Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sun Screen

Sun *and* screen, I should say. Or rather, in the absence of the former, we seem to have experienced more of the latter. And what with the summer apparently being over now, it seemed like a good time to reflect back on some of the blockbusters we've seen since we invested in this year's loyalty card at the local cinema. It feels like it's been all superheroes and I can only imagine the general public growing tired of them if this keeps up.

Luckily they're still a welcome (potential) treat for a kid who grew up on Marvel comics - not exclusively: they were like the Milky Way of my reading habits, the stuff you could read between proper books without spoiling your appetite. Of course, when the makers of Milky Way bars make that claim, they're probably envisaging a child consuming perhaps one bar at a time. Entirely possible to have too much of a good thing, guys.

In truth, it wasn't all caped crusaders though. Some of them didn't have capes. But perhaps I'm being unfair: there were other films in the mix. Maybe best to just crack on with the mini-reviews and we can measure the actual superhero tally against the overall impression.

Some of these I've already helped review for my wife's movie review site, so I'll endeavour to be brief here.

First up, Iron Man. Definitely one for the superhero count, and actually weighed in above expectations. Polished (ha) and slick, good sense of humour, all aided and abetted by charismatic performances from Robert Downey Jr (who gives us a Tony Stark living the rock-star lifestyle) and Gwyneth Paltrow. Could have used more in the middle, some more Iron-Man-on-tank action perhaps, but mostly it rocked - and not just in the soundtrack.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was a fun ride, albeit a slightly downhill one, I thought. As mentioned before, admittedly rather strangely, I had a harder time believing in Roswell aliens than the whole Lost Arks or Holy Grails of before and of course in the context of today's blockbusters, the movie has a harder time showing us anything we haven't seen before. But the first half is vintage Indy. And the mere fact that I can say 'vintage Indy' makes me feel far too old.

The Incredible Hulk. Enjoyed this too, almost as much as Iron Man. I (mostly) liked Ang Lee's more pensive version, but this one spends no time contemplating its green belly button and, courtesy of everyone knowing about the Hulk, can dispense with the whole origin story in the space of the opening titles. Brilliant. More superhero movies could do the same. Good action outing, with just enough human story to give a sense of substance and even manages to shoot a chemistry experiment in a tense, exciting way (Doctor Who take note: if you ever want to let the Doctor resolve a plot with some basic science stuff, take a tip from Dr Bruce Banner.)

The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian. On the surface, wonderfully colourful escapist fantasy. Beneath the surface, er, nothing much. There are great bits, including a cameo from Tilda Swinton's White Queen - yay! - and Reepicheep, the swashbuckling mouse is an instant star, but I'm still surprised by how superficial it all feels. Not helped by the inclusion of a really odd romantic thread for Susan, which - despite doubtless being an attempt to lend proceedings some emotional weight - just ends up being odd.

The Forbidden Kingdom. More escapist fantasy adventure, this time for martial arts fans. A fairly ordinary story given life by some great cinematography and a host of affectionate nods to some great martial arts movies, including a liberal sprinkling of "Monkey magic". Frankly, Jet Li and Jackie Chan together was recommendation enough for me, and they didn't disappoint. Great moves, great fun.

Wall-E. Never have so many pixels been invested with such a depth of warmth and enchantment. Refreshingly short on dialogue, high on laughs and, yes, even a few tears, it's also a touching - and lively - homage to Silent Running. The scenes with the humans are less successful, especially when the imagination is asked to bridge the gap between live-action footage of people and big blobby CGI dollops. Still, wonderful stuff and a clear warning of the horrors of what can best be summed up by the label 'Wall-Mart'. What more could you want.

The Dark Knight. On the long side, but for the most part I didn't notice as this gripped the attention and didn't let go. Somehow, they took the outlandish and ludicrous character of the Joker and made him chillingly real: probably something to do with Heath Ledger's brilliantly sadistic performance. The tale of Harvey Dent's downfall is skilfully threaded through proceedings and it's only a little odd that, in a world where Batman and the Joker have been rendered realistically, they opt for the so-obviously CGI 'make-up' job on Two-Face. No stranger than there being Batman toys tied to such a non kid-friendly franchise, I suppose, and
takes little away from the fact that this was compelling stuff.

Mamma Mia! Yeah, it really warrants the exclamation mark. A truly unbelievable movie. Don't get me wrong, I like Abba. But of the two ways of experiencing their music, staying at home and listening to a CD would have been my preferred option. However, I did promise my wife to take her out to a chick-flick (on our anniversary, no less) and I stand by the decision, albeit shaking my head. Mostly at the memory of Pierce Brosnan crooning his way painfully through at least three numbers and actually making Meryl Streep sound good. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski were fun, and perhaps the movie could have been saved if everything was as over-the-top as they were, but that would have depended on free handouts of alcohol at the door.

For me, the name calls to mind Hancock's Half Hour and you'd be better off watching or listening to some of those. One of those cases where, once you've seen the trailer, you've definitely seen it all. Dispenses with the superhero origin story by giving its hero a dose of amnesia and by curious twist of fate ends up being remarkably forgettable.

The Happening. Oh dear. If as I suggested previously Steven Moffat really is the M Night Shyamalan of Doctor Who, this doesn't bode well for future Moffat offerings. Interesting idea, feebly told, with almost every little nuance you imagine might later reveal itself as having some fiendishly clever significance... being of no consequence to the story whatsoever. Between this and Lady In The Water, M Night is getting dangerously past his bedtime. Fingers crossed, he'll get back on form before too long.

The Mummy 3: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. When you have the Rock (as in The Mummy Returns) as your bad guy, you might be forgiven for thinking it's a good idea to transform him into a badly CGI-ed creature from an arcade game boss battle. When you have Jet Li as your main villain (as in this one), there's really no need to transform him into anything at all. Just let him be impressive and kick your hero's butt. That aside though, this was fun by and large and a bit of a step up from the disappointing second movie in the series, although the absence of Rachel Weisz - despite the fact that Maria Bello (good actress, but curious choice as a Weisztitute) does a fair job in the same role - is very much a step down. Also, saddling your hero and heroine with offspring is a tricky business and the movie feels a bit saddled with him too. But what the heck, we don't care, because as well as the legendary Jet Li, this has the legendary-ess Michelle Yeoh and thankfully they refrain from morphing her into anything unnecessary.

The X Files: I Want To Believe. And I wanted to like this, and - in the main, once I'd given up waiting for the extraterrestrial connection to emerge - did. It's hard to not expect aliens in an X Files movie, but to be fair we've only had two of them now and I thought it was brave of them not to go down that route. What you're left with is in danger of being dismissed as a pedestrian serial killer outing, and it didn't have enough of Mulder and Scully actually working together for my liking, but it did have strong echoes of my favourite X Files episode, Beyond The Sea, and for that it earns points here. To say nothing of the points it scores just for featuring Gillian Anderson. Billy Connolly is exceptional as the psychic paedo, and that's not something you get to say very often and one X Files regulars who's not Mulder or Scully makes a welcome surprise appearance. And, for my own reasons, I liked the snowy setting.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. Impressive visuals and a wealth of creativity in the creature design department, as you'd anticipate from the director of Pan's Labyrinth. And it all sits comfortably alongside the established Hellboy imagery, but I fear that images are all I'll ultimately take away from the experience. Just as the terrifically creepy concept of the Tooth Fairies is lost in the apparent need to have thousands of the little buggers swarming around, if there is any substance to the story I couldn't find it in all the visual splendour. There's humour and some nice moments, but like a lot of those proton torpedoes in the attack on the original Death Star, this movie only "impacted on the surface".

So, that's what, thirteen movies - apologies to the triskadecaphobics out there - and the truth is there are only five that qualify as actual superhero material. Not even half. Not nearly as bad as our impressions made out. Most of them worth the trip to see on the big screen (especially at the reduced price offered by our loyalty cards!), with a few real standouts, so all in all not a bad summer of movies.

Now if only the sun could manage a few showings of at least average quality...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Never Judge A Book...

...by its position in a Top 100.

These days, it's not enough that you read books, you have to list the books you've read. Memes. So called because they're all me me me. For this one, I have Marie to thank, but it's something to do while the dinner's cooking. And it's about books, and how can you not be interested in a list of books.

According to The Big Read, the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books in their list. Like all Top 100s of anything it's flawed, but we'll go along with their list since, well, since that's the point of the exercise. The 'rules':

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or for whatever reason loathe.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

So, here we go then:

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling - what else are the movies for except saving you having to read all the books?
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
(ish. I mean, who's going to read it from cover to cover, but I was forced to attend Sunday school in my childhood and damn it I'm getting a credit!)
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare - most
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy. Brilliant.
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime And Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck (I have read Of Mice And Men though.)
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame (Can't believe I've never read it!)
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Best. Novel. Ever.
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
Curious how this doubles up on this list, but I've read it twice, so I guess that works out okay.
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini Sounds dull.
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden - saw the movie though.
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell

42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown Yeah, right.
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy Gotta love Thomas Hardy.
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen,
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon On the bookshelf, ready to go.
57 A Tale Of Two Cities
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez - know nothing about it, except that Shakira contributed to the movie soundtrack, so gonna have to get the album at least
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck - and there it is
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy Harrowing.
68 Bridget Jones' Diary - Helen Fielding - Not just pants, but big pants, apparently
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist
- Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker. Fab.
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom - Never heard of it, but Marie's just put me off it!
89 Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - plus Return and Case Book etc.
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad Joseph Conrad rules. Nostromo should be in here.
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare Read. And just watched it - again - the other day.
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

So I make that 44 (edited: somehow missed A Tale Of Two Cities on the first pass - that's the trouble with cutting and pasting someone else's list, I guess!). And I haven't underlined any, but that has more to do with not being able to find underline on the blog editor than not having loved certain books. Obviously there'd be more than 44 if this was a more decent list.

There's just no accounting for taste. Not even mine. But life's too short to read everything. Just not short enough to prevent us making lists, apparently. :)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

There wasn't a whole lot of midday sun in Terry Nation's Survivors for anyone to go out in, the weather being frequently grey and overcast and often downright wintry, but there's no reason why we should expect that to change just because the vast majority of the population has been wiped out by a plague. But Englishmen are very much a feature, as you'd expect - particularly of that middle class, slightly stiff upper lip sort you'd expect from thespians in a 70s BBC TV Drama - and mad dogs too as rabies becomes one more threat in the pile stacked against our brave band of heroes.

Of course, as touched upon before, they're not 'heroes' as such and, sadly, as the series progresses through into its third season, they're not even much of a band any more. And there, as I had been warned, problems begin to creep in and what started as an outstanding series with very few low spots ends as a slightly disappointing affair with a few outstanding highlights.

Although, it being Survivors, the highlights generally occur at the lowest points. That is to say, it's when the show's at its bleakest that it really soars. And you can pretty much mark the point where the series takes its downward turn from the moment the balloon goes up.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's backtrack to the opening of the second series, which I'd been awaiting eagerly since that optimistic end note on Series One.

There's a slightly disconcerting hiccough, but luckily it's not the early symptom of anything terminal: we discover that Abby(Carolyn Seymour)'s gone (with her good news of a possible sighting of her son, Peter, we have to adjust to the notion that her story is over) and then the budding community is struck by fire, which is all the more unfortunate for the fact that it disposes of half the previous regulars off-screen. That's a hard pill to swallow and although the characters are no doubt somewhat hardened to the question of death, they appear to take this devastating blow more in their stride than I could as a mere viewer. The surviving Survivors relocate to another community, headed by Dennis Lill who, as Charles Vaughan - although borderline bonkers and wanting to procreate with every woman in sight when we last saw him - now supplies us with an excellent and worthy lead to rival Ian McCulloch's Greg Preston.

Fortunately (?) further misfortune follows hot on disaster's heels in the second episode, Greater Love, and although it brings with it the loss of yet another character - and a good one too, in Chris Tranchell's Paul - the handling is much more sensitive and consequently effective - and also substantiates what I was saying about the series being best at its bleakest. The episode also serves as a proper introduction to Ruth (Celia Gregory), who - perhaps through the connection established with her here, or perhaps because of a good solid performance as a strong female character - grew to be another favourite of mine.

To the extent that in the ensuing two-parter, Lights Of London, when it seems likely we're going to lose Ruth too, I was ready to cry, "Oi! Survivors! Noooooo!" Or something to that effect. Ultimately, its tale of a rat-besieged fascistic community in the rotten core of London is not quite as gritty stuff as I'd have preferred from the series' first visit to one of the big cities - but this does occur at a year's remove from the outbreak of the plague and it's highly probably that the two-parter I might have liked to have seen wouldn't have passed the censors back then.

After that, the series settles down into an exploration of the trials, tribulations and growth of the Preston-Vaughan community, to an extent picking up where we left off at the end of Season One, in terms of pressing on into the next phase of rebuilding. There's talk of a federation of communities, banding together for protection, discussion of a telephone system and other practical developments, such as Greg's pet gas-power project.

Most of it is strong, if inevitably less urgent than preceding incidents on the survival road. But there is a natural, well-considered progression to it all, highly suggestive that the producers had a plan all fully worked out. And along the way there are some truly cracking episodes - Face Of The Tiger and A Friend In Need, particularly, stood out for me - the latter being evidence that it's not always a bad idea to let one of your leading actors turn scribe for a story or (as it eventually turns out) several. Parasites too is shocking (in a good way), not least because it has the gall to introduce the awesome Pat Troughton in sterling character-actor mode, then kill him off. The only major weak point along the way - just as I'd been warned - turns out to be The Witch, an episode that perhaps could have worked, with a stronger basis for the community's suspicions, but one which ends up being plain silly. Luckily, Mina, the 'witch' of the title, is redeemed in Parasites, with her touching - and ultimately crushed - hopes of romance with Troughton's bargee character. In any case, everything feels like it is building towards something and that something materialises as a balloon which, like a lot of things that are full of hot-air, appears to hold a great deal of promise for the future, but ultimately leads to a let down.

The arrival of a traveller from Norway, armed with maps from the air, holds the seeds for all that federalising and rebuilding of industry and infra-structure that Vaughan and Preston have been enthusing about throughout. The potential realisation of all their dreams. It's a big, momentous ending to the season and an optimistic one in many senses, but it is tinged with pain as Jenny (Lucy Fleming) and her beloved Greg are forced to part company.

Departures are, it emerges as we move keenly on to the next and final series, exactly what the event signals. If the adjustment was challenging at the beginning of the second season, then it's doubly so at the outset of the third. The opening episode, Manhunt, failing to make a great deal of sense doesn't entirely help, but more crucially a new pattern is set: the series ahead of us is to be a manhunt of sorts, with Jenny and Charles and Hubert (John Abineri) forever - it seems like - chasing after the elusive Greg and never quite catching up with the fellow. This chap who was so much at the core of things previously, now takes on the air of a myth. And frankly it gets fairly tiresome and by the time Jenny, at one point, is ready to give up on him, well, my sympathies were entirely with her.

Greg though is like Blake in Blake's Seven. To a large extent he was the glue holding things together, and his absence is felt keenly here. Fair to say, the lack of cohesion also arises from a mission to show us the 'community of the week' visited by Charles and Jenny in their quest, but I have to feel there must have been better ways of going about it. Perhaps alternating between Greg's story and the chasing group, so that we weren't suffering quite so much with the frustration along with them, of hearing news of the man, rushing on to the next episode only to discover he had moved on. Fewer strange and rather misjudged episodes like Manhunt and Sparks and other things that make you go "Hmm" would have been welcome. It might even have been just as well to merely explore a different community each week and dispense with the established set of characters altogether.

But in that event, we would not have been so emotionally involved when it came to the key highlights of the season which, for my money have to include Mad Dog - a stark tale in which Charles ends up hunted on the mere suspicion that he might have rabies - genuinely scary - and the superb The Last Laugh. Which, as well as featuring Greg, was also penned by the actor - lending the impression that McCulloch only agreed to star in the episodes he scribed for this season. His previous for the third series, A Little Learning, didn't impress me, although in fairness it was severely let down by a bad child-actor more than bad enough for me to have completely forgiven poor Stephen Dudley (who did a fair enough job, bless 'im, when it came to Reunion, the tale of his reunion with his mother - the title of which unfortunately led us to believe Jenny was due to finally meet up with Greg. How wrong we were!)

The Last Laugh is a bitter, bitter tale and, honestly, one of the best of all three seasons. (And I'd forgive McCulloch's appearance in Doctor Who's Warriors Of The Deep on the strength of that alone!) If I had to gauge from this story alone, I'd guess McCulloch had a real love for the character he played, although those in the know are free to correct me on that. And, aside from the vital reaction to news of his demise from Jenny, that is where I would have left Greg's story.

But unfortunately, no, we have to endure the ignominy of Long Live The King after that, where the sight of a Union Jack being raised with the initials GP emblazoned in the centre succeeds more in characterising how badly the episode misfires than it does in immortalising Greg Preston in the way the story intends. It also features Roy Marsden as the Captain who, in contrast to the genuinely dangerous men in The Last Laugh, amounts to the closest thing to a 'villain' the series has fielded and whose plans are sadly inconsequential and ultimately rather lacking in the drama department. It's all a bit of a shame and even manages to undermine what should have been a crushing, devastating moment for Jenny when she is given the news - after chasing all around the country after him - that Greg is dead. That is a truly sad end.

And as for the actual final episode, Power, well, apart from the fact that it is a fitting closure in terms of the practical reconstruction side of things, the idea that so many Scots survive relatively comfortably north of the border while the rest of us are left scraping together a pathetic existence here in England is an outrage! It's just that sort of racist anti-English propoganda that will have this country falling apart at the seams, I tell you! I should have seen it coming: the series is positively crawling with Scots in key roles!

Although, to tell the truth, I only include that little mock rant because I'm reasonably sure Stuart will be reading - tee hee :) . And it's as well to be nice to the Scots just in case they do end up in control of our hyrdo-electric power in the event of a global disaster.

All in all then, 'power' is what this drama has and it ends as it began - 'not with a bang'. It's only a shame that by the closing stages, with the cited exceptions, it's not nearly as impressive. The story of rebuilding worked better when it was focused, smaller-scale, and although the third series ranges far and wide and offers us variety, in this case it's not the spice of life. Rather, to some extent, it's a few too many potentially interesting seeds falling on stony ground. And Survivors really should know better and concentrate their efforts on more fertile pastures.

Taken as a whole then, strongly recommended viewing, parts of which might qualify as some of the best TV drama ever. Just watch out for that balloon and prepare yourself for a bit of a bumpy journey from there on.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Karn Eval

The Brain in the rain stays mainly splattered over the plain. A spot of elocution practice to test mental faculties there: apparently I was, like the villainous Time Lord, destroyed in a dispersal chamber but was saved by a devoted mad professor who managed to preserve everything but my brain. Because, try as I might, I can't see what's supposed to be so rubbish about The Brain Of Morbius.

As if my recent birthday bonanza of Who-related materials was insufficient (which it wasn't, but I couldn't help myself) I went and treated myself to this Season 13 classic on DVD. And like many 'classics' it does come in for a deal of stick from some quarters, and that's fair enough - each to his own - but - possibly because I have this brainless head - I couldn't see it and, to be honest, loved every minute of this superbly orchestrated 'Goth Opera'. Like so much of the same season it has that combination of old, new, borrowed, blue working for it and while Pyramids Of Mars turned to The Mummy for its inspiration and Planet Of Evil pays homage to Jekyll & Hyde and Forbidden Planet, this one is the team of Hinchcliffe, Holmes and Dicks taking a romp through a Mary Shelley/H Rider Haggard theme park.

Along with the old and borrowed of Frankenstein and She, there's lashings of blue - where blue is my convenient catch-all heading for mood and atmosphere - in the craggy Karn landscape, shrouded in dry-ice and assailed by storms, and the 'new' lies in the sf/fantasy reworking of the source materials that also succeeds in making some key contributions to the building of the Who universe, ranging from casual references to Mutts and the Hoothi to the crucial background story of the Cult of Morbius, all as potent in their own way as that single reference to the "advance on Reykjavik" (Talons Of Weng Chiang) that so vividly painted other unseen adventures and worlds in this young viewer, once upon a time.

Actually, I say "once upon a time", but it still has as inspirational an effect on me as a 'proper grown-up writer'. That in mind, it's perfectly possible that nostalgia plays a part in my impressions of the story, but I've no problems owning up to that and even if I take that out of the equation - so far as I can - The Brain Of Morbius still impresses.

There are elements that could so easily be laughable: Condo as the Ygor figure, for example, and any group of women emulating flame in dance form are in danger of looking silly, but it's all played with such conviction and, in league with the wonderfully gloomy atmosphere of it all - to say nothing of the brutality (Condo's hacking off of the Mutt's head at the beginning, the attempted burning of the Doctor at the stake, Solon's blasting his troublesome servant with a gun and his casual, clinical approach to the Doctor's impending decapitation) - helps keep things sober.

Humour is there in the dialogue (and in an incident of brain-spillage), but this was a period when you could really gauge the seriousness of a given threat by the gravity of Tom Baker's portrayal and, as in Pyramids, he's as gloomy as his environs here when the name of Morbius crops up. Thus, the portrait of a truly dangerous villain is painted long before we've met his cobbled-together remains and there's a beautiful progression to the cliffhangers, where each is carefully constructed to conclude with an encounter with Morbius at various stages along the assembly line: headless monster, brain-in-a-tank and - in a brilliant moment for Sarah Jane to have just recovered the power of sight - the fully assembled Creature.

It's a shame, perhaps, that he's demented, as we've been given the impression of a foe who would surely have been much more formidable with his mental faculties intact and it's also something of a shame that he meets with such an ignominious end: pitched off a cliff by the Sisterhood, who are, for the purposes of the homage, reduced to the level of the torch-wielding mob. But it's fitting that a Gothic horror should play out as much as a tragedy as a horror story. And the cliff-top dive is at least preceded by the famous mental duelling scene, so the Doctor has very much played a part in the villain's ultimate end.

At which point, I have to pause and mention - if only to aggravate the continuity-obsessed fans - it's entirely possible to read those mysterious faces in the mindbending machine as incarnations of Morbius. Sure, at the time, Morbius is ranting on about how far back he can drive the Doctor, but it's also right after that he develops an overload and stomps off, thrashing madly about. In The Three Doctors, the Time Lords speak of lifting the Doctor's earliest incarnation from his timestream and that's unambiguously William Hartnell. So while there's room for interpretation in the Morbius scene, I'm going with that reading. People will mock and scoff, but hey, they laughed at Mehendri Solon and look what he achieved.

Speaking of whom, Philip Madoc is supreme as the mad scientist in this: so good that, although you know he *must* be insane, there's little overt evidence of it in his performance. He's cold and calculating and charming - a tough blend to pull off - and a great foil for the Doctor. Utterly convincing, you almost understand why the Doctor's trusting enough to leave a blind Sarah Jane in the man's care. Almost. (Personally, I wouldn't: I'd be taking her around with me everywhere - just to make sure she was okay, you know.) The way Solon stands there, openly admiring the Doctor's head is a brilliantly bizarre moment that Madoc sells completely.

Cynthia Grenville as Maren is good too, her heavily aged features at least as startling in their own way as any brain in a fishbowl. Ohica, her second-in-command, is a shade on the theatrical side, but it's not so overdone that it can't simply be taken as the earnestness of an intendant 'heir', keen to be taken seriously. And the design work is rich in detail, both on the Sisterhood costumes and their shrine. The design work in general is very good, in fact, both interiors and exterior, with the landscape only losing a little something in the rare daylight scenes. And the Monster itself is a truly memorable creation, with that special bio-mechanical collage look being hard to pull off successfully, or at least so I imagine.

There are a few questions about some aspects of the story - for instance, wouldn't it have made more sense for Solon, eager to collect body parts, to have been somehow responsible for the crashed spaceships, rather than the Sisterhood who are set on keeping people away? - but as far as this viewer's concerned, nothing sufficiently damaging to detract from the overall experience and what I get from it is an involving sf-horror adventure, rich in inspiration and possibilities that range beyond what's actually seen on screen. The sort of Doctor Who that's worth celebrating.

Who knows, maybe my brain will be found and replaced and I will be able to see through the illusion to the rubbishness underneath. But if it is an illusion, it was achieved with acting, dialogue, papier mache and a budget of thirty quid - not frenetic pacing and razzle-dazzle CGI - and in that respect it'd still be something of a remarkable achievement.