Film review: 1917

1917

My first cinema visit of 2020 has been 1917, directed by Sam Mendes. Beginning on 6th April 1917 in WW1 France, we follow British soldiers Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they are given an urgent assignment: a nearby battalion is preparing to attack the Germans, unaware that the enemy is only feigning a retreat, and that they will be massacred unless the attack is called off. Instructed to deliver the orders by dawn the next day, Schofield and Blake begin their race against time across a war-torn landscape where no place is safe.

The film is cleverly put together to look like one continuous shot all the way through. We open with Schofield and Blake dozing at the edge of a seemingly peaceful field, then the camera follows them as they get up and walk through their crowded camp and the tight squeeze of the trenches. Aside from one time skip due to unconsciousness, the whole film plays out this way, in real time. This has the effect of making the whole film feel more “real” and engaging, as we literally follow the protagonists through every step and explore the environment with them. And it’s never boring, even at times when their lives aren’t in immediate danger.

Scenes of tension are mixed together perfectly with quieter, safer moments. The latter serve as a relief from the former, which can become truly unbearable, helped by the excellent orchestral score by Thomas Newman; even when there don’t appear to be any German soldiers around, you’re just waiting for something bad to happen as the ominous music builds, but with no more idea where danger will come from than the characters. The acting is excellent all round, with George MacKay clearly portraying Schofield’s physical and mental exhaustion as he goes through hell to complete the mission, and the extras helping to make everything feel real. This is also helped by how well the settings are presented: the trenches and battlegrounds are appropriately horrifying, with wreckage, rats and abandoned corpses all around. Small details, like graffiti and a family photo in an empty German medical ward, say an awful lot.

There really is nothing to fault about 1917. The style, the atmosphere, the tension, the acting, the music and the cinematography are all top-notch – this is a must-see. Rating: 5/5!

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BBC’s A Christmas Carol: No Christmas Spirit Here

(Spoilers)

The recent TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol faced the same problem as Dracula in that there are already so many different adaptations of the story out there – so how is a new one going to stand out? The trailer seemed to provide the answer: by turning the dark and creepy angle up to eleven, even more than the Robert Zemeckis animated film. That seemed an interesting take – and the final production is indeed very dark and creepy. Unfortunately, it also seems to forget that A Christmas Carol is meant to be an ultimately positive story that will “haunt you pleasantly“, and while it tries half-heartedly to retain the themes of redemption and generosity, they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of gloominess within. There is nothing that will haunt you pleasantly about this version.

It was clear from the trailer that plenty would be changed. Barely any dialogue is taken from the book: it takes 43 minutes into the first episode for Scrooge to even say “humbug”. The three ghosts are completely transformed: Christmas Past is a sinister, bearded old man, Christmas Present takes the form of Scrooge’s sister, and Christmas Yet To Come is an undertaker with his mouth sewn shut. However, keeping the title, the Victorian setting and the character names creates the false expectation that the adaptation doesn’t want to totally distance itself from Charles Dickens’s work, and will at least remain true to the spirit of the classic story. Changes don’t have to be a bad thing: the 1951 film, for example, invents a lot of new scenes expanding upon Scrooge’s backstory. But so much is changed here beyond the basic plot outline that it might as well be an original story, and these changes don’t teach us anything new about the characters or the message, because neither are the same as those of Dickens.

When you look beneath the skin, past the expected miserly habits, Guy Pearce’s Ebenezer Scrooge is not the one we’re familiar with. Rather than having no interest in Christmas, he is interested enough to point out that the Bible never refers to the date of Jesus’s birth, and wax philosophically on how it’s the one day of the year that people pretend to like each other. Rather than being apathetic towards his fellow man, he is instead deliberately cruel, playing mindgames to experiment with human nature and swindling a mill owner to make a profit. Not only that, but he’s been responsible for the deaths of many people, thanks to factory and coal mine accidents that were caused by his penny-pinching and neglect. By the time he offers Mrs Cratchit money for Tiny Tim’s medical care in exchange for sexual favours, only to reveal he just wanted to see if she would abandon her principles by agreeing to that, I was wondering why I shouldn’t want to see this Scrooge dragging chains for all eternity. Other characters resemble their familiar counterparts in name only: Bob Cratchit isn’t afraid to talk back to Scrooge (who, for some reason, doesn’t sack him for doing so) and openly tells his family that he despises the man; while Scrooge’s nephew Fred, far from being cheerful and optimistic, tells his uncle that if he doesn’t come to dinner this Christmas, he will never bother asking again.

This is definitely not A Christmas Carol for kids: the f-word is dropped twice in the first episode, and Jacob Marley is graphically missing his jaw when he first appears to Scrooge. The grim atmosphere permeates everything to the point that you can’t see anyone in this world deriving happiness and goodwill from Christmas at the best of times. Fezziwig and his Christmas party are totally absent from the Christmas Past sequence, and even the Cratchit family Christmas doesn’t feel joyful. Most shocking and dark is the revelation that as a child, Scrooge was molested by his headmaster – and his sister Lottie (not Fan) selflessly coming to rescue him from this horror is, according to Christmas Past, supposed to represent the spirit of Christmas. Yes, that is the most positive, heartening, Christmassy thing in this story: a boy being rescued from abuse.

When we get to the start of the final episode and we’re still on Christmas Past, you’d expect that the rest of the story would be pretty rushed – and you’d be right. Christmas Present covers what the Cratchit family is doing, followed by a memorial service for some coal miners whose deaths were caused by Scrooge; while Christmas Yet To Come covers the deaths of Tiny Tim and Scrooge himself equally briskly. Scrooge is given little time to get attached to Tiny Tim – so when, later, he is horrified by Tim’s death and wants him to be spared above himself, it doesn’t feel convincing. To be fair, the altered emotional journey that Scrooge goes on is fairly interesting and would make for a good story if it were one with original characters: rendered emotionally numb by his childhood experiences, he is made to confront his pain and understand what makes love worth giving and accepting. But with more emphasis on repentance rather than self-improvement, it’s still all too depressing to work as a moral, and certainly not motivating. Scrooge is ultimately judged to have learned his lesson when he tells Marley that he won’t change because a miserable death and afterlife are no less than he deserves.

So, what about the ending? Well, there’s no description of Scrooge performing various charitable works and becoming well-loved about town. Instead, he closes down his company, parts ways with the Cratchits on grudgingly peaceful terms, and says that while he neither wants nor expects forgiveness, he will try to do better with the time he has left. Maybe this is more realistic than the familiar version – especially considering all the terrible things this Scrooge has done – but this conclusion which only permits a glimmer of hope and inspiration doesn’t exactly make you feel that all the negativity was worth it.

If this was the story that the people behind this adaptation wanted to tell, I feel they should have gone further and used a similar concept to Scrooged: something obviously inspired by A Christmas Carol, but at a safe enough distance from the original story that they could do what they wanted without it seeming out of place. The approach that they chose is just another example of how not to adapt something.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 2: “Spyfall, Part Two”

  • The instructions that the Doctor leaves for Ryan – “How To Land A Plane Without A Cockpit” – and her recording are pretty funny, and so is Graham during this scene. Indeed, Graham continues to provide a lot of the comic relief – such as with his laser-shoe dancing – without being a purely comic relief character.
  • So in the end, there’s no explanation at all for why the Master is still alive – and, assuming he’s regenerated from Missy, why s/he changed his/her mind about reforming. But as I said in the last episode’s blog post, the Master has cheated death so many times already, so is an explanation for doing it yet again really necessary?
  • And forming evil alliances with powerful aliens he barely understands is old hat for the Master, too. It didn’t tend to end well for him in the Roger Delgado days, either.
  • Sacha Dhawan does such a great evil smile.
  • The Doctor kneeling before the Master and calling him by his name is considerably more unsettling when the Doctor is a woman.
  • Having the Doctor be transported to the 19th century does feel out of nowhere, until we’re reminded of those multiple Earth maps that were actually multiple time zones.
  • Cool, Ada Lovelace. As I recall, when she was last on TV, Queen Victoria was convinced that she’d seduced Albert with the power of mathematics.
  • When I saw the Master in that Nazi uniform, my first thought was why Nazi soldiers would be taking orders from a man of Indian appearance. Turns out there actually were Indians who fought for the Nazis – but then it’s explained away with a perception filter anyway.
  • Nice callback with those four beats, though it’s referred to as the beating of two hearts rather than the drumming in the Master’s head. Does he still hear that?
  • Does the Doctor going back and setting everything up for her companions to stop the plane crashing count as crossing her own timeline, which she isn’t allowed to do? Oh, well – it’s probably happened some other time too.
  • So presumably the Timeless Child and the destruction of Gallifrey (again) will be the arc for this season. I hope not all the Time Lords are gone, otherwise it’s going to make The Day of the Doctor rather pointless.

While the plot had some potential in utilising the all too real worry about computers holding everything about our lives, I found the Kasaavin hard to understand and not very interesting. Everything else was pretty good, though. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Dracula: If It’s Not Going To Be Faithful, At Least Make It Fun

(Spoilers)

When watching the BBC’s most recent literary adaptations – The War of the Worlds, His Dark Materials and A Christmas Carol – I couldn’t help but compare them to the original source material. His Dark Materials was the most faithful, and the most enjoyable to watch. The War of the Worlds ignored a lot of the logical ideas that H.G. Wells applied to his Martians, and often failed to make sense as a result. A Christmas Carol used little more than the basic plot outline and character names of Charles Dickens’s original work, and had ideas that could have been interesting if it were a completely original story, but was ultimately a joyless, un-Christmassy experience that did not respect the tone and message of the original at all.

With an adaptation of Dracula, however, it feels hypocritical to complain about any lack of adherence to Bram Stoker’s novel, since there are many, many films and TV programmes about Count Dracula out there, and hardly any of them really stick to the novel. The 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola has a whole invented subplot about Mina being the reincarnation of Dracula’s wife, and yet is still one of the more relatively faithful versions. Not to mention, with there being so many other versions, someone creating their own brand-new Dracula adaptation must feel under pressure to do theirs differently (as A Christmas Carol tried to do, though not very well). My faith in creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss happened to be limited, Moffat having used up the goodwill he earned for the earlier seasons of Doctor Who and Sherlock. However, their version of Dracula does stay true to the basic concepts – gothic horror, Transylvanian vampire, plucky humans trying to bring him down, etc – and most importantly, they still make it entertaining.

It’s clear from early on that this is going to deviate a long way from the book. Jonathan Harker is killed off in the first episode – curiously, the BBC’s last adaptation of Dracula also chose to get rid of him early – and Mina Murray has barely any role at all. Then there’s the decision to turn Professor van Helsing into Sister Agatha van Helsing, which felt a bit ridiculous at first, but a fantastic performance by Dolly Wells really sells it. The second episode is devoted to Dracula’s voyage to England on the Demeter, where he travels as a passenger (“What did you think I was going to do, lie around in a box?”) and the voyage plays out like an Agatha Christie murder mystery where the audience is well aware who the killer is.

Given that Dracula makes it to England within the first quarter of the book, it felt like an awful lot was going to be crammed into the third and final episode, unless Moffat and Gatiss had more than one series planned. Instead, for Episode 3, the book is almost completely thrown out the window as Dracula is unexpectedly incapacitated for over a century and wakes up in the present day. A lot of people seemed not to approve of this decision on Twitter, and it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, but I felt that they still made it work. The only real issue I had with it was that after two episodes getting to know Sister Agatha, she is now necessarily replaced by her distant niece Zoe (also played by Wells), a different character whom we only have one episode to get re-attached to.

The whole thing doesn’t feel like it can be taken too seriously, particularly given Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula: he’s a little camp and very charismatic, with plenty of wry remarks. At the same time, though, he is without mercy and gives off a constantly dangerous aura – yet you can’t help but be drawn to him, despite knowing that he’s a monster. In fact, that’s how watching this adaptation feels: strangely compelling even though what’s on screen is frequently disturbing and horrifying. One thing that turned me off the first episode somewhat was that the gore and body horror involved were at very high levels even for a Dracula adaptation; however, the second and third episodes aren’t quite as bad as that regard, though still bloody.

One sometimes sees the touches of the writers trying to be clever and bamboozling like their previous works – for example, after the first episode ends with Dracula menacing Sister Agatha and Mina in the convent as they scream in terror, the second inexplicably begins with Dracula and Agatha amicably playing chess in an unknown location. (And sure enough, there’s a twist behind that.) But that’s not overdone; it’s mostly just straightforward horror with a dash of black comedy. And I liked the ending too, which took a surprising look into the psychology of Dracula, though the final conclusion did feel a bit abrupt. So ultimately, Dracula is a win for Moffat and Gatiss; maybe they just needed something fresh.

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Doctor Who – Series 12, Episode 1: “Spyfall, Part One”

After a year’s wait, and a second Christmas with no special, Doctor Who is finally back on our screens. Such a long hiatus did make me worry a bit about the show’s long-term future, as did (unfounded) rumours partway through the year of a huge fallout that had caused both Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall to quit. Series 11 certainly had its detractors, but I for one enjoyed it, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing what Series 12 has to offer.

(Spoilers)

  • I like the James Bond-esque spy thriller opening, mixed with the hint of strange monsters that makes it clear this is still Doctor Who.
  • Why do the companions need to have these gaps in their lives when the Doctor can bring them back to Earth at any time? Maybe it’s due to the TARDIS’s questionable reliability in that regard.
  • A killer satnav – technically not a new threat, though it has been almost twelve years since we saw it.
  • Thirteen is still as good as ever, with her slightly manic moments – and I liked the companions here too, from Graham’s enthusiasm about being a spy, to Ryan and Yasmin’s exchanges (e.g. on using Logan as a codename).
  • And we finally get Stephen Fry in Doctor Who! Just a shame that he’s quickly killed off.
  • Given that C was surprised to find that the Doctor was now a woman, I found it a bit confusing that O wasn’t. Or maybe that was a clue…
  • Funny how the Doctor could survive 123 years in the outback with nothing more exciting than rocks, but couldn’t last more than a few decades guarding Missy’s vault without getting itchy feet back in Series 10.
  • I’m glad the show doesn’t waste time pretending that Yasmin might actually be dead when she’s apparently disintegrated.
  • The Master is back! That definitely caught me off guard; if it was spoiled anywhere, I didn’t hear about it. Yes, there are plenty of questions about how this happened, but then, coming back from apparent death is basically Tuesday for the Master. And I really liked Sacha Dhawan’s performance once he was exposed, with the same sort of insane, delighted evil as Anthony Ainley or John Simm.

This episode certainly wasn’t as dark and gritty as the Series 11 opener, but it still has the more “grounded” feel of Series 11; in previous eras, we might have seen the Doctor flying the TARDIS after Daniel Barton rather than using  a motorbike. Other things seem to lean more towards an older audience, like the talk of private companies outsourcing tech expertise and the explanation of the alien language being untranslatable (which, again, is more complicated here than a similar issue was back in Series 2). As a whole, the episode definitely had fun moments – particularly with the team playing spies – but also had slow pacing at times, so comes out as average overall. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Happy New Year – 2020!

Happy New Year (and decade), everybody! For 2020’s New Year’s Resolutions, I’m trying to take a more focussed approach to my main aims for the year (one thing that was suggested to me in the online personal development group was that I was trying to do too many things at once) and take more gradual steps to develop the areas where I can be doing better.

Here are some of my resolutions:

  • My big goal for the year is actually getting one of my novel drafts into a publishable state, as well as sharing my fiction writing more and getting feedback on it.
  • My next running goal is to complete a half-marathon.
  • I want to generally be more focussed, creating schedules and sticking to them, like factoring meditation and muscle-building exercises into the day.
  • Having read or listened to 66 books in 2018 and 70 in 2019, I’ve set this year’s Reading Challenge at 60 books.
  • I will finish watching all the episodes of classic Doctor Who this year – I only have eleven adventures left to go (seven for the Sixth Doctor and four for the Seventh Doctor).

I hope you have some great plans for 2020!

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Looking Back on 2019

In some ways, 2019 has been a hard year. In April, my grandma sadly passed away, and is much missed. I also had an incident while driving where another car crossed in front of me at traffic lights without warning, bumped my car and then drove off without stopping; I wasn’t hurt, but it was a frightening thing to happen and sorting out repairs, etc was stressful. Things like that, when they happened, made it hard to focus on less essential things in life: that’s partly why I haven’t done so well with my New Year’s resolutions and why I haven’t made as many posts on this blog as I have in previous years.

There are other reasons for that as well, though. I’ve been continuing to study more about personal development this year, including taking part in an online development group. This has made me reflect on the fact that when it comes to pursuing some things like my fiction writing, I’m still being held back by uncertainty and a lack of self-confidence. I was encouraged to confront this by doing things like sharing my writing with other people and getting feedback, which I have done, and perhaps that’s something I can do more on this blog in 2020 as well.

And there have been positive things as well in 2019:

  • My job is going really well, and I’ve continued to take opportunities for development. Plus my team finally won the lunchtime quiz league after coming second in two previous years!
  • My family has a new golden retriever named Stevie, after former Liverpool FC player Steven Gerrard. And in the year we’ve had him, Liverpool have won the Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and are currently leading the Premier League by 13 points!
  • I completed three 10K events, setting a new personal best in the Preston 10K.
  • I went back to the United States and was able to do things like whale-watching and checking some spacecraft exhibits off my list. I also learned various lessons about travelling alone, like making sure to plan adequate time to rest, and following your gut when deciding between things to see.
  • I’ve read or listened to 70 books, a new record for me.
  • I also drove further than I have before by going to Pontefract and back, to see a lecture by astronaut Jack Lousma.
  • I’ve tried factoring new beneficial activities into my routine, like meditation and muscle-building exercises.
  • I saw a grass snake for the first time, which was an item off my wildlife bucket list.

As I’m working on my aims and resolutions for 2020, I have various themes in mind: continuing to develop my strengths and habits that have had a positive impact, gradually confronting any negative thought processes that are holding me back, and not spreading myself too thin when it comes to my ultimate goals.

I hope you’ve had a great holiday season, and here’s to a positive 2020!

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My Favourite Things in 2019

Favourite Books (Fiction)

05. The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (audio)
I finished Parts V, VI and VII of the Dark Tower series this year, and Part V was the best of those, with a narrative that turns out to be more complex than it first appears, and which stays interesting throughout despite a lot of the content being world-building. Parts VI and VII are also good, but not quite as satisfying.

04. Vardaesia by Lynette Noni (print)
The last instalment of Lynette Noni’s Medoran Chronicles is the best of the series. Emotions run high as the familiar characters are put through a variety of challenges and share some poignant moments. And when we get to the final confrontation at the end, things are truly intense; I was hooked. The whole series, while not without its flaws, is a charming, exciting fantasy adventure and I look forward to any more stories from this universe; I certainly liked the short story that was released for free for Christmas.

03. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind (print)
There were two things I loved about this book. First, the style and how deeply it throws itself into creating an imaginative sensory experience as you read: with scent being such a central theme of the story, the author makes sure you can imagine every foul odour of 18th century France, while also exploring the idea of scent influencing people even on a subconscious level. Second, there’s the main character, Grenouille, who is evil but truly fascinating: I loved delving into his sociopathic thoughts and how his unique way of experiencing the world – through his unusually sharp nose – influenced his beliefs and motivations.

02. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (audio)
This historical novel set in 12th century England is very long, but worth it. I enjoyed the variety of characters and how we follow their lives for so many years, I was invested in the struggles that they go through, and I liked the history behind it all and how it affected them. The story is very well paced; every scene has a purpose, and while a few time jumps feel like they’re leaving useful information out, most of them keep the flow going optimally.

01. The Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer (ten in print, two in audio)
Yes, I’m cheating to put a whole twelve-book series in the number one spot – a series which by itself makes up 17% of all the books I read this year – but the Bloody Jack Adventures really do feel like one big story separated into twelve chapters, so it doesn’t feel right to separate them out (though the third instalment, Under the Jolly Roger, is my personal favourite). I really loved these books, for the adventure, the humour, the history, and of course their irrepressible heroine, Jacky Faber herself.

Favourite Books (Non-Fiction)

10. Hitchcock by Francois Truffault (print)
When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, somebody replied that it contained everything you need to know about filmmaking. I’m not sure about “everything”, but it certainly teaches a great deal. In this transcript of a 1962 interview, Alfred Hitchcock discusses all of his films up to that point (so almost all of the ones worth talking about) and the different aspects of his approach to filmmaking: the aim of stimulating emotion in the audience, his preference for strong situations over strong characters, how he creates suspense as opposed to surprise – how he made the stories, the actors and the technical details work. After reading this book, you’ll find yourself watching films in a different way, examining each shot and wondering what the director was aiming for.

09. The Way Things Work Now by David Macaulay (print)
If you’ve ever looked at the technology around you, from your car to your computer to your mains electricity, and wanted to know exactly how it all works, this is the book for you. It covers just about every commonly used gadget you can think of, breaking it down to the physical principles that make it operate, in a way that’s easy to comprehend; the author frequently uses little humorous stories involving woolly mammoths to demonstrate the principles of what he’s talking about. This is still a really informative book which has helped me to look at the world with a bit more understanding, and appreciation for the very smart people that invented all these gadgets in the first place.

08. Tamed by Alice Roberts (print)
A very interesting book that covers both the origins and evolution of our most important domesticated animals and plants, and other relevant topics such as genetic modification linked throughout. Highly recommended for people interested in both science and history.

07. Into that Silent Sea by Francis French (audio)
Even as a space buff, I learned a lot of new info from this book: it covers early manned space flights, both American and Soviet, from Vostok 1 to Voskhod 2, going into detail about both the missions and the people who flew them. There are all sorts of interesting background stories, such as a chapter dedicated to the Mercury 13, female pilots who underwent astronaut physical training for scientific purposes and subsequently made a case for actually flying into space.

06. The Book of Snakes by Mark O’Shea (print)
Snakes being my favourite animals, this is the sort of book I’ve always wanted. Mark O’Shea provides informative profiles of 600 species of snake (almost one in six of all currently known species), each with high-quality photographs, and spanning the breadth of the snake family tree. Most of the really familiar and important species are covered, and if a particular well-known species doesn’t get a profile to itself, it is usually mentioned in the ‘Related Species’ section for a snake of the same genus. There are also plenty of snakes for whom little is known, providing more diversity for the book and emphasising how much we still have to learn about these fascinating reptiles.

05. The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (print)
A wonderful companion to the television series, which teaches the reader (or viewer) to look at the Solar System in a new way. It emphasises how dynamic the system really is, explaining the histories of the planets and how we deduce them (though I would have liked a little more info on how the sensors of spacecraft collect the relevant data, eg spectrometers). I particularly liked Brian Cox’s writing in the chapter on Mars, where he talks about the aims of science and just why we should head out into the Solar System rather than being totally focussed on Earth.

04. Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins (audio)
A brilliant book for those who are interested in personal development. Goggins encourages you to confront hard truths and surpass what you think are your limits; his stories about his physical accomplishments are sure to get you fired up if you’re into physical improvement yourself.

03. Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (print)
For someone like me who enjoys the statistical side of football, this book is a great read. It delves deep into what the data really tells us about different aspects of football, the actual reasons for the patterns that we see, and whether traditional theories about the game really hold weight. Once you’ve read it, you’ll feel that you know a great deal more about football: what really makes a team most likely to win matches, how the game has been affected by television and the global market, the true benefits (and costs) of hosting a major tournament, and yes, why England haven’t won the World Cup since 1966. The only dissatisfaction is that this edition was published just before the 2018 World Cup, and I would be interested to see how the results from that tournament (particularly England’s) factor into the authors’ conclusions. Most likely there will be another new edition in a few years.

02. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holliday (print)
This is a really useful book. Its examples will help you look for opportunities to apply principles of Stoic philosophy throughout your life and thoughts – it takes practice, but you will be better and happier for it.

01. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte (print)
This book takes a different approach from most books on dinosaurs; it tells a consistent chronological story of their evolution, from the Triassic to the Cretaceous, explaining how they evolved and dispersed the way they did, influenced by the world around them and each other. The author also includes stories about his own fossil-hunting experiences and the fellow palaeontologists he has met, which makes the book even more engaging. I learned a great deal from this book; it’s essential reading for those interested in dinosaurs and palaeontology.

Favourite Films Seen at the Cinema
(Honourable mentions: Alita: Battle Angel, Armstrong, Downton Abbey)

05. Frozen II
More story- than character-driven compared to the original, this was a very enjoyable sequel, which uses the established characters well in a new adventure, and has more great songs to boot.

04. Captain Marvel
I liked this film for taking the familiar elements we expect from a Marvel Studios film and putting them in near-perfect balance, as well as the performances by Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson.

03. Ad Astra
This film is not only visually stunning, but provides much food for thought on the emotional and philosophical element of space travel, and priorities in life that shouldn’t be neglected.

02. Apollo 11
A practically perfect documentary film for the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing: detailed, well edited, able to engage the audience without a narrator, and featuring brilliantly restored original footage of the mission.

01. Avengers: Endgame
An unpredictable and twisting story, great character development, and a superb climax – the conclusion of the Infinity Saga met expectations and then some. Definitely one of the best superhero films of all time.

Favourite Films Seen Outside the Cinema That I Hadn’t Seen Before

10. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
09. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
08. Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018)
07. Arrival (2016)
06. Let the Right One In (2008)
05. The Secret of Kells (2009)
04. Contact (1997)
03. Furious 7 (2015)
02. Whiplash (2014)
01. Gallipoli (1981)

Favourite TV Programmes

  • I enjoyed the latest seasons of Agents of SHIELD, Killing Eve and Victoria; and the final season of Game of Thrones was still watchable in spite of its many problems.
  • David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet and Brian Cox’s The Planets were my favourite documentaries this year.
  • I really liked the reality series Race Around The World, in which the contestants (working in pairs) had to race each other from London to Singapore without getting on a plane; they also couldn’t carry mobile devices, and were only allowed a set amount of cash, plus any money they could earn along the way.
  • The BBC have had multiple adaptations of literature in recent months, and while The War of the Worlds and A Christmas Carol weren’t very good (and I’m not sure about the upcoming Dracula either), they mostly got it right with His Dark Materials, based on the fantasy novels by Philip Pullman. It’s largely faithful to the first book in the series, and features excellent performances by the lead actors, plus a very impressive armoured bear.
  • The TV series everyone was talking about this year was Chernobyl, and with good reason: it has great acting and atmosphere, and makes the audience fully appreciate the horror and seriousness of the disaster – a disaster which, you can’t forget, actually happened and is still having lasting effects.

Favourite Podcasts

I’m still listening to most of the podcasts I listed last year – Casefile, The Trail Went Cold, Herpetological Highlights – but here are some more that I just got into this year:

  • 13 Minutes to the Moon, another production for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, breaks the moon landing down into the essential components that made it happen: from the lunar module itself, to the onboard computer, to the lessons learned from previous missions.
  • I’ve tried a few different podcasts on disasters, but my favourite is Great Disasters: it features a single narrator (which I like best for this sort of thing) and describes events in an informative and respectful manner.
  • I Know Dino is essential for fans of palaeontology; each week, the hosts summarise dinosaur-related news, describe a Dinosaur of the Day, and interview palaeontologists and other figures associated with dinosaurs.
  • Personal Development Essentials provides a lot of useful thoughts on how to improve yourself, as well as interviews with people who can advise based on their own experiences.
  • The Space Above Us describes in detail every manned American spaceflight – it is ongoing and currently up to STS-27, the second Space Shuttle mission after the Challenger disaster.

What are your favourite books, films, TV shows and podcasts from 2019? Let me know in the comments!

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Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Era (1982-1984)

Fifth Doctor 1

When Peter Davison signed on to replace Tom Baker as the Doctor in 1980, he was already a well-known actor for his work on the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. Aged 29 at the time, he was also the youngest actor to play the Doctor, and remained so until the casting of 26-year-old Matt Smith twenty-nine years later. On 4th January 1982, the Fifth Doctor made his first full appearance in Castrovalva, sporting a cricketer’s costume, a stick of celery on his lapel, and a theme tune performed with synthesisers, presumably in case future fans needed reminding that this was the Eighties.

Fifth Doctor 2

The Fifth Doctor inherited the three companions left behind by his predecessor: Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). After this group had had several adventures together, the ending of Earthshock brought a shock indeed as Adric was actually killed off, by being trapped onboard a spaceship which then crashed into prehistoric Earth, causing the Cretaceous mass extinction. Adric was technically not the first companion to die – the First Doctor lost a couple of new recruits within the space of The Daleks’ Master Plan – but he was the first long-term one to do so. The closing credits of the episode played without music, always a serious sign on TV.

The Doctor eventually picked up a new male companion, Vislor Turlough (Mark Strickson); initially appearing to be a mischievous student, Turlough was actually an exiled alien from the planet Trion, who was secretly ordered to kill the Doctor by the Black Guardian (the villain of the Fourth Doctor’s Key to Time arc). The Doctor found it in his hearts to forgive Turlough for this, and allowed him to remain part of the team. A shape-changing android named Kamelion was also brought onboard the TARDIS, after the Doctor encountered him masquerading as King John under the command of the Master. Kamelion could hardly be considered a companion, however; he was presumably shut up in a cupboard somewhere and not seen or mentioned again until several stories later, whereupon he was ultimately destroyed. This was largely due to technical issues with the robot prop: its movements and voice production took a long time to program at the best of times, and then it regularly refused to work properly.

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In November 1983, a twentieth-anniversary special called The Five Doctors was broadcast. It saw the First, Second, Third and Fifth Doctors (the Fourth having gotten stuck in the time vortex because Tom Baker declined to take part) uniting for an adventure on Gallifrey; Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee both returned, but as William Hartnell had since passed away, Richard Hurndall stepped in to play the First Doctor. Also returning for the special were Carole Ann Ford as Susan, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane, and Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, who had already met the Fifth Doctor in an earlier adventure, Mawdryn Undead.

Davison had initially signed on to play the Doctor for three years – and following the advice of one of his predecessors, Patrick Troughton, he elected not to stay any longer to avoid typecasting. On 16th March 1984, Davison saw out the end of his tenure with The Caves of Androzanivoted the show’s best story ever by Doctor Who Magazine in 2009 – and regenerated into the Sixth Doctor, played by Colin Baker.

In 2007, Davison returned to the role of the Fifth Doctor for a Children in Need short (written by Steven Moffat) called Time Crash, where he encounters David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor after their TARDISes collide. Soon after, Davison’s daughter, Georgia Moffett, guest-starred in Doctor Who as Jenny, the Doctor’s artificially created daughter; she subsequently started dating David Tennant, and they are now married with five children, so Peter Davison has another Doctor as his son-in-law!

My Thoughts

This may be a controversial opinion, but I don’t really like the Fifth Doctor. He’s still heroic and brings some youthful energy to the part, but compared to the previous incarnations, little about him really stands out; he’s easily the most bland Doctor so far. I suppose it’s appropriate that he dresses in beige. Hearing about him from other sources, I’d gotten the impression that he was supposed to be one of the “nicer” Doctors, but he seemed no more or less amicable than the others; in fact, he can be pretty short and impatient with people sometimes. The majority of stories in this era actually match the Doctor in that they don’t stand out: they’re generally passable, but offer little in terms of special excitement or even cheese, and faded from my memory soon after I had watched them.

The Fifth Doctor’s companions are also a mixed bunch. I did like Nyssa and Turlough: Nyssa was friendly and relatively sensible, and Turlough had more of a dark and cunning side than the average companion. Adric, however, was not only annoying, but pretty stupid and useless for a supposed prodigy. In The Visitation, for example, Adric walks out of the TARDIS after declaring he can take care of himself – and literally takes just a few steps before getting captured by the bad guys. Even his death – which I wasn’t sorry for – is technically his own fault, as he needlessly stays on the doomed spaceship to try and stop it crashing while everyone else escapes. The producers do at least deserve credit for having the balls to really kill off a companion, instead of either backing out with a last-minute save or having the companion be “technically dead but still sort of alive”, as the revived series has repeatedly done.

I also never really warmed to Tegan, partly due to her personality and partly because, like Victoria Waterfield, she seemed to have limited enthusiasm about travelling with the Doctor. In Four to Doomsday, one of Tegan’s earlier adventures, she gets so frightened by the situation that she actually gets in the TARDIS by herself and tries to fly away without the others, getting so frantic as she struggles to operate the controls that she’s brought to the verge of tears. Again like Victoria, Tegan ultimately leaves the TARDIS voluntarily because she can’t handle all the danger and death anymore. (Mind you, the Doctor and Nyssa aren’t always so good to Tegan; at the end of Time Flight, they fly off in the TARDIS without her when she merely wanders away for a little too long, and she only finds them again through chance in the following adventure. Seriously?) By the time of his regeneration, the Doctor had a new companion in the form of Peri Brown – played by English-born Nicola Bryant sporting a fake American accent – but it’s too soon to form a proper opinion on her.

My Favourite Fifth Doctor Stories

The Visitation: This felt more like the better instalments of previous seasons, with action, twists, a little humour and good use of the historical setting. I also really liked the design of the episode’s aliens, the Terileptils.

The Five Doctors: It would be hard to go wrong with a special like this, featuring so many returning guests and monsters – the biggest risk would be it feeling too crammed with content, but in 90 minutes, everybody gets just enough to do. I very much liked the Raston Warrior Robot – it’s a shame that this was its only onscreen appearance.

The Caves of Androzani: As unremarkable as most of the Fifth Doctor’s tenure is, it ends on a real high note. The Caves of Androzani is a fantastic adventure, aiming for a darker and grittier tone than average Doctor Who, but still producing a compelling and exciting story, where the Doctor’s just trying to save his and his companion’s lives while being thwarted by a bigger conflict he wants no part of.

My Least Favourite Fifth Doctor Story

It’s hard to pick out a least favourite as no story in this era stands out for being especially cringeworthy, and several don’t stand out for anything at all. If I have to pick one, I’ll say Four to Doomsday for Tegan’s overly panicky behaviour mentioned above, Adric’s stupidity in being easily manipulated into helping the villain, and its boring scenes of watching historically-themed androids dance and mock-fight each other.

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The Bloody Jack Adventures: Thoughts Continued

WRNM

When I last talked about the Bloody Jack Adventures, the series of historical adventure novels by L.A. Meyer, I had read five of the twelve books. As of this week, I have completed the whole series, and so I’m able to give some general thoughts.

Overall, the Bloody Jack Adventures is a great series, where even the weakest instalments are worth reading. Each book is basically the literary equivalent of comfort food, with adventure, humour, and new situations for the adaptable and irrepressible heroine Jacky Faber to figure out. From India to Burma, from diving for treasure in the Caribbean to being transported to Australia, from modelling in a Spanish art studio to tightrope-walking in a circus, Jacky sees and does it all. I was particularly pleased when, in the sixth book (My Bonny Light Horseman), Meyer finds an excuse to get Jacky involved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s land-based campaigns; sent to France to spy for British intelligence, she ends up joining the Grande Armee while disguised as a cavalry officer, and participates in the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt. History-wise, it’s a bit of a shame that the series ends in 1809, a few years before Britain and the United States ended up going to war. The War of 1812 is foreshadowed a few times in the later books – for example, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair is referenced – and I would have been interested to see how it impacted the lives of the surviving characters, as it surely must have significantly.

However, while I absolutely adored the first five books, the rest of the series didn’t seem to have quite the same magic, and that may have been because the novelty was wearing off rather than any real dip in quality. It’s unfair to say that each book is exactly the same; the plots and the situations are always different, serving as both self-contained stories and chapters in the grander narrative of Jacky’s life. Yet when reviewing each instalment on Goodreads, I eventually found it hard to come up with new things to say as they tended to have the same overall qualities. While the penultimate book, Boston Jacky, has its problems, I liked it for being a story where Jacky is acting on her own initiative rather than doing her best to survive in whatever situation she’s been dropped into by somebody else, as happened in most of the previous instalments.

And certainly, inserted into each story are recurring scenarios that get overly familiar after a while, such as Jacky getting into trouble and being seconds away from death when her friends show up at the last second to save her, or Jacky meeting a dashing young man who falls madly in love with her. Most frustrating of all is the will-they-won’t-they with her central love interest, Jaimy Fletcher; over and over again, they come together, only to be ripped apart by something or other. By the time Boston Jacky rolls around, Jacky and Jaimy are being kept from a happy ending by misunderstandings and troubles that could be solved simply with better communication, a trope I always hate to see in a romantic comedy.

Also, as generally likeable a protagonist as Jacky is, the less admirable sides of her character become rather more glaring in the later books. At a time when you think she should be getting older and wiser, she still fails to learn from past mistakes and gives in to her more wilful and churlish side, though she does at least suffer negative consequences for doing so. And while she never actually sleeps with anyone until the end of the series, she continues to have practically no qualms about kissing, being very affectionate and using the ‘l-word’ with other men besides Jaimy, whom she always maintains is her true love. In the tenth book, Viva Jacquelina, Jacky attracts about five new admirers and really leads a couple of them on; by the time they part ways, the boys in question still have no idea that she’s “promised to another” (though she does have to answer for it with Jaimy himself later on).

The series does fit together very well as one big story; in the last few books, a number of dangling plot threads are returned to, and loose ends are tied up. I don’t know to what extent Meyer planned out the stories, but there is certainly evidence of extensive forethought: for example, a certain item that gets briefly mentioned in the second book ends up playing a vital role in the climax of the final instalment. Said finale, Wild Rover No More – which was published a few months after L.A. Meyer’s death in 2014 – brings Jacky’s adventures to a satisfactory and deeply emotional conclusion. I would have liked a little more detail about what happened afterwards, but the book gives enough strong implications to allow general assumptions to be made about the characters’ futures. And while I was ready for the series to be over by this point, reaching the end of the long voyage and saying goodbye to Jacky still felt bittersweet.

So here is my personal ranking of the Bloody Jack Adventures:

01. Under the Jolly Roger (3)
02. Curse of the Blue Tattoo (2)
03. In the Belly of the Bloodhound (4)
04. Wild Rover No More (12)
05. Bloody Jack (1)
06. Missisippi Jack (5)
07. My Bonny Light Horseman (6)
08. Boston Jacky (11)
09. The Wake of the Lorelei Lee (8)
10. Viva Jacquelina (10)
11. Rapture of the Deep (7)
12. The Mark of the Golden Dragon (9)

I feel this series deserves more attention than it appears to get these days; looking online, the fanbase seems largely inactive, with the last book being published five years ago and the author sadly no longer being with us. If you enjoy historical fiction, and are in the mood for something that’s just plain fun, give this series a try – and check out the audio versions narrated by Katherine Kellgren if you can.

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