How sexist is Doctor Who?–50 years of sexism in statistics

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been going through every Doctor Who story from 1963 to now, and assessing their gender balance by applying the Bechdel Test to each of them.

doctors

For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. Then, going by Doctor:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker
  5. Peter Davison
  6. Colin Baker
  7. Sylvester McCoy / Paul McGann
  8. Christopher Eccleston
  9. David Tennant
  10. Matt Smith

A quick reminder of the Test:

  1. It has to have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

Continue reading “How sexist is Doctor Who?–50 years of sexism in statistics”

How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Nine

The David Tennant years

Tennant1

Welcome to Part Nine of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. Then, going by Doctor:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker
  5. Peter Davison
  6. Colin Baker
  7. Sylvester McCoy / Paul McGann
  8. Christopher Eccleston

A quick reminder of the Test:

  1. It has to have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

 

The Tenth Doctor. David Tennant. Skinny suit. Converse sand shoes. Long coat. And endless cries of squee. Yes, Christopher Eccleston may have made the revived show a success, but Tennant made it a phenomenon. Clearly far more at home in the part than Eccleston ever was (not that Eccleston ever let that show on screen, to be fair), Tennant became Russell T Davies’ best asset in selling the show, both onscreen and off.

In his four years in the part, David Tennant notched up almost as many stories as Tom Baker managed in seven – 37 stories all told, as opposed to Baker’s 41. That’s mostly due to the fact that the new show has self-contained episodes, or at most two-parters. It also means that Tennant’s era offers a better balanced sample for the Bechdel Test than the mere ten stories of Christopher Eccleston. It also means that this is one monster of a blog post, made even longer by a combined Ninth/Tenth Doctor summary at the end to sum up RTD’s era as a whole. Ready?

Continue reading “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Nine”

How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Eight

The Christopher Eccleston weeks

Eccles1

Welcome to Part Eight of my attempt to analyse the sexism in every Doctor Who story ever, using the Bechdel Test – and my wits. For a reminder of the rules, check the Intro here. Then, going by Doctor:

  1. William Hartnell
  2. Patrick Troughton
  3. Jon Pertwee
  4. Tom Baker
  5. Peter Davison
  6. Colin Baker
  7. Sylvester McCoy / Paul McGann

A quick reminder of the Test:

  1. It has to have two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

Having now covered all of the classic series (and the Paul McGann interlude), it’s time to get up to date as we start to look at “Nu-Who”. This is where the idea for this series really began, with Rebecca Moore’s determined attempt to prove that Russell T Davies was more inclusive than arch-sexist Steven Moffat, as mentioned in the Intro.

I’m not going to do this by showrunner (yet), but continue by Doctor – though there’ll be a combined look at Doctors Nine and Ten after the Tennant post, if you want to assess RTD as a whole. In the mean time, as a nod to the new series tendency to harp on about the Doctor himself at often tedious length, I’m including a new check at the conclusion – how many stories that failed the Test might have passed if you don’t count the Doctor himself (a 900 year old non-human) as a “man”? There’s also a count of the trend that emerged for the Doctor to not actually resolve the plot himself, often leaving that to his companion (and sometimes other women). So, let’s take a bold stride into a new, hopefully less chauvinist era (though McCoy and Cartmel will be hard to beat)…

Continue reading “How sexist is Doctor Who?–Part Eight”

How sexist is Doctor Who? – The Intro…

“Have you never heard of female emancipation, Brigadier?” – Liz Shaw
There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith
You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart!” – Leela

RTD1Moffat1

With the TV shows I usually review all on summer breaks right now, I found myself a little short of something to keep me disciplined enough to produce regular blog posts. Then I remembered a recent article I’d read in that the official journal of the gender wars, The Guardian, that reported a study claiming to prove that, under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who was measurably more sexist than it had been under Russell T Davies.

Continue reading “How sexist is Doctor Who? – The Intro…”

Wizards Vs Aliens: Drama vs brightly coloured goo

WVA

Being at something of a loose end this weekend, I decided to finally get round to watching Russell T Davies and Phil Ford’s much-heralded kids fantasy series, Wizards Vs Aliens, 8 episodes of which have been backed up on my Tivo since I finally got a job. This gave me a chance to evaluate the development of this replacement for the sadly missed Sarah Jane Adventures. And I must say, based on what I’ve seen so far, it can’t hold a mystical candle to its predecessor.

It takes the same format as SJA, with each story comprised of two twenty five minute episodes on consecutive days, forming, basically, a fifty minute story each week. But SJA often tackled sophisticated, complex emotional issues with well-written drama that didn’t talk down to its juvenile audience. While basically a fantasy show, it dealt with emotive subjects like ageing, Alzheimer’s disease, divorce, absent parents, and growing up.

Wizards Vs Aliens, by contrast, is a much more childish romp, that replaces drama with running around and chucking brightly coloured goo on its protagonists. Yes, SJA did that as well, with the regular trope of Clyde being spattered with goo from whatever exploding life form the heroes had to deal with that week. But it seems more noticeable here, because Wizards Vs Aliens has so little drama elsewhere to counterbalance it.

The high concept premise, embodied in its very title like Snakes on a Plane, actually has a lot of promise with children’s insatiable desire for Doctor Who-like sci fi and Harry Potter-like fantasy. Why not, as Russell T Davies seems to have reasoned, bring both those things together in one for a winning formula? So we have a tale of a boy wizard and his magical family and unmagical but scientific friend combatting a race of aliens whose purpose is to literally eat magic. These aliens, the Nekross, look like the standard RTD creatures from any average Who episode, all brightly coloured armour and blobby face appendages that make no evolutionary sense:

WVANekross

So far, so good, but there are a few problems inherent even there. The alien Nekross, we’re told, have come to Earth because they have managed to eat all the other magic in the universe. Got that? Not ‘this quadrant’ or ‘this galaxy’. The whole universe. This is a common problem in a lot of sci fi writing, the one of not grasping scale. It’s all very well to say that its intended audience of children won’t care, but IMHO that’s a cheap excuse for lazy writing. I know the ten year old me would have been saying, “The whole universe? But there’s only one ship, and only about six aliens on it. Where did they find the time?”

Yes, that’s nitpicking, but it didn’t help that, at least initially, the hero was pretty hard to like. Boy wizard Tom Clarke, on whom the aliens eventually focus, actually seems like a bit of a dick. He’s the sporty kind of kid, with the currently de rigeur gym toned, over muscled body that makes it look like he has two sets of shoulders, one on top of the other (does every teenager spend hours in the gym these days?).

WVATom

Nothing wrong with that per se, but we first encounter him using magic to cheat at football, then to do his homework for him. Harry Potter may have done many dodgy things, but as a hero, I’m pretty sure cheating wasn’t one of them. I guessed at this point that part of the show’s ongoing plot would be to show him getting nicer, but it’s hard to sympathise with someone whose morality seems so dubious from the start.

Anyway, Tom is accompanied by his non-magical dad and his very magical grandmother Ursula (Annette Badland, who’s the best thing in the show by miles). Their suburban house has a magical cave in it, staffed by a very Dobby-like goblin called Randall Moon, who (just like Dobby) constantly refers to himself in the third person.

WVAGoblin

Their peaceful existence of school cheating and varyingly convincing CGI spells is disrupted by the arrival of the Nekross, and in the process, sporty arrogant popular Tom forms an unlikely friendship with the school geek, Benny. Benny forms the scientific perspective on the show, which makes a running theme of the conflict between science and magic. Also, as the show progresses, his friendship with Tom starts to seem more and more homoerotic, particularly when Tom is ditching the pretty girl from school to spend time with his bespectacled sensitive friend, who gets awfully jealous when he forms attachments to other boys.

With many of the SJA writers involved, this is, not unexpectedly, still chock full of classic sci fi references. The first story, by Phil Ford, gave us a cameo from the late Lis Sladen’s husband Brian Miller, who appeared in 1983 Who story Snakedance, and established the ongoing character of the Nekross King, a grossly flabby creature embedded in the wall of the alien ship. Not only does it resemble Boss Nass from The Phantom Menace, it’s voiced, like him, by genre stalwart Brian Blessed, giving one of his less restrained performances.

WVAKing

That first story, Dawn of the Nekross, set up the premise efficiently enough, but was written with such a childish tone that it was hard to gauge its intended audience. Yes, the main characters were teenagers, as in SJA, but the tone of the drama, which was more than a little overbalanced by comedy, seemed aimed more at eight year olds. The broad performance of Scott Haran as Tom didn’t help; he has improved, but perhaps because the writing gives his character little subtlety or perhaps because the director assumes children are idiots, he tends to substitute excessive gurning for actual acting.

Things didn’t improve much with the second story, The Grazlax Attacks (again by Ford), which was so obviously a cut-price rerun of Gremlins as to be blatantly plagiaristic sometimes. Yes, Gremlins was ripped off plenty in the 80s, when it was current, by the likes of Ghoulies and Critters; perhaps Ford was hoping that today’s kids don’t remember any of that. Or don’t care. Which again, feels rather lazy. Even the creatures themselves (which reproduce when hot, and then make a beeline for Benny’s house’s boiler room), are like an amalgam of every one of those Gremlins ripoffs:

WVAGrazlax

And of course, when killed (by, as it turns out, high pitched sounds such as Benny’s ineptly played violin), they explode. And cover our heroes in brightly coloured goo.

WVAGoo2

I’m not quite sure where this assumption came from, that covering your heroes in goo is the perfect ‘humorous’ climax to a children’s fantasy story. Perhaps writers saw the popularity of ‘gunge’ on Saturday morning magazine shows and thought that was what children automatically found hysterically funny. But this is fantasy based drama, not Tiswas. Yes, it can – and arguably should – offset its thrills and scares with humour. But I don’t recall children’s fantasy classics like Children of the Stones, or The Changes falling back on slime in place of wit or sarcasm.

Still, the next story, Rebel Magic, was a massive improvement on the two written by the guy who actually co-created the show. Written by Joe Lidster, the man responsible for some of my favourite SJA and Torchwood stories, it saw Tom’s friendship with Benny tested when he met a new, powerful teenage wizard, the self-consciously ‘cool’ Jackson Hawke:

WVAJackson

Of course, Jackson wasn’t as ‘cool’ as he seemed (though giving him such a cool-sounding name probably didn’t help his rampant egotism). It turned out that his power, which even the magic-eating Nekross couldn’t resist, was the forbidden ‘Grim Magic’ which ultimately consumes its eager user even while making him constantly want more.

Yes, a fairly obvious analogue to drug abuse (especially from the writer whose Big Finish audio story The Rapture seemed almost a paean to the joys of clubbing on Ecstasy). But it was light years ahead of the comic goo-spattering and running around in the previous two stories. Guest star Andy Rush made a believably cool-yet-tormented ‘villain’, who ultimately came good and realised the error of his ways (even if he looked more than a mite too old to play a teenager). And the story also dealt nicely with the social pressures of teenagers; the need to fit in vs the desire to stay faithful to your real friends. Kudos once more to Joe Lidster for reviving my interest in a series that, by this point, I had been prepared to give up on.

It was followed up nicely with another more-sophisticated-than-it-appeared romp by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman, Friend or Foe. It was once again broadly comic in tone, but this time the comedy felt like wit rather than custard pie throwing. Forced into an alliance after each had one of their own kidnapped by sneering billionaire Stephanie Gaunt, the wizards and the aliens kept describing their shaky cooperation as “a Coalition”, and declaiming things about the worthlessness of such an arrangement. A nice gag for the parents that wouldn’t alienate the kids – might even amuse some of the more astute ones.

Clay’s script was also, amusingly, rife with lines nicked… sorry, ‘homaged’ almost verbatim from Blake’s 7, a fun departure from all the Doctor Who references. Stephanie Gaunt, as played at a volume of 11 by Ruth Henshall, was basically a Servalan analogue, so it was fun when she (or at least an alien disguised as her) declared, “Ipswich! MAXIMUM POWER!”

And that’s as far as I’ve got. I must say, Wizards Vs Aliens seems pitched at a far younger child audience than the frequently mature Sarah Jane Adventures, which never talked down to the youngsters watching it. Phil Ford’s stories really did feel like they were aimed at very young children (which must be a conscious decision, as his previous work was often very sophisticated). But as ever, Joe Lidster produced something thoughtful and thrilling as well as comic, while Clay Hickman’s almost camp adventure romp still had plenty of character development for both wizards and aliens.

It seems to have got off to a much shakier start than SJA, but it’s improved as it’s gone on. With a story by the usually marvellous Gareth Roberts up next, I’m hoping that trend will continue. Nonetheless, I still have a nostalgic hankering for when kids’ fantasy drama took itself a mite more seriously than even SJA did, and wish we could have something more along the lines of those mentioned above, or even 90s classics like Dark Season or Century Falls, created by that very same Russell T Davies. You know, when thrills didn’t have to be offset by relentless and annoying slapstick involving brightly coloured goo.

Torchwood–What kind of Day has it been?

MiracleDay

So here’s a plot synopsis for you. Death decides to give up the day job, and fairly soon, the world notices that nobody’s dying. Everyone thinks that’s pretty great. Until the hospitals start to fill up with horribly injured people who should be dead, but have to live on instead in unspeakable agony. The medical profession, horrified, must try and find some way of reversing the effect.

Sound familiar? It should, but it’s not the plot of Torchwood: Miracle Day. That’s a 2002 Twilight Zone episode called One Night at Mercy, which stars Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as a depressed Death (“It started in about the mid-1300s. You know, the Black Plague.”) who ups and quits, and deals with how a young doctor persuades him to go back to work despite the fact that it means his own death. Now, there’s nothing wrong with re-using a good idea; Doctor Who does it all the time. But the thing about One Night at Mercy is that it covers the same premise as Miracle Day, and implicitly deals with many of the same effects that Russell T Davies seemed so interested in exploring. And it does so, with admirable economy, in 25 minutes. Russell, on the other hand, took 10 hours to do it – and that’s just the start of what was wrong with this season of Torchwood.

But to be even-handed, let’s start with the good stuff – and there was some, no matter what the internet haters think. I thought this was a pretty badly constructed drama as a whole, but it was still entertaining enough to hold my interest for ten weeks. The suspension of death is an interesting premise, even if it has been done before – and for all I know, the Twilight Zone episode is just one of many examples, it’s just the one that sprung to mind. It allowed for some enjoyably gruesome scenes, starting with the ‘live autopsy’ in part one, through the ‘head turned backwards’ CIA assassin, the wince making probing of Rex’s chest wound and the existential horror of burning people to ashes when they can’t die. Russell was plainly interested in exploring the effects of the scenario, even if only in throwaway lines about having to redefine murder. That said, I think some of his hypotheses about the Malthusian population explosion may have been a little off the mark, and I question whether infections would run rampant quite so easily – surely with the host organism unable to die, the infecting agent would eventually be defeated by the body’s immune system? Still, I’m no expert, and from what I hear, Russell did have quite a lot of advice from professional medicos in the writing process.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have any advice from script editors. What made Children of Earth such a taut thriller was the total lack of any extraneous material that didn’t drive the plot forward. Russell’s laudable desire to explore the various ramifications of the lack of death made for a surplus of interesting ideas chucked in as though they were  meant to be major plot points, only to be abandoned by the next episode. What happened to the cult of the Soulless? That was an interesting idea, given some prominence then never mentioned again. Or the ‘45 Club’ of people jumping from 45th floors to get as near death as possible? Why did we have to spend so much time not caring about Esther’s loopy sister, when her storyline was forgotten about for many episodes then casually resolved in one shot at Esther’s funeral? OK, I know Esther’s concern for her sister is what gave away the heroes to the conspiracy, but that could have been just as easily achieved without spending so much time on her. And speaking of relatives, why introduce a dramatically portentous fraught relationship between Rex and his dad in part four and then never show or even mention him again?

Some would argue, with a little validity, that these touches gave a needed depth to the new characters, in much the way introducing Ianto’s family did in Children of Earth. But in that story, Ianto’s family turned out to have an integral role in the storyline, whereas giving so much screentime to characters who have nothing to do beyond make one appearance then be quickly forgotten about smacks of padding. As did the subplot about Tea Party politician Ellis Hartley Monroe and her campaign to segregate the ‘dead’. At least that wasn’t entirely forgotten about as the Holocaust re-enactment got underway, but it was something of a waste to introduce a character as nasty (if one-dimensional) as Monroe, then kill her off in the same episode and have her entirely forgotten about. I mean, come on – Mare Winningham is a multi-award winning actress, surely she could have been kept around as an identifiable bad guy to personify the government?

Speaking of the government, Miracle Day gave Russell an opportunity to get political again, something which, while laudable, is rarely a good idea in his case. His intentions are always good, and in the best tradition of Doctor Who’s liberal tendencies, but he’s not good at making pointed, incisive political comment in a script. Remember the promise in The End of Time that Barack Obama had ‘found a solution’ to the Recession? Well, if he’s found the ‘Start Economic Growth’ button in the White House, I’ve seen no evidence of it yet.

The trouble with starting to make specific comments about politics in a script is that it’s easy to be broadbrush and simplistic. This is by no means limited just to Russell; not everyone can write something as pointed and relevant as Drop the Dead Donkey or The Thick of It. Still, while I thought the two-tier US healthcare depiction in the overflow camps was relatively well-done, Gwen’s righteous indignation at Phicorp having ‘privatised’ UK healthcare seemed a bit too easy a target. I don’t want market forces running the NHS either, but  as Richard comments on his Millennium Dome blog, plenty of countries manage to incorporate private organisations into state healthcare without becoming the cesspit of greed and self-interest represented by the US system. It’s almost as if Russell has just read in the left wing press that ‘private=bad’, a simplification every bit as moronic as the right wing press’ assertion that the heroic market forces will always save the day unless interfered with by that meddling State.

The US/UK comparison is one that did seem central to a lot of opinions of the show. There seem to have been relatively few who enjoyed it with reservations; most either loved it or hated it. Among those who hated it, one of the most common complaints was that “it isn’t really Torchwood any more”. True, the quirky Welsh setting of the original series was what differentiated it from all the other X Files wannabes out there, but Wales wasn’t forgotten about this year (even if it did have to be recreated in Los Angeles studios most of the time). The parochial Welsh dialogue and quirky Welsh minor characters were still very much in evidence – that ear for Welsh speech being one of Russell’s better contributions.

And yes, the show didn’t have many of the original Torchwood hallmarks. But let’s remember that these were pretty much all wiped out over the last two seasons anyway, so even a wholly British return would have been a very different show. Season 2 saw the end of Tosh and Owen, and Children of Earth found Ianto, the Hub and even (thankfully) the ‘Torchwoodmobile’ following them into oblivion. By the end of Children of Earth, in fact, the only hallmarks of the original show left were Captain Jack, Gwen and Rhys.

But here, the show did seem to make a real misstep. Firstly, Jack was, for most of the first two thirds of the season, very much in the background of what many see as his show. As noted on the oncoming hope blog, it wasn’t until the Jack-centric 7th episode that he came to the foreground; the rest of the time he was just a slightly more mysterious member of a not entirely successful ensemble. He was at least a little less broody than in early seasons of Torchwood (although the glee that he displayed as he suggested cutting off that living corpse’s head seemed a little uncharacteristic), and John Barrowman gave a consistently good performance. In fact, I’d say that in parts 7 and 8, he actually veered into ‘good acting’ territory rather than just, basically, playing John Barrowman. While I’ve always thought he gave a good, charismatic performance as Captain Jack, it’s rare that the part has required him to actually act very much; the death of Ianto was one such occasion, and here we saw him portraying believably deep emotion in his interactions with Angelo both in the past and present.

Having said that though, Jack seemed more like Barrowman than usual in one respect – rather than being ‘omnisexual’, he was just gay this year. True, he mentioned previous trysts with women and referred to having been a parent. But in his first depiction of onscreen steamy sex scenes (which I’m still not sure were a good idea for a character with a large following of children) were exclusively with guys, and even when flirting it was men only for him. Given his past history, I would have expected him to at least flirt with Stuart Owens’ mistress, rather than offer to “drink Appletinis and bitch about men”. It seems odd that a US network like Starz would be so unflinching in portraying homosexuality; given the lack of it on mainstream TV, it was perhaps a bit courageous of them not to try and dilute it into bisexuality. All well and good, but Jack’s meant to be bisexual!

Gwen at least was more consistent with her usual self, though even here I think her occasional unlikely transformations into some kind of action heroine were a little unconvincing. But Eve Myles did well, I thought, being given most of the lines of righteous anger and moral outrage. Some people thought that made her seem irritatingly whiny this year, but fair’s fair – she’s always been the moral conscience of the show, and it’s not something you can say has only just started. She couldn’t even have a steamy affair without constantly beating herself up about it in the first season.

And Rhys, thankfully, was still Rhys – a believable everybloke in much the same style as Doctor Who’s Rory Williams. Like Rory, lots of people seem to think Rhys is just a buffoon who allows his wife to constantly emasculate him. But I disagree; again like Rory, Rhys is the anchor to the real world for the show, a character we can see ourselves in the way that he reacts. And – again like Rory – it doesn’t stop him from being genuinely heroic. Having pretty much joined the team proper in Children of Earth, he was here to be seen helping Gwen infiltrate the overflow camps and driving a truck through a hail of bullets. All credit to Kai Owen for making this as believable as his ‘ordinary guy’ schtick when lending moral support to Gwen’s family.

The new characters, unfortunately, were not so successful. Rex was the major offender here, I’m afraid. I’ve seen Mekhi Phifer in a number of things before – Dawn of the Dead, 8 Mile etc – and he’s always been a believable, likeable onscreen presence. Perhaps it was something to do with the writing here, but he seemed to be gurning and chewing his way through a surprisingly one-dimensional portrayal of a guy who really wasn’t very likeable anyway. It didn’t help that when we first met Rex he seemed to be gloating about a colleague’s wife having cancer; and his perpetual reminders to the rest of the team of how much more professional he was than them quickly became a major irritant. If anything, he managed to beat out the season one version of Owen Harper as ‘most annoying character’. The only good thing about this was that it gave us all a chance to relish it when Jack wound him up.

By contrast, Esther was less annoying but unfortunately not remotely memorable. Her heavily signalled transition from deskbound dormouse to action hero never really materialised; in fact, my abiding memory of her as a character was the end of episode 8, as she drove an unconscious Jack away while screaming. “I don’t know what to do!” By the end, she seemed little more than a cardboard adjunct to Rex, which made it hard to care about the ‘shock’ moment when she was shot. Despite a perfectly good performance from Alexa Havins, I don’t think anyone’s going to be putting up any shrines to Esther.

The best new character was Dr Vera Juarez. Arlene Tur made her a believably harried medical professional with a conscience, and it was refreshing to see a character smoking cigarettes without being a major villain. She also managed to be believable and likeable without having to be saddled with several dead-end plots regarding her family, showing that a soap opera background for a character is not a strict necessity. This meant that it genuinely was a bit of a shock that she got burned alive in episode 5 – a twist that worked precisely because she was such a good character, but sadly means that she won’t be back if the show is – unlike Rex, unfortunately.

The other two regulars can’t really be discussed separately – they formed a good double act throughout the series that, like so many other subplots, sadly turned out to be a misdirection or a dead end. Lauren Ambrose was sensational as Jilly Kitzinger, portraying a soulless corporate shark with just the right amount of wicked glee, and with a much-commented on excess of lipstick. If the show comes back, so presumably will she – which almost makes up for not following up on the “better run faster” recurring line and letting her escape the Shanghai explosion in that seemingly tacked on coda.

Oswald Danes, on the other hand, didn’t seem quite so successful as a character. As I’ve mentioned previously, it seems bizarre to have one of your major characters be a murdering paedophile without that fact having some specific relevance to the story you’re trying to tell, but Russell managed it here. While his verbal sparring with Jilly was among the highlights of the show, his ultimate revelation as a virtual irrelevance made it hard to see the point of him. It didn’t help that Bill Pullman portrayed him in one of the most bizarre acting styles I’ve ever seen. It was all about oddly placed… pauses… and sudden DRAMATIC emphasis for no easily fathomable reason. In fact, after his appearance in episode one, I actually looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he’d had a stroke recently. But no, he’d actually made the choice that this was how Oswald should be portrayed. Memorable perhaps, but for all the wrong reasons.

Generally more successful were the roster of one-episode-only, stunt cast guest stars. John De Lancie was a highlight as CIA chief Shapiro, and Daniele Favilli was sweet and likeable as Angelo. It’s always good to see Wayne Knight too, even if for most of us he’ll be forever Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. At least he was consistent; sweaty, shifty CIA mole Friedkin was almost like Nedry all over again. C Thomas Howell was so good as the Families’ sinister assassin that I’d really have liked to see more of him than just one episode, and Mare Winningham managed to extract a believably hateful Tea Partier from the rather one dimensional writing of Ellis Hartley Monroe. Ernie Hudson showed himself to be every bit as good as the other Ghostbusters in the one-scene shot as Phicorp boss Stuart Owens. The only guest star who was a bit of a let down was Nana Visitor; not through any fault of her own, but more because the script had given her no personality beyond functioning as an exposition machine.

If the characters were a bit of a mixed bag, though, the plotting was an absolute mess. The show couldn’t quite seem to decide if it wanted to be a proper serial, like Children of Earth, or an anthology show featuring stories set in a world where no-one can die. This identity crisis made for a very oddly structured story in terms of pacing and momentum, which wasn’t helped by the ‘one-big-guest-star-an-episode’ approach.

The overall plot seemed to move at a snail’s pace for about half the season, not helped by the inclusion of all the dead-end subplots and bits of interesting but irrelevant detail about the situation which kept distracting Russell as though someone had yelled “ooh, look, kittens!” Then it suddenly got moving with the Holocaust re-enactment stuff, although the team’s quest to expose it proved an irrelevance too as the exposure failed to stop it happening – meaning that Dr Vera, the most likeable new character, effectively died for nothing.

Then the plot screeched to a halt for the (admittedly excellent) ‘standalone’ episode Immortal Sins (ep7). Oddly enough, this was the episode that felt most like ‘proper’ Torchwood, with Jack’s 1920s antics being both a romp and then very dark, while Jack and Gwen’s interminable car drive/soul baring framestory recalled a very similar drive in series one episode They Keep Killing Susie. Good though it was, however, it put the brakes on the plot proper while imparting admittedly relevant background that was mostly rather tangential and could have been dealt with far more quickly in a few lines of dialogue. Alternatively, this episode might have been better placed earlier in the series before the overall plot properly gained momentum – it would have been a shame to lose such a good piece entirely. Whichever, it didn’t feel like it worked where it was.

As if to make up for the drip feed of information in the first half of the series, the final three episodes ended up being mostly a nonstop barrage of exposition, in which the plot had to keep pausing for people to explain things to each other at seemingly interminable length. The very last episode seemed to recover something more of a balance between exposition and action, but this was rather undermined by the fact that not only did it not make sense on its own terms, but that a number of the explanations given actually undermined things which had been previously established earlier in the story. A case of ‘learning’ from The X Files again, perhaps, as that show constantly shifted the goalposts of its messy conspiracy story to extend its sell by date. Torchwood had no such excuse, though – this was a story meant to have been economically told over one season.

Overall, there was a lot to like here, and it could, with some heavy script editing, have been a very thrilling, memorable show rather than one that merely entertained while causing frequent impatience. Of its many flaws, the excessive length and obvious padding were probably the worst, and its not surprising that so many internet forums have been expressing a desire to create a tighter ‘fan edit’ of about half the length that would still retain all the relevant parts of the story. The lack of consistent internal logic didn’t help either, though any show that features a drug called ‘retcon’ can presumably fall back on the option of retconning itself in any potential future series – it’ll have to, to at least explain why the Whoniverse is now saddled with the impossible-to-like Rex Matheson as another immortal being. Given Russell’s stated disinterest in doing any more Torchwood, coupled with the generally lukewarm response to this one, I’d be surprised if we did see any more of it, despite internet rumours already circulating that it’ll be back next year. If it is, though, I’ll still watch in the hope that they’ve relearnt all the lessons they seemed to have forgotten this year.

“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