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Doctor Who: The Witchfinders (Review)

The Witchfinders is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who was come to delivering a conventional celebrity historical.

It is an episode that is much closer to the traditional mode of science-fiction adventure than Rosa or Demons of the Punjab, and not just because it is the first historical episode to be set in British history. As with Arachnids in the U.K., the format of The Witchfinders harks back to the structure and rhythms of the Davies era, feeling like a companion piece to episodes like The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code or The Unicorn and the Wasp. (There are a handful of examples from the Moffat era, notably Victory of the Daleks and Vincent and the Doctor, but they are appreciably fewer.)

The King’s Demons.

This is a broad episode set in the distant path in a manner that evokes the popular folk history of the United Kingdom. It evokes a particular period of history that tends to be well known in a general sense, but less familiar in any specific detail. The Witchfinders focuses on the Doctor and the TARDIS wading into the witch trials that took place during the seventeenth century, overseen by King James I. There is even a nice tie-in to The Shakespeare Code, with the historical connection between those witch trials and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The Witchfinders often finds itself trapped between two extremes. The idea of sending the first female Doctor back into these witch hunts is ripe for social commentary, arguably even more directly than that with which the historical episodes like Rosa and Demons of the Punjab have engaged. Indeed, there is something slyly subversive in the episode’s portrayal of its celebrity figure – in this case King James I – as a deeply flawed figure rather than somebody to be venerated.

Screwed.

On the other hand, The Witchfinders is very much a typical modern-era historical adventure. The Doctor inevitably discovers that there are sinister aliens at work in a historical setting, plotting an invasion and threatening to derail the entire course of history. These aliens serve to provide an explanation for a historical event, and even allow the Doctor to have a more direct impact on the life of an important historical figure, before disappearing into the TARDIS. This is very much of a textbook example of the kind of story codified by The Visitation or The Mark of the Rani.

These two extremes pull within the episode, holding The Witchfinders back from greatness. It is too serious to be enjoyed purely as a fun runaround, but too winkingly mischievous to work as an insightful piece of social commentary. The result is mostly satisfying, even if it is hardly filling.

Apple of her eye.

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Non-Review Review: The Tempest

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Julie Taymor’s Titus. It was a punk rock adaptation of perhaps Shakespeare’s trashiest play, and it was a fusion which just worked. The Tempest, on the other hand, is a very different beast. Far from being one of the Bard’s more easily forgotten plays, it has been one of his most highly regarded since its revival in the nineteenth century. It is, despite some outward cynicism, a far more optimistic and (dare I say it?) lighter piece than the orgy of death and destruction in Titus Andronicus. So Taymor’s skills aren’t quite as perfectly in step as they might be. That said, she’s still a remarkable director with a keen visual sense, and the movie manages to be engaging and entertaining, despite a few missteps.

It's a kinda magic...

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Non-Review Review: GoldenEye

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

GoldenEye saved James Bond. Bond had wallowed in obscurity for six years by the time that Pierce Brosnan’s first appearance in the role was released. As a kid, James Bond was something that was dead to me. Sure, it came on television from time to time (mostly on holidays) and they filled up a shelf at the videostore, but I always felt like they were something that had happened in the past – like the original Star Wars movies, or any Star Trek films featuring Captain Kirk. Even though I lacked the sophistication to articulate it at the time, I think I felt that the entire James Bond franchise would be reruns for me. There was nothing new happening.

And then GoldenEye was released.

Brosnan is Bond...

And it meant business.

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