DOCTOR WHO – S11 E03: ‘Rosa’ (Some thoughts…)

Here come some thoughts on this week’s episode.  Fear the spoilers…

– Celebrity Historicals have been a standard of the show since RTD brought it back, but I really wasn’t expecting what we got here, which is the closest we’ve come to the kind of ‘pure’ historical story the show used to do back in its 1960s early days, when the educational remit was still a strong part of Who’s backbone. There might be a mild sci-fi ‘changing history’ element driving the plot, but the time period and the event in question are the major stars here, which is rare.  (Big Finish have done a bunch of these kinds of Who stories on audio, but I really didn’t think we’d get anything like this in the actual show). Aiming at this kind of historical event is daring, and could easily have gone wrong, but they pulled it off.

– Once again, production values are way up here, aided by the South Africa shoot. Who has faked America in recent years, but it’s always been a bit rough around the edges (no matter how much they try, Spain just doesn’t quite look like the USA). Here, on the other hand, the environment and the period detail sells the illusion extremely well, and the sight of the TARDIS parked in a 1955 Alabama alley really does tap into that pulpy ‘anything is possible’ vibe that Doctor Who is so good at.

– I liked Jodie Whitaker more here than I did in the previous two episodes, and she seems more comfortable in the role – which is weird, because The Woman Who Fell To Earth was shot after this one. Maybe it’s the largely more serious tone of this episode, or maybe I’m just getting more used to her.

– Who has dabbled with racism in history before – most notably with Martha in Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Bill in Thin Ice – but this is a whole different order, and I’m impressed with how effectively they portrayed the time. Again, this could easily have tipped into cartoonish caricature, and while it sure ain’t subtle, it does a great job of showing exactly how pervasive the attitudes are. Racism is essentially the main bad guy in this episode, and it’s handled in a way that doesn’t sugar coat the times in the slightest (even making it clear that Ryan could easily end up getting himself lynched), and which also doesn’t pretend that everything was sorted out once Rosa makes her protest. Again, this is the amazing thing about Doctor Who – it can go from last week’s running around from robot snipers and evil bits of cloth to this, and it can make this kind of history accessible and enjoyable for kids who might not even know who Rosa Parks is.

– It’s also just as well that racism was such a pervasive and convincing threat, as the actual villain of the piece was another weak, two-dimensional thug who barely makes an impression. He works in theory – I can see why they went that route (especially building in the ‘unable to kill’ element so he can’t just assassinate Rosa) but in practice, he’s a hopeless and unthreatening character who doesn’t ever feel like he’s going to present that much of a problem. There’s very little tension that comes from his presence in the episode (some of which may be down to casting), and the fact that he vanishes in the same ‘We’ll probably be seeing him again’ manner as the villain in ep 1 does not fill me with confidence.

– Thanks to this problem, the actual nuts-and-bolts storytelling aspects of the episode aren’t as exciting as they could have been. Krascow isn’t like the weird invisible Chicken-monster in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’, a throwaway threat to drive what’s largely a character piece – he’s the main antagonist, and he’s so lacking in threat that the episode doesn’t always build a full sense of drama, especially with some of the more fiddly ‘we have to get the bus more crowded’ story engineering during the finale (and particularly since he’s defeated so easily.)

– And talking of Krascow’s defeat – considering the Doctor didn’t seem remotely annoyed at Ryan stealing the Time Displacer and firing Krascow into the past, why didn’t she just do it herself and save themselves the stress? (Plus, isn’t firing a vengeful racist time traveller at random into the past potentially a rather bad idea?)

– Another note – considering her experience in time travel, the Doctor takes a loooong time to work out that Krascow might be changing the future by trying to nudge history in the right direction.

– Vinette Robinson is really strong as Rosa Parks, and once again, Bradley Walsh is the TARDIS team MVP, especially in the climactic sequence on the bus.

– Also once again, we’re still not quite getting to know the companions much more than we did in episode 1. A crowded TARDIS has its advantages, and the characters do get a reasonable share of the action here, but it still feels like they’ve got a way to go before they find the right balance.

– On second look, the TARDIS redesign is looking unfortunately like an explosion in a New Age shop, especially in that final scene.

– As pointed out by @ianberriman on Twitter, this is also possibly the most Quantum Leap episode of Doctor Who ever.

– There’s points where the storytelling does get a bit heavy-handed (and boy, I could really have done without the reprise of the song over the end credits), but the episode gets an awful lot right, and is the first to give me a sense of confidence about where the show is heading (which, for an episode that’s co-written by Chris Chibnall, is saying something).

– And yet… while I admire a lot about what the show is doing, the determined steer away from the majority of the show’s crazier side is a little cause for concern. An episode like this needed to be mostly hard-hitting in order to work, but the three episodes of season 11 so far have consistently been the least goofy and weird Who has been since… well, possibly, since Eric Saward was script-editing back in the Eighties (although feel free to argue if you disagree). The lack of decent villains so far is a definite problem, and while ‘Rosa’ has given me confidence, Chibnall’s version of Who still has some way to go before I’m completely sold on it. Of course, in terms of goofy weirdness, next week’s ‘Return to Sheffield/Killer Spiders’ episode may or may not prove to be what I need…

DOCTOR WHO S11 E02: ‘The Ghost Monument’ (Some Thoughts, with Added Spoilers)

We have a new episode of Who – and I don’t have time to do a proper review, so instead this is going to be a bunch of semi-quick-fire thoughts (which still ended up longer than I expected because, well, it’s me talking about Doctor Who). I don’t have enough time to do proper reviews right now, but I do want to put my thoughts down somewhere, and this way I can be honest about the bits I didn’t like without sounding like a grouch raining on everyone’s parade. At least, in theory. Onwards – and fear the spoilers…

– A new title sequence! It’s very pretty, (and feels very reminiscent of the Troughton title sequence) but also a little lacking in the kind of propulsive forward motion I’ve gotten used to in recent Who title sequences. And just a teeny bit lava lamp, as well.

– This is possibly the most visually gorgeous and cinematic Who episode ever broadcast. The way they’ve upped the production values and the cinematography is very hard to deny. The whole episode felt very big, and very evocative (in the manner of the way I always imagined Hartnell-era stories when reading the Target novelisations), and they used the South African locations really well.

– Another Chris Chibnall episode that qualifies as ‘Not Bad’! A step up in terms of memorability and energy from the season opener – it’s also genuinely exciting in parts, but still more of a frequently derivative collection of ideas than a genuine story, and doesn’t really add up to anything more than a slightly half-hearted ‘we are stronger together’ theme.

– Art Malik as a mysterious overlord/criminal-type person. I wonder if we’ll be seeing him again? (I’m almost 100% sure we will be).

– Both Susan Lynch and Shaun Dooley do a lot with not much here, bringing stock characters to life and pulling off some effective moments.

– A well-executed spaceship crash sequence, even if Ryan and Graham have obviously watched Prometheus too many times and don’t understand the ‘run to the side to avoid the crashing ship’ principle.

– Setting up the TARDIS as the macguffin that ends the race is a nice touch.

– I’m almost annoyed that nobody even attempted to make an Infinite Improbability Drive gag in the opening five minutes, considering how VERY convenient it was that two separate ships arrived to rescue them.

– Is it just me, or does Ryan’s dyspraxia seem to turn on and off as the plot demands it? And was I the only one who thought the ruined building they arrive at looked suspiciously like an abandoned Tesco?

– So, the Stenza are obviously being set up as this season’s big bad, to which my reaction was “Those guys? Seriously?” I mean, I already suspected that ‘Tim Shaw’ would be making a return appearence (even if I’m really not sure why), but it still doesn’t make them any less generic or forgettable. But then, this is Chris Chibnall, the man who thought a pig-faced demon and Captain Jack’s deeply underwhelming kid brother were effective end-bosses in Torchwood, so I guess you get what you pay for.

– I am unexpectedly finding myself more invested in the companions than the Doctor, which is kind of a strange experience.


– Heavens, we have a ‘mysterious overarching plot arc’ in the form of the ‘Timeless Child’, helpfully told us by the randomly talkative Killer Cloth. First thought – are they pulling the ‘member of the Doctor’s family (potentially a daughter/son, considering someone had to have Susan) is still alive’ gambit?

– Again, it would have been nice to have just a slightly clearer idea of how the Doctor created that electromagnetic pulse, rather than it looking like she reached into a robot and pressed the convenient ‘Activate EMP’ button.

– What exactly was the point of ending the race at the ‘Ghost Monument’ if Ilinn isn’t timing it so that the TARDIS is actually making one of its semi-regular stops? Yes, it adds a brief bit of tension that the TARDIS isn’t there (and an oddly out-of-character bit of rapid defeatism from the Doctor), but it also feels an odd choice when the whole race is built around getting to a place that might not even be there.

– We have a new TARDIS! Very reminiscent of the 2005-era TARDIS, but with more hexagons and quartz (and money). The whole ’TARDIS dispensing Custard Creams’ thing was slightly blunted by not realising what it was, and only working it out when I looked at Twitter. (And what the hell is that teeny spinning TARDIS all about?)

– I suspect Jodie Whitaker’s going to be staying in the Christopher Eccleston category of ‘actors who are really good and who I just don’t buy as the Doctor’. The Doctor needs to be someone who owns every scene they’re in, and she’s good, but she’s not convincing me, and I’ve yet to get a moment that makes me think “Yes, that’s the Doctor,” or that has the sense of easy naturalistic weirdness that says “Doctor” to me. I think there are going to be plenty of echoes of the 2005 season here, as everybody else is going to be loving the hell out of it, while I’m suspecting that it’s just not quite for me. I’m enjoying it, but with LOTS of provisos, and I suspect it may stay that way (especially since Chibnall is either writing or co-writing BOTH the next two episodes).

– Big surprise – I think Bradley Walsh is turning into my favourite aspect of the new season, especially since his casting ranked up with Catherine Tate for levels of ‘Wait, they’re casting who?’ Graham’s turning out to be a really enjoyable, satisfying character and is the stand-out among the current crew – it’s still feeling like three companions is just too many (I mean, we’ve barely had a chance to get to know Yaz), but Walsh is pulling off some nicely nuanced acting, even if I also suspect that Graham’s difficult relationship with Ryan is destined to get sorted out by Graham pulling a tragic but heroic sacrifice in the season finale (I hope that’s not the case, but I’d also be willing to bet money on it happening.).

– Another observation – this version of Who so far is distinctly less goofy or weird than either RTD’s or Moffatt’s approach. It’ll be interesting to see whether the show is still capable of letting its freak flag fly and going for radically different tones (which is both the blessing and the curse of Who, depending on how those tones are executed), or if we’re in the realm of nuts-and-bolts SF for the foreseeable future.

– And next week, it’s celebrity historical time with Rosa Parks. I guess we’ll see how that turns out…

DOCTOR WHO: S11 E01 – ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ (An Unexpected Review)

Press launches are not normally a thing that happens to me. Therefore, when the stars aligned and I got asked by SFX to go to Sheffield for the first ever screening of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who – the first time I’ve ever been able to write something professionally about the new era of the show, believe it or not – it was a considerable surprise.

And it was even more of a surprise when I got to Sheffield and fully understood how big a deal this was, with a red carpet outside the cinema venue and big crowds, and a general sense of being fabulously out of my depth. Inside was even weirder – imagine going to your local cinema, and instead of the usual posters on display, absolutely every image in sight is a Doctor Who poster – and I ended up armed with a massive free bag of popcorn, and accidentally found myself sat in a row directly in front of where the main cast were sitting and surrounded by BBC people, simply because I got into the screening early and there was nothing telling me that I couldn’t sit there.

There was a big introduction to the screening, followed by the episode itself and a Q+A with the cast, followed by drinks that involved lots of loud music and tons of people who I didn’t know. I made a relatively swift exit, heading for the station and back to Nottingham, but it was great fun overall, and a hell of a peculiar and memorable way to watch a Doctor Who debut episode (although watching S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ in 2010 at a convention while sat next to the gorgeous girl I’d recently met (and who I’d eventually end up falling in love with) still has it beat).

THE REVIEW: (Which I’ve kept pretty-much spoiler free)

I went in with a healthy degree of caution, because while this new era for the show is big and splashy and has a ton of publicity and goodwill behind it, it’s also being overseen by Chris Chibnall, a man with a Doctor Who-related history that can be best described as ‘spotty’ and who’s never written an episode that ranked for me above ‘not bad’. Most of my Chibnall-related problems come from his place as showrunner and main writer on the first two seasons of Torchwood – i.e., the ones before it got genuinely good with Children of Earth – and especially the fact that he wrote the Torchwood episode ‘Cyberwoman’, which is one of the most wrong-headed Doctor Who-related pieces of media I’ve ever seen.

And the end result is an episode that is… quite good, with an emphasis on the ‘quite’.

There are a bunch of sensible choices that have been made here, most notable of which is that aside from a couple of small references (and stuff relating to the TARDIS), there’s basically no continuity and this is played as a completely fresh start. There’s also the fact that the show is properly based in the North now, with Sheffield functioning as the home town for all three of the new companions and giving a very different visual feel and style to the show. Plus, the cinematography has been given a serious upgrade, making the show look a lot slicker and more genuinely cinematic, and the new music takes a definite step away from Murray Gold’s sweeping and occasionally OTT orchestrations for something with a crunchier, slightly more electronic flavour.

Ultimately, the episode is a good jumping-on-point for new viewers, especially since it goes straight for a style and a characterisation that’s very similar to the first two seasons of New Who (except maybe not quite as broad), along with a certain amount of DNA from Torchwood (thankfully, it’s mostly taking from the bits that worked in S2). There are also more homages to The Terminator than you might expect from Doctor Who, but overall this is very much a story of ordinary people being swept up into an adventure, and plays heavily with the idea of weird sci-fi adventure happening in somewhere as gritty and down-to-earth as Sheffield in a way that is sometimes pretty fun.

The problem is that this is the episode’s biggest and most genuinely attention-grabbing idea. The story itself takes a while to coalesce, existing for almost half the episode as “An assortment of strange things happen in Sheffield just as the Doctor arrives”, and even once the main threat makes itself felt, it doesn’t feel like anything that’s in danger of capturing the popular imagination. It’s an entertaining but slightly generic threat, and while there’s a tenuous attempt in the script to make a parallel between the villain’s quest and the Doctor figuring out her new identity, it doesn’t really land or make this all feel less generic.

From certain perspectives, it makes sense to keep the threat relatively simple, considering the heavy lifting the script has to do – not only introducing a new Doctor to a potentially new chunk of the audience, but also introducing three companions (along with another character who essentially acts as an extra companion for the story). Anyone who’s seen any early 1980s Who will know full well that a crowded TARDIS brings with it the problem of giving everybody something to do, and while the episode does its best to spread the load of action around, the result is that not everyone gets the chance to make the kind of strong impression that can be made when there’s just a single companion.

Surprisingly, it’s Bradley Walsh as Graham who makes the most impact, after spending much of the episode playing the ‘perplexed father figure’ role – there’s a couple of scenes at the end that give a lot of depth to his character and make it properly interesting that someone like this is going to be travelling through Time and Space. Both Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill do good work as Ryan and Yaz, but they do run into the simple fact that they don’t quite get enough time to properly make an impression, as well as the fact that the script doesn’t always have the sense of spark, energy and polish that Moffat or Russell T. Davies were able to bring.

Moffat absolutely had his flaws and it was definitely time for him to move on, but it’s easy for some people to forget the level of craft that went into his scripts and the level of energy he was able to inject into even the smaller scenes. There’s not that much of that energy here, meaning that there are lots of what feels dangerously like dead air, or at least scenes that are perfectly functional and nicely played but which don’t do much else, and certainly don’t achieve the breakneck pace that Doctor Who can achieve at its best. If anything, the pacing is surprisingly leisurely in places, especially the opening half hour when the story has yet to coalesce into a genuine idea of where we’re going.

There’s also a couple of scenes that shocked me in exactly how classic 1980s Who they were. Companions in the ‘classic’ era of the show often complained how they were simply there to ask “What’s going on, Doctor?”, and the new era has been pretty good at avoiding that kind of thing, or at least making the big exposition scenes fun and accessible. Here, however, there’s one scene in particular that’s just a little astonishing in how much it cribs from the Classic Who playbook, with virtually every companion just firing “What does this mean?” questions at the Doctor and the Doctor answering them, without finding any way of subverting the whole “this is where the main character explains the plot” part of the episode.

Plus, the storytelling itself is rather murky, even by Doctor Who standards. I’m always willing to forgive a certain amount of hand-waviness when it comes to watertight storytelling in Who – it’s the emotions and the momentum that’s important, not whether every element adds up or makes perfect sense – but there are points in the episode where it gets surprisingly difficult to work out what the hell is going on. I’m still a little perplexed about how the Doctor actually managed to defeat the main villain, and there’s a number of other plot elements that feel like they would crumble if you examined them too closely.

There’s also the tone, which is darker in places than you might expect, and which often feels happier with the idea of being a nicely-played, slightly downbeat character drama than being an unpredictable, frothy sci-fi adventure. Certain moments play well, and other moments play like they’re not quite fitting together, and combined with the struggles the script has of balancing the material between the companions, the result is an episode that isn’t always firing on all cylinders.

And then there’s Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor. Aside from a few references, the new gender doesn’t play anywhere as big a factor as you might think, which is a good way to go, and she attacks the role with a serious level of energy and enthusiasm. She’s absolutely going to be some people’s favourite Doctor as soon as she turns up, and it’s a good contrast to go for after the more traditionally old-school and darker approach of Capaldi (who I loved in the role, but I can also understand why some people were put off by his rather gruffer, more cantankerous approach).

But… I ultimately ended up realising what she reminded me of in playing the Doctor, and it’s Christopher Eccleston. His Doctor was a big factor in relaunching the show, and having an actor of that calibre helped a lot in bringing Who back to prominence – but for me, Eccleston always felt like there were certain things in the role that he was more comfortable with than others (and he’s since gone on record saying that this was the case). Dark, stormy and angry scenes he could knock out of the park – quirky and fun, he was less accomplished at, and sometimes felt like he was trying too hard.

There’s a very odd (and extremely subjective) set of factors that make a good Doctor Who star. For me, probably because I grew up watching Tom Baker, it’s simply to do with being able to make the weird and the strange seem absolutely effortless – which is not something that everybody can do. It’s a throwback to when the performance of the Doctor was what sold the reality of the show (because it certainly wasn’t the special effects). When you see actors like Baker or Patrick Troughton at their best, they don’t feel like they’re acting – you can’t see the performance, they just are the Doctor.

And while Whitaker is really good in the role, there are an awful lot of points where I can feel the performance. She’s occasionally awkward with the more comedic moments, and she’s definitely stronger towards the end of the episode where she gets more dramatic, traditionally ‘Doctory’ material. It’s very possible that this is a performance that I’ll warm to, the same way it took me a while (actually almost a season-and-a-half) to properly like David Tennant as the Doctor. But she hasn’t sold me on her in the role in the same way that Matt Smith did in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, or Peter Capaldi once we hit the restaurant scene in the S8 opener ‘Deep Breath’.

It doesn’t help that for me, S5’s ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is pretty much the platonic ideal for introducing a new Doctor – an episode that was so packed with invention, humour and weirdly British thrills that it had me almost jumping up and down with excitement by the end credits. ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is enjoyable, but it very rarely thrilled me, and it only managed a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, and is nowhere near the level of pace, invention or wit that Moffat managed in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. But then, with Chibnall at the helm, I didn’t really expect it to get there.

Ultimately, what we have here is an episode that’s a fun jumping-on point and an intriguing starting point for the rest of the season. It’s okay if Doctor Who isn’t entirely my bag for a while (I am, after all, a 44-year-old man who’s WAY out of range of the target audience), and I’ll be watching along for episode 2 to see where it goes. I’ll just also cross my fingers that maybe Chibnall can sharpen his showrunning skills and occasionally deliver something close to the high points that both RTD and Moffatt pulled off.

Schizopolitan: Episode 22 – Wars of the Stars (The Force Awakens Megachat)


SCHIZOPOLITAN! IT CALLS TO YOU! JUST LET IT IN!! The podcast of genial nerdy chat returns, as Saxon and Jehan finally take on the film that everybody can’t stop talking about. Yes, it’s the momentous arrival of Star Wars – The Force Awakens, and it’s time to finally talk about what this film is. How do new arrivals like Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron match up to old hands like Han Solo? Is the film a worthy continuation of the saga? What’s with all this ‘Mary-Sue’ business? Why exactly was Saxon reminded of Prometheus on his first viewing? And does JJ Abrams actually understand how big space is? ALL THESE QUESTIONS, AND MORE!!!

(Also, as fully explained on the episode, this is going to be the last podcast for quite a while. Schizopolitan is going into stasis, but will hopefully returning in the not-too-distant future…)

Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do)! And remember – you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Share and Enjoy!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

Schizopolitan: Episode 21 – Spectre of an Alien Doctor (The Alien Franchise, Doctor Who S9, James Bond and Spectre)

spectre poster daniel craig 2015

SHAKEN BUT NOT STIRRED! The Schizopolitan podcast roars back into view in its vintage Aston Marton DB5 to bring you another grab-bag of discussion, nerd chat, fierce opinions and big-time spoilers! First up, there’s a quick discussion of Ridley Scott’s recent (and rather odd) comments about the future of the Alien franchise, and whether or not there’s any chance of salvaging it after the good-looking mess that was Prometheus. Then, Saxon indulges in a quick burst of Who-related chat, as he examines the first half of Doctor Who S9, where the unexpected creative renaissance continues and Peter Capaldi remains scarily awesome. And after that, Jehan takes us through his full and spoilerific opinions on the latest James Bond film, Spectre! Is it a decent follow-up to Skyfall? Has it resurrected a classic Bond villain in a fitting manner? Is it just a very silly Bond film that’s attempting to play things seriously by having lots of people glowering? Are the answers to the previous questions “No,” “No,” and “Yes”? ONLY TIME WILL TELL!

Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes soon! And remember – you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Share and Enjoy!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

Schizopolitan – The Podcast: Episode 20 – The Trailer Awakens (Star Wars: Episode VII and the Mystery of Hype)

star wars force awakens official poster 2015 jj abrams

THERE HAS BEEN AN AWAKENING! Unbroken and undefeated by various technical snafus, Saxon and Jehan are back to discuss the heck out of the biggest movie trailer in a long time. The final trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens has arrived – and what’s the reaction? How much is this film going to emotionally destroy Saxon? Are we possibly seeing too little of what the film is actually going to be? And can JJ Abrams deliver a Star Wars movie to truly be reckoned with? EXPLOSIONS! CONTROVERSY! MYSTERIOUS BLUE DEATH-STAR TYPE THINGS! IT’S ALL HERE!!!

Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes soon! And remember – you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Share and Enjoy!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

Schizopolitan – The Podcast: Episode 19 – What if Feelings had Feelings? (A Look at Pixar and Inside Out)


DELAYED BUT NOT DESTROYED! The most significant cultural milestone the world has ever seen (*citation needed*) returns with another episode of podcast goodness, as Saxon and Jehan brace themselves to discuss the charm, the colour and the emotional devastation of Pixar’s latest CG animated movie, Inside Out! How much of a return to form is this for Pixar? How well have they taken on the tricky subject of psychology? And exactly how much will this film make you cry? ALL THE ANSWERS LIE WITHIN!

Enjoy the podcast (please let us know in the comments if you do), and stay tuned for more episodes soon! And remember – you can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! Share and Enjoy!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0.

Movie Analysis: The Politics of Tomorrowland or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying If Brad Bird is an Objectivist

Brad Bird at Tomorrowland Premiere

WARNING – some spoilers for Tomorrowland contained within.

Politics can be a divisive business, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people simply hate talking about it, especially when it comes to appreciating and enjoying art and media. But it’s equally true that it’s frequently a topic that can’t really be avoided, especially since so much of art, culture and human expression is inherently political, whether it means to be or not. When you’re a fan of the filmmaker Brad Bird – whose new film Tomorrowland is now playing in cinemas – avoiding politics is nigh-on impossible, and the resulting discussion can often be fractious and tricky to navigate.

Bird is, after all, an extremely political filmmaker, and one whose specific ideology has proven tough for many people to get to grips with, given its unexpected and unconventional nature. He’s primarily known as a purveyor of family entertainments – from his background as a Disney animator to his tenures on The Simpsons and at Pixar – and we’re used to mainstream family entertainments being relatively unchallenging in their political character, usually settling for broadly universal self-empowerment themes, with a dash of left-leaning acceptance and diversity messaging. That’s not really Bird’s style, though – he’s a much more overtly didactic filmmaker, and deviates from the standard script often enough that his philosophy has become distinctive, recognisable and – to a certain degree – controversial. With Tomorrowland, he’s released his most message-driven movie to date, which makes this a good time to have a look at what makes this supremely talented yet oddly divisive filmmaker tick.

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DVD Review: Moondial

1988 – 6 Episodes – 175 minutes
DVD – Second Sight

[xrr rating=3.5/5]


It’s been a very long time since the 1988 six-part BBC childrens drama serial Moondial aired on television. Now, after a lengthy period when the only way of seeing it was hunting down old VHS copies or dodgy versions on Youtube, Moondial has received a proper DVD release, giving us the chance to see if it’s stood the test of time.

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From The Vault: Richard Morgan Interview (2002)

(Another resurrected post from previous iterations of my website – this is an interview I did with SF author Richard Morgan back in 2002, shortly after the release of his first novel, the turbo-charged SF thriller ‘Altered Carbon’. The interview was for an online magazine set up by some friends of mine who worked at a bookshop, and I’m still proud of it – even though I’d only been professionally writing for two years, so I’ve still got plenty to learn here…)

There are certain things prospective book authors have to tell themselves in order to keep their sanity. Don’t expect huge acclaim first time around. It’ll take a long time to establish yourself. And don’t even bother thinking about the film rights…

For 35 year old Richard Morgan, things have worked out rather differently. With his funky, dark and razor-sharp debut novel Altered Carbon he’s gained the kind of widespread acclaim most self-respecting authors would commit mass murder for, while Hollywood has already come calling;- the film rights have been enthusiastically snapped up by Matrix producer Joel Silver for a seven figure sum.

Take a look at the novel, and it’s not difficult to see why so many people are getting excited. It’s a dark William Gibson-edged crime thriller set in San Francisco a few centuries from now, when the main difference in society is the ability to digitally record the soul and download personalities into new bodies after death. Dying is no longer an obstacle thanks to the “sleeving” technology (as long as you’re not Catholic and you have the right insurance policy) and prisons exist digitally, meaning that while you’re incarcerated for a minor crime, someone else can either rent or purchase your body. Crashing into this society comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-member of a UN sponsored gang of borderline psychotics called the Envoys, who is downloaded into an unfamiliar body and unwillingly hired by the wealthy and near-immortal Laurens Bancroft. His mission is to investigate Bancroft’s recent (but not final) death, a mystery that the Police are viewing as suicide but which Bancroft views as murder.

Naturally, this investigation soon spirals out of control and Kovacs finds himself caught between the police, the criminal underworld and a face from his past… but what’s most suprising about Altered Carbon is how effectively it manages to weld provocative and adventurous cyberpunk sci-fi onto a slick, gripping and page-turning crime thriller. Oozing the kind of attitude found in classic crime writers like James Ellroy or Jim Thompson, it’s an effortless read that, like the best noir, manages moments of profundity amidst suprising plot twists and some genuinely shocking violence. To find out more, here’s Richard Morgan himself, on life, brutality, karma, and that vaguely worrying interest in firearms…

How did the idea for Altered Carbon first develop?

It started out from an argument I was having with a Buddhist. The point of conflict was the karma system. He was arguing any suffering you undergo in this life is a direct result of something bad you did in a previous life, which sounds fair until you realise that you can’t actually remember any of your previous lives. Then, it suddenly starts to sound existentially pretty fucking unfair. After all, if you can’t remember a previous life then to all intents and purposes that life was lived by another person. And why should you be paying for someone else’s crimes?

Once I got hold of the idea, it fascinated me and I couldn’t let it go. I decided that I wanted to tell a crime story based around this injustice. And since I’m not in any way a religious man, the only way I could make it work was to go shopping for the hardware in the SF Mall of Fame. There are precedents for the kind of technology Altered Carbon describes all the way back to writers like Robert Sheckley and there’s even an episode of the original Star Trek that has the same basic premise. So I just ransacked the genre and made off with the goods. Later on, of course, I had to sit down and figure out how to make all this stuff work in a social and political context, and that was where the fun really started.

Where did you grow up, and when did you start writing?

I was born in London, bustled out in my crib to East Anglia aged 5 months and subsequently spent the next seventeen years of my life in and around Norwich. Not a bad place to grow up if you don’t count the total lack of bumps in the landscape – Norfolk looks as if Slartibartfast took a huge pair of scissors and cut out any geographical feature more than about ten metres above sea level. I grew up just outside Norwich in a semi rural dormitory village called Hethersett. It was a very restful, stress free upbringing, aided and abetted by incredibly supportive parents and a series of private schools old fashioned enough to try to hammer my natural idleness out of me. In 1983 I got into Queens’ College Cambridge where for the first time I found myself surrounded by people as smart or smarter than me – I never got over the shock and recoiled out of academia three years later with a very average degree in political history.

By that time I’d decided I only wanted two things out of life;- One, to be a writer and Two to travel as extensively as possible. As a result I didn’t really bother with things like earning a decent living until about a year later when it became apparent that my seminal short stories weren’t going to (a) make me famous, (b) pay the rent or (c) get published. I consoled myself by qualifying to teach EFL and pissing off forthwith to exotic locations (specifically Turkey, which back then was still pretty much untouristed). I’ve been an EFL teacher and trainer of one sort or another ever since. I lived mostly in London and Madrid with some extensive time out in North and Central America. Writing was a spare time thing until….today actually. September 20th 2002 is the official date of my leaving the teaching profession and becoming a full time SF writer. Timing´s good – after fourteen years in the classroom, I’m about ready for a change.

Kovacs is definitely an “old school” noir hero, and in no way afraid of inflicting serious damage on people. Was it difficult or therapeutic to have a borderline psychopath as the main character?

The latter, definitely. You need the patience of a saint and the outlook of a hippie to survive in TEFL. There are actually teacher training books with titles like “Caring and Sharing in the EFL Classroom” – and worse still, if you’re going to do the job well, you have to buy into that dynamic, at least to a certain extent.

You end up spending a lot of your time being kind and supportive to people who in some cases you’d really rather just punch out. I mean, what can you do when a student – a group of students actually – front you with something like “Ah, yes, Hitler – now he really knew how to handle the Jews.” That’s an extreme case, of course, but it did actually happen to a colleague of mine. And there are a host of less offensive but thoroughly unpleasant attitudes to be found in the heads of some of the people you teach. And for some reason these people seem to feel that the EFL classroom is the ideal place to just come out with all this shit. So Kovacs dripped out of me one corrosive drop at a time, as the side of my character I had to repress in order to do my job well.

How did you approach the extreme violence in the book- and were there ever any points where you thought you might have gone too far?

You can’t ever go too far with violence. You either write it or you don´t. If you choose to avoid it, that’s fine, but if not, you’ve got to do it justice. I’ve taken some stick for passages in Altered Carbon which people complained had sickened them, but then violence should be sickening. I have no time for the sanitised approach you find in so much contemporary literature and film – the gun battles where bullets make neat red holes and bad guys fall conveniently and quietly dead, the interrogations where people get slapped about a bit and then rescued. Or worse still the Lock, Stock brand of violence where it’s all seen as a bit of a giggle and as long as you’re enough of a cheeky geezer, it all comes out OK. It´s precisely because of this “light” approach that we misunderstand the subject of violence so badly. I´m not interested in pursuing that line. Where violence arises in my books, it is intended to shock, to horrify and to some extent to get the reader to face up to their own ambiguity on the subject. Because we all like seeing the bad guys taken down, but we don´t usually like it so much when the flesh and blood reality of that act is rubbed in our faces. That ambiguity is exactly what I´m after.

The image of the future is incredibly detailed- how much did you work out before hand, and how much came out of the process of writing the novel?

It’s been a process of marinating more than anything else. The basic ideas for Altered Carbon have been kicking around in my head since at least 1993, and before that I’d written a couple of short stories featuring Kovacs and variants on the Protectorate universe. So I already had a lot of the background detail to hand, carefully aged in casks of reflection and unpublished brooding. Obviously that made it very easy to throw out hints and references along the way, but the process of writing also generated a lot of circumstantial stuff.

In a lot of cases it´s hard to remember which is which. Kovac’s home planet Harlan’s World, the Martians and the general process of diaspora are all ten year old single malt, laid down back in the early nineties, but the Meths were invented on the spur of the moment to provide a realistic backdrop for the characters of Laurens and Miriam Bancroft. The Envoys were a bit of a blend – in an attenuated form they’ve been around as long as any other element in the story, but a lot of the finer detail was added later on. And to be honest, that accumulation of detail is an on-going process. There’s a lot of new stuff on the Envoys in the second novel, Broken Angels, as well as more about the Martians and the archaeologues. The third novel, which I’m working on now, goes back to Harlan’s World and takes a closer look at some of the cultural and historical influences that have made Kovacs who he is. The great thing about having invented a universe like this is that you then have a practically unlimited licence to explore it.

There’s a convincing edge to the drug sequences, as well as an amazing amount of detail about the various weapons (particularly when Kovacs goes shopping for guns). How much was research and how much was experience?

I must be a walking advertisement for the Nature Not Nuture argument, because I was brought up next best thing to a pacifist and still managed to develop the standard unhealthy male fascination with guns. I wouldn´t like to say what it is. Something about their functionality, something about the power to reach out over distance and do damage. In my teens I became quite the little expert on contemporary small arms, and though the phase seems to have passed – I don’t subscribe to Guns and Ammo or own any firearms of my own – the base knowledge has stood me in good stead. I find I acquire new arms-related data almost effortlessly – very often I’m hard put to remember where I read/watched/heard the information, but it´s there. This is confusing for me because, as I said, I’m not into weapons in any discernable way. Kovacs, of course, is. He’s a soldier after all, so he needs to be conversant with the technology of killing. I don´t know, maybe he’s just a distillation of my own repressed fascination with the area. Put it down to being incurably male, I suppose.

The drugs – well, that’s another story. I can hardly lay claim to a misspent youth, but I think I’ve taken my share of illicit recreational chemicals (not to mention the licit ones, which were probably more dangerous and damaging) and I’m at a complete loss to understand the current hysteria about (pounding drums) “THE DRUG PROBLEM”. (There isn’t one, of course – the PROBLEM is poverty and a whole stack of other issues that no-one wants to look closely at, but that´s another rant). So anyway, I had enough background experience to describe altered and altering states of consciousness without too much difficulty. For the rest, it was imagination and wishful thinking. Who wouldn´t want to score some Merge Nine if the stuff only existed.

Did you ever expect the film rights to be sold for so much money?

Basically – no. In fact, I didn´t really expect the film rights to be sold at all. It had never occurred to me that Altered Carbon would make good cinema, until I found myself being taken out to lunch by a London film company the day after the book was launched. Later on, I heard that a number of major studios had shown interest at the London Book Fair, and finally Gollancz told me that an agency in Los Angeles had taken Altered Carbon on. At that point I pretty much had to believe that if it sold, it would go for a good price, because those guys don’t mess about with pennies. Brutally speaking, they operate on commission, and it wouldn´t have been worth their while putting in the work unless they had high hopes of a high price.

Could you ever see yourself going all “Iain Banks/Iain M Banks” and writing either a modern day crime novel or something completely non-genre?

Right now I´ve got at least another three SF novels lined up, plus ideas for a revisionist sword and sorcery epic. I suppose I might come up with something non-genre at some point, but it isn´t on the horizon at the moment and to be honest, having just arrived on the SF scene, I´d like to just stick around and do some more work. The great thing about SF is that you’re free to do pretty much what you want (I’m not one of these respect-the-physics types) and then stand or fall by the limits you set yourself. That´s very much my temperament

What was the first story you ever wrote?

The first piece of fiction outside of my English Studies exercise book was an SF short called Process. I wrote it when I was about 13 or 14; it’s about an unfortunate collision between an alien, fauna-eating plant and a human criminal on the run in a wrecked spaceship. The human lands on the plant’s world, gets attacked by the plant in standard Quatermass-type fashion and…dies. Haha, shock twist! Unfortunately for the plant, Earth-derived bodily juices turn out to be rather stronger than those of the local fauna with the result that the usual osmosis goes into reverse and the human protagonist’s blood sucks the plant’s vital fluids out through its roots. So it dies as well. I had this pretty bleak world view, even at that tender age…

What’s next- will you be sticking with the Altered Carbon universe, or zooming off in a different direction?

The sequel to Altered Carbon, Broken Angels is done and comes out in March next year. It´s set in the same universe, though not on Earth, and is built around the same central character. The contexts are a little different – Kovacs is caught in the middle of a planetary war this time instead of just an unwelcome investigation, and his motivations are that much more desperate as a result. (So I guess I´ll be taking some more stick for the extreme violence, and here´s fair warning to those who couldn´t cope with it in Altered Carbon – you guys won´t like this one much either). I´m currently at work on a third Kovacs novel, the one set on his home world, and this is focused on issues of organised crime, weapons de-commissioning and revolutionary politics as evidenced by the Quellist movement. After that, I think I´m going to retire Kovacs for a while.

I´ve got something a little different waiting on the back burner, set ten minutes into the future – it´s a novel focused on an unpleasant corporate practice called Conflict Investment. Basically the corporate types in the novel make their living from putting money into various third world conflicts and gambling on the outcome. If their particular troop of revolutionaries win, they then have stakes and rights in the emergent economy. The toast at the quarterly do is “Small Wars – Long May They Smoulder”. Tenders and Promotions are decided in Mad Max style driving duels on motorways that are empty because no-one except the executive class can afford to run a car anymore. It´s intended to be very bleak and very unpleasant – the challenge will be making at least some of the characters sympathetic to the reader. I´m looking forward to that.

Finally- beyond the technology and the murder mystery, what would you say Altered Carbon is trying to say?

Good question. Don’t visit Earth, perhaps? Seriously, I’d like to think that each individual reader takes away something different. You can read Altered Carbon as a simple future crime story and leave it at that, equally you can see it as a love story of sorts, or you can understand it as a social and political commentary on the uses and abuses of technology. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, reviewing for the Guardian, called it “a hypermodern vampire tale.” From my point of view, any interpretation is a compliment because it indicates a depth of engagement on the part of the reader, but I wouldn’t want to dictate what message that reader is supposed to take away.

What I personally see is Kovacs’ affirmation at the end of the book that society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses. But that’s just me. Another reader might think Kovacs is a self destructive, pessimistic burn out and doesn´t know what he’s talking about. It all depends on where you stand and who your sympathies lie with, and it´s not for me to dictate those sympathies. I just write the stuff. It´s up to the reader to judge – if they can.