The Borrowers (2011)

Several months ago, we went out to enjoy Fathom’s presentation of The Secret World of Arrietty. I read a little bit about it on Wikipedia and learned that just one year later, a live-action adaptation of the same source material was made. It’s a BBC movie made in conjunction with NBC / Universal. Was it shown on American TV, I wonder? I’m not sure how I missed this; I keep an eye on Doctor Who news when it isn’t being shown, and I’m sure I would have noticed news stories about Christopher Eccleston starring in a fantasy film like this, but I suppose it just never registered.

Anyway, this is a Christmas movie that features Eccleston as Pod Clock, one of the borrowing little people who live under the floorboards of a nice house in London. While many of the same elements from Mary Norton’s original novels are here in this version – a doll house, a sympathetic young human bean who wants to help, a grandmother who’s obsessed with the little “thieves” – this is a very different take on the adventure from what we saw in Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s animated film. The threat this time isn’t just the grandmother, it’s a lovestruck, fame-obsessed zoologist at a local university and his bloodthirsty graduate assistant.

While there’s a part of me that regrets that Stephen Fry, who plays the professor, doesn’t get much of an opportunity to share any face-off time against Eccleston, I did enjoy this much more urban take on the source material about as much as the pastoral Japanese version. Here, the Clock family is not very far from a large community of Borrowers. There’s a huge group that lives in the long-shuttered City Road Underground station, and after the family is discovered, they can make their way there for help.

They’re discovered after teenaged Arrietty, played by Aisling Loftus in full you-never-let-me-do-anything sixteen years old mode, makes the acquaintance of a Bean, setting everything in motion. Soon enough, her parents are captured, and she has to work with the Bean and another Borrower who knows more about her parents than she does, to rescue them. Our son was really pleased with the shenanigans in the climax, where poor Stephen Fry charges down university corridors chasing after a remote-controlled car. If Disney had made this in the seventies, it would have been Keenan Wynn or Harry Morgan or somebody. The special effects and the accents may change, but there is a formula to a successful kids’ movie, you know?

I thought this was a fine little morning movie, but I did quibble a little at the end. There’s a subplot about a missing coin that’s in the Borrowers’ hands, and I’d have liked it if our one heroic Bean had done them a fair swap for some items of greater value to them – say two big 50p coins in return for the gold sovereign? Perhaps I’m just sensitive to it because our son is hitting the age where trading’s okay. He came home from school this week with an extra bag of somebody’s unwanted Valentine’s sweets in return for some fruit snacks and I’ve been worried for days that the other kid was as satisfied with the deal as he was. Two coins are always better than one when you’re not using them as government-backed legal tender, right?

Doctor Who 1.13 – The Parting of the Ways

For my money, Christopher Eccleston has the absolute best batting average of any of the Doctors. Just 13 episodes – 10 stories – and not a turkey among them. His weakest hour, “The Long Game,” is guilty of nothing worse than being a little forgettable, and even that one had Simon Pegg in it. I kind of like the idea that there was one Doctor with an incredibly short life. There’s a tendency in Who fandom, with all the spinoff novels and comics and audio adventures, to make sure that every Doctor lived for decades and decades, with far, far more stories than we ever saw on TV, but I like having one who only had a few months. Makes up for the eleventh living for all those centuries on Trenzalore. The ninth was the one who died.

So of course the kid loved it to pieces, especially when the Anne Droid disintegrated three Daleks. He really liked the Emperor, and we had to discuss whether the “immortal god” version could move anywhere or whether it’s part of the ship. We’ll never know for sure, but my vote’s for having the Emperor be completely stationary, but able to manipulate things with those arms underneath its tank. That makes for thematic similarity with the original Emperor from “The Evil of the Daleks” back in 1967, and so I showed him some pictures to see what I mean, since the only surviving episode from that serial doesn’t have the Emperor in it. He respectfully disagrees and thinks that this Emperor stomped around its ship on its three big “legs.”

Our kid might have been only the second person to ever watch “The Parting of the Ways” who didn’t know it was going to end with a regeneration. I did know one fellow who understood that the thirteen episodes were in the can and then Eccleston quit, so the ending was a huge surprise. It was a beautifully written and acted scene before the visuals took over – I really don’t like the star-volcano special effects of modern regenerations – but I’m afraid that this blog’s oldest recurring gag came roaring back. No, our son didn’t recognize David Tennant.

Not only that, but when we watched the Randall & Hopkirk adventure “Drop Dead” literally two weeks ago, I paused the show with Tennant onscreen, told our son that of course I didn’t expect him to recognize this actor as Crowley from Good Omens, but told him to remember his face because we’d be seeing a lot more of him in the future. The blasted kid doesn’t even remember that I paused the episode to tell him that.

We’ll return Doctor Who to the shelf for a break, but we’ll look at series two in mid-December. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 1.12 – Bad Wolf

I’ve kind of gone back and forth about watching the “Next Time” trailers. The one we watched at the end of “Boom Town” convinced me not to look at them anymore, because of course our son jumped for joy when he saw that the Daleks were coming back, and of course they only show up for a few minutes at the end. It’s a terrific end, but I kind of had to temper expectations a little.

On the other hand, the trailer reminded me that I needed to take a few minutes and give our son some backstory, otherwise he would have had to catch up to what was going on. He has never heard of Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not To Wear. In fairness, I hadn’t heard of that last one either prior to watching this in 2005. I just looked it up to make sure I got the name right and learned there’s an American version that ran for ten years. Amazing the irrelevant crap you miss by not watching irrelevant channels like TLC.

But more broadly, our son had almost no idea that such things as reality television or game shows even exist at all. For him, TV is either the stuff we show him, the cartoons he watches, or the animal documentaries he enjoys on the various National Geographic channels, particularly one called Monster Fish. This past weekend, we took a day trip up to the Smoky Mountains and I really enjoyed giving him a potted history of what little I know about such programs as The Real World and Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, making sure I mentioned the specific shows that tonight’s episode parodied. That way he could connect a few dots himself and he ended up really enjoying this installment.

Happily, he didn’t ask for any more details about the reality-game genre, because the only thing I know about Survivor is that a guy named Richard Hatch won one of them, and I only remember that because he has the same name as an actor who was on Battlestar Galactica.

Doctor Who 1.11 – Boom Town

There’s a delightful moment in “Boom Town” where our heroes are having lunch at a nice restaurant in Cardiff, listening to one of Captain Jack’s naughty stories, and the Doctor spots a familiar face on a newspaper. It’s Margaret Blaine, one of their Slitheen opponents who should’ve been killed six months ago, Earth time. Somehow she’s become Lord Mayor of Cardiff without getting her picture in the paper before now and without anybody in Wales asking “Hey, aren’t you the same Margaret Blaine who was in that brouhaha at 10 Downing Street when it got blown up a few months ago?” And somehow, she’s got a new nuclear power plant in the advanced planning stages as well as getting the demolition of Cardiff Castle – which you’d think would turn public opinion against you – approved.

I love the stories we don’t see in Doctor Who. I’ve mentioned before how the Fang Rock Murders must be the greatest unsolved mystery in folklore. Some people have grumbled that the speed at which Margaret puts this scheme together makes it a bit unlikely. But I want to read the book. I bet that the investigative journalist we meet in this episode wrote an amazing book about how the aldermen of Cardiff backed a Lord Mayor who immediately planned to tear down the castle, left a trail of bodies in her wake, and then vanished from the face of the planet leaving exactly one confirmed photograph behind.

What sells the moment to me is the sad and resigned way that Christopher Eccleston delivers the perfect line, “And I was having such a nice day.”

Doctor Who 1.10 – The Doctor Dances

A few years after this aired, call it 2008 or so, the BBC announced that Steven Moffat would be the next showrunner and lead writer of Doctor Who. His run would turn out to be occasionally quite controversial and often very disappointing to me, but I punched the air at the time because his annual story for the series was always a high point. I’m sure most everybody did. “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” is, like his next three stories, completely wonderful. It’s full of wit and imagination and very unique frights.

I was going to mention in the previous entry that it introduced John Barrowman as the recurring character of Captain Jack Harkness, before I decided to be a monster, anyway. I was also going to mention that it introduced us to Moffat’s signature resolution of the solution being hidden in plain sight, which is almost always very satisfying. These two episodes are just pure gold. I almost wish that series one had ended right here and that they’d taken a few months off before continuing, because this has been a completely splendid run of the series.

Apart from the visual shocks and scares of part one, our son had been upset because he didn’t know who the villain was. So he was smiling when he commented “There wasn’t a villain at all, just nanogenes that made an oops!” He also noted last night that every story so far had been set either on Earth or on a space station just above it. I thought that was very observant of him; the show wouldn’t properly get out of orbit until midway through the next series.

Doctor Who 1.9 – The Empty Child

I’ve just discovered a terrific way to annoy everybody in the house!

What you need to do is, around about 1996, buy an old 1940s gas mask from Hodges Army & Navy Store in Marietta GA for a Golden Age Sandman costume. Hold on to the gas mask for 23 years. After you watch “The Empty Child,” Steven Moffat’s first proper TV episode of Who, with the lights out, pop behind the sofa, don the mask and raise your head over the back of the couch to ask your petrified eight year-old “Are you my mummy?”

A few moments, some tears, some hugs, and an apology or three later, our son, who cannot stand giant rats, heights, speed, collard greens, the concept of whitewater rafting, hot sauce, mustard, or children wearing gas masks, explained that he “would eat a turkey mustard hot sauce apple tofu sandwich if it would give me a memory wipe of this episode.”

Doctor Who 1.8 – Father’s Day

“Father’s Day” is the first of surprisingly few TV episodes of Doctor Who written by Paul Cornell. He’d written several incredibly entertaining Who novels for Virgin and the BBC, but he only contributed two stories to the television series. I wonder why.

Anyway, this is a really effective story that retains its power to leave otherwise hard-hearted grownups drying their eyes and choking back sobs. Our son, however, was so completely fascinated by what was happening with time in this story, including the driver caught in a time loop, eternally trying to run over Rose’s father one day in November 1987, and the strange beasts that entered reality as a result of history changing, that he didn’t have any tears to spare. He likened the monsters to “white blood cells,” which seems kind of right.

I think there are two really powerful reasons this story works so well and is so darn effective in making audiences bite their lips. First, I will occasionally grumble that Murray Gold’s music can get both bombastic and intrusive from time to time, but when he was on fire, he was perfect. “Father’s Day” might be his best score in ten series.

Second, Shaun Dingwall plays Rose’s father, and his is one of the best guest performances in the program’s history. He does more silently in this episode than everybody else does speaking. That’s not to dismiss anybody else’s performances – Camille Coduri darn near steals the whole episode when 1987-Jackie, hitting really close to home, chews out her no-good so-and-so “Del Boy” of a husband – but watching Dingwall as his character figures out what has happened, and that Rose is lying to him about his future, is just breathtaking.

Doctor Who 1.7 – The Long Game

There’s an odd little hallmark of Russell T. Davies’s four seasons in charge of Who. Around the middle of each 13-episode run, there’s this one forgettable story that doesn’t seem to have any zip or energy. I wouldn’t call “The Long Game” (or “Idiot’s Lantern” or “42” or “Doctor’s Daughter”) all that bad, but none of these stories thrill me much, or have much of anything really meaty going on, and I don’t think I’ve bothered to rewatch any of them. On the other hand, our son was pretty fascinated by the story. He was a little confused and thought this all tied in with the Time War, and that this week’s villain was another species caught in the War’s crossfire, but it was perfectly paced for him, with lots of mysteries and confusion, along with skeletal corpses and a big blobby monster with lots of teeth.

Joining our heroes – who include Bruno Langley as Adam, a refugee from the year 2012 who immediately tried to profit from future knowledge and was just as immediately and unceremoniously dumped home – are guest stars Simon Pegg as the evil Editor, along with Anna Maxwell Martin and Christine Adams as two journalists. Pegg you of course know from everything. Adams currently co-stars in Black Lightning on the CW, and Martin was Elizabeth in Death Comes to Pemberley. Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with Death Comes to Pemberley, either the original novel or the BBC’s adaptation, we can certainly recommend it, because Marie adores Jane Austen and I adore P.D. James. Best of both worlds.

Doctor Who 1.6 – Dalek

In one way, Doctor Who had been violating the idea of “show, don’t tell” for almost its entire existence. It kept telling us that the Daleks were the most dangerous force in the universe, and it occasionally told some incredibly entertaining stories that used Daleks, but it never actually showed these monsters as the unstoppable killing machines that the narrative kept promoting. And so for that alone, Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” deserves a round of applause, because the scenes where the lone Dalek survivor makes its way out of the bunker, mowing down everything in its path, are pretty amazing. And I dearly love the scene where the Dalek – in a delightful, devilish throwback to the cunning Daleks of the black and white years that preyed on human greed and blindness – wins Rose’s pity just to grab a little DNA and help it regenerate.

What happens next is a little unclear. Apparently because Rose has traveled in time, her DNA – for the purpose of rebuilding time-traveling Dalek DNA – is supercharged and it begins corrupting and mutating the Dalek’s pure genetics. But even though some of the machinations are a little nebulous, it makes for a great, great story, apart from the disagreeable revelation that the Daleks were the bunch against whom the Time Lords had a big everybody-loses war.

Liking Doctor Who, for all of its continuity and decades-long stories, means more than just swallowing the occasional dumb episode or serial. It means that you have to deal with the fact that every few years, there’s a big and often deeply stupid change to the narrative. Telling us that the Time Lords couldn’t win an intergalactic, universe-spanning, history-altering war against the most unimaginative, one-note loudmouths in the cosmos, when by himself, the Doctor had, armed with no more than a yo-yo and some celery, been running rings around them for twenty-five years, was taking the easy way out.

It’s just using the Daleks as the enemy because they were the most popular, when they certainly never deserved that kind of stage, and there’s never been a television adventure that provides any evidence to the contrary. It also belittles and diminishes the Time Lords, remarkably so when we get to “The Day of the Doctor” and this big war is nothing more than zap guns and pew-pew lasers. To be fair, the show had also done a good job of diminishing the Time Lords. Honestly, the boring old men of “Arc of Infinity” wouldn’t have won a Time War against a triple-A hockey team, never mind the Daleks.

But when we talked about this episode, which had our son hiding behind the sofa in terror when it looked like Rose’s number is up, and tried to help our son understand what a Time War might mean, and how it probably didn’t happen in linear order, I reminded him of something. We tried to describe how this war must have been fought across different times, with history being rewritten, and I reminded him of “The War Games,” and how the Time Lords had walled off their enemies’ – the “Aliens” – home planet behind a time barrier, and “dematerialized” their leader from time and space entirely, as though he never existed.

(This detoured into a discussion about what those “Aliens” were called, and why they didn’t have a name, and how certainly if I looked them up in a Doctor Who Dictionary, then I must find their name. Discouraged but unbowed, he decided that they came from “Planet Question Mark.”)

For my money, the Time War is one of Who‘s greatest failings. That’s in part because it’s been undone and rewritten to the point that it was never necessary, but mainly because it should have been an epic struggle against an unimaginable foe, something unseen, eternal, extradimensional, and hardly understandable, and not pew-pew lasers.

On the other hand, at least we got this good hour of TV out of the deal. For the Daleks, the law of diminishing returns would set in, but this episode remains pretty darn fun to watch.

Doctor Who 1.5 – World War Three

There’s a long tradition in sci-fi and horror of the truth being covered up and a false story given to the public. I’ve always been completely fascinated by what these stories might be, which is why just about my favorite special feature ever made for DVD is a 45-minute documentary added to The Blair Witch Project, a film that I almost certainly love more than you do, that incorporates fake local news reports about the missing students and some 16mm clips from a cheesy 1971 TV series called Mystic Occurrences. I just eat up this kind of stuff.

So when Doctor Who came back in 2005, the BBC went to town and created “in-universe” websites to support the show. You could visit Conspiracy Clyde’s site shown in episode one, and a site that Mickey created that took up the flame, and even UNIT’s site, with the all-access password the Doctor used in this episode: buffalo. At the end of the episode, Mickey is reading the Evening Standard with its big headline, “ALIEN HOAX.” I want to read that article.

(As an aside, if you enjoy Doctor Who and also eat up this kind of stuff, I highly recommend the novel Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop, which is presented as an “in-universe” expose of UNIT, written during the days when the Third Doctor was fighting Silurians and Axons. The original novel is long out-of-print, but you can dig through a delightful e-book re-presentation of it at TSV.)

Our son approached this as he often does: recovering from a super-frightening cliffhanger by enjoying the pants off of the rest of the story. People grumbled at the time about the farting and the Nickelodeon gak and slime when one Slitheen explodes, just as they grumbled about the burping Auton in episode one, but these were of course splendid additions to the show for its younger viewers.

Doctor Who 1.4 – Aliens of London

Here’s a story that our son was enjoying quite a lot until its cliffhanger ending, which I always thought went on a bit longer than it should have, but succeeded in delivering shock after shock for him. He was entertained by the aliens tremendously when they were in their human disguises, farting and shaking their booties, because he’s eight and greatly enjoys people farting and shaking their booties. However, they then unzip their faces and reveal themselves as the series’ first new recurring alien menace: the Slitheen. And our son was frozen, wincing, and not a little freaked out. Afterward, he asked “Who knows what those crazy baby-faced aliens do with the human bodies once they’ve made a skin? Maybe they’ve had lunch!”

I also enjoyed connecting the dots to the previous two adventures and their mentions of a bad wolf. Our son suspects that the bad wolf is the Doctor, and that somebody has given him that name because he wolves down bad things. Seems a bit unlikely, but that was all he had.

A couple of new recurring faces are introduced this time. Annette Badland plays one of the Slitheen, the only one who’ll make a return appearance. Penelope Wilton is here for the first time as Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North. Naoki Mori is introduced as Dr. Tosh Sato, and this character would later be a regular in Torchwood, which we won’t be watching for the blog. Mori co-starred with Christopher Eccleston in the biopic Lennon Naked in 2010, which I really enjoyed.