TV Series Review: “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” (Toby Haynes, UK 2015)

In 2004, Susanna Clarke unleashed her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a sprawling, 1000-plus-page epic fantasy on the world. Neil Gaiman hailed the novel as “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years,” a time period that notably includes The Hobbit and all of The Lord of the Rings. The novel was an enormous success, with Clarke’s writing compared favorably with any in the history of the fantasy genre (and indeed it surpasses even some of the most celebrated) and her created world, one very different from any previously seen, hailed as one of the most intricate and deeply-constructed since Tolkien.

The novel was a dark version of historical high fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century where magic and a connection to a magical realm ruled by faeries is historical fact. “Magicians” are those who study the history of the craft, until one man, Gilbert Norrell, reveals that he is capable of performing magic of the type magicians have previously only studied. Norrell undertakes to return magic to his country but warns that the historical connection to faeries is dangerous and cannot be resumed due to the awful nature of those creatures. However, when Norrell’s quest meets with jeers and laughter from his government, he turns to exactly the magic he warns against, making a deal with a faerie to perform a feat beyond his skills–a decision that will eventually undo him. Another magician, Jonathan Strange, eventually arises, but questions Norrell’s hatred of faerie magic, which Norrell is never willing to explain. Continue reading

The Best of Doctor Who: No. 6, “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” (05.12/05.13, 2010)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Toby Haynes

“Come on! Look at me! No plan! No Backup! No weapons worth a damn! Oh, and something else I don’t have: anything to lose! So, if you’re sitting up there in your silly little space ships with all your silly little guns, and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way! Remember every black day I ever stopped you! And then, and then, do the smart thing!
Let someone else try first.”

Fundamentally, how Steven Moffat writes is to follow obvious melodrama and then about half the time, he pulls the rug out from under it at the end for comedy’s sake while in the other half, he lets it play out. When he lets it play out, we get epic speeches like that. Is it a little obvious and cheesy? Perhaps, but it’s also the dramatically correct thing to happen and, most importantly, the speech is just incredible. And that’s an example of what “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” does so well in closing out Doctor Who‘s finest season: it goes where makes sense, rather lacking in surprise but also always just so dramatically appropriate that the lack of surprise hurts nothing.

The way the ending ties together all the disparate threads of season five is not surprising, but it’s wholly appropriate for the time-travel horror series. Rory refusing to leave Amy safe in the Pandorica is not a surprise, but it’s the apotheosis of who Rory Williams is and of his and Amy’s relationship. The idea that Rory suddenly is able to recover his lost humanity even though he is living plastic doesn’t really make sense, but it certainly isn’t too far afield from the show’s usual modus operandi for love to conquer plastic. And we know what to expect from River and the Doctor interacting at this point, but they still have a sparkling chemistry with dynamic dialogue that’s just so fun to listen to that it just doesn’t matter that we know what’s coming.

“The Big Bang” also includes some rare moments of depth from Matt Smith and Karen Gillan. Karen Gillan’s performance is often troublesome early on in the season and her improvement over the course of the series never gets her into “good” territory, but she plays the wedding scene, with her memory able to pull the Doctor back into existence, absolutely perfectly. Her look of a confused attempt to seem unemotional as she says, “No, I’m sad” and her triumph at the realization that the Doctor is missing convey everything Amy is feeling as she goes through the moment. And then Matt Smith has never looked so wistful and human as he does watching Amy and Rory dance at the wedding.

Steven Moffat clearly had a lot of great ideas lying around that he put into season five, because he’s never been close to this level again, but season five of Doctor Who is as good as non-Breaking Bad television gets, and this finale duo is a great example.