alt-J: This Is All Yours album review: ‘Strange and beautiful’
What a difference a Mercury makes. Before alt-J were nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize, they were rumbling under the surface with a quirky debut album that merely the cool kids knew about. Now, two years since they collected the award, they’re a whole different proposition. This second record of theirs was readied pretty swiftly, despite losing a founding member, and the band have already booked in their biggest headline gig at The O2 to show it off. But do they have the songs to match the ambition?
This Is All Yours definitely makes for curious listening, and more so than An Awesome Wave. Singer Joe Newman’s voice has a Maccabees’ Orlando-like meekness in 'Nara' and 'Choice Kingdom', then 'Every Other Freckle' comes and he’s rolling his suddenly sensual tongue (“I want to turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet,” he lusts) over tribal harmonies, Nintendo coins and a guitar riff halfway between Tom Vek’s hard drive and a ’70s porn set. Somehow, alt-J have got even more adventurous.
'Left Hand Free' is an unsettlingly rockier switch that comes off better than expected, but the best of this album rests in its tenderness. 'Choice Kingdom' and 'Bloodflood pt.II' are wondrous stunts of ambling synths, and 'Hunger of the Pine' releases Newman’s deep-seated heartache with tense layers of fizzing chords and a twisted Miley Cyrus sample. alt-J are most impressive, though, in 'Warm Foothills', when above a sweet pitter-patter, Newman’s vocals are split with those of Lianne La Havas, Marika Hackman, Conor Oberst and Sivu; it shouldn’t work, yet it does.
As for the stories, there are varying themes about - but it’s the Japanese city of Nara where the record arrives, spends time and eventually departs. In 'Nara', the area’s free-roaming deer inspire Alt-J to rise against the abuse of homosexuals from Alabama to Russia (“I’ve discovered a man like no other man… To be a deer in Nara”). Album closer 'Leaving Nara' alludes to the men once more (“Bovay, Alabama. I’ll bury my hands deep into the mane of my lover”), and it’s a fitting end to a record that creates a world as enlightened as the challenging music behind it.
If we hadn’t realised how special alt-J were after their first album, this one makes it damn obvious. Maybe it could do with losing one or two pounds ('Pusher' is one soppy experiment too far), but now it’s certain that this is clearly a band who are willing to chuck any and every kind of organised mess into their ring and tirelessly work to come out the other side with something strange, beautiful and ultra stimulating. Arenas are the least they deserve. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘The Caretaker’ review: “Funny, warm and moving”
The variable nature of Doctor Who means that not every single episode is going to be to everyone’s tastes, but this eighth series of the BBC sci-fi has had three wonderful constants - Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and their sensational on-screen dynamic.
Capaldi’s forthright, fiery Doctor has breathed new life into Coleman’s now brilliantly vivacious Clara, and the pair’s relationship - by turns wickedly funny and seriously moving - has been this series’ biggest asset, bolstering its stronger episodes and helping to carry the weaker ones.
'The Caretaker' wisely capitalises on their chemistry - Gareth Roberts (co-writing here with Steven Moffat) revisiting many of the themes he explored in 2010’s ‘The Lodger’ for another episode that’s not really about monsters or grand sci-fi notions, but relationships.
Roberts’ latest effort sees the Doctor go under “deep cover” as a caretaker at Coal Hill School, in order to neutralise an alien threat - and that’s literally all you need to know, because the menace of the Skovox Blitzer is very much incidental.
Just as well, because this non-menacing monster is one of the few aspects of this episode that doesn’t work - it might be billed as “one of the deadliest killing machines ever created” but the Blitzer looks more like a reject from Robot Wars.
Happily, what’s really at the heart of ‘The Caretaker’ is the Doctor’s and Clara’s rapport (still somewhat in flux), her romance with Danny (endlessly challenged by her double life) and Danny’s first meeting with the Doctor - which goes every bit as badly as you’d expect.
Since 2005, Doctor Who has explored pretty much every possible variation on a romance between the Doctor and his companion - love triangles, unrequited love, even something approaching a genuine relationship with Rose - so it’s been refreshing to see the show abandon that notion post-Capaldi’s casting.
Though there’s some fun to be had with the 11th Doctor-esque Adrian (Edward Harrison) being mistaken for Clara’s boyfriend, there’s no inappropriate envy from the Doctor here - instead, he takes on the role of hard-to-please father figure, with Clara cast as his daughter for whom no-one is “good enough”.
Danny’s not entirely off the mark when he describes the Time Lord as Clara’s “space dad” - the only difference being that this ‘Dad’ is a centuries-old alien and ‘bringing the boyfriend home’ entails stepping aboard a TARDIS.
By necessity, Danny’s brief introduction in ‘Into the Dalek' was a little heavy-handed, with rapid-fire scenes informing us in quick succession that this man was a soldier (unlikely mini-military training camp!) but a soldier who cares (he cries!).
’Listen' later delved a little into his origins (and possibly his future) and 'The Caretaker' fleshes out the sensitive squaddie further still - here, Danny's tested as never before and Samuel Anderson doesn't disappoint as he's called upon to plumb new emotional depths.
The (still relatively) new Doctor also continues to surprise this week, as more layers are peeled and he’s cast in new and intriguing lights. Capaldi’s is the most complex and variable take on the Time Lord we’ve seen since Eccleston’s - but while the latter sometimes struggled to capture the Doctor’s affectations and eccentricities, our new lead appears equally comfortable brooding in the shadows or playing awkward third-wheel in whimsical, rom-com scenes.
When this Doctor does ‘go dark’ though, there’s more to it than Capaldi simply growling and furrowing his eyebrows - take the flagrant hypocrisy of his disdain for Danny, given that it was his and Clara’s own interference that transformed this sensitive mathematician into a soldier.
Danny - again, more right than he could ever know - considers the Doctor to be an officer-type, the man who sends others into battle (potentially to their deaths) while he pulls all the strings.
This is clearly a key part of how Steven Moffat interprets the Doctor - touched upon occasionally in the Matt Smith era, the introduction of Danny has allowed Moffat to bring the idea back as a recurring theme. This week, the Doctor assuming the role of ‘general’ is even key to neutralising the Blitzer’s threat.
The eighth series of Doctor Who is now halfway done and ‘The Caretaker’ serves as something of a transitionary episode - paying off many of the character sub-plots set up earlier in the series and, with another glimpse of the Promised Land, further foreshadowing what’s to come in the next six weeks.
But great care has been taken (pun intended) to ensure that this episode is much more than a bridge - far from perfunctory, it informs the show’s major characters and our relationship with them as a viewer, while also being superbly funny, warm and moving into the bargain. - GW
Professor Green: ‘Lullaby’ - single review
Professor Green has spoken about the cathartic yet painstaking process of writing ‘Lullaby’, describing the hacking and reworking of complete verses until he deemed it to be up to par with his high standards. Its emotionally charged nature was inspired by Green’s late grandmother and weighs in at almost five minutes long - a bravely lengthy feat for a lead single. But does the catharsis of ‘Lullaby’ come at the cost of losing some appeal as a commercially contained single?
Despite its length, ‘Lullaby’ doesn’t feel like a slog. Rather, its honesty prevails in giving the song an invasive quality, much like stumbling across an open diary but being unable to put it down. OK, it may not see Pro doing anything particularly new musically, but it goes further than rehashing old ground from previous records by benefitting from some of the rapper’s most honest lyrics to date. Pro Green has said he wants to raise awareness about depression through ‘Lullaby’, and the strength of his lyrics alongside the vocal power of Tori Kelly makes it well-equipped to do so. - GW
Sigma ft. Paloma Faith: ‘Changing’ - Single review
Very few drum and bass acts become bona fide chart stars, but Sigma surprised everyone and themselves when they stormed to number one in the UK earlier this year, transforming the hook from Kanye West’s ‘Bound 2’ into pulsing, breakbeat anthem ‘Nobody to Love’. Much like the tempo of their music, their chart ascent was rapid and forceful, spreading far beyond British shores and elevating their profile to superstar DJs. However, when massive success strikes, so does the pressure to maintain the momentum.
It’s a challenge, though, that Sigma have embraced on their new single ‘Changing’, teaming up with flame-haired songstress Paloma Faith to broaden their reach further. “I don’t understand playing by the same hand/ How you find something new,” she soulfully growls over lavish orchestral sweeps and Roadrunner-paced beats, taking 3 minutes 28 seconds leave from the emotive ballads she has built her reputation on. Providentially, Paloma’s profoundness couldn’t echo more accurately; both acts have played a fresh hand and, unsurprisingly, the final result has come up trumps. - GW
The Script: No Sound Without Silence review - ‘Couldn’t be more obvious’
"I think on album number four, you’re allowed that," frontman Danny O’Donoghue said about experimenting with The Script’s sound. “You can go out and try dance music, reggae and all that stuff.” He later added that they even went as far as “hardcore rap”, but ultimately they didn’t want to confuse the fans and completely lose their identity. Unfortunately, it meant they did something even more frustrating: they diluted it.
Four albums in and we all know by now what to expect from a Script record: messages of persevering through adversity, whispers of sweet nothings over light guitar plucks, and those rousing earworm choruses that help them sell out arenas. It has worked wonders for the Irish trio, gaining them an international following and a couple of number ones in the process.
However, as Danny rightly explained, this is the point when the band should take a step out of the safety net to try their hand at something marginally unexpected. No Sound Without Silence couldn’t be more obvious. Lead single 'Superheroes' was an indication that The Script had barely strayed away from their brand of soaring stadium-pop, and dishearteningly, the remainder of the album contains more clichés than an X Factor panel.
"If hate is poison, then love is the cure," Danny croons on 'Army Of Angels', before leading the charge with even more battle-of-the-heart metaphors. If you caught the singer during his Voice UK stint (or, indeed, in any interview), you’ll know that he has more charm, wit and bite than his lyrics give him credit it for. Why this fails to transfer over into their music is a mystery and, quite frankly, a bit of a shame.
Again, the band are avid fans of new music and continuously keep their ears pricked for upcoming trends, but after listening to 'Never Seen Anything “Quite Like You”', you’d never “Quite Believe It”. Any ambition to create something stimulating, heart-rendering and progressive (in terms of pop music, at least), has been reduced to a Westlife B-side. And when there are flickers of something more exciting and raucous - I’m looking at you 'Paint the Town Green' - it’s so polished and refined the disappointment is like only being allowed to drink Kaliber during a weekend in Dublin.
Fundamentally, fans of The Script will find themselves on familiar ground here, but for a band who actively experimented with their formula, there’s a lingering feeling that No Sound Without Silence could have been a step forward, rather than two steps back. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Time Heist’ review: Slick caper lacks substance
This year, we were promised a very different Doctor Who. Like Peter Capaldi’s new take on the Time Lord, this new series would - we were reliably informed - be less frenetic and more measured. BBC One’s Saturday night sci-fi would, no pun intended, be taking a deep breath.
Yet despite all this, our teatime telly favourite has never been more more manic than in Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat’s ‘Time Heist’ - a twisty-turny heist movie compressed to a mere 45 minutes.
Stealing Clara (Jenna Coleman) away from a second date with Danny Pink, the Doctor (Capaldi) joins forces with augmented human Psi (Jonathan Bailey) and mutant Saibra (Pippa Bennett-Warner) to rob the most dangerous bank in the cosmos - though a self-induced memory wipe leaves our heroes with no notion as to why they’ve undertaken this treacherous task.
The mind-wipe gimmick means we’re thrown right into the middle of the chaos, with director Douglas Mackinnon (also responsible for last week’s superb ‘Listen’) lending proceedings a glossy, Sherlock-esque sheen.
With our central foursome on the run throughout, the viewer is swept along with them - there’s little time to pause, to process or (happily) for our attention to waver.
But if anything, ‘Time Heist’ suffers from a surplus of ideas, particularly in the early going. A bank heist in space, memory worms, augmented humans, shape-shifters, clones, time-trickery… plus a monster that feeds on guilt and turns human brains to soup - any one of these could have formed the basis of a Doctor Who episode, but throw all these ingredients in the same pot and what you’re left with is a bit of a hodge-podge.
With so much in play, no one element quite gets the attention it deserves and the whole affair feels a little disposable as a result - particularly coming after the moodier, more deliberately-paced ‘Listen’.
A case in point is Keeley Hawes’ villain of the week. The icy, well-spoken, power-suited villainess has become something of a Doctor Who trademark since 2005, with Hawes’ Ms. Dephox the latest in a line that includes Sarah Lancashire’s Ms. Foster from 2008’s ‘Partners in Crime’ and Celia Imrie’s Miss Kizlet from last year’s ‘The Bells of Saint John’.
Perhaps it’s just that sense of over-familiarity, perhaps it’s intentional in not wanting to foreshadow the character’s true nature, but Dephox feels colourless - a background character rather than a key player - and only when we meet the real Karabraxos does the talented Hawes really get to have any fun. Such a fine actress deserved considerably more screen-time.
Helping to put a little meat on ‘Time Heist’s slight bones is Mackinnon’s aforementioned direction - he’s as adept at crafting a slick conman caper as he was last Saturday’s spook-fest - plus some memorable production design and imaginative imagery. In particular, the collapsed head of The Teller’s victims is freakish and unsettling without being overtly gory or graphic.
There’s also, of course, dependably excellent performances from our leads. Capaldi is still striking a strong balance between crazy wizard and and withdrawn warrior, while also allowing a pleasing pinch of Malcolm Tucker to slip through every now and again (“Shuttity-up-up-up!”) and then there’s Jenna Coleman, making the most of Clara’s renaissance and continuing to be utterly charming on-screen.
As with the somewhat lacklustre ‘Deep Breath’, the Doctor and Clara’s fiery dynamic, rife with smart banter, helps to carry the episode when other aspects flag - for all their sci-fi quirks, Psi and Saibra are unforgiveably bland supporting characters.
'Time Heist' is a breathless affair, throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. The final product is not wholly successful, but with so much going on, you'll certainly be in no danger of growing bored. That, you can bank on. - GW
Calvin Harris ft. John Newman: ‘Blame’ - Single review
As far as reinventions go, Calvin Harris’ transformation over the past seven years is more impressive than a 60 Minute Makeover. When the Scottish DJ was a chart act exclusive to British shores early in his career, he was a joke-around lad with a pasty complexion, gatecrashing Jedward on The X Factor with a pineapple on his head. These days he has been named the world’s highest paid DJ by Forbes, raking in a reported $66 million in just 12 months, and surpassing his Roc Nation boss Jay Z’s annual paycheque in the process.
Nevertheless, as we’re sure Hova would vouch, with a strong reputation comes increased expectation. Luckily for Calvin, everything he touches these days seems to turn more golden than his glowing tan. “Just blame it on the night, night/ Don’t blame it on me/ Don’t blame it on me,” guest vocalist John Newman soulfully insists on the surging bridge, before it bursts into one of Calvin’s infectious four-to-the-floor choruses. It barely shifts away from the formula that’s enabled him to achieve 1 billions Spotify streams, but when it’s proving itself that effective, why resign the Midas Touch? - GW
Banks’ Goddess album review: “A masterclass in gloomy R&B”
Here’s my number, call me maybe: that’s what LA singer BANKS invited fans to do last year when she listed her telephone digits on Facebook. Back then, it seemed like little more than a nifty publicity stunt, an ultra-transparent way of thumbing her nose at notions of privacy and cunningly presenting herself as an open book. But now, with the release of her debut LP Goddess, it makes perfect sense; at times, it’s such a creepy, uneasy and slinkily earnest work that it feels like eavesdropping on a whispered confession or sneaking a peak at someone’s diary.
She’s a strange mish-mash of her contemporary peers, BANKS: an odd hybrid of Drake’s glummer-than-thou R&B and Lana Del Rey’s doomed romanticism. And she’s got equal amounts of melodrama to both, too: opener ‘Alibi’ is all glitchy, jittery beats and elegantly pulsing keyboards that err just on the right side of schlock as she croons: “Something I should’ve known/ Will be the death of me.”
The title track, meanwhile, finds her in a head-versus-heart turmoil, caught in a trap between sense and sensuality. “The way you make me feel all sexy but it’s causing me shame,” she intones over crumbling-wall synths, and for all the natty production and choice backdrops - songs that can almost come on like poppier takes on The Knife with flickering electronics - it’s unerringly naked.
At its finest, then, Goddess is a masterclass in gloomy R&B. 'Begging for Thread' is likely to dig deep under your pores and stay there, with its nagging beat, breath-on-glass vocals and dirty, dank chorus. But most crucially, it’s got spark and f**k-you brio; likewise, 'Stick' is excellent pop raunch in which BANKS tries, like a silver-tongued lothario, to link the woes of the world to the need for some lovin’. “I got to take you home/ We’re living in hard times,” she purrs, as if the ills of global financial hardship and bloody conflict can be magicked away by a good shag. You have to admire the chutzpah, don’t you?
Occasionally, though, it gets too mired in gloom and overly po-faced. “I’m the one who had to learn to build a heart made of armour,” she sniffs on the synth-blare of 'Drowning', “from the girl who made you soup and tied your shoes when you were hurting.” It’s more a bleat than a lyric; the type of woe-is-me plea you make to an ex in the throes of heartbreak and then shudder every time you remember it in the future.
'F**k Em Only We Know', meanwhile, has a title that promises great things, but there are no snappy rejoinders to be found in its wispy, airy electronica: instead it’s drippy, moon-eyed slush in which she declares: “You’re all that matters to me anyway/ I’d give up everything to see your face.” If you didn’t prefer it when she was trying to use vague allusions to the perils of youth unemployment and the Ukraine crisis to get into someone’s pants, you’re not human.
Even if Goddess isn’t quite deserving of fully-fledged worship just yet, though, it’s still capable of being a brooders’ delight: next time, if she’s a little more choosy about what makes the cut instead of giving everyone access to both the good and the bad, she might edge that little bit closer to deity status. - GW
Duke Dumont: ‘Won’t Look Back’ single review
Before nabbing two consecutive UK chart-toppers, Duke Dumont was soundtracking people’s lives in a different way entirely: ringtones. “If you ever bought a ringtone from O2 ten years ago, it was probably me that was responsible for editing that song and looping it so that it just played the best bit,” he explained in a recent interview. It obviously laid the foundation for what would become his most profitable production technique: developing an ear for the catchiest of hooks and infusing them into floor-filling house anthems.
It’s a talent that is showcased proudly on his new single ‘Won’t Look Back’; its thumping beats and Italo piano lines fresh from a long hot summer in the Balearics. “Now my struggle seems so far away/ And life will never be the same,” Naomi Miller declares over scorching synths, before the track builds into a gospel-bodied refrain full of Costa del Soul. With three for three under his belt, when it comes to Duke Dumont, the sentiment couldn’t ring more true. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Listen’ review: smart, scary, superb
'Blink', 'The Girl in the Fireplace' and now 'Listen' - the best of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who always shares a similar ethos. It’s dark and fun in equal measure, and driven by a slew of strong ideas, playing with time and chronology in a smart, interesting fashion.
From its very different pre-titles sequence onwards, there’s so much to absorb in ‘Listen’. One requirement of a great Doctor Who episode is scaring the kiddies and here Moffat again preys expertly on childhood fears.
Why – as children and (whether or not we admit it) as adults – are we so afraid of something lurking under the bed? Why do we all share that same nightmare? Perhaps because something really is hiding there – a shadow, a ‘silent passenger’.
Like another modern Doctor Who classic, Russell T Davies’ standout offering ‘Midnight’, there’s a level of ambiguity to ‘Listen’ that’s pleasing rather than frustrating. Was there really some great unseen threat or, like Danny’s dreams of being a soldier, was it all just an invention of the mind?
This sort of spooky tale works far better with Peter Capaldi’s mad wizard Doctor – a somewhat callous figure we’re not even sure we completely trust – than it would’ve with the comforting presence of a buoyant Matt Smith. It’s perhaps the first true Capaldi episode, where it’s near-impossible to imagine anyone else stepping into his shoes.
Moffat’s script furthers the themes of this series – not just this Doctor’s ongoing struggle with the notion that he’s a hero (“a soldier so brave he doesn’t need a gun”) but also his inability to accept the extent of his own power and influence.
Danny Pink (Dan the soldier man) is back this week, with the revelation that his entire life, almost his entire persona, was shaped by one thoughtless act from the Doctor. Delving into Danny’s past (or should that be ‘Rupert’s’?) does more than flesh out Samuel Anderson’s sensitive squaddie, though. It also allows ‘Listen’ to again make terrific use of Clara (Jenna Coleman).
Capitalising on work already done filling in the gaps in her personality and personal life, Moffat makes her background as a teacher absolutely vital, as she’s able to quickly strike up a warm rapport with a child.
It’s only a pity that ‘Listen’ also provides the strongest indicator yet that Clara is for the chop. With the heavy implication that Orson Pink is her grandson, the character’s departure seems all but spelled out, though I wouldn’t put it past Moffat to pull out another twist.
'Listen' certainly contains enough shockers of its own. At its midpoint, the episode shifts not only in location but tone, transitioning from a dark fairytale vibe to more of a sci-fi chiller, somewhat akin to Danny Boyle's 2007 film Sunshine or Doctor Who's own 'The Waters of Mars'.
Then there’s the sublime bow with which Moffat ties the whole thing off – a surprise trip to Gallifrey linking what seemed like a standalone episode into last November’s 50th anniversary special and the broader mythology of Doctor Who as a whole.
This is an episode that will probably receive a few complaints from the ‘too complicated / too scary’ brigade. On the former point, I’d say give the kids some credit, they’re smarter than you think. On the latter? ‘Listen’ is never gory or truly horrific. These are the sort of fun chills that kids relish, and that give adults a pleasant shiver up the spine too.
Intelligent, romantic and just scary enough, ‘Listen’ is either a moody tale of the supernatural or it’s a clever reflection on the mind’s own ability to fool and govern itself, but either way it’s brilliant. - GW
The Script ‘Superheroes’ single review - Will have fans sitting tight
The Script said they ‘tried everything and definitely stretched the sound’ for their fourth album, No Sound Without Silence. Lead single ‘Superheroes’ certainly seems to make a strong statement about the Irish band’s return, but is it strong enough to justify The Script’s meandering attempts to make an experimental album six years into their established career?
To the joy, or perhaps disappointment of Script fans, ‘Superheroes’ plays out like a logical continuation of the group’s oeuvre rather than a radical new indulgence - even if Danny O’Donoghue nearly stumbles into rapping on the aside, “Every day every hour/ Turn the pain into power”. What it does do, though, is fuse together the group’s familiar, emotive lyrics alongside Coldplay-esque pianos and an epic chorus likely to have fans sitting tight for the new album. It may not be quite the stretch of sound promised, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Robot of Sherwood’ review: Smart, fun and very silly
Doctor Who has always thrived on giving the legends of horror and fantasy a science-fiction twist. Yet pre-broadcast, the Mark Gatiss-penned ‘Robot of Sherwood’ felt like a risk - perhaps because Peter Capaldi’s darker Doctor looks and feels so thoroughly out-of-place in a jolly, Errol Flynn-inspired romp.
But rather than shy away from that mismatch, Gatiss absolutely embraces it - casting the Doctor as a grouchy counterpart to the unremittingly enthusiastic Robin, existing to undercut the camp and ‘hang a lampshade’ on a few of the episode’s more absurd moments.
Yes, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is silly and tongue-in-cheek - lighter fare than 'Into the Dalek' and even 'Deep Breath'. But it’s also smart, eschewing slapstick and broad humour for wit - for all the Doctor’s distaste of it, Gatiss’ script is rife with great “bantering” - and comical subversion.
There’s much fun to be had in the writer’s nods to and dismantling of the popular image of Robin Hood - this version’s flamboyant persona, and in particular the boisterous laugh that so irritates the Doctor, comes straight from 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Da Vinci’s Demons lead Tom Riley completely delivers as Robin too, nailing not only the character’s more cartoonish traits, but also the moments of emotional truth - the sad soul he conceals from all but a few - when the script demands it.
In its first act, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ tips its hat to every iteration of the Hood myth, from Kevin Costner’s Hollywood spectacle Prince of Thieves to Disney’s animated outing, delivering all of the familiar elements one would expect - the Merry Men, mooning over Marian and an archery contest with a dastardly Sheriff - before injecting a healthy dose of sci-fi.
Though it feels a tad lazy reverting back to a robotic threat so soon after ‘Deep Breath’, the Robot Knights’ impressive design and distinctive death-rays ensure that they remain a memorable threat.
It was a canny move to cast a recognisable face - not to mention an acting talent - like Ben Miller as this week’s human antagonist, since the Sheriff of Nottingham is on paper a rather straightforward and uninspiring villain.
Lascivious and cruel as one might expect, the Sheriff holds few surprises - even his true nature is heavily implied ahead of the big reveal. It’s a pity, given Gatiss’ usual talent for delivering colourful cads, but Miller at least lends a little charisma to what is a rather flat antagonist.
Of all the cast though, this episode really belongs to Jenna Coleman. The actress is not only charming and funny throughout, but is also more than capable of carrying proceedings when her co-star Capaldi is off screen - witness the scene in which she entices secrets out of the conceited Sheriff.
It helps that she’s finally being given some material that’s worthy of her - no longer Little Miss Perfect, the Clara of Doctor Who series 8 is spikier, more worldly and has heaps more personality than the character we met last year.
She almost feels like a different character altogether, with a lot more of the real Coleman appearing to filter through - even her Lancashire accent is more prominent than it ever was before. “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…”
Consciously or not, Mark Gatiss always writes Doctor Who with the sensibility of a loving fan - and ‘Robot of Sherwood’ references not just this series’ ongoing arc, but also the wider history of Doctor Who (Did you catch the mention of a Miniscope?), its popular traits (“It’s always the screwdriver!”) and contains plenty of in-jokes for the faithful (Who else spotted Patrick Troughton, in-character as Robin?).
Gatiss’ enthusiasm is always infectious and for its first 30 minutes, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ rockets along with a great deal of vigour and fun. Unfortunately, it does stumble a little at the final hurdle, and once Robin leaps out of the Sheriff’s window, all plot logic goes out with him.
Even by the episode’s own flimsy sci-fi logic, the notion that a spaceship without enough gold to reach orbit could be propelled hundreds more miles by the addition of a single arrow’s worth makes no sense.
The truth is though, ‘Robot of Sherwood’ is so fun, so fast-paced, that the majority will likely forgive its plot holes, its limp climax and its lack of real menace. A sense of humour goes a long way and for the most part, this latest Doctor Who is a hugely enjoyable slice of light entertainment, perfectly pitched and buoyed by strong performances. - GW
Maroon 5 album review: ‘Sounding more like a boyband than ever’
Maroon 5 have always struggled with their image. Frontman Adam Levine’s boyish good looks meant that early on in their career they were routinely mistaken for a boyband, despite having the traditional rock band setup. “People didn’t know what to make of us,” he admitted in a recent interview, but it didn’t stop their debut album Songs About Jane launching them to chart success and initially pinpointing them as soft-rock funk-masters.
Five albums in and Maroon 5’s identity crisis is a whole different beast. Aptly named V (oh, the originality!), I’d like to think the sextet’s new title is a knowing V-sign to the decade of growing stigma they continue to endure. Let’s face it, it hasn’t stopped them selling near on 20 million records. Mega hit ‘Moves Like Jagger’ helped them some way to that number, and much like 2012’s Overexposed, new album V feels like a formula to further that appeal.
Case in point, lead single 'Maps' is an unashamed retread of that magic equation; an addictive refrain and Adam’s soul-flecked vocals brought together by the biggest pop producers in the biz. It’s a template that is replicated throughout the remainder of the album. 'Animals' swirls in its toe-tapping beats and eye-rolling clichés (“you’re like a drug that’s killing me”), while 'Leaving California' is by-numbers stadium pop with a lights-in-the-air chorus. Elsewhere, the Doctor Luke-produced 'Sugar'skirts very close to Katy Perry in drag, and 'It Was Always You' is a fizzing ’90s throwback with its trickling guitars.
It’s all relatively harmless (even with the tenuous explicit warning on a handful of songs), and there are (whisper it!) some really great moments, but my issue is that, under the helm of Maroon 5, it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s foolproof pop performed by a band that has never really been fully comfortable with that tag. It made me apprehensive about 'My Heart Is Open' - a duet with my precious Gwen Stefani - but thankfully it resulted in one of the album’s most heartfelt highlights (and breathe). That said, nothing here is enough to push Maroon 5’s image forward. In fact, they’re sounding more like a boyband than ever before. - GW
Doctor Who series 8 ‘Into the Dalek’ review: Meet the new Doctor
Meet the new Doctor.
Caught in the throes of regeneration mania, Peter Capaldi’s newly-minted Time Lord was a bit all over the place last week - and so was his debut adventure, the ambitious but flawed 'Deep Breath'.
But where last Saturday’s Doctor Who was messy, muddled and overlong, this week’s ‘Into the Dalek’ is pacy and sharp - from the off, the whole affair positively bristles with energy, Capaldi clearly having a ball rattling off Steven Moffat and Phil Ford’s wonderfully witty words.
In stark contrast to his predecessors - both of whom were adolescent bundles of energy - this new Doctor is calm, cool and controlled. But there’s also (as promised) the odd hint of the snarling beast beneath - this is a man with burning hatred in his hearts.
Flitting between benevolently alien and openly hostile, Capaldi’s Doctor frequently recalls Tom Baker’s here, and just as Baker’s second outing - 1975’s ‘The Ark in Space’ - felt like his first real chance to spread his wings, so ‘Into the Dalek’ feels like the debut proper of our new lead, with the last vestiges of the Matt Smith era discarded.
There’ll be no moping for Matt Smith this week - you’ll be too transfixed by his successor.
This Doctor says of Clara (Jenna Coleman), “She cares so I don’t have to” - but how much of his cold and calculating nature is a front? It seems precious little - disturbingly stoic in the face of death, the Doctor seems genuinely disturbed by his own apathy (“Am I a good man?”) - he doesn’t care and that concerns him.
It’s a similar dynamic to the one Nine shared with Rose - the empathetic companion guiding and, yes, teaching her damaged Doctor - and Capaldi and Coleman share a wonderful rapport, though with the latter reportedly on her way out, it seems - like Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper - we’ll only get to enjoy this particular pairing for a single series.
An example of the Doctor’s newfound callousness is his rejection of Zawe Ashton’s Journey Blue - from the moment our hero saves her from a Dalek fleet, the character has a strong companion vibe. It’s a point that the episode addresses, though the Doctor’s sudden loathing of soldiers seems to have come rather out of the blue - no pun intended.
He’s always despised military tactics and brute force - it’s an inherent part of the character - but given that some of his greatest friends and allies have been soldiers, this sudden prejudice feels odd.
It could be interpreted as a reaction to being confronted with his own potential for rage and violence, but feels more like a slightly clumsy way of foreshadowing tension between the Doctor and Samuel Anderson’s ex-squaddie Danny Pink, since they won’t be engaging in any sort of romantic tussle over Clara.
Anderson makes an assured debut as “lady-killer” Danny and certainly has chemistry with Jenna Coleman, though Coleman’s so fantastic you suspect she’d have chemistry with a brick wall, or indeed a “mountain range”.
The ‘romantic comedy’ portion of ‘Into the Dalek’ is utterly charming - with strong use made of comedic cross-cutting - though with Danny relegated to just two book-end sequences, the character’s introduction does feel a little heavy-handed.
We’re told in quick succession that he’s a teacher and a soldier and sensitive (he sheds a tear!) and interested in Clara - before an anxious Moffat and Ford whip back into outer space for more Daleks and and thrilling sci-fi gubbins.
I look forward to seeing how the character of Danny develops, because we barely get a glimpse of the man this week - though from what we’ve seen, he has definite potential.
One thing Doctor Who fans have seen plenty of is the Daleks - the show is sometimes criticised for an over-reliance on its most famous monsters, but personally I’m happy for Terry Nation’s creations to keep cropping up, so long as there’s an original tale to tell.
'Into the Dalek' succeeds on that front, putting a new twist on an idea half a century old - no mean feat. The theme driving the episode is this - can there ever be such a thing as a good Dalek?
As the Doctor learns to his peril, the answer is no - a Dalek is a weapon, plain and simple. You can’t change its nature, simply which direction it’s aimed in.
To learn that hard truth, the Doctor and Clara are miniaturised and sent into the belly of the beast - a concept that sounds faintly ludicrous on paper and could’ve turned out that way on-screen. See Doctor Who's attempt at a similar concept in 1977's 'The Invisible Enemy' - another Tom Baker tale - for evidence of that.
But in fact, the scenario’s played out with great style and tension, thanks in no small part to some strong visual effects. Though if you examine the whole concept too closely, then ‘Into the Dalek’ does buckle under the pressure of an examining eye…
Consider this - if the Doctor is aware that the damage the Dalek sustained is what’s altered the beast - “morality as malfunction” - then why is he so surprised that repairing that damage restores the creature’s killer instinct?
But forgive ‘Into the Dalek’ its comparatively minor flaws and what you’re left with is a belter of a Doctor Who episode - smart, stirring and visually spectacular.
The Daleks may never change, but both our favourite sci-fi series and its unique lead character seem to be undergoing a transformation and I’m fascinated to see where it leads us. - GW
'The Muppets' review
Jason Segel brings the Muppets back down to earth more than a decade after their last big screen outing in Muppets from Space. Those fearing a crude Apatowian-style makeover with the Forgetting Sarah Marshall star at the helm need not worry - this is an affectionate and poignant revival of Jim Henson’s cloth characters that’ll satisfy fans and win over newcomers.
The story focuses on residents of Smalltown, Gary (played by Segel himself) and his muppet brother Walter, as they set off on a trip to Los Angeles with Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams). Obsessive muppet fans, Gary and Walter gets pangs of nostalgia visiting the old abandoned theatre. When they discover that tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy the property and knock it down to drill for oil, they track down Kermit the Frog in a bid to save the venue.
Having seen the Muppets disband years ago, Kermit and the gang set about reuniting the group. Fozzie Bear is still dispensing bad gags in tribute act the Moopets, Gonzo is a plumbing magnate, Animal is in anger management with Jack Black and Miss Piggy is working for Vogue Paris. Launching a telethon to raise $10 million (£6.4 million) to buy the theatre, they refurbish the building (in a rousing montage backed by Starship’s ‘We Built This City’) and recruit Black (against his will, it should be noted!) to host the event.
Toe-tapping musical numbers are interweaved into the story by director James Bobin, whose Flight of the Conchords pal Bret McKenzie penned the two best tracks ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ and ‘Man or Muppet’ - the latter makes good use of Jim Parsons, one of the many stars on cameo duty.
The ‘human’ story is where the film occasionally stumbles. Save for her ‘Party of One’ song, Adams lacks time to shine and is present only to drive a wedge between Gary and Walter. Chris Cooper also struggles to make the most of his one-dimensional villain… even with a rap solo to underline his ruthlessness.
However, playing second fiddle to the puppets hasn’t stopped stars like Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Emily Blunt, Selena Gomez, Sarah Silverman and Mickey Rooney popping up to carry on the muppet tradition of celebs generating laughs at their own expense.
The Muppets is also keenly aware of its lead characters’ prolonged big screen absence, acknowledging it with nudge-wink humour and harnessing the collective nostalgia surrounding them to create a warmth on screen.
Cinema is now in the 3D digital age, with Pixar telling great stories using cutting-edge technology, but there’s still an abundance of old school charm in these beloved puppets. By the time the film moves into its uplifting finale, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear. - GW