Friday, 29 November 2013

Snowpiercer (2013)

Trains and philosophy have a long history – from the apparently faultless argument for the existence of a god which posits the illogicality of an endless series of carriages with no driver, to the juicy anti-determinism argument which detests the idea of humanity’s journey as being one that merely moves along predestinate grooves (alright, that was a tram, but the idea’s the same). Snowpiercer, the new film from director Bong Joon-Ho, adapted from Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s cult-y French BD (graphic novel) Le Transperceneige, takes a rather more literal approach to train-based philosophy.

Set in the near future after a The Day After Tomorrow-style environmental catastrophe (albeit one with slightly more sci-fi overtones) has made the world a frozen and uninhabitable wasteland, the film sees the last remnants of the human race living aboard a supertrain travelling constantly across a worldwide rail network, powered by a perpetual motion machine. The people up front lie in the lap of luxury while those in the rear live in squalor, eat slimy nourishment bars and dream of a fairer world. Under the reluctant leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), a group of these tail-enders set out towards the engine.

Evidently, the journey at the centre of the film, the rise of the outcast against the oppression of the ruling classes, follows a well-worn path. Very much like the titular train itself, Snowpiercer is cosmetically sleek but underneath the surface we find that the clanks and rattles are very familiar. Logic is also an outside consideration, and there are some glaring errors and oversights. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t enjoyable, however. It is. Very. If anything the simple plot helps the film along, letting the weight rest on the direction and the performances, both almost faultless. There is a sense that nobody has been constrained here, that no limits were imposed on the artists.

I only know Bong Joon-Ho from his sweet, inventive and emotionally engaging monster picture, The Host. The visual mastery is once again present, as is the refreshing ingenuity. As with The Host, no scene unfurls quite as you expect it to, and even the blandest of character moments are brought to glorious life under Bong’s playful eye. There are one or two moments where the budget doesn’t quite match the ideas, and the view from the train never looks like anything more than green screen, but this disjunction only serves to remind us of the visual nature of the narrative.

Every performance has its own special timbre, with each actor seemingly approaching the script as a monologue, and yet they all somehow mesh into a beguiling harmony. Tilda Swinton’s monstrous Northern ambassador to the lower classes is perhaps the most adventurous and (as a result?) the most successful. Swinton chews, slurps and caresses the scenery in equal measure, and draws the eye in her every scene. Chris Evans’s hero is weary and driven, but likeable enough to carry us through the formulaic moments and, crucially, believable enough to support the more outlandish ones (though, this being Bong, one never quite knows how funny the dark bits are supposed to be, and vice versa). The Host’s father and daughter, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, are back here in matching familial roles and as wonderful as ever, affecting and sweet. Jamie Bell as chirpy sidekick and John Hurt as wise old sage do well with the little they have, and Ed Harris gets to ham it up while eating beef. While there might not be any career-best performances herein, everyone (with the possible exception of Harris) is at the upper end of their game.

With its focus on class division above race, this film feels somehow timely, a fable for the credit-crunch generation. It certainly has the timelessness of a parable, which just might tell us something depressing about ourselves. Humans oppressing humans, classes imposing themselves and power being misused are all cyclical occurrences, like the fluctuating temperature of the planet. That good must always fall to bad, and bad to good, is something Bong Joon-Ho understands, and Snowpiercer neatly rides this dichotomy.

While it lacks enough originality to be called a masterpiece, Snowpiercer has a distinct personality and it won’t be surprising to see it listed among the top films of the year. Smooth, comfortable and with some stunning scenery, this is a train everyone should take.



Sunday, 24 November 2013

Doctor Who at 50: The Top Ten

Here we are, at last, at the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. I have loved this programme since I was five years old and caught part of a repeat of Revelation of the Daleks on BBC 2, completely by accident (by brother liked The Man from UNCLE, which was repeated beforehand). So much has already been said about the series and why it has lasted so long, but I wanted to add a few of my own thoughts. First up, that traditional fan pastime – the top ten list!

For true Doctor Who fans, however, picking favourite stories is something of a Sophie’s Choice – out of over 200, how to pick just ten? This list, then, is not supposed to be exhaustive or perfect or definitive. These are simply the stories that, at this moment, I feel sum up just why Doctor Who is so magical. In no particular order!

The Seeds of Doom

Doctor Who at its most adult, and its most stylish. The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (to my mind the greatest Doctor/companion pairing there has ever been) are in Steed and Peel mode, dashing off to Antarctica to deal with a suspicious pair of alien pods in a taut and claustrophobic riff on The Thing from Another World, and then returning to England to face the fruit of one of said pods, along with an eccentric maniac who is desperate for a greener world. People who claim that the Doctor is never violent might want to check out the gleeful manner in which he punches a lackey’s lights out here! The delicious villainy of barmy botanist Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley, also known as The Italian Job’s Camp Freddy and the chilling psychopath in When A Stranger Calls) puts him amongst the cream of Doctor Who villains, ably matched by John Challis (yes, Boycie!) as his nasty henchman Scorby. Extra points for Amelia Ducat, a supporting character who wrenches the scene from anyone she plays against.


Coming at the end of the so-called ‘Black Guardian trilogy’, Enlightenment stands head and shoulders about the previous instalments in offering a tale that is original, profound and superbly well-acted (by almost everybody). The Doctor and his companions end up in a space race (in period sailing ships, of course), with the prize being the mythical Enlightenment. Their fellow competitors are Eternals, beings who exist outside of time. For them, ephemeral human beings are almost meaningless playthings, though one of them takes a liking to companion Tegan. Indeed, Enlightenment has a surprisingly emotional dimension that is absent from much of classic Doctor Who. Tremendous performances from Keith Barron and Christopher Brown more than make up for the more pantomime villainy of Lynda Baron and Leee John. A pity that the final showdown between good and evil is marred by the representatives of both camps wearing birds on their heads, but you can’t have everything.

An Unearthly Child

This is where it all began, of course, but this story is fascinating and wonderful in its own right, quite apart from its place in the show’s history. Two schoolteachers, Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, follow an odd student home, only to find out that her home is a police box in a junkyard. Forcing their way in, they find that all is definitely not what it seems, and end up on the adventure of a lifetime with the unearthly child Susan Foreman and her equally unearthly grandfather, the Doctor. Episode One functions almost as a standalone episode, but the following dark adventure with a tribe of cavemen still stands up well, with William Hartnell’s grouchy Doctor never more alien and the companions never more genuinely terrified.

City of Death

It is sometimes hard to find enough superlatives for this story. Written, at least in part, by Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy scribe Douglas Adams, filmed in Paris and featuring a villain who has since been a baddie in Indiana Jones, Star Wars, James Bond and Harry Potter, City of Death is an utter treat. It was one of the first stories I watched, and based on this I had no idea that Doctor Who was a low-budget affair. The location work is glorious, Paris filmed at a mad dash looking more chic than ever, and the special effects are highly effective. One effects sequence (the dry-run Louvre heist) is almost indecently good. The dialogue sparkles like crème de menthe, and the Doctor and companion exude cool – no doubt helped by the real life romance between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. Endlessly quotable (‘I say, what a wonderful butler – he’s so violent!’), City of Death is better than bouillabaisse from Maxim’s.

The Curse of Fenric

Chilling, deep and dark. After years of hard science and campy supervillains, Doctor Who went back to horror and didn't pull its punches. A rare foray by the series into true vampirism, it is the background tale of the Doctor as an elemental force for good, fighting the awful creatures which live in the outer darkness, which makes this a particularly powerful adventure. Equally rare is the focus on the companion, with Ace the first assistant to really receive special attention from the writers (something which would, of course, become de rigeur post-2005). Her relationship with Captain Sorin is very sweet, and the scene in which she breaks down as the Doctor claims not to care about her features some of Sophie Aldred’s very best acting. A roomful of vampire secretaries, a tense attack on a church and the chillingly simple sight of a dead man’s eyes opening underwater – this story is jam-packed with memorable images. Excellent acting work too from Just A Minute host Nicholas Parsons as the vicar who loses his faith – his reading of the line ‘I wish to God he never had…’ still sends shivers down my spine.


This is the episode that marked the triumphant return of the series after a nine-year absence from our screens (and 16 years since it was on as a proper series). It’s a bit CBBC, and the music is wildly over the top, but it was exactly what the series needed to get it back into the mainstream. Billie Piper makes for an excellent audience identification figure, while Christopher Eccleston is a wonderfully mysterious and charismatic Doctor. It leaves in just enough of the old Who magic to please die-hards, but adds a bright, glossy modernity that, while it might be seen as pandering to the reality-TV generation, was actually a canny move on the part of new showrunner Russell T. Davies. While previous attempts to resurrect the show had delved deep into its convoluted mythology (the TV Movie, Death Comes to Time, Scream of the Shalka), the 2005 return put the show firmly back into its rightful place as a teatime family show with levels accessible to every generation. The only real criticism is the oddly coy approach it takes to death, hitherto an important aspect of the show. This would, however, be rectified as the series continued.


Written by current showrunner Steven Moffat at the time when he could really do no wrong, Blink is a standalone episode with barely any Doctor but spades of chilling atmosphere. In years to come, this is the one that people will remember. Just as people still talk about ‘the one with the giant maggots’ or ‘the one with the Yeti in the underground’, so future generations will talk in awed whispers about ‘the one with the statues that come alive when you’re not looking’. The twisty plot works beautifully, the monsters are truly creepy, and Carey Mulligan is marvellous in the lead (it is little wonder that she is now all over Hollywood).

Ghost Light

A deliciously barmy and well put-together piece, the very last story made in the series’ original run shows just how much the programme had improved before it was sadly taken off the telly. Exploring themes of identity and evolution, Marc Platt’s literate script contains a barrage of in-jokes relating to Victorian literature (and one lovely Douglas Adams reference). The set design is among the best we've ever seen on the show, and the supporting cast is a delight. Ian Hogg’s blackguard rules the roost, every bit the horrible cuckoo, Michael Cochrane takes great pleasure in playing mad, while Sylvia Sims and Katherine Schlesinger are by turns touching and terrifying. Altogether now...♫That's the way to the zoo, that's the way to the zoo!♫

The Web of Fear

Recently rediscovered almost in its entirety, this story is a perfect example of the brand of very British weirdness Doctor Who does so well. Robotic Yeti with deadly web-guns, under the control of an evil, disembodied force called the Great Intelligence, patrol the London Underground, beneath a deserted city. A deadly fungus is spreading through the tunnels, smothering everything it encounters. A rag-tag band of soldiers and scientists are holed up down there too, desperately seeking a solution to the menace. Into this potent brew come the Doctor and his young friends, drawn there by the revenge-seeking Intelligence. The template this story draws up – the ‘Yeti on the loo’ scenario, as Jon Pertwee described it – would go on to define the show for the next five years.

The Caves of Androzani

Script editor Andrew Cartmel has since claimed that a Doctor who is like a leaf in the current is wrong for the series, but this story perhaps works so well because that is exactly what it gives us. The Doctor is completely at the mercy of other characters, and only wants to save his friend. Stunningly directed by Graeme Harper – it isn't for nothing that he’s the only old-school director who has been brought back post-2005 – and blessed with a gloriously uncompromising (and uncompromised) script from Robert Holmes, this is as bleak as the series ever got. Ending with a bloody, bruised Doctor dying to save his companion, it reaffirms the character as a hero, one who will do anything for his friends.

But this is far from all – we haven’t even mentioned Jon Pertwee’s superior dandy, Paul McGann’s wonderful turn in his one-off TV movie (and triumphant return in this recent gem), or Matt Smith’s clown-with-a-frown. We said this list wasn't going to be easy…from these Doctors you might want to watch Day of the Daleks (Pertwee in a Terminator-style adventure with future guerrillas), aforementioned TV movie which is a fascinating glimpse at how an American-produced series might look, and Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife, which gives a new perspective on the Doctor’s relationship with his best ‘old girl’.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Doctor Who at 50: The Villains

As the good Doctor himself once said, you can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies, and the villains are certainly one of magic ingredients that have helped to make Doctor Who such an enduring success. However, while pages and pages are devoted to the glory of his most alien adversaries (Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels), what stands out most for me are the more human villains (or human-ish, at least), those smooth talking psychopaths who are all the more chilling for the fact that they could be sat across the room from you at this very moment.

We had the pleasure of talking with two very memorable guests stars, David Collings and Maurice Roëves.

David Collings

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

David Collings first appeared on the show as the villainous Vogan Vorus, under some knobbly prosthetics, in 1974 adventure Revenge of the Cybermen.

Tom Baker – we got on terribly well. He was fairly outrageous and quite naughty! We spent a lot of time in the pub. He just made me laugh, and I think I made him laugh too.

His next appearance was in 1977 with The Robots of Death, and we won’t spoil the whodunit plot by saying whether or not he’s a baddie in this one! This was directed by Michael Bryant, who had also made Revenge. The BFI Screened The Robots of Death in April 2013 for the 50th anniversary…

Did they? They must be mad! Tom Baker was a very good Doctor Who, wasn’t he? Louise Jameson [who played companion Leela] and I are still very good friends. She’s a sweet, sweet lady.

It has a very interesting Art Deco design, and costumes.

I think I was dressed in a very camp way…

Michael Briant has said that he didn’t think the script was up to much…

No-one ever thought the scripts were up to much, whether they were or not!

Had Tom Baker changed by this point?

No, he was completely the same. Totally mad. Totally off the wall! He still is…I worked with him not long ago, actually.

Collings’s final Doctor Who story on television was the title role in 1983’s Mawdryn Undead.

Oh yes, that was a hoot!

One memorable cliffhanger sees him with his brains exposed.

That was pretty embarrassing, I can tell you! Going for lunch in the BBC canteen with a plate of spaghetti on your head!

Collings as Mawdryn

Did you know what was going on in the scripts?

No, of course we didn’t! The rehearsals for that one were hilarious, because the director [Peter Moffatt] was a terrible giggler. He said ‘the producers are coming in today, we must be serious, don’t send it up, please!’, so we played it terribly seriously. That seems to have been another popular one. I’ve not seen it, I have to be honest!

Collings has also done work with Big Finish, in both Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel audio plays, though he admits that he doesn’t remember much of the ones he’s done.

It only takes a couple of days…they’re great fun to do! It’s a lovely little studio, lovely lunches.

The first story he did with them, Full Fathom Five, saw him playing a darker version of the Doctor, one who believe that the ends justify the means.

The evil Doctor! I was apparently, at some point, one of the favourites for playing the Doctor.

Collings as The Doctor

As a final question, I asked Collings why he thinks the show has achieved such longevity.

Well, the kids like it, I suppose. Well, it’s not just kids who like it. It is quite bizarre…the queues that you get at these Doctor Who conventions! Some of them are a bit sad, but most of them are perfectly alright. And the ones who are sad, it’s giving them pleasure. I just think it gives pleasure, that’s all. It’s amusing. As Noel Coward said, it’s a talent to amuse. Nothing wrong with that!

Maurice Roëves

Image: Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

Maurice Roëves only appeared once on the show, playing nasty gunrunner Stotz in Fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s swansong, and firm fan favourite, The Caves of Androzani.

I was the first British actor to do Doctor Who and Star Trek. Nobody else had ever done it! The Doctor Who was Graeme Harper [director of several Who stories, both classic and new], wonderful guy. You have a scene where the gang fall out with me, Stotz, and I go ‘are you coming, are you not coming?’, and they say ‘no, we’re going to stay here’. I had to say ‘I’m going to count up to ten’ or something like that. I said to Graeme, ‘this is old hat! Let’s just shoot them!’ He said ‘you can’t do that!’, I said ‘why not? Just shoot them!’ Some of it was banned in Australia because it was too violent! Especially the bit with the knife and the guy on the cliff top...So I walk out of shot, and there’s a shot of me leaving, but then I come back in and I do it.

With a horrible grin!

It’s great! The kids love it! I get letters now from children whose parents taped it, and they say they love that one, and that it’s better than the modern ones.

Roëves as Stotz

It’s so brutal, for what is effectively a kid’s show.

Well, the so-called monster (the Magma beast) was terrible! Glove puppet! Fortunately you didn’t see much of it…I think it was because it was so adult. Apparently Caves of Androzani is still voted as the best episode of the series [in 2009, out of 200 serials, it was voted best story].

Were you surprised by Robert Holmes’s script, which was quite dark?

No, not really, I just thought it was a good role.

Do you think playing the villain is more fun?

Well, in some ways. I don’t know how I started getting villains, because I wasn’t playing villains. I used to play romantic roles! For the good guys, I always look to see if there’s anything bad in their character, and for the bad guys I always look to see if there’s any good in them. The bad guys are really interesting to play.

Maurice’s appearance in one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers:

Click here for Part I of our full interview with Roëves