Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review - "Doctor Who: Time of the Doctor"

Warning: Spoilers are coming...

"The Time of the Doctor" is the end of an era - Matt Smith's final episode as the Doctor. This is the day that fans of Smith's Eleventh Doctor (myself included) have dreaded. The question is, does "The Time of the Doctor" successfully wrap up Smith's tenure? Let's find out.

A mysterious signal is being projected to all corners of the universe from an unidentified planet, drawing in hundreds of alien ships. Also answering the call is the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman). Arriving on the planet, the Doctor soon discovers that it is Trenzalore, the planet on which he will die. And the message is coming from the Time Lords - they're asking a question, a question which never be asked - Doctor who? In order to prevent the Time Lords' return, the Doctor's enemies, including the Daleks and the Cybermen have waged war upon the planet, and only the Doctor can save it - but at what cost?

"The Time of the Doctor" managed to pile a whole lot of plot into a sixty-minute Christmas special. While the above synopsis may seem confusing and drawn out, it does not even begin to explain away the complexities inherent in the episode. This is not to say that a complex story is bad, and in Steven Moffat's defense, everything is explained away and put to rights come the conclusion. Yet, his script suffers from some obvious padding. The beginning portion of the episode was obviously inserted for some cheap laughs, and the sub-plot about Clara hosting Christmas dinner for her family really doesn't go anywhere. Once the story moves to the planet of Trenzalore, the action picks up a bit.

Much was made in promotional material of the return of the Doctor's most famous enemies including Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, these monsters only make fleeting appearances, especially the Weeping Angels. But, they make the most of their one scene and are as usual pretty creepy. One Cyberman (or part of one) turns up in the form of the Doctor's newest comrade, Handles, a disembodied Cyberman head. Bravo to Steven Moffat and Matt Smith for making us feel sympathetic for a head of steel.

Matt Smith makes his final bow as the Doctor
In terms of performance, Matt Smith does an excellent job, turning in one of his best performances. This time around, the part of the Doctor came with some added challenges as he ages into an old man serving as the protector of Trenzalore. Facing his own mortality, the Doctor is certain that he shall die on Trenzalore without regenerating, but is granted a new set of regenerations by the Time Lords. Matt Smith's performance was excellent, especially in his regeneration scene, and he's awarded one of the Doctor's greatest last lines: "I will always remember when the Doctor was me."

"The Time of the Doctor" has been pretty good up to this point - I have managed to let go of my favourite Doctor and then things suddenly went downhill. The regeneration happened so quickly that if you blinked you were liable to miss it. The viewer was suddenly confronted with the sight of a very confused-looking Peter Capaldi, who remarks on the colour of his new kidneys. I cannot possibly judge Capaldi's performance because he was on screen for less than a minute. In the past, we have at least gotten some indication of what the new Doctor will be like from their first few minutes on screen, but Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor remains an enigma. I cannot help but feel that if some of the episode's opening minutes had been trimmed or cut out, we would have had a much better regeneration scene.

"The Time of the Doctor" certainly had its ups and downs. Though it featured a brilliant performance from Matt Smith, it had a contrived opening and a lacklustre ending, which even the best performances from Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman could not elevate. Therefore, I give "The Time of the Doctor" 3.5 out of 5.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lost Without my Boswell

Sherlock Holmes is probably the character we enjoy so much. We read the canon to read Holmes' brilliant deductions as he unravels baffling mysteries. Yet, Sherlock Holmes is only a part of a pair - a pair of the greatest literary creations of all time, and the pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson certainly changed the mystery genre forever.

Sadly, Dr. Watson is overlooked nowadays. The narrator of almost all the canon stories is often left behind in all forms of media. Today, I want to right that wrong by taking a look at Dr. Watson and how he is just as important to the canon as the world's greatest detective. To start, I thought it would be best to examine Watson's role as story's narrator. Aside from four short stories, Dr. Watson is the main narrator of the original canon. His role as an observer and analyzer in part makes him what Holmes is. Both men keenly analyze a situation - in the detective's case it's a crime and in Watson's its the actions of his friend.

I will be blunt when I say that the stories in the canon which are not narrated by Watson fall rather flat. "The Mazarin Stone," which is narrated in the third-person has developed something of a reputation as one of the weakest short stories. "His Last Bow," again told in the third-person is slightly better. However, the stories which are told from Sherlock Holmes' own point of view are certainly curiosity of the canon and I don't think they rank highly on most people's list of favourite Sherlock Holmes stories.

What is best about Watson's narration is that he actually plays a part in the stories as well. The detective's assistant acting as storyteller certainly goes back to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." However, Poe's unnamed narrator really doesn't function as much of a character. Even detectives who emerged in Holmes and Watson's wake didn't pay a great deal of attention to the narrator. Case in point - the Philo Vance novels of S.S. Van Dine are in fact narrated by Van Dine. Yet, he does nothing to drive the plot forward. He is merely there to write about Vance's incredible deductive feats. Watson on the other hand has a history, friends, acquaintances and is far more well-rounded.

Nigel Bruce - you shall be vindicated!
Dr. Watson has sadly gotten a bad rap in most forms of media. Of course, Watson is not as smart as Holmes, but he is by no means an idiot. Watson is a competent medical man and a soldier. So where does the notion of a dim-witted Watson come from? The suspect who gets the finger of guilt pointed at the most is Nigel Bruce, who co-starred opposite Basil Rathbone throughout his fourteen film run. To be truthful, Bruce's comedic Watson is pretty far removed from Doyle's original. But, I like Bruce's Watson (so what if that's heresy), so it's time to defend this version of the good doctor.

Nigel Bruce is a skilled comedian, and he runs the gambit from physical comedy to deadpan delivery. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal put Bruce's excellent comedic skills to good use, and wrote the part of Dr. Watson accordingly. In retrospect, it makes sense. Despite the fact that Doyle's Watson is a well-rounded individual, he can at times be relegated to the sidelines as he acts as a story's observer, which is pretty difficult to represent on screen. At least, Nigel Bruce's Watson had something to do, even if it was making something of a fool of himself. What's more, Nigel Bruce's Watson was not the first time the doctor had been portrayed as a comic foil. H. Reeves Smith who appeared as Watson in 1929's "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" (the first talkie Sherlock Holmes film) played the part for laughs and Ian Fleming who starred opposite Arthur Wontner wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Lately, Watson has gotten a much-needed re-evaluation. The two current Watsons in media - Martin Freeman and Lucy Lui - have taken the part to new highs. Freeman's Watson is one of the best since Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series with Jeremy Brett. Freeman manages to capture the character's intelligence while enthusing the part with a striking humaneness. Bravo to Martin Freeman, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. Lucy Lui's Watson has improved greatly since her initial appearance in "Elementary," and has lately been taking centre-stage, even eclipsing Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes in terms of deductive reasoning. The real question is - does this push the envelope a bit too much?

Dr. Watson is just as important a character as Sherlock Holmes. The good doctor revolutionized how mystery stories are told. The Queen of Crime Agatha Christie certainly took a page from Doyle's book in crafting her character of Captain Arthur Hastings, who is in essence Hercule Poirot's own Watson. Hastings is obviously a Watson homage as both men are military men caught up in the work of their detective associates. One wonders if the detectives who came after Holmes would have flown solo if it weren't for Watson. Sherlock Holmes himself said in "A Scandal in Bohemia" that he would be lost without his Boswell - his only friend, colleague and biographer. Dr. Watson gave us humane insight into the inner-workings of Sherlock Holmes' brilliant cognitive skills. It is true - every Holmes needs his Watson.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain"

This is all folks - "Curtain" marks the final episode of "Agatha Christie's Poirot," the brilliant ITV detective series which has been running for more than twenty years. It has (for the most part) been the holy grail of Agatha Christie media. But, the show had one final hurdle to overcome - adapting its finale. What with the show's penultimate episode, "The Labours of Hercules," being a tremendous let-down, did the show's conclusion improve any?

Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is ailing and confined to a wheelchair. The detective returns to Styles, the mansion at which he solved his first case in England, which has been turned into a guest house. Poirot invites his old friend, Captain Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Hasting's daughter, Judith, to the house as well. Upon his arrival, Hastings learns that Poirot has an a secret motive for inviting his friend - Poirot fears that a murder shall take place, and even he doesn't have any idea who the perpetrator could be. Before long, Poirot's prediction comes to fruition and soon Hercule Poirot will find himself investigating his last case.

"Curtain" was certainly an improvement over "The Labours of Hercules." This time, the episode actually felt akin to Christie and followed the plot of her novel more-or-less. In terms of plot, "Curtain" is interesting in that it feel more like a thriller than a mystery. There isn't the typical archetype of sifting through motives, suspects and alibis. In fact, most of the story is centred on the psychology of the characters, and in this way, Poirot manages to catch the perpetrator.

Yet, Agatha Christie manages to weave in one of her most surprising twist endings - which I will of course not spoil here. I never suspected the outcome to be what it was, and the adaptation certainly did the twist ending justice. I'm sure that for someone watching "Curtain" for the first time would be floored by the episode's ending.

David Suchet (seated) and Hugh Fraser
in "Curtain"
In terms of acting, special attention must be drawn to David Suchet and Hugh Fraser. The two men hardly shared any screen time in "The Big Four," so seeing them interact together for the first time since 2002 was nice. Hastings really is the episode's focal point, and we get to see new sides to the captain's character. he is perhaps more mellow than usual, but that is probably a result of the darker subject matter of the episode.

As always, David Suchet turns in a fine performance, surely one of his best. Suchet underplays most of his scenes, including a brilliantly-staged confrontation with the murderer.

The only point which "Curtain" failed on was its emotional impact. After watching the episode, I came away truly impacted by what I saw, but I did not feel saddened that A) Poirot had passed away in the episode and B) "Agatha Christie's Poirot" has come to an end. Perhaps it is merely chalked up to the way in which the ending was handled, sadly in an almost after-the-thought manner, which did not make me feel as emotionally invested as I have felt with other television finales. What's more, I would have loved for the beautiful Poirot theme to have played once last time. The television show's theme music has been used less and less recently, and I feel as though using the music would have been a nice nostalgic touch.

In all, "Curtain," was an excellent finale to "Agatha Christie's Poirot." Featuring a fine plot and acting, the episode was a nice farewell to one of the best detective shows on T.V. I give "Curtain" 4 out of 5 stars. Though "Agatha Christie's Poirot" has had its extreme ups and downs throughout the years, it will still have a place in my heart as one of the finest television programs I have come across.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Top 5 Things that Have Made Sherlockians Happy

I am going to be a little outspoken for this one. Of course this list will be my own personal opinion, but I'd like to speak on behalf of most Sherlockians. The following is a list of the top 5 things which without doubt evoked something of a smile from fans of the world's greatest detective.

# 5 - "Come at once if Convenient..." - Say whatever you like about the two Warner Bros. Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law. Some fans love them - some fans hate them. They are surely partially responsible for breathing the back of life breath into the detective if nothing else. However, most Sherlockians criticize the films due to the presentation of Holmes as an action hero.

But, both films in the franchise have paid homage to Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories. The hints are subtle, but if you know your canon, there are times that will make you smile. One of the most memorable moments for me at least, was in "Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows." While infiltrating Professor Moriarty's munitions factory, Holmes dispatches a note to Watson which runs: "Come at once if Convenient...if Inconvenient come all the Same."

While the little scene doesn't propel the plot forward at all, it is a superb moment for Sherlockians as it of course references the note which Holmes sent to Watson in "The Adventure of the Creeping Man." The vignette also proves that someone behind the scenes of the film knows their Sherlock Holmes very well.

#4 - Titan Books - As I have written elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes pastiches are in an abundance. Some of the best pastiches I have come across have been released through Titan Books. The publisher is behind "The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" series, a book series which reprinted a number of out-of-print pastiches. These included "The Veiled Detective" a brilliant character study by David Stuart Davies, "The Giant Rat of Sumatra" by Richard Boyer, the finest version of the untold story I have come across and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes" by Loren D. Estleman.

Recently, Titan Books' series has included some newly-published works from authors including Guy Adams, James Lovegrove and George Mann. In addition to pastiches, Titan Books is also responsible for printing some excellent non-fiction books. David Stuart Davies' "Starring Sherlock Holmes" and Alan Barnes' "Sherlock Holmes on Screen" are both essential guides to Sherlockian film.

#3 - Doctor Who Series 7 - I know what you're thinking - how is connected with Sherlock Holmes? The second half of the series (which commenced with the 2012 Christmas special, "The Snowmen") owes something to the great detective. "The Snowmen" scripted by Steven Moffat is truly Sherlockian in nature. The Victorian milieu and mysterious style evoke the Sherlock Holmes stories exactly. Arthur Conan Doyle is directly mentioned, and the Doctor even dresses up as the detective in one scene - surely the highlight for me.

The Doctor does a bit of sleuthing in Mark Gatiss'
"The Crimson Horror"
Later in the series, the TARDIS team of the Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) returned to Victorian England to investigate "The Crimson Horror," an episode written by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss' episode mirrors the Sherlock Holmes stories even more, and sees the Doctor doing quite a bit of detective work. What's more, one of Doyle's many untold stories, The Repulsive Red Leech, is referenced in dialogue.

It will always - always - bring a smile to my face when Sherlock Holmes is referenced outside of Sherlockian circles. These nods and asides to fans of the detective are sure to make one crack a smile - or at least a grin.

#2 - Doyle Reprints - With the success of "Sherlock," the BBC has reissued the Arthur Conan Doyle canon adorned with photos of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Surely a marketing ploy from the BBC, the book series has at least spawned some new interest in the canon.

These recent reprints are only the most recent set of re-releases. Whenever I go into a mystery section of a bookshop and see multiple copies of "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" or "The Hound of the Baskervilles," I'm instilled with a sense of confidence. Sherlock Holmes has been a part of this world for more than 100 years, and it doesn't seem like he's on the way out at all.

#1 - Montage - The montage in the beginning of the "Sherlock" series 2 opener, "A Scandal in Belgravia" contains some of the most brilliant references to Arthur Conan Doyle ever. Although played for laughs, the montage, which sees Sherlock and John investigating a number of obscure cases. Cases referenced include: "The Speckled Band," "The Greek Interpreter" and "The Naval Treaty."

One of Steven Moffat's many sly references
Not only does the opening feature references to Doyle, but other pieces of Sherlockian interest. John Watson's blog counter is forever stuck 1895 (a nice acknowledgement of Vincent Starrett's poem, "Always 1895") and another entry is entitled, "Sherlock Holmes Baffled," the title of the great detective's screen debut in 1901. Writer Steven Moffat has without doubt created one of the greatest pieces of Sherlockian fan service in years.

I'm sure that there are others, and if none of the above things made you a satisfied Sherlockian, I understand. Any others that I left out? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review - "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Labours of Hercules"

"The Labours of Hercules" was an unusual choice for the penultimate episode of "Agatha Christie's Poirot." The book, which is really a collection of short stories, would have made for much better adapting in the late '80's, when the show was still adapting Agatha Christie's short stories to the screen. But, as I saw with "The Big Four," the production team behind the show can make unusual stories work well. Did they manage to do it again?

Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) is on the trail of the thief, Marrascaud. The cunning criminal has evaded capture before, but the Belgian detective is sure he can snare him. But everything go awry and a young girl ends up murdered. Poirot contemplates retirement, that is until he's enticed into a case by his chauffeur. It seems that the young man's sweetheart has disappeared to a villa in the Swiss alps with her employer. Poirot heads for the hotel where she is believed to be staying and soon discovers that not only is Marrascaud rumoured to be at the hotel, but soon there's a murder...

I do apologise if the synopsis for "The Labours of Hercules" is a bit vague, but I honestly had very little idea what I was watching. While "Dead Man's Folly," the show's previous entry was a great success, this episode was dire indeed. I have sadly never read Christie's collection of short stories (it sits on my shelf so hopefully I won't neglect it for long), so I cannot say which elements of her book made it into the adaptation. If there were any, it seems like they were thrown together without much thought as to whether it would move the plot forward. Much of the first half was occupied by characters sitting and talking to each other, about topics which couldn't possibly have any bearing on the plot. It was not until the episode's half-way mark did anything befitting the mystery genre occur.

It is a real pity that this story would end up being the penultimate episode to the entire series' run. It was very disappointing, especially since it had such great talent behind it. David Suchet handled Poirot brilliantly. Though the detective is supposed to be depressed in the story's beginning, as a result of his failure to capture Marrascaud, Suchet restrained his performance wonderfully. One only needs to look at the equally upsetting adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express" to see that Poirot is quite capable of hamming it up. While we;re talking about positives, visually the episode was great. The interiors and exteriors of the hotel and the alps were beautiful.

Alas, "The Labours of Hercules" was a major disappointment. I would have rather seen ITV adapt Christie's play, "Black Coffee" than this. I am forced to give "The Labours of Hercules" 1 out of 5 stars. But don't worry, I'm not so critical of "Curtain."