Monthly Archives: August 2013

Picture: The Guardian

Top of the Lake, BBC iPlayer

This piece comes fairly late because I came to Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake fairly late. It was one of those programmes that I kept hearing about and kept meaning to watch. Finally I got round to it, watching over four nights (one episode a night for three nights, with the other three episodes crammed greedily into one sitting). Reading various reviews (and comments underneath reviews) I’ve noticed complaints and criticism that this drama was too far-fetched and too implausible. Therefore I’ll start off with a disclaimer: generally, I’m not too bothered about realism in dramas (I watch Downton Abbey for goodness’ sake). As long as the action is executed well, it won’t worry me that a drama is not a perfect representation of real life. And Top of the Lake was unquestionably well executed.

First of all, the setting. The backdrop to the fictitious town of Lake Top is the wild and vast New Zealand scenery. The lake, of course, plays a key role. A character in itself, it is perpetually calm, but always threatening. The very first scene, in which the tiny figure of schoolgirl Tui (Jaqueline Joe) processes slowly into its waters cements the idea of the vastness of the scenery that prevails throughout. But the despite being bombarded with imagery of the huge open lake, towering mountains and sprawling forests, you’re still left with a sense of claustrophobia after every episode. The area is immense, but it’s isolated. It’s as if the towering mountains are gradually enclosing on the small community, hemming it in.

Top of the Lake reminded me a lot of the 2010 film Winter’s Bone, and indeed it worked on the same premise: a woman navigating her way through a community governed unofficially by lawless, violent men. There is unnerving acceptance of manipulation and violence within the Lake Top community, and a reticence on the part of the police to do anything about it. Suspicious suicides, boating accidents and hit and runs are pushed to one side by the male-dominated police force, headed up by the suave Al (David Wenham). He’s genial and approachable, but there’s a instant feeling that you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side.  He runs a department that is seemingly lacklustre, and overtly sexist.

It’s clear from the first episode that domineering patriarch Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) has an unspoken stake in the running of Lake Top, although the exact nature of his hold on the town is not revealed until later. Nevertheless, bearded and ragged, with narrow, dark eyes, Mitcham is fearsome from the beginning, a sadistic manipulator who frightens people (his own sons included) into compliance.

In the middle of all this is Robin (Elisabeth Moss), on leave from her Detective position in the Sydney police force whilst she visits her dying mother in her hometown. She’s drafted in to the local police force when Tui, five-months pregnant and living in fear of her father Mitcham, goes missing.

Moss holds her own in this lead role, just as Robin holds her own amongst this array of alpha males. Al calls Robin his angel. He asks her to marry him. She smiles, changes the subject, a hint of incredulity flickering in her eyes. Whilst the huge presences of characters such as Mitcham and Al pulsate from the screen, Moss has a subtle but enduring strength. So it’s disconcerting when, as the series progresses, this endurance begins to falter.

As Robin becomes more and more involved in the search for Tui, memories (and indeed people) from her blighted childhood in Lake Top begin to resurface. If Tui’s ordeal is anything to go by, not much has changed. Top of the Lake doesn’t do a lot for the reputation of men. They’re either rapists, sadists, paedophiles, drug dealers or absent fathers. But some redemption is offered in the characters of both Jamie and Johnno, who go to great lengths to protect Tui and Robin respectively.

The seemingly male-dominated town is juxtaposed with the all-female commune of ‘Paradise’, where women keen to leave behind certain aspects of their past congregate and hang off the words of their revered, enigmatic leader, GJ (Holly Hunter). I didn’t really understand GJ – although I’m not altogether sure we were meant to. But her advice (if you can call it advice) seemed to consist of accepting that there is nothing you can do about anything that happens to you and that, quite frankly, shit happens. “We’re living out here in a place called ‘Paradise’,” she pronounces sardonically, “how’s it going, perfect?” Ironically, in the end, GJ becomes tired of accepting the status quo, and ups sticks. Interestingly, she is the only character to get out of the area by a medium other than death.

Top of the Lake has been criticised for having too ‘neat’ an ending, but this is definitely not a bad thing  – there’s nothing worse than a strong drama being left with loose ends, just for the sake of suspense. It’s not particularly hopeful – it leaves you feeling a bit disillusioned. But that’s surely only testament to its power as a drama.

New Who: Capaldi (Picture: Hypable)

So the Twelfth Doctor has been announced, in a half-hour long programme that comprised a few semi-celebrities declaring their love for the 900+ year old alien and waxing lyrical about previous incarnations. Matt Smith gave the gender game away fairly early on. That didn’t stop Zoe Ball attempting not so subtly to rebuild the drama – HE COULD STILL BE A WOMAN, GUYS. The Big Reveal, when it came, was like a budget version of The X Factor: we had the long silence, and the Enthusiastically Yelled Name, but no sliding doors or fireworks. Part of me was quite disappointed that Joe McElderry didn’t emerge from a cloud of dry ice singing You Raise Me Up, but maybe it was for the best. A montage video would have been nice though, maybe with flashbacks of Peter Capaldi scanning tins of beans at the Asda checkout, interspersed with shots of his family hugging and crying, dressed in PETER WHO t-shirts.

Anyway, I’m reserving judgement on this casting decision until we see the Twelfth Doctor in action.  For me, a lot is resting on this new series. I used to love Doctor Who, but I haven’t been very into it for a good while now. This is partly because of Matt Smith – I don’t think he’s been a terrible Doctor, but he’s definitely been the weakest since the show returned (although Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant set the bar almost unreachably high). It’s not all Smith’s fault though. The show changed a lot when Stephen Moffat took over, and surprisingly not for the better. New Doctor aside, there are other things that Doctor Who is lacking these days. Therefore, I’ve compiled a list of things that Moffat could do with bearing in mind…

1. Can we take ourselves a bit less seriously please? What happened to people being swallowed by wheelie bins, and getting attacked by homicidal Christmas trees? When Doctor Who first returned to our screens, you got the impression that the writers were having a right laugh. More lighthearted episodes were interspersed with darker, scarier episodes penned by Stephen Moffat, which really stood out as a result, all involving the most frightening baddies (gas mask zombies, weeping angels, those freaky shadow things). But otherwise, the Doctor and his companions really appeared to be travelling for fun – they just happened to stumble into a lot of dangerous situations on the way to that fun. When Moffat took over, everything got a bit uniformly deep and dark and intense. My A levels were already providing enough deepness and darkness and intensity so I kind of just gave up. And then never got back into it.

2. The families aren’t what they used to be… I loved the comedy that the families of Rose, Martha and Donna brought to previous series. And they also provided some of the most touching moments – the reaction of Donna’s granddad Wilf to her memory loss being the one that springs to mind first. What we’ve seen of Clara’s next-of-kin doesn’t bode well so far. Those two really irritating kids that insisted on tagging along last series have nothing on Wilf, and even less on Jackie Tyler.  It’s a shame because, when they’re written well, companion families bring a much-required human element to the show that was lacking a bit when Amy and Rory both travelled with the Doctor.

3. To add insult to injury, one of the only members of Amy and Rory’s families that ever materialised happened to be the most irritating character to appear in the revamped show so far. I am referring, of course, to curly-haired, husky-voiced, space-age seductress, River Song, Amy and Rory’s time travelling daughter, ‘conceived (according to Wikipedia – I don’t pretend to have watched all of this) on board the TARDIS as it travelled through the space-time vortex’.  Right. Ok. Just because you have time lord traits, that doesn’t give you the right to swan around being so supremely annoying. Seriously, River. Why do you insist on returning every other episode just to strut about calling the Doctor ‘sweetie’ and doing that I-totally-know-what’s-going-on-here-and-you-don’t face. Hate to burst your bubble, sweetie, but spoilers are what the internet is for.

4. Talking of spoilers, is it really necessary for there to be so much spoiler potential? Doctor Who episodes used to be really enjoyable as one-offs. Arcs like Bad Wolf and Mr Saxon were great if you watched every week, but they weren’t intrusive enough for it to matter if you missed the odd episode. The past few series have been dominated by ridiculously complicated story arcs that make dipping in and out nigh on impossible. So next series, fewer complicated storylines, and finally…

5. …more Daleks. Doctor Who generally just needs more Daleks. For no other reason than pure comic value. Daleks are absolutely hilarious. There is absolutely nothing scary about a really unhinged compost bin with a power complex getting more and more worked up as an episode progresses.

So as I’ve demonstrated, Stephen Moffatt will have to do a lot better than merely casting an impressive Doctor if I’m going to return to previous levels of Who-love. I do really like Clara though. It’s nice to have a smiley and enthusiastic companion again after a recent hiatus in the shape of Amy Pond. Amy was always giving off those too-cool-for-the-TARDIS vibes, like a sci-fi version of a teenage girl who sits at the back of the bus and rolls her eyes a lot. Clara’s shunned the pout and replaced it with a smile. Hopefully that smile is contagious: I just want Doctor Who to take itself a little less seriously. The latest series has been a definite improvement, but it’s still got a way to go.