Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Last Sontaran

Part One

“I thought I told you two to stay out of the woods!”

“I know, but... did you really think we would?”

We have a short introductory sequence between Sarah Jane and Maria to quickly establish the set-up for new viewers and, of course, to foreshadow Maria’s departure, something which is nicely handled throughout by writer Phil Ford. The scene between Maria and Alan with the letter arriving is brilliantly written and performed, and Sarah Jane’s initially cold response is very in-character.

Meanwhile, at a conveniently nearby radio telescope, there’s a parallel father / daughter relationship, and funny goings-on of the extra-terrestrial kind. The effects are great; the semi-invisible creature in the woods reminds me of Predator. Soon the gang gets involved and it becomes clear that the baddie is a Sontaran. Of course, Sarah Jane immediately recognises the ship from her two previous encounters, and nicely builds up our sense of threat by declaring that this is too big for them and UNIT needs to be called in. Ooh.

There’s some nice dialogue between the Sontaran, Commander Kaagh, and the gang to round off the episode. We’re given a brief info-dump of the Doctor’s latest go at defeating the Sontarans (“I bet that must be quite annoying.”), and Kaagh, Styre-style, intends to perform experiments on Clyde. Naturally, having been in orbit and out of control when the Sontaran mothership blew up the only place he could possibly have landed is southern England within reasonable driving distance of Bannerman Road. Where else?

Part Two

“Your mum saved the world. She wouldn’t have a clue.”

“Believe me, it’s better this way. We’d never hear the end of it.”

Oddly enough, this very story came up in conversation in the pub last Friday (the regular Leicestershire fandom drinking session) and there was talk of this story consisting mainly of running around with very little in the way of plot. Unfortunately the second episode tends to bear this out, however much the b-plot of Maria’s impending departure may be the real story.

And that’s the heart of this episode, as Maria calls in Alan and Chrissie saves the world with a shoe, finally coming to understand and accept what’s been going on at the very end. It all feels quite moving and satisfying.

Kaagh, meanwhile, is allowed to go. That’ll turn out well. 3/5.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth / Journey's End

The Stolen Earth

“Rose is coming back. Isn’t that good?”

The sight of a milkman shows us things are about to happen, Survival-style…and then immediately we’re straight into the Big Things Happening. Earth has disappeared! Martha’s back, with UNIT, in the USA! Torchwood! Sarah Jane and Luke. My, even RTD himself is getting a bit irritated with that fanfare of Mr Smith’s.

Things pretty much go on like this, really. More than any other episode this one is constantly “up”. This is what happens when an episode of Doctor Who gets a sugar rush. We get Wilf and Sylvia. Rose! The Shadow Proclamation. Ooh. Thing is, it’s nice to see the Judoon again but the whole Proclamation is a bit disappointing, little more than a “posh name for police”. Still, we learn the truth behind all this season’s missing planets, sort of. “Someone tried to move the Earth once before. Long time ago.” So the Daleks are trying to attract the Doctor’s attention by means of continuity references to The Dalek Invasion of Earth? Well, why not…

The excitement keeps on coming. Davros! Dalek Caan! And he’s utterly doo-lally, courtesy of a particularly great performance by Nick Briggs! Not all bees are aliens, apparently. Good to know. And I love Wilf’s paint gun. “My vision is not impaired!”- this is RTD’s last chance to play with the Daleks and he’s bloody well going to have fun with them. Quite right too. And the Doctor was taken to see the Medusa Cascade when he was “a kid, about 90 years old”.

Things now get serious. Donna has to reassure the Doctor that things are going to be ok. Harriet Jones (yes, we know who she is) heroically sacrifices her life to bring the Doctor to Earth. Rose can’t manage to become anyone’s friend on Space Facebook.

We’re told Davros died in the Time War. The Doctor is devastated to see him again. He’s now played by Julian Bleach, who is fantastic, instantly better than anyone since Michael Wisher. The mask in particular is far superior to anything we’ve seen before, with facial muscles and everything. It seems Dalek Caan managed to get into the Time War, time locked though it was, but at the cost of his mind. And Davros created a whole new race of Daleks from his own cells, Kaled cells, so they’re pure-blooded Aryan Daleks. Urgh. Of course, Dalek Caan predicted all this. In no way will these predictions rebound on the Daleks in an ironic way. Oh no.

We end with the Doctor and Rose running towards each other’s arms, but the Doctor is shot by a passing Dalek. And we end with the ultimate cliffhanger. So who’s he going to regenerate into next week? My money’s on that Simon Cowell fellow.

Journey’s End

“This is a fully-fledged Dalek empire at the height of its powers. They can do anything.”

…Well, well, well. That cliffhanger resolution was simultaneously an inspired work of genius and an utter cheat. Plus the Doctor starts acting vain again. Grr. Still, Mickey and Jackie are back. Yay! And, er, there are no Daleks on Francine’s street, apparently. How convenient.

But… Donna touches the Doctor’s magic hand in a jar and creates some kind of half human “Doc 2”. Er… sorry, but this is silly. Still, at least this presumably gets rid of the hand forever. It was starting to outstay its welcome. After a bit of exposition the two of them take a break from the story for a bit so they can tread water until their next appearance on stage in the final act. Meanwhile, Jack escapes from captivity by cunningly getting himself killed.

Surprisingly, the talk about Donna’s “destiny” sort of works; a human / Time Lord meta-crisis is a big space / time event which sends ripples backwards as well as forwards. It’s also an interesting twist that Davros, confined to the vault, is not in charge and is merely kept around for amusement by his somewhat ungrateful offspring! Also intriguing is Dalek Caan’s insistence that “One of them will die!” This will be followed through, right?

There follows an extremely interesting scene in which Julian Bleach is outstanding. Davros draws together a lot of the thematic threads of this season as the Doctor’s companions start threatening the Daleks with weapons of mass destruction. Who exactly was it that made them like this? Why exactly is it that Martha is working for an ethically dubious military outfit in the first place, for that matter? “The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons.” Thing is… genuinely brilliant this exploration of the Doctor’s character though this is, I tend to think it’s based on a misunderstanding of the Doctor’s character that has been growing for a long while, perhaps even since McCoy. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the Doctor would occasionally use guns when he had to, without any qualms. He’s never been a pacifist. He didn’t used to think that weapons were unethical if used in the right cause, merely that they cramped his style. Far cooler to walk around unarmed and defeat the baddies through cleverness and wit. And blow them up at the end, of course.

The Doctor’s perceived ethical faults are thrown into sharp relief by the Daleks’ plans, of course. With the Reality Bomb they intend to destroy the entire universe outside their own little bubble in which they are somehow apparently going to survive, thereby ethnically cleansing the entire universe. Nasty.

Still, Sarah Jane and Davros get a touching little reunion. How nice.

Anyway, Doc 2 and Donna emerge, and Donna saves the universe. I love this bit. Unfortunately the TARDIS towing the Earth back to its rightful position is exactly as silly as people keep saying it is, and these overcrowded TARDIS scenes feel uncomfortably like fanwank. There are some insights here, though- Sarah Jane so misses the point in telling the Doctor that he’s “got the biggest family on Earth” immediately before they all bugger off and leave him alone. Mickey, by now a real action hero, returns to “our” Earth, following Jack and Martha, while Jack and Martha say goodbye with a salute, interestingly in the light of what Davros said earlier. It’s particularly interesting that Jack is trying to persuade Martha to leave UNIT.

And then we have Bad Wolf Bay. I can see the cleverness in how this is done, but I really don’t like it. It’s such a cop out for Rose (who’s been somewhat neglected, inevitably) to settle with a half human ersatz Doctor she knows deep down isn’t the real deal. Yes, it’s clever of RTD to try and tell us that this Doctor is vengeful, as he was when he and Rose first met, and needs Rose to make him into a better person as she did with the real Doctor, but emotionally this feels very wrong to me.

As for Donna, I’m not sure about this either. Yes, it’s sad, but frustratingly so rather than tear-jerkingly so. The character deserved better. She was magnificent.

Still, aside from some unsatisfying character departures and a little too much of a fanwank feel towards the end this is epic Doctor Who at its best. 4/5.

As for the season- better than remembered. It joins four other seasons in joint eighth with exactly 4/5.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Doctor Who: Turn Left

“You’re not gonna make the world any better by shouting at it.”

Right. This is me back. The final push starts now. Still, it looks as though Series Three of The Sarah Jane Adventures won’t be out on DVD till November 1st, so there would have had to have been a hiatus, and it’s all worked out quite well.

Er, that’s the best excuse I can think of, anyway. Back to Turn Left

It’s the pre-titles sequence, and the Doctor and Donna are nosing about on the Planet Of The Ever So Slightly Dodgy Ethnic Stereotypes. Donna sees a fortune teller (ever so slightly dodgy ethnic stereotyping within slightly dodgy ethnic stereotyping?), who seems uncannily similar to our late friend Chantho. Said fortune teller proceeds to use her alien reality-warping powers to force Donna to re-enact scenes from Planet of the Spiders. So that’s what all the “something on your back” foreshadowing was about.

Billie Piper’s name is in the credits. Ooh! And then it’s straight into that old TV sci-fi stand-by; the alternate universe. This is a trope which never fails, although sadly nothing can ever trump the example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had Evil Willow in it. Mmm… Evil Willow…

The episode is of course all about Donna, and thus reliant on Catherine Tate to put in a good performance. She really comes up trumps; this is probably the finest individual performance of any member of the regular cast in Doctor Who ever, even after Tennant’s stellar performance last episode. It’s also the Doctor-lite story, of course, and by far the most successful, being about the Doctor’s absence in a way no previous example has been.

We get to see a parade of recent episodes, starting with the appearance of the Racnoss star, except that this time Donna has been promoted, and so is both materially more successful- for now- and shallower than she would have been. She isn’t there to stop the Doctor, and so he dies. This is what we alternate history geeks (*cough* *cough*) call the “point of departure” or “POD”, and it’s interesting to consider this story as an example of this sub-genre. Because, on the one hand, the world changes entirely because of one apparently minor decision by an apparently ordinary person, yet there is also an awful lot of convergence as regards the alien invasions. It looks as though the butterfly effect hasn’t spread as far as the Adipose or the planet Sto. It’s a nice touch how the Doctors could-have-been companions (especially Martha) all get noble deaths. Of course, the Master never gives his pocket watch a second thought in this reality! It isn’t Harold Saxon who order’s the destruction of the Racnoss ship, I notice.

Oh, and how come the satellite pictures of the falling Titanic seem to be looking from the ground up? Ahem.

This is a very different Donna, at least on the surface: her reaction to being laid off does not present her in a good light, and she shows no interest in Wilf’s alien obsession. But this is the last point in the story in which she’s relatively untested by adversity. And Sylvia’s casually delivered “To be honest, I’ve given up on you” hits like a punch.

Donna is visited a number of times by a very Doctorish Rose, and her reaction is a little more accepting each time, showing how the hardships she suffers bring out her resourcefulness. Things start to get very dark, giving us a glimpse into the bleak world view that lurks behind RTD’s light touch, as also seen last episode (interesting comment by Nuallain on Midnight about RTD using his last chance to write the sort of crowd-pleasing episode which Moffat has so far had the luxury of writing- we seem to have another example of this here). The inhabitants of radiation-soaked southern England become refugees, France has closed its borders, people are billeted, dozens to a property, in the residential streets of northern cities while the army patrols outside; there’s some kind of “emergency government”; and finally the obvious foreigners, including a rather likeable example of the ever so slightly dodgy ethnic stereotypes, are sent off to “labour camps”. It’s not spelled out for the kids, but Wilf knows exactly what’s going on.

Sylvia, by this point, is quite horribly, cripplingly depressed; Jacqueline King portrays this brilliantly. Her final scene with Donna (“I suppose I’ve always been a disappointment.” “…Yeah…”) is understated and utterly heartbreaking.

It’s clear something is coming; not only is Rose warning of “The Darkness” that’s coming. We seem to have heard this before; a very similar phrasing was used in They Keep Killing Suzie. But far more effective is Wilf’s realisation that the stars are going out. So on we zoom towards the final scenes, with a Rose so Doctorish she might as well start calling herself Romana, a dying TARDIS, and a nice little re-enactment of the mirrors scene from Kinda. Catherine Tate really is sublime here in her delivery of every line- I love her desperate denial of her own certain death. Well, sort of certain. It’s a bit timey-wimey.

Everything returns to normal with Donna’s sacrifice, the Doctor notes all the odd coincidences surrounding Donna’s life, and the phrase “Bad Wolf” suddenly appears everywhere for no obvious reason. That’ll be a season finale coming up, then.

Brilliant. Something that could only be attempted once, so it’s great that it was done well. The amount of fanwank was nicely judged, nice but not excessive, and there was just the right amount of dystopian pessimism. And then there’s Catherine Tate. Wow. Best actress in Doctor Who ever. 5/5.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Doctor Who: Midnight

“Sorry, I’m a Doctor. I’m very clever.”

Ahem. Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’m back.

Some nice CGI, to start with. And that’s all that we’ll be getting of this sort of thing, as I believe this is what those Trekkie people call a “bottle episode”. And if this is what “bottle” episodes are like then let’s have more of them. This may be a filmed stage play with very little of the visual, but it’s a bloody good one, and the best thing RTD has written since The Second Coming.

We briefly see Donna at the start, which reminds us how bloody useful she would have been to the Doctor in what is to follow. It’s a very nice touch that the “Donna-lite” story is one in which her absence is really felt; for once the Doctor needs her to stop others, not himself. This story features the most terrifying foe the Doctor has yet faced: the slavering, vicious, unreasoning mob; the sort of mindless conformity which at its worst extreme… sorry, came very close to invoking Godwin’s Law just then. And we learn more of RTD’s views of society here than in anything we’ve so far seen.

The early scenes in the shuttle show us once again what a master at the nuts and bolts of economical storytelling is our showrunner. In a few brief scenes he nicely sketches out the characters whilst amusingly taking the proverbial out of the petty irritations of air travel which are so familiar to us all. But the early humorous touches (I liked “I must warn you that some products may contain nuts” a lot) very quickly turn into misdirection; when the Doctor states jokingly that “We’ll have to talk to each other instead”, he’s already started to misjudge the situation, the people he’s with, and his own status. These early scenes are full of subtle touches that, oblivious though he may be, for once he isn’t the alpha male.

There’s quite a cast here: Lesley Sharp is of course superb, so is David Troughton. And I’d forgotten that Merlin was in this. But these aren’t the quirky, loveable types we’re used to seeing in RTD Who scripts; in their own ways they’re all self-absorbed, narrow-minded and entirely lacking in the qualities we’re used to seeing in a programme based partly on the Doctor’s making others into better people. There are no suitable candidates here. And yet, arguably only Biff is truly nasty. Well, with a name like that.

The initial scenes of suspense as the craft stops and the banging starts are very well done. I was reminded of The Edge of Destruction, in a good way. And even at this early stage the sight of everyone panicking is almost as scary as the external threat. Mobs and groupthink are far scarier than alien possession.

Oh, and it seems the mysterious alien force knocks three times. How interesting. Don’t know why I mention it. We get Rose on the screen again, too…

Then the two pilots are the first to die, Sky starts repeating people’s words, and RTD cranks up the tension quite majestically. Credit also has to go to the performances, the claustrophobic setting, and the more than usually noticeable soundtrack for modern Who; almost musique concrete at times, a bit Tristram Cary. Almost modern enough to have appeared in this very programme back in ’63…

The mood of the mob shifts decisively once the subject of throwing Sky comes up, and even the apparently nice Dee Dee is implicated. From this point onward things are very, very dark, much darker than anything previously seen in the marathon so far. They all start to turn against the Doctor (Disturbingly, he’s described as being “Like an immigrant!” It’s a mob of Daily Mail readers. The horror.). He’s accused of “loving” the danger of the situation- there’s a germ of truth there, as has often been pointed out- and he finally alienates everyone with his fantastically misjudged “Because I’m clever!” In the land of the mob, no one likes a smartarse. Smartarses don’t conform. They’re too intellectual. They read things into things. They’re weird. Let’s just throw them out. Chilling stuff.

Things then proceed to get better than this, as Sky speaks first, the Doctor is apparently possessed, and the Doctor is left repeating everyone’s words as they set about throwing him out. The expressions on Tennant’s face here are incredible.

There’s one potential seed of redemption for humanity, though; the stewardess, who’s hardly been saintly so far, finally realised what’s happened and sacrifices her life to save everyone. No one even remembers her name. And the Doctor then has to spend twenty long minutes in the company of the mob which had attempted to kill him although, of course, everything goes unsaid. How very English. Unusually, it’s made clear at the end that the Doctor is deeply upset by what has happened.

Superlative: a stage play with a camera plonked in front of it, perhaps, but a triumphant example, and one that makes me want to go to the theatre more often. By which I mean, these days, at all. 5/5 and straight into my top ten at number six.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Doctor Who: Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Silence in the Library

“I try to keep you away from major plot developments…”

This one’s by Steven Moffat, so let there be no attempt at suspense here. This is heading for a 5/5. You knew that. What surprised me, though, was that it’s better than that. I came back to this expecting it to be merely superb, the sort of casual excellence exuded even by the Moff’s lesser scripts. But it’s much deeper than I remembered, and it goes straight into the top ten.

Even the pre-titles sequence is a little work of art on its own. The scenes with the little girl add so much, not just mystery but a nice bit of Sapphire and Steel style philosophical musing on the nature of reality.

Then it’s off to Moffat’s beloved 51st century, and some nice fourth wall-damaging banter between the Doctor and Donna. This isn’t really an “arc” episode (well, not as far as this season’s concerned) but they’re both continuing to enjoy both the travelling and each other’s company and really getting on; I love their simultaneous tearing up of Lux’s proffered contracts! Clearly, nothing bad’s going to happen.

The sudden reveal that this apparently deserted world is hiding great danger, and that the danger lies in the shadows, is inspired, and the way it’s built up is masterly. And very scary. Also, very funny in the way it builds up (“It doesn’t do wood?!!!”). The Doctor’s exposition bit about the Vashta Nerada even manages to be scary in itself; you should be afraid of the dark because there really are monsters out to get you. Great stuff. I’m sure the young kids loved it!

And yes, River Song. I try to watch in the spirit of the Marathon without any extra-curricular viewing, but new episodes are impossible to resist. And it’s particularly interesting to see River’s “first” appearance. We get our first “Hello sweetie”. We get a squareness gun, of course. And it’s interesting seeing the Doctor working out just who the hell she is. Then again, only Steven Moffat knows that.

The rest of the “others” are cleverly given the illusion of depth through a few nice lines (love the “Proper Dave” and “Other Dave” stuff). Steve Pemberton is a surprising yet good choice for Lux, apparently an arrogant corporate sod at this stage. The later reveal of his true motives is nicely foreshadowed by River, nicely undercutting the Doctor’s typically declamatory “I don’t want everyone in this room to die because some idiot thinks his pride is more important,” with a simple “Then why didn’t you sign his contract?” But she then undercuts that by admitting she’s as bad as he is. I love her already. The new Romana?

Probably the centrepiece of the episode is Miss Evangelista’s death and “ghosting”. This is so brilliant I’ll even forgive the fact that the threat from the Vashta Nerada seems to be on pause for the duration. And then things get even better with Doctor Moon’s private chat to the little girl, telling her that “The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real!” This story delivers on scares, wit, and conceptual brilliance. And there’s another episode to go.

Forest of the Dead

“And then you remembered…”

Well, resolution by squareness gun is a bit disappointing, but since everything else about this episode is great I’m not quibbling too much. Especially as we get some great fourth wall-injuring stuff here with Donna noticing that her Family of Blood-style “life”, wherever she is, seems to follow the conventions of television camerawork, cutting straight from one scene to another. I really am a total sucker for this kind of thing, but it’s particularly well done here. It also shows us that this is going to be a very different episode from its predecessor.

All of the “others” are killed off, one by one here; everybody lives, but first, everybody dies. This is very well handled, both maintaining the sense of threat and giving us a bit of pathos. I liked Anita too.

The gradual reveals are great: the “doctor moon”, the spores of the Vashta Nerada arriving with the books by accident (again, no real sense of evil or even agency for the threat in a Moffat script), CAL, Lux not in fact being an arse at all. (One problem, though; if it’s the 51st century, and Charlotte Lux lived only a couple of generations ago, why does her “world” seem to be the early twenty-first century?) And of course the revelation that everyone who died was “saved”. Of course, they all did in fact die; they just got copied. But I suppose that applies to all teleportation as much as this one. In The Seeds of Death, everybody dies, including the regulars. Several times.

Donna suffers real heartbreak here, and it’s a shame there are no real long-term consequences; Moffat scripts are never quite plugged in to the series arcs. Yet. She loses what are, emotionally, a real husband and two real children. The moment where the children recognise that they only exist when Donna can see them is fantastically awful.

Of course, River dies. Sort of. And knows the Doctor’s name. And they squabble like an “old married couple”. Hmm.

As I said, superlative. 5/5 and top ten.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

“I say! What are you doing with that lead piping?”

For the second story in a row I’m very pleasantly surprised. From my vague recollections I was expecting this story to be a fun but inconsequential bit of fluff. In fact, it’s brilliant, one of the very best comedy episodes the series has ever produced. It helps that Catherine Tate, who has a lot to do here, is such a brilliant comic actress, but the script is superb.

There’s little in the way of overt season arc stuff here (although Donna and the Doctor continue to relate to each other as they have been doing and Donna gets a quick line about the bees), so we have a standalone episode which reminds me very much of Gareth Roberts’ Missing Adventures novels, particularly The English Way of Death; a superbly realised historical pastiche, this time of course based on the Agatha Christie-style Whodunit. Actually, the whole thing feels very Season Seventeen in the best possible way, and Catherine Tate has never seemed more like Lalla Ward. Yes, I know how weird that reads.

The pre-titles teaser gives us a pretty clear example of both the tone we can expect and the kind of tropes we’ll be playing with. We’re immersed in the genre through overdosing on the trappings of the genre and period- flapper gear, gramophones, a very Twenties soundtrack, a vicar, a colonel, a professor. I love the blatantly excessive number of Cluedo in-jokes!

This feels nothing like Black Orchid, though. Aside from the nicely handled personal stuff regarding Agatha- her prickliness about her philandering husband, the chat with Donna, her very Victoria-esque admonition of the Doctor for enjoying himself as people die- the tone is quite rightly kept firmly tongue in cheek. There are a lot of postmodern in-jokes, of course (“I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens. And he’s surrounded by Ghosts. At Christmas.”), and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. And the story is able to use our familiarity with the trappings of the genre to have a bit of fun; I love the wibbly-wobbly flashback scenes which contrast with what everyone is claiming to have been doing.

The whole think climaxes in the Poirot moment as Agatha and the Doctor take turns in revealing everyone’s secrets. Colonel Curbishley’s is the best, of course, as is Agatha’s surprised reaction. Of course, claiming that Agatha Christie is the greatest novelist of all time is a bit much. I devoured dozens upon dozens of her novels when I was about twelve but these days I find the prose and casual class stereotyping makes it hard not to hurl said novel across the room and reach instead for the nearest Margery Allingham. Still, her plots are rather clever and so is this. 5/5.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter

“Hello, Dad!”

Wow. I was expecting this to be average-to-good going by my memories, which are fairly recent, after all. Stephen Greenhorn’s last effort was a bit meh, too. And yet this has just blown me away. It’s superb.

Martha’s back, which means some great character stuff for all the regulars (back to that in a bit), but also a larger TARDIS crew, which allows for what feels like an uber-traditional episode of Doctor Who. In fact the first five minutes see our heroes split up and separated from the TARDIS, and Martha’s experiences and those of the Doctor and Donna mirror each other for the early part of the episode. The Hartnell vibes couldn’t be much more blatant. And the whole thing feels very “trad Who”.

The pre-titles teaser is fab, of course, and so’s Georgia Moffat. And the Doctor’s reaction to the fact that he has a daughter leads to some superbly played scenes with Tennant and Tate. Donna as a character is fantastic here, able to take the proverbial out of the Doctor as no one else can. I still love her. Oh, and she’s the one who works out the mystery at the end. She’s great, but by now it’s becoming clear that her arc is building up to something. She can’t carry on having this much fun and being this fab without being brought down to Earth with a bump- her final comment to Martha about wanting to travel in the TARDIS forever makes it clear that something’s coming. Such is how the RTD universe works. That’s what happened with Rose back in Season 28- again, RTD repeating his own tropes, and again, not a problem at this point but it’s clear that RTD’s song will end soon.

Martha gets an interesting character arc here; initially reluctant to travel in the TARDIS because she’s aware there’s always a cost, she’s soon enjoying herself anyway (“I love this bit!”). And she proves to be brilliant, even more so than before, as symbolised by her insistence on using her medical skills to help with the dislocated shoulder of one of the Hath who’s captured her. Shades of The Smugglers there. She’s also brilliant in the way she takes the alternative route over ground to the mysterious “Source”. Shades of The Five Doctors there. And yet… only one non-redshirt dies in the whole story, and it happens on Martha’s watch as the Hath dies saving her. Martha is heartbroken; symbolically, she suffers this but Donna doesn’t, having fun down below. This is innocence versus experience; the dark side of time travel will catch up with Donna one day. It’s a good proper farewell for Martha, though. Fittingly, both of them finally address each other as “Doctor” as they part.

Jenny is an extremely cool character. Her personality is a bit superficial, perhaps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s underwritten. She’s cool; a kind of Doctor-in-training who can dance through laser beams and gets a great ending. Plus, she’s a proper Time Lady. She’s got two hearts and, er, she was loomed. Sorry.

There’s some good stuff for the Doctor, too- Tennant is particularly good here- with some interesting revelations about his having fathered children, plural. And yet… there’s something not quite right about the extreme pacifism he displays here, especially at the end. I know I keep banging on about this, but this Marathon has shown that the Doctor may feel guns cramp his style, but he’s happy to use them when absolutely necessary, or even if not, if he’s in Frontier in Space. Plus there’s the blowing stuff up, and the Venusian Aikido. All this stuff about the Doctor being an uber-pacifist only came along very late, if at all.

And yet… could that be what we’re supposed to think? The exchanges with Jenny about war, which he doesn’t entirely win, suggest it might be. Could it be that this Doctor retains some of the war-weariness from the Time War, and that this is causing him to exaggerate his pacifistic streak?

Lots of food for thought here with the development of the characters. Plus, the plot is great, proper hard sci-fi, with a good twist at the end as it’s revealed how long the war’s been going on for. There’s not a lot wrong with this one. 5/5.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

The Sontaran Stratagem

“Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?”

I like the pre-credit sequence a lot; there’s something brilliant, effective and very very zeitgeisty about the concept of killer satnav. Almost an updated version of the chair and the doll from Terror of the Autons, in fact. And it’s nice, if a little Sarah Jane Adventures-y, to have a young genius as villain; Doctor Who has another trope to add to its collection.

Oh, and we get a proper UNIT story, in spite of odd glimpses for the first time since Battlefield. And Martha’s back. Yay! Except that the context of both Martha and UNIT has changed. This is handled brilliantly. I love the initial meeting between her and Donna, nicely subverting both our and the Doctor’s expectation of School Reunion-style fireworks. Martha’s doing very well (“She’s engaged, you prawn!”), but clearly still damaged by her experiences. But UNIT is not what it used to be (“back in the ‘70s. Or was it the ‘80s? But it was all a lot more homespun back then”). In Fragments it was seen to be doing reprehensible things, and it’s good that this is acknowledged in the Doctor’s frosty attitude to Colonel Mace, and his initial semi-doubts about Martha. But it’s also good that the Doctor and Martha later resolve this with their little chat; just as the Doctor tries to make people better, Martha means to do this with UNIT. This works, more or less, allowing the character to keep her integrity.

Notwithstanding UNIT’s moral dodginess, though, I don’t like the implication here that the Doctor has some kind of moral objection to guns and blowing things up per se. He doesn’t. At all. Oh, he may think they cramp his style a bit, granted, but he had no qualms about using guns when necessary in Day of the Daleks or Frontier in Space for example.

Incidentally, on the theme of (yawn) UNIT dating, the Doctor’s dialogue rather tends to support my view that all UNIT stories exist in some sort of shifting time zone of quantum uncertainty. Or something. And it’s good to hear greyhounds talking to traps again.

Oh, and it’s great to see the Sontarans again, of course. Christopher Ryan is fab, as is the design, although I could do without all the “Sontar-HA!” stuff. I imagine this means we’ve been well and truly told that Sontar is the name of their planet then. It’s a particularly nice touch that they’re actually jealous that they weren’t allowed in the Time War.

Their re-introduction is well done and integrated well into the also impressive plot; the necessary exposition about the probic vent is done as a cool little action scene with a tennis racket, making the Doctor look rather cool. And once again, I notice, he presses the big red button. Plus we get a bit of body horror with the proto-Martha clone. Impressive stuff from Helen Raynor. Oh, and we also get more nostalgia as one of the soldiers shot by Staal cries “My legs! I can’t feel my legs” just as Ian did in The Daleks. Please tell me I’m not the only person who noticed that. Because it would be rather tragic if I were.

This being contemporary Earth, we also get some good stuff for Donna, as Martha urges her to not repeat her own mistakes in not telling her family where she was. But as before she’s only able to connect with Wilf and is unable to tell Sylvia. There’s something genuinely troubling in this mother / daughter relationship, and the subtle way this is handled is quite impressive; it’s clear that there are character arc things going on here. Of course, the Doctor’s abortive farewell speech to Donna, and her reaction (“Dumbo!”) is the best thing in Doctor Who ever. It’s official; from now on I not only like Donna. I bloody love her.

The Poison Sky

“Good work. For a female.”

Things are bad, so it’s out with the news reports. This time it’s Kirsty Wark who joins Trinity Wells in a nice little bit of exposition telling us what peril we’re all in. This is pretty much an all-action episode, and doesn’t have anything like the depth of the first part, although there are some nice bits. I like Donna’s understated reaction to being given a TARDIS key. Again, though, we’re reminded that RTD is starting to mine the same ground. It’s not a problem at this point, but it has the potential to become one eventually. Again we’re reminded that his song should probably end soon.

Luke, the Tobias Vaughn of this story, gets some nice moments in this episode which gives his character arc a pleasing trajectory. First there’s his speech to the students (“I’ve designed a mating programme! I’ve planned the whole thing!”) which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go down well. Then there’s his shocked realisation that Staal was planning on betraying him all along; as Donna would say, well duuuh! And then, of course, there’s his final sacrifice.

We also get a big and rather impressive gun battle, in which Skorr has a wonderfully Sontaran reaction to being killed. No less impressively, we get a reference to “Sir Alastair”. Yay! UNIT are redeemed a little from last episode; Mace’s weapons are effective, plus we get to see Valiant again, which is cool. They and the Doctor are not quite reconciled (and shouldn’t be, considering what they did to Tosh, and no doubt others), but it’s also acknowledged, rightly I think, that the Doctor has also been guilty of rudeness and tactlessness. Still, I loved the “Are you my mummy?” I like a bit of metatextual fun, even when it’s totally gratuitous, like this.

The Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice his own life because he has to offer the Sontarans a chance he knows they’ll never take- this Doctor’s guiding ethical principle, it seems, the flip side of “No second chances”, is wonderful. And so’s the aftermath, as Martha takes his arm and Donna slaps him. But soon they’re off again, this time with an unwilling passenger.

Well, that was the epitome of what we used to call trad Who, albeit with some good character work, mostly in the first part. A good 3/5.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Doctor Who: Planet of the Ood

“The circle must be broken.”

Bit hard to know what to say about this one, really. It’s sort of… average. Not that it doesn’t have lots of things going for it, of course; there’s Ood, Tim McInnerny, and the still great chemistry between Tate and Tennant. And I love the scene with the claw. It’s just that it’s all a bit… “meh”, as I’m told the young folks say. Even the dialogue hardly sparkles at all, unusually for the RTD years, hence the desperate choice of quotation above.

There’s a bit of political subtext (What? You noticed?), but it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond “Slavery is bad, mmmkay?” and a bit of superficial dialogue about culling cows during outbreaks of foot and mouth. Even the whole “Who do you think makes your clothes?” thing rather comes across as fence-sitting in the execution. Otherwise there’s little that particularly stands out about the plot, good or bad. I had to raise a smile when the lovely Solana betrayed our heroes, though; by the laws of the programme she’s signed her own death warrant.

There’s lots of good Doctor / Donna stuff though. Again we get the “We’re not married”, again we get Donna experiencing both the wonder and the horror of the universe. And Donna’s turnaround from despair at the Ood’s singing and wanting to go home to euphoria and enthusiasm again echoes last week very well. Their mutual character development is being very well handled.

There’s another mention of the bees disappearing, I notice, confirming its significance, and another pleasing reference to the show’s early days as the Sense-Sphere gets a name check. This story pretty much confirms the likely exploitation of the planet by humans after our original TARDISeers left, incidentally, but then it was clear at the time that this was bound to happen. Oh, and this is 4126, so RTD is sticking to his habit of often setting the future stories in defined periods, including the year Five Billion and the 42nd century.

The ending’s a bit odd- the Doctor and Donna have been rather passive throughout the episode, so what’s Ood Sigma thanking them for? We finish on an ominous note, though, as the Doctor is told “I think your song must end soon.” 3/5.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

“You must excuse my friend. She’s from Barcelona.”

It’s ancient Rome again. Gosh, how nostalgic. Particularly as we get an oblique reference to a certain incident with a magnifying glass. But then again, token aliens apart this is very much in the tradition of those early historicals from days gone by. You could almost say it’s a remake of The Aztecs. It’s a stretch, yes, but not that much of one. Our heroes even get briefly separated from the Ship- er, TARDIS, just like old times. Although I’ll grant you that Donna and Barbara do have slightly different personalities.

Oh, look at that young actress playing the sneaky priestess in the teaser. I understand she’s called Karen Gillan. There’s no particular reason I mention that, of course.

Anyway, this is brilliant, even if it doesn’t quite manage to explore the ethics and issues of interference in historical events as it seems to promise. For a start it looks great; from the sets to the Pyroviles, surely the finest CGI creations yet seen with their superb design, right down to the Roman helmets. And the script, from James Moran, is brilliant. We get some lovely subverting of tropes here- I love Donna’s “You have got to be kidding me!” when about to be sacrificed; this sort of thing never happened in The Stones of Blood. Catherine Tate is particularly brilliant here, and already has nigh-perfect chemistry with David Tennant. I love the Spartacus stuff, and their mutual insistence that they’re definitely not married.

On the subject of the Pyroviles, incidentally; I notice that’s the second implied missing planet in as many weeks. They’re getting their season arcs started early these days.

It’s nice to finally see some traditional style Sibylline priestesses in Doctor Who (well, I suppose there’s The Brain of Morbius, even down to the clothing). They’re one of the great archetypes of the classical world, familiar to me from the likes of I Clavdivs and various historical novels by the likes of Gore Vidal, Marguerite Yourcenar etc etc and rather pleasingly the history of the Sibylline prophecies is so vague that writers can do as they like with them. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of men in the Classical world acting as augurs (entrails excepted), great character though this Lucius is. I’d assumed Apollo preferred inhabiting the larynxes of women. No doubt some bizarre fetish. These gods, eh?

The fact we have augury allows our characters from earth’s past to know things about our heroes, of course. The word “Gallifrey” is suitably shocking to hear. And most interesting of all of course is “Daughter of London, there is something on your back.”

Oh, and the entire family at the centre of the episode are brilliant. It’s rather admirable how these characters are made to anchor everything together so it all fits inside forty-five minutes, something which feels quite astounding considering all the stuff that’s packed into this episode. The entire family pretty much had me at “Positions!” but Peter Capaldi in particular is great. But then, he is Peter Capaldi, so it’s only to be expected.

Still, there’s a problem with this episode. Sort of. Because even this is great in terms of character and drama in the way it’s used- which is, after all, the main thing. But the whole “explanation” of why some historic events doesn’t really work. We may now know for the first time about “fixed points in time” but this doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know back in Season One, as this is just another form of words for telling us that the Doctor can alter some historical events and not others. We knew that.

It says a lot for the excellence of the writing and characterisation here because the scenes between the Doctor and Donna arguing over whether to save people or not work superbly, even though they don’t really work. I particularly love the way this further develops the “lonely god” theme of the Doctor’s occasional aloof arrogance and (as the Doctor admits at the end) that he needs Donna to stop him. That’s why the final scene is so brilliant; the Doctor ends up not being a lonely god as he has Donna there with him. I hope that libation is ginger beer.

But… is it actually impossible for the Doctor to interfere or does he not want to? If the former, why doesn’t he just say so? If the latter, it’s hard to conclude that he isn’t just being an utter shit. And surely, this being a fixed point in time, the Pyroviles should be no more able to alter history than the Doctor. None of it works. And yet it’s great drama. It’s so brilliant that the two of them press the button together.

So, even though there’s a massive and fundamental flaw here the story still gets a 5/5 anyway for being so damned great. One other quibble, though; shouldn’t this be placed a bit later in the season? This is Donna’s first proper full trip in the TARDIS. It should really have been something a bit less heavy and more fun for her.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Doctor Who: Partners in Crime

“You’re not mating with me, sunshine!”

Ooh, new theme music! And no pre-titles sequence; it seems we’re relaunching the show again, and once again we’re doing so by focusing on the new(ish) companion. It’s a tried and tested formula, and it works well here, but all the same its noticeable that RTD is repeating his tricks and tropes. This isn’t in any way a problem at this stage, and it’s an unavoidable consequence for any writer, even a great one such as RTD, who writes so many episodes of a series. For the first time we’re made to realise that this production team have been around a while and probably shouldn’t stick around for that much longer. None of which means that this episode, or indeed the series at this point, are anything other than great.

This is a textbook example of a “fluffy” RTD episode, I suppose- again, repetition of tricks and tropes- but such a perfectly crafted one. Compared to, say, New Earth, this is perfection. The parallel opening narratives, with both the Doctor and Donna investigating this week’s threat, are perfectly written and staged for comic effect. And the scene at the windows is the funniest thing in Doctor Who ever.

The baddies, Miss Foster and the Adipose, are quite rightly relegated to the background a little so that the episode can focus on Donna, but personally I love the little things. Susan Hampshire is quite deliciously villainous, too.

But this all about Donna. Happily, we’ve already been introduced to the character, so we need waste no time on establishing the character and we can get straight into some quite nuanced character stuff; I love the way the scene is shot where Sylvia is nagging Donna in the background (“No one’s gonna come along with a magic wand and make your life better”), and the way this is immediately followed by a contrasting scene with Wilf. Both Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins are superb, something which no doubt I’ll soon be taking for granted.

Donna’s character has had to change, of course. It’s subtle, but this is no longer the, er, abrasive Donna of The Runaway Bride. Instead we get a good look at a character who has been changed by her experiences with the Doctor- an ongoing theme of the series, of course- after several months have passed. It’s great to see her investigating Adipose Industries on her own initiative, and doing such a fine job of it too. I love the tense scene in the ladies’ loo. Dammit, there’s no way of putting that last sentence which doesn’t sound wrong.

The chat at the end between the Doctor and Donna is extremely revealing; the Doctor is full of guilt at how he mistreated Martha, refusing to acknowledge her feelings for him and doing a lot of damage to her family. But it’s made clear that his relationship with Donna is going to be different. And I’m looking forward to it. This is Donna Mark 2, retooled for permanent TARDISeer status. And she’s great.

Oh yes, and that scene at the end packs quite a punch. It’s a great statement of intent for the coming season. And what was that about the bees disappearing?

Yes, this is all pretty much done to a template which is very familiar by now. But it’s done superbly. There's one thing that dates it a bit, though, even though this was only two years ago. "It's not like the 1980s," says Sylvia. "No on's unemployed these days, except you!5/5.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Torchwood: Exit Wounds

“I’m gonna rage my way to oblivion! Why? Give me one good bloody reason why I shouldn’t. One good reason why I shouldn’t keep screaming.”

“Because you’re breaking my heart.”

Yes, that line up there made even stony hearted old me cry. And that takes some doing, I can tell you. The deaths of Tosh and Owen are brilliantly done, brilliantly acted and a real tribute to the characters. It’s just a shame that the season finale as a whole is just so…meh. See? I’m the sort of hip young thing who says “meh” all the time, I am.

The first few minutes, with John apparently wreaking havoc, are such fun. I love “their” song. What’s happened to James Marsters’ British accent though? He seems to be struggling with the vowels here. Still, he oozes charisma and is great so it’s not a huge problem. These scenes are enormous fun.

Unfortunately, things start to go wrong once Jack gets sent back to 27AD, and that, given the generally assumed birth date of you-know-who, is a particularly groan-inducing year in which to set a load of pretentious Christ symbolism in which Jack willingly undergoes some severe physical punishment. In fact, as soon as the caption with the year on it came up I groaned. For a caption just saying what the year is to provoke that reaction is quite an achievement.

Yes, as much hinted, Gray is back. And being played very badly. I had to raise an eyebrow during the burial scene, mind: we had a British actor doing an unconvincing American accent and an American actor doing an unconvincing British accent to carry the scene between them.

Aside from the pretentious Christ symbolism and the bad acting from Lachlan Nieboer, though, things are quite good. The stakes are fairly high and everyone gets something to do, even if it is a little convenient that there should be an emergency at the police station for Gwen, one at the hospital (with a Hoix!) for Owen and one at the Server Centre for Tosh. There are some nice touches throughout all this: Gwen once again showing what a great leader she is, Rhys’ pep talk (“You’re a bloody hero, Gwen!”), the dynamic between Rhys and PC Andy, which is particularly fun to see after what we learned in Adrift.

But then the shocks start coming. Tosh is shot! Captain Jack does a Tennant and says “I forgive you”. I think this is the point where I seriously started wondering whether this episode should be in the Guinness Book of Records for the most blatant example of the viewer being bludgeoned over the head with pretentious Christian allegories known to humanity. Even Bad Lieutenant wasn’t this bad.

Still, we get some nice scenes of Torchwood 1901, including a glimpse of one of our friends from last episode. Plus, Tosh is shot. And proceeds to be a hero, calmly guiding Owen through his own brave tasks even though she’s slowly bleeding to death. And the moments after they both realise Owen is definitely going to die are… wow. All their words are so loaded with multiple meanings, especially Owen’s “I’m really sorry”. And he even tells Tosh that “We missed each other. It was my fault. I didn’t… I didn’t notice until it was too late.” In the end, he dies calmly. Tosh dies in Jack’s arms, Gwen starts to cry and so do I, dammit.

And then Jack goes and spoils it all with his “It was my penance.” Aaargh!

Very good in parts, then, especially towards the end. But the Christ stuff and a badly acted villain drag it down to a 3/5.

As for the season as a whole, it averages exactly 4/5 from me, an improvement from the first.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Torchwood: Fragments

“The 21st century, Jack. Everything’s going to change. And we’re not ready.”

It’s the penultimate episode, the calm before the storm; time to do something a bit quirky while running on the spot arc-wise. What better than a Secret Origins episode? Rather a good one, too; the framing device is a bit by-the-numbers but that’s all it needs to be, and it works.

Jack first, and at last we get to meet the Torchwood lesbians. My vague memory of the season had me believing we’d see them sooner, but better late than never. Almost as cool as seeing them, mind, is that caption: 1,392 deaths earlier. And about a century ago, very close to the turn of the century judging by the words of the tarot girl (so we do see her again!). Jack has spent the past six months or so getting drunk in dodgy bars and telling all and sundry about the Doctor. And Torchwood, just twenty years after the events of Tooth and Claw, are naturally interested.

We see his recruitment (and another blowfish, which is cool, as is the fact that it behaves just as “ours” did back at the start of the season, even “joyriding a horse and carriage”…), but at this stage he’s just a paid hireling, a long way from feeling any real sense of responsibility. Flashing forward to New Year’s Eve 1999, though, this changes. Torchwood’s leader, “Alex”, has used an alien artefact to see the future (foreshadowing Jack’s later wariness of such artefacts?). He sees that in the upcoming century his team will be forced to precede every mission with a trite little opening catchphrase. Naturally, he wishes to spare the team this terrible fate and kills them all, as you do. His last deed before offing himself is to bequeath Torchwood to Jack. How nice.

Next, it’s Tosh. Er, remember what she said back in Countrycide about never having been in a cell before? You know, that story which was written by Chris Chibnall, just like this one? Well, er, that’s not quite correct. It seems that she was in fact arrested by UNIT and imprisoned for life without trial until Jack intervened. Now, I have a big problem with this. It’s clearly supposed to be all topical and War on Terror and all that and to be asking what it thinks are thought-provoking questions on the balance between liberty and civil liberties. But no; locking people up without trial and the arbitrary waiving of habeas corpus are very bad things, full stop. There’s no moral ambiguity here; the rights and wrongs are perfectly clear. There needs to be a very good reason for any kind of step in this direction to be justified, and we’ve been given absolutely no such reason whatsoever. And as far as I’m concerned the involvement of UNIT here makes them the bad guys. Jack manages to avoid this implication, as he seems to have no control over any of this and there’s no suggestion he in any way approves, but this whole section left a bad taste in my mouth. And it didn’t tell us much that was interesting about Tosh, either.

It’s Myfanwy next, everyone’s favourite reptilian member of Torchwood- it’s all gone a bit Primeval. Well, plus a bit of Ianto. A bit brief, this, but it nicely establishes Ianto’s tenacity, and shows us a bit of retrospective sexual tension between him and Jack. Also, we learn that Ianto is able to wait outside for Jack to emerge at an undetermined time and hand him a cup of coffee which is somehow the perfect temperature. Now that’s talent.

Over to Owen, who in the present has conveniently not suffered any injuries as these won’t be able to heal. Oh, and isn’t it fortunate that the only person to have been killed in the explosion was Jack. Anyway, Owen’s story is the most affecting and the most effective, helped yet again by some outstanding acting from Burn Gorman. His situation is horrible- first seeing his young fiancée apparently succumbing to ridiculously early onset Alzheimer’s, then seeing the truth of the situation (a worm-like alien dangling out of Katie’s head), and finally thinking he’s undergoing a breakdown as it’s all covered up. This is all very good drama, although the concept of a well-adjusted Owen prior to the trauma doesn’t quite fit with our impressions of his childhood from Adam. Owen’s reaction to seeing Jack in the cemetery- repeatedly punching him- is good, as is the line about becoming a doctor because saving just one life would make his own worthwhile, only to then find himself swamped by the never-ending stream of lives demanding to be saved. Jack’s reasons for recruiting him are a bit of a stretch, but just about work.

We finish with a bit of a teaser for next week; it’s Captain John and Gray. How very exciting!

A little uneven overall, but there’s some very good stuff here, especially concerning Jack and Owen. 4/5.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Torchwood: Adrift

“Do you know what’s happened to you, Gwen? You’ve become hard.”

Back to traditional Torchwood values now; a Gwen episode, and the return of Sinister Torchwood. It feels odd after our varied diet of recent episodes, but then this is our first Chris Chibnall script for ages, which might be a factor.

We begin with a disappearance of a redshirt civilian, which symbolically happens on a bridge. This seems like the sort of thing which should really be some sort of trope, but I can’t think of any actual examples so it probably isn’t. Anyway, this leads us to the rest of the first two thirds of the episode, which plotwise consists of Gwen investigating a load of mysterious disappearances caused by the Rift alongside hints of a dirty Torchwood cover-up. There’s some nice character stuff to hang upon this, too; I like the development of Gwen and Andy here. They’re exes; that explains a lot. Also well done is the row between Gwen and Rhys (and their making up at the end- aaah!) and our first hint that a baby may eventually be on the cards.

Aside from a nicely light-hearted bit of shagging between Jack and Ianto (popular with many, I’m sure!), the regulars take a bit of a back seat to Gwen, who gets some good development in this episode. Once again we see how damn good she is as an investigator, and she’s been in Torchwood long enough for Andy’s accusations to hit home. Andy knows what he’s doing, of course; Gwen can see the truth of this and throws herself into the investigation to reconnect with her human side. Interestingly, as things turn out, this is the wrong thing to do. The conclusion, interestingly, seems to vindicate Jack’s cover-up, a nice reversal of what usually happens in such situations in TV science fiction. It’s not very X-Files at all.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of niggles with the plot; how come people taken by the Rift are eventually returned? How does that work then? And I somehow suspect that screaming for twenty hours out of every twenty-four is not a recognised psychiatric symptom. But the emotional beats feel right, and this is a nice little character piece for Gwen, and her personal supporting cast of Rhys and Andy. A decent 3/5.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Torchwood: From Out of the Rain

“Make her cry. I want to drink her tears.”

Objectively this should be a great episode; effective and fascinating concept, real atmosphere, great direction, Julian Bleach. But I find myself being, not underwhelmed, but… whelmed by it. There’s nothing wrong with this; it just feels a bit by the numbers.

Partly this is because we have a standalone monster-of-the-week story here, one which doesn’t develop any characters or plot threads at all. That makes it an oddity in this season. So too does the more or less exclusive focus on the baddies to drive the plot, rather than allow it to be partly driven by character stuff. It’s a perfectly fine piece of sci-fi drama, but this just doesn’t feel like Torchwood. In fact, not that I’ll push this too far as I’ve only seem the first one-and-a-half “assignments” of said programme, this feels a lot more like Sapphire and Steel than P.J. Hammond’s previous Small Worlds did, and with the much faster pace it feels like a rushed version- the character of Pearl, for example, was left frustratingly undefined. And perhaps there’s also a little too much of Steven Moffat in the use of recorded images as a threat, even by this point.

And I’m getting a bit tired of all these meaningless random nuggets from Jack’s past which show no sign of fitting into any larger pattern.

Still, for what it was, I liked it. I imagine the combination of Julian Bleach’s performance and the eeriness of the footage would have scared the wits out of any little ‘uns watching. I love the strangeness of it all; it was absolutely the right thing to not explain who the Night Travellers were or how they were able to do what they did. The concept of saving someone’s breath in a flask is inspired, as is the mostly downbeat ending, with the team only managing to save a single child. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what they failed to do in Hammond’s last script.

Not that I necessarily want to read too much subtext into this, but I like the idea of the travelling entertainers using film, which would eventually mean their downfall, as a means of survival. More eyebrow-raising, to someone who was watching reconstructed versions of missing Doctor Who episodes a year and a bit ago, is the implication that we should burn any old film cans we have in our attic!

So, great concept and great execution, but by this point monster-of-the-week stuff like this is no longer what this show is about. 3/5.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Torchwood: Something Borrowed

“By day you’re chasing the scum of the universe. Come midnight, you’re the wedding fairy…”

Of all the weeks to watch this one…!

It occurs to me before watching this that there’s something quite clever in making sure that the previous story features a wedding ruined by the death of the groom. Let’s face it: there are all sorts of tropes and genre conventions indicating Rhys should be dead meat. And the similarities between this series and Angel remind me that Joss Whedon would have definitely killed him off. So it’s not only nice, but a genuine twist, that it doesn’t happen.

I’ll be honest; I didn’t really get the humour in this episode. It’s not necessarily that it’s a farce; I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of them but I liked The Romans. Then again I don’t exactly have a wide frame of reference when it comes to farces. No, I think it’s the mother-in-law jokes (even if they’re about Nerys Hughes) and seeing this kind of humour in a modern context for which put me off for some reason. I can accept farce in The Romans; that was made in 1965 and is now archive television. It doesn’t feel very Torchwood. Still, lots of individual moments were great, and Ianto gets some nice one-liners. Plus Jack gets his fashion sense critiqued by Rhys’ mum, and Rhys says a very naughty word.

There’s some good character stuff, too; I like the moments with Gwen and Tosh, alone with the wedding dress, unable to really connect with each other, as always. And still we’re being told that Gwen and Jack have a forbidden attraction to each other; it might actually be the shape shifter, but for a moment it looks as though Gwen is actually going to kiss Jack. And, gentleman that he is, it’s clear throughout that he’s jealous of Rhys. There’s always potential for this as a possible future love triangle. After all, the scene with Rhys’ chainsaw cutting out just before Jack shoots the alien dead with a Very Big Gun might be seen to symbolise something by those with dirty minds.

There are other good moments, of course: the shop assistant’s scepticism at Ianto buying a wedding dress for a “friend”; Owen dancing with Tosh to Paul Weller (aaah!); “That’s for calling my mother an ugly thing”. The final revelation that Jack was married long ago isn’t one of them, though; random revelations from Jack’s past are a much devalued currency by now. There’s no sense of any thought-out pattern to his history.

So, an amusing bit of fluff, little more. 3/5. Oh, and is it just me but is it only weddings in pop culture where you get asked if there’s any reason why the couple shouldn’t get married? I’ve been to a fair few weddings, and this never seems to happen in real life.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Torchwood: A Day in the Death

“I am literally too cool for school.”

I’ve never come across any of Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish work so this is the first work of his I’ve encountered, and it’s a damned impressive debut. After a short and almost perfunctory introductory few seconds of “Torchwood is ready” we move straight to Owen via a monologue and montage, showcasing the excellence of both writer and director.

To briefly cover the regulars who are not Owen, this episode sees a lot of mentions of Gwen’s now very imminent wedding, while she very capably seems to assume the mantle of leadership for large chunks of the “B” plot (concerning an energy spike from an item in a collection of alien artefacts kept by eccentric millionaire Henry Parker) and, interestingly, Jack lets her. I’m not sure whether this comes across as strength or weakness. Certainly, he makes a hash of things early on while relieving Owen of duty to have medical tests and make coffee(!)- surely he could have put that a bit more diplomatically and got a slightly less negative reaction.

Tosh gets a hard time this week, with an upset Owen saying some very hurtful things to her. And by now it’s clear that she really does love him, or thinks she does at any rate. Is this going to go anywhere in the long-term? Tosh hasn’t necessarily looked weak in earlier episodes which dealt with her apparently unrequited feelings for Owen, but there now seems to be a very real risk that she may do so. That would not be good.

But of course, this is all about Owen, and the episode is more or less dedicated to an almost poetic reflection on what has happened to him and the implications of what it does to a person. Particularly horrifying is the moment, after Owen (accidentally?) cuts his hand, when Martha makes it clear that neither this nor any other injury he suffers will ever heal again. Owen is, as he says, made of glass. Ageless, sexless, unable to eat, drink, or even feel Martha’s hand, he has continued existence but is unable to truly live; what, then, is there to live for? This is our main character theme, achieved through great dialogue and great direction. The episode is full of great little visual sequences and great little monologues which are quite staggeringly effective.

The episode’s framing device is great, too. Owen is narrating this to Maggie (only named, significantly, at the end when we know she won’t jump), about to commit suicide exactly one year after her husband died in a cruelly random car accident just an hour after they were married. She and Owen are both faced with the consequences that come from life’s random cruelties, and have to decide whether life is worth living.

But there’s a deeper theme, too; that we are all mortal, and that this makes us all mortal in the end. The whole episode pretty much functions as a memento mori; there’s a series of shots of Owen’s extremely luxurious apartment making it very clear that he’s a very wealthy man, but it all means nothing now. There’s a direct parallel here with our villain (well, sort of), Henry Parker (Richard Briers, this time without a toothbrush moustache). Parker is an old man who has experienced so much of life- fighting in the war, travelling, marrying, becoming widowed- and has made himself rich from his own efforts. But he is dying; like Owen, he finds that his power, status and material possessions mean nothing to him now. He is alone, as we all are in the end, afraid of death and the strange “darkness” of the Torchwood afterlife, which both is and isn’t oblivion. This is classic memento mori stuff; every time I watch it I’m reminded of lecturers banging on about Hans Holstein’s The Ambassadors.

Importantly, the episode never allows the bleakness to be undermined by a too life-affirming message; the message seems to be that life is mostly crap, but there’s also the odd bit of hope- that’s pretty much what Owen says to Maggie, and pretty much the message that the alien McGuffin of the week is there to symbolise. It gives false hope to Parker, who dies in spite of his clinging to the belief that it is keeping him alive, but real hope to both Maggie and Owen. There’s also a lot of this, I reckon, in Owen’s fantastic speech to the security guard.

A triumph of both writing and direction, and an acting masterclass from Burn Gorman, mean this gets an easy 5/5, and it goes straight into the chart at number two.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Torchwood: Dead Man Walking

“I’ve been looking for the phrase ‘I shall walk the Earth and my hunger shall know no bounds’ but I keep getting redirected to Weight Watchers.”

The feeling of shock continues as we open with Martha is about to start performing an obituary on Owen- who was, apparently, 27 years old and “Torchwood officer 565.” But Jack dramatically intervenes before she makes the first cut. In a dramatic and eventful pre-titles sequence, Jack goes to visit a mysterious little girl, a soothsayer (to be heard from again?), and learns about the location of the second of that pair of gloves.

It’s quite an opening, and quite an episode. Yet again, Matt Jones (I had to correct that- I originally wrote it as Matt Smith!), who gave us the Devil in The Impossible Planet, presents us with a supernatural theme. And together with the opening that makes this feel very much like a later episode of Angel- always a good thing in my book.

There are obvious echoes of They Keep Killing Suzie as Owen is brought back to life- and stays alive. But then again, he isn’t; he can’t eat, drink, sleep or, er, supply blood to a certain part of his anatomy. And it seems that date between Tosh and Owen is not to be; when it looks as though Owen is only back for a couple of minutes Tosh tells him that she loves him, only for him to rather too enthusiastically help her to backtrack later. It seems their moment has forever passed.

Martha, although obviously necessary as to the plot, takes a back seat here character-wise. This is appropriate; we need to see the reactions of the whole team here, and this we do. We see Gwen holding things together most of the time but when she’s on the phone to Rhys her true feelings show- an illustration that Rhys’ initiation into the ways of Torchwood has been good both for Gwen and their relationship. Tosh, of course, hasn’t got a Rhys and behind the professionalism she’s devastated. Jack, meanwhile, is quite aware of the extent both Owen’s death and the consequences of his resurrection are his own fault, as we see in the fantastic cell scene as well as his reaction to Owen’s comments at the end of the episode.

But, of course, this is all about Owen’s situation, and some old themes arising from this: there being “nothing” after death even though this is a “nothing” that stuff can happen in; the “darkness”; and something moving in it. And it seems that this something is “Death”, although true to The Impossible Planet form the idea is never really defined in the usual terms of the show. Like Small Worlds last season, this is fantasy rather than science fiction. Still, unlike The Impossible Planet with its musings on exploration and Victorian imperialistic poetry, there’s no discernible subtext to the iconic supernatural figure here; it’s all about the characters.

We get to compare Owen’s life to his old one as he cruises the bars as he has done many times before, drinks beer as he has many times before, and pulls as he has many times before. Except that he is now unable to perform on both counts. A pity, especially regarding the beer; it looks as though it could be a pint of something decent rather than the usual bottled lager.

Owen is really rather brave and heroic here, offering to be injected with formaldehyde and, of course, saving the day at the end, in a way which cleverly makes sense of those cryptic clues of Gwen’s. And he kisses Tosh, although I’m sure he’ll later insist it meant nothing. He does that.

Good stuff. Not even some rather poor age make-up from Martha can prevent this from earning a high 5/5.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Torchwood: Reset

“What’s his… dabbling like?”

“Innovative. Bordering on the avant-garde.”

The first scene is from the point of view of a mystery person (but we know it’s Martha) entering the Torchwood hub, and we briefly get to see the newspaper clipping (New Mayor, New Cardiff”) from Boom Town on the door, a nice touch. Then we get a few minutes to catch up with our old friend. Dr. Jones has passed her exams and has been working for UNIT ever since she was approached on the recommendation of an “impeccable source”. Hmmm. No doubt we can expect the Doctor to respond to her career choice with enthusiasm when next they meet, then.

The potential for friction is not ignored- Martha is after all quite close to Jack after the Year That Never Was, and knows things about him the rest of the team don’t, a tradition al source of conflict- but her natural likeability and obvious abilities quickly bring her to be accepted by the team. It’s interesting here that UNIT and Torchwood seem to rub along well enough, in spite of the obvious scope for conflict in their respective histories. I don’t imagine the Brig who clashed with Chinn in The Claws of Axos would have particularly clicked with Yvonne Hartman, but there you go. Things change.

The actual plot for this story, by Whoniverse newcomer and TV veteran J.C. Wilsher, is as solid as they come, even giving the viewer enough clues to have a fair go at guessing what’s happening. In fact, this part of the episode is so impressive that we even get to see Martha and Owen teaming up for a quick medical montage to the sounds of Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. There’s no doubt about it- Torchwood gets some really rather cool bands for its soundtrack.

The premise, when revealed, is rather a good one; medical experiments to find a cure for all known aliments, with the unfortunate side-effect of infecting people with an alien parasitic insect, leading ultimately to an Alien-style demise. That’s our first major Alien homage for a while, and is a strong concept to boot. The main baddie even gets to protest that his Mengele-like experiments are worth it in order to work real medical wonders. Plus, we get a brief confrontation scene with Jack and Owen before the real stuff begins. This is great, almost like a James Bond film, and it gets even better when Martha gets to go undercover with those camera contact lenses. If that’s not a Bond gadget I don’t know what is, and Ianto makes a rather good Q.

This is an unusually action-oriented episode and has a strong focus on Martha to boot, so we don’t get as much character arc stuff here. There’s one major exception, though, as Owen easily accepts Tosh’s offer of a date. Could this mean the beginning of a long and happy relationship?

There’s another deft touch towards the end, as the script intends us to believe that the alarm is going off because of Martha when it is in fact an escaped mayfly queen which has triggered it. But Martha, alas, is captured, and infected with the parasite. Luckily, Owen manages to save her in a way which has been nicely set up throughout the episode (another sign of good scripting). But the episode ends with a shock as Owen is suddenly shot dead.

Brilliant, an extremely well written and produced piece of work, easily deserving a 5/5. This goes to show that an episode fulfilling a fairly run-of-the-mill role in the season can nevertheless manage to be superb by just doing everything really well.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Torchwood: Adam

“I’m going to marry this bloody mad woman even if it kills me!”

The opening titles start, and there’s a new character in them- yep, this is Torchwood’s version of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Jonathan”, right down to the titles and, indeed, the title. Revealingly, it’s still Gwen who acts as the audience’s proxy and initially realises that Adam hasn’t already been there.

In fact, given the irony inherent in Gwen’s forgetting Rhys completely, given the way the last episode ended, this is the perfect placing in the season for this episode; we’re able to successfully gloss over Jack’s failure to carry out his threat as events take over. Still, the Gwen and Rhys element of this episode, where they almost fall in love over again, is fab. Eve Myles and Kai Owen are again great.

Also interesting and revealing are the changes to Tosh and Owen. Tosh is happy, confident and apparently free of her insecurities in her relationship with “Adam”, although this is at the same time pretty much literally rape. Owen, meanwhile, has become shy and nerdish, and it’s a testament to what a bloody good actor Burn Gorman is that you accept him as the same character. Fascinatingly, Owen here apparently has unrequited feelings for the unattainable Tosh, which seems to indicate he secretly likes her in reality, whatever he may say at the end of the episode. Perhaps most worryingly, both of them exhibit a disturbing fondness for horrible bottled lager.

It’s nice to slow down for a character-based episode here, and a good way of doing it, but when we turn to Jack things start getting arc-heavy. We get a flashback to the Boeshane Peninsula (so he wasn’t completely lying to the Doctor and Martha in The Sound of Drums), complete with the obligatory CGI city, where Jack’s entire family and community are under attack from an unnamed and unseen alien race which apparently howls a lot. It’s revealed that the mysterious Gray, as mentioned by “Captain John”, is Jack’s younger brother, and that Jack blamed himself for his death. Heavy stuff, and the revelation of all this also offers us our first clue into who Adam is and what he’s up to.

It is Ianto who works out, via his own diary, that Adam is a fake, and the price he pays is horrible. His sheer horror and despair at the false memories, his basically decent behaviour in insisting he must be locked up, and his later composure in front of Adam- who spitefully tells him he “could murder a cup of coffee”- says a lot about Ianto’s character. Jack, of course, knows perfectly well that Ianto is no murderer; Adam is now exposed.

The conclusion is simple but logical; everyone blots out the last 48 hours with amnesia and Adam ceases to exist. It’s rather jarring to think that Adam has only been alive for the 48 hours since the box was opened, and interesting to hear of his speaking of nonexistence as “darkness and the stench of fear”; once again in Torchwood it is implied that nonexistence is a state in which events can happen and be experienced, a very odd and singular philosophy. And Adam’s revenge, depriving Jack of his last good memory of his father, is devastating.

Very good, if again falling just short of excellence: 4/5.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Torchwood: Meat

“If we could find out how it worked, we could feed the world!”

“We could release a single…”

We start with Rhys at work; at last he gets something of a hinterland. But then he finds himself involved in goings-on of a mysterious nature, and watches as Torchwood emerge from the, er, Torchwoodmobile, including his fiancée…

Just as with Alan in the last series of SJA, Rhys had to find out the truth sooner or later and this feels about the right point for it to happen. Both Eve Myles (great lying acting!) and Kai Owen are fantastic here. And it’s nice that they get one big shouty row scene as had to happen but it doesn’t go on too long; instead of getting loads of tiresome scenes of characters refusing to believe the truth from other characters (my least favourite thing in all of drama), instead we get Rhys doing a pretty cool job investigating the threat and reacting well to his introduction to Torchwood. It has to be said, mind, that Rhys seems to be the only person in Cardiff who’s never heard of them. And Jack seems bizarrely lenient about Gwen’s blatant conflict of interest here; in any real organisation she would be stood down from the case, no question.

I also notice that both Gwen and a female workmate give him the same food because they know what he’s like on an empty stomach- Rhys may be jealous of Jack but he seems to have his own Jack equivalent. Even so, I like Rhys’ confession to Jack that “It’s a bit bigger than mine.” And his entire reaction to the hub is a joy.

As for the episode’s threat, well, as vegetarian propaganda it largely works well, not overdoing it like, say, The Two Doctors, but sadly there are a couple of moments towards the end where things get overly didactic (“It’s just meat, that’s all.”) that said, though, all this is secondary and there largely as a framework on which the characters’ relationships can play out. Rhys getting them into the warehouse, Gwen’s reaction, and Rhys getting shot, are of course the heart of the episode.

Still, other characters get stuff to do too; Owen carries on affecting not to notice that Tosh is coming on to him, and Ianto’s witticisms ascend to a higher plane.

Inevitably, Jack warns Gwen that Rhys will have to be retconned but we, the audience, just couldn’t accept that. Pushing the reset button now would be a massive cop-out; it’s just not going to happen. So Gwen threatens to resign, and Jack seems to accept her resignation, saying he’ll see her in the morning. Ooh…

It’s nice to reflect that Gwen is now going to tell an excited Rhys everything. Possibly except the sleeping with Own stuff.

Some nice character stuff here, but nothing particularly deep or funny. Plus the didacticism steps over the line at times. And it’s a pity they had to throw away the idea of a marooned space whale in the B plot; such a thing will clearly never appear in the Whoniverse again. 3/5.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Torchwood: To The Last Man

“It’s still warm, at least. Not been gone long.”

The pre-titles sequence introduces us to Tommy and sets up the time paradox forming the spine of the episode, and for the first time we’re introduced to an earlier generation of Torchwood. It’s 1918, and Gerald and Harriet are investigating “ghosts” at a hospital. Future visions of Tommy and Tosh lead them to take Tommy and cryogenically freeze him, waking him for just one day a year. Oh, and they’ve left sealed orders for a future Torchwood in the event of these events coming to pass. The Torchwood of our present are effectively playthings of their own past and future.

It’s a brilliant concept for a story from Helen Raynor, and to that we add some top-notch characterisation and a real emotional kick. This is Tosh’s episode; she clearly likes Tommy and their scenes together are sweet but… isn’t there something a bit creepy about having a boyfriend in a box to be used once a year? This isn’t a relationship, really, for her; there’s no need for commitment. For him, on the other hand, Tosh is around all the time, albeit getting a year older every day, and it’s a proper relationship, or can feel like one for a bit. This can’t last, and we know damn well that Tosh is about to be put through the emotional wringer.

There are lots of little things here which resonate; Ianto notes that Harriet died young, aged 26, the following year, “just like them all”. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought something was being foreshadowed here. And then there’s the other side of Owen we see- he’s worried about Tosh. He actually has a caring side. Blimey. He’s never been this likeable before. It’s almost as if something really bad was about to happen to him.

Inevitably, the time loop starts to work itself through. Tommy has to close the rift, effectively going over the top, and then, having saved the world, he gets shot for cowardice. Lovely chaps, those British WW1 generals.

The last few minutes are heartbreaking and gripping television, and Tosh is left devastated. Naoko Mori is excellent.

This isn’t quite enough for a 5/5; the dialogue doesn’t quite sparkle as much as I’ve recently become accustomed to. To be honest I’m having second thoughts about whether it might be worth a 5/5 after all, but I’ve already voted in the poll so 4/5 it is. Still, more Torchwood excellence.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Torchwood: Sleeper

“Let’s all have sex.”

“And I thought the end of the world couldn’t get any worse…”

The “21st century is when everything changes” spiel is back, it seems. Except that now Torchwood is ready. Ooh.

No beating about the bush; this is the best episode of Torchwood yet, basically. It’s James Moran’s first script to crop up in the Marathon and he nails it first time. It’s not just the script, though; Nikki Amuka-Bird is just amazing, and surely gives the best guest performance in Torchwood to date.

The set-up seems deceptively simple at first; a simple murder mystery with an apparent supernatural cause. But things get very tense and nuanced and well-written as soon as things turn to the interrogation of Beth. This touches all sorts of issues; civil liberties; habeas corpus; torture; the “war” on “terror”; but it all boils down to the abuse of power by unaccountable agencies. The script is admirably restrained in the presentation of these scenes, but I think it’s clear once again that Torchwood are not necessarily supposed to be the good guys, however likeable they may be as people. Even Gwen’s scruples amount to little more than self-reassurance as the boundaries of what is acceptable keep getting pushed a little more.

Still, at least they’ve managed to lighten up a bit while engaging in their morally dodgy behaviour. Jack and Ianto even manage to do a bit of flirting, and in spite of the situation Jack is far from being the misery guts of last season.

But there’s a twist; Beth is indeed an alien sleeper agent, part of a plot to take over the planet. And then there’s another; her surface personality, which is essentially her, has no idea of any of this. What are Torchwood to do with her? She’s simultaneously innocent and incredibly dangerous. Again there are parallels here on the issue of what to do with unconvicted terrorist suspects, although I’d be wary of taking that analogy as far as the story’s conclusion; a lot of these sort of topical references are more a question of tone and resonance than any kind of developed analogy, and rightly so. Possibly. I should probably have a good think about all this but I want to get a move on with my reviews. It’s good to see Torchwood doing this sort of thing, though.

The team attempt to compromise with cryogenics, a cop-out (representing control orders?), but other sleepers are awakening, in some fantastic scenes. Particularly effective is the scene of the baby in a pushchair rolling into a busy road.

Things speed up as the sleepers go into action, while an escaped Beth just wants to see her husband- and the alien inside her kills him. Amuka-Bird is again incredible here. Her eventual “suicide by cop” is shocking yet believable; as Jack says, she knew they’d have to kill her, so she made it easier.

Incredible, 5/5, the finest yet. Not only is it incredibly nuanced in its handling of its themes and character, it manages to achieve this while simultaneously maintaining the lighter side of things. Simply fantastic. The bar has been raised. And I notice for the second episode in succession all members of the team get a decent amount of screen-time, something which seemed so difficult last year. Can they keep it up?

Torchwood: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

“This is the entrance for tourists.”

“I remember the last time you said that…”

Well, serves me right, that does. There I go pretty much defending the reputation of Torchwood Series One by giving it some fairly positive write-ups, and then this episode comes along and effortlessly blows them out of this water. A Chris Chibnall script, too. On the evidence of this, he may sometimes drive people crazy but life is much more fun when he’s around.

The script sparkles and the fun pretty much never stops. Even the pre-titles sequence seems effortlessly perfect; the blowfish in a sports car high on cocaine, “Bloody Torchwood!”; the blowfish’s nicely put summary of every team member; Gwen’s newfound confidence and authority as the de facto leader of the team. And then Jack makes the perfect entrance, giving the sequence the perfect climax. Pun not intended but, hey, it fits.

There’s a bit of resentment, of course; Jack buggers off for a bit and then returns expecting to walk right back into his position. This is dealt with but, quite rightly, not taken too seriously. Already there seems to have been a quiet rethink about the team’s chemistry behind the scenes; this is a Torchwood team who actually like each other and probably won’t be shooting one another quite as often as we became accustomed to last season.

The directorial style reminds us Torchwood is back, too; all those little camera tricks and fast cuts between night-time cityscapes we all loved so much are back. This look is perfect for the introductory scenes of the fantastic James Marsters as “Captain John”; Torchwood is looking even more like Angel than usual.

Possibly the funniest scene in the history of ever is when John appears as a hologram type thingy from Jack’s wristwatch; not long after you’re thinking the words “Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope”, John only goes and says it. Genius.

The scene in the bar between Jack and John (the name is a complete mickey-take, of course), snogging and fighting, is fun too. And I love the concept of rehab for murder. We also hear, intriguingly, that the Time Agency has shut down, and there are only seven Time Agents left.

With the team’s arrival at the bar we get a bit of metatextual fun, too; I believe John’s suggestion of Excalibur is the name RTD originally had in mind for the pre-Who idea which later became Torchwood.

We get one surprising revelation (Gwen’s engaged!), and one slightly less surprising one (John’s a baddie. Who’d have thunk it?) Meanwhile two little character arcs start up again here as Tosh makes it clear (to the viewer, anyway) that she’s rather keen on Owen, while Jack, with an uncharacteristic nervousness, asks Owen out on an actual date. We also get the debut of the New, Improved, Wisecracking Ianto as he tells Jack that he’s “good on roofs”.

There are a couple of intriguing lines later on from Jack and John about “Rear of the Year, 5094” (sorry, can’t quite repress my inner continuity nerd) and on how they “should be among the stars, claiming them for our own, just like before”. Blimey. Some intriguing implications there.

The plot works its way through, and it’s a good plot, but the plot here is just a skeleton to hang the coolness from, and there’s plenty of coolness; a Torchwood which is recognisably the same people but has loosened up a lot, as it had to; John, the coolest antihero since… well, Spike from Buffy; the dialogue; lots of little revelations. Speaking of which… who’s this Gray then?

5/5. An endlessly rewatchable bundle of fun.