As things turned out, there wasn’t enough time between the end of Doctor Who series 9 and the follow-up Christmas special for us to produce our now-traditional look back over the most recent run of stories featuring our favourite maverick Time Lord. Instead, we thought we’d allow the holiday festivities to well and truly settle down before finally turning our merciless combined fan gaze on the latest run of episodes. Plus, there was the small matter of John, self-confessed Star Wars superfan, experiencing an awakening of some sort…
Then, just as we were thinking of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard and touchscreen), the news broke that Steven Moffat is to step down as showrunner after the next series and the torch is to be passed on to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall – himself a man with impeccable Doctor Who fan credentials who has contributed several stories to the show over the years, and also to Torchwood which he co-produced for the first two series.
Does the confirmation of his impending departure colour our perspective of Moffat’s fifth complete series in charge of our favourite show? Will we get misty-eyed and sentimental about the Grand Moff’s achievements now that the end is in sight? You’ll have to read on and see, as we embark on a particularly timey-wimey trip through the highs and lows of series 9.
Spoilers ahoy, Sweeties! Read the rest of this entry »
I confess that I had a bad feeling about this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special as soon as I heard that noted comedians Matt Lucas and Greg Davies were among the main guest stars, and that one of the characters was King Hydroflax. This had all the hallmarks of the show lurching firmly into ‘silly’ territory, the kind of thing that I don’t take to at all well. My only hope was that the promised return of the divine Alex Kingston as the inimitable River Song would counter the potential downsides.
Even with that hope in mind, my first viewing of “The Husbands of River Song” did not go well. It really was very, very silly indeed to the point of being a wacky cartoon caper (there’s even a comedy ‘whoosh’ sound effect when River throws a head-in-a-bag to the Doctor at one point), and just to make matters worse there’s a heavy added layer of Douglas Adams humour to the whole thing – the kind of surreal shenanigans that only Adams himself could ever really pull off and that everyone else is best advised to stay well away from.
The resulting confection managed to hit all the wrong buttons for me, and in entirely the wrong order. To make matters worse, I even dozed off in the middle – although admittedly, this was at least as much to do with sinking into a food coma after Christmas dinner as it was a justified critical verdict on the show. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some mild spoilers for the first two-part story.
ITV’s new crime drama Chasing Shadows is an oddly bloodless affair, resembling nothing so much as a piece of low-cost flat pack furniture where the individual components parts are familiar from other efforts and promise a decent end result, but which instead turns out to be so bland and anonymous that it fades into the background never to be thought of again, merely serving its purpose and filling some space for as long as it lasts.
The very set-up of the show sounds almost comedically clichéd: a mismatched pair of investigators, bucking against authority and improbably tasked with hunting down serial killers while working out of the civilian Missing Persons Unit rather than the Met’s murder squad. Given that one of the investigators is brilliant but anti-social to the point of breathtaking rudeness it seems that the particular immediate template for the show is most likely the Nordic Noir series The Bridge in which one of the cops was strongly implied to be high on the spectrum of Asperger’s or autism. This is similarly the case with Chasing Shadows complete with added traits of OCD and Tourette’s for haphazard good measure, although whereas Saga Noren’s character was used as a darkly satirical commentary to subvert gender and national stereotypes, here there is a complete absence of any equivalent intriguing subtext.
Perhaps to avoid encouraging comparisons with The Bridge, Chasing Shadows has reversed the genders of the two leading characters so that the male role of DS Sean Stone is the one who is emotionally closed down, brusque and unfeeling with a blinkered focus on facts and data and on getting the job done – a dull stereotype, despite some very accomplished and intelligent playing by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith. Meanwhile the female character of Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) becomes the warm, emotionally accessible, nurturing and motherly role balancing work with home life, so that the whole thing ends up producing a set-up that sends us instead all the way back to the cop show gender clichés of the 1970s and completely misses the point of modern convention-challenging shows like The Bridge. Read the rest of this entry »
Not, I should immediately make clear, by the story and events of “The Name of the Doctor”, the series finale of the extended staccato season 7 of Doctor Who. As has so often been the case with Steven Moffat’s work down the years, what appeared at the outset to be brain-scrambling head-twister of a puzzle is by the end almost charmingly simple and straight-forward by the time it’s explained – and I mean that as a sincere compliment, an example of the craft of writing at its highest level.
Most of us had already figured out that the secret to Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was that she had somehow been ‘split up’ and scattered (“like confetti”, as the show itself described it) across all of time and space in a manner akin to the fate of the last of the Jagaroth from the classic serial “City of Death”; all that this new episode did was provide the mechanism for how this did indeed come to happen, and why it was that the Doctor kept running across her. It was not coincidence, it turned out, but an essential part of the design – no accident but rather completely unavoidable. Read the rest of this entry »
Alright, I admit it. I’ve been putting off writing this particular review for quite some time now. I even wrote it, put it to one side, hesitated on publishing it, and then came back to it a week later to re-write. By which you can surmise, all is not well for me with the final episode of the five-part season 7 mini-series.
A small part of the reason for my procrastination is the simple unwillingness to accept that the Doctor’s long-time travelling companions Amy and Rory are now gone for good. But that’s jumping ahead to the end – which is where for me the problems of this episode lie – rather than starting at the beginning where we should.
How fantastic were those opening moments shot in location in New York which set up the shift into a glorious film noir/pulp fiction pastiche? It was the perfect riposte for any of those penny-pinchers who quibble about the Doctor Who production team going overseas, because the episode would have been infinitely the poorer without those moments. Just as “A Town Called Mercy” would have been laughable if they’d tried to shoot a western in the Welsh countryside rather than in an authentic (Spaghetti) western film location in Spain, so “The Angels Take Manhattan” wouldn’t have been a tenth as successful as it was if it wasn’t so firmly rooted at the start with genuine US locations filmed in Central Park.
Those scenes gave the story an authenticity that it otherwise wouldn’t have had;it also allowed the Gothic architecture of New York City to play a part and become a potent character in the story as it gave a new dimension to the Weeping Angels, who were otherwise rather sidelined in a supporting role in this story despite the title. The laughing, scampering cherubs were new and deeply unsettling; the Statue of Liberty could also have been an effective addition to the Angels’ lore but unfortunately the idea that Miss Liberty had strolled in from the harbour without being locked into place by the eyes of millions of New Yorkers rather overstretched the suspension of disbelief available. Read the rest of this entry »
Some spoilers for the unwary
“The Wedding of River Song” turned out to be a fun, entertaining episode to round out the sixth season of Doctor Who. But strangely, what it wasn’t was a resounding season finale spectacular, or a sufficiently satisfying pay-off to a complex and at times maddeningly twisty multi-season story arc.
Perhaps the problem is that the episode brings in so many characters and storylines from the past that it had the overall feeling of being ‘a little bit of admin’, there mainly to wrap up the loose ends. It feels like the end of the mystery novel, the chapter just after the murderer has been unmasked and then taken care of in an exciting fight/chase sequence: the one where everyone sits down in the drawing room sipping a cup of tea, and someone asks the main character “So, just how did you figure it all out?” and there then follows ten pages of exposition. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers, sweetie.
So everyone’s favourite Time Lord is back for the second leg of his sixth season, with the audaciously titled “Let’s Kill Hitler” that had many of us laughing out loud and spitting out our drinks when it first popped up at the end of the previous episode back in June.
Allow me to say upfront that there was some brilliant stuff here, from the opening verve of the corn field sequence, the montage introducing young Rory/Amy/Mels with its sublime transition shot from a discarded toy Tardis to the real thing flying through the air, to the brilliant notion and execution of the Tesselecta, to the fabulous mental battle of wills between the newly arrived River and the Doctor over firearms and bananas, and even the way it used the Nazi Germany setting, sidestepping any awkward ethical questions of whether or not to kill Hitler in 1938 but bravely not ducking out completely either, with River’s shot about being “on my way to this gay gypsy Bar-Mitzvah for the disabled” being beautifully barbed.
Matt Smith gets better with every episode, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill got some good fun stuff to do (Rory the action hero, putting Hitler in the cupboard) and as for Alex Kingston … Well, she’s quite magnificent, in perhaps the most interesting, fun, complex iteration of the role of River Song that she’s had to date. I can’t help but think that this must be the must fun and challenging role of her career to date – so much better than the weekly drudge through “ER” she had to put up with – and I wonder whether she had any idea of quite what was in store for her when she cheerfully agreed to a quick two-parter with “Silence in the Library” opposite David Tennant all those years ago.
And yet as good as parts of this opening episode were … Why the rush? I don’t just mean the usual breakneck speed of the thing which left even the most ardent fans asking “Hang on, so why couldn’t he just regenerate, again … ?”, but also the way some great concepts (like the Tesselecta, or the Nazi setting, or the new audio interface for the Tardis) were tossed in, given a couple of minutes and then passed over. It was like watching a spoilt kid opening dozens of brilliant presents on Christmas morning and not having time to really stop and play with or appreciate any of them.
There was also a deluge of information about River Song: having been withheld from us for four years, suddenly the show couldn’t wait to blurt it out as fast as possible. How come? And – did it really all make complete sense or was there some very fancy footwork to disguise the fact that this intricately constructed tale actually didn’t come together when it had to be explained? The sudden deus ex machina of River’s regeneration power saving the Doctor (how?) seemed to be just a plot device to explain the oversight of why, then, she ends up without this ability and therefore unable to save herself at the end of “Forest of the Dead”.
But the biggest oversight is Mels, Amy’s oldest, closest, bestest friend after whom she even names her baby daughter. And who we’ve never heard mention of even once before. Sorry, but “I don’t do weddings” doesn’t get around that sort of oversight. It’s a staggering “Jump the Shark”potential moment for the writing, so audacious that it’s hard to believe writer Steven Moffat could make such an appalling mistake (even a line of ADR on “A Good Man Goes To War” could have prefigured this development.)
Unless of course it’s not a gaffe at all. Remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer suddenly conjuring up a younger sister for Buffy mid-run and how bad that seemed at first – only to be revealed as a quite brilliantly conceived storyline that drive the whole of the rest of that season. Let’s hope there’s a backstory to Mels that does likewise, because otherwise the sudden appearance (and equally sudden disappearance minutes later) of the character is an extraordinarily disingenuous cheat.
Contains some oblique spoilers, sweetie.
And so the first half of this year’s “double mini-series” season 6 of Doctor Who has come to an end, allowing us time to pause and reflect about the season overall. But before that – what about the final episode?
I skipped over reviewing the last episode, “The Almost People”, as it was the second half of a story about which I felt I’d already said pretty much everything I wanted to in my previous “The Rebel Flesh” review: the two-parter finished solidly and just as the first part would have had you expect. A very safe pair of hands and an enjoyable story overall.
And then came that final cliffhanger in the Tardis with not-Amy. Certainly didn’t see that one coming, and yet doesn’t it make sense about the Doctor’s whole insistence on trying to prove to her that The Flesh avatars are not monsters and are real people too. He was trying to prepare her for what was to come.
That shock ending led directly into “A Good Man Goes To War”, and we’re expecting greatness of epic proportions. For the first 20 minutes it royally delivers: the scale of the Doctor’s preparations of assembling an army and tracking down Amy are truly astonishing, with the Tardis and Rory (the Lone Centurion) acting in the Doctor’s place and the man himself appearing only briefly in (unconvincing) silhouette as befits a legend and a myth.
By this point we’re prepared for something absolutely sensational: the Doctor’s (uncharacteristically) casual destruction of a entire Cyber battle fleet to make a rhetorical point leads us to believe that this is the Time Lord Victorious pushed over the edge, driven to darker deeds by an incomparable fury. Except that neither the Doctor nor head writer Steven Moffat are ever that obvious or predictable. Instead, when the Doctor finally does pop up, he looks very much as normal and he outwits the army arrayed against him with typical light-hearted cunning (brilliantly plotted). The battle is defused, and while there is a subsequent trap to be sprung by Madame Kovarian this proves to be an even lower-key plot beat with just half a dozen or so on either side, and the action essentially taking place off-screen. (Judging how stodgy the pirate battle antics ended up looking in “The Curse of the Black Spot”, it may be just as well.)
It’s Moffat’s greatest strength that he confounds and defies our every expectation; but it can also be his greatest weakness. Having promised us that “the Doctor will climb higher than ever before”, the way the episode unfurls simply doesn’t deliver on this promise. The structure of the episode is oddly inverted, starting with epic and sweeping but then getting smaller and smaller until finally it comes down to a rather talky final scene between the regulars. It leaves an oddly awkward, unfulfilled feeling to it: having opened a Christmas present in huge extravagant wrappings, the end result is the perfectly fine but still rather-expected Doctor Who annual.
How you feel about the climax depends on how big a shock the final reveal about River Song’s true identity is. I confess, I’ve thought that she is who she turned out to be ever since episode 1 of this season, when she and Rory were investigating underground and had a rather interesting conversation that only has genuine emotional resonance if River Song is one particular person. The line of dialogue in “The Doctor’s Wife” that ‘the only water in the forest is the river’ sealed it for me, so this week’s reveal was not in the end a big surprise, although Moffat certainly played around in the episode with a few red herrings to make it pleasingly in doubt until the very final moments.
A small genius of Moffat’s writing is that despite having finally revealed River Song’s true identity, it turns out that the answer gives rise to far more questions than the answer ever addressed – the perfect sort of plotting. Instead of being an end to River’s story, if anything it just throws up even more avenues that need exploring which are far more interesting. How exactly does River’s story now intersect with the Impossible Astronaut, the little girl regenerating, and River’s own ultimate fate seen back in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”? What’s this going to mean to Rory and Amy? Where has the Doctor gone after learning this piece of information – how does it give him the location of the baby? Will the baby be lost to them for years, stuck in a Silents-infested orphanage for years to come? What’s with the astronaut suit, anyway? And why doesn’t River know?
Overall, the episode was extremely well done and great fun – just not the episode to end all episodes that we’d been led to hope for. It felt like a reprise of “The Pandorica Opens” in that it’s all a trap to snare the Doctor and features alliances of various old foes; the difference being is that here the Doctor builds his own alliance to fight back. In the end, this felt more like Russell T Davies’ era of the show (in particular his biggest shows, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”) than anything Moffat himself has previously done: only that instead of gathering together a feel-good line-up of his old friends, allies and companions to help him as RTD gave us, here the Doctor seeks out more unlikely line-up of Silurians, Judoon and Sontarans who owe him.
And what delights there were in that alliance. For all the praise Moffat gets for his intricate plotting, it’s easy to forget that his real strength is in giving us the most brilliant characters the show has ever seen: not just Amy, but Rory who has developed into one of the true stars of the show; then there’s River Song, without whom it’s almost impossible to think of modern Doctor Who, such a fabulous and vibrant part of the team she’s become. And let’s not forget that Moffat also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, the first character to sustain a successful Doctor Who spin-off series of his own.
This week, add to this line up the brilliant characters of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny: is there any fan out there not dying to see a Victorian Era-set spin off featuring these two? Such a shame that blue-marketeer Dorium and Commander/Nurse Strax are also not available for future stories: Robert Holmes must be beaming down from on high with delight that someone has finally grasped his Sontaran creations and made them into richly textured, fully-rounded and even humorous personalities without betraying the underlying principle of the cloned warrior race. Even the odd minor character of Lorna Bucket with her memory of 30 seconds running through a forest with the Doctor (who doesn’t know her) feels like someone with far more tale left to tell. Even if she is dead for now.
In the end, the episode is less of a season climax and a major cliffhanger than the episode that preceded it: instead it feels more like the end of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – everything has been thrown up in the air, the pieces are in play, and suddenly it all looks less like a happy fairytale than it did, and more like a dark and dangerous time. And like that brilliant film it leaves us sitting on the edge of our seats counting down the hours to part two of series six in the Autumn.
Just as long as Moffat doesn’t try and add any sodding Ewoks to the Silurian/Judoon/Sontaran alliance, we should be in for a treat as the story continues to unfold.
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.
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.
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.
So ITV’s Marchlands time-hopping ghostly mini-series came to an end this week, and left me … Puzzled. Not because the story wasn’t clear – in fact, quite the reverse. (Some mild spoilers ahoy, for those who haven’t seen all the episodes yet.)
But let’s start with the positives: how nice and refreshing to see a prime time series that isn’t about cops or docs, and which tries to do something different and does it at least reasonably successfully (as opposed to, say, the BBC’s Outcasts sci-fi flop: and even that still mostly concentrated on the cops on an alien world.) It’s the latest in a strong run of drama from ITV, something I had once given up all hope for in these days of continuing Britain’s-Got-X-Factor-on-ice tedium. Instead ITV should be praised for putting a huge amount of investment in drama, from Downton Abbey to franchised efforts like Law and Order: UK and for really delivering some class work along the way.
Marchlands was incredibly well directed and designed – the three time periods of the 1960s, 1980s and current day were impeccably recreated and evoked so there was no question of which era we were in at any time. The writing skilfully twisted the narrative of the three strands so that they connected and sparked themes across the years. And the acting was top notch all round, with reliably excellent turns from the likes of top pros Denis Lawson, Alex Kingston and Anne Reid as well as from new faces such as Jodie Whittaker and Jamie Thomas King, with some consistently good juvenile turns from all the child actors as well. If I were to single anyone out, then I was particularly struck by Dean Andrews – someone I never took to in Life on Mars but who was terrifically warm and natural here – and also Tessa Peake-Jones, once Del Boy’s cheery wife in Only Fools and Horses … but here expertly transformed into the absolute chilly essence of everyone’s nightmare of a 1960s mother-in-law.
So there was a lot to admire in this series. It’s just that, when it came down to it, I wasn’t entirely sure what the final result was, or what the series was trying to do. It was initially promoted as a ghost story chiller, but as the series wound on it seemed that the ghost was almost a red herring and a bit of an irrelevance, a way of generating some suspense and a cliffhanger when needed, a plot contrivance to link the years together but never really contributing to the substance of the story (or rather, stories.) There was the potential murder-mystery of the 60s Alice’s death, but this too turned out to have less to it than had been hinted at, the solution easily guessed and finally confirmed to be just a dreadful but straightforward tragic accident. And the cross-time narrative was simply a way of spicing up what proved, ultimately, to be three separate-but-linked family relationship dramas. It never had any real clever use for the multiple-time set-up and failed to cross-fertilise the time strands in any inventive or imaginative way that a writer like Steven Moffat, for example, would have devised.
In the end it proved to be a solid piece of work exceptionally well made, but less than the sum of its parts and rather a disappointing anti-climax after so much expert foreplay. I never really worked out what it was trying to be; and I suspect that the series itself never really quite knew either, or had the self-confidence to make the choice.