Five Cool Things and The Girl Without Hands

Sickness has come to house Brewster again. My wife caught a nasty cold late last week and it’s stayed with her even unto today. My daughter caught something nastier but shorter a couple of nights ago, which left her dazed and confused (and puking her poor little guts out) for about 24 hours. I’ve managed to mostly stay healthy (although my back is about to give out due to sleeping on the couch trying to avoid my wife’s bug). As such, there has been a lot of staying in and watching TV. Here’s five things we enjoyed.

The Trial of a Time Lord

The background information to Season 23 of Doctor Who is more fascinating than the actual stories. In the mid-80s, Doctor Who was falling on hard times. The ratings were down and the BBC had lost interest. It was initially slated for 14 45-minute episodes to run in the Spring of 1985. Stories were written and pre-production began. Then the BBC pushed it back to 1986 (amongst other things because the budget on the first season of East Enders had ballooned) Episode length was cut from 45 minutes to 25 with the episode count remaining at 14. 
The original scripts were scrapped and the idea of a season-long arc, with the Doctor being put on trial for getting too involved with other species – a definite Time Lord no no – was hatched.

There are ultimately four stories in the season each bookended (and periodically interrupted) by the trial. Essentially, The Doctor and the court watch each story on a big television screen and then comment on it. It’s a fun little meta-commentary but it grows old pretty quickly. The trial is handled poorly and the way it constantly interrupted the real stories is tedious.

The stories themselves are decent. In The Mysterious Planet, the Doctor and his companion Peri land on the planet Ravalox where a giant robot has enslaved humanoid people and forced them underground. In Mindwarp, the Doctor and Peri fight some lobster people and in Terror of the Vervoids, the Doctor and new companion Mel (Perri mysteriously disappears in one of the season’s many odd choices) are attacked by giant plant creatures on a spaceship. The fourth story concludes the trial in a ridiculous manner.

Colin Baker was summarily fired at the conclusion of the season and refused to come back to shoot his regeneration scene (they put the new Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, in a blonde wig for that scene). The great scriptwriter Robert Holmes also dies in the middle of writing for the series.

In the end, The Trial of a Time Lord is a mixed bag. There are some good moments, some really bad choices and the whole trial never really works as well as it should have.

Finders Keepers

The second book in the Bill Hodges trilogy slips a little from the great fun of the first, Mr. Mercedes. It has that “middle of a trilogy” problem in that it wants to tell a new story while keeping the main characters of the first and last books at bay.

It’s about a young boy who finds a trunk full of cash and notebooks that were stolen from a J.D. Salinger-type writer who has lived in seclusion after writing a successful trilogy of books (that are more reminiscent of John Updike’s Rabbit books than anything Salinger wrote, but I digress). The notebooks are filled with his writings including two unpublished novels in the series. They were stolen and then hidden by a man who has been in prison for decades for an unrelated crime. When he gets out and finds the books missing, a new cat-and-mouse game begins.

It’s a good story but Stephen King seems to be trying to say something more about the relationship between writer and reader that he’s not quite up to. The heroes of the first book don’t even show until halfway through. Still, it was fun and I’m already in the middle of the final book of the trilogy.

The Scapegoat

A young school teacher, John Standing (Matthew Rhys), is let go from his position. Deciding to travel, the world he stops off at a motel. Before he can say anything, the proprietor hands him his change and a key to the room. Perplexed, he starts to protest but then he sees something – a man who looks exactly like him head into the restroom. He follows and tries to spy but is caught. The two stare at each other like looking into a mirror. This doppelganger, Johnny Spence (also Matthew Rhys), is an upper class businessman who lives in an old stately mansion (it was filmed at Knebworth House in Hertfordshire). He’s just had a bit of bad luck, losing an important business deal that likely has sealed the family’s fate and ruined not only them but the many people who work in their factory.

After a long night of talking and drink, John Standing awakes in a bed foggy from how he got there. His clothes have been removed as has his wallet. Spence’s butler knocks on the door confusing him for Spence. Standing has no choice but to put on Spence’s clothes and follow the butler. He tries to explain the mistake but upon seeing Spence’s expensive car, he quiets down for a drive.

Once at the estate, he again attempts to explain the mix-up but is quickly thrown into things, being accosted by the maid, yelled at by his sisters, and given a talking to by the Lady of the house. So he assumes the position of Mr. Spence and attempts to do right by him. Quickly, he realizes the real Mr. Spence is a pretty terrible person who mistreats his wife, has love affairs all over the city (and inside his own home), and generally abuses everyone around him. But Standing does his best to be kind and works diligently to fix the failing business. Of course, the real Spence eventually comes back and drama ensues.

Based upon the book by Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat’s plot is all sorts of ridiculous. The idea that two identical people would meet like that is absurd, that one would decide to switch places with the other secretly and that the other would quickly accept the circumstances is nearly too much. Yet somehow it works. Much of the reason for this belongs to Matthew Rhys who is marvelous. He very subtly differentiates between the two identities, changing his posture and speech patterns just enough so we know who they are without the need for fake scars or wild changes in appearance. He carries the unbelievable drama easily allowing us to forget how nonsensical it is.

American Gods

Having now completed the first season of the Starz series, I set to actually finishing the book (I first picked it up about six months ago). Do not allow the slowness of my reading to indicate the lack of greatness of the book. Neil Gaiman has done something extraordinary here. He’s told the story of America through our myths. Or more rightly how the myths of the world (and their culture too) come to America and are changed, are worn thin and muted by stronger myths of our own making. Myths of television and technology, cars and great wealth. It is a strange and wonderful book that I’ll be pondering over for many more months to come.

The Incredibles 2

We’ve seen a lackluster Monsters Inc. sequel, two completely unnecessary ones in the Cars franchise, but now we’re finally getting a sequel to the one Pixar film that practically demands it (leaving out the beautiful Toy Story films, of course). They released a new full length trailer of The Incredibles 2 during the Olympics (they had previously released a very short teaser) and it’s a good one.

The Girl Without Hands

Based on a German fairy tale, this French animated film is about a young girl whose father, a poor miller, makes a deal with the devil to become rich. Eventually, he must pay his end of the bargain which means cutting of the girl’s hands. Despondent, she leaves, finds a young prince who loves her, but then must go off to war for many months. The story is pretty basic fairy-tale stuff (that haven’t been Disneyfied and retained their darker, more gruesome touches). It is the animation where the film really shines. It has an almost abstract painting feel to it with big bold lines creating a myriad colored background while the foreground images of people are fainter, ever changing, and sometimes disappear altogether. One would almost think the animator wasn’t paying enough attention to detail, caring not if the lines of its characters match from one frame to another. Except it is altogether clear this is a stylistic choice, making its characters vibrate with emotion. It is altogether extraordinary. Expect a full review from me in the very near future.

Mat Brewster

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