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Day of the Doctor: A Day of Disservice

It probably speaks volumes about the 1960s, the number of intellectual properties having 50th anniversaries these days. James Bond just had one, Star Trek’s is a few years off. And speaking of Star Trek, we’ve just rung in 50 years of Trek’s counterpart from across the pond, Doctor Who, celebrated by way of the television special “Day of the Doctor.”

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Mr. Hurt, always a pleasure to see you, but how did you get in here?

Since the 2005 reboot of the classic British sci-fi adventure series, the series has been operating under an overarching backstory: the Doctor is the sole survivor of his people, the Time Lords, having been forced to resort to drastic means to defeat their enemies in the Great Time War, the Daleks, defeating them (although heaven knows that hasn’t slowed them down any) but taking the Time Lords with them. The Doctor’s character arc across his last three (four?) incarnations has been driven in part by trying to come to terms with and atone for that act.

Now we flash back to that moment. When the Doctor is preparing the intelligent weapon of mass destruction to do the deed, he is invited by the weapon’s consciousness to encounter two of his future selves (the two most recent Doctors, David Tennant and Matt Smith) to help him learn the impact on himself of this action.

The other two Doctors are each engaged in their own adventures. Eleven and his companion Clara are studying a mysterious painting that depicts his lost homeworld of Gallifrey. Ten is romancing Queen Elizabeth I, who he suspects (partly correctly) of being an alien impostor.

The three Doctors are thrown together, and have to fight a plot by the Zygons, a long-ago enemy of the Doctor whose world was collateral damage in the Time War, to seize the Earth by invading it through time travel, and capture the 21st Century British government’s stash of dangerous alien salvage.

At the end of it, the three Doctors return to the moment of the end of the Time War, and come up with a new solution to preserve Gallifrey, albeit at the cost of making it vanish to places unknown, with the combined effort of all the Doctors, past, present and future, and letting the war-era Doctor rediscover who he is, was, and will be. The Doctor has a new quest to rediscover his homeworld, and new hope after long years of loneliness.

“Day of the Doctor” was played up as being a supreme, game-changing moment for the character, and for the show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, formerly a principle writer for the show and also creator of Sherlock.

Now, full disclosure, I followed the series up til the first few episodes of Smith’s run, and much else that I’ve learned about the show on Moffat’s watch is second-hand from friends and critics, and what I can extrapolate from the Russell T. Davies’ era and episodes written by Moffat during that time. That said, “Day of the Doctor” regrettably seems to confirm a lot of the objections raised about the show under Moffat’s tenure.

If my plot summary above seems a bit vague and jumbled, it’s reflective of my own attempts to follow what’s going on. The great motto of modern Doctor Who is ‘wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey,’ for the occasions when the mental acrobatics of keeping track of time travel begin to get hard to process. Actually, in fairness, the plot isn’t that intricate. It’s more a case of being unable to see the trees for the forest, you might say.

Modern Who was, naturally, brought about and fostered by fans. That in itself is no indictment, but it does carry an element of risk: that the creators’ adoration for their source material will override their good judgement with regards to storytelling. This is, after all, where the stereotypical low-grade image of fanfiction springs from.

And unfortunately this impulse, poorly-restrained, is evident here, and I’ve noticed in places during Tennant’s run, and increasingly through what I’ve seen of Smith: the characters don’t talk like people speaking to other people. They talk like all the dialogue – all of it – was written as potential material for trailers.

Ten at one point runs across what he thinks is an alien in disguise (it turns out to be a harmless bunny rabbit) and declares himself thusly:

“Whatever you’ve got planned, forget it. I’m The Doctor. I’m 904 years-old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m The Oncoming Storm, the Bringer Of Darkness…”

I know this was meant as a comedic aside, but really, who talks like that? Certainly not the Doctor I know.

Over the course of episodes I’ve seen prior to this, the Doctor has become increasingly boastful about his own epicness, when other characters aren’t proselytizing it instead. John Hurt, as the inexplicable ‘War Doctor’ ends with speaking to his future selves as ‘great men,’ and as charming as they are, I feel like the writer’s opinion of them is a lot higher than their portrayal justifies. It may just be that an elder and venerable actor like John Hurt speaking with such breathtaken admiration to two actors decades younger than himself cannot ring true. While the crossover episodes have a tradition of comic banter between Doctors, I felt like too much time was spent with the three of them sniping at each other at the expense of stuff actually happening.

Don’t get me wrong, Tennant and Smith are great actors and excellent Doctors. Not for no reason did Tennant supplant Tom Baker as everybody’s default image of Doctor Who. But as my Dad observed, a lot of the show seems to be trading on the character’s history to make Tennant and Smith look like the thing the Doctor was always destined to be, which comes across as a bit pompous – something Smith’s first episode did as well, actually.

That said, I do like that the writers make an effort to honour the heritage of the series – contrast to J.J. Abrams’ rendition of Star Trek which spends most of its time making fun of its heritage. This would have been a lot more successful perhaps if the involvement of other Doctors besides Smith, Tennant and Hurt wasn’t so slapdash. Given the short featurette “Night of the Doctor” that preceded it, clearly Paul McGann (the 8th Doctor, who was the one in the Time War) was available. Eccleston (9th) wasn’t, and Tom Baker (4th) appears (which caused me no small amount of glee, since he’s my favourite), and 1-3 are all dead of course, but the others get thrown in somewhat offhandedly, I thought.

And of course the number of them has been causing no end of confusion. This is the thing that really gets on my nerves: Classic Doctor Who, much like the Original Star Trek, was basically a set of characters and a scenario on which you could hang any story that could be adapted to them. The new series has been trying to make it into the kind of multi-episode plot arcs that are expected of television shows today. Which is fine, in principle. Where it runs into trouble, though, is that to run a story like that, especially a sci-fi/fantasy one, you need a canon. Rules. Limits. Doctor Who in its original format had a couple of them, one of which, established as far back as 1980 (Baker’s second-to-last serial the “Keeper of Traken,” if you’re interested) is that Time Lords like the Doctor regenerate 12 times, adding up to 13 lives, and we’ve somehow had another one squeezed in with no acknowledgement of this tradition, and quite of a lot of waffling from the creators about where they’re going with this. But then again, they waffle about where they’re going with everything!

The new series also established that the Time War is ‘time-locked’ making it virtually impossible to time travel into it. And yet, one convenient gadget and some timey-wimey dialogue and poof, suddenly the rules evaporate…

John Hurt is one of my favourite actors, and performs marvelously here, but there’s no reason for him to be here in the first place. Paul McGann would have made more sense, and this way the canon is thrown into disorder for no particular reason, although one suspects it’s because too much money is being made by this series to bear the thought of letting it have an endpoint or closure of any kind. And as thrilled as I was to see Tom Baker again, how did he get there?

Furthermore, the sudden evaporation of the time lock and the conjuration of not one, but two Deus Ex Machina (Machinae? Machinas?) to get around the terrible choice that has, I repeat, informed the Doctor’s character for this entire series, is just careless messing around, not taking the storytelling seriously in the name of making the Doctor look cool.

It’s often joked about Steven Moffat that he keeps killing characters off and then bringing them back again. Now he’s done that with the whole of Gallifrey. How can a series maintain its dramatic tension, its thematic backbone, when a quick burst of technobabble and a convenient gadget put an end to hard choices, to consequences?

I had fun watching “Day of the Doctor:” I’m as attracted to the idea of the Doctor, as moved to hope and joy by that wheezy old lurching sound the TARDIS makes as any other fan. I squealed like a little girl when I heard Tom’s voice, and it was nifty to see the Zygons again. But the series has become the very worst of fanfiction: fawning over the character takes priority over a good or even coherent story, engaging characters, or strong themes.

The finale – the Doctor being given a new direction, a redemption, and an ultimate purpose – is a compelling one, but it’s brought about carelessly. The dialogue is the characters addressing the audience more than each other, the hazy clues and foreshadowing are more frustrating than interesting, and the storytelling is neglected in the interest of inducing as many shallow squees as possible.

A lot of this seems to be representative of the decay of the series at large. Unlike Star Trek, however, I wouldn’t argue that it has expended itself and should be wrapped up. The formula is a lot more open-ended than Trek’s, with endless possibilities. It’s just a pity that it seems to have limited its horizons to showing off and goofing around, under a curtain of constant hype.

Doctor Who has done much to deserve such a long history as it has enjoyed, and I hold out hope for its future.

Or past. This timey-wimey stuff is pretty hard to fathom.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Television

 

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Summer Sampler: Fun Movies

This post was originally planned for the 21st to ring in the summer, unfortunately summer decided to ring in by way of a flood event that led to me having to evacuate to higher ground.

Anyway, the evacuation order has been lifted, my apartment is undamaged, and it’s time to embrace summer, with all its fun, up to and including its entertainment.

I made reference in my Star Trek: Into Darkness review to the term ‘fun movies.’ That’s an expression that my family uses for what are effectively B-action/fantasy/science fiction movies that, by rights, should be completely forgettable, but can somehow grab your attention anyway. If they’ve been around a while, they might also be cult classics.

Exactly why this is the case can be hard to pin down. The character arcs are usually cookie-cutter predictability, and if you had to sum up the plot in one sentence, your listener would almost surely say “that sounds terrible.” The stories are usually coherent if simple and probably not apt to stand up to close scrutiny. The acting and dialogue is usually corny.

But somehow ‘fun movies’ seem to always have something that make them enjoyable. In a word, I suppose I’d say ‘imagination.’ Most of the ‘fun movies’ I’ve ever watched have a story, or an aesthetic, or world-building or even a soundtrack that make them greater than the sum of their parts. Crucially, a true ‘fun movie’ should, I think, be fully aware that it’s in no danger of being the major blockbuster of the season, and isn’t going to try to be anything but what it is. On the other hand, while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it also manages to be engaging because it’s laid-back enough to not stop and make fun of itself as it goes along. Indeed, most of the films I think of as fun movies are not comedies. It’s not a cocktail party with sophisticated music and conversation, nor is it a noisy house party with beer and hard liqour and loud music. It’s more like a cozy evening with a few friends, maybe some board games, chips and salsa, and amiable chit-chat. Just the thing on a geeky summer’s evening with friends or family.

So with that in mind, let me recommend a few of my favourite examples.

Sucker Punch: There’s not a whole lot I can say about it that I didn’t say in one of my early reviews. Indeed, I’m not even sure this surreal adventure of courage and perseverance qualifies under the criteria I just listed. Sucker Punch certainly looks like a fun movie on the surface. But Baby Doll’s harrowing voyage of liberation and sacrifice as she struggles to outwit the forces trying to exploit her body and soul has a streak of profundity that puts it one step above its peers. Still, it is a gripping spectacle with cool music, memorable characters and great action. I recall my Dad (who is a karate blackbelt) noting that somebody clearly went to a lot of effort to figure out how a fighting system that incorporates a katana in one hand and a pistol in the other would actually work. I can see how it can be read as a female-empowerment story, but more broadly it can be read as empowering to anybody who recognizes the power and appeal of imagination.

Van Helsing: Hugh Jackman plays Abraham van Helsing, hatchet man for an interfaith order that combats the supernatural evils that beset the world. Sent to Transylvania to aid the gypsy queen Anna Valerious in her family’s quest for salvation, he confronts his ancient nemesis, Count Dracula, and races against the vampire lord to discover the living product of the research of Doctor Frankenstein before Dracula can harness it for his own wicked purposes.
Van Helsing is an example of what I shall call a ‘Public Domain All-Stars’ story. Van Helsing is a centuries-old action hero with a missing memory, not an aged physician, but he’s still going up against Dracula and his Brides, plus werewolves and the treacherous Igor in the hunt for Frankenstein’s creature, and he’s introduced chasing Mr. Hyde through Paris.
It’s a steam punk adventure film with pretty neat special effects, a theme of redemption and human decency informing it, and an intelligent, charismatic villain well aware of what a bastard he is. It’s best illustrated in this exchange between a prisoner and Dracula:
“I would rather die than help you!”
“Oh, don’t be boring. Everyone who says that dies.”
Its comic relief is also quite entertaining, not least because its source, Van Helsing’s jumpy, nerdy gadgeteer sidekick Karl is played hilariously by David Wenham of all people. The pity is that it was clearly planned to be the first in a series, since the fate of the creature and Van Helsing’s lost memories are left hanging, but even for a fun movie, it wasn’t successful enough. Forsooth.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: In full disclosure, I have yet to read Alan Moore’s comic series, and know full well that the movie that shares its name is not well-liked by fans. For what it’s worth, though, on its own merits the movie is very enjoyable. Like Van Helsing it’s a steam punk Public Domain All-Stars lineup of some of the 19th Century’s most famous literary characters.
Sean Connery plays Alan Quartermain. Spending his declining years in his beloved Africa, he’s dragged unwillingly back to London when bizarre war machines begin raiding the secrets of many nations threatening to tip Europe into all-out war. He is initiated into the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a society of unique individuals charged with hunting down the mastermind. The brilliant and vicious Mina Harker, the suave but shifty Dorian Grey, the conflicted but intelligent Henry Jekyll (oddly enough captured in Paris again), the noble Captain Nemo and his first mate, Ishmael, an invisible gentleman thief, and a certain American, Special Agent T. Sawyer, set forth on a global quest to avert one villain’s apocalyptic and thoroughly tangled plot.
Possibly the great saving grace of this movie is that, given the fundamental silliness of the premise, the actors rise to the occasion and make it a truly enjoyable experience. The talent makes the best of the willfully campy script, although Connery seems to be sending up his own accent throughout. Besides that, the special effects and the late Victorian steam punk visual style are charming. Sadly the writing noticeably breaks down in quality towards the end of the movie. Cap it with an enticingly open ending and all the touches thrown in for the well-read and it’s just…neat.

Hellboy: Another one based on a comic I’ve not read. Hellboy tells the story of the title character, a foundling child from some other dimension, adopted by the leader of a supernatural task force originally founded to counter the occult machinations of the Nazis. A rookie member of this agency is partnered with Hellboy who, now in his young adulthood (he ages much more slowly than a human) both struggles with relationships with his adopted family and must meet a new challenge as the last holdouts of the Nazi occultists, led by their elder, the renegade sorcerer Rasputin, plot to unleash the cosmic horrors from beyond upon the world at last.
Hellboy probably claims the greatest star power of all of these, with Ron Perlman starring, alongside John Hurt and David Hyde Pierce. They’re all old-school actors who always put their best effort forward, and this is no exception. The director made the movie in part to make the point that Perlman, usually a supporting or villainous figure, could be a leading man, and by Jove he can. His hulking demonic character’s sardonic, laid-back personality, oddly childlike outlook and fondness for kittens are so unexpected as to make him quite unique. Add to that the stakes of a mystery-heavy plot making use of the subtle, creepy elements of Cosmic Horror and you have a recipe for a true fun movie.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator: Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to adapting video games. The director of the Resident Evil movies brings us an expert mountaineer, brought in to lead an expedition to Antarctica, where Weyland Industries has located the buried ruins of an ancient pyramid. Joined by engineers, mercenaries and archaeologists, she discovers that the pyramid is a relic of an alien civilization, built to facilitate their ritual hunt. Not of humans, but the other iconic horror of science fiction film, which the humans must help defeat or else become breeding stock for this ‘ultimate prey.’
The creatures of the Alien franchise and those of the Predator films have crossed over in video game and comic for years, and the conflict is brought to life with exhilarating action and really excellent special effects and set design in this action flick. The juxtaposition of the Aliens’ disgusting creepy viciousness and the Predators’ badass warrior grandeur is exhilarating. I root firmly for the Predators and watching them slaughter the Aliens and take pride in it is weirdly uplifting.
Our human character is a badass in her own right, and the fact that she’s a capable, independent and intelligent woman of colour in a starring role makes this shallow cheesy action flick more progressive than most every Hollywood A-list title going! Lance Henriksen performs marvelously as the founder of the corporation who overshadows events in the original Alien films. Strangely, it’s almost too bad that the movie is such a love letter to its namesakes. Given the vibrancy and diversity of the cast, to go through the usual Alien motions of slowly killing off everyone but the star is kind of a bummer. If, like me, you have any training in archaeology, a lot of that content in this film will give you a massive headache, but once it wears off you’ll realize you were cheering all the way.

Krull: A cult classic if there ever was one. Released in 1983, Krull is a little like ElfQuest in that it hedges its bets beween being science fiction and fantasy.
The world of Krull is a medieval world of swords, castles and strange ancient magics. But it is under threat from the Beast of the Black Fortress, who descended upon them from the stars to despoil and enslave.
When the newlwed Prince Colwyn’s beloved Princess Nyssa is kidnapped by the Beast to prevent the prophesy of salvation their marriage fulfills, the aged lore master Ynir sends him on a quest to claim the Glaive, an ancient magic weapon, and raise an army of mercanries, with a bumbling sorcerer and a gloomy but noble cyclops for good measure, who risk everything to assail the Black Fortress and defeat the Beast once and for all.
A hero leading a ragtag bunch of misfits to storm the evil tower, kill the bad guy, rescue the princess and save the world. Can’t get much more archetypal than that. Still, the fact that all this occurs in what seems to be a head-on collision between an Arthurian-style epic and a Space Opera makes it unique enough to be memorable. It’s in the same offbeat tradition as contemporaries like Dark Crystal. Personally, I also have a fondness for pre-CGI special effects. Throw in the frankly amazingly awesome score by James Horner and it ends up being really cool. Also, watch for Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson as secondary characters!

Cowboys and Aliens: This movie more than any of the others genuinely surprised me. Daniel Craig plays an amnesiac stranger wandering into an Old West cattle town, drawing hostile stares both because he’s apparently a wanted man and because of the strange iron bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. After picking a fight with the local ranch owner (Harrison Ford) the crowds gather for a showdown just as strange flying machines descend on the town and start whisking people away. The various factions in town put aside their differences to pursue the kidnappers, joined by a mysterious lady who seems to understand these beings and our hero a little too well.
By the time I was a third of the way into this film I was thinking, “Now wait just a minute, who gave this movie permission to kick ass?” Because it does. The characters are shockingly relatable, the dialogue is above-average (slightly) for this kind of movie, and the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’ that informs the plot and the fact that the final battle runs on actual strategy rather than the winner being whoever the plot needs it to be, makes it worthwile. Olivia Wilde’s nude scene was kind of jarring, beautiful though she is; the aliens’ motivation is pretty bland, and the aliens themselves not terribly memorable (more Men in Black than Star Wars, alas) but the Cowboys side of the equation makes up the difference.

John Carter: Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars novels, this is probably the most badly-served movie ever. Its marketing was hopelessly half-hearted and it’s too bad because it is actually really cool.
John Carter is a disaffected ex-soldier and gold prospector on the run from the law in post-Civil War America when he accidentally stumbles upon a secret gateway to another world, Mars, or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Stumbling through this world of conflict and harsh backstabbing politics, he becomes the wild card in an ancient overlord race’s plot to wipe out the peoples of Barsoom and harvest the planet for themselves.
Making friends among different peoples, winning the regard of Princess Deja Thoris, John Carter redeems himself as the savior and uniter of Barsoom.
John Carter is similar to Krull in premise and scope, and Carter is besides a quite faithful adaptation. It lacks the level of bleakness in the original material but pays lip service to it. Deja Thoris is a fairly badass character but generic and two-dimensional compared to the formidable leading ladies of AVP or Sucker Punch. Besides which, the world laid out by Burroughs’ original stories left a big opportunity for racially diverse casting (for the characters that weren’t ten feet tall and/or green at any rate) which was tragically missed. For what it’s worth, though, the story, dialogue and the themes of friendship and unity really make the difference, a weirdly charming cross between Narnia and Mass Effect.

Fun movies are necessarily very subjective, so I make no guarantee about how you’ll feel about any of these. There are others worth looking into: the Diesel Punk adventure Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, camp horror films the Mummy and the Mummy Returns, or Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts are well worth inquiring after as well.

Have a nice summer.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2013 in Movie

 

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Tinker, Tailor, Miniseries, Film: A Comparative Critique

For a fantasy fan, J.R.R. Tolkien reigns supreme, with C.S. Lewis his junior as genre trendsetters.

They have counterparts in other genres though. Spy fiction for instance. Such is my understanding that Ian Fleming is one, and the other is John le Carre, whose best-known work, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I have heard described as the Lord of the Rings of spy fiction.

Much like LotR, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been adapted a few times. The first was a television miniseries produced by the BBC in 1979, starring Sir Alec Guinness.

In 2011, a feature film was produced featuring Gary Oldman.

Alec_Guiness_dans_le_role_de_George-

The Two Smileys

The Two Smileys

So having experienced both at last, I shall compare them. I should mention in the name of full disclosure that I haven’t read the book. The few times I tried getting into it, I found the dialogue to match the miniseries word for word at many points. Since Carre did the 1979 adaptation himself, this is not surprising.

In either case, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is set in Cold War-era London and features George Smiley (Guinness/Oldman), a retired officer of the Circus, the in-story manifesation of MI6. He’s called back into service by the government when fugitive spy Ricki Tarr reappears bearing news that the Circus has, and has had for some time, a Soviet agent in its upper ranks, an idea long-dismissed as an attempted last hurrah by Smiley’s disgraced-and-deceased former boss Control.

The title refers to the nursery rhyme, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, several of which were used by Control as codenames for his suspects in the hunt for the Soviet mole.

Smiley begins the process of eliminating the remaining suspects, assisted by his protégé Peter Guillam, playing a long-range game of wits against his counterpart in Moscow Centre, the cunning and ruthless spymaster Karla.

Both lead actors play their parts exceptionally, not surprisingly. The movie seems a bit like a showcase insofar as many of its actors are A-list in Britain and beyond, and the rest are highly-recognizable character actors; the suspects are played by the likes of Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds; Control is John Hurt; Tarr is Tom Hardy, who not unlike Oldman himself I believe to be deliberately trying to confuse me by looking totally different every time I see him. And lest we forget, Peter is played by Britain’s current reigning fan girl magnet, Benedict Cumberbatch. The series, by contrast, has maybe three highly recognizable actors, and more only if you spend a lot of time watching British TV dramas.

On the flipside, the movie made a very interesting choice with respect to Karla. In the miniseries, Karla appears once, played by Sir Patrick Stewart, for about two minutes and never says a word. In the movie, Karla is not only silent but we never even get a good look at him. This could arguably enhance his mystique, making him an unseen villain, but for my taste at least the film doesn’t work hard enough to exploit it. One thing the miniseries absolutely nailed was atmosphere. Keeping Karla unseen seemed like part of a plan to build an atmosphere of omnipresence, the sense that Karla was always watching you. Part of it in the miniseries is only a few characters even use his name, whereas people mention it often and casually in the movie. If it was used only sparingly or reluctantly (like saying ’Voldemort’ in a Harry Potter book) it might have had more punch. That said, both versions wait a long time between mentioning his name and explaining who he is, which does create this sense of an an unseen shadow over things, and of course it might have been lessened since I already knew who Karla was.

The movie certainly uses the talent; Control gets a lot more characterization under John Hurt’s mastery than he did in the miniseries for one thing. Unfortunately, having deployed these great actors around the cast causes one fatal flaw which is at least milder in the miniseries: it makes it pretty freakin’ obvious which one is going to turn out to be the mole!
The process of discovering who it is is streamlined a lot for the movie’s shorter run, which certainly makes it easier to digest. I had to watch the miniseries three times before I was sure I had the logic of it worked out properly. One thing I definitely liked better in the movie was that the office politics that plague the Circus and allow the mole to flourish are much more dramtic, with emotionally charged meetings, whereas the miniseries relied a lot on anecdotes, significant glances and pregnant pauses that can be hard to interpret unless you memorize them for later. I do think that both versions narrowed the field inadvertently because in the miniseries, only three of the four suspects get characterized to any great degree, and in the movie it’s only two. Considering his talent, Ciaran Hinds really got left out in the cold in my opinion.

Some would argue, however, that the discovery of the mole isn’t really the main point of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. A crucial theme of the story is that, far from being an adventurous, or even dangerous and suspenseful lifestyle, for most people involved intelligence work is a soul-crushing grind. Sir Alec and Oldman both express it masterfully purely by the perpetually exhausted expressions they wear. By the end of the miniseries, you’re left with a real sense of being emotionally drained and weary. The movie also did something that you couldn’t have done in 1979, which is recast Peter as gay, and as they prepare to go up against their own organization, he’s forced to throw his boyfriend out to protect them both (as a government agent, being gay could get you in a lot of trouble in those days). The heartbreak he suffers as he does this was very intense, as is Smiley’s when we see him witness his wife’s unfaithfulness, whereas it’s merely mentioned in the series.

Sir Alec’s Smiley also had to miserably endure the assaults upon his principles, and to confront his wife at the end for her possible involvement. It left every professional triumph hollowed out somewhat by the cost in friendships, relationships and ideals that had to be paid.

This is further reinforced in the miniseries by the mole’s explanation of why he did it, the human cost of the damage he’s done, illustrated by the character Jim Prideaux, and the dreary process of picking up the mess afterward.

The movie loses something outright by not having time to show you how the nuts and bolts of intelligence actually works, but does go some way towards this. Prideaux’s suffering is very graphic although it is sadly carried by what I felt was a far weaker performance than his 1979 counterpart’s, and Ricki Tarr is left literally out in the rain. Smiley’s need to check his own home for infiltration every time he comes in also helps. But the mole never gets to fully explain himself, and the finale rushes through his fate, that of Tarr, and then abruptly shows Smiley seemingly reconciling with his wife, then walking past a triumphantly grinning Peter to return to his duties as if everything will be lovely forever. The past tragedies and betrayals are touched on in montage form, but it marks such a jarring shift in tone that I was having flashbacks to Mass Effect 3.

So while the movie is well-constructed, well cast and well acted, my vote still remains firmly with the miniseries. It’s longer and more intricate and intellectually demanding, but the characterization is a lot better and gives its cast more to work with. Sir Alec has more material with which to express Smiley’s inner pain and anger, whereas all Oldman gets to do is raise his voice slightly. The plot problems of the movie remind me of the English Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in that the writers occasionally seem to forget what they’ve done in previous scenes to set tone and themes and start all over again.

Both are worth a look, but the movie excels at being a mystery/thriller and not much else, whereas the series might have fewer make-you-jump moments but also takes the time to ensure high quality in more ways.

Remember, there are three of them, and Alleline.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2013 in Movie, Television

 

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