It’s time for some small-screen action as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out the latest iteration of Dr Who and the Coen Brothers wild west movie/series.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2018)
Let me make one thing clear; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not a movie, despite being marketed as such by Netflix. Rather, it is an anthology of short stories with nothing connecting them but the Wild West setting and a vaguely Coen-esque sensibility, although the latter is pretty thin in a couple of chapters. The inevitability of death runs as an ongoing theme throughout, although the same could be said for almost any Coen brothers release.
For the first seven minutes or so, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is absolutely delightful. The opening vignette tells the story of the titular cowboy, a song and dance man who always wears white but isn’t afraid to fight dirty if the situation calls for it. Starring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster, this sequence contains everything I love about the Coen brothers — a cracking script, amazing visuals and an irrepressible sense of fun.
Unfortunately, it’s a pretty uneven ride from there. The second segment, Near Algodones, is fun, starring James Franco as an exceptionally unlucky bank robber and Stephen Root as a deranged bank manager, but proceedings grind to a halt with a story called Meal Ticket, starring a near-mute Liam Neeson. Moving at a veritable snail’s pace, this segment drags on way too long and sucks the life from the two hour and 13 minute runtime.
Things get significantly better with All Gold Canyon, a meditative piece on the value of patience starring Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector. The cinematography is beautiful throughout, but really pops in this segment, although many people won’t be able to avoid comparing the stunning landscapes to those in Red Dead Redemption 2 — who would have thought that 2018 would be the year of a Wild West renaissance?
The next segment, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is the longest of the collection, telling the tale of Alice Longabaugh, a timid woman on a wagon train betrothed to a man she’s never met. When her gormless brother Gilbert dies of cholera, Alice is left to find her own way in the world, which she achieves by being pretty much helpless and relying on the kindness of the men around her. In a cinematic world where most female characters are strong and self-reliant, Alice is a throwback to a time when a woman is only complete when she finds a husband. It’s an interesting slice of time, but odd to say the least.
The final chapter of this anthology is called The Mortal Remains and recalls the opening sequence of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight via the stagecoach setting. The characters in this tale are the most intellectual and verbose of the lot, ruminating on the nature of attraction and the fine line between humans and animals. Then the anthology ends and the viewer is left to ponder the themes and whether that was really a good way to spend two-and-a-quarter hours.
Head writer Chris Chibnall (2018)
It is probably a sign of the times that the introduction of the first female Doctor in the character’s 55-year history has been accompanied by a fan backlash that the character has become “too PC”. Why does The Doctor need to be a woman? they ask. Does the cast really need to be so diverse with a black guy, a Pakistani girl and a senior citizen? Why does my sci-fi show keep trying to teach me about history, when most of the white people were horribly racist?
These questions are, of course, entirely ludicrous as The Doctor has long been one of the most politically correct characters on TV, choosing to judge people by their actions rather than the way they look. Sure, it was probably easier for viewers to assume that the old white guys who played the doctor for the first 30 or so years shared their privileged opinions, but that’s probably a little harder with a lady driving the TARDIS.
As played by Jodie Whittaker, the 13th Doctor is a livewire, irrepressibly curious and willing to stand up for the oppressed, yet hamstrung by the rules of time travelling TV shows — you can’t change something that everyone knows to be history. This makes for an entertaining if sometimes frustrating viewing experience — if you had the chance to save thousands of lives, could you really walk away?
From a production perspective, this season adopts a classic Doctor Who approach, alternating between episodes set in the future and those set at pivotal points in human history, such as the Partition of India and the civil rights actions of Rosa Parks. There is a good chance that you will learn something about history from watching this season of Doctor Who, which is more than you can say for most sci-fi TV shows.
Much to the apparent annoyance of some fanboys, there is a fair dollop of social commentary across the season, particularly in the episode Kerblam!, which takes aim at an Amazon-like retailer that treats their staff as disposable. It doesn’t detract from the quality of the show, but should make for an interesting historical artifact for future viewers looking back at this point in history.
A quick look around the review sites shows that I’m in the minority on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, as most of the internet seems to love it. It’s currently sitting at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, although it’s interesting to note that the audience rating is significantly lower at 76%. If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers, then you’ll definitely find something to like in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, even it that enjoyment diminishes a little after the first ten minutes or so.
As a fair weather fan of The Doctor, I can say that season 11 is a highpoint, equal in quality to any episode David Tennant or Matt Smith made. Jodie Whittaker is fantastic as the Doctor, her companions are engaging and well-rounded and the creators aren’t afraid to make a political statement. Well worth a look for fans of intelligent sci-fi.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — 6/10
Doctor Who season 11 — 8/10
Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Damnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
Let's be honest here, no episode of Doctor Who will ever be this amazing.
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