Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Big Birthday Review

Ah, I'm sure you all remember from childhood the joy of tearing all that brightly coloured wrapping paper off your presents and, approximately two weeks' later, running to your computer to review your various gifts on your blog. By and large, I blame Doctor Who: always a fan - with a small f - it was inevitable, I guess, that when I started a blog I ended up reviewing all things Who-related and, of course, it's a fairly natural consequence for that reviewing impulse to spill over into other areas.

Rarely though have I touched upon music. Mostly that's because for me a music review would, more than any other, boil down to did I like it or not. But also partly because, rather like Phil, I have oftentimes been susceptible to a degree of insecurity when it comes to my musical tastes (and mine are fairly eclectic), mostly I think because of all the media in which you might develop your individual tastes it seems to be the one in which you're most open to attack or ridicule. So as well as being great for airing and sharing, the internet is *brilliant* for mocking and belittling others' opinions: it's an arena, so go ahead throw your views to the lions. And be it Doctor Who, TV in general, music or your preferred reading, you're at least as likely to be ripped into for the things you don't like as the things you do. As a long-time member of a Who-oriented mailing list, I know it can get especially heated and unpleasant, not to say tiresome, when your views don't match those of a particular breed of impassioned Fan (most assuredly with a large F) and sadly I wasn't overly surprised to discover that one set of anonymous comments in response to her simple, honest review of this year's big Who finale prompted this post by Marie, and who can blame her. Luckily for me, I laugh and shake my head at much of this sort of thing and don't believe anyone should be the least bit ashamed of their tastes, whatever they may be. Detractors, where I come from, are only what de rest of us get stuck behind as they're hauling their wide loads along narrow parochial lanes.

So if any of my reviews here offend or appear to invite laughter and/or abuse, do feel free, but you should know upfront that I'm unlikely to care! :) Not least because all the things being reviewed were birthday presents and the mood of this post is way more celebratory than critical. That and the fact that I saw Mamma Mia! last night, and after being subjected to Pierce Brosnan's 'singing' I'm inclined to believe I can take anything!

Anyhoo, as much as blogging about it is an inevitable consequence of being a fan (small f) of Doctor Who, so is receiving Who DVDs and what have you. Hence, giving me more Who about which to blog. As vicious circles go, it's quite a happy one.

So, first 'out of the wrapping paper', so to speak, we have the K9 Tales box set, wherein someone has thought to lovingly combine the tin dog's introductory adventure, The Invisible Enemy, with his very own spin-off, K9 & Company, from back when the idea of a Doctor Who spin-off was actually a novelty. Imagine that.

The Invisible Enemy begins nicely, even managing to be creepy and a little unsettling as the Doctor himself is infected and Leela, alone immune to the spindly video-effect lightning attacks of the Virus, is left to fend for herself. Production-wise it doesn't even look markedly worse than any other Who of its era. Storywise, to invert a favoured defence of a lot of New Who, it's no more absurd than a lot of the stuff we're treated to these days, and as far as I can tell is guilty of nothing that, with a bigger budget and a few choice emo-moments from Leela or the Doctor, wouldn't have been forgiven by many if it had been made today.

It's essentially at the end of episode 2, around when we see shots of the Doctor and Leela spinning around in a CSO whirlpool - not actually any worse than shots of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry using the Time Ring at the end of Genesis Of The Daleks - that things go downhill. And as tough as it may have been to pull off an effective sf adventure story about a virus that remains very much in the microscopic realm, they might have been wiser to go down the route of keeping the titular enemy titularly invisible. I have to admire the ambition, but with the best will in the world, it's hard to look past pre-crumbled walls, a giant Prawn that needs two minions to wheel it along the corridors, and an asteroid which looks like it should have a few Clangers patrolling its surface in search of the Soup Dragon or the Iron Chicken. Also, sadly, the sets and CSO are far from being up to the challenge of pulling off a Fantastic Voyage-style journey through the Doctor's brain. So what we get is a less than fantastic plod through a polystyrene jungle, leading to an encounter with a creation I shall politely refer to as the Hooded Claw.

Fortunately, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson , with the aid of some great snippets of dialogue ("We could try using our intelligence!" "If you think that's a good idea.") ensure the adventure sufficient saving graces and, ably assisted by K9 - and it's easy to see why he was a hit - as well as Frederick Jaeger and Michael Sheard, although there are a few production catastrophes, the story avoids being a total disaster. Cheep and cheerful fun, but don't expect a classic.

The companion DVD, K9 & Company is (probably) equally cheap and, opening titles aside, a deal less cheerful, as it concerns a coven of witches in the sleepy English village of Moreton Harwood. It's a passable little mystery and, although not one likely to overly tax your grey cells, takes a fair stab at misleading your suspicions within its limited 50-minute runtime. Approached as a pilot episode, its simplicity of plot is easily forgiven, although at the same time it's hard to see how it might have developed as a series without the inclusion of more diverse and obviously sci-fi elements, such as invading aliens and the like. That same simplicity doesn't render the story very memorable, however, and what sticks in your mind most - for a long time after viewing - are those opening titles, possibly a little too cheerful. A truly curious arrangement of shots of K9 and Sarah Jane 'in action', all to the accompaniment of a theme 'tune' more infectious than the Virus and at least as painful on the ears as the Prawn was on the eyes. Never mind, at heart this is a Sarah Jane Smith story that predates the Sarah Jane Adventures by 20 years and has such has a good deal of charm, easily reached by whizzing past those titles. Which I must remember to do on next viewing.

For another passable 50-minute mystery, not only from the Who stable but also from the pen of Terence Dudley, I also had Black Orchid to delight and entertain me. Again, solving the mystery will not make you Hercules Poirot - it's one of those familiar tales of a hideously scarred supposedly lost relative hidden in a secret wing of the family mansion - but it's told with charm and enough joie-de-vivre that I even found the cricket match near the beginning a pleasure to watch. There's some oddness in the second episode where the Doctor seems to think that revealing his identity as a Time Lord ought to clear him of suspicion of murder but even though he is not instrumental in the resolution, he is involved and the entire affair seems very neatly tailored to the Fifth Doctor. Tegan and Nyssa are clearly having fun too with the costume side of the costume drama and Adric is helpfully sidelined, stuffing his face, so there's a lot to be grateful for. And Sarah Sutton does a nice job with the dual role. Plus, embedded in the heart of this simple period escapade there's enormous potential for a whole series of PDAs (Past Doctor Adventures), just waiting to be tapped into; so all in all, a genuine treat and Black Orchid is duly promoted above Caves Of Androzani as my favourite Davison story.

By contrast, The Celestial Toymaker (BBC Audio) is - in the audio realm at least - a bit disappointing. Far far better for the host of possibilities it inspires in the imagination than for much of what goes on in the adventure itself. It is a *great* idea and Michael Gough makes for a great villain, and a particularly good foil for the First Doctor, even though Hartnell isn't even present for a large chunk of the story. Sadly, he is rendered powerless and his role somewhat inconsequential, as the Toymaker advances the moves willy-nilly in his Trilogic game, ostensibly as a means of upping the tension, while Steven and Dodo are forced to play through a series of parlour games, one per episode basically, all ending with no cleverer a twist than their prize turning out to be a fake TARDIS - at least until the final game. Unfortunately, when it comes to the games on offer in the Toymaker's domain, someone must have suggested 'hopscotch' and someone else must have misheard. A hotchpotch is, in fact, what we get and a race against time becomes more a test of endurance. According to the sleeve notes, some meddling from the script editor succeeded in removing all the suspense from the original script and the results are telling. It's a shame as there is a much better story in here, bogged down by over-laboured dialogue and repetitious 'action', not to mention some surprisingly weak cliffhangers, although it does have a nice tail end in which the Doctor tricks the Toymaker with a spot of ventriloquism. As for me, I'm not fooled by the illusion, but I can at least appreciate what the magician is trying to do.

Further in the Who department, I was also happy to receive Human Nature/Family Of Blood/Blink and treated myself to Tooth And Claw/School Reunion/The Girl In The Fireplace which, although almost certainly not worth re-reviewing here, celebrate the modern tradition of ensuring that the three good episodes from any given year end up, by luck or design - I don't know which - on the same disc, for my convenience. (Season 4 apparently continues this tradition, with Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead/Midnight all falling together in a single volume.) Thanks, Rusty!

Which brings us if not 'neatly' then at least 'eventually' to the music section, in which I was sufficiently blessed to have been given not one but two Coldplay albums. Coldplay, as it happens, being the principal reason for all the preamble above, because for some reason unknown to me - but each to his/her own - they and anyone who professes to liking them come in for a lot of stick. Apparently.

Well, like I said, I don't care. I like Coldplay. More than like them, in fact. Despite that, I somehow managed to lag two albums behind - but no longer. There's nothing on either X&Y or Viva La Vida that's so immediately 'eternal' as Clocks or The Scientist, say, but here's plenty of evidence of a band developing their sound - and not in a downhill way like Radiohead with Kid A. (Blah.) Two listens of each was enough for me to discover plenty to love. See: I either liked it or I didn't. Not terribly interesting in the 'review' stakes, but there you have it: both great albums, and at this stage the more recent of the two is just nudging ahead as the favourite.

Next we have Gabriella Cilmi, who attracted my attention on the strength of her single Sweet About Me. Fair to say, that one song is the key strength of the album, Lessons To Be Learned, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick another track that stands out to the same extent. Except the bonus track, Echo Beach, which stands out for the wrong reasons: not as good as the original. But Gabriella surprises with a gutsy Anastacia-like voice which, if that's at all to your tastes, helps make for interesting enough listening.

Much better is Beth Rowley's Little Dreamer, where I'd be hard-pressed to pick a single because, as far as I'm concerned, the vast majority of the songs are stand-out. Loved it first time I heard it, even with some of the tracks having a surprisingly gospel sound - but that didn't put me off the O! Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, so no reason why it should this either. An especially welcome surprise, this one, since I was drawn to it by reputation only and hadn't heard anything of Beth Rowley beforehand.

Finally, the star of the music pressies, Shakira's Oral Fixation (there's a joke in there somewhere, surely) Tour on DVD. Awesome. Of course, Shakira is great, let's make my bias clear. With her wonderfully Latino-flavoured pop-rock and a voice - even better in her native Spanish - easy to imagine echoing off the peaks of the Andes, whether dance number or heartfelt ballad, the woman knows how to deliver a song. She also, as it turns out, knows how to put on a good show. Truly, her hips don't lie, and her belly-dancing is equally honest and yet undeniably flexible, and she mixes it all up with some rather playful robotic dancing and plenty of rock-star style bounding around the stage. There's real emotion in those ballads and if you ever want to see real joie-de-vivre every other song is bursting with it. Rather like - to stretch a comparison - Peter Davison playing cricket in Black Orchid, here is someone obviously having a thoroughly good time doing what she does. Great stuff.

In conclusion then, a big thank you to all concerned. There were movies too in the midst of all that, most of which I haven't even given a test drive in the DVD player yet, but rest assured they're in the queue for watching. Like I said, I refuse to apologise to anyone for liking anything. But I will apologise to anyone who gave me a gift that didn't end up earning a wholly favourable review, but anyone should realise that as a Doctor Who fan (small f), irrespective of a given thing's flaws, I'm more than capable of a great deal of appreciation.


Stuart Douglas said...

SAF:"embedded in the heart of this simple period escapade there's enormous potential for a whole series of PDAs (Past Doctor Adventures), just waiting to be tapped into;"

Do you think so? ;-)

And as for the music, well each to their own! I still can't decide how Coldplay managed to release such a storming first album and then so much dross since though...

As for the others, I'm sufficiently stuck pre-1989 in music as well as tc that I haven't even heard of them. In my eyes, you're down the kids Simon :)

SAF said...

Stuart: "Do you think so? ;-)"

Tee hee.

Stuart: "And as for the music, well each to their own!"

My sentiments exactly. Actually it was nice to talk about something other than DW for a change. Er, in amongst all the DW*, that is. :)

Stuart: "I still can't decide how Coldplay managed to release such a storming first album and then so much dross since though..."

Yeah, I can at least understand that. It's almost exactly how I felt about Radiohead - although with them I think it happened with their 4th (?) album. I've been told they improved again after that, but I haven't yet tested that for myself.

Stuart: "In my eyes, you're down the kids Simon :)"

I guess I should point out that I've always had these eclectic sort of tastes and this isn't evidence of some sort of mid-life crisis I'm entering into! :)

*For which, apologies you had to read through the retreads pieced together from mailing list comments! ;)

Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "It's almost exactly how I felt about Radiohead - although with them I think it happened with their 4th (?) album."

KidA is rotten (and sadly was the album they toured with the one time I saw them live) but the next album 'Amnesiac' is my favourite Radiohead album. After that, they sound a bit samey imo.