His Pick Her Pick: Royal Movies

With regards to April, I unfortunately haven’t managed to meet my Camp NaNoWriMo target – I should be able to devote more time to that project in the coming months. At least I completed my Titanic Month project: I’m planning to make a summary video this weekend.

Meanwhile, Rachel and I did our latest His Pick Her Pick. For her, I recommended A Royal Night Out, about the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret going out incognito into London on VE Day – when I first saw this film on Netflix, it hit me as the sort of thing Rachel would like. Keeping with the royal theme, Rachel assigned me Mrs Brown, about Queen Victoria’s relationship with her servant John Brown. With all our discussions of the Royal Family (yes, I like the Royals), this was definitely a fun one!

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Titanic Month – Titanic: Blood and Steel

Titanic: Blood and Steel (2012)

I’ve been watching the twelve-part series Titanic: Blood and Steel for the first time this month; I don’t believe it ever aired on television in the UK. And I’m pleased to be ending Titanic Month on a high note, because unlike Julian Fellowes’ miniseries, Titanic: Blood and Steel is pretty damn good.

Rather than the disaster itself, this series covers relatively fresh territory: the construction of the Titanic, at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, from 1909 to her completion three years later. The main character is Dr Mark Muir (Kevin Zegers), a Belfast-born metallurgist who gets himself appointed to work on the Titanic. Throughout the course of the series, he has to deal with falling in love, a troubled past coming back to haunt him, disagreements over the ship’s design, and the vicious political and religious turmoil taking place in Belfast at the time.

So what is there to like about this series? Well, the music, for one thing: I liked the opening so much that I refrained from skipping it for almost every episode. It’s well-written, never dragging, and utilising its setting well to generate many different sources of conflict: the Titanic plays an important role, but there’s much more to the story than that. It provides a good sense of the community of 1910s Belfast, a highly charged and divided city that frequently feels like a time bomb. And none of the conflict feels forced, either: the problems that occur feel like natural escalations, such as Mark’s romance with Sofia Silvestri (Alessandra Mastronardi) running into difficulties because his thoughts are frequently elsewhere, rather than something more dramatic. Meanwhile, when it turns out that Mark’s father has kept a big, devastating secret from him, he is given an understandable and complex reason for doing so.

The characters are great, too: I watched each episode eager to find out about their problems and how they were going to address them. Most of the characters – including Mark and Sofia – are fictional; but there are some historical ones thrown in, from Harland & Wolff chairman Lord Pirrie (Derek Jacobi) to Thomas Andrews (Billy Carter), who begins the series as a little more snappish and unreasonable than in other productions, but gradually softens with time. The series effectively uses its female characters to explore the restrictions on women at the time, and their approaches to becoming more liberated: from Sofia seeking to better herself despite the objections of her more traditional father, to the privileged Kitty Carlton (Ophelia Lovibond) resignedly accepting her future while seeking a little illicit pleasure on the side.

The main problem I had with the series is that, once again, it takes a great many liberties with history. The supposed Titanic blueprints that we see are actually for the Lusitania, for some reason; and there is no mention of Alexander Carlisle, who played an important role in the ship’s design but left Harland & Wolff before her completion. The biggest inaccuracy is how much it skews the timeline with regards to the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic. Yet again, Titanic is portrayed as one of a kind, the most magnificent ship ever, and is constructed alone on the slipway – Olympic is apparently already in service when the series begins. In real life, Olympic was constructed alongside Titanic, received more fanfare due to being the first of her class, and only entered service in June 1911, days after Titanic‘s hull was launched. In the series, she is never actually referred to as Titanic’s sister, even though in the one episode where Olympic makes a brief onscreen appearance, what we see looks pretty much like Titanic. The timeline of the series as a whole isn’t really clear: it took just over two years for Titanic’s main hull to be constructed  before it was launched, but based on what the characters get up to, it doesn’t always seem like so much time has passed, though Titanic herself gradually takes shape from episode to episode. But such things are more forgivable when everything else is so good.

The final episode ends with the Titanic leaving Belfast for the first and last time, with most of the surviving characters sailing to America on her. While there are one or two subplots which don’t get a satisfactory resolution, it did at least feel pleasing to see the Titanic finally completed after twelve episodes – well, pleasing to a point, obviously. Watching the final shot of the ship steaming away, with a haunting Irish melody over the credits, I also felt truly sad to be saying goodbye to these characters, thinking about what they were in for – and that I wouldn’t get to know what happened to them on the night of the fourteenth of April. It’s possible to make educated guesses based on their traits and respective statuses: I certainly expect Mark’s chances of survival wouldn’t be high, as he would want to stay on the ship and do whatever he could to help.

Titanic: Blood and Steel is a really high-quality production that deserves more attention than it’s received, and if you get a chance, definitely check it out.

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Titanic Month: The 2012 Miniseries

I now have just two more productions left to review, both of which are television series which came out in 2012, for the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.

Airing on ITV in the UK, the four-part miniseries Titanic was written by Julian Fellowes, who is perhaps best known as the creator of Downton Abbey: you’d certainly expect him to be well-suited for writing a costume drama such as this. After seeing the adverts, I was excited for this series; I was also interested to see Jenna Coleman – who plays a maid named Annie – as it had just been announced around this time that she would be playing the new companion in Doctor Who.

Unfortunately, the series turned out to be a letdown, even if Jenna Coleman didn’t.

There are a great many characters in this miniseries, both historical and fictional. Some of the historical ones are interesting to see, having not been covered in other productions, such as the actress Dorothy Gibson and the young first-class men Harry Widener and Jack Thayer. But there are far too many characters overall: there’s so much switching back and forth that we don’t get to know them well, and any character development they supposedly experience has little impact. Not that there’s much to know, anyway, as most of the characters are flat as cardboard. Lady Manton is a snob, and that’s it. Her daughter Lady Georgiana is rebellious and contrary, and that’s it. Annie the chirpy maid is certainly likeable, but there’s still not much to her.

Fellowes’ script leaves a lot to be desired: the dialogue is uninspired, the conversations feel unnatural, but worst of all is the structure. Having four episodes to spread its stories out across, the series has an unconventional structure. Rather than proceeding chronologically and having the sinking occur over the last one or two episodes, the first three episodes each start before the Titanic sails and end during the sinking, trying to follow different characters each time round. (The concluding episode starts on 14th April and devotes most of its running time to the sinking.) Unfortunately, this approach does not work, at all.

Each episode tries to focus on particular characters, but ends up throwing others in too, creating an incoherent mess. Plot points lose their impact or may be forgotten altogether by the time they become relevant again: when Mrs Batley is criticising her husband for grovelling to his employer in Episode 2, it’s harder to care when we only saw them all having tea together back in Episode 1. A non-chronological approach can be used to teach us things about characters, creating intrigue and showing curious developments where the explanatory gaps are filled in later – here, it’s too all-over-the-place to be intriguing or teach the audience anything. There is no purpose to having a few encounters between Annie and her love interest Paolo in the first two episodes, and saving their first chronological meeting for Episode 3. And by the time we get to that third episode, several scenes are just being repeated from previous episodes. Even if the various dramatic subplots were fresh and interesting – which they aren’t – the structure would leave us unable to appreciate them.

The tagline for this series, in adverts and on the DVD cover, is “The Truth Will Surface”: I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, particularly as rather than being truthful, this is another production with many historical inaccuracies. People escape in the wrong lifeboats, at the wrong times, on the wrong sides of the ship: Molly Brown and the Countess of Rothes end up in the same boat, for instance. Harry Widener – a real person, who died in the sinking – is given a fictional romance with Lady Georgiana. For his research, Fellowes apparently took some Titanic myths at face value, including ones that do a disservice to real people: for example, Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon explicitly bribes the crewmen in his lifeboat not to return for survivors in the water – in real life, he offered them a fiver each to buy a new kit, and it was debated afterwards whether it was meant as a subtle bribe or just a gift. We also see an officer declaring that only first-class ladies are allowed in his lifeboat, and Italian crew members being locked in a room and left to drown: there is no evidence for either of these actually occurring.

There are a few positive details worth mentioning. Scenes in the third-class areas give a proper appreciation of a ship’s cramped interior. The production is a bit less colourful than Cameron’s film, and has a reserved atmosphere which does at least fit with the low-key stories; despite this, the visual effects used for exterior shots of the Titanic are pleasing. There’s a proper sense of time pressure as the lifeboats are lowered; and the Titanic’s split and final plunge look good, with appropriate sound effects and no music. The concluding scenes after the sinking are not so good, however: there’s no sense of anybody being especially cold, and hardly anyone is seen floating in the water when a lifeboat goes back to look –  a far cry from the sea choked with bodies in Cameron’s film.

This Titanic miniseries is a bland, disappointing mess, with misguided effort in some areas and not enough effort at all in others. Definitely skip it.

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Doctor Who – Series 10, Episode 2: “Smile”

  • Personally, if I were writing for Doctor Who, I wouldn’t name my monster after a well-known English football player.
  • Hey, that’s Rani’s mum from The Sarah Jane Adventures!
  • This episode reinforces what an utterly worthless character Nardole is, given that he only briefly appears at the beginning and the episode is all the better for it. Also, apparently Nardole – who was once a living man with the misfortune to be decapitated and forced inside a giant robot – is now being kept as a slave by the Doctor. Okay…
  • In fact, having the Doctor and his companion as the only (organic) characters for most of the running time works well; it allows for more focus on their budding relationship, as Bill comes to understand the Doctor better and the Doctor tries in vain to keep her out of danger.
  • This is a good first off-world adventure for Bill. Her self-awareness and pointing out the holes in things is still rather irritating, but I liked her pure enthusiasm at seeing the future colony, and her slight crisis at the idea that humans come close to extinction in the future.
  • Once again, originality is lacking here. Robots killing their human masters and using their bodies to keep their environment running – that’s from The Girl in the Fireplace. Microbots threatening to destroy people just because they’re following the logic of their programming and don’t fully understand humans – that’s from The Doctor Dances. And as unnerving as that early scene is, with the skeleton crew trying to smile on pain of death, it still made me think of that Simpsons Halloween special where Bart is a god and forces all of Springfield to think happy thoughts.

This episode was better than last week’s, but still not something I’d bother to rewatch. It wasn’t too scary (apart from the opening), it had a flimsy resolution which I can’t see working long-term…and is a universe where emoji survives for thousands of years worth living in? Rating: 3/5.

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Titanic Month – Titanic: The Legend Goes On

Titanic: The Legend Goes On (2000)

It is worth saying up front that Titanic: The Legend Goes On is not quite as bad as The Legend of the Titanic. But as you may have gathered from the last post, that’s a very low bar. The content here is slightly less cringe-worthy and more bearable to watch, but ultimately, it’s still a movie which sugar-coats a terrible maritime disaster with a child-friendly plot and talking animals.

The Legend Goes On doesn’t have so many blatant rip-offs of the 1997 film – aside from the central romance involving two people of different classes, William and Angelica, who vaguely resemble Jack and Rose in appearance. (The difference is that William is the rich one.) What The Legend Goes On does instead is rip off a long list of other properties. Angelica is forced to be a servant to her stepmother and two stepsisters, a la Cinderella; there are some thieves who strongly resemble Cruella de Vil and the Baduns from 101 Dalmatians; then there’s an actual pair of Dalmatians, the magpie from The Secret of NIMH, the geese from The Aristocats, and a detective who dresses like Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and there are some racial stereotypes thrown in: some Mexican mice in sombreros, and a womanising Frenchman with a pencil moustache.

One way in which this film does manage to be worse than The Legend of the Titanic is the animation. It looks incredibly cheap – many clips are recycled – and the characters’ designs are just plain ugly. One little girl who displays oversized lips as she yells for her lost ball is particularly horrific; also, just before we see the Titanic for the first time, the camera follows a seagull for a few moments and decides to take us all the way up its backside. The dubbed dialogue is often delivered with peculiar pauses, or characters repeating themselves in succession. People’s faces sometimes don’t reflect what they should be feeling: some of them are even smiling as the Titanic goes down. And there’s a great deal of physics-defying slapstick, as bad guys fall over or go flying. When a cook is set on fire, and someone else tries to put it out with whisky, he goes up in a puff of smoke, like something out of Looney Tunes.

This may have been made for children, but I’m not sure any but the youngest and most easily entertained kids would even enjoy it. A lot of the time, it’s actually quite boring. There are some hints of actual subplots – William and Angelica’s romance, or Angelica trying to find her lost locket – but most of the running time is just inane activities involving “Cruella” and her henchmen trying to raid other cabins, or the talking mice and dogs getting up to uninteresting business. And yes, as you may have heard, there is indeed a rapping dog in this movie. (If you type ‘Titanic The Legend Goes On’ into Google, ‘rapping dog’ is one of the search predictions.) And he does indeed strut around the Titanic’s cargo hold, wearing basketball clothing and carrying a boombox on his shoulder. Where he got his paws on these items in 1912 is not explained.

The Titanic still hits an iceberg and sinks, and the film does try to create tension as to whether or not William survives. But any sense of disaster or tragedy is undermined by more slapstick – such as “Cruella” falling over the gap between the deck and a lifeboat, and being used as a bridge – and the fact that in the concluding montage, only one character is explicitly mentioned to have died (without any real pathos behind it). So either 1500 people still died in this version of events and were just ignored; or almost everyone survived, without even the intervention of a giant octopus to explain how.

Sailing the real Titanic into an ice field at high speed proved to be a bad idea with hindsight. These animated films, on the other hand…at just what point in the decision-making process did they look like a good idea?

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Titanic Month: The Legend of the Titanic

The Legend of the Titanic (1999)

“It hits you like a thousand knives stabbing all over your body. You can’t breathe, you can’t think, at least not about anything but the pain.”

Jack might as well have been describing the experience of watching The Legend of the Titanic.

In case you haven’t seen the many review videos on YouTube, there are in fact three Italian animated family films, based around the Titanic. The Legend of the Titanic is the first of these – it also has a sequel named Tentocolino, but as that one is apparently more about Atlantis and mermaids and stuff than the Titanic, I feel safe in excluding it from Titanic Month. (Also, there is only so much suffering I can take in quick succession.) So, how do you end up producing a family-friendly film with talking animals, inspired by a disaster that killed over 1500 people? Either the people responsible just didn’t care, or they saw James Cameron’s film and somehow didn’t realise that it was based on a true story.

And believe me, they definitely saw Cameron’s film. For starters, the film begins in the present day with an old Titanic survivor relating their experiences. There is one notable difference here, however: the survivor in question, Connors, is a talking mouse. Once we flash back to the Titanic itself, we then see a few cars containing wealthy passengers driving up to the ship – then our main female protagonist, Elizabeth, appears, with the viewer seeing her hand first as she is assisted out of the car. Oh, and did I mention her parent is pressuring her into an arranged marriage to an evil rich guy?

The animation in this film is awful, particularly with regards to faces – sometimes there are shots of people just standing in place, making slight movements and random noises. And it’s very poorly edited, moving haphazardly from one order of business to the next. But such problems are nothing when compared with the actual script.

Our villain, Everard Maltravers – who wears an eyepatch in case children don’t otherwise cotton on that he’s evil – plans to marry Elizabeth so her father, a duke, can grant him worldwide whaling rights (because apparently this one duke has that kind of monopoly on the seas). He delivers his lines in a manner reminiscent of Seto Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh: “There’s nothing in the world that counts besides money and power! Everything else is simply there to be used to achieve those objectives!” Thinking about it, Maltravers would fit quite comfortably into the 1943 film.

For a while, the film is simply bad, with its one-note human characters and occasional appearances from talking mice. But then comes the scene where I start thinking “What the hell is this?!” As Elizabeth goes out on deck and weeps at her predicament, some sort of magic occurs involving her tears and moonbeams, and she suddenly gains the ability to talk to dolphins and other animals. From this point onwards, we’re sinking to depths greater than the wreck of the Titanic itself. Elizabeth tells her father she won’t marry Maltravers, which he is suddenly perfectly fine with; and after she meets up with her real love, a Spanish guy named Juan, they indulge in a painfully long dance sequence surrounded by happy little animals.

Maltravers, meanwhile, turns to Plan B, which involves coercing the duke into signing over the whaling rights, then sinking the Titanic in order to get him out of the picture. Sinking an entire ocean liner to cover up the death of one man feels a tad unnecessary, but there you go. So how does Maltravers arrange this? By enlisting a gang of talking sharks, whom he contacts with a magic whistle, to trick a giant octopus into throwing an iceberg (one just sitting around at the bottom of the sea instead of floating) into the Titanic’s path.

Yes, that’s the kind of film we’ve got here.

Escaping in a lifeboat with his partners in crime, Maltravers realises too late how little he thought this through, as they get lost at sea and presumably die horribly. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Juan find themselves balancing on the stern of the Titanic as it goes under, then sucked underwater – which, again, seems awfully familiar. Luckily, they still survive – and apparently, so does everybody else onboard. The aforementioned giant octopus, wrapping his tentacles around the sinking Titanic like the Kraken, somehow ensures that everybody is saved, though the film doesn’t go into such unnecessary details as where all those people went if not the lifeboats. Fairies did it, I guess.

For the close, we return to old Connors telling the story, as he delivers a moral about the evil of hunting whales, rather than the usual Titanic message about hubris or complacency. His wife then informs their grandchildren, “Like all sailors, you shouldn’t take him too seriously,” suggesting that just maybe the whole thing was the deluded ramblings of a senile old mouse, which would be the closest this movie comes to sense.

So, is the other animated film – Titanic: The Legend Goes On – just as painful and in just as abysmally poor taste? I’ll let you know next blog post!

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Titanic Month: The 1997 Film

Titanic (1997)

So, we come to it at last. If you’re reading this blog, it’s far more likely than not that you’ve seen James Cameron’s Titanic. Predicted by many to bomb when its budget reached $200 million, it instead became the first movie to make over a billion dollars at the box office (indeed, it made over two billion when the 2012 re-release was factored in), and was the highest grossing film of all time until Cameron’s next film, Avatar, was released in 2009.

I anticipated that it would be difficult to write a proper review of Titanic – in case you hadn’t already realised, I absolutely adore this movie. It’s the whole reason I got interested in the ship in the first place. But I think going into depth about my personal feelings is best saved for another time – so for now, I’ll just talk about how and why it works as a movie.

Since practically everybody watching the film already knows what happens to the ship, beginning with an exploration of the wreck (genuine footage, by the way) works in the film’s favour. The framing device of elderly Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) explaining what happened to her – and her diamond necklace – adds extra interest and direction to a historical event with a foregone conclusion. The film also avoids having to explain too much about the sinking while it’s actually happening, with a quick present-day scene involving a computer simulation with accompanying narration.

Similar to the 1953 film, the 1997 film has the Titanic serving as a backdrop for a single story involving fictional characters – but as this one gives more focus to historical figures, we get the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, the influence of other Titanic films is often clear. Quite a few moments are very similar to A Night to Remember, such as band leader Wallace Hartley initially playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ alone before the other musicians come back to join him. Even Molly Brown’s line “Why do they insist on announcing dinner like a damn cavalry charge?” is a variation on a line from the 1953 film.

Admittedly, the Romeo & Juliet-style love story between younger Rose (Kate Winslet) and third-class heartthrob Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t the most complex or original in the world. Nor is the contrast between the snobbery of first class and the free-spiritedness of third class very subtle, what with such moments as Rose’s rich fiancée Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), upon learning that half of the people onboard will die, replying, “Not the better half.” And there’s certainly a good helping of cheesiness in the script. But I still think it works. There are scenes of genuinely fine acting and dialogue – Jack and Rose’s first proper meeting, when he talks her out of suicide, comes to mind – and Jack is given a life, friends and thoughts of his own (see him first entering the Grand Staircase and trying to match the gestures of the people around him) rather than only existing to benefit Rose.

For all the relative light-heartedness earlier on, the film definitely knows when to start being serious. The collision with the iceberg is considerably more dramatic than in previous films, with more shouting and heart-pounding music involved. (Given how close the iceberg is when we first see it, the Titanic seems to come up to it very slowly.) The subsequent sinking sequence makes the earlier, less dramatic period in the process go by quickly, with more focus on drawing out the last moments, when the last lifeboats are lowered and the flooding accelerates. As the Titanic’s stern rises higher into the air – a spectacular and awful sight – interiors are destroyed, most of the side characters we’ve met are killed, and the screams of the doomed echo clear across the water. Once the ship has disappeared, we see hundreds of people thrashing helplessly on the surface of the dark ocean, followed soon after by a lone lifeboat moving among their frozen, silent bodies.

One of the biggest historical inaccuracies in the film is the amount of freedom that the main characters have onboard in the name of artistic licence. For one thing, passengers weren’t actually allowed to go on the forecastle deck so they could pose on the bow. Also, Jack’s movements create the impression that it was far simpler to move between first and third-class areas than it really was. The restriction of the third-class passengers during the sinking is more extreme than in reality; and there was some outcry regarding the portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch, specifically his apparent acceptance of a bribe from Cal, and later shooting two people and then himself. Personally, I would argue that Murdoch does not explicitly accept the bribe: when Cal forces the money into his pocket, he moves away without saying anything. Whether Murdoch or any other officers shot themselves or anyone else – as a few survivors reported – is one of many controversial issues surrounding the disaster, which can’t be proven for certain either way, as no officers’ bodies were recovered.

Aside from inaccuracies like that, there’s a great level of detail, even with things that the audience won’t be focussing on. James Cameron is a director who pays a lot of attention to his backgrounds: the extras in each scene are always doing relevant things, whether it’s displaying proper etiquette at dinner, or running around in uncertainty during the sinking. Often recognisable characters are included in the background: for example, the Astors are seen entering an elevator as Molly Brown boards the Titanic at Cherbourg; and the lookout who spotted the iceberg – Fred Fleet – is present in Molly’s lifeboat, which is true to real life. Things like this help to emphasise the human element, rather like how visiting Titanic Belfast last year made me feel.

More than any other film, this one really puts you on the Titanic. Through the use of miniatures, digital effects, and a life-size (though incomplete) recreation of the ship that could actually be sunk, Cameron brings the original ship to life on a level beyond any previous film. We get lots of beautiful sweeping shots of the whole vessel, and detailed looks at the interiors, from the Grand Staircase to the engine room. In this film, the Titanic is practically a character in itself: we watch it in life, and then we have to watch it die.

As well as capturing the actual disaster with an impressive level of life and detail, James Cameron’s Titanic is one of those films that manages to be a good all-rounder: it delivers just about everything, from action to romance, to entertain a general audience. It’s well-paced, and is simple to follow despite having so much content. I have personally always loved it, despite being cautious to admit it for a time in the wake of the backlash it received.

Given that general opinions on this film have tended to be varied in the years since it came out, I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts in the comments – or if, by some tiny chance, you’ve never actually seen it!

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Doctor Who – Series 10, Episode 1: “The Pilot”

Finally, a new series of Doctor Who has begun! I’d almost forgotten the feeling.

  • The Doctor has a picture of Susan on his desk! I’d have been happier if they didn’t keep focussing on it though.
  • So why does the Doctor spend 50-70 years as a university lecturer? He doesn’t seem to be tracking a particular alien. His strong reluctance to accept Bill as a companion also confused me. I’ve been more tolerant of Steven Moffat’s need for continuity than some people, but it does become a problem when you have such a long gap between series.
  • I was uncertain about Bill, the new companion, after the first teaser with her in it: she seemed gobby, but not in an endearing way. After seeing her in a full episode, I still don’t know how much I’m going to like her in the long run, but she wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Her attitude toward the TARDIS, questioning everything about it in a very self-aware fashion, does at least set her apart. I liked how her sexuality was handled: it wasn’t a pointless trait for the sake of diversity, but it didn’t totally define her character either. And that line about the Doctor running “like a penguin with its arse on fire” was a cracker.
  • I let out a sigh when I saw Matt Lucas’s name in the opening credits. I still don’t really want him to be there – and in fact, removing him wouldn’t have changed much.
  • It seems to be a trait of the Moffat era that more time passes within episodes than generally happened before in Doctor Who. Before, the events of one episode would take place over a couple of days at the very most; with Moffat, you can have montages that might cover several weeks.
  • Alien-Heather rising up out of the water definitely looks creepy. The gliding along, not so much. I wanted Leslie Nielsen in a cape to appear and snap, “And stop that!”
  • So, an intelligent alien ship who tries to gain a pilot by capturing a human with the urge to run away somewhere – we’ve already seen this in The Lodger!
  • I found it hard to accept the mutual heartbreak between Bill and Heather when we didn’t see enough to get a true sense of a bond between them, at least from Heather’s end. Or maybe that’s just because I incorrectly assumed Heather was an alien from the start and I was waiting for her to reveal her evil plan.

This was a very lacklustre first episode, without anything special about it – it even had me checking my watch a couple of times. Well, let’s see where things go from here. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Titanic Month: The 1996 Miniseries

Titanic (1996)

The two-part miniseries Titanic, which first aired on CBS in 1996, cannot really be called ‘good’ in the traditional sense. There are many, many things wrong with it. But aside from a couple of aspects which are in poor taste, I consider it a guilty pleasure.

There are two main subplots involving fictional characters in this series. The first is about Isabella Parradine (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who is returning home to her husband and daughter when she encounters her former lover, Wynn Park (Peter Gallagher), onboard. It turns out Wynn is still madly in love with Isabella, who is sorely tempted to abandon her old life and run away with him. It’s all a bit morally questionable – particularly with how things turn out in the end – but Zeta-Jones and Gallagher do have good chemistry together. Not to mention, Zeta-Jones looks exceedingly lovely in period dress.

Our other main protagonist is a young rogue named Jamie Perse (Mike Doyle). Boarding the Titanic with a third-class ticket that wasn’t originally his, Jamie later gets his hands on a tuxedo and takes the opportunity to integrate with the toffs in first-class. (This seems familiar somehow…) He falls in love with a virtuous Danish convert named Aase (Sonsee Ahray), and finds himself wanting to become the good man that she believes he is; but he also has a devil on his shoulder in the form of steward Simon, played with trademark cackling evil by Tim Curry. It’s a pretty basic redemption arc, but still fairly compelling.

George C. Scott may have the right looks and gruff attitude to play Captain Smith, but doesn’t bother with a British accent. Bruce Ismay, played by Roger Rees, gets one of his less sympathetic on-screen portrayals: we see him going behind the Captain’s back to ensure the Titanic is going as fast as possible, and later, he is seen literally lurking in the shadows before slipping into a lifeboat. Marilu Henner’s Molly Brown is also very over-the-top, contrary in just about everything compared to the other first-class snobs, and loudly saying things like “To hell with polite society!”

The script is deliciously cliché. We get dialogue like “My heart is divided” and “The past is behind us.” “It’s been with me every moment of every day!” We get shoehorned exposition, like the third-class Jack family arriving on the ship and giving the steward practically their whole life story for some reason. Ironic, self-aware statements are frequent, such as Ismay telling reporters that some chairs will be re-painted before the next crossing, and “We’re not going to need lifeboats,” or Isabella commenting that they’re living in a golden age, the likes of which will never be seen again. There’s even a crazy old woman delivering portents of doom at the Southampton dock. As for the visual effects, the CGI is obvious, and the camera moves so much that it’s a wonder half the people onboard aren’t constantly seasick.

There are so many blatant historical mistakes that Titanic buffs could make a drinking game out of spotting them. For example, the Titanic is facing the wrong way on the Southampton dock; Molly Brown boards at Southampton instead of Cherbourg; it is mentioned that the ship is fully booked, when it actually wasn’t; and the rescue ship Carpathia arrives in New York during the day, when it actually arrived after dark and in wet weather. Captain Smith makes the error of telling the wireless operators that CQD stands for ‘Come Quickly Distress’, when in fact it was a combination of ‘CQ’ and ‘D’, ‘CQ’ meaning that the message was a general one for all stations. And the concluding text tells us that “all attempts to raise (the Titanic) have failed”, when nobody has ever seriously tried to do so.

On the occasions that the series has done its research, it feels the need to be very pointed about it, forcing trivia randomly into the dialogue. After the collision, Captain Smith lectures First Officer Murdoch about how the ship would be more likely to survive if it had hit the iceberg head on, and that his decision to reverse the engines reduced the ability to turn efficiently. As in A Night to Remember, the nearby vessel Californian is included; but in the former film, it was integrated appropriately into the on-screen narrative and fit well with the ‘big picture’ approach. Here, the goings-on onboard the Californian serve no real purpose except as a distraction, and are eventually forgotten about. You can see why James Cameron didn’t include the Californian in his own film, except in a deleted scene.

One of the main things I don’t enjoy here is a third subplot, which centres around historical character Alice Cleaver, nursemaid to the Allison family. The series utilises the story, uncovered by a historian, that Alice had previously been charged with murdering her own baby; it goes on to portray Alice as deceitful and mentally unstable. Not only does this lead to a character whom it is difficult to sympathise with, and is almost an afterthought compared to the other two subplots, but the infanticide story has been proven false: it was actually committed by another woman named Alice Mary Cleaver, not the Titanic passenger Alice Catherine Cleaver. There’s also an unpleasant scene where Simon corners Aase in the shower and rapes her: its only real purpose is to ensure that Jamie turns against Simon when the time comes, which really could have been done some other way.

For all these problems, I still find the 1996 miniseries reasonably entertaining. Among the silliness and melodrama, there are some well-executed moments, such as just after the collision, when a glass is placed on a table and slowly slides off as the ship begins to tilt. The montage covering the final plunge captures the horror well, as people run in panic through the interior corridors, and for the first time on-screen, the Titanic is briefly shown splitting in two. The characters are varied, and the story arcs watchable, despite not being especially deep or imaginative. Ultimately, this is one you need to turn your brain off for.

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Titanic Month: Raise the Titanic

In 1976, the wreck of the Titanic had not yet been discovered, and it was not known that the ship was lying in two pieces on the ocean floor and in no fit state to ever be brought to the surface, even if suitable technology were available. So Clive Cussler was able to write an adventure novel based around the concept, Raise the Titanic, starring his recurring protagonist, Dirk Pitt. In 1980, the book was adapted into a film, which had a budget of $40 million….and made $7 million at the box office. Watching the film, it’s not hard to understand why.

Raise the Titanic actually does start off with some decent intrigue: with the Cold War ongoing, American scientists are planning an advanced defence system – but to fuel it, they need a rare mineral called byzanium, last known to have been found in a mine in Soviet territory. A little investigation by former Navy officer Dirk Pitt reveals that American agents already mined out the byzanium in 1912, brought it to England, and then intended to take it home on the Titanic. So the desperately needed mineral is now at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and the only way to get it is – you guessed it – raising the Titanic.

Once the project gets underway, we are treated to a long sequence of the protagonists searching for the wreck in their submersibles – and occasional intermissions, like one of the submersibles suffering a catastrophic failure and imploding, aren’t enough to make this interesting. Even individual scenes, like when the wreck is finally found, are dragged out for as long as possible. Other elements of the film don’t help: the character of Dirk Pitt has potential, as the classic adventurous hero with a military background, but Richard Jordan plays him without bothering with too much emotion. Journalist Dana Archibald, the girlfriend of the project’s chief scientist, has absolutely no meaningful impact on the plot and is apparently only there to stop the film from being a total sausage-fest; scenes involving her are even duller than everything else. And while I do like the musical score, it’s not especially varied and eventually gets repetitive.

The story continues to drag, even with most of the work to prepare the Titanic for raising happening offscreen, until another accident with a submersible forces the team to raise the ship early – which is all well and good! Admittedly, the actual raising isn’t a bad scene, from the tense silence after the explosive charges go off and we wait for the ship to rise, to the money shot when it actually breaks the surface. (You do have to wonder how all but one of the Titanic’s smokestacks stayed in place both going down and coming up, though.) The filming onboard the raised ship – for which a laid-up Greek liner, the SS Athinai, was used – also looks good. But it’s far from enough to save the film, given the tedious journey required to get this far, and the fact that the ending of the story is less than satisfying.

I wish I could think of some witty conclusion, but all I can say is, don’t bother with this one.

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