DOCTOR WHO: A Christmas Carol


Does Moffat’s first Christmas special have to be his version of A Christmas Carol?  Really?  Isn’t it enough that every other TV show ever has done that?  Apparently not. Although, to be fair, at least he puts a spin on it that makes good use of the TARDIS and, for that matter, good use of The Doctor’s familiarity with the works of one C. Dickens (he told him he was a big fan a few years ago, you may recall).

So, for a pre-title sequence we have the good ship HMS MacGuffin plunging towards certain death in the atmosphere of a planet at Christmas – jingle any bells?  Any sign of an Australian songstress?  No, but there is a Welsh one in a fridge.  More on that, later.

We have Amy and Rory doing a little role-play in the honeymoon suite and …. Well, that’s about it, really.  They serve no dramatic purpose after that, so this was them basically turning up to smile and wave and give fourteen year-olds of all ages something to snigger about.

The story proper begins with a gorgeous FX of the city, dominated by a St. Paul’s type building which is controlling the clouds like in Highlander II (1992), and a very wise use of Mr Gambon’s instantly recognisable dulcets to set the tone.  Moffat can still craft a killer line and “Halfway out of the dark” is one such,  Indeed, that would have been a better title for the episode in my not-so humble!

So, Doctor Eleven makes his entrance by falling down the chimney (deliberately, he would have us believe) and immediately resumes his annoying habit of talking until his brain starts working; of course, with no Amy to talk to, he has to talk to us, because there’s a lot of information to impart in a short space of time.  We need to learn that Gambon’s Sardick controls the clouds, we need to know that he keeps people cryogenically frozen as collateral on debts (hence the opera singer in the fridge) and we need to know that he was scared of his father.

Then the script takes a turn for what I am coming to realise is the trademark Moffat surrealism:  fish floating through the atmosphere, swimming through fog, which eventually leads to the wonderful visual of a shark fin slicing through low mist.

We have Amy kick-starting The Doctor’s brain with the triple repetition of “Christmas carol” (yes, we get it, we do, we really do!) followed by another Moffat trademark – interacting with video recordings.  But then the moment of inspiration I always hope for in a Doctor Who script: The Doctor travels back into Sardick’s own past to change the young him while the old him watches the whole process on video, growing new memories as the story unfolds before his eyes.

Matt Smith’s scenes with Laurence Belcher, the young Sardick, are delightful.  There is a real empathy between this Doctor and the children he behaves like.  Once Abigail (Katherine Jenkins) is thawed out and soothes the savage beast with her own instantly recognisable dulcets, the scene is set for a montage of moments, many, many Christmas Eves, with many adventures, including sleighing with Rudolph the Red Nose Great White and an unfortunate incident with fezzes.

So, the middle act rambles around, being all feel-goody, dropping lots of tempting throw-away ideas that other writers can flesh out in many other ways using any of the plethora of other Doctor Who media.  Of course, the mission here is to change Sardick, like Scrooge before him, into a better person and, not unreasonably, Moffat has calculated that a personality-altering epiphany such as the one in Dickens’ original is unlikely to come as a result of a single event, but rather an accretion of events over a whole life.

When Sardick realises that The Doctor is only spending so much time with him, putting all this effort into moulding him into a new person, simply to make him save the spaceship, he responds very much as anyone would.  But, Moffat’s dénouement, the rabbit he pulls out of this particular hat, is inspired.  Indeed, there is a real poetry to the crescendo as the various narrative threads are woven together like the different sections of a symphony … not much science but, y’know, it is Christmas. 

So, unlike The Next Doctor (which I maintain is the pinnacle of the Christmas episodes) this is fairly limited on spectacle but, appropriately, over-flowing with seasonal sentimentality and good will.  Moffat has taken what could have been a tedious and derivative idea and skilfully steered it around all the melodramatic traps into which it could have fallen to produce a delightful and heart-warming tale, perfect for that much-envied Christmas Night slot! Fair choked me up it did, but I’ll never admit that in public.

Of course, as has become the norm, this episode finished with a quick montage of some of the delights awaiting us in the upcoming series ... And contains several lines which the Whovers of my acquaintance have already taken to quoting.  See if you can figure out which ones:




Six weeks before Avatar was released, it’s a fair bet that no one outside the SF and film nerd communities had heard of it.  Until the posters and trailers appeared at the cinemas, its existence had been hotly anticipated on websites, weblogs and in the occasional magazine, but nowhere where civilians would see it.  That was the marketing approach Cameron and Fox used: A last-minute unleashing of blanket coverage.  History indicates it was a strategy that worked, especially in persuading people that the film was an event that had to be experienced in the new Holy Gimmick of 3D.

Well, Disney decided to use a similar approach for their 3D ‘event’, Tron Legacy.  About a month from release, it was appearing on the covers of magazines like Empire, Total Film and, inevitably, Wired.  A storm of trailers were unleashed spoiling, seemingly, every detail of the film and, of course, the all-important ‘3D’ logo was wheeled out at every opportunity (indeed, Dazed and Confused magazine’s Daft Punk themed cover was itself in 3D)!  It seems to have worked.  As I write this, the film has been on world-wide release just over a week and it is already set to cover its huge $170 million production budget.

That, of course, is despite the fact that the film – like Avatar – received almost uniformly lukewarm reviews with the most oft-evoked word being ‘disappointing’.  Makes a reviewer think he might be wasting his time.  Sigh.

I decided I was going to see the film in optimum circumstances … So, as soon as I had the chance I took myself off to the IMAX at Bradford because that’s how you experience an event!

There’s no denying the excellence of the work done by the design and effects people.  The world inside The Grid is overwhelmingly complex and detailed and beautiful.  But it’s very dark, almost monochrome, where the original Tron (1982) was vividly colourful.  It was, and remains, a visually unique film.  There really isn’t anything out there that looks quite like it.  Not even this sequel.  But, the darkness is a bit of the ole pathetic fallacy, where the environment metaphorically represents the tone of the piece.  The world of The Grid is once again under the boot of an oppressor (a sort of re-boot, I suppose … hah … heh … sorry).

If people are as disappointed by the film as the reviews indicate, I feel that this is where that disappointment begins:  Tron Legacy is essentially a remake.  Yes, the film-makers have made big noises about not simply re-making the film but, by having the oppression of the MCP and Sark reproduced, albeit by a new bad-guy, that is, in essence, exactly what they’ve done.

The film begins well enough, concentrating on the son of Jeff Bridges – Sam – who is conveniently almost as old as the first Tron film.  His dad has been missing for over twenty years meaning Sam is, to all intents and purposes, an orphan.  Now, if a little alarm bell is ringing and you’re wondering “Hang on, are they doing The Hero’s Journey?”  I can, sadly, confirm they are!

As with the first Tron, young Flynn breaks into Encom, the evil electronics empire, plays with the computers and gets himself digitised and uploaded onto The Game Grid.  He gets to play Frisbee with his identity disc, he gets to ride a Light Cycle.  So far so just like the first film.  But I was okay with this because, I reasoned, they are re-familiarising us … It has been 28 years, after all.

But then there is very little progress made beyond that.  Just like last time, the world is contained in a stand-alone computer, just like last time, the ‘elixir’ is contained on a data disc and, just like last time, there’s a long chase involving elegant and fragile flying machines.  Whilst I realise that they have deliberately left a few loose ends in this film for any possible sequel, I feel that not employing any of the concepts and terminology that people these days use in relation to computers, gives the film an oddly anachronistic feel.  There is no reference to viruses or fire-walls or search engines or any of those phrases that even compu-luddites like me use on a daily basis.  This story should have been about unleashing The Grid onto the internet.  The world of computing has transformed beyond recognition in the three decades since the first film and this second film, if only to justify the ridiculously long wait, needed to acknowledge and employ that.

It’s not like the film-makers were unaware of the world of web 2.0.  Legacy’s first act shows Sam working as a ‘white hat’ hacker leaking Encom’s new operating system to the world, just to annoy them; yet this particular first act gun just isn’t used in the third act.  That’s a problem.  Indeed all the first act stuff with Encom and its new board, and its chief programmer (one Ed Dillinger) is a red herring since, once Sam enters The Grid, there is no reference back to the real world at all.  That’s also a problem; it’s sloppy structure and lazy script-writing.

In the middle act there are several lengthy exposition scenes after father and son are reunited (I don’t think that’s giving anything away too spoileriffic) and, moving past the fact that clustering too many lengthy dialogue scenes together is, again, lazy script-writing; one of these exchanges details the emergence of ‘isomorphic algorithms’.  Now, while the film is quite vague about what these are, it does make it clear that they are a sort of software 2.0, a huge evolutionary leap in computing.  It is their arrival that sparks the political oppression which Flynns Snr and Jnr must combat.  Now, to me, this isomorphic story was far more diverting and filled with dramatic possibility than the chase movie we have here and, since it’s about software evolving and improving, it would have handed on a plate the narrative the film-makers needed to introduce The Grid to our modern wired world.  I’m just saying.

Finally, one of the eccentricities of the first film is that, for no clearly discernible reason, it is not named after the main protagonist - the character who we follow into The Grid - but rather one of the programs he meets in there.   This gives Legacy another imbalance:  They needed to continue with the Tron name for brand recognition, which means they have to find some active role for the Tron program.  So they’ve got him playing Bobba Fett.   Yes, really.  Then, in the last few moments, they give the character a pointless epiphany in a sequence which feels like it was assembled in the edit-suite as an after-thought.

So, it’s fair to say that there are problems with the script but, as I mentioned at the beginning, there is nothing wrong with it visually.  Director Kosinski is another graduate of high-concept CGI-heavy commercials (if you’re interested in knowing more, have a look at his website here) which means he has a great grasp of visuals but, as with so many directors who make their way into big movies through that route, this doesn’t prepare you to control a full length film nor, for that matter, does it ensure you can get a great performance out of an actor.  

This is why, I suspect, recent Oscar-winner Jeff Bridges gives two completely by-the-numbers performances: One of them in person, in his Jedi pyjamas as Father Flynn and the other, over on the other side of the Uncanny Valley, as his much younger self via the miracle of motion capture.  I didn’t mind that Clu comes across as one-dimensional, nor that his CGI face was as fake and dead-eyed as one of Zemeckis’ cyber-puppets because, after all, he’s a piece of software.  It’s entirely appropriate for him to look manufactured.  But to make his character and his motivation so clumsily one-dimensional is unforgivable!

So, is there anything to enjoy here?  Actually – yes - quite a lot.  The film is gorgeous and absolutely worth seeing on as big a screen as possible.  The design and execution of the world and the vehicles that travel around it is a constant delight although, I concede, this may be partly because it reminds one so much of 1982’s other great Syd Meadathon: Blade Runner.  The Light Cycle sequence is mind-blowing (even if I did have a bit of a grumble about them no longer going in straight lines) and the Light Dragonfly Flying Thingy chase is, if anything, more so.  Possibly because it really needs a quick “Don’t get cocky, kid” to make it complete!

Of course, everyone looks ravishing in their skin-tight, fluorescent costumes and heavy pan-cake make-up, particularly Olivia Wilde and Beau Garrett who, despite being required to do nothing more than function as one-dimensional ciphers, manage to give their programmes a certain sass.  One imagines that they must have been ravenous after being unpeeled from their costumes because they certainly wouldn’t be able to eat while wearing them!

Garrett Hedlund does fine work as Sam, giving him just enough maturity to deal with all the gosh-wow visuals.  It must be very difficult to make a vanilla good guy stand out in such a gigantic movie, but he manages.  The ever-reliable Michael Sheen (presumably on his days off from working as the wabbit on his other Disney flick, Tim Burton’s Alice in Underland) also shines (literally and figuratively) in a wonderfully camp turn as a sort of Aladdin Sane cum Jimmy Saville nightclub owner.  But what ties the whole package together wonderfully and dramatically is the music by Daft Punk.  Yes, it was leaked all over the interweb months ago; but listening to some dodgy MP3 divorced from its proper full-screen context is, well, unsatisfying.

I might even be persuaded to make the case for this being the soundtrack of the year.  For a sample of what I'm wittering about have a quick click of this:

Despite all of the problems with script and direction, I genuinely do feel that this is a film worth watching on as a big a screen as you can manage.  Further, it’s worth watching twice!  Why twice?  Well, because that dry-mouthed sense of disappointment that may mar your first viewing will be gone for the second, and you can get on with just basking in the visual and auditory glory of it all.

Anthony Burgess reputedly said that there is no such thing as ‘reading’ a book, there is only ‘re-reading’ it.  The first time you read it you are merely getting to grips with the characters and the story.  The second time you can appreciate the art, the craft and the love that the author put in the book.  Only with a second reading can you fully appreciate and understand a book.  Well, I firmly believe the same is true for (most) films.  I genuinely feel that, especially when a film has failed to live up to often unrealistic expectation, a second, more level-headed viewing of it can be a revealing and intensely pleasurable experience.  So, yes, I will be going to see Tron Legacy again and I expect to see more, understand more and enjoy more than I did first time.  (And no, before you ask, this doesn’t mean I’m going to re-evaluate any Adam Sandler films … One has to draw a line somewhere!)

Dir: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Bridges, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner
Dur: 127 mins
Cert: PG



So, one of my three favourite Minnesotans (the other two having the surname Coen) is enjoying a burst of productivity.

Last April it was announced that he was going to be directing a stage opera next May.  All the, as you young people say, skinny is here at Dreams, the semi-official Gilliam website run by the very great (and infinitely patient) Phil Stubbs.

Since that announcement and now, Gilliam has been busy making what is essentially a commercial for Pepsi's 'energy' drink Amp.  It's called The Legend of Hallowdega.  The official website with lots of 'behind the scenes' (i.e. 'carefully edited') footage is here but the film itself isn't on the official website.  I guess the reason for that is just part of the whole Hallowdega mystery.

It's a fake documentary set in and around the NASCAR racetrack at Talladega and made in the style of Blair Witch (1999) and Spinal Tap (1984), although it isn't as funny as either of those.  Despite having a few Gilliamical touches - some nice wide-angle shots and a few distant echoes of The Fisher King (1991) and 12 Monkeys (1995) - its humour doesn't, sadly, rise much above the level of a corporate video.  The fictional host's name is Justin Thyme.  Justin ... Thyme.  I'll let the full comic majesty of that soak in for a moment.

This film is the sort of thing that would make a diverting three minute skit on The Onion's ONN or Funny or Die, but here it drags on for almost fifteen unfunny minutes.  I sincerely hope Mr. Gilliam puts the money to good use then, at least, this can of luke-warm piss will have served some purpose.

Anyway, if you can but be bothered, happy viewing ...

Now, moving on ... Just last week, I stumbled across this intriguing piece from Screen Rant.  They claim that Gilliam is going to be working in an advisory capacity on a 'steampunk' animation called 1884.  This sounds like a fascinating production, a sort of Karel Zeman meets George Orwell meets ... Terry Gilliam.  Apparently the film has an £8 million budget.  In the present financial climate I think they'll be very lucky to get that much for something as art-housey as this, but I hope, for their sake, they do, because I certainly want to see this finished with Gilliam's finger-prints all over it!

There's a preview of it available, at just over four very, very interesting minutes.  See what you think:

There's a much more polished (and therefore presumably more recent) promo for it here.  Significantly improved, I think you'll find!

Then, earlier today, Bleeding Cool announced here that Gilliam is, in the next two weeks, going to shoot another short film, called The Wholly Family.   They then added an update to that news here, including extra information gathered by the ubiquitous Phil Stubbs.  We wait and see whether this will simply be another commercial job to earn a buck or, since its based on his own script, something altogether more interesting.

It looks like 2011 is going to be a productive year for Gilliam and I have always found that to be grounds for celebration.

"Two Fucks or More, It's an R"

This is fascinating viewing. The Hollywood Reporter has gathered a round-table of directors, all of whom have films hovering around during Awards Season. Some of the films haven't been seen in the UK yet, some of the names aren't exactly household, but the issues they've dealt with are soooooo familiar.

They talk about the vice-like grip of the MPAA over the 'adult' content of their films, they talk about making films cheaply and quickly (something which, in these days of $200 million budgets, seems novel) and the whole thing is deeply inspirational. See Derek Cianfrance talk about how it took him twelve years to get Blue Valentine made and, now he has, its NC17 rating will likely kill it in The States.

See Peter Weir discussing the art of direction, see Tom Hooper talking about not being a writer/director, see Darren Aronofsky talk about developing The Fighter then handing it over to David O. Russell, see ... for yourself. 

It'll take about an hour of your life, but will reward you disproportionately!

In case you're curious, the Nikita picture that they discuss (in relation to the censorship of sex but not violence on American TV) is this one:



Well, well, well.

It is the dog-end of December and here I am, suddenly compelled to revisit the dusty, web-enshrouded environs of my weblog for the first time in ... Well, too long!

Where have I been this year? What have I been doing? Well, the answer to both of those questions involves my trying to hang on to the tattered remnants of my increasingly-stressful daytime career. Having failed to do that, I find I have more inclination (and will soon have more time) to dedicate to my journalising activities.

I am also widening my portfolio, as it were, by developing my script-writing skills. Since last time we spoke, I've written the first draft of two feature film scripts and am planning the second drafts. I'm developing a renewed respect for well-written, well-structured scripts because it is NOT as easy as it looks!

I've also decided I'm going to change the nature of this weblog. It is no longer going to feature JUST my bloated, long-winded reviews. I'll try pithier feedback where appropriate. I'll also be posting links I find interesting, the sort of stuff I have, hitherto, been limiting to my Facebooking activities. Well, I'll still be Facbooking it, but I'll be driving the traffic here as much as possible.

So, I'm reclaiming my turf, rearranging the furniture and re-mixing my metaphors.

Should be fun.