TV Review: Stranger Things 3

It’s been a bit of a wait – nearly two years – for the latest series of Stranger Things, and so, like pretty much everyone else, Geth and I inhaled the series over the course of last weekend. The series is set in July 1985, nine months after we last saw the characters, and so there’s a lot of focus on growing up and coming-of-age themes amongst all the monster-fighting.

Here be spoilers, obviously!

Stranger Things 3

The first three episodes are a little slow with the plot, as the main aim is to explore the relationships among the characters. Geth found this frustrating, but for me it was so important, because it established a close female friendship between Eleven and Max. I had been unhappy with the portrayal of their brief interaction in series two, in which Eleven at first mistakes Max for a competitor for Mike’s affections and later blanks her upon returning to Hawkins, as I felt it was playing up to all the typical stereotypes about female characters always being really competitive and catty with each other. However, their friendship in series three is absolutely lovely – I could have watched at least another two episodes of them hanging out at the mall together – and bodes well for future instalments of the show.

The main plot of the series introduces a gloriously late-Cold-War-era ‘Red Menace’ threat to the ongoing saga of the gate between Hawkins and the Upside Down, with the Soviets having established a secret underground base under the town’s new mall in order to re-open the gate. This is about as silly as it sounds, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. During the series, different groups of characters follow four separate subplots that only really come together in the last couple of episodes. I would have liked to see these interweave more closely, but the payoff in the finale is as epic as can be wished for.

One of the subplots involves a ‘body snatchers’ theme, with various Hawkins residents being taken over by old nemesis the Mind Flayer. I was expecting more to be made of this, perhaps with those taken over using their positions of influence for nefarious purposes, but it wasn’t to be. I think there was just so much going on in the story that there wasn’t really room for it.

I had got the wrong end of the stick in that I had misheard somewhere that series three was supposed to be the last one (there’s actually going to be a fourth and possibly a fifth) so I was taken aback by the cliffhangers at the end of the finale. Looking forward to seeing what happens with the Russians in Kamchatka and their pet Demogorgon!

I am also absolutely certain that Hopper is not dead. That was a textbook ‘not showing a body’ ending. Whether he’s the American prisoner mentioned by the Kamchatka guards, though, I am less certain about.

And finally, I will never watch the video for Limahl’s The Neverending Story in the same way again.*

*I will also never watch the accompanying film The Neverending Story ever again, but that was a decision I made many years ago. Fellow people who prefer not to suffer horse-related trauma will know what I’m talking about.

TV Review: Good Omens

I watched this series for the second time this last weekend. I had made use of the month-long free trial of Amazon Prime that Amazon are always trying to push on you when you buy stuff from them, and so there was just enough time for a rewatch before my free month was up!

Good Omens on Amazon Prime
A much better reason to try Amazon Prime than free one-day delivery!

Earlier this year, having heard that this TV adaptation would be coming out, I read Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens novel for the first time. Geth has owned a copy since before we met, but despite being a fan of both Pratchett and Gaiman’s work, I’d never got round to reading it until this year. The story, in which a demon and angel team up to stop their respective realms from unleashing a world-ending war via an eleven-year-old Antichrist, was an enjoyable and funny read and I’m glad I was able to read it so close to seeing the TV adaptation.

Although I loved the book, though, the TV series blew it out of the water – largely due to the spectacular cast, with a plethora of recognisable faces from both sides of the pond. The show belongs to David Tennant and Michael Sheen’s stunning double act as Crowley and Aziraphale, but there were so many other performances I loved – Jon Hamm’s hilariously arrogant and ignorant Angel Gabriel, Bill Paterson’s irritable neighbourhood watchman, and Miranda Richardson’s dotty courtesan-slash-spirit-medium were favourites, but it’s tough to choose. I’m not a fan of Jack Whitehall’s stand-up but I really liked him as Newton Pulsifer, to my surprise!

Also, the cameos! I loved David Morrissey as the cruise ship captain who picks up the inhabitants of the lost city of Atlantis, and it was brilliant when Benedict Cumberbatch showed up as the voice of Satan – not to mention when all three of the League of Gentlemen appeared in the already-infamously-long cold open in episode three (would it be insulting to point out that Mark Gatiss makes a wonderful Nazi?) – but my personal favourite was current Doctor Who Sontaran go-to Dan Starkey, whose character passes by purely to tell Aziraphale, ‘You’re better off without him,’ after the latter has yet another shouting match with his demonic best friend.

The story was really faithful to the original novel as well. From what I’ve read, this was partly because Gaiman was adapting it because Pratchett had asked him to do so before he passed away a few years ago, and so it was important to stick to the original story. There were only two major changes I noticed – first, in the book, the supernatural Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are followed around by a group of four human bikers who decide that they are going to be sort-of assistant Horsemen. These characters don’t appear in the adaptation, presumably because there just wasn’t room. Secondly, there was a whole extra sequence in the last episode that was new to the story, where Crowley and Aziraphale are taken away and put on trial by their respective authorities. It was a good addition and fulfilled its objective, which was to ensure that viewers who had read the book would be able to enjoy a twist that was new to them.

As I mentioned above, it’s the two central characters that really drive the story in the adaptation. This really is down to Tennant and Sheen’s wonderful performances and chemistry as actors – I enjoyed their friendship in the book version, but after watching the TV version, I’m really invested in their story and would love to see another series. I’d even be willing to pay for Amazon Prime next time!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the BluRay release so I can watch this yet again.

TV Review: Doctor Who: Resolution

We’ve had a New Year special episode before – The End Of Time part 2 back on New Year’s Day 2010 (nine years ago! that’s mental!) – but this is the first year since the series came back that there’s been no Christmas Day episode (to much grumbling from certain quarters of fandom), so this is the one festive episode we get.

After a prologue, where we get some backstory about medieval warriors dividing the body of a defeated monster into three parts and burying it at opposite ends of the earth, the episode starts off with a couple of archaeologists, Lin and Mitch, who’ve ostensibly come in to work on New Year’s Day but are really there hoping for a date with each other. It’s cute, but it’s better once their new find awakens and transmats the buried other parts of itself to make itself whole again. The two of them notice it’s missing and Lin goes off to hunt for it, finding a squid-like creature. Meanwhile, the Doctor and companions arrive and escort Lin and Mitch out of the premises (no psychic paper necessary for some reason).

Lin, freaked out, goes home, where it’s revealed that the squid creature she found is controlling her body and actions. The Doctor, meanwhile, conducts some tests and realises it’s a Dalek (which will be no surprise to anyone who’s watched the series before).

The Dalek-controlled Lin goes on the rampage, killing a couple of police officers, a slightly dim security guard (poor guy!), and a farm worker. Meanwhile, the Doctor and friends, including Mitch, track Lin down to the barn – she’s managed to fight off the Dalek, but the Dalek has constructed itself a makeshift casing and escapes after a showdown with the Doctor.

With help from the slightly unlikely figure of Ryan’s negligent dad Aaron, the Doctor and co manage to destroy the Dalek’s casing. Unfortunately, it then latches onto Aaron and threatens to kill him unless the Doctor reunites it with its Dalek fleet. She tricks the Dalek by sending it into a vacuum in space, nearly losing Aaron with it in the process until he’s saved by Ryan.

There’s a nice happy ending with Aaron and Ryan starting a better relationship, Lin and Mitch getting together, and the Doctor, Graham, Yasmin and Ryan flying off into space for more adventures…probably in 2020, so we might have another festive episode before that.

Characterisation-wise, the best bit of this episode is the arrival of Ryan’s dad Aaron, who was an absent but important figure for the whole of the 2018 series. Obviously this has notable repercussions for Ryan, as he feels at first he can’t forgive his dad but then becomes closer to him as a result of the adventure. This subplot provides some great moments for Graham too – in the absence of Grace, he’s able to provide some fatherly advice to Aaron.

I love Mitch’s reaction to the TARDIS! No matter how many characters do the ‘bigger on the inside’ thing, it never gets old in my view.

I also think it’s cute that the Dalek part gets awoken by UV light. That’s worth remembering. Another point that should be noted is that it’s still the case that people on Earth don’t know who the Daleks are. After the giant overblown Dalek invasion during the RTD era (The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End) where the whole Earth witnessed everything, there was some vague handwavy stuff in the Moffat era where the crack in Amy’s room ate everyone’s memories, or something, and so since then nobody in contemporary episodes has known about Daleks, except when it’s convenient, or if they’re Adelaide Brooke remembering the 2008 invasion in the 2059-set The Waters Of Mars, which was an episode released before the handwave.

A very interesting point is that when the Doctor tries to contact Kate Stewart at UNIT, the telephone operative says that UNIT are on suspension, pending review, due to funding cutbacks. I’m looking forward to seeing if this is overcome at some point!

There’s another cute moment (well, by ‘cute’ I mean by Doctor Who standards – there is also a lot of gratuitous death in this scene) where the army show up to intercept a ‘drone’, then have to run away when they realise it’s actually a Dalek. Another funny, if slightly unnecessary, scene is where the Dalek drains the whole of the UK’s internet and we cut to a dim-looking family horrified at the idea that they’ll actually have to talk to each other.

On the whole, this episode gave me a bit of an odd, discordant feeling – it just felt a bit too lighthearted for a ‘Daleks are going to destroy the world’ story. I did enjoy it though, and I’m a bit sad that the next series is such a long way away! I’d hoped that under Chibnall we might return to yearly series, especially seeing as the series episode count has been cut (again) from twelve to ten, but apparently it’s not to be.

As such, for the rest of 2019 I’ll be rewatching classic episodes instead!

TV Review: Top of the Pops Christmas and New Year

I actually got around to watching the festive episodes of Top of the Pops this year! Since 2006, when the weekly show got cancelled after more than four decades, they only show new episodes at Christmas time – all other showings of TOTP are classic ’80s episodes on BBC4 (which, frankly, is better, but it’d still be nice to have a modern weekly show). However, presenters Fearne Cotton and Clara Amfo do a very good job of imitating the classic style of TOTP presenting, and thus make it come across like TOTP is something that happens all the time! If only it were true.

The Christmas episode had a good selection of artists performing various hits, although there were one or two artists doubling up, which breaks the DJing rule! The New Year episode (which was shown on the 29th of December for some reason), meanwhile, was more focused on new music for 2019 that’s not been in the charts yet. Most of it was a bit dull, but there were a few gems in there that I’ve added to my Spotify playlist – Girlfriend by Christine & The Queens was a particular favourite.

It’s a shame it’s only on at Christmas these days, but the BBC4 ’80s episodes will keep me nicely occupied until next December!

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Battle Of Ranskoor Av Kolos

It’s the last episode in the series…but it’s not like any other ‘series finale’ we’ve seen since Doctor Who came back in 2005.

The Doctor and friends answer a call from a planet emitting nine distress signals, and find a psychotropic field affecting people’s mental state.  Protecting themselves with neural neutralisers, they rescue Captain Paltraki, who doesn’t know who he is, and find he’s being blackmailed to bring back an artefact by someone who’s captured his crew.  It’s the Ux religion (which consists of two members, Andinio and her apprentice Delph) doing the blackmailing – they worship a being they call the Creator, who turns out to be Tzim-Sha, the Stenza warrior the Doctor and friends fought all the way back in episode 1.  The Doctor brings back the artefact and confronts Tzim-Sha, who sends the Ux to transmit his Earth-capturing signal – he’s already captured multiple planets and wants to add Earth to his collection.  The Doctor and Yasmin break the connection and persuade the Ux to help them, while Graham and Ryan rescue the crew and send them back to their ship with Paltraki.  Graham stays behind, tempted to kill Tzim-Sha, but realises it’d be better to imprison him forever.  The Ux travel on with the crew, and the TARDIS team depart.  End series!

There’s some nice characterisation here with Graham’s desire for revenge against the creature who caused his wife’s death, and his eventual change of heart.  His relationship with Ryan has also been a really nicely done process over the course of the series.  I also love the fact that the two of them, working together, manage to imprison Tzim-Sha, despite the Doctor’s conviction earlier in the episode that he’d be too powerful for them to take on.  Unfortunately, Yasmin is a bit of a spare part in this episode, just as she was in episodes 8 and 9.  I do like all three companions, but this series really has suffered from the ‘crowded TARDIS’ problem that the show had during the Davison years, with the writers seemingly running out of things for them all to do.  Furthermore, I don’t feel like I really know the characters like I did previous companions – Graham is a great character, but Ryan and Yasmin still both feel a bit thinly sketched to me.

The return of Tzim-Sha is pretty much the only bit of narrative continuity we’ve had this series in terms of alien threat, and after thirteen years of arc-heavy series from RTD and Moffat it’s honestly felt completely disorientating, and made for a strangely sedate final episode.  What do you mean, the fate of the whole universe isn’t at stake?  Where’s the big epic face-off against the Daleks/Cybermen/Master?

And that’s the other thing – there hasn’t been a single returning alien species or character this series, other than the Doctor herself.  The last time that happened was the 1978-1979 series, which was the one with the Key To Time arc.  We’re talking forty years ago, when Tom Baker was still the Doctor.  I’m not saying you absolutely need the Daleks and the like for Doctor Who to feel like Doctor Who, but so much has changed for this series that it would have been nice to have had the odd nod or cameo (the polarity reversal in episode 9 was appreciated, but pretty much the only example!).

Still…no spoilers, but it looks like the New Year’s Day episode might be a bit more of a treat for the fans.  I’m so looking forward to it.

TV Review: Doctor Who: It Takes You Away

In the penultimate episode of the series, the Doctor and friends arrive in 2018 Norway to find Hanne, a girl trapped in a house and apparently abandoned by her father.  Fighting their way through a dangerous cave called an antizone, the Doctor and companions track Hanne’s father to a parallel reality called a Solitract, which is luring people from the main Whoniverse reality by imitating their loved ones.  After the Doctor and friends reject the Solitract’s tricks, the Doctor persuades it to let her go and accept its fate of being on its own.

We finally have an interesting bit of characterisation here – Ryan doesn’t believe Hanne when she says her father would never abandon her, presumably due to his experience with his own dad.  He later explains to Yasmin that he’s no good with kids, although Hanne does warm to him by the end of the episode.

I like the use of the classic ‘avoiding getting lost in a maze through use of string’ trope!  Unfortunately, the Doctor and co meet up with Ribbons, who is a classic creepy fantasy type monster (complete with beltful of dead rats) and thus feels out of place in the Whoniverse.  Naturally, he cuts the string, causing extra trouble for the Doctor.

When we finally come across Erik, Hanne’s dad, he comes across as the most neglectful father ever and I wanted to throw things at the screen!  However, it soon becomes apparent that he’s been bewitched by the Solitract, which has produced an imitation of his late wife Trine.

When the Doctor’s party arrives, the Solitract immediately sets about playing the same trick on Graham, which means we get the welcome reappearance of Grace and some lovely character moments when Graham finds himself having to make the choice to lose her all over again.

The Doctor explains that the antizone is preventing the Solitract from touching other realities, though not why it’s taken the form of a weird fantasy cave!  We also get some good old-fashioned polarity reversal when the Doctor finds she can’t get back through the mirror portal.

On the whole I enjoyed this one – I was expecting it to be a bit of a filler episode, but it was quite good.

Series finale next time…although in Chibnall’s arc-less Who, I’m not sure they can really be called ‘series finales’ anymore!

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

I was a bit dubious about this one, ’cause I thought it looked like a bit of a grim, depressing historical, but it was actually really enjoyable.

The Doctor and friends arrive in early 17th century Lancashire to find witch trials happening on the orders of a suspicious landowner called Becka, the widow of the previous landlord.  Things get worse when King James shows up on his own crusade against witchcraft and has no time for the female Doctor, meaning she ends up getting tried as a witch.  The strange happenings turn out to be the work of some aliens (the Morax) imprisoned under Pendle Hill, who were released when Becka tried to chop down a tree that was blocking her view (it was actually a lock).  The Doctor eventually traps them again and releases the bodies they were possessing.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here.  The Doctor starts off by stating her very firm rule not to interfere with history (a nice callback to The Aztecs!) then immediately breaks it by trying to rescue an accused witch.  It’s also fascinating how the writing manages to elicit some sympathy for Becka, rather than just making her a straightforwardly evil villain.  King James is AWFUL, but wonderful to watch!  He’s played brilliantly by Alan Cumming – conniving and camp with a crush on Ryan.

This is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor actually suffering from not being taken seriously in female form, despite the fact that this series has already visited Earth’s past a couple of times.  It’s welcome that it’s finally been addressed, but it’s a bit overdue.

I love that they set the episode on Pendle Hill, the home of English witchcraft!  I’ll remember the aliens buried under the ground next time I’m running up the hill during Pendle parkrun.

Graham has all the best lines, as usual (‘Ezekiel.’  ‘Tarantino.’), but it’s yet another episode that’s very light on the companion characterisation for Yasmin and Ryan.  Somehow, I don’t think that’s suddenly going to change at this point in the series.

Back to the present day next time!

TV Review: Doctor Who: Kerblam!

I’m finally catching up with my reviews of the most recent Doctor Who series in preparation for the New Year’s Day episode!

The Doctor and friends go undercover at the distribution centre for the Kerblam! company, which is a brilliant takeoff of Amazon.  They discover that the employees are disappearing, and at first it appears to be the work of the creepy company robots that are everywhere, but it turns out to be a plot for an attempted terrorist attack to protest against robots taking over human jobs by a disgruntled employee who has faked his way into the workforce.

There’s a lot of really cute touches in this episode:

  • The Doctor tells her companions not to be ‘robophobic’ when they point out that the robots are creepy.
  • The last time Ryan had an employee leg tag was when he used to work at ‘Sportstack’, which is a nice sly dig at Sports Direct.
  • Humans are only employed at all because the company has to meet a 10% quota of ‘organic’ workers!
  • It’s explained that humans were too busy staring at their phones to notice the robots gradually taking over their jobs.
  • The deadly gas that’s going to kill everyone is contained in the bubble wrap within the Kerblam! packages…’cause nobody can resist popping bubble wrap, right?

It’s another episode that’s fairly light on characterisation.  Graham and Yasmin get some nice moments where they bond with the human employees at Kerblam!, but on the whole, there’s not many opportunities for the companions to shine here – it’s the Doctor’s episode, really.

A historical episode next time!

TV Review: Doctor Who: Demons Of The Punjab

Another great historical episode!  It seems to be a real strength this series.

On being given an old broken watch by her grandmother Umbreen, Yasmin asks the Doctor to take her back to 1950s Lahore to find out the story behind it.  The TARDIS instead drops them in 1947 rural India during the Partition, where Yasmin finds that Umbreen is about to marry Prem, a man who’s not her grandfather.  They encounter a group of aliens, the Thijarians, whom the Doctor initially believes to be a race of assassins, but it soon transpires that the ‘demons’ have given up assassinating following the destruction of their planet and are now travelling the universe in order to provide witness to lonely deaths, seeing as they couldn’t do it for their own people.  The actual villain in the episode is Prem’s brother Manish, who has become prejudiced against Muslims and leads a group of similarly prejudiced Hindus to drive out Umbreen and her Muslim mother, resulting in Prem being killed soon after marrying Umbreen.

Characterisation-wise it’s a really strong episode for Yasmin.  Apart from a few wilful moments near the start, I really appreciated that she listened to the Doctor about not interfering in her own history (in contrast to Rose’s irritatingly stupid actions in Father’s Day back in 2005).  Ryan and Graham were really playing the support role this week, which has tended to be the case this series – I wouldn’t say that Chibnall’s Doctor Who has yet disproved the long-running viewpoint that three companions makes for too crowded a TARDIS.  At least we’re not having people getting captured or taken ill for the course of the story, like we did in the Davison years.  Graham is always gold – Bradley Walsh’s performance is just lovely, and the writers are doing really well with his dialogue – but Ryan felt like a real spare part during this episode.

Similarly to Rosa, the episode was really thought-inspiring and made no bones about a difficult period of history, although the controversial role played by the British in the Partition could have been dwelt on more.

We’re now more than halfway through the series – there are five episodes to go – and after thirteen years of getting used to the tight and complex series arcs of the RTD and Moffat eras, I’m feeling a bit strangely adrift given that there doesn’t seem to be any series-spanning story going on at all.  It’ll be very interesting to see if this continues, and if the final episode could just be – gasp! – a normal, regular episode, with no multiverse-threatening doomsday shenanigans.  That would be a hell of a departure for 21st century Doctor Who.

The trailer for next week was a bit confusing, so I don’t really know what’s going on in that story, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it when it arrives.

TV Review: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Episode five, and this one was my favourite in the series yet!

The Doctor and companions wake up on a hospital ship after being caught by a sonic mine while scavenging (bit of a new hobby for the Doctor).  Unfortunately, the hospital ship is rerouted through an unusual sector of space due to some asteroid activity, and so it picks up a Pting, a creature that passively kills people on spaceships due to the fact it eats all the essential parts of the ship.  The Doctor manages to get all the passengers working together and eventually gets rid of the Pting by realising that it seeks energy and letting it eat the ship’s self-destruct bomb.

Even though the episode’s set on a ship, it’s a very classic base-under-siege style story due to the fact that the characters have very limited control over the ship’s flight.  The concept of a creature that eats everything non-organic is a bit comedic by Doctor Who standards – it kind of reminded me of Nibbler in Futurama – but I did think it worked here, and I also liked that the Doctor managed to solve the problem without destroying the creature (although this does beg the question of what happens when it finally stops gorging itself on the energy from the bomb!).

I was a bit worried when we first saw Eve Cicero and her robot buddy Ronan being all secretive about something, as I thought that they were going to be the kind of annoying semi-villains you get in Doctor Who that impede the Doctor’s efforts to save everyone’s lives.  Happily, this did not turn out to be the case, and the Doctor quickly got everyone on the same team and working to their strengths, which was a nice punch-the-air moment.

More good characterisation for Ryan and Graham in this episode, as their interaction with pregnant dude Yoss was very funny.  Male pregnancy is not something we’ve seen in Doctor Who before, I don’t think, but it was done really well – it was both comedic and touching, and I loved the juxtaposition between Yoss changing his mind about keeping his baby and Ryan realising why his own dad has made so many mistakes.  We’re back to Yasmin being a bit ‘generic female companion’, but next week’s ‘go back in time and meet a family member’ story looks like a really strong episode for her, with shades of Rose in Father’s Day back in 2005.

A historical episode next week!  That should be good.