Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 3–Walk of Punishment

Have you ever seen a war where innocents didn’t die by the thousand?”

ScreenShot018

Showrunners Benioff and Weiss were back for this week’s Game of Thrones, with David Benioff doubling as director too. It was (by this show’s standards) a fairly leisurely episode;  a consequence, presumably, of adapting only half of George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords for this season. Together with trimming some of the original book’s more repetitive capture/escape subplots, this may seem to have slowed the pace a little, but again allowed for some depth, and some long scenes which dripped with tension even without action.

Even so, we met more new characters this week, on top of the multitude introduced in the previous two episodes. Opening the episode at Catelyn Stark’s ancestral home of Riverrun, the script immediately introduced us to two of her previously unseen family – her uncle Brynden, known as ‘the Blackfish’, and her brother Edmure.

ScreenShot009

Brynden, a recently reconciled black sheep of the family, was played by the inimitable Clive Russell, trading his native Scottish accent for a nondescript Northern English one. You know where you are with Clive Russell; he’ll either be a terrifying violent lunatic, or a stern but fair man of the world. Here, we got the latter of these two. Just as well, really, Westeros already has more than its fair share of terrifying violent lunatics.

Edmure was played by Tobias Menzies, previously seen a few days ago as a Soviet submarine office in Doctor Who. Between him and Liam Cunningham, also in Saturday’s Who, it looks like the shows are sharing a casting pool – no bad thing with actors this good. Still, I thought it was overly obvious having Edmure painted as quite such a vainglorious idiot from the outset, as he repeatedly failed to land the flaming arrow that would set afire his grandfather’s funeral barge.

His incompetence was further rammed home in a meeting with the none-too-happy Robb, who berated him for attacking the Lannister force without orders, leading Tywin out of a trap Robb had planned for him. Presumably this was some while ago, before the Battle of Blackwater. If so, Edmure made a pretty grievous strategic error. If Robb had managed to capture or kill Tywin, the Lannister patriarch wouldn’t have been able to charge to the rescue of the besieged King’s Landing, and things might have turned out quite differently.

Tywin, thankfully, is written more subtly, and Charles Dance was on good form here as he hosted his first meeting of the new Small Council. It’s a mark of how twisty this show is that its members couldn’t even manage to sit at a table without silently jockeying for positions of power, an an amusing sequence that perfectly demonstrated the various rivalries of the characters without needing a word uttered. Tyrion got the last laugh by positioning himself opposite his stern father at the other end of the table, but that didn’t last. Having made the observation that Lord Baelish’s proposed marriage to Catelyn’s barmy sister Lysa Arryn risked leaving the capital without a treasurer, Tyrion found himself appointed the new Master of Coin.

Judging by the satisfied smirks of Cersei and Maester Pycelle, this was not considered to be a good outcome. Indeed, if it was, Baelish would probably have fought harder to keep the position. Aidan Gillen was as smarmy as ever as the jumped up accountant/brothel keeper, and we also got to see the devious Varys (Conleth Hill) for the first time this season. Sadly, he barely got more than a couple of lines, but hopefully future episodes will give him a bit more to do.

It was no wonder Baelish was so pleased to be rid of responsibility for the Seven Kingdom’s finances, as it turned out. In a blackly amusing bit of timeliness, it turns out that Westeros is virtually bankrupt, mired in unpayable loans to the nasty-sounding Iron Bank of Braavos. I’d love to see George Osborne try to deal with the sort of bankers who might try and call in a loan in this world.

Over the sea in Essos, Dany Targaryen too was having money troubles. She’s obviously got a huge problem with the concept of slavery; but attempting to abolish it by dint of buying all the slaves seems rather naive. especially when all she’s got to trade of any consequence are her dragons, and as Jorah and Barristan pointed out, they’ll be more use than an army when they’re full grown.

ScreenShot021

Nevertheless, a dragon was indeed offered to the contemptuous Master Kraznys as payment, in another of those wittily subtitled scenes (“tell her the Dothraki are only good as pig feed”). Dan Hildebrand is marvellously nasty as Kraznys, but he’s such an obvious villain that I’m not expecting him to last long – especially with Dany being portrayed as a heroic would-be liberator to the Unsullied. She’s not a fool though; having also bargained for the freedom of young interpreter Missandei (Hollyoaks’ Nathalie Emmanuel), she responded to the Braavosi axiom “Valar Morghulis” thus: “Yes, all men must die. But we are not men.”

From sunshine to snow, and north of the Wall is as unwelcoming as ever. Another brief catchup this week, as Jon and the Wildlings reached the site of the (unseen for budgetary reasons) battle between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers. In a creepy bit of business, the Walkers had arranged the slaughtered horses in a macabre spiral against the snow. The bodies of the men were nowhere to be found, but it wasn’t difficult to figure that they’d risen to join the Walkers’ undead forces.

ScreenShot019

No wonder Mance is so determined to storm the Wall and head South. Moves were made in that direction this week, as he sent a small commando force to scale the Wall and knock out Castle Black’s defences, promising to start “the biggest fire the North has ever seen”. Jon was sent along as a test of loyalty – will he pass, or will Kit Harington continue to display his sole, grim facial expression as he plummets from the Wall?

There were brief catchups too with the Stannis and Arya. The Big Climax hinted at when the hound recognised Arya for who she was actually turned out to be rather an anticlimax – it doesn’t seem to bother Thoros one way or the other. Stannis seems to be in a holding pattern of brooding and trying to cop off with Melisandre; she, for her part, asserts that he’s not strong enough, and a shag would probably kill him. (“What a way to go…”) I’m not sure there’s much point to these brief scenes other than to remind us that the characters still exist when they haven’t got much of a plotline, especially in a show as crowded as this one.

Speaking of which, while it’s enjoyable enough, I’m still not sure where the showrunners are going with their original, non-book plotline involving Theon trying to escape from… whoever has him prisoner. As promised last week, the mysterious ‘Boy’ (aka Simon out of Misfits), turned up to set him free, but the guards were in hot pursuit with maces and arrows. Fortunately, Simon out of Misfits turned up just in time to save Theon’s arse. Literally, as he was about to be raped by his gruesomely salivating former torturer.

ScreenShot012

This being a new plot, even those who’ve read the books can only guess where it’s going. Is the mysterious ‘Boy’ all he seems, or another captor? Or will Theon’s destiny take him in a wholly different direction to the books? At least Alfie Allen must be happy he doesn’t have to wait another couple of seasons before they call him back to work.

Lastly, we caught up with Odd Couple Jaime and Brienne, who, as it turned out, hadn’t managed to fight their way out of last week’s confrontation. Trussed up on the back of a horse, they continued to bicker like an old married couple, but with a much darker air; the disagreement was over whether Brienne should lie back and accept being raped by their captors, or should fight back and probably be killed. Inevitably, Jaime advised the former, while Brienne herself preferred the latter.

Brienne may be one double-hard bastard, but big as she is, even she can’t fight off four men at the same time. Locke (a standin for the books’ repellent mercenaries, the Bloody Mummers) turns out to be a genuinely nasty piece of work, with Aussie actor Noah Taylor sneeringly nasty, despite not entirely being able to hide his Antipodean twang.

ScreenShot014

Fortunately for Brienne, he seemed to believe Jaime’s story that her father was swimming sapphires, and reprieved her from rape – for now. Unfortunately for Jaime, his apparently greedily accepted promises of wealth and titles for freedom didn’t cut so much ice. I never quite believed Locke was taken in, so I’m surprised the normally shrewd Jaime did. Suck mistakes in this show tend to have dire consequences – as Jaime discovered when the sneering Locke casually chopped off his hand. His sword hand, too. Given all that he’s said about fighting being his only skill and his only passion, this is not likely to cheer him up.

Gratuitous nudity of the week

A properly amusing scene, as Tyrion tried to reward his squire Podrick for saving his life. Visiting Littlefinger’s brothel, he called forth first one full-frontal nude whore… then another… and finally one who at least had a shred of clothing, but promptly contorted herself to push her crotch into young Pod’s astonished face. “Pace yourself, lad,”smirked Bronn.

ScreenShot010

That was followed by an even more amusing scene in which Pod revealed that the whores hadn’t accepted payment, leaving the astonished Tyrion and Bronn to wonder what he’d done to make them eschew gold coin: “Tell us everything. We want details. Copious details.”

But if you prefer chaps, you had to make do with Theon’s (thankfully still virgin) arse.

ScreenShot011

Minstrels’ tunes

In an episode with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and Coldplay’s Will Champion, it was appropriate that we were introduced to another of the recurring songs from Martin’s original books. First heard sung raggedly by Locke and his men, ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair’ is an altogether bawdier number than last season’s sombre ‘Rains of Castamere’, in keeping with the ribald nature of many real medieval songs and tales (think Geoffrey Chaucer). A decidedly unmedieval rendering of the tune by Brooklyn guitar band the Hold Steady graced the closing credits. I’m still undecided whether that was a little too jarringly anachronistic.

The highlight of this season’s soundtrack album?

 

As entertaining as ever, this week’s episode was more jaw-jaw than war-war, but the lengthy scenes and some actual laugh-out loud comic moments distinguished it from some of the show’s darker hours. Still, plenty is going on, even if it’s back to plotting and scheming rather than confrontation.

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 9 – Cold War

My people are dead, they are dust. There is nothing left for me except my revenge.”

Doctor-who-series-7b-cold-war-poster-landscape

A very nostalgic episode of Doctor Who this week, as we saw the return of a classic 60s ‘monster’ beloved by the fans but in no way as embedded in popular culture as the Daleks or the Cybermen. The Ice Warriors were back, in a genuinely interesting period piece that revisited one of the most defining aspects of the 80s without miring itself in  big shoulder pads or terrible hairstyles.

For those of us who grew up in the 80s, the looming threat of nuclear armageddon was probably a more all-encompassing menace than Thatcher and a bigger cultural phenomenon than New Romance. It was, as we all knew, the ‘Cold War’. What better war to reintroduce the cyber-augmented reptiles from the freezing planet Mars – the so-called ‘Ice Warriors’?

IceWarrior

The Ice Warriors (name coined by a minor human character in their first story, which uncannily turned out to be what they were always known as) are one of Doctor Who’s more inventive aliens; inventive in the sense that, unlike the Daleks or the Cybermen, they had individuality, depth, and a proper culture.

We saw, in their first few stories, that they could be bad guys. Then, along with the Doctor, we had to face up the idea that as individuals, they might be capable of good as well as bad. 1972’s The Curse of Peladon is a groundbreaking story, the first demonstration that ‘monsters’ were actually people, and that it might not be the case that an entire race were ‘bad’ even if the ones we’d seen up to that point were.

Peladon

As a result, the Ice Warriors have become something of a fan favourite, their ‘honourable warrior’ culture much explored in the Virgin New Adventures and other such fan fiction. But this is their first appearance on your actual television since 1974’s The Monster of Peladon, where they were back to being the baddies. So how did they fare?

Well, it was a script by Mark Gatiss, whose work has been somewhat variable on the show. A huge fan, whose Virgin novel Nightshade was genuinely superb, as a TV writer he’s rocketed from the excellent The Unquiet Dead to the fun but inconsequential The Idiot’s Lantern and then the pretty awful toy relaunch Victory of the Daleks. His work has been so variable, I’ve come to think of it as rating on a ‘Gatiss scale’. Cold War, on that scale, is better than Victory of the Daleks, on a par with The Idiot’s Lantern, but not quite up there with The Unquiet Dead.

On top of being an Ice Warrior re-introduction and a period piece, Cold War also took on the tall order of being a genre piece too – a submarine movie, like Das Boot, Crimson Tide or my all-time favourite, 1957’s The Enemy Below. On that score, it didn’t work out too well. Those movies depend on actual conflict, while this utilised the claustrophobic submarine setting but little else.

Nevertheless, it (perhaps intentionally)  reminded me of another aquatic Who story – the less than classic Warriors of the Deep, itself a re-introduction of sorts for classic monsters the Silurians and the Sea Devils. Warriors of the Deep was actually made at the height of the real Cold War, and reimagined it in a future setting. It was still an obvious allegory for the situation that was, at that point, current.

Mark Gatiss, a child of the 80s every bit as much as me, obviously had his own adolescence as sullied as mine by the threat of nuclear holocaust. With that in mind, it was refreshing that he chose to set his story on a sub belonging to the ‘enemy’ – the Soviet Union. The sub (not, as far as I noticed, named) was populated by the usual Gatiss cast of varying depth (pun intended).

cult-doctor-who-s07-e03-10

Commander Zhukov (presumably named after WW2 Marshal Georgi Zhukov) was played with some dignity by the excellent Liam Cunningham, Game of Thrones’ similarly seaborne Ser Davos Seaworth, but not really given any more depth than the standard ‘base commanders’ of the Troughton episodes this was reminiscent of. Less, really; he was more like the forgettable Commander Vorshak from Warriors of the Deep.

His (I assume) political officer Lieutenant Stepashin was a good enough performance from Tobias Menzies (especially his doomed attempt to ally himself with the Ice Warrior), but an obvious lift of Tomas Arana’s rather more threatening equivalent in The Hunt for Red October. The rest of the crew, sad to say (even the pretty James Norton as Onegin) were given little more depth than the average Star Trek redshirt.

DavidWarner

With the exception of David Warner as the New Romantic-obsessed Professor Grisenko. Warner, a firm genre favourite and veteran of more Star Trek roles than is reasonable, is one of the greatest Doctors we never had, having given us a glimpse of how good he could have been in two ‘alternate Doctor’ Big Finish audio stories. Here, he was as charismatic as ever – I never expected to hear him sing Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ – but while the part was good, and he was good in it, I couldn’t help feeling that his long-awaited appearance in Doctor Who should have been something more significant than, essentially, a comedy bit part.

But what of the Ice Warrior, thawed out in minutes under very similar circumstances to the creatures’ original appearance? On that, Gatiss did really well, exploring aspects of Brian Hayles’ creations we’d always theorised about but never actually had spelled out. It was a given from their very first story that they had some kind of cybernetic augmentation, and certainly their built-in sonic weapons (little used here) were not the product of natural evolution.

Gatiss here did what we’d always wanted – demonstrated that the big green carapace was a removable suit of cybernetic armour. And also that, out of his armour, Grand Marshal Skaldak was at least as much of a threat as he was in it. Douglas Mackinnon’s clever, old-style direction steered clear of showing us the unmasked Warrior until the very last minute – a good strategy, as it turned out, as I wasn’t entirely convinced by the CG facial expressions. Nonetheless, as it stalked the sub picking off unwary crew members, the creature was (again presumably intentionally) a credible threat reminiscent of the original Alien.

And to add menace, we discovered that the armour could be used as a weapon in itself, as Skaldak summoned the empty suit to gun its way tot the command deck. We also learned more of the (somewhat Klingon-inspired) Martian code of honour; Skaldak’s hostility was basically a reaction to the Russians having started the fight, and he was honour-bound to meet them in combat. Discovering (he thought) that his people had died off during his 5000-year slumber, his bitterness against a race whose nations he didn’t distinguish between was understandable. And more than a little affecting, with his stories of his past, and the combat alongside his daughter in “the red snow”.

Cold War

Matt Smith was (as usual) on good form as the Doctor, though he seemed to slip into Tennant’s ‘Estuary English’ accent at one point. The aspect of the Third Doctor overcoming his (understandable) prejudice against the Ice Warriors, and realising their race could be good as well as bad, was a central plot point of The Curse of Peladon. Here, it seemed like a lesson learned, but the point was well-made that, whatever the Doctor thought of himself, Skaldak would see him as a ‘soldier’ every bit as much as the Russians.

So, as is often the case since 2005, it was his companion who saved the day. There wasn’t much of the self-conscious ‘arc’ stuff about Clara this week, which thankfully gave Jenna-Louise Coleman a chance to showcase her character on its own terms. She is, as we know, the standard Moffat self-reliant spunky young woman; I still find her a little identikit in that regard. But that’s no disrespect to the actress, and Coleman was enjoyable here. Her belated acceptance of Grisenko’s invitation to sing ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ was the tipping point that stayed Skaldak’s hand in mercy, reminding him of his daughter singing. It was both amusing and touching.

Aside form the obvious nostalgia value of the Ice Warriors returning, we also got the fanboy-pleasing reference to the HADS – Hostile Action Displacement System – not used or even referred to since 1969’s The Krotons. It was more than a fan-pleasing gesture though, effectively answering the obvious question I asked early on – “why doesn’t the Doctor get everyone out of there in the TARDIS?” Still, alongside last week’s oblique reference to Susan, it’s plain we’re getting 60s references to celebrate the 50th anniversary year. No bad thing, in my opinion; the references aren’t so central as to alienate new fans who won’t get them, and give a little thrill to those of us who do.

All told, while I thought the story wasn’t that inventive, this was an excellent re-introduction of a classic alien – probably the best since 2005’s Dalek. I hope they’ll be back. I also hope that, if they are, the nuances of their culture seen here are retained, and they don’t just become another Big Bad.

TroughtonIceWarrior

Mad Men: Season 6, Episodes 1 & 2 – The Doorway

“Midway through life’s journey, I went astray on a straight road – and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

MMDonBeach

It’s time to rejoin the existential angst of the unhappy folk at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, as Mad Men returns for its sixth, apparently penultimate season. After the tumultuous events of last year – Joan whoring herself to a sweaty exec for a partnership, Peggy heading off to a rival agency, and Lane Pryce hanging himself in his office – our heroes are unhappy. For this show, this is not unusual.

The season premiere, appropriately enough, was all about death. We opened with a POV shot of some unknown person being resuscitated from a heart attack. Oh no! Is it Don? Roger? Bert, even?

Since Matthew Weiner’s script immediately cut straight to a Hawaiian beach, that was a mystery to be eked out for a short while. It lent a hallucinatory air to the proceedings, as I began to wonder whether Don and Megan’s idyllic holiday was actually one of the dream sequences the show occasionally does; it’s often so thickly portentous even when it isn’t a dream, it can be hard to tell. Let’s face it, Mad Men is so heavy with portents, the folk from Frank Herbert’s Dune look uncomplicated by comparison.

Don Draper must be the only person whose choice of beach reading is Dante’s Inferno, another portent that made me wonder if this was a near-death experience. But no, as we began seeing things from Megan’s perspective too, that clearly wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, the Drapers’ vacation had a surreal quality to it.

Don, unable to sleep, met a drunken soldier at the hotel bar. As they chatted about their respective combat experiences, Don found himself agreeing to be best man for the clearly doomed PFC Dinkins at his wedding the next morning, before heading back to Vietnam. The whole sequence had such a dreamlike quality, it was hard to tell if it was imaginary until Megan found her husband giving away a bride on the beach the next morning, taking a snapshot of the occasion.

MMDinkinsWedding

Mention of Vietnam got me wondering exactly when the new season was set. Mad Men never does anything as easy as telling the viewer; you have to work it out from hints in the dialogue, the fashions, the cars etc. Last year, the elapsed time between seasons was easy to work out from Joan’s pregnancy. This year, there was no such easy clue, but the Christmas trees, and the repeated references to Dr Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplant, gave it away – we were in December 1967.

So, the characters have just been through the Summer of Love, though in typical Mad Men fashion, it’s a very cold winter when we catch up with them. Don, increasingly out of touch with the young, was dismissive of the trivialisation of the word ‘love’, being used to pepper conversations and ad campaigns – “Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word? It doesn’t belong in the kitchen. We’re wearing it out.”

In keeping with the times, absolutely everyone’s now smoking weed – the creative team at SCDP even sparking up in the office, to very little reaction from Don (“I smell creativity”). Vietnam would now be in full swing, and the horror of the combat starting to come through to the American public – as Peggy discovered to her annoyance.

MMPeggyOffice

In keeping with what I’d expected at the end of last year, we spent a deal of time here catching up with Peggy and how she was doing at rival firm Cutler, Gleason and Chaough. Not unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Don Draper in her work style – she’s confident and thoroughly in charge of her rather timid creative team. She’s also now living with longtime boyfriend Abe, and walking all over him too, which he seems perfectly content with; he too seems permanently stoned.

Still, Peggy obviously misses the SCDP crew; working all night at the office, she spends ages on the phone to old buddy Stan. So it was that Stan happened to overhear everything that passed between her and her boss – Don’s old rival – Ted Chaough. Trouble a-brewing?

Roger, meanwhile, appeared to have got his acid-fuelled serenity out of his system and was spending time with a therapist. John Slattery was as wryly amusing as ever; he manages to keep Roger deep enough to avoid him being just a comical buffoon. We saw both sides in these two episodes, as he too got to reflect on death, in this case his mother’s.

This was announced to him by his tearful secretary Caroline, who he awkwardly comforted while balancing two glasses of gin. The comedy was heightened even more at a supremely awkward wake. In Mad Men, no social occasion ever goes well, and this was no exception. Having to deal with fawning elderly relatives, two ex-wives and his grasping daughter, it was a relief for Roger when the unexpectedly sloshed Don turned up, staggered about a bit and vomited into the umbrella stand, mercifully cutting short his wheelchair-bound aunt’s saccharine eulogy.

MMRogerFuneral

It felt strangely out of character (presumably intentionally) for Don to be so out of control on booze. Yes, he’s had his problems there before, but he seemed to get over them. This time, there was little forewarning; after Megan (now a minor soap opera star) left for some filming, he was seen silently sipping whisky while the maid vacuumed. Next minute he was turning up at Roger’s, barely able to stand up.

Don being Don, he was lost in introspection half the time, staring at things with a troubled expression in that way he has. In one of the show’s examples of portentous symbolism, he’d discovered that, while in Hawaii, he’d accidentally switched his Zippo lighter with that of Private Dinkins, and he can’t get rid of it. He tried throwing it in the trash, only for Megan to hand it back to him after the maid found it. Later, he asked his secretary Dawn to get the Army to return it to Dinkins; given this opener’s obsession with death, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the young man is already on his way home in a body bag.

Don seems obsessed with death. Perhaps he’s still haunted by guilt over Lane’s suicide, which itself reawakened his guilt over his brother’s. We discovered fairly early on (in a joltingly timeslipped sequence) that the victim of the heart attack seen at the outset was the seemingly insignificant doorman at Don’s apartment, Jonesy. As the drunken Don was manhandled home by Pete and Ken, he stopped to slurringly and insistently press Jonesy for details of what he’d seen when he ‘died’ – as it turned out, the old standby of ‘a white light’.

MMDonDrunk

Perhaps this was what inspired Don to come up with an ill-advised pitch to the Sheraton honchos, showing an abandoned set of clothes on a Hawaiian beach. He thought it was an image of freedom; to everyone else, it suggested suicide. An interesting juxtaposition of ideas, if a little obvious by this show’s standards.

MMHawaiiPitch

Betty at least didn’t seem morbidly obsessed with death, as we caught up with her and Sally watching Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. But she too was acting very oddly. With Sally’s friend Sandy staying over for Christmas, she was obviously none too keen on husband Henry apparently perving at her – but it was a bit out of the blue when she acidly suggested that he should rape her. And that she should watch. Joke it may have been, but this is not the prim Betty we remember – is middle age taking a toll on her sexual tastes along with her waistline?

Taking her unusual behaviour further, she seemed to be forging a maternal bond with Sandy in the way she never has with Sally. Tracking the errant teenager to a filthy commune in Greenwich Village, she then took on the role of den mother to the straggly hippy boys trying ineptly to cook goulash while stoned. She didn’t find Sandy, though – and what was the heavily telegraphed significance of her ripping her coat?

MMBetty

And while Roger may have taken the death of his mother with a sanguine, almost exasperated air, death came back to hit him hard as he was handed the cleaning tools of his just-deceased shoeshine guy – and collapsed in a weeping heap. Of course, this would usually just be a delayed reaction to the death that really should affect him; but it would be quite in keeping for Roger Sterling to be more attached to his shoeshine boy than his mother.

Not many clues here about where the season’s going to go. Everything seems pretty stable at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (nice that they kept Lane’s name on the ticket). Don’s full of introspective angst and middle-aged obsolescence, but when isn’t he? Black secretary Dawn is still the sole representative of non-white ethnicities in the office. And Peggy seems to be doing just fine at Cutler, Gleason and Chaough, despite the unfortunate problem with the Koss headphones account.

Yes, on the surface, everything seemed fine. But then, in this show, that’s often the way. This episode had a doom-laden, ominous tone deriving from nothing out of the ordinary at all; Dinkins’ lighter, Don’s rearranged office and so forth. And the noticeable fixation with death – and what happens after – may be some tonal indicator of what’s to come. For now though, while this was a good season opener and certainly very watchable, it lacked the compelling tone of last year. A low key start, even for a show this low key – let’s see where it goes from here.

Historical events

As mentioned above, the first successful heart transplant – achieved by Dr Christiaan Barnard on 3 December 1967 – got a lot of shout outs. It was also perfectly accurate that Phyllis Diller was fronting the Tonight Show at that point – Matthew Weiner pointed out that Johnny Carson routinely took the holidays off. Not sure who the comedian guest was that made the unfortunate gag about GIs having necklaces made from human ears, but that certainly did become a scandal at about this point.

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

As we’ve moved on from 1966, apparently the Hideous Checked Sports Coats so prominent last year are no longer In. What is In, after the Summer of Love made hippies trendy, is flamboyant facial hair. Ginsberg was sporting a fulsome moustache:

MMGinsberg

While Stan had gone the whole hog with a massive full-on beard:

MMStan

Even Peggy’s beau Abe is no longer the clean-cut beatnik we remember, but has morphed into a Frank Zappa lookalike:

MMAbeZappa

No wonder he seemed so stoned.

Roger, for his part, was sporting a style new to him – a none-too-subtle pastel blazer, with two rows of conspicuous buttons:

MMRogerBlazer

Tune in next week to see what other atrocities the looming end of the decade will force our characters to wear…

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 2–Dark Wings, Dark Words

“I didn’t ask for black magic dreams.”

GoTJaimeBrienne

After last week’s crowded but slow-moving scene setter, this week’s Game of Thrones was back to full on action and intrigue, as we caught up with most of the characters we hadn’t seen last week, and met a whole plethora more.

While last week saw the introduction of a few new characters – Mance Rayder and the Wildlings, for example – this week the show really cut loose with introduction after introduction. In some cases, these were characters held back from the second book, necessitating some economising on plotlines. In all cases, they were superbly cast, and it was a pleasure to see many of my favourite character actors making an appearance as new regulars.

First though, we got to catch up with some of the Stark family we didn’t see last week, and immediately I saw a looming problem. Crippled Bran Stark is still being dragged toward the general vicinity of the Wall in the company of Hodor and Osha, and beset by mysterious visions of the three-eyed raven and an oddly elfin teenage boy.

GoTBran

That’s not the problem, though. I like that Bran’s journey is getting increasingly mystical and portentous. The trouble is that, brilliant though Isaac Hempstead-Wright is in the part, he’s obviously hitting puberty. He’s noticeably taller than last season, which in the show’s timeframe was only a few days ago, and his voice seems to be breaking. I’ve speculated before that the story’s compressed timeframe vs the time it takes to make a season might mean that some of the marvellous child actors may have to be recast. I’m beginning to think (much as I’d hate the idea) that Bran might be the first. When puberty proper hits him, he may well shoot up in height – and that might be tricky to explain. There’s always magic, I suppose.

Which may explain one of his new friends. The Reed children (for it is they) are related to the Stark bannermen of the Riverlands, and in the books were introduced last volume. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, thinking season two already somewhat overmanned, held them back till this year, necessitating a different, but just as effective introduction as they caught up with Bran’s party in the woods.

There are two of them, Jojen and Meera, and Jojen is played by the elfin Thomas Sangster. Sangster appears not to have aged since his part in Doctor Who six years ago; despite now being 22, he still looks about 15. Accompanying him is his less spiritual sister/bodyguard Meera, played by Ellie Kendrick, Being Human’s nerdy werewolf Allison.

GoTJojenGoTMeera

Thankfully, Maisie Williams appears to share Sangster’s ability to not age, so there’s no danger of Arya being recast. Having escaped Harrenhal thanks to the homicidal favours of Jaqen H’ghar, she was still roaming the woods with Gendry and Hot Pie, heading for her mother’s ancestral home of Riverrun. Williams was as brilliant as ever, as Arya faced off against rebel leader Thoros of Myr, another fan favourite charismatically incarnated by Paul Kaye.

GoTThoros

This was another neat case of economising on George RR Martin’s occasionally meandering storylines. In the books, Arya and friends spent ages wandering the countryside having minor skirmishes; the show sensibly dispenses with that, getting them straight to where they need to be for the story proper to advance. It was ‘economised’ even further when Thoros brethren dragged their latest captive into the inn where they were all dining – the Hound.

It’s great to see Sandor Clegane again, after his disgusted abandonment of King’s Landing during the Battle of Blackwater. Unfortunately for Arya, he knows who she is – that could put the cat among the pigeons.

Also wandering in the general vicinity of Arya and co were other interested parties, most notably her mother. Still not popular among Force Stark from Winterfell, Catelyn has plunged her rep even lower by dragging the army off to her family home of Riverrun to attend her father’s funeral.

They’re really cutting the flab from Martin’s narrative here (no bad thing in this regard), as Catelyn in the book had an emotional reunion with her father then waited patiently for him to die – while, presumably, the Army of the North tutted disapprovingly and checked their watches. Here, with Lord Tully already gone, Vanessa Taylor’s script found time to give Michelle Fairlie a moving showcase speech concerning her guilt over Jon Snow.

Having first prayed for his death, then, when he became ill, making a bargain with the gods that if he recovered she would love him as her own, she found she couldn’t manage it. As a result, she thinks the various misfortunes that have befallen her family are all her fault – “all the horror that’s befallen my family… all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.” It was an obvious Big Acting moment, but so well delivered by Fairlie it was hard to begrudge. That’s the kind of character depth that sets this show apart from shallower fantasy fare.

Along with its vicious politicking, that is. There was plenty more of that to be found in King’s Landing this week, and once again, despite action, horror and magic elsewhere, it proved the most gripping part of the show.

The Tyrells have been quick to exploit the debt the Lannisters owe them for their aid at Blackwater, and wasted no time in insinuating themselves at court. We saw the beginnings of that last week, as the shrewd Margaery began her campaign to worm her way into the public’s affections with random acts of Diana-like kindness. Natalie Dormer, an old hand at this kind of thing after her role as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, gives Margaery an obvious core of steel under that sweetly girlish exterior.

Even so, it was a tense scene in which she verbally sparred with capricious and psychotic boy king Joffrey. Jack Gleeson (apparently a lovely guy in real life) is so convincing as a Caligula-like despot you never know which way he’s going to jump. Margaery, it seems, can stay the right side of him – just. It took an extremely Freudian use of a crossbow as phallic symbol to pacify him, with Joffrey plainly more turned on than is wholesome by the idea of his fiancee killing things.

GoTMargaeryJoffrey

This week, we also got to see where Margaery learnt her manipulative skills, with the ever-excellent Diana Rigg turning up as her grandmother Olenna Tyrell, the aptly named ‘Queen of Thorns’. Sharp-tongued, caustic yet charming, she’s plainly going to be a force to be reckoned with in the court. Drawing the truth about Joffrey (“He’s a monster!”) from the terrified Sansa, she was all sweetness throughout. Yet, even if she has a matronly care for Sansa’s well-being, you could see the cogs whirring as she processed the information for future use.

GoTOlenna

Olenna’s not the only one to be ‘protective’ of Sansa, though, as Shae popped up to offer her some worldly advice about the sinister attentions of Petyr Baelish – “Men like that only want one thing from a pretty girl… love is not the thing.” Interesting though the character is, I’m still not sure about Sibel Kikelli’s performance as Shae – an accent can’t wholly hide a sometimes hesitant line delivery. Still, at least she had the frustrated Tyrion to play off in his all-too-brief appearance this week.

Elsewhere, there was the obligatory brief catch up with events beyond the Wall, as Sam Tarly faced the contempt of Watch brother Rast, only to be rescued by Grenn and Dolorous Edd. Jon, meanwhile, was still trekking southward with the Wildings, and the not entirely unexpected appearance of Mackenzie Crook as Orell shed some light on the destiny of Bran; Orell is a ‘warg’, one who can see through the eyes of animals. Plainly this is where Bran is heading too…

GoTOrell

We also caught up with Jaime and Brienne, who are presumably not far from Arya and her mother. The Riverlands must be quite big to avoid the dramatic contrivance of these three sets of characters running into each other at some point. Jaime and Brienne’s scenes were some of the best of the ep; these two characters, with their constant sniping, are plainly destined to become unlikely allies and perhaps even friends.

First though, they had to bond as warriors always do – with a bloody great swordfight. In a show that’s steeped in medieval combat, this was superb even by the high standards usually on display. I’m not sure which of them would have won, though, as their bonding exercise was interrupted by stalwart Australian actor Noah Taylor, as Locke from House Bolton, plainly intent on recapturing the Kingslayer. I’ve got the feeling this is not going to end well for him and his men next week.

GoTLocke

The Boltons are being quietly shaped up to be major players in the show’s labyrinthine power struggles. Lord Roose Bolton has been gradually enlarging his role from sniping about Robb Stark to the disaffected Lord Karstark to shaping strategy for the well-meaning but naive Robb. Michael McElhatton’s quiet but intense performance as Roose suggests hidden nuttiness to come.

Having already introduced enough new characters to fill the casts of several less ambitious shows, the ep surprised me by actually adding a new plotline not in the source material. In the books, it was a very long time before we discovered that Theon Greyjoy had survived the burning of Winterfell. Here, we discovered fairly early on that he’s being held captive in a mysterious dungeon and being fairly comprehensively tortured.

As usual, Alfie Allen played Theon without the hindrance of clothes, though any titillation was held off by the wince-making realism of the torture; still, how many fingernails does he really need? There’s hope for Theon yet though, as a mysterious boy claiming to be sent by his sister whispered that he’ll save him when the time is right. This being Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t trust him an inch, even if he is Simon from Misfits (Iwan Rheon).

GoTBoy

Despite the burden of introducing more characters than War and Peace, this somehow managed to feel like a deeper episode than last week. Yes, some of the plots were only glancingly referred to, but others were given enough room to breathe that they felt fresh and exciting. New characters always give a show like this a new lease of life; introducing a veritable army of them at the same time really helps. But with so many complicated plotlines already in progress, can the show manage the juggling act of the books and keep them all in the air successfully? On this basis, I suspect it can. There’s now so much going on the show barely has room for its trademark gratuitous nudity – the only character to get his kit off this week was Joffrey, of all people. Still, if you like that kind of thing…

GoTJoffrey

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 8–The Rings of Akhaten

Can you feel the light on your eyelids? That is the light of an alien sun.”

RingsOfAkhaten

I was a bit tipsy yesterday afternoon.

As a result, I struggled to stay fully awake during Doctor Who, and rewatched it today to properly follow it. In the interim, unusually, I was able to digest what many of my online friends thought.

The reaction from many people I knew was pretty negative. “Slow, predictable, cheap tacky sets, no larger plot arc, no character developing, cheesy maudlin flashback (wtf??), and dull as fuck” opined one friend. “They’ve given Matt Smith his very own Fear Her,” said another (damning indeed!). “Utter pigshit,” was one more blunt opinion. The only voice I heard raised in its favour was my boyfriend Barry, who rather enjoyed it, comparing it to surreal 1965 serial The Web Planet, which similarly is not well-regarded.

Well, I actually love The Web Planet. And I may be tacking into the wind of disapproval here, but I rather enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten as well. True, it was unabashedly sentimental, which I can see would put some people off. It was also heavily dependent on Murray Gold’s admittedly OTT emotion-tugging music, which as usual frequently swamped the dialogue. And yes, the show might have bitten off more than it could chew with such an effects-heavy story (though I didn’t have any complaints on that score).

But it was also, more than ever, a sign that this era of Doctor Who is very much science fantasy rather than science fiction. I’ve heard some fans carping about the scientific impossibility of the Seven Worlds of Akhaten (from the perspective of gravity, atmosphere etc), or the ‘space moped’ which our heroes rode without the benefit of spacesuits or a roof.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7B EPISODE 2

Well, you could have dealt with that in the dialogue with some Star Trek-style technobabble. But why bother? Technology, in recent Who, is often a shorthand for ‘magic’ – it does whatever the plot demands. Sometimes that’s irritating, when it’s used to short circuit a proper conclusion by way of a deus ex machina. But when it’s just covering minor details, I don’t have a problem with that.

Speaking of deus ex machina, this was another story that, like a few recently, seemed to heark back to the style of Russell T Davies. It followed the established Nu-Who template for the introduction of a new companion – start with a story on contemporary Earth (where they’re always – disappointingly – from), then whisk them off to a weird future location full of a Star Wars-style menagerie of odd-looking aliens.

Kudos to the production team for not taking the ‘cheap’ option of reusing the many existing alien costumes – all the creatures on display here seemed entirely new. Indeed, the visuals seemed fairly sumptuous, from the costumes to the effects, evoking – for me – early efforts by French fantasists Jeunet and Caro, like City of Lost Children. True, the set design for the dusty streets was functional rather than inspired, but it seems harsh to criticise that when there was so much invention on display elsewhere.

Akhaten

And the concepts were, for me, as inventive as the look of the thing. True, Doctor Who has done ‘false gods’ any number of times before; they almost always turn out to be power-mad computers, or, as here, parasitic aliens. We even got one last year in Toby Whithouse’s enjoyable The God Complex.

But the god here, with its domination of an entire solar system who lived in fear of it and routinely sang it lullabies to keep it asleep, seemed genuinely terrifying – signposted by even the Doctor being terrified of it. Writer Neil Cross (creator of Luther and, less favourably, recent adapter of Day of the Triffids) came up with the fascinating concept of it feeding on treasured memories and stories, to the extent that they even formed the currency of its worshippers. That’s reminiscent of a recurring theme of the other Neil – Mr Gaiman himself.

Like Neil Gaiman’s similarly inventive script for The Doctor’s Wife, this gifted Matt Smith with some cracking dialogue to get his teeth into. “We don’t walk away”, summed up the show’s philosophy nicely, as well as providing a riposte to anyone wondering why they didn’t just get in the TARDIS and leg it. But the Doctor’s final speech to the ‘Grandfather’ was obviously a showcase moment, and Smith seized it with both hands to chew the scenery (but in a good way):

I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained, no time, no space, just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man.I watched universes freeze and creations burn,I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, I have lost things you will never understand – and I know things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken…”

DoctorAkhaten

Hints of things to come, I wonder? Speaking of which, the ep also gave us more of an insight into Clara, with that prologue in which the Doctor, basically, stalked her parents through from their meeting to her mother’s death. That actually could seem more than a bit creepy, and Clara was probably right to be slightly weirded out when she ‘remembered’ it – the implication being that the memories were fresh, since the Doctor had only just taken that trip.

Clara’s apparent impossibility was the only ongoing plotline here, though. That may annoy those who are fans of the ‘arc’ episodes above the others, but I’ve personally found Steven Moffat’s arc-heavy approach hard going these last couple of years, and am glad that it’s taking the more background approach of the early RTD seasons.

Clara did get to show some real mettle here, as we continue to get to know her. I still bemoan the fact that she seems like ‘Moffat spunky young woman type #23’, but her morale-bolstering heart to heart with little Merry (Emilia Jones, excellent) was a magical moment that could only be resisted by the most hard-hearted and cynical. And her ultimate rescue of the Doctor, speeding to the Pyramid on the space moped then giving up her most treasured memory, was lovely; especially the Doctor’s remark about the monumental difference between “what was and what should have been”. Could Clara’s mum, and her apparently premature death, figure in why she’s such an impossibility?

There was some creepy stuff too, which was still in keeping with the imaginative visuals here. The Mummy in the Pyramid was pretty standard Who-fare, but the creepy looking Vigils will probably have given many a young child a few bad dreams. With their blank faces and Graf Orlok costumes, they were again reminiscent of the creations of Jeunet and Caro, not to mention David Lynch. Indeed, their apparently sound-based weaponry called to mind nothing so much as Dune.

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 7B EPISODE 2

I found The Rings of Akhaten to be a visually sumptuous, life-affirming piece of fantasy, very much in the style of the work of Neil Gaiman. I wouldn’t want Who to be like this every week, lest it turn into Farscape or Lexx, but that’s the beauty of the show – its flexibility. Next week, it looks like we’ve got a trad submarine thriller (albeit with aliens). That’s good too; but I’ve always got time for some out and out fantasy, if it’s done well, and I thought this was. Still, what do I know? I like The Web Planet Smile

WebPlanet

Game of Thrones: Season 3, Episode 1–Valar Dohaeris

“Big men fall just as fast as little ones – if you put a sword through their heart.” – Jon Snow

ScreenShot030

It’s a solid if unspectacular start to the much-anticipated third season of Game of Thrones, with an episode that has to establish where its growing army of characters are and what they’re doing since we last saw them. With the ever-increasing roster of main characters and ever more complex plots within plots, this is no small task. It’s unsurprising that, while it’s full of intrigue, the season opener has to take in so many subplots that it doesn’t deal with any of them in more than cursory detail. Even then, there’s one or two important subplots that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, scripting this week, couldn’t actually fit in.

This is hardly surprising – George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series on which the show is based, gets ever more labyrinthine as it goes on. Recognising this, Benioff and Weiss have sensibly decided that this year’s ten episodes will cover roughly half the third book, A Storm of Swords. That equates to its book publication, in the UK at least, where the paperback was also split into two volumes.

It might, therefore, give greater room for the characters and plots to breathe. On this week’s evidence though, I wouldn’t guarantee that. Still, the script sensibly kept any new characters to a minimum, which meant that even if we didn’t see much of the ones here, we already had a handle on who they were and what they were about.

A fair chunk of this ep focused on events Beyond the Wall, where the big threat of Ancient Unstoppable Evil is. To my mind, while they’re clearly the most dangerous of the show’s antagonists, the mysterious White Walkers and their army of slavering zombies are less interesting than the political machinations elsewhere. But we’d been left with the big cliffhanger last year of an apparent army of the devils marching on the band of Nightwatch camped in the wilds, so necessarily we had to deal with that first.

Gotta say, after the buildup in the season finale, the lack of an actual big battle was a bit of a disappointment. But lavish though it may be, Game of Thrones doesn’t have the budget to stage a Battle of Blackwater every week. Besides, it played out here much as it did in the book, with Samwell Tarly finding a corpse, assuming everyone was dead, then being rescued from a (fairly unconvincing CG) zombie by the survivors of the Watch.

That being dealt with, we didn’t return to them – there wasn’t really time. It was swiftly on to the Wildling camp, where the captive Jon Snow was ushered into the presence of ‘King Beyond the Wall’ Mance Rayder, making his first appearance here. Ciaran Hinds was as impressive as ever as Mance – another good piece of casting from a show that tends to do well here.

ScreenShot033

Jon won his confidence with a sincere-sounding speech about recognising the real enemy and not being convinced the Watch had their hearts in dealing with it. It sets up an interesting scenario; Jon originally ‘joined’ Wildlings as an inside man for the Watch – will his loyalties genuinely change?

We won’t find out this week, as it was swiftly off to King’s Landing to catch up on the aftermath of the Joffrey/Lannister victory at the Blackwater. It wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without some utterly gratuitous sex though, so we were reintroduced to Jerome Flynn’s charismatic sellsword Bronn in the usual brothel, where he was most displeased at being distracted from a whore’s crotch by the unexpected arrival of Tyrion’s squire Pod.

ScreenShot029

Tyrion himself had a few interesting confrontations this week. First, it was his sister, popping by his dingy new quarters to verbally fence; Tyrion has good cause to be wary of her, as it was one of her men who tried to kill him under cover of the battle. Luckily for Peter Dinklage, the TV version has backpedalled somewhat on the extent of his injuries, leaving him with a scarred cheek where in the novel he’d lost most of his nose. Cersei even alluded to that in a nice in-joke, commenting that she’d heard he’d lost his nose, but it was plainly an exaggeration.

ScreenShot032

Their father Tywin was no more forgiving. Confronted by the irked Tyrion  asking to be recognised as heir to Casterly Rock in gratitude for his action in saving the city, the frosty Tywin told him, basically, “over my dead body”. It was an excellent scene, as well-played as ever by Charles Dance and Peter Dinklage; one of the few scenes, in fact, that had room to breathe in the multitude here.

Another was a very uncomfortable dinner with Joffrey and Cersei being visited by the Tyrells. Margery, having basically been anointed future Queen at the end of last season, was living up to the role by doing a Princess Diana – visiting orphanages, feeding the poor, and genuinely trying to become as well-loved by the people of Westeros as Joffrey is well-hated. The dinner was a scene of subtextual verbal jousting; almost every word spoken was a subtle jibe, while on the surface everyone was perfectly civil, even Joffrey for a wonder.

We also caught up with the losing side, as Liam Cunningham’s Davos Seaworth was revealed to have survived the battle by dint of hanging on to a handy rock. Rescued by charismatic pirate Salladhor Saan, Davos wasted no time rushing off to Dragonstone in a doomed attempt to free Stannis from the evil Melisandre. No dice – Carice van Houten continues to rival Lena Headey’s Cersei for the crown of Most Evil Woman in the show. A decent bloke like Davos doesn’t stand a chance against her.

The  very briefest of visits to the army of Robb Stark revealed that he’d reached Harrenhal, where the Mountain had slaughtered hundreds of prisoners. The main discontent in Army Stark, however, remains the freeing of Jaime Lannister by Catelyn. It looks like that’s going to lead to trouble for Robb, but he at least had the nous to have his mother clapped into a dungeon. I wouldn’t bank on that appeasing his bannermen for long though…

ScreenShot027

And lastly, a slightly more detailed visit to Essos caught us up with the doings of Dany Targaryen and her loyal (if seasick) Dothraki. Her dragons are getting bigger, and continue to be one of the show’s better effects. But they’re not big enough to win a war, so it was off to the slave markets of Astapor to buy a few thousand of ‘the Unsullied’ a Spartan-like band of slave soldiers hardened by castration, brutal training and the requirement to kill a baby to graduate.

The scene in which Dany’s disquiet with slavery is counterpointed with humorous translation gags between her, the slave dealer and cowed translator girl Missandei was faithfully transcribed from the book (“tell the old man he smells of piss”). As was, wince-makingly, the moment where slave dealer Krazis demonstrates how bloody hard the Unsullied are by chopping the nipple off one of them while he doesn’t even flinch. He may not have, but I certainly did.

ScreenShot031

Plainly, Dany has a problem with slavery. Equally plainly, the slavers have a problem with her (“tell the Westerosi whore to pay attention”). This may not end well.

First though, she had other enemies to deal with – namely the blue-mouthed warlocks of Qarth, one of whose number she unceremoniously burnt to death with her dragons last year. This has not pleased them, so an assassin was dispatched, in the shape of a creepy little girl with a blue mouth. As horror fans know, you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. Especially if she’s carrying a fearsome looking scorpion-style thingy.

ScreenShot025

Luckily for Dany, another long lost character reappeared to save her by impaling the beastie on a short sword. Yes, it was none other than Ser Barristan Selmy, last seen being fired from the Kingsguard by the petulant Joffrey. Repenting of his allegiance to the Baratheons and the Lannisters, he’s  turned up to help the last Targaryen, who he sees as the true heir.

ScreenShot026

In the books, Barristan spent most of the length of one novel not revealing his identity, instead going by the name Whitebeard. The producers of the show have sensibly dispensed with this, as the viewers would undoubtedly recognise actor Ian McIlhenny unless he was heavily made up. Rather than going through that, they’ve clearly decided it was a plot thread they didn’t really need.

They may well have to edit out quite a few others, with this adaptation being probably the most ambitious of all. Even in such a crowded opening episode, there were several important plot threads that we didn’t catch up on. Where are Bran and Hodor? What’s become of Brienne and Jaime Lannister? How’s Arya Stark doing?

This was a solid enough season opener – for many shows, you’d think it outstanding. For this one though, it merely felt functional; a necessary catchup and scene setting for the advancement of the multifarious plots this year. Game of Thrones is never less than compelling, but it’s at its best when concentrating on just one or two of its plot threads, or a handful of its characters. For the beginning of a new season, that’s not really possible, but this was probably the best compromise we could hope for between drama and story advancement.

In the Flesh: Episode 3

“You want me to stay – when I’m like this?”

ScreenShot018

All that repressed emotion, Northern stoicism and air of impending tragedy paid off in this week’s final episode of BBC3’s almost too brief In the Flesh, as all the resentment and prejudice the town of Roarton bore towards the ‘Partially Deceased’ boiled to the surface. The result, inevitably, was tragedy and heartache – and yet also some genuinely warm moments that were, curiously in a show about zombies, quite life-affirming.

The tragedy, inevitably, centred on unrepentant anti-Rotter bigot and HVF supremo Bill Macy (Steve Evets, superb). Even with his own son returned from the dead as a Partially Deceased sufferer, Bill couldn’t come to terms with his feelings towards the ‘Rotters’ he’d fought in the Rising; a fact not helped by Rick being every bit as in denial as his father. In a show full of allegories, Bill stood out as a war veteran unable to deal with the changed reality of peacetime. It was a status that put him on an unavoidable collision with the new world, and led to tragedy for all the characters we’d met so far.

Those characters were, without an exception, well-drawn. In many ways, they were familiar from many dramas set in small Northern towns, and there was fun to be had from seeing that juxtaposed with the unusual fantasy backdrop. Hence the amusingly awkward moment when Philip’s mum Shirley found him sneaking out from the house where he’d just slept with Rotter Amy, and each avoided telling the other the truth – despite the fact that it was painfully obvious to both of them.

The Walker family, meanwhile, were still eking out revelations about what had happened during and since the Rising, secrets that had festered for all of them, even Kieren. Luke Newberry showed how good he was this week, as the increasingly confident Kieren developed from timid recluse to a young man with his own sense of self-respect – even as he faced up to his own personal guilt. The flashbacks to his ‘rabid’ self killing young Lisa Lancaster were expanded as he remembered that his sister had been there, and been unable to kill him.

This gave Jem too a chance to resolve what was eating away at her. Not just her hatred of the Rotters, but her inability to put down one that had been her brother, and her own feeling of guilt at having failed to save Lisa. Thus reconciled, the Walker siblings went to tell Lisa’s parents the truth, in a scene that was both affecting and full of surprise. Not only did Mr and Mrs Lancaster unexpectedly forgive Kieren straight away, they refused to give up hope for their daughter, preferring to believe that she would return from the grave as a result of Kieren’s bite.

This allowed writer Dominic Mitchell to shed a bit more light on his mythology. We’d already heard last week that bites don’t cause you to turn; this week, Kieren sadly explained that it was only those who’d died in a particular period that came back.

It was telling that Jem sensitively downplayed this, to leave the couple with the hope that they might still see their daughter again. “You’ve got to have faith, haven’t you?” commented Mr Lancaster. Faith, it turned out, was a major theme of the story this week, and it was left very much ambiguous as to whether it was a good or a bad thing. You could argue that Jem’s sensitivity to the Lancasters left them incapable of moving on and accepting that their daughter wasn’t coming back.

Similarly, it was Rev Oddie’s faith (based on the sort of interpretation of the Bible that you’d expect) that there would be a second Rising, as predicted in Revelations, which would bring back the pure and the good. With no explanation forthcoming for the original Rising, you can see why that might seem plausible, particularly in a society that had seen a resurgence in religious belief.

All of these factors came into play in tying together the various plot threads we’d established for some hard-to-watch resolutions. Rick, pushed too far by his father into trying to kill Kieren, finally embraced what he was and confronted Bill in his true, unmade-up state.

ScreenShot017

This felt like another layer to the allegorical depiction of the zombies here – the scene was played very much like a young gay man coming out to his violently homophobic father. And indeed, the implication that Kieren and Rick were more than just friends hung heavy throughout. Kieren’s guilt and suicide over his best friend’s death, Bill’s hatred of him even before the Rising, the graffiti on the cave wall saying ‘Ren and Rick 4 Ever’ – if the pair of them weren’t supposed to have been lovers, I’d be very surprised. Kieren might have had a proposal of marriage from the flighty Amy, but he didn’t seem that jubilant about the idea…

ScreenShot021

As the defiant face of ‘zombie rights’ Amy had a hard time this episode. Having slept with ‘pillar of the community’ Philip, only to be told by him that nobody should find out, she had to contend with being assaulted in her own home by the HVF’s Gary, trying to slap her makeup on, after having painted ‘PDS’ on her door.

This latest development, apparently passed by the Parish Council, was another uncomfortable parallel with the ostracisation of certain social groups. Most notably, it reminded me of the way certain newspapers often call for all convicted offenders to be identified to their local communities, even if they’ve served their sentences in full and been rehabilitated. Here again, the script didn’t overtly condemn this sort of thing, though the use of the phrase “only obeying orders” made Mitchell’s feelings on the issue fairly clear.

No wonder Amy was fed up enough to leave Roarton and head off to the ‘commune’ of the Undead Prophet, as advertised on the ‘Undead Liberation Army’ website. This was an intriguing idea – could that really work? Amy was convinced there was plenty of Neurotryptiline there to keep the residents from turning rabid – but wasn’t that the defiant aim of the ULA? If the concept does stretch to a second series, that would be an interesting avenue to explore.

Though I’m not sure it will, as from a character perspective it felt like this story was pretty complete. Bill went into full-on denial, ‘killing’ what he assumed to be an ‘imposter’ rather than his son and dumping the body on Kieren’s driveway. Kieren went ballistic (kudos to Luke Newberry for that scene, which made me want to give him a great big hug) and stormed over to the Macy household for a cathartic shouting match with Bill, now so far removed from reality he was calmly watching football and claiming not to have seen his son for five years.

It was an intense scene that called out fine performances from all concerned, and again reminded us that this is a writer from a theatrical background – he knows how to make such emotional moments truly powerful in a small setting. Confronted by his wife’s sobbing hatred, Bill seemed to realise what he’d done – just in time to be blasted with a shotgun by the vengeful Ken Burton. The ever-excellent Ricky Tomlinson may have been used sparingly for this series, but always to great effect.

ScreenShot023

And as if that wasn’t intense (and grim) enough, it was followed by another ‘act’ in which we finally learned the circumstances of Kieren’s suicide, and his family began to come to terms with it.

Perhaps it’s because a few people I’ve known have committed suicide, and I’ve seen  the wreckage left behind, but I found these scenes almost unbearably moving. They were, basically, what those left behind would always want to say to the one who’d died – but this time, he could answer them. It was the kind of resolution that, in real life, is effectively impossible. Seeing it played out like this was a kind of wish fulfilment that was simultaneously emotionally affecting and hard to watch.

It’s been a very good series, In the Flesh, despite its too-obvious similarity to the recently departed Being Human. Unlike that show, it was rather more grim and certainly slower-paced, but the characters and backstories built up were very convincing and well-played. There was always the sense that under the genre trappings was an original story that was more of a straight drama; but the fantasy backdrop gave it a resonance that, paradoxically, it might not have had without it.

As I say, it seems to me that this story is very definitely finished. I’ve no idea whether writer Dominic Mitchell is planning to write more of this world; perhaps, like George Romero’s zombie films, with different characters in the same situation. If he does, I’ll definitely be coming back for more. For all my misgivings about ‘humanising’ zombies, the premise here not only worked, but served to shed plenty of allegorical light on the real world. Only the best fantasy does that.

ScreenShot019