Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Luigi's Mansion 2 (2013)

Despite being a big fan of the Gamecube back in the day, I never got to play the original Luigi's Mansion. Being a student at the time, it was a while before I had a console of my own and I didn't go back to any of its launch titles. There were a lot of Gamecube games that were generally highly praised but criticised for their short length, which to a student on a limited budget perhaps wouldn't seem like great value for money. Ironic then that short but sweet experiences are almost exactly what I'm looking for at the moment.

While I could probably pick up the original for peanuts, whether I'd get to play it is another matter. With an ever growing pile of unplayed barely current gen games, taking time out to go back a generation is pretty difficult. I would really like to see how it played though, to get an idea of how the sequel was designed around a handheld experience. I imagine that each mansion here was split into multiple levels so that one could be completed in a quick play session, though it doesn't feel like they got the balance quite right on occasions. Some of them are pretty long and if you have to take a break suddenly your only option is to close the 3DS and hope it doesn't chew its own battery apart before you can pick it up again (though this may be a problem specific to the original 3DS).

The absence of any kind of checkpoints can also make some levels harder than they should be. I can only really think of a couple of occasions where a lapse in concentration lead to death but being set back so far gives it a certain sting. Thankfully the game's bosses are all contained within their own stages, so while they are the most challenging parts of the game you won't be set back too far (though if you somehow managed to die on the second mansion's boss I imagine you'd be furious about having to climb that set of stairs again).

Sadly I found a lot of the bosses rather uninspiring really, mansion two you just have to keep moving to avoid attacks until you can vacuum its weak point, number three is a long repetitive fight against ghosts you've fought before and the fourth is a shooting minigame that has no relevance to anything you've done before. I guess I was just disappointed that there weren't many like the first boss, which is a pitch perfect test of all the skills you have learned so far. You could put that down to there not really being any new skills after you learn to set things on fire but the non-boss levels still manage to serve up some head scratching puzzles and creative uses of your talents.

It sounds like I'm being pretty negative about the game at this point but I did genuinely enjoy it - I can't really think of any other issues that I haven't already mentioned. It can be hard to describe exactly what's so good about it in a way, from a gameplay perspective your tasks can be quite repetitive (though it helps that the core process of catching ghosts is always enjoyable). It's really a game that wouldn't be anywhere near as enjoyable without the effort that's gone into its environments and characters. Luigi in particular I was surprised at how much I warmed to his constant fear and cowering, it's somehow both charming and refreshing compared to most stoic games protagonists. You'll no doubt start to join in as he hums along to the theme tune to keep himself calm (even if it's unconciously about 3 hours after you've finished playing).

The mansions are also unique and gorgeous, with tons of atmosphere. I was surprised that it even managed to create palpable tension as you share in Luigi's apprehension to enter some areas. This is despite the fact that you'll never come across anything truly terrifying, there's more likely to be a good laugh in store, which makes you chuckle at yourself for feeling any concern about it. Diffusing the tension like this might be the kiss of death for a horror film but it felt like exactly the right way to approach a PEGI 7 rated game. You'd have to consider whether your own child would find any of it scary but it'd definitely be a good stepping stone on the way to introducing them to the Fatal Frame series ;)

There's probably still loads I could talk about too - I've not even mentioned the multiplayer, which I haven't played more than a few games of. I was relieved that after starting to play online a long time after its release, it didn't seem to be full of experts who would berate the failings of a complete noob. While it may essentially be co-op in nature, there's an element of competition that gives everyone a reason to do their best and its communication system limits you to a small selection of phrases voiced by Luigi, so you'll never be verbally abused for your mistakes.

So while I'm not exactly able to confirm it myself, it seems that this turns out to be much bigger than the original - even if you only consider the core path through the game. While obsessively hunting down all of the Boos and finding gems probably isn't for me, it's nice to come across them off the beaten path now and then. I have gone back to a few previous stages to try and clean up, accessing areas that I couldn't before and generally improve my scores but some of the extras must have fiendish hiding places. I wonder if this is another disadvantage of the multi-level setup as you're never quite sure whether you need to scour parts of the mansion that made up previous levels. Another very minor complaint though, which I think sums up the game, that it's worth playing regardless of any issues it might have.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Everybody hates Clara

I've been toying with the idea of writing this post for a while, though I hadn't quite found the time in between posts about each episode. But after feeling really underwhelmed by Saturday's episode 'A Nightmare in Silver', I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to write about it specifically. I'm not sure that I can accurately get across what I didn't like about it, other than it not living up to my expectations for an episode written by Neil Gaiman. It may also have to do with the sudden realisation that the next episode is the last one this series and we're still no closer to finding out what Clara's secret is.

It seems like a lot of people have been quick to claim that this half-series is the worst period of the show ever, with Clara being their common problem. Penny Arcade Report have a whole article on the subject from someone who started watching in the Amy Pond period but I've seen the same criticisms from fans of companions written by Russell T. Davies. I've been doing my best to give her the benefit of the doubt but I'm not sure if I'm grudgingly starting to agree with this assessment.

It can be hard to agree though when some people seem to veer so close to attacking her portrayal as a whole rather than just the way she's written. Jenna Louise Coleman still seems to be doing pretty well with the material she's given and I don't find anything about her actively offensive. And while she's perhaps lacking in character development I wouldn't describe her as a complete cardboard cut-out either - I was reminded again of Mr. Plinkett's Star Wars reviews and how people hilariously struggled to describe Queen Amidala in the Phantom Menace. Clara by comparison has had some nice human touches and you could certainly come up with a list of characteristics to describe her.

If anything she perhaps comes across as not having a consistent character as she can be scared one episode and then taking charge in another, also occasionally seeming to be written more like Amy Pond. But mostly people seem to just describe her as a 'normal person' with nothing 'special' about her, which seemed like an unfair assessment - something already highlighted in 'Hide'. I can understand that some people might have been upset that she wasn't more like her incarnations in 'Asylum of the Daleks' and 'The Snowmen' but I felt it cemented the fact that she was definitely a different character.

The problem seems more to be that the show has built up the idea that she's a huge mystery to solve but then the Doctor seems to do almost nothing to investigate it. I can count about two instances where the idea has been pushed forward in any way - The Doctor's initial investigation of her past in 'The Rings of Akhaten' and surreptitiously taking her to see a psychic in 'Hide'. Any other mention of her mystery has been a variation on "Ooh, you're so impossible, tell me who you are", when the audience is already on board with the idea of her knowing nothing about her past lives.

Coincidentally, both episodes that featured any kind of progress were by the same writer - I don't know if that's significant or if the episode's writer would not have much choice in what was revealed about Clara. If that's the case, it feels like in most episodes the writers weren't given anything new to reveal, leaving both her character and the mystery in a holding pattern - not willing to do anything exciting with her character lest they contradict some unknown end goal.

But then after so much time treading water, it seems like the trailers and adverts for the final episode are quite happy to 'spoil' Clara's purpose. I don't know whether to take the radio advert at face value but it consists of a voice over from Jenna-Louise Coleman talking about how she has existed many times, feels like she is everywhere at once and knows she was born to save the Doctor. It might just be a hook to get people to watch the show but it felt like lazy exposition to me, to have her character suddenly come out with these motivations when everything has suggested she doesn't know anything consciously.

I mean people have kind of been coming to this conclusion already I suppose, due to the fact that nearly every episode has been resolved by Clara not the Doctor. I suppose some of these instances have felt a little forced but it still feels like too subtle an approach to take. If some of the episodes had tied into her protecting the Doctor more, it would have helped to keep people's interest and reveal the mystery more gradually.

So we're then left with a final episode that's either going to have to cram in a lot of explanation or leave a lot unresolved. Another common complaint this series has been that 45 minutes is just too short to really let the stories shine but sadly this doesn't seem likely to change. I can't see the length of an individual episode changing (although I think an hour would be more suitable) and Steven Moffat has previously talked about not wanting to do two part episodes anymore.

His reasons for doing so might seem very practical (it doesn't save them money and almost always results in declining audience figures) but while it might make sure the show survives on a long term basis, I can't help but feel that it could be limiting it. Surely whatever is the best way of telling a given story should come first, if something would work better as a two parter then it should at least be an option. And while it must be difficult to plan an overall series arc when you can jump anywhere in time, it really needs to find a good middle ground between every episode being connected and having no development whatsoever.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror (2013)

As previously mentioned, I didn't really have high hopes for this episode, so I was pleasantly surprised by it overall. To be honest, I probably should have expected that the return of Vastra, Jenny and Strax would make it at least watchable, with Strax in particular often being the best thing in weaker episodes. This episode could be seen as being written for all those that would like to see the trio on their own adventures, as the Doctor does not even feature in the first third of it.

This provided an interesting angle to the episode, as Jenny takes the lead in investigating the deaths of people in a town in Yorkshire, her being the only one of the team able to blend in easily. They know of the Doctor's involvement from the beginning though, as through some Victorian pseudo-science they discover that his face was the last thing one of the the victims saw. I wasn't entirely sure whether the trio would have taken the case if not for this fact and despite making for a good opening I wonder if it might have added to the mystery if they hadn't known about him at first.

It turns out that the Doctor has fallen prey to the same fate as all of the other victims, his alien DNA being the only thing saving him from death. Red skinned and almost immobile, he's been locked up by the daughter of Sweetville's leader Mrs. Gillyflower, who dotes on him as her 'Monster'. It seems obvious with hindsight but at the time I didn't see this coming, as whatever was locked up did seem malevolent while you couldn't see it. A quick sonic-shower or something is enough to reverse the process though, and we then get a quick flashback of how the Doctor got involved in the situation - I found Matt Smith's attempt at a Yorkshire accent surprisingly amusing. Jenny is naturally confused when the Doctor immediately wants to find Clara, thinking he's referring to the person who died in 'The Snowmen'. I liked how this almost made it appear he was a mad man chasing a ghost in his grief if you didn't know the rest of the story.

Meanwhile, Vastra discovers that whatever is causing the deaths and red skin is not alien in origin but instead another of the Earth's first inhabitants, a red leech that was a problem at the height of the Silurian empire. In low enough doses it merely paralyses and preserves those treated with it, which is the first part of Mrs. Gillyflowers plan to protect those she deems worthy of populating her new world. Essentially a Victorian take on Noah's Ark, she plans to use the pure form of the leech venom to decimate the rest of the Earths population. Her obsession with perfection seemed quite reflective of the Victorian age in general, in a similar manner to 'The Snowmen's villain being the personification of the coldness in their relationships.

It came as no surprise then that Mrs. Gillyflower's own daughter Ada (played by Diana Rigg's real life daughter Rachael Stirling), had no place in her future utopia, her blindness and scarring making her imperfect. This is first said to have been the result of her drunken father beating her but it's eventually revealed to be the result of her mother's initial experiments with the leech venom. This disturbing, twisted mother/daughter relationship was probably the most memorable part of the episode, with their last words to each other being pure spite. I particularly liked how Ada managed to foil the Doctor's peaceful plans for dealing with the red leech once the danger had been averted, a scene that felt quite like something from The League of Gentlemen.

This relationship should perhaps not have worked alongside some of the other comedy elements in the episode but it didn't seem to bother me. Humour is always a very personal preference but some jokes that fell flat for others were still funny to me - the constantly fainting gentleman (who I thought was an attempt to reverse the stereotype of  Victorian ladies fainting - even if tight fitting corsets were usually the cause) and 'Thomas Thomas' giving Strax directions. Strax threatening to shoot his horse for treason before this was pretty hilarious too.

Clara's return to modern day had an unexpected confrontation with the children she looks after, as they've found pictures of her from various times on the internet. The fact that it included her incarnation from 'The Snowmen' throws her and causes her to pretty much confirm the kid's suspicions. They then proceed to  blackmail her into taking them on a trip with her, which I wouldn't perhaps normally have jumped for but with Neil Gaiman on writing duties next episode, I feel pretty confident that he can handle younger characters well.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Doctor Who - Journey to the Center of the TARDIS (2013)

Given such an exciting title and premise, this episode was always going to have a tough time living up to it. On the one hand it was nice to see more of the TARDIS, with callbacks to earlier episodes as we finally get a glimpse of its library and swimming pool (as mentioned in the first episode of Matt Smith's tenure - pointed out by +Adam Rollings). The M.C. Escher touches in the poster left me hoping to see some more surreal touches though, something to really sell the idea of the ship's impossible architecture. All we really got were a bunch of similar corridors that wrapped round to the same location like a retro videogame. On top of that, we didn't really learn much of consequence about the TARDIS, especially given the question of why the TARDIS doesn't like Clara is being pushed as an important point recently.

Depending on your personal influences, I'd imagine the salvage ship that captures the TARDIS brought to mind either Red Dwarf or Alien - I think I thought of Red Dwarf first just because they're both English shows. I quite often enjoy sci-fi that revolves around the more mundane aspects of life, with the Van Baalen brothers being the intergalactic equivalent of scrap merchants. It's just a shame that they weren't really interesting or varied in any way, with the 'twist' about one of them being pretty obvious from the outset.

All the elements were there to tie this together as a strong episode though. The TARDIS was only able to be captured because the Doctor disabled its shields to let Clara take basic control of it, in the hope that they might be able to bond. From the glimpses shown in the trailer I expected this episode to revolve around Clara forming an uneasy alliance with the ship to solve whatever problem had befallen it. Instead she spends the episode wandering around and discovering the Doctor's collection of nick-nacks at random and running away from a monster that looked like it was made of molten lava.

There is an attempt at referring to something of greater importance, as she finds a history book detailing the Time War and discovers the Doctor's true name - something we know is going to play a part in the last episode of this series. There's been hints about the importance of his name for quite some time now but it's not something that really grabs me. I can't personally see a reason why it's going to have such significance and why he is so concerned about keeping it secret (maybe he should have put that book somewhere safer if there was a danger Clara could stumble across it). Is it going to turn out like Voldemort where there is some curse upon saying it out loud?

Anyway, with the Doctor somehow escaping the TARDIS when it's torn into the salvage ship, he promises the crew that they can take whatever they want from his ship if they help him search for Clara inside (which naturally bemuses them until they set foot on it). Even if it's eventually revealed to be a ruse, I really liked the Doctor's ruthless attitude in trapping the Van Baalen's on board to help him out. The line about not getting on a spaceship with a mad man was a nice reflection of the same thing he'd said to Amy on her first trip, giving it a slightly more sinister edge.

Naturally the Doctor has some trouble controlling his scrap merchant guests as they search for Clara and when they split up to cover more ground, they clearly see it as an opportunity to start stripping the TARDIS for parts. This only results in the ship trying to defend itself, temporarily locking some of them in a room when one of them takes part of a techno-organic looking machine that the Doctor assures can create anything mechanical your heart desires.

The molten lava creature takes its first life when one of the Van Baalen's encounters it while scavenging the main control room. I initially thought that this character had been merged with the creature as when you next see it there are two shambling humanoid forms fused together. However they are eventually revealed to be 'Time Zombies', the ultimate fate of all of the characters, including the Doctor, should they die in the heart of the TARDIS.

Seeing no reason to hold back with his life on the line, the Doctor finally confronts Clara with all of the questions he's been skirting around since he met this incarnation. As we all expected, Clara doesn't have any answers for him and I think he finally accepts her for who she is - immediately treating her a lot more warmly. I felt like this worked well as a half way point in this mini-series but I'm not exactly sure what will push the mystery forward now but his attitude to her was starting to drag so I think it was the right decision.

But then the end of the episode pushes a big friendly reset button, leaving it unclear what anyone actually took away from the episode. It clumsily hints that at least one of the Van Baalen's has retained something of his experience but it's very 'timey wimey' reasoning for something that should be impossible. It really felt like each character would only remember what was convenient to the script writer. I'm kind of in two minds about this episode overall, as I kind of enjoyed it at the time but the complete lack of consequences just made it fall flat at the end. Weirdly I don't feel overly enthusiastic about tomorrow's 'The Crimson Horror' either, as it looks more like some of Mark Gatiss' lesser episodes compared to 'Cold War', despite the reappearance of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax from 'The Snowmen'.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Doctor Who - Hide (2013)

Wow. In old Who terms, this episode wouldn't just send your kids crawling behind the sofa, I think you'd be looking at a prolonged period of nightmares afterwards. It centres around something I've always found particularly creepy, ghostly images that only appear in photographs.

It started off reasonably light hearted though, with Clara's opening gambit of 'we're the Ghostbusters' perhaps not really matching the tone of the episode. There was also one line that took me out of the experience slightly, that the opposite of bliss was 'Carlisle'. I could see that it was just a joke but it wasn't that funny and at the same time just didn't seem like something a real person would say. I feel bad saying it but it felt like the one Moffat-like touch in an episode that Neil Cross seemed to have stamped his own identity on quite well. In a way I'm glad it was at least early on in the episode so you could take it as just a bit of fun before things started to get serious.

Compared to the bigger but largely forgettable cast of the last episode, this one really shone by focusing on only two extra characters. There was Professor Alec Palmer, played by Dougray Scott, who I almost mistook for Dominic West to begin with. A world weary ex-spy, he was clearly meant to parallel the Doctor, as he attempted to do some good in the world after all of the people he had lost or killed. His companion/assistant Emma Grayling, played by Jessica Raine, was an empathetic psychic who was essential to communicate with the ghostly presence in the pictures. Again like many of the Doctor's companions, she was unsure of whether there were feelings between her and the Professor, with the added complication of her empathetic powers making her unsure of what she reads from him.

The two of them are investigating a presence know as the 'Caliburn Ghast' or 'the Witch of the Well'. They have photographic evidence going back years, with the manifestation existing even before the construction of the mansion currently on the location. After Clara notices that the ghost was always in the exact same pose (whatever, I was trying not to look at it directly), the Doctor decides to take a quick jaunt through the Earth's history to take more pictures. While he clearly enjoys this distraction, Clara finds how easily he can do this rather cold, unsure of how anyone mortal can mean anything to him.

But that trek through time reveals that this 'ghost' is actually a rudimentary time traveller whose test flight has gone awry, trapping her in a pocket universe where time does not flow the same way we experience it. There is a slightly wibbly-wobbly reason why he can't just use the TARDIS to rescue them, so he constructs a makeshift device to allow Emma to help him create a link to get there and back. This ties together all of the characters as Professor Palmer can finally admit that he cares about Emma but also convince her that she's strong enough to use her powers this way.

While we now know what the ghostly presence is, there is still plenty to be afraid of once the Doctor makes the jump into the pocket universe. A strange twisted creature is stalking the stranded time traveller, which you only see in brief glimpses as it shifts in and out of view. The time traveller manages to escape just as Emma becomes overwhelmed by her efforts, breaking the link and leaving the Doctor unexpectedly stranded. Those who have seen the trailers for this series will have been expecting this scene, as the Doctor deduces that the creature is trying to scare him, begrudgingly admitting that it's been successful.

Once again Clara manages to save the day by insisting that Emma opens the bridge again, which she just about manages with the support of those around her. Meanwhile Clara manages to strike a temporary alliance with the TARDIS (who still doesn't seem to like her) and manages to pluck the Doctor out of the universe without landing, with Emma's psychic powers to guide them home.

I liked the Doctor's post rescue chat with Emma, who is revealed to have been the reason for his visit in the first place. On asking whether she can sense just who or what Clara is, the answer that she's just a normal ordinary girl is clearly not what the Doctor was looking for. I thought this was quite an apt reflection of what I've seen other people say about Clara, that she doesn't seem to be living up to the Dalek enhanced genius of her first incarnation - it felt like the question of 'isn't that enough?' could be directed at both the Doctor and the audience.

So far I'm really enjoying Clara's character and I think it was perhaps a wise move to reign in her more quirky characteristics. I feel that just like the Doctor, we shouldn't just treat her as a puzzle to be solved and I wonder if the Doctor's attitude may lead to his or her downfall as if he continues to undervalue her human side. Despite the fact it was played as cheering her up, I especially found the line about her being "the only mystery worth solving" particularly heartless, suggesting that he would have no interest if it were not for her two previous incarnations - something she's already tried to tell him she's not.

I often find myself complaining about the final resolution of Doctor Who episodes but even though the last twist in this tale managed to turn the episode on its head completely, I couldn't begrudge it having such a sweet ending. In a sense I think it made me laugh at myself for finding the whole thing so scary but at the same time knowing that was absolutely their intention. It'd be interesting to watch again with that last reveal in mind but I don't know if it'd make it any more of a comfortable experience.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Doctor Who - Cold War (2013)

Out of the three new episodes so far this year, this one was easily the most enjoyable from my point of view. It may also be my favourite episode penned by Mark Gatiss so far, it felt like the first one where he has really brought his love of horror to the script. Knowing he is such a horror fan perhaps helped me to overlook some of the more familiar touches or see them more as a tribute than ripping off other films.

This episode was widely touted as the return of the Ice Warriors, after a gap of nearly 40 years. They're not exactly an enemy I'm familiar with, other than their iconic but slightly cheesy, chunky costume. Their new look is familiar but a little sleeker and perhaps more menacing. But the biggest change comes when it decides to leave its armour, a surprise even to the Doctor. This lead to the episode going a completely different way than I expected, which was a good thing as I wasn't sure how well this unstoppable clunky monster was going to fit in otherwise.

While Clara is her usual plucky self to begin with, I thought that the episode handled her gradual appretiation of the gravity of the situation well as people started dying. Her being momentarily paralysed by fear went some way towards showing a more human side to her, rather than just being a puzzle to solve. In fact the Doctor's description of the aftermath and the Ice Warrior's reasoning created quite a strong image in my mind, without any gore actually being shown.

The characterisation of the Ice Warrior being the last of his kind with nothing to lose also made it a more scary prospect than a mindless killing machine. The 80's era Russian sub offering him the perfect opportunity to lash out at the whole of humanity for attacking and imprisoning him. Despite remaining confined to the submarine, this ended up putting the whole world in danger, with the Doctor quite willing to sacrifice everyone on board to avoid mutually assured destruction. This episode seemed to do everything it could to ramp up the tension, including having the TARDIS dematerialise not long after arrival, meaning there was no way for the Doctor to escape if he'd wanted to. This turned out to be a callback to a much older episode, even if it did come across as a slightly lame reason to put them in danger.

I have seen a lot of criticism about this episode and when you look at the wider picture it doesn't really have much impact. We didn't learn any more about Clara's existence by the end and the link to the Cold War of the title was quite tenuous and perhaps wasted the opportunity to really delve into that period of time. But I couldn't help but feel like sometimes this is all Doctor Who needs and it was nice to see a threat taken seriously when there are so many silly episodes, creating a tense atmosphere that keeps you on edge goes a long way towards getting good will from me. I guess the ending did kind of wind down the tension with things being resolved relatively peacefully but I'd been so taken in by what came before that it didn't matter. I didn't even baulk at the rather rubbery alien hands seen through most of the episode, which probably look incredibly lame in isolation. Probably the only thing that disappointed me was the use of CGI for the final shot of the unhelmeted Ice Warrior, though it did at least look like a reasonable solid design - they probably had no more budget for practical masks after last week's extravaganza.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Rings Of Akhaten (2013)

If the start of this episode suggested anything to me, it was that while this series may still have overarching mysteries about Clara, that other unknown aspects would not drag on for too long. We join the Doctor as he investigates Clara's mundane but tragic past and discover why the leaf from her diary is 'Page one'. Seeing her whole life so far in flashback may put some people's theories about her re-incarnations to rest, though I'm still considering whether it could relate to The Doctors Daughter, even if she can't be her.

The Doctor must put this out of his mind for the moment, as well as avoid giving away the fact that he's effectively stalked her for her entire life so far. As is so often the case, for their first planned TARDIS trip Clara suggests that he surprise her with "something awesome", which is provided by the titular rings of Akhaten - a series of impossible planetoids orbiting a huge sun.

It was hard to ignore the influence of Guillermo del Toro's take on Hellboy in this episode. From the moment the Doctor and Clara step out onto this bustling alien world I was reminded of the Goblin market from the sequel, though the cramped nature of a much smaller set was very evident. Plus the ominous creatures later named as the Vigil were also reminiscent of Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, the clockwork Nazi from the original. I liked the fact that the variety of aliens had gradually been constructed in sculptor Neill Gorton's spare time, as they would not have the time or budget to create them specifically for one episode.

The meat of this episode centers around the myths and rituals of this group of worlds, which to its followers is the origin of all life in the universe. The Doctor dismisses this kindly as a 'Nice story' and initially shows little concern at the 'Festival of Offerings', a ceremony designed to keep an ancient god from awakening. The hymns that are meant to accomplish this are very simple and literal but I wondered if that was supposed to be a consequence of the TARDIS translating an alien language into English. It got me thinking about how so many Sci-Fi shows feature some kind of universal translator but you never really come across aliens with a really strange turn of phrase or lack of rhyming/subtlety that might result from a simple translation.

As you might expect, the ancient god does turn out to be real and the hymns and rituals were never enough to keep it asleep, instead it's normally pacified via a thinly veiled human (alien?) sacrifice. I thought that the way this was revealed was a little difficult to follow, right on that line where some more explanatory dialogue could have helped but would have stood out at the same time. The Doctor throws himself into saving the child chosen for the sacrifice, with little concern for whether he'll be able to deal with the consequences of doing so. I liked that he showed at least a little reflection on this decision when his initial conclusion was proved wrong, showing that he's not infallible.

Sadly the simplicity of this episode's resolution, that the power of a god could be undone by a Timelord's memories and a dried leaf, made it feel a little disappointing again. Almost any story you can think of that features some kind of ancient god usually revolves around preventing it from awakening, because if it can awake and then be defeated then how much of a threat was it in the first place? I did enjoy the misdirection about just what the god was, especially since the bizarre mummy like creature had featured prominently in the episode preview at the end of last week's episode. It's true form was a little underwhelming though, which again probably couldn't have lived up to anyone's imagination - I felt the same about the unnecessary reveal at the end of The Cabin in the Woods.

Others perhaps got more out of the episode than me, I liked the Badass Digest take on it, even if their description didn't seem to line up with how good I felt the episode was. That piece also highlighted the idea that the episode was almost anti-religious in a sense, which is quite an accomplishment for a mainstream piece of Saturday night entertainment.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Doctor Who - The Bells of Saint John (2013)

So Clara did manage to survive an episode - well technically she kinda died twice but the important thing is that by the end of the episode she was still around and able to consider the doctors offer of travelling through time and space. I say consider as she was characteristically cagey about the whole thing, not giving him a straight answer or jumping on board the TARDIS instantly. I can't recall another companion who's acted like that, so it was a nice little distinguishing factor.

But anyway, back to the start of the episode, which began with a slightly ill-fitting montage of people connecting to Wi-Fi, with an internet conspiratist warning not to connect to a network with strange symbols, lest you find yourself dead a few days later a la The Ring. I found myself wondering how this person came across his information but it's eventually revealed he's already doomed, which I'm not sure makes any more sense. The basic premise reminded me a little of the David Tennant era episode 'The Idiot's Lantern' but something about its approach to modern technology made me cringe a little.

We then join the Doctor at a monastery in Cumbria in the year 1207, where the meaning of the episodes title is revealed. I thought this might be a dual time stream kind of episode but the Doctor quickly returns to the present when contacted by Clara via the TARDIS' external phone. I'm was sure that River had called in this manner before but I can only find references to it ringing in 'The Empty Child'. Either way I wondered why this episode treated it with complete surprise and it also begged the question of just who is setting Clara on her way towards the Doctors 'helpline'. The Doctor is all set to ignore her request for tech support until he hears her repeat her last incarnation's final words as a mnemonic to remember her Wi-Fi password.

Turning up dressed as a monk is not cool though and a quick costume change leaves Clara vulnerable to the 'uploaders'. It's revealed that the Wi-Fi users have been uploaded by a subconsciously camouflaged robot, which had somehow made its way into a locked house, I assume on the off chance that someone connected to the Wi-Fi. I understand that Steven Moffat wanted to make an episode that would play on the omnipresent nature of Wi-Fi but it hardly seemed like it was necessary to their plans.

The Doctor intervenes and saves Clara's life - or brings her back to life, not quite sure - leading the uploaders to attempt to wipe them out. They go about this by lighting up Clara's neighbourhood as a target and incapacitating the crew and passengers of a plane so that it will hit them. The Doctor's response is to land the TARDIS on board and bring it out of its dive, despite not knowing how to fly a plane. This whole sequence was probably only a few minutes long but I loved every second and if I wasn't already sold on Clara, she cemented her position by holding onto and drinking a cup of tea throughout the whole process.

They then take a short Tardis trip to next morning, in an attempt to frustrate the uploaders and discover their location. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the Doctor being totally tech literate in this episode. Watching him engage a keyboard war with elite hackers just didn't seem to suit him and he's often shown more bemusement at Earth technology than anything else. While it can often be a lazy magic bullet that can do anything, this is one occasion where I would prefer to see his sonic screwdriver used to solve some of these problems.

Clara seemed much more at home with technological wizardry though, after receiving an unintended 'upgrade' after her first encounter with the soul sucking robot. It perhaps did seem a little unlikely that someone of her age would know nothing about computers to begin with, but I enjoyed her use of them, including a clever plan to track down the uploaders using social media - a rare example of such networks being referenced that didn't feel tacked on. But once again the Doctor leaves her alone while enacting this plan, giving a robot disguised as him the chance to upload her fully.

What followed from this was another great scene, with the Doctor breaking out his anti-gravity Motorbike to storm the Shard, which wouldn't have seemed out of place in a Platinum game. He cleverly undoes their plans by subjecting their leader to the same fate as Clara, prompting her to order everyone's release. The Doctor was in fact still sitting with Clara sipping a coffee, hacking the uploading robot to enact his plan remotely.

While this episode initially reminded me of  'The Idiot's Lantern', its resolution also reminded me of last years 'The Power of Three', due to its last minute undoing of the soul storage. It was perhaps a little darker than that though, as characters state that many of the uploaded minds won't have a body to return to, giving the episode an implied body count at least. I can't have been the only one pondering whether any would return to a body that had already been buried or stored in a morgue?

The uploaders are also revealed to have only been working for the Great Intelligence, last seen in 'The Snowmen', with Celia Imrie's character reverting to a childhood state, clearly under the influence for a disturbing amount of time. I felt a little cheated that we didn't get Ian McKellen voicing the Intelligence again but it was instead represented by Richard E. Grant's character from 'The Snowmen', suggesting we may see more of them both.

Overall I think I enjoyed this episode, though it definitely had some issues. The slight lapses in logic and its tech angle feeling slightly out of touch was generally outweighed by the fun snappy dialogue and surprisingly good action sequences. Steven Moffat has stated that this was intended to be an action episode above all else, so while it's a partial success in that respect, it's a shame it couldn't have had a slightly better premise. I'm still feeling pretty positive about this second half of the season, which is a world away from my feelings at the end of the last half. I think it just proves that Amy and Rory's involvement had run its course and that a new companion can give the show some life again.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

John Carter (2012)

I missed this in the cinema and while I thought I might catch it one day, I couldn't not read Film Crit Hulk's take on its script. I didn't remember every detail from that article (in fact I would say it doesn't really spoil much) but the concept of him having a slowly revealed tragic backstory certainly stuck with me and I wondered if that knowledge might help overcome some of the film's perceived problems. I can't say that was the case though and re-reading that article, I wondered if Hulk was talking about the same film. With his opening criticism being that the script tries to answer every question the audience could have, I suddenly felt rather dumb for spending most of the film confused.

Right from the opening scene establishing the warring factions on Mars (or Barsoon as the natives call it), I was easily wrongfooted. In time the bad guys and good guys are almost comically identified as red vs. blue but this first confrontation is very confusing. I don't think I was being too presumptuous in assuming that a ship ambushed by superior numbers likely belonged to the 'good guys' but it doesn't make any great attempts to convince you otherwise - apparently the two factions saw no problems with sharing almost identical ship designs. This conflict is abruptly halted by a god like being who grants Dominic West's red leader (sorry, I mean the Jeddak of Zodanga) near unlimited power for some vague reason - I guess leaving you to assume this God is the real villain by virtue of being played by Mark Strong.

Anyway, as Hulk mentions, none of this matters for the first 50 minutes or so. You're then introduced to John Carter twice, with a weird mix of a few scenes I found funny, intermingled with his brief cryptic flashbacks. When we finally make it to Mars (which happens instantly and seemingly by accident), I gathered that he was able to jump so far due to the difference in gravity but in no way did these scenes look like someone coping with low gravity. In fact it looked exactly like someone being pulled up by wires at random intervals while they scrabbled around to prevent themselves tipping forward. Combined with some unconvincing blending between CGI and real life I was worried about how much more of it I could take.

Thankfully things gradually started to improve and for a while you can just follow along with John Carter's experience, learning what's going on just as he is. There are some funny scenes, some good action scenes and there's even some semblance of a general goal if you can follow all of the Martian terms. I still felt like it didn't need to be this cryptic though, like with the whole Red Vs. Blue war and whether the Reds were truly evil - there's a place for a story which looks into the grey areas but this just didn't seem like the place for it. Since it seemed to be aiming for a simple action adventure it should have avoided overcomplicating things and had a clear goal from the start.

It's eventually made clear that the God-like Therns are the real villains but by this point it just felt too late for me. If this had been clear from the outset I might have felt that it was heading somewhere, I could imagine a slightly different opening narration that would touch on the Therns attempting to control the destiny of planets and feed off their followers. You've then got the idea that they're the overall villains and everyone else is just a pawn, before diving into John Carter's tragic backstory and how he ends up on Mars.

Once things did start to become clear, the film seemed to accelerate towards the end very quickly. I was particularly surprised by how short the gladiatorial fight with the white apes was, given that this seemed to be one of the most iconic parts of the movie. After so many whispered references to them throughout the film, it was pretty anticlimactic but also surprisingly violent - if it weren't for the fact that the Martians have blue blood. The same could be said of the final battle too, with missing limbs and crushed skulls that would otherwise be quite horrific.

Without spoiling too much, there is a slight twist at the end that is perhaps the only time that the more mysterious nature of the film works. In the end I think you can lay most of its problems with the script, though I haven't even mentioned the fact that it's two main characters are pretty unexciting - maybe that's why I was initially drawn more to the 'evil' characters, that seemed to have a little more to their characters in comparison.

What I did take from it though was that I might just have a little faith in Disney taking on the Star Wars franchise. While the plot was a bit all over the place, the actual design, some characters and the action was quite fun and more enjoyable than the prequel trilogy at the very least. It's definitely not the worst film I've ever seen, strangely it also felt like it might have been more enjoyable in a different medium, with a few scenes making me imagine a version from the minds of Studio Ghibli for example. In fact a cartoon adaptation might well have been a good way of getting over the strange clash between human and alien characters, it's a shame that it's very unlikely we'll see anything based on these books again.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Wreck it Ralph (2012)

In recent years I've sometimes forgotten how long it used to take for films to come out in the UK after the US. Many of last year's blockbusters even had their premières in Europe, with others being released only days or weeks apart. So in the lead up to Wreck it Ralph's release, I never really considered that I'd have to wait so long to see it. I'd watched its trailers, got excited about it, saw it released to mixed reviews but only then discovered its UK release date and felt my enthusiasm for it gradually drain away over the following months. Even the bonus of its groundbreaking preview short 'Paperman' was somewhat neutered by its release on YouTube. And to top it off, this post has been hugely delayed due to the arrival of my first child.

So it came as quite a surprise that when I did finally get to see it, I loved every minute of it. I knew of nearly every criticism that had been directed at it but that sense of expecting the worst meant that none of it really bothered me. Formulaic plot with a rift developing between the characters before making up at the end? - that may be the case but I didn't see the reason for this coming and in the end a story needs some kind of conflict. Vanellope von Schweetz was too annoying? - it hardly felt like she was in it long enough to really start to grate and you'd have to be fairly cold hearted to not feel something for her situation by the end. Sags in the middle and spends too long in one game? - None of it really dragged and the 'Sugar Rush' world was always interesting even if it wasn't really like a game (okay, I just wanted to chew the ground).

Any fear I had that this might just be cramming in game characters for the sake of it evaporated pretty quickly, as you could tell it was made by people intimately familiar with games. There's just so much to see in the background that you could never catch first time, which will make it a mandatory Blu-Ray purchase. I've heard that they started the project assuming that they had free reign to use any characters that they liked and that they would sort out permission later, which you can definitely see from how much fun they had with it. In fact the only character notable by their absence was Nintendo's moustachioed plumber - though he does get a shout out at least.

While Litwak's Arcade probably couldn't be found in the real world any more, it looked totally convincing and was probably created with the same yearning I have to see arcades popular again. Although having to pump 8 quarters into the modern shooter 'Hero's Duty' was a familiar trend from real arcades that I'd like to see the back of. I liked the fact that your main human focus in the real world was a little girl who would happily play anything, not concerned with whether the game was aimed at her. I also had to chuckle at the offensive teenage boys monopolising the day-glo pink kids racing game and ignoring the rules of 'I Got Next'.

Most of the story takes place late at night when the arcade is closed, with the characters free to travel between different arcade machines. Ryu and Ken leaving for a root beer at Tappers was probably one of my first laugh out loud moments and it's finally revealed where the bad guys go for their group therapy session. For rather obvious reasons, leaving your game while the arcade is open is a strict no-no and Ralph threatens the future of his machine in his quest for a medal in 'Hero's Duty'. Despite the name, I wouldn't say this game is really a reference to the Call of Duty series but is more of a mix of Gears of War and any modern lightgun game you can think of.

Very little time is spent in this game and while I could have stood to see more, there's not really much to it - true of almost any rail shooter you can think of. Jane Lynch's badass commander does stick around for the rest of the film though and her teaming up with Fix it Felix was another unexpected bit of fun. Her tragic back-story was hilariously clichéd but it did feel exactly like something you'd see in a game - possibly a direct reference to the Gears of War series but I haven't played past the first one to be sure.

As I said earlier, 'Sugar Rush' didn't really ruin the flow for me but I can kind of see why many have picked up on it. You do spend a lot of time here and it kind of stretches the concept of being part of a video game to breaking point. I still thought there were some very imaginative uses of sweets and candy, plus I'm a sucker for bad puns and there were quite a few here that made me chuckle. When you finally see the game in action I couldn't help but be impressed by how right they've got the feel of a karting game. I also liked their spaghetti-like representation of a game's code, which was accessed via a method all gamers should be familiar with.

I can't decide if someone not familiar with video games would get the same level of enjoyment out of it as I did. There's certainly gamers that didn't enjoy it as much as me too, which I can sort of understand if you expected it to feel more like being part of a game or have more involvement from existing characters. I think that the way it has turned out is pretty well balanced though, with plenty to interest gamers but little prior knowledge required that would alienate other viewers and an interesting story with a few surprises at its heart. I'm just happy to be in that middle ground where almost everything worked - perhaps I'm just easily amused but it just left me feeling that it was a film made just for me, right up until the gorgeous pixelated end credits.