Overvaluing ambiguity: The Escape Artist (Brian Welsh, 2013)

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In The Escape Artist, a three part TV miniseries, David Tennant plays Will Burton, a barrister who has never lost a case. Burton can defend anyone, no matter their crime, but a single lapse in politeness towards his latest client, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), leads to tragedy. Soon Burton’s fiercest rival, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is defending Foyle for the murder of one of Burton’s family.

TEA appears to be a quality production. It has a slick and polished (albeit subdued) look. The pace is fairly slow, but maintains a sense of tension that makes the serieseasy to watch. This means that the story’s problems only become noticeable afterwards, upon reflection.

The series squanders almost every opportunity available to it, largely because, aside from Foyle, the characters’ motivations aren’t well established. Does Burton work for criminals because he truly believes they all deserve a good defence, or does the challenge just serve his own ego? Does Maggie hate Will, or just want to better him? The answers to these important questions remain unclear. The story’s moral aspect stays muddled, just as potential plot points, such as the differences between English and Scottish law, go unexplored.

Ultimately, TEA is trying to achieve ambiguity. Maybe Foyle, though disturbed, is not a murderer. Maybe Will’s accusations and further responses are unjustified. The series leaves the viewer with something to ponder after the conclusion. Combined with plot holes and dead ends, however, the overall effect looks like nothing other than bad writing.

Tennant, as could be expected, delivers a strong performance. Kebbell lifts his role higher than the standard TV psycho, but this is solely because of his acting – the character just isn’t interesting. Meanwhile, the series wastes Okonedo’s talents, as well as Ashley Jensen in the role of Will’s wife. None of the supporting cast and characters leave a lasting impression, rather like The Escape Artist itself.

Nobody Out There: Searching for Meaning in Red Dwarf’s “Waiting for God”

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“Waiting for God,” an episode from Red Dwarf’s first season, usually gets talked about as a ham-fisted satire of religion. However, I think there’s more to it than that. This episode shows most of its characters grappling, in their own fashions, with the purpose of their existences. These matters are hard to avoid when you’re on a near-empty mining ship three million years from Earth, with no knowledge of what has become of the human race. Red Dwarf is based on a terribly dark premise and always has existential themes, but this episode is one of the times that they’re most prominent. More than that, “Waiting for God” involves highly cynical commentary on humankind’s search for meaning in life.

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Religion is the popular choice when it comes to dealing with life’s big questions, for Cat people as well as humans, it seems. The Cats have built their religion upon Lister saving Frankenstein, their feline ancestor, and the differing interpretations of that relationship have led to a holy war. This leads to the episode’s clumsiest bit of writing when Lister says, “They’re just using religion as an excuse to be extremely crappy to each other,” and Talkie Toaster replies, “So what else is new?”

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When we meet the Cat Priest and learn how he has devoted his life to Cloister/Lister, and has struggled with his faith, it’s a tragic scene. We know in all certainty that Cloister never intended for anyone to worship him, or for people to kill each other over things he said. We know he wasn’t a god at all. Having listened to Rimmer’s comment that being honest with the Cats wouldn’t be telling them what they want to hear, Lister lies. He masquerades as his divine self and affirms the Priest’s beliefs, telling him he has earned his place in a heavenly paradise. This makes the Priest briefly happy before he dies, seconds later. His greatest wish may have been granted, but don’t we still feel that his life could have been better spent?

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Elsewhere, Rimmer is busy creating a religion, in his own atheist fashion. He doesn’t believe in God, he believes in aliens. When Red Dwarf picks up a mysterious pod, Rimmer quite irrationally decides that aliens are involved, and that if he can learn more about them, they will create him a new body and generally give him everything he’s ever wanted.

Rimmer is a curious combination of different points of view in this episode, suggesting at an underlying daftness in the various ways humankind grapples with existential issues. He starts out talking like some kind of New Ager, pondering the Bermuda Triangle, the Pyramids, and other unsolved mysteries. He believes there must be answers to be found, somewhere in the universe. “If there’s no one out there, what’s the point in existence, why are we here?” he asks. Soon enough he’s yelling, “It’s a name I made up!” when Lister questions why he’s calling the “aliens” Quagaars, but he shows total disinterest in the Cats and how their beliefs led them astray. In his intolerance, rigidity, and lack of self-awareness, he seems rather like a religious fundamentalist, or the type of person who treats The God Delusion suspiciously like a Bible.

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Rimmer and the Cat Priest each need to believe in something larger than themselves, and to connect with it to give their lives greater meaning. Lister, who will be referred to in “Back to Reality” as “the ultimate atheist,” doesn’t feel this way, however. His opinion is this: “There’s nothing out there, you know. There’s nobody out there. […] It’s just you, me, the Cat, and a whole lot of floating smegging rocks. That’s it. Finito.” Lister is talking about aliens here, but he also means God, and possibly the entire human race. There’s no other life than this, and this life is pretty crap.

What’s Lister supposed to do with himself, then? He’s not one for philosophising, but being so alone, and so far from Earth, has forced him into thinking hard about his life. How does a guy who could spend ten years as a supermarket trolley attendant react to the rather existential nature of his situation as the last human alive?

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Perhaps, Lister posits, he and Rimmer exist because humanity is some sort of disease that infested the Earth. No more, no less. It’s questionable whether or not Lister really believes this. If Kochanski or Petersen were with him, would he think of them that way? Nonetheless, this train of thought probably does lead to him looking for finer qualities within himself, for something that makes him more than a disease. He manages it, with his kindness to the Cat Priest.

In “Back to Reality,” we will see that Lister views his morals as being integral to who he is. Despite having no belief in a god or an afterlife, Lister doesn’t fully embrace nihilism. He tries to be accountable to himself, as best he can.

This episode doesn’t wind up as a neat little statement on atheistic morals, however. Elsewhere, we see Lister rather gleefully taking pleasure in mocking someone else’s existential angst.

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Talkie Toaster has an advantage over us flesh-based life forms. He knows he has a creator, and he knows he was made for a reason. He’s meant to make toast. But Lister doesn’t want any toast. Rebuffed again and again, Talkie wails, “The whole purpose of my existence is to serve you with hot, buttered, scrummy toast. If you don’t want any, then my existence is meaningless.” Lister’s reply: “Good.”

Talkie doesn’t give up, though. He eventually decides to change, to stop complaining and nagging, and to find another purpose. He says, “It just strikes me there might be something more, something greater, unimaginably more splendid than heating bread.” Talkie’s torment is a seeming parody of humankind’s perpetual contemplation of life’s meaning. Lister doesn’t give him any real consideration at all. It is hard to take a talking toaster seriously, even if he has some rather human problems. And even if we don’t know, from seeing “White Hole,” that Talkie won’t change his ways and that his future involves Lister committing first degree toastercide via the waste disposal and a fourteen pound lumphammer.

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Cat, meanwhile, has no interest in a search for meaning. His needs are simple: food, sex, and sleep. He also likes investigating. Basically, he’s doing what animals do. They don’t need to question themselves. They just are. Take note, though, of Lister’s mention that the Cat people’s religion views being cool as a sin. Cat obviously pays no attention this. Being cool is who he is. Why should he fight his nature at the orders of a religion that originated many, many years ago, and that is based on misquotes? This is, perhaps, the episode’s most subtle, and best, comment on religion.

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There is someone else in this episode who I haven’t yet mentioned, and I don’t mean the roast chicken. It’s someone who’s much closer to godhood: Holly. He maintains the ship, and makes it possible for people to live on it. He brought Holo Rimmer into existence and woke Lister from his three million year sleep. He has a great deal of power over everyone on board Red Dwarf, and if he abuses it, as we see in “Queeg,” he can well and truly turn their lives upside down. And what’s this infullible god-like being doing? Mostly he’s just bored. He gets a kick out of watching Rimmer read an awful lot into something that’s really nothing but garbage.

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On the surface, “Waiting for God” is a dark episode, involving Lister grappling with how he’s been deified by the Cat people. It’s more bleak than that, however, in its suggestion that our search for meaning in the universe may be rather pointless, leading to over-interpretations that are no more than projections of our own wishes. We may just be trying to convince ourselves that we are more than a cosmic accident and that our lives are worth more than garbage, and we may just be wrong. The only positive thing the episode has to say is that being kind to others is nonetheless worthwhile.

I wonder if all of this may be part of the reason why people don’t tend to enjoy “Waiting for God.” Searching for meaning is an integral aspect of human experience, for better or worse, and this episode’s cynicism towards doing so isn’t something that can be easily laughed off.

Or am I reading too much into it?

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Bold, confused and confusing: Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive

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If I watch any Doctor Who story made before 1980 (even The Horns of Nimon from 1979) and then watch The Leisure Hive, I get the bends. TLH is the first story helmed by Doctor Who’s longest-lasting producer and, for better or worse, the show would never be the same. With Jonathan Nathan-Turner so bent on making changes, TLH was always going to be shocking, but it’s actually the combination of several other creative egos that makes the story flat-out bewildering to watch.

In this story, the Doctor and Romana try to take a holiday on Argolis, a planet that was devastated by nuclear war with the Foamasi and is now the site of the Leisure Hive. The Argolins have created a place for peaceful recreation and sharing of cultures. They are also sterile and are becoming extinct. The Foamasi have made a surprise offer to buy the planet but Pangol, youngest of the Argolins and master of the Tachyonic Generator, has other plans for his race.

TLH has a solid guest cast. Adrienne Corri and Laurence Payne as Mena and Morix, respectively, convey the Argolins’ moral fortitude and acceptance of their fate; these performances bring to life the war and its terrible consequences. David Haig as Pangol shows both his charismatic showmanship and his concealed mania.

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With its bright lighting and costumes, TLH is striking to look at. Of the sets, I particularly like the laboratory, with its silver metal, plastic tubes, and triangle motif. The Argolins are well realised, with their plant-like headpieces, green makeup, and yellow gowns. The Foamasi are less successful-their bodies look too much like fabric, rather than scales-but they look fine in tight shots or silhouettes. When we see them fully, they’ve more or less ceased to be a menace anyway and are nicely comical.

Costume designer June Hudson also did some fine work on the regulars, not to mention handling JN-T’s requests. The producer wanted her to revise The Doctor’s outfit, ditching the scarf and adding question marks to the collar; no one ever won a battle with JN-T over those question marks, but Huson kept the scarf and remade the outfit in a predominantly plum colour, giving it a more mature look that complemented Baker’s performance in Season 18. And JN-T was probably hoping Romana’s beachwear would be something like what Peri eventually wore in Planet of Fire, but Hudson took inspiration from Victorian boys’ sailor outfits. I think it’s too young for a character more than a hundred yeas old, but cute nonetheless.

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JN-T’s aim to improve the show’s production values and make it more visually impressive has clearly paid off. With a new logo, title sequence and theme tune arrangement, Doctor Who’s well and truly burst into the eighties. But what about the rest of the story?

The script, written by David Fisher, is a mixture of humour and seriousness that I think doesn’t blend well. It has some wonderful subtle elements. The war itself lasted only twenty minutes; driven by a single man, Theron, it brought terrible consequences to the entire Argolin race. Mena and Hardin (a human) have a careful romance that embodies a hope for intercultural relationships, and the possibility of hope itself. Pangol should embody hope for the future-yet he is the most xenophobic of all the Argolins. And it is disturbing when Mena suggests that the surviving Argolins, rather than sell their world or continue to hope for a cure, could simply walk out of the Hive and be destroyed.

The story is fundamentally serious, and yet it is all approached playfully. There’s jokes about the Doctor’s scarf being used as a murder instrument, The Doctor and Romana wander through a match of some kind of zero-g sport, and K-9 has an extreme bout of stupidity when he charges into the water at Brighton after a beach ball. The entire story is wrapped up in what feels like three seconds, going from undefined peril to happy resolution with barely an explanation and only a veneer of humour holding the scene together.

And the science! New script editor Christopher H. Bidmead wanted the show to be more like proper science-fiction and incorporate real scientific theories. That’s why the tachyonics is in there. What it is or what it’s for, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t learn anything. What it does in this story exactly, I don’t know either. Maybe it’s sound theoretically, but for all the sense it makes or how well it’s explained, it may as well be made up.

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Peter Howell’s rich and glossy synthesizer music can’t be ignored; it’s overbearing. He does create some interesting sounds, which he tries to fit to what’s happening onscreen (eg. the shuttles landing or the army marching out of the generator). However, the music is intrusive and has a bizarre effect when combined with the strong visuals, becoming almost oppressive.

Lovett Bickford seems to have been too interested in making an impression with his direction (to the point of going over-budget, no less). The revelation of the Foamasi, I will say, is surprisingly well done; the second mask is too obvious, but the first reveal does look as though one character is being violently and most unwillingly assaulted. At other times, though, I wished the camera would just push back, keep still, and show more of the actors in the space around them. And the interminably long opening shot of Brighton Beach is not good. It says nothing but “Hey, look, we went to Brighton!”

Watch Paul Joyce’s opening sequence in Warrior’s Gate and you’ll see a director who’s trying to say something; Bickford’s just going for style. Maybe I could appreciate that if he was trying harder to match his direction to the story, or if he was working with a story that had less going on, but TLH is busy enough already. Some boring direction ala The Invisible Enemy would almost be a relief.

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Watching The Leisure Hive, I’m left with a stronger sense of what Jonathan Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead were trying to achieve with Doctor Who as a whole than a sense of what anyone was trying to achieve with this particular story. Nuclear warfare, a murderous plum scarf, blazing synth chords, organised crime, and whole lot of yellow… It’s all too much. Love or hate what JN-T did for Doctor Who, this is a bold, confused, and confusing beginning.