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Friday, 20 December 2013

Steel Sinews: Sex and the Superhero

This is something of a good news, bad news scenario.

First the bad news - I'm going to be shutting down The Momus Report. It's been great, but I have decided to try and focus on specific writing projects in 2014, so I need more time to do so.

The good news, however, is that this includes writing editorials on a fortnightly basis for Sequart, the first of which Steel Sinews: Sex and the Superhero, is now up. Go over and have a gander folks!

Wonder Woman indulges in domestic bondage in Sensation Comics #9

Oh and I can also be found now over on Hopscotch Friday, so why not drop along there too.
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Monday, 16 December 2013

The Phantom Irishman

Oh, Ireland, it’s the sow that ate its own farrow. Tell me one Irish artist that ever produced here, just one! God, Jack Yeats couldn’t sell a painting in this country, and all the talent…oh, daddy…You know what Ireland’s biggest export is? It’s men. Men…Shaw, Joyce, Synge, they couldn’t stay here. O’Casey couldn’t stay. Why? Because O’Casey preaches the Doctrine of Joy, daddy, that’s why…Oh, the Irish know despair, by God they do!" Peter O'Toole interviewed by Gay Talese, Esquire Magazine 1963

"Throughout our history, the Irish people have always shown that nothing is impossible for us to achieve, when we really apply ourselves to a challenge or cause. Believe me, government will work with you to put in place the foundations for a secure and prosperous future for you and the next generation. I thank you for the part that you have played in Ireland’s recovery to date." Taoiseach Enda Kenny, State of the Nation Address, 15 December 2013

The death of Peter O'Toole has occasioned much fond reminiscences of his wit, his debonair charm, his drunken hellraising - and every now and then his career as an actor in films such as Lawrence of Arabia, My Favorite Year, Venus, Supergirl - yes, Supergirl, you've probably seen it, - and of course the reinvigorated critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. His membership of the No-Oscars club, joining the likes of Orson Welles, Cary Grant and Michael Powell, is a testament to the lobbying factor in regards to whom the Academy chooses to bestow an award to.

Screen cap of Peter O'Toole taken from his arrival on stage riding a camel on David Letterman

Yet it is O'Toole's Irishness that has, and will, receive the most attention. It lent him a certain exotic character among the vanilla throng of British players treading the boards of 1950's theatre. What's more it aided his aptitude for re-invention. His celebrity survived thanks to his transformation from a matinee idol beauty who had the look of a beatific monastery novice, to a roué who could delight on talk shows years after his movie star sheen had diminished.

Ireland in turn embraced O'Toole as a favoured son, with current President Michael D. Higgins leading the tributes for him - "Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre. I was privileged to know him as a friend since 1969 ... all of us who knew him in the West will miss his warm humour and generous friendship."

However, his Irishness was something that O'Toole could cheerfully embrace or discard as he so chose. Perhaps that is the greatest talent of an actor - not to become someone new, but to be able to dismiss who you are. In this regard O'Toole had an advantage over his peers, as there is no clear record of either his birthplace, or indeed a date of birth. The child of an Irish immigrant, he would maintain a connection to his 'homeland', while cultivating the success his life in England brought. He could play the country lord with Higgins the Gaelic-speaking politician, all the while speaking with a perfect cut-glass English accent.

Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia.

This is partly why I feel so sad at the news of O'Toole's death. I remember the pride people had in his stardom as an Irish actor from when I was growing up. One of the most memorable things about Neil Jordan's woeful High Spirits was the opportunity to see O'Toole on the television during the promotional campaign for the film. When my dad brought me to see Supergirl, he was eager to see what the local boy made good would do in this would-be blockbuster. John Kelly described him at the 2008 Galway Film Fleadh as the world's greatest living Irishman.

Again though, so much of his personality and success can be attributed to his living outside of the emerald isle. His understanding of Catholicism was profound due to his strong antipathy for it.

This conflict of opposites, the familiar contempt, to me is symptomatic of the experience of many Irish who have fled our home to find a living outside. This man is being celebrated as a favoured son by the same politicians in the Dáil who have so egregiously betrayed daughters and sons in this generation and the next.

Peter O'Toole was the perfect kind of Irish. He became successful elsewhere and gave Ireland the credit.
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Monday, 9 December 2013

Shuffle Macabre - Satire and Humor in Zombie Films

This piece comes courtesy of Dr Elisheva A. Perelman. 

The zombie has long been both a useful and intriguing subject of semiotic analysis.  As a key representation of such diverse tropes and metaphors as colonialism, consumerism, and epidemic disease, the zombie lends itself not only to a wide array of symbolic uses, but also a variety of academic interpretations.  Yet, in the midst of it all, the subject of the zombie as humor remains beyond the pale.  However, here, too, the zombie proves an effective conveyor of semiotics theory.  Zombies, as they shamble towards us, carry with them the baggage of satire, not because they, themselves, are terribly humorous, but because we are.

Edgar Wright at a screening of Shaun of the Dead held at the Astor Theatre Melbourne, reading out a list of erroneous 'facts' about the film listed on IMDB. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Fargher. 

As humans, and moreover as scholars, we grant zombies the power to maintain a sense of the humorous. We have utilized them to fulfill our goals in everything from George Romero’s films to Daniel Drezner’s models of international relations.  And rather than maintain them solely as the terrifying threat that they also embody, we have allowed them to become the key components of satire.  

This is not to diminish the intelligence or the deserved popularity of works such as Shaun of the Dead, nor is it to ignore the elements of splatstick (a portmanteau of “slapstick” and “splatter” found in the early films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson), but rather to show that there was never a way to avoid both the works and the commentary they engender.  Rather, because human attempts at the symbolic in art tend toward two limits (neither of which need be entirely exclusive): the surreal and the satirical, it is perhaps only surprising that the nature of zombie humor as symbol has not been discussed previously.
The blackly comic zombie satire Dead Set
When utilizing a relatively new symbol, humans have the ability to mold it somewhat—this is why zombies have come to represent such disparate topics.  As others have pointed out, the zombie, without the cultural baggage of the literary lineage with which the vampire entered the mid-20th century, has had a more pliable transition to the 21st century.  Yet as this construction occurred, from Richard Matheson's The Last Man On Earth inspiring George Romero and beyond, elements stuck. This created not just a zombie symbol framework, but also a template with which to utilize in new tropes.  

In order to identify the antagonist as “zombie,” even in a variety of genres and media, even in a variety of metaphors and tropes, aspects of recognizable zombiness needed to remain.  These need not be the same through each iteration, but certain aspects of identifiable zombiness needed to be fairly obvious to a majority of the intended audience.

The cast of Shaun of the Dead pretend to be zombies
The characters of Shaun of the Dead are sufficiently pop-literate to disguise themselves during a zombie epidemic.
Beyond the point of familiar elements—the mindlessness, the lurching gait, the insatiable hunger—rests the surreal and the satirical.  It is not a question of sublimation; neither the surreal nor the satirical transcend that upon which they depend for identity as such.  Instead these appear as aspects of a spectrum, near the contemporary end, but not the sole telos.  Both the surreal and the satirical, in remolding zombies, stretch their subjects to the hyperbolic, often to the extent that both the Freudian Unheimlich represented by the zombie and the recognizable human overlap, and it is within this overlap that surrealism and satire lie. 

Just as zombies in the films of Romero are little more than set pieces, there to assist to convey the metaphor or trope, and crash the human drama at the end, the zombies remain tools, not of the surreal or the satirical, but to be used to these ends.  They persist without true agency, even beyond the fourth wall.   

Watching a zombie get a pie to the face is amusing, certainly, but it remains outside of the scope of satire. The satire, therefore, rests with the humans, and their actions within the “human drama” section of the work. This means that, despite Zack Snyder’s desire to keep his zombies scary in the remake of Dawn of the Dead, fast zombies can easily become the humorous tools, even if parodying them is more difficult. 

The popularity of The Walking Dead television series has led to a number of memes
 poking fun at this zombie melodrama
Moreover, because neither surrealism nor satire rises above the original symbolic plane, these too can be remolded into new contemporary symbols, both monstrous and humorous, of aspects of the human condition.  Zombies are not Hegelian so much as they are limitless, or, to be more precise, limited only by human agency. 

And yet, because of the cultural baggage acquired over the course of the 20th century, zombies remained neutered.  Obviously, the zombie as sexual being had very different connotations from its origin than its vampiric counterpart—pliant prey versus aggressive predator—but its modern iterations had become sexless at best and sexually repulsive at worst.

The poster for My Boyfriend's Back
An early exemplar of the 'zom-rom-com', Bob Balaban's underrated My Boyfriend's Back.

Or did until attempts to replicate the phenomenon of Twilight, both culturally and commercially.  Yet, for all its saccharine melodrama, the monsters of Twilight remain, to our human narrator, sexual beings, even when they are chaste, while Warm Bodies, with its male zombie heartthrob, remains not only a wryly humorous character, but the narrator of his own story.  Which makes Warm Bodies, despite its marketing or its beating heart, less a love story than a satire, one in a number of romantic zombie comedies, parodying not the monster, but the very human emotions involved with falling in love.

Zombie satire, when paired alongside the surreal, is little more than human satire.  However, the humor arises not because zombies maintain human traits, a necessity for the chilling aspects of the Unheimlich, but because humans possess the zombie, no longer sexually, yet another frightening aspect, but as symbolic tool, to wield.
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Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Beardy And The Geek: The Gary Chaloner Interview

In this month's Beardy And The Geek podcast, Ryan and I interview Gary Chaloner, who talks about The Undertaker Morton Stone, Unmasked and his work on Will Eisner's John Law.

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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Do The Wrong Thing - Luther Season 3

"It's my lucky coat!"

Over three seasons DCI John Luther has charted a course from being a good man who does the wrong thing for the right reason, to a man who comes to realize doing good might be a waste of time.

Season three's truncated run of four episodes does not allow for the same slow-build of paranoia and fear from the excellent first season, instead trusting to short, sharp shocks.

In lieu of the helter-skelter of madness and desperation from previous adventures, Luther is briefly tempted with the prospect of happiness, only for it to be snatched away. Writer Neil Cross is certainly not afraid of killing his darlings.

The first two episodes introduce the arc plot of a newly determined DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird - and is someone on the Luther staff a Buck Rogers fan?) out to prove her old boss is a bent copper, having enlisted the sinister George Stark. The instantly recognizable gravelly barritone of actor David O'Hara livens up many a scene. First trying to turn Luther's loyal lieutenant against him - the conscience-stricken Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) - they then take a more direct approach at ruining any chance of happiness for their quary.

Said happiness comes in the form of Sienna Guillory's Mary Day. Only in Luther could a meet-cute occur during a car-wreck, but the show pulls it off, mainly thanks to Idris Elba essaying goofy awkwardness whenever the two are on screen together.

While these plots percolate, Luther is still faced with the same coterie of sickos and media-literate psychopaths that Cross populates this nightmarish version of a London procedural with. This time round the supporting cast are shown to be as tortured as the morally conflicted protagonist. Justin is focused on trying to live up to the example of his mentor, but finds himself coming up short. Perhaps the most interesting character evolution is that of Dermot Crowley's Martin Schenk. Introduced in the first season as a grim authority figure looking to serve up Luther's head on a plate, by the second he had become a trusted ally, having decided that this man can actually make a difference despite his bending of the rules. However, this season he is visibly worn down and shrinking from the gruesome crime scenes they encounter.

The leering face of Ned Dennehy's pervert is yet another in a flood of monsters that Luther and the gang, despite their best efforts, seem unable to stem. The second half of the season proves even more disturbing, with another good man turned bad, a vigilante who relies on the popular vote of social media to decide whether he should kill his victims. It is a story that is equal parts gripping and preposterous - a combination that Luther pulls off to great effect.

Given Elba's continuing rise to stardom - this month alone he can be found on DVD shelves with new releases of Luther as well as Pacific Rim, and in the cinema as part of Thor - there's every chance this is our last trip down into London's dark underbelly with DCI Luther. If so, the series ends on the perfect note of ambiguity. This was always a show that challenged the luxury of choice between good and bad - for what if the world around you is changing too fast to allow you to make any real choice at all? Gripping, witty, suffocatingly bleak - Luther is twenty-first century noir taken to absurd heights. 

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Friday, 29 November 2013

Twice Born - DVD Review

This review is courtesy of Stephanie O'Cuana, who can also be found on Hopscotch Friday.

Twice Born (Venuto al mondo) is an adaptation of Margaret Mazzantini’s novel of the same name. It stars Penelope Cruz as Gemma and Emile Hirsch as Diego, heading up a small ensemble cast that includes the author’s husband (Sergio Castellitto) and son (Pietro Castellitto), with the former also directing.

Gemma takes her son Pietro to Sarajevo during the summer, a city she fled with her son at the height of the Bosnian War. Gemma is lured back at the behest of her old friend Gojko (Adnan Haskovic), who is holding an exhibition of the artwork of her former love, and Pietro’s father, Diego. What follows is the story of how Gemma and Diego first met, fall in love and led a turbulent life together.

Twice Born is laboured and at times difficult to watch, not because of the powerful nature of the subject matter, but because I really had no idea of where it was going or why I was supposed to care. None of the characters are particularly likeable, which made it difficult to invest in their stories. Penelope Cruz’s Gemma is perpetually on edge and often withdrawn from what was going on around her, while Emile Hirsch seemed to be channelling a young Jack Black, having overplayed emotional response to the situations in which he found himself.

I have no idea why Gemma and Diego got together. Diego is obnoxious, and there is no chemistry between him and Gemma, let alone Cruz and Hirsch. Their relationship is altogether unconvincing, to the point that the scene with Jane Birkin’s adoption agent crying as she tells this unhinged couple that their application has been denied is almost unbearable. One is a former drug addict with serious emotional issues, the other wants a child to tie this man to her. It’s no bloody wonder their application was denied.

As a viewer I had very little empathy for Gemma or Diego, either together or individually. In observing their first sexual encounter I felt I was close to watching a rape scene (but that is saved for later), as there is no invitation for Diego to be in the room, constant ‘nos’ from Gemma, but she is worn down and somewhere there relents. From the get-go this left a sour taste in my mouth and I was unable to warm to either character.

This film is manipulative for its usage of the backdrop of the Bosnian War, but never actually engages with it. This was the greatest disappointment, as I anticipated a love story surviving the impossible trials of war. But this is not that film, and in fact both Gemma, as an Italian, and Diego, as an American, are arm’s length from the conflict. Their engagement with it is by means of other characters they meet.

The dialogue adds an additional burden to this film, as it is overwritten and unrealistic. I can imagine it may have read well on the page, but it does not translate well to the screen. Poor Adnan Haskovic’s Gojko has to do much of the hard work in this respect, as most of the time I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. While I appreciate his character is a poet for whom English is not his first language,  I just wanted him to spit it out.  

The character with the most chops is only revealed towards the end of the film, with harrowing detail about her experiences. Aska’s (Turkish actress Saadet Aksoy) story is what I was expecting from this film, however its placement, almost as an afterthought, is truly manipulative. Just as you feel the film is about to end, a curve ball is thrown, that should have come far earlier. Not only does it come too late, it comes in the meanest way possible, as having endured the supposed mental and emotional torment of Gemma and Diego’s relationship, it is only at this point that true torment is exposed. This in turn recasts the issues of Gemma and Diego as superficial and weak.

In the end, the emotional rollercoaster that is Twice Born left me frustrated and annoyed. I wanted more from a film pitched in a period of time that I was alive for, but too young to understand and so very far away from. Instead what I got was a story about two self-absorbed characters whose lives I had no reason to invest in, surrounded by a situation and characters that really could have made it a whole lot more interesting.

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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World Brings Simonson/Kirby to the Big Screen

Still clinging on as the Christmas school holidays approach, this latest superhero blockbuster has proved to be a pleasant surprise. Thor: The Dark World is not only a sequel to Kenneth Brannagh’s Thor, but continues to build on the momentum of The Avengers.

Leaving that aside though, the prospect of this film succeeding seemed doubtful. Branagh's film was pleasant, but unremarkable, buoyed by the charm of its cast. Then there was the loss of Patty Jenkins as director, eventually replaced by Game of Thrones's Alan Taylor.

The omens were not encouraging.

Poster for Marvel's sequel to Thor

The malevolent Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been captured following his assault on New York in The Avengers and imprisoned by his adopted father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Meanwhile the heroic Thor (Chris Hemsworth) busies himself with the work of cleaning up his brother’s mess, while yearning to leave Asgard to be reunited with his lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) on Earth.

Thankfully you do not need to be a comic fan to understand the backstory at play here. It is all sketched out quite simply. There is even expository dialogue in a scene between Hiddleston and Hopkins designed to clarify that these are not ancient Norse gods despite their names, but spacefaring aliens whom our ancestors mistook for deities (paging Erich von Däniken).

If the point was not made clear, we are also treated to fight scenes featuring ‘Dark Elves’ wielding laser rifles and light-sabre dueling Asgardians. It is all very Star Wars meets The Lord of the Rings.

As it happens, the opening prologue is far too reliant on these two sources, but never mind.

The antagonist for this picture, villainous Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), is first introduced in the special effects-driven prologue set on a disguised volcanic plain in Iceland. Following defeat at the hands of Thor’s grandfather Bor, he returns with his forces to kidnap Jane Foster as she has been possessed by an ancient artefact/McGuffin hidden for millennia.

This gives Thor the perfect excuse to return to Earth, just in time for all sorts of gravity defying anomalies and planet-hopping to kick off.

At its peak this film feels like a big budget episode of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who given all the discussion of planetary alignments and pseudo-science – except Baker tended not to walk around with his shirt off as much. This makes up for a slightly messy first half. Once again, the cast do wonders with making the material palatable, given several flashbacks that drag and expositional digressions.

There are some nice character moments among the explosions. Hiddleston’s Loki is quickly becoming that fascinating thing – a villain audiences love to see more of. Think of Alan Rickman’s comedic sadism in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and this performance comes very close. On top of his abundant father issues, the script hands Loki a previously unexplored relationship with his mother Frigga (Rene Russo).

 It is also a pleasure to see characters like Frigga and Jaimie Alexander’s Sif holding their own in the sword-fight scenes, giving young girls in the audience some role models to look up to in amongst all the macho posturing.

A surprise cameo from a certain Avenger, as well as a small comedic role for Ireland’s Chris O’Dowd (Moone Boy) provides light relief.

Perhaps the best aspect of the film is how it finally delivers the science fiction with a mythical flavour storytelling of Jack Kirby's original Journey Into Mystery comics and Walter Simonson's 1980s reinvigoration of the comic. Dark Elves with lasers - I'm tempted to make a Steve Gerber joke actually. Thankfully Taylor eschews any effort to make the material 'realistic' as is common with superhero adaptations, instead trusting to an audience's willingness to engage with the affably ridiculous proceedings.

Overall Thor: The Dark World is undemanding and fun, although it only really comes into its own by the halfway mark, leading to a genuinely inventive climax in London’s Greenwich.
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Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Day of the Doctor - "I never forget a face."

It is perhaps entirely appropriate that The Day of the Doctor should prove to be whimsical and infuriating, emotionally resonant and at times very frustrating. At its core Doctor Who is a show that has survived in spite of its limitations, both budgetary and political [insert Michael Grade rant here]. However, the freewheeling concept of a shape-shifting alien who travels through time has allowed the show to escape these constraints. It is a blank canvas that, like the Doctor’s psychic paper, has convinced fans there is some grand epic story being told.

To his credit Steven Moffat, as well as  his predecessor Russel T. Davies, has attempted to deliver just that. Doctor Who became a galaxy spanning epic about a lonely Time Lord and his adventures as the last survivor of a devastating war. So traumatised by the experience, he tries to recapture that sense of purpose he used to have as a younger man by helping humanity once again. Mostly it worked. Dalek and The Doctor Dances for example gave Christopher Eccleston plenty of material to chew on, conveying just how wounded by his experiences in the Time War the Doctor has become.

So it comes as something of a shock to discover that this conflict on a scale so vast to be inconceivable, that led to untold deaths across the universe with two implacable enemies threatening to destroy time itself, turns out to be the opening of James Cameron’s The Terminator!

John Hurt’s War Doctor arrives in the city of Arcadia, where armoured soldiers in gun turrets shoot down swooping Daleks and sooty-faced Gallifreyans are herded to their execution in the streets. His presence distracts the Daleks long enough for him to rescue a small number of innocents. The Time Lords, in turn, are also alarmed to learn the Doctor has returned and has stolen a weapon capable of ending the Time War – but at the cost of Gallifrey itself.

The plot therefore presents us with a version of the War Doctor who has yet to make the decision to end the war in a single brutal stroke that will continue to haunt him for centuries afterwards. The Day of the Doctor sets up this moral dilemma, then whisks Hurt’s Doctor off to join his future contemporaries played by David Tennant and Matt Smith for a fun adventure.

Zygons are rampaging across the Elizabethan countryside, pretending to be horses, hiding in works of art, looking to replace her Madge and all that. An errant Fez travelling through a rift in time lures Doctors 8.5, 10 and 11 to the same spot. Hurt’s irritation at the gormless behaviour of his future versions is a genuine treat. It feels like a joke at the expense of the Doctor's post-reboot loss of gravitas.

"I'm The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness, and... you are basically just a rabbit, aren't you?"

The whimsy distracts from the doom and gloom of the opening, pitched halfway between Douglas Adams’ City of Death and a Monty Python sketch (there’s even a machine that goes ‘ding’).

Moffat’s story succeeds when it becomes clear these are three time travelers enjoying one last hurrah before their imminent deaths. Hurt is about to make a decision fatal to two species and end countless lives. Tennant’s Doctor is shortly about to be contacted by the Ood that leads to his own death in The End of Time. As for Smith, well the Christmas special is just about to arrive – and a certain Scotsman is waiting in the wings.

We also finally find out what Queen Elizabeth was so annoyed about in The Shakespeare Code.

At several points – particularly during the finale, as well as *that* special cameo – The Day of the Doctor does exactly what it should. It pays tribute to the long legacy of this show, includes numerous nods to fan-service that add to the enjoyment instead of bogging down the proceedings. However, this is off-set by the disappointing depiction of the Time War – previously vaguely alluded to - and uneven transitions between tragedy and shenanigans. In addition, while Tennant and Smith are quite entertaining together on screen, they are completely outclassed by Hurt. He brings a charming sense of weariness and exasperation to a character we only catch glimpses of.

Hurt even allows the viewer to forget the glaring absence of Christopher Eccleston, giving an genuinely strong performance as the War Doctor, whose actions his succeeding future selves have desperately tried to forget. Then there is the final encounter between the Doctor and the Curator, which achieves a strongly poignant note.

So moments of high excitement and laughter, with the occasional languor, leave The Day of the Doctor slightly uneven. Then again, that’s possibly the most appropriate tribute to this wildly erratic, much beloved show.
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Doctor Who - wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey

The Day of the Doctor reviewed here.

 “I started to think you were just a mad man with a box.”

“Amy Pond, there's something you better understand about me 'cause it's important and one day your life may depend on it...I am definitely a mad man with a box.” – The Eleventh Hour

Doctor Who is a show that is composed of many parts and influences, continually evolving and changing, much like the Doctor himself. The process of regeneration that the Time Lord undergoes that has become central to the mythology of the series was the result of First Doctor William Hartnell’s failing health. Writer Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd came up with the notion of replacing the actor with a younger performer. Patrick Troughton was chosen to take over the role, setting in motion the tradition of actors coming on to Doctor Who to redefine the part each time. We are due another shortly with actor Matt Smith handing over the role to Peter Capaldi in this year’s Christmas episode .

"It's not only his face that's changed. - He doesn't even act like him."The Power of the Daleks

It is this ability of Doctor Who to adapt as a program that has contributed to its ongoing survival. Fans down through the years each have their ‘own’ Doctor – the Doctor they grew up with – and succeeding generations of fans develop the same attachment to whichever Time Lord is currently been broadcast. 

The anniversary special Day of the Doctor also featured John Hurt as a previously unknown version of the Doctor – responsible for the genocide of the Time Lord race and their implacable enemies the Daleks. If that’s not enough, this year’s Christmas episode will introduce yet another Doctor – Capaldi – whose distinctive eye-brows were briefly glimpsed at the climax to Day. 2013 is a big year for the show. 

It is telling just how central regeneration, and consequently the canon of Doctor Who itself, has become for current plots. The original run on the show was less of a science fiction program than an educational fairy tale intended for children, with the Doctor a doddery old man ferrying his Companions to different time periods. While the show did evolve more science fiction themes, with the introduction of aliens such as the Daleks or the Cybermen, it also concerned itself more overtly with history in story arcs such as The Reign of Terror, The Aztecs, The Crusades and The Gunfighters. These were costume dramas that happened to change the setting with each storyline. 

During Troughton’s tenure as the Doctor the show’s storylines became increasingly surreal and psychedelic  - a reflection of changing cultural attitudes of the time. Indeed an internal BBC memo from 1966 described the process of regeneration in startling terms – 

“The metaphysical change... is a horrifying experience - an experience in which he relives some of the most unendurable moments of his long life, including the galactic war…It is as if he has had the LSD drug and instead of experiencing the kicks, he has the hell and dank horror which can be its effect” (Doctor Who regeneration was 'modeled on LSD trips', 12 April 2010,

Sixth season serial The Mind Robber is a fascinating  and unusually Brechtian storyline (although Bertolt Brecht never wrote a play featuring a young lady in a tight-fitting cat-suit). 

The story begins with the T.A.R.D.I.S. travelling outside of reality itself. Stranded in a white void, the Doctor, Jamie (Frazier Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are alternatively threatened and tempted by figures of pure fantasy, including a man who can only speak lines from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a comic superhero from Earth’s 21st century called The Karkus. 

The Mind Robber is pure fantasy, equal parts whimsy and nightmare – such as when the Doctor accidentally rearranges Jamie’s face, with Hamish Wilson taking over the role briefly (again another example of the show adapting to external events, as Hines had fallen ill). 

At other times the show has attempted to embrace space opera. Steven Moffat’s story for A Good Man Goes to War featuring the Eleventh Doctor recruiting allies to fight an army assembled to defeat him was Star Wars-esque. The Third Doctor story Frontier In Space has alien races battling in starships. Last of the Time Lords written by Russell T. Davies ends with a cute homage to the last shot of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon

Pertwee’s Doctor found himself in situations that were far less madcap than previous iterations of Who. The plots used science fiction metaphors for the Cold War, with the Doctor ‘grounded’ on Earth as punishment for the shenanigans of his previous incarnation. The show would go on to continue to swing back and forth between hard sf themes and fantastical whimsy. Tom Baker’s era had a tendency to indulge in neo-gothic horror, whereas the Peter Davison/Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy years were increasingly grim and conflict-driven.

However, Doctor Who is arguably strongest when it focuses on innocuous everyday situations or objects and makes them strange. 

Take the Daleks themselves. They clearly resemble a domed rubbish bin on wheels with a toilet plunger attached to the front – yet for some reason the show transforms this unlikely creation into a genocidal monster. The Autons from Pertwee’s first adventure Spearhead From Space animate department store window models who massacre English passersby on a high street – still a chilling sequence in its audacity. The Talons of Weng Chiang features a murderous doll some eleven years before Chucky first went on a spree in Child’s Play.  

Then there are the most memorable recent additions to Who, the Weeping Angels – ‘quantum-locked’ statues who feed on the potential futures of their victims. Introduced in the Tenth Doctor adventure Blink, the aliens are shown to be able to disguise themselves as ordinary statues on the sides of buildings or on streets – the episode ends with a montage of statues from around Britain, guaranteed to make children nervous walking through their home towns. Blink also features the Doctor giving the most concise summation of the show’s depiction of time travel to date – 

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff."

It is a clever nod and a wink to criticism of Doctor Who not being real science fiction, choosing instead to cherry-pick science fiction concepts when the mood fits. While the show has always oscillated between fantasy and science fiction – unbelievably Davies went so far as to transform the Doctor into a sort of Christ/Peter Pan hybrid at the climax to Last of the Time Lords – perhaps the real distinction between the classic series and the revival post-Eccleston is that the show currently has more generous budgets. 

Successive sets of writers and producers on Doctor Who have had to adapt to budgetary constraints to realize this strange fable about a time-travelling alien. Down through the years there have been shoddy action sequences as scenes were too expensive to shoot again. See also the occasional muffed line – although that actually helped Hartnell’s absent-minded professor persona at times. Sets looked cheap enough that they would fall down any minute and the monsters were visibly composed of household items. The Wirrn from The Ark in Space managed to be terrifying, despite being a bloke wrapped in bubble-wrap. 

Peter Davison made a wry comment during his interview published in this month's Filmink that contemporary viewers “have to be incredibly understanding of the time in which it was made.” The show overcame these issues by the writers, directors and crew being admirably creative. 

Now Doctor Who enjoys gorgeous set design, incredible special effects and merchandise in stores across the planet. The show so unceremoniously cancelled by the BBC in 1988 has even produced spin-offs like Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures

So if fans are frustrated with the show today, if unfavorable comparisons are made to ‘Classic Who’, it is understandable. In the years between Hartnell’s era and McGann’s failed tv movie the show has suffered many indignities, so today’s adventures have less of an excuse for mediocrity. 

What is interesting though is how Who is being written, and performed, by fans of the earlier adventures for a whole new selection of fans. Doctor Who has not been on the air for fifty years, but fans kept the legacy of the series alive with book series, comics and conventions. It is this that has led to the show becoming a global phenomenon, validating the passion of fans old and new. 
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Thursday, 21 November 2013

Myles At The Movies - Filth

Myles Loughran reviews the latest foray of Irvine Welsh's scatological writing to the screen - Filth.

Speaking of depraved filth, Myles's graphic novel Laugh Until You Spew is currently available on Amazon. Maybe it's a Scottish thing.

Filth is in Australian cinemas now.

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