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Friday, October 31, 2014

Woman of the Month: Ellie Miller

 
Ellie Miller from Broadchurch

The extraordinary thing about Ellie Miller is that she’s so astoundingly normal. Everything about her is normal: her appearance, her career, her personality, her story. This is a character who doesn’t necessarily need to be a woman, and yet by writing her as so utterly ordinary, she ends up being imminently likeable and relatable.

It’s hard to put my finger on what works with her: maybe it’s the actress Olivia Colman, maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s the setting. Ellie is allowed to grapple with human fears and emotions – often in harsh, ugly ways – without the writers feeling the need to make her a “good role model” or a “strong independent woman”. She gets hysterical when faced with the death of a child, snappish when frustrated, cruel when frightened – but also strong through devastation, calm in a crisis, and willing to learn from other people.

In the show’s one concession to her gender, she’s initially angry that she’s been passed over for promotion in favour of a man, but her relationship with David Tennant's Alec Hardy ends up being the cornerstone of the show.

Browsing through various Broadchurch message-boards, I was amazed at how warmly she was embraced and discussed by viewers. Even more shocking, she retained her popularity even after threatening David Tennant’s character that she’d pee into a cup and throw it at him. Any other fandom would have her drawn and quartered for threatening a white male woobie, but Olivia Coleman breezes through as though she has every right to insult the 10th Doctor.

She’s just…a real person. It’s difficult to really pinpoint how or why, and possibly rather depressing that something so simple is considered such a big deal, but the fact that she’s simply allowed to be is what makes her so compelling.
 


Review: Broadchurch

Gracepoint is currently airing on American television, which seems as good an excuse as any to go back and watch the original Broadchurch. (For the record, I'm not adverse to American remakes of British shows – after all, it's what brought us Elementary. But in this case, the presence of David Tennant playing the same character in both versions makes the existence of Gracepoint particularly baffling).

But how's this for an unpopular opinion: I think that Broadchurch is a mediocre whodunit that gets away with its hugely predictable yet narratively underhanded tale by being exceptionally well filmed, acted and promoted. The more I think about the story's resolution, the more manipulated and disappointed I feel, though I can't help but be impressed by writer/creator Chris Chibnall's understanding of exactly what buttons to press and at what times in order to procure a deep emotional response from his audience. Not bad for the writer of some of the worst Doctor Who episodes and creator of the unlamented Camelot.

In comparison to those other disasters, Broadchurch is suspenseful and gripping and beautifully shot, anchored by a cast who know how to imbue their characters with relatability without losing the necessary edge of suspicion that makes them all potential killers. Direction is divided between James Strong and Euros Lyn, allowing for consistency in the portrayal of Broadchurch: claustrophobic rooms and expansive landscapes, shots filled with corners and mirrors, and an excess of people standing in mid-frame, staring ominously toward the camera.




The beauty of the Dorset coast is captured in various establishing shots of the cliffs and the waves endlessly breaking upon the shoreline, and the presence of David Tennant and Olivia Colman as co-leads naturally elevates any and all material.

For those who have been living under a rock since the show first aired, Broadchurch is set in a quiet coastal township where everyone knows everyone else – at least at face value. One morning Beth Latimer wakes up to find her eleven year old son Danny has already left the house. Since he has an early-morning paper run she doesn't immediately panic, but his lunchbox has been left behind and there's no sign of him at school. A few frantic phone calls later, and she's racing down the main street on foot after hearing that a body has been found at the beach.

It's Adult Fear played to agonizing perfection, a master class in how to do this trope right, capturing each step of Beth's dawning fear that something is very, very wrong. By this point the tight-knit atmosphere of the community has also been established, largely due to a fantastic Oner Shot that follows Mark Latimer down the main street on his way to work, extending pleasantries with nearly every other supporting character in the cast. 

For us at least, the death of a child is certainly a step up from all the dead women that usually kick-start crime dramas. There are many reasons which are considered perfectly understandable as to why a person would murder a woman, up to and including "she didn't want to date me, wah!", but a child? That fills us with level of outrage matched only by our potent curiosity as to who did the deed. From the moment we see Danny Latimer standing over the cliff-top in the opening shot, we are all collectively entranced.

Naturally the murder of a child in such a small community is a terrible shock, with knee-jerk reactions from frightened parents to irate business owners to suspicious busy-bodies eager to point fingers and dredge up scandal. And such close living quarters naturally means that every suspect will hoard their secrets close to their chest in order to maintain their standing in the township, sabotaging the on-going investigation as the police waste time trying to figure them all out.

The real hook is the location of the murder: this idyllic seaside community that has only one road leading in and out. The possibility of an outsider being responsible for Danny's death is virtually nil – partly because there's CT footage of Danny casually heading off down the main street in the middle of the night to some mysterious rendezvous, and partly because – well, what's the point of establishing a tiny pool of suspects if one of them isn't the killer?

In this sense, the show's tagline: "it could be anyone" stands it in good stead. The underlying horror of the piece is not that a child has been murdered, but that said child must have been living alongside his killer long before the murder took place. Following that thought process to its logical conclusion, and it's clear that the community is still harbouring Danny's killer in its midst.

LAST CHANCE SPOILER WARNING

The Legend of Korra: The Calling and Enemy at the Gates

Well, we're still firmly in build-up mode, though things are slowly but surely cranking into gear. And I appreciate the new widespread scope of the show, for not only are the characters dispersed over a wide geography, but there's equal focus on the villains and anti-heroes, and even a few flashbacks to fill in a couple of chronological gaps.


Sleepy Hollow: The Weeping Lady and The Abyss Gazes Back

So, Sleepy Hollow. I'm trying to remain positive. I'm still enjoying you. There's a lot of good stuff going on. But let's face it, you've lost some of your mojo. Despite a few little plot threads that have been tenuously stitched across this season, these most recent episodes have felt like inconsequential filler.

Clearly things have been put in a "holding pen" of sorts in order to prep for the season's grand finale, but that leaves us with Henry simply shifting the pieces around the board, coming up with a lot of convoluted plans, and generally waiting around for whatever orders Moloch expects him to follow.

Even more frustrating is the fact that it's one step forward, twenty steps back when it comes to Katrina's characterization, and that despite becoming a regular featured in the opening credits, Jenny is continually shafted in favour of Hawley, a Han Solo Expy in possession of no skills or knowledge that she couldn't contribute just as easily.

In The Weeping Lady we get another retcon into Ichabod's past, learning that he was once betrothed to a woman named Mary Wells. This new information coincides with the fact that a terrible spectre is attacking women all over Sleepy Hollow (namely Caroline, the re-enactment nurse from last season), and it doesn't take much effort to put two-and-two together. Mary is a Green Eyed Monster who kills any perceived threat to her relationship with Ichabod (so despite the Ship Teasing with Abbie when Caroline identifies her as Ichabod's wife, the writers have covered their asses by making the mistake an actual plot point).

Oh yeah. You can spot the cray cray a mile away.

Thanks to a letter Katrina sends Ichabod which conveys absolutely NOTHING but that she's sending him a letter, Mary twigs to the fact that Katrina is the #1 obstacle between herself and Ichabod. The Witnesses head to the Horseman's digs, who thankfully choses that exact moment to gallop away into the night. Why? He could be going to pick up takeaways for all we know. It doesn't matter.

"I want piiiizzzzaaaaa....."

Ichabod and Abbie head inside, and we're treated to some of the worst exposition that this show has ever delivered:

Ichabod: It's the letter Katrina sent me. The very one I lost at the library.

Abbie: Then we're right. It's the Weeping Lady.

Ichabod: Mary. Mary's come for her.

This tells us nothing we could not have inferred entirely on our own just by seeing Ichabod pick up the letter from the puddle on the floor, but almost as an apology for treating us like idiots, the next scene gives us something that's never happened before.

Get this – Katrina rescues herself from the river with her magic. By herself! With magic that actually worked! It's amazing. And the amazingness continues when Katrina and Abbie work together quite efficiently to release Mary from the curse by using a spell that – again – actually works! Then in more unexpected subtlety, Mary silently points at Katrina as she dies in Ichabod's arms.

Oh shit....

Proving that the writers have been reading fan message boards, we get our long-awaited confrontation between husband and wife. Turns out that Mary arranged a meeting with Katrina so that she could accuse her of seducing Ichabod, an argument that quickly escalates. Mary then "tripped on a root and fell off a cliff." So says the woman who does this every week in the opening credits:


Tripped. Sure.

But this minor (and rather shoehorned) revelation is really just a catalyst for the dozen or so other secrets that Katrina has been hoarding. As we've seen already, Ichabod was oblivious of Katrina's role as a witch and her pregnancy with Jeremy for the duration of their marriage, and her justification in keeping Mary's death a secret is all wrapped up in his importance as a Witness. This reading of her relationship with Ichabod has been touched on before – she knew about his destiny well before he did, and it's intriguing to consider that perhaps a significant part of her love for him is rooted in a desire to make sure he fulfils his role as Witness.

In any case, this is the most interesting she's ever been. If Henry inherited his Chessmaster proclivity from anyone, it was quite obviously his mother. Unlike last week's Pied Piper malarky, all this is connected (however vaguely) to the overarching plot, due to Henry's involvement in Mary's resurrection. Why does he raise her from the dead? Just to mess with his parents of course!

Abraham turns up and Katrina uses her magic to prevent him from killing Ichabod (competency!!!) before turning on the charm and returning back to the estate. So Ichabod's rose-coloured glasses have been dislodged when it comes to his mental image of Katrina, and the writers' newfound self-awareness when it comes to depicting her means that when she says "thank you" to Abraham for bringing her home, we're left to wonder whether she's truly sincere or not.

And an angry Moloch has learned the hard way that emotional infants are easy pickings when it comes to enlisting them in your army of darkness, but it's an ongoing struggle to get them to operate efficiently as generals. Abraham is obsessed by the idea of Katrina and the chance to win her over; Henry hates the idea of his mother and only wants to make her suffer. They're both children really, which grants us the full impact of this rather wonderful closing shot:


And according to Moloch, she's one of the "Hellfire Shards" which will no doubt end up being as horribly contrived and stupid as it sounds. Oh Katrina. No doubt agency was nice while it lasted.

And the Abyss Gazes Back

Hey, remember Joe Corbin? Sheriff Corbin's son that's been in Afghanistan and is bitter about the fact that Abbie took up so much of his dad's time? No? That's because he's never been mentioned before, but he's here now and you're going to love his backstory.

Remember how Henry acquisitioned the fragments of the Pied Piper's bone flute and crushed it into dust? Well it turns out that it was part of a spell that he was going to put in an envelope and mail to Joe so that when he opened it he would become a Wendigo and forced to return to Sleepy Hollow where his only chance of reversing his condition would be to follow his father's directions to a remote spot in the woods where he's hidden a dangerous artefact that Henry wants to get his hands on to use to magically impregnate his mother with hellspawn. Yeah.


As it happens, Zach Appelman is a startlingly good match for the offspring of Clancy Brown, and he's a far more appealing guest star than Hawley, who continues his running streak of stealing scenes and tasks that could have easily gone to Jenny. It also allows us to get another look at Abbie's youth in flashback, and Nicole plays her teen self to perfection – not so obnoxious that it's annoying, but enough that we can see how far she's come.

Believe it or not, I did not see it coming that Joe would be the Wendigo. Obviously my brain totally shuts down when I watch this show, as I was assumed he was being hunted down by it, but was somehow being spared for reasons that were yet to be revealed. I should have known better considering he was the only survivor of both groups of victims (though why did he have his clothes on when Abbie/Ichabod found him the first time in the woods, but transformed back naked all the other times?)

Over in a subplot that is being woefully ignored, Captain Irving confronts Henry with the fact that his soul has been signed away in blood, and Henry gives him a way out: he has to take a life. Not even an innocent life, but the life of the man who put Macey in a wheelchair after drunk driving.  

I love Orlando Jones's face here. Henry is telling him that he signed away
his soul, but this could just as easily be the reaction to learning you left your
chair for too long and now someone else has sat in it.

None of this makes ANY ideological sense. You can't be tricked into signing away your soul. You can't get it back by murdering someone else. And yes, I know this is all fiction, but the rules just feel messy. This subplot would have worked much better as a long slow spiral into a mental space where Irving would have been willing to knowingly sign away his soul, but in lieu of that, let's stick with what works here: temptation.

On being shown the man who maimed his daughter, Irving confronts him. This guy is pretty much what you'd expect: full of self-pity, crawling with discomfort, remorseful only because his life was screwed up as well as Macey's. It's not long before Irving snaps, though he makes one last phone call to Abbie before he's taken into a higher security wing. I'd like to think they deal with this next week, but the preview doesn't bode well.

Over in the A-plot, we're reminded of just what the writers are squandering when Abbie and Jenny are ambushed by Henry. Abbie tries to talk it out, Jenny pulls out her gun. It's awesome, but instead the show seems determined to push a Love Triangle between the sisters and Hawley.


Oh, but at least I loved this bit...


Joe groggily comes to, looks up, and sees Jenny watching him through the window. "Jenny?" There's an entire history in a name and a little wave.

After meeting more characters that are infinitely more interesting than Hawley but are used merely as Native American gurus who can provide the white folks with all the help and information they need, Ichabod and Abbie do that stupid thing that protagonists do whenever they need blood and cut their hands to attract the Wendigo – painful, slow to heal, and impeding their ability to handle weapons. Of course, it does lead to this:

They're not hailing a space-cab, they're fighting the forces of darkness!

Shaman ritual, ritual knife, Native American chanting, fake-out failure when Joe doesn't instantly transform back, and the situation is resolved (no thanks to Hawley who honestly doesn't even need to be there). There's a sweet reconciliation between Abbie and Joe, but whatever warm-fuzzies this may have created is soon obliterated by Henry's latest pet project.

He uses the MacGuffin (something to do blood and Japan and leeches?) to create a small spider that crawls across Katrina's bed and into her mouth. She wakes up, cries out in pain, and clutches her stomach. Yup, it's a Mystical Pregnancy.

Oh show. Remember how everyone loved you for subverting, avoiding or just plain mocking these awful tropes? Can't we go back to that? Or when the secondary focus of the show was the rich and fascinating dynamic between the Mills sisters who are presumably living together now although we've seen nothing of that? And where's Sheriff Reyes popped off to?

Miscellaneous Observations:

It was nice to see Caroline again, even if it was just to immediately kill her off. Though I recall her being not too impressed with Ichabod's commitment to historical accuracy. I even looked it up. Her exact words her: "Wow dude. It's a re-enactment. Just relax and go with it."

Nice bit of continuity with Katrina's copy of Gulliver's Travels.

I'm always a sucker for supernatural communication. Mirrors, ravens, they're all fun.

The special effects of the Weeping Lady were fantastic. I especially liked the ink stains her shawl made in the water.

Those have got to be the only teenagers to ever hear a creepy noise and get out of there with their lives intact. I'm deeply impressed. See show, you're good when you're subversive.

"She's drowned!" Wow, it's like Tom Mison is determined to turn every shitty line into something extraordinary. He nailed the despair and horror at thinking Abbie had died – don't trust the GIF sets, just listen to his voice in this moment.

I'm pretty sure Wendigos have already been featured on Charmed and Supernatural, and probably ever other supernaturally-themed show out there.

I'm getting a little tired of these cold openings that suggest danger when it's really just Ichabod complaining about modernity.

Jenny, though relegated to the off-screen stealing of cadavers, gets the best line of both episodes: "We should probably donate blood or something."

Judging from Joe's words (and his hapless projection onto the situation) it would appear that a redemption arc is in store for Henry. I await to be amazed.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Downton Abbey: S05E05 and S05E06

It's always nice to see Rosamund again, though I have to confess I had completely forgotten Violet even knew about Edith's baby! But what – Edith is going to kidnap a child now? One who is old enough to have formed an attachment to her adoptive parents? Why oh why can't they simply TELL Mrs Drewe the truth? Perhaps if she had been written as a prude or a gossip there would have been reason to keep Marigold's parentage from her, but she comes across as a fairly discreet woman.

But at this point Edith's plight seems so awful that simply coming out and confessing that she had a child out of wedlock and weathering the scandal is surely a better course of action than shipping the kid off to France.

And I continue to find it ironic that Edith is grappling with so much grief over her daughter whilst Mary seems to have completely forgotten she even has a son.

I've never hated Sarah Bunting, so I'm glad she left with a modicum of grace. Having read a couple of spoilers I was under the impression that she left town in a huff; as it happened she was given a better job offer and Tom's rejection was simply her incentive to take it.

Still, I'm left wondering what on earth the point of her was. Wouldn't the character have worked better if she had been a genuinely sweet teacher who made a few clumsy comments around the Crawleys and who subsequently felt mortified and intimidated by them? In other words, actually giving Tom's choice a sense of real poignancy at letting go of a good woman who just didn't feel comfortable around his extended family? Instead it felt like Fellowes needed to push her into being more and more awful until it was a blessed relief that she finally left.

And I like that she made the effort to tell Mrs Patmore not to let Daisy give up her studies.
Naturally Robert decides to punish Cora after she's been propositioned in her own bedroom by a man who was not given permission to be there. Of course. I'm sure all his memories of the housemaid he nearly slept with while Cora was dying in the upstairs bedroom has completely fled his memory.

It was certainly a good episode for men acting like children; on the left we have Carson getting haughty that Mrs Patmore decided not to take his financial advice; on the right we have a Russian aristocrat getting pissy that Rose had the audacity to bring a Jewish man into his vicinity. But I actually appreciate Fellowes for this point-of-view; a personal experience I had the other day really brought home the realization that men (in general) honestly have no idea how much work women have to put into coddling their fragile egos. As Mrs Hughes said: "I wish men worried about our feelings a quarter as much as we worry about theirs."

Mabel Lane-Fox can come back at any time. She was a hoot!

***

And she did come back thanks to Charles Blake and his clever plan to throw her back into the path of Gillingham. Those two already seem much better suited than Gillingham and Mary, so fingers crossed they manage to pull it off.

When it comes to the Edith/Mary rivalry I usually come down on Mary's side (though she seldom deserves it), but damn – she was a stone cold bitch this evening. Showing off a new hairdo while her sister is grappling with news of her fiancĂ©'s death? That was fairly awful of her, especially in the way she handled Edith's explosion. In fact the whole family was pretty insensitive.

And as ever, so was Fellowes. We see Mary prepare for her hair appointment, talk about her hair appointment, get her hair appointment, receive praise for the results of her hair appointment, and yet Edith finally learning the truth about Mr Gregson is all done off-screen. Oy.

The disappearing accent of the hair dresser made me laugh though.

But poor Mrs Drewe, she didn't deserve that. To love a child only to have it taken away is just as cruel as everything that's ever happened to Edith. And does Edith even know how to look after a child? I'm pretty sure Marigold isn't potty trained yet, and it's only a matter of time before she starts crying for the woman she thinks is her real mummy.

I'm assuming Edith is going to London, and fingers crossed that she actually goes ahead with running Gregson's magazine. That would be a wonderful storyline for her, far better than what Fellowes has put her through regarding this baby business, and I think she'd embrace the Bohemian lifestyle of a single mother raising her child in the big city.

Bates finding the birth control wasn't as big a deal as I thought it was, though this whole Mr Green debacle has got to end soon. So Bates is innocent. Big whoop. Can we clear his name with the police before a retreat of season two?

Is Isis being killed off because of the current unfortunate implications of her name? Because if so, wow there are a lot of stupid people out there.

As ever, Thomas's storyline is surprisingly touching, and Miss Baxter continues to impress. Of all the new characters that Fellowes has been introducing since season three, she is by far the most effective. I wasn't at all surprised that she would take care of Thomas despite the crap he's put her through – her attitude of kindness and sufferance makes her a wonderful foil to the ghost of Mrs O'Brien.

The Prince Kuragin and Violet scene was incredible. Put two esteemed actors playing characters with history in a rundown room together and just see what happens.

The horse race was fun; it's always like a breath of fresh air when the show leaves the estate and the village in order to explore the social events of the English calendar.

There are three episodes left, so what do I want from the rest of the season? Well, I have mixed feelings about Mary and Edith. On the one hand, I like that Fellowes isn't all Little Women about the two of them. They're very different people with little interest in each other, and that's an interesting course to take when it comes to depicting sisterhood. On the other hand, I'm really holding out hope that Mary will come through for Edith. Of all the people in that house I honestly believe that she would be the least scandalized to learn that Edith had had a child out of wedlock and ironically the most likely to support her decisions in the matter. Apart from Isobel I suppose.

But something else occurred to me when it came to spotting the differences between the show now and back in the good old days. I've previously said that what's missing is the core relationships that made up the crux of the show (the trinity of the Crawley sisters, the OTP of Mary/Matthew, Lady Violet's snark).

But I also think what's missing is the self-contained stories that used to be introduced and wrapped up within a single episode. Just off the top of my head, we had for example the little tale about Violet always winning the flower show and her deciding to concede victory to the man who deserved it more, or Isabel insisting to Doctor Clarkson that he perform a particular operation on a dying man in a bid to save his life. Where have those sweet little stories gone? Everything's serialized now, and as a result everything feels painfully drawn out. The mini-stories gave one a sense of completion among the larger arcs, so that every episode had at least one beginning, middle and end.
 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Doctor Who: Flatline and In The Forests of the Night

Okay, let's get straight back into it! With these two episodes I've finally twigged as to the structure of this season. As opposed to R.T. Davies's season-long Myth Arcs and Moffat's intricate puzzle-box plots, Peter Capaldi's run has been marked out by an episodic structure in which high concept premises have enabled a series of standalone stories.

Yes, there has been a strand of continuity what with the inclusion of Missy, but I get the feeling that it'll be largely dealt with in the season finale, instead of a dragged out mystery like the Silence was for Matt Smith's tenure. For the most part, this season has been focused on tight and self-contained stories which have a scattering of Character Development, but for the most part are content to exist on their own terms.

And in regards to the plotting, it feels as though each episode has been written around a singular visual concept. For Flatline it's the shrinking of the Tardis until Clara is able to carry it around in her purse. For Forests of the Night it's the growth of a world-wide forest in a single night. Even for this show, there's little in the way of a scientific explanation for these things; they're simply used to explore the reactions of the characters and provide a number of striking visuals.

This is even exemplified by the resolution to each problem: in the former case the Doctor just waves his sonic screwdriver and the monsters are vanquished, in the latter they realize that the trees are not being sinister but helpful, and simply sit back to let them do their job. Clearly, the plot is less important than the sight of the Doctor squeezing through the miniaturized Tardis or Maeve being chased through the forests of London by wolves.

As with all things, there are pros and cons to this mode of storytelling. It's a good way of introducing the new Doctor without throwing him into an over-convoluted plot, but there's a piecemeal quality to the proceedings that is only partially alleviated by cross-episode elements such as Clara's relationship with Danny and the reappearances of Missy.

Flatline

Of the two, I preferred Flatline. It feels like an episode that could have (should have?) been made years ago. When you travel around in a space-ship that's bigger on the inside than the outside, it's frankly quite astonishing that they've never played with the physical dimensions of the Tardis before. Heck, for all I know they already have in the original series – let me know.

So we get the fun sight of the Doctor and Clara squeezing out of a wardrobe-sized Tardis, followed by the even more amusing spectacle of the Doctor peering out of a toy-sized Tardis before he's plonked into Clara's bag. Even better, they continued exploring the spatial possibilities of this situation, especially when the Doctor passes a comically large sledge hammer out of Clara's bag in a move that would have made Mary Poppins proud.

The villains of the piece were effective in regards to their unknowability, based as they were on the second-dimension and killing their victims by pulling them back into their realm. The image of the cop's nervous system smeared on the wallpaper was chilling, as was the lurking zombie effect when they finally manifest in the train tunnels. That we never really learn their true nature was an interesting component – unlike the Midnight creature that the Doctor tried to communicate before concluding "I'd like to believe you're benign, but your eyes are telling me a different story", or any other number of monsters whose malevolence is broadcast through their creepy appearance, it's ultimately down to a blend of instinct and logic that the Doctor eventually decides to banish them.

Though both he and Clara are allowed to argue that the Boneless might well be accidentally killing people through their attempt to learn more about three-dimensions, the decision is ultimately made to get rid of them because the cost of the harm they're causing outweighs any honest misunderstandings. They might be good, bad or neutral, but by this point their actions define them.

Of course, by this point they've been given the appearance and air of zombies, which makes us heartily agree with the Doctor's decision, but it was still a mature decision to make based on an honest assessment of the situation. In other words, even if the Boneless were benign, they still had to go.

But this was really Clara's episode in many ways. There have been plenty of episodes in which the Companion must step up and fill the shoes of the Doctor, but this is the first time (at least as far as I recall) in which this is not portrayed as a good thing. Not exactly.

At face value there's not a lot that Clara does wrong here. She tells a few comforting lies, she treats the life-or-death situation as a fun game, she's rather lordly and inappropriately blasé around those she's trying to help (even as she befriends a few of them). But the crucial exchange that takes place at the denouement is when the Doctor tells her: "You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara. Goodness had nothing to do with it."

This season has constantly played with the idea of a Dark Doctor; a man who makes the tough decisions so that others don't have to, who explicitly keeps a Companion so that he doesn't have to bother connecting to other people, who has dropped any and all pretence of sentimentality or warmth – and what does all this mean for Clara? In becoming like the Doctor; in simply being in his company, her most obvious offense is in lying to Danny while she continually puts her life at risk.

It's a typical trope of any and all characters that live a double life, but coupled with Missy's ominous phrase: "my Clara, I have chosen well", it all suggests that Clara is being groomed for a specific purpose – and not necessarily a good one.

Miscellaneous Observations:

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. The miniaturized Tardis with the Doctor trapped inside was a great idea.

The train driver giving Clara a warm farewell yet only casting the Doctor an uneasy glance as he left was a great little scene. And in a move that felt very reminiscent of Davis's era, one of the survivors is a thoroughly unpleasant man who – though he delivers a sincere thank you – is not even remotely upset about the community service workers that were killed.

There have been stories set on council estates before, but this one was used to particularly good (and poignant) effect – the faceless victims set in the wall, the inconsequential treatment of the deaths, the unappreciated value of street art – it was all elegantly merged into the setting. Best of all was Rigsy (a play on the name Banksy?) whose talent for graffiti allowed for a clever way to trick the monsters. A fake door through which the Boneless poured all their energy connected beautifully into the episode's atmosphere of spatial awareness and the plot-driven need for the Tardis to be recharged.

And that moment of the Tardis whizzing back into its normal size was glorious.

Finally, the defeat of the Boneless was intriguingly played. In one sense it's almost painfully simple: the Doctor makes a speech and points the screwdriver at them while the theme music blares, but I like that he deliberately named them "the Boneless" before vanquishing them. It's an old bit of folklore that a thing must be named if it's to be controlled and understood, and in this moment the Doctor almost looked like a wizard of old as he waved his wand – er, screwdriver – in order to defeat them.

In the Forests of the Night

This waft of the fairy tale was even more prevalent in In The Forests of the Night, what with a little girl in a red coat being chased by wolves and a mysterious awakening to find an overgrown forest all around (I believe Clara even name-drops Sleeping Beauty). Hansel and Gretel got the requisite mention. There were even a few Narnia references, such as the close-up of the Trafalgar lion and Danny's command to "follow the lamp-post," though this episode really owes itself to William Blake.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
 In the forests of the night,
 What immortal hand or eye
 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

If anyone in this episode represented William Blake it was of course Maebh Arden, the little girl who is haunted by thoughts and can communicate with nature. Though her the Doctor and Clara piece together the disparate elements of the plot: that the sun is about to emit solar flares and that the Earth's trees have risen up in order to protect itself from them. It's really just that simple. There is no monster to defeat, there's not even any antagonist to slow them down (unless you count the misguided attempts by the population to deforest their protective shield). All they had to do was trust and wait. It's beautiful stuff really.

And in a neat little idea that was very much in the same strain as the shared nightmare of Listen, it turns out that our collective fear of the Dark Forest – the one that haunts our nightmares, that is populated by wolves and witches and ghouls, the forest of Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel and Harry Potter – was inspired by this overnight forest occurring sporadically throughout history. We remembered the fear even when we forgot the particulars, and wove it into our folklore.

That said, one of the biggest credibility strains in this episode was the lack of exploration into the impact this forest had on rest of the world. We get brief broadcasts of the situation from around the world, and Maebh's mother biking around the forest in a near-panic, but other than that it focused solely on the kids and Clara. Which would have been understandable were it not for the fact that there was quite a bit of padding strewn throughout this episode: the wolves and the tiger, the kids trekking from place to place, and the weird little subplot of Maebh's missing sister.

Seriously, what was up with that? Did Annabelle get swallowed by the trees or something? And then she just reappears at the end because Maebh thought of her? Huh?

Most of this screen-time could have been better used by fleshing out the panic of the rest of the world and exploring the ways in which they would attempt to destroy the trees. I've no doubt that if this episode took place in Davies's time, a subplot running parallel to the main action would have been devoted to this. And that really is the biggest difference between the Davies and Moffat eras. Davies was all about exploring minor characters and the effect the paranormal had on them; in grounding this show in a sense of realism regardless of the outlandishness of the sci-fi element. Moffat has always been more whimsical.

In an episode like this, you can get away with it, though I still feel it would have been a much richer and rewarding story if they'd expanded their horizons a little.

There was however another look at the ever-strange relationship between Clara and the Doctor. It's been frustrating me throughout her Character Arc that Clara feels the need to lie to Danny about her time with the Doctor even though he's clearly supportive of her choice to travel with him. His only condition was that she didn't lie to him about it. So what gives?

Her continual deception makes about as much sense as Hermione pointlessly lying to Professor McGonagall about what really happened with that troll in the bathroom.

My theory is that Clara is operating a bit like a drug addict. She's addicted to travelling with the Doctor, with the power-rush it gives her, with the sights and sounds and experiences that a life with him affords. And a part of her is ashamed of it – she must be, or else why try to hide it? Danny and the school children forego the opportunity to witness the solar flares from space – the kids because they want their parents and Danny because he's seen too much already. And Clara, who had earlier told the Doctor that the kids just wanted their mums and dads, now seems strangely confounded by their lack of interest.

It seems like a contradiction, but I think it's the difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling something emotionally. She knows that there's plenty of joy to be had in an ordinary life, but she can't bring herself to let go of the power-rush that the Doctor provides. Though judging for the trailer for next week, there's every chance that something entirely different is going on.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Where on earth was Courtney Woods?

Is there a correlation between Missy and the fact that the students refer to Clara as "Miss"? It sounds like a bit of wordplay that's right up Moffat's alley.

Do London school children really have sleepovers at the history museum? Is that really a thing?

This was certainly a beautiful episode to look at, and I suspect one that was done on a minimal budget. Set on location in a forest with a few landmarks strewn about and voila.
Beautiful effect on the trees talking through Maebh's body, with her childish voice merged with their deep boom. Speaking of which, that was a great little child actor.

Interesting that in Kill the Moon the moon ended up being a life-giving egg, whilst here the sun was an immediate threat to all of humanity.

Fear less, trust more. Beautiful sentiment.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Links and Updates

Okay, well I'm back from Sydney. Weather was great, plane didn't crash, and a good time was had by all. I'll get back into the reviewing/recap business tomorrow, but for now here are all the requisite tourist photos:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Links and Updates

Hello all, it's going to be a slow week as I'm off to Australia on Wednesday! I'm finally going to see Wicked on stage (I'm glad I'll see it before the inevitable movie adaptation) so there'll be plenty to talk about when I get back.

As such I'm going to hold off my usual reviews until next week, and double them up with the latest episodes that have aired. This'll include Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, Sleepy Hollow, The Flash and probably The Legend of Korra as well. Wow, I watch a lot of shows.

***
 
I only tentatively draw people's attention to the BBC's Atlantis, as I'd hate people to actually watch it, but this interview with the cast in the lead-up to the second season is just fascinating to behold. Knowing who's behind this series, just take a gander at some of these sound-bites from the cast:

"It’s tonally darker and more grown-up."

"[Characters] are more flawed, they’re not as simplistic as last year."

"Some really strong storylines this year [for the female characters]."

"The brief this year was to make everything look more filmic."

"It’s serialised as well... last year the episodes stood alone and told their own little story but this has a much bigger arc."

There's also a one-year time skip and an emphasis on sword-fighting. Sound familiar?

Maybe I'm just imagining things but there seems to be a quiet air of desperation running through all this. I'm not surprised that the assorted Merlin producers tried to recreate their most successful show, but what amazes me is that they haven't the faintest idea what made it so popular. Instead they're simply (and hilariously) replicating all its worst bits.

As it happens, the introduction of Medea certainly piques my interest, but let's face it – she's just going to be evil and killed off. And the fact the series is being split into two halves (the first to air in November and the second early next year) suggests a certain lack of confident from its broadcasters.

***
 
In better news, Colin Morgan has scored another role in Humans (which means two Merlin cast members have co-starred in British remakes of Swedish dramas) and it sounds pretty interesting – particularly that Gemma Chan is apparently going to be his character's love interest. Gemma Chan who was also Katie McGrath's one-night-stand in Dates. Hee.

So on the one hand, I can pretend that poor single Merlin is finally going to get some action. On the other, a WOC as the love interest of a fandom-adored white male? Batten down the hatches, because they're going to come down on her like a ton of bricks.

***
 
Apropos of my recent Why is Frozen So Popular? post, I visited a friend's house who has a three year old daughter with Frozen posters on her wall. I pointed to Elsa and asked: "who's this?" Her answer: "let it go."

I honestly think that at least 70% of that movie's success was down to that song.

***
 
Okay, it's time to go finish packing. I'll post again sometime next week!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arrow: Identity

I'm so behind. Furthermore, these reviews are going to be completely disconcerting to anyone who's watching the current season of Arrow. But I'll slowly but surely catch up, and you may be able to find some degree of amusement in my total ignorance of what's going on in season three (seriously, if you want to comment – don't spoil it!)

Two episodes in and we're still setting up the trajectory of season two, and I like how they've modified Oliver's opening narration to reflect this. It caught me by surprise that all this time he's been saying "I must become something else" it's been referring to a work-in process, not a simple transformation. But he's got an entire reputation to rebuild, and this episode wasn't making it easy for him.

For what feels like the first time, we really see Oliver struggle with his need to be both the CEO of Queen Consolidated and a more user-friendly dispenser of vigilante justice. I suspect that it's in attempting to find a balance between these two personas is where the crux of season will lie, for whether he's Arrow or Oliver, someone is pissed off at him.

Felicity is (rightfully, though somewhat over-the-top-edly) annoyed that he's trying to make her his Girl Friday and in doing so insulting her qualifications as an IT specialist. Sebastian Blood seems (so far) rather indifferent to the vigilante, but speaks out vehemently against Oliver Queen in public: first in front of the Glades Memorial Hospital, and then at a fundraising event that he was meant to be hosting.

Then there's Roy, who reveres the vigilante but immediately reverts to sullen silence whenever Oliver is around, and Laurel, who sticks up for Oliver in Sebastian Blood's presence, but has come to hate the vigilante for his failure to save Tommy's life.

Oliver Queen sucks!

You don't even know how much he sucks.

He doesn't suck as much as the vigilante!

Hey, stop giving the vigilante a hard time!

Only if you lay off Oliver!

That duality between Oliver's two identities creates an interesting pivot upon which the episode turns, especially since two other characters (Roy and Diggle) have had to give up – or at least deceive, which is the same thing in the long run – someone they love in order to establish their commitment to the vigilante's cause. You can't help but feel that this is a natural consequence of the lifestyles they've chosen – it happened to Oliver, and it's happening to them. You can't be two people at the same time, and sooner or later you've got to commit to only one.

As such, Diggle's comment to Oliver in the elevator: "it weirds me out to no end the way you refer to yourself in the third person like that", may be played for laughs, but it has a poignant undercurrent when you consider what it means that Oliver can subconsciously distance himself from his own self like that.

So as interested as I am to see Arrow "hire" Roy as an intelligence gatherer (I seriously love this subplot; it's involved and it's meaty without completely taking over the focus of the show – how subplots should be done), there's going to be major consequences when Thea finds out what he's been up to. And it would appear that Diggle has already paid the price for involving himself in Oliver's crusade, for he and Carly have called it quits. Honestly though, hooking up with your sister-in-law was just plain weird, so it's probably just as well things worked out this way.

Meanwhile, China White and the Triads are back, stealing medicine bound for the Glades Memorial Hospital even though there have got to be more lucrative targets, and far more easier ways to get around this. It's a fairly perfunctory plot, though one that demonstrates just how much work Oliver has cut out for him when it comes to figuring out who and what he wants to be.

As Oliver he's trying to atone for his family's mistakes since Starling City considers him the enemy of the people, as the Hood he's still the number one target of the police force, and is stymied a little by his inability to take a life. He's never been more like Robin Hood in regards to his outlaw status, yet at the same time he has none of the approval rating among the population that Robin always enjoyed. According to China White: "if you're a criminal, you're not a hero", but Oliver seems to be on the first step to equilibrium when he tells her that it doesn't matter what people think of him, only that the job gets done.

Miscellaneous Observations:

Was this our first Laurel/Roy scene? I'm pretty sure this is the first time they've interacted.

I'm almost certain that Sebastian Blood was a villain on the animated Teen Titans, so I anticipate his evil plotting any day now. It's a pity though, as he currently makes for a decent antagonist that seems genuinely interested in the plight of the Glades.

Which means that it makes little sense that Verdant is still up and running. It's in the Glades, it's owned by Oliver Queen, it's filled with rich teenagers taking a walk on the wild side – and it hasn't been burnt to the ground yet? Yeah, no.

Back on Love Triangle Island (oh how I hate having to type those words) Oliver, Shado and Slade cope with the aftermath of Oliver killing a man, and discover a cave full of dead Japanese soldiers who appear to have been there since WWII. I'm sure all this is going somewhere, but I currently find it difficult to care.

That tooth necklace (or whatever it is) has got to be one of the fakest looking props I've ever seen.

See? Fake.

It's a wonder that Laurel hasn't caught on to the Hood's true identity from his speech patterns alone. Oliver always pauses before his adverbs. "I would ... gladly exchange my life for his!"

I have no idea how this thought popped into my head, but given the current climate of Starling City, it would be great to see someone like the Truth Terrorist from The Tunnel make an appearance. Not for an episode, but for a mini-arc perhaps, just to high light the gap between rich and poor and the injustices that the population face. Hmm, plot bunny...
 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Legend of Korra: The Coronation

This show is certainly keeping up its winning streak, and there's every chance that this – the final season – will be the best Korra season of all. I can almost feel the writers putting the characters into position, drawing out the storylines, and getting ready to say goodbye.

As I suspected, there's been no sign of Opal and Kai since the premiere, and though I'm sure they'll be back again in some small capacity, that was their swan-song. (Didn't I say? Didn't I?) No doubt Tenzin sending his children off to find Korra will encompass their mini-arc of the season, and I also foresee some Suyin/Lin interaction before the focus is once again narrowed down to Korra/Tenzin and Korra's personal Team Avatar. In other words, everyone is getting a little screen-time before the big main character-centric showdown.

Other predictions: that Varrick currently exists in the capacity of a Chekhov's Gunman (I don't know why, but I really hope that his magnetic suit of last season makes a comeback) and that Eska and Desna's cameo was exactly that: a cameo (not that I'd mind if they're given something more substantial to do before the finale). But at this point, it's all about giving each character closure and checking of the "to do" list.

***

Top marks for the irony inherent in that title. The twist is that there was no coronation, at least not one that wasn't annulled seconds after it took place, for as soon as Kuvira takes the microphone, she announces to those gathered that she's going to remain in charge of the newly established Earth Empire.

Tone it down, show.

You have to admire a woman who actually lets the pathetic coronation go ahead before announcing her own plans. Kind of reminds me of that urban legend in which a groom goes through with his wedding vows before directing everyone at the reception to look under their seats where he's stuck photographic evidence of the bride screwing the best man.

Kuvira is a fantastic villain, one that might well be a match for last season's Azula, though I'm afraid that the writing is already throwing her too far into the "villain" camp instead of the more interesting Well Intentioned Extremist pile. There was a genuine attempt to point out that she's done plenty of good things during her "reign" as the Great Uniter, things that even Mako acknowledges when he bluntly informs Prince Wu that he hasn't done much of anything to help the people of his kingdom in the lead-up to his coronation.

Kuvira may not be the solution, but clearly neither is Prince Wu. Removing him and the royal family from power is clearly the correct choice of action, especially when you consider President Raiko's plans to put a bunch of ministers in charge and more-or-less use Wu as a figurehead.

But we also learn in this episode that Kuvira is throwing her dissenters into prison camps and making veiled threats toward those who oppose her regime, not to mention that she went with "Earth Empire" as opposed to "Earth Republic". That's a huge red flag for anyone who's watched Star Wars.

Mako is definitely not convinced.

So I get the sinking feeling that she's going to tip over into "madwoman that has to be stopped" any moment now, rather than remain a three-dimensional counterpoint to Zaheer (the overbearing order to his all-powerful chaos). Clearly the title of this season – Balance – is leading towards Korra finding exactly that between these two figureheads, but I hope that Kuvira's character isn't butchered along the way. If we keep it at this level of "do what has to be done" authority with a few sharp edges, then we may just have our best antagonist yet.

That's what I want – not a villain, but an antagonist and enemy. Zelda Williams is doing a fantastic job at projecting Kuvira's charisma and control; it would be a shame to waste all that by sending her off the deep end.

Suyin had an interesting appearance in this episode, representing Zaofu at the ceremony and coming face-to-face with her estranged son and soon to be daughter-in-law. This is the first time we've seen Su operating independently from her introductory role as Lin's unmentioned sister, and her interactions with Kuvira were perhaps the high-point of the episode.

From what I've gathered, Suyin isn't a hugely popular character in fandom, mostly due to its adulation of Lin, but I've always enjoyed her as a reasonably pleasant if not a bit self-centred matriarch. It's obvious that she was a spoiled little brat as a child, one who now lives as a free-spirited mother that just wants to be left in peace within the comfort of her own city.

Oh no you didn't, bitch.

I loved her reaction to Kuvira crediting her for her distaste in the monarchy, and that Kuvira actually called her out on not taking an interest in world affairs before Kuvira took control. That was a great way of establishing Suyin's accountability and her failings, knocking her off guard when Kuvira revealed that Zaofu was next on the list of cities to come under her control. It's an unexpected animosity that's begging for some decent fan-fiction to fill in the blanks.

And this conflict spills into Bolin and Mako's relationship. Bolin, who has seen the good Kuvira has done (including in his old neighbourhood) stands up for her, whilst Mako's issue seems to be that she's going against the wishes of the world leaders. Naturally it all comes down to an argument, but one in which both sides have a legitimate point-of-view. Very good, show – keep this up!

Elsewhere, Prince Wu cuts a rather pitiful figure. Up until this episode I didn't have much to say about him – he was deliberately annoying with a rather off-putting design, but here I had to feel a little sorry for him. There's a sense that all his over-excited chatter about the spectacle of his coronation was an act put on by an insecure kid who knows on some level that it's never going to happen.

Even before Kuvira took over, it was pretty clear that the royal dynasty was at an end, and (having watched a similar plot play out with former Russian aristocrats over on Downton Abbey) it was a little poignant to see that Wu's retinue had been whittled down to a trio of old men, and his crown replaced by an earring that had to make-do as a brooch.

And is it just me, or does Wu seem to have a little crush on Mako? He seemed very touchy-feely and co-dependant, so it wouldn't surprise me if Bryke slipped in that subtext on purpose.

***

Oh Toph! Every time I thought they were going a little overboard with the feisty old lady deal, I reminded myself that this was exactly what she was like when she was young. More than Katara, more than Zuko even, there was an effortless amount of continuity between her younger and older selves, leaving no doubt that this was the gutsy little earth-bender that put Aang through his paces in Bitter Work.

Look at this - it's totally her!

The teaching methods between Katara and Toph are profound – slow and steady reassurance versus tough love, but in a way the latter is exactly what Korra is bound to respond to. I felt a little sorry for her considering all the hard work she's put into recuperating, but Toph brings up a valuable point after sensing all the bits of mercury in her bloodstream: that there's every chance Korra is deliberately rejecting the chance to heal so that she has an excuse not to be the Avatar. Which means that deep down, Korra is deathly afraid.

I just want to hug her!

Miscellaneous Observations:

No Asami? Damn it show, I THOUGHT WE WERE PAST THIS.

I love that the trees in Republic City have stuck around, and are now an organic part of the architecture.

 

I don't care if we never find out who the fathers of Toph's children were. We just don't need to know.

Wu presents Kuvira with the Kyoshi Medal of Freedom, making this the second time in as many episodes that the former Avatar has been name-dropped. Please let this be an indication that they're planning some pre-Aang stories.

So Varrick has his hands on a spirit vine. As a wild guess, I'd say he's going to figure out how to control it, and by doing so manipulate all the other vines growing throughout Republic City by doing so.

When Kuvira tells Bolin: "conflict is the last thing I want," I believe her – but is this because she truly values life or because she desires order above all things? Similarly, she's got a point when calls Wu the world leaders' "handpicked dictator", and her claim to the same position rests on her popularity among the people. So far she's coming across as a Good is Not Nice Character – an intimidating person, but an effective ruler.

"You're the worst Avatar ever." It's like a catchphrase at this point. Give the girl a break!

That Toph thinks her daughters never picked up metal-bending all that well makes me desperately want to see her take on Kuvira. Alas, I'm pretty sure they'll keep her in the swamp.

Was that a stuffed Bosco I glimpsed at the Little Bai Sing Se throne room?

Ultimately, this was definitely a place-setting episode, but I have confidence that the pay-off will make it all worthwhile. And until then, we'll always have the Dance of the Badger Moles. I uploaded it especially: