Monday, November 23, 2015

"Death in Heaven"

"You will be like us. Now lie there and let me take a piss on you."
I normally begin these things with something along the lines of "Why do I do this to myself?" but this time I know why I'm doing this to myself. It's because I've actually been enjoying elements of Series 9 and am contemplating giving them the good old OCBW treatment. But it would do my slightly obsessive tendencies a tragic disservice to overlook the final episodes of Series 8 (even though I really don't want to watch "Last Christmas" again) and so I find myself here, where I left myself when I reviewed "Dark Water" nearly ten months ago. I seem to remember "Death in Heaven" being a non-stop televisual disaster from start to finish but let's see how we go. We begin with a recap of how Danny "His Last Name Matches The Colour Of His Shirt" Pink got snuffed something proper largely due to Clara distracting him with vague Moffat-style dialogue while he was trying to cross the road, how there's some random place with "water tombs", that apparently Chris Addison is the grey-suited psychopomp of the underworld (which is actually inside a "Gallifreyan Hard Drive") and how Missy, in a revelation about as shocking as, for instance, River being Amy and Rory's daughter, the "good man" River killed being the Doctor, or the news that the sun comes up in the East every morning, is none other than the Master.
How to make Clara more tolerable.
The opening completely ignores the ending of the previous episode in which Danny was talking to Clara while on the verge of erasing his own emotions. Now Clara's hiding, and the Cyberman from inside the office tank identifies her, but she claims that there is no such person purely so that this line could be used in last week's trailer to make people think that there is going to be a big revelation. But there isn't; it's just a trick to ensure her own survival. She claims to be the Doctor, and the title sequence puts Jenna Coleman's name before Capaldi's and shows Clara's eyes in the titles. Obviously it's meant to play into this "Clara is like the Doctor" thing which doesn't really work but one wonders if this was put in mostly by Moffat to spite critics who had started calling Series 8 "Clara Who" or "The Clara Show" to suggest that the Doctor himself was lacking emphasis. It sounds like the kind of petty thing he'd do - he seems to be almost completely incapable of gracefully taking criticism - but who knows. Anyway, outside the cathedral the Cybermen stand around like lemons while idiotic passers-by photograph them and the Master gloats. Then Osgood from the Fiftieth Anniversary episode shows up and reveals that all the randomers were UNIT agents. The ever-uninteresting Kate Stewart arrives and rather pointlessly introduces herself, how many kids she has, where she went to school and so on, and threatens the Cybermen by chucking down a battered old head from "The Invasion" that was cynically used in promotional material to try to get Old Who fans excited by making them think the classic Cybermen were going to reappear. They've done it with the Daleks; why not the Cybermen? People love those old designs.
Solar-powered Anglicanism: the next step in
world conquest of the town fëte economy.
Having been apparently spooked by this, the Cybermen all turn into Iron Man, fulfilling criticisms that were made of their redesign, and fly away with jet rockets coming out of their feet. Is there some inexplicable Travelodge product placement here with that prominent sign in the side of the shot? The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral opens and more fly out. It's suggested that the Master somehow engineered a way of hiding the facility inside the Cathedral, but it's never properly dealt with. Missy also refers to herself as the "Queen of Evil" which is a truly dreadful piece of Moffat dialogue in which characters must be as self-referential as possible. There's one Cyberman for every major town and city in the UK: they're all flying up into the air and exploding, which somehow produces clouds from which they will "pollenate" future Cybermen. They're also using the "recently deceased minds" stored in the Nethersphere to control them, but it's not explained why they're needed. All the dead people are going to be restored to their bodies for no clear reason. UNIT tranquillises the Master and the Doctor, the latter of whom tells them to "guard the graveyards". We of course immediately cut to a graveyard outside which a crowd has conveniently gathered. "Look at that!" says some randomer unnecessarily as the screen shows what we need to see. "How come it's only raining inside the graveyard?" This could also have been easily conveyed visually.
"Steven thinks my Doctor should have a 'trademark grunt'."
So the rain isn't really water, it flows wherever it pleases, and passes into a morgue in which it spontaneously turns dead bodies into Cybermen. Thus Danny Pink is now one of them. This is probably the most daft Cyber-conversion process yet. Somehow a little bit of water spontaneously puts a suit of robotic armour around them with weapons and jet boots and everything. Yet the episode simply can't explain why the Cybermen need dead bodies at all. If they're this advanced, what on earth is the point of using the corpses, and what good does it do? I once read a good analysis of the Cybermen as compared to the Daleks which argued that if the Daleks are meant to evoke the Nazis then the Cybermen were originally meant to evoke the Soviets, deriving from a defensive paradigm of ideological orthodoxy which demanded conformity at all costs. The Cybermen barely speak in this, however, and any possible motivation for wanting to utilise dead bodies is never conveyed.
"You'd better agree to help us, because the money for
this big hangar set runs out in less than two minutes."
The Doctor wakes up in some hangar with a big plane in which the TARDIS is being stowed. Kate Stewart reveals that they are trying to force his cooperation and claims that it's exactly what the Brigadier would have done, which I question. Aboard the plane there's a completely pointless role for Sanjeev Bhaskar as a very minor UNIT character. I wonder if he was short of dosh or something. There's a portrait of the Brigadier looking old and heavy, "Battlefield" style, on the plane, and it's revealed that the Doctor is "President of the World" by an extremely unlikely unanimous international decision. Yes, I'm sure that in the event of a crisis the combined heads of government of all the world's constantly bickering nations would agree that a complete stranger with no official status should be given complete authority over the entire world's military. This never even comes to anything in the story. The only good bit of all this is when the Doctor makes a rather effortless joke about American presidents and their apparent inability to do anything except bomb and pray. Kate Stewart's line "You are the chief executive officer of the human race" is classic stupid Moffat-style "cool sounding" dialogue, as if being "emergency President in control of the world's armies" is the same as "being president of humanity". He's so desperate to be quoted.
Do you want a stonner?
Back at wherever the hell the Cybermen were (inside St. Paul's, I guess) Clara tries to prove that she's the Doctor by waffling on about Kasterborous, the Prydonian Order, the apparent "four marriages" of the Doctor, the apparently dead status of all of his descendants, and most baffling of all, a completely pointless reference to Jenny from "The Doctor's Daughter". I find it very telling that if we consider the first of the Doctor's "four marriages" to be to his never-seen Time Lady wife, every other "marriage" has occurred in New Who. It's a good example of how the writers of New Who have an utterly neurotic relationship with the show's origins: "The Doctor was never romantic in the old show, so in the new show he should get married or we should make jokes about him getting married every few years!" Has the assumption on Moffat and RTD's part been that the Doctor was not a conventionally romantic character in the Old Series because the writers were incompetent? Has it never occurred to them that this was an aspect of his character which made him unique and interesting? I thought Clara's line about Glasgow University was just a joke about Capaldi but it turns out my ignorance is showing; it's a reference to classic Troughton serial "The Moonbase", of which I've read the Target novelisation but haven't seen the partly animated serial - those animations are barely watchable in my experience. Then Cyber Danny shows up and kills the others after agreeing that Clara is a liar. The other Cybermen note that he's not under cyber control. They've got a point. Why isn't he? This unanswered question hangs over the rest of the episode.
"I'm, er, a, er, stereotypical fangirl, er, er."
On the plane the Master wakes up and tells the Doctor that Gallifrey isn't lost. There's a good line here when the Doctor says "All you wanted to do is rule the world [...] piece of cake." Capaldi sells this stuff well. Osgood says they've got the Master on file because she was once Prime Minister. Uh, and surely from the numerous times UNIT encountered him in the Pertwee era? Osgood says that the Master "wasn't even the worst" Prime Minister; presumably this is slipped in so all the Tories in the audience can immediately assume that Moffat's having a go at Thatcher and get pissed off because of their own assumptions, as Tories are wont to do. Not that I care about that. It just seems a bit obvious. I mean, Thatcher is one of the people responsible for the proliferation into legitimate political systems of the insane ideology of neoliberalism which has allowed corporate and plutocratic interests to undermine Western democracy, purely out of a baseless and irrational pathological hatred for socialised policies that actually worked, so you can slag her off all you like, and slag off other corporate puppets like Reagan while you're at it, but it's all a bit on the nose. It's sort of like River's feeble attempts to defend Richard Nixon in the Series 6 opener. Anyway enough of my political ramblings. The clouds are getting more dense and murky.
Clara gets struck down by the next big Moffat villain:
aliens who turn people's heads into huge blocks of stone.
I like Osgood, to be honest. I think she has a nice rapport with Capaldi in this, and she's much better in this and in Series 9 than she is in the Fiftieth Anniversary special. Moffat started writing her with a bit more confidence. Down on the surface, Cybermen are climbing out of graves. Again, why do the Cybermen want corpses? What purpose does it serve? I can appreciate that Danny and others at the morgue are reasonably "fresh" but some of these graves have carvings showing that they're from the eighteenth century! What possible use could the Cybermen have for putting armour around old bones?!? It just doesn't make sense. In some respects it's also a bit too close to the Cybermen's appearance in "Army of Ghosts", and at least in that one their "ghostly" appearance was due to a misunderstanding of what was going on. Here they're using bits of dead people for no discernible reason. Why has Danny brought Clara to this graveyard? It's not explained. A Cyberman flashes past her. Is this one tiny reference to the Gaiman episode from Series 7 in which one Cyberman very briefly displayed the ability to move quickly? On the plane the Doctor explains that the clouds are full of "cyber pollen" that cause "full conversion" on contact with flesh. But why oh why oh why do they want dead people? I think I may have finally figured it out, and I'll get to that by the end.
"As President of Earth I order you to shit yourself."
One thing that makes the Cybermen seem particularly absurd in this is that these ones are apparently so advanced that they can fly and turn into a kind of water that instantly turns people into more Cybermen but they still can't walk around without making loud stomping noises. It also doesn't explain why they need the dead people's minds. It's soon to be stated that they're part of a hive mind. Why bother with the original minds, then? Can't the central intelligence just direct them? It even shows eventually that they're all made to obey a kind of command bracelet. On the plane the Doctor mentions that the Master must have a TARDIS somewhere but it's never seen and this element is never resolved. Oh, and how I hate the term "Planet Earth". Just say "Earth". "Planet Earth" sounds like something from a 90s environmental cartoon. Missy lamely parodies the song "Mickey" with her own name, and then effortlessly tricks Osgood into coming over. I like the idea that she manipulates her by saying that the Doctor will be impressed, but it makes Osgood look hopelessly incompetent and unprofessional that she does actually walk over. Missy says she's going to kill Osgood but Osgood disagrees, given the presence of the guards and so on. Why would you leave the Master with only two guards? In any event she somehow escapes her bonds, somehow gets over to Osgood before the guards can react, somehow kills both of them still before either guard reacts, and disintegrates Osgood with no resistance.
Spits acid.
Upstairs Kate Stewart claims that one of the Brigadier's big ambitions was to get the Doctor to salute him. Ugh. Shit like that never comes up in the old Pertwees; you just have Pertwee telling the Brigadier that he's a "military idiot" or a buffoon or whatever and that's that. You can't rewrite the past, Moffat, no matter how you try. In a sort of Twilight Zone reference a Cyberman on the outside of the plane peeks through the window and a bunch of them are revealed to be in pursuit. The Doctor goes downstairs to confront the Master. I think Michelle Gomez is a bit better at the "crazy" acting than John Simm was; he always seemed little uncomfortable in the role to me, and should have been allowed to play a more serious version of the character rather than just an evil version of Tennant's manic Doctor. In any event we keep cutting back and forth, and now Clara confronts Cyber Danny, not realising it's him, saying how important the Doctor is to her and how they're best buds and so forth and he gets all jealous and sad and reveals his identity to her, taking his face plate off to reveal the serious and debilitating effects of being hit by a car and turned into a Cyberman: your face gets covered in liquid latex. Look, I didn't think Danny was a very good character; I think he was written as a bit of a dullard. Nonetheless I can't help but feel sorry for Samuel Anderson having to give one of his final performances in the show swathed in make-up in a ludicrous rubbery-looking Cyberman costume. Spoilers beware: he gives his actual last one (unless he has a dreaded cameo in Series 9, which I fear he will) in a Santa outfit, so it doesn't get much better than this. Incidentally, if the "cyber pollen" instantly converts the body into a Cyberman, why do they bother leaving the face intact? How is a Cyberman even able to remove his "face" plate and show his organic face underneath? Face.
"May I come inside please?"
He declares that "I don't want to feel like this" and wants Clara to turn on his emotional inhibitor. This is essentially the opposite of "The Age of Steel" then when they wanted to turn the inhibitors off. Back on the plane again, there's another good Capaldi exchange when the Master says "Ask me" and the Doctor simply retorts "Shut up!" As it's in response to this twee, smug villain, it's as if he's saying it to Moffat. The TARDIS phone rings and she reveals that she's the "Woman in the Shop". Guess it's time for me to do as I said I would and consume my own trousers with brown sauce, then, or rather just complain that it's a crap resolution. It's never really explained why the Master wants Clara and the Doctor to be together, especially when other versions of Clara had already been established prior to this. The Master says she wanted to bring together "The control freak and the man who could never be controlled." This in itself is stupid enough on its own - it simply means nothing - but it also fails because this "Clara the control freak" characterisation was only raised in this series, and we were always simply told it was true without it ever being shown in her behaviour. What's more, looking towards the subsequent series, this characterisation is abandoned again and replaced with "Clara the reckless risk-taking daredevil" so it's really only an idea that exists on the spur of the moment.
Time for New Who to start ripping off the Monty Python job interview sketch.
On the phone Clara tells the Doctor that Danny's crying. Is he? The Doctor stands there looking constipated while Cybermen thump on the windows. Sanjeev gets killed off after hardly being in it, a role that could easily have been played by an extra. Clara says of Danny that "I hurt him and he wants it to stop." Okay, so how did she hurt him? Was it when she lied about no longer travelling with the Doctor after she said she would? Nothing seemed to suggest that he really cared before now. It's an unresolved element of this big confession she was apparently trying to make at the start of the previous episode that didn't seem to really be based on anything. Again, Capaldi has a good line about how a fully Cyber Danny would just kill her: "I'm not going to help you commit suicide." Then Kate Stewart also gets sucked out of the plane. Bye. The Master makes a random joke about Belgians, Moffat recycling his own material from "Time Crash" in masturbatory glee. She teleports away and the plane blows up, the Doctor diving through the air. I liked that Missy teleported into the Nethersphere, because it's consistent with the representation of the Matrix in Classic serials, particularly "The Trial of a Time Lord", in which it is shown that it is possible to physically "enter" Time Lord computer systems because (I think) they exist in another dimension. It's only a minor element, however. The Doctor somehow summons the TARDIS mid flight and dives into it while Murray Gold's rip off James Bond music blares in the background. Chris Addison has to utter the breathtakingly awful line "Permission to squee" but is thankfully killed off by Missy. Incidentally, Addison memorably played the opportunistic Ollie alongside Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It. How come they never share any screen time here?
Death in Heaven action figure combo back.
Free cardboard tombstones included.
The TARDIS pointlessly bursts out of the clouds as if it's Superman and then shows up in this graveyard in which Clara has been standing around for ages. One thing I'll say is that the atmosphere here is quite good. It really feels dreary, dark and doom-laden, with graves, stormclouds overhead, and loads of confused Cybermen stumbling around in the background like zombies. Shame there's no real story to speak of. I think the Doctor tries to explain to Danny that he should hold onto his pain and retain his humanity, but he actually needs him to switch off his emotions in order to fully access the "hive mind" and figure out what the plan is. If he's connected to this hive mind, why hasn't his personality been erased? Why do they need people's minds?!? On the other hand, the Doctor's said that if his emotions are switched off, Danny will become just another Cyberman; so why does he think, after switching the emotions off, that Cyber Danny will tell him their plans? Danny slags off the Doctor being like a military officer wanting to keep his hands clean as Clara prepares to wipe his emotions. I don't feel like the analysis of the Doctor from "The Caretaker" is taken to its logical conclusion here. How often is the Doctor really that callous? Furthermore, Danny simply looks ridiculous in the costume, and it's so hard to take any of this seriously, although Clara's line "I feel like I'm killing you" is a good one. Once Clara's done the deed Danny immediately goes stony-faced so we know he's under control, but he then floridly informs the Doctor that "The rain will fall again; all humanity will die." Why would the Cyber hive mind express itself in such a poetic way?
"You look a bit rough."
Then there's some rather shonky CGI work as Missy teleports in floating on her umbrella, and reveals that the big plot the whole time was to create an army of Cybermen to give to the Doctor so that he can put right all the big wrongs of the universe. The Master rather bizarrely argues that the Doctor has "always wanted" an army. Don't think that's true. He naturally refuses, and she threatens him by saying that if he doesn't do it then the cyber pollen stuff will this time fall on living humans and turn all of them into Cybermen. I think I've figured out the plot now. The Master wants to make a Cyberman army for the Doctor to try to make a point to him that he's a conqueror at heart, but she also wants to threaten him with doing it to all humanity if he refuses. So because these Cybermen use this water pollen method of converting people, she uses dead bodies to do it, because the cyber pollen stuff just needs organic material, not necessarily a living human. Again, however, this in no way explains why the Cybermen have any use for the original humans' minds if they're just going to erase them, and it also doesn't explain why, if these Cybermen are so advanced that they have this "pollen" thing, that they can't just make a huge army of robots, cut out the middle man, and completely ignore using organic material. Maybe it's still meant to be an ideological thing on their part, but because it's never stated, it's not clear.
"Hello, operator? Yes, can you put
me through to the people who know why
I keep showing up in this when I'm
actually in Hollywood making
critically-panned movies?"
The Master says she's done all this because "I need my friend back." It's an interesting line to pursue - their friendship, I mean - but this doesn't make a lick of sense and it's not at all subtle. There are a lot of heavy-handed flashbacks to earlier in Series 8 with ruminations on the Doctor's nature, trying to imply that the Doctor's going to go "Yeah, all right then," and lead a Cyber-crusade across the universe, but of course he has a different realisation: "I am an idiot with a box and a screwdriver passing through, helping out." It's not the most elegant expression of the nature of the Doctor's moral interventionism, but I guess it's something. Then he starts going on however about how erasing Danny's emotions hasn't changed anything because "love is a promise", not an emotion, and therefore not affected by emotions being wiped. But surely they're ignoring the fact that the Cybermen prize logic, not just emotionlessness, and therefore love would be irrelevant, irrational and illogical, as would promises be. I don't think this works. Nonetheless, apparently Danny wasn't really affected that much. I suppose we can assume that all the other Cybermen, the overwhelming majority of whom presumably "loved" someone in some fashion at some point or other, were all equally unaffected, but it's never stated and is completely inconsistent with how the Cybermen have operated at all other points in their history. The Doctor gives Danny the Cyber control bracelet and Danny gives a big speech, finally declaring what they are doing to be "the promise of a soldier". I almost expected the other Cybermen to all cheer. They fly off to self destruct in the clouds, because apparently this will somehow get rid of the cyber pollen. The flying Danny looks pretty risible, like an action figure being pulled into the air on a string. We see some stock footage of New York, Sydney and so on just to confirm this.
How I look after another frustrated attempt
to find a copy of Feel the Force.
With that all done, the Master tells the Doctor that Gallifrey's back where it always was, at its original coordinates. Clara wants to kill the Master but the Doctor stops her. Before he can do anything, however, she's apparently zapped by a random Cyberman off to one side who has also saved Kate Stewart, who's barely conscious and muttering about her father. This surviving Cyberman is meant to be the resurrected Brigadier of all things. This didn't piss me off the way it pissed off some old school fans; it just seemed unnecessary and a meaningless inclusion perpetuating Moffat's weird love of finding ways to reproduce characters on screen whose actors are dead. It could have been left ambiguous as to who saved Kate, and Kate herself could have easily shot the Master. The Doctor salutes the Cyber Brigadier, who acts all flattered before apparently flying off to have further adventures or something. Of course from all evil springs forth good, and this absurd element of the episode has been a source of all sorts of amusing photoshop jobs of Cybermen with little moustaches and UNIT uniforms on, so indirectly something of decency has come of it.
Imagine the music from the end of Airplane! playing.
Two weeks later at Clara's inexplicably luxurious one-person council estate flat she hears Danny's voice from beyond the mortal coil, a strange ghostly voice emanating from some light. He reveals that the Master's bracelet could bring people back but that there's only enough power for one person, conveniently enough. He sends through the child he killed in the war: "You need to find his parents; he died a long time ago." In the Middle East? Good luck with that. "I'm sorry, Clara," says Danny. Yeah, sorry for giving Clara this confused long-dead child who now needs to be returned to a place that is probably even worse than it was when Danny was helping Blair and Bush wreck it in the first place. Clara and the Doctor meet up at some café and both lie to each other: Clara claims that she's settling down with the resurrected Danny, who is actually still dead, and the Doctor claims that he's found Gallifrey and is going home, when actually Missy lied and we get to see a rather odd shot of Peter Capaldi abusing the TARDIS console in frustration. I guess it's kind of dramatic? The best part is a lonely shot of the TARDIS spinning through space. They agree to go their separate ways with a parting embrace. How sad. Look at them both there being bloody miserable and all. I actually do think this kind of works, but it'd be better if it didn't derive from the absurd premises established by the plot of this bizarre episode. I think all of this is partially a result of the fact that apparently Jenna Coleman was repeatedly changing her mind about when she wanted to leave the show, which means this ends up being an incomplete resolution rather than a sendoff, as is outright stated when, inexplicably, Father Christmas bursts into the TARDIS and asks the Doctor what he wants. It's one hell of a way of killing any lingering effect of the adequately touching penultimate scene. But we've got to keep the kiddies hooked for Christmas!
-The Doctor, 2014
In hindsight, "Death in Heaven" isn't as bad as I remember it being, but it's still pretty crap. The whole episode is essentially "The Doctor stuffs around on a plane while Clara stuffs around in a graveyard for nearly an hour" and it all feels rather slow and padded. Capaldi delivers some material very well, but too much hinges around this rather whirlwind Clara - Danny Pink romance that feels overstated and given too much weight. For the first appearance of the Master in over four years it's also a little anticlimactic, especially given that the story is the Master teaming up with the Cybermen, something that was more or less equally tedious in "The Five Doctors" in 1983. The Cybermen are desperately overused in Moffat's tenure, and in New Who in general they're boring and ineffectual because they never have any motive beyond "convert the local population, go on to convert the world". At least in Old Who, even at their most incompetent, which admittedly was most of the time, they had goals beyond "convert everybody". They actually had an agenda and were constantly trying to subvert and interfere with their enemies' efforts to completely destroy them; they were desperate survivalists who went to increasingly elaborate and brutal lengths to try to ensure the continuation of their existence. Now they're more like a mindless disease, and are uninteresting as a result. Almost everything vaguely interesting about the Nethersphere set up in the previous episode and across the series is dropped and forgotten, UNIT is unnecessary, the Master's plan makes barely any sense, the plot makes no effort to explain itself and the emotional drama is mostly fairly thin and lacking in impact. It's an unspectacular conclusion to Peter Capaldi's first series as the Doctor, of which he himself was by far the best part, and an unimpressive resolution to Series 8's ongoing storyline, as well as to mysteries which were established previously. To give some final thoughts on Series 8 overall, I think it's fair to say that there were exactly two good things about it: Peter Capaldi, and "Mummy on the Orient Express". Everything else was either utterly mediocre or exceptionally poor, even by Moffat's rapidly plummeting standards, and you couldn't look for a better example of a show that's wasting a lead actor of the calibre that the New Series has needed for years. I'm happy to say, however, that this didn't seem to escape anyone, including, it seems, Moffat himself, and the one good-from-evil compensation for this is that it seems to have spurred a change of pace for Series 9 which, unless things go badly wrong in the last two episodes (as they may of course very well do), is, although still extremely patchy, in many respects a noteworthy improvement over this miserable series.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How "Spectre" Could Have Been Better

This can also be titled "How Spectre Could Have Been Good" if you're of a more hard-line disposition. These are my thoughts on what could have made Spectre better.

1. Set up Spectre earlier
Obviously they only just got the rights back so they couldn't really do it, but the organisation would have benefited from being introduced earlier on. Given that Craig might be back for one more film, they could have easily established Spectre in this film and then dealt with it in the following film. This would make Spectre seem more genuinely pervasive and threatening.

2. Introduce 'Blofeld' earlier
When Oberhauser tells Bond that he's Blofeld in the secret base, it doesn't mean anything, 'cause it's just a name. Like Cumberbatch being Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, it's just there to titillate people with pre-existing knowledge of the character - not necessarily fans, even. Just people who can go "Ooh, I get that reference." Internally to the text, it doesn't serve any purpose.
Instead, it should have been established reasonably early that the leader of Spectre was a man named Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but no one really knew who he was. Then we can have that mystery present in the film, making Spectre seem extremely ominous: at the centre of the spider's web is a man no one can identify or target. If the organisation's leadership is so obscure, how can it possibly be dealt with?
Then it can go two ways. Personally, I would drop the 'adoptive brother' angle but there are ways of utilising it. Oberhauser could be retained as a high-ranking member of Spectre with a vendetta against Bond who knows who Blofeld is, and perhaps is a weak link in the chain for that reason.
The other possibility is that Bond believes that Oberhauser works for Blofeld - he knows of both people - but the twist or discovery is that Oberhauser and Blofeld are the same person: the reason no one from the outside can identify Blofeld is because he was there the whole time. The problem with this, however, is that much like the actual film it's a twist for twist's sake that doesn't serve the plot.

3. Construct the plot so that Spectre has already won
Rather than having a few minutes to save the world from some all-conquering surveillance mechanism secretly controlled by Spectre, the network should have been set up months ago, and Spectre have been using it the whole time for their advantage. I'm envisaging a scene with M at some kind of launch party for it early in the film. Thus Bond's mission goes from preventing Spectre to undoing Spectre's damage, and thus having to deal with the pervasive surveillance which is now at their disposal. This ups the stakes quite a bit: rather than stopping a bad thing from happening, Bond has to figure out how to stop it from continuing to happen. Again, this also makes Spectre seem much more powerful and dangerous.

4. Have more 'characters' in Spectre
In the old films, SPECTRE included a colourful cast of reprobates along with Blofeld: Irma Bunt, Red Grant, Dr. No and Largo, among others. In this we get one beefy henchman and that's it. We don't get a sense of Spectre's layers or command structure or anything like that, no levels that Bond has to work through to deal with the organisation.

5. Make it not shit

Monday, November 16, 2015


Not "SPECTRE" apparently, because here the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion seems to have no acronym and just be a bunch of people called 'Spectre' who aren't very nice.

Now Blofeld's back, surely Baron Samedi
is next on the 'villains to revive' list.
My review of Skyfall seems all too applicable to Spectre in some respects. I've yet to rewatch Skyfall (and I have little desire to do so, to be honest) but my primary objections to it haven't mellowed over time: I think it's fundamentally a rather pretentious film which absurdly expects me to take the character of James Bond seriously and care about his problems. As I stated in that review, I think treating Bond like a drama is inherently nonsensical, because it's a genre franchise about a larger-than-life character in almost wholly unrealistic situations, and therefore his feelings, thoughts and inner life fundamentally offer little for the audience to reflect upon.

Bond 25: Bond Has A Nice Cup Of Tea
The writers and directors of modern genre films need to realise that they are not writing the next great English/American novel, and that the nature of their medium innately precludes such aspirations from being sensible. The same delusions of dramatic grandeur affect current British television properties like modern Doctor Who and Sherlock, shows which similarly offer pointless masturbatory ruminations on the nature of unreal and unrealistic characters as if they have to compete with "literary" art.

Spectre is not as egregious in this as Skyfall was, but it suffers from many of the same problems: it's slow and dry, it's boring-looking, with a grey- and brown-dominated colour palette, and it's not shot or designed in a particularly interesting way. It feels more grounded in its own action than Skyfall admittedly, with a less dreamlike tone, but this accentuates its dryness. This is also emphasised by the fact that the plot is extremely unoriginal.

"Yeah, I'm all right."
Large parts of the plot of Spectre are extremely similar, if not identical to, 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another dry and unexciting film. Consider this: in both films, the security agency (SHIELD, the Joint Intelligence Service) has a new headquarters in the nation's capital (by a body of water, even). It's revealed that the head of said agency (Pierce, C) is in fact allied with or a part of a nefarious secret organisation (HYDRA, Spectre) which wants to use the legitimate organisation to take over a massive surveillance network (Project Insight, Nine Eyes) to get up to mischief. A rag-tag team of surviving "good" members of the original organisation (Fury/Widow/Falcon/Maria Hill, M/Moneypenny/Q/Tanner) must infiltrate the new, compromised headquarters while the protagonist has a "personal" showdown with the film's other main antagonist with whom he has an almost fraternal connection (Bucky, Oberhauser). I felt like I'd seen a good deal of this before. Bucky and Oberhauser are both meant to have died in the snow only to have actually survived, for goodness' sake.

Good thing we all wear these suspicious rings
with this very retro-looking logo on them.
Now let's get to the main attraction: Spectre itself and Blofeld. I didn't think these were handled effectively. Having finally regained the rights, they shoot their bolt almost immediately by introducing the whole shebang: Spectre is this evil organisation which manipulates world events and their mysterious unseen leader is a man named Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Note that in the original Bond films, SPECTRE and Blofeld were dealt with over no less than six films. SPECTRE is first introduced in Dr. No as the titular villain's employer. In From Russia With Love they try to exacerbate tensions between East and West. Following an unrelated diversion for Goldfinger, Bond then deals with the second-in-command of the organisation, Emilio Largo, in Thunderball. It's not until You Only Live Twice that Bond finally meets Blofeld himself, and it takes that film and two more, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Diamonds Are Forever, to finally deal with Blofeld and put an end to the entire situation. In fact, apart from Goldfinger, the entire Connery/Lazenby era involves SPECTRE in some shape or other.

"Seat belts on, please!"
That's a hell of a lot of story, and it makes SPECTRE seem appropriately sprawling and mysterious - octopoid, like its logo. And while some of SPECTRE's and/or Blofeld's activities are very over the top and have become clichés, like the volcano lair and the laser satellite, generally their motivations were fairly clear: to play the superpowers of the Cold War against each other for money and power. That's what SPECTRE is, essentially, in those films: a very elaborate criminal organisation. Yet at the same time it functions as a reflection and even a parody of the very powers it is playing: all of Bond's spying and all of the espionage and struggles between Western governments and the Soviet Union for political and economic supremacy are ultimately little different, in those stories' eyes, to the actions of criminals manipulating affairs for the sake of profit and control. Note that in Blofeld's fish tank in From Russia With Love, all three (the West, the USSR and SPECTRE) are the same creature.

Not so here, of course. The Cold War's long over (arguably), or has at least transformed, which leaves one wondering what SPECTRE's purpose really is. What do they get from the human trafficking, from the fake pharmaceuticals they apparently sell, from the elaborate surveillance network they intend to take over? It's all very unclear, and it seems as if the film can't really come up with a good reason for Spectre's existence in the "post 9/11 world", as opposed to the world of the Cold War, much in the same way that HYDRA's role in The Winter Soldier in my opinion lacked impact. Spectre seem menacing with their elaborate Rome meeting, but we don't have enough time to really see them do anything. The film tries to do far too much. Their most threatening element seems to be this bulky henchman with no neck who is apparently immune to punches, who seems to be intended as comparable to Red Grant or a similar figure but feels like an arbitrary stooge for Bond to have a difficult fight with.

"James, don't you remember how you shot my face off during The War?"
Let's turn finally to Blofeld himself. It's this which gives Spectre similar levels of pretension and delusions of grandeur equivalent to that of Skyfall. In that we saw Bond under siege in his old family home; here Blofeld is the pseudonym of Franz Oberhauser, who knew Bond as a child when his father looked after Bond for a couple of years when his parents died. Oberhauser apparently murdered his own father out of jealousy and faked his own death, before renaming himself Blofeld and establishing Spectre.

In my opinion, it's all far too personal. We learn all this "backstory", but nothing actually substantial about this new Blofeld, apart from the fact that he's clearly a patricidal psychopath. What else does he want? Why did he establish Spectre? What's he been up to for all these years? Most of all, how did he, as he claims, manipulate events behind the scenes in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall when all of those films already explained themselves? Spectre tries to establish itself as some kind of shocking resolution to the "Daniel Craig tetralogy", but does so by simply telling us that it is and expecting us to believe it. We constantly hear references to past characters: Vesper, Le Chiffre, Greene, Silva and the like, but Spectre has no way of actually establishing any of the narrative connections it claims because they don't exist, which gives Blofeld's claim to being "the author of all your pain" (Bond's, that is) no substance or profundity whatsoever. Oberhauser even states that he only started going after Bond because he got in his way, which makes the plot revelation of their shared past completely unnecessary and irrelevant; it doesn't provide either of them with motivation, and is only there to shock the audience with the largely meaningless concept that Bond and his traditional arch-enemy knew each other for a couple of years as kids. So what? The film does nothing with it, so why should we care? But we're meant to care simply because the connection exists, and in this way the film treats the audience like gasping idiots who will swallow any twist, no matter how trivial, purely because it is a twist.

Land, no.
The older films were from an age where everything didn't have to be "personal" and Hollywood action films weren't incompetently striving to involve novelistic characterisation and discourse in modes for which they were completely unsuited. Blofeld was there characterised perfectly well: as a ruthless, cynical man who toyed with the lives of the whole world simply for his own personal profit. In Spectre it's simply not clear what Blofeld wants or why he is the way he is: he describes himself as a "visionary" of sorts but we're never informed of his vision; I don't know why he particularly cares to torture Bond the way he does unless he's simply some kind of sadist. The weak "personal connection" element and the need to rush through the character wastes Christoph Waltz in an admittedly rather unimaginatively cast role, in which the character and his organisation seem to exist not for the sake of the story but so that Bond fans will recognise the names and be titillated. While I think the "personal connection" aspect was unnecessary and doesn't really work for Bond in any event, there was no need for either the Spectre organisation or Blofeld himself to have a role in the film. The character is simply not very interesting, being not as visually striking as Donald Pleasence's Blofeld, not as effective a foil for Bond as Telly Savalas', and not as amusing as Charles Gray's (my personal favourite).

Everything else is fairly bland, as I've already stated. The most visually interesting part of the film is the Day of the Dead sequence in the beginning. There's nothing else that is particularly glamorous in terms of location or activity. The script contains a few chuckles, but not much. Daniel Craig puts in a workmanlike performance as Bond, but he's not especially interesting to watch for most of the time. Bond girl Madeleine Swann is okay as this instalment's "reasonably competent female deuteragonist" but nothing too memorable. Ralph Fiennes as M mostly has to do a lot of the grouching and grumbling that I thought was subverted as the best element of Skyfall. The final capture of Blofeld by Bond simply shooting his helicopter (something which consistently fails to succeed in almost every Bond film) was a little anticlimactic.

For your cool, cool glasses only.
In terms of good parts, the pre-titles sequence in Mexico City isn't bad at all, featuring characterful location work and a frantic punch-up in a helicopter. I don't mind the song for this one, and the title sequence itself was okay, even if the octopus motif was rather laboured. I was glad that they used M more effectively towards the end. As I said before, there are a few humorous moments, including from Craig himself. Other than that I didn't find much that was particularly engaging about it.

Assuming Daniel Craig doesn't do another Bond, it's disappointing that he's essentially three for four in terms of mediocre films (although admittedly a lot of people thought Skyfall was good for whatever reason). I think the explanation for this, however, almost lies in the fact that Craig was cast for Casino Royale, which is in my opinion a good film which worked perfectly well on its own terms, and in which the chemistry of Craig and Eva Green was ideal for a striking standalone Bond film which didn't need and couldn't benefit from sequels or follow-ups. It's possible that the tenets established for Casino Royale, such as a more serious tone, arguably more realism, more emotional drama and the like, have in fact burdened the rest of the Craig era because they were invented for the sake and success of that single film and not for an entire sequence of films. In that sense it's possible that the last three films were doomed from the start.

"Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years."
Daniel Craig may be departing, but the great success of Skyfall and the relatively substantial success of Spectre mean that we're probably likely to see more of this kind of thing in the future, unfortunately. It would be appealing if the Bond franchise could recapture a little of the colour, glamour and energy of days gone by but I doubt they'll bother. It's disheartening to say it, but it seems unlikely that we'll see that kind of Bond film made again. "Blofeld" may have been spared, but it's possible that Bond is, in many ways, dead.