Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The White Male Gaze


Jodie Whittaker is The 13th Doctor. Her introduction as the Time Lord has been lost amongst endless preaching, the show moving on from what the actress termed "stories being told through a white male gaze." 

WE live in an era of hyper-sensitivity, where everything other than political correctness is greeted with outrage. Now people need 
instant acknowledgement, and all things must be permitted without striving or working for it. There is no middle ground; similar to the ideological stance taken up by the STAR TREK and STAR WARS franchises, DOCTOR WHO now exists in a diversity agenda which has altered its DNA. With such a regimental leftist direction, it is no longer recognisable as DOCTOR WHO, with the adventures of Jodie Whittaker's ditzy, scrunch-faced Doctor akin to the worst fan fiction (the recently concluded series 11 has been scripted by a number of writers with little experience of any genre).

Rightly or wrongly, Steven Moffat built up the Time Lord as God; Chris Chibnall - who had previously refused the showrunner job and turned in a number of disposable episodes for the reboot -  has deflated the programme into a political ideal which cannot work cohesively. As Peter Davison stated about his tenure, three companions are too many; yet here Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yaz (Mandip Gill) are not companions but tokens of their ethnicities (even the word "companion" has been phased out, The Doctor preferring "best friends," or "Fam.") The TARDIS may well have a custard cream dispenser, and the 'sonic' is king, but a number of episodes have demonised white males. This has often been by The Doctor herself, reaching its nadir with IT TAKES YOU AWAY, where single fathers are ultimately portrayed as diabolical evil. It's all a sweeping oversimplification, of course, and the seasons most pointed entry - the dawning of civil rights tale ROSA - has a future White Supremacist illustrating Caucasians as a whole.

More Dusty Bin than "junkyard chic," Chris Chibnall's "alien psychopath" Dalek aptly scrapes the bottom of the barrel in DOCTOR WHO - RESOLUTION, which achieved the lowest audience for a festive special since the return of 2005.

In November 2018, rumours circulated that both Chibnall and Whittaker would leave after series 12. With the Christmas Day special moved to New Year's Day, it was then confirmed DOCTOR WHO would not return for over a year. A BBC source to Starburst claimed the new showrunner wasn't happy with the schedule, and Outpost Skaro reported that Chibnall would only carry on if the corporation were able to find his immediate successor. Endless puff-pieces trumpeted the passiveness of The Doctor, with an educational slant closer to the William Hartnell era, but too many social justice warriors forget that it was the introduction of The Daleks that saved the show from early cancellation. Even though Chibnall was adamant no classic monsters would return in his first set, leaks linked the New Year's Day special - RESOLUTION - to The Doctor's most famous foes (possibly because of contractual obligation from the Terry Nation estate). This was confirmed on Christmas Day, as the teaser was played for the first time with an "exterminate!" soundbyte.

What actually materialised starts as an absorbing 'Reconnaissance Dalek' tale. A metal menace scout lands on 9th century Earth, and is eventually defeated and split into three. These pieces of the Dalek in mutant state are buried across the globe by the Order of the Custodians, but the British contingent - in Yorkshire - is killed before reaching his destination. Jumping forward to two contemporary archaeologists - Lin (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mitch (Nikesh Patel) - the strange artifact is brought to life by ultraviolet light, and the squid-like alien uses Lin as a human puppet to create makeshift casing. Although more action-orientated, RESOLUTION soon lapses back into the same grating tropes; UNIT has been deactivated due to budget cuts, and Ryan's absentee father Arran (Daniel Adegboyega) is the latest 'Bad Dad' (not only does a failed bonding scene cut the story dead, Arran is inexplicably shown trying to sell an oven/microwave combo to the cafe owner, which we see more of later). With The Doctor herself a relatively minor character, the highlight is Ritchie's performance as the possessed Lin, and the creepy Kaled itself.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Porn Again


"Not bad for a boy from Liverpool who arrived with 5 bob in his pocket." Rejoicing in his own notoriety, Paul Raymond (Steve Coogan) had problematic relationships with his wife, lovers, sons and daughter.

MICHAEL Winterbottom's biopic of erotica magnate Paul Raymond (nee Geoffrey Quinn) focuses on the years between 1958 and 1992. Portrayed in flashback, it opens with Raymond (Steve Coogan, essentially playing himself) viewing old videotape of daughter Debbie (Imogen Poots) after attending her funeral. The film shows his start as a seaside act through launching "sophisticated" strip clubs and revue theatres, allowing him to expand a property portfolio and indulge in a cocaine-fuelled playboy lifestyle. These heady events also include leaving wife Jean (Anna Friel) for aspiring actress Amber St George/Fiona Richmond (Tamsin Egerton), and producing a publishing empire aided by Tony Power (Chris Addison).

Written by Matt Greenhalgh based on Paul Willetts' book Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond, this Winterbottom/Coogan vehicle depicts a cautionary tale with all the effectiveness of Alan Partridge. Once the richest man in Britain, Raymond as a screen character is left vaguely flapping at his fragile reality, not understanding how a daughter who has everything materialistically could die from a heroin overdose (bleakly, Debbie is shown sniffing a line of cocaine - supplied by her father - as she gives birth). Greenhalgh's previous biopics on John Lennon and Ian Curtis had grounded specifics, but Raymond's episodic life is further undermined by its unnecessary comedic tone and casting, such as David Walliams as Reverend Edwyn Young, Simon Bird as Jonathan Hodge, and cameos from Matt Lucas, Dara O'Briain and Stephen Fry. Raymond is no Hugh Hefner, a consistently dull self-made businessman/smut peddler with double standards, who resisted his classification as a pornographer. 

First appearing in 1935 as a pocket-sized male humour publication, Paul Raymond re-launched Men Only in 1971 as the start of his top-shelf line which would encompass Club International, Razzle, Escort and Mayfair

Speeding through the swinging 1960s and coke-covered 1970s, THE LOOK OF LOVE is as flaccid as a television variety show, lacking cinematic scope and spectacle (only Poots and Friel leave any real lasting impressions, while others seem content in how cheeky they're being). Raymond's greatest legacy swims against the prudish tide of English decency, accumulating his wealth from a subject matter which has always been treated as a bad smell. While Paul Thomas Anderson's extraordinary BOOGIE NIGHTS celebrates the American porn industry with a zeal which also illustrates a cohesive extended family, THE LOOK OF LOVE shows a country replete with shallow entertainments, fractured relationships and festering regrets. It's a shame, as Raymond's journey can be seen as a microcosm on how culture slowly turned women into commodities.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

"Let Us Be"


The 25th edition of INSIDE NO. 9 was a bold meta-live special that literally explored ghosts in the machine.

REECE Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton's deliciously dark comedy/drama strand INSIDE NO. 9 aired a live Halloween special this year (albeit at 10pm on Sunday October 28th) which was dubbed "GHOSTWATCH for the Twitter generation." Conventionally starting with Arthur Flitwick (Pemberton) finding an old mobile phone in a churchyard, a gullible 20% of the viewing audience gave up after faux sound issues, an error card, then eventual cancellation, which lead to a repeat instead of the programme's series one physical comedy standout A QUIET NIGHT IN. All part of the plan, obviously, as we cut back to Shearsmith and Pemberton in their dressing room, cursing the technical issues that had forced them off air. The meat on the bones is that DEAD LINE is being made at Granada Studios, infamous for paranormal activity due to its location on a Victorian mass grave, and the dead just want to be left alone.

The actual broadcasting mishaps at Granada are fascinating, and archive clips bleed into the stuffed narrative: MOST HAUNTED's CORONATION STREET special, news footage (introduced by Tony Wilson, no less) of the fire that destroyed THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN's costume department, and - best of all - Bobby Davro's trousers-around-his-ankles pillory accident on PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE (as Lionel Blair, Keith Chegwin and Jim Bowen sing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'); also included is the preview interview clip from THE ONE SHOW, where Shearsmith says that he likes the idea of ghosts, but admits his non-belief. DEAD LINE goes further than the GHOSTWATCH "live" event, as people replied to Shearsmith's on-set Tweets ("Are me and Steve Pemberton on BBC Two now?") and co-star Stephanie Cole's Wikipedia page was altered to reflect her demonic on-screen throat-slitting suicide. The later creepy passages are well staged (one making good use of Shearmith's Reverend Neil's fake head), and the production should be applauded for bringing imagination and playfulness into our media-overloaded existence.

BBC Two Announcer Becky Wright's staged tone lets the cat out of the bag.

Setting productions within a single space or location is a recurring theme for Shearsmith and Pemberton, going right back to their industry foothold in Royston Vasey. The ROPE-inspired episode of PSYCHOVILLE - once intended as a live episode - is a more direct forbear to the self-contained placements of INSIDE NO. 9, which has included a country mansion wardrobe in SARDINES, a sleeper car for LA COUCHETTE and EMPTY ORCHESTRA's karaoke booth. Yet despite this notion these two seasoned writer/performers have shown that their rigorous, twisted style always has respect to the television anthology medium; and when they chart further into their beloved horror genre, it is never with parody (if the terror is present and correct, the comedy will act as a necessary release). 

This singular domain for horror or psychological drama taps into the very essence of the Old Dark House sub-genre, buildings beyond architecture that are characters themselves, inhabited by secrets and spectres. Notable examples are stoic in their representation of brooding evil: the Bates Motel, the Overlook Hotel, the Marsten House, 112 Ocean Avenue, the Dakota et al; in fact, some dwellings are not just homes, the House of Usher is also a corrupt dynasty, and in the original draft of Dracula, Bram Stoker had The Count's castle spontaneously fall when staked.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Web of Fear

VENOM (1971)

Serbian actress (and later politician) Neda Arneric is the siren of VENOM, beguilingly erotic and self destructive. Elected as a member of the Democratic Party in 2000, she withdrew from public politics after the "remote voting" scandal, when her vote was registered in Serbian Parliament while on holiday in Turkey.

SPIDERS have a tradition in horror, large or small. On the silver screen, Jack Arnold directed two of the most loved during the 1950s: science goes awry and creates a giant TARANTULA!, and a household spider strikes fear into THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Towards the end of the decade Bert I. Gordon made EARTH VS THE SPIDER, and the 1970s saw the release of two classics: Wisconsin suffered THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION, and even William Shatner had to try and prevent a small Arizona town from becoming a KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (to no avail). More recently we have endured ARACHNIDBIG ASS SPIDER!, ARACHNOPHOBIA and Arizona again was the battle zone of EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, where a spider farm suffered a toxic waste spillage.

VENOM is an appealing curio and the directorial debut of Peter Sykes. While holidaying in a Tyrolean village, artist/photographer Paul Grenville (Simon Brent) discovers hypnotic redhead Anna (Neda Arneric) in the woods, who has a mysterious spider mark on her shoulder. Making the acquaintance of Huber (Gerard Heinz) and his seductive daughter Ellen (Sheila Allen), Grenville is introduced to tales of the "spider goddess," a legend of the area, where a female phantom kills any men who becomes sexually involved ("they say if anyone touches me, the spiders come"). Yet her visage has been purposely created to scare off locals from a Nazi plot producing nerve agents from spider venom, funded by priceless stolen paintings and led by Anna's renegade scientist father (Terence Soall).

VENOM was released on Region 2 DVD by Fabulous Films in 2015, whose product blurb is as off kilter as the production itself.

Feeling more like a Euro-thriller than British horror, VENOM stands out with its stunning Bavarian location, odd camera angles and dreamlike ambiguity (it opens with a flashback nude bathing romp tinted green, and why not?). Anyone who is already confused should definitely avoid the American edit, which was picked up by New Line and retitled LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST. Cut by over ten minutes, this includes dialogue referencing situations not included, and a general trimming of violent and erotic scenes. The full ninety minute movie includes an array of weirdness: softcore flogging, cows with flower garlands on their heads, and a climactic nod to Norman Bates. This must have caused an impression with Hammer, who assigned Sykes to direct DEMONS OF THE MIND the following year. 

On the small screen, the DOCTOR WHO serial PLANET OF THE SPIDERS explored Barry Letts' personal obsession with Zen Buddhism; it is the only occasion where a WHO producer and co-writer also directed the episodes. Since his discharge from UNIT, Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) is part of a Tibetan meditation group in rural England. While visiting, Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Yates stumble across resident Lupton (John Dearth) performing an incantation, which conjures up a giant spider. The Buddhist centre is actually a front to contact a powerful alien force that manifest as a large Arthropod; the spider is an emissary from the Metebelis 3 ruling council, sent to recover a blue crystal that The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) previously found there and that has now been returned to him by Jo Grant (Katy Manning) from her trip to the Amazon. The Doctor recognises Abbot K'anpo (George Cormack) as his former Time Lord guru and, at his prompting, returns to Metebelis 3, where a human colony revolt has failed. The Great One spider uses the crystal to complete a lattice which she believes will increase her mental powers to infinity.

A giant Arthropod attempts to exert telepathic control in DOCTOR WHO - PLANET OF THE SPIDERS. 

A weak six-partner to finish Pertwee's tenure, PLANET OF THE SPIDERS suffers from its grating use of the colour-separation overlay technique and an indulgent, nonsensical chase sequence. The original season climax was to be THE FINAL GAME, where The Master would sacrifice his life to save The Doctor in an act of redemption. This was abandoned due to the death of Delgado while filming in Turkey for the French/German TV mini-series LA CLOCHE TIBETAINE (however, Delgado's legacy exists on an obtuse level, as his widow Kismet provides the voice for the Queen Spider). Despite its flaws, the programme taps into the widespread fear of Arthropods, which research has suggested that may be innate to humans, and an exaggerated form of instinctive responses that helped early bipedal primates to survive.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A New Hope


Sennia Nanua begins the film strapped into a wheelchair wearing a Guantanamo Bay-style jumpsuit, before progressing to a Hannibal Lecter face mask and eventual freedom. Ultimately, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS addresses its dystopian zombie world with issues of race, gender, and generational responsibilities.

ADAPTED from his own best selling novel by M.R. Carey, this absorbing dystopian/infection horror sees humanity ravaged by a fungal disease, were the afflicted become mindless, cannibalistic "Hungries." A small band of hybrid children - including the exceptional Melanie (Sennia Nanua) - hold the key to a vaccine, and go to "school" at an army base where they are simultaneously educated by Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) and experimented upon by Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close). When the camp and lab is overrun, a muzzled Melanie, Helen and Caldwell escape. Together with Sgt Parks (Paddy Considine) and soldier Gallagher (Fisayo Akinade), the group attempt to communicate with survival cell "The Beacon," while scavenging for food and monitoring the behaviour of their prized asset. 

Utilising authentic locations such as RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, and with urban London landscapes doubled by drone footage of Prypjat near Chernobyl, the production is firmly helmed by esteemed television director Colm McCarthy
. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS mixes 28 DAYS LATER with that always effective mechanism for terror, children, but also follows Danny Boyle's release for referencing themes from cult entertainment. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS is wonderfully alluded to in the mutating mass of decomposing bodies encircling BT Tower, threatening to spread its spores for the "second phase." Pod-like behaviour is also evident in the genuinely creepy notion of standing sleep, where the Hungries react to the slightest movement. It is also consistently grisly and black humoured: for example, Caldwell reveals to Melanie that second generation Hungries were discovered after newborns killed their infected mothers by burrowing out of the womb.

Despite a meagre budget of £4m, the casting of the production is exemplary, especially Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine. 

With the zombie genre now bloated to the extreme, there is a now a confused blurring between inspiration and mimicry. Interestingly, Carey's prose shares similar themes and plot points to the PlayStation game 'The Last of Us', which was released the same year as his source short story Iphigenia In Aulis. Both feature a fungal plague, have a last stage of infection where people sprout spores, and the infected overwhelming rely on a senses (smell and sound). Most tellingly, they each feature a young girl who potentially has the cure. THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS also taps into our ever-expanding psyche of mortality, evolution of diseases and destruction by environment. Underneath a pounding soundtrack and photography filled with sickly greens and yellows, its heavy handed Greek subtexts are more than compensated for by rounded performances which make you believe in the slow transformation of command. It could be argued that the theatrical appearance of feral infants late on goes against the grain, and that the movie lasts just one scene too long to accommodate its misjudged coda.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Ancient Rhythms


Due to a graphics department miscommunication, DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS is the only TV story to have DOCTOR WHO in the title. 

WITH new producer Barry Letts working with script editor Terrance Dicks to provide a more mature approach to DOCTOR WHO, these two serials, written by Malcolm Hulke, provided related monsters to explore. In a reversal of the alien invasion scenario, long-dormant cousins Silurians and Sea Devils are ancient races of Earth, and The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) a middleman trying to reach peaceful agreements between them and humanity. Both adventures are pedestrian, and suffer from jarring experimental soundtracks, but offer appealing monsters and interesting questions about morals and military might (although the rubber costumes grate with the increased ambition, as does the Silurians' Allosaurus pet).

For DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS, millions of years ago on Earth, Silurians feared their civilisation was threatened by an asteroid. The creatures built subterranean shelters around the world but the astral body settled into orbit as the Moon, so they slept on until awakened by the activities of a research base. When a rebellious young Silurian seizes power a virus that will eradicate humans from their home is released, but The Doctor finds an antidote before the disease takes hold; plans of a secondary attack fail in an attempt to destroy the Van Allen Belt - a barrier shielding Earth from solar radiation, harmful to humans but beneficial to reptiles - as The Doctor overloads the base's reactor. Retreating to their caves, The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) blows up the Silurian base; ultimately notions of co-existence between Silurians and humans are lost in bickering and scheming on both sides.

Lacking the bleak tone of DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS, THE SEA DEVILS is the archetypal Jon Pertwee adventure yarn.

The message of military condemnation is lost in THE SEA DEVILS, where UNIT is substituted by enthusiastic support from the Royal Navy (including a submarine, a hovercraft and a diving bell). Aided by the misguided Colonel Trenchard (Clive Morton), The Master (Roger Delgado) is stealing Naval equipment to build a machine to revive the amphibious Sea Devils from hibernation, while he is imprisoned on a high-security island. The first episode was transmitted at the end of a Miners' Strike, accounting for a sharp increase in viewers from episode two. Yet it was the end of episode three where one of the most iconic Time Lord moments occurred, as the Sea Devils rise from the water and advance up a beach. Like The Silurians, the titular menace is wonderfully conceived, their turtle-like head pieces worn as top hats by actors so that they towered even over Pertwee. But the real meat is the interplay between The Doctor and The Master ("he used to be a friend of mine once ... a very good friend.")

Carey Blyton's score for DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS has the Renaissance woodwind instrument Crumhorn for its creature cue. This results in a comical misrepresentation, mirroring Malcolm Clarke's controversial incidental soundscape for THE SEA DEVILS. Here Clarke used the Radiophonic Workshop's newly acquired EMS Synthi 100 to his own anarchic whim, bringing an artificiality to the action which treads a fine line between musical composition and sound effect. Letts insisted on substantial edits, while Clarke argued that his work was mood pieces that fitted both needs. At least this particular score was championed by the Manchester University Press publication Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on DOCTOR WHO, calling it "startling in its range of obtrusive electronic timbres and relative melodic paucity."

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Paranormal Activity


Burning ambition: this fondly remembered supernatural series 
ignited the wrath of moral crusader Mary Whitehouse.

BBC Scotland's THE OMEGA FACTOR is a forerunner to THE X-FILES, but without the budget or pretention. Born from the ashes of the cancelled second series of journalist drama THE STANDARD, here the lead protagonist is occult writer Tom Crane (James Hazeldine). Crane's latent psychic abilities lead him into Department 7, a government agency which investigates the paranormal, where he is partnered with family acquaintance Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson, a recently resigned Leela from DOCTOR WHO). Crane joins the organisation as a means of finding rogue psychic Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham) and assistant Morag (Natasha Gerson), both involved in the death of his wife; yet, after Drexel is killed, Tom becomes increasingly aware of another shadow enterprise, one which strives to assemble the cream of extrasensory perceptive individuals.

For a programme steeped in otherworldly abilities, THE OMEGA FACTOR feels strangely grounded because of its lack of money and threadbare effects. This enhances Hazeldine's already standout performance, mixing his drive to avenge his wife's death, to come to terms with his own powers, and the vain attempt to assimilate within Department 7 with a secretive superior, namely psychiatrist Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle). Like any anthology shows - here with a wide range of writers and directors over ten episodes - there is an inherent unevenness in style and quality, encompassing a heady and diverse set of topics: spectral analogue technology (VISITATIONS), sonic weaponry (NIGHT GAMES), sleep deprivation (AFTER-IMAGE), poltergeists (CHILD'S PLAY), and even astral projection to political means (OUT OF BODY, OUT OF MIND). 

James Hazeldine and Louise Jameson are the Mulder and Scully 
of BBC paranormal drama, with added intimacy. 

POWERS OF DARKNESS is the episode the show is most remembered for, infamously labelled "thoroughly evil [and] one of the most disturbing things I have seen on television" by Mary Whitehouse. History student Jenny (Maggie James) is possessed by a witch, culminating in an altar ritual involving a dead blackbird and a Demon. Mixing a seance, drug use, knife violence and human combustion, this fed into Whitehouse's disgust at any portrayal of Eucharist abstraction, and general distrust of popular entertainment. Two weeks later BBC Scotland Head of Drama Roderick Graham admitted that the BBC's own standards of decency had been breached during ST ANTHONY'S FIRE, where a woman kills her husband with a bread knife. The BBC's Guidance Notes on Violence, which dictated permissible levels, specifically mentioned that dramas were to avoid violent acts that could be easily copied. Graham stated that "the point has been forcibly made to those who were responsible for the programme".

The penultimate entry, DOUBLE VISION, is unnerving because it is so understated. Tom keeps seeing his dead wife Julia (Joanne Tope) in and around Edinburgh; in DON'T LOOK NOW fashion, when running after her, the red-coated figure darts around corners and remains constantly out of touching distance, like the dream sensation of a goal forever out of reach. For the husband to discover this was an elaborate ploy leaves an unsavory taste, as the show leads to its THE PRISONER-like conclusion. The final episode - called ILLUSIONS - ends fittingly on a closed door, leaving further adventures to be picked up in a series of Big Finish audio dramas, where Jameson returns as Reynolds, now head of the department.