Lucas, Sarah and Jo

“Do you have a hobby?” the spiky haired, unconvincingly American hacker girl asked Lucas in Spooks this week. Of course he does – Lucas’ hobby is brooding. Although he also enjoys scowling, and thumping the steering wheel of his car.

Reliably barmy as usual, this week’s episode saw a group of cyber terrorists from the Russian and Chinese secret services compromise the Grid. This caused Ruth’s usual pinched frown to virtually collapse in on itself as she tried to communicate this information to Harry without the Cybermen seeing. The voyeurs themselves were based in the usual empty high rise office with full length windows that nobody looks out of. Except Lucas when he’s brooding. Quite why Section D doesn’t maintain a special database of empty offices with big windows I have no idea. Perhaps because it would make the episodes shorter?

This season, Lucas has more than usual to brood about. After three years on the show, he’s been confronted by a shifty looking Iain Glen, who knows his secret identity. Apparently, before he was Lucas North, he was Guy of Gisburne. Or something. Anyway, in order to prevent this becoming public knowledge, Lucas has framed an office junior at MI5 and allowed the aforementioned hacker girl to bleed to death so she didn’t spill the beans about the Albany file that Glen is so keen to get his hands on. But he’s getting his hands on it from Malcolm! Yes, the least cool and yet most lovable techie the series ever had has come back to hint that he knows more than we thought he did. Or something. Which leaves me torn between wanting him back on the grid full time, or sticking with the less lovable but much prettier Tariq.

Also in the pretty camp is new boy Dimitri, played by Max Brown. You can tell Max is quite a talent from his background in Hollyoaks. But he is nice to look at, and sensibly, the writers don’t give him much to say. His usual function is to defuse bombs, which he seems to have done in every episode he’s been in. So, logically, this week he was practicing defusing bombs. With an actual bomb. As you do. Still, this came in handy when the cyber freaks locked the Grid down and Dimitri was able to blow his way out. Or something.

Without even a brief pause for the audience to figure out how he did it, Harry was onto the cyber agents in a flash, displaying the customary cool that’s left him the only original cast member standing. But as yet, he knows nothing about Lucas’ treachery, all for the love of Laila Rouass, with whom he shares no chemistry whatsoever. The flaringly nonsensical and yet compellingly watchable saga continues next week…

Meanwhile Laila Rouass was also busy as an equally treacherous UNIT Colonel in this week’s guiltily enjoyable Sarah Jane Adventures. This series has gone from strength to strength, with some intelligent, perceptive writing acted by a talented cast who deserve to go on to bigger things.

Joe Lidster’s season opener The Nightmare Man was one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in children’s television, bolting its dream haunting bogeyman (played with astounding creepiness by Julian Bleach) onto a character heavy story that directly and indirectly summed up the tumultuous changes when children grow up and leave the nest. Luke, played by the sweet Tommy Knight, was written out as he went off to uni, and the script cleverly drew on his, his friends’ and Sarah Jane’s fears to enhance an ethereal, Neil Gaiman like tale of a creature who wants to destroy the world’s dreams. One of the most talented writers working on the show, Lidster too deserves to go on to bigger things.

After this haunting, Sapphire and Steel like opener, Phil Ford’s follow up Vault of Secrets was a broadbrush comedy romp that felt far less sophisticated, with aliens, android Men in Black and a comedy UFO group ‘amusingly’ called BURPSS. Still, it was just a brief interlude before the story all fans were talking about – Russell T Davies’ Death of the Doctor. (Not The Death of Doctor Who – that was episode 5 of 1965 serial The Chase).

So, how would new boy Matt Smith bond with Sarah Jane, who’d already forged a real chemistry with David Tennant? In order to make it even more challenging, Russell upped the ante by bringing in yet another old companion – none other than the much loved Jo Grant, played by the incomparable Katy Manning.

As makes sense for a show revolving around one of the Doctor’s companions, it was the companions themselves who had the lion’s share of the action – the Doctor didn’t even show up until the end of part one! That gave Katy Manning the chance to… well, be Katy Manning. Scattily running around spouting enthusiastic nonsense while knocking things over, it didn’t seem like there was much actual ‘acting’ involved. It was a joy to see Katy again, and she managed to perfectly upstage Lis Sladen at the funeral, leaving her gaping speechlessly. Although, a more cruel mind than mine might have assumed Sarah Jane was simply jealous at the far larger amount of work Jo had had done to her face.

The Doctor noticed too. “You look like you’ve been baked,” he cried, with his usual marvellous lack of tact. Matt was as excellent as ever, and if anything forged a better chemistry with Jo than he did with Sarah Jane. Fittingly, the script allowed Jo the most screen time with him, and while it was basically a retread of the similar scenes involving Sarah Jane in 2006’s School Reunion, the interplay between Matt and Katy did bring a lump to the throat.

The Doctor was also more satisfactorily involved in resolving the plot than he was in his previous Sarah Jane appearance, where he just ran about and frowned a lot while caught in a parallel timeline. This time, it was a joint effort – the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Jo were all instrumental in defeating the less than convincing giant vultures’ plan to break into the TARDIS.

And what a joy to see so many and such well-chosen flashbacks. Hopefully the kids of today are already asking their mummies and daddies about Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. It was of course, a typical Russell tear-jerking stunt, and you could say that there were, well, rather too many flashbacks, actually. But it’s hard to carp about that when the resolution of the plot depends on an overload of memories. And I can forgive Russell – just – for having Jo officially remember her visit to Karfel as referred to in that 1985 trash heap of a story, Timelash.

But, as I say, a romp and a good tearjerker. As a piece of writing, it wasn’t up there with Joe Lidster’s opener, but as a fanboy wet dream it was second to none. The cherry on top was Sarah Jane’s final eulogy to every Earth based companion still – in the show’s continuity at least – alive and kicking. Especially affecting were the references to Harry Sullivan and Ben Jackson, both sadly no longer with us in real life.

So, typically of Russell, the tale was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. But good fun, nonetheless. I can’t help feeling that the next three stories will have very hard work not seeming like an anticlimax. Perhaps Sarah should meet Lucas North and Harry Pearce? Or something…

Tell them Boris sent you…

The latest furore to strike the increasingly right wing-seeming coalition is over their proposed cap on housing benefit, restricting it to a maximum of £400 a week for a four bedroomed home. That’s over £1600 a month. Which might seem like a lot – unless you live in London. Or Brighton. Or Oxford. Or Cambridge. And so on.

But the anger today is directed not at the policy but at the political manoeuvring and charged language of its critics. Earlier this week, Labour’s Chris Bryant described the policy – which could shift some 80,000 people out of London – as “social engineering and sociological cleansing”.

Regardless of the fact that to assume that’s a deliberate objective would be to give the coalition far too much credit, Bryant’s use of the loaded word “cleansing” presumably intentionally raised spectres of ethnic cleansing camps in the 90s Balkan wars. That might be taking things rather too far, as the coalition are more inept than actually evil – more Dark Helmet than Darth Vader, if you will. Still, an incensed Nick Clegg took to the despatch box at Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time to righteously protest that Bryant’s widely reported remark would be “deeply offensive to those who have witnessed ethnic cleansing”, trying vainly to give the impression that Clegg had personally liberated Auschwitz.

So far, so just another coalition storm in a teacup, you might think. Until the Mayor of London waded in with his customary tact and forethought. Boris Johnson, a man who seemingly can’t open his mouth without putting his foot in it, took arms against his glorious leader in a radio interview, describing the housing benefit cap as “Kosovo-style social cleansing”. Oh Boris, Boris, Boris. Remember when you had to go and apologise to the entire city of Liverpool for describing them as crybabies? It’s time to book a ticket to Eastern Europe and apologise to an entire continental region.

The rather sad thing is that in dissecting the rhetoric, the pros and cons (well, mostly cons) of the policy are somewhat ignored. David Cameron’s got a point when he says it’s not fair for a family on government handouts (I think that’s how he described it) to be able to afford to live somewhere that those with a job cannot. But shifting the benefit recipients out by financial ostracisation is attacking the problem from completely the wrong end. Surely a far more effective way to deal with the problem for both groups of people would be to cap the spiralling, exorbitant rents charged by unscrupulous landlords in cities like London? A cap like we used to have until, oh, was it the Conservatives, took it away under the benign aegis of Margaret Thatcher.

The insane rents in prestigious urban areas must surely have a massive impact on house prices too, which in turn has a negative effect on the rest of the economy. Allowing landlords to charge anything they want means that, currently, the government has to meet the cost for the unemployed and quite a few employed families simply can’t. Changing this so that only the insanely rich can afford to live there is surely not the ideal solution.

Still, while we’re all distracted by our righteous anger at the use of the word “cleansing”, maybe nobody will bother to have the real debate – does Daz “cleanse” more efficiently than Hitler?

Reality used to be a friend of mine

So, Autumn is upon us again, and with it, the glut of mass-market, cunningly edited ‘talent’ shows to fill the TV schedules, the front of every tabloid newspaper, and, every five minutes of each show’s duration, the status updates of what seems like half of Facebook.

For me, these ultra-staged ‘reality’ shows drive me up the wall. They all seem to blur into one hideous, homologised entity of tripe with a title like Strictly Dine On Ice with a Celebrity Apprentice Chef. And yet, as my boyfriend pointed out, I find myself talking about them even more than their fans. What can be the reason? My dislike of the format is probably an overreaction, and yet I can’t stay away from it. The most apt comparison would be to say that they’re like a scab I can’t stop picking.

The growth of ‘reality’ television (I use inverted commas because these shows are transparently the most faked slices of reality you’re ever likely to see) has been an insidious one over the last ten years or so, starting with Popstars and the original Big Brother. But there’s nothing new under the sun, and the irony is that most of the big shows are actually updates of ancient formats that at the time were considered massively uncool.

Strictly Come Dancing is nothing more or less than creaky old ballroom dance show Come Dancing, which the embarrassed BBC used to bury in the schedules at the dead of night while allowing an apparently tipsy Terry Wogan to gently mock the stiff contestants. What the new show does differently is bring a media-savvy propagandist’s method of presentation, all cleverly edited artificial tension and emotional manipulation. Oh, and pander to the increasingly daft cult of ‘celebrity’ by interspersing their actual dancers with the sort of Z-listers that would struggle to find a place in Heat magazine.

In taking these old formats, the shows have cross-pollinated with each other, learning from and adapting each other’s methods to try and retain the mental stranglehold on Britain’s otherwise mostly sane populace. Undoubted master of all the techniques from these last ten years of brainwashing is The X Factor, a so-called ‘talent’ show that is basically a version of the ancient Opportunity Knocks polished up by Josef Goebbels – here incarnated as the massively smug and punchable Simon Cowell.

Well might Cowell be smug though – he’s working one of the best con tricks since Barnum. He’s feeding the viewing masses rubbish, and not only are they begging him for more, they’re prepared to pay him for it. So he lines his pockets, allows his ‘discoveries’ a brief, Icarus-like shot at fame with the strategically placed Christmas release of a bland, anodyne single, then rubs his hands all the way to the bank while they shuffle off to a baffled obscurity.

“But, but,” say Cowell’s blinkered defenders, “The X Factor’s all about discovering new talent. Some of the contestants are really good musicians/have really good voices.” The tragedy is that some of them really do. But what Cowell’s trying to do is make the most money possible, and where music is concerned that means smoothing out any trace of individuality so that your product will appeal to the greatest number possible. The songs we end up with are so overproduced and bland that they serve as the musical equivalent of the Ford Mondeo.

And they can’t even be bothered to come up with original songs. The usual material available for cover is mass-produced pop that was trite enough to begin with – hardly an opportunity to display any talent the ‘star’ may have. Even when they use a song that does have some character of its won, they immediately use pitch-shifting, audio filtration, and a sub-Phil Spector production style to bludgeon it into mass-market conformity. Witness Alexandra Burke’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic ‘Hallelujah’. Burke genuinely does have a good voice, and the song’s an undoubted classic – albeit covered many, many times already. But her version ends up as the one that displays less genuine emotion than a sociopathic Vulcan. It may have been popular, but then so was ‘The Birdy Song’, and I’d like to think ‘Hallelujah’ has a bit more dignity than that. Elsewhere, Leona Lewis took Snow Patrol’s raw, fragile ‘Run’ and turned it into an overproduced dirge that presumably caused Gary Lightbody to take the money and run.

But The X Factor isn’t about music. It isn’t about talent. It’s about money. And the way to maximise the revenue is to shamelessly manipulate the show’s audience with the breathtaking propaganda skills of a latterday Leni Riefenstahl. Anyone who thinks success or progression within the show’s competition format has anything to do with actual talent is being startlingly naïve. The pre formulated drama of the show demands certain archetypes, and if you don’t fit into one of the pigeonholes then, talent or not, you’re out mush.

By now, many contestants seem to have learned to exploit the show’s need for caricatured archetypes. Hence the most successful at winning the audience’s sympathy, and those all-important £1 a minute phone votes, are the ones who have a dead, or dying dad/gran/dog etc. “If only he/she/it could have been here to see me,” they tearfully moan as the viewing public collectively goes “Aaah”, seemingly unaware that it’s just been had.

The X Factor though, like all these shows, is not reality. It’s actually drama that, because its characters are the unpaid members of the British public, is very cheap to produce – a godsend for an increasingly desperate and cash-starved ITV. And drama can’t function with just a hero, you need a villain too. Ever since Nick Bateman propelled himself, unwittingly or not, into this role in the original Big Brother, reality show producers have realised that they need a baddie. For every show, every year, someone is cleverly manipulated into being the one the viewers love to hate.

If the ‘villain’ is one of the contestants, the irony is that, while they won’t win, they’ll often end up better remembered – Bateman being an obvious example. But it’s more usually one of the judges, a lesson learned from Nigel Lythgoe’s unforgettably spiteful turn on Popstars and honed to sneering perfection by Cowell.

Elsewhere, we have The Apprentice – a concept that, as far as I know, isn’t derived from a creaky, ancient relic of an uncool show. But this too learns from the historical lessons of Big Brother, turning its everyday business drones into gladiatorial competitors hoping to score a ‘proper job’ as some kind of yuppie wanker. And Alan Sugar, originator of the crummy Amstrad brand, is hardly a substitute for megalomaniac tycoon Donald Trump – Sugar doesn’t have a giant skyscraper named after him that tourists come to gawp at. It’s all rather low-rent and British.

The rebirth of the humble cookery show as polished imbecile contest took place even earlier. Loyd Grossman’s 80s drivel Masterchef has been given the same slick polish as the other shows, but remains basically a way to turn food porn into cheap drama. And allows the viewing masses to bay for the blood of yet more Z list celebrities to boot. Along the way, Gordon Ramsay – who really should have been a football manager – has managed to become the food porn shows’ equivalent of Simon Cowell, though his ceaseless swearing at least makes him seem somewhat more human than Cowell’s withering, dead-eyed scorn.

Since the advent of Big Brother in 1999 and Popstars in 2001, the reality show has come to dominate British television while simultaneously reducing it to its cheapest, lowest common denominator. It’s Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame reduced to two seconds. It’s Christians fighting lions in the arena for a bloodthirsty public that distracts them from thinking about anything worthwhile. And more than anything, it’s dishonest. It’s not about ‘reality’. It’s not about ‘talent’. It’s a combination of money making exercise and latter day freak show. How many of the liberal viewers watching it ‘ironically’ would think it was acceptable if it was Siamese twins or bearded ladies put up on their screens to have fun poked at them?

From America, where the reality shows are becoming more insane and surreal by the day, I think the late Bill Hicks encapsulates the phenomenon and my feelings about it best:

“Go back to bed America, your government is in control. Here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom. Here you go America – you are free to do what well tell you!”

Rant over. For now…

How teenage girls are ruining vampires for the rest of us

“The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” – Dracula, 1931

“This is the skin of a killer.” – Edward Cullen, Twilight

“It’s like a whole big sucking thing.” – Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

With hordes of simpering teenage girls dragging their reluctant boyfriends (assuming they have any) to the latest film derived from Stephenie Meyer’s anaemic angst-fest Twilight: Eclipse, I think it’s time to remind ourselves that vampires used to be scary. I remember as a kid being terrified even of Christopher Lee in Hammer’s interminable Dracula series; he had red eyes, fearsome pointed fangs, and bewitched his victims into subjugation before drinking their blood and turning them into walking, thirsting corpses like him. All right, granted he mainly used his powers on a succession of Victorian ladies who were a smidgen too old to be playing the damsel in distress, but it made a huge impression on the 9 year old me, and my nightmares were often haunted by visions of Lee’s blood-dripping fangs as he burst into my room at night intent on slaking his unholy thirst.

Later, I and my horror-loving contemporaries had our childhoods scarred by, of all things, a vampire television show – Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic ‘Salem’s Lot. Ferocious Nosferatu Mr Barlow made far less impression than the unspeakably creepy floating little boy scratching to be let in at his brother’s window before draining the life from him. Unlike the Gothic campery of Lugosi’s and even Lee’s Count Dracula, these were vampires living in the real world who cared not if you were a middle aged lady in a Victorian nightdress; everyone was meat and drink to them, even little boys like us.

And now what do we have? The simpering, emasculated Cullen clan, toothless, bloodless and sexually neutered, brought to us courtesy of a starstruck Mormon intent on spreading the message of romance via sexual abstinence. Edward Cullen might be the dream of millions of contemporary teenage girls, but a proper vampire he is not. The Twilight “saga” is the end result of an ever-diminishing spiral of vampire worship that appears to dominate the current reading lists of vapid teenage girls with a hint of old-fashioned goth and absolutely no sense of humour. They’re everywhere; Vampire Academy, The Vampire Diaries, and even the actually rather good True Blood are the best representations of vampires around us right now. No longer monstrous, erotically charged, walking dead men intent on draining you dry until you’re like them, the vampire of 2010 is an insipid sub-Byronic hero who, like Pinocchio, desperately wants to be human. And probably looks like he should be in one of the emo bands who provide the near-identical soundtracks for shows that are basically Dawson’s Creek with tastefully trimmed fangs.

So what changed? How did we get from the menace of Count Dracula to the whimpering, neutered high school stalker that is Edward Cullen? Well, sad to say, there are two rather talented people to blame, though I’m sure neither envisioned the end result of their innovative tinkering with a long established mythology.

The first is Anne Rice. Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire revolutionised the genre of vampire fiction, and it’s never been the same since. For the first time, the vampire wasn’t an unknowable, nightmarish monster that had to be destroyed for the good of humanity; he was a person, trapped by his own predatory nature, with regrets and feelings like our own. Even if those feelings were mostly self-pity characterised by endless Romantic moaning like a sort of low rent Coleridge. Louis de Pointe du Lac was the first vampire we were meant to sympathise with – even if many of us had been cheering the vampires along even when they were the bad guys.

The effect of Rice’s novel on the genre was immediate and seismic, and suddenly even good old Vlad Dracula wasn’t just a monster, but a misunderstood romantic. Dan Curtis’ TV adaptation of Dracula – produced the same year and starring Jack Palance – was among the first to use the by now well-worn plot device of Mina Harker being some sort of reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love. It doesn’t really work in Curtis’ version, principally because Jack Palance has a total of two facial expressions, but it became established with variations like John Badham’s 1979 stage play adaptation and even Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous and otherwise very faithful 1992 film, reverentially entitled Bram Stoker’s Dracula lest we think it was written by Jackie Collins.

That’s not to say that romance had never been present in the noble count’s soul before; the very first adaptation, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, sees the legally distinct Graf Orlok trapped by his insatiable desire for Mrs Harker, vaporising in the first rays of the morning sun. The wellspring of almost all movie vampire lore, Nosferatu was the first piece to show vampires being killed by sunlight – an Achilles heel now so firmly established, it’s easy to forget that Stoker’s novel had the villain walking around quite happily in the daytime, albeit with his power somewhat diminished.

Tinkering with the myth is fine – every vampire story has changed the creatures’ characteristics to suit its own plot. I can hardly hold it against Twilight that its vampires can move around in the daylight – though I do hold it against it that if caught in direct sunlight they look ‘magical and beautiful’. But Graf Orlok, while he may have been a romantic (or just extremely frustrated) was never going to set any lonely girl’s heart alight. He looked like a shaved rat, with his bat ears, elongated incisors and bald head.

Rice’s Louis, on the other hand, was like all of her characters – dead, but impossibly good-looking. The fact wasn’t lost on Neil Jordan when he made his rather po-faced film adaptation, casting Brad Pitt as the longlasting moaner for whom death is just an excuse to mope. Louis, naturally, gets away in the end of the novel, and a sequel seems forthcoming. And sequels there were, though it took Rice several years to work up the confidence to write one. But once writing, she seemed totally unable to stop, so that now it seems even the most minor characters from the original novel have another devoted entirely to them.

The most important of these, though, and the one that set the dynamic for conflict in every anthropomorphised vampire story since, was the subject of her very first sequel – Lestat de Lioncourt, otherwise known as The Vampire Lestat. Fun-loving, blackly humourous and utterly amoral, Lestat was everything whinging Louis was not. Having an absolute ball being undead, thrilling to the hunt and considering humans lesser beings put on the plant solely for sport, he was the very essence of the villainous vampires of the past – but now the story was being told from his point of view. Revelling in what I suppose you’d have to call joie de mort, Lestat was the polar opposite of Louis, and yet despite their frequent conflicts, nothing could quite tear them apart. They were drenched in the sort of doomed homoerotic subtext previously reserved for the incumbents of Tennessee Williams plays – and together, they set the template for how vampire stories would go from thereon in.

So – Louis and Lestat. One hates being undead, the other can’t get enough of it. They hate each other and they love each other. So far,so kinky, and horror literature seized on the concept, heightening the always present sensuality of the vampire and turning what used to be a sexual subtext into just text. SP Somtow’s excellent Vampire Junction simultaneously sexualised and castrated – literally – his vampire protagonist, while Poppy Z Brite’s more-Southern-gothic-than Anne Rice Lost Souls? has the logical progression of a vampire teenager having a homosexual relationship with his own beautiful, immortal father.

But horror literature – Stephen King and James Herbert aside – is rather a niche market, especially when it gets that kinky. The likes of Somtow and Brite took Rice’s template to an extreme, but it would take more than that to make it popular. It would take… well, let’s see, a long-running hit television series with mass appeal, smart writing and a groundbreaking mix of everyday drama and comedy with fantasy and horror. Step forward, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yes, the other person primarily to blame for the glut of squeeing fangirl vampire romance – quite unintentionally – is the very talented Joss Whedon. Buffy was a surprise sleeper hit, taking Rice’s ‘mournful, brooding vampire’ template and adding a new ingredient – a totally empowered, if often shallow and vacuous, girl heroine, who was no mere damsel in distress. Buffy Summers was, basically, a superhero vampire hunter, like Marvel Comics’ Blade. But unlike Blade, she liked to flirt with the dark side, and here was where the ‘brooding, melancholy vampire’ came in. Angel was an undead creature cursed with a soul to make him regret and torture himself over all the blood he’d spilled – Rice’s Louis, almost to the life (or death).

But there was no Lestat to balance him out. That balance was redressed as early as season two, as we met William the Bloody – forever to be known as Spike. Spike was almost exactly like Lestat, even down to the (dyed) blond hair. But filtered with a modern sensibility reminiscent of Lestat’s rebirth as a rock star; Spike was deliberately reminiscent of a 1970s British punk, despite his 19th century origins and distinctly wobbly accent. Apparently defeated at the end of the season, Spike was too perfect a balance to abandon, and he returned the very next year then became a regular the year after that. Unrepentant but controlled by a chip in his head, you could rely on Spike for a sneering putdown or a bit of the old ultraviolence – providing it wasn’t against humans, or the chip would give him a blinding headache. The difference between Spike and Angel was that Angel didn’t want to be a monster but had to fight against it, while Spike wanted to and couldn’t.

And the difference between Rice and Whedon was a sense of humour, the one thing lacking in the overly earnest, angsty drivel of the Twilight series. Almost from the start, the pomposity of Rice’s vampire archetypes was constantly punctured by witty dialogue and the insightful characterisation of Joss Whedon. Angel’s brooding moods were constantly mocked, at first by the other characters and eventually by Angel himself – by the time he got his own spin off series, he’d admitted to a fondness for Barry Manilow and at one point got turned into a felt muppet, none of which undercut the believability of the character. Spike, on the other hand, was artificially neutered but lost none of the menace, even when he fell for Buffy. And the show got distinctly darker when she not only reciprocated his advances, but broke his cold heart by admitting she only wanted him for sex.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a constantly evolving, emotionally complex and surprisingly relevant piece of fantasy television. It perhaps dragged on two seasons too long, though even those last two seasons had gems like Once More With Feeling – a musical episode that actually addressed character motivation through song – and Normal Again, which posits the (unresolved) idea that the whole series is a dream Buffy’s been having while incarcerated in a mental institution. But after seven years Whedon called it a day, and Buffy came to a dignified end. Then the network pulled the carpet out from spinoff show Angel, and that came to a more abrupt, but still heroic, conclusion. And popular vampires retreated back into the aether – or perhaps the coffin.

But Buffy, by dint of the nature of its central character, had created a surprising new fanbase for vampire stories – teenage girls. Girls wanted to be like Buffy Summers – and while some wanted nothing more than the kickass superpowers, still more, it seemed, wanted a doomed, Byronic romance with a mopey immortal tortured by his own demonic nature. Books started to appear. LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries series, written in the early 90s, was resurrected (pun intended) and extended, while Richelle Mead gave an unwilling world the Vampire Academy series, and Charlaine Harris weighed in with the rather better Sookie Stackhouse series, adapted for TV as True Blood. All of these, you’ll note, are written by women, generally women of an age to have been teenage viewers of Buffy. But the one that caught the imaginations of more emo-loving, self-harming teenage girls than any other was Stephenie Meyer’s dreary Twilight series – the ultimate extension to the trend of defanging the vampire to make him a safe plaything for teenage girls who wanted something a little bit more Byronic than the singer from Dashboard Confessional.

And the true nature of that defanging is to emasculate the vampire. Traditionally, vampires have been steeped in sensuality, if not outright sexuality. Stoker’s Dracula scandalised late Victorian society for its (at the time) overtly sexual tone, with the vampire protagonist playing on the repressed sexual desires of the two main female characters. Rice’s Louis and Lestat shagged like satyrs, Louis with his usual doomed, nihilistic air and Lestat with full on lust. Even rat faced old Graf Orlok in Nosferatu basically dies because he can’t resist the lure of getting his leg over.

But such things are not for Stephenie Meyer (and why can’t she spell her forename properly?). A devout Mormon, she’s been accused of writing, with Twilight, “abstinence porn”. She, conversely, claims that it’s better to show romance without sex. Why, she argues, does romance always have to equate with sex, especially graphic sex in literature? That’s actually a fair point – if you’re writing about people. But vampires aren’t people, and a heightened sexuality has been intrinsic to the legend for centuries. Take way their sexuality, and you might as well take way the fact that they drink your blood.

And in fact, Meyer does that too. Her vampire heroes, the Cullens, are as abstinent from blood drinking as they are from shagging. That’s hardly surprising, as the one is a crudely written metaphor for the other in Meyer’s world. The Cullens have to exert tremendous self control to keep from drinking blood, as once they’ve started it’s almost impossible to stop. But just in case you didn’t get the profoundly obvious metaphor, simpering hero Edward Cullen literally refuses to have sex with passive heroine Bella – a shame, as her lust for him is the only positive thing she does that contradicts the 19th century damsel in distress stereotype. In fact, Bella seems to spend 90 per cent of her time having to be rescued, if not by Edward then by thwarted would be beau and werewolf Jacob Black.

But neither man wants to have sex with her. Oh no, that would send out the wrong message to the teenagers of America. Although the net result of their refusal, coupled with their tendencies (in the films) to stand around looking buff with their shirts off, is a presumably unintentional homoerotic tension that borders on the hilarious. Presumably there’s slash fiction out there in which Edward and Jacob finally consummate their feverish lust for each other – God knows, it’s probably better written than the actual Twilight novels.

So is this the final end for the vampire? From a terrifying walking corpse that wants to kill you and drink your blood to a toothless plaything for pale girls who don’t like to go out much and have a problem getting boyfriends? There are still shreds of hope. True Blood, the TV adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse series, is a marvellously full-blooded and overblown Southern Gothic melodrama that makes Anne Rice look like Enid Blyton. It still follows the basic Buffy formula of an empowered heroine (Sookie is a telepathic waitress!) caught between a mopey brooding vampire (Bill Compton) and a sexy blond bad boy vampire (Eric Northman). But it’s set in a fascinating world where vampires and humans uneasily coexist, and written in a style like Tennessee Williams without the restraint. Not to mention that it features massively gratuitous amounts of sex, violence, swearing and drug abuse; the dark side of Twilight, it probably gives Stephenie Meyer palpitations just thinking about it. And like Buffy, it has a sense of humour – the cardinal sin of the Twilight series is that it takes everything about itself so bloody seriously.

And while we’re on humour, us Brits have waded in with Toby Whithouse’s excellent Being Human, from BBC3. The comic/dramatic tale of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat in Bristol and trying to fit into normal society, it’s produced some genuinely chilling portrayals of vampirism mixed with moments of pathos and laugh out loud humour. Mitchell is another vampire trying to be human; but he keeps failing. He’s genuinely funny when out with his mates in the pub, or trying to hold down in a menial job in a hospital; but when he gets really dark, as he does in series one when caught in a vampire civil war or series two when he’s out for revenge, he is one of the most chilling vampires you’ll have seen for ages.

And the kinkier, more niche aspects of horror literature are fighting a rearguard action against the nauseating spectacle of the Twilight series. This is often better demonstrated in the world of comics, where Steve Niles gave us the excellent (and extremely violent) 30 Days of Night (coincidentally adapted into a film directed by David Slade, who has just given us the latest Twilight movie).

So hopefully, this faddish adoption of a monster by insipid doe-eyed teenage emo girls is just a passing thing. The vampire’s been in the doldrums before, and always risen from the coffin again. All we need is to get the fangirls sexually interested in some other classic monster. I suggest they try going on a date with a flesh eating zombie…

Series 5, Episode 13: The Big Bang

Nothing is ever forgotten. Not really.”

Phew. All week long, I’ve been saying “I do hope it doesn’t all turn out to be Amy’s dream”. Yet in the end , that was exactly what it was.  The entire universe is now Amy’s dream. And, typically for Steven Moffat, a concept that should have been a total copout was the most cleverly worked out solution to the unfathomably complex puzzle box of a plot he’d been constructing since The Eleventh Hour

Having seemingly written himself into a corner the likes of which even a Davies Ex Machina wouldn’t get him out of, Moffat instead presented, step by step, a perfectly logical (if mindwarping) series of temporal paradoxes which neatly tied the whole thing up, without resorting to quasi-magical solutions. Time, after all, is what the show is all about, and Moffat has been the writer who has really addressed it in previous scripts like Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace. It doesn’t hurt that he can deal with the complexities of time travel while also telling a thrilling story populated by rounded characters that we actually care about.

Of course, there were really only four characters in this episode, but they’re the ones whose emotional journey we’ve been following all season. In a lovely full circle back to the beginning of the series, we were back with nine year old Amy in her bedroom, just where the story began. All a dream, it seemed. But no. As time started to take a different path, we saw a creepily different world, a world that, it soon became clear, was the only one left in the universe. 

Amy’s teacher’s uncomprehending declaration, “there’s no such thing as stars” sent a chill down my spine – a fundamentally scary concept that showed the universe to be all wrong. And as Amy explored the national museum that formed the bulk of the episode’s setting, we saw other weird little hints – African penguins, dinosaurs in the Arctic. As the post it notes guided Amy towards the Pandorica and it then opened to reveal the Amy we knew, I think I actually heard my friend James’ brain implode.

And plastic Rory was still with us. I’m now even more in love with Rory than I was before, after his beautifully romantic decision to stay guarding the Pandorica, and Amy, for two thousand years. The fact that he was still, indisputably, Rory despite being an Auton duplicate was the first hint we had that Amy could be the one who could reshape reality – his personality had been taken from her head by the Nestenes, and they’d got more than they bargained for. Still, I did also chuckle at River Song’s admission that she once dated a Nestene replica and it was never dull because of the interchangeable heads!

Oh yes, River Song. You could see it as a bit of a copout that she didn’t explode with the TARDIS – that was an awfully convenient time loop. Still, it’s in keeping with the nature of the show that the TARDIS would have that kind of safety feature, and it does fit in with the story’s exploitation of the possibilities of time travel. And anything that keeps River around is a good thing, because it’s plain her story is far from over. In keeping with her original appearance in Silence in the Library, her story with the Doctor is one totally out of chronological sequence; from his point of view, the first time they met was when she died, and from hers she always knows what the future holds for the Doctor – because she’s already seen it. It’s a neat idea for a continuing plot thread, and Alex Kingston is great fun as the flamboyant femme fatale (if such she is). According to her, the Doctor will soon meet her for – from her point of view – the first time. I’m looking forward to it.

And so to the Doctor himself. Matt Smith has been an absolute revelation this season; I knew he was a good actor from shows like Party Animals and The Ruby in the Smoke. But he’s been amazing as the Doctor, building a character who’s much more like the traditional Time Lord we knew from the original series than the confident, super cool Doctor of David Tennant. With the sort of deceptive bumbling reminiscent of Patrick Troughton and the alien qualities of Tom Baker, he’s been consistently excellent – funny, charismatic, and occasionally scary.

And now heartbreakingly brave, as he refused to be put off by even his own apparent death at the stick of a petrified Dalek. Then flying off in the Pandorica itself to collide with the explosion and, as he put it, “reboot the universe” (basically, turning it off and on again). It’s not the first time he’s sacrificed himself to save the entre universe – the Fourth Doctor died under just those circumstances, in the similarly mind boggling story Logopolis. But this time the stakes seemed higher somehow. Not just the whole of existence was at stake, but so were the characters we’d come to care about – a fact that Rory forcibly reminded the Doctor of by punching him in the mouth!

OK, so the Pandorica’s hitherto unrevealed ability to restore patterns and then actually fly is a bit of a deus ex machina, despite that I’d like to think Moffat avoids the pitfalls of Russell T Davies’ writing. But it’s really no more than a McGuffin; a plot device that enables the Doctor to sacrifice himself and Amy to rebuild the universe. As the Doctor careered back through his personal time stream, I was pleased to see the attention to detail that had gone into seeding the clues into previous episodes of the season – none more so than his unexpected appearance, wearing his jacket, in Flesh and Stone. That one I actually spotted, and maintained it to be part of the plan even when friends said the appearance of the jacket (lost to the Angels in a previous scene) was just a continuity error.

So, having rebuilt the universe, Amy’s saved the day again. But I can’t find it in myself to object – the Doctor was every bit as instrumental, and ultimately, she brought him back too. The wedding was a perfect happy ending – Amy ended up with Rory no matter how much she fancied the Doctor. Probably a good thing too – one of the things I’m glad we lost with Russell T Davies was the Doctor-companion relationship always having to be a pseudo-romantic one. And the TARDIS really is, as Steve Moffat no doubt noticed years ago, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. Its triumphant appearance at Amy’s wedding reception was just one of many moments that brought a few tears to my eyes. As was the marvellous final farewell, Amy and Rory waving goodbye to Earth and off to new adventures with the Doctor. It’s great that, for the first time since Rose Tyler, we’ve got a TARDIS crew that’s stayed together for more than one season.

The Big Bang, then, was everything the title promised (except, thankfully, in the sexual sense!). A thrilling season finale that cleverly used the potential of time travel as the central tenet of the series, with witty dialogue, a few monsters, and a clever and honest resolution to an incredibly complex plot. I know the change in the show’s direction hasn’t been to everyone’s liking, but for me, Steven Moffat has brought back a real feeling of magic to a show that had become jaded, and even in four years overburdened by its own legend. And the plot still isn’t fully resolved. Who was really behind it? Who was the mysterious, malevolent voice declaring that “silence must fall”? For the first time since the show returned, there’s a real sense of a plan that extends further than just the end of the season itself. I can’t wait for Christmas!

Series 5, Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens

Everything that’s ever hated you is coming here tonight.”

Wow. That was simultaneously riveting, exciting, and really intricately plotted. In fact, we can now finally see all the intricate plotting throughout the whole season beginning to pay off.  It also fulfilled the now obligatory requirement for a season ending to be massively spectacular, but unlike some of the season finales of the past, it didn’t provide spectacle at the expense of plot or intelligence. And that has to be the best cliffhanger the show has ever done!

A massive pre-credits sequence – possibly the longest ever – tied the season together in a way that’s never been done before, by bringing back most of the really memorable characters we’ve met as the year has progressed. Van Gogh’s still mad, Churchill’s still huge, and River Song’s still… well, still River Song. I wasn’t entirely surprised that so much of the season finale revolved around her (even without the spoilery revelation from Doctor Who Magazine that she was in it). Steve Moffat (her creator, after all) obviously sees her as his version of Captain Jack Harkness; she’s the larger than life occasional companion who pops up at crucial points, with a flamboyant personality and dress sense to match. Alex Kingston was great as ever, though I suspect some fans will find the character’s over-the-top personality and ‘Hello sweetie’ catchphrase a bit much to take.

And Rory was back too! There are plenty of Rory-haters out there, but I was over the moon to see Arthur Darvill, if not entirely surprised. OK, so he turned out to be an Auton replica like all the Romans, but any Rory is better than no Rory. And he got that cracking scene with Matt Smith as the Doctor failed to notice that his return was anything unusual; a funny scene comically timed to perfection by both actors. Not to mention the heartbreaking moment when Amy remembered him just as he unwillingly shot her, the first shock in an exponentially increasing series of them that led to THAT cliff-hanger…

But it was still a classic Who story, and like every classic Who story, it had monsters. Lots of them, in fact. When the Daleks faced off against the Cybermen at the end of season two, it was great fun but seemed like, in the words of the lamented Craig Hinton, fanwank. But here, Steve Moffat managed to pull off bringing back virtually every opponent the Doctor has faced since the series returned, and not only did it seem credible and entertaining, but it was also only a part of a massively complex plot. I’d had forebodings since the Daleks’ makeover that the finale would yet again revolve around them; but while they were back, so was everyone else, and the Daleks were just one element of a massive alien alliance that was itself not the main villain of the piece.

Having the monsters involved more peripherally meant they could have some fun doing unusual things with them, too. That whole sequence with the dismembered Cyberman managed to be both memorably gruesome and blackly funny. The writhing metal tentacles of the dismembered Cyber-head as it crawled towards Amy managed to be reminiscent of Tetsuo the Iron Man and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and as it then popped the head back onto its damaged body, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. That struck me as a pretty fair steal, given that the Borg have always seemed like ripoffs of the Cybermen in the first place!

In keeping with a new style of production team, the finale also has, initially, a very unusual setting. Since the show returned, each increasingly epic finale has taken place either on contemporary Earth or the far future. Here we had our heroes roaming around Roman Britain, itself a key piece of the puzzle that’s been building all season. And the Pandorica itself was under Stonehenge – a nice use of a British location rather more interesting than, say, Canary Wharf. As the Doctor stalked around what seemed to be a very large version of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, muttering about the massively destructive individual contained therein, I began to guess that the only messianic/destructive creature to live up to that description was the Doctor himself. Mind you, I’d thought that, in keeping with the theme of disjointed time throughout the season, it would be a future version of the Doctor already imprisoned. It was a good bit of misdirection in the script to give you the hint that the Doctor was inside and then reveal at the end that he would be – just not yet.

A similar bit of misdirection was the rousing scene in which the Doctor, armed only  with a transmitter, seemingly sees off a massive fleet of spaceships belonging to all his greatest enemies. Matt Smith played it well, going in an instant from his ‘young fogey’ persona to a believably godlike, ancient alien. It was a scene that almost felt like it was written for David Tennant, so reminiscent was it of Russell T Davies’ style, and yet it turned out to be more sleight of hand from Mr Moffat. The aliens weren’t leaving because of their terror of the Doctor, as they would have done in previous seasons – the Doctor, it turned out, was exactly where they wanted him.

Meanwhile, River was taken by an increasingly shaky TARDIS to the fateful date of 26 June 2010, and all the pieces of the puzzle started to slot into place. As the script juxtaposed the increasing peril of River in the about-to-explode TARDIS with the Doctor being clamped into the Pandorica and Rory cradling Amy’s (apparently) lifeless body, some excellent direction skilfully ramped up the tension. The pacing of this episode was superb, with revelation after revelation building to a massive climax. The alien alliance think the Doctor is responsible for the cracks, and the impending erasure of the universe from history. But it looks like they’re wrong, and they’ve just caged up the only being who can stop it. As the familiar crack appears yet again, this time in the screen of the TARDIS, is the malevolent voice croaking “silence must fall” the real villain? Then just who is it?

Steven Moffat has always been excellent at writing very complex, deceptive scripts that misdirect the viewer with the skill of an excellent magician. Even when he was writing Press Gang, his very first TV show, that was evident. But given the whole of space and time to play with, he’s taken intricate, puzzle-piece plotting to a new level. This episode showed the stakes he’d been hinting at throughout the season – not just the destruction of the entire universe, but its, and all other universes’, erasure from time entirely. The stakes have never been so high in Doctor Who, and we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. But with this episode climaxing with the apparent death of two of the main characters, the perpetual imprisonment of the other and the apparent destruction of all universes and time itself, you have to admit that’s one hell of a “how’s he going to write his way out of that?” ending. With Steven Moffat writing, I can’t wait for next week to find out.

Series 5, Episode 11: The Lodger

All I have to do is pass as an ordinary human being. Simple. What could possibly go wrong?”

Last night, the nation was glued to its TV screens, watching a much anticipated clash of two mighty teams on the football pitch. And as it turned out, the Doctor was a pretty good striker.

Doctor Who fans and football fans have never got along very well, despite the obvious similarities – encyclopaedic knowledge of statistics, glued to the TV on a Saturday and a tendency to wear silly scarves. But last night, Matt Smith (a former footballer himself, of course) tried bravely to bridge the gap between Who-nerds and soccer-nerds. Which ones do you think will be most upset?

I’m being facetious, I know, but a lot of Who fans were outraged when they saw pictures of their beloved hero playing football! Gareth Roberts’ The Lodger did actually have more to it than just a football match – though not a lot more. In the ‘cheap’ slot of the season previously reserved for stories with few appearances by the regular cast, it broke with tradition by being all about the Doctor, and featuring Amy quite a bit too. But it was a slight story, even though the budgetary limitations were put to good use in its convincing contemporary setting.

Gareth Roberts’ writing has been the cause of some contention among fans, but I’ve enjoyed his work back from when he used to write for the Virgin New Adventures series. He has a great sense of comic character and dialogue, and previously his work on the TV series has been prestigious historicals like The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp. The Lodger gave him a chance to flesh out a story previously written as a comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, and like the strip was enjoyable without having much actual substance.

The central schtick was, of course, the Doctor’s efforts to blend in with what we know as everyday life – pub football matches, flatshares, working in a call centre. Even the setting of Colchester seemed deliberately drab and provincial, not like all those world shattering alien invasions that take place in that London. The actual sci fi part of the story was almost incidental to all of that, and in fact was never a part of the original comic story.

Nonetheless, the ‘something at the top of the stairs’ plotline did manage to be moderately creepy. The ever-changing, faceless figure in the top flat was an obvious homage to Sapphire and Steel, and the rationale for his existence as an automaton killing people off in an attempt to repair his spacecraft seemed very similar to the central concept of Steven Moffat’s Girl in the Fireplace. Derivative or not, though, its placing in such a humdrum, ordinary context was enough to bring a little chill.

But it was the humdrum context that was at the heart of the story, and the deliberate juxtaposition of the Doctor (“weird”) with the lives of two ordinary Earth people in a situation that’s familiar to all of us. There can’t be many people who haven’t experienced the fun and frustration of a flatshare at some point in their lives, and the script captured this very well. It also invited us to think about how an extraordinary figure like the Doctor can’t really have that kind of life, and how he might envy it – a theme that’s been touched on several times since the show came back.

There was much unease in fandom about the casting of James Corden as Craig, the Doctor’s flatmate. I didn’t see any problem with it even before the show was aired; I’ve been watching Corden for many years in various shows, and despite his (and Matthew Horne’s) recent awful sketch show, I know he’s a capable comic actor. And so he proved here. Craig was written well, and Corden invested him with a believable sense of being quite out of his depth with this eccentric new flatmate.

With Amy stuck in the malfunctioning TARDIS, the main interaction was between Craig and the Doctor; Corden and Matt Smith formed an amusing ‘odd couple’ double act, which made the episode seem oddly more like a sitcom than a sci fi drama. It was difficult not to laugh when the Doctor upstaged Craig at football, turned up at his work when he was off sick, and even tried to defend Craig against the monster while brandishing an electric toothbrush and clad in nothing but a bath towel.

Craig’s unspoken love for his best mate Sophie, and their cosy nights in together (“pizza-booze-telly”) were shaken up by this puzzling new lodger, as the Doctor once again showed his bafflement at all things human and ordinary. Matt Smith has really nailed this aspect of the character better than anyone since the show returned, and used it here to comic effect, blithely giving Craig £3000 in cash (“That’s a lot, isn’t it?”), unable to grasp why Craig might want some ‘space’ with Sophie, and completely ignorant of the game of football (“That’s the one with the sticks, isn’t it?”).

The love story aspect of the plot was another new addition from the original comic story, but did tie in neatly with the sci fi part of the episode. Daisy Haggard was again believably ordinary as Sophie, and it was fitting, if very schmaltzy, that the Doctor was the one who made these two ordinary people realise that they could be extraordinary, and that they belonged together.

Ultimately, though, while The Lodger was a nice bit of fun, it felt very insubstantial – as if there wasn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. As the ‘cheap’ story of the season, it did provide some worthwhile entertainment, but didn’t take the opportunity other such show have had to be wildly experimental with the format – just look at Love and Monsters, Blink, Midnight and Turn Left. A bit of fun, then, but not much more.

Still, with next week’s big finale approaching, we saw a few final clues about what’s going to happen – portents, even. For the second episode in a row we saw flashbacks of all the Doctor’s past selves – is that significant? There was a postcard of Van Gogh on the fridge, and aside from the entire episode about him, we’ve seen his pictures appear in this series before. And Amy’s Crack was back, a problem that could be far worse for Craig than the mysterious dry rot on his ceiling. What does it all mean? We’ve only two more weeks to find out…