toby whithouse

Doctor Who S9E4 “Before the Flood”

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There be spoilers here.

dr-who-flood-1“Before the Flood” is the clearest evidence yet of a new approach to Doctor Who being steered by showrunner Steven Moffat, and in particular a rather radical new way of handling two parters. Traditionally such stories are essentially one continuous narrative told with a cliffhanger at the midpoint after which the second part of the story resumes much as it did in the first half. However, that’s not satisfyingly innovative enough for Moffat, and he evidently has a different plan in mind for this year’s stories more along the lines of how he constructed “The Pandorica Opens” and “The Big Bang” in 2010.

While there is obviously strong continuity in terms of plot and characters between “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood”, at times they seem like they’re telling two different stories which just happen to overlap to create an overall third tale. Where the first story was very much a tense and claustrophobic base-under-siege horror story that included a mystery and a meditation on life after death, “Before the Flood” has a very different feel with an eerie 1980s ghost town and a timey-wimey science fiction temporal paradox to get one’s head around. The danger is that opening out the narrative like this might dissipate some of the earlier tension successfully generated from being trapped in the undersea base, but the good news is that this didn’t happen at all – for me at least – and the story remains commendably gripping for almost all if its running time. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S9E3 “Under the Lake”

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There be spoilers here.

lake-1The problem with starting a season off with a huge blockbuster like “The Magician’s Apprentice”/”The Witches Familiar” is that anything that comes after it is liable to look rather pale by comparison. No matter how good it is, it will simply come across as second best and a bit of a dip after the highs of the season opener.

That can especially be the case when after the startling originality and vaulting ambition of the first two-parter, you instead take a step back as it were and have a story that is altogether more from the mainstream and whose primary ambition is just to thrill and scare you and most of simply to entertain the viewers – even if it means to do so by borrowing some of the show’s most familiar tropes as a warm and reassuring security blanket in the process. Read the rest of this entry »

The Game S1 E1 (BBC 2)

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The memory of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looms heavy over this new spy thriller set in MI5 during the early 1970s, originally shown last November by BBC America. And by that, I mean specifically it’s the presence of the 2011 feature film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Gary Oldman that we feel breathing over our shoulder rather than the original John le Carré novel or the acclaimed BBC mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness.

game-picThe Game follows the film’s mise-en-scène so closely that it almost feels the one was an unofficial pilot for the other, much as Gosford Park was a de facto try-out for Downton Abbey and The American President similarly an early go at the first episode of The West Wing. But whereas those two prior examples had strong connective tissue (Julian Fellowes created both Gosford and Downton, and Aaron Sorkin was responsible for both American President and West Wing) there is no such link between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Game,: the latter is created and written by Toby Whithouse, who has jumped genres from his normal home amidst cult outings including Doctor Who, Torchwood and of course his own creation Being Human. Read the rest of this entry »

Being Human USA S1 E1-3 (UK Watch)

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It’s taken over two years for the US version of Being Human to get picked up for an airing in the UK – perhaps there was a moratorium on the North American version being sold back to Britain while the original was still in production? With the UK series coming to an end after five seasons, however, it seems we’re finally okay to see what they did with the concept on the other side of the Atlantic.

I was initially dubious about watching this, given that I really loved the early seasons of Being Human with the original cast and wasn’t sure I could be objective about a show that is ‘the same but entirely different’ – it was hard enough to manage that between the original Danish Forbrydelsen and the subsequent US remake entitled The Killing. Everything that’s the same grates, because of course the original did it better; and everything that’s different leads to mounting irritation of the ‘why did they have to muck around with that?’ variety.

Both shows revolve around the concept of a ‘supernatural unholy trinity’ of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing the same ordinary suburban house, devised by Toby Whithouse. In the UK version the characters were Mitchell, George and Annie and they lived in Bristol; in the US version it’s Aidan, Josh and Sally and the location is Boston, although the show is actually shot in Montréal, Québec. Of course it would be grossly unfair to directly compare the shows character for character – so that’s precisely what I’ll do, because it’s pretty much unavoidable. Read the rest of this entry »

Being Human S4 E3 – “The Graveyard Shift”

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Contains spoilers for the series so far.

After my notes on the season opener, I thought it only fair to report back on how season 4 of BBC3’s supernatural drama Being Human is faring with its new-look line-up.

It’s still hard to tell exactly what the show will look like once it settles down, as each of the three episodes so far have been so very different: there was the epic, apocalyptic season opener; then there was the transitional second episode which introduced (and dispatched) new characters; but now with season 3 we perhaps finally get a taste of the show’s medium-term destination, and it looks to be a return to the mix of domestic flat-share comedy and supernatural thrills and action that was its hallmark when Being Human first made it onto our screens.

If this is the case and is sustained, then it’s excellent news. I’ll be honest and repeat my earlier assertion that the show had found it increasingly difficult to rediscover that sublime early balance between comedy and drama, fun and chills that worked so well in its rookie season. As the story of Mitchell and George got ever more serious and involved over successive seasons, the lighter moments of relief got squeezed out along the way. The chance to get back to the show’s roots is to be seized with both hands.

No wonder then my favourite scenes were in the greasy spoon café, where new boy Hal (or Lord Harry, as it turns out we should be calling him!) suffers the indignity of cleaning out the fat fryer and having to take orders from Tom the werewolf. Their odd couple scenes are an echo of those of Mitchell and George from better days, but if anything the chemistry between the two characters is even better than it was between the original duo. Mitchell was always the alpha male of that relationship, whereas with Hal and Tom it’s far harder to pin down who is actually “on top” at any given time.

Tom may be somewhat low on the intellectual scale side of things, but he is more comfortable in the modern world than Hal and he’s a more assertive and physical presence than his lupine predecessor George ever was. George was actually a bit of a wet fish in between his monthly transformations, which was difficult for the show to write around; but Tom has a second job as a vampire slayer which means if anything he’s actually far more interesting when he’s not being all fur-and-fangs during the new moon. His habit of keeping stakes to hand just in case Hal gets feisty – which you know he’ll use on his flat “mate” in a flash – becomes a nice running joke. I wasn’t wild about the character of Tom in season 3 and viewed his addition to the regular cast for season 4 with some considerable apprehension, but given space the part has blossomed and Michael Socha’s playing has won me over.

And I’m a huge fan of what new cast member Damien Molony is doing with the character of Hal. He’s compulsively watchable even when not required to say or do much on screen, from the way he stands – uptight and distraight – in front of the fat fryer, genuinely appealing for Tom to stake him in order that this purgatory of the working day shall finally be over (let’s be honest, we’ve all had jobs like that) to the simple, small details such as the way he handles the TV remote control just like your grandparents would (they understand what it is, they can use it, but you can tell by the degree of concentration and suspicion with which they aim and press the buttons that it’s really some sort of suspicious alien artefact to them.) Molony brilliantly juggles being a notionally superpowerful vampire with being a vulnerable guy totally out of his depth, prone to OCD tendencies and who is afraid of everything – most of all himself. His prim and proper 50s manners are a hoot and I can’t wait to see how he plays off the lewd and crude Adam, when the teenage 80s vampire returns in a few weeks time.

For all the fantastic work setting up the character, it’s a shame that the writers have let down Hal in the plotting department where he seems to have inherited Mitchell’s hand-me-down plots: he’s a vampire with a blood-soaked past seen through historical flashbacks, but now trying to kick the habit like a reformed drug addict always on the verge of a relapse. He’s also notoriously famous in the vampire community, and the bad guys try and win him back in order that he can lead them – all of which are stories we saw Mitchell play out through the earlier three years of the series. Have they really run out of inspiration for something different to do with Hal, or is there something in the overall Being Human story that requires these Mitchell-esque qualities to be present in order to move forward?

Elsewhere, the show is still suffering from being a bit of patchwork quilt and feeling a bit fragmented, as though still shattered into pieces by the events of the season opener. The newly minted female ghost from the future we saw in episode 1 has made only the briefest of appearances in episode 2 and nothing at all in episode 3, and instead we have the unexpected arrival of a new ghost (Kirby, played by the always-entertaining James Lance this time in a hilariously bad fake wig.) Having dispatched one Big Bad in the form of Griffin in episode 1, the series built up the new threat of Fergus (Anthony Flanagan, always good in sneering bad guy roles) only to now abruptly dispatch him at the end of episode 3. As for the promisingly amoral modern PR vampire Cutler, there’s no sign of him this week at all. Instead, we do get the unexpected return of Regus the Vampire Recorder played by Mark Williams (from the Harry Potter films.) I was frankly dreading his return after the character was written far too broadly comedic in episode 1, but he works better this time around and has a much improved script to work with, so it actually works out very well, Indeed, I rather took to him and cheered that his little cameo run in the show got an unexpectedly happy ending. As happy as the undead can get, at least.

The other big problem with the show at the moment is the character of Annie. While Lenora Crichlow herself is fantastic as ever, she is really being undermined by the writing. She’s supposed to be protecting young baby Eve from the vampires, but despite explicit warnings from Regus she wanders off alone with the baby to the park where she is easy prey for Fergus. Really, the writers (and Annie herself) need to understand that she’s no longer the dizzy, empty-headed newbie she was three years ago and rather is now the senior member of the team, the main protagonist and in charge of the serious business of looking after Eve. She needs to be more fully in command and assertive, especially while “the boys” are basically dithering around trying to sort themselves out and in no position to take the lead. I suspect this may indeed prove to be one of the key character arcs of the season, and the moment when she made a key intervention in a fight and sent a knife flying seemed particularly portentous. Lets hope so, or else I might start wishing that she had joined the character exodus at the start of the season and that it’s a shame the lovely Pearl didn’t stick around longer.

All the same, the show as a whole is sorting itself out and finding its feet (or paws) as quickly as anyone dared hoped. There are still issues of course, and still a concern in my mind that it could yet all lurch off in a totally different direction at any second, but in some ways that’s what gives it an edge and makes it worthwhile continuing to watch. And it’s definitely worthwhile doing that, that’s for sure.

Currently airing on BBC3 on Sunday nights. The DVD/Blu-ray will be released on 23 April 2012.

Being Human S4 E1 – “Eve of the War”

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Contains spoilers. Some really, really big ones. You have been warned.

When last we left BBC3’s cult series Being Human it was with a very big problem: the arc of season 3 had inexorably built up to the point where one of the major characters of the show, John Mitchell (Aidan Turner) finally hit the end of the road. My last words in the review of that episode where that “[series creator Toby] Whithouse may just have written a cliffhanger from which Being Human can’t be saved,” after the screen went black with Mitchell staked and remaining series regulars George (Russell Tovey), Nina (Sinead Keenan) and Annie (Lenora Crichlow) left confronting the newly arrived Big Bad, über-powerful “Old One” Edgar Wyndam (Lee Ingleby).

At the start of season 4, the absence of Mitchell proves to be the least of the show’s mounting problems. Sinead Keenan has also left the show over the hiatus, her character reportedly brutally murdered off screen in a very unsatisfactory end for someone who has been carefully built up into a key part of the series. Lee Ingleby also evidently proved unavailable for this season and is similarly – and equally frustratingly – dispatched off-screen. This disjointedness is a major body blow to the show and to be honest a real black mark against the production team for not pre-empting the transition better, because any longtime fan can’t help but feel gravely cheated by the fact that everything set up at the end of season 3 is jettisoned out of sight in such a manner.

Small wonder then that Russell Tovey has also decided to call it a day and handed in his notice, although he commendably at least shows up for a one-episode swan song to give his character a proper send-off. But the fact remains that at the end of this first episode of season 4, we’ve lost three quarters of the regular cast who were the heart of the show; only ghostly Annie remains, and despite the ever-delightful playing of Lenora Crichlow the character has always been the least substantial (pun intended) of the line-up. The producers end up promoting the previously recurring character of werewolf Tom (Michael Socha) into the main cast as a necessary move to bolster what’s left of series continuity, but I have to confess that I never warmed to him in season 3 and don’t regard this as a particularly welcome development – although his thuddingly unsubtle hints about wanting to move into the shared house were some of the warmer, lighter moments of the show.

With Wyndham also gone, we get a similarly jarring reset on the adversary front: a sudden new vampire nest, with a new chief vampire by the name of Griffin once again falling back on the old trick of posing as a police inspector – an oddly unimaginative revival of the character of Herrick from past seasons. Even in the hands of the classy and creepily effective Alex Jennings this is a bit of deja vu too far, and when Griffin is suddenly dispatched at the end of the episode (by the oddly deus ex machina means of a hitherto unsuspected fatal vampire allergy to werewolf blood – if we’d known that in the past three years then stories could have gone very differently!) you wonder what the point of him was in the first place.

Maybe this bit of Herrick-redux is to give us a brief respite from the frantic restructuring work that’s going on elsewhere in the show. We now have an out-of-the-blue eons-old vampire fable (written on human skin parchment complete with nipple!) as the series’ overriding arc. It feels like something rather out of Blade and Underworld and bleeds into a time-jumping sub-plot to 2037AD and a Terminator-esque bleak view of the remaining human resistance losing to the superior vampire invasion forces. This requires the future rebel leader to time travel back to ‘present day’ (albeit as a ghost; this isn’t science fiction after all!) to change history in order to murder an innocent baby whose name is not John Connor but might as well be. Or maybe that’s what’s happening; it was all rather odd and confusing, as if we’d wondered into a completely different TV programme.

Mark Williams (from the Harry Potter films) shows up in the odd role of Vampire Recorder that is frankly too broadly comic for the context of the rest of the dark and harrowing episode; somewhat better judged was timid newly-turned vampire Dewi (Darren Evans) who has a ‘Stake Me’ sign taped to his back by his mocking companions. And best of all is Monroe star Andrew Gower’s introduction as Cutler, a younger and more modern vampire than the old school Griffin who combines irreverent humour with a steely sense of danger and who should prove to be a very worthy and interesting adversary for the heroes to play against. Unless he’s also written out by the start of the next episode – right now, who can tell?

In the meantime there’s still the problem of what to do about the hole left in the show by Mitchell’s departure. Apparently Craig Robert’s teenage vampire Adam will make a brief return to the show later in the season, but in terms of a full-time replacement for Aidan Turner we’ve yet to be properly introduced to the character of Hal played by Damien Molony. It appears that he’s part of a vampire/werewolf/ghost flatshare far older than the one we’ve been watching over the last three years (and therefore far more successful in managing to be low-key and stay out of trouble for decades.) That this supernatural Unholy Trinity is located in of all places my old home town of Southend-on-Sea in Essex is especially weird for me.

There’s a nice “Bizarro parallel universe” feel to the brief scenes we get with this new triumvirate: Pearl the ghost is from the 50s, while the werewolf is an elderly barber whose body can no longer withstand the physical effects of the lunar transformation. Hal himself is immediately established as very different from the dangerously swaggering and tortured Mitchell: he seems more upper class and vulnerable, a Shelley-esque poet-type who has been carefully hidden away from the real world and who wears his emotional sensitivity on his sleeve. But now he knows that this idyll is coming to an end, and he is patently afraid of what will happen to his small supernatural family in the days to come. Molony has big shoes to fill but he does it well, quickly establishing himself as something very different from his predecessor while managing to captivate the necessary attention and steal the requisite scenes to give him the appropriate presence of an incoming series regular right from the start. Mitchell’s departure really has become a surprisingly small problem in the grand scheme of things.

So there’s definitely some good stuff happening here, and overall the show is doing probably the best job possible in the circumstances given the destabilisation caused by so many abrupt personnel changes. It’s also being commendably ambitious and audacious in the way that it’s trying to reboot the show and reorientate itself to its enforced new circumstances, rather than just going for any ‘safe’ and more familiar options.

But right now, my main problem is that I have no idea what show it is that I’m watching: what it’s meant to be or where it’s going, what form it will take when (if?) it settles back down again. With all the changes it’s having to push through, the show has had to sacrifice any claims it previously had to my established ongoing loyalty; only time will tell whether the new characters, cast and plot will win the revamped show the investment of new loyalty in its own right. Jury’s still out on that one: but I’m intrigued enough to stick with it for a while yet to see whether it succeeds in coming together or not.

Currently airing on BBC3 on Sunday nights. The DVD/Blu-ray will be released on 23 April 2012.

Dr Who S6 E11 – “The God Complex”

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I find myself at a loss to say anything original about the latest episode of Doctor Who, – for this was another brilliant, striking, daring, surreal episode of the series, with great playing (once again) by the regular cast, an effective guest cast including the instantly appealing Rita – the companion who never was – and the cowardly Gibbis played with nuance and subtly by David Walliams, and some lovely imaginative direction that resulted in the best-looking hour you’ll see on television this week.

It was as good as “The Doctor’s Wife” and “The Girl Who Waited”. In many ways it was even better than last week’s superlative episode, because Toby Whithouse’s story was so much more richly textured, daring and deep than last week. Where the strength of Tom MacRae’s script for “The Girl Who Waited” was that it took a potentially complex, abstract and difficult story and actually made it a very simple but emotionally compelling and even devastating experience, Whithouse’s work this week revels in the surrealism and complexity.

As a fan, I loved it. This is everything that Doctor Who can and should be – challenging and original, unlike anything else you’ll see on TV. The more you thought about it and turned it over in your mind, the better it became: the way that the Minotaur/hotel/framed photos became parallels for the Doctor/Tardis/roll call of companions was psychologically valid, real – and devastating in its way.

But for all that I loved it as a fan, I am also acutely aware that this is exactly the sort of demanding episode that doesn’t play well to a mainstream audience, for whom it may have been confusing, disjointed and unsatisfying – a story of a man in a (well-realised) monster suit charging up and down hotel corridors, looking for all the world like a live-action version of Scooby-Doo. How many adults, I wondered, had started to watch this only to give up on the silly kids stuff and turn instead to whatever X-pap was on the other channel? I think that it’s no coincidence that this episode had strong echoes of “Ghost Light”, the very last regular Classic Who story to go before the cameras before the series was axed in 1989 because it had lost the connection to a mass audience.

That’s a worry, for the show needs to retain its mainstream audience and high ratings that gives it the budget and the artistic freedom that it’s enjoyed up to know thanks to the credibility bedrock that Russell T Davies gave it over the first four years.

And there’s another problem. When the show started I saw a number of people online dismissing it as “just a bottle show” or “filler” – because it seemed like a standalone story unconnected to the series arc begun by the banks of Lake Silencio in “The Impossible Astronaut”. In fact the “filler” accusation proved to be factually incorrect – the ending really did have a major impact on the series arc after all – but it worried me that viewers are now so quick to dismiss any and all standalone shows as “mere filler”. When I levelled that description at “The Curse of the Black Spot” I meant it from the perspective of it being a waste of space in and of itself, rather than merely on the grounds that it was a standalone episode.

Once upon a time, every single story was standalone save for some basic aspects of series continuity. Even in a themed season like “The Key to Time” the constituent serials were broadly self-contained; and this persisted right into the RTD years where despite little hints about “Bad Wolf” or “Vote for Saxon”, the stories were very much their own thing. But in seasons 5 and 6 it seems that such standalone efforts are now seen as throwaway fillers between “the important stuff.”

This is hugely wrong. It’s completely the wrong way of looking at the series. The Silencio arc might be a nice embellishment of the show, but it should never become the be-all and end-all of what Doctor Who is – otherwise it squelches the opportunity to do new, interesting, daring and innovative work that thrives mainly in the single-story/episode format. An arc necessarily becomes more complex as it goes on and builds on the last – and more familiar, and hence more constraining. It limits, where single episode stories liberate. It’s no coincidence that the episodes I think have been by far the best of this season have all been stand-alone ones, while the arc episodes have become increasingly problematic and flawed for all Steven Moffat’s writing wizardry managing to make them fly regardless.

But really, we’ve got to a point where this needs attending to and correcting: the show needs a reset to allow “filler” episodes to return to the fore and once again demonstrate the true strength and diversity of the series. In other words, we need more episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” and “The Doctor’s Wife”.

And we need it very soon, please.