29 December 2013

Star Wars LEGO Review | 75003 A-wing Starfighter

Whilst I’m not generally a big sales shopper, an impromptu post-soft play visit to Sainsbury’s recently yielded a rare bargain for me in the shape of LEGO’s 2013 A-wing Starfighter. Though not a set that was on my hit list, with its £24.99 RRP slashed in half it was worth the cost for its impressive compliment of minifigures alone.

For me, the main attraction here is the rare and highly sought-after Admiral Ackbar. Until this Return of the Jedi-themed set hit the shelves, the high-ranking Mon Calamari had only been available in 2009’s limited edition Home One Mon Calamari Star Cruiser set (#7754), and even then at significant expense. For that reason, until now I’ve always used my Nahdar Vebb minifigure, which shares the same bespoke headpiece as the Rebel fleet’s supreme commander, to utter that immortal phrase, “It’s a trap!”, when recreating the Battle of Endor in LEGO form, but at last I’ve got the admiral in uniform, albeit relaxed enough to be enjoying a cup of space tea.

His accompanying A-wing pilot may not be quite as central to the Star Wars saga, but as admirals generally don’t fly starfighters into action, he’s indispensible to this set, and welcome in my collection in any event as my Rebel troops are woefully thin on the ground when measured against their Imperial LEGO counterparts. His appearance here marks the first time that the A-wing helmet has featured in any LEGO Star Wars set, and he also boasts a reversible headpiece bearing a terrified expression (see right) that suggests he might be intended to be Arvel Crynyd, who famously took out Darth Vader’s Executor in the spectacular, suicidal dive that spearheaded the original trilogy’s cinematic climax.

The inclusion of Han Solo, whose attire has been tweaked again just enough to warrant the block-capitals “NEW!” on the front of the box, is similarly welcome, although as he was down on the forest moon while Ackbar was leading the attack on the Death Star to which this set pays homage, he does feel a little redundant. Personally I’d have preferred to get Mon Mothma (another #7754-exclusive) or, better still, a plain-clothes Lando (rarer still). At least if, like me, you own the recent Jabba’s Palace set, you can just stick its Lando’s headpiece on this latest Han’s body, and voila!

The 177-piece ship itself impresses with its sturdiness. Save for its comparatively-flimsy landing gear, it’s 19 x 14cm frame is solid enough to survive being hurled at the bridge of my Executor repeatedly (which is more than can be said of my Executor). It also has some cool features, including the obligatory flick missiles and a more spacious cockpit than I would have expected, though how LEGO can list its “removable engine” as a feature eludes me – it’s LEGO; everything’s removable! It’s not the prettiest of starfighters either - short and stunted, it lacks the elegance of the longer and sleeker ships deployed throughout the Clone Wars or the natural beauty of X-wings. For £12.49 though, it’s nonetheless a remarkable bargain, if not a belated Christmas gift.

The Star Wars LEGO A-wing Starfighter is available from LEGO directly for £24.99 with free delivery. Today’s cheapest retailer though is Sainsbury’s, where it has been reduced to £12.49.

24 December 2013

UK Christmas Countdown Deals

Until midnight on Boxing Day in the UK, my children’s e-book, Supersize vs Superskinny Santa, will be available to download from Amazon's Kindle Store for just 99p (almost 50% less than its RRP).

Those aged over five years may wish to check out my much more grown-up novel, The Tally, which, from Christmas Day until the year’s end, will also be on offer on Amazon's Kindle Store, this time with a whopping 75% off its RRP. The now-deleted paperback edition has also had its price slashed on Amazon if you’ve yet to go digital when it comes to your reading.

Supersize vs Superskinny Santa
Illustrated by Jemma Brown

Rudolph’s not had an easy life. Mercilessly mocked by his surprisingly mean-spirited peers for having a cosmetic nasal defect, he went on to carve out a place for himself in history by using his iridescent nose to guide Santa Claus through weather conditions that other reindeers couldn’t. But that wouldn’t be the end of his troubles.

As the years have worn on, Santa has become a slave to food and drink. He’s obese, indolent and selfish, and now his alcoholic corpulence threatens Christmas itself.

Can Rudolph help Santa to drop enough weight to fit down chimneys before it’s too late? Or will children the world over wake up on Christmas Day to find that Santa hasn’t been?

The Tally
(A Dark Tale of Danger and Diesel for the Student Loan Generation)

Welcome to the Student Bubble.

Welcome to a world where the DJs play the same songs in the same order every single night, and the one (and only) hit wonder reigns supreme. Welcome to a world of crude cartoon and misplaced melodrama; a world free of all but the most trifling of consequences, where exaggerated sensitivity is rife and a semester’s success or suicide hangs on the whim of a woman.

Young Tommo wiles away his evenings in a purple drunken stupor, lost to the tender mercies of what he desperately wishes was a hopeless love affair, but in reality isn’t even that. Gristle, meanwhile, is enraged when his weak-bladdered housemate Spadge moves out, only to be replaced by a neurotic freak named Jamal, who dares not only to bring books into his house, but to read them too.

And for poor Will, matters are even worse. Women are staying in of a night! How’s he supposed to rack up his ‘tally’ of conquests if women daren’t leave their digs? They’re all terrified that they’ll be the next to fall prey to the invisible menace that has started stealing students away from the streets of Hull. Will has nothing to fear though – after all, he has his recently arrived destitute father to watch his back. And the fearsome Gristle. And the zealously neurotic Jamal. And the dangerously depressed Tom…

The Student Bubble is about to burst, and when it does, the degenerate residents of 146 Worthington Street will find themselves drowning in a reality that they’re not equipped to comprehend, let alone survive in.

TV Review | The Second Coming written by Russell T Davies

Having brought homosexuality to prime time with his acclaimed series Queer as Folk, a little over a decade ago Stephen Russell Davies – better known to the masses by his nom de plume, Russell T Davies – decided that he was going to stir the pot some more by breaking an even bigger taboo. What could get people talking more than a show about three archetypal gay men hanging around Canal Street in the ’90s? Well, short of bringing back Doctor Who, you’d have to resurrect Jesus Christ.

And so that’s exactly what he did – in the guise of a twat from Manchester.

Commissioning a writer as contentious as Davies to pen a drama that even dabbles in spiritual matters, let alone take Christianity’s messiah in a direction that, at best, isn’t going to sit all that well with his flock, suggests that ITV were looking for either trouble or ratings - or, perhaps, both. Having been reared on images of beards and sandals, most Christians probably don’t picture Christopher Eccleston’s “daft old face” when they think of their saviour, and I’m even more confident that they don’t imagine him telling priests to “piss off” and necking pints. Indeed, at a first glance, The Second Coming seems intent on inflaming the channel’s Christian demographic, but, as is invariably the case with a Davies script, it’s ultimately far cleverer than its initial shock tactics imply.

What Davies does with The Second Coming is little different from what Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done more recently with Sherlock – he’s taken an old story and updated it for the 21st century. Of course, popular though they are, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle haven’t had anything like the same effect on two millennia of worldwide culture as the canon of the New Testament has, but the principle is still essentially the same. As the story was originally told, Jesus of Nazareth was born of a virgin mother; this time around, he’s the son of a dad who shoots blanks. Back in the day, Jesus broke bread with his buddies before one of them called in the Romans to drag him off to martyrdom; in Davies’ follow-up, the last supper becomes spag bol in the kitchen, and that old rugged cross is replaced with a quicker and more violent means of departure that’s much more in keeping with the fast and furious pace of 2003. As told by the gospels, Jesus spent years practising carpentry before answering his calling; Davies’ script has Steve toiling away in a video shop until an epiphany borne of a kiss sends him scurrying for the moors, all but driven insane by his newly-awoken divinity.

Where the narratives begin to diverge is in how their respective sons of God go about saving humanity’s endangered souls. As this is more of a sequel than a reimagining (albeit one that we can safely say is “not canon” in the truest sense of the phrase – more Christ Unbound), Steve’s been Jesus once and learnt his lessons well. Accordingly, there’s no softly, softly from our Mr Baxter this time around: he tells the world to furnish him with a “Third Testament”, a book that must change humanity’s course forever, or else it’s the proverbial “End of Days”.

Now even though this is more of a fact than a threat, this sounds much more like the Old Testament’s no-nonsense God than it does the New Testament’s gentler God the Son, but the devil is in the detail. Eccleston’s Christ.2 is blighted by the mind of a moron; imagine Karl Pilkington, swap the “head like a fucking orange” for big ears, remove the spite and that’s our Steve - a hapless Northern nobody, suddenly imbued with a holiness that he’s just slightly too thick to fully master. Throughout, the viewer gets the sense that Steve isn’t quite getting the full message from God – his brain hasn’t got the requisite bandwidth for the download, to misquote a metaphor from the script – which makes him vulnerable but terrifying at the same time as we watch him fudge the world towards an apocalypse. This is the man upon whom the fate of not just the world, but Heaven and Hell too, turns. It’s a sympathetic and mesmerising yet deeply terrifying performance, with hindsight eerily evocative of Eccleston’s Doctor in Doctor Who in spirit, if not in intellect.
Almost, if not equally, gripping is Lesley Sharp’s Jude – Steve’s unrequited crush and greatest sceptic. The Second Coming is her story, really, as it’s through her that we see a kiss transform Steve from an ordinary idiot into an Almighty one; through her that we see Steve’s radical actions start to tear the world apart; through her that we witness the real implications of the second coming, for is God is real, then so is Satan. From the first episode’s opening scene to the second’s cold and final one, Sharp anchors the tale to the mundane world that we all know, making the madness of the second coming feel all the more real; all the more frightening. Indeed, I don’t recall ever watching anything that’s so unsettling on such a basic, psychological level as this two-part serial is.

The supporting cast is just as impressive, comprising a veritable who’s who of British television, including Mark Benton (illustrious Auton victim, star of countless Nationwide ads and recent Strictly Come Dancing contestant); Annabelle Apsion (Shameless); Ace Bhatti (The Sarah Jane Adventures); and even Kevin Webster’s dad off Coronation Street, who damned near steals the show with his sinister second-episode performance. Just as extraordinary is Adrian Shergold’s direction, which despite being constrained by a television budget feels consciously cinematic, particularly with set pieces like the defining “Maine Road miracle” and the first episode’s explosive cliffhanger.

But The Second Coming’s greatest strength is much more abstract than its spectacle. Unlike most dramas, it has an ability to make people who don’t often turn their mind to such things consider their place in creation, whether they want to or not. Even watching The Second Coming through the eyes of an agnostic who puts no stock in any religion (morally laudable and duly comforting though they all may be), it’s hard not to be taken aback by the sheer weight of the subject matter, particularly when it’s delivered with such candid fervour. The line, “You stupid people. It’s finally happened. Heaven’s empty. And Hell’s bursting at the seams,” for instance, is one of the bleakest things that I’ve ever heard; it implies that we’re so lost, so hollow, so morally bankrupt that everyone who’s ever lived, even the very best of us, either couldn’t hack it in Heaven or didn’t get an invite to start with.

Such abject worthlessness is admittedly buoyed by the drama’s conclusion, however, which serves as more of a grim counterpoint to the resurrection first described in the letters of Paul rather than it does a modern refashioning of it. Whilst I’m sure that those of a religious persuasion, any religious persuasion, will balk at Davies’ Klingon-inspired ending, which sees the final closure of “the family business”, I prefer to see it as the ultimate vote of confidence in humanity rather than an ultimate denunciation of it. The world that survives Judgement Day is full of people that have to stand on their own; work hard to fix their own problems; and, most importantly, focus on the pain and pleasures of their one short life rather than waste it preparing for the next. But a writer of Davies’ calibre is smart enough not to push his own atheist views too hard, as to do so would have ultimately defeated The Second Coming’s mission to provoke even debate. Instead, the second episode’s final moments rouse a burning doubt in the viewer - its final conversation is palpably flat; there’s a pause, an evasion, a strong implication that the world is somehow emptier without religion in it, and it’s up to the viewer to form his or her own view. It even left me with a knot in my gut, not so much for my own sake, but for the sakes of those like Johnny Tyler, who have nothing in this world and could only look to the next - until now.

Thought-provoking, chilling and occasionally surprisingly comic, The Second Coming is one of the boldest dramas of the naughty noughties, not to mention one of the most fair and frank treatises on religion that have ever found their way onto television. If you’ve had enough of Father Christmas already and fancy dipping a toe in the more sacred side of the season, then I’d highly recommend tracking down this DVD and giving your soul a stir. At less than four quid, it’s cheaper than some Christmas cards and a damned sight more fulfilling.

The Second Coming is currently only available on DVD. The cheapest online retailer is Play, where it can be purchased for just £3.84.

17 December 2013

Desert Island Disc Space #1 | Kaiser Chiefs: The Stronger Than a Powered-up Pac-Man Playlist

Back in the days when things had substance, when books were made of trees and music was engraved onto vinyl, a popular pastime was to think about which few LPs you’d want with you were you to find yourself bound for an uninhabited island with only a very limited luggage allowance. The digital revolution has left this game largely redundant, however, for as long as you’ve got a smartphone with something like Spotify on it, you could see out your well-tanned days to the sound of pretty much anything you fancy. But what if you couldn’t get a signal...?

In an effort to home in on my favourite favourites, and then wax lyrical about the same, I’ve set myself a challenge; a modern take on the old ‘desert island discs’ idea. I’m heading for a desert island with only a solar-powered 16GB iPod for company. Assuming my departure is going to be hurried, and I don’t have time to re-encode all my 256-320kbps tracks at lower bitrates to make their files smaller, then how would I fill up that space?

With the recent announcement of their fifth studio album’s release next Easter at the forefront of my mind, my first thoughts were of the Kaiser Chiefs. Ever since they burst onto the scene in 2004, predicting riots while falling out of love inside songs that couldn’t quite decide whether they were pop or punk, the lads from Leeds have been never been off my earphones for long. Their first record, Employment, is still one of my favourite debut albums, and the almighty Yours Truly, Angry Mob is one of my favourite albums full stop, despite its Americanised sign-off (it’s ‘Yours faithfully’ in this neck of the woods). And whilst the Chiefs’ third effort, the more avant-garde Off with Their Heads, doesn’t quite measure up to its outstanding predecessors, it’s still a great album, and one that I’m particularly fond of as I was listening to it a lot around the time that I got married. I have vivid memories of the current Mrs Wolverson reprimanding me for singing along to the opening lines of “Addicted to Drugs” just before we got hitched on holiday. The group’s fourth bountiful collection of songs (‘album’ doesn’t seem appropriate given its unique method of release) I found a little harder to get into, mainly because there were so many tracks to listen to, and it fell to me to separate the ten that I wanted for my unique edition of The Future is Medieval from those better suited to B-sides. The pick ’n’ mix process was ultimately more rewarding though, and indeed many of the most stirring tracks that I chose for my personalised album also appear on my desert island playlist.

My rundown opens with the extraordinary “My Kind of Guy” - a quite grisly ode to someone “as horrible” as the song’s protagonist. I find that it makes for a great opener as lyrically it serves as a fine example of the band’s penchant for peculiar subject matter, and musically it has a tangible sense of mounting momentum. I follow this with two Employment tracks in a row - a decision that wouldn’t sit well with some of my old ‘mix tape’-making friends, who held to some very peculiar rules about splitting up tracks from any one album or, on various artists compilations, from any one artist. “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” set out the Kaiser Chiefs’ inimitable stall on track one, turning the lovesong on its head in every respect, and to follow it with anything other than anthemic supertrack and preceding single “I Predict a Riot” would be an act as criminal as the insurgence that vocalist Ricky Wilson so tunefully prophesises.

But whereas the forty-five-minute Employment could curb its tempo a little for its third track, my two-hour list of tracks needs to maintain its initial push for just a little longer. As such, “I Predict a Riot” dovetails into the equally raucous, and almost equally enjoyable, “Never Miss a Beat”, before getting back into Employment with “Na Na Na Na Na” - a song that, whilst insidiously catchy, I still have absolutely no idea what it’s actually about.

“Everything is Average Nowadays” has for a long time been a favourite of mine from Yours Truly, Angry Mob; partly because I couldn’t agree with its sentiments more (if anything, I’d have gone on to bemoan modern society’s dutiful championing of moderation and balance), partly because it’s a cracking rock song that never lets up. “Kinda Girl You Are” which follows it escaped my own edition of The Future is Medieval, but only because it wasn’t available for selection when I assembled it. Had it been, I’d have built my personalised album around its accessible, rocky-romantic vibe.

From there, we get to the core of the Chiefs’ extant catalogue with a trilogy of anthems: “Ruby”, “Oh My God” and “The Angry Mob”. As will become more apparent the more of my disc space that I talk about, I’m generally quick to lose interest in super-singles like “Ruby”; singles that everyone knows, everyone plays, everyone tires of. “Ruby” itself, though, is the exception that proves the rule. “Oh My God”, similarly, is one of the band’s most popular tracks and with damned good reason. The debut single captures perfectly and mellifluously those many perceived light years between one’s work and one’s home, particularly if you’re stuck in one of those jobs “in a shirt with your name tag on it, drifting apart like a plate tectonic.” When it came out I was labouring in a call centre somewhere - RWE npower, if memory serves (and I have tried hard to repress it) - and I’d just stopped bloodsucking and got a flat with my now-wife, and so it was as if the song were sung just for me - just like all the best ones. Yours Truly, Angry Mob’s title track is by its nature more impersonal: taking the form of a scathing attack on a tabloid-controlled nation masked as a march to war, it’s a track worthy of Wall-era Pink Floyd.

An interesting collaboration with DCypha Productions’ Sway, “Half the Truth” fuses the band’s radio-friendly punk / rock sound with rap, and does so with surprising success. The more I hear it, the more I like it, but I still don’t like it as much as I do the appropriately-bonkers “Highroyds”. I first heard this song when I saw the Kaisers live in Leeds’ Millennium Square in April 2006 (along with a friend who once spent a little time in Highroyds, ironically), and though its lyrics have been watered down for the worse since (when I heard it, it went, “Picked up a girl from Boston Spa, did her on the boot of a car...”), I still love how it evokes both the hollow tests of mettle and utter rubbishness of youth.

“Little Shocks” is the first song on my playlist to really catch its breath. The track opens the version of The Future is Medieval that crystallised on CD, but rather than take the storming approach of the band’s first two album-openers, it’s more of a tension-building intro; a coiled spring that only briefly unfurls whenever Wilson croons about the derision of his “imaginary dynamo”. I love its lyrics as well as it is sound, particularly its core idea of being unable to devote oneself fully to someone or something - sentiments that I acutely appreciate given the many, many competing demands on my too-short time.

Treading similar ground to the Arctic Monkeys’ seminal “Fluorescent Adolescent”, “You Want History” pulls its comfortable “lord of the bored” and “slave to the beige” subject out of his lounge and sends him off for a night on the tiles - a night that he’s now trying to recall. You see, the song’s title isn’t a question - it’s a statement, and its ever-oscillating sound reflects every up and down of his forgotten, intoxicated misadventures. Up next, “Born to Be a Dancer” is one of Employment’s most ambitious efforts, not to mention one of its most successful. A poetic delight, the song tries to get inside the head of a feller whose lover has moved to London to become a stripper - a development that he could probably cope with, if she didn’t bloody love it so much. Each verse is a careful account of the jilted John’s misery, syllables even spilling across beats, but every swelling chorus then serves as a rapid riposte: “Do you know my real answer? I was born to be a dancer.” Brilliant.

“Getting married in the morning; it’s hardly peaches and cream. We haven’t got a lot in common, except the daily routine...” is the opening refrain not of some dirge for a loveless relationship, but the misleading introduction to what is perhaps the most jubilant ever song about substance dependence. The way that Wilson blithely belts out, “You might as well face it...,” you expect him to end the sentence with, “...that just doesn’t suit you,” or, “...we’re gonna have to work late.” Drug addiction is the last thing conjured by the cheerful beat and backing vocals, or for that matter the litany of little disappointments listed by the lyrics - yet somehow it works.

“Thank You Very Much” has, over time, become my favourite track on the band’s second album. One of the less obvious of the many reflections on the trappings of fame that are out there, its honest lyrics openly give thanks for the group’s fame and fortune, whilst at the same time lamenting the prison of the limelight and remembering how it was “really nice” being “on the other side” of the divide. This ambivalence is reflected in the track’s tempo and tone, which frequently shifts from the measured reason of the verse to the frenzy of the chorus, which is repeated like some self-soothing mantra.

Another often-overlooked gem is “Heard it Break”, a curious little number that uses an electronic beat and calypso to convey a truly beautiful idea: a man who’s heart isn’t broken, this time, but merely sprained. Not that it hurts him any less - in fact, he thinks that it hurts more, “...but they do say a sprain hurts more than a break, or is that just to make you feel better about it?” Another one of The Angry Mob, “I Can Do It Without You” beautifully mourns an unspoken loss; a loss that’s projected onto a changing city skyline rather than tackled head on. For the most part driven by determination, the singer’s resolve finally breaks in a moving, last-minute admission of defeat: “...but it wouldn’t be very good.”

“Listen to Your Head” is one of those annoying ‘best of’-exclusive tracks that you’d have had to also buy fifteen songs that you already own to get your hands on in the days before iTunes. Whilst it probably wouldn’t be worth such expenditure, for £0.99 it’s a lovely little number that knows its role as one of “the million combinations” of words and music out there. “Love’s Not a Competition (But I’m Winning)”, conversely, is well worth the price of an album on its own; it’s right up there with REM’s “The One I Love” as an anti-lovesong for the ages as far as I’m concerned. Presented as a gentle ballad, Wilson sings of points-scoring and trying to get chucked with an eloquence that feels at odds with the subject matter. Balance is duly restored by “You Can Have it All”, a much more conventional romantic number by contrast, though still one that uses similes as extreme as amputation to convey a significant other’s significance. “I’ll tell you what it’s going to feel like...” A haunting piano piece sung by the now-departed Nick Hodgson then caps the playlist’s trilogy of ballads, but rather than focus on the ups and downs of heterosexuality, “Boxing Champ” instead speaks of schoolboy submission; of a weakling youth hardened by the bullying of his boxing champ buddy.

The frenzied, electric interim single “On the Run” kicks the playlist back into first gear as it questions and accuses with an aggression not felt since Yours Truly, Angry Mob. This is followed by “Dead or in Serious Trouble”, a track so utterly Blurry that you’d swear the Kaisers had nicked it off The Great Escape and then forced Damon Albarn to sing it. 

“Like It Too Much” is Off with Their Heads’ utmost triumph. Sometimes I think that it’s about lust, sometimes narcotics (“You get the first one free...”), sometimes cake. As its lyrics highlight humanity’s often-avoided chemical, animal nature, it could well be any or all of those things. “Modern Way”, the final single from Employment, could be either about juggling or regret depending on whether you’re listening to the track or watching the video. Perhaps it’s about both. Another Hodgson-sung track, “Man on Mars” is one of The Future is Medieval’s obvious standouts, its idle languor belying the same sort of discontentment that begat the much louder “Everything is Average Nowadays”. It goes on a bit, mind.

“Saturday Night” has to be one of the most overused song titles of all time, but, free from Whigfield’s synthetic glee or even Suede’s eager-to-please melancholy, the Kaisers’ take on the nation’s favourite smash-up night is far from common. I applaud any song that can use the word “pneumothorax” in its lyrics and get away with it, but even this outdone with a bad sitcom joke that, against all the odds, makes the track sound cooler than it already is. “Retirement” follows, a song that despite its chorus’s unequivocal statement seems to be more concerned with wanting to have retired, and to have made some sort of mark, than it does simply wanting to clock off for the last time. More grandiose with each verse, Wilson makes no bones about wanting to have assured his place in history - something that, by 2007, he already had.

The counter-Beach Boys “Caroline, Yes!” begins the playlist’s slow crawl to climax. With its morose and subdued beat punctuated only with a haunting, artificial whine, the track shows the group at their grimmest, acknowledging inadequacy in what seems to be a lovesong to lover-stealing idol; perhaps even a son. “Try Your Best” is only a little lighter aurally, but it’s more optimistic lyrically, and more inventive too. Few lyricists would have the gall to rhyme ‘see’ with ‘sea’; fewer still would continue the sensory-nautical trickery with “...as far as the ear can hear, the wave is coming loud and clear...”

“If You Will Have Me” was my first pick for The Future is Medieval, and the first track added to this playlist. It’s a simple song, really, and one that’s more traditional than most of the Kaisers’ catalogue, yet it’s one that I find extraordinary moving despite the odd clumsy line (“...the longest of goodbyes, so many lows and no real highs...”). It sums up everyone’s worst day; that moment when you feel so wretched and defeated that all you want to do is clamber up into that picture of sheltered four-year-old you, only to realise that that world, and those who made it go round, aren’t there anymore.
To close by way of an enlivening encore, I must turn to “Time Honoured Tradition” - the only song that I know to extol the virtues of getting your five a day while bluntly outlining the inevitable consequences of “...too much red meat and ale.” You want a three-minute digest of the Kaiser Chiefs, then look no further than this track.

All told, I don’t think that my Stronger Than a Powered-up Pac-Man playlist is a controversial rundown by any means; there are no shocking omissions or championed obscurities here. If you want a more thorough souvenir of the group’s first eight years than the sixteen-track singles collection, you could do a lot worse than throw this together while you await Education, Education, Education and War.

10 December 2013

Book Review | The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh

“Who called the cook a cunt? Who called the cunt a cook!”

Within a canon of works famed for its truculent one-word titles, a name like ‘The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs’ certainly stands out – but not quite as much as the story that it crowns. Encompassing as many sundry themes as its title does words, Irvine Welsh’s 2006 “guilty lunchtime purchase” takes the gritty realism of the then-recent Glue and Porno and throws it into a tale that blends the supernatural and the sensual with the much more mundane malt and barley blues.

“Is alcoholism the product of bastardism, or is it just another fucking excuse? Discuss, discuss, discuss…”

The enthralling narrative follows Leith bastard Danny Skinner, a twenty-something employee of the fictional Edinburgh Council who spends half his life inspecting kitchens and the other half inspecting the bottoms of bottles. He’s a character a little higher on the social ladder than Welsh’s most renowned subjects, and one with a demon that’s tacitly tolerated by society, making him a great deal easier to identify with, particularly if you’re of the same binge-drinking “metrosexual” generation as me. Indeed, countless passages of the book are eerily evocative of my own experiences at Danny’s age – besotted voyages of “drunken camaraderie with friends and sneering antagonisms with foes” always crashing into waking up with puke and piss on your expensive designer gear; a morning full of convulsive, dry-heaving spasms ahead of you and an irremovable taint of sleaze decimating your psyche.

Only our Mr Skinner finds a way to eradicate that taint, unwittingly stumbling upon the powerful, hate-fuelled recipe that allows him to enjoy all the deleterious effects of alcohol, but without suffering any of its adverse effects on his health.

“A powerful speculative fantasy gnawed at Skinner: wouldn’t it be fantastic if Kibby could take his hangovers and comedowns for him! If he, Danny Skinner, indulged in the pleasures of life in the most wanton, reckless way and fresh-faced, clean-cut, mummy’s boy wanker Kibby could pay the price!”

The victim of Skinner’s strange hex is the upright and uptight Brian Kibby, Skinner’s rival at work and unsuspecting nemesis. One of Welsh’s best-observed creations, Kibby is the antithesis of everything that Skinner believes in; a fit, wholesome and painfully pious young man who enthuses over model railways with the same ardour that Skinner does women, and spends as much time online gaming as Skinner does down the pub at the centre of a social web. At the outset, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is unashamed in its bias towards Skinner. Kibby one-liners like, “I dinnae like football, but I like Manchester United because they’re the biggest team in the world, so you’ve got to follow them,” instantly attract readers’ scorn, probably even the hardcore Man U-supporting contingent’s, while Skinner’s natural, unassuming charm endears him every bit as quickly. Yet as the novel progresses and Kibby’s health deteriorates, so does our repugnance for him. His condition hardens him in a way that almost benefits his character, while Skinner finds himself more emotionally vulnerable than ever despite his veritable bullet-proof vest; arguably, because of it. With hangovers and comedowns no longer on the menu, Skinner finds himself staring into the father-shaped hole that he once used drink to fill. And so, armed with the knowledge that his long-lost pop was once a cook, Skinner seeks to expose the bedroom secrets of the master chefs and find his old man, but little does he know that his curse on Kibby is reciprocal – and Bri’s about to start fighting back.

“…my kitchen and my bedroom: how they disintegrate around me, as my smile gets bigger and my heart emptier.”

By turns comic and cripplingly sad, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is a study of symbiosis ad absurdum; an all-out contest between alcoholism and abstinence that quite candidly highlights the perils of both. Kibby and Skinner are two sides of the same coin, each invisibly scarred and fatally flawed, and each too arrogant to ever recognise it, let alone admit it. Evoking the ghosts of both The Acid House and Trainspotting (albeit with the ale in place of skag), The Bedroom Secrets of the Chefs is a unique and gripping high-concept piece that showcases its Scots scribe at his most inventive.
The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is available to download from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £5.22 or from iTunes for £5.49. A paperback edition is still in print, with today’s cheapest online retailer being Amazon, who have the book for sale for just £5.59.

07 December 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 12 of 12 | An Adventure in Space and Time written by Mark Gatiss

In 2003, Doctor Who’s fortieth birthday was commemorated by a sixty-minute documentary that aired on BBC One in which many who had been involved in the show’s initial twenty-six-year run each recounted their bit of its story. But that programme wasn’t the story of Doctor Who; not really. It was a behind-the-scenes retrospective with a prime-time sheen; broadly inclusive, but occasionally inaccurate and ultimately vapid, not a patch on even this year’s third-tier Ultimate Guide offering.
This year’s anniversary ‘making of’ piece, in contrast, truly is the story of Doctor Who - and it’s a story every bit as remarkable as any of the fictional adventures in space and time that the much-loved programme would give life to. Lovingly written by Mark Gatiss, erstwhile member of the League of Gentlemen and now a dogged veteran of both Doctor Who and Sherlock, An Adventure in Space and Time presents the true tale of the series’ formative years as a feature-length drama. Every relevant interview clip, every bit of DVD commentary colour, every arcane anecdote and dusty document that still exists has been distilled into a script that serves as a monument to those who first breathed life into the phenomenon. From its old, typecast and uncompromising lead actor to Britain’s first female producer and Indian director, Gatiss’s tale isn’t just one that should appeal to devotees of Doctor Who, but anyone who enjoys television.

An Adventure in Space and Time is so beautifully written and so glamorously presented that at times it’s hard to believe that it’s non-fiction, but having pored over hours of Doctor Who DVD bonus material, I of all people should know that it is. All that sets this “docudrama” apart from “real fiction” is Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein’s abject failure to get it on; just about every other twist and turn of the real-life narrative is almost frighteningly faithful to the laws of dramatic convention.
And the casting is so bloody good. What are the chances that David Bradley (Harry Potter, Benidorm, Prisoners’ Wives), perhaps today’s most prominent Bill Hartnell lookalike, would just happen to be able to capture the perfect measure of the man? Or that Jessica Raine (Hide), a dead ringer for “piss and vinegar” Verity, would be able to nail the late producer’s voice with such eerie precision? Even Brian Cox looks frighteningly like stills of the series’ infamously loud Canadian creator, Sydney Newman. He doesn’t look anything like he did presenting Wonders of the Solar System or, more recently, The Science of Doctor Who - he’s all short, stout and bespectacled; awash in fifties’ grease. 

The programme’s lingering impact though is almost all down to Bradley’s poignant performance, which quite appropriately stirs a fairly equal measure of sympathy and antipathy, and more than double the measure of both combined in respect. The happiness that Hartnell took in his role in the eyes of children, as well as his pride in, and almost naïve devotion to, the show despite his mounting, life-limiting health problems are remarkably moving when played out with such heart. If anything, the honesty of Gatiss’s script when it comes to the man’s flaws only highlight what a remarkable thing his devotion to Doctor Who and its young fans was. The writer is careful to paint the self-styled “Mr Hartnell” as the acerbic misery that most accounts agree that he was long before his health failed him, though the effects of his illness and isolation (following the departure of his “rock” of a producer and original co-stars) do seem to have exacerbated his pre-existent scornful sensibilities. 

In many ways, then, An Adventure in Space and Time is a more fitting tribute to Doctor Who than the high-impact, 3-D sensation The Day of the Doctor. Unlike Steven Moffat’s cinematic seventy-minuter, this Mark Gatiss-penned production doesn’t look to rewrite history - it immortalises it instead. Bravo. 

An Adventure in Space and Time is available to download from iTunes in 1080p HD for just £3.99, or alternatively as part of the £14.99 50th Anniversary Collection which also includes The Day of the Doctor as well as hours of documentary material unavailable elsewhere in the UK.

A standard-definition DVD release is also available, which includes quite exhaustive bonus material not available digitally. The cheapest online retailer for this is currently Base, where the DVD can be purchased for £11.99.

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28 November 2013

Beyond History's End | 50th Anniversary Doctor Who Review 11 of 12 | The Day of the Doctor written by Steven Moffat

In 2013, something terrible is awakening in London’s National Gallery; in 1562, a murderous plot is afoot in Elizabethan England; and somewhere in space an ancient battle reaches its devastating conclusion. All of reality is at stake as the Doctor’s own dangerous past comes back to haunt him.

23rd November 2013 is a day that I’m not likely to forget in a long time. After an almost sleepless night set to the soundtrack of a two-year-old coughing so hard that she kept vomiting herself awake, I rose to find that the diverter valve in our gas boiler had gone kaput for the second time in as many years, leaving us without any hot water upstairs. Shortly afterwards, to my horror, I discovered that the upstairs toilet wouldn’t flush in a completely unrelated, but still every bit as maddening, cistern failure. I went on to spend most of the morning building a flat-pack desk for my wife, only to discover, right at the end, that its drawer’s baroque ‘Daisy’ handle was missing, and so then had to spend much of the afternoon stood at the service desk in Dunelm trying my level best not to inflict grievous bodily harm on its staff who wanted me to disassemble and return the entire desk, rather than just exchange its unfinished drawer with that of their display desk’s, as I had reasonably suggested.

As 19:50 neared, and my daughter ran riot upstairs in a unique, but by this point expected, contravention of her bedtime, I gritted my teeth and spat, “No more,” and I would’ve blasted the words into our landing’s wall with a bazooka, had I not had the foresight to realise that replastering would have done for my Sunday as well. But then, in a startling flash of empathy that owes as much to a decade beside a Who fan as it does a career in psychology, my good lady softly ushered me downstairs, taking custody of not just our rampaging toddler, but her cough-emitting baby monitor too, at least for the next seventy-seven minutes. I can’t remember the last time that I felt such a rush of relief - and excitement.

As Doctor Who’s original monochrome titles bled into a redolent shot of a bobby on the beat down Totter’s Lane, I felt something stir inside me. But such exquisite and duly reverent classic series nostalgia was only fleeting, as greyscale soon turned to colour and Nick Hurran’s visceral direction swiftly carried me through a motorbike-shaped Paul McGann movie homage and then into a sequence that exemplified the very best of new Who; a set piece that had me instantly regretting not vying for tickets to see The Day of the Doctor in 3-D at the cinema. But even in 2-D 1080i, the spectacular, consciously cinematic in-vision credits still brought a movie to mind. Compare the dark and brief Eleventh Hour pre-title sequence with The Day of the Doctor’s drawn-out daylight dangling and note the difference. Though still confined to the domestic television screen for most viewers, The Day of the Doctor exuded blockbuster ambition right from its outset.

And from there, the fiftieth anniversary special only got bigger and bolder. Almost every fan watching will have suspected, will have known, that Steven Moffat’s story was set to crack open the final day of the Last Great Time War for all too see, but that foreknowledge couldn’t have possibly prepared them to be thrown straight into the heat of Arcadia as legions of Daleks broke through its sky trenches. Doctor Who fans had clamoured for years to see this, even just to hear it, only to be told by those such as Big Finish’s executive producer, Nicholas Briggs, that it couldn’t be done successfully; you can’t dramatise a time war - it’s too abstract. I’ve always disagreed, albeit with the caveat that we don’t spoil its mythic status with too much revelation, and would still love to see what writers in the Marc Platt or Jonathan Morris mould could do in the farthermost corners of its constantly-shifting canvas. However, Moffat’s conventional military approach neatly circumvented the tricky temporal trappings of the conflict, depicting its decisive battle as a very linear and very physical fight. Indeed, The Day of the Doctor steered well clear of the jaws of the Nightmare Child and dodged the advances of the Could-Have-Been King and his army of Meanwhiles, instead cutting quickly to the heart of what makes this conflict so damned compelling: that terrible choice. That terrible moment.

Aided and abetted by superlative short stories like “Museum Peace” and the eighth Doctor’s increasingly bleak adventures with Big Finish Productions, my mind had often pictured an old and weathered McGann with his hand hovering tentatively above the kill switch, forced to decide between the death of his people and the end of time itself. Though I’m not normally quick to rule things out, Doctor Who Confidential’s day one captioning of Christopher Eccleston’s Time Lord as the ninth Doctor combined with Russell T Davies’ explicit statement that his Doctor was indeed the ninth had me convinced that Eccleston’s apparently preceding incarnation was the one with the blood on his hands. It could still have been Eccleston’s, admittedly, but his antics in Rose were suggestive of a recent regeneration, so to me it never seemed likely. Such officially-sanctioned certainties made Moffat’s move to shoehorn a fourth ninth incarnation (Rowan Atkinson, Richard E Grant, Christopher Eccleston, and now John Hurt, in case you’re wondering) into the mythology all the more alluring; all the more illicit. For me, that seminal, earthshocking scene at the end of Series 7 in which we first heard John Hurt’s gravelly voice offering a justification for his necessary evils ranks amongst the series’ most thrilling, and its gradual payoff through The Night... and Day of the Doctor somehow managed to live up to its incredible promise, if with some unforeseen consequences - or more accurately, erasure thereof. Most people have darker sides to their personalities, and most do things that, with hindsight, seem so far removed from who they are now and what they believe in the present that it feels as if they were done by someone else. How many good men have gone to war? How many have done the unthinkable, have sacrificed their principles, for the sake of a greater good? The beauty of Moffat’s ‘War Doctor’ idea is that Doctor Who could take this abstract conceit and make it solid. The ghost of the Doctor’s past, of his most terrible day, could wear its own face, even take on its own temperament.

And “Granddad” certainly did that.

Hurt’s portrayal was devastatingly serious, particularly when viewed alongside the childlike exuberance of two of his later incarnations, who The Day of the Doctor suggested have been running from the dread conjured by his memory. This was beautifully borne out in the scene in which he asked them, “Do you have to talk like children? What makes you both so ashamed of being a grown-up?”, and the answer was written all over their faces. Throughout the story, Hurt, quite fittingly, showed us a soberer side to the character that we hadn’t seen since at least Jon Perwee’s era, perhaps even William Hartnell’s, but it was still recognisable - he was still the Doctor at heart. The coat that he wore provided a visual link to the man he would become, and his actions provided a more subtle one. Yes, to save the universe he’d wipe out two almighty races, but only because nobody else would do what needed to be done. I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, nor do I find it “cruel or cowardly” – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s saving the universe, but at a cost, just as he’d done before, and would do again. He even tried to protect his TARDIS’s feelings by materialising miles from the site of his terrible deed and trekking to it through the desert. That’s not the act of cruel or cowardly man, or even the act of a man who’s given up - it’s being the Doctor on a day when it was impossible to be. The Doctor can try to divorce himself from his ‘Warrior’ self, lock his past incarnation away in the recesses of his mind, strip him of his name and lay all the guilt at his door, but when it comes down to it, this ‘War Doctor’ is the Doctor as much as the man in the fez who thinks that bow ties are cool or the “matchstick man” in the pin-striped suit, and The Day of the Doctor was an inspired, and really quite touching, exploration of the notion.

Like just about everyone else in the world, the news of David Tennant and Billie Piper’s return to the series led me to do some very sloppy arithmetic and end up with five. I half-dreaded the return of Rose and her quasi-Doctor lover, but lost just as much sleep pondering on the ramifications of Hurt’s incarnation meeting a Series 2 Rose, or the other two encountering her post-Bad Wolf Bay II. The same must have been true of Mr Moffat, as instead of bringing back the prototypical new companion, he cast her actress as the Moment - a living Time Lord weapon in the style of Nemesis (this is also the silver anniversary of Silver Nemesis, don’t forget) that stands in judgement of those who would deploy it. There may have been nowhere left for Rose Tyler to go, but there was a beautiful symmetry to be found in the very embodiment of the falling Time Lord’s darkest hour wearing the face of the woman whose love would eventually catch him to try and prick at his conscience. The conceit that the Time Lord would have to face his future to see what using the Moment would do to him is almost Dickensian in its brilliance.

It’s nonetheless a heck of a testament to both David Tennant and Matt Smith that when the action cut away from the climax of the Last Great Time War, away from the gravitational Mr Hurt and Piper’s ghost of relative past and future, The Day of the Doctor remained relentlessly engrossing. It would have been joy enough to see good old David Ten-inch (or is that Eleven-inch, now, hmm?) playing his “grunge-phase” Doctor once again, and particularly in a page of history once mentioned but never before explored, as he battled Zygons in Elizabethan England alongside his bride-to-be, Good Queen Bess (played here by Gavin and Stacey’s buoyant girl next door, Joanna Page). Yet when Smith’s Doctor entered the mix, we witnessed something very special indeed. Rather than perpetuate the now-obligatory bickering first, and most memorably, demonstrated by Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee over forty years ago, Moffat presented us with two young-looking Doctors ripping the piss out of each other and indulging in some riotous, laddish banter as Chinny mocked Sandshoes’ wooing of Zygons and they compared sonic screwdrivers suggestively.

The heavily-hyped Zygons were wonderfully recreated too. They’re essentially exactly the same in 2013 as they were in 1975, just more convincingly realised, especially when it comes to the now quite horrific human to Zygon morph and vice-versa. Though their thread of the plot was never going to be more than a thin and fun diversion, I still applaud their inclusion in their special for three very important reasons. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the curious and popular fact that the Zygons have always been highly-regarded second-tier foes, yet they hadn’t been seen on telly since the days of scarves and jelly babies. Secondly, their first appearance heralded the end of the UNIT era, marking Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, which this special neatly counterpointed with the return of the Brigadier’s daughter and her modern-day UNIT, who themselves were facing a dilemma not dissimilar to that of Hurt’s Doctor. Most serendipitously though, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons established that the Zygon homeworld had been destroyed in some loosely-described disaster, enabling Moffat to weave the first linking timey-wimey thread through his tantalising television tapestry as he tied the titular Time Lord’s ninth life fighting in the Time War to the destruction of a planet in that very war, leading to an invasion of the Earth in the 1970s (or ’80s...) that he’d already foiled five regenerations back. In of itself, that’s a hell of a lovesong to the legacy of the show.

And many of The Day of the Doctor’s finest moments came as the three Doctors conspired to put paid to the Zygon threat, with Hurt’s incarnation’s apparent seniority gradually deferring to Smith’s Doctor’s actual, and most palpable, precedence. I love how the later two Doctors showed their younger, war-addled self exactly how it’s done, leading to his epiphany that the guilt of what he must do is what will drive him to shine brighter, to fight harder, to become the brilliant men that he saw before him effortlessly doing their thing. “Great men are forged in fire,” he declared, in the wizened voice of a dragon. “It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.”

But, of course, he didn’t light that flame, and as a result my beloved iPhone 4S became the final casualty of the Last Great Time War when its screen found itself being smashed. This wasn’t an act of rage, I should stress - just the cack-handedness that follows utter astonishment.

The rewriting of the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s greatest ever triumph, and if the millions watching at home and in cinemas in ninety-four countries were anything like me, then they would have shared in that joyous sense of vindication and victory. The trouble is, once the Moment had gone and the moment had passed, we were left with a Doctor that had been changed beyond recognition; effectively snapped back to a much safer, pre-new series state, his once defining dark edges dulled and ultimately overwritten by the greatest cop-out that ever there was; the almost tangible angst of the last seven seasons rendered hollow by Moffat’s waving of a tripartite magic wand.

Ever since The End of the World, the Doctor’s (then only implied) actions had lent him an edge that none of the classic incarnations, not even Sylvester McCoy’s master manipulator, could match, not to mention a depth that could break hearts. Now most of that’s been torn from him in a moment of decisive victory; an ultimate save that only the unprecedented, and really quite overwhelming, presence of all thirteen Doctors (yep, even the one yet to come was thrown straight into the thick of it) could have a shot at making up for. Fair dues, Moffat’s made up for his predecessor’s cruel Christmas 2008 Next Doctor trickery, but in doing so he pulled off a much grander swerve. Gallifrey falls no more, and the Doctors wipe their collective slate clean.

But surely the last day of the Time War was the Doctor’s volcano day - if that doesn’t have to stand, then how can viewers be expected to care about anything, as it can just be undone by a future producer who doesn’t feel bound by the laws of time? Why not pop back and save Adric right now? How is this act any different to the borderline-villainous “Time Lord victorious” that The Waters of Mars so vociferously warned against? Whilst I can understand wanting to steer the show away from sinister soubriquets like ‘The Oncoming Storm’ and ‘The Destroyer of Worlds’, both of which emerged from the darkness between series and reeked of fan despair, there must be a way to push on with a nutty, dicky-bow Doctor without ripping the guts out of seven seasons of telly and a character that’s become so much more than he once was.

And burning just as hot is the question of why. Why resurrect Gallifrey for what will be the second time for viewers, and the third time for followers of all Who media? Whilst the scintillating snapshots offered by The End of Time and The Day of the Doctor are more than welcome, if viewers are shown too much of the Time Lords, then not only does this erode the mystery of the Doctor (which we’ve really got to hang on to now that we’ve been robbed of his war guilt), but it risks Gallifrey becoming the high-collared bad joke that it did in the 1980s. The prospect of the Doctor heading home to end his days, even “the long way round,” is not one that sits well with me at all, even if he has to overcome the likes of an omnicidal Rassilon and a deranged, moribund Master first. The best that we can hope for is that Gallifrey’s destroyed yet again after another sensational shitstorm, but by then, will anyone really care? It’d be just another empty Rory Williams half-death for the children of Gallifrey. 

Yet despite the above, despite the mounting mountain of reasons why I should hate this development, for some reason that I can’t fathom yet, I don’t. Perhaps I’m just caught up in the anniversary fervour; perhaps it was executed so very well, so very emotively, that the overriding triumph of the moment quashes even the most sensible and well-reasoned of reservations. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt so conflicted about a Doctor Who story as I do about The Day of the Doctor, and I doubt that I ever will again. If that’s not a testament to a thought-provoking celebratory tale, then I don’t know what is. 

But the retcon wasn’t quite the end; indeed, ’twas a beginning. The Day of the Doctor concluded with a scene so nonsensically reverent that I would have forgiven the series anything. Tom Baker’s cameo as the art gallery’s curator was as beautiful as it was mischievous, radiating through both the dissolved fourth wall and the Time Lord 3-D artwork’s window to Gallifrey (meta-fiction within meta-fiction...), somewhere out there in the show’s future, yet tied to a past impossibly embodied in this eccentric old man. The whole spirit of the special is distilled right there; the collision between past and future, the disambiguation of seemingly separate titles, of seemingly separate men. It’s an all-time high point for Who.

http://www.doctorwhoreviews.co.uk/The%20Day%20of%20the%20Doctor.htm#Continuity-CornerAnd so, though it deliberately confused the polarity of the neutron flow and sold out to the Happy Ending Brigade in a manner that makes the events of Journey’s End seem innocuous in comparison, The Day of the Doctor was without question the Doctors’ finest hour - every single one of the splendid chaps, Hurt’s included - and it was a finest hour felt concurrently around the world, crossing continents and time zones and setting simulcast world records. I’ve written this piece, quite aberrantly, in the past tense because I don’t feel like I’m reviewing a film or an episode that can be revisited with the same effect - I’m recalling a discrete event. For fifty years, the question’s been, “Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?” The question now is, “Where were you on The Day of the Doctor?” Me, I was on my sofa, torn in half, smashing up an iPhone, completely and utterly rapt.

The Day of the Doctor is available to download in 2-D 1080p HD from iTunes as part of The 50th Anniversary Collection, which you can purchase for £14.99. The series pass includes Doctor Who at the Proms 2010; several otherwise US-exclusive Doctor Who Revisited documentaries; Doctor Who Explained; the Mark Gatiss-penned drama An Adventure in Space and Time; and the recent mini-episodes The Night of the Doctor and The Last Day.

The Blu-ray set includes both 2-D and 3-D editions of the special as well as the short BBC
Behind the Lens documentary; Doctor Who Explained; and the two minisodes, but not the other US documentaries or An Adventure in Space and Time. The cheapest pre-order price for the Blu-ray release is £9.85 from Base.

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