Sunday 29 November 2015

Heaven Sent Doctor Who episode satisfies this SF critic at last: five-star review


It is always good to be brought into the light, even though it may take an age: better late than never. And so the theme of Heaven Sent, the penultimate episode in the latest series of Doctor Who, brings me to my knees in grateful awe. Heaven Sent knocked me off my cynical perch where I've been nailed ever since Russell T Davies rebooted the Time Lord franchise to dreary derivative effect. And may I say I have never been happier to have had my opinions reversed so totally even if this turns out to be one glorious, single, solitary, diamond-perfect episode before it all goes back to normal.

Quite staggering in its concept and clever in its execution, this episode never makes a wrong turn. Blessed relief to find histrionics kept to a minimum, only reflecting the Doctor's impossible predicament and thus earning him the right to emote furiously, epically and truthfully. At last, Steven Moffat gives Peter Capaldi a script worthy of his talent and our expectations.

A grieving Doctor is deposited in a vast unrealisable castle, who-knows-where, which turns out to be a gigantic puzzle reminiscent of the classic The House That Jack Built episode (1966) that had Diana Rigg's Emma Peel so thoroughly trapped and beaten in The Avengers series.

Pursued relentlessly by The Veil, a monstrous shade of Death, it is only when the Doctor solves the first bit of the puzzle that we realise how difficult this challenge is. He is forced to struggle across all his levels of existence, from his deepest inner nightmares, to engagement with the ghost of Clara, to his survival on a colossal cosmic scale, and is tried to his utmost ingenuity and courage.

"How many seconds in eternity?", he asks. Not such an empty question as you might think.

A truthful confession dredged out of his deepest recesses stops The Veil in its tracks and resets the castle, whose floors and rooms rotate and move, for the next stage of the chase. Here, even the constellations are all wrong: the stars tell him that his very own torture chamber is 7,000 years in the future. How long has he been playing this game? Will he work out his ultimate escape? Will he run out of confessions?

Piece by piece he solves the puzzle and escapes death time and time again. Who was the owner of the skull he finds at the top of the tower still attached by electrodes? What is the meaning of the word written in the dust? He discovers that the castle is an island surrounded by a sea of human skulls. What cruelty has the castle's creator unleashed on these poor souls?

And yet, as in all the best stories, beneath the byzantine puzzle, there is a simple explanation whose driving force shoots this episode to the front of the SF screen rankings.

Our Doctor finally reaches the Home room, the square at the end of the game, where the Tardis and escape is set tantalisingly the other side of a crystal wall. At 400 times the hardness of diamond and twenty feet thick, it is impossible to penetrate. And yet, this surely has to be the moment he vanquishes? Well, yes, but not in the way you might expect.

What follows is a tour de force sequence that satisfies every demand for great story-telling. The moment you realise how the Doctor is going to win takes your breath away and is beautiful in its simple, profound truth. Here is eternity in a grain of sand, heaven in a flower. You could almost call this Triumph of the Will, but let's not go there.

So, bravo, Steven Moffat. It didn't take you a billion years to get here after all. It only felt like it. Salud.

Where to watch Heaven Sent.
On iPlayer.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Terminator Genisys review: a tragic thing to do to an old friend


Oh the excitement as the Amazon package containing another 3D blu-ray movie drops through the door. This week it's the fifth in the much-loved Terminator franchise, Terminator Genisys which I've had on order for weeks and which was at long last released on November 2nd.

But yikes ...

After a promising start with Arnie doing a decent job reprising his original role as a craggily Johnny Cashesque aging Terminator, the movie ultimately proves itself a truly godawful stinker.

There's no sense that smug well-fed Jai Courtney as the tragic Kyle Reese is a top trooper who has endured a lifetime of apocalyptic nightmare under the tyranny of Cyberdyne and their Skynet artificial intelligence system. Instead, he looks like a jock goon straight out of a National Lampoons movie, dishonouring the memory of Michael Biehn, who wrung our hearts in the original.

It took me a while to realise that the one-note brat playing Sarah Connor is Emilia Clarke, Danaeris from Game of Thrones. I may have to wait and forget her performance in Genisys before I resume watching GOT season 4 but I fear my viewing may be irreparably harmed by her feisty feistiness. I may even take to referring to her as Her Feistiness. In case you hadn't guessed, I HATE feisty. Too cutesy, and insufficiently endowed with guts to be as truly challenging as demi-goddess Linda Hamilton (all hail).

What happened to Clarke's GOT co-star, Lena Headey, who made such a magnificent Sarah in the TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles? Did she take one look at the script and scarper?

Both Courtney and Clarke lack sensitivity and depth, and fail to recreate the mythical grandeur of the original movie, not helped by witless lumpen dialogue that a smart 11-year old would find embarrassing.

It says a lot when, aside from Arnie, the best acting comes from the T-800 (Brett Azar with Arnie's CGI'd face) and the T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun doing a great Robert Patrick). Not to mention JK Simmons spanning the years as Detective O'Brien.

The writers should be made to sweep streets for turning out this time-travel mess in which five dates figure: 1984, 1997, 2014, 2017 and 2029, plus the year when Sarah Connor was nine years old and got herself a pet "Pops" — an Ah-nuld Terminator. Got it?

The film opens with the messianic leader of the Resistance, John Connor (played by the decidedly UN-messianic Jason Clarke, meh!), sending his best buddy Kyle back in time from their offensive in 2029 to 1984 to protect his mum. So far, so like the original. However, in this timeline, it's all different and in the new 1984, Sarah is already hardass and familiar with the plot (aren't we all, dear) and now has that (rather emasculated) pet T-800 in tow. The other thing that is different is that Sarah and her cyborg minder have knocked up a little time machine. In 1984. Yeah, right. Never mind protecting Sarah, protect the crock of a plot at all costs.

Anyhow, I digress. The subsequent John Connor twist is severely mishandled, throwing away this key character. And the plot holes ... So if John Connor is transformed into a nanocyte prototype Terminator-3000 and goes back to 2014 in order to develop Genisys, Skynet's global operating system, in time for its deployment in 2017, and also to kill his parents, how can he be born and go back to 2014 in order to ... This conundrum is crudely plugged by nicking directly from the charmingly effective method in the original to the effect that someone says, "a person could go mad working this out". It's meant to work under cover of a witty callback to the first movie but just ends up calling attention to its own ineptitude.

There's not enough emotional pacing to transmit the horror of the situation in which JC and the family finds itself and results in just another over-complicated blah sci-fi movie when I wanted epic SF that explores big themes. In the wake of so much brilliant writing emerging from America, from Buffy to Breaking Bad, this is unforgivable.

I was optimistic about this movie, having seen what a glorious job the makers of the new Mad Max, Fury Road, did with the franchise. Terminator Genisys may have done well at the box office but I wonder how many viewers were pleased with the experience.

The brief presence of Matt Smith as the evuhl T-5000 who turns John Connor into a machine indicates intentions to make another sequel. It'll be back.