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Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Review)

“How is that a screwdriver?”

“In a very broad sense.”

“Well, how is it sonic?”

“It makes a noise.”

Pilot fish.

Thin Ice is a fairly solid historical adventure, one that takes a fairly conventional Doctor Who template and puts a slightly self-aware spin on it.

As with The Pilot and Smile, there is a decidedly nostalgic quality to Thin Ice. As with the two prior episodes, Thin Ice feels like a conscious throwback to the structure of the Davies era. Moffat’s final season as showrunner has opened with the classic present-future-past triptych that recalls Rose, The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead, or The Christmas Invasion, New Earth and Tooth and Claw or Smith and JonesThe Shakespeare Code and Gridlock. This is a very familiar and comforting pattern.

Hat’s off to him.

As with Smile before it, Thin Ice is built upon a stock plot. A series of mysterious disappearances lead the Doctor and his companion to one inescapable conclusion: there is a monster menacing Regency England. Thin Ice feels very much like the kind of episode that Mark Gatiss has been known to write, an affectionate historical depiction of an iconic chapter in British history like The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern or The Crimson Horror. Indeed, Thin Ice looks lavish, complete with all the costume drama trappings that one might expect.

However, much like Smile, there is a slight twist on the tale. Whereas Smile attempted to subvert the classic “machines gone awry” plot with a clumsy last-minute twist, Thin Ice instead makes a point to weave its commentary and theme through the familiar structure of the episode. Thin Ice might be a very conventional historical monster story, but it engages with themes of race and class that are often under-explored in these stories.

The time travelers who came in from the cold…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – In the Cards (Review)

In the Cards is the perfect penultimate episode to a sensational season of television.

One of the more common observations about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is that it is the most dour and serious of the Star Trek series. It is the grim and cynical series of the bunch, with many commentators insisting that the series rejects the franchise’s humanist utopia in favour of brutality and nihilism. This criticism is entirely understandable. The series is literally and thematically darker than Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager. Even at this point, it is about to embark upon a two-year-long war arc, the longest in the franchise.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

Jake and the Ferengi Man.

However, this is also a very reductive reading of Deep Space Nine. The series is more willing to criticise and interrogate the foundations of the Star Trek universe than any of its siblings, but it remains generally positive about the human condition. Governments and power structures should be treated with suspicion, but individuals are generally decent. Positioned right before the beginning of an epic franchise-shattering war, In the Cards is the perfect example of this philosophy. In the Cards elegantly captures the warmth and optimism of Deep Space Nine.

Deep Space Nine is fundamentally the story of a diverse and multicultural community formed of countless disparate people drawn together by fate or chance. In the Cards is a story about how happiness functions in that community, how the bonds between people can make all the difference even as the universe falls into chaos around them. It is also very funny.

Pod person.

Pod person.

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Harsh Realm – Reunion (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, The First Part, Chapter XI

Reunion continues the sense that Chris Carter envisioned Harsh Realm as something of an allegorical episodic adventure series through a post-apocalyptic reflection of contemporary America.

Carter quite clearly wanted to use Harsh Realm as a vehicle to explore and comment upon certain aspects of the American experience. Inga Fossa touched on the links between projected masculinity and violence; Cincinnati will find Santiago’s “manifest destiny” brushing up against the country’s Native American population. Even scripts like Three Percenters and Manus Domini feel tied into Carter’s large oeuvre, touching on the writer’s recurring fascination with homogeneity and spirituality in the modern world.

Things come to a head...

Things come to a head…

Reunion is very consciously a critique of excessive and abusive capitalism, presenting a vision of America built upon the economics of slave labour reinforced by the rhetoric of freedom and competition. In some respects, Reunion feels like Harsh Realm is channelling the spirit of classic science-fiction television like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. Its central allegory is hardly subtle, but there is a goofy charm in carrying these ideas well past their logical extremes. The vision of labour presented in Reunion is grotesque and exaggerated, but it is not completely fantastical.

Reunion also reaffirms the link that exists between the digital world and the real world, suggesting that perhaps the world that we inhabit is not as far removed from the horrors of the virtual reality as might hope.

Family matters...

Family matters…

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The X-Files – Monday (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

It always ends the same way. As is appropriate for a story about a time loop, Monday begins with an ending. The teaser catches the last few minutes of one of the episode’s repeating time loops. It is a striking image. Everybody dies – including Mulder and Scully. How could the episode possibly continue past that point? It is simple. Time resets. The universe snaps back into shape around Mulder and Scully, much like it did at the climax of Dreamland II. Everybody gets another chance to set things right. The show bounces back to its status quo, as it did with One Son.

Time for a do-over. Revise it until it’s right.

A ticking clock...

A ticking clock…

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The X-Files – Drive (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

In many ways, Drive feels like an episode that tackles the move to California head-on.

After all, the plot of Drive essentially finds Mulder trapped in a car heading westwards through Nevada and into California. The episode even lingers on a “welcome to California” sign, tacitly acknowledging the massive change that had taken place behind the scenes between the fifth and sixth seasons of The X-Files. It is a very clever way of addressing a major change to the production of the show, one that is candid and open about the fact that things are inherently different now.

"Running out of west..."

“Running out of west…”

More than that, Drive figures out how to build an episode of The X-Files around the change in production location. The sixth season often finds the production team struggling to find the right tone and mood to match the new location; after all, the show cannot simply pretend that it is still filming in Vancouver. California is sunnier, hotter and drier than Vancouver ever was – the sixth season of The X-Files spends a little time trying to adapt to those new filming conditions.

This challenge is arguably most obvious in the string of (literally and metaphorically) lighter episodes in the first stretch of the season. The sixth season is quite controversial among fans of the show because there is a period of time where it seems like The X-Files might transform itself into a quirky romantic sit-com. Episodes like Triangle, Dreamland I, Dreamland II, How the Ghosts Stole Christmas and The Rain King would be the lighter episodes of any previous season; they seem to pile in on top of one another at the start of the sixth season.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

In contrast, Drive is very much a quintessential episode of The X-Files. It is a classic episode of the show. It is scary, it is tense, it is meticulously constructed. There is humour to be found, but the stakes feel real and personal. Writer Vince Gilligan very shrewdly plays into the constraints of the new Los Angeles production realities. A lot of Drive takes place during the day on long desert roads. It takes advantage of California’s impressive interstate system, with twenty-five highways covering almost two-and-half thousand miles.

However, Drive is more than simply a demonstration that The X-Files can still work in its new home. Drive is a superb piece of television in its own right. It is highly regarded as one of the finest episodes of The X-Files from the second half of the run. It is notable for a wonderful premise, a great script, and a mesmerising guest performance from Bryan Cranston. Drive would be the first collaboration between writer Vince Gilligan and actor Bryan Cranston, but not the last.

Drive of your life...

Drive of your life…

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The X-Files – Terma (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

Tunguska and Terma borrows the structure that made the show’s early mythology episodes so effective. Tunguska is full of intriguing and compelling questions, implications that would seem to broaden or deepen the mythology. However, instead of resolving any of the major threads, Terma simply turns itself into a roller-coaster thrill ride. A cynical observer might compare the weaker mythology episodes to a shell-game: the potential of an interesting premise, lost in a shuffle designed to disorientate and catch the viewer off-guard.

It is an approach that has served the show well. Ascension avoided answering too many of the questions posed by Duane Barry, barrelling along with the momentum of a runaway freight train. Similarly, End Game did not dwell too heavily on the questions posed by Colony, instead serving as a series of high-momentum chase sequences with Mulder following the Alien Bounty Hunter to the ends of the Earth. Paper Clip moved so quickly that the viewers never wondered why the documents recovered in Anasazi were no longer earth-shattering, but merely macguffins.

Things are really heating up...

Things are really heating up…

The X-Files is very good at this sort of dynamic mile-a-minute plotting. The production team are very good at what they do. There is a sleek professionalism to these episodes that makes them easy to watch. Although filmed in Vancouver, there were few shows in the nineties ambitious enough to send their character to a Russian gulag for human experimentation. However, the cracks are starting to show. Herrenvolk demonstrated how frustrating a lack of answers could become. Terma struggles to balance a number of potentially interesting plot threads.

There are a lot of elements of Terma that might have worked well, if they had been given more room to breath. Sadly, the episode spends most of its run time trying to build up momentum towards the inevitable scene where proof narrow slips through Mulder’s fingers one more time.

Evil oil...

Evil oil…

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