Series 6, Episode 5: The Rebel Flesh

“You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?”

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OK – a slightly less “rapturous” review this week. (Note to future self – there was a big deal about a Californian televangelist nutter predicting the Rapture on Saturday – it didn’t happen, hence still being here to write this). Maybe I was still reeling from how much I loved last week’s episode, maybe it’s because I was stuck watching it on a tiny 4:3 TV in a dull hotel for work, maybe it’s because writer Matthew Graham’s last Who story, Fear Her, was less than impressive. But I didn’t find this as great as I know a lot of other fans did.

Not that it was in any way bad, mind – in fact, this was waaay better than the aforementioned Fear Her, in which the awestruck voice of Huw Edwards caused stomachs to turn with his depiction of the Olympic flame – “it’s a flame of hope now, of love…” And with his other writer’s hat on, Matthew Graham seriously impressed me with his cop/time travel crossovers, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. The Rebel Flesh wasn’t as good as those, but it was miles ahead of Fear Her. And yet, it left me curiously unmoved.

In the spirit of positivity caused by the apocalypse fail, let’s start with what was good. To begin with, this was very much a trad Who story in the mould of the Troughton ‘base under siege’ staples – an isolated scientific installation where things go wrong, help is not forthcoming, and the Doctor and co can’t just leave. Actually, that latter point has been an impressive factor in recent episodes. Like the 60s stories, you can’t just yell at the screen, “get in the TARDIS and leave then!”, because the TARDIS has been removed/destroyed/possessed, or in this case, buried in an acid-corroded hole.

Unfortunately, that does bring me to the first of my negative points. This is indeed an impressively realised future installation, a 13th century monastery used to mine acid. But I don’t recall there being any explanation of why 22nd century Earth would particularly want acid. It’s plainly important, hence the urgency over getting the operation up and running again, but why? Either an important bit of exposition was buried under Murray Gold’s music, or some useful lines from an earlier draft were deleted and not replaced. For that matter, how can you mine acid? I know I’m no scientist, so I may be talking through my hat here, but my hazy memories of O level science don’t include vast untapped pools of subterranean corrosives.  For a start, wouldn’t they end up corroding their way to the depths of the planet before losing their potency? And while I’m on the subject, what the heck is a “solar tsunami”?

Still, nobody’s ever accused Doctor Who of being scientifically accurate. However much that niggled at me, it did make for an impressively dangerous scenario, and an island surrounded by acid instantly called to mind 1964 story The Keys of Marinus. Which made me realise I was thinking too much.

But some thought was definitely required. The central thrust of the plot is not a new idea – we’ve created artificial life, and we’re using it to do the dirty jobs, and it may, or may not, be conscious of its own existence/purpose/duplication. These themes are familiar from Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner and any number of Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison stories. But familiarity doesn’t dull their potency – these are big philosophical concepts, and exactly the sort of thing science fiction is good at dealing with.

And to give Graham his due, the script is dealing with them well. The artificial Flesh, and the (doppel)Gangers are a well-realised concept, given some interesting dialogue about the nature of identity when they separate from their human progenitors. A good cast helps – it was nice to see Marshall Lancaster from Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, again giving his patented Manchester everybloke (though why were the acid mine’s crew all Northern? Just so the Doctor could get that rather forced “Ee by gum” gag?). And I’m always glad to see Raquel Cassidy, who I’ve liked since her stint in Teachers, and it was amusing to think that she was being reunited with her Parliamentary researcher from Party Animals – one Matt Smith. But this time, he was in charge!

So, a good concept, a good cast, and some interesting philosophical dialogue – always a Doctor Who strength. Why, then, wasn’t it more engaging for me?

Mainly, I think, it was the plotting. Given the concept, there were no surprises here. It was obvious that the Flesh would become an independent life form. It was obvious that we’d be wondering which version of the characters was real (“Kill us both, Spock!”). And it was obvious, as in similar stories where the ‘monsters’ are just misunderstood (I’m looking at you, every Silurian story), that one of the human characters would, through fear and ignorance, instigate an avoidable conflict.

Some strong direction almost avoided the predictability – this was done very tensely, and even when a plot point was obvious, as with Jennifer’s toilet transformation, it was handled well. Julian Simpson pulled a lot of tricks out of the bag, despite an apparently meagre budget, to make this very suspenseful; the split screen work was impressive, and the Gangers’ make up interestingly scary for the tots. But ultimately, the predictability of the plotting was never going to be something you could hide. That said, it addressed the same plot miles better than Chris Chibnall’s disappointing Silurian two parter last year.

The regulars were as good as ever though. I’m really loving the dynamic of the three person TARDIS team this year, it’s so refreshing after RTD’s determined ‘one Doctor, one companion who fancies him’ staple. There’s obviously something being set up with Amy and Rory; the emphasis on their nice, loving relationship in previous episodes seems to be setting them up for a fall. And we may be seeing the genesis of that here, as Rory gets to play the hero searching for Jennifer – someone he seems to have fallen for in both human and Ganger form. It’s nice to see Amy looking discomfited that, for once, she’s not the dominant one in the relationship; and Karen Gillan has played that rather well.

Arc watch – apart from establishing that our heroes like Muse (Supermassive Black Hole is one of my favourites too), the Doctor is still puzzling over Schrodinger’s baby, and Eyepatch Lady makes another brief appearance. The Ganger Doctor could, of course, be the one we saw killed in the first episode – but that’s far, far too obvious, I think. Some have theorised that the frequent deaths of Rory (none this week, amazingly) are the Universe’s way of compensating for the fact that he should be dead, and Amy brought him back. So if he’s the father, his position in space/time is far from secure, hence the ‘positive/negative’ pregnancy indecision. Incidentally, that medical scanner in the console seems a little convenient – it could have come in useful in any number of disease oriented stories, notably The Invisible Enemy. Perhaps the Doctor didn’t want to reveal that he’d been peeking inside his companions’ bodies…

So, some interesting ideas but, for me, a formulaic and predictable plot. Far from a bad episode though, and as the first of a two-parter, much hinges on the conclusion. What are these mysterious hints the Doctor has been dropping regarding his knowledge of the Flesh as “primitive technology”? And will we find out more about the implications an intelligent, self-aware slave race could have for this future society? Next week’s conclusion could raise this from being an interesting idea with dull execution into something rather more. Here’s hoping…

Series 6, Episode 3: Curse of the Black Spot

“Yo ho ho! … Or does nobody actually say that?”

Aarrgh!

Sometimes, my brain hurts from trying to analyse the complexity of Steven Moffat’s Chinese puzzle plots. So after all the twisty turny plot arc stuff of the last two episodes, it was almost a relief to get back to a straightforward, standalone adventure. And with pirates! I love pirates, although I know from some friends’ reactions to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that this isn’t a universal feeling. Still, with a fourth Jack Sparrow adventure due to be released in a fortnight or so, this episode was nothing if not timely.

At any rate, Doctor Who has done pirates before, but not since 1966’s The Smugglers. In some ways, that was a more trad take on the whole Robert Louis Stevenson staple, with “Aaarr!” accents and all. This was actually rather lighter on Errol Flynn heroics than I might have expected, though Amy at least got to brandish a cutlass and swing across the deck by a handy bit of rigging. Amusingly, she also found time to put on the requisite frock coat and tricorn hat before rushing to her men’s rescue – the situation was clearly not so urgent to prevent her “dressing for the occasion”.

This was fairly lightweight stuff, though by no means unenjoyable. Hugh Bonneville impressed as Captain Avery, making the most of a role that was formed more from a brief character sketch than anything else: former naval officer, likes gold, turned pirate unbeknownst to his family. To be honest, he was really the only guest character with any sort of personality, as the rest of the crew were simply stock pirates, few of them even graced with such luxuries as names. But fair’s fair, this was a 45 minute adventure story, and the kind of character development given to the lowly bilgerats on Jack Sparrow’s ship needs a bit more time than that.

Nonetheless, the crew gave their all with what little they had to work with, responding to the demands of the plot more than anything else. So we had the cowardly one, the loyal one, the treacherous one etc, all familiar archetypes from pirate tales of yore. Particularly notable was Lee Ross as the ship’s boatswain (he wasn’t given a name either) – I always liked Ross as Kenny in Moffat’s Press Gang, and he doesn’t pop up enough on telly. The last thing I seem to recall him doing was a nifty turn as Gene Hunt’s nemesis in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

It was nice to see the Doctor guessing at what was going on, and consistently being wrong – “Ignore all my previous theories!” – somewhat in the style of Dr Gregory House with his several incorrect diagnoses before reaching the right one. There’s been rather too much of the Doctor being omniscient since the series returned, and I like to be reminded that he’s fallible – though preferably not by committing genocide as he did last week. Matt Smith gave his customary well-studied performance, playing with a lighter script than we had last week which gave him some great lines (though I’m not sure “Urgh, alien bogeys!” is going to go down as one of the show’s classic quotes).

Karen Gillan got some meaty stuff too, with the aforementioned swashbuckling nicely handed to the girl rather than either of the men. She also got some really touching moments with Rory, which continue to really solidify their relationship – it’s hard to see the situation in the TARDIS as so much of a love triangle this year. Arthur Darvill too was marvellous, though he did spend most of the episode being utilised basically as comic relief. Still, I can’t say I was entirely displeased to see him shirtless, even if this did involve him dying yet again! While the recreation of the bit from The Abyss where Ed Harris brings back Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was a nice scene, given Rory’s many previous deaths I never believed for a second that he was gone for good this time. As my friend Richard commented on his recent blog post, Mr Moffat’s trend of killing off major characters only for timey wimey wizardry to bring them back has rather cheapened the idea of death in Doctor Who.

A relief it was then, that the scary ‘siren’ wasn’t actually killing people after all – though I twigged that after she got the little boy, finding it unlikely that this show would kill off a child quite so freely. She was, basically, an alien version of Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, shaped (presumably from the sailors’ minds) into an object from a classic sailor’s ghost story. The idea that she could appear from any reflective surface was a nice gimmick, though backed up with the kind of technobabble that would make a Star Trek writer blush. At least the Doctor had the disclaimer, “It’s not really like that at all”.

And the spaceship coexisting in the same time and space as the pirates’ vessel is a nice sci fi idea, but as old as the hills. Doctor Who itself has done it several times, notably with the Megara ship in The Stones of Blood and the two ships stuck through each other in Nightmare of Eden.

Ultimately though, this wasn’t an episode about big sci fi concepts – it was meant to be a rollicking adventure with pirates. On that level it largely succeeded, though I could have done with seeing some actual piracy, or at least the ship soaring along in the daylight. Those are quibbles really though – Curse of the Black Spot succeeded perfectly well on its own terms. It looked good, filmed on an actual sailing ship, had some fun moments, good dialogue, and fun if improbable resolution that the ship’s crew will now become… wait for it… The Space Pirates!

Next week – Ood! With green eyes!

Series 6, Episode 1: The Impossible Astronaut

“A lot more happened in 1969 than anyone remembers. Human Beings. I thought I’d never get done saving you.”

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So, a two parter to open the season, for the first time since Doctor Who returned. With that, a mid season break and a one part finale, Steven Moffat seems to be introducing some much needed variation into the increasingly formulaic structure of Doctor Who seasons. I think that’s a very good thing, as I don’t like knowing what to expect – but it does come with the risk that, as a setup for a second part, the season opener might not be as gripping as in previous years.

And was that the case? Actually, I don’t think so. Certainly The Impossible Astronaut set up many questions without answering them, but that’s the nature of a first episode. Nonetheless, this was gripping, atmospheric stuff, helped to achieve an epic feel by the advantage of some expensive (looking) US locations. And it started with a bang, with the much hyped spoiler about the death of a main character resolved in the first ten minutes. That, more than any other element of this first part, set up the biggest question to be resolved in the second part – if indeed it is. I have the feeling that a lot of the issues set up in this season opener are going to play out over the season as a whole, rather than being sorted out next Saturday.

The answer to the much hyped spoiler/poser about which main character was going to die was a genuine surprise. I’d inferred that it couldn’t be River, as we’ve seen her die already later in her timestream, but it could be either Amy or Rory, with most people’s bets being on Rory. However, with Arthur Darvill’s name now in the opening credits (excellent), this seemed unlikely.

Such was my uncertainty as the Doctor was shot by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit, I actually wondered if the production team had pulled off a major coup and sprung a surprise regeneration on us! I had conflicting feelings about that for a second, until the Doctor was, actually, shot dead. A Doctor, we later discovered, who was from some 200 years into his own future.

Yet again, then, it seems Steve Moffat is going to take us on a ride through ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff’. The Doctor seems decisively dead, but in his current body. Since I can’t imagine that the BBC want to rule out the possibility of any more Doctors after this one, there’s going to have to be a very clever way out of that. After the last couple of years, I trust Steve to be clever enough to make this work, but it might cause a few ructions among those who already feel his plotting is a little… overcomplicated.

That aside though, what of the episode itself? From the outset, it seemed to be taking a different style than last year’s deliberate ‘fairy tale’ approach. We were into dark territory here, reminiscent in many ways of the better years of The X Files. The director obviously picked up this feel from the script, giving a very X Files visual feel to the story – aside from the epic Monument Valley locations, we saw the American corridors of power, spinning tape reels, and most notably, a creepy deserted building with our heroes using flashlights to penetrate the darkness.

There were plenty of memorable images too. The Apollo astronaut rising improbably from a Utah lake was unsettling, if surprisingly reminiscent of the similarly suited and armed Kraal androids from the mostly awful Android Invasion of 1975. But the most disturbing –and X Files like – image was of the new monsters, the Silents (or is it ‘Silence’?). Obviously tied into last year’s unresolved master baddy in some way, they were very creepy to look at, combining the Men in Black suits with a shrivelled, skull-like take on the classic alien ‘grey’ frequently reported in the close encounters that formed the backbone of The X Files.

And the concept that, as soon as you look away from them, you forget they’re there is an inventive twist on the perception-influenced Weeping Angels, another Moffat creation. The scene in the White House restroom as an innocent bystander was wiped out by one (“her name was Joy”) was deliciously creepy as she kept forgetting it was there the instant she turned away – until it vapourised her. Mind you, I suspect the White House cleaning staff may wonder what those peculiar bits are all over the floor…

Ah yes, the White House. The Oval Office set was superb, every bit up to the standard set by shows like The West Wing. I was fairly surprised to learn, from Confidential, that it was built especially for the show – it seemed so good that I had assumed it was a standing set used by various productions. But no, although it seems odd that no such standing set exists. I know there’s one for the House of Commons, I went there once!

Mention of the White House brings me to the guest cast. Since it has returned, one of the standard tropes of Doctor Who has been the episode eulogising a significant historical figure – Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchill, Van Gogh and so on. Richard Nixon is rather harder to eulogise, history having a fairly uniform perception of him as the bad guy. The Doctor did at least mention that he’d done things other than Vietnam and Watergate, at least. Stuart Milligan did a passable imitation of ‘Tricky Dicky’ from under more mounds of latex than Anthony Hopkins had to endure when playing America’s least loved President.

But the story’s not really ‘about’ Nixon. In fact, thus far there is only one fleshed out guest character, but he’s a doozy – the cynical hard bitten former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III. It’s almost a stereotypical role – with shades of The X Files again- but Moffat’s script and particularly Mark Sheppard’s performance bring it to life. Sheppard’s a bit of a genre legend, what with his appearances in Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and, yes, The X Files. I did wonder about the logic of bringing a British actor, based in LA, over to Wales to play an American – but it was great to finally see him in Doctor Who, so I could hardly quibble. And as if that wasn’t enough, we got the added bonus of his father, the legendary Morgan Sheppard, playing the character in old age. I loved his line – “I won’t be seeing you again. But you’ll see me.”

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Mark Sheppard in Firefly, and Morgan Sheppard in Max Headroom

The dialogue in general had that flair of wit we expect from Moffat, who knows very well how to strike the balance between humour and chills in Doctor Who. Matt Smith was given some marvellous lines, which on a second viewing complement his actually distinct performances as the older and younger Doctors. The older was still somewhat playful – “ I thought wine would taste more like the gums” – but has an almost resigned, doomy air to him. By contrast, the younger one has all of the manic energy we’re sued to, bumping into the invisible TARDIS and memorably referring to River as ‘Mrs Robinson’. (“I hate you.” “No you don’t.”)

The relationship between the Doctor and his companions is now very strained by the secret they have to keep – the secret that they’re all there because of his death. That’s going to have an interesting effect on the drama from hereon in, depending on when he gets to find out. And find out he obviously will, as when he confronted the ‘astronaut’ he was obviously expecting what happened.

So, questions, questions, questions. Who was in the spacesuit that killed the Doctor? Could it be River, who hinted last year that her prison sentence was for killing a much-loved man? Could it be the Doctor himself? And who is River? Since Amy’s pregnant, could she be Amy’s daughter, adrift in time? Or perhaps even Romana in a future incarnation? Knowing Steve Moffat, the answers won’t be nearly so obvious.

Overall then, a good, atmospheric season opener, with a nicely dark new tone along with the customary wit and humour. The involvement of BBC America doesn’t seem to have diluted the show’s Britishness – in fact I wondered how American audiences would take to the Doctor’s assertion that two of the Founding Fathers had fancied him!  A pretty good ep – though not as good as last year’s earth-shaking Eleventh Hour – but hard to really say how good until we’ve seen the conclusion. Decisive opinion next week…

“My Sarah Jane Smith.”

There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith, The Monster of Peladon

I don’t usually blog about TV deaths, real or fictional. For example, the recent demise of Being Human’s Mitchell (fictional), while it made me shed a tear, didn’t move me to jot anything down. And even the sad loss of all round gentleman and paragon of Englishness Nicholas Courtney (real) didn’t provoke an outpouring of writing. But the news last night of the shocking, unexpected death of Elisabeth Sladen, Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith, has surprised me by how much it’s affected me. And to judge from Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, I’m far from the only one. I’ve seen tributes from sources as varied as Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker and NME.

I’m not one of those fanboys who invests so much emotionally in their favoured shows that the characters, and the actors who play them, seem closer than real life friends. But one of the most common phrases that’s been cropping up in tributes to Lis Sladen is that, “a little piece of my childhood died today”. For me and anyone of my age, that’s by far the best way of putting it. And the thing about Lis, and the character she created, is that she was a link to that childhood, who was still enthralling the children of today – and I’ve no doubt they’ll be as upset as the rest of us. Because she almost seemed to have never changed, I think we thought she’d be around forever.

Elisabeth was a jobbing actress with a solid CV of character parts when she was recommended to Doctor Who producer Barry Letts by Z Cars producer Ron Craddock. Letts was trying to cast a new companion to replace the phenomenally popular Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and by all accounts she hugely impressed both Letts and Jon Pertwee. As Sarah Jane Smith, a ‘liberated woman’ and journalist, she was meant to be a break from the Who tradition of ‘companion screams/twists ankle/needs to be rescued twice an episode’.

Of course, like other similar attempts, this initial character brief soon slid into the standard Who companion template. It used to be typical that a companion would only be clearly defined as a personality in their first and last stories, the rest of the time reduced to something of a cipher. Lis was once quoted as saying, "Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, ‘Yes Doctor, no Doctor’, and you had to flesh your character out in your mind — because if you didn’t, no one else would."

And she did, taking the standard “What’s going on, Doctor?” type of scripts and investing them with a belief in the character as she saw it. And that’s when the five-year-old me made her acquaintance.

It’s true to say that her time in the classic series is something of a golden age. Most notably, the three seasons she did with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and star Tom Baker cemented her in my, and everybody’s, mind as the archetypal Who companion. That run included stories renowned as all time classics – Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, and many more. Tom Baker hadn’t yet slipped into self parody and was a warm, commanding and humourous presence as the Doctor, and the shows were just scary enough to thrill little boys like me.

And, it seems, Russell T Davies. Russell and I are of a similar age, as are most of the fans who were instrumental in bringing Doctor Who back to television. I think we all have the same place in our hearts for Sarah Jane, the companion in the stories that really formed our love of the show. Even John Nathan-Turner could never quite let her go, trying to bring her back to bridge the Baker/Davison regeneration, then succeeding in K9 and Company and The Five Doctors. Sarah Jane, due in no small part to Lis’ spirited performance, was the companion everyone remembered.

So when Russell wanted to bring an old companion into the new series, who better than Sarah Jane? Lis had been retired from acting for a decade, and was initially sceptical. But one of the strengths the new series has over the old is its depth of characterisation, and the scripts persuaded her.

2006’s School Reunion was a thing of beauty, bringing Sarah Jane back in a way that cleverly informed the development of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose. Obviously, fanboys like myself loved every minute of it, and couldn’t hold in a tear at the obvious, real, affection shown to Lis by David Tennant – another fanboy, of course. Their final scene together showcased Lis’ marvellous ability to play dignified, restrained emotion, in the same movingly understated way as her farewell scene in the classic series story The Hand of Fear.

It was no surprise that this appearance was a hit with the fanboys. More of a surprise was how much the new generation of fans took to Sarah Jane, and to Lis. She’d worked so well in the context of the new series, bridging its world with that of the old, that she soon became a regular part of Russell’s expanding ensemble of players. And ultimately, she was so successful that she got her own spin off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Captain Jack Harkness may have had a spinoff show too, but counting K9 and Company, only Sarah Jane had two!

Because of that then, there are two generations of fans feeling devastated today. I’ve seen comments on the internet from old guard fans wondering how they can tell their children the news. That’s tragic, but it’s also heartwarming – the children of today hold Sarah Jane Smith in the same place in their hearts as the five year old me. And that’s something very special indeed.

Finally, though, I have to say that beyond bringing this iconic character to life, Elisabeth Sladen was a charming, funny and lovely person. Even when she wasn’t ‘officially’ acting, she kept up with the world of Doctor Who, going to signings and conventions, and, like Nick Courtney, being one of the most patient and entertaining people to be with.

I met her at the 2005 Gallifrey One convention in LA, at which point she must have been playing her cards close to her chest about her imminent reappearance in the show. But what I remember most about her was chatting to my childhood heroine like a friend, about the movies we liked. It turned out we had similar tastes – we both think Casablanca is one of the best films ever made. She pointed out to me Van Nuys airfield – just behind the hotel – and told me that that was where they filmed Bogart and Bergman’s classic farewell scene, suitably dressed up with wooden flats to make it look like North Africa. I’d never known that. And she remembered my partner Barry looking after her daughter for her at a convention a decade previously!

Barry and I joined Steve Roberts and Sue Cowley in keeping Lis company during the interminable wait for the flight back to the UK, and she was very nervous. TARDISes and spaceships might not have been a problem, but she was terrified of flying. She still found time to try and blag a seat upgrade at the Virgin Atlantic desk on the pretext that she knew Richard Branson though!

Her death was a shock – I’m only really taking it in this morning. 63 is pretty young to go these days – in fact I was amazed to discover she was that old. And the fact that she kept working while so ill, and didn’t make a fuss about it, is a testament to how professional she was. There are a lot of people out there on the convention scene who knew her better than I who must be feeling pretty upset this morning, not to mention those she’d worked with on Who and SJA, and those who simply loved her from watching her on screen. To them, and to her family, my heart goes out.

“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”

“Mmm. Till we meet again, Sarah Jane.”

The Hand of Fear, 1976

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

The most wonderful time of the year

“Everything has to end some time. Otherwise, nothing would ever get started.”

Ah, Christmas. The time of year which, for the British at least, is sacrosanct. It has to be absolutely perfect – the tree, the presents, the family gathered together in some mythically perfect pseudo Charles Dickens fantasy of non existent Victoriana. To make Christmas perfect, the British will go through anything – witness the savage consumer competitiveness of Christmas shopping, the weeping and rending of garments as the snow disrupted everyone’s plans for this to be ‘the best Christmas ever’. I sometimes wonder if, put in the position of having to, the British would actually kill to make it the best Christmas ever, as if the holiday was capable of improving its Christmassiness indefinitely, its zenith ultimately unattainable yet tantalisingly in sight. All of which may make me seem a little, perhaps, like that ultimate Christmas monster, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Which brings me neatly to this year’s festive Doctor Who offering, the derivatively titled and plotted A Christmas Carol. Not that the qualifying adverb ‘derivatively’ means it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was as intricately plotted as you’d expect from a Steven Moffat script, making full use of the show’s intrinsic timey-wimeyness to put a fairly novel spin on the Charles Dickens classic.

This meant there were moments when the use of the time travel concept led to some trademark Moffat jaw dropping moments. I absolutely loved the moment when the Doctor popped out of Sardick’s office to suddenly appear in the home movie he shot decades ago. The story also brilliantly subverted your expectations, based on the Dickens original, of how the Ghost of Christmas Future would work. “Are you going to show me that I die alone and unloved?” the elderly Sardick sneers, which is exactly what Dickens’ ghost does to Scrooge. “Everybody does.” And then we see that, for the boy Sardick, the present we’re seeing is a future he’s seeing. Mind warping stuff, for a family Christmas show on at six in the evening.

It was a show full of brilliant concepts, realised with some stunning visuals from the Mill. A planet covered in ice clouds, through which swarm beautiful fish, its climate tamed by the weather machine that was controlled by Scrooge-lite Kazran Sardick. Which also led to the fan-baiting dialogue about the machine’s ‘isomorphic’ controls – a claim the Doctor made for the TARDIS console in 1976’s Pyramids of Mars. “There’s no such thing!” exclaimed the Doctor, fiddling with the machine to comical effect. This probably made the hackles rise for many an earnest, humourless fanboy – and I dread to think how much they frowned when Sardick hugging his younger self failed to yield the expected explosion from ‘shorting out the time differential’ (1983’s Mawdryn Undead, and 2005’s Father’s Day, for that matter).

All of which, besides being a laugh for fans who don’t take the show as seriously as all that, underlined the point that a Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really have the same agenda as a normal episode. It’s a bit of fun, a romp, with a yuletide flavour. Po-faced fanboys shouldn’t expect a serious exploration of the show’s labyrinthine, already inconsistent continuity. Particularly not from the man who coined the scientific phrase, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

And a fun romp it indubitably was. We had some well-realised set pieces – who’d ever have thought you could have a terrifying shark attack in the safety of your own bedroom? Or a sleigh ride through the clouds with the aforementioned shark in place of the traditional reindeer? It’s a mark of the continuously improving CGI from the Mill that these looked as good as they did, though I think we’re still some way off from when CG on this budget looks indistinguishable from the real.

A fairly small cast also shone, giving Moffat’s sparkling dialogue the delivery it deserved. Matt Smith, in particular, is fast becoming one of my favourite Doctors ever, with his weird physicality and studied eccentricities. He got some terrific dialogue with which to emphasise this, unsurprising from the man who used to write Press Gang and Coupling. “That’s got me written all over it! Well, it will have me written all over it, with a crayon and enough time…” Or “You know what boys say to fear, don’t you? ‘Mummy’.” All of which delivered at breakneck speed, as though Smith’s Doctor is continually thinking of something new before he’s finished vocalising what he’s already thought.

He also got some memorable philosophical sound bites, in keeping with a character who, in 1969, told us “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority,” and countless others. Besides the line quoted at the beginning of this review, he memorably described Christmas, and Sardick, as “Halfway out of the dark…” and best of all, said “in 900 years of travelling through time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important!” Which immediately recalled, for me, Dr Stephen Daker’s plaintive enquiry to a ruthless corporate shark in 1988’s A Very Peculiar Practice – “Isn’t everybody important?” Dr Stephen Daker was, of course, portrayed by Peter Davison.

Michael Gambon was, unsurprisingly, brilliant as Sardick. In keeping with some fairly emotionally complex writing, he made someone who initially appeared to be a one-dimensional monster increasingly layered and full of the contradictions feelings give to people. The character was also well-served by a great performance from his twelve-year-old counterpart, whose name I didn’t catch but who gave a more charming performance than Laurence Belcher as the teenage Sardick. Not that Belcher was bad – and very nice to look at – but the boy got all the best lines and scenes.

Katharine Jenkins was also surprisingly good, considering that, as an opera singer, she’s not exactly experienced at acting. Her character, Abigail, didn’t get that much to do, but great use was made of her voice in a beautiful musical moment as she sang to the storm to calm the clouds. What a great concept! It’ll be another memorable track on Murray Gold’s next soundtrack CD – although the music may generally be better remembered than the dialogue, considering that the dialogue could often barely be heard over the score. Sweeping and cinematic is fine, but that sound mix still isn’t right, and I think it’s probably worse if you’re not watching on a 5.1 surround system.

With Amy and Rory largely sidelined, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill managed to still give us some memorable – though mostly comic – moments. The judicious reuse of two of their more incongruous costumes from the previous series was a hoot, and I couldn’t help but what wonder what kind of kinky role play would result from a scantily clad policewoman meeting a Roman centurion!

With carol singing, a planet that seemed to be modelled from idealised Victoriana, and the conceit of the Doctor not only coming down the chimney but appearing at every Christmas Eve from then on, it certainly matched Steve Moffat’s promise to be ‘”the most Christmassy episode ever”. And, as I alluded to in my introduction, this could well prove to be an insurmountable challenge. If each year’s festive offering has to be “more Christmassy” than the last, where can next year’s go? Where will it end? The logical extrapolation is an hour of television in which the TARDIS constantly circles a giant Christmas tree, chasing a reindeer driven sleigh and dodging friendly giant snowmen. Christmassy, to be sure, but less than thrilling.

I’m carping – a little – because, while the episode was a lot of fun, and had some dramatic and scientific concepts that boggled the mind, it left me, in the end, curiously unmoved. And that, I think, was because it was obviously trying so hard to be moving. There’s a lot of criticism one can level at Russell T Davies’ Christmas episodes – and God knows I have – but he did genuinely know how to make a moment tug at the heart. The emotional moments here seemed so dramatically contrived that I could actually see the strings trying to do that, and when I can see the emotional manipulation at work, it just doesn’t have any effect on me.  I realise that, for a lot of others, it worked very well, but maybe I’m too much of a cynic. Maybe I need my own Ghost of Christmas Past to visit…

Still, another good effort from Mr Moffat, with Matt Smith as excellent as ever, and the glimpses of the series to come were tantalising. The ‘Next Year’ trailer did seem to focus very heavily on the Doctor’s much publicised trip to the USA, but it still looks plenty exciting. Sitting at the President’s desk in the Oval Office, meeting X Files style aliens, wearing a stetson – “stetsons are cool” – and growing a beard a la Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Though that last did make me wonder when the Doctor actually finds time to shave, given that he’s always immaculately clean shaven. I think I’d always assumed he just didn’t grow facial hair! There’s the po faced fanboy inside me coming out…

Before I end this – as usual – lengthy piece,  mention should be made of this year’s other great science fantasy festive special. Hastily commissioned but steeped in the show’s usual impudent quality, the Christmas episode of Misfits was a thing of wonder. It’s at the other end of the family friendly scale from Doctor Who, but how can you not love a Christmas special which includes the lines “Fuck me, Santa!” and “I’m going to kill Jesus.”? The second series of Misfits has built beautifully on the first, enlarging a concept that seems initially VERY silly – young offenders gain superpowers after a mysterious storm – into a show that incorporates imagination, drama and humour. If you haven’t seen the Christmas episode, I’d urge you to seek it out on 4OD. Just beware – you shouldn’t watch it with granny and the kids like you can with Doctor Who!

Series 5, Episode 13: The Big Bang

Nothing is ever forgotten. Not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series 5, Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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