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“Doctor Who?” The Deconstructed Davison Doctor…

Rewatching the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who is a strange experience for a number of reasons, not all of which are good.

The Davison era arguably served as a point of transition. It existed in the negative space between two particularly memorable incarnations of the Time Lord. Tom Baker is justifiably considered the most important and influential actor to play the role. Notably, he was the only lead from the classic series to get a showcase scene in The Day of the Doctor. Despite Colin Baker’s protestations, this made a great deal of sense. For an entire generation of television viewers – not just Doctor Who fans – Tom Baker is the Doctor.

On the other extreme, Peter Davison was succeeded by Colin Baker. Whether rightly or wrongly, Colin Baker occupies a similarly important place in the mythos. With his garish costume and his string of terrible stories, Colin Baker was long the public face of the decline and decay of Doctor Who as a cultural institution. This isn’t entirely fair. The rot had set in considerably earlier than Baker’s arrival, and there’s a sense in which he suffered from terrible timing. Still, Colin Baker wound up serving as the face of the show’s hiatus and the embarrassing Doctor in Distress.

This puts Peter Davison in a strange position. He is caught between these two hugely important moments in the show’s history. However, he also arguably lacks a strong cohesive identity like other iconic iterations of the character. The Fifth Doctor is a markedly different character from the iterations around him, and Davison was subject to criticisms from fans that his interpretation of the title character was “bland” or “boring.” It’s arguable that the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive personality was a direct response to this perceived blandness.

However, in just under three full seasons in the role, Peter Davison left quite a mark on the Time Lord. His final story, The Caves of Androzani, is rightly regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever made. (Indeed, it is one of the rare stories to have topped polls of fandom.) More to the point, it’s notable that Davison would become a surprisingly strong influence on the revival series. Tom Baker got to occupy centre stage in The Day of the Doctor, but Davison returned first in Time Crash. The short served primarily as a love letter to Davison’s influence on the role.

There’s a lot of very fascinating stuff happening during Davison’s time in the role, most of seemingly happening by accident. The most striking thing about Davison’s tenure in the role is the recurring sense that he doesn’t quite fit. The Fifth Doctor often seems to struggle with the basic narrative conventions of Doctor Who, wrestling with the series’ core concepts and underlying assumptions. Over the course of Davison’s three seasons in the role, Doctor Who seems to ask what might happen if there were an iteration of the Doctor who wasn’t up to the task.

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“There’s Nobody Left But You”: The Existential Horror at the Heart of White Heat…

Last weekend, on the podcast I co-host called The 250, we discussed James Cagney’s 1949 gangster classic White Heat, with the wonderful Carl Sweeney from The Movie Palace Podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about the film since, and so had some thoughts I just wanted to jot down.

White Heat is a gangster film, starring James Cagney.

It’s frequently discussed in relation to The Public Enemy, which makes sense. Both White Heat and The Public Enemy are mid-century gangster films starring James Cagney. It also merits comparison to The Roaring Twenties, another gangster film starring James Cagney and directed by Raoul Walsh. There’s a tendency to lump these sorts of films together, to examine them as part of a greater whole. It certainly makes sense in this context. After all, a huge part of the appeal of White Heat at time of release derived from seeing James Cagney playing a gangster once again.

However, there’s something altogether stranger about White Heat. It isn’t a film that fits particularly comfortably into the gangster genre, despite the obvious trappings. James Cagney plays the role of Cody Jarrett, the leader of a vicious gang introduced conducting a train robbery and who go on to plot a chemical plant raid at the climax. There is all manner of betrayal and violence, backstabbing and revenging. There are cops in dogged pursuit of the criminals, while Cody demonstrates that nobody should underestimate him.

Still, there’s something simmering beneath the surface of White Heat. As much as the film follows the structures and conventions of a crime film, it plays more like a melancholy monster movie. It is a funereal salute to a mythic figure retreating into history, a horror story about an outdated evil lurking in the shadows, trying to navigate a world that no longer has a place for it.

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New Podcast! Galactic Yo-yo – Peter Davison’s “Doctor Who”

I was very thrilled to be invited to guest on the Galactic Yo-yo podcast by the wonderful Molly Marsh, to discuss Doctor Who.

We’d talked a little bit about Doctor Who before the podcast, and I’d wanted to talk a little bit about classic Doctor Who, because I don’t always get a chance to delve into the classic series. Plus, with the recent blu ray collections, I’d been watching a bit of it. More than that, I’d been delving back into Peter Davison’s almost-three-seasons in the role and was quite impressed with the way in which the Fifth Doctor often seemed to be a protagonist trying desperately to stay on top of a show that was falling to pieces around him. So we talked a great deal about Peter Davison.

Anyway, it was a huge honour to be invited to the show, and I hope that you enjoy it and I didn’t embarrass myself. You can subscribe to the show here. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

New Escapist Column! On “Predators” as a Film That Understands Its Own Limitations…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Predators is ten years old, so it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look back that second (and best) Predator sequel.

In hindsight, Predators is the rare movie that understands the limitations of its core premise. Fox spent decades trying to turn Predator into a franchise, but the sequels largely disappointed. A large part of this is down to the fact that Predator is a concept anchored in a particular time and place, without the timeless quality of a movie like Alien. In contrast to the other Predator sequels, Predators is a lean and modest machine. It never pushes its central concept too far, instead offering a pulpy and enjoyable b-movie. In doing so, it mostly works as a worthy successor.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Palm Springs

On the surface, Palm Springs is instantly recognisable as a genre-savvy update of the classic Groundhog Day template for the twenty-first century.

The basic plot finds two young adults – Nyles and Sarah – trapped living the same day over and over and over again. There is no escape from this nightmare, which finds the pair constantly reliving the wedding of Sarah’s sister Tala. As befitting the more modern media-literate approach to these sorts of stories, Palm Springs joins Nyles at a point where he has already been trapped in the loop for an extraordinarily long amount of time. He is already as familiar with the rules and limitations of this sort of narrative as any audience member who watched Groundhog Day on loop.

Making a splash.

This level of self-awareness in a story is potentially dangerous, encouraging ironic detachment. It’s very each for stories about these sorts of genre-savvy protagonists to feel more like plot devices than actual characters, particularly when operating within constructs that audiences only recognise from other films. “It’s one of those infinite time loop situations you might have heard of,” Nyles casually explains to Sarah early in the film. Sarah responds, aghast, “That I might have heard of?”

There are certainly moments when Palm Springs feels like it might be just a little too knowing and a little too arch, its own story too consciously framed in terms of familiar narrative devices. Most notably, even though the film is not directly named, one of the big emotional beats in Palm Springs seems to be lifted directly from Jurassic Park. Released the same year as Groundhog Day, it exists within the same nostalgic framework and was just as defining for an entire generation of movie-goers. Moments like that feel just a little bit too heavy-handed.

Some “him” time.

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189. White Heat – w/ The Movie Palace – Independence Day 2020 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT.

This week, a special crossover episode with The Movie Palace Podcast, a film podcast hosted by Carl Sweeney taking a look at the classics of Hollywood’s golden age. Carl suggested a crossover episode taking a look at the list, and particularly some of the classic movies listed on it.

So this week, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat.

Fleeing the authorities after a train robbery that resulted in two murders, Cody Jarrett latches on to an unconventional scheme to evade detection. Jarrett turns himself into the authorities for a crime he didn’t commit, earning a lesser sentence and putting him in the clear. However, things are changing rapidly for Cody, and the ground is very quickly shrinking out from under him.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! On “Hannibal” as the Perfect Adaptation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With Hannibal premiering on Netflix and generating a host of new appraisals and discussions, connecting with a new generation of fans, I thought it might be worth looking at Bryna Fuller’s television masterpiece.

In an era dominated by recycled intellectual property, remakes and reboots, it would have been easy to be cynical about another adaptation of Thomas Harris’ seminal serial killer novels, particularly given how severely the film franchise had degenerated since the triumph of Silence of the Lambs. However, Bryan Fuller used Hannibal as a showcase for a particularly ambitious and inventive approach to adaptation, one that used an existing set of iconography in new and innovative ways. Hannibal was the perfect adaptation of a familiar property, breathing new life into it.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: The Old Guard

The Old Guard works best as a nostalgic throwback to turn-of-the-millennium action movies, and struggles awkwardly when it tries to be a modern superhero blockbuster.

The Old Guard is adapted by writer Greg Rucka from the Image Comics series that he created with artist Leandro Fernandez. The story focuses on a group of immortal warriors who have worked at the margins of human history for centuries, making small differences wherever they can while trying to stay out of the spotlight. It’s a pretty solid premise with a lot of narrative potential, and it could easily branch in any number of directions.

Immortal narrative engines.

The best and worst thing about The Old Guard is that it insists on branching in various competing directions. It often feels like three or four different movies that have been edited down into a fairly conventional and generic structure. By turns, The Old Guard tries to be a character study about the weight of immortality, a franchise-launching origin story, a criticism of modern hyper-capitalism, a solemn meditation on what it means to do good in a fallen world, and an old-fashioned kick-ass action movie with a pretty neat soundtrack.

To the credit of The Old Guard, it manages to avoid embarrassing itself too badly while trying to serve all of those competing impulses. However, that balance comes at a cost. None of the central ideas in The Old Guard are ever truly explored or developed, because that might mean that some other angle would get a short shrift. The result is an action film that is largely functional, which isn’t entirely satisfying but is also never completely frustrating. It’s a solid and sturdy film that largely avoids a potential identity crisis by declining to commit to a single identity.

An axe-soldier.

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New Podcast! The Time is Now – Season 2, Episode 23 (“The Time is Now”)

And with that, The Time is Now finishes its coverage of the second season of Millennium, and I was flattered to be invited to discuss the second part of the two-part season finale The Time is Now with the fantastic Kurt North.

I’ve talked a great deal before about how the second season of Millennium is one of my favourite seasons of television ever made. And it has been an absolute joy revisiting it for these podcast discussions. It’s been amazing to see that the show still holds up more than twenty years after it was originally produced, and to see how it resonates in entirely new and surprising ways with the world as it exists today. Twenty years later, the second season is still a monumental and underrated piece of television.

It has been a huge honour to talk so much about the season. I think, outside of Kurt, I’ve been the contributor who has appeared most frequently on these episodes. I hope I’ve been able to make a coherent and convincing case for why I think so many of the individual episodes – and indeed the larger season as a whole – are masterpieces of storytelling and among the very best material that Ten Thirteen ever produced. Thanks to Kurt and Tony for having me, and thanks to the listeners for putting up with me.

As ever, you can listen directly to the episode here, subscribe to the podcast here, or click the link below.

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New Escapist Column! On the Cynical Honesty of “Terminator: Genisys”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. Terminator: Genisys turned five years old this month, so it seemed like the right time to take a look back at the third (of four) attempts to make a sequel to Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Genisys has been largely forgotten, even overridden by the next film in the saga – Terminator: Dark Fate. This makes sense. Genisys itself overrode the previous two films on its own terms. Still, Genisys is an instructive and informative piece of blockbuster cinema. It’s a messy film, but in that messiness there’s an honesty. Genisys is a film that is naked in its ambition and its intent, in its efforts to reiterate and regurgitate the past while erasing any potential evolution. It’s a film that captures the emptiness of modern franchise filmmaking at its most cynical, and its most honest.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.