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Gettysburg (1993)
An Epic In Every Sense Of The Word
23 July 2019
The American Civil War seems to speak to the epic nature of filmmaking. Indeed, it has inspired some of its most important and controversial cinematic works including Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. The 1990s saw something of a resurgence in Civil War filmmaking with films such as Glory and the release in 1993 of Ronald Maxwell's film Gettysburg. Originally filmed for television as a miniseries, it nevertheless received a theatrical release as one of the longest films ever released in American cinemas. More than 25 years on, it also remains an epic.

I mean that sincerely: Gettysburg is a genuine epic. Take the sheer size of the cast, for instance. It features dozens of speaking roles including a dignified Martin Sheen as Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Jeff Daniels as professor turned Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Tom Berenger as Confederate GeneralJames Longstreet, Sam Elliot as Union cavalry officer John Buford, and even a bearded George Lazenby as a Confederate general. And those are just a few of the highlights from the cast which also includes appearances by any number of familiar faces. Keeping track of everyone can be easier said than done at times, especially when the battles come down, and that's something that rewards those willing to sit through the film on more than one occasion.

Beyond the cast, Gettysburg lives up to the word epic in both scope and length. It benefits, for example, from its filming taking place in and around the actual battlefield with what certainly seems to be thousands of reenactors taking part which gives it a further air of authenticity. Their presence can be felt in sequences such as Pickett's Charge which gives the impression of what it might just have looked like on that hot July day. To tell the story of this climactic clash of the Civil War, the film dedicates roughly an hour to each day that it features, portraying events from both sides and the decisions that led to them. Then there's the added addition od Randy Edelman's score built around a rousing main title theme that's put to great effect at the narrative highpoints. The resulting work is a film that feels grand in both artistic intention and presentation.

Is it a perfect film, though? Probably not. The script from director Maxwell gets oddly preachy at times, a little too caught up in speeches delivered by its characters on both sides of the conflict. Whether that's down to the source material, Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, I can't be certain of those others have spoken to the film's faithfulness to it elsewhere. Those talks are all something that definitely adds to the running time, once causing Martin Sheen to quip in an interview that the film lasted longer than the actual battle. That being said, it's something that doesn't hurt the film too much either as their wonderfully by the likes of Daniels, Sheen, and Richard Jordan in his last ever film role.

Perhaps as a result of all that, from the cast and production to the sheer scope of the narrative the film recounts, Gettysburg may remain the last great film made about this defining American conflict. Unquestionably, Maxwell's follow-up prequel film Gods & Generals didn't recapture the lightning in bottle greatness of this film despite its own lengthy running time. But, even now, watching those opening credits or the 20th Maine swinging their way down Little Round Top or Lee being cheered on by his men still sends a shiver up my spine. That speaks to the power of filmmaking and to the lasting legacy of Gettysburg as a film.
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Doctor Who: Demons of the Punjab (2018)
Season 11, Episode 6
A Fine Pseudo-Historical Adventure
28 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Six episodes into its run, Series 11 of Doctor Who saw it taking its second dip into history. The first, Rosa, had aired three weeks previously, becoming the first home run episode of this latest era of the more than half-century-old program. How would this trip to the past fare, particularly in light of the less than well-received sci-fi adventure that aired the previous week?

Demons of the Punjab opens with the member of Team TARDIS who has received the least amount of characterization, Yaz (Mandip Gill), spending time with her family including her grandmother Umbreen (played by Leena Dhingra). When Yaz receives a wristwatch from her gran that has an unspoken story attached to it, it's enough to spark her interest in her gran's past. Convincing the Doctor to take her back in time, they use the watch to hone in on the younger Umbreen (Amita Suman). Only Umbreen is about to marry a man who isn't Yaz's grandfather, the partition of India is about to happen with tensions brewing between Muslims and Hindus, and there are strange "demons" lurking around the woods of Punjab. In short, it's got all the makings of a solid pseudo-historical story.

But does it add up to the sum of its parts? Writer Vinay Patel crafts what it, fundamentally, a compelling piece of historically based family drama. Yaz had been the companion least well developed thus far, so the idea of using her family history as the reason to take viewers to a historical setting Who hasn't explored before is an inspired one. Being in the US, I confess that I know only the basic facts about the partition, the chaos it caused, and its lingering effects on India and Pakistan to this day. Watching this, seeing it play out in microcosm, piqued my interest, to say the least. In that regard, the episode fits the mold created for Doctor Who's historical stories way back in 1963 for it to be entertaining but also informative at the same time.

Just as important, it tells a compelling story involving one of its lead characters. Christopher Eccelston's Doctor in Father's Day told Rose Tyler that the past is another country and Whittaker's incarnation of the Time Lord teaches Yaz the same lesson here. She discovers a part of her grandmother's life she had no clue about, watches family tensions simmering to a boiling point, and learns just how it is the young woman in 1947 came to settle in the British city of Sheffield. Watching Yaz's reaction to events, the more prominent role given to her character is a welcomed addition. That said, Patel does fall into the trap other writer's of Series 11 seem to have fallen into of forgetting she is a police officer as a strange death occurs practically in front of her, only she shows little interest. The episode goes some way to readdress the balance, even with that issue.

Where it stumbles a bit, as did Rosa before it, is how it incorporates the genre elements into the historical setting. The titular "demons" feel oddly shoehorned into the plot, being largely superfluous despite the efforts made to make them more central to the exposition delivered. When who they are and what they want is revealed, it comes less as a surprise and more of "this again?" as it treads on the territory from a Moffat era episode that aired less than a year before Demons on the Punjab did. If there is a flaw to this episode, one thing that takes it down a peg, it's the inclusion of an SF element that no one seems quite sure how to handle.

Beyond that, the episode continues the trend of cinematic production values for Series 11. The location filming (done in Spain rather than on the other side of the world though you'd never know) once more lends a heightened sense of verisimilitude to proceedings. That sense of reality if further aided by the superb production values of costumes and sets, giving it the feel of being there watching events unfold. Even the genre elements, which make odd bedfellows for the plot, are well presented visually. The icing on the cake is the evocative score from Segun Akinola which reaches its zenith with the haunting Punjabian influenced rendition of the Doctor Who Theme. Brought together under Jamie Childs direction and the result is one of the most polished pieces of Doctor Who in recent memory.

Though it ultimately suffers from the same flaw as Rosa earlier in Series 11, Demons of the Punjab is nevertheless one of its highlights. It's an evocative tale, largely well told, and brought superbly to life with some of the strongest production values the show has had in recent memory. It's also an example, even with the one or two issues it does have, of how Doctor Who can illuminate those moments in history that can be overlooked by a wider audience and speaks to the power of its format even after more than fifty years.
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Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum (2018)
Season 11, Episode 5
Traditional Who Chibnall Style
22 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
It seems safe to say there likely hasn't been a series of Doctor Who as divisive as last year's. It seems to have solicited polarised reactions from all quarters of fandom. Perhaps no episode did more so than The Tsuranga Conundrum, aired in early November 2018. Why was that? And, perhaps more importantly, how was the episode itself separated from the reactions to it?

Part of it might be down to this being the fourth episode to date scripted by the showrunner (fifth if you count his co-writing credit on Rosa). It is most assuredly the closest he's come to writing a traditional Doctor Who tale thus far into his era. In many ways, the premise harkens back to his very first script for the series, the 2007 Tenth Doctor outing 42. Both episodes feature the TARDIS crew trapped on a spaceship while facing a threat inside the ship, people onboard with secrets, and the looming prospect of death coming from without as well. So is Chibnall ripping-off the 1975 Fourth Doctor tale Planet of Evil a second time?

Not at all, thankfully, because otherwise, this review would resemble my 2013 review of that episode. Rather than dealing with possession and the crashing into a sentient celestial body as both Louis Marks and Chibnall did in 1975 and 2007, respectively, The Tsuranga Conundrum goes in a different direction. Namely, what if you had a whole set of crisis going on at once, including having a seemingly indestructible creature eating your spaceship piece by piece. It's a storyline that gives everyone something to do, however small, to contribute to the outcome. No small feat when you've got four members of Team TARDIS at the heart of the show as well as a decent sized supporting cast.

It does lead to a problem, however. As a result of that, and potentially of the extended 50 minutes running time, it's far more exposition heavy than it needs to be. One example of that is the monologue the Doctor gives about the ship's drive engine partway through the episode. As a piece of writing, it's fantastic and wonderfully delivered by Whittaker at her most-eyed. The difficulty is that it brings the plot to an absolute standstill for the time it takes to present it within an episode that's already crammed with characters explaining things to one another. Somewhere there's a cracking 43-minute episode buried in an over-stuffed 50 minute one.

Beyond the traditional nature of the plot, the tone and visuals of the episode call to mind other things as well. Tonally, the regular shifting back and forth between more comedic dialogue, exposition, and serious threats brings to mind Seth MacFarlane's Fox series The Orville with the design of the Pting creature further reinforcing that. Visually, the stark white corridors and rooms filled with screens, combined with the direction of Jennifer Perrott and the camera work of Simon Chapman, brings to mind the Enterprise of the rebooted Star Trek movie universe under J. J. Abrams, right down to the occasional piece of lens flare. It's something that gives proceedings a feeling that is at once different from the episodes before and, yet, oddly derivative at the same time.

All of which might go some way to explain reactions to it when it aired. Watching it now, with a bit of distance, The Tsuranga Conundrum feels like a bit of traditional Doctor Who in the midst of the series being turned on its ear a bit. It's the eye in the middle of the hurricane, as it were, though perhaps not in the place most would have wanted it. Is it the worst piece of Doctor Who ever made? No, far from it. Nor is it the best but, then, there are far greater sins than being a good piece of rainy afternoon Doctor Who.
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Sightings: Heartland Ghost (2002 TV Movie)
A Respectable, If Unremarkable, Made For TV True Haunted House Flick
29 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
One suspects there will never be a time when ghost stories won't have an appeal. Perhaps because no matter how rational we are, we will always fear the strange and unknown, even more so if it turns out to have some basis in reality. In the 1990s, the cult TV series Sightings featured just such a case as part of its kaleidoscope of programming involving a family in Kansas and the spirits in their home. In 2002, sometime after the series ended, those segments inspired the made for TV movie Sightings: Heartland Ghost which dramatized the case and the family at the heart of it.

Unquestionably, the movie has plenty going for it. The real-life case unfolded on TV across nearly five years, giving plenty of source material for veteran screenwriter Phil Penningroth to draw upon in creating his script. Indeed, the various Sightings crew (including host Tim White in a somewhat rare on-location visit) captured on tape some positively surprising moments. The casting looked solid with the ever dependable Beau Bridges and Miguel Ferrer in leading roles alongside a cast of Canadian character actors. The potential was there to be sure.

Did the film live up to it? Yes and no.

Yes, at least in many of the places that matter. The casting is firm for the most part with Bridges being an effective company leader as the skeptical producer confronting the paranormal alongside his team of Nia Long as his researcher and Matthew Currie Holmes as his at times obnoxious cameraman Nolan. Miguel Ferrer, best known for his rougher-edged or more disagreeable performances, gets a rare chance to play a softer role as the psychic Allen (based on the show's semi-resident psychic Peter James who visited the house). The supporting cast is a bit more mixed with Gabriel Olds and Thea Gill seemingly mismatched to an extent as the couple at the heart of the haunting while Rachel Hayward is effective in her role as electronics expert Jamie. Other parts are a bit more stock and less showy with equally mixed results.

The film has other positives going for it as well. Despite being shot in Canada, the film does an admirable job of capturing the Kansas location and a decent reproduction/take of the house at the center of things. The cinematography of Bert Dunk and the direction are above average for a TV movie with Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith bringing his strengths for visuals and pacing to proceedings. Last but not least is the score from Peter Bernstein which has its share of striking moments to it, adding some atmosphere to proceedings though it does find itself hampered at times, as does the entire production. On the whole, while one wouldn't mistake it for a Hollywood film, it does a respectable job under the circumstances.

What hampers it is the script and some of the decisions made in bringing the case to the screen. Writer Penningroth might have had plenty to draw from, and to his credit, he works in many of the highlights from the coverage on the parent show into proceedings such as scratches forming with no warning or apparent cause on camera. There is, as to be expected, some dramatic license involved such as condensing the scale of time down to a single visit by a single Sightings crew rather than a multi-year set of visits by different units, all understandable given the nature of a ninety-odd minute TV movie. Where the script and, ultimately, the film itself runs into trouble is that Penningroth engages in almost every single cliche of the haunted house/paranormal investigation genre you can throw at it from Bridges' cynical investigator to skeptical townsfolk claiming its all a hoax to a member of the couple who thinks the other is overreacting and even a "cute" ending (for lack of a better phrase) tacked on at the end. Add on a couple of questionable choices involving nudity and a wandering eye-ball camera with different filters on it representing ghosts point of view and the film has a cheap, hookey feeling. But perhaps is that hookey feeling more apparent than in the attempts to recreate those images that will be familiar to viewers of the Sightings segments on the hauntings rather than using the compelling real footage, something of a missed opportunity to tie back into the parent series.

In the end, Sightings: Heartland Ghost is serviceable, respectable even. And yet, despite the cast and some of the better decisions made in the production, it suffers from glaring issues that make a less than perfect piece of work. There's a potentially great haunting film to be made of the Heartland Ghost events but this doesn't quite hit the mark. But, if you're looking for something to watch on a rainy afternoon or on a dark evening, you could do a whole lot worse than this little movie.
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Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child (Pilot) (1963)
Season 1, Episode 0
Where Time Began
29 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
With so many episodes of Doctor Who that aired in the 1960s missing from the BBC archives, it still seems incredible to consider that somehow we still have an episode that never even aired. An Unearthly Child, that all-important and legendary episode of what has become the world's longest running science fiction television series, was in fact made twice. While conventional wisdom has it that remaking something usually doesn't improve upon it, there are exceptions to every rule, and the unaired version of An Unearthly Child (sometimes incorrectly called a "pilot" episode) proves that.

The changes are noticeable within seconds of the titles starting. There's an odd thunderclap effect put on the opening titles, and the shots of I.M. Foreman's junkyard are different, feeling jerky and almost disorientating at times. Indeed, there's an immense visual difference between this version and the transmitted one, as there's far more emphasis placed on keeping the camera mobile throughout despite the multi-camera set-up that the episode (and indeed the next quarter century worth of episodes) was filmed under. Cameras bump into things as do actors on occasion with William Russell knocking over a mannequin shortly upon entering the junkyard. The mobile camera leaves the entire episode feeling somewhat amateurish much of the time as the camera shakes and wobbles, sometimes struggling to cope with what it's being forced to present on-screen.

Where the changes are most evident is in the back half or so of the episode once it arrives in the junkyard. Hartnell's Doctor is a very different kettle of fish than the version we would eventual get both inside and out. The characterization plays up the aspect of the "stranger", making the Doctor feel less like a warm and grandfatherly figure than a menacing figure whom one could understand Ian and Barbara being suspicious of all too easily (indeed, with 21st-century eyes, one might be forgiven for thinking something far more sinister might be taking place in the junkyard). Nowhere is this more evident than in the lengthy scene in the TARDIS console room where the Doctor is less amused with Ian's struggling to understand than coming across as an almost gloating mad-scientist figure. Even the costume is different once the hat and scarf go by the wayside, with Hartnell wearing a more contemporary suit instead of the more familiar Edwardian garb. He isn't the only one who's different though.

One thing I do lament not carrying over to the transmitted version is Carole Ann Ford's Susan. While a greater emphasis was placed on her being a teenager in that version and the subsequent series, what this version presents us with is a far more intriguing characterization. Like Hartnell's Doctor, there is more emphasis placed on the strangeness of this schoolgirl who clearly knows more than she should about some things but not about others, which Ford plays well in both versions. The differences are most apparent in the aforementioned TARDIS scene where Ford not only wears a different costume but comes across with a different demeanor, less fussy than she is in the transmitted version. While it has a moment or two that doesn't work (such as the drawing scene in the classroom that was replaced with the French Revolution book in the transmitted episode), it's a far more intriguing take on Susan than we would ever get onscreen.

Of all the characters, Ian and Barbara change the least between the two. In fact, one might argue that they don't change at all, right down to the performances of William Russell and Jacqueline Hill. Ian and Barbara's motives stay the same and their reactions to the interior of the TARDIS are identical, though there's an extra line or two of exposition given to the Doctor to make the scene perhaps a tad more understandable. It's interesting to consider that the two human characters, the ones that viewers would most recognize and identify with, changed hardly at all between the two versions, which goes to show just how important it was to get the show's other two leads right from the very first episode.

What's perhaps most remarkable is that Anthony Coburn's script doesn't change much between the pilot and the transmitted version. With the exception of the dropped "forty-ninth century" line and the change to what Susan is doing after her teachers leave her in the classroom, virtually all of the dialogue is the same. The Doctor's lines don't change very much at all, something that is surprising given the vast differences between characterizations between the two versions. What has changed has little to do with the script but in performances and emphasis, showing just how important it can be to get the characters right.

What's also interesting to consider is that the episodes that followed and make up the rest of what we today consider An Unearthly Child were not re-shot to accommodate the new version but instead continued on from this with the production team only later going back to record this episode again. That change had a knock-on effect putting the show's premiere date back a week to the now famous 23rd of November and putting the first Dalek story out a little later than it would have been otherwise. Just how much did Sydney Newman's insistence on a second version of this episode mean for the show's future? Would this version, and that week's difference in broadcast date, have made the show's history? We'll never know of course, but it's interesting to consider.

In the end, life rarely hands out second chances. Doctor Who though in the fall of 1963 got one, thanks to the persistence of Sydney Newman, and we as fans should forever be thankful for it. While the episode has its pros, it also has plenty of cons, from lacking a polished look to characterizations that aren't quite there. What we're left with, when all is said and done, is an intriguing look at Doctor Who's earliest days and what might have been.
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Apollo 11 (2019)
See It On The Biggest Screen You Can
24 March 2019
A half-century ago, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the Lunar Module Eagle and into the history books. In the decades since, that moment and the flights of NASA's Apollo program have been chronicled in seemingly countless documentaries. At the top of that list remains 1989's For All Mankind from the late Al Reinert and 2007's In The Shadow Of The Moon from British filmmakers David Sington and Christopher Riley. Up there with them now is 2019's Apollo 11, an exciting new film from Todd Douglas Miller that is begging for you to see it on the biggest screen possible.


In part because of Miller who, like those other great filmmakers of Apollo before him, wasn't content to merely do a rehash of what had come before. Miller's Apollo 11 is in part a deep dive into the NASA archives, uncovering things that even the most seasoned space enthusiast has likely never seen before. There's a wealth of pre-launch footage, for example, tracing the preparations from the rollout of the massive Saturn V rocket to the launch pad to multiple perspectives of the launch itself. Even when events move into space, there's still a wealth of rare material to experience including conversations between the astronauts themselves as well as between them and Mission Control in Houston. Even where footage that has become synonymous with the mission and the era such as the stage separations of the rocket or the Lunar Module's descent to the surface of the Moon, it's presented with clarity and scale rarely seen elsewhere. For that alone, the film renders excellent service.

It does so in other ways, as well. Unlike those two documentaries I mentioned at the top of this review, Miller doesn't use astronaut interviews (either aural or visual) to help tell the story. Instead, Apollo 11 unfolds entirely through archival sources ranging from the transmissions to the voice of NASA's public affairs or well-known TV commentators like Walter Cronkite. To help aid visually for parts of the mission where there isn't much or anything to show, the film employees simple animation alongside such commentaries. The film also makes effective use of split-screen and captions to portray mission control or to show events such as the actual walk on the Moon from multiple perspectives. As much as the footage itself on a cinema screen does, it presents the sheer scale of the endeavor but without losing the viewer in the technicalities involved in spaceflight.

In some ways, that's the greatest triumph of Apollo 11 the documentary. It's a film keen to present Apollo 11 the mission in awe-inspiring yet understandable terms, one that emphasizes how incredible in scope and achievement that flight five decades ago this July was. It's also a reminder, at a time when cinema screens find themselves increasingly dominated by would-be blockbusters and superhero flicks, of the raw power of cinema to present stories. Both of those are things we need reminding of, it seems, and the film does a superb job of both.
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The Longest Day...Of Infamy
21 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
"A date which will live in infamy," is how President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on American military forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Nearly thirty years after the attack, 20th Century Fox brought the events surrounding it to the silver screen with the big-budget Tora! Tora! Tora! A film with a large budget and almost as large a cast, though perhaps not as strong as it ought to have been.

In many ways, it's hard not to compare the film with 1962's The Longest Day. After all, both came from the same studio and producer Elmo Williams. Both feature large casts speaking their native languages, multiple directors, epic battle scenes, and attention to historical detail. Both films aimed to bring their chronicles of world-changing battles to the screen in fresh and exciting ways. Whereas The Longest Day succeeded spectacularly with its depiction of D-Day, this film is less successful.

Why? In part due to its attention to detail. As a history buff who has read much about the Second World War and the film's subject matter, it's hard not to admire it in many ways. There's a genuine effort to get things right, to portray people and events as they were and occurred. At times, there's even a sense of seeing history as it unfolded the verisimilitude is that strong. The problem is that all that effort leaves the film feeling oddly dull and detached. The dialogue is, at best, expository and functional and uncompelling at worst. For all the drama that should be there and is intended to be there, it's an oddly lifeless and unemotional piece of work to watch. It's neither rousing nor depressing it, for lack of a better way of putting it. It is a rare example of research getting in the way, of keeping a real-life story from coming alive, rather than the typical case of not letting reality get in the way. Whatever the happy medium between the two is, this film never quite finds it.

That's particularly evident when looking at the performances. The large cast is solid though no one gets anything particular standout to do despite the involvement of character actors like Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, EG Marshall, and Joseph Cotten. The Japanese cast is just as firm as their American counterparts with So Yamamura's Admiral Yamamoto being a particular standout. Unlike with The Longest Day, there's never much for the audience to latch onto in terms of characters due to the material the cast has to work with in terms of being little more than vehicles for exposition.

Thankfully, the film has other things going for it. The film had a big budget for its time, something on display throughout its length. The costumes and sets are first-rate, a solid combination of using both surviving locations and equipment from the era as well as recreations. The film's Oscar-winning visual effects have aged well, something which helps when the film finally reaches the actual attack. Last but not least, what emotion and life the film does have comes in the form of the sparse but powerful music of Jerry Goldsmith who weaves together the influences of both Oriental and Western musical traditions into a striking piece of work. The film is almost a case of being more than the sum of its parts.

More than that, in many ways Tora! Tora! Tora! is the A Night To Remember to Pearl Harbor's Titanic. All are films about historical events, namely the 1912 sinking of the Titanic as well as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In the case of the former films, history takes a front seat with filmmakers crafting a roving narrative that showcases it with a large cast. In the latter, a fictional love story takes the center seat with the history serving more as a backdrop (especially in the case of Michael Bay's 2001 film). While Tora! Tora! Tora! may not be as well-made or compelling as A Night To Remember, it remains the cinema's best take on a day on infamy which changed the course of history.

That's even if it happens to be far from a great film.
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Frost/Nixon (2008)
Howard's Best Film Since A Beautiful Mind
3 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Real life has proven time and again to be a fertile ground for the creative. The career of filmmaker Ron Howard is no exception with such films as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind being among the most successful and acclaimed of his career. There's also Frost/Nixon, his 2008 film based on Peter Morgan's successful stage play. While not as financially successful as those earlier works, it is every bit a choice piece of filmmaking.

That it is so is something owed, in large part, to the pedigree of its script. Morgan not only scripted the original stage play but its screen counterpart and it is something that shows. Comparing his original text with the film, it becomes even more clear how faithful of an adaptation Howard gives viewers. The dialogue is all there, expanded upon in places, and the director isn't afraid to "open up the play," that is to broaden it for what the screen is capable of presenting versus the stage. It can sometimes be the kiss of death to do so, but Frost/Nixon stands as an example of how to do it and do it right.

Perhaps that is down to Howard and his production team understanding what the story they're telling is. The director described the film in special features on its home video release as "a thinking person's Rocky," and that is a solid description of it. Frost/Nixon is ultimately a power struggle between its two titular characters, both men down and out in their way and trying to clamber back up their respective ladders. It's interesting that in the "documentary" segments of the film, where the chorus aspects of the original play are utilized and expanded upon, don't feature either of the leads. The film is an intellectual boxing match between those men, the four interview sessions becoming rounds in the sport between them, that final session where Frost can ask questions about Watergate becoming the all-important moment. Along the way, the film raises questions about the intersection of politics, celebrity, media, and our perceptions of reality, something which makes the film perhaps even more relevant a decade after its initial release.

The film has another Howard trademark: the ensemble cast. Leading it in the eponymous roles are the two actors who created the characters on stage: Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. Nixon has been portrayed on screen many times and in many different ways but Langella's take on the still controversial 37th American President ranks with Anthony Hopkins as among the best screen presentations of him. Langella captures, despite being considerably taller and broader than the real man, the sense of Nixon the introvert. That here is a shy, sweaty, insecure man who has thrust himself into the public eye and is doing so once more because he knows not what else to do with himself. Further, Langella's Nixon is a man who would prefer not to be looking back into his past but who is forced to do so, perhaps subconsciously driving himself to face his demons in front of a massive television audience. It's an immensely watchable, engaging performance and it remains a shame Langella did not win the Oscar for it.

That is not to diminish Michael Sheen in the role of David Frost, the oft-overlooked half of the titular duo. Sheen as Frost is everything that Langella's Nixon is not: handsome, well dressed, a ladies man, and pushing himself into the public eye because it's what he does. Frost is an entertainer whose drug is adulation and ratings with him seeing the Nixon interviews as a chance to try and make it big in America. In doing so, like any gambler, he is putting a lot on the line to the point of risking outright failure. But while he may not have started on this path with the noblest of intentions, Sheen's performance makes it clear that Frost realizes he's placed himself on a mission that he must succeed at and not just for his own sake. Sheen's performance is every bit as gripping as his co-star's and one of the best of his career to date.

Backing the pair is the rest of an ensemble cast assembled by Howard. Keeping up the boxing analogy, they can almost be divided up into teams for the lead characters. On the Frost side, there's Matthew Macfadyen as British producer John Birt in an understated role with Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as the researchers brought in with Rockwell Jim Reston being almost a voice of conscience for Frost. An extension of Frost's team is Rebecca Hall in the role of Caroline Cushing, the charming British socialite who gets drawn into events and manages to about charm everyone she meets. On the Nixon side, Kevin Bacon plays Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan in a part that sees the actor slide into solid character actor territory and the ever dependable Toby Jones as Nixon's agent Swifty Lazar. Add on Howard regulars such as his brother Clint in addition to cameos from Googy Gress, Marc McClure, and Joe Spano and the result is as steadfast a cast as you're likely to get in one of his films. One which brings the events the film depicts to life superbly.

Ably backing both Howard and his cast is his behind the scenes team. The challenges of a film like Frost/Nixon is to recreate the past both faithfully but also in a cinematic fashion. All involved do so nicely with particular attention to detail played to the house used in the actual interview. Elsewhere, production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi create a vision of the 1970s that is at once believable but also cinematically pleasing to the eye. The latter down in part to the excellent cinematography of Salvatore Totino with an almost fly on the wall approach to much of the proceedings. The sparse but effective score from Hans Zimmer is the icing on the cake, with all of these elements helping bring the film to life beautifully.

The result? Howard's best film since A Beautiful Mind at the start of the decade and one he still has not topped. More that, it stands as a superb example of how to take a successful stage play and bring it to life on film. It also tells a story that remains, perhaps surprisingly given its subject matter is more than four decades in the past, relevant to the here and now. That speaks to the power of both Morgan's script and Howard's skills as a filmmaker.
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The Day After Tomorrow Revisited
21 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
2019 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the release of The Day After Tomorrow. Co-written and directed by Rolland Emmerich in the midst of his being the modern "master of disaster," it was a sizable hit in cinemas and a TV re-run staple. How well has it aged though?

One thing that the film has going for it, as does so many of Emmerich's films, is its cast. Dennis Quaid's casting as paleoclimatologist Jack Hall is something of a foundation for the entire film with Quaid bringing both an everyman quality to the role as well as a sense of intelligence necessary to make him believable as a scientist. The other significant bit of casting is Jake Gyllenhaal who is just about believable as Hall's teenage Sam who becomes the audience's main in-road to the incredible weather events taking place in the plot. That Gyllenhaal has strong chemistry with his co-stars closer to being the actual age of their characters helps while the handful of scenes early in the film between father and son help establish their relationship as potential loving but slightly estranged. It's something that, while invoking cliches perhaps at times, helps anchor the film all the same.

It also helps that the rest of the cast is solid. A young Emmy Rossum shines as academic decathlon contestant Laura who becomes a love interest for Sam in the New York portions of the narrative. Though not a sizable role, Sela Ward does well in her brief appearances Dr. Lucy Hall, Jack's ex-wife and Sam's mom who is trying to care for patients. It's also a cast nicely filled with veteran character actors such as Ian Holm in a delightful role as a fellow climate scientist, Kenneth Welsh as the Dick Cheney like Vice President, Dash Mihok as Hall's aide Jason, and the ever reliable Jay O. Sanders as Hall's longtime colleague Frank Harris. They're just the tip of a strong cast, something which even in recent turkeys like White House Down and the Independence Day sequel Emmerich has been good at putting together.

It is also, perhaps not surprisingly, a special effect feast. From the still impressive all CGI opening credit sequence to tornados in Los Angeles, a tsunami striking Manhattan, and British Royal Air Force helicopters frozen out of the sky, it is everything that one might ask from an Emmerich film. It's also well realized with much of the CGI holding up after all this time with the singular exception of a pack of wolves who even by the standards of the time look unconvincing. Combined with the sound design and music of composer Harald Kloser, the results are still incredible to watch. Of all of Emmerich's films, it is perhaps only second to Independence Day in how well its effects hold up.

Where the film suffers, as does so much of the director's work, is in its script. There are more than a few cliches and thin characterizations at play in the film's two-hour running time which are grating at times. More often than not, especially with the Sam and Laura relationship, the film is saved from going too far by the sheer chemistry of the cast. Well, that and well-timed uses of humor to boot. Just how right and wrong the film gets its science too is interesting and has, of course, been discussed far better than I can hope to do so here. Needless to say, as someone who has read the film's non-fiction source material (The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber), it's hard not to find the ideas compelling even if the timetable undergoes sizable, if not implausible, acceleration.

Despite some of those issues, The Day After Tomorrow is a film that, even after fifteen years, still plays to all of the director's strengths. It's a bold, epic tale that takes in a large cast of characters and a worldwide scope. Despite that scope, it's principally focused on the United States with glimpses of what is happening elsewhere. It's a tale of survival told in as unsensational a style as it can. In short: It's the War of the Worlds of the climate change era, doing for it what HG Wells did for alien invasions.

Plus, as I write this, it's hard not to find the scenes of Americans fleeing into Mexico funny. Heaven forbid if something like what the film portrays actually happens. In that regard, at least, it could well be The Day After Tomorrow...
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The Fictionalized Nixon Years
6 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Before House of Cards, before The West Wing, there was Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Broadcast in six parts on the ABC network in 1977, it followed hot on the heels of its source novel, former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman's Roman à clef The Company. The result is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction.

Indeed, half the fun of watching the series lies in that mixture. For a history buff such as myself, part of what interested me in the series was knowing that it was the sort-of inside story of the Nixon years from one of those who had been there. As a result, it's fun to sit there trying to figure out who is who and see how they portray events that were, in 1977 at least, still fresh in the memories of viewers. Some are obvious such as Jason Robards' character Richard Monckton being Nixon and Robert Vaughan's Frank Flaherty being a stand-in for Nixon's longtime Chief of Staff Bob Hadelman. Or to see how things like the Vietnam War (always alluded to in the series as "the war in Southeast Asia) and events like Nixon's impromptu visit to a protestor camp at the Lincoln Memorial play out. Portions of the narrative are undoubtedly fiction (such as a large portion of the climax involving Monckton and CIA Director Bill Martin) but, for all six episodes, the mixture of fact and fiction is intriguing.

It's a chance to see, in fiction at least, how Washington politics of yesteryear played out. Perhaps surprisingly given the changes in technology and the news cycle, things haven't changed as much in the last four decades as one might think. The plotline of the miniseries with its focuses on the abuses of power, money in political campaigns, and the collision of the intelligence community with the White House all feel remarkably fresh even after four decades. That is something further helped by the direction of Gary Nelson whose choices include precursors to the West Wing's famous "walk and talk" sequences. Perhaps it just proves the adage of how "the more things change, the more they stay the same?"

As with many miniseries of the era and subsequently, another part of watching it is the large cast of characters with interweaving plotlines. Cliff Robertson gets top billing and plenty of screen time as CIA Director Bill Martin who finds himself caught in the crosshairs of not just the President but two women in his life vying for his attention. Perhaps the real stars of the miniseries are Robards as the Nixon-like Monckton and Vaughan as his right-hand man Flaherty. Robards wonderfully captures and brings to life a version of Nixon as an insecure man running for office in part due to a deep insecurity that manifests itself in fits of anger at the press or political opponents and in part due to a lust for power while Vaughan portrays an icy coolness that never quite reaches a boiling point. Appearing in early episodes of the miniseries in a surprising turn is Andy Griffith as the Lyndon Johnson-based Esker Anderson with a performance that, like Robards' Monckton, wonderfully captures the real President without being a caricature. While they're the big players in the drama, and Vaughan won a well-deserved Emmy, they aren't alone.

The supporting cast of the miniseries is strong as well. In watching the performances of those in the cast playing characters working in the campaign and later in the White House, it's interesting to see what effect power has upon them. That's especially true of the trio of Tony Bill as Adam Gardiner, David Selby as Roger Castle, and Nicholas Pryor as Hank Ferris. Bill's Gardiner comes in as an idealist, Selby's Castle as an up and comer, and Pryor's Ferris as someone who sees this as the last shot to be somebody. In six episodes, events shape them into three different men dealing with crisis political and personal, and just what they're willing to sacrifice. The miniseries also sees Meg Foster and Selby's Dark Shadows co-star Linda Parker in substantial supporting roles, Foster as his long-suffering girlfriend who goes to work at the SEC alongside Parker's character. Meanwhile, and on the more soap opera end of the spectrum, are the two women in Bill Martin's life: his wife Linda (Lois Nettleton) and Sally Whalen (Stefanie Powers) though neither it seems gets to show much range due to the nature of the plot. With a cast that also includes Harold Gould as the Kissinger-esque Carl Tessler and Barry Nelson as Monckton pressman Bob Bailey, the cast is all around strong though with some roles less showy and well executed and others due to the soapy characteristics of the romantic subplots alongside the other threads of the narrative.

Even with more than four decades passing after its original broadcast, Washington: Behind Closed Doors remains compelling viewing. Though soapy at times due to romantic subplots, it nevertheless remains intriguing as it tells its often thinly veiled fictional take on the 1968 presidential campaign and the Nixon years. It also stands as the precursor to programs like The West Wing and House of Cards which would later present their own often very fictional takes on life inside the American government. Though overlooked by the passage of time and long being unavailable, they owe something of a debt to this product of late seventies American television.
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A Curiosity. Just Not A Very Good One.
8 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Four times in American history, assassins have determined the fate of its chief executive. The first was in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the end of the Civil War by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. That Booth was part of a conspiracy, one that evolved from kidnapping to assassination, is beyond doubt. Just who may or may not have been behind him, acting as his puppetmaster as it were, has led to speculation and conspiracy theories. Helping launch modern debates on the topic was Sunn Classic Films' 1976 release The Lincoln Conspiracy and its purported "true" version of events.

Watching it, it's an odd film. As a historical drama, it's not much up to much. For much of its ninety minutes of running time, The Lincoln Conspiracy moves from one scene with strained dialogue and exposition to another. Never once does any of the film's dialogue feel organic, like a conversation that might occur in reality (even by the standards of the time at which the film's events take place). The acting from the film's cast doesn't help either, even with John Anderson once more playing the role of Lincoln. Also, while a dramatic work, the filmmakers felt a need to employ a narrator quite frequently, breaking one of the cardinal rules of storytelling that it's important to show, not tell. Indeed, that could sum up the film as a whole.

As a production, the film's not much better. In its favor is that it benefits from using surviving Civil War-era locations (including some in Savannah, Georgia judging by the credits) to portray various locations in and around Washington. Beyond the cosmetic, however, it's little more than a competent piece of work. There's an almost 1970s TV movie-of-the-week feel to it from the acting to the direction and cinematography. How much of that is down to a low budget (and the film looks like it had one), it's hard to say. On the other hand, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have what they needed to bring their theory about Lincoln's death to the screen.

As for the theory it espouses, it's a convoluted one. It involves the historical accepted figures plus not one but THREE separate plots to kidnap Lincoln, with actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth managing to straddle most of them. Indeed, it seems that Booth manages to latch onto one particular plan to carry out the President's murder, leading to a cover-up by others involved in the plot. Things get even murkier when James Williams Boyd, a spy with a striking resemblance to the actor, gets involved. Many of the names involved are familiar ones to those aware of the assassination from Booth and Boyd to Secretary of War Stanton and Lincoln himself. Told well, it could have been intriguing if implausible.

Instead, it's something else entirely. The ultimate problem of the film is that unlike say Oliver Stone's JFK and despite copious amounts of expository dialogue coupled with narration, the film never clearly gets its points across. It's a muddled mixture of revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and clunky dialogue brought to life with cheap production values. And yet, The Lincoln Conspiracy is ground zero for modern conspiracist thinking on America's first Presidential assassination with its theories showcased on Unsolved Mysteries and Brad Meltzer's Decoded among other places.

In the end, the film is a curiosity. Just not a very good one.
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Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK (2018)
Season 11, Episode 4
A Pertwee Era Throwback
29 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Having established the new look, feel, and tone of the series and a noteworthy trip back to 1955 Alabama, showrunner Chris Chibnall takes his TARDIS crew back home to Sheffield. This trip back home for the Time Lord's human companions isn't anything new. After all, Russell T Davies did so with Rose Tyler and Martha Jones in the earliest years of New Who. It's a way of grounding the program, and its lead characters, in something akin to the real world. Albeit one with, as the title might suggest, giant spiders!

Of course, if you're a fan of Who, there's a chance you'll know the show has a bit of a history with giant insects. Indeed, starting with Planet of Giants way back in 1964, you could even say that it's had a crack at doing them every so often. The Third Doctor era of the 1970s saw giant maggots in The Green Death and large psychic spiders appearing in his epic swansong Planet of the Spiders. 21st Century Who too has had a go at it from the 2006 Christmas special with the Racnoss to Kill the Moon in 2014. As special effects and budgets have improved, it seems to be something that those making the show return to, perhaps drawn by a primal fascination and fear of these multi-legged creatures. So reasonably it isn't too surprising that a new showrunner would want to have a go at the idea.

If there are any of those past examples that Arachnids in the UK draws upon, it's the Pertwee era ones. This episode is the sort of story that might have been made back in its era with its present-day setting and focus on strange goings on in otherwise normal surroundings. Indeed, there are definite shades of The Green Death to be found in the episode as both that 1973 story and this episode made in 2018 deal with some strikingly similar themes. But unlike when Chibnall effectively wrote an inferior remake of a story from this era for Matt Smith's Doctor, this one feels less like a rip-off and more as paying tribute to the program's past, updating it a bit for a modern audience.

Somewhere else the episode invokes the Pertwee legacy is in a bit of satire. American actor Chris Noth (likely best known to audiences for his roles in shows Law & Order and Sex And The City) is the big guest star this week as the American hotel magnate John Robertson, a man with political aspirations back home whose having problems with his latest venture in the UK. If you're sitting there thinking "This sounds familiar," you'll probably know exactly who both character and actor seem to satirize if not outright parody. Noth, to his credit, seems to relish the chance to play a villain on his iconic British show and plays the role to the hilt without crossing the line over into parody mode. His performance is just one of the highlights of the episode even if it ends in a very odd place for this particular character.

Another one of which is, of course, the spiders themselves. As stated above, Who has something of a history with doing this sort of concept with a mixed history of success. Arachnids in the UK may well be the best realization of the idea yet thanks to some excellent CGI work combined with Chibnall's script and the production values. The episode is essentially Doctor Who doing a pastiche of horror films and with the entire production working to those strengths. Whether it's Sallie Aprahamian's direction or the photography and Segun Akinola's score, everything seems to be working towards making this episode as unsettling as it can be. Here at least, the episode succeeds nicely.

Which only serves to highlight the areas where the episode doesn't quite work as well. That's especially true of its supporting characters. None of them, with the sole exception of Robertson, feel particularly well drawn out even Tanya Fear as the spider specialist who becomes the fourth companion for much of the episode. That's all the more unexpected given that Yaz's family appears, particularly mum Najia (played by the enjoyable Shobna Gulati) who evokes memories of Rose's mum Jackie. None of the family appear enough to establish who they are, except that they're on Yaz's case frequently enough to get her to seek out the TARDIS by episode's end.

On the other hand, the episode is a neat little showcase for Team TARDIS. Whittaker continues to settle into the role rather nicely, finding just the right mix of humor, authoritativeness, and eccentricity that the part of the Time Lord requires. Bradley Walsh continues to surprise in the role of Graham, offering in this episode an often moving portrait of a man dealing with grief as he comes back home. Tosin Cole's Ryan continues to shine as his relationship with Graham further progresses, as well as him getting thrown into the action. Mandip Gill's Yaz feels oddly sidelined under the circumstances given the episode's apparent focus on her home life and mum but, when given something to do, she shines. The final scene, where the three of them come back to the Doctor and tempt her to go out on adventures, is a genuine highlight of Series 11 as it's the reverse of what we've seen in New Who: usually, it's the Doctor being the one to tempt others. This time, it's different and in a good way.

Though it lets its character down somewhat, to the detriment of the episode, Arachnids in the UK is a fun outing for the new Doctor. It's an episode that feels very much like a throwback to Doctor Who in earlier times, one done with an eye towards making what's old new again with modern production values. While it may not be the home run that last week's episode was, it's still an engaging romp worthy of fifty minutes before your screen of choice.
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Doctor Who: Rosa (2018)
Season 11, Episode 3
The First Certifiable Home Run Of The Chibnall Era
21 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
When Doctor Who began in 1963, its creators intended for it to be at least semi-educational. Indeed, it was part of the reason why time travel became a part of the show's fabric with historical adventures involving Marco Polo and the French Revolution being among the show's earliest outings. While the educational intent had considerably faded by the end of the 1960s, time traveling and the idea of meeting historical figures have remained part of the fabric of the show even into its 21st Century regeneration, often involving romps with people such as Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie. It's something which former UK Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman and new showrunner Chirs Chibnall also use in Rosa, the season's third episode.

On the surface, it was an episode fraught with potential difficulties. As the title might imply, Blackman and Chibnall had picked as their subject matter American Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks and her 1955 stand against segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Given that the decision of Jodie Whittaker as the traditionally male Doctor had led to accusations of the BBC and Chibnall of being "SJWs" (social justice warriors) trying to make the program more "PC," it was continuous the moment rumors began to swirl about it. On the other side of the equation were those wondering if a British TV program could do justice to a pivotal moment in American history, especially given Who's history of questionable recreations of the country's past alongside rubbish American accents (perhaps reaching its nadir with the 2001 Big Finish audio drama Minuet In Hell). As someone born, raised, and still living in Alabama where I help organize a Doctor Who convention, I'll admit I had reservations of my own. Could script and production rise to the occasion? Or would they flounder under the weight of trying to do so much?

To tell their story, Blackman and Chibnall draw on elements from the better historically themed Who tales. They focus the episode on rich characterization and presenting the period, choosing not to look past the uncomfortable details of yesterday (as had happened in tales such as 2007's Daleks In Manhattan two-parter) but to confront them head-on, using Rosa Parks to do so. The writing creates the feeling of being outsiders, that history is indeed another country has Doctor Who had explored in stories such as Human Nature/Family of Blood. Except that someone wants to change it with the TARDIS crew being in a position of having to keep history on track. In some ways, Rosa as an episode isn't too dissimilar from the acclaimed 2010 episode Vincent and the Doctor where a historical figure was at the center of the plot with a science fiction threat looming in the background as a McGuffin of sorts.

That's something which offers both pros and cons. The positive side of it is that it allows a focus on the real-life figure and the period in question. In that, the episode succeeds magnificently between Vinette Robinson's quiet but determined performance in the title role and in creating the sense for viewers and TARDIS crew alike of being on the edge of history happening. It makes moments such as Ryan meeting some significant people or indeed the episode's climax all the more impactful. Even better, the writing avoids the cliche of having the time travelers responsible for events, instead of allowing the power of the historical moment to be the source of the drama. Indeed, the episode draws tension from IF history will play out as it should and not from our characters inspiring it to happen. It's a wise move and one that pays off in the episode itself.

There is a downside, however. The threat to history, Joshua Bowman's Krasko, is exactly that but he's not much else. He's a presence, one that allows the series to make some subtle references to its past but his motives are unclear and the reasons behind exactly why he's pursuing his particular course of action becoming clear late in the proverbial day. As stated above, he's a McGuffin, something which sets the plot in motion, more than anything else. There are some excellent moments of confrontation involving Bowman and Whittaker's Doctor proving she can stand up to a foe such as well as her male predecessors but, on the whole, the villainous Krasko takes a backseat to the pretty detestable social attitudes of the episode's setting.

Even better, the script comes to life superbly. The high-end production values that have been a hallmark of the season thus far are very much on display in this episode. The recreation of 1950s Montgomery feels spot on to someone familiar with the city in more modern times with an abundance of period detail on display from buses to set dressings. The cinematic stylings and camera choices remain, helping to add to the feeling of the show recreating the past more convincingly than it sometimes has in the past (looking to the Daleks In Manhattan two-parter once again). The accents too are acceptable, more on the convincing side of the spectrum than the sometimes cartoonish ones that Doctor Who has often employed in the past. The supporting cast is solid from Robinson as Parks to Trevor White as bus driver James Blake as well as those in smaller roles. The result helps to give the episode the feeling not of a TV series recreating the past but of a proper period feature film like Hidden Figures.

By the end of the closing credits, Rosa feels like the first certifiable home run of the Chibnall era. Though it's villain is essentially a McGuffin, the quality of the script and production shine through. It's a compelling story of a pivotal moment and the woman behind it, one told within what is (notionally at least) a sci-fi thriller plot. It's also a prime example of what Doctor Who can be at its best and that is something rare indeed.
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Doctor Who: The Web of Fear: Episode 1 (1968)
Season 5, Episode 23
Reconsidering "The Web"
21 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
(Note: A review of all six episodes of the serial.)

Five years.

It was just five years ago that The Web of Fear was one of several mostly wiped stories featuring Patrick Troughton's Doctor. Dramatically, and seemingly overnight, that changed. The serial, which had gained an almost legendary status during the nearly five decades since its broadcast, had, alongside its proceeding story The Enemy of the World turned up in Nigeria. Though its third episode was (and remains) missing, it offered fans the opportunity to see it again. Could it live up to expectations set by decades of hype?

In some ways, it lived up to expectations. Directed by Douglas Camfield, one of the acknowledged best directors of Who, and set in the confined spaces of the London Underground system, it certainly had all the menace and atmosphere expected from previously surviving elements. The black and white visuals of the era lend themselves nicely to both the story and the direction, creating a world of shadows and gloom at every corner. Even the scenes set inside the makeshift headquarters aren't too brightly lit, adding to the sense of entrapment. Camfield and his camera crew further add to the sensation of claustrophobia by engaging in frequent close-ups of the cast, especially when they get into groups. It's something that further cements the director's reputation as one of the program's best directors.

What of the Yeti themselves? The giant furry robots with glowing eyes, claws, and web spraying guns certainly looked great in those surviving clips. Indeed, for much of the serial, they are towering and menacing as they alternate between rampaging roars and sneaking up on their victims. Indeed, it is to Camfield's credit as a director that they look as good as they do for so long. Once the big battle with them in episode four takes place, showing how powerful they are, they suddenly lose what made them so great. They become the center of a couple of gags and are reduced to merely being guards rather than the great force they had been. The limits of the costumes also show themselves on occasions throughout where they become more lumbering actors than threatening monster. It is here that both their reputation and that of the serial takes a hit.

The serial's other issue became apparent as well. For the first four episodes, the same ones in which the Yeti are at their best, the story moves along at a cracking pace. The Second Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria arrive in the London Underground where the Yetis are already a presence with a group of soldiers and scientists led by Professor Travers (Jack Watling reprising his role from the earlier Yeti serial The Abominable Snowmen in solid old age make-up) and his daughter Anne trying to stop them. It's all the hallmarks of a great "base under siege" story: small cast, confined space, menacing adversary, and the sense of a traitor within the ranks of the besieged. The latter is undermined somewhat by the fact that viewers know that Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart won't be the traitor (something which the writing does its best to imply here) but it works for the most part, leading up to the big action sequence in episode four. All seems to be going well, a genuine classic at hand.

Then the plot stalls. Writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln fall victim to the bane of Doctor Who six-parters: the need to stall out the plot in later episodes. Indeed, the Great Intelligence goes so far as to issues a timed ultimatum that (perhaps not-so-coincidently) lasts almost the same length as the episode and gets drawn out even more. From there until a long way into the final installment, all of the pace and menace the story worked so hard to build up until then dissipates. Once it does so, not even Camfield's direction can either hide the fact or get the pace back once plot begins moving again. The result becomes a frustrating conclusion to an otherwise first-rate story but, given the issues surrounding the duo's third and final Who story The Dominators which lost an episode due to comparable problems, perhaps this shouldn't come as too much of a surprise?

Where does that leave The Web of Fear? For much of its length, it's worthy of the reputation that fandom had bestowed upon it for the time in which it was missing. And yet, in the end, it suffers from issues of plotting and scripting that not even one of the show's best directors could help it overcome. The Web of Fear is a story that has greatness in its grasp and, yet, lets it slip away.
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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (2018)
Season 11, Episode 2
A Solid Piece Of Who
17 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Having spent the Series 11 opener effectively relaunching Doctor Who with a new cast and new look, with episode two new showrunner Chris Chibnall had the chance to take the show into space. Doing so isn't a new thing as both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat did with their respective second outings with The End of the World and The Beast Below. Would The Ghost Monument build on the strengths of the previous episode or falter somewhat?

For this reviewer's money, it was the former. Picking up on the cliffhanger ending of The Woman Who Fell To Earth with the new Doctor and companions stranded in space, Chibnall grabs characters and viewers alike and doesn't let go for forty-odd minutes. Telling what essentially is a quest story involving the last stage of an intergalactic rally race organized by Ilin (the always dependable Art Malik) and its final two contestants (played by Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley), the TARDIS crew find themselves aiding the competitors while on the hunt for their ship. If you're a longtime Who fan, you might recognize this type of story as dating back to the earliest days of the program, perhaps suggesting that Chibnall is once again harkening back on the program's past for inspiration.

Looking to the past but very much in the present. The cinematic look introduced in the previous episode remains here, perhaps heightened by going out on location. Unlike 2009's The Planet of the Dead which made underwhelming use of going out in a real desert to film, Chibnall and director Mark Tonderai seem more keen to make the most of it. The landscape becomes a character all its own, baren yet menacing with the occasional landmark that offers both shelter and threat. Who has offered up menacing sets and locations from Gabriel Chase in Ghost Light to the Vashta Nerada infested Library but nothing on the same scale as what The Ghost Monument does. Having a crashing spaceship or two doesn't hurt, giving the opening minutes a definite Star Wars vibe that comes across as welcomed rather than forced. If anything, it's a sign of just what the program is capable of and how far it's come since its return in 2005.

And yet, despite the increase in scope, it never loses sight of the characters. Jodie Whittaker's still new Doctor once again is front and center with the Doctor trying to deliver on her promise of getting her new companions (whom she hadn't meant to transport with her) back home again. There's more than a hint of David Tennant and Matt Smith to her performance here, that sense of eccentric fun alongside a vain of darkness running underneath. The latter surfaces in the later parts of the episode with surprisingly tender and vulnerable moments for the new Doctor which suggests that, beneath the bravado, all might not be so cheery for the Time Lord. All in all, it's a performance that builds nicely on Whittaker's introduction and offers hints of directions for the future.

The companions fare nicely as well. Juggling three supporting leads isn't easy (ask the writers of 1960s and early 1980s Who) but Chibnall does well here. Of the trio, it's Bradley Walsh's chance to shine this time around showing off the humor to the character of Graham as well as his attempts to mend his relationship with step-grandson Ryan. Speaking of Ryan, Tosin Cole gets to show off a bit more of a comedic side here with a particular moment that makes one think of the gamer culture out there at the moment and just what they might do thrown in at the deep end. That said, both Cole and Mandip Gill as Yasmin get some more serious moments that build on their relationship in the previous episode though Yasmin feels slightly shortchanged in this episode. Perhaps that's to be expected with the supporting cast having things to do as well, effectively becoming pseudo-companions for the duration? On the whole, it's a solid outing for everyone even if some get more chance to shine than others.

As second outings go, The Ghost Monument is a solid piece of work. Chibnall's script and the production as a whole build on the successful opening to create a dynamic, cinematic outing for the series. The question is, as the series heads to 1955 Alabama next episode, can the momentum be kept up?
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Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)
Season 11, Episode 1
Come In, Number Thirteen...
8 October 2018
Warning: Spoilers
It has been the topic of debate and conversation in Doctor Who circles for a year now. The announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor sent shockwaves through the fan community not seen since the long-running BBC program returned to screens in 2005. Was it to be the death knell of the program's 21st-century incarnation after a perceived decline during recent years (something this writer will happily dispute) or would it be something to reinvigorate it? With The Woman Who Fell To Earth, viewers would have the chance to find out.

The majority of attention placed on the episode had to do with its leading lady and whether this first canonical female Doctor (following a long series of non-canonical ones) would live up to expectations. For this viewer at least, she certainly did. Whittaker proved to have the right amount of spunk, humor, and gravitas to play the role of the two millennia old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. From her first scene, there is a sense of genuine fun to her Doctor with her bright eyes and a broad smile that feels natural rather than maniacal. Whether she's making a sonic screwdriver or facing down the episode's big bad, Whittaker never fails to convince viewers or to be the center of attention. There's also, as we can see with some hindsight about Peter Capaldi's debut in 2014's Deep Breath, any attempt to either apologize for the unorthodox casting choice or explain it in a way that undermines the show's lead. Instead, Whittaker makes a solid debut that establishes her Doctor firmly and successfully.

The new Doctor isn't the only one with an introduction here. There's a new set of companions as well, in fact, they get introduced before the new Doctor does. Tosin Cole's Ryan Sinclair is the first of these, a young man suffering from dyspraxic whose frustrations with his condition helps set the stage for the events that are to follow, coming across as both apologetic for his role in starting things while also relishing the chance to make something of himself. Mandip Gill's Yasmin Khan is a young trainee police officer and Ryan's former classmate who is bored by what her uninspiring supervisor keeps giving her who finds herself drawn into the strange events first unwittingly and then with a sense of relish worthy of any companion. Rounding out the trio is Bradley Walsh as Graham, Ryan's step-grandfather, who tries to be a voice of reason among the new group while also not afraid to get involved when needed. Together, the three of them bring back memories of the TARDIS crews from Doctor Who's earliest years. Importantly, however, unlike when the idea was tried again in the early 1980s, each gets something to contribute with no one made to feel like a spare part in proceedings.

The other thing likely to get attention is that this is also the first Doctor Who script in six years from Chris Chibnall, the man who has also become the new showrunner. Chibnall's previous Who scripts ranging from 2007's 42 for David Tennant's Doctor to The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood for Matt Smith's debut series, did little to inspire confidence in this writer given how derivative they were of stories from Doctor Who's original run. His scripts for spin-off series Torchwood (where he was the showrunner for two seasons) also did little to inspire much confidence. Thankfully, The Woman Who Fell To Earth avoided many of the pitfalls that Chibnall fell into in his earlier Who scripts. The story is in some respects a straightforward sci-fi thriller, an inversion of the familiar tropes of alien invasion any viewer of Who will be aware of that takes away the TARDIS and sonic screwdriver and makes the new Doctor think on her feet while assembling a new team around her. It finds a delicate balance between introducing characters while keeping the plot moving and never once falls off the highwire it sets for itself. The result is unquestionably Chibnall's best Doctor Who script to date in part because it has the job of re-setting the show all over again.

Indeed, the episode is all change. There's a new, more cinematic look to Doctor Who, one that goes above even the efforts made during recent years as the show began to have episodes shown in cinemas with more regularity. Murray Gold, the resident composer since the program came back, has been replaced by Segun Akinola who brings a fresh approach to scoring the long-running series. And in a further step in the direction of the cinematic, the show's titles and indeed theme music only appear at the very end of the program. There is a genuine freshness to Doctor Who that it hasn't had since 2010, the last change of showrunners, and if you are one of those feeling like the program needed a kick in the pants than you'll be happy to read it has unquestionably received one.

At the end of its hour, The Woman Who Fell To Earth has done what it needed to do. It's firmly installed a new Doctor, a new set of companions, and firmly established a new sense of style for the new fifty-five year old program. That it does so while also telling a compelling story is to the credit of its new showrunner and all involved. So I'll conclude by saying this:

Welcome aboard, Doctor. I hope you'll be with us for a while yet...
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The Rock (1996)
Visually Striking, Intelligently Plotted Action
27 July 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The name Michael Bay and the phrase "great film" don't often appear together. Bay has proven with films such as Armageddon and the Transformers franchise to be the poster child of the current Hollywood "wham-bam-thank you ma'am!" style of filmmaking. That is to say, the kind of filmmaking that emphasizes style over substance. And yet, back in the mid-1990s, Bay got the mix right for one film. That film was The Rock.

Part of which is down to the film's cast and, in particular, its trio of lead actors. Sean Connery was having something of a comeback in the 1990s, and the film is a prime example of that. He exudes presence from his first scene nearly a half-hour into the film (despite his top billing) right up to his final shot. Whether he's making quips ala James Bond (perhaps appropriately enough as his character of Mason is a former British agent) or taking on antagonists half his age while being a reluctant father figure to Nicholas Cage's character, Connery is watchable throughout.

As are the other two members of the leading trio. The Rock seems to be the film that established Nicholas Cage as a bit of an action star, and it is here that his quirky but reluctant hero persona works best. That might be down to how well the thrown together relationship between his character of FBI chemical weapons specialist Goodspeed and Connery's Mason works. Rounding out the trio is Ed Harris' villain, Marine Corp Brigadier General Frank Hummel, the proverbial "good soldier" gone bad. What's fantastic about Harris' performance is that Hummel is in many ways sympathetic, a commanding officer who has seen too many men fight and die for their country without recognition. What he's after isn't some madcap take over the world scheme but a desperate, last-ditch attempt to have his men recognized but going about in a way that can only end tragically. Harris brings all these elements out in his performance, rounding off the lead cast with an underrated villain.

The supporting cast is strong as well, often featuring character actors. There's the late John Spencer, on the eve of success in The West Wing (a series created by uncredited Rock scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin), as the FBI director reluctant to bring an imprisoned Mason out into the world again but forced to watch as events unfold. William Forsythe and Michael Biehn both come across well in their roles as the FBI special-agent-in-charge and as the leader of a Navy SEAL team sent in alongside Mason and Goodspeed. The highlights of the supporting cast though lie in the men occupying the former prison alongside Harris' general from David Morse as his second in command Major Baxter as well as Tony Todd and Gregory Sporleder in stand out supporting roles where they offer a considerable amount of menace. They are just a few highlights from a strong cast.

Being a Bay film, it's a visually stunning action film. From the stealing of the nerve gas by Hummel's Marines to a destructive car chase across San Francisco, the film's first hour showcases kinetic action sequences alongside its exposition to keeps the viewer's attention glued to the screen. Once the film gets Mason and Goodspeed to Alcatraz in its second half, the film becomes a set of running battles involving the duo against the Marines. And yet, Bay proves he is just as capable of handling somber pieces such as the military funeral that helps form the opening credit sequence or the quieter scenes with Connery. Bay's direction, the cinematography of John Schwartzman, and the editing of Richard Francis-Bruce make The Rock an action spectacle.

One with a difference, however. What separates this film from virtually everything Bay has directed to date (and his many imitators) is its script. The Rock is an intelligently plotted thrill ride full of intriguing characters and plot twists from its well-realized lead characters to its conclusion with all the complications that ensue. It also helps that the film is full of witty dialogue from Mason's quips to many of the exchanges between Mason and Goodspeed. In a way, that the script is so good is a surprise given that a team of writers worked on it from the three credited writers (David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook, and Mark Rosner) to uncredited contributions from Aaron Sorkin in addition to favored Connery script doctors Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. The result, however, is a better-written action flick than one might expect and the one example I can think of many hands producing a superb script.

The Rock then stands as perhaps the single best thing to come out of Bay's directorial career. It was here that he found the right recipe between casting, action, spectacle, humor, and plot. Maybe that's why, more than twenty years later, the film holds up as one of the best action films of the 1990s, as thrilling now as it was then.
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A Masterful & Ever Timely Thriller
26 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
In 1962, director John Frankenheimer turned Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate into a classic. Frankenheimer wasn't with the American political scene, however. Released within eighteen months of his earlier film, Seven Days In May was another adaptation of a bestselling novel of political intrigues. The enemy this time was the Communists but an enemy far closer to home.

The premise of the film (and the 1962 source novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II) is simple enough. Set in the then near-future with the Cold War ongoing, President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union that has won Senate approval. Despite being on the brink of peace, Lyman has found himself unpopular with many including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). Scott, charismatic and outspoken, is an admired figure by some including his aide Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas). When Casey uncovers evidence of something nefarious underlining a planned military alert exercise, the fate of the American Republic rests with a handful of people including a Presidential aide (Martin Balsam), a heavy drinking Georgian Senator (Edmond O'Brien ), and a Washington socialite with a link to Scott and Casey (Ava Gardner).

As that description might imply, this isn't a wham-bam sort of thriller heavy on action sequences. Instead, armed with a script written by the legendary Rod Serling, this is the kind of thriller driven by characters, dialogue, and plot twists. That isn't to call the film slow-moving or plodding by any means because it isn't. Serling's adaptation of the novel is one of those rare cases of a screen version being better than its source, trimming away the fat and streamlining its plot which makes the most use of the titular days and the ticking clock they present. Making it all the more effective is Serling's ear for dialogue with every conversation being crisp and pushing things forward. The film is full of great Serling dialogue from the confrontation between Lyman and Scott in the Oval Office to the final conversation between the General and his long-time aide, scenes well played by the cast. The result is a masterclass from Serling in thriller writing without resulting to action set pieces.

Serling's script also has the benefit of being superbly brought to life, especially with its cast. Douglas and Lancaster play off of each other nicely of course as the Colonel and the General, the trusted aide and the man who thinks himself the savior of America. Neither plays their roles over the top but pitch them just right throughout, especially in confrontations such as the climactic scene with Lancaster in the Oval Office. March's President Lyman is every bit their equal, a principled man looking for peace and trying to stave off a military coup. Balsam gives as solid a performance as any in his career as aide Paul Girard while Edmond O'Brien steals scenes and provides comic relief as Senator Clark and Ava Garner gets a chance to shine in her brief appearances. The film is very much an ensemble piece though despite the big names of the era involved and together they bring the words off the page nicely.

The cast isn't alone in bringing the film to life, of course. The world of the film displays Frankenheimer's same flair for visuals he showed in Manchurian Candidate from the protest turned riot outside the White House that opens to the film to giving the audience the chance to see events unfolding both in front of them and on TV at the same time. His penchant for mixing filming on location with detailed sets is also apparent with convincing 1960s versions of the White House and Pentagon alongside actual DC locations and beyond. Underlined by a sparse but effective score from Jerry Goldsmith including a memorable opening title sequence. The results are apparent in the effectiveness of the film.

While perhaps overlooked at times thanks to The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May is no less of a thriller. From Serling's script to a strong cast and Frankenheimer's direction, it is a taut thriller indeed. It's also a masterclass in doing so without resorting to car chases, explosions, and the like. It also remains, despite its Cold War setting, an ever-timely reminder of the fragility of American democracy and the need to guard against not just enemies without but also the forces of demagoguery within.
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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors: Episode One (1967)
Season 5, Episode 11
Arctic Ice, Green Warriors In Black & White
18 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
(Note: A review of the six episode serial.)

Doctor Who's fifth season is an interesting one. Essentially one long series of "base under siege" stories, it was the season that gave the series many of its iconic monsters. Coming smack dab in the middle of it, and just before the monster-less The Enemy Of The World, came The Ice Warriors. With the titular creatures still appearing in the series as recently as Peter Capaldi's final season, it's safe to say that they've become mainstays across TV and spin-off media. How does their debut story stand up after fifty-one years?

Thankfully, with the 2013 DVD release, we can watch the story again in full. With two of its six episodes long missing from the BBC archives, judging the story hasn't been an easy task despite surviving audio and the stills reconstruction done in 1998. The 2013 DVD release offered up the two missing episodes (two and three, respectively) as animations. The black and white stories suit animation rather well, especially given that Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor is well suited to the caricaturing animation requires. Unfortunately, the animation for The Ice Warriors is the weakest seen to date in the Classic Who DVD range with characters feeling more like paper dolls with painted faces at times with odd limb movements (see Jamie being knocked out by an Ice Warrior moments into episode two). Despite that weakness, the animation completes the story and allows us a better idea of what the story was like before being wiped and junked by the BBC.

For starters, it has a solid premise. Brian Hayles' script contains a fair share of interesting ideas and themes brought nicely to life by the production team. The story, set at a base in Britain in a future time where ecological disaster threatens, is as solid premise in 2018 as it was in 1967. Even more so when one considers that the base under siege is run and populated by people using a technology that not only offers salvation but over-reliance. There's even Storr, a character that willfully denounces science as evil despite the evidence around him of disaster (with intriguing consequences). These elements almost make this a story one which is better suited for our time rather than the summer of 1967.

Where Hayles' script is very much of its time is in how it unfolds. Like virtually all of the stories from Classic Who's fifth season, it's six episodes long. Unlike, say, The Enemy Of The World or Fury From The Deep, it also feels like it. There is an inordinate amount of wheel spinning going on throughout with characters consulting computers, sojourns back and forth to the Ice Warriors ship, and base commander Clent (Peter Barkworth) alternating between bravado and insecurity. Even watching the story an episode or two at a time (while keeping in mind viewers saw one episode a week in 1967), one can't escape the sometimes thin plotting by Hayles.

Thankfully, the story has other things going for it such as the titular creatures from Mars. Watching the story, it isn't hard to see why the Ice Warriors have remained as popular as they have. From the moment the warrior Varga comes out of the ice, they have an immediate presence. Towering over the rest of the cast and armed with thin but hissing voices, they exude menace and strength. Even if they have Lego hands and stomp along, that doesn't dimish their presence. Indeed, they help keep interest in a sometimes flagging plot which makes them all the more memorable.

The story also benefits from its performers. The casting is solid from the TARDIS crew down with Troughton's Doctor getting to shine from the moment he climbs out of the TARDIS to various confrontations and conversations. Though the story sidelines Frazer Hines' Jamie in its back half, the upshot is an increased role for Deborah Watling as Victoria though she is reduced once more to sobbing and screaming at times. The supporting cast is strong as well with Peter Barkworth's leader Clent, Wendy Gifford as his willing aide Miss Garrett, and Peter Sallis as the brilliant but disaffected scientist Penley being particular highlights. They bring Hayles' script to life nicely, breathing life into sometimes thin characterizations.

The story also benefits from being a solid production. The design work of Jeremy Davies creates setting ranging from a Victorian house overrun with (by 1960s standards) futuristic technology to icy wastelands and a Martian spaceship. While the technology may look dated, the sets do not, creating a believable setting for the story. Dudley Simpson's score is full moments of menace and intrigue, creating one of his most memorable scores in the process. With director Derek Martinus at the helm, the story is elevated as a result though it never overcomes the flaws in its pacing or plotting.

That last sentence is as good a description of the story as I can present. The Ice Warriors has plenty of good things to say for it, the introduction of the Martians being amongst them. Ultimately, despite its strengths, it can't overcome the need to stretch things out that harms a fair few of Classic Who's longer stories. It's a solid story, but, it could have been a great one.
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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin: Part One (1976)
Season 14, Episode 9
An "Assassin" Revisited
17 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
(Note: A Review Of The Four Episode Serial)

The Deadly Assassin.

It's the story that changed Doctor Who forever. Coming nearly half-way through its original run, it was the story that forever altered the show and its mythology. Writer Robert Holmes (along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and the production team) crafted four episodes that remain among the most watched and talked about it in the history of the show. Looking at the story, it's not surprising.

Deadly Assassin is the story that gave us the Time Lords as we know them, after all. For six years, they'd been non-existent. At the end of the Troughton era, they had arrived on the scene very lordy and powerful. They had maintained that presence throughout the Pertwee era and into earlier seasons with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. They had been like a mountain range, magnificent and looming but distant. In the summer of 1976, that all changed in a heartbeat.

To say this story changed everything would be an understatement. If it involves the Time Lord, chances are it came from Holmes' scripts. Be it Rassilon as the founder of their society, the Eye of Harmony, the Doctor's TARDIS designated a Type 40, even the twelve regeneration limit (which caused fandom so much consternation a few years ago) all come from here. That's also true of design and costumes as Roger Murray-Leach's Seal of Rassilon and James Acheson's high collars became the definitive presentation of the Time Lords. The sense of them as an isolated, even dull people watching over the rest of the universe presented for the rest of the series which informs New Who decades on can all be found here.

Not that it was apparent back in the summer of seventy-six. It is only in retrospect that it's visible for at the time the burgeoning fandom hated it. Jan Vincent Rudzki's now (in)famous review of the story crying out "What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?" sums up reactions to it at the time rather nicely. Time has shown how important the story was to be as generations of writers across different media have used it as the basis of how the Doctor's people should be. Concerns over its portrayal would give way to it being the norm, perhaps demonstrating how what is once radical becomes commonplace?

The funny thing is that much of that is window dressing. The references that become all important aren't plot points but throwaway lines. The various artifacts of Rassilon and the presentation of the Time Lords, yes, but as part of the larger plot and story. All these things serve a purpose in context: telling the story set out in Holmes' script.

That story is a thriller. Forget all the lore: The Deadly Assassin is a thriller first and foremost, albeit a sci-fi one. The 1970s was the era of the political and conspiracy thriller from The Three Days Of The Condor to The Parallax View and All The President's Men. It was the era that spawned theories about the JFK assassination in the wake of Watergate and the revelations of nefarious government activities in the United States. Britain was no exception to that and the decade was to spawn questions about efforts to remove Harold Wilson from Downing Street or how much remained hidden about former Soviet spies in high places. It was the birth of the age of conspiracy and here's Doctor Who in the middle of it all.

When the conspiracy thriller angle comes up, it's customary to mention The Manchurian Candidate. Richard Condon's 1959 novel and its 1962 film adaptation are classics of the genre, of that there is no doubt. The film's influence is apparent in the opening episode especially as the Doctor races to stop the President's assassination. The portrayal of Runcible and the media coverage also owes more than a debt to Manchurian Candidate. Of course, the Master's presence as a villain with mind control powers would further seem to prove the point.

It isn't the most powerful or only influence on the story, however. The aforementioned JFK assassination hangs over the story with many echoes throughout from a second gunman, a framed assassin with a misaligned weapon, murdered witnesses, and missing evidence. While Manchurian Candidate informs the opening of the story, the basic plot owes it debt to a much older thriller. The plotline of a man returning to his native land and soon framed for murder while trying to foil a plot to destroy it comes not from Richard Condon. It's the plot of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps which was published in 1915 and famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The Hitchcock influence is especially apparent in the Matrix sequences with its nightmare-scape including a biplane chase. That sequence also draws on the short story The Most Dangerous Game, further demonstrating the influences on the story are far more than a single source. What Holmes does is bring them together as perhaps only Doctor Who can.

Even with the passage of four decades, The Deadly Assassin remains a unique story in the annals of Doctor Who. It is a story that singlehandedly reshaped the show's mythology and the origins of its lead character. On a pure story level, it drew on various genre elements and recent events to present a science-fiction political thriller. It stands then as a prime example of what Doctor Who can do and why it's lasted more than fifty years.
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Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (2013)
Season 7, Episode 12
AKA The Paternoster Gang Pilot
27 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
For some time now, there's been some chatter among Doctor Who fans for a spin-off based on the Paternoster Gang of Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax. Nearly five years after their last on-screen appearance in Deep Breath, such a thing has yet to appear. If such a series were to appear chances are The Crimson Horror, aired as part of the second half of Series Seven in 2013, would be the template for such a series.

Written by Mark Gatiss, it's an episode that plays with many of the writer's favorite tropes. After all, it's a combination of Sherlock Holmes, The Avengers (that would be the one with Steed and Mrs. Peel) and of course Doctor Who itself. The first of those shouldn't come as a surprise since Gatiss is the co-creator of Sherlock after all. It's fun to watch here, especially in the opening minutes as Vastra's services are engaged in the same style as many a classic Holmes story. Elsewhere, The Avengers influence comes in Jenny's effort to infiltrate Sweetville (which, as a mysterious factory, also has echoes of Nigel Kneale's seminal Quatermass II from 1955) and the leather catsuit she wears during the episode's latter half. The science fiction nature of the plot owes much to Doctor Who itself of course but the combination of all these elements made for a solid script from Gatiss. Is that because he got to play with so many tropes along the way?

It also shows how strong the casting of the three Paternoster Gang members was. For the opening fifteen minutes or so, and for a good chunk of the running time even after that, they are the lead characters. Along the way, all three actors get the chance to shine. Neve McIntosh shows off the intelligent but cheeky side to her Silurian detective, Catrin Stewart gets to play Jenny as the on the ground operative picking locks and beating up baddies, and Dan Starkey provides comic relief mixed with lasers as Strax. Separately and together, they very much carry the episode even with the presence of Matt Smith's Doctor which is the all more to their credit.

They aren't the only highlights of the episode. The Avengers influence on The Crimson Horror is the all the better for the presence of its longtime leading lady Diana Rigg as Mrs. Gillyflower, a role she seems to relish in as it falls in the tradition of so many of the baddies she faced as Emma Peel in that iconic series. Her daughter Rachel Stirling appears in the episode as well as playing, appropriately enough, Mrs. Gillyfower's daughter Ada. The real-life mother/daughter play off each other splendidly as the relationship between their two characters is a less than happy one which might be to their credit as performers and Gatiss as the writer. They and the Paternoster Gang also have some nice interactions with Smith's Doctor and Jenna Coleman's Clara whom, though sidelined to an extent, still make their presence felt when they do appear.

Additionally, the episode's production values are strong. Production designer Michael Pickwoad and costume designer Howard Burden are up to the challenge of creating the larger than life, steampunk Avengers world that Gatiss hands them on the page. From Jenny's leather catsuit to a steampunk rocket hidden in a mill smokestack, they bring the episode to life superbly. Murray Gold's score brings in plenty of action and suspense themes which compliment the production as a whole. Brought together under the direction of Saul Metzstein and the results are solid throughout.

The combination of all these elements made for one of the most memorable and enjoyable offerings of Series Seven. It's a fun mix of genres from a writer clearly enjoying what he's writing. That it's brought superbly to life is even better, especially given how it shows off its guest cast.

The only question is, after five years, when are we getting that Paternoster Gang spin-off?
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The Secret (2003 TV Movie)
An Introduction To The Majestic 12
13 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers

The Majestic 12.

For three decades, those words have dominated much of the discussion surrounding the enigmatic topic of UFOs. More to the point, they've been the focus of debate about what the United States may or may not know about the subject. What proof do we have to say that there has been a cover-up, a cosmic Watergate as some have termed it? Aired back in 2003 on the Sci-Fi Channel's Tuesday Declassified strand (and now available from UFOtv) The Secret presents a compelling case.

The focus of the 45-minute documentary is the Majestic 12 documents. Nor is it just on the original set from 1984 that "revealed" the existence of the group supposedly charged with covering-up events like Roswell. The documentary also includes documents that surfaced in the 1990s as well. These documents are featured and quoted at some length alongside researchers who investigated their authenticity.

As a result, what those familiar with the topic might call "the usual suspects." These include Stanton Friedman, original investigator of Roswell and the first set of Majestic 12 documents, as well as both Timothy Cooper and the father-son team of Robert and Ryan Wood. They reasonably and soberly make their case, stating what's in the documents, and why they believe them to be authentic. There's little to no sensationalism, no extreme claims not supported by the evidence presented which is as refreshing now as it was then.

The documentary also features the occasional dramatic recreation of events. The biggest one is the alleged crash outside of Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 1941. It's clear looking at the documentary as a whole that it didn't have a large budget but these segments (and the Cape Girardeau one in particular) holds up quite well. Given the lack of visual material to present for that event, it adds rather nicely to the documentary as a whole.

The problem with The Secret is the very fact that it relies on the documents so heavily. Even with the passage of another fifteen years, the controversy around them has not died down. If anything, things seem to have only become more partisan. To their credit, the documentary makers handle the issue well though come down on the side of them likely being authentic. In a way, the documentary needs to be longer to go into more depth. It's a shame that it doesn't but not a terrible one.

Though now fifteen years old, The Secret remains a solid introduction to the controversy surrounding at the heart of the debate about a government UFO cover-up. It presents its case while keeping its feet firmly on the ground. The result is an intriguing 45 minutes but not necessarily satisfying ones.
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Green Zone (2010)
A Compelling Iraq War Thriller
25 March 2018
Warning: Spoilers
With the team up of star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass having proven successful with The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, it perhaps isn't surprising that the two would team-up again so soon after what was initially seen as the final film in the Bourne franchise. What the pair made was a film that dealt with many of the same themes of distrust and questionable US government motives. The difference? This one was set firmly in the recent past in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That film was Green Zone and the results were compelling.

Green Zone is on the surface a fairly straightforward thriller. Damon plays Roy Miller, a US Army chief warrant officer leading a team around Iraq in search of the WMDs that were the cause of the invasion. Miller's team comes up empty again and again causing the soldier to raise questions with his superiors. His hunt for answers leads him through a series of characters ranging from a Defense Department Special Intelligence official, a CIA officer, a journalist who did the initial reporting on WMDs, and a series of Iraqis. It also takes in those things audiences have come to expect from Greenglass and Damon: chase sequences, firefights, and a driving narrative.

The film is anchored though by a solid cast. Like with the Bourne films, Damon's performance as Miller is the heart of the film as he takes the viewer along on a journey across the width and breadth of the early days of the conflict from battling it out against snipers at a suspected WMD site to inside the titular Green Zone where American officials are trying to determine the future of Iraq back onto the streets for the film's conclusion. Damon portrays Miller as a good soldier trying to do his duty and, in the process of doing so, discovering some less than appealing truths along the way and its that everyman quality Damon has which sells it solidly.

The supporting cast is solid as well. They range from Greg Kinnear as a DOD official Poundstone who is trying to dictate the future of Iraq from inside the Green Zone, Amy Ryan as the journalist trying to get the scoop of interviewing the WMD source, Brendan Gleeson as the local CIA chief, an almost unrecognizable Jason Issacs as a special forces soldier, and Khalid Abdalla as Iraqi who ends up becoming Miller's translator. None of these roles (or those of the members of Miller's team) are especially showy but together they present a compelling cast of characters that populate the world of the film.

It's that world that is the soul of the film. Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland use the thriller plot to explore the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath. It highlights the incredible disconnect between the reality of what was happening in the streets and those making decisions inside the comfort of the Green Zone (and by extension in Washington as displayed in one scene early on in the film). While the film takes cues both from journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life In The Emerald City and the later revelations about the source of WMD claims and the planning for a new Iraq, it remains a solid thriller albeit one that beautifully illustrates the differences between the reality and the perception in the early months of the war.

Perhaps no scene better illustrates this than one approximately midway through the film. Damon's Miller visits the Green Zone decked out in full desert camo uniform with a couple of his men in tow to speak with Gleeson's CIA chief. They arrive only to find themselves standing by the pool at the Republican Palace that was until recently the preferred residence of Saddam Hussein. Except it has the air, not of a war zone, but some vacation resort with people drinking beer and eating pizza as beautiful women in bikinis walk by.

It's a startling moment for character and viewer alike and it highlights nicely how the situation in Iraq became the way it did.
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The Dark Knight vs The Ripper
18 February 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"What if?" stories have always been popular with the chance to re-imagine events or people in a different light. Comics, in particular, have made much use of the idea with DC dedicating an entire range to it known as Elseworlds which put its character such as Batman and Superman into new settings in the past or turned the characters fundamentally on their head. It's not surprising then that the most recent DC Universe animated movie would take the very first Elseworlds tale which takes the Dark Knight into steampunk territory as he takes on Jack The Ripper. It's safe to say that expectations were high for this particular animated movie but does it live up to them?

At its essence, Gotham By Gaslight is a whodunit. In Victorian-era Gotham City, Jack The Ripper is loose on the streets murdering women of the night (though unlike the comic it isn't clear if this is quite the same serial killer from 1888 London) with the police apparently unable to catch him. While Bruce Wayne is a rich young bachelor about the town, as Batman he is pursuing the Ripper. He isn't alone as the actress and social advocate Selena Kyle is pursuing the killer as well. The movie might perhaps be described as a cross between Batman and The Alienist (itself currently being aired on TNT and written around the same time as the source comic) which makes it all the more interesting.

What the movie does first and foremost is neatly adapt and expanded upon the original 1989 comic. The film takes the basic premise of Jack The Ripper on the loose in Gotham with the Batman in pursuit as its foundation. No surprise then that it incorporates characters, plot points, and scenes from it into the narrative. What is a surprise is the length that screenwriter Jim Krieg and the filmmakers incorporate characters and elements not included originally. Selena Kyle who is a major character in this screen version for example yet didn't feature in the original while the movie also draws some inspiration from the follow-up Master Of The Future to an extent as well. Which isn't a bad thing at all as it actually provides some nice twists that make it a fresh experience even for those familiar with the comic. Even more so with a whodunit as it takes the same approach Nicholas Meyer did in adapting his own Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven Percent Solution for the screen by sticking to the mystery but playing around with the elements somewhat.

As one might expect, the film features plenty of action as well. There's a number of expansive set pieces ranging from the first reveal of Batman stopping a mugging to a number of encounters with the Ripper including a chase that takes the viewer from Arkham Asylum to a top a police department Zeppelin. Unlike some of the previous DC animated movies (especially ones in recent years with the DC Animated Movie Universe efforts) where action overshadowed plot, that isn't the case here as the plot nicely leads into each and every action sequence which also allows them to drive the plot forward. That all of them are well animated is just the icing on the cake.

Elsewhere, the movie features the elements that have been the highlights of these DC animated movies. There's a strong voice cast led by Bruce Greenwood as Batman whose performance suits this version of the Dark Knight just as well as it did when he voiced him in Under The Red Hood. Joining him is Jennifer Carpenter as Selena Kyle with a solid performance and nice chemistry with Greenwood, Scott Patterson as Jim Gordon, William Salyers as the alienist Hugo Strange, and Anthony Head is a welcome addition as Alfred. The movie's animation is strong as well from its designs which show a strong steampunk influence as well as the backgrounds and action set-pieces. All of which come together to wonderfully bring this Victorian Gotham to life though in a visceral but most gratuitous way that gives the film an "R" rating.

Put all those elements together and Gotham By Gaslight lives to expectations across the board. From its adaptation of the original comic which neatly expands upon it to its action sequences, voice actors, and production values it stands up far better than The Killing Joke in bringing a fan favorite story to the screen. The result is not only a fine Batman film in its own right but the best DC animated movie in years.
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By Dawn's Early Light (1990 TV Movie)
Last Of The Cold War Nuclear War Films
12 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
The Cold War and the ever-looming threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union inspired many works of its time. These included films that explored just how a nuclear war might begin with such classic 1960s films as dark comedy Dr. Strangelove and the more serious Fail Safe. Coming at the tail end of the Cold War in 1990 between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union, HBO's By Dawn's Early Light was the last triumphant grasp of that sub-genre of Cold War storytelling as it told a gripping tale of potential Armageddon on the edge of peace.

Based on the 1983 novel Trinity's Child by William Prochnau, it's a movie made from the same mold as those aforementioned Cold War nightmares. A nuclear detonation over a Russian city triggers an immediate response from the Soviet Union, setting in motion nuclear strikes and counter-strikes. The movie follows numerous threads, one being a B-52 bomber piloted by Major Cassidy (Powers Boothe) and Captain Moreau (Rebecca De Mornay) who are romantically involved as well as being co-pilots. Meanwhile in Washington is the American President (Martin Landau) who from the moment a call from NORAD awakens him tries to maintain control over a situation that very soon gets out of control. Flying above the country are the two Doomsday Planes, the Air Force's Looking Glass with the general callsign Alice (James Earl Jones) and the E-4B Nightwatch command plane. On board the latter is the Secretary of the Interior (Darren McGavin) who becomes acting President and faces a difficult choice thanks to conflicting military advisers including an admiral with the callsign Harpoon (Jeffrey DeMunn) and hawkish military adviser Colonel Fargo (Rip Torn).

It's a packed plot, to say the least. Credit goes to scriptwriter Bruce Gilbert who took Prochnau's novel and faithfully adapted it for the screen adding only the romance subplot which is perhaps the movie's biggest weakness as it adds little but distracting cheesy moments. Beyond that, however, Gilbert and director Jack Sholder graft a gripping tale built around the dilemmas many of them face and the debates about the merits (if one can call it that) of how nuclear war might play out. The film is rarely static though and features the occasional punch of action from nuclear explosions to Soviet fighters pursuing the B-52. Indeed, time has revealed thanks to declassified documents and interviews in books such as Garret Graff's Raven Rock that some of the concerns in the film about Continuity of Government, the line of presidential succession, and confusion over who was in charge of fighting such a war were legitimate The result is that whatever else can be said for the movie it is never dull.

It's also well acted. Being made for TV and on a cable channel in cable's early days one might not have expected much. Instead, the movie features a top-notch cast. Boothe and De Mornay are believable as pilots of a B-52 though even the chemistry between them never overcomes the cheesiness of the romance subplot. Landau is well suited as the President who finds himself in a remarkable situation with Landau playing not just dignity but also the internal debate and even frustration that goes with the job. Elsewhere, both Jones as Alice and DeMunn's Harpoon carry all of the presence a fine character actor can bring to the part as he deals with conflicting orders and trying to make the right decision. McGavin's acting president is an interesting character, a novice thrown in on the deep end who gives into the idea of fighting this most destructive conflict to "win it all". Rip Torn's performance as the hawkish Colonel Fargo is especially neat and convincing, never dipping into potential Strangelove parody territory but as someone who is thinking about nuclear war like it's just another conflict. The cast is rounded off nicely by Peter MacNicol as the President's military aide, Nicolas Coster as the general in charge of NORAD, and the various actors playing the crews of the various aircraft in question. It's a solid cast which brings the story nicely to life on a human level.

The film's production values, though low budget, are also solid. The sets, especially for NORAD and the White House in the film's opening half hour or so, are neither flashy or completely convincing with the White House situation room, in particular, being a casualty of the budget. On the other hand, the interiors of all the aircraft involved are quite convincing if not always entirely accurate portrayals of the real aircraft but they get the point across nicely. The special effects, all important here with brief depictions of nuclear devastation and aircraft in flight, are all solid for the pre-CGI era with the model shots looking particularly good. The score from composer Trevor Jones is sparse but effective while the aforementioned mention direction from Sholder makes the most of the film's budget to great effect.

By Dawn's Early Light ranks as being among the last great nuclear war films of the Cold War era. From a fully plotted, tense script to strong performances and solid if low budget production values, it was also perhaps the last movie to depict the outbreak of war between the US and the Soviet Union. While the production values and unfortunate romantic subplot keep it from the level of a Fail Safe, it remains worth a watch even now. For with the renewed tensions regarding nuclear weapons, perhaps its plot isn't as relegate to the past as we would like it to be.
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