Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 5–The Angels Take Manhattan

“I always tear out the last page of books. That way I don’t have to know the ending. I hate endings.”

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New York, New York. So good they named it twice. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The city that… well, wasn’t strictly integral to the plot of this emotional farewell to the Ponds (finally given the name of ‘Williams’ as a last courtesy to Rory). Don’t get me wrong, the location work, by the talented Nick Hurran, was exceptional, moody and atmospheric. But really, this story could have played out anywhere. New York was just the icing on the cake. Since I’m on the topic, shame they didn’t consider Los Angeles; given the monsters involved, that might have been somewhat appropriate.

But then, it wouldn’t have had that gimmicky title, reminiscent of countless Hollywood classics (ironically enough), but most of all, for me anyway, the masterpiece Muppets Take Manhattan. Though this did manage to be scarier than that – just. I’m not sure whether I’d rather face a Weeping Angel or an enraged Miss Piggy.

Indeed, gimmicks seemed at play a lot here. As I theorised a while ago (see last week), the temptation to have the Statue of Liberty be a Weeping Angel was just too good to pass up (perhaps Mr Moffat is gambling that nobody remembers Ghostbusters II). It did look great, looming over that rooftop with a snarling mouth full of fangs, but the spectacle did require some equally spectacular leaps in logic. For a start, given its illuminated location in the middle of New York Harbor, it would have to be quite lucky to be unobserved enough to move when it needed to. And when it did, did nobody notice it had gone? It was hanging around that rooftop for quite a while!

There were leaps in logic aplenty here, both within the episode itself and as part of the larger story of Amy and Rory that started back in The Eleventh Hour. When did the future Ponds arrive to wave at themselves during The Hungry Earth? What was the real explanation for Amy’s excessively large house? Why did she not remember big events like Dalek invasions? And if we were never going to get answers to all these things, why have the Doctor continually drop hints about them?

Still, if there’s one hallmark of what I guess we must now call ‘the Moffat era’, it’s temporal paradoxes. Time has been rewritten so much over the last couple of series (not to mention rebooting the entire universe based exclusively on Amy’s memories) that it can be used as a way to paper over such inconsistencies. I don’t much care for that rationalisation though – it smacks of a post facto way to excuse loose plot threads.

Given Moffat’s fondness for rewriting timelines, it seemed a matter of convenience here that suddenly the Doctor was unable (or unwilling?) to change futures he’d seen or knew about. He’s managed to rewrite time plenty before (see Day of the Daleks for an obvious example), to the extent that Russell T Davies had to invent the concept of ‘fixed points in time’ to justify why he sometimes couldn’t. But that principle has always been flexible to fit narrative continuity; that’s why the Fifth Doctor couldn’t just nip back to that freighter and rescue Adric (thankfully).

I can understand why, reading the above, you might think I didn’t enjoy this episode. But actually I did, to the extent that I was prepared to (just about) forgive it those staggering leaps in logic. After all, they’re mostly the ones that only fanboys like me were going to spot. I’d guess that, for most viewers, the biggest concern was the final farewell of Amy and Rory.

In this, the script was clever, playful and tricksy. It had been well-publicised that they were leaving, so  I’m guessing it was written with the assumption the viewer would know they were leaving, making the suspense depend on how it was going to happen. Would they decide to stop travelling with the Doctor (after last week’s affirmations)? Would they be killed? Would they simply die of old age?

Moffat’s script cunningly played with all these expectations, ultimately managing to make the Ponds’ fate a combination of all these things with, bizarrely, still managing to live happily ever after. That might seem like trying to have your cake and eat it to some, but actually that element of the script hung together just fine. After wiping out the Angels HQ by dying twice (in one episode – a fitting farewell for Rory), Rory then got zapped back to the past. Amy chose to follow him, to be with the man she truly loved. They both lived happily ever after, in the past, unable to return. Then died of old age, leaving a Manhattan gravestone and a message for the Doctor. And as I said, all that at least made sense, and actually managed to prove just about everyone’s speculations right in one way or another.

The script was actually masterful at misdirection from the very start, introducing a Raymond Chandler-style PI who seemed to be narrating the story, then got zapped back in time by the Angels after witnessing his own death as an old man. It was good to see the Angels back to their original USP of sending people irretrievably to the past and feeding on the time energy thus produced; gripping though their last appearance was, it never seemed consistent with what we knew that they were suddenly dispatching their victims by snapping their necks.

As it turned out, most of the episode ended up being set in that film noir era of 1938, to which Rory had been zapped while off getting a coffee for Amy and the Doctor. That gave the director, set designers and costume designers the chance to have a field day with noir conventions, into which the Angels fitted surprisingly well. True, the ‘McGuffin’ of having one Angel in the custody of acquisitive crime lord Grayle (nice to see Mike McShane) neither made sense nor was followed up on after the gang escaped; but that’s the sort of window dressing so frequently used by Chandler, who confessed that even he didn’t know who’d committed one of the murders in the 1946 adaptation of The Big Sleep.

But really, all the twists, turns, moody lighting and misdirection were all to get Amy and Rory to the roof of that building, and the point of both choice and affirmation that, finally, they were more important to each other than the Doctor was to them. Rory’s plan did (just about) make sense, based on what the Doctor had already told him – avert the death of his elderly self by dying now, and (for wibbly, wobbly reasons) the resultant paradox would cancel out everything the Angels had done, leaving him alive again.

When it comes to standing on a ledge about to jump, though, it’s a leap of faith. It was the first of a number of points in the story where you thought Rory in particular was going for good. The scene was beautifully played by Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, who by now must feel like they know the characters inside out; and when they both jumped (to the Doctor’s anguish) it felt like that must be the end for them, slo-mo, heartfelt Murray Gold music and all.

But no, they woke up back in that graveyard, sitting bolt upright like Captain Jack returning to life. And all looked rosy until Rory noticed that gravestone – given the themes of the episode, perhaps he’d have been all right if he hadn’t seen it. His sudden instant disappearance at the hands of a lone surviving Angel was the last we’ll ever see of him, and that felt like a bit of a cheat. It did explain why the script had already given him two emotional death scenes this week, but ultimately just disappearing – that didn’t feel right, somehow.

Thankfully, Amy got a truly heartwrenching farewell, as she made the near-impossible choice to leave the Doctor, to leave her daughter, and even to leave the here and now irrevocably behind, to be with the man she loved. That scene, for me, was actually quite difficult to watch – given the genuine offscreen chemistry oft displayed by Karen Gillan and Matt Smith, their emotions seemed to transcend mere acting.

It was the little coda that really got me, though, as the Doctor realised that the handy “River Song, Private Eye” book referred to throughout must have been published by Amy herself, and would have an afterword. So it proved, and as Karen Gillan’s voiceover reminded us of everything Amy’s done and seen over this last three years, it was hard not to tear up.

So, the Doctor’s lost his best friends, for the first time in this regeneration. How will he cope? “Don’t travel alone,” was Amy’s sage advice – we all know what happens when nobody’s there to stop him. It might have been fun if River had accepted his offer to travel with him for a bit – Alex Kingston was on good form this week, balancing the scenery-chewing with moments of genuine pathos and emotion. She also looked surprisingly good in a trenchcoat and fedora, though I would have expected 1938 eyebrows to be raised at a woman dressed like that!

However, I’ve had my complaints over these last few years that River’s ubiquity and dominating presence seemed to be turning the Doctor into a supporting character in his own show, so having her around all the time might not be a good idea. Besides it would be hard to square with what we know of her character’s future. She’s already been paroled from prison and gained her professorship – because the Doctor’s been wiping out everyone’s records of him, not just the Daleks. Lucky for UNIT last week that he left their database alone.

Farewell then, Amy and Rory. I know they’ve not been to everyone’s taste; some friends of mine have been less than keen (putting it mildly) on Amy’s character or Karen Gillan’s realisation of it. But I’ve enjoyed them both. I think Gillan did have to grow into her character more than Arthur Darvill did (he seemed to have it nailed right away), but Amy ended up being far more interesting than she first appeared.

Whatever your opinion of Moffat’s stewardship of the show, you have to concede he’s tried doing something really different with these companions – having them flit in and out of the Doctor’s life but never really leave, while they aged in real life between his visits. And let’s not forget that they ended up being the parents of the Doctor’s wife!

And now they’re gone, after a longer continuous period on the show than any companions since its return. Christmas will explain how the Doctor manages to pick up the girl he’s already seen converted into a Dalek then blown to bits. Well, it might explain; with Moffat, you can never be too sure.

For now, this was an emotional episode that frustrated as well as entertained. Ten out of ten for Amy’s farewell, only five out of ten for Rory’s. Brilliantly atmospheric, but often didn’t make sense if you stopped to think about it. Mind you, doesn’t that just sum up Moffat’s style in one sentence?

Dallas (the next generation): Season 1, Episode 4

“Now that John Ross has got Bobby to sign over the ranch to the Del Sol Conservancy, I think it’s time for me to claim my birthright.” – JR

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Previously, on Dallas: As the massively complex Ewing world of double dealing continued, last week we learned that:

  • JR joined John Ross in the double crossing deal to buy Southfork and drill for oil on it
  • He also met the real buyers pretending to be the Del Sol Conservancy – the sinister ‘Venezuelans’ and their sneering, black-clad leader Vicente
  • JR’s old nemesis Cliff Barnes has turned up looking mummified, and is also after Southfork
  • Troublesome lawyer Lobell has a shiftless son who JR and John Ross can use as leverage
  • Christopher still has feelings for Elena, which doesn’t seem to bother his treacherous con artist wife Rebecca
  • Rebecca’s conscience won’t let her steal Christopher’s ‘frozen methane’ process
  • Bobby agreed to sell Southfork to the ‘Del Sol Conservancy’ rather than see Miss Ellie’s guilty secrets come up in court
  • And John Ross discovered that the email which split up Christopher and Elena had been sent by none other than his wife Rebecca.

This week, we saw more intrigue and subterfuge, in a curiously muted episode where not a whole lot seemed to happen. John Ross spent most of his time trying to set up Lobell’s son with incriminating pictures, while JR plotted and schemed (as ever) to get the upper hand on his own son. Christopher and Bobby had a heart to heart chat while Bobby had his hand up a cow; and Rebecca and Elena were having trouble deciding where their loyalties lay.

With Southfork now sold, Bobby should have been packing and arranging for the final barbecue (Southfork has always thrived on barbecues and parties, where all the surreptitious sex and blackmail tends to happen). But Ann is left to do the packing, as Bobby needs to spend most of the episode engaging in some massively unsubtle visual metaphors while he and Christopher have some father/son quality time.

After being seen quite literally mending fences together (imaginative), the two ‘nice’ Ewings then spent most of the episode dealing with a troublesome calf birth. It was at this point that Christopher chose to confide in his father that, after finding out about the email (which he still thinks was sent by John Ross), he still has feelings for his former fiancee Elena. “The choice is yours,” Bobby tells him earnestly, “but you gotta make one”. It’s hard to deliver heartfelt dialogue with your arm up a cow, but all credit to Patrick Duffy for pulling that off.

The cow metaphor became clear eventually, as only the calf could be saved, and had to be hived off to a “new mother”. Leading to a discussion about Christopher’s adopted status, just in case you hadn’t got the sledgehammer obviousness of what that represented.

Family matters

The fate of Bobby’s first wife (and Cliff’s sister) Pam remains mysterious. “”When Ann and I got married,” Bobby remarks, “she was pretty insecure about your mother.” Why? Just what did happen to Pam? I suspect the door is being left open here for Victoria Principal to return to the show, but she hasn’t agreed to it yet. In the meantime, she’s Schrodinger’s Ewing, neither alive nor dead until contracts are signed.

Who’s double crossing who this week?

Having let Rebecca know that he knows that sent the marriage-ending email, John Ross has a go at getting her to set up the son of Bobby’s treacherous lawyer, Lobell. Lobell’s son Rick, who he’d apparently do anything for, is an ex-druggie with two criminal convictions – and the state of Texas is pretty firm on the “three strikes and you’re out” rule introduced by good ol’ country boy Bill Clinton.

So Rebecca is duly dispatched to set up the now recovering addict in a drug sting. Unfortunately for her, Rick now runs a rehab group and is a nice guy, so that troublesome conscience of hers won’t let her go through with it. She must be a really rubbish con artist.

Fortunately ‘Marta Del Sol’ (who we now know is called Veronica) doesn’t mind at all, and stitches Rick up good and proper, with pictures of him naked and snorting coke. As an aside, I have to say that, initially, I had trouble telling the younger women of the show apart – each is tall, glamorous and brunette. I thought it was just me, but a friend of mine told me last weekend that she had exactly the same problem. I guess that’s the problem with casting similar types of artificially perfect actors in a show. At least John Ross has that scratty beard to distinguish him from Christopher…

Be that as it may, JR has unearthed quite a bit about ‘Marta’, using his own private investigator, the curiously named ‘Bum’. Bum has discovered that Marta/Veronica is actually a bit of a loony in a Fatal Attraction-stylee, which could be bad news for John Ross, to whom she’s developed an unhealthy attachment. “I thought we had a date,” she purrs menacingly to him, before dragging him down for some late night shopping at Neiman Marcus.

JR and Sue Ellen are maintaining an uneasy peace, which isn’t helped by another appearance from the duplicitous and calcified Cliff. Apparently he wants to fund her bid for Texas governor. Knowing how US politicians are bought and paid for by corporate interests, this can’t be a good thing, and yet only JR seems to see this. You’d think Sue Ellen would have learned something about corruption in all those years of being married to him.

Elena, meanwhile is torn not just between Christopher and John Ross, but also between their energy systems. It’s not many women who can say they’re cheating on methane with oil.

Faces from the past

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Another brief visit this week from Lucy and Ray Krebbs, played as ever by Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly. Better preserved than Cliff, they seem to have no function in the show other than to show up occasionally to remind you that they used to be in it.

Hey look, it’s that guy from that thing:

Only one notable guest star this week (well, semi-notable). Rick Lobell is played by Jason London, formerly a teen heart throb in movies like Richard Linklater’s indie classic Dazed and Confused:

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Jason London, now and in 1993

This week’s big cliffhanger:

Cliffhangers seem to travel in pairs in the new Dallas, and this week was no exception. Firstly, JR confronted Lobell with his son-based blackmail photos, demanding not only that the lawyer stop asking for more money, but also that the Southfork deeds, formerly split 50/50 between John Ross and himself, be signed over to JR alone. As expected, he’s already doing the dirty on his own son. Well, the boy’s gotta learn somehow…

Unaware that his own dad is shafting him, John Ross has gone to the Southfork farewell barbecue, ostensibly to reveal Rebecca’s treachery as payback for her failing to go through with setting up Lobell Jr. Unable to pacify that troublesome conscience of hers, Rebecca drags Christopher aside. “I’ve got something to tell you,” she gasps as the screen fades to black. Is she about to confess to everything? Since the plotline looks to have a way to go yet, I rather doubt that…

That may sound like a lot of plot to pack in to on episode, but by Dallas standards this week felt positively sedate. What with Bobby spending half his time with his arm up a cow, and the endless attempts to persuade Rick Lobell to do drugs on camera, it was a pretty slow episode. But then, there’s still six to go, and I doubt it’ll meander for too long.

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 4–The Power of Three

“Every time we flew away with the Doctor, we became a part of his life. But he never stayed still long enough to become a part of ours. Except once. The year of the slow invasion – the time the Doctor came to stay.”

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Bit late reviewing Doctor Who this week – ironically because I was at a Doctor Who convention all weekend, without my laptop. Regenerations in Swansea (for that was its name) was a lot of fun involving far too much drink. At one point I found myself clutching a pint glass of white wine, sitting behind Sir Derek Jacobi while Sylvester McCoy sang Tainted Love.

It also meant that we all sat and watched a Doctor Who episode’s first broadcast with various ex-members of the cast. In front of me was Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates) and a couple of seats down was John Levene (Sergeant Benton), both of whom were delighted to hear that UNIT were back this week. At one point I tried to take a picture of my friend Mette sitting next to me, but the camera-hungry Levene instantly photobombed me:

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Thankfully, he wasn’t singing songs from his recently released album, which only one of my friends was insane enough to buy!

Lots of fun then, but what of the episode itself? Of all these standalone movie-type eps so far, this was the hardest to categorise in a single sentence. Part domestic comedy, part imaginative alien invasion, it had humour, surrealism, drama and some real character insight mixed in to very good effect. And it was written by Chris Chibnall! After enjoying the light romp that was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it was yet another revelation that he could write something with so much empathy and emotion, still humorous but with real pathos and drama too. I think I may have to start re-evaluating him…

The episode’s main USP was to reverse the recent trend of “Ponds hang out with the Doctor” to “the Doctor hangs out with the Ponds”. We’ve been here before of course, with 2010’s The Lodger showing the bizarre consequences of having the Doctor in an everyday domestic setting, but this had the heightened drama/humour that it was with his own companions. Imagine if Pertwee’s Doctor had had to hang around Jo Grant’s flat for a year while she did the washing up.

With the perspective of the story refreshingly told from the Ponds’ point of view, we got a glimpse at what their double life was like, working and doing the housework punctuated by occasional visits from a bizarre alien who would whisk them away at a moment’s notice. So we got to see Amy and Rory’s “real life” established – clearing out the fridge, doing the washing up, emptying the bins – until the sudden appearance of millions of mysterious cubes brought the Doctor back. And when the cubes singularly failed to do anything, he decided to stay.

Unlike Craig in The Lodger, Amy and Rory know full well who/what the Doctor is. With no need for subterfuge, he could be as mad and eccentric as always – and this certainly was a vintage week for Matt Smith, who got to show his versatility far more than in recent episodes, switching from madcap to serious to sad at the drop of a hat. The montage of him trying to ‘keep busy’ was very much in the zany/comic tone of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (capped with the inevitable “How long have I been gone?” “About an hour”). We saw the Doctor playing on the Wii, and practising his football skills (Matt Smith still seems pretty good), and watching The Apprentice while eating fish fingers and custard.

But there were also magical scenes like the one on the roof of the Tower of London, which spelled out explicitly the ongoing theme of his most unconventional relationship with his current companions. It’s been ten years now for Amy and Rory; ten years in which she has (thankfully) gone from being a fashion model to a travel writer, and he has become a respected nurse about to go full time. The Doctor knows it can’t last forever, this double life, and as he and Amy open their hearts to each other, it’s another genuinely tear-jerking scene; “I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”

Hard to believe that Chris Chibnall, previously so enamoured of dialogue that seemed cribbed from cheap porn, could write such a moving exchange. And the earlier one, with incoming UNIT chief Kate Stewart, as he realised who her father must be, was a beautiful tribute to Nick Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Jemma Redgrave as Kate was marvellous, with her brisk, scientific attitude and dry sense of humour (“I’ve got officers trained in beheading. Oh, and ravens of death.”) I really hope we get to see her again in later episodes.

UNIT and the Brigadier weren’t the only fanboy references here, as we also got a mention of the Zygons and their shapeshifting abilities during the other montage, as the Doctor whisked Amy and Rory off on a time tour for their anniversary. Lovely to see Rory reciprocating the Doctor’s kiss to him a couple of episodes ago, and for those annoyed by Amy’s ever-short skirts, there was a droolworthy shot of him in his pants.(I’m sure there’s plenty of slash fiction already).

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They’re available from Topman, should you want them – I’m heading out to buy some in a while…

The tone shifted again from comedy to pathos as they returned to the party seven weeks later (from their perspective), and the Doctor had to tell Brian what happened to all his other companions.

Yes, Brian was back, played again by the marvellous Mark Williams. After, Russell T Davies’ trend of every companion being accompanied by a large brawling family, you can see why Steven Moffat resisted dragging another family member in till now, but Mark is so good in the part that he’s irresistible. The point has been made that he’s basically similar to Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf, but that’s a recommendation in my view. And like Wilf with Donna, he actually wants Amy and Rory to travel with the Doctor – “It’s you they can’t give up, Doctor. And I don’t think they should.” – even after hearing about the fates of some of his previous fellow travellers. After the reactions of Rose’s and Martha’s mothers, that’s a refreshing change.

In previous character-driven stories like this, the ‘standard Doctor Who plot’ is usually grafted on as a McGuffin, and is pretty unimaginative as a result (think School Reunion). But here, the “slow invasion” was a genuinely intriguing and weird premise, laced with humour – I loved the cube that played the Birdie Song on an endless loop. The identical, cube-mouthed orderlies kidnapping patients from Rory’s hospital were spooky in a Sapphire and Steel mould, as was the creepy little girl droid – you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. A dimensional portal in a goods lift was a nice touch, as was the casting of the always-intimidating Steven Berkoff as the Shakri’s holographic messenger. I know at least one four-year-old in our audience got the willies scared out of him by that.

Despite taking place over the course of a year, this was another frantically-paced episode.  You can see why Moffat wanted to place the slower-paced Town Called Mercy in between this and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, just to give the audience a breather. Unfortunately the breathless pace was probably the reason for the episode’s biggest logical flaw – its resolution.

Even if the Shakri didn’t recognise the Doctor as a Time Lord, he clearly knew all about their technology, so why give him the run of the ship, allowing him to reprogramme the cubes and blow the place up? It seemed a bit of a return to the old deus ex machina endings of the RTD era, a shame for an episode that was so good in so many other regards. That frenetic pace meant a general lack of exposition; I can forgive not being told exactly what the orderlies were for, why they were kidnapping people, or why the cubes clearly displayed a worrying looking countdown in conveniently recognisable numerals. But that resolution (or lack of it) stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it’s nothing like the logical flaw in Chibnall’s 42, where the button to retrieve the escape pod was on the outside of the spaceship (however good he gets, I’m never going to forgive him for that).

Leaps of logic aside though, this was another enjoyable episode from Chibnall (I previously assumed that typing those words must be a harbinger of the apocalypse), which addressed the ongoing theme of the Ponds and the Doctor ultimately drifting apart directly for the first time. These may be standalone episodes, but there are still clear threads running through them. I wonder if we’ll see any follow up to the Shakri’s talk of “the Tally”, which the Doctor refers to as “Judgement Day, or the Reckoning”?

It’s also been pointed out that there’s a running hint involving flickering lights – in the Dalek asylum, the bulb Brian was changing, the streetlamps in Mercy – perhaps leading in to next week’s Weeping Angel story; you certainly don’t want the lights to flicker when they’re around! I’ve also wondered (on Facebook, some days ago) whether that very large statue in New York Harbor might be something to do with the Angels (even if it is made of copper, not stone). I guess at least some of these answers will be revealed next week, as we say goodbye to the Ponds for the last time…

Dallas (the next generation): Season 1, Episode 3

“I spent most of your childhood chasing women I didn’t love and making deals that didn’t matter. I will get Southfork back – so you don’t have to pay for my sins.” – JR to John Ross

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Previously, on Dallas: Having laid out the complex stall of setups in the first week, last week we learned that:

  • JR isn’t ‘depressed’ at all, but embroiled in yet another fiendish plan to obtain Southfork
  • Christopher’s wife Rebecca is engaged in some two year long con trick that involves marrying him, but is ‘going native’
  • Bobby’s lawyer is covering up for JR’s plan to buy Southfork via the Del Sol Conservancy, but also covering up from JR the fact of John Ross’ triple cross to sell it to somebody else
  • Elena is mighty pissed that her impending marriage to Christopher two years ago was aborted by a mysterious email she thinks John Ross sent, so she’s dumped him
  • John Ross’ partner in crime ‘Marta Del Sol’ (for it is not she) likes to film him having sex with her, for reasons as yet unknown
  • John Ross, not too happy at being blamed for the marriage-killing email, hired a private detective to find out who really sent it
  • JR, having flown to Mexico to see ‘Marta’s father, learned that she wasn’t Marta at all, and that his son’s sale of Southfork wasn’t to Del Sol at all either

All clear on that? Cool. This week, the subterfuge, backstabbing and OTT dialogue intensified as JR weaselled his way back in to the family home, plans were made by some characters to shaft other characters, and an old face put in a surprise appearance.

As predicted, JR was really not happy learning that his own son was double crossing him, and chose to warn him about the lack of wisdom in this course by giving him a shave. With a deadly sharp straight razor, naturally, held at John Ross’ throat when he least suspected it. This being JR, you half expected him to be fine with slitting his own son’s throat; but that’s not the JR style. Besides, it looks like he’s halfway proud of his son for being a chip off the old block. He had a warning for him though, based on his own experience of father-son relationships: “I loved my daddy, and I respected my daddy. But most of all, I feared my daddy.”

Thus chastised, John Ross entered into an unwilling alliance with his snake of a father. Somehow I can’t see either of them being loyal to the other though – it’s the Ewing way. Nevertheless, John Ross is now taking “daddy” into his confidence – some of the way at least. So he introduces JR to the real Southfork buyers – the sinister and stereotypically Latino ‘Venezuelans’. Ostensibly oil profiteers, they behave more like a drug cartel from an action movie, with their sneering, black-clad leader Vicente Cano equipped with the requisite facial hair that indicates a Dallas character is a wrong ‘un.

Vicente tries making threats to JR, but that ain’t gonna fly – JR’s been doing this for a whole hell of a lot longer. “If the oil were to stop flowing,” Vicente purred menacingly, “that would be… unacceptable.” At which point he and JR had a “menacing stare” contest, which JR plainly won, saying “my friends are in the state house. My enemies are harder to find”.

This week’s face from the past

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Actually, he’s wrong about that. Having bribed his doctor to persuade Bobby that the ‘unwell’ JR needs to move back into Southfork for the benefit of his health, the old devil was somewhat surprised to find his oldest enemy waiting right there for him, having a leisurely chat with Bobby. Yep, Cliff Barnes is back, played as ever by the redoubtable Ken Kercheval!

“Time has not been kind to that face,” smirked JR (accurately, as it happens) “But I do recall the smell of brimstone and crazy.” Yes, if anything, the return of Cliff means that the already cheesy level of dialogue can be turned up to 11.

Family matters

The new show establishes Cliff as JR’s old archenemy with admirable economy, but in case you’re confused, this is their relationship:

Cliff’s family were archenemies of the Ewings in the oil business – until his sister Pam married Bobby Ewing. Cliff himself had at least two flings with JR’s wife Sue Ellen (she may have been drunk at the time), and has at various times wanted/managed to obtain Southfork and/or Ewing Oil. Looks like he’s up to his old tricks, as he’s popped up to buy the ranch from Bobby – but Bobby won’t sell.

More family background is provided in other meetings, including tantalising hints as to the fate of Pam Ewing (nee Barnes). Discussing Christopher’s past with Rebecca, Elena revealed that “Pam just… disappeared”. Perhaps she’ll wake up in a shower at some point. Or perhaps not – summoning his adoptive nephew Christopher for a chat, Cliff urged him, “don’t let them destroy you like they did Pam.” Perhaps she’s now chained up in Southfork’s attic.

On the subject of family, it’s worth mentioning that, while Christopher gained the Ewing name via adoption, he really is family. In the classic series (if you can call it that), his mother was Sue Ellen’s sister Kristin Shepard, who later went on to shoot JR (the first time, anyway), then died. So biologically at least, he and John Ross really are cousins. Confused? Try not to worry about it.

Who’s double crossing who this week?

Bobby’s shifty lawyer Lobell, with his surprisingly tiny office, can no longer blackmail John Ross to keep his secret from JR, since that’s out now. But he can still threaten to reveal to Bobby that the ‘Del Sol Conservancy’ aren’t buying Southfork at all, and have both JR and John Ross in court on fraud charges. So now he wants $5 million, up from last week’s $2 million. It’s hard not to picture him ultimately turning into Dr Evil, finger to his mouth as he demands, “one billion dollars!”

Clearly Iago and son (JR and John Ross, obviously) need to get shot of him, and JR knows how. Lobell has a shiftless son that he dotes on, who several years ago got off a hit and run charge because the only witness couldn’t be found. So once again John Ross turns to his philosophically-minded private investigator to track said witness down.

Back at the ranch, Tommy is getting impatient for Rebecca to steal Christopher’s methane hydrate secrets (for what that’s worth, since the whole thing seems to be scientific bunkum). So he gives her one of those magic USB sticks from 24 and Spooks that can download the entire contents of a laptop within the amount of seconds guaranteed to generate maximum onscreen tension.

Trouble is, she’s obviously having second thoughts, moved by her love for the virile Christopher – even when presented with a picture of him kissing his ex Elena in the stressful moment of learning about Bobby’s cancer. All it takes is one apology from Christopher, and Rebecca’s back in his arms, while the USB stick’s in the bin. Either he’s one hell of a lover, or she’s one hell of a pushover…

Hey, it’s that guy from that thing!

Aside from the return of Ken Kercheval, this week saw a bit of a 24 reunion. Vicente, lip-curling leader of ‘the Venezuelans’ is none other than Carlos Bernard, previously best known as CTU’s Tony Almeida:

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While Cliff Barnes, ever the good judge of character, has hired one of that show’s bad guys from 2005 (Faran Tahir) to be his PA, Frank Ashkani:

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I’m guessing he does more than just take the minutes for Cliff’s meetings.

This week’s big cliffhanger

JR has given Miss Ellie’s diary to John Ross (while pretending to be outraged that he has it), giving John Ross the ammunition to discredit her will; seems she went a bit loopy when Jock died,and spent a while in an institution. Bobby, appalled at the thought of this being heard in court, caved like wet paper for the first time this year. So now he’s selling after all – and the deal with ‘the Venezuelans’ is back on…

But that’s not all – John Ross’ PI may have turned up sweet FA on the witness to Lobell’s son’s hit and run, but he has found out who sent the email that wrecked Christopher’s nuptials. John Ross is more than a little surprised to discover that it was none other than Rebecca!

Just another week with the Ewings then – backstabbing, betrayal, dodgy deals and people standing around looking statuesque. Less action than previously, but the return of Cliff Barnes more than makes up for it – just what the heck is he up to?

A Nightmare in the Examination Hall

GCSEs! They’re terrible, aren’t they? Unfit for purpose? They must be, because the press told us so (ably assisted by various strategically placed press releases from the Education Secretary). Children the country over are suffering after unfair changes to grade boundaries left thousands with a D when previous benchmarks would have left them with a C. Proof, if proof be need be, that the entire GCSE system (introduced in 1988 by the Conservative Party, of all people) is entirely corrupt and unfair, right?

What EXACTLY is the problem this year?

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GCSEs are far from perfect, but as usual, the press (and the government) were (perhaps deliberately) telling a very simplistic and generalised version of what was going on.

According to my scouring of the TES forum on results day, and government regulator Ofqual’s official report, the issue of the changed grade boundaries affected two out of three GCSE English qualifications only. English Literature was unaffected, while English Language and English Language and Literature had problems. But only at the Foundation (lower) Tier, apparently (all those worried about introducing a “two-tier education system” might want to remember that GCSEs already do this). And, of three major exam boards across England, only from two of them (“primarily AQA and Edexcel”, says Ofqual).

To put that into perspective, that means that, out of dozens of subjects being examined, this problem affected only one. And that one has, in essence, eighteen separate qualifications (three English qualifications across three major boards, Foundation and Higher Tier for each), of which four were at fault. And each of those four was made up of three modules, not all of which had the grade boundaries dramatically shifted. Suddenly doesn’t look like the damning critique it appeared, does it?

The other issue that all the papers fail to mention is that these particular GCSEs were being awarded for the first time this year, initially by a small group in January then a much larger one in June. Under such circumstances, it’s fairly common for government regulator Ofqual (and their predecessors QCA) to send an observer to the awarding meetings where grade boundaries are decided, in order to monitor standards.

Ofqual’s initial assertion as to the reason for this issue is that the standard was set wrongly in January. It suggests that Ofqual weren’t properly monitoring the awarding in that first series for the new qualifications, which would be unusual. Equally, the boards concerned must have some culpability for setting the boundaries generously themselves, but Ofqual’s monitoring of this is the final arbiter, and the very reason for its existence.

This rather gives the impression that they allowed the first awarding of a new qualification to either be monitored sloppily, or not monitored at all. Ofqual is a fairly new and untried regulator, rushed into existence with alarming haste by the incoming Coalition government in 2010. With this in mind, you start wondering whether it’s the exams that are the problem, or the purported guardian of their standards. Of course, that’s all a bit fiddly for a big, emotive press story about children being unfairly treated by the thousand, and doesn’t fit the political narrative.

What should we do, Mr Gove?

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So, after a couple of weeks scandal, Mr Gove (Education Secretary and part time Pob lookalike) has given us his verdict on What Should Be Done with GCSEs. And unsurprisingly, his judgement based on all the evidence is… to do what he always said he wanted to do anyway.

So, a new ‘English Baccalaureate’ (must be good, it sounds classy), comprising the core subjects of English, Maths and the Sciences, each to be tested in one humongous three hour exam at the age of sixteen, with no more coursework. And each subject to be administered by only one exam board each, to combat the (apparent) problem of competition driving standards lower.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I’m no fan of the current government (not that I have a lot of time for the Opposition either), but taking a step back from partisan politics, is any of this a Good Thing? And more pertinently, if it is, for whom is it Good?

Board to death

Evil Exams

To take the latter point of Gove’s plans first – no more competition between exam boards? I actually think that’s rather a good idea. It’s a bit of a first for a Tory minister to acknowledge that the great god competition actually lowers standards in any situation; perhaps they could try extending that philosophy to the likes of water supplies, railways, bus services…

Still, I digress. It always seemed a nonsense for any real competition to exist when all of the competitors must, essentially, supply the same product meeting the same standards. The press narrative for a couple of years now has been that boards can only compete by offering “easier” exams, thereby giving schools a greater proportion of good results and a better place on the league table.

This is, generally speaking, bullshit. When the government’s standards regulator is doing its job properly, it must ensure that all qualifications in the same subject at the same level offer a parity of challenge. Put simply, if anyone’s caught offering an exam that’s “easier” than anyone else, they face potentially losing the ability to offer it at all. It’s quite common for disenchanted schools, facing a year of bad results, to take their business to another board – only to find next year’s results just as bad, if not worse.

So if all exams are the same, how can you have competition? It boils down to other areas; customer support, teacher training, learner resources and so on. The quest for each board to better the others here, with a finite budget, is what can lead to a stretching of resources and consequent problems the like of which we’ve already seen.

The elimination of competition should therefore be a Good Thing. And so it is, but only in part – boards will still have to compete to be the only one offering each subject at GCSE level. My preference, discussed in a previous post, would be for one board covering all subjects across the country, a system which works well in other countries such as Australia.

Still, competition every few years to offer a subject is better than competition all the bloody time, with each board mercilessly trying to grab a bigger slice of the market. The worry is going to be the initial scramble for licences, particularly with players like Edexcel, which has the financial might of its parent company, multinational publisher Pearson, behind it.

In order to be fair, the process of settling who gets to offer which subject absolutely must be completely transparent and open to public scrutiny. Edexcel’s status as part of a profit-driven multinational gives them an unfair advantage over not-for-profit boards like OCR. And in other areas of the Coalition’s frenetic quest to outsource all things public, we’ve seen private companies like Pearson assert the mantra of “commercial confidentiality” to cover all manner of sins in their negotiations. If this isn’t to be another case of ‘lobbying’ (read ‘paying off the minister concerned with a promise of a juicy directorship on retirement’), the process must be entirely open to scrutiny and investigation.

OK, OK… but what about the exams?

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When I was sixteen, I did O Levels – which worked in just the way Mr Gove is so keen on. I wasn’t convinced of their validity even then. A massive, nerve-wracking exam taken after weeks of frantic revision really only assesses what you’ve reminded yourself of recently and can remember on the day. GCSEs, while far from perfect, were designed to combat this with a process of continual assessment throughout the course, introducing the element of coursework to counter the criticism that plenty of intelligent people aren’t actually that good at exams.

Traditionalists have always had a bit of a problem with coursework; and in some ways they have a point. Mainly done without supervision, it was particularly open to plagiarism, a problem that’s intensified with the rise of the internet. The worry now is that entire coursework essays can be cribbed from Wikipedia; or even that certain, ahem, unscrupulous online companies actually offer to do it for you – for a fee, of course.

A halfway decent teacher, though, should be able to spot if work he/she is marking is written by someone other than the pupil they’ve been teaching for the past couple of years. If, that is, they’re not completely frazzled by their workload. Because for teachers, the problem is that coursework effectively means they’re marking students’ exams themselves, and that’s a lot of work – especially in larger schools, where the marking must be moderated by a more senior teacher and sometimes revisited if it’s not up to scratch.

The problem of plagiarism, at least, was supposed to be addressed by the introduction, in these new GCSEs, of ‘Controlled Assessment’ – basically doing coursework under supervised classroom conditions. Being a major change, it caused a lot of disquiet in the teaching professions, but it could have been a change for the better. Sadly, we’ll never know, as it was condemned for replacement after just one year due to the combination of press furore and political ambition. It may have a chance to prove itself in the next couple of years, as the ‘English Baccalaureate’ isn’t due to start until 2015, but its fate is already sealed.

So, assessment will go back to one, externally marked , terminal exam for each subject. I’m sure teachers will be very happy at the reduction in their already massive workload that will result from removing internally assessed work. But as a former exam board employee, I can testify that there was already a huge problem recruiting examiners for the examined units that already exist. Remove internally assessed ‘coursework’, and whatever board/s is/ are left will need many many more examiners.

Given the difficulty recruiting enough for the current level of externally marked work, I can see this being a logistical nightmare. Possibly the reduced workload caused by removing internal assessment will alleviate pressure on teachers, but I’m far from sure it will spur them on to become external examiners. And so Gove’s much-loved final exams may find themselves with a significant paucity of people to mark them. If you try to get exams marked without a sufficient amount of examiners, that’s when standards really suffer.

More generally, I’m not so sure about Gove’s emphasis on memorizing facts, figures and dates. Rote learning is important, of course – you can’t build an argument without facts to construct it from. But I worry that he’d rather have schoolchildren reciting the list of English monarchs without ever thinking about history.

The crux of it is that, while GCSEs could certainly have done with some fundamental reform, Gove’s changes simply push the system back to what he presumably fondly remembers from the 1950s. Hearkening back to a non-existent ‘Golden Age’ is certainly no basis for a programme of education – it’s been tried already, and the world has moved on.

So what should be done?

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I think there’s a real need to have a proper debate about the fundamentals of assessment – what we’re trying to achieve/quantify and how – going down to the absolute basics rather than modifying existing systems or hearkening back nostalgically to earlier ones. We need to properly challenge received wisdom on this issue, and do it entirely separately of political ideology.

For a start, since it’s been mooted that all children should stay in education until the age of eighteen (keeping them off those pesky unemployment registers), do we need a terminal exam at sixteen at all? GCSEs, like O Levels before them, were meant to quantify achievement at the level when children might leave school and go to work. If they’re not doing that, is there any point having them? Other countries, whose children stay in full time education until eighteen, manage perfectly well with tests taken at that point.

Which then leads us on to the question of A Levels. Among other things, GCSEs are used as a measure of whether a student is apt enough to take an A Level in a particular subject. But students don’t take A Levels in every subject; if terminal tests are taken at eighteen, they would necessarily include subjects that might not otherwise have been taken. Not everyone does Maths or English at A Level, for instance, but if all testing happened at the age of eighteen, they would have to. So that would render A Levels redundant too.

Which then, logically, brings us to Higher Education. With A Levels gone, how will universities assess the ability of their applicants? There’s already a problem that universities have to judge on the basis of predicted grades rather than actual results, and for years the idea has been floated of issuing results earlier, to give a more concrete idea of prospective students’ abilities. In practice, it’s unworkable – marking periods are already crushingly short, and to issue results significantly earlier would mean taking the actual exams much earlier, leaving less time to teach the course.

But maybe we shouldn’t assess by testing at all. Maybe there should be some other process of continual assessment throughout children’s schooling, from primary school onwards. And while we’re about it, do we need schools to be divided into a primary and secondary model at all? Again, other countries do it differently, some with more grades of school, some with less.

Also, should tests (if we have them) be norm-referenced (based on percentages of each cohort getting certain grades) or criterion-referenced (based on how well you actually know the subject you’re being tested on)? And why have grades in their current form? It’s always seemed unfair that a difference of one mark can move students from that all-important C to the doom-laden D. Why not express results in percentages of marks gained, as some countries do?

These are all questions that need to be asked. And ideally they need to be asked by educational experts, and not politicians. Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg has pledged that, should Labour return to power in 2015 (which is looking increasingly likely), they won’t implement Gove’s proposed changes at all.

That might be good news for those who cleave to the current system (which may not be a good thing either), but it means that for several years the entire educational system will be in turmoil, exam boards frantically designing new qualifications and tendering for licences to deliver them, while the poor overworked teachers must yet again begin training to deliver a new style of course – for the second time in three years. As always, the first group of students to take the test will be terrified of that leap into the unknown. And all for naught, if Labour get in and Twigg keeps his word.

It’s the clearest illustration ever of why politicians should be kept out of education altogether. Apart from the fact that they tend to know nothing about the subject, the constant demand to imprint your political ideology onto the education system means that it changes every time the government does, often for the worse. Teachers never know whether they’ll need retraining every five years, while students end up with incompatible results from completely different qualifications, that offer little comparability to prospective employers.

So if we really want reform, and we want it for the better, let’s keep political ideology out of it altogether and leave it to the experts – teachers, academics, you know, people who actually do the educating. Because Gove’s time trip to 1956 doesn’t strike me as much of an improvement.

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 3–A Town Called Mercy

"“We all carry our prisons with us.  Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”

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As the mini-season of Doctor Who ‘standalone movies’ continues, this week we get the first attempt at an actual genre piece – the genre in question being the Western. The show’s tried doing one before, with questionable results in 1965’s The Gunfighters, which gave us this untrammelled musical classic from an offscreen Linda Baron (and, occasionally, Peter Purves):

The Man Who Never Would. Well, almost never.

 

This episode, however, directly confronts the issue of the Doctor’s morality, and how far he’s prepared to go. We needn’t be too shocked by the gun, which ultimately he declines to use. As with the best stories, he relies on his ingenuity, sending the gunslinger out after decoys to keep the town safe. And when Jex answers his own moral dilemma by blowing himself and his ship to bits, the Doctor’s prepared to see Kahler Tek as a victim as much as a villain, and entrust him with the town’s safekeeping from now on.

If the episode has a notable failing, it’s that it does seem to move quite slowly as a plot. Perhaps that’s due to the complex moral issues being debated by some well-drawn characters, but equally possibly, it’s that Leone influence again. Let’s not forget, Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a whole 15 minute sequence of gunslingers waiting for Charles Bronson’s arrival at a station in which nothing happens – and yet it’s a masterclass in building tension. A Town Called Mercy may not have time in its 45 minute runtime for that kind of operatic grandeur, but it certainly has a more measured pace than last week’s enjoyably frenetic offering.

A pretty good guest cast breathed life into Whithouse’s characteristically thoughtful dialogue (although some of the townsfolk’s American accents seemed a mite shaky). Aside from Browder’s likeable turn as Isaac, the standout was prolific character actor Adrian Scarborough, who imbued the nuanced character of Kahler Jex with pathos and likeability despite his crimes. His description of his people’s afterlife, climbing a rock carrying the souls of all those you’ve wronged, was beautifully written and delivered, giving his ultimate sacrifice a natural tear jerking quality far removed from the show’s frequent contrivance in this area.

Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger was suitably scary while also being sympathetic, not an easy trick to carry off from under all those prosthetics. Mind you, the design was very reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s simulants:

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And the idea of a beloved British sci fi show doing a Western also recalled that show’s classic episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Not a bad thing necessarily, but difficult to avoid for viewers of my age!

I thought this was an excellent episode, though my love of Westerns probably makes me less than objective here. It had real depth and complexity, while there was enough classic cowboy action to keep kids entertained. There was also some more hinting about Amy and Rory’s life passing by with occasional Doctor-visits, and what may be a developing theme about the Doctor’s morality, something Steven Moffat seems to keep returning to. Overall, another bullseye at making a movie-style episode in a season which so far has been more consistently enjoyable than last year. Next week it’s back to Chris Chibnall on scripting duties, but his effort last week makes me less trepidatious about that than I might once have been…

Dallas (the next generation): Season 1, Episode 2

“It’s better to be old than to be the devil.” – Mexican proverb (allegedly)

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Previously, on Dallas: In the space of one episode last week, we had an insane amount of plot dumped in our lap (so, business as usual for the Ewings, then). We learned that:

  • Bobby is dying of cancer (sob), which nobody knows except his wife Ann
  • JR is in a care home, suffering from depression (as if)
  • JR’s son John Ross has discovered loads of oil under Southfork, but isn’t allowed to drill there under the terms of Miss Ellie’s will, enforced by Bobby
  • Bobby’s (adopted) son Christopher has a new green energy process using frozen methane (or something), which unfortunately causes earthquakes
  • Christopher has married Rebecca, but only because his former fiancee Elena jilted him
  • Rebecca has a shady brother, and looks distinctly dodgy herself
  • Elena is now going out with John Ross and working with him on the oil drilling
  • Elena never turned up at Christopher’s wedding because of an email purportedly from him calling it off, which he’d never heard about till now, but may have been sent by John Ross to split them up so he could get her
  • Bobby is going to sell Southfork to fund Christopher’s methane thingy (and also to keep it out of John Ross’ drill-happy hands)
  • Marta Del Sol, the lady from the conservation concern he’s selling it to is actually a shill for JR, who’s not very ill after all, and wants Southfork for himself (as usual)
  • But she’s also sleeping with John Ross, and presumably going to betray JR for him…

That’s a lot to pack into a standard length opening episode, and thankfully the second week slows the pace a bit. But not much. There’s still intrigue, sex and Stetsons aplenty, with yet more schemes within schemes revealed by people telling each other things they must logically already know, for our benefit.

“Are you telling me that the only reason we’re together is because someone sent you an email pretending to be Christopher breaking up with you?” John Ross asks Elena, presumably rhetorically as this is exactly what she’s just told him, remembering to be a Ewing bad boy with the parting shot, “screw you, lady!” We are thus reminded of what’s going on in this subplot, and also that John Ross has a hell of a (handsome) poker face. Either that, or he’s not a terribly good actor.

Elsewhere, it looks like both JR’s and John Ross’ cunning plans have hit an early snag, as they’ve both unwisely chosen to bribe the same lawyer to keep Bobby ignorant of what’s going on, and in John Ross’ case to keep JR ignorant that his shill is really John Ross’ shill. Sounds complicated (and it is), so it’s spelled out in an astonishing torrent of exposition from said lawyer the moment John Ross walks into his surprisingly small office. Pausing only to raise his price to $2 million, he pours John Ross an expensive whisky which John Ross doesn’t drink (this happens a lot in Dallas), because he then walks out.

Bobby now knows what we know, that his wife knows what he knows about the cancer. A quick visit to the Ewing love tree ensues, in which generations of Ewing couples have carved their names (but without little hearts, because that would be tasteless). Nice to see “Jock and Ellie” in there, though a little surprising that Bobby’s carving has him paired with Ann rather than Pam. Perhaps he sanded Pam’s name off to carve Ann’s.

Christopher still doesn’t know what Bobby knows, Ann knows and we know that they both know about Bobby’s illness, but he’s worried about the Southfork-selling plan, so decides not to go on honeymoon. Suits Rebecca, whose shifty brother Tommy has been offered a job on the ranch by the credulous Ann. He’ll stand out a bit, as the only Caucasian working there. But now they’re both entrenched. “Don’t get too comfortable being Mrs Ewing,” Tommy sneers, before informing her that they’ve been working on this plan for two years, which I’m guessing she already knew. Who are they? And how does Tommy maintain the exact same length of sinister stubble from week to week?

Christopher and John Ross got a nice scene together at the bar they used to frequent when both were younger (and different actors). The scene cemented their status as the new Bobby and JR, truly their fathers’ sons (even if Christopher is adopted). “We ain’t family,” snarls John Ross, his face contorting in what I’m guessing is meant to be anger. “I’m a Ewing. Everything I am, everything I’d die for, has the Ewing name on it.” To which Christopher replies, “give me a break”, thus echoing the sentiments of the viewer.

In any other show, this sort of clumsy, overheated drama would be difficult to forgive, but in Dallas it’s a vital part of the show’s flavour. It has to be cheesy, glossy and over the top – that’s why we loved it the first time around. And it’s not disappointing in any of those regards now, either.

Thankfully out of his sick bed, JR got lots more to do this week, and Larry Hagman was chewing the scenery all over the place. The dramatic centrepiece was the prestigious Cattle Barons’ Ball, (a real thing which raises money for the American Cancer Society). Given Bobby’s illness in the show and Hagman’s in reality, there was an unexpected note of pathos as JR paused for photos in front of the Society’s logo. But it didn’t last long as the old devil floated through the sea of Stetsons for some much deserved face time with the rest of the old cast.

Pretending to be more infirm than he actually was, JR still managed to lay some threats on Bobby’s duplicitous lawyer (who’s actually working for John Ross, unbeknown to JR, who thinks he’s working for him while Bobby thinks he’s working for him). But it’s his scenes with Bobby and Sue Ellen that stand out, as he makes a convincing job of being a (very hammy) reformed character.

“I’m not gonna forget what you done for me, Bobby,” he told his brother, which Bobby amusingly took at face value. Employing his usual technique of calling every woman he meets “darlin”, he eventually worked his way over to the long-awaited meeting with his ex-wife, only to surprise her by telling her, “you won, honey. And I couldn’t be happier.” It was terrific to see Hagman and Linda Gray together again, and they still have the old chemistry. But is JR really reformed? I’ll believe that when I see it.

Marta Del Sol was at the Ball too, and a desperate John Ross tried to seduce her in order to lay his hands on the money to pay off the lawyer. Marta didn’t seem very happy about this. “Do you remember last time we were lovers John Ross?” she purred menacingly, drugging his drink with a Rohypnol-type thing. “It was an amazing experience.” I’m sure it was, he’s pretty hot. But why drug him when he wanted sex anyway? Unless it was to keep him from spotting the large camera filming them from the ceiling, with a very conspicuous red light flashing on and off.

So, is Marta just into a bit of home video fun, or is John Ross not her first priority after all? Cause that looks like top blackmail material right there. Either way, I was quite happy to see Josh Henderson get his kit off, though slightly baffled as to why he woke up tied up, but still hadn’t taken his boxers off. Ah well, there’s a limit to how far you can go in prime time, I guess.

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But JR was getting suspicious at the delayed call from her father, so he popped down to Mexico to see him. I guess he can afford the flight. Then he met the real Marta, who was very different from the woman he already knows – she’s blonde, for a start. So the cat’s out of the bag for John Ross. But if Marta’s not really working for him or JR, who is she really working for?

It was good to see the intrigue, betrayal and gratuitous rumpy-pumpy continue in the same vein as last week, even if this week was slightly less frantic and OTT. Pretty though the new boys are, though, it’s still Hagman and Duffy who rule the drama here, with able help from Linda Gray. Nonetheless, the new rivalry is coming to the boil nicely, along with the usual overcomplex duplicity. It’s as hard as ever to keep track of who’s betraying who to whom and why. One thing’s for sure – I predict JR is not going to be happy with his son next week. And an angry JR is not to be messed with, so John Ross better look out…