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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.

Hangaround.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part I (Review)

The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I offers a solid start to the season, if an unspectacular one.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is all about spectacle. In some respects, showrunner Chris Chibnall is building off the successful elements of his deeply flawed first season of Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part I capitalises on a number of the core strengths of those first ten episodes. The location shooting in South Africa affords Spyfall, Part I an impressive sense of scale and spectacle. As in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Rosa, South Africa is able to stand-in for a variety of exotic locations that would normally be outside the scope of Doctor Who. Chibnall is able to pitch Spyfall, Part I as a genuinely globe-trotting adventure.

No agency.

More than that, the production continues to look lavish. Chibnall retains the anamorphic lenses and the modified aspect ratio from the previous season, lending the series a polished and cinematic appearance. The guest cast for Spyfall, Part I is absolutely stacked, especially by the standards of Doctor Who. Stephen Fry has had a long a complicated relationship with Doctor Whostarring in audio dramas, writing for the television show, critiquing the television show – and he finally makes his television appearance here. Lenny Henry is a suitably big draw, particularly for the role he ultimately plays.

Spyfall, Part I is a good old-fashioned runaround adventure, consciously built around setpieces and action beats that would have seemed impossible for Doctor Who even a decade ago. However, there is something frustratingly hollow in all of this. Spyfall, Part I is positioned as both a season premiere, a New Year’s Day Special, and the first episode of Doctor Who to air since Resolution. That is a lot of weight pressing down on the episode, a lot of expectation, and a lot of outside context. Spyfall, Part I is a new beginning for the series, but it feels more like another day at the office than a statement of purpose.

What the tech is going on?

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New Escapist Column! “No Time to Die” and that Missing Killer Instinct…

So the trailer for No Time to Die, the new James Bond movie, dropped yesterday.

I wrote a bit about my reaction to it at Escapist Magazine, primarily how I was a little underwhelmed by how generic it all felt. It lacked the strong statement of purpose that defined the trailers for movies like GoldenEye, Casino Royale and Skyfall. It seems to be designed to assure audiences that all the required plot elements are in place, but it never actually makes any strong statements about what the movie is supposed to be.

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

An August Tribute: “The Avengers” and Deconstructing Bond…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Avengers on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

This is not a defense of The Avengers.

There is no defending The Avengers. The film is legendary and spectacular failure. There is no belated reclamation project under way, no attempt to salvage its reputation twenty-odd years after it landed in a smoking crater. The film’s production history is storied, and disastrous. The film was subject to internal power struggles within Warner Brothers, falling between a changing of the guard and sabotaged at a test screening with a hostile audience. Twenty-five minutes of the film were unceremoniously cut out, and the score was radically rewritten. The result is monstrous.

More than that, there is little to indicate that The Avengers could ever have been a good film, even its pristine and uncut state. The flaws with the movie run deeper than those definable absences. The two leads share no chemistry, despite the fact that the film hinges on their dynamic. The plot is complete nonsense, haunted by the shadow of countless rewrites rather than simply lost in the edit. The film’s surrealism is halfhearted rather than committed, flirting with deranged brilliance but always landing somewhere on the uncomfortable side of mere camp. The Avengers is bad.

And, yet, in spite of all that, something interesting beats at the heart of The Avengers. Part of this is a result of the movie’s intrinsic late-nineties-ness, the way that it captures the mood of that moment. It is very much a post-Cold War story, its stakes framed in environmental terms that reflect the anxieties of the cultural moment. (Remember when mankind healed the hole in the ozone layer?) Similarly, the movie’s flirtation with the surreal and the notion of collapsing reality echoes (better) films like The Truman Show or The Matrix or Dark City or eXistenz or Fight Club.

However, the most interesting aspect of the film remains its central performance from Sean Connery. At the time, Connery had just successfully reinvented himself as a box office draw in the late nineties, building off the success of his collaboration with Michael Bay and Nicolas Cage in The Rock. The late nineties were were busy time for Connery, with projects including Entrapment, Playing by Heart and Finding Forrester. The actor was undergoing what might be characterised today as a “Conneraissance.”

In the middle of that “Conneraissance”, there is something rather strange about The Avengers, in large part because it’s a performance that exists in dialogue with his most iconic role. Of course, there’s no getting around Connery’s time as James Bond. The Rock rather heavily implies that Connery’s character was a version of James Bond arrested around the time of Diamonds are Forever. However, The Avengers goes one step further. The Avengers doesn’t just cast Sean Connery as a Bond villain. The Avengers casts Sean Connery as James Bond as a Bond villain.

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New Podcast! The Pensky File – Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 4, Episode 10 (“Our Man Bashir”)

The Pensky File will return…

Thrilled to join Wes and Clay over at The Pensky Podcast for another episode of their look at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The dynamic duo are fast approaching the midpoint of the fourth season, one of the greatest seasons of television in the Star Trek canon and probably one of the greatest twenty-odd episode seasons of television ever produced.

I was particularly excited to join the pair for a discussion of Our Man Bashir, an episode in which Bashir and Garak become embroiled in a life and death struggle while playing out one of Bashir’s spy fantasies. My position on Our Man Bashir is pretty out there, but I genuinely believe that it’s one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever produced. Do I manage to convince Wes and Clay? You’ll have to listen to find out.

Along the way, we discuss everything from the popularity of James Bond in America, to the evolution of Julian Bashir as a character, to the economics of the holosuite to Avery Brooks’ distinctive performance style. It was, as ever, a huge pleasure and privilege to join the two for the discussion.

You can find more from The Pensky Podcast here, and listen to the podcast by clicking the link or just listening below.

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New Podcast! Scannain Podcast (2018) #31!

It’s time for the latest Scannain podcast.

This week, I join Graham Day from Speakin’ Geek, Alex Towers from When Irish Eyes Are Watching and Grace Duffy to discuss the week in film. Topics for discussion include the subtle brilliance of Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the rebranding of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, the “ageing out” of kid actors in long-running franchises, the drama around Danny Boyle’s departure from the latest Bond movie and the possible casting of Idris Elba as James Bond.

New releases include Alpha, Slender Man and The Children Act; the tail end of the podcast includes an extended discussion of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, which all four panelists have seen.

Give it a listen at the link, or check it out below.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Our Man Bashir (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a look at the 1995 to 1996 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily Tuesday through Friday for the latest review.

Our Man Bashir is an underrated masterpiece.

It is possibly the best holodeck (or holosuite) episode in the history of the franchise; only Ship in a Bottle can really compete. A lot of this is down to the production value of the episode; Our Man Bashir looks and sounds beautiful, a delightfully detailed throwback to its source material. The production team on the Star Trek franchise seldom get enough credit for their skill at realising alien worlds and cultures from scratch, but their beautiful evocation of sixties design is breathtaking. Our Man Bashir is a clear forerunner to Trials and Tribble-ations, less than a year away.

"The name's Bashir, Julian Bashir..."

“The name’s Bashir, Julian Bashir…”

However, there is more to it than that. Like Little Green Men, Our Man Bashir succeeds as a (relatively) light-hearted run-around that never loses track of its characters. The first three seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine struggled with the character of Julian Bashir; audience members could wait entire seasons for a good Bashir episode. With the fourth season, three come along at once. Our Man Bashir might look light and fluffy – and it largely is – but it never loses sight of its core character dynamics in the midst of all the fun unfolding around them.

More than that, Our Man Bashir plays into the broader themes and strengths of the fourth season. The climax of the episode feels like Deep Space Nine is ruminating on its new-found place dictating the direction of the Star Trek canon. Bashir’s decision to “save the day by destroying the world” feels oddly prophetic. The fifth season of the show would find the writers destroying some of the most fundamental rules of the franchise in an effort to keep things vital.

Got some bottle...

Got some bottle…

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