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…

Cars What I Have Known No. 1: 1960 Ford Popular 100E

Thus far in my blog writing, I’ve not touched upon my other great passion from films and TV. This, as any who know me will be aware, is cars. Mostly very very old cars. It’s a subject on which I could bore for my country, so I suggest those of you who are baffled by the existence of words like “trunnion” should maybe skip this one…

Still here? Good. I thought it might be nice to do a few things about some of the more interesting of the forty-odd vehicles I have known, and I’m starting with Pop, the 1960 Ford Popular I managed to own twice over in the mid-90s.

First off, the history bit. Concentrate…

The 100E version of Ford’s cheapo Popular model was introduced in 1953 to replace the 1930s styled device you might be familiar with from Monty Python’s “Mr and Mrs Brian Norris’s Ford Popular” sketch. Actually, the old one was sold alongside the new for six years, and the 100E was badged initially as an Anglia. Then when Ford introduced its dazzlingly modern “New Anglia” in 1959 (now known as “the Harry Potter car(TM)”, the Popular name was passed on to the 100E.

Styled to resemble a smaller version of the company’s big Zephyr saloon, the Pop probably looked very modern in the heady days of the 50s. Unfortunately, this impression was instantly dispelled when you opened the bonnet, and saw the familiar sight of Ford’s wheezy 1172cc sidevalve engine, a powerhouse designed in the days of Moses. This incredible gizmo managed to turn out an amazing 36 bhp, enough to propel you to speeds of, ooh, 60mph or so, providing you had enough road in which to achieve this. In fact, despite its sharp suit, the 100E’s mechanical bits were nearly all ancient, coming straight off the previous model. The exception was the now-familiar MacPherson strut front suspension, new then but now no stranger to welders everywhere.

So how did I come to own one? Well, I’d been driving for a few years, and much to my gearhead friends’ bafflement, had always preferred really old cars. Of course, they probably should have guessed that this had something to do with Jon Pertwee driving around in a vintage car in Doctor Who. I found the Pop looking lonely and forlorn in a neighbourhood car park, and was immediately besotted with it. The “Will you sell me this car?” note I left on the windscreen elicited a phone call from the owner, who, it transpired, was prepared to part with it for the meagre sum of £300. A bit of scrimping and saving later, and the Pop was mine! I climbed into it and drove proudly away. Backwards.

It should be pointed out to those used to driving sensible modern cars that they did things differently in the old days. One of the things they did differently, as I had just discovered, was gearboxes. True, the 100E did have four gears. It’s just that only three of them were for going forwards. The error made by me, and indeed everyone who ever tried driving the thing including a would-be thief, was to assume that first was where I was used to it being. How very, very wrong. That was reverse, with none of the push-it-down or lift-it-up safeguards against accidentally shifting into it.

Having worked out how to go forwards, I soon discovered the other foibles of this antique gearbox. Mainly, this had to do with the gear ratios. In a modern car, gear ratios are chosen thoughtfully, with consideration for things like engine power and modern roads. The engineers responsible for the Pop, however, appeared to have chosen ratios by throwing darts at a maths book.

You pulled away from a standstill in first, just as you might expect. What you probably didn’t expect was that first was so low-geared that it was necessary to change up as soon as you reached, say, 2mph. Then, in second, it was necessary to accelerate until the engine was shrieking for mercy before shifting up to third, at which point the engine dropped to something around idle speed. Thus, once on the move, you effectively only had two gears to choose from, and the traffic was always going at the wrong speed for either of them.

I soon discovered that while my contemporaries were searching desperately for extra power and speed from their Nissan Cherry 1100s, I had in fact purchased the slowest car in the world. Just how slow was something I never found out, because the speedo didn’t work and I never bothered trying to fix it. It must have been pretty slow though, judging by the impatient queues of cars visible in the rearview mirror whenever I drove it.

Driving the Pop was an experience. It never failed to start, even in the cold weather – unless you made the mistake of touching the throttle in the starting process, thereby flooding the carb so catastrophically that it wouldn’t go for hours. It tottered round corners dangerously on its skinny, somewhat perished crossply tyres, while you slid off its PVC economy seats, unanchored by the luxury option of seatbelts, which the original owner never specified. Friends enthused by its aged eccentricity loved this two-finger salute to the safety Nazis, though sad to say no copper ever stopped us to enquire why we weren’t wearing belts.

In the cold weather, only the rusty tin box between the seats, laughingly described as a “heater”, would prevent your breath from freezing into pretty crystalline patterns on the inside of the windscreen. But the weirdest thing of all was the wiper system. You see, on Fords of this era, the windscreen wipers were powered not by an electrical motor but by vacuum depression fed from the engine’s inlet manifold. Now, as you accelerate, this vacuum is diverted towards the cylinders as more air and fuel are sucked into the combustion chamber. The practical upshot of this is that, as you accelerate, the wipers slow to a crawl and then stop. In the unlikely event that you ever get a 100E going fast enough to overtake something in the rain, this is a point well worth remembering as the backwash from an artic pours over your stationary wiper blades.

Stories of the Pop are many and legendary (among certain people in Banbury at least). There was the time its exhaust fell in half while driving, the times it was used to jumpstart more modern, less reliable cars, the time someone tried to nick it only to reverse it into a wall… It was so good, in fact, that I owned it twice.

At the end of my first go at owning it, my then manager at Tesco’s, a young rake called Alfie Giannaula, bought it for his girlfriend, convinced she would be utterly charmed by its chubby, chrome-laden cuteness. She, perhaps sensibly, declared that she wasn’t going anywhere in this dangerous relic, while Alfie quite happily drove it around himself for a few months. Then its MOT ran out, and he parked it on his drive and just let it sit there.

Seeing the old thing once again forlorn and abandoned, I found I wanted it back. So a deal was struck with Alfie involving fifty quid and an old video recorder, and once again the Pop was mine.

Amazingly, it went through an MOT test with no failures, though I’ll refrain from mentioning which Banbury garage failed to notice its dangerously cracked crossply tyres. Happy together again, the Pop and I shared many adventures, like driving very slowly to London and back, over the next year or so.

Eventually, though, my car mania was getting out of control. By this point I also owned a Triumph Spitfire and a Ford Capri, and something had to go. Sad to say, it was the Pop. I advertised the old dear in Practical Classics, and a feller came round and bought it the very next week for £400, £100 more than I paid for it in the first place. As I sadly waved the old thing goodbye, I was amused to see its new owner immediately try to pull away in reverse…

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!

Episode 8: Human Nature

“You are, quite definitely, human.”

I hate the word “squee”. It makes me think of all that’s worst about over-enthusiastic fandom, coupled with the cliquey insularity of the net community and its need to come up with exclusive jargon. Then I saw this episode. Young Barry, sitting next to me, may not have actually heard me go “Squee! Squee!”, but I suspect I probably did, in my head at least.

I’ve known Paul Cornell for a few years now, and found him to be one of the nicest, most welcoming and self-effacing of the Who authors I’ve met. He even gave me some of his wedding cake! Yet every time I talk to him I trip over my tongue like a drunken idiot (which, by that point, I usually am). The reason for this is Human Nature (the novel). It was, and still is, one of my favourite pieces of fiction of any kind, Doctor Who or otherwise, and I was, and still am, totally in awe of the man who wrote it.

And this adaptation did nothing to change my opinion. Paul has done a splendid job of adapting his story to another medium, and as a talented scriptwriter has managed to retain the story’s essence while trimming some of the numerous subplots and adding some more televisual elements.

The historical setting was perfectly realised, thanks to some excellent “living museum” locations, but more than that, it was integral to the flavour of the script. Without being didactic, it demonstrated perfectly both the social mores of the period and the world politics that were dragging Britain inexorably towards the Great War. The sequence of the schoolboys at machine gun practice was masterly, redolent of what the viewer knew was soon to come; a feel reinforced by Latimer’s flash-forward to the trenches. Even the Boer War was touched upon, with Joan mentioning that she lost her husband at the battle of Spion Kop.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I wondered whether this detailed examination of history might be lost on some of the show’s younger viewers. This was by far the most mature, adult script since Doctor Who returned, and unlike many of the others didn’t seem to have been made primarily with the younger child in mind. But if it prompts a few young minds to take an interest in history, so much the better!

David Tennant was, quite frankly, superb in the most demanding story the series has yet offered him. He managed to make John Smith a quite distinct entity from the Doctor, and sympathetic in his own right. He even modified his usual Estuary English accent. Smith came across as a naive innocent, much as he did in the book, conforming to social norms like allowing a beating or scolding the servants simply because he was a man of his time. This “little boy lost” quality made his blossoming romance with the more worldly Joan truly touching.

Jessica Hynes also did a cracking job as Joan, the first straight role I’ve seen her in. She perfectly conveyed the nature of Edwardian repressed emotion in a manner reminiscent of Remains of the Day, and the scenes with her and Tennant were pure magic.

Martha got more to do than usual this week, too, though it still seemed weird to me that she wasn’t Bernice Summerfield! Freema did a good job of showing her confusion at being left to deal with events without the Doctor, and her scenes inside the dormant TARDIS were pregnant with emotion. The one thing I found somewhat lacking subtlety was her line about how the Doctor had fallen in love “but not with me”. Given the ongoing relationship there, it might have been nicer for that to have remained unspoken. In any case, she did well in her assumed role as servant, accepting with equanimity the racist, classist nature of the times. I particularly liked that far from condemning Baines and Hutchinson for the racist sneering, she showed some sympathy for what she saw as their possible oncoming fates.

As the first part of a two-parter, the episode took time to build up these characters and situations in a way a single 45 minute could not have, and was far richer as a result. The boys’ school setting was well-realised, and redolent of that old saw about the Great War having been won “on the playing fields of Eton”. The schoolboys themselves may have seemed on occasion to teeter close to parody, but were probably good representations of boys of the period. Thomas Sangster (who must be about 18 now but still looks much younger) was superb as Latimer, the quiet, sensitive one who doesn’t quite fit in. He’s been impressive in everything I’ve seen him in and hopefully has a great future ahead of him.

And the villains? At first I was disappointed to see that they were incorporeal aliens, quite different from the creepy Family of the book. Then as they started to take human forms, I was pleased to see that they were exactly as I had envisioned them, especially the little girl with the balloon. But as nominal leader, it’s Harry Lloyd’s Baines who takes the honours here, effectively playing a convincing double role. As Baines the schoolboy, he was a convincing upper class twit, but on his possession by the alien he became incredibly creepy, with his flaring nostrils and sinister but confident smile. A revelation, then, as previously all I’ve seen him do is stand around and look pretty as Will Scarlet in the new Robin Hood. This guy is amazingly talented, and even as a creepy alien, amazingly attractive!

Fittingly for a story so centred on the Doctor (and the effect of his absence) there was a deal of emphasis on the series’ history, something I feel is too often ignored. Like most fans I loved the simple but significant in-joke about Smith’s parents being named Sydney and Verity after Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, effectively the show’s creators. It was a lovely moment for the fans that nonetheless fitted perfectly with the script – after all, those names do sound convincingly Edwardian! But the best stuff was in Smith’s dreams, and that marvellous notebook he showed to Joan. The beautiful pencil sketches of old monsters were only beaten by the heart-stopping moment when we saw a page adorned with pictures of several of his previous selves. I can’t be the only fan who was overjoyed to see Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor right at the centre of it!

And Smith got to save the day with a cricket ball, something the 5th Doctor would have heartily approved of. I can see how this sequence could have seemed contrived, but actually it worked perfectly. Not only was it a thrilling moment, but it was the scene which establishes that maybe Smith and the Doctor aren’t so different after all. As Stan Lee so groan inducingly put it in Spiderman 3, “maybe one man can make a difference!”.

Then there were the scarecrows. Perhaps a weak point, they’d plainly been put in (at Russell’s suggestion, apparently) as a bit of excitement to keep younger viewers interested in an admittedly somewhat slow-moving episode. British gothic horror has a fine tradition of animated scarecrows, perhaps because these wood-and-straw homunculi are inherently creepy (no matter what L Frank Baum might think). These were done rather well; I loved the moment when Clarke put his hand right through one and out of its back, trailing straw and all. But while they provided a few nice moments, I still found them a little extraneous, as the unsettlingly alien presence of the Family of Blood was quite menacing enough, thank you.

As you can tell by the number of exclamation marks in this review, I loved, loved, loved this episode. But it’s only a first part. It may be perhaps the finest single episode new Who has yet offered us (and I don’t say that lightly), but a lot rides on how the story is concluded. Given that Paul describes himself as new Who’s “emo” writer, I suspect it’ll be in more tears even than his previous script Father’s Day. And I can hardly wait!

Episode 7: 42

“Everything on this ship is so cheap!”

-That’s not something I would have drawn attention to, in-joke or not!

After two weeks wait, the anticipation was almost too much. The long-vaunted real time episode of Doctor Who! All set on a spaceship plunging into the sun! How could this not be brilliant? Oh, wait… “by Chris Chibnall”. So much for that, then.

All right, it’s true that I have a pre-existing prejudice against Mr Chibnall, for writing all the worst episodes of Torchwood, and being generally in charge of that show’s style and storylines. He it was, after all, who gave us the immortal line “when was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”, not so much a chat-up line as a direct quote from some very cheesy porn. However, he also wrote a pretty good episode of Life on Mars, and where Doctor Who‘s concerned I’m always prepared to put aside these prejudices and give the artist a chance. After all, I loathe Peter Kay and Catherine Tate, both of whom were very good in the show!

So I tried to put my anti-Chibnall feeling aside and hoped to see a good episode. After all, the premise was interesting, and I’d heard some good things about it. Sadly, my leniency was wasted on the author, who produced a script that could most charitably be described as “average”.

To be fair, it was well-executed. The direction, by veteran Graeme Harper, was tense and visually imaginative. I particularly liked the exchange of shots between the Doctor and Martha as the latter was blasted into space in an escape pod. And the recurring countdown clock, while an obvious lift from 24, nevertheless worked well to heighten the tension.

Some of the effects were pretty good, too. The boiling, amorphous surface of the sun was convincing enough to be terrifying as Martha’s pod plunged towards it; though it has to be said, the ship itself was rather variably rendered. In some shots it looked terrifically detailed, but in others it was simply cartoony.

No, the real problem here was the script. For a start, the exact – and I do mean exact – same plot has been done before, and better, in 1976’s Planet of Evil. Think about it – living planet is exploited by ruthless humans who nick bits of it for a fuel source, said planet then captures humans’ spaceship and starts dragging it back to certain doom, while the crew are menaced by one of their own who has become infected with the planet’s substance and can kill gruesomely with a glance. OK, I’ll grant you that your average modern Who viewer may well be unaware of this, but there’s still no excuse for such wholesale theft – even Russell’s not that blatant!

Then there were the characters. Much like in Torchwood, they were either as flimsy as cardboard or thoroughly unlikeable. We never really learned anything about Lerner or Erina, the first two victims, and third victim Ashton fared little better. We learned he was some kind of engineer, anyway. And Scannell, who actually made it through to the end in a high body-count story, wasn’t given any kind of character at all -it wasn’t even clear what he did on the ship!

Michelle Collins put in a game performance as Captain McDonnell, but the character really didn’t have much going for her. She could have been sympathetic in spite of being responsible for the whole situation – pleading ignorance and all – or she could have been a more out and out bad guy. Instead, we got a character written as a kind of third rate Ripley, self-serving, incapable, prone to sudden fits of hysterical emotion. More than once I found myself wondering what kind of loon would have put her in charge of a spacecraft in the first place. Presumably the writer thought we’d be moved by her “epic” self-sacrifice in the name of love, as she plunged herself and her possessed husband into the fires of the living sun as some kind of quest for redemption. The trouble was, she’d already established herself as a cod Sigourney Weaver, so I just found myself remembering the strangely similar but far more powerful climax to Alien 3.

And did she really have to be married to another guy on the ship? That kind of relationship in that kind of environment is usually a bad idea, but the main problem for me was that I knew Michelle Collins from Eastenders. Every time she finished a scene on an emotional cliffhanger, her lower lip trembling as she contemplated the futility of the situation, I expected the familar drumbeat of the soap’s closing theme to thunder in! I should stress, though, that this is nobody’s fault but my own.

And the actual plot! The pub quiz idea was quite a nice one, as Martha and Riley (the only likeable one in the crew) raced to open more doors than Mystery Science Theater‘s Satellite of Love. But it led nowhere, and just made me ponder the sci-fi cliche of a very long ship in which the middle bit doesn’t actually seem to serve any purpose (see 2001, Event Horizon, The Black Hole etc). The struggle for control of the escape pod was quite well-realised, but seemed a little illogical. But all that paled into insignificance before the sheer, mind-warping absurdity of the scene in which the Doctor has to go outside the ship to reactivate the magnet that would recapture the pod. Leaving aside the issue of how strong the magnet would have to be, you’re still left with the question: what the bloody hell are those controls doing on the outside of the ship? How could anyone who needed them actually get to them? Russell commented in Confidential that it was necessary for the plot that the Doctor should “expose himself to the sun” (fnarr, fnarr). Fine, but why not come up with a convincing reason for him to do so, instead of a sub Four to Doomsday space walk with as much logic behind it as that reset button behind the deadly whirring fans in Russell’s own End of the World? It was the worst kind of illogical, unnecessary set piece.

David Tennant was as good as usual, really controlling his performance. There were no hysterical outbursts, no hugging, and he never once said that he was sorry. He did say “allons-y”, though, which I rather hoped he’d got out of his system. And his speech about humanity’s ruthless greed and self-interest seemed rather at odds with a lot of his “isn’t humanity great?” moments from last year! He put on a good show of being genuinely frightened when possessed by the sun-stuff, but this just made me recall similar bits in The Invisible Enemy.

Martha at least got a lot to do this week. She’s been threatening to become a stereotypical captive, ankle twisting companion of late, so it was refreshing to see her acting to solve the situation with the Doctor incapacitated in a hastily repainted MRI machine (which never once looked like anything else). Her authoritative commands to the crew resolved everything, though the solution of dumping the fuel actually negated any need for the Captain’s “dramatic” self-sacrifice. After all, dumping the fuel cured the Doctor, so it would presumably have cured her husband, and anyone else infected.

I was a little irritated to see Martha given a Time Lord enhanced mobile phone just like Rose’s, but it was at least put to good use, plotwise. It was good to see Martha phoning her mum when stuck in the pod and certain of her own demise (though if it were Torchwood, she’d have been too busy shagging the cute young bloke stuck in there with her). But the main reason for the slightly jarring sequences set on contemporary Earth was to enhance the ongoing Mr Saxon plotline. It was a nice directorial touch as the camera pulled out from Martha’s mum to reveal some sinister government spooks standing behind her, who seemed to be multiplying between scenes! This plot’s being handled well, starting off low-key and becoming more significant in later stories. Far better than the constant name-dropping of Torchwood last year.

Overall, I’d have to say 42 was a very poor script executed rather well. Kudos to Graeme Harper for some good direction, but Chris Chibnall, please try and get some original ideas! And remember – Alien was twenty-eight years ago, and that style’s getting a little dated now! Still, roll on next week and an adaptation of my favourite New Adventure from the 90s, Human Nature. Half of me hopes it’ll be brilliant, half of me dreads that they’ll mess it up!