Tudor coup -eh?

So, historical shagathon The Tudors continues to drag on, like Hollyoaks in doublet and hose. Indeed, much like the venerated Chester soap, all the main characters seem to be portrayed by actors of improbable levels of attractiveness. Still, series writer Michael Hirst claims the show is “85% historically accurate”, and I don’t know a great deal about this period, so who am I to judge? Maybe the young Henry VIII really was as sexy as Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

I’m betting he wasn’t as wooden though. While certainly easy on the eye, Rhys Meyers portrays our most bombastic monarch with all the range and subtlety of Keanu Reeves. It probably doesn’t help that they’ve surrounded him with people who really can act, like Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill. As Henry, he is driven mainly by lust. This provides the directors with an excuse to show him naked as often as possible, and the sex scenes are certainly a relief from watching him attempt to act as he falls disastrously (and unconvincingly) in love with Anne Boleyn.

Everyone else is shagging too. Henry’s friend Charles Brandon is busy knocking off the Duke of Buckingham’s daughter, then later the King’s own sister. Henry Cavill as Brandon is pretty enough himself, and seems to top Mr Rhys Meyers in the acting stakes. Elsewhere, Sir William Compton takes a break from looking remarkably like Chris Martin to woo court composer Thomas Tallis. “You are a lord of the court,” protests the pretty young Tallis. “What am I?” “A genius!” comes the cheesy response. That’s all right then, Sir William only wants him for his mind.

But it can’t all be shagging, this is historical drama! So away from the pretty young things, international intrigue is brewing. Henry allies with the French (signified by a semi-nude wrestling match with his cousin King Francis!), but they betray him. So it’s off to an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, with his comically enhanced chin and even more comical accent. But he betrays the English too, forcing Henry back into an alliance with the French. Meanwhile, Henry’s stuck trying to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he can shag Anne Boleyn, but the Pope’s not keen. Luckily there’s this feller Martin Luther who’s proposing a new, non-Catholic church…

Being historical drama, The Tudors feels the need to educate its audience. There is, therefore, a ridiculous amount of clumsy expository dialogue, in which characters tell each other things they must logically already know, such as their own names. “And now my daughters shall meet the king,” declares Sir Thomas Boleyn. “Mary… and Anne Boleyn.” Perhaps they had forgotten their names.

Another problem with being based on real people is that many characters share the same name. In particular, there are a lot of Thomases. Thomases are pretty much oozing out of the woodwork at Hampton Court. Thomas More, Thomas Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Tallis… Thankfully, the characters’ habit of referring to each other by surname avoids any problem in this regard. Still, the introductions lead to some spectacularly clumsy dialogue. “Thomas… Tallis. And what do you do?” “I compose… a little.”

Of the more mature cast, Maria Doyle Kennedy is a standout as the wronged Catherine of Aragon, obviously desperately in love with Henry but unable to compete with his lust for just about anything in a skirt. She has, by seven episodes in, developed a trademark wounded look that’s surprisingly effective. Elsewhere, Sam Neill is marvellously slimy as the power-hungry Cardinal Wolsey (another Thomas), hamming it up as the melodramatic scripts demand. Jeremy Northam’s not half bad as Thomas More either, though hampered by some excruciating dialogue evidently designed to educate the audience as to who Thomas More actually was. “I read Machiavelli’s The Prince,” declares Henry to More. “Not as… utopian as your book Utopia.” In most other exchanges, everyone keeps reminding More that he’s a Humanist, just in case any of us forgot.

I may not know much about this period, but I do know More and Wolsey are both bound for nasty ends. Henry, of course, is just going to get fat, and something tells me the story will end long before he becomes that unphotogenic. Now that Sir William Compton’s died of “sweating sickness” (a real, mysterious epidemic, apparently), Thomas Tallis appears to have turned to the ladies. Unfortunately his first choice of groupie also dies of the sweats, leaving him with only her identical twin. It’s a hard life. The extremely pretty Joe Van Moyland is great as the introverted Tallis, though his inclusion has so far had sod all to do with any of the main storylines. Still, he’s nice to look at.

It’s obvious that The Tudors is attempting to emulate the success of the similarly glossy historical drama Rome. The thing is, Rome was quite well-written, whereas the writing in The Tudors is the pits. Also, Rome had the clever trick of weaving two fictional everymen through its historical events, thereby giving the audience an identification point and simultaneously contriving to show Ancient Rome from all class perspectives. All we get to see in The Tudors is Henry’s court, which hardly seems any less comfortable than modern life generally – although they’ve curiously omitted the little detail that Henry and his lords and ladies would presumably still have to crap out the window. It’s probably not sexy enough.

Rome also scored over The Tudors in not talking down to its audience. It was several episodes in before I realised that David Bamber was playing Cicero, primarily because no-one was given the clunky line “Marcus Tallius Cicero… How’s it going, mate?” The Tudors, in its constant stream of expository dialogue, is an example of historical drama writing at its worst.

And yet I keep watching. Why? Not sure really. There’s some pretty young men, and I am intrigued to see how the minutiae of history turns out. It’s worth checking out for some of the older cast too; especially Maria Doyle Kennedy, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam. I just hope it gets as far as the Reformation (I suspect it will, just so we can see Henry finally get to shag Anne Boleyn). If nothing else, I’m looking forward to seeing just how wooden Jonathan Rhys Meyers can be while condemning Cardinal Wolsey to be executed…

Telethon Crash

Well, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Yes, the joys of redundancy and indefinite unemployment have kept me busy with a variety of exciting/geeky projects, such as ripping the isolated scores off the Doctor Who DVDs for my iPod and archiving the 25-odd VHS tapes of music videos I recorded in the mid-90s. Oh, and the rather important task of trying to find another job…

And now finally, back to the blog. I’ve been meaning to write on here for a while, but nothing quite moved me enough to stimulate the old muse. Particularly with the recurring hangover problem. But now, TV has finally offered up another slice of good old-fashioned Doctor Who!

Yes, in the name of charity (Children in Need, anyway), the reliably talented Steve Moffat served up another slice of genius last Friday. OK, there was only seven minutes of it, but just feel the quality! First, though, we had to sit the usual telethon tat, hosted by the impressively endowed Terry Wogan. Far from flashing the goods this time, he merely exhorted the viewers to give, give, give! Backstage, Fearne Cotton was chatting to a troupe of idiots from Strictly Come Dancing. “Tell me about the atmosphere,” she trilled, moronically. A shame Patrick Moore wasn’t on hand. Back to Terry, who announced a rare TV appearance by the ever-reclusive John Barrowman. Belting out Elton John standard Your Song, John, accompanied by Hearsay hasbeen Myleene Klass, strove to provide the gayest few minutes of the evening.

Thankfully, we didn’t have to sit through much of this before Terry and John announced the item we’d actually wanted to see. Flashing back to the penultimate bit of season three, we once again saw Martha promise to see the Doctor again. But what’s this? Rather than cutting to the Titanic inexplicably crashing into the console room, a few minutes of TARDIS shaking provided the surprising reappearance of Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor! Cue the titles, and I got all emotional seeing David Tennant’s name followed by Peter’s (thankfully spelled correctly, as Totally Doctor Who seem unable to do).

The so-called “plot” of this little scene was something to do with Doctor Ten having failed to put up the TARDIS shields, thus accidentally crashing into Doctor Five’s TARDIS and causing a potential time embolism “the exact size of Belgium… that’s not very dramatic, is it?” Hence the title, Time Crash. As Steve Moffat put it in this month’s Doctor Who Magazine, “because it’s about a crash. In time. Do you see?” But plot wasn’t what this was about, not really. With only one scene to play with, Mr Moffat used this McGuffin to give us a sparkling clash between Doctors past and present, giving them a chemistry instantly reminiscent of that between Troughton and Pertwee in their multi-Doctor stories. The dialogue, as usual, was peppered with acid wit, and laugh out loud moments. “I’m really rather busy,” fumed the Fifth Doctor, “and the last thing I need is some skinny idiot ranting in my face about every little thing in front of him!” Hit the nail on the head there, I thought, Tennant really was on “annoying mode” for this one. “Oh yes, the celery,” Doctor Ten riposted. “Fair play, it’s not every man who can carry off a decorative vegetable.”

The jokes were somewhat fan-heavy. Frying the TARDIS Zeiton crystals, talking about Tegan and the Mara, LINDA (“You’re not one of them, are you?” asked the Fifth Doctor in a thinly veiled “gay fan” reference). But I didn’t care. I am a fan, and I absolutely loved it. True, Peter didn’t seem quite the way he used to be as the Fifth Doctor, probably due to age changing his mannerisms. Perhaps it had something to do with the time differential that greyed his hair and widened his midriff.

That age-old fan argument about multi-Doctor stories – how is it that the newer Doctors don’t just remember all the events from the memories of their older selves? – is certain to rear its head again as Doctor Ten fixed the problem based on Doctor Five’s memory of having seen him do it! And the perennial “gay agenda” debate will get a shot in the arm from the aforementioned LINDA gag, not to mention the clever gag about the Master -“No beard this time. Well, a wife.” (“Beard” in this sense referring to the old gay slang about a poof using a wife to make himself seem more masculine). Still, as Mr Moffat once reminded us, “I’m the straight one. There has to be one.”

Even Murray Gold got in on the fanboy nostalgia act. His usual semi-orchestral music cues were this time peppered with deliberate retro synth sounds, as though he worked for the Radiophonic Workshop. It was like having good old Paddy Kingsland back again! Or maybe Gary Numan…

Still, David Tennant changed mood in an instant to be a channel for the inner fanboy of himself and Steve Moffat. Gazing at Peter Davison with something akin to love, he gushed, “I love being you… You were my Doctor.” And geeky though it is, a little tear welled up in my eye…

I believe there was more Children in Need following this, but I really didn’t need to see any more. It’s not the telethon it used to be. Thank goodness. Anyway, as per usual, I promise to write on here a bit more often. There’s other stuff to talk about, you know. The Sarah Jane Adventures, new Top Gear, historical shagfest The Tudors… I’ll try to cover them all. But for now, I’m just wondering if Peter Davison can be persuaded to come back for this year’s Tennant-lite episode!

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.