn Fenn). Utter phrases like “Super Nadine”, “Ben Horne wins the Civil War”, or (especially) “James Hurley on the road” to a Twin Peaks fan and you’re liable to give them a chill up the spine — and not the good kind.

Ultimately, Twin Peaks’ second season is a lesson in what happens when you take your eye off the ball. David Lynch was away doing something else*, Mark Frost was also away setting up his directorial debut, and by the time they returned Peaks had been bumped to Saturdays (TV’s biggest night here in the UK, but a graveyard in the US), ratings had plummeted, and the writing was on the wall. The last few episodes represent a return to form, and the Lynch-helmed finale is nightmarish filmmaking of a kind you’d be surprised to see on TV even today, never mind in 1991, but it was all too little too late. Of the cliffhanger ending, Lynch has said: “that’s not the ending. That’s the ending that people were stuck with.” Hurrah for the imminent continuation, then, which will presumably wrap everything up… as much as Lynch ever does, anyhow.

* “Making Wild at Heart,” people usually say, but that film was released a month before Peaks’ second season even began airing.

Eurovision Song Contest: Kyiv 2017
Eurovision 2017A dancing gorilla! A man singing a duet with himself! A rap/yodelling mash-up! A Moldovan trio who could apparently only dance with their right legs! A guy up a stepladder wearing a horse’s head in a slate-walled room covered with chalk-scrawled words that looked like it was straight out of a horror movie asylum! Måns Zelmerlöw again! All accompanied by Graham Norton on fine form with his biting, sassy commentary (“All her family play the fiddle. In fact, her brother will be fiddling with her on stage later.”) Oh Eurovision, never change.

Also watched…
  • 24: Legacy Season 1 Episodes 9-12 — more of the same, and it ends with a pointless 12-hour time jump to justify it still being called 24. The US ratings were mediocre so a second season feels unlikely, but if it gets one I hope they find some writers with new ideas.
  • Car Share Series 2 — let’s take its hilarity as a given and get on to the serious point: you can’t end it there! Peter Kay has said they’re stopping because they don’t have ideas for more episodes, yet this is a show where they spend a good chunk of time talking about Christmas but has never done a Christmas episode. I mean, c’mon!
  • Jamestown Series 1 Episode 1 — Sky1’s recommissioned-before-it-aired drama about the first women in America looks lavish, though its plotting is fairly predictable and its dialogue is heavy-handed. Well, what else would you expect from the producers of Downton Abbey and writer of Lark Rise to Candleford?
  • Our Friend Victoria Episodes 1-6 — I don’t think there are many comedians who could sustain a three-hour greatest hits series, but Victoria Wood definitely can.

    Things to Catch Up On
    American Gods
    This month, I have mostly been missing American Gods, the critically-acclaimed adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel by Bryan “Hannibal” Fuller (which reminds me, I also really need to get round to Hannibal). American Gods is on Amazon Prime on this side of the pond, so it’ll also allow me to test out my new telly’s 4K capabilities. Shiny.

    3 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… it is happening again.

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  • Dark Floors (2008)

    2009 #26
    Pete Riski | 82 mins | DVD | 15 / R

    Dark FloorsYou may remember Lordi, the surprise winners of the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. If that doesn’t help, they were the Finnish rockers all dressed up in monster suits. Here in the UK we gave them our highest number of points.

    You’d be easily forgiven if you had forgotten them, but clearly someone hasn’t as they not only made this film, someone thought they were big enough to use in its promotion — it’s subtitled “The Lordi Movie” on posters, DVD covers and what have you. Maybe they’re still well-known in Europe. Or Finland. Yet despite the country of origin, Dark Floors is in English, with a predominantly British cast, and it appears to be set in America. On top of which, it has a surprising level of glossiness (albeit glossy gloominess) that, if you didn’t know better, would suggest a moderately budgeted US horror flick. Apart from the monster costumes.

    In fact, expectations are gratifyingly knocked down at every turn. Riski’s direction and the cinematography are very slick, though some of the action/horror sequences lack much tension — the film effectively builds tension for these sequences, but rarely, if ever, delivers genuine scares on the back of it. While this isn’t always a bad thing, one begins to learn the tension being built isn’t likely to lead anywhere, robbing it of much impact. Effects, music and sound design also lend the project a higher budget feel than initial impressions suggest. As mentioned, Lordi’s costumes are the weakest bit, neutered either by familiarity — there’s no chance of genuine shock value if you recognise them from brightly-lit TV performances — or quite simply not having been designed for this kind of scrutiny or story. Riski does his best, hiding them with lighting, angles and special effects, but it’s not perfect.

    Monsters aside, performances are pretty good. No one is outstanding but equally there’s nothing glaringly awful, always a plus for B-movie-level horror. At times the characters seem to accept the bizarre events that are occurring with too little reaction, though in fairness this is partly the fault of the script. What the latter occasionally lacks in believability (within a fantasy/horror context, obviously) it makes up for in efficiency. Admittedly this also means the whole cast are stereotypes, but it’s the world they find themselves in that’s of more interest.

    Indeed, Dark Floors features more intriguing mysteries than it can keep a handle on, merrily setting them in motion but ultimately failing to pay many off. It’s packed with interesting imagery and good ideas, many of which aren’t hammered home, but equally many are never explained — key among these being… well, The Whole Thing. The final scenes seem to suggest there is some meaning, but it never comes close to a clear revelation. Having read around, it’s clear that it can be interpreted multiple ways (one of my favourites references an old Finnish children’s song), and so perhaps the makers are after a Cube vibe. Despite some surface similarities to that film’s awful first sequel, the overall effect thankfully sways closer to the original.

    Some have called Dark Floors boring, but I think this is again a case of misaligned expectations — I found it never less than well-made and thought-provoking. There are undoubtedly weak spots, yet you’ll find weaker in plenty of major movies. That doesn’t excuse the flaws, but it shouldn’t be written off as a meritless B-movie because of them. One can’t help but think the project would have been better received if it hadn’t been conceived by and starred a slightly camp Finnish rock band who are never seen out of their monster costumes. It is, I feel, one of many cases where if you changed the credits to name certain other directors it might be beloved and endlessly debated by a certain sector of film fans rather than dismissed as “a glam rock band trying to be deep”.

    It may even provide greater rewards on repeat viewings, especially if one wants to decipher the ending, because of its circular storytelling. Some elements of this are clear immediately (when Ben shoots up the stairwell, for example), others half-clear (it treats the audience with an above-average degree of intelligence in this respect), while other bits may only make sense (if they do, that is) with another viewing and/or some interpretation. Tobias and Sarah spend a lot of time repeating things or saying things out of context, for one — might these find a greater meaning second time through?

    In a similar vein, I can’t help but wonder if in trying to be quite clever Dark Floors ultimately alienates the core horror audience who might pick it up; the people who’ll miss their straightforward scares and gratuitous gore and nudity. By so obviously billing it as “The Lordi Movie” and slapping on quite a lurid cover, the marketers have done nothing to suggest the film might actually benefit from the application of some brain power. True, this same problem can be alleged of the film itself — it’s only a horror film after all, and with somewhat ludicrous monster costumes at that — but I can’t help but wonder what might lurk within if people chose to look past these unfortunate style choices.

    Naturally the counter argument goes that there’s not actually anything there, it’s just pretending there is instead of having a proper plot. I’m not certain which to believe.

    Ultimately, an appreciation of Dark Floors comes down to its ending. The whole film is stylishly made — surprisingly so in fact — but there are no concrete explanations for what happened during it. If you like ambiguous endings there may be enjoyment in that very fact — and there are certainly plenty of theories floating around the ‘net for the interested to explore — but if you require your entertainment neatly wrapped up, I’m prepared to guarantee you’ll hate it. If, on another hand, you don’t care about the plot of your horror film as long as it’s scary… well, that all depends on your horror threshold, but if you’re a hardened horror fanatic I don’t imagine there are many chills to be had here.

    I’m not entirely sure what to make of Dark Floors in the end, but err on the side of generosity because it’s well-made and has left me thinking — something I certainly never expected.

    4 out of 5