Television

Doctor Who S12 E5 “Fugitive of the Judoon” (2020) [BBC One]

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Well, that was rather unexpected.

When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who as showrunner, he had a clear vision to strip everything back and reinvent the show from the ground up. Gone were the recurring or returning characters from the past, or appearances from familiar monsters; no more complicated timey-wimey plot lines dipping into the show’s past continuity for story elements that only long time hardcore fans would understand. Start from first principles and work from there, seemed to be Chibnall’s new approach. But it proved decisive as well as daring, and while it reaped rewards in some areas it also alienated large sections of fans who grumpily declared that it was no longer the show they loved. When the Daleks returned for the 2019 New Years Day special it seemed like the show was throwing a bone to assuage these rabid packs of fans, as a reward for sticking in there.

To be honest, I thought that season 12 would see Chibnall return to his New Model Doctor, which is why the events of “Spyfall” – with the return of a very old adversary, together with a visit to the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey which has seen better times and needs a lick of paint and a truck load of new double glazing – proved such an unexpected shock. But since then the most recent episodes seem to have reverted to the S11 baseline with standalone stories featuring previously unseen characters, with an emphasis on real historical people where possible, and so it seemed that not much had changed after all. The advance publicity of the fifth story, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, seemed pretty much in the same vein with the one surprising aspect being that it’s the first time Chibnall has openly announced that he was bringing back an established character/monster from the past, rather than rolling it out as a hidden surprise.

I was puzzled by Chibnall’s choice of the Judoon for this purpose: they’re hardly from the top shelf of the pantheon of Doctor Who creations. First introduced in the season 3 opener “Smith and Jones”, the oafish and officious Judoon were always a one-note sight gag – Russell T Davies satirising lunk-headed private security guards and neanderthal nightclub bouncers by presenting them as trigger-happy space rhinos in leather skirts. They weren’t even the primary adversaries in their debut story, and more recent appearances have seen them limited to background extras in exotic alien crowd scenes. I suspect they’ve had more regular gainful employment scaring children by prowling around the auditorium at Doctor Who musical concerts and BBC Proms. I certainly hadn’t noticed many viewers clamouring for their return. Read the rest of this entry »

Father Brown S8 (BBC One) [2020]

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Father Brown continues to be one of the most reliable landmarks of the January TV scene, returning right on cue for a brand new season of ten episodes featuring Mark Williams as GK Chesterton’s eponymous country priest, Sorcha Cusack as parish housekeeper Mrs McCarthy and Emer Kenny as local socialite Bunty Windermere, together with Jack Deam as the irascible Inspector Mallory and John Burton as reliable, long-suffering Sergeant Goodfellow.

That’s the same regular cast as last year, and indeed this is now surely the most stable line-up that the series has enjoyed throughout its eight years of production. But for those pining over the loss of old favourites such as Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (played by Alex Price) then it’s still worth tuning in for some welcome cameo appearances. And stay tuned to the end of the run, because word has it that it’s getting unexpectedly crowded down at Kembleford Police Station, with an even more surprising returnee popping up.

With little else to add to last year’s observations (nothing ever really significantly changes in middle England in the 1950s, after all), it’s perhaps best just to get straight on with a look at the new episodes comprising the 2020 season. As ever, the accompanying notes do reveal some details of the episode in question that you may wish to avoid until after viewing, but you can be assured that we would never be so thoughtless as to give away the actual whodunnit! Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E4 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

When Doctor Who started in 1963 it alternated between two formats, the science-fiction-with-aliens variety and the historical-events-with-real-people sort told somewhat in the style of contemporary educational Ladybird books. The latter had run its course by the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, and while the show would still have stories set in the past and occasionally include people like HG Wells and George Stephenson, they would invariably be SciFi heavy. Arguably, thereafter only 1982s “Black Orchid” was a pure period piece. For the show’s relaunch in 2005, Russell T Davies introduced a new variant of ‘celebrity historical’ in which the Doctor was excited to meet his heroes like Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Vincent van Gogh, but that largely lapsed under Steven Moffat and it’s Chris Chibnall who has now revived the show’s interest in history with last season’s “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, followed by somewhat more fleeting supporting appearances from Lady Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Charles Babbage in this year’s “Spyfall”.

It’s hard not to think that this week’s episode started life as a more conventional, straightforward drama about the life and work of 1900s inventor and electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, and that writer Nina Metivier worked backwards from there to make it work as a Doctor Who story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, if it is indeed the case. Unusually we open not with our regular cast, but instead with Tesla making a presentation to a group of potential investors for his latest project. It’s not until he’s discovered a bit of anachronistic alien tech and gone on the run from some very inhuman-looking would-be assassins that the Doctor ((Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) show up to save the day almost five minutes in. It’s rare for a one-off guest role to get that sort of screen time all to theirselves, and as a result Tesla is the most rounded and developed character we’ve seen in the show for a while. It’s helped hugely by the fact that Tesla is played by Goran Višnjić, an international film and television star with such deep reserves of on-screen charisma, warmth and likability that he instantly made me pine for the days when ER was on television eery week. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Omens (2019) [BBC One/Amazon Prime]

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never really got along with the novels of Terry Pratchett. I know he’s a beloved publishing phenomenon, but his books have just never worked for me. Comedy is a very personal thing and if something misses the mark for you, no matter how good it is, then that’s that. In a similar vein I’ve not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books either, although in his case I have at least watched and enjoyed television shows based on his work including Lucifer and American Gods along with TV scripts he’s submitted to existing science fiction series such as Doctor Who and Babylon 5. However, for me there was never any question that Pratchett and Gaiman’s seminal 1990 literary collaboration Good Omens held very little appeal to me.

And yet when a TV adaptation was announced, I confess that there was something in the idea of David Tennant playing the cynical demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the prissy angel Aziraphale in a new BBC/Amazon co-production that got under my skin. The itch became such that I ended up getting the DVD of the series a few months ago, and I was sufficiently smitten to quickly follow that by purchasing and perusing the paperback of the original novel.

Adapted for the screen by Gaiman (who is also essentially the showrunner, in fulfilment of a promise he made to the late Sir Terry to finally get the project across the line after numerous thwarted prior attempts on both the big and small screen) it’s no surprise that this version is very faithful indeed to the book, with Gaiman performing just a little tidying up and polishing to correct or update some of the clunkier parts of the text. It’s also slightly reshaped to better fit into the six 55 minute instalments, which means that the first episode pushes back the introduction of some major characters in order to concentrate on the prophesied arrival on earth of the antichrist as the covertly adopted son of the US ambassador to the United Kingdom (a brief cameo from Nick Offerman), a scenario which is an obvious and cheerful homage to The Omen. Crowley and Aziraphale have been on Earth since the days of the Garden of Evil – and even played a crucial part in those events – and over the millennia since then have gone native albeit in very different ways. Neither want to see their cosy existence brought to an end by the inconvenience of Armageddon and so they try to thwart the ‘ineffable plan’ in such a way that will allow things to carry on as normal. Without getting caught by either side, moreover. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E3 “Orphan 55” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

There’s a particularly nice touch at the start of “Orphan 55”, the latest episode of Doctor Who, which opens as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are literally mopping up after their latest (unseen) adventure, in which the Doctor is called out for being unusually moody and downbeat. It is of course a reference to the way she is still processing the seismic impact of what she learned about Gallifrey at the end of “Spyfall”, but she’s not sharing that with the others. Instead, they decide it’s time for a holiday and duly head off for a break at the practically perfect paradise resort of Tranquillity Spa.

Naturally they’ve barely been there for ten minutes before everything starts to go catastrophically wrong, starting with Ryan being infected by a biological computer virus from a vending machine. Soon the entire facility is malfunctioning, opening the way for a full-scale invasion by terrifying monsters called the Dregs who make short work of dozens of guests until the Doctor can find a temporary solution to the problem. Long-time fans of the show will be thinking ‘this sounds familiar’ and the episode is indeed the latest iteration in one of the series’ most reliable variants, known to one and all as ‘base under siege’. It’s a very effective take on that established sub-genre, fast and furious from the start and not letting up for a second thereafter. The close-up, visceral way that the Dregs are photographed by director Lee Haven Jones is barely less horrifying than how Ridley Scott presented the xenomorph in the original Alien film, and I was amazed that the BBC cleared this for transmission so early in the evening. I suspect a lot of small children (and bigger ones, too!) had trouble sleeping afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E2 “Spyfall Part 2” (2020) [BBC One]

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After a strong season opener on New Year’s Day, the main thing that part two of “Spyfall” absolutely had to do was stick the landing and not drop the ball in the process – if you’ll pardon the clumsy mixed sporting metaphor. And the good news is that it pretty much pulled it off, rewarding the audience with another largely enjoyable hour of television featuring thrills, spill, laughs, action, spectacle – as well as an unexpectedly dark mystery at its core to carry us through the rest of the season.

The episode picks up exactly where part one left off, which means that Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are stuck on board a crashing airplane with the Doctor nowhere in sight – although that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also help save them from certain death. The two groups are subsequently kept apart for most of the rest of the episode, which means that the companions get some time to shine in their own right as they discuss what the Doctor would do if she was there. Graham meanwhile graduates from delivering muttered quips and witticisms to some full on slapstick as he uses a soft shoe shuffle to activate the laser shoes he purloined from MI6. Read the rest of this entry »

Tha Mallorca Files S1 (2019) [BBC One]

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With Father Brown returning to the BBC One daytime schedule today for an eighth season, it felt timely that we should pen a few words about a series that ‘sat in’ for the kindly country priest before Christmas.

The Mallorca Files is very much in the same light comedy/murder mystery vein, although generally tending so much in the former direction that the detective aspect of the show often finds itself elbowed entirely to one side. In many ways it feels like an attempt to make a new Death in Paradise albeit closer to home and on a much on a tighter budget, but still aiming for that winter ‘feel good’ viewing niche. A Clerkenwell Films/Cosmopolitan Pictures coproduction for BritBox backed by the BBC, France Télévision and ZDFneo filmed entirely on location in Spain’s Balearic Islands, it has a conglomerate European feel to it that for those of us of a certain age evokes the spirit of the BBC’s catastrophic failed 1990s soap El Dorado.

If you want a show that allows sea and sunshine to simply wash over you without being remotely demanding, then this might very well be the ideal show for you. However, others may find it frustratingly light on actual nourishment. It’s one of those classic mismatched police detective shows that plays with the well-travelled cliché of unresolved sexual tension between its two leads, with Elen Rhys playing the fish-out-of-water UK detective Miranda Blake who simply can’t stand the laid-back attitude of her German partner Max Winter played by Julian Looman. Just like Death in Paradise’s original lead DI Richard Poole, Miranda is only there because her colleagues and boss back in London can’t stand her because she’s so uptight not to mention a closet claustrophobic, while Max is a free spirit who has gone totally native on Mallorca in the years he’s been stationed there, and dreads the thought of ever returning to Germany. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E1 “Spyfall Part 1” (2020) [BBC One]

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A year to the day since its last episode, Doctor Who has finally returned to our screens with the first instalment of season 12 which also served as a New Years Day Special in the UK.

I think it’s fair to say that the previous season had proved somewhat divisive, with a disturbingly large section of the audience less than thrilled by the new incarnation as played by Jodie Whittaker and helmed by showrunner Chris Chibnall. Some of the things I’ve read about the most recent run of Doctor Who were extraordinarily scathing and vitriolic. While there were aspects I was also admittedly underwhelmed about, I didn’t think it deserved a fraction of the vicious criticism that was hurled at it with gleeful abandon by internet trolls.

Still, it was clear that there was a problem with what ended up on screen in 2018 and that there had to be some changes made, and so it was a great sense of anticipation and not a little apprehension that we sat down to see what the show had in store for us in 2020. The good news is that “Spyfall Part 1” is a terrific season opener that should satisfy pretty much all fans old and new and win universal acclamation as being “back on form”.

The hour-long episode had a sense of energy, excitement, confidence and sheer joy that at times had been painfully missing from an oft-lacklustre S11 that too often seemed over-awed by the task in hand and by its painfully earnest heart-on-sleeve sentiments that delivered triumphs like “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab” but elsewhere proved too lacking in thrills and spills for many. Read the rest of this entry »

Dracula E1 “The Rules of the Beast” (2020) [BBC One/Netflix]

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I’m a big fan of the work of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, but I confess that I was a little wary of their new take on the Dracula story. The trailers for the new three-part serial made it seem rather knowingly camp and full of quips, which didn’t appeal to me at all. And I wasn’t at all sure about the casting of Danish actor Claes Bang in the title role.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried. Moffat and Gatiss know exactly what they’re doing and stir in a rich mix of jet black horror into the well known tale of the Transylvanian aristocrat, keeping enough of the original source material while at the same time giving it an energising new approach to bring it alive for a new generation of viewers.

The first episode, which aired on BBC One on New Year’s Day, concentrated on the story of solicitor Jonathan Harker who travels to Count Dracula’s castle in order to conclude a property transaction only to find himself a prisoner, his life draining away while his elderly host (strongly evoking Gary Oldman’s 1992 take on the role) gets younger and more virile by the day. The first hour is surprisingly faithful to the equivalent early sections of the book, setting up the familiar (and not so familiar) rules by which vampires operate. However it does have to navigate through a century of contrary lore so some changes are inevitable – for example, the literary Dracula had no problem being in sunlight. And while this Dracula clearly has an issue with crucifixes and symbols of religious faith, he teases us by saying it’s not what we think it is – suggesting a series arc and a big reveal to come in part three.,

By sticking with this one story instead of jumping around as Bram Stoker did only enhanced the growing claustrophobia and terror. Moffat and Stoker respect the epistolic nature of the novel by having Harker relate his story to Sister Agatha, a nun at a convent in Hungary played by Dolly Wells. It’s only in the final half hour that the show starts to go in a new and original direction with big revelations about both Harker and Sister Agatha that will catch out anyone who thinks they know the story.

Yes, this Dracula is a little camp and comes up some eye rolling quips (although Sister Agatha is a match for him in terms of getting the laughs) but given how full-on the horror is elsewhere the light touches are a welcome variation in tone that work far better than I’d expected and/or feared. While still a little too louche for my liking, there’s no question that Bang assuredly delivers the big bucks in the main role. In the end I was quite taken by the first part and very much looking forward to the second, which airs tonight with the finale on Friday.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Dracula is airing in three 90-minutes episodes on BBC One on January 1-3 2020. It will be available after transmission on BBC iPlayer and is a co-production with Netflix.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Season 1 (2018) [DVD]

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Stories about US federal agencies bravely defending America from global terror threats go back a very long way – even before 9/11, all the way to the days of the Cold War when the ubiquitous bogeyman was the Soviet Union. Times were simpler then, and the situation is much more complex and diverse in the 21st century; although in terms of media representation the menace is usually given a Middle Eastern face.

In print terms, one of the foremost proponents of this type of tale was Tom Clancy, in particular though his series of novels featuring Jack Ryan. The character began his fictional life as a lowly CIA analyst in the 1984 book The Hunt for Red October before going on to become an accidental President of the United States over the course of the 21 titles to date and counting (Clancy’s death in 2013 not having stopped the literary output, as is the modern way in publishing.)

The huge success of the book series inevitably attracted the attentions of Hollywood, with The Hunt for Red October premiering in 1990 featuring Alec Baldwin. Then there were two sequels starring Harrison Ford as an older version of Ryan before the franchise stuttered, two further instalments starring Ben Affleck and Chris Pine also failing to reboot its box office fortunes. That meant it was time for TV to have a go, with Amazon Studios producing a 2018 miniseries featuring the character for its online streaming service in association with Paramount. Read the rest of this entry »

Thriller (1973-1976): Possession, Someone at the Top of the Stairs, An Echo of Theresa, The Colour of Blood

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thriller-titleEvery now and again I post a new batch of thoughts on the 1970s suspense anthology series Thriller created by one of the great writers of British television, Brian Clemens. It’s been a while since the last one in 2015 and I only have four more episodes under my belt to write about. However, I figure it’s better to post them now rather than continue to wait until I’ve had a chance to watch some more to feel that I have ‘enough’ to collect together!

So here goes with the latest set of reviews. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (1967) [DVD/Blu-ray]

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The first part of this year has been good for Doctor Who fans, with no less than four new home media releases in the first three months of 2019. The latest of these hit the shelves on Monday and is a brand-new version of the four-part 1967 serial “The Macra Terror”.

It’s the latest in the BBC’s series of animated reconstructions of ‘lost’ stories, where the original broadcast episodes were wiped by the BBC shortly after transmission and only the soundtrack remains thanks to a fan’s off-air recording at the time. The first of these recovery projects was “The Power of the Daleks” which I reviewed back in 2016 when it originally came out. Since then there’s also been a new version of 1979’s “Shada” in which similar animation was used in place of scenes never actually filmed at the time due to industrial action, meaning that the story was never completed or broadcast. Again, you can catch up with a detailed review of the end result that I wrote a year ago: to be honest, I found the back-and-forth between new line art sequences and the surviving original filmed footage rather jarring.

These are expensive projects and I’d wondered if the sales had been sufficient to justify any more of these reconstructions. But it appears they were, and hence this month Who fans got a brand new release to add to their doubtless already groaning collection of merchandise. However, I confess that I initially wasn’t wildly excited by the prospect of “The Macra Terror”, never having been particularly eager to see the story in question which to me had always sounded rather humdrum in synopsis. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators S2 [2019] (BBC One)

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I’ll be honest, there’s really very little to be said about BBC Daytime’s light hearted detective show Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators that wasn’t previously covered in my review of the first season a year ago. While the first run is only now getting an airing in the US, this series co-created by Father Brown alumni Jude Tindall and Paul Matthew Thompson has just returned for a second tranche of ten episodes on the BBC and picks up right where it left off, with the same cast and much the same mix of broad comedy, witty quips and the odd interesting whodunnit mixed in.

Mark Benton returns (now with added beard) as Frank Hathaway, a police officer who quit the force to become a private detective, with former hairdresser Jo Joyner back as his sleuthing partner Luella Shakespeare. They’re aided in their cases by Sebastian Brudenell (Patrick Walshe McBride), a young out-of-work actor who comes in handy when a bit of undercover surveillance work is needed; and by Sebastian’s landlady Gloria Fonteyn (Roberta Taylor) who runs a theatrical costumier store. Expressing continued exasperation at Shakespeare and Hathaway’s interference in her cases is Frank’s former police colleague, Detective Inspector Christina Marlowe (Amber Aga).

While no Father Brown, the show is acceptably entertaining nontheless. Set in Stratford-upon-Avon, it takes great delight in packing in as many Shakespeare related puns as possible, and whether it’s a genuine crime drama or a flat-out sitcom rather depends on the individual episode and the viewer’s forbearance. Certainly several of the episodes seem to drift more into outright comedy than before, so don’t go in expecting anything too meaty; simply put your brain in neutral and enjoy the ride and all will be well. Read the rest of this entry »

Father Brown S7 (BBC One) [2019]

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Christmas and New Year is all over: the presents have been put away, the tree is outside waiting to be recycled, and the decorations are back in the attic awaiting their annual recall in December. That can only mean one thing: it’s time for a new ten-part series of Father Brown on the BBC daytime schedules!

Naturally Mark Williams returns in the title role as the sleuthing cleric, aided once again by his parish secretary and general busybody Bridgette McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) in the face of opposition from the local police Inspector Gerry Mallory (Jack Deam) with Sergeant Daniel Goodfellow (John Burton) discretely treading the middle ground. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who New Year Special: “Resolution” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

The Doctor Who production team were damned if they did, damned if they didn’t on this one. As soon as they teased “the deadliest creature in the universe” in trailers, fandom was rife with speculation that this could only mean the return of the Daleks, after a maiden season for Jodie Whittaker conspicuously devoid of any of the Doctor’s greatest adversaries of the past. So should the production team deny it – and risk leaving fans disappointed and disillusioned weeks before the broadcast – or simply accept that the surprise had been spoiled?

Unfortunately, in the end the secret simply could not be kept all the way to New Year’s Day, which is the new slot for the annual Doctor Who special after it was bumped from Christmas Day. To be honest, I’m in two minds about this time switch as I found that it really did leave a sense of something missing on the 25th. There’s also an implication of the show losing prestige and no longer having the full-throated support of the current BBC hierarchy, both of which are worrying signs of those of us who are long-time fans. Read the rest of this entry »