Doctor Who Season 5–the Facebook Marathon: Part 1

On March 11 and 12 of 2011, alone at home and bored for the weekend, I chose to entertain myself with a marathon watch of Doctor Who season 5, the first with Matt Smith. As I went along, I was posting on Facebook about it every few minutes, and friends of mine from literally all over the planet chimed in with comments. It made a solitary experience into a fun, virtual social one, and was hugely entertaining.

Afterwards, I had the idea of using the posts and comments in a blog series. I mentioned it on Facebook, people seemed to think it was a good idea, then I completely forgot about it. Time passed, the computer the screenshots were saved on died, and the idea seemed to fade into the ether. Until now. I found a backup of all my old files, including the screenshots, and the idea was resurrected.

There’s so many that it’s easier to do episode by episode than one huge enormous post covering the whole season, so this is a trial run using just The Eleventh Hour. I’ve also found that images on this blog behave rather oddly, not always retaining their proper aspect ratio when published. If that happens, I’ll try to edit it in a way that stops it.

NB – At the time, I canvassed as to whether the friends who commented would prefer their names to be blurred out or redacted – those who expressed an opinion didn’t seem to mind either way. BUT, if your name is shown here and you’d rather it wasn’t, message me on Facebook and I’ll edit it out.

For now though, let’s begin with…

Season 5, Episode 1: The Eleventh Hour

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NB – I still haven’t tried it…

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A quietish start; later the debates became more lively as more friends realised what I was doing and chimed in with comments. If this works OK, I’ll  post more – one for each story – two parters counting as one story. Next one may be up sooner than you think…

The Spoiler Statute of Limitations

N.B. – Despite the subject matter of this piece, I’ve worked hard to ensure that it actually contains no spoilers!

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Spoilers! Don’t you just hate ‘em! Steven Moffat certainly does, as he repeatedly gets River Song to tell us in Doctor Who. It’s undoubtedly annoying, when you’re following a TV show, to be made prematurely aware of some vast, game-changing plot point that the creators had intended to come as a gobsmacking surprise. But recent developments in how we watch things have given rise to a new problem, and a new question – just how long should we wait before openly discussing (on the internet or in the pub or wherever) some major plot twist?

This came to my attention recently, when a frustrated Facebook friend in the US complained of his friends in the UK discussing openly on the site a major plot twist in that night’s Doctor Who. Now, given the fact that BBC America broadcasts the show in the US pretty quickly after the UK (not to mention the, ahem, naughty downloads), I did see his point in complaining that it wouldn’t be too much of a burden for his UK friends to refrain from discussing the plot for a little while at least.

But I can also understand that some people still think that, once a TV show has actually been broadcast, it should be fine to start talking about it. It’s an understandable assumption, particularly for those who grew up watching TV when it was a communal, even national thing; when you could be reasonably certain that your friends would have watched the same show at the same time as you. Back in 1980, for example, nobody worried about spoilering the eagerly anticipated question of ‘Who Shot JR?’ in Dallas. International communication was rare and expensive, and most people in each country who cared were watching the show at the same time.

However, ever since the advent of the video recorder, that’s not been guaranteed. And the problem has intensified; in these days of international chat on the internet, via forums and social networking sites, you have to take real care that you don’t, however unintentionally, reveal something that should have come as a surprise. But how long should you wait? What, in a nutshell, is the statute of limitations for spoilers?

The trouble is, there’s no hard and fast answer to that one. For filmmakers, it’s not a new problem at all, as films have never had the same simultaneous viewings for whole nations. Way back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock popped up on the trailer for Psycho to plead “Don’t give away the ending, it’s the only one we have.” Fair enough, but is there really anyone left in 2012 who doesn’t know how that ends? And if there is, is it unfair of them to expect those who want to discuss it to keep silent, 52 years after the fact? It’s actually a very common problem with films – they get older and older, but there’ll always be somebody for whom they’re new. Will that person’s viewing experience be tainted by a spoiler that’s become cultural common knowledge?

There are plenty of well-known examples. The first time I saw Psycho, I already knew the ending; I still thought it was a pretty fine movie, but I wonder how much more I might have enjoyed it had the twist come as a surprise? And yet, it seems churlish of me to demand that the entirety of society should refrain from discussing a very old plot twist on the off chance that I might not have seen the film yet.

But what about more recent films? How soon is too soon? The original Planet of the Apes, for example, has often been released on video and DVD with a cover picture that actually gives away the twist ending before you’ve opened the box – again on the assumption that it is, by now, common knowledge. OK, that movie was made in 1968. How about 1980, a ‘mere’ 32 years ago? Can there be anyone left who doesn’t know the twist in The Empire Strikes Back? Apparently so, if this clip of a four year old reacting to the previously unknown revelation is for real. I saw that one not long after it was released, but that particular spoiler was already common knowledge. Would I have been as gobsmacked as that kid if it had been news to me, too?

A bit more recently, is there anyone left who doesn’t know the twist endings to M Night Shyamalan’s early movies? I was about a year late seeing 1996’s The Sixth Sense; by then, the ending had entered common culture so thoroughly that I’d found it out in, of all places, an article in Boyz magazine. I still enjoyed the movie, but again, how much better might I have enjoyed it had the end come as a surprise? Similarly, I’ve never actually watched his 2004 film The Village; though that’s less because I’ve found out the twist and more because I’d seriously started to go off his work after the nonsensical Signs. I did manage to catch David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) before its ending became common knowledge, and that was certainly effective – but again, 13 years later, I’m willing to bet that that’s become cultural common currency.

But now, an old problem for films is very much a current problem for TV shows. Some websites have hidden text sections for spoilers, others, like Facebook and Twitter, rely on the (apparently infrequent) discretion of their users to avoid releasing spoilers into the public domain. It comes back to, how long should you wait? One friend has a self-imposed limit of a week – seems reasonably fair. Some would say not – after all, how many of us now catch up with TV shows on DVD box sets long after the original broadcast?

Reasonably, if you’re desperate to avoid spoilers, it looks like your only pragmatic choice is to stay away from the internet. Completely. Because if something’s popular enough, any major plot developments end up being referenced anywhere and everywhere. I recall rushing through the final Harry Potter book for precisely this reason, and avoiding Facebook et al for fear of finding out the ending before I reached it. It’s not ideal, I know, but unfortunately it’s a more sensible solution than expecting everyone else in the world to be sensitive to your viewing (or reading) habits.

Of course, some people take a perverse, trolling delight in spoilering. One old friend of mine had an irritating habit of flicking to the last page of whatever book I was reading in order to tell me that (character X) made it to the end. Others use it as a status-building ego reinforcement – “look how important I am, I know something you don’t, and I can prove it!” Unfortunately, if you’re a true spoiler-phobe, complaining is like a red rag to a bull for this kind of person; you’re actually better off not encouraging them. Just try to close your ears, or step away from the internet.

So can there ever be a ‘statute of limitations’ for spoilers? I’d have to conclude not, pragmatically. If you find them annoying, then your only recourse in the real world is to do as much as you can to avoid them, because, sadly, they’re not going to go away. On the flipside, if you have a friend who shares your interests, it might be courteous to refrain from discussing plot points unless you know your friend knows them too. But for how long is between you, your community, and ultimately, your conscience. Everyone has different standards, and in the end, if you want to avoid spoilers for as long as you deem fit, the final responsibility has to be your own. We could wish for a more polite, considerate world where that’s not the case, but somehow I don’t see it happening soon…

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

“You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.”  – from the journals of Dr John H Watson, MD, The Final Problem

It’s a well-known story. Arthur Conan Doyle, fed up of the public’s insatiable demand for his creation Sherlock Holmes, wrote a story in which he determinedly killed off his hero. Heroically plunging from Austria’s Reichenbach Falls in a death struggle with his arch nemesis Professor James Moriarty, Holmes was no more. Or so it seemed until, bowing once again to his readership’s demands, Doyle revealed that Holmes had survived his certain death after all, and gone underground to protect his friends.

That’s such a good story, in fact, that it was basically the plot of the entire last season of Doctor Who. But last night’s Sherlock saw Steven Moffat and co returning to the source. I must admit, I had slight misgivings when I saw that scripting duties had fallen to Steve Thompson rather than Gatiss or Moffat himself, as I’d thought his middle contribution to the previous series – The Blind Banker – was a bit of a weak link in an otherwise strong chain. Not that it was in any way bad (although the stereotyping of the Chinese seemed a little 19th century), but it was surrounded by two almost perfect stories from Moffat and Gatiss. Knowing that this year’s season finale was very probably going to feature Sherlock’s apparent death, I wasn’t too sure that Thompson was the right guy to write such an important story.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The Reichenbach Fall has its flaws as a story, and I’ll come on to those, but no more so than either of the previous two. It plays with the expectations of Holmes aficionados far less than recent episodes, taking the bare bones of Doyle’s The Final Problem – a duel between Holmes and Moriarty, culminating in their apparent deaths – and dispensing with the rest to come up with a twisty turny tale all of its own. And in the process, it rather cleverly plays with our expectations not of Holmes the 19th century character, but of Sherlock the now established 21st century hero.

Presumably thinking the audience would be aware of the story’s ultimate end, Thompson actually opened with a scene of a tearful John talking to his therapist about the death of his ‘best friend’ Sherlock Holmes. So expectations were set from the very beginning, but in fact this pre-credits revelation was easily forgotten in the tempestuous story that then unfolded.

In a “Three Months Earlier” timeframe, we were shown a montage of Sherlock solving various crimes, including the theft of the painting ‘The Falls at Reichenbach’ (the only nod to the story’s original setting). But as Holmes began to attract more and more press attention (much to John’s concern), it was as ‘The Reichenbach Hero’ that he was labelled. John, much to his annoyance, simply attracted the label “confirmed bachelor” (“What are they trying to say?!”), in yet another reference to the perception that he and Sherlock could be a couple.

Intercut with all this was a sequence of Moriarty setting up, then executing, a fiendish plan to simultaneously break into Pentonville Prison, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London, where he sat draped in the Crown Jewels until the police turned up to arrest him. Cleverly scored with Rossini’s ‘The Thieving Magpie’, this was a well-put together sequence from frequent Doctor Who director Toby Haynes, who kept up the series’ standard of visual excellence extremely well throughout.

From then on, it was a battle of wits between Sherlock and Jim Moriarty, as Jim used Sherlock’s new press fame in an attempt to discredit and utterly destroy him, while Sherlock tried, seemingly in vain, to keep up and finally nail the villain who sat at the middle of his spiderweb of crime. The resemblance to last year’s finale The Great Game was a little bit of a flaw, but this was anything but formulaic. Perhaps as a result of the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic, the idea of a battle of wits between hero and villain is now de rigeur in crime drama, and when done well – as it was here – it never fails to entertain me.

Far more so than The Great Game (where he only appeared for a few minutes at the very end), Moriarty was given centre stage here along with Sherlock, and Andrew Scott again showed how much fun this new version of Sherlock’s nemesis can be. By turns camp, playful, and utterly, dangerously insane, Jim Moriarty was plainly every bit Sherlock’s equal. And again in keeping with the established idea of the hero/nemesis dynamic, he was presented as Sherlock’s dark mirror equivalent. In the splendid scene when Jim visited Sherlock at 221B Baker Street – another pinch from the original  story – Jim even stated this outright: “We’re just alike, you and I.”

That was hammered home by the fact that both viewed their battle as an intellectual game, while John and Lestrade were there, appalled, to remind them that there were real lives at stake here. But you got the impression that Sherlock cared about these just as little as Jim – chillingly demonstrated by Sherlock’s declaration that, “I might be on the side of the angels, but I’m definitely not one of them.”

Jim utilising his tame tabloid hack (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) to demolish Sherlock’s reputation felt oddly timely in the light of the Leveson Inquiry into press standards. As Sherlock was suspected of kidnapping, pursued by the police, and finally confronted by Jim in the alias of ‘Richard Brook’, an actor supposedly hired by Sherlock himself to be an arch nemesis, this had the potential to really screw with the audience’s heads as they reflected that everything they’d seen since the show began might be false.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that clever gambit worked as well as it might have. Like John, we never doubted Sherlock for a moment. Still, even if it didn’t hoodwink the audience, it served its purpose in deceiving the characters in the show – except, of course, John, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade. And so, with nowhere left to go, Sherlock turned to his poor admirer Molly at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, only to find himself in a final confrontation with Jim Moriarty atop its windswept roof.

This was an electric scene, brilliantly played by Scott and Cumberbatch, as each tried to gain the intellectual upper hand in their game. Jim revealed that his supposed ‘unlock anything’ phone app never really existed, and that his plan was for the demoralised Sherlock to kill himself. If he didn’t, assassins were primed to shoot his only friends, John, Lestrade and Mrs Hudson. Sherlock countered with the knowledge that Jim must be able to call them off if necessary. Then Jim made the ultimate endgame move – as the only way to ensure Sherlock’s suicide was for him to die too, he promptly shot himself.

That was a bit of a shocker, but the scene had increasingly and convincingly revealed the extent of Jim’s insanity. You really believed that he would go so far as to die just to win his  intellectual pissing contest with Sherlock. And it looked like he had won; with nothing else left to do, Sherlock confessed to John that he really was a fraud before quite graphically throwing himself from the roof and landing in an all too convincing bloody heap on the pavement.

Even more so than in The Final Problem, this made Sherlock’s death seem a certainty. After all, we’d been shown him stepping off the edge, then shown his bloodied body on the pavement, attended by John who surely couldn’t have misidentified him. And yet the final scene, as a tearful John and Mrs Hudson paid their respects at his graveside, showed him to be very much alive, standing silent and unseen nearby. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

I’m still not sure if this was the right way to play it. Surely it would have been a better cliffhanger if, as in the original story, we thought he really was dead, and hoped against hope that there’d be some way out of it. But on the other hand, I can see why the showrunners might not have wanted to end the series on such a down note. What it does do, though, is leave us with an intellectual cliffhanger – how on earth did he do that?

Unsurprisingly, I’ve seen plenty of internet theories already. Some have speculated on the hallucinogenic drugs from last week’s episode, which seems unlikely – Sherlock would presumably have had to drug all the witnesses. Still, with it taking a gaseous form, not impossible. Another theory is that the ‘help’ he wanted from Molly was to procure a lookalike body from the hospital morgue in just this eventuality; or that there was already a Moriarty-created lookalike – remember the little girl kidnap victim who screamed on seeing Sherlock at the hospital?

My theory is that it has something to do with the mannequin we already saw at Sherlock’s flat, as he tried to solve a century-old crime. Holmes fans may remember that, in his ‘return from the grave’ story The Adventure of the Empty House, he tricked would-be assassins with a mannequin replica of himself strategically placed in the window of his flat. Given the show’s frequent nods to the source material, my money’s on some variant of this. As Steven Moffat has now confirmed via Twitter that there will be a third series, we shall find out – let’s hope it takes less than eighteen months this time!

Moffat also used Twitter to indicate that there would be “two nods to the past” in this episode. Not sure exactly what he meant, as the show is always chock full of references to Doyle’s original stories. But my guess would be, firstly, the return of that hat, given as a jokey present by the police to Sherlock.

I love what they’ve done with the convention of the character wearing a deerstalker. Doyle’s stories never reference this kind of hat; it was popularised firstly by some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations, then by Basil Rathbone’s screen version. And yet the popular perception has become that this is the kind of hat that Holmes always wears. As John amusingly puts it, “that’s no longer a deerstalker. That’s a Sherlock Holmes hat” – which, as the owner of several deerstalkers, I can confirm is exactly what people think. That Sherlock actively hates the hat makes this even funnier.

The other major reference to Doyle must be the appearance, finally, of Mycroft’s beloved Diogenes Club, a refuge for “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town”, where speech is strictly forbidden except in one reserved area. Knowing the rule as I did, it was hugely funny to see John trying exasperatedly to get a response from the increasingly appalled looking club members, until finally some stewards hauled him off to the visitors room to meet Mycroft. Latterday literature has recast the Diogenes Club as the public front for shadowy British intelligence agencies – given Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of Mycroft as having fingers in every government pie, that seems equally believable here. I wonder if we’ll see more of it next series?

But the final word on this gripping finale must belong to the portrayals of the main characters. As Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has been, if anything, even better than he was last year. With the final plot twist that he’ll sacrifice his reputation and even (seemingly) his life to help his friends, this story shows the culmination of an arc of ‘humanisation’ of the Asperger’s-like Sherlock this year. In A Scandal in Belgravia, we saw him exhibit real (if deeply repressed) feelings for Irene Adler, and having to make an awkward, forced apology to poor Molly. By The Hounds of Baskerville, shaken by his experience with the terror-inducing drug, he offers a no less awkward, but voluntary and heartfelt, apology to John. And in The Reichenbach Fall, we see a hero who acknowledges that he loves and needs his few friends – enough to, in effect, destroy himself for them.

And Martin Freeman has stepped up his already likeable performance as John to reflect this. The constant in-jokes about whether he and Sherlock are in a relationship now seem to have a real purpose; because, despite the fact that John is entirely straight, they plainly are. It’s an indication of this series’ fluid approach to love and sexuality that John, while not gay, is genuinely in love with his best friend, to the extent of his heartrending tears in the opening and closing scenes of this episode. A ‘bromance’ indeed, and pretty similar to the highly infrequent displays of emotion from Holmes in the original stories.

This has been a triumphant second series for Sherlock, and any doubts I had about Steve Thompson’s ability to satisfyingly conclude it have been washed away. Each of the stories has been great in its own, uniquely distinct, way, and if anything, the quality has topped the first acclaimed series. Along the way, we’ve seen some thrills, some humour, some brain taxing plots and even some controversy. But I’ve enjoyed it hugely, and if a limit of three episodes per series, produced over a very long period of time, is what it takes to maintain this standard, then so be it. However long it takes, this viewer – and, I suspect, millions of others – will be back.

Shocked by Sherlock? – The problems with diversity on TV.

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As hypothesised in my review of Monday’s Sherlock, the pre-watershed broadcast of (discreetly shot) nudity (only Irene Adler’s, I note, not Sherlock’s) has got certain people all hot under the collar. Well, the Daily Mail, inevitably. Indeed, so eager were they to condemn this filth being available to those children still up at 8.10pm, they printed the above picture of it for children to see at any time of the day, alongside their usual sidebar parade of bikini-clad celebs cavorting on the beach.

It is debatable whether a show where one of the central characters is a paid dominatrix who uses her sexuality as a weapon in her games is acceptable pre-watershed viewing. But I stick to my guns of saying that it walked a thin line without falling off; think of all the pre-watershed crime dramas in which prostitution is a key part of the plot. It used to be almost a weekly occurrence in The Bill, back when that was a half hour show on at 8pm. Not to mention the downright dirty jokes in sitcoms and sketch shows as far back as the 70s – did anybody really not get the double entendres about Mrs Slocombe’s pussy in Are You Being Served?

Nor is (I’ll repeat, discreetly shot) nudity anything new in pre-watershed programming. I don’t recall any storms of protest over pre-9pm broadcasts of Carry On Camping, which contains that scene of a young Barbara Windsor accidentally losing her bra. And oddly, less discreetly shot male nudity seems to go without comment on many occasions – what about that bit in Doctor Who episode Love and Monsters where man-hungry mum Jackie Tyler contrives to get Marc Warren’s shirt off?

No, the Mail’s usual hysteria didn’t strike me as anything to worry about. But as a bit of a lefty liberal, what did concern me was a couple of articles condemning Steven Moffat’s portrayal of Irene Adler as demeaning to women, and a retrograde step from Arthur Conan Doyle’s original character. Both Jane Clare Jones’ piece in The Guardian and its presumable inspiration on the Another Angry Woman blog maintain that the final few minutes of the show undercut a previously good portrait of a strong female character, by having her machinations revealed to have been planned by Moriarty (a man), then falling for Sherlock despite having previously claimed to be gay, and finally and most ignominiously of all, having to be rescued from peril by Holmes himself. Both argue that this reduces the ‘strong woman’ status of a character who, in Doyle’s original, needed no help from a man.

It’s certainly a reading you can make. And I can understand all sorts of objections to that final flashback, which tonally did reduce a previously cerebral drama to the level of Boys’ Own heroism (and yes, I did choose that particular comic as an example intentionally). However, it has provoked the same heated online debates as so many feminist articles in The Guardian – it’s anti-men, it’s humourless, it’s just a TV show etc. I must admit, this was my first reaction on reading the original blog post, but then I realised it was a topic worth thinking more seriously about. And to give her credit, blogger Stavvers posted a well-reasoned follow-up in light of the controversy, making a good argument for the need for diversity in mainstream TV. But in defence of Steven Moffat, I’d like to add my two cents worth as to why I didn’t  – quite – see it this way.

Firstly, it must be remembered that the original Irene Adler only appeared in one, pretty short, Holmes story – A Scandal in Bohemia – and that Arthur Conan Doyle was, at the time, writing basically pulp literature for those with short attention spans (one reason I’ve always found it so accessible, I guess). As such, detail on Irene’s character, her personality and her past is necessarily sparse, and much of the popular perception of her is based on the reams of theses and fan fictions produced by scholars and fans of the Holmes canon.

Yes, in the incident with Holmes she is a strong female character, who achieves everything she does independently, without male help. And yet, how do we, the readers, know that she’s always been this independent? Doyle provides no definitive answer either way. Like so much perceived prejudice on TV, our perception of Moffat’s version of Irene depends on preconceptions we ourselves have developed before watching; I really don’t think we can categorically say that Doyle’s character was definitively a more independent woman than Moffat’s.

The nudity in that scene where Irene first meets Sherlock has been seen as exploitative, too, but I took it to be rather cleverer than that. Most obviously, she’s done her research on Sherlock, and knows how much he can deduce about a person from their clothing. Her nudity is a deliberate attempt to prevent that – as shown by his visualised inability to work out anything about her from her initial appearance. But it does go deeper than that. This Irene, extrapolating from what we know of Doyle’s original, is empowered enough to use her sexuality as a weapon. And while John is most obviously discomfited by this, it’s worth remembering that Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock is cleverly poised between genuinely asexual and deeply repressed. I don’t think he would have been entirely immune.

Which also has a bearing on another big objection both Stavvers and Jones have to this portrayal. It can seem as though Irene (who has stated that she’s gay) has overcome her sexuality to fall for Sherlock because he’s just so great, while he, conversely, is free of such ‘feminine’ things as emotions, and therefore superior to her.

Again, though, I disagree on almost every count. Sherlock is portrayed, both in the writing and the performance, as deeply emotionally repressed – but that doesn’t mean he’s without emotions (or superior for that matter – in this regard, John comes off as the better human being). The whole point of the relationship is that, yes, she does have feelings for him, feelings she can’t admit – and so does he. Cumberbatch’s performance sold that to me totally, and I’m surprised anyone missed it.

As to Irene’s apparent disregard of her sexuality, it should be noted that the context of her statement about being gay is very significant. It comes just after she’s been taunting John  about the homoerotic undercurrents in his relationship with Sherlock, and he’s exasperatedly exclaimed, “I am not gay!”, with hints that this is just denial. When she follows it up with, “I am.”, I took that as yet another dig at him and his apparent denial, as we’d already seen that Irene’s sexuality was rather more fluid than that from her ‘clients’. And speaking as a man who is – mostly – gay, I always prefer my TV characters to be sexually fluid rather than rigidly pigeonholed by attraction to one gender or the other; that was one reason I found the portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness in the recent Torchwood so disappointing, as he’d gone from being ‘omnisexual’ to just plain gay. That, to me, felt like more of a retrograde step than this portrayal of Irene Adler. And there, I’m willing to admit, is a view shaped by my preconceptions…

That last flashback, though, in which Sherlock rescues a prone Irene from decapitation-hungry terrorists, is harder to defend. Aside from lowering the tone of the drama rather (not that this bothered me particularly at the time), you can see how Irene ends up as the traditional damsel in distress, dependent on the hero for rescue – very much the antithesis of how the character is usually seen.

The problem here is one that I know has offended Holmes purists as well as feminists – Irene doesn’t win, as she did in the original story. As a Holmes fan, I wasn’t sure I liked that either. But if the final story in this three part series is indeed based on Doyle’s The Final Problem, we’re going to see a cliffhanger which looks like Moriarty has beaten Sherlock – or at the very least ended up with a no-score draw, as both characters are seen to die. I don’t think the series is established enough yet to start showing Sherlock as so fallible at he loses more than he wins in one year. That’s not sexist, it’s just the nature of a show which depends on having a (nearly) infallible hero.

But speaking of Moriarty, what of the claim that his assistance renders Irene’s independence as a woman invalid? That’s an interesting one, precisely because I originally wondered whether, in this new ‘reinvention’, Moriarty would be ‘reinvented’ as a woman. There’s precedent for that kind of thing – Blake’s 7’s ubervillain Servalan was originally conceived as a man, apparently, but the casting of the majestic Jacqueline Pearce in the role gave the narrative a whole new dynamic.

With that in mind, I’d thought that a female Moriarty (the Imelda Marcos of crime?) would be an interesting idea. But I can see precisely why Moffat didn’t do it – because, as a Holmes fan, he wanted to feature Irene Adler as ‘the woman’. So we’ve ended up with a male Moriarty, although I wonder whether, given his level of camp, he’s actually gay. More likely, as a counterpoint to Sherlock, he’s similarly ascetic, I suppose. But I didn’t get the impression that he’d masterminded Irene’s scheme. Again, quite the reverse – he was willing to postpone killing Sherlock and John when he had the chance, simply to allow Irene to use them as tools in her game. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

As Stavvers notes, Doyle’s Irene does what she does to ensure the security of a good marriage, but that’s the social context of the period in which the story was written. Fair enough, but what about the context of this time period? Have we reached a stage where mainstream TV diversity is so guaranteed that it’s irrelevant, plotwise, what gender/sexuality/ethnicity a character is and how independent they are? Both Stavvers and Jones maintain that we haven’t, and further that Steven Moffat is a serial offender in negative portrayals of women as weak and dependent on men.

I find the second point hard to accept about the man who created Lynda Day in Press Gang and River Song in Doctor Who. In fact, I tend to find River Song annoying precisely because she eclipses the (male) main character so much of the time. And Coupling, which Stavvers condemns as “heteronormative” and “binary-obsessed”, was surely a typical situation comedy, not seeking to broaden horizons but merely to entertain in a mainstream way. Besides, from what I’ve seen of it, both genders come off equally unfavourably.

But the argument that we still haven’t reached a point where diversity is the norm is harder to refute. Many moons ago, Star Trek sought to redress a criticism that its ‘inclusive’ universe didn’t include any LGBT characters, with the awful Next Generation episode The Outcast. This totally fudged the issue in two ways. Firstly, by evading the actual subject, introducing an asexual species for whom any sexuality was a thoughtcrime. Secondly, and more significantly, by making it an issue at all. In a truly inclusive future, it simply wouldn’t be a big deal, which Star Trek later did right in a throwaway line in Deep Space Nine. Confronted by a ‘reincarnation’ of a former lover, now female like herself, Jadzia Dax is torn over whether to rekindle their relationship. But it’s not a gender issue; rather, it’s a cultural one relating to her race. As far as same-sex relationships go, the rest of the crew just shrug and wonder why she isn’t just getting on with it.

That’s the right way to handle it, as soap operas are slowly realising with some believable storylines in shows like EastEnders and Hollyoaks. But there are still plenty of plotlines revolving around homosexuality as an issue in itself. Regardless of Harvey Fierstein’s one-time assertion that any visibility is better than none, I’d rather see LGBT people not ghettoised on TV as they were in the 70s, when John Inman and Larry Grayson were everyone’s TV shorthand for homosexuality.

Of course, Russell T Davies made giant strides here, first with the breakout success of Queer as Folk, then with the “just like anyone else” gay characters in Doctor Who. For which he was, of course, accused of having a “gay agenda”. Again, this is an issue depending on the preconceptions of the viewer, and this viewer saw it as a positive step that, in the Whoniverse, gayness was just accepted (except in the historical context where it wouldn’t have been, in stories set in the past, but even this is generally handled well). For my money, Moffat’s run on the show has continued this trend, with characters like the “thin, fat, married, gay Anglican Marines” in A Good Man Goes to War, and the Doctor’s general acceptance of every kind of relationship – as exemplified by his kissing James Corden to distract him in Closing Time.

In terms of diversity, though, some insightful bloggers like Jennie Rigg have noted a tendency, particularly over the last couple of years, for non-white characters to be treated as cannon-fodder – in Star Trek terms, disposable red shirts. Having watched the show recently, I can see this point, though it’s worth pointing out the flipside of this. Basically, there are now so many characters with no script-specified ethnicity – as it should be – that many of them, including the more numerous background characters, are non-white. The flipside of this, of course, is that non-recurring characters in Doctor Who have a tendency – even under Steve Moffat – to die.

I’d argue that the reason it might seem like Who has a racist agenda in this regard is actually as a result of increased inclusiveness in its casting. This is, after all, the show whose reintroduction featured its white heroine in a relationship with a black man, something some more conservative territories found hard to stomach. True, she did almost immediately run off with a dour Northerner, but Mickey Smith went on to show himself as one of the strongest characters in the show, as did, later, Martha Jones. That’s a non-white, female character saving the world when the Doctor can’t, right there. And it didn’t even seem like an issue, because that’s one thing Who tends to get right.

One that did stand out this year – and this was remarked on – was the death of Muslim character Rita (Amara Karan) in Toby Whithouse episode The God Complex. But here again, this was the most positive portrayal, without being overly earnest, of a Muslim I’ve seen on TV recently. And in that episode, every – human – character died, white or not, leaving the only survivor of the episode David Walliams’ weaselly alien Gibbis – was the episode anti-human?Smile

No, I think Doctor Who’s got it about right, in terms of the balance between ethnic diversity in major, minor, regular and non-regular characters. But having done that, it’s churlish to complain of perceived racism if some of them get killed in a show which, let’s face it, has a lot of death in it. After all, how many white people got killed in the show the last few years. Come to that, how many non-humans? There’s only one ethnic boundary left to conquer – the first black Doctor. How about the brilliant Daniel Kaluuya? Or perhaps a female Doctor, as we know from Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife that Time Lords can change gender when regenerating. If we’re concerning ourselves with diversity, it’s interesting to ask yourself which of those – if either – you’d find harder to deal with. (Clue – it should be neither of them.)

This has ended up being a longer ramble than I originally intended, and the fact that there is so much to say on the subject shows, in my mind, that there are still are problems with diversity on television. But I think we’ve made bigger steps than Stavvers or Jane Claire Jones think. Again, this is a result of my preconceptions, but I’ve tried to examine them and think it through, something I’m not sure those with less reflective agendas have. There are often hints that some commentators believe writers should be issued with an equality checklist for every character like the ones you get on job applications, to ensure that each TV drama/comedy contains the requisite proportion of demographics, and that none are portrayed in any way negatively. But on television, as in life, positive discrimination is still discrimination, and reaching a decent balance needs to be achieved some other way than by militancy.

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name…” – Dr John H Watson MD, A Scandal in Bohemia

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In the Sherlock Holmes canon, there are only two adversaries who, despite only appearing in one short story each, loom larger than any others. Steven Moffat’s surprise hit modernisation of Holmes dealt with the first, and most obvious of them last year – James Moriarty, reinvented from a professor of mathematics with a dilettante interest in crime to a fully fledged ‘consulting criminal’, the logical opposite of Holmes himself. The other we finally caught up with this week, in the first, hotly anticipated episode after a long eighteen month break.

Irene Adler looms very large in the Holmes mythos, despite appearing in only one story – A Scandal in Bohemia, from which this episode drew its title and the first half of its plot. She’s far from the only female villain Holmes encounters, but she holds a unique position, unrivalled even by Moriarty, of being the only one of his foes to have actually beaten him. Holmes fans ascribe all sorts of interpretations to her relationship with the generally ascetic, asexual hero – the most common being that there was the merest frisson of a potential romance between them. Which makes sense – Sherlock may be distinctly lacking in carnal lusts, but what does turn him on is an intelligence equal to his own. Steven Moffat’s clever script for this first episode draws on all of that, cleverly playing with the expectations of Holmes aficionados while still telling a story that is perfectly accessible to those without encyclopaedic knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle’s back catalogue.

First though, he had to get our two heroes out of the cliffhanger ending he’d left them in all those months ago. I must say that, in the event, this seemed something of an anticlimax. If you recall, Holmes and Watson had been lured to a deserted swimming pool by Moriarty, at last revealed, who had hidden snipers trained on them while Sherlock decided that the best way out was to kill them all by shooting at, and detonating, the bomb which had until then been strapped round Watson. Got that?

Flashing forward to the now, we saw our heroes saved by a last minute phone call to Moriarty, heralded by his improbable ringtone of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin Alive’. For reasons that at first seemed unclear, this made him change his mind about killing Sherlock and John. This seemed like a copout, but as ever, the ending of the story made me reappraise this – when we saw the other end of the phone call, with a woman’s red painted nails ending the call, it was clear that this was Irene. And Moriarty’s change of heart, in light of what came later, actually made perfect sense.

Andrew Scott was as much fun as last series as Moriarty, playfully camp and humorous – the ‘awkward’ interplay of him excusing himself to answer the phone with Sherlock was hysterically funny. But as last year, he showed how he could change on a sixpence to being genuinely terrifying, as he capriciously switched to rage with his unknown caller. Moriarty’s role as puppetmaster meant that he was ‘present’ throughout, despite barely appearing onscreen, and I doubt we’ve seen the last of him for this year.

But on to Irene Adler. Given her reputation, it’s a demanding role; she has to be fiercely intelligent, calculating, and yet with a hidden depth of romance that she may not even be admitting to herself. Step up then, Lara Pulver, last seen battling enemy agents with her immaculately coiffured hair in the final series of Spooks. Given a very well-written role in Steven Moffat’s script, she seemed well up to the challenge. This new, modern Irene tempted her subjects to compromising, blackmail-prone photos as a high class dominatrix, simply known as ‘The Woman’, and there were less than subtle hints that she genuinely enjoyed her work.

This seemed like strong stuff for a pre-watershed show, and in fact I found myself wondering whether the 8.10 broadcast had originally been envisioned to go out after 9pm. But I think the show sailed just the right side of the line; any younger viewers watching a show like this can’t be entirely unaware of, ahem, ‘unusual’ sexual peccadilloes.

Which is just as well, as the new, modern Irene first presented herself to Holmes and Watson completely naked (albeit discreetly shot so no naughty bits were seen). Lara Pulver made her every bit as charming, glamorous and confident as she should have been, and her byplay with Holmes throughout was a joy.

Good as he had been last time, this was a new level of challenge for Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, and he rose to it admirably. It’s not difficult for an actor playing Holmes to convey icy intellectual aloofness; it’s far harder to deal with the implied feelings for Irene, feelings he too can’t really admit to himself. Cumberbatch added another layer to his performance here, not just in his deeply repressed feelings for Irene, but also his very real attachment to his friends. As we saw, when Mrs Hudson (the sublime Una Stubbs) was threatened by heavies, he got pretty angry – angry enough to throw the offending heavy out of the window. Several times. With hilarious consequences.

Not to say that the humour of the last series was absent in its portrayal of Sherlock though. Cumberbatch continues to make a good team with Martin Freeman as John Watson, and they have excellent comic timing. And the running gag of them being more than friends was still in evidence, as John’s latest disposable girlfriend told him he really was a great boyfriend – to Sherlock anyway. By the time Irene herself was dropping hints, he was exasperated enough to exclaim, “if there’s anyone out there who still cares, I am not gay!”

The plot was a typically labyrinthine Moffat puzzle, the first half faithfully adapting the original Scandal in Bohemia in a tale of Irene having hired Moriarty to help her in a twisty turny endeavour of blackmailing the British government over a shady intelligence plan. Complex it was, but as the pieces fell into place, it was clear that it hung together rather better than Moffat’s similarly convoluted plot for last year’s Doctor Who.

Along the way, the script was littered with Moffat’s trademark quickfire comic dialogue, delivered with precision by all concerned. Series co-creator Mark Gatiss popped up again as Sherlock’s shady spook brother Mycroft, and again, their interplay was both comic and revealing as the script dropped subtle hints about how bizarre it must have been growing up in the Holmes household. Sherlock, for his part, was again a semi-autistic ‘high functioning sociopath’, as he failed to recognise coroner Molly’s affection for him, embarrassing her in front of the guests at his Christmas gathering, and turned up, unconcerned and unclothed, for a consultation at Buckingham Palace (on a side note, I’d never realised what a nice body Benedict Cumberbatch has…)

While not alienating non-Holmes aficionados, the script was still littered with sly references to classic Arthur Conan Doyle stories and Holmes tropes in general, and I’m sure I didn’t pick them all up in one viewing. John’s blog continues to be the modern equivalent of his published accounts in the original stories, and there was much fun to be had with the titles he gave to the parade of cases they saw before they became entangled with Irene. Hence, a case involving comic book nerds became ‘the Geek Interpreter’ (referencing the Doyle story The Greek Interpreter), a mysterious dead woman became ‘The Speckled Blonde’ (The Speckled Band), and in perhaps the most side-splittingly contrived example, a strange belly button related case became ‘The Navel Treatment’ (The Naval Treaty).

Elsewhere, as John’s blog spread Sherlock’s fame, he was forced to disguise himself from the press by grabbing a handy nearby hat – a deerstalker, of course. I also liked the sly reference to John’s increasingly long list of disposable girlfriends – a nod, presumably, to Doyle’s inconsistent, cavalier treatment of Watson’s love life, in which girlfriends and even a wife were casually forgotten and not mentioned again.

Of course, the question for Holmes fans was whether Moffat would want to redress the balance by having Sherlock beat Irene this time. After it became clear that the original Scandal in Bohemia story had been dealt with about halfway in, the script cleverly played with our expectations here as first one, then the other seemed to gain the upper hand, in the game they played that obviously delighted them both. Right up to the very end, I thought that the script had let Irene win after all – then Sherlock pulled out his last ace, having scientifically deduced that she really did have feelings for him in order to finally work out the lock code for the cameraphone that was this modern version’s interpretation of the original’s photographs.

I’m forced to admit, that final solution did seem a little forced; I’ve never seen a phone that declares “I’M ____ LOCKED”, which was the only way to add the final touch of the code being “SHER” – still, I’m no smartphone expert, so maybe there is one. On a less technical side, it was a little obvious after the first try that Sherlock would have several goes at working out the code, and be successful on his last chance; but that didn’t really detract from the satisfaction of seeing it happen.

The totally hip, up to date stuff  – like smartphones – was as inventive as ever, with clever visual representations of text messages, blog writing, and Sherlock’s effortless ‘decoding’ of Irene’s mysterious email. It’s been a consistently appealing trademark of this modernisation that it paints Sherlock as being a man who – like the original – makes use of every cutting edge resource available to him. I suppose the one worry is that in being so up to the minute culturally, it might not age well. Still, that’s a pretty small niggle.

As the story came to a close, the script again played games with our expectations of whether this most worthy of Sherlock’s adversaries might survive to come back another day. She gets away with it in Doyle’s original story, but despite occasional references is never seen again. Here, we were (perhaps) hoodwinked by Mycroft’s revelation to John that she’d been beheaded by vengeance-hungry terrorists, only to have the rug pulled out from us again by a flashback revealing that Sherlock himself had been her sabre-wielding saviour in that scenario.

At least one person I know felt that that stretched credibility too far, with Holmes becoming almost a comic book superhero figure; but it worked for me in the same way as Robert Downey’s more atypically physical portrayal in Guy Ritchie’s recent movies. Doyle’s stories make clear that, as well as being an ascetic genius, Holmes is one double-hard bastard – we just never see it, only hearing about it secondhand from Holmes himself (of course, he might be bullshitting). Still, this reader has always been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt…

All told, this was a great opener that shows the series has lost none of the verve and appeal that made it a hit last time round. The cast are as great as ever, with Cumberbatch playing a role he could have been born for, and Martin Freeman making the best use I’ve ever seen of his established ‘decent normal bloke’ persona. Lara Pulver was a welcome addition as a modernised but totally faithful Irene Adler, and the script and direction continue to sparkle in a way that, for me, works better than Moffat’s recent Doctor Whos – if anything, this works better as a ‘family show’ than Doctor Who’s current ‘children’s show’ approach. Next week, it’s Russell Tovey and Russell Tovey-lookalike Stephen Wight in a new version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Can’t wait!

Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

“Well, this is all really rather clever, isn’t it?”

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Ring out the bells, it’s Christmas time – and the time for that most divisive of Doctor Who traditions, the saccharine, family-oriented Christmas special episode. Every year since the show returned, these episodes have divided the show’s dedicated fans like no other stories, with a very vocal group always, without fail, proclaiming each one as “the worst episode ever”.

But the thing about the Christmas episodes is that they’re very different beasts to the stories shown as part of the series proper. As a centrepiece of the BBC Christmas schedule since 2006, they have to appeal to a wider audience even than the extremely successful show normally manages. They can’t be steeped in continuity which would alienate casual viewers less familiar with the show’s Byzantine mythology. And as an intended piece of wholesome Christmas fare, they have to be even more family-oriented than the show usually is, and encapsulate the ‘sentimental’ feelings so closely associated with the festive season.

Whether you like or very vocally hate the Christmas episodes is very much dependent on your tolerance for these strictures. If you’re curmudgeonly enough to find all these things objectionable, then you’re going to hate the end product no matter how finely crafted. And for the last two years, there’s been the added factor of the distinctive style that Steven Moffat has brought to the show – a very children-friendly blend of fairy tale and magic (in the guise of technology) that, for some fans, represents a dumbing down of a show that used to eschew such things and praise the virtue of science over superstition.

This year’s story, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, had all these tropes in spades, and as usual, seems to have brought many a fanboy more outrage than joy this Christmas. But fanboys aren’t the Christmas episode’s intended audience; if some of them like it, well, great. But I doubt Steven Moffat’s going to lose much sleep over the ones who don’t. For this fanboy, the episode managed to – just – keep the balance of all these factors pretty much right. As a result, I found myself enjoying it, in fact more than last year’s.

One particular plus was that, unlike last year’s Dickens tribute, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe told a simple, linear story with none of the reliance on temporal paradoxes that’s been so divisive among the show’s fans. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoy this element of the show, but I do think it’s been rather overused recently, so a straightforward story was more than welcome for me.

But if that Moffat trope was conspicuously absent, there were plenty of others in evidence. Like its obvious inspiration, CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this was very much a children’s fairy tale, something Moffat seems to have steered the show towards in the last couple of years. All the fairy tale archetypes were there, and I have to admit, they appealed to my inner ten-year-old. There was a big old country house, a mysterious, magical ‘Caretaker’, and best of all, a portal to another world. Stories of mysterious gateways to other worlds were always a favourite of mine as a child, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed this.

Like Lewis’ novel, this took place in the early years of World War 2. Historical settings seem to work well for Christmas stories, perhaps because adults find the emotions surrounding Christmas to be steeped in nostalgia; even last year’s alien world was basically a pseudo-Victorian fantasy. World War 2 was not the nicest of historical periods, but in keeping with the general style, this focussed less on its unpleasant aspects, and more on the cosy, rose-tinted remembrance of a simpler time, with the bombing and the evacuation a perfect adventure for children.

It didn’t sidestep the nastier bits of war entirely, though, as we saw loving father Reg seemingly plummeting to his doom as  the pilot of a failing bomber over the Channel. This was nicely realised, but while Alexander Armstrong was great as Reg, it was hard to escape the memory of his street-talking comedy RAF pilot in The Armstrong and Miller show!

The ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ trope was much in evidence from the outset, with a typically frenetic prologue of the Doctor casually blowing up one of the standard alien ships intent on taking over the Earth. It’s a mark of how established the show now is that we take the preceding events for granted now; it’s an alien invasion, of course the Doctor’s going to beat it. The details of how are almost irrelevant – and a good thing too, as that kind of simplistic story was pretty old-hat even in the show’s ‘classic’ run.

It was an exciting sequence, full of pyrotechnics and well put together by director Farren Blackburn, who impressed me directing half of The Fades earlier this year. But it required quite a suspension of disbelief to swallow the part where the Doctor plummets into the vacuum of space, then grabs a handy spacesuit and puts it on to somehow survive re-entry and the crater-engendering impact in 1930s England. Fanboys may have been recalling a similar spacewalk in less than fondly remembered Peter Davison story Four to Doomsday; others probably just wondered how come he didn’t die. All right, there was a line that referred to the suit as an ‘impact suit’ that somehow repaired its wearer. But still, I suspect your tolerance of Moffat’s use of technology as magic will have influenced your opinion of the story even at this early stage.

If you could cope with that, though, you were likely to enjoy the magic of the story proper. After his rescue by doughty young mum Madge Arwell (the excellent Claire Skinner), the Doctor promises to return the favour; all she has to do is wish. In the event, it’s her children who do the wishing, which magically does bring him back on Christmas Eve, in time for him to act as a sort of mad uncle/Willy Wonka in ‘redecorating’ the old country house they’ve come to stay in for Christmas.

Matt Smith leaned very heavily on his comic talents as he showed them around the ‘improved’ house, which was like every child’s dream. Taps that dispense lemonade, dancing chairs, a rotating Christmas tree complete with train set – and a mysterious, very large present that turned out to be a gateway to a distant planet in the far future, where a magical (there’s that word again) forest grows natural Christmas decorations. Perfect for a Christmas outing; but as we’ve seen recently, this Doctor is all too fallible, and he hadn’t realised that spacefaring humans were about to melt down the forest for fuel with acid rain.

It was a nice touch to bring hard technology and future energy prospectors into such an overtly magical world, and an even nicer touch for fanboys that they came from Davison-era planet Androzani Major, The three technicians/soldiers were a nice comedy touch in the style of classic series writer Robert Holmes, with their amusing repartee, but it did seem odd to have cast comedian Bill Bailey and have him essentially function as the straight man of the group! Still, some amusing dialogue, with the scanners confused by woolly garments and Bailey’s look of comprehending horror when he realised Madge might just shoot them – because she was a mother looking for her children.

In fact, the whole story was very much an ode to the strength of motherhood and the bond a mother shares with her children – I wonder how much Steve Moffat’s wife (and mother to his children) Sue Vertue served as an inspiration. While the Doctor was there to explain everything, it was Madge who was the true hero, fearlessly chasing her children to an alien world, hoodwinking people from the future, and ultimately serving as the only one ‘strong’ enough to be a vessel for the souls of the sentient forest as they evacuated (like the wartime children) from the threat of imminent destruction.

Again, this was all very much steeped in fairy tale style magic, as the forest was represented by an anthropomorphised King and Queen styled as walking wooden statues. These were very nicely realised – in fact the CG was generally really good this episode – but looked to have stepped straight out of the pages of a classic storybook. As was their tower, ostensibly grown from wood, with its geodesic space/time ship at the top. Again, you had to swallow magic to swallow this, really. If the tower was grown from trees, presumably the ship was too – so how did it fly? What was its power supply? How did it access the time vortex? The trouble is, if these questions nagged at you, you probably have a problem with the Moffat style in general. Like the thwarted alien invasion, he asks his audience to take magic (ie advanced technology) on trust, with very little – or no – exposition to explain it. But to a modern child, technology and magic must seem very nearly indistinguishable from each other.

And it was no surprise – not really – that Madge’s trip through the vortex also had the side effect of rescuing her husband. As her thoughts locked onto him, and the ship became visible in a blaze of light, he flew his bomber straight into the vortex; a scene rather more poetic than the sillier spaceborne Spitfires in Victory of the Daleks, but undeniably similar. Reg’s sudden reappearance on the English lawn was a cheering moment, undercutting as it did the tearjerking scene with Madge trying to tell her children that their father was dead.

I actually found this rather predictable, unfortunately. From the moment I saw Reg’s bomber start to fail in the earlier scene, I just knew that he would be saved at the last minute. The manner of his salvation was well- worked out, but I never thought for one minute that the Christmas special would end with two heartbroken children learning of their father’s death. Not mention that in Moffat-Who, death is rarely permanent for nice characters. But while I sometimes feel that, in the series proper, this cheapens the idea of death and undercuts jeopardy, I have to say that it felt right here. And after all that emphasis on the virtues of motherhood, it was nice to see that the children needed their dad too. If anything, it was as much a celebration of family as any one member of it.

If all this doesn’t mention the Doctor too much, that’s because he was almost a McGuffin in this plot; but Matt Smith was as excellent as ever, switching in a heartbeat from slapstick comedy to emotional connection and even loneliness of his own. The final scene, with him realising that he too could cry with happiness, was rather beautiful – though I can imagine that, for some, this very much tipped the scales of saccharine too far. But it was a lovely surprise to see Amy and Rory again, and for the Doctor to finally embrace the friendship he’d been pushing away from last year. And here again, he had Madge to thank – such a good mother, she even reduced a 900 year old Time Lord to a surly teenager: “OK Mum. I’ll think about it.”

Generally then, an enjoyable Christmas special, light on the convoluted plotlines Moffat’s been so keen on, but steeped in all his other archetypes. I very much enjoyed it, even though the story felt a bit slight for all the spectacle. But as almost concentrated Moffatiness (a word I invented), I’m sure it’s going to be as love-it-or-hate-it as everything else he’s done with the show!

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 13–The Wedding of River Song

“You’ve decided the universe would be better off without you… the universe didn’t agree.”

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“…they were all wearing eyepatches!” Right, got that out of the way. So, this was the big one, the one that had to wrap up the oh-so-confusing story arc that’s divided fandom and caused newspapers to write articles with titles like “Has Doctor Who got too complicated?” And did it manage to tie up all those loose ends successfully? Well, actually yes, with yet more hints of a bigger storyline to come that surely must lead up to the 2013 50th anniversary of the show.

As usual with Steven Moffat, The Wedding of River Song was bursting with imaginative ideas almost thrown randomly into the mix, and hinged on some pretty sophisticated sci-fi and philosophical concepts. This was, actually, more satisfying as a plot resolution than I expected Mr Moffat to manage. And yet, for all that, I found it curiously lacking in… something. I can’t really pin down what, though my first thought was ‘feeling’. Yes, it resolved this season’s aspect of what it now clearly a longer overall plot. But while I’ve enjoyed the puzzle box plotting so beloved of Mr Moffat, his Rubik’s Cube plot has been so cerebral this year that it satisfies without actually stirring the emotions. I used to complain that Russell T Davies’ plot conclusions were all feeling at the expense of logic; this time, despite a fine balance in last year’s The Big Bang, the season finale seems to be quite the opposite. It’s logical, it makes sense, it answers the questions (well, the ones for this year anyway) – and yet it left me curiously unmoved. It’s as though Moffat’s having such a fine time showing how he solved the puzzle, he’s forgotten we’re supposed to like and be emotionally affected by the characters who form its component parts.

That’s not to say I hated this, mind. It perhaps had too much to pack in for a one episode story, and it certainly would have been totally inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t watched the series overall. But what we saw rattled along quite excitingly, pulling together not just plot points but themes that have dominated the year.

The main theme, of course, was the Doctor’s increasing guilt and self-loathing, and the story showed us how, over the course of this season, he’s managed to convince himself that he does more harm than good. And that, ultimately, the universe would be a better place without him. His weary acceptance of his own oncoming death, which Matt Smith brought across so well last week, was very much to the fore here. One of the key factors about the Eleventh Doctor, as I mentioned a while ago, is his fallibility; and it fits that, in thinking this, he’s actually wrong. If the episode can be said to have had an emotional climax, it was when River opened his eyes to that, with the universe eager to come to his aid – “all you had to do was ask”.

And of course, how the Doctor gets out of that death has been the biggest question of the year. Steven Moffat stated as the year began that “one of the main characters will definitely die in the season opener”. It was audacious that it should be the Doctor himself; still more audacious to state bluntly that it was a real death that couldn’t be got out of, a point hammered home by this episode’s insistence that the Doctor’s death was one of those fixed points in time that simply cannot be changed. But this is Steven Moffat, and he’s getting good at misdirecting his audience in advance. The Doctor’s Rule One – the Doctor lies – is almost certainly the mantra of its showrunner these days.

He may perhaps have overloaded the series with red herrings this year, conscious of the fact that fans would be analysing every little detail. What was the business about Rory talking about his time in the TARDIS in the past tense in The God Complex? Why so many episodes that centred on father/son relationships? These things may pay off later, as the longer arc is gradually revealed; but it’s probably not a bad idea to have each season function as one complete story within that arc. Year one was all about the Crack and the Pandorica (and we still haven’t had a satisfactory explanation of why the TARDIS exploded); this year has been all about the Silence, River Song, and her erratically unfolding life story. These aspects meshed together logically enough as a resolution to how the Doctor’s death could be simultaneously guaranteed and averted.

First though, we had to see how we got there. The episode had a clever, tricksy, non-linear narrative. Plunging us first of all into a visually imaginative world where steam trains roam the London skylines, cars float around under balloons, and Roman legionaries wait impatiently at traffic lights was deliberately disorienting. The further revelation that it was always 5.02pm on 22 April was another Sapphire and Steel like touch in a series that has been full of them this year.

It was also nice (if fan-pleasingly self-indulgent) to see the return of so many characters from the show’s past. Simon Callow popped up in a cameo as Charles Dickens, with a presumably post-modern reference to how good “this year’s Christmas Special” was going to be. Dr Mahlokeh the Silurian was back, as Roman Emperor Winston Churchill’s personal physician. And Churchill himself had rather more than the cameo part that those were; although ultimately, his appearance had nothing to do with the advancement of the plot. As he called for his soothsayer to explain “what’s gone wrong with time”, it was a surprise to absolutely no-one that the ragged figure his legionaries dragged in turned out to be none other than the Doctor – albeit with some of the most unconvincing stick-on facial hair I’ve ever seen. And I may have been imagining it, but was Matt Smith wearing a wig this week? His usual hairstyle was there, but somehow unconvincing, as though it was glued on…

That may or may not be a Moffat Big Clue (it probably isn’t), but we then got the preceding events filled in as one of those Star Wars style quests across multiple alien worlds Moffat seems so fond of. Here again, we got some really imaginative ideas tossed into the mix without any real exploration or development. As with A Good Man Goes to War, a lot of these might have been interesting enough to sustain an episode in themselves; the ‘live chess’ game with 4000 volts running through the pieces, the seedy bar the Doctor meets the Teselecta in (Mos Eisley spaceport?), the cavern of still-living, carnivorous heads lopped off by the headless monks. When I reviewed A Good Man Goes to War, I said that this was evidence of the abundance of interesting ideas Moffat has, and I still think that’s true; but churlish though it may be, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s more the case that he has the ideas and doesn’t really know what to do with them beyond making glancing references.

Whether or not that’s the case, it made for a colourful snapshot of a complicated galaxy (though whether the vignettes all took place in the same time zone was unclear). And the pit of skulls devouring an almost unrecognisable Mark Gatiss as Gantok was one of a number of memorable scary images this week. Not to mention another Moffat trope, the cameo inclusion of a big bad just to move the plot along – in this case a rather muted coloured New Dalek. I wonder whether its grey look was a result of damage or whether the production team have had second thoughts about their new Day Glo look? It’s also worth noting that the Dalek Amy drew as part of her remembrance of the Doctor was definitely an old style one…

Of course, this was all to lead us to the point where we came in – the death of the Doctor at Lake Silencio, in what, as Richard says over at the Millennium Dome blog, must be the most ridiculously convoluted assassination plot ever. And that was where it all changed, as River declared (contrary to what we’d previously been led to believe) that fixed points can be changed. Whoosh, bang, whiteout, and there we were back at the episode’s start, with all of history happening simultaneously.

That’s a neat concept I’ve seen played out in various comic strips over the years (notably 2000AD and, erm, Doctor Who Monthly). I’m not sure it actually makes any sense if you stop and think about it, but it mined a rich seam of weirdness as we saw Buckingham Palace adorned with ‘SPQR’ banners and heard Winston Churchill talking about downloads.

At that point it started to flow in a bit more of a linear way, and became slightly easier to follow. The return of the Silence was well-handled,with the creepy revelation that Winston and the Doctor have been seeing and forgetting them all through their conversation; though given that the Edvard Munch-alikes still seem to be in charge, it seems that, contrary to what we’ve been told, they are a species rather more than they’re a religion. Certainly their human lackeys – in this case Frances Barber as the memorably hubristic Madam Kovarian – seem quite disposable to them.

It all led to the big emotional scene at the top of the pyramid, in which River finally, actually, married the Doctor. This was an emotional scene, but it somehow lacked the punch of previous Big Teary bits in the Finale – notably the Doctor’s sacrificing of himself at the end of last year’s The Big Bang. And in fact, the plot here was quite similar to that episode too; the Doctor has to die, but how can he get out of it?

As it happened, I thought the way he got out of it this time was considerably less imaginative than having Amy dream him back into being. With at least one duplicate Doctor (from The Rebel Flesh) and one shape shifting time travelling robot having been seen this year, it seemed so obvious that it would be one of those substituting for the real Doctor that I assumed it would be another red herring. But no; with the Teselecta robot and its crew featuring so heavily in the ‘Previously on…’ sequence, it seemed a clincher from that point that they’d be taking it on. When the Doctor actually bumped into the Teselecta at the seedy space bar, that felt like it pretty much confirmed it. So when the script revealed the big switch, in that actually rather nice scene with a River out of time visiting Amy, it actually felt like a bit of an anticlimax. It also seems rather lucky that the Teselecta is capable of doing such a convincing job of imitating the regeneration process…

Of course, the other main plot point driving this year has been Amy’s pregnancy, and the not entirely unexpected reveal that River was her daughter. I – and a number of others – have found it slightly unbelievable that, since she discovered the truth about where baby Melody had gone, she and Rory seemed so unaffected by the loss of her opportunity to actually bring her up. Yes, it’s sort of a resolution that she actually grew up alongside her, and that, as River, Amy knows she’s going to turn out all right. And yet, at the same time, it never seemed believable that any parent would so easily accept that she would never get to bring her child up in a normal family environment.

I’d been hoping this uncharacteristic behaviour would pay off later (as some sort of mind control, perhaps), and here it did, but in a rather half hearted way. OK, you could say that Amy cold-bloodedly murdering Madam Kovarian for revenge over her lost baby is actually quite extreme; but as River comments later, it happened in an aborted alternate timeline – even if Amy is still torturing herself with guilt over it. It seemed to come rather out of nowhere too; this is the first time since she lost Melody to Madam Kovarian that Amy has even seemed that upset about it. For that matter, she’s had Madam Kovarian locked up for a while in the alternate reality and hasn’t hurt her till this point. Still, while I generally didn’t find it that satisfying, this was at least an acknowledgement that a real, breathing mum would actually be pretty upset over this turn of events.

Alternate Rory was pretty cool though, with his black ops uniform, gun and eyepatch. He got to be a hero again this week, as he held off the Silence despite being in agony. The fact that the Silent who spoke to him knew that he dies and comes back all the time was amusing, but did unfortunately underline another Moffat trope that many have come to dislike – the fact that, in Doctor Who these days, death is no real threat as anyone who dies will be back in some contrived way. This point was even further underlined by the return of the now bodiless Dorium Maldovar, who was mainly there to explain the plot.

And the plot’s not over, it seems (not that I really expected it to be, after last year’s finale). We now know that the Silence want the Doctor dead because, at some point in the future at a place called the Field of Trenzillor, he will answer a question they don’t want answered. We were teased by this all the way through the episode, as Maldovar told the Doctor fairly early on offscreen, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that the question (in a show that’s ever more concerned with dissecting the identity of its title character) was “Doctor who?” To underline the point, Maldovar’s head shouted it ever louder as the screen faded to black on an enigmatic close-up of Matt Smith. Doctor who indeed? A query the show’s never fully answered, with hints dropped every time we learn something about him that there’s some other, bigger revelation to come. If his identity is enough for a species/religious order to want him dead because it threatens them, it’s obviously a pretty big deal – and again, I’m wondering whether all this tantalising is leading up to a big revelation for the 50th anniversary.

All those returning characters felt, like Journey’s End, a bit self-indulgent, so if they do another big reunion for an anniversary special, it will already seem like a tiresome gimmick. But it was nice to see Amy and Rory again; the fact that they were in an alternate reality is a neat way of not invalidating the impact of their departure a couple of weeks ago. Plus, very much in keeping with the style of new Who, that penultimate scene in their garden was pretty much confirmation that they’re not gone for good. Whether they’re back as regulars next year I’m not sure (though there are enough unanswered questions about them that I feel they should be). But I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again at some point.

Unlike, sadly, Nicholas Courtney. It was a lovely decision of Steven Moffat to have Nick’s memorial within the show itself, rather than as a line in the credits. Admittedly, the scene felt tacked on, but if anyone deserves to have a scene tacked on to an episode, Nicholas Courtney is the one. Matt Smith did a nicely subtle job of portraying grief, something he seems very good at this year. It felt right that this often repressed Doctor should react in such an admirably stiff upper lip to hearing of the death of his longest standing friend. Of course, as a time traveller, he could pop back and visit the Brigadier whenever he liked, but that wasn’t really the point. This was really a memorial to the man who played him, but it was fitting that the character too got a send off. Whether it was intentional or a mere coincidence for it to have happened in a story so full of eyepatches we may never know..

All in all then, a conclusion to a controversially complex series that tied up the loose ends well enough while leaving us with hints of more to come, yet was for me a bit unsatisfying. It satisfied my head, but not my heart. Last year’s finale got this balance just right, for me anyway, but this year’s felt like it had tipped just too far towards the cerebral, despite the glorious visual invention on display. In a final analysis, I didn’t hate the Big Arc as so many others did, but this year neither was I that thrilled by it. I’ve actually found the standalone episodes more rewarding generally, with the arc stories (particularly A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler) seeming like witty pyrotechnic displays that were full of complexity but somehow lacked substance. While I’d hoped for more, The Wedding of River Song was enjoyable enough, but I hope Mr Moffat pulls out a few more stops next time.

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.

“My Sarah Jane Smith.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”

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

The Hand of Fear, 1976

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

The most wonderful time of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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