Television

Exile – E1 and Vera – S1/E1

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What’s with the TV networks at the moment? Just as the summer’s on the horizon and the evenings are lighter, suddenly they’re digging out a load of drama goodies from their storeroom and flooding the schedules with new, original productions left, right and centre – after the drought of winter packed with unending reality shows and unedifying talent competitions.

So last night, we had the BBC’s Exile head to head with ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves. Interestingly, both had very Northern tones to them: Vera is set in Tyneside while Exile is based in Lancashire.

Exile is about Tom, a seemingly successful journalist in London, whose life and career suddenly implode for unspecified reasons (although sleeping with the boss’s wife probably didn’t help matters) forcing him to return home to his father and sister’s house in small-town Lancashire. His father is suffering from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, immediately making you suspect this is going to be one of those worthy, emotionally-wrought issue dramas and as a result the type of show that I would normally pass.

What makes the difference here is the pedigree of the show: as Tom, John Simm is one of Britain’s best actors of his generation, while Jim Broadbent is similarly one of the greatest actors of his time, too. They’re backed by a lovely performance from Olivia Colman as Tom’s sister, and the whole story is the idea of Paul Abbott, best known now for Shameless but who also created one of my all time thriller/conspiracy mini-series, State of Play – which stared John Simm as a journalist, coincidentally.

Simm’s character here is far less heroic – in fact he’s as screwed up and self destructive as any one man could be, giving Simm a lot to work with here and he doesn’t let us down. Broadbent gets less to do by virtue of his character’s condition but then inevitably proceeds to steal any scene he’s in. It’s almost enough to pull you in, even if it were just a family drama about the effects of that horrible degenerative disease, or a story about returning to one’s childhood home and discovering all too well that “you can’t go home again” and that the past is another, very different country – moments almost everyone has been through at some point in their lives and for whom this drama will hence ring very true indeed.

But the extra dimension here is that Tom’s father was a journalist too, and seems to have been hiding a secret from the 80s that is now lost in the collapsing ruins of his failing memory. What is that secret, and what damage has it done to father and son over the intervening decades? It’s an intriguing enough premise to make the whole production spring off the screen in an unexpected way, and suggests that this might be one of the drama series of the year.

Part 2 is tonight and part 3 Tuesday at 9pm. Part 1 is still on iPlayer, of course.

As for Vera – I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me. I might try it on catch-up video on-demand, but I’m not sure if I have the patience left for another police procedural right now – maybe that’s what makes Exile feel so refreshingly different at the moment. Most of all, though, from the brief sequences I saw, I just didn’t fundamentally believe in the central character: much though I like Brenda Blethyn as an actress, she just seems very odd for the role of a Detective Chief Inspector (not least the fact that at the outset of the series, she’s already five years older than mandatory police retirement age). Then again I’m sure Colombo was no more realistic or believable as an LAPD lieutenant, and that didn’t seem to hold him back too much over the years.

Doctor Who S6 E2 – Day of the Moon

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NOTE: packed full of spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.

Oh boy. Remember how, in my review of episode 1 of the new series of Doctor Who, I suggested that we might have a better chance of understanding what was going on in the season opener after we’d seen the second of the two parts? How sweetly naive and utterly wrong that hope turned out to be.

To put it simply: at some point during the 42 minutes of “Day of the Moon”, my brain broke. Not only did the episode totally and wilfully avoid answering any of the questions that part 1 threw up, it then plunged on and upped the ante with a series of further shock twists and revelations that left you questioning just about everything you were seeing.

Was the first episode shock of the Doctor’s shooting picked up and resolved? No. It wasn’t even mentioned once this time around. Do we learn who the little girl is? No. But we do find that she has a photograph of her with Amy, upping the likelihood that she’s Amy’s daughter after Amy blurted out that she was pregnant at the end of episode 1 … except that in an oddly belated off-hand follow-up, Amy says she’s not pregnant after all and it was just a side-effect of the Silents’ mind control leaving her with nausea (something we saw affect River as well, so it’s possible.) But then why is the Doctor running a pregnancy scan on her? And why is that scan oscillating between pregnant/not pregnant? Is that just what it does while calibrating and is teasing us by withholding the actual answer from us, or is it possible that she’s genuinely both in some way? Or is this just all too obvious for someone as fiendish as Steven Moffat?

The one thing the episode did do was wrap up the immediate story about the invasion (or rather, ongoing occupation) of the Earth by the Silents, through a very neat (if hard to keep up with) twist of broadcasting the aliens’ own commands over the most watched single piece of TV footage in history, hence enabling the population of Earth to be able to see and thus fight the Silents. Some people might grumble that this was a piece of technobabble deus ex machina sleight-of-hand, but in which case they need to watch again: all the pieces are so carefully and fastidiously put in place beforehand that it’s practically a text book example of how to write this sort of thing and not cheat the audience. But while it provides an immediate end to the current story, it does nothing to answer the bigger questions. The Silents, we learn, are parasites who have been steering human history in order to get us to build things they want – such as instigating the space race in order to get spacesuits. But why do they need the suits? Why put a little girl into one? What’s the overall plan? And what’s that leftover ship from “The Lodger” doing? (And yes, it was confirmed that it was the same sort of ship by the Doctor, who comments “I’ve seen one of these before, abandoned.”)

Some of the flaws in episode 1 were addressed and improved upon by the second part. The period feel I felt missing last week was handsomely delivered this time around. And the Silents were much more effective: for long stretches of the episode we don’t see them at all, but their presence is registered by flashing implanted voice mail indicators and by pen marks the characters draw on their arms and faces to mark a “sighting”; and it’s utterly chilling and jarring, when with no warning at all these indicators suddenly appear and we don’t know why, because … Well, we’ve forgotten, too. Suddenly the power and the threat and the sheer terror of the Silents is brought right home to us in a way it never was as a CGI alien in a suit.

Those voice mail capsules were a brilliant addition to proceedings, enabling Amy to speak to the Doctor and Rory after she’s abducted. Rory’s unswerving devotion to her – insisting on talking to her despite it being receive-only – is hugely affecting, and when he starts to believe that she’s declaring her love for the Doctor over the broadcast it’s also utterly heartbreaking, because Rory is such an appealing, rounded and sympathetic character. Far more so these days than Amy, who even after she returns and assures Rory that she was talking about him all the time, you still feel that she’s pulling a fast one somewhere along the line. With the Doctor eternally unknowable, and Amy not entirely trustworthy, Rory’s importance as our main point of audience identification is crucial and shows how vastly more than the “tin dog” add-on he is to the current triumvirate.

Alex Kingston as Dr River Song was magnificent again, from showing superb gun skills through to diving off the Empire State Building … and into the Tardis’ swimming pool (a 5s scene that managed to make me laugh while being simultaneously a riff off the start of “The Time of Angels” and a throwback to the start of “The Eleventh Hour”.) Her shooting down of the Silents may raise eyebrows from fans raised on the Russell T Davies era of the Doctor for whom guns were anathema, but looking at the wider history of the character you’ll see that’s a very 21st century affectation. And besides, River cheekily comments that she hoped her “old fella” didn’t see any of that … Is that one question answered at least – confirmation that River is indeed the Doctor’s wife? Possibly. There’s a lovely coda back at River’s prison where she suddenly locks lips with the Doctor and Matt Smith performs some inspired writhing as he tries to find someway out of this latest diabolical clinch … but the comedy then quickly turns to tragedy as the scene closes out on River commenting that this is “the last time” for them.

There are still flaws: the Nixon character completely collapsed from any credibility or closeness to the real person, although he did make for a funny “running joke” as he was wheeled out of the Tardis all over the place to establish the Doctor’s bone fides at key moments (what, the psychic notepaper no longer doing the trick?). And his final scene with Canton Delaware, in which Canton’s choice of life partner was revealed, was a wonderfully light touch scene that shows how to be both outrageously politically correct and in service of the story.

But really it was the sheer ferocious pace of everything coming at you that left you gasping and reeling. The pre-titles sequence this time had the Doctor a prisoner in Area 51 and all the companions chased down and killed by a seemingly turncoat Canton, the time having moved on three months since the cliffhanger at the end of episode 1 which was never really picked up again. At least there was no timey-wimey bumpy-wumpy timeline jumping this time around, but Moffat was instead having a grand old time playing around with linear story structure and it had a similar implosion effect on the average human mind. At times, all you wanted was a nice quite moment, a bit of exposition and explanation, a few questions answered. A nice scene in the Tardis with everyone on the couch drinking tea for 5 minutes to catch their breath, is it too much to ask for?

Instead what we got was a haunted orphanage that was straight out of gothic horror (they should just have called it Arkham Asylum; the only remaining person there was a Doctor Renfrew which is surely a knowing wink to the insane Renfield in Dracula) – scenes that were so impressively designed and shot, and so brilliant and scary, that you wished they’d make an entire episode about this one location rather than career in and out of it in ten minutes flat.

And then there was the end. Back to the little girl. If anyone had still laughably believed that they were just about clinging on to the narrative, then surely this final scene would have broken their resolve too, because surely no one saw this coming. What does it mean? How could it be? Who could it be?

What … the **** … is going ON?!

I’m hoping for some very light-hearted, no ties, question-free swashbuckling pirating action next week, I really am.

Lewis – S5

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Lewis has become the posh, up-market brother to the solidly middle-class Midsommer Murders on the ITV network. They each have trademark plots and methods of murder – on Lewis you’ll get hit over the head by a bust of Einstein, whereas on Midsommer it’ll be something outrageously silly like having bottles of claret catapulted at you, or impaled on the starting winch of an antique motor car. You couldn’t mistake the scripts from one with those of the other, but both have long since left any pretence of real life and reality far behind.

Lewis’ parent series Inspector Morse might have been set in the same Oxford elite environs, but it always felt “real”: partly because it was shot on real, grainy film stock and not super-smooth, burnished golden-glow video like Lewis; and also because the show loved to take the smug, snobbish Morse and land him in situations where he had to rub his nose up against the real world, with murders involving real people or on the local council estate in order to provide contrast to the more fanciful tales of murder on campus involving millionaires, artists or opera stars. But Lewis no longer feels the need to do this, partly because the title character himself is a working class copper and so every case in an elite college is already deemed to have that “oil and water” friction. Further brushes with reality can be dispensed with, the makers seem to think.

Hence each of this series’ four stories are set within closed-off, unreal groups: there’s a murder in a religious college staffed by friars; another set in a college hosting a drugs trial; another set in the last all-female college, and within that in a particular elite group of star graduates; and then another preoccupied with gifted children. Where real people do wander into the tales (there are a couple of them in the drug trial) they’re quickly ushered out of the plot with all due haste lest they spoil the chocolate box view of England that the show’s makers are conjuring up for overseas sales. At the end of one episode there is a staggeringly fake CGI sunset used, just to ramp up this “perfect countryside” message just in case the preceding 100 minutes haven’t quite sold it enough.

All of this would be fine, if we cared about the individual cases so that the unmasking of the killer was a fulfilling moment. What amazed me was that for most of this series, I didn’t bother working out who it was … and I didn’t care when it was revealed, either. Most of the time it was obvious by osmosis by the end anyway (including one solution totally given away by casting: a star name with nothing to do for the first 90 minutes of an episode is invariably going to have to be the killer, or else why have them?) The lack of urgency or interest in unravelling the case seems to extend to the characters as well: in the middle of a multiple-fatality case, Lewis trudges up to the crime scene with his shoulders sagging, as if for all the world it was no more pressing a matter than giving a talk to the local Neighbourhood Watch. Each case – no mater the victim tally or the high profile nature – seems to be just the two main characters working in isolation with little help, and the number of times witnesses suddenly turn round in the middle of an interview and announce “I have to go” – and be allowed to walk off – is stunning. If this truly is the pace and vitality of the British police, it’s amazing that anyone even gets served a speeding ticket.

But the show has two particular strong points going for it: Kevin Whately as Lewis, and in particular Lawrence Fox as his assistant James Hathaway. It’s for these two actors, and the relationship between the characters, that we watch and most enjoy the show, and ironically as other elements of the show seem to be faltering or in deep sleep, this interpersonnel dynamic has never been better – and nor have the actors. Whately has some good moments as he reveals the reasons for his antipathy to psychiatrists; his nearly-romance with pathologist Dr Hobson is still rather sweet, while meeting a former officer who was his sergeant before Hathaway is unexpectedly interesting. Hathaway of course gets more of the eye-catching character moments, and Fox plays them for all their worth and effortlessly steals the show at times, whether he gets food poisoning or is revealed to have once been something of a “gifted child” himself in years gone past, which have clearly left some deep wounds.

The best episode this season in terms of the Lewis/Hathaway dynamic was surely “Wild Justice”. Not only do they seem particularly comfortable working together by this point (sharing a running joke about the difference between monks and friars: “No, go on sir, after you” says Hathaway about who gets to deliver the punchline this time around) but they each have bigger concerns distracting them: Lewis wondering whether to take early retirement, Hathaway considering voluntary redundancy to pursue an academic or even religious vocation. In the end, Lewis misreads his junior’s motivations, thinking that Hathaway would stay only if Lewis retired and the inspector’s position became available. Rather sweetly – and unusually for a show that usually plays everything as unspoken sub-text – Hathaway patiently explains that its the reverse, and he’ll only stay if Lewis does.

It’s a genuinely effective and affecting moment between the two. Unfortunately it’s also the one where the ending is rather undermined by that God-awful CGI sunset behind them as they share another pint.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (ITV)

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Kate Summerscale’s 2008 book “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House” was one of that year’s literary phenomena, not to mention one of the best books too (not always the same thing.)

The subject was the story of a particularly gruesome real-life Victorian murder of a three-year-old boy taken from his bed inside the family home, his throat cut and his body stuffed into the cesspit underneath an outside lavatory. Even 150 years later this crime is still as viscerally shocking and outrageous to hear about as it was in 1860: the case’s high profile at the time meant that the chief investigating officer from London, Inspector Jack Whicher, became a celebrity of sorts – he was the inspiration for Inspector Bucket in “Bleak House” and Sergeant Cuff in “The Moonstone”, and at least a couple of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories seem to riff off some of the themes of the case, while the overall “country house murder” has become a murder mystery cliché over the years.

The book was such a triumph in reviving the original case story and evoking the time in which it was set, that it was with some degree of trepidation that I saw a two hour adaptation (or 100 minutes sans advertisements) was airing over Easter. Would they cock it up and blight the original in the process?

Thankfully the answer is a resounding no, and much of the praise for that has to go to Paddy Considine playing the eponymous Whicher. The television version follows him throughout and there’s little we see that’s not through his eyes, so it’s vital that he’s an interesting, watchable and accessible character throughout, and Considine pulls it off magnificently and is both compelling and sympathetic, even when things unravel for him. Kudos also to Peter Capaldi, effortlessly dropping off the persona of Malcolm Tucker to play the shocked, grieving father of the murder victim, who gradually realises that an even worse nightmare lies behind it all for him and he has to make a dreadful choice between helping the police to capture the killer, and protecting his family. And praise also to the ever-reliable Tom Georgeson playing the local police superintendent out of his depth in such a case but also deeply resenting the intrusion of Scotland Yard, and to the director James Hawes for making it all look very real while simultaneously unobtrusively stylish.

It’s not perfect, however. Considering the hefty book that it was adapted from, the 100 minutes did feel strangely stretched out – the slower pace certainly better than the alternative of having everyone running around like an episode of “Hawaii Five-O”, of course. But that’s because all the detail about the life and times of people in the English rural countryside in the mid-nineteenth century necessarily fails to make the transition from printed page to screen, and so this never really feels particularly “period” – almost as though the makers are consciously preferring to play up how “modern” this case was and how things haven’t really changed, for all that some people yearn for the good old days of Victorian values: which, it turns out, were just as unsavoury as our own after all. The programme also glosses over the passing of five years before the resolution, making it feel like the interval has just been enough time for Mr Whicher to head home for a cup of tea.

And if you’re looking for a complex murder mystery, then this isn’t the one for you. After a brief red herring suspect (and you know the governess isn’t guilty, because it’s the inept and pompous local police superintendent pointing the finger) there’s really only one or two people it could really be. One of them eventually confesses, while it’s the other who is the true subject of Mr Whicher’s unproven “suspicions”. Like many a true notorious tale, however, the real truth behind it is long since lost to history and so can never be any more than suspicions after all this time.

Perhaps the one big surprise is to learn the fate of the convicted murderer: the death sentence was commuted to life which eventually meant 20 years (see, things really haven’t changed!) after which they moved to Australia … to live for over 50 years until their death in 1944, which seems suddenly shockingly close to our modern time after all.

Doctor Who S6 E1 – The Impossible Astronaut

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NOTE: contains some mild spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.

And so “the Doctor is in” once again. This time he’s hitting the ground running with the sort of big, bold, epic adventure normally reserved for season finales – including the shock moment in the first 10 minutes that would normally be the end-of-series cliffhanger par excellence, and yet here it’s merely the kicking off point and the start of things.

It’s not an episode you’re really going to understand, unless your name happens to be Steven Moffat. It’s too devious and intricate to ever let you think for one minute that you’ve got a firm grip on where its going or how it’s going to play out. In fact the best thing is to actually stop even trying to follow the plot at this time and instead just view it as a “mood piece”, where you sit back and enjoy the overall flow of it and the specific set-pieces and hope that the plot will come to you later on – after part 2, maybe. It’s certainly not the sort of easy-access starting point to the series that we may have expected given the show’s obvious efforts leading up to this season opener to really try making it big in the USA at long last.

A big problem in ‘breaking’ America is that the show, while expensive in UK terms, is on a pauper’s budget compared to US network productions. One of the biggest criticisms that people had of the previous season was that the widely publicised across-the-board BBC budget cuts had really hurt Doctor Who, with CGI not as good as previous years (Vampires of Venice) and other shows having to make do with a boutique guest cast of 5 or 6 where really it needed crowds of people to make it live up to the script’s vision (Hungry Earth).

Well, no budget problems in evidence in this season opener (perhaps thanks to a co-production deal with BBC America?) It’s hugely impressive, stunningly cinematic throughout and looks wonderful, right up there into proper movie territory, especially with the location shooting in Monument Valley and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona adding a genuinely epic feel to the early scenes, as does the hiring of well-known US series actors (and real-life father and son) W Morgan Sheppard and Mark Sheppard in a key role (and yes, I do mean one role, that of temporary new companion Canton Everett Delaware III.)

The ensuing 40 minutes of action are non-stop, but not the story of melodramatic running about that most shows practice – every single scene has a vital role in progressing the story and the ideas forward. So you have breath-taking, show-stopping iconic scenes following one after the other: a giddy chase across history keeping up with the Doctor’s exploits; the arrival in Monument Valley and a picnic by Lake Powell; an Apollo astronaut in the middle of the desert; a shock shooting, and the death of a regular character; a Viking funeral; the Tardis in the White House; the creepy warehouse and the underground tunnels with that strangely familiar control room, and then the return and unmasking of that astronaut again. And above all, the new villains – the Silents, who are staggeringly creepy as little grey men incongruously dressed in “men in black” suits and ties: they only lack the shades. Their scenes in the White House (and in particular, in the rest room) are among the most gripping moments of the episode. All of this is hugely captivating and arresting, even if you don’t really have a clue what’s going on: but I suspect only adults will worry about whether the show is “understandable” while kids won’t think about it for a second as they’ll be too busy hiding behind the sofa or watching with their mouths open in wonder.

And then there’s the dialogue and the character interplay: I just love how the four regulars (the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song) play off each other, and their scenes together top any others in the show whatever the spectacle or the scare factor on offer. The main cast (Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and the wonderful Alex Kingston) are all on terrific form and really strong in their respective characters now. The team reacting to the Doctor’s surprise reappearance in the diner; later, the trio struggling to keep a vital secret from the Doctor (and his sulking about it); Amy’s revelation toward the end; Rory having to walk Canton through basic Tardis induction protocols; and in particular, River’s opening up to Rory as they search the tunnels are all genuine character highlights. There’s also a lovely character grace note where the Doctor reassures the new crew addition with “Brave heart, Canton!” immediately reconnecting us with the Peter Davison years.

However …

There are a few things that don’t quite come off. Stuart Milligan, playing President Nixon, is a good actor but he really isn’t anywhere close to a good-enough representation of America’s most notorious leader in any way. And while the Oval Office set is perfectly fine, there’s a lack of sense of genuine West Wing ‘atmosphere’ that belies the show’s British origins which fail to quite understand the nuances (one basic example being the Secret Service overlooking River Song’s firearm and never taking it away from her.) Plus, given that the show makes a big play about being a trip to Space: 1969, there’s actually an odd lack of period feel at this point too – although that might be rectified in part two.

Oddest of all, there’s a sense that Moffat – a hugely imaginative and ambitious writer – is strangely stuck on certain themes when it comes to his Doctor Who scripts. Once again we have a show that starts with a prison breakout by River Song; a series regular’s (apparent) definite-and-final death (they all died at one point last season); followed by a lot of tricksy jumping around and complex interweaving of timelines of the sort we’ve seen in several of Moffat’s previous scripts starting with his award-winning episodes The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink through to the S5 two-part finale last year, the Christmas special and still more recently the Children in Need special in March. Even the new villains are strangely familiar riffs on an old successful theme: where Blink‘s Weeping Angels could only move when someone wasn’t looking, here the Silents are able to erase themselves from memory as soon as someone looks away. It’s still working, it’s just that really it’s starting to get a little bit familiar and needs resting. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, never stayed still and was always trying something new and different – even if sometimes his approach failed or resulted in unfocused ADHD scripts, it couldn’t be faulted for always trying new directions week in and week out. Moffat is running the risk of overthinking things and finding himself stuck in a particular furrow, where Doctor Who should always be about unlimited possibilities and infinite alternatives week in and week out.

But right now, that’s carping. The Impossible Astronaut was a hugely successful and effective epic opener and one that makes you desperate to see part two right now and not have to wait for another seven days, and that’s always quite the best compliment you can pay to the show.

Fringe – S3 Ep14 – 6B

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Fringe has just been renewed for a fourth season, news that came as something of a surprise given that its US network had recently shuffled it onto the Friday night schedule, which is rather like “Death Row” for TV shows there. Apparently only fan pressure turned things around, although that trick tends to work only once before the network execs get annoyed and follow through with their original threat.

And it would be a great shame to lose Fringe. It’s a show I essentially ignored when it started, believing it to be just another X-Files clone with its two leads investigating “weird and inexplicable phenomena” week after week. Finally I was lured into it because Leonard Nimoy did a guest role in it, and I found myself quite enjoying it – in particular I took to the character of Walter Bishop, a brilliant eccentric who is clearly suffering the repercussions of too much drug self-experimentation in the 60s.

But what’s really brought it alive is its full-on dive into some quite deep science fiction, with the “case of the week” routinely sidelined by the overarching story which is about two parallel universe versions of Earth that are slowing crashing into one another, causing all sorts of mutual damage and eventually annihilation. For a time, season three even developed an “alternating” structure of its own, with one week set in “our” Earth and the next set in a similar-but-different “alternate” Earth, and it’s this strand and the gradually deepening story and two different visions of the world behind it that has raised this series from “ho-hum X-clone” to one of the more adventurous and interesting shows on a mainstream network.

The alternating Earths structure has also allowed the regulars to get juicier roles than usual in series TV, as they play both the “real” and “alternate” versions of themselves. John Noble is the most striking – from being silly but loveable in the series so far, his alternate (or “Walternate”, as he’s dubbed) turns out to be a deeply chilling, ruthless, emotionally closed and serious man that shows just how good Noble is on both parts; Anna Torv’s character is less strikingly differentiated, but she deftly shows the differences between the two versions of her character Olivia Dunham, with “Altlivia” even infiltrating “our” Earth for a time to successfully seduce Walter’s son Peter, with a major plot development just having been revealed as arising from the affair. Sadly the show’s leading man, ex-Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson as Peter, doesn’t have an “alternate” for key plot reasons, and so he gets the slightly frustrating role of straight man to the others but is actually very good in that less eye-catching part.

Does all that sound complex? It is, and the show’s not averse to making an intelligent storyline that you have to watch and think about rather than just let flow over you. No wonder it has been flirting with cancellation, in other words. But the show does manage to put together effective “case of the week” bottle shows that are both watchable as a stand-alone and also neatly illustrate the series’ overarching premise.

“6B” sent Olivia and Peter to a “haunted” apartment block: the widow in 6B is seeing an apparition of her husband, who died fixing the power supply after the two tossed a coin to decide who went to check the fuses. In the “alternate” universe, the coin toss went the other way (a nice touch shows that coin tosses in that apartment block are now “stuck” on either heads or tales as an after-effect) and it was the wife who died, and so the connection between the two bereaved people is tearing a hole between the two universes in an attempt to reunite them. It’s an interesting science fiction story and at heart just a small drama about the loss of a loved one; and at the end, Peter and the “real” Olivia embark on a relationship that Peter has already been through with Altlivia months before as a consequence of what they have seen, while Walter suddenly realises that he’s not very different from the Walternate he has previously despised and is coming closer to understanding and even repeating his counterpart’s dreadful decisions in order to protect his own Earth.

I hope Fringe gets to play out its arc and continue for a good long while. I doubt it will in the current TV climate, but it’s worth watching and appreciating while it’s around.

Secret Army S1: Lisa – Codename Yvette

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I remember this BBC World-War 2-set drama series as being a big favourite of my mother’s, but it was rather too slow and sombre for my ten-year-old self – I was disappointed that it didn’t resemble the all-action WW2 I knew to be the ‘real’ thing from all those movies and comic books. Instead it’s a much more low-key drama about the stresses of operating an undercover network for helping downed RAF airmen escape from Nazi-occupied Belgium.

Later on, it would be impossible to watch Secret Army objectively because it was so completely and accurately lampooned by the sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo!. Even today, it’s impossible to watch the show without working out which character here relates to which one in the sit com, or marvelling at how even the costumes and hairstyles are so perfectly caricatured in ‘Allo ‘Allo!. You spend half an episode waiting for Arthur Bostrom to peer around the door and say “Good Moaning”; it doesn’t help that the RAF crew being helped to escape in episode 1 of Secret Army are so thoroughly thick and stupid (and loud!) that they might be a rare moment of humorous high satire completely in keeping with ‘Allo ‘Allo!, if the rest of the show wasn’t remorselessly sombre and serious.

It’s a real shame the show is lost in the fallout from ‘Allo ‘Allo!, because the concept (and the real life history and stories behind it) and the show itself are far too good to deserve being relegated to such a sad footnote state in history. It really was one of the BBC’s top shows of the day, a continuation of its international hit series Colditz by the same production team, and with many actors carried over from one to the other (although in often disconcertingly different roles – Bernard Hepton went from being the Nazi commandant of Colditz to the key figure in the Belgian Resistance.)

It’s a classic example of British TV of the 1970s – it’s all very well done, features a guest appearance from a genuine WW2 plane which was still in decent shape in the 70s, but rather slow and stagey and indeed the sets look inescapably very much like sets (with the location action quite evidently on a totally different film stock.) But this show is certainly trying some daring new techniques for the time, and a sudden switch to a hand-held camera (years before Steadicam of course) to follow a character walking from one set to another and into a prolonged dialogue scene is strikingly effective because of its innovation.

The show avoids tired wartime clichés: the Belgian civilians are as likely to betray the escapees as help them, while the show gives us a remarkably civilised, intelligent and (seemingly) kind Luftwaffe major (Michael Culver) – before then also introducing one of fiction’s greatest and most chilling fictional Nazis in the character of Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler, played with chilling mastery by Clifford Rose. It was a character and a performance that became so admired that it resulted in a spin-off mini-series featuring Kessler as a war criminal. The show also has other great stalwarts of British TV of the time, including two actors well known to Doctor Who fans – Valentine Dyall (Black Guardian as well as The Man in Black) as a key figure in the escape line, and Anthony Ainley (The Master) briefly guesting as a British intelligence officer commanding Christopher Neame (familiar from Colditz and later the go-to guy for US TV shows needing a British villain.)

Inevitably this first episode of the series (there were 43 in all) has to spend a long time setting up a large cast and establishing all the unusual, then-little known secret history of the escape lines in order for the show to go on and build on there. It does so remarkably efficiently in the circumstances, and while slow it’s not a programme that really encourages the mind to wander and is always doing something interesting if low-key throughout.

It really is the sort of drama that’s both high-quality and mass-audience, educational and entertaining all at the same time. The sort of thing they don’t and can’t make any more, which is a shame – but at least it’s on DVD and rerun on Yesterday now and again for people to remember it if they can but get over the spectre of ‘Allo ‘Allo! first.

Rawhide S1: Incident of the Tumbleweed

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Rawhide (occasionally popping up on cable on the likes of TMC) dates back to the end of the 1950s and into the early 60s, when things were so much simpler. The top ten TV shows were routinely packed out with Westerns such as The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke and American audiences just couldn’t get enough of them.

Happily for the TV networks, they were also cheap and easy to produce – all you had to do was get your actors, kit them out with costumes and props left over from the Western movies being churned out, and then decamp to the Californian desert and brush land for some good old-fashioned running around, shooting and punch-ups.

A plot would be useful, but really these sort of ‘oaters’ wrote themselves. In this episode, series star Eric Fleming playing Gil Favor has to step in escorting a wagon full of convicts to the nearest Fort after the marshalls are incapacitated (the Tumbleweed of the title is the prison wagon); his sidekick Rowdy Yates helps out. Rowdy is of course played by Clint Eastwood, but here he’s just a young kid with a big dumb-ass grin whose brains turn to jelly as soon as a beautiful woman shows up (in this case, the improbably-named female convict Dallas Storm.) Gil and Rowdy’s sense of proper security procedure is laughable (they leave locks undone, guns lying around where the convicts could get them) and they’re all together pretty poor at the stand-in job.

Surprisingly the pace is rather slow for a Western (although there’s a good couple of shoot-outs and punch-ups, never fear) and that allows the large supporting cast to make a proper impression and establish proper characters. It would be stretching it to say that the characters ever do anything genuinely surprising or are really changed or redeemed (save for the aforementioned Dallas), but they certainly emerge as more fleshed out and rounded characters than the usual “good guy/bad guy” cardboard cutout you’d expect of the era or the genre; predictably the one truly nasty character is an Englishman, played by 40s movie star Tom Conway who was George Sanders’ brother and took over from him in the role of The Falcon in a B-movie series of that name. In fact the only characters who don’t have any time spent on them are Gil and Rowdy themselves, but then they had another 22 episodes that season to get the job done.

The black-and-white film stock of this early episode of the series gives it a classy look and even stops the California backdrops from looking tired and familiar as they would become from TV show after TV show (mostly cop shows by then) in the 70s, and give a genuine sense of history to the whole affair.

It’s definitely a slice of history, and whether you’ll either roll your eyes with every cliché and the slow pace of the affair, or revel in its comfy, familiar embrace is very much up to the individual viewer. Personally I found it quite delightful – at least for a change.

Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor

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This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.

peterdavison-titlesWhen Peter Davison took over the role of Doctor Who in 1981, he was following the tenure (reign might be a better word) of Tom Baker, who had starred in the series longer than anyone else before or since. By contrast, Davison stayed for just under three seasons (at a time when a season was half the length it was under William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton) and became one of the shortest tenants of the famous police box.

Davison made his decision to leave at the end of his second season, disenchanted with the quality of the scripts and increasingly at odds with the producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT to one and all.) But it’s often reported that Davison took one look at the script and production of his final story, “The Caves of Androzani”, and declared that if he’d had more stories of this calibre then he would have had no hesitation in signing up for a third season. That’s understandable: “Androzani” was indeed one of the finest classic Doctor Who stories, not just of Davison’s era but of all time. But in the Davison retrospective documentary “Come In Number Five” provided as an extra to the special edition DVD of Resurrection of the Daleks in the Revisitations 2 boxset, Davison goes further than this and suggests that as a whole, his second season was a muddled disappointment and his third season saw the show back in top form – and it was this overall trend that made him eventually disappointed to have opted to leave when he did.

This … surprised me. Or to put it another way, I fundamentally disagree with his assessments of the relative strengths of his three seasons.

Let’s start on reasonably safe ground: the 1982 season that started with “Castrovalva”, Davison’s first full story in the title role, was a very strong season, carrying on from what had proved to be an even stronger final season for Tom Baker the previous year. The show seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and was making efforts to take itself seriously again after several years of lampooning around (“Horns of Nimon”) and dealing with sets so shoddily constructed that they collapsed underfoot (“Nightmare of Eden”). There were strong scripts with real science fiction (and science) ideas – where else could you find a show with an entire story constructed around the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and actually have it work?

Davison’s first series started with a visit to the Big Bang and a cheeky appropriation of MC Escher’s work for “Castrovalva”, while at the same time Davison wowed us with his takes on all the Doctor’s former personalities; then there was the somewhat average but solidly turned-out and enjoyable “Four to Doomsday” before one of the season’s highlights in “Kinda” – not well understood or received at the time but now regarded as one of the finest serials the show ever did. This was followed by a crowd-pleasing historical adventure with “The Visitation” taking the crew back to 1666 Pudding Lane and some brilliantly constructed new alien monsters called Terileptils. The show’s confidence showed through in the next story, a two-parter for the first time in nearly a decade and one that landed the Tardis crew back in 1925, doing away with any science fiction or alien monsters whatsoever. It proved to be the calm before the storm, before one of the show’s most stylish and effective serials – “Earthshock”. The shock return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion: anyone who was a fan of the show back then will have the final, music-less credit roll over a background picture of a crushed and broken gold star for mathematical excellence seared into their memories. It had been a fantastic run of episodes, and if the season finale “Time Flight” was a huge disappointment then it was a shame – but a one-off exception to the rule.

So was Davison’s second season (more accurately, season 20 of the show) such a decline and disappointment, so bad that it resulted in Davison deciding to quit? It certainly had one major problem in hindsight – the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of the show’s launch in 1963, which led JNT to decide that every single story must have some sort of callback to the show’s past.

It started with “Arc of Infinity” – not perhaps the greatest of stories, but far better than “Time Flight”. Fans got excited about seeing renegade Time Lord Omega back again (he’d last been seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors”); the overseas location shooting in Amsterdam was a first and looked rather good, making even routine runaround chase scenes something special; and Peter Davison himself put in a fantastically haunting performance as a dying “fake” version of himself. Then there was “Snakedance”, a sequel to “Kinda” and the source of all those clips of a young Martin Clunes in funny costumes that they like to embarrass him with on clip shows. It’s not as strikingly original as “Kinda” but in many ways is a better fit for the Doctor Who universe, and better written. This was followed by “Mawdryn Undead”, which certainly suffered from a director who didn’t seem to know how to dim the studio floodlighting to create atmosphere, but on the other hand did feature the return of the wonderful Nicholas Courtney in his signature role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and also the delicious Valentine Dyall as the most evil being in the universe (the Black Guardian, returning in a trilogy of connected stories.) It had a clever time-stream jumping script, and while it rather lost its way and fell into mediocrity it certainly had its moments. “Terminus” showed ambition both in story and in set design (finally, a dark and dirty set with an atmosphere); and, erm, the lovely Sarah Sutton suddenly wearing a very short skirt and low cut top, but that’s not important right now. Next up there was “Enlightenment”, a show of such strikingly original ideas (eternals and ephemerals) and visuals (classic cutters using the solar system planets as marker buoys in a grand sailing race!) and superb cast (Keith Barron, Tony Caunter, Lynda Baron – just don’t mention Leee John) that the spirit of this serial seems to be making a comeback in the 2011 Matt Smith season with the third story “Curse of the Black Spot”. The script may sometimes have exceeded the reach of achievable FX at the time but this was still a magical story of the type only Doctor Who could ever do.

The season once again stumbled at the end with “The King’s Demons”, and sadly lost the story that was meant to be the big finish (featuring the Daleks – more of which in a minute) due to a BBC strike, but then there was the official 20th anniversary celebration “The Five Doctors” which went ahead despite having to recast the first Doctor (Richard Hurndall surprisingly good standing in for the late Hartnell) and having to work around a sulky Tom Baker who refused to return and had to be replaced with archive footage from the abandoned season 17 story “Shada”. (“Tom Baker, you should be ashamed of yourself!” says current series runner Steven Moffat in a recent interview about Baker’s refusal to appear. “”Every day of your life, you should regret the decision you took that day!” Of course, Moffat has his own reasons for looking back – he’s already planning the 50th anniversary special for 2013.)

Despite those compromises, and trying to fit in a galaxy of former Doctors and companions (most not able to be confirmed until the last minute) into a coherent plot was a small miracle of television production, and it’s hard not to look back at that second Davison season as overall being a success, if admittedly not of the same order as the first year. Why Davison should look back upon this group of stories and conclude despairingly that it was time to move on is difficult to fathom.

Now, let’s look at the third season, the one that Davison liked so much that it would have changed his mind about departing if it had come first.

It starts with “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s another show that badly needs some dark, moody, atmospheric direction to succeed – but instead gets some of the flattest floodlighting we’ve seen in the show. As a result, the show’s ‘monster moment’ features the series’ most derided creature, the Myrka. It looks like a two-man pantomime horse painted green and with some frills sown on: it’s utterly derisible. The story angered dedicated fans by riding roughshod over established series mythologies pertaining to the Silurians and the Sea Devils, and to the casual viewer is just dull and boring. Then there’s “The Awakening”, which isn’t bad and certainly looks good, allowing the BBC to play to its traditional strength of historical drama serials: but the story is rather confused, seemingly wanting to be some mishmash of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. After this the season moves on to “Frontios”, which has some very striking ideas and visuals – the shattered Tardis remnants littered around the place are truly unsettling. It’s let down somewhat by being very artificially studio-bound, and the story of the human colonists doesn’t really gell, but this week’s monsters – gravity slugs the Tractators – are remarkably effective and creepy. It’s not a story that will appeal to everyone, but on the whole this is one of the season’s hits, albeit flawed and “difficult”.

The next story should be a slam-dunk success – it’s the “Resurrection of the Daleks” delayed from the previous season, with added Davros. How could you screw this one up? Very easily it turns out. The direction and production design are all top-notch, but the writing for this story is appalling. The violence and body count is so high that at the end, when companion Tegan declares “It isn’t fun anymore, Doctor” and leaves, you’re with her every step of the way and feel like walking out with her. (A more detailed review of this story is available on the author’s own blog.) Then there’s “Planet of Fire”, which benefits from being this year’s “let’s take the production crew on holiday” story – set in the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the days before it became an overly familiar top tourist destination. It looks great, but someone forgot to pack a story in their luggage: the script has to write out two companions (Turlough and the best-forgotten Kamelion), introduce another (Peri) and have the Master return. It’s overloaded by all this and implodes into indifference under the sun.

Then finally Peter Davison’s time is over, and we’re finishing up with “The Caves of Androzani” – a truly brilliant serial, one of the very best, no question. If Davison was still saying ‘I’d have stayed if they were all like “Androzani”‘ then we’d have no absolutely argument. But ‘if it had been like the third season’ – really? The dreadful “Warriors”, the confused “Awakening”, the difficult “Frontios”, the awful writing of “Resurrection”, the damp squib of “Planet of Fire” make this for me the start of another major slump in Doctor Who’s long history. Here the exception to the rule is “Androzani”, the jewel in the season’s crown, where before the exceptions have been the duds. The next season would see script writer Eric Saward get a Doctor more to his liking – the abrasive Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker – and we all know how disastrous that turned out to be.

I’ll take the second Davison season over the third any day: it might not have been as good as the first, it might have been self-indulgent with all those love notes to the series’ past, and it might have faltered and clung on by its fingertips at times, but it just about pulled it off and maintained the quality. By contrast, the third Davison season dropped the ball on multiple occasions (and Baker’s first season couldn’t even find the ball to start playing the game in the first place.)

It’s to Davison’s immense credit that despite being one of the shorter-serving actors in the title role – and at a time when the series was, to put it diplomatically, “struggling creatively” – both he and his portrayal of the Doctor are still very fondly regarded and seen as one of the best periods of the show. Indeed, in the DVD extra “Come In Number Five”, when documentary presenter David Tennant (who knows a thing or two about being a popular Time Lord) reiterates that for him, Peter Davison “was my Doctor” – not only is it heartfelt, he speaks for many of us when he does.

And as accolades and tributes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Doctor Who S21 E11/12 – Resurrection of the Daleks

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I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.

Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.

Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.

It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?

Arrrrghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.

But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.

The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)

And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.

But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.

As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.

The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.

Monroe – S1 E5

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I feel the need to return briefly to the subject of ITV’s new medical drama Monroe and give it credit where credit’s due for improving week after week, and really becoming a rather strong offering.

A main reason for its improvement is that the title character has been getting increasingly snarky and bitchy about his best friend Shepherd’s on-off romance with cold-hearted heart surgeon Bremmer. The nastier he gets, the more like House M.D. he gets and as predicted in my original review, the better the show is for it.

A more surprising strength of the show has emerged in the cast of interns, who were rather anonymous background extras to be shouted at initially but who are emerging as engaging and interesting characters in their own right, especially in the latest episode where one of the interns collapses in surgery with her own medical emergency which leads to the revelation of a sweetly-played budding romance with another intern, and to emergency operations that give the senior staff anxieties about working on one of their own, especially when it appears that Monroe might have been too bold and pushed too far leading to permanent damage and the end of the intern’s career. Of course none of this is hugely original, but it is very well written and played.

I’m also liking a lot of the other minor characters – such as the hospital porter/caretaker Bradley who is played as an amusingly young “old curmudgeon”, who bans any displays of tears, hugs and emotion in his office unless connected with football. He’s played by Thomas Morrison whom I last saw playing David Morrissey’s teenage son in the surreal musical noir Blackpool which also featured a pre-Who David Tennant. How time flies.

In fact the programme’s only real problem now is not something it can do anything about by itself: its length. For some reason British drama these days seems to be increasingly limited to 5- or 6-part mini series, as though no one has much faith in anything and so better to keep it short in case it fails. Unfortunately it means by the time we’ve got into a series and got to know the characters, it’s gone. Are we going to be slavering over a second series and be waiting with bated breath for 46 weeks until it returns? Or will we forget all about it by the time it returns to the schedules? The latter I think.

Moreover, the abbreviated running time doesn’t give any of the storylines enough time to breath and develop at a proper pace. Shepherd’s clandestine romance has gone through starting up, being uncovered by Monroe, breaking up because of Monroe’s meddling, making up, hitting problems again this time because of basic incompatibility issues between Shepherd and Bremmer, and breaking up for good all in the space of three episodes, during which time it can’t have earned more than 15 minutes of screen time in the show itself. And yet we’re expected to believe that this stuttering whirlwind affair has had such a deeply traumatic effect on Shepherd that he’s so hurt he’ll quit his job and walk out? It makes him appear like a lovesick teenager for whom two days is an eternity, rather than a proper adult character. Brits like to scoff about the “factory production line” model of US drama which cranks out 22 episodes of even the most average drama every single year, but in some ways that offers more opportunities and greater realism for a show than trying to pack things into a miniature model that suffocates the stories. The whole romance sub-plot would have been milked for a whole season in America and yet here never has the chance to gain any substance or weight.

It’s a shame: the programme makers are doing a surprisingly strong job with this show; time for the network executives to buy a clue and back it.

Rubicon S1 E1

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There’s something very odd about the look and feel of BBC4’s new American import Rubicon.

It’s clearly set sometime in the 21st century – the main character Will Travers, played by 24 and The Pacific star James Badge Dale, is haunted by the loss of his family in 9/11 – and yet it looks very much like the world of the 70s or 80s, so much so that it’s jarring when a character suddenly whips out a mobile phone. The best you can say is that it’s trying to convey the “timeless” world of spying which still lives stuck in the mindset of the Cold War glory days, using subdued colour palettes of browns that at times practically fade the picture into sepia.

The show clearly has roots in the seminal 70s spy film classic Three Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford, and the way the timeless characters shuffle around an old office building full of books rather than computer screens puts one in mind of a contemporary TV show, the BBC’s own Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In fact the show seems to dangle such allusion after allusion all through: with its focus on cryptography it’s hard not to recall the low key Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising or even the World War 2-set Enigma; the way the door closes on the conspirators at the end puts one in mind of how we’re shut of Michael Corleone’s life at the end of The Godfather, another film to which it looks visually similar. There’s something about the mysterious smoking men lurking in shadows that reminds me of The X Files. And so on and so forth. It certainly takes a large amount of time and spends a lot of money putting this high quality modern/period dichotomy on screen.

It’s also unapologetically slow, even if the first episode features two untimely violent deaths – one from an apparent suicide (and such a shame if the magnificent yet almost inexplicably largely unknown Harris Yulin as Tom is not in the show again), the other in a jarring, strikingly depicted train accident (Peter Gerety as David, best known for Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire.) But in fact most of the first episode revolves around Travers having to decide whether to accept promotion as David’s successor or to quit, the final scene ending up with him signing some papers for a security clearance upgrade and receiving his new pass – hardly cinematic action moments. It doesn’t help that Travers’ character is played as an emotionally shut down, intellectually ultra-brilliant but emotionally near-autistic personality that leaves him an impenetrable blank space in the centre of the story, however much James Badge Dale acts his little socks off with subtle little looks and mannerisms.

Where this show most likely will go wrong is by being oh-so-achingly-clever, and “blatantly subtle”. Already we’ve seen Yulin’s character Tom react to the sight of a four-leaf clover in his morning paper by putting a gun to his head leaving us in no doubt to its Grave Significance of some sort or other; everyone acts just that little bit suspiciously and exchange banner headline knowing looks; no one is allowed to wait on a train station platform without looking like they’re one of the men in black. That sort of constant stringing along could get old and exasperating very quickly if answers aren’t also part of the package.

Alas the show – from AMC, who also make Mad Men and who are behind the American remake of this blog’s favourite TV show The Killing – has already been cancelled. I’d say that’s a shame, but then I don’t know how it’s going to develop over the course of the 12 remaining episodes that were made before the axe fell; maybe it does get (or remain) so introverted, twisted, anal and up itself that it deserves axing. But I suspect and certainly hope not, and episode 1 certainly intrigued and impressed me enough to want to keep watching for the time being – even though the chances are that the early termination of the show means that any significant answers will never be forthcoming.

Spiral (Engrenages) S3 E1/2

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When The Killing started, I really didn’t want to tie myself into watching 20 hours of subtitled drama on a Saturday night, but I felt obliged to at least give it a go. And damn the thing if it didn’t leave me gasping by the end of the first hour, deeply and permanently addicted to see it through to the end.

Now The Killing – or Forbrydelsen as we true fans like to call it, to prove our smart arse credentials – is finished and a gaping void awaits us on the Saturday night BBC4 schedules into which the network hopes to inject another lengthy subtitled European crime drama – the third series of French drama Spiral, a.k.a. Engrenages. Since my ‘taste’ of The Killing led to such delights, I figured at the very least that I had to extend the same courtesy to Spiral as well: watch the first week’s episodes and then take it from there.

There’s no doubting that Spiral is a very solidly made piece of high quality programme making, with impressive performances all around. And yet at the end of that first week’s episodes, I came away … completely indifferent. When the following Saturday came around, I still felt a sense of obligation that I should watch, but once I made the decision not to, my mood instantly lightened and I knew that it was the right call.

So why did Spiral not work for me? I think partly it was because it seemed very similar to the likes of familiar BBC fare Silent Witness and Waking the Dead in the sense of being dark and gritty, and everyone having issues and rows with/shouting at everyone else, and the whole spirit of the show being of things being crap and falling apart. Lord knows, The Killing was no music-and-dance joy-fest and had its moments of friction, but somehow it did it all so much beter, with more subtlety, intelligence and class.

Where The Killing compelled by concentrating on one case throughout, Spiral is structured with one over-arcing “Butcher of La Villette” serial killer (yawn) storyline but individual episodes seem like stand-alone instalments focussing on red herring or distraction cases and multiple unrelated sub-plots for the straggling cast all of which feels like an exercise in filling up an hour’s screen time instead of every single moment feeling like it’s absolutely vital to the storyline, as is the case with The Killing

And all of the above rather gives the game away with what’s really wrong with Spiral for me: it’s not The Killing. I’m comparing the two shows with each other all the time, and Spiral is coming out distinctly second best in every department. It’s not its fault, and I suspect that if the show had been aired maybe two months down the line when memories of The Killing had faded a little, then Spiral would leave a distinctly better impression. Simply put, I think BBC4 have made a mistake by bringing this show in so hard-on-the-heels of their Danish breakout super-hit – and that’s a shame.

Meanwhile I’m pleased to have my Saturday night’s freed up and not to have to commit to another subtitled programme straight off. It gives me time to build up my strength for the rigours of Forbrydelsen 2 in the autumn …

True Blood – S3

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When True Blood landed on our screens in 2009, it took no prisoners and hit you right between the eyes with more bloody violence, raucous sex and outrageous swearing than we’ve ever seen in a television series before – or pretty much any movie, come to that. It was an extraordinary, intoxicating, heady, trashy brew and I for one loved it.

The trouble is how to proceed when you start at such a crescendo. You either have to push further and further to keep topping yourself, or else find a completely different way to go instead. Season 2 duly went for the “topping itself” route – and against expectation it pulled it off brilliantly, by introducing a Big Bad nemesis whose very weapon was to incite more sex, violence and swearing in people in order to feed off the ensuing frenzy (Michelle Forbes as Marianne was a triumph as a delightfully vivid goddess.) It worked particularly well because there was a contrast with the expanded darker, more sobre vampire world.

But now we get to Season 3 and the show still tries to top itself … And it’s run out of space. Now the only room left on top is deeply into completely over the top high camp. So we have actors having to play love scenes to (and writhing in) a mess of bloody, gory entrails; the King of New Orleans giving such a high camp appearance on network TV that he wouldn’t go amiss as one of Batman and Robin‘s villains in Joel Schumacher’s laughably disastrous franchise-wrecking 90s film. Meanwhile, other parts of the show are getting rather tired and familiar: the central Sookie/Bill romance now goes through a break-up/make-up/break-up cycle in less than the time of a single episode so that frankly no one really cares anymore and both characters just seem rather pathetic.

Where the show does try to do something different, it falters. Where once the show was about how red neck America reacted to the emergence of vampires, now it’s awash with so many different supernaturals (werewolves, were-panthers, shapeshifters and more) that there are virtually no “ordinary” humans left. Even Sookie, our main audience point of identification, has been revealed to be the most rare of supernatural beings on the planet. Meanwhile Sam’s side story of looking for his family left him with a loathsome bunch of relatives including a brat of a half-brother, and for some reason has sent the former Mr Nice Guy into a spiral of heavy drinking and abusing everyone – as though discovering his genetic past has suddenly involuntarily activated those same genes in him. Jason’s dalliance with a love interest from another red neck family is equally as annoying. The once-sparking character of Lafayette has been given a love interest which is touchingly written and portrayed but feels rather a distracting sideline – except that it appears to be leading to an outbreak of magic ability, which would mean another ‘real’ character lost to the supernatural.

One character who continues to shine in all this is that of Nordic vampire prince Eric Northman, with Alexander Skarsgård really stealing any scene he’s in with his brooding presence and his ability to switch from light to dark, playful to lethal, trustworthy to deceitful in an instant. His relationship with his ‘progeny’ Pam has been one of the most interesting developments of the series, and it’s also given us the introduction of a shadowy Authority and a proper role/appearance for vampire PR woman Nan Flanagan (as well as a sadly final appearance from the ever-wonderful Zeljko Ivanek as the Magister.)

Alas, though, much of the vampire storyline is either getting bogged down in increasingly complex vampire politics plotting or else is now leading the charge of the show Over The Top via characters like the King, his concubine Talbot and a whole bevvy of werewolves. These characters are so rich that while they initially delight, it’s very easy to quickly become bloated and sick with a non-stop diet of it. It’s not that the show can’t do it right when it tries: the character of Franklin Mott (played by the ever-watchable James Frain) was both equally over the top and yet as black a psychopath as could possibly be, such an effective mix that it’s been one of the season’s worst mistakes to dispatch him so quickly.

The show certainly has its moments. I haven’t stopped watching. It’s just that I find I’m doing other things at the same time, and dipping in and out rather than sitting enraptured for the full hour. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s me – and I’m just becoming weary and over-saturated by vampire shows at last.

Monroe – S1 E1-3

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If you watch ITV’s new medical drama Monroe without any knowledge of a certain American series starring Hugh Laurie, you might be forgiven for thinking this is an interesting, original and promising new show. Unfortunately, if you have watched the long-running House, M.D. then that series’ shadow falls heavily on this one and actually makes it almost impossible not to compare-and-contrast the two for the whole time you’re watching.

Both shows feature a brilliant, arrogant doctor with a case-of-the-week. Both doctors have a team of interns (Springer and Wilson in Monroe) that he likes to insult and play cruel mental mind games with. Both have a single nice, slightly wimpish “best friend” (Shepherd) as well as some unresolved sexual tension with a brilliant female doctor colleague (Bremmer). Oh, and both series are titled with their lead character’s last name.

There are differences in Monroe of course, but these differences seem to have been almost purposely introduced in reaction to House and give the show grounds to say “no, we’re different, honest we are.” So for example, Monroe is not anti-social, misanthropic, cruel and loathsome. Instead he’s rather warm, witty, sparkling and charming, as only James Nesbitt can be. Instead of avoiding patients at all costs like House, Monroe is actually the one who can connect with them and their families and heal their emotional damage at the same time as well as their brains. The simple and rather trite point made here is that it’s the brain surgeon who is good with his patients’ feelings while the heart surgeon Bremmer is cerebral and cold and entirely unable to connect with others. That actually makes Bremmer the more interesting, if far less likeable, character in the show. Unfortunately it means that Monroe is very likeable, which makes the line from Shepherd that he’s Monroe’s “only friend” rather perplexing – Monroe might be slightly arrogant and swaggering but no more so than many doctors, bankers or media execs with wide circles of friends.

Where House is in charge of a “department of diagnostic medicine” (a fictional conceit that allows the American show to range wherever it likes in the medical field), Monroe makes the title character a top neurosurgeon – which is far more realistic in how hospitals actually work, but rather limiting in terms of stories and patients. Inevitably it’s going to be head traumas and tumours, lots of MRIs and staring at computer screens before deciding how to operate. Admittedly that’s what modern medicine actually is at this level, but week after week it’s going to get very tedious. The story tries to give Monroe a morose side with the backstory of a young daughter who died of a brain tumour, the ultimate cruel twist of fate for a brain surgeon, but it’s a touch obvious and again just inclined to win us over to Monroe’s side and forgive him any trespasses. House was never so obvious, or so needy of winning affection.

If one can get away from the comparisons with House for a minute then the series is well made and very well acted by all concerned. In particular, Tom Riley as the low-key normal best friend has great charm and presence (Riley’s just coming off his breakthrough role in the Bouquet of Barbed Wire remake as the scenery-chewing Northern psycho Gavin.) We could do with slightly less tricksy/artistic director’s stylings: someone really needs to prise the “tiltshift” effect control out of the director’s hands once and for all – it’s effective and different when used now and again but not when used in almost every single scene.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that there was an interesting core idea here, and some very good talent both in front and behind the camera, but somewhere along the line the network executives got involved and needed to be won over before they would sign off on commissioning the series. The writers and producers ended up having to sell it as a “British House” and thereafter the show progressively got forced into a box that it didn’t really fit or believe in that made it into a sub-Houseian clone when it could have been something so much more, distinctly original and British. We really don’t need another House when we can watch Hugh Laurie being brilliant in the role already. Most disappointingly of all, Monroe completely misses the genius of House in making its central character totally unlikeable and unsavable: by contrast, Monroe simply doesn’t have that courage and it wants its central character to be loveable and only slightly flawed. That makes Monroe end up no more than a lightweight wannabe with all its nice visual tricks and promising cast.