Day of the Doctor

Made it to the afternoon screening spoiler-free. Embassy Theatre full to the brim with families and teens and aging chaps like me. And the lights went down…

I have not been a fan of the latest era of Doctor Who. Despite loving Matt Smith in the role I have been frustrated and bored by the show’s narrative with its weightless mysteries. So my expectations were low.

And that does make me sigh a bit, because this is my show, barmy and self-contradictory and ever changing but always, always kind. How annoying to be waiting for change in my show as it climbs undreamt of heights in popular culture. And to have the 50th anniversary during this period!

But I was delighted. The special showed all the best of showrunner Steven Moffat, and very little of the worst. And the first moment, the first blurred hum of the opening theme from the original credits, still utterly strange and timeless, brought a tear to my eye.

I’m starting to think this special is, in fact, the highlight of the revived show. Tremendous.

My only regret is that by the time I made it out of the auditorium most of the fans in costume were gone. I really wanted a pic of the girl in the marvellous Ace costume.

Happy.

To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927

Micro-review. We’ve had Woolf’s classic on the shelves in a 60s Penguin edition for years, and finally the time was right to pick it up. I knew virtually nothing about it, only that it’s often talked about as a partner to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the milestones of early-20th-century modernism. (It’s also a fraction of the length.) Given how much I enjoyed Ulysses, I was looking forward to this.

But I nearly put it down and didn’t pick it up again.

I was enjoying the read, Woolf uses language beautifully of course, but I hit the half-way point and I just wasn’t *grabbed* by it. It seemed like one of those art milestones that you can’t read properly any more because all of its innovations have since become cliches. The stream of consciousness shifting perspective Woolf offers has become a commonplace stylistic trick. Heck, I’ve done it myself. Combine that with a busy run that saw days go by between chances to knock off a few pages, and I almost lost momentum entirely.

Then I hit the second phase of the book. I had no idea it was coming; a sudden change in tone and style and scope, crossing decades after spending dozens of pages in the minutia of a single day. Then the narrative eased into a third and final phase, another intense dive into character POV across the moments of a single day, a decade on from the first section.

And I *loved* it.

I can’t think of another time my reaction to a book changed so completely in the span of a few pages. The structural moves Woolf made completely won me over. Simple and powerful, retroactively making the first section seem fresh by the unexpected (to me) contrast with the final section. I think I’ll be going back to this one in a few years.

(Also: I imagine this book would be frequently studied in english lit courses. I am glad I never had to apply the scalpel of analysis to this – I doubt it could survive the experience. This seems to me a book to be felt rather than understood, even though there is so much in it to be understood. That’s a definite contrast to the cheeky gamesmanship of Joyce, who seems to be clearly writing with such analysis in mind.)

Edwin: My Life As A Koont (2013, New Zealand)

Koont poster

Tuesday night we had a rare outing to the cinema, to see the local premiere of Edwin: My Life As A Koont, a new comedy feature by local low-budget impresario Jason Stutter (Tongan Ninja, Diagnosis: Death, Predicament).

It’s a mockumentary about the eponymous Edwin, who has a medical condition that makes him an asshole. He’s rude to everyone, basically. The film is about his mission to stage a benefit concert for those sharing his condition, helped along his way by Peter Jackson’s dropped cellphone with contact details for half of Hollywood.

And I liked it. I liked it more and more as it went along. The first act mostly just hits the beats you expect, making a lot of play out of the condition’s unfortunate name, and that was fine and dandy but I wasn’t exactly laughing out loud. But then, as it runs out of the obvious gags and starts leveraging its characters, the pic starts to grow in two directions – it gets more engaging and dramatic, and it gets funnier. By the end of the film, I was totally on-side with it, and had enjoyed at least a good half-dozen real bursts of laughter (clearly passing the Kermode test of comedy).

Both of these directions of growth leaned on the same thing: the leads. As Edwin, Bryce Campbell was just excellent. Endlessly watchable, entertainingly rude and obnoxious while finding the right notes of obliviousness and sympathy, and landing his big laugh lines with the timing of an old pro. Shockingly, he’s not an old pro – his IMDB page is remarkably sparse of on-camera appearances, and it’s absolutely delightful that he won the LA Comedy Festival’s Best Actor award for this role.

Playing opposite is Jessica Grace Smith (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Sione’s 2) as Edwin’s long-suffering girl Friday. And… (disclosure: Jess is family, and the reason we were at the premiere, so…) …she was great. Some sequences were played too broad for my taste but as the film progressed she carried more and more of the dramatic weight as foil and conscience for the film’s collection of mutants and misanthropes. The genuine chemistry between Campbell and Smith pretty much made the film work.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I liked it. I mean, it’s far from perfect, like any shoestring film – Wellington locations do a lot of stunt double work, for example, and the sound mixing for some crucial hot tub exposition scenes is fatally limited. And there’re certainly a lot of dumb jokes that don’t work too well. But there are enough that do work to make me give this film a clear thumbs up. And to recommend you buy it.

I can recommend you buy it because it’s available for digital download, right now, at the very reasonable price of $2.95. Less than a cup of coffee. (MUCH less, these days.) I reckon it’s worth it.

(It might also have some more screenings at the Paramount in Wellington? Such is the rumour I have heard.)

The Next Doctor

Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who, someone new is coming into the role, everyone is speculating (with various degrees of tongue in cheek) about the likelihood of the role being filled by a woman or a black man or by Sophie Okenedo.

I don’t think it’s going to happen, folks. It’ll be a 30-ish white guy you’ve never heard of before.

Okay, it might be a black man. Paterson Joseph is widely acknowledged to have been Steven Moffat’s second pick for the role, and he had a lock on the part right until Matt Smith gave an incredible audition. I’d be surprised though, simply because of the weight of demographics. There are *so many more* white working actors out there, because there are more opportunities, institutional racism, blah blah you know how it works. If you dip a hand into the pool and pull out a wriggly actor, odds are good it’s a white guy. I’ll bet on those odds.

But the new DW won’t be a woman. They might even have auditioned women, but they won’t cast anyone who isn’t a chap. I think this is because the creators, either explicitly or intuitively, sense that a female Doctor will violate something about the show.

…and I think they’re right. Doctor Who is, among many other things, a show *about* men, and their relationship with women. Specifically, its about a certain kind of man, generous-spirited life-advantaged empathetic highly confident antiestablishment, like a genteel Edwardian adventurer with a rogueish streak, or indeed a TV creator, or most of the key decisionmakers in the creative sphere. The female companion is the means by which the show critiques this figurative man. In a sense, for better or worse, Doctor Who is about presenting a redemptive alternative masculinity.

So: there is nothing in the fiction of the show preventing a female Doctor (indeed, the show has explicitly allowed for it, very recently), but coded into Who is a gender-based dynamic that would be upended totally by casting a woman in the lead. For this reason, I don’t think they will.

Yet.

There are meant to be 13 Doctors (according to one story from the 70s, never mind all the other stories that say different) – that number has seeped into public consciousness and can’t really be ignored. The show will have to confront this limit in order to move past it. Then, I think, it will have an opportunity for conceptual collapse and reimagining; and so I predict a woman Doctor will appear on the scene, but she’ll be the Fourteenth Doctor, at the earliest.

Let me be absolutely clear: I would be SUPER HAPPY if the creators decided to violate this thematic tenet of the show. It is NOT essential to Who. It wouldn’t be the first major violation of the series’ thematic structure (refer: the Doctor is an asexual being). I would be stoked to be wrong. I would watch the shit out of Olivia Colman as the twelfth Doctor, to take the name being chucked around at present. But it ain’t gonna happen, and this idea of a violation is why.

(Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative by calling it a “violation”. I’m a blogger and I sin as a blogger sins.)

The whispers I’ve heard say the next Doctor was cast months ago, in January. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

(Oh, and while talking Doctor Who, Stephanie left an interesting comment responding to the “Steven Moffat’s issues with women” critique in the Friday linky.)

Buy Some Books

Over the last while I’ve been working through a stack of unread books by friends of mine. They are good. You should consider using your human money to add them to your stack of unread books.


The Guilty One

Not a crime book, despite being shelved in a lot of Crime sections, but it has the focus and drive of a screenplay – this sure ain’t a ponderous tale. There’s a lawyer defending a child accused of murder, while he himself is reminded of his own rough childhood and his relationship with the woman who fostered and then adopted him. The beauty of this book is that second relationship. Sometimes the imagery doesn’t quite land and you might see some twists coming but there are plenty of vivid characters here and Minnie is the most fascinating.

You’ll find this one at your local bookstore, in the UK/Aus/NZ at least. Little Brown have been pushing it hard, it was a Richard & Judy pick, etc. The author, Lisa Ballantyne, was a workmate & drinking buddy & occasional writing companion in my Scotland days, and I couldn’t imagine a nicer person to have a big publishing success story.


The Fly Papers Book 1: The Flytrap Snaps

A great, fun read for young’uns (I dunno, age 8-10 maybe? Who knows from age appropriateness) – kid adventure about a boy who befriends a sentient mutant venus flytrap and gets caught up in sinister goings-on. Great characters (particularly every single female character) and an even greater setting – a kind of kids-imagination version of what a filmmaking town would be like. This was nominated for children’s book of the year and I can see why. Johanna is based in the Wairarapa, and is an excellent lady.
(Also I want to mention that physically this is a beautiful book: well-designed, well-made. Johanna’s partner Walter was responsible for that, I think.)


Paranoia: Reality Optional

The dystopic satirical world of Paranoia has long been under-recognised as one of the greatest of all “story worlds” (to use the currently trendy transmedia jargon). It is a future society in thrall to a paranoid computer, while labyrinthine conspiracies and equally labyrinthine bureaucracy reduce everyday life into a series of catch-22 dilemmas. Created for a role-playing game in the early 80s, it has enjoyed ridiculously few forays into other media – three spin-off novels in the 80s, a 6-part comic series in the 90s, and now finally in the 10s there’s another run at using this world outside of gaming.

This particular story is a typically Paranoia combination of madcap hijinks and satirical brutality. It follows one member of Alpha Complex, Jerome-G, as he tries to make sense of the insane world in which he lives. There’s plenty of great laughs and action along the way. Oddly enough, the one section that didn’t quite work for me was where Jerome-G finds himself joining a troubleshooter team for a mission – which is the fundamental mode of Paranoia the game version. Great games and the great stories have different needs and rhythms, and here’s a good instance of that. The diversion doesn’t last long, anyway, and it’s still entertaining watching a typical Paranoia screwjob go even more out of control than usual.

Reality Optional was written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who is one of the nicest people ever to exist. This is his first novel, and given he’s about to become a dad to twins any day now it might be the last for a while…

This is only available in ebook. Free preview chapters at the link!


Mansfield With Monsters

Local publisher Steam Press released this great collection of reworked Katherine Mansfield stories last year, and to everyone’s surprise it won over the literary establishment as well as the genre folk. The Cowens have a wicked, understated sense of humour in how they choose to subvert each of the chosen Mansfield stories, and in many cases these literature-hacks reveal new aspects of Mansfield’s work. Some of them are big and almost goofy, others are sly and mean, others still portentous and sinister. I dipped in and out of this between other reading, and it was consistently rewarding. I loved it.

This collection was the work of husband-and-wife cool noodles Debbie & Matt Cowens. They have been making cool stuff of various kinds since before I knew ’em, and that’s a long time ago now. It’s awesome that one of their cool things is getting this kind of attention.

These are all good things to read. I recommend them all. Of course I am biased in every case, but hey, I could’ve just said nothing at all!

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (NZ/USA, 2012)

Seen on Peter Jackson’s pet Embassy screen, with all mod cons: high frame rate, 3D, super surround sound speakers, etc.

It was groovy. Slower than it needed to be, but not so much as I’d feared. After the first half hour, it felt to me *very* similar in pacing to the LotR films. I’d give it 3.5 or 4 stars, against the 4.5 or 5 I’d throw down for the Lord of the Rings flicks.

It felt less like a coherent whole than any of the Rings films – the digressions (basically anything with no dwarves or hobbitses) really felt like digressions. This didn’t bother me in the least, though.

The big setpiece action sequence, dwarves vs goblins through mad tunnels and across wooden bridges, was too cartoony to feel of a piece with the more grittily choreographed LotR films – as if Legolas riding the shield was the default tone and not an unusual moment – but it was a fun romp and fully enjoyable to watch. (It also directly echoed, and far exceeded, the similar chase sequence in Tintin which was that film’s only memorable sequence.)

I liked it. What ya gonna do.

The HFR was *cool*. I really, really liked it. I can see why people don’t, of course, it’s definitely a different way of reading the screen, but it totally worked for me (and the 3D didn’t make my eyes tired, too, so I think it helped with that). I certainly don’t think it’s right for every film, there’s an effect of the “distance” of the traditional lower frame rate, but I can see myself looking forward to more films using HFR. I reckon Prometheus would’ve been more fun for me in HFR, for example.

Roll on part two.

NZFF: Cabin in the Woods (USA, 2011)

Awesome fun, but.

A Goddard/Whedon clever-clever horror movie that takes the stereotypical slasher film structure and dismantles it. I fought hard to avoid being spoiled for this film but it turns out I needn’t have bothered, because it pretty much unfolds completely predictably from the juxtaposition set up in the first two scenes. The joy of it isn’t surprise though, it’s in execution, particularly in the gags. This is funny stuff. I did guffaws.

What it doesn’t do, is say anything clever about the horror genre, and I think it was trying to. There’s a subtextual thing in there that, I think, really doesn’t get what horror films are for, or conversely, what audiences want from horror films. So while I really enjoyed the film, I also want to argue with it. I suspect that the bits that threw me out of the experience – without exception, these were times it pulled a turn from grim nastiness to funny, which is trademark Whedonesque – failed for me because they were founded on this misapprehension.

Conversely, what it *does* do is celebrate scary movies. And it celebrates beautifully. It gets how scares work and how gags work and how tension unites the two. It plays out, on a scene level, beautiful beautiful moments that I will always remember. They didn’t all add up for me, but I definitely got my money’s worth. Would very happily watch again.

(Also a Go Girl takes her top off.)

NZFF: The Imposter (UK, 2012)

Documentary about a family who found their lost son after four years, only it turned out it wasn’t their son at all, it was an imposter. Told from the point of view of the imposter.

This is a heck of a story, and it’s easy to see why people have been eagerly talking about it. The main figures are fascinating (the core family, the increasingly odd imposter), and the supporting characters are memorable (including an FBI agent who is, er, not the best advertisement for that agency, and a Private Investigator who is a born star).

The twists and turns don’t seem quite so gasp-worthy to me though, and probably to anyone else who studied psychology. “How could the family possibly accept this chap was their son?” Well, “very easily”, says psyc. Because if there’s one thing psychologists know that they can’t seem to get into the public domain, it’s that we are way more cognitively fallible than society tells us. You Are Not So Smart.

Like most documentaries I see these days, it is too long – it would probably make for a great BBC 60-minute no-ads TV documentary, but at 90 minutes it really felt like it took ages to get going. Anyone who goes to see documentaries on film (or rents them on DVD) will know this phenomenon though, and it’s pretty forgiveable really.

So, I didn’t gasp and I thought it was long. That sounds pretty negative. Actually I really enjoyed this film, I’m just unwilling to talk about why because it’ll spoil the surprises – and the filmmaker really makes the most of those surprises. Definitely worth your time.

Monstrous News

Very pleased to own two brand-new Monster books by some excellent friends!

The storytelling game Monsters of the Week by Mike Sands is a lovely, elegant way to sit down with your friends and tell some tales of Buffy-style monster-fighting. It’s a great game, and a lovely book, deserving of the widest possible audience! Find out more, and how to order, here!

Also: Mansfield With Monsters, by the lovely Debbie & Matt Cowens! Unlocking the secret early drafts of NZ’s greatest writer Katherine Mansfield, it will give you a new way to look at those classics… And yep it’s one of those literary mashup thingamies, but as a short story collection it won’t wear out its welcome, and of course Debbie and Matt are very clever people indeed. Marvellous! Spot it in bookstores around the region, and find out more, and how to order, here!

Huge congrats to the pair of you!