Nuts ‘n Baltars (Warning – many spoilers!)

So, a third season of Battlestar Galactica has wound its way to a conclusion. A conclusion this time much more low key and quasi-mystical than ever before. Leaving us, as usual, with lots of questions, it was also occasionally a little unclear. Was Starbuck dead after all? So where did she appear from and how had she “been to Earth”? Is Earth Heaven, then? Since they’ve yet to reach it, how was it that the newly revealed Cylons were triggered to wake by Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower? Who were the mysterious ships flying over our heroes in the nebula? Didn’t see any Cylons, that’s for sure…

Many friends of mine, and indeed people I don’t know, find Galactica hard to take for various reasons, the most prominent being that they see it as right wing propaganda. To me, this is an indication of not really having paid attention, or taking certain themes, plots and characters out of context. It’s true that the series shows the future to be dominated by an analogue of the US military, but the mistake people seem to make is to assume that soldiers are mere cyphers, extensions of the political philosophy of their government. Galactica deals with the fact that soldiers are people, as flawed and fallible as anyone else. They hold a variety of political views and are as prone to being wrong as anyone else. And in high office, while President Laura Roslin seems like a bit of a liberal, we found out last year about her strongly held views on abortion, which led to a decision that, by both moral and strategic terms, was very wrong and has come back to haunt her.

As for the political philosophy of the show itself, it was a revelation to me to sit in a panel at this year’s Gallifrey One convention and hear left wingers decry the show as right wing propaganda, and right wingers decry it as left wing propaganda. The truth, like the show’s characters themselves, is rather more muddy. The Cylons began as mass murderers in a Dalek style – witness Number Six’s unfeeling murder of a baby in the marketplace in the original miniseries. Yet they’ve been shown to be divided among themselves as to how to treat humanity, some feeling that attempted genocide was the worst mistake they ever made. Conversely, our heroes make no attempt to understand their enemy, which would make sense from both a moral and a military point of view. Whenever they capture a Cylon, instead of trying to figure out what makes it tick, they just shove it out the nearest airlock. The military can be both right and wrong, a fact acknowledged by Ronald D Moore when he ran Star Trek‘s most sophisticated incarnation, Deep Space Nine. Curiously, that realisation served to defuse the very real right wing agenda of Starfleet, an organisation who, as Clive James once put it, would “beam down and impose the Federation’s will in the name of freedom.” Their endlessly disposable red shirted cannon fodder really do show the soldier as merely a weapon rather than a person.

Since it began, Galactica has tackled potentially very controversial subjects, politically analogous to the real world and in particular the Iraq war. On no occasion, it seems to me, has it come down on either side of the political fence, but it has presented arguments for both sides very powerfully. The topic of prisoner abuse was deliberately rubbed in the viewer’s face in season 2’s Pegasus, in which the captured Number Six had been horrifically treated by the crew of the titular Battlestar, ostensibly on the side of humanity. This being indefensible, both right and left wingers can feel vindicated.

Things became rather greyer this year, with the Cylon occupation of New Caprica. Intentionally portrayed as a parallel to the US occupation of Iraq, this plotline even lifted the awful jargon of the US army and news media. “Insurgents” were referred to, and the occupiers formed a police force of the natives that became an instant target for the “terrorists”. But if the show has a right wing agenda, how would it make sense to cast the Cylons in the role of the Americans? For that matter, when it’s our heroes who are the insurgency, and they start strapping on explosives to suicide bomb what they see as collaborators, isn’t that encouraging us even more to see things from the point of view of the people of Iraq? On the other hand, as left-wingers might see it, the plot seems to show the Cylons taking a much softer line, indeed trying, in a cack-handed sort of way, to be a benevolent force for co-operation. Their violence seems to spring from frustration at the humans’ unwillingness to accept this. That, though, seems perilously close to defending the policies of people like Hans Frank, Nazi governor of Poland.

So in my view, the show presents plots about which one can make up one’s own mind. Both Cylons and humans have evolved immensely since the series began, and even then it seemed to be humanity’s treatment of their sentient creations as slaves that led to the enmity. Perhaps there is no right or wrong side; no right or left wing in this galaxy.

Other unfavourable comparisons, though, have been drawn with the original series. The original Battlestar Galactica was an expensive but shallow rip off of Star Wars, which nonetheless had an interesting premise. Its villain was a man named Count Baltar, with whom the newer Gaius Baltar has little but a name in common. Some see the new Baltar as a stereotypical English bad guy, but once again this seems to be a question of not looking hard enough. Gaius Baltar is vain, arrogant, weak-willed and hedonistic, but he’s not a villain. It is his fault that the Cylons were able to penetrate the Colonial defences and wipe out most of mankind, but he had no idea that was going to happen. All he wanted was a shag, with that tall, mysterious blonde woman! The series since has built on his sense of guilt and cowardice, and his fear of getting caught. In many ways, he’s the most realistic character in it; the slimy, “it’s not my fault” worm that perhaps a lot of us would become in such circumstances.

In contrast, the original Baltar was a camp, cackling pantomime villain who made Anthony Ainley’s Master look like a model of depth and complexity. John Colicos plays him with a great over the top relish, but really he’s a paper-thin 2D character who makes no sense. What does he hope to gain by betraying humanity to the Cylons? They want to kill all the humans. He’s a human. Does he expect them to make a distinction? It’s like that bit in Terror of the Autons where the Master suddenly realises that the Nestenes won’t distinguish between him and the people of Earth, and you think “if you’re a genius, how did you miss that rather large flaw in your plan?”. Colicos’ Baltar can’t be after money or power either; what use would they be to the last man in the universe? No, the new Baltar holds up far better in comparison, but for heaven’s sake try to see beyond James Callis’ English accent. At the very least it’s caused the use of words like “butterfingers”!

The other criticism of the show is that it’s unremittingly grim and visually drab. Well, be fair; being the last survivors of a holocaust on the run from a lethal enemy with superior firepower in a hostile environment is hardly the stuff of Terry and June, is it? And yet even given this, the show’s often displayed a fair sense of humour. Baltar’s ghostly sex fantasies of Number Six have led to a number of “whoops, Vicar” moments as other characters discover him pleasuring himself in his lab, and there’s even an outright comedy episode in season one. Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down, directed by stony-faced Edward James Olmos himself, is a Run For Your Wife-style farce of the highest order; or perhaps Abigail’s Party would be a more sophisticated comparison. As for being visually drab, well, the show is set on a bunch of clapped out military spaceships with some very low technology. The military aren’t known for painting things lilac, are they? Well, maybe some of them, but they work on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. It seems to be an acquired taste, but I think the kinetic, “handheld camera” style of the space battles provides plenty to stimulate the viewer visually. It’s a logical development of the style used in Babylon 5, DS9, and most notably Firefly, whose main ship Serenity can be glimpsed in the Galactica miniseries as a kind of tribute.

One criticism that I initially shared before I saw the show was the concept of the Cylons looking like humans. It seemed like a cost-cutting measure, and it’s true that the early CG centurions in the miniseries looked less than convincing. Besides the “they look like us and they’re already here” plot is one of the oldest in sci fi, stretching from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers through TV shows The Invaders, The X-Files, and last year’s ill-fated Invasion. But it’s a plot device that works brilliantly, especially with the self-imposed limitation of only twelve Cylon models. And now the Cylon ships are actual Cylons too, from their raiders to their base ships. Fitting for a robot race evolving towards true life form status. Besides, they’ve really improved the CG on the robotic Centurion models; they’re leaner and more vicious looking than the originals, with built in weaponry and a capability to be lethal even when partially dismembered. And they move like lightning! By contrast, the originals, while looking and sounding pretty cool, always looked like they’d fall over when they started moving. With hilarious results, as shown in an episode of Robot Chicken.

Perhaps Galactica appeals to a very different kind of sci fi fan than the lighter, frothier reborn Doctor Who; perhaps also one’s enjoyment of it may depend on one’s enjoyment of old war movies, whose conventions it frequently appropriates. But it’s a sophisticated, very human show, with many interesting science fiction concepts and limitations, and one deserving already of the term “classic”.

With all that in mind, now that season three has come to an end, what did I think of it?

It’s been a rather unbalanced season, with the strong opening episodes featuring the occupation of New Caprica and Galactica’s wham-bang rescue mission, but after that it seemed somewhat to go into idle. There were an unusual number of, admittedly very well done, filler episodes, such as the one about Chief Tyrol unionizing the refinery ship, or the one where he and his wife got stuck in an airlock. There were also a few tantalising plot threads left hanging from earlier. In particular, what happened to the mysterious Cylon plague that had decimated one of their ships and appeared to have no effect on humans? A perfect weapon for some of the nasty neo-cons on Galactica, I’d have thought.

Baltar’s enforced absence on a Cylon base ship gave us an ever greater insight into the truly alien world of these hyper-evolved machines, operating out of gigantic, living ships controlled by Minority Report-alike weirdoes wired into the system from tanks of goo. The problem with this was that Baltar’s presence in the Colonial fleet was one of the best dynamics of the show’s drama, and with the unwitting collaborator gone, the conflicts between characters seemed somehow less important.

They pulled it all together with the climactic two-parter, though. Taking the tried-and-tested dramatic format of a trial, it also weaved its increasingly mystical themes through a genuinely gripping exploration of the importance of the law, and how Baltar may not be as guilty as people think. The trial featured some powerful speeches on the rights of the individual, and grizzled old Adama surprised us all by voting Baltar not guilty. Meanwhile Lee Adama discovered that the legal process is no place for an honest man, as he sold his soul by betraying all around him to win the case. Small wonder then that he piled into a Viper at the first opportunity and flew off to almost certain doom.

And now we know the identity of four of the final five Cylon replicants. This might have been more of a surprise if Sky hadn’t said this in their listings, particularly since it became obvious after about ten minutes that only four of the characters could hear the mysterious snatches of music that turned out to be Bob Dylan. Still, the revelation begged yet more questions. Now aware that he’s a Cylon, Colonel Tigh seems intent on carrying on as the man he thought he was. But his ambiguous response to Adama at the close of the show was open to all manner of interpretation, and also made me wonder if there are multiple versions of these models in the fleet. Perhaps the Tigh we saw in the last scene wasn’t the one we’d seen before… Also, none of these four seemed to merit the hushed, humbled apology spoken by D’Anna when she glimpsed one of their faces in her temple-bound vision earlier in the season. Unless, of course, it was Tigh, and she was mortally embarrassed at having gouged his eye out!

Not as spectacular a conclusion as season one’s coup d’etat by Adama or season two’s Cylon invasion of New Caprica, this year’s finale seemed designed to stimulate the brain more than the adrenal glands. But that won’t stop me rushing back next year…

Day of the Animals

I notice Help, I’m As Fat As My Dog has been replaced by the similarly themed Dogs Borstal Unleashed. Clearly the indolence and evil of household pets cannot be underestimated. Personally, I’m waiting for Help, My Budgie’s Joined Al Qaeda.

Episode 5: Evolution of the Daleks

“Begin the invasion of Manhattan!”

So they just wanted to invade things after all…
After the complex, inventive set-up last week, I have to say this week’s conclusion was something of a disappointment. All the rich period detail and characters were put to one side for a straightforward runaround that seemed based around set piece after set piece, like a Russell T Davies script. To be fair, it did a good job of tying up all the plot strands Helen Raynor established in the first part, it’s just that it somehow didn’t have the epic feel it really should have.

The central thrust of the story, that the Daleks needed to evolve to survive, was explored well, with the partially humanised Dalek Sec becoming a combination of both Frankenstein and his monster. Indeed, the nods to Universal horror classics of the 30s were even more overt this week with that impressive shot of many shrouded bodies on suspended slabs, and the necessity for lightning to animate them. There was some good dialogue too, with the Doctor convincingly deciding to aid Sec in his quest to make the Daleks a “better” race. This at once recalled and inverted the plot of Evil of the Daleks, in which the Human Factor was merely an aid to more efficient conquest, but the Emperor planned to infect humanity with a Dalek Factor when that failed.

The trouble was that while the set pieces were impressive, the narrative seemed merely to exist to link them together. So the chase out of the sewers was there to lead to the Hooverville attack, which led to the Doctor’s alliance with Sec, which led to his betrayal, etc. It’s good plotting, but there was barely room to breathe between them, and the odd reflective moment came across as strangely forced, as though the plot needed to stop and get its breath back. A certain epic feel was provided by the charcters’ battle at the top of the Empire State as the Doctor struggled to dismantle the Dalekanium antennae, but that was followed by a rather anticlimactic showdown in the theatre, when it felt like the struggle on top of New York’s tallest building should have been the episode’s climax.

That’s not to say it was all bad, though. The Daleks’ rebellion against their leader was well done, and perfectly in keeping with their philosophy on racial purity. With the historical knowledge that the Nazis were just around the corner, this had a deal of depth. I loved the way they conspired against Sec in the sewer, one glancing behind him nervously to see if they could be overheard. It also gave Sec the opportunity to say, “You must obey me… I created you!”, which apart from recalling Frankenstein again is virtually a Davros line from Genesis. I must say, though, impressive image though it was, I couldn’t figure out why they took a chained Sec with them to confront the Doctor. For that matter, I was wondering how they planned to untangle the chains from their arms if they needed to move fast!

The cast, so impressive last week, seemed pretty well sidelined in the breakneck pace of the plot. It seemed a shame for Hugh Quarshie’s Solomon to be so peremptorily killed; while the scene of him appealing to the Daleks’ better natures was crucial in establishing that they’re still really, really nasty, it seemed a shame to waste such a strong character like that. Surely the Star Trek style “let’s all be friends” speech could have been delivered by a more minor character. And after unexpectedly reprieving Andrew Garfield’s rather sweet Frank last week, the script this week seemed to have nothing for him to do but stand around behind people. Perhaps it would have had a greater emotional impact if the Daleks had killed him in Part One! The only characters well served by the plot were Tallulah and Lazslo, with their doomed romance continuing its Phantom of the Opera vibe, and serving to impress on us New York’s welcoming of a massively varied community.

Martha had a little more to do at least, her medical background again coming in handy after the Hooverville attack. Freema gave a varying performance, occasionally seeming a little forced at moments of high emotion, though she handled the relationship discussion with Tallulah well. Still, with the season now five episodes old, I do wish we could begin moving on from the Doctor’s moping over Rose. I know that in story terms, it’s only been about a week since Martha joined him, not at all long enough to get over such a relationship, but just this once I wish they’d sacrifice emotional realism and let the story get on with things. An entire season of Martha moping over the Doctor while the Doctor mopes over Rose could get a little much.

David Tennant was again on good form, giving a darker performance to serve the darker tone of the story. His lapses into emotional shouting were impressive, but his repeated challenges to the Daleks to kill him came across as rather reckless really. What if they’d taken him up on that? (The fact that they didn’t seemed to reduce them to Bond villian caricatures, too). Also, his apparent loss of control in the face of the species that had caused him so much trauma was a good idea, but his attempts at intensity palled rather compared to Christopher Eccleston in Dalek. While Tennant’s got a lot better, he still can’t seem to do intense like Eccleston could.

It’s a shame we didn’t get more of a final showdown with Dalek Khan (Khaaaann!!!), but at least the Emergency Temporal Shift means there’s still a Dalek out there. There’s been a bit of speculation as to whether he turns out to be the lone Dalek encountered by Christopher Eccleston, but that doesn’t really work. That Dalek was clearly an unimaginative footsoldier (if it still had the luxury of feet) and nothing like a member of the sneaky Cult of Skaro. Also, if it was Khan, it was curiously uninformed about the outcome of the Time War. No, I’m thinking we’ll see Khan again, but hopefully not in this season’s concluding two-parter…

Overall then, a rather patchy conclusion to a very promising set up. Some nice fan moments (Dalekanium, counting in rels) and great dialogue, but somehow less than the sum of its set pieces. Still streets ahead of last year’s disappointing Cyberman two-parter though, and perhaps one that might work better watched in a single sitting. Expect I’ll try that soon…

Episode 4: Daleks in Manhattan

“We must evolve!”

And from that simple idea sprung the seeds for the most imaginative Dalek story in years. Indeed, you could say the Daleks have actually devolved from their initial appearance in 1964, when they were portrayed as individuals with distinct personalities who had conversations with each other. Succeeding stories have increasingly portrayed them as regimented automatons without a trace of individuality, hence the need to invent figureheads like Davros and the Emperor. Russell’s idea of the Cult of Skaro from last year’s Doomsday was a similar idea, but it gave personalities and imagination to the Daleks themselves. So it was with some delight that I welcomed back the wily Dalek Sec, with his guile and cunning schemes.

And what a setting for them. The Daleks have traditionally been portrayed, as is the tendency for sci-fi icons, in a future setting, or at best loitering around on contemporary Earth. Their occasional forays into Earth’s past have had… mixed results, from the dire The Chase to the rather better but still somewhat disjointed Evil of the Daleks. New York in 1930 is an oddly appropriate choice, mixing the Daleks’ struggle for survival in with that of the humans caught up in the Great Depression. Thematically, the story is about adapting to survive, with the Daleks recognising that “there are only four Daleks, but millions of humans”, and setting out to redress that balance. The comparison is further strengthened by the shadow of the Great War that hangs over the characters, echoing the war which led to the creation of the Daleks themselves.

Perhaps taking a cue from the excellent 1930s New York of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the production team have gone all out to make this one look visually sumptuous, albeit with almost no filming in the Big Apple itself. Yet again, this ambitious approach has had somewhat mixed results. A beautiful shot of workmen at the top of the Empire State with the sun setting behind them was rather spoiled by the curiously immobile waves on the river behind them, for example, and some of the compositing that placed tall buildings above the treeline in Central Park seemed a little unconvincingly matched. For the most part though, the CG was rather good, doing an artistic depiction of a city whose skyline has changed immeasurably since 1930.

Inhabiting this recreated metropolis was a well-rounded, if rather small cast of main characters. Eric Loren was superb as Diagoras, the epitome of the Depression era ruthless capitalist determined to prosper by exploiting the desperate unemployed, while Hugh Quarshie’s Solomon provided a more humanistic counterpoint. A nice touch was having his character live up to his name in his first scene by tearing in half a contested loaf of bread! Quarshie does “imposing” terribly well, and is looking more and more distinguished with age. Also in Hooverville, Andrew Garfield was believably waiflike as teenage runaway Frank, a character who seemed to have strayed in from a John Steinbeck novel.

Perhaps more contentiously, Miranda Raison’s Tallulah was something of a love-her-or-hate-her character, a cliche from all those nostalgic showgirls pictures of the 30s. Obviously this was the point, but her perilously close to parody version of a Brooklyn accent was occasionally rather grating. Desperate Housewives hunk Ryan Carnes was rather better as Laszlo, giving a surprisingly earnest performance from under a mountain of prosthetics. It’s a lovely idea to cast an actor who’s usually judged on his looks and then cover up most of his face! Still, it’s telling that he was nonetheless quite an attractive pig-man…

The best characters though had to be the Daleks themselves. It’s hard to imagine the Daleks we saw return in 2005 having a reflective chat with their human lackey while gazing almost wistfully at the skyline of Manhattan, but here we get that and more. Not to mention them arguing among themselves as Sec initiates the hybridisation procedure. Nick Briggs has done some sterling voice work giving them distinct characters, as well as conveying Sec’s pain as he undergoes the process. Presumably the Sec/Diagoras hybrid that emerged at the end is now voiced by Eric Loren, but I still sense Nick’s larynx under that too.

With all this local colour, the Doctor and Martha actually didn’t make much of an impact this week. I did groan at one point as David Tennant fell back on his irritating and trite “I’m sorry” catchphrase, but by and large he was rather subdued. Not even his usual manic outbursts of comedy were in evidence, though it has to be said that the story’s tone was more serious than any yet this year. Martha too got little to do; there was a nice character moment with Tallulah as she discussed her unrequited feelings for the Doctor, but generally she seemed to be there to scream, run away and get captured in an unusually retrograde style.

I don’t usually comment on the scoring of the show, but I was mightily impressed with Murray Gold this week. As a composer he seems to have matured no end since the awful Queer as Folk-like music for Rose, and this episode he produced a score eerily reminiscent of the 1930s Universal horror classics that superbly fitted in with the story’s setting. Fitting, as the Cult of Skaro’s laboratory seemed to have been deliberately designed to resemble Frankenstein’s workshop! There was also a new choral theme for the emergence of the Sec/Diagoras hybrid, in which I’m pretty sure the chorus were just repeating “Dalek Sec, Dalek Sec…” Sounded pretty good though.

Scoring aside, this is, I think, the first Who story since Talons of Weng-Chiang to feature a musical number! Kudos to the guys for not using an overly familiar song. The Busby Berkeley style choreography (which actually only works if viewed from above!) and the red feathered chorus girls were as reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as any 30s era musical, but in my view that’s no bad thing. It was almost a shame Martha had to interrupt it!

So, Helen Raynor’s first script for the series proper is as good as I would have expected from her standout Torchwood episode. There’s a fine grasp of history with its depiction of the Depression and its repercussions, and the whole thing has the feel of a more polished take on the (in my view) rather disjointed Evil of the Daleks. Of course, this being the first of a two-parter, the plot doesn’t move much; it’s all about getting the elements in place. The Daleks want to evolve, they’re building the Empire State building and grafting bits of themselves to the radio mast. Why? Hopefully next week’s episode will live up to the promise of this one and conclude this imaginative story in some style…

Episode 3: Gridlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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