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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night (Review)

There are some things I have not seen. That’s usually because I’ve chosen not to see them. Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Misérables.

On paper, In the Forest of the Night should be a highlight of the season. Frank Cottrell-Boyce is quite a sizeable “get” for the show, one of the most significant guest writers to work on Doctor Who in quite some time. Cottrell-Boyce is on the same level as Richard Curtis or Neil Gaiman, as far as “special guest writers” go. Coupled with the fact that this is the first time that the Twelfth Doctor has wandered into the “fairy tale” aesthetic that defined his predecessor, In the Forest of the Night should be a classic waiting to happen.

However, In the Forest of the Night never quite comes together as well as it should. At its best, it riffs on concepts already very thoroughly and thoughtfully explored in Kill the Moon. At its worst, it feels ill-judged and an awkward fit for the characters in the show. In the Forest of the Night comes at the end of a highly successful stretch of late-season episodes all credited to writers working on Doctor Who for the first time; it is quite endearing that In the Forest of the Night is the only stumbling block; ironically arriving at the latest possible moment.

Tyger, Tyger...

Tyger, Tyger…

Still, there is some interesting material here. It is also a sly and affectionate homage to the work of William Blake. Blake was famed author, illustrator and poet. In the Forest of the Night takes its title from a line in Blake’s most famous poem Fearful Symmetry. There are points where the episode goes out of its way to reference that work. The Doctor makes a reference to the year of its most popular publication, assuring the assembled audience that “a tiny little bit of 1795 still alive inside of it.” There is a tiger; there is burning bright.

However, these allusions towards Blake ultimately lead In the Forest of the Night into some very questionable ideas. William Blake was haunted throughout his life by visions and hallucinations. He saw things that were not real, but which informed and inspired his work. In the Forest of the Night tries to borrow from this aspect of Blake’s life in its characterisation of Maebh, a young girl with visions. It is a story that falls right back on the rather clichéd narrative about how medicating people suffering with mental illness is in effect destroying what makes them special or unique.

... burning bright.

… burning bright.

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Non-Review Review: The Railway Man

The Railway Man is certainly an ambitious film. Adapting the true story of British Second World War veteran Eric Lomax, who won the 1996 NCR Book Award and the J. R. Ackerley Prize for The Railway Man, his autobiographical account of his time in Japanese captivity and the aftermath of the war. Adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, it remains a fascinating and compelling exploration of the wounds left festering by war.

The biggest problem with The Railway Man is that it is perhaps too ambitious; it tries to include too much, and to cover too much ground in the space available. Despite that, it remains a moving and harrowing look at the remarkable life of one veteran.

Trained for this...

Trained for this…

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