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Monday, 15 October 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE GHOST MONUMENT’



The standard response to the debut episode seemed to be Whittaker good, Chibnall bad. I’m sympathetic, but not sure it’s quite that simple. Capaldi always gave a great performance, as you’d expect, but that performance seemed the whole of it. You could watch individual scenes of his which would seem great, but they never added up into anything. The Whittaker Doctor, well I feel I know more about her already. And that sense of underlying consistency does suggest a scripter’s hand.

Curiously then, the companion roles still seem like placeholders. Ryan’s foregrounded character traits are straight out of Screenwriting 101. Will he ever come to call his step-Grandpa his Grandpa? And overcome his fear of ladders… sorry, debilitating disability. Yet that’s more than Yas gets, whose whole identity seems to be Someone You Can Talk To. I’m now semi-seriously considering the theory there has to be three companions, to conceal the deficiency of any one of them.

The script was clearly designed around delaying their stepping into the Tardis, so it could be given its own episode-dominating reveal. And to get them there, the choice of a Great Space Race isn’t so bad a concept. Nor is the Tardis as a Ghost Monument. Alas, however, they just get thrown away. What was the point of so carefully coding one racer as ruthless, and the other as genuinely motivated, only to have that let's-team-up ending we’d already seen in ’The Hunger Games’?

How about this for a better idea? They stay split in two groups, aiding the two different drivers, for most of the episode. Initially press-ganged, each group slowly becomes convinced their driver is the righteous one who must win at all costs. Only to run into one another at the very end.

And uh-oh, through lines. Weren’t we promised they were done with? Who will the Timeless Child turn out to be? A whole load of mystic woo set on repeat, which then gets wrapped up in the final episode with something off the shelf? Or worse, it might suggest they’re going down the Dark Revelations About the Doctor route again.

And all that business of the Doctor repeatedly noticing the planet made no sense is somewhat undermined when it actually makes no sense. It remains no more than a succession of hazards. Ryan was right to compare it to ’Call of Duty’.

It’s actually the through lines which disguise all this. Of course this doesn’t make much sense right now, because we’re all heading towards great revelations in the future. You see, this throwaway planet is all to do with the throwaway enemy we saw last time. Everything deferred. Keep watching. Ironically, having a series of standalone stories wouldn’t just lower the bar, encouraging you to see the show more as frivolous fun. It would push each story into standing on its own merits.

So did the first episode work better because the emphasis was all on the Doctor, the one component that’s actually working? And we’ve already hit More Of The Same? We’ll see, but it seems likely. Despite my one-off review turning into a two-off, I really don’t intend to write about it weekly. And I will actively resist saying anything publicly about the next episode. Judging by their previous attempts at historicals, and the patronising nonsense most people seem to have swallowed about Civil Rights, it’s going to be trite and noxious simultaneously.

Friday, 12 October 2018

JAMES MCVINNIE PLAYS PHILP GLASS/ THE GODFATHERS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JAMES MCVINNIE PLAYS PHILIP GLASS



Minimalist music seems to be most associated with strings. But the organ is actually a great instrument to hear it on, because it straight away dispels so many misconceptions. This is music which is mistakenly assumed to be stark and austere, made for people who demonstrate their wealth by having precisely one piece of furniture in their entire house. While the sound of the organ is warm and resonant. It’s impossible to reduce it’s flows and surges back into individual notes. And it fits Glass’ music like a glove.

Glass may well be the popular face of Minimalism. Still, McVinnie started things off with a short talk, which seemed based on the idea that while the world’s got used to later Glass the earlier years still take some easing into. He used 1976’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’ as the switching point from l’enfant terrible to  star guest of the Brighton Festival.

And it was bizarre (in a good way to watch McVinnie at the organ for 1969’s 'Music In Fifths’, his hands occupying such a small area of those amassed ranks of keys. But, as ever, you don’t need signposting so much as the willingness to give the work a little time to… you know… work. As ever, what initially seems reductively simple soon beguiles you, until you can no longer tell simple and complex apart. They start to become just different ways of looking at something. Which is in fact the way we do look at things.

McVinne then smartly went into the Finale from ’Satyagraha’ (1979), a richly melodic work. And he closed proceedings with the classic ’Mad Rush’ (1989), a rival to Pruitt Igoe’ as his ‘hit’ and fully deserving of its reputation.

Yet the highlight for me was the opening ’Music In Similar Motion’, also from 1969. Interestingly, this work wasn’t composed for the organ or even a solo instrument. In Glass’s words, it had “an open score which can be performed by any group of instruments”. And in fact it works by building up line atop line, like acrobats forming a human pyramid. In other words, an ensemble piece. Yet that turns out to be precisely what makes it effective for the organ, as it builds up layers of sound all by itself.

The organ works were interspersed with piano pieces. Which mostly felt like the bread in the sandwich. Perhaps the piano is simply a more familiar solo instrument, or fares badly when one-on-one against the fuller organ sound. Yet many of Glass’s works are scored for either piano or organ, and in general I’m a fan of his piano pieces. The best-known version of ’Mad Rush’, for example, is on piano.

So it may be the piano pieces in themselves just weren’t great. In particular the two ’Etudes’, from 2014, weren’t post-Minimalist so much as non-Minimalist and sounded no more than some bloke plonking about on the piano.They suggest, alas, a degeneration in Glass’ composing to the point he now just sounds like everybody else. Had I heard them blind, I don’t think I’d have guessed they were by him.

Truth to tell, I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this event, which I thought might be too much of a ‘proper’ recital. For quite a long period, Glass forbade performances of his compositions not by his own Ensemble. Though there may have been a financial element to this, I’d suspect that also he didn’t trust classically trained musicians to be in sympathy with his work. Perhaps not as extremely as when the BBC Symphony Orchestra would ‘interpret’ popular hits of the day, but along similar lines. My mind may have also been influenced by not enjoying so much a previous performance of McVinnie’s, though there the problem lay in the Squarepusher piece. (And, when I go back and read my own blog post, I’m reminded that he finished that set off with some Glass then.) So, despite a couple of weaker works, my overall response was very pleasant surprise.

Not from the night but a piece McVinnie played (even if I hopelessly don’t mention it anywhere else)…

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THE GODFATHERS
The Hope and Ruin, Brighton, Thurs 11th Oct



If I say you could learn everything you need to know about the Godfathers’ from their song names, I mean it in a good way. We are, after all, talking about titles such as ‘This Damn Nation’, ‘I Want Everything’ and ‘I’m Unsatisfied’. Articulating the sense of how it feels to be young may be the default form of rock music, which might make it sound like trodden ground. Yet the Godfathers excelled in articulating the inarticulation.

Their sound combined punk energy with Mod sharpness, all amphetamine attitude with guitar lines slicing like Stanley knives. They even affected a sharp-suited image, very different to the charity-shop apparel of indie then all around. (I’d assume the clobber led to the band name.)

Which seems strange in retrospect. Seventies Punk was itself about returning to the live-wire energy of the mid-Sixties even while it pretended it wasn’t. Yet going on to make that connection overt still seemed to make a huge difference. Mark Deming may resolve this when he says: “they gave their music a level of craft and polish that made them accessible without blunting the rage.”

Yet their greatness also proved their limitation. I was initially excited to discover them, yet without my making any conscious decision they soon dropped from my frame of vision.

But then the adolescent mind really only has four settings - “it’s all about me”, “I pronounce this world wanting”, “I am extremely angry about about a thing” and “sex is great (from what I hear.)” All of which you can fit on a three-minute single quite comfortably. Perhaps their attempt to take things back to the mid-Sixties was too successful, making their natural habitat the single in a world now based around albums. (Denning comments how their album sales never matched their singles.)

Alternately, perhaps they hit a problem normally thought to beset later bands like the Strokes. They needed to hit the ground with all cylinders firing, to get everyone’s attention. But as they’d already mastered what they wanted to do there was nowhere for them to go.

Yet, at my age, that sense of how it feels to be a raging adolescent seems something to rekindle. So lucky for me, they’re back. (Since 2008, as it happens. Nobody tells me anything.) In fact only frontman Peter Coyne remains from the first time. But they’re as sharp as they ever were, new songs fitting in easily with the old. ‘Defibrillator’ in particular was enough to shake your fillings loose. They still want everything, they still want it now. They are, truth be told, in exactly the same style as the old. But if a thing’s working, why not keep working it?

The only downside was that they didn’t play their two cover versions, Lennon’s ’Cold Turkey’ and - compellingly if improbably - Rolf Harris’ ’Sun Arise’. But they promised to be back, so you never know your luck…

’Everything’, from Edinburgh (he said alliteratively)…



…plus my first ever sighting of the band, under their original name The Sid Presley Experience, from ’The Tube’ in 1985…

Monday, 8 October 2018

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE WOMAN WHO FELL TO EARTH’


I’m not likely to go back to reviewing New Who on a weekly basis. Frankly, I’ve discovered that it works best for me when I don’t pay it too much attention. What’s the point in continually testing the load-bearing weight of something when it’s already been proven to have such a thin back? But seeing as this is a whole new era, with a whole new team both before and behind the camera, let’s take a quick peep.

The storyline is pretty perfunctory, plus predictable. Is there a big film reboot currently going on in the cinema? There normally is. And is that getting recycled for this reboot over here? You betcha. But that’s the norm for new Doctor stories. Everyone’s going to be looking to the new star anyway, so what’s the point in trying to distract from that? Better to just go with it, and serve up something familiar.

Mostly it has the feel of a Children’s Film Foundation outing, some hijinks around cheap and accessible locations. Which isn’t a criticism. I’d rather that than more of the Lonely God stuff. But this leads to strange tonal inconsistencies, when at arbitrary points it suddenly goes dark.

Take the deaths. We had one Tragic Death, where a lethal fall somehow leads to someone passing away peacefully, without messy blood or any particular sign of broken bones. But again, the inherent absurdity of that isn’t the problem, it's best treated as a trope. The problem lies in the way it contrasts with two Terrible Deaths. One so grisly it Cannot Be Shown Onscreen, and must be covered up even within the story. While the whole confused last-minute alien teleport thing seemed based around avoiding an untidy fourth body.

And these inconsistencies seem to have induced quite a schizo response, like people could only parse one or the other. For example in El Sandifer’s comments section, one person found it “a kid's adventure show slotted into a prestige BBC procedural”, while others remarked on “the dour, dry, grim, miserable tone.”

Perhaps the show is just prone to such clashes. It’s a teatime horror story, after all, with both an adult and a child audience to satisfy. But in that case the smart thing would be to play the contrasts up. Suppose for example the line about finding this fun was transposed to their entering the warehouse, only to be confronted by the worst of those Terrible Deaths. The problem’s then twisted to work in the story’s favour.

Ryan’s dyspraxia, conversely, seemed a muddled attempt to get over a similar muddle, by playing fast and loose with the character’s age. He’s specified as nineteen but it allows him to do ‘child’ things, like learn to ride a bike, which might work for a younger audience without the problems associated with an actual child actor. (On the other hand Andrew Hickey, who himself has dyspraxia, found it a positive portrayal. So what do I know?)

But then (as already said) it’s all going to centre round Jodie Whitaker’s performance. Which, luckily, is highly effective. The whole thing’s somewhat like listening to a supposedly new but actually standard song, played fairly ploddingly but with a compelling vocal. I doubt five people running round Sheffield would have kept my attention for a full hour if not for her.

And, good news for me, her Doctor’s very much in the Tom Baker mould. Eccentric charisma becomes a kind of force within the story, as much as for the viewer. Standard responses just get dispelled, as reality warps to his/her personality.

Capaldi’s abrasive maverick frequently came into conflict with authority. Perhaps his most identifying line was “Who’s in charge here? I need to know who to ignore.” Whereas Whittaker just disregards authority, seeing it as something extraneous, water to her oil. When Yasmin tries to give her police rank, she’s told what’s needed is her name. Whitaker even rejects A&E, insisting “I never go anywhere that's just initials.”

But Baker was irreducibly alien. (Possibly even when not in character.) Whereas Whitaker’s never too strange. There’s something quite regular and matter-of-fact about her attitude; if the aliens invade, your natural response is to roll your sleeves up and tell them to push off. Whoever she bumps into at the time... they'll be enough to get enlisted in the struggle, surely. (Only in the Whoniverse would you gain intel on an alien invasion by going round the bus drivers.) Which is why the T’Zim Sha/ Tim Shaw gag works. You’re never sure whether she’s shrewdly disarming his aura of menace or simply repeating back what she heard, and you sense she probably doesn’t know herself.

Unsurprisingly, understandably, the Beeb is now angling the show back towards the casual viewer. Who was never likely to be found saying “Well I never, a Mondassian Cyberman is back.” But at the same time, in casting the first female Doctor they made a fairly bold move.

Within the episode itself, little is made of this. Only the title plays this up, or possibly her ‘lack’ of a sonic screwdriver. After all, these all-new characters don’t know this Doctor as anything else. In short, it works the way it always does. Whittaker performs well in the role, and just gets on with it. But the idiosphere were insisting before the first trailer she only got the job through political correctness gone mad.

Yet there is one moment of truth to all their ‘Social Justice Warrior’ conspiracy theories. Now she has been cast, if that pisses off a misogynistic bunch of dickheads so much the better. Of course, despite their threats they won’t stop watching the show. (See also: the super-rich threatening to leave Britain if Labour get in.) And even if they were to actually go through with a boycott, it would barely dent the overall viewing figures. (“It’s about the casual viewer” is really just a variant of “it’s the economy, stupid”.) But they will be looking to exploit that particular fault-line. If the viewing figures don’t increase, they’ll blame it all on central casting.

Of course they’ll do that anyway. But then we’ll have another ’Force Awakens’ situation, where they’ll just make themselves look more stupid than normal. And the audience appreciation figures look good. This time, I suspect the lighter tone of the opening episode will stick around for longer. So perhaps the audience response might too.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY IS ON ORKNEY

...including Stromness and the island of Hoy. Which contains the Old Man of Hoy, the highest sea stack in the UK. Also taking in John O'Groats along the way. More to come. As ever, full set on 500px.