Series 4, Episode 2 : The Fires of Pompeii

“Thank you, household gods.”

OK, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Parties, baby naming ceremonies, mates getting made redundant… Is it any wonder I haven’t had time to write on here? Still, I’m back now. And the Doctor’s been busy too, not least revisiting the end of Pompeii, thereby confusing those of us that remember the last time he did that in the similarly titled Big Finish audio The Fires of Vulcan. So was The Fires of Pompeii preferable? Is Catherine Tate more or less annoying than Bonnie Langford?

Actually, to be fair, both companions were pretty well served in those scripts. And a fairly good script it was too, from witty writer James Moran, whose slyly funny screenplay for Danny Dyer horrorfest Severance I absolutely adored. True, there were one or two, welll, whopping contrivances, and the name Pyrovars was less than imaginative, but by and large this was a pretty darned good debut script for a Who writer. It took in plenty of clever references to the show’s past without alienating the casual viewer; I loved the Doctor’s oblique reference to the burning of Rome in The Romans, and finally Mr Moran addressed a question that’s burned in the mind of many a pedantic fan. Namely, with the TARDIS telepathic circuits translating for you, what happens if you actually try and speak the language in question? Yes, at last we know – you sound Welsh (Or is it Celtic?).

OK, so that gag might have been a little done to death, but it’s hard to complain when it’s being delivered by the likes of Phil Cornwell and Peter Capaldi. This episode had an astonishingly good cast, delivering lines that… well, may have seemed a little odd for a trained actor playing a classical Roman. Phil Cornwell’s Pompeiian Del-Boy was a bit of an instant shock to the system, and by the time teenage wastrel Quintus was grumbling “give me a break, Dad”, I was somewhat confused. But actually the modern colloquialisms tied in rather well with the TARDIS translation idea, the only real problem being that it made you think surely it would always translate language like this. Still, I suppose it might have shattered the image somewhat if the Time Lords had started saying things like “It’s the Master? No shit, Sherlock.”

But the quality of that cast shone through, uncomfortable dialogue or not. I’ve always thought Peter Capaldi was great, from his turn in The Crow Road through the angel Islington in Neverwhere to his monstrous Alastair Campbell-alike in The Thick of It. Here, he gave us a nicely balanced turn, from the light touch of John Cleese tribute lines about modern art to the despair of a man watching his city consumed by fire. Opposing him nicely was old hand Phil Davis, giving a darkly sinister performance as Pompeii’s resident augur, Wilfrid Brambell… sorry, Lucius. And I was rather taken with young Francois Pandolfo as the pretty young Quintus, though in truth my attempts to see up his indecently short toga somewhat distracted me from the action.

The CG, as usual, varied from the ropey (the early shot of Vesuvius) to the stunning (the final destruction of Pompeii, the Pyrovar creatures). But the real visual strength of the episode was obviously those exterior shots, filmed at Cinecittà’s sumptuous recreation of ancient Rome for the BBC/HBO series of the same name. Historical Who has rarely looked so lavish, with only the occasional story like The Masque of Mandragora, with its Portmeirion locations, looking like anything other than a BBC set. It seemed churlish to complain that I actually recognised some of the streets from having seen Lucius Vorenus walking down them in Rome.

Catherine Tate gave us her usual spirited performance as Donna; her bolshie personality nicely contrasted with her moral outrage at the Doctor’s refusal to warn the inhabitants of Pompeii of their impending doom. OK, so her reaction to being tied up by the Sisterhood of Scylla was rather too reminiscent of her comedy show, but at least she wasn’t screaming. And the climactic scene as she begged the Doctor to at least go back and save the Pompeiians they had met was staggeringly well-played, by both her and David Tennant.

Indeed, the final moral dilemma faced by the Doctor is at the heart of this episode. We’ve always wondered why he felt so free to mess about with the timeline of contemporary Earth, but couldn’t change moments of schoolboy history. Here at last, we got an explanation, as the Doctor explained about fixed points in the web of time. That seemed a little pat until we realised that Pompeii would only become a fixed point if he personally caused the deaths of 20,000 people. Tennant played the scene brilliantly, with Tate matching him as she took the decision with him. It was a scene reminiscent of Sylvester McCoy’s sometimes coldhearted calculation that some have to be sacrificed to save many.

And what of the bad guys? Phil Davis’ Lucius was an effective mouthpiece for a race of suitably apposite monsters, but the Pyrovars were in truth not that interesting an alien. We’ve seen races that thrive on heat before, and their actual plans seemed rather muddled and confusingly explained. It’s also hard to be that scared of a monster that goes to pieces when you throw cold water on it. That said, they were realised with some striking CG, and the offscreen thudding footsteps as they pursued the Doctor and Quintus were if anything even more effective.

While it was a good debut for James Moran, it has to be said that the climactic scene of Pompeii’s destruction was rather undermined by Peter Capaldi being forced to deliver some incredibly clumsy lines in which he invented the word “volcano”. And that tacked on epilogue was not only irritatingly obvious, but also made you wonder why a professional marble worker couldn’t have come up with a better bas relief of the Doctor and Donna than something that looked, quite honestly, like it had been knocked up as a third form art project.

Overall, The Fires of Pompeii was an interesting but flawed script made to seem better than it really was by a superb production. Not that I’m doing James Moran down; on the strength of Severance and this, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Let’s just hope he doesn’t let his enthusiasm for Doctor Who carry him away too much, as it seemed to here.

NEXT TIME…

“Planet of the Ood” was intriguing…

McInnerny’s potential for ham…

Graeme Harper, just, wow!

Series 4, Episode 1: Partners in Crime

“The fat just walks away!”

So we’re back, Doctor Who and me. The show was having its usual break between seasons, and I was caught in a soap opera plot involving my boyfriend having major surgery whilst I got all confused about where my affections lay, thus stymying my original intention to review all the episodes of Torchwood.

Still! It’s all dealt with now, and we can move on to the reappearance of Donna Noble, last seen as a typically gobby Catherine Tate comedy character in The Runaway Bride. Thankfully by the end of that rather lacklustre Christmas special her character had developed into something more nuanced, and able to convincingly tell the Doctor off when he effectively committed genocide. The Donna we see in Partners in Crime is a nicely evolved version of that, but the first hurdle for Russell T Davies is explaining her sudden change of mind about wanting to travel with the Doctor. Actually, this never really gets explained, but I guess people do change their minds, and Donna seems to have grown since we last saw her, having tried to travel the world and found it rather disappointing.

So she’s been trying to find the Doctor by the eminently sensible method of investigating anything weird in the assumption that he’ll eventually show up to check it out. Even so, you have to assume she was lucky here. She could just as easily have ended up bumping into Sarah Jane Smith, Captain Jack, or even Fox Mulder.

The opening half of the episode, Donna and the Doctor “comedically” just missing each other in their parallel investigations of Adipose Industries, quickly became a little forced, and reminded me of the really irritating episode of Survivors in which Greg and Jenny keep just missing each other and never actually meet again before he dies. Yes, it’s vaguely amusing, but also annoying. Plus, the script and the direction never really made clear that their investigations were actually separate, and I found myself wondering whether I’d dozed off and missed the scene where they actually met before embarking on a joint poke around the shady company.

Still, it did build up the anticipation for the scene in which they finally meet, which I have to admit was rather well done. Their little dumb show across the office of the bad guys was actually very funny, and presumably put in by Russell to exploit Catherine Tate’s gift for physical comedy. David Tennant rose rather well to the occasion too, and the whole thing was topped off nicely by Miss Foster’s frosty punchline “Are we interrupting you?”.

In keeping with the style of new Who, we also got to know Donna’s family rather better than previously. Her nagging mum was a good character, giving us the lovely “why don’t you look for a job?” kitchen montage, which reminded me rather too closely of various conversations between my boyfriend and me during my brief period of unemployment last year.

But surely the crowning glory of this new bunch of soap opera rejects (sorry, “characters”) was the casting of Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s Grandpa. Stepping neatly into the shoes vacated by the late Howard Attfield, who was to have reprised his role as Donna’s Dad, Cribbins was simply marvellous, his very voice conjuring up memories of The Wombles and The Railway Children. He was helped by being given the standard “Magically Contemplative Scene #227” automatically generated by Russell’s Sentimentatron computer. Actually, I’m being rather harsh, it was a well-written scene very well-played by Cribbins and Catherine Tate. It’s just that it’s so predictable that any Russell T Davies script will include at least one scene of this ilk.

Much like School Reunion, another episode with the job of reintroducing an old companion, the actual plot of Partners in Crime was slight to non-existent. We’ve seen shady companies with alien agendas plenty of times before, and the schemes of Adipose Industries didn’t actually seem that nefarious. It could be that I’m missing one of Russell’s subtle nuances (!), but it seemed to me that the original plan was simply to cream off some of Britain’s extra fat to generate the Adipose children, without actually killing anyone. Seems to me like everyone benefits from that one. Although Miss Foster’s assertion that Britain was “a wonderfully obese country” that she’d had to look rather hard for does make one wonder how her planetary survey somehow missed the United States of America.

With the real bad guys, the Adiposian First Family, never actually appearing, Miss Foster/Matron Kafilia (if that’s how it’s spelled) was a rather splendid main baddie. Russell has asserted that in some way she was inspired by Supernanny, a cultural reference that I have no knowledge of. But Sarah Lancashire’s marvellously unflappable, smiling cut-glass accented performance made it clear to me where her inspiration lay. Yes, the Matron was an evil, extra-terrestrial Mary Poppins! I mean let’s face it, she even flew up into the sky at the end, albeit without an umbrella and a song. The fact that she then fell gruesomely to her death was the icing on the cake for those of us who find Disney’s classic one spoonful of sugar too many, though for my money The Simpsons did it better having her sucked into a passing plane’s engines.

And what of the Adipose themselves? I still can’t make up my mind about them. On the one hand, they were infuriatingly cute, with their gap toothed smiles and little waves to the characters. I immediately found myself thinking of Ewoks, and merchandising opportunities to appeal to the kiddies. But! On the other hand, these cute little fellas were formed out of discarded human fat, which is actually rather gross when you think about it. In case we missed that point, Donna acknowledged it at the end with her shell-shocked remark, “I’m waving to fat…”

In keeping with the somewhat low key plot, Russell managed to keep the action set pieces down to a minimum, and at least they made sense within the plot. The main one, of course, was the whole “hanging on a cradle outside the building” business, which was rather well-done, and almost entirely convincing. Still, Donna’s slightly unbelievable dangle above the ground managed to be more convincing than Alan Rickman’s death plunge in Die Hard, though that was some 23 years before…

Other than that, we had the Adipose forming all over London, and then the actually rather good spaceship that came to pick them up. OK, it looked more than a little reminiscent of the Mothership from Close Encounters, but it was done very nicely. And that blaring noise it made periodically was a lovely sound effect.

But with all the concentration on Donna, it seemed like the Doctor didn’t get too much of a look in. David Tennant was his usual self, but the script hardly stretched him, confining itself to re-establishing the chemistry between him and Donna. In this, at least, it succeeded, with that marvellous final scene where she she acidly commented that she wasn’t about to “mate” with him. Thank the gods for that, I thought. Finally, an old-fashioned companion who doesn’t want to shag the Doctor. Let’s hope he doesn’t get any ideas himself.

Still, just while I was feeling happy about that, who should pop up but bloody Rose Tyler? It was rather a surprise ending to a somewhat slight season opener, but I’m guessing we haven’t seen the last of her…

Kiss Kiss Gang Bang – Torchwood is back!

“Excuse me, have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?”

When one slayer dies, another is called. And so, with the disappearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from our screens several years ago, television producers cast desperately about, looking for a replacement for the hip, cultish Scooby gang. Nowhere more so than in Britain, where we had a go with the fun but inconsequential Hex, until Buffy fan Russell T Davies had the bright idea of combining a lot of Joss Whedon’s style with his own obsession – and thus was born the new Doctor Who.

What, then, to make of Who spinoff Torchwood? In its first series, it was admittedly an attempt to ape the style of Buffy‘s sister (or should it be brother?) show Angel and set it in Cardiff. Hence the dark, brooding hero in a long coat who stood on top of tall buildings for no very good reason and investigated sexy mysteries. The trouble with season one of Torchwood was its determined efforts to be “adult”, which amounted to little more than how an adolescent boy might define the term – everyone was bisexual and copping off with everyone else, and the word “fuck” was shoehorned uncomfortably into dialogue where it didn’t belong as if to scream “look how grown up I am!”

Thankfully, between seasons new show runner Chris Chibnall (the man responsible for the show’s worst excesses in its first season) must have taken a long hard look at some of Joss Whedon’s work and decided that explicit sex, gore and swearing do not necessarily make a show adult. And obviously having taken note of many of the criticisms of that first season, he’s actually retooled the show into something that works far, far better, principally by giving it something that was a key ingredient in Buffy – a sense of humour.

From the very beginning of season opener Kiss Kiss Bang Bang it was obvious that we were seeing a very different show, as a curmudgeonly old woman shook her head at the asinine Torchwood-mobile and muttered “Bloody Torchwood”, thereby acknowledging everyone’s realisation that they must be the least secret secret outfit in the world. Indeed, the episode’s very title (nicked from the Japanese translation of a James Bond title) self-mockingly summed up the popular opinion of Torchwood as a whole.

But there was more to be learned from Buffy than just a sense of humour. In an amusing reverse of the scheme BBC2 introduced to show Buffy uncut by repeating it later at night, Torchwood will now have a “junior edition”, repeated at 6 o’clock to grab the younger viewers who like Doctor Who but can’t watch an “adult” show. With the episodes from season one, this would mostly have meant cutting the episodes down to ten minutes long just to get rid of the gratuitous shagging, but again, Mr Chibnall seems to have learned something. Even in its full-on adult incarnation, the new season had not a single swearword that I could spot, and the sex was confined to nothing more than flirting. Oh, and a full-on snog between John Barrowman and James Marsters.

Yes, the final ingredient nicked from Buffy was Spike himself, James Marsters, as new recurring baddie Captain John Hart. And he’s not half bad. The role is basically just Spike all over again, a sort of irresistibly charming bad boy with a roving eye, and Marsters even plays it with the same English accent he adopted way back when he hung around the canteen with Tony Head. But his cocky, dodgy charmer brings a real new life not just to the show but also to Captain Jack Harkness, who has thankfully got back to the ebullient character we knew from Doctor Who before he got stuck in Cardiff last year. In point of fact, the relationship between old flames Jack and John is reminiscent of nothing so much as the flirtatious byplay between Avon and Servalan in the glory days of Blake’s 7!

With those two hogging the limelight, the rest of the gang didn’t get much of a look in, but it was obvious even from their brief appearances that they’d been retooled a bit too. Especially Owen, who by no fault of actor Burn Gorman had in season one become a close contender for most irritating man on television (yes, worse than Justin Lee Collins). They’ve only gone and given him a sense of humour, so thankfully there are no lines about coming so hard you forget where you are. Indeed, the inter team sexual tension seems to have been stepped down a notch too, with Jack asking office boy Ianto on a date seeming oddly touching, unlike the incomprehensible attempt at innuendo involving a stopwatch shoehorned in last year.

Comfortingly, despite its post modern shine, the plot was still tosh. So Captain John’s hunting for a huge diamond that his ex let on about before he killed her. Except there was no diamond, just a revenge scheme by her to kill John. Except, if she’d never let on about this diamond in the first place, he wouldn’t have killed her, so there’d be no need for revenge and…. I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! Still, it was pulled off with so much panache that I was barely able to believe the credit I’d seen on the screen at the beginning – “By Chris Chibnall”. Wonders will never cease.

Of course, over on ITV they’ve got their own Buffy/Doctor Who contender, and since it returned in the same week as Torchwood, the TV guides wasted no time in pitting them at each other’s throats. “Torchwood vs Primeval!” screamed the Radio Times as though it were Clinton vs Obama. “Who will win?”

Hmm. Well, Primeval too has wasted no time in retooling itself since last year. When we last saw Professor Nick Cutter, he was left reeling after his butterfly-stomping activities in the Cretaceous had changed time so that his girlfriend had never existed. But Cutter’s time-fiddling, it soon transpired in the new series, had had far more results than just removing one of the show’s main characters. It gave the showrunners a chance to make the crack team look loads more professional by giving them a shiny new research centre to investigate the mysterious temporal anomalies, called, imaginatively enough, the Anomaly Research Centre. Oddly, the government as personified by Ben Miller’s marvellously slimy James Lester, still seem to have overlooked the logical idea of putting any kind of physicists on the case, instead relying on Cutter and his crack team of palaeontologists to clean up the anomalies’ messes rather than sorting out the problem itself. Of course, if they did sort out the problem there’d be no reason for a show, so I can’t see it happening any time soon.

Jurassic Park rather more astutely observed that while palaeontologists might know about prehistoric life, they would hardly be skilled enough to deal with it in the flesh. So Cutter’s gang have a token zoologist in the person of S Club 7’s Hannah Spearitt, who seems to particularly specialise in not wearing very many clothes. This season there seems to be some sort of arc involving her and the oddly pretty token nerd, played rather well by the endearing Andrew Lee Potts. Unlike Torchwood, though, this doesn’t have a late night edition, so I can’t imagine they’ll be coming so hard they forget where they are in the near future.

While they are at last examining a few of the messier aspects of time travel, the show is still at heart just about letting prehistoric monsters terrorise the Home Counties. So in episode one, our heroes leapt into action to deal with a gang of velociraptors roaming a gleaming new shopping mall. Comparisons with Dawn of the Dead were inevitable, but this show doesn’t have that kind of gravitas. What it has instead is a motorbike chase through a shopping centre to the tune of Republica’s “Ready to Go”. Reassuringly it’s just the same kind of dumb fun it was last year, and I don’t have a problem with that at all. It’s not trying to be anything more significant. It’s when a show like Doctor Who gets dumb that I get annoyed, often thanks to Chris Chibnall.

So, Torchwood vs Primeval. Who will win? Well, given that Torchwood runs for thirteen episodes and Primeval gets six, I think Jack and his gang will be the last Buffy clones standing. And on the evidence of the trailer at the end of their first episode, it looks like it could be quite a ride.

Falling Out?

Thinking of Fall Out Boy (who despite being the most sold-out, mainstream band on the emo scene are, irritatingly, quite good) makes me reflect yet again on the shallowness of marketing.

Now, everyone knows that the public face of Fall Out Boy is Pete Wentz. Pete is genuinely good looking, very sexy, and thanks to the miracle of the information superhighway and his own carelessness, all his fans have the opportunity to see his dick in scinitillating phonecam closeup. Like all good emo boys, he flirts with bisexuality – he once commented that he thinks of himself as bisexual “above the waist”. So a blowjob’s not out of the question, then, Pete?

But here’s the thing. Pete’s not the singer, the frontman, or even the main songwriter – he’s the bass player. Not a role traditionally seen as the most glamourous (sorry, bass players that I know). In fact these functions are fulfilled by the far less photogenic Patrick Stump, whose name even seems less sexy than Pete’s. Pity poor Patrick, a genuinely talented man relegated to the status of background in his own band because he’s not the sexiest one.

Oh, the shallow, fickle face of music marketing. And yet here’s the thing – I’m still not going to go trawling the web for pictures of Patrick Stump’s genitalia. Yup, I’m shallow too. Sometimes I make myself sick…

He Ain’t Legend (Spoiler alert)

So yesterday I hared off down to the local fleapit to see shiny new Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. Those who know me know that I’m not averse to big, dumb Hollywood blockbusters. But this time I had a more concrete reason – this particular big budget epic is based on one of my favourite books of all time.

I Am Legend is a 1954 novel by the great horror author Richard Matheson. For those unfamiliar with his work, Matheson’s the guy who wrote most of the best Twilight Zone episodes (as distinct from the sickly schmaltzfests written by Rod Serling) and also wrote the Spielberg classic Duel, in which a man pursued by a psycho in a diesel truck becomes the stuff of archetypal legend. He also wrote my favourite haunted house novel Hell House, filmed to great effect in 1973 as The Legend of Hell House.

I Am Legend is probably his most famous work, and is a must-read for any horror fan, especially those into zombies. The plot goes like this: Robert Neville is the lone human survivor of a plague that has killed most of humanity. The only other survivors have become honest to goodness vampires who roam the night in search of blood. By night, Neville cowers in his besieged house as the vampires try to get in and drink his blood. By day, he researches the germ that caused the vampirism, and roams the deserted Los Angeles, staking and burning any vampires he finds.

The key to the novel, and indeed its title, is this: some of the vampires have evolved beyond being slavering predators and have started to form a new society. From their point of view, Neville is a terrifying monster, a shadowy figure who kills them in their sleep, leaving only the dead bodies of their loved ones as evidence of his existence. In a world of vampires, it’s the vampire hunter who’s the monster that frightens children, as Neville realises in the book’s final, chilling scene: “he saw on their faces awe, fear, shrinking horror – and he knew that they were afraid of him… a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever. I am legend.”

George Romero acknowledges that the book was his primary inspiration for writing Night of the Living Dead, and by association is responsible for the entire zombie genre. The evolution of the zombies in Romero’s Dead series directly parallels the evolution of the vampires in I Am Legend, as they become ultimately more human than those left alive.

So with an entire genre of horror cinema indebted to this book for its very existence, surely Hollywood should be able to make a decent film of it? I Am Legend has been filmed three times, firstly in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then in 1971 as The Omega Man, and now in 2007 under its own title. Both of the first two efforts were lacking something compared to the book, but with the new one having the proper title and everything, it could be good, surely? Well, it’s not. It sucks. And it sucks big time.

But why does it suck? Who can we blame? OK then, let’s start with the director. Francis Lawrence is an ex-music video auteur, and the man responsible for turning Hellblazer‘s John Constantine (a shifty, blond, Scouse magician) into Keanu Reeves, and then putting him into an incomprehensible plot seemingly comprised of set pieces from different stories in the comic glued together with little regard for logic. Like Constantine, I Am Legend displays Lawrence’s penchant for big, flashy visuals in place of anything resembling drama.

To be fair, the opening sequences of Neville roaming the deserted New York are very good, possibly the most realistic depiction of such scenes yet committed to celluloid. But even here, any fan of The Omega Man will recognise that half of the shots are just nicked wholesale, particularly the iconic zoom into the deserted streets from above onto Neville’s car. Plus, impressive though the post-apocalyptic vistas undoubtedly are, Lawrence has succumbed to the temptation of any shallow hack given a huge CG budget and packed every shot with so much detail that the eye is still trying to take it in while the brain should be following the drama. Sometimes, less is more; The Stand achieved a similar effect with just a traffic jam full of corpses going into the Lincoln Tunnel.

So what about the vampires? In The Last Man on Earth, the vampires are moaning, barely coherent bloodsuckers with all of the traditional traits of such creatures – they don’t care for crucifixes, garlic, or stakes through the heart, and there’s a scientific explanation for all of this, just as Matheson intended. Plus, any Romero fan will recognise the genesis of Night of the Living Dead‘s shuffling ghouls here, a full four years before Night hit the screens of a horrified America.

Fast forward seven years, and The Omega Man‘s vampires are merely light-phobic albinos with a Luddite agenda, intent on destroying the knowledge that they see as having led mankind to its extinction. Yet even this has its plus points; their leader Matthias (a fantastic turn from prolific character actor Anthony Zerbe) is urbane, civilized and erudite, and able to acerbically debate the finer points of ideology with his nemesis Neville. He’s also a screaming loon, but the civility only adds to his menace.

This time around, in one of the director’s better decisions, we hear the vampires before we see them, snarling and roaring through the empty city while Neville cowers in his fortified apartment. Sounds promising, you think – but then you actually see them. As Neville rather foolishly follows his dog into a darkened building, they descend on him en masse, and you realise that they’re yet another version of the athletic, superfast zombies we saw in 28 Days Later and the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead.

That’s not too bad per se- though what’s wrong with proper vampires? – but the crowning irritant is that the “darkseekers”, as they’re referred to, aren’t even real. They’re yet more bloody CG, and they look it. As they attack, you’re reminded of nothing so much as an advanced game of Resident Evil, and their cartoonlike nature robs them of any real sense of menace because they’re just another special effect. At least 28 Days and Dawn had real, tangible ghouls.

Even then, you think, the movie could work well if it had a decent screenplay. But it doesn’t. This version was in development hell for years, and it shows, with the script bearing the unmistakeable feel of many different drafts lumped together with insufficient erasing in between. For one thing, it’s not just “based on the novel by Richard Matheson”. Oh no. It’s “by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman based on the screenplay by John William and Joyce H Corrington based on the novel by Richard Matheson”. If that sounds like a jumbled mess, it looks like one onscreen too.

The Corringtons’ screenplay in question is in fact the one for The Omega Man, and this new version has many obvious lifts from it. As in that version, Robert Neville is a military doctor who discovered the cure for the plague too late for it to have any effect, rather than having immunity conferred by Matheson’s admittedly specious device of being bitten by a vampire bat. There are plenty of minor lifts too; in one scene Will Smith’s Neville quotes along with the DVD of Shrek, obviously knowing every line of dialogue, echoing the scene where Charlton Heston’s Neville quotes along with Woodstock in an empty cinema. The difference being that the quote from Woodstock was profound and relevant, and funny though Shrek is, it doesn’t really have anything to say about the possible extinction of humanity.

Also nicked from The Omega Man is Neville’s attempt to populate his haunts with shop mannequins, which expands on the original where Heston looks longingly at a female dummy in a posh clothes shop. Even the inexplicably clean and shiny Shelby Mustang that Neville drives at the beginning of the movie echoes the ’71 Mustang that Heston memorably drove through a showroom window in the earlier version.

Just nicking from a previous version wouldn’t be too bad – we call those remakes, fellas – but it doesn’t sit too well with yet another attempt to film the actual book. Changing the location from LA to New York doesn’t rob anything from the premise, and the rotting Christmas trees that indicate the epidemic started in late December are a nice touch. But the new script also attempts to utilise the book’s structure of revealing what happened to Neville’s family in a series of interspersed flashbacks, and unwisely tries to improve on it. The book dispenses with this device halfway through, the story told, but this screenplay tries to eke out the tension by not revealing the end of the flashbacks till very near the end of the movie. What’s the bloody point? We know Neville’s family is dead, there’s not really much suspense to be gleaned by eking out the information of how it occurred.

Plus, the way they die turns out to be disappointingly mundane. In Matheson’s novel, first Neville’s daughter then his wife die of the plague itself. Horrified by the military’s burning of his daughter’s body, Neville chooses to bury his wife himself, leading to one of the most chilling scenes in the novel as he opens the door later that night to find her standing outside as a vampire, rasping his name. This scene is faithfully and superbly recreated in The Last Man on Earth as Vincent Price (playing Robert Morgan – the name was changed for this version) opens the door to a shadow of a woman, gravedirt clinging to her tattered nightdress, and readies himself with a stake.

In this one, they die in a helicopter crash trying to get off Manhattan before the military seal it off. Simple as that. No real drama compared to the original, and they eke the revelation out through the whole length of the movie so that ultimately all you’re left with is a sense of anticlimax.

Also taken from the book then irritatingly altered is the plot device of Neville having a dog. In the book, he gradually gains the trust of a stray mongrel only for it to die of the plague not too long after. In the movie, the stray mongrel is transformed into some kind of superdog, as Neville’s faithful hunting companion Sam, a German Shepherd apparently capable of understanding Will Smith’s every utterance. Now, the dog does well – it’s one of the better cast members – but having Neville accompanied by a sidekick, even a canine one, robs the character of the sense of loneliness he should have. To be fair, they don’t chicken out of having the dog die, but his time she dies as a result of heroically fighting off a pair of CG vampire dogs(!) intent on tearing out her master’s throat. The best aspect of this is the look on Neville’s face as he realises she’s infected and has to strangle her offscreen while the camera holds on a closeup.

Which brings us to Will Smith. Of necessity, any lead actor in this role has to pretty much carry the movie, since for the most part there are no other characters in it. And Smith, an actor who I genuinely admire, is probably the best casting as Robert Neville in any version. Richard Matheson disowned The Last Man on Earth even though it’s the most faithful adaptation of the book, purely because he thought Vincent Price terribly miscast as the hero. He had a point; Price tries hard, but he’s too associated with eye-rolling Roger Corman schlockfests to give the role the impact it should have.

Matheson preferred Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, and indeed the ultra-conservative former Ben-Hur makes quite a good job of it. But still, he’s really playing Charlton Heston, the screen hero who since Planet of the Apes had become the go-to guy for any big budget sci-fi epic. The screenplay’s attempts to equate the character with Christ don’t help, since it just makes one remember all those Biblical epics Heston was in back in the 50s. “Are you God?” a little girl asks him at one point. Of course he is; the movie rams that point home as he dies in a cruciform pose, but not before saving humanity with his blood.

Will Smith possibly carries the same sort of star baggage as Heston, but as anyone who’s seen Six Degrees of Separation will know, is capable of real, emotional acting. His portrayal of Neville as a doomed, possibly mad hero still trying desperately to end a plague that’s already over carries real weight, and it’s a great shame that it’s wasted in a movie that’s a pile of steaming poo.

Carried over from The Omega Man is the notion of Neville as a modern Messiah, saving humanity with a vial of blood. As if to finally underline the way the screenplay totally misses the point of the novel, offscreen narration explains that this is why he is a “legend”; his cure will provide safety for an extremely unlikely colony of survivors walled off in Vermont, obviously a tenth draft variant of the vampire colony that sentence him to death in the novel. Even the woman he befriends, who turns out to be an evolved vampire in the book, is a heroic emissary from said colony, and accompanied for reasons that defy any kind of sense by a small boy.

I Am Legend 2007 then, a wasted, missed opportunity from a hack director who’d be more at home making the latest Fall Out Boy video. It’s telling that an adaptation of the classic novel that kickstarted the zombie genre has ended up being little more than a pale imitation of recent, better zombie movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake. If you’re a fan of the novel, and if you can find it on DVD, you’d do far better to seek out The Last Man on Earth, which, Vincent Price aside, is a genuinely good version of the story. “They were afraid of me,” Price gasps as he dies. Now that screenplay got the point.

2007 Christmas Special: Voyage of the Damned

“Let the Christmas inferno commence!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Superior Spin Off

The most surreal line of the week award continues to be won by Robin Hood. Last week, after an encounter with an ingratiating underling, Keith Allen’s Sheriff harrumphed, “Why do you never kiss my ring, Gisburne?” This week, pursuing a troublesome carrier bird, he was heard to loudly declare, “We have to catch the pigeon. Catch the pigeon!” Which presumably means the ever-cheery Gisburne is Muttley.

Those aware of my TV tastes are presumably baffled by my lack of comment on Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures. Well, don’t worry, I did watch it! After all, being on Children’s BBC, it was a sight more adult than Torchwood.

With ten episodes comprising five two-part stories, it was the inevitable mixed bag, but some good stuff was to be found within. I was somewhat downhearted to see the return of Russell T Davies’ uninspiring blobby aliens in Revenge of the Slitheen, but pleasantly surprised to find them in an actually rather well-written story. Gareth Roberts, who is shaping up as a rather good TV writer, followed up his pilot script Invasion of the Bane with a sort of reboot of the show. Gone is annoying teenage girl Kelsey, replaced by somewhat less annoying teenage boy Clyde. Otherwise the format remains the same, but Gareth’s script deftly re-introduced the characters and situations for those who might have missed the pilot.

In a nutshell, ex-companion Sarah Jane Smith has adopted alien-created teenager Luke, hangs out with him and neighbour Maria, who’s really the show’s main character. Appealing though Sarah Jane us to us old fanboys, a children’s drama can’t really have a woman in her fifties as the star of the show. So Sarah acts as a sort of Gandalf/Doctor figure to the kids, involving them in the alien mysteries she solves with her convenient super computer Mr Smith (K9 being busy sealing off a black hole until his copyright owners see sense).

Of the stories, inevitably Gareth’s were the standouts. Revenge of the Slitheen had the alien Del-boys hanging around in a school, and they seemed to fit better in a children’s show than in Doctor Who itself. By far the standout of the entire series was Gareth’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, which was a well-written time paradox story that addressed some complex, adult themes far better than any amount of gratuitous swearing in Torchwood. The story dealt sensitively with issues like death, guilt and divorce in a sensitive way that didn’t talk down to its audience of children, without alienating them.

True, Maria’s awful mum does seem rather like a cartoon character and her dad is just too good to be true, but the show didn’t shy away from showing the devastating effects divorce can have on kids. It also confronted the issue of whether you would sacrifice your best friend to survive yourself, as a time paradox enabled Sarah’s friend Andrea to cheat her own death at thirteen years old by switching places with the teenage Sarah. As Andrea, the too-little seen Jane Asher gave a knockout performance as a woman haunted by the realization of what she’s done but still unwilling to undo it.

Indeed, the show had a remarkable quality of guest stars in some surprisingly challenging roles. Old stalwart Phyllida Law popped up in Phil Ford’s alien nun epic Eyes of the Gorgon, playing a woman adventurer deliberately reminiscent of an older Sarah Jane, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Children’s TV campaigner Floella Benjamin turned up herself in season finale The Lost Boy, instantly recalling Play School for those of us of a certain age.

Probably the weakest story was Philip Gladwin’s Warriors of Kudlak, in which a laser tag franchise was actually a recruiting ground for soldiers in an alien war. It had a couple of neat twists, such as the alien computer hiding the fact that the war had been over for years, but overall was reminiscent of nothing so much as The Tomorrow People. And I’m pretty sure the basic plot was filched from 1984 movie The Last Starfighter

The show had a pretty good regular cast, headed of course by the reliable Elisabeth Sladen. Lis played Sarah Jane exactly as she had from the 70s onward, but therein was a bit of a problem. The character has never really been too complex, so Lis’s range of emotions seemed rather… well, limited. It was revealing that in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, Jane Asher gave a far more subtle performance as a character who was in many ways an analog of Sarah. Still, with this new show casting Sarah pretty much in the role of the Doctor, range is necessarily going to be limited.

The kids were good, though. Yasmin Paige as Maria had the lion’s share of character development and gave a good performance as a girl struggling to deal with a broken home while concealing her involvement with all sorts of alien shenanigans with her neighbour. Tommy Knight, as Sarah’s adopted son Luke, was basically the Spock/Data of the piece, constantly puzzled by the everyday banalities of life. His wide-eyed innocence was rather sweet, and very much in keeping with the tone of the character. Heaven help him when puberty finally hits him… Lastly, new boy Daniel Anthony gave a charismatic turn as the cocky, streetwise Clyde, though his character was too often used as comic relief to be truly convincing.

The final story, The Lost Boy, brought the series to a satisfying conclusion with the revelation that Sarah’s oh-so-convenient supercomputer Mr Smith was actually an alien entity bent on the destruction of Earth to free his people from its core. It’s a brave move to introduce a sympathetic alien computer, then reveal that it was the bad guy all along; rather as if Tomorrow People computer Tim had suddenly revealed himself to be Hannibal Lecter. Still, Mr Smith was easily despatched by a few blasts from K9, conveniently reappearing as if copyright were never a problem. It was great to see him again, with the ever-excellent John Leeson again providing the voice.

It’s been a fun series, and if Torchwood can get a second run, surely this can. The quality of writing and directing parallels Doctor Who easily, with many of the same people involved. True, there are quibbles; Sarah may not be as magnetic a character as the Doctor, and that sonic lipstick’s just plain silly. But it satisfyingly recalls the glory days of children’s drama when it was producing some of the most imaginative fantasy shows on British television. The only real puzzler is with the Doctor, Torchwood and Sarah Jane all preventing the destruction of the planet on a weekly basis, how come they don’t bump into each other more often?
“Oh, I’m sorry, Captain Jack, I thought I was preventing the alien meteor destroying the Earth.”
“No, Miss Smith, it’s an alien sex meteor. That’s Torchwood’s remit.”

Perhaps that’s why…