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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  • The Independent Monthly Update for June 2016

    In? Out? Pretty sure “shake it all about” won the referendum.

    (It was a toss up between a Brexit joke and a Game of Thrones one, and only one of those wouldn’t constitute spoilers. Well, depending on your definition of “spoiled”.)


    #102 Cop Car (2015)
    #102a Independence Day (Special Edition) (1996/1998)
    #103 The Revenant (2015)
    #104 Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)
    #105 Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)
    #106 Spy (Extended Cut) (2015)
    #107 Deadpool (2016)
    #107a Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)
    #108 Ip Man 3 (2015), aka Yip Man 3
    #109 Steve Jobs (2015)
    #110 Fantastic Four (2015)
    #111 Barry Lyndon (1975)
    #112 Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973), aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию
    #113 The Bank Job (2008)
    #113a The Present (2014)
    #114 The Lobster (2015)
    #115 Pan (2015)

    .


    • WDYMYHS continues apace with Stanley Kubrick’s 7th film on the IMDb Top 250, Barry Lyndon. It’s getting a 40th anniversary theatrical re-release towards the end of July, so expect a review nearer the time.
    • #1 thing I didn’t quite get round to this month: Zootropolis, aka Zootopia. It’s not out on UK DVD/Blu-ray until the end of July, but I imported it from the US (before 37.4% of the electorate went and knackered the value of the pound).
    • The Bank Job finally carries the number of films I’ve seen from my 2008 ‘50 Unseen’ list past the 20 mark. Ridiculously, last year’s list also passed that marker this month.
    • Independence Day is the first non-main-list film I’ve watched for review this year, and Bambi Meets Godzilla is the first short film.


    It’s funny: having passed 100 last month, the whole statistics / how far I’ve got / predictions for the future shebang has been much less on my mind of late (which has been more occupied with writing 100 Favourites posts, because I’m no longer far ahead on them). Nonetheless, here are a couple of observations.

    With 14 new feature films watched, June bests last month’s 13 (just), but sits behind all other months of 2016. It’s also not quite as good as last June, which scored 16, but it well surpasses June’s average of 8.25. It’s the 25th consecutive month with over 10 films, too, so that’s nice — still on track for that to hold until this December messes it up, at least.

    As ever, the end of June marks the year’s halfway point. With my year-to-date monthly average at 19.2, the obvious forecast places me at 232 by the end of the year, which — in almost the opposite of last year, when these predictions kept proving undervalued — I don’t expect to reach. Taking the average of the last two months as a better guide, that gets me to 196, which seems more plausible. Really, I’m only in the habit of making these predictions from the years when it took me ’til December to reach #100, and so trying to guess if I was going to do it ‘mattered’ — these days, what does it matter? I’ll get where I get.

    And on that downbeat note…



    The halfway point of the year also means the halfway point of my 100 Favourites. The (alphabetical) first 50 is completed by:



    The 13th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    A couple of 2015 Oscar contenders caught my attention this month, and The Revenant or Steve Jobs would certainly be a worthier pick… but I called this category “favourite” rather than “best” for a reason, and dammit if I didn’t enjoy Deadpool more than a man of my age (i.e. older than teenage) reasonably should.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    I didn’t love every film I watched this month, but I did at least like the vast majority. Some may think last year’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot would be a shoo-in here, but no, I quite liked it. So the only bad film this month — and therefore an easy ‘victor’ in this category — was unnecessary sequel Beverly Hills Cop III.

    Best Moulin Rouge Rip-Off of the Month
    Smells Like Teen Spirit in Pan. (Sorry if I’ve now spoiled that surprise for you.)

    Most Unexpected Appearance by a Eurovision Song Contest Entrant… Ever
    The word “most” feels a bit redundant here — how many Eurovision entrants have ever turned up in movies? Well, aside from Abba. Anyway, I’d never seen a Paul Feig film before, but he earns a shed-ton of bonus points (enough to wipe out Ghostbusters? We’ll see) for not only featuring Ukraine’s 2007 submission by Verka Serdyuchka in Spy, but for setting an action sequence to it too.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    A close one this time, but it ended with victory for a 100 Favourites entry, for the second month in a row: my generation’s Star Wars, the enduringly popular Jurassic Park.


    Historically, July is my lowest-totalling month, and the only month where I’ve ever failed to watch a single new film (in 2009). 2016’s iteration should do better than that, at least.

    The Past Month on TV #4

    It’s the moments we’ve all been waiting for, as David Tennant returns to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones returns to our screens. Spoiler-free reviews of both (and more) follow…

    Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures Volume 1

    One of Doctor Who’s most popular eras is revived this week, as David Tennant returns to the headline role for the first time since 2013 for a debut series of Big Finish audio dramas. By his side is Catherine Tate’s Donna — what initially sounded like terrible casting but turned out to be a fantastic Doctor/companion pairing. (I know not everyone’s convinced by her even now, but you can’t win ’em all.) Given Tennant’s enduring popularity as the 10th Doctor, it’s no surprise his return to the role has brought Big Finish more attention than ever — their website even went down for a few hours on Monday, unable to cope with the rush of fans downloading the new stories. (And yes, I’m kinda bending the rules by reviewing audio drama in a TV column… but, a) these are designed to recreate a TV series in audio form, and b) it’s my column and I can review what I like.) So do they live up to expectations? Thankfully, yes. Setting out to emulate the era they’re from, they follow the model set out by the first three episodes of every Russell T Davies-helmed season of NuWho: a present day one, a future one, and a past one.

    The first is Technophobia by Matt Fitton, which is set in our recent past (and therefore Donna’s near-future) when the new M-Pad tablet computer seems to be causing the populace to forget how to use technology. Tennant and Tate hit the ground running — it’s a cliché, but it really does sound like they’ve never been away. Their sprightly performances contain little of the stilted “I’m reading this script aloud for the first time” acting that sometimes plagues audio drama. Fitton captures the style and tone of their single TV season to a tee — if they’d done a second year together, you can well believe this as its first episode. Even Howard Carter’s incidental music is a mostly-fitting substitute for Murray Gold’s iconic work.

    The middle tale is sci-fi adventure Time Reaver by Jenny T. Colgan, a best-selling romantic novelist who’s turned her hand to multiple Who projects (including a 10th Doctor and Donna novel published last week to tie-in with these dramas). For me, this was the weak link of the trilogy, though it’s by no means bad. There are some fantastic ideas, but at times their inspirations show through too clearly, and the execution is sometimes lacking. This was Colgan’s first audio drama, and dare I say it shows. Sequences like an action-packed barroom brawl are a little too ambitious to convey in an audio-only medium, and the dialogue is regularly forced to describe what’s going on. On the bright side, Mr Carter offers more magnificent sound design — the noises made by cephalopod villain Gully are immensely evocative.

    The final episode is the group’s historical outing, Death and the Queen by James Goss, and it may be the best of the lot. Our intrepid duo find themselves in the kingdom of Goritania in 1780, when it comes under siege from a destructive cloud that contains Death himself. Goss mixes comedy with peril in just the right quantities to create a story that is an entertaining romp but also manages to expose different facets of the Doctor and Donna’s relationship. If Fitton has bottled the essence of RTD, here Goss evokes Steven Moffat, with a time-jumping opening ten minutes that you can well imagine on TV, but which also work perfectly in audio. Things slow a bit later on, with the dialogue sometimes going in circles — a fault of all three of these plays, actually. They could’ve benefited from a trim to fit within the TV series’ 45-minute slot, rather than allowing the freedom of not having to conform to a schedule let them to slide to 55-ish.

    That’s only a niggle, though, and one that pales beside the excitement of having Tennant and Tate back in the TARDIS. This is a run of adventures that largely evoke the pair’s time on TV without being a needless carbon copy of it, meaning they work as both a marvellous hit of nostalgia and exciting new adventures in their own right.

    All three stories are currently available exclusively from the Big Finish website, going on general release from 1st September. They can be purchased individually (either as a CD+download or download-only), or as part of a limited edition box set (CD+download) that comes with a 78-minute behind-the-scenes documentary and an hour-long introduction to other Big Finish works, all encased in a book with exclusive photography and articles.

    Eurovision Song Contest: Stockholm 2016
    Ah, love a bit of Eurovision, even if the songs weren’t as good this year. Ok, you might say they never are, but there’s often one or two half-decent ones (I still listen to Conchita Wurst’s Rise Like a Phoenix sometimes, mainly because it’s the best Bond theme released in the last decade). Even then, the winner wasn’t the best of that middling bunch, though it probably had the best message. In fact, the best song of the night was the Swedish hosts’ half-time number, Eurovision-spoofing Love Love Peace Peace (watch it here). The much-heralded new voting system worked like a charm… at least for audience tension purposes. Poor Australia with that last-minute lose… though as they shouldn’t really have been there in the first place, it’s hard to feel too bad for them.

    Game of Thrones (Season 6 Episodes 1-4)
    Good luck to you if you’re not watching Game of Thrones but still trying to avoid spoilers this year, with the huge and widely-covered news that [REDACTED] was [REDACTED], or that [REDACTED] killed [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] were [REDACTED] for the first time since [REDACTED], or when [REDACTED] was [REDACTED] but [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] of [REDACTED] in the process — even if more people seemed interested in discussing her [REDACTED]s.

    Trying not to add to the tumult of spoilers (just in case), I thought that The Red Woman was the now-standard GoT season opener (a mix of recapping/establishing where everyone is, and just beginning to shuffle those players around the board for their next moves) done as well as it’s ever been. Home was where the season really kicked into gear, though — quicker than some other years have managed, that’s for sure. One particular moment was much discussed, understandably, but events elsewhere — both in Westeros and Essos — would’ve been enough to excite interest without it. Oathbreaker engaged more with its flashbacks than its ‘present day’ actions, though another episode-ending scene at Castle Black reiterated the series’ warts-and-all vision of the world. Finally, Book of the Stranger was an immensely satisfying hour — the kind of thing Thrones allows us all too rarely, considering how often its heroes are crushed. Apparently the writers have said this is the year the series’ female characters finally begin to really ‘fight back’, and it would seem this episode is where it begins.

    Upstart Crow (Series 1 Episodes 1-2)
    I can’t remember the last time I saw a new multi-camera sitcom that wasn’t either, a) a bit meta (like Miranda or Mrs Brown’s Boys), or b) a revival (like Red Dwarf X). I don’t know if that says more about the current TV landscape or the kind of things I watch, but either way it surprised me when that was the form Upstart Crow took. It’s just one element that gives it the feel of Blackadder, which I don’t mean as a criticism. Even if it feels a little dated in its execution, there are plenty of laughs — some easy, some clever — and, really, what more do you want from a comedy than to laugh? It may not be up to Blackadder’s highest highs (yet — there’s still time; you never know), but I’d wager it stands fair comparison to the classic’s comparatively-lesser instalments… which I mean to be a less critical assessment than it sounds.

    Also watched…
  • The British Academy Television Awards 2016Wolf Hall director Peter Kosminsky’s barnstorming defence-of-the-BBC acceptance speech set the tone for the evening, which consequently was one of the best BAFTA ceremonies ever. The BBC broadcast had to cut some of his speech, no doubt out of fear of the government, but the full text can be read here.
  • The Flash Season 2 Episodes 15-19 / Arrow Season 4 Episodes 15-18 / DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 1 Episodes 6-9 — this is all getting a bit much now… and next year they’re probably adding Supergirl to the mix, as it’s moving to The CW too. I may have to give up on one or two of them at that point, I think.
  • Gilmore Girls Season 6 Episode 10-Season 7 Episode 7 — the much-maligned seventh season really is not good. I just want it to be over so I can switch to being excited for the Netflix revival.
  • Person of Interest Season 4 Episodes 16-22 — with the cancelled-after-filming final season underway in the US now, one of the showrunners was talking about how the series will nonetheless come to an ending, because they’ve tried to conclude every season with a suitable stopping point. I really, really hope they’ve done something different with season five, though, because the cliffhanger endings of seasons three and four would actually have been terrible places to end forever.

    Things to Catch Up On
    This month, I have mostly been missing the second run of The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays… though as I still haven’t got round to watching the first run from 2012, that’s no real surprise. In fact, Upstart Crow aside, I’ve not yet watched any of their still-running Shakespeare Festival, other highlights (so I’ve heard) of which have included the Shakespeare Live from the RSC celebration and spoof documentary Cunk on Shakespeare. There’s also Russell T Davies’ new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is on Monday 30th.

    Next month… as was just announced yesterday, AMC’s Preacher adaptation comes to the UK via Amazon.

  • 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