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“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

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Non-Review Review: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour is a powerhouse performance nested inside a fairly formulaic film.

In terms of plot, Darkest Hour is very much a familiar cinematic biography. Building off the template cemented by writer Peter Morgan on The Deal, The Queen, The Special Relationship and Rush, this is a film that explores its subject through the lens of a single event. The plot of Darkest Hour unfolds across May 1940, in the shadow the Second World War. It charts the life of Winston Churchill from the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to the evacuation of Dunkirk. It is tightly focused, and perhaps the better for that.

Winston, Loseton.

In many ways, Darkest Hour feels like a collection of pop culture standards. Churchill is such an iconic part of European history, and this month was so crucial, that audiences have almost reached saturation point with narratives documenting key moments in the life of the statesman. Darkest Hour cannot help but evoke shades of everything from The King’s Speech to The Crown to Dunkirk, all of which share some sense of the same time and place. Darkest Hour simply combines a lot of pop culture Churchill into what amounts to a “greatest hits” package.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Darkest Hour is elevated by the central performance from an almost unrecognisable Gary Oldman. If pop culture has synthesised Churchill’s history to a collection of “greatest hits”, then it is the delivery that truly matters. Oldman carries the film home.

Two-finger salute.

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 25 (Review/Retrospective)

DC have done a tremendous job with their Spirit Archives collection. Twenty-four volumes collecting the twelve years of the Sunday strip is quite an accomplishment, and they’d be forgiven for stopping there. No other character in DC’s back catalogue has such a consistent collection of their early years. (Batman and Superman might have similar volumes of material collected, but somewhat haphazardly.) It’s to the company’s credit that they decided to close out their collections of Eisner’s work on the character with what might be considered two appendices. The next collection will include most of Eisner’s post-1952 work on the character, but this hardcover collects each and every daily Spirit strip published between 1941 and 1942. While it might not be the most essential collection every published (whether in terms of the character or in the history of daily newspaper strips), but it’s still nice to see it collected with the rest of Eisner’s work.

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The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 (Review/Retrospective)

I seem to be opening each of these reviews with a reminder that The Spirit is in fine form, and that it continues to be a superb piece of pulpy entertainment. I continue to be astounded at the relatively consistent standard that Eisner works to, week in and week out. More than that, though, I am continually impressed with the vigour and ingenuity that the writer and artist brings to his work. Just when you think you have The Spirit figured out, it throws another curveball, effortless switching gears and becoming something a bit different than you were expecting. Sometimes it’s a technicolour noir story, sometimes it’s a treatise on humanist philosophy, sometimes it’s a western, sometimes it’s romance, sometimes, its comedy, sometimes it’s tragedy. Sometimes it’s all and more.

The Spirit Archives, Vol. 18 doesn’t necessarily have a single story that can be measured against The Story of Gerhard Schnobble that we found in The Spirit Archives, Vol. 17, but it’s still a testament to Eisner’s storytelling sensibilities and his strength as a writer and artist.

The board walk...

The board walk…

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Non-Review Review: Falling Down

Falling Down is something of a cult classic. It, along with Phone Booth, stands as proof that Joel Schumacher is actually a rather wonderful director, as much as his failures might occasional overshadow his accomplishments. Filmed in the midst of the Los Angeles riots, Falling Down manages to speak to a lot of the anger of urban living, as William “D-Fens” Foster takes out his frustration on an urban environment that has gone completely mad. Almost twenty years after it was originally released, Falling Down is still a potent little film.

The best D-FENS…

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Non-Review Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a decently-made little thriller. It’s interesting that David Fincher has been selected to helm the inevitable English-language remake of the film, as it feels like a spiritual companion to se7en. While that Fincher thriller concerned itself with a broken world populated with seven flavours of deadly sin, this Swedish film is only really interested in one. It’s a brutal commentary on what it suggests is a harsh and repressively misogynistic society, one that victimises and commoditises women. However, it veers a little bit too far into sensationalist territory – fixated on the idea that men in positions of authority are inevitably sexual sadists – and its contents make for excedingly grim viewing.

Never quite gripping...

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Captain America by Ed Brubaker Omnibus (Review)

There’s a lot of buzz out there suggesting that Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America might be the run on the character, the one for the ages – like Frank Miller’s tenure on Daredevil, for example. I decided that – with the movie coming out next year – it might be worth bringing myself up to speed on the character. While I haven’t finished Brubaker’s run (it’s on-going and I still have to read The Death of Captain America Omnibus), it is a very solid run, packed with great ideas. It’s a clever and well-crafted story that demonstrates that Brubaker has more in him than just gritty pulp like his fantastic runs on Daredevil and Gotham Central. On the other hand, I’m slow to call the run an instant classic – I’d rather finish his run before I make that judgement. Towards the end it feels like Brubaker’s own story has become somewhat derailed by the larger events looming in a shared universe. He’s still an amazing writer and succeeds in keeping the train mostly on the tracks, but one gets the sense that the collection would have been better if he had been granted complete control over it.

"Hey, Cap, what are we staring at?""You'll know it when you see it, Bucky; you'll know it when you see it."

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