Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Maroon 5 and Counting Crows at Walnut Creek

One of the great things about your kids getting older is that they stop being the reason that you don't go to concerts any more and they become the reason that you start going to concerts again. It is great to be living in this transition at the moment. The first gig we went to with Emily and Lauren since coming to America was Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus) and the Jonas Brothers in Greensboro last November, an expensive but enjoyable evening, and a family atmosphere, with thousands of kids there to see Miley Cyrus. But now, as the girls' musical tastes develop, they are pressing us to go to see bands that are not quite so children-orientated, and we are able to take advantage of being in a fantastic location for getting to good concerts.

Last night, Maroon 5 came to Raleigh, to a giant outdoor amphitheatre called Walnut Creek Pavilion. We went for the cheap tickets, on the lawn behind all the seating, but we still had an excellent view. And being on the grass on a balmy summer evening made the whole evening feel like one of the summer festivals I used to like going to in England in my youth. There were three acts. The first, Sarah Bareilles, came on at seven, and she was pretty good, though it had the feeling of background music where we were located, with punters coming and going around us the whole time, putting down their travelling rugs and deck chairs, meeting their friends and chatting. Counting Crows then played for over an hour, beginning at sunset and continuing until it was dark. I can't say that I am a big fan of them, though I enjoyed their hit "Mr Jones" and so, apparently, did everyone else. It was the one track that everyone stood up for. Overall, though, they didn't really catch the excitement of the audience and it was clear that most people had turned up to see the headline act.

Emily introduced me to Maroon 5 and because she plays their most recent CD a lot, I found that I knew most of the tracks. They were a superb live act, one of the best live sets I have seen, not too much messing about ("Everybody say yeah, yeah"; "Yeah Yeah" etc.), and really polished. The lead singer's vocals were pitch perfect -- all very impressive. And they played all their hits. Not much up on Youtube yet, but I'll keep an eye out and add a link if anyone adds anything decent from last night.

Perhaps the most unusual thing to me was the make up of the audience. They were pretty young, mainly college age, and there was an even gender mix. They were all very well scrubbed up and turned out; there was hardly a sweaty fat tattooed denim and leathers merchant in sight. But there were also very few children. That will presumably be all different tonight when we return to Walnut Creek to see the latest teen sensation, the Jonas Brothers, headlining along with Avril Lavigne. So that I don't waste quite as much money as last night, this time we will be taking our own drinks and food ($4 for a bottle of coke! $5 for a cup of chips (fries)!).

I am a redneck

I may be a resident alien here in North Carolina, and I may be keeping my English accent, but apparently I am now a redneck! I have been visiting the same barber in Durham for three years and on the most recent visit, on Monday, right at the end of my haircut, he told me that I have become a redneck. Too many visits to the pool, no doubt.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Who before Hollywood

There is surely no question that Steven Moffat has made the right decision in putting Doctor Who before Hollywood, and pulling out of his deal to write the second Tin Tin film; this is from Digital Spy:

Moffat pulled out of "Tin Tin" for "Who"
By Dave West, Media Correspondent

Good for him. And great for us. BBC News clarifies what actually happened, however, in this report:

Dr Who Writer Denies Tintin row

Back on Digital Spy, it is worth taking a look at their very entertaining 'Doctor Who' Season Four: Cult Spy Awards.

Blog name change

I have been experimenting with my Personal Blog for almost a year now, and I have decided to continue the experiment for another year or so. I notice that the posts that get the most interest are those about British expat living in the USA and to a large extent they are the most enjoyable to write. I am adjusting the name of the blog from the riveting and catching "Mark Goodacre's Personal Blog" to "The Resident Alien". I couldn't have called it that a year ago because we didn't yet have our green cards at that point, but now that we have, there is something strangely appropriate about that describing the blog that way. Incidentally, I notice in looking back on my post, "Our Green Cards Have Arrived" that I have never added mention that the kids also received their green cards not long after that post. It turned out that the business of getting a new birth certificate was straightforward and a formality. When we returned to England last time -- in April -- we were all able to walk through with the US citizens and the green card holders. It's nice not to have to fill in those white forms on the way through too.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Post Mamma Mia: An Abba Fan's Delight

My concerns were groundless. I loved every minute of Mamma Mia. It's delightful. True, there were moments where the big stars were thrashing out Abba songs with great gusto and looking like they might ruin them, Meryl Streep's doing her best with "Winner Takes it All" but leaving you longing for the original with Agnetha's vocals, but those moments were relatively few and far between. The backing track, apparently supplied by Abba's own musicians, was sublime, and there were moments when you almost felt that you could hear Agnetha and Frida on backing vocals if you listened hard enough. And during "Dancing Queen" there was a great little cameo from Benny, playing the piano on the jetty.

I was unfamiliar with the story of the musical and I was pleasantly surprised by how well Abba songs had been woven into its absurd, fluffy, but enjoyable plot. On odd occasions the songs felt more obviously shoe-horned in than they might have been. Brosnan's character singing SOS came from nowhere, Streep's character's "Winner Takes it All" likewise. But the musical avoids doing anything seriously horrible; there are no characters knocking around called "Fernando" or "Nina", thank goodness. And on several of the occasions where the songs are a little forced, the characters themselves appear to realize it. Julie Walters's ridiculous call of "Chiquitita" to Meryl Streep (hiding in the toilet) is hilarious. And sometimes the choice of songs is unpredictable and quite refreshing. I did not immediately think of "Our Last Summer" when Colin Firth's character, a "banker" named "Harry" was introduced at the beginning of the film. And while most of the songs chosen are the "hits", there are other good choices of the lesser known tracks, the kinds the fans like, "Slipping through my fingers", Meryl Streep and her daughter Amanda Seyfried in a tear-jerker, "Lay all your love on me", Amanda Seyfried on the beach on her fiancé's stag night, and "When All is Said and Done", at the wedding at the end.

I found watching this film unbelievably enjoyable, a whole gushing series of emotions, laughing out loud and crying quietly. It is totally unsophisticated; it has the most ridiculous plot imaginable; it ought to be the most terrible film you could think of and yet somehow it works and works brilliantly. A huge part of that is simply that Abba's songs are just so good that it is the musical to trump all musicals. Where sometimes in musicals you sigh when someone begins to sing, in this film every time another song starts, you think, "Great! Another fantastic song." But there is also something about the brainless enjoyment that invites you in to celebrate alongside all the characters so clearly having a party. You want to sing and dance with them. And it might sound daft to say it, but somehow the film looks like Abba songs sound. There is a kind of joyful optimism, a love of life that does make you think of the sunshine, the seaside, laughing, crying and celebrating.

This is just wonderful. While everyone else is raving abut Dark Knight here, and I too will get round to seeing that over the next few days, I can't think about anything other than Mamma Mia and I can't wait for my second viewing, as soon as possible, and then a third and a fourth.

Mark Kermode delivers his best review over -- he is absolutely spot on about this "strangely wonderful" film -- I laughed out loud at his review:

Friday, 18 July 2008

Pre Mamma Mia: An Abba fan's anxieties

Anyone who knows me knows of my love for Abba. And that does not mean that I have a copy of Abba Gold on CD and know all the lyrics to "Dancing Queen". It means that I have a serious past as an Abba fan, a massive record collection, all the 1970s memorabilia including the (now very rare) Abba dolls, an appearance on Radio Derby, circa 1982, as "local Abba superfan", an article about me, with picture, in the Abba Magazine (again circa 1982), and I could go on. I was so serious back in the day that I was there for the first performance of Chess at the London Barbican in October 1984, sitting on the front row, and meeting and getting autographs from Bjorn, Benny and Tim Rice. Well, time, family and other interests have mellowed my obsessive tendencies, especially on the collecting front, but my love for Abba is still the same, and so it is with mixed feelings that I look forward to going to see the new film Mamma Mia, which opens today here in the USA. One one level, it is great to have Abba songs so much in the limelight, to see people appreciating what I always knew, that they were brilliant. On another level, I am not sure how I feel about having the likes of Meryl Streep and Colin Firth singing Abba songs, and a look at the trailer makes me suspect that it is all going to be rather silly:

As an Abba fan, I can't help thinking that I will just want to hear the real Abba songs when I see the actors doing their best with them. One of the things that was so great about Abba was the Abba sound, Benny's piano and the girls' voices; it was not just about those catchy melodies. When Alan Partridge says that he prefers the "Jeff Love Orchestra" version of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" that he uses for his radio show, we all laugh because it is so obviously not true. In fact, many of my records are cover versions of Abba songs, and 95% of them are absolutely terrible. Reproducing the Abba sound is virtually impossible -- it's like trying to reproduce the Beatles. Even the very good tribute bands like Bjorn Again only get a hint of what Abba actually sounded like. Even Abba themselves sometimes struggled to recreate the Abba sound live, especially if you compare the 1979 concert footage with the earlier, sublime 1977 footage in Abba The Movie.

I was encouraged, though, by a documentary we watched last week on ITV about the development of Mamma Mia in which it became clear that Bjorn and Benny, the two Bs in Abba, are closely involved with the production of the film, as they were earlier involved with the stage production. Remarkably, the original musicians who played on all the Abba tracks (sans Agnetha and Frida) have been gathered together for the score of the film. There they all were, looking a bit fatter and older, gathered to recreate the magic. And that should make the music at least worth listening to, even if we do still find ourselves longing for the proper voices over the top of that revised backing track.

We never managed to get to see the stage show of Mamma Mia; it opened when the kids were little and we were poor and we could never swing it to get to London to see it. So I go into the film today with only a vague knowledge of the story, and so some degree of freshness. I will let you know what I thought of it all later.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Dr Horrible

We are big Joss Whedon fans in our house (Buffy, Firefly, Serenity, looking forward to Dollhouse), so we naturally were ready for "Act 1" of his new web-only project tonight. And it did not disappoint. It is a kind of anti-super-hero nerd's musical, and the first episode was great. Only 13 minutes or so in the first instalment, but a very well spent thirteen minutes, and we will be watching Act II tomorrow, and almost certainly watching Act I again:

Dr Horrible

For those, like me, who loved the musical episode of Buffy, this is what you have been waiting for for the last five years. I would love this to work for Joss Whedon, and for thousands of internet nerds to say, "Yay, more!" and for it to become a cult. In any case, it is free, and only 13 minutes of your time, so what is to lose?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

How would Journey's End have looked if the tenth doctor had regenerated?

I have continued to think about the last episode of this series of Doctor Who, Journey's End, helped along by the usual dose of podcasts and online reviews. I have to admit that unlike the best episodes of Doctor Who, I mean the really great episodes, it does not bear too much thinking about, and the element that consistently niggles is the extraordinary business with the second doctor, the "Odd Job Junior Doctor" as I called him in my review. It's just such a bizarre idea; why on earth did Russell T. Davies come up with such an extraordinarily weird idea as having a duplicate doctor growing from that hand in a jar? Well, today I caught up with the Tin Dog Podcast, one of my favourites, and its presenter (Michael?) had a theory so good that I think it might be right. Of course I encourage you to go and listen to the podcast, but the gist of it was to imagine that at the beginning of "Journey's End", the tenth doctor had regenerated into the eleventh doctor, and then, later in the episode, that hand generates the tenth doctor clone, as we saw in the episode. We then have a two-doctor episode, tenth and eleventh, with the eleventh the "real" doctor and the tenth doing everything we saw him do, with Donna et al. Now imagine the scene in Bad Wolf Bay at the end. We have the eleventh doctor, a new face, played by who knows? (I like to imagine Richard E. Grant) and he is not quite the real doctor to Rose, not her doctor. And he fudges the crucial moment at which he could say what he had said at the end of series 2. And then the tenth doctor clone, who looks and feels like her doctor, is able to say those crucial three words in her ear, and Rose is happy to go off with him. Just imagine the feel of that -- it would have been perfect: Rose is united with her doctor, while the new doctor, still unfamiliar to us all, goes off in his TARDIS. What a fantastic way of creating a transition between the doctors that would have been! What an end of an era!

Most of the above is from the Tin Dog Podcast, though some is my own riffing on the theme. But I can't help wondering whether Tin Dog is actually onto something here. We know that Russell T. Davies likes those sorts of perfect tie-ups -- we saw it at the end of the second series, with the alternative universe's Pete Tyler joining up with our universe's Jacky. And bear in mind that David Tennant was always rumoured to have been standing down at the end of this series. Catherine Tate leaked this before the series had begun, to the evident annoyance of David Tennant himself, and perhaps that was the original deal. Russell writes the final episode with the regeneration to cap them all, a cliffhanger at the end of the twelfth episode, and a clever means to keep Tennant involved right to the end. I think I could easily have coped with Rose going off with her Tennant doctor at the end of the episode, not quite sure what to make of the new incarnation of the doctor who is now about to begin his new adventures in the four specials.

If this scenario is right, and it has some considerable explanatory power, we will probably never know until Russell writes his memoirs, and even then he might be guarded. Or perhaps one day David Tennant will tell all. Perhaps Tennant could just not resist the temptation to continue doing Doctor Who for a bit longer, to become the definitive doctor, to trump Tom Baker's tenure (three more years will do it). If it is right, I suspect that Russell liked his plot too much, and adapted it so that it would still work with Tennant playing both characters, though I think this may have been a mistake. Perhaps someone should have said, "Come on, Russell, this doesn't quite work" but there was no one to do that. Let's hope Steven Moffat gets a script editor who can say to him, "No, Steven, I don't think so" from time to time.

All the above is probably complete rubbish, but it's great fun to talk rubbish from time to time.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 13: Journey's End

And so we arrive at the final episode of the current series of Doctor Who, "the finale" as it is now called (a nomenclature I first heard when Buffy was on). As well as the excitement before watching, there is also something of a preparation for disappointment and anti-climax, in part because the hype was so great (Media Round Up) leading up to it, in part because the cliffhanger at the end of "The Stolen Earth" was so good that the resolution could hardly better it, but mainly because of the feeling that this is it. The end of another series. The wait until the Christmas special begins. But worse, this time there is the knowledge that we don't get a complete series next year, just the specials. So everyone wanted to savour Doctor Who while it was still with us.

Given all that hype, this was real "event television". With 9.4 million on the overnights (which will rise by a few when the final figures are in), this was the most watched TV programme of the week, the first time that has ever happened in the history of the series. And it seems that those millions loved it. For a second week running, it had an Audience Appreciation figure of 91, which is remarkable (Source: Outpost Gallifrey). Whatever anyone else says about the series, Russell T. Davies's tenure as show-runner has been a fantastic success, achieving things no doubt beyond his dreams. With the British media continuing to go crazy about this , it was an event in our house too. Given the inevitable time lapse for us in watching, we avoided all contact with the British media, i.e. the internet, from 1.40pm our time onwards (it was on BBC1 at 6.40pm BST, and we are five hours behind). We even went to the pool to make sure we were away from temptation. When it was ready to watch, we locked the door, closed the blinds, switched off the phones and got ready for our 65 minutes of action.

Now I have to admit that I was just a touch disappointed with the resolution of the best cliffhanger of all time. I knew that David Tennant was to stay on, but there was just that niggling thought, that tiny little possibility that this could have been the best kept TV secret ever. And that photograph of David Morrissey looking like he could be the doctor really was intriguing, even if it now seems obvious in retrospect that he is just in Victorian costume, filming the Christmas special. And a week is a long time to be thinking about all the other possibilities that might have included Tennant staying on and yet introducing something else. There was that reference to "the threefold doctor" in "The Stolen Earth". Could it be that we might see, even for a short while, McCann or even McCoy? This all turned out to be utter fanboy nonsense, of course, and it now seems daft that anyone would have thought this way, even if it was fun for a while. One of my favourite reviews of the final episode imagined how things might have been, The Twee Doctors on Behind the Sofa:

Blimey, wasn't David Morrissey fantastic tonight? I mean, WOW! And phew, too! Just imagine how disappointed we'd have been if David Tennant had regenerated into himself or something pathetic like that! That would have been a massive cop-out and they'd have lynched RTD for sure. And top marks for pulling off a Paul McGann Time War flashback so we could watch him regenerate into Eccleston. Brilliant! But killing Rose and Martha - who saw that coming? However, I have to admit that shoehorning Harriet Jones into the Dalek Supreme and McCoy's cheeky cameo as "Dr." Osterhagen did over-egg the pudding a little, even it was cleverly done (I loved the subtle reference to the Kandyman). And while I'm having a hard time swallowing the fact that Donna was actually Romana all along (Temp = Time, Noble = Lord - slaps forehead - of course!) that bit at the end when John Simm unleashed all of those Cybermen into the TARDIS was f**king mental! What? What? WHAT?

Is it Christmas yet?



OK, so that's what might have happened if Russell had turned left (or listened to some of the more insane suggestions on the DW forum over the past couple of months). Unfortunately, what we ended up simply couldn't compete with that level of hype and speculation.
Exactly right. The previous episode, "The Stolen Earth", was simply the best experience I've had while watching Doctor Who. It was that good. And I think that anything would struggle to live up to that. It's often the way with two-parters; I liked "Forest of the Dead" less than "Silence in the Library" and even "Family of Blood" less than "Human Nature", and these were two of the best stories ever. But after the the thrill-a-minute side to "Stolen Earth" is over, "Journey's End" is able to do much more with its characters, and it has some wonderful moments.

There are too many highlights to mention, but a few of the many moments that made this for me include:
  • Julian Bleach's maniacal performance as Davros -- that laugh when you see the inside of his mouth was chilling.
  • Bernard Cribbins as Wilf -- his heartbreak at Donna's fate, and he still has tme to ask the doctor, "What about you?" I am sorry that we may have seen the last of Wilf; he's been great.
  • The German daleks -- Extermenieren! -- enough said.
  • Mickey's meeting again with Captain Jack; in fact, Mickey throughout this episode -- more Mickey please! Delighted that he's back in our universe, and hopefully heading for Torchwood with Martha too.
  • The return to the theme of the doctor's pacifism, and the struggles with blood and violence. In "The Doctor's Daughter", he wants the new planet founded on the idea of avoiding bloodshed; the idea of genocide was "over my dead body", and it is the theme of "Genesis of the Daleks". Now we return again to the doctor's horror at the idea of genocide, even of the daleks.
  • I can't resist saying something about the whole "prophecy" theme. Are Dalek Caan's prophecies directing the action, causing people to behave in a certain way, or are they the mad rantings of someone who has glimpsed the future during the time war?
  • The tragedy of Donna's fate -- one of the most poignant and upsetting moments in Doctor Who.
  • The structure and pacing of the episode was perfect; I loved the multiple endings, layered one after another, like the end of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, or John's Gospel.
One of the things that initially gave me pause was the "Oddjob Junior" doctor. In Carry on Screaming, they grow a new Oddjob "Junior" out of his finger, and he too goes round in a blue suit like this doctor 2. It took me a lot of time to get used to this bizarre plot development, and I think it affected my initial viewing much too strongly. But on second viewing, I liked this; it was the development of the resolution of the cliffhanger, and so made sense of that initially disappointing moment, and it led to some great comic moments with Catherine Tate, and of course he played a key role in the defeat of the new dalek empire. And although I was not especially keen on revisiting Bad Wolf Bay, and sending off Oddjob Junior Doctor with Rose, it does give us the chance, as Darth Skeptical commented on Podshock, for a naturally aged Tennant recurring in twenty years time -- that will make this ending well worth it.

Favourite moment? A lot to choose from, but I adored the revisiting of my favourite piece of music from the series, the Ood Song from Planet of the Ood, now re-arranged in the delightfully absurd flying the earth back into orbit:

Utterly ridiculous. Utterly brilliant.

Rating: 5 TARDIS groans again. The series goes out on a high, with back to back 5s, from Silence of the Library through to the end. Series review to follow.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 12: The Stolen Earth

"The Stolen Earth" was the best experience I've had while watching Doctor Who. It is not the best episode ever, but it is the most successful in giving the viewer a thrill a minute. It is the kind of episode that could only have been done now, at the end of the fourth series since Doctor Who was revived in 2005. There are tons of references to the programme's recent past, and a smattering of references to its older history too, most obviously in the return of one of the great villains of the past. I was eight when Davros first appeared in Doctor Who, in "Genesis of the Daleks", a story we re-watched this week in order to do a bit of homework ahead of his return in "The Stolen Earth". It stands the test of time remarkably well -- it is still very watchable, and Michael Wisher's Davros is brilliantly menacing. Julian Bleach puts in a fantastic performance as Davros in the new episode, and it is excellent that they kept his look pretty faithful to Davros's look from previous outings, and especially "Genesis of the Daleks".

There was a reward in this episode for those of us who have embraced not only new Who but also the rest of the new Whoniverse, with two series of Torchwood and a series of Sarah Jane Adventures. The fact that Torchwood series 2 went out also in a family-friendly version meant that Torchwood characters like Ianto and Gwen could be introduced here without the kids going, "huh?" And getting Sarah Jane Adventures into the mix too somehow grants that show too that extra bit of legitimacy. I like the fact that Russell T. Davies is proud enough of these new programmes to add them to a Doctor Who episode. There was something quite thrilling about having Gwen and Ianto, Sarah Jane and Luke (but I would have liked to have seen Maria too) in Doctor Who. And how did Russell manage to write a script with so much emotion, and so many characters, and without it feeling convoluted or rushed? It was not a convoluted story; it was easy to follow, and yet it sped along at a frenetic pace. "Oh great, more Wilf, yes! Oh, and Rose! Martha; is she dead? No, she's still alive! And there's Francine! Great! Harriet Jones!" And so on, all the way through.

My favourite review this week was from Behind the Sofa, by Neil:

Talkin' Bout Regeneration

. . . . . How can Russell top this? This isn't his last 'Horray!' by a long chalk - there's still four "specials" before his era truly comes to an end. So what on earth is he going to do for an encore? It's a terrifying prospect. How about the Doctor and Borusa riding in on the back of a Myrka to defeat Morbius, the Master and the Rani as they attempt to destroy ancient Gallifrey with the help of some Quarks? Guest starring Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy (who has a Metebelis spider on his back) and featuring Simon Cowell as Himself. It's madness! Utter madness!

Good luck to him, I say. The audience is positively lapping it up and a stunning AI score of 91 won't see Russell changing tack as he hits the final stretch. We might as well go with the flow. This series has delivered some wonderful, thought provoking episodes - Midnight, Silence in the Library, The Fires of Pompeii - but we've always known that the finale would be an apocalyptic, loud, proud and utterly mental Russ-fest. Moaning about it now seems a little absurd. We may as well save our outrage for next week's obligatory reset button instead (aka the Haagen-Dazs Key).

Well, even if we get another "reset" or "rewind" in "Journey's End", I think I can cope with it for the joy of "Stolen Earth". I can't wait to find out how that cliffhanger is resolved and frankly, I just know that I can't be disappointed after such a fantastic 45 minutes. Heck, that "TO bam BE bam CONTINUED" was so thrilling that I wanted to watch it again and again. Although I can't wait for the resolution, I want to pause for a moment and enjoy this moment of not knowing, to make a memory here about how well cliffhanger TV works when it works, like it does here, with everyone going into a frenzy of speculation all week about what happens next. And of course that is my favourite clip of the week:

The test of a great episode is whether you want to watch it again, and again. We have already watched "The Stolen Earth" three times and would happily catch it again, except that it is almost time for the finale. Watching this episode was an extended Whogasm! I'd love to have seen those girls' reaction to this episode!

And now, it is media blackout time until we've seen "Journey's End".

Oh, five TARDIS groans, of course. Heck, I'd give it six.

Doctor Who Overdrive!

While we were enjoying the 4th of July, it seems that the UK media went into overdrive on the excitement generated by the last episode of the current series of Doctor Who later today, and not without reason. Last week's episode was such a fabulous, thrill-a-minute ride, especially for long time fans of the show, with the most exciting cliffhanger in the history of the show, that it is difficult not to be very excited indeed about the final episode tomorrow. I was delighted to read this round-up on Outpost Gallifrey:

Media round-up - UK in Doctor Who meltdown

The British media has gone into Doctor Who overdrive in recent days, with a frenzy of comment, speculation and analysis across all kinds of outlets on television, radio, the internet and in print. As the week has gone on the avalanche of coverage ahead of tomorrow's climactic finale to series four has continued to build, and the excitement shows no sign of dying down yet.

This evening, BBC One's main early evening news bulletin, the Six O'Clock News, carried a report from entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba, looking at the secrecy surrounding tomorrow night's episode. It featured a short new clip from the episode, as well as comments from Freema Agyeman - who said friends had been texting her about the series, and people on the street had been asking her about the episode all week - and Russell T Davies. Following the showing of the report, the weatherman commented that this Saturday's rainy weather would be suitable for staying indoors and watching Doctor Who! . . . .
Fantastic! I love "event television", telly that gets the nation talking, the family gathered in front of the telly! Bring on the rain! Bring on the finale! (We will be incommunicado to the outside world tomorrow just in case we accidentally catch a spoiler).

Friday, 4 July 2008

Thunder and lightning on the 4th of July

Out here in the US, we have been enjoying the 4th of July. Two years ago, Viola posted on our first Independence Day. Last year, we missed it because we were flying back from the UK, arriving in Washington DC late in the evening, and just in time to see a few fireworks in the sky as we drove home. Unlike that occasion two years ago, we didn't get the chance to go to the pool, but we did drive into Durham, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon with friends over there. We were back before dark, so we repeated our walk around the neighbourhood of two years ago and watched the fireworks which were being let off all over the place. Perhaps one of the first things one notices as a Brit doing this is the odd feeling of fireworks in the warmth of a July evening rather than the freezing cold of a November 5 in England. One also can't help noticing that people, at least round our way, are rather more cavalier on the safety issues than they are in the UK. The fireworks are let off in the middle of the road, and people just balance them on the road and walk right up and light them, and everyone seems to stand, and sit, pretty close. Mind you, didn't hear a single ambulance siren while we were out walking. But this year was dramatic because at about 9.30pm, a film-style thunderstorm began to develop, with forks of lightning, loud thunder and flickering lights in the sky of the kind that I used to think were just a film cliché before we moved here.

With the rain dampening everyone's fireworks, the evening's fun was over, and we returned home to catch the latest Big Brother eviction, a documentary about Abba and Mamma Mia and a discussion about how excited we were about tomorrow's final episode of this series of Doctor Who. On the latter, we have a plan of action to avoid accidentally hearing any possible spoilers between broadcast on BBC1 and our viewing an hour or so later. Oh, and it seems that SciFi Channel have a Twilight Zone marathon. It began very early this morning, and is still going on as I write. Could be a late night.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 11: Turn Left

And so we get to this year's "doctor-lite" episode. The doctor-lite episode is a means of filming a thirteen-episode + Christmas special series each year without it straining at David Tennant's schedule, allowing the crew to film two episodes at the same time. In the previous two years, the doctor-lite episode has also been companion-lite. "Love and Monsters" in the second series, penned by Russell T. Davies, was a hilarious celebration of the nerdy world of Doctor Who fans, here a group of individuals with a real-life fascination with the mystery of the doctor whose world was devastated by the "absorbaloff" played by the wonderful Peter Kay. Last year, the doctor-lite episode was the sublime "Blink", penned by Steven Moffat, the future show-runner, in what turned out to be one of the best episodes of all time, rightly rewarded with a BAFTA. This year, "Turn Left" was as different from "Blink" as " Blink" was from "Love and Monsters". Since Catherine Tate had already had her week off, in the previous episode "Midnight", another innovation, this year's doctor-lite for the first time became companion-heavy. This was Donna's episode, and it was a triumph. It now seems like an aeon ago since the nay-sayers were worrying about the choice of Catherine Tate to play the doctor's companion in this series (Not me!). Even Simon Mayo, in an interview with Freema Agyeman, felt obliged to stick in a dig about the choice of Catherine Tate as companion for the (then) forthcoming series. Well, Donna has been a revelation and even the nay-sayers have been won over.

This episode used a favourite idea of science fiction, and one already exploited in earlier series of Doctor Who, especially the second of the new era (2006), the parallel universe. But this was not the parallel universe of the second series but rather a new parallel universe generated by Donna making a fatal decision at a literal crossroads (well, a literal T-junction). It is the exploration of alternative outcomes that makes Sliding Doors and The Butterfly Effect such great films. But as so often, Russell T. Davies borrows a great idea but finds a way to exploit it in the context of a developing TV series -- he does things here that you can't do in film. It's one of the many reasons that I think RTD is such a great writer -- he understands contemporary television better than anyone. Unlike many writers, he does not see TV as the poor man's cinema. He loves TV, and finds ever fresh ways to do interesting things that are unique to the platform.

So here, the long-lasting TV series provides the invitation to reimagine its own recent past, to ask the question, what would have happened if Donna had not met the doctor back in the Christmas of 2006? What would the last eighteen months have looked like? Where Sliding Doors has to set up its own back-story within the first twenty minutes or so of the film, here we have had two series worth of back-story, the entire 2007 and most of the 2008 series of Doctor Who. So we don't need to spend any time on Donna's story over the last eighteen months. We already know all about that. The entire episode can look at what her life would have been like if she had turned right. And then, of course, this raises the huge issue that her meeting with the doctor had, in effect, changed history. And so we get this fantastic review of a life without the doctor and the devastation that it has brought. This is a doctor-lite episode in which the doctor is consipicuous by his absence. It reminds me of one of those ridiculous death-of-God sermons about how God can be tangibly absent. And I am already enough of a geek about new Who to find it dead exciting to see great moments from the last year and more revisited, but this time turning out so much worse, all the more so when these things are happening in the background, with Donna's traumas taking place as the key action.

Once again Bernard Cribbins was brilliant as Wilf, and Jacqueline King, as Donna's mother, was wonderful, and one of the most memorable scenes was her staring into the distance in the house in Leeds, completely forlorn, with Donna in soft focus behind her. The fact that the camera kept her in focus for seconds longer than we would normally expect brought home that this character was at her lowest ebb.

I haven't even mentioned the return of Rose yet, and I loved the fact that Russell T. Davies chose this way of reintroducing Rose to the series, an episode in which Donna was the star. Billie Piper whizzes into view in the credits at the beginning of the episode, but it is Catherine Tate we remember. Rose becomes an enigma, and we are looking for more in the next episode.

I loved every moment of this episode; the goose-pimple moments came at the end with Donna's willingness to travel in time, and Murray Gold's music here:

And yes, as many others have said, the beetle was crap, the only thing that detracted from a fantastic episode. My favourite review this week is on Behind the Sofa, Beetlemania by Iain Hepburn; excerpt:

This was a tremendous turn from Tate, as we see a very different Donna - one clearly undermined and almost downtrodden by her mother’s disappointment in her. Who remains wrapped up in her own little world, even as the rest of the universe collapses in around her. Donna not meeting the Doctor might have killed him physically, but it also killed her spirit.

Her finest scene in this episode? There’s so many to pick from, but for me it’s that moment when realisation slowly dawns, as the foreign family sharing the refugee home in Leeds is sent to a ‘labour camp’, what that actually means besides her own family having more room.
How can this be bettered in episode 12? Once again, a clear five TARDIS groans.

Doctor Who, Series 4, Episode 10: Midnight

And so we reach episode 10, in which we have an innovation. We are now used to the idea of doctor-lite episodes, with "Love and Monsters" in Series 2 and "Blink" in Series 3, but now we also have a companion-lite episode, in which Donna stays behind to sunbathe on Planet Midnight, in a sort of glorious Center Parcs on steroids, and the doctor goes off to enjoy himself in a shuttle with a small selection of other travellers, one of whom, Professor Hobbs, is played by Patrick Troughton's son David. The journey begins with every little piece of enjoyable light-hearted quirkiness that we have come to expect (and which I very much enjoy) in Russell T. Davies's scripts. But a third of the way in, everything goes pear shaped, the shuttle is under attack with some kind of strange knocking noise, and one of the passengers, superbly played by Lesley Sharp, appears to be inhabited by some kind of alien presence, stalking in the corner, imitating the patterns of speech of everyone on board, and ultimately learning how to speak in sync with the doctor:

I am a huge fan of Russel T. Davies, the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for the revival of Doctor Who, as the show-runner since 2005. His reimagination of the series, character-driven drama with great story-arcs, always with homage to the past, has been a revelation over the last few years. And now he delivers one of his best individual stories since the revival. The vast majority of the episode happened in a tiny, confined space. It would make the basis for a great stage play. It demonstrates that what is great about new Who is not simply that they have a bigger budget, with proper special effects and no need for the wobbly sets that were part of the charm of the original series. This low-budget piece could have comfortably been filmed back in the 60s or 70s and would not even have strained their budget, with no dodgy prosthetics, no crappy mini-explosions. No, what is great about new Who is that the writing and the acting is just so compelling.

Its scare-factors were generated by three very simple ideas, all of which are carried off effectively because of the strength of the script and the quality of the acting. First we have the mysterious banging on the outside of the shuttle. That "knock, knock, knock" is a staple feature of some of the best spooky stories. It reminded me of Arnold Ridley's 1923 play, Ghost Train. When the banging starts, you begin to feel seriously claustrophobic. The second simple idea was the peculiar imitation of everyone's speech by Sky, then morphing into the lip-syncing with the doctor mentioned above. Russell T. Davies mentioned in this week's "Doctor Who Confidential" that the idea comes from the children in the playground, irritating people by repeating everything they say. Simple, but here, in this context, menacing.

And the third simple idea was to find ourselves as viewers becoming steadily more anxious as our hero is turned on by all the passengers. All those lines that usually work so well, where he is talking about how clever he is, attempting to take control -- all of these things worked so well on Christmas day last year, when he was with Kylie in "Voyage of the Damned" but here, suspicions built as fear increased. We find out just how difficult things become for the doctor when he does not have a companion. He actually needs that person by his side in contexts like this. As so often, Russell is exploring the very idea of the Doctor Who franchise, and stressing just how important the companion always is by illustrating the problems he has when he is alone.

Although a great free-standing episode, viewers find themselves reflecting on just how important Donna has become in his life, which itself sounds like the basis for another great episode, and one which will explore what will happen if Donna had never met the doctor.

This was one of the best episodes of the series so far, no question about it, and worth 5 TARDIS groans, bringing the series totals to the following:

Partners in Crime: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans
Fires of Pompeii: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans
Planet of the Ood: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans.
The Doctor's Daughter: 4 TARDIS groans.
The Unicorn and the Wasp: 4 TARDIS groans.
Silence in the Library: 5 TARDIS groans.
Forest of the Dead: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans.
Midnight: 5 TARDIS groans.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Doctor Who, Journey's End Trailer

I am behind on posting my comments on the fourth series of Doctor Who which ends on Saturday on BBC1. I want to get those comments posted over the next couple of days so that I can spend at least a little time gushing about the most recent episode, the penultimate one, last Saturday, entitled "The Stolen Earth". Just in case I don't get to that in time, before Saturday, let me just say here how much we loved "The Stolen Earth" in our house. It was a like a fairground ride, a thrill a minute, and the best cliffhanger in the history of the show (and please, if you happen to know how it resolves itself, no spoilers in the comments, thanks). So, to get us excited, here is the trailer for Saturday's 65 minute final episode:

Our two, Emily and Lauren, are so keen to avoid spoilers that they refuse even to watch this trailer lest it gives something away!

More gushing to come soon.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Watching Wimbledon in America

A couple of years ago, during our first summer in America, Viola and I both talked about our experience of watching Wimbledon here (Wimbledon and How to cope without British TV and Radio: Wimbledon Supplement). On the watching front, things are greatly improved since then. In fact, the coverage is excellent. We can watch the whole of every day's play in glorious high definition, alternating between NBC and ESPN2, even if the latter has an annoying ticker-tape thing that goes across the bottom of the screen the entire time, much of the time with incomprehensible material, in some kind of code, apparently concerning things happening in American sport about which we could not be less interested. The commentary is pretty good. We get a little bit of John McEnroe, but he is being paid more by the BBC, so Patrick McEnroe does much more here. Pam Shriver is great, and provides a bit of continuity for expats used to watching Wimbledon in England -- she was always a major feature of the BBC coverage in the past.

The oddest thing about watching Wimbledon here is being five hours behind. After three years here, this still takes some getting used to. At the moment, I get up and Wimbledon is already on while I am making a pot of tea. It's like it was back in World Cup 2002 (Korea and Japan) when we were watching football with our breakfast. Through the glories of the DVR, though, I have been able to delay watching until later in the day, so that the timing feels a bit more normal, and this has the added advantage of allowing the fast-forwarding of the endless ad-breaks. (People can criticize the BBC all they like, but try watching Wimbledon for a sustained period in the USA and its endless, endless bombarding of adverts, and it leaves you longing for the Beeb).

Of course one also misses the prioritizing of the few British hopes. In the first week we got very little of any of the Brits. But all that changed yesterday, at about 3pm our time, 8pm in England, as Andy Murray began a remarkable comeback in his fourth round match, turning around a two-sets down, 5-4 deficit, to win the third set on a tie-break, and then go on to win in five sets by about 9.30pm in England, 4.30pm here. We found ourselves wondering whether all the programmes on the Beeb had been delayed because of the excitement of Murray doing so well. And I could hardly believe how bright it still was at 9 in the evening. It's pitch dark here by then.

Suddenly, ESPN were all British enthusiasts and Sue Mott in the studio was going crazy. And there was a great moment earlier when Pam Shriver, sitting on Henman hill, interviewed a Scottish fan, while another painted a Scottish flag on her right cheek, with Pam pretending not to notice.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), we watch Murray losing to Nadal in the quarter finals. But at least well be able to watch him losing in high definition.