Doctor Who: Season 10, Episode 8 – The Lie of the Land

“Relax, and do as you’re told. Your future’s taken care of.”

(SPOILER ALERT!)

Well, that was strangely anticlimactic. As the end of the so-called ‘Monk trilogy’, Lie of the Land started well, then seemed to just peter out, leaving the viewer none the wiser about many of the questions posed by the previous two parts. Who were the Monks, really? What did they hope to gain from now running the Earth? With that kind of technology, why not just take over by force, and why run when their ruse was revealed? Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 10, Episode 8 – The Lie of the Land”

Doctor Who: Season 9, Episode 4 – Before the Flood

“This isn’t about saving me, I’m a dead man walking. I’m changing history to save Clara.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

It’s still a pretty good hit rate for this two-parter oriented season of Doctor Who. After a (very well done) slice of ultra-traditional Who last week, this week’s conclusion was very much riddled with what we are now bound to call “timey-wimeyness”. The fact that the ep opened with the Doctor giving a reasonably clear explanation of the bootstrap paradox set the tone for Toby Whithouse’s script from the very outset; last week was “trad-Who”, this week was “Nu-Who”. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Season 9, Episode 4 – Before the Flood”

Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake

“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that’s taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor. Anything else I ought to know, someone got a peanut allergy or something?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

With ratings juggernaut and offence to human culture Strictly Come Dancing once again dominating Saturday evening (to the tune of two bloody hours), this week Doctor Who found itself ignominiously shoved away from its traditional teatime slot to the graveyard depths of 8.25, by which time many of us would normally have gone out. Cue the usual ill-informed bunch of Moffat-haters claiming that drastic drops in the overnight ratings heralded that The End is Nigh? Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 3 – Under the Lake”

Being Human: Series 5, Episode 6–The Last Broadcast

“To desire to be human is the end, not the beginning. To want it is to have it. You’ve already won.”

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Well, I’ll be damned – Toby Whithouse has managed to have his cake and eat it.

When I first wrote about Being Human’s cancellation, I was sceptical about his apparently conflicting statements that he’d given the show a definite end, but that it would “keep fans guessing”. That sounded to me like he’d been informed of the cancellation after the fact, and was trying to make excuses for leaving us with an unresolved cliffhanger.

But no – I should have had more faith in the writer who’s rapidly impressing me as one of the best fantasy scripters out there. Not only did both of those statements turn out to be true, this final ever episode managed to fulfil some very tall orders. It served as a capstone to the show’s mythology and themes, gave us an emotional sendoff for characters I really didn’t want to say goodbye to, and provided a real ending – albeit with enough ambiguity to satisfy fans who wanted a happy end and those who wanted to see our heroes go out in a blaze of apocalyptic glory. All of that, and it managed to be a gripping, tearjerking hour of television with more horror, twists and humour than I had any right to expect.

We picked up exactly where we’d left off – Alex was trapped in her own grave, Tom was whittling stakes, and Hal was awakening his newly slaughtered vampire army at a local pub. Of all the things I probably didn’t expect in the show’s last ever episode, I’d rate a musical number pretty high among them; but that was what we got, in a blackly funny scene as the bloodstained Hal danced around the bar singing ‘Puttin on the Ritz’, even while tapping his newfound recruits awake.

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No that they lasted long, as Tom stormed in with stakes and phials of his own blood to put them back down in a Matrix-style action sequence that was pure brilliance before taking on Hal himself. Now that was a fight – kudos to director Daniel O’Hara for making the whole sequence so thrilling.

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And that was just the first five minutes. This was a full throttle episode from the start, which still had plenty of room for depth and introspection even while not stinting on the action. Fortunately, Alex had figured out that she could walk through solid objects and escaped the grave (which, admittedly, did rather undercut last week’s cliffhanger), and was there in time to stop Hal and Tom killing each other. This was fortunate because, as she put it, “shit’s getting real out there.”

Indeed it was, as the newly revitalised Captain Hatch (aka Beelzebub) had been taking a stroll around Barry before heading off into the wider world. I’d been wondering what exactly the Devil was going to get up to if freed; it became clear that, as usual, he was going to start the Apocalypse.

Yes, not very original I know. But it’s hard to dislike Phil Davis when he gets his teeth into a part like this. No longer a decrepit cripple, he pranced around with a fedora and a bright yellow tie, muck to Rook’s surprise, before letting the stuffy civil servant in on the truth. And forcing some info out of him that would turn out to help him spread his suicide-inducing ways to a much wider audience.

The vision of the Apocalypse starting in a place as prosaic as Barry Island was strangely in keeping with this show’s familiar mix of the supernatural and the mundane. It looked a bit low-budget, with the devastation confined to a couple of car crashes and a few bloodied corpses on the eerily empty streets. But the sense of a wider catastrophe was cleverly introduced with a news broadcast of the suicide epidemic spreading to Cardiff as our heroes, forced to ally against the greater evil, learned from the shaking Rook the venue for the Final Confrontation. Hatch (aka Old Nick) was off to take control of the country’s emergency broadcast system and spread his message of doom to the whole of Britain.

Toby Whithouse has never been shy about… er, pilfering from writers he admires. Way back in series 3, that nail-biting confrontation between Nina and the revitalised Herrick (“You know, you were the only one who was kind to me? I think I’ll let you live.”) was taken almost verbatim from an old Alan Moore comic, Marvelman:

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This time, in the first of several instances this episode, Whithouse managed another ‘homage’ to Moore; Hatch’s Address to the Nation was basically a rerun of the one from V for Vendetta: “I think it’s time we had a little talk.”

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But his demonic broadcast was interrupted by the arrival of our heroes, intent on restaging the ritual from 1918, and getting it right this time – to destroy the Devil. Amusingly, Hatch cut to the old Potter’s Wheel interlude while he was otherwise engaged:

“I’ll be right back.”

And here was where the episode got really twisty-turny. “You haven’t told them the fine print, have you?” smirked Hatch to Evil Hal. The ritual – involving a ghost drinking the mixed blood of vampire and werewolf – would kill all three. Except Evil Hal was clever, and had snatched some blood from a dying vampire earlier – just the same way he’d escaped ‘alive’ in 1918.

No dice though – Tom and Alex were still up for it, provided Hal would kick the Devil’s arse next time he showed up. Which was when the Old Tempter pulled his greatest trick, living up to that particular nickname. All three of them found themselves placed – apart – with their greatest temptations.

For Alex, it was never having died, and being with her dad (Gordon Kennedy, marvellous as ever). For Tom, it was being free of his curse and living in Honolulu Heights with the now-pregnant Allison. And for Hal, it was being back in the Belarussian forest where he was turned 500 years ago, and having the choice to die a human, never inflicting his brand of slaughter on the world. For added guilt, Leo turned up to persuade him that his own murders were a direct result of Hal’s decision.

It was good to see both Louis Mahoney as Leo and Ellie Kendrick as Allison; their appearances were vital to the plot, rather than just the sort of fan-pleasing gesture that Doctor Who so frequently does. But Hatch, simultaneously appearing to all three (“I’m not omnipresent, but I can multi-task”) had missed the thing that was so vital to all of them – each other. His temptations didn’t work because he’d missed the bonds of friendship this year’s series has so convincingly established. And so they said no to the Devil, and were back in the Emergency Broadcast studio. With the original blood mix smashed on the floor, even Evil Hal was prepared to die to stop the Apocalypse.

The sequences of the trio being tempted were both funny and heart-rending, and beautifully played by Damien Molony, Michael Socha and Kate Bracken. It was a real punch the air moment as the three were intercut telling Hatch where to get off. As it was when Rook, now rehired by the Home Secretary (Whithouse in one last cameo) unexpectedly blew Hatch’s head off.

It seemed a bit unsatisfactory as an ending, Hal opining that the Devil had “dispersed into the atmosphere”. But it was the first in a series of false endings that kept us guessing throughout. In a nutshell – Rook turned up, turned out to be possessed by the Devil, was cast out by the ritual, which the gang unexpectedly survived, and was then killed by Hal, casting Satan out for good. And as Alex discovered that she’d laddered her tights, the truth became clear; with the Devil gone, so had all their curses. They’d wanted so much to be human – and now they were.

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True, it seemed a little convenient. I could understand Hal and Tom going back to their human selves, but Alex? Being dead already, wouldn’t she just have shuffled off to the afterlife? Still, as the heroes got used to their newly human status (be careful what you wish for) and settled down, as ever to watch Antiques Roadshow, Whithouse sprang the final twist – the origami wolf (shades of Blade Runner) Hatch had left on the mantelpiece in Tom’s hallucination.

And that’s the ending he promised, that would keep us guessing. Did our heroes win, and get to live out natural lives as humans? Or are they still trapped in their greatest temptation, a happy life together, as the Devil spreads his Apocalypse through the world? What Mr Whithouse has done here is – he’s Inception’d us.

Yes, just as the end of Christopher Nolan’s mindbender (itself reminiscent of the original Total Recall) never definitively states if Leo DiCaprio has got back to the real world, so fans can take this ambiguous climax in the way that makes them happiest. If you want a happy ending, fine – they got one. If you wanted the heroes to perish while the world burned, fine – that might be just what happened. Something for everyone.

I can understand that some might find the ambiguity frustrating. But for me it was just right. I can come down on either side of the fence according to my mood! And in the end, this served perfectly to sum up the show’s continuing theme of what ‘being human’ really means. Even when they were ‘monsters’, as Hal pointed out, they were still ‘human’ – with all the flaws, possibilities and drive to improve that make us all human. A fitting capstone to five years of a show that will always be one of my favourites.

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Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 3–A Town Called Mercy

"“We all carry our prisons with us.  Mine is my past, yours is your morality.”

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As the mini-season of Doctor Who ‘standalone movies’ continues, this week we get the first attempt at an actual genre piece – the genre in question being the Western. The show’s tried doing one before, with questionable results in 1965’s The Gunfighters, which gave us this untrammelled musical classic from an offscreen Linda Baron (and, occasionally, Peter Purves):

The Man Who Never Would. Well, almost never.

 

This episode, however, directly confronts the issue of the Doctor’s morality, and how far he’s prepared to go. We needn’t be too shocked by the gun, which ultimately he declines to use. As with the best stories, he relies on his ingenuity, sending the gunslinger out after decoys to keep the town safe. And when Jex answers his own moral dilemma by blowing himself and his ship to bits, the Doctor’s prepared to see Kahler Tek as a victim as much as a villain, and entrust him with the town’s safekeeping from now on.

If the episode has a notable failing, it’s that it does seem to move quite slowly as a plot. Perhaps that’s due to the complex moral issues being debated by some well-drawn characters, but equally possibly, it’s that Leone influence again. Let’s not forget, Once Upon a Time in the West opens with a whole 15 minute sequence of gunslingers waiting for Charles Bronson’s arrival at a station in which nothing happens – and yet it’s a masterclass in building tension. A Town Called Mercy may not have time in its 45 minute runtime for that kind of operatic grandeur, but it certainly has a more measured pace than last week’s enjoyably frenetic offering.

A pretty good guest cast breathed life into Whithouse’s characteristically thoughtful dialogue (although some of the townsfolk’s American accents seemed a mite shaky). Aside from Browder’s likeable turn as Isaac, the standout was prolific character actor Adrian Scarborough, who imbued the nuanced character of Kahler Jex with pathos and likeability despite his crimes. His description of his people’s afterlife, climbing a rock carrying the souls of all those you’ve wronged, was beautifully written and delivered, giving his ultimate sacrifice a natural tear jerking quality far removed from the show’s frequent contrivance in this area.

Andrew Brooke as the gunslinger was suitably scary while also being sympathetic, not an easy trick to carry off from under all those prosthetics. Mind you, the design was very reminiscent of Red Dwarf’s simulants:

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And the idea of a beloved British sci fi show doing a Western also recalled that show’s classic episode Gunmen of the Apocalypse. Not a bad thing necessarily, but difficult to avoid for viewers of my age!

I thought this was an excellent episode, though my love of Westerns probably makes me less than objective here. It had real depth and complexity, while there was enough classic cowboy action to keep kids entertained. There was also some more hinting about Amy and Rory’s life passing by with occasional Doctor-visits, and what may be a developing theme about the Doctor’s morality, something Steven Moffat seems to keep returning to. Overall, another bullseye at making a movie-style episode in a season which so far has been more consistently enjoyable than last year. Next week it’s back to Chris Chibnall on scripting duties, but his effort last week makes me less trepidatious about that than I might once have been…

Doctor Who Season 5–the Facebook Marathon: Part 5

The adventure continues.

March 11, 2011, 10.44 pm. After the intense excitement of the Angels’ two parter, it’s time for a little light relief. Well, light insofar as alien fish people pretending to be vampires in 16th century Venice can be. This one’s so much fun that I barely posted anything on Facebook, so this’ll be a short entry.

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

After a Moffat-heavy first half of the season, it’s over to writer of Being Human Toby Whithouse for a gripping little standalone effort that reintroduces the magnificent Rory Williams:

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I love Toby Whithouse, so this one I can go into with confidence, despite the title’s resemblance to Klaus Kinski Nosferatu faux-sequel Vampire in Venice:

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Straight away we’re at the stag party of one Rory Williams, Amy’s intended, and the Doctor’s bursting out of a cake in place of the expected stripper. Eleanor, Arnold and I all love him, though I suspect for different reasons:

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The Doctor attempts to bluff his way around using that old faithful standby, the psychic paper. Yes, it’s a narrative shortcut, but heck, it’s even worse than the sonic screwdriver for “in one bound they were free” plot contrivance. And it’s been a little overused in the last six years:

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Having sneaked into the Calvieri Academy for the betterment of young ladies, the Doctor appears to have wandered into a scene from a 1960s Hammer film by mistake:

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Rory’s attempts at blending in are (comically) less successful than seasoned time travellers like the Doctor and Amy, making him automatically more realistic and less of a smug git:

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And that’s all that came up in the Facebook discussion. Alcohol-influenced I may have been by this point, but I recall I was enjoying watching the story too much to spend much time gabbing about it online. Time for the verdict:

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Yes, in a trend that seems to be the norm since Matt Smith took the helm of the TARDIS, I was finding that the standalone episodes were more satisfying to watch than the big ‘arc’ ones, even though those still kept me interested. Still, kudos to Mr Moffat with his showrunner’s hat on for giving a good mix of the two, at least in this season. Next up would be another one, and the first in a series of episodes written by top notch writers who’d never written Who before…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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