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Time Gentlemen Please

Saturday January 2, 2010 in doctor who | television

Over the years some of the most memorable moments on television have involved the various regenerations in Doctor Who. My earliest experience of this phenomenon was when Jon Pertwee changed into Tom Baker, and I can remember feeling an immense void open up when I realised I would have to wait many months until the next series; only then could I find out what the new actor’s take on things was like. This feeling of momentous excitement never really went away, despite having to wait seven years before it happened again. And nobody can really argue that subsequent Doctors were particularly satisfying. But since 2005 viewers have been spoilt with top quality actors and nothing less than a regeneration-fest; Christopher Ecclestone being reborn as David Tennant, Tennant’s Doctor involved in a complex regeneration scene where he returned as himself, and now the lengthy business of introducing Matt Smith into the role.

David Tennant as Doctor Who

The Christmas two parter The End of the Time marked the departure of both David Tennant and Russell T. Davies. Cynics may say that the BBC overhyped the event, and even hardened Who fans might be forced to admit that they are absolutely sick of the sight of the ubiquitous Tennant. What worried me more was that Davies might sail dangerously close to the wind with this one, pulling out every available stop on his way out of the door. The opening of the first part didn’t bode well with the return of John Simm as The Master, and the resurrection scenes appeared muddled and involved the clumsy use of flashback and voiceover to explain what was happening. Simm is a good actor, but there’s something deep within me that isn’t convinced by his performance in Doctor Who. Hooded, madder and morphing into the occasional skeletal face, there was also a lost opportunity to explore the dying Master theme, something so memorable all of those years ago in The Deadly Assassin. But I shouldn’t really knock Simm. As I only have hazy memories of Roger Delgado in the role, for most of my formative years the part was played by the ridiculous Anthony Ainley, an actor only really suited to bad pantomime. So John Simm is likely to emerge as the definitive Master. I only wish that Davies had made more of him.

The Master aside, Davies had more success in exploring some of his other characters from Tennant’s tenure. Whilst Catherine Tate as Donna only made a few fleeting appearances, it was Bernard Cribbins as her grandfather Wilf who really stood out. The Doctor was allowed some quality time with Wilf, and the moment where two old men sat on an empty spaceship and looked out at the Earth in contemplation was sublime. With the luxury of an hour and a quarter running time for the second part, Davies allowed several such quiet moments. Sadly though, the outgoing writer didn’t have too much time for any new characters. Timothy Dalton showed up as kind of chief Time Lord, ultimately as equally batty as The Master but not a particularly memorable villain, and there was another missed opportunity in not attempting to flesh out any of the returning Time Lords (who included a mysterious woman played by Claire Bloom. Was this the Doctor’s mother? Fans will discuss this one until the end of time).

This being the Christmas story, there was a generous share of bombastic moments. The entire population of the human race turning into The Master. The Doctor jumping out of a speeding spececraft and hurtling through a glass roof. The sight of Gallifrey approaching the Earth like an oversized snooker ball. And of course the regeneration itself, so heated as to set the Tardis console room ablaze. Unlike the previous regenerations mentioned above, The End of Time took its time to make the switch from actor to actor. This may be Davies’ attempt to squeeze every last drop of acting brilliance out of Tennant and I’ll forgive him for this – he is certainly proved himself to be the best ever actor to play The Doctor. It was also a chance to explore what exactly regeneration means to a “dying” Doctor, and this is certainly something that hasn’t been explored before. One of the notable aspects of the 10th regeneration was that the Doctor – normally accompanied at these times by a companion – was alone. Instead we see him visiting all those dear to him, but always keeping a safe distance. The lonely Doctor, forever unreachable, mysterious and enigmatic…

The 10th Doctor’s final moments were inevitably self indulgent for Davies, but would nevertheless appeal to fans and didn’t slide too much into sentimentality. He visits Donna’s wedding to say goodbye to Wilf, eerily parking the Tardis just beyond the church graveyard. He saves both Sarah Jane’s son from a nasty accident and Martha Jones and Mickey from a Sontaran sniper (where they are and why they are together we will probably never know). The Doctor also visits a descendant from the woman who loved him in Human Nature and Captain Jack in a bizarre drinking den reminiscent of one of Han Solo’s dives in Star Wars. His only interaction with Jack is to give him the name Alonso thus initiating Jack’s friendship with a fellow traveller (a wonderful touch this as Alonso was played by Being Human’s Russell Tovey, the actor that Davies was touting as his 11th Doctor. So Jack gets his “perfect” Doctor after all – lovely). Finally, and fittingly, the 10th Doctor visits Rose. It’s January 1st 2005, so he therefore has his last meeting with her before they have met (time really is a timey wimey thing). She walks away from him about to embark on an adventure that will change her life forever.

David Tennant burst into action with the words “new teeth” in 2005. In 2009 the last thing he said was “I don’t want to go”. Matt Smith’s opening words were a whole mini narrative involving face, hair and other bodily parts as the Tardis hurtled towards the Earth. The Earth, you say? Yes, he does always appear to have some attraction to the blessed place…

And although The Doctor has changed an awful lot since 1974 I felt last night that I hadn’t changed at all. Still having to fill that huge void whilst waiting for the new series. And going only by the briefest of previews, it still looks rather spectacular. Bow-tied and pistol-touting, Smith looks particularly energetic (at one point bashing a Dalek with a hammer) and there are glimpses of the Weeping Angels and of River Song. I really can’t wait.

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The Waters of Mars

Monday November 16, 2009 in doctor who | television

Even though you might be able to bend them a tiny bit, you can never change the laws of time. Even a passing Dalek could tell you that. This chilling premise was the idea behind The Waters of Mars, the latest Doctor Who special that edges the 10th Time Lord closer to his doom. Whilst I’ve found the previous two specials, The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, depressingly unmemorable this latest story is one of the best in recent years. There are themes that continue to stick in the mind and monsters that continue to scare the very young. David Tennant gives his best performance to date.

David Tennant in The Waters of Mars

Thankfully The Waters of Mars provides a little more than just filler as a lead up to the Christmas episodes. After his lightweight guest turn in The Sarah Jane Adventures Tennant is stretched as an actor by writers Russell T.Davies and Phil Ford. Perhaps his run as Hamlet has helped, but never have we seen the Doctor veering so dangerously between the good and bad decisions we’ve so long trusted him to get right. What’s interesting about The Waters of Mars is that although the background tale of the doomed Earth colony in 2059 is pretty good by Who standards, it’s the finer details of the Doctor’s increasing loss of grip that is so compelling. On a better day, in a brighter universe, I’m sure that he’d have no trouble in sorting out this apparently low grade mess. But the laws of time have reared their dominant head, and the last of the Time Lords is looking like he’s had enough of them.

This story has been billed as the scariest ever Doctor Who, and judging by my daughter’s reaction to it I would go a long way to support that. The monsters aren’t that sophisticated; essentially humans turning into water dribbling zombies, but it’s often the simple things that disturb. And possibly this simple scare factor is there for a reason; many of the strands in The Waters of Mars are very adult. Arriving, as he tends to do, just as the nasty things are kicking off, The Doctor realises it is the day when the entire Mars colony (on the Bowie Marsbase – a nice touch) are wiped out. History tells that Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) destroyed the colony in a nuclear detonation, presumably to save the Earth from the menace of the water monsters. This is told by each of the colonist’s obituaries flasing across the screen, telling us they all died on that day in 2059. And even though The Doctor has appeared in the nick of time there is nothing he can do. Some things are just set in time.

Brooke’s plight was beautifully played by Duncan and especially by Tennant, as he explains just why he cannot intervene. There’s a reference to The Fires of Pompeii and a fantastic scene showing Brooke as a small child, uncharacteristically spared by a Dalek in a sequence belonging to The Stolen Earth from the end of Season Four. And, like the end of Season Four, The Waters of Mars leaves the very best to the closing scene. Brooke and The Doctor’s final parting was unexpected, disturbing and quite moving. Never has the Doctor angered any one so much, and with such devastating results. And what’s best is that although The Doctor’s shocking behaviour in this episode was well documented, I did think he had redeemed himself somewhat towards the end. Only to have my hopes horribly dashed.

All in all, one of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes, and the is way now expertly paved for the final two Tennant stories which begin on Christmas Day with The End of Time.


Dead Man Waking

Wednesday September 23, 2009 in television | crime

I’ve welcomed the return of Waking the Dead with open arms. It’s one of the best things on television in recent years. One of the many reasons to champion it is Trevor Eve, who continues to give a stunning performance in the lead role of Boyd, a fascinating, difficult and forever hard to read and unpredictable detective.

Trevor Eve and Tara Fitzgerald in Waking the DeadBoyd is, at times, quite a nasty piece of work, a likely reason why he’s so popular with viewers. He’s usually sullen and humourless, so miserable that he makes Inspector Morse look like Ken Dodd. Boyd is controlling and manipulative, often coming across as equally unlikeable as the villains he’s trying to catch. He gets what he wants, appearing at his most charming when there’s something clear in his sight (in an episode I shall call The Nasty Heart Surgeon he’s particularly friendly to a little girl, but only because her father is one of Boyd’s likely suspects). A viewer won’t go as far as shouting “boo, hiss!” at Boyd but is likely to say “you bastard!” at least once per episode.

Boyd has his demons, brought to the fore at the close of the last season with the death of his son. Consequently, he is a man who often appears on the brink. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly either. In fact he doesn’t take anyone at all gladly. And, this being a modern detective series, there’s no such thing as a softly, softly approach. When a suspect needs questioning they usually face Boyd full on, the rest of the team watching open mouthed behind a two way mirror, poised ready to pull him out if – and when – he goes too far. Grace (Sue Johnston) often steps in as the voice of reason when this happens (in The Nasty Heart Surgeon he leaves a female officer alone with a rape suspect, in the episode I shall call East European Illegal Organ Trading he deliberately sets off a sprinkler system in a bid to unnerve a suspect with a phobia about water). Grace is usually the best at calming things down (though she doesn’t actually say “calm down, calm down”, which might have been a neat touch considering her Brookside roots). Grace is the police psychologist. Boyd accepts her role but dismisses it where he can, viewing his own role as something more “concrete”.

your job’s all abstract … airy fairy … at least I get down to the nitty gritty.

The current series finds the team in a new headquarters, a dark and gloomy cavern where they look like leads in one of the sparser stagings of a Beckett play. In the opening episode Grace asks Boyd where her office is. He gestures to an unlit corner muttering “over there”. The most we can hope for in the way of lighting is a mean rationing of Ikea spotlights. The team unpick their cold cases, unsolved crimes from the past, by sticking post-its on a see-through wall. A very striking visual technique, something I’ve been trying to get for the office for ages. The almost gothic setting for the team HQ in Waking the Dead reminds me of the one in Torchwood, although this is possibly the only link between these two programmes you’re likely to see. Both though feature a team of experts who appear to operate just outside of the law (in The Very Nasty Heart Surgeon Boyd is investigated for breaking and entering). There’s also a very good share of strong female characters. Supporting members of the team also have a tendency to get killed off. No aliens of course, although the team leader does have a fondness for wearing long coats.

Waking the Dead does feature an inevitable quota of clichéd acting, here giving a generous amount of time to computer acting. Our team appear unaware of mouse functionality, and use all of their computer applications by furiously tapping away at the keyboard. At least everything is nicely keyboard accessible. Eve (played by Tara Fitzgerald) is particularly good on the computer. In the episode I shall call It Had to be Twins she constructs an entire 3D simulation of a house interior and peppers it with visual representations of DNA samples found at the crime scene. All by keyboard. Eve’s genius at forensics (Boyd often shows his silent exasperation at her thoroughness) is balanced by Spencer (Wil Johnson), who appears ostensibly as some no-nonsense muscle but is a man often deeply affected by things. Spencer is dropping hints that he wants to leave the team. With only two more episodes to go, I can’t help thinking that there might be something horrible in store for him.

The stories in Waking the Dead are at times preposterous and convoluted, although I always find them fascinating and always gripping. This is helped by the excellent performances. In It Had to be Twins, the lamest of plot devices (“ah, they were twins all along”) unfolded as a believable mystery stretching back to 1967 and featuring two interweaving stories that I found connected rather cleverly. “East European illegal organ trading” was particularly darkly themed, where the series was allowed to become its most Silence of the Lambs ish. For good measure, I also found a similarity with 28 Days Later where Spencer has a most disturbing encounter. Boyd was again allowed to be his horrible self, and became particularly agitated by Eve’s romantic involvement with a murder suspect. Cue one of the best “you bastard!” moments and Boyd at his most controlling.

At times, but only very rarely, does Waking the Dead give in to lazy plotting, such as Boyd’s ease of tracking down a rapist through a “relative’s” DNA in The Very Nasty Heart Surgeon. In the same story, one suspect hides evidence as a security measure against another; the second suspect finding this evidence all too easily. All in all, however, this is superiorly cerebral stuff and shows how far tv has come, with an irony being the presence of Trevor Eve. We can remember him fondly from Shoestring when he played the most amiable of detectives, and the antithesis of Boyd. But Shoestring was 30 years ago, and a world as quaint perhaps as Dixon o’ Dock Green. Perhaps Waking the Dead doesn’t really portray the world we live in today, only the tv version of it, but authentic or not I can still enjoy it just as much as Torchwood.


Children of Earth

Saturday July 11, 2009 in television | science fiction

During these Doctor Who free days, when fans are crying out for just a little decent science fiction, Russell T.Davies has done something extraordinary. In promoting the spin off series Torchwood to a week of prime time tv he has produced something of impressive quality. Torchwood: Children of Earth was excellent television, perhaps the best science fiction I have ever seen.

cast of Torchwood
Although I enjoyed the previous two series of Torchwood I often found it uncomfortable viewing and the programme didn’t always achieve its brief to combine science fiction with adult themes. Children of Earth finally delivered this promise; a very dark drama that recalled the alien menace so memorable in Quatermass as well as working in some very real human themes. John Barrowman’s negligible acting talents were held together by an excellent supporting cast, in particular Peter Capaldi as a government scapegoat. A man born to play the nervy middleman, it will be a crime if Capaldi isn’t awarded at least one acting honour for this.

Rapidly promoted to BBC1, Torchwood managed to overcome the difficulty of introducing new viewers to its strange world, which to sketch out centres around modern day Cardiff, featuring mild swearing, sexual references and openly gay characters. At times, the fantasy is often relegated to second place, and top marks to Russell T. Davies for his groundbreaking work in introducing homosexuality so seamlessly to mainstream telly (Eastenders take note). Despite its grown up themes, Torchwood cannot escape its link to Doctor Who, an issue perhaps as this is not aimed at a similarly broad audience. Whilst the show owes its origin to the fact that Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is one of the Doctor’s best loved companions, it finds it has to shrug off the Time Lord’s absence from the action in this darker world:

There’s one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world. Except sometimes he doesn’t. All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know, why not? But I don’t need to ask anymore, I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet, and turn away in shame.

And watching Children of Earth, I can kind of see why. The story has a very dark premise and runs with it to create some very thoughful and challenging drama. An alien entity, known only as the 456, threatens to destroy the Earth unless it surrenders 10% of its children. A chilling theme, made darker when it is revealed that not only have the 456 visited Earth before, but Captain Jack was instrumental in paying them off this first time. The five episodes unfolded the plot very well, revealing Jack’s involvement in events that began in 1965. Also revealed are his hitherto unseen family; a daughter who looks unsettlingly older than the immortal Harkness and a grandson. And there is a sobering reason for their introduction.

Most impressive was the political commentary that made you almost forget the fantastic storyline. Enter Capaldi as John Frobisher, the civil servant desperate to cover up the events of 1965. He’s also forced by the very oily Prime Minister (Nicholas Farrell) into the unenviable role of liaising with the aliens. As you might expect, the negotiations leave a sour taste in the mouth. The round-the-table discussions, however, form a very dark satire where it is eventually decided that the 10% can be made up of the lower classes, the council estates and the failing schools. Frobisher is forced into an ever tightening corner, and the outcome of events reminded me of the terrible demise of Dr David Kelly over the war in Iraq. No, I don’t think I’m going too far when I make this connection. Governments will make their scapegoats, the higher echelons will cover their backs. As in Children of Earth, they’ll often get caught at it.

But Torchwood is also about aliens, and the 456 were aliens of the very best. Extremely frightening, and as with all the most scary of monsters very little was actually seen of them. A glass tank full of toxic gas, a deep voice from within and something very, very disturbing inside. The effect was a combination of the best of The Silence of the Lambs and Alien. The 456 will stay in my mind for a very long time, especially the scene where some poor lackey has to go inside the tank with a camera. If you haven’t watched Children of Earth yet it’s useless me saying don’t look when you get to this part. Because you will.

In its brilliance this week Torchwood also stabbed itself in the back. Already two team members down after the last series, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) was built into a much more three-dimensional character only to be killed off at the end of episode four. Captain Jack, tortured by the pain of a very heavy and emotional week, decides to quit Earth on Friday night. Left behind is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), now heavily pregnant with aliens furthest from her mind. Oh, and I’d almost forgotten that The Hub, the Torchwood base camp, is destroyed. So it’s difficult to predict where things can go from here. And, if it does continue in some shape or form, how can it get any better than this?

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No Dead Cert

Friday May 1, 2009 in doctor who | television

I’ve held off talking about the latest Doctor Who special for a while. In fact I wasn’t planning to mention it at all. Like a bad dream, I thought it might just fade away and be forgotten. Whilst my enthusiasm for the show is legendary, Ive never been too enamoured with the annual Christmas specials. I’ve found that they reveal the worst side of Russel T. Davies’ writing, and tend to drop the imaginative and subtle aspects of the programme in favour of something simplistic and far too overblown. I’ve never come away from a Doctor Who Christmas special without a headache.

David Tennant and Michelle Ryan from Eastenders in Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead

So I was a touch disappointed when it was announced that there would be no 2009 series. In its place would be a series of specials. The dreaded word fills me with horror. It’s more scary than a basement full of Weeping Angels. 2009 would be a year without a decent story arc, no chance for The Doctor to build a rapport with his companion and, most disturbingly, no Steven Moffat episodes. Just Russel T. Davies chucking the BBC’s money around and producing not particularly sophisticated TV.

There’s a really good review of Planet of the Dead by Jack that sums up a lot of what was wrong about it. For me, the episode is just the worst example of what I’m calling special syndrome. The main premise of the story was The Doctor and Michelle Ryan (from Eastenders) on a number 200 London bus that ends up on a sort of desert planet. The number 200 was significant because it marked the 200th Who story. Hardly worth the effort and I’m sure many viewers, even those that cared, wouldn’t have been that bothered. I would have personally preferred them to have waited another 20 adventures so they could pay tribute to the 220 that I used to catch from White City to Tooting Broadway (or do it 11 earlier and salute the 189 from Earlsfield to Wimbledon). No matter.

I found Planet of the Dead doomed from the start. As uninspiring, perhaps, as a desert world. The idea of The Doctor being stranded with a group of fellow passsengers was brilliantly explored in last year’s Midnight. As well as featuring hardly any special effects at all, the episode posed the interesting question about what would happen if the Doctor’s authority was questioned in a crisis situation. If, rather than saving the day as always, he was perceived as a threat. Unfortunately Davies has closed this chapter on the Doctor’s vulnerability and Planet of the Dead had him saving the day again, with Lee Evans and Michelle Ryan (from Eastenders) helping him.

The effects were certainly impressive, but I don’t find that enough if – and this was the case – the story is lazy and David Tennant is on autopilot. I’m also finding the reintroduction of UNIT slightly uncomfortable. Maybe it gives me weird flashbacks of being a small child, where soldiers were always on the news as well as following The Doctor around. Soldiers were just everywhere in those days. The new theme, where the modern Doctor is also uncomfortable with the military presence, hasn’t been handled as well as it could. Like his 70s predecessors, when Davies wants the military to fire at some aliens he just calls in UNIT.

Probably the worst aspect of the specials is the lack of continuity that works well in Doctor Who. Ryan played the latest in a stream of one off companions, that have included Kylie Minogue, that we don’t really get to know enough to care about. And neither, I suspect, does The Doc – which leaves the drama of the series somewhat lacking.

Davies and Tennant have two (or three?) more chances to get this right before they hand over to Moffat and Smith. Planet of the Dead hinted at a revival of the your song must end soon prophecy, something that may link to the demise of the 10th Doc. Let’s just hope they make it good…

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