Senna (2011) – life on the edge, and over it

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I haven’t always been an F1 fan. There was a time when the sport came on TV and I, too, rolled my eyes at the very idea of watching toy cars go round and round in circles for two hours. But then I started working with a group of people who were really into the sport, and gradually I succumbed. I remember the season that I became a full-time, devoted follower of the sport.

Unfortunately, that season was 1994.

By then I’d missed a lot of the glory days of the sport that are captured in this astonishing new documentary on the life of three-time F1 world champion Ayrton Senna – his rise to stardom, his legendary feud with Alain Prost; I’d even missed Nigel Mansell becoming champion in 1992 then being replaced at Williams F1 by Alain Prost for one final title-winning year of his own. After Prost retired, Senna then moved to Williams, having been at McLaren – team and driver in a comparative slump for the last couple of years after their glory days – and at the time I can’t say I knew that much about Senna other than “former champion, probably past his prime.”

This new film is like a time machine every bit as good as the Tardis, allowing both those who remember and those who came to the sport too late (or not at all) to actually return to and relive those earlier golden years through an astonishing collection of contemporary footage. It’s so real, vivid and immediate that you’ll forget you’re watching events from over 20 years ago and become immersed in the battles, defeats and triumphs of people who seem very real and alive in front of you: the decision to use no “face to face interview” footage just removes you from the realm of documentary and puts you unshakeably in the moment.

Having heard so many people rhapsodise about this film for the last six months (as the makers tried to secure a mainstream international cinema release for it) I was if honest a little underwhelmed for the first section, which seemed like a perfectly decent but straightforward documentary on the life and times of a young Brazilian racing driver who came to Europe to make his name.

But where the film suddenly kicks in and becomes something quite exhilarating and extraordinary is when Senna arrives at McLaren as a team mate for Prost, and the personalities suddenly electrify and sparks fly off the screen: not just Senna and Prost, but the team boss Ron Dennis and most of all the astonishing president of the sport’s ruling body (the FIA), Jean-Marie Balestre, who comes over as such a staggering monster that he makes Darth Vader look too touchy-feely to ever dress in black again.

Senna’s battles with the “establishment” represented by Prost and Balestre absolutely transfix, and together with footage from the private drivers’ pre-race meetings (something that to my knowledge has never been aired before now) this middle section of the film is utterly compelling, as good as any drama you’ll see on film this year and surely good enough to be a stand-alone film in its own right.

But it’s also interspersed with character moments that show Senna the man – with his family and friends, talking about his motivations: he was very much driven by his faith, something that Prost regarded as dangerous as he felt that it made Senna heedless of the danger to himself and others on the track because of his faith in God. The film also expertly shows what he meant to the people of Brazil, and indeed what Brazil meant to Senna in turn: the sequence where he wins the Brazilian Grand Prix at last, what it means to him, and its aftermath is quite extraordinary.

Strangely – but intentionally, and effectively – after all this careful build up, the film then abruptly skims over 1992 and 1993 in a matter of minutes; so much so that the arrival of the caption “San Marino, Imola – April 29, 1994” catches you off guard. You thought you’d be ready for this moment when it came, but it turns out that you’re really not. Your stomach knots and your eyes tear up a little – at least, mine did. The director slows the pace, so that where whole seasons went by before, now a day takes even longer. That slow pace conveys the sense of dread and nightmare, and the film weighs heavy with sign and portent.

I remember watching that weekend all too well. I’ve never forgotten that the weekend claimed the life of Roland Ratzenberger, and came close to killing JJ Lehto, Pedro Lamy and Rubens Barrichello as well. Even though I knew the path that the film was now irrevocably on, I still wanted more than anything for it to stop. I wanted Senna to make a different decision: to decide that no, he wouldn’t race that day after all. But of course there was never any doubt – Aryton Senna could never have made any other decision other than to race and the film conveys this beautifully, with all its tragic consequences. And when the race finally got underway and it cuts back to in-car footage of a flying lap from Senna, it was unbearable.

When the caption at the end came up saying that after the Imola weekend, Professor Sid Watkins was put in charge of improving F1 safety and that “since then, no driver has been killed” I involuntarily reached out and touched the nearest wooden surface I could find. Because for any F1 fan, no one will ever want to see the events of Imola 1994 repeated.

Will the film appeal to a non-F1 fan? I think it will, unless the person is actively and passionately anti-F1, in the same way that my feelings about boxing mean I can’t bear to watch Raging Bull let alone Rocky regardless of their merits as films. I honestly think that this film – Senna – is such a strong narrative and character study that it will at least be readily accessible to the average non-fan, but then I’m probably not the right person to ask as I’m so much in the F1 fan camp these days.

But certainly to the F1 fan, this is quite something; quite probably the best film of the sport you’ll ever see, with stunning contemporary archive footage. It’s arguably one of the best and most powerful movies, period. I thought it remarkable, and really hope that it makes a decent showing at the box office and that more people are connected with one of sport’s – and life’s – genuine all-time personalities, heroes and icons as a result.

It’s extraordinary that one of Senna’s most heroic moments – when he stops his car mid-race, leaps out into the path of an oncoming F1 car in order to go to the aid of the stricken Erik Comas whose wrecked car is lying across the track at Spa in 1992, a moment of pure humanity and heroism – is included here only as an jaw-dropping piece of unexplained footage over the end credits, such is the amazing story of Senna’s life. Comas’ own role in the Imola weekend is excised altogether (it would have detracted from the focus) but was just one more shocking, tragic dimension to that dreadful day.

It’s the first time in nearly a decade that I’ve seen a film on its opening day; and I can’t remember the last time than I stayed in my seat until the very end, right until the end credits had finished.

But as far as I can recall, it’s the only time that I’ve left the cinema and started walking home and found it almost impossible not to burst into tears on the spot.

Primeval S5 E2

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What on earth just happened to Primeval, ITV’s dinosaur-hunting Saturday night family program intended as some sort of answer to the dominance in the market of Doctor Who?

Those with a long memory might recall that the series was briefly cancelled by ITV last year after season 3, because of middling ratings not justifying expensive production costs (CGI dinosaurs don’t come cheap.) It was saved by ITV coming to a co-production deal with UK TV that saw season 4 air on ITV earlier this year and season 5 now premièring on UK TV’s Watch satellite and cable channel (before being released on DVD in July and making it on to ITV later in the year.)

I’d really hoped that the near-death experience would motivate the makers of Primeval to pull their finger out and overhaul the show into a fit state, but alas season 4 earlier this year dashed those hopes. Despite some vague overarching plot lines (that were frankly not as interesting as the writers clearly thought they were, especially the Lady Emily distraction), every single episode still came down to the same tired old “runaround chasing after/being chased by the CGI monster of the week” schtick. It seemed that the show’s format was simply too restrictive to allow it to live.

And so I was genuinely startled by the first episode of season 5 (the first series to premier on UK Watch) because it was – well, no other way of putting this: shockingly good. Almost a different show to what had gone before. The direction; the sharp editing; the vastly improved writing including some lovely witty character lines (the cast was always the best thing about this show and now they’re getting the material to work with that they deserve); a genuine sense of peril where it seemed like they really were about to write out one of the most popular characters; and the overarching plot lines that had been rather an afterthought before now suddenly becoming a genuinely interesting conspiracy plot. Even though the basic plot was still something like a CGI monster runaround, the monster was interesting (a huge louse, basically) and instead of lots of running around it all had to be tackled by out-thinking the problem rather than outrunning it.

Perhaps they were just pulling out all the stops for the season opener on the new channel, I thought? Don’t get too excited about it, it’ll be back to ho-hum next week.

Instead, this week’s episode was set on a submarine as the team seek to close one of the “time portal” anomalies. It managed to pack in a fun Alien-eque “monster stalking the crew in a confined space” as well as some rather good FX sequences of the submarine being menaced by aquatic dinosaurs – anyone who saw the BBC’s lamentable The Deep will know just how back wrong these underwater sequences can end up being rendered, so kudos to the show’s producers for pulling this one off. All the while we have Navy types back at base threatening to use nuclear missiles to take care of the problem leading to an initially humorous but ultimately nerve-wracking game of “I’ll go over your head” top trumps to try and avert disaster.

It all points to a completely different scale and ambition and even confidence to the “safe but tepid” shows that Primeval was putting out before. The change is a quantum leap forward. Can they maintain it or will it slip back to “normality” in a week or two?

I’m optimistic. Next week the trailers tell us that one of the characters heads back to Victorian London to do battle with Spring-Heeled Jack (a real pre-cursor of Jack the Ripper from the 1860s). They’ve never done “time travel” except to some vague far-future or far-past wasteland, so truing to evoke Victorian England is further evidence that the show has suddenly decided to smash the previous constraints of what it had assumed was its format and just go for it. It wants to have some real fun, rather than settling for chasing down another anonymous CGI monster in another part of a Docklands-lookalike part of the city.

It’s just what I’d hoped that would happen when the show got a jolt from its near-death experience. I was disappointed when that hadn’t seemed to have sunk in for season 4, but I think finally it’s got there. I really hope it’s not too late, because now for the first time this series has real promise of becoming something rather excellent.

Dr Who S6 Ep5 – The Rebel Flesh

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Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!

Due to other commitments this week, this is a rather late review; but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my lack of a timely review for this weeks episode should be in any way construed as a lack of enthusiasm for it.

Far from it. In terms of atmosphere, interesting premise, excellent cast and overall great script, this was as good as anything Doctor Who has done of late. It’s also utterly different from anything Doctor Who has done of late: after the massively complex, deeply layered and intricately constructed opening two parter, together with the fun pirate romp (your mileage may vary on the ‘fun’ part) and the magical Neil Gaiman entry, this couldn’t possibly have been more different.

For one thing: it was slow. Now, that could be taken as an insult or a criticism, so let me assure you that I mean anything but an insult. It’s just that as I was watching, I was aware that not all that much had happened; and that was giving me time to absorb the story, and to think through some of the serious points being made (both important plot points, and equally important sociological points for the real world.) How nice to have a chance to watch a piece of TV that gives me time to absorb it and contemplate, rather than something that pummels you with its cleverness (no matter how much we might like that!) or tries to hide its script problems with raw pace (a few RTD scripts come to mind there.)

The slowness also allows the story to build a fantastically creepy atmosphere of claustrophobic dread, aided immeasurably by the decision to film much of it on location at various castles and monasteries that gave it such a unique feeling. But if this is to happen – if “slow” is to lead to “effective, creepy atmosphere” – then it can only happen with a good script and moreover a highly effective direction. Fortunately this episode had both in Matthew Graham and Julian Simpson respectively.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made between this two-parter and the season five episodes “The Hungry Earth”/”Cold Blood”, which was also deliberately slow-paced, and also shot in some some potentially very effective locations (caves, in that case.) Unfortunately, after a decent and fairly effective first part, that episode petered out into a story that felt like watching a particularly turgid council meeting and wasted almost every opportunity to create something special – one example of how “slow” really can end up being a pejorative.

I’m trusting this two-parter not to end up fumbling the second part – I have no reason to believe it will, it seems in very assured hands. There’s criticisms you can make of it, such as:

  • it’s not exactly original and is very much showing its roots (The Thing and Name of the Rose are acknowledged by the writer) – but then, some of the best Doctor Who stories of all time during the Tom Baker era came from this sort of Who-reimagining of classic stories like Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde;
  • some of the guest characters are chronically underwritten or given some really clichéd broad strokes to work with (such as Jimmy’s memories of his son) – but it succeeds by some clever casting of the likes of Raquel Cassidy, Mark Bonnar, Marshall Lancaster and Sarah Smart who immediately and very effectively bring something of their previous screen personas to the part;
  • Rory’s sudden spark of independence instead of trotting after Amy all the time is out of character – but how good to see it, and lovely to see Arthur Darvill have some more meaty material work with at last rather than just as comedy relief. Plus, he didn’t die for once!
  • And really, it was always going to end with that cliffhanger from the moment that the Doctor poked and prodded the pool of milk. Consequently so much of what preceded it felt like treading water waiting for the big reveal to happen. But when it did … Boy, was it worth it.

When I watched “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon”, I thought to myself that this is what a Doctor Who feature film would look like. Then along came “The Doctor’s Wife” and that was so gorgeously directed and photographed that it put many a Hollywood film to shame. But now I’m convinced that this is the perfect paradigm for a Doctor Who film – it felt like a motion picture from the get-go, and any doubts were dispelled by the “Next Time” trailer which was the best they’ve ever done. You could put that on as a trailer in a movie theatre and have them lining up around the block to see the film next week in no time.

We only have to remember to switch on our TV sets. Although sadly Americans and Canadians will have to restrain themselves for an extra week before getting to see it. Don’t worry, we’ll tease you mercilessly about it in the meantime.

Dr Who: Cobwebs (Big Finish Productions/BBC Radio 4 Extra)

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During its wilderness years – after the BBC banished it from television after 1989 not to return until 2005 save for one TV movie that must never, ever be mentioned – Doctor Who was kept alive by a series of novels and audio adventures. The production company Big Finish Productions won the license to produce the latter and is still going strong.

Strangely these new adventures have been relatively unexploited by the BBC in their quest for new radio drama material, when you would think they would be ideal. Until recently the the only such stories to have made it onto the BBC’s Radio 7 spoken word station were those featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor with a new companion (played by the wonderful Sheridan Smith) in an almost entirely separate, self-contained ‘series’ that the Corporation felt could run in parallel with the TV adventures of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith without interfering or confusing.

But this week, in a rather daring and very welcome departure to boost the launch of the new BBC Radio 4 Extra brand, the BBC have bought up a batch of Big Finish stories for the station. These feature not only Peter Davison as the Doctor, but his actual early 80s companion line-up of bolshy Tegan (Janet Fielding – particularly wonderful to have her back!), scheming Turlough (Mark Strickson) and nice Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). And the stories are in four half hour episodes with cliffhangers: it really is like being transported back.

Nyssa was always one of the dullest, least formed, “nicest” companions of 70s and 80s Doctor Who and Big Finish have pulled a nice twist here in setting this story two days after Nyssa departed the crew. In a lovely character touch, Tegan goes from pinning for the departed Nyssa to being incredibly antagonised when she returns, and Tegan is reminded of her former friend’s goody-goody tendencies and made to realise that she has much more in common with the “evil” Turlough whom she had formerly loathed – a nice transition that also fills in a character development gap in the original 80s stories, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence or accident that it does so.

In fact, while Nyssa’s been gone for only two days, that’s two days Tardis time – but 50 years for her, a marvellous idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the original production team but is very much in the spirit of the Moffat era of playing with time. It gives Sarah Sutton so much more to work with, while playing with time is what this whole “Cobwebs” episode is about – in a wonderfully simple, boiled-down and creepy first episode set in an abandoned station the Tardis crew find what look to be their own bodies, dead for 40 years; and in the second episode, it all starts to come true as they travel back in time. So far, so great.

If there’s a criticism of this story (and of some others that I’ve listened to in the Big Finish line) it’s that they’re simply too clever, intelligent and audacious for their own good. If you’re used to the nice, steady, linear productions that form the bulk of Radio 4’s drama output then these stories can overwhelm and become really quite confusing, as in the case of “Cobwebs” where the third episode goes off on a different tangent altogether and the guest characters we thought we had been introduced to suddenly turn out not to be who we – or even they – thought they were. It’s so many switches and reversals that – taken together with all the advanced timey-wimey stuff playing out as well – could well leave people struggling to maintain a grip with its breathless pace.

I suspect that this shows the roots of the Big Finish production. This is something like the 130th instalment and they’re well into their groove, so for those of us jumping in late in the day it’s hard for us to keep our balance on an already fast-moving vehicle. Also, let’s not forget that these productions were originally created for CD (and download) where listeners would set everything aside and play it when they have the requisite two hours’ of attention to devote to it, not just when it happened to come on the radio even if they were in the middle of doing something else. Such context can make a big difference: perhaps this is drama best reserved to iPlayer scheduling.

Still, it’s surely no bad criticism to say that something’s too clever or too ambitious – better than than safe-but-dull conservatism. And maybe it’s just that I hadn’t engaged my thinking head mode before listening.

Dr Who S6 Ep4 – The Doctor’s Wife

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Note: contains some spoilers, although I’ve tried to conceal them for the most part!

After all the build-up, hype, anticipation and expectation of having one of the world’s foremost science fiction and fantasy writers, Neil Gaiman, supply a script to Doctor Who it was inevitable that the final result couldn’t possibly live up to it all.

Inevitable, perhaps. But – as it turns out – utterly incorrect.

I’m not even a particular Neil Gaiman fan (or more accurately, I’m not a huge fantasy genre fan) and so approached this episode with a degree of caution that it wouldn’t be “my sort of thing”. I had been fortunate to miss any spoilers about the episode – I understand there have been many online and even in mainstream press, to which I can only say “Shame on you.”

I very quickly cottoned on to who Idris was going to be, and the concept was initially interesting but only in an eye-brow raising “Oh, they’re trying that are they?”

It’s one of those ideas that seems so obvious, even as it is revealed, that you (a) can’t believe no one has ever done it before, and (b) still feel won’t be all that special after all. And yet within minutes it pulled together so many strands that the show burst through its series format confines and became, for the next 40 minutes, bigger on the inside than it ever previously appeared before.

It was a show packed with brilliant lines, from the Doctor’s chilling “Fear me, I killed all of them” to his aching for forgiveness, to Amy’s arch “Did you wish really hard?” when she finds out Idris’ real identity, to the way the Doctor said he’d stolen her and she responds that in fact it was the other way around. But surely the best of them was something we have always known deep down but never had confirmed before: when the Doctor accuses Idris of being unreliable and never taking him where he wanted, her reply was brilliant: “I’ve always taken you where you’ve needed to be.”

Even the traditional weekly Rory death scene was forgiveable, seeing how well it was done (quick, snappy, nightmarish – the graffiti on the Tardis walls was chilling and Rory’s rebuke citing his 2,000 years of waiting packed a huge emotional punch). Rory and Amy both got some great moments again in this episode, in a show packed with brilliant and astounding performances from Matt Smith (surely never better in the role?) to Suranne Jones as Idris, and the creepy, deep tones of Michael Sheen as House.

Despite the fact that this was probably the most satisfying stand-alone episode for even casual viewers to watch, it packed in more love notes for Doctor Who geeks than anything even Russell T Davies managed in his tenure, right down to finding the Tardis setting down in…a junkyard, just where it all started. It’s clear just how much Neil Gaiman is a massive Doctor Who geek himself, as the companion behind-the-scenes Confidential show followed him going totally fanboi as he stood on the console room of the Tardis reading aloud the script that he’d written. And what magnificent prose that script sounded in its own right, too – surely it will get published? Just the sight of Amy and Rory arriving at a certain old console room deep in the heart of the Tardis was enough to spark geekgasms up and down the country. Bravo to Mr Gaiman for envisaging that – I might just have to start reading your books now after all, sir.

Confidential showed just how much the core concept of this episode had been seeded through the 32 previous seasons of the show, and clips of Rose and Sarah Jane Smith (awww, Lis …) comparing notes on how the Doctor cooed and stroked and talked to the Tardis seemed like some crazy script editors had been feverishly at work laying out the series arc even then, going back decades.

As you’ll recall, last week’s pirates caper felt to me like disappointing “filler”, treading water despite all those series arc continuity references it packed in. Ironically, this episode was structurally far more of a classic “bottle show” in that it lacked any continuity references to the episodes or series immediately around it. It could be parachuted in to any season (indeed, it was famously ‘bumped’ from series 5 where it had been originally scheduled.) And yet the episode was such that far from being lightweight, disposable fluff, detached and unnecessary to the series, it instead managed to be profoundly connected to an entire 48 years’ worth of the show’s history.

In a way that I’m not sure we the audience or even they the production crew quite understand or expect, this episode can’t help but change the way we see so much of the series and the character of the Doctor. For one thing, it brings home to us why the Doctor can and will never be in love with his companions (and doesn’t it show his time with Rose as a rather shallow distraction?): because there can only ever be one true romance in his life. She’s the one companion who has been there throughout; even before Susan, Ian and Barbara, she was the first, and she’s still with the Doctor and with us. She’s the most important character in the show, along with the Doctor himself.

Shows like Doctor Who can, at their very, very best, produce genuine magic. In previous years it has been Steven Moffat who had provided exactly those highs, with ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. It’s taken someone of Neil Gaiman’s calibre to top all of them: with this episode, the show has cast perhaps its most magnificent spell over its viewers yet in its entire history.

“Hello, sexy,” indeed.

Family Guy: And Then There Were Fewer

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Family Guy is one of those shows that you always expect – and hope – will be funnier than it is. If only it were as funny as the makers think it (and they themselves) are, it would be a non-stop riot.

Instead, it never quite is. Which is not to say that it’s bad, or not funny, because it certainly has its moments – usually gross ones. But it seems to work best when caught in brief five or ten minute snatches, and so is never better than when you catch it on BBC3 or FX while TV-hopping, waiting for something else to start or an ad break to be over.

Sit down and watch a whole episode, however, and it never quite lives up to those brilliant laugh out snatches you caught while channel surfing. And that’s especially the case when they do an hour-long “special” instalment – as was so clearly proved with their pastiches of the first Star Wars trilogy, which were scarily spot-on accurate reconstructions of the original films but oddly lacking in jokes.

Now the show does a two-parter based on the scary movie/psychopath/haunted house genre, and the effect is broadly the same: it’s amusing, has some great moments, but overall the effect is less than the sum of its parts and not as good as you wanted it to be going in. The basic plot is that the inhabitants of Quahog, Rhode Island get invited to a remote location only to find themselves the guests of a murderous serial killer.

This time, the show isn’t even spoofing one specific film. It assembles all the vague conventions of the genre – the isolated house, the lightning storm, secret passages – but rather than spoofing any particular film, it’s just spoofing the general clichés so you don’t get the fun of “spot the film reference”. The opening sequence feels like it’s straight out of The Shining, but not quite close enough to be sure whether that’s intended or accidental; the music feels like it’s a riff on the Murder, She Wrote theme, and other parts of it feel like the production team have been watching little-known 70s spoof Murder By Death on endless repeat in the DVD player (well worth seeking out a copy if you haven’t seen it already by the way – Alec Guinness, Peter Falk, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Truman Capote; need I say more?)

And the story itself isn’t as full blooded as you’d expect. The whole point about these genre films is the delight in seeing the characters get murdered one by one, by various nefarious means, until only a very small number of cast (and suspects) remain. Here, the writers don’t seem to have the nerve to go through with their set-up and only a couple of minor supporting characters get killed, and very boringly at that, and so we’re denied some good bloody over the top humour along the way.

It’s a strangely reserved, reigned-in instalment for the show, which also relies rather too much on the audience’s familiarity with the characters and with the recurring jokes of the show. These give some good laughs to even just occasional viewers of the show (Herbert the pederast’s choice of vehicle is a hoot; the reveal of who shot the killer at the end is a delight), but they’re very familiar now and nothing advances or stretches the very safe ground that the episode keeps well within.

It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and you’ll laugh; and really what more should we expect from a comedy sitcom? And yet it could have been so much more. When you spend so much of the episode admiring the quality of the CGI-enhanced, near-3D animation you can’t help but think that somewhere along the way, it rather missed its target.

Chatroom (Blu-ray)

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Every now and then I weaken and pick up a low-cost DVD on impulse at the checkout, of a film that I’ve never heard of before and know nothing about. Frankly its anonymity is usually a good warning: there are usually reasons why a movie sinks without trace, and that’s certainly the case here.

This is a film you really hope and expect will be better than it actually turns out to be. It’s got a good pedigree, directed by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (who brought us the original “Ring”) and featuring rising star Aaron Johnson (of Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy) and it has an interesting concept of a sociopath twisting an online social network to their own ends. But frankly it never really gels or takes off.

There’s no trace of Nakata’s trademark “Japan horror” style, and the film is amazingly “English domestic” more in common with naff 90s TV miniseries “KillerNet” than the “Ring” films. Nakata does bring a nice visual flair to the online life which is presented in vivid colours and appealing (and peeling) design, the different chat rooms all having different and equally interesting visual personalities, while “real” life is effectively contrasted in washed out, pale and bleached out drabness. Nakata also brings a good sound design to the film that adds atmosphere that does much to unsettle the viewer.

The performances are good too, especially from rising star of the moment Aaron Johnson who gets to swing from insecure, troubled real persona to swaggering, confident virtual personality, which itself swings from initially charming group leader to gradually revealing his intensively evil impulses – and Johnson does evil well, too. Matthew Beard is very impressive too as the weak link who is deconstructed by Johnson’s character, while Imogen Poots has the most potential as the upper class airhead bitch initially attracted to but then repelled by Johnson. Sadly the other two characters are barely developed and their storylines suddenly peter out as the film loses interest in them (and the audience’s was never really engaged in them in the first place.)

The chatroom concept itself is nicely presented as a real location (bypassing people hammering away at keyboards) but every so often non sequitor dialogue such as “what do you look like?” or “where are you?” between two characters who appear to be sitting side by side remind you of the actual online situation; when characters do assemble in real life there’s a nice touch with one of them having to hold up a chalkboard in the air with their screen name on it so that they can recognise each other. This confusion of virtual life with real life is very much how many people experience it, and technically the film is reasonably realistic too, with nice roles of iPhones and iMacs, good representations of hacking and pedophiles and password protection into the visual representation of the virtual reality. For all that, it’s strange that this VR should be seemingly based on a text-line chat programme like AOL IM which instantly seems dated.

So how come this doesn’t work better? Really it’s because despite the film’s PR marketing and Nakata’s presence at the helm, this is no horror film. The stageplay on which its based is an “issue play” about online bullying which isn’t really as clever, original or interesting as it thinks it is, and it instantly feels like it would be more at home as a storyline in a teen soap instead of a film. The storyline is also disconnected, confusing, unfocussed and lacking subtlety, ending up in a pointless run around chase sequence around north-west London that feels tacked on.

It gets widely differing reviews online, from those thinking it’s underrated and deserves better, to those who want those 94 minutes of their life back. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s dreadful by any means, but it’s far from being one that will make you feel that your world is incomplete if you don’t happen to see it. Its flaws are enough to make the film feel rather laboured when it needs to fly, resulting in an okay watch but nothing special despite its occasional merits.

** out of *****.

The Shadow Line – Ep1

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Caution: contains spoilers

It’s been a very strange week for TV drama. After months of domestic drama drought we suddenly get overloaded with Exile, Vera, Case Sensitive – and now this conspiracy thriller boasting a staggering cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Tobias Menzies, Rafe Spall, Sir Antony Sher and Stephen Rea. Whoa.

I had high hopes for this because I do love a good conspiracy thriller – State of Play is one of my all time favourite BBC shows. How does this measure up by comparison?

In the BBC2 trailers leading up to the show’s first instalment, much play is made of this being a thriller by Hugo Blick: I guess we’re supposed to know the name but I confess it was totally new to me. Turns out he made the highly regarded comedy Marion and Geoff that launched Rob Brydon as a star, but I couldn’t see why that warranted him getting Hitchcockian above-the-title credit, even if he was the writer, director and producer of the darn thing.

Having seen the first episode, I am happy to reappraise those doubts: Blick has produced something rather special here and deserves every bit of the kudos in return. Often, we Brits lament how come we can’t produce television as good as The Wire from the US, or The Killing (Forbrydelsen) from Denmark. Well, The Shadow Line essentially shows that we can, and potentially have – right here, right now.

The visual style of the first episode is wonderful (although it will have to reign it in a little as the show goes on if it’s to avoid overdoing it.) It’s summed up by the first scene, a seven minute sequence of two policemen investigating a body found in a car in the woods. It’s virtually monochrome, all high contrast black and chrome with the two uniformed officers looking pale and blanched and only the victim’s blood adding colour; the first shot is from overhead, showing the flashlights of the policemen as they approach the car. Later on, when the forensic team arrive, the brilliantly-lit pure white tent they erect over the crime scene is more like a spaceship than anything earthly.

As well as the visual style, it’s also a programme that allows the script and moreover the actors time and space to breath and develop their characters, and the result is truly compelling and top-notch. The flashiest turn is from Rafe Spall as the murder victim’s nephew: he’s a damaged, deranged psychotic who looks like he wants to take on the world, who laughs and grins when he shouldn’t, and is utterly unpredictable and dangerous. Spall has a terrific time in this role and I found him compulsively watchable.

Christopher Eccleston gets the quieter role as a “business associate” of the murder victim, a quiet man who looks like he should be a mid-ranking civil servant but instead finds himself trying to control violent criminals, while also coping with the decline of his wife (the ever-brilliant Lesley Sharp) from early-onset Alzheimers – and how odd that both BBC drama series this week have had key characters with that terrible affliction? You can see every thought, every fear flash across Eccleston’s face as he tries to stay one twist ahead of everyone else, and it’s a role he suits far better than he ever did Doctor Who.

It’s great to have Chiwetel Ejiofor back on loan from Hollywood. You feel that there should be some big aspect to the story about the lead detective being black, but actually the colour of his skin is the least interesting thing to him: of more interest is the bullet in his brain, how it came to be there and what personality changes it has caused; and then of course the small matter of a briefcase of cash that he doesn’t know anything about.

What’s particularly outstanding about the first episode is how the “supporting” cast are also universally good and stand-out – anyone of them could carry a show of their own. In particular, all the characters are simply excellent at their jobs: too often we get plots driven by stupid people doing stupid things and making mistakes, but here you feel everyone is lethally efficient. There’s the superbly named Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing playing Ejiofor’s sergeant) who is way ahead of her boss; Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry as Eccleston’s enforcer), able to improvise an ambush on some pursuing villains and then walk calmly over to their wrecked car to ask “What the f*** do you want?” as he brandishes a baton); Ross McGovern (Tobias Menzies) as a tenacious journalist; and Patterson (Richard Lintern as Ejiofor’s boss) who clearly has his own agenda). Add in the always wonderful David Schofield as the corrupt Sgt Foley who dominates that throat-grabbing first seven minute scene and you have as good an ensemble as you could hope to see in any TV programme.

We haven’t even been introduced to Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse yet, or know who Anthony Sher will be. Maybe he will play the shadowy figure of Glickman, who has been much talked about but – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects – is still legend and myth and has not yet been glimpsed in person.

With seven parts in total, it’s too early to declare whether this will be a classic TV show – it could all go horribly pear-shaped at some point. But based on the quality, confidence and verve of the first episode I don’t think so. It’s in safe and exciting hands and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops.

Dr Who S6/E3 – The Curse of the Black Spot

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Note: contains some spoilers

Well, this is embarrassing. I finished off my last review (of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two parter) by saying that my brain was broken and that all I wanted was a nice, simple straight-forward adventure to give my head a bit of a break, and that’s duly what this episode gives us. And … how unsatisfying does it feel? It’s as though, having feasted on full steak dinners for two weeks, we turn up this week to get a sub-sub-McDonalds burger at a motorway café.

In truth this episode was always up against it as far as I was concerned because of the subject matter. I’m just not a big pirates fan: the only film/TV show featuring pirates that’s ever worked for me to any degree was the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie (and not even, you’ll notice, the sequels) to which this week’s episode will always be inevitably (very unfairly) compared. That film succeeded because it really went for it and was as outrageous as Johnny Depp’s inspired creation of Jack Sparrow; but where Pirates was full-blooded, The Curse of the Black Spot was half-fat and semi-skimmed by comparison.

The fight sequences never had a chance of being motion picture quality of course, but even so they were peculiarly flat and sluggishly shot here. The tone of the show as a whole was also very uneven, with some of the pirate crew doing full-on pirate cliché performances while others looked like they hadn’t got the memo – and then there was Hugh Bonneville giving a serious, intelligent performance of dignity and gravitas that belonged in a far more high-minded production altogether. And considering the production team went to the trouble of decamping to Cornwall to shoot on an actual tall ship, it’s amazing how studio-bound this episode felt, with the on-deck sequences against a featureless black background feeling as artificial as the 1983 Classic Who serial Enlightenment: there’s no sense of genuine place or atmosphere, of the claustrophobia of such a ship.

There were some definite pluses to the episode: I thought the performances of the three leads delightful, with Matt Smith never embracing the weirdness and the fun of the Doctor as much as he did here in scene after scene, and in particular his moments captain-to-captain with Bonneville were a genuine delight (although his sudden cry of “urgh, alien bogies!” was very ill-advised and made him sound like the Play School version of the character); Rory continues to steal the show, not so much with dialogue or plot in this episode but with little moments of physical comedy improvisation from Arthur Darvill such as his little wave at the pirates before the titles crash in; and Karen Gillan got some lovely moments, from her fight scene to her interplay with Rory over his falling for the siren. Oh, and said siren was tremendously effectively realised – well acted (perhaps surprisingly) by Lily Cole and by turns beautiful, creepy and scary, a lovely bit of CGI work that was exactly the sort of FX that had previously looked so poor and cheap in season five but here looks the proverbial million dollars (note to media critics of the BBC: not actually spent a million dollars. Oh, no, definitely not. Heaven forbid.)

Lots of good ideas (seeing into another world through the mirror – very Lewis Carroll) and moments, then, but the whole thing just didn’t really gel together and felt very uneven. Where the script and direction needed to be light and playful, instead we could hear the gears crunching as it tried to move from one set-up to another, particularly when young Toby was introduced to impose an unnecessary and clichéd pathos onto Captain Avery’s character and then later (more understandably) as the show tried to abruptly transition from pirates, folklore and horror to science fiction on another dimension’s ship rather too late in the day to make it work, feeling tacked-on instead.

Most of all – a surprisingly large number of plot lapses to be found here, of ideas not fully worked through and a script that hasn’t been finessed nearly enough. Was Steven Moffat too wrapped up writing his own scripts to run full due diligence here? To name a few: how did Toby stay undiscovered on board such a small ship for so long? Why is the Doctor so quick to call time and abandon ship on his beloved Tardis? Why on earth should breaking a mirror destroy the possibility of reflections – arguably it just makes a thousand more reflective pieces (c.f. the aforementioned Enlightenment?) What happened to the Boatswain who apparently just disappears from the Armoury? Why are all of the pirate crew left on the space ship when at least a few of them suffered from nothing more serious than a paper cut? Toby we can understand, and an ending that saw Avery choose to stay behind with just his son would have had more impact that a group shot of pirates gathering around with nothing else to do other than look at the stars and tie up a loose end. It can’t be that once transported, everyone – no matter how serious the original injury – is unable to leave or else the Doctor and Amy would be similarly dependent on the place forever more, let alone Rory.

Talking of which, I really can’t work out exactly what the logic was behind Rory’s condition. If the alien medical technology had cleared the water from his lungs and resuscitated his heart and respiration, why should be suddenly go back to a drowned state once removed? It’s pretty useless medical technology in that case, and the alien creators of it should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of foresight. No wonder they were all wiped out by the common cold (and – a space faring race wiped out by earthly bugs? Not exactly well prepared, were they!) It would be petty of me to say that I was disappointed that the siren/Lily Cole didn’t get to have a holographic moment with a line like “Please state the nature of your medical emergency,” but I could have sworn that the alien sick bay stole a couple of sound FX cues from the original Star Trek.

Oh, and please – can they stop killing Rory (or some series regular) seemingly every week? Have we really got to the point where we can’t believe that it’s a high-stakes adventure unless and until one of the main cast are apparently offed? I’ve lost count now of how many death scenes Rory in particular has had. If ever he is written out this way, no one in the country is going to realise/get it/care until several weeks later after all these cry wolf moments.

Sadly, all the plot threads from the opening two-parter were thoroughly parked, despite some heavy-handed attempts to reference them to make sure people didn’t forget and to establish a “through-story/season arc” feel to things. But rather than advancing the story in any way, all of these (Rory and Amy discussing the Doctor’s first episode death and how they couldn’t tell him; the Doctor re-running Amy’s pregnancy test and still not getting a clear answer; the re-appearance of Eyepatch Woman peering at Amy through a shutter) were literal restagings of what we saw in the first two episodes and consequently add nothing, except to either confuse or frustrate depending upon your personal mood.

All in all it felt like a filler episode, which in a season as short as this one is inexcusable. Or perhaps, in view of the pirate subject matter, we should just say that this episode was merely “treading water”; presumably having just walked the plank.

Case Sensitive: Point of Rescue

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Having slagged off Vera and in particular attacked the central female character, I need to urgently reassert my “I’m not a sexist male reviewer really, honest guv” credentials – which brings me to this week’s other crime procedural drama début from ITV featuring a central female detective.

Olivia Williams (from The Sixth Sense, Dollhouse, The Ghost and Hanna) stars as DS Charlie Zailer investigating the apparent suicide of Geraldine Bretherick and her murder of her 5-year-old daughter Lucy. The setting for this disturbing crime is a house that I’m convinced was the subject of an episode of Grand Designs, which just goes to show that those sort of stylish masterpieces are obviously wanton breeding grounds for crime and murder.

Williams is great and believable in exactly the way the Brenda Blethyn in Vera isn’t. She’s still very much a woman in a man’s world (as opposed to, say, Sarah Lund in The Killing (Forbrydelsen) who is essentially a male character played by a female actress – which works extremely well, admittedly!) but she’s also a completely believable professional.

What’s interesting is that the show plays on our expectations that she will be in the receiving end of sexism from her male colleagues: certainly DS Sellers (Ralph Ineson) is blatantly disrespectful, but her boss Proust (Peter Wight) seems to be an equal opportunity shouter and just has a go at everyone. The most interesting (male) character in the line-up is DS Zailer’s new sidekick DC Waterhouse (Darren Boyd) who initially seems to be completely dismissive of her, which could be because the two may or may not have had a drunken one night stand prior to the start of the series but eventually turns out to be because Waterhouse is simply in a different world and hasn’t mastered many social niceties.

The plot (from the book The Point of Rescue by Sophie Hannah) has some nice touches, featuring mistaken (or faked) identities by multiple people, and some dark obsessions that emerge during the investigation. It’s a proper grown up crime tale, in other words.

Unfortunately it also feels like the pristine, perfectly crafted designer home in which the crime is set: rather chilly and distant. There’s something about the end result that doesn’t quite engage, even before the killer is shock-revealed as someone who has been involved in the investigation by a completely coincidental and unrelated plot strand, which is always the lamest and most clichéd of outcomes for a crime show these days.

Still, it has more potential than most shows, with substance and depth as well as an interesting and already well-developed lead duo in Zailer and Waterhouse. Alas this is isn’t the start of a series but a standalone two-parter, with a second commissioned for later in the year – but such lack of commitment to the network and gap between instalments is hardly likely to inspire confidence or loyalty among viewers.

Vera – S1/E1

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In my earlier review of Exile, I mentioned ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves starring Brenda Blethyn and rather off-handedly dismissed it by saying “I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me.” I felt a bit mean about that, and so duly caught up with it via the ITV Player video on-demand catch-up service.

Erm … Nope, sorry: after watching the whole thing I can confirm that it really simply didn’t appeal to me. And it genuinely did come down to the central character not being believable to me as a Detective Chief Inspector. It really does feel as though they’ve tried to transplant a slightly younger Miss Marple into a police crime procedural, and the ensuing result wasn’t so much a clash of genre cultures as a head-on train wreck in terms of credibility.

The whole thing seemed like something of a wish-fulfilment exercise by the makers to show that a (rather clichéd) grumpy, frumpy housewife-type can also be a star detective in the police force. That makes it sounds like it’s a worthy blow for gender equality in some ways, but in fact it just seems to cheapen and undermine the trail blazers such as Prime Suspect, and the representation of the central character seems like some male colleagues’ crude, derogatory stereotypical view of what they glibly assume it’s like to work with an older woman boss.

I was even beginning to wonder whether this reaction to the character was a sign of some nasty strain of latent sexism on my part, so I was somewhat relieved while simultaneously horrified to read Radio Times’ Alison Graham write this about the next episode on Sunday: “she’s a straight talking woman in a difficult, male environment but I’m beginning to wonder if she’s menopausal and has forgotten to take her HRT.” Yikes. Not just me, then.

The only other character, DS Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon), is a handsome but blank cipher at this point, there to represent “normality” (he’s married with a pregnant wife and three kids, the picture of domesticity) and to hand Vera key bits of evidence to advance the plot on cue while predictably being the only one seemingly able to relate to and understand her. The plot turned out to be depressingly mundane and the suspect pool was a group of indistinguishable middle aged male bird watchers (the feathered variety!) that merged into one another. Frankly I couldn’t keep straight who everyone was, and consequently really didn’t care whodunnit.

On the plus side: the north east landscapes are gorgeously photographed, from an early scene which shows a row of houses dwarfed in the shadow of the iconic Angel of the North through brilliantly atmospheric seafront scenes and then a climactic showdown in the remains of an old fortress in beautifully shot scenes just made for tourism export. A word of caution though: the director should reign in the number of handheld sequences, and the kinetic tracking shots centred on the main character storming to or from some showdown though – those get old really quickly.

Suffice to say, there really wasn’t anything here that made me want to seek it out again in the future. But if it happens to be on, I’d be interested to see whether any of its edges get smoothed out over the course of four episodes.

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.