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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller,  Johnny Depp and Jude Law.

Warning: Minor Spoilers.

The first fantastic beasts film was a charming, entertaining spin-off that, a few duff side-plots aside, was up there with most of the Potter films in terms of quality. It’s likeable lead quartet of Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie were worthy replacements for Harry, Ron and Hermione, even if Graves/Grindelwald didn’t match up to Voldemort as an antagonist. The cute, loveable magical creatures made up for the dull New York setting and the stupid second salemers subplot. The film’s simplicity, by and large, played in its favour.

The second film always had a few more hurdles to negotiate. Would fans like Jude Law’s take on the young Dumbledore? Would Johnny Depp’s performance put fan discontent at his casting as Grindelwald to rest? Would Rowling tell an inventive story without getting too bogged down in laying the groundwork for film 3 (and potentially films 4 and 5?). Well the casting fears proved unfounded. The script problems reviewers have been mentioning are, unfortunately, evident throughout. There’s too many characters and subplots competing for screentime, which leaves the main quartet a little hard done by, particularly Tina (who is split from Newt thanks to a needless plot contrivance) and Queenie, whose character arc comes a bit out of nowhere and leads to a rather unconvincing twist. On the plus side, Newt and Jacob’s double act is just as heart-warming and funny as it was in the previous film, and both get a decent amount of screentime. Another bonus is the switch of setting from New York to Paris and London – America just isn’t a natural fit for Potter and Paris definitely felt like a more ‘magical’ place for the story to take place.

The film does definitely benefit from having closer ties to Hogwarts and the existing Potter mythos than its predecessor. The flashbacks to Newt and Leta’s time at Hogwarts are some of the best parts of the film, while Jude Law is so perfect for the role of Dumbledore. His performance is the highlight of the film – seeing Dumbledore actually teach was great too – Law gives just the right balance of encouraging, mischievous mentor and regretful, sombre figure who’s still coming to terms with his past. Matching him, somewhat surprisingly, is Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald. Depp’s fallen a long way in the past few years – he’s had more misses than hits in the films he’s done and his personal life has come under intense scrutiny and alienated a sizeable part of his fanbase. All of which makes it all the more surprising that he’s one of the best things in this film. Grindelwald feels a lot more layered and real than Voldemort ever did. While Voldemort was always supposed to be a manifestation of pure evil, Grindelwald is the more real, familiar kind of monster who sees everything he does as right, regardless of the cost. He has a very much ‘ends justify the means’ rationale in this film, and is a lot subtler than Voldemort in the way he tries to win followers to his cause. Depp plays him perfectly, which I never thought I’d say – there’s a lot of charisma, underpinned by malevolence bubbling away underneath the surface  – and most crucially, he feels like a real match for Dumbledore, both in power and intellect. Much like Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot in Batman vs Superman, he’s nowhere near as miscast as everyone feared.

Unfortunately, the rest of the new characters struggle to have much of an impact, mainly because there’s just too many of them. Zoe Kravitz gives a good turn as Leta Lestrange, but she’s the exception. Newt’s brother Theseus and newcomer Nagini get bugger all to do throughout, Grindelwald’s followers are all one-note characters with minimal screentime, and none of the ministry figures are as memorably characterised as the likes of Fudge and Umbridge were. Arguably this is a result of Rowling trying to cram too much set-up into this film – everyone’s so busy jockeying for screentime that it’s inevitable some of them get pushed to the sides and largely forgotten. The fantastic beasts themselves don’t fare much better – the Niffler gets plenty of laughs, but there’s only really 3 others on display and they’re more window dressing that essential to the plot this time. Credence’s plot arc takes up a lot of the runtime, and while Ezra Miller plays him well, its still hard to be overly invested in him, and his whole ‘real family’ plotline wasn’t set up well enough in film one to merit so much emphasis here. As for the final twist… we’ll wait and see. It smacks of Rowling re-writing her own mythos, but it could work depending on what they do with it in the next one.

David Yates’ direction isn’t as assured as usual this time round. Given he’s helmed the past 5 Potter films, this is both surprising and rather disappointing. While the visuals are generally stunning, there’s WAY too much cutting during the action scenes (the opening escape sequence is one of the worst shot chase sequences I can remember) and while the effects are good, it’s nothing special until the finale, which finally gives us something memorable as Grindelwald proves just how powerful he really is (seriously, it bests anything Voldemort did on screen). James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is more sombre and foreboding this time round. While its probably not as memorable as the first films, it suits this film well. There’s only a couple of tracks I might consider buying though.

Overall, Fantastic Beasts is an entertaining film which benefits from closer ties to Hogwarts and Dumbledore than its predecessor, but is let down by messy plotting and haphazard direction. The cast work well together, and Johnny Depp and Jude Law are fine additions, but it suffers from trying to cram in too many plotlines and too much set-up (in some ways it reminds me of Amazing Spider-Man 2). The Final act and the Hogwarts flashbacks are great, but we’ll have to wait for film 3 to really get a sense of how all the twists and turns are going to play out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I may do reviews of a few more films before the years out (I’ve just rented Solo: A Star Wars Story and I may go and see Mortal Engines in cinema soon).

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The rise and fall of the Fallout franchise.

How the mighty have fallen.

It’s been a pretty awesome year for Video Gamers (particularly on PS4) with hit games such as God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Spiderman and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. But even great gaming years have complete turkeys. Fallout 76 is this year’s – reviews have been universally critical (average rating’s are around 4/10 to 5/10) and the fans are mostly furious at how poor the finished product is.

Its rare for the big beasts in gaming to screw up so spectacularly. It happened with Star Wars Battlefront 2 and Mass Effect Andromeda last year, but both those games had redeeming features. Battlefront 2 had solid gameplay and was still quite a decent experience, despite the stupid loot box and microtransactions system. The DLC also helped make it a more complete experience. Mass Effect Andromeda was disappointing, but is still a reasonably fun game. The negative reaction was mainly due to it not living up to the VERY high standards of its predecessors, and some laughably bad character animations due to tech issues. But most of those issues were fixed pretty quickly, and a 2nd playthrough with lower expectations proved the game itself is decent if a bit forgettable. But Fallout 76 has even more problems that those games did.

Firstly, virtually none of the long-term fans wanted it. Fallout has always been a single-player experience, and no one was crying out for a multiplayer version. It smacked of being a simple cash-grab, not a fan-service extra. Secondly, the game is notoriously empty without NPC’s. While there’s still some fun to be had for co-op players, playing this solo is not an option. Finally, and most damningly, the game seems absolutely riddled with bugs. Not just bad animation bugs (which the fallout series is well known for) but game breaking bugs like stuck loading screens and endless crashes. Now, this may be fixed somewhat over the next few months, but frankly, its unacceptable for a game priced £59 at launch to be in such a poor state. No wonder the price got cut to £34 within a week after poor sales.

This is a real pity. Fallout has been an absolute gem of a series so far. While I never played the PC, turn-based RPGs the series began with, I came in at Fallout 3 on PS3 and loved it. It was up their with Elder Scrolls Oblivion as my favourite game for a long time. The DLC was very hit and miss, but the main game was flawless. Fallout New Vegas, while not as highly praised by critics is often regarded by true Fallout fans, including me, as equalling if not bettering Fallout 3. Its faction-driven story and more humourous atmosphere elevated it, and while the DLC was once again a mixed bag, it remains one of my all-time favourites. Fallout 4 may have strayed too far from the series’ formula, but its engaging plot, wonderful graphics and improved game engine still made it worth your time. The DLC was overpriced, but one bit of it, Far Harbor, was actually a huge improvement on the main game, and is the main reason I haven’t sold the game on yet. But now the series has stumbled badly, with a game few wanted, with obvious design flaws, a multitude of performance issues and which totally disregards what Fallout is really about. They’ve basically made it into a co-op shooter, with barely any RPG elements and a bland, lifeless server where interactions with other players are rather limited.

If you’re seeing a pattern here, think Elder Scrolls. Also made by Bethesda, it had critically acclaimed if now outdated games with Daggerfall and Morrowind, a great game in Oblivion, an even better game with a better engine and graphics in Skyrim, and then an online spin-off with ESO. But ESO, while not my thing, worked considerably better. Firstly, it was a much livelier world, with way more players on each server and quite a few NPC’s to interact with. Secondly, it was nowhere near as buggy at launch. Thirdly, Medieval Fantasy is much better suited to online MMORG’s than post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Thanks to stuff like World of Warcraft and Skyrim’s never-ending popularity, there was an obvious market for ESO. There really wasn’t an obvious market for Fallout 76. COD-gamers who love co-op shooters already have dozens of options which cost less or are more their thing. Long-term fallout fans weren’t happy with Fallout 4’s changes to the series formula, and multiplayer was yet another unwanted change. Single-player RPG fans won’t want to waste time in a world as empty as fallout 76’s. That just leaves fans of co-op shooters with rpg elements. But half of them will probably avoid it now because of the critical mauling its got and the bug-ridden nature of the game.

Bethesda really need to buck their ideas up. While Elder Scrolls VI will draw fans back, trust in Bethesda is going to be low for a while, which isn’t ideal with Starfield, a new property, likely to be their next release. As for Fallout, the series isn’t dead yet, but one more failed release would do it. Here’s my advice for Bethesda if it wants to win fans back:

  • Ditch Multiplayer. Leave that to gaming companies who specialise in it. A sequel to ESO might be worthwhile, but aside from that, no one wants multiplayer RPG’s from you after this debacle.
  • Listen to fans: Fallout 4 ignored what the fanbase loved about 3 and New Vegas. Sure it won over a lot of mainstream gamers who hadn’t played those games, but long term fans really weren’t happy with the changes to perks, skills and the absence of multiple settlements to interact with. Give the fans what they actually want for once!!!
  • Stop overcharging!: £59 for Fallout 76 is ludicrous. The DLC for Fallout 4 was similarly overpriced (Far Harbor was brilliant, but I waited for a sale for a reason. Who’s playing £20 for 1 piece of DLC???). I know current-gen is expensive, but this smacks of trying to squeeze way too much money from customers.
  • Scrap pointless quests and building mechanics: The biggest flaw with Fallout 4 was the amount of annoying, repetitive quests (particularly in the Minutemen story arc) and the construction mechanics. Building your own settlements was a cool idea, but like the Batmobile in Arkham Knight, it was a cool idea that was so overused it became an annoyance. Scavenging around for materials constantly to repair power armour or build items to advance quests was a real irritation, and should have been something that players could do if they wanted, not something that you HAVE to do constantly. This really needs to be scaled back for the next game, and the quality of the quests could really use a boost.

House of Cards Season 6 Review

Starring Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Diane Lane, Campbell Scott, Lars Mikkelsen, Boris McGiver, Derek Cecil and Greg Kinnear.

Warning: Major spoilers for Season 5, Minor Spoilers for Season 6.

House of Cards used to be the best show on Netflix. The first two seasons are still as good as anything the service has ever produced. The show made a few missteps in season 3, but recovered in Season 4, which was mostly a return to form. Then, two big curveballs threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down. First, Season 5 was a mess, with a few standout episodes let down by a contrived plot, obvious twists and an inability to live up to the real life drama created by the current White House administration. It was easily the worst of the bunch. Then, far more seriously, the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, spectacularly fell from grace under a deluge of sexual harassment allegations from other actors and crewmembers (which are still not proven as of yet, but Netflix had little choice but to drop him and erase the two episodes he’d already filmed).

Fortunately, Season 5 ended in a way which made it easy for Netflix to continue with the show, as Claire Underwood, Francis’ wife, had become president following her husband’s resignation. However, a lot of fans were concerned about this, as while Robin Wright is a very good actress, she had ultimately been second fiddle to Spacey for most of the run, and the seasons which had focused on Claire more weren’t the best. However, Netflix ploughed ahead, and for completionism’s sake, I decided to give the final season a go.

So… does it still work without Kevin Spacey in the lead?

Surprisingly, yes it does.

Robin Wright is a revelation now she’s been freed from being the support act. As a lead, she’s far more compelling and likeable than she ever was before. Similarly liberated is Michael Kelly, whose Doug Stamper gets far more to do without Francis pulling his strings. While neither has been my favourite character during the 5 previous series, they both come into their own here, and its very hard to decide which of them to root for. The series introduces a new group of villains in the form of Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), two influential businesspeople who try to force Claire to support their various agendas, and have vice-president Mark Usher in their pocket. Both prove to be good rivals for Claire, and while not up there with Lars Mikkelsen’s wonderful Russian President Petrov (who steals every scene he’s in once again), they are two of the more memorable adversaries the show has given us so far, and their recruitment of Seth ties them into Francis’ world nicely. The conflict between all these parties, as well as Tom Hammerschmidt and Janine’s continuing desire to bring Claire down and destroy Frank’s legacy, makes for very compelling viewing.

At 8 episodes long, it’s shorter than the other seasons, but this actually works in its favour, as things feel less padded out than before (though in truth, 10 episodes might have worked better!). The soundtrack and the direction are as good as ever, while the writing is a notable step up from Season 5, if not the best we’ve ever had on the show.

But does Season 6 end the series on a satisfactory note?

No, unfortunately it doesn’t.

Spacey’s absence is dealt with well, as is Doug’s end of season 5 predicament. But while the show ties up most of Season 5’s loose ends well enough, it fails to do the same for itself, mostly because of the finale. Episodes 4-7 of season 6 are brilliant, but episode 8 is not. The conflict between Claire and the shepherds is left sort-of unresolved, Seth, Janine and Mark Usher don’t really get any kind of meaningful resolution to their storylines and the final showdown between Claire and Doug is unsatisfying, and features a twist that doesn’t really work.

Ultimately, were Netflix to change its mind and commission a 7th series, I would now be happy with that. But if this really is the end… it could have been so much better. So, to sum up, Season 6 may leave a bitter aftertaste, but it reminds you of why this show was such a hit. Spacey’s shadow looms large, but the show proves that it was never just him that made it such a success.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (its a fun ride, but the final episode drags the whole thing down)

Coming soon: Expect my review of Detroit: Become Human, one of the year’s most thought provoking video games, and sometime after, my take on the new Fantastic Beasts movie.

5 Sci-Fi Shows to watch instead of the New Doctor Who

Since I made the decision to give up on Chibnall’s travesty of a Doctor Who series, I have felt a palpable sense of relief. Sunday evenings are considerably less depressing now. For those of you in the same boat, I thought I’d recommend a few alternate ways for you to experience some good science fiction on TV. So here’s 5 of my favourites, all of which are considerably better value than any more hours with Whittaker’s Doctor will be.

1. Red Dwarf: The UK’s second longest-running Sci-fi series, Red Dwarf is about as far as you can get from Who. Political Correctness is usually mocked rather than adhered to. Comedy takes precedence over drama. The episodes are all around 30-40 minutes long. None of the characters are meant to be role-models, so they often get pushed into greyer territory. Most importantly, the series is meant for adults, not children, so we don’t get all this nauseating kindergarten-morality and dumbed-down explanations shoved in. As for the quality of the series, it is admittedly variable, but there’s some great runs in there (Series 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are bloody brilliant) and even the more recent series, which can be comparatively weak, occasionally throw up an absolute gem of an episode (Series 8’s ‘Cassandra’, Series 10’s ‘Dear Dave’, Series 12’s ‘Mechocracy). The main cast are all brilliant, featuring Craig Charles (Corrie, Robot Wars) as the slobbish Lister, Chris Barrie (Lara Croft films) as the incompetent elitist Rimmer, Danny John-Jules (of this year’s Strictly) as the Self-Absorbed Cat and Robert Llewellyn (some tech shows on channel 5) as the subservient mechanoid Kryten. The interplay between the four of them is brilliant, and makes even less-funny instalments of the series watchable. The science fiction elements are quite good too, even if done in a knockout way. We get holograms, demented droids, time-travel, virtual reality and a lot of shade being thrown at Star Trek. What more could you want? Available on Netflix and UKTV play.

High Point: Series 6. One episode got a BAFTA nomination, but to be honest, all 6 episodes are comedy gold.

Low Point: Back to Earth. It may have got the series re-commissioned on Dave, but this three part special is short on laughs and high on stupidity.

2. Star Trek: Voyager: If you fancy a more serious alternate to Doctor Who, Star Trek is the obvious option that springs to mind from across the pond. With aliens, space battles, timey-wimey episodes and a MUCH larger budget than Doctor Who, it seems like a natural fit for Whovians. But which one to go for? Trekkies would probably either recommend the Original Series (the one with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) or the Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard). Both have their plus points, as does Deep Space Nine (the third series), but to be honest, they can all be hard to get into, as they’ve either aged a lot or don’t have stellar first series. I’d recommend avoiding Enterprise (the least loved prequel series) or Discovery (Netflix’s appalling spin-off). Personally, i’d go for Voyager. It’s got a more episodic feel to it, which makes it more accessible to casual viewers and people who aren’t all that familiar with Star Trek. It also has arguably the most engaging cast of any of the Star Trek shows. It’s very much an ensemble piece, including Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black) as the formidable Captain Janeway, Robert Beltran as her stalwart but spiritual First Officer, Robert Picardo as the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (who has a terrible bedside manner), Tim Russ as Tuvok, a Vulcan Security Officer, Roxanne Dawson as the half-Klingon engineer with serious anger issues and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg Drone (and arguably the best character in Star Trek) who turns up in Season 4. The show has a unique plot compared to most Star Trek series, as Voyager sees the crew utterly cut off from Star Fleet and any human contact, allowing for more inventive stories and a whole host of recurring alien races, most notably the Borg. The Borg are Star Trek’s answer to Cybermen, but honestly, it uses them far better than Modern Who has used the Cybermen. The Borg are relentless, genuinely scary, and while they do get overused later in Voyager’s run, they never outstay their welcome. The show was made in the late 90’s, so the effects still hold up very well, and while there’s a few bad episodes in the shows seven seasons, most are enjoyable on some level (and crucially, less dull than some of the other Star Trek series). Ultimately, this is probably my favourite Sci-Fi series at the moment. Best of all – its all on Netflix.

High Point: Seasons 4, 5 and 7 are very, very good. There’s so many strong episodes its hard to narrow that down much further.

Low Point: The Early part of Season 2 and the Middle Part of Season 3 are pretty bad, but both series’ eventually recover to finish on highs, so stick with it.

3. Blakes 7: While Red Dwarf is the UK’s second most known Sci-fi show, arguably the second best one is Blakes 7, which ran for four series from 1978-1981. It was created by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who, and reflected the bleak, dark nature of his worldview and stories. Often described as ‘Robin Hood in space’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ in Space, it featured a regular cast of between five and seven rebels fighting against the tyrannical federation, a totalitarian regime that had control over Earth and the majority of human colonies in the milky way. Like Voyager, it works because of the characters, who are all various shades of grey, whether heroes or villains. There’s no boring ‘black and white’ morality here – the majority of rebels are convicted criminals (thieves, hackers, smugglers, murderers) and are somewhat justifiably presented by the federation as terrorists, while the villains are generally complex characters and never just moustache twirling villains. On the rebel side, you have the titular Blake, a fanatical but generally well-meaning leader, Vila, a cowardly thief, Jenna, a no-nonsense smuggler, Cally, a telepathic gunslinger/medic, Gan, a hulking if dim-witted giant and Avon, a thoroughly duplicitous hacker played by the marvellous Paul Darrow, who proved so popular he took over as lead actor for series 3 and 4. The villains include Travis, a ruthless federation officer with a penchant for leather outfits, and Servalan, his female superior, who is notably one of the first ever female villains in sci-fi and radiates power, malevolence and dangerous beauty throughout. There are some similarities to Classic Who and Classic Star Trek, but Blakes 7 is very much its own thing. While aliens play a part in events, its one of those sci-fi shows where humans are very much the real villains. There’s few high-concepts like time-travel, though teleportation and high-speed space travel play a big part. Overall its a gritty, dark thoroughly adult sci-fi show, which is still remembered on account of it having one of the bleakest and most infamous endings of any TV show. You have been warned. (For god’s sake don’t look it up in advance – that would be akin to spoiling the Red Wedding). You can buy the complete box set for around £20, which is pretty damn good for 52, fifty minute episodes.

High Point: Avon might just be the best anti-hero in Science fiction, while Servalan is definitely one of the all-time great female sci-fi villains.

Low Point: The special effects vary between dire and mediocre. Blame the BBC for giving it a shoestring budget.

4. Stranger Things: If you’re after something more modern, the best current sci-fi show I can think of is Stranger Things. I’ve reviewed it before, so I won’t go into as much detail, but Stranger Things is a great episode of how to mix drama, comedy, horror and fantasy into one great Science Fiction show. Set in the 80’s, it feels like a homage to a whole variety of 80’s cult and sci-fi films, including Aliens and many Spielberg films. The direction is universally good, the writing is consistently strong (even if both seasons take 3-4 episodes to properly get going) and the music is absolutely sublime. But the main reason you’ll stick with it is the cast, featuring established greats like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Dave Harbour and Paul Reiser, but also young stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. Given how often Star Trek and Doctor Who have been let down by poor child-actors, it’s refreshing to see an adult-oriented show that actually has a really engaging young cast. The sci-fi elements are really great, featuring alternate dimensions and creepy government labs, you’ll have seen it all before, but not as compellingly done as it is here. On Netflix, you’ll probably binge the whole thing in 4 or 5 days.

High Point: Hard to say, but the last three episode of season 1 and episodes 5-9 of season 2 are unmissable television.

Low Point: The first few episodes may not hook you, but there isn’t really a bad one so far. It’s a pretty consistent show to be honest.

5. (Classic) Doctor Who: Slight cheat this, but given how few ‘fans’ have ever really gone back and watched the classic series its a valid option, and given its stories are normally 4-6 part instalments of 25 minutes each, it feels quite different from the Doctor Who you’re probably used to. Given there are 26 series from 1963-1989, featuring 7 very distinct Doctors (most people would plump for Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton as the best, but Jon Pertwee is up there too) you can sate your fix for Doctor Who without bearing with Chibnall’s clusterfuck or re-watching Eccleston-Capaldi for the umpteenth time. While you may struggle with the cheap and lacklustre special effects and some mediocre stories and companions, there’s plenty of great Doctors, great companions (Sarah Jane, The Brigadier, Jamie, Ian and Barbara, K9, Romana – just to name a few) and some stories that are equal to anything the modern series has produced: The Invasion (1969), Inferno (1970), Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Earthshock (1981), The Caves of Androzani (1984) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) are all some of my (and the fanbases) favourites, and are good ones to try out to see if you can handle the classic era. Don’t start with Hartnell and go chronologically – the majority of bad who stories come from either the early 60’s or the mid eighties. I’d recommend you start from Patrick Troughton’s second series (The Tomb of the Cybermen onwards) through to when Peter Davison exits. You’ll find the odd bad episode, but you’ll get some of the best Dalek and Cybermen stories out there, as well as seeing the introductions of Davros, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Ice Warriors and UNIT, so there’s plenty of things to watch out for. Just don’t expect it to look anywhere near as good as the modern series. It doesn’t. The direction can be quite good though, even if the composers aren’t in Murray Gold’s league. Not all the episodes are easy to find, but many are on dailymotion and most are relatively cheap to buy on dvd.

High Point: Tom Baker’s 2nd (1975), 3rd (1976) and 5th (1978) series are about as good as you can get, but Pertwee’s 1st series (1970), Sylvester McCoy’s last series (1989) and Patrick Troughton’s third series (1969) all feature some great stories and are pretty good throughout.

Low Point: There’s some really bad William Hartnell stories, and Colin Baker’s tenure was very hit-and-miss, but you can’t get worse than McCoy’s first series in 1987. It’s probably the only one worse than the series currently airing. It features four stories, all of which are bad, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel has to be the worst companion in the series 55-year history.

So there you go: my take on some shows disillusioned Whovians might appreciate at the moment. Or you can just go and rewatch Torchwood. Your call!

How Doctor Who S11 could have been saved.

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan (I hate the term Whovian) for over 13 years. The series has had its ups and downs in that time, but I’ve always stuck with it. Even series 10, which tested my patience, had the hooks of an intriguing finale and Capaldi’s exit to convince me to go the distance. But the current series has finally broken my resolve. My interest in the show, at long last, has died. The sad thing is, it really could have been so different. In the words of Peter Davison’s Doctor ‘there should have been another way…’

Having decided to give up, my weekly Who reviews will cease. I may eventually do more Who related content, but this will likely be revisiting either the classic era or episodes from the Davies and Moffat runs. So as a sort of last hurrah, here’s my opinion on how Series 11 could (and should) have been so much better.

Option 1: Fire Chibnall and hire a decent showrunner.

There’s still a possibility that S11 will get its act together with a run of four non-Chibnall episodes. But even if it did, Chibnall’s doing the finale and will still do the lion’s share of the following season – which makes me dead set against continuing. Showrunners have a massive impact on modern TV shows, and while the show can survive hit-and-miss writers (Russell T. Davies) and divisive showrunners (Steven Moffat) it can’t maintain the quality if the head showrunner is a consistently poor writer. A lot of my pre-existing concerns about Chibnall stemmed from his record as showrunner on Torchwood Series 1 and 2. While both series have highs and lows, Chibnall’s episodes were never the highlights, and often included some of the worst in each run (Cyberwoman, Countrycide, etc.). Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t involved in Children of Earth, which was Torchwood’s undisputed highlight, or Miracle Day, its more mixed sequel. This combined with his mixed record on Who should have ruled him out for the position. Especially when the other options were considerably better. I’m not a Being Human fan, but Toby Whitehouse’s experience as a showrunner of a cult fantasy show like that made him a prime candidate for Who (not to mention his record on both Torchwood and Who edges Chibnall’s). Other Who writers who’ve excelled in recent seasons might have also been good shouts (Peter Harness springs to mind – Kill the Moon, the Zygon 2-parter, The Pyramid at the End of the World). Jamie Mathieson would also be up there, as of course would Neil Gaiman. But frankly, its hard to envisage ANYONE having done a worse job than Chibnall. You could have given it to the Merlin/Atlantis guys, who’ve never even written for Who, and I’d probably be happier.

Option 2: Reduce Chibnall’s input and hire more of the proven Who writers. 

If the showrunner is flawed, the show can still succeed, but this is normally only true when the showrunner writes very few episodes. Think of Tennant’s first series. Davies wrote 5 episodes out of 13, but even though 2 of them were utterly dire (New Earth, Love and Monsters) it didn’t hamstring the series, because he nailed the finale and the other writers by and large did a very good job. Chibnall’s decision to retain NO existing Who writers never sat well with me. You need variety on a show like this, and that comes from different writing styles as much as different plots during episodes. Having 5 Chibnall episodes in a row at the start was beyond excessive (especially in a ten episode series), and its telling the only standout was the one co-written by Malorie Blackman. Even Moffat, Who’s best modern writer, never wrote half the episodes of any of his series. He had more sense than that. So, Chibnall should have spread his episodes out a bit more, as well as writing less of them (the opener, the 2nd episode and the finale would have been a good shout). If only he’d hired more proven writers. The number of former who writers who deserve another crack at it is very high: Neil Gaiman (The Doctor’s Wife), Tom Macrae (The Girl Who Waited), Rob Shearman (Dalek), Simon Nye (Amy’s Choice), Matt Jones (The Satan Pit) and Paul Cornell (Human Nature) all come to mind as writers of hit episodes who’d be welcome back. Sure, not all of them may want to, but you’re not seriously telling me NONE of them would?

Option 3: Recast the Doctor. (Hold fire people, hear me out).

It’s really hard to tell whether Jodie’s Whittaker’s take on the character is suffering purely as a result of the writing, or whether she just isn’t suited to the role. Her hit rate is slightly better than Chibnall’s (2 good episodes, 1 average, 2 bad) but her Doctor has some serious issues. Her preachy nature grates really badly, and while her pacifism is a Doctor-ish trait, its being pushed to extremes (think Tennant’s final season, where the character became excessively passive). Her manic energy isn’t as infectious as Smith’s, and her relentless enthusiasm is borderline annoying, and while Jodie’s acting isn’t in question, I do not think the way she’s playing the role suits either her or the character.

Before I get savaged by feminist Whovians, this has literally nothing to do with her being a woman. Her first episode proved that a woman can play the role without any issues (which Michelle Gomez’s run as the Master had already shown most fans anyway). I’d happily welcome another female Doctor, but I’d prefer it to be someone who’s a genuine fan of the show (like Tennant or Capaldi) or someone who can deliver a truly unique take on the character (like Tom Baker or Christopher Eccleston). Jodie’s a fine actress, but I’m not convinced she’s what the show needs.

Just off the top of my head, there are numerous actresses who could own the role (Claire Foy, Maxine Peake, Helena Bonham Carter, Krysten Ritter, Hayley Atwell etc.). If the BBC wanted to go another way for diversity, there’s plenty of non-white actors who’d do a great job (David Harewood, Mahershala Ali, Richard Ayoade, etc.) I’m not one of those people who ever believes acting roles should be cast on the basis of skin colour/gender (unless the character is intrinsically tied to being one way, such as James Bond being always male, Black Panther always being a black actor etc.). But the Doctor isn’t defined by either of those things. So frankly, it doesn’t matter who plays him/her so long as they can do the job. I’m honestly not sure Jodie can.

But from what we’ve seen so far and what’s been said in interviews, I sense Jodie mainly got chosen for two reasons: the BBC/Chibnall wanted a female Doctor; and Chibnall knew and liked her because she worked with him on Broadchurch. Neither of which are good reasons. Moffat’s worked with hundreds of great actors/actresses (Jack Davenport, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michelle Ryan, James Nesbitt) but he chose ones he’d never worked with before. Davies had no pre-existing ties to Tennant, and while he knew Eccleston, Chris was never his first choice. If Jodie was picked because she’s Chibnall’s vision of the character personified, that’s more justifiable but doesn’t help, as his vision is all out of whack.

Option 4: Totally re-work every aspect of Series 11.

Hiring better directors would be a good start (Bring back Rachel Talalay, or hire the standout ones who work for Netflix or Game of Thrones). Using some old monsters rather than dispensable villains-of-the-week (okay, the Daleks, Master and Cybermen have been overused, but there’s plenty of stories left to tell with the Weeping Angels, Sontarans or Ice Warriors, to name just three). Aim the show at a family audience or a young adult one NOT just at children. The show has only really been a pure children’s show once in its history (the early William Hartnell era) and the show wisely ducked out of that approach in the mid/late sixties. Who has always been, and always should be, a program both adults and children can enjoy – and right now it isn’t. Give it a proper story arc or make it entirely episodic (its currently trying to do both and thus is not succeeding at either).

Also, you could change the main cast. The show has only had two spells of three companions in the Tardis (1963-1965, 1980-1982) and to be honest, both those eras have a couple of very weak companions, even if some of them are stronger (Ian and Barbara, Turlough). This is natural, because let’s face it, developing four main characters in a satisfying way and giving them all enough to do on a show like Who isn’t easy. There’s a reason Moffat didn’t have River travel with Amy and Rory full time. If there has to be three companions, why not do something really different and kill Ryan in the opening episode, and have Grace travel with Graham and the Doctor instead? She was a much more interesting character in the premiere, and we’ve never had an older couple in the Tardis (or even an older woman), and you’d still have the whole grief plotline playing out over the series, and the superlative Bradley Walsh. Ryan is nothing we haven’t seen before (male sidekick character who gets involved in the action or serves as comic relief). Aside from his dyspraxia, he really has very little to differentiate himself from Mickey or Rory (particularly if they go the predictable route and pair him up with Yaz). No slight on Tosin Cole’s acting, but aside from the Rosa episode, the character hasn’t shown a lot of potential. Rather than making stupid political points in a ham-fisted way every two episodes, how about the show does something truly groundbreaking, like putting the Doctor and Yaz in a relationship (not only does that have TONNES of storytelling potential, but it would also give Yaz something to do, not to mention allow the show to explore the Doctor’s sexuality, which is a topic it rarely dares touch). Additionally, rather than glossing over the Doctor’s gender change with a couple of jokes, how about explore the impact this has on the character. I’m not saying the Doctor should visibly change personality or dislike the idea, but given the character has never changed gender before, you’d think we’d at least see some sort of phase where she gets used to it.

Well there you have it. I’ll bring this to a close before it goes any further into a full-on rant, but there you have it. It’s only my opinion, and the show may yet prove me wrong. But either way, I’m not tuning in to find out.

Since I’m no longer covering Who, expect a few more video game reviews and Netflix Shows on my blog in the future. I may have started the blog to write about Doctor Who, but honestly, it’s not worth it anymore, even if its behind some of my most-read articles.

Thank you to everyone who’s read, liked, or commented on my Doctor Who reviews and articles, but after 4 years of blogging and 13 years of watching, I’m hanging up my sonic.

‘Doctor… I let you go’ (If only it had ended with Peter).

 

Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum Review

By Chris ‘can’t write for toffee’ Chibnall

Minor spoilers follow

The fact I’m insulting the writer in the first line probably tells you what I thought of this one. It many ways it wasn’t as irritating as ‘The Ghost Monument’ or ‘Arachnids in the UK’ but it had another, major, problem. It bored me.

First the (few) positives. The P’Ting was actually quite an interesting idea, even if it looked like a gremlin crossed with the crazy frog. The idea of an alien that isn’t inherently evil but causes misery via its own efforts to survive has been done before on Who (those Stingrays in Planet of the Dead for example) but never quite like this. Chibnall’s irritating and ham-fisted politics rarely reared their head here. Also the direction was competent and the special effects have never been better. Unfortunately, I just ran out of positives.

Even the things I’ve liked about previous episodes didn’t shine here. The music faded into the background and wasn’t remotely memorable. Bradley Walsh did a good job but had nothing to work with this time. Ryan and Yaz got a share of the action but had nothing interesting to really do (again!). Jodie’s Doctor was less preachy but her enthusiasm remains annoying rather than infectious (if they’re going for a female Matt Smith vibe, they’re failing badly!). It seems clear that Chibnall always places more emphasis on the guest characters than the main cast, which was okay in previous weeks because the guest actors were usually interesting, well written or performed well.

This week, they were well acted but poorly written and totally bland. I couldn’t give a damn if any of them survived, which is never a good sign. Whatever you thought of Russell T. Davies, at least his supporting characters dying had an impact on the episode (As shown by the flashbacks in Journey’s End). Whatever you thought of Clara, Bill, Amy or Rory, at least Moffat ALWAYS gave them something of note to do. Chibnall is failing on both counts right now. He’s wasting his energy writing sub-plots no one really cares about (such as the Cicero siblings animosity or the male pregnant alien – who the hell bloody cares!!). The only thing he throws in that has an impact is Ryan and Graham’s shared grief, but that’s 2 mins out of 50 and can’t carry things by itself. Ryan’s absent father plot might work depending on how it pays off, but his revelation to Yaz about his mother seemed really random and not naturally brought up – the writing felt forced, as if Chibnall thought this needed to be introduced now, when really it should have been drip-fed throughout the series.

The big problem in the episode was the threat level was high, but you knew it would be okay in the end (one character might die, but you know a ship full of main cast can’t be destroyed. Again, the supporting characters being bland doesn’t help either, cause they’re the only ones ever really at threat here. The most interesting of them is dead in the first 15 mins, too.

Overall, the episode looks good and has a memorable alien for the first time this year, but the writing lets it down again, with bland characters, a half-baked plot and an ill-used cast. I’m hoping the other writers might pick things up now Chibnall’s run of stories is done. But I won’t hold my breath.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Next Time: A Yaz centric episode? Let’s hope it finally gives Mandip Gill something to work with.

Doctor Who: Arachnids in the UK Review

By Chris Chibnall

Minor Spoilers Follow.

So after an intriguing opener, a frustratingly bland follow-up, and a politically-charged, powerful but divisive third entry, has Doctor Who’s 11th Series finally found some rhythm?

No. No it bloody hasn’t. And it’s abundantly obvious who’s fault that is.

The cast do their best here, but while they keep things watchable, its very hard for actors to rescue things where the writing is this poor and the dialogue this ham-fisted. Bradley Walsh continues to impress, and it was a relief to see Mandip Gill get slightly more screentime this week (now her family’s been introduced hopefully that might help flesh her out a bit). You suspect in the Moffat/Davies years Yaz would have been the sole companion – and I feel sorry for the actress cause I think she would have knocked it out of the park back then. Now, the material isn’t good enough and she’s got little enough of it compared to the other four. Tosin Cole doesn’t get that much to do this week, but he seems to have settled into the role of Ryan well enough. I am not liking Jodie as much as I thought I would a few weeks back – but with this kind of writing its very hard to tell how much that’s on her. She’s clearly as good an actor as the previous Doctors but her Doctor’s personality is getting a bit wearing. Doctors are always on Thin Ice with me when they get too preachy (Tennant and Capaldi both came close to this during their last seasons) and unfortunately Jodie’s incarnation gets VERY preachy whenever she goes into moral outrage mode. Yes, the Doctor should always be someone who calls out injustice, stands up to evil and holds the universe to rights. But this NEEDS to be shown – NOT spelt out for the audience as if we’re all four-year-olds.

Anyway, the writing. God the dialogue is atrocious in places. Gone are the dramatic, uplifting speeches of Moffat or the intense drama that Davies dished out. While some of the quiet, understated moments of emotion or humour work, this is largely down to Bradley Walsh or Tosin Cole, not the script. I can’t think of a single memorable line that Jodie has said so far to be honest. The plot is still riddled with clichés (monsters and toxic waste – really? Even comic books dropped that one a long time back) and while, yes it is very easy to take shots at Americans at the moment, the politics here felt REALLY forced. Chris Noth’s businessman was such an obvious caricature than it was hard to take him seriously as a character, and let’s face it, he was just incompetent and closed-minded, not devious or despicable enough to be a compelling villain. The Doctor having a thing against guns is nothing new (4 and 10 were especially notable for this) but most of them do, reluctantly, permit their use by allies when needed. Some of them have indeed used them in particularly dire scenarios (5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12 have all used some form of weapon when needed). But again, the issue here got very preachy – and the sympathy for the spiders was, while a doctor-ish trait, done in an on-the-nose and ham fisted way.

Now I’m no fan of spiders – I have a notable fear of the larger, hairier varieties. But these ones were not scary. Harry Potter had scarier ones with 2002 level special effects. While they certainly looked realistic, they weren’t creepy enough and never really threatened the main cast in a significant way. The direction was a mixed-bag – the show still looks miles better than it did even a couple of series ago, but the director really didn’t seem able to make anything remotely scary. For one thing, everywhere is too well lit – it doesn’t matter how proud you are of your CGI monsters, you know they’ll probably look better in the dark – and they’ll definitely be scarier. The composer gave it a decent shot (and let’s face it, creepy music wasn’t always Murray Gold’s forte either) but it was probably his least memorable contribution so far.

The guest cast seemed good (the one thing every episode has nailed so far has been the guest actors/actresses) but Chris Noth in particular seemed to deserve much better material (like Art Malik in Episode 2). Yaz’s family seem like interesting characters, which is a relief after Clara’s and Bill’s dragged things down whenever they showed up, so hopefully we’ll see a bit more of them as the series goes on.

In many ways ‘Arachnids in the UK’ reminded me of Oxygen last year. Poor writing, crap political asides and lame jokes coupled with uninspired direction and a cast that, despite their best efforts, can’t rescue it. Since Oxygen is arguably my least favourite Capaldi episode, this is not a good sign. Series 11 so far has had one of  the weakest starts of any modern series. Normally in Who when this happens, things pick up around episode 5 or 6. Fingers crossed.

Overall, while the episode was watchable and the cast shone in a couple of places, Chibnall is falling below my already low expectations for him. Even his ‘Cyberwoman’ and ‘Sex Alien’ episodes of torchwood had more oomph than this. The cast has potential, but you just get the constant sense that things could be so much better with a different writer and showrunner. Whatever Moffat and Davies’ flaws, they never had me this worried about the shows future.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Next Time: F*** knows. Something in a hospital. These teasers are just annoyingly bland now – they’re better off scrapping them completely.

On the plus side – only 1 more Chibnall episode left before we get 4 in a row where he isn’t involved. Whether I still care by that point is debatable.