Skip to main content

Have you ever eaten a Sontaran?

Doctor Who
The Two Doctors

Ah yes, The Two Doctors. It can’t catch a break. If it isn’t in gratuitous, disgusting and in appalling taste, then it’s incredibly, unforgivably racist. And terribly directed besides. Some of these things are fair comment. Having recently rewatched Warriors of the Deep, I can attest there are degrees to the field of bad direction; as uninspired as his work is, Peter Moffat isn’t nearly at the bottom of the heap in this case. Tat Wood even suggests Pennant Roberts could probably have made something of the story, which is illustrative of how incredibly off base his overall assessment is. The Two Doctors is also, at times, quite grisly (while I tend not to be too squeamish about these things in Doctor Who, there’s something jarringly blunt about the deaths of the Dona Arana and Oscar). But racist? I’d argue, as several others have – including, yes, and perhaps surprisingly, Elizabeth “You’re a racist if The Talons of Weng-Chiang is your favourite story” Sandifer – that it’s nothing of the sort. Rather, Robert Holmes has stewed a fine brew of conflicting declarations that make The Two Doctors one of the series’ more fascinating philosophical diversions.

The Sixth Doctor: This machine has to be primed, by what we call the Rassilon Imprimatur, that's a kind of symbiotic print within the physiology of a Time Lord.

The mistake would be to infer that the story is fundamentally about race, when really it is more selectively focussed on eugenics. Obviously, eugenics intersects with race and has been the primary focus for many of its advocates, but races – and from there, assumptions of superiority and inferiority – are not a prerequisite for practising eugenics (one can “happily” experiment on one’s own variably “pure” race to “raise” it to the required standard). There are ideas of racial purity in The Two Doctors mix, undoubtedly – Holmes isn’t going to make this easy – but assuming one can simply swap in its alien species for a given real-world human equivalent would be to ignore what the story is saying. Or perhaps more cogently, what it is not saying.

There’s an oft-rehearsed view that The Two Doctors amounts to a sermon on the pointlessness of attempting to “educate” or “civilise” an “inferior” race. One might respond that the Doctor’s endeavours with his companions are almost exclusively devoted to the belief that exactly this is possible – when he’s not retconned as mooning hopelessly over them – so it’s evident that, even when he’s being adversarial, he doesn’t believe this is pointless or “a very silly thing to do”. One might also point to the presentation of the Androgums, as a “servitor” race who show the “humans” (the Third Zoners, Dastari anyway) due deference. They do not, however, see themselves as inferior. Rather, they prize racial purity and see others (Sontarans, humans) as themselves inferior, and little more than meat. Which is, obviously, a play Holmes is utilising on all levels here, and one both Robert Shearman and Sandifer (taking Shearman’s thesis as her starting point) affirm.

The Second Doctor: No one can travel through time without a molecular stabilisation system.
Dastari: We know that now. And we know that Time Lords possess a symbiotic link with their machines which protects them, and anyone with them, against destabilisation.

If the Androgums represent a race of humans, then by definition, all the show’s antagonists are substitutes for the same – and by that, I mean Sontarans, Androgums, Daleks, Autons, Wirrn, Krynoids, Osirians, Magma Beasts. On that level, you could continue to argue The Two Doctors is racist, but it would be rather specious. And a very silly thing to do. As Sandifer points out, pursuing this tack highlights the essential limits of the show’s good-bad remit (nu-Who will obviously redress this, often to facile ends by injecting “wuv” and humanity into Kaled mutants and emotionally-inhibited Cybermen, along with a comedy Sontaran. With that comes a dilution of the Doctor’s “goodness”, thus engineering the series’ plunge into a moral and ethical abyss where every motivation is justified and usually resolved by grandstanding on the Doctor’s part because he/she is God. And a jealous one at that).

There’s more to it than that, evidently. Because Holmes is offering up the characters for comparative understanding, in a (typically) deeply cynical fashion (rather than a racist one); If there’s a subtext – rather than evident thematic element – Holmes seems to be saying we can never truly evolve or improve ourselves, because our lower impulses or primal natures will continually pull us back, and this is evident in whichever group of characters we choose to inspect. Shockeye knows who he is, and he is proud of it, extoling racial purity and prioritising self-gratification. Chessene only believes herself above such things (and one could simply read this as the mind-body denial of the thinker versus the athlete, or gourmand). Jamie is reduced to a snarling animal. Both Doctors degenerate to basic predatory instincts (eat, kill/survive, sleep). Dastari’s pridefulness allows him to believe he can act like a god. The Sontarans despise the base and irrelevant obsessions of all other parties; their military code and notion of honour is, to them, a sign of civilisation, but based on the precept of death and glory (and that anyone else is lesser: “As you are not a Sontaran, you cannot impugn my honour”). 

Everyone in The Two Doctors thinks they are civilised. We may be told by “hero” characters that the Androgums are inherently inferior, but Holmes conspicuously avoids banging the drum for any group as being definably better than them. Everyone – humans, Time Lords, Sontarans, Androgums, two of which species at least have relied on eugenics to achieve their status – is shown to be in the wrong. The Doctor may be called out for denigrating the Androgums, but when he is augmented the implication is that the same baser instincts are at work in us all, however much we may protest otherwise.

Shearman observes of the Androgums “So when they look at mankind as cattle, or when they salivate over Scotsman in kilts, the humour lies in the fact that they look almost exactly the same but haven’t the wit to realise it” Well, in part. And in part because, as above, all parties in the story takes positions of superiority over the others; Androgums are just thinking gastrically. And in part yes, because it’s designed to highlight the ease with which we accept anything that doesn’t look like us as valid fodder, and only blanche when it goes all Leatherface in our face.

What Holmes is using the Androgums for, and appears to be saying outright when the Doctor attests “You can’t change nature”, is that the Doctor Who villain must always be a Doctor Who villain. Now, you might suggest that means a lion will always be a lion (or an earwig that understands nuclear physics will always been an earwig). Ie, that a predator will always carry a predator instinct (as many who believe they have been able to tame them have discovered to their peril). But more singularly, the common thread in Doctor Who villains and monsters is a basic lack of “humanity”. Or, if you will, empathy, feeling, morality, soul or heart. They are psychopaths, basically. As Scaroth says, they “don’t care one bit”.

The question would better be, then, in deflection of the racism charge, can you civilise or educate a psychopath (if we propose this is what the generic Doctor Who monster represents)? Science would say no (for what that’s worth). And Holmes seems to be saying the same. Chessene has been augmented, but she acts like a human if that human were Patrick Bateman. Or Jimmy Savile in A Fix with the Sontarans. Chessene is still every bit the psychopath Shockeye is, but now she is a cultured psychopath, one with a better complexion and an appreciation for fine art. She can moderate her behaviour; she can pass for someone with empathy (if you like, to use a racial inflexion), but as with all classic Who monsters, she has no soul.

This is, after all, also what is happening when the Doctor becomes Androgumed. He no longer cares for human life, thinks only about satisfying his appetites and pleasuring himself (this is Troughton’s Doctor, after all). Any casualties to that end are entirely irrelevant (presumably however, if you follow the race reading, the Doctor’s augmentation would represent mixing races and thus impurifying the gene pool, such that he has fallen among savages and taken up their ways). You can call those animal instincts, but they are essentially those of the psychopath.

Tat Wood discusses this in Where Does This Come From?, citing the Doctor’s “Androgums have as much emotional capacity as, as a gumblejack”. He makes some valid points about the links to Blade Runner (Tyrell and Dastari both have a thing for eyewear), although there, the key is that Nexus 6s do possess empathy. The Androgums (the ones we see, at any rate) do not.

It thus becomes impossible, within the story’s coding, to mix and match augmentation (eugenic refinement) for “education” or “civilising”. Any more than the behavioural adjustment imposed on George Segal in Terminal Man is “civilising” (here we focus in on the question whereby, just because/if you can modify someone towards a societally acceptable norm, does that mean you should, or further still have the right to). And if we are to read Dastari’s actions as a euphemism for “educating” or “civilising”, then so are those of Davros. And the Cybermen, for they too are educating and civilising to a level that meets their standard of perfection.

A 2016 Washington Post piece stressed the need, with advances in science, to distinguish between “negative eugenics and positive genetic intervention”. It’s a quagmire, even if one believes we have the right to assume the mantle of God in such matters (I’m profoundly unconvinced). Of course, the argument will be that such developments – I won’t call them advances – are essential to defeat disease and genetic abnormalities and defects, but this is in itself a consequence of the scientific blind alley that is the modern allopathic model of medicine and disease. And the Zigma Experiment.

In this vein, however, it becomes challenging to sort through the specifics of Shearman and Wood’s cross arguments. Wood muddles whether he’s discussing eugenics or the education/culture metaphor, such that Shearman offers that of course “the eugenics theme is fascistic” in response to Wood’s reading that “educating them is a waste of time, and they should only breed with their own kind”. Because Wood focusses on what he views as the Doctor’s – and therefore the story’s/Holmes’ – rejection of Dastari’s efforts, rather than the principles he’s engaged with – genetic tampering beyond his remit – there’s no real consideration of the morality of Dastari’s actions or the Time Lords’. Indeed, Wood gets to the nub when he observes “The Sontarans’ desire to try and steal Time Lord chromosomes is portrayed as a perversion of nature (funny that, since you could say the same about the chromosomes themselves)”. This is precisely it. Taken in context of the Doctor’s hypocrisy, “Dastari’s arguments are actually quite valid”. But the Doctor being wrong – and the Time Lords being wrong – doesn’t make Dastari right. Or Davros (whatever you think of the story as a whole, it’s doubtful you’ll come away thinking “Dastari is painted as a monster”: misguided at worst).

Wood hits on the key to unlocking the story, because Time Lord society itself is entirely built on eugenics – or “positive genetic intervention”. Theirs is artificially imposed biology that elevates them above mere ape primitives (as the Doctor is dismissively inclined to regard humans). Not just in the matter of regeneration (while the main – by which I mean classic – series is vague on the genesis of this process, the implication is that it is an artificial one, possibly at Rassilon’s behest, hence being able to offer the Master a whole new life cycle). But also, and pertinently to this story, in their transhumanist man-machine link to their time machines (something alluded to as far back as The Power of the Daleks). The Doctor is himself an embodiment of the unnatural and altered. Or, in terms of the Time Lords’ position, purified (Tat Wood speculates on how much “something in Time Lord DNA was the key” to the secret of time travel, given none of what the Doctor told Jamie was “strictly true”, but the Doctor earlier validates the symbiotic nuclei when talking to Jamie and Peri on the space station).

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t be morally unimpeachable. And the Doctor’s role generally has been to argue against unchecked scientific experimentation, tampering with nature (or creation, since he commonly takes a position closer to the morally religious than clinically scientific and ethically detached). Invariably, those in the show who are – especially those augmenting species – are unarguably in the wrong. Here, however, the Doctor is an agent of his race, taking their position, and the eugenics argument presented by the Doctor is exactly the same as the time-travel one that brings him to the station; do as I say, not as I do.

The Doctor is a hypocrite, and it cannot be a coincidence that Holmes directly addresses this in the story. Indeed, one wonders if Holmes was purposefully using pejorative terms towards both Jamie and Shockeye, in the case of the latter before we knew his “nature”, because it dovetails so neatly with the purpose of his mission. The Time Lords are the products of transhumanism and eugenics, raised above their station to be symbiotically linked to their time-travelling machines and master a domain that was not their birth right. It’s a bit rich then to malign Dastari for his meddling. Not that he’s wrong to; he’s just cannot be self-righteous about it, as he’s no one to talk.

When the Doctor has previously involved himself in eugenics directly, the results have not been pretty (The Face of Evil). But even knowing that, he has frequently succumbed to the will of his people, who are also undeniably the face of eugenics’ failure of to raise their status to “a higher plane of consciousness”. Instead, they merely have longevity, an AI means of preserving their memory pool, and a homicidal interest in ensuring others do not encroach on their territory. They’re happy to commit genocide (Genesis of the Daleks), devastate a planet (The Mysterious Planet), or imprison one in a time loop (Image of the Fendahl). Anything that suits them (which goes back to the false assumption of superiority Holmes, who did more than any other to tear their society down, is addressing in each strata of the story’s characters).

So we have a story explicitly revolving around genetically altered Time Lords, genetically altered Androgums, and an entire race produced through applied eugenics, the Sontarans. I don’t somehow think that’s a coincidence, nor that Holmes is able to point out how flawed the assumption is that this path will bring with it advances of whichever order in each case.

Generally, The Two Doctors slots seamlessly into a season where every story (be it merely a consequence of Saward's regard for the tropes of the Hinchcliffe era) deals with genetic and/or physical and/or mental augmentation; "advancements" of a scientist, or society at large, are seen to exert a negative influence on assumed progress, even impeding it. This explicitly includes the Time Lords (the Doctor is twice sent to prevent any other society from elevating themselves, Tower of Babel like, to their level).

And yes, the Doctor’s general attitude to Jamie does rather support the racism charge (as well as illustrating that he could never ever regenerate into the Seventh Doctor, let alone the Ninth). But this is a long long way from concluding, with absurd hyperbole, that Holmes’ story “is advocating a caste system and a final solution” (even going with the first, at a stretch, which assumes the author advocating an essentially colonialist outlook on Dastari’s part, the second is baffling).

Shearman suggests we are “invited to question the standard morality of a Doctor Who story” while Sandifer, who is nothing if not keen to brandish Holmes’ “inner bigot” for a public flogging summarised that: “So what we have is a story that savagely refuses to give the audience what they ostensibly want and that instead shows how the very premises of the show are corrupt and decadent”. Which is, uncommonly, a fair call on her part.

The racist take also rather gets in the way of the vegetarian subtext, which more than being about advocating vegetarianism, is seeing all life – well, animal life – as sacred regardless of its sentience. And this is self-evidently also the point. From the Doctor killing Shockeye by “a method which would barely occasion the merest shock were they as alien as they pretend” (better for moths) to the latter tenderising Jamie, digging into a raw rat and speculating on the taste of Leg of Sontaran, Holmes is quite merciless in selecting his targets. The only reason Earth is the location is because the Androgums (and JN-T) wanted to sample the local cuisine. By rights, the Doctor shouldn’t draw a line at vegetarianism, given the likes of Krynoids and Meglos (and later Vervoids); his position should be one of a healthy fruitarian diet for both of us.

The Sixth Doctor: Sit down? They're executing me! Except it wasn't that way. It didn't end like that, so it's not possible.
Peri: What isn't possible?
The Sixth Doctor: Well, I exist. I'm here, now, therefore I cannot have been killed then. That is irrefutable logic, isn't it?
Peri: Don't worry about it.
The Doctor: But the there and then subsumes the here and now, so if I was killed then, I could only exist now as some sort of temporal tautology. That also is irrefutable.

There’s another element of The Two Doctors worth mentioning, because it continues the thread of this Doctor’s existential apprehension. It’s a particularly strong story in this regard, from his speculation on his own death (more of that to come in Revelation of the Daleks) to “The unholy, unburiable smell of Armageddon”, to this:

The Sixth Doctor: Yes, but if I arrived here during a time experiment, caught in an embolism and therefore outside the time flow. But if I were dead then and here now, it means that I was at the very epicentre of the engulfing chaos.
Peri: I don't understand.
The Sixth Doctor: It means the collapse of the universe has started and nothing can stop it.
Peri: How long will it take?
The Sixth Doctor: For everything to end? A very few centuries.
Peri: Centuries? Well, if it's going to take that long, I'll go and see if Jamie's any better.
The Sixth Doctor: She can't comprehend the scale of it all. Eternal blackness. No more sunsets. No more gumblejacks. Never more a butterfly.

For my money, this is some of Holmes’ very best writing, and comes in the story’s very best scenes. The prevailing cosmic angst is every bit as much a defining trait as the more usual ones levelled (as they usually are) at the Sixth Doctor. He then goes and does a very interesting thing, since it’s entirely at odds with all the materialist-genetic, transhumanist discussion elsewhere; he leaves his body in order to locate his other self (“There's no such thing as time on the astral plane”). During this era, the show is at its most enmeshed in the corruption of the flesh, yet it has a Doctor speculating more than any other about what there is beyond its ephemera. And perhaps, despairing at the thought it may not be enough.

Shockeye: Religion? I'm not interested in the beliefs of primitives, only in what they taste like.
Chessene: In some ways, Shockeye o' the Quauncing Grig, you are a complete primitive yourself.

But then, The Two Doctors is a story where the literal approach to perception and value systems is called into question. The religious superstitions of an old woman are mocked by a character we’re supposed – in some readings, as noted – to see as uneducated type just in need of a bit of civilising in order to be the same as everyone else. Even the identification of specific religious viewpoints wasn’t usual in the classic series, when it wasn’t Cartmel being a commie. I mentioned that the Dona Arana’s death was jarring, and this is because it’s so offhand and dismissive. While Shockeye – presumably being a base atheist – dismisses her sentiments, Chessene, being augmented and discerning beyond the range of the undoubtedly atheist Dastari, is less critical. If not endorsing the old woman’s perspective, she understands the value of entertaining different ranges of perception.

Thematically rich as it is, there’s no doubt The Two Doctors is all over the place. In part, this is down to being a six-parter, Holmes unable to find a satisfactory way – having conspicuously not gone for a 2-4 or a 4-2, or a 1-2 or 2-1 – to tell it. The result is that the first episode and a half are very good, delivering some of the best the era would see (some would claim that isn’t saying very much at all), but the momentum and suspense drop off once everyone has gathered in Seville. There are various plots and stratagems, but not nearly enough to sustain it.

Shearman calls the Sontarans “comic bits of padding”, and they are to an extent. Holmes enjoys caricaturing the pompous military mindset, but through failing to conceive of an effective role for them, he breaks the back of the third episode, disposing of them early on and leaving insufficient dramatic meat – ahem – for the remainder. Which means it has to rely on Holmes’ wit and he characterisation; this just about sees it through, but it’s rocky going (with regard to their actual purpose in the story, I’m unconvinced of the secrets of time travel Sontaran nonsense when Linx can cobble together a rudimentary time machine in the medieval period. True, the Doctor says “unlimited access”, but you’d have thought a million hatched clones could make a breakthrough if one could get as far as Linx did spontaneously).

Shockeye: Shepherd's pie? A shepherd. Can't we walk quicker?

Shearman also attests to how truly transgressive the story is in comic terms, pointing in particular to the scenes where Androtrout is fully on board with Shockeye beating a truck driver to death, with the murder of Oscar for the main course (you can imagine Eric’s defence: Bob thought, and I agreed with him, that kids need to see the consequences of being stabbed with a table knife). Shearman “adored it” (Oscar’s death), attesting that “In its subtle way, his death is as shocking as Adric’s – it savagely breaks the programme’s safe conventions, but this time by inviting us to laugh at what should seem tragic”. I think Shearman’s off base here, as it isn’t Oscar going out quipping that’s the problem (“the comedy in The Two Doctors hurts”) but that it’s simply compounding the unnecessary, more than a ham being skewered like a piece of the same. If the story could be taken in isolation, Shearman’s might be a reasonable argument, but it’s sandwiched between stories replete with further unnecessary Saward deaths inflicted on sympathetic/humorous supporting characters – Griffiths, the DJ – and so seems like yet another case of violence for the sake of violence.

I generally agree with the take that this is written to be unsettling, to catch you off guard and wrong foot you – as if Jago had his throat slit by Mr Sin – but to suggest the way the climax hinges on an argument over the bill is “one of the few times in Doctor Who when black comedy has been genuinely dangerous” is hyperbole that does the story no favours. We’ve already seen an old lady beaten to death, a rat’s neck snapped and an exploding Stike, and in Moffat’s undifferentiated hands, there can be little case that the scene lands in any kind of layered way (if indeed, you allow Shearman’s take as valid). Undoubtedly, though, Holmes’s perverse streak is alive and well throughout. He brings back Troughton and then barely allows him to be Troughton; Sandifer and Shearman are right that this definitely isn’t giving fans what they want.

Oscar: What on Earth have they had? Nobody can run up a bill for eighty-one thousand, six hundred pesetas.
Anita: What? Let me see. They've had lobsters, clams, and squid, brains in white sauce, two whole suckling pigs, a ham with figs, eight steaks, and an entire family paella!
Oscar: A whole paella?
Anita: And–
Oscar: That's twelve servings.
Anita: They've just ordered a dozen breasts of pigeons, probably to help down the last of their dozen bottles of wine.
Oscar: What a gargantuan repast. It's incredible. And they're still eating!

There is much that is acridly funny throughout, though; the plays on food and attitudes to the same generally do land. Notable too is that the Androgums in their variant forms make effective stand-ins both for adrenochrome-guzzling elites and in-bred backwoods cannibals. Indeed, for all that everyone offers a “what might have been” with regard to this story and the performances, I can’t find much to complain about in John Stratton’s performance. There’s a seedy malignancy to him; as there’s no refinement in his appetite for food, he comes across as more the sort you might find feeding the corpses of freshly slain victims to pigs on some remote farm than a Hannibal Lector type. He is almost beside himself with (food) lust when he sees Peri at the door. A sequence very much echoing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; student type enters isolated abode and falls prey to cannibal intent on devouring her. Shockeye just happens to be more articulate than Leatherface, but he would be no less prone to hanging Jamie from a meat hook (again: Androgums are psychopaths. Now, obviously, some might argue anyone killing animals is similarly inclined, but such debates about sentience/ feeling/ disassociation sense are inherent to the material).

Of the rest of the cast, Clinton Greyn has great fun as an over-sized self-doubting Sontaran. Much as I like Pearce, I’ve always felt Chessene was ends up too similar to Servalan (except when she puts on the warty makeup, obviously); she’s entirely fine but that’s all. Laurence Payne, on the other hand, is pitch perfect as Dastari.

The story’s direction obviously remains a huge bone of contention, and much of Shearman’s defence is couched in acknowledgments of the deficiencies in execution. Even Colin had a go at Moffat on the DVD commentary. The reveal of the Sontarans (well, one) is always held up as an example of how poor a director Peter Moffat was. But. As I said at the outset, I don’t think The Two Doctors is that badly directed. It may flounder in key parts (perhaps Oscar’s death would be heralded the way Shearman sees it if tackled by a more sensitive helmer). It lacks a director sympathetic to, or who really understands the material. A Harper, or even a Robinson, might have given it a considerable boost. But compared to his previous work on the show, this is leaps and bounds ahead of anything else Moffat delivered up to that point; certainly, the space station scenes, with the lights turned down, are largely atmospheric and effective.The final chase sequence is well paced and shot. Stike falling to one knee and firing is well blocked. The torture tube sequences are decently lit. Wood eviscerates it, but some of his comments are nonsensical. I mean, Planet of Fire does look like it is filmed in a quarry, but the idea that “They could have made this story in Kent” is daft. Seville does not look like England on a sunny day.

Peter Howell’s score also deserves special praise, as it adds greatly to the atmosphere and mood. The Sontaran theme is the second great Sontaran theme we’ve had (after some unusual Dudley electronica in The Invasion of Time).

The Sixth Doctor: This has all the hallmarks of a conspiracy.
Peri: What sort of conspiracy?
Jamie: A plot!

Yes, it isn’t hard to misread – or choose to read – The Two Doctors as endorsement of the very things it critiques, just as The Discontinuity Guide noted (“An anti-meat message… via the Doctor Who equivalent of a Peter Greenaway film seems about as sound as a sexually explicit film trying to criticise pornography”). But for that reason, it’s close to the richest and most fascinating script Holmes wrote – if far from the best. In many respects, Season 22 is revealed as the most relevant classic season to the world’s current state of play, as so many of its themes – eugenics, transhumanism, totalitarianism, the surveillance state – are never more pertinent and urgent. The Two Doctors is no exception to this. It’s conceivable that its staunchest deniers are those most oblivious to the clear and present dangers.


















Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas