Day of the Animals

I notice Help, I’m As Fat As My Dog has been replaced by the similarly themed Dogs Borstal Unleashed. Clearly the indolence and evil of household pets cannot be underestimated. Personally, I’m waiting for Help, My Budgie’s Joined Al Qaeda.

Episode 5: Evolution of the Daleks

“Begin the invasion of Manhattan!”

So they just wanted to invade things after all…
After the complex, inventive set-up last week, I have to say this week’s conclusion was something of a disappointment. All the rich period detail and characters were put to one side for a straightforward runaround that seemed based around set piece after set piece, like a Russell T Davies script. To be fair, it did a good job of tying up all the plot strands Helen Raynor established in the first part, it’s just that it somehow didn’t have the epic feel it really should have.

The central thrust of the story, that the Daleks needed to evolve to survive, was explored well, with the partially humanised Dalek Sec becoming a combination of both Frankenstein and his monster. Indeed, the nods to Universal horror classics of the 30s were even more overt this week with that impressive shot of many shrouded bodies on suspended slabs, and the necessity for lightning to animate them. There was some good dialogue too, with the Doctor convincingly deciding to aid Sec in his quest to make the Daleks a “better” race. This at once recalled and inverted the plot of Evil of the Daleks, in which the Human Factor was merely an aid to more efficient conquest, but the Emperor planned to infect humanity with a Dalek Factor when that failed.

The trouble was that while the set pieces were impressive, the narrative seemed merely to exist to link them together. So the chase out of the sewers was there to lead to the Hooverville attack, which led to the Doctor’s alliance with Sec, which led to his betrayal, etc. It’s good plotting, but there was barely room to breathe between them, and the odd reflective moment came across as strangely forced, as though the plot needed to stop and get its breath back. A certain epic feel was provided by the charcters’ battle at the top of the Empire State as the Doctor struggled to dismantle the Dalekanium antennae, but that was followed by a rather anticlimactic showdown in the theatre, when it felt like the struggle on top of New York’s tallest building should have been the episode’s climax.

That’s not to say it was all bad, though. The Daleks’ rebellion against their leader was well done, and perfectly in keeping with their philosophy on racial purity. With the historical knowledge that the Nazis were just around the corner, this had a deal of depth. I loved the way they conspired against Sec in the sewer, one glancing behind him nervously to see if they could be overheard. It also gave Sec the opportunity to say, “You must obey me… I created you!”, which apart from recalling Frankenstein again is virtually a Davros line from Genesis. I must say, though, impressive image though it was, I couldn’t figure out why they took a chained Sec with them to confront the Doctor. For that matter, I was wondering how they planned to untangle the chains from their arms if they needed to move fast!

The cast, so impressive last week, seemed pretty well sidelined in the breakneck pace of the plot. It seemed a shame for Hugh Quarshie’s Solomon to be so peremptorily killed; while the scene of him appealing to the Daleks’ better natures was crucial in establishing that they’re still really, really nasty, it seemed a shame to waste such a strong character like that. Surely the Star Trek style “let’s all be friends” speech could have been delivered by a more minor character. And after unexpectedly reprieving Andrew Garfield’s rather sweet Frank last week, the script this week seemed to have nothing for him to do but stand around behind people. Perhaps it would have had a greater emotional impact if the Daleks had killed him in Part One! The only characters well served by the plot were Tallulah and Lazslo, with their doomed romance continuing its Phantom of the Opera vibe, and serving to impress on us New York’s welcoming of a massively varied community.

Martha had a little more to do at least, her medical background again coming in handy after the Hooverville attack. Freema gave a varying performance, occasionally seeming a little forced at moments of high emotion, though she handled the relationship discussion with Tallulah well. Still, with the season now five episodes old, I do wish we could begin moving on from the Doctor’s moping over Rose. I know that in story terms, it’s only been about a week since Martha joined him, not at all long enough to get over such a relationship, but just this once I wish they’d sacrifice emotional realism and let the story get on with things. An entire season of Martha moping over the Doctor while the Doctor mopes over Rose could get a little much.

David Tennant was again on good form, giving a darker performance to serve the darker tone of the story. His lapses into emotional shouting were impressive, but his repeated challenges to the Daleks to kill him came across as rather reckless really. What if they’d taken him up on that? (The fact that they didn’t seemed to reduce them to Bond villian caricatures, too). Also, his apparent loss of control in the face of the species that had caused him so much trauma was a good idea, but his attempts at intensity palled rather compared to Christopher Eccleston in Dalek. While Tennant’s got a lot better, he still can’t seem to do intense like Eccleston could.

It’s a shame we didn’t get more of a final showdown with Dalek Khan (Khaaaann!!!), but at least the Emergency Temporal Shift means there’s still a Dalek out there. There’s been a bit of speculation as to whether he turns out to be the lone Dalek encountered by Christopher Eccleston, but that doesn’t really work. That Dalek was clearly an unimaginative footsoldier (if it still had the luxury of feet) and nothing like a member of the sneaky Cult of Skaro. Also, if it was Khan, it was curiously uninformed about the outcome of the Time War. No, I’m thinking we’ll see Khan again, but hopefully not in this season’s concluding two-parter…

Overall then, a rather patchy conclusion to a very promising set up. Some nice fan moments (Dalekanium, counting in rels) and great dialogue, but somehow less than the sum of its set pieces. Still streets ahead of last year’s disappointing Cyberman two-parter though, and perhaps one that might work better watched in a single sitting. Expect I’ll try that soon…

Episode 4: Daleks in Manhattan

“We must evolve!”

And from that simple idea sprung the seeds for the most imaginative Dalek story in years. Indeed, you could say the Daleks have actually devolved from their initial appearance in 1964, when they were portrayed as individuals with distinct personalities who had conversations with each other. Succeeding stories have increasingly portrayed them as regimented automatons without a trace of individuality, hence the need to invent figureheads like Davros and the Emperor. Russell’s idea of the Cult of Skaro from last year’s Doomsday was a similar idea, but it gave personalities and imagination to the Daleks themselves. So it was with some delight that I welcomed back the wily Dalek Sec, with his guile and cunning schemes.

And what a setting for them. The Daleks have traditionally been portrayed, as is the tendency for sci-fi icons, in a future setting, or at best loitering around on contemporary Earth. Their occasional forays into Earth’s past have had… mixed results, from the dire The Chase to the rather better but still somewhat disjointed Evil of the Daleks. New York in 1930 is an oddly appropriate choice, mixing the Daleks’ struggle for survival in with that of the humans caught up in the Great Depression. Thematically, the story is about adapting to survive, with the Daleks recognising that “there are only four Daleks, but millions of humans”, and setting out to redress that balance. The comparison is further strengthened by the shadow of the Great War that hangs over the characters, echoing the war which led to the creation of the Daleks themselves.

Perhaps taking a cue from the excellent 1930s New York of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the production team have gone all out to make this one look visually sumptuous, albeit with almost no filming in the Big Apple itself. Yet again, this ambitious approach has had somewhat mixed results. A beautiful shot of workmen at the top of the Empire State with the sun setting behind them was rather spoiled by the curiously immobile waves on the river behind them, for example, and some of the compositing that placed tall buildings above the treeline in Central Park seemed a little unconvincingly matched. For the most part though, the CG was rather good, doing an artistic depiction of a city whose skyline has changed immeasurably since 1930.

Inhabiting this recreated metropolis was a well-rounded, if rather small cast of main characters. Eric Loren was superb as Diagoras, the epitome of the Depression era ruthless capitalist determined to prosper by exploiting the desperate unemployed, while Hugh Quarshie’s Solomon provided a more humanistic counterpoint. A nice touch was having his character live up to his name in his first scene by tearing in half a contested loaf of bread! Quarshie does “imposing” terribly well, and is looking more and more distinguished with age. Also in Hooverville, Andrew Garfield was believably waiflike as teenage runaway Frank, a character who seemed to have strayed in from a John Steinbeck novel.

Perhaps more contentiously, Miranda Raison’s Tallulah was something of a love-her-or-hate-her character, a cliche from all those nostalgic showgirls pictures of the 30s. Obviously this was the point, but her perilously close to parody version of a Brooklyn accent was occasionally rather grating. Desperate Housewives hunk Ryan Carnes was rather better as Laszlo, giving a surprisingly earnest performance from under a mountain of prosthetics. It’s a lovely idea to cast an actor who’s usually judged on his looks and then cover up most of his face! Still, it’s telling that he was nonetheless quite an attractive pig-man…

The best characters though had to be the Daleks themselves. It’s hard to imagine the Daleks we saw return in 2005 having a reflective chat with their human lackey while gazing almost wistfully at the skyline of Manhattan, but here we get that and more. Not to mention them arguing among themselves as Sec initiates the hybridisation procedure. Nick Briggs has done some sterling voice work giving them distinct characters, as well as conveying Sec’s pain as he undergoes the process. Presumably the Sec/Diagoras hybrid that emerged at the end is now voiced by Eric Loren, but I still sense Nick’s larynx under that too.

With all this local colour, the Doctor and Martha actually didn’t make much of an impact this week. I did groan at one point as David Tennant fell back on his irritating and trite “I’m sorry” catchphrase, but by and large he was rather subdued. Not even his usual manic outbursts of comedy were in evidence, though it has to be said that the story’s tone was more serious than any yet this year. Martha too got little to do; there was a nice character moment with Tallulah as she discussed her unrequited feelings for the Doctor, but generally she seemed to be there to scream, run away and get captured in an unusually retrograde style.

I don’t usually comment on the scoring of the show, but I was mightily impressed with Murray Gold this week. As a composer he seems to have matured no end since the awful Queer as Folk-like music for Rose, and this episode he produced a score eerily reminiscent of the 1930s Universal horror classics that superbly fitted in with the story’s setting. Fitting, as the Cult of Skaro’s laboratory seemed to have been deliberately designed to resemble Frankenstein’s workshop! There was also a new choral theme for the emergence of the Sec/Diagoras hybrid, in which I’m pretty sure the chorus were just repeating “Dalek Sec, Dalek Sec…” Sounded pretty good though.

Scoring aside, this is, I think, the first Who story since Talons of Weng-Chiang to feature a musical number! Kudos to the guys for not using an overly familiar song. The Busby Berkeley style choreography (which actually only works if viewed from above!) and the red feathered chorus girls were as reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as any 30s era musical, but in my view that’s no bad thing. It was almost a shame Martha had to interrupt it!

So, Helen Raynor’s first script for the series proper is as good as I would have expected from her standout Torchwood episode. There’s a fine grasp of history with its depiction of the Depression and its repercussions, and the whole thing has the feel of a more polished take on the (in my view) rather disjointed Evil of the Daleks. Of course, this being the first of a two-parter, the plot doesn’t move much; it’s all about getting the elements in place. The Daleks want to evolve, they’re building the Empire State building and grafting bits of themselves to the radio mast. Why? Hopefully next week’s episode will live up to the promise of this one and conclude this imaginative story in some style…

Episode 3: Gridlock

Well, Russell has been having a bad time on the M4, hasn’t he?

Obviously our man has been fuming in a traffic jam, and was inspired to write this episode in much the same way as Robert Holmes was moved to write The Sunmakers after a bad experience with the taxman. And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. The sci-fi concepts here are solid and imaginative, and the story moves at a good pace. What’s more, it makes sense. I’ve ranked on Russell’s writing a lot in the past for his tendency to get carried away and let the plot fit his ideas rather than the other way around, but with Smith and Jones and now this, I think he’s really improved. Yes, there are blatant set pieces and “moving” moments, but they aren’t contrived or bolted on but arise naturally from the plot; a vast improvement on our previous visit to New Earth.

The idea of a neverending, lifelong traffic jam is ingenious and amusingly satirical, and the script realises it well, especially in the characters’ sanguine acceptance of it taking years to go ten miles. What’s more, the ultimate explanation for it is equally ingenious, arising from a Red Dwarf: Better Than Life style-addiction that’s caused the death of the civilisation above them. The vista of the Senate filled with skeletons was an impressive one, though one has to ask: how could the Senate have declared a quarantine when they were all off their heads on this Bliss stuff? Small quibbles, really though.

One area Russell’s always excelled at is character and dialogue, and these didn’t disappoint. The range of quirky personalities filling the Motorway was great fun, in many ways a celebration of the British eccentricity Doctor Who has always embraced. Ardal O’ Hanlon was obviously the standout as Brannigan, his charisma making you wonder what he’s doing wasting his time with rubbish like My Hero. The consistently excellent cat make-up did nothing to dim his charm, either. Elsewhere in the smog, the two married old ladies were a hoot, though one can already hear the cries of “gay agenda!” from certain parts of fandom. I also particularly liked the bowler-hatted businessman, who Russell acknowledged was nicked from 2000AD. Likewise, the Oriental girls and the nudist couple added up to a deliberately weird bunch, and as last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tongue in cheek style of season 17.

And, of course… the Macra. Why? Well, why not? OK, there’s no real reason why the big monster at the bottom of the tunnel had to be a returning foe, but it’s a nice touch. After all, who but the most ardent fans are going to get the reference? To anyone else, they’re yet another in an ongoing parade of aliens the Doctor somehow seems to know. It’s consistent with their previous appearance too, in that the poisonous fumes of the Motorway are rather nice, as far as they’re concerned. It did occur to me to wonder why they were ten times their original size, mind.

The relationship between the Doctor and Martha also seemed to develop quite nicely here too. Remember, it’s crucial to the future of the show that this latest reformatting is handled well, and the writers are clearly taking pains to do this. The Doctor’s plainly showing off, having promised Martha only one trip and then immediately cheating by taking her off to the future. He obviously wants her around more than he can admit, but it’s more guarded than his overt fondness for Rose. After all, when Martha’s kidnapped he doesn’t go all melodramatic and start declaiming “Now no power on Earth can stop me!”. Thank God. And his descriptions of Gallifrey are heartbreakingly defined for the viewer, who knows the planet no longer exists and winces when Martha eagerly asks to be taken there.

Martha, for her part, is becoming endearingly cynical about her feelings. “You’re taking me to the same planets you took her?” she asks. “Have you heard the word ‘rebound’?” Ouch. Later, in the van with her captors, she gets some great dialogue to describe her feelings, as she portrays the Doctor as an amazing, but somehow unreachable figure.

Finally, there’s the Face of Boe’s great revelation. Well, that took long enough, didn’t it? So… “You are not alone.” Hmmm. Nice, doomy signs and portents there, especially given our suspicions about the rest of the season. If it does tie into that, whatever “that” is, it’s a more inventive storyline than just having one of the characters say “Torchwood” once an episode. Cheers, Russell. Although… the Doctor refers to the Face as “old friend”, despite the fact that they’ve only met three times (remember in New Earth – “We shall meet again; for the third time, for the last time.” Bit like Spaceballs, “At last we meet, for the first time for the last time” but I digress). Anyway, I rarely refer to anyone I’ve met three times with that kind of fondness. Unless I slept with them. Actually, that might be an interesting subplot…

In fact, one interesting thing here was the evolution of the Doctor’s moral code. Clearly, he has no problem with gay couples, but he’s shocked and appalled at the Pharmacists selling artificial mood enhancers. Actually, I thought these, together with the mentions of the Overcity and the Undercity, were a nice crib from the Virgin New Adventures, but it’s telling that in one of those (The Left-Handed Hummingbird), the Doctor not only didn’t object to drugs but got off his face on mushrooms – just to track down the alien menace, you understand. It seems that the Doctor’s moral stance is now firmly rooted in the early 21st century, and while that’s a step up from William Hartnell, it’s a shame Russell couldn’t be more forward-thinking. After all, “drugs” may be viewed as bad now, but they have been, and may be again, very much acceptable in other times.

The direction was good, making impressive use of what was presumably only one set. Mind, that did make one wonder why everyone in the future buys the same model of car, in the same colour. Why it resembles a late 60s Commer dormobile is another question entirely. Seriously though, some of the perhaps overly ambitious CG could have been offset by a bit of variety in the traffic, though I acknowledge that that would have been more complicated and therefore more expensive. In fact, the CG may have been aiming a bit too high, and some of the compositing, especially in the sequence of Macra claws trying to grab the van, was distinctly ropy. Still, we’re spoiled here. It’s worth remembering that in the 70s it would have been an Airfix kit and some bendy toys.

So overall, a mid-range impressive episode with some nice ideas and some great quirky touches. I’m much impressed with Russell’s plotting this year compared to previous seasons, and so far this year is shaping up to be more consistently enjoyable than last year’s wildly variable efforts. Seven out of ten, Mr Davies.

Episode 2: The Shakespeare Code

“Upon this night our work is done
A muse to pen Love’s Labour’s Won!”

Masterpiece theatre!

That was terrific, everything I ever expected from a Gareth Roberts Doctor Who episode. A basically light and fluffy romp, much in the style of the Douglas Adams-guided 17th season which we know to be one of Gareth’s favourites.

Granted, the plot was basically the usual “big bad from the dawn of time trying to get back to our universe”, but it was done with such panache and excellent dialogue that it was a vast improvement even on last week’s pretty good season opener. Loved the witches, the spot on depiction of Elizabethan England, and the excellent use of the Globe. Dean Lennox Kelly made a charismatic Shakespeare, his only “period” dialogue the leering “hey nonny, nonny!”, and his two hapless colleagues were a terrific pair of comic supporting characters. Dropping in that comment “I can’t understand half of what he writes” must have had many a schoolchild across the country hooting with delight. As a depiction of Shakespeare, I could give it plenty of license, eyewitnesses to the man’s character are thin on the ground and he never wrote an autobiography. Who’s to say he wasn’t a 16th century rockstar with a big mouth, bigger ego and penchant to draw obvious comparisons to the modern age like “autographs” and “sketches”? Certainly not the “57 academics punching the air” as he flirted with both Martha and the Doctor in virtually the same breath.

The dialogue started out light and fluffy, and the Doctor’s exchanges with Martha at the episode opening were reminiscent of nothing so much as Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s gabbling at the beginning of City of Death. Indeed, the later conversation in bed with Martha, where the Doctor not only failed to register her interest but unthinkingly compared her unfavourably to Rose, also recalled Tom’s deliberately alien persona. It’s beginning to look like Mr Tennant’s been watching a lot of old Fourth Doctor stories as homework! It shows in his more measured, controlled performance this year.

Martha seemed to accept the trip to 1599 surprisingly readily (unlike, say Steven in The Time Meddler or Ben in The Smugglers). Still she’d already had her entire hospital whisked off to the moon; I guess that’s a bit of an eye-opener. Freema’s already beginning to display a real chemistry with Tennant, their “Avengers”-like vibe repeating with the “Mr Smith/Miss Jones” exchange. I was glad to see that the writer didn’t just ignore the issue of being black in the 16th century either; in fact the whole “blackamoor” exchange with Shakespeare was a hoot, especially the Doctor’s “political correctness gone mad!” comment.

Some great visual effects in the depiction of Elizabethan London, especially those shots of London Bridge. The Carrionites too were well-realised, though as they swept around the Globe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Angels of Death from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The recreation of the celebrated Bedlam hospital was also excellent, with Martha’s revulsion showing the true horror of the place and its casual cruelty. As for the Elizabethan people and their environs, this is probably the only historical drama (excepting Blackadder, which isn’t really a drama) to draw attention to the fact that they emptied their crap out of the window, had terrible teeth and generally would have smelled appalling. Martha’s embarrassed admission that Shakespeare had terrible breath did fall a little flat, though, in the face of the fact that all the major characters looked altogether too well-groomed and hygienic. That’s a pretty minor quibble, though.

The dropping in of Shakespearean quotes as a running gag was a delight, especially keeping up with which quotes had and hadn’t been written by that point. There was even a bit of iambic pentameter in there, and a rhyming couplet or two. Loved the dropping in of a bit of Dylan Thomas too; I can’t complain about the show’s reliance on pop-culture from hereon in, now can I? On that front, though, the reference to Back to the Future was very well-judged, as were the Harry Potter ones. Wonder how much they had to pay JK Rowling for “Expelliarmus”?

One final thought: while I laughed as loud as anyone at Queen Elizabeth’s unexpected utterance “The Doctor! Our mortal enemy!”, isn’t it a strange coincidence that episode 2 of both series 2 and 3 end with a well-known female monarch annoyed with the Doctor? Perhaps it’s a new story arc…

The Sky, the kids and Heaven

In a week when I didn’t actually watch much telly, a few things nonetheless grabbed my attention.

Firstly, The Sky at Night celebrated its 50th anniversary with the marvellous conceit of showing the eternal Patrick Moore conversing with himself on the very first episode and his successors in 2057. Apparently devised by Moore himself, it was a highly entertaining piece which still managed to be educational and informative about astronomy. The ubiquitous Jon Culshaw was used to good effect as the younger Moore, reining in his usual caricature for a believable impression on the convincingly recreated set of the show’s first broadcast, while chatting to the Moore of the present day. Highly amusing though this was, it still didn’t distract from the fact that Patrick has, in keeping with the older person, now acquired a pair of trousers the waistline of which is placed somewhere just below his armpits.

Elsewhere (on Mars, in fact), Brian May appeared to have been comically made up as Catweazle to represent his fifty years older self. While discussing what had turned out to be right and wrong in the last fifty years of astronomical speculation, May also let slip the accident that occurred in the Live Aid on the Moon show, in which Roger Taylor drummed on the landing stage of the Apollo spacecraft, unaware of its remaining fuel. Cue a shot of a spacesuited figure clutching drumsticks hurtling into space which had me laughing out loud.

It can’t be argued that The Sky at Night‘s 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating; in its history, it’s been an inspiration to many young would-be astronomers, and Patrick Moore himself is a treasured national institution. In keeping with the show that has revolved around him for five decades, Patrick still managed to both entertain and educate, and you can’t ask for better than that. It’s worth mentioning, though, that when I described this programme to a friend at work, he was convinced that I must have dreamed it…

Doctor Who, as usual when its new series begins, seemed to be everywhere this week. David Tennant appeared on Graham Norton (as it were) and a special edition of The Weakest Link, both to good comic effect, but had slightly less luck on children’s tie-in Totally Doctor Who. Slightly more polished as a production than last year, this shameless cash-in was still shot and edited in a style that made MTV look like the arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. It was apparently a bad thing to hold a single camera shot for longer than a second, but if that had to be done, the camera had an obligation to wobble and swerve alarmingly, as though its operator had had a liquid lunch. David Tennant popped up a couple of times, firstly discussing the episode he was shooting (which immediately ruined the show’s intended impression to have been shot yesterday, since shooting on the show has now wrapped) and then in the first of a serialised animated story which also utilised the talents of new companion Freema Agyeman and cult actor Anthony Head. The animation was stylishly done, but unfortunately somewhat hamstrung by a script pitched at, presumably, the less intelligent child. It’s worth remembering that just because something is made for children, it doesn’t have to talk down to them. Still, the frenetic pace of the thing leaves little room to stop for consideration, I suppose.

Elsewhere, Louis Theroux was back, insinuating himself into yet another set of objectionable oddballs in The Most Hated Family in America. This focussed on the hugely unpleasant views of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and its congregation, largely drawn from the 70-strong extended Phelps family. Church leader Fred Phelps achieved a degree of notoriety some years ago with his charming website, a testament of homophobic hate that makes Adolf Hitler look like Mother Teresa. Given that Middle America already has a bit of a problem with homophobia that contributed greatly to George Bush’s second election victory, you might at first wonder how this makes them the most hated family in America. But Phelps and co have taken their argument further. In a staggering chain of reasoning, they’ve worked out that by tolerating gays, America has doomed itself in the eyes of God, and that its many casualties in the Middle East are part of God’s judgment. Accordingly, they like to picket the funerals of recently killed soldiers, while carrying placards bearing such charming messages as “America is doomed” and “Thank God for 9/11”. Given that patriotism is probably the strongest characteristic in American society, this hasn’t gone down well.

Louis was first to be seen attending one of these pickets. Unusually for his show, he was strongly unequivocal from the first about not sharing the views of the Church. This led to many smiling women of the congregation assuring him that he was bound for hell, and that this made them very happy. Mostly guided by picket organiser Shirley Phelps, Louis was nonetheless tenacious in his pursuit of Fred, the man who’d started it all. Fred, unfortunately, was less than forthcoming. “That’s a dumb question” seemed to be his standard response in the two minutes or so before he less than politely buggered off.

The most unsettling thing about the show was its depiction of the Church’s inculcation of its hatred into the younger generations of the Phelps family. Most of these seemed to be young women in their late teens or early twenties, a few of whom Louis met.

“You’re going to Hell”, smiled an attractive young lady wearing a T-shirt that said “Italia”. Presumably Italy was less of a sinner than, say, Sweden, whose punishment of a homophobic incident led to a new website, Another young lady was a student lawyer at the local college. “Do you have friends here?” Louis gently probed. “Er… friendly acquaintances” was as far as she would go. When the rest of the world is composed of doomed sinners on their inevitable way to Hell, friends were obviously surplus to requirements.

Finally, we saw yet another funeral picket, at which Louis conversed with a pretty girl of about seven holding a placard that proclaimed “God Hates Fags”.

“Do you know what the sign means?” Louis asked. Smiling politely, the little girl replied that she didn’t. Louis then enquired the same of a ten-year-old boy called Noah, who gave the same answer. At this point, Shirley swept swiftly in to coach the children on their answers, but the point had been made; the Phelps children aren’t born to hate, they’re taught to.

A more depressing than usual show, this showed that none of Louis’ rational, lucid arguments were going to sway these rabid fanatics. As he held up a placard proclaiming that “fags eat poop”, a smiling Shirley proclaimed that this is “absolutely true”. A later gentle probe as to whether Shirley could change her worldview was met with the compelling rebuttal “not a chance, poopie-pants”.

The Phelps family are convinced that their church is the only one preaching the true message of God, and that, concomitantly, everyone else in the world is bound for Hell. It seems to me that a Heaven populated only by the Phelps family would be fairly empty, and not somewhere that I would ever like to be.

Episode 1: Smith and Jones

Well, that was quite fun, wasn’t it?

Each year’s season opener has had the thankless task of reinventing the show in a new format (though New Earth had that burden slightly lessened by The Christmas Invasion), and this is always going to hamstring a writer going for an inventive plot. With the focus of new Who being so much on the companion character, the introduction of a new one means that the storyline must take something of a back seat to the character. This, if anything, was the biggest problem with the solid but unimpressive Rose.

Smith and Jones showed a marked improvement on either of the previous season openers in these respects, doing a good job of introducing a new character and also backing up it up with a well-written, logical, and often quite inventive plot. While Rose was a straightforward runaround and New Earth was a campy, plot-hole filled irritant, this episode was actually quite impressively offbeat. The settings, concepts and characters involved were far enough removed from the norm to impress, and the characters, while often rather derivative and/or two-dimensional got some great dialogue and convincing motivations (unlike, say, Cassandra’s inexplicable volte-face at the end of New Earth… I promise I’ll try to lay off criticising that soon).

The key to the story is, of course, the introduction of new companion Martha Jones. I must confess that throughout the second series, the smugness of Billie Piper’s Rose had become incredibly annoying, and I was really looking forward to a different kind of companion. Martha’s certainly that. While Rose was, to be fair, a very ordinary girl trapped in a very boring life, Martha is bright, immediately resourceful and obviously going somewhere. Freema Agyeman didn’t get a great deal of detail to work with but has obviously been given enough background for the character to give a rounded, convincing performance. Russell’s dialogue for the scenes between her and the Doctor fairly crackle with chemistry, but of a different kind to the Doctor/Rose relationship. While Rose was a girl, Martha seems more like a young woman, far more self-assured. Her reaction to being invited for a trip to the TARDIS is very much that of someone with her feet on the ground – “but I’ve got bills to pay.” As seems to be mandatory in the new series, her relationship with the Doctor is obviously going to be based around some form of romance, but Russell was cleverly playful about the nature of it. Martha’s clearly attracted to him – her reaction to that kiss showed that- but equally clearly in denial about it. Conversely, the Doctor is apparently oblivious to it; or is he? This will-they/won’t they flirting game has been played out well before in shows like Moonlighting and The X-Files, and Russell’s a good enough writer of character and dialogue to pull it off. It’s refreshingly different to the obvious mutual worship between the Doctor and Rose.

On the slightly more negative side of the show’s reformatting, Martha comes equipped with a large, unruly family, none of whom at present has more than the flimsiest of characterization. Her sister and brother seem fairly featureless, despite some good performances, but her mum, her dad, and particularly her dad’s blonde bimbo girlfriend are irritating soap-style characters already pregant with subplots to come. It’s worth remembering at this point that the initial characterizations of Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith were no better, and they may improve. But it gives me a sinking feeling to see that Russell obviously believes this soap opera aspect to be integral to modern Who. He has a point in saying we should examine what impact the companion just buggering off with the Doctor would have, but the whole Rose’s family thing came to dominate the last series in a way that made the Doctor more like some kind of family guidance counsellor than an intergalactic hero. There is a positive to it, though; the Radio Times episode guide shows that this year, there’s only one other story set on contemporary Earth. So the Jones clan hopefully won’t come to dominate the show…yet.

But what of the Doctor, I hear you say? Despite his more restrained performance in the Runaway Bride, David Tennant seemed back to his more manic, previous self. But there was a difference. The manic outbursts of thinking to himself seemed more considered, more judged. Tennant has obviously looked at his performance in the previous series and made a plan for how the character should go. So his solemn, sinister intonations are balanced by moments of high energy mania; not unlike, in fact, the great Tom Baker. If Tennant can keep a rein on his performance – and it looks like he can- there’s no reason why his occasional lapses into hair-pulling barminess can’t all be part of the fun. And indeed his hair was all over the place this episode, pushed and pulled hither and yon during moments of particularly frantic thinking. The TARDIS plainly has quite a supply of gel in it somewhere. Nice to see him get a new blue suit, too; we don’t want the characters lapsing into John Nathan-Turner style uniforms, do we? Still, by the end of the episode he was back in the brown pinstripe. Perhaps he’d been having it dry-cleaned.

Having a story set in a modern hospital is a good idea, and one that I’m surprised the series hasn’t done more often. There was the Bi-Al Foundation in The Invisible Enemy, but that’s hardly Casualty, is it? Oh and that one in New Earth. Best forget about that really. Then to have the whole hospital shifted to the Moon was a stroke of genius, the impact of which was slightly lessened for me by the memory of a contemporary church being similarly shifted to the Moon in Paul Cornell’s New Adventure Timewyrm: Revelation. I wouldn’t consider it a wholesale rip-off; new Who has very smartly taken many of the impressive aspects of Virgin’s well-regarded book series to its heart, and is the better for it. In any case, the hospital setting was used well, exploited to serve the plot in a convincing and logical way. The sets were hugely impressive, though the NHS-alike RHT logo puzzled me somewhat – is there no NHS in the Whoniverse, or could they just not get the rights to the logo? The inclusion of the gift shop was a nice throwaway gag, too. On the negative side, just where was the hospital? The long shot appeared to show it opposite Parliament, but showed no sign of the shops we’d earlier seen near it. The close shots made it appear to be somewhere else again – but that’s really just quibbling.

The plot was of necessity fairly lightweight, and riffed on the old Who standard of an alien fugitive being chased by another bunch of aliens, with the Doctor and co being stuck in between. The Judoon were a nicely realised alien race, their comic bureaucracy and casual brutality obviously owing a debt to Douglas Adams. They were given a nice sense of real menace to counterpoint the humour by disintegrating that poor bloke who hit them with what appeared to be a bedpan, but the kicker for me was their presentation of a voucher for compensation to Martha; none too bright, but doing things by the book.

Their target, the plasmavore sinisterly known as Florence, was played to the hilt by the marvellous Anne Reid, last seen in Who as Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric. Very much a stereotypical villain, she got some rather hilarious OTT dialogue, pausing before drinking someone’s blood to proclaim, “I’ve got a straw.” A 2D character, to be sure, but an entertaining one. Her two henchmen, the “Slabs”, brought nothing to mind more than twin negatives of Top Gear‘s The Stig. Not a bad thing, but you couldn’t help wondering when they were going to pile into a Lamborghini Gallardo.

Of the rest of the guest cast, it seemed rather a shame to get a terrific character actor like Roy Marsden and then kill him about ten minutes in without even really giving him much of a character. It’s a tribute to the man’s skill that he took some fairly uninteresting dialogue and played the part as a believable but slightly comic consultant in the mode of the great James Robertson Justice. Mind, he also got some toe-curlingly purple dialogue just before his big death, and I’m impressed he pulled that off with a straight face: “What use are names when some nameless creatures are approaching… on the Moon?” or something like that. Bad Russell. Though not as bad as the Doctor’s “shaking out the radiation” business. Not Tennant’s fault, he didn’t write it! Anyway, it made rather a nonsense of the Doctor’s previous susceptibility to radiation in stories like The Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks… but I digress.

So, a solid if not classic start to the new series that’s actually one of Russell’s tighter scripts, a real improvement on the calamity that was New Earth (last time I’ll dis it…for now). The good stuff – liked Martha, Tennant on good form, nicely realised aliens and some impressive FX. The bad stuff – the Jones clan, a few bits of excruciating dialogue… and that’s about it. Not a bad result for a Russell T Davies-scripted season opener. And glad to see a few, oblique references to the enigmatic Mr Saxon already appearing, though his election posters are rather drab. Perhaps he should hire Max Clifford…