Forrest Gump: The Book vs The Film

 

Recently, I re-watched the film Forrest Gump as part of the series on my top 10 favourite films, which I’m currently doing on my YouTube channel. Following that, I decided to check out the original novel by Winston Groom, published in 1986. All I really knew about the novel was that it differs in many ways from the film, so I was interested to see just how much.

(Note: spoilers for both the book and the film)

First off, while the book and the film’s stories don’t always go in the same direction, they do cover some of the same elements. Forrest is still an Alabama native who has mental deficiencies, and still gets carried between many different adventures and careers without fully understanding what’s going on around him. We see him play football for the University of Alabama, serve in Vietnam, play in a ping-pong tournament in China, and make millions of dollars in the shrimp industry. The main side characters in the film – Jenny, Lieutenant Dan, Bubba and Forrest’s mama – all originate in the book. And Jenny is still Forrest’s primary love interest, meeting him sporadically through their lives and eventually giving birth to his son. Outside of all this, the book uses the characters rather differently from the film, and also has a lot of extra material that wasn’t adapted – and these things, in my opinion, make the book weaker overall.

As well as the aforementioned vocations, the book sees Forrest try his hand at harmonica playing, chess playing, professional wrestling, acting in a movie, and even politics, usually falling into them through chance encounters, as in the film. However, the book makes Forrest’s skills more random: he is portrayed as a savant who is able to remember complicated mathematical formulas and play chess very well, but there’s no real connection between a lot of the things he can do. For much of the time, it feels like he’s just being thrown into different situations for comedy, which ensues when he inevitably fumbles and messes it all up. The film trims down all the things that Forrest does with his life, which – along with other factors – helps to make the overall story feel more cohesive and worthy of investment. It also makes Forrest’s talents more understandable, and doesn’t incorporate any savant abilities: Movie-Forrest is good at football because of how fast he can run, and good at Ping-Pong because he is told to never take his eye off the ball. Indeed, many of Movie-Forrest’s achievements stem from the same source: just being told what to do, and doing it as best he can.

The book also feels inconsistent in just how grounded in reality it tries to be. Forrest playing football and serving in Vietnam, and the scrapes he gets into along the way, don’t require too much suspension of disbelief. But Forrest being sent into space, accompanied by an orang-utan, and then getting stranded on an island with cannibals, one of whom happens to speak perfect English, is ever so slightly more fantastical. It feels more similar to The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared, only that book maintains its approach all the way through. Similarly, while the film isn’t entirely realistic – e.g. the number of celebrities that Forrest meets and inspires – it feels consistent in what it’s trying to do.

But my biggest problem with the book was that I didn’t feel anywhere near the same emotional connection to the characters as I did in the film. In Forrest’s case, this may have something to do with Tom Hanks. Casting Hanks as Forrest is actually not unlike casting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, since Book-Forrest is 6″6 and weighs 240 pounds by the time he’s sixteen! But Hanks is the perfect choice to portray Movie-Forrest, who is quite a different entity from Book-Forrest, with his low intelligence coming across in a more charming and innocent way. Book-Forrest is still a sympathetic character, and I liked the colloquial style of his first-person narration: e.g. leaving the ‘d’ off ‘and’ and the ‘t’ off ‘next’, and saying ‘begun’ instead of ‘began’. But he doesn’t tug at the heartstrings in the way that watching Hanks’ onscreen performance does.

The film also uses the side characters much more effectively. It gives Lieutenant Dan a more cohesive character arc, growing from a bitter man who feels he’s been cheated out of his proper destiny, to finding purpose and inner peace once more. The book doesn’t bother to look as closely at Dan, making any character shifts he experiences less consistent and meaningful. As for Jenny, she goes in a similar direction in both the book and the film – living a wild, directionless life for a while before finally choosing to settle down – but again, the book puts a bit less focus on her character arc and relationship with Forrest. Maybe the film makes Jenny’s arc rather more dramatic, but I certainly found it much more interesting.

Ultimately, I’m impressed with how the director, screenwriter and actors behind Forrest Gump managed to take a concept which was handled unexceptionally in its source material and create a solid, wonderful, thought-provoking, tear-jerking movie experience out of it. But I’ll be talking more about that when I get to my video review.

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Borealopelta: A Dinosaur with Camouflage

Recently, a new paper was published describing an amazing dinosaur fossil, discovered in a mine in Alberta, Canada in 2011. The new species was named Borealopelta markmitchelli, meaning “Mark Mitchell’s northern shield”, after a technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta who prepared the fossil. Hailing from the Early Cretaceous Period, around 110 million years ago, Borealopelta was a 5.5-metre-long nodosaurid, a herbivorous quadrupedal dinosaur with spiky, plated armour along its back.

Image from Brown et al. (2017)

Just from the pictures accompanying the paper, you can see how incredible the fossil is: its three-dimensional preservation reveal just how Borealopelta‘s dermal armour was laid out in life. In the Early Cretaceous Period, the rocks in which Borealopelta was found were a seabed; no dinosaur has been found there before. After being washed out to sea, the animal’s body apparently landed on the seabed on its back and was quickly buried. In fact, it’s so well preserved that palaeontologists can estimate what colour it was!

My old dinosaur books would emphasise repeatedly that colour doesn’t fossilize, even in the rare dinosaur specimens that came with skin impressions – this is true, but in a few fossils (mostly feathered dinosaurs), traces of pigment have been left behind. Chemical analysis of these can reveal what kind of pigments they are, and thus what colour they created. The work on Borealopelta has led to the conclusion that it had a reddish-brown back and a lighter underside.

But knowing what colour Borealopelta was isn’t just cool on its own: it also leads to intriguing questions about its ecosystem. The pattern seen – a dark back and a lighter belly – is known as countershading, which today is used as camouflage by animals such as antelope. (Since the side that receives more light is darker, it creates a counterbalance which helps to hide the animal.) But why would an animal which already possessed impressive armour, and was larger than most herbivores alive today, even need to hide itself?

The conclusion is that Borealopelta must have shared its environment with some very impressive and frightening predators. The fossil record may be incomplete, but we know that around the same time that Borealopelta was plodding peacefully around Alberta, an 11-metre-long carnivorous theropod named Acrocanthosaurus was stalking the United States. It is likely that Borealopelta had to be wary of encounters with a similar predator, which might not be deterred by its size or its armour – hence the need to be as inconspicuous as possible!

References:

Brown, C.M., Henderson, D.M., Vinther, J., Fletcher, I., Sistiaga, A., Herrera, J. & Summons, R.E. (2017), An exceptionally preserved three-dimensional armoured dinosaur reveals insights into colouration and Cretaceous predator-prey dynamics. Current Biology 27, 1-8.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40815935

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Richard Tries A Triathlon!

I’ve never considered myself particularly sporty. I always crossed the finish line last on primary school Sports Day, and PE was easily my least favourite subject in high school. Yet here I am, at the age of 30, planning to participate in a triathlon in September!

Specifically, this is a sprint triathlon, consisting of a 400m swim (in a pool), 20km of cycling, and a 5km run. It seemed a good challenge to attempt when I heard about the event: not unrealistic, but still enough for me to push myself, and hopefully have some fun doing so.

The swimming will probably be the easiest part. I’ve spent most of my life visiting the pool once a week, and aided by the other exercise I’ve been doing, my current record for 400m in the pool is 9 minutes 50 seconds (breaststroke). And I’m a decent cyclist. The real challenge will be the run.

Before I signed up for this event, I had very little experience of running. So I’ve been following the Couch to 5K program, which gradually builds you up to running 30 minutes non-stop. It’s been hard work, but very satisfying, and I have been noticing the results, such as faster recovery after each run. When I got onto the non-stop 25 minute runs, I really had to will myself to keep going. But I’ve kept on track and I’ve only got two weeks left in the program, at which point I still have a few more weeks before the triathlon to get used to 5k.

I’m taking this opportunity to raise money for Alzheimer’s Society; this felt most appropriate due to incidences of this disease in my family. My fundraising page can be found here: donations are much appreciated and will help the society to provide support for people with dementia, and help fund research projects into its causes, treatment and prevention.

I’ll let you know how I get on!

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Film review: Dunkirk

At the end of May 1940, as the Nazi war machine pushed into France, the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied armies proved unable to resist and were left trapped on the northern coast. Gathering at the town of Dunkirk, they waited to be evacuated – but with German U-boats patrolling the Channel, the Luftwaffe in the air, and land-based forces rapidly closing in, rescuing any more than a few thousand seemed foolishly optimistic. Yet through the efforts of the Royal Navy and a flotilla of civilian vessels, with the RAF and French First Army providing defence, over 338,000 men were brought across the Channel to the safety of Britain. Now the events have been brought to the big screen by no less a director than Christopher Nolan, and he’s in his usual form.

The film goes back and forth between three separate locations. First there is the mole on the beach at Dunkirk, where three privates (Aneurin Barnard, Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead) struggle to find a place in the boats going home. Second is the sea, where a civilian mariner (Mark Rylance), accompanied by his son and a friend, takes his boat out to assist in the evacuation. Third is the air, where a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) tries to defend British vessels against the relentless attacks of the Luftwaffe.

Christopher Nolan is known for making intelligent films, and he avoids making Dunkirk just another generic war film by having the three focus points be non-linear: the events at the mole take place over one week, the sea in one day, and the air in one hour. (Spitfires only carried enough fuel for a maximum of two hours’ flight, which is not the least of our pilot’s problems.) People or vessels may be introduced in one timeline, then reappear within another in either the past or future. I was concerned that this could become just as messy and uninspiring as Julian Fellowes’ Titanic, but Nolan is better than that. The structure never gets confusing, and the different timelines link together smoothly; even when certain events are repeated, it’s made interesting to see them from another perspective.

Dunkirk is not as much of a history lesson as other films in the genre. It doesn’t go out of its way to provide its audience with all the details – even the opening explanatory text is kept simple and expects you to already know who the two sides are. The film throws you right into the action: after seeing some soldiers fleeing through the deserted streets of the town, we head straight to the beach where the Allied soldiers are already queuing and waiting for their turn to leave. Little time is spent on developing the characters, and any narratives they are given are basic. Even dialogue is kept to a minimum. What the film ultimately does is try to bring the Dunkirk evacuation to life and simply show it to you, through the eyes of a few central figures. And it works, because what we’re seeing is so compelling.

The film is incredibly intense; nobody that we’re watching looks safe at any moment, whether they’re ducking for cover from bombers, or fighting to escape a ship that’s been torpedoed. It may not be as bloody as the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, but it doesn’t have to be. You really feel the pressure as the Nazis close in and one vessel after another is destroyed. The cinematography of the Spitfire scenes is especially good, with awesome practical effects and authentic aerial shots. As with other Nolan films, the ever faithful Hans Zimmer is there to provide steady background music that successfully builds up the tension whenever necessary. Most people who see Dunkirk will know how it all turned out, but even with that knowledge, watching so much adversity unfold on the screen, you’ll be wondering how anybody managed to escape at all. The situation looks practically hopeless – and so when hope eventually does appear on the horizon, it’s a welcome sight.

Thrilling, fresh and masterfully directed, Dunkirk can be added to 2017’s small pile of really fantastic films. Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Thirteenth Doctor Is Here

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Ladies and gentlemen, after a very, very long wait, we finally know who the Thirteenth Doctor will be. And her name is Jodie Whittaker.

In the episode The Doctor’s Wife, it was confirmed that Time Lords can potentially change sex when they regenerate. We have now witnessed this happen in the show with two Time Lords, one of whom is a significant recurring character. Thus, it was quite possible for the Doctor – who has been male since his inception in 1963, Comic Relief sketches notwithstanding – to regenerate into a woman. The idea was bandied about, first when Matt Smith was due to be replaced, then Peter Capaldi. The possibility was waved in our faces with such vigour, in fact, that I never seriously believed it would actually happen.

Shows how much I know.

Looking at social media, the majority of fans seem to have reacted positively to the news – which has made me worry what it says about me if I am less enthusiastic at the idea of a female Doctor.

I am not so strongly against the idea that I am going to stop watching the show. Nor am I hoping or predicting that this will be a disaster. There is no way of knowing for certain what will happen without a real TARDIS to travel into the future, so I am reserving judgement until I actually see the first episode of Series 11. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it will even be great. I don’t know. But I had hoped that it wouldn’t actually come to pass. This has nothing to do with Jodie Whittaker, by the way: I’ve never actually watched anything that she’s starred in (save the St Trinian’s movies, where she only had a small part), but I’m sure that she’s a fine actress and will put all her effort into this role.

As previously stated, Doctor Who has been around for a long time, and through that time, the Doctor has always been male. He has changed his appearance, his outfits, and many elements of his personality – but at heart, it’s still the same guy. And now, suddenly, he’s going to become a woman. That’s a much more drastic change than anything which has come before: it’s going to be a case of ‘one of these things is not like the others’, as they say on Sesame Street. Will it still feel like the same character? Even if the Doctor doesn’t possess quite the same level of masculinity as the likes of James Bond, his gender will have had subtle influences on his character all these years, and now that’s all going to be switched round.

One argument I’ve seen is that the Master’s already been turned into a woman, and that was fine. Well, I do like the character of Missy very much, but I admit that it’s difficult to see her as the same entity that was portrayed by Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and John Simm. She stands apart so much that she has a different moniker. In a possible example of the High Heel Face Turn trope, she’s the only Master who seriously considers becoming a good guy. Also, Missy/the Master is a recurring side character whom we don’t spend a huge amount of time with, so changing her gender was never going to have an all-reaching impact. The Doctor is the central protagonist. S/he is going to be in every episode, and be the focus of those episodes. The audience will have plenty of time to examine every facet of his/her character. Any differences created by the change in gender will affect the show much more than Missy could.

So I admit that it’s subjective, but my worry is that the Thirteenth Doctor isn’t going to feel like the same character we’ve been watching for decades. And I also have to wonder why the decision was made in the first place. Because Jodie Whittaker was truly the best candidate for the role? Because the people behind the scenes wanted to experiment and shake things up? Or because there was a quota on diversity and political correctness which needed to be met?

I very much hope that Doctor Who will continue to entertain and Jodie Whittaker will be a great Doctor. But I also hope that she was chosen for the right reasons.

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Film review: War for the Planet of the Apes

The previous installments in the Planet of the Apes prequel series – Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – were both very strong films. I admit I found their titles to be a bit misleading; the actual Planet of the Apes has neither risen nor dawned at the end of either film. Not to mention, I felt it would make more sense for ‘Dawn’ to be the title of the first film. But the overall story, intended to take us from the present day to the simian society we know from the original 1968 film, has been handled very well: what began as the accidental consequence of a laboratory experiment has now escalated to a community of intelligent apes fighting for survival against a desperate and diminished human race. According to Wikipedia, a fourth film is planned; but War for the Planet of the Apes still functions satisfactorily as the conclusion of a trilogy, not quite bringing the story all the way to its inevitable conclusion but getting close enough.

Two years have passed since the end of Dawn, when conflict between the apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), and the humans who survived the Simian Flu epidemic, began in earnest. Even as his people are hunted and killed by soldiers, all Caesar wants to do is survive and find a place where his community can live in peace. That changes when the apes’ home is discovered by the leader of their attackers, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), and Caesar himself suffers a terrible personal loss. While most of the apes begin journeying to a safe refuge, Caesar goes in search of the Colonel, hoping both to give his people the best chance of survival, and to get his revenge.

From both the trailers and the title, I was expecting the movie to provide a grand-scale conflict, but this isn’t the case. Most of the first half deals with Caesar pursuing the Colonel, while the rest of the film focusses on various characters being imprisoned and what they do about it. I was a little disappointed about this, and I would have liked more of an indication of what’s going on in the wider world. Only hints are dropped to expand the setting that is presented to us: when Caesar and his allies meet another talking ape named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), they ponder whether there might be more such apes beyond their own community. We also get indications of why the humans are destined to end up the way they are in the original film, without giving too much away.

But aside from getting a bit slow around the second-third act boundary, the story is still a very compelling one, with some powerfully emotional moments as the characters are put through hell and try not to lose hope. There are little details added to make the overall conflict more complex and interesting, such as the anti-ape graffiti around the soldiers’ base and on their helmets, and the existence of ape defectors which side with the humans and are known as ‘donkeys’. (The enemy apes are referred to as ‘kongs’ – get it?) The visual effects used to create the apes, from their expressions to their fur, are just as amazing as ever. And then there are the characters. Since we’re mainly viewing things from the apes’ perspective, most of the humans are simply vicious killers; but we do get one or two more sympathetic individuals, such as a little girl (Amiah Miller) who is adopted by the apes and actually serves a purpose in the story beyond being a symbol of bright-eyed innocence.

The apes – most of whom can only speak with sign language and facial expressions – get a lot more development and diversity, from Caesar’s loyal lieutenant Rocket, to the eccentric and somewhat cowardly Bad Ape, to the wise and thoughtful orang-utan Maurice. But as with the previous two films, it’s ultimately Caesar’s story – and once again, it’s quite a different arc from what we’ve already seen. Rise covered his origins and how he was moulded into the being that he is. Dawn saw him struggling to maintain peace with the surviving humans while also trying to do what was best for his own people. Now, with his people at war, his responsibilities as a leader have only increased; and he’s on a quest for vengeance too, which forces him to start looking inward and questioning his own morality.

While War for the Planet of the Apes may not live up to the escalated scale that its title suggests, it’s still a very good film – with a solid story, characters and themes – that stands on the same level as its predecessors. So if you liked those, you should like this one too. Rating: 4/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 10: Final Thoughts

“I really love the fact that we’re still getting this level of quality from Doctor Who, nine series and more than ten years since its revival. Hopefully this shows that it still has plenty of momentum and will just keep going strong!”

That’s how I ended my final thoughts on Series 9 in 2015. Series 10 was most likely going to be quite different given that the Twelfth Doctor had lost Clara and was getting a new companion, with presumably fresh new storylines to go with it. After seeing the first trailer that revealed Bill, I wasn’t sure how likeable she was going to be; but as with any series of Doctor Who, I tuned in with optimism. Many fans felt that their hopes for Series 10 were met; some even called it the best series of Doctor Who so far. But I didn’t agree; in my eyes, while the series wasn’t a total disaster, it was well below average, and I grew less and less enthusiastic about it as the weeks went by.

This was Steven Moffat’s final season as showrunner: was he running out of steam, having gotten tired of Doctor Who? I don’t think so, especially considering the positive reactions of other fans. Aside from Moffat repeatedly re-using concepts from previous stories (e.g. The Lodger for The Pilot, The Girl in the Fireplace for Smile, Asylum of the Daleks for The Doctor Falls), the signs of effort were there. Some of the isolated standard adventures – Thin Ice, Knock Knock, The Eaters of Light – were very enjoyable. But elsewhere, Moffat made some poor creative decisions and relied too much on the tropes regularly associated with his work. Earlier this year, in Series 4 of Sherlock, we were given overly convoluted and ridiculous stories like Sherlock going up against the long-lost psychopathic sister whom he had repressed all memory of, and fake-outs like a scene where Moriarty appears to have returned from the dead, only for it to be revealed after about a minute that it’s a flashback. Doctor Who Series 10 had some of the same problems.

Moffat continued to use fake-outs heavily. Oh, Missy has been executed – wait, no, she hasn’t. Oh, Bill is dead – wait, no, she isn’t. (Twice.) Oh, the Doctor is regenerating in the snow – wait, no, he doesn’t. Once you’re expecting something to be a fake-out, all suspense and shock is lost. The meta jokes were also over-used way too much, until the characters speaking aloud what more cynical fans often think completely lost its charm. As for the writing, when Moffat gets it right, he provides something really clever and impressive, like in The Pyramid at the End of the World. But as well as getting bogged down in his own cleverness in Extremis this season, the central story arcs didn’t work very well. The guarding of the vault wasn’t especially interesting – particularly as so many people guessed who or what was inside – and it made the Doctor look like an irresponsible fool for willingly neglecting that responsibility. It was also hard to take Missy’s apparent redemption arc seriously; the Master has such a long history as a villain that it was practically impossible to believe s/he could ever truly turn good. Admittedly, this did have a good conclusion where after skirting the boundary of good and bad, Missy did decide to stand with the Doctor, only to be killed by her past self before she could let him know. Meanwhile, the reveal of the Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm’s Master would have been brilliant in the finale if we hadn’t already known they were coming.

I also didn’t like the Twelfth Doctor as much as in the two previous series. Peter Capaldi’s acting is as fine as ever – he gets some excellent monologues, as per usual – and he still plays the old hero, trying his best to save people where he can while still being realistic about their chances. But he was placed in situations and driven to make decisions which, while true to his character, made him look foolish: from vowing to guard the vault and then ceasing to bother, ignoring the warnings that he himself had given Nardole; to being rendered blind and then lying about it to Bill; to being over-indulgent with Missy, who has a centuries-long history of mass murder, eventually letting her run free without any apparent kind of security just in case she is in fact deceiving him.

And then we have the Monks, who get a three-episode story arc despite being among the most pathetic villains that the revived series has ever produced. Even the Slitheen, the walking fart jokes that look like the Teletubbies’ predatory cousins, were better than these guys. The Monks did display a little unconventional strategic thinking at the ‘pyramid’ stage of their plan, but besides that:
* We don’t even find out their name in the first episode where they’re introduced, despite them running the plot of the episode.
* They put considerable time and effort into building complex simulations to determine how to take over the Earth, which seems like a huge waste of time if they have the necessary information anyway.
* Their plan involves getting humans to willingly hand over their freedom, and they choose to endear themselves to humanity by looking like walking corpses.
* They succeed in taking over the world and then apparently do nothing with that power besides standing around menacingly.
* When their control over humanity breaks, they immediately run away and play no part in the rest of the season.

Finally, not the least of the season’s problems were Bill and Nardole.

Bill

Looking back over the series, my overwhelming feeling towards Bill is apathy. This has nothing to do with Pearl Mackie, who did an excellent job with what she was given and was able to handle the more emotional scenes commendably. As a character, the main things which stood out about Bill were that she was gobby and self-aware, questioning everything around her. The first quality was not used in an especially funny or endearing way, while the second was amusing at first but got old quickly. Bill was also the first openly gay companion, but that didn’t really affect anything beyond her love interest in The Pilot. Besides that, she was a nice enough person, but she didn’t have anything else that made her stand out as likeable (like Donna’s comedic moments) or interesting (like the progression of Clara’s character across two-and-a-half seasons, culminating in her becoming an equivalent of the Doctor). Thanks to her having a couple of vaguely negative traits and no outstanding positive ones, I simply didn’t care about Bill very much, not even when she got turned into a Cyberman. I did like the progression that took place early on in her relationship with the Doctor, and the bittersweet conclusion that her story was brought to, but I’m not heartbroken to see her go.

Nardole

Unlike Pearl Mackie, I do have a little bias against Matt Lucas, since I absolutely hated Little Britain. Yet I thought he was actually pretty funny as Nardole in The Husbands of River Song – but not so funny that I was clamouring to see the character again after that episode, and I’m not aware that anybody else was either. Yet, in The Return of Doctor Mysterio, there he was. Making this relatively minor character into a recurring companion seemed like a very random decision, but as Nardole remained present for the duration of Series 10, I found myself wondering how drunk Steven Moffat was on the day that he made that choice.

It wasn’t that Nardole was actively annoying for the most part – he even had some cooler moments every now and then. He just really did not need to be there; he contributed very little that was meaningful. The show did try to give him a purpose by linking him into the main story arc with the vault and having him keep reminding the Doctor of his oath, not that it mattered since the Doctor never listened to him. But that was basically all he was there for: he –  or an equivalent character – could have just stuck around the vault full-time, only making brief appearances at the beginning and end of each episode. However, he was both mobile and intelligent enough to want to come on adventures in the TARDIS too; yet he hardly ever did anything on those occasions. In Empress of Mars, the show itself acknowledged Nardole’s superfluousness by having the TARDIS carry him out of the adventure, dematerialising for no reason; it didn’t even turn out to be a clever plot by Missy to get herself out of the vault.

Like Bill, I did not find Nardole a good enough character to get invested in. And if he had to be there, the show should either have had him staying in the background, or playing an active role in adventures, rather than just twiddling his thumbs unless the Doctor needed an extra person to talk to.

Best and Worst Episodes

01. The Doctor Falls (9/10)
02. Knock Knock (9/10)
03. Thin Ice (8/10)
04. The Pyramid at the End of the World (8/10)
05. The Eaters of Light (7/10)
06. Oxygen (7/10)
07. Empress of Mars (6/10)
08. Smile (6/10)
09. The Pilot (5/10)
10. The Lie of the Land (5/10)
11. Extremis (3/10)
12. World Enough and Time (2/10)

Best episode: Funny – usually in a two-part finale, it’s the second episode that’s a letdown. But this time, it was the setup in World Enough and Time that had problems, and the payoff in The Doctor Falls that really delivered, with its use of the Cybermen and the two Masters, as well as the conclusion of Bill’s journey. It also made me feel more emotional than any of the other episodes in the series, making it an easy choice for the best one.

Worst episode: Even though I gave World Enough and Time the lowest rating (and I may have been overly harsh), many of the things I didn’t like about it were in context with the rest of the series, like the meta jokes. Had the story taken place in another series with another companion, I would probably have liked it better. Extremis, on the other hand, is a bad episode all by itself. It had confusing switching between times and places, twists that didn’t feel connected, and a story that wandered round in circles for too long. Like my least favourite episode of Series 8, Listen, it was a good example of what happens when Steven Moffat tries to be too clever.

How This Series Compares

Here’s my mean average episode ranking for Series 10, including the last Christmas special.

01. Series 9 (7.6 – SD 1.7)
02. Series 4 (7.1 – SD 0.8)
03. Series 1 (7.1 – SD 2.2)
04. Series 5 (7.0 – SD 1.4)
05. Series 8 (6.9 – SD 1.8)
06. Series 6 (6.8 – SD 2.0)
07. Series 3 (6.5 – SD 1.3)
08. Series 7 (6.5 – SD 1.6)
09. Series 2 (6.3 – SD 1.9)
10. Series 10 (6.3 – SD 2.1)

There it is at the bottom, with a very slightly higher standard deviation than Series 2. Quite a disappointment after how good Series 9 was. The final episode did alleviate many of my negative feelings, and the Christmas special looks like it’ll be a good one; but after all this, I’m definitely ready to see a new showrunner. What direction will Chris Chibnall take the show in? We shall see.

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Film review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

This was the movie I was looking forward to most in 2017. When it comes to my favourite superheroes, Batman and Spider-Man are neck and neck; so I was very excited when Sony and Marvel Studios did a deal that would allow Spider-Man to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His extended cameo in Captain America: Civil War was enough to leave me eager for more – but perhaps my expectations were raised too high, because while Spider-Man: Homecoming is not a bad movie, it falls far short of greatness.

After being recruited to help Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) tackle Captain America in Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is dropped off back in New York, with the new high-tech Spider-Man suit that Stark made for him, and assurances that he’ll be in touch if anything comes up. Two months later, Peter is still waiting, unable to focus on his high school life while he tries to help the city as Spider-Man and dreams of becoming an Avenger. Finally, a threat presents itself in the form of Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton): a salvage worker who feels cheated by the government in the wake of the Chitauri invasion, Toomes has set up an underground business stealing and selling alien technology, assisted by his vulture-like flying suit. With his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) as his confidante, Peter takes it upon himself to bring Toomes and his henchmen to justice, despite repeated conflicts with his school career and Stark’s warnings not to get in over his head.

This film succeeds in being very different to the two Spider-Man film series that came before it. For one thing, it assumes that everybody watching already knows Spider-Man’s origin story: there’s not even a summarising montage at the beginning like in The Incredible Hulk. Peter’s spider bite is briefly mentioned, and the only references to Uncle Ben are ambiguous and indirect, like when Peter worries about putting his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) under more stress. Feeling confident enough to dive right into the present life of its hero certainly doesn’t do the movie any harm. It also feels more experimental as it mixes in high school tropes – though this can make story sections predictable sometimes – and gives us an awkward, inexperienced Spider-Man, which fits perfectly given that he’s only fifteen. His initial ventures into patrolling New York see him giving directions to pedestrians and stopping crimes that aren’t actually crimes, which is probably what the average day would look like for a wannabe superhero in real life. Even the settings are unfamiliar for a Spider-Man story: at one point, he has to chase a van through a suburban neighbourhood where there are only trees to web-swing from. It’s a far cry from his usual elegant swings among Manhattan skyscrapers. The whole approach reminded me of Kick-Ass, particularly as Peter’s youth and clumsiness makes him appear more vulnerable and makes you fear for inevitable, painful consequences.

Spider-Man is known for being a more light-hearted hero – especially if you can sidestep his origin story – and the film certainly gets that right, with a decent blend of comedy. (Three words: Enhanced Interrogation Mode.) I also liked how Peter’s relationship with Tony Stark is portrayed, with Tony having more interest and respect for Peter than is initially apparent. This definitely isn’t Iron Man 4 by another name as some people suspected: Tony only makes a few appearances, and that shot from the trailers of Spider-Man and Iron Man zooming along side by side isn’t even in the movie. As is typical with MCU movies, there are quite a few Easter Eggs, such as at least one potential future villain with a revealing tattoo on his face. As I know Spider-Man better than I do most comic book characters, it was fun to guess at whether things were deliberate references or not, like whether a girl in the background with long white hair might be Felicia Hardy.

Tom Holland does an excellent job with what he’s asked to do: keeping the character of Peter Parker likeable, capturing the adolescent awkwardness, enthusiasm and dorkiness of this incarnation, and finding time for the odd quip from behind the mask of Spider-Man. His physical performance is particularly good: he’s much springier and lighter on his feet than any previous Spider-Man (presumably owing to Holland’s background in dance), whether he’s jumping or web-swinging – indeed, just like a jumping spider. Questions like ‘how does he compare to Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield?’ are ultimately unfair because Holland is playing such a different version of the character, less mature and still finding his feet; this whole movie is a depiction of the transitional phase that went by relatively briefly with Maguire and Garfield.

As for villains, the film avoids reprising anyone from previous installments just yet, and gives us the Vulture, who was intended to be the main antagonist in Sam Raimi’s planned Spider-Man 4. (The Shocker is technically there too as one of Vulture’s henchmen, but he only has a few brief scenes and doesn’t get a full costume.) Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is definitely one of the stronger villains in the MCU, not just because his motivations are understandable, but because rather than a god or a mad scientist or a corrupt businessman, Toomes is just an ordinary working-class guy, somebody who could live next door to you. Outside of his secret criminal business, primarily intended to provide an income for his family, he enjoys an ordinary homelife and seems like a nice bloke – then he threatens to kill you if you get in his way, and leaves you in no doubt that he means it.

For all the good stuff, the film unfortunately has its share of problems too. The script, which is pretty good on the surface, is let down by a lack of decent character moments. The majority of Peter’s interactions throughout are with his friend Ned, who is the typical annoying, overenthusiastic best bud, lost in how super-cool Peter’s secret identity is. The other side characters are badly underdeveloped: Peter’s love interest Liz (Laura Harrier) didn’t get nearly enough screen time for me to care about their budding relationship; and the other girl in his peer group, Michelle (Zendaya), seemingly exists only to make snarky comments. As for Aunt May, Peter hardly gets to talk to her at all. The action is also below average. We don’t get much of Spider-Man actually fighting the Vulture: the first three times that they encounter each other, it’s only brief, and in the climactic battle, the editing is too rapid and the light too low to properly see what’s going on.

Spider-Man: Homecoming deserves credit for trying hard to do things differently from its predecessors, and the elements that it does get right are top-notch. Unfortunately, due to its more mediocre ingredients, I found the end product to be something of a disappointment, though still a reasonably entertaining movie. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Doctor Who – Series 10, Episode 12: “The Doctor Falls”

  • The beginning of this episode left me thinking wistfully of a time when Doctor Who cliffhangers actually followed directly on from when the previous episode ended.
  • We finally get the Two Masters concept used in full, and it’s really great. I love their interactions, like the dancing, and John Simm’s clearly enjoying himself being in the role again. I actually like him better here than I did in his previous appearances. He’s toned down the clownish insanity a bit and is more classic Master; he even stands and dresses a bit like Roger Delgado. As for Missy, it’s like she genuinely was trying to reform – it wasn’t part of some grand scheme after all – but the presence of the Master compels her to take the easy route and revert. She almost seems to decide whether she’s good or evil on spur-of-the-moment impulses.
  • At least we get something of an explanation as to how the Master survived in The End of Time, even if it’s open to having holes poked in it. Wasn’t Gallifrey about to be destroyed when the Doctor stopped the Time Lords from coming through? Or did the events of The Day of the Doctor undo all that, meaning there was time for the Master to be cured and subsequently exiled somehow?
  • Hmm, another not-so-subtle poke at Donald Trump.
  • I like how the music ‘This is Gallifrey, Our Childhood, Our Home’ starts playing as the Doctor monologues on the rooftop.
  • I had to stick my tongue in my cheek when the Master tells Nardole, “He told me he’d always hated you,” and again later when Nardole himself says, “For a moment there, I was feeling a glimmer of purpose.”
  • I did guess that Bill was only imagining she was no longer a Cyberman, which was presumably so that we could actually see Pearl Mackie’s face for a good portion of the episode. Also, we’ve already had this concept in Asylum of the Daleks. And if she can override the programming and still feel emotion (because companions always need to be special like that), how come she’s not in constant pain? Damn, this series has turned me into a cynic.
  • The episode really gets the emotions going from here, as we lead up to the climax. Cyber-Bill’s conversations with the Doctor, and him admitting he can’t do anything, are pretty tragic in spite of my personal lack of attachment to Bill. Peter Capaldi gets yet another brilliant monologue as he reinforces the Doctor’s character to the two Masters: “It’s the best I can do, so I’m doing it.” And I did feel tense and wondering how things would turn out as the final battle approached.
  • A perfect conclusion for the two Masters as they end up destroying each other, like the ending of Double Indemnity. Too bad the Doctor will never know that Missy was in fact ready to reform. Though I suppose some future showrunner will find a way to make the Master live again if and when they feel like it.
  • So that does look like all she wrote for Bill and Nardole. Having Bill be unexpectedly reunited with Heather was pretty darn heartfelt; even though I should be annoyed because Bill technically doesn’t die and is cured from being a Cyberman, I’m not because it was a really nice conclusion for her.
  • So yeah, that regeneration at the beginning of the last episode was indeed a fake-out. Hopefully in the Christmas special, we’ll find out why the Doctor was apparently regenerating even before he got shot by a Cyberman. Was it the penalty for breaking his oath? Some explanation as to why he now doesn’t want to regenerate would also be welcome: is he just tired of life?
  • Wait, the First Doctor?! Awesome! And he’s played by David Bradley from An Adventure in Space and Time? Even more awesome!

Well, after last episode (which I might have been a little too harsh on), I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this finale so much. The build-up from the first part may have been flawed, but the payoff in this one was excellent. It was easily the most emotional episode of the season, and I wasn’t even as happy to say goodbye to Bill and Nardole as I expected. Definitely a worthy season finale, and bring on the Christmas special – and for goodness sake, somebody tell us who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be already. Rating: 9/10.

So, my final thoughts for Series 10 are going to be rather complicated. Watch out for them soon!

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Celine Dion Live in Leeds!

 

Celine Dion has been my favourite singer for a long time, and one of my dreams has been to see her perform live. Back in January, I was tremendously excited to learn that Celine would be touring Europe later in the year – which would include performances in the UK. I managed to snag tickets for her Manchester show, and happily sat back to wait for the end of June.

But we all know what happened at the Manchester Arena back in May. A few uncertain weeks later, it was announced that following those tragic events, the arena would not be re-opening until at least September, and Celine’s two shows there would have to be postponed. I was fearful of a complete cancellation, but further news followed relatively quickly: Celine would be performing on the same date, but at the First Direct Arena in Leeds, though tickets were not necessarily guaranteed due to the smaller size of the venue. Fortunately, I still managed to get tickets for myself and my mum, so we would still be going after all.

Given all the uncertainty that had led up to it, it was only when we took our seats that I allowed myself to fully relax and feel truly excited. My thrill levels rose as the spotlight shone upon a figure on stage. Except it wasn’t Celine Dion; it was…Sia?

There she was, complete with black-and-white fringe covering her eyes and a big black bow on her head, singing Chandelier. Seemed like a surprising support act.

But when the song was over, “Sia” threw away her wig and revealed herself to be a French-Canadian musical impressionist named Veronic DiCaire. Clearly having as much fun as the audience, she proceeded to put on a fantastic little show, with impressions of Adele, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Tina Turner and others. She deservedly received a standing ovation when it was over.

There was a short break – and then, finally, Celine herself was on stage, her musicians and backup singers behind her. A huge grin formed on my face as she kicked off with The Power of Love; those vocals are good enough on a CD, but listening to them live is something else – even if the crowd singing along occasionally came close to drowning them out!

 

As expected, the subject of Manchester was raised early on, as Celine explained everything that had happened to ensure as many fans as possible still had a show to go to, and gave her own message of love and support to the UK. The moments where she engaged with the audience in-between songs were pleasant, with a little humour and a lot of emotion, particularly when talking about her late husband Rene; she came across as a truly lovely lady. As for the songs themselves, the two-hour show featured a long setlist with most of her greatest hits, personal favourites including Coming Back To Me Now and Because You Loved Me. Celine’s song from the Beauty and the Beast remake, How Does A Moment Last Forever, was featured, and immediately followed up by her original song from the animated film.

With most of her ballads in the first two-thirds, Celine moved in a more energetic and funky direction for the final third. Then she left the stage and it looked like the end – but everybody knew it wasn’t, as there was still one notable hit she hadn’t performed! Sure enough, Celine’s voice came out of the darkness, gently singing the opening theme to Titanic – and appearing on the stage in a wide ballgown, she launched into My Heart Will Go On, with the audience joining in. Well, of course that beauty had to be saved for last.

Though it wasn’t quite last: when that was done, Celine stepped out of the dress – leaving it sitting on the stage like a wigwam – and headed into the audience, climbing about halfway up the steep sides of the arena, apparently to see what the view was like for all of us. After some concluding remarks, she gave one last song – Love of my Life – and then made such a quick exit that the final round of applause was relatively short and quiet.

So, what was it like to finally see Celine Dion live? Just as wonderful as I imagined, if not more so. I’m so happy at being able to fulfil this dream, and I hope I get the chance to see her again one day. So thank you, Celine and everyone involved, for a fantastic evening!

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