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Non-Review Review: Official Secrets

Official Secrets is an interesting story with some solid performances, but it’s also an unstructured mess.

Official Secrets unfolds against the backdrop of the lead up to (and immediate aftermath of) the invasion of Iraq. It follows GCHQ employee Katharine Gun’s decision to leak a classified internal memo in an effort to prevent the nation’s march to war. Along the way, Katherine’s story intersects with the press who bungled their efforts to hold the government to account, before evolving into something that vaguely resembles a Kafka-esque legal thriller about a woman charged with treason who cannot defend herself because to share any information with her legal team would be treason of itself.

Bringing a mic to the gun fight.

All of this should provide the solid basis for a character-driven drama. The film’s structure and content are typical of second-shelf-from-the-top awards fare; it is dealing with weighty subject matter in such a way that it also plays as a commentary on contemporary society, it is structured in such a way as to serve as a showcase for its lead performer who has a track record as an awards winner, and it treats its narrative and its characters with the solemnity that they deserve. This is quite close to something like Denial, to pick an obvious example.

Unfortunately, Official Secrets lacks to the sort of tight focus and easy self-confidence that elevates the best of these films. Official Secrets is constantly pushing itself and trying to ensure that it is holding the audience’s attention. It never feels entirely sure where the drama lies within the story, and so spreads its attention too wide and too thin. The result is a disjointed and uneven exploration of a story (and character) that deserve better.

“It’s all memo, memo, memo…”

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Doctor Who: Deep Breath (Review)

“Dormant.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t. Just hoping.”

– the Doctor and Clara discover things haven’t changed too much

The regeneration from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi represents the third time that Doctor Who has changed its lead actor since its relaunch in 2005. It is the third time that a regeneration has forced a change in the opening credits. Along the way, there have been a number of other on-screen regenerations, from Derek Jacobi to John Simm through to John Hurt to almost!Christopher Eccleston. And that excludes River’s transformations or David Tennant’s pseudo-regeneration at the end of the fourth season.

All of this is to say that, as we approach the tenth anniversary of the revived Doctor Who, audiences are quite familiar with the concept of regeneration. This isn’t as dramatic a shift as it was when Christopher Eccleston melted into David Tennant at the end of The Parting of the Ways. That was a freshly relaunched show swapping out its lead actor after less than a year. In contrast, Deep Breath marks a much more orderly and logical transition. It isn’t earth-shattering.

doctorwho-deepbreath14

All of this means that producer and writer Stephen Moffat gets to have a bit of fun with the concept. Moffat’s previous regeneration episode, The Eleventh Hour, had the burden of demonstrating that Doctor Who could survive without both Russell T. Davies and David Tennant. In fact, it was rumoured the BBC had considered just cancelling the show at that point. As such, The Eleventh Hour was an episode designed to reassure fans that not everything had changed; this was still the same show. Moffat’s first season as showrunner was very much “business as usual.”

Deep Breath has no such weight attached to it. It is an episode that doesn’t feel the same need to reassure its audience that everything is okay and everything is the same. Instead, it can revel in what is different; it can celebrate what is new. Deep Breath lacks the sheer energy and powerful charisma that made The Eleventh Hour so fantastic, but it has a comforting sense of certainty to it that makes it a joy.

doctorwho-deepbreath4

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Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

It’s okay, Barnable, don’t worry. I have got a plan. Off you pop.

[beat]

I haven’t got a plan, but people love it when I say that.

Doctor, what are you going to do?

I don’t know. Talk very fast. Hope something good happens. Take the credit. That’s generally how it works.

– the Doctor and Clara discuss standard operating procedure

An epic struggle for universal peace lasting centuries on a back water world; a conflict spanning generations; the potential to re-spark the Time War; the possibility of burning the turkey. The epic and intimate co-mingle in The Time of the Doctor.

In many respects, The Time of the Doctor serves as an effective counterpoint to The End of Time. Even the title seems to allude towards the Tenth Doctor’s final episode, as if to suggest that “time” is a thing that passes naturally rather than ending brutally. “I don’t want to go,” the Tenth Doctor pleaded in his final moments, a line that Moffat gently tried to re-write at the end of The Day of the Doctor. The Eleventh Doctor is more even-handed. “But you, you are the Doctor,” Clara assures him. “Yep, and I always will be,” he replies. “But times change, and so must I.”

This is when the magic happens...

This is when the magic happens…

(In fact, Moffat has a bit of gentle fun at the expense of The End of Time. Whereas the Tenth Doctor reluctantly sacrificed himself to save Wilf, the Eleventh Doctor quite selfless spends his entire life defending the town of Christmas on the planet of Trenzalore. Discussing the fake regeneration at the climax of The Stolen Earth, the Eleventh Doctor quips, I had vanity issues at the time.” He could easily be hinting at the hubris that built up towards the Tennant and Davies era’s swansong.)

In contrast, The Time of the Doctor was relatively low key. Well, as low key as an episode featuring all of the Doctor’s classic adversaries laying siege to one planet across hundreds of years as the threat of a reignited Time War looms large in the horizon. Still, as wonderful as that epic scale might be, The Time of the Doctor feels like a spiritual companion to Moffat’s other Christmas episodes – the story of the loneliest man in the universe saving Christmas (the town and the holiday), on an intimate scale that just happens to be epic; “the man who stayed for Christmas.”

What's cooking?

What’s cooking?

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of the Dead originally aired in 2009.

Hello, I’m the Doctor. Happy Easter!

– the Doctor sets the mood

Planet of the Dead is light-weight Doctor Who. That wouldn’t normally be a problem. In fact, there’s a significant portion of each season devoted to light-weight run-around adventures. The problem is that it didn’t air as part of a season. It aired as the first piece of Doctor Who since Christmas and the next aired around Halloween. This was something of an attempt to tide fans over, to remind everybody that Doctor Who was still on the air while Steven Moffat and Matt Smith prepared to take over the TARDIS, the BBC got used to filming in HD and David Tennant pursued his career beyond the show.

As a result, the special feel a little funny. In a way, they seem like an attempt to truncate a standard season of Davies’ Doctor Who. The Next Doctor fits the mould of Christmas special quite well. It even snows! The Waters of Mars is the darker second two-parter of the season, dealing with bigger ideas and adult fears. The End of Time is very much a spiritual successor to Journey’s End. All of this is a way of pointing out that Planet of the Dead is clearly designed to serve as the bombastic family-friendly adventure two-parter that typically aired after the first two episodes of a given season.

As such, the logical point of comparison is Rise of the Cybermen, The Sontaran Stratagem or Daleks in Manhattan. Indeed, Planet of the Dead is conspicuous for its gratuitous location shooting; the last time the production team went abroad to film a story was Daleks of Manhattan, even if the cast stayed at home that time. The problem is that those light two-parters are tolerable in the context of a longer series. On its own, Planet of the Dead is far from satisfying.

Egging him on...

Egging him on…

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Doctor Who: The Beast Below (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Beast Below originally aired in 2010.

What are you going to do?

What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.

So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor reiterate the way things work

Steven Moffat’s first season producing Doctor Who owes a conscious debt to the rigid structure of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. There’s an opening episode in contemporary Britain, followed by one episode visiting the past, one visiting the future. There are three two-parters – the season finalé, a “monster”-driven two-parter and a more atmospheric and moody piece. There’s even a brief spell in the middle of the season where Moffat spices up the TARDIS dynamic by adding in a temporary companion.

This approach worked quite well. It’s worth noting that Moffat’s first season was the only point following the departure of Russell T. Davies that Doctor Who was able to deliver thirteen episodes of the show on thirteen consecutive weeks. It struck something of a happy middle between Davies’ more episodic approach to the show that the more arc-driven storytelling favoured by Moffat. Still, there are moments when it seems like this approach isn’t quite the perfect fit, with Moffat’s voice struggling to fit into the structure established by Davies.

Essentially Steven Moffat’s impression of Russell T. Davies’ update of Andrew Cartmel’s social allegory stories, The Beast Below is an interesting – if slightly unsuccessful – experiment. Moffat’s second season would feature much more effective attempts to evoke the Cartmel era of the classic show, without the sense that Moffat was trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor.

The space in-between...

The space in-between…

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Watch! Day of the Doctor Trailer!

This being the month of the fiftieth anniversary, we’re going a bit Doctor Who mad here at the m0vie blog. The trailer for the special, The Day of the Doctor, has been released. And you can check it out below. It looks fairly epic. Check back daily over the next few weeks for our latest Doctor Who reviews, both classic and modern.

 

Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Hungry Earth originally aired in 2010.

Oh look! Big mining thing! Oh, I love a big mining thing. See, way better than Rio. Rio doesn’t have a big mining thing.

– the Doctor looks on the bright side of arriving in not!Rio

The Hungry Earth represents the biggest structural shift of Steven Moffat’s first season of Doctor Who. The writer would indulge in a number of radical structural changes over his time running the show, but his first season as showrunner conforms to the pattern of Russell T. Davies’ four full seasons. There’s the introductory present/past/future trilogy, the two mid-season two-parters and the gigantic two-part season finalé. The content of Moffat’s season might have been markedly different (actual romantic snog! a season building an arc that isn’t just references and easter eggs!), but the format was carried over faithfully.

Moffat’s following two seasons would get more experimental. For one thing, both seasons would be split in half. This allowed Moffat to offer the first genuine cliffhanger in the revival’s history to last more than a week, with a gap of several months between A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler. His second season would feature the first two-part season opener (and first one-part season finalé) of the revived television show. His third season would feature no two-part episodes, spread across two calendar years.

However, sitting at the tail end of his first season, The Hungry Earth feels like the strangest structural element of Moffat’s first year in charge of Doctor Who. It’s what would traditionally be the first two-parter of the season, pushed back towards the end of the year.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

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