Wednesday, August 2, 2017
So, the last time we saw Sarah Jane Smith have her own spin-off was K9 & Company. That was back in 1981. Yet here we are in 2007 and Sarah Jane is back. This time with only a small appearance from K9. It says something about the character and Lis Sladen herself that a character who first appeared back in 1973 was able to kick off a series of her own decades later. How many TV characters can you say that about?
And Invasion of the Bane shows Torchwood how to spin-off properly. Perhaps because Torchwood got sucked into this 'adult theme' nonsense it struggled to find itself a tone that worked but The Sarah Jane Adventures hit the ground running.
This feels like Doctor Who, perhaps because it is aimed at children.* But there is more actual tension in this episode than in either Torchwood episode I've watched so far. Plus Samantha Bond's Mrs Wormwood is far more memorable and fun as a villain. Bond manages to avoid crossing the line into ham acting whilst still being a little larger than life. She's part of why the story works so damn well. And I love the confrontation between her and Sarah Jane as they do some polite but icey verbal fencing.
Also, The Sarah Jane Adventures feels 'real' in a way that Torchwood (so far) hasn't felt. It also feels very Russell T Davies. The first character we met is Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) a young girl moving into a new house after her parents split up. It's through her that we get to see Sarah Jane for the first time and get introduced to her life.
The whole story feels very Third Doctor. The Bane Mother isn't a million miles away from the Target book illustration of the Nestene in Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion. Aliens are trying to take over the world through a fizzy drink. What's more Doctor Who than that?
Indeed, what The Sarah Jane Adventures shows is that it is possible to have a female Doctor without scaring the pigeons.** Sarah's very Doctor-ish throughout this story. She's got her Sonic Lipstick, she warns the Bane that if they don't leave Earth she'll stop them and she thinks there should be another way. A way that doesn't involve going in 'all guns blazing'. The children - Maria, Kelsey (Porsha Lawrence Mavour) and Luke (Tommy Knight) - get to be the companions to Sarah Jane's Doctor.
Perhaps that's why it works? It is both new and comfortably familiar. And by Jove it is fun. Something that - so far - Torchwood hasn't been.
It isn't perfect. For example, Maria's mother, played by Juliet Cowan, is just a little too conveniently rude and thoughtless which just feels a bit wrong to me. But any criticism is just minor quibbling really.
There's a great set of scenes when after Luke, Kelsey and Maria have found Sarah Jane's ridiculously sized upstairs room we get a potted history of how Sarah Jane's come to be where she is and it is done both by the actors and by the camera scanning over pictures and drawings. We see a Dalek, the Brigadier and Harry. Sarah Jane's wistfulness about her time with the Doctor has an emotional heft that really hits home. It's brilliant work by Lis Sladen and the director Colin Teague.
But this is how to do a 'pilot' if that's what it was. It shakes Sarah Jane out of her 'I work alone' mentality, introduces us to the main characters and rolls along at a delightful pace.
I could waffle on for longer but this is a genuine joy.
*That's one for Professor Parry.
**I'm not sure that's the phrase but it's my blog and I'm sticking to it.
Ah, Torchwood. A chance to explore more adult themes in the Doctor Who Universe and, of course, we get an alien high on orgasmic energy. Because sex is SO adult innit.
So, on Gwen's first day she screws up badly, releases an alien gas creature, which turns out to thrive on the energy of the male orgasm. Not the female orgasm. O no. There's no good reason for this that I can tell but I suppose I'd be foolish to ask for one. This is, after all, Torchwood.
I mean it always struck me that the male orgasm is a slightly less impressive thing than the female one but perhaps I'm looking at it from the wrong end so to speak. (Cough) Of course, to find out that the male orgasm is key we have to have a massive lesbian snogging scene between Gwen and the infected/occupied Carys, which goes on long enough for the Owen, Tosh and Captain Jack to have a bit of a perv.
This is pretty awful with exceptions. The key one being Sara Lloyd Gregory who does a stonking job as poor Carys who becomes the host for our Orgasmaterian - as I'm going to call it from this point forward, although Torchwood does a spectacular job of failing to keep her in captivity considering that neither she nor the Orgasmaterian is particularly a fighting creatures. Indeed, surely it is the very definition of a lover, not a fighter.
Indeed there's a spectacularly bad moment when - for no obvious reason - Carys grabs the severed hand* and Captain Jack immediately makes it obvious that this is an object he cares about deeply thus giving her all the leverage she needs to escape. It isn't The Barrowman's finest hour.
The other good thing in this story is Eve Myles even though Gwen does a lot of stupid things. There's some fine eye acting from her early in the episode when her error hits home. The rest of the team are still bedding in, although Owen (Burn Gorman) is clearly something of an unlikeable twat. Who thinks 'I'd shag you' is acceptable office banter as opposed to sexual harassment. But hey, it's Torchwood. Tosh (Naoko Mori) hasn't really had much to do so far but she's done what needs to be done as well as can be expected. She does a fine line is awkward, which I like.
Captain Jack is Captain Jack. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I think, at this point, he's struggling to make the jump from Doctor Who sidekick to the lead on his own show but perhaps that will come as we move on.
Is there much else I can say about this?
It's not great and two episodes in you have to say that Torchwood is struggling to be something more than an adolescent male wet dream of what adult telly would be like.
Still. It could be worse.
*For those not in the Doctor Who loop this severed hand belongs to the Tenth Doctor. He had it cut off in The Christmas Invasion. You all knew that though.
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
Ah, Torchwood. It seems a long time since the heady days of October 2006 when I sat down to watch this with Doctor Carrie Dunn. There we were looking forward to seeing The Barrowman in action.
I'm not going to dwell on how Torchwood came to be. This was the red heat of the return of Doctor Who when RTD could do no wrong and a spin-off series starring John Barrowman as Captain Jack, a character introduced in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, seemed like a no brainer. Captain Jack was sexy, cheeky and maybe they could pursue more adult themes in Torchwood than they could in Doctor Who.
However, particularly in Series One, they were to make the same mistake that the Virgin New Adventures did in the nineties: swearing and sex do not adult themes make. Especially if you have a very poor grasp on consent and turn your series into something that might, just, be a bit rapey. But, I'm leaping ahead of myself. At least a little bit.
We're in Cardiff. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is a PC in the Welsh Police. She's at the scene of a murder when a gang turns up from an organisation called Torchwood. They proceed to mess about a bit on the murder scene, then disappear. This leaves Gwen all a bit curious. From here on in we get the story of Gwen's discovery of Torchwood, who they are and what they do, which is hunt aliens. In Cardiff. Because, it turns out, Cardiff is built on a ruddy great rift in the space-time continuum and as a result, a lot of intergalactic, timey-wimey flotsam and jetsam turns up to cause trouble and/or be cannibalised by Torchwood to protect the world. After all, as Captain Jack says: "The Twenty-First Century' is when it all happens. You've got to be ready."
Gwen's been involved in investigating a serial killer in Cardiff, who it will turn out has links to Torchwood. And we'll end up with a stand-off, two shots and a resurrection before the end. Gwen is our intro to Torchwood as a fairly ordinary person. She's our companion figure. At least in this episode. She asks lots of questions.
We meet the rest of the team: Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), Suzie Costello (Indira Varma) and last, but not least Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). None of them is really given much character at this point because our story focuses on Gwen and Jack.
I like Eve Myles as Gwen. I think Myles is a great actor. She's particularly good here when terrified. The Barrowman is The Barrowman. I'll probably talk more about that as the series goes on. Gwen's coming aboard the good ship Torchwood, although how she'll explain that to her husband, Rhys (Kai Owen - who is brilliant btw) may become an issue.
Hopefully, the next few episodes will broaden out the characters a bit and drop the unnecessarily creepy sexual stuff. There is definitely an unnecessary light-hearted approach to sexual consent in this episode that seems to say that using alien pheromones to get two people to sleep with you isn't rapey at all. O, no. It's just a wee bit of high-jinks using office equipment. Like borrowing a piece of tech that allows you to read a book pretty much instantaneously. As I said all this stuff is a misunderstanding of what 'adult' means. It's a problem I remember Torchwood suffers with.
That and the spectacularly stupid idea of a top secret organisation that drives around in bloody obvious vehicles and is known to half of Cardiff's police force and orders pizzas to its top secret headquarters under the name of Torchwood. I think Torchwood could be creepier. There's hints at it when Tosh talks about the porter who died in the hospital and whose body they dispose of. This is an organisation with frightening powers, which no one ever really talks about. Except Gwen.
So, it's not a bad introduction. It's entertaining enough. But there's problems in the initial episode that might be fatal if not dealt with at some point. I mean who wants a heroic team of rapists?
I am sure there are people out there that love K9 & Company but I'm afraid it is almost entirely terrible. From one of the worst title sequences ever & a theme tune so horrible and inappropriate that you wonder what the hell everyone was thinking who was making this. It's like JNT's brief to the director was 'let's start the programme in such a way as no one will ever want to watch it.'
It's easy to blame Ian Levine. who co-created the theme tune, with Fiachra Trench but that's not entirely fair. They might have written it. The producer didn't have to use it.
The story itself, written by Terence Dudley, involves Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen, of course) coming to her Aunt Lavinia's (Mary Wimbush) house to do some writing. Or something. I never quite got why she was going to live with her Aunt. She is also joined by Brendan (Ian Richards) who is Aunt Lavinia's 'ward'. You only seem to come across 'wards' in television series. I'm sure there are some out there in the real world but the only two I've ever heard of are Robin, in the 1960s Batman series, and Brendan in K9 & Company.
Anyway, Aunt Lavinia has left mysteriously early and Sarah starts to fret. Meanwhile, a big box that's been sitting around Aunt Lavinia's house in Croydon turns out to contain K9, Mark III. A gift from the Doctor. K9 is voiced in his usual fine way by John Leeson.
There is talk of witchcraft. Then there is an attempted kidnapping. Then an actual kidnapping, when Brendan is snatched by Peter Tracey (Sean Chapman) to be used for sacrifice. By this time we've met an assortment of the villagers. There's Lily, the Post Mistress and Bill Pollock, who is Aunt Lavinia's farm manager and played with gurgling grumpiness by Bill Fraser. Colin Jeavons crops up as George Tracey. There's Juno (Linda Polan) and Howard (Neville Barber) Baker who seem to throw parties and invite Sarah Jane for drinks and dinner. We're obviously meant to suspect these two are part of the coven, especially as Howard keeps popping out mysteriously and Juno makes sinister looking phone calls.
Turns out that rural England is still home to a witches coven. Worshipping Hecate. At this point, I started to feel like I was watching Hot Fuzz. And this is the main problem I have with this story. It's all played too damn straight. It either needs a splash more camp and comedy - although George Tracey's reaction to K9 is hilarious not necessarily for the right reasons - or it needs to be a lot darker. It needs to have the atmosphere of a Philip Hinchcliffe production. It all feels a little amateurish, which is perhaps the point.
Most of the acting is fine. After all, there are some good actors here but some clunking performances too. The only thing stopping it from being an utter catastrophe is Lis Sladen. You can see, even in the rubble of this disaster, that there could have been a Lis Sladen spin-off that would work. It didn't really need K9, although that helps. One day we'll get one and people will the character and the actor justice. One day.
The other problem with K9 & Company is that in 1981 the technology didn't exist to make K9 anything but a clunky box on wheels. K9 was never the most mobile of creations and the site of Sarah Jane lifting him out of the car amuses me.
I'm almost certainly being too harsh on something that was created to fill a Christmas slot but it never really works for me at all. I found myself reminded of Hot Fuzz or Mindhorn (oddly) because this feels more like a pastiche than a programme in its own right.
You also find yourself wondering where they would have taken the series if they'd made one. Brendan's role in this story is to be Sarah Jane to Sarah Jane. He's the character that gets kidnapped and almost sacrificed. Sarah Jane herself is more the Doctor. Would this have carried on? Would Brendan be kidnapped, hypnotised etc each week to be rescued by K9 zapping away whilst Sarah Jane does some very mild martial arts on a collection of fine British character actors? Would they have stayed in the countryside? Would Aunt Lavinia have come back and had more of a role to play? Who knows. Who cares.
In the end, this is a mild curiosity that doesn't quite work hamstrung by awful titles and music but you can see potential in Sarah Jane.
So, if you do like K9 & Company let me know why. I'm intrigued.
*Yes, I know the titles and theme tune are an easy target but that's because they might as well be painted with a series of coloured rings ending with a small red bullseye.
Thursday, July 20, 2017
Inferno is the final story of Season 7. It's another seven part story, but never really drags. There's a real tension throughout, especially as we get to see the Doctor fail and the world destroyed thanks to the miracle of alternative universes. It's a strong story, which ends a strong season. Possibly one of Doctor Who's strongest seasons full stop.
We find ourselves at a drilling project, which is led by Professor Stahlman (Olaf Pooley). Its objective is to crack through the Earth's crust. This will turn out to be a bad idea but you already knew that didn't you? Stahlman will turn out to be a double-Doctor Who trope: the scientist to whom the ends justify the means & a leader who is too highly strung for his own good. HR in the Doctor Who universe is clearly a discipline lacking in expertise, especially in the military and scientific community.
We discover why this is bad when engineer Slocum (Walter Randall) encounters some green slime leaking from one of the pipes. He makes the mistake of touching it and from that point onwards it is all downhill to the transformation of Slocum from human to Primord.
Alas, the Primords are the classic poorly rendered Doctor Who monster. They look like slightly too cuddly Wolfmen. Or shaggy dogs. Depending on your point of view. We mostly don't see their transformation, which is probably a good thing as the transformation of Platoon Under-Leader Benton (John Levene) is a little silent movie for a 20th-century television series. Personally, I find these things easy to ignore. The sense of tension that surrounds them drives home their danger but they are the sort of thing that some people find distracting.
PRIMORD DIVERSION OVER
UNIT are providing the security for the project so the Doctor has taken the opportunity to tap its nuclear power source to work on the TARDIS console. The Doctor and Stahlman clearly do not get on. During one of his experiments with the console, the Doctor finds himself torn out of his reality and into an alternative universe.
This is one of the strongest parts of the programme. All our heroes - apart from the Doctor himself - are now part of a fascist Republic. The Brigadier is now Brigade-Leader complete with eye-patch. In this universe, the Brigade-Leader has none of the Brigadier's twinkle and isn't far off just being a bully. It's a fine performance from Courtney but the same applies to Caroline John whose alt-Liz Shaw is brilliant. And John Levene turns Benton into a thug. They are all different people but another character, Greg Sutton (Derek Newark), isn't too different to his normal Earth character. He's a drilling expert in both brought in, much to Stahlman's disappointment and annoyance.
In the alternative universe, the drilling is ahead of ours. So, despite the best attempts of the Doctor penetration of the Earth's crust takes place and the world comes to a terrible end but in that ending, we get to see our favourite characters, even in alt-form, die (or about to die.) This is the Doctor failing. It's something he'll carry with him going forward, especially as he escapes. Thanks to help from Liz, Greg, Petra Williams (Sheila Dunn) and - for more selfish reasons - the Brigade-Leader the Doctor finds himself back in our Universe.
By this point, Stahlman has started his transformation into a Primord but remains determined to finish his project. He tries to stop Sir Keith Gold (Christopher Benjamin) from reporting the problems to the authorities by having him killed. Something he achieves in the alt-world. The Doctor's return though puts a spanner in the works. He's seen the world's destruction and won't let it happen again. This is the Doctor at his most ruthless and Pertwee really sells it. He's going to save the world even if the world doesn't want to be saved.
Stahlman has turned into a full Primord by this point but the Doctor and Greg take him down with fire extinguishers*and stop the drilling. Sir Keith promises to have the shaft filled in. And things all end happily. If you forget the total destruction of an Earth. Probably.
Inferno is such a strong story. It's packed full of excellent performances from Pertwee downwards. It manages to keep its coherence even though health issues affected Douglas Camfield and he ended up in the hospital. Barry Letts finished the filming and actually I think he does a fantastic job of showing the end of the world via heat. It takes advantage of the alt-universe to allow us to see what would happen if the Doctor fails, which adds tension to the final episode in the 'normal' Earth.
The regulars get a chance to play a darker version of their existing characters and demonstrate their acting chops accordingly. John Levene, in particular, seems to revel in being Platoon Under-Leader Benton. But the rest of the cast do a fine job too, including Newark and Dunn as the nearest thing to a romantic subplot Season Seven has had. Olaf Pooley does twisted scientific bully well. Christopher Benjamin is his usual excellent self in a not particularly over-written part.
This will turn out to be Liz Shaw's last story and Caroline John gets to be superb in it. But Liz Shaw has been a little wasted as a companion, but that's not John's fault. It is the fault of writers that didn't know how to use her properly.
Pertwee finishes his first season on a massive high. He's settled into the role of The Doctor immediately and Inferno gives him a chance to be the Doctor in defeat**. Plus there's a moment in this story when the Doctor shouts: 'Listen to that. That's the sound of this planet screaming out its rage" That line, the way Pertwee delivers it has made me use it a number of times when terrible things are happening to the environment. Or in politics.
Basically, if you haven't seen Inferno then you should. Indeed, if you haven't seen Season 7, then you should. It's almost entirely brilliant if occasionally a story turns out to be a tad too long.
*There is a reason for this
**Not the Doctor in Distress, which is a terrible record. Google it. No. Don't Google it. It is horrible.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
So, I thought I'd finally add my tuppence worth to the whole Thirteenth Doctor announcement response.
First of all I should explain that I'm delighted. Jodi Whittaker is a fine actor. I think she'll be a fine Doctor but a lot will depend on the quality of the scripts she gets. I wrote - a while back - that casting a woman or a person of colour might require the telling of different stories and I'll be fascinated to see in what direction Chris Chibnall takes the programme in.
Steven Moffat has done fine work in sowing the seeds for this but fundamentally there was never any reason given in the television series as to why The Doctor had to be a man. The only thing that made it so was convention. It had always been a man. Therefore it must always be a man. The gender fluidity of Time Lords is now and always will be a thing.
There's been a hostile reaction from some people, which I find baffling. All this nonsense about having your childhood ruined I find frankly pathetic. My childhood went a long time ago. Somewhere around 1986/87. Nothing that happens in the present will ruin it (or improve it.) It's gone. Sometimes when the world is complicated and stressful I miss it. I think that's one of the reasons Doctor Who always cheers me up. It reminds me of a less complicated time. And if I want to revisit my childhood then I have shelves full of Doctor Who DVDs and CDs that allow me to do that. The casting of a female Doctor hasn't deleted all the past Doctor Who stories. The BBC isn't going to come around and take it all away from you. It's all still out there.
I'm a 46 year old man. Doctor Who isn't made for me anymore.
I still happen to like it quite a lot but I'm not the person who the BBC wants to make this stuff for and that's perfectly right. If they were making Doctor Who just for me we'd have Zarbi and Nimon. Doctor Who has survived so long because it always brings a new generation of fans who bring a new generation of fans. It will die if it just appeals to the hardcore amongst us. It needs to change to survive. It's why New Doctor Who was radically different to Classic Doctor Who. And since 1966 change has been in the programmes DNA. Or even earlier when Susan left and was replaced by Vicki. Companions come and go. Writers change. Showrunners change. And Doctors change. Accept it. Embrace it.
But the best thing about the announcement has been the joy with which it has been received by young girls. There are a couple of video reactions out there and it seems that was echoed elsewhere. We should be pleased for them rather than disappointed for ourselves. They're the new audience. The new fandom. They know the Doctor can be a man or a woman now. They're not anchored to the past. And that's the way it should be. Doctor Who needs to be a living show not a television museum. I've also had female friends - one of whom never even watched Doctor Who - who are interested in watching to see how it pans out.*
So let's all welcome the new Doctor, Jodi Whittaker. Let's hope she gets the stories that make everyone forget that this is something different. And we'll just settle down to watch Doctor Who once again.
Welcome aboard Jodi.
*And - on a side note - we shouldn't be gatekeeping these people. I want everyone to love Doctor Who. I don't want them to be forced to justify their interest to some quasi-inquisition by fanboys on the internet. However you come to Doctor Who enjoy it. Obviously, I'd like you to dip into all of it. If you like New Who try some Classic. Or vice versa. There's something for everyone in Doctor Who. So, let's be nice to those coming on board. Doctor Who isn't just for me. It's for everyone.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
I write this blog in the afterglow of the announcement that Jodie Whittaker will be playing the new Doctor. The first woman to play the part. I wasn't convinced the BBC would ever have the courage to do it. But they have. Good luck to Jodie. Welcome aboard. I'll probably write more about this later, which I'm sure will thrill my reader.
But what of The Ambassadors of Death I hear you cry. Well, I enjoyed this. Mostly. I have one quibble, which is how rubbish UNIT are at actual fighting and how easily they have rings run round them. This, though, is UNITs fate in most stories. They constantly face creatures that can't be killed by convential weaponry. UNITs casualty rate must have been horrific? How did a soldier end up in UNIT? Was it voluntary? If so how did word not get around the British military that joining UNIT was effectively a suicide mission? Is the Brigadier actually a terrible officer? Sorry, all that was brought on by watching some pathetic soldiering in the final episode. Come on Brigadier get it sorted out.
Although to be fair to the Brigadier it is clear that he had his doubts about General Carrington (John Abineri) early on. And there's a lovely exchange between the Brigadier, who doesn't want to speak ill of a fellow officer, and Ralph Cornish (Ronald Allen):
Brigadier: I think the General is a little over-wrought.
Cornish: I think he's mad.
Which brings us to one of the best things about this story: the villains. That's not the Ambassadors themselves. It's General Carrington and his various associates. John Aibineri is superb as Carrington., who is a man acting in what he thinks is the best interests of his world. He's been mentally shaken by the death of a colleague at the hands of the Ambassadors* earlier and he blames them. He twists that into them being a threat to the entire world and tries to stir up events to create a war between Earth and these mysterious aliens. He's not a moustache twirling, evil laughter black hat villain. He's a broken man. His final exchanges with the Brigadier and the Doctor in Episode Seven are actually quite moving.
One of Carrington's henchmen, Reegan (William Dysart), is also brilliantly played. A dry-witted, intelligent sadistic bastard he's one of the best henchmen in Doctor Who. The fact that he doesn't die at the end is great and part of me hopes that he survives another day. Perhaps UNIT use his skills in a poacher/gamekeeper way? Perhaps not.
Ronald Allen is Ralph Cornish. The problem I have with Ronald Allen is that I remember him most as David Hunter in Crossroads, which was a soap opera with a reputation so terrible that Victoria Wood was to create Acorn Antiques as piss take of it. That, combined with his semi-regular popping up in The Comic Strip Presents & the fact that he's in frankly awful The Dominators makes him a hard actor for me to take seriously. But he's suitably solid and serious in this story.
There are some great cliffhangers in this story too. (I miss cliffhangers) The Ambassadors are suitably creepy without being hugely memorable but I willing to think that they must have been in Steven Moffat's head when he wrote Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, although I could be wrong.
Yes, the story is too long but it doesn't particularly drag for me. However Liz Shaw's 'escape' is a tad annoying as I don't think Liz would be that stupid. The problem for Liz (and for Caroline John) is that the writer really doesn't know what to do with her as a character. She's too intelligent to be standing around asking stupid questions and, alas, that's what Pertwee seems to need. But Caroline John does fine work with what she's been given.
I should also pay tribute to appearances from two Doctor Who stalwarts: Michael Wisher as the journalist John Wakefield and Cyril Shapps as the scientist Lennox. Michael Wisher seems to be able to get exactly the right TV journalist tone as Wakefield who seems happy to broadcast the rantings of an insane General to the whole damn world whilst Cyril Shapps does the Shapps thing, which I love. His characters always seem to be in permanent danger of cringing to death. Oh, Lennox's death I put entirely down to bad work on behalf of the Brigadier btw who, instead of going to see him immediately, decides to faff around long enough to allow the bad guys to stick a radioactive isotope in his cell, which brings me back to my original quibble about UNIT's competence in this story.
So, to conclude The Ambassadors of Death is a reasonably enjoyable, slightly over-long story raised by some excellent performances. I also love the ambitions it has for a British Space programme that has taken us to Mars. More than once. It isn't perfect. It's probably the weakest story of Season 7 so far, but that still makes it an exceptional piece of Doctor Who.
Give it a watch.You never know, you might like it.
Next up: Inferno
*They never get a proper name. They are on Mars when Carrington first meets them but there is never any explanation of who they are and why they are where they are.