Review: Nativity!

Let get this out of the way: Debbie Isitt’s festive family offering Nativity! is schlock of the first order, commercialised, trite, anti-feminist and utterly derivative. It has, naturally, spawned three (three!) sequels.

Teacher Paul Maddens (played by put-upon everyman Martin Freeman), an embittered soul who despises Christmas because, inevitably, his implausibly attractive girlfriend Jennifer left him for Hollywood on Christmas Eve, is tasked with directing the school nativity play, with the help of excitable teaching assistant Mr. Poppy (Marc Wootton). Paul’s tragic flaw is pride, and accordingly he brags to the despised Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), the headmaster of a nearby private school, that Jennifer, now a big-shot Hollywood producer, is coming to watch the nativity in the hopes of turning it into a film. The local press gets hold of the story and things escalate in a predictable manner, leaving Paul with a problem: because of course Jennifer isn’t actually coming to the nativity, on account of the fact that she lives in America and broke up with him years ago. How, therefore, can Paul save both his career and his love life in one fell swoop?

The film leans heavily on the idea that Christmas is a festival of love, figured here exclusively as romantic love: Paul hates Christmas, and lives in a characterless bachelor pad full of Ikea furniture, because he has no-one to love; Jennifer’s inevitable return is basically the ultimate Christmas present, miraculously restoring his zest for life and for the most commercialised of all holidays. Interestingly, no-one ever suggests that Paul finds a new girlfriend, or gets some friends. Nor is the film particularly interested in Jennifer’s viewpoint: in fact it actively minimises her agency when Paul flies out to America to see her and finds that her high-flying job in Hollywood it is is actually “just” a secretarial position. Although she does eventually convince her film-producer manager to see the nativity, the convincing happens off-screen, and it’s sold to us not as the work of a savvy, confident professional pitching an idea to her manager, but as an indulgent boss graciously condescending to a favoured employee. There’s also absolutely no interrogation of why Jennifer would leave a fairly high-level job where she’s obviously being treated well for a miserable boundary-crosser who she’s already left once. I’m not saying that people don’t move long distances for people they love, but it would be nice to get some sense of why she chooses this relationship beyond “that’s what the narrative logic demands”.

The other capitalist cliché that the film puts a lot of stock in is “you can do anything if you really try”. The children Paul teaches are, ostensibly, disadvantaged kids who’ve been written off as hopeless (in contrast with the privileged children at Gordon Shakespeare’s private school); and so, when their nativity turns out, miraculously, to be the sort of production an am-dram society could be legitimately proud of, it is a testimony to the power of belief, and the power of being believed in. There’s some interesting, if basic, class analysis buried in there: the way in which the British school system disadvantages certain children is not the sort of thing you expect a film like this even to engage with. But the way it’s handled feels basically superficial; the politics are not allowed to trouble the feelgood surface of the narrative too much. For one thing, there’s hardly any indication of the ways in which these children are disadvantaged. No-one is coming to school hungry. No-one has outgrown their uniform or is wearing shoes that are falling apart. No-one is even that disruptive: I think there is one scene in which a boy hits another child, and then has a conversation with Paul in which he is encouraged to mend his ways. We’re told that these children have been given up on, but the evidence just isn’t there. They’re just…quite ordinary middle-class kids who are ordinarily untalented who do ordinary gross-kid things like belch the alphabet (an achievement that the film treats as evidence of serious social dysfunction, for some reason). They’re also all white, apart from one (1) Black child, which, for a film set in Coventry, a city with a sizeable Asian population, is a bit of a surprise.

This all has the effect of minimising the ways in which privilege manifests in the real British school system: the film makes it look like something that a) is not that bad in the first place and b) can be easily overcome by a sufficiently motivated and enthusiastic teacher; neither of which are, of course, true. This representational laziness is symptomatic of the film as a whole: narratively speaking, it consistently takes the easy way out, flattening profound human emotion, hewing slavishly to stereotypes and repeating outdated romantic cliches in contexts that make them seem even more ill-advised than usual (whisking two children away on an unplanned trip to America in order to woo a Hollywood exec? That’s not just a bad idea, it’s practically career suicide if you’re a teacher).

And yet. The songs are quite good. Marc Wootton’s energy as enthusiastic big kid Mr. Poppy is irresistible. And, after all, there is some comfort in cliches at Christmas. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend Nativity! in the same way as I can recommend the masterpiece of adaptation that is The Muppet Christmas Carol. But the part of me that delights in glittery, upbeat, campy things would not be entirely unhappy to watch it again. Ideologically, intellectually, it’s a terrible film. But it does exactly what it sets out to do; it works on the emotions in exactly the way it’s supposed to. There’s something a little pleasing about that.

The Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

Not counting library books or books lent to me.

  1. The War Poets: an anthology. You know how grandmothers always try and give you random crap when you go visit them? That’s where I got this, a couple of weekends ago. Because poetry. (Actually Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” has been one of my favourite poems since I read it out in assembly at school. Like all the best poetry, it dictates how you read it aloud; it makes you dramatise its fury through how you sound it out.)
  2. Sisyphean – Dempow Torishima. So apparently the last time I bought something in a bookshop was in April? In New York? Which seems unlikely, but I can’t think of anything I’ve actually bought since then. Sisyphean was okay, a bit organic for my taste.
  3. Space Opera – Catherynne Valente. This was part of my New York haul. I was ridiculously excited about this, as I bought it around the time Amazon sold out and the only copies left were scattered around various Barnes and Nobles and I GOT ONE and it’s lovely.
  4. The Refrigerator Monologues – Catherynne Valente. Yeah, I basically treated America as a chance to buy all the books that are fiendishly difficult to find over here. This included ALL THE VALENTE.
  5. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I read this a couple of years ago, but I’ve been wanting to own it for a while – the art is so lovely and MY HEART ALANA’S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. Plus, it actually seemed to be cheaper in New York than over here.
  6. S.  – J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. I actually cannot remember exactly when I bought this, except I know it was definitely in the Oxford Blackwell’s shop. I haven’t read it yet, because of the vagaries of my TBR pile, but I can’t wait.
  7. What Are We Doing Here? – Marilynne Robinson. This was an emergency buy when I was stuck in Bologna without anything to read, and it was a great choice if I do say so myself: engaging, thought-provoking and empathetic.
  8. Imaginary Cities – Darran Anderson. I bought this in Oxford in January. It was rainy and cold and we were looking for somewhere to hide for an hour before dinner, and Blackwell’s rode to the rescue (not literally, although that would be impressive). I read the first couple of chapters of this fascinating book curled up in one of their armchairs.
  9. The Compleat Discworld Atlas – Terry Pratchett and the Discworld Emporium. This was a Christmas present from my sister! It is, physically, a lovely book. It is very geeky. It is also…a bit problematic, and nowhere near as fun as the actual Discworld novels, or even some of the older companion books.
  10. The Book of Dust – Philip Pullman. Also a Christmas present, also from my sister, more interesting than the Discworld Atlas even if it’s not quite what I wanted from a His Dark Materials prequel.

(The prompt for this post comes from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who: Last Christmas

“You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart? They’re both ridiculous.”

Doctor Who

Possibly the only inviolate Christmas tradition in our house is that of the Doctor Who Christmas Special. On a day of prime telly, nobody is allowed to watch anything else while Doctor Who is on, if only because it gives us all something to talk about afterwards.

So it was a surprise to discover this year that the Special was actually not that bad.

The trailer was not promising, featuring what looked like a fatally ridiculous combination of Santa Claus, stupid-looking green aliens and Clara. (Back? Again? Can’t she just die or something?) The story, however, once the initial irritation of experiencing actual Santa Claus appearing on actual Doctor Who had worn off (“seriously, Steven, it’s not a kids’ feature film, you know”), turned out to be much tighter, much scarier and much more interesting than I’d feared. It sees the Doctor and Clara rocking up at a remote North Pole base to find its occupants being terrorised by dream-crabs, creatures which feed by sending their victims into a euphoric dream-state, keeping them happy and relaxed as they are eaten. Kind of like The Matrix but organic. And there’s a twist: they pick up on images of themselves in nearby brains, so if you think about them, you wake them up.

In other words, Moffat is on home turf here, with the kind of psychological mind-effery that made Blink one of the show’s best-ever episodes. Correspondingly, the story here, so far as it goes, is suspenseful and clever, with a satisfying amount of the kind of timey-wimey cleverness that has been sadly missing from recent episodes, and a touch of whimsy that’s just enough for a festive uplift while not making the whole thing trite. Nick Frost makes a great Santa, sarcastic and earthy, and the backstories of the team at the base, especially that of streetwise Shona, are rather touching.

Where Last Christmas drastically falls down, though, is with Clara’s ongoing character development, which invariably takes place in a series of unnecessarily drawn-out, irritatingly schmaltzy, deeply unconvincing soft-lit dialogue scenes. Moffat seems intent on waving the ghost of Danny Pink in all our faces, which would be irritating enough if the relationship had been a convincing one when he was alive; since it wasn’t, the show’s slavish adherence to it has all the emotional subtlety of a sledgehammer. This, more than anything else, is why Clara needs to leave: her presence, and the apparent need for a character arc which Moffat doesn’t have the talent to deliver, is weighing down promising storylines.

It would be good to see Doctor Who improve from here, and I think it could if Moffat returned to plot-led stories as opposed to disastrously emotion-led ones. But I fear that Last Christmas will only be a blip in the show’s long history; a good episode, but an anomalous one.

Good Omens: Eps 1-3

“Hell may have all the best composers, but heaven has all the best choreographers.”

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


Finally, the long-awaited adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens  has come to Radio 4. At 11pm, for reasons best known to the BBC. I can only surmise that someone is trying to hide all the blasphemy deep down in the broadcasting schedule. Or something.

There’ve been three half-hour episodes (out of six) so far, so I’m reviewing all three of them together, because, to be quite frank, I can’t remember where one ends and the next begins. For those unfamiliar with the original, it’s a humorous tale of Armageddon, in which the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale team up to prevent the Biblical end of the world.

It’s good. Actually rather good, if not measuring up to the greatness of the original. In most cases the voices are spot on: Peter Serafinowicz as demon Crowley is perfect, though Mark Heap as Aziraphale can occasionally be a little too…genial, I think is the word I want. Ideally, the angel should be sharper and more sarcastic.

I also think the programme would work better with a narrator as well as the various character voices – much of the genius of Pratchett and Gaiman’s amusing little asides is that they are, well, asides, things we all think but don’t quite know how to voice. But that’s a minor niggle, really, which probably springs from knowing the book too well. While not perfect – and, let’s face it, few adaptations are – Good Omens is at least mildly enjoyable, and thankfully not too much tampered with.

Oh, and there’s a nice little cameo by the authors in the first episode, too.

I won’t be reviewing tomorrow, for obvious reasons, so have a very happy Christmas, one and all!

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor

“You can’t change history if you’re part of it.”

Doctor Who

…but you can, it turns out, with a sprinkling of Gallifrey dust.


This year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, long-awaited for the very good reason that it is Matt Smith’s last episode, takes place on a planet with a rather familiar name.

No, it’s not Gallifrey, despite what the Cyberman head says.

It is, in fact, our old friend Trenzalore. As in, “the day we went to Trenzalore”. As in, “Silence will fall upon the fields of Trenzalore”. As in, the place where the Doctor’s grave is. Oh, and there’s a town called Christmas there, where no-one can ever tell a lie.

Sounds awesome, right? All those old loose threads being tied up. The Great Questions of Eleven being answered, finally. On paper (or e-paper), The Time of the Doctor looks like the best episode yet.

Well, I don’t know what went wrong, but something did. It turns out that the mysterious message summoning all the races of the universe to Trenzalore is a message from Gallifrey, apparently removed from this universe by the events of The Day of the Doctor (I don’t remember anyone mentioning this before; it’s almost as if Steven Moffat is just making it up as he goes along), essentially checking the Doctor’s identity (and somehow deducing from that that it is safe to enter the universe, through some leap of logic inaccessible to non-Time Lords) using the old chestnut, “Doctor who?”

Har har. It wasn’t funny the first three times, and it isn’t funny now.

It transpires, however, that if the question is answered and the Time Lords return, the Time War will break out anew, because of all the aliens besieging Trenzalore, and everything will be BAD. So, of course, the Doctor has a Moral Dilemma which keeps him on Trenzalore for three hundred years, for reasons which seem extremely contrived.

This does not seem like a well-thought-out plan given that the Time Lords are supposed to be the most intelligent beings since God.

And…that’s it. Eleven’s last ever episode turns out to be, basically, him stuck on Trenzalore, unable to break the siege, growing old, fighting the occasional alien idiotic enough to attack Christmas, and having some hologram-related banter with Clara. Those loose threads…well, they do get tied up, sort of, but it’s nowhere near as grand, as epic, as troubling as the years of build-up suggest it should be. Yet again, it feels like Moffat and his team have written themselves into a corner and are scrambling desperately for some answers, any answers, however unsatisfying they may be.

Admittedly, there’s a rather good bit at the end, where the Time Lords graciously provide the Doctor with the regeneration energy to a) magically defeat all the aliens, and b) become the Twelfth Doctor, to the accompaniment of a clock striking twelve (nice touch) and, delightfully, the theme from The Rings of Akhaten (“let the cloak of light/Cling to your bones”). Unfortunately, Moffat cannot resist the temptation to add a last, tedious five-minute speech to what is already a rather strung-out regeneration scene and a disastrously mispaced episode.

But when we do finally meet Twelve, for the obligatory thirty-second cameo, it’s almost worth the wait. I have a good feeling about Capaldi. Let’s hope Twelve is better than Eleven.

Call the Midwife Christmas Special

“It is better to do something than nothing, even if the cost is great.”

Garth Nix

I really don’t think there’s a show more suited to Christmas Day than the unashamedly schmaltzy Call the Midwife. Even Doctor Who, which this year featured A Town Called Christmas (this sounds awesome until you actually watch the episode in question) doesn’t come close.

This year in 1950s London, the good old chaps of the army discover an Unexploded Bomb near Nunatus House and immediately evacuate the street. Various disgruntled families must spend Christmas at what looks like (but is probably not) a town hall, fed tea and iced buns by the nurses and nuns. Babies get born. People catch polio. Someone has a War Story. And yet everyone still manages to have a jolly good time.

Remarkable, really. In any other show all those things together would constitute the most depressing episode ever. Somehow, in Call the Midwife, you look away from the television actually feeling good about humanity.

Until you remember that you’re watching Call the Midwife on actual Christmas Day, that is.

The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures

“We teach science and art and history and economics by a series of carefully constructed lies.”

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Ah, yes, the RICLs, the annual event when a lecture hall full of children is patronised and fed half-truths about science, all in the name of Education.

This year: The Modern Alchemist, otherwise known as The Chemist. Presumably the title is meant to capitalise on the Harry Potter-ish associations of alchemy.

The first thing that really annoyed me was when the lecturer – one Peter Wothers – announced that “chemistry tells us fundamental things about the world in a way that the other sciences don’t”.

(Well, that’s almost certainly not an exact quote, but it’s the general gist.)

Er, excuse me, what about physics? Protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks, quantum? Stuff that’s revolutionised our understanding of the world and our place in it? Fundamental stuff, in other words.

And then there’s the made-up science. Specifically the part where Wothers explained the reactivity of elements using tennis balls on shelves that pulled two giant atoms together. What happened to the shell model of the atom? That’s what I learned at school, and it certainly made a lot more sense than tennis balls.

There are, to be fair, some good things about the Christmas Lectures (on BBC4, by the way). Last night, they made a gold-foil boat float on argon gas. That was really quite cool. And the lightning. Lightning is always good.

I think that the RICLs are probably good for getting children interested in science rather than necessarily telling them anything they actually need to know. But if that means a child grows up to be a chemist inventing a life-saving drug, or a physicist building the first time machine, or a biologist saving the rhino, isn’t that enough?

Anyway, what do I know? I’m just an English Student. Merry Christmas everyone!

Doctor Who: The Snowmen

“Winter is coming. Such a winter as the world has never seen.”

Doctor Who

So I’m back after a brief Christmas hiatus. And what am I reviewing, out of all the many hours (too many) of Christmas telly that I watched yesterday?

Why, Doctor Who, of course. Did you expect anything else of the English Student? (On second thoughts, don’t answer that.)

This Christmas sees a Doctor depressed by the loss of the Ponds having taken up residence on a cloud above Victorian London. No, I don’t know why either. If he doesn’t want to get involved in the universe’s problems, why choose Earth over billions of less interesting and less-populated worlds?

Undoubtedly the answer to that is that the scriptwriters need him there so he can meet his new sidekick (who is, unsurprisingly, young and female). Her name is Clara, and she is the spitting image of Oswin Oswald, the dead Dalek Souffle Woman he met in Asylum of the Daleks. This little mystery is obviously going to provide the impetus for the next series, which hopefully means we are going to get a proper story arc again instead of five separate blockbuster episodes like the last series. We can cope with a story arc, Steven Moffatt. Sherlock watchers do it all the time.

Where was I? Oh, yes. The Earth is in the clutches of an evil wintry consciousness that apparently makes intelligent snowmen for reasons I don’t really understand. In the course of defeating them the Doctor appears to fall in love with Clara, which is fair enough, you know, the 10th Doctor had Rose, but what about River Song? She’s presumably still around somewhere, and she’s the Doctor’s wife and he just seems to have forgotten her.

And, I’m sorry, what was that ending? All the snow turned to rain because some people were crying on Christmas Eve? It’s narratively unsatisfying and, more importantly, it doesn’t make any sense. Lots of people cry on Christmas Eve. It doesn’t mean they can save the Earth. Sorry, but that’s just lazy scriptwriting. In fact, the scriptwriters have been relying a lot on The Power of Love recently. Last Christmas, a woman had a forest in her head (which conveniently vanished at exactly the right moment) because she was a mother. Amy brought back the Doctor after the Big Bang 2 through the power of love, apparently. Oh, and in Asylum of the Daleks, Amy stopped turning into a Dalek because…you guessed it, because of love.

All very life-affirming, but what about the Power of Reason? The Power of Science (even Science Fiction)? The Power of Wibbly-Wobbly-Timey-Wimey-Clever-Stupid-Plans? You know, like in Blink or A Good Man Goes To War or, good grief, even The Angels Take Manhattan which was otherwise completely awful? Each of those episodes managed to convey some meaningful human emotion and use a clever plan to save the Earth. That combination is, after all, what makes – what used to make – Doctor Who such a wonderful show.

In the end, The Snowmen was yet another promising episode that was failed by excessive syrup and plot holes. (This coming from someone who would quite willingly watch Enchanted and Stardust on a daily basis.) I mean, snowmen with teeth? Only Steven Moffatt could mess that up.


“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”

Terry Pratchett

Hello there, Constant Reader! I have returned from the Book Repository that is the French Farmhouse, where many of my very favourite books are stored. Unfortunately, not only is there no internet at the Book Repository, there’s no telly either, so I have missed the last ever episode of The Town. Also nearly Merlin, but happily that was repeated this evening. A review will be forthcoming soon, but tonight I’m going to review Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.

Hogfather is the 20th novel in Pratchett’s fantastic (in both senses of the word) Discworld series. Why did I choose Hogfather from the many, many Discworld novels stored in the Book Repository? Well, because, you see, Hogfather is a Christmassy book, in its own way.

OK, starting from first principles for those who haven’t read Terry Pratchett. (You really, really should.) The Discworld series are set on, well, the Discworld, a disc travelling through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a turtle.

Yes, it is as silly as it sounds.

Anyway, on the Discworld Death, and the Hogfather (an analogue of Father Christmas), and the Tooth Fairy, and all the other anthropomorphic personifications we humans believe in, or believed in once, are real. And this Hogswatch (Christmas), the Hogfather has gone missing, and Death steps in to fill the vacancy…

Despite the wonderful cover, and the comedic-sounding premise, Hogfather is not just a farce. It’s funny, yes, with laugh-out-loud scenes and dreadful puns, but there is a point to it. It’s about stories, and humanity, and, incidentally, it’s got one of the very best fantasy plots I’ve read. What I really like about it is that it is derivative, it draws upon tales and characters we all know, but then it subverts them and combines them in new ways. Who else would ever think of making Death a sympathetic character?

It’s also a rather clever novel. Once you know the end, you can see how deftly Pratchett weaves in relevant pieces of information and yet conceals the most important elements until the second half. There are multiple storylines, too, but they all feed into the main plot while providing some amusing cameos such as the Cheerful Fairy, Foul Ole Ron and his thinking-brain dog, and Nobby Nobbs the Watchman, several of whom appear in other Discworld novels. It’s little details like that which make the series so successful.

Hogfather, like most of the Discworld novels, is a comfort read, one of the novels I return to when I’m feeling sad or just bored with whatever “serious” book I’m supposed to be reading. Easy to read, and enjoyable, but with a serious and off-kilter “message” (for want of a better word). That’s how I like my fiction.

Doctor Who: The Great Detective

“I don’t do this any more. I’m retired.”

Doctor Who

Do you think I’m slightly overdoing Doctor Who at the moment? There just seems to be a lot of it around, that’s all.

Today, it’s the prequel to The Snowmen, this year’s Christmas special. The Great Detective was shown on Children In Need last night. It’s four minutes long, so not a great subject for a review, but I’m having to survive on slim pickings telly-wise at the moment.

The plot can be summarised as follows: the Doctor is depressed. In Victorian London. The End.

Incidentally, is it strange that the last few Christmas specials have been distinctly historical? Last year it was set in the 1940s; the year before that was the Christmas Carol rip-off, which although set in the future was distinctly Dickensian; and two years before that was the one where the Cybermen came to Victorian London.

Old English Friend thinks Dickens is particularly Christmassy, for some reason. Perhaps Steven Moffatt has the same delusion. I mean, have you ever read Bleak House? Nothing Christmassy about that.

Anyway. A depressed Doctor always makes for a good story. I hope. If you want to judge for yourself, have a look at this.

(Sorry for yet another Doctor Who post. The ironic thing is I won’t be nearly so excited when the series actually starts. Because it will be awful.)