Christopher Eccleston

Doctor Who: Ten years ago and no time at all

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It’s hard to believe that today marks the tenth anniversary of the return of Doctor Who to television. On the one hand it seems no time at all since Christopher Eccleston was bounding around the Tardis control room, grabbing Billie Piper’s hand and urging her to run from the imminent danger of plastic mannequins; but on the other, it seems almost impossible to believe now that there was ever a time when the programme wasn’t actually on television, or that during the show’s 16 long years in the wilderness a whole generation grew up without the opportunity to get to bond with ‘their’ Doctor because there hadn’t been one.

ecclestoneAs the clock counted down to that first new episode of the 21st century at 7pm on Saturday, March 26 2005, I remember that my overriding emotion wasn’t one of expectation, excitement or exhilaration but rather one of anxiety, angst and apprehension. We’d been waiting for this moment for so long, what if it arrived and it turned out to be dreadful? Or perhaps even worse, what if the show was fine but also completely different from the show we remembered and loved from our own childhoods? There’s a reason why “May you get what you wish for” is another of those spot-on ancient Chinese curses.

Before that night I remember having been buoyed by the mostly-good omens. I had confidence in showrunner and lead writer Russell T Davies, who had already established himself as a unique, innovative voice in British drama with his hit series Queer as Folk on Channel 4 which contained scenes involving Doctor Who and a guest appearance from K9 that put Davies’ genuine Whovian credentials beyond doubt. He’d also helmed the more recent BBC mini-series Casanova on BBC Three, which I remember enjoying a lot and thinking that its little known star would have made a rather good Doctor himself if only he’d turned up in time before the part had been officially cast but who had sadly now missed his chance. Still, no complaints about Eccleston being given the role instead: not the sort of casting we’d expected perhaps, but getting a serious actor of his stature and ability to play the titular Time Lord was a statement of intent that had instantly raised the standing of the show as a whole among both TV executives and prospective viewers alike, since it declared in no uncertain terms: “This is a proper high profile BBC flagship drama, not a kid’s show.” Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Regeneration Game

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After a busy week packed with reviews, I’m taking a short break from all that and offer instead this feature story about a vital aspect of the Doctor Who television series – specifically, the single inspired concept that has allowed the show to continue for 50 years and could easily see it extend for another 50 years, or indeed more…

line-upThe Doctor Who TV series has just celebrated its 50th birthday and 800th episode, something that the production team that launched it back in 1963 could never have believed for one minute was possible as they struggled to survive beyond the original 13-week run that the BBC had commissioned.What’s amazing is how much of the show’s essential DNA is in place even in those early days: the concept of the mysterious alien stranger and the time machine with its iconic police box exterior with its ‘bigger on the inside than on the outside’ properties are familiar to us now but were then genius inspirations of the highest order. And then at Christmas the Daleks arrived which propelled the show to extraordinary early heights of popularity.

The only remaining crucial item missing from the show’s bible by the end of 1963 was the concept of regeneration. That would come later. But when, exactly, did the process of regeneration actually become a core part – perhaps the most crucial part – of the show’s format in terms of its longevity? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Night of the Doctor (Online)

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With the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who just two days away, here’s a few words about a new online/red button minisode that’s been doing the rounds for the last week or so.

It’s a wonderful high-quality eight-and-a-half minute self-contained story that is nonetheless essential viewing before Saturday’s feature-length birthday special. As with so many Steven Moffat-penned stories it starts in mid-action with a spaceship in the process of catastrophically crashing onto the barren planet below. A mysterious stranger in an incongruous blue police box arrives to save the sole remaining crew member, but it doesn’t go as well as he’d been hoping. And come to that, it’s not the person you were expecting to show up even knowing that Saturday’s story features not one but three Doctors (Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt.)

Unfortunately a week into the release, the official BBC page for viewing the minisode makes it impossible to view the clip without getting a massive spoiler image before you even start, which is a shame because one of the genuine highlights of my viewing year has been the sense of utter shock I got at the totally unexpected reveal as it cut to the new arrival as he said “… but maybe not the Doctor you were expecting” – which indeed I hadn’t, and the wonderful surprise nearly sent me tumbling from my chair. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to the page with your eyes closed and have someone click the ‘Play’ button for you if you can. And do it now, without delay. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Regeneration (DVD)

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No, not a discussion of the upcoming departure of Matt Smith from the title role of Doctor Who and who may or may not replace him. Instead, this is the latest offering from the BBC marking the 50th anniversary of the show, and is a deluxe gift boxset containing a handsome coffee table tome about the series and its stars together with six DVDs comprising episodes featuring every one of the 11 actors to have played the role to date.

It does so by collecting together all the stories in which a Doctor regenerates, which is a nice thematic way of showcasing the series’ continuity and well as its longevity, as the concept of the Doctor’s ability to change into a new form is key to the show’s ongoing success. It also connects Matt Smith directly all the way back through Tom Baker to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, who initially created the iconic role in November 1963.

It’s a beautifully designed product, using symbology from the language of Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home world) as a motif which is carried through to the discs themselves and on to the gorgeous on-screen menus as well. The book has some wonderful photography, treated to an epic black-and-white digital finish with some effective use of stylistic spot colour accents. It’s beautifully typeset and the text itself is well-written and interesting – although it contains nothing itself that will surprise hard core fans, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Line of Duty E1-3 / Blackout E1-2 (BBC)

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The BBC has chosen July to air two new drama shows that feel like they’re reasonably direct offspring from last year’s The Shadow Line, even though they themselves are quite different from one another. Normally too such dark shows would feel out of place in the middle of summer, but nature had taken care of that and left us with a distinctly cold, dark and wet noir-ish feel to the weather that makes these two shows feel perfectly scheduled after all.

Blackout – the story of an alcoholic, corrupt councillor – is set in some unidentified big city, probably but not necessarily northern, where it rains even more than it does in a typical David Fincher movie, making it an ideal reflection of the 2012 British summer. Of the two shows on offer, Blackout is the one to inherit The Shadow Line’s style genes, with every frame beautifully designed and shot and the whole feel like a shining modern film noir complete with blonde femme fatale and a detectives’ office straight out of a 1940s LA-set crime flick.

The characters are similarly larger than life and overblown, sometimes too much so despite a top notch cast led by Christopher Eccleston and including Dervla Kirwan, Ewen Bremmer, a cameo from David Hayman and a strange role for man of the moment Andrew Scott (recently Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock.) As the noir genre requires, the characters are all deeply flawed but they also aren’t particularly subtle – and neither is the plot. It also doesn’t go in much for realism along the way, with Eccleston’s character apparently able to recover from a shooting, decide to run for major, get on the ballot, run a campaign, win and set up an administration in less time than it takes another character to organise a funeral and bury their father.

Realism is very much the watch word for Line of Duty, however. Written by Jed Mercurio (who created the scathing Cardiac Arrest back when he himself worked in the NHS) the main driving force behind this drama is to show the disastrous bureaucratic shackles that the police have to hack through to do their job. To follow one set of rules invariably means running foul of another set; to do what a superior officer tells you to do one day will earn you a rebuke the next. Finding a way to play the system with optimal effect gives rise to instant suspicion and an investigation. The last thing anyone has the time, inclination or freedom to do in such circumstances is worry about fighting crime.

The whole thing is shot in a very ordinary, realistic fashion (although there are a few nice directorial flourishes here and there) and the performances are very reigned in, portrayed by small grimaces and ticks in extreme close-ups. Lennie James is superb as Gates, the senior officer under investigation; and Martin Compston equally amazing and every bit a match for James as Arnott, the young anti-corruption officer hunting Gates down. Both characters seem quite decent and honourable men in their own ways: Gates cares for his family and about doing his job well and catching the crooks; and Arnott is principled and unbending in standing by the truth only to find himself hated for it. But each man is trapped by his past missteps, and also now by the mutually destructive vendetta that breaks out between them as a misunderstanding and the action of others.

Of the two shows, it’s probably apparent from the preceding paragraphs that I much prefer Line of Duty. When it sets aside its unsubtle agenda forever referring to filling out risk assessment paperwork during a high speed car pursuit and by health and safety and adherence to targets, it’s also the show that delivers The Shadow Line’s inheritance of being a gripping and highly unpredictable conspiracy thriller about real, believable characters that you genuinely get involved in. With the latest turn of the storyline there’s a risk that the final two episodes will go over the top, but I have high hopes that it will be able to steer on the right side of histrionics to the end.

The more style-over-substance Blackout doesn’t match up to this, but it’s nonetheless a more than worthwhile watch that is very entertaining and absorbing in its own way. It’s rather a shame it comes along at the same time as Line of Duty and so soon after The Shadow Line making comparisons inevitable, because Blackout comes off second best in that company while actually being a very welcome piece of accomplished original drama in its own right.

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.