Looking Back to Back to the Future Day…

BttF Clock

October 21st, 2015. The day Emmett “Doc” Brown and Marty McFly arrive in the future from 1985. Except now that is a month ago and the future they encounter(ed) – already an alternate timeline to us – has itself become history. Or at least historical fiction. It has got me thinking over the last few weeks about the franchise and about the life which stories like Back to the Future enjoy once their imagined future becomes out past. Because they endure in a way which I’m sure their creators could never have expected. Fans continue to cosplay as the characters. The original script – as structurally perfect a piece of screenwriting as you are every likely to find – is taught in film schools. Meanwhile the movies themselves return to the cinema again and again, delighting new audiences and new generations in ways which could never have been imagined thirty years ago.

As my friend Tiffani Angus said on Facebook last month, “How amazingly cool is it that Back to the Future, a movie franchise that didn’t win a best movie Oscar or a Golden Globe or anything huge like that, is so much a part of our lives – among the geeks and non-geeks – that we celebrate it for a whole day? And that we use this platform to do so, with people we likely didn’t even watch the movie with in the first place?”

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I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.

My first memory of the Back to the Future franchise was sometime in the very early 1990s. It was a Sunday and my father had brought me with him on a visit to a friend of his in the village where he had grown up (which is how I know it was a Sunday; that was always the day we paid a visit to that side of the county). I recall how the family we were visiting were watching Back to the Future II and we arrived during the dystopian, alternate-1985 part of the film. I wasn’t even ten years old at that point and I had no idea what was going on, no context for either the film itself or the franchise. A tank? What? Who is this guy with the bad hair?

I didn’t get it. I didn’t even like it (I wasn’t there long enough to see anything other than the stretch between the lawless Hill Valley sequences and the scenes in Biff’s Casino). But now, of course, Back to the Future II is easily my favourite film of the trilogy; one of my favourite films full stop, if I’m to be honest about it, and my own personal benchmark for entertaining time travel shenanigans.

It’s amazing the difference which a flying DeLorean will make.

***

Last night, Darth Vader came down from Planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn’t take Lorraine out, that he’d melt my brain.”

Maybe it’s appropriate that my first exposure to a real time travel story was out of narrative order. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the original Back to the Future which – as mentioned – is one of the finest screenplays of all time (indeed, for me, the only film of the last thirty years which rivals it is 2007’s Hot Fuzz). I’ve seen it many, many times by now. I love it; not as much as I love Part II, mind (!), but it is definitive, isn’t it? For a whole generation, the original Back to the Future is how time travel works: you can drive your car down the street from one decade to another (which is to say the films don’t really address the spatial element of time travel); if you alter the past you risk slowly dissipating from reality; and, of course, pop culture is an inescapable aspect of life no matter the time period.

That said, I was on a time travel panel at Octocon in Dublin about six weeks ago and somehow – in retrospect this seems unforgivable! – I don’t think we ever mentioned Back to the Future. I corrected that yesterday when a Creative Writing class about narrative time became a group discussion about time travel (“technically relevant”, as one of the students put it!), about the challenges of telling such stories, and about the head-wrecking loops and possibilities which they present to a writer. We ended up talking about the effect of thinking too much about time travel might have on a person and I invoked the physicist David Deutsch, a “cloistered genius” whose home, according to one New Yorker profile, is:

“..Cluttered with old phone books, cardboard boxes, and piles of papers […] Taped onto the walls of Deutsch’s living room were a map of the world, a periodic table, a hand-drawn cartoon of Karl Popper, a poster of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a taxonomy of animals, a taxonomy of the characters in The Simpsons, colour printouts of pictures of McCain and Obama, with handwritten labels reading ‘this one’ and ‘that one,’ […] There were also old VHS tapes, an unused fireplace, [and] a stationary exercise bike…”

Certainly the similarities between Deutsch’s home and that of Doc Brown were not lost on the students.

***

I cautioned you about disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit.

Nowadays the only thing I don’t like about BTTF II it is the trailer for Part III tagged on rather inelegantly to the final moments of it. Any time I am rewatching it, I make a point of stopping the film before that rolls because, for me at least, the trailer ruins one of my favourite film endings of all time.

That’s my way of admitting that I’ve never enjoyed Back to the Future III as much as the other two (I don’t even think I enjoy the western version of the BTTF theme music!). I suspect that it is because it never feels as urgent or as connected to the character of Marty as parts I and II. Structurally (and, again, this was something we spoke about in class yesterday) it fails to interlock with what came before in as satisfying a fashion as Part II does. Because while it has some fun moments for sure (the photograph with the clock, in particular), and no doubt many people rank it highly, for me it feels thematically disconnected from the universe of the first two films.

Maybe it is heresy to say (!), but I think this is because Doc is the protagonist here rather than Marty. Think of the diagram on the chalkboard in Part II and the symmetry of the 30 year-long jumps back and forwards from the 1980s in the first two films, jumps which allow Marty to explore the lives of his parents and his children in turn. Parts I and II feel like a complete unit which mirrors and interrogates its own best elements in interesting fashion throughout. There were reasons for those stories which informed and developed the characters (especially the character of Marty for, as much as Doc makes the storylines possible, Back to the Future is Marty’s story). By contrast, Part III’s visit to the Old West often feels like it exists because, hey, westerns are a thing, right? To me it has always felt forced; it feels like a generic time travel story and not a Back to the Future story.

***

The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

In the week leading up to Back to the Future Day I had (speaking of twenty-first century platforms unimagined by BTTF II) a twitter discussion with @NIBunker. It grew out of a joke I made about the disposal at sea of material from the DeLorean factory outside Belfast (“What if all those DeLorean chassis rusting at the bottom of the Irish Sea are really failed time travel attempts…?”). @NIBunker clarified for me that “they are actually the moulds used to stamp the doors and body panels”. As they explained: “I was part of a group of DeLorean owners who tried to buy them back in 2003. We had a full survey done by a dive team. Sadly they had become too eroded to ever be used again which was our original intention. They are still down there”.

@NIBunker was also kind enough to share some photos related to this. The first shows a scene from the original dumping of the gullwing mould dies, the second – haunting and beautiful – shows what the same die looks like today.

While it is sad to see what is left of the DeLorean dream reduced to just “expensive lobster pot weights”, at least the car lives on in our imaginations, and this in no small part on account of Back to the Future. For outside of the DeLorean owners’ community, the first things most people think of when one mentions the car are Marty, Doc, and their adventures. And this despite the fact that the DeLorean Motor Company was itself history before the first film was even made. Testament, maybe, to the fact that, while one can always try to predict the future, one never knows what is going to be important to it?

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The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

Title Card for The Man in the High Castle

I was apprehensive when I first heard that Amazon Studios were adapting The Man in the High Castle (1962) into a television show. What if this version of my favourite Philip K. Dick novel was terrible? Or worse, what if it was good and, on account of Amazon’s unique way of commissioning shows, it never made it to series? Because for a few years now, Amazon has been engaged in the practice of annually streaming a handful of new pilots for free but only commissioning a full season from those with the best viewer feedback. It’s been a hit and miss affair (the hit being Transparent; the miss being mostly everything else). However this particular show benefits from the involvement of executive producer Ridley Scott, a veteran of PKD adaptation, and of writer Frank Spotnitz, late of The X-Files. The result is a confident and well paced pilot which – aside from a few dodgy CGI sequences – delivers a terrifically realized version of this much lauded novel to the screen.

Minor spoilers from here on out…

As many will know, PKD’s The Man in the High Castle depicts a world where the Allies lost the Second World War. America is subsequently partitioned between the victorious Nazis and Japanese. The remains of the USA (the East Coast and the South) now form part of the ‘Greater German Reich’ while the West Coast has been reorganised as the ‘Japanese Pacific States’. Between them lies the Rocky Mountains neutral zone into which many people – notably those of Jewish or African-American heritage – flee in order to escape the oppressions of the West and the exterminations of the East. At heart the novel is, as Andy Duncan has said in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (eds. Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003), a ‘thoughtful and thorough examination of several “ordinary” Americans,’ an aspect of the story which this pilot preserves to its benefit.

The year is 1962 and truck driver Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank of Bones) joins the American resistance in Nazi occupied New York. Through his eyes, the show presents the viewer with a lot more of the Greater German Reich than the reader of the novel ever encounters. Time Square is dominated by Nazi imagery and there is the consistently unnerving slight of ‘Johnny Jackboots’ on street corners and television screens, young men with American accents wearing Nazi uniforms and talking proudly about their time in the Hitler Youth. Yet wisely there is no text crawl to set this scene, no expository lump which might play well to spec-fic fans but risk alienating mainstream viewers. Instead, detail is sketched in gradually as the pilot progresses. We learn only offhand that Washington was flattened by a Nazi H-bomb at the war’s conclusion. We see on a map that St. Louis is now New Berlin. Most chilling of all is Blake’s conversation with a swastika-clad state trooper by the roadside as ash drifts through the air. ‘What is that?’ Blake asks. ‘Oh that’s the hospital,’ the trooper tells him. ‘They burn cripples, the terminally ill… drags on the state’. The casual way by which this information is imparted does more to cement this alternate history than almost anything else in the pilot. To the trooper this isn’t horror or murder or extermination. It is simply ‘Tuesday’.

While the Nazis are obviously evil, there is – as in the novel – more nuance granted to the Japanese characters. A cut from a brutal Brownshirt put-down of a resistance cell to a dojo training session across the continent introduces Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos of Mob City), an Akido student living quietly in San Fransisco. It is in this scene – built around a martial art which does not attack but which defends – that the divide between Fascism and Taoism which underpins the novel, something Patricia Warrick explored in Science Fiction Studies back in 1980, is most clear. Equally it is a solid introduction to the immediately engaging Juliana, a character who possesses enough thoughtfulness and idealism to balance out the naïve patriotism affected by Joe Blake when the pair inevitably collide in the neutral zone’s Canon City.

Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain  and Luke Kleintank as Joe Blake

Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain and Luke Kleintank as Joe Blake

Back when the novel was first published, the alternate world it described was essentially contemporaneous with that of its readers, most of whom would themselves have lived through the Second World War and recalled exactly what was at stake. To the modern viewer, however, the Nazi and Japanese occupation of 1962 is essentially an alternate history twice removed from our own. This could have been sticking point for the adaptation (thankfully nobody decided to “modernise” the storyline) but in fact becomes an advantage with period detail – subtly adjusted – performing much of the heavy lifting with regard to world-building.

Of course there are changes from the novel (perhaps making this alternate history thrice removed!), one of the primary ones being the reduced role of the I Ching. This venerable divination manual does get a look in during the pilot but does not yet (and may never) occupy the central place in this adaptation that it does in the novel. PKD himself claimed to have used the I Ching when plotting The Man in the High Castle but it is difficult to imagine the writers and producers behind this adaptation following suit! Indeed, where the author’s interest in oriental philosophy was spread evenly among the protagonists of the novel, here it is mostly communicated through the character of Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese trade official poised to be swept up in the dangerous international politicking engendered by Hitler’s declining health.

Other alterations are for the most part sensible and have been made with an eye to how The Man in the High Castle will function as an ongoing series. The number of characters has been compressed for the moment with, for instance, Robert Childan – the businessman who caters to the Japanese appetite for artefacts of pre-war American popular culture – excised from the storyline. While Childan was a valuable presence in the novel as the character who had most thoroughly absorbed the speech and behavioural patterns, even the modes of thought, of the occupying forces, some of that is taken on by Juliana in the show. So too is the question of the porous membrane between what is real and what is not. In the novel this was largely told through the story of Childan’s faked antiques (nodded to in the pilot by the factory which employs Juliana’s boyfriend Frank Frank; Rupert Evans in another role radically reduced from the novel) but here it is cleverly incorporated into the story’s main MacGuffin: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

Those who have read the novel will recognise The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the book-within-the-book written by the titular man in the high castle. For the screen version of the story, however, this anti-fascist text becomes a series of newsreel clips, essentially a show-within-the-show by which the pilot takes up the novel’s questioning of the relationship between the artificial and the authentic. ‘They look real because they are real,’ Julianne says, spellbound by the figures in footage of a successful D-Day landing and of the Japanese surrender among other things. This film is described as a ‘way out’, something which might be worrisome (especially given the references of Juliana having been hit by a bus prior to the story) if that didn’t so nicely reflect the words of the novel’s Juliana on meeting Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. ‘You showed me there’s a way,’ she says, their discussion circling around Abendsen’s use – like that of Philip K. Dick himself – of the I Ching in his composition process. Thus just as in the novel, this version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the means by which ‘the reality of this alternate world,’ as Andy Duncan put it, ‘is ultimately called into question – but, then, so is the reality of ours’. Retaining it in an appropriate fashion for a visual medium is one of the real strengths of The Man in the High Castle pilot.

Yes, as a fan of the novel I was predisposed to enjoy this. However that same love of the source material would not easily have embraced a substandard retelling. Thankfully Scott and Spotnitz have delivered a satisfying and extremely well-made adaptation of one of the finest works of a major twentieth century writer. From its sad but beautiful title sequence through to the numerous questions raised by its final minutes, The Man in the High Castle draws the viewer into a world and a story of rich potential. With the attention it is rightly receiving – as well as the variety of “The only new Amazon pilot worth watching” style articles it has already generated – one would hope that The Man in the High Castle will soon receive the full season order it deserves.

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Science Fiction Film and Television 7:2

SFFTV 7.2

SFFTV 7:2

If you’re a subscriber (or have institutional access) to the academic journal Science Fiction Film and Television, I hope you have a chance to read my review essay on Edgar Wright’s film The World’s End which is published in the current issue (7:2, Summer 2014). While I blogged about the film immediately after its release, this new response is a more in-depth (though still equally positive) take on the Cornetto Trilogy’s conclusion and on the work of those involved.

Of more note, of course, is that this issue of SFFTV is a Doctor Who 50th anniversary special containing articles by Matt Hills on the “public value” of Doctor Who (and how the anniversary was “strategically utilised” by the BBC), Paul Booth on the hugely interesting subject of periodising the series (via star or producer, viewership, media shifts, and so on), and Jim Leach on the intriguing similarities between Shakespeare and Doctor Who as two “icons of British culture whose international appeal has helped construct a specific image of the nation”. Most excitingly there’s a “Many Doctors Symposium” of short critical reflections from academics and academic fans on each of the Doctors (including not only the canon figures but also Richard E.Grant in Scream of the Shalka and Peter Cushing in the 1960s films). They’re thoroughly enjoyable and informative pieces and, even without the longer articles, would make this issue a worthwhile read.

SFFTV 7.2 also contains reviews of four academic books on the series as well as some recent DVD releases (two Who sets – The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear – along with the Russian film Branded, reviewed by A. Rhys Williams, the underrated Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, reviewed by Nick Jones, and my own Who-referencing piece on The World’s End).

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Initial Thoughts on Sherlock: Series Three

Sherlock Series Three Publicity photo from the BBC

Sherlock Series Three Publicity photo from the BBC

While I’m going to need to watch all three episodes again, I feel that, on first viewing at least, this has been the best series of Sherlock thus far. It’s been so consistent with its approach and so playful as regards the material and the audience. A real joy to watch!

Yes these episodes have been a bit unconventional in how they fragment their narratives (and I know that this has turned the occasional viewer off), but it’s a deliberate choice on the part of the writers and one which, I think, allows us to read Series Three as a kind of meta-commentary on the way Holmes is constantly re-imagined by popular culture; not just the case of Sherlock by itself, but the use of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation more generally and, in particular, the changing manner in which we as readers and viewers relate to him. Series Three is about Sherlock Holmes and the kind of stories which can be told with him, absolutely, but it is also about the audience, the viewers’ expectations and preconceptions. It is, ultimately, about us. 

Now, obviously these are just some initial thoughts on the subject but they have managed to coalesce into a coherent enough reading of this year’s three episodes. Maybe someday I’ll write this up properly for a journal article or for an essay if somebody is putting together an edited collection about Sherlock. Until then…

SPOILERS from here on.

‘The Empty Hearse’, 03×01

So, the big mystery which ended Series Two, the question of how Sherlock faked his death, is something which stoked a lot of excitement for the show’s return throughout its long hiatus. The kind of obsessive interest it generated is parodied by the club of Sherlock groupies (you might even call them “Truthers”) who we meet in this episode, let alone in their endless theorizing of how he might have survived his fall. It’s an obvious place for ‘The Empty Hearse’ to go but it’s effective, and it transforms this from an episode about how Sherlock faked his death into a story about how we the audience festered in our obsession with solving the mystery until it threatened to drive us (like the character of Anderson here) mad.

As such, ‘The Empty Hearse’ is less concerned with fully resolving the particulars of Holmes’s “death” than it is with exploring the variety of styles with which the character’s stories have and can be told through, from the action-adventure genre of the episode’s cold open (evoking something between Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the Bourne films) to the Sherlock/Moriarty slash-fiction proposed by one of the fan club’s “explanations”. Such variety is a wise decision, of course, as no single explanation of the faked fall/death could have satisfied everyone. What’s more, it plants in our heads one of the key features of Series Three: the fact that Holmes can and will be depicted in different ways, some of which are perhaps antithetical to the expectations of the audience (and that, specifically, foreshadows some of the reaction to what Sherlock does at the conclusion of ‘His Last Vow’).

What then of the idea, held by a few people I’ve been talking to, that, in its overt inclusion of Sherlock fanboys and fangirls, as well as its protracted teasing out of the explanation behind the fall/death at the expense of what is ostensibly the episode’s own mystery, ‘The Empty Hearse’ is evidence of showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss allowing the public too much say over the course of the series? I think it’s an unjust criticism for two reasons: One, bowing to public pressure is exactly what Doyle himself did. Let’s not forget that he too “killed off” the character once (in his case because he was tired of being defined by him) only to “resurrect” him in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ after public outcry. There is precedent then, but, more than that, by lulling the audience into the pretense of authority or influence, Moffat and Gatiss cleverly set us up for a violent rejoinder to that sense of control, that sense of ownership over the character and the stories which eventually arrives at the end of ‘His Last Vow’. After all, the appearance of that episodes villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen, in ‘The Empty Hearse’ serves as more than just a teaser for his role in the finale. He is, as we see in ‘His Last Vow’, an antagonist who believes he ‘owns’ people (read ‘characters’) in the Sherlock universe, a figure who seeks to bend these characters to his will.

Again, this is something only really apparent when Series Three is viewed as a single story. Which, arguably, it should be. Oftentimes there is a tendency to see episodes like these as standing alone with just a few threads running between them but, in Series Three more than ever, the viewer’s experience of the show is enriched by conceiving of it as a whole. The relationship between Watson and Mary (engaged here, married in ‘The Sign of Three’, and expecting a child – as well as dealing with some extraordinary revelations – in ‘His Last Vow’) provides an obvious through-line for the series, true, but beneath it, lurking in Sherlock’s thematic depths, stirs strong evidence of this year’s overarching metafictional intentions.

The Sign of Three’, 03×02

I would not have believed you, if you had told me before I watched it, that the wedding episode of Sherlock would be my favourite of anything this show has ever done. But, yes, it’s true. This is a hilarious and intricate ninety minutes overflowing with Doyle references and a genuine love of the material. Moreover, as the central episode of the series, ‘The Sign of Three’ functions as a touchstone for the most carefully mapped-out year of Sherlock yet. Beyond the title’s reference to the fact that Watson and Mary are expecting a child (and its homage to Mary’s first appearance in Doyle’s ‘The Sign of Four’), the episode is very literally the ‘sign’ of Series ‘Three’: a good-natured engagement with the fact that Holmes is a fiction, a series of stories which, as mentioned, are re-told over and over in different ways (something which will again be apparent in the tabloid headlines of episode three; “Shag-a-lot Holmes”, etc., a radically different spin on the character again!).

Yet the means by which the episode acknowledges its own status as fiction – Sherlock’s regaling of the wedding party with tales of recent cases – does seem to have struck some people as too in-jokey. One friend who I have been talking to thought that it “pandered too much to the fanboys, and for that fact it was very, very irritating”. Which of course is fair (as I always say, the world would be a very boring place if everyone only liked the same things). Nevertheless I myself see the wedding party functioning as a kind of deliberate proxy for the TV audience (above and beyond the audience surrogate which Watson typically provides for the individual reader). They’re sitting down, watching Sherlock and John, and even firing off questions as to how certain cases were resolved and discussing things among themselves. They might as well be planted in front of their television sets. They might as well be us.

‘His Last Vow’, 03×03

Right then, if ‘The Empty Hearse’ and ‘The Sign of Three” are, in metafictional fashion, “about” different aspects of Sherlock Holmes as a series of stories, what function does ‘His Last Vow’ serve? Does it even fit with the schema as suggested by the earlier episodes? I think that it does, though it functions more as a rebuke to Sherlock fan-culture than the nod-and-wink of the two prior installments. There is an appreciable degree to which this episode is an answer to the question posed by ‘The Empty Hearse’ as regards the show being beholden to fandom’s concept of it and its direction (as well as the “pandering” of ‘The Sign of Three”). In Sherlock’s callous dispatching of Magnussen, ‘His Last Vow’ is saying to its audience, “You think you have a version of this world and these characters in your head but *BLAM* we’re after putting a bullet through it because we’re running this show, not you”.

The reaction of some viewers to this is, if you’ll allow me to speculate, maybe exactly what Moffat and Gatiss might well have been hoping for: an emotional response, a rejection, a declaration of, “That wouldn’t happen!”. And yet it did happen, with Sherlock, a self-identifying sociopath (though that, it sometimes seems, is a problematic definition), shooting Magnussen through the head in cold blood. The reason? Magnussen, like Sherlock (and, perhaps, like many committed fans), possesses a Mind-Palace, a highly organised memory to which he – as “the Napoleon of blackmail” – has committed the secret workings of the world. This gives him control; control over Watson and Mary (here revealed as a former assassin), control over Sherlock, and, therefore, control over every aspect of their lives and futures. He is also, tellingly, the embodiment of the media; the newspapers which, over the hiatus, ran endless stories about how Sherlock might come back, even the online fan-culture of discussion, speculation, and nitpicking (as close as you can get to blackmailing a TV show, I suppose!) hinted at by the quasi-digitality of Magnussen’s recollection (the scrolling text, for example).

Despite all this, the episode seems to have generated a slow-burn of audience disengagement from some quarters. Another friend of mine, a Holmes aficionado if ever there was one, mentioned to me this week that “I don’t think Watson would get past his wife being a murderer, nor would Sherlock kill somebody in cold blood”. Watson getting over Mary’s confession is, I suppose, something which occurred mostly off-screen over the months of Sherlock’s recovery from a gunshot wound of his own here. But perhaps that’s not the point. As my friend put it, “The whole thing with Watson is that he is meant to be a paragon of British virtue and all that sort of claptrap, but you need that to play off of Sherlock’s moral ambiguity. I think that is part of why it works so well. The contrast challenges Watson and the reader/viewer. If Watson can get past the fact that his wife is a multiple murderer without even bothering to look into/care about the people she killed then that compromises him. it compromised him so much that he didn’t seem to have any real issue with Sherlock killing Magnusson like that (beyond the initial shock of it). [Moffat and Gatiss] have sacrificed the moral positions of the characters that I consider to be the bedrock of who they are.”

It’s a fair point, however I think that it inadvertently strengthens the argument about the show attempting to wrong-foot an audience which has grown cosy with it, to force them to question not just their expectations about the show and its characters but also their fundamental understanding of them: Haw-haw, Sherlock is a sociopath; it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot in the head. Indeed, from the perspective of watching a show-about-the-show, Sherlock’s actions are an entirely appropriate development: “What you imagine we’re doing is not what we’re doing,” ‘His Last Vow’ is saying to us; “You spent the last two years constructing your own Mind Palace of theories and guesses about this show but we need to keep things fresh; you have a version of Sherlock in your head but we’ve just blown it away.”

It’s entirely possible (though unlikely? Difficult to tell) that Moffat and Gatiss will in fact freshen things up by opening these characters to the murkier moral implications of their actions next series. I’m thinking of something similar to the way we’re all waiting for the Man of Steel follow-up to address the way in which the first film “challenged” our perceptions of its protagonist. If anything like this occurs in Sherlock’s case, it will most likely be via the teased return of Moriarty who, as the above friend of mine (the aficionado one) suggested, is back as a “punishment” for Sherlock and Watson. Certainly it would be a much better use of the character rather than reducing him to a clever fake-out at the end of this episode, a glorified YouTube clip which will be dismissed in the first few minutes of Series Four.

As always with Sherlock, I guess we just have to wait and find out.

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“No, sir… all thirteen (thoughts about ‘The Day of The Doctor’, that is)”

'The Day of The Doctor'

‘The Day of The Doctor’

So, a little late to the party (I do have a life beyond the Internet, you know), but here are my key takeaway points from the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special last weekend. They’re a bit rough and ready, a first stab towards profundity perhaps, but maybe someday I’ll revise them into a more coherent form! Please note: Spoilers abound here not just for ‘The Day of The Doctor’, but also, let’s face it, the entirety of space and time.

1. First off, wasn’t that brilliant? It was exciting and touching, epic and intimate, with something for modern fans as well as long-time viewers. There’ll always be people disappointed, that’s just the curiously negative nature of contemporary fandom, but I’m certainly not one of them. We got ‘appearances’ (brief though they were) from ‘classic’ Doctors, we got adventures with the contemporary incarnations, and we got mythology-shaking revelations not just about The Doctor himself but also the broad-canvass background of the show in general. ‘The Day of The Doctor’ was a triumph for Doctor Who’s ability to constantly re-invent itself. It was gorgeous to look at, nicely garnished with Easter-eggs for fans, and more than emotionally satisfying. Not bad for an hour and quarter!

2. If anyone asks me to describe this episode (or this ‘special’? This ‘film’, even?) then I’m going to say this: It’s an episode of Doctor Who about The Doctor watching an episode of Doctor Who. Some people online have complained (big surprise) that the middle section of the episode (Elizabeth I, Zygons, UNIT) didn’t feel ‘big’ enough for a 50th anniversary, that it was too much like an ‘ordinary’ episode of the show, but that’s really the point, isn’t it? John Hurt’s ‘War Doctor’, something of a surrogate for the older, grouchier ‘classic’ Doctors, is granted a glimpse of his future selves. They’re younger, yes, more superficially frivolous, to be sure, but through watching them save the world (and towards the end he’s literally sitting in an armchair watching them, as he might if he was parked in front of the TV on a Saturday evening) he is reminded of his own true nature; he’s reminded of who The Doctor is.

That this is the purpose behind ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is flagged up-front with the quotation from Marcus Aurelius by which Clara concludes her class at the beginning: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man would be… be one”. That, in a nutshell, is the final act of the anniversary special right there: No more talking, no more debate about right and wrong; just taking action and saving the day. 

3. For his part, the Eleventh Doctor’s portion of the story feels like its about Doctor Who’s place in popular culture, essentially a discussion of high art versus low art. Much of his story takes place in London’s National Gallery, home of great paintings ‘from Giotto to Cézanne’, high art, in other words. But beneath it is the ‘Undergallery’ where ‘all art too dangerous for public consumption’ is held (such as the terrifically bonkers Cyberman version of the Géricault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’). I’m reminded here of something Brian Aldis said recently at World Fantasy Con in Brighton: that critics too busy preening in the high gallery, waxing back and forth about beauty and aesthetes, ‘are afraid’ of science fiction because it has ‘this alarming power to deliver startling things’. That The Doctor was appointed by Queen Elizabeth I as curator of the Undergallery speaks to both his opposition to such figures as well as to his pre-eminence in popular culture (especially in Britain).  It also speaks to the exciting and cultish (I use that term in a positive sense) aspect of Doctor Who more generally: anyone can engage with self-consciously serious high art, but it’s in the hidden, irreverent, self-contradictory art of popular culture that the excitement truly lies… and one has to seek that out for oneself.

4. The Tenth Doctor’s plotline then (and this is, admittedly, more of a stretch! But stay with me!) serves as something of a meta-story for the role of continuity in Doctor Who and, one supposes, franchise science fiction more generally. It does so by focusing on a long-running plot-thread/joke from the Tenth Doctor’s run, his frequent but never explained comments about a dalliance with Queen Elizabeth I. There’s also the appearance here of a classic monster, the shape-changing Zygons, a threat which has not been seen on screen since 1975 (‘The Terror of the Zygons’) as well as Ten’s reliance on silly gadgetry (like the ‘machine which goes ding’) and the largely set-less outdoor filming of this section. It’s true that the War Doctor is essentially a ‘classic’ take on the character, but insofar as he is metaphorically watching an episode of the show, it’s very much a story of two halves with the Tenth Doctor’s segment best reflecting the classic show’s practice of filming in, well, fields (I was almost surprised not to see a quarry), and filling scenes with extras dressed in period garb looted from the BBC costume department (by contrast, the Eleventh Doctor’s portion of the story is very much of the modern Who mold). Moreover, there is a further element here which is of relevance to the art question; the whole notion of originals Vs recreations (classic Who Vs modern Who echoed in the the painting recreating Gallifrey, the Zygons recreating Elizabeth I, and so on).

5. Beyond all of this, I do salute Stephen Moffat for devising a plot-relevant, nay mythology-relevant reason for the differences between the classic-era Doctors and the character’s modern incarnations. Much has been made about this in other reviews, so I won’t stress it here, but the younger ‘modern’ Doctors are cleverly explained as a reaction against (in Ten’s words) his ‘grown-up’ older incarnations, particularly the War Doctor and the weighty choices he had to make at the end of the Time War. Of course, this isn’t just something that’s relevant looking backwards, but also going forwards with the future promised by Peter Capaldi being cast as the next, older (but, at 55, not ‘old’) Doctor. With the saving of Gallifrey and the absolution of the guilt associated with the War Doctor’s choices, The Doctor is clearly set to experiment with maturity once again.

6. Dear Internet, please be advised that you don’t own Christopher Eccleston and that he doesn’t owe you anything. Yes his lack of involvement was disappointing but it’s his life. Griping about his unwillingness to appear for the War Doctor’s final moments ignores both the barest hint of his face in the regeneration scene (as I’ve convinced myself) and the fact that, of all the stock-footage ‘appearances’ by past Doctors, his was the most extensive. 

7. A brief comment on the fez: Am I right in thinking that this particular piece of headgear is a paradox? The Eleventh Doctor finds it in the Undergallery and throws it through the portal to the Tenth Doctor in 1562. After he follows, the Eleventh Doctor subsequently throws it through another portal to the War Doctor on Gallifrey. The War Doctor then returns through the portal with the fez which is, apparently, left behind in 1562 where Elizabeth I places it in the Undergallery for the Eleventh Doctor to discover in the first place. Yeah, I know, it’s wrong that this is one of my favorite parts of the episode.  But it is, and I love that it’s never addressed. 

8. I also loved that, through the ‘Time Lord art’, 3D was a crucial plot point in ‘The Day of The Doctor’ and not just some gimmick. Another reminder that even the most ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’ undertakings, like 3D cinema, are still art. 

9. Indeed, beyond the 3D, the effects work in general on this was stupendous, from the CGI depicting the fall of Arcadia to the practical effects of the War Doctor ramming through walls and Daleks with his TARDIS to the paintings themselves. This was as visually rich as Doctor Who has ever been. 

10. That said (and if I have a significant criticism of ‘The Day of The Doctor’ it’s this) the actualisation of the Time War was quite conventional, wasn’t it? It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but the recognizable television Sci-Fi of laser blasts and explosions depicted here does seem at odds with a conflict which has previously been spoken about as one of higher dimensions with countless millions dying and being resurrected and dying again every instant (‘The End of Time’), a war comprehensible to us Humans merely as poetry. For instance Davros, at the Gates of Elysium, flying ‘into the jaws of the Nightmare Child’ (‘The Stolen Earth’); the Dalek Emperor taking control of the ‘Cruciform’ (‘The Sound of Drums’); the dreadful ‘Horde of Travesties’ and the ‘Could’ve Been King with his Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres’ (‘The End of Time’); the Daleks vanishing ‘out of time and space’ to fight a war waged beyond the veil of recognizable reality (‘The Parting of the Ways’). I won’t say I was disappointed by the depiction of the time War here, it as certainly exciting, but I was perhaps expecting something a little more… abstract (though, come to think of it, in the poetry Vs lasers debate we have the other side of the art question raised above).  

11. Meanwhile, the Time War itself takes places between the Eight Doctor-centric mini-episode ‘The Night of the Doctor’ and the 50th anniversary special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Like Battlestar Galactica, where the pilot mini-series was titled ‘Night’ and the finale ‘Daybreak’ (about which I’ve written elsewhere), the events of The Time War constitute a dark night of the soul for The Doctor. Seeing as the purpose of ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is to show us who the character really is, to reveal his soul, as it were, I can’t believe that the ‘Night’/’Day’ naming scheme here is just a cute mirroring on Moffat’s part.

12. (Update, January 2014: The Christmas special, ‘The Time of The Doctor’, has obviously answered this point about Regenerations, however I’ll leave this as it stands as it does represent my initial response to ‘The Day of The Doctor’) Now that the War Doctor is officially the Doctor, there’s probably going to be a lot of confusion about how many Doctors there have been. On one hand it doesn’t matter. On another, the Time Lords themselves count ‘all thirteen’ during the saving of Gallifrey, including John Hurt and Peter Capaldi in the latter’s insanely crowd-pleasing two-second cameo. Sans-Capaldi and the War Doctor (who, let us not forget, was actively repressed by The Doctor), the generally accepted back-catalogue is confirmed by the images of past Doctors in The Journal of Impossible Things (‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’), let alone those which appeared on-screen in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, ‘The Name of The Doctor’, and ‘The Day of The Doctor’ itself. 

But hang on, I hear you say, what about other faces glimpsed in ‘The Brain of Morbius’ (1976)? ‘I attempted to imply that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor,’ said Producer Philip Hinchcliffe of this development at the time, but, having re-watched the scene, I personally choose to stress the word ‘attempted’ and hold the opinion is that the mysterious faces seen during the Mind-Bending dual are the previous incarnations of Morbius himself (they do tend to go back and forth between Morbius and The Doctor). ‘How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?’ Morbius demands, but it’s possible to interpret this merely as a taunt while the evil Time Lord overwhelms our hero with a greater weight of experience (and, in this reading of the scene, the reason Morbius’s brain-housing overloads is, presumably, because he’s expending so much mental energy in order to win the dual). Moffat would seem to be taking a similar reading of ‘The Brain of Morbius’. Certainly he is aware of this Tom Baker-era serial, not only because as Executive Producer of Doctor Who it’s essentially his job to be familiar with the show’s history, but because ‘The Night of the Doctor’ is set on the same planet, Karn, and prominently features ‘Brain of Morbius’ bit-players The Sisterhood of Karn. 

As such, I think the real question one needs to ask after ‘The Day of The Doctor’ is how many future incarnations of The Doctor will there be? Worth pointing out here that the thirteen incarnation limit established by ‘The Deadly Assassins’ (1976) and the TV Movie (1996) has been disavowed so many times now that it is essentially meaningless: In ‘The Death of The Doctor,’ a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Doctor jokes that he can regenerate 507 times; his arch-nemesis The Master is offered a whole new regeneration cycle in ‘The Five Doctors’; there is also the question of the regeneration energy he received from River Song in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ (as well as the energy he returned to her in ‘The Angels Take Manhattan); there is the issue of whether or not a regeneration limit even applies without the Time Lords to enforce it; and all that before we get to The Valeyard from ‘The Trial of a Time Lord’, that potential future Doctor, a ‘distillation’ created between The Doctor’s twelfth and final incarnations (so, between Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi) who embodies all the evil and malevolence of the character’s dark side. Nonetheless, the concept of twelve regenerations for thirteen incarnations has become ingrained not only in fandom but also in popular culture, and no doubt will have to be dealt with in a fairly high profile manner by Capaldi’s run with the character. 

13. (Update, January 2014: Again ‘The Time of The Doctor’, having resolved the Regeneration issue, negates a certain amount of this, but I’ll leave it as is) All of that being as it may, I personally believe the regeneration limit no longer applies (if only because this is an ongoing TV show), something which then leaves more than enough room for the most perplexing (in a good way!) element of ‘The Day of The Doctor’: the wonderful cameo by Tom Baker in the closing moments. I really do appreciate the lighthearted nature of this scene and how it simultaneously gives us nothing and everything in order to figure out just what it means and who Tom Baker is meant to be playing. The impossible-to-ignore ‘round things’ on the wall of the gallery behind the Eleventh Doctor and Baker, as the Curator, clearly evoke the interior of the ‘Classic’ TARDIS (as Ten and Eleven comment on earlier in the episode). So is the National Gallery itself a future Doctor’s TARDIS? And is a future Doctor, returning to an ‘old favorite’ face, now the curator of the high art the same way his younger self is curator of the Undergallery (Eleven does say he would enjoy that)? Is his playfulness a rejoinder to those who take art too seriously and value only aesthetics over entertainment? Is his presence here an indication (wistful or not) that popular Science Fiction such as Doctor Who will indeed find a home (and remember, finding home is what the last moments of the episode are all about) in an expanded artistic criticism which will someday move away from dour and po-faced self-consciousness to acknowledge the popular and the playful (let alone the Science Fictional) as a valid form of artistic expression? Like good art itself, Baker’s appearance is something each viewer can take what they want from. It is a wonderful gift to fans old and new. Which, in the end, is exactly what the 50th anniversary needed to be.

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Sleepy Hollow: Fringe for people who didn’t Like Fringe

I admit that it took me a while to see this, but Sleepy Hollow, this season’s most entertaining new series, is Fringe for people who didn’t like Fringe. That’s neither a criticism of people who didn’t watch Fringe or of Sleepy Hollow’s producers – Fringe’s Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci – for swapping out their previous show’s scientific basis and replacing it with supernatural goings-on as a means of chasing the dark-magic/fantasy demographic (understandable given how often Fringe came close to cancellation and how big the supernatural is right now). No, I’m just happy to see an echo of a show I loved so much (Fringe is my favorite series of the post-Lost/BSG era) resurrected with such gusto (and appropriately too, given how Sleepy Hollow toys so often with the notion of resurrection, from the level of its characters – Ichabod Crane returned to life after 250 years – to its playful attitude to its source material – Washington Irving’s 1820 story ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ – as well as TV progenitors ranging from Fringe itself to Supernatural, The X-Files, and the knowing, heroes-versus-demons drama of Joss Whedon’s work in the late 1990s).

Like Fringe it is a kind of procedural about secret histories which are directly connected to the characters’ pasts as well as their roles in the (possible) end of the world… And do you know what? If someone had described it to me like that I might have caught it from the outset rather than binging on the first five episodes over the last week and a half (nothing wrong with that!). To be fair, I’m a little ashamed that I didn’t see Sleepy Hollow coming myself (a terrible omission considering I’m supposed to be all about the Next Big Show) and yet here it is, the hit of the new slate, already renewed for a second season, vastly more enjoyable and polished (thus far) than the much-anticipated Agents of SHIELD (which, to be fair, is finding its feet more and more each week though it still suffers from a curious blandness; who knows, maybe someday I’ll even stop calling it Agents of White People).

But, hang on, how exactly is Sleepy Hollow essentially Fringe reborn? (Note: Minor Spoilers from here on…)

Well for one thing, Kurtzman and Orci have given us another strong female law enforcement professional as one of Sleepy Hollow’s central characters, here Abbie Mills of the local Sherrif’s Department to Fringe’s FBI agent Olivia Dunham. Mind you, where Dunham’s character was initially quite cold and closed off, Mills is more immediately, how do they say…  fun! Sure there’s a touch of Dunham’s (and, for that matter, Dana Scully’s) early incredulity to her, but she has a warmth and a sense of humour to match the competency we expect from our procedural heroes. She’s smart, capable, and hugely engaging from the get-go, with Nicole Beharie already bringing great things to the role; kind of like a version of Anna Torv’s Dunham if she had never been damaged by lies and abuse and betrayals (actually, come to think of it, that’s basically the Olivia Dunham of Fringe‘s alternate universe, a figure to whom the Mills character – having processed her childhood trauma in a reasonably positive fashion – has a more natural affinity).

Meanwhile, for the show’s other lead, Kurtzman and Orci have retained and retooled Fringe’s notion of the amusing genius disconnected from the modern world, a fish-out-of-water whose “own circumstance” make him open to the prospect that “anything is possible”. In Sleepy Hollow’s case, Ichabod Crane is literally a man out of time, resurrected via magic in the present after his “death” in the American Revolutionary War. He is, like Fringe’s institutionalised-for-decades Walter Bishop, a college professor with a vast wealth of specialised knowledge which makes him valuable to contemporary law enforcement (each, I note as of Sleepy Hollow 01×05, is referred to as a “consultant”). That said, Tom Mison’s Crane has a lot to live up to considering that Walter Bishop is one of contemporary television’s greatest characters (yes, yes, Breaking Bad; I know, I know…). Speaking of, it seems that Bishop actor John Noble – criminally overlooked by the Emmy Awards for years – is due in the Hollow next month. That’ll be fun.

A third strand of Fringe’s legacy can be discerned in Orlando Jones’s Police Captain Frank Irving (whose name alone is enough to clue us into his importance to the show). Irving resembles Fringe’s Phillip Broyles (played by Lance Reddick) in that he’s a gruff boss who cuts his unconventional investigators slack because they’re good at what they do. We don’t yet know a lot about him but the character seems to have secrets; he appears to be part of something bigger, a “pattern,” perhaps (and yes, Casual Fringe Watchers, they did explain what The Pattern was).

Beyond characters, Sleepy Hollow has even preserved Fringe’s concept of the ‘lab’, the site of both Walter Bishop’s past scientific transgressions and present scientific heroism (“So much happened here… and so much is about to”). In episode two, the show presents us with a similar space of preserved knowledge explicitly connected to the past life of one of its protagonists, in this case the archive room of the police station, a structure with which Crane is familiar from his days in the Revolutionary Army (“The Battle of Lexington was plotted in this chamber”) and in which is contained the history of Sleepy Hollow the town as well as, it seems, the future of Sleepy Hollow the show (just like Fringe’s lab, this looks like it’s going to be a key location and resource as the series moves forward). Moreover, the introduction of the cabin as Crane’s new abode – “certainly preferable to that motel” – in episode five also echoes Walter Bishop’s move from a hotel to a house on campus early in Fringe’s first season.

I should add, of course, that none of this is intended to detract from Sleepy Hollow’s own sense of identity. It certainly has one and is developing it a little more with every episode. For all its silliness (indeed, often because of its silliness) I’m thoroughly enjoying Kurtzman and Orci’s “retelling” of Irving’s story beyond simple comparisons to other shows (or, if you prefer, beyond my appreciation of Kurtzman and Orci’s clever repackaging of what they were already working on). Sleepy Hollow is fun, well-written, wonderfully acted, and, occasionally, quite beautifully directed (Len Wiseman’s work on the pilot was very striking). In fact, thinking about it again, perhaps it’s less Fringe for people who didn’t like Fringe and more supernatural-fantasy for people who were fans of the previous show. As Ichabod Crane might say, “I can name a few stranger turns of events…”

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Twelve Thoughts on The World’s End

The World's End

The World’s End

The World’s End is a movie I have been looking forward to for a long time. The third instalment in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost’s so-called Cornetto Trilogy (or, if you prefer, Blood-and-Ice-Cream Trilogy), The World’s End represents the mint (or alien) green to Shaun of the Dead’s blood-red strawberry flavour in 2004 and Hot Fuzz’s classic police blue in 2007. It’s a movie I approached with high expectations given that Hot Fuzz is one of my favourite films. I often describe that to people as “the movie I watch when I’m sad”. And yes, I know a great many of you prefer Shaun, but for my money Hot Fuzz is a masterpiece. I’ve rarely seen a film with such a depth of (hilarious) visual detail. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen such a perfect screenplay where every small detail has a point and a purpose integral to the ending of the film. Man, I want to teach that screenplay!

Now, while The World’s End hasn’t yet usurped Hot Fuzz’s place as my favourite of the Trilogy, it has immediately snuck into second place. And who knows, it may yet give HF a run for its money once I see it again (and, no doubt, again, and again…). The repeat-viewing effect is something that’s true of all Wright’s work. He’s a phenomenal director whose films and screenplays are layered with multiple jokes, meanings, and references. Even though I have watched Hot Fuzz literally dozens of time, it’s a movie which I’m still finding new things in. Meanwhile, his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) is a triumph of visual storytelling. Seriously, you could turn off the sound while watching that film and, though you would lose a tremendous amount, you could still follow the plot and character development perfectly. It’s one of the few movies of the last decade which acknowledges that film is a visual medium. And of course, like most works of genius, it’s horribly divisive.

What about The World’s End then? The story of five friends reuniting after twenty years to tackle a legendary pub-crawl which they failed at as teenagers. Twelve pubs, twelve pints. From The First Post to The World’s End. Only once they return to their hometown they find that it feels… different. Everybody seems to have changed. Is this an effect of being away too long or (there really is no middle-ground here) a result of a covert alien invasion? Short review: go see it! Long version…

Please note the SPOILER WARNING in effect from here… 

  • This is Nick Frost’s movie, pure and simple. Landing punches both emotional and physical, Frost steals the show. Can he please be in every movie?
  • This is also a dark, dark picture. Like, surprisingly dark. In many ways it’s the bleakest of the Cornetto Trilogy and, from the mulchings to that epilogue, I was not expecting it to go so far; but I respect the film for following through with the consequences of everything that happens. Sidebar: The Cornetto appeared just seconds after I said to myself, “Hey, I haven’t seen a Cornetto yet…” Now that’s pacing!
  • There seems to be an interesting critical response to this film in Ireland, where some reviewers are patting themselves on the back for not enjoying it in a really uncool way. But whatever. Film reviewers in this country often privilege aesthetics over entertainment. If a film isn’t a low-budget picture about the suicidal loneliness of rural Ireland then they never seem that interested in it (a generalization, sure, but an oddly fair one!).
  • Of course, I kind of see why they didn’t take to it. This is a film with a subtext that speaks to a very English national myth: A (Gary) King leads his (Andrew) Knight(ley), his (Stephen) Prince, his (Oliver) Chamberlin, and his (Peter) Page on an Arthurian quest from drinking vessel to drinking vessel in search of the ultimate grail with the power to make them (symbolically) young again and to cure the malaise (Starbuckization) afflicting the land. And no, I’m not reading too much into it (!); King Arthur gets referenced by name here (and I’ll need to check when I see it again, but the characters might even be gathered at a round table when he gets mentioned).
  • I also see how, as Wright and Pegg promised, Gary is something of a “drunken Doctor Who” throughout the film: He never gives up, he endures the loss of companion after companion, and, at the film’s climax, he delivers a big, grandstanding speech about the merits of Humanity. Of course, like Doctor Who, it’s a very English brand of Humanity which gets praised here. Again, no wonder the Irish critics didn’t go in for it.
  • That said, it was terrific to see so many Irish actors in The World’s End: Pierce Brosnan (totally unexpected), Michael Smiley… I know Paddy Considine isn’t Irish but after In America (2002) he might as well be, right? England, we’ll swap you Bono for him. Or you know, feel free to just take Bono anyway.
  • Though I suppose the whole Trilogy is, to an extent, about resisting conformity (don’t become a zombie like everyone else in Shaun of the Dead; rage against the cult of the perfect village in Hot Fuzz), The World’s End expands this to a literally galactic level. Naturally this ties into Wright’s stated notion of the Trilogy being about “perpetual adolescence” and how his characters – notably the ones played by Pegg – are always in revolt against the powers that be. In this case, Humanity itself is the “least advanced planet” in the cosmos and still has a lot of growing up to do if it’s ever going to be accepted.  Shame that their representative, “Gary King of the Humans” (or perhaps “Garry, King of the Humans”?), reacts to being told off in the way any teenager would.
  • On that, I can see how Pegg’s Gary could be kind of problematic for some reviewers thinking they were heading into a traditional comedy. Sure the movie is marketed as such (with many of the straight-up jokes already flagged in the trailer), and, yes, while it’s often very funny, it’s not simply a comedy. Or, at least, it’s a comedy which is turned inside out. Like one of the alien robots masquerading as a real person, it’s really a cold tragedy in the clothes of a feel-good, hard-drinking, comedic paen to English pub culture. Pegg’s Gary thinks he’s far funnier than he is, and most of his dialogue in the first act is, deliberately, the kind of thing a teenager would think themselves very funny for saying but which, upon more mature reflection, is just embarrassing. He’s a sad and pathetic character; the kind of person we all could (“could”, he says!) have ended up as if we hadn’t gotten our lives together as regards jobs, relationships, and so on. Gary clings to Wright’s “perpetual adolescence” in a more obvious fashion than the characters of the previous films; he wears the same clothes as he did when he was 18, he drives the same car, and he maintains that the gang’s teenage effort to complete the pub-crawl was the highlight of his life. The revelation that he has recently tried to kill himself is quietly devastating, while Pegg’s portrayal of the character is multifaceted and game, ranging from genuine sorrow to smug success. It might actually be his best performance to date and, really, if some reviewers didn’t appreciate it then it’s their loss (I really don’t know why the Irish reviewers thing bothers me so much; I think it might be the self-satisfied manner in which the opinion was presented).
  • The World’s End has a really brilliant soundtrack! It’s something used to tie the film together in expert fashion with the lyrics from the songs of the characters’ youth woven through their dialogue in an utterly organic manner (and how often can you say that about “Twist off his melon, man!”?). Subtle and wonderful and exactly the kind of pop-cultural obsession Wright has been exploring since he, Pegg, Frost, and Jessica Hynes (then Stephenson) delivered the modern classic Spaced in 1999 and 2001.
  • Not as subtle, but still wonderful: the fight scenes. So well-choreographed; so inventively filmed! One in particular, the mass fight in the bar as Gary is trying to finish his pint might be one of the most ridiculous yet satisfying fight scenes since that sequence in John Carpenter’s They Live in 1988 (a movie fresh in my mind as I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it in the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago last month). Come to think of it, as another story of aliens secretly taking over the world by replacing some people and co-opting others with the promise of wealth and power, I reckon They Live is probably on the upper tier of movies which influenced Wright on this project.
  • Speaking of influences, the third act of The World’s End feels like something straight out of Douglas Adams (which, needless to say, is a good thing!). The dialogue of Bill Nighy’s character, “The Network”, might as well have been written by Adams. I suppose it’s fitting then that many of the exteriors from the movie (eight of the twelve pubs, in fact) were filmed in Letchworth, a town mentioned by Ford Prefect in So Long and Thanks for all the Fish (1984) when discussing the difficulties of dealing with the British telephone system from the Pleiades star cluster and so, notionally at least, of thematic relevance to The Network’s attempts in The World’s End to advance Earth’s information technology to Galactic level (okay, here you can probably accuse me of reading too much into the production!). In any event, it’s probably impossible to do English sci-fi comedy and not reference the master of the genre somehow.
  • The film’s ending is perfect, isn’t it? Despite the apocalyptic revelations of the epilogue, everybody gets what they want, Gary in particular. That final scene in the pub, a brilliant, post-apocalyptic spin on Andy’s earlier line about the bravery required to order a water in a room full of drunk rugby fans in warpaint, is both a joy and a very gratifying demonstration of the growth Gary’s character both has and has not gone through since we met him.

So yes, go see The World’s End. If you enjoyed it half as much as I did then it’s well worth your money!

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