NUTTer!

A little behind the times on this one I know, but I’ve been following with interest the comical spat between the Home Office and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. It’s been like a pot-fuelled episode of Yes, Minister.

After Professor David Nutt submitted a well-researched scientific report stating that cannabis might actually be less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco (both of which net the Treasury a tidy profit every year), he was promptly sacked from directorship of the ACMD, with several members resigning in protest afterwards.

Our esteemed Home Secretary Alan Johnson commented at the time that he couldn’t have science contradicting government policy. As Sir Humphrey Appleby once said, “I don’t think we need to bring the truth in at this stage…”

Letting Catullus out of the bag

“Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo!”

So I read on the BBC News website that a City banker has been harassing one of his female employees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8375511.stm . Not least by trying to kill her, but also sending her obscene emails in Latin! Yes, a naughty message included the above quotation from Roman poet Catullus, a contemporary of Julius Caesar.

Banker Mark Lowe claims the quote is “light hearted”. Wikipedia offers the following translation:

I will bugger you and face-fuck you.

Hard to see how anyone might take that in a spirit of jest. But what mightily intrigues me about the whole thing is whether the company had an email filter sophisticated enough to screen out obscenities in a dead language? Perhaps I’ll try sending them a mail threatening to do naughty things to Mr Lowe written in Old Church Slavonic, Glagolitic alphabet…

Ode to the Fall Schedules

Ah, autumn. “The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as Keats put it. The season of “where the hell are my ratings?!” as American TV executives would doubtless say.

Yes, the fall schedules are on us again. A time of renewal (or not), maturation and the birth of hopeful new shows, their shoots emerging tentatively into a cold, unsympathetic field of Nielsen ratings.

Already growing strong is ABC’s FlashForward, being vaguely touted as some kind of spiritual successor to Lost. With that show coming close to its end, ABC have sown the seeds of a thematic cousin, hoping to harvest ripe ratings.

Actually, FlashForward has sod all to do with Lost. True, it stars Sonya Walger (out of Lost), Dominic Monaghan (out of Lost) and John Cho (out of, er, Harold and Kumar). Oh, and one episode featured an ad hoarding for Oceanic Airlines. But none of this can disguise the fact that it’s not Lost you’re watching.

It’s got a similarly tricksy structure though, a puzzle that will obviously be unravelled over time. Which will become more convoluted if it’s successful and the network want to extend its lifespan.

The premise is simple but interesting: everyone in the world blacks out simultaneously for a bit over two minutes,  experiencing, in that time, a ‘flashforward’ to what they’ll be doing for a bit over two minutes in exactly six months time.

This gives plenty of scope for drama. FBI hero Mark Benford (Britain’s own Joseph Fiennes with a surprisingly good American accent) knows that he will be hot on the trail of what caused it all, but people will be trying to kill him while he battles his recurring alcoholism. His wife Olivia (Sonya Walger out of Lost) knows she’ll be involved with another man. His partner Demetri (John Cho) won’t be doing anything at all. Because he’ll be dead. Oh, and their boss will be reading the paper while having a dump. I’m not making that last one up, honestly.

The usual philosophical questions surrounding this kind of time paradox are already rearing theit heads. can the future be changed? One character chooses the most direct way to find out by killing himself, ensuring that his flashforward will never happen. That’s that one answered then. But for me, the most obvious question is – how come everyone’s flashforward didn’t consist of them all saying “hang on, this is what I saw during that blackout six months ago”?

FlashForward shows promise, but, tenuous Lost connections aside, is a totally new show and therefore a risk. Network execs don’t like risks. Much safer to take something you know used to be a success and ‘re-imagine’ it. It worked for Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, didn’t it? Let’s just try to forget the attempted revivals of Knight Rider, The Night Stalker, Flash Gordon etc, etc.

With this in mind, a brace of remakes (sorry, ‘re-imaginings’) have landed on our screens. Literally, in the case of ABC’s V. Yep, those water-stealing, flesh-eating alien fascists from the early 80s are back.

And the results are not too bad. In common with other ‘re-imaginings’, the show’s been cleverly retooled for a new era. Gone are the overt allusions to Nazi Germany, replaced by an intriguing plot thread that many of the Visitors have been here for years, infiltrating – like terror cells, geddit? And the admittedly implausible idea of their human disguises being flimsy rubber masks has been supplanted by a covering of synthetic mammal flesh to hide their scaly features. Joan Collins-alike alien commander/super bitch Diana has been replaced by the more reasonable seeming alien demagogue Anna, whose dress sense extends beyond New Romantic style orange fascist uniforms. But the central thread remains the same – they’re only pretending to be our friends, and by the time we realise that, it’s going to be too late…

Again, though, we can’t be trusted to know we’re watching a cult sci fi show without a little guidance. So the casting gives us a helping hand. It stars Elizabeth Mitchell (out of Lost, again), Joel Gretsch (out of The 4400), Rekha Sharma (out of Battlestar Galactica), Laura Vandervoort (out of Smallville), Morena Baccarin and Alan Tudyk (both out of Firefly). Safe to assume it’s a sci fi show, then.

Still, it looks like an intriguing update, and already commentators (Republican ones) are interpreting it as a damning indictment of the Obama presidency. The Visitors keep using words like ‘hope’ and ‘change’ and offering universal healthcare. No wonder they’re a threat to humanity.

The other big remake isn’t a network show at all, being offered by cable guys AMC. And it should be far more political than it is, but somehow it’s not. Yes, disturbingly someone has decided to remake The Prisoner.

The original Prisoner is very much a product of its time and location. There’s something quintessentially British, and inescapably late 60s about it, to the extent that one expects any re-imagining of it to be doomed to failure like that mind warpingly awful film of The Avengers in 1992. And yet, this doesn’t do as badly as you’d think. It’s flawed, sure, in the way that it can’t quite decide whether to be entirely new or nick wholesale from the original, but it’s getting the themes and the atmosphere right.

Jim Caviezel, an actor surprisingly devoid of charisma considering his previous big role as Jesus Christ, is our hero, 6. Note, not ‘Number 6’; the denizens of the new Village are referred to by number alone. And at least as of part 1, no-one’s asked him anything about resigning. In this sense, the new version seems to be deliberately even more obscure than the original. Going into it with memories of the original might be a red herring, because as of part 1, we don’t know who 6 was or what he did. Maybe he was some kind of a spy, but it’s not been stated. All we know of his backstory is that he used to live in New York City and he resigned from something (by spraying ‘RESIGN’ on his office window – letters must be too subtle these days). And as yet, no-one in the Village has mentioned it to him; in fact we have even less idea than the original why he’s there or what ‘they’ want with him.

‘They’ is personified by Ian McKellen as 2, who seems avuncular enough, what with his bedridden wife, gorgeous teenage son and genial manner. That’s another weird change in this new Village – the inhabitants have families. There’s also plainly a lot more of them than in the original show – 2’s son has the number 1112, while none of the inhabitants of McGoohan’s Village had numbers higher than double digits. The most curious thing of all is the new twist that no-one in the Village is aware that anything exists beyond it or before it. They just look blank at the very idea.

The new Village – shot in Namibia – is distinctly different than the 1960s Portmeirion setting, but seems determined to retain the eccentric, off-kilter feeling as a location. The houses all seem to be identical wooden triangles, while 2’s grand palace is plainly some kind of old British colonial building. In keeping with the automotive theme from the original, the cars are rather peculiar, though they’ve gone a bit over the top with that one. Rather than the original’s ubiquitous Mini Mokes, we’re presented with a panoply of 1960s European classics. The taxis are all Renault Dauphines, and a Morris Minor with incongruous alloy wheels endlessly circles the Village to make it look like there’s more odd cars than there actually are. For an American audience, these small, odd-looking autos are presumably very freaky.

So far, then, no idea what’s going on. In that respect, it’s like and unlike the original. A mysterious explosion rips through the Village cafe. “These things just happen. Then it all goes back to normal” comments one character. 6 sees things that either aren’t there or invisible to everyone else – very Life on Mars. And mysterious twin towers glitter glassily in the distance, looking unmistakably like the ones that used to grace the New York skyline. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more peculiar, old faithful watchdog/weather balloon Rover turns up. Only in this version, he’s fifty feet wide.

So it’s like they ignored the early, spy themed episodes of the original series and went straight for the abstract, “what the bloody hell is this about?” later ones. A nice idea, but unlikely to win it many new fans. Still, I’ll be interested to see where it goes in its short, six episode run. (Six of one…)

It’ll be interesting to see how these new crops develop in the harvest of Nielsen ratings that is the fall schedules. All are worthy of further growth, but which will end up as compost and which shrinkwrapped in the veg section of HMV?

(NB – Yes, I know I took the ‘autumn crops’ metaphor too far.)

Doctor Who Special Number 3: The Waters of Mars

“The Laws of Time are mine. And they will obey me!”

Now that was good. I was rather disappointed with the previous two specials; The Next Doctor, once one got past the striking images of Cybermen in Victorian London, had a flimsy and predictable plot, and Planet of the Dead seemed an empty, overambitious romp with some gaping plot holes.

Waters of Mars, conversely, may be one of Russell T Davies’ best scripts ever. Shorn of his desire to play to the crowds by having Cybermen fight Daleks, or having a reunion of every companion since 2005, he turned out an economical, chilling script that worked on several different levels.

First, and most obviously, it was an effective little horror story, playing on some of Who’s staple strengths. A relentless, thoroughly alien adversary that takes over and changes your very body is straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s darker stories – The Ark in Space being the prime example. And the ‘base under siege’ scenario is a formula that’s worked in any number of Who stories – not to mention classic horror films like Night of the Living Dead and most of the work of John Carpenter. Indeed, there were scenes reminiscent of a number of horror films. The basic premise is not dissimilar to Carpenter’s far inferior Ghosts of Mars, and the bit when Roman was infected by a single drop of water recalled nothing so much as Brendan Gleeson’s infection with a single drop of blood in 28 Days Later. Ratcheting up the tension with his customary expertise was the reliably superb Graeme Harper, who could show John Carpenter a thing or two about direction these days.

The possessing aliens were genuinely imaginative and unnerving. The possibility of running water on the surface of Mars has a plausible scientific background, and the possessed humans, bodies shedding a horrifying amount of water, were just scary enough for a show on at 7 in the evening. Like Russell’s other horror classic Midnight, their nature and motivations were left deliberately unclear, and were more disturbing for it. All we got were disquietingly ominous hints, with the viewer’s imagination left to fill in the rest.

At the other end of the scale from ‘scary’, I was a little dubious about the inclusion of an intentionally ‘cute’ robot. Not that I have anything against cute robots per se – as a Star Wars fan that would make me something of a hypocrite. But it did seem that Russell was trying to have his cake and eat it by both including a cute robot and having the Doctor make contemptuous remarks about cute robots. Still, younger kids will probably love it, as will the merchandise manufacturers. For me, I found the robot’s operator, young Roman, far more cute.

So, on one level, Waters of Mars was very much a thrilling, family friendly slice of horror in the style of old school Who. If it had had a decent budget and more convincing effects. But what definitely wasn’t old school – and will, I suspect, be the part that excites and divides the fans – was the parallel thread exploring how the Doctor squares his increasingly omnipotent power with a sense of morality.

This is what made the episode truly dark, and made it one of the most audacious scripts Russell has written. The Doctor’s a difficult character to deconstruct, as ultimately he’s the hero of the show and necessarily its moral compass. To show him as both fallible morally and arrogant to boot is nearly unprecedented.

I say ‘nearly’, because the show has touched on the idea before. In the very first story, William Hartnell seemed prepared to bash in a caveman’s head  to help himself escape. Patrick Troughton’s deliberate misdirection of the archaeological team in Tomb of the Cybermen always struck me as a bit suspect, too. He plainly knew what was down there; if he wanted to avoid bloodshed why not just tell people? Then we saw Jon Pertwee confronting his own ingrained prejudice towards the Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon. And most famously, Tom Baker agonised over the decision of whether or not to commit genocide against his deadliest enemies in Genesis of the Daleks – a moral debate slightly undercut in light of the knowledge that Sylvester McCoy will later blithely blow up the Daleks’ entire planet.

But this is undoubtedly the most overt use of the idea as a central plot thread. We’ve known about ‘fixed points in history’ almost since the beginning, of course – witness the First Doctor telling Barbara “you can’t rewrite history; not one line!” in 1964’s The Aztecs. And last year we had the point underlined in The Fires of Pompeii, which also clarified that,as a Time Lord, the Doctor did have the power to do so. It’s an interesting, and consistent approach to show that there are points in our subjective future that are just as fixed.

Simply by having the ability to travel in time and alter such fixed points, the Doctor has power not far removed from that of a god. And the only check on that power – his own people – is long since gone.

It is, of course, with the best of intentions that the Doctor chooses to exercise that power – you know what they say about the road to hell and its construction methods. That point is neatly underlined as we see him grimly walking away from the base listening to its crew members die one by one. When he finally snaps and decides to act from the heart rather than the head, it’s a neat reversal of the ruthless morality often displayed by the Seventh Doctor – this is a man who wants to save individuals even at the expense of the bigger picture.

And, of course, he’s wrong. More wrong than he’s ever been before, in a dark turn that could only really be pulled off with a character so strongly established. As he piles transgression on transgression, at best he seems arrogant and hubristic; at worst he seems simply mad.

David Tennant perhaps chose to overplay the ‘close to madness’ feel of the dialogue in the scenes set at the base, but the later scene outside the TARDIS on Earth was played to perfection. The Doctor is all haughty arrogance, convinced of his moral superiority in his actions.

And as in The Runaway Bride, it takes a mere human to show him he’s wrong. Lindsay Duncan’s quiet, dignified performance in that scene with the Doctor was masterful, and the way Tennant just crumpled when he realised she had shouldered the responsibility that should have been his by ending her own life was heartbreaking.

This moral complexity and fallibility makes Waters of Mars the most interesting look at the Doctor yet, and undoubtedly one of Russell T Davies’ finest scripts. There were many other excellent aspects in an all-round excellent production, but this was the core of it for me.

“The Time Lord victorious… is wrong.”

A Question of Freedom

So Nick Griffin has finally ‘graced’ Question Time with his presence. And guess what? We didn’t turn into the Third Reich overnight!

I’m being flippant, I know, but I was firmly on the BBC’s side in the recent furore over the BNP leader’s appearance. Yes, I find his politics – and his party – repugnant, but like it or not, he’s an elected representative, and in a democracy is therefore entitled to a say. To effectively censor him would be to stoop to the very tactics that he himself might espouse.

Not that people didn’t try. Inevitably, a large group of well-meaning – but in my view rather naïve – anti-fascist protestors were firmly camped outside the gates of Television Centre, blithely oblivious to the fact that their very presence was ensuring far more media coverage than Mr Griffin might otherwise have enjoyed. Having to be sneaked into the studio past an angry mob also lent him an unfortunate air of martyrdom, and lent unwelcome credibility to his claims of being demonised.

Obviously not at all enjoying the free publicity for what was rapidly turning into a media circus, BBC News sent an intrepid reporter the several hundred yards outside the building to talk to the protestors. “Freedom of speech has its limits,” an earnest young man declared to camera with a breathtaking lack of irony. He followed that up by actually saying that giving Griffin airtime would allow him to eventually censor freedom of speech.

Undizzied by this circular argument, our brave correspondent then talked to a similarly earnest young woman. “Would the BBC have allowed Hitler on the air a couple of years before the Second World War?” she asked, instantly evoking Godwin’s Law. Actually, yes, they probably would, and with good reason. As leader of an increasingly (and unpleasantly) influential nation, the BBC would have been lacking in principle to not have him on a forum such as Question Time, had one existed in 1937. Precisely because we don’t live in a totalitarian state, men like Hitler (and Nick Griffin) can and should be publicly called to account for their beliefs and actions.

Later, some more of the earnest young people broke into the Television Centre, thereby affording the news cameras some less than dignified footage of them being dragged out through reception shouting “Shame on you BBC!” By this time, Sky News and even CNN were giving the events live coverage, though I failed to check on Fox News to see what the ever-charming Glenn Beck might have made of it.

So, what could have been a mildly contentious event giving a right wing buffoon a little airtime to metaphorically hang himself turned into an international news event that ensured Nick Griffin is now hot news in several continents. Well done, those protestors, thank goodness you showed up to stop him getting publicity.

I’m not against the idea of opposing fascism, don’t get me wrong. But the cornerstone of opposing Nazi-style fascism is to maintain freedom, and when anyone – especially an elected representative of the people – is refused his say, you’ve instantly lost the moral high ground. And it also occurs to me that it’s tremendously patronising of the protestors to assume that the viewing public need protecting from a man like Griffin. It proceeds from the view that everyone watching is a brainless sheep who might be swayed to vote BNP just by seeing the man. For heaven’s sake, people, credit the British population with a little more intelligence than that!

Eventually, though, we actually got to see Griffin in action. No denying it, he’s smoother than your old-fashioned NF boot boy (which of course he used to be). Like David Cameron, he’s trying to copy Tony Blair in reinventing both himself and his party.

But once the questions got underway, the smooth veneer began to crack. Even having presumably prepared himself for the questions he would face – and they were predictable enough- his well-rehearsed patter began to seem more and more like an ant under a big magnifying glass.

He could plainly cope with Jack Straw’s contempt, but seemed rather less equipped to deal with the wrath of Dimbleby. Mercilessly interrupting him at well-judged points, David got him to unknowingly let slip a few howlers. Commenting on his well-publicised meeting with David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, he first contended that the Klan (or possibly Duke himself) were ‘non-violent’, then followed this up literally seconds later by saying he was there to try and subvert Duke’s message. What, the message about ‘non-violence’?

Plenty more flat out falsehoods were obviously exposed as the debate continued. Griffin floundered on the topic of his previous Holocaust denial, lamely commenting, “I can’t explain why I used to say the things I used to say” – hardly glowing rhetoric.

He was as mealy-mouthed as ever on the subject of race, effectively avoiding the issue every time it was addressed by bandying about the now familiar euphemisms about ‘indigenous populations’, which was effectively rubbished by Jack Straw. For a man so avowedly anti-Europe, Griffin was on shaky ground referring to the ‘indigenous’ people of a nation that’s been variously colonised by the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans, to name but a few.

Predictably enough, it wasn’t so much Question Time as the Nick Griffin show, but for the most part was effective in revealing him to be the thoroughly unpleasant and slimy piece of work we knew him to be. And it was always going to do that, which is one reason why having him on the show was a rather good idea.

Even so, a couple of opportunities were missed. Part of the problem with spending the whole show focussing on contentious issues we know about the BNP is that no time was left over to ask them about issues they probably haven’t even thought about. I would have loved to have seen Griffin flounder when asked about his party’s economic policies, or what he would do to reduce the national debt.

So, was it, in the end a show full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Ultimately, no. Griffin was given enough rope to hang himself, which he effectively did, and it seems unlikely that such a lacklustre, uncharismatic performance will gain the BNP any new support. BBC Director General Mark Thompson was absolutely right – and I’ll grudgingly admit, a tad courageous – to allow the show to go ahead despite the storm of protest. Far from ‘shame on the BBC’, it made me feel a little bit proud of them. Well, not proud enough to forgive them for Help, I’m as Fat as My Dog, but freedom of broadcasting has its limits;)

Series 4, Episode 4: The Sontaran Stratagem

“This is your final destination.”

OK, as usual of late a rather drunken weekend prevented me reviewing this on Sunday! Now I sit here with a stinking cold, and the muse is on me yet again.

“Is that how you spell ‘stratagem’?” asked my boyfriend as the title appeared. Yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s how you define one. The return of the Sontarans in a story Russell had defined as “military” got off to a low key start as apparently an episode of Torchwood with a lethal satnav system that can apparently take over your car and kill you. It seems churlish to quibble in a show that features a time travelling alien and a race of cloned militarists, but how exactly did it control purely mechanical bits like the gearstick and the handbrake? And the name “Atmospheric Omission System” seemed to be a misspelling of “emission”, though I suppose it did cause the “omission” of certain gasses from the exhaust. My guess is that they just wanted a snappy acronym, though.

In keeping with the story’s military flavour, it generally felt like it had strayed from an early Jon Pertwee season, with all the shallow action and gunplay that entails. It was nice to see UNIT back again properly, though the insistence that it now stands for “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” was immediately undermined by references to it having a remit from the UN. In light of recent history though, it’s just as well the connection with the UN was played down; else we might have seen a years long story in which weapons inspectors were sent to disarm the Sontarans while Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart composed strongly worded letters to them.

In light of his rather advanced age, it’s understandable that Nick Courtney wasn’t back as the Brig, though it’s a shame some advisory role couldn’t have been found for him. Rupert Holliday-Evans’ Colonel Mace seems a rather hollow replacement, just like all those interchangeable COs we saw whenever Courtney wasn’t available in the Tom Baker era. Still, he seems to be developing a good rapport with David Tennant’s Doctor, who seems unusually antagonistic towards an organisation he used to work for. Pertwee’s occasional spat with the Brig was nothing on Tennant’s cold contempt of anyone who carries a gun to keep the peace – a viewpoint that seems idealistic but rather naive for a man who happily manipulated the Daleks into blowing up their entire solar system.

The fanboys were kept happy with some nice continuity references that, as usual, were kept discreetly away from alienating the casual viewer. Best of these by far was the Doctor’s assertion that he used to work for UNIT “back in the 70s… or was it the 80s?”, nicely ripping the piss out of those fans with a pedantic obsession for noting the contradictions in dating UNIT stories.

Also in keeping with the classic Pertwee stories was the “stratagem” of keeping the bad guys hidden for the most part. Initially (if we hadn’t seen the somewhat spoilery title) we might have been looking at the creepy public school of Luke Rattigan as the villains. Reminiscent of 70s kids’ drama Codename Icarus, a public school seems a great place for a villain to hide in plain sight. Rattigan himself was a great character, a spoiled teenage genius whose decision to become a quisling seemed perfectly understandable given his attitude to the rest of humanity. It also helped that actor Ryan Sampson is rather easy on the eye! The scene with the Doctor correcting his grammar and his peevish attempt to do the same back was brilliantly played by Sampson and Tennant, with the even prettier Christian Cooke standing pointlessly around in the background as Private Jenkins. I hope he gets more to do in the next part, though the apparent requirement that most episodes should have at least one really pretty young man in them can be very distracting!

Eventually though, the true villains had to be revealed, and rather less than amazingly, it was the Sontarans. Now I have to be honest here and say I’ve never really understood why they were so popular. As militarist allegories go, both the Daleks and the Cybermen do it better, not to mention the Klingons. The Sontarans aren’t especially interesting to look at, and with the exception of their debut story The Time Warrior they’ve never really been involved in any of the show’s most interesting plots.

So it’s probably no fault of writer Helen Raynor that I was still unimpressed with them here. The rather cartoony design of their armoured spacesuits didn’t help; why are they suddenly bright blue? And while the make up was undeniably impressive, Christopher Ryan’s performance as General Staal seemed somewhat less so. Ramming the miltary allegory home with a sledgehammer, he delivered lines that put a soldierly connotation onto everything. Obvious though that was, it wouldn’t have been so bad if his voice hadn’t instantly called to mind Mike from The Young Ones. Still, in his favour, at least he isn’t a cockney Sontaran like Derek Deadman in The Invasion of Time.

The one thing the script did best concerning the Sontarans was to include their skill at cloning as part of the plot. We’ve always known that they reproduced this way, and it seems odd that this aspect of their technical skill was never really exploited in the classic series. Mind you, if all they’re doing is creating emotionless replicas of senior government and military figures I shall be very disappointed. At least, though, they’ve given us evil Martha.

Ah, Martha. Having spent most of last year failing to convince as a doctor, she now gets the chance to fail to convince as a soldier. The scenes of her barking orders at a troop of UNIT soldiers seemed rather forced, though to be fair, she played it brilliantly when she met Donna. In a nicely written scene overturning expectations formed by School Reunion, present and former companions didn’t fight. Instead they teamed up to laugh at the Doctor’s expense. Nicely done, Miss Raynor!

With first Martha then evil Martha taking up a lot of screen time, Donna seemed to have less to do this week than usual. It was, however, perfectly in keeping with her character that her office knowhow solved more mysteries than UNIT’s military might. And after her one to one with Martha, she got that cracking scene when she seemed to be leaving the Doctor, ony for him to open his hear to her before realising his mistake. Given my dislike of Catherine Tate as a comedienne, it’s telling that I’ve really warmed to her in Doctor Who; she’s a breath of fresh air in this era of companions who have to be consumed with sexual tension for the ascetic Time Lord.

And her family are less irritating than the last couple too. Granted, her mum is a paragon of the kind of middle class snobbery incarnated by Hyacinth Bucket, but her Grandad is Bernard Cribbins! It was great to see him back, and the scene where everyone realises they’ve already met was a corker, played to perfection by all concerned. Fitting then that the cliffhanger is nicely personalised by Grandad being stuck in a car filling with poisonous gas.

Less terrifying was the Sontarans prebattle stomping ritual, which gave you more the impression that they were about to embark on a game of rugby. But overall, a cliffhanger that works reasonably well, as the Earth’s atmosphere is choked with concentrated exhaust emissions. A message here, do you think? Shame UNIT didn’t bring Bessie back with them to undermine that.

The Sontaran Stratagem was generally, a fun but shallow romp. Its roots lie very much in the early Pertwee UNIT era, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of the early 70s. But we’re not in the early 70s any more. Let’s hope The Poison Sky has a bit more substance to it. Somehow, I rather doubt it though.

Series 4, Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

“The circle must be broken!”

It’s a planet. It’s where the Ood come from. Yessir, this episode certainly does what it says on the tin. But under the expert direction of Graeme Harper, it did so much more. The script, by newcomer Keith Temple, was actually rather a mixed bag, with moments of profundity balanced out by somewhat clumsy messages about slavery and greed, but the sci-fi concepts explored were truly imaginative.

Last time we saw the Ood, they weren’t much more than a cipher, an impressive looking bunch of aliens without much in the way of background. But they plainly made an impression, especially to those of us dedicated to the worship of Dr John Zoidberg. An episode with the spag bol faced creations was an inevitability, but who would have expected it to be so deep? It seemed uncharacteristic the last time we saw them for the Doctor to be so uncaring about what was obviously a race of slaves, but then he had other things on his mind, what with the Devil coming back and all. Clearly there was unfinished business, and as befits an alien so … alien-looking as the Ood, we had a glimpse into a truly weird life form.

The concept of the Ood having multiple brains, one of which was some sort of centralised hive-mind, was intriguing, although perhaps a little above the heads of some of the show’s younger viewers. But it gave the script the right kind of moral outrage when we realised that one of those brains was ripped away to be replaced with the translator that was a symbol of servitude. Shame, then, that the giant “central” brain was about as convincing as something from a 1959 Ed Wood movie. In fact, visually it looked like nothing so much as the even more giant brain in naff Blake’s 7 episode Ultraworld, proof if proof be need be that hi-tech CG can look just as ropey as good old miniatures.

Donna got to display some fine moral chops again in this episode, albeit with the irritating “Why do you call me miss, do I look single?” line to remind us that we’re watching Catherine Tate. Only three episodes in, and she’s displaying the kind of self-righteous rectitude that Tegan always had. And I’m rather enjoying that. Her compassion towards the Ood was somehow more convincing than I would have expected from Martha or Rose, but then maybe it’s the shock of the new. Or the refreshing change of a companion who doesn’t spend every couple of minutes gazing wistfully at the Doctor.

With the moral focus squarely on Donna, the Doctor’s function this week was mainly to explain the plot. Which occasionally got a little lost in the melee of concepts and subtexts. Still, David Tennant had a whale of a time running around being chased by a giant claw, all the while managing to keep his improbably styled hair immaculate. And he got that marvellous continuity nod to The Sensorites, neatly explaining the Ood’s slight resemblance to that noble race who can’t tell each other apart. So Ood Sphere is twin to Sense Sphere? That makes… sense.

Nice, too, to see Tim McInnerny, who’s developed a neat line in barking bad guys since his turn as Oliver Mace in Spooks. But even he couldn’t make much more than a cipher out of the character of Mr Halpen, who wasn’t well-drawn enough to be truly believable. Doctor Who is swarming with unscrupulous businessmen out to make a profit from the suffering of others, and Halpen was less compelling than the likes of Stevens in The Green Death or Morgus in The Caves of Androzani. His vanity about his hair loss was the only real humanising aspect to him, and McInnerney played that well, but like many a fine actor he descended into ham when confronted with the blunt edges of the script. And it has to be said, his final transformation into an Ood, while it made perfect sense dramatically, seemed a little too much like magic given what had gone before.

The sledgehammer message that slavery isn’t very nice would have seemed too obvious, but the writer counterbalanced it nicely with his comparison of the Ood to contemporary sweatshop workers. And the most sinister thing about the Ood since their first appearance was the way they seemed to like being slaves. The marketing exhibition was a nice touch, with the PR woman the most easily identifiable-with character in it. Would we stand up to injustice at the price of our cushy, high-paying jobs?

The real star, though, apart from Graeme Harper’s masterly direction, was Murray Gold’s music. Perilously skirting the border with schmaltz in the same way as Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands, Murray gave us some moments of genuine beauty, fitting for a story in which the aliens were bound up with song. The scene in which the Doctor grants Donna the ability to hear the Ood’s song was a little masterpiece, played to perfection by Tennant and Tate and made haunting by Murray’s music. The score for this should be the highlight of the series four CD when it comes out.

Overall, Planet of the Ood was more reminiscent of old Who than we’ve seen recently. It had a sledgehammer political message delivered by ciphers and a denouement hinging on a giant, unconvincing brain. And yet it also had moments of astounding beauty and profundity, and some nice foreshadowing of events. Why must the Doctor’s song end? Oh, and what has happened to the bees? Hmmm…