Friday, 13 January 2017

REVIEW: Black Mirror Season Three

A recent bout of sickness has led me to engage in a project known as "catching up with Netflix." One of the series I'd been looking forward to catching up with was Black Mirror, the third run of which was released exclusively on the site back in October. So, I was a couple of months behind, but blasted through it just after Christmas when the missus was away and now I've finally gotten round to recording my thoughts.

I'll look at the episodes individually, in the order that I first watched them rather than the set order (completely arbitrary in a series of this nature, in any case). Firstly though, general observations. This is, inarguably, an Americanised take on the series, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. To start with, it's not as if it has been stripped of its British identity entirely. Three of the episodes are set in the UK, British actors appear in both British roles and otherwise, and, partiularly in the episodes penned by Charlie Brooker himself, there's no getting away from the distinctly British flavour of cynicism that pervades the series. It still feels like Black Mirror. And making the series more marketable to American audiences is a necessary step in having Netflix create this third series, which has brought it to far wider critical and audience attention. It's also allowed a much higher budget than the previous runs, leading to twice as many episodes and a remarkable cast, which has further increased attention. This can only be a good thing. Another six episodes are due in the near future, and after the mix of material we had with season three, I'm very intrigued to see what directions they will go in.

NOSEDIVE

The first episode of the series, and it's clear that this is where a lot of the casting budget went. Bryce Dallas Howard is the headline draw here, but there's also Alice Eve as the horrendously shallow Naomi. For me, though, the standout performance is Cherry Jones as "Who gives a shit?" Susan, although Daisy Haggard's staggeringly banal high flyer sticks in the mind too. 

A world where everyone's social interaction is recorded and rated on social media is disturbingly easy to imagine, and there has even been an attempt to market an app like this: Peeple, which thankfully had its more insidious elements removed after poor feedback and seems to have failed to catch on. This is the only episode of the third series that Brooker didn't write, although he did set out the storyline, which extrapolates the idea to its inevitable conclusion: a society in which the very economy is based on "likes." Rashida Jones and Michael Schur developed this into a fine script with an admiral lightness of touch, low on exposition but easily understandable. Howard manages to keep her character Lacey likeable, in spite of the fact that she's really quite a terrible person throughout, both when she's desperately clawing for ratings and when she's angrily over the whole system. 

The chain reaction of events that lead Lacey's points to crash and burn unfolds with agonising inevitability. It's a brilliantly structured tale, but the final scene, though cathartic, doesn't really work for me.

HATED IN THE NATION

Watched next due to recommendation from my friend Nim, this was the best episode of The X-Files I've seen in years. One of the best casts out of the lot, with Kelly MacDonald and Faye Marsay sharing a gloriously uncomfortable sort of chemistry. Faye Marsay is blatantly one of the best new faces in television, and hopefully her recent appearances on Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and this is the beginning of many great roles. And then there's Benedict Wong as one seriously cynical agent. This episode, more than any, could kick off its own series. 

"Hated in the Nation" is an episode that goes further down the sci-fi adventure route than Black Mirror usually does. The great strength of this series has been the sheer variety of genres expressed across its half-dozen episodes. This is positioned as the finale, seemingly to justify its extended runtime, and it's an excellent mix of sf, police procedural, horror and political scrutiny. The use of robotic bees as a replacement for the real kind that we're currently wiping out is a fine central conceit as it is, but combining it with the episode's real subject - the seemingly unpoliceable trolling of social media - makes for an incredible mixture. 

The disturbing thing is that we can empathise with people using the #DeathTo tag, even more so once they know it actually has consequences. From the Katy Hopkins-like columnist who attacks the disabled, to paedophiliac former ministers, we can all identify with hating these people enough to wish them dead. Ultimately, though, everyone faces the consequences of their actions. No one gets away this time.

SAN JUNIPERO

Watched next on the recommendation of just about everyone, this is by far and away the best episode of the series, and also the least typical. Unique amongst Black Mirror episodes in that it actually has a happy ending, "San Junipero" is best watched with as little introduction as possible, since a lot of the pleasure is working out just what is going on in this strange world of perpetual Friday nights. Then again, it's also wonderful to watch again, knowing the truth and noticing the little clues peppered throughout. It's achingly romantic; who'd have thought Charlie Brooker was such a softie underneath? I watched this alone first time round, and immediately wanted my girlfriend Suz to come back home from her New Years holiday so that we could watch it together.

What really makes it such an excellent piece of work is the combination of Brooker's script and the wonderful performances of Mackenzie Davis and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The two have an astonishing chemistry, but while Mbatha-Raw is excellent throughout, it's Davis who truly shines, with a heartbreaking, awkward and hugely loveable performance as the oddly-named Yorkie. Added to which is an eighties soundtrack, a potent philosophical message and a timeless sf concept, making for a truly superb hour of television. It's another episode that could potentially spin a sequel, but that really seems like it could spoil it. It's so perfect as it is. I plan to write on this one again at length, but for now, I suggest you watch it if you already haven't. Probably the most beautiful hour of television I've ever seen.

SHUT UP AND DANCE

I was a little disappointed with this episode. It's one hell of a slog, but that's the point, making the viewer experience the hell that Kenny is going through, step by arduous step. Alex Lawther is absoutely brilliant as Kenny, engendering real sympathy, while also being supremely aggravating in the patheticness of his plight. Finally, after he's been through an unrelenting series of humiliations, we find out that he's not the sympathetic character we originally thought. In this respect it forms a companion piece with "Hated in the Nation," putting us in the uncomfortable position of sympathising with the trolls rather than the vicitms of their attacks, be they nasty little paedos or just people who made a stupid mistake.

What sets this apart from every other episode is that it could happen now, with current technology, and involves now explicit science fiction elements at all. Indeed, it's not so different from something that has already happened, to some poor teenaged sap who thought he was talking to a hotty on the internet, only to have his pictures and Skype videos used as leverage in an attempt to blackmail him into paying money he didn't have. That young lad killed himself, something Kenny tries here, and thus this episode cuts close to the bone, while never really hitting greatness.

PLAYTEST

Black Mirror has had plenty of episodes with horror elements, but this is the first out-and-out horror episode and as such, it works very well. "Playtest" doesn't really have anything to say; it's purely terror in descending steps, each scenario of the virtual reality more harrowing than the last. And, to be fair, it does this very well, with a great central performance from Wyatt Russell. His character, Cooper, is a bit of a dick, but a likeable one, and the worst that can be said about him is that he doesn't call him mum often enough. This is unusual, in that most characters in Black Mirror suffer because they've done something that, arguably, means they deserve it. Cooper goes through hell because of a simple mechanical fault due to his flouting of the "no mobile phones" rule, which is rather excessively cruel even for this series. Still, this is in keeping with the genre of the episode; the victims in horror films are frequently innocents. On the other hand, "Playtest" could still be considered a warning against technology; the ever-more sophisticated nature of our entertainment and computer systems will take us into unexplored territories with unpredictable outcomes. All I know is that I would never, ever consent to having any system explore my subconscious fears. It's bad enough having them in the subconscious; bringing them to life is a monstrous idea.

MEN AGAINST FIRE

Undoubtedly the simplest episode of the run, "Men Against Fire" is predictable and tells a well-worn story, but nonetheless an important one. There have been a number of productions with a similar premise, from episodes of The Outer Limits and Voyager to The 5th Wave last year (although that one I take on advisement, I haven't seen it). This is a simplistic tale about the dehumnaisation of the enemy, but it works well, and while it plays its hand early, it's predictable enough that this doesn't really matter. We know from the outset that the "roaches" will turn out to be ordinary humans, but there's still some original elements here. It's an interesting touch to have the dehumanised faction be white, eastern Europeans, while black and white westerners form the ranks of the army. It adds some complexity by revealing that Stripe (an impressive Malachi Kirby) voluntary signed away his memories to join this campaign of ethnic cleansing. It ends with him making a horribly difficult choice, one that reflects every time that we turn a blind eye to some cruelty or try to forget an injustice. One thing thing I'm certain of: if the American military could doctor their troops minds like this, they'd do it in a shot. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

REVIEW: Sherlock 4-1 - The Six Thatchers

SPOILERS FOR SERIES FOUR, EPISODE ONE

Loosely based upon "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (1904)

And so, after another long break, Sherlock is back and, more or less, on form. The episode chugs along nicely, with plenty of action and derring-do. A very exciting, cinematic opening for the latest run, with some excellent character moments for all the principle players. It's all very disjointed though, never quite cohering into more than a series of vignettes. For every element that is added early and picked up in the climax, there is an element that never ties into the main storyline. Which is fine, I guess, but after three series we've come to expect everything to be a clue, or a plot point, or a running gag. I'm not sure if this is Gatiss losing track of the series' style, or playing with the audience.

The six Thatchers is a clever updating of the six Napoleons, and naturally prevents us from sympathising with the victims too much. I mean, it's terribly sad that the rich couple's son has died in a desperately grim and arbitrary way, but they had a fucking shrine to Thatcher in their house. That's a straightforward way of telling that someone is an appalling person. Watson is too polite to say anything, and Sherlock genuinely doesn't care, but no one would blame them for just walking out as soon as they saw that collection of dragon portraits.

Sherlock's behaviour is baffling at the outset, and it's not clear if he is head-spinningly high, or just pretending to be to take the piss. I don't think we've ever seen Cumberbatch play him so giddily and, well, Doctorishly before. It's tremendous fun, but not what we've come to expect from the character. I like that the exile plot has been so quickly written off. It's not as if the British government can't just doctor footage and wipe someone's record clean with a few choice instructions.

As much as we focus on Sherlock during the episode, it's really all about the Watsons. It's easy to feel desperately sorry for John, upstaged by Mary as the ultimate sidekick. The script plays cleverly with this though, both making John into a more flawed, less sympathetic character by having him tempted to be unfaithful, and by keeping Mary resolutely the star of her own show, albeit one that happens almost entirely off screen, only occasionally intersecting with Sherlock.

So, John. Given the quieter, less exciting material, Martin Freeman nonetheless excels. So far, it appears that John has merely been texting the woman on the bus, a pretty minor indiscretion, but it's entirely possible there's more to it than we've seen. Even so, with a wife and a baby, John's behaviour plays with our sympathies, Of course, by the end, we're desperately sorry for him, even as he (quite understandably) shuts Sherlock out.

Mary, on the other hand, is more of a question. As always. The episode has great fun exploring Mary's superspy skills, only to happily skewer it by having Sherlock simply slap a tracer on her. Making her background the key to the mystery of the week is effective, even as it shows Sherlock at its most contrived. Until, finally, Mary is killed off, seemingly to drive a wedge between Sherlock and John. Presumably, the status quo will eventually be restored, with Holmes and Watson back as they started, albeit with added baby. This is assuming, of course, that Mary is really dead. It would hardly be the first time this series has played that game, and this is a Moffat show we're talking about. No one seems able to stay dead in these things. Not forgetting the fact that the London Aquarium is just up the road from one of the capital's largest hospitals.

Stray thoughts:

I hope they don't involve Moriarty in this season at all, and he just remains Sherlock's personal obsession.

Whatever the provenance, "ammo" is a poor choice of code word in a combat situation.

This episode includes the best ever use of the classic "As always Watson, you see but you do not observe" line.

The best bit, however, is the part with the dog.

Waiting on Sherrinford here.

Monday, 2 January 2017

FANS WHO: Fury From the Deep - 2002 Stageplay

Nick Scovell first played the Doctor in a self-penned stageplay in 1996, titled Planet of Storms. It was this production that brought him to the attention of Rob Thrush, who cast him as the Doctor in his fanfilm The Millennium Trap, still the most popular and well-known production to star Scovell as the Doctor. Thrush joined Scovell's theatre group, and they went on to hold four further Doctor Who stageplays. Each of these was based on a 1960s serial, lost from the archives: The Web of Fear (performed in 2000), Fury from the Deep (2002), Evil of the Daleks (2006) and The Dalek Masterplan (2007).

After this, plans were afoot to adapt The Power of the Daleks for stage, but the BBC declined, in this instance, to provide permission. A mistake, in my view, as the previous plays had been very popular with fans (both old and new, in the case of the more recent plays), and had raised money for the BBC's own charity, Children in Need. Still, we can't expect too much logic from the Beeb, who junked the episodes in the first place, after all. Scovell and Thrush went on to create Power of the Daleks: Reimagined, a fanfilm which was made available via YouTube in 2012, and won great fan acclaim until the Beeb stepped in again and demanded its removal.

However, there has been a recent burst of new enthusiasm for Scovell's Doctor, with a Facebook group being created to celebrate his Doctor's 20th anniversary by providing access to new and archive material. Just before we ushered in the new year, the group released a brief two-hander episode to mark the occasion, "A Moment in Time." Before that, however, we were briefly treated to a recording of a performance of Fury of the Deep, made available for only a few days before being withdrawn. h

Fury From the Deep was performed at Portsmouth Theatre Royal, the same venue that would later play host to both Evil and Masterplan. It was when Evil was being publicised that I first found out about Interalia Theatre's Doctor Who productions, and so while I saw and thoroughly enjoyed both Dalek plays, I never had the chance to see Fury performed. As such, it was a great opportunity to experience this version of the serial. Two things struck me about the production. Firstly was the use of pre-filmed inserts, which were played at the original performance on a screen mounted above the stage. While this may have been a little disjointed to see, it makes it quite an interesting multimedia experience, and when played "full screen" as it were, as part of the video, the inserts work extremely well.  These include some excellent location work, and the recreation of some classic scenes, including the chilling moment when Maggie Harris walks to her seeming doom beneath the waves. They're certainly not unambitious either, bringing in a helicopter for the Doctor and co. to zip about in.


The Doctor catches sight of a helicopter


Secondly, within the play itself there is a very clever use of the structure of the theatre itself. With Fury From the Deep involving all manner of plunges to the depths, through pipes and pits, a single level stage was always going to feel rather flat. Instead, Thrush directs the play to make use of the many levels of the theatre itself. The cast begin some scenes in the uppermost levels ("That power would put me up above the gods!) before descending down scaffolding into the heart of the theatre. It's tremendously effective, giving real scale and, well, depth to the production.

Nick Scovell is excellent as the Doctor, giving a performance that is akin to Patrick Troughton's without ever being a pastiche. There's an earnestness to his Doctor, but with a twinkle and occasional bursts of pure glee at the adventure. Victoria Waterfield is a central figure to this story, here played with great sympathy by Laura Ford. (Victoria had previusly been played by Nancy Holloway in The Web of Fear, while Rosie Grant took on the role for Evil of the Daleks - ironically the character's debut story was adapted after her departure.) Jamie is played by John Paul McCrohon, who gives his all as the canny Scotsman and absolutely fits the part.

I also have to sing the praises of the creature operators (one of whom is named Matt Smith, although I presume not that Matt Smith), who bring the weed creatures to life far more effectively than in the original serial. Making an angry bunch of algae into a credible threat isn't easy, but they managed it here, and the cast all play it with absolute conviction. Fury From the Deep is definite classic in the world of Doctor Who fan productions. Planet of Storms is still available to view (being a non-copyrighted script), but the quality of the recording is sadly somewhat poor. Here's hoping some of the other remakes will be made available for a short time in future. They are most certainly deserving of new fans.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

REVIEW: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story

Right, we've all seen this now, yes?

The Force Awakens was a thoroughly enjoyable new episode, it was inarguably derivative of the original Star Wars. Rogue One, on the other hand, while being literally derived from A New Hope's backstory, feels considerably fresher. Although a prequel, it's far more its own thing than The Force Awakens managed to be.

It's easy to be sniffy when it comes to the now expanding roster of Star Wars productions, with this the first of what promises to be many "Star Wars Stories." Of course Disney are going to milk the property for all its worth, but really, is that a bad thing? The original trilogy is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and while the prequel trilogy has left many fans fearful of tainting it, there is so much scope for further exploration. It's a whole galaxy, after all, and the films and TV series so far have only scratched the surface of that.

The triumph of Rogue One lies in its embracing of new characters who are not linked to the Skywalker-Solo dynasty that has dominated each of the main episodes. While there are some remarkable characters, they nonetheless come across as relatively ordinary people, pushed to extremes by the terrifying situation they find themselves in. Luke was destined to become the first in a new generation of Jedi, while Leia was already a princess and an interstellar ambassador ebfore getting involved in the Rebellion. Sure, Han Solo was just some scruffy nerf herder, but even he had a mythic quality, one that has led to his character holding legendary status come Episode VII. The closest Rogue One has to this is Donnie Yen's character, Imwe, a Guardian of the Wills; sort of a wannabe Jedi who wields the Force but is apart from the eternal Jedi/Sith battle. The remaining characters all just want to get on with their lives, drawn into the Rebel-Empire conflict with varying degrees of unwillingness.



Jyn Erso is a case in point. Felicity Jones has rather a tough time convincing us who her character is supposed to be, but this, I feel, is more due to the last minute rewrites and reshoots which saw the film change quite considerably before its final release. Early trailers for the film included a number of now-excised shots, and portrayed Erso very much as a reluctant hero, fighting for the Rebellion purely from necessity. In the finished product, she transitions from the reluctant fighter to the hero of the Rebellion with jarring suddenness. Not that this unbelievable, but it could have been portrayed more fluidly. Nonetheless, Jones portrays Erso with charisma and resolve from her almost-broken beginnings to her heroic ending, and it's a pity we'll not get to see her in the role again. It's unlikely she'll ever reach the legendary status of the quite similar Han Solo.

Diego Luna is equally watchable and heroic as Cassian Andor, the captain of Rogue One and the secondary hero of the film. Unlike The Force Awakens, which presented Rey and Finn as dual leads, equally as important, Rogue One is very much Erso's film, with Andor as her support, something that the more aggressively masculine corners of the internet couldn't accept. Some of these actually argue that a woman in space is unrealistic, somehow ignoring the numerous actual women who have completed missions in space, as wellas the fact that this is a series about warrior-wizards with magic ruddy swords. I hope the next Story they announce is a lesbian romance with no male characters except Jabba the Hutt.

The central trio is completed by K-2SO, brought to sardonic life by Alan Tudyk, and undoubtedly my favourite character of the film. Frankly, this reprogrammed Imperial troop who cannot keep his trap shut is far more entertaining than C-3PO or R2-D2 ever were (although the old droids do turn up in Rogue One, since they are obligatory for every Star Wars film). Bring him back. Save his personality chip. Reprogramme another one, I don't mind.

The secret hero of the film is Galen Erso, Jyn's father and the mastermind behind the Death Star. Played by the mesmeric Mads Mikkelsen, who finally gets to portray someone other than an out-and-out villain, he's one of the most interesting characters in the film. His presence also clears up one of the most annoying elements of the original Star Wars, which is to say, the great big hole in the Deatn Star that's perfect for firing torpedoes directly into the engine core. By simply making this a deliberately engineered weakness, designed to stick two fingers up to the Empire, Galen Erso makes the original film a more coherent story in retrospect.

Disney's new Star Wars universe shucks off the gigantic Expanded Universe of supplementary material that it had accrued over the years, which has upset some fans and galvanised others. I've never been into Star Wars enough to be invested in the expanded material (it's always been Trek and Who for me), but it's surely a good thing to have the universe opened up like this for exploration. There is still, of course, plenty of canonical material to be mined. I'm sure to notice lots of little winks once I finally get round to watching Rebels, while I didn't realise the significance of Saw Gerrera, and just wondwered why Forest Whitaker had so little screentime compared to what the trailers suggested. I enjoyed the many nods to the earlier films, although quite how those two alien ne'erdowells found their way from Jedha to Tatooine without getting blown up, in time to meet Obi-Wan and Luke, what, a week later? But then, we have Darth Vader, voiced once again by James Earl Jones. He's used with commendable restraint, which maximise the impact of his scenes, although he really should realise that if he wants to destroy something on a spaceship, shooting the ship down and blowing up would probably work better than boarding said ship and stalking malevolently through it.

The most contentious aspect of the film is, undoubtedly, the use of CGI actors to recreate characters from A New Hope. It's a open question whether it's respectful to recreate a deceased actor, but in terms of its effectiveness, I think the CGI Peter Cushing/Grand Moff Tarkin worked astonishingly well. Yes, you can see he's CG, but only just. It's remarkably life-like, and Guy Henry provides a very good vocal performance. The story wouldn't work anywhere near as well without Tarkin's involvement, and his rivalry with Krennic (a great performance by Ben Mendelsohn) adds a lot of flavour to the Imperial scenes. I did feel that Tarkin came across as more moodily vindictive than his original, coldly monstrous self. This is the only guy who ever told Vader to stand down. You shouldn't see a flicker on that face.

The ending of the film is powerful, bravely going down thn the Blakes 7 "everybody dies" route. It is a war movie, after all, and the sacrifices of the characters hammer home the significance of the battle they've fought. Finally, the film segues directly into A New Hope, ending immediatley before the original's first scene. I can't wait to get this on disc and watch them back-to-back. The last thing we see is Leia, CGI'd the same way as Tarkin. Somehow, she's not quite as convincing (probably because a gaunt, wrinkly face hides the joins better than a smooth, youthful), but her appearance is fleeting, so it works. It's heartbreaking, though, to watch it now, after the incredibly sad loss of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. (We can take some comfort from the fact that Fisher has already shot her scenes for Episode VIII, but still.)

Controversial matters aside, Rogue One works, striking out in a somewhat new direction for the franchise while still feeling 100% Star Wars. A triumph.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

WHO REVIEW: 2016 Xmas Special - The Return of Doctor Mysterio


It's been a desolate year for Doctor Who fans. A whole 365 days to wait between episodes, the longest gap we've had since the series was revived back in 2005. All we've had to fill the void in the meantime was the disappointing spin-off Class and the animated release of the fan favourite The Power of the Daleks. (At least, that's the case onscreen. Doctor Who has been exceptionally well-presented in other media this year, with six incarnations heading their own Titan comicbook series and a whopping eleven in Big Finish audios.) Still, we do have the now-traditional Christmas special, now such a mainstay that its absence from the BBC schedules is unthinkable.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio (named for the series' Mexican title, a name Peter Capaldi reportedly adores) is a straightforward adventure, light of complexity and high on fun. It doesn't feel particularly “special,” although its status as the only episode of the year gives it a little more clout. It isn't even especially Christmassy, with the festive trappings limited to the opening scenes. Still, after the exceedingly festive Last Christmas in 2014, a couple of years of less snow-covered adventures is no bad thing. It's an episode with nothing more sophisticated to say than “look, it's Doctor Who does superheroes!” and that's fine. I don't understand the view of some fans who attack this idea. Yes, it's derivative, but Doctor Who has often been at its best when it was copying other things. Do fans complain about The Brain of Morbius being “just Doctor Who does Frankenstein” or The Enemy of the World being “just Doctor Who does Bond?”

Specifically, this is Stephen Moffat's love letter to the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman films, although there are nods to other properties. Moffat has spoken at length about how Clark Kent is his favourite superhero, specifically the man behind the Superman, and it's easy to see why. Lois and Clark is a timeless story that asks us to accept a ludicrous premise – that a woman can't recognise a man in two different guises – in order to play a farcical love story. It's exactly the sort of thing that's up Moffat's alley, and Doctor Mysterio plays out pretty much as you'd expect it to. It's perhaps an oversight, though, to more or less ignore the modern superhero movie genre, something that is ripe for its own parody. Nonetheless, it makes sense for a Christmas Day treat; Superman – The Movie is exactly the sort of feelgood family film people sit down to watch together on the day.



As always, success hangs on the writing and the cast, which come together to produce a very enjoyable hour. As is traditional, the American characters are not played by American actors; Justin Chatwin is Canadian and Charity Wakefield is from very near my bit of England. They both inhabit their roles perfectly. Chatwin plays Grant as a kind, witty if unconfident gent, very Clark Kent indeed, although his mannerisms (and costume) as the Ghost are more Batmanesque, all steely earnestness and deadpan delivery. His power set is, however, 100% Superman, and this remains the main basis for the character. Wakefield embodies her pseudo-Lois Lane just as well, someone so focussed on certain aspects of her life that it's jut about believable she can miss something “too stupid to be allowed to continue.” Of course, a nanny is just about the worst possible job for a part-time superhero to take on, but that's all part of the conceit, and Moffat's script enjoys poking fun at these small absurdities.

The casting of Grant's younger selves is absolutely spot on, with Logan Hoffman and Daniel Lorente working perfectly as the boy and teen versions respectively. They share some excellent chemistry with Capaldi, who is finally being allowed to use his natural flair for kids in his performance as the Doctor. The high school scene is a particularly lovely little scene, but it's kid Grant who'll stick in my memory most. With that much comicbook art on his walls and a very snazzy set of dinosaur jammies, he's the coolest kid ever to appear on Doctor Who.

It's a very nice touch correlating the absence of Doctor Who with the Doctor's twenty-four year time-out with River. The real surprise here is how well Nardole works. As I've said before, I like Matt Lucas, but he was wasted in The Husbands of River Song with a stupid, one-note comedy character that wasn't very funny. This is isn't quite the revamp that Donna Noble got, but the refined new Nardole actually works very well as a companion. The comedy moments work better, and Lucas adds a real pathos to the serious moments. Nardole acts rather like a low-key agent in this episode, who keeps the Doctor focussed and points out his errors. I'm not convinced he can work well throughout a whole season, but we'll see how it runs.

There's a nice about-face regarding the villains of the episode. Adetomiwa Edun (another Brit) plays Mr Brock, blatantly set up to be the grand, Lex Luthor-esque villain, before the alien/German (delete as applicable) Dr Sim (Aleksander Jovanovic) pulls his brain out. It was a surprise to see the head-splitting aliens from last year's special return, but it was written right there, in the name Harmony Shoal. This is, of course, about three thousand years before the previous episode, making it even more of an expected and skewed two-parter. Also, I had hoped the brain aliens would be the Morpho brains from The Keys of Marinus, but that's ridiculously obscure. That'd be like bringing the Movellans back, or something.