Go to…Ludicrous Speed!

80mph

So, The Guardian have got themselves all agitated about Transport Secretary Philip ‘Mr Slimy’ Hammond’s proposal to raise the national speed limit to 80 mph, in this editorial, this article about speed safety and this article about environmental damage. And do you know what? Despite being a person of normally strong views, both a Guardian reader and a Top Gear fan, it’s an issue I find hard to care about either way.

On one hand, it’s true that the national speed limit was set at a time when most people’s cars would struggle to exceed 60mph. Nearly 50 years of advancement in automotive technology means that today, most cars can exceed 70mph routinely, and with far greater safety than cars travelling at 55 in the 60s. Would you feel safer to do a nice, modest 50mph in this:

Austin1100

Or an admittedly naughty 90mph in this:

BMWMini

I’ll grant, you shouldn’t be speeding in either. But if the limit was raised to 80 mph and you had a crash at that speed in the Mini, I think you can safely say you’ll stand a better chance of walking away from it than a 50mph crash in the Austin 1100 – well below the 70mph that was already the national speed limit when it was built. So the safety argument, for me, doesn’t really hold water.

On the other hand, the argument about fuel profligacy does – a bit. With fossil fuel dwindling rapidly, to the extent that wars are fought over it, it does seem illogical to tacitly condone driving at speeds that cause cars to consume far more of it. Fuel economy in a modern car is leagues ahead of one from the 60s. But it’s still true that the faster you go – and the higher your engine revs – the more fuel you will consume. In the case of a 10mph increase in the speed limit, with a modern car, it is possible that the increased fuel usage will be so negligible as to make little difference. Whether you support it depends on whether you believe any increase in fuel usage, however infinitesimal, is acceptable.

There are, of course, engineering solutions to that problem. Better chosen gear ratios is the most obvious, though the most sensible would be a more thorough approach to developing alternative fuels. I totally agree with the principle of making motoring more efficient rather than trying to stop it altogether, but until we come up with a realistic alternative to fossil fuel, it’s still ultimately an unsustainable activity. More efficient vehicles do postpone its inevitable end, but affordable and convenient public transport would postpone it still further. Not to mention making congestion far lighter for the inevitable people who still insist on driving. Ultimately though, the ideal would be to try and lower the amount of cars – and freight – on the roads.

A good start would be a decent rail network with financial incentives for companies to use it for freight. The sheer volume of large trucks on the road contributes vastly to both congestion and fuel usage. If this worked, profits from it could be used to subsidise passenger fares – right now, it’s always cheaper for two people to drive to a destination than buy train tickets. Even if they’re driving a 4 litre Jeep that does 15 miles to the gallon. 
This would require massive investment in a decent public transport infrastructure, which in the short term would haemorrhage money. It’s the only sensible thing to do, but even if any politician had the guts to try it, I’ve no idea where they’d get the money from at this point. The private sector is unlikely to front up the money and the government simply can’t. So, making the current activity more efficient is probably the best solution we have right now.

Given all of that, I think that a 10mph rise in the speed limit comes off as a trivial, political, vote chasing move that ultimately makes very little difference to anything. So trivial in fact that I find it hard to care enough to support or oppose it. But if Mr Hammond must try to buy votes by allowing speed crazy Clarkson wannabes to tailgate me in their BMWs with impunity, so be it. I don’t think it will make much difference either to accident rates or to fuel usage. The one thing I’d ask is that it starts getting actually enforced – not by revenue generating speed cameras, but by actual, real human police officers who can make human judgements.

There’s the obvious fact that motorists slow down for speed cameras then speed right back up again once past them; average speed cameras help somewhat, but still have the basic flaw that, if you drive at 50 for half the distance between them, you can then drive at 90 for the rest without incurring any penalties. Two officers with a radar gun, placed at random times and random places, is a far better approach – and allows for human judgement about cases that aren’t clear cut, for example accelerating out of the way of a hazard. And speeding may be symptomatic of a driver in no fit state to drive anyway. A police officer would recognise this and stop the driver from going any further, potentially preventing accidents; a speed camera would merely issue them with a penalty after the fact.

But of course, we can’t have real policemen any more, because they cost too much. If The Guardian’s columnists are genuinely worried about reducing accidents, they might want to start with that.  As to the 10mph increase in the speed limit, it’s a storm in a political teacup whose effect on the real world will be hard to even notice.

The Fades, Episode 2

“It’s inevitable… The world is coming to an end. There’s nothing you can do.”

FadesEp2

After a storming first part, new BBC3 teen/supernatural/horror drama The Fades continues to impress – albeit with some rather puzzling leaps in logic. In what looks like a regular thing, the plot so far is summed up pre-credits by the hero’s best friend, the affable nerd Mac. And immediately I was a little bit confused, as he referred to mystery mentor Neil and his dead friends as ‘The Angelics’ – a phrase I don’t recall being mentioned at all in the first episode.

Still, ‘Angelics’ is what they call themselves, and contrary to the impression created in part one of there being just about three of them, it seems that they’re an established secret society who’ve been around since the 40s. Plunging the viewer into a world this complicated is not easy, which is why Neil spends most of this episode as Mr Exposition. In essence, he has to explain the rules of what’s happening to reluctant young hero Paul, and by extension to the audience. Fortunately, Jack Thorne is a skilful enough writer to intersperse this deluge of information with some more of the spooky, unsettling set pieces that made episode one work so well.

So Neil whisks Paul away from school to visit a particularly scary looking haunted house, explaining all the while. This is still germane to the plot; said haunted house is actually the abandoned Monica Bryant County Care Home, and we discover that this where Neil grew up. We discover this by means of an old photo uncovered under the guidance of the spooky young dead girl that Paul saw so much of last week, along with the disturbing (to Neil at least) revelation that the Fades are now capable of touching things. In this case, it’s a fuse box, and Paul nearly gets the shock of his life as she turns it on and allows bare wires to swing around the pool of water he’s standing in.

But that’s not the point of their visit; no, Neil wants to introduce Paul to his dead friend Eric, a Fade who was one of the first of the Angelics. At this point, the show’s internal logic does seem to waver a bit. Eric’s been dead a long time; since 1946, and he was 70 then. Neil says that, even dead, he’s continued to age since then. So if the Fade that tried to electrocute Paul was Neil’s teen girlfriend Natalie, why does she still look about 17 when he’s plainly pushing 40? Also, why is Eric not “getting a bit shitty” like Fades who’ve been dead for a far shorter time? And how can he still talk (even if it appears to be telepathically, so that only Neil can hear)?

Still, all of this may make sense given further doses of lengthy exposition, so it may be unfair to quibble at this point. What matters is that, after Eric’s touch of Paul creates a bit of a psychedelic light show, both he and Neil are convinced that Paul is someone special, someone very important to the oncoming war. “You’ve got a destiny,” states Neil sagely. “I’m sorry kid, but that matters.”

As with last week, this again gives the feel of so many classic kids’ stories of the supernatural, in which an unassuming young person (usually, but not always, a boy) discovers that he’s far from ordinary and has a special destiny as ‘The One’. It’s a staple of stories like this, from Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising novels to the likes of Russell T Davies’ Century Falls, and seeing it here only reinforces that feeling that The Fades is, basically, a classic Children’s BBC drama with added adult bits to appeal to the more aware teens of today. How much you enjoy it may depend on how much you think that’s a good thing; personally, I rather like it.

So Paul is ‘The One’. Or ‘a’ One, at any rate. We see a bit more of what that means for him this week. He’s still seeing the dead, and plagued by dreams; nor world-ending apocalypse this week, but a genuinely scary bit of business whereby he sees the dead bodies of his prospective girlfriend, his mum, and his bitch of a sister strewn around his house. While Mac chortles at the idea that Paul has a subconscious desire to see his own sister dead, nude, and in his bed, the implication is clear – his involvement in all of this is, like Clark Kent, or Peter Parker, going to put his nearest and dearest at risk.

But he can help them too; as he discovers when he inadvertently heals Mac’s cut arm, he also possesses the same healing powers as Daniela Nardini’s pistol-packing vicar from part one. This has the decidedly surreal side effect of causing the wielder to cough up a live moth whenever the power is used – a very weird bit of business that will, presumably, be explained later. Along with the fact that Paul can now raise birds from the dead and shoot lightning out of his palms when threatened.

Iain de Caestecker continues to be a likeable presence as Paul, perhaps because he is such a convincingly ordinary teenage nerd. As the more voluble Mac explains, they’re the lowest in the school’s social pecking order. So low in fact, that Paul can be mocked by a couple of twelve year olds, with the (admittedly rather bizarre) taunt “Am I a rabbit then?” when they overhear that he’s been seeing things. Paul’s the kind of boy I recognise, probably from myself; a troubled introvert from a broken home, with an obsession for pop culture and an almost pathological inability to speak to the object of his desire. It’s a laugh out loud moment when he finally plucks up the courage to tell his sister’s best friend Jay how he feels about her. He can only express this by listing a discussion he’s had with Mac about the ideal woman, which for them is apparently a combination of comic and movie heroines with George Lucas – “we thought about including Alan Moore as well, but the big beard would get in the way.”

And that’s indicative of the other thing that makes this series so enjoyable. Apart from an elaborately constructed world of supernatural menace, it’s also set in a very believable suburban secondary school, at which Paul and Mac are half-heartedly doing their A Levels. Jack Thorne’s background as a writer for Skins clearly comes in handy here, though this group of teenagers are pretty far from the drug-fuelled, hedonistic Bristol gang. Paul and Mac are believably beaten down and insignificant, while Anna, Paul’s utter bitch of a sister (the brilliantly nasty Lily Loveless) is the most popular girl in school.

And a debt is perhaps also owed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Thorne’s adept use of pop culture references, mostly via Mac. This week, it was a slew of Star Wars quotes; even as a Star Wars fan, I’m actually getting rather sick of its’ neverending stream of references in everything from different TV shows to my everyday life. Nevertheless, Mac’s persuasion of Anna and Jay to keep on fighting for the cancelled school ball “because there’s always an exhaust port” was a stroke of genius, as was his straight faced comment on Neil, “your friend’s quite a mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.”, which of course Neil doesn’t get.

Daniel Kaluuya continues to be probably the best character in the show as Mac, which if anything is a little bit of a problem. He’s clearly the wisecracking sidekick, but unfortunately his volubility next to Paul’s introversion means that he’s actually more charismatic than the hero. Kaluuya’s gift for deadpan humour makes this more pronounced, notably in the scene where Paul convinces him that Fade Natalie is sitting behind him in a cafe making eyes at him. His attempt to woo her with his teeth (“because dead people love good teeth”) is another brilliantly laugh out loud moment.

But it is also a very touching portrayal of the sort of friendship most people outgrow when they get much older than this. Baffled by Paul’s healing power, Mac asks him, “What are you?”, to which Paul instantly responds, “Your best friend”. And of course Mac’s response is, “don’t leave me behind”, which articulates perfectly how these relationships tend to go, particularly with the addition of a girl into the equation. You don’t need to live in a world of supernatural menace to have  your heart broken by the friend you love abandoning you, a point made starkly clear when Mac sees Paul kissing Jay, then is brutally told by Anna that he needs Paul more than Paul needs him, a fact he clearly already knows.

The extension of Mac’s character beyond mere comic relief into actual pathos also intersects with the developing subplots of the show. His parents, it seems, have split up – “I bet they’re fighting over who doesn’t get custody” – which causes his dad to get quite violent with him in front of Paul. But his dad’s also stressed out by work. By a somewhat contrived coincidence, he’s the police Inspector who’s not only investigating the disappearance of dead Angelic Sarah, but also the murders of the two prepubescent bullies having a go at Paul earlier. The bullies were in fact murdered by the more militant Fades, led by that creepy bald one who sucked out Neil’s eye last week, and they’re murdering people to eat them and gain corporeality – a gruesome scene shows Natalie chowing down on their bodies. So The Fades are more than ghosts now. They’re getting to be like Romero zombies, but I’m betting you can’t take them down by shooting them in the head. And if they’re corporeal, you can’t make them disintegrate into ashes by passing through them any more, either.

Also inextricably linked into all this is Paul and Mac’s history teacher, Mark (the dishy Tom Ellis, who seems to spend a lot of time with his shirt off). Mark was Sarah’s estranged husband, and after a sympathy shag with a friend (watched by a presumably awkward feeling Sarah-Fade), he’s found some photos which reveal troubling facts about his wife. Mostly they seem to be of her in a mental ward, either strapped up or with her wrists bound. Clearly this is something Mark knew nothing of, so he takes them to the police, who don’t want to know. As a dramatic device, it’s fine, akin to a similar revelation to a husband about his dead wife in The Constant Gardener. But I have to say, I did find it rather odd that someone confined to a mental ward in, presumably, the aftermath of a suicide attempt would decide to have pictures taken of herself; even more odd that she would then keep and treasure them. Again, though, perhaps explanation will be forthcoming later…

This week’s episode concluded with Paul deciding that he couldn’t just abandon his life to ensure the safety of his family and friends. In keeping with his – and the show’s – endearing nerdiness, he’s taken inspiration from Peter Parker and Clark Kent, and is going to try to live two separate lives, one as ordinary schoolboy, the other as superpowered supernatural warrior. Actually, put like that, it sounds more like Buffy than Spiderman! Neil would probably be troubled by this, but a gang of Fades are busy trying to eat him, so he’s got other things on his mind. For some reason they haven’t finished the job, but it looks suspiciously like they may have had his intestines out. He’s in luck though – as I predicted last week, death has been no boundary for faith healing vicar Helen. This is a good thing, as Daniela Nardini is too much fun to waste in a one episode role. Now let’s see if she can put Neil back together again. But first she too has Paul on her mind: “Tell me about the boy.”

All developing nicely then, with a second part just as thrilling and intriguing as the first. Next week, it looks like we’re up for even more weirdness, as the throwforward depicts Paul waking up with angel wings (though his total nudity meant I was looking elsewhere than his wings). I’m looking forward to it, though I’m starting to wonder if such a labyrinthine story can be concluded successfully in just six episodes. I do hope Jack Thorne has written a proper conclusion that nonetheless would allow for another series, like Being Human, and not left everything on a cliffhanger that might never be resolved like so many recent US shows.

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 2

“We all ruin the lives of people we care about. It’s part of what we do.”

SpooksTariq

And another one bites the dust! In keeping with the grand Spooks tradition that any main character can be killed off at any time (not just in a dramatic season finale), tonight’s otherwise fairly routine episode was suddenly enlivened at the end by the not entirely unexpected demise of loveable tech geek Tariq.

I say not unexpected because this twist was telegraphed so heavily, the only way it could have been more obvious would have been if Tariq had spent the episode wearing a T-shirt saying ‘dead soon’. Firstly, we had Sasha and his FSB pal Anatoly horseplaying around with an umbrella. “You’re dead,” japed Sasha, “poison umbrella.” Obviously this was a callout to the infamous assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978, when Bulgarian secret police stabbed the famous dissident with a ricin pellet from an umbrella tip, while waiting at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge.

As with the old ‘Chekhov’s gun’ rule – if you show a gun in the first act of your play, someone will have been shot with it by the final act – this was a pretty obvious bit of foreshadowing. The only question was, who would be the victim? Step up Tariq, ‘unusually’ thrust into the limelight rather than his usual background technobabble function.

First he had a go at snide git Calum, who, let’s face it, was undoubtedly more rubbish for having a laptop full of top secret information nicked from him by mugging. Calum was mocking Tariq for his surprisingly crap file encryption (though if the encryption had been up to his usual standard, the plot couldn’t have taken place). This caused Tariq to deliver an unusually impassioned speech about how he had to work hard to get where he was, and he worked so hard because he “gave a shit”.

Not content with the usual device of building him up into a bit of a hero before killing him, the script then had him commit the fatal error of trying to bury the hatchet with a bit of socialising. As he turned down Calum’s offer of a pint with a promise that they would have one “soon”, he basically put himself in the place of every soldier in a war movie who tells his pal they’ll get together soon, just after this last assault on The Bridge at Remagen. And thus, his fate was sealed. As soon as the power went off just after his mysterious revelation on the CCTV footage, you knew he’d be dead in minutes; it was thus no surprise when a passer by ‘accidentally’ bumped into him and he discovered a spreading lump on his stomach just before he lurched out of his taxi to die outside Thames House.

However well signposted, it’s still a bit of a wrench to see Tariq go. Shazad Latif did a surprisingly good job of making him as likeable as previous Section D tech bod Malcolm – thus far the only member of the team who’s managed to retire without dying, going mad or being sent into exile. But this was clearly one of those episodes about The Harsh Realities of the Job, and presumably Tariq knew what he was getting into when he saw the list of previous casualties from the Grid – not least Colin, a previous tech support bod whose first venture into the field resulted in him being hanged by terrorist fanatics. Tariq will be missed, not least because it’s now clear that the unlikeable Calum was pre-emptively brought in to replace him.

Also learning about The Harsh Realities of the Job this week was the impossibly glamourous Erin – something of a surprise, as her previous role as stand-in for Harry rather implied she was a seasoned veteran. As the mysterious leaks from the stolen laptop spread across the internet, it became clear that one of her assets, an analyst at a Russian oil firm called Martha Ford, was about to be compromised. Trying her best to be ruthless like Harry, Erin commanded Martha to extract all the files relating to this year’s baddie Ilya Gavrik before getting the hell out of there, all the while reassuring her that the stolen laptop didn’t include her details, really it didn’t.

Martha thus dutifully downloaded all the files onto the usual conveniently hi tech USB stick before running (well, walking briskly) like hell out of the oil firm’s offices, which were the usual modernist hi tech building of big glass walls favoured by every corporation in the Spooks world. Imagine then her surprise as she saw a giant TV monitor at reception outing her as a spy, which somehow nobody else in the building was paying attention to.

Clearly Martha’s cover was blown, and Erin secreted her in one of MI5’s inappropriately named safe houses (these things are usually as safe as a swimming pool full of sharks and razor wire in Spooks-world). Cue much crying as Martha realised that ‘Karen’, as Erin was known to her, had lied to her all along and cared little about her safety beyond her usefulness. This caused Erin to get teary as well, though at no point did it – or anything else – cause any disturbance to her immaculately coiffured hair.

Grappling with her conscience, Erin reported to Harry, who thankfully doesn’t have that much hair to be worried about. Harry then dutifully gave her one of his trademark speeches about The Harsh Realities of the Job: “First, we have to be prepared to give everything. Second, and far harder, we have to be prepared to ask others to give everything.” Erin bit her lip and accepted that these were indeed The Harsh Realities of the Job, which thus far haven’t impacted on her responsibilities as an impossibly glamourous single mum juggling the defence of the realm with childcare and haircare. Surely it can only be a matter of time, as families are always an obvious weak point for the agents of Section D.

Families were also much on the minds of Harry and Ruth, as this week’s runaround involving intel details leaked to the internet from a stolen laptop intersected with this season’s Big Plot. Not only was Russian minister Gavrik involved in the oddly named oil firm ‘KaspGaz’ (some reference to Garry Kasparov perhaps?) in which Martha was embedded, it seems that the laptop was stolen by somebody involved in the Big Plot and then leaked to a former Spook with a grudge. Said ex-Spook made the foolish mistake of staring straight into the nicked laptop’s webcam as Tariq pulled off his final feat of techno-magic – turning on the webcam after having failed to track IP addresses and email links seems so obvious you wonder why they didn’t try it first. The laptop duly recovered, Harry is now curious about the link.

He’s also still curious about who’s reactivated his former asset and lover Elena Gavrik. In order to seek more information, he flipped open his book of Cold War cliches and arranged to meet her at a ballet rehearsal. This had the effect of recalling all those Cold War spy thrillers which climax with backstage shenanigans during a performance of the Bolshoi (though the only one that leaps to mind is 1965 Morecambe and Wise ‘classic’ The Intelligence Men). But times have moved on and budgets are limited, so instead of the expected full auditorium watching a sumptuously mounted production of Tchaikovsky, we got a lone ballerina practising to Beethoven. The only people watching in the whole theatre were Harry and Elena, which surely made them stand out rather more than they’d like while having a clandestine meeting.

Unfortunately for them, two people did clock them, and they both work for Russian secret service the FSB. Rather more fortunately, one of them is Harry’s long lost son Sasha, who’s spent the episode trying to conceal his mum’s treachery from FSB comrade Anatoly, a man so aggressively Russian with his piercing blue eyes and bushy black goatee that he appears to be constantly auditioning for the role of Rasputin. Obviously it’s pretty impossible to explain away his mum having a secret meeting with a senior agent of MI5, so Sasha is obliged to do Anatoly in, in a fight tastefully intercut with the ballerina bouncing around to Moonlight Sonata. Having finished filling Elena – and the viewers – in on what’s going on, Harry is confronted again by Sasha, and between scenes helps to remove the body in a way that is not disclosed.

Back at the Grid, Harry has deduced that the only likely suspect to impersonate him in reactivating Elena is top level CIA spook Jim Coaver, played by William Hope who will forever be known as the ineffectual Lt Gorman out of Aliens. In the twisty turny world of Spooks, the CIA are always about as trustworthy as the Russians, so this comes as no particular surprise. Thus, Ruth is tasked with investigating Coaver while Harry meets with him in his usual unofficial office – That Bench on the Embankment that has a nice view of the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, we discover that Ruth has doubts – she’s not only looking into Coaver, but she’s checking up on Harry too. Nicola Walker’s pinched frown is virtually causing her face to implode with guilt – but she’s going to feel even worse when she finds out the result of having sent the hardworking Tariq home for the night.

The usual Spooks runaround then, but fun nonetheless. The stolen laptop plot felt like the sort of thing the show used to do in its sleep, but its link to the Big Plot, and the death of Tariq, give it a bit more significance than just a filler. Next week, expect accusations and guilt to fly around the Grid like paper darts made from Eyes Only files, and we’ll continue to wait with bated breath for the inevitable moment when Sasha discovers that nasty old Harry is actually his dad. My money’s on him finding out just after he’s shot Harry…

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 12–Closing Time

Craig: “You gave up your hours for me?”

The Doctor: “Of course. You’re my mate.”

ClosingTime

After the admittedly satisfying big philosophical themes of the last two weeks’ episodes, it’s nice to get back to a good old-fashioned romp. Gareth Roberts’ Closing Time was unashamedly that, a runaround bit of fun, but nonetheless contained some real depth along with the adept comedy as the Doctor put a brave face on his rapidly approaching doom to engage in one last bit of “noticing” with his friend Craig. This sequel to last year’s The Lodger contained no real surprises but was satisfying nonetheless; like that episode, it was a romp that centred very much on the nature of friendship, particularly as it applies to the Doctor.

Having guilt-tripped himself into dropping off Amy and Rory last week, this was plainly a Doctor who, as he put it himself, had “been on his own for a long time”. As we later learned, he was only one day off from his ‘inevitable’ death, which means, given the ages we were told in The Impossible Astronaut, that he’s been travelling alone for about 200 years. No wonder he’s lonely! Like the Tenth Doctor’s interminable farewell tour during his regeneration, he’s decided to try a social call on old friends; thankfully without all the sturm und drang that accompanied that trip. In the case of Eleven though, it seems the closes friend he has outside of his companions is Craig Owens. Fittingly enough, as he spent a while living with Craig – we all have fond memories of flatmates we get along with.

Craig’s moved on since the Doctor last saw him though; he’s in a nice new house with Sophie and their baby Alfie (or as he prefers to be known, “Stormageddon, dark lord of all”). Sophie’s off for the weekend, leaving Craig to cope alone for the first time, which plainly fills him with ill-disguised fright. So, despite his initial reservations, a social call from the Doctor is probably the best thing that could happen to him!

Gareth Roberts is a writer who’s always had a good sense of what the show’s about, having cut his teeth writing Douglas Adams-esque novels recreating the overtly comic Tom Baker/Lalla Ward era. His tendency towards outright humour has produced the same divisions in fandom as that era did, with some complaining that his scripts are too funny and lack menace or depth. In my view, that misses the point; just because a story is humourous doesn’t exclude either of those things. Closing Time was a good case in point. It may have lacked the complex timey-wimey plotting of the series recently, or the big concepts of the last few weeks (which may be a welcome change for many in any case), but like his best episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it was a good straightforward adventure enlivened by some real depth of character.

This worked because there really were only about three characters in it (or four, if you count Stormageddon). As Craig, James Corden once again proved that he can be a very good comic actor, despite his often annoying comedy shows and public appearances. As with The Lodger, Craig is effectively the straight man in this odd couple, and Corden once again had fantastic chemistry with Matt Smith as a comic duo. The other major character (though she was really only a comedy cypher) was Val, but it was great to see Lynda Baron back in the show. I’ve got a feeling this may have been one of Gareth’s suggestions; not only did she sing the classic “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” in 1965 comedy romp The Gunfighters, she’s perhaps best remembered as the fantastically over the top Eternal pirate Captain Wrack in 1983’s Enlightenment. Not to mention her best known role, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours!

Val helped catalyse many of the best comedy moments in the episode, with the running gag that she thought Craig and the Doctor were a couple, something Craig didn’t cotton on to until the very end. This wasn’t just a bit of comedy business though; it caused the Doctor to muse on the nature of his relationships with people. “Partner? Is that better than ‘companion’?” Elsewhere, the gag sprang up in other ways – most notably the Doctor’s hilarious attempt to distract Craig from the fact that they’d just teleported into a Cyber ship. “Look into my eyes Craig… It’s you, it’s always been you.” “Doctor, are you going to kiss me?” Followed by Matt Smith’s comically gruesome portrayal of how the Eleventh Doctor might try that; he’s certainly not the smooth operator that Ten was.

I can already hear certain sections of fandom begin to scream about the return of the ‘gay agenda’ to the show, but, innuendo aside, this was more of a bromance than anything else, believably showing a friendship between two men secure enough to joke about that. The sequences of the Doctor and Craig chatting in Craig’s house were the real point of the episode for me, with the bolt-on trad sci fi plot almost incidental. Who hasn’t had a heart to heart with their best mate on the sofa late at night? And, inevitably, who hasn’t then looked round to realise said best mate has fallen asleep while you were opening your heart to him? All that was missing, in my experience, was the four pack of beer on the table; and we’ve already established that this Doctor doesn’t really care for booze. The Doctor’s wry smile, and genuine fondness as he tucked Craig and Alfie into a duvet, said it all.

Matt Smith was on sensational form this week, as in fact he has been every week since the show came back for the autumn. Regardless of the quality of each episode, his performance has been consistently excellent, and for me has depths of subtlety not usually displayed by Ten (sorry, Tennant fans). In Closing Time, this was a believably resigned, weary Doctor, nonetheless prepared to put a brave face on the angst for one last run at thwarting the bad guys. Smith was able to go from the genuinely comic (his chats to Alfie, his attempt to demonstrate a remote controlled helicopter in the shop), to the heartbreakingly sad. The scene in which he unburdened his woes to Alfie, using the sonic screwdriver to project a starscape on his ceiling, was a tour de force of, effectively, solo acting. His sad resignation of his fate, while eulogising all the possibilities a normal human baby has in front of him, was one of the highlights of the episode; and certainly worlds away from Ten’s grumpy attempts to dodge what he knew was coming. And there was still comedy in that scene, easily leaped to from the pathos, as the Doctor explained that the real angst would come later, with things like mortgage payments – “save your crying for later.”

The whole business about being able to talk to the baby – something we established the Doctor can do in A Good Man Goes to War – provided many of the episode’s comedic and dramatic highlights. The Eleventh Doctor has already shown himself to often be joking, or outright lying – “Rule One. The Doctor lies.” So it’s hard to know whether the baby talking business is either or both of those. If not though, Craig may want to worry about young Alfie – if, at the age of one, he already wants to be called ‘Stormageddon’, thinks of everyone else as ‘peasants’, he may be rather a worrying personality when he gets old enough to properly articulate all of this. But of course, by the end of the episode he’s happy to be called Alfie, and proud of his dad (who’s no longer simply “not-mum”). It’s an amusing aspect of the plot that even the baby has a character arc – though Sophie seemed less than pleased that his first word was “Doctor”.

Of course, it’s a given that Doctor Who can’t just be a character drama or comedy, especially these days; there has to be a sci fi plot as well, on which the character arcs can hang. As with other character driven stories (The Lodger, School Reunion etc), this was a pretty straightforward thing that felt like something of an afterthought to drive forward the character arcs, but it was nice to see the Cybermen again. It fits with Gareth Roberts’ love of the classic show that he should bring back such an archetypal monster (not to mention the line “You’ve had this place redecorated. I don’t like it.” from both The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors). Gareth has said that, as nobody was using a classic monster this year, he felt that he might as well bring one back.

This is unlikely to be remembered as a classic Cyberman story in the vein of Tomb of the Cybermen or The Invasion, though. Fittingly for the setting in a shop, these were the bargain basement Cybermen, with a typically ill-thought through plan. So, proceed with the conversion of humanity via a department store fitting room? Yeah, that’s going to work. Thankfully the script didn’t shy away from pointing out the absurdity of this, with the Doctor explicitly telling the Cybermen that it wasn’t going to work with just six of them; shades of the post-modern moment in 1976’s Terror of the Zygons, in which the Doctor points out, tacitly, the show’s budget limitation to a would-be world conqueror: “Isn’t it a bit large for just about six of you?”

But it was nice that the show finally brought back the Cybermats, the metallic rat creatures first seen in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen. I was never too sure in the original series what these things were actually supposed to do; it’s only in 1975’s Revenge of the Cybermen that they actually pose any sort of threat, as they go around injecting a space station crew with poison. Here, they had another purpose; they were there to siphon off the power from the cables that Colchester council had rather ill-advisedly put so close to the buried Cyber ship. Oh, and they can attack you with their oh-so-cute little organic gnashers.

Those real, animal-like teeth were not only cute, but served to remind the viewer that Cybermen aren’t robots, they’re part organic too. This was reinforced by their attempted conversion of Craig – “your designation will be Cyber Controller”. Well, without wanting to be too cruel to James Corden, it’s fair to say that the Cyber Controller we saw in the classic series was always, how shall I put this, on the ‘chubby’ side.

Also notable was the fact that the conversion process was more like that of old, with Craig’s entire body being bolted inside Cyber armour, rather than the recent process shown of simply removing the human brain and placing it in a metallic body. I rather liked that, as I thought the brain transplantation wasn’t quite horrific enough. And it’s justifiable too, as that process was being employed by Cybermen from an alternate universe; these are the homegrown variety, refreshingly free of the Cybus Industries logo on their chest. Mind you (and I know this is a budgetary consideration), this would have been a great opportunity to redesign them; while fans are still in shock about the redesign of the Daleks, the Cybermen used to be retooled practically every time we saw them.

Also not exactly original, but entirely in keeping with the themes of the story, was the manner of their defeat, as Craig’s love for his child managed to overcome the Cyber conditioning. It was amusing to watch the Cybermen’s heads explode as they struggled to cope with the concept of parental love, but this still couldn’t disguise the fact that this was, basically, the same resolution as in 2006’s The Age of Steel. Not that this really mattered when that resolution played so well off the themes of the story – love, parental instinct, and friendship.

So, a nice, trad sci fi story, underlying a sensitive examination of the nature of friendship, with some heartfelt insights into the show’s main character. Not a demanding episode, but a fun and touching one. I never thought I’d be glad to see James Corden, but after last year’s episode, his odd couple chemistry with Matt Smith was a delight to see again. And Gareth Roberts mix of comedy and pathos was perfectly pitched. It was a good standalone story – this second half of the season has had a better track record than the first with those – that still played cleverly into the overall plot, as we saw a brief return for Amy and Rory. Having said that, I could have hoped that Amy would find success in life at something a little more substantial than modelling for perfume – and since we all now know what ‘Petrichor’ means, who’d want to smell like damp earth?

But the real meat of the plot arc business was in that (seemingly very tacked on) final scene, as we were unexpectedly shunted into the future to see Madam Kovarian confront, and recruit, River Song. Frances Barber was hamming it up like mad, which is probably the best way to deal with being in a scene with Alex Kingston, as the monsters formerly known as The Silence bolted River into the previously seen astronaut suit to wait beneath the surface of the aptly named Lake Silencio.

It’s still hard to fathom the logic of this plot – if they had River bolted into the suit as a little girl, why not use her then? Why use a late 60s vintage Earth space suit to disguise their assassin at all? And why have her pop up from the bottom of a lake to kill her target? It’s like the most contrived Bond villain scheme of all time, but we can hope that next week’s final episode might make some sense of it all. At least Madam Kovarian’s tale of River’s frequent brainwashing does explain why she doesn’t remember herself having done this in The Impossible Astronaut; though it was far from clear where in her time stream she was when bolted into the suit as opposed to standing on the shore watching herself rise from the lake. Still, that final shot of her helplessly strapped into the suit beneath the lake was a doozy, even though that (presumably Moffat-penned) children’s rhyme about the Doctor’s death seems a bit contrived to me.

Other recurring oddnesses – yet again, we had a father-son relationship crucial to the plot, with the mother all but absent. There does seem to be a recurring meme of monsters getting in through reflective surfaces, in this case the mirror in the shop’s changing room. And what was that business last week with Rory talking about himself in the past tense, and both he and Amy flinching from each other? Knowing Steven Moffat, next week may or may not resolve things, but timey-wimeyness will be central to it all. As the Doctor gathered his blue envelopes and gained a convenient Stetson from Craig, the stage was set for the death we saw at the very beginning of the series. Now let’s see how Moffat gets us out of that…

The Fades–he sees dead people

“Why do people assume death is fair? It’s totally random – just like life.”

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Dead birds are falling from the skies. In the dark night streets, a woman is attacked by a weird grey skeletal figure with yellow eyes. A teenage boy awakes from nightmares of the end of the world, wetting his bed, and sees grey cadaverous shades of the dead everywhere he looks. The recently dead roam a forest, light blaring from their torsos, seeking one of the few places left to ascend since man invented concrete.

Welcome to the world of The Fades, trailered so cryptically and effectively on BBC3 recently. “That looks cool, “ I remember thinking of the hyperdramatic but undetailed trailers, set my Tivo to record it and promptly forgot it existed. Yesterday I found my recording, watched it, and realised that this has the potential to actually be rather interesting.

Much has been made of this as a new ‘cult’ youth drama, much in the vein of Misfits and actually from the same channel that produced the sleeper hit Being Human. The Fades certainly does have this kind of potential, but it’s aiming at a far younger ‘youth’ audience than either of those shows. While the heroes of Misfits are young, they’re clearly older than school age; and the vampires and werewolves of Being Human must be pushing thirty (or far older if they’re vampires, whatever age they look). By contrast, The Fades has a hero who’s still in the sixth form, presumably between 17 and 18 years of age. The result is that, with its supernatural weirdness and teenage hero, this feels like nothing so much as one of those classic spooky children’s dramas that both BBC and ITV did so well in the 70s and 80s, updated to include swearing, sex references and some genuine horror.

That post-watershed slot might sadly lose it some of the teenage viewers it might otherwise have got; but in these days of Sky Plus and iPlayer, I doubt that. The fact that what seems ostensibly like a teenage show has so much in it that could be deemed ‘adult’ is presumably down to the writer. Jack Thorne is a playwright who cut his TV writing teeth on Skins, another show that tries to show a realistic portrait of British youth, then graduated onto working with Shane Meadows on the excellent This is England 86.

Those influences show; while 80s teenage dramas were all about gritty portrayals of joblessness (hello, Tucker’s Luck), and Skins is all about hedonistic fun laced with social reality, The Fades brings precisely those approaches to a typically freaky, Children’s BBC-like tale. Nominal hero Paul (Iain de Caestecker) is a believable and likeable teenage nerd; witness his hilarious attempts to smoke in a vain attempt to impress the friend of his sister he has such an obvious crush on. Or his convincingly irritating family – his mum smirks at his frustrated assertion that he’s “trying to be a man”, and his sister (Lily Loveless, worlds away from the lesbian earth mother type she played in, yes, Skins) is a constant source of patronising embarrassment.

Again as in classic children’s spook shows, Paul is accompanied by a wisecracking best friend whose primary function is to be the comic relief. Mac (played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya out of, guess what, Skins) is a horror fanatic whose pop culture musings on Nightmare on Elm Street and The Sixth Sense, delivered in a marvellously deadpan way, counterpoint a real horror story happening to his best mate that he can’t even see.

As in many classic children’s spook shows, our heroes become involved while messing about. An unwilling Paul has been dragged into an abandoned underground shopping mall by Mac, desperate to find ‘”weird objects” for a horror film he wants to make. Tumbling down an unforeseen escalator, Paul finds himself in the middle of a mysterious confrontation between gun toting nutter Neil (Johnny Harris, previously terrifying as Lol’s rapey stepdad in This is England 86) and the terrifying skeletal figure we saw attacking Natalie Dormer in the pre-credits sequence. Dormer is somehow involved; her character, Sarah, is already dead by this point. But she’s got top billing, she played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, and anyway this is the sort of show where death isn’t really a handicap to further appearances.

Like any sensible teenage nerd, Paul is terrified and runs away. But he can’t escape, as he begins to suffer the same scary dream visions Sarah used to have – visions of the end of the world, with him as a lone survivor in a corpsescape where ashes rain down thick and fast. From here it just gets madder and madder; Neil turns up unannounced in Paul’s bedroom to act as a sort of Obi Wan Kenobi mentor, as Paul begins to see the shades of the dead on street corners. Some of the dead, Neil explains, can’t ‘ascend’, and linger on Earth; this makes them act “shitty”. They disintegrate into ashes if a living person ‘passes through’ them; we see this happen as Paul stumbles through one in in an underground subway, and she crumbles into precisely the kind of ashes that have been haunting his dreams.

Paul, it seems, has some kind of ‘purpose’; perhaps he’s the Muad’Dib. Later, Neil shows him hordes of the dead trying to ascend, but it looks like Sarah’s just missed the boat. She can still talk, it seems – for now. But only Neil and Paul will be able to see her. But she’s not the one they have to worry about; that scary skeletal grey thing that killed her – and nearly sucked out Neil’s eye with its green tongue – is “something new” that has the potential to end the world. It’s already killed not just Sarah, but Neil’s other sidekick – a welcome return for This Life’s Daniela Nardini, as a pistol-packing, faith healing Scottish vicar, and I hope she’s not dead for good!

All of this is great stuff in itself, though as of part one, who knows what it can all mean? It’s reminiscent of so many classic children’s spook dramas, from King of the Castle through Moondial to Century Falls. But what makes it even better is the Skins-like sense of realism about what it’s like to be a teenager, that presumably gave it its post-watershed slot. Aside from the swearing, and sex references (when Paul starts telling Mac about his dreams, Mac automatically leaps to the conclusion that they’re of the wet variety), there is plenty of wince-making accuracy to Paul’s position as the school’s introverted nerd. “Nobody even notices us,”comments the more excitable Mac, shortly before a slightly comic bit of business ends up with them hiding in a cubicle of the girls’ toilet while a girl does her business next door. “That’s probably the most sexual thing that’s ever happened to me,” notes Mac. Elsewhere, Paul is in therapy because of his bedwetting, but is understandably unkeen to reveal what’s been happening to his therapist, and he has a massive, possibly requited crush on his sister’s best friend, much to his sister’s malicious amusement.

This blend of classy supernatural drama with teenage realism makes The Fades like the sort of drama I would have killed to have seen on Children’s BBC when I was a teenager. It’s all very well having your hero as a teenage boy but if those central teenage boy things like sexual frustration, swearing and wet dreams don’t get mentioned, how much can you truly believe in the character? This has all that in spades, plus some genuinely witty dialogue, taut direction and scary special effects. It’s only part one of the first series, so who knows how good it’ll be, but I thoroughly enjoyed this, and if there’s any justice, BBC3 will have another Being Human-style hit on its hands. Not sure yet if I’ll blog on this episode by episode, but if the next one is as good, I very probably will.

Spooks: Series 10, Episode 1

“We all have to be diplomats in the new age, Harry.”

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As the ‘intelligence professionals’ of Torchwood shuffle shamefacedly off our screens, it’s time to welcome back the real pros. Yes, Spooks is back for its tenth and final (sob!) series. Often touted as the UK’s answer to 24, this is a show that started out with the intention of showing the agents of MI5 as real people, but soon realised that this was far less fun than an increasingly improbable succession of conspiracies, technobabble and illogical action shown in split screen. In other words, by now it is pretty close to 24, but has the advantage of being informed by a pseudo-John le Carre approach developed by someone who once saw an episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Over they years, this has made for an enjoyably bonkers show that’s never less than compellingly watchable.

Section Chief Harry Pearce is one of the reasons why the show has always been so watchable. Incarnated with pursed-lipped earnestness and a wit as dry as the Sahara by Peter Firth, he’s now the only one of the original cast left standing. Given that leaving Section D of MI5 usually results in death, madness or lifelong exile, he is perhaps wise to have stayed in his post. He has a murky Cold War past that the show has frequently delved into, but this year, fittingly, it looks like the plot is all about him. The pre-credits flashback shows us a succession of things he got up to recently as if to prove this.

As we enter the plot proper, it becomes clear that Harry has been suspended as head of Section D. The logical assumption is that this is a result of him having spent years working with Lucas North and not having figured out that he was actually another man who just happened to look like Lucas North. A bit. But no, it turns out that the powers that be are displeased that, last series, he traded the top secret Albany files for a hostage – his longtime flirtee Ruth Evershed, with whom he surely must get it on in this final series.

Standing up to enquiry chairperson Josette Simon (who enviably seems not to have aged since I last saw her in Blake’s 7 in 1981), Harry conclusively proves that his potential girlfriend is a more valuable national asset than the Albany project – true love justified in select committee. “Can I see what you wrote about me?” Ruth enquires, to which Harry growls, “Over my dead body”. Hmm. Hints about the ending, I wonder?

Nevertheless, Harry’s soon back on the Grid, and it’s time for us to see the team Section D is fielding this year. Gone from last year’s team is newbie Beth Bailey; ostensibly she’s been let go because of all those dubious connections that were somehow no problem last year, but in actuality I suspect actress Penelope Myles had other things on. Never mind, last year’s other new recruit Dimitri is still there, played as ever by that towering talent of Hollyoaks Max Brown. Tariq is still running the techie branch – I was disappointed to see that Shazad Latif has had a haircut as I loved his floppy hair – and has been joined by an intentionally irritating wanker called Calum Reed. Incarnated by Geoffrey Streatfield, Calum’s purpose is wind up everyone else. Going on a raid with Dimitri, he doesn’t have the experience to know that a conveniently left-behind laptop is probably booby-trapped; if there’s one thing we established Dimitri knows last year, it’s bombs. He may regret having pulled Calum clear of the resulting explosion. “Did you kill anyone in the SBS?” Calum later enquires. “Sometimes,” says Dimitri, looking pointedly at him. “I miss it.”

The most important newbie, however, is Lara Pulver playing tough but fair single mum Erin Watts, who apparently can’t get government childcare for her daughter and has to leave her at home with gran. Erin’s been standing in for Harry since his suspension, and if the show wasn’t ending would be the obvious candidate to replace him. In this first episode, she shows herself to be every bit as capable as Harry, chairing meetings, bollocking Calum, and infiltrating a formal dinner for a Russian minister posing as Dimitri’s date.

With this first episode setting the store for this year’s plotline, it looks like the shorter six week run will mean fewer standalone stories and more of a serial approach – hopefully one that will work better than Torchwood did. The plot seems to centre on Harry’s Cold War relationship with the wife of Russian finance Minister Gavrik, who’s over in England to cement a new ‘special relationship’ with Russia. In the usual improbable extrapolation of real world geopolitical factors common to the show, it seems that the UK is going to ditch the old relationship with the US and form a new one with Russia. A slew of topical reasons is given to justify this that, as usual, don’t really bear close scrutiny.

All of this is explained to Harry by returning Home Secretary William Towers, played as last year by the marvellous Simon Russell Beale. Whatever’s going on, Towers is mixed up in it up to his ministerial eyebrows; he smuggled Gavrik into the UK without Harry’s knowledge for the negotiations, and like everyone in the show gives the impression that he knows far more than he is saying. Given that Harry personally murdered the last Home Secretary, he should tread carefully – particularly if Harry pays him a home visit wearing his black murdering gloves.

Given that there’s a Russian minister in town, naturally someone will want to assassinate him. And so it proves. Raiding his shabby basement flat – apparently the assassin couldn’t get the usual deserted high rise office with big windows – leads our heroes to the conclusion that an attempt will be made at the formal dinner. And so in they go with dinner suits, and in Ruth’s case, a false name which lasts about five minutes until the Home Secretary turns up and recognises her. The assassin is posing as a wine waiter, but for some reason hasn’t considered the obvious tactic of poisoning the minister’s wine. No, instead, he puts everyone on alert by murdering one of the staff, then changes his clothes and walks toward the minister while pulling a gun. This not being the most covert of approaches, he is swiftly taken down by Erin with a sharp shot – oddly, he’s neglected to wear the same body armour that Dimitri discreetly has on under his dinner jacket.

Harry has other things to worry about though. Gavrik’s wife Elena (Alice Krige, an actress so prolific I’m only amazed she’s never been in the show before) used to be his best Russian asset during the Cold War. Now, it seems like someone’s pretending to be Harry to reactivate her. This bothers Harry, and his frown becomes more intense than usual – particularly when paid a visit by Elena’s son Sasha (the rather sexy Tom Weston-Jones). Sasha’s working for the FSB now, but understandably doesn’t want to tell anybody that his mum was Russia’s biggest traitor during the 80s.

It comes as no particular surprise to anyone (except perhaps Ruth) that, back in the day, Elena was more than Harry’s top asset, she was his lover – as hinted at in a series of soft focus flashbacks throughout the ep. Even more predictably, Harry’s not willing to ‘neutralise’ Sasha, because, gasp, Sasha is actually his son. Nicola Walker reacts to this with the usual subtlety with which she imbues her performance as Ruth – the mildest of facial tics on her pinched frown display the inner turmoil she’s presumably feeling.

So, business as usual for Britain’s most improbable spies, but sadly for the last time. We’re on familiar technobabble territory as Tariq traces the assassin on CCTV using ‘motion recognition’ software – apparently,  “the way you walk is as unique as a fingerprint”. Harry’s grumble that Erin has undone the ten years of work he put into getting his chair just right is met with a rejoinder from Ruth about getting Q Branch on it – if only Desmond Llewellyn was still with us, it’s be great to see him fiddling around with Harry’s recliner settings. It’s all bonkers fun and comfortably familiar, and I’m looking forward to spending the next five weeks saying goodbye to a show that, despite its flaming insanity, I’ve come to love over the years.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 11–The God Complex

“My name is Lucy Hayward, and I’m the last one left.”

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Doctor Who does The Shining! And filtered through enough surreal images to make this episode stand far better comparison with Sapphire and Steel than Night Terrors a couple of weeks ago! It’s hardly surprising, as writer Toby Whithouse has a far more reliable track record writing Who than Mark Gatiss; his first episode was the fan-pleasing School Reunion back in 2006, and last year’s Vampires of Venice, while not quite in the same league, was still an excellent standalone episode that, like this one, didn’t ignore the fact that a larger arc was going on around it.

In between, of course, Whithouse created BBC3’s excellent Being Human, and what made The God Complex so enjoyable was the same blending of surrealism, dark humour and outright horror, with some genuine pathos thrown into the mix. And also like that show, it pitched a group of convincingly ordinary characters into an insanely weird situation, and believably showed how they might react.

The deserted hotel setting was so reminiscent of The Shining that this can’t have been a coincidence (it was noticeable that the room numbers shown in the early part of the episode kept dancing just around the novel’s iconic room number 217). But as I’ve often remarked, Doctor Who has never shied away from ‘borrowing’ well-known horror stories; The Brain of Morbius and The Pyramids of Mars show how well that can work. In keeping with the script’s debt to Kubrick, director Nick Hurran filled the episode with deliberately weird and off-kilter shots. There were reverse-zooms aplenty in the shots of the bland corridors, while the staircase was shot from above in a dizzyingly Escher like display of geometry. It has to be said, if this wasn’t shot in an actual hotel, then the studio recreation was eerily accurate in its sinister blandness. But then Kubrick’s movie too was shot in a studio recreation of a hotel so perfect that for many years I didn’t realise it wasn’t the real interior of the building shown at the movie’s opening.

The deliberately surreal things lurking in the hotel rooms, coupled with the hotel’s obviously not really being on Earth – “Look at the detail on these cheese plants!” – also called to mind the classic last Sapphire and Steel story in which the time agents are trapped in a deserted service station isolated from time. But homages aside, Whithouse has produced an excellent script that has its own distinct identity outside of its influences. Like last week’s The Girl Who Waited, the story explored some sophisticated philosophical concepts; in this case about the nature of faith, and our fears, and the difficulty of escaping from the role your own nature has provided you with.

The unnamed creature imprisoned in the hotel encapsulated all of these themes. A being whose very nature is to pose as a god and feed on faith, which also despairs of this existence but cannot escape its own nature without outside intervention, it ended up pulling off the same trick as all the best monsters from Frankenstein’s onwards – it was terrifying but also sympathetic. In classic Who style, Nick Hurran presented us mostly with glimpses of the creature in the early parts of the episode – a horn here, a claw there – before moving on to the stylish shots of it half obscured by frosted glass in the Doctor’s first meeting with it. When it was eventually revealed as being  an ‘alien Minotaur’ (“I didn’t expect to be asking that question this morning”), it was great that Whithouse didn’t shy away from referencing its most obvious antecedent from an unfairly despised 1979 story – “they’re distant relatives of the Nimon”. Fitting, as the Nimon also posed as gods and lived in a building called the Power Complex.

But that weighty title cleverly referred not just to the creature, but also to the Doctor himself – “You’re trying to save us all? That’s a real god complex you’ve got there.” In a year which has seen the Eleventh Doctor’s character developing in some interesting and often sinister ways, this was a standalone episode that took the time to examine these themes in his character, acknowledging the arc that surrounded it. Obviously we were all crying out to see what lurked in the Doctor’s own personal room of fear (room 11, of course), and equally obviously nothing that could actually be shown could really live up to the concept. In the end, the story wisely didn’t show us exactly what it was; but Matt Smith’s sadly accepting smile – “Of course. What else could it be?” – together with the tolling of the Cloister Bell will almost certainly provoke a lot of fan theories. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was returned to later, but I actually think leaving it to the viewer’s imagination is by far the best approach.

In fact, it seemed that most of the episode was driven by this examination of who the Doctor was. It’s become a recurring trope of this incarnation that, despite his proclamations of how great he is, he’s very fallible. We saw that again here, in the well-acted awful moment of realisation when the Doctor realises the approach he’s been taking to try and protect his friends is actually placing them in even greater danger. That whole scene was a highlight of the episode, as it delved deep into all the characters left by that point; Rory has no faith to fed on, so the prison kept trying to show him ways out, but (obviously) Amy’s faith was in the Doctor himself, and the moment when she suddenly said “praise him” was a well-choreographed shock.

Ultimately, the resolution to all of this just had to be that Amy had to lose her faith in the man she’d waited all those years for as a little girl. Underscored by a particularly beautiful rendition of Murray Gold’s theme for Amy, this was an unapologetically tear jerking scene that recreated a similar moment from the end of 1989’s The Curse of Fenric (another story which centred on faith). The difference here was that, unlike Sylvester McCoy’s apparent cruelty to Ace in that story, you got the impression that the Doctor was actually, finally, telling Amy the truth. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan (and Caitlin Blackwood) played it superbly, and it felt as though, despite his frequent declarations of his own brilliance, the Doctor was having an epiphany as to his need for some humility – “I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man with a box”.

Like John Mitchell in the most recent series of Being Human, this was a Doctor thoroughly chastened by recent events, and forced to face up to some very unpalatable truths. The final epiphany came as he realised that the dying creature’s last words – “death would be a gift for such a creature” – were actually about him. We’ve had plenty of hints over the last two years about the Doctor’s guilt and self-loathing, but it was to the forefront here. Faced with this torrent of unpleasant self-knowledge, it made perfect sense that he’d offload Amy and Rory at the end of the episode – “I’m saving you… What’s the alternative, me standing over your grave?” It was another tearjerking scene (though I question Rory’s choice of the series 2 Jaguar E-type over the far superior series1), but it didn’t feel like it really was goodbye. The Doctor said they hadn’t seen the last of him, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them. Still, it was nice to finally have some acknowledgement of the story that’s dominated this year so much – “If you see my daughter, tell her to visit her old mum some time.”

However, a good horror story has to have some real scares alongside the character stuff, and like the best horror stories, the fear sprang from the characters. It was utterly believable that conspiracy-mad geek Howie’s deepest fear was being mocked by beautiful girls; I loved Dimitri Leonidas in the part, and would have liked to have seen more of him – he’s just my type. Joe’s fear of ventriloquist dummies was unsettlingly realised as a room full of them cackling at him, and Rita’s fear of failure was perfectly credible given what we knew of her background. In keeping with other nightmare archetypes, it was scarcely a surprise to see a clown, and the PE teacher ordering you to “do it in your pants” is a familiar scare for many of us!

The return of the Weeping Angels turned out to be a red herring in all sorts of ways; not only were they not real, they were, surprisingly, not a fear intended for any of the regulars. Still, it was nice to see them again, and they looked just as scary as ever. Rather less successful was the visualisation of Lucy Hayward’s ‘terrifying’ brutal gorilla. It was so unconvincing that for a moment I actually thought her greatest phobia was of a man in an ill-fitting gorilla costume. Nick Hurran wisely kept the shots of it down to mere glimpses, but even those made it look rather ropey.

In terms of the guest characters, fun though Howie, Joe and Lucy were, the episode really belonged to just two: Rita and Gibbis. Rita’s sharp intelligence was well-played by Amara Karan, to the extent that she really did seem a bit of a loss as a regular companion (“Amy, with the greatest respect… You’re fired”). And the portrayal of her Muslim faith as being just another part of a real, complex person rather than her main character trait was refreshing. Indeed, her response to the Doctor asking her if she was a Muslim – “Don’t be frightened!” – was a wittier and more pertinent bit of social and political comment than anything Russell T Davies managed in Torchwood this year.

David Walliams as Gibbis was rather harder to ‘praise’. Initially, he seemed solely there to function as comic relief. Though given some very witty lines as a member of the oft-conquered Tivoli race (“Resistance is… exhausting.”) he seemed so over the top that for a while I made the assumption that he would turn out to be the real villain. However, it’s a testament to Toby Whithouse’s skill as a writer that he turned these traits on their head when the Doctor confronted him. The Doctor’s speech made you realise that far from being comic, the Tivoli’s approach of allowing themselves to be conquered by anyone and everyone was actually a ruthlessly shrewd strategy to ensure their own survival, motivated entirely by self-interest. It made Gibbis seem more hard-edged afterward, and made you realise how ruthless he was being in his treacherous sacrifice of Howie to save his own skin.

All in all, I really enjoyed this episode, and thought it a far more effective evocation of common nightmares than Night Terrors – I’ve never had nightmares about killer peg dolls, however sinister they may look, but some of the things lurking in those hotel rooms were definitely familiar. The direction was also more effective for a horror story, and the script showed that standalone episodes can work and still acknowledge and inform the bigger story going on around them. The character examination was every bit as good as The Girl Who Waited, with the focus this time on the Doctor rather than Amy.

The one criticism I do have – and it’s a significant one – is that the ultimate explanation for the events didn’t really live up to everything we’d seen. It’s a prison, fine, but the ‘computer glitches’ that kept all the fears lurking in the rooms felt a little contrived. And maybe I missed it, but there didn’t seem to be any explanation of why the prison for an alien God-imposter would resemble a 1980s hotel in the first place. Another ‘glitch’ I suppose; but the problem here is that, really, no explanation could possibly justify the bizarre series of images and happenings portrayed in this episode. Still, this is one case where it was all done with such brio that I actually found this fairly central flaw quite forgiveable. If nothing else, it shows how contrived explanations can matter less in an otherwise well-written, well-acted and well-directed story.