2007 Christmas Special: Voyage of the Damned

“Let the Christmas inferno commence!”

There are some very gay things in the world. The Pet Shop Boys cover of Village People’s Go West. Rufus Wainwright recreating Judy Garland’s classic Carnegie Hall concert. Anything at all involving John Barrowman. And then there’s Doctor Who. A show whose most rabid fanbase seems to consist primarily of gay men (I should know, I’m one of them) currently being run by the bloke who wrote Queer as Folk and featuring numerous appearances by the aforementioned John Barrowman. Straight fans often bemoan the show’s supposed “gay agenda” (which seems to consist of occasional lines suggesting that being gay might, actually, be OK).

The challenge, then, facing Russell T Davies and his team must have been – how do we make this show even more gay? One can imagine much brainstorming at BBC Wales until someone came up with the obvious answer – put Kylie Minogue in it! After all, short of getting David Tennant to dress in drag and fellating a Dalek, she’s about as gay-friendly as it gets.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached this year’s Christmas special. Was this just a gimmicky piece of stunt casting? Kylie’s guest appearance has been trumpeted so much for so long, you’d be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a drama after all. Perhaps she was going to spend the whole thing performing her greatest hits. She was so ubiquitous that even the normally objective (and very pretty) Ben Cook of Doctor Who Magazine had a photo of her standing next to him as his Facebook avatar.

But I needn’t have worried. Lest we forget, before she became a loveable diva, Kylie Minogue was actually an actress. Well, insofar as being in Neighbours constitutes acting. Voyage of the Damned gave her a chance to demonstrate this with more aplomb than the Erinsbrough suburbs ever did, in another surprisingly good script from Russell T himself.

Russell seems to be on a genuine learning curve as a Who writer. Already a skilled dramatist, his previous efforts for the programme have shown an occasional lack of logic obviously borne of him being such a fan of the show. I’ve had genuine, and I believe justified criticisms of his scripts in varous ways since the series returned. But lo and behold, every time he turns out another script, it’s as if he’s been listening to me! (Be still, my giant ego). It’s just that he seems to avoid every pitfall I’ve previously had a go about and produce a script that’s a real improvement.

Take Voyage of the Damned. I was distinctly unimpressed by last year’s Christmas effort The Runaway Bride for various reasons – the plot lacked logic, the robot Santas were in it for no good reason, and most importantly, the story lacked a sense of jeopardy as no-one appeared to be in real danger and no-one died. This year, Russell redressed the balance with a script that had a higher body count than Rambo. And it was more than just a retread of last year’s show, being almost entirely not set on contemporary Earth.

Not that its roots weren’t showing. The most obvious source of inspiration was 1970’s disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, about a luxury liner which comes to grief – at Christmas. The ensemble cast of survivors were true disaster movie archetypes as well, right down to the snivelling Richard Chamberlain-style weasel Rickston Slade and Shelley Winters-alike Foon Van Hoff. I was only surprised that there wasn’t a small child and a dog. Yet even here, Russell confounded expectations. In a classic disaster movie, it would be a given that Slade would die, and yet he was one of the few survivors at the end.

Russell’s other occasional weakness – a fondness for action/emotion set pieces jammed in with little regard for logic – was also not in evidence. There were some great set pieces, to be sure – the sequence of our heroes trying to make it over that rickety bridge while being besieged by the Host was a humdinger. But each of them arose naturally from the plot, rather than seeming shoehorned in because they looked good but had no place in the drama.

Of course, the other obvious “homage” here was classic Who story The Robots of Death. From the moment the Doctor first encountered the placidly polite Host and it started to twitch, it was obvious that they’d be wandering around the ship slaughtering everyone soon enough. And so it was, their “Information: you are all going to die” catchphrase not too dissimilar to SV7’s calm declaration “You have to die. All of you. That is the order.” The moment when Midshipman Frame slammed the door on them only to trap and detach one of their hands was also a straight nick from the scene where Pamela Salem is menaced in her Sandminer cabin by one of the robots.

But Doctor Who has always nicked from other sources, often with excellent results. After all, The Brain of Morbius is simply Frankenstein, while Pyramids of Mars is nothing more than an old Peter Cushing Mummy film. And the Host were very effective, their angelic design an excellent counterpart to their murderous intentions. It’s got to be the first time a halo’s been used as a murder weapon.

David Tennant was on fine form, expressing the Doctor’s loneliness with none of the irritating smugness he displayed in his debut season. The relationship he built up with Astrid was genuinely touching, and paid off nicely with his desperation to save her after her noble sacrifice (though, to be fair, she could easily have jumped off that slow-moving forklift before it plunged into the abyss).

And it was scenes like that which allowed Kylie to really show off her acting chops. From her first appearance, she was charming and likeable as a girl who still saw the wonder in the universe. The scene of her expressing delight at the “alien” shops and streets of Cardiff… er, London was enchanting, and her final scene as a half-there teleport phantom was heartbreaking. It’s a testament to Russell’s skill as a dramatist that he didn’t go for the easy happy ending of letting the Doctor save her, but at least she didn’t, technically, “die”. As well as being a touching scene, it served as a welcome reminder that the Doctor’s just as fallible as everyone else, and sometimes he can’t save everyone.

With these two at the centre of attention, it would have been easy for Russell to reduce the rest of the characters to two-dimensional disaster movie cyphers. But all the characters were nicely rounded, and played to perfection by a splendid guest cast. It’s always a delight to see old hand Geoffrey Palmer popping up, and here as Captain Hardaker he used his jowly, hangdog face to real advantage. He really made you feel for the guy even though he was about to be responsible for a mass murder and you then saw him shoot that nice young Midshipman. It actually seemed rather a shame that he died so early on, as I’d like to have seen more of his character’s haunted, guilty personality.

There were plenty of characters blessed with that earthy humour Russell likes too. The most obvious were the Van Hoffs, a likeable pair of proles who’d rather unfortunately won passage on the ship in a competition. The scene of the Doctor immediately siding with them over the snobs who were the rest of the passengers was great, and the characters went on to display real depth. It was more believable than in your averager disaster movie that Foon really went to pieces after her husband was killed, but she still pulled it together enough to make the heroic self-sacrifice demanded of likeable characters in disaster movies. The shot of her plunging to her death in slo-mo was genuinely moving, though it has to be said that the almost identical shot of Astrid plunging into the abyss might have had more impact if we hadn’t already seen this one.

Clive Swift, another old hand, was on fine form as Mr Copper, the loveable old codger of the piece. He got some of Russell’s best lines as the “academic” who didn’t quite get what 21st century Earth was really like. The coda, with him happily running off to spend all his money, was sweetly joyful, though I had to wonder why the Doctor didn’t warn him off marrying that awful Hyacinth woman…

And then there was Bannakafalatta. At first glance just an action figure opportunity made flesh, Jimmy Vee made him a loveable but believable figure. It was nice to see him getting a real character to play for once, after the last few years of incarnating any alien that happens to be a bit on the short side. And it was his secret cyborg status that cleverly held the key to the whole mystery, neatly setting up the concept that here was a society that treated cyborgs as underdogs who couldn’t even get married. The gay agenda? Possibly. I’m sure certain fans will take it that way…

Cyborgs brings us neatly to the villlain of the piece, Max Capricorn. the revelation of him as the force behind events didn’t entirely come as a surprise, since I was doubtful they’d hire an actor of the stature of George Costigan and confine him to a few shipboard commercials. Costigan was as good as ever in a role, which, let’s face it, was the standard villainous businessman. His scheme to ruin his betrayers on the board was a little reminiscent of Morgus’ business manipulations in The Caves of Androzani, but was nonetheless a clever motivation. I had to wonder whether some of the younger viewers would grasp the idea of share price manipulations, mind.

So what else was there? Well, it was a joy to see Bernard Cribbins, who by the looks of the trailer will be back next year. It was also a nice touch to have London deserted after the repeated alien incursions of the last two Christmasses. The set piece of the Titanic plunging down towards Buckingham Palace was genuinely heart in mouth – you wondered whether Mike Tucker and his crew were going to blow up another London landmark. Though I’m not so sure about the from-behind appearance of Her Majesty, in a pink dressing gown and curlers! And her cry of “Thank you, Doctor!” was pretty toe-curling, too. I guess she just knows that whenever anything like that happens, the Doctor’s bound to be involved somewhere.

On a final note, I’m likely to be in the minority of saying that I rather liked Murray Gold’s beefed up new arrangement of the theme tune. But I definitely didn’t like the new, hyper fast end credits, which sped by so quickly I could barely read any of them. Apparently this is due to a new BBC rule that credits can only be thirty seconds long, lest the viewer’s tiny mind and attention span be distracted by thoughts of turning to the other channel. Whatever, it made the end of the show seem unpleasantly American.

So another Christmas gone, and a huge improvement from Russell and crew this year. Kudos to the bloke for apparently learning from previous pitfalls and producing a fun and thrilling piece of family entertainment. And how gay was it, really? Actually not much. John Barrowman was nowhere to be seen….

Telethon Crash

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Yes, the joys of redundancy and indefinite unemployment have kept me busy with a variety of exciting/geeky projects, such as ripping the isolated scores off the Doctor Who DVDs for my iPod and archiving the 25-odd VHS tapes of music videos I recorded in the mid-90s. Oh, and the rather important task of trying to find another job…

And now finally, back to the blog. I’ve been meaning to write on here for a while, but nothing quite moved me enough to stimulate the old muse. Particularly with the recurring hangover problem. But now, TV has finally offered up another slice of good old-fashioned Doctor Who!

Yes, in the name of charity (Children in Need, anyway), the reliably talented Steve Moffat served up another slice of genius last Friday. OK, there was only seven minutes of it, but just feel the quality! First, though, we had to sit the usual telethon tat, hosted by the impressively endowed Terry Wogan. Far from flashing the goods this time, he merely exhorted the viewers to give, give, give! Backstage, Fearne Cotton was chatting to a troupe of idiots from Strictly Come Dancing. “Tell me about the atmosphere,” she trilled, moronically. A shame Patrick Moore wasn’t on hand. Back to Terry, who announced a rare TV appearance by the ever-reclusive John Barrowman. Belting out Elton John standard Your Song, John, accompanied by Hearsay hasbeen Myleene Klass, strove to provide the gayest few minutes of the evening.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to sit through much of this before Terry and John announced the item we’d actually wanted to see. Flashing back to the penultimate bit of season three, we once again saw Martha promise to see the Doctor again. But what’s this? Rather than cutting to the Titanic inexplicably crashing into the console room, a few minutes of TARDIS shaking provided the surprising reappearance of Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor! Cue the titles, and I got all emotional seeing David Tennant’s name followed by Peter’s (thankfully spelled correctly, as Totally Doctor Who seem unable to do).

The so-called “plot” of this little scene was something to do with Doctor Ten having failed to put up the TARDIS shields, thus accidentally crashing into Doctor Five’s TARDIS and causing a potential time embolism “the exact size of Belgium… that’s not very dramatic, is it?” Hence the title, Time Crash. As Steve Moffat put it in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine, “because it’s about a crash. In time. Do you see?” But plot wasn’t what this was about, not really. With only one scene to play with, Mr Moffat used this McGuffin to give us a sparkling clash between Doctors past and present, giving them a chemistry instantly reminiscent of that between Troughton and Pertwee in their multi-Doctor stories. The dialogue, as usual, was peppered with acid wit, and laugh out loud moments. “I’m really rather busy,” fumed the Fifth Doctor, “and the last thing I need is some skinny idiot ranting in my face about every little thing in front of him!” Hit the nail on the head there, I thought, Tennant really was on “annoying mode” for this one. “Oh yes, the celery,” Doctor Ten riposted. “Fair play, it’s not every man who can carry off a decorative vegetable.”

The jokes were somewhat fan-heavy. Frying the TARDIS Zeiton crystals, talking about Tegan and the Mara, LINDA (“You’re not one of them, are you?” asked the Fifth Doctor in a thinly veiled “gay fan” reference). But I didn’t care. I am a fan, and I absolutely loved it. True, Peter didn’t seem quite the way he used to be as the Fifth Doctor, probably due to age changing his mannerisms. Perhaps it had something to do with the time differential that greyed his hair and widened his midriff.

That age-old fan argument about multi-Doctor stories – how is it that the newer Doctors don’t just remember all the events from the memories of their older selves? – is certain to rear its head again as Doctor Ten fixed the problem based on Doctor Five’s memory of having seen him do it! And the perennial “gay agenda” debate will get a shot in the arm from the aforementioned LINDA gag, not to mention the clever gag about the Master -“No beard this time. Well, a wife.” (“Beard” in this sense referring to the old gay slang about a poof using a wife to make himself seem more masculine). Still, as Mr Moffat once reminded us, “I’m the straight one. There has to be one.”

Even Murray Gold got in on the fanboy nostalgia act. His usual semi-orchestral music cues were this time peppered with deliberate retro synth sounds, as though he worked for the Radiophonic Workshop. It was like having good old Paddy Kingsland back again! Or maybe Gary Numan…

Still, David Tennant changed mood in an instant to be a channel for the inner fanboy of himself and Steve Moffat. Gazing at Peter Davison with something akin to love, he gushed, “I love being you… You were my Doctor.” And geeky though it is, a little tear welled up in my eye…

I believe there was more Children in Need following this, but I really didn’t need to see any more. It’s not the telethon it used to be. Thank goodness. Anyway, as per usual, I promise to write on here a bit more often. There’s other stuff to talk about, you know. The Sarah Jane Adventures, new Top Gear, historical shagfest The Tudors… I’ll try to cover them all. But for now, I’m just wondering if Peter Davison can be persuaded to come back for this year’s Tennant-lite episode!

Episode 13: Last of the Time Lords

“You’ve saved the world, Martha Jones!”

In a week when we got a new Prime Minister, when cities across Britain were terrorised by car bombs, it was obvious what the most important thing was – the season finale of Doctor Who. (Why is it always a “season finale” now? What happened to “the last in the present series”?)

Last of the Time Lords
was an ambitious script from Russell T Davies, and there was a lot wrong with it, which I’ll go into in some detail. But from the very start, I should say that I actually really enjoyed it. For a start, after the initial shock I really got John Simm’s interpretation of the Master. He was almost like a spoiled child, really relishing his cruelty on a scale we’d never seen before, and having fun with it. I’ll say it again – no-one consciously chooses to be evil. He was doing what he was doing because he was nuttier than a peanut factory. And with the Saxon persona stripped away, what was left was pure Master. He was charismatic, he was evil, and his gleeful good humour only intensified the chill of his evil.

It was still, nonetheless, a typically camp Russell script, building on the tone of last week’s. As soon as the Master swanned into the bridge of the Valiant dancing to the Scissor Sisters, I knew that a lot of old-school fans would probably hate this. By rights, I would have expected to myself, but I actually loved that sequence. Apart from the kinetic choreography and editing, it neatly told the viewer in a couple of minutes how things were in the Master’s new order. The Doctor, beaten and humiliated, Francine Jones and Lucy Saxon cringing in terror and hatred of their overlord, and his relish at his power over them. It has to be said, though, that after last week’s interlude with the Rogue Traders and now the Scissor Sisters, it seems that this new Master has a very gay taste in music!

The decision to set the episode a year after last week’s was a good one (if nicked from Battlestar Galactica‘s second season climax), allowing us to see just what a year under the Master’s reign would do to Earth. The results were varyingly realised; the huge statue of John Simm was a nice touch, but the Master’s war rockets were less convincing, and really the best impression of this nightmarish alternative future was conveyed in the script itself, as Martha described what she had seen of the world in the last year. Of course, all this was slightly undermined by the knowledge that any story set on contemporary Earth can’t diverge from reality too much, so there had to be a great big reset button somewhere to return everything to normal. The Paradox Machine was obvious from the moment its name was mentioned, and knowing Russell, I fully expected there to be a god in it.

Fair’s fair, though, it served a real purpose in allowing the humans of the future to exterminate their ancestors without erasing their own existence. What the Toclafane and the Master actually wanted was less clear, though. It seemed to be some enormous vista of universal conquest without any specific goal. That actually seemed not dissimilar to the rather vague plans Adolf Hitler had in the event of his ultimate global domination; and he, like the Master, was more barking than Battersea dog’s home.

The state of humanity was also a little unclear. We saw slave workers packed into houses a la Dalek Invasion of Earth, but Dr Tom Milligan mentioned a medical service – nice to know Mr Saxon didn’t neglect the NHS! I also had to wonder what Professor Docherty’s official standing was; enough, plainly, to get her computer access, power, and television. And given that television did seem to be a luxury the oppressed masses had no access to, just who did the Master think he was broadcasting to anyway?

With the Doctor a ravaged shell of himself confined to a wheelchair, this was plainly Martha’s story from the outset. As she arrived from the sea in the opening scene, a confident resistance fighter, we could see how much the character had grown in the year since The Sound of Drums. Freema Agyeman rose to the challenge admirably after some variable acting earlier in the season, plainly getting her teeth into some real action for a change. As our nominal hero for the episode, it was clear that her function was to rescue the Doctor from where he was going through the mill. It’s so reminiscent of the old Virgin New Adventures as to be positively fanwanky; indeed I found myself reminded of how Bernice carried the second half of The Dying Days with the Eighth Doctor missing, presumed dead. The Master harping on about Axons and Sea Devils did nothing to dispel the fanwank either.

Of course any story bringin back a historic character like the Master is bound to be fanwanky, and I didn’t mind that a bit. What I wasn’t so sure of was why the fanwank had to include things other than Doctor Who. It’s a testament to Russell’s taste in sci fi that we got in quick succession, Darth Vader’s funeral pyre from Return of the Jedi (recreated almost shot for shot, with similar swelling music) then the “picking up the villain’s power ring” bit from the end of Flash Gordon. These were so similar that they must have been intentional; still, while I was mulling that over, all young Barry could do next to me was snigger at the thought of Anthony Ainley popping up saying “Yes, I escaped from the funeral pyre…”

The true identity of the Toclafane was a genuine surprise; I’d been so wrapped up in fanwank that I’d really expected them to be the Time Lords! Actually, making them humans is a perfect development of the way the Master uses the Doctor’s own strengths against him in this story. The species he constantly goes around bigging up to the skies have turned into brutal, power-crazed cyborgs with the voices of horribly malicious children. The Master’s line “Human beings… greatest monsters of them all” perfectly emphasised this, neatly contrasting with the Doctor’s “indomitable” speech as repeated in Utopia.

I was right about them coming from Utopia, though. It was a skilful bit of misdirection in the script to make that seem a forgotten plotline, only to return to it in such a devastating way. It occurred to me that it was the unlikeliest of coincidences for Martha to bring down the very sphere containing the little boy she bonded with two episodes previously; but wasn’t there some throwaway line about the Tocalafane having a group mind? For a man so obviously fond of expository dialogue, Russell does seem to put such explanations in in a rather “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of way.

David Tennant had less to do than usual in what was sort of a “Doctor-lite” episode. Mostly he was just sitting in that chair looking like he was waiting for his cocoa. Which was fine, but I thought the Gollum/ Dobby the House Elf Doctor was just ridiculous. I know old age makes you shrink, but surely there’s a point at which that stops, even if you are nine hundred? Besides, putting him in a birdcage only emphasised his resemblance to Tweety Pie, and the big cute eyes were a bit much. Nice of the Master to run him up a miniature pinstripe suit, though. Actually I thought the CG itself was pretty good (though not a patch on old Gollum). It’s the very concept I have trouble with. I suppose it depends on your tolerance of seeing the Doctor’s dignity stripped away, but for me it went too far.

And his recovery? Ever been to the panto Peter Pan? Yes, it was the old “clap your hands if you believe in fairies and Tinkerbell will be OK” plan. Written yourself into a corner again, Russell? Still, everyone thinking “Doctor” at the same time (how did they synchronise that without phones or TV?) brought our hero back in a messianic blaze of light not dissimilar to Ky in the Pertwee story The Mutants. But even here, the script wrongfooted me. I fully expected an angry, vengeful Doctor in keeping with the darkness we saw in The Runaway Bride and The Family of Blood. And unexpectedly, the words he’d been trying to get out all episode were “I forgive you”. Compassion being the one thing the Master absolutely cannot handle. He still had to say “I’m so sorry” though, which is obviously now his official catchphrase. Yuk.

Actually, the final confrontation of the Doctor and the Master, both on Earth and aboard the Valiant, was genuinely gripping stuff, both actors giving it their all to show us two former friends who became enemies and don’t know how to fix it. I actually really hoped the Master would survive, as by the end you actually, like the Doctor, wanted to help him. Clearly he was very, very ill in the head, but he was the only one who could alleviate the Doctor’s unbearable loneliness. And it was typical of the Master that, in a final act of spite, he chose to die rather than do that. Simm was unrepentant to the end, but Tennant’s anguish at the death of his old rival was actually rather moving. As was his attempt to cover it up with false jollity as Martha joined him in the TARDIS at the end. His performance as the Doctor has made a quantum leap in quality this season, and I look forward to having him back next year.

But not Martha, apparently. This episode made it clear that the whole season had really been her story, and it’s a shame to see her go. Still, the Doctor has her phone, so I think we’ll be seeing her again. Her departure was also a little moving, though overly drawn out, I felt. Going back into the TARDIS after saying goodbye to explain her crush on the Doctor wasn’t really necessary; we knew that, and I suspect, so did he. It didn’t need to be spelled out.

The pacing of the script, indeed, was a bit of a problem. It had more endings than Return of the King; though like that film it’s the last in a trilogy that may seem better paced when viewed as a whole. I’ll have to try that soon. Still, with Martha gone we need a new companion. After all, someone has to say “what is it, Doctor?” so he can explain to the audience. After a full on lovefest with Rose and unrequited feelings from Martha, I’m rather hoping for a purely platonic relationship with the next one. Perhaps a male companion, like Mickey? Or at the very least an ugly lesbian that the Doctor couldn’t possibly fancy!

Speaking of male companions, the return of Captain Jack never really did pay off. In the event, the only use his much-vaunted immortality had was to get past a couple of Toclafane guarding the TARDIS, and that could have just been written differently. But it was fun to have him around, with his old joie de vivre back after moping around Cardiff all through Torchwood. And while it did make me laugh out loud, having him revealed as the Face of Boe was just a little too neat. That was a plot hole that didn’t need resolving, Russell! For that matter, if he was the Face of Boe, couldn’t he have been a little less cryptic than “you are not alone”? Perhaps a million years have some effect on his memory, and all he could think of was “what could Yana be a good acronym for?”

So an enjoyable if not brilliant conclusion to the series, the problem being that the stuff that went before was so strong it was hard to live up to. But full marks for doing something different to the first two years, which were in danger of becoming formulaic. Loved John Simm (eventually) and I’m glad it looks like the Master could be back. Was that Lucy Saxon’s hand grabbing his ring? Funny, after being apparently beaten up by him and then shooting him, you wouldn’t think she’d want a memento. I even ended up liking Martha’s family, who, thank God, didn’t become another soap opera clan like the Tylers (though what did happen to her brother in Brighton?). But does every season finale now have to end with something bursting into the TARDIS so that the Doctor says “what?”

One final thought; the Paradox Machine set time back to just after the Master killed the President. Leaving aside the troublesome aspect that this was after the Toclafane had already appeared (they killed him), it still means that a worldwide TV audience just saw the British Prime Minister order the death of the President of the United States. Perhaps the Doctor will have to cope with another war when he next visits the contemporary earth of the Whoniverse…

Episode 12: The Sound of Drums

“Run, Doctor! I said, RUN!”

Well, that was… different.

Let me say straight away that I actually thought this was a very good script. It was tight, it made sense, and any potential plotholes were carefully explained, even if only in a throwaway line. In short, it seems as if Russell T Davies’ skill at writing Doctor Who is continuing to improve, as he avoids so many of the pitfalls that dogged his scripts for earlier series.

No, the thing that left me puzzling for the better part of a day as to whether I enjoyed it or not was John Simm’s radically new interpretation of the Master. Now, to be honest, the Master was always a fairly flimsy character; while obviously a match for the Doctor, he seemed to have no plausible reason for his actions. No-one wakes up in the morning and says “right, I’m going to be evil”, because no-one really believes that they are. Yet for years this seemed to be the Master’s only character motivation. Add to that the fact that his fabulously convoluted schemes were always doomed to failure because he overlooked something blindingly obvious, and you’re left with a character that’s a cardboard pantomime villain. Generally, he worked as a character because of some charismatic and skilled performances, the best of course being the ever-charming Roger Delgado.

So it makes perfect sense that if Russell was to bring the Master back for the new, more realistic Doctor Who, the character would need some reinvention. And whether the episode works for you is entirely dependent on how well you take to what he’s done. He did at least ease the old-school fans into the transition with Derek Jacobi’s very trad take on the role last week; more like Delgado than any of the later Masters, Jacobi was magnetic and chilling.

Then he regenerated into John Simm. I like John Simm, and think he’s an incredibly talented actor. But I found his manic, Tennant-like take on the role a bit much to take, and hoped he’d settle down a bit this week. As it turned out, he didn’t. If anything he was even more manic. Russell seems determined to hammer home that he is just like the Doctor, if a polar opposite, and apparently this includes giving this incarnation a wacky sense of humour. By the time he’s offering out jelly babies, you just want to shout “Yes, Russell, I get the point!”

When playing it straight, he gave us a glimpse of a far more chilling character than the clowning about would suggest, and it’s possible that the contrast between both sides of his personality could be seen to heighten the horror when he does something genuinely evil. For me, though, I thought the balance was a little too much on the humourous side. This might have something to do with the script and direction, though. The whole “it’s a gas mask” bit was mildly amusing, but maybe killing the entire British Cabinet merited a slightly more serious approach. And Nichola McAuliffe’s drawn out scream echoing every time he opened the door was just a bit too silly.

While I don’t mean to come across too like Graham Chapman’s Colonel from Monty Python (“Stop that. It’s silly. Very silly indeed.”), it did feel a little inconsistent with the tone the series had been taking in its latter half. I actually like humourous romps a la Graham Williams, but he generally had entire seasons in that style, whereas we’ve just veered from the thoughtful Human Nature/Family of Blood through the scary Blink and the tense Utopia. Suddenly going into full-blown farce at this point seems a little weird.

And yet, generally, I did enjoy it. Simm was wonderful in his mobile phone exchange with the Doctor, and if nothing else his wackiness pointed us to a more convincing motivation than the older Masters – he is, plainly, absolutely bonkers. This was explained in a fan-pleasing flashback to his initiation rite on Gallifrey, which gave the Mill a chance to realise the Capitol with some lovely CG. It also gave the production a chance to trot out the old Time Lord costumes, their ridiculous collars happily unchanged from the originals. Fans were presumably also whooping as Simm paraphrased Anthony Ainley with “Peoples of the Earth, please attend carefully”.

Russell also avoided the continuity nightmare of the Master’s personal history by explaining that the Time Lords had him “brought back” to fight as a warrior in the Time War – possibly the worst military strategy since General Custer’s charge at Little Big Horn. Maybe they’d failed to notice his main trait being self-interest. In the end, though, I suspect the only people alienated by the new take on the Master will be old-school fans – the new audience don’t know him of old like us sad old geeks.

The so-called Toclafane were quite nicely realised, though oddly reminiscent of justice-dispensing machines the Megara from The Stones of Blood. Knowing Russell’s predilection for bringing back old monsters, I half expected them to be revealed as such at the episode’s climax. The fact that they weren’t also showed another strength of this script; it’s genuinely different in format from the very similar finales to the last two seasons.

The time jump back to Earth at the beginning of the episode was a bit of a weak way to get out of a cliffhanger, though. Rather like those old Republic Serials where the hero is hurtling to his death in a flaming plane, and at the beginning of the next episode you discover there was a parachute under the seat the whole time. I suppose it did explain, in plot terms, why Captain Jack had been wearing that Time Bracelet for the last hundred years or so.

The leads kept up the standard of last week, with Martha finally getting something a bit meatier to do. I’m not sure if Freema Agyeman is quite up to Gillian Anderson’s standard of raging righteously at government conspiracies, but she gave it a good try. And indeed it seems everything now hinges on her, with Jack being shot by the Master over and over again, and the Doctor looking like he should be in a commercial for Stannah Stairlifts. Funny how the aging make-up looked so much less convincing than in Family of Blood, when presumably it’s the same prosthetics. Perhaps it’s the camera angles.

There was a lot of fun to be had with the cameos by the likes of Anne Widdecombe and McFly urging the populace to vote for Saxon – I never thought I’d see them on the same show, especially not Doctor Who! And indeed the political satire of the thing was also fun. The Master was oddly reminiscent of an insane Tony Blair as he gassed his opportunistic Cabinet, and his piss-taking of the American President was hugely satisfying. As, presumably, was the intended effect. The script also tossed us a line about his forming a new party, thus neatly explaining how he came to be Prime Minister without leading Labour or the Conservatives. I suppose if he had, whichever party was chosen might not have been too happy at their media portrayal as being led by the most evil being in the Universe.

It did build to a fine climax, as the Toclafane rained down in their billions on a defenceless Earth. That shot of the Master triumphant at the end was genuinely chilling, as his mania has clearly led him to believe that he’s some kind of God, biblical quotes and all. I even quite enjoyed the use of some cheesy disco as the rift opened in the sky and they poured out above the airborne landing strip so clearly nicked from Captain Scarlet via Sky Captain. Next week, presumably much will hinge on Captain Jack (why else bring him back?) and I’m still half-expecting the Toclafane to be revealed as something from the show’s past. Maybe they’re devolved Time Lords… Whichever, I’m still a little disappointed with this first half, but have to give Russell credit for trying. Let’s see if next week’s puts it into a more redeeming context.

Episode 11: Utopia

“I.. am… the Master!”

A bit of a mixed bag, this Utopia. It was always going to be tough to follow the last three superb episodes, and this also had the unenviable task of being the setup for a three-parter.

Not that I’d expected that. Like everyone, I’d been led to believe that Utopia was a standalone, the last such before the big two-part season finale, as in previous years. True, I knew that Captain Jack was being reintroduced, but thought that was the only tie to the rest of the series. So, at first it seemed like rather a humdrum story, Russell T Davies coasting in a very traditional tale of humanity menaced by savage beasties on a planet in the far future. And then, about halfway through, it turned into something much, much more interesting.

The basic plot of Utopia is pretty average, so much so that initially I wondered why they were wasting a guest star of the calibre of Derek Jacobi in such a trite role. In fact, the story of a long dead civilisation menaced by savages and awaiting rebirth in the form of a great rocket launch is actually the plot of season one Blake’s 7 episode Deliverance. From the moment the TARDIS touched down in a dingy quarry to be menaced by refugees from Mad Max via Ghosts of Mars, there was more than a whiff of Blake’s 7 about the whole thing.

Actually, even within the bounds of the somewhat derivative story, there was some pretty good writing in evidence. Russell does characters very well, and the inhabitants of this far future were nicely drawn. The authoritative little boy who guided us through the Silo was a lovely little character, typical of Russell’s detailed approach to even the minor players. But main cast aside, the episode proper belonged to two characters, Professor Yana and his alien assistant Chantho. As has already been mentioned, Yana is the least convincing character in it, the traditional bumbling elderly scientist typical of all science fiction from HG Wells onwards. The clever thing – or perhaps get-out clause – is that there’s a reason for this. Yana’s not a real person, he’s a fabrication invented by the Master to disguise himself. It’s particularly fitting that he chose to disguise himself as someone so similar to his nemesis the Doctor, and all the way through Russell cleverly draws parallels between the two; both the Doctor and Yana, and the Doctor and the Master.

Derek Jacobi was, needless to say, superb in both roles. It’s a measure of the actor’s skill that at first he seemed to be making little effort as Yana; it’s only when you realise the full nature of the character that you see how well you were misdirected. The moment when he opened the watch and turned back into the Master, the very way he used his face changed utterly, all that genial kindness replaced by a flinty, cold hardness. His voice, too changed utterly, and he proceeded to give us the most menacing interpretation of the character I’ve ever seen.

Playing second fiddle as Chantho was Chipo Chung, who gave a rather sweet performance from underneath layers of latex. It’s a well-written character but an intentionally cutesy one, the kind of cuteness that makes me hate, say, Ewoks. But even here, the depth of writing was impressive; making her the last survivor of a very alien civilisation, and giving her a very alien speech pattern, meant that cute or not she seemed very believable.

And indeed, character is what this episode was all about. There was so much character development to be squeezed in that it was probably sensible to have a very straightforward plot. Not only did the story have to reintroduce the Master, it also had to deal with reams and reams of exposition concerning what had happened to Captain Jack Harkness. This was handled fairly well in the scene with the Doctor outside the radiation room as Jack struggled to activate the rocket’s power source. It must have been difficult to tell such a complex story and avoid mentioning Torchwood lest young kiddies should want to see it, but Russell managed it.

Needless to say, John Barrowman – now in the opening credits, no less – was his usual ebullient self as Jack. It was hard to say I’d missed him since he never seems to be off the telly these days, but I had missed the more likeable Jack of Doctor Who as opposed to the miserable, brooding one of Torchwood. He was given some good opening moments for an audience who might not have seen the character before, which neatly showed his immortality and his desire to chat up everyone he meets – count ’em, Martha, that bloke on the ship, Chantho. I’m not sure what benefit bringing Jack back actually has to the series as a whole, but I suspect something very important will hinge on him in the next couple of weeks.

David Tennant was also well up to his usual high standard of this year. He too was just coasting until about halfway through, and his face was a picture when Martha told him about Yana’s Time Lord watch. It was doubly chilling that rather than seeming happy that another of his race might still exist, he almost seemed terrified. “But which one?” he muttered, almost as if he already knew the answer. He also got a stunning moment of telepathic realisation as his old adversary was restored to his former self.

With all this going on, Freema Agyeman’s Martha was rather sidelined. She got some nice lines about Rose and a fun little scene with Chantho, but she really had little more to do this week than run up and down lots of corridors in a trad sort of way. Fair play though, she does that OK. And she did get a nice moment of horrified realisation herself as she recognized the voice of the regenerated Master. Obviously she was paying attention to politics back home.

Then there was that regeneration scene. Deliberately playing it as a parallel to the Eccleston/Tennant one was a brave move which I thought paid off rather well, emphasising that this is indeed another Time Lord. The effects actually bettered the previous regeneration, although it seemed a mite convenient that the Master’s clothes still fit afterward. As the new Master, John Simm gave a fair approximation of Tennant’s post-regeneration confusion, which may not be a good idea. I always had the impression that most Time Lords coped with the process rather well, and it was only the Doctor who had a lot of trouble with it. Post-regeneration craziness makes the Doctor goofy and loveable, something ideally the Master should not be. I’ve a lot of respect for John Simm, and hopefully he’ll be allowed to tone down the performance for next week, when subjectively he’ll be a long way past his regeneration. Still, I have to say Derek Jacobi’s performance was so magnetic I really wished he’d stayed around.

Director Graeme Harper made a very good job of a rather disjointed, complex script, turning something that could have been very talky into a fairly tense, gripping bit of TV. From the first, faint sound of drums to Jacobi’s chilling turn as the Master, he used lighting and editing to make a heart in mouth climax to an episode that had seemed fairly staid.

There are quite a few obvious criticisms to be made, the main one being that Russell perhaps tried to squeeze way too much into one episode. Reintroducing one old character would be hard enough to do and maintain a real plot, reintroducing two is near impossible, which is why the plot sort of goes away about halfway through. What was Utopia? Was it real? The Master sneers the name as he removes a circuit from his computer, so was it all just a ruse of his? I also thought that the idea of a story set at the very end of the universe, as reality disintegrates, had the potential to be really interesting, so it was a shame that the exploitation of the idea was confined to a few throwaway remarks from Professor Yana. And on the subject of Yana, it seems a little comic-book convenient that his name is an acronym of “You are not alone”, the Face of Boe’s message to the Doctor. I suppose there might be a rational reason he knew about it, but it’s hard to see how.

With this only the first of an unprecedented three-part story, it’s hard to judge it. Still, it seems a game of two halves, dull at first but then genuinely gripping after its big reveal. Like twist movies such as Fight Club, it will probably come across entirely differently on a second viewing, especially as part of a larger story. Overall, though, it’s a bit of a mixed bag which doesn’t quite live up to the really high quality of the three episodes before it. But next week really looks exciting…

Episode 10: Blink

“Whatever you do, don’t blink!”

We are indeed spoiled this season, as an episode by the obscenely talented Steven Moffat follows straight after the excellent Paul Cornell two-parter. And what an episode! Tasked with writing this year’s “Doctor-lite” story so the stars can film another episode simultaneously, Moffat has used the Doctor’s near-absence to exploit the full potential of the series’ main idea – time travel. Blink more fully realises the possibilities of the concept than any Doctor Who story ever before, all laced with Moffat’s trademark acid wit, and with one of the most unnerving monsters the new series has created.

Like the episode before it, Blink is based on a previously published bit of fiction – in this case a short story Moffat wrote for the 2006 Doctor Who Annual. That story showed a schoolgirl named Sally Sparrow discovering hidden messages from the trapped Doctor, beginning with scrawls under ancient wallpaper. This opening, lifted straight from the original, is a spooky bit of business, as a now somewhat older Sally Sparrow creeps into the local haunted house after dark (why do they always go after dark?).

The construction of the story was masterly, gradually revealing little clues to allow the viewer to piece together the tortuous temporal puzzle the author had created. The Doctor’s depiction of causality’s non-linear nature – “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey…stuff” – was a hoot, but actually had a point. I’m not much of a quantum physicist, and I suspect neither is Steve Moffat, but there were some genuinely intriguing sci-fi concepts here.

In the near-absence of the Doctor and Martha, it was up to Sally Sparrow and Larry Nightingale to serve as the episode’s leads, and they did this superbly. Well-served by some excellent writing, Carey Mulligan made Sally a likeable, sympathetic heroine, with brains and a strong streak of determination. Finlay Robertson too was fun as Larry, a more rounded version of the internet-dwelling slacker stereotype than sci-fi normally offers. The two sparked off each other really well; I loved the introduction of Larry as he wandered unsuspectingly naked past Sally, inquiring as to whether he was actually wearing pants.

The rest of the characters were similarly well-realised. Sally’s friend Cathy, going from present day London to 1920 Hull, was a gutsy back-up, but the one that really made a mark was the flirtatious Detective Inspector Shipton, with his determined efforts to get Sally on a date. He also got one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in the episode, as he turned up again in his aged form to pass the Doctor’s message on to Sally just before he died. Normally, we might have expected the Doctor to turn up and whisk these people back to their proper place and time. The fact that he literally couldn’t without unravelling the complex web of causality that would lead to his rescue really hammered home the point about being unstuck in time, and how it could take people’s lives without killing them.

Which brings us to the Angels. How bloody scary were they?! Moffat, the man who gave us the gas-masked Empty Child and the unstoppable clockwork droids, has yet again come up with a concept spooky enough to give children a few nightmares. The idea of devouring potential energy by taking people out of their rightful time is unnerving enough, but then to make them “quantum” creatures who cannot move when observed is a masterstroke that also drives the story’s narrative in every regard. The sequence of Larry trying desperately not to take his eyes off one as it lunged for him was one of the tensest bits of telly I’ve seen in a long while, and the strobe lit climax perfectly exploited the concept, the creatures frozen in a new position with each flash. The scariness of the idea was augmented by some superb design work; the Angels were both convincing as placid statues and as lunging, sharp-toothed monstrosities. It did occur to me that there’s some very similar business with a stone angel in Stephen King’s haunted house epic Rose Red, but that was just a minor detail; here they were central to the plot.

Scary though it all undoubtedly was, still the script served up some choice Moffat quips. When Sally’s friend remarked that they should set up an investigative agency called Sparrow and Nightingale, Sally commented that it was “a bit ITV”, which had me laughing out loud as I remembered ITV shows like Rosemary and Thyme, where they seemed to think of the title first and the plot second. The one-sided conversation the Doctor was carrying on in the DVDs was also a hoot, the writing seeming to perfectly grasp the inherent goofiness of Tennant’s Doctor while still being deadly serious.

I loved the idea of the Doctor hiding messages as DVD easter eggs, which was both witty and intriguing. It also gave us a sequence set in a “DVD shop”, which curiously had posters for non-existent films like Acid Burn all over it. It’s an odd choice, given that fictitious video emporia normally advertise real films, but in one sense it’s a good idea; the episode will date far less noticeably than, say, Fear Her with its “Shayne Warde Greatest Hits” gag. Anyone remember him now? Thought not.

So, a genuinely interesting and complex story with a real human element; thrills, character and emotion throughout. I imagine this one will be a more universally popular Doctorless episode than last year’s love-it-or-hate-it Love and Monsters, being actually a far more trad Who story. Though the final “they’re all around you” scary montage of statues seemed a little hokey, I thought. All in all, though, another winner from Mr Moffat. Damn the man, he really is as talented as he thinks he is!

One final thing – like probably many others, I hated the BBC’s new presentation style, that resulted in the end credits being shoved into a tiny corner of the screen. It was the first time I’d seen this in action, though I knew it was coming. The final indignity, though, was having the screen then taken over by Graham Norton – the same man who’d already ruined a really suspenseful scene in the very first episode by talking all over it!

Episode 9: The Family of Blood

“Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”

Wow. That certainly did live up to the promise of the first half, putting the viewer through an emotional wringer the likes of which we haven’t seen since Father’s Day. Paul Cornell’s script continued to do a fantastic job of adapting his book into something much more televisual, and the cast really gave their all.

David Tennant particularly. I mean, the Doctor isn’t a human being, he’s an all-powerful alien with a totally different range of emotions, and this doesn’t give an actor too much chance to strain their acting muscles. True, he’s brought a deal of depth and pathos to the character, but the Doctor is still fundamentally unknowable. But as John Smith, we saw an actor at the peak of his powers, a genuinely likeable character who even within the framework of the story had never really existed. As a fiction within a fiction, it’s hard to imagine that we should care about this character so much, but Tennant made him likeable, admirable and sympathetic. The scenes in the cottage as he realised his true nature and was presented with the choice of, effectively, committing suicide to save everyone else were heartbreaking, and played to perfection both by Tennant and Jessica Hynes. The little flash-forward to the normal life the Doctor could never have was beautiful, reminiscent of a similar sequence in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. It expanded perfectly on that significant remark the Doctor makes in Father’s Day about envying humans the miracle of their small, mundane but thrilling lives.

The overtones of the impending Great War were also very well done, more overt than in the novel but gelling perfectly with the visual style of the show. That Baines should explicitly tell the Headmaster of the conflict to come, and have it not dent the man’s sense of duty one bit, was a lovely moment that gave the man an integrity and nobility, making his later death quite affecting. Likewise, the expansion of Latimer’s flash-forwards to the trenches worked very well, although Thomas Sangster did look rather young to be serving at the front line.

But perhaps the best of these moments was that machine gun battle at the school. Perfectly directed by the talented Charles Palmer, it was a truly chilling moment as the boys began to shoot down the advancing scarecrows, a presaging of things to come in France. Playing it in silence with “To Be a Pilgrim” mournfully layered over the soundtrack was a stroke of genius, the hymn sounding a lament for the death of England’s innocents. And John Smith’s firm assertion that “this must not happen” just made you love the little human blighter that much more. The final payoff, the epilogue with an aged Latimer in the present day, was one of my favourite scenes in the novel, and taken straight from it, almost unaltered. A few tears came to my eyes as the Doctor and Martha pinned on their poppies, and I fervently hope that this episode will keep the memory of those who died alive for yet another generation.

Jessica Hynes was amazing, displaying an acting ability hitherto only guessed at from her role in Spaced. Her dilemma over whether John Smith should die and become the Doctor was played to perfection, but the scene that really got me was that final scene in the cottage, as she confronts the man her lover has become. Another superb sequence from the novel played as it was originally written, it brought the Doctor face to face, as the new show sometimes does, with the consequences of his actions. Joan’s cold enquiry as to whether, had he not chosen to hide there, anyone would have died, was a chilling moment. Her refusal to travel with this new version of the man she had known was perfect, and it was truly moving as she crumpled into tears when the Doctor closed the door and left.

Freema got a lot to do as well, perhaps because she was inheriting the role of Bernice Summerfield, a rather ballsier companion. The standoff at the village hall was genuinely tense, and Martha cama across as movingly brave as she told Smith to get his lady friend out of there and leave her to deal with it. In the absence of the Doctor, she seemed almost to take on his mantle. Indeed , the episode seemed full of people trying to fill the void the Doctor left, with Latimer too becoming very Doctorlike (as in the novel). The moment when Latimer stopped the little girl by opening the watch at her was a very Doctorish thing to do!

The Family continued to be chilling, the mannered performances of the actors fitting perfectly their otherworldly characters. As before, Harry Lloyd got the lion’s share of the action here, and a lot of fun he was too, particularly with his exaggerated schoolboy mocking of the Headmaster. Their ultimate fate at the hands of the Doctor was a jawdropping sequence, with the Time Lord’s darker side shown to an extent never seen before, not even in his genocide of the Rachnoss in The Runaway Bride. It’s possible that the chain of events leading to his punishment of them could have been shown, but actually that would have detracted from the impression the script was giving us of the character. Paul Cornell has always written the Doctor as an almost godlike being with tremendous, almost supernatural powers, and that’s the point. We’re taking it as read that he could have done this any time he’d wanted, and his hiding away was more an act of mercy, a choice to allow the Family to live their short lives. He was, in fact, trying to restrain himself from doing what he ultimately did, a moral choice that I don’t recall from Paul’s original novel. Incidentally, I loved the little girl being stuck in “every mirror, forever” even if it was an obvious “homage” to the classic Sapphire and Steel story of the man in every photo.

That was, in every way, how Doctor Who should be done. An instant classic worthy of being up there with any of the original series’ finest moments, it was in my opinion the best story since the show’s return. David Tennant’s performance blew me away, and for the first time in such an emotional story, not once did I wonder how Christopher Eccleston might have played it! Paul, thank you for one of the finest pieces of television drama I have ever seen. I can’t believe you’re not writing one next year!