Category: TV

The growing power of the Idiot’s Lantern…

Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat

Batman (alone) cartoon

It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard?  Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month.  As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever.  How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…

NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN.  That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making.  That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats.  It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.

Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary:  75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture.  Yes, I know:  it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.

In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules.  In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time.  It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today.  The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.

Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series

While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.

Enduring Bat

Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years.  Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen.  From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies).  Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011.  I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion.  As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction.  I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.

Beware the CGI

The Brave and the Bold proved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…

Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept.  While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe.  The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham.  It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration.  Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.

While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here.  It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim.  A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly.  Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie.  Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more.  Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins.  That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself.  Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.

Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see).  Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…

The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence.  Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.

With Nolan, things changed.  While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Party like it’s 1989

That is and ever will be the Batmobile

True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement.  A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994.  That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were.  It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.Batman - and Robin

With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,

just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic.  That is and ever will be the Batmobile.  And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.

It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton.  That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses.  It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy.  Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.

 

The Comics are Coming

Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate

Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us.  But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends.   It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before.  That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998.  A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today.  And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.

And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold.  But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.

At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen.  That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville.  It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could.  Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin.  Well…

Traits of the Batmen

The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant

Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict.  14 years later, it couldn’t be more different.  We live in a universe of multiple batmen.  New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude.  Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache.  And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters.  And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.

So why the increasing multiplicty?  Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here.  But some clear indicators lie in his key traits.  There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct.  He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…

But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off.  Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is.  When he doesn’t, he’s diminished.  Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary…  But his guardian’s increasingly realise it.  And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city.  That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.

A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it.  As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.

Now, time for a Batrospective…

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Replicated Comfort Food

ST: TNG's Commander Data smoking a USS Voyager

ST: TNG's Commander Data smoking a USS Voyager

In search of comfort TV, I recently stumbled onto three episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation fondly remembered for different reasons. Then I decided to pick them apart. 

SOME WEEKS AGO, I NEEDED SOME COMFORT TELEVISION. A FILM WOULDN’T DO: IT HAD TO BE TV. BUT WHERE TO START?

Well, it wasn’t going to be ‘period’ unless my synapses were so slackened I could tolerate an ITV two hour abridging. Soaps and serial drama were out, The Crystal Maze counted as period, so genre it was. That in itself is a big pool and fraught with difficulties.

Frankly, Doctor Who’s generally too long or too annoying (that’s how much I adore it), anything American, post-X-files, is too arc-filled. Cumulatively great, but you can rarely choose one episode of American TV series from the last 20 years without it being damaged by its decapitation from an overall arc or, well, shit.

One of the few exceptions is ratings smashing Star Trek. Only twice did Star Trek wander into immersive, deeply plotted arcs (the conclusion of Deep Space Nine and the third season of Enterprise). That was partly why, after a few light years worth of continuous episodes, Star Trek was rather beleaguered by the time the early 2000s saw it meet a sorry end on the small screen. So long leading the way, it was always going to be pure volume and ‘reset button’ arrogance that did it in (and to some minds, JJ Abrams).

Of course, it’s easy to ignore a wealth of other TV series signed off by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in that search for real comfort television (Andromeda, Andromeda and Andromeda). Even so, it was a short stumble back through the time-vortex and various quadrants before I fell upon Star Trek: The Next Generation and I knew that was the place to be.

Yes, another and definitive piece of the Star Trek universe that will never happen thanks to 2009’s reboot. We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon – who would have thought? Guinan probably. And fortunately she hasn’t told home entertainment or Netflix.

Star Trek: We’re now left with just two films and Enterprise in the chrono-canon

ST:TNG offers something different to everything else however, most easily encapsulated as brilliance. As much as there’s varying levels of merit in the subsequent Star Trek series (well, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise from the final scenes of the second season anyway), ST:TNG really is the franchise’s crowning achievement. It overcame a rocky start after several aborted launches of its own Genesis device to reboot and reignite, a failed 1960s programme that was quickly fading on the big screen. Had development come a year later perhaps The Final Frontier would have altered Paramount’s patience far more than television networks’ infamous disdain for the property when it was pitched.

One of the pinnacles of first-run syndication, within seven seasons the show was supposedly generating over $1billion a year. An inevitable conclusion was, thanks to Trek’s lineage and crucial financials, an accelerated push to the crew of the Enterprise-D onto the big screen.

Why was it so successful? The idea was great, but took a painful few seasons to work. The crew was superb but struggled walking the line between the new and old. The shoddy uniforms and The Original Series remakes shine enough light on the difficulties posed by 1980s visionaries like Michael Piller joining the show less than a year after significant TOS alumni D. C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry had scripted for the first season. It was troubled, but that only highlighted its killer arsenal: the fine casting. Spiner, Frakes, Stewart…  All of them – they quite simply make the show.

It was Piller’s seminal Season Three cliff-hanger that cemented the franchise and secured the franchise’s future. It can’t be said enough: The first part of The Best of Both World’s is not only one of Trek’s finest hours, but television’s. That the conclusion, which American audience’s famously had to wait three months for, is not a total let-down is almost as impressive.

It’s no surprise then, that the three comfort episodes I chose came after that Borg-bar was set.

Classics such as Season Five’s The Inner Light had to be dismissed; this was all about youthful nostalgia.

Unfortunately, that nostalgia coincides with an undeniable fact. These three episodes cover all three story-writers of Star Trek: Generations. That doesn’t provide any redemption for that film, if anything it exposes some of what went horribly wrong with this crew’s first cinematic outing.  Rather I’ll hide behind the fact that those same three crafted the impeccable First Contact.

And so, those episodes:


The first of these came immediately after Piller’s cliffhanging revelation: Star Trek could be everything. Unfortunately that also meant that new-found confidence was matched with some budget clawing. Aside from immediate follow-up ‘Family’, most of the first half of Season Four was a thematic arc around friends and family.

STTNG Thought cut

Brothers, Season Four

Or… The One Where Data Takes Over 

This is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than the simple metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir

Of course, Brothers is an episode of two-halves – and three performances for Brent Spiner. From my first viewing I remember Data’s excellent Enterprise hijacking, the android-heavy plot, a rather ticked off Picard, the (rather gratuitously shoe-horned) Abdul Abulbul Amir and a horrible homicide.

Yes, for the all the light aims of that season, Brothers had everything, ruined only by three quite major problems. Alright, they may be problems that manage not to ruin enjoyment of a damn fine story (rather surprisingly) from the pen of exec Rick Berman (the original JJ to many), but imagine if they weren’t there?

First, the Bridge evacuation scene. Several times, Data completely ignores Riker and Picard before sitting stock-still as the ‘breathing’ crew evacuate the bridge. The bridge crew of the Star Fleet’s flagship are awfully slow here (Life support cut? Oxygen streaming out? No reason? Alright then). There isn’t long to scream at the screen though. This was all about (riskily) making the crew we know so well look like completely useless idiots. And Data’s subsequent escape (to a foliage-heavy planet seemingly birthed by the Genesis device), all the way to Worf’s sluggish reactions, is superb.

Second is the third act ‘twist’. The structure doesn’t help, and it’s simply more noticeable after an epic pause in planet-side proceedings. One android operation to be exact. With no ‘other android’ around, it’s clear that Lore’s on the table rather than Data. Again, this is marginally saved by the tragic patricide and the other rhyme that goes with it. Spiner’s brilliant here in the hermetically sealed world of Trek acting. That he’s rather hammy as both Lore and the brothers’ creator Noonian Soong isn’t bad at all. I think it was something in the prosthetics. Tony Todd hit the same level in DS9’s excellent The Visitor and even Patrick Stewart couldn’t resist tugging his own beard in All Good Things. Here Spiner balances three distinct characters of which Soong is the most over-used and Lore under-powered.  It’s not hurt by heavy-handedness though, far from it.  In the story, with Lore’s final act of deceit made possible by the forgiveness of the father, this is all rather more Greek myth and Dickens’ Two Cities than a two archetypal metaphors represented by Abdul Abulbul Amir.

The third problem is a little trickier to overcome: legacy. There’s no sense in Riker’s response at the end. Data has proved himself incredibly dangerous, Star Fleet intelligence (albeit, or not, before Section 31) woefully inadequate. The Federation had all sorts of scrapes with artificial intelligence before, not to mention augmented technology, and here was Khan’s relative hijacking the flagship of the Fleet by proxy. That should have had red light bulbs flashing across alpha and beta quadrants.

Sadly, worse was to come. Brothers led indirectly to Descent.  The next time we meet Lore, the most disappointing Borg story has the unstoppable foe confused in the unflattering surroundings of bright sunlight and tundra. Add into the mix every section of Star Trek: Generations featuring the emotion chip and Brothers’ legacy looks increasingly risible. Not for the first time, many thanks to First Contact for dealing with both Borg and emotion chip correctly.

At the end at least, there’s a brilliant and rather melancholy ambiguity. Which of the droids is Skavar and which Abdul Abulbul Amir? I think it’s the transporting echo of that song that stuck in my mind most. Only Lore would have the electronic gonads to sing while transporting.

Relics, Season Six

Or… The One Where Scotty Doesn’t Know the Ship Like the Back of his Hand

Satire on TNG’s treatment of engineering, but with room for poignancy…

Further delves into the past came in Season Six, a season that kicked off with Mark Twain (Time’s Arrow) before bringing in Trek stalwart David Warner for possibly his finest ever Star Trek role (Chain of Command), solved galactic genetics (The Chase) and put Picard in a TOS film uniform (at the same time giving Q appealing again, Tapestry). Relics can be easily overlooked, coming a season after ST:TNG’s real homage: the Spock starring two-parter Unification. But really, it’s another little gem from Ronald D Moore.

Scotty is the real strength here.  He doesn’t bring the baggage of Spock, Kirk or even McCoy’s appearances in the new phase. Successfully embellished by the films (perhaps the real stand-out in The Final Frontier) Relics took the same line as the rebooted films. Scotty is a comic genius as much as an engineering genius.

Still, it’s not about forgotten baggage; Scotty’s legacy is positively overlooked.  Perhaps in the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics. Picard’s just after a shot with him, La Forge’s a little too busy and Data seems totally oblivious. It’s all rather refreshing from start to finish, held together by James Doohan’s usual affable presence. Sure, Doohan’s accent slips as often as ever and it’s a standard out of place set-up.

The booze has changed, as has tech, Klingons are running around – and so he finds solace on a Holodeck reproduction of the original (1701, that is) Enterprise bridge (where he exposes Picard’s old-school alcohol appreciation).

What’s great about the episode is the strong science-fiction background and the marvellous hook and future that carries for Scotty. The hypothetical megastructure at the heart of the plot was indeed postulated in the 1960s by Freeman Dyson. The rather sad fate of the abandoned sphere in this episode, though physically fascinating, no doubt added to its originator’s continual wish that it hadn’t been named after him (last stated in 2013 I believe).

In the fields of engineering, mastering modesty is as important as tachyon field dynamics

While preposterous that Scotty was marked off MIA so many years ago (the struggle to explore strange new worlds long hampered next gen Star Trek), the re-introduction is wonderful. It sums up Scotty-style engineering prowess while making a statement on ST:TNG’s dry treatment of engineering. After all, this was show that didn’t really feature a head engineer in its first season! The result is a satire, but one with room for a certain poignancy. That opening teleportation can’t help but reference the haunting beam-malfunction of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

And then at the end, the really desperate attempt to get into this writer’s affections. The core crew of the Enterprise happily dispatch Scotty off into the unknown galaxy in the Enterprise’s Shuttlecraft Goddard (I like to think named after this writer and not Robert Goddard, creator of the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket). Scotty’s one of the franchise’s great survivors and more and more, that looks like a rather wonderful if unorthodox send-off. All the more so as he had the wonderful sense to forget or feel rather optimistic about the events of Star Trek: Generations.

Timescape, Season Six

Or… The one that kick-started Star Trek: Voyager

SFX smacked into your face until your left nacelle burnt out…

Both the hardest and easiest choice here. I’d so far ridden through family and nostalgia and Timescape was pure indulgence (bar a nod to the director, none other than Adam Nimoy). That indulgence is perhaps slightly hypocritical as it came to define everything I despised in the franchise, or am I being too unkind?

Timescape’s an anomaly in a very localised segment of space; my head. I remember in the early 1990s being wowed by the science-fiction. Blown away, like a human beating a Nausicaan at dom-jot. In hindsight, bubbles of time are no different to meteors, but saddled with fantastic, for the time, special effects, ambiguous scenes of real danger and some surprising twists it had me wound up.

Another big factor was that it featured Romulans and came one episode before the Borg were ruined (Descent). I’ve always had a soft spot for Romulans even though they popped up in ST:TNG (more than I remember) with their purple shoulder-pads and bizarrely retained Roman legacy.  Not only Vulcans that get angry, but angry Vulcans with fantastic ships – especially when stuck in combat with the Galaxy Class Enterprise.

I remembered all that, but also the irresistibility of the episode’s technobabble. Timescape was not so much about good science-fiction, or even faction, basis – but one that took a word, a load of sfx money and smacked it into your face until your left nacelle burnt out. It’s rather spooky all round, one of ST:TNG’s better attempts at a haunted house in space.

But for all the good stuff, that’s alive and well, here was a significant step forward all the technobabble and minutiae of space-time that would dog the franchise from that point on. It was Star Trek: Voyager that bore the brunt of course, inheriting Braga as an exec without quite the same depth of cast while Deep Space Nine looked towards war and explored the effect on characters in spiritual, family and military guises.

The cast of ST:TNG showed that much of the show’s material could be elevated and Timescape’s a good example. I’d long forgotten the opening scenes, a good 10 minutes building with a simple emphasis on characterisation. Picard, La Forge, Data and Troi (now in professional garb), all too rarely stuck around a table having a laugh about their recent conference. That table is surely one reason for them taking a Runabout (the runabout laughabout – one of Deep Space Nine’s larger contributions to the franchise…) and it works wonderfully.

Rather than padding, although that can never be ruled out, it helps build-up to the inevitable plot onslaught that follows. The loss of Geordi (presumably cured at the end!?) is stronger than the static shot of Dr Crusher mid-disrupter attack as a result.  In fact, this episode has one of the best 10 Little Indians-style build-ups of the whole series.  And then there was…  A trans-dimensional creche.  Yes, shame they went with the space babies once again.

Despite the lazy plot device, there’s a lot going on here and it just about hangs together. It’s unfortunate that the franchise couldn’t retain the same balance. For the real reason behind that I’d have to fall back on the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. “[sighs] It’s going to take… a little time to explain, Number One”.

Next on Jokerside does Star Trek: My problem with the Star Trek reboot…

Game of Thrones: The Dog and the Wolf – A Clash of Comfort

Dog and Wolf Game of Thrones Jokertoon

GoT

Unlike the famous Iron Throne itself, Game of Thrones has consolidated its position as pure comfort storytelling, as the first episode of Season Four showed.  *Only televisual story spoilers here up to 4.1, but by the dragon load. 

THE MUCH ANTICIPATED FOURTH SERIES OF GAME OF THRONES KICKED OFF LAST WEEK, ITS ARRIVAL SLOWER THAN DANERYS TARGARYEN’S CONSCRIPTION RATE. The series premiere was a typical opener; reintroducing characters in its own time and effortlessly refreshing and advancing the plot in a methodical but luxurious way.  The random, yet appropriate appearance of Janos Slynt half way through showed how important that approach is. While in many other show’s in any other show, his protestations as former Commander of the King’s Landing City Watch may look forced,  in Game of Thrones’ measured structure it works in the midst of Jon Snow’s great Black Watch dissolution and crucially, Aemon Targaryen’s withering parting shot.

Underlying Script

It’s easy to think that little happens…

On the small screen, Game of Thrones has always used its weaknesses as a great strength. It’s easy to look on any one season and think that little happens– see particularly Season Two, when very little happens.  Westeros way, plot points that may sustain other series or provide season climaxes are often brushed over. A great example is Ned Stark’s reveal of Robert Baratheon’s bastard son in the first season.  It’s a major catalyst for the oncoming war but given little space in the episode and little prominence in the episode’s ‘acts’, especially in comparison to the later Lannister-Stark stand-off. Instead, amid the battles and more usually the hanging suspense of battle and receipt of field reports, Game of Thrones sinks back to the characters and their scripting.  A stinging barb or one line reference is often far more powerful within the storyline than any action the audience sees.

Sketches

A streamlined conflama that constantly pleases the majority

Of course, that’s also a rather good get out, especially in a densely populated story where the high body count can’t quite compete with constant new arrivals.  Any time there may be some trouble in the structure, pace or plot development Thrones falls back on its sketch-based set-up, nipping between geographies and respective characters. And who better in the opening episode to wield the directing rapier so skilfully than the core writing team themselves?

The show’s helped by its novel root of course – as well as coming a good few volumes in.  That source material is being used well and it needs to be. The necessity to refresh and build is as evident as the disconcerting failure of a recasting like Daario Naharis’ in Season Four.  But far from little happening, the sketch structure gives the show an underlying level of satisfaction; reassuring in spite of the bloodshed and trauma and also leaving a rather pleasing amount to the imagination.  This isn’t the reaching cluster of mystery seen in the show’s most famous forerunners, The X-Files, Lost or Heroes but a rather streamlined conflama that constantly pleases the majority.

The final section of Season Four’s premiere illustrated that almost perfectly.

The Final Hunt

The young wolf adds to her kills…

WOLFAlthough the season kicked off with the symbolic (or better put, vengeful and snide) melting of the House’s great sword Ice, there was little Stark to be found in the opener. That sword made a weapon for Jaime Lannister and an as yet unknown, reminding of the hidden dysfunction of the Lannister family nicely.  Later, Sansa Stark’s grief was far more important for Tyrion’s character development than her family travails.

It took the switch to the Riverlands in the final section to add anything to the series’ original House.  A combination of choice dialogue, suspense, contrivance and a peak of rewarding violence showed Thrones at its best.  And all involving two of the story’s so far undernourished but pivotal characters.

Some light banter about horses between Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark refreshed the characters’ motives and story.  Nominally this is money and vengeance – the intention of both to rid one of the other – but as always in Thrones those motivations can be dispensed with immediately.

The chance encounter at the end should also be quickly dismissed.  Such things add a little too much balance compared to the many historic struggles that Thrones apes, but this is all about the impact on character.  Each of the major players can be boiled down to facets of their sigil. And here the wolf was in the ascendance.

First came a mildy laboured and distasteful build-up of tension – though one that encapsulated the state of the land during Joffrey’s reign.  And then, after the niggling, downing and an incredible misreading by the King’s men, an obligatory fight.  While the Dog Clegane was unusually incompetent, the young wolf added to her kills.

Arya’s slaying was shot in a woozy, seedy style, relishing the sound and horrible control – reflecting her satisfaction in such a complete act of revenge.  There’s no doubt who or what she’s becoming.  And sure enough, the final scene with the familiar score rising about it showed that she’d earned the horse so neatly referenced at the beginning.  Also that Stark and Clegane had become that little more similar.  An unlikely duo, an uneasy alliance, but a relationship reset and remoulded yet again with few words.

It’s immensely satisfying watching that kind of development done well: atavistic, minimally verbal and thematically complete.  Thrones never leaves you in any doubt that you are watching the placement of rungs on a ladder just as much as movement of chess pieces on a board.

The inevitable clash of the Cleganes…DOG

Clegane is perhaps, language aside, one of the more Gormenghast characters in the story, and an unknown quantity outside similar walls.  But
the closing scene sets up his story as much as Arya’s.  As the familiar score rose behind, as the young Stark had earned her new steed, the fires of the Riverland set the inevitable clash of the Cleganes as the Dog wandered into the territory of his brother The Mountain (recast… For the third time).  As family, or lack of it, becomes more important to Clegane so Arya’s maturity is fuelled by blood.  These two will soon be inseparable.  By the end, the Dog had become that little more wolf and the wolf so much more dog.  But with the Riverland alight, in a masterless land, what is a Dog but a Wolf?

Now, time to press play on the Purple wedding…

Doctor Who: 999 “You need a Doctor…” – Nine of the Ninth

The Ninth Doctor's Ninth Anniversary

9d ann square

Nine of the Ninth Doctor’s best moments on the ninth anniversary  of his arrival… Yes, the anniversary was on Wednesday the 26th, but new Doctor Who’s all about Saturdays, just as it should be…

IT SEEMS LIKE JUST A FEW DAYS SINCE THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY OF CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON’S CASTING AS THE DOCTOR… AND IT WAS. And sure as that Type-40 TARDIS is still stuck as a Police Box, just over a year later he made his first appearance on prime time BBC1. The build-up was lovely if a little understated, fuelling long-term and fair weather fans alike as they grasped for snippets of the theme song and story hints as this new leather jacketed character leapt around shouting “Do you want to come with me?” “We already are” we might have all shouted in unison if we weren’t asking “When the hell are you going to start?” instead.

It was unclear then (though it never should have been) how or if this Doctor would fit in. Would it really be the same Doctor, linking directly to the classic series? Would some elements change? Would the show be rebooted, chucking off millions of hours, pages, CDs, strips of continuity..? Sure enough, was screened on 26th March 2005. And it didn’t really answer any of those questions. True to the classic series, we’d have to wait…

So as after respite from last November’s Whovember, what better time to get back on that British wagon train to the stars: The Ninth Doctor’s top nine.

Astonishingly not all of these are from The Parting of the Ways, still I consider, by way of massive hint, the new series finest hour.

9. Rose – “Run”

A rare remake

A great entrance, and no doubt something showrunner Russell T Davies had thought about at length. Like his 9d - ann1successor, current showrunner Steven Moffat, Davies must have toiled over this for years. It was crucial that this Doctor stepped out of his Police Box just as fully-formed (yet mysterious) as he had when he emerged in the fog of Totter’s Lane in 1963. Here the scrap yard was replaced with a department store, the granddaughter replaced with a, frustrated but ambitious London teenager.

And the story, brilliantly, was lightly drawn from Classic Who’s greatest writer Robert Holmes. Yes, he created The Sontarans, much of the Time Lords, the Master… But the Auton mannequins sat motionless on the high street, the personification of Hitchcockian suspense… Until they surprise a Bobby… Were one of his best. Here they make for a rare remake for the series (only bested in content by the underwhelming Silurian debut) and why not? A strong build-up of tension (broken only by Graham Norton) and then that hand in the dark…

8. The End of the World – “I’m a Time Lord, the last of the Time Lords”

And then off for chips

I pondered that Time Lord moment, but in the context of the show nine years and seven seasons on, it sticks out a mile. The show’s all about the Time Lord, but not the super Time Lord.

In Rose, you may strain to hear the dying Nestene Consciousness scream “Time Lord”…  But here he said it.

Yes, the moment from that second episode has to be executive producer Julie Gardner’s favourite. That speech to Rose, that confession… Those keywords checked off in the midst of commuters all unaware how this figure had saved them, their descendants, their ancestors many, many times… And then off for chips. ”You think it will last forever…” It’s another moment that Moffat impressively managed to expand during the anniversary. Back then he was the impossible alien. Now he was discovered. It was the concept that the show would be built on…

7. Bad Wolf – “Would the Doctor please come to the Diary Room”

A light start to a pivotal episode

Popular Culture can’t ignore itself. This light parody checked all the boxes, managing to involve Davina but not aping the reality behemoth too exactly or too much (see the disappointing Dead Set for that). Davies, quite rightly a long-term fan of Big Brother had hinted at some kind of Who/Big Brother parody for some time. But here it was a light and familiar start to pivotal episode.

For Big Brother critics it was a particularly dicey move, but nine years on while Trinny and Susannah-style fashion shows and The Weakest Link have disappeared from the schedules… Big Brother’s back to its heady heights. Alongside Doctor Who.

6. The Unquiet Dead – “At such a cost, the poor child”

The Doctor’s darker hue

After the disposable plot setting of Rose and the nonsense whodunit of the majority of The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead did far more than establish a present, future, past season template. It really hinted at what Doctor Who could do while making a good stab at the horror that has always been at the heart of the show. It wasn’t perfect… Often criticised for being a light attempt at a classic story, later period pieces would add more spectacle and of course, this is this episode that supposedly lost us Eccleston.

But there are highlights, not least the Doctor’s darker hue, his fallibility and the hard decisions that should be woven into every story. Death is a heavily woven into Who’s fabric of course, coming every episode – but as the mid-70s and mid-80s showed, it needs to be handled correctly. The Unquiet Dead did that and also, it premiered on my birthday. Darker Who on my birthday. Fantastic. But it would get better…

5. The Empty Child – “Nobody here but us chickens”

An irresistible mystery

Mark Gatiss’ The Unquiet Dead had stoked some Who horror flames, but its zombie-ghost facade was cartoonish compared to this. Negating ghosts, period celebrities and zombies Moffat’s first Who classic had a comfortable two episodes to ramp up the pressure, the mystery and the horror. Here the Ninth Doctor has time alone to stalk around a mystery.

From a telephone that shouldn’t work to a door side encounter with classic ‘haunted’ house tropes. This Doctor is caught in an irresistible mystery, that instantly tests his instincts. “Ain’t nobody here but us chickens” he says, laughing sever-so-slightly nervously as he’s torn between protection and running.  Failure to do either would be dereliction of the Doctor’s mantle…

9d - ann24. Dalek – Eye to Eye

The lone Dalek concept was a left perfectly by the Classic Series

To think that there was a chance that Daleks wouldn’t appear in that first series, or at all… After pondering that, it’s worth considering this story with its back-up aliens. The Toclafane would later show up in the series three finale as the chilling coda of humanity.

As it is, this loose adaptation of Big Finish’s Jubilee and penned by that play’s author Rob Shearman himself, improves with every viewing. A siege story in the classic sense, this meeting of aliens must be one of Who‘s most watched moments. The lone Dalek concept was a left perfectly by the Classic Series, and perfectly set up by the Alien comparison.

In hindsight the last the Doctor saw of his copper nemeses were some ravaged Dalek shells as he grafitti’d Gallifrey with “No More”. Both species were destroyed… And then, the last remaining members of each came face-to-face in near-future Utah. The Doctor at his most vengeful, a Dalek at its most duplicitous… The ultimate destroyer and then unstoppable force but not always the way you think.

And to start, a fan pleasing surprise. A wonderfully simple, empty cyber head, oddly a Revenge of the Cybermen iteration … the Cybers almost met the new Doctor first… if only they’d stuck with that classic design a season later.

3. The Doctor Dances – “Just this once, everybody lives!”

A true fan wrote this

The myth of the Doctor being the most dangerous man in the universe took five seasons to grow, but it was clear from the beginning that his travels were fraught with danger. After seeing more than a few characters, not least in The Unquiet Dead fall foul of his intervention… Or solution… This was joyous. A true fan wrote this and packed the plot with hard science-fiction to boot.

2. Bad Wolf – “Rose, I’m Coming to get you…”

This was about the Doctor and his companion.

Arguably the greatest moment in modern Doctor Who. Packed with promise and its unavoidable recall to the 9d - ann3Time War. Jumping forward to the cliff-hanger resolution, imagine those Dalek missiles hurtling against a fleet of fully manned TARDISes during that war, weapons and crafts zapping through time zones while in fully manned console rooms Time Lords fly this way and that, regenerating in an endless domino effect around a central console… But of course, this wasn’t really about the Time War.

This was about the Doctor and his companion. Many co-travellers have brought the Doctor back into the fold, ever since the original crew quite reasonably created him. Oddest of all is the most recent, where despite a pleading afterword from Amy Pond, it took a mystery as deep as The Impossible Girl to pull him back in. Again, with recent hindsight, Rose is the Doctor’s first companion since he lost Cass in *that* crash on Karn… Eight or so years before we saw this Doctor’s origins, the show had recovered its confidence and swagger.

The pitch is never better – it’s simple and effective: the Doctor is happy to warn them: he’s going to storm into the heart of the Dalek ship and rescue Rose. Because that’s what he does.

1. The Parting of the Ways – Saving Bad Wolf

What was Bad Wolf’s cost?

As 2013’s The Time of the Doctor showed once again, Bad Wolf is a concept too good to be constrained by one season. There’s no doubt that such a light arc benefitted from coming in the first series, but it was the fantastic pay-off that made it.

Having taken a holiday while plot arcs took a firm grip on television science-fiction, New Who had time to unfold mysteries one by one. Bad Wolf, as light as a line of dialogue, a glimpse of a German bomb, or a smudge of graffiti scattered across a few episodes was perfect fodder for Whovians. No arc since, certainly not recent complications, would recapture that simple delight.

But in the end, what was Bad Wolf’s cost? The Daleks survived, Rose as well… The true cost was the Ninth Doctor. A short, rather miserable existence that wouldn’t know the redemption of the 11th Doctor (nor temporarily the 10th). Locked in a war with the Daleks, his only comfort was that the Daleks were destroyed once and for all.

It’s very unlikely we’ll see the Ninth Doctor again, thank goodness we’ll never forget him.  Three Doctors and seven series on, his departure isn’t showy or nostalgic – his regeneration really is fantastic.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read the Ninth Doctor Whovember for the missing Slitheens 

%d bloggers like this: