Monday 29 October 2012

Doctor Who: The Essential Companion – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who: The Essential Companion (BBC/AudioGo, 2×CD, 160 mins), written by Steve Tribe and narrated by Alex Price, stitches together snatches of dialogue from the fifth full season of new Who, from The Eleventh Hour through to The Big Bang. It introduces us to the eleventh Doctor and his companions, Amelia (later Amy) Pond and Rory Williams, and then introduces them (or the Doctor and Amy at least, Rory often being dead, left at home, or erased from the space/time continuum) to countries built on space whales, daleks serving cups of tea, crashed spaceships full of weeping angels, alien vampires in Venice, the dream lord, silurians, Vincent Van Gogh, football and the Pandorica: all the things that made season five so wonderful.

The two CDs do an excellent job of summarising the storylines and celebrating the best lines, and every now and again the narration has a nice take on what’s going on. Those who have seen these episodes, surely its target audience, will find it serves as a pleasant reminder of the fun we’ve had, although my children have never got very far into it before asking to watch the actual episodes instead. For those who haven’t seen the programme, it might intrigue them to give it a try, but would spoil all the surprises. It’s all a bit pointless in an era when you can just load videos of the episodes onto an iPod and listen to them, but I can’t bring myself to dislike anything so full of wonderful dialogue, not least the “Hello Stonehenge!” speech, included here in full.

Friday 26 October 2012

Prometheus – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Ridley, Riddled, Didley, Diddled. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a trickster god who betrayed his own kind and allowed the Olympians to gain ascendancy over the Titans. He championed mankind (as then it was, prior to Pandora), not only saving them from destruction at the tempestuous, lightning-wielding hands of Zeus but also giving them (or giving them back) the secret of fire and—to pull further on the thunder god’s beard—duping Zeus in perpetuity out of the meat of all sacrifices offered to him. In punishment for his duplicity Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver torn out daily by an eagle, forever and ever until even Franz Kafka lost interest and declared this ongoing repetition to be thoroughly pointless.

Students of the cinema will note several key features of the Prometheus myth: firstly, that the protagonists (with the possible exception of the eagle) act almost entirely without motivation; secondly, that for its dramatic impact the tale relies heavily on the evocative, grandiose and (to a large extent) shocking imagery conjured by its narrative; and thirdly, that the story rollicks along quite shamelessly over plot holes and the rocky logic of convenience (most notably in the rough-as-guts abdominal surgery that is perpetuated upon Prometheus in the name of entertainment). For all its symbolism the legend of Prometheus remains perilously light on substance.

Cut to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which draws not only on the original Greek myth but also upon subsequent connotations of lone scientific endeavour and experimentation gone wrong. (Hence, the frequently overlooked “or” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.) Scott is renowned for his cinematic creation of immersive science fiction worlds (Alien, Blade Runner). Indeed, he is a doyen within the genre, and it is little surprise, then, that he renders Prometheus with all the sensory grandeur and visceral suffering that is warranted by its mythically portentous subject matter. So far, so good, and as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw and the crew of the spaceship Prometheus travel in search of the “Engineers” who bequeathed star maps to all of Earth’s ancient cultures, it seems that the film may indeed impart to the viewer much of the epic mastery it so undoubtedly promises.

And yet, it doesn’t take long before Shaw and company (surrendering their weapons to the goodwill and high spirits of Christmas) throw good practice to the wind and so charge on in to explore the caveat…

Prometheus is overly ambitious in its aims, seeking not only to symbolically embody two contrasting mythologies but also (unofficially) to prefigure Alien—the Scott and sf/horror archetype with all its innate expectations—and also (we might fear) one or two as-yet-unfilmed “prequel sequels” that, once bequeathed the Promethean gift of fire, will burn with little purpose beyond elucidating the specially created obfuscation of Prometheus itself. Where successive scriptwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof fail (or succeed, depending on your viewpoint; but in either case, they’ve done it terribly) is that they’ve imbued Prometheus with all the structural integrity and narrative coherence of the original trickster myth. The paucity of logic that they’ve brought to the script—and let Scott’s complicity here be noted—must surely be worthy of some award, even within the moth-eaten wardrobe of Hollywood’s finest; for Prometheus on the big screen is a story with more holes than plot, and as the credits roll and the conspicuous absence of consulting logicians gives way to an innumerable flock of liver-ripping effects artists, one cannot help but voice the irreverent thought that each of these (doubtlessly talented) individuals must surely have in some way sponsored one of the film’s groundbreaking array of logical non sequiturs and effects-without-cause.

When Titanic was released in 1997, would-be viewers who knew of James Cameron were split into two factions: those who preached the word “Terminator” with great if indiscriminate fervour; and those who more cautiously adopted the stance, “Yes, but unless there’s actually a Terminator onboard the boat…” And upon this distinction, plot- and theme-conscious cinemagoers were saved while those who romanticised about an omnipotent director went oh-so-tragically down with the ship. Now, whereas Titanic was quite blatantly a trap, advocates of Ridley Scott may find Prometheus a more insidious lure to avoid. It is, after all, clearly Alien-esque as a prequel (although, so too did Predators pass as Predator-esque; at least long enough to ruin 2010), and in contrasting the masked humanity of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) with the monstrous evolution of the Promethean android David (Michael Fassbender) it draws obvious inspiration also from Blade Runner. Moreover, Prometheus is visually bountiful (a Scott trademark that may be enough for some viewers) and carries a cleverly dissonant score by Marc Streitenfeld, the measured dose of which evokes a sense both of majestic, space-faring enterprise and unsettling, best-left-alone secrets. Yet, where Streitenfeld succeeds in wielding the musical staff à la Jerry Goldsmith or Vangelis, the same cannot be said of Ridley Scott in reprising his own role as classic dark science fiction “engineer”. For all that Prometheus might carry itself as a sovereign majesty cloaked in nuance and mystery, hinting as if at some greater meaning just beyond reach, for the most part Scott merely rehashes Alien and Blade Runner themes—bringing nothing more to them than a cinemagoer would by heating up old popcorn—and while doing so presents a supposedly new, quasi-religious take on the SF universe, which, although overtly pursued, remains poorly developed and indeed deliberately unfulfilled. In stark reality, Scott’s touch is little more than the shambling and gratuitously exhibitionist gait of Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor dressed only in clodhopping moonboots.

Ultimately, the “Ridley-Scott-ness” of Prometheus is nothing more than a façade (or perhaps an enormous carved head that really has no business being there). The support cast might make the most of their screen time—particularly Idris Elba (Captain Janek), who is characterised astutely “against” his current small screen persona in Luther—but the lead actors are given either clichéd or cardboard cut-out roles (sometimes both), and in all other respects the movie suffers from the clunky chains and fearsome improbability of its script. Lines are dropped in with the subtlety of spanners, drawing attention (perhaps unwisely) to plot points that are significant only in that they further preclude any possibility of the story being taken seriously. Motivations are sacrificed to the sanctity of myth. Style, in short, triumphs over substance, to such an extent that Noomi Rapace (Shaw) subjects herself to an extemporised Promethean gut-rip so ludicrous that it can only have been inspired by too much red slushee and one of those “skill-testing” machines that can often be found in the cinema foyer—the ones where people enamoured with soft toys can attempt to snap one up by manoeuvring a dainty metal claw into position above a fluffed up pile of cuddly aliens. The individual gaffes perpetrated within Prometheus are too numerous to catalogue without comparative reference to a George W. Bush highlights reel, but suffice to say that Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof have chained their story to its rock without any input from bona fide cryptologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, astrobiologists, or even gastroenterologists—once seated the audience is force-fed such codswallop that it finds itself spattered not merely with plot vomit but with the actual, exploded remains of stomachs seeking to jack-in-the-box evacuate from their infected carriers.

Such is the epically shallow and turgid nature of Prometheus that even the characters themselves seem to find its script difficult to swallow, a highlight being when Sean Harris as Fifield (a geologist) realises he’s been scripted in by accident and spits the dummy, declaring, “I like rocks. I love rocks. Now, it’s clear you two don’t give a shit about rocks. All you do seem to care about is giant dead bodies, and I really don’t have anything to contribute in the giant dead body arena…” Whereupon he stomps off back to the ship; but of course, as the person in charge of mapping out the structure they’re exploring, loses his way and doesn’t make it. Pinned to their seats as the eagle twitches its beak, disgruntled ticket holders surely will empathise.

Monday 22 October 2012

Worldsoul, by Liz Williams – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Worldsoul is a city somewhat adjacent to our world, and the subject of a fine novel by Liz Williams (Prime, tpb, 312pp). A year ago the Skein left Worldsoul, leaving its inhabitants to fend for themselves, but so far, despite the burning flower attacks from unknown enemies, they haven’t found a way to work together. The factions are too busy battling each other to deal with the problems the city faces. Mercy works in the Great Library of Worldsoul, strapping on weapons before going into the stacks to fight anything that escapes the books. She’s worried about one of her mothers, who sails the Liminality in hopes of finding the Skein, but won’t let it interfere with her work. Jonathan Deed is the Abbot General of the court, performing magic with the aid of grimoires, demons and gods, who wants control of the city. Shadow is an alchemist, more involved than she would like with Suleiman the Shah, and then even more involved with an ifrit. Mareritt is an ice queen, perhaps the original ice queen, who rides through legends in a sleigh that carries the severed heads of kings. Ancient myths, the nightmares of our oldest ancestors, are escaping from the stories that held them, and though “the mind is the best weapon of all”, ancient celtic swords, powerful magic and ninja skills will come in handy too.

There are many things I liked about this book; one is that it didn’t dive straight into a pigeonhole. There are other books that share its themes—there’s a nod to Mythago Wood in the mention of the “Holdstockian layer”, and there are echoes of Thursday Next and Michael Moorcock—but I never had that sense of seeing a few key signifiers and thinking, right, that’s what we’ve got here, that’s what’s going to happen. The only way to get a hold of this world was to pay attention to the book (and I suspect I still don’t quite have it all figured out, not that I’ve let that stop me writing a review!).

It’s the first thing I’ve read by Liz Williams, so I can’t say how it bears up to her other work or fits within her oeuvre; that is a weakness of the review, but gives me lots to look forward to reading. This one had nearly everything I look for in a book; exciting action, interesting mysteries, striking characters, good writing and fighting librarians. As far as one can tell from a review pdf the book is nicely designed and typeset, and the cover art is excellent. Don’t be put off by the new-agey title; it seems less blowsy after reading the book and makes sense; fairy tales are “the engine that runs this city”—the Liminality is (I think) the physical manifestation of our myths and legends, what could be called the soul of our world.

Unlike a fairy tale, Worldsoul doesn’t end with a happily ever after. There’s a battle, and a heroic sacrifice, a surprising revelation, and then, just as it looks like there might be an ending, a major event, Paul W.S. Anderson-style, that promises a sequel and does much to make the reader want one.

Friday 19 October 2012

The Dark Knight Rises – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

And whereand whereand where is the Batman? The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, released July 16, 2012.

Gotham City is at peace and Batman hasn’t been seen in the eight years following the tumultuous events of The Dark Knight. With the vilification of his alter-ego and the financial losses suffered by Wayne Enterprises in pursuing then abandoning a clean energy project with unforeseen destructive potential, Bruce Wayne has sunk into a reclusive abstinence from society, mourning the life he could have lived with Rachel Dawes had she not been killed by the Joker. When Commissioner Gordon and rookie police officer John Blake uncover a villainous new threat lurking in Gotham’s sewers, and cat burglar Selina Kyle then allows Wayne’s fingerprints to be used to disastrous ill-effect, Batman must emerge to save his city from the fanatical machinations of Bane—a cogent, Herculean villain who trained under Wayne’s former mentor, Ra’s al Ghul. The menace is palpable but the Batman has aged and Wayne Enterprises is vulnerable. As Bane’s ruthlessly conceived schemes play out, both Gotham and her maligned protector will fall to new depths of despair and helplessness.

Many of Generation Z’s cinemagoers—indeed, quite a few of Generation Y’s—will have received their first live action Batman experience from Batman Begins (2005), rather than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or, going back to the 1960s, anything starring Adam West and Burt Ward. In this they have been fortunate. Sixties Batman was very much of its time and may have charmed the Baby Boomers with its colourful, slightly camp style, yet in many respects it formed the light-hearted nadir for a superhero who was born in 1939 under the hardboiled pulp star and then moulded by DC Comics with all the grit and dark overtones that characterised the early 1940s. Tim Burton rendered the Caped Crusader in his own, inimitably kooky style with Batman and then Batman Returns (1992), but then came non-Burton offerings Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997)—not to mention Catwoman (2004)—and with these pastiches all the quirkiness and menace suddenly gave way to parody and badly drawn melodrama. Generation X was horribly scarred; and yet, from their disillusioned and downtrodden ranks was born Gotham’s greatest hope: director Christopher Nolan.

Those who disavow the prevalent waft of overblown cinematic fluff—and there are some in every generation, surely?—will have tattooed Nolan’s name on their back-of-the-hand “remember to watch” notes after viewing his thriller/noir classic Memento (2000). The Prestige followed in 2006—and yes, Inception (2010), for all that it was hyped beyond the realms of its audacious designs—but before that there was Batman Begins, the “prequel” whose two sequels now show it to have been not a prequel at all, but rather a pulp-inked rewriting that blots out entirely those Kilmered and Jonesed, Clooneyed and Schwarzeneggered turkeys, and any other best-left-Berryed mistakes of the past. (And, collaterally, Tim Burton’s Batman; Vale, Vicki Vale.) Aged just 42, Christopher Nolan nevertheless constitutes an “old school” director in every sense that counts—shooting on film rather than video and taking an admirable stance with regard both to 3D movies (“It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace.”) and to CGI (“There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that I have no interest in.”)[1] Nolan crafted Batman Begins as an exploration of character, and although The Dark Knight (2008)—despite Heath Ledger’s much acclaimed portrayal of the Joker—may then have strayed too far into stony faced machismo and action sequences, The Dark Knight Rises concludes the eventual trilogy (Nolan didn’t set out with the intention of making one)[2] in a bleak yet uplifting, gripping yet down-to-earth manner—one that will be respected, hopefully, by any future purveyors of Batman on the big screen.

Batman Begins (140 mins) and The Dark Knight (152 mins) scored 8.3 and 8.9 respectively on IMDB. To some extent it is on the back of this previous success that The Dark Knight Rises (164 mins) has, at time of writing, been able to scale the heights of 9.1—in running for 2¾ hours (a considerable investment of screen-time for cinemas that could just as easily be selling tickets at the standard 90 min fare) the film takes the opportunity to develop characters and to play out a story that in more rushed circumstances could have presented as garbled and (an obvious risk) comic-book clichéd. There is a certain amount of comic-strip logic running through The Dark Knight Rises, but Nolan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) keeps it in check and ensures that the drama and spectacle remain, in large and at heart, both human and grounded. The musical score helps in this respect—courtesy of Hans Zimmer, a Prince in his own right—and of course the acting: Christian Bale spends less time as Batman this time around, and more as the physically frail and mentally anguished Bruce Wayne; Anne Hathaway looks for and finds her inner Hedy Lamarr in pussyfooting around as nascent Catwoman Selina Kyle; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) is believably earnest as officer John Blake (whose stature, looks and—spoiler—little-used birth name, hint cleverly—then a little too blatantly—at his involvement being, in fact, a backstory); old hands Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and (in particular) Michael Caine provide excellent support; and Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Inception) deserves special mention for being able to bring presence and nuance of delivery to a lead villain who not only has his face mostly obscured but also his voice filtered. Bane, like Batman, has derived from his childhood suffering a single-minded strength both physically and of purpose; Hardy pitches his performances perfectly on the common ground between the two characters, and in doing so crafts an adversary as chilling in his self-control as either Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger were in embracing their demented extravagances. Bane’s effectiveness is testament both to Hardy’s finesse as an actor and to Nolan’s determination to pursue new ideas rather than upsizing and rehashing with each instalment of the franchise.

The Dark Knight Rises is a grim film—even its occasional snatches of humour are more laconic than lightly buttered—yet this bleakness is what lies (or at least should lie) at the armoured heart of the superhero ethos. After all, Batman and his ilk are spawned ultimately of despair and need, not choc tops and frivolity. (Even the overtly comedic Mystery Men (1999) recognised this and so gave gruesome shading to its heroes’ hapless masquerading.) And if The Dark Knight Rises is, at times, a little heavy on its symbolism, well, then so be it; it’s no more than the consequence of Christopher Nolan’s shining the spotlight so brightly. So long as the Bat-Signal continues thus to cut its silhouette faithfully through the fog, citizens X, Y and Z of Gotham will have much cause to seek out and embrace the pervading, cinematic darkness.

1.   Christopher Nolan, interviewed by Jeffrey Ressner, “The Traditionalist” (
2.   “Nolan Talks DARK KNIGHT … And More!” ( [December 5, 2008]