O2

Spoilers, obviously.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

So, almost as if the scriptwriters had been reading my mind (only nine months in advance), the sonic screwdriver is kaputed early in the episode by a rogue zombie in a space suit. This is going to be a pain because there are lots of electronic locks that need to be bypassed — through the equivalent of fiddling around with wires under the dashboard. Also, sensibly, the TARDIS is put out of reach as soon as possible, although you’d think he’d have a remote control by now or a dog whistle.

Zombies in Space wears its structure on its sleeve, with an in-space pre-credits sequence of astronauts outside a ship overlaid with the Doctor quoting Star Trek and explaining how dangerous space is and how you would die if exposed to a vacuum.

Is someone going to be exposed to a vacuum? Does a wooden horse shit in the woods?

Of course, those of us with long memories (or poor repression mechanisms) will recall Five — as I believe the kids call vetinary these days — floating in space with a BMX helmet, using a cricket ball to navigate zero-g in “Four to Doomsday”. But back when Five was Doctoring he was a mere slip of 800 or so, rather than 2000. Maybe he had better lungs.

So the Doctor is using Bill as an outlet for scratching his itchy feet (that’s a metaphor, obviously), much to Margot’s disgust — Margot claims that the Doctor has ordered him to force the Doctor to stay, threatening the opening of the Vault and OMG STORY ARC even though presumably the Vault needs to be opened to deliver a piano and Mexican takeaway. Margot has removed the fluid links to disable the TARDIS, a reference mainly back to the first Dalek serial in late 1963 (Harry who? Medical officer to what?) — but this is clearly not as important a plot device, er, component as he was led to believe.

The Doctor takes Bill and Margot into deep space, the penultimate frontier, to a mining ship putting out a distress call — because “You only see the true face of the Universe, when it’s asking for help” (wasn’t there a similar line in ”Thin Ice”?). You’ll note that later in the episode we see the Doctor not really asking for help — almost as if he doesn’t want us to see his true face. The crew are in the middle of the crisis — their spacesuits are killing them and are occupied by zombie crew members.

The crew are pleasingly interracial and mixed-sex — echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien — but there’s a foot put wrong when Bill double-takes at Dahh-Ren, species unknown, blue-skinned, and she is schooled in racism. Yeah, after the whitewash comment last week (which is fair comment), a lesbian of colour has to be schooled in racism. There is more to ethnicity than skin colour, of course, but we don’t get much more than him being blue (although he is reasonably knowledgable about his surroundings and useful for info dumping).

But perhaps we should forgive “Oxygen” for this, given its political commentary: oxygen is a commodity to be bought and sold, about the only thing the Conservatives never privatised. As workers, the miners are part of the machinery of capitalism, always already cyborgs, liable to wear out and be replaced. The Company has decided the operation is uneconomic and, without a care for its workers, close down the operation — or rather refit it with new crew. The suits are attacking the crew, in a literal metaphor like the skeleton crew of ”Smile”, but I’m not sure whether the Company wish the crew to be killed (but I don’t suppose they’d lose any sleep). It might be a misinterpretation of the programme (yanno, like the Emojibots in “Smile”).

Interesting, then to compare these two episodes in which machinery evolves a state of consciousness beyond that which is programmed and operates as a kind of slave class taking revenge upon their creators. The machinery’s new consciousness is not allowed to stand by the liberal Doctor, but reprogrammed.

Meanwhile Bill, rather conveniently, is stunned, not dead (beautiful plumage…), as if we’d seriously think she’d been killed off. Although, that rumour about her as single season character makes it more of a possibility. The Doctor helps save her — at the expense of his eyes, although he is evidently able to program a computer system he has never seen before and can’t see now.

No sonic, so just rewrite the DNA, so to speak.

The Doctor stays visually impaired, even if Bill doesn’t stay dead, so it’s time for a group cuddle. It looks as if they are going to keep him like that — perhaps so that Bill can step up to plate (like other Nu Who companions did). A regeneration would resolve it, presumably, but then we are being misled about whether that is sooner rather than later. There is much insistence that this will play into the hands of the prisoner in the STORY ARC. I can’t see it myself.

(sorry. sometimes i can’t help myself)

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

So you think that Sarah Dollard — oh.

(Hold on. A female writer on Doctor Who, whatever next? She also did “Face the Raven”.)

So you think that Sarah Dollard has made a smart choice in “Thin Ice”, to have the sonic screwdriver stolen by a street urchin so that it isn’t a convenient plot device to get them out of a scrape. In fact, there are three or four moments in the episode — falling through ice, being stolen again, being blown up — when it could be destroyed, but she can’t help but use it.

Can you say, “Merchandising”?
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Cutting It Fine

The Final Cut (Mike Vardy, 1995)

Following House of Cards and To Play the King, we get the third adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart trilogy.

Only Dobbs got his knickers in a twist because it dared to conceive of a dead Margaret Thatcher.

If only she were dead and buried.

By now Prime Minister Urquhart is in full Macbeth mode — with continued flashbacks to <spoiler> from part one and less often to <spoiler> from part two — suggesting he has a conscience after all. In addition to this we get Back Story of his time in Cyprus as a soldier and flashbacks to two violent deaths. This hasn’t seemed to have troubled him before, but presumably the attempt to find a settlement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus is the cause here. But clearly an era is ending and he’s looking top be provided for — a nice little earner of an insider deal.

The minnows are circling and the successors are lining up — can he fend them off as well as the relatives of the Cyprus dead? I guess if we follow the tragic structure we know what will happen, but I’m not sure I buy the mechanism of betrayal (although there’s been hints of an affair between a major and less major character). Again, Richardson carries the series as Urquhart; everyone else just reminds you of someone you’ve seen since on tv.

(Follows House of Cards and To Play the King)

Card Sharp

House of Cards (Paul Seed, 1990)

I never saw House of Cards on first broadcast in 1990 — television viewing was limited as a student although I did see Twin Peaks. It had the good fortune to be broadcast just as the Conservative leadership election was underway and we were to leave Thatcherism behind forever. Hooray.

Koff.

So chief whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is expecting a cabinet post in the aftermath of Thatcher’s successor’s election but is let down. He seeks revenge by deciding to manufacture a scandal that will bring him down and engineer things so that he gets to be the next leader of the conservative party and prime minister.

Here we have a modernisation of various Shakespeare plots — Richard III (although maybe not hugely — do I recall an acting out of the Olivier version?) and Macbeth, with Urquhart’s wife (Diane Fletcher) playing a greater role than in the Michael Dobbs book and clearly being a Lady Macbeth. I suspect there are shades of Iago there, too. Richardson is glorious immoral/amoral and the device of talking to the camera has the self-serving/self-deluding impact of Shakespearean monologues, especially Iago’s.

Of course, the series doesn’t stay with his point of view — it does skip around the other MPs and aides, but more to the point we have a lady journalist, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), who Urquhart uses to his benefit. It should be noted that all the jobs that women can do, lady journalist seems to scare the dramatic horses least. And she also falls into the thing that so frequently annoys me as cheap drama — sleeping with the story/suspect. You just wouldn’t. You also feel she would be a little less trusting of him.

But there are shenanigans.

Whilst the drama itself feels current — although big desktop computers! dial telephones — the direction by Paul Seed does not. It is of course very talky and there’s distinct telling not showing, but somehow that never stopped The West Wing. There were moments when I thought it a fine radio play.

And then there were the various cuts to rats.

Whatever can that mean?

NO, DON’T TELL ME — THAT WAS IRONY.

Koffs.

Heavy-handed, much?

If LoveFilm sends me the sequels, then I shall write briefly about those. (I did — To Play the King and The Final Cut)

The Crow Bridge

“We can’t go to the police, the police are boring. Alfred Hitchcock says so”
— The Beiderbecke Affair

Stonemouth (Charles Martin, 2015)
There’s a sense of deja vu about this Iain Banks narrative — the hulking bridge, the family secret, the huge clan, sex and drugs and violence. I remember being gripped by the television adaptation of The Crow Road nearly twenty years ago and the astonishing performance by Peter Capaldi who deserves to play more great roles. In this two-part television adaptation we have a similar set of tangled relationships in a small Scottish town — at a wedding Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) sees his fiancée Ellie Murston (Charlotte Spencer) kissing someone and then disappears off to a toilet cubicle for a line of coke and a shag. This understandably leads to his being chased out of town. The Murstons are a small time set of gangsters, tartan Sopranos, locked in a rivalry with Mike MacAvett (Gary Lewis), who sells fish even if he doesn’t make people sleep with them. Two years later, Stewart’s best friend Callum Murston (Samuel Robertson) has apparently committed suicide off the Stoun Bridge and Stewart ventures home for the funeral.

Obviously he is taking a risk but the Murstons’ lieutenant Powell (Brian Gleeson) says it’ll be okay, as long he’s gone after the funeral, pays his respects to the Don (Peter Mullan) and keeps away from Ellie. Well, one out of three isn’t bad and without those two there wouldn’t be a plot. Stewart had received a video message from Callum on his mobile before his death and local police officer, old school friend Dougie (Ncuti Gatwa) suggests there is something fishy about the autopsy. Which of the family secrets is the one that either led to Callum being offed or killing himself? And do people really send video messages rather than leave voicemails?

I have to confess that from early on I latched onto gay best friend Ferg (Chris Fulton), who has engaged in shenanigans with a number of people in the town and wondered whether the not-quite-impossible love triangle of Callum-Stewart-Ferg had become possible in Stewart’s absence. The gay gangster is a trope, after all, and usually does not end well. (That might amount to a spoiler, of course. Or a bluff. Or a double bluff.) The plot itself bluffs us and counter bluffs, as it should, with a few moments of ambiguity left for us to question.

Hanging over all of this is the bridge, not quite a refugee from another Banks novel, but quite clearly CGId in, imposed onto the Scottish landscape. Whilst on the one hand let us marvel that tv can do such a thing, on the other it doesn’t seem quite real (in part because we know it isn’t real) and there’s a sense of irreality over the whole. Our Tartan noir has given us Rebus, Brookmyre, Trainspotting, but the contemporary rural Scotland has been Balamory and Hamish Macbeth and Monarch of the Glen. There are a few throwaway lines about Scottish heritage and Presbyterianism, but I can’t quite see the turf wars of the New Jersey bois.

It works because of an extraordinary performance from Mullan as Don — and Banks was clearly winking at us with that name — and a lesser extent from Gleeson. Mullan can do the hardman, but you can see the restrained sorrow and anger at the same time, you can believe there could be a moment of extraordinary violence, you can believe he has the pair of balls he does. If his two surviving sons — referred to as the Chuckle Brothers, and that too must be a trope — were a quarter as hard, then he could put a bid in for Glasgow.

And so Stewart can be menaced but —

— and here we run into the two flaws in the adaptation.

I need to do some thinking about first person or intradiegetic narration. Such a narrator can only tell us what they’ve seen and if, therefore, they die… Well, okay, it’s still possible to narrate whilst drowned in a swimming pool, but not often. But Stewart seems likely to be escaping, er, Scot free, because he’s narrating — although it might not be clear when he’s narrating from. We can only see what Stewart sees — although there are two moments I recall in the first episode where this is broken away from. In the second half of the second episode, even more so. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) is more interesting (if not necessarily better) than the Director’s and Final Cuts because of that narration which gives Deckard ownership of the film and the replicants’ viewpoints. In a novel, it’s easier to mix viewpoints (and Banks does, of course — see Complicity, say); film and tv tends to go for narrow or omniscient. To my mind, the mix is inelegant.

The second flaw is I don’t think Martin can handle those action scenes. I watched the programme on iPlayer and there was something wrong with the streaming as Stewart was chased around the town. Even so, I think there was some slow motion. Indeed, the second episode had a few aspirations to pop video — but it had a great soundtrack so I can see the temptation. But the Chuckle Brothers (who were there in a different guise in Pride) weren’t quite convincing. Stewart was going to have the shit beaten out of him unless he was rescued.

And don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

I said, don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

Ah, apparently the script writer did. Or Banks did.

At some point, you go to the police, don’t you?

Spoilers!

I need to read the novel to see whether Banks handles the climax any better. On the one hand, there’s an emotional tug at the heart strings that feels awkward but there’s a move to consolation. It has a choice of two endings: consolation or melodrama. I’m not convinced it picked the right option. I think the Banks of The Wasp Factory would have picked differently.

A la recherche de notes perdus

“The Lost Notes” (2015)

So, of course, the voice isn’t quite right. Michael Palin is not Oliver Postgate — but he’s close. Cathy Butler suggested David Attenborough, but I think the natural history vibe would be too much. But, still, imagine the classic scene from Life on Earth with Attenborough and gorillas, but add Clangers.

It’s odd, though. We always call it The Clangers, although the definite article isn’t in the title screen. That familiar Earth in space, imagined first in a time when we’d hardly seen that view. The Moon’s there, too, which I think is new. Then the move through space to the Clangers’ planet (that took much longer in 1969, but consider on a £10 budget how much a slow zoom can save) and looking at the Clangers themselves. Compare today’s budget.

Pretty much as I remember them, no tubby Dalek redesign, and of course the planet is probably too curved to fit with the scale of the whole, with an angled shot to play with perspective. We even see them upside down. Neat. The dust from the surface — someone has thought about gravity but they never could have done the dust in 1969, and I’m guessing the first animation was pre-Armstrong and Aldrin.

It feels like a classic Clangers plot — the notes from the music tree have blown away and the Clangers go searching for them. This gives us cameos from the soup dragon and the iron chicken — no froglets, and what is that sky hippo from the credits? Seen it before, I’m sure. The fort da game is completed, of course — as I said to Chris last night, jeopardy is hard for children’s television. Restoration, but also change. An environmental subtext?

Oh, and adult subtexts: is the music as the storm gathers a hint of The Wizard of Oz? I hope Mother Clanger gets more to do than laundry and that’s a phallic telescope, Major Clanger. Granny asleep?

I believe I have moist eyes.

There’s a moral pointed, though. “Never give up, never surrender.” Heavy-handed? Maybe.