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The Game (2014)
A Cold War Thriller For The 21st Century
It seems as though the Cold War spy thriller is making something of a come back in recent years. The last few years have seen a spate of new adaptations of the classic Cold War era works of author John le Carre ranging from the Oscar nominated film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to a slew of BBC audio drama adaptations of the various novels. Authors such as Charles Cumming in his novel The Trinity Six have also explored the legacy of the Cold War as well. Yet there's also been new tales told as well, pastiches of a thought dead genre. One particularly interesting one was the BBC's six part thriller The Game, created by Toby Whithouse, which took viewers into MI5 in early 1970s Britain.
The premise of the series is simple enough. It's 1972 and Britain is the throes of a miners strike, power cuts, and a general sense of unease. Into this world, a KGB Colonel approaches MI5 with word that a major Soviet operation called Operation Glass is about to take place. An operation so major that it will redefine the history of British-Soviet espionage. Investigating Operation Glass are a number of MI5 operatives and brass from field agent Joe (Tom Hughes), counter-espionage boss Bobby (Paul Ritter), his deputy Sarah (Victoria Hamilton), her electronic surveillance expert husband Alan (Jonathan Aris), rising secretary Wendy (Chloe Pirrie), and Special Branch officer Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley) with the agency director known only by the code-name "Daddy" (Brian Cox) sitting at the top.
Whithouse, along with writers Sarah Dollard and Debbie O'Malley for some of the middle episodes, certainly know the genre they are playing with. As well as the mysterious Operation Glass, it becomes apparent quickly that there is a mole within MI5 (potentially within their own little group) which threatens to expose the investigation. There are shades of the le Carre classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well as other notable Cold War thrillers such as Fredrick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol. Indeed it would be easy to simply call The Game a potential rip-off of le Carre but that is to give only a superficial glance at the series.
For Whithouse injects into familiar le Carre tropes other elements of Cold War spy fiction, putting them out in the field alongside them as it were. There's fears of Soviet infiltration of the British establishment (a very real worry in the post-Cambridge spies era), nuclear secrets, the inter-service rivalry between the domestic focused MI5 and the foreign-focused MI6 which all come into play. More than that, the series does a nice job of creating a sense of time and place by tying into larger issues of the early 1970s including IRA bombings and the state of British politics, which gives this fictional take on the era an air of verisimilitude. Combined with the characters and often strong guest casts, it's a compelling 21st-century take on the Cold War spy thriller.
That sense of time and place is something apparent in the production values as well. The sense of pastiche comes across especially in the visuals of the series, especially as the series seems to harken back at times to the aforementioned 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. From the interior of MI5 to the way people are dressed, there are strong echoes of that film here. More than that, the direction of Niall MacCormick and Daniel O'Hara drives that point home. So too does the cinematography of Sam McCurdy and Urszula Pontikos with its washed out colors that bring to mind the dreariness one often associates with the decade in the UK. How much of this is a deliberate echo of director Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's work on that film is unclear as it might be down to both the film and TV series being set in the same time period but using that as a visual shorthand certainly helps the series in setting its tone. When composer Daniel Pemberton's score is added, especially when his haunting opening theme is paired with a very well opening title sequence, it helps bring to life Whithouse's vision rather nicely.
The Game then stands a Cold War spy thriller made in the present day. It nicely echoes elements of the genre's classic such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy while also finding new things to do as well by tying into the wider world of early 1970s Britain, allowing it to be more than just a pastiche of a bygone genre. In the process, it becomes a compelling, twisty piece of work that rewards viewers willing to watch the entire series.
If you can, of course, trust what you're watching. After all, in the espionage world, things are so rarely what they seem. The Game certainly proves that to be the case.
White Man's Burden (1995)
A Modern Fable
One of the things that film can do is give the viewer a new perspective. It can be an empathetic medium, allowing us to see the world through a different pair of eyes. Or even turn the world on its head in the modern equivalent of fables. 1995's White Man's Burden from director Desmond Nakano is just such a modern fable. It's a film that takes the racial and economic status quo of America and turns it on its head with fascinating results.
It's the premise that very much makes the film. As one of the film's taglines puts it rather succinctly: "Reality just changed sides." The America of White Man's Burden isn't too dissimilar from the real world of 1990s America except for one big difference: Whites are the lower class and those of African descent are the dominant class From the very first scene of the film with a group of wealthy African- Americans sitting around a dinner table being served by an older white woman in typical maid outfit with Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte) expounding deeply racist views which echo historical views about his race in our world, the truth of the tagline is clear. It's a tale that could easily have come out of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone or from a number of alternate history works but the film (outside of some interesting choices in costumes and architecture) doesn't focus much on the how of this world. That's something that some have and will continue to complain that the film doesn't do enough to develop to set up this world, but the point isn't to talk about the past but the present and the future.
The opening minutes of the film further drive that point home. The focus of the film is on men at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of both class and race: Belafonte's business mogul and John Travolta as factory worker Louis Pinnock. It is through the differences between these two men that we are introduced to this world and a series of circumstances that build on one another. What starts out as Pinnock trying to curry favor sets off a sequence of events that will eventually lead to eviction, threats, and kidnapping. It's a plot that at once feels familiar yet different thanks to Nakano's premise.
Nakano, a Japanese-American writer/director, perhaps brings a different perspective to the film than a different director might have. Some of his points aren't subtle at all, observations that have been time and time again until they become clichés. Other times they are subtle and more effective for being so such as early in the film when young Desmond (Andrew Lawrence) flips through TV channels and sees nothing but African-American characters with the exception of a TV report of a white criminal or when the same young boy goes into a toy shop on his birthday and wants the more expensive superhero action figure rather than his white sidekick. The issues are familiar from media representation to police brutality but it is what Nakano does by turning them on their head that gives the film its power.
As do the performances. Belafonte and Travolta both give suitably chameleon-like performances in their respective roles. Belafonte's Thomas finds himself at times lost and at other times trying to understand the situation he finds himself in while the everyman quality apparent in some of Travolta's better performances shines brightly in this one as a hard working man forced into a desperate act which turns into a spiral from which neither man will leave the same. The interactions and relationship between the two of them form the core of the film from moments of friendliness to profanity laced confrontations. There are some surprising performances from the supporting cast as well, especially from Kelly Lynch as Pinnock's wife, who plays the role with a sense of dignity throughout and perhaps most evident in a scene where they are evicted from their home where she is the one who effectively takes charge. The three of them lead a solid, if not very showy cast.
When it was released more twenty years ago, it seems to have been a blip on the radar. It was overlooked, written off to a large extent. Looking on the film with some distance, that seems unfair. White Man's Burden has interesting things to say in flipping reality around and many of its points remain relevant. If you can track it down, it's a film well worth a watch as a modern fable.
Miss Sloane (2016)
A Thriller For Our Time
There's a line in an early episode of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing where White House chief of staff Leo McGarry (played by the late John Spencer) tells the staff that "There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em: laws and sausages." Yet the process by which a bill becomes law has proved to be rich ground for writers and filmmakers from Advise & Consent to Aaron Sorkin efforts like The American President and the aforementioned West Wing. More recently, filmmaker John Madden has turned to the lobbying efforts that help make bills law for his film Miss Sloane, starring Jessica Chastain in the title role.
It is Chastain's performance that in many ways anchor the film. From the moment the film opens with Chastain looking into the camera and telling the viewer (and, as we discover, her lawyer) that "Lobbying is about foresight," she draws you into this sometimes murky world where morality is a method determined by how far one is willing to go. Chastain portrays Elizabeth Sloane as an intelligent, resilient, powerhouse of a character who is not afraid to say what she thinks and play the game that she sees lobbying as to the hilt. She's also an imperfect character with a host of vices that threaten to be her undoing at times as does the realization that the game she plays might well have stakes she can't accept. There's always a sense at once of both fierce determination and vulnerability to the character that makes Chastain's performance utterly compelling. It is no wonder she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress as her performance alone helps make the film what it is.
There's a strong supporting cast as well that reads like a who's who of present acting talent. There are familiar faces in the cast such as Sam Waterston as Sloane's one-time boss turned adversary, Mark Strong as Sloane's new boss who struggles with her methods in spite of hiring her, and the always reliable John Lithgow as the senator at the center of the film's framing device. The film also has strong female roles for its supporting cast as well including Alison Pill as Sloane's assistant Jane and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Slone's confederate who ends up thrust into the spotlight alongside a cameo appearance by Christine Baranski. It's a solid cast all around who nicely back up Chastain's central performance.
Beyond the cast, there's a finely made thriller on display. There's a cool, cynical tone to the entire film that is perhaps best emphasized not so much by the script from Jonathan Perera but in the combined efforts of the cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov, the production design of Matthew Davies, and costume choices of Georgina Yarhi. Bright colors, even soft ones for that matter, seem to be a rarity in this world which gives the film a slightly dour, suppressed feel with which the drama is painted across.
Drama supplied by screenwriter Perera and director Madden. Miss Sloane fits firmly into the political thriller genre despite, or perhaps even because of its subject matter. Despite its setting in the apparently everyday politics of Washington and Capitol Hill, many familiar tropes are in play. There's blackmail, bribery, threats of violence, manipulation, and even espionage. While the film picks gun control legislation as its subject matter, one feels that its subject matter could be about any number of hot button issues and still be relevant to the here and now of 2017. That is something one suspects both helped and hindered the film as it was released at the tail end of the most bitter American presidential campaign in recent memory where similar issues about a powerful woman in the middle of political circles were part of the state of play. Yet the points it makes, perhaps in something of a preachy manner, in its final scenes are valid ones that will likely continue to haunt Washington and our political discourse for years to come.
Whatever the case may be for why audiences didn't see the film in cinemas, Miss Sloane is a thriller for our time that casts a strong, female lobbyist in the role of anti-hero. It takes the current Washington landscape which it turns into a fascinating thriller which examines that sphere of power and the people who occupy it. Audiences didn't find the film in cinemas might find it now that's it on disc and streaming. If they do, they're in for a treat.
Wernher von Braun (1960)
Jurgens, Von Braun, & "I Aim At The Stars"
For those of a certain age or with an interest in the history of space exploration, the name of Wernher Von Braun will be familiar. Von Braun was one of the fathers of NASA's rocket program, the man who helped not only to build the massive Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo missions to the Moon but also helped sell the idea of space exploration to the American public. He was also the man behind Germany's V-2 rocket program, an act which (along with his potential involvement in and definite awareness of the use of slave labor to build said rockets) might also make him something of a war criminal. When Von Braun was at the height of his fame in the late 1950s-early 1960s, the idea of making a film about his life was deemed to be a good idea. The result was I Aim At The Stars, released in 1960 and stands as an interesting historical piece if nothing else.
For one thing, there's the question of how you portray a scientist who once built weapons of war for a former enemy. Much has been said over the years about the whitewashing of not just Von Braun's war record but other Germans brought to the United States as part of Operation: Paperclip. From the point of view of someone interested in that part of the story, the film is interesting. Despite its reputation, the film doesn't quite do a whitewash. Indeed the film's overall portrait would arguably fit in with many modern takes on the man: that he was a scientist who worked for the countryman willing to put up the funds for the research, apparently regardless of who they were. The film does portray the real-life conflicts between Von Braun and more fanatical elements of the Nazi leadership which led to his being arrested. The appearance in the film of a skeptical US Army major turned civilian journalist also gives the film a skeptical edge, never letting the audience forget Von Barun's background. The film then has some shades of gray though not as many as perhaps were needed.
That said, the film does simplify and occasionally fictionalize things. The latter is perhaps more problematic since it involves an entire subplot involving Von Braun's secretary (played by Gia Scala) being an American spy in a move that makes little sense. The simplification of of real-life such as the development of the V-2 is largely to be expected with turning two decades plus worth of events into a film that runs less than two hours. The results can be frustrating and slightly melodramatic at times as a result.
Indeed, there are times when the film feels more like a TV movie than something that was a must-see on the big screen. The script from Jay Dratler (based on a storyline drawn up by George Froeschel, H. W. John, and Udo Wolter) feels like that of a TV movie with occasionally stilted dialogue (a US Army officer telling his British counterpart that "I am just an observer from the US Army," being a prime example) and scenes that seem to exist purely for means of exposition. The script also seems to spend a long time on some issues and glances over others, making it quite uneven at times. The film feels odd at times as a consequence, having the feeling of something akin to Lifetime's ill-received Liz & Dick on the tumultuous relationship of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in that it covers a lot of ground and not always admirably.
Which extends to the cast as well. Though Curt Jurgens was a fine character actor and a German, he was almost completely miscast as Von Braun. Part of that is due to a lack of physical similarity between them but also because there was only about a three year age gap between them which means that despite make-up, Jurgens simply isn't believable in scenes as the younger Von Braun during the war nor in scenes with Victoria Shaw as Maria Von Braun who was twenty years his junior. Perhaps because of the script, no one in the cast really gets a shine despite occasional moments which extends from Shaw to Scala's secret agent secretary, Herbert Lom as fellow rocket scientist Anton, and James Daly as Army Major and journalist William Taggert who becomes the film's persistent American critic of Von Braun. None of the performances are bad per se but none of them are exactly stellar work either.
The film does have some things going for it. For enthusiasts of the era, there is plenty of stock footage on display from V-2s to missile tests and the climactic launch of America's first satellite Explorer One. Director J. Lee Thompson's direction as well has the occasional flourish such as the cutting in the TV appearances of Von Braun and Taggert arguing over issues regarding space flight (with their arguments mirroring ones we are still having decades later) and during the climactic sequence which nicely portrays the wait on the ground to learn if the satellite had made it into space.
On the whole, I Aim At The Stars stands as a historical document more than anything else. Despite the occasional flourish from Thompson and the presence of an actor like Jurgens, there is little to set the film aside from many others made at the time for the average viewer. It is perhaps no surprise then that it has fallen into a degree of obscurity. Yet for those who lived through the era (and the exciting NASA years of Von Braun's career after the film came out) or are interested in the life of the man who helped open the door to space, it's well worth a watch.
At least until someone else makes a film about Von Braun.
Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (2017)
"The Doctor Falls" But Does Moffat Deliver?
In the review I wrote for World Enough And Time, I wondered if showrunner Steven Moffat would actually be able to deliver on its promise. There have been times in the past where finales failed to lived up to expectations after a strong build-up (Wedding Of River Song and especially Hell Bent). What would Moffat do with his final finale episode given he had two versions of the Master, a companion turned into Cybermen, and a Doctor preparing to exit the series? Would he deliver or would The Doctor Falls turn into "Moffat Fails (Again)"?
Almost from the moment it starts, Moffat uses his last finale to keep the viewer on edge. From an incredible shot that ends the teaser sequence, few things in this episode go quite as you might expect from the handling of the two different incarnations of the Master to the Cybermen (and which ones turn up in the episode) and indeed the very meaning of the episode's title. All things considered, this could have been an RTD era "throw everything and the kitchen sink in!" finale where style trumped substance to the detriment of the story.
Thankfully that isn't the case here. For all the feeling of this being a spectacle driven hour, Moffat keeps the episode firmly grounded with the characters. From the Doctor trying to do his best in an increasingly terrible situation, Bill's reaction to her new status as one of the Cybermen (nicely performed by Pearl Mackie and Cybermen voice actor Nicholas Briggs backed by some nice visual work from director Rachel Talalay), and two Masters being present are all driven by who those characters are and what their reactions to the situations they find themselves are effects those around them. Indeed the presence of the latter pays off the season long story arc involving Michelle Gomez's Missy and closes a gap in the character's history left with Simm's previous appearance nearly a decade ago. The Cybermen, all the different kinds that appear, are well represented here and the time dilation set-up in the previous episode allows for the different kinds as well. For all the recent criticism of Moffat and Doctor Who as a series in general being too interested in "fan pleasing" in recent times, The Doctor Falls shows that isn't the cast at all.
There is some sense of deja vu to the episode though. Bill's status as one of the Cybermen hearkens back to Danny Pink in the finale to Capaldi's first season though done through the eyes of the companion rather than a never firmly established love interest. Bill's send- off in the closing minutes is one that hearkens back to Clara's final exit in Hell Bent yet improves massively upon it but not finding a cheat around her previously established fate and tying back into something introduced with the character to begin with. Even the presence of Missy and the Cybermen hearkens back to the aforementioned first Capaldi finale but the episode turns that on its head thanks to Simm's presence and a plot twist early in the episode. It is almost as if Moffat as a writer has looked back over his era, taken note of some of his flawed finales, and given himself a chance to let those ideas shine properly.
Though if this is anyone's shining moment, it is Peter Capaldi. After a rough first year in the role where the writer's seemed unsure what to make of his Doctor to a more secured footing in his second year, the Scottish actor (and life-long fan of the series) has been knocking it out of the park in his final season. The Doctor Falls is a prime example of that as Moffat gives Capaldi a wide range to cover that highlights everything that has made Capaldi's Doctor what he is: charming, often putting on a brave face in spite of impossible odds, a man who will stand up and speak his heart with a speech any actor who would kill to deliver. Capaldi shines throughout from his first scene on a rooftop tied up to a wheelchair to that final, jaw-dropping scene which sets the stage for Christmas and the episode is all the better for it.
Performances are solid all around with virtually everyone getting something akin to a send off in terms of main cast. The aforementioned Mackie hands in perhaps her best performance as Bill as she comes to term with her existence with plenty of shades of the creature from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein which gives the actress some of her most powerful material. Matt Lucas' Nardole never quite escapes his having sidelined for most of the season yet gets some nice moments here. The two Masters (that's John Simm and Michelle Gomez) are also a highlight of the episode, wonderfully playing off of each other both in a comedic and dramatic sense which shows the real differences between them. Indeed, one almost wishes there had been more of the two together but it is perhaps better to leave viewers like children with candy: wanting more rather than risk giving them too much.
More than anything else, The Doctor Falls feels like the beginning of the end for the Moffat/Capaldi era. It nicely ties off so much of the Capaldi era while also paying homage to and bringing back elements from its past. It sees Moffat turning tables one more time and even improving upon elements he had used far less successfully in previous finales. It also sets the stage for one last hurrah at Christmas that will see showrunner and leading man alike finally leave the stage.
If it's as good as this was, then we're in for a treat.
Doctor Who: World Enough and Time (2017)
Quintessential Doctor Who
"All good things must end," as the old expression says. That is true for seasons of our favorite TV series and the tenth season of the BBC's regenerated Doctor Who is no exception. In what seems like the blink of an eye, the final season for both Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor and Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner has come to the first half of a two part finale. World Enough And Time sets the ball rolling and does so in style.
I say that because World Enough And Time is a quintessential piece of Doctor Who. It is a meshing together of three different eras of the TV series for starters. There is the current TARDIS crew and Missy (played by the brilliantly bonkers Michelle Gomez) who are representing the Moffat era. The episode's opening minutes delivers on the season long build-up involving Missy in the vault and the Doctor's attempt to reform his oldest friend into a proverbial "good guy" and it goes about as well as you might expect. The episode also delves into one of Moffat's favorite tropes of things going "timey- wimey" from the jaw-dropping opening minutes of the episode to the very setting of the episode itself though the later is at least down to a scientifically plausible explanation (and one that viewers of the 2014 film Interstellar will instantly recognize).
Added to the mix are two very different blasts from the past, both of which announced well ahead of time. The first is the return of John Simm as the Master from the Russell T Davies era who appeared first a decade ago and the two-part finale to Davies (and Tenth Doctor David Tennant) era in 2009-10. Simm's Master is thankfully toned down a bit here from the manic, nigh-on self-parody of the character presented a decade ago though there is still a playful quality to the character but also a quite menace to boot. The episode also gives us, in another first, giving us two different Master's on-screen together with Gomez and Simm bouncing off of each other rather nicely which ties together the two quite different eras of New Who.
The other blast from the past comes is definitely an old one, dating back to the show's original run. The biggest result of that is the return of the original design for the Mondasian Cybermen, first introduced in 1966 and reappearing for the first time on screen since then. That original design is at once both iconic for fans and perhaps laughable to 21st century eyes which made some (this writer included) nervous about their reappearance in the series. Those fears were unfounded as the fifty year old designs look amazing having been given sympathetic and subtle alterations that preserve the look in all of its glory. Even the handling of the reveal of Simm's Master echoes so many of the Master's appearances in the original series, something that even the dialogue highlights. In the space of forty-five minutes, the series brings together its past and present (and even its immediate future) into one place.
Doing so doesn't automatically make this a great episode, as stories from the past like Attack Of The Cybermen prove. Having so much from the past can potentially alienate viewers and when making a show as long running as Doctor Who, there is a fine line to be tread. This episode is most definitely a case of getting that balance right as long term fans and even those who have merely watched the trailers from this season will know what is coming while those around them slowly catch on. It is an episode that rewards both the dedicated fan as well as the casual one who only tunes in occasionally albeit for different reasons. That is also down in large part to how Moffat's script and the production take all of these elements and build them up into a larger whole, slowly and sometimes with genuine creepiness, pushing characters and viewers alike down the path to the episode's cliffhanger ending. It's a strong piece of genre television with the series once again showing just what its capable of.
It is for all those reasons that World Enough And Time stands out as a highlight not just of this season but of New Who in general. It is that rare episode that takes elements from all across the show's long history and puts them together into a solidly entertaining package. It does so not just by proverbial "fan service" but also by telling a genuinely compelling story along the way that builds tension up rather well.
The only question now is if the next episode can deliver on this ones promise? Perhaps this Doctor said it best with one of his lines last season (one that he also shares with Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor). "Time will tell; it always does."
Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light (2017)
An Old Who Writer Takes On New Who
The current season of Doctor Who is coming to its inevitable end. Before we arrive at the two-part finale story, viewers have been treated to a couple of single episode tales. Following on Mark Gatiss' Empress Of Mars, this past Saturday saw the TARDIS crew head to Roman Britain with an episode written by a writer whose presence marks something of a first for New Who. For the first time, the 21st century incarnation of the series was being written by someone who wrote for its original run with noted playwright Rona Munro (who penned the Sylvester McCoy era story Survival that ended the original series back in 1989). So how was Munro's foray into New Who?
Unlike Survival, which was set in what was then contemporary times, The Eaters Of Light fits snugly into the series sub-genre known as the pseudo-historical. In this case, Munro uses the TARDIS crew to explore the fate of the Roman Ninth Legion, a real-life historical mystery with no really suitable answer. That makes it perfect territory for Doctor given the series has done similar things with the Mary Celeste and the 1926 disappearance of Agatha Christie which makes it all the more surprising that the series somehow hadn't touched on it before (especially with its various spin-offs). What Munro does is take that historical conundrum, mix it with the science fiction nature of the series, and combines it together into an often entertaining forty odd minutes. In that regard, Munro's latest Who script falls squarely into line with many of the tropes that one would expect from the series.
Which is also something which doesn't do the episode any favors. The revelation of what decimated the Romans and is the creature behind the title feels almost cliché in many ways despite the effective final confrontation and the situation it puts the Doctor into (a moment where Peter Capaldi's Doctor once again shines). In some respects, it seems like it would have been nice for this episode (or really many of the pseudo-historical episodes of New Who) to be a one-off experiment in doing something that the series did in its early days: the pure historical. That is, where the episode would seen the TARDIS crew having to wander the lines between two very different but definitely human foes, trying to make peace between them and get out alive. Not that the decision for the episode to go off into definite SF territory makes the episode bad by any means but it does make it feel like something we have experienced before. Viewers, especially those who are long-time fans of the series, might be left feeling like someone who has had good leftover but really wanted something new and fresher instead.
Where the episode on the whole shines to a large extent is in its execution. The TARDIS crew of the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole continues to shine brightly as they have for virtually all of this season. Capaldi plays the Doctor note perfect, always finding the right balance between the varying and often contradictory facets of the character. Pearl Mackie's Bill has some nice moments in her interactions with various Roman soldiers while Matt Lucas' Nardole is for once not being completely shoved off to the sidelines but instead gets some nice moments of his own. The supporting cast is solid given how young most of them are with Rebecca Benson's Pict leader Kar being the definite highlight among them. Charles Palmer's direction is similarly solid as well bringing a strong sense of atmosphere to proceedings in conjunction with cinematographer Mark Watersand composer Murray Gold. They help elevate the episode as a result.
The Eaters Of Light makes for interesting viewing. Despite its perhaps all too familiar plotting, Munro's script has plenty of interesting things in it including some strong characterizations. It is those characterizations, combined with the efforts of cast and crew alike, which help make what might potentially have been a fairly by the numbers monster tale into something downright atmospheric at times. Is it a classic? No. Is it the weakest episode of the season thus far? Potentially. Given how strong this season has been though, that still makes it better than quite a few tales that have come out of this series over the years.
So watch it, enjoy it, and get ready for the next episode.
Doctor Who: Empress of Mars (2017)
A Solid Piece Of Doctor Who
Having wrapped up the Monks trilogy that had come to define much of the middle of this season, Peter Capaldi's Doctor looked set to continue his last hurrah with the return of an old foe. The Ice Warriors, reptilian warriors from the planet Mars were one of the most iconic monsters to come out of the classic series of Doctor Who but had featured only once previously in its 21st century incarnation (ironically enough in Matt Smith's final season as the Doctor in 2013). Written by Mark Gatiss, Empress Of Mars would not only bring the Red Planet warriors back but fill in part of their story while also telling an immensely satisfying SF action/adventure story along the way.
The episode certainly starts out with an interesting premise. the teaser sequence finds the TARDIS crew visiting NASA mission control where a probe to Mars has discovered a message in English buried for more than a century under the Martian ice cap. So they do exactly what they'd expect them to do: jump in the TARDIS and visit 1881 Mars when the message was left. There they find a cavern with an Earth like atmosphere and a group of soldier's from Her Majesty Queen Victoria's army being aided by an Ice Warrior they have nicknamed Friday. The basic set-up is in some ways similar to that of stories form the era of Classic Who and its hard not to think of a story like Tomb Of The Cybermen when a tomb is found and the titular Empress rises to reclaim her planet and her throne. Gatiss though has shown how much he thrives on writing in that format and Empress Of Mars is a showcase for that.
There are other influences at play as well. Seeing Victorian British soldiers in their red uniforms on Mars with the intention of setting up a colony in the name of Queen and Country instantly brings to mind the steampunk Space: 1889 role-playing game. Indeed the episode is filled the legacy of fiction tying into Victorian colonization is all over this story. There's elements of various Mummy tales for example including the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s with how the British soldiers treat the tomb and the Ice Warrior's siege of an outnumbered British force brings to mind the classic 1964 film Zulu. Gatiss though is astute enough as a writer not to give a wholehearted endorsement of it and the episode does a nice job of exploring the darker side of the era with its disregard for native cultures and those willing to murder or destroy in the name of empire, glory, and wealth. Empress Of Mars is at once a colonial tale and a refutation of so many of its tropes all at the same time.
Something else that Gatiss and the episode does is make strong use of the Ice Warriors. Despite being one of the most iconic aliens to come out of the original series, their lumbering presence and voices have also made them something of a source of ridicule as well. In their New Series re-introduction in Cold War, Gatiss and company sought to change that reputation and they continue to do so here. The Ice Warriors are perhaps at their most menacing and threatening, no longer lumbering figures you can easily out-run as they were in the 1960s but cyborg tanks that can overwhelm you with barely a moment's notice. The introduction of the titular Empress (played wonderfully by Adele Lynch) is just one part of the expansion of this Martian race as the episode also touches upon elements of their mythic past, their culture, and indeed their role in the future of the galaxy seen in their later Classic Series appearances (which leads to a particularly fun cameo moment in the episode). If much of what Gatiss has sought to do with them was to bring them up to date and let them be the threat they were always meant to be, than him and director David Yip have succeeded wonderfully.
The performances and productions continue to stand out as well. It continues to feel a shame that we will soon be losing Peter Capaldi's Doctor as he seems to have really settled into the role with this episode being another showcase for his range as an actor from the bad grinning in NASA mission control to the deadly serious "let me try and save your lives" when he's trying to broker a truce between the humans and the Ice Warriors. Pearl Mackie's Bill continues to shine as a character and it helps that her and Capaldi share a wonderful sense of chemistry together, bouncing pop culture references back and forth off each other during some of the episode's best comedic moments. Matt Lucas' Nardole is once again sidelined for much of the episode but his appearances work, especially when it comes to the final scene and who else gets involved. The supporting cast is strong as well with Anthony Calf and Ferdinand Kingsley playing two very different kinds of British army officer as well as the aforementioned Lynch as the Ice Empress Iraxxa. Production wise, the episode is a showcase for the series' production values as it mixes together period elements (something for which the BBC is almost always reliable) and genre elements together wonderfully under the strong direction of David Yip. The results are solid all around.
Indeed, that word can be used to best describe the episode: solid. Mark Gatiss has created a nice piece of genre action/adventure that at once plays with elements of Britain's colonial past while also not be afraid to acknowledge its dark side. It's a script that is wonderfully brought to life by those both in front of and behind the camera. If you're looking for a solid forty odd minutes of Doctor Who, one could do a lot worse than sit down and watch Empress Of Mars.
Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land (2017)
Fake News & An Orwellian Invasion
The trilogy is a most dangerous form of storytelling. It assumes that you will be able to tell one large story across three separate parts (or acts if you prefer) with each standing up on its own. The opening can be good, the middle can be strong, but it is the ending that might ultimately determine how the story is remembered. What has been termed "the Monks trilogy" has seen the long running British science fiction series Doctor Who attempt a trilogy in the middle of its tenth season with the titular aliens coming and taking over the Earth. So could the dystopian The Lie Of The Land bring the trilogy to a satisfying close?
Of course, this isn't the first time that Doctor Who has gone dystopian. The Classic Series (that is the original run of the series between 1963 and 1989) touched on it quite a bit in stories such as The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, The Sunmakers, and The Happiness Patrol. It's also been explored in the series' vast spin- off fiction including the Big Finish audios The Natural History Of Fear and Live 34. Even the New Series has touched upon it in episodes such as the Series Three finale Last Of The Time Lords and Matt Smith's second outing The Beast Below. Indeed, if The Lie Of The Land bares a resemblance to any previous Who episodes its the Series Three finale and not just because of the dystopian setting but because it also comes at the end of a three episode story arc in need of a resolution to set everything back to normal.
Which this episode not only does but does well. The first twenty minutes or so sees writer Toby Whithouse and director Wayne Yip create an Orwellian nightmare of an alien invasion. The Earth is occupied, the thought police are out on patrol, and the line from Orwell's most famous novel is brought to life: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
Like the previous parts of this trilogy, the episode asks viewers to look at our own world through a fun house mirror of sorts, one that suggests (like all good dystopian fiction does) that this and our own world are not too far apart. Indeed, I suspect anyone familiar with the aforementioned novel by Orwell will recognize a moment or two that the episode pays homage to. It's some of the most bleak, fascinating, and well directed minutes of New Who in recent memory that leads to a powerful scene that puts the TARDIS crew of this season on the line.
Once the set-up is completed, it's down to business. If last week's The Pyramid At The End Of The World showed how we could get ourselves into a mess of choosing potential tyranny with the best of intentions, this episode asks how we go about fixing it. It also allows Michelle Gomez's Missy to return to proceedings and give her a role in shaping events. The pointed satire of previous episodes is present throughout but most especially towards the end as the TARDIS crew aims to take down "fake news central" and which sees a potential sacrifice that might just save the world.
The thing is that this episode could easily have been a mess. The aforementioned Last Of The Time Lords was a solid episode until its closing minutes when Russell T Davies chose to turn the Doctor in a fairy, ripped off the end of Superman: The Movie, and invalidated in effect everything that had happened for the 45 minutes or so that came before it. What Toby Whithouse manages to do is not only build up an occupied world (and Britain especially) but also give a meaningful way of defeating the baddie that doesn't resort to something dang near close to magic to do so. It also pays off not only something that has been built into one particular character since their introduction but also allows the Doctor to make a pointed remark about how history seems to repeat itself.
It's not only Whithouse as a writer or Yip as a director who deserve to take the bows here. The TARDIS crew is one fire across the board. Peter Capaldi's Doctor is on fire in this episode from the first line he delivers right up to the last scene. Even Matt Lucas' Nardole (referred to now by his nickname "Nardy") is on fine form after having been regulated to the sidelines for most of the season thus far. It's Pearl Mackie as Bill who is the emotional heart of this episode as we see the woman who doomed the world trying not only to survive in the world she helped create but also trying to figure out how to right her wrong. Michelle Gomez does well in her brief appearances with characters and viewer alike never quite being sure of her intentions or sincerity while the supporting cast is solid though never too showy due to the focus on the regulars.
The Lie Of The Land is everything it should be. It's a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy as well as a solid piece of Who in its own right, a dystopian science fiction tale that asks the viewer to look at the world around us a little harder at how we might change the situations we find ourselves in. It might even show how to tell the kind of story that Russell T Davies tried to tell a decade ago and bungled up . Dare I say it but it is everything Last Of The Time Lords wanted to be and failed at.
And that is no lie.
An Instant Classic?
There is the old saying that tells us that "all good things must end." For Hugh Jackman, the actor who has played Marvel's comic book character Wolverine since 2000, now would seem a good time to say goodbye to the character. Thus Logan, released earlier this year, was announced to be his last time in the role. Not only that but the film looked to be quiet different from any of the previous X-Men films or even the solo Wolverine outings. The resulting film is an interesting piece of work to say the least.
A large portion of what makes the film different is its tone from the script through to the performances. If previous films in the franchise had been largely overblown pieces of work more interested in set pieces than in its large cast characters (see last year's X- Men: Apocalypse), this is the film that set out to turn that whole notion on its head. For all of its action sequences, this film is first and foremost a character piece as we follow not only Wolverine but Charles Xavier (played once again by Sir Patrick Stewart) in a somewhat dystopian world not too far removed from our own where mutants are on the brink of extinction. The film then is something of a third act for both their characters and the results are fairly dark and bleak with Jackman wonderfully portraying a man who was apparently immortal now coming to terms with his own mortality while also being given something his life has apparently lacked for many years: a purpose. The flashes of humor, well played by both Jackman and Stewart, stop the film from ever going too far into the darkness though and help keep it on a more level playing field. That being said, it is far and away the darkest film the franchise has yet produced.
It's also a far more bloody and violent film than one might have expected as well. Though the character has featured in eight previous films where Jackman has played the role (not to mention several animated TV series), none of them showed the level of violence that this film has with liberal amounts of blood flying and no attempt to shy away from gore. Having read the Old Man Logic comic that helped inspire the film, this didn't come as too much of a surprise. What did come as a surprise was that the film set aside the decidedly over the top violence of the comic and instead portrayed as being far more realistic than one might have expected. While it is never gruesome, Logan as a film never shies away from blood and the consequences of violence which definitely separates it from the rest of the franchise without a doubt.
Speaking of Old Man Logan, it is perhaps because of that comic that Logan the film bares far more similarities to an entirely different genre of film: the western. It is comparable to something like John Wayne's final film The Shootist which touches on many of the same themes of an old legend coming to terms with his morality and legacy while also passing on the torch to the next generation. The cinematography even evokes the genre in the film's opening and closing acts to a large extent with sweeping vistas of often bleak landscapes. There's also scenes set in a casino, horses, and the modern equivalent of the little guy being squeezed out by the rich cattle baron's men. The film even goes so far as to feature footage from and to pay homage to one of that genre's best known works in the form of the 1953 film Shane. Also, taking a cue perhaps from the aforementioned Old Man Logan, the film is something of a road trip film that gives us a tour of the US in the post-mutant age. The result of these factors coming together is a film that is far different in tone and better made than any of its predecessors.
Yet, one left the cinema without the sense of "Wow" that a film like Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight left me with. Maybe it's the lack of a thoroughly menacing antagonist (though the combination of both Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant is quite effective) or the fact that, if one stops and thinks about it, the action sequences become repetitive after awhile. For a reason or reasons I can't quite put my finger on, Logan didn't leave me with the same sense of having watched a genre being reshaped in front of me that I was left with at the end of Nolan's seminal film (which this film has often been compared to).
While it is not perhaps the instant classic that some have made it out to be, there is plenty of reasons to see Logan. It is far and away the best X-Men related film we've had to date and one of the strongest comic book films out there at the moment. There's also its performances and its overall look and tone, something which makes it that rare film that defies expectations. Above all else though, it delivers a worthy last act to Hugh Jackman's long career in the role. For those wishing to see how to give a performer a proper exit from an iconic role, this is a prime example of how to do that right.