Robbin’ the Hood

“Deep in the heart of England,” proclaimed the opening titles, “lives a legend!” Yes, Robin Hood is back, swashbuckling theme tune now accompanied by an MTV fast cut montage of blink and you’ll miss ’em scenes from the show. This year, the show’s producers seem to have abandoned even the faintest pretence at historical veracity, but have lightened the tone and (thankfully) stopped constantly equating the Crusades with the Iraq war and the Sheriff with George W Bush. So far, anyway.

The season opener sees the beginning of what’s obviously some kind of plot arc, as the Sheriff forms a sinister conclave of “Black Knights” to assassinate the King and divide up the kingdom. Keith Allen has progressed to new levels of ham this year, his eye-rolling Sheriff making Alan Rickman’s turn in the role look understated by comparison. At one point he pulled a tooth out of a human skull and grinningly inserted it in his own gap-toothed mouth. That’s a triumph of CG to rival those on Doctor Who!

Richard Armitage’s Guy of Gisburne, meanwhile, is more broody than last year. Wearing the 12th century’s darkest eye-liner, he stalks around Nottingham Castle like a reject from My Chemical Romance. “Beg me”, he snarls at Marian as he threatens to burn down her home. Kinky! And him wearing all that leather too.

Still, plainly, an effort has been made to make the bad guys more bad than last year, and remove those annoying shades of grey in the show’s morality. So are the heroes more heroic? Well, not really. Though Robin, at least, is more incongruously Scouse than before, the director letting Jonas Armstrong’s native accent shine through so that you expect him to rob from the rich and keep it. In point of fact, a bit of thought has gone into the old robbing policy. “We’ll take a tenth of what you have,” demands Robin of an ambushee, “unless you resist, then we’ll take all of it!” Unfortunately, all I could think of was Monty Python‘s highwayman Dennis Moore, scratching his head and saying, “Blimey, this redistribution of wealth is more complicated than I thought.”

Lurking in their new Batcave-like lair, knocked up by Will Scarlett between seasons, the outlaws have disunity within their ranks. Alan A Dale isn’t as rich as he’d like to be, so off he goes to con the denizens of the local bar. Unfortunately he runs into Sir Guy, presumably on his way back from a Fall Out Boy gig, and gets arrested. This leads to a scene of astonishing betrayal as Alan agrees to spy on the outlaws for Guy, a scene whose drama was rather lost on me as I kept being distracted by actor Joe Armstrong’s impressively toned, sweaty body as he hung around in the dungeon. As Guy stalked sound him, black leather glistening, you could have cut the homoeroticism with a knife.

Meanwhile, Robin has to contend with the Sheriff’s equally evil sister, who’s roaming around with a box of deadly snakes that can somehow survive the English climate. The Sheriff wants to drop Robin into a pit full of them, but by the usual quirks of fate, his sister falls in instead. Now, apparently, the Sheriff just wants Robin dead. This would be as opposed to his previous policy of wanting him slightly bruised.

The dialogue has kept its amusing anachronicity to keep up with the other historical errors on the show, though presumably this is intentional. “Get up to speed, Guy,” sneers the Sheriff, employing an expression that’s barely been in use in England for more than twenty years. Later, bizarrely, Little John and Will swing to the rescue while quoting The Two Ronnies. “It’s goodnight from me.” Thunk. “And it’s goodnight from him.” Perhaps future episodes will feature lines like “Don’t have a cow, Marian.”

Still, it’s fun, with an attractive young cast and an obvious effort to be more of a laugh this year. With the writers avoiding belaboured efforts to make the show somehow politically relevant, it has every chance of being a decent, if rather forgettable interpretation of the legend. Though it’s never going to be as good as Robin of Sherwood, it’s miles better than Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Soap, Ice and Metal

“Why is everything mad around here?” cried Sarah in Hollyoaks as her deranged mother absconded with her little sister’s baby. “Why is nothing ever normal?” Because you live in Hollyoaks, dear. While it might not have reached the bizarre heights of The Colbys’ UFO abduction storyline (yet), things are certainly weird just outside Chester.

Craig and John Paul continue their mad, passionate and presumably doomed affair. Guy Burnet and James Sutton, two young and not unattractive actors, work well to convey the characters’ doomed passion for each other, hampered somewhat by their inability to remove their clothes when in bed together. All right, it’s a pre-watershed show, but would it destroy the nation’s morals to show that people normally take off their vests while having sex? It’s not just for my own gratification I’d like to see this, honest it’s not.

Going even further north than Chester this week were the Top Gear team, who took it into their heads to attempt to drive to the North Pole. Well, Jeremy Clarkson and James May did, while condemning the ever-unlucky Richard Hammond to racing them with a sled pulled by dogs. This was actually rather a thrilling show, as the presenters gradually realised that their usual larking about was rather inappropriate when faced with the danger of getting frostbite of the penis.

Clarkson and May, attempting to cruise effortlessly through the Arctic in a Toyota Hi-Lux pick-up, initially had a lot of fun, drinking gin and tonic as they drove. “Don’t write to us about drinking and driving,” snorted Jeremy, “we’re actually sailing!” And so they were, as they proved when their Toyota almost plunged through the ice to the frozen depths of the Arctic Ocean. Fortunately, they had a back up team of Icelandic mechanics and a BBC camera crew to help drag them out.

Hammond, on the other hand, had only a relentlessly cheerful dog trainer and a constant shower of dog excrement. Still, I found myself rather hoping that old would triumph over new and the dog sled would beat the Toyota to the Pole. No such luck, though, as after negotiating some genuinely terrifying thin ice and bergs the size of cathedrals, Clarkson and May beat him to it. The real winner, when the snow settled, was Toyota, who will never get such great publicity for their flagship pickup. And to think, the licence payer actually paid for that!

Channel-surfing later that night, I happened on Metal Hammer magazine’s annual award show, Golden Gods 2007, on MTV2. Once again, I was staggered by quite how seriously metal fans take their milieu. Presumably this was some edited highlights version of the show, unless the artists really can get on and off stage and do an interview in the time it takes for a Napalm Death song to be over. Napalm Death themselves put in an appearance, winning some sort of lifetime achievement award. “Fucking great!”, they enthused later, Brummie accents undimmed by the passing of time.

Meanwhile, suitable “we’re not worthy” respect was granted as Tony Iommi took the stage, accompanied by the increasingly freakish looking Ronnie Dio. Of an uncertain but presumably great age, Dio is beginning to resemble the kind of zombie that Send More Paramedics aspire to be. “Let’s fucking rock!” he exhorted the crowd, who responded with feverish enthusiasm. Later, as frenzied hordes headbanged in blurred slo-mo to Dimmu Borgir’s “Progenies of the Apocalypse” I found myself wishing that metal would lighten up a bit. Blimey, I must be getting old.

Footnote: OK, it’s been a while since I posted here. I could flabble about how I was so dazzled by the season finale of Doctor Who that I was left creatively stunned for several weeks, but the truth’s rather more prosaic. After being told I was being made redundant from my job, I had a bike accident, gave myself concussion and then wrote off my beloved Triumph Herald convertible in an accident (not of my making). After absorbing all this, I reckon it’s time I got back to writing. If only to take my mind off it! Keep watching this space…

Episode 13: Last of the Time Lords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Broken Family Band for Today!

Slightly surreal to wake up yesterday and hear Cambridge’s finest, the Broken Family Band on the Today programme. Apparently they sent roving reporter Caroline Quinn to Glastonbury, where she encountered the band who might be “the next big thing”. The surrealism only increased when we were informed that singer Steve Adams is a huge fan of Today, and then treated to an impromptu song by the man himself eulogising the delights of John Humphrys and Edward Sturton. I vote they make it a B-side for their next single!

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…