Doctor Who Special Number 3: The Waters of Mars

“The Laws of Time are mine. And they will obey me!”

Now that was good. I was rather disappointed with the previous two specials; The Next Doctor, once one got past the striking images of Cybermen in Victorian London, had a flimsy and predictable plot, and Planet of the Dead seemed an empty, overambitious romp with some gaping plot holes.

Waters of Mars, conversely, may be one of Russell T Davies’ best scripts ever. Shorn of his desire to play to the crowds by having Cybermen fight Daleks, or having a reunion of every companion since 2005, he turned out an economical, chilling script that worked on several different levels.

First, and most obviously, it was an effective little horror story, playing on some of Who’s staple strengths. A relentless, thoroughly alien adversary that takes over and changes your very body is straight out of Philip Hinchcliffe’s darker stories – The Ark in Space being the prime example. And the ‘base under siege’ scenario is a formula that’s worked in any number of Who stories – not to mention classic horror films like Night of the Living Dead and most of the work of John Carpenter. Indeed, there were scenes reminiscent of a number of horror films. The basic premise is not dissimilar to Carpenter’s far inferior Ghosts of Mars, and the bit when Roman was infected by a single drop of water recalled nothing so much as Brendan Gleeson’s infection with a single drop of blood in 28 Days Later. Ratcheting up the tension with his customary expertise was the reliably superb Graeme Harper, who could show John Carpenter a thing or two about direction these days.

The possessing aliens were genuinely imaginative and unnerving. The possibility of running water on the surface of Mars has a plausible scientific background, and the possessed humans, bodies shedding a horrifying amount of water, were just scary enough for a show on at 7 in the evening. Like Russell’s other horror classic Midnight, their nature and motivations were left deliberately unclear, and were more disturbing for it. All we got were disquietingly ominous hints, with the viewer’s imagination left to fill in the rest.

At the other end of the scale from ‘scary’, I was a little dubious about the inclusion of an intentionally ‘cute’ robot. Not that I have anything against cute robots per se – as a Star Wars fan that would make me something of a hypocrite. But it did seem that Russell was trying to have his cake and eat it by both including a cute robot and having the Doctor make contemptuous remarks about cute robots. Still, younger kids will probably love it, as will the merchandise manufacturers. For me, I found the robot’s operator, young Roman, far more cute.

So, on one level, Waters of Mars was very much a thrilling, family friendly slice of horror in the style of old school Who. If it had had a decent budget and more convincing effects. But what definitely wasn’t old school – and will, I suspect, be the part that excites and divides the fans – was the parallel thread exploring how the Doctor squares his increasingly omnipotent power with a sense of morality.

This is what made the episode truly dark, and made it one of the most audacious scripts Russell has written. The Doctor’s a difficult character to deconstruct, as ultimately he’s the hero of the show and necessarily its moral compass. To show him as both fallible morally and arrogant to boot is nearly unprecedented.

I say ‘nearly’, because the show has touched on the idea before. In the very first story, William Hartnell seemed prepared to bash in a caveman’s head  to help himself escape. Patrick Troughton’s deliberate misdirection of the archaeological team in Tomb of the Cybermen always struck me as a bit suspect, too. He plainly knew what was down there; if he wanted to avoid bloodshed why not just tell people? Then we saw Jon Pertwee confronting his own ingrained prejudice towards the Ice Warriors in The Curse of Peladon. And most famously, Tom Baker agonised over the decision of whether or not to commit genocide against his deadliest enemies in Genesis of the Daleks – a moral debate slightly undercut in light of the knowledge that Sylvester McCoy will later blithely blow up the Daleks’ entire planet.

But this is undoubtedly the most overt use of the idea as a central plot thread. We’ve known about ‘fixed points in history’ almost since the beginning, of course – witness the First Doctor telling Barbara “you can’t rewrite history; not one line!” in 1964’s The Aztecs. And last year we had the point underlined in The Fires of Pompeii, which also clarified that,as a Time Lord, the Doctor did have the power to do so. It’s an interesting, and consistent approach to show that there are points in our subjective future that are just as fixed.

Simply by having the ability to travel in time and alter such fixed points, the Doctor has power not far removed from that of a god. And the only check on that power – his own people – is long since gone.

It is, of course, with the best of intentions that the Doctor chooses to exercise that power – you know what they say about the road to hell and its construction methods. That point is neatly underlined as we see him grimly walking away from the base listening to its crew members die one by one. When he finally snaps and decides to act from the heart rather than the head, it’s a neat reversal of the ruthless morality often displayed by the Seventh Doctor – this is a man who wants to save individuals even at the expense of the bigger picture.

And, of course, he’s wrong. More wrong than he’s ever been before, in a dark turn that could only really be pulled off with a character so strongly established. As he piles transgression on transgression, at best he seems arrogant and hubristic; at worst he seems simply mad.

David Tennant perhaps chose to overplay the ‘close to madness’ feel of the dialogue in the scenes set at the base, but the later scene outside the TARDIS on Earth was played to perfection. The Doctor is all haughty arrogance, convinced of his moral superiority in his actions.

And as in The Runaway Bride, it takes a mere human to show him he’s wrong. Lindsay Duncan’s quiet, dignified performance in that scene with the Doctor was masterful, and the way Tennant just crumpled when he realised she had shouldered the responsibility that should have been his by ending her own life was heartbreaking.

This moral complexity and fallibility makes Waters of Mars the most interesting look at the Doctor yet, and undoubtedly one of Russell T Davies’ finest scripts. There were many other excellent aspects in an all-round excellent production, but this was the core of it for me.

“The Time Lord victorious… is wrong.”

A Question of Freedom

So Nick Griffin has finally ‘graced’ Question Time with his presence. And guess what? We didn’t turn into the Third Reich overnight!

I’m being flippant, I know, but I was firmly on the BBC’s side in the recent furore over the BNP leader’s appearance. Yes, I find his politics – and his party – repugnant, but like it or not, he’s an elected representative, and in a democracy is therefore entitled to a say. To effectively censor him would be to stoop to the very tactics that he himself might espouse.

Not that people didn’t try. Inevitably, a large group of well-meaning – but in my view rather naïve – anti-fascist protestors were firmly camped outside the gates of Television Centre, blithely oblivious to the fact that their very presence was ensuring far more media coverage than Mr Griffin might otherwise have enjoyed. Having to be sneaked into the studio past an angry mob also lent him an unfortunate air of martyrdom, and lent unwelcome credibility to his claims of being demonised.

Obviously not at all enjoying the free publicity for what was rapidly turning into a media circus, BBC News sent an intrepid reporter the several hundred yards outside the building to talk to the protestors. “Freedom of speech has its limits,” an earnest young man declared to camera with a breathtaking lack of irony. He followed that up by actually saying that giving Griffin airtime would allow him to eventually censor freedom of speech.

Undizzied by this circular argument, our brave correspondent then talked to a similarly earnest young woman. “Would the BBC have allowed Hitler on the air a couple of years before the Second World War?” she asked, instantly evoking Godwin’s Law. Actually, yes, they probably would, and with good reason. As leader of an increasingly (and unpleasantly) influential nation, the BBC would have been lacking in principle to not have him on a forum such as Question Time, had one existed in 1937. Precisely because we don’t live in a totalitarian state, men like Hitler (and Nick Griffin) can and should be publicly called to account for their beliefs and actions.

Later, some more of the earnest young people broke into the Television Centre, thereby affording the news cameras some less than dignified footage of them being dragged out through reception shouting “Shame on you BBC!” By this time, Sky News and even CNN were giving the events live coverage, though I failed to check on Fox News to see what the ever-charming Glenn Beck might have made of it.

So, what could have been a mildly contentious event giving a right wing buffoon a little airtime to metaphorically hang himself turned into an international news event that ensured Nick Griffin is now hot news in several continents. Well done, those protestors, thank goodness you showed up to stop him getting publicity.

I’m not against the idea of opposing fascism, don’t get me wrong. But the cornerstone of opposing Nazi-style fascism is to maintain freedom, and when anyone – especially an elected representative of the people – is refused his say, you’ve instantly lost the moral high ground. And it also occurs to me that it’s tremendously patronising of the protestors to assume that the viewing public need protecting from a man like Griffin. It proceeds from the view that everyone watching is a brainless sheep who might be swayed to vote BNP just by seeing the man. For heaven’s sake, people, credit the British population with a little more intelligence than that!

Eventually, though, we actually got to see Griffin in action. No denying it, he’s smoother than your old-fashioned NF boot boy (which of course he used to be). Like David Cameron, he’s trying to copy Tony Blair in reinventing both himself and his party.

But once the questions got underway, the smooth veneer began to crack. Even having presumably prepared himself for the questions he would face – and they were predictable enough- his well-rehearsed patter began to seem more and more like an ant under a big magnifying glass.

He could plainly cope with Jack Straw’s contempt, but seemed rather less equipped to deal with the wrath of Dimbleby. Mercilessly interrupting him at well-judged points, David got him to unknowingly let slip a few howlers. Commenting on his well-publicised meeting with David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, he first contended that the Klan (or possibly Duke himself) were ‘non-violent’, then followed this up literally seconds later by saying he was there to try and subvert Duke’s message. What, the message about ‘non-violence’?

Plenty more flat out falsehoods were obviously exposed as the debate continued. Griffin floundered on the topic of his previous Holocaust denial, lamely commenting, “I can’t explain why I used to say the things I used to say” – hardly glowing rhetoric.

He was as mealy-mouthed as ever on the subject of race, effectively avoiding the issue every time it was addressed by bandying about the now familiar euphemisms about ‘indigenous populations’, which was effectively rubbished by Jack Straw. For a man so avowedly anti-Europe, Griffin was on shaky ground referring to the ‘indigenous’ people of a nation that’s been variously colonised by the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans, to name but a few.

Predictably enough, it wasn’t so much Question Time as the Nick Griffin show, but for the most part was effective in revealing him to be the thoroughly unpleasant and slimy piece of work we knew him to be. And it was always going to do that, which is one reason why having him on the show was a rather good idea.

Even so, a couple of opportunities were missed. Part of the problem with spending the whole show focussing on contentious issues we know about the BNP is that no time was left over to ask them about issues they probably haven’t even thought about. I would have loved to have seen Griffin flounder when asked about his party’s economic policies, or what he would do to reduce the national debt.

So, was it, in the end a show full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Ultimately, no. Griffin was given enough rope to hang himself, which he effectively did, and it seems unlikely that such a lacklustre, uncharismatic performance will gain the BNP any new support. BBC Director General Mark Thompson was absolutely right – and I’ll grudgingly admit, a tad courageous – to allow the show to go ahead despite the storm of protest. Far from ‘shame on the BBC’, it made me feel a little bit proud of them. Well, not proud enough to forgive them for Help, I’m as Fat as My Dog, but freedom of broadcasting has its limits;)

Series 4, Episode 4: The Sontaran Stratagem

“This is your final destination.”

OK, as usual of late a rather drunken weekend prevented me reviewing this on Sunday! Now I sit here with a stinking cold, and the muse is on me yet again.

“Is that how you spell ‘stratagem’?” asked my boyfriend as the title appeared. Yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s how you define one. The return of the Sontarans in a story Russell had defined as “military” got off to a low key start as apparently an episode of Torchwood with a lethal satnav system that can apparently take over your car and kill you. It seems churlish to quibble in a show that features a time travelling alien and a race of cloned militarists, but how exactly did it control purely mechanical bits like the gearstick and the handbrake? And the name “Atmospheric Omission System” seemed to be a misspelling of “emission”, though I suppose it did cause the “omission” of certain gasses from the exhaust. My guess is that they just wanted a snappy acronym, though.

In keeping with the story’s military flavour, it generally felt like it had strayed from an early Jon Pertwee season, with all the shallow action and gunplay that entails. It was nice to see UNIT back again properly, though the insistence that it now stands for “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” was immediately undermined by references to it having a remit from the UN. In light of recent history though, it’s just as well the connection with the UN was played down; else we might have seen a years long story in which weapons inspectors were sent to disarm the Sontarans while Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart composed strongly worded letters to them.

In light of his rather advanced age, it’s understandable that Nick Courtney wasn’t back as the Brig, though it’s a shame some advisory role couldn’t have been found for him. Rupert Holliday-Evans’ Colonel Mace seems a rather hollow replacement, just like all those interchangeable COs we saw whenever Courtney wasn’t available in the Tom Baker era. Still, he seems to be developing a good rapport with David Tennant’s Doctor, who seems unusually antagonistic towards an organisation he used to work for. Pertwee’s occasional spat with the Brig was nothing on Tennant’s cold contempt of anyone who carries a gun to keep the peace – a viewpoint that seems idealistic but rather naive for a man who happily manipulated the Daleks into blowing up their entire solar system.

The fanboys were kept happy with some nice continuity references that, as usual, were kept discreetly away from alienating the casual viewer. Best of these by far was the Doctor’s assertion that he used to work for UNIT “back in the 70s… or was it the 80s?”, nicely ripping the piss out of those fans with a pedantic obsession for noting the contradictions in dating UNIT stories.

Also in keeping with the classic Pertwee stories was the “stratagem” of keeping the bad guys hidden for the most part. Initially (if we hadn’t seen the somewhat spoilery title) we might have been looking at the creepy public school of Luke Rattigan as the villains. Reminiscent of 70s kids’ drama Codename Icarus, a public school seems a great place for a villain to hide in plain sight. Rattigan himself was a great character, a spoiled teenage genius whose decision to become a quisling seemed perfectly understandable given his attitude to the rest of humanity. It also helped that actor Ryan Sampson is rather easy on the eye! The scene with the Doctor correcting his grammar and his peevish attempt to do the same back was brilliantly played by Sampson and Tennant, with the even prettier Christian Cooke standing pointlessly around in the background as Private Jenkins. I hope he gets more to do in the next part, though the apparent requirement that most episodes should have at least one really pretty young man in them can be very distracting!

Eventually though, the true villains had to be revealed, and rather less than amazingly, it was the Sontarans. Now I have to be honest here and say I’ve never really understood why they were so popular. As militarist allegories go, both the Daleks and the Cybermen do it better, not to mention the Klingons. The Sontarans aren’t especially interesting to look at, and with the exception of their debut story The Time Warrior they’ve never really been involved in any of the show’s most interesting plots.

So it’s probably no fault of writer Helen Raynor that I was still unimpressed with them here. The rather cartoony design of their armoured spacesuits didn’t help; why are they suddenly bright blue? And while the make up was undeniably impressive, Christopher Ryan’s performance as General Staal seemed somewhat less so. Ramming the miltary allegory home with a sledgehammer, he delivered lines that put a soldierly connotation onto everything. Obvious though that was, it wouldn’t have been so bad if his voice hadn’t instantly called to mind Mike from The Young Ones. Still, in his favour, at least he isn’t a cockney Sontaran like Derek Deadman in The Invasion of Time.

The one thing the script did best concerning the Sontarans was to include their skill at cloning as part of the plot. We’ve always known that they reproduced this way, and it seems odd that this aspect of their technical skill was never really exploited in the classic series. Mind you, if all they’re doing is creating emotionless replicas of senior government and military figures I shall be very disappointed. At least, though, they’ve given us evil Martha.

Ah, Martha. Having spent most of last year failing to convince as a doctor, she now gets the chance to fail to convince as a soldier. The scenes of her barking orders at a troop of UNIT soldiers seemed rather forced, though to be fair, she played it brilliantly when she met Donna. In a nicely written scene overturning expectations formed by School Reunion, present and former companions didn’t fight. Instead they teamed up to laugh at the Doctor’s expense. Nicely done, Miss Raynor!

With first Martha then evil Martha taking up a lot of screen time, Donna seemed to have less to do this week than usual. It was, however, perfectly in keeping with her character that her office knowhow solved more mysteries than UNIT’s military might. And after her one to one with Martha, she got that cracking scene when she seemed to be leaving the Doctor, ony for him to open his hear to her before realising his mistake. Given my dislike of Catherine Tate as a comedienne, it’s telling that I’ve really warmed to her in Doctor Who; she’s a breath of fresh air in this era of companions who have to be consumed with sexual tension for the ascetic Time Lord.

And her family are less irritating than the last couple too. Granted, her mum is a paragon of the kind of middle class snobbery incarnated by Hyacinth Bucket, but her Grandad is Bernard Cribbins! It was great to see him back, and the scene where everyone realises they’ve already met was a corker, played to perfection by all concerned. Fitting then that the cliffhanger is nicely personalised by Grandad being stuck in a car filling with poisonous gas.

Less terrifying was the Sontarans prebattle stomping ritual, which gave you more the impression that they were about to embark on a game of rugby. But overall, a cliffhanger that works reasonably well, as the Earth’s atmosphere is choked with concentrated exhaust emissions. A message here, do you think? Shame UNIT didn’t bring Bessie back with them to undermine that.

The Sontaran Stratagem was generally, a fun but shallow romp. Its roots lie very much in the early Pertwee UNIT era, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of the early 70s. But we’re not in the early 70s any more. Let’s hope The Poison Sky has a bit more substance to it. Somehow, I rather doubt it though.

Series 4, Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

“The circle must be broken!”

It’s a planet. It’s where the Ood come from. Yessir, this episode certainly does what it says on the tin. But under the expert direction of Graeme Harper, it did so much more. The script, by newcomer Keith Temple, was actually rather a mixed bag, with moments of profundity balanced out by somewhat clumsy messages about slavery and greed, but the sci-fi concepts explored were truly imaginative.

Last time we saw the Ood, they weren’t much more than a cipher, an impressive looking bunch of aliens without much in the way of background. But they plainly made an impression, especially to those of us dedicated to the worship of Dr John Zoidberg. An episode with the spag bol faced creations was an inevitability, but who would have expected it to be so deep? It seemed uncharacteristic the last time we saw them for the Doctor to be so uncaring about what was obviously a race of slaves, but then he had other things on his mind, what with the Devil coming back and all. Clearly there was unfinished business, and as befits an alien so … alien-looking as the Ood, we had a glimpse into a truly weird life form.

The concept of the Ood having multiple brains, one of which was some sort of centralised hive-mind, was intriguing, although perhaps a little above the heads of some of the show’s younger viewers. But it gave the script the right kind of moral outrage when we realised that one of those brains was ripped away to be replaced with the translator that was a symbol of servitude. Shame, then, that the giant “central” brain was about as convincing as something from a 1959 Ed Wood movie. In fact, visually it looked like nothing so much as the even more giant brain in naff Blake’s 7 episode Ultraworld, proof if proof be need be that hi-tech CG can look just as ropey as good old miniatures.

Donna got to display some fine moral chops again in this episode, albeit with the irritating “Why do you call me miss, do I look single?” line to remind us that we’re watching Catherine Tate. Only three episodes in, and she’s displaying the kind of self-righteous rectitude that Tegan always had. And I’m rather enjoying that. Her compassion towards the Ood was somehow more convincing than I would have expected from Martha or Rose, but then maybe it’s the shock of the new. Or the refreshing change of a companion who doesn’t spend every couple of minutes gazing wistfully at the Doctor.

With the moral focus squarely on Donna, the Doctor’s function this week was mainly to explain the plot. Which occasionally got a little lost in the melee of concepts and subtexts. Still, David Tennant had a whale of a time running around being chased by a giant claw, all the while managing to keep his improbably styled hair immaculate. And he got that marvellous continuity nod to The Sensorites, neatly explaining the Ood’s slight resemblance to that noble race who can’t tell each other apart. So Ood Sphere is twin to Sense Sphere? That makes… sense.

Nice, too, to see Tim McInnerny, who’s developed a neat line in barking bad guys since his turn as Oliver Mace in Spooks. But even he couldn’t make much more than a cipher out of the character of Mr Halpen, who wasn’t well-drawn enough to be truly believable. Doctor Who is swarming with unscrupulous businessmen out to make a profit from the suffering of others, and Halpen was less compelling than the likes of Stevens in The Green Death or Morgus in The Caves of Androzani. His vanity about his hair loss was the only real humanising aspect to him, and McInnerney played that well, but like many a fine actor he descended into ham when confronted with the blunt edges of the script. And it has to be said, his final transformation into an Ood, while it made perfect sense dramatically, seemed a little too much like magic given what had gone before.

The sledgehammer message that slavery isn’t very nice would have seemed too obvious, but the writer counterbalanced it nicely with his comparison of the Ood to contemporary sweatshop workers. And the most sinister thing about the Ood since their first appearance was the way they seemed to like being slaves. The marketing exhibition was a nice touch, with the PR woman the most easily identifiable-with character in it. Would we stand up to injustice at the price of our cushy, high-paying jobs?

The real star, though, apart from Graeme Harper’s masterly direction, was Murray Gold’s music. Perilously skirting the border with schmaltz in the same way as Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands, Murray gave us some moments of genuine beauty, fitting for a story in which the aliens were bound up with song. The scene in which the Doctor grants Donna the ability to hear the Ood’s song was a little masterpiece, played to perfection by Tennant and Tate and made haunting by Murray’s music. The score for this should be the highlight of the series four CD when it comes out.

Overall, Planet of the Ood was more reminiscent of old Who than we’ve seen recently. It had a sledgehammer political message delivered by ciphers and a denouement hinging on a giant, unconvincing brain. And yet it also had moments of astounding beauty and profundity, and some nice foreshadowing of events. Why must the Doctor’s song end? Oh, and what has happened to the bees? Hmmm…

Series 4, Episode 2 : The Fires of Pompeii

“Thank you, household gods.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME…

“Planet of the Ood” was intriguing…

McInnerny’s potential for ham…

Graeme Harper, just, wow!

Series 4, Episode 1: Partners in Crime

“The fat just walks away!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiss Kiss Gang Bang – Torchwood is back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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