Series 5, Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice

You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.”

You want vampires? Toby Whithouse can give you vampires. After his excellent Doctor Who debut, series 2’s School Reunion. Toby famously went on to create BBC3’s excellent Being Human, in which a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost share a house in Bristol. The Vampires of Venice has nothing like the depth of that series, but nonetheless Toby’s thoughtful writing style raised this a little above the fun romp that it basically was.

The actual concept of vampires in Venice is not new; there was a spurious sequel to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu called Vampire in Venice way back in 1987, and apparently there are actual historic myths about vampires in the Italian city state. But this had the inventive idea that the villains weren’t actually vampires at all – they were alien ‘fish people’, bad enough that they actually preferred to be thought of as vampires! It’s an inventive idea that also neatly sidesteps the need to tie these in with the other ‘vampires’ already in Doctor Who continuity, the Great Vampires seen in State of Decay and the Haemovores from The Curse of Fenric. These ‘vampires’ were creepily played and well-directed, especially the Calvieri girls who were, presumably intentionally, strongly reminiscent of every portrayal of Dracula’s ‘brides’. Joining in with the theme was Murray Gold, whose score was, in its low, mournful strings, inescapably reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s score for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

It’s a mark of the writing quality that the script wrongfoots you into thinking the villains are entirely without redeeming features. Certainly the sublimely creepy Francesco Calvieri comes across as a straightforward villain, but just as we think the same of his mother, she gives us an impassioned speech about trying to save her race from extinction. Certainly the end never justifies the means, but in the terms Signora Calvieri expresses – one city of 200,000 in exchange for an entire race – you can certainly see the temptation to think along those lines. The Calvieris were an engaging pair of opponents, and strikingly played by Helen McCrory and Alex Price – the latter being especially unnerving, like a young man who was heading towards being good looking and took a wrong turn towards ‘sinister’ at the last moment.

It was actually something of a relief that the ‘vampires’ of the title proved to be nothing of the sort, as the screens are becoming irritatingly crowded with bloodsuckers. As well as the aforementioned Being Human, there’s True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and teenage girl swoonfest the Twilight series to contend with. Vampires, in short, a re getting a little routine. So the fish people of Saturnine were overall a more inventive monster, used well in an appropriate and sumptuous historical setting.

Standing in for Venice, the Croatian town of Trogir was well used, particularly in street shots when we didn’t have to see a wide vista; the real Venice would presumably have been infinitely busier and too modern to portray its 16th century self. Less successful were the long shots of the city as a panorama, in which it was clear that the watery setting and attendant gondolas had been added by the Mill.

But the realisation of Venice in 1580 was there in the writing too. The Doctor’s wariness of the presence of Casanova, the use of the canals to infiltrate the Calvieri Academy, Rory’s pretence to be ‘”a gondola… driver” meant that it was more than just a gratuitous historical setting and actually instrumental to the story. As did the ultimate plans of Rosanna Calvieri; any city can be flooded, but only Venice can be sunk.

These short romps tend to have little time to develop supporting characters, so it was pleasing to see the depth given to even the minor players like Carlo the Steward. It was a nice little touch to show him fleeing the Academy with the silver as the catastrophe struck. But the main supporting characters were Isabella and Guido, and not only were they well developed, but another example of Toby Whithouse’s writing taking you by surprise. Given that the initial purpose behind investigating the Academy was to ‘rescue’ Isabella, it was a heck of a surprise that when they failed she was immediately fed to the fishes. It also perfectly set up both Guido’s explosive sacrifice and the Doctor’s moment of righteous anger for the week.

And I did like that moment of righteous anger. Matt Smith does fine when he’s shouting passionately as last week, but I much preferred the underplaying of his conversation with Rosanna Calvieri, as he condemned her for killing Isabella without even knowing her name. It was an affecting bit of writing, very well acted, that certainly beat the pants off Tennant’s “Nothing can stop me now” bit in The Idiot’s Lantern. Matt Smith, in fact was on very fine form this week, neatly mixing that kind of gravitas with a superb sense of comic timing. You’d have expected the pre-credits teaser to end with Francesco baring his vampire teeth; instead, we cut to the Doctor leaping out of a ‘stripper cake’ at Rory’s stag do. The Doctor’s baffled attempt to explain Amy’s attempt to jump his bones was a great comic moment, and well-served by the excellent dialogue given to all three leads this episode.

Yes, all three leads. Rory’s now officially part of the TARDIS crew, “my boys” as Amy affectionately calls them. And I thought Arthur Darvill was great as a well-written character. I did think there was a little too much use of him as, basically, the comic relief, such as the interview with the Calvieris and his attempt to fight off Francesco with a not very sturdy broom, but really, wasn’t that the most realistic portrayal of how any of us might act under the circumstances. I know we’d all like to think we’d be great heroes if the Doctor whisked us off into time and space, but I suspect I’d be far more like Rory: blundering, scared and completely out of my depth.

Which is not to say he was played as stupid, far from it. Aside from his buddy buddy byplay with the Doctor “Yours is bigger.” “Let’s not even go there…”, he got some of the more penetrating lines in the script, including the one quoted at the top of this review. I’m glad to have him around, and hope he carries on in the same way as he did in this episode.

And it’s clear now that Amy’s the one who wears the pants not only in that relationship but the one with the Doctor too. Karen Gillan was entertaining as she led the two ‘boys’ into the TARDIS, and throughout the episode. It was a typical but well-played bit of companion heroism for her to be the ‘mole’ inside the Academy, and thankfully this week she didn’t solve the crisis when the Doctor couldn’t: she still needed rescuing, and the Doctor and Rory were on hand to do it, bickering all the way.

And the script had one last ace to play that raised it above the level of a mere romp. The final scene between the Doctor and Rosanna, as she threw herself to her doom at the teeth of the last of her species, was an unexpectedly moving moment, and very well acted by both. There were more hints here than previously of what we know the Doctor’s been guilty of in the past, and Matt Smith’s face was a perfect picture of despair when Rosanna asked him if his conscience could bear the weight of one more dead race.

Ultimately, The Vampires of Venice is a romp, a filler episode, and should be compared to the likes of The Idiot’s Lantern, The Lazarus Experiment. But some great performances, sparkling dialogue and a bit of unexpected depth lift it above your average filler. It’s still not Genesis of the Daleks, but hey, what is? And the story arc was given little time this week, but what time it did get added another level of creepiness to the ‘crack in time’ concept. Now, it’s not only ‘the end of all things’, but ‘the Silence’. The same Silence that the TARDIS crew heard beginning to seep into 15th century Venice. And somehow, I find that even more chilling than the end of all things…

Downing Street… The Final Frontier…

So, on Thursday evening I and a group of friends bravely gathered to boldly go where several men have gone before: to stay up all night watching the election, with only the aid of enormous quantities of alcohol.

Election coverage is always fun, as attested to by the numerous parodies of it produced over the years. We watched some of these to get us in the mood. Monty Python’s Election Night Special was followed by Blackadder the Third’s opening ‘Pitt the Younger’ episode, and then some vintage Party Political Broadcasts. Notable was the Green Party one which seemed to consist solely of children being humiliated by having chemical waste dropped on them, the Conservative one which didn’t need words, just a montage of Maggie Thatcher being great to stirring music, and the Conservative ‘car metaphor’ one, in which every party was represented by a car. Labour were of course an old fashioned VdP Princess, the SDP/Liberal Alliance were (of course) a bubble car with two steering wheels, and the Tories somehow thought it would look good if they were an Austin Montego. Plainly they’d never driven one.

Then on to the real thing! It had the potential to be one of the most interesting elections in years, with the televised debates creating a swell of support for the Lib Dems and the other major parties heavily tainted by the expenses scandals, not to mention 13 years of discreditation preceded by 18 years of discreditation. I and most of my friends were voting Lib Dem, and while not expecting them to actually win were hoping for a big increase in their share of the popular vote, and perhaps their number of seats. My young boyfriend had even been out canvassing for them and manning the local polling station.

9pm: we switched to Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night, which promised a ‘night of comedy’ relating to all things electoral. Unfortunately it was primarily presented by the annoying Jimmy Carr, a man who by dint of his very personality can make a good joke unfunny. On the bright side, he was accompanied by the ever-witty David Mitchell, and for some reason Lauren Laverne was there, perhaps as eye candy. A few varyingly funny routines were followed by a politically themed Come Dine With Me, a show that I actually can’t stand in the first place. It was amusing to see Derek Hatton squaring up to Edwina Currie yet again whatever the context though, and Rod Liddle, doing his usual impression of a supremely pissed off bloodhound, was entertainingly rude. Only Brian Paddick, the appropriate Lib Dem  voice of reason, failed to make much of an impression.

But it was 9.55 pm now, and time for the real thing. Over to BBC One we went, expecting it to be the best of the channels covering events. Immediately David Dimbleby popped up, as reassuring as a comfortable old armchair, and a sense of security was generated. Dimbleby would never steer us wrong, and surely in his capable hands the election coverage would be masterful and insightful.

Ever since Bob McKenzie introduced the Swingometer, election pundits have been trying to top this fairly basic way of patronisingly explaining events to the clueless viewer, and the advent of CG has allowed for an increasingly barmy selection of ways to realise the political situation as a largely inappropriate visual metaphor. This has tended to give election coverage an increasingly sci fi feel as years went on, and 2010 didn’t disappoint here. As soon as we saw that Dimbleby and co seemed to be wandering around the Operations Centre of Deep Space Nine, it was clear that this was going to be Star Trek: The Political Coverage.

And so it proved. For the first few minutes, sub-Next Generation music played continuously as Dimbleby introduced us to the crew. We met the Away Teams, who would be dedicatedly stalking the party leaders all night. Andrew Marr was assigned to David Cameron, while John Simpson had beamed to a location near Gordon Brown, and Kirsty Wark was to be genetically handcuffed to Nick Clegg. In the Holodeck was Jeremy Vine, ready to generate computer images to explain everything. Standing ready to scientifically analyse the incoming results was Lt Cmdr Emily Maitlis, who had been equipped with a giant touch screen iPad to illustrate her points. This device, which made intrusive noises reminiscent of a Tivo whenever touched, was quickly dubbed the ‘iPlinth’ in our house, though variants such as ‘iBelisk’ cropped up on occasion.

In a ‘historic first’ Dimbleby then projected several giant phalluses onto the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. These were to represent how near to the ‘majority line’ each party got as the night progressed. We settled in, beer and nibbles easily to hand, as it all began.

At 10pm on the dot, exit poll results popped up on screen. All looked immediately grim (including us). A Hung Parliament? With the Tories in the lead, and the Lib Dems actually losing seats? Surely not. Notes of caution were immediately struck. “The real poll has yet to be revealed”. Sadly, the exit poll would turn out to be all too accurate.

Meanwhile, we cut to Andrew Neil, who, in a break from the Star Trek theme, was inexplicably hosting a showbiz party on a boat in the Thames, rather like the Sex Pistols famously did. Unfortunately for us, no police stormtroopers were on hand to break this party up, and we had to endure Neil soliciting the expert political opinions of the likes of Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins. All the celebs seemed somewhat baffled as to what they were actually doing there, and Brucie even went into his “nice to see you, to see you… nice” routine as a kind of default fallback. Copious amounts of alcohol seemed to be on hand, so that by the time Neil sought the astute political analysis of Bill Wyman, the erstwhile Rolling Stone seemed incapable of speech.

We’d cut back to Neil at various times throughout the night, but back at Deep Space Nine, the real analysis was happening as results started to come in. Houghton and Sunderland East, eager to retain their record as first to declare, had enlisted teams of toned teenage athletes to pass the ballot boxes in a relay, which went down well in our house. The first few results were unsurprising; Labour, Labour, Labour. Safe Labour seats always get results in quickly because of their urban nature, and we had to explain to our election newbie that this wasn’t the encouraging sign for Labour it might have seemed.

In the mezzanine, Chief of Security Jeremy Paxman was already on the attack. First to be grilled was the ever slimy Peter Mandelson. Paxman tried bravely, but trying to pin Mandelson down was like trying to get a chokehold on liquid shapeshifter Odo. He had better luck with Lib Dem Ed Davey, who was asked the supremely awkward question, “would you be prepared to get into bed with Peter Mandelson?”

In the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was striding over a giant map of Britain while summoning a huge vertical chart of each party’s ‘target constituencies’, complete with floating percentage indicators. It was already like being in a low rent version of Avatar, but Vine would get more bizarre as the night wore on.

Back in Operations, the ever reliable Nick Robinson was on hand for any required punditry. Given the already evident Star Trek motif, Nick was inescapably reminiscent of the Emergency Medical Hologram from Voyager: “Please state the nature of the political emergency.” There were signs early on that Nick’s excitement was interfering with his appropriateness gauges, as he began to talk of ‘”hot deals with the Ulster Unionists”.

We also saw signs of the other big story of the night beginning to emerge. It looked as though many potential voters hadn’t actually been able to get into polling stations. Some, particularly students, seemed to have been specifically excluded. Footage was shown of a bedraggled trail of voters trying in vain to vote in Nick Clegg’s constituency. “That’s the queue for a nightclub, surely?” exclaimed young James in our living room.

Back on Andrew Neil’s party boat, the political insight of Mariella Frostrup was being tapped. Mariella was worried; her concern was that “thoughts could be put into Gordon Brown’s hands”. Fortunately, a stunned looking Ian Hislop was also on hand, to ask an actually pertinent question: why, he wondered, were there no percentage breakdowns for the exit polls. Neil, apparently unprepared for a genuinely relevant question, was nonplussed. “Percentages won’t help you”, he snapped, and immediately buggered off, taking the camera with him.

The politicians fall like dominos! Back in the Holodeck, Jeremy Vine was explaining the effect of the expenses scandal with the metaphor of a giant CG domino chain in which every domino bore the face of a naughty politician. A tap of his finger and the virtual naughties fell in a nice pattern, littering the floor of Jeremy’s clean white void.

A quick glance at Twitter revealed that, apparently, no one was watching the ITV coverage. “Alastair Stewart could have just gone to bed” opined one Tweeter. Given the results we were now seeing, he actually would have been better off going to the pub.

It was indeed looking bad; looking, in fact, exactly as the exit polls had indicated. But there was still time for more pontificating. “George Osborne puts the ‘Shadow’ into ‘Shadow Chancellor’” commented one of us as the hapless Tory gloated all over the screen. Meanwhile, election expert Prof Peter Hennessy had been dragged out from a handy cupboard to explain hung Parliaments: “The Queen is only activated under certain circumstances”. This produced the immediate image of the monarch as Terminator like cyborg, waiting patiently in a lab until the ‘hung parliament’ switch was pressed.

Exciting results were coming in. Gordon Brown, predictably enough, won his Kirkcaldy seat, but all were more focussed on the weirdo candidate immediately behind him. Representing ‘Land is Power’, whatever that was, his bald, pallid, sunglass clad visage was inescapably reminiscent of one of the Agents from The Matrix, and his arm was fixed in an inexplicable Black Power salute as the results were read out. Meanwhile, David Cameron was opposed by no less a personage than Jesus Christ, at least according to his outfit and beard. It was a sad indicator of how the night would go that not even the Son of Man could defeat Cameron. Book of Revelations, anyone?

We all flagged as this wore on, hour after hour, and the exit polls more clearly became unpalatable reality. After a couple of hours doze at about 6am, it became clear that a Hung Parliament was indeed the result, and the TV coverage would run for at least another day. Dimbleby took a couple of hours off, but Paxman and Robinson continued unstoppably. Even Andrew Neil was continuing to irritate, having abandoned his drunken celebrity filled party boat for a scenic pagoda on Parliament Square.

Not even we could continue watching election coverage indefinitely, and at about 3pm we gave up and went to the pub. But not before all the party leaders  had shown up to make hotly anticipated statements. Predictably, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were seeking the support of the Lib Dems to make a workable government. Nick Clegg, to the irritation of many Lib Dem voters (myself included) stuck to his pre election guns of offering to cooperate with whoever had the most seats. It’s fair to say that a large proportion of Lib Dem voters find the Tory party and its policies hugely unpalatable, and despite his integrity I think Clegg risks losing a lot of his core support if he helps David Cameron out in any way at all. Sure it’s a compromise that might help some of their policies into reality, but  in my view, the price of also realising Tory policies is too high to pay.

But to return to the coverage, and we did from time to time, the result had rather tainted the TV experience (the most important aspect, surely?). An election without a clear result is like a sex act without a climax; it all seems to be building to something great that never happens. So we’re stuck with Dimbleby and co for days yet, probably, and an uncertain governmental future. In some ways, it’s interesting times politically, with no clear resolution in sight and little constitutional precedent. It’s also clear that some form of electoral reform is vital to avoid this result in future. The only question is, will we get reform before we get another General Election?

Series 5, Episode 5: Flesh and Stone

What if time could run out?”

The satisfying conclusion to the return of the Weeping Angels saw the titular villains collide head on with the real villain of this year’s story arc – the mysterious Crack in Time. It was another ‘cracking’ script from Steve Moffat, proving yet again that, unlike many Star Trek writers, he’s capable of writing a two parter where the second part lives up to the promise of the first.

Very much like its inspiration Aliens, the big reveal that the monsters were everywhere around our heroes was followed by a frantic, tense chase, in this case through the innards of the crashed Byzantium. More superb direction from the impressive Adam Smith ensured that this was a heart in mouth, action packed episode that, unlike many a Hollywood actioner, never lost the depth and emotional involvement developed in the first part.

Like a Hollywood actioner, it had some brilliant set pieces, and unlike the shoehorned in ‘Spitfires in space’ bit from Victory of the Daleks, these integrated with, and arose naturally from, the story – the hallmark of how a good set piece should work. We were into one from the very beginning, as the Angels gradually encroached on our heroes in the flickering light of the Byzantium’s entrance corridor, while the Doctor worked frantically to open the inner hatch. “Nobody panic… only me then.”

Undoubtedly the best set piece though, and the one destined to be remembered by loads of kids when they grow up, was the bit where Amy had to walk, eyes closed, through the Angel-infested forest, as the creatures slowly, creepily, came to life around her. Steve Moffat has, as the later Confidential showed, an incredible gift for portraying the archetypal nightmares of childhood, and this is one that would certainly have had the younger me waking up in the night thinking about it. I guess it’s the influence of his two young sons – and it’s Louis Moffat who we, reportedly, have to thank for this episode’s perfect, creepy title.

Action and suspense still mixed perfectly with character involvement, as we saw in the moment when Bishop Octavian was revealed with his throat in a near death grip from a frozen Angel. It was a perfect bit of misdirection in the script; just as the danger of the Crack had been revealed – “There’s worse than Angels out there!” – the Doctor turned to see the jump out of your seat image of Octavian with a ghastly Angel’s arm around his throat. “I beg to differ, sir”. The horror was mixed with real pathos, perfectly underplayed by both Matt Smith and Iain Glen. The tears in the Doctor’s eyes said it all as he turned away, leaving the Bishop to certain death. One thought occurs – did the whole ‘Church military’ idea stem from a character called ‘Bishop’ in Aliens? I wonder…

The forest was a good setting for the episode. Like last week’s caves, it’s a traditional scary Doctor Who archetype. Think of Planet of Evil, Kinda, The Mutants… well, maybe not the last one. But it was a splendid, and logical, touch to have it contained within the crashed ship, like the biodomes in Silent Running or the ‘ship’s garden’ in The Black Hole. The ‘tree-borgs’ were a nice science fiction idea in a story that, as usual for Moffat, was so brimming over with interesting concepts he could afford to chuck them out randomly without even paying much attention to them.

Amy’s ‘countdown’ was another chilling sequence where the viewer was allowed to see what was happening before the characters onscreen – although I suspect the Doctor picked up on it rather earlier than he revealed. Apart from the inherent scariness of the very idea – an Angel in Amy’s mind, rising from her visual cortex – it was yet another example of how chillingly malevolent these monsters are, as ‘Angel Bob’ revealed that they were using the countdown to scare her, “for fun, sir.” Brrrr.

With Amy so central to the peril of this episode, River Song seemed rather more sidelined than last week. But while not so integral to the action, she still got plenty of great character moments, even offering, against all logic, to sacrifice herself to seal the Crack. We know that she can’t, because her death later in her own time stream has already been shown, but she doesn’t. And we also got more hints as to her background, but, satisfyingly, no real answers. The hints add to the puzzle of who she’ll turn out to be, and Moffat has promised that she’ll return and they’ll pay off. But, increasingly, it’s looking like nothing so simple as her being the Doctor’s future wife. We now know that Octavian got her out of prison for the mission, and that she was there for killing “the best man I’ve ever known”, the obvious implication being that her younger self killed an older version of the Doctor. As much as anything, though, a hallmark of Moffat’s writing is misdirection, and such an obvious hint is unlikely to be the real answer. I look forward to her return – assuming the excellent Alex Kingston is available when necessary – and wonder whether, perhaps, it will be later this season…

And so to the real villain of the piece – the Crack in Time. So scary even the Angels run from it, it’s arguably undercutting the monsters’ menace to have them sidelined for a more nebulous threat. But again, it integrates perfectly with the story, and fits into the structure perfectly to provide its ultimate resolution. For the first time, the Doctor and Amy have become aware that it’s following them through time and space, and it’s become clear to them, as well as us, that it’s all about Amy. Somehow.

And is it scary? Well, it was deeply unsettling as cleric after cleric went off for a closer look and never returned, and we realised that those left had no memory of them ever having existed. Obviously, any sci fi fan had an instant grasp of what was happening – the crack erases its victims from history altogether. And that’s a damn scary idea, in my opinion. “I told them it was the end of the universe.” “And what is it?” “The end of the universe.” The Crack is obviously the key to why Amy doesn’t remember the Daleks, and it’s a better explanation than Donna Noble always having a hangover when aliens invade. But how far back is the new series erasing Doctor Who continuity? Obviously Russell’s increasingly spectacular alien invasions had left Who Earth increasingly divorced from the real one, and it’s a good idea to have the clock reset. But I’d hate to lose everything Russell established, and if the Crack erases back far enough, then maybe none of the show will ever have happened. Still, I have a complete trust in Steve Moffat to resolve the conundrum well, and I look forward to it. Though I do sort of hope it’s not all a big plot of the new Rainbow Daleks.

The Crack is also the key to the story’s resolution, and a neat one it is too; with the Angels having drained all the ship’s power, the gravity fails and they fall back into it, effectively sealing it. For now. But if that means these Angels never existed, surely there would have been no reason for the troops to be after that first one. Or for the Byzantium to have crashed on the planet in the first place. I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! But that’s time paradoxes for you, and Steve Moffat’s one of the only writers who successfully explores the potential of this aspect of the show. I did notice one odd thing, and it might have been a continuity error, or it might not; when the Doctor returns, improbably quickly, after leaving Amy in the Forest to give her a couple of words of comfort, he’s wearing his jacket. The one the Angels took from him earlier, which he isn’t seen wearing at any other subsequent time in the story. It’s something you can only just make out, as the shot’s in extreme close up on the Doctor’s face, but it’s there. A continuity error? Or is it another Doctor, perhaps from a later time stream? If it were anyone other than Steve Moffat overseeing the show, I’d put it down to a mistake and forget it. But it’s a hallmark of his attention to detail that it’s made me wonder. And that also makes me wonder about the other apparent ‘error’ we’ve seen – the commencement date on Rory’s NHS ID badge being 1990, when presumably he would have been about five. Another error? We saw it in extreme close up, so I have to wonder. And with the Crack playing havoc with time…

Matt Smith was the best he’s ever been in this story, complemented perfectly by Karen Gillan. The interplay when Amy was near death was excellent, with the Doctor pragmatically refusing to lie to her about her condition. He must have learnt his bedside manner form Gregory House! It’s yet another example of how this Doctor is perhaps slightly more alien than his predecessor, and when Amy finally decides she wants to jump his bones in the final scene, he takes an age to catch on and then fights her off, with a near comic outrage. Refreshing that he does that, and even more refreshing that Amy’s looking for nothing as long-term as a relationship. But he’s let off the hook – and instantly back to his in control self – when he realises that Amy’s wedding is the date from which the Crack originated. It certainly removes any doubt as to the time period of that first story – Amy’s wedding is due on the 26th of June 2010. And if eagle eyed viewers haven’t noticed, that’s also the very date on which the last episode will be transmitted! Oooh…

Series 5, Episode 4: The Time of Angels

Anybody in this room who isn’t scared is a moron.”

Caves! So many good Doctor Who stories feature caves. The Silurians, The Daleks, Earthshock, The Caves of Androzani, Underworld… Well, maybe not that last one.

Steve Moffat plainly knows this is a good ingredient, and has used it as the basis for a stunning return of the new series’ most memorable original monsters, those creepy Weeping Angels. Now facing the Doctor properly for the first time in a two parter that’s already shaping up to be excellent, they compete for fanboy heaven with the return of another classic Moffat creation, Dr River Song.

After a disappointing couple of episodes, it’s a relief to see that Moffat still knows how to make a great Who story. This time, he’s gone for the creepy, spooky style that he is probably best known for, and channelled another couple of classic ingredients – homaging/ripping off a classic story (in this case Aliens) and including the nasty idea that, against your will, you can be transformed into one of the monsters yourself.

In their debut story, the Weeping Angels were an unforgettably creepy creation, but they seemed too quirky an idea to become an ongoing monster. But the same could have been said of Alien, and taking that film’s sequel, Moffat has turned it into something very British and very Doctor Who.

From the pre credits teaser on, it was clear that this was going to be a good one. I never really pictured River Song as a kind of combination of Bernice Summerfield and Lara Croft, but this younger thrill seeking version of the character is, if anything, more charming than the more mature woman we met in Silence in the Library. The usual sparkling Moffat dialogue was present and correct, and Matt Smith had an immediate and electric chemistry with Alex Kingston, who was initially glammed up like Rita Hayworth. Their early scenes together crackled with the same kind of energy that Moffat always brought to romantic scenes in Press Gang, and as with that show, the actual ‘romance’ was never explicitly brought out. Is River the Doctor’s future wife? “Nothing so simple.” She’s certainly more than a match for him, effortlessly landing the TARDIS. “It only makes that noise because you leave the brakes on!”

She’s a great character, but at least part of that stems from the mystery surrounding her. We were offered some tantalising hints throughout the episode as to who she really was, with Bishop Octavian threatening what seemed to be a return to prison, but I actually hope we don’t get any answers. Whether she returns or not, the allure of the character is that hints about her are all we have, and it would be a shame to lose that mystery.

With Smith and Kingston chewing up the screen, it might have been a hard job for Karen Gillan’s Amy to get much of a look in, but the script actually gave her some of the best – and creepiest – sequences. The early scene with the Angel moving in, and then exiting from, River’s recording was masterfully played and directed (and an obvious steal from The Ring), and that was followed up by the increasing suggestions that Amy was turning into an Angel herself. Was it just an illusion that dust streamed from her eyes, as it was when her hand seemed to have turned to stone? I guess next week’s episode will tell, but it also led into the genuinely affecting and perfectly underplayed scene in which the Doctor refused to leave her.

Despite being in the first recording block of the series, Matt Smith’s performance here seemed far more assured than it has for the last couple of weeks, effortlessly combining authority and awkward comedy . “Environment check? Nice out.” I’m really liking his ‘young fogey’ approach to the part, with the Doctor often seeming like a sheltered young academic, yet full of enthusiasm for ‘keeping score’. I also love the way he tends to refer to Amy simply as ‘Pond’, just as a schoolmaster would – it’s nicely incongruous with his youthful appearance. If their relationship is going to develop into the sort of pseudo-romance we saw between Tennant and Piper, Steve Moffat’s handling it in a far more subtle way. Mind you, I could live without having the Doctor boast about how great he is for at least one episode!

Some surprisingly effective CG vistas of the ‘Maze of the Dead’ led into a genuinely unnerving and tight teatime horror story. The formless, almost melted statues in the Maze were, if anything, even creepier than the fully formed Angels, and it was a clever reveal when the Doctor started going on at length about the Maze’s original, two headed, builders. That was nicely written and played, and oddly reminiscent of that moment at the end of part three of Horror of Fang Rock when the Doctor realises he’s actually locked the monster in with the humans.

Of course, the previous methods of despatch employed by the Angels were not, in themselves, that scary. Yes, you’re displaced from your own time, but you don’t actually die. So this time around, they’re snapping people’s necks – far scarier – and there’s a good explanation for the change. This also gives rise to another mountingly creepy sequence in which the Doctor  is speaking to ‘sacred Bob’ over the radio – “I didn’t escape, sir. I died too.” The Angels now have a voice, and it’s a chillingly malevolent one, taunting the Doctor about the fear Bob felt when he died. That it’s delivered in the victim’s own voice is all the more disturbing.

All this skilfully written spookiness demands very good direction, and it’s got it from Adam Smith. With this and The Eleventh Hour under his belt, Smith is looking like a real find for the show, and I hope to see more of his episodes. A whole new team of directors for the new series was always going to be a risky gamble, but in Smith’s case at least it paid off.

Unlike last week, we also got supporting characters we actually cared about. Partly because it was a better structured script than Victory of the Daleks, but also, I think, because a two parter allows you more room to explore the little details and characters of a story. The militarised Church is a weird but enjoyable concept which definitely distinguishes this from American style military romps,and the characters are nicely detailed even when they only have a few lines. It’s a measure of how well this was done that it was actually a bit of a shock when Bob was killed – though I at least was hoping to see rather more of him. Glad to see pretty young men are still on the casting agenda even under the rule of ‘the straight one’.

Obviously, it’s hard to make an overall judgment on a two parter until the second part’s been aired, but the glimpses we saw of next week’s look promising, and Steve Moffat has a great track record in writing second parts that live up to the promise of the first. I’m glad to say that I’m back at the stage of breathlessly anticipating next week’s episode, with my enthusiasm for the new show undimmed by the previous two lacklustre episodes. I’m also glad to say that I watched it on BBC HD, which meant that unlike many BBC1 viewers, I didn’t have the last minute of the action ruined for me by an animated Graham Norton exhorting me to watch yet another overhyped talent show! Roll on next week, and for heaven’s sake BBC Presentation, have a little respect!

Series 5, Episode 3: Victory of the Daleks

I am your sol-dier!”

There used to be a running gag in Family Guy in which Peter’s latest antics would destroy the front of his neighbour Cleveland’s house. Cleveland would be revealed, lying in his bath as it slowly slid down the now tilting floor to deposit him naked on his lawn. As this happened, Cleveland would always say, “No. No, no, no, no NO!”

I mention this because this was more or less the reaction I had during the last half of this unfortunately insubstantial episode. Don’t get me wrong, it started well. I thought the basic premise – Daleks in World War 2 pretending to be our allies – had so much potential, and for the first ten minutes it seemed to be realising that. Then they revealed themselves, teleported back to their ship, and we were watching something altogether different, and far less interesting.

That first ten minutes was very obviously indebted to the classic 1966 story Power of the Daleks, in which a group of damaged Daleks pretend to befriend the inhabitants of a human colony world in order to rebuild their resources. It even cleverly revisited the well-remembered line from that story, “I am your ser-vant.” There was a lot to like in taking this basic premise and transposing it to the Second World War – since Daleks are obviously Nazis, an interesting variety of themes could be developed. I liked the images of them painted military drab with blackout covers on their lights, trundling around the War Rooms carrying box files and offering people tea. It did seem curiously apposite – the Daleks are as much a British icon as the Blitz, and they fitted together curiously well.

The setting was well-realised, with a convincing vista of the wartorn London skyline and all the little details in Churchill’s HQ like bakelite phones and old-fashioned light switches. I loved the faux-period propaganda poster showing the Dalek as Britain’s new secret weapon.

I could have lived with the transformation into a different story entirely rather better if a little more time had been devoted to this intriguing scenario. A longer running time might have helped. The trouble was, once the Doctor arrived and started hitting them with a spanner, they blew their cover almost immediately, when it felt like the suspense of the idea was barely beginning to be established. And when they teleported back to their ship, not only was the suspense blown but we were into a different style of story. The trouble seemed to be that Mark Gatiss was trying to do two different things: a war movie and a Dalek relaunch. And he didn’t seem to know how to fit the two together properly.

I’ve honestly liked all of Mark’s previous work on the show, even his performance in the otherwise lacklustre Lazarus Experiment, but this was far from his best. The story structure was all over the place, with climaxes seeming to pop up at random just when they didn’t belong there, like the Daleks’ big reveal so early or the Earth’s salvation being followed by lots of lengthy discussion and sentiment. True to form, he shoehorned in some amusing references for people: 633 Squadron was mentioned, and I genuinely chuckled at the line “Broadsword calling Danny Boy”, best remembered as Richard Burton’s gruff catchphrase in Where Eagles Dare. The usual Quatermass reference was dutifully present as one of the WAFs was called Breen, presumably named after Quatermass and the Pit’s Colonel Breen.

But Breen was a good example of where the story fell down. She had a couple of lines early in the episode about her boyfriend being in the RAF, but we barely got to know her as a character, much less care about her. And then we were expected to be moved when she tearfully discovered that he’d been killed over the Channel. In fact, there were pretty much no developed characters on the Earth side of the action, with the exception of Bracewell and Churchill.

Winston Spencer Churchill was nicely incarnated by Ian McNeice, an actor I very much like who’s played him before on stage. The archive footage shown on Confidential demonstrated that the real man was considerably slimmer than McNeice’s barrage balloon figure, but that’s a minor quibble.  The real problem was that Gatiss seemed so much in awe of this larger than life historical figure that he had trouble writing him any distinctive dialogue. “Keep buggering on” was nice, but other than that it was a curiously flatly written role. And considering that the man famously spent most of the war drunk, it was odd not to at least see him with a glass of whisky at some point.

Bracewell, by contrast, was almost overwritten. Bill Paterson, a great actor who should have been on Who before now, did his best with the part, but it was a kind of overwrought combination of the Tin Man, Pinocchio, and most obviously Lieutenant Commander Data. When Churchill asked him, “I don’t care if you’re a machine – are you a man?”, I half expected him to respond with, “I am fully functional… programmed in multiple techniques…”

Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor was a little over mannered here; his delivery of the lines in the laboratory confrontation with the Daleks came across as forced and rather peculiar. I like the approach he’s taking to the character, but he seems at this point to have not quite settled down in quite how stylised he wants his acting to be. Mind you, I did love the bit with the Jammie Dodger – a perfect ruse for this new Doctor, and comedically played to perfection as he confronted the new Daleks.

Ah, the new Daleks. That’s going to cause ructions in online fandom. Not even John Nathan-Turner dared to mess with the design of the series biggest icon. In one way, I salute Steven Moffat for doing something so incredibly brave; he obviously really wants to stamp his mark on the series and what better way than with such a radical change? (Though the cynic in me did envision Character Options’ Managing Director rubbing his hands with glee at the opportunity to sell a whole new range of toys).

A lot of parallels have been drawn with the new, gaudily coloured Daleks. The colours are very obviously drawn from the two Peter Cushing films, but I’ve already heard them compared to iPods, Smarties and the Power Rangers. For me, though, the inescapable similarity was with the revolting range of colours offered by British Leyland in the late 70s. As the new Daleks impressively lined up in front of the ‘Progenitor’ I kept picturing them as Austin Allegros.

ado67index_11  new Daleks

They’re as chubby as Allegros too. While there have been minor tweaks to the Dalek design over the years, nobody’s ever felt the need to change the basic proportions of Ray Cusick’s iconic original design. I seem to recall even Russell T Davies saying that the original was so perfect there was no need to change it. I don’t mind their elevated base sections – though in another 70s parallel they uncannily remind me of platform shoes. But I frowned at their bulging mid sections, which looked very much like the middle aged spread of a habitual beer drinker, and wasn’t too sure what to make of them apparently now being hunchbacks. And what was that peculiar thing in their backs that looked like a giant scart socket?

But my reaction is that of the hardened fanboy, and we don’t make up the vast majority of the show’s audience. Another fanboy friend of mine has already told me that his children love the new Daleks. I think they’ll ultimately be accepted by the fans, but it’s going to be a hard job getting used to them. Plus, the obvious expense of the new props does lead me to the conclusion that they’re yet again going to be at the centre of the season finale, a gambit which is already tired.

Still, they were always going to be a divisive point in the episode, but it had many other flaws too. The Daleks’ plot doesn’t actually make a lot of sense – they needed the Doctor, so pretended to be Churchill’s friends because they somehow knew that Churchill had a magic phone line to the TARDIS? And the Progenitor doesn’t recognise them as ‘pure’ Daleks? If these are the last survivors of the fleet from Journey’s End, they’re cloned from Davros himself – how much purer can you get? Why does the progenitor redesign their casings? For that matter, since it’s explicitly stated that it contains DNA, why does it give them casings at all? Surely there should have just been some helpless Kaled mutants wriggling around on the floor.

The ‘Spitfires in space’ was a fun set piece, but that was the trouble with it. It was, as Mark Gatiss explicitly stated, something Steve Moffat thought was cool and then had to be shoehorned into the story somehow, which was the very mentality I used to criticise Russell for. Plus. it’s been done before by Who’s greatest rival, albeit in a slightly inverted form. The opening story to season four of Enterprise contained the memorable sequence of the titular starship being chased through the skyline of 1940s New York chased by laser-equipped Messerschmitts. And, Dalek technology or not, it seemed massively implausible that the British could equip and launch the planes in the stated ten minutes they had before the Luftwaffe entered London airspace. For that matter, how were their propellors driving them through space? There might have been air inside the ‘gravity bubbles’ but all that would do would crash the plane into the side of it. And if the propellors weren’t driving them, why have them turned on?

That’s quibbling, I know, but there’s a bit of real criticism there. Increasingly, the new series is using the ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ argument to get away with, effectively, using magic to get out of tight corners. That strikes me as lazy scriptwriting, in much the same way as the 70s over reliance on K9 and the sonic screwdriver as an instant solution to any problem.

And as for talking Bracewell out of blowing himself up, what on Earth was all that about? It might have helped if the Doctor had said something about the android being able to override the detonation if it just had the motivation, but that was left very unclear. On the plus side, I liked the cutaway to Amy’s reaction when he talked about the death of his parents – very nicely played by Karen Gillan. On the negative side, it seems to be increasingly becoming a pattern that Amy has to leap in and save the day just when the Doctor fails. I hope we’re not going to see a revival of the Eccleston episodes, where the solution almost always came from Rose.

Ultimately, this was a forgettable comic romp in the style of a war movie, though the plot would have worked equally well (or badly) in a contemporary setting. The main reason I found it such a disappointment is that the premise had so much potential to be both deeper and more exciting, and it almost seemed to be ditched in favour of a big relaunch for the series most iconic villains. Against that, there was probably no real point at trying for depth. In the end, I didn’t enjoy it because I saw it a wasted opportunity, though my young boyfriend has made the point that I probably shouldn’t have expected Power of the Daleks Mark2.

Still, the story arc is looking more and more intriguing. So Amy doesn’t remember the multiple Dalek invasions of recent history? Have the mysterious cracks erased the last four series (and specials)? Torchwood and Sarah Jane are in trouble if they have…

Series 5, Episode 2: The Beast Below

"We all depend on the beast below.”

So after spending most of the first episode introducing the new Doctor, Steven Moffat this week gave us an episode which had more of a plot. It felt like a fairly slim plot, though, and as some have noticed was basically the same plot as Encounter at Farpoint, the dreary intro to Star Trek: TNG.

It’s a measure of quite how good last week’s episode was that I found this one somehow disappointing, but it’s not really fair to say there was anything particularly wrong with it; if anything, to consider The Beast Below as not that great is a reflection on the high expectations we’ve been given by five years of mostly very good stuff. As with the first season of the new revival, the episodes seem to be put in the order they are to firstly show the new Doctor dealing with a threat on contemporary Earth, then in space in the far future, then in Earth’s past. Consequently, this had the feel of a retread of The End of the World, but in keeping with Steve Moffat’s writing, it was much, much darker.

It’s the little details of this story that really make it. The observation of Britain reflected in Starship UK was intentionally idealised; it’s fun to imagine a 30th century where British identity boils down to a hackneyed, rundown version of the 1950s. Nice to see a sign for Magpie Electrical, and noticeable that the Starship UK logo displayed on screens was obviously based on the old BBC one. The ‘Vator’ with its London Underground logo, was very much the same kind of lift that takes you down to Covent Garden tube station, and the ‘London market’ was so obviously out of Eastenders that it even had a Queen Victoria pub!

As the Doctor very precisely pointed out early on, this was obviously a police state with a dark secret, and the real driving force of the plot was to find out what that secret was. The Smilers, clockwork enforcers for the State, were a typically memorable Moffat creation. Even in ‘smiling’ mode, confined in their fairground booths, they looked very sinister – it might actually have been even better if they hadn’t had an ‘angry’ face, and had shown their displeasure in some more literal way while still wearing that blank smile. The ability to somehow have three faces despite only appearing to have two was never remarked on, but their scariness was somehow undercut by never having any idea of what they might actually do; the shock moment when we see them get out of their booths certainly makes you go ‘Whoa!’, but then a moment’s thought reveals that they don’t appear to be armed in any way. All they do is menacingly walk forward until someone shoots them. Nice to have them apparently run by clockwork though, in a presumed nod to Moffat’s previous clockwork droids in The Girl in the Fireplace.

Appositely enough for an episode that went out in the week a general election was announced, there were some amusingly blatant political jokes contained therein. The voting booths, where every five years the citizens are told the truth then choose to forget, was obviously a sly dig at the political system, and Liz10 was a brilliantly conceived character – “I’m the bloody Queen, mate”. Hard to know what would shock the Daily Mail more – the idea that the Queen was black, or that she speaks like Captain Jack Sparrow. Sophie Okonedo, clearly knowing she had a terrific role, overplayed it to perfection. Less well used was Terrence Hardiman, who doesn’t seem to have aged since The Demon Headmaster – maybe he really is a demon. His Chief Cleric was clearly the real power in Starship UK, but didn’t really get much to say or do, which is a shame as his few brief appearances were very bit as charismatic as his evil teacher of some years ago.

This was also our first real chance to see the new Doctor and the new companion properly in action. Matt Smith’s performance seemed oddly different than last week – presumably a consequence of shooting the episodes out of order. He was no less engaging though; his fussily precise, slightly stuffy diction were very reminiscent of Patrick Troughton, and his almost mannered physicality is a clear evolution of the previous week’s. And he does righteous anger every bit as well as David Tennant. I don’t know whether this was one of the eariler episodes shot, but it very much showed his stated intent of playing the Doctor as an older man in a young body. Not that I’m complaining, it worked very well – and it’s a rather nice younger body too! And he’s still slyly evasive with Amy, as his avoidance of answering her question about him being a parent showed.

Amy was not so easy to get, though. Karen Gillan is certainly very attractive – for those who fancy girls anyway – and it was a brave decision to have her spend the entire episode in a baggy nightdress rather than the microscopic skirt she wore last week. But I’m still unsure if she matches up to Catherine Tate in the companion stakes. It’s entirely fitting that she’s the one who sees the real solution to the thorny moral problem the Doctor’s ultimately faced with, as it shows that he still needs a human perspective, and the continuing mystery about her upcoming wedding is obviously going to be a major plot point. Steve Moffat has pre-empted jokesters by saying that he doesn’t have a ‘Scottish Agenda’, but with the quips about Scotland wanting their own ship following last week’s exploration of Scottish frying, one has to wonder…

But what about the children? (As the Daily Mail might say). Children were the major plot point in this episode, from the little boy disappearing down below in the pre-credits sequence to the little girl who ultimately helped the Doctor and Amy solve the mystery. It smacked somewhat of a sentimentality that I’ve not previously seen Mr Moffat display for the space whale to have wanted to save Earth because it couldn’t bear to see children crying. Though frankly, it must have been a bloody good-natured space whale to still want to help after hundreds of years of torture. I’m pretty sure my reaction under the circumstances would have been to say “bloody sod you then” and leave the UK to rot. Amy’s faith in its good nature was, with this in mind, one heck of a gamble.

It also disappointingly relieved the Doctor of having to make a decision on the moral dilemma he was presented with. It was a good one, too; either leave millions of people to die in space or destroy the mind of a beautiful and unique creature. It’s been a trademark of the series for years , the idea that a new Doctor gets presented with a moral dilemma to solve, and it seems like cheating a little to cut the Gordian knot with a sword. Still, I note from the trailer that at some point we’re going to see him actually using a gun, so maybe he’ll start doing the dirty deeds himself this year.

The ending, with Churchill randomly able to call the Doctor on the new TARDIS phone, felt a little tacked on to give us a teaser of next weeks Dalek appearance, but was well handled for that. Ian McNeice is clearly great casting as Churchill, and having the Dalek appear as just a shadow in his office was nicely foreboding. Mind you, I’m not sure what to make of the idea that great historical leaders can simply call the Doctor for help whenever they need to. Perhaps Gordon Brown will be on the blower to him soon, to ask for help dealing with the menace of David Cameron.

So after a storming season opener, this one seemed rather low key, but there was still plenty to enjoy. Some clever design, great dialogue and performances, and some lovely CG of Starship UK in space. I notice it’s got another one of those cracks in the universe in it though; I know it’s a little early to speculate, but I wonder if it was there before the Doctor showed up?

Series 5, Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour

Hello, I’m the Doctor. And basically… Run.”

So, after months of unrevealing trails, the new era is on us. The Moffat years! The first change of showrunner since Russell T Davies brought back the show we love and turned it into a juggernaut of ratings success. With so much riding on it, it was probably the most important episode since Rose opened the new series in 2005. A new Doctor. A new companion. Even a new TARDIS. Would the viewers be able to cope with so much change? What will we do without David Tennant?!

Reactions to The Eleventh Hour seem to be universally favourable, and with good reason. As the best writer of ‘The RTD years’ and a lifelong fan, Steven Moffat has an instinctive understanding of how to make the show work, and almost all his decisions here were spot on. The episode had superb pacing, a suitably spooky monster, and excellent dialogue to introduce a very well-cast new Doctor.

Matt Smith logically carried the lion’s share of the episode, since the plot had to somewhat come second to the idea of introducing the new Doctor. And he grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime with both hands, clearly relishing the part. The first quarter or so of the episode does little more than introduce him, but with his verve and enthusiasm eating up the screen, it’s never dull. And speaking of eating, the ‘my favourite food’ sequence was genius – showing the newly regenerated Time Lord at his most engaging and childlike. With an actual child to sound off against, he exhibited a rather Tom Baker-like combination of childishness and grown up cynicism – “You’re Scottish, fry something", being an unlikely thing for a child to say.

The dialogue, as I’ve come to expect from Steven Moffat since Press Gang, sparkled on the screen (well, it wasn’t actually visible, but you know the metaphor).

“You know when grown ups tell you everything’s going to be fine, and you think they’re lying?”

“Yeah?”

(smiles) “Everything’s going to be fine.”

Matt Smith’s Doctor, as the episode progresses, is clearly reset from David Tennant’s latter ‘weight of the universe on my shoulders’ persona, as he should be. He crackles with the joie de vivre of someone simultaneously grown up and newly born, and puts a physicality into the part that seems very new; he clearly thinks hard about how his movements affect the performance. Thus, he progresses from flailing uncoordinatedly about at the outset to purposefully striding and pirouetting around as he grows more comfortable with his new form. By the end of the story, he’s plainly settled down into his new persona completely, and something about it seems, despite his outward zaniness, a little bit darker than we’re used to. There’s a hint, just a hint, that he’s not telling Amy the whole truth as to why he wants her to travel with him – that enthusiasm seems for a moment a bit darker, shifty, almost evasive. I like that. Despite his bounce, this Doctor has a core of steel.

And what of Amy Pond, new travelling companion? Moffat’s given her an instant depth that previous companions have never had, by cleverly writing the Doctor into her life in sporadic instances from her childhood. I don’t know whether she’s going to carry on the previous trend of having a near-romantic relationship with the Doctor, but she’s already obsessed with him as the ‘imaginary friend’ of her childhood. So obsessed, in fact, that she’s willing to duck out of her wedding at a moment’s notice to travel with him – she can’t have believed, given her previous experience of the Doctor, that he actually would be able to get her back in time for it.

In fact, the whole idea of her having the Doctor as a childhood imaginary friend is typically clever in a number of ways. How many old-school fans – I’m betting including Steve Moffat – spent their childhoods dreaming of the TARDIS, ready to leap off into time and space as soon as the opportunity presented? And how many children of today feel the same way?

Of course, this being a Moffat script, there were moments of humour that were aimed more squarely at adults than kids (though kids often understand a lot more of that sort of thing than we give them credit for). Amy’s occupation as a ‘kissogram’ (surely ‘strippogram’ in earlier drafts of the script) gave rise to some saucy gags along the way, notably with the ever excellent Annette Crosbie – “I thought you were a nun?” “I dabble.” Not to mention tacit acknowledgment of what all young men with laptops in their bedrooms are inevitably looking at; although I’d have sworn that, given the look of Jeff, the Doctor would have been more likely to admonish him to “get a boyfriend” rather than a girlfriend. Even Patrick Moore got in on the flirting – “Doctor, who was your lady friend?”

Prisoner Zero was a typically scary Moffat creation, its mouthful of pointy teeth looking particularly scary in the face of Peep Show’s Olivia Colman. As with previous Moffat episodes, the ordinary and mundane was given a twist to give kids the same sort of nightmares that I had during the Philip Hinchcliffe era. How many kids now look with dread at the cracks in their walls? And after his terrifying depictions of statues and shadows, too! Moffat has a gift at pitching the scary factor at just the right level, which I think bodes very well for the forthcoming series.

But it wasn’t just a new Doctor and a new companion. We also got a new TARDIS, and even a new sonic screwdriver! Steve Moffat has publicly said that anyone who pitches him an idea solely for merchandising purposes would be thrown out of his office; nonetheless, I think there’s going to be a lot of those new screwdrivers sold this year. I’ve got mine already.

As for the new TARDIS, it’s a thing of beauty. The script has openly acknowledged now that it has more rooms than just the Console Room, and what we’ve seen so far shows that very well. The console’s in a nice separate area with a glass floor, and has itself been redesigned to reflect the new Doctor’s rather wackier persona. The controls now include a pair of bath taps and an old Olympia typewriter, and the whole thing has an overall cleaner look which no longer reflects its past as a relic of the Time War. The exterior regenerated too, with a new door sign, new window frames and even a new key – a standard Yale item this time, but seemingly unnecessary as the Doctor can now open the doors with a click of his fingers. Best of all, just audible in the Console Room is what I think of as the ‘proper’ TARDIS sound effect, the one I grew up hearing in the 70s and 80s.

Unlike Rose, the series is now so established that it can more openly acknowledge having some forty seven years of history behind it, too. So we got a marvellous moment of seeing all ten previous Doctors from the point of view of giant eyeball the Atraxi, culminating in that superb moment when Matt Smith stepped through their final projection of David Tennant to declare , “Hello, I’m The Doctor. And basically… Run.” Undoubtedly the crowd pleasing moment of the script, met with rounds of applause in the pub where I was watching it.

So, an almost perfect start to a new era and a new Doctor. The ‘almost’ part, for me and a few others, is the anaemic and lacklustre new interpretation of the theme music. Murray Gold, having got it pretty much right from the outset, has never been able to resist tinkering with the arrangement, and for me has now taken that rather too far. There’s so little of the original tune overtly left in it, particularly in the end credits, that it’s very disappointing. Even accepting that, it really lacks punch compared to the previous versions of the last five years, seeming almost too light and fluffy. That’s a shame, because it’s coupled with a lovely new opening sequence which is very reminiscent of the classic 70s  ‘time tunnel’ effect, and has a great moment where the centre of the new logo turns into the TARDIS and spins off into the distance. The only thing which could make it better would be the inclusion of Matt Smith’s face, but that might be too retro for some. Still we’re obviously stuck with this version of the theme tune for this year, though for once I actually really hope Murray will rearrange it for next year.

As for the rest of the series, it looks every bit as good if not better. There’s obviously a story ‘arc’ (I still prefer the term ‘storyline’ myself, but I know that’s rather old-hat). Prisoner Zero dropped some very heavy hints about ‘the cracks in the universe’ and the Doctor’s apparently surprising ignorance of their cause; also something about how ‘silence will fall’ when ‘the Pandoracle is opened’. Oooh, interesting. And it’s all to come, in a series that promises us vampires in Venice, Daleks in World War 2, injured Cybermen and much, much more. I’m so breathless with anticipation, it’s like being a kid again, waiting for that final part of the exciting adventure you’ve been watching for weeks. I can hardly wait! David who?