Episode 3: Gridlock

Well, Russell has been having a bad time on the M4, hasn’t he?

Obviously our man has been fuming in a traffic jam, and was inspired to write this episode in much the same way as Robert Holmes was moved to write The Sunmakers after a bad experience with the taxman. And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. The sci-fi concepts here are solid and imaginative, and the story moves at a good pace. What’s more, it makes sense. I’ve ranked on Russell’s writing a lot in the past for his tendency to get carried away and let the plot fit his ideas rather than the other way around, but with Smith and Jones and now this, I think he’s really improved. Yes, there are blatant set pieces and “moving” moments, but they aren’t contrived or bolted on but arise naturally from the plot; a vast improvement on our previous visit to New Earth.

The idea of a neverending, lifelong traffic jam is ingenious and amusingly satirical, and the script realises it well, especially in the characters’ sanguine acceptance of it taking years to go ten miles. What’s more, the ultimate explanation for it is equally ingenious, arising from a Red Dwarf: Better Than Life style-addiction that’s caused the death of the civilisation above them. The vista of the Senate filled with skeletons was an impressive one, though one has to ask: how could the Senate have declared a quarantine when they were all off their heads on this Bliss stuff? Small quibbles, really though.

One area Russell’s always excelled at is character and dialogue, and these didn’t disappoint. The range of quirky personalities filling the Motorway was great fun, in many ways a celebration of the British eccentricity Doctor Who has always embraced. Ardal O’ Hanlon was obviously the standout as Brannigan, his charisma making you wonder what he’s doing wasting his time with rubbish like My Hero. The consistently excellent cat make-up did nothing to dim his charm, either. Elsewhere in the smog, the two married old ladies were a hoot, though one can already hear the cries of “gay agenda!” from certain parts of fandom. I also particularly liked the bowler-hatted businessman, who Russell acknowledged was nicked from 2000AD. Likewise, the Oriental girls and the nudist couple added up to a deliberately weird bunch, and as last week, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tongue in cheek style of season 17.

And, of course… the Macra. Why? Well, why not? OK, there’s no real reason why the big monster at the bottom of the tunnel had to be a returning foe, but it’s a nice touch. After all, who but the most ardent fans are going to get the reference? To anyone else, they’re yet another in an ongoing parade of aliens the Doctor somehow seems to know. It’s consistent with their previous appearance too, in that the poisonous fumes of the Motorway are rather nice, as far as they’re concerned. It did occur to me to wonder why they were ten times their original size, mind.

The relationship between the Doctor and Martha also seemed to develop quite nicely here too. Remember, it’s crucial to the future of the show that this latest reformatting is handled well, and the writers are clearly taking pains to do this. The Doctor’s plainly showing off, having promised Martha only one trip and then immediately cheating by taking her off to the future. He obviously wants her around more than he can admit, but it’s more guarded than his overt fondness for Rose. After all, when Martha’s kidnapped he doesn’t go all melodramatic and start declaiming “Now no power on Earth can stop me!”. Thank God. And his descriptions of Gallifrey are heartbreakingly defined for the viewer, who knows the planet no longer exists and winces when Martha eagerly asks to be taken there.

Martha, for her part, is becoming endearingly cynical about her feelings. “You’re taking me to the same planets you took her?” she asks. “Have you heard the word ‘rebound’?” Ouch. Later, in the van with her captors, she gets some great dialogue to describe her feelings, as she portrays the Doctor as an amazing, but somehow unreachable figure.

Finally, there’s the Face of Boe’s great revelation. Well, that took long enough, didn’t it? So… “You are not alone.” Hmmm. Nice, doomy signs and portents there, especially given our suspicions about the rest of the season. If it does tie into that, whatever “that” is, it’s a more inventive storyline than just having one of the characters say “Torchwood” once an episode. Cheers, Russell. Although… the Doctor refers to the Face as “old friend”, despite the fact that they’ve only met three times (remember in New Earth – “We shall meet again; for the third time, for the last time.” Bit like Spaceballs, “At last we meet, for the first time for the last time” but I digress). Anyway, I rarely refer to anyone I’ve met three times with that kind of fondness. Unless I slept with them. Actually, that might be an interesting subplot…

In fact, one interesting thing here was the evolution of the Doctor’s moral code. Clearly, he has no problem with gay couples, but he’s shocked and appalled at the Pharmacists selling artificial mood enhancers. Actually, I thought these, together with the mentions of the Overcity and the Undercity, were a nice crib from the Virgin New Adventures, but it’s telling that in one of those (The Left-Handed Hummingbird), the Doctor not only didn’t object to drugs but got off his face on mushrooms – just to track down the alien menace, you understand. It seems that the Doctor’s moral stance is now firmly rooted in the early 21st century, and while that’s a step up from William Hartnell, it’s a shame Russell couldn’t be more forward-thinking. After all, “drugs” may be viewed as bad now, but they have been, and may be again, very much acceptable in other times.

The direction was good, making impressive use of what was presumably only one set. Mind, that did make one wonder why everyone in the future buys the same model of car, in the same colour. Why it resembles a late 60s Commer dormobile is another question entirely. Seriously though, some of the perhaps overly ambitious CG could have been offset by a bit of variety in the traffic, though I acknowledge that that would have been more complicated and therefore more expensive. In fact, the CG may have been aiming a bit too high, and some of the compositing, especially in the sequence of Macra claws trying to grab the van, was distinctly ropy. Still, we’re spoiled here. It’s worth remembering that in the 70s it would have been an Airfix kit and some bendy toys.

So overall, a mid-range impressive episode with some nice ideas and some great quirky touches. I’m much impressed with Russell’s plotting this year compared to previous seasons, and so far this year is shaping up to be more consistently enjoyable than last year’s wildly variable efforts. Seven out of ten, Mr Davies.

Episode 2: The Shakespeare Code

“Upon this night our work is done
A muse to pen Love’s Labour’s Won!”

Masterpiece theatre!

That was terrific, everything I ever expected from a Gareth Roberts Doctor Who episode. A basically light and fluffy romp, much in the style of the Douglas Adams-guided 17th season which we know to be one of Gareth’s favourites.

Granted, the plot was basically the usual “big bad from the dawn of time trying to get back to our universe”, but it was done with such panache and excellent dialogue that it was a vast improvement even on last week’s pretty good season opener. Loved the witches, the spot on depiction of Elizabethan England, and the excellent use of the Globe. Dean Lennox Kelly made a charismatic Shakespeare, his only “period” dialogue the leering “hey nonny, nonny!”, and his two hapless colleagues were a terrific pair of comic supporting characters. Dropping in that comment “I can’t understand half of what he writes” must have had many a schoolchild across the country hooting with delight. As a depiction of Shakespeare, I could give it plenty of license, eyewitnesses to the man’s character are thin on the ground and he never wrote an autobiography. Who’s to say he wasn’t a 16th century rockstar with a big mouth, bigger ego and penchant to draw obvious comparisons to the modern age like “autographs” and “sketches”? Certainly not the “57 academics punching the air” as he flirted with both Martha and the Doctor in virtually the same breath.

The dialogue started out light and fluffy, and the Doctor’s exchanges with Martha at the episode opening were reminiscent of nothing so much as Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s gabbling at the beginning of City of Death. Indeed, the later conversation in bed with Martha, where the Doctor not only failed to register her interest but unthinkingly compared her unfavourably to Rose, also recalled Tom’s deliberately alien persona. It’s beginning to look like Mr Tennant’s been watching a lot of old Fourth Doctor stories as homework! It shows in his more measured, controlled performance this year.

Martha seemed to accept the trip to 1599 surprisingly readily (unlike, say Steven in The Time Meddler or Ben in The Smugglers). Still she’d already had her entire hospital whisked off to the moon; I guess that’s a bit of an eye-opener. Freema’s already beginning to display a real chemistry with Tennant, their “Avengers”-like vibe repeating with the “Mr Smith/Miss Jones” exchange. I was glad to see that the writer didn’t just ignore the issue of being black in the 16th century either; in fact the whole “blackamoor” exchange with Shakespeare was a hoot, especially the Doctor’s “political correctness gone mad!” comment.

Some great visual effects in the depiction of Elizabethan London, especially those shots of London Bridge. The Carrionites too were well-realised, though as they swept around the Globe I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Angels of Death from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The recreation of the celebrated Bedlam hospital was also excellent, with Martha’s revulsion showing the true horror of the place and its casual cruelty. As for the Elizabethan people and their environs, this is probably the only historical drama (excepting Blackadder, which isn’t really a drama) to draw attention to the fact that they emptied their crap out of the window, had terrible teeth and generally would have smelled appalling. Martha’s embarrassed admission that Shakespeare had terrible breath did fall a little flat, though, in the face of the fact that all the major characters looked altogether too well-groomed and hygienic. That’s a pretty minor quibble, though.

The dropping in of Shakespearean quotes as a running gag was a delight, especially keeping up with which quotes had and hadn’t been written by that point. There was even a bit of iambic pentameter in there, and a rhyming couplet or two. Loved the dropping in of a bit of Dylan Thomas too; I can’t complain about the show’s reliance on pop-culture from hereon in, now can I? On that front, though, the reference to Back to the Future was very well-judged, as were the Harry Potter ones. Wonder how much they had to pay JK Rowling for “Expelliarmus”?

One final thought: while I laughed as loud as anyone at Queen Elizabeth’s unexpected utterance “The Doctor! Our mortal enemy!”, isn’t it a strange coincidence that episode 2 of both series 2 and 3 end with a well-known female monarch annoyed with the Doctor? Perhaps it’s a new story arc…

The Sky, the kids and Heaven

In a week when I didn’t actually watch much telly, a few things nonetheless grabbed my attention.

Firstly, The Sky at Night celebrated its 50th anniversary with the marvellous conceit of showing the eternal Patrick Moore conversing with himself on the very first episode and his successors in 2057. Apparently devised by Moore himself, it was a highly entertaining piece which still managed to be educational and informative about astronomy. The ubiquitous Jon Culshaw was used to good effect as the younger Moore, reining in his usual caricature for a believable impression on the convincingly recreated set of the show’s first broadcast, while chatting to the Moore of the present day. Highly amusing though this was, it still didn’t distract from the fact that Patrick has, in keeping with the older person, now acquired a pair of trousers the waistline of which is placed somewhere just below his armpits.

Elsewhere (on Mars, in fact), Brian May appeared to have been comically made up as Catweazle to represent his fifty years older self. While discussing what had turned out to be right and wrong in the last fifty years of astronomical speculation, May also let slip the accident that occurred in the Live Aid on the Moon show, in which Roger Taylor drummed on the landing stage of the Apollo spacecraft, unaware of its remaining fuel. Cue a shot of a spacesuited figure clutching drumsticks hurtling into space which had me laughing out loud.

It can’t be argued that The Sky at Night‘s 50th anniversary was well worth celebrating; in its history, it’s been an inspiration to many young would-be astronomers, and Patrick Moore himself is a treasured national institution. In keeping with the show that has revolved around him for five decades, Patrick still managed to both entertain and educate, and you can’t ask for better than that. It’s worth mentioning, though, that when I described this programme to a friend at work, he was convinced that I must have dreamed it…

Doctor Who, as usual when its new series begins, seemed to be everywhere this week. David Tennant appeared on Graham Norton (as it were) and a special edition of The Weakest Link, both to good comic effect, but had slightly less luck on children’s tie-in Totally Doctor Who. Slightly more polished as a production than last year, this shameless cash-in was still shot and edited in a style that made MTV look like the arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia. It was apparently a bad thing to hold a single camera shot for longer than a second, but if that had to be done, the camera had an obligation to wobble and swerve alarmingly, as though its operator had had a liquid lunch. David Tennant popped up a couple of times, firstly discussing the episode he was shooting (which immediately ruined the show’s intended impression to have been shot yesterday, since shooting on the show has now wrapped) and then in the first of a serialised animated story which also utilised the talents of new companion Freema Agyeman and cult actor Anthony Head. The animation was stylishly done, but unfortunately somewhat hamstrung by a script pitched at, presumably, the less intelligent child. It’s worth remembering that just because something is made for children, it doesn’t have to talk down to them. Still, the frenetic pace of the thing leaves little room to stop for consideration, I suppose.

Elsewhere, Louis Theroux was back, insinuating himself into yet another set of objectionable oddballs in The Most Hated Family in America. This focussed on the hugely unpleasant views of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, and its congregation, largely drawn from the 70-strong extended Phelps family. Church leader Fred Phelps achieved a degree of notoriety some years ago with his charming website godhatesfags.com, a testament of homophobic hate that makes Adolf Hitler look like Mother Teresa. Given that Middle America already has a bit of a problem with homophobia that contributed greatly to George Bush’s second election victory, you might at first wonder how this makes them the most hated family in America. But Phelps and co have taken their argument further. In a staggering chain of reasoning, they’ve worked out that by tolerating gays, America has doomed itself in the eyes of God, and that its many casualties in the Middle East are part of God’s judgment. Accordingly, they like to picket the funerals of recently killed soldiers, while carrying placards bearing such charming messages as “America is doomed” and “Thank God for 9/11”. Given that patriotism is probably the strongest characteristic in American society, this hasn’t gone down well.

Louis was first to be seen attending one of these pickets. Unusually for his show, he was strongly unequivocal from the first about not sharing the views of the Church. This led to many smiling women of the congregation assuring him that he was bound for hell, and that this made them very happy. Mostly guided by picket organiser Shirley Phelps, Louis was nonetheless tenacious in his pursuit of Fred, the man who’d started it all. Fred, unfortunately, was less than forthcoming. “That’s a dumb question” seemed to be his standard response in the two minutes or so before he less than politely buggered off.

The most unsettling thing about the show was its depiction of the Church’s inculcation of its hatred into the younger generations of the Phelps family. Most of these seemed to be young women in their late teens or early twenties, a few of whom Louis met.

“You’re going to Hell”, smiled an attractive young lady wearing a T-shirt that said “Italia”. Presumably Italy was less of a sinner than, say, Sweden, whose punishment of a homophobic incident led to a new website, godhatessweden.com. Another young lady was a student lawyer at the local college. “Do you have friends here?” Louis gently probed. “Er… friendly acquaintances” was as far as she would go. When the rest of the world is composed of doomed sinners on their inevitable way to Hell, friends were obviously surplus to requirements.

Finally, we saw yet another funeral picket, at which Louis conversed with a pretty girl of about seven holding a placard that proclaimed “God Hates Fags”.

“Do you know what the sign means?” Louis asked. Smiling politely, the little girl replied that she didn’t. Louis then enquired the same of a ten-year-old boy called Noah, who gave the same answer. At this point, Shirley swept swiftly in to coach the children on their answers, but the point had been made; the Phelps children aren’t born to hate, they’re taught to.

A more depressing than usual show, this showed that none of Louis’ rational, lucid arguments were going to sway these rabid fanatics. As he held up a placard proclaiming that “fags eat poop”, a smiling Shirley proclaimed that this is “absolutely true”. A later gentle probe as to whether Shirley could change her worldview was met with the compelling rebuttal “not a chance, poopie-pants”.

The Phelps family are convinced that their church is the only one preaching the true message of God, and that, concomitantly, everyone else in the world is bound for Hell. It seems to me that a Heaven populated only by the Phelps family would be fairly empty, and not somewhere that I would ever like to be.

Episode 1: Smith and Jones

Well, that was quite fun, wasn’t it?

Each year’s season opener has had the thankless task of reinventing the show in a new format (though New Earth had that burden slightly lessened by The Christmas Invasion), and this is always going to hamstring a writer going for an inventive plot. With the focus of new Who being so much on the companion character, the introduction of a new one means that the storyline must take something of a back seat to the character. This, if anything, was the biggest problem with the solid but unimpressive Rose.

Smith and Jones showed a marked improvement on either of the previous season openers in these respects, doing a good job of introducing a new character and also backing up it up with a well-written, logical, and often quite inventive plot. While Rose was a straightforward runaround and New Earth was a campy, plot-hole filled irritant, this episode was actually quite impressively offbeat. The settings, concepts and characters involved were far enough removed from the norm to impress, and the characters, while often rather derivative and/or two-dimensional got some great dialogue and convincing motivations (unlike, say, Cassandra’s inexplicable volte-face at the end of New Earth… I promise I’ll try to lay off criticising that soon).

The key to the story is, of course, the introduction of new companion Martha Jones. I must confess that throughout the second series, the smugness of Billie Piper’s Rose had become incredibly annoying, and I was really looking forward to a different kind of companion. Martha’s certainly that. While Rose was, to be fair, a very ordinary girl trapped in a very boring life, Martha is bright, immediately resourceful and obviously going somewhere. Freema Agyeman didn’t get a great deal of detail to work with but has obviously been given enough background for the character to give a rounded, convincing performance. Russell’s dialogue for the scenes between her and the Doctor fairly crackle with chemistry, but of a different kind to the Doctor/Rose relationship. While Rose was a girl, Martha seems more like a young woman, far more self-assured. Her reaction to being invited for a trip to the TARDIS is very much that of someone with her feet on the ground – “but I’ve got bills to pay.” As seems to be mandatory in the new series, her relationship with the Doctor is obviously going to be based around some form of romance, but Russell was cleverly playful about the nature of it. Martha’s clearly attracted to him – her reaction to that kiss showed that- but equally clearly in denial about it. Conversely, the Doctor is apparently oblivious to it; or is he? This will-they/won’t they flirting game has been played out well before in shows like Moonlighting and The X-Files, and Russell’s a good enough writer of character and dialogue to pull it off. It’s refreshingly different to the obvious mutual worship between the Doctor and Rose.

On the slightly more negative side of the show’s reformatting, Martha comes equipped with a large, unruly family, none of whom at present has more than the flimsiest of characterization. Her sister and brother seem fairly featureless, despite some good performances, but her mum, her dad, and particularly her dad’s blonde bimbo girlfriend are irritating soap-style characters already pregant with subplots to come. It’s worth remembering at this point that the initial characterizations of Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith were no better, and they may improve. But it gives me a sinking feeling to see that Russell obviously believes this soap opera aspect to be integral to modern Who. He has a point in saying we should examine what impact the companion just buggering off with the Doctor would have, but the whole Rose’s family thing came to dominate the last series in a way that made the Doctor more like some kind of family guidance counsellor than an intergalactic hero. There is a positive to it, though; the Radio Times episode guide shows that this year, there’s only one other story set on contemporary Earth. So the Jones clan hopefully won’t come to dominate the show…yet.

But what of the Doctor, I hear you say? Despite his more restrained performance in the Runaway Bride, David Tennant seemed back to his more manic, previous self. But there was a difference. The manic outbursts of thinking to himself seemed more considered, more judged. Tennant has obviously looked at his performance in the previous series and made a plan for how the character should go. So his solemn, sinister intonations are balanced by moments of high energy mania; not unlike, in fact, the great Tom Baker. If Tennant can keep a rein on his performance – and it looks like he can- there’s no reason why his occasional lapses into hair-pulling barminess can’t all be part of the fun. And indeed his hair was all over the place this episode, pushed and pulled hither and yon during moments of particularly frantic thinking. The TARDIS plainly has quite a supply of gel in it somewhere. Nice to see him get a new blue suit, too; we don’t want the characters lapsing into John Nathan-Turner style uniforms, do we? Still, by the end of the episode he was back in the brown pinstripe. Perhaps he’d been having it dry-cleaned.

Having a story set in a modern hospital is a good idea, and one that I’m surprised the series hasn’t done more often. There was the Bi-Al Foundation in The Invisible Enemy, but that’s hardly Casualty, is it? Oh and that one in New Earth. Best forget about that really. Then to have the whole hospital shifted to the Moon was a stroke of genius, the impact of which was slightly lessened for me by the memory of a contemporary church being similarly shifted to the Moon in Paul Cornell’s New Adventure Timewyrm: Revelation. I wouldn’t consider it a wholesale rip-off; new Who has very smartly taken many of the impressive aspects of Virgin’s well-regarded book series to its heart, and is the better for it. In any case, the hospital setting was used well, exploited to serve the plot in a convincing and logical way. The sets were hugely impressive, though the NHS-alike RHT logo puzzled me somewhat – is there no NHS in the Whoniverse, or could they just not get the rights to the logo? The inclusion of the gift shop was a nice throwaway gag, too. On the negative side, just where was the hospital? The long shot appeared to show it opposite Parliament, but showed no sign of the shops we’d earlier seen near it. The close shots made it appear to be somewhere else again – but that’s really just quibbling.

The plot was of necessity fairly lightweight, and riffed on the old Who standard of an alien fugitive being chased by another bunch of aliens, with the Doctor and co being stuck in between. The Judoon were a nicely realised alien race, their comic bureaucracy and casual brutality obviously owing a debt to Douglas Adams. They were given a nice sense of real menace to counterpoint the humour by disintegrating that poor bloke who hit them with what appeared to be a bedpan, but the kicker for me was their presentation of a voucher for compensation to Martha; none too bright, but doing things by the book.

Their target, the plasmavore sinisterly known as Florence, was played to the hilt by the marvellous Anne Reid, last seen in Who as Nurse Crane in The Curse of Fenric. Very much a stereotypical villain, she got some rather hilarious OTT dialogue, pausing before drinking someone’s blood to proclaim, “I’ve got a straw.” A 2D character, to be sure, but an entertaining one. Her two henchmen, the “Slabs”, brought nothing to mind more than twin negatives of Top Gear‘s The Stig. Not a bad thing, but you couldn’t help wondering when they were going to pile into a Lamborghini Gallardo.

Of the rest of the guest cast, it seemed rather a shame to get a terrific character actor like Roy Marsden and then kill him about ten minutes in without even really giving him much of a character. It’s a tribute to the man’s skill that he took some fairly uninteresting dialogue and played the part as a believable but slightly comic consultant in the mode of the great James Robertson Justice. Mind, he also got some toe-curlingly purple dialogue just before his big death, and I’m impressed he pulled that off with a straight face: “What use are names when some nameless creatures are approaching… on the Moon?” or something like that. Bad Russell. Though not as bad as the Doctor’s “shaking out the radiation” business. Not Tennant’s fault, he didn’t write it! Anyway, it made rather a nonsense of the Doctor’s previous susceptibility to radiation in stories like The Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks… but I digress.

So, a solid if not classic start to the new series that’s actually one of Russell’s tighter scripts, a real improvement on the calamity that was New Earth (last time I’ll dis it…for now). The good stuff – liked Martha, Tennant on good form, nicely realised aliens and some impressive FX. The bad stuff – the Jones clan, a few bits of excruciating dialogue… and that’s about it. Not a bad result for a Russell T Davies-scripted season opener. And glad to see a few, oblique references to the enigmatic Mr Saxon already appearing, though his election posters are rather drab. Perhaps he should hire Max Clifford…

New series of Doctor Who! (Warning – spoilers!!!)

So, the time is almost upon us again. A new series of Doctor Who begins tomorrow, and the BBC are already trailing it heavily with a minute and a half clipshow on their red button interactive service.

And it looks good. A shorter trail than last year’s, we get to see some provocative glimpses of exciting alien worlds, weird villains, and trips into history. David Tennant, whose performance seemed rather uncertain and uneven last year, seemed to have finally nailed the role in the Runaway Bride, and this year promises to stretch him a little further. It’s already common knowledge that Paul Cornell’s written a two-parter based on his celebrated New Adventure Human Nature, which features an amnesiac Doctor living a life as a human schoolteacher in pre WW1 England, and quite unaware of his true nature. The trail shows some tantalising glimpses of this, as a tweed-clad Tennant angrily proclaims “I am not the Doctor!” Meanwhile, a scarily intense looking Harry Lloyd (Will Scarlett from Robin Hood) appears to be the leader of the “Family of Blood” that gives the second part its title.

We’re also promised a return to New Earth, setting for last year’s decidedly lacklustre season opener. As the look of the planet itself was the best thing about that episode, one can only hope that Russell T Davies has come up with a more solid script to set there this time.

The Beeb are not keeping any secret this year about the return of the Daleks, in the bizarre setting of 1930s New York. There’s some cool shots of them flying about, firing on a woodland camp (though that could be the product of some clever editing for the trail). The brief shot of some dancing girls complete with red feathers in a Busby Berkeley style musical number also makes me wonder if there’s a bit of a nod to the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

I’ve been fairly vocal about my dislike of the show’s constant falling back onto trashy pop-culture references, as if making a laboured attempt to match Joss Whedon’s effortlessly cool dialogue from Buffy. Apart from anything else, the constant references to things like the Weakest Link, Big Brother and Eastenders date the show almost instantly. As I’ve said to friends (ad nauseam), while the original series inspired me to read Shakespeare, the new one is unlikely to inspire any reading more complex than Heat magazine. As if to redress the balance, this year we get an episode set in and around the Globe theatre in 1599, and I think it’s safe to say there may be some influence of Shakespeare there. What’s more, it’s written by the splendid Gareth Roberts, who writes brilliantly funny and authentic dialogue for this period, as seen in his Virgin Missing Adventure the Plotters. Plus, it’s got the Dan Brown-baiting title of the Shakespeare Code!

Elsewhere, we see that Mark Gatiss, not having written an episode this year, appears in one instead, and some pretty high profile guest stars include one Derek Jacobi. Captain Jack’s back too, and John Barrowman will have to do some explaining to justify Torchwood! But the new star that dominates the trail is Freema Agyeman as new companion Martha Jones. Beyond being obviously older and initially a little smarter than Rose Tyler, the trail gives little away about what she’ll be like. It’s fair to say that her relationship with the Doctor will have to be very different from the intense and overtly romantic one between him and Rose, and despite my enjoyment of Camille Coduri, Shaun Dingwall and Noel Clarke, I do hope the show comes to rely a little less on having the soap opera aspect of a supporting cast from the companion’s family and friends.

For both the previous seasons, Russell introduced the loose story arc concept that tied the episodes together. The “Bad Wolf” motif in the first year was intriguing, and did eventually make perfect sense within the deus ex machina used to end the series. As Rose had come to transcend space and time, it made perfect sense that she should be able to scatter notes to herself throughout history (though why be so cryptic?). Year two, however, gave us a laboured, crammed in reference to Torchwood in almost every episode that was just gratuitous and didn’t make any sense beyond simple coincidence. Torchwood, after all, cannot travel through time and space, so any reference beyond its founding and the 21st century setting was implausible at best, and hardly constituted a storyline. Some fans have suggested an idea whereby the Doctor’s encounter with Queen Victoria led to an alternate history in which Torchwood exists; an intriguing idea unfortunately never really explored.

The other basic story premise for each season so far has been the return of a crowd-pleasing villain from the show’s past around the middle of the run, their apparent defeat and then reappearance in force for the final two-parter (viz, the Daleks and then the Cybermen – and the Daleks!). If they do that again this year, though, it will be way too predictable. So let’s hope Russell has come up with an overarching storyline that makes sense to be set all through time and space, and follows a different structure to the previous two years. If the rumours circling around are true (and I try to stay clear of spoilers but some always get through), the shot of the always excellent John Simm as the mysterious Mr Saxon, the House of Commons looming large behind him, may give us something of a clue. The title of the final episode, Last of the Time Lords, is also tantalisingly suggestive…

Last year, I tried to give a capsule review of each episode on Outpost Gallifrey, often while still rather blinkered by the enjoyment of the episode and unnecessarily apologetic for its flaws. This year, hopefully, I’ll do a rather more in-depth review of each episode here, and link to it from OG. That’s the plan, anyway. Watch this space…

Hammond, Bauer and the kids

A cause for celebration as Top Gear is back!(Unless you’re one of those namby-pambies who like trees or clean air…)

Of course, there was no getting away without mentioning THAT accident, which, as Jeremy Clarkson put it, has turned Richard Hammond into a sort of new Princess Diana. So on Hammond bounded, down a set of aeroplane steps apparently borrowed from easyjet, bashing his face into the feathered headdresses of the sequinned showgirls lining the stairs.

There followed about ten minutes of blokish banter along the lines of “So, are you now… a mental?” before it was back to business as usual. In no time at all, the boys were attempting to resurface a road in 24 hours, in a report clearly filmed last summer. It was hard to say what was more amusingly offensive, the “24” style split screen or Clarkson’s repeated motivational quotes from Adolf Hitler. Even James May chimed in, urging Jeremy on with the memorable “Work will set you free” as immortalised on the gates of Auschwitz.

I can understand why people object to Top Gear. In addition to its wilful political incorrectness, it doesn’t really function as a motoring journal, more a kind of Hunter Thompson-esque Jackass with motor vehicles. But it’s hard to get away from the fact that the old Top Gear, which really was a proper motoring review show, was cancelled because no-one was watching it. By contrast, the new Top Gear is wildly popular even with people who aren’t really interested in cars, both here and abroad. This is because it’s actually rather entertaining to watch, as Clarkson put it, “three grown men cocking about”. As the boys yawned their way through the obligatory health and safety lecture before declaring it an utter waste of time, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s good to have them back.

Elswehere, some not quite grown men were cocking about in a more literal sense. The first episode of E4’s deliberately controversial teenage drama Skins beat its skinny chest to loudly proclaim that this, in fact, is what Britain’s teenagers get up to. This, it seems, is getting drunk, doing drugs, and having sex (or in some cases, not). In a lot of ways that didn’t seem to be too wide of the mark, and it was refreshing to portray such behaviour without judging it.

Lead character Tony, played by the very easy on the eye Nicholas Hoult, is perhaps rather too cocksure and arrogant to be likeable or believable. Still, I have to say I remember boys like him at school who were impossibly good looking and confident. I just used to tell myself that deep down they were as crap and insecure as I was, and certainly as his byzantine plot to get his geeky mate laid came gradually unravelled, he did start to seem more enjoyably fallible. I rather hope that as the series progresses he’ll find more and more things going wrong for him. Schadenfreud? Oh yes.

Said geeky mate, the lovable Sid, is encountered early on in bed, wanking to the rather implausibly titled “Asian Fanny Fun”. Still, if I remember rightly, one of the things teenage boys do is masturbate a lot, so it made a change to see this on screen. It never seems to happen in Hollyoaks. Sid also got the subplot which gave me pangs of sweaty-palmed nostalgia as he ventured into the house of a frankly terrifying Scouse drug dealer who had the balls to carry off an utterly ridiculous handlebar moustache. This character was named Mad Twatter, and yes, I really did know a few dealers who might style themselves thus.

The other characters embody other teenage generalisations that the show can use to shock us by their unruly behaviour.Michelle is Tony’s female equivalent, so obviously goes out with him, oblivious to the torch held for her by the rather cute Sid. Drugged up party animal Chris shags anything and flirts with his teachers. Mental girl Cassie has a history of eating disorders and suicide attempts and talks like Drusilla out of Buffy. Anwar is a teen Muslim who’d rather go out partying than pray to Mecca. And there’s the obligatory gay one, Maxie, who loses stereotype points for being into showtunes and tap dancing.

None of this seems out of the ordinary to me, though my mates and I were a couple of years older before turning quite so mad. Stealing a Mercedes then crashing it into the canal seemed perhaps a little OTT, but when you start out outrageous OTT is the only place to go. With some decent writing and fun cameos by the likes of Harry Enfield, Neil Morrissey and Danny Dyer, this is a Larry Clark-lite bit of exploitive fluff which I look forward to seeing the rest of, like Hollyoaks with swearing.

In the Hollyoaks that doesn’t have swearing, tormented John Paul finally admitted his feelings for best mate Craig.
“When I’m with you, my heart just feels like it’s going to burst!”
This and other romantic declarations visibly startled Craig, who had perhaps not noticed the camera direction’s subtle hints that this was where John Paul was going from the very start. Having been introduced with a series of meaningful, furtive glances at Craig some months ago, I was fairly surprised to see that it took them this long to get on with it. But then, this is Hollyoaks, a show which managed to drag out its bizarrely funny serial killer storyline for something like three years.

Elsewhere in the world, Jack Bauer was back at CTU and having another somewhat stressful day in season 6 of 24. No sooner had Jack been handed back by the Chinese with his laughable huge beard and post traumatic stress, than he was plunged back into an insanely action packed plot about yet another set of Muslim extremists with a grudge against the good old US of A. Pausing only for a lightning quick shave and haircut, Jack was straight off on a trail which led to Hollywood’s rent-an-Arab of the moment, former Deep Space 9 doctor Alexander Siddig. But wait, what’s this? He’s the good guy and the other Arab’s the bad guy? It’s still only episode two!

Elsewhere, in an attempt to retain a popular character, martyred President David Palmer’s little brother Wayne had followed him into office. Kudos to DB Woodside, an actor I like, for being very earnest, but he can’t disguise the fact that he looks at least two decades too young to be a President. Still, 24 exists in a fantasy USA where the electorate have now voted in two black Presidents, so maybe one under 35 isn’t that weird.

Chasing around with Siddig, Jack is full of angst. ” I don’t know if I can do this any more,” he emotes, shooting his colleague for threatening their Arab ally. But there’s no time for Kiefer Sutherland’s particular brand of reflection, as a mini nuke explodes on the outskirts of LA. Doubtless more action next time, as we discover that Jack’s entire family are the real bad guys… What do you mean,”implausible”?

The album cover code deciphered!

In some years of processing incoming stock for HMV, one of the things I’ve had to do is sort the CDs into genres relevant to each department. Over time, I’ve figured out a sort of code in album covers by which they can be easily sorted into genre. It’s a little general, but here’s the broad overview:

Angry looking black men – hip hop

Angry looking white men – metal

Happy looking black men – Jazz

Seductive looking black men, possibly with shirts open to display their implausibly toned bodies – R n B

White men with hairstyles twenty years out of date, possibly wearing stetsons – country

Impossibly wholesome four strong groups containing balanced samples of every race and gender, all in their early twenties – manufactured pop

Three/four scruffy young men, wearing clothes that appear to have been bought in several different charity shops – Indie

Nubile black women with impressively large bottoms, perhaps sprawled across an over-chromed Hummer’s bonnet – R n B again

The poster from that film you saw – Soundtracks

Stylised paintings of rock formations on an alien world, through which flying dolphins dance while watched by the benevolent silhouette of Merlin – prog rock

An entirely black cover with illegible gothic script, with some blurry monochrome photos of gothic harlequins on the back – Scandinavian death metal

An olde worlde pub painted green with a rusty bicycle chained outside and several men in waistcoats holding accordions – Irish folk

A ruined castle silhouetted on a bleak, desolate crag – Scottish folk

Multi coloured fractals spinning in a way that makes your eyes hurt if you look at them too long – dance/electronica

A five year old’s drawing of happy children dancing around a too brightly coloured carousel – Children’s

A simplistic coloured sketch of a figure who looks almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a major pop star for legal reasons – karaoke

The list could probably go on, and I may amend it as I find more examples, but you get the picture. What happened to the days of truly interesting album covers, like the Pink Floyd ones designed by Storm Thorgerson? Actually, they’re mostly by bands like Muse, who have covers designed by – Storm Thorgerson. Is that really his name?