Doctor Who Season 5–the Facebook Marathon: Part 3

The adventure continues.

March 11, 2011, 8.18 pm. Some gin has been consumed. With some trepidation based on my memory of it, I cue up the next episode of Doctor Who season 5, and the Facebook discussions commence…

NB – as before, if your name or image is on these screenshots and you’d rather it wasn’t, PM me on Facebook and I’ll edit the image. Thanks!

It’s a trip back to World War 2 and a meeting with some old foes behaving rather oddly in:

Season 5, Episode 3: Victory of the Daleks

As I start, I try to reassure myself. My friends are not convinced:


Remember, I’m watching this before season 6 has been on, and as yet there are only rumours of the episode that will be known as Let’s Kill Hitler… Steve, though, has harsh words for Mr Eccleston:


Transported up to the rather spartan-looking Dalek spaceship, the Doctor attempts to trick the metal meanies with a biscuit-based ploy. I’m impressed, but my friends are sceptical:


The Daleks reveal that they’re trying to activate something called the ‘Progenitor’, but it won’t obey their commands as it doesn’t recognise their DNA as ‘pure’ enough:


Unfortunately for fans everywhere, the Dalek plan succeeds and a bloated, multi-coloured version of the Daleks arrives in the warehouse spaceship. Somewhat unexpectedly, this results in a discussion of British politics:



The new Dalek paradigm…

With the new Daleks having cost the BBC so much money and all, the old ones rather uncharacteristically (but conveniently) recognise their ‘inferiority’ and allow themselves to be exterminated:


Using an adaptation of Dalek technology better described as ‘magic’, Winston Churchill sends the pride of the RAF out into space:


The Daleks are (sort of) defeated. In the sense that they don’t destroy Earth, but get away to cause more mischief in future, thus justifying the expense of those shiny new props. With the story over, it’s time for the verdict. This one provoked a LOT of discussion:


It’s typical (and actually more interesting) that the worse a Who story is, the more discussion it provokes. There was to be more of this to come, as the marathon continued…

Being Human: Series 4, Episode 8–The War Child

“Leo once said we were on the outside of humanity so that we might guard it. He made it sound like a privilege rather than a burden.”


And so, the transformation is complete. With this explosive series finale, it’s become clear that this year’s entire run was an exercise in reinventing Being Human, changing the format while still trying to tell a gripping and entertaining story. Did it succeed? Well, that very much depends on how well you’ve taken to the changes. To the new characters in particular, since we’ve now lost the only link to the lineup we came to know and love. The question is, was it those characters that made the show so effective, or the premise and the mythology that built up around them?

From the online comments I’ve been reading since this series began, I think its original fans are still polarised about that one. The mythology is potent, certainly, but in a lot of ways not really very original. So much of the charm of the show was the characters Toby Whithouse created to reject the supernatural world that spawned them. I can accept that ending up with an entirely new trio in the same scenario comes across as a little contrived; but I’m still enjoying it precisely because I do like these new characters. Others aren’t, and I can sympathise. It takes a lot to let go of fictional characters you’ve become so invested in, and these newcomers haven’t had anything like enough time to build up the same kind of fan affection – yet. Still, I think it’s worth sticking with the show, because I can certainly see the potential.

With all that said, how good was the episode itself? Previous series finales of Being Human have been emotional rollercoasters and thrillrides. With Toby Whithouse again on scripting duties, this one was no exception; and yet, somehow, it did have a feeling of over familiarity to it. I was gripped, sure, but there were some nagging nitpicks. And, emotional though Annie’s farewell was, I think tis is the first time I’ve come away from a Being Human series finale without having shed a tear.

There was some good stuff though. In particular, the dialogue was excellent, dripping with Whithouse’s customary dry wit – nowhere more so than in the cutting lines given to Mark Gatiss’ vampire Old One, Mr Snow. I loved his withering putdowns of Cutler’s inexplicably failed plan – “thanks to you, breweries the world over are safe from pissups”.

Mr Snow was the centre of the episode really, which was a good thing and a bad thing. Gatiss’ trademark stylised ‘performance’ actually worked quite well to convey a being who’s literally thousands of years old, and who’s more disconnected from humanity than any other supernatural we’ve seen. The pale, veined skin, stained teeth and dirty fingernails gave him an unsettling appearance that contrasted nicely with his urbane dress sense and sibilant, whispered line delivery.

He set out the stall of his nastiness perfectly in the opening sequence, as a Nazi-like vampire supremo in the nightmare future. His interrogation of hapless resistance agent Isaac was straight out of a war movie (Inglourious Basterds’ opening sequence came to mind), but his method of execution certainly wasn’t. We saw him literally disembowel Isaac with his bare hands, in a truly nasty bit of effects. After that, we didn’t really need to see him kill anyone else. The threat – implicit or explicit – was enough, together with Hal’s fear and deference to him. Their two handed scene in the cafe cemented this perfectly, Snow confident that Hal would come back to him and conveying his immense age by commenting that Hal’s 55 years lying low was just “the afternoon off”.

But while Snow was an effective chief villain, I thought it was a shame that his arrival so immediately put Cutler into the shade. Andrew Gower has made Cutler a much more interesting baddie than the traditional vampire master that Snow basically is. All modernity, self-doubt and shades of grey, he’s been permitted an enjoyable fallibility that most chief villains don’t have. He has, in fact, been so likeable that more than once I found myself wanting his schemes to succeed.

So it felt a little wrong for him to be usurped by such a ‘trad’ vampire, even if Gatiss’ stylised acting made Snow quite interesting. Cutler did at least get a brilliantly dramatic demise, as wracked with hatred for vampirekind after his humiliation at Snow’s hands, he forced his way uninvited into Honolulu Heights to kill Eve and by extension his entire species. “I always knew I’d make history,” was his final, despairing cry – just before Annie poltergeisted a stake through his heart.

Because Cutler had been more or less shaped up as the main baddie this year, this scene actually felt like the climax of the episode. It was marvellously gruesome; now we know what happens if a vampire tries to get in without an invitation. Cutler’s gradual burning as he painfully forced himself to Eve’s crib was a triumph of make up effects.

And with the plot carefully constructed so that Eve’s death is the only way to avoid the vampire-dominated future, the scene was very tense. I didn’t know if the show would have the guts to actually kill the baby, or to find some cleverer, more elegant solution that would allow her to live. But if the baby was going to die, I thought at least that Whithouse would shy away from having Annie do it, and Cutler seemed the perfect way to avoid that. So I genuinely thought – for a moment – that he would succeed. Until Annie’s staking of him left only one option.

Hal and Tom, meanwhile, were running around trying to find alternatives of their own, accompanied by new ghost Alex. I said last week that it looked very much as though Alex was being groomed as a new member of the team, and that as a result, Annie looked to be on her way out. As it turned out, I was right, which many fans may find the final nail in Being Human’s coffin. But, as with Hal and Tom, I found myself really liking Alex. Kate Bracken’s spiky, amusing performance in some ways takes us back to how Annie used to be, before ‘Dark Annie’, and before she ended up with the fate of the world on her shoulders.

I don’t know if I missed something though – after last week’s nailbiting cliffhanger of Hal alone in the nightclub with the transformed Tom, this week we cut straight to the three of them on a hillside, having apparently escaped in a van. The expository dialogue revealing that Hal had somehow lured Tom into the van and driven off felt a little lame compared to actually showing that happening, I thought.

Still, that aside, Tom and Hal got some nice moments this week. Like the tormented soul that every ‘good’ vampire has to be since Anne Rice’s Louis, he was having problems staying off the blood. Snow referred to his ‘cycle’ of being bad, then good, then bad again, as a ‘every fifty years’ kind of thing, meaning that we’re about to enter another ‘bad’ phase. Damien Molony’s almost forlorn struggle against this, contrasted with his hissing nastiness as he occasionally succumbed, was an affecting performance.

Tom, for his part, was knocking up an improvised suicide bomb, completing the last part of the plot’s necessary inventory. Reverting back to his old, vampire-killing ways made him seem less of a comedy fool than he has been at various times this year. Of all the new characters, it’s seemed that Tom is the one the writers have a handle on least; but with Whithouse writing, he gets the balance of humour and drama just right.

Like every Being Human finale before it (see a pattern here?), the episode climaxed with double and triple cross betrayals. First, Tom surrendered Eve to the Old Ones, on the advice of their mysterious werewolf henchman Milo (Michael Wildman, who I think we’ll be seeing again). Aware that the vampires wanted Eve kept alive, Tom was prepared to risk humanity’s future rather than endanger the child he’d come to love.

Then Hal turned up with the bomb, ready to kill all the vampires, including himself (“If you blow anything up, it tends to die”). But he couldn’t resist Snow’s compelling power, and reluctantly took his place at the Old Ones’ side.

So, inevitably, it was left to Annie to sort it all out – just as the plot had been building up to. Annie’s been rather ill-served this season, varying from absence to an exposition repository to, occasionally, bad sitcom character. But this was her Big Exit, and the script did Lenora Critchlow proud. With the blazing blue eyes of Dark Annie, she threw the vampires hither and yon before reminding Alex that she could ‘Rentaghost’ Hal out of there. With Tom already outside (did Milo know what was going to happen?), and with baby Eve in her arms, it was Annie who triumphantly, finally, hit the switch on the bomb, sending the vampires, and the baby, off to real death.

I wasn’t at all surprised, with the hints we’ve had recently, that Annie’s Door appeared, and it was off to the afterlife for her, where she discovered baby Eve waiting. She got an emotional farewell scene with future Eve, who gradually unravelled as her timeline was erased. But I did think it was rather a shame she was hustled off to the afterlife without a farewell scene with her new friends; much as I felt George was rather peremptorily dispatched in episode one. It felt dramatically unsatisfying somehow.

Still, there was a touching moment as another Door – that looked rather like the one from our heroes’ old house in Bristol – appeared in the corridor, and future Eve told Annie, “they’re waiting for you”. Lenora Critchlow’s smile of delight sold the moment; but if, as implied, “they” were Mitchell, George and Nina, I can’t imagine George and Nina are going to be too happy with Annie showing up holding their now-dead baby…

All of which left our new heroes together at last in Honolulu Heights, with Hal strapped down as Tom and Alex prepare to help him resist another turn to evil. And it did feel like a return to the old days when Hal asked Tom why he’d do this, and Tom, having mocked him mercilessly earlier, simply replied, “because you’re my best mate”. That’s a restating of the mantra the show had right from the start – these guys may be ‘monsters’, but they’re also friends.

It’s as much a reboot as anything else, restarting the show from scratch albeit with an established, and ever more complex mythology. This was added to by the late arrival of the mysterious Mr Rook and his grey-suited compadres, who seem to spend their time hushing up the existence of supernaturals. They’re not supernatural themselves, because they couldn’t see Alex. So who are they? Some sort of government agency? (Rook does comment that he’s off to a meeting with the “Secretary of State”)

At least they answer the point I made a few weeks ago, about how supernaturals are still secret despite having shown a lot of ineptitude at keeping it that way. Though it also makes you wonder why Herrick and his successors needed to infiltrate the police to cover up vampire doings; these shadowy men may be unknown to the supernaturals, but they can’t have failed to notice the evidence of their misdeeds repeatedly disappearing.

Still, all of these are questions for next time, I suppose – and it’s been confirmed that the show will be back, albeit with a shorter, six episode run. Whether you’re back with it depends on how much you took to this year’s reinvention, and the new characters that came with it. For me, I think the format has the potential to survive with new ‘people’ – some may not. But I’ll definitely be watching when it returns. In the mean time, I’ll be enjoying the surprisingly good American ‘re-imagining’ of it, now reaching the end of its second 13 episode season – proof that I can enjoy it with yet another different set of characters!

Being Human: Series 4, Episode 7–Making History

“Sooner or later, we always go back to being the monsters we truly are.”


We’re into the endgame now, and series creator Toby Whithouse is back for the first time since episode 1 to pen the penultimate episode of Being Human’s new format. Not surprisingly, this is a very good thing – good as some recent episodes have been, nobody understands it – and writes it – as well as its creator. And yet even then, I had a few reservations. I’m gripped, sure, but I have an odd, nagging feeling that we’ve been here before.

With the concentration on the Big Plot as the series moves towards its finale, the characters were like chess pieces being moved into place. Cutler’s propaganda plan to use Tom as a werewolf warning to humanity was moving towards fruition, while the Old Ones’ slow boat was now very nearly there, and Hal’s suspicions as to what was going on hardened into certainties as he investigated ‘Stoker Imports and Exports. Meanwhile, Annie took a sidestep in time with ghost-Eve through a convenient Door, to discover a desolate future in which Nazi-like vampires rule the world and humanity is all but extinct.

It’s that latter part, I think, that gives me that nagging feeling of familiarity. Vampires subjugating humanity and ruling the world – wasn’t that exactly the Big Plot of the very first series, with Herrick’s plan to achieve just that being thwarted by Mitchell and George? Here it is again, only this time it’s worked out for the vampires. Whithouse seems to have taken some lessons from Doctor Who colleague Steven Moffat on how to do a twisty turny time paradox to both show a nightmare future and then prevent it.

Not that it wasn’t well-realised.  Future Eve’s chilling description of the events that led to the desolate landscape Annie was seeing was perfectly pitched, and underscored nicely by barely heard echoes of crying and screaming. The focus on little bits of humanity’s detritus – a lone shoe floating in the bay, and a smashed doll stuck in a bush – took on a deep significance unusual for such commonplace found objects, given the context.

There’s an obvious budgetary consideration in simply describing such massive events rather than actually showing them – I don’t think a BBC3 budget would stretch to the scenes of mass exodus, slaughter and genocide that Eve was describing. But it’s a tried and tested dramatic technique for characters to report massive events rather than showing them to the audience; Shakespeare did it all the time, mainly because it’s not really practical to stage a full scale battle onstage. It was done well here, with other nice hints such as the sign over the ‘concentration camp’ gate – “Through me you pass into eternal pain” – and the Obama-like poster of ruthless future Hal subtitled “Show No Mercy”. Though the Nazi-like banners either side of that served to remind us just how much of a long shadow these all-purpose, real-world baddies have cast over genre drama since 1945.

It also worked well to have Annie – nice, conscience-led Annie – as the audience’s identification point in this. She asked all the right questions to prompt the torrent of exposition, but prevented this from being too clunky dramatically by retaining her usual spirit of normality and humour. In the face of all the horror she was hearing about, it was perfectly Annie to focus on whether she’d been a good mother, and what had happened to her friends. Given the show’s weighty mythology, Lenora Critchlow’s an old hand at dealing with this kind of exposition, and so it proved here as well.

It wasn’t just the future we got to see though. In what I think was the best aspect of the episode, we got to see Cutler’s origin story, and how he was intimately tied in with Hal. Turns out Hal was the one who converted him to vampirism in the first place, back in  1950; as a result, Cutler has a peculiar worship/loathing towards him.

The scenes set in 1950 showed us what a nasty bastard Hal used to be – a necessary reminder, I think, as he’s been played so much for comedy that this aspect of his character has been rather neglected apart from one previous flashback to the 18th century. This time we got his forced conversion of Cutler, followed by his sneering contempt when Cutler couldn’t kill anyone, least of all his wife, and lastly a really nasty moment as he revealed the blood he’d been feeding Cutler was actually from his butchered wife, taken care of by Hal personally.

These scenes were cleverly interwoven, line by line on occasion, with the scenes between Hal and Cutler in the present to underline how their roles have been almost reversed since 1950. Now Cutler’s the powerful one, with his big plan, and Hal’s the reluctant killer. And yet Cutler still worships him; he can’t stand to see his former hero begging on his knees, becoming almost physically sick at the sight. But he still can’t let go of his anger. He loves Hal, but he hates him too for making him what he is.

This all culminated in the ultimate cruel reversal, as Hal discovered that his reawakened blood thirst was being slaked by the blood of his butchered prospective girlfriend Alex. These scenes were brilliantly played by Damien Molony and Andrew Gower, each showing how easy it is to lose your humanity and become a monster – and in Hal’s case, how hard it is to get your humanity back. As he spat at Tom, however much they try to ‘be human’, the monster always re-emerges.

With such dark goings on dominating the episode, Tom was left to deliver what humorous moments there were. Unsurprisingly, Toby Whithouse got the balance of his character better than most other writers this series; yes, he’s naive and trusting, but he’s uneducated rather than stupid. His ineptly delivered pre-rehearsed speech to Cutler, and his inability to put on a tie, were nice comic moments, counterpointed by real drama as he realised the victims Cutler wanted him to kill weren’t the Old Ones after all.

Which brought us to the climax of the episode, as Cutler’s plan came to fruition – but not exactly as he’d wanted. With Alex’s ghost having freed Hal from the locked storeroom beneath the club where the slaughter was to happen, she also prevented any actual killing by unlocking the fire exit for the screaming patrons to flee through. But not before, as Cutler planned, the shocked youngsters did exactly what any modern person would do on being confronted by a strange, terrifying creature – got their phones out and started filming it.

Director Daniel O’Hara dealt with the limitations of a low-budget werewolf well, showing us occasional glimpses of it, its own viewpoint, and blurry phone images rather than any lingering shots of the beast itself – a wise move, as it would have been rather obviously a man in a furry suit. Instead, it was a genuinely tense and terrifying scene. With future Eve having told Annie that Tom had never recovered from accidentally killing some humans, you really weren’t sure if he was going to do just that. But with ghost Alex having helped them escape, the only one really in jeopardy was Hal himself.

It was a good cliffhanger for next week, particularly when you remember how werewolf George tore Herrick limb from limb at the end of the first series. But there was one last cliffhanger to pull out of the bag, as the Old Ones finally showed up after what must have been the slowest boat ride in history. As it turns out, they’re led by a pale and creepy looking Mark Gatiss, using his trademark sinister smile to good effect.

And yet I’m not sure about the wisdom of casting Gatiss. He seems to be on a mission to appear on every genre show made in Britain, but I still can’t properly dissociate him from the comic/horror persona he established in The League of Gentlemen. Being Human may be another blend of horror and comedy, but the emphasis here is far more on the horror aspect. Still, let’s see from next week whether Gatiss can be truly scary without also being a little too funny. He tried it in Doctor Who story The Lazarus Experiment, and it almost worked there…

So we’re almost at the end of this radical new series of Being Human, and I’m eager to see how it turns out – and if it works well enough to come back for more. In the mean time though, this episode did leave me with a number of nitpicks. Why would the Old Ones, after hundred and perhaps thousands of years, suddenly change their MO from lying low to conquering the entire planet? Didn’t Mitchell say they’d be pretty annoyed with Herrick for trying just that? And their plan doesn’t really make sense, either; if, as future Eve says, most of humanity has been killed, what will the vampires feed on? After all, predators must always have a vastly greater number of prey in order to survive.

And what’s happening with the ghosts? As I recall, in earlier times it took Annie many episodes to become tangible enough to make a cup of tea. Yet last week, Emrys was able to read the paper and play at poltergeist within hours of his death, and this week ghost Alex could open doors mere minutes afterwards. And after Annie’s traumatic entrapment within the afterlife, why are the Doors now little more than convenient portals to any point in history the plot needs?

Mind you, I did really like Gina Bramhill as the spunky, funny Alex. With last week’s talk of Annie’s Door, and her seeming acceptance this week that she might have to kill the baby, I wonder if Alex is being groomed as a potential replacement? It could be that next week will see the departure of the very last original cast member. If so, will it be the final nail in the coffin for Being Human, or will this new format have taken well enough to survive another cast change? Next week will tell…

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville

“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Hound of the Baskervilles


In some ways more enjoyable than last week’s very good effort, Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of perhaps Arthur Conan Doyle’s best known Sherlock Holmes story is, if you’re a fan of the original, one of the cleverest bits of writing I’ve seen in terms of subverting expectations. But more than that, it stood up as a damn good Gothic thriller in its own right. Like last week, it cunningly played with the knowledge of Holmes fans without alienating the casual viewer: either way, even if you knew the story, this was a twisty turny bit of writing that had you never knowing what to expect.

Just as last week’s story showcased Steven Moffat’s preoccupations – sexy femmes fatale and plenty of intrigue – this week’s was in many ways a perfect exhibit of what we’ve come to expect from Mark Gatiss. From the outset, as a terrified little boy on the moors morphed into an equally terrified Russell Tovey in a darkened hollow, it was clear that we were in Gothic Horror territory. As indeed we should be. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories often have their roots in the atmosphere of 19th century penny dreadfuls, which is exactly what we’re used to getting from Mark Gatiss in The League of Gentlemen.

Steeped in atmosphere it certainly was, but adapting The Hound of the Baskervilles is, in many ways, a more difficult task than last week’s free flowing expansion of a pretty short story. For a start, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a full length novel, so adapting it to a new format doesn’t leave the adapter a lot of room for change. It’s also had probably more previous adaptations than any other Holmes tale, so there’s the problem of familiarity as well. And perhaps most significantly of all, if you’re to follow the original book faithfully, Holmes himself is actually absent for about half of it.

Thankfully, neither of the creators of the new Sherlock have felt themselves bound by the need for ‘faithful’ adaptation – and in the process have actually managed to produce stories that are arguably more faithful to Doyle’s in spirit than some that follow his narratives exactly. Gatiss takes the basics of the tale, and discards what is no longer useful or relevant. In the process, though, he keeps plenty of material just to throw the Holmes aficionados off the track.

In this case, that was most noticeable in the names of the characters, though not so much in their basic relationships to each other. Baskerville Hall became the Baskerville Research Centre, a Porton Down style establishment so inescapably reminiscent of similar ones in early 70s Doctor Who that I kept expecting Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to pop round the corner. Shorn of his surname, Sir Henry Baskerville had his title moved to the end of his name to become Henry Knight – do you see? Elsewhere, shifty servants the Barrymores had their names transplanted to the Major in charge of the Research Centre, while Dr Mortimer remained as Henry’s faithful physician – but in keeping with the spirit of the times, she was now his therapist. And last but definitely not least, cantankerous neighbour Mr Frankland became Dr Frankland, a perhaps too-friendly scientist.

But before we got into the story proper, the game of sly Holmes references was very much afoot from the outset. Sherlock was seen to burst into his flat covered in blood, carrying a blooded harpoon – only to exclaim – “well, that was tedious!”, showcasing Benedict Cumberbatch’s actually rather adept comic timing. This is, of course, a reference to the solution of The Adventure of Black Peter, in which Holmes tests his theory of a harpoon being the murder weapon by repeatedly hurling it into the corpse of a pig.

Having solved that one, he was bored, and as in the original stories, when he’s bored, he falls back on his addiction. Perhaps more harmful than his original fixation with cocaine, the new Sherlock wants cigarettes – as cocaine was perhaps even more socially acceptable in the late 19th century than tobacco is now, that makes perfect sense. And as a smoker who can’t light up in the house while watching it, I found his demented search for his ‘emergency supply’ both funny and cringeworthy. But lest we miss the reference to his cocaine habit, he wondered about trying something “7% stronger” – like the 7% solution of cocaine he used to inject in the original stories.

This was fun for the Holmes enthusiast and funny for the casual viewer. But the story proper started as Russell Tovey burst in, looking harried and paranoid, and affecting a rather odd ‘posh’ accent that was the only negative point of his otherwise highly intense portrayal of Henry Knight. Sherlock was intrigued by his tale of “a giant hound” (the line lifted verbatim from the original, though Dr Mortimer says it there), and resolved to investigate, rather than take up the odd case of a missing luminous rabbit.

The rabbit thing was the first in a long line of playing with your expectations if you knew the original story – the hound in the original having been painted with luminous chemicals to look as frightening as possible. Obviously the rabbit was going to be connected. But as it turned out, nothing here was obvious – a welcome surprise if you thought you knew exactly what to expect.

For a start, Sherlock didn’t stay out of the action here. After a throwaway line about sending John as “his best man” (as he did in the original), he did an abrupt volte face at Henry’s rather archaic use of the word “hound” rather than “dog”, and went down to Dartmoor himself, with John in tow, for all the world like the Doctor and one of his companions.

Because Gatiss is a Doctor Who fan and writer himself, and it shows. Besides the Baskerville Centre’s obvious resemblance to things like the Inferno Project in 70s Who, the way in which Sherlock and John bluffed their way in – using Mycroft’s stolen ID – was straight out of Who, as was John’s pulling rank on that pretty young Corporal to get him to show them around. Once inside, the ranks of labs and ‘mad scientists’ also owed a fair bit to Who, though I’m sure Gatiss’ horror fixation was drawing inspiration from Frankenstein as well. And cold scientist Dr Stapleton’s answer to the question of why they were doing such weird things – “Why not?” – called to mind a similar exchange with a mad geneticist in The X Files – “Why are you doing these things?” “Because I can.”

As Sherlock and John investigated, nothing was quite as it seemed – either here or in the original story. I was expecting the usual escaped convict to show up, particularly when the barman in the pub mentioned “the prisoner”. Instead, in a laugh out loud moment, the apparent Morse signalling John spotted across the moor was actually caused by some unfortunate joggling on a headlight switch at a local dogging site. ‘Hound’, ‘dogging’ – do you see?

The usual running gag about Sherlock and John being more than friends was also much in evidence, although I’m beginning to wonder whether that’s been done to death now. Still, it was nice that they met a genuine gay couple in the wilds of Devon, in the form of pub landlord Gordon Kennedy and his mustachioed young feller (and barman). And they had a role to play too; in this version, they were the ones keeping the half-starved vicious dog roaming the moor, though they were trying to drum up tourist trade rather than commit murder. By this point, I’d been so thoroughly thrown off the track I thought I knew that I was perfectly prepared to believe them when they said they’d had it put down – a mistake, as it turned out.

Sherlock and John’s ‘bromance’ was at its best this week, as a penitent Sherlock actually found it in himself to actually apologise (sort of) for his cavalier treatment of his only friend while under the influence of terror-generating drugs. There’s been some criticism of this aspect of their relationship, with the recently coined term ‘bromance’ thrown about as an accusation, but fair’s fair – this is absolutely the way they were in Doyle’s stories. No, if I have any criticism of Gatiss here, it’s actually the one that was thrown at Moffat last week – he really doesn’t do female characters well. There were two major characters here who were women, and neither was much more than a cypher. Sasha Behar did her best as Henry’s therapist Dr Mortimer, but the character was paper thin; beyond being ‘caring’ she was only there to be the subject of another of John’s doomed flirtations. Amelia Bullmore as Dr Stapleton fared a little better, as the red herring ‘mad scientist’, but she didn’t really get much to play with either.

But mentioning Dr Stapleton brings me to the point that some Holmes purists might find hard to take – this time round, Stapleton didn’t do it. Instead, the culprit was Clive Mantle’s avuncular Dr Frankland, which I must confess I really didn’t see coming. I did twig fairly early on that the ‘terror’ of the hound was down to weapons-grade hallucinogens – Cumberbatch’s out of character twitchiness after ‘seeing’ the monster was a dead giveaway. This also led to the initially terrifying sequence of John being menaced by an unseen ‘something’ in the Baskerville lab, which in retrospect became very funny when it was shown that it was actually Sherlock putting him through the ordeal as an experiment, while casually playing growling sounds down the PA system. Much kudos to director Paul McGuigan, who pulled off some genuinely heart in mouth suspense sequences while being equally at home with the light touch required for the character comedy.

He also pulled off possibly my favourite sequence of the series so far – a perfect visualisation of Doyle’s conceit of Sherlock’s ‘memory palace’, the artificial mental construct where he files his memories and data. As we were treated to an inspired and often funny scene of Wikipedia-like info scrolling across the screen, and sometimes across Sherlock’s very face (marvellously composited), he finally put together what Henry was remembering – the words “Liberty, In”. All right, the actual solution that it was a secret project in Liberty Indiana, codenamed H.O.U.N.D., and emblazoned across Frankland’s T shirt when he murdered Henry’s father was a little (well, actually a lot) contrived. But it was a neat solution.

As was the revelation that the hallucinogen was actually in the fog at the murder scene – “it’s the scene of the crime and the murder weapon!” That’s one of the neatest ideas I’ve seen in any crime drama, up there with the murderer actually feeding her murder weapon – a leg of lamb – to the police in Tales of the Unexpected. But even after that, Gatiss pulled out a last ace – we weren’t to be cheated of a scary monster after all, as the vicious dog was still alive and roaming, and we got to see it as our drug-addled heroes did, a red-eyed CG monstrosity that was… well, fairly convincing anyway.

All that remained was for Frankland to stumble into Grimpen Mire, here reinvented as Grimpen Minefield, and never get out again. Which he duly did, with an impressively large explosion. That part was reasonably faithful to the original tale, and I’d guessed it would happen early on; but by the time it actually did, the script had played around with my expectations so much I wasn’t sure of anything any more!

This was a series at the top of its game, and – minor criticisms aside – I think I may actually have enjoyed it even more than last week’s. Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman continue to have fantastic and believable chemistry, and the direction was once again top flight. My only question would have to be, why can’t Mark Gatiss write Doctor Who episodes this good?

Next week, to judge by a chilling epilogue, Moriarty is properly back for a reckoning. We saw him released from what appeared to be some kind of psychiatric cell by who knows who (although it sounded like Mark Gatiss as Mycroft), with Sherlock’s name scratched with lunatic obsession into every surface. As Moriarty was perfectly at liberty last time we saw him, there’s plainly some backstory to be filled in here. And it’s notable that, while hallucinating, Sherlock’s ‘greatest fear’ was a vision of Moriarty. Next week may be hard to come back from. Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed it…

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 9–Night Terrors

“Look at these eyes. They’re old eyes. Let me tell you something – monsters are real.”

Night Terrors

Poor old Mark Gatiss. He’s the consummate Doctor Who fan, and should be the consummate Doctor Who writer – he’s literate, he’s got a great grasp of how to make a script work, and he’s written some excellent Doctor Who novels for both Virgin Publishing and the BBC. He wrote the superb black horror comedy The League of Gentlemen, not to mention co-creating and writing the excellent Sherlock with Steven Moffat. As one who’s been involved with the new series since its 2005 debut, he should by rights have notched up a notable list of ‘classic’ episodes by now. And yet, somehow, he’s always perceived as missing the mark. He wrote the first non-Russell T Davies script – The Unquiet Dead, which I genuinely loved and thought made a better Christmas episode than most of the actual Christmas specials. However, even now that’s not really thought of as a classic. Next year he gave us The Idiot’s Lantern, a period piece which I thought was clever, witty and had some genuinely frightening moments. But that too was written off as being inconsequential, if not actually bad, by most. Then after a long break, he returned last year to give us Victory of the Daleks, and that time even I didn’t think much of what he’d written.

This time, however, numerous fan publications and websites were assuring us that Night Terrors would finally be the one that would propel Mark into the same reputational leagues as Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. In addition, Moffat himself was touting it as one of the scariest episodes ever, quoting the line from the script that quickly became the best known description of the story: “the scariest place in the universe – a child’s bedroom”.

All that hype actually seemed a little unfair. It would be hard for any story to live up to that kind of expectation, and sadly, Night Terrors didn’t. It’s by no means a bad episode, and certainly better than Victory of the Daleks. But given the possibilities of the concepts, and the undoubted talent of Mark Gatiss, it could, and perhaps should, have been a lot better than it was.

It’s telling that a lot of the reviews and comments I’ve seen so far relating to the episode spend less time talking about what it was like than talking about what other stories it was like. It’s been compared variously to The Mind Robber, The Celestial Toymaker, Sapphire and Steel, Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and, in our house, Paradise Towers. However, probably the most valid comparison is to 2006 episode Fear Her – that has essentially the same plot, with a stranded alien being in this case possessing a child and causing people to disappear when they annoyed or frightened her. There’s nothing wrong with having very obvious inspirations for your story, but Fear Her has a (deserved) bad reputation; and in any case I don’t think Gatiss intended his story to be derivative of any of these. But these are big archetypes we’re dealing with here: childhood fears, and the nightmares they cause. The question is, is it the commonality of the archetypes that make this script seem over-familiar, or is it a problem with the script having a rather formulaic approach?

There was some genuinely creepy stuff here. The business with Amy and Rory in the doll’s house was well-written and well-directed, and a nicely surreal concept to boot. Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I twigged what was going on way earlier than the script told us – It was obvious that, like everything that frightened little George, they’d been banished to the inside of his cupboard, and from the moment Amy found the wooden ‘copper’ saucepan, it was easy to guess that there’d be a doll’s house in there. And so, when the Doctor finally opened the cupboard, there was. Mind you, while I’m the first to dismiss any gender-based expectations, it still did seem unusual that a little boy would have a doll’s house.

Nevertheless, our heroes creeping around the darkened corridors, with the lurking shadows moving in the background, was a little unnerving, and very reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel. The gradual revelations that clued them in were nicely done – though surely if that glass eye was meant to be normal size, the doll’s house would have to be gigantic for it to fit in a toy chest of drawers – and the reveal of the well-designed blank-face dolls was creepy, particularly when it became clear that, like the unfortunate Mr Purcell, you’d turn into one if they caught you.

That’s all classic child’s nightmare stuff, and the story also captured well that childhood feeling of terror when the bedroom light goes out and every shadow becomes a threatening monster lurking in the dark. George’s little rituals – banishing the scary things to the cupboard, turning the lights on and off five times – also seemed familiar from my own dimly recalled childhood. The direction by Richard Clark caught the mood well in these scenes, but the script seemed to be rather less successful at dealing with the mundane, everyday part of the story the Doctor was caught in – “EastEndersland” as Rory scathingly put it.

Despite Rory’s sarcasm, the script at no point spells out that this is London we’re seeing, which is just as well as it seemed very much to be the same housing estate used in Russell T Davies’ tenure to represent Rose Tyler’s home. No, this was any estate, anywhere, with that oddly unnatural neon glow that streetlights provide nicely captured by the camerawork. There was a convincing community, economically evoked by the montage in which the Doctor and co knocked on doors trying to find out which flat the scared child lived in. We’d already seen Leila Hoffman as old Mrs Rossiter, so she was plainly going to be involved in the story proper, and Andrew Tiernan as Purcell is a familiar enough character actor to make it obvious that we’d see more of him too. But we also saw at least one more family, initially represented by one of Gatiss’ familiar tropes – an amusing recreation of the ultra-creepy twin girls from The Shining. Still, the lack of specificity about where exactly this was almost seemed to make it less convincing as an ‘everyday’ setting; the precise opposite from the defined suburbanity of Colchester in last year’s The Lodger.

Matt Smith was on great form as the Doctor, and Gatiss does seem to have a knack for giving him suitably ‘Doctor-like’ dialogue that matches his frenetic performance. He can’t resist the old in-jokes too; it was amusing to hear references to children’s classic stories such as ‘The Emperor Dalek’s New Clothes’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday’. He formed a good double act with Daniel Mays as George’s dad Alex, and it was a nice bit of subversion to see Mays, oft-cast as criminal hardmen, playing a perfectly normal average dad who’s scared for his child and worried about paying the rent (though if that £350 Purcell was demanding is the rent for the whole month, he’s getting a pretty good deal).

Rather less successful, though, was the rapport between the Doctor and George. It’s no particular fault of Matt Smith, or the dialogue the Doctor was given. But the script didn’t really give George any kind of personality of his own, beyond that he was a scared kid. I couldn’t really fault little Jamie Oram’s playing in the role, the problem was that he wasn’t really given anything to work with. At least little Chloe Webber in Fear Her was given a distinct personality. The trouble, I think, was that the episode started with a brief to tackle childhood nightmares and everything formed around that, rather than coming up with a convincing child character who might have good reason for the nightmares.

The twist that George was actually an alien cuckoo-like being called a ‘Tenza’ was probably the episode’s best reveal, but even here Gatiss could have striven to make the boy less of a cypher. And the rushed, rather pat explanation that the nightmares, and the disappearances, were a result of George’s fear that his adopted family wanted to abandon him seemed a little too convenient as a psychological explanation for George’s fear of absolutely everything – pantophobia, as the Doctor correctly called it, “which presumably does include a fear of pants”. At the heart of it, I think, was another of Mark Gatiss’ tropes, a dysfunctional father/son relationship that the story showed us at least the beginnings of healing. Tellingly, Claire, George’s ‘mother’, was barely in the story, only appearing at the very beginning and the very end. I wonder if Alex was planning on telling her the truth about their son?

The resolution that everything could be put right by Alex hugging George, and telling him that he would always be his son no matter what else he was, was sweet but again, a little too easy. After all, this was plainly a hugely powerful alien being, capable of (however unconsciously) brainwashing his ‘parents’ for eight years, creating a pocket dimension and imprisoning innocent people in it to be turned into creepy peg dolls. OK, it might mean no harm, but look at the trouble caused by one overheard conversation between his parents! It seemed a little odd that, however well-meaning, the Doctor would just allow the Tenza to stay where it was. He really should check back during puberty; although if the Tenza really is going to become whatever his parents want him to be, he’s going to be a pretty unusual teenager!

Those aspects of the plot were, perhaps, not handled too well. But there were other parts of the script that seemed to be more first draft and unfinished. What did happen to Mrs Rossiter inside the doll’s house? We saw her wandering the corridors looking scared, but didn’t see her again till she reappeared in the rubbish heap. Did she get turned into a doll, or did she hide successfully from them? Will she, and Purcell, remember their experiences? Amy seems to, and she did get turned into a doll. After all, if they do, and if they report it to somebody, Alex and Claire could find themselves surrounded by a UNIT SWAT team pretty quick, with George carted off to a secret base somewhere for ‘examination’.

However, all of those problems are as nothing compared to the really rather odd depiction of the series’ other two regular characters. It’s nice that Rory gets the self-aware line, “we’re dead, aren’t we. Again.”, but given what’s been happening over the last few episodes Amy and Rory seem very off-kilter. I commented last week that Amy and Rory seemed oddly unaffected by the revelation that they had, effectively, already lost their chance to be a normal family and bring up their daughter; Arnold Blumberg, over on Assignment X, found this to be the aspect that, for him, really torpedoed last week’s episode’s credibility.

The fact that, this week, the whole ongoing saga relating to their daughter didn’t even merit a mention served to make Amy and Rory less convincing than ever as real (potential) parents. It’s not that they’re in any way acting out of character generally (although Rory commenting “perhaps we should just let the monsters gobble him up” seemed unusually cruel for him). It’s just that, with the episode placed where it is in the series, it comes across as really odd that they’ve apparently forgotten the most important thing that’s been going on in their lives for months.

This can probably be put down to the standalone nature of the episode, and also that it was apparently swapped in the broadcast order with Curse of the Black Spot (though I don’t recall that mentioning their daughter either). If watched in isolation from the rest of the series, the viewer would probably find nothing at all unusual in the couple’s behaviour. But standalone episodes are rarely viewed in such total isolation. To be fair to Mark Gatiss, this is less his fault as writer than it could be Steven Moffat’s as showrunner.

I’ve argued before that a better balance between arc stories and standalone stories would be nice, but the showrunner still needs to bear in mind that the standalone stories feature the same characters as the arc ones, who would logically be feeling the consequences of previous events if they’re to be at all convincing. Joss Whedon understood this in his season plotting approach to Buffy, and so, despite my occasional criticisms of him, did Russell T Davies. It seems odd that a writer like Steven Moffat, who honed his teeth on emotional, character-driven dramas like Press Gang, would forget this. Perhaps, like the issue of the Doctor’s recent rather excessive violence, Amy and Rory’s rather inconsistent feelings about their complex family problems will be addressed in a future episode. All well and good, and I’m not disparaging the arc plot, but if that’s the case then it doesn’t stop them coming across very oddly here. And if it’s not addressed at all, then it looks like, I’m sad to say, slightly lazy season plotting, not something I’d expect from Steven Moffat.

The swap in running order with Curse of the Black Spot may also explain the one – possible – reference to the arc plot we do see this week. As our three heroes get together finally at the end of the episode, the Doctor comments, “Nice to be back together again. In the flesh.” Is this a reference to the upcoming (when this was still episode three) revelation about Amy in The Rebel Flesh? Or is it a hint about something coming up involving the Flesh? Perhaps the Ganger Doctor isn’t as dead as he appears. Since the line is delivered with none of the actors’ lips visible, if it was a significant hint from the show’s earlier place in the running order, it would have been a simple matter to remove it. Or perhaps it was never there before, and was added for the new place in the running order to hint at something we’re about to see. Or – and this is also possible – it’s just that “in the flesh” is a pretty common figure of speech, and the line has no relevance to the arc and isn’t meant to refer to the Flesh at all. It’s just that, where Mr Moffat’s plotting is concerned, you start overanalysing everything!

A lot of this review – like many of mine – is overanalysis. And some of it, I’ll be honest, is carping. But if this episode in particular is aimed at kids, I do seem to recall that they’re among the best at picking holes in a lack of logic. Come to think of it, one of the most irritating child’s questions – precisely because it’s usually very difficult to answer – is the repeated query, “but why…?” Night Terrors probably has succeeded in scaring a lot of its child audience with some genuinely memorable nightmare images. But those same kids may be even more adept than I am at picking apart the holes in the plot. Those holes, together with a sense that this standalone story is too isolated from this year’s series as a whole, mean that Night Terrors stands out not as Gatiss’ first true classic, but sadly as another entertaining, but routine episode that’s fairly forgettable.